In the last month, HBO has waded into the fraught waters of midterm elections coverage with a pair of new political docuseries: Pod Save America, a series of four live specials based on the podcast of the same name, and Axios, an inside-the-reporting news show from the insider-y digital-news outlet of the same name. It’s easy to stuff them into the same bucket. They are both shows about politics, about the election, about campaigning, about forecasting events and speculating on outcomes. They both feature mostly white dudes. They are both intensely rooted in this moment, right now, this very one in which we are all breathing air, and they’re both fundamentally about Donald Trump.
At that point, though, the similarities end.
Pod Save America will be familiar to anyone who’s listened to the popular liberal podcast. As many of the podcast episodes are recorded audio from live shows, these HBO specials feel like high-production-value versions of the same thing, with more prominent guest stars and an extremely snazzy set. Hosted by Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor, Dan Pfeiffer, and a rotating fifth-chair host, the specials are a mix of news analysis, interviews with candidates and activists, and podcast-favorite segments like an audience participation quiz and a bit called “Okay Stop” (in which everyone watches a clip from Fox News and shouts, “Okay, stop!” when they need to pause to yell about something).
It’s worth noting that Pod Save America rose to prominence because its hosts are impassioned, humane, and smart. The podcast is a reliable source of grounded news analysis, and it gives a sturdy platform for Democrats and left-wing activists to speak to a large audience. Particularly within the last year, it has also moved toward more specific discussions about how its audience can engage beyond just listening — how to volunteer, where to donate, and what actions will be most useful to counteract Trump’s presidency. In these specials, Favreau introduces the show as one where they talk about “not just what matters in the news, but what you can do to fix it.” To be a sleek, live-taped version of that show, on HBO, in October and November before a monumental election, featuring notable guests like Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke and lengthy discussions of specific voter-suppression efforts, is not nothing.
The goal of these Pod Save specials, for HBO and the hosts alike, is to attract a new audience and add a prestige sheen to a podcast that was a scrappy upstart only two years ago. But if you’ve been listening to that scrappy upstart for those two years, the specials themselves won’t show you much that you don’t already know. They do give women and people of color more prominent voices within each episode, though, and they will show you how to vote, and explain why it’s so important. The specials will also let you glimpse Akilah Hughes sitting in a hotel room between Chance the Rapper and Steph Curry, talking about voting by mail, so there are also some new treats for even the most faithful listener.
I do wish these specials had been an opportunity for the Pod Save crew to push the format to different places, or to experiment with something other than a lengthy group chat as the opening scene. The format they’ve been using works; the show is popular for a reason. But it’s hard for these Pod Save specials to breathe through the noise of a deafening media cycle of election season when the thing that feels most striking about them is that they’re a known quantity, especially for the news-junkie crowd. I wish they had more of that breakthrough oomph, because that would allow them to act as a stronger counterweight to HBO’s other new political series Axios.
Pod Save America is a glossier version of a tested formula — more of a direct translation than an interpretative adaptation. Axios has much more adaptive stretch. As a news website, Axios is a visually bare-bones, bullet-point-style rundown of the news of the day, featuring one-sentence statements followed by a bolded, equally brief explanation of “why it matters.” In docuseries form, Axios is an alluring combination of behind-the-scenes “how we make the news” conversations, intimate-access interviews, and similarly simplistic summaries about why things matter, how things work, and what the Washington insiders are supposedly thinking about most intensely. Access is its strongest claim for significance: The first episode features a lengthy sit-down interview with Donald Trump.
Axios primarily features co-founders Mike Allen and Jim Vandehei, and reporter Jonathan Swan. Like the website, the series appears neutral … ish. Its clean-as-a-whistle visual design and simple, declarative statements about political news look and sound like what you might imagine a neutral arbiter could look like. The three main hosts meet the demographic qualifications of America’s Default Serious Newsman persona (white dudes wearing suits speaking in measured, confident tones). Their voices are calm. They have none of a Fox News host’s screaming alarmism, and instead they treat most of their subjects with the vaguely interested-but-dubious distance of a perpetually raised single eyebrow. A half-asleep Axios watcher could be excused for coming away with the belief that it’s unbiased.
But here’s what Axios’s first episode treats as the most important news stories of the moment, on the Sunday before the 2018 midterm elections. First, a brief look at a Ted Cruz campaign event featuring Donald Trump Jr. and his girlfriend, former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle. (In that segment, a rally attendee wearing a Trump jersey asks Trump Jr. to sign his shirt. “You’re not going to #MeToo me, right?” Trump responds. The man laughs heartily.) The No. 2 bullet point: “Casting team Trump,” a news-free discussion between Vandehei, Swan, and Allen about Trump staffing his administration solely based on people who are good on TV. The supposedly insightful kicker is that Trump and Fox News are a single entity. Bullet point No. 3: “Negotiating with Trump,” an examination of Trump’s negotiating strategy, featuring talking-head interviews with what looks like a mix of pro-Trump and anti-Trump voices but which cheerily follows up revelations like “Trump just refuses to pay for his bills” with Republican representative Kevin McCarthy saying, “Judge him on his results. You might not like the tactics, but the results are really what the measurement of history will tell you.”
“The results are really what the measurement of history will tell you” is a statement that, as far as I can tell, makes absolutely no sense. It’s a meaningless mishmash of words with no apparent utility except to sound like a summary. But the segment ends there, and then it’s on to bullet point No. 4: the results of an Axios poll pitting Trump against several potential female candidates in 2020. The message here is that hypothetical women candidates perform well against Trump, but this, too, is completely meaningless. The “winners” of the poll — Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey — will not run for president. It’s 2018, and polling for the 2020 election right now is like performing an expensive thought experiment with a very short shelf life. This is, however, the only segment in which women speak with any kind of authority. The segment is two minutes long.
The final bullet point is the exclusive interview with President Trump, and it’s both Axios’s biggest get and its most obvious tell. Whether you realize it or not, much of the last week’s news cycle was driven by this interview, because the only reason anyone was talking about Trump possibly revoking birthright citizenship last week is that Jonathan Swan asked Trump about it. Their conversation is the proof of Axios’s importance, that it can get this interview and that its reporter was able to use the interview in a way that would make Axios the drivers of a massive news story. The Trump interview, combined with the previous four segments, is also the most damning signal of what Axios really is. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at a news organization that treats politics as a horse race, has no interest in policy except as a winning or losing tactic, fawns over access to power, ignores the powerless, and does an entire show the weekend before a vital election where every segment is a new way to hold up a flattering mirror for Donald Trump.
On some level, it’s useless to say “Do not watch Axios,” because its access to powerful people means that it will filter through news coverage one way or another. But if you do watch it, don’t let its clean aesthetics or its affectless distance confuse you about what it is. Axios is just as politically biased as Pod Save America, but it’s less forthright and less openly sincere about it. With Pod Save America’s specials now ending and Axios’s four-part series just beginning, it’s hard not to consider how one special is trying to cast an helpful and informative view of the political moment, while the other exists mostly to lick the president’s shoes.