In the opening session of CFR’s Local Journalists Workshop, Fareed Zakaria, host of Fareed Zakaria GPS at CNN; and member of CFR’s Board of Directors, discusses pressing U.S. foreign policy issues and the evolving journalism landscape. Michael Krasny, host of Forum at KQED, moderates.
CFR’s inaugural Local Journalists Workshop featured a series of plenary and discussion group sessions with CFR fellows and other experts, with the goal of introducing a global dimension into coverage of local issues, thereby elevating conversations around U.S. foreign policy choices. Workshop participants included print, digital, and broadcast journalists from thirty-one states, Washington, DC, and Canada.
KRASNY: Welcome, everybody. You notice that Fareed is sitting to my right. That doesn’t necessarily speak of our political points of view. But I’m pleased to be here, delighted to be here, and it’s an honor to be working again with Fareed Zakaria. He’s right on the stories, right on the news as usual. And we’re going to talk about news, but also talk about something that is very close to my heart. And that is, when you’re doing local journalism and also covering foreign affairs, state, international—and some of you have that wide berth. I do a daily radio program for the NPR affiliate in San Francisco, and it requires me to reach around and take up just about anything that’s in the news. And as I was saying to Fareed before we came up the steps here, we did a lot of coverage of the fires in Northern California, which were devastating, and we were on SiriusXM, and Sirius changed the time and put us tape delayed because they wanted more national news. And certainly Trump has been dominating the news in such a way that it’s hard to go to the international stories that we used to go to as a kind of pro forma part of our journalistic appetite and curating.
So I’d like to begin by just getting your assessment, Fareed, about how really coverage has changed, but also what can be done—and this is the big question that looms over this whole dialogue we’re having—to make international stories more a part of the—I’ll use old language here—the warp and woof of local journalism and local stories. Because so many people—how many of you are actually mainly covering local stories? That’s what I thought. So the real challenge is, where do you make that connection? How do you link the dots to one another? Let’s begin there.
ZAKARIA: Well, I think it’s a world apart from the world of journalism that I entered. The Cold War, you know, when I talk to students in colleges now, I realize that when you talk about the Cold War it’s almost like you’re talking about ancient Greek history. This is a world that has completely gone away and so far removed that people don’t recognize it. But the Cold War kept America deeply interested in international affairs. Just pick up a copy of Time magazine or Newsweek. And these were, remember, the most widely-circulated magazines in the country, tens of millions of people reading them, and look at how much space was devoted in 1985 to foreign affairs. The majority of the magazine for sure, but often it would be sixty pages out of eighty-five pages or ninety pages would be devoted in some way or the other to foreign affairs, international affairs, foreign policy, national security, military.
So the Soviet Union scared the United States, and it scared it not just existentially in terms of the threat of nuclear weapons but the fear that the world—that history was moving in its direction, so that the fate of India became of importance. Was it going to go Soviet? Was it going to go in America’s direction? Was it going to go communist or was it going to go capitalist? So it seemed that every country mattered in that sense.
Think about the pitched battles over Nicaragua. The fact that we sent five hundred thousand troops to Vietnam. I mean, you can go on and on. That world disappeared after 1989/1990. And for a while there was a residual interest but you could see it in decline. NBC News, I think, had twenty foreign bureaus; I think they now have one or two, depending on how you count the warzones. And that’s, in a way, the central change that’s taken place.
There was a small blip after 9/11, and 9/11 scared us again. You know, Ambrose Bierce, in his Devil’s Dictionary, says war was God’s way of making Americans learn geography. (Laughter.) And there’s certainly some truth to it, that it’s the way Americans—it’s fear that gets them interested in the world. And after a while you could almost see it because at Newsweek, where I was at the time, 9/11 did completely revive this interest in the world because all of a sudden Americans thought, oh my God, they want to kill us; now, who are they and where are they coming from? And so all of a sudden people got interested in the fate of Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Afghanistan. And then, a few years later, they realized subliminally—you know what, these guys are really not that competent. This is not the thing we thought it was. Maybe they got lucky. And slowly but surely the interest began to wane.
So we are now in what I suppose would be more normal times, post-Cold War, and it’s a huge challenge. Look, I built my reputation and credibility at a time when people were still interested, and secondly there were still platforms where you could speak to the whole country. I’m exaggerating, of course, but I mean, I wrote in the ten years I was at Newsweek I think about forty cover stories on foreign affairs. Each one was about five thousand words. The longest one was seven thousand words, which was the one I wrote after 9/11, Why They Hate Us. Now, Newsweek in those days were four million people, their subscribers, with 90 percent renewal rates. We used to say twenty or twenty-five million readers on the theory that, you know, the ones in the dentist’s office got read a lot. (Laughter.) Whatever number you come up with, it was a broad national audience.
Where could one find that again? Where could somebody build their reputation with forty long essays on international affairs? I don’t know. It’s a very tough challenge.
KRASNY: And yet, I’m struck by the fact—because I’m in agreement with you—that things took a jump after 9/11, and certainly the Cold War dominated our news, but now we have Russia interfering with our elections. We have people being called back from Syria for reasons that remain mysterious, may even have something to do with private meetings between the president and Putin. I mean, we don’t know these kinds of things. And how do we bring that into a real and important discourse in our local journalism?
ZAKARIA: Yeah, there’s no question foreign affairs matters and international affairs matters. But the question is, if it’s not visceral, if it doesn’t feel, you know, that in the gut you’re scared, you’re anxious, how do you make it work?
And my thoughts are this. First, we have to approach this from the perspective of saying—and let me be clear, I am now in a kind of position of some luxury. I have built an audience over the years. I’ve built a reputation. I can talk about Brexit—my show on Sunday is half on Brexit with Tony Blair, the other half is on race relations with Aaron Sorkin and on rewriting To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m very lucky that I have built an audience that comes to me for stuff like that. We get very good numbers. But I recognize that that would not be possible if I was starting out, right?
So I think what you have to do is you have to approach it less with the view that this is spinach that the audience has to consume or, you know, broccoli; choose your vegetable of choice. I think you have to view it from the point of view of saying this is stuff that impacts people’s everyday lives; how do I make that claim? So when you deal with the story of a trade war with China, to look at what is happening in any community, look at the companies that operate there. Almost every company is global now. How does it intersect with the global economy? What does it mean?
Or you take something like immigration and the wall. Try to understand what the impact of immigration, positive or negative, has been, and try to relate it to that. Make people understand that ultimately the only immigration problem we have right now is really stemming from countries like Guatemala, not Mexico anymore. And why is it happening? And what is the instability there?
And, if you tie it backwards, maybe there’s a way to do that. But I think trying to appeal purely at the high, high policy level is going to be very hard because Americans don’t right now feel that there is a kind of existential threat. So you have to find the day-to-day intersection between people’s lives and international affairs and then build out from that.
And I think people like stories. You’ll find this is true—every now and then, if you look at the Atlantic or Time magazine today, you’ll find foreign stories can do well if they’re compelling, if you’re telling a great story or making a compelling argument. People will always tell you journalism is about telling stories. It’s about stories and ideas. Ideas are harder to do, and you know, ideally you can find a way to do both. And that’s what somebody like Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell do, where they make an idea into a story, and that’s really very powerful. But you can still do it.
And I think it’s important not to view the audience as benighted, you know. I’ve always tried to never talk down to the audience, to assume the audience was interested.
KRASNY: Bring the level of discourse up. And I like what you’re saying about storytelling because I think it’s a key to good journalism. It’s also, however, with your emphasis on writing about things that get to people where they live, maybe even makes them apprehensive, fearful, and so forth, you think about that as being more imminent than some of the things that really need to be translated by local journalists. Climate change, for example. A lot of people know that there’s a serious problem there, but they don’t necessarily want the spinach, to use your metaphor. I think it’s an apt metaphor.
And it’s just like we used to talk about budget deficit. People start to snore where they hear budget deficit, but it’s very much an important part of their lives. The challenge in many respects is making citizens aware of the importance that this has and what its relevance is. I assume we’re on the same page here.
ZAKARIA: Yeah. That’s a harder one that I honestly don’t have an answer for, because what that is about is long-term incremental pain or long-term incremental effects that are not visible in the short term. How to write about that is a real challenge, because you take something like budget deficits. You could look at any community today and see this crummy infrastructure and breakdown of social services and breakdown of government services. The reason it’s happened is that for thirty years we have pursued a policy of being extremely constrained in terms of the funding that can be provided for these things because the deficits have been so large, entitlements have grown so much, the military budget has grown so much, so all these other things have been crowded out. But any given day that’s not what the news is, right? The news is there’s a fire—how do you take that long-term trend and turn it into the news of the day? And how do you take long-term trends—and this is the global warming problem—that involve short-term pain and turn them? That’s even more difficult.
So, I don’t have a good solution on the global warming front. People try and frankly, sometimes what journalists do is they try to exaggerate. Exaggerate the probability, and then you become too polemical, in my view, about a very complicated scientific phenomenon. But I know why people are doing it, because it’s very hard to get people interested in it, and so you want to shake them by the scruff of their neck.
KRASNY: Would one good thing in this whole picture be perhaps an interdisciplinary approach with respect to foreign affairs? The reason I use that word is because I just came from sitting in on a meeting of the New York Times here—I mean, in Manhattan, but also they had on the big screen the New York Times members from Washington. I mean, they were having a meeting. What are we going to lead with? What are we doing to cover and who’s going to cover it? And so forth. And it was fascinating to watch, but it was also something that was siloed. I was struck by that sense of, OK, this is Syria, and Syria is over here, and when there’s tremendous relevance in these stories not only to global pictures but also to local.
ZAKARIA: Yeah. I mean, that’s the larger problem today in the news cycle. Both because of the technology that has produced this 24/7 churn and Trump and the Trump effect. Everything is about the short-term political circus that is going on. Look, here’s a very important piece of it: we’ve never had a president like this. We’ve never had a presidency like this. But that can’t be the only thing that is talked about, and it does risk drowning out everything else.
That seems to me the biggest challenge for journalism today. If you look at the three cable news networks, but if you look at every newspaper other than the New York Times, which still does—at least has a substantial non-Trump section of the paper, it’s very hard to find, there is other stuff going on in the world. And one of the things I always try to make sure is that our show reflects that. So, as I said, this week we’ll do Brexit. We’ll do 5G, the whole battle with Huawei, the Chinese company, which is really fundamentally a battle about who will control 5G, which is why the Chinese and the Americans are battling so fiercely. And then Sorkin on race relations because of Martin Luther King weekend and To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s about five minutes, four minutes of Trump where I ask Aaron Sorkin: If you were to rewrite West Wing and you had a president like Trump—(laughter)—what would the rhetoric be like? And he has some interesting observations about that. I mean, look, I’m going to pander a little. I’m just not going to devote the whole show to it.
KRASNY: Well, there’s something else I’d like to get your response to, and that is I wanted to do a story recently on Yemen because it’s the greatest humanitarian crisis we’re facing now worldwide. And, of course, there are a lot of people who are mainly interested in not so much in global stories, but in local stories. But you can take a different angle. You can say, for example, are there Yemenites in your community? Are there people who are doing things on behalf of Yemen? And I’m sure many of you use that kind of approach in local stories, but it’s a way of profiling and highlighting things that are going on in your own backyard and tying in the international story.
ZAKARIA: Absolutely. I mean, you remember that photograph of the boy in Syria on the beach and how it completely catalyzed an international response and might actually have led to things like Angela Merkel deciding to take in a million Syrian refugees—whether that was a good decision or not, my point is these kind of vivid human-interest stories and images can change things. If there’s a local dimension to them, it can get people interested.
One way that I think we should be viewing something like Yemen more than we do is to really try and read some of the local coverage and recognize that in Yemen they see that as a war being waged by the United States. This is because they see it as a war being waged by America’s principal ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, with the use of American weaponry, with the use of American intelligence, with the sanction and approval of the United States politically and militarily. And that is widely the way in which the war is perceived, and you are beginning to see the rise of a very deep anti-American movement and ideology in Yemen which will almost certainly infect some people who will become terrorists. I don’t want to exaggerate the problem, but you can see that path. Just the way in which al-Qaida and ISIS were created, that is happening in Yemen. And the worst thing about it is it’s a foolish war in the first place. There’s no reason we should be supporting it. And I think we need to get Americans to understand more, that you may not think you’re in Yemen, but they think you’re in Yemen.
KRASNY: It’s also striking when you think about it to what extent that particular war—raging on largely, as you say, because of Saudi Arabia and Iran being in conflict with one another because the Houthis are supported by the Iranians and so you’ve got that whole mixed-up thing playing out. But, you know, when a young woman, for example, tries to escape from Saudi Arabia and finds her way in Canada, that’s a big story. And it’s a story that has local resonance, not necessarily just in Canada. When Khashoggi is essentially torn apart inside Istanbul in the Saudi ministry—in the embassy of Saudi Arabia—it’s a story that people—it’s just a good story. You know, people in any local area, suburbs or small cities and everything, are compelled to read.
ZAKARIA: Exactly, and in many of these cases the human interest angle casts a broader light on something important. So we talked about Yemen. In the Saudi case, the murder of Khashoggi—fourteen years ago when I was at Newsweek, the then-ambassador to the U.K., Prince Turki bin Faisal, the son of King Faisal, head of Saudi intelligence for twenty-two years, called me up and said you’re writing too much stuff that’s anti-Saudi; you need to go and spend some time in the country. You need to meet with the crown prince—the king was braindead at the time—and, you know, I’d like to invite you to go. I said sure, I’d love to, and you can’t pay my way or anything like that, but I’d be delighted to take you up on facilitating meetings. And he said, OK, done, and he said I’m going to send you with one of my most trusted friends who works with us who is a journalist like you, and that was Jamal Khashoggi. So fourteen years ago he was my fixer in Saudi Arabia when I went to spend ten days in the country, met the crown prince.
And so it was particularly devastating for me not just personally, of course, because I knew him and he had become an acquaintance—I wouldn’t say a friend—but because he was clearly trusted by some very powerful elements of the royal family. So what the murder showed was that the crown prince was trying to stave off some kind of internal rebellion within the royal family and to signal to anyone who wanted to mount such a rebellion that dissent will not be permitted, and that the price is very high. There’s a kind of Game of Thrones-like power politics going on here. And being able to highlight that through that murder was revealing. And I think some places like the Washington Post, which stayed on the story brilliantly, has been very useful. Now, the crown prince has largely won that power struggle, but that still tells us something about the country.
KRASNY: Well, let’s you and I stay with that story for a moment because one of the things that was most striking to me was that the Trump administration denied at first and then pretty much gave all kinds of negative responses to the notion that Khashoggi was murdered by the crown prince’s orders. At this point I don’t think that has changed. In other words, here’s our intelligence agencies telling us that this murder took place in the embassy in Istanbul, and here’s our president saying we don’t know yet, we have to have it proven, and so forth. Then you get into the whole angle of—shouldn’t the local readers care about the dissention that exists within the highest ranks of government not listening to what intelligence agencies are saying? I mean, this is something that should concern any serious citizen. You don’t have to be an activist to be concerned about that.
ZAKARIA: Yeah. Well, I mean, that raises the whole larger issue of how do you cover Donald Trump and the fact that he’s so unusual. I mean, the things you said are absolutely true. It’s also true he doesn’t believe what the FBI says. He doesn’t believe what the Justice Department says. He doesn’t believe what the Department of Energy says. So he doesn’t really believe in professional institutionalized government.
KRASNY: Which affects people’s lives.
KRASNY: Absolutely affects people’s lives.
ZAKARIA: The one person who has been able to do it well was Michael Lewis with those two Vanity Fair pieces where he just went to the Department of Energy and the Department of Agriculture and asked: what is it that you do that you’re not able to do now because the Trump administration is either not staffing you or funding you? And he discovered, things like getting rid of nuclear waste, for example, or food inspections, or providing forty million Americans with some degree of food through food stamps or other programs. And I think that’s a better path than constantly talking about Trump’s every antic, you know.
And I realize that on cable television this becomes irresistible because he is so telegenic in the sense that he’s captivating because he speaks in this weird, funny, compelling way, and you always end up carrying him. But that’s not the real story. The real story is what is happening in these departments, the degree to which the Department of Justice or the CIA have been sidelined in their core functions. And how to convey that is a challenge because he is so different from anyone else, and it risks seeming like it’s all these journalists who are against him. And it plays into one of the central dynamics in America right now, which is a revolt against a perceived elite, and the media is seen as part of that elite. And so the more the media bashes Trump, I think at some level the more his base loves him because they hate the media. And it’s not just the media. They hate lawyers and professionals.
There’s a very good book called White Working Class which outlines this brilliantly, which is the working-class people, particularly the white working class, they love rich people; they just hate professionals. And they hate professionals because they see them as overeducated snobs who live in elite urban areas and engage in bizarre practices like yoga—(laughter)—eat strange nonfoods like kale and quinoa. So it’s a cultural revulsion at these people who think they’re better than they are, who live weird lives. And then we tell them, you know, that their superiority is earned because they live in a meritocracy. That dynamic is one the media has to find a way of getting out of because it’s ultimately not good for the country, but it’s also not a place where the media wants to be.
But, look, largely there is a truth to it. The media has become much more drawn from a socioeconomic elite than it used to be. My old boss at Foreign Affairs when I first started out, Jim Hoge, was the editor of the Daily News and before that the editor or the Chicago Sun-Times. When he got to the Chicago Sun-Times in the late 1950s from Yale he was the only person at the Chicago Sun-Times in the entire building who had a degree from an Ivy League school and he was the only person on his floor I think he said to me who had a college degree. I mean, reporting was not a job you went into—you didn’t need a college degree. Now, if you have a degree from Yale, take a number while you wait for a copy boy internship at the New York Times.
KRASNY: Which brings up a whole question about how you curate stories. Trump is given so much attention by the news media that it helps Trump, ultimately, in terms of his politics. And the fact of the matter is that the news media has been labeled the enemy of the people by this president. But understanding the lives of eight hundred thousand people who now are not working. I read all kinds of things across the spectrum politically because it’s part of what I feel is a responsibility of the program I do, and there was something in Breitbart recently sent to me by a libertarian that said—I’ll use the example of CNN—one of your employers. Why is CNN putting all this attention on the stories of these people who are suffering because of the furloughs when they should be giving attention to people who are—because Trump uses this all the time—people who are suffering because of illegal immigrants or undocumented, whatever you want to use, are killing or are robbing or are raping, and so forth. In other words, there’s that kind of division.
ZAKARIA: Yeah, yeah.
KRASNY: And the right sees things very much in these terms often, and so do these people you talk about, who say these are the elitists who are controlling the news and curating the news.
ZAKARIA: Yeah. Look, I think that there are two problems. On the one hand, the mainstream media does not place as much attention on those murders and the violence because statistically it is not a huge phenomenon, you know? And so it would be misleading to try to claim that this was some kind of great problem. If you’re trying to look at statistically what the big problem with violence in America is, it is obviously violence related to the easy access to guns, but that’s not something that the right wants to hear. They want to hear—
KRASNY: But that’s Breitbart making that equation because the president makes that equation.
ZAKARIA: Right. So partly the media isn’t focusing on those things, again, because of a kind of brainy, analytic point, which is that this is not statistically as relevant. But I’d say on the other hand it’s fair to say that the media, perhaps because it draws from a socioeconomic elite, has been somewhat insensitive to the degree to which immigration has had an effect in certain communities and particularly with certain low-skilled populations in terms of depressing wages, in terms of increasing the strain on school systems and health care systems.
In 1975 4.5 percent of Americans were foreign-born; today, 15 percent of Americans are foreign-born. There’s a large shift that’s taken place in the last forty years. It’s about the same shift that’s taken place in Europe. And, look, obviously, I’m an immigrant. I think immigration is fundamentally positive. But it’s a lot for a society to digest. And I think that it’s probably fair to say that the mainstream media has not paid enough attention to those problems of digesting and negotiating those differences. Instead, there’s been a kind of simple story of the celebration of immigration, whereas people in some of these areas have been grappling with something a little different. And whenever you have that disconnect, you can see rage build up. And I think that’s what happened on immigration, both here and in Europe.
KRASNY: If you’re covering immigration—and this can get into the sort of thing that maybe bores people—but how important is it, for example, to really do reporting or analysis that has to do with the effect of immigration on the economy? Particularly, the world economy for that matter, but even locally because there are people who are displaced from jobs? These are stories that need to be told. This doesn’t have to be xenophobic, it just has to kind of be following a certain trajectory that has to do with what the stories are.
ZAKARIA: Yeah. I mean, I think that that’s part of the challenge, is how to do it in a sophisticated way. There’s no question globalization plays some role. If you look at those car companies that were revived by Obama under the stimulus, Chrysler in particular, and GM, they reopened a couple of plants in Michigan. And under the rules that they were allowed to put in place, which were kind of breaking the union rules, they agreed to allow I think it was $14 and $17 an hour wages, jobs to be put in place, which were well below what the unions had negotiated. But remember, the GM plants in Mexico pay $7 an hour. So, you know, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out it is still fundamentally a big strain for a company like GM to decide whether or not to locate in Michigan versus Mexico, where productivity levels have gotten almost as high in Mexico—northern Mexico as they are in Michigan. So there is—there is a degree to which, you know, this is happening and so honestly reporting that is important.
The challenge is to also report that a large part of this, if you look at our economic studies perhaps the majority, is because of technology. We’re really losing people because even if those plants open up in Michigan, the number of employees they are using has dropped by 60 percent and the kind of employees they’re using are now people who know how to operate sophisticated machines and software.
So, you know, the traditional blue-collar worker is getting squeezed more by technology than by trade. But the trade does have a component. Now, the big benefit—and this is the part, again, which is hard to describe—everybody in America for the last thirty years has received a massive tax cut in the form of dramatic reductions in the cost of living, particularly relating to food, clothing, and simple manufacture—things like toys, you know. A toy that used to cost $75 now costs $20 because it’s made in China. If you look at food as a percentage of the American budget, it’s down 30 (percent) or 40 percent.
Now, people don’t walk into Walmart and say, thank you, China—thank you, globalization—but that is what happened. And so how do you convey that? People talk a lot about the stagnancy of middle class wages. Yeah, it’s true. But wages have stagnated while cost of living has declined very dramatically, so it’s not entirely clear that it’s as negative as people make it out to be. But you have to be sensitive about describing it.
But we haven’t illustrated that that is one of the tradeoffs you make when you have a larger and larger, more and more connected economy—that is, you benefit enormously as a consumer but there are some areas of production where you suffer.
KRASNY: You’ve just given, I think, a good guide to doing the kind of journalism that needs to be done—I mean, to see both sides and really reflect them as clearly and as crystallized as you can.
Let me take an opportunity find out questions and things perhaps that some of you would like to respond with or ask. Let’s start toward the back there. Go ahead, please.
Q: So what you were talking about was making me think about some of the things that we see domestically that have not necessarily been felt globally. One major one is the opioid epidemic. At least, I haven’t seen that story written. So I’m kind of curious, in your coverage of global affairs, have you seen the opioid epidemic or something similar come out or is it a uniquely American phenomenon? And then, secondly, what would be akin to that, based on the policy structures and economic structures that you’ve seen globally? Nick Fouriezos and I’m with OZY.com.
KRASNY: Yeah. Thanks for the question, Nick, and it’s an important one. Fareed.
ZAKARIA: Yeah. It’s actually a great question. I think that it’s fair to say that the opioid epidemic in particular is a uniquely American phenomenon largely because of the way we do healthcare in this country. There are so many incentives for doctors and hospitals to overprescribe and to particularly overprescribe expensive stuff, that you are very unlikely to see the kind of mass addiction to prescription painkillers that you’re seeing here. Government-controlled systems, which are basically what every other advanced country in the world has, would not allow that to happen.
And so that particular epidemic, I think, is partly a function of all the things that we have described about the white working class—the anxieties, the breakdown, and such. But there is this overlay that you have a healthcare system that incentivizes this. It’s the same reason we have three times as many MRIs as Germany does. I don’t think we have three times as many people with sprained ankles as Germany. But you have a system that incentivizes the doctor to say, why don’t you get an MRI, and, similarly, when you’re in pain the system incentivizes the doctor and the pharmaceutical and the hospital to do that. The international—
KRASNY: That’s a nice way of describing greed—our system incentivizes it.
ZAKARIA: Yeah. Well, I mean, its—you know, don’t get me started. The healthcare system we have is so bizarre. Let me finish on the opioids because it’s important. There is a very important foreign angle to this, which is most of it comes from China. Most of the manufactured opioids come from China and, to his credit, Donald Trump has pushed the Chinese very hard to try to reduce that. That is, by the way, going to be far more effective than any kind of physical barrier because first of all, most of it comes in through shipments, which means legal points of entry. Even heroin that comes in through the southern border comes in mixed in with other goods, through cars and tractor trailers. In other words, a wall isn’t going to do anything.
KRASNY: Yeah. I was just going to follow up and ask you about China but also ask you about the president’s rhetoric, which has really tried to make a cause and effect between what’s coming through the borders as opposed to what comes in through ports of entry.
More of your questions and more of your comments welcome.
Q: Hi there. Rickey Bevington, Georgia Public Broadcasting with PBS.
I work at the NPR/PBS affiliate in Atlanta. I’m an anchor there. So I live in Georgia, and the way that national media covers the South drives me bananas. So I wanted to actually go back to a point that you made. Journalists think that we can solve the world’s problems through our reporting. But Americans are deeply underrepresented in newsrooms. In the newsrooms that you two interface with on a regular basis, how serious is the conversation about hiring local people to cover local stories? I’m talking beyond race, beyond gender. Does that make sense?
ZAKARIA: Yeah. Look, it’s tough to answer the question because in places like CNN or Newsweek I’ve noticed people are looking for a diversity of talent and a diversity of substantive expertise. They generally don’t focus that much on diversity in other senses of the word, and then they’ve been pushed to think about diversity along racial lines or along gender lines. And then you are bringing up, in a sense, geography and culture.
The problem is that these things are—all of them, by the way—are intentioned with the idea that you just find the best person. Of course, they’re talented people, that’s all true. But if you’ve got one slot, which often is what you’re looking at, you’ve got to make that choice and what ends up happening, the thing I think that we are all guilty of is that there is a tendency to view talent through a prism that is familiar.
So I’ll give you—I mean, my biggest mistakes in hiring have been when I have placed too much value on the—how would I put it—on the place that people were rather than the distance traveled, so that I would look at somebody who went to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and say wow, he edited The Harvard Crimson. He was managing the Yale Daily News and he speaks Mandarin, and this, that, and the other, and I wouldn’t notice that yeah, but he went to Andover and they have an incredible Chinese program, and before that he or she went to X and, you know, seems to come from a socioeconomic background where they took four summer trips to China.
And then, the kid who went to public school and then went to UT Austin’s honors program and graduated at the top of her class, that distance traveled is much more impressive, in a way, than a kid going from private school in New York to Andover to Yale. That mistake, I think, is easy to make because you’re familiar with a certain not just résumé but you’re familiar with a way in which people demonstrate intelligence and that, I think, is a real problem. The biggest problem for me, honestly, has been as an articulate, if I may say so, male I have a tendency to overvalue that kind of thing.
So before I was—I’m a lapsed academic—when I was teaching as a graduate student at Harvard I used to teach a seminar which was a fantastic seminar which they no longer, alas, require, but political science majors used to have to take. It’s the history of American political thought. You start with John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration; you end with Supreme Court cases from the 1980s. And I would always think that I could size up who were the smart kids in the class. And the first time I taught the class I got the papers for the first time and these two women who had been completely quiet for the entire class for the first month and a half of it had written the two best papers.
And so I asked them to come and see me in office hours and I said to them, how come you don’t talk more in class, and both of them had fascinating responses. One of them said, my view is if the point I wanted to make has been made then I don’t need to make it, and it’s a good class and people often make the point I was going to make and I don’t think the conversation suffers from my not having said it. Needless to say, for every woman here you know no man thinks like that. (Laughter.)
The principle of the Harvard faculty room, I used to joke, was that the simplest line to describe it was everything has been said but not everyone has said it and that was why the meetings would go on for six hours. The second woman said to me, you know, I do put up my hand; you just don’t call on me. And I realized that that was true—that there was a certain way in which—you know, a woman will put up her hand like this. I’m, obviously, making broad generalizations. This is thirty years ago. But a woman will put up her hand this way. The man will put up his hand like this. You know, it’s, like, I have something to say that’s totally on point to this issue.
Your tendency is to think the discussion will go better if I get this guy. And you do it two or three times and then that’s all the time you have. You know, so one of the things we did on the show—I have an old friend of mine from graduate school, Anne-Marie Slaughter, who’s now the head of New America, before that was the dean of Woodrow Wilson—said to me, I wonder if you let me talk as much as the male guests on the show.
So I said, you know what, let’s do an analysis. And we did an analysis and, there were places where I was not being fair. There were other places where—but it was very useful to do that and ask myself, you know, whether or not there was that subconscious bias that was taking place.
It’s a long answer to your question but my point would be the real problem is these subconscious biases. Nobody’s trying to do this stuff but you tend to operate within your comfort zone, especially when you’re in a highly competitive circumstance where you’re trying to put out the best product you can. And one of the things we all have to do is to recognize that, you know, intelligence can show itself in many different ways.
KRASNY: Rickey, I just want to say one thing quickly about your question. Rickey introduced herself to me in the reception and said she started her career and her roots were in New England and now she’s in Atlanta, and she said there was an advantage going to a community and a region of the country she had no familiarity with and I can understand that as an advantage. For a number of years as a Caucasian I taught African-American literature because—and I said I don’t pretend to come to this from the inside—I come to it from the outside as a scholar and it was some of the most rewarding teaching I did in the professoriate in my career.
But as someone who’s been involved in a lot of hiring of people in broadcast journalism, I can tell you that you look for as many assets as you can and you find the best people you can, and sometimes somebody who has roots in a community can really have a big advantage, and sometimes it can be a disadvantage because they don’t have that being on the outside that can also give them a step up. So you look for the best person. You look for diversity. You look for things that you normally would look for. But also realize that it’s a big picture. Over here.
Q: Alison Bethel McKenzie, Society of Professional Journalists.
So if you work in Iowa, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and your bosses say, well, we can pull global stories from the wire and we’re going to shorten it, cut it, make it four paragraphs. But you think it’s important and some of the issues, whether it’s immigration or whatever it is—Theresa May, whatever—might have some impact in your community.
Can you give three practical suggestions on, A, how you convince your editors to give you the space, in dwindling space, to make it a local story; and, B, how you, who have never been out of Des Moines and most of your readers have never been out of Des Moines or any city—I’m not picking on Des Moines—how you find the people who probably know nothing about this story, really, to comment intelligently so that you can write a really good story. So maybe three just practical things that you can do to get started.
ZAKARIA: Gosh, that’s a challenge. The first, I would say, is you do need to find a way to make it feel like it has an impact for people. But, you know, I think human beings are very complex. It’s not just about the money, that you’ve got to find some economic impact. Human beings are human. They’re emotional. They get moved by the story of a child. They get moved by the story of separation. You can try and build a human interest angle to any story and you kind of get people interested that way.
Look at the last five years of politics all over the Western world. It’s all about identity. It’s all about people being moved by noneconomic factors. And so, you know, don’t deny that reality and one simple way is I think you paint a connection between what’s happening there and what’s happening here and there are very strong similarities. The people who are voting for Brexit are the same people who are voting against trade deals, against immigration. It’s the same groups of people who feel disempowered by this modern world—if you can draw those connections.
The second thing I’d say is the great advantage of the new world we live in is you don’t have to limit yourself, certainly, in terms of your search for experts to people in Des Moines. You know, there’s no reason why you can’t find people all over the world, all over America, certainly, and one area that I think that America remains very rich in is the world of scholarship academia. You know, there’s still lots of people who know a lot about the world and I certainly know that I still find that’s an incredible resource that you can tap.
And then, finally, I think you have to say to your editor that surely you want this to be a place that people feel smarter when they read. That’s ultimately what’s going to add value—give value add to your publication, to your website, or whatever it is you’re doing.
People, I think, like to feel a bit smarter about how they look at the world—when they go to the water cooler, when they go for a beer at a bar they can say one smart thing about something going on in the world. And I think if you can do that quickly in a punchy way that has a local flair to it, you know, maybe that’s the way to try and approach it.
But probably that connection between what is going on there and what is going on here. You know, we are more connected than we realize. The fact that Brexit happened before Trump—if we had paid more attention to it perhaps we would have been less surprised by Trump; when you’ve seen the same thing now happen in France with the “yellow vests” protests and drawing out that parallel—the degree to which these are, again, people who are not from big cities, who don’t have college degrees, who feel like the global economy is somehow stacked against them. Their protests are very similar in tone and temper to the things going on in the United States.
KRASNY: I think an anecdote that’s worth telling, very quickly, because—and I don’t mean to pick on Des Moines either, believe me—but the writer, who many of you probably are familiar with, Amy Tan, happens to be a friend and she was in Des Moines, and I always sort of kept this story very much in my quiver, because somebody was talking to her and was talking to her very slowly because she’s Chinese-American—I guess they don’t see many of those in Des Moines, and she was born in Oakland, by the way—and at one point started asking her questions about China and trade and things of this nature, figuring because she’s Chinese she must be conversant with these kinds of things, which is pretty absurd.
So be careful sometimes, I guess, you know, about assumptions you make. That’s the only real allegory that I’m trying to display here to you and I think it is revelatory. When you’re talking as a reporter particularly you don’t necessarily make assumptions about people just based, obviously, on their skin color or their background or anything of that sort. It’s all too easy to do.
You think, for example, if you’re hiring—I remember we did hire an African-American reporter once and he admitted that—getting back to that question that you raised, Rickey—that he grew up in a very white bourgeois kind of suburb and had very little that he could speak of in terms of his own conversance with the black community in the Bay Area, which is where the program was broadcast from.
So you have to kind of sometimes really go into the situation much deeper than you might think. It’s not on the surface. There’s a little wisdom and sage on that, I hope. And some more questions or comments from right up here.
Q: Lara McCoy from WAMU in Washington, D.C.
If you report in a market that’s generally pro-immigrant, pro-globalization, very liberal, to what extent do you think it’s important to highlight the negative aspects of those issues?
ZAKARIA: Yeah. I think it’s a very important question of, how much do you want to discomfort your readers. You know, it used to be seen as a very important part of journalism. I worry that it is not as much, you know, to be honest. I don’t think—I think it’d be fair to say that if you watch MSNBC or Fox they are taking pains not to discomfort their readers—their viewers—and that that is also true with the print equivalents increasingly, and that’s bad. I mean, I understand the commercial reality, that you’re increasingly polarized. People are picking their channels—their viewpoint platforms.
But it’s a terrible way to go about your life. I mean, think about how if you’re in business and you’re making decisions. The most important things you do when you’re making a decision is ask yourself what information could I not be seeing—what is the strongest case against what I want to do—what is the data that, you know, might undermine these ideas that I have. And that’s the way in which you make a good decision. You know, you are trying to vet your decision against all these possibilities.
But, as citizens, we are trying to make decisions entirely the opposite way. We say, how can we find information that already confirms our preconceived notions. How can we make absolutely sure we never see any evidence or arguments from the other side and now we’re going to make a decision on politics.
There’s a great anecdote about George Marshall. It’s in the great Forest Pogue biography of George Marshall. Remember Marshall was the man who essentially organized America’s victory in World War II. He was the chairman of the Joint Chief—it was not called then but he was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs throughout World War II. Then he became secretary of state. Then he became secretary of defense. He’s, essentially, the most important man never to have been president of the United States.
And Omar Bradley, one of his key lieutenants—another five-star general—said that he remembers working for Marshall and at the end of a week Bradley said to him, how do you think we’ve done. It was their first week working together. And he said, I’m very disappointed. You guys listened to every decision I wanted to make and not one of you told me anything I said was a bad idea. How could that be possible? It’s not conceivable that I’ve just had this run of brilliant ideas. There must have been some stupid stuff I did. I need you to tell me and if you don’t—if you’re not contesting my decisions it means you’re not thinking hard enough, you’re not working hard enough.
And Bradley says, that made us all realize that we have to adopt a very different attitude with this guy, which was we had to view everything he said as, essentially, a hypothesis that had to be tested. And we should be viewing journalism that way. We should be looking at everything that we are told and say is that true—is it not. I mean, you know, immigration is a good example. I still don’t think we have enough reporting on the issue of whether or not immigration, particularly at the—for lower-skilled workers, whether it does have an impact on wages—whether you can see that in communities, what do the aggregate data tell you, what do scholars say. There’s an interesting debate about all this. But it doesn’t get conveyed.
Obviously, you know, if I wanted to describe this phenomenon on the right, you could write several books about it because stuff like Fox News, it’s essentially, I don’t think they’re even trying. There is simply a process of regurgitation and amplification, and the only amusing thing about it is to see how when the party line changes, the hosts who used to be pro-free trade are now anti-free trade and they don’t seem to notice that they’ve flipped. But that’s because the party line changed and there’s no need to, you know, to explain. You just keep moving.
KRASNY: Thank you, by the way, for all these good questions. Let’s see if we can get some more, right here in the center with the gentleman.
Q: Hi. Bennett Hanson with Global Press.
So our reporters are in about forty countries and communities around the world and they report on local news—so in Harare, Zimbabwe; North Kivu, DRC. Because our model is an international news agency, we recognize these global connections. Some of the more practical things we do to make these global connections in the story is to step back from the inverted pyramid—the hallowed five Ws—and provide infographics or this similar thing is happening in another country. Do you think there’s room for that in most local news?
ZAKARIA: I would think so. As I said, I think that, you know, people are more interested in human beings and human interest than we give them credit for. They’re more interested in interesting ideas than we give them credit for. You know, the stuff just has to be—I think that foreign reporting is done too much in a kind of dutiful way where we say this is important, you are supposed to know it, shame on you if you don’t. And, you know, you get into the high politics very, very quickly, and I think that’s not where most people’s daily lives are. And so if you can, as you say—you know, that sounds like it’s a way of intersecting and meeting people where they are. It’s a very—it’s a very useful way to think about it.
You know, Tony Blair once told me something very interesting. I was asking him—what did Gordon Brown teach you about politics, and you remember Blair and Brown were the two partners that ran Britain for ten years—Brown as the finance minister, Blair as prime minister. And he said, well, Brown came from the Labour Party. You know, he was left-wing guy. I was a middle class kid. I had never really thought about left-wing politics.
So he taught me how Labour Party politics worked—how the trade unions work, who had power, how did you move up, how did you deal with, you know, kind of the politics of the left. And I said, and what did you teach him, and he said, I think what I taught him is how irrelevant all that was to most ordinary people—that for most ordinary people their lives were consumed with, you know, their work, their family, the family’s extracurriculars, sports, entertainment, and then for a small group of people, as though your sort of fifth hobby, it was politics and government, you know, and that you really had to understand that for most—for most people their horizon did not include these political issues. And I think that’s one of the things that we sometimes forget—you know, that if you start talking about the Saudi crown prince and the government’s support of the Houthis and the—you will lose most people. That’s not where you’re going to get them if you want to get them on Yemen.
KRASNY: Prompts me to ask a quick question, Fareed, because you’ve been talking about Brexit a good deal, and is it useful, do you think, to make transatlantic connections like that that brings it more home, so to speak? In other words, seeing what’s going on now and paralysis of government in the U.K. and seeing our own paralysis of government and talking about just this whole movement.
ZAKARIA: I think so. I mean, I think it’s actually very similar in a way because in all these places what you have is populist movements or, you know, where there’s this demand for this kind of populist breakdown of the old policy—old order. But it ain’t that easy. You know, it’s because you’re either going to commit economic horror and suicide or you’re going to cause enormous convulsions or you’re going to inflict—you know, it’s a self-inflicted wound.
And so when you try to do it, it turns out to be much more complicated than people realize and that’s what Britain has been going through is thirty months of trying to figure out how to do Brexit without devastating the British, you know, connection to the—to their largest market, the European Union, and every time they get close they kind of—they step back from the abyss.
And, you know, some similar kinds of things are happening here where Trump will say, well, why don’t we just withdraw from NATO and, you know, why don’t we cut funding to the U.N. by half or things like that. And the institutional elements of the U.S. government sort of says, no, I don’t really think we should do that, and that’s where some of these tensions come from.
But it’s very similar. It’s a populism of protest that is finding it much harder to actually implement these policies without causing enormous harm and so they are stuck between the gap of the slogan and the actual policy.
KRASNY: What do you think—we’ll go to more questions from the audience here—but what do you think about the journalistic technique of what we call vox populi? You go to your local citizens and you ask them about situations like this. It can sometimes wind up a little like the Jay Leno stuff, you know, where people will speak with kind of abysmal ignorance but at the same time you can get an opinion from a local person and profile that person in the process and people recognize maybe who that is and so forth. But it’s an international question.
ZAKARIA: Look, I have my own—my own bias here, which is I don’t mind anecdotes at all as long as they illustrate what the aggregate data is telling you. If you’re using anecdotes—you know, literally randomly going and asking people—it is the most actually misleading thing you can do to your reader or viewer because you’re giving them a false impression.
But if you’ve looked at aggregate data, if you know what local polls show and you say that 70/30 percent oppose the wall or in favor of the wall, and then you talk to two people who are opposed and one person—then you’re giving people the flavor for what those arguments are. That provides richness and depth and they hear the voice of the person who’s describing their—that’s wonderful.
So what I’ve always said is when we do specials—you know, I do about three a year for CNN—and we often have this choice. Do we try to—how do we tell a story? Do we use an anecdote? And I always say I’m happy to use the anecdotes. I’m happy to find the great, amazing story of the character. But let’s make sure it is actually illustrative of the aggregate data. So first do the analysis. Make sure you’ve got your facts right, your homework right. And then, absolutely, use it to illustrate.
But don’t use it as the point because then you’re—you know, you’re relying on sort of random chance. And in television particularly you are more likely to be swayed by the most interesting person, the most telegenic, and that can be very misleading. You know, you’re kind of going with what is good video rather than what is good journalism.
KRASNY: Right in the front here, the gentleman. You’re looking around, but it’s you I was pointing at. (Laughter.)
Q: Hi. I’m Steve Bynum and I work for Worldview on WBEZ.
For twenty-five years it’s been the only daily radio talk show dedicated exclusively to global and international affairs. I think many moons ago you were a guest a couple of times on our show, and my battle has been not even trying to find relevance with the audience but sometimes relevance within your own organization, right, of why should someone care about access to clean water in Uganda or whatever the case.
But a couple things that you said that really struck me is when you first talked about—well, just the nuance in how you talk. When you talked about, for instance, working class you made it a point to say specifically particularly white working class. When you talked about certain stories you said mainstream media. So there’s a nuance, obviously, that you understand and when we talk about these subjects.
So I guess the question becomes then when you talked about elites, so to speak, and when, let’s say, Vali Nasr, who we had on fifteen years ago—we could call him any time and have him on but now he’s Vali Nasr. Now you’re Fareed Zakaria. So no, well, seriously. So—
ZAKARIA: My kids certainly don’t think so, but thank you.
Q: No one knows more about Yemen than Shireen Al-Adeimi at Michigan State. But she’s not going to get on CNN or MSNBC. No one knows more about inequality then Jeffrey Winters at Northwestern University, who wrote a book called Oligarchy, who taught me that even with the economy as it is there’s been an explosion of Dollar Stores because the average Dollar Store shopper can’t even—is not even the median shopper at Walmart.
And so the story beneath the story and identifying those people, giving them access to, let’s say, to Council on Foreign Relations. I had a conversation with the people at the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs—your friend, Ivo Daalder, who runs that—how the people at their events, they don’t look like this room. They’re all seventy years old and they’re having their events on a Tuesday afternoon at 2:00. And so how to sort of create democratization within the structures that generate the information that we have so that people feel like it’s accessible to them.
What do you suggest are the ways to sort of pound the table in that regard? And then, lastly, how does a protégé of Samuel Huntington end up being called a raving liberal these days? How does that happen? (Laughter.)
ZAKARIA: The second one is much easier than the first. Sam was a dyed-in-the-wool FDR liberal. I mean, people always mistook the fact that Sam Huntington was—because he wrote The Clash of Civilizations and things like that that he was some kind of arch conservative. He voted Democrat his whole life. He was a Cold War liberal. He believed that the Soviet Union was a threat to, you know, American liberty and democracy, and in that sense he was like many Cold War liberals. And at the end of his life, he thought that identity had become the most powerful force shaping politics.
Now, you may not like everything he said. But that central insight is probably the most powerful social scientific insight of the last twenty-five years—that after the Cold War, the great dividing line for people is going to be identity and a lot of identity rooted in religion. So I think that, you know, as a social scientist he’s been proven right much more than people realize and I think, you know, he was a mild-mannered WASP who didn’t explain himself well. But he was a very, very, very decent man and I learned an enormous amount from him.
Your larger question is a very important one because I think it touches on this question of the elite/non-elite divide and how do we deal with it. Because what’s happened over the last thirty years, forty years in America is the society has become much more meritocratic. There’s no question. Look at this room. It looks very different from what a Council meeting would look like in the evening or, you know, if it was a full membership.
But what we have discovered about capitalism, society, whatever it is, it doesn’t solve the problem of inequality. It changes the nature of inequality, so that now you have an inequality that is based on, to put it very simply, people who take tests well and people who don’t take tests well. Maybe that is, largely, a reflection of intelligence and hard work. Maybe it isn’t.
But that is the great sorting mechanism that takes place in America from about fourth grade onwards and the people who tend to test well and do well in those circumstances move up and up and up, and the people who don’t—and the people who test well end up in cities, which are centers of economic activities, and the ones who don’t—so that process is producing its own divide and inequality. And the danger, I think, is that we have begun to think that that new system is more morally justifiable than the old one because it’s meritocratic, because it’s based on something. You know, most of you don’t come from wealth and here you are, right. You know, so everyone feels like, hey, you know, this was open to everyone, which it is, and I think at the end of the day, I can’t think of a better system than to have some process by which you are judged on accomplishments and achievement rather than on family connections or ethnicity and race.
But I think the mistake is to believe, and I think we all do this to a certain extent even if we don’t admit it, that we are morally superior to the people who don’t do well on tests—the people who are left behind—that the system is a system in which if anyone has that—well, you know, everyone doesn’t have the same. We’ve all had lucky breaks and even if you’re good at taking tests, maybe some of that is genetic.
Maybe the person who isn’t as good at taking tests is not morally inferior to you. Maybe they’re just—their brain is wired a little differently than yours and in today’s world those skills are not as useful as there. Warren Buffett often says, look, if I were born a peasant in Bangladesh, the particular skills I have, which is how to analyze cash flow of every company, would be totally worthless. (Laughter.)
The fact that I happen to have been born in America at this time is—right. So I think that’s a really hard challenge and I think that what we could—I don’t know how to undo it, to your question, because I can’t think of a better system. I think the old system was terrible because it really privileged birth and bloodlines and connection and race and ethnicity and gender, right.
This one is an improvement but it has this great problem of insularity and smugness, and what we could do is talk about it and write about it, be more aware of it as human beings and as leaders and be—you know, and be aware that at the end of the day, everyone is of the same moral worth. You know, that is something that I think it’s important to remember regardless of where you sit and for those of us who have children it’s very important to convey that you admire people not because of where they landed up in this pecking order of life but of who they are as human beings.
KRASNY: On that note of a hard change in our posterity, let me, first of all, thank all of you for your attention and your great questions that you offered and let me thank our guest, Fareed Zakaria, who, once again, I think, has shed a great deal of light and I appreciate all the work that you do and your being here tonight, and working with you has been a privilege.
And now I want you to eat dinner and enjoy it.
ZAKARIA: Thank you. (Applause.)