Absence of accountability

Absence of accountability

What’s wrong with America?  Everyone has their own pet answer to that question — especially in an election year — but my nominee today is lack of accountability, especially among political pundits. To be specific: for high-profile public intellectuals, malfeasance of various sorts has virtually no professional consequences.

Consider first the discovery that CNN host Fareed Zakaria had plagiarized an article by the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore for one of his Time columns. Both Time and CNN suspended Zakaria temporarily, but eventually concluded that it was an isolated incident and reinstated him. 

To his credit, Zakaria (whom I’ve known for twenty years and regard as a friend), immediately owned up to his mistake and vowed to rethink the professional arrangements that led to his embarrassing blunder. That was the right response, but my larger point is that his error will have no consequences whatsoever for his future career trajectory. None. The whole incident might someday rate a short paragraph in his obituary, but that’s about all.

The next example is my Harvard colleague Niall Ferguson’s instantly-infamous Newsweek cover story "Hit the Road Barack," which purported to offer a comprehensive indictment of Obama’s performance as president. Here the problem wasn’t inadvertent plagiarism; it was blatant dishonesty. As a diverse flock of respected commentators quickly pointed out, Ferguson’s factually-challenged critique of Obama rested on an array of obvious misrepresentations and sleazy manipulations. Please don’t take my word for it: just read James Fallows, Andrew Sullivan (here and here), Brad DeLong, Matthew O’Brian, and Joe Weisenthal. And that’s just a partial list.

Unlike Zakaria, who promptly acknowledged his error and apologized, Ferguson responded by quickly doubling down on some of his original arguments. And he did so by selectively quoting a CBO report, deliberately omitting a key sentence that completely altered the meaning of the quotation. See Dylan Byers here.  

Misrepresenting sources is normally a cardinal sin for a professional historian, even when writing in a popular venue. But is this likely to have any tangible consequences for Ferguson?  Nah. Harvard won’t do anything (and given the principle of academic freedom, it shouldn’t).  Neither will Newsweek, which is probably more worried about staying afloat for another year than it is about fact-checking its cover stories. In this sort of world, what incentive does Ferguson have to get things right? 

One could argue that public intellectuals like Ferguson and Zakaria aren’t really that important, and that their fates won’t make much difference to the life of the nation. That might be true, but the absence of accountability goes far beyond them. Corporate CEOs mismanage companies and escape with lavish golden parachutes. The financial sector misbehaves for a decade and then gets bailed out. A former National Security advisor helps lead the country into a disastrous war, gets promoted to Secretary of State, and later becomes one of the first female members of the Augusta National Golf Club. By this standard, Ferguson and Zakaria’s sins are pretty small potatoes.

Nonetheless,  it would be better for the United States if there were some tangible sanction for Zakaria’s careless error and Ferguson’s deliberate dishonesty. In business, making big mistakes hurts the bottom line. In war, getting the facts wrong gets people killed. But in politics and punditry, egregious and/or willful errors carry no penalty, provided their purveyors are sufficiently popular or aligned with well-heeled political interests. Just look at the unsinkable careers of the people who gave us the Iraq war, many of whom could return to power if Mitt Romney wins in November. Absence of accountability is at least part of the reason why our political life is governed not by logic and evidence, but by fact-free fairy tales. And when you base political decisions on flights of fancy, bad results are to be expected.