October 3, 2012

Please, no more thought leaders


How valid is the work of high profile journalists, sometimes so-called “thought leaders”, taking large checks to inspire executives at Johnson & Johnson?

David V. Johnson in the Boston Review takes on Fareed Zakaria for his extremely well-paid speaking engagements for finance and energy businesses (he can apparently get paid up to $75,000), arguing that it compromises his independence to write about those fields for CNN. Or on a more basic level, it just doesn’t look very good.

By no means does Johnson accuse Zakaria of being paid directly by those wishing to use his influential name for their own purposes, but rather he argues that it compromises his readers’ ability to trust his judgment and his journalism. Not to mention, most of his readers will never be in the same room with Zakaria, nor have the chance to corner him about their own issues, which are almost certainly different from banking executives.

“When you pay someone to give a keynote address, you’re paying for more than the lecture. There’s also the cocktails, the dinner, the informal meet-and-greets, the many opportunities to chat and schmooze. In other words, you’re also paying for the chance to lobby…

The question is whether we should trust those who are not just intellectuals, or journalists or academics—people whose opinions are grounded in a rational authority independent of their audience—but instead thought leaders and brands, i.e., people who are paid lucrative fees for offering their opinions to audiences. And there’s also a question for Zakaria: does he think it important enough to collect fees over and above his ample salary to risk his status as an independent, thoughtful public figure?”

Zakaria often covers finance matters and Wall Street, and so perhaps his integrity in the eyes of his readers should matter most. It’s clearly a problem for some outlets. According to Paul Starobin in the Columbia Journalism Review, the Wall Street Journal and a few others have a flat ban on speaking fees for its journalists so that this issue does not arise.

As Johnson writes,

“Even though the practice of journalists speaking for money is not a new one, these questions are especially ripe for exploration because of the enormous importance of Wall Street as a political and economic story for the press…The public needs to trust the press to get the story straight, all the more so because of pervasive distrust of Wall Street itself.”

It’s certainly not as if Zakaria is the only one in the media taking money that — perhaps unintentionally — makes him look bad. Matt Damon’s new film The Promised Land, with its high indie cred—directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Dave Eggers—is vehemently anti-fracking. The project comes well-funded, however, by Image Media Abu Dhabi, owned by Abu Dhabi Media, which is itself owned wholly by the United Arab Emirates, the fourth largest oil importer. Although the message of the movie is not dissimilar to what most environmentalists would have written themselves if given half the chance, as a game of perception, it has all the dirty look of money-buying speech.

Perhaps Zakaria is somehow better placed to handle these dilemmas than the rest of us. Ask yourself, says Jim Nichols in Forbes, “Can I handle people questioning me and my work?”, “Do I like people?” and  “Am I comfortable with people talking about me?” If not, you may not be “thought leader” material.




Ariel Bogle is a former publicist at Melville House.