After a Yale career defined by an involvement in left-wing political activism, Ishaan Tharoor ’06 joined TIME magazine as a Hong Kong-based correspondent writing on Asian geopolitics. He now works out of TIME’s New York headquarters and edits Global Spin, the magazine’s foreign affairs blog. WEEKEND met with the busy journo before a Masters’s tea he gave Tuesday to discuss careerist Yalies, journalistic commitment and how he got heads of state to take him seriously.
Q. What role has Yale played in the success you’ve had as a journalist and your life post-graduation?
A. I studied a fair amount of Asia in my schoolwork, so I felt well prepared to engage with various issues I was reporting on.
The first thing that really blows you away, though, is the number of Yalies everywhere. I arrived in Hong Kong and already had a network of Yale friends. [I had] Ivy League friends, journalist friends, and a sort of Venn diagram with Ivy League journalists in the middle.
It’s also the exposure to various people and debates in society that you get at Yale that gives you a real sense of confidence when approaching writing for a real publication. You have a spring in your step. So, I had a cover story in Time International when I was 23. There’s a kind of hubris you get from being at Yale. It’s not necessarily always a good thing, but I definitely had a kind of confidence my peers did not. An environment full of striving, competitive people gives you that.
Q. What parts of your Yale experience made joining Time seem like the right choice for you?
A. I joined Yale in the fall of 2002, just before the Iraq War. I grew up in New York and went to an international school. I don’t think I was really prepared to be in an American institution. [Yale] was a bit of a culture shock. My way of entering Yale was to be a bit politicized. I fell into the antiwar movement and built my identity around what were, at that time, my left-wing politics. Sophomore year, I founded, along with some friends, a magazine called “Hippolytic.” It was a smart, informed, center-left paper to combat the fact that there were two or three right-wing journals [on campus] with outside funding and such. That was my entry into really being a committed journalist.
Q. What do you make of the Yale political environment?
A. Everyone here has liberal politics, but there’s a great deal of apathy as well, and I don’t fault them for this. They’re more careerist about what they are doing. When I was here, there were a lot of divisive issues: Kerry vs. Bush, the labor strike. A segment of the population was working with unions, and lots of kids were activists, helping Yale employees push for better contracts. You felt like you were in a polarized space.
Yale is very much the halls of power. It sends its best and brightest to all sorts of prominent institutions. I just hope kids going into them are going in with a consciousness about these issues.
Q. Do you think that spirit of student activism is still alive at Yale?
A. You know, it’s a difficult time for a lot of people. I completely understand why students would want to focus on putting themselves in places that would guarantee them good jobs. I wouldn’t expect Yale students to hang around Zucotti Park for half a semester — nor is that a good idea. But when I was at Yale, there was a lot of civic engagement, not just a careerist approach. I hope there’s that similar wanderlust that I had and my peers had.
Q. Would you send your kids to Yale?
A. Sure, if I could afford it.
Q. How should journalists approach current global events like the Arab Spring?
A. They should bring [to reporting] the rigor they’re taught at Yale in their academic studies. Even though a blog post might, at the time, seem flippant and a little fluffy, you have to bring that same sort of rigor.
For an international journalist, the old platform would be interning at one of the old traditional media houses, working your way up and getting sent around the world to different bureaus. Those don’t exist anymore. Increasingly, the people doing the best work are freelancers, or those on Fulbright [fellowships] in different places, like the writers in Egypt who knew the language, the country, the politics — they had a degree of understanding that an earlier generation of foreign correspondents didn’t.
Q. What else do you think young people going into journalism need to know?
A. It’s not Goldman Sachs money — it’s not a fraction of it. You have to work really, really hard, often without a reward. But, at its height, I’ll be, say, doing a story I would pay to do. You have to have a degree of wanderlust and a real empathy for the world. You have to care.
Q. You run a news blog. How can journalists keep themselves competitive in an increasingly online environment?
A. I’m hardly the one to give sage advice — in my entire career, everything happened by accident! But yes, you just have to be prepared to be adaptable. For journalists now, being skilled with, for example, a video camera is more essential. You have to be a wide array of things — a good blogger, a good pundit — because news organizations are increasingly trying to make brands out of every one of their reporters.
Q. Does the idea of brand-name journalists affect the news value and quality of the stories produced today?
A. I don’t think it’s ideal. It’s just that the industry is trying to refashion itself into something more nimble and more able to deal with the abundance of information people have. Still, a lot of people out there are doing good work that isn’t self-promoting. For anybody, even in an earlier era or any young person, you still need to be a good reporter, a good writer, an agile thinker.
Q. You’re at Yale to talk about “Journalism in the Year of the Protester.” What do you think is behind that phenomenon and where do you think these movements are going?
A. Time made “the protester” the person of the year for 2011, and it was, in many ways, with the risk of being hyperbolic, an incredible year in human history in terms of the scale of upheaval that we saw. It was also unprecedented in the depth of information and exposure these uprisings got. In the past, it’d have been easier for authoritarian governments to hide these things. But the rise of the Internet and information sharing enabled these uprisings to gain exposure.
What was curious is how upstaged the Western media was by other forms of information. We had to react to it. Thanks to Al Jazeera in particular, and the liberal bloggers in Egypt and Tunisia with their clips and images of the people killed, we were made to experience revolutions real-time. So what was unique about 2011 was that the events were global in their scale and global in their reception. They had resonance elsewhere — they fed into a summer of protest in Europe, and were invoked for months by Occupy Wall Street. It was a kind of fascinating global moment of dissent.
Q. What’s fueling all this dissent?
A. Rates of inequality are higher than they’ve ever been, especially in G20 countries. There’s a sense that, in the US, and more and more vehemently in Europe, and with Anna Hazare in India as well, there’s a worrying disenchantment in the belief that democratic politics can deliver. People are dissatisfied all over with kleptocratic elites.
There are even very marked right-wing xenophobic backlashes in Eastern Europe, that are, in part, a response to just a complete disillusionment with the liberal European project.
In the Arab world, people who were living under authoritarian regimes that many in the US thought would never change showed that they want what we all want: a stake in society and who rules it. That’s true for the Occupy protests too, and the protests in London, Chile, India — there’s a political crisis in the world that’s as profound as the economic crisis.
Q. Where do you see that crisis going?
A. A lot of the cognoscenti and various smart people meeting at forums like Davos need to face some hard questions about the structures of society and the way inequality has grown, and slowly figure out ways that are both national and more global to redress this.
Q. What new approaches do you think will be espoused?
A. We can see the worrying continued success of the Chinese model. The Economist’s Davos coverage is all about the rise of state capitalism and the sense that democratic politics is in crisis around the world.
Q. It’s possible that this kind of upheaval will lead to more volatile situations. What sort of challenges have you faced when covering such crises, like the rise of Maoism in Nepal?
A. When you’re a young guy going out in the field, people get a bit amused by you. I’ve interviewed heads of state and they’ve giggled at me, but when they have to sit down and answer my questions, they realize that [I can be] tough and engaging.
Q. Going forward, what do you think your journalistic focus will be?
A. A lot of editing and writing about myriad subjects, e.g. South Asia — I just wrote about Pakistan. I love reporting news about the world and certain kinds of politics, and I also feel a responsibility to engage certain issues, like multiculturalism, the health of democracies and human rights. Luckily, I have a platform where I can do that.