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Zaid Jilani: Straddling the Line
Journalists frequently find themselves publishing their work in a narrow set of news outlets that reflect their views and values. In other words, they have a niche. But if journalist Zaid Jilani can be said to have a niche, it is that he is nicheless. Indeed, Jilani has written for an impressively wide variety of outlets such as The Intercept, Jacobin, The National Review, Newsweek, Quillette, UnHerd, Tablet, The Guardian, The Nation, and more. In an era when journalists are increasingly pressured to pick sides, even as members of an ostensibly objective press, Jilani has managed to straddle the line.
“Most of the time when I'm writing, I'm not really thinking about a narrow audience. I'm trying to write to as broad a spectrum of people as possible,” said Jilani. “Everything from the language I use, to the references I will utilize, to how much I'll explain something…I do all of that to try to reach the broadest segment of people.”
This accessible approach to political reporting has resulted in headlines like, “Dr. King Sought an End to 'the Racial Point of View.' Stop Betraying Him” in Newsweek, and “We need to discuss the word ‘woke’” in The Guardian. In Jilani’s Substack newsletter, INQUIRE, co-produced with Shant Mesrobian, everything from the Joe Rogan podcast to the cost of city living is analyzed with a critical and incisive eye.
“Old school blogging from the early 2000s was very similar to what you see on Substack now,” said Jilani. Through Substack, users can pay to receive exclusive content directly from their favorite writers, without the content filter frequently imposed by overbearing editorial boards or paid sponsors typical of larger news corporations. Currently, INQUIRE sits in the Top 100 Substack newsletters covering politics.
“It’s a good place to do either very short stories…which we occasionally do, and also more of the opinion, analysis, and conversation stuff. I don’t think it’s going to replace journalism in any way, shape, or form, ‘cause it’s not like I’m working with a team of editors and producers and art people and creatives…like the way a newsroom is. It’s more of a way to scale it down and have a more personal version,” explained Jilani.
One of the most difficult things about political commentary, Jilani admits, is beginning the conversation. Potential readers are frequently either turned off altogether by the contentious world of politics, or they get stuck in a content bubble that only reinforces the views they already hold. Most publications come off as either too partisan or too esoteric to appeal to the average American.
“One of the reasons America is so polarized is because it’s polarized along educational camps… If you look at the writing out there on some of these topics, it’s often so wordy and verbose,” said Jilani. “It’s obviously appealing to a college educated environment or audience. When I write, I try to make it so that someone who barely graduated high school and someone who has a PhD should be able to read it and understand and take something from it.”
When he was asked to join FAIR’s Board of Advisors, Jilani felt the timing was right, and that FAIR’s pro-human approach was precisely what so many people were searching for. “There was a niche that hadn’t been fulfilled, because there’s a lot of Americans who feel [the same] way about these issues. In some cases, there’s a majority, and yet they didn’t really have any social or political organization. They didn’t have a vehicle,” he explained.
Growing up outside of Atlanta, Georgia, Jilani’s childhood was marked by the juxtaposition of a diverse community and the nearby ominous presence of the Ku Klux Klan. Overall, however, he says attitudes towards race in his community appear to be improving.
“The environment we grew up in, I don’t think it was perfect, but it was an optimistic environment,” said Jilani. “More and more, we were seeing people break out of their bubbles, marry across cultural [and] racial lines. We were seeing much more diversity in basically every arena of life. And I think people generally felt more at ease with each other. They felt like they were getting along better. That spirit of optimism really motivated a lot of the 1990s diversity culture that I really enjoyed and appreciated.”
Then, seven or eight years ago, Jilani began to see a drastic shift in the goals and tenor of many progressive organizations—even some for which he had previously worked. Eliminating the social significance of racial categories had once seemed to be the unifying aspiration, but now individuals are identifying more strongly than ever with them, and are actively being encouraged to do so.
“Racism, fundamentally, is believing in it. It’s believing that you can make generalizations about large groups of people as if they’re The Borg from Star Trek,” joked Jilani.
“A lot of what I see identified as anti-racism today, I just look at it and [think], Well, actually that’s kind of racist," Jilani said. “That’s part of why I wanted to be involved [with FAIR]. The people who are gathered under this umbrella all have their own differences, as any diverse group of people does, but I think all of us understand that…the roots of the civil rights movement, the root of the abolitionist movements…was to challenge and deny the capacity for this categorization to define us and to set us against each other.”
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Read Substack newsletters by members of FAIR’s Board of Advisors
Common Sense – Bari Weiss
The Truth Fairy – Abigail Shrier
Skeptic – Michael Shermer
Habits of a Free Mind – Pamela Paresky
Journal of Free Black Thought – Erec Smith et al.
INQUIRE – Zaid Jilani
Beyond Woke – Peter Boghossian
The Glenn Show – Glenn Loury
It Bears Mentioning – John McWhorter
The Weekly Dish – Andrew Sullivan
Notes of an Omni-American – Thomas Chatterton-Williams