Q&A: Former Obama staffers launch Crooked Media

January 13, 2017
Photo courtesy of Crooked Media

During the 2016 campaign, a trio of former Obama staffers, Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, and Tommy Vietor, mixed insider knowledge, humor, and open partisanship on the Keepin’ it 1600 podcast, which drew as many as 400,000 listeners per episode under the umbrella of Bill Simmons’ website, The Ringer. In the weeks and months leading up to the election, they provided reassurance to worried Democratic “bedwetters,” promising that November 8 would deliver a resounding victory for Hillary Clinton.

Over the course of election night and the morning after, Favreau, Lovett, and Vietor went from comfortably smug to emotionally shellshocked. After a brief hiatus, the three announced this week they are launching Crooked Media, “a place to talk about politics that informs, entertains, and inspires action.”

Vietor, who began working for Obama in 2004 and eventually served as National Security Spokesman and Assistant White House Press Secretary, tells CJR they began laying the groundwork for the new media company as they sat watching election results roll in.

“We’re not journalists, we’re not unbiased, we’re not always serious and we’re certainly not always right,” Favreau, Lovett, and Vietor write in their mission statement. “But we promise a no-bullshit conversation about politics where you can laugh, cry, scream, ridicule us daily, share your ideas, and hopefully decide that you want to help fix this mess too.”

The first offering, a twice-weekly podcast called Pod Save America (former Obama communications director and ’1600 veteran Dan Pfeiffer will also co-host), debuted Monday at No. 1 on the iTunes charts. On Tuesday, CJR spoke with Vietor about his critiques of the media, journalism’s role under a Trump administration, and his goals for the new venture. 

When did you decide that you wanted to start a media outlet?

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Election night. We lost our fucking minds, and then all of us had this feeling of dread and the need to get back in the game somehow. There’s got to be a part of this effort that isn’t DC-based, and this is what we came up with. We refined it and made a decision several weeks ago, and we’ve been pulling together an insane amount of stuff very quickly. It’s as overwhelmed and excited as I’ve been in a long time.

On your previous podcast, you were not always the biggest fans of the press. So, in general, what’s your critique of the media?

I wouldn’t say that. I think we have to be more specific with those critiques for them to be helpful. We are highly critical of decisions made by television executives to show Trump’s podium for 45 minutes and to give him unfettered airtime. We are highly critical of TV executives’ decisions to hire people whose sole credential is “Trump supporter,” and allow them to make their viewers dumber through hours on TV.

What’s unfortunate is that kind of content can sometimes swamp the incredible investigative journalism that goes on every day. You had real heroes in this election: Andrew Kaczynski at BuzzFeed, the stuff he was doing was dogged, shoe leather, exceptional reporting. David Fahrenthold from The Washington Post. A lot of the beat reporters who were with Trump every day should get combat pay for the way they were treated.

I do think there were problems of emphasis. Donald Trump allegedly assaulting 12 women probably got less coverage than Hillary Clinton’s decision to use a private server, and there is just no way those sins are equal. So those are the sorts of things we complain about. There are individual bad actors, like Sean Hannity pretending to be a journalist when he’s a spokesman for Trump. That’s sort of our take.

You spent nearly a decade working for Obama, first when he was a senator, and then as president, so you’re coming at this industry from the other side. Broadly speaking, do you have critiques about the way journalists cover the White House or the administration, and what they focus on?

One thing I found frustrating as a guy who focused exclusively on foreign policy and national security for the last two years [in the White House], is journalism in DC tends to view every problem through the prism of Washington. That’s especially dangerous when you’re talking about foreign policy. Countless stories were written about the Arab Spring and what it meant vis à vis the United States and our role. In reality, the people on the streets protesting, by and large, were upset about their rights as citizens of their own countries and not about what the United States was doing. But, dictators and others like to use the United States as a foil and blame all those problems on us, so those problems are kind of rolled together.

I also think there are times when silly stuff gets way too much attention. Like, everyone who wrote a story about Obama’s tan suit should be embarrassed about that byline in perpetuity. It’s a waste of time; it’s a distraction, and you get away from stuff that matters.

Back in December, on one of your last podcasts at The Ringer, you said, “I don’t think the press corps is fighting hard enough for things that are really important” How do you define what is important?

It’s access. They’ve gotten completely rolled during this transition. Trump still hasn’t done a press conference [until January 11, in what was a media-bashing clinic]. That is insane. It was not that long ago that people were posting countdown clocks about Hillary Clinton not doing a press conference.

The last time Donald Trump held a press conference was when he begged the Russians to hack into Hillary Clinton’s email. There’s zero accountability or cost to him for that. The White House Correspondents Association needs to figure out a way to put forward their expectations, and then some consequences if those aren’t met. I don’t know that they have the capability to do that, but there are going to be a bunch of news outlets that figure out that access to Trump is not helping their bottom line, and they’re going to take a very old adversarial, old-school approach to covering him. I think that will be a very good thing for those papers.

But on that issue, you also said, “The broader problem is that it used to be that there could be some utility in reporters … refusing to go to a briefing as a group. In that it would have an actual cost for the president in terms of getting his message out.” So how do we create a cost?

I think there’s a need to educate the American people a little better about why access is important. It’s too easily derided as self-interested and self-important, or carping from the press. 

We need to constantly be talking to people about why, when [the press] isn’t allowed to ask Donald Trump tough questions, it impacts them and allows their government to be compromised by his financial conflicts of interest, by having his unqualified son-in-law in a very powerful position.

Sketching out the real stakes here a little better than has been done is important. I realize how hard this is, and I don’t exactly have an answer for what [the press] should do to create some sort of consequence, but I do think they have to figure out a way to try. Because, yes, he can go to Breitbart, he can go to Fox, but this is a guy whose approval rating is at 48 percent, which is historically low for an incoming president who should be going through his honeymoon period. That can’t sink much further if he’s going to get reelected or get anything done. So in some ways they have to care. 

In terms of financing, is this all you guys? Or do you have outside financing set up?

This is all us. This is as bootstrapped as it gets, in part because we think that gives us the freedom to be really creative, to do weird shit, and throw it at the wall and see what works. We’re going to talk to media companies and VC firms about potential backing because there’s a lot we don’t know, and there’s a lot they can help us with on the technical side. Ultimately, we want this thing to have an impact. We want to reach a lot of people and help them understand how to get involved. If taking on money allows us to do that faster and better, we’ll do it. But right now, we’re just excited to get the content creation side going.

You’ve got the podcast, and said you’re going to be expanding. What’s this going to look like in six months?

We feel pretty good about the content creation part of this so far. We feel good about how Pod Save America went that first episode and that we can make a pretty good show. We’re not perfect, and we’re going to need advice, but we feel good about it. In the next few months we’d like to create new podcasts ourselves. Those could be under the banner of Pod Save America, but with different subject matter. We have different areas of interest that we want to dig into. In 2017, the cool thing is you don’t need a cable channel to stream video. You need Facebook Live and you need Periscope. We trying to figure out the best way to pull together that infrastructure and the best way to disseminate that video to create some sort of streaming show. I don’t know how long that process will take, but those are the sort of things we want to work on in the near-term in addition to recruiting new voices that are more diverse than us, that have different perspectives, that come from different places–mostly outside Washington–to not just talk about politics, but also a broader set of cultural issues as well. 

I imagine that it wasn’t a coincidence that your first two guests–Women’s March organizers, Tamika Mallory and Linda Sarsour–were women of color.

We wanted to talk to them because they’re planning this huge march. I don’t think people quite realize how big a deal that’s going to be, an we wanted to get a chance to talk to them about it before it happens. We’re acutely aware that we’re three white guys of similar political persuasion. Diversity is important to us, mostly because it would make our shows [and] our conversations better to have more inclusive views. That’s something we care a lot about an are going to work on. We weren’t a show that was cast; we were three buddies who happened to work together who decided to do this together.

The podcast debuted at No. 1 on iTunes. I know those analytics can be confusing, but do you have any idea about the size of your audience?

We feel really good about listens so far. We’re building back up from zero, and the number one ranking reflects that. We don’t have more listens than This American Life, but the velocity of the show rocketed us up. We will not stay there, but it still felt pretty damn good.

If Democrats win back the House in 2018, and Elizabeth Warren is our next president, are you guys still doing this in four years?

Who knows what this thing will look like in a year or two years or four years? That said, this is the most excited I’ve been since leaving the White House. I think there is a void that we’re trying to fill. I think that, in many ways, the Trump era is the perfect time to do this. This is what we’re excited about and want to be doing. 

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.