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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.

Fareed Zakaria—host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, editor-at-large for TIME, and columnist for the Washington Post—was recently implicated in a plagiarism scandal. Conservative media watchdog Newsbusters  found that portions of aTIME article he wrote on gun control were borrowed without attribution from a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore. Zakaria apologized for his error, explaining that he had  confused his handwritten notes. His publishers each suspended him for a month, but TIME and CNN  rescinded their bans after only a week, once their investigations found no additional problems.

Plagiarism is a serious ethical breach. At Yale University—where Zakaria matriculated and was, until recently, a trustee—plagiarists  can be expelled. Last month, Zakaria  resigned from Yale’s board shortly after the scandal, saying he wanted to “focus on the core of my work.”

However, there is another issue of journalistic ethics that should concern Zakaria’s critics: “buckraking”—accepting large fees for speaking engagements from industry interests he covers. Zakaria is one of many celebrity speakers  represented by the Royce Carlton broker agency. His booking fee is proprietary information that Carlton Sedgeley, the agency’s president, refused to disclose to me. However, one person who tried to book Zakaria in 2008 for a speaking engagement was quoted a price of  $75,000for a one-hour talk, according to journalist Ken Silverstein.

Such lucrative compensation has led some critics to wonder whether journalists should be permitted to accept speaking engagements from industry interests they cover. In aColumbia Journalism Review article on the subject, Paul Starobin  questioned Zakaria’s coverage of financial issues while accepting speaking engagements from, among other firms, Baker Capital, Catterton Partners, Driehaus Capital Management, ING, Merrill Lynch, Oak Investment Partners, Charles Schwab, and T. Rowe Price. Until recently, one could have seen a list on the Royce Carlton Web site of the firms that hired Zakaria and recommended him, but that list has been  scrubbed and is in the process of being revised. (Compare the  current list with the  previous one in the documents at the end of this article.)

“People have been using it incorrectly, so we’ve taken [the recommendations] down,” said Sedgeley, who claimed there was at least one error on it. “It’s not a definitive list.” Only one recommendation—from Stanford University—is currently displayed.

Presumably collecting large speaking fees from financial companies while covering the industry as a beat reporter for the Wall Street Journal is problematic. But Zakaria isn’t a business journalist. He is a pundit who comments on all and sundry, but with a special focus on foreign affairs and national security. Though Starobin notes that Zakaria has commented on Occupy Wall Street and the European financial crisis, he offers no examples of commentary rendered questionable because of his speaking engagements. Moreover, many of his lectures are for universities and nonprofit foundations that represent a wide variety of people and interests, which makes the accusation more difficult to substantiate. We must delve more deeply into the Zakaria problem.

This past March, Zakaria penned a Post column on how American energy security may benefit from shale gas—natural gas trapped within shale rock formations. Shale gas is abundant in many U.S. states and can be extracted through the application of highly pressurized fluids. This process, known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” is controversial for its alleged environmental hazards. It uses a lot of water and nasty chemicals; releases methane, a potent global-warming gas; generates residues that can leech into groundwater and poison wells; and may, some seismologists  worry, cause earthquakes.

Despite such concerns, Zakaria’s piece offers a strikingly optimistic endorsement, especially of shale gas’s implications for our energy security and for international politics. Since the United States has shale deposits in abundance, the threat of rising oil prices to our domestic economy, due in part to instability in the Middle East, can be reduced. And since shale gas deposits are widely dispersed globally, they provide the world leverage against menacing oil-producing nations such as Russia and Iran.

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