The Corner

In Defense of Fareed

Five days ago on Breitbart, John Nolte wrote about the Fareed Zakaria affair: “Judging from the reaction on Twitter, Zakaria was not a man with many friends in media. No one’s saying, ‘Nice guy who made a mistake.’ If anything, media figures are taking some pleasure from Zakaria’s fall — which is a very big deal.”

That was true when Nolte wrote it. And in today’s world it was significant even if it tells us much more about the piranha mentality of mainstream journalists than about Zakaria. (Full disclosure: Fareed Zakaria is a friend going back about 15 years.) Since then, however, several journos have rallied to his support — notably, Edward Jay Epstein and David Frum, both in the Daily Beast (not my favorite reliable source, but it employs able people, so what the hell.)

Epstein makes the point that whatever else Zakaria had perpetrated, it wasn’t plagiarism since he had given full credit to the author of the book making the argument he quoted. Not giving attribution to the book and the argument would have been plagiarism. That didn’t happen. The offense Zakaria actually committed was using a reviewer’s paraphrase of the argument rather than writing an original paraphrase himself. An original paraphrase! As the very phrase suggests, we are dealing here with, at worst, a journalistic misdemeanor. I’m not sure I would go all the way with Epstein’s argument — I would feel pretty aggrieved if someone else used as his own my brilliant epigram summarizing a tired old argument — but his point stands in this particular case.

David Frum’s argument is more direct. He is able to demonstrate that the Washington Post wrongly accused Zakaria of not attributing a quotation to the interviewer who originally harvested it — in one of the three editions of Zakaria’s own book in which it appeared. (The attribution appeared in one other edition and was omitted from a popular edition without footnotes.) So it’s Gotcha vs. Gotcha — and round two to David.

#more#The larger point — made both by Frum and (before the affair broke) by Zakaria himself — is that there’s no rule in journalism that requires a writer to attribute a quotation to the interviewer or reporter who first wrote it down. The speaker, the original source, yes; the interviewer, the reporter, the conduit, no. Several mavens of journalistic ethics have contested this, but I think they are both wrong and, worse, embarking on a futile journey through a wilderness of qualifications. Must all quotations be attributed to the interviewer or reporter? How about one that was given to 200 reporters at a press conference? Or one that has appeared in numerous outlets since first being uttered? Or quotes from Reagan, Churchill, Lincoln — at what point do they become public property? My own view is that a relatively small number of quotations should refer to the interviewer as well as the original source (e.g., “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” — it was Stanley), but that which ones qualify is a matter of judgment — and thus not a journalistic rule.

Zakaria has made his own defense somewhat difficult by pleading guilty and throwing himself on the mercy of the court which, as Nolte made clear, is by and large a hanging judge. I don’t think his guilty plea is altogether credible; my guess is that he thought that if he made any other plea, he would be nicked and dimed to death by the journalistic ethics enforcers. He was certainly guilty of sloppiness, and he thus at this point deserves a slap on the wrist, since the publicity about this case has done him more harm than deserved.

My other three conclusions are as follows:

First, I have always found Fareed Zakaria to be courteous, open-minded, intelligent, and fair. I say that despite several differences of opinion — his contrast of the “pragmatic” Bloomberg with the “ideological” Thatcher still rankles. It should of course be the “directionless and interfering” Bloomberg and the “pragmatic but principled” Thatcher. But debate is the lifeblood of journalism.

Second, no conservative should want to see the eclipse of a major media interviewer who is more likely than any other in the establishment press to give a fair hearing to conservative arguments or to include conservatives in his line-up of experts (as well as commentators.)

Third, the single most important rule in journalistic ethics is something that, as far as I can judge, Zakaria has followed throughout his career. It is to tell the truth as best you see it.

Everything else is footnotes.

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