Fareed Zakaria and the Perils of Modern-Day Punditry

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Is it really is possible to do so many things at once -- columns, daily blog posts, television appearances, Internet videos, books, and speeches? The journalists of old certainly focused their efforts more.

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Walter Cronkite in 1976. (Library of Congress)

I have been an admirer of Fareed Zakaria's work since he was recruited in 1992 by James Hoge, editor of Foreign Affairs to be that magazine's managing editor, shortly after he had completed a Harvard Ph.D. He proved to be an inspired choice for the position and moved on to Newsweek in 2000, gradually gaining visibility as a sophisticated commentator in a variety of venues. His 2008 book, The Post-American World, was a bestseller, and after a stint with PBS, he launched Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, a show that has a dedicated following and an international audience. It is considered among the most thoughtful programs on global issues.

In 2010, he became a lead columnist for Time. He is also, I gather, in great demand as a paid speaker, and this year delivered the commencement addresses at both Harvard and Duke. He served as a trustee of Yale and as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations Board of Directors. Jon Stewart is clearly a huge fan, and Zakaria has probably appeared on the Daily Show more often than any other figure from our top tier of pundits.

If you followed the flap over Zakaria's failure to credit a paragraph from Jill Lepore of the New Yorker in a column about gun control -- and his resulting short-term suspension from Time and CNN -- you may well already have read about the extent of his professional activities. But listing them here is intended to provide a sense of just how productive he has been, at a consistently high level, and why I hoped this mishap -- widely described, and in my judgment, with exaggeration, as plagiarism -- would turn out to be a small-bore setback in what will be a long and distinguished run.

Now that Time and CNN have reinstated him beginning in September and found no further problems, Zakaria is back on track. He will also resume his column for the Washington Post. The backstory of the case seems to be a confusion in his transcription of notes. Zakaria's apologies were immediate and repeated, even after he was essentially forgiven, because he clearly realized that plagiarism is a cardinal offense for a writer.

An instance of picking up a small section of another person's work (which was quoting facts from a recently published book) didn't strike me as a major failing, although the sensitivities involved were reflected in the public flailing he endured. A clever headline at The Atlantic over a commentary by Jeffrey Goldberg sounded about right to me: "Fareedenfreude (or Alternatively, Schadenfareed)."

Coming so soon after the revelations about Jonah Lehrer's fabrications of quotes from Bob Dylan in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, and a stream of other misrepresentations that cost him his reputation, the Zakaria case easily morphed into further evidence of the same pattern of serious malfeasance, which it certainly was not.

But the episode crystallized something I've been thinking about increasingly in recent years. Today's leading pundits and commentators have adapted to our current media culture in ways that too often seem over-programmed, to the point where it is a veritable certainty that some will eventually stumble. These blunders are taken all the more seriously because of the prominence media stars have attained.

I wonder if it really is possible to do so many things at once: columns, daily blog posts, a full schedule of television appearances and Internet videos, speeches around the country (and the world), and books intended to make a splash. There are also outside activities (or jobs) that take administrative or editorial time. The aggregation of all these activities can be enormously lucrative, but there is also a competitiveness among the cohort -- and their principal employers -- that seems to drive them to take on more roles than frankly makes sense.

Zakaria acknowledged as much in comments to the New York Times: "This week has been very important because it made me realize what is at the core of what I want to do." His goal, he said, is to "help people to think about this fast-moving world and to do this through my work on TV and writing." Other activities, he added, "will have to go away. There's got to be some stripping down." The first resignation was his position at Yale.

Zakaria is by no means the only one of these journalistic polymaths. I am not going to make a list because until there is certifiable wrongdoing, it is fair to assume that they are capable of pulling off so many successes. But the trend toward multi-faceted hyper-productivity is definitely a feature of our age.

The influential columnists of the 1950s through the 1980s -- James Reston, for example, or Russell Baker, the Alsop brothers, and Joseph Kraft, among others -- intently focused on their outstanding output and, while celebrated for their work, spent fewer of their formidable energies on being visible in other arenas. In their day, they probably would not have been recognizable anywhere outside downtown Washington. Television's biggest names -- David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite come to mind -- wrote books only after their anchoring days were over.

Surely there must be examples of media personalities of that time who could juggle columns, articles, books, and broadcasts. But today's demands definitely feel greater than those of the past. Rather than attachment to a single platform, the premium seems to be placed on entrepreneurial diversity.

There is so much of the media in our lives in this digital era that it is less than surprising that a number of the more ambitious and talented of the journalists want to master it all. Spreading your efforts across the many opportunities being offered is considered the best way to build a brand name that will flourish apart from being associated with any single employer. But brands are vulnerable to being undone. "This guy is his own brand," Jim Kelly, a former top editor at Time said in the New York Times, "so . . . you have to be really careful at how you extend yourself. The American corporate landscape is littered with disastrous brand extensions."

The monitors of gaffes, glitches, and writing shortcuts are powerful and have the Internet's resources to track every misstep. Public vilification for mistakes that come from trying to do too much is the downside of stardom. Zakaria's problem turned out to be minor, but nonetheless valuable -- as a warning to others with his ambitions and talents to take extra care in pursuit of acclaim.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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