New kids Ari Melber, seen here with co-hosts Krystal Ball and Touré, is part of a new wave of young cable-news hosts who come from backgrounds other than news. Melber is a lawyer, Huntsman worked on political campaigns, and Touré was a music writer. (Charles Ommanney / MSNBC)
On a Wednesday afternoon in late July, during his regular show on MSNBC, Ari Melber gestured across the table at US senators Rand Paul and Cory Booker. Melber had scored two of cable news’ prized guests, and he was reveling in the topic at hand—the senators’ just-released bill on juvenile-justice reform.
Aware that he had just 12 minutes and 34 seconds for the interview, Melber fired away with precision wonkiness. “Senator Paul,” he began, “this bill would roll back part of the bipartisan ‘96 welfare law that President Clinton signed that was taking away food stamps and welfare benefits from some people who had committed offenses. Why do you do that, and what do you say to people who say that law struck the right balance?”
“Senator Booker,” he continued, “how we define the problem affects the approach we take. Do you think [our current system is] accidentally racist or explicitly so?”
Viewers trying to keep up at home might have paused to Google phrases like “pathway for expungement” or the finer details of Pell grants—one reason Melber was asked to run every question by his producers in a pre-show meeting was to make sure they weren’t more than daytime television could handle. “You tell me if this is a little wonky” was the meeting’s mantra.
In the screening session, Melber was so keen to talk about criminal-justice issues—safety-net provisions, the practice of solitary confinement, procedural inputs, background checks, the stigma around criminals—that when a producer hinted that he ask Paul whether he’d consider a black running mate if he runs for president, Melber shot her down. “It would be on 50 websites, but it would achieve zero informational value of any kind.” In fact, anything about the 2016 presidential run is off limits for him. “I want to be illuminating,” he says over and over. The news that day was full of speculation about the Malaysia Airlines flight shot down over Ukraine, and how NASA was using celebratory tweets to commemorate the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing—just the kind of white noise that Melber disdains.
When the senators abandoned their committee hearings to declare their devotion to God, Melber saw it as an act of pure symbolism.
He came to television less than two years ago from Cahill Gordon & Reindel where he was the right-hand man to Floyd Abrams, one of the country’s top First-Amendment lawyers. Since then, Melber has disrupted cable news’ regular rhythm of political speculation, rants, and breathless coverage with conversations about public policy and his own view of right and wrong. He approaches journalism as though he were working the courtroom, probing witnesses, circumventing circumventers, and pushing for resolution. His passion is criminal-justice reform, and he airs stories on the subject with tiresome regularity. But he’d rather do that than join the noise that surrounds him. “It doesn’t seem to me that my ideal role is trying to mimic something that is already out there,” says Melber. “If I spent so much time practicing law, it would seem that I would try to bring something in . . . to be part of the solution.”
Which explains how he has claimed the mantle of the anchor with the most policy-drenched show on cable television. What it doesn’t explain is how that has translated into ratings that are high and getting higher. If Melber was just another pretty face, that would be one thing. But he is also a crusading lawyer as determined to win arguments as to surface facts, and he’s got a growing audience that is patient enough to listen. His agenda journalism raises questions about the future of cable news, and the stars like Melber who are producing it. As a tenacious lawyer turned rookie journalist, is Melber emboldened by his passions or blinded by them? Does it matter to anyone that he’s not a journalist in the traditional mold? Are conventional journalists a fading commodity on cable news?
The executives at 30 Rock seem, at least for now, more infatuated with expertise earned outside the newsroom than in one, with Melber being only the most prominent example. In fact, none of his three co-anchors on The Cycle spent much time doing traditional journalism: Abby Huntsman worked on her father’s (Jon Huntsman) political campaign before joining MSNBC; Krystal Ball ran for office herself; Touré was a music critic.
MSNBC execs like the fact that Melber approaches his job with a mission. “He really cares about the nitty gritty of the policy we are talking about, and it is obvious he is about solving problems, not just scoring political points or having political blinders on,” says Greg Kordick, executive producer of The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. Phil Griffin, the president of MSNBC, agrees: “Ari is a triple threat: he’s a lawyer with a passion for issues of fairness and justice, he has a political background so he understands how Washington works, and he connects with viewers.”
The real problem, from Melber’s perspective, is the TV hosts who are more determined to make headlines than to dissect policy.
What they probably like even more are his ratings. The 34-year-old is on the network so much that J. Hogan Gidley, a GOP strategist who is often on panels with Melber, jokingly asks if the M in MSNBC stands for Melber. Besides co-hosting The Cycle, he frequently substitutes for network stars like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes. When Lawrence O’Donnell was injured in a car accident last spring, Melber sat in his chair for two and a half months.
When a legal issue arises, Melber is brought on air day and night to interpret. After the Supreme Court handed down the Hobby Lobby decision, for instance, he peddled a strong message on Morning Joe and in primetime: “Today’s Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby is more about capitalism than religion. It only adds new protections for business owners, not for most people.” According to Nielsen Media, Melber beat CNN on total viewers 94 percent of the time while filling in for O’Donnell. For his big Booker and Paul interview, his show’s ratings jumped 106 percent and reached an all-time high for that season. Ratings for The Cycle aren’t generally impressive, though—it rarely beats the other cable networks in its time slot. But it’s hard to tell how much of that to attribute to Melber, since he is one of four co-anchors and when he is on his own as a guest host, his numbers shoot up.
An exclusive sit-down with Attorney General Eric Holder showcased classic Melber. He asked Holder about whistleblower Edward Snowden, the legalization of marijuana, and the politics of fear in America. Melber nodded forcefully when his guest articulated Melber’s personal view on how to reform criminal justice: We have to have the “recognition that you can make a mistake, rehabilitate yourself, and come back and be a productive citizen,” Holder said.
Melber may be more iridescent than his co-hosts on The Cycle, but they all share a long, rectangular office. The desks are surrounded by racks of dresses and suits, and on the walls are sketches of cats, stick figures, and other indistinguishable Melber doodles created on air and passed to his co-hosts during commercial breaks. The average age of The Cyclists, as they are fondly known internally, is 34. They are supposed to be incubating on their way to future stardom, but they also represent a new approach to news—one that is designed to make a real difference. Rather than just educate their viewers, they encourage them to take action. And rather than ask guests about what is going on in the world, they ask what they are doing to solve it.
The Cyclists seem worlds away from the stoic political commentators of the past. During commercial breaks, when they aren’t playing Pictionary, they’re making fun of each other’s clothing. “Anecdotally, you see MSNBC experiment by bringing on younger hosts,” says Jesse Holcomb, a senior researcher in news media at the Pew Research Center. “And you can infer that this is one way they are trying to bring on a younger audience.”
A pretty face, once one of the most valuable traits in an anchor, is no longer enough. Broadcasters need people with actual knowledge of the subjects they are reporting. Frank Sesno, a longtime producer at CNN who now directs George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs, says, “People who have an expertise reflect that expertise on the air. They have an additional dimension besides just a nice personality.”
This “journalism of expertise” is an idea that extends beyond the broadcast studio. In 2012, the University of Colorado, Boulder, began requiring its journalism students to have a second major in something other than journalism. “One of the banners we are flying is the journalism of expertise,” says Christopher Braider, director of Boulder’s Journalism and Mass Communication program. “As important as it is to be a skillful journalist in the technical sense, its just as important to have the critical skills required for deep research and a real working knowledge of the areas you are reporting on.”
Lawrence O’Donnell agrees: “I think the worst thing you can possibly study in order to get a job in journalism is journalism, because you are presenting yourself to an audience with no expertise in anything. You are better off majoring in economics.”
This need for deep knowledge is even greater with the point-of-view journalism championed by cable news. If networks are going to encourage their broadcasters to have a voice, take a stand, and push an agenda, they need to find people qualified to do that.
That may or may not be a journalism school grad, but it definitely can work for a congressional aide-turned-campaign worker-turned-lawyer-turned-cable news host. Which is to say, Melber.
Melber’s passion for justice goes all the way back to his third-grade talent show in Seattle for which he wrote, directed, and starred in a play about prosecuting Exxon for an oil spill. There was a bailiff with a Super Soaker gun, an oil-drenched fish in a plastic bag, and a stern 9-year-old judge in a black robe. “I’ll let you decide if it’s dorky or cool, but it’s definitely weird,” said Melber of his early theatrics. “I had a big interest in the world and a desire to be on stage and in the middle of it.”
In high school he was elected class president on what he describes as a mildly nationalistic platform, and after graduation attended the University of Michigan. From there he went where many other political science majors go: Capitol Hill.
But soon after he started working for Senator Maria Cantwell, he discovered Congress is not the place to change the world. There was, to take but one example, the day when senators abandoned their committee hearings to declare their devotion to God, following a court ruling about the Pledge of Allegiance. Melber saw it as an act of pure symbolism, and he wanted results. He left for Iowa to join the John Kerry caucus: “I felt that at least campaigning with a finite goal and trying to change who would be in the White House could make a big difference.”
When Kerry lost 13 months later, Melber cried so hysterically he had to pull his car over on the drive home from election headquarters. Next, life took him to Cornell Law School, where Melber secured an internship at Manhattan’s Public Defender’s office, and wound his way into the First Amendment practice of legendary lawyer Floyd Abrams.
It was at the public defender’s office that Melber homed in on flaws in the criminal-justice system. Every morning he would go back to the arraignment area in the justice building where he saw a packed pen full of mostly black men waiting to meet him. “It’s not clean, it’s not nice, it doesn’t look that safe, and it’s not a way to treat human beings who are innocent until proven guilty,” said Melber.
Working for Abrams taught him the skills to be successful in law, but also in journalism. Says Abrams of his former employee: “Fact-gathering, clear writing, a narrow focus on what he is writing about. Ari is someone who would have been very successful if he stayed in law, but he is channeling that into becoming an extraordinary journalist.”
Melber was working on high-profile cases, and he was writing political columns for outlets like The Nation, The Atlantic, Reuters, and Politico. Then MSNBC asked him on as a guest host. And then asked him back again—and again. When the network finally approached him about a permanent move, Melber said yes without hesitation.
A journalist’s chance of having impact can be far greater than a lawyer’s. Pew Research Center says around 3 million people watch cable news nightly, which means an anchor can influence how a lot of people think about things without waiting for a once-in-a-lifetime, high-stakes case to come along. “In journalism, you have the opportunity to reach so many people with substantive arguments instantly,” says Melber. “Whether they respond or agree or anything happens is an open question, but that immediate access and impact is, to me, extraordinary.”
And at least in Melber’s case, his legal background can provide an edge in securing the big interview. One congressional aide, who asked to not be named, said politicians want to do sit-downs with reporters who they believe will focus on the issues and not on political gotchas. Eric Holder, Rand Paul, and Cory Booker all came to Melber because they know he has a track record of sticking to the issues he wants to talk about. Melber insists he won’t ask questions about the 2016 presidential race, for example.*
Fortunately for Melber and the rest of MSNBC’s wonky hosts, the audience is responding to this geekier coverage. “One of the things Rachel Maddow has proved is that there is a very big cable news audience for substantive, thoughtful analysis,” says Lawrence O’Donnell. “She is the ratings leader on MSNBC and no one goes deeper in their analysis than Rachel does.”
Maddow may be the empress of geek, but Melber seems a purer iteration of the type. Maddow, for example, starts with wonk but typically accelerates into animated gestures and fiery outbursts. Melber looks more like a lawyer trying to win a case. Every once in a while there’s a flare-up of passion, but he’s mostly about remaining rational and calm. That is not to say that Melber is incapable of stirring up a vibrant discussion among his guests. When he filled in for Chris Hayes just as Israel launched its ground invasion of Gaza, Melber brought on people representing a wide range of perspectives, from the president of J Street, a pro-Israel nonprofit, to a Palestinian-American legal scholar and the former US ambassador to Morocco. By the standards of cable news, the discussion was pretty tame. But the guests were animated and informative.
Melber may be among the most successful of the anchors who bypassed journalism, but he’s got company. In addition to his co-hosts, there’s Ronan Farrow, formerly an activist at UNICEF and an aide at the State Department, who hosts a show on MSNBC where he discusses things like female trafficking and how to take action against it. At Fox News, Megyn Kelly, one of the faster-rising news anchors in modern history, uses her expertise as a lawyer to push her pro-gay, pro-women, and (some argue) pro-white agenda.
Clearly, there are upsides to the expert mystique. But there are downsides as well, and experiments gone wrong. Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer’s turn at CNN failed miserably, and Chelsea Clinton’s tenure at NBC didn’t exactly end with a standing ovation. Farrow’s ratings are dwindling. A Salon article in June blamed Farrow’s inability to fit in with the traditional cable-news landscape: “The idealism that felt genuine in his advocacy work seems lamely Oprah-esque amid the hard-edged snark of cable news.” A more fundamental explanation is that being smart and in-the-know doesn’t always translate to good television.
Betsy West, a broadcast expert at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, points to Chuck Todd’s move to Meet the Press as evidence that viewers still want insiders with deep knowledge of their subject. “Chuck Todd has the feeling of someone who lives and breathes politics,” said West.
There is also an argument to be made that cable executives’ love affair with experts has the effect of minimizing the very idea of what it means to be a journalist. “When you are a reporter or a journalist, you are looking for truth wherever it lies,” says West. “You have to be careful that your connections and relationships don’t blind you to what is really going on.” In other words, the passion that drives Melber can be the kind that drives journalists to do bad work. Think Lara Logan during her Benghazi story; her allegiances to the military and her desire to believe in key people blinded her to the importance of asking essential questions.
From Melber’s perspective, passion isn’t the problem. Neither is the traditional journalist. There’s room for both, he thinks. The real problem is the politically charged rants and TV hosts who are more determined to make headlines than to dissect policy. Because rants still trump substance on most cable shows. Whether the public could eventually be wooed away from cable-news drama is still an open question, Melber’s ratings notwithstanding.
* An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that some of Melber’s interview subjects had reached agreements with him about what topics could be discussed in interviews, but no such ground rules were established for the interviews.