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Dec. 18, 2017, 2:42 p.m.
Reporting & Production

David Axelrod on 200 episodes of The Axe Files, silos in podcasts, and today’s “golden age” for journalism

“I’m not there to ask the top-ten kind of news questions of the day. I’m there to find out who people are and who motivates them, and yes, we get to some of the news of the day, but with that context of who someone is.”

Recording 200 episodes of an hour-long podcast in a little over two years (they’ve been downloaded almost 20 million times) is a task not for the faint of heart. When each of those 200 episodes features a politician or other newsmaker and is a largely unedited, hour-long conversation, well, that’s almost as much work as getting a freshman U.S. Senator elected to the presidency.

Conveniently, David Axelrod is familiar with both, as President Barack Obama’s former chief strategist for his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns and as the voice of his podcast The Axe Files, a production from CNN and the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. (Disclosure: As an alumna of the University of Chicago I was involved with the IOP, though I did not interact with Axelrod frequently.) He worked as a local reporter in Chicago before jumping to politics, developing campaign ads, and eventually leading messaging for Obama’s early years in the White House.

In 2015, Axelrod launched The Axe Files as a mechanism for finding common ground in sharing life stories between political, media, and other celebrity heavyweights. His guests have included John McCain, Katie Couric, Corey Lewandowski, Spike Lee, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, Chelsea Handler, Tom Hanks, and even Obama himself (surprise). He now leads the Institute of Politics and is a political commentator on CNN.

I spoke with Axelrod as he traversed the trains of Philadelphia about the market for podcasts, the media coverage of the Alabama Senate race, the siloing of news and information, and more. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christine Schmidt: With the Axe Files, you usually start out asking about the person’s family history. I wanted to ask about the biography of your podcast.

David Axelrod: It really flowed out of conversations that I started having at the IOP. [Former IOP executive director and longtime WBEZ-Chicago frontman] Steve Edwards said to me, “You ought to do this as a podcast.” I was so taken by the format because I’m an old reporter, I’ve been a storyteller all my life, and I’m really curious about people. It further occurred to me, and this is a lesson on which the IOP is founded, that it’s harder to hate [people of opposing views] if you know them. I thought this would be a good way to take the acidity out of politics, at least in some small way, by really exploring the stories of people.

I speak to people across the political spectrum and I was with Rick Santorum [this week]. We had plenty of disagreements but it was an interesting conversation. We talked about some of his regrets in politics and about his life and about Trump in ways that were surprising, but that’s fairly typical of these. My goal is that people know the person I’m talking to in a much more granular way when they finish one of these podcasts than they did when they started.

Schmidt: In terms of the structure of the podcast, is there any editing done or cutting any quotes out?

Axelrod: We don’t edit them. The podcast with Santorum ran rather long, so I asked my techs to take some of the material at the bottom in which he was talking about Alabama and Trump and put it at the top. And I told listeners that we were going to make that edit. But the general format is that we run the full conversation. And the conversations usually begin biographically. As I said, everybody has a story. Just using the Santorum example, we both are sons of immigrants, both of our fathers were in the service during World War II and went to school on the GI bill and became psychologists and went to work at the Veterans Administration. That was a basis to begin the conversation and to ask him about his family and the influences that made him who he is. That, to me, is sort of fundamental. But no, we don’t edit. These are conversations and you don’t edit conversations.

Schmidt: How do you convince these different high-profile people to open up to you for an hour-long, unedited conversation, then?

Axelrod Not everybody will sit down with me, but I’ve had really good luck. I’ve had everyone from President Obama to Mitt Romney to Karl Rove and Bernie Sanders. I have a bit of an advantage because I’ve been around and people know who I am. Everybody knows I have a point of view, but I’d like to believe that people also see me as fair and open minded. And I try to be. Earlier this week we had [unsuccessful Republican candidate for Virginia governer] Ed Gillespie and it was his first public comments since the Virginia election. And it was a tough conversation because there were controversial elements of that campaign. But I was pleased that afterwards some media critics on social media said that the discussion — I always call them discussions and not interviews — was tough but fair.

Schmidt: Why do you call them discussions and not interviews?

Axelrod: Conversations is what they really are. They’re not meant to be Meet the Press or Face the Nation. They’re meant to be conversations, more free-wheeling. I’m not there to ask the top-ten kind of news questions of the day. I’m there to find out who people are and who motivates them, and yes, we get to some of the news of the day, but with that context of who someone is. Santorum talked about his faith journey because he’s very guided by his Catholicism, but that was a journey for him. That wasn’t always the case. So it was a natural thing to ask someone who has placed morality at the center of his politics, how does he feel about Trump? And he said he is not a role model that he want his children to have. And he went on in some length on that. Maybe he would have said the same thing if we just leaped into [Trump], but it kind of flowed from the conversation.

Schmidt:When you’re interviewing — or rather, talking with and conversing with these folks — are you approaching them for yourself or for your audience? And who do you consider your audience to be?

Axelrod: Honestly, I’m having the conversations that interest me. I’m trying to elicit who people are. I’m trying to touch on struggles and moments of triumph in their lives. I’m dealing what naturally comes to me. The very serendipitous happenstance is that people like to listen to it. They seem to want to have it.

I have a theory about that: that we are fed short quick hits with no dimensionality on the issues of the day. People get bombarded with it and I think they’re hungry for something a little deeper than that. They’re looking for genuine and honest exchanges with enough room to really learn something. I don’t sit there and say I have [a hypothetical audience member] in my mind when I sit down with the person I’m speaking with. I don’t say I’ve got to ask this question for this mythical guy or gal in my demo. That’s not how I approach it. My hope is that what interests me will interest them.

Schmidt: Going back to the quick hits and giving people the deeper conversations and interactions, how does that compare to your time on CNN as the political commentator?

Axelrod: Well, there are nights when I have plenty of time to talk to my colleagues, like election nights. I was on for four hours the other night. Other times, those conversations are shorter. I’m not leading the conversations. I do do an Axe Files TV show, and there, it’s very much predicated on the principles of the podcast. I just did one with Tom Hanks. We spoke probably for 90 minutes, which got reduced to an hour-long show. It is different from what I do on CNN. On CNN, I’m there to answer questions and provide commentary. This is me leading discussion and trying to elicit something from others.

Schmidt: So, zooming out a bit to the general journalism industry, what sort of potential do you see for the fields of journalism and advertising in this climate?

Axelrod: I consider the podcast a form of journalism. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy it. It’s very consistent with what I did for years as a reporter. I’ve realized that it’s consistent with what I’ve always done because even as a political media person, my job was to tell the story of the candidate, the story of the campaign, the story of the country. It involved the same skills that I apply here…

I think podcasts have a great future. It’s this counter to the sort of fast-paced soundbite world that we live in. There’s a voracious appetite for this. You see more and more of these podcasts growing up now. They’re becoming profitable. There is an advertising base for podcasts, for these successful podcasts. It’s a different kind of journalism.

Schmidt: With that appetite for podcasts, though, some studies that have shown that podcasts generally lean toward liberals and talk radio attracts conservatives.

Axelrod: My podcast is not pointedly partisan. You see my old colleagues from the White House who are doing the Pod Save America podcast and those are much more pointed. They have a very big audience. I do think that — there’s a good piece in the Times you probably saw about that — it is sort of a counterpoint to conservative talk radio, which has an enormous base. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a little bit skewed in that way, but I’m not sure if it won’t catch up to some degree. The reason conservative talk radio is as powerful as it is, is that it has a big rural base and a lot of folks spend a lot of time in vehicles.

Schmidt:But the same is true for podcasts, in terms of spending time in vehicles.

Axelrod: Yes. All right, I withdraw that comment now that you mention it but I withdraw it only temporarily while I think through your point. What you’re saying, I’m sure, is true. I’ve seen some demos on my podcast and it skews younger. It skews based on profile, probably, a little bit more liberal — maybe that’s natural given my history — but the podcast itself is really not a partisan vehicle.

Schmidt: But do you think your audience shares that goal of crossing borders to find common ground?

Axelrod: I think that if what is happening is that people who are a little bit left of center are listening to me have conversations across the political spectrum and they hear me and Karl Rove talk about our shared experience of having lost parents to suicide, for example, or if they hear these conversations I had this week with Santorum and Gillespie, or if they hear me talking to Mitt Romney about how the implosion of his father’s political career affected the way he thinks about politics — I think that’s good. There’s no doubt that in every one of these things we have differences. Those come up and we talk about them. But it’s in a respectful way. It’s not shouting across a jagged divide. I think people find that refreshing. So I understand the point of your question, which is am I just talking to people from my tribe, and I don’t think that’s entirely true. But to the extent that it is true, they’re not hearing from people who always affirm their point or mine.

Schmidt:What specific areas of reporting do you think are very much overdone or what are journalists over-reporting on?

Axelrod: I covered government when I was a city hall bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune. I covered national politics. I’ve also been in government … [where] I remembered my experience as a reporter and I understood that the job of journalists is to shine bright lights in dark corners. That’s why the First Amendment is the First Amendment. This is one of the institutional checks of unbridled power. This is a very tumultuous time and you have a very combative president who is all too willing to distort facts or outright lie about them. You have a lot going on in the government administratively that needs to be illuminated and you’re not getting a lot of help to do it. I don’t really have a lot of complaints [about journalism]. I actually think that this is a kind of golden age for journalists in that regard. I think [of] the competitive pressures, which I didn’t have them [back then]… like cable TV and the Internet and Twitter and the unrelenting pressure to be the first one to break a story. I think sometimes those competitive pressures can result in the overinflation of stories and sometimes can result in mistakes. But I think the surprising thing is how little that happens, not how often.

Schmidt: I’m sure you’ve followed the media coverage of the Alabama Senate race. I’m wondering if you saw a difference in the way that the media approached that coverage and that of previous elections, such as the presidential election.

Axelrod: I think it was such an unusual race because of Roy Moore and because of the sometimes-in, sometimes-out participation of the president. Generally, special elections tend to get more coverage, but obviously this one got much more. I thought what was interesting was how rigorously the Alabama press covered the race. did a lot of good work on that race.

Schmidt: Was there anything in particular that stood out to you about that?

Axelrod: Obviously chasing down some of the stories that broke about Moore, chasing down the statements of candidates and surrogates and really covering the race rigorously so that people fully understood who had done what and who was saying what and who was denying what.

The imperative or obligation of the media in this stormy period is to get it right. And I think one of the things about the frenetic pace of both the president’s kind of habit and the news cycles is that it puts an enormous amount of pressure on reporters and news organizations. I think they have to work hard to gird themselves against the error that is part of any human endeavor. The fact that The New York Times added a factchecker in the Washington bureau seems like a very good idea. I hope that news organizations invest in the editorial safeguards necessary.

Schmidt: But are local organizations able to do that?

Axelrod: It goes to a larger problem. One of the great challenges for journalism is this economic strain on local news. You’ve seen the hollowing-out of newsrooms across the country. The big, robust national news organizations seem to be doing well in this period, although they have their own struggles. The Washington Post has this oligarch in ownership so it has less constraints…At the local level, the budgets don’t allow the kind of rigorous editing that I was accustomed to as a reporter, and yet they face the same competitive pressures that other news organizations do today — to be in the moment and to be responsive to the fast-paced demands of these times.

I had news cycles when I was a reporter. They don’t exist anymore. I had great mentorship when I was a reporter, but a lot at the local level [now] don’t, and don’t have the oversight that I had.

Schmidt: Do you think the media has improved its trust with audiences and with the American people in this race or in other recent coverage?

Axelrod: I think that the news media is by and large earning trust through the rigorous reporting it’s doing. But because of the posture that the president has taken and the sort of balkanization of news on cable and through the Internet, we live in a world in which you can create virtual kinds of communities, silos in which the only information you get is information that affirms your point of view, and any information that comes from outside the walls of those silos is treated as fake or propaganda. It is hard to make great progress in your standing in that kind of environment. At some point you’ve got to set standards and live by them and be worthy of trust even if you can’t…even if polling suggests you’re not moving the number that much.

Schmidt: I’m curious what sort of future media environment you see.

Axelrod: I don’t consider myself a visionary on this, but I think we’re going to more and more customized news and other offerings that go directly to your devices, tailored to your interests.

That’s not going to help in terms of the siloing. I think the only thing that’s going to help on the siloing is if people choose not to be siloed, if they expose themselves to multiple news sources and are open to different points of view. And I have concerns about where we’re going in the future. I’m heartened, as I said — I feel like there are a lot of journalists who understand more clearly now…the [goal] shouldn’t ever be to take anybody down, to take a public official down, but it’s to find what my colleague Carl Bernstein likes to refer to as the best obtainable version of the truth, whatever that may be. I think there are a lot of journalists who are very energized by that mission today. That’s positive. The question you ask me about where we’re going in the future is a little more concerning because everything is pushing us toward algorithm-guided, customized offerings. That’s true in politics and in journalism. That worries me.

Schmidt: Do you see any hope or potential opportunity for doing something about that?

Axelrod:A lot of it has to do with individual initiative on the part of people who want to, who feel like they need to break out of their silos. Not to get back on my own message here, but I’d like to believe that the kind of things that I’m doing on this podcast, and that other people are doing, is one way you do that. If you can create an audience and expose that audience to a wide variety of people and perspectives, I think that’s helpful.

Schmidt:Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Axelrod: We’ve spoken in a train, train station, and now a car. Unless I hop on a plane where they won’t let me talk I think you’ve covered it.

Photo of David Axelrod and former Secretary of State Madeline Albright during a taping of the Axe Files courtesy of CNN.

POSTED     Dec. 18, 2017, 2:42 p.m.
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