Fareeding between the lines in Zakaria flap

CNN host and Time columnist Fareed Zakaria’s admitted plagiarism is sadly unsurprising. Zakaria’s apology and wrist slaps notwithstanding, the incident is unlikely to spur the formerly interesting celebrity journalist to change his ways.

Initially, I was a big fan of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS, but this incident is not the first time the host has disappointed nor even the second time Zakaria fell short in his work on the show.

Underlying those failures are some key facts about Zakaria and the league where he plays that make further disappointments likely. The cult of the celebrity journalist/public intellectual makes shortcuts inevitable and militates against serious work. Hence, writing about guns in the US – that week’s hot topic and thus required for the hot columnist – even though it ranged far from Zakaria’s foreign affairs expertise.

The shoddy Newsweek cover story Hit the Road, Barrack by Zakaria cohort and frequent guest Niall Ferguson making waves this week illustrates the level of pap players at this level deliver that serve as advertising for their speaking gigs that pay huge multiples of what they make for writing. Editors are complicit in this game, suspending standards to suit celebrities and cut jobs for the likes of fact checkers.

Zakaria’s other sin is that he’s become a shill for the establishment. His CNN show is a safe haven for Robert Rubin and his ilk, the way Fox News is for John Bolton. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that the GPS wet kiss for Singapore that was my first disappointment came while Yale University, where Zakaria earned his BA and served until this week on its governing board, was laying groundwork for its Singapore branch campus, offering liberal arts in an illiberal place.

Zakaria is an inspired choice to promote, defend and extend the establishment. He’s earned his bones in the group, but given his outsider origins, he at once broadens the tent and is a reliable bet to slavishly toe the line. Zakaria has been lightly tapped for his plagiarism; he wouldn’t have gotten off so lightly if he’d asked Rubin during their interview, “Why was it okay for you to leave the government for a $15 million a year job at a bank that directly benefited from decisions you made as Treasury Secretary and policies you advocated in that position?”

Zakaria’s CNN show is also a platform for establishment celebrity journalists/public intellectuals to promote themselves and reinforce their perceived importance. Without such vehicles for mutual back scratching, people like Ferguson or Thomas Friedman might be forced to continue the more rigorous work that earned them their places at the table instead of drafting on each others’ Sunday morning hot air.

Totally globalized native New Yorker and former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook and Twitter @MuhammadCohen.

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