The Interpreter

The Rise of Fareed Zakaria: Muslim, Heartthrob, Super-Pundit

Zakaria is good at straddling worlds. Asked how a neocon who edited the journal Foreign Affairs ended up as a favorite of the Daily Show crowd, he protests that he is no longer a diehard Reaganite but a firm centrist. "And anyway, in America the entire spectrum has shifted to the right. I still like the same kinds of people I always did—conservative Democrats, moderate Republicans, call them what you will. But we're an increasingly embattled phenomenon in a country with a president talking about intelligent design." Jon Stewart's viewers probably don't have an inkling of Zakaria's political background, since they rarely chat about economic or domestic affairs. Mostly Zakaria is applauded for his willingness to call out our government's missteps in Iraq. (He initially supported the invasion but within a few weeks began lambasting the Bush administration in Newsweek pieces with titles like "The Arrogant Empire.") "I feel that's part of my job," he says, slightly defensively, "which is not to pick sides but to explain what I think is happening on the ground. I can't say, 'This is my team and I'm going to root for them no matter what they do.' "

He hopes Foreign Exchange can remain nonpartisan, unruffled by PBS's recent obsession with ideological balance. "Conservatives are now all of a sudden asking for affirmative action!" he quips, before bemoaning the way the media treat American politics as a partisan spectator sport. "The reality is that the American public isn't that polarized. I bet you a lot of conservatives watch Jon Stewart, and a lot of liberals watch O'Reilly, because they make news fun."

The Backstreet Boy of public broadcasting
photo: Cary Conover
The Backstreet Boy of public broadcasting

Bizarrely, Zakaria cites The Daily Show as an inspiration for his own earnest series, because "it gets to the core of news items in a funny, quick way. Obviously I have to do it differently since I'm not doing a comedy show—and, as Jon Stewart likes to say, I'm not preceded by talking puppets. But who knows, in some PBS markets Sesame Street might be on before me."

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