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Paper-Tiger Fareed Zakaria Turns Chicken in Face-off with Putin

What happened to his strong convictions?

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

Fareed Zakaria has been a powerful force in spreading unsubstantiated stories about Russia and its leaders. He is host of a CNN program called "Global Public Square." 

From what I've seen over the years, Zakaria's square is filled with those who agitate maliciously against Russia. He gives scant opportunity for those with more reality-based views to speak.

There's little question about where he stands politically vis-a-vis Russia and Putin.

While his MO is to promote the views of Russia's denigrators, he's spoken on the matter himself too. His March 27, 2014 story about Ukraine was headlined "Obama pursues the right response to Russia's 19th-century behavior." He said, "Russia's invasion of Ukraine has brought to the fore an important debate about what kind of world we live in."

The simply-put allegation that Russia invaded Ukraine robs readers of the vast subtleties of that crisis, and indeed ducks the controversy over who actually invaded who.

He was equally deceptive when he got to the Russia-Georgia crisis. Speaking of "Putin's actions in Georgia in 2008," Zakaria proclaimed: "That was a blatant invasion."

He made no mention that an EU investigation of the conflict had concluded it was Georgia that was the aggressor, not Russia. Zakaria practices a very slanted version of journalism.

Now we come to Zakaria's golden opportunity to confront Putin, a person he believes to be a militarily-aggressive nineteenth century dictator. Zakaria actually spoke with Putin face-to-face in an interview that CNN broadcast on June 19. That's where we see the paper tiger turn chicken.

Zakaria raised the issue of Putin's public praise for presidential candidate Donald Trump. 

This is an issue that many of Trump's critics have used to put the candidate in a bad light. The general theme is: if Putin thinks Trump's so great, he can't be very good for America. A December 17, 2015 story in The Hill said, "Russian President Vladimir Putin had kind words for his 'stablemate' Donald Trump during an annual end-of-the-year Q-and-A session in Moscow. 'He's a really brilliant and talented person, without any doubt,' Putin told reporters, according to a translation by Interfax."

So now comes Zakaria in for the kill: "You called him brilliant, outstanding, talented. These comments were reported around the world. I was wondering what in him led you to that judgment, and do you still hold that judgment?" Zakaria ended with a smirk on his face, seeming to belie a sense that he really put Putin on the spot. Maybe I'm misreading Zakaria's body language, but that's how it looked to me.

Putin responded, according to CNN's translation, by acknowledging Zakaria not only as a well-known journalist, but as an intellectual, too. He went on to ask Zakaria, "Why do you always change the meaning of what I said?" 

Putin explained his remark about Trump: "I only said that he is a bright person. Isn't he bright?"

Zakaria's response was, "Just to be clear, Mr. President, the word brilliant was in the Interfax translation. I realize that other translations might say it's bright, but I used the official Interfax translation."

This exchange tells us a lot about Zakaria's sense of journalistic responsibility and ethics. My first point is that Zakaria relied upon a single secondary source, Interfax. Why didn't he go back to the original Russian and get his own translation? I don't think it was out of a sense of steadfast trust in whatever Interfax reports. I'd bet I could find a lot of things Interfax has reported that Zakaria wouldn't take sitting down. So passing this off on Interfax was just a slimy way to wiggle out of being caught. 

Then Zakaria called the Interfax translation "official." Interfax claims to be a private company. If Zakaria has evidence that it is just a front for the Kremlin he should have presented it. 

Amusingly, the anglicized version of the company CEO's name is Michael Commissar. Maybe Zakaria believes he's a leftover Soviet commissar named Michael? More seriously, I think Zakaria's perception that Interfax is an official voice is just a reflection of Zakaria's entrenched negative view of Russia.

But the most egregious part of this Zakaria-Putin exchange is this: Zakaria is talking to the primary source himself, Putin. And he's quibbling with Putin over what Putin claims to have said. 

Did he think Putin was lying? If so, he should have presented his evidence and called-out Putin on that. Absent that evidence, Zakaria's proper response to Putin's clarification about Trump should have been, "I'm sorry Mr. President I seem to have gotten that wrong."

There was more back and forth between Zakaria and Putin in that interview, but it followed the same pattern: Zakaria asks a loaded question, and Putin pulls the rug out from under him. And in response Zakaria just whimpers.

What happened to the pre-interview Zakaria? The guy with lots of big talk full of confident allegations? One would expect that he'd be loaded for bear when confronting Putin. But he wasn't. 

Did he not have the courage of his convictions? Or maybe he realized that the line of baloney he's been peddling couldn't stand up to face-to-face confrontation. Either way this injures Zakaria's credibility gravely. 

CNN previously suspended Zakaria for an earlier journalistic infraction. After this interview fiasco, I think they should realize it's time to dump him for good. Methinks Zakaria is a well-spoken phony, and CNN owes its audience better than that.

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