Are those effects in tension with the best habits of mental hygiene in the prefrontal cortex that we want to cultivate? Probably. Is the challenge to do both—to do something that is having an effect that is compelling people to watch, while also trying to not just leech people at a lizard-brain level? That’s the goal. But, yes, there is some kind of tension. There is a tension between the things that compel us at this brain-stem level and the best forms of mind we want to inhabit as democratic citizens.
What did you make of the recent management changes at NBC News? [On Monday, NBC Universal announced the departure of NBC News chief Andrew Lack, who oversaw the company’s response to charges of sexual misconduct against Matt Lauer.]
I feel so removed from them, I have to say. I was sort of surprised. I didn’t know that they were happening, then I saw that they had happened. We haven’t been in the office in six weeks, which is the place that any kind of gossip, to the extent that there would be gossip—that would be the place that you would hear it physically. Being removed from it, it’s, like, Oh, wow, O.K. I’ve never met Cesar Conde [the head of NBC’s Telemundo and Lack’s replacement], and hope to, I’m sure, soon, at some point.
NBC News had scandals involving Matt Lauer, and allegations of sexual misconduct, and then we also saw similar things at CBS News, with Les Moonves and others. You spoke out at the time when my colleague Ronan Farrow’s book came out, detailing NBC News slow-walking his reporting out of fear that Harvey Weinstein reporting would lead to reporting on Lauer. Do you think there is something endemic in the television-news business, even if we know—
Yeah, I was just going to complete your sentence for you. It is hard to tell. Is the culture of TV news particularly bad in that way, or is it everywhere, and particularly everywhere that has powerful men? The #MeToo stories are almost fractal in that it’s, like, “Oh, a story about an extremely powerful person, the person that ran Hollywood,” and then the same dynamics replaying down to a poetry professor, where, in the world of the poetry professor, the poetry professor’s very powerful, and that same dynamic manifests itself. I genuinely don’t know.
It matters a lot for people to feel that workplaces are safe, and serious about this stuff, and transparent—and, particularly, I think, for the extremely brilliant and talented women that I’m lucky enough to work with, that they feel empowered, and protected, and like equals. No book is closed on all of this, for everyone throughout every institution—newsroom, private corporations, public institutions—to make that right.
But do you feel that if similar things came up at NBC News now they would be handled differently?
I think I do. Or, I think this: I think the accrued social change and understanding of what the procedures need to be, and what the transparency needs to be, are such that there would be more careful effort to make sure that things were handled in a way that did not break faith with the people inside that building.
You had a miniature controversy a long, long time ago, where you questioned the practice of referring to fallen soldiers as “heroes,” and whether that was appropriate or “rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war.” What do you make of the idea of talking about front-line workers as heroes now?
There is a notion that sometimes we socially confer status in lieu of actual substantive things—in lieu of substantive care. “We applaud you, and that’s what you get.” I’ve read numerous critiques along those lines, and I think there’s something to those. The other thing I thought about the hero thing is that, when that happened, the thing that really hit home to me was just about being careful and empathetic about people’s experience of loss and their grief, and how important that is as a public figure and public platform. No matter what point you’re making, in whichever political valence, people’s losses are real. Their grief is real. Their mourning is real. You have to take that seriously and be respectful of it.
It doesn’t mean that that’s the end of the conversation from the policy perspective. It doesn’t mean you can’t oppose the war, you can’t oppose lockdown—whatever your policy preference is. But it does mean we all have a duty, as human beings, as members of civil society in a collective enterprise of democracy, and also anyone with a platform, to just be, like, empathetic and careful with the hearts of others.
Well, this is the most shocking thing about where we are, in the sense of—
Isaac, I literally can’t get over it. I spend huge portions of my day just with this feeling of being hit in the chest by watching the utter blitheness and disregard, and casualness, and sociopathic casualness, about the vast losses. They’re not far from me. Family members of our staff. A neighbor of ours. People I know who’ve gotten very sick. It’s not some abstract thing. It’s a tangible thing, very real, and, to watch this utter disregard for it by some people, from the President on down, it is so shocking to me, and horrifying, and enraging, and almost insanity-inducing.
I keep thinking about if you went around on TV or in New York City after 9/11, and you were showing up at house parties, or on interviews, being, like, “Uh, guys, you know sixty thousand people here die from the flu. I’m not quite sure what the big deal is here.” You would have sounded like a sociopath, and you probably would have gotten punched in the face. You certainly would have gotten fired from TV. It’s not like any of that would have been the correct response, but it would have been sociopathic. What sort of maniac would you be?
I would say there’s been a debate for the last few years between left and center-left, about whether Trump is a symptom or a cause of American decline, American inequality, and American brokenness, with the left viewing him more as a symptom, and the center-left viewing him more as a cause. How does the coronavirus make you think about it differently, if it does?
I think I’m probably more in the symptom camp than in the cause camp, but I also don’t have a lot of tolerance for people who want to elide or gloss over the specific terribleness of how this individual has handled the job. Before the coronavirus, my feeling about Trump was that he was a worse President and a worse person for the job than George W. Bush, who I think was a terrible President and terrible for the job. But because of the historical things that had happened under Bush—chiefly 9/11, the launching of the war on terror, and the Iraq War—Bush had created more misery in the world, had actually done worse things than Donald Trump.
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