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A Conversation with Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Fareed Zakaria, aged 46, is one of the most influential figures in the American media, and he enjoys broad popularly within the US and throughout the world at large. He is the editor of Newsweek International which has a readership of approximately 24 million worldwide. He is also the host of a weekly international affairs programme “Fareed Zakaria GPS” which airs on CNN, where he has interviewed figures such as US President Barack Obama, King Abdullah II of Jordan, and Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. He has been named as one of the top 100 leading public intellectuals in the world, and is also a New York Times bestselling author with his book “The Post-American World.” Before joining Newsweek, Zakaria served as managing editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. Fareed Zakaria was born in Mumbai, India to a Konkani Muslim family; he received his BA from Yale University where he was president of the Yale Political Union and editor-in-chief of the Yale Political Monthly. He went on to earn a PhD in Political Sciences from Harvard University. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to Fareed Zakaria about a number of issues, including his own career as a journalist and editor, and the impact the internet has had on print journalism.

The following is the text of the interview.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did your career as a journalist begin? Was there a defining moment that led you to believe that this was the right profession for you?

[Zakaria] No, I did not have a [defining] moment. I began in journalism in a very strange way. My mother is a journalist; she was one of the editors of one of the big magazines in India, then she was the Sunday editors of ‘The Times’ in India, so I grew up with newspapers and magazines around me. It was almost like a family business because my father was a politician and my mother was a journalist so the issues of politics were part of my day to day life. When I was in high school I founded a magazine, but I didn’t think that I was going to do it professionally, I actually thought that I was going to become an academic. I was at Harvard University teaching when Foreign Affairs magazine contacted me, and initially I wasn’t interested in it because I thought that I was doing something more prestigious; but the more I thought about it the more I realised that this was really my passion; that I loved doing it. So I slowly got dragged away from academia and towards journalism – from Foreign Affairs to Newsweek, and from Newsweek to CNN. And the result now is that I really am a journalist 100 percent, but there was no specific point in which I made that decision; I was kind of dragged into it.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you successfully divide your time between writing articles, running a magazine, and presenting your own television programme on CNN?

[Zakaria] Well it is very difficult, and managing my time is the most difficult part of my career because I have the columns that I write, the cover stories, the television programme, I have editing Newsweek, but I also have various speaking engagements [as well]. To being with I should say that I have a very good office and two wonderful assistants, but what you really have to do is be very disciplined about time management and ask yourself what the important things you have to accomplish are. In that context, a lot of times I have to schedule myself time to think; because you can easily fill up the day with meetings and appointments and people wanting to come and see you and lunches, but I think that the crucial part of my job is intellectual. So usually in the morning, or at some point in the day I try to set aside several hours where I am just thinking and reading, and asking myself what are the most important trends and analytical backdrops to what is happening in the world; how I can give viewers a perspective that they don’t have. That’s the part that is often missed in a very busy life. No matter what your job is or how busy your life is, you need to set aside some time to just think.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How many hours do you work a week, and how much free time does this leave you to spend with your family?

[Zakaria] I work a lot of hours. I’m lucky that I enjoy my work though so I don’t really count the hours. I am often working at home as well as in the office. I am very careful about trying to keep my weekends for the family, and I try to make sure that I take some vacation time during the year. I am not one of these people who will not take a vacation in ten years; I take a vacation every year. I think you need to rest. First of all your family needs you, but you also need to get out of the daily rat race. Your mind needs to rest, so I would say that for at least three weeks a year I make sure that I do that. I have three children, and the nice thing about having three young children is that when you come home to them or spend time with them on the weekends you are totally away from your work, because when you are with your children it doesn’t matter if you are the king or queen or the most famous editor, they want you to deal with their concerns; so it’s a very good way to relax yourself because you get into their world. Omar is my oldest child, Lila is my second, and Sophia is my youngest.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there a special team that helps you to produce your television programme “Fareed Zakaria GPS” that is broadcast on CNN?

[Zakaria] I have very good staff for the television [show], such as the producers, but what I don’t have – but many people think that I do have – is a research staff. I don’t have this because I do my own research. So far I have found that if you have other people doing the reading for you, you will not really understand the issues. So I have people doing the television programmes, booking the guests, producing and editing the show and so on, but the things that I research and write I do myself; I don’t give this to somebody else. It is only through reading and research and talking to people that you get a true understanding of what is going on.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your own opinion, what Newsweek story has been the most expensive or difficult to produce?

[Zakaria] It would depend on how one would calculate expense, but I would certainly say that some of the reports to have come out of Iraq in the last five years have been the most expensive. Iraq has been the most difficult war to cover because of the security expenses. We’ve had to send reporters with trained armed guards who were former British Royal Marines, for example, and the whole process of keeping people there and maintaining a presence has cost hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who pays these expenses? Has Newsweek ever rejected an idea for a story due to fiscal constraints?

[Zakaria] We pay for the cost. We’ve never tried to get any type of funding. We have never decided not to do something because of the cost but over the past ten years we have tried to find lower cost ways of doing the same things. We have tried to find good local correspondents that might be as good as having a full-time American correspondent stationed in places such as Beirut or Cairo. We might try to find a local or somebody who was trained in America; so we look for alternative ways to cover our stories, but to my knowledge we have never said that we won’t do something because it is too expensive.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How important is the Middle East to your news coverage?

[Zakaria] The Middle East remains central to our news coverage, and the reason for this is not one that Middle Easterners would be too happy about; and that’s because there are so many problems in the region. I used to tell a Syrian friend of mine who would boast that [US] Secretary of State Warren Christopher made 23 trips to Syria…that he has to realize that this is not because Syria is so rich and prosperous or stable, [rather] it is because it is so unstable and dangerous and problematic that he is making these visits. It is not a sign of strength. The Middle East remains to be a place where there are just so many different complications and is the vital centre for energy resources in the world, and the combination of their resources and their problems means that it is going to be a place that we have to focus on. The last two US wars have been fought in the Middle East, and it’s quite possible that if there is another war that it would also be fought in the Middle East. It’s just the unfortunate reality of the complicated dynamics in that region.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that it is particularly important for journalists to specialize in certain fields or areas, for example for a journalist to have specialized knowledge about Al Qaeda or Afghanistan or Iraq, for example?

[Zakaria] I think it is important to have people that have the capacity to go deep into a country. Sometimes it is the people who have lived a long time in that country and sometimes they have not. I don’t think that one should say that there is a rule about it. When Nicholas Kristof went to the China, he didn’t know much about it to start with, but he turned out to be a very good reporter on the subject and even won the Pulitzer Prize. In general, I think that what is important is that you have people who are very intellectually-minded and who have the capacity to go deep. I don’t think that this necessarily means that they have to spend their whole lives doing one thing.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you have any advice to young journalists?

[Zakaria] Write! Write, write, write! There is this book by Malcolm Gladwell called ‘Outliers’ in which he says that there is a simple rule if you want to become really great at something you must practice whatever that is for 10,000 hours. He says that if you look at the band ‘The Beatles’, they spent 10,000 hours practicing before they became a famous band. In anything in life you get better and better with practice, so spend as much time as you can just writing. Don’t worry about the pieces not getting published initially, just keep trying. First you will get 19 rejection letters, then you’ll get 18, and the next time you will get 17, but you have to keep trying!

[Asharq Al-Awsat] As editor of a magazine such as Newsweek, what kind of journalists do you look for?

[Zakaria] I look for people who are very bright and have strong analytical skills, which is very important, and then I look for the people who are hungry, who want to succeed, who want to do the training, who want to practice. The biggest mistake I have made in hiring people is going purely by the degree that they have or their pedigree; that alone doesn’t tell you enough. You can be a Harvard graduate, but if you don’t have that fire in your belly and are willing to continually work at it, the degree won’t help. Naturally I do look at the college that they went to and what they have achieved, but I also try to make an independent analysis on whether they are bright and if I think that they are really motivated.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that print publications are under threat following the internet revolution? What is your opinion about online media installing pay-wall’s to protect their content?

[Zakaria] Yes, there is no question about that. The internet is transforming and will completely change the industry that we are in. The good news is that there is not decline in demand for our product in the sense that there are many more people that read my column today that there was before. The problem is that we have not yet come up with a business model that makes sense; in other words, how do you make money off this process where people are reading you on the internet, and how we can make this model work while the old model of print and advertising is collapsing. There is going to have to be a combination of charging on the website and advertising, and offering application on the ipad or Blackberry or iphone. The good news is that we are not producing something that nobody wants. We are producing something that people read with a great deal of attention. What we fundamentally have to do is provide something that is in addition to the news. The news has become a commodity, everybody has it! This is like serving ketchup at a restaurant, everybody has the ketchup, nobody comes to the restaurant just for the ketchup, so you have to be providing something that is special. This would have to be deep investigative reporting or analysis, or commentary from famous commentators; but it has to be a combination that is unique in order for readers to realise that they cannot get this on the internet, that there is value added which the reader is willing to pay for, and this has to be every day and on every page of every newspaper.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you describe what it means to be a successful editor-in-chief?

[Zakaria] I think the most important thing is to have a vision for the magazine or newspaper. What is the distinctive feature of your newspaper, what do you provide that nobody else provides, and making sure that you provide that every day on every page. I think part of this is also finding the right people and giving them the freedom to perform and to produce. A lot of my job is delegation, because I can’t write every article, so you have to find good people and then give them the freedom to perform at their best, and when they are not you have to be able to make quick decisions about letting people go and changing them. If you see that somebody is not working well, you have to quickly decide if they can be retrained, or if you have to change that person.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] In your own opinion, what is the most successful story that you have ever written?

[Zakaria] It certainly has to be “The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?” which was published just two weeks after 9/11. It was 8,000 words and I wrote it over a day and a half, and it was reproduced all over the world. I think the reason for this is because it came from both the heart and the head. It was a product of both intelligence and passion. I felt that it was very important to tell the people what had been going on in the Arab world, why these forces had become so strong, how the west had interacted with the Arab world. I felt this was something that people had to understand, so I wrote it in a way that the average American or the average European could understand. There was a review that said that the article should be required reading in every American household, and I liked that idea because I had written it like it could be read in every American household.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you write this article as an American Muslims, or as a professional journalist analyzing the situation?

[Zakaria] I tried to write it as a professional journalist, but there is no question that being a Muslim gave me greater passion and knowledge. There is one point in the article, just for a couple of lines, where I do point to my personal experience. The first week or two after 9/11 there was such emphasis on how this had to be about Islam, it had to be about the religion, it has to be about what’s in the Quran; and one of the main purposes of the article was to say that it was not about the religion, and I made a point of saying that the Islam I grew up experiencing in India is very different to the Islam in other parts of the world. What I grew up with was much more tolerant and open towards other cultures. I try not to write purely from experience because I feel that you have to try and convince people with arguments and not just with personal experiences.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you describe a typical day at Newsweek? How ideas for articles are conceived, editorial meetings, and the process of getting a story into print?

[Zakaria] I would say that the most important part of the day is the discussions and interactions that take place between the writers and editors where they come together in small groups and discuss ideas that the correspondents have and the smartest way to do things, and we will go back and forth until we decide on something that has substance and we think other people are not doing, making sure that we research and report in a way that creates value. Other than that, there are a lot of routine meetings where you basically tell everyone what you are doing, making sure that the photographs you are using are good, or looking at the layout. The heart of the process is coming up with the themes and intellectual ideas and the substance behind the major stories.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you ever felt that you were under surveillance from the FBI or other security apparatus?

[Zakaria] No I haven’t. The USA has its problems but the press is generally free and able to do whatever it wants without any fear of any kind. When I have been abroad I am sure that I have been under surveillance in certain places, including in the Arab world and China, but not in the West.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You wrote an article titled “Our Man in Afghanistan: Coming to terms with Karzai.” In your opinion, what is the solution to the problems in Afghanistan?

[Zakaria] I don’t think that there will be an easy solution, but there will have to be a political one. There is no purely military solution. There are people in Al-Qaeda and the Taliban that are trying to kill civilians, and they have to be stopped, they have to be captured, they have to be killed if necessary. But there is a much broader movement of the Taliban which is a mixture of Pashtun nationalism and some degree of Islam religiousness, and these people have to be accommodated someway into the final political solution. We sometimes forget that these people are part of Afghanistan, so you cannot come up with a solution and assume that they will all run away and hide in central Asia, they are going to live in Afghanistan, so we have to find the political solution that creates some kind of coalition and some part of them are represented. It is a mistake to think that the whole Taliban is so extreme that it can never be reconciled. I think that in any culture the way that you end these civil wars is that you have to have some accommodation between the two sides.