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Fareed Zakaria, Not a Muckraking Journalist -- More Like a 'Buckraking' Shill

Zakaria has a shocking track record of accepting large fees for speaking engagements from industry interests he covers.

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Like members of Congress, Zakaria has a lot on his plate. His prodigious speaking schedule may, in fact, have been partly at fault for the plagiarism scandal. As he explained to The New York Times, he plans to make fewer speeches and “strip down” his workload to avoid making the same mistake again.

Perhaps Zakaria’s ambitious speaking schedule makes it difficult not only to avoid embarrassing errors but also to exercise the reflection and independent thoughtfulness that make him a journalist worth listening to. If he doesn’t have time to think deeply and seriously about, say, the advantages and drawbacks of the shale-gas revolution, but he’s on deadline to write a column or film a segment about it, what influences might come to the forefront of his thinking? How much confidence do we have, given everything we know, that those influences will lead him to the soundest conclusion?

I have so far labeled Zakaria a journalist, which he no doubt is. However, he is more than just a journalist. After all, he has a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University and taught international relations and political philosophy there. He started his publishing career at Foreign Affairs—a decidedly highbrow magazine—and is currently a board member of its parent, the Council on Foreign Relations. In a 2008 reader poll conducted by Foreign Policy and the Prospect (U.K.), he was named the world’s seventeenth most important public intellectual, right behind Nobel Prize–winner Amartya Sen.

“Intellectual,” however, does not seem the most apt term to apply to Zakaria. His authority seems to be grounded not so much in the power of his intellect (though he is very smart) as in the power of his influence—the simple fact that so many people, especially important people, talk and listen to him. He is what contemporary parlance calls a “thought leader.” And as a thought leader with multiple platforms and rich compensation for airing his perspective, he is also a “brand.” When people pay Zakaria for comment, they are not so much paying him for the intellectual process he has taken to form it, but for the comment itself and the sanction it grants. Zakaria’s opinion is a seal of approval that confirms smart and eminent people—people like Zakaria, who strategize at the Aspen Institute, attend the G8 Summit, or talk shop with CEOs and consultants at conferences on energy security—think one way, and therefore you should too.

The question is whether we should trust those who are not just intellectuals, or journalists or academics—people whose opinions are grounded in a rational authority independent of their audience—but instead thought leaders and brands, i.e., people who are paid lucrative fees for offering their opinions to audiences. And there’s also a question for Zakaria: does he think it important enough to collect fees over and above his ample salary to risk his status as an independent, thoughtful public figure?

These concerns aren’t new. They’ve been with us since the beginning of democracy. Ancient Athens had its own thought leaders and brands. They were called sophists. And as smart and admired as they were, as central as they were to democratic politics, Plato rightly questioned whether they represented the best human rationality had to offer, or whether they offered merely a quasi-rationality corrupted by money, power, and persuasion.

Visit Boston Review's to view  Royce Carlton’s old and new press kits for Fareed Zakaria.

UPDATE: Next spring, Zakaria is scheduled for two separate engagements at the Petroleum Clubs of  Calgary and Vancouver for the Bon Mot Book Club, a dinner-and-speech salon for "patrons of ideas." The two chief sponsors of the events are  ARC Resources, an oil and gas company, and  Teck, a diversified mining and energy company. Both businesses have substantial interests in the shale gas and tar sands of Western Canada.

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