Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
CNN and Fox are having very different identity crises

CNN and Fox are having very different identity crises

Also: Tucker Carlson needs Fox much more than it needs him

The cable news industry is in crisis. It is part of a larger crisis known as cord cutting, which is a phenomenon of people realizing that they really don't need to pay for 500 channels when they only watch 3 or 4. Across the country, millions of people have decided they don't want to pay for cable or satellite TV. That has made a crisis in the cable news industry as well, where CNN, Fox, and MSNBC have faced a number of years of declining ratings.

Even though there have been some blips here and there with the 2020 election or the initial election of Donald Trump in 2016, the long-term ratings trend is downward. As a result, there is a perpetual need for the executives of the companies that own the major cable news channels to manage the decline.

How they do that has been very interesting to watch over time. Recently, there have been big changeups within CNN, which was bought by a larger company called Discovery which subsequently brought in a new CEO named Chris Licht, who drove away much of the audience and created friction with staff by trying to make the network more pro-Republican.

On the Fox side of the dial, the network is in turmoil after choosing to settle a defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems over false allegations of voter fraud in the 2020 election publicized by then-president Donald Trump and many Fox personalities.

Despite settling the Dominion lawsuit for $787 million, the network is still facing another case from a voting company called Smartmatic. On top of that, Fox just settled a lawsuit by a former producer of Tucker Carlson for $12 million who had alleged she'd witnessed racism, antisemitism, sexism, and claimed that she had been forced to lie in the Dominion lawsuit before it was settled.

In response to losing all this money, Fox has completely overhauled its primetime evening lineup. Tucker Carlson, who was the centerpiece of the schedule at 8 PM Eastern time was fired.

Some people have argued that the firing of Carlson is going to permanently offend the Fox viewership base, and it is true, no doubt, that the ratings have been lower after all this turmoil, but there are indications that Fox is back on the upward path now.

Will CNN ever figure out what it wants to be? Will the far-right return to watching Fox? How much more money can Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch afford to lose?

There's a lot to talk about here. In this episode, we're featuring Colby Hall, he is the founding editor of Mediaite.com and a longtime observer and participant in television news.

The video of our conversation is below. The transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: It's good to have you here. Welcome to Theory of Change, Colby.

COLBY HALL: Thanks for having me. I'm thrilled to chat with you.

SHEFFIELD: All right. So let's kind of set the table here with some larger context. I think when people have discussions about cable news ratings, a lot of times they don't really understand how the industry works, how it's measured, and also how cable news fits in the larger rubric of cable paid for television. So, overall, I think the number one thing for people to understand about this is that cable news just actually isn't that popular.

People like any given show that somebody is watching, even the most popular one, like we have a country of 330 million people and the top-rated show, if they're lucky, is 3 million.

HALL: Right. Right. I'd say on a good day, maybe over 3 million. And if you look at the target demographic from which sponsors actually pay for which cable news gets paid, it's much, much smaller.

So, you're really talking to less than 1% of citizens are actually watching any given show, but I would say their influence far outweighs that. Because. Really? I'm old enough to remember when there were three channels plus PBS, and it was a big deal when cable came to town and Hutchinson, Kansas, where I lived at the time, we had 13 channels and now, [00:06:00] there's endless numbers of television channels but more importantly, there's.

social media, there's smartphones, there's streaming services. But still, even though cable news viewers are declining in size to the degree that I'm not sure I would say it's crisis, but that's not an unfair word to use. They're still making a lot of money off of subscribers from cable set top boxes, 80% of the revenue comes from subscribers.

And only 20% comes from advertising. But it's still the loudest voice in the room to steal a phrase. Cable news is the most concentrated political media outlet. And so if you are a politician and you want to speak to your constituents, if you're left of center, you most likely go on MSNBC. If you're right of center, you definitely go on Fox News and or Newsmax.

And. What's happened over the last 10 years or so is it's not just the people that are watching the linear viewing of that cable news. It's that which is excerpted the aggregation of third-party video content, which has been shared by websites like Mediaite, or clipped and put on Twitter, or shared on Reddit, or any number of outlets, right?

So, these two things can be true. Cable news viewers as much smaller than people think. Yeah. There is something self-selected about the audience, but its influence, I think, has never been more powerful in part because politicians have sort of, I don't know, lessened their voice. I guess the best metaphor I'd say with regard to Fox News is there was a time where it looked like Fox News was working for the GOP, per Roger Ailes design, and suddenly over the last five years [00:08:00] that dynamic seemed to switch, whereas it seems like very often, Republicans are working for Fox News.

And I think that's not just a hit on Fox News or Republicans, the same dynamic exists on the left, just it's less efficient. It works less effectively. So cable news is declining in viewers, but at the same time, its current influence on the national dialogue, I would argue, has never been stronger.

I think a lot of these talking heads, the Tucker Carlsons and the Sean Hannitys, those people have sort of filled a vacuum created by political figures who are more into getting deals done and promoting their brand than they are in actual leadership or policy. So it's a very complicated idea summed up as pitifully as possible.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and I guess maybe the analogy I would use for this is before television times and before radio, it was a huge thing in the American South to do what they called a tent revival. And so basically cable news is sort of the tent revival of the political scene. But not very many people can fit into these tents or watch whoever is showing up to speak in that given moment. But on the other hand, they're part of a larger culture than ours. They're sort of like the main event in any given moment.

HALL: It's a perfect metaphor, because a lot of times, the people are preaching to the gospel, right? So the viewers of cable news, opinion driven cable news, primetime, Fox and MSNBC are going there. They're tuning in to have their preexisting beliefs reaffirmed, right? So, and the talking heads are literally preaching to the choir.

And it's not just that the, what the broadcast programs are, [00:10:00] the impact isn't limited to just what's being said at that moment. There, people that view it, then cite this stuff and literally spread the gospel. So your revivalist tent metaphor is, I think, very, it's perfect. So kudos. Well, well done.

Oh, thanks.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So, and we talked about it a little bit, just briefly for a second there about the industry itself. Cable paid for television subscriptions that actually is in a crisis the larger cable industry and through what, what people have now called cord cutting, where they just don't feel the need to pay for.

Constant stream of shows they'd never watch, channels they're not interested in. And so as a result, a lot of people are taking that money that they were spending and they were, they're spending it on things like Netflix or Hulu and, those are not news and sports services.

So, and people are finding also. You know that there, I mean, there just has been a declining interest in sports and sort of, and news itself has inter, people who are interested in news have gone online, as you were saying, that if you, are interested in, let's say, what a given host has to say about something, chances are you can watch that on Twitter or somewhere else.

Somebody has put it there in part to say that it was notable to them, and I mean, hell, there's people on YouTube who literally specialize on taking the full shows from, TV news and just plopping the entire thing out there and getting ad dollars from other people's stuff.

So it is, yeah, it's, I mean, that's it's been kind of a bifurcation that on the low interest viewers in news have kind of drifted away entirely. And then high interest viewers have been like, well. This is, I already knew about this stuff yesterday or,

HALL: yeah. And I think one of the things that doesn't really get talked about enough [00:12:00] is because we're sort of living through it as we speak, but it wasn't that long ago that we had a shared experience as a society either through reading articles in newspapers or watching one of three broadcast news.

Or a miniseries. I mean, I'm old enough that when Roots was a miniseries on TV, a broadcast TV, everyone watched it, and everyone talked about it. Cut to today and everyone has their own custom interests and views, either through streaming service or Twitter or social media or online. It's very difficult to find people that sort of align with you.

And when you do you tend to sort of circle around that community. So we have these much smaller and yet more passionate. Affinity groups, and some of which is, I think you referenced there, a line around political media, whether it be, right of center or left of center. And these are people who feel a sense of community by consuming nonstop coverage of that's focused on how bad it is.

and pernicious Trump was to America or how bad and pernicious and what a horrible president Biden is to America, depending upon the network that you choose to watch. So the size of the viewers has become smaller, but it's become a lot more intense, a lot finer cut. And I think that's part of the reason why we as a society are kind of.

divided in the way that we are. And these cable news outlets, many of them know where their bread is buttered. And so they, the red meat that they throw, typically appeals to the fringiest elements of either side of that [00:14:00] dynamic of news or traditional journalism as we grew up with, like the capital J journalistic schools standards isn't supposed to be entertaining, right?

It's typically pretty boring and that's not what cable news is. Yes, there's, CNN has arguably one of the best news gathering teams in the world. Like they really have a good news gathering team, but much of their programming isn't just news. It's nonstop analysis. Same with Fox news. It's an entertainment program that really sells outrage and anger packaged in a news format, but particularly prime time, it's all opinion analysis and people. I think a lot of viewers do not necessarily think critically enough about what they're consuming to realize that what they're getting on either side across the board is the propagation of political jargon.

A lot of it is propaganda, and I don't mean in a fascist sense, but it's political-speak that is less about informing. And more about angering or fear and creating passionate viewers that will tune in for the next breaking news alert, which half these networks have breaking news banners up as a default.

And rarely is it truly breaking news.

SHEFFIELD: Oh, sorry, I was going to say just before you got into another point that, one of the you had mentioned the constant. Idea of analysis but in many cases, it's also featuring the exact same people who told you what they thought, an hour ago about the same topic and so it's almost, and, like in the case of Fox, they have some people who are on their show, the five, who also have other shows.

So Dana Perino being one, Jesse Waters being another one, Greg Gutfeld being one. So like literally you've already heard [00:16:00] what these people had to say about the news of the day, right? In enormous detail. And CNN is, does the same thing that they will, in 2020, I think they, they became infamous for basically only almost showing like 10 people.

Ever only interviewing like 10 people across their entire network for months on end, in Brady Bunch style format where no one could actually hear what anyone really thought for more than five seconds. And so it is, it's not, it isn't about news as much and, but it isn't even about analysis either.

It's almost more like a soap opera in some sense.

HALL: I think it's tribalism. I think it's people I mean, what are the genius? The genius, Roger Ailes genius in The Five is the way he casts that with specific archetypes. Like, you have, Jesse Watters plays the part of the smug, frat bro who cracks wise.

Dana Perino is sort of a, Smart, calm, big sister slash mother type. Then you have the liberal who is just Tarlov. You have the firebrand in, in, sort of older woman in Jean Pirro. And Gutfeld, you have kind of the snarky, jerky, New Yorker and people watch because they can identify with that.

And that show is the top rated, it's the most successful show on cable news. And when it launched, people mocked it because people forget that Greg Glenn Beck was. Was the original Tucker Carlson. He was the original bad boy of Fox News. He said crazy things. He got pushed out and replaced by the five and people laughed and thought it was going to be like a horrible, get canceled and it's now the most influential show.

And it, it created stars that like Jesse Waters is going to be the 8 PM host replacing Bill O'Reilly, who was his mentor and Greg Gutfeld has his own show as well. So, yeah, [00:18:00] I think people tend to, and by the way, getting back to what we said earlier, between total viewers and demo, demo is much, much smaller.

So the majority of viewers That are logged on to cable news are much older. They're over 55, right?

SHEFFIELD: And that's true. And by the way, a lot of people lefties will rag on Fox about that. That's also true about MSNBC as well. It is an older audience. Sorry. They have the oldest audience. But everybody's audience is old.

HALL: Well, that's why Tucker Carlson was such a goldmine for Fox News when Tucker Carlson replaced Bill O'Reilly. And his ratings initially weren't that great. And that was at the time when Alex Jones and Infowars It was getting a lot of attention and a lot of negative attention and deservedly so.

He was saying like over the top crazy kind of like outlandish conspiratorial things that were really offensive. And good journalism, all of it, Oliver Darcy and CNN basically ruined his career by getting him deplatformed because he was saying crazy stuff by—

SHEFFIELD: Actually telling people what this guy was saying.

HALL: Right.

People who weren't regular viewers of Jones, they had no idea what this guy was talking about, right? It's like he's a nut job. I don't care. I don't listen to him. He's irrelevant.

HALL: So but what Tucker Carlson did is when his ratings weren't so great when he initially replaced O'Reilly He clearly my reporting tells me that he decided to Turn harder right and go more conspiratorial and sort of chase the, what was the Alex Jones viewership and his ratings went way up and he got a ton of attention and the viewers that he had, the incremental viewers were all much, much younger.

And they really monetized the demo viewers. [00:20:00] And so not only were more people viewing his show, but the number of in demo viewers went way, way up. And so then that really was the golden carrot that Tucker was able to see. He was like, oh, so the more, the most inflammatory stuff that I say, the more people talk about, and the more people need to tune in.

So. He's no dummy. Tucker Carlson is sort of a genius with his sophistry because if you look at his essays, he sort of appeals to a highbrow side where he's kind of speaking in a very arch tone where he's not being literal. But it also appeals to a very sort of like deep sense anger to those who may not necessarily see that ironic detachment from what he's saying.

And so as a result, he would look at sort of the rundown of what people were talking about, and it was almost as if he was saying to himself what is the thing that's, that is the most forbidden thing for me to talk about it? Let's talk about that. Let's do that. And I, I took the bait myself, when I was, top editing media, I, He said crazy stuff.

And after a while it's a sort of weird dynamic where, are you promoting and amplifying his stuff by calling him out? And then I think he just got too big and was unmanageable by Fox News. And eventually They decided that no one is bigger than the brand and there was other stuff that is still yet to come out, I think.

But I thought it was better for everyone if they parted ways. Yeah,

SHEFFIELD: well, and I guess that's a pretty good segue there. You did into the more specific parts that I wanted to discuss here today. So. We're going to, today we're going to be kind of focusing on Fox and CNN primarily in terms of some of their recent changes, because both of these networks have an audience that's in flux, and then also a leadership that, kind of doesn't know fully what it wants and they're trying to position themselves amid some really new competition that they don't understand and executives who have [00:22:00] mandates that are also very different in some regards than in the past.

So yeah, let's since you, you mentioned Carlson so Carlson, of course, as I would assume everybody who's an American watching this or listening to it would know is yeah, was some rarely let go from Fox. But and that, it's, it is interesting because even though it's been months now since that happened, there hasn't been, there has yet to be any sort of definitive report that says this is what did it.

And what that suggests is that, in fact, there were multiple reasons that he was let go. And one of them, I think, very clearly was this lawsuit that was launched against him by a former producer of his. For creating a hostile work environment. She said they engaged in all types of sexist and racist and anti-Semitic behavior behind the scenes.

That certainly was a huge part of it, no doubt. But as you were saying, it isn't only that. And then, yeah, I guess we'll let's go from there. And we'll talk a little bit more about Tucker.

HALL: Well, I think for the most part, people understood that Tucker Carlson had become such a cash cow that he was sort of able to do and say whatever he did with impunity at Fox News in that he really, I think, saw himself as only really reporting to Lachlan.

and Rupert Murdoch which I think made for a very tough dynamic. My colleague at Media Aiden McLaughlin wrote a story that was deeply reported about how Tucker Carlson was the rogue individual there. And, in the middle of their existential lawsuit against defamation lawsuit against Dominion Voting Systems, Tucker put out this, a series of stuff that talked, that was, [00:24:00] provably false about January 6th.

And so they're on trial, the network's on trial about defamation against libel claims. And there was clearly a direction across the network to effectively chill on that sort of programming. And Tucker totally flouted that and kind of went harder. And I'm sure that that did not endear him to executives across the board at Fox News.

He wasn't making their lives any easier. In fact, he was making them, he was willfully making them more difficult. And that was because he was sort of acting like. The teacher's pet, or spoiled brat, who only cared about the affection that he had from the Murdock family to the degree that it became an untenable situation, right?

And all the details of him using the c word against executives and the Abby Grossberg lawsuit, which was just settled for 12 million dollars. I think all of that was sort of, not an excuse, it was evidence, but it was, it was the reasons that were given. To cover the full panoply of his transgressions against the networks at the end of the day, any creative corporation, whether it be Marvel Comics, or CNN, or anything is going to be a little bit like a junior high middle school cafeteria table, there's knives out and there's backstabbing.

It's just that's just the way there's alliances. And at some point, Tucker just refused any sort of facade of being a team player. And was only going for himself. And, at the end of the day, I think Fox News and Rupert Murdoch were ultimately like, Bro, you can't, this isn't Tucker Carlson, this is Fox News.

And yes, this will be controversial. And yes, this will hit us. But we'll endure. And we'll get it back. And time and time [00:26:00] again, that’s proven to be true when Glenn Beck was dismissed. Everyone's like, well, this is the end of Fox News. It was not when Bill O'Reilly was dismissed again after Trump was lost the election in 2020 and Trump viewers went and drove to Newsmax and just turned off the cable news.

They were in third place. Guess what? They came back stronger than ever, in part because they were playing ball with this sort of false idea that the election had been stolen. They never really came out and quietly asserted, like, the former president is falsely claiming the election was stolen.

It was not. They never really said that. They sort of really played footsie around that idea. That's kind of how they got their viewers back. Yeah. But so, and so then Tucker, I think he just, he flew too close to the sun.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and you make a good point there with the Beck and O'Reilly comparisons because, I mean, both of them over the years of their time at Fox engaged in all kinds of.

Controversial and actions, the actions, which, caused very serious problems monetarily in the case of a Riley where they were paying out, millions of dollars multiple times to women that he had sexually harassed and in the case of back he was just saying completely crazy things about, Barack Obama is a Marxist

HALL: and a racist against white people.

He said that Barack Obama hates white people, which is shocking.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, especially odd considering that his mother was white, and then he was raised by his white grandparents.

HALL: Well, the truth, the truth really matters. The truth really matters in this sort of like anger outreach driven. And by the way, it's not solely Fox News.

I mean, there's a lot of. And that's NBC people that like know that they keep shoveling coal when the Trump is evil. How many times can you say that before we get it, right? So, whether you believe that or not.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, I guess I meant it in the sense though of talking about these guys [00:28:00] that, their actions were kind of Seen as a part of a cost of doing business at Fox over time, but then, after a while, Rupert Murdoch, he'll tolerate seemingly anything but only, a certain number of times, it seems like, and that was, yeah,

HALL: I think to that point, just quickly, I think a lot of people that I know are surprised when I tell them that a lot of people that I know that work at Fox News, Fox News.

are not true believers, meaning they're not, they haven't dropped the political Kool Aid. It’s mostly a marketing business, right? And it's done very often without a superego over what's right or wrong because as long as you're selling soap and getting ad revenue to the degree of like billions of dollars of revenue a year, it almost doesn't matter.

So to the point you just said about Rupert Murdoch, cost of doing business, I think there's a bit of a shoulder shrug. It's on his end. It's like, hey, well, it rates, people watch. Yes, he's conservative, of course, but he's more in love, I think, with the massive revenue from Fox News that drives the Murdoch Empire.

The Murdoch Empire is not doing very well, other than Fox News. So, yes, he's conservative. Yes, he abides by all this. But I, my gut tells me that most of the people there are more interested in making a lot of money than they are the true political beliefs, which I think surprises a lot of people. Of course, there's plenty of people that are true believers, but you get past the showrunners and the hosts and the talent.

Most people there just have jobs, and they get paid well, and that's business.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, I think that's true, and it does, I mean, my background, my own background in, in conservative media, I mean, what I saw very frequently was that, and was that, the, the people, my colleagues, they were very aware that, [00:30:00] The audience that was consuming their content was much further to the right than they were.

And so they were always trying to kind of fit themselves into, well, how can I give them what they want? Without looking like a complete jackass. And so, and I mean, in essence, that is what Tucker Carlson did with his show, because I mean, it's been documented that he was taking stories from, he had a producer who was taking and posting on sites like 4chan, which is this race, racist website.

And that they were, and if you look at various neo-Nazi type. Websites they all love tucker Carlson and they said he's mainstreaming our ideas American political system, his people read our sites and we're grateful that they read our sites and they're doing what we want.

Like we love this guy. And while

HALL: at the same time he was mocking the idea of being called racist, like he often would ridicule like, oh, and so that's where he would sort of like thread this needle of outrage between, I didn't really say that. But of course, everyone knows that. It's like, well, first of all, none of that is journalistically sound.

But also, how can you talk out of both sides of your mouth? Are you these racist dog whistles are out there. And you can flatly, that's not what I meant. But of course. If that's not what you meant, then why is it resonating so much within that audience that you refuse to distance yourself and very often defend?

So I think he was a very toxic force, and I don't think his leaving Fox News is going to Change much because I think Jesse Watters is going to replace him is among the very You know, he's a very dishonest analyst. He makes stuff up out of whole cloth, and he oversimplifies things. And so I think Jesse Waters will soon be the new Tucker Carlson because he'll say crazy stuff in much the same way and do it probably less nuanced [00:32:00] if you can call what Tucker did.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, and I think, the fact of O'Reilly, then Carlson, and now Waters having that 8 p. m. Eastern time spot, it's, Murdoch has made very clear, this is who my audience is. They are people who are like these guys. And they all are the same in that, toxic male asshole.

HALL: Well, I mean, I'm going to. Stand up for Bill O'Reilly, because O'Reilly was sort of the progenitor of the forum. But people forget this, O'Reilly's DNA, he was rooted in journalism. And Bill O'Reilly But

SHEFFIELD: He got worse over time; I think that's fair to say.

HALL: And he knew when to pump the brakes a little bit, and I think it benefited O'Reilly that he was there under Ailes, and Ailes had the same approach.

He knew that every now and again you have to create your own limits, because therefore when you make an outrageous If all you do is Scream wolf, people are going to stop believing you, right? Believing you. So, but Bill O'Reilly was looked out for the folks. He was more center right than far right.

Tucker Carlson and Jesse Walters are more far-right, more palatable to making America great again. And O'Reilly, I think, was more of an establishment GOP.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that's fair. I guess I meant more in the personal sense rather than political. Well,

HALL: They're white guys who come from a, a frat bolo archetype, and I myself have the same archetype, so I don't know. But that's definitely, you know what Fox News is putting out there.

They're not going to put a woman of color or a man of color at that APM or at least they haven't. So, other than interim moments. So, white women

SHEFFIELD: has never been there


HALL: Yeah, that's true. Yeah, that's true. And I'm not suggesting that they're flatly racist. I just think that they're serving their viewers getting back [00:34:00] to what they used to earlier. Right. And that was what they really struggled with and what really came to light during the Dominion lawsuit was Fox News was Opting to serve their viewers what they wanted to hear instead of harsh truths, harsh truths being that Trump lost the election and instead they sort of played pussyfoot with, they played around with this idea.

Well, maybe there was election fraud—is it wrong to investigate election fraud? No, but if you keep saying you're investigating it over and over and over again. It suggests that it really existed when there wasn't near enough evidence to show other than isolated examples. So, yeah, that's not what a journalistic outlet does.

CNN is a much better journalistic outlet, but you could argue that they're guilty of similar things to a much, much lesser degree. At least under Jeff Zucker, there was sort of this kayfabe pro wrestling idea where good guys versus bad guys, which I think under Jeff Zucker’s leadership, CNN kind of fell prey to in a way that didn't appeal to a ton of viewers.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, we'll get into CNN in a second here, but let's maybe wrap the Fox idea here with that you recently wrote a piece, and I'll have the link for people to check it out, about Carlson's post-Fox attempts at finding an audience, and they haven't really gone that well for him as despite what a lot of His, terminally online fans want to believe right.

His Audi, the Fox as you were saying they, people wrote them off and said, no one's going to come back and watch him. But the reality is Fox is their soap opera.

HALL: Right.

SHEFFIELD: For a 70-year-old person whose kids never call them, and they're retired, and they're a deeply aggrieved evangelical or something and angry at the gays [00:36:00] and the atheists, Fox isn't just news for them. It is a window to the world.

HALL: It's companionship. And if you're older and you don't like the way the world has evolved and you're feeling left out and or maybe a bit afraid of this scary new world that we're living in.

And there are reasons to be concerned about the us living in the future. Right now, this is that tonic. This is that comfy blanket that says, yes, it's very scary out there, but we, you, we're the same people. And if you watch us, we see the same thing you do.

SHEFFIELD: And we're going to tell you that you're right.

HALL: Exactly right. It confirms the bias that it's not biased because it's true. I mean, I watch “Fox and Friends” every morning because I'm sort of fascinated by the rhetorical flourish and how they cover news and it's stunning. Every segment is about focus on why the viewers should be mad, angry or afraid, whether it's crime, or something that Biden said or did, or someone in his administration said or did, it's never really positive.

I think it really attracts people who want that dark view, their own dark view confirmed by that. And it's a vicious cycle. And I think they'll age out, but, yeah, sorry to jump in on it.

SHEFFIELD: Oh yeah, no problem. Well, and so, yeah, but so they basically, tuning to Fox is, watching Fox is a lifestyle. It isn't something that's for news, because it isn't news. Fox very clearly, explicitly Refuses to report things that make Republicans look bad. I mean, the Dominion lawsuit made that crystal clear that not just on the election, they made it, you could see it in a number of different stories, they refuse to talk about it.

HALL: Well, they do some journalism. I mean, they were, I think the situation at the border is a crisis and no one's. [00:38:00] And, do they overly politicize it? Maybe. Yeah, but it's still a story. And they, when they did good journalism on that, and others have followed suit. So, yeah, I mean, we're after that, right?

They're not completely bereft of journalistic standards. They are just editorial decisions. Some of the best decisions are deciding what not to cover, right? And I make that decision every day at Mediaite, because someone foolish like Candace Owens or Charlie Kirk says something crazy over the top, I don't want to give that person that attention because what they're doing is they're trying to troll for attention.

And I think Fox News, when they see something, Trump's document stuff has barely, hasn't gotten nearly the coverage. Whereas CNN, it's 24 7. And it's a huge story.

SHEFFIELD: Well we can get it later, but let's get to back to Tucker here though. So in your essay, because I do want to make sure that we talk about it, he's gotten lots of views, but they're not as real as people might think.

HALL: So the thesis, just to reset, is that two months after his departure, it's clear that Fox News is way more important to Tucker Carlson than Tucker was to Fox.

Which sort of flouts what a lot of conventional wisdom was, especially because Tucker has a very intense base of online fans. But you know, he did this deal with Elon Musk, and he has put out, I believe, eight episodes about 12-minute essays where he's, I guess, in his cabin in Maine.

And the initial the first one listed like 150 million views and a lot of people like, look, this is the future and Tucker's getting 150 million views. That's way more than all of Fox News shows combined. And of course. It doesn't take much of a genius to do a little bit of reporting and realizing those viewers, those views are just the most [00:40:00] charitable number.

It's like literally if that tweet shows up in a feed and it's clicked or auto-plays for a couple of seconds, it gets credit for the views. So it's not, that's not a legit number to compare to his television viewers. And by the way, I think his eighth episode has only like 10 million of those views.

So that’s 5% less or so than it was his first one. But the larger point that I made, I think, which resonates more is that Carlson doesn't affect the dialogue now that he's not on Fox News. The people that watch, even if it's a lot of people watch his videos, it’s people that really are just huge Tucker fans who will agree with him no matter what he says.

And the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, media, I, we don't cover it in that way because he's not on Fox News. And there's a viable business model and he'll, he's already worth millions of millions of dollars and doesn't need a ton of money. He'll be successful. And he's starting a media company, apparently.

But monetary success will be easy for him, but being an influential commentator that drives a narrative and drives a conversation I think is more important to him. And it's not clear that he's got a path to regain that. Maybe he will I think the jury's out, but so far six months from now Jesse Waters will be getting all the flack that Tucker Carlson relished six months ago.

That's just, that seems like a pretty easy projection to make and

SHEFFIELD: But in terms of influence, yeah on the political system I mean, lots of people watch Joe Rogan or this podcast. When Joe Rogan says, I want this thing to happen. It doesn't happen. I want a bill about X, Y, or Z, or you should vote for politician Y.[00:42:00]

It doesn't happen. And because he's just a guy talking on the internet. Well, so Joe

HALL: Rogan, right, what he, I mean, what makes kind of Joe Rogan interesting, and I don't think he's nearly as bad as others think he is. I mean, he's just a guy talking crap who's an outsider. And is he irresponsible? Very often.

But he sometimes asks good questions, and he's intellectually curious in some way that I think deserves a level of credit. The idea about Tucker Carlson is that he loved to rail against D.C. lifers and D.C. insiders, and talk about how bad they were for America, and they were not looking out for regular Americans.

He was precisely what he was rallying against. He was the, his son's work in congressional offices. He comes from that very world which he used to rail against. And that was this weird kind of He's got four names, for God's sake. Right. He's an heir and, like, I don't want to criticize him.

He didn't choose the life that he was born into. His father was a massive player in, I believe, the radio industry. And he went to St. George's prep school. And he had every—

SHEFFIELD: His stepmother was—

HALL: Swanson's first heiress. Yeah. Right. Exactly right.

SHEFFIELD: So he grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth and did all the things that he says are now terrible.

HALL: Well, but you know, he also has some populist ideas where he thinks that the corporate America is screwing out the little guy, which totally resonates, and it's kind of delightful, but he packages this in this other framing where he wrote a thing, he did an essay about Don Lemon when he was on CNN, who had written a book about civil rights, and Tucker made the argument that because Don Lemon lives in Sag Harbor, which is this lovely fishing village sort of in the Hamptons, That, that sort of, he, because he lived in a wealthy area that was mostly white, that precluded [00:44:00] Don from being a voice of what it was like growing up as a black man in America.

And he used all sorts of dog whistles that were just flatly racist, and So Tucker did a lot of divisive and bad and very ugly things that I think was toxic and polluted dialogue. And I think the world, I don't think the world's going to suddenly heal with him off the air, but I do think the world's a better place without him spewing such toxic stuff regularly on Fox News.

SHEFFIELD: Oh yeah, I think that's definitely true. Yeah. All right. Well, so I think we've Kind of hit all the bases on the Fox side of things, I think. So let's maybe turn to the CNN question here. So CNN has kind of been in an identity crisis for 20 years. Would you say that's fair? And yes, hiring different presidents to do one thing or another and it just doesn't quite work.

HALL: Well, CNN is probably the closest cable news outlet. It is by far the closest cable news outlet that we have. to a proper journalistic outlet. They have an unparalleled team of reporters, not just on the Capitol, but around the country and Middle East and Ukraine and, London, European bureaus as well.

They gather and report the news as well as any outlet out there. Save maybe the New York Times, Washington Post AP, Reuters BBC, maybe. I think what happened before Jeff Zucker became president, it, they were really tied to traditional journalism, and they realized that didn't, wasn't, people don't want to tune into news unless it's a big story.

An impeachment or January 6 or Tiananmen Square. I remember when Tiananmen Square happened in was it 88, 89? And I remember we were glued to CNN when that happened. And so [00:46:00] CNN is still like a big news destination. When a serious news event happens, people go to CNN because there's a reason it's the most reputable and they do really good journalistic work.

But as the appetite for political analysis shifted, Jeff Zucker came in and made it more about takes and punditry. And when Trump came to the political game in a serious way, CNN kind of got all in on that, and in an outraged, sort of, they were a little, I think, overdid a little bit, to the degree that when, before he was elected, he'd hold a rally, and there would be just a camera shot of an empty podium waiting for Trump to speak, which is not news, and that's promotion.

I think Jeff Zucker's one of the smartest guys I've ever met, and I think his intentions were pure, and he probably would admit that he sort of overplayed that, in hindsight. But it did work for him 2020, earliest weeks of 2020 or 2021 when the second impeachment was going on, CNN, like the month before Zucker was pushed out was the top-rated cable news outlet and Fox News was third, which was like crazy to consider that being an option.

It was perfect timing, a perfect storm for CNN to benefit from. There was the election, there were Trump's claims of the false election, there was the first impeachment was still sort of processing. Then of course there was January 6th. All these things were perfect fodder for CNN to cover.

And then Zucker was pushed out, I think, for corporate reasons, the pretext of having an undisclosed relationship was, much like what we said earlier with Tucker Carlson, that was the letter of the law, but I think he was pushed out because the new corporate ownership in particular, David Zaslav and John Malone were like, we want CNN to evolve to a place that's more dispassionate about [00:48:00] parties, less Trump focused.

We needed to make it a friendlier place where reasonable Republicans can come on the air. And so that's what Chris Licht was put in charge to do and—

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, sorry, let me just say that David Zasloff doesn't technically have a title if I remember right with CNN, but—

HALL: No, he's the CEO of Warner Brothers Discovery.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. But he also is a major donor and Republican donor.

HALL: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: And so, it is this weird dynamic that he did interpose because on the one hand, I actually am kind of sympathetic that I did think that CNN was obsessed with Trump under Zucker and made everything about Trump, whether it was not really related to him necessarily at all. All the shows, every single block almost was about Trump, and I think, people and the ratings generally speaking on a day-to-day basis, kind of were showing that people were not as interested in hearing about him all the time.

And so, I'm sympathetic to that. But then on the other hand, they also, I think it's clear that you've got all these channels out there that, are saying, well, we're doing mainstream journalism, right? We're not trying to take a side or whatever.

And you've got one channel, MSNBC, that's like, no, we are taking a side on the left. And we're pursuing a left audience. Now whether they're trying to get maybe further left, I don't think that's, they actually kind of go against that type of, socialist type stuff sometimes.

But there's kind of this mad rush, weird rush to get these mythical Republican viewers who don't exist. Like there are people out there who are, sort of [00:50:00] tangential Republicans, moderate Republicans. They don't watch the news, though.

They're the person who's working 60 hours a week at a law firm or something. They don't have time for TV.

HALL: So, I just, a good friend of mine from college was in New York, out of the blue. They met him for a drink. We ended up having dinner. He is what you just described. He works 60 hours at a law firm, and he lives in suburban Kansas City.

And we talked a little bit about politics and he just sort of said, honestly, I can't do it anymore. I feel like it doesn't matter. And it's just this game. And I just kind of checked out.

And that's not just a moderate Republican, Rockefeller Republican point of view. I have dear friends here in Brooklyn and in Brownstone, Brooklyn, who are active Democratic donors and pretty progressive. And they're probably center-left. They have the same exact take and they're like, it's so exhausting and I can't.

And so again, I go back to what I said earlier, currently what's broken, I think, is that the cable news industry is fomenting, is trying to draw viewers by appealing to the extremes, the most passionate viewers, but are also driving away people that are sort of the most reasonable.

My dear friend and colleague Dan Abrams calls it the minimalized, moderate majority. And I think that's a real thing. I think there's a big swath of people in the middle on both sides, but are centrist on both sides that don't feel that they're served well. I mean, News Nation is where I'm a contributor at News Nation. That's our mission. And what I like about it is you never know what you're going to get.

Back to CNN, when early in the Trump administration, it was actually really good, because they would have Republican officials that now you only really see on Fox News, but you'd have Lindsey Graham or John Kennedy or even Ted Cruz would be on CNN.

And [00:52:00] being interviewed by really top tier interviewers like Chris Cuomo or Alison Camerota or John Berman. And it was a really thoughtful, meaningful discussion that made everything better. And then Trump went ham, went off on CNN and said it was fake news. And all of those reasonable Republicans who love to be on TV and get their message out and raise donations, they stopped going on CNN.

And I wrote a column when Chris Licht replaced Jeff Zucker to say the first most important thing you can do is get reasonable Republicans back on the air because I think we miss a meaningful dialogue between two sides, because right now, as we had said earlier in the podcast in this interview, that rarely do you get a thoughtful conversation between two different points of view.

And Fox News does that on occasion. They've done it less. MSNBC almost never has anyone from the right on their network. Which I think is a shame.

SHEFFIELD: They won't go on it.

HALL: Well, I mean, again, I mean, correct. I wish they would. I think Ari Melber has had some success with some people on and he gives a good, fair interview.

SHEFFIELD: But there's a reason they don’t go. When they show up on his show, he actually makes them answer the questions. And they don't want that.

HALL: Well, but he, who did he have on that I thought the interview was just a tour de force? He, I can't recall who it was, but I remember recently watching it and it was like, it was Peter Navarro.

And it was just like, it was just a fascinating conversation. I'm not a Peter Navarro fan. But Ari Melber cross-examined him in a way that I thought served everyone very well.

Another example, Gavin Newsom, governor of California, was on with Sean Hannity, and it was The most fascinating interview that I'd seen on cable news in years and it was mutually respectful It was thoughtful both Hannity and Newsom [00:54:00] came out of that looking better, which was like a miracle in today's landscape So back to CNN, I think they I think Chris Lick was trying to Reclaim some of that magic.

I don't think the CNN staff bought what he was selling them, and it did not end well.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, there was resistance to it, but I mean, a lot of it is rooted in the fact that, people who might have in the past been more willing to criticize, let's say the Republican leader when it was George W. Bush, under Trump, if you do that you're canceled as a Republican. Your career is over. He will personally come and endorse and campaign against you. You're dead.

And I will say the best example of what I'm talking about here is that almost every Republican who has an active influence in the party, none of them will say the 2020 election was obviously not stolen, there was no evidence of criminality by anyone other than a handful of people.

And this is just nonsense to continue belaboring that. If you say that, your career is over. But then at the same time, CNN would sometimes book these people and they would ask them that question but then nothing would follow after that, and they would be bogged down on just trying to answer this simple, obvious, stupid question, but never point out, well, why is it that you won't answer that?

Let's talk about that. They wouldn't do that either.

HALL: Well, people are afraid. Trump is like this abusive father to the Republican party and they're afraid of angering him.

Trump did his first journalistic interview in three, like a proper journalistic interview with Brett Baier Fox News, and Brett Baier did an [00:56:00] amazing job, and Brett Baier told him he did lose the election.

And this happened in June of 2023.Three years after, like two and a half years after the election actually happened.

And that was the first one, I mean, I guess Caitlin Collins said the same thing to his face during that town hall. But it's shocking to me how few—and Trump had been on with Hannity a number of times. He'd been on with Tucker Carlson; he'd done countless interviews on Newsmax. All of them just sort of pretended that his baseless claim of a stolen election was crazy.

And it was like an emperor's got no clothes thing. Like it's, it was like really like how are you, how are we not yelling that the leader of the GOP is still bat guano crazy? Like Jonah Goldberg said it on Fox at the end of 2021. He said, Trump was trying to steal the election by claiming that the election was stolen. And shortly thereafter, Jonah Goldberg was shut—the door at Fox News because Fox didn't want to tell the viewers what they didn't want to hear. And in this case, it was the truth. And it shows that in that instance, Fox News was truly a political marketing entity and not a news one.

And I'm sure Fox News executives would say are what we're doing any different from what MSNBC and CNN do. And I would argue yes and no. Yes, they are different, but also, they're not as effective as they are. So Fox News is maybe just better at it.

SHEFFIELD: Well, but it's also that, when you look at the ecosystem across left and right there are no outposts of moderate Republicans. They don't exist. They don't exist.

Whereas there are plenty of people with lots of money, lots of power on the center left who have no problem publicly attacking Bernie Sanders or AOC, or any of these other Progressive Caucus [00:58:00] members and saying they're nuts or, they're making it easy for the Republicans, like there actually is real intra-left debate.

It's pretty vigorous and there is no intra-right debate because you get canceled if you try to do it.

HALL: I mean, the GOP civil war is the slowest burning war ever, and it's something, there's been first it was the Tea Party versus the sort of establishment GOP, and then the Tea Party sort of was coopted by corporate PACs and really sort of evolved into the Make America Great Again movement, and Trump, we kind of coopted that the tension is still there, right?

You look at the current slant, I mean Chris Christie is as close to a moderate kind of Rockefeller Republican as we've seen in a long time. Mitt Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, was very much a center-right governor. But to get the nomination for president, he had to throw so much red meat to the far right that when he was running for president, he was effectively painted as a way more conservative than he was. I think he was proven to be both as governor and as he served as a senator, and I think a pretty strong voice of reason on a lot of issues. So he's kind of an iconoclast.

And so, should there, my father was a proud Rockefeller Republican, my mother was a big campaigner for Carter. And I've long joked that the most effective Republican president we've had in recent memory was Barack Obama, who was only slightly better than Republican President than Bill Clinton.

Of course, they were Democrats. They governed in a way that was probably more similar to moderate Republicans on a lot of issues than I know a lot of progressive Democrats were not very pleased with, especially with foreign policy. So, yeah, but I think the partisan spectrum is all screwy. It's upside down.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I mean, we are basically [01:00:00] in this environment where the Democratic Party contains basically the entire political spectrum and the Republican Party contains this reactionary Christian faction that is sort of loosely aligned with nihilistic libertarian types who just hate everything and think nothing's, I mean, There's this podcast out there that is now kind of receded into its own little world, the No Agenda podcast, Joe Rogan these people, they don't, they don't believe anything's real.

And so that's basically the Republican electorate is those two groups of people, and there are people, there still are, percentages of people with moderate Republican viewpoints, but they don't stand up for themselves. Chris Christie is the first person to actually be saying, look, guys, we have a serious problem here. Not just with Trump, but we need to actually be willing to have policies and tell the truth to the public.

HALL: I think future historians are going to be very kind to Chris Christie because he's clearly strapping on a suicide vest and going in to take on Trump. Because he's a litigator, and he's going in, and he's saying all the things that he's basically claiming the emperor's got no clothes.

And the only way Trump can contend with that is to try to avoid him and pretend that he doesn't exist and not engage in a debate. So it'll be very interesting to see how the GOP debates unfold.

I think there's a decent chance. I don't know if it's a likely chance, I think there's a decent chance that the winner of the next election will be neither Trump nor Biden.

I think Biden is old, and I think Trump is damaged goods for a ton of reasons. And it doesn't, I don't know who it would be, but it could just as easily be Tim Scott with a positive message as it is Gavin Newsom coming up from behind. Who knows? I mean, most likely I think it'll be Biden versus Trump, but you know—

SHEFFIELD: [01:02:00] It's not going to be DeSantis though. Because I mean DeSantis is basically, some people before he really started campaigning on the national stage, they were like, oh, this is Trump 2.0, and my response was no This is Ted Cruz 1.1.

HALL: That's exactly right.

SHEFFIELD: And when you look at who was hired, that's who he hired, all these people who ran Ted Cruz's loser campaign that went nowhere and just was mocked across the political spectrum. And Ron DeSantis thinks those people are smart.

HALL: That's right. Yeah. I mean, I think it's early to say, but I don't, I don't think DeSantis, I'm going to keep my powder dry, but I do think that concerns that he may not have charisma are founded and it's one thing to attack reporters, but I think if he's going to try to be a kinder Trump, that's going to fail and a younger Trump, I should say. And so we'll see, we'll see.

SHEFFIELD: It’s also that his strategy is just completely incoherent as well, because what they don't understand is that you cannot get to the further right of Trump because the far right, like literal Nazis love Trump.

So basically in order to get further to the right than Trump and get to get those people on your side, you're going to literally have to say, I'm going to create concentration camps for immigrants and put them there and, and then throw them into the ocean. That's basically the only way you can get further right.

HALL: Well, so we saw that just this week when the war room DeSantis’s war room campaign put out this anti-Trump, anti-LGBTQ video that tried to outplay Trump's position on LGBTQ rights on the right.

And it came across as pretty hateful and homophobic. And [01:04:00] Republicans were even saying this is bad. And they were trying to do it in a clever, like mean, funny, like Trumpian internet meme way. And it totally backfired.

And by the way, I think his anti-woke messaging is effective. I think there's a lot of people out there who think that we've gone too far with how we've politicized identity politics. I think that resonates with a lot of moderates, but to do it in the way that he did it, that came across as sort of hateful and otherizing these people, it wasn't good.

And I assume that he saw it and said, that's great, let's go with it. So yeah, I don't think he has great judgment.

Trump is a performer and a charmer, and people forget that more than anything else. I'm not saying that I'm charmed by him. I'm just saying that he knows what he's doing because he's been in front of the camera for a long, long, long time.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think people on the left, they do underestimate that about him, that Donald Trump actually can be funny, like there's no question about it.

HALL: Oh, he's a marketing genius. He's a media genius. I think he's an evil genius in a lot of ways. I think he uses his powers for bad, or rather he uses his power for self-gain, right?

SHEFFIELD: But he's also self, he's self-deprecating as well. Ron DeSantis definitely is not that. And I think, in a lot of ways, because Trump is both an outrageous self-promoter, but he also makes fun of himself, that's like his secret power.

HALL: He's in on his own joke. He's in on his own joke. Not when he's speaking to a rally, but yeah, he's a performer. He knows when he's performing. And I think that's, he's no dummy. That's for sure.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, yeah. All right. Well, so let's maybe just wrap with so CNN, they don't have a president right now as of this recording.

Do they know if it even is possible for CNN to do to be number one in the ratings on a perpetual day to day basis? I [01:06:00] don't think it is.

HALL: I don't think CNN's goal is to be number one in ratings. I think CNN's goal under Jeff Zucker and Chris Licht was to be the most reliable, trustworthy outlet.

And I think both, I know Chris Licht in particular, his mission was to try to pull CNN out of what he called the ghetto of cable news. He took a network that he saw was a “gut reno” that he wanted to rebuild and get incremental ad dollars by making it a more reputable brand. Unfortunately, his staff did not buy it.

And I think the staff at CNN are all very still much in love with the idea of the CNN that Jeff Zucker built before Chris Licht. And so the DNA of CNN is very much still CNN. And the collective of three or four co-CEOs, I don't think there's one person shining through that's going to give them the mission.

I think they're just going to go back to the muscle memory of what we saw now to their advantage. We're entering a really great new cycle, right? We're entering the 2024 campaign. There's going to be debates. There's going to be more indictments of Trump. The Georgia indictment is a real one. I think Jack Smith probably has another trial trials that follow.

And when real news happens and not just, pontificating about how, Dylan Mulvaney is ruining American beer and made-up outrage stories or gas stoves being outlawed, whatever it may be, CNN shines, right?

That's where CNN does their best. So I think I could see them being kind of biding their time. They still have a ton of very talented people there, on-air producers all the way around. Are they sometimes a little bit in their own CNN bubble? Yes, of course. But that's no different than the MSNBC bubble [01:08:00] or the Fox News bubble.

I mean, the bubbles are very, very different, but that's the way these companies work. And I'd like to think that CNN has a broader sensibility for an outlet that has a bubble. But I guess time will tell. And I personally would rather have reasonable Republicans on CNN debating then predictable Adam Kinzinger. I respect him and honor him a lot, but I don't need to know his point of view about every single issue because I already know it, right? Like he's going to blame Trump and he's going to blame the far-right Republican party.

And there's nothing about that that's unique or scarce. And that's what I learned when I used to produce TV. Fred Graver [sp] was my executive producer of VH1's “Best Week Ever.” It's the scarcity. It's the unique, it's the close observation that people really tune into.

And I think if CNN can sort of go back to what is good TV, they'll be very well served by that. And good TV will be a variety of voices and not just the same people saying the same thing over and over again, which, by the way, I feel like I'm the same person saying the same thing over and over again on this podcast.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, well, I mean, I think it's definitely true. Cable news needs to open up to a lot more different voices and people, because there are people who have a lot of interesting things to say, whatever their viewpoint is. But they don't fit into the traditional party coalitions, and so they don't get put forward. Like we don't hear much from, let's say liberal Christian viewpoint, and you don't have a lot of socialist voices, that you don't see those on the air, and these are things that are worth hearing from. Or like a secular conservative, these voices don't exist on the TV dial, but they are there in the country.

HALL: As a thought exercise, I've always thought if Bernie Sanders had been able to reach Trump's audience, because Bernie Sanders’s message of populism [01:10:00] and helping sort of lower class people through like a democratic socialist approach, really should have appealed to the Trump base, just minus the nativism and the xenophobia, right?

So, I do think that it's not just a flat spectrum, partisan spectrum, it's more of a circle. And I think, if the two ends of what we think is flat spectrum ever look the other way and connected, that would be a very powerful working class, socialist, populist voting bloc, right?

And I think that if that whatever candidate figures out how to unlock that without being nativist and xenophobic. I think that's a futuristic approach that could be a third party. I don’t think a third party is going to exist because our system doesn’t really allow for that, but maybe that's what CNN should look into.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, there you go. They can, they'll get that idea.

All right. Well. So it's been a good chat here, Colby. We've been talking today with Colby Hall. He is the founding editor of Mediaite and he's on Twitter at colbyhall, C-O-L-B-Y-H-A-L-L. Thanks for being here.

HALL: Matthew, thanks so much for having me. This was really fun.

SHEFFIELD: So that is the program for today. I appreciate everybody for joining us. And you can of course go to theoryofchange.show to get more. episodes. You can get the audio, video, and transcripts of all the episodes there. In order to keep things sustainable, some of the content is available only to paid subscribers. So, I appreciate everybody who is doing that. Thank you very much.

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Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.