Interview with Farai Chideya Derek Alger One on One

portrait Interview with Farai Chideya

interviewed by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 58 ~ March, 2002

Five years ago, Farai Chideya founded,
an online site reporting on issues ranging from political analysis to hip hop
and electronic music, aimed at engaging a younger, more urban audience. She
and the site have won a MOBE IT Innovator award and been named one of Alternet’s
New Media Heroes. In addition to running her website, Chideya is currently a
Knight Fellow at Stanford University.

Chideya, named in 1997 by Newsweek to its “Century Club” of 100 people
to watch, is the author of the stereotype-shattering book, Don’t Believe
the Hype: Fighting Cultural
MisinformationAbout African-Americans,
published by Plume Penguin in 1995 and now in its eighth printing.

Her second book, The Color of Our Future, interviewing and analyzing
the lives of today’s diverse teens and those in their early twenties, was published
in 1999 by William Morrow.

During the 1996 Presidential election campaign, Chideya was a CNN Political Analyst and
was named to the New York Daily News‘ “Dream Team” of political reporters
and commentators for her work. After that, she was an ABC New correspondent from 1997-1999,
where she covered such topics as youth, race, and politics.

Chideya was a writer for MTV News from 1994 to 1996, and prior to that, she
reported for Newsweek magazine in New York, Chicago and Washington, covering
a wide range issues from labor issues to following the President as a pool reporter
on Air Force One.

Derek Alger: You state on the home page of PopandPolitics that “The
worst crisis we face today is not in our cities or neighborhoods, but in our
minds.” Could you elaborate?

Farai Chideya: I believe America is the greatest country in the world,
or at least the country with the greatest potential. We have so much incredible,
breathtaking beauty, from the way the light blends in the desert air to literally
create “purple mountains’ majesty” to the rich green beauty of the Deep South.
But we also have the highest incarceration rate in the world. We have so much
wealth and massive child poverty. I have to believe that our failures to solve
some of these problems comes from a lack of will, a problem in our minds that
say some people are disposable and not worth educating or properly employing.
We see this as part of the cost of doing business in our business-oriented society,
but it comes back to haunt us in the form of poverty and crime.

DA: What prompted you to start Pop and Politics, obviously a lot of
time and effort has gone into it?

FC: The site started out with diaries from the 1996 Republican and Democratic
conventions. Over time, PnP has built a roster of fantastic writers, from Pulitzer
Prize winner Pamela Newkirk to dramatist Anna Deveare Smith, who’ve enlarged our
ability to cover current news and culture.

DA: You completed a Freedom Forum Media Studies fellowship examining
why young Americans are tuning out the news. What conclusions did you come up

FC: Younger Americans — and I speak here mainly of people in their
20s and 30s — are rarely seen in speaking roles on network news. The target
audience is middle aged, middle-class, and white. The networks use people meters
to test what stories those audiences like, and it becomes a self-fulfilling
prophecy that that’s the kind of audience they get. Meanwhile, younger audiences
have drifted away, and many people don’t watch the news at all. To change that,
news editors will have to really respect the voices of their whole potential
audience — younger and older, of all ethnicities. But narrow casting to different
groups has become the norm.

DA: Do you think that access to online sites will help increase awareness
of political and social issues?

FC: There are a lot of fantastic sites helping to build awareness of
international issues, particularly
What’s wonderful about the web is that so many people are putting out good content,
from listservs like Davey D’s 90,000 person e-mail list for hip hop heads (also
found at to
and But one of the things I find best about the web is the way
people form their own e-mail listservs of just a few people, trading information
they need among friends.

DA: Sometimes, it seems ready availability to facts can lead to information
overload. Do you worry about people knowing a lot but lacking the understanding
of complexities and substance regarding many issues?

FC: I worry about information overload, and I also worry about pundits
who talk long but know little. I try to curb my own tendency to be an “instant
expert” if people ask me. It’s very seductive when people want you to talk about
anything on TV, even things you don’t know much about.

DA: Your book Don’t Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation
About African-Americans
was an enlightening breakthrough. How did the decision
to write the book come about?

FC: The hard-knock school of journalism. I had to deal with the fact
that in my chosen profession, as in all others, there is stereotyping of African-Americans.
But when journalists stereotype black folks, we then transmit our prejudices
to the world. Don’t Believe the Hype, which I’m in the process of revising,
is an attempt to slice through the doublespeak.

DA: I would think it’s a tough battle to enlighten some from a parochial
outlook regarding the great diversity that exists in the United States.

FC: Personal experience helps enlighten people much more than the media
ever can. At its best, the mainstream media provides a virtual town hall where
we can talk about the experiences of the world.

DA: You’ve had quite a range of experience in journalism, from reporting
for Newsweek to serving as a writer on MTV. It seems you’ve had access
to a younger group that many writers and journalists tend to dismiss.

FC: I just gave a speech to some fellow journalists about image-making,
music videos, and journalism. I think that MTV (and now BET) really perfected
a visual language which resonates with younger people, a certain dreamlike quality
that is almost surreal. At the same time, certain images appear almost over
again — to put it bluntly, hot chicks, half naked and gleaming. I hear so much
from young women that they just want a COUPLE of videos where the girls are
wearing clothes. These may be the guys’ wet dreams, but where are the girls?
On the upside, the network does documentaries which take younger people seriously
as social actors and allows them space to talk about issues like education,
crime, and sexuality. Meanwhile, network TV also relies heavily on the slickness
of its images. But it doesn’t really allow younger people to speak for themselves.
Finally, the digital video revolution may provide a way for younger people,
as well as others, to “shoot back” — taking stock of their own world. It might
not be as slick but it’ll probably be more real. People love to see themselves.

DA: Your second book, The Color of Our Future, was named one
of the best books for young adults by the New York Public Library. Congratulations.
But tell me, should we be hopeful about the color of our future?

FC: We should be as hopeful as we are willing to pitch in and make a
difference. Every day I get angry about b.s. that happens in this country, in
my neighborhood, to my friends and family. Many of my black, Asian and Latino
friends and my family, for example, haven’t been paid what they are worth or
promoted to the levels they should have been in the workplace. One antidote
to anger, which is unproductive, is to think of how you can make a difference
in changing the world for the better. Anger is like battery acid, completely
corrosive. But it can be turned into fuel to keep pushing for what’s right.

DA: What are your plans for the future in terms of projects, books,
or whatever?

FC: We plan to expand’s international coverage and
make the site a multi-media enterprise, with print, e-commerce, and community
engagement components. And I’m working on another book. Stay tuned.