The celebrity journalist was suspended from Time and CNN over trumped-up charges of plagiarism—and then quickly reinstated. Why the public lynching reeks of envy.
Fareed Zakaria’s prominence as an American journalist began in the days after Mohamed Atta and his murderous band laid waste to the World Trade Center. Then on Newsweek’s payroll, Zakaria wrote a cover story for the magazine—titled “Why Do They Hate Us?”—which examined the roots of Islamist rage and catapulted him to intellectual celebrity. In the past few days, as one observed his confreres in the American media slobber and snarl for his blood after an act of plagiarism so trivial that one had to marvel at the disproportion between the journalistic lapse and the cyclonic castigation, one was tempted to ask this question, in echo of his first resounding shot: “Why Do They Hate Fareed?” One must also ask a question of two of Zakaria’s employers, Time and CNN, both of whom suspended him with unseemly haste, as throngs with pitchforks gathered outside their gates: “Why Were You So Spineless?” Both reinstated him within days of the suspension after internal inquiries into his work; which leads one to ask why they didn’t wait until after their inquiries before smiting him so publicly. His reputation was tarred: he was in favorable consideration by Team Obama for the post of national-security adviser. That will not, now, happen.
Why do they hate Fareed? What one has seen in the past few days can only be described as a hideous manifestation of envy—Fareed Envy. Henry Kissinger’s aphorism about academia (where the “politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small”) applies with delicious tartness to journalism, where media reporters of the kind who hounded Zakaria occupy the lowest rung and exult at the prospect of pulling people down. Zakaria, by contrast, is insanely successful by the standards of his profession: he has a TV show to which few people of any prominence would refuse an invitation, plus columns at Time, CNN.com, and The Washington Post. He also writes academic-lite books that presidents clutch as they clamber aboard planes, and gives speeches at—it is said—$75,000 a pop. He is as much a brand as he is a journalist: he has “inc.” in his veins.
It’s lonely at the top. As the traditional news media shrivel and other platforms proliferate, celebrity public intellectuals like Zakaria (think, also, of Tom Friedman and David Brooks) become the only bankable resource left. Recognizable across all the mediums, the branded few become mini-industries unto themselves. Simultaneously, a huge cloud of excluded people, regular civilians and workaday journalists alike, can now respond on the Internet, many of them resentful that their voices go unheard while the Zakarias loom ever larger. So they pick over every word. For celebrity journalists, equally, a potent pressure has grown: the pressure to stay aloft at 40,000 feet, to stay prolific, and flawless. Zakaria must project omniscience to survive: so he writes short and long, on everything from al Qaeda to American gun control, the topic on which he was tripped up by the plagiarism McCarthyites. So he cribbed a little: he read a lot; took notes; things got jumbled. Is that worth a man’s career? I think not, and to his credit he thought not too. One admires him for fighting back, especially as those who called for his head were so pious, and yet so inhumane.