Fareed Zakaria and the Failure of Thought Leadership
October 2, 2012
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 His publishers each suspended him for a month, but TIMEand CNN rescinded their bans after only a week, once their investigations found no additional problems.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 $75,000 for 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.
“The rise of shale gas is shaping up to be the biggest shift in energy in generations,” Zakaria concludes. “And its consequences—economic and political—are profoundly beneficial to the United States.”
Zakaria has continued endorsing shale gas on his CNN show and blog, calling the energy source a positive “game-changer” for the United States and global politics.
When he turns to consider the principal drawback of shale gas—the environmental dangers of fracking—his responses are cursory and one-sided. It is, after all, the chief hurdle for his argument that shale gas is, all things considered, worth pursuing.
In his Post op-ed, Zakaria writes,
The environmental concerns are well taken. But the best studies out now—such as one by a committee that included the head of the Environmental Defense Fund—suggest that fracking can be done in a safe and responsible manner.The “study” to which he alludes is not an environmental-impact study by scientists, the Environmental Protection Agency, or the EDF. It is, rather, a final report [PDF] of the Shale Gas Production Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. The purpose of the report is to recommend “measures that can be taken to reduce the environmental impact and to help assure the safety of shale gas production.” However, the report also sounds alarms about the substantial burdens for safe drilling and how the government and industry aren’t taking the necessary steps to fulfill them.
The question is whether Zakaria’s conclusions are based on careful and independent consideration of the issues.
The subcommittee repeats this warning in several places, pointing out that it recommends action on fracking because
absent action, there will be little credible progress toward reducing the environmental impact of shale gas production, placing at risk the future of the enormous potential benefits of this domestic energy resource.The conclusion of the report says,
The Subcommittee believes that if action is not taken to reduce the environmental impact accompanying the very considerable expansion of shale gas production expected across the country—perhaps as many as 100,000 wells over the next several decades—there is a real risk of serious environmental consequences causing a loss of public confidence that could delay or stop this activity. . . .
The Subcommittee has the impression that its initial report stimulated interest in taking action to reduce the environmental impact of shale gas production by the administration, state governments, industry, and public interest groups. However, the progress to date is less than the Subcommittee hoped and it is not clear how to catalyze action at a time when everyone’s attention is focused on economic issues, the press of daily business, and an upcoming election.Zakaria’s column does not register these concerns…