Zakaria: CNN’s Mixed Messages…
Today on Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources, he talked about Zakaria.
Well I’ll give Stelter credit for getting this segment on the air in the first place. It takes guts to bring up a story your own network would like to bury with a bulldozer and then pour tons of concrete on top of it for good measure.
That said, I do find fault with Stelter’s segment. It doesn’t whitewash Zakaria. However, Stelter obviously has a soft spot for him and admitted as much today on TV. I did too…until 2012 and this scandal broke out. Stelter clearly feels the charges against Zakaria are overdone and he, I think fairly, notes that the guys at OBM seem to have an agenda with Zakaria…or at the very least give off the appearance of taking this “crusade” a little to personally. Speaking as an anonymous blogger, you definitely aren’t taken as seriously when you don’t have a name for critics and non-critics to hook on to. It’s the price you pay for going that route.
But the main problem I have with Stelter’s segment is not that Stelter, despite his best efforts, was unable to completely shake off the appearance of not being able to separate his personal feelings from his professional duties. My main problem is how narrow this segment’s subject matter was.
To watch it, you’d think the main charges against Zakaria concern what happened on GPS when the reality is that the GPS stuff is more like the icing on the cake with the cake being the two previous rounds of print accusations OBM threw at Zakaria. While Stelter does make an allusion to them at one point with a vague reference to “not just against his GPS work, but his columns and books too”, he steers clear of the OBM print allegations entirely. This part in particular bothered me…
But these bloggers claims have gotten attention partly because prior claims of plagiarism were leveled against Zakaria in 2012.
No. The GPS claims got attention because OBM set the stage…in 2014…with two different articles detailing more alleged examples of print plagiarmism that were not covered in the original 2012 scandal which threw serious questions at those who did the original 2012 due dilligence on Zakaria as a result of the Newsweek issue.
This is driven home in Stelter’s very next sentence…
I believe that most of their claims about GPS – 26 total – do not hold up under close scrutiny. The closer you look, the less it looks like capital “P” plagiarism.
1. What about the other claims OBM threw at Zakaria? Why concentrate on just the GPS ones? Did you not look at them at all? If you did why didn’t you include them here?
2. What were Stelter’s criteria for separating the “most” group that don’t hold up with the others which apparently did hold up? If you’re going to use the word “most” that automatically means that “some” don’t fall into that category because “most” is not an absolute. Which, by extrapolation, means some of those 26 claims did stand up to capital “P” plagiarism. And just which ones were those anyway?
3. As opposed to what? Small “P” plagiarism?
4. The “just a little bit pregnant” defense? Really?
This is what happens when you try to stick a toe into the water instead of jumping in fully….you don’t look like you’ve gone all in.
I have no first hand evidence of this but the way the segment went down with what it said, how it said it, and, most importantly, what it didn’t get into, strongly points to the suggestion that Stelter’s entire segment on Zakaria had to run through CNN’s editorial gauntlet, probably more than once. Stelter’s too good a writer and a journalist to give short shrift to 2/3 of OBM’s articles on Zakaria while giving him what amounts to mostly a pass on the GPS stuff. Here’s why this matters…
By concentrating on GPS, Stelter, whether it was his intention or not, is able to (fairly in my opinion) throw cold water on the plagiarism charges by noting how TV news works and the question of whether Zakaria wrote his opens or some sloppy producer did.
But you can’t use that argument to knock down the two rounds of OBM print charges (as well as the Slate charges OBM tossed out this week). It doesn’t work…unless Zakaria was having his print articles ghost written; which, if true (it’s not) would be an even bigger scandal than this one.
I would dearly love to know the no doubt twisted and tortuous process this segment took to get to air. I could imagine everyone from Jeff Zucker to CNN’s legal department had a say on it. I could see how CNN management might see this as an opportunity to try and put this to bed while at the same time having the segment come across as some sort of transparency example; a “We’re not afraid to tackle the tough issues even when we’re the subject matter” if you will. Too bad the segment failed at both.
This segment underscores why nothing short of CNN coming clean with a full in depth and forthright explanation will suffice here. All we’ve had are tortured responses. CNN issued a vaguely tortured response standing by its 2012 investigation and has said nothing since, while Zakaria continues to bleed all over it thanks to OBM’s continuing “agenda”. This segment was itself a tortured response in what it cherry picked to highlight and what it chose to gloss over, no doubt with CNN management input.
But all these tortured responses have done is make the situation worse. Those of us who want CNN to come out with something more comprehensive in regards to Zakaria in general and specifically in regards to how OBM’s examples square with CNN’s journalism standards, are able to shred these responses apart with all too much ease. If you’re going to respond you need to make your response bulletproof, not give your critics more ammunition in the form of new questions precisely because your responses have been so tortured.
Personally, I think CNN’s intransigence on Zakaria has less to do with Zakaria and more to do with what benchmark it sets if the network did launch a new investigation…never mind reprimand him or cut him loose. I think the network is worried, at least partially, that applying print plagiarism standards to its TV scripts, TV reporting in the field, and web news articles, could open up a Pandora’s box of hurt down the road. Better to back Zakaria and take a few bumps and bruises now than to set what would amount to a new standard (or at the very least what is today a very rarely publicly applied standard) for TV News networks.