< Christopher Hayes on Campaign Coverage

Transcript

Friday, February 10, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

In 2008 we spoke to The Nation's Washington Editor Chris Hayes, who was fresh off the campaign trail. He was tired but he vowed to never again lose himself in campaign minutiae at the expense of the big picture.

Hayes is now editor at large at The Nation and host of Up with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, a weekly show that covers a range of issues, including politics. We wondered how's that vow holding up? Chris, welcome back to the show.

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

It's great to be back.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So we spoke to you fresh off the campaign trail four years ago, and you were — shall we say, underwhelmed by the experience. You said:

[CLIP FROM 2008]:

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

"Well, it's a combination of the superficiality borne of time constraints and the lack of expertise by the people doing the coverage, combined with a herd mentality that is the inevitable result of, of the terror of being on the campaign trail."

[END CLIP]

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

That was harsh.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHS]

[LAUGHTER]

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

I think that we, in some ways, have been rightly chastened by the experience of 2008. There were two huge predictive overreaches that happened in that campaign. One was all of the punditry and commentary that happened in the winter of 2007, before the Iowa votes had been cast that basically said Barack Obama's incapable of eating into Hilary Clinton's lead, Hilary Clinton is inevitable.

And then after the stunning victory for Barack Obama in Iowa, there was a whole bevy of commentary about how he would roll through New Hampshire and sew up the nomination. And what happened was far more unpredictable and fascinating that either of those scenarios, and the experience of that, I think, has rightly chastened the press corps.

The downside is that I think — and I'm — and let me speak for myself here — the experience of 2008 has forced me to entertain more seriously what would seem inconceivable, for instance, Herman Cain as the next Republican nominee [LAUGHS].

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Why do you think it's evidence of being chastened that people are taking this endless run of candidates, one after the other, seriously, based on results that have no predictive meaning?

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

There were a lot of people, let us remember, who thought it was preposterous and unserious for Barack Obama, the man with the name Barack Obama, to be running for President of the United States. The unlikeliness of that turn of events does have to factor in to how you consider who is serious and who is not. So on one level, you don't want to be a gatekeeper, you don't want to tell people who should be considered serious and who isn't.

At the same time, you don't want to indulge the worst aspects of the news cycle freak show trivinalia and spend tons of time talking about say, Donald Trump.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

I'm not saying that you should say Herman Cain isn't serious or Michele Bachmann isn't serious. I simply think that these contests are blown out of proportion and they ought to be put in perspective, along with the polls. I mean, the word "momentum" makes me want to tear the flesh from my face.

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

I — feel the same way about the notion of momentum, and I think it's just hard when we don't have a ton of information, other than these polls, to figure out where voters' minds are at. And that's a basic problem of all political reporting everywhere.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Okay. So how do you cover something like Rick Santorum's recent caucus victories on Tuesday, while also making it clear that actually, they're not very consequential?

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

There's basically two ways, I think, we've approached this problem of, of covering the GOP race. One is to think of it as a sort of hermeneutic exercise in which it says something about that set of voters that in three different states Rick Santorum won in the wake of a bunch of news about different social issues. That's one way, I think, to approach it.

The other way is to use the opportunity of the campaign to talk about substance.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

What you call the pivot technique?

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

Right. At a certain point you feel like you're filling a news hole with no new information. It's become a way to deal with that fundamental problem. You know, I saw a bunch of stories in the wake of Mitt Romney's gaffe the morning after he won Florida, when talking to Soledad O'Brien, in which he said he, quote, " didn't care about poor people" — I saw a bunch of people say, you know, he misspoke there but what does the actual Romney tax plan and policy proposals do for poor people. That's a way of using the news cycle to talk about substance.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

In the political coverage that you've provided so far, either as an editor at The Nation or as the host of this MSNBC show, what is the moment you are most proud of, and what's the moment you're least proud of?

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

I do think that the campaign discussions we've had on the show have been either entertaining, 'cause there's a certain water cooler quality to watching this all unfold, or illuminating. I think the harder thing to necessarily defend every decision on is how much time we have devoted to it, at what stages.

If I went back and you showed me, you know, while 200 people were getting killed by their government every day in Syria, you were talking about Herman Cain, that's a harder choice [LAUGHS] to defend, based purely on, on news value.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So then what would you say to that political sage we spoke to back in 2008 who said:

[2008 CLIP]:

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

I just think that there's too much quantity right now in political coverage.

[END CLIP]

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

I still agree.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHS]

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

I mean, I — I still agree. But I do think there are increasingly ways to make lemonade out of the lemons. I think there are ways to approach covering the campaign that allow you to talk about genuinely fascinating, important substantive issues, amidst all the mishigas of the flavor of the week.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Okay, thank you so much.

CHRISTOPHER HAYES:

Thank you.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Christopher Hayes is an editor at large at The Nation and host of Up with Chris Hayes on MSNBC.