Ep. 119 - Matt Bai

Update: 2017-02-06


Matt Bai, the national political columnist for Yahoo! News, talks with David Axelrod about the intersection between politics, media, and celebrity; the media’s role in Donald Trump’s political rise; and how news organizations can effectively cover President Trump and the new administration.

Following script is auto-generated by Speech to Text Technology:

the board for the acts files comes from rockin' mortgage my Quicken loans lift the burden of getting a home loan with rockin' mortgage and get a secure transparent home loan approval in minutes skip the bank of the waiting then go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files This podcast is brought you by sixty DB listen to conversations that go beyond the headlines business sports politics today's news plus all of your favorite podcasts download the free sixty DB at Today the the the and now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN The X Files with your host David Axelrod the the uh the the one of the blessings and curses of the modern media environment is that there's a ton of stuff to read and a lot of work being done some insightful some just meant to incite but one of the consistently smart commentators on American politics for several decades now is mad by his book All the truth is out traces the changes in our modern environment that have made so much more difficult for public figures to do their jobs and has changed the nature of our politics he came to the Institute of Politics couple of weeks ago to lead a panel and while he was here we sat down for Congress has the all the mad by Welcome welcome here and all to the Institute of Politics thank you this is a very strange occurrence your interviewing me we've done it the other way around many times I know I'm you know I'm returning my roots I Report or aerial roots it interesting thing about the podcast because in some form or fashion with the weather was in journalism or in politics you know my career has been about storytelling so podcast is just an idea it's just a chance to hear other people's stories and and am here to hear yours I want to talk about everything that's going on yeah and because I think it said there was a much more I have had the paying attention but it's hard to pay attention because there's so much going on it's like a three ring circus you don't know the elephants the tigers are the clown but is more of one in the eye of the Tell me about about growing up outside of Bridgeport Connecticut because I know that's where you started out I didn't from Trumbull Connecticut choice was just talking to one of the Student Edition Greenwich and I said that's about twenty minutes into planets away the lower edge of the upper edge of the Gold Coast's not so pro sports not so gold is the tough city and it is as you know it's formative for your craw yes and so I think the significance for me matter routine suburban existence my folks to my dad was a trial lawyer defense lawyer medical malpractice or nautical disaster I just back to back trials he died pretty young and how young sixty one were you hell were you was he really get into it now yeah I was twenty two twenty three months it is thus my dad when he was when when I was pretty on the swells oh yeah I I was about to graduate school for journalism so he never saw that part of my career I was actually speech writing for the UN at that time the UNICEF but the thing about Bridgeport particular because we really lived if I mention bridge for both my parents grew up there my mother's family had bakery my dad practiced law there for thirty odd years is that you know that was that was a without my even knowing it growing up that was a very visceral and primary education in de industrialization and economic changes that were going on something was very wrong people went out to towns like mine because the neighborhood has deteriorated the businesses had closed taxes were higher services were low crime was rampant we mire I cannot remember a time as a child when you didn't when you were told to put the latches day is when you have manual acts but the latches down in the car driving through certain neighborhoods so you know you took the train the Metro North runs from that area to New York City and you would go through Harlem and Upper Manhattan and the Bronx he'd see I was a Yankee fan ago the Bronx you see all from a train but you know you never got off yet you know you didn't get off you just the that was the glow in the city in Stuyvesant eyes to take the long trend of tissues right Yankee Stadium your eye so for me as a reporter I think the girl in my career that was a driving force of curiosity from is I want to get off the train for whatever reason I wanted to understand what was going on in the cities like Bridgeport like the Bronx in New York I wanted to I want to experience the world also figure out why we couldn't seem to do anything about it what would your parents tell you about Bridgeport and was the Bridgeport of their experience was funny you know I think everybody who's parents went from the city to the suburbs has certain on the same experience it was they had very great nostalgia and very romanticized memories probably of how great a city it was it was was the Park City it had the city of P T Barnum and still its beautiful architecture and so they would talk to my dad went downtown every day and was a kid I'm going downtown my grandmother and they would always talk about what use to be like what it was what used to be over there you know that the theater the movie theater where the birds had built huge elaborate nests in the marquee because nothing ever occupied the space for the bulk of my childhood you know that was the great marquee Theater and that's where they went in some movie so that really makes an impression on you know understanding that America changed in some fundamental way in my old incarnation I did a few races in Detroit and I remember doing an ad where I interview people about the way Detroit was and the way it was moving to hear these memories of getting dressed up and going downtown and going to this to the shopping you know to shopping at some major store going to this Rhett little restaurant and going to this theater and of and you know we were conducting these interviews in Detroit by the way coming back to central city of Detroit but there was a lotta nothing around where we were talking and so you could see them painting this picture in their mind's eye of the wait was well and the darker side of that picture right because it's always inherent in this natural knowledge it is is a racism class ism there was always an undercurrent of it changed meaning guess the races change me neighborhoods they grew up in where now all black in the Latino in and they were unsafe and and and the economy was terrible and somebody had to be to blame for that right so so I can be honest about that was an undercurrent of my day of my using my parents were the generation that really resented that changeover they had seen their neighborhoods deteriorate and so one of the things for me you know is as a young reporter going in to urban neighborhoods was to was was the awakening of understanding that there were a bunch of sides to that story you talked about de industrialization what happened to Bridgeport Bridgeport made shoes a leather items made by me when my when my parents were young was he was still a pretty potent manufacturing time which of course breeze all kinds of other industries and IT and yes of course key source two helicopters on the edge of Bridgeport and Stratford and worked for a lot of time my parents remember triple shifts in through the night making it soft after the war so you know everything is left which were an end for all the reasons that we know right because it costs too much to make stuff there a lot of it went overseas because plants went to new cheaper parts of the country and became more automated write those those jobs went away very very quickly actually and then when you have empty factories in joblessness you you also have the services have to leave my my family's bakery my mother's family the baker is no one comes with a cream or the bakery goes away they just complain about the labor costs the truckers they couldn't they couldn't keep going at all just breaks down and then what happens ultimately as people flee to the suburbs part because the economic issue partly because the racism in part because fear of crime in all of it you know all of the intermingled there's no tax base anymore what happened to cities like Bridgeport is they start taxing people more for the services they need for the poor and the more you tax the hardest attract business and harder harder it is to redo your downtowns and get residency you get into this very as you know you get to this very not virtuous cycle this is I don't want to lose the thread of your narrative and we won't but we should note that when Donald Trump said Make America Great Again certain ways he was speaking to that notion of the way it was and that it can be that way again and he has in the early going of his administration really played to that notion that we're going to bring this manufacturing back that were going to penalize people trying to take these jobs away it's you know where it may be wrongheaded from a policy or misleading from a policy standpoint good and I want to talk to about this later about technology rather than trade being the that the real threat to middle class jobs today but if it's indisputable E has appealed to people who feel aggrieved by the loss was a strong emotional tie one of the things interesting about you remind me of the inaugural address where he talked about the American Corey try to use large here in Chicago he keeps talking about Savage God will then vote for him he win any urban she did very poorly in in across the board in urban areas so they did the stodgy he plays too is an astrologer people really like my parents who rule ever vibrant cities but don't live there I have to say word for my city by the way because Chicago is such a great city that Donald Trump very recently built a large apartment condo building year that is adorned with very large letters of his name and as Ellie had enough confidence in the community to build here and has been and that building's been here for some years and all those years that his name and his project has been or his voice about community concerns until very recently so you know welcome to the fight Mr. Trump I found a strange thing for him meanwhile this is the story of him in his presence it's an odd direction impulse to indulge because there's very little he can actually do about it it's not something that the public up screaming about it's not something the federal government's really involved in so few words in polls yeah as I understand it as has been reported he was watching The Fox and O'Reilly was doing a piece on this violence in Chicago that included by the way a comment by the mayor chastising the president for focusing on the size of the crowd at the inauguration and twenty minutes later tweet came out and we'll get to that about what the impact of policy making by tweet an impulse means for governance but just returning to your story what made you decide that journalism was what you wanted to do I mean this sounds self effacing I don't think it is unlike you David I actually can't do anything else this is this is what I do I write I love history at some point you had to you didn't just you were born sentiments of Well I don't tank and I can't do this and I can't dance can't sing I don't Weld very well say that to yourself but in some ways it when did you realize is that you wanted to write a new well I always wanted to write I don't remember a time when I was riding in trouble in school for writing if I weren't writing journalism I'd you know in in some other life I write novels I'm now writing screenplays and we're working a bunch projects and highway I just write I love to learn new kinds of writing that's when the star I mean Israel is I can remember grade school you know I I I I can remember you know I I literally I have ever talked about it I remember being called to the principal's office in grade school because I had written I had been reading sports biographies and I had written a mock biography of of sports heroes that did not exist and to this day I'm not sure why I was called I'm sure I got all the dates wrong I don't know if they thought I was like pretending something was true that wasn't it they just want to understand where I got it from but I was always writing in in in my spare time and I love history I love positive variation Watergate very young I was crying up in the late seventies early eighties so was very fresh in the public mind I read books about the Watergate figures for awhile oso must live through it in real time yeah why did it although you really my Earl won my very earliest memories and serve the mindless political memories of Nixon resigning so I was fascinated by that I think like a lot of people my generation you know because this was the Granger High School nineteen eighty six I din noe tt i can make money as a writer journalist and that was kind of a big thing then you know that was the kind of get a generation the Reagan era yeah my dad was a lawyer I think you would like for me be a lawyer I come from a family of lawyers really and even my grandmother was a lawyer Sean first women lawyers on my mother side so you know although you know my father side and gone to college but you know for me that with that would've been a natural course so I was more a question of how was I going to take that writing ability was Xanadu we we we had said that with Carl Bernstein and we haven't aired the interview yet but we will shortly and I conveyed in with the new which is I was a young journalist of that generation that was inspired by Woodward and Bernstein who through their dog good investigative journalism in many ways saved our democracy save the Republican spoke to the power what journalism can be it's really interesting is I I met Bob Woodward and calm for the first time in college I'm sure he does not remember this and and and says very something to him than inspiring he actually no use for me but but but but as I wrestled with this in my book in all truth is out I wrestle with this know that the legacy wanted for me is complicated I've come to see it is much more complicated than I did then as a kid yes it did inspire a lot of us certainly inspired me years after the kitten and and Yeah and and created this great model for journalism but also created this perverse incentive yes journalists who could get rich and famous to be celebrities by taking people down and the idea that if you are the ultimate journalist you were exposing the fraud so you know I think there's a difference between skepticism and cynicism and reporters should always be skeptical but it's created a baseline assumption that people in politics were corrupt the government was you know subject to VAT and VAT you could make your name as a reporter by uncovering all of that in unless you have good editors and good habits as a reporter you end up in a sense inflating things and cut inflating things and rather than doing a solid reporting you end up skipping cutting corners to try and expose scandals that don't exist or or inflating as you wrote a new book in le talk about it relative to Gary Hart things that ultimately of for sale weren't true in the way they were presented but also warned Germain in many ways I think the web the web put it in the book was it we are the source of the business became after that really became mean we know you're a fraud which have to figure out how right and that's that's that is and that is a pernicious thing because you know I think the greatest threat we face today is just lack you know just this diminishing lack of confidence in any institutions the media being chief among them but of this notion that nothing's on the level that everything is rigged in the words of our president and that's very unhealthy for democracies and the Internet only amplifies all of that so it's a big concern but when you started you are still we weren't quite there yet you want yeah you you start on the city desk of The Boston Globe yeah I went to a speechwriter for a while for UNICEF for use of or Augie have turn and a guy named Larry Bruce was the president was there for three years said how huge you get to screenwriting gig poster a fraud he know I never even seen a dog ever I know think she appreciated that the Tiffin as Badger for nothing no I was a kid I not watched anything I just knew she was a super nice person and she's done a lot of good work in Aus was actually good expert I thought briefly about staying in speech writing because at that time you know I thought wow you get paid six times what I was getting paid you know induce I was just John three sixteen seventeen grand no money and I certainly could've once you have the experience of right speech writing for someone you don't respect as much which is what happened to me after both the people was ready for actually died on the same time Audrey and Larry person when you have the experience of writing for people who are not as admirable you quickly realize at least I realized that was not for me and so went back to graduate school journalism at Columbia I went to Boston Globe loves in the city for two years was that what was that like that experience was fantastic I rose I could state the globe probably my whole career at least it seemed that way the time not knowing and all the economic changes that would come to the business but I love that I was one of the youngest people in the newsroom you know I was very quickly during breaking news it was crazy hours are crazy pace but I know my job was to patrol all the worst neighborhoods all the toughest neighborhoods in Boston or somebody got killed in some freak way in a suburb that was it was news on the thing you learn that the reason I'm so grateful for that experience now looking back and I could I could have been very happy doing a lot of things there and plywood cover politics there eventually but the thing I'm really not like Cruz could have been I work I mean match editor you know Rob do you want to yeah you must of covering covering some politic yeah now Rob is a great guy knew all those guys and but you know news when you cover it dated A is of the really humiliate you as you know from your experience it you for what you find out very quickly is the reality defies your easy armchair analysis and prediction of what's going on I can remember very clearly a murder where everybody knew who did guide it was of horrific murder of a tall pair who'd been literally sawed in half just one of these racy stories this guy he only spoke to me I had interviews with them and that we were all sure that he was the guy theyve been tried and convicted in the end turned out he wasn't the guy I remember a story covering a story of the murder of a kid in Maine that no one could explain it turned out we found out much later on he actually killed himself and his father was so ashamed that he moved the body and staged to move these things when you do the hardest ride always remember when you do these things when you do these kinds of stories you learn that you actually don't know what seems obvious is an obvious and you don't know what goes on Thai people had I think that served me well later covering politics I've always never assume the motives of people I've never seen that what went on to just because it looks like the line went from point A to Point B Yes assume that it was that I worked with a with a great investigative reporter when I let you know I spent my first eight years as the Chicago Tribune starting from when I graduate from college knows the greatest education my life but were for great investigative reporter Chuck new Bauer and Chuck and I did some pieces together and you know I would be gung ho we've got is let's go and he would say no we've got a we've got see but if you don't have be you have a story and Chuck was very painstaking took a long time to do is work but he won Pulitzer prizes and his work was always impeccable to the point were people who actually put in jail which say I don't like it but I really see was fair you know and and he got you know you got me so I think that I were a little bit today that there's you know the pressure to produce is so prodigious and you know you worked and one jump ahead in the narrative but you work for Yahoo and four am and where so you know that the pressures of digital not just on the new media sources but all that's resources like the globe like my paper late such as the digital pressure it also um it's the way people come on now it's the pathway is different I used to have to do a certain amount of reporting to have to learn that lesson was describing before they would let you go out and write about the presidency right I hate to sound like in the Get Off My lawn old guy but I do think these kids are something when you when you get if someone had given me a column in twenty two a blog had existed if someone had let me vent my opinions at twenty two about politics or twenty five for twenty eight in that haven't covered it I would've I would've taken that I once I once was in the running to be a metro columnist at The Globe after I had left and I desperately wanted that job I was too young I wouldn't have known and yet I didn't know that the thing is they didn't give us those opportunities they actually they said to me you know what just not yet and right and the fact that we do where people can come can not cover things not learn them not see them and then just start offering their opinions to large audiences that's a problem it is a problem yet when I got to the Tribune love in college developed an expertise in Chicago politics wrote about it for local newspapers and the city or city would put you in politics right away but you don't really know about reporting and so they put me on nights he put me on night shift at the goal I did not so it was crazily hours a dash of six to two and we did forty two but they always call you in early because invariably you work it invariably somebody left the store at two o'clock right so it was almost always you today I loved every minute of it I love that I didn't I know I II I enjoyed the newsroom I enjoyed the camaraderie but I also use seaside a life on nights that you know I just hadn't seen and you about the way people live in the way people die and you know I've covered plane crashes and murders the L falling off the tracks on to the street below of them and you know all manner of thing that I wouldn't have experienced before and about that and write about it accurately on deadline so it was great in value great experience and you young people don't get get that chance today so I'm really grateful I was pissed when they put me on nights I'm really grateful I was teary eyed the same town that gets two nights and I did it for awhile I think we were short staffed by close to year town's approval will take a short break and we'll be right back with Matt by rocket mortgage by Quicken loans proudly supports the X Files when it comes to the big decision of choosing a mortgage lender it's important to work with someone you can trust who has your best interests in mind with rockin' mortgage you'll get a transparent online process that gives you the confidence you need to make an informed decision skip the bank of the waiting and go completely online at Quicken loans dot com slash X Files equal Housing lender license in all fifty states and MLS consumer access dot org Number thirty thirty so he spent two years at the Globe and then you went on to Newsweek what would you make that pledge make that switch well the truth is I had interned for Newsweek and you find you and McDaniel unwanted actions she was the bureau chief and chief corresponds very powerful person in history and and call me she offer me a couple of jobs after I went to go they want to keep me in Newsweek and I did what was considered a lot of people are crazy thing in going to go but I wanted that daily experience I remember somebody to close and me you could stay in Newsweek and you came here I mean that was lots of I love Matt Star News then enter the globe and I thought was going to experience and what I saw those trucks in the skyline out the news room window I was kind of hot so I went up there and Anna called me a couple times and so she called me about two years in effect they offered us move on to cover the ninety six campaign remember that the project in Newsweek where you are only reporting but you didn't write write a book I just said I'm no interest in not writing I love that part so two years and she called me and she said i look i will know we were offered a job as national correspondent we want sort of people we want to set a model of people who will go out do the reporting and the writing news magazines they had always been separate he said I cannot offer you a better job than this to remember to mail off if you want to do national reporting now leisure moment and I and it was not an easy decision because I had been at the close Dell and I had great friends and girlfriend and I love the newsroom but I did want to do a national thing and that was tremendous I was uneasy for five years at the tail end of the golden era and I saw a just every part of the country twice over I was on the road so much I was sick to be an honor but I never been anywhere you know I am rich for was my world I in Trumbull Bridgeport Fairfield County would have New York but you know I was in Boston to I went to college I've never seen the West Coast allows in my twenties I really was not well traveled and that was that was my five years to two to really understand the country an era as you as you remember the GPS so I had a stack of maps you know as tall as I am then before I got on a plane if I remembered I grabbed the mountain and there were by the time I am couple years in that job there were half a dozen cities in America I could land in with no map and nine where I was going because I spent so much time traveling around was tremendous experience what you learn about American politics in that you cover the two thousand yet campaign that's when I started covering politics but but interesting the important legal for me how if Iman had The National The Washington be kind of tune to himself and we had a pretty good political team and my thing was mayors and governors and state issues it was tough to get in was a freshman writing experience for me that's why you know five years but as much as I acted on but because the space was a tight format was so restrictive it was tough to get in the magazine but I really learn about local politics had worked for a couple of mayors and before you know when I was a kid Justin Summers river but but to know to understand all these local and state issued I still to this day give me an opportunity to spend time with any politician on Governor Mayor and upbeat and I got to know a lot of politicians who were but I spent alot of nineteen ninety nine with Jesse Ventura in Minnesota not only did was that a fascinating story in a great experience and forged a lot of my views about the potential of breaking the two party paradigm in American politics and what was going on with the electorate that still in for my views but also you know show me what was going on with the election what was going on what was coming American Party really you know people used to I was crazy when you know what the early two thousand you're going to get an independent presidents in this country are now you're going to see the deterioration of the two parts that really kind of half we have and we're going to still and that's what really got me thinking about the deterioration of institutions which is a theme I think I got to much sooner than other people in fact it's frustrating to me now that it's so mainstream because you know later I was at the Times because that that was really that experience really opened my eyes to what was really going on American politics that people in Washington really were very slow to understand why your friend Gary Hart about whom tome in nineteen eighty seven something that was probably the most meaningful bit of advice the most meaningful insight that I ever received
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Ep. 119 - Matt Bai

The Axe Files with David Axelrod