Zakaria and (right) Rather
When Lynda and Stewart Resnick, the Beverly Hills entrepreneurs who founded POM Wonderful, wanted to host a dinner at their Aspen home in 2006 to talk about the Iraq war, they assembled a list of 22 A-list guests, including Queen Noor of Jordan and George Soros, the financier.
Leading the list of journalists was one of their favourite guests: Fareed Zakaria, the Indian-born Harvard PhD and foreign policy specialist who had turned himself into an unlikely media star.
“When he speaks, I listen,” Resnick said last week. “I am just so thrilled that he exists, that there is someone like that.”
Since that evening, the Resnicks have watched Zakaria climb the media ladder to even greater heights — running Newsweek International, writing columns for Time magazine and The Washington Post, hosting GPS, his own programme on CNN, and becoming one of the favourite dinner companions of the power elite.
But Zakaria’s career suffered an abrupt setback recently after bloggers discovered that his column of August 20 for Time magazine had passages lifted almost entirely from an article by the historian Jill Lepore that appeared in The New Yorker in April.
Zakaria quickly apologised. But within minutes, Time had suspended him for a month and CNN, which had posted parts of the column on its website, removed the article and suspended him until further notice. Both began investigations of his work, as did The Post.
On Thursday afternoon, Time and CNN said they had completed their reviews, found no evidence of plagiarism and restored Zakaria to his demanding schedule. Just as quickly as his employers had questioned his credibility, they rallied around him.
“He’s one of the premier global intellectuals,” said Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time. “He will recover.”
Not that long ago, getting a column in Time would have been the pinnacle of a journalist’s career. But expectations and opportunities have grown in the last few years. Many writers now market themselves as separate brands, and their journalism works largely as a promotion for more lucrative endeavours like writing books and public speaking.
The problem, as Zakaria discovered, is that the stain from any scandal can spread across platforms, threatening the image he had carefully built.
“This guy is his own brand,” said Jim Kelly, a former top editor at Time. “So when doing that, you have to be really careful at how you extend yourself. The American corporate landscape is littered with disastrous brand extensions.”
In an interview on Friday in his CNN office, Zakaria again apologised for what he had called “a terrible mistake”.
“This week has been very important because it has made me realise what is at the core of what I want to do,” Zakaria said. He said he wanted to “help people to think about this fast-moving world and do this through my work on TV and writing”.
He added: “Other things will have to go away. There’s got to be some stripping down.”
Even a stripped-down schedule for Zakaria seems ambitious. Zakaria said he works on his column ideas each weekend, reports them on Monday, writes on Tuesday and Wednesday and films his Sunday television programme on Thursday.
Then there are the three books he wrote and one book he edited, the speeches, the Twitter postings, all while trying to spend mornings with his family. On a recent Friday, he was trying to cook pancakes and French toast for his three children who range in age from 4 to 13.
Zakaria said he never had an assistant write a column in 25 years and that he began using a research assistant for his column only in the last year.
The mistake, he said, occurred when he confused the notes he had taken about Lepore’s article — he said he often writes his research in longhand — with notes taken from Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America by Adam Winkler, a copy of which was on his desk at his CNN office.
Charles R. Eisendrath, director of the Knight-Wallace Fellows in journalism at the University of Michigan, said the episode reflects the economic realities underlying the media business, where magazines have become more dependent on single personalities.
“What happens in the media is the cult of personality,” he said. “The brands who have been forced to cut their staff have been forced to take on the brands of journalists.”
He compared what happened to Zakaria to some of the challenges that Dan Rather went through before his fall. Rather stepped down as anchor of The CBS Evening News after the network began an investigation into his report on 60 Minutes II on President George W. Bush’s National Guard record.
He was doing four jobs while his predecessor Walter Cronkite was able to focus on one, Eisendrath said. “As long as it’s cheaper to brand individual personalities than to build staff and bolster their brand, they will do it,” he said.
Friends say Zakaria, 48, has always been a multi-tasker — and an ambitious one. Boykin Curry said that when they were Yale undergraduates and Zakaria ran the Yale Political Union, he set up trips to meet vice-president Isaac Asimov and Andy Rooney. At the same time, Curry said, Zakaria always seemed so well read that “I figured he just never had to sleep”.
Gideon Rose, another close college friend of Zakaria’s and managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, said that Zakaria has always been efficient even with his private time. As he approached middle age, Zakaria grew more committed to an exercise routine of running and tennis and stuck to it. In 2011, he briefly separated from his wife, Paula Throckmorton, but said they were back together.
“I wish I had one-tenth of the energy and productivity he has,” Rose said. “I am much more normal than he is and therefore much less disciplined.”
After spending eight years as an editor at Foreign Policy magazine, Zakaria established his public reputation with a cover article for Newsweek in the wake of the September 11 attacks titled “Why They Hate Us”.
He publicly favoured the Iraq invasion, although he argued for a multinational force and was critical of how the war was conducted. Moving to Time, he wrote “How to Restore the American Dream” a cover article and a CNN special.
Barrett Sheridan, a book researcher for Zakaria from 2008 to 2010, described his former boss as a “phenomenally fast and lucid writer” and said that he never knew Zakaria to have a ghostwriter.
Nisid Hajari, who worked with Zakaria at Newsweek from 2001 through 2010, said that, unlike some other columnists, Zakaria did his own research and writing. “I’ve edited other writers who seem to me to be overextended, and you can see it in their copy,” Hajari said. “Fareed was never like that.”
Current and former colleagues say that Zakaria has been very deliberate in the assignments he will take on. Mark Whitaker, managing editor of CNN Worldwide and former editor of Newsweek, said that Zakaria told him he had turned down suggestions that he start appearing daily on CNN.
Former colleagues at Newsweek International said he was involved in choosing covers and generating ideas but did little line editing and was more the public face of the magazine.
Now he says he plans to cut back work with groups like the Council on Foreign Relations, the Little Shakespeare Company and the Yale University governing board. He also says he plans to make fewer speeches.
“This has been a tough week, but it has also been clarifying,” he said. “You find out what matters to you in life, who your friends are.”
Resnick counts herself as one of his admirers. “It’s not his character to do these things,” she said about the plagiarism. “I think it’s a tempest in a teapot.”