What’s the role of a political journalist? What are they for? In an increasingly frenetic media environment where journalists often double as entertainers and media corporations struggle for ratings, those assigned to cover political affairs are especially important. As information conduits between the powerful and the public, political journalists have a responsibility to a society. Their job is to poke and to prod, to uncover and reveal. Their job isn’t to merely reflect what those in positions of influence and authority say; they aren’t meant to be mirrors—they are meant to be gadflies, to be Socratic annoyances.

In Ancient Greece, Socrates served as a check on power. For his service, he was eventually put to death. But this outcome reveals something about the role of critical public interlocutor: the nature of the job is to challenge authority. In so doing, the gadfly, in this case the political journalist, acts as a check on power while also informing the public about the state of their affairs. This makes political journalists an important part of the democratic apparatus. When they fail to do their job, democracy itself is threatened.

Zakaria Agonistes

One of the leading political journalists in America today is Fareed Zakaria. With a PhD from Harvard University and a successful program, Global Public Square, which has won a Peabody Award and has been nominated for several Emmys, Zakaria brings nuanced perspectives to the social and political affairs he covers. Zakaria’s book, The Post-American World, is one of the most important books of the last ten years. Its central thesis has become accepted wisdom. In it, Zakaria cogently argues that American economic, cultural and military power is in relative decline due in large part to the “rise of the rest”, and less so due to American decline or failure. This argument is similar to those of others (Niall Ferguson or Samuel Huntington, for instance), but his depth of research is particularly remarkable. On balance, Zakaria can take significant credit for popularizing this argument.

This past summer, you might have come across his short documentary called Blindsided: How ISIS Shook the World. In it, the CNN host and TIME magazine editor explores the origins of the Islamic State (ISIS). Zakaria presented a concise and accessible account of how ISIS originated, including a demystification of how Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came to lead the organization. Zakaria addresses and debunks two of the major conspiracy theories surrounding ISIS: first, that al-Baghdadi is somehow a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) plant or is otherwise American trained. Second, that ISIS is a regional force of great power, scale or significance. With his contribution to this documentary, Zakaria adds to his track record as a political journalist, combining incisive analysis of the rise of ISIS and critical commentary on the organization.

But Zakaria’s day job isn’t documentarist or academic. He is best known as a political journalist, as interviewer in particular, and he spends much of his time and energy engaging with the top academic and political authorities from the United States and abroad. And if he succeeds in producing high quality documentary and academic work, he fails as a gadfly. When seated face-to-face with the powerful, he refuses to sting. His failure to hold the powerful to account suggests that the state of American media coverage of domestic or international affairs is a lamentable one that cuts across the skill and training of most of its practitioners.

But who cares about Fareed Zakaria? In a country as populous as the United States, surely in his absence there are plenty who can fill his role. Well, maybe not. If that’s true, where are they? Zakaria has access to the sorts of interviews that only a very few journalists enjoy. This places an extraordinary amount of responsibility on him. But when it comes to figures as diverse as Benjamin Netanyahu, Barack Obama, Wen Jibao, Thomas Friedman and Irshad Manji, his interviews with them consistently lack nuance, depth or sophistication, despite hopes and expectations to the contrary.

The problem isn’t what Zakaria asks; he poses thoughtful, well-researched questions. Indeed, the high expectations for Zakaria and the subsequent disappointing performances indicate a divergence between the theory that the media will hold powerful figures to account and the practice of letting them off the hook. Why? Well, in practice, at best, Zakaria has played nicely with his interviewees; at worst, he has ended up pandering to the powerful and influential. But whether it is the former or the latter, the result is the same: power gets to skate.

By giving the powerful a pass, Zakaria allows these figures to frame discussions, to set the agenda, to evade, to misinform, or to re-write history in a setting that is undeniably serious, but nonetheless favorable to the ends of the elite. In so doing, he undermines the credibility and authority of political journalists whose job it is to prevent the powerful from doing precisely that.

The sorry state of American political journalism

The public has been a cog in the wheel that has become satisfied with being entertained by politicians and CEOs and the media who are supposed to hold them accountable. Instead, we should be angry that our brightest minds fail to do more to hold powerful people to account. But each day that the public succumbs further to the flash of over-produced news segments or complacent with the idea that “debate” is equal to floating heads on a screen shouting at one another, it becomes harder for political journalists to do their job. After all, they have to give the public what it wants. Or at least that’s the common wisdom.

Thus, there is too much on the line for Zakaria to push or probe, to make his subject uncomfortable or unwilling to return. He can’t challenge the establishment directly, because the system he is wrapped up in structures incentives in such a way as to discourage him from doing so. Media outlets are corporations concerned with viewers, advertisers, and profits. Or, to summarize: media outlets want viewers. Big ticket interviews draw viewers. If the interviewee draws a crowd, but refuses to return because the interview didn’t serve his or her political or economic interests (nobody said being stung by a gadfly was a pleasant experience), then ratings—and profits—drop.

It’s easy to see the sorts of institutional barriers, a product of a competitive, corporate media structure, that force Zakaria to ask sterile questions and sit quietly while they are either dodged or distorted. That same system allows his interview subjects to manipulate Zakaria-–to ride on the coattails of his credentials and to gain credibility while they do so. But this comes at a cost: the credibility of American political journalism is undermined each time this occurs. And when that credibility is undermined, so are the democratic institutions that rely on the free flow of information and ideas.

Politics and political journalism: where do we go from here?

The American political news media—Fareed Zakaria and the rest—need to apply a high level of insight, persistence, research, and rigour when conducting interviews. Each should engage in the sort of quality work that Zakaria does with his writing, research, and monologues. But a special onus rests on Zakaria; he is one of the few journalists in America who is well placed to challenge the powerful and elite and to raise even more than he has the level of public discourse in the United States. The risk is that if he starts becoming a less pliant interviewer, his access to leaders and luminaries and CEOs will diminish.

Maybe it will. But the duty of a political journalist must be to push harder at the edges of the rich and powerful, and to help the societies they live in become be better at doing the same. They must act as democratic checks and balances. It is their job to seek and expose the truth, and to communicate it to the public. But how is this to be done in the face of fierce ratings or readership battles? Of a constant need to return a profit and to stay competitive?

The growth of alternative media organizations such as Vice or The Drudge Report may hold the key. These organizations are outsiders looking in. They’re reminiscent of early 20th-century muckrakers, less beholden to big money and less focussed on a race for profit than the traditional media conglomerates. But another key to turning things around, surely, is the public, who must demand that their interviewers hold the powerful to account. And if they need to do so by voting with their viewership, then so be it.


Further Reading

Fareed Zakaria. From Wealth to Power. Princeton University Press.

Fareed Zakaria. The Post-American World. Norton.

Samuel Huntington. Political Order in Changing Societies. Yale University Press.

Samuel Huntington. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon and Schuster.

Eric Klinenberg. Fighting for Air: The Battle to Control America’s Media. Macmillan.


CNN. Blindsided: How ISIS Shook the World.

Image Credit : David Ohmer via flickr

About The Author

John Mullin
M.A., B.Ed.

John Mullin is a business and social studies teacher from Canada, currently teaching in Egypt. He has a master’s degree in history and will be soon begin a PhD at the Frost Center at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario where he will study Ontario conservative politics in the post-World War Two era. He currently lives in Cairo.