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Laurene Powell Jobs says President Trump’s attacks on the press are “right out of a dictator’s playbook”

Powell Jobs founded the Emerson Collective, which owns Pop-Up Magazine and has a majority stake in the Atlantic.

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Laurene Powell Jobs onstage at Code 2017.
Laurene Powell Jobs.
Asa Mathat

Like her fellow billionaires Marc Benioff and Jeff Bezos, Laurene Powell Jobs has been investing in media: The company she started in 2004, the Emerson Collective, invested in Axios and Gimlet and has bought the Atlantic and the California Sunday Magazine, which also produces the influential Pop-Up Magazine.

On the latest episode of Recode Decode, recorded live at the Lesbians Who Tech Summit in San Francisco, Powell Jobs told Recode’s Kara Swisher that she thinks the future of news won’t entirely be owned by rich people, and will instead look more like a “public good that should be supported by public and private entities.” And she rebuffed the person who seems least interested in preserving the press, President Trump, calling his attacks on the media “right out of a dictator’s playbook.”

“That’s actually what people do to consolidate power, to call into question a narrative that’s not their narrative,” she said. “I think the undermining of the media is, in the last two years, unprecedented and really scary, and everybody should pay attention.

“It doesn’t help, though, that I think some media entities play into this where, you know, we just saw it with BuzzFeed, where there’s sort of a rush to have breaks before everything’s truly deeply vetted, and that plays into Trump’s rhetoric,” Powell Jobs added. “And so, we should be careful about that, or you guys should then.”

You can listen to Recode Decode wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Overcast.

Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Kara’s conversation with Laurene.


Kara Swisher: So, sit down Laurene.

I did a costume change. I live in the neighborhood and I did it for a reason. I felt very Game of Thrones today. My friend Richard Plepler just left HBO so I’m doing this in honor of him. But this is very Game of Thrones to me.

But what I wanted to do is take it off dramatically because when Laurene and I, we went to SoulCycle together. I’m not going to go into the details, but she kicked my ass, let’s just say. I was like this and she was like happily SoulCycling away.

Laurene Powell Jobs: Right. First of all, I don’t know that that’s true. Secondly, what happens at SoulCycle, stays at SoulCycle.

Really? Okay, all right, all right.

I think that’s one of the rules!

In any case, I’m going to cut to the chase ... She said she would come to this if she got a Lesbians Who Tech Squad sweatshirt.

That’s because you were wearing one.

I was wearing one that said “Badass Inclusive.” And so, if you look under your chair Laurene ...

Oh.

Here. It’s right here. Oh, excuse me, I’m being impolite. There you go.

I already love this interview.

I know, this is a good interview already. So I’m going to take off my jacket in a dramatic way.

I’m going to put on my, this is Pia’s wife’s one. My two are at home. So I’m now apparently married to Leanne, which is disturbing in many ways. And this is Laurene’s.

Thank you. Thank you.

So Laurene, you now have a “Badass Inclusive” sweatshirt that you can wear. And I want you to wear it everywhere.

All right, I’ll start right now.

All right.

Yeah.

So we’re going to sit back down.

All right.

Now you have 50 percent more people to date.

Thank God, because the other 50 percent aren’t stepping up.

All right, okay. They’re fucking idiots but… clearly, hello. Let’s start talking about you and what you’ve been doing. I wrote a column about Laurene when she bought Pop-Up Magazine just recently, and there’s a lot of very wealthy people such as yourself buying up media. But you’ve being doing it for a while. Let’s start with that and then I want to talk about some of the other things you’re doing around art and activism and things like that. But let’s start with media.

Okay.

You recently invested in Pop-Up. You’ve been doing ... I want to talk about why you’re doing it. You invested in the Atlantic magazine. You’ve been making the American Journalism Project for local media. Talk a little bit about why you’re doing this.

So, happily, we started investing in nonprofit media many years ago. Probably eight years ago. And then because of the real decimation of the newsroom across the country, both at the national level but especially at the local level, and all of the data that is available to be seen is pretty disturbing, and the Balkanization of news, and the polarization of news, and the lack of ability for people to actually find relevant local news, all is coming together with these converging forces that are, I think, putting our democracy at risk, putting our ability to converse with each other at risk, putting our ability to understand each other at risk. And so there were a number of really interesting journalists who started first issue-area journals.

So for example, great education writers, great criminal justice writers, great environmental injustice writers who started nonprofit journalism projects who we invested in. And then we had the great good fortune of some for-profit media entities, both at the startup level and those that existed for a long time, like the Atlantic, come to us because their business model is compressed and they need an influx of capital. And for me, it was a natural extension of the entire field that we are getting at.

How do you look at it? Because you have Marc Benioff, who’s been here, investing in Time. You have Jeff [Bezos] at the Washington Post.

Yep.

You have you and there’s going to be others, I think. How do you look at it and why do see ... it’s a lot of tech people doing this, or tech money and stuff like that. What was the thing that got you to do it? What got you to do this? What was the thing? Is it you thought this was critical to democracy or that you had an interest in media? You have lots of subject areas, but this has been one that you’ve been focused on.

Yeah, our issue areas are those that we think are the most calcified and the most important that reflect the American values and that are important to democracy. So we work in education, we work in immigration, we work in environment. And outside of that, it started to become really obvious to us that the cultural narrative, that the kind of in-depth journalism that exposes the injustices in these fields was under attack from both a business model point of view ...

From the internet.

Yeah, exactly.

From digital.

From the access to abundant free news. And so the advertising model is no longer a viable model and the subscription-based model took a long time to concretize and take off. And so we lived in this time period for about a decade when we saw the collapse of credible viable journalistic properties.

So for me, I actually was presented the opportunity. I didn’t go out with the notion that I wanted to buy a property. That came to us from the owners.

But you were presented with a lot of opportunities, presumably? Correct?

Yeah, but not ... I guess we’re really specific about the type of high-quality journalism that we are both consumers of that we think are really important to have a foothold in America.

Such as local news or investigative news or things like that.

Yes, and what Kara mentioned, the American Journalism Project is a brand-new project that was started by the CEO of Texas Tribune and of Chalkbeat Magazines. And it’s a nonprofit model that will be sort of a venture fund for local newsrooms across the country and they’ll give both funding and technical assistance and a lot of backend support that local newsrooms can no longer [afford]. But organizations like the Texas Tribune have found that having alternative revenue sources allows them to stay alive, so they have an amazing events business and they have great podcasts, and they have great investigative journalism that others buy, like ProPublica.

But you don’t see it as a charitable thing? Because does it have to be supported by incredibly wealthy people?

Well, I think ... No, I mean that would not be the kind of sustainable model that I think any of us would like to see. One of the founders of the American Journalism Project feels that local journalism and journalism in America is so essential to the health and sustainability of our democracy that it should be seen as a civic institution. And I agree with him.

I actually think that we should think about it as a civic good, a public good that should be supported by public and private entities.

What do you make of the attacks recently from the president? I think he’s the key attacker against ...

Of press and media?

Yeah, the media.

Well, I think it’s right out of a dictator’s playbook. I mean, it just is. That’s actually what people do to consolidate power, to call into question a narrative that’s not their narrative. I think the undermining of the media is, in the last two years, unprecedented and really scary, and everybody should pay attention.

And do you think it’s working?

Yeah, I do. I do. I think, well, if you look at polls about — and you probably know this better than I — but at the degree to which people trust any news source, and they trust even, you know, highly credibly fact-checking organizations and their reporting, it’s at an all time low, and shockingly low.

It doesn’t help, though, that I think some media entities play into this where, you know, we just saw it with BuzzFeed, where there’s sort of a rush to have breaks before everything’s truly deeply vetted, and that plays into Trump’s rhetoric. And so, we should be careful about that, or you guys should then.

Does that mean more ... Thank you, I’ll try harder. I’m pretty accurate, it’s my brand, kind of thing.

Yeah, you ... I read ... No, I have to state ...

The sunglasses and accuracy.

Yeah, I know.

... and obnoxiousness.

She did wear the sunglasses in SoulCycle.

I did.

And it’s a dark room.

Yeah.

It’s a dark room.

Yeah. I thought what happens in SoulCycle stays in SoulCycle, Laurene!

I’m getting back to journalism. So, I want to finish with the media, do you expect to make more ... you know, in this, do you expect to make online ... Do you think of online and offline differently, and do you expect to make more? There were rumors that you were going to invest in the New York Times. I think I started that rumor myself, I know that.

You started that rumor, yeah, that wasn’t me.

Okay.

Yeah.

But would ... do you think of bigger things, like a Jeff Bezos-like purchase? Not the other part of his life, but go ahead.

Oh, dear.

Come on.

No, I know. I know. But you gotta love that he embraced the media covering it. You know...

Yeah he did, yeah.

... so, yeah, there is that. So, yeah, actually, I do, now that we have sort of a really beautiful portfolio of properties that I think are super high quality and important journalism, I’m open to more. I do think the more should come in the form more like the American Journalism Project, where there’s a fund that will support great local ownership and sustainability, and find another model, rather than just, you know, rich people accumulating properties. That’s not so interesting, and it’s not sustainable either.

Right, right, that’s a good point. One more question on this topic. When you think of the media, is it going to have to all be online? Do you see a ...

No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I love print myself. I think that the demise of print and books is not accurate. I think well, there’s sort of this asymptotic slope, but I think it goes down to about 25 percent of the people who consume media consume it through print, and that’s where we’ll end up.

I see.

I don’t think everything needs to live online, and I think there are a lot of people who love the tactile portability of print in that way, and want to tuck it in their bag or under their arm.

Now, one of your partners in the American Journalism Project is Facebook giving away some $300 million to local, they’re in that American Journalism... It’s kind of interesting that Google and Facebook are putting money into this. It’s kind of like the arsonist paying to build the house. That’s my quote.

Oh yeah, there are other analogies too.

Right, yeah. Do you ... Can they help? Should they help, given they’ve sucked up ...

I mean, they ... Okay, here’s something really interesting. Here’s something that used to just drive me mad, which is philanthropists, and I use that word because I’m thinking of people who put all their wealth into a foundation and built out of philanthropy, would use 5 percent a year of their payout, of the corpus, to do good work, and then they ignored how the 95 percent was invested, and often those two things were at odds with each other.

Right.

They would very happily not look at the environmental degradation of the 95 percent — you know, they were invested in coal and oil and extractive resources, and then on this side they’re trying to address environmental injustice and degradation and the fact that climate change is happening, and they never put those two things together. It’s sort of like this lobotomy took over.

So, I think in this way they’re not using the power of their corpus in that way ...

Right. That’s a really...

... so what they really need to do is look at their algorithms, and look at the biases behind it, and they have to look at what they’re allowing to happen on their platforms and take responsibility for it.

Yeah, that would be nice, Laurene. That would be great. That’s my goal.

So, let’s go into storytelling, because another thing you’re doing is a lot of activity around immigration, which is another big topic, and one of the things you’re doing is you’re trying to hit activism in a very different way using artists.

I don’t know if any of you have seen this amazing thing, and you use technology to do this, it’s Carne Y Arena, it’s a VR experience of being on the border. It’s really ... Talk about this, because ... Why are you doing this? Why are you funding things like this? I found it incredibly moving, using art and technology.

Yeah, I think we’re entering a golden age of art and activism, and the blending of the two. It’s really exciting.

Here’s a picture of it.

We were approached by Alejandro [G. Iñárritu], and he was workshopping a VR experience, and so he want ... It was the first time that he was directing in VR, and he had a story that he wanted to tell. He went around to agencies in Los Angeles and talked to people who had crossed the border, and talked to them about their experiences and why they came, and he used the actual individuals as the characters in his experience.

It’s a beautiful, immersive experience that allows you to be on the southern border crossing into the United States with a group of people, and you’re apprehended by Border Patrol, and it’s incredibly chilling and deeply affecting. It’s one of those experiences that once you have had it, it never will leave you. I don’t know if you felt that way when you went through it.

I did. Yeah.

It’s like one of those epiphanies where the veil drops, and you now see, and you can never unsee it. We thought it was so important that not only did we want to invest in the VR project, but we brought it to Washington, DC, and we ran it ... Actually, if you show that picture one more time ...

Where’d it go?

Yeah, there it is. So, we renovated ... this old church was set to be demolished, and so we worked with the city, and they held off the demolition for a year, and then we used these pieces of corrugated metal that were picked up from the border, and so people had to walk through it.

So that’s the wall? That’s the wall right there?

That’s pieces of the wall, yeah.

All right, okay.

I think.

Wow, you built the wall then, that’s ... Just for a second, and for a good cause.

Yeah, I ... Well, we deconstructed some walls, and then ...

Yeah.

We wanted people to see what they’re talking about. These are 20-foot tall things.

And anyway, the experience was visited by over 9,000 people in DC over a period of seven months. A lot of elected officials and their staffs, and a lot of journalists, and I think it was tremendous. We’re now looking for other cities to bring it to. We’re trying to retool the experience so that it can ...

Move it around.

So we can have more and more people, so it could be more portable, and we can have more people go through it.

So, art and activism, you also had large pictures. You had a photographer that took giant pictures and you put them outside of like Mitch McConnell’s office, you put them ...

Yeah, yeah.

Like, you put giant photographs of immigrants all over the place.

Yeah.

Let me just tell you, I love when a woman gets a lot of money, I just, and then, because you use it, you’re using it for these things. So, you took pictures, you also did one on the border, you had a baby looking over.

That was JR’s installation.

Right.

And yes, we worked with him to install that. And that photo of the baby on the border was seen over a billion times, so that’s the story of the really beautiful power of art meets social media.

So, what does ... why are you doing it that way? Because there’s other ways you could do it. I mean, you obviously have a real presence in Washington, you have a big ...

You know, I think of it as sort of all these arrows in the quiver.

Right.

So, we use philanthropy, we use policy, because we have great policy people in DC. We use arts, we use investing in companies. We actually do convenings. We do ... And I like to do, for myself, I really like to do sort of the under-the-radar, more skunkworks type stuff.

Yeah. Including visiting people in the Trump administration, correct? To talk about immigration and these issues.

Well, yeah.

Yeah, how did that go?

That was actually with President Trump. Well, as you could see, he repealed DACA.

Yeah.

Which is what we met about, so it didn’t work very well.

Yeah. So what does that have to do ...

But he said, he said, “I really like your dress.”

He’s a pig.

I know. Yeah. Yeah. I thought, “The things I will do.” You know?

Yeah. What did you say then? God, I’m so glad I wasn’t there because I’d be like, “Are you fucking kidding me?”

That’s why you should go, always go everywhere.

You know what? I should have been a billionaire. I really should have. It would have been so good. I could’ve been. I was there. I could’ve been.

Is that right?

Yes, it was. Yes, I was offered a job at Google when they had like six people. Same thing at Amazon.

Yeah.

I said, “Why would I want to do that? I’m a reporter.”

What do you imagine is going to change DACA and that? What has to go? You didn’t ... the dress thing didn’t work.

Audience member: 2020!

2020, what do you think is going to have to happen? 2020 is exactly right, but go ahead.

Laurene Powell Jobs: I think we’re all hands on deck. We have to have new leadership at this country. There’s actually so much destruction that has happened that needs to be repaired. There’s been decimation across agencies. I think the problems are far more profound than any of us, even everybody who’s paying attention, really are grasping. We need someone who can both fix and rebuild and lead and leapfrog us forward. We need great leadership.

Okay, if anybody has a question for Laurene, we have just a few minutes for it. Let’s see, does anyone have any questions?

Oh, goodness.

Hands up. Come on. Right here. Stand up here and then I’m going to ask one more question about education, because that’s the last thing that she’s really focused on.

You can also ask a question of Kara.

No, you can’t.

Audience member: Hi. Thank you so much. I am a choreographer and a musician and as someone working in the intersection of technology and art, there can be this feeling of needing to be chosen in order to get access to any resources to make art. I’m just wondering from your end, what would you say to artists who are trying to make work that’s really relevant and also can break through and be seen as something that’s worthy of funding?

Laurene Powell Jobs: One of my best friends is Brenda Way, and she started ODC here in San Francisco 35 years ago. She started out of a bus, you know how artists unfortunately are not highly valued at the moment so they have to make do. Her art took off, started small and grew into something that’s a real cultural institution for the city. I think that the lesson there is it does take time sometimes and sometimes, there’s a lot of struggle before there’s breakthrough.

I think social media, while it can be a tool for destruction and division, is also a tool for access and connection. Luckily, you live in a time where you can have more people see your art than otherwise would come and stumble upon it in person. I think being both a musician and a choreographer is a very cool thing because it probably, having both artistic outlets probably make you better at each thing. That’s exciting. Maybe LWT will have you perform and then you’ll get a lot of eyeballs.

That’d be awesome. We’d be into that. All right. Any more questions? Questions? From anyone? This large crowd. All right. I have two more things I want to talk about. One is your commitment to education. I visited College Track with you a couple of years, it was two years ago.

Yeah.

How does that fit in? Because one of the things we were talking about earlier is making connections between things.

Oh, well, College Track is an organization that I started over 20 years ago. It was actually the first time that I was in the social sector. It was the first time that I knew anything about the role of nonprofits in society and building bridges and being agents for change in that way. I also learned a lot about what it’s like to go and ask people for money. We’re a public charity and so you need a multiplicity of funding sources and I understood so many things about how to be a good philanthropist by being the executive director of a nonprofit. This organization, which is still going strong and serving over 3,000 students this year, we were built because I went to speak to a senior class in a local high school here in California.

It was the first time I had been in a California high school because I didn’t grow up here. I was shocked, truly, at the lack of access to information about college and anything after high school. This was to a class of students who are self-selected into this class because they wanted to go to college. Not a single one of them had taken the SATs and they were already seniors. Then, I just got so outraged in one class visit where it was supposed to be just telling them about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. I decided that I would come back every week and I would be their college counselor because they had never seen one before. Of the 35 students, 33 had not taken the courses they needed to take to even apply to a college.

I was so offended and outraged on their behalf that I ended up selling the for-profit company I was running and just started this organization to see if I could be helpful and if I could be of use. Everything I’ve learned and everything that we ended up creating was and is informed by the students and families of College Track.

Great. My last question, speaking of that, one of the reasons I do like talking to you is because you seem more woke than most people in Silicon Valley, I got to tell you.

That’s a low bar.

Exactly. It’s a low bar. Thank you for saying that. It’s really low. How do you get the bar? It’s been a reckoning this year. They’ve gotten the crap kicked out of them, deservedly. You’ve been around these people forever. You know them. What does it take for them to start to behave more like you and less like themselves? Have they gotten it? I mean, otherwise, let’s just take all their money, do the Ocasio method and just take all their money. Like that kind of thing. Yours too, sorry.

I mean, either way, it’s going.

Right.

I think Brian Stephenson, who’s such a brilliant and beautiful human being, talks a lot about proximity. I believe that. I think it’s not my nature to want to live in a bubble, but it’s actually a very easy thing to do. I think that’s actually one of the many detriments of excess wealth is it allows you to live in a bubble. I don’t think you can actually change unless you have proximity. If you’re in a bubble, you have to pop it and you have to walk out of it and you have to make yourself uncomfortable. You actually need to be open to learning and changing, and most people are not.

Do you think they will?

I think the chances are better now than they were a year ago. I think that sometimes you need to get hit across the head with a frying pan and then you realize, “Oh, I need to change.” I think there’s going to be some forcing of changing. I think maybe those who come behind them will learn from their mistakes and not slip into the bubbles.

All right. Laurene Powell.

Thank you. Appreciate it. That was fun and it was fast.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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