CNN's Chideya speaks for the hip Profile: With sharp political insight and analysis, a nonfiction book and just 27 years of age, energetic Baltimore native not only fills a niche -- she is one.

November 02, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

There's almost no way to tell that Farai Chideya is nervous when she is doing political analysis on CNN's "Inside Politics."

Lightly made up with ruby-red lipstick and eye shadow, the Baltimore native is sitting on the set discussing Clinton's chance for re-election with the show's host, Judy Woodruff, and fellow Gen-X political analyst Kellyanne Fitzpatrick. She's smooth and controlled as she dismisses the impact of Ross Perot's Reform Party on the race. The Reform Party, Chideya says, is a "sort of a cardboard cut-out where a party should go."

Pretty good sound bite for a 27-year-old who's been doing political commentary for less than a year. But Chideya is the first to admit she doesn't always feel as poised as she looks and sounds.

"I was really nervous when I first started," she says. "I sort of asked myself, 'Why do they want me on TV when I have no experience at this.' "

Over the past few months, Chideya has learned to hold her own in discussions with veteran commentators. An outspoken yet flexible liberal, Chideya has been paired up with Fitzpatrick, a 29-year-old conservative, to raise the network's hip quotient and offer insight into and for young voters.

With her silky dreadlocks and an infectious smile, Chideya knows she's not your average political pundit.

"I consider myself a very intense political observer, but I'm not a political insider," she says. "I do work really hard to be credible."

A self-described over-achiever, she's already had more high-profile jobs at 27 than most people will have their entire lives. She has been a reporter for Newsweek magazine, an assignment editor for MTV News, an author of a book about racial stereotyping in the media and now a political analyst.

Tom Hannon, the political director at CNN who hired Chideya away from MTV, says she provides the perfect mix of youthful exuberance and political keenness that he was looking for.

"What we wanted to do was try to get the perspective of people who had not previously been heavily involved in politics," he says. "Farai was so well-informed and extremely articulate with insightful things to say. She has traveled to most of the major events and we have asked her to do a lot of fast-on-your-feet analysis and in every situation she has more than held her own."

Chideya grew up in Northwest Baltimore. She and her sister Sekai -- now a 23-year-old medical student -- were raised by their mother after her parents divorced in 1977. Her mother, Cynthia Stokes Chideya, says political arguments were part of their home life.

"I come from a family where we have discussions all the time, with people running to the encyclopedia to find proof," says the elder Chideya, a science teacher in the city school system. "That's how I raised my children."

Chideya graduated from Western High School in 1986 and went on to Harvard University. Her interest in a medical career quickly waned, she says, after she realized she was doing "much better in my literature courses than my science classes."

An internship during her junior year at Newsweek magazine led to a job as a reporter after graduation in 1990. It was there that Chideya delved into stories about a lesbian custody battle in Vermont and life in women's prisons.

"Those two stories made me think how you get to portray people's lives and how reporters serve as interpreters," she says. "That struck me as such a position of power."

The responsibility of presenting an accurate portrayal is what led Chideya, at 24, to write "Don't Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African Americans" (Penguin). The book is filled with data about everything from affirmative action to the number of African-Americans working in the media and stands as a reference guide against stereotypes often portrayed about blacks. The book took a year to research and write, and it is what first brought Chideya to the attention of CNN.

"I could tell when I looked at her picture on the back cover of that book that she had a spark," says Jennifer Martin, who first booked Chideya for a segment on "Inside Politics" devoted to Colin Powell. "I think she's got her finger on the pulse of what young people and older people care about."

Lending an ear to the young and minorities is a lesson politicians will have to learn, Chideya says.

"In the past, Clinton has had the youth vote locked up, and I don't think Republicans can afford to ignore that," Chideya says.

In the last few days of the campaign, Chideya says she hopes interest in the election will increase. As for her, she's busy planning for life after the election, which will include writing a book titled "The Color of America." The book focuses on the emergence of a multiethnic generation and how that will reshape views on race in this country.

She also recently has been named the national affairs editor for Vibe magazine and will be directing its political coverage in addition to being a contributor to Time magazine and a Freedom Forum Media Studies fellow who will examine news coverage of 18- to 29-year-olds.

"I'm a person who must be continually challenged and doing challenging things," she says. "It's a good thing that I am young and can handle it."

Pub Date: 11/02/96

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