a long talk

MSNBC’s Ari Melber Wants to Bring Hip-hop to Cable News

Ari Melber. Photo: Christopher Dilts / NBC Universal

In the past few years, cable news has morphed into The Trump Show, with the 45th president’s daily outbursts dominating coverage almost every hour of the day. Ari Melber’s nightly MSNBC program The Beat is no exception: Airing at 6 p.m. weeknights, Melber regularly finds himself following up on some bit of breaking news out of the administration. And yet, Melber and his producers have managed to not completely succumb to saturation coverage of Trump. Since premiering a year ago this week, The Beat has gone out of its way to look beyond the White House and explore stories not directly related to Trump. He’s also brought a bit of a late-night feel to early evening cable news, inviting entertainers and musicians such as Dave Chappelle, 50 Cent, and Vic Mensa on the show.

The Beat is hardly the only cable news show to blur the lines between politics and entertainment, but Melber is one of the few cable anchors to pepper his on-air reporting with hip-hop lyrics. A Seattle native who was a practicing lawyer before jumping into journalism, Melber argues pop culture and politics are inextricably linked and shouldn’t be cordoned off from each other. “There are a lot of things that people learn and live through culture first, and politics comes afterward,” he said. Audiences seem to be responding: The Beat averages about 1.3 million viewers every night and has become MSNBC’s most-watched 6 p.m. show ever, fixing what had long been one of the network’s most troubled time slots. Vulture recently rang up Melber to talk more about his love for hip-hop, as well as why he’s so adamant about not letting Trump take over his show — even if it’s difficult to not to get depressed by the news out of Washington these days.

I have to start by saying my mother is extraordinarily excited that we’re talking. She is a real-life MSNBC mom
Well, tell her I said,“Hi, mom.” We would never offer anything of any excessive value, but we’d be happy to send her a pen or a mug or anything that she might like.

I’ll check with my bosses as to the ethical ramifications.
Exactly. Or I could just randomly do it when this is all behind us.

You’ve already offered a quid pro quo. I’m sorry.
As a lawyer, I can tell you that was only quid, for her. I’m not asking for anything.

Back in 2014, you told Columbia Journalism Review that you wanted to bring more light than heat to cable news. You didn’t want to ask questions just because they’d score lots of pickup. Now that you’ve had your own show for a year, do you think you’ve been able to live up to the standard? 
I feel very lucky to be at a journalism outlet where I can continue to focus on substance and policy and do big deep stories on a nightly basis. We’re on at a time where people want news, so we [cover] the big stories of the day. But we’ve [also] done a lot of deep dives. We did a ten-part series on Facebook and its role in civic democracy including its impact in other countries like the Philippines. That was welcomed as far as I could tell.

So, is there pressure? Not against telling those bigger, reported stories. There’s no reason when you wake up on a Monday morning that someone says, “Oh, you should cover social media in the Philippines tonight.” We did a piece the other week digging into Betsy DeVos’s record at the Education Department. We did a piece on the allegations of destroying evidence of torture and overseeing torture by Donald Trump’s CIA nominee before her confirmation so that people could see what that record is. I feel really great about getting to do all those things, and that’s frankly a fortunate fact of where I get to work.

Absolutely, but you’ll also book someone like Anthony Scaramucci, which is an interview more likely to generate fireworks than insight. Are those the segments you need to do so that you can do the deep dive on Facebook? Have you had to evolve your thinking about heat versus light?
Frankly, I can’t pick between whether I’m evolving or holding the line. I mean, I’m a human being made of cells — I’m sure there’s all kinds of mental and emotional evolution. But you mentioned booking some of the folks from the Trump world. I certainly don’t view it as automatic fireworks in doing that. I think it’s much more like, in this polarized environment, the path of least resistance is having people who talk for a living or talk to each other come on. Reaching past that, for example, getting Sheriff Joe Arpaio to come on for an interview after he was pardoned by the president was something we worked hard to do. But I’m not sure that every newscast would go to do that. It takes extra work and there are plenty of people who understandably say, I don’t want to hear anymore from Joe Arpaio. So I would put that in the light category because it’s important to get views from people directly, whether or not it’s always politically rewarding.

You’re hosting a cable news show at a unique time in our nation’s history, with this president being who and what he is. Does anything depress you in particular about that?
Number one, the U.S. government is engaged in a lot of activity that, according to people in this country and around the world, is scaring people and hurting people. That can be emotionally difficult to immerse in everyday. I think like a lot of other regular people — I don’t think this is even as a journalist, but just a human being — when we got the audio of children being separated from their parents by border security, it just broke my heart. The way it broke my heart was not necessarily the first thing I led with in reporting the story, nor should it necessarily be, because my job is to give people the facts. That takes a toll and the acceleration of that is severe. But there are plenty of reporters throughout world history that dealt with that. There are reporters out in war zones, and I’m reporting from New York.

The more editorial worst part is how often there is a gravitational pull towards nonsense and Trump trolling everyone. It’s certainly a challenge and sometimes frustrating. We don’t automatically cover Trump tweets. We have a rule that if he’s simply insulting someone for basically no reason, we don’t necessarily cover that or give voice to the insults any more than we give voice to false information or defamation. We might cover a story about defamation, but we don’t repeat the underlying slur if we know it to be useless and not newsworthy. We have our own ways of dealing with that. But boy, is that trying.

Political reporters are under attack from all sides these days. Conservatives say the media is being too alarmist in covering Trump, and liberals worry it’s normalizing him. I doubt you fall into the former category, but do you think too many journalists are treating this president like any other? 
I think the premise under that question is significant because we have to figure out, as a nation, how we deal with this political era. To pick a basic one, we have a system where the person who comes in second becomes the president. This has been happening more lately. That’s a really bizarre way to run a democracy, but we are beholden to the rule of law of the Electoral College. When you talk about the resistance to this president, it is literally a larger group of people than the one who voted for him. That will continue, as a structural matter, to create a lot of underlying tension in the country. That’s one example. There are many more, I think, that reflect a trauma or challenge in how we go forward. And so, is the press’s job merely to narrate that, or to hold the line on things and to lead? The press is always more comfortable with factual determinations than moral ones, although in day-to-day life, a lot of people care a heck of a lot more about morality than every precise actual fact.

This is a president who, according to the Washington Post and other fact-checkers, has lied more in his first year than other presidents have lied in their entire time in office. How harsh does the press want to be in making that part of the lead story? Not “the president said X, now we’re going to fact-check it,” but “tonight the president is lying about very important things.” So yes, I think the press can play a bigger role leading, but when the press does that, a lot of people in the country rightfully start to ask, “Wait a minute, is part of the press defining itself as simply against a particular president?” No matter how much you revile a particular president, that’s not generally the way the press is trying to operate in the United States. I think we can lead, and I think we need some facts and morals in these moments.

You may be contractually prohibited from praising other news networks, but Anderson Cooper did that after the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki. He flatly called Trump’s performance disgraceful. Did that surprise you?
This is what I’ll say in general, not about any particular reporter: The problem for some reporters who have defined themselves as above sharing judgement about what’s happening is, they’ve now begun to start sharing judgement. That’s for them to define, with their own viewers and readers, what they say their lines are. But it’s not the greatest position to pretend you don’t share any judgement, and then when something is bad enough or personally hits you, or whatever the reasons are, then suddenly you’re sharing judgement. That’s not directed at any one person.

What I’m trying to prove, and I’m relatively new at this so I’m still trying to build credibility — if I have a judgement about something, like ISIS is bad, or the president is lying, I’m just going to share that. I’m also going to be very clear about when I’m sharing the facts, like, “The president likely has very good arguments to protect the private meeting he had with Putin.” Whether or not I think that’s a good idea, or whether or not I think this president is exercising those rights responsibly, is totally separate from my ability to show the viewers what those facts are.

Your love for hip-hop has become part of your show, and you might be the only cable news anchor who’s had a profile in XXL magazine. Has there ever been a debate inside MSNBC about that?
Well, look, on the one hand I don’t make it a practice to share every internal deliberation here. On the other hand, I will say that I have never had a boss or an executive discourage me in any way from the music stuff, so that is kinda cool. Complimenting your bosses always sounds like what you have to do, but I honestly think it reflects the kind of creativity that is supported here. No one has pushed back on music.

What’s the reasoning behind booking musical guests?
We try to engage American culture just like any other part of American life. It would be weird to mention sports or rock and roll, and then explicitly not mention one of the longest-running, most listened to, most influential parts of American music, which is hip-hop. It’s unusual, I will admit, but it is not a reach. Hip-hop and country have been the most popular American genres for two decades.

And nobody begrudges Chris Matthews for mentioning old movie plotlines. Is booking pop-culture guests your way of adding a bit of light to the show? There’s almost a late-night vibe to parts of The Beat.
Interesting. I hadn’t heard that [comparison], but it is maybe halfway towards late-night in its breadth. Meanwhile, a lot of late-night shows are doing more and more politics. I think, first, it reflects our interest of having a well-rounded show. Our show is not just about politics or D.C. or Trump. I think, second, culture is a bigger part of politics right now. At this moment, culture and politics are one. The president is primarily a media entertainer who entered politics in his seventh decade. It is a feature of his political appeal that he pretends to hate the media and fight the media, when he spent more time as a paid media employee than most of the reporters covering him.

So, the culture is everywhere. And politically — I think I am paraphrasing — but Andrew Breitbart said something to the effect of, “Politics is always downstream of the culture.” [Senator Daniel] Patrick Moynihan talked about how liberalism and conservatism will always be grappling over the primacy of culture and whether you can change it. The deeper thing that we are gesturing at is, what culture do we want to live in? Do we want politics to be wholly divorced from it or not? Because there are a lot of things that people learn and live through culture first, and politics comes afterward.

Has anyone at MSNBC acted as a mentor for you?  
On air, I got the most early at-bats filling in for Lawrence O’Donnell when he had to be out for a car accident. An experience that could have been stressful and difficult for a variety of reasons, including everyone wanting to make sure he was going to be okay, actually felt — it’s funny to say, but it actually felt somehow natural. He was like, “This is a great chance for you to train. I’ll be back in a bit.” He was really a great mentor through that.

Why did you leave the law for journalism?
I’ve never said this before, but the main reason I left was a long-shot effort to try to meet more rappers. You can print that if you want. Put an LOL after it. My deeper answer is, having worked for two U.S. senators, worked in human rights, practiced law — doing The Beat every night, I feel like I’m still involved in the same set of legal and policy issues, but obviously from very different vantage points. Being an independent reporter with legal knowledge fits me better than being an attorney who is representing one side or one goal.

What’s your pick for hip-hop album of the year so far?
Obviously, the Carters coming back together for a joint album is a pretty big development. But I think Kanye’s album, while very short, is very inventive for rap this year. In many ways it is more interesting than Drake’s album, who he is beefing with, and more inventive than Pusha T’s album, which he produced. If I had to pick one I would say the Carters, but if I had to [choose] what are we going to be thinking about in years forward, it might be Ye.

Speaking of Mr. West, what is really going on with Kanye and Trump?
Oh, this is a big one. Kanye has publicly spoken about his interest in Trump for a long time, and totally apart from promoting a new album. There is clearly something that interests him about Donald Trump. Kanye appears to look at Trump like a sneaker — like a piece of fashion, or even, weirdly, like art. He is not assessing him, and I don’t think he claims to, strictly based on his impact towards other people. It makes perfect sense that a lot of people who look up to Kanye feel betrayed because they say Kanye is using his power to help or justify a political movement that is attacking them. I think there is huge tension in that, and I think it’s fascinating. Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr., who both weighed in on this and tried to squeeze whatever political benefit out of it they could, further accelerated everyone’s anger over it.

But I do also think that, with all of the caveats that you can include, there is something important going on here [with] an unconventional artist trying — and maybe failing — to open up space for dialogue in a time where there is so little interest in that. Obviously, Kanye could have done more research and done it way better. And then he kept saying things that were not even about Trump. He seemed to justify slavery in a way that is so disgusting and ridiculous, it should just be left where it was. But the notion that people who do art look at things differently is not surprising. It is why art is different, and sometimes more inspiring, than all the normal day-to-day life.

You’ve had Dave Chappelle, Vic Mensa, and Stretch & Bobbito on the show. What other pop-culture personalities are on your dream list of guests?
Well, I will go bigger — I’ll just do the whole list. I would love to get Chief Justice John Roberts for an interview. I think that would be fascinating, I think that Supreme Court nominees should do more interviews. We have an old system where they can do a very tortured confirmation, but they don’t do press. I thought it was a mistake that the Obama White House didn’t put Merrick Garland out for interviews because they had nothing to lose. By the same token, I think Judge [Brett] Kavanaugh should go do interviews. I would love to have him on the show.

In the culture, I would love to have Jay-Z on. I would love to have Kanye on. We have made overtures to Diddy. 50 Cent is planning to come on the show in the future and I am excited about that. We want to have musicians and cultural leaders on in the context of taking them seriously for the role they play in society, which I think should actually happen more. I would argue that it is a gap we are tapping into. A lot of this music is what powers social movements. Everyone lived through that in the ’60s and ’70s. The lyrics, the values, and the following that comes out of that was interwoven with the antiwar movement, the civil-rights movement, the women’s-rights movement. Music today is a little different, but there are a lot of important conversations going on that we want to facilitate in a serious way.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

MSNBC’s Ari Melber Wants to Bring Hip-hop to Cable News