In the cacophony of political opinion that dominates U.S. television, Fareed Zakaria is hailed as a thinking man’s pundit. Like other media stars, he is a multitasker, juggling his duties as host of CNN’s leading foreign-affairs show, Fareed Zakaria GPS, along with book deals, speech-making and writing for Time and The Washington Post.
But he also appears to be sincere about creating what his program describes as a “global public square” for the serious debate of international issues, and giving it a home in a ratings-driven business.
As tensions simmer over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Mr. Zakaria was in Toronto this week to give the final speech in the 10th-anniversary Salon Speaker Series at Grano restaurant.
You say that the measured response the U.S. has taken to the territorial standoff in Ukraine is the right one, and not a sign of weakness. Why?
One of the things that people have begun talking a great deal about is the return of history, the return of geopolitics, the return of power politics. And the implication is that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin understands the world and we don’t, and that the United States and perhaps Canada and Europe have been naive. And I think this is actually a profound misunderstanding of the 21st century. If you look at all the trend lines, it is absolutely clear that something like annexations by force, changes of border by force, have become extremely rare – particularly in the last 20 or 30 years. If you look at the way in which countries become great and powerful and respected, it is increasingly clear that grabbing some piece of territory is not the answer. Raising standards of living, investing in technology and growth are. I want to remind people of the reality that, to put it very simply, history is on our side. The trends are all moving in a direction that is mostly very positive – of course, there are problems – and that it’s Putin who is living in a fantasy world.
Given that Mr. Putin has pushed on as far as he has, though, is there no truth to that argument about naiveté?
No, and here’s why: The U.S. is the country that, by design, is spending more on defence than the next 20 countries put together; whose navy is larger than the next 25 countries’ put together, that has a nuclear arsenal that exceeds 3,000 missiles; and that uses force, some would sometimes argue, with promiscuity. I mean, this President, as you know, has launched more drone attacks against terrorists in four years than George W. Bush did in eight. So it doesn’t strike me that the United States under [Barack] Obama is naive.
How would you describe the tenor of international political debate on television today, whether on your network, CNN, or Fox or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart?
It doesn’t take much observation to see that we unfortunately do not have a serious conversation about international affairs on television. I think that, in the media in general, it’s pretty high-quality, if you look at print, if you look at the new websites, some of which are really very good. Television, for some reason, has not been able to sustain that. Obviously, it’s different in Canada – CBC, I think commendably, does it.
What’s dramatic is the complete collapse of foreign news in network news. When you look at what NBC was doing in foreign coverage, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had 30 to 40 times as much in the 1980s as they do now. That’s the real drawdown.
Your show gets credit for trying to have sophisticated discussions. Is there a market for that in the U.S., or is your international audience creating the appetite?
We get a good audience in the United States. We don’t get a big blowout audience or anything, but it’s a very loyal audience. We are one of the most DVR-ed shows on CNN, so we are appointment viewing in a way that very few shows are on news channels because news is perishable by nature. I think there is a market for intelligent discussion on television. Television has a kind of haiku-like precision, if you use it well. You don’t have a lot of space – the entire transcript of my show would fit on one page of The New York Times. It can be incredibly powerful, and it’s incredibly exacting.
Do you ever feel like you’re being shouted down by those who are garnering those blowout ratings?
You do develop an incentive structure in television news which is perverse sometimes – which is that people know that, if they are partisan shouters, they’re going to give a particular audience something they want, and that becomes an easy path to success.
And I’ve seen that sometimes happen with people I respect, and I watch them doing something on Fox or even on MSNBC, and I think to myself, I wonder how much of this is that they know this works – that you’re throwing red meat to an audience. And that’s the unfortunate piece. There are a lot of very bright people who I think are pandering in the media, just as we always claim politicians are pandering in the political arena.
But in a really competitive business, how do you resist the perverse incentive?
I think the challenge is actually very similar to politics. There is a big moderate middle out there. But it does tend to be a little bit less engaged. And so you have to find a way to engage them, to appeal to them, and to say to them: Guys, you’ve got to get involved.
You know, the people who watch Fox are really not watching television, they’re going to church. They’re going to hear their beliefs affirmed and reaffirmed in a kind of comfortable and reassuring way. And it’s a very powerful mechanism in that sense.
We have to actually engage the audience at the level of curiosity, telling them things they don’t know, giving them a sense of the adventure of news, and that is harder. But I do believe it’s possible.
This interview has been condensed and edited.