As podcasting grows as both an entertainment medium and informative service, many are hoping to provide cogent insight into current events in a digestible format. To learn more about how podcasts are changing journalism and even pushing longtime journalists to move formats, we spoke with Al Hunt, columnist and host of 2020 Politics War Room.
ABERMAN:Tell us about 2020 Politics War Room, your new podcast. What’s it about?
HUNT: Well, it’s about politics, and the 2020 election. We’ll throw in some impeachment. I’m doing it with James Carville, who probably knows as much about politics as anyone I’ve known. And I think I know a little bit about journalism. I’ll tell you how it started, which is sort of interesting. I was having breakfast with a wonderful young man named Peter Greenberger, who used to run Twitter in Washington. Now he’s a publisher at The Hill. And he said there’s a Toronto company that really would like to really spend a lot on podcasting. Would you think about it, and how would you do it?
In the middle of that I got a phone call from James Carville, who I have talked to every day just about for the last 27 years, ever since we had a fight over a story which ran in 1992. And Mr. Greenberger said, bam, that’s it. The two of you talk every day. Just carry that onto a podcast. We began at the Toronto company, sold about a month later, but we began to do it. And even though it was really schlocky, the technology was just dreadful. We would have breakdowns, we’d have guests and then we couldn’t get them. But we had fun, and we found that we could get good guests. And then, we talked to Jeremiah and Tracy, who know how to do these sorts of things. And now we’ve launched 2020 Politics War Room in November, and we’re very excited.
ABERMAN: I think about you and your background as a journalist. I think about James Carville and his background was as a political commentator. What do you think it says about podcasts as a medium that the two of you are embracing it?
HUNT: Well, first of all, you have to understand, we are total Luddites, Jonathan.James just started emailing a couple months ago. The business is changing, information is changing, journalism is changing. And this is really, I think, one of the exciting new mediums. Someone told me there are 800,000 podcasts in America. I don’t know if that’s a right figure, but there are lots every day. And I began listening to Pod Save America about a year ago. And I thought, boy, this is interesting. It really is. They have casual conversations, the same way you do. And they talk about interesting topics. Sometimes it’s better than other times. And we thought, particularly when it comes to what we think will be the most intense political election, and the most citizen-involved and voter-involved political election in my lifetime, that based on his many years in the politics business, and my many years covering it, that we might be able to add some value.
ABERMAN: What is it about politics? Because, you know, you’ve done Meet the Press, you’ve done CNN, you’ve done journalism, written and so forth, which is fast paced. What is it about podcasts that differentiates it, in your mind?
HUNT: Well, time helps. I mean, when you have whatever it is, 40, 45, 50 minutes, you can have a conversation. It’s the way you do it, Jonathan. It doesn’t have to be an interview. Here’s question number one. Here’s question number seven. Here’s the follow up. It is much more of a conversation. Mr. Carville has very strong opinions. I might also. So, it’s not like we shy from that. But having that conversation can be, I think, very useful. We began, weeks ago, on our first conversation with the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. And yeah, we asked the sorts of questions that she’d be asked on Meet the Press. But I think it really was more of a conversational 25 or 30 minutes than would have been the case on one of those Sunday shows.
ABERMAN: So, it’s the immediacy of the art form. But when I think about journalism generally, and I think about the whole issue of information integrity and putting yourself in the mind of the reader, is it really that different?
HUNT: No, I don’t think it is in some ways. In some ways, of course, it’s a great deal different. But the way it’s not different is, what you’re trying to do is help the listener, or help the viewer, or help the reader understand what’s happening. And sometimes, you do that in more of an analytical opinion way, and sometimes you do that more in the way of straight news. I teach a course on press and politics at the University of Pennsylvania, and I teach one down here. I forbid them, from day one, to use the term objective, because that’s what we always talk about, objective journalism. And I try to make the case it doesn’t exist. Every story we ever write, or every story we ever broadcast, we decide what story to do. We decide what to lead with.
We decide who to quote, we decide what facts to marshal. So, that’s very subjective. What we want to do is be fair and honest. And I think what we’re going to do in our podcast is, we’re not going to pretend that we’re balanced, if you will. We’re not going to pretend that we’re right down the middle. We have a point of view. It’s probably a left of center point of view. But we’ll get interesting guests, and we’ll try to give people a little more information on what’s happening. James in particular can talk about, OK, here’s the Warren campaign. Here’s what I know they’re thinking right now. They’re probably having a Sunday meeting in the campaign manager’s office, because that’s what every campaign does. And here’s their considerations, and here’s why it matters. And we’ll try to analyze some of the substance of the issues. We’ve been very critical, for instance, of the of the Medicare for all single payer system, both politically and substantively.
ABERMAN: So it’s interesting to me, because I struggle with this, too, all the time, with my work in economic development and trying to speak for the region on the show. I do believe that there is an objective right and wrong. Otherwise, you know, the opinion just exists in a sea of subjectivity. How do you find that touchstone?
HUNT: Well, there’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said: everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but they’re not entitled to their own facts. And there are facts. And I think we’ve learned that lesson painfully in the last three years. And I think that’s different than my critique of talking about objective journalism. That didn’t have to do with whether there are facts or not. That had to do with the fact that we make decisions, subjective decisions all the time. I think in this age with the proliferation of so many different sources and outlets…
The Internet’s a great thing. On balance, no question it’s done a lot more good than harm, but it’s done some harm, too. Because there are people who just can’t spend a lot of time trying to navigate that, and look at one or two sites. I mean, I’ll give an example. In the last presidential election, there was a story that went out that got more attention for the last week or two in October than almost any other piece online. That was: the pope endorses Donald Trump. That was total fake news. And so, I think it’s a problem. I think we have a real problem.
ABERMAN: How do you think we could deal with this as a society? Because it does feel that we’re drowning in a sea of subjectivity, or, quote, alternative facts. And what’s the answer? Is it the reconstitution of traditional journalism, the emergence of The Washington Post or The Times? Or is it citizens like you, with value propositions, where people know that you do your best to tell the truth? How do we get through this?
HUNT: I think the only answer is really good reporting and good analysis. I don’t know any other answer. I think it’s a challenge. It’s probably a greater challenge, in many ways, than it was 25 years ago. Two of the of the outlets you just alluded to, The Washington Post and the New York Times, are grounds for great encouragement. They were considered the old school, the legacy outlets that were yesterday, if you will. And my dear friend Jill Abramson wrote a book, and I think when she began that book, she was writing about The Times and the Post and Vice, and BuzzFeed, I think. And the premise going in was that Vice and BuzzFeed are the future, and the Times and the Post might be yesterday. But by the time she finished the book, it had turned around. And I think in part, that’s due to the fact that everything and anything you do has to do with ownership or who’s doing it. And the Post has been fortunate that a billionaire bought it who doesn’t interfere with their news.
ABERMAN: We’ve come full circle in some ways. I can’t leave you without asking a bit about this. You’ve launched this 2020 podcast, War Room, at a time where we we’re going through impeachment. We’re headed into the election. How do you see this all ending? Do you think that we’re going to ever return to some sort of normality, or is the world we’re living in now pretty much the world we’re going to be living in?
HUNT: For the foreseeable future, it’s going to be a world like we’re living in. I don’t think we’re going to have Donald Trump forever. To me, that’s a good thing that we’re not going to have him forever. But I think this sort of semi-chaos, if you will, polarization, sometimes bitter fights over things that really aren’t very big, I think that’s going to continue for a while. And I hope that’s what we can do with 2020 Politics War Room: that we can at least give a context. Between us, we are really old. We’ve had 98 years of experience combined, and that’s a disadvantage to some extent, in the sense that we’re not with it, as my kid would say. But we also have that context. I think that context is important. I mean, just to give you one example, Jonathan, we’re going through impeachment. We’ll spend a lot of time talking about impeachment the next month or two. I covered the House Judiciary Committee in 1974. And history matters. And so, I really hope that we can provide some context. I also hope we can have some fun. With James Carville, it’s never dull.
ABERMAN: I’ve had him on other shows in the past. You’re absolutely right. It’s never dull. I remember doing an interview with him, and we were going along, and he said, are we done now? And I said, yes, we are. And we’re done with you as well. Al Hunt, thank you for taking the time today. It was great to have you on the show. And I’m looking forward, myself, to be an avid listener of 2020 Politics War Room.