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The Fareed Zakaria episode and the hypocrisy of American media

Nadim Asrar NadimAsrar

Updated: August 12, 2012, 6:53 AM IST
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In a piece Fareed Zakaria wrote for Time on gun control after the tragic Wisconsin gurdwara massacre, he lifted a passage from Harvard University history professor Jill Lepore's piece published in The New Yorker. The plagiarism was caught. Zakaria apologized while his employers - Time and CNN (both, by the way, owned by Time Warner) - promptly suspended him from his duties as editor-at-large and host respectively, "pending further review".

I have no intention to defend Zakaria's plagiarism here. But I am amazed and shocked at the oversight such a celebrated writer committed by not attributing a small passage to a fellow intellectual. Considering the fact that Zakaria was taking on perhaps the most powerful lobby in the world on an issue that the US loves to be evasive about, I wish he had shown more diligence than he did.

Having said that, I also invite you - the proud third-world consumers of the largest media industry in the world - to have a closer look at the magnificent hypocrisy behind the American mainstream media's self-righteousness and perceived integrity. Today, Time and CNN are considered the benchmarks of open, 'objective' and liberal journalism. They command awe, respect - not to mention a huge global market. But is the respect and power that these media organizations enjoy a result of their high journalistic standards? Well, that's where the catch lies.

Ideas and institutions gain respect and currency only when there is a force behind them. And power does not want truth. It wants what it considers to be true as the truth so as to create conditions to perpetuate and reproduce that power. Truth, in other words, is the enemy of power. Now that's an anomaly, because the media, by definition, is supposed to be the beacon of truth. However, the American mainstream media knows that truth does not bring money and market, proximity to power does. So what you get instead is a media, patronized by the dominant powers, that only cares about manufactured truths, propaganda, cover-ups, misinformation, concealment of information, and even blatant lies that gradually gain the force of truth simply because, as the saying goes, they must be repeated ad nauseum.

In other words, the mainstream media in the US has consistently prided itself at being the handmaiden of the dominant powers - political, economic, military and cultural. They have acted as tools to indoctrinate, provoke, preach, misinform, and even numb the Americans towards what perhaps the best-known American intellectual Noam Chomsky calls 'the manufacture of consent'. It is this consent that has helped the American corporates sell their products in the name of dreams, American armies to invade, kill and loot and the American empire dominate the world as it wished with absolute impunity.

How else do we explain the blatant lies that the American media spread on the presence of what they call the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? What else explains the blacking out of any proper coverage of the massive Occupy movements across the US against what millions of Americans called crony capitalism? How else do we explain the complete erasure of any critical thought and ideas in the American mainstream media? Why is it that a 'dangerous thinker' like Arundhati Roy can be published in the Indian mainstream magazines and newspapers while it's almost impossible to read anything from a Chomsky or a Howard Zinn or even a Jesse Jackson in the American press? How else do we explain the jokes about George W Bush's famous IQ and Mitt Romney calling the Sikhs 'Sheikhs' while mourning the Wisconsin victims? How else can we explain the tragic ignorance of the Americans on the global affairs, a deliberate ignorance sustained by its media so as to keep them from knowing and thinking? How do we account for a complete consensus among the American minds - and its media - over the virtues of capitalism and consumerism? What else explains the American media's obsession with sports, Hollywood celebrities and pop culture? Where has the alternate space gone?

It is when we try to answer these questions that we realize the hypocrisy behind what happened to Zakaria. It is at that moment that the 'hallowed' institutions of great journalism like the Time begin to look hollow and pedantic. Isn't it hypocritical then that an indefensible institution is being defended by sacking Zakaria, while its core is consistently compromised by its dubious practices? Can't it be alleged that the magazine and the news channel acted so promptly only because the issue that Zakaria had touched in his piece threatens the bedrock of the American Inc.? Even after hundreds of shooting incidents all over the country in which hundreds of children, women and other innocent people have been killed, it is considered naïve to talk about gun control in the US. A Michael Moore may cry hoarse after the tragic Columbine shooting or, as we see now, one of the most powerful editors in the world may ask for a renewed debate on the issue. But the status quo - where the right to own and use a gun is almost fundamental - is important, profitable, and must be sustained by all means. What is at stake is not only a multi-billion-dollar weapons industry, but a culture of violence that helps the American empire make bombing children and waging wars a normative American reality.

That explains why any rational voice that challenges the status quo is perceived as dangerous and must be muzzled. That explains why Americans were perhaps more horrified by their popular TV host lifting a paragraph from a historian's essay and less at the absence of any political or social will to check the proliferation of deadly weapons in their schools, streets, churches, temples and even their bedrooms. To talk of 'acknowledgment' and 'respect' (for other's writings) in a scenario where a crazed racist shoots down six people in cold blood at a small-town gurdwara only appears as a cruel joke. While Fareed Zakaria is censured in the name of 'ethics' and 'error of judgement', there has been little talk of censuring a culture that believes in killing people.

I am tempted to be a little contentious here by asking a simple question: why shouldn't even a plagiarized article encourage the much-needed debate on gun control? Are we missing the wood for the trees here? As he is silenced the moment he raised that bogey, albeit erroneously, I wonder what questions must be coming to Zakaria's mind. I bet he is agonizing over what is worse - not attributing a piece of information to somebody who also agrees with your ideas, or being the lapdog - and not the watchdog - of the powers-that-be? He must be thinking: now that shooting the messenger is done, who will stop those shooters now?
First Published: August 12, 2012, 6:53 AM IST

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