March 27, 2013
Guest: Chris Hayes
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On MSNBC Monday evening, Chris Hayes will premiere his new show "All In With Chris Hayes," making the 34-year-old the youngest primetime anchor on any of the major cable news channels. For the past 18 months, he's hosted an early morning weekend show called "Up" on MSNBC, but he's already a familiar face to the network's evening viewers because he's been a popular guest and frequently filled in for Rachel Maddow.
Hayes says he expects the format of "All In" to be similar to the format of "Up": long-form panel discussions in which the participants talk through several issues. In addition to his work at MSNBC, Hayes is an editor-at-large at The Nation and author of the book "Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy," which was published last year.
Chris Hayes, welcome to FRESH AIR. So I want to thank you for being able to make politics and policy lively and entertaining and serious at the same time, like funny and serious at the same time, and really like interesting. And some of the subjects you talk about, they're really, they're rough policy issues, and it's hard to make it really engaging, and you seem to have a natural talent for doing that.
So did you grow up thinking that, you know, policy can actually be really super-interesting? Do you know what I mean? Like because a lot of people grow up thinking, oh God, that's so dull, I don't want to hear about it.
CHRIS HAYES: Well, I grew up in a household where we talked politics a lot and argued politics a lot. And there's a kind of lineage of debate that stems back particularly through my mother and her father, and they would always argue at the dinner table when my grandparents would come over.
And so I grew up in a world in which it was just natural that you argued about politics, you argue about the news. Everybody read magazines. And it was a pastime for me. It was enjoyable. I mean I have always viewed thinking about, arguing about, questioning, pushing back with, joking about, sharing and discovering about the world and the news as enjoyable, the same way that I view, you know, watching basketball.
GROSS: So I love to hear what interviewers tell their guests before the show starts, like what kind of advice they give. So what advice do you give your guests about how to be a good guest for your show?
HAYES: If this was in cable news, we would brand this with a franchise called "Shop Talk with Terry Gross," in which we talk about what we tell our interview subjects. So I have a whole - I have a whole spiel that I give to guests. I basically say these are the principles of the show. The first and most important principle of the show is that we are not on television.
What that means is no talking points, no sound bites, no point scoring. You know, I really urge you to look at your time on the show not as an opportunity to get your message out or get your message across but as to come and sit and engage in good faith with the other people that are sitting next to you.
And then I tell them it's a conversation, which means the conversation is best if it is not routed through me in a kind of hub-and-spoke model, which is that if the person to your right makes a point you want to respond to, turn to the person to your right and make a point, jump in whenever you want. I tell them they can ask questions, which is something that people rarely do on television because people feel the need to present themselves as experts, but none of us know everything about everything.
And in fact normal human conversation does not consist of a succession of declamations by individuals but in fact people asking each other questions. And so everything that I say before the interview is to try to get people in the mindset of forget the cameras, forget that we're on television, forget the commercial breaks. We are just trying to genuinely have a conversation in which we relate to each other like actual curious human beings.
GROSS: So one of the things that drives me mad sometimes is sometimes a guest will come on the show and think, oh, it's public radio, I can relax, I don't have to speak in soundbites. And instead of speaking in soundbites, they'll make like 15 minute speeches, which is not good either.
HAYES: That's not a hint to me, right?
GROSS: But do you have to also reign in your guests if they're - this is more shop talk - if they're talking like too long, what do you do?
HAYES: Yeah, I interrupt them, and I move things along. I mean you can't be shy about that. I'm very aware while we're sitting there that we are on live television and that, again, every second of air time is precious and that I want to keep the pace of the conversation going. And so if things seem to come to a stall, if someone seems to be going on too long, there's a bunch of nonverbal cues that I'll send them, and I'm sort of looking at them, nodding my head with more vigor than usual, as in OK, let's get to the point.
Or I'll just jump in if it's stalling and try to push the conversation along. So I'm not shy about that, and people on the Internet will sometimes get on my case for being too interrupty. But, I mean, it is live. We don't - you know, there's no - we can't go back into post and take out all the bad stuff and make sure that it snaps along at a good pace. We are there live, in real time, in the moment.
And so if something starts to lag or stall, I just jump in and push it along.
GROSS: So since you are live, would you mention a moment where you wish you weren't, and you could have edited something out?
HAYES: That's a great question. Yes. I will mention this moment, although I am reticent because the subject of this moment is someone who I deeply, deeply love and admire. Wallace Shawn was on the show, the amazing playwright, also actor, and Wallace Shawn is an incredible person, and I have absolutely loved his work. But he speaks at a very slow pace.
And he told me that going in. I said - I met him I think at a party and said, oh God, I have to get you on my show, you're one of my heroes, you're Wallace Shawn. And he sort of looked at me like I don't know if you want me on television. I was like, I want you on television.
HAYES: And then he came out, and he started talking, and he talked at the pace that he talks, which is a deliberate pace. And I felt that kind of feeling you might feel sometimes occasionally on live television where it's like you see in your head the image of the astronaut who's been untethered from the space shuttle, floating out into the empty universe, and your head fills with this kind of wa-wa-wa-wa-wa...
HAYES: And as it was going - and this is partly due to the fact that I speak very rapidly, and my internal metabolism is very, very high. And his was quite low, and so the gap between us made me think that time was literally slowing down before my eyes.
The great punch line to this is, I was a little traumatized by it, and we got off set, and we get the ratings two days later, on Tuesday morning, and the ratings were great, and no one left. And it was actually a really good little lesson. Just because you speak fast, are from New York, want things fast, fast, fast, fast, that is not necessarily the norm or the appetite the audience has, and people actually were totally willing to sit and listen to Wallace Shawn, one of the most brilliant playwrights and writers of our time, speak with tremendous wisdom and insight and deliberation for a long amount of time and not run away from the television set, which was a really wonderful, useful lesson for me.
GROSS: Interesting, OK. So part of the brand or, like, positioning statement of MSNBC is lean forward, which is to say it's often coming from a liberal or left point of view, and that's true of several of - several, not all, of the hosts, and you'd be one of the hosts of whom that's probably true of.
In your magazine background, what kind of perspective did you have in terms of, you know, relative neutrality or advocacy in having your point of view be a part of the point of view of the article itself?
HAYES: So I came up through the left media, largely. I started writing for the Chicago Reader, which is not the left media. They don't have an explicit ideological agenda, but it is from the alternative weekly world in which there's not a real - they're not as worried about neutrality in the traditional sense as if you were, you know, a reporter at the New York Times, for instance.
My entire journalistic upbringing has been in a world in which it was just assumed that you had a point of view and that point of view was clear. And so I really think that having a very clear, transparent, evaluative framework, like I do, which is I'm coming from the left, I'm proudly a product of the American left, that that A) lets people know where I'm coming from so there's no trickery, there's no bait and switch; and also I think allows people to put sets of facts into an evaluative framework that can be very useful for them to make their own judgments.
And the other thing I will say is, you know, some set of positions get coded as neutral or non-ideological despite the fact they're deeply ideological. And the perfect example of this is on our deficit conversation, a grand bargain. You can advocate for a grand bargain even if you're not an ostensibly ideological journalist because that's the obvious, clearly sensible center of the political conversation: We should come together and everyone should work in a bipartisan fashion and figure this out, and both sides should give and take a little bit.
But that itself is a deeply ideological position. That is embedded with a set of assumptions and values about how the world should be that are very distinct and not neutral at all. And I think what I have a problem with isn't the notion of neutral or objective journalism, because there is tons of it that's remarkable and incredible. It's when neutral or objective - ostensibly neutral or objective journalism smuggles in a whole bunch of normative assumptions about how the world should be.
And I think that ends up being deeply insidious and unfair to the consumer.
GROSS: So your new show on MSNBC at 8:00 weekday nights is going to be on opposite Bill O'Reilly. How much have you watched his show over the years?
HAYES: I have watched his show very, very, very little. I will say this: I do not think - I do not think I've ever sat and watched an entire - I'm positive I have never watched an hour of the O'Reilly show. I have seen clips online when something happens.
You know, there are certain people - I have discovered this phenomenon in my life as a television host on MSNBC. There are certain people who really like to hate-watch things, which is to watch stuff that drives them bananas, and then, you know, and tweet about it. I'm not one of those people. You know, obviously what O'Reilly does is remarkably successful from a ratings perspective, but I also think - I think there is a tremendous amount of inherited wisdom about what works in cable news, some of which is perceptive and wise and a lot of which is just not grounded in any real rigorous analysis or empirical analysis.
And so when people say, well, you're up against Bill O'Reilly, I just - it's really unclear to me - it's genuinely unclear to me whether that's true in any real sense, which is to say if we are competing for the same pool of viewers. I genuinely don't think of myself as in competition with Bill O'Reilly or in relationship to him in any real way. I think of myself as in - having a relationship with the viewers, building a viewing audience that I have a relationship with and trying to grow that.
I mean believe me, I want as big an audience as possible, but the conventional wisdom about this being a competition with Bill O'Reilly is not necessarily accurate.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chris Hayes, and he has been hosting the weekend morning, early morning show "Up," but Monday he begins a new show evenings at 8:00, weekday evenings at 8:00. We'll talk some more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Chris Hayes. Monday night he begins anchoring a new show on MSNBC called "All In." For the past 18 months he hosted the show "Up" Saturday and Sunday mornings on MSNBC.
So you've had a few things that were said on your show "Up" that were amplified and made, you know, big news in the media, and other shows were talking about what was said on your show. So give us an example of one of those and what it felt like to have a clip from your show be such a part of the news day. I don't know if you want to go with Robert Gibbs or...
HAYES: Sure. Yeah, I mean recently we had Robert Gibbs, who has recently become an MSNBC contributor. Obviously he was White House press secretary for a while and an advisor to the president. And he was on our show, and we were discussing drones and the drone program. And we played a clip of him and his successor, Jay Carney, a montage of them not just denying the drone program but refusing to even acknowledge it existed in this tremendously awkward way.
And we played it to him, and I just sort of asked him: How tenable is this? We all know the U.S. is operating drones. We know that people are being killed. Some of them are people that we have reasonably good evidence are members of al-Qaida or al-Qaida affiliated or jihadis, many of whom are civilians. How tenable is it to go up there and pretend that you don't know what everyone else knows?
And Gibbs gave this incredible, spontaneous, honest answer. He said one of the first things I was told when I was training to become press secretary during the transition was don't say anything about drones. Pretend you don't know it exists. Don't even touch it. And soon as I heard the word drones coming out of the mouth of the reporter, I went into an internal place of I don't know what you're talking about.
And that was a pretty startling admission. I think one of the biggest problems with the drone program has been this total lack of transparency, and not only lack of transparency; there's something deeper than a lack of transparency, which is genuine bad faith, which is to say everyone in this room knows what's going on and you're going to pretend that you don't know what's going on.
But we know you know what's going on. And Gibbs was very honest about that. And that got a lot of pickup, and it got a lot of subsequent attention, and I was proud of it. I thought it was A) it was a good moment of television because it was genuinely unexpected, which is always nice on cable news; and two, it was a material bit of useful reporting about what the administration's internal conversations and posture towards secrecy vis-a-vis the drone program have been.
GROSS: And it, I'm sure, also made you wonder, well, think about the difficulty of getting information from official spokespeople.
HAYES: Yeah, I find myself lucky to not be in the position where that's - I don't spend all day beating my head against official spokespeople, but if I did, I would be massively frustrated.
GROSS: I want to talk with you a little bit about your background. You got a BA in philosophy, though I read someplace it was philosophy of mathematics. So you tell me.
HAYES: Yeah, it was a philosophy degree at Brown. The sub-concentration or specialty was philosophy of math, specifically logic, deductive logic, Goedel's theorem, stuff like that. I think for some reason my intellectual pursuits in college led me towards higher and higher levels of abstraction. I felt like I was chasing - I was trying to chase the most abstract possible form of knowledge and ended up in logic, which is not a particularly, I don't know, accessible or useful area of knowledge. But it was incredible intellectual training.
GROSS: It's just interesting that you went further and further into abstraction in college, and politics is so kind of present and practical. It's about the real world and real policies and voting yes or voting no, getting votes, you know, explaining infrastructure. It's not the world of abstraction.
HAYES: No, I mean I moved in the opposite direction in terms of abstraction since my college years. I think that the training I got as - in philosophy was incredible, which was just clear argumentation, clear reasoning, being critical of one's own arguments and of other's arguments and whether they follow logically.
But yeah, I think I decided pretty quickly after college that, you know, I want to be engaged in the world. And journalism seemed like this great way to be professionally curious, to constantly be learning for a living but also be deeply engaged in the world. And that was what was so attractive to me about it when I got out of school.
GROSS: So did logic in the realm of abstraction, was it still helpful in being able to say to somebody who is making a political argument that really was illogical, what you're saying makes no sense and here's why? What you're saying doesn't follow - what you're saying doesn't work based on the facts, and here's why.
HAYES: Yeah, I mean I - I think we do that all the time on the show. I think that that's how I - I evaluate every argument through the framework of philosophy and of logic and whether things do follow from the premises. And the other - the flipside of that, which I also think is a very useful undertaking, which we try to do on the show, and I don't think we do enough, is actually to follow out the logical conclusion of a set of premises, which is to take them to their extreme and see where they lead you, either as a way of refuting the argument or sometimes as a way of pushing out the boundaries of, you know, of our policy discussion.
Someone says on immigration, well, how many people should we let in? There's an embedded premise there, right, that there's some cap that we should - there should be a small number. And maybe that embedded premise is wrong. Maybe we should have completely open borders. Now, I don't think that would work pragmatically, but it's useful to think about what that world looks like, what that policy framework looks like, why that isn't going to work, before just concluding that it doesn't.
And I think we get very confined in our political conversations, sometimes overly confined to what is possible, what's being said, what's on the table, and we all benefit from pushing out those boundaries.
GROSS: When you were in college, in addition to diving into abstractions, you also acted in, wrote and directed plays. So talk a little bit about your - the theater side of you.
HAYES: You know, I fell in love with the theater when I was in high school. The first time I was cast in a play, I'll never forget it. It was a student-written play. It took place in heaven, I want to say, and I was playing the role of Moses. And the joke was that Moses was very young, right? That this was heaven and like the Grim Reaper was there, who was super-old, and because I was a seventh-grader in this school that went from seventh to 12th - or eighth-grader, I guess, I was cast in the role as the young Moses.
And I had some line, and I can't remember what the line was, but I had a punchline and I said the line, and I will never forget the feeling of the way - the eruption of laughter in the darkened theater, out past the lights where you couldn't see people but you could hear them breathing, and you could hear them laughing, and that incredible feeling of connection and aliveness that comes from live theater.
And I was super-hooked, and I spent a lot of time in high school doing it, I spent a lot of times in college doing it, and I just love - I love the theater. I love - I loved writing, I loved directing, I loved acting, I loved the feeling of a bunch of people in a room together experiencing something together in real time. And the hilarious, you know, punch line to this story is that I ended up kind of doing it for a living.
I mean I do perform for a living. After going away from theater for many years and being a written - a print journalist, I'm now in a position where I, you know, I'm kind of back on that stage like I was when I was 12.
GROSS: Chris Hayes will be back in the second half of the show. His new MSNBC program, "All In," premieres Monday evening. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Chris Hayes. On Monday, he premiers his new week night program on MSNBC called "All In with Chris Hayes." For the past 18 months, he hosted an early morning show Saturdays and Sundays on MSNBC called "Up." Hayes is also a contributing editor at "The Nation," and author of the book "Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy." When we left off, we were talking about his background in theater.
So, as you said, you are performing now in front of cameras, though you are performing as yourself. So do what you do before performance, so to speak? Like when you started in television, did you get a makeover at all, like hipper glasses or a different haircut?
CHRIS HAYES: You know, it's funny. I encounter people all the time who think there is some great machinery behind the scenes of how making people look a certain way. There are...
GROSS: There often is.
HAYES: Well, there are incredibly, incredibly hair and makeup people in 30 Rock, who make everyone look good. But there was never any stylist assigned to me or anyone buying the clothes. In fact, my boss, Phil Griffin, in an article the other day was quoted as saying, "I don't tell people what to wear," which is a thousand percent true. I've never been told what to wear at all and I think that's a testament to him. So there was no real makeover. I mean the thing that happens is - and it's a very bizarre experience.
What happens is you start noticing that people are noticing how you look, and it is a profoundly alienating experience when it first happens, where you go on TV and you say something about some topic of the day, and on the Internet people are like, what was up with that shirt?
HAYES: What was up with your hair? And you think, oh, that's kind of a bummer. I think, actually, as a man it was a really useful, tiny sliver of - a tiny, empathetic window - into what navigating the world as a woman often is, in which looks are so foregrounded and so scrutinized and so discussed. It was really alienating at first. And I think you get a tougher skin about it as you gone through it. But it is strange to have people pay such careful attention to your appearance.
GROSS: OK. So you mentioned reading what people were saying on the Internet - probably Twitter. So how closely do you pay attention to that?
HAYES: I'm tempted to lie to you and say I don't, but I'll tell you the truth, which is that I, yeah, I read almost all of it. I think it can be really toxic and destructive if you let it be. I also think we have - we've established a relationship with our viewers, which is usually pretty constructive, and people often will point to things that we've missed. Or some time I've actually had things I say corrected on air, live, by someone tweeting at me and I see it during a commercial break and then send it into the control room and they verify that in fact, I got it wrong and we corrected on air in the next segment. And all that is because of that amazing informed viewership and also wisdom of the crowd's effect. So there's real benefit, I think, to engaging and reading Twitter responses. There's also, you know, there's a lot of like really nasty things that people say that hurt your feelings. And if - at a certain point I worry about, I do worry about what it is does to your psyche and your soul over time if you get to the point where it stops hurting your feelings, if something vital and human and important inside you has died.
GROSS: So during a commercial break, instead of like looking at your notes, or taking a few deep breaths, you're looking at the Twitter feed?
HAYES: Almost always, yeah. And sometimes it's often...
GROSS: Isn't that distracting though?
HAYES: I don't find it distracting. I actually usually find it pretty useful, a lot of times because people will - I mean a lot of times people will point out a question or an avenue of conversation that I had missed, which I find useful. A lot of times during commercial break we just keep the conversation going too. I'm not, sort of, constantly on the Twitter feed. But, no, I don't find it distracting.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chris Hayes and he starts a new MSNBC show, eight o'clock, Monday and weeknights at eight. And prior to that, he hosted the early morning weekend show called "Up" on MSNBC.
So you have a book that was published just a few months ago which is called "Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy." So let's start with you explaining what meritocracy means.
HAYES: Meritocracy is the name we give to a pretty old idea that goes back to the genesis of the nation. Which is basically this idea that, you know, in America more than anywhere else, people can rise or fall based on their merit, on their abilities. That we are untethered to the feudal legacy of Europe in which birth and cast were determined who ruled. We don't have aristocracies, instead we have this kind of wide open society in which industrious, smart, talented individuals from any walk of life can prove themselves and be funneled through a set of institutions - whether those are universities or in the private market - to get to the top of society. And so the people that are at the top of society - whether it's in government or in business, or in academia - those are the people who deserve to be there because they have climbed this pyramid and had not been born into it. And that's the basic idea behind meritocracy when we talk about it.
GROSS: So, you know, meritocracy was an answer to, like, a power elite. And you're arguing that meritocracy has become an elite, but just a different kind of elite. So in what way do you think meritocracy has become an elite?
HAYES: The grand paradox here is that during the period of time in which we've most tightly embraced the vision of meritocracy, which is sort of I think in the wake of the '60s Revolutions - both in civil rights and second wave feminism, and then subsequently, LGBT rights - right? In that period of time in which we've said look, it doesn't matter if you're gay or straight, black or white, man or woman, whatever creed, you know, you, you can gain entrance into the American elite. It is not closed off to you. It's not just some small clique of WASPy, male Northeasterners, right? In that same period of time, the numbers bear out that social mobility - actual social mobility as measured in this country - is declining and inequality is massively accelerating. So the thing that we say we want from our social order, which is this social mobility, which is the Barack Obama's of the world, born - you know, born to a single mom, son of an immigrant, can rise to be president of the United States, and a kid, a Dominican kid from the Bronx can be managing partner at Goldman Sachs, those things we want. We latch onto the individual examples that make us think it's happening, but broadly, socially, we're actually experiencing declining social mobility. We're seeing a society that re-inscribes boundaries of race, largely through the criminal justice system. We are seeing things as basic as the predictor of the kid's SAT scores, the best predictor of the kid's SAT scores, is his or her parent's income. All of the mechanisms of intergenerational determination of life's outcomes that the meritocracy is supposed to get rid of, are getting stronger and stronger over time. And so, what we have to look in the face is that the social order is not delivering the very thing that we say it should deliver.
GROSS: One of the arguments you make is that we need to build a coalition of the radicalized upper-middle-class. What are you thinking?
HAYES: I think that the last decade of American life, which has been really rough on people, was roughest on the poorest, but also roughest on the poorest who themselves experienced this decade in great continuity with the previous decade. The folks that felt this last decade as a greater betrayal or discontinuity, I think, were people further up the socioeconomic scale, the upper-middle-class, who thought that they had done the stuff needed to be delivered the promises that they believed had been made. Whether that's having a pension fund that you could retire in, whether that means some control or determination of your employment. And so what I think has happened is there's a real opening for radicalization, and we've seen it on both sides of the political spectrum. I think we've seen it in the Tea Party, we've seen it through Occupy Wall Street. There's a real opening for radicalization among people who are in the upper-middle-class who have it relatively well but who have experienced the dislocations and crises of this past 10-12 years as more acutely a betrayal of what they thought things were like. That there is an opening among them to join in a coalition in solidarity with people beneath them on the socioeconomic scale, who have been ground to dust by some of the same forces for a very long time.
And I think that was part of the embedded logic of this 99 percent, one percent framework that Occupy Wall Street adopted. Which was, if you're in the 90 percent, you think your class interests are aligned with the people above you, but really, they're aligned with the people below you. Because of the way the political economy works, is that fewer and fewer people are capturing more and more of the gains. And you may think that you're on the inside of that circle, but actually, you're on the outside and you should join your interests up with the person that waits tables on you, or the person that provides daycare to you or the undocumented immigrant who works on your lawn - that you can ally your interests with them to fight for a more just future because you are actually on their side and not on the side of the people above you.
GROSS: Would you put yourself in the radicalized upper-middle-class?
HAYES: I think I got radicalized before I became a member of the upper-middle-class.
GROSS: OK. Well, what radicalized you?
HAYES: This decade radicalized me. I mean, Iraq and the financial crisis radicalized me. It's funny, I became more radical over the course of the decade because, you know, my disposition. I think people have politics and then they have personality disposition and sometimes those cut against each other in interesting ways. Like my politics are left, but my disposition as a human being is like I am kind of a go along to get along person. I tend to trust authority. I think I tend to think people in charge broadly know what they're doing, don't lie to you, aren't going to start wars for no reason. And, you know, watching Iraq happen and then watching the financial crisis happen, and Katrina in the middle of that, you know, you just, you turn around and you think, wait a second, no one is on top of anything. Who the heck is in charge here? These people say that they know what they're doing, don't know what they're doing. I'm not going to trust them next time they tell me they know what they're doing.
It's a radically unmooring feeling to recognize that people that you just figured kind of had it under control don't have it under control and might be totally incompetent, or completely corrupt or totally self-dealing. And watching, you know, watching 4,400 Americans killed in Iraq and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians; watching 1,800 of our fellow citizens drown in the waters of Katrina; and then watching trillions of dollars of housing wealth evaporate and literally destroy the dreams and lives of millions of people who had nothing to do with creating the problem, has really made me deeply skeptical of power, and the concentration of power, and the voice that power uses and power's assertion of expertise and knowledge, which I no longer simply, de facto, trust.
GROSS: My guest is Chris Hayes. His new program, "All In," starts Monday evening on MSNBC. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Chris Hayes. And he starts a new show on MSNBC Monday at 8 o'clock, and it will be weeknights at eight. Including Friday's?
HAYES: Including Friday. Five days a week.
GROSS: Have fun, Chris.
HAYES: Working a real job.
GROSS: So you mentioned earlier, that when you were young there were a lot of like political arguments around the dinner table, that your family was all really, kind of, politically engaged. And there were these lively discussions and disagreements. And I'm wondering if that taught you that you can disagree with somebody and be part of the same family; that you can disagree and still love somebody and still get along; and if that helps you as a host. And if there's times when you disagree and still like the person and can get along; and other times when you disagree and think like, this person is so corrupt, this person is so self-serving, like I'm not going to like that anyways, you know?
GROSS: I'm going to disagree and not like them.
HAYES: I think - I actually think the funny thing is I think that disagreements that happened were usually fairly collegial. But I actually grew up hating conflict of all kinds. And I think one the things I've had to get over, the first time that we did a rehearsal for the show it was what we call a Paper Show, which is we were just sitting in a conference room with scripts. There's no Teleprompter, no set, but we had people in and we tried to basically say well, this is what the show is going to be like. And two people started really going at it with each other and I got, I totally freaked out afterwards. I was like, I hate that. I hate that. I hate conflict.
HAYES: That - ugh, ugh, it really shook me up. And actually, I think, I went into this having a much lower tolerance for conflict than I have now. I think I've learned to let things breath. I think I've learned that, you know, people arguing, as long as it stays civil and not ad homonym, can be - really be illuminating. And yeah, I sometimes, there are people on my show who I disagree with, profoundly on everything political, but have deep affection for.
And there are people on my show who I disagree with politically and they get off set and I think, I do not like that person.
GROSS: But I think it's good you're obviously not in this because you're out for blood and you love to see people fight, which is sometimes the impression you get in some panel discussion programs.
HAYES: Oh, yeah. And I also think part of that - part of the reason that the love to see people fight attitude is present in some television, is because, going back to our previous conversation about ratings, there's a sense that that's what rates. And people are trying to reverse engineer ratings. You know, we have this phrase on the staff of "Up" which is simmer, not boil.
Which is our ideal space for a conversation, right? That things are simmering. There's tension and disagreement but people aren't shouting at each other. And in some ways, you know, that's the making of good drama. I mean, you know, Joe Pesci in "Goodfellas" when he's, you know, what? You think I'm funny? That whole extended monologue, right? That is so compelling because he doesn't explode. It's just there.
The whole first part of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" when they're taking shots at each other, these kind of passive aggressive digs before the big explosion, that is incredibly compelling stuff because all the tension is right there; the subtext is so loaded, it's on the surface but it is not boiling over. It's not explosive. And I think that's kind of what we go for, you know, from a dramatic perspective in our show.
GROSS: So one more question. There was an MSNBC commercial, you know, because all the hosts do come - do, like, commercial breaks in which they talk about who they are or what they believe, and one of yours was you biking into work and...
GROSS: And can you still do that? Is your face too familiar for you to bike into work now?
HAYES: Oh, no. I could except, sadly, my bike was stolen.
HAYES: So that's actually the biggest obstacle to it. No, I mean in some ways you're more - on your bike you have more privacy than sitting on the F train, you know, in which you're packed in with a bunch of other people. So, yeah. I still like - well, when I had my bike - I have to get another one. It's one of these items that lingers on the to do list and there's a lot of those these days with trying to get everything up.
GROSS: OK. So now I just have this image of you packed in on the F train and standing next to somebody who's very conservative but watches your show anyways, maybe hate watches your show.
GROSS: And wants to argue politics with you. Does that happen?
HAYES: Blessedly that has not happened so far.
HAYES: I think, you know, yeah, that would be taxing, for sure. One of the things about, you know, the Balkanization of audiences in our current media environment, is that 99.9 percent of the people who recognize me are, essentially, like-minded, politically, or watch MSNBC. So I've been lucky in that I don't have a lot of run-ins with people who see me, recognize me, and just want to run up and start arguing or fighting about politics.
And that would be super, super lame.
GROSS: Do you feel - you know, you mentioned the Balkanization of politics. Do you feel that MSNBC is contributing to that in any way, by being, like, you know, the lean forward, the left-leaning cable channel?
HAYES: I think it's much more a symptom of it than a cause. You know, my large sense is, there is an audience that is polarized already, that is, you know, that we are speaking to. I think it's not quite as neat as that, of course, because there is a relationship between the two. So I think sometimes our network is part of the polarization machine. But I also think that there's things that are good about polarization. You know?
You know, I think that people that believe that the Voting Rights Act is absolutely important and shouldn't be overruled by the Supreme Court should have a place to go where other people feel the same way - you know, pretty ticked off about the specter of the Supreme Court striking down this act of Congress. You know, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
I mean, to bring it back around to this conflict question, I'm dispositionally conflict averse but my politics relish conflict because I think, you know, I'm the son of an organizer and, you know, what organizing is, is finding productive conflict and productive tension. And sometimes our beltway establishment views conflict, itself, as the problem.
As if politics would be better if everyone agreed or everyone got along. No. Politics is inherently, inevitably, and inescapably about conflict - about people with conflicting interests, conflicting conceptions of the good, different things they want to see happen in the world. And so that's going to play out in all sorts of ways. And I don't think there's anything innately wrong about a universe in which there's a left media and a right media.
In fact, you know, that has been the case for much of the country's history.
GROSS: Well, Chris Hayes, thank you so much for talking with us. I wish you good luck with your new show.
HAYES: Thank you. I can't tell you what a massive fan I am of your show. So thanks for having me on.
GROSS: Oh, that means so much to me. Thank you. Chris Hayes starts his new MSNBC weeknight program "All In" Monday night at 8 o'clock Eastern Time. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel "A Thousand Pardons" by Jonathan Dee. His previous novel was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review of Jonathan Dee's new novel "A Thousand Pardons." He's a contributing writer for the New York Times magazine and his previous novel, "The Privileges," was a Pulitzer-Prize finalist.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Jonathan Dee likes to write about rich, good-looking people falling apart - and who, among the 99 percent of us, can't enjoy that plot? In "The Privileges," the dad of the family was a Wall Street trader tempted by existential boredom into larceny. In "A Thousand Pardons" the dad of the family is a partner in a New York law firm tempted by existential boredom into a disastrous workplace affair.
The women in Dee's recent fiction tend to be decorative stay at home moms - that is, until the spontaneous combustion of hubby's career expels them out of their silken domestic cocoons. There's nowhere to go but down for Dee's characters and we groundlings clap as they plummet, losing bank accounts, houses, furniture, and good school systems on their descent into the economic maelstrom.
The opening scene in "A Thousand Pardons" is a triumph of pacing tone and narrative technique. Helen Armstead is sitting in her well appointed home in a tony New York bedroom community waiting impatiently for husband Ben to arrive. It's Tuesday night, date night in the Armstead house. Obnoxious 12 year old daughter Sarah, a soccer star of course, is eating dinner in front of the TV, transfixed by some reality show about rich girls.
Helen looks at the kitchen clock and our narrator, who floats in and out of the character's minds, comments: 6:50. Mr. Passive-Aggressive strikes again. Helen wasn't always confident she understood that expression correctly, passive-aggressive, but she referred to it instinctively whenever Ben failed to do something he had promised her he would do. Ben finally arrives and he and Helen leave the house.
That's when we readers learn that date night is really a cover story for the Armstead's daughter. They're really going to couples therapy every week. Ben has been acting like a zombie for over a year and Helen desperately wants the answer to the age-old question can this marriage be saved. I'll spare you the suspense - the answer, delivered in short order, is nope.
In the pages that follow, "A Thousand Pardons" agreeably morphs into the kind of female adventure story that's become the literary trademark of a Jodi Picoult or Susan Isaacs. Helen, at 43, must find a job, and in agreeable fairytale fashion, she lands one at a crumbling public relations firm. It turns out that Helen has a hidden talent - she's a wiz at getting powerful men to apologize.
Clients include a Chinese restaurant owner who's gotten bad press for lousy treatment of his workers and a queen's congressman who's been caught on camera punching his mistress. Helen convinces these creeps to do a full grovel. In short order, they're forgiven by the public and Helen's PR career soars. The only person Helen's redemptive gift doesn't work on is her by-now ex-husband Ben who's been fired and is being sued for attempted sexual assault by a summer intern at his former firm.
I'll stop the plot summary there, which is only two chapters into this inventive novel that boomerangs in all sorts of surprising and somewhat implausible directions. Given that Dee is such a precise, dry, and cynical writer; and given the class resentments that his plot stoke, I wonder - not for the first time - why I don't like his books more. Maybe the answer lies in his distinctive atmosphere.
Most of Dee's key characters are so cool, so jaded, so whatever, it's like they overmedicate. At the end of this novel Helen, the one character here with blood coursing through her veins, is told by her snotty daughter that she basically cares too much about everybody else. Is that the takeaway here? I'm really going to sound like a Victorian moralist, but when I read a novel where characters lose their jobs and their houses, where families fall apart, I want I tall to mean something.
I even might want a lesson or two. "A Thousand Pardons" is a fine novel technically but ultimately, whatever. Dee's ennui is contagious.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "A Thousand Pardons" by Jonathan Dee. You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org.
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