Ira Stoll: Zakaria Has Bigger Problems than Plagiarism

Friday, 17 Aug 2012 03:16 PM

By Ira Stoll

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Piling onto the story of Fareed Zakaria runs counter to some of my favorite journalistic rules.

Never make too big a deal of a plagiarism story, for one thing — given the number of words that pass through most journalists’ computers nowadays, and the difficulty sometimes of remembering exactly where you learned that fact or phrase, it’s a wonder there aren’t more cases.

Fareed-Zakaria--getty.jpg
Fareed Zakaria
(Getty Images)
And kick them while they are up, not when they are down, for another thing. My contrarian instincts are summoning me to defend the now-embattled Zakaria rather than join in the flurry of attacks.

But I already gave Zakaria one pass. When Harvard gave him an honorary doctorate this May and made him the main commencement speaker, I was all geared up to write an item expressing disgust with my alma mater’s choice. For a variety of reasons, I wound up letting it slide.

Now Zakaria — a columnist for Time and The Washington Post, a former editor of Newsweek International, a member of Yale University’s governing board, the host of a weekly program on CNN — is back in the news for his apology for what he called his “tremendous mistake” and “serious lapse” in lifting paragraphs from a New Yorker article on gun control and putting them into his own column on the same topic. He’s reportedly been suspended by Time and CNN.

The whole episode is newsworthy less for what it discloses about the level of originality than for what it says about just how low the standards are for professional journalists. Omit a small phrase of attribution like “As the New Yorker reported,” and the punishment is suspension, and the journalist has to abjectly apologize. But consider all the other, arguably more egregious, things Zakaria has said, written, and done over the years.

In an August 2010 Newsweek piece headlined "Raise My Taxes, Mr. President!," Zakaria claimed the budget must be balanced via tax increases rather than merely spending cuts because, "We have one of the smallest governments among all the rich countries in the world."

But that's nonsense, both in absolute terms and in relative terms. As I pointed out at the time, as a percentage of GDP, American government is about the size of Canada's and bigger than Australia's. Our military expenditures dwarf those of other rich nations.

Zakaria’s mind is so focused on raising taxes that this is how he dealt with Mitt Romney’s former Bain Capital partner, author Edward Conard, in a recent appearance by Conard on CNN:

So if he is as brilliant and has so much integrity, explain to me how he could, at that Republican debate, when told if you could close the deficit and you would get $10.00 of spending cuts for $1.00 of tax increases would you take it, and he said no.

I mean, you know the math. Surely the Mitt Romney you're describing understands that you can't close this deficit without more revenues.

Here was Zakaria’s oversimplified approach to the tax issue in an interchange with the president of Americans for Tax Reform, Grover Norquist.

ZAKARIA: Look, as I said, Clinton raised taxes. He got growth. Bush had the biggest tax cuts in a generation. And he got the weakest growth in 30 years.

In April 2012, Zakaria made the incendiary on-air charge that lobbyists for the private prison industry “have bought most state politicians in America.” As I observed at the time, if Zakaria has evidence for that charge, he should produce it. If he doesn't, he should withdraw it and apologize to the state politicians whose integrity he impugned.

Zakaria isn’t any better on foreign policy issues than he is on economics. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America points out that Zakaria, in a June 2010 television appearance, incorrectly claimed that Israel had annexed Gaza and the West Bank, and also incorrectly claimed “Israel has gotten used to a self-defeating spiral in which it shoots first and deals with the fallout afterwards.”

Also in June of 2010, the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier memorably demolished Zakaria’s soft line on Iran, which Zakaria has claimed “isn’t a dictatorship” and, on the nuclear front, “could well be happy with a peaceful civilian program.”

Then there was the bizarre episode in which Zakaria first, in 2005, accepted a $10,000 check from the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization active on foreign policy issues, then, in 2010, returned the money after the ADL suggested maybe the organizers of a new 15-story Islamic Center mosque and swimming pool could find a more sensitive location than one adjacent to ground zero.

I hesitated to attack Zakaria after his Harvard honorary degree in part because on some level, he’s actually better than a lot of other journalists.

At least he has free-market types like Norquist and Conard on his show rather than just ignoring them. Zakaria describes himself by saying, “I'm a big fan of the free market. I think it has an almost magical ability to allocate resources and generate growth.”

He served for some time as a trustee of the center-right Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. One could view those things as somehow ameliorating Zakaria’s failings, but one could also view them as making those failings all the more disappointing. You’d think that he, of all people, would know better.

Such, then, is the sorry state of American journalistic standards. Borrow a line or two from the New Yorker and it’s a major punishable offense. Repeatedly serve up the flawed left-wing conventional wisdom on taxes, spending, and the Middle East, and get rewarded with your own television show and a Harvard honorary degree.

Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of “Samuel Adams: A Life.”

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