TPM recently sat down with Chris Hayes in his Rockefeller Center office to discuss his MSNBC show Up with Chris Hayes, his new book and his take on cable news.
Can you describe what you read, how you get the news?
I subscribe to a number of magazines. I’ve always been a magazine lover from the time I was 11 or 12. My dad subscribed to a bunch of magazines. If you asked me at 14 what my dream in adulthood would be, it would have been to someday have a David Levine caricature of me in the New York Review of Books. So I read the New York Review of Books, the New Yorker, The Nation, Harper’s, The Baffler, Jacobin. As far as my daily media consumption habits, I’ve almost entirely abandoned RSS, which I think is interesting because at one point it was so central. But now I mostly just do it through Twitter, because it provides a level of curation that the raw RSS doesn’t, and you end up with this inbox 10,000 problem with RSS. I follow a bunch of people on Twitter. I check the New York Times. We have a pin board where we share with the staff. We’re constantly bookmarking things and giving them tags on the internal one. And then I really rely on Instapaper, so as things are crossing my screen, I’ll open up tabs, and if a tab has sat there for a while, I’ll just Instapaper it. And then I read Instapaper any time I’m waiting in line for coffee or on the subway. That’s just to stay generally on top of stuff. There are a bunch of podcasts I listen to as well. I read a fair amount of nonfiction. We usually have a book author or two a weekend, so I’ll try to make it through their book.
What was the working theory behind the show when you started it?
One of the working theories was to try to divine a show that would play to my strengths and minimize my weaknesses. I don’t think I’m bad at sitting and reading off prompter, but I’m not awesome at it. You wouldn’t have an open audition in America for someone to read off prompter and cast me in that role. I’m also terrible at tying ties. The show is basically reverse engineered around not having to wear a tie and not having to read prompter.
Obviously it was some sort of debt to the Morning Joe format, which has been very successful and is very enjoyable. The initial conceit was to have something that was largely unscripted, largely improvised, conversational in nature, spontaneous, argumentative but not shouty. The whole idea when the show works is that you don’t know what people are going to say, the possibility that someone will say something you haven’t heard before on cable news. The other big pillar was diversity, not just in terms of racial diversity, gender diversity, but ideologic diversity, to bring in thinkers who were very heterodox or outside certain boundaries of what we consider the established terrain of political conversation. And to let those things collide with each other in interesting ways, and for me to manage that process.
What do you hope the show accomplishes each week?
I want the show to be really entertaining television, like gripping television. I don’t want it to be a chore. I want people to want to watch it. That’s in some ways our first job, because it’s prior to all others. If we put out something that people don’t want to watch, it doesn’t matter if we don’t achieve any of the other goals.
There are two other goals. The thing I like the most is when people say, ‘I learned from your show.’ I think fundamentally we want people who watch the show to be more informed about the world and politics and American public life than they were going into it. We want people to come away with information that they didn’t have before.
The third thing we’re trying to do is create a space that approximates a model of the kind of public discourse we would like to have, in that it’s not hackish, and it’s not knee-jerk, but it’s not falsely balanced or fakely neutral. We embrace conflict but not hatred. Those are all very high minded ways to describe it. That’s the aspirational goal. I think we fall short of that goal a lot. But that’s the model.
How do you continue to develop that? What does Up with Chris Hayes look like a year from now?
That’s something we struggle with all the time. I would like to see us be able to do some more enterprise reporting. We’ve done some. I’m a reporter at heart, and that’s what I spend a lot of Thursday and Friday doing prepping for the show, is calling around to people. And I think we’d all like to do more of that.
What TV did you watch before you started the show? What cable news were you watching?
I would say Rachel’s (Maddow) show is the only cable news show that I’ve ever really watched consistently or routinely. Morning Joe sometimes. The other prime-time shows, depending on if something big happened that day that I wanted to check out. Mostly I just was not around the television that much, because I was working. Or playing basketball. Or watching basketball. I have a tendency to just want to watch brain-soothing sports competitions after thinking about politics all day. And I read a lot. Ninety percent of what I know about the world comes from things I read.
What do you watch now that you are now hosting a show?
I have it on in my office a lot more. Our network is on all the time. I’ve learned to appreciate the craft of television hosting much more. Like Martin Bashir’s amazing preternatural equilibrium on set and talking and managing a show. Or David Letterman. I’ve come to realize how hard it is to do what he does and how extremely well he does it.
How was the experience of writing your book, Twilight of the Elites?
I’ve had a really amazing experience writing the book. I feel really fortunate for that, because I think a lot of people have pretty brutal experiences working on books. I signed the book contract in the Spring of 2010. My agent sent me an email out of the blue in 2005 because he liked something I wrote for a pretty small lefty magazine. He found it somehow and he reached out to me. And we worked together for five years going through different book ideas. I have a real restlessness and intellectual ADD. And so finding something I wanted to commit to was a little bit of a challenge. And finally, I came to really be grabbed by this topic, by this idea. It seemed like a way of writing about both the first 10 years of my adult life and also the first 10 years of my career of reporting and thinking about politics. I signed the contract in 2010. And I had a little less a year and a half to deliver a manuscript.
We put into the contract, brilliantly — which I would recommend to anyone who’s writing a book — a midway deadline. And I was really lucky to get an incredible editor. Her name is Vanessa Mobley. She just did an astounding job. It was so important to have that midway deadline, because what I gave her at that deadline was another book, in a lot of ways.
What was it like to host the show and try to finish the book?
Overwhelming. It was a lot of work. We also moved to New York in there and my wife gave birth to our first child in there. I didn’t take any time off. Ryan was born on a Monday and I was back hosting the show on Saturday.
Why write a book in this age of tweets and television and blogging? Why was it important to you to write a book?
I think it’s important because, there’s a cliche, you don’t know what you think until you write it down. For something as large as the topic that I’m wrestling with in the book, that’s doubly true. I came to have firmer thoughts, more refined thoughts about the issues that I address in the book through the process of writing. As an enterprise in understanding, it was vital and really satisfying in that respect. I also just like what I do. I like reporting. I like learning things. I like trying to synthesize things.
In terms of the public reason for writing a book, you can make a sustained argument about something you feel is important in public life in a way that you can’t in any other medium. Some arguments are just too big for Twitter, and are too big in terms of not just the idea, but just logistically take a certain amount of length to explain or work through. And I still think really great nonfiction books change the way you think about the world in a way few other things do.
What do you feel is the most uncovered story right now?
What I wrote the book about. The crisis of authority in American life. The defining feature of American public life is the wholesale decline of trust in our pillar institutions. That orders and structures our public life in ways that we haven’t quite grappled with. We have a country in which we have historically low levels of public trust in everything from Congress to banks to the media, labor unions, organized religion, science, the medical profession. The most trusted institution in American life is the military and the least trusted is the Congress. I think that says something profound about where we are as a democracy.
What is the best advice you ever got?
My mom once told me: If you’re on the fence about going to a funeral, you should always go. If you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Oh, it’s my boss’s mom and I didn’t know her and it will be weird and awkward’ — go. No one ever doesn’t want you there. That’s a specific piece of advice, but much broader about, in any point in time when you’re thinking about doing something thoughtful or kind, just always follow the impulse to try to do something thoughtful or kind.
Professionally, the best piece of advice I ever got was from Rick Perlstein, who said ‘You can’t put a price on freedom,’ meaning being able to say what you want to say, write what you want to write about, discuss what you want to discuss. It’s the most important thing and everything else — acclaim, money, career security — is subordinate to that.
Do you feel MSNBC is moving closer to mirroring Fox News on the opposite side of an ideological scale?
It’s very important that we’re clear about what it is that we find objectionable about Fox, or objectionable about the model. The first thing that I think is important is transparency. If you found out that a mainstream news anchor at a major network was secretly emailing with a political operative, scheming on how to best present their case, you would be furious. The reason is there’s fundamentally a fraud being done, there’s a betrayal. Someone’s saying, ”I’m a neutral, good-faith arbiter of these things, when I’m not. I actually have skin in the game.’ That’s the greatest betrayal. That’s the most objectionable thing about Fox, is its claims to neutrality. The whole ‘fair and balanced’ thing. Because that is fundamentally a misleading way of advertising themselves. Fox is a conservative network. It’s more than that. It’s a partisan, Republican network. And I think a multiplicity of voices is great. So let there be a conservative network or a Republican identified network.
The other thing we have to realize is that there is an impossibility of any symmetry between Fox and MSNBC. And the reason is because of the two men who run the networks. Roger Ailes is a lifetime, hard-right, conservative ideologue and Republican partisan. He worked in politics. He helped get Nixon elected. This is his vision. If he wasn’t doing this, he probably would be doing something else that would be furthering those goals.
Our network is run by someone who worked in TV. And he wants to make a TV network that performs well, that gets viewers, that attracts advertisers, that lives up to certain standards. There’s such a big difference in that.
What’s your opinion of the cable news landscape in general?
I don’t think that much about it. I just try to put out a good show. I think the cable-ification of television brings with it certain promising opportunities for us. I’m never, just in terms of the way I look or the way or the way my voice sounds, I can’t host the nightly news. That wouldn’t get enough people to watch me. But I can host a successful cable news show. There are enough people out there who have a sensibility that is in line with mine that I think I can be a successful cable news host. That’s an amazing fact about the current media market in television that I can be simultaneously authentic and true to what I want to talk about and believe and also be successful from a market perspective.
In the wake of your ‘heroes’ remark, is it possible to have those kinds of difficult conversations on television? Is TV a place where you talk about those things?
Yeah, I think it is. You have to take care when you talk about sensitive things. You have to be sensitive when you talk about things that might give occasion for people to be hurt. If you are imprecise in trying to do that, then you’re going to get a lot of blowback. We saw that. I will be more sensitive. I will take greater care. That doesn’t mean that there are things that are out of bounds to discuss. That’s my take away.
David Taintor is TPM’s News Editor. He contributes to TPM’s Livewire coverage, among other areas. David is from Chanhassen, Minnesota, where, yes, it gets very cold. Reach him at taintor [at] talkingpointsmemo.com