On a recent episode of Recode Media, hosted by Peter Kafka, the editor in chief of the Jared Kushner-owned New York Observer talked about working for Trump’s son-in-law. Ken Kurson also discussed being an out Republican in the media business, why he prefers Facebook to Twitter and why President-elect Trump isn’t necessarily as scary as you might think.
You can read some of the highlights from Peter’s interview with Ken at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Media on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn, Stitcher and SoundCloud.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Peter Kafka: I am here with Ken Kurson, who is the editor in chief of the New York Observer. Welcome, Ken.
Ken Kurson: Peter, thank you for having me on your podcast.
Thanks for coming. I reached out to you because I’ve known you for a while and I think you are the only person I know who has supported and probably voted for Donald Trump. And I think we’re supposed to reach out across party lines and find people who are not like us and talk to them.
I did vote for Donald Trump.
I didn’t want to presuppose. But I’m assuming since you work for Jared Kushner who’s his son-in-law, I’ve seen pictures on social media that indicate that you support Trump. You were in the box at the RNC [KK laughs] so all signs pointed to that. But I didn’t want to presuppose.
So thanks for coming on. We’re in strange days. Donald Trump, hours ago, just visited the New York Times and held what was basically a one-company press conference. Did you watch that? Or I guess watch the tweets that came out of that?
I saw that it was on and then off and then on again. I haven’t ... I’ve been in a meeting before coming here so I didn’t see the results of it, but I imagine it would have been very fun to be a fly on the wall of that room.
So you’ve got other work to do. You can’t just enjoy the spectacle.
I’m afraid I do.
So let’s talk about your job. You edit the Observer. You’ve done that since when?
Since January 2013. So I’m just finishing up four years.
Jared Kushner bought it a few years earlier. There was a long string of editors that came after he bought the paper. And then he brought in you.
That’s right. There was a lot of sport made that I was the sixth editor in the seven years that Jared had owned it at the time I became editor. But now I am the second-longest-serving editor after the legendary Peter Kaplan, who was editor for 15 years.
He is a very legendary editor, now deceased, people mourn him. I think a lot of people say that the paper died with him. We can talk about that. But talk about how you came to the paper. How did Jared Kushner find you? Did you know him?
I did know Jared. Jared’s been a close personal friend. I’m a friend of his entire family. His father, Charlie, is my good friend since I think about 2000 or 2001. So by the time Jared hired me to run the Observer in 2013, I knew the whole family well for many years.
And he was, what? I think he bought it when he was 25, right? So it was a few years after that. And what was his pitch to you?
I was in politics at that point. I was making TV commercials for candidates and some corporate work too, but mostly for candidates.
You’d done work for Rudy Giuliani.
Yeah. I’d worked for Rudy Giuliani for about eight years and then after his presidential campaign — I served as COO of his presidential campaign — and when that failed humiliatingly I went to work for a political consulting firm making TV spots. And I made a ton of money and wanted to commit harakiri every day of my life. That job was just not for me.
You did not like being a well-paid political consultant?
I hated it. I mean, better to be a well-paid one than a badly paid one, I guess. But I hated the work. And Jared approached me after Elizabeth Spiers was going to leave the editor chair and the timing wasn’t quite perfect. But I said that if you can wait until I finish out the year and in 2012 — the way it works in politics, you sort of starve for the odd number years and make a ton of money in the even number years, especially the presidential years. So 2012 was one of those years when I was looking at a big day and I said, “If you can wait then I’m ready to take off.”
What did he want you to do with the paper? And the background is under the Peter Kaplan era, the Observer was this tiny, very small circulation, influential among Manhattan media chattering classes that would satirize people like Donald Trump and Barry Diller and people who were trying to strive their way up. It was kind of a more elevated Gawker in a lot of ways. Or a descendant from Spy. And I got the sense when Jared bought it he didn’t want that. And what did he tell you he wanted to do with it?
Well Jared didn’t have a ton of input into the tone. You know, he has this reputation, everything we write, today we have an editorial about not being so quick to call people “Nazi” and everybody instantly assumes that Jared ordered that up. It’s ridiculous. He’s actually much less intrusive than just about any publisher I’ve ever worked for. And you have and I have worked for some of the same places and I’d say without reservation that Jared Kushner is an excellent publisher who respects the freedom of the editorial department.
So he didn’t really weigh in on tone and who we’d support and who we’d go after so much as that he wanted someone to edit the paper who was at least a little closer in world view to himself. And I think that’s the right of someone who owns a media production.
So describe Jared’s world view, and I guess your world view at the same time.
I think you have to have Jared on the podcast to hear about his world view.
I’m happy to describe my world view, which is that I’m an out conservative. You know, I’m a Republican, I’m a conservative, I’m not dogmatic. I think, you know, when you said, “Working for Jared Kushner, you have to vote for Trump,” that’s not true at all. I’d say ...
I said I didn’t want to presuppose.
I might be the only one ... Actually, I just found out the other day I’m not the only Observer editorial employee who voted for Trump. There’s at least one other but I’d be very surprised ...
That person came out to you?
Yes. Privately. And actually swore me to secrecy because that’s the kind of reputational damage ...
I mean, the reason you’re having me on this show is because the thinking among our sort of our class, our friends, is so unanimous that I think that whether you agree or disagree you can see that it’s unfair. The same day you asked me to come on the show, Peter, the editor in chief of the New York Times asked me to have lunch. For the same reason. That they basically don’t know anybody else who’s a Republican. [laughs]
Yeah. So back to what Jared Kushner said he wanted you to do when you took over the paper. Because again, the paper prior to him buying it was very reflective of not only sort of coastal liberal elite thinking, but even a more rarefied strain of it. So if he says, “Look, I want to turn this into something different,” did you have any reservations about trying to do that?
No I didn’t have any reservations, because as much as I adored Peter Kaplan’s New York Observer, and I really did, I edited it for syndication in the mid-’90s, I don’t think people even know that. I knew Peter Kaplan for decades.
But as much as I admired it and grew up in the pre-internet era when you and I were sort of coming up through the ranks, the New York Observer’s “Off The Record” column was like the only way to figure out what was even happening. Who had been hired, who had been fired, and why.
Yeah, it was that and Keith Kelly.
Yeah. That’s right.
From the New York Post.
But whether we had consciously changed direction or not, the ground had shifted beneath our feet. The New York Observer, for example, hasn’t been the New York Observer for years. We are just observer.com. We receive 18 percent of our traffic from New York state. So that’s 92 [percent] from other places.
So whether we wanted to ensure the shift or not, the shift had already taken place and Jared brought in his brother-in-law, Joseph Meyer, who’s our CEO who runs the thing day to day and is doing an amazing job building the business. But it was a very specific attempt by Joseph and Jared to broaden our audience, because it was already telling us we need more and different kinds of content.
So Jared brings you in, he’s Donald Trump’s son-in-law at the time. Donald Trump is already a national figure, he’s talked about running for office — did it cross your mind that he might mount a serious campaign for president?
It had vaguely crossed my mind. There was a trial run of Trump-related scandal at the Observer. We ran a story about New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman a couple years ago. I’m not sure if you remember this but it was a big kerfuffle in the media circles because Schneidermann was at that time suing Donald Trump over Trump University. And our story was very critical of Eric Schneiderman and came under intense fire as thought to be log-rolling for Trump.
In fact, the story — which was about 8,000 words long was 100 percent accurate — even Schneiderman’s office never asked for a correction. People who despise Donald Trump were never able to find a single thing in it that was incorrect.
And now that the matter’s been settled it kind of doesn’t matter anymore. But giant chunks of the lawsuit that we maintained in our article would never make it to trial, in fact never made it it trial, and couldn’t have made it to trial because they were not filed within a time statute.
And your point is what?
My point is that we already knew that anything we did would be faced with extra scrutiny. I didn’t know that Donald Trump would run for president, I didn’t know that he’d win the primary, and I certainly didn’t know that he’d be the next president of the United States.
But I did know that whatever we said was going to be analyzed within a fraction of its life, and I made the decision back during the Schneiderman kerfuffle just to ignore it. To cover Trump like I was going to cover anybody else. You know, when there were 17 Republican candidates, my thinking was, “Look, we can’t be unbiased here, let’s just try to keep our opinion coverage to an absolute minimum.”
So he announces in 2015 he’s running. Do you talk to Jared about it at the time?
No. I mean, I talk to him in the course because Jared’s obsessed with politics and we talk every day. It was like to the degree of, “Oh man, did you hear what this candidate said about that?” But it wasn’t a news coverage, it was more just the way you’d BS with a friend, the way I might talk to you about ...
Right, so he doesn’t say, “How are you going to cover my father-in-law?”
Exactly, he never did. He never put his thumb on the scale for that, he never asked for us to be gentler on it. We take a lot of abuse if we run something that’s critical of Hillary or could even be arguably positive toward Donald Trump, we take abuse for it. But in fact, we ran some very tough columns about Donald Trump.
We recruited Jon Reinish, who’s a partner at SKDKnickerbocker, and wrote some scathing stuff. You might remember that we have a staffer called Dana Schwartz who ran a very powerful open letter asking Jared to answer for what she perceived as Donald Trump’s anti-Semitism. We ran very tough stuff.
But my feeling about being in the media is you just gotta do your best to do a good job and ignore the stuff. I’m not on Twitter, I never Google myself, I try really hard not to let people get in my head.
You are on Facebook. Why no Twitter?
I’m on Facebook because I want to see my friends’ kids when they have a first day of school and I want them to see mine. It’s a place where people who know me and know what I’m about can share their stories and vice versa.
I’m not on Twitter because I don’t want my thinking ... You know, you spend 40-plus years — I’m 48 years old — so you spend 40-something years forming your opinion and forming yourself so that you can see the world a certain way. And then five guys you don’t know attack you and suddenly you go, “Oh my god, do I need to think differently?”
I am open to new ideas constantly and I’m constantly confronted with new ideas in the real world. But I don’t think 140 characters at a time by people who don’t know me and don’t know what I’m about is a good way to formulate opinions.
It’s interesting, right, because there’s a lot of downsides to Twitter and I think people like myself probably overuse it.
But Donald Trump says it’s one of his favorite tools. I think a lot of people think that really propelled his candidacy in a lot of ways, I mean Facebook in other ways. But he’s talked about it as sort of an open megaphone for him to reach lots of people. That doesn’t appeal to you?
It doesn’t appeal to me because I’m not running for office. Donald Trump has 10 million followers and he gets to say something and have 10 million people react positively, negatively, etc. I think that’s the way to use it.
We’ve got advertisers, we’re going to hear from them right now. We’ll be right back.
I’m back here with Ken Kurson, editor of the New York Observer. We were just discussing your lack of interest in Twitter, which I think is fairly healthy.
Let me go back to the work you were doing at the Observer over the last couple of years. I think you did tack back and forth on how you wanted to write or cover Trump. I think there was one point where you said earlier, “We’re just going to go ahead and cover him.” And then at some point last year you guys said, “Actually we’re not going to cover him anymore, we’re done trying to cover him.”
That’s not exactly right. At the beginning when there were 17 Republican candidates and an unovercomable conflict of interest, I made the decision and communicated it, before we’d written anything, that we were not going to cover him in our opinion pieces at all. And with news, we’d cover him straight. You know, he’s a New Yorker, a big New York personality, we cover New York, so we cover him straight.
And then as more and more Republican candidates either dropped out or he won more primaries, it became untenable. It just wasn’t possible to have a newspaper that was covering what was going on in the world of politics without including opinion pieces. So we evolved to cover him including opinion, and that included opinion that was favorable toward him and unfavorable. And toward his opponents.
Last spring you worked on or gave input — you tell me what the right verb is to use — on a speech he delivered to AIPAC, an American-Israeli Jewish group, that became a story. And then I think, after that, didn’t you guys make a pronouncement that said, “Actually, we’re done covering him”?
No, we never made a pronouncement that we’re done covering him. We made a policy that no one would assist anyone’s campaign, which was basically a one-man policy. It was me saying I would no longer agree to look at drafts of speeches or anything like that.
Had you done that beyond that AIPAC speech?
No. The thing about the AIPAC speech was it was the first set speech he gave. He was famous for never using a teleprompter and speaking off the cuff, so there hadn’t been opportunities. But after the AIPAC speech, not only did I not look at speeches, I became extra careful about just, you know, not even being willing to give my opinion as a former professional political consultant about much of anything.
I was going through old websites via Google and there’s an interview with you from HuffPo at the time that story came out and you said, “Well, there’s nothing wrong with this, I help all sorts of people politically, I help politically different stripes.” And you said, “There’s nothing to see here, I did nothing wrong.”
Yeah, I still think that.
You still think that?
I understand the sensitivity, but, look, we endorsed Donald Trump for the Republican nomination in New York when there were just three candidates at that point. And there was this tremendous uproar of outrage. But we also endorsed Hillary Clinton, you know? I’m proud that we endorsed both of the eventual nominees.
That’s part of what a newspaper does with its endorsements is sort of assert its relevance. You try and do unpredictable endorsements sometimes as a matter of principle, but in general you’re trying to suggest that you have the ability to carry a favorite candidate across the finish line. So the fact is, that was a perfect example. We endorsed the eventual Republican nominee, the eventual Democratic nominee, and the latter got zero attention. The former became this point of outrage where one of your writers quit in disgust. And I think that’s just silly.
So you’re okay doing that but you stopped doing it because you thought it was easier running the paper not weighing in?
Yeah, that’s exactly right. Look, when this all started, when the campaign started to really get going, I actually consulted. I was on the board of a journalism school and I consulted with people who I really respect who have decades in this business. And the word that kept coming up was “unprecedented.” People would say, “Well, if you look at William Randolph Hearst,” and, you know, stuff that was so long ago it wasn’t really relevant to our age.
So there isn’t a great playbook for when your publisher is not only the son-in-law but possibly the closest adviser to a candidate. Especially a candidate so prone to media attention. So yeah, the practicality became that it just made sense that I should have nothing to do with it. But at the same time, some of our employees came wearing Hillary buttons or shirts or something; there are some newsrooms that would absolutely not prevent that. You see BuzzFeed sends around its memo every few weeks saying, “You may not post on your personal Twitter anything that …”
See, I don’t really understand that.
I don’t feel that way, I don’t feel that way. You know, Ben Bradley famously instructed his reporters at the Washington Post that they ought not to vote. I think that’s crazy. I think people are human beings ...
Yeah, they’re proud of that up until recently.
Right, yeah. That’s exactly right. You know, I think you’re a human being first and a journalist second or maybe even third or fourth.
So you said Jared is maybe the closest adviser, one of the closest advisers, there’s a big profile of him in Forbes that describes him that way. The narrative both in that Forbes story and other stories that I’ve read was that initially Jared wasn’t that involved in the campaign and then at some point over the course of the campaign got very involved. Did you see that from the outside or from your vantage point?
Jared’s big skill is how quickly he learns things. That’s really his greatest strength and it’s one of the reasons he gets underestimated. He also happens to be soft spoken, and then there’s these other sort of structural things.
He’s very young and he’s handsome and he’s married to a beautiful blonde daughter of Donald Trump. So it’s very easy for the chattering Twitter class to dismiss him, but they’re making a big mistake when they do. And I think they found that out the hard way during this election. The guy is whip smart and a brilliant strategist.
So when did you seem him getting ... I think at one point he was sort of down-playing his role. Now if you go to the Forbes story it says back in November he had a conversion moment. He went out into the crowd and then became involved in the campaign.
From my point of view he was always involved in an intense way as a family member. He always had that intensity of rooting for a family member. But I think he started to realize just how complex national politics can be from a tactical and strategic point of view, that’s when he started to get more hands-on. I don’t have perfect information on that because I wasn’t around, despite what you may have read.
So yeah, how does that work? I mean, you’ve seen him in the halls ...
No, that’s not true. Jared is almost never at the Observer. Joseph is our CEO and makes the day-to-day decisions. My big interaction with Jared as far as the paper goes has been the editorial board. You know, our editorials that we write in the voice of the publisher.
Is that a weekly or regular meeting?
It’s weekly, we tend to do two to three ...
So you have a weekly meeting with him?
Yeah. And they’re not always face to face. Sometimes they are. But they’re often by email or phone.
So during the campaign, then, is he talking to you about the campaign, is he asking you for an input formally or informally?
No, like I said, I made the decision after the AIPAC stuff to just not discuss it. And he respected that.
But prior to that that was happening.
Not so much.
No. I’d watch and see what I saw, see what you saw, and sort of feel his hand in it.
But you feel like your access to Jared and the decision making that’s going on within the Trump campaign is basically the same as mine or anyone else on the outside?
I would say it’s maybe a little enhanced because we talk more. And also, you know, I got access to a few things. I got to go to the first debate, for example, because I know Jared.
You were at the RNC.
I was at the RNC, but I was at the DNC, too. And that’s just like the endorsements of both.
But you were in the Trump box at the RNC.
That’s exactly right, but like I said at the time, I’ll go into a box anyone invites me to.
I saw you at a box a couple months ago.
Oh that’s right, Beyoncé. See, that was not a scandal, to be in the Beyoncé box. To me, it’s much ado about nothing. If people want to write articles about where I sit at a particular convention, I’m a reporter, I’m a journalist, I’ll take whatever access someone will give me. And if Hillary Clinton would let me sit in her family box I would have been there in two seconds. And I did get to the DNC and I broke some news there.
So the Observer shut down its print edition right after the election.
What’s your sense of what happens to the publication now?
The Observer’s business is stronger than it’s ever been, by far. It’s always been for its 30-year history, just about 30 years, a sort of a toy for rich people to get their point of view about art and real estate and culture out there. Its original owner, Arthur Carter — who happens to be a great artist himself, by the way, not everyone knows that —
He’s into sculpture, right?
Yeah, he’s a sculptor and he’s fantastically talented. He wanted a publication to get his point of view and those of people he respects out there. And that’s exactly what Jared wanted.
Do you think he still wants that now?
I don’t know. I think Jared’s platform is so much more expansive than the Observer. But in the meantime, the Observer’s become a real business. When I took over in January 2013, we had 3.1 million page views in the month of January from one million unique users. In October of this year, we have 20 million page views from about seven-plus million.
I actually did some basic research before this. ComScore’s got a much lower number, but that always happens with internal versus external.
Right, but did you see a similar multiple?
Yeah, why not?
Yeah, because Quantcast, which is like comScore, we were 3,698 when I took over and we were like 275 when I came here.
Yeah, it had no web presence in the Kaplan era.
Right. In the Kaplan era it was virtually none and then in subsequent editors it was built, but we focused all our attention on that.
So what has Jared told you he wants to do? Has he told you what he wants to do with it?
He has not, but like I said, Joseph is the CEO and will be making those strategic decisions, I’m sure in consultation with Jared and the rest of the family.
Assuming you’re allowed to just do what you want with it, like continue on, what do you want to do with that platform?
I want to do what we’ve been doing. I think we bring a smart, sophisticated take on the four areas we cover. We’ve tried to be really strategic about surrendering areas. Like you’re never going to see an Observer sports column because there are so many great places that do it already. I happen to love sports but it’s just not something that would have any daylight.
But in the areas, the four verticals that we have, where we really have authority, we’re just going to cover them from the perspective of what a smart, informed, affluent person needs to know.
Do you think that the way you approach the paper is going to be different now in a Trump era than it would have been in a Clinton era? Or you’re on the same track regardless?
I don’t think it will be different based on who the president is. I think we’ll cover it aggressively. Trump’s not even president yet and the amount of outrage is stunning to me. I’ve been through many elections where the candidate I favored didn’t win and I felt hopeful. When President Obama won election in 2008, I had not only not supported him but I had worked very hard for Rudy Giuliani that year. And yet when President Obama was elected I was very hopeful and very excited for the country.
So do you understand the difference between this and John Kerry losing in 2004? Why people are so upset and confused and scared?
If you’re asking me do I think they’re justified in being as terrified as they are, my answer is no. I understand that there’s anxiety because there always is when someone who doesn’t share your world view is going to be in charge of things. But I don’t think the level of terror and hysteria is justified by anything Donald Trump has done.
So if you’re Muslim, for instance, and he says, “I want to have complete and total shutdown of Muslim immigration in the country,” and repeatedly uses Muslims as sort of a point of attack in the campaign, wouldn’t you imagine that would be unnerving to you, plus anyone else who’s worried about their fate?
I don’t want to get in the position of defending what Donald Trump does. I’m not a part of his operation. I think he not only backed off of that statement, but sort of repudiated it later in the campaign.
It’s still on his website if you Google it.
So if you’re asking me if I agree with that policy, no, of course I don’t. But if you’re asking me whether two months before someone becomes president, whether it makes sense to be in terror, I just don’t ... nothing I’ve seen from what Trump’s done, including any of his appointments, terrifies me. It just doesn’t.
Peter Thiel, one of his backers, says you should take Trump seriously not literally.
Yeah, I think that’s well put. I think Donald Trump has a way of getting his point across and yet when you read a transcript of what he said, it’s not the king’s English.
Or when someone says, “How is this different from Japanese internment camps?” And he says, “You tell me.” Right? When you read that, and I don’t know what context you would put it in to make it sound better, it sounds like he’s okay with internment camps.
Not to me. I oppose internment camps with every fiber of my being. If he were to go in that direction toward Japanese people or Muslim Americans or anyone else, I’d be on the front lines protesting with everybody else. I just don’t think he ever would.
And as a newspaper editor, when he says, “I want to open up the libel laws,” during the campaign, do you at some point tap Jared on the shoulder and go, “Does he really mean that?”
I never asked Jared about what his father-in-law feels about the libel laws, but I can tell you that Jared himself is a strong defender of the First Amendment and he gets it as deeply as anybody. I think it’s a huge advantage that the president-elect is being advised by somebody who actually has owned a newspaper.
On this one I can give you chapter and verse because it’s not just rhetoric from Jared. We get sued all the time, just like any other newspaper, and we don’t settle. One of the owners of Scores sued us for a true story and many times offered to make it go away if we’d just run a correction or take the story off our website, etc. And we fought it all the way to a decision, we won.
That took courage for a publisher to fund a lawsuit like that. And that’s happened a bunch of times. You work for a publication, you’ve worked at others, I’ve been employed by publishers who aren’t that willing to defend their editors’ freedom.
So today the Times had this extraordinary press conference with him and via Twitter I read that someone asked him about the First Amendment and what was his attitude toward that. And he said something to the effect of, “You’ll like what you hear.” Or something to that effect. And I think if you were a reporter or someone who cares about the First Amendment, you’d prefer him to say, “I’m a strong supporter of the First Amendment.”
Yeah, but that’s like all this stuff with ...
And you’re saying, “No, that’s just verbiage.”
Exactly. I think that’s the exact same trap that happens with this David Duke stuff or these lunatic Nazis who are suddenly emboldened by whatever’s in the air. I don’t think that when you write a script he should have said, “I’m a strong supporter of the First Amendment,” or he should have denounced David Duke in three seconds, not in eight seconds. I don’t think it makes sense to play that game.
But this is one of the things that unnerves lots of people. He denounces them if you ask them about him. Meanwhile he’s using Twitter to attack the cast of “Hamilton” or the New York Times. He’s not using it to denounce Richard Spencer and these freaks in Washington, D.C.
Right, so I never heard of Richard Spencer. I was named the Jewish journalist of the year two years ago, I’m highly identified as a Jewish journalist, I am obsessed with the idea that brownshirts are about to kick down my door any second. I follow this stuff as closely as anyone. I never heard of Richard Spencer [until] this week. So you’re expecting this guy who just ran a presidential campaign and won it to know the names of every nudnik neo-Nazi out there. It’s ridiculous.
No, but over the last couple of weeks in particular, his association with Steven Bannon and Breitbart and the fact that Breitbart has sort of winked and nudged at these folks, hasn’t kicked them off their platform.
You know, if you go to Donald Trump, eventually, and I think he said it today too, he said, “I repudiate it, I disavow it.” But you’d think if he’s got time to tweet four times (he deleted one of them) about “Hamilton” this weekend, one of them could have been, "By the way, I hate Nazis.”
Well, maybe if you were elected president, that’s what you would do.
I was born outside this country so I cannot be president.
I didn’t know that about you, Peter. Are you even 35? I mean at least, right?
I am, I’m over 35.
Look, I think that’s crazy. Whatever you tweet, by definition you don’t tweet about something else that’s really important. There’s a genocide going on in Syria right now. So if you tweet about “Hamilton” does it mean you don’t care about Syria?
On my personal Facebook I wrote about how much I hate Time Warner cable, right? It annoys me. I think you’re my Facebook friend so maybe you saw this. So I wrote, “Time Warner didn’t show up for their appointment,” or whatever. And one of my friends says, “Oh, you have a lot to say about Time Warner but nothing to say about Steve Bannon, I see where your priorities are.” And I’m going, “Give me a break.” This is lunacy.
I’m one of your Facebook friends that check with you weekly to see when you were going to repudiate Trump or elements of the campaign. You put out a Friday sort of Sabbath benediction weekly, and I kept waiting for you to say, “And thus I can no longer work for Jared Kushner because I find this or this or this repellent or abhorrent. I’m upset about this part of the campaign.” You never did.
I never had reason to say that. I’m proud to work for Jared Kushner and I was proud to vote for Donald Trump.
When you talked to Brian Stelter this weekend, you said, “I think the traditional press, mainstream press, should be embarrassed with the work they did. They should be fired, they should resign.” Is there a whole swath of the press you’re thinking about? Is there a type of journalist you’re thinking about?
Yeah, there is. The type of journalist I’m thinking about is the type who because of the echo chamber of his or her social group, never saw this coming, despite the incredible amounts of warnings. I mean, how could you have seen Brexit take place and not seen that Trump was a real candidate who had a real shot? The pollsters who bungled this thing so badly, how are they going to get work? And they will. None of them will resign. None of them will pay any career [penalty].
By the way, some of those pollsters work for the RNC, right? A couple days before the election, the RNC gave a briefing report, they said, “Here’s how we’re going to lose the Electoral College.”
Absolutely. I think some of the worst offenders were conservatives. This wasn’t a partisan shot. The thing I said on Stelter wasn’t a partisan shot at all. I think some of the worst offenders include people at the National Review who just couldn’t see it because their friends weren’t among those great on Washington, Michigan and Wisconsin and Ohio.
Because the poll said Hillary and Trump are neck and neck and they would get closer and farther apart, but they were 5 percent to 6 percent apart most of the time. Which meant that a big chunk of the electorate wanted to vote for Trump. So that could not have been a surprise, [but] I think it’s still a shock that he was elected.
When I decided to come back to journalism after working in politics, there was a certain amount of skepticism, including among my friends. I think Gawker wrote something about how once you go to politics you sort of lose your journalism card, you know, whether it’s me or Diane Sawyer, who worked for Nixon, or George Stephanopoulos, who worked for Clinton, that you sort of lost your right to weigh in.
And I feel exactly the opposite, and I’m totally consistent on this. Around the time you and I first met in the late ‘90s, I wrote an article about how James Cramer was being attacked because he was a hedge fund trader at the same time he was writing about stocks for Smart Money. And I said, “This is bullshit, I want my guys who are writing about money to have experience.”
It’s the skin in the game.
Yeah. And it’s the same with politics. I think that part of the value I bring to my writing is that I know how it’s actually made. And this polling question is a perfect example of it. I was never really tuned in to a 45 percent to 42 percent lead because that’s nonsense.
The poll number that most impressed me during the entire campaign, when I most strongly felt that Trump was going to win, is when I saw some public polling that was way buried down in what are called the cross tabs, where it had shifted from originally some majority of like 50 to 45 had said they want “someone who shares my values over a strong leader.” And then a couple weeks later that reversed and a “strong leader” became more important than “shares my values.” And as soon as I saw that I thought, “Trump’s got a real shot here.”
Why’d the light go off for you then?
There’s all these people wringing their hands going, “I don’t understand how he won when all these people say he’s not qualified.” But they weren’t saying qualified to be leader as something important to them.
It’s like if you ask all these people, “Do you oppose global warming?” and they all say, “Yeah, global warming’s horrible.” And if 90 percent of the people say global warming’s horrible, then you shouldn’t be shocked when someone who doesn’t care about global warming wins, because the question you forgot to ask them is, “How important is it to you?” And if they say, “Well, global warming is my 30th most important issue,” then it doesn’t matter if 90 percent of them think it’s important, right?
Because the other 29 things — like feeding their family and having a job and paying for college or whatever — are more important. And so that’s why I just never believed all these leads. You know, you got polling that was never really outside the margin of error and didn’t have baked into it that Trump had managed to find all these guys who don’t even get called because they don’t like to vote. And didn’t bake in that there was no way her turnout machine was going to replicate Obama.
The reason I said that there should be mass resignations among journalists is because I just think they spoke to each other and did not see these very clear signs that she was in trouble. I’ll give you another one, Peter. And this was only revealed by WikiLeaks, which I saw at the same time as everybody else did. So if I was Hillary’s consultant, if I were among her team, I would have been very troubled by how hard it was for her to shake Bernie Sanders. Right? This guy won — what was it? — 18 contested ...
She had to slog through the summer with him.
Yeah, that would have concerned me a lot, that she could not shake off the 72-year-old socialist.
Socialist Jew from Vermont.
Right. But then, when WikiLeaks started coming out in October and I found out she not only couldn’t shake him, she couldn’t shake him in a fixed fight! It’s like what if when Rocky’s manager was setting him up against all those, you know, goofs just to build up his record before Clubber Lang and then Rocky lost to one of them. You know? That’d be very troubling.
And Hillary Clinton not only could barely shake Bernie Sanders, but she couldn’t shake him when she was being given the answers in debates and when she was being given information by the DNC, when the superdelegates were in the bag. That’s a very troubling problem, and if I were on her team I would be going, “We’ve got a problem with our candidate.”
Are you troubled by the fact that the outgoing NSA director says — and many others say — WikiLeaks is part of a Russian hack trying to affect the election? It seems like that’s remarkably undercovered.
Yeah, no, if that turns out to be true it’s incredibly troubling.
When you’ve got most of the American intelligence establishment saying it’s the case.
If that turns out to be true, it’s very troubling. It doesn’t undo the point I just made. It’s still, you know ...
They’re separate points.
Right. I think it’s still true, whatever’s been revealed. But I think it’s very troubling if foreign countries are interfering in our elections, absolutely.
We’ll let you tee off, you can be a media critic. Beyond the fact that you think most of the establishment media blew this badly, now that you’ve been in media since 2013 as an editor, is there one other thing you want us chattering classes to fix or change?
Well, I appreciate that you’re having me on your show.
You are, I believe, the first Republican we’ve had on. The first out Republican.
I mean what does that say? I appreciate that the editor of the New York Times reached out to me, I appreciate that Brian Stelter had me on his show for the first time. And you know, I think it will do the Republic a lot of good if more varied voices get on. We talk constantly — to the point of nauseousness — about diversity, but we don’t really reflect this giant swath of people like me who are sort of balding middle-aged guys without a college degree from the Midwest. And we get ignored.
Yeah, but, I think you could argue that Republicans, that a whole swath of people have been represented on conventional media for quite a long time. There’s usually a left and a right and this person thinks that. And Nazis believe that Jews shouldn’t have the right to exist. And then someone says, “Well, we should argue that point, that’s an extreme point.”
No, you shouldn’t argue the point of whether Jews should have the right to exist. That’s not worth ...
I don’t consider global warming and Holocaust denial to be the same thing. That’s an offensive point that you just made, Peter. But I don’t agree with you that all points get heard. In the Observer we wrote many times during the campaign. And that’s why I think the Observer’s coverage was so excellent and earned a lot of readers is that we were saying this stuff not in post mortem, we were saying it during it, we were saying it this summer, where we pointed out that CNN often would have a “balance panel” where there’d be a host who’s clearly anti-Trump and then two Democrats.
Jeffrey Lord on the pro-Trump side, and then a never-Trump Republican. So the effect was four Hillary people versus one Trump person. And that happened over and over. That set-up was the way CNN set up its summer. And that’s not balanced. That’s not serving the needs of the viewership.
Yeah, I think the counter to that would be that the amount of airtime that Trump got just to be speaking live.
Yeah, no, but to complain about that is ridiculous. That’s his skill. His skill is being enough of a showman and enough of a wild unpredictable where you can’t look away. That’s like saying, “It’s unfair, this guy’s a great debater,” or, “It’s unfair, that woman’s a great fundraiser.” Those are the skills it takes to win a modern campaign and if Trump has mastered this ability to earn free media, spending less than half of what Hillary did, then that’s to his credit, right?
So this is a question I’ve asked many people who’ve sat where you’re sitting throughout the last year. Do you think that what Trump has done is a playbook for other candidates in the future, or is he a one-off?
I think he’s sui generis. I was thinking about that because everybody is trying to figure out the next Trump. You know, it’s like when the West Coast offense wins ...
Maybe it’ll be The Rock.
I think Mark Cuban was an example who was sort of trying to do it during the campaign. I think it’s really hard to do and I think just as I told you earlier that Jared was gravely underestimated, I think Trump is very underestimated as a guy who has an almost supernatural sense of what’s going on out there in the Republic.
Just think of how easily he dispatched Jeb Bush, a very formidable politician from an unstoppable dynasty. When you think of $100 million in ad spending on Jeb Bush’s side and weigh that — I’m making a hand gesture of scales for your podcast — you think of $100 million of ad spending on one side and just the words “low energy” on the other side.
That’s literally a $100 million insult. Just those two words basically undid Jeb Bush’s campaign. And that he was able to do it over and over again. “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary.” By himself, not a team of advisers. You know, by himself thinking of these things, these quick phrases that could dispatch an opponent. It’s impressive, but it’s rare.
There are other quick-witted people out in the world.
There’s other people who have had a lot of TV exposure. So if that’s the model, it seems like other people could replicate it. Unless there’s something specific to him.
It takes a lot of different things though. You can’t just be clever. Robin Williams is on the wall here at the stand-up club where we’re recording this podcast, even in an age where a reality show TV show host is going to be our 45th president. I don’t think just a quick insult is going to do it.
People often bring up Alec Baldwin as sort of a counterweight. Maybe he could do that, he’s sort of ideologically opposed, he’s very smart, he’s been on TV a lot, a lot of people like him.
Right, but even Ronald Reagan had a long list of real achievement. Even as an actor he was leading the union, he was governor of the biggest state, he toured the country as the GE spokesman. I think the idea that you could just present well and suddenly leap to the fore, that dismisses just what a special candidate this guy was.
I don’t normally use notes, but I took some today. I wanted to ask you just one last question here because it struck me as such an odd sentence from Trump about your boss Jared Kushner. At the Times confab today he said, “Jared Kushner could make peace between Israel and Palestine.” Plausible?
[laughs] I think he’s referring to Jared’s diplomatic skills more than his Middle East expertise.
You don’t think he’s going to be his envoy?
I would be very surprised if that happened.
I don’t know if we solved any issues today. I don’t think that was probably the intent, but we at least had a discussion, so that’s good. It’s not Israel and Palestine, it’s Ken Kurson and Peter Kafka. I appreciate your time, Ken.
I appreciate yours, Peter. Thank you for having me on your show.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.