Where do the most constructive public conversations happen right now? Where have we just created “a conversation simulacrum…in which nobody actually talks to each other”? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Ezra Klein. This present conversation (transcribed by Christopher Raguz) focuses on Klein’s podcast The Ezra Klein Show. Klein is the editor-at-large and founder of Vox. Before that, he was columnist and editor at the Washington Post, a policy analyst at MSNBC, and a contributor to Bloomberg. He has written for the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and has appeared on Face the Nation, Real Time with Bill Maher, The McLaughlin Report, The Daily Show, and many more.
ANDY FITCH: In a partisan, polarized moment like our present, someone might desperately say: “We all need to practice listening.” You practice conversation, which doesn’t mean for you just listening, or just lobbing softballs. So to open, could you describe your lived experience figuring out how to shape the conversational approach for this particular podcast? And could you describe whatever practices or arts of lively conversation have provided the most meaningful models for you along the way?
EZRA KLEIN: Something strange about me is that I’m actually really bad at just sitting and listening to anything. That’s why I did badly in school growing up. I don’t process auditory information well that way, even just sitting down with a TED talk. So as a reporter, for the most part, I won’t call into conference calls, because I can’t retain any of the information. But I am good at getting information from talking to someone. And the way I run the podcast is very similar to the way I report, which is very similar in some respects to the way I just live. I try to have a lot of conversations, and try to be pretty open about where I stand in those conversations.
So that’s one piece of it. The other piece is the distinction (in my mind, at least) between an interview and a conversation. On the Ezra Klein Show, I try to be really honest that I’m having conversations, not doing interviews. Sometimes in my life I do interviews. If you go back to my talk with President Obama, that’s an interview, right? That’s not me saying: “You know, this relates to something from my own childhood…” [Laughter]. But in general, I want this show to offer conversations, because I think you can just learn more about a person if you’re willing to give them something of yourself. My intention with the podcast is to learn more about these people — and to make sure my audience can learn more about them. And I think that whole process works better in a normal human conversational way, rather than stepping back and putting guests into this pretty artificial role of solely answering questions.
Then in terms of models: I myself loved interview podcasts for years before I started my own. And one thing I noticed was that they didn’t sound like Meet the Press or Charlie Rose. I’m thinking of podcasts from people like Marc Maron, Tim Ferriss, Anna Sale, Pete Holmes. I would listen to these podcasts and think: God, this is so much more human and so much more revealing than what I’ve been doing, or what I’ve been listening to in the political space. So if you look at my early podcasts, I’m trying to bring that confessional style of conversational podcasting to politics. But over time, my style also has evolved a bit beyond that. If you look at my podcasts now, they’re a lot less biographical, a lot more idea-oriented. I’m really trying to inhabit the arguments my guests have made, and really pushing those arguments and trying to see what their boundaries are.
And here I’ll make one additional point about why podcasts are the way they are today. Because one obvious question is: why didn’t this conversational style become this popular any earlier? Given how big podcasts by Tim Ferriss and Marc Maron have become, where was all that? And I do sense something pretty unique right now about podcasting. When news media was mostly in print, it was just very costly to print paper. Very long interviews were very inefficient. Reporters do all these interviews for newspaper stories, but only print a couple sentences from those interviews.
And then when you get to television, watching two people sit and talk for a long time is just boring. But what I think makes podcasting so unusual (even compared to radio, which still has length limits like print and TV) is that it’s usually the secondary thing someone is doing, and the dynamics of holding someone’s secondary attention are really different than holding their primary attention. Speaking for myself at least, I listen to podcasts while I clean the house, while I walk my dogs, while I walk to work. So I actually want longer, more personable pieces that I can relax into, which feels very different than, say, finding a web video to watch for 10 minutes before a meeting — when I need something that really grabs me. So I think the podcast medium allows for more expansive, sprawling, inefficient but really human and wonderful conversations that just didn’t have a medium before.
I’ve talked to David Plotz about his theory of earbuds, and the intimacy that earbuds bring — with a whole conversation happening inside your own head.
Yeah. I describe a lot of these conversations (not just mine, but the ones I listen to) as feeling like you’re just sitting quietly while your friends talk. I also should add that, on my podcast, I myself am learning from (not just about) the guest. That’s really important for the show’s authenticity. I am there trying in the most real way I can to learn from them. The audience wants to learn from this person, I want to learn from this person, and we do it together.
Do you want to describe what you consider most useful in your audience gaining that type of growing familiarity with (rather than definitive summary of) somebody’s most pressing thoughts or investigations? And when do you see these discussions working dialogically to get someplace that no solitary, more straightforward perspective ever could reach? Or if you had to report on the types of conversations that happen on your show, what would that reporting inevitably overlook, or never quite capture, or somehow fail to convey to its audience?
It’s a super-interesting distinction, but the first thing that occurs to me is that it’s not a distinction that occurs in most people’s lives all that often. Once most of us get out of school, we learn from people by talking to them. I give a lot of speeches, and in the Q-and-A’s people want to ask me questions (sort of), but also to make counter-points, to push back the boundaries, to try and get answered the thing that doesn’t feel like it fits for them.
I think a lot about artificiality in journalism, about ways in which we’ve developed formal modes of journalistic inquiry — many of which are very very useful and important, but which are also very different from how most people interact with the world around them, and how they ask those questions about the world around them. James Fallows’s essay “Why Americans Hate the Media” from years ago makes a lot of really interesting points. But one basic point he makes is that if you ever listen to the difference between journalistic moderators interviewing a politician, and voters at a town-hall interviewing that politician…I mean they never ask the same question. A journalist is very interested, among other things, in what’s new, in what’s making news, in adding to a corpus of existing knowledge and discussion. Of course that’s an important part of our job. But this also means you might miss everything else worth covering.
You can get so interested in finding out what politicians think about a controversy with their health-care plan or with their campaign, and then never find out what they think about health-care or politics more fundamentally. So when I do these interviews (again, recognizing that they play a different role in the ecosystem than something like Meet the Press, which does a great job), I want to help the audience to inhabit the minds of these guests, in the way you just normally would in conversation. Again maybe this is based too much on my own lived experience, but I sense that human beings rely so much on conversation because that’s a natural way to learn — much more than just being talked to.
Sure occasionally on the podcast, you’ll mention your frustration with how conventional journalistic reporting can lock both its author and its audience into some sort of straight-jacketed mindset on a topic, maybe sometimes (as you’ve said) just by narrowing the interpretive frame too much, maybe sometimes by reinforcing the illusion that motivated reasoning has no influence on how we filter, absorb, integrate, retain the apparently straightforward information we receive from news media. So here could you outline any alternate forms of reportage you have tried or want somebody to try — to break themselves and break us out of this more straight-jacketed mode of journalistic narrative? Or on what specific topics do we most need that kind of breakout?
This is a place where conversations can get unnuanced very fast. So let me say it this way: I view what I do as part of a much larger ecosystem. I am part of the media. I am a journalist who works alongside thousands of other journalists. So when I talk about why I do things the way I do (or even about what doesn’t work for me, in terms of other news formats), it’s not that I want to wipe out these other approaches. It’s that I think the media can converge too much on certain very specific approaches. So then the question becomes: where is there space, where is there a need for other approaches to exist? Vox is a good example of this. Vox is an explanatory journalism organization. At a fundamental level, our whole operation is designed to understand and to surface context around the news. We’re trying first to understand, and then to convey, all the things that we need to know and that you need to know in order to make sense of what’s going on.
So I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an organization being optimized for breaking news. But I do think there should be lots of different stuff. And I think we (all industries, really) face the danger of getting shaped too much by the technologies with which we work. We can fool ourselves that the way we work is the way we’ve chosen to work. We can get stuck doing things that really compromise us, even when we no longer need to make these compromises. A lot of what we did in print journalism, for example, was about concision. And now that’s just habit.
I’ve done a lot of cable-news hosting. In cable news, you often have to work around the hour-long, five-break structure. At the same time, you have to cost-efficiently staff a 24-hour news operation. And then if you move to the Internet and just try to recreate that cable-news experience in this new medium (which doesn’t have the same limitations), you end up losing a lot. There’s a lot you could do that you don’t do. I mean, people often remark that as technologies change, someone moves into this new technology and at first mimics the old technology. You put your print newspaper on the Internet. It can take a long time (and I think we’re quite at the beginning of this right now) to figure out what is even permitted by these new technologies.
And then, over time, you end up making different sets of compromises — which I think we’re seeing now too, right? The media (myself and Vox included) made a lot of compromises with Facebook and how headlines work on Facebook. We all made compromises with Google, to get a piece optimized for search. So it’s not that these new mediums don’t demand their own compromises. They’re just different compromises.
As you describe how different technologies and different media can call forth different techniques and approaches, and to pivot back now to The Ezra Klein Show, I appreciate how your podcast tends to push complex policy questions, rather than to bask in some guest’s aura of celebrity, or wealth of anecdotal experiences. For one concrete example, I think of your policy-focused conversation with Hillary Clinton during her recent presidential campaign. And that particular association also reminds me of how, on various episodes both of The Ezra Klein Show and of The Weeds, you developed this theory of Hillary’s coalition-building, conversation-elevating, consensus-pursuing leadership style departing from American norms (or myths) of the self-made, self-sufficient, assertive and combative male leader. I appreciated that take on Hillary’s less self-centering approach to public engagement. At the same time I always sensed you might be providing a shadow description of your own approach to cultivating constructive public discussions (both by starting Vox, and by playing the part of cordial interview host — as contrasted to the heroic go-it-alone investigative journalist).
I’m really interested that you see that, in part because it doesn’t ring true for me.
It doesn’t? It doesn’t fit your life [Laughter]? Okay.
No, but I want to think through it for a minute. So just backing up, the Hillary Clinton interview (because of when we could schedule that interview) came earlier in the work on that article than would normally happen. In the article I was trying to understand the difference between the Hillary Clinton I (and others) saw on the campaign trail, and the Hillary Clinton I heard described by people who worked with her. There was just this huge gap between those two people, and I wanted to understand that gap — I guess for myself, right? I think my best work happens when I’m really confused. And writing that piece helped me to understand better how we have extremely gendered expectations for what effective political leadership and governance look like, particularly for political campaigning. So what you say doesn’t ring quite true for me because I tend to fit a lot of stereotypical male traits in this space. I’m very comfortable talking assertively in front of a crowd, for instance.
What you say might be more true to my leadership style internally. I think I’m quite emotionally present as a manager — in a way that was, over time, difficult enough that I wanted to stop managing [Laughter]. But in terms of Hillary Clinton tending towards coalition-building, meeting with everybody, spending time with everybody (as her style of governance, and in fact even of campaigning), I don’t really think that’s true for me. And it seems disingenuous to say that, in my career, I’ve had to take a back seat. I definitely have gotten more attention than I deserve [Laughter]. So that part doesn’t feel right, because I’ve benefited from a lot of gendered expectations in punditry and politics in a way Hillary never did.
What if I simply suggest that many of the most lively conversational media models from the past feel much more competitive, more debate-like, more zero-sum than The Ezra Klein Show or The Weeds?
I do feel pretty deeply right now that we’ve tumbled way down what I think of as Maslow’s hierarchy of political needs — since the Obama era, for instance. Back then, it felt to me like the core questions were questions of policy, design, governance. I may have been wrong, by the way. But certainly during the financial crisis, during the construction of Obamacare, even during a lot of the Congressional gridlock, the most urgent questions facing Washington were: how is policy designed? What would make for better policy? How does Congress really work? How does Congress consider or not consider policy? And under Trump, it feels like we’ve tumbled way far down that pyramid. Trump’s White House does not seem to spend much time thinking about these questions. Certainly the president himself does not spend very much time thinking about these questions. The amount of mental energy he gives to weighing competing tax plans [Laughter] is low. And for questions of how Congress is working: right now, Congress is doing very very little, even during a period of unified government, which is unusual.
So some of the really core questions of this period feel much more foundational, more about our political bonds to each other. Can we talk to each other? Can we figure out what the hell is going on? Can we come to some level of agreement at least on that? I mean, we’re talking shortly after Trump’s Helsinki meeting with Putin, but I also think about the Charlottesville rally. Who does this president see as his allies? Who does he see as compatriots? Who does he trust? What does he listen to? And I have these questions not only for Trump. When I’m on Twitter (I want to be careful with this, because obviously there are a lot of different social-media dimensions, and my social-media experience differs from many other people’s), the politics and media conversations seem pretty bad. I sense we’ve created a conversation simulacrum online, in which nobody actually talks to each other.
It’s more like battle-rapping. You try to get the loudest cheers from your crowd. Or it’s not even battle-rapping, because this crowd refuses to watch both sides [Laughter]. It’s like you have your people following you, and somebody else has their people following them, and you’re both just trying to avoid the dreaded ratio or something. And I don’t want to turn into one of those old guys just whining about how we used to talk to one another. But it does seem that a lot of the preconditions for good conversation, like a lot of the preconditions for good governance, have eroded, and were already eroding in the Obama era. I mean, for a lot of topics I’ve written about and been obsessed about for a long time now (identity and motivated reasoning, for example),when you look at the Obama and Trump eras, if you don’t see certain continuities, you’re wrong. But one big difference for me in this Trump era is that I feel even more uncertain, and so I’ve tried to create a space with this podcast where dialogue feels more possible than it does in the other media spaces I inhabit.
I also should bring in here my background as a blogger. Blogging was not nice. It was not civil in the way most people use that term. I remember many whining emails from reporters about the incivility. But blogging was at least in-conversation. When bloggers attacked one another, they expected counter-arguments. They expected the people they wrote about to respond, creating this whole economy of links, so that you were always going back and forth. And maybe most of this blogging has been absorbed by the media (a lot of its rhetorical styles, a lot of its actual people), but its conversationalness has not. I really miss from blogging that ability to have conversations, even angry conversations, even uncivil conversations — which I don’t think of as my podcast’s main feature, though certainly I’ve had some.
I did a recent podcast with Arthur Brooks, the American Enterprise Institute’s president, who talked about the difference between anger and contempt. He described anger as a healthy emotion. You might want to yell at somebody, but you do want to engage them. Anger as an emotion can lead to reconciliation. People vent that way. But contempt means you don’t want to engage the other person at all. They don’t deserve engagement. And the blogosphere was often angry, but the Twittersphere (at least what I exist in) seems more often contemptuous. People might get angry too, but they focus primarily on why the other side deserves nothing but contempt. And just to be clear: this is a right thing and a left thing. This includes everybody. I see it in myself. I’m not sitting here throwing stones. It’s one reason I don’t write on Twitter much, because I don’t think it brings out good things in me.
When I mentioned positive-sum and negative-sum conversations, I also thought of you discussing on your show the distinction between finite games and infinite games (between a contest with a clearly determined winner and loser, and forms basically of ongoing play). And this type of play that often happens on your podcast (again with no clear beginning or end to the conversation, with no single solitary voice we simply can extract from the conversational scene and consider “your” perspective) takes me to your interest in motivated reasoning — and maybe in showing motivated reasoning play out, rather than just theorizing motivated reasoning from afar. So could you here describe how your ongoing investigations of motivated reasoning (both as a specialized topic for researchers, and as a pervasive if often unrecognized force in our everyday lives) again shapes your relationship to journalism, to political argumentation, to public and performative conversation? How has thinking about motivated reasoning helped you to clarify what you already had started doing with your podcast? How if it all does your podcast operate as an experiential lab for your ongoing investigations into motivated reasoning?
I think you’re the first person who asks more questions in one question than I do. I say that with awe [Laughter].
For motivated reasoning, one pit I’ve fallen into the past couple of years (this relates to articles I’ve written and research I’m doing and a book I’m writing) comes from delving very deep into a lot of cognitive traps and tendencies we all have, in terms of how identity acts upon us. I’ve become very interested in what lies behind our performance of rational thinking (which is not to say rational thinking never happens). I think it goes too far to say that motivated reasoning or identitarian thinking never can be rational, never can be correct. We all engage in motivated reasoning all the time. Sometimes it takes us in the right direction, sometimes it takes us in the wrong direction, but we should always be aware of its pull. That’s a big point for me. It was part of the argument in my podcast with Sam Harris, and it’s something I make a point of discussing with many guests — none of us should fool ourselves into believing that cognitive biases or group identities are something only other people have. That’s a problematic way to think.
Still I don’t see easy solutions to any of this. I think hard problems often don’t have solutions. We just muddle through certain problems. So I would say that: yes, we’re all motivated reasoners, and yes, we all practice identity politics — but which motivations we work from, and which identities we activate at any given time, are malleable. So one thing I’ll try to do, for instance when I bring people on the podcast who my audience might disagree with, is to make it very clear that I’m drawing a circle around my guests, such that we are part of a similar tribe — even if we don’t agree, right? I’ll try to lower the threshold to just listening, to listening without being frustrated, to listening without activating the part of your brain that’s like: I’m going to, in real-time, invert every single thing this person says. Some of this happens through a conversation’s tone. Some of it happens through how I introduce the guest. Some of it happens through how I react to the guest. And this doesn’t mean you can’t do a tough interview. You still can. The question is whether your audience sees this debate as taking place inside the tribe (inside the set of identities that they feel connected to) or outside it.
Most people consider themselves fair-minded, curious, interested in perspectives other than their own. If you can activate that response (rather than: This person is a threat to everything I believe in), you can have a much more productive conversation. The hard part, and I try to be pretty honest about this on the show, is that human beings have such a powerful instinct to shape the world into what they want to believe it is. For instance, imagine that the theory you had devoted your life to was that gathering really good information about policies and then making persuasive arguments about these policies would somehow get societies to make better decisions. But then, at a certain historical moment, you can’t help losing your belief in rational persuasion. Well, that leads you to a really funny place.
And if in the past I felt a lot more certain that I knew the answers — in part that might have been because the questions were clearer. If you ask me even today “Could you design a health-care system that would work better for this country?” I would say, unhesitatingly: “Yes.” But if you asked: “Can you figure out how to reduce the polarization in our politics?” then I don’t know. Again, I think a lot of core problems right now don’t have any persuasive answers.
Well alongside the phrase “motivated reasoning” often appearing on your podcast, I think of the seemingly related, but never fully unpacked phrase “tragic imagination.” How might extensive reflection on individuals’ motivated reasoning help us to cultivate a tragic imagination in relation to broader historical developments? And again, in what ways do you find dialogue especially useful for theorizing, or even for enacting, a tragic imagination? In what ways does dialogue show us as, even at our very best, always fumbling, stumbling, misunderstanding each other, only getting somewhere despite our psychological hang-ups and interpersonal interference — forever bound, in these ways, by tragic or tragic-comic horizons, and maybe better off sticking to direct person-to-person inquiry, rather than devising some ideological masterplan?
So the idea I’m getting at with “tragic imagination” is that Americans are very, very entrenched in this story of progress. And by the way, not wrongly — this country has seen a lot of progress. Of course we’ve also seen a lot of terror, but we have seen a lot of progress. The power of believing that everything always has gotten better, and always will get better, can feel almost overwhelming. I do believe that those of us alive in 2018 directly benefit from a true explosion of human progress over the last couple centuries. For most of human history, there’s no growth, no economic growth at all, right? We don’t get richer. Things don’t get better. And then we get the industrial revolution and this rocket-ship of constant societal progress, with new innovations, new medications. Of course something could end this relatively short-lived period of explosive growth. But as much as I can believe that fact cerebrally, intellectually, I still find it hard to really feel this fact that something could end this period. So I think we have a tendency to discount both how bad things have been (and for how long), and to discount how bad things still could get.
This doesn’t mean one should sit in a pit of despair and become a pessimist. I don’t think that either. I’m often accused of that kind of pessimism. But one way in which I do feel optimistic is that, with politics in America right now, we often remember a false version of our past, where we were less violent, more democratic, more classically liberal — when in fact, compared to our actual past, even as strange and unnerving as Donald Trump’s behavior can be, our present system still looks a lot better than what we’ve had at almost any point in American history. But you also can go backwards for long periods of time. American politics shows that over and over. So I never want to just assume that things will get better, that progress is a historical force sweeping us along with it — and not the constant (and in some eras, for some people, really dangerous) work that we have to do.
Something Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about has influenced me a lot, where he says that one thing about being an atheist (which he is) is that this means there’s no justice. It means people who live through the middle part of the story (in between things being really terrible, and then things getting better again, in between the injustice and the redemption) just never get paid back. Maybe they die. Maybe so much physical or emotional or psychological harm gets inflicted on them that they’re never going to recover. And nobody meets them at the end of this ordeal and says: “You’ve suffered, but now we’re here for you.” So on the one hand, that really raises the stakes at any given moment, because you don’t get to assume everything just works out for the best. And on the other hand, that ugly historical reality proves the future could be ugly too. It also suggests that when we work from an idealized version of the past, that can’t help distorting our view of the present. So a lot of what I’m trying (maybe not always succeeding) to do is to hold all of that context together.
Here to continue placing more abstract reflections on dialogue back within more pressing present-day discussions, your podcast has come about at a historical moment when, for the first time perhaps, every social group in America feels its status under threat, its public voice potentially drowned out. So particularly as a chorus of progressive critics denounces various sympathetic-sounding (yet also profit-seeking, status-quo-reinforcing) cross-cultural engagements as new forms of appropriation or ongoing micro-aggression, and particularly as white, male, straight, and / or expert-class communities of various sorts feel their own prominence more directly contested, what further insights have you gained, over the three years of doing this podcast, not just into what it means to conduct a dialogue, but what it means to be you (in your particular body, with all of the social ramifications attached to that body, with your quite personalized inclinations towards active / incisive / assertive conversational style) cultivating and conducting public dialogues? And how if it all has such insight gained along the way changed the show?
First for your question of what does it mean to do this show in this era: I don’t think it means all that much [Laughter]. I don’t think of this show (as much as I love it, as much as I’m grateful for the audience generated, and for the guests who come on it, and all that it has given and taught me) as the most important thing going today. And I really want to present this podcast as just my effort to understand the world. That definitely has made the show at times slightly weird and uncomfortable for me, but I’ve also tried to make it, in this way, as authentic as I can. This show does not provide all the news that’s fit to print. This show does not offer an ordinal ranking of the most important topics to discuss this week. This show follows the stuff I’m thinking about, and confused by, and interested in. The invitation is to come along with me as I try to explore that, and to know you’ll get an honest exploration. That’s it. That’s the whole premise.
That’s also why there are episodes about psychedelics research, and Buddhism, and it’s why there are a ton of episodes about identity and politics — because I myself am interested in learning a lot more about these topics. That’s why there are (and I consider this a weak point) fewer foreign-policy episodes than you would find if the show reflected an ordinal ranking of importance. In the set of concerns I want to cover and think about and obsess over, I just haven’t been able to add certain other questions to this list. I have to leave those questions for someone else. So that’s one piece. This show does not try to carry the weight of an era on its shoulders [Laughter]. The show is just me talking with people, trying to do a good and honest job of that, trying to learn a lot — hopefully in a way that will entertain the audience.
To your other point, about how do I balance my role as a host and a semi-public political figure and a white guy and whatever else: again I just try to do it explicitly. I’m not a believer in the idea of objective journalism. I don’t believe objectivity is possible for human beings, and I don’t believe developing some form of journalism that hides all subjectivity solves the problem. Again, this doesn’t mean that I don’t admire journalism done by institutions that do describe themselves this way. I do. I just don’t think we can be objective, and if you look at any reporter on Twitter, you’ll see that in two seconds.
So as somebody who thinks a lot about identity, I always want to make clear, in real-time: “This is what’s influencing me.” As somebody who thinks about motivated reasoning, I want to make clear, in real-time: “This isn’t something that inevitably applies to everyone out there. It’s something that applies to me.” But I also think that if I can locate more of these tensions within myself, then it’s easier for audiences to see and absorb and reflect on similar tensions within themselves.
I mean, look: every therapist or counselor will tell you an “I” statement is more productive than a “you” statement. And I’ll deliberately use a lot of “I” statements on the podcast, hoping not to activate people’s defenses. If I were to come on the show and just start ranting about everybody else’s identity politics and their motivated reasoning, I think the correct reaction would be: “Fuck off.” And of course it often makes me uncomfortable just to be more truly myself than I have been in other kinds of journalistic work. And I don’t like it. It makes me much more vulnerable. It makes me feel much more exposed. But in the podcasts I listened to before starting The Ezra Klein Show, I saw how much it helped an audience absorb what was going on to see those questions acting on the podcast host (who the audience attaches to). And I wanted to try something similar in politics, where we often hold ourselves at a remove, and try to make ourselves seem more pure and laudable — in part because we’re often trying to win an argument. Or as journalists, we’ll often try to pretend we’re not part of the argument. I’ve tried to break down that distance a bit.
Yeah it interests me that you present this show as not the most important thing going on [Laughter], but at the same time you seem to be saying that by modeling certain types of conversations, by having your audience experience those conversations, you do in fact hope for the show to have an impact on much broader discussions.
I have two thoughts. I consider this show smaller and more personal than how the news media typically frames significance. I think about this podcast in terms of: How can I do the best job for my audience by being a good actor in a pretty toxic political moment? Though obviously some of these bigger questions you ask do relate to my broader life and work. I do live in Washington D.C. I do work in political journalism. But on the other hand, I think that if you try to do too much, and hold too much weight, you’re not going to accomplish anything at all. You’re going to get paralyzed by it. So when you ask me how I think about all of this, I don’t go into Thursday morning thinking: Okay, we need to answer society’s major questions on this episode [Laughter]. Where should we start? I go in thinking: What can I and the audience learn from this particular guest, and how can I have a good conversation that a lot of different people will be able to absorb?
So those internal questions about how to navigate this period are not small questions. But they’re personal questions. I have my answers and other people have theirs. Again, I see what I do as part of that much larger ecosystem. I don’t think every show should be like my show. I just try to give the best version of my show and of myself that I can.
I myself have done a lot of journalistic enterprises where the lessons seemed much more generalizable. The way we covered policy at Wonkblog felt more generalizable. It was part of a critique I was making about the balance between horse-race coverage and policy coverage. I think a lot of people heard that critique. I actually think it had a good effect on things, but I don’t think The Ezra Klein Show is generalizable. It’s a pretty personal product actually, which makes it quite different than anything I’ve done since my blog, and makes it feel to me like a good fit for the present. You can look at what we’re living through, you can look at poll numbers, you can look at the election results, and you can see a lot of different stories. But I don’t see this podcast as trying to decide which story is right. I see this podcast as trying to hear out, and also to engage, as many of these stories as I can. And I’ll leave it there.