Chris Hayes’s new television show will not be a meritocracy.
“Those who are able to climb up the ladder will find ways to pull it up after them, or selectively lower it down to allow their friends, allies, and kin to scramble up,” Hayes wrote in The Nation in 2012. “In other words: ‘Who says meritocracy says oligarchy.’ ”
That meritocracies consolidate power for a select group has been one of the central themes of Hayes’s writing (his book is called Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy). So it only makes sense for his new television show to work to actively combat this system. This doesn’t mean that Hayes won’t try to populate his new primetime MSNBC show, All In, with talented individuals, or that he doesn’t care at all about merit when choosing his guests or topics of discussion. But it does mean he will take an active role in trying to portray the news differently than other cable news shows.
In one sense, the format isn’t all that different from your average cable news show. There’s a host who starts with a monologue, and various panels of invited guests to talk about current events. A political show with a general-interest flair, show topics have included the politics of birth control, a discussion of minimum wage, and even the importance of studying duck penises (see video below).
What make the show different are not the segment topics, but how they are discussed. Hayes says prime-time TV is mostly void of hosts who will listen, who will not just try to explain the news but work through the questions of the day in the form of conversations. When it comes to tone and to guests, Hayes says his show is an attempt to push back against the “path of least resistance.” For one, this has meant implementing a sort of quota system to make sure All In has representation from a diverse group of contributors (including race, gender, and background). If you want a peak at the inside of a Chris Hayes utopian society, your best bet would be to watch his show. Here, Taco Bell employees on strike get as much face time as politicians.
Of course, the goal to bring a broad coalition of voices onto television for a passionate but respectful series of conversations is a noble one. But, there’s a reason that prime-time cable news is usually populated by opinionated talking heads more than willing to get into fights with their guests: it sells. Whether All In will as well, that could take time to know. What we do know is that in it's first week, the show got off to a "relatively strong" start but then "fell to earth a little bit," according to TVNewser. National Journal spoke with Hayes over the phone to discuss his new venture:
National Journal: What do you think the point of your show is?
Hayes: The political project of the show, to the extent that it has a political project, is to expand the boundaries of the conversation. We want to have this combination of curiosity and new voices, and take a space that can be a very closed and intentionally open it up. We want to have conversations that are both pitched and passionate but respectful. We want to relish colliding ideas in a way that isn’t a shout fest, isn’t reductive. The goal is to model a kind of public conversation, and I don’t think there really is a place for that right now.
NJ: So is the goal to take away some of the bluster normally seen on prime-time TV and take a calmer approach?
Hayes: I’m not sure I’d agree with calm. I think people should be angry at things that are worthy of anger. Injustice is outrageous and deserves outrage. Successful prime-time television of any genre produces some kind of emotional reaction in the viewers. There are a lot of different emotions to tap into. The emotion of the reward of discovery, the feeling of righteous anger, the feelings of pathos and sadness, or sentimentality of being moved by something. All of those are different emotions that might be stoked in a viewer, and there has to be an emotional core, particularly in this time slot because that’s the basis of good drama.
NJ: Have you guys been successful in your opinion about striking an emotional chord?
Hayes: The palpable emotion of the striking fast-food workers was striking and compelling. It was the best segment we did in the first week in my opinion. The stakes were clear, and had real resonance. It also had journalistic resonance. It was news of the day that was not getting covered in other places.
NJ: There have been reports that you have some sort of quota system to make sure the show maintains diversity in guests. Can you tell me about that?
Hayes: We’re just vigilant about diversity. It’s something we actively think about in terms of the booking. Are we representing a wide variety both of views, and people of different backgrounds and genders? It’s just a constant thing we think about. Because the evidence is pretty strong that if it it’s not something you are constantly thinking about, particularly under the pressure of a daily show and the news cycle and the exigencies that forces on you, the path of least resistance can lead to a cast of characters that is just not reflective of the country, of the audience, of the broad political coalition that I consider myself a part of.
NJ: A week in, how would you say you feel about the show so far?
Hayes: One of the great things about this genre is it’s not a blockbuster movie, right? A Hollywood movie launches, a tremendous amount is put into advertising, and basically the first weekend receipts dictate ... its longevity and success. We get a crack at it every day. We are in a feedback cycle that is incredibly compressed. It’s evolution with fruit flies. We’re learning a lot every day.