Interview #9 — Ryan Lizza

Ryan Lizza is the Washington correspondent for The New Yorker and an on-air contributor for CNN. He previously served as political correspondent for The New Republic, correspondent for GQ, and contributing editor at New York magazine. He has also written for the New York Times, Washington Monthly, and The Atlantic. His awards include the 2012 National Press Club’s Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence and the White House Correspondents’ Association’s Aldo Beckman Memorial Award.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. The views shared here do not reflect nor do they suggest the views of the Virginia Review of Politics.

Jonathan Haynes (VRoP): Today we’re speaking with Ryan Lizza. Ryan, how are you doing?

Ryan Lizza: I’m doing well, thank you for having me.

JH: So, we wanted to know, where did you go to school? Where did you grow up?

RL: Yeah, so I grew up on Long Island, outside New York City. And I went to public schools there until...through eighth grade, and then for high school I went to boarding school. I went to a boarding school in Western Massachusetts. And as I like to tell my parents, I had a four year sentence at boarding school —

JH: It wasn’t fun?

RL: Eh, you know. I could’ve done without it. And then — so I spent four years there, and partly for meteorological reasons I went to UC Berkeley on the west coast. And yeah, I took a semester off between high school and college. So I started at Berkeley in the spring semester. And so for the fall, I went backpacking around Utah, Wyoming, and a little bit in South Dakota and New Mexico.

JH: Was that with a specific program?

RL: Yeah, with NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School. I spent that whole semester rock-climbing, caving, doing some pretty serious winter camping, in a wind river range in Wyoming, where we slept in snow shelters. So that was just my in-between high school and college experience... I went to Berkeley and spent four and half years, so I took a semester off my first semester and then I took one extra semester of school. And I wasn’t really into journalism my first year and a half, two years. I was an English major and unlike you guys I wasn’t part of the [Virginia Review of Politics], [ours was called] the Daily Cal. I remember going to a meeting at the Daily Cal, and there was this one guy who was a crime reporter who was talking about how he slept with a police scanner next to his head, and I just thought it was such a weird presentation about life as a journalist that I thought “I don’t think this is going to be for me. I’m not going to be the type of guy that sleeps with a police scanner next to my head, as admirable as that is.” That is my only memory of going to a meeting at the daily newspaper there.

And to be totally honest I wasn’t a very serious student in my first two years. I remember paying more attention a lot more to the touring schedules of Phish and the Grateful Dead than what was going on in Washington D.C. and politics. And what changed was the 1994 elections, the 1994 elections were the big earthquake political event, where Congress changed hands, the House changed hands for the first time in decades. And I just remember everyone around me talking about it, and not having a whole lot to say myself, and it made me realize that I wasn’t being a very serious student, I wasn’t really paying attention to the news and politics. And it was like this wakeup call, that I felt really disengaged from what’s going on in the world and that a sense that I was really irresponsible because of that. And almost overnight I turned from one of those people who just knew nothing about politics to a complete political junkie.

And I started reading a lot about politics, becoming very interested in it. And then just a process of figuring out what did I want to do in that world. I started to become very enamored of a few different magazines. One was the New Republic which is very different now, but in the ’90s was a weekly political magazine run, and at that point it had a guy named Michael Lewis. I don’t know if you guys know Michael Lewis, but he has gone on to be a very famous writer. “The Big Short” is probably his most recent book. But at that time he was covering politics for the New Republic, for the 95-96 presidential campaign cycle. I just thought that his coverage was hilarious and smart and very nonpartisan, even though the New Republic was a complicated political magazine, but it leaned left. That was a revelation, that this was a job, that you could write for a magazine about politics. I really became enamored of the New Yorker and the people writing about politics for them. I just got it in my head that I wanted to work for a magazine and write about politics.

JH: Where was your first internship?

RL: So, I applied for a bunch of internships as soon as I started getting into this stuff, and I got rejected because I didn’t have any experience. And I think I applied two or three times to a place called — The other passion I had, [besides] magazine journalism [was] documentaries and political documentaries. I used to love the show (and still do) “Frontline” on PBS. There’s this place in San Francisco called the Center for Investigative Reporting. And they existed basically to do co-productions with “Frontline.” I knew some of the people. I knew someone who worked there and she told me about it, so I applied like two or three times, and finally in my last semester in college I got an internship there. I really learned in a very short time... learned a lot about reporting, investigative reporting. I worked on a really cool documentary called “Hot Guns,” which went on to win an Emmy. I was just an intern on the project.

JH: What was it about?

RL: It was about the trade in stolen handguns and the movie basically featured an ATF agent whose job it was to solve gun crimes. And the key tool that he used to solve them was tracing guns with their serial number. And what he had discovered was that there was this cache of guns from this one factory in Southern California that had been stolen that were disproportionately showing up in crimes all across the country. And so what the movie did was trace these — I think we did three guns, and it traced them from… I forget which way we traced them, from the murder back or from the manufacturer forward — anyway, we traced these guns through their entire life, from being stolen from a factory to being used in a crime. And frankly, a lot of the issues that that movie explored are the same ones we’re still talking about in the gun debate today.

After that, and I still wanted to get into the magazine world. I moved to New York briefly after college to do an internship at Harper’s Magazine. Through sheer luck and random circumstances I got an internship at the New Republic even though they had rejected me two or three times… and I literally — I don’t know if you have time to hear the whole story, but it was just a lucky phone call. I ended up working there, I spent ten years there.

JH: Did you cold call?

RL: No, I was researching something for my editor at Harper’s and this guy got on the phone and he was an intern there. I said, “Oh yeah, I would love to be an intern at the New Republic, I keep getting rejected.” And he was like, “Oh, well I’m getting hired to be a fact checker, do you want to replace me?” A week later I was working there and I stayed there for ten years.

JH: Then from there you got hired at the New Yorker?

RL: In 2007 I went to the New Yorker. So I basically only had two real jobs. Ten years at the New Republic, ten years at the New Yorker. And frankly those were the two jobs that I wanted when I was a junior in college, lusting after magazine internships — you know, I wanted to cover politics for those two places.

JH: So I want to get to the Scaramucci call — So, in short, then White House Communications director Anthony Scaramucci called you to demand you reveal your sources about a dinner he had with Sean Hannity and the president. You refused, he grew angry, threatened to fire the entire White House staff, then went into a tirade about [then Chief of Staff Reince] Priebus. Do you have anything to add to that?

RL: (Laughs) Just that it was such an unusual experience because I’ve never had a government official just go on about other people in such a haphazard, strange way, you know. I mean he attacked the Chief of Staff in a really vulgar way. He attacked Steve Bannon, the political strategist in an even more vulgar way. And, he alleged that — and this is something that I thought was incredibly newsworthy beyond all the “F”-bombs — he said he called the FBI to investigate the chief of staff. That’s kind of crazy.

For a senior official to bring in the FBI to the White House to investigate another person is nuts. I think he probably made it up in the end, I don’t think he actually did it, but that’s what he was alleging that he did. And then tweeted it after we got off the phone.

It was just a very unusual experience. He got fired shortly after that. But I don’t believe he would have lasted very long anyway. I mean, one side note, now at the White House eleven days, that unit of time, is known as one “Scaramucci.” That’s how long he lasted. So if someone leaves the White House and they were there a few months, it’s like, “Oh, you know, he lasted several ‘Scaramuccis.’”

JH: The thing that I found eerie, listening to the recording, was that he didn’t sound on-edge, he sounded calm and confident about what he was saying. Even though when you read the transcript, you’d think he was insane.

RL: It’s very funny you say that, because he has subsequently said that “the piece made him seem unhinged.” Now, if you go back and read the piece, the piece is essentially a transcript of the call. You know, it’s not much more than his quotes. And there were no adjectives or adverbs describing him as “unhinged,” it’s just that anyone who reads it comes off with the impression that he’s unhinged. So I’ve kind of gotten a laugh reading interviews with him where he’s said that I portrayed him as unhinged.

There’s no portrayal. There’s nothing subjective in the piece. You know, it was just quotes.

That read as pretty unhinged. But you’re right. When he’s talking about it, he’s doing it in a very calm, matter-of-fact way…which depending on your view of these things makes it even scarier.

JH: It does just seem like he thought what he was doing was perfectly reasonable. Does this kind of thing dovetail with the media climate of the Trump era, like these calls from public officials?

RL: This is unusual. That was a moment in the White House when a lot of change was happening and a lot of the early players were on their way out. Scaramucci, some of his former White House colleagues call him the “Suicide Bomber,” because he went in there and kind of blew up the place. There’s the “pre-Scaramucci” era and the “post-Scaramucci” era, so by the time he left, he was gone, Reince Priebus was gone, Steve Bannon was gone shortly thereafter, and Sean Spicer was gone. So four big, important players all disappeared in a short period of time — that’s why they call him the “Suicide Bomber.” I think that call and that episode captures just a moment of that White House when it was very dysfunctional, it was very factionalized, and there were a lot of people who didn’t like each other and didn’t trust each other. The reason he called me, was because he didn’t trust the Chief of Staff, and he believed the Chief of Staff was leaking information damaging to [himself].

JH: And Priebus had been trying to keep him out, prior to that.

RL: Exactly. So [Scaramucci] had good reason to be paranoid about Priebus, because Priebus absolutely had been trying to keep him out of the White House. [Scaramucci] was just wrong [regarding whether] Priebus had told me anything negative about him. [Scaramucci] was very paranoid about it. So I do think that episode, besides the zaniness of the quotes — the bigger picture is this moment when the White House is at its peak dysfunction.

JH: I believe that you were assigned to cover President Obama when he was in office. So how does that compare to covering President Trump’s administration?

RL: Yeah, so I get this question all the time, and it surprises people when they hear that in some ways covering the Trump White House is easier, especially in that era that I was describing, from the election day to the time John Kelly took over as the new Chief of Staff. The White House had a lot of different factions, and one of the things you learn about covering institutions is institutions that have a lot of internal division are much easier to cover because the people inside have more incentive to go public, to talk to the press. If everyone’s on the same page operating as a team, and controlling information strategically, it’s hard to get information out of institutions like that. Whether it’s Congress, the FBI, EPA, whatever you’re covering… Washington —  this goes for the private sector as well. This is one of the reasons why people love covering Congress, because it’s big and dynamic and you have 435 people with egos there. There’s constant leaking and there’s so many sources in Congress, so many factions.

The White House, a good White House (from their perspective, not necessarily from the press’ perspective), the Obama White House was very disciplined. Their communications, even their leaks were very strategic. They were not as factionalized, even though they may have disagreed with each other internally, they were good at keeping those disagreements from the press, for the most part. The Trump White House has huge egos, people who had grouped close relationships with reporters, lots of different factions, and frankly, high levels of animosity between the factions. So what happens in that environment is that people talk to the press.

It’s a little bit harder now with Kelly and some of the changes I described. A lot of us who covered the campaign got to know those who became the senior people at the White House. We knew who liked whom and who didn’t. We knew the factions — as some of those people have left the White House it’s gotten a little trickier.

JH: Sure, so something that I found interesting was that in an interview with Hugh Hewitt that you did a few years ago about your Chris Christie profile, you said you’d be willing to go to jail for some of your anonymous sources.

RL: Yeah, to be totally honest it’s kind of an easy claim for me to make because I don’t do a lot of national security reporting. I’m not regularly talking to government officials who are giving me classified information, just to be totally honest. But I do think if you cover Washington, there’s always the chance that you’ll stumble upon a story like that, and if you make an agreement with a source that you are going to protect them and print information that comes from them, my view is that you’re basically taking that to the grave. Even if the government comes after you, you have to be willing to withstand the pressure, including jail for not revealing that source.

Now, to be frank, it’s not like a lot of journalists are being thrown in jail for that. They’ll usually try and find the leaker and throw them in jail. Not the journalists. But there have been cases.

JH: Sure, I mean it caught my eye because James Risen at the New York Times, for example, underwent a near decade long legal battle and had his plea rejected by the Supreme Court. So I mean you don’t really see yourself as having had a credible threat of imprisonment?

RL: I haven’t. Now look, Risen is a long time experienced national security reporter who’s doing a lot of reporting in that world. Frankly, as a political reporter who covers campaigns and politics and legislation and that process, you’re not encountering a lot of sources, a lot of national security classified [sources].  I’ve worked on some pieces where I’ve brushed up against that, but for most with political reporters it’s not all that common.

There’s a big exception. During the Plame investigation in the Bush era —

JH: That’s Valerie Plame.

RL: Valerie Plame, and who was it… Matt Cougar at Time Magazine was doing some pretty routine political reporting and got into the weapons of mass destruction debate in the runup to the Iraq War and found himself in the middle of a leak investigation where — I don’t remember all these details all that well — I don’t believe that he had to end up going to jail. He was in the middle of a long legal drama over giving up sources. So it’s possible to get ensnared in one of those, and frankly, there’s no shield law. Congress has… some members of Congress who have tried to [pass] a shield law so the press would actually have this protection, but constitutionally we don’t have that protection.

JH: Could you briefly explain what a shield law is?

RL: A shield law would protect journalists from the scenario that you’re talking about. It would treat that relationship between a source and a journalist as almost like a legal agreement. There are different versions, but the prosecutor couldn’t go after a journalist and put them in jail over a source. This is a live issue. What governs that in the Justice Department right now are guidelines. The guidelines can be rewritten at any time — this is not law. The Obama Justice Department, which was terrible about these issues early on, had a little reform commission and then got better later on. But the Risen thing was all under Obama. [The Justice Department’s] guidelines currently are not to pursue journalists to give up sources. The current Justice Department has either rescinded that or is revising it. I should know this better than I do, but that’s something that the current Justice Department, partly because of Trump’s obsession over leaks, changed, which makes reporters in the Trump era a little bit more vulnerable.

JH: So I want to get back to that if we have time, but I really wanted to get to your position as a CNN contributor. CNN has come under a lot of fire for its model of trying to have one person as a Republican, one person as a Democrat… sometimes they’ll have three on each side. A lot of people are saying this creates these false equivalencies where the climate change issue, or Trump’s behavior — both sides are treated the same even if one side has no backing. How do you feel when you find yourself on these panels, because I see you online on some of these panels —

RL: (Laughs) What did you see?

JH: I saw the one where you said, “Trump makes shit up [sic],” on air.

RL: Yeah, well I wasn’t supposed to say that. (Laughs) So the issue you’re getting at is false equivalence, which is a big important issue with journalists. And frankly it’s a lot better now than it was twenty years ago because there’s been so much debate about it. The reason it became such an issue is because political actors were taking advantage of the norms of journalism. Political actors realized, okay these journalists have to be even handed and they have to have two sides to every story, so that gives us a little bit of an advantage, because we can, no matter how wrong we are, we can claim that journalists need to give us equal billing. Right? And so the real extreme example where this comes up is with climate change, where there’s massive consensus about what the facts are, but you have minority outliers who claim that their position is just as valid. And they spend a lot of time convincing the press to give their claims equal merit.

Now a completely extreme example would be if you’re writing about the Holocaust. No journalist would call up a Holocaust denier and ask them for their opinion. There are certain things that are such established facts that there aren’t two sides — now that’s an extreme example of course.

Journalists spend a lot of time thinking “how do we abide by our rules of objectivity and giving weight to all sides of a debate, without being taken advantage of?” That’s a case by case thing. You just have to be careful. The coverage, frankly, of climate change has gotten more comfortable not giving equal weight to climate change deniers. Most news organizations just see it as a settled issue. That wasn’t always the case.

With Trump and panels, the phenomenon you’re describing, are people who go on TV purely as spinners for their guy and are not interested in having a debate about the fact, but are just there to turn any story that is damaging or negative about Trump — to defend him on it. Now, would the panels be better if you didn’t have anyone defending Trump, though?

So, I think it’s up to the other panelists and the moderator to call bullshit when they see it, to push back aggressively if someone’s not going to deal in the realm of facts. And to not let bullshit fly — that’s how you can offset the problem. And so I think the criticism can be valid, but the alternative is to have nobody representing the Trump point of view and that would be a disservice to viewers as well.

JH: So, to push back on that a little, I think one alternative would be to have people who typically agree with the Trump, but aren’t necessarily — don’t have an allegiance to him. And there are plenty of people who don’t necessarily agree with everything he does who would be willing to call him out —

RL: I think this is a bit of a casting problem. (Laughs) In politics it’s hard to find people. If you’re looking for partisans, they’re generally going to be all in for that political actor. You know what I mean. So the person that you’re describing, Is there anyone in the media or political world that you can think of who would play that role?

JH: Not for Trump, necessarily. I would for Republicans, I mean Andrew Sullivan criticizes Republicans as does Joe Scarborough —

RL: Look this is a very important issue, but it’s a little bit above my pay grade because I don’t choose who gets to sit on panels. The important thing is that no matter what network you’re on and you’re on a panel, it doesn’t matter who they are: whether they’re pro-Trump, anti-Trump... whatever. If they’re spouting nonsense and not operating in the world of facts, the journalists and moderators — the people who aren’t there as pure partisans — their job is to call this kind of thing out.

That’s why I said “Why does Trump make shit up [sic]?” I’m forgetting his name — I should apologize, he’s actually a friend of mine, because I got a little frustrated. You want to know what happened, you want me to tell you the backstory of that?

JH: Go ahead.

RL: I was out of the country for like ten days in Brazil and I wasn’t paying close attention to what was going on politically. Sometimes it’s really really good to do that, because, especially when you’re covering Trump, because you get out of the bubble of second-by-second coverage where you start to become immune to how crazy the current political moment is. I remember sitting there on that panel and everyone was like, “[babble],” about something Trump said that day. I had just gotten back, literally that morning, from an overnight flight and there was something on the news and Trump had just made some shit up, and now we’re sitting here slicing it and debating it — it’s almost like an out-of-body experience when I’m watching everyone fight about this and I was just like “Why does he just make shit up all the time?” I remember just thinking that in my head, and just sort of blurting it out.

So, it was just the advantage of getting away from it all and seeing it with fresh eyes for a second, and I thought that this was like this basic question that needed to be on the table.

JH: It’s easy to get desensitized because it’s happening every week.

RL: Exactly. Exactly.

JH: I wanted to get to another thing about CNN, though. You mentioned that you don’t choose who’s on the panel, but you do go on these panels. And even before Trump, CNN is known for — and a lot of 24-news networks are known for this — for giving you 30 seconds to a minute to talk, and having a bunch of people on the panel. People find that that kind of setup incentivizes inflammatory statements, or just reductive statements so you can get attention for a soundbyte —

RL: Yeah, like saying, “Why does he make shit up?”

JH: Yes, so it makes me wonder: do you feel complicit in that type of media framework that may create a toxic climate for discourse?

RL: So, some panels are better than others, and some conversations are better than others. I think, often, one-on-one conversations with an anchor and a guest are often — especially as a journalist and you’re talking about that person’s work — I think those are often better. And you have to learn how to — TV is a different medium. It’s different than tweeting, it’s different than writing. It can devolve into a very bad medium for exalted, high-minded debate. And so I take your point, but I frankly find a lot of the conversations on cable news panels a lot better than what I see online.

JH: Well, those are two pretty terrible things to compare there.

RL: But it just depends. It depends on the show, it depends on the host, it depends on the panel. But it is what it is. Cable news is — you have to learn to get your point across in a smart and sophisticated as a way, understanding the limitations of both the medium and the fact that not everyone on the panel is, you know, Albert Einstein. You’re not going to have that much time.

But I don’t feel complicit in degrading discourse or anything like that —

JH: Why not?

RL: I just don’t buy that for a second. I think most of the political conversation that happens on TV is actually better and more sophisticated than people give it credit for.

JH: How so?

RL: Well, I mean look at online, look at online political debate.

JH: Again, bad comparison.

RL: (Laughs) Have you ever been to Reddit?

JH: I’ve been to the comments section.

RL: (Laughs) I thought I recognized you.

JH: That’s right.

RL: So what would your ideal TV be?

JH: I really like PBS. They give you a good amount of time, they’ll do one-on-one —

RL: — But CNN —

JH: — by giving you more time you don’t see a lot of shouting matches.

RL: But CNN does that all the time. Their weekend political programs are one-on-one and they’re constantly having politicians on for one-on-one debates, conversations, and interviews.

JH: Sure, but when interviewed by the New York Times Magazine, [CNN President] Jeff Zucker specifically stated, “the fact that politics is sport is undeniable, and we approached [it] that [way] and understood it that way.” He was saying it in the broader context of increasing primetime ratings. And people have argued that CNN has gotten worse because he has had these massive panels.

RL: I’ve been there for five years, and I actually think that the level of discourse and the way that they cover politics is more sophisticated now than when I got there five years ago.

JH: Okay, I’m going to ask you one final question. Do you have any advice for young journalists?

RL: Just, if you want to be a journalist, the most important thing that I did was learn about the media institutions that I loved and admired, and that help set the pathway for me to go work at those places. It’s really important when you’re looking for a job or internship that you know the product that they’re putting out, know as much as you can about the publication and corporate network: that’s what people are looking for when they’re hiring those positions, that’s really important. And, for your generation, it’s both kind of a terrifying time and an exciting time to be in media. It’s terrifying because we have just been in this constant state of disruption and turmoil because technology has just been changing everything, it has been for a long time, so it’s a little scary. A lot of places are going to be going out of business that have been in business for a very long time.

In the print world where I come from, it’s kind of scary to watch some of these great publications not make it, but on the other hand it’s exciting because so much new stuff is being invented. And people who have a good understanding who are at sort of crossway between technology and content have really great opportunities to create the next great media institutions. So the last ten years have seen a lot of creative destruction, where a lot of old places have gone under, but a lot of really interesting new places have appeared, especially because of young talent coming into the business. So you guys really have an opportunity to continue that.

JH: Ok, Ryan Lizza, thank you very much.

RL: Thanks guys.