Earlier this month, a small reception was held to honor Zakaria for receiving the award. I had the chance to speak with Zakaria recently on what this recognition means to him, his move to Time and more.
First of all, congratulations on receiving the Padma Bhushan.
You’ve been called a lot of things in the press—an academic, journalist, foreign affairs analyst, a future candidate for Secretary of State, and so forth. The night you were honored for receiving the award you joked, quoting Churchill, that from now on, “Your Excellency will do.” But you seemed genuinely humbled, if not embarrassed, at the attention bestowed upon you that evening. What does this award mean to you?
Well, for me, it’s sort of humbling because my father was a politician in India, so I grew up quite aware of this award; quite aware of the enormous debates that used to take place about who should get it, and whether or not it was appropriate for somebody to get it. And I always assumed my father would get it.
In one of the strange ironies of life, he ended up, for the last ten years of his life, being on the panel that determines who gets these awards. So he was automatically ruled out, because of the conflict of interest.
I think that I have sort of mixed feelings about it. Honestly there’s a part of me that feels like that Grouch Marx line, “I don’t want to be a member of any club that would have me as a member.” And so I feel like it can’t be that important of an award if they give it to me.
But, seriously, what’s thrilling about it is that it tells you something about modern India, that the government would give [the award to] somebody who is not an Indian anymore; a person who is of Indian origin, a journalist; that they would give it to someone who’s frankly written many things critical about this government. And that, in a way, is the best thing about India today. For all its problems, it is this extraordinary functioning liberal democracy, an open diverse society.
You spoke very eloquently of your father. What do you think, if he were alive today, he would’ve said to you or felt, seeing you receive this award?
I think he would’ve been tremendously, tremendously proud. And I think he would’ve been thrilled and extremely upset with me for not going to the actual ceremony to receive the award. I couldn’t go to the ceremony because I had a trip planned to Kenya with my kids. And I honestly thought that that was more important. Other people can get the awards but no one else can raise my kids.
It’s interesting that, when I look at my father, I see a self-made man. He grew up very poor, an orphan, and had this extraordinary rise to considerable accomplishment and fame in India. When I think about the distance travelled for him, I’ve achieved very little in comparison, because I grew up in very privileged circumstances. Not rich, but privileged.
Both my parents were highly educated people, creative. You know, [it was] a stimulating home. Also, I was materially perfectly comfortable. So, I often think of the fact that I’ll never quite know what it took to have the trajectory that my father had. And I wonder about even one step further, what kind of trajectory my kids will have, because they’re growing up comfortable, secure.
Not that I think that, you know, poverty is necessarily some kind of virtue, but it’s just humbling to think about how small my distance travelled is compared to my father.
With India now being a global leader and partner across the board in economic development, technology, security and more, when you look at the India of your youth compared with the one you see today, what is the most striking difference?
Oh gosh, it’s so different. I mean the India I grew up in was a very poor third world country. It was one of the poorest countries in the world. And it was really in miserable shape.
The India of the 1970s that I left was going through the worst decade of its economic growth really in, you know, decades and decades. It had five secessionist movements, violent rebellions taking place. It had a government that had imposed an emergency rule—the suspension of democracy from 1975 to 1977. So this was a very sad, stagnant, troubled India. And it was just dirt poor. The economy was going nowhere.
Now what’s most striking about India is just the vitality, the dynamism. Of course it’s still a very poor country. The biggest mistake that people make is they’re not prepared for that. But there’s an enormous amount of vitality. There’s enormous dynamism. There’s an enormous sense of opportunity.
And I think that translates politically. You see the India of the 1970s was this resentful country playing the victim card constantly, blaming the West for all its troubles. And the India of today increasingly sees itself as not a pawn in somebody else’s chess game but one of the major players in the world.
Speaking of India, one of the things they kept telling us at journalism school last year was if you wanted a job in journalism, start looking towards India, because the media is expanding out there and they’re hiring. Do you see the press in India rising internationally the same way the country has? Are there any journalists/reporters in India you feel are a must read/watch?
Sure. First of all you’re absolutely right about journalism in India. See, the thing is, India is in this unique situation. It’s a very large country with a booming emerging market economy and also a completely open democracy, so that all the economic dynamism courses through the media industry as much as it does any other industry.
If you think about China, China is growing faster than India but there is virtually no media in China, other than a small state-owned sector. In India you have all this dynamism in a very open chaotic democratic system and, by the way, with a very strong English-speaking part of the public. So the result is the media on steroids. There are 18 all-news channels in India. Think about that. There are, what, three or four here in the United States? That’s [compared to]18 in India, four or five in English alone.
You have a 20 to 25 percent increase in newspapers every year [in India]. This is contrast to the West, where newspapers are declining. And I think that India is producing extraordinarily good journalists. Very few of them concern themselves with global issues, as is understandable. India is a very vast country and its global role is very new and still very young. But there is Raja Mohan who writes in the Indian Express. There is the editor of the Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta. There are couple of the economists who write in the Economic Times. There’s M.J. Akbar. There’s Vir Sanghvi. There are a bunch of different journalists in India who are absolutely world class. And, on TV, there’s NDTV with Prannoy Roy and CNN-IBN with Rajdeep Sardesai.
All of which, I think, are world class.
George Stephanopoulos once said about you that you “can’t be pigeonholed.” And it was just announced that you’re moving from Newsweek to Time magazine. What is it that you want to bring there and will any of your focus be changing?
I don’t think so. The difference is going to be that I’m going to be able to spend more time creating content at Time Warner, to use the media jargon. I’m going to be spending less time doing editing, doing the kind of conceptualization of stories, picking covers—all that kind of thing. I’m going to write, produce the television show (GPS on CNN) and what we’re going to do is try to create some new platforms on the web.
And [work on] applications that combine television work and my print work so that you can imagine an iPad app where you could see the show, read the columns. Imagine a web portal that will have the television show and the columns but also a whole bunch of additional material. Some of it video, some of it audio, some of it written.
So that’s the part I’m most excited about, and I think that Time Warner is the perfect company to do it at because it has these multiple platforms that can contribute in different ways. The key, the trick, of course, is to get them to work together. Synergy is a great concept but, so far, with media companies it’s been somewhat elusive and I’m hoping to change that.
One thing that has stuck out to me is your ability to distill the complex world of international affairs to a palatable level. You won’t come across the words liberalism, realism, or constructivism too often in your pieces. Is that something that comes naturally or something you find yourself working at?
I work at it, very much so. I feel that if a person in my position leaves the readers believing that the world is very complicated place, you’ve basically failed. They know the world is complicated and they’re coming to you to help simplify it. Not simplify in the dumbing down sense, but simplify in the sense of, “tell me what it means. Give me a bottom line. Tell me—out of all this “blooming, buzzing confusion” as William James called it—where is the signal, where is the noise?”
That’s your job. Once you find that, don’t try to show off. Don’t try to name drop or show what books you read. And I think I was helped by having a great mentor in Sam Huntington. Huntington was very good at this, whether you agreed with him or not on any particular issue. He was a great clarifier, and it taught me that your purpose is not to tell people the world is complicated. Your purpose is to try and simplify it for them.
Finally, speaking of awards, you recently returned the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Hubert Humphrey Award for First Amendment Freedoms over their stance regarding the Park51 Islamic center. We know why you returned it but at what moment did you decide to do so, and have you heard from any previous recipients of the award? Has Abe Foxman, the director of the ADL, contacted you personally yet?
Foxman has not contacted me yet. We, on the show (GPS), have invited him to come on. It hasn’t happened yet. I can’t tell you if it’s a conscious decision on his part or a scheduling issue but I’d be delighted to have him. I don’t view this as some kind of boycotting of the ADL.
I think the ADL does good work. I think that they made a very bad, serious mistake here. I hope that in doing this it would signal to them they might want to rethink where they were going and where they were putting their name and prestige and reconsider.
I thought about it. Honestly, I was writing my column about the mosque controversy. I was writing a column stating my views in favor of freedom of religion and of the exercise of freedom of religion, which means the ability to not just say they have the right but to [let them] use that ability, to exercise that right. And then I looked up from my desk at Newsweek and across the office on the book case was the ADL award. And it says, right there on it, Hubert Humphrey First Amendment Freedoms award. And the irony just struck me, the travesty of them having given a First Amendment Freedom award while backing away from a defense of the First Amendment in this case.
And it reminded me that the ADL, in its founding, is really about the defense of the First Amendment and, as the name suggests, against defamation. Against ridicule they say. And this position they had taken on this center was just antithetical to all that. And I thought that in good conscience I shouldn’t keep the award and I shouldn’t keep the money either ($10,000). And so I’ve given back the award and written them a check. And now I’m just waiting for them to cash the check. Otherwise it would be an empty gesture.
Omar Kasrawi is a freelance journalist and a production assistant on “Fareed Zakaria GPS.” This interview was first published at http://SAJAforum.org.