Change of Face
TO BE A POLITICAL ANALYST ON TV, IT helps to be a white, middle-aged male with thinning hair. CNN’s Farai Chideya, though, is a young African-American woman. And, in contrast to all the guys with comb-overs, she has luxuriant, silky dreads. But if Chideya, 26, stands out among the pallid pundits, it’s not just because of appearance. “I don’t want to say the same thing as everyone else,” she says. “I’m trying to update our view of America.”
It seems to be working. In less than two months of covering and analyzing the presidential race, Chideya has made her mark. “She’s quickly developed into a star. She’s clear, knowledgeable and frighteningly articulate,” says Tom Hannon, executive producer of Inside Politics, where she appears several times a week along with such heavyweights as Bill Schneider and David Broder. “So much information about nonwhite communities is factually incorrect,” says Chideya. “Having nonwhite reporters is a way of providing checks and balances.”
The older daughter of a Baltimore high school science teacher and a Zimbabwean businessman who returned to his homeland after a 1970 divorce, Chideya grew up contentious. “My mom was always willing to analyze political rhetoric,” she says. “Questioning the status quo was a family tradition.”
While a reporter at Newsweek, where she was recruited right out of Harvard, Chideya wrote Don’t Believe the Hype, in which she examined media-abetted myths about black America—for example, that the majority of welfare recipients are black and that the number of black men in jail exceeds the number in college. In 1995, while a writer in MTV’s news department, she began doing guest shots on CNN political shows and was hired last February. “I was tremendously intimidated,” she says. “I don’t know the middle initial of every President, but I make it my business to know as much as I can.”
Off the air, Chideya, who is single and lives in the Greenwich Village brownstone seen at the beginning of each Friends episode, favors vintage clothes and “bizarre little shoes.” On air, she wears fitted red jackets and black skirts—what she calls “dork clothes.” Hey, has anyone looked in Bob Novak’s wardrobe lately?