Regina de Heer: What do you think is the most annoying, overused term in the political conversation today?
Platnum: I'm not really into politics, friend.
Tess: All lives matter.
Ryan: I feel like both the terms pro-life and pro-choice have become super politicized. If somebody was actually pro-life, they'd be also interested in the well-being of the child after they're born, like paid parental leave, health care, and stuff.
Miriam: "Karen," people just throw it around when it actually was meant to describe a very particular type of white woman, and now people just use it for anything.
Angelica: Cancel culture or being canceled. There's no nuance, it moves the focus from the victim who's suffered this terrible thing.
Saylah: I guess the word facts because nowadays people twist the truth and redefine what a fact is. How are you supposed to know what's actually true or not.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. Tonight, we're going to talk about how we find that elusive truth together, and really more than that, how we exchange ideas. President Biden will deliver his State of the Union address this week. I suspect he'll repeat an argument that seems to have become the principle of his public life, that the world is locked in a fight between autocracy and democracy. Certainly, this weekend that fight is a literal one in Ukraine.
One basic assumption of democracy is that any society can hash out its differences without violence, using words and thoughts and debate. I don't think I'm making any bold statements. When I say that, feels like a near impossibility in United States lately. There are many structural problems in our democracy. It's never been designed for full participation actually, or even majority rule, but even if we fix those design issues, there's still this other fundamental challenge, the difficulty of having productive public discourse. Even among those who largely agree, it's often hard to get past the signifying, and the throwing around of meaningless stock phrases like you heard at the top of the show, which then leads a lot of people to just opt out of the debate altogether.
How do we do better? Has it always been this challenging to have meaningful political dialogue, and not just about partisan politics, but about how we choose to live together and share opportunity, and in actually diverse society? These are genuine questions for me, and so I am turning to the one person I know who has in fact, facilitated meaningful public dialogue between a wildly diverse group of people for decades.
Brian Lehrer has been hosting his daily calling show on WNYC for more than 30 years. He talks with presidential candidates and high school debate teams, Hollywood stars, and New York City taxi drivers. Of course, with his kaleidoscope of listeners, including I suspect, many of you who listen and call into this show, conservative, progressive, apolitical, the whole range routinely joins the conversation and in good faith. We're going to talk to Brian about what he's learned over all those years. Brian, thanks for coming on, sir.
Brian Lehrer: Well, Kai, I'm really honored that you would have me on your show. It is so great to have you being the other live talk show host on the station, the one who does the weekends. I love your show, and I'm honored that you have me on.
Kai Wright: Oh, thank you, Brian. I don't think-- maybe listeners don't know the origin of your show. It began at a big turning point in media and public radio in general, what was happening in the late 1980s, that at least in part led to your show?
Brian Lehrer: Well, let me go back even a little bit further than that and talk about the Fairness Doctrine. I don't know that you've said that term yet, but that's the context I think out of which my show was born. The Fairness Doctrine born in 1949, died 1987 was a creature of a very different era in media. It was a time when the main issue that affected whose voice could be heard was scarcity.
Today, of course, there's an unlimited number of websites or podcasts or whatever, on social media that people choose to create, which of course presents its own problems, but from the advent of radio like 100 years ago, and until maybe cable TV came in 1970s, 1980s, there were only a few radio and TV frequencies in each market, and they were dominant in news and information. They were privately owned by a small handful of wealthy white men or corporations primarily. What would society's response to that be? Well, part of that response from the federal government was the Fairness Doctrine which basically said, "Stations that had the privilege of these licenses to broadcast had to include some public affairs and had to include multiple points of view."
Eventually, the Fairness Doctrine had become a target of the political right. There's an old saying, Kai, maybe you know this one, that the right and the left both hate the liberal establishment. The right hates it because it's liberal and the left hates it because it's the establishment. You could say that the old big three broadcast networks that dominated national news for a long time were part of a "liberal establishment," the Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley broadcast era, we could call it, but some individual owners of radio and TV stations around the country were more conservative, a lot of them probably were and they wanted the same rights as newspaper owners had to make their stations reflect their own points of view. Like Hearst, or name any of the newspaper models.
Kai Wright: Because the doctrine did not apply to those newspapers.
Brian Lehrer: Exactly. Those are going to be, by and large, conservative points of view from these dissatisfied owners. Long story short, they eventually got their guy in the White House, Ronald Reagan. Reagan used his executive power to abolish the Fairness Doctrine, that requirement for multiple points of view in response times to the station's own editorials. Congress actually then passed a law to reinstate it, but Reagan vetoed it. Congress didn't have enough votes to override, so the Fairness Doctrine died. That was 1987. The next year, guess what happened? Rush Limbaugh went national and was instantly huge.
Kai Wright: It was literally the year after the doctrine was gone.
Brian Lehrer: Yes. Stations around the country then built around him, and the juggernaut of American conservative talk radio, as we know it, was born 24/7 no fairness required. The end of the story as it pertains to me was, nobody said to me in 1989 "We're hiring you because the Fairness Doctrine went away." It was a little more downstream than that. It was like, talk radio has become a really big thing on commercial radio in this country with all the excesses of the profit motive, leading toward the most jagged opinions and the ones that would support profits. We'd like to try a public radio version of it that's rooted in public service and actually try to foster dialogue and thoughtfulness and listening, as well as talking. The show that they then created and went out and audition host for and I got it was born.
Kai Wright: Yes, Brian Lehrer had to audition just like everybody else. I was going to ask you what impact you thought the end of the Fairness Doctrine had on our political conversation, but I'm guessing from what you just said, the main impact is it led to this eruption and conservative talk radio. Is that what you would say?
Brian Lehrer: Yes.
Kai Wright: What else came from that? I guess part of the question is that, was that an absence of the rule that led to that explosion, or was that a reflection of market demand for it?
Brian Lehrer: I guess it was both. If you ask me if I think the Fairness Doctrine made a difference, probably more in what it prevented than what it did. It prevented the rabid hyperpolarized juggernaut that came afterwards from taking root until it was repealed, but I'd add that it didn't do much. I think it didn't do much to actually diversify the opinions that people heard very much. Stations could give a little platform to somebody who officially had a different point of view, but overwhelmingly, they were also white, probably male, represented an organized interests that was known to the station owner.
The real problem, then as now, I think was who owns powerful news media, and how diverse that club is not. Meaningful differences in actually serving diverse audiences would tend to flow from diverse ownership you would think not just wealthy white male owners or corporations offering some recorded responses of airtime here and there to satisfy the Fairness Doctrine, which is mostly what I think happened under it.
Kai Wright: I guess if it didn't go away, it probably would have been an irrelevant rule ultimately anyway because it didn't apply to the internet or cable TV.
Brian Lehrer: Absolutely. That's right. When cable came in, you already saw all kinds of FCC rules, Federal Communications Commission, that branch of the federal government rules, not apply. Obscenity was another one, so there were shows that could use those words that were not permitted on stations like ours. There could be more opinionated news channels that sprung up. Certainly, Fox News grew out of that, it didn't take the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine for Fox News to be born because it was on cable.
Kai Wright: Well, so the history of the Brian Lehrer Show is in reaction, at least part to this Fairness Doctrine to the absence of the Fairness Doctrine and to this growth in conservative media on one-sided media on the radio. Why a call-in show? I get the question often actually, myself because this show didn't used to be a call-in show. It started off as a documentary show and people have asked me, "Well, why'd you make that switch? Why do you care? What do 'random' people have to say on the radio? For you, what is the reason for a call-in show in the context of the history that you just gave?
Brian Lehrer: Well, the sedation was creating it as a call-in show before they started auditioning hosts. There was that just structurally, but for myself, I came of age hearing call-in radio as a model when I was a teenager. The late WNYC host Steve Post when he was on WBAI taking calls was an early model for me, some listeners, if they're old enough remember Steve Post. He did this overnight call-in show. When I was in high school is when I discovered it. So is Larry King when he had an overnight National call-in radio show before he went on TV on CNN. I heard those as a teenager, those shows, and college student and on those shows, I guess I heard two things that I could call up now that made me want to do talk radio as a call-in show.
On a personal level, I heard people different from me who picked my curiosity and just made me want to talk to whoever came in over the transom. I liked having conversations with people always and so it seemed like, wow, this is-- and I like to travel and meet people. There was a way that was a little version of that on the radio and on a democracy level it seemed like the voice of the people and I could facilitate it. Now we have social media where lots of people have a say, so we have different streams of public input, but the phones are still where we hear the human voice and it feels very connecting.
Kai Wright: I'm talking with Brian Lehrer about the lessons he's learned in 30 years of trying to foster a productive public conversation of the sort that is both essential to democracy and feels nearly impossible right now. Listeners, our phones will be open all hour. What entices you to join a touchy conversation about politics or our society? 212-433-WNYC, that's 212-433-9692 or if you've just got a question for Brian about his work leading us through tough conversations now is your chance. 212-433-WNYC or tweet us at the #USofAnxiety, we'll take your calls and talk more with Brian Lehrer after break, stay with us.
Kousha: Hey everyone. This is Kousha, I'm a producer. Last week, we talked to data journalist Mona Chalabi about the nuance and challenges some people face when identifying their own race. Mona described the collective need for good data about communities of color, but also what gets in the way of finding that data. Here's one listener for whom that's a real problem.
Pamala Buzick Kim: Hi, Kai, just wanted to say thank you so much for your episode. I needed to hear it because we are over here banging our heads at the nonprofit FREE THE WORK. My name is Pamala Buzick Kim, I'm the executive director. We advocate for creators behind the camera and to advocate you do need data and you do need to prove your case other than just hearts and minds and prayers and thoughts because they always say you can't change what you can't measure.
We needed to understand who is on production sets. We actually created a product, a form that's meant to break the binary and be inclusive to everybody because we do find that the majority is not opting in. Some folks are definitely still concerned about privacy. We are seeing some of the same situations that Mona is already suspecting and mentioning. For us to understand what's needed, we need to take in all of this information data. Just ultimately want to say, thanks so much for the episode. We appreciate you. Cheers.
Kousha: Thanks, Pamala and to everyone who sent us something so far. We're planning to do a segment with these messages soon, so if you've got something to say, go listen to the episode and send us a voicemail. You still have time. Record yourself and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, that's email@example.com. Thanks. Talk to you soon.
Kai Wright: Brian, let's go right to the phones because as you probably would've guessed, there are a great many callers. Kathleen in Beacon, New York. Welcome to the show.
Kathleen: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I became a stay-at-home mom in 1990 and it was my mom who's suggested, why don't you turn on WNYC, they have great program and it'll help you keep your brain active. I've been listening ever since. It's amazing that we learned now that without a common understanding of fact and from reality to non-reality, there's no possibility of having great conversations and meaningful conversations. That's what you, Brian, have added to my life since my daughter was born in 1990. I just think you are a wonderful asset to-- I know that I have it right if I heard it out of your show. I just so appreciate that.
Brian Lehrer: That's very kind and Kathleen, we really appreciate it.
Kai Wright: Let's go to William in Bushwick, Brooklyn. William, welcome to the show.
William: Hello. How are you doing?
Kai Wright: Very good.
William: I was telling your screener, I've always been involved in political conversation as an artist. Starting in the beginning of COVID I started doing all my artwork based upon the fight against democracy in Hong Kong. I just opened a show two weeks ago at SFA project at 131 Chrystie Street on the lower east side called War is Peace. the roadmap through 1984 because George Orwell was talking about Newspeak then and Newspeak is what we have been fighting in political discourse forever. Putin right now is saying he's trying to keep the Nazi Jews from taking over his country, there in Ukraine, everybody's talking about the freedom caucus. Now that's a complete bit of Newspeak. I've got four artists who are dealing with this subject who have always dealt with this subject, and it's on view, you can see it, you can taste it, you can feel it.
Kai Wright: Thank you for that, William, we will go check it out, but on this question of Newspeak, that's something I wanted to ask you about too, Brian. When we think about people who engage in these conversations in bad faith, and what do we do about that? That's been to me one of the most frustrating parts of the Trump era. It seems like just this explosion in political players who are shameless in their efforts to devolve our public conversation. William is saying that's not new, but do you feel like it's new, or you agree with William that, yes, this has just always been part of it.
Brian Lehrer: William and I'm thinking about the first caller from Beacon who you set up a conversation about people with difference being able to talk to each other. She called in to say, she finds the facts reliable. I think that what we certainly have seen over the years is a tilt toward the importance of doing that. We don't want to present lies or false equivalencies or hate as equivalent to an exchange of opinions and competing ideas. Where do we draw the line is always a question that we have to grapple with because there's not a bright line. There's sometimes a gray area where we have to figure out if something by our lights should be in or out of the conversation at all.
Certainly, the Trump era amped up that calculus to a new level where I felt unhappily that I had to draw a line on the show that some of the things he was espousing like a Muslim band or calling Africa and other places asshole countries, and just the sheer number of post-truth lies. Newspeak, George Orwell, that he told with a straight face, we couldn't just debate Democratic and Republican positions anymore.
We had to tilt more toward calling out lies and doing fact-checker kinds of truth-telling and calling hate by its name and yet almost half the voters chose Trump in both his election campaigns. Did I want to ban the views of 47% or something of the people? We work all the time to find that space that maximizes honest disagreements about policy, but doesn't give oxygen to disinformation.
Kai Wright: Yes. When you say that it reminds me of when we launched this show five years ago as a podcast, and I don't know if you recall, we had a live event out in Suffolk County, Long Island where we were reporting on the campaign that you hosted for us.
Brian Lehrer: That's right.
Kai Wright: We invited a Trump campaign surrogate to the show. It kind of went off the rails. He trolled the conversation, and we struggled to even get off the stage afterwards. There was a man that came up to me from the audience who was an immigrant and said my Anxiety, referring to our name of our show, "My anxiety was fine until I came to this event and listen to this man you've put on stage, I wish you hadn't done that." I couldn't disagree with him, but I also just didn't know what to do with it. I guess you're wrestling with that literally every day.
Brian Lehrer: Every day, because I do get some degree of complaint for even having people as guests who some listeners strongly disagree with or consider just trolling as you use that word. These days, the phrase says, "Why are you platforming that person?" People used to just say, "Why are you giving them airtime," and that's as old as the show. I think platforming is a good word because it's got an edge that means something. If my show has a power to spread the word about things that people say on it, I either give it a platform, or I don't. That is a decision that everybody who works in media needs to keep making, even what topics do we cover? What questions do we ask before we even figure out who the different points of view guests are to represent it?
Kai Wright: Let's go to Frank in New Jersey. Frank, welcome to the show.
Frank: Hi, thanks for taking the call.
Kai Wright: Thanks for calling. Do you have either a question for Brian or can you tell me what entices you to join difficult conversations that many of us are trying to avoid these days?
Frank: Yes, as I was telling your screener, I used to be really enticed to just engage people and try to help to change minds about things that I feel strongly about, but after the 2016 election in the Trump era, I feel like my will to do that has been stifled and stepped on to the point where I don't even care anymore. I wonder where you and Brian, who I think are doing such great work, continue to get that will when it feels like you're talking to people who don't want to hear anything that's reasonable and don't care about fact or truth?
Kai Wright: That's a great question, Frank. Brian, what do you think? Where do you get that will?
Brian Lehrer: It's funny. I'm not even sure that it's true in the media that it's harder to have constructive dialogues. I think it's a matter of choices that media companies make. I know it is true in people's personal lives, and I think that's what Frank is reflecting. It's harder to have those conversations in your personal life now. I've done a segment around Thanksgiving many years about, how are you going to handle your blankety-blank-loving uncle?
Of course, the word Trump fills in that blank these days for lots of folks, but in the past, let's say the post 9/11 Gulf War era, so did the word Bush. Remember how polarizing even the election of Bush was in 2000, and people started calling him the resident of the United States instead of President because they didn't consider him legitimately elected after the Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount. In the professional media, I think it's a matter of choice. They can set up dialogues and conversation about commonalities or at least places where people listen to each other. Why not?
Kai Wright: Let's go to Matt in Tuckahoe, New York. Matt, welcome to the show.
Matt: Hi, there, Brian?
Brian Lehrer: Hello.
Matt: I've been listening to you so since the very beginning. Here's a little trivia question for Kai Wright. What was the name of Brian's show at the beginning?
Kai Wright: Oh, well, I'm a bit of a rigger because my producer worked on it. On the Line, I believe.
Matt: Yes, On the Line. How many hours was it on for?
Kai Wright: Oh, that's a good question. Can I call it a helpline? Our Executive Producer, Karen Frillman, worked on that show.
Brian Lehrer: You really go back Matt because it was only like the first year of the show, 1989 to 1990-ish, that it was a three-hour show.
Matt: It was a three-hour show.
Brian Lehrer: It was 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM. I had one producer and me, and it was just too much. We knew going in it was too much, but neither of us wanted to reject the jobs we were being offered.
Matt: Those were the glory days, Brian, because you would open the show at 10:00 and you would say, "Our topic today is going to be the Reagan tax cuts and how it will affect blah, blah, blah," and you would be able to spend the entire hour.
Brian Lehrer: We were post-Reagan [unintelligible 00:25:29], but go ahead.
Matt: Whatever topic came up, you'd able to spend the entire hour, and that was the existences of today's media landscape [unintelligible 00:25:40]. We don't want to overwork you and your staff, but you've talked about some of the topics I wanted to bring up but I just wanted to get the chance to say hi. I had a child the same time you had your first son, we've had sons at the same time. My family jokes that the first voices my sons have heard or obviously their mothers and mine and the doctors in the hospital but after that my son's learned to speak by listening to Brian Lehrer, and Leonard Lopate, so to speak, the programs on WNYC taught my children how to speak.
Brian Lehrer: That's very sweet.
Matt: I called in to talk about how the difficulty is to foster conversations between right and left, you do a great job. Honestly, sometimes I think you go too far and give leeway too much a little bit to the right side, but maybe that's betraying where I stand on the ledger, but anyway, that's his job, and keep it up.
Kai Wright: Thank you so much, Matt, we're going to let you go because we've got a bunch of callers I just want to get to. Let's go to Teresa in Jackson Heights.
Teresa: Brian, I listened as often as I can. I find your show so enlightening. I'm a bit nervous and upset and worried right now about the state of the world, which I'm sure many of your listeners are. What I'm really concerned about is the lack of truth. In this midterm election, if we lose Congress-- I mean lose because I am on the left, if it has Republican control, I am so concerned about truth not being relevant anymore. When I listened to Marjorie Taylor Greene, I'm so concerned that what might become popular could really be the end of democracy here.
Kai Wright: Well, thank you, Teresa. Brian, do you want to respond?
Brian Lehrer: I wish I had an answer to that. We have to keep covering it and calling out the difference between difference of opinion and destruction of democracy. I think that's one of the reasons that the Ukraine story snuck up on us here in this country. We've had all these other things to think about. Certainly with COVID, and January 6th, and racial justice and Build Back Better, and in New York, the change of mayor and governor, whatever happened between Russia and Ukraine felt really remote and not much of our business anyway. Maybe I and other people in this country should have covered it more in the earlier stages, but I think many longtime Putin watchers even thought maybe he would see some land in eastern Ukraine, but not go all the way to Kyiv, but now here we are with this epic atrocity thrown in our faces.
Suddenly, Americans care, how could we not? It's got this echo of what could happen here. Ironically, I think it was part of the concern of our caller, and of so many people to focus on our democracy and calling out not just differences of opinion, but waves that people were setting up to try to, "legally steal elections in the coming years" that had us pretty laser-focused.
Kai Wright: Speaking of things we've had to be laser-focused on, I wonder, were you surprised by how difficult the public conversation over COVID got or has gotten? At least locally, it started off as the shared experience, but at this point is very much one of those things that many of us just weighed very carefully into with strangers. Masks, vaccines, all the rest, do you think that turn to it becoming a difficult thing was avoidable, and did it surprise you?
Brian Lehrer: I do wonder if it would've been avoided if we had a different president and I don't want to make everything about Donald Trump, but it seemed to me that the public was probably ready to do the shutting down that they were doing in some other countries to try to get COVID off our backs pretty quickly. Maybe that was always fantasy, and that was just too heavy, a lift in this country with people's assumption of freedom of individual action but Trump started with the disinformation right away because it was also his election year and he saw a key to his reelection being the relatively booming economy.
Because it was going to be an economic shutdown, he was going to tell any lie about hydro chloroquine or anything else to try to convince economically leaders and government leaders nationally, and at the state level that they didn't have to shut down so he could run on economic success. I think because of the polarized environment that existed before COVID, he was able to feed into this idea that it was hoax when he was the one who was perpetrating the hoax.
Kai Wright: Yes, but the whole conversation has really become almost a case study, and the thing we're talking about here, just our ability to have productive public discourse. Maybe we can just blame it all on Trump and the partisan divide there but I guess then the positive version of that question is in your experience, because you've had many, many, many, many conversations about COVID obviously on your show over the last couple of years, you've had enormous experience with trying to get people to talk to each other in a fact-based way about it. What are the tricks of the trade on this? Have you learned anything in it about, this is what works to actually get us into a productive conversation on something like this?
Brian Lehrer: Well, I think the things that work to get us into a productive conversation about COVID are similar to the things that work to get us into a productive conversation about anything, assume other people's humanity, don't ridicule or mock them, host with restraint. Don't make it all about me. Say out loud that it's okay to disagree and okay to be ambivalent.
Sometimes we have explicit call-ins of ambivalence, just so there's one place in the media that's not a cult of certainty, but Kai, I'll even relate this back to our earlier conversation about the Fairness Doctrine because I think the story of the demise of the Fairness Doctrine, like COVID, shows the public's changing relationship with government over the years because when the Fairness Doctrine was passed in the 1940s, the premise was that government could be an arbiter of fairness over corporate greed and most people accepted that.
Then what Reagan tapped into and tried to maximize was an alternative belief that government is not to be trusted. He said, the saying that the biggest lie in the world was high I'm from the government and here to help. That was a big Reaganism and it was really very cynical in my opinion, to promote that view in our democracy. When you think about it, the Reagan mystique was based on a fundamental contradiction. He opposed Soviet communism and called it the evil empire because it threatened democracy but our democratically elected government was an evil empire too, as far as he was concerned. That led to the demise of the Fairness Doctrine or contributed to it and I think that politician generated declining trust in government helped lead to the divisions over COVID as well.
Kai Wright: Politician generated declining trust in government. There is the phrase to hold. I'm talking with Brian Lehrer about the lessons he's learned in 30 years of trying to foster a productive public conversation of the sort that is both essential to democracy, and sadly feels nearly impossible right now. We'll take a break and when we come back, we'll talk about how political leaders do and maybe do not shape the nature of political discourse a little more. How are Joe Biden and Eric Adams changing the way we talk to each other? Stay with us.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. This is the United States of Anxiety. I am Kai Wright and I'm joined this week by WNYC zone, Brian Lehrer. We're talking about what he's learned in 30 plus years of trying to foster a productive public dialogue and we're taking your calls. If you've got a question for Brian, please chime in but also I want to know what entices you to join a touchy conversation about politics or about our society in general. I haven't been hearing many answers to that. I'm hoping we can get some of those in the last part of the show here and let's go to Mary Katherine in Estoria. Welcome to the show.
Mary Katherine: Hi, thank you. I love your shows. Both of you and Brian, I've been a huge listener of yours for years and years and years. My kids also, I heard the call earlier saying his kids grew up on Brian Lehrer show my kids I scheduled their whole day around the different songs to begin their day and have lunchtime when Brian Lehrer is done and so on. I just wanted to ask you, Brian, I noticed that you often have women experts in their field on as the guests for whatever topic is being discussed, whether politics or I noticed you have a lot of COVID experts for the past couple of years.
I noticed that you seem to elevate women's voices a lot, and it really makes this dynamic conversation because it forces people in the public to interact with women in a way as experts. Some people are not as willing to accept that. I was wondering if you did that as a choice or I'm sure everybody's who you have on is incredible, but I wondered if you made that choice. I noticed that also sometimes men will call in and they will put down your guests a little bit and you're always cooked to shut that down and it's beautiful to hear but I've always wondered about that.
Brian Lehrer: Well, thank you for the nice words. Yes, there is a lot of intentionality to that. We're always figuring out who the best person would be for a particular slot and demographics enters into it and I have to be open about the fact that I am a white male host and that's a starting point. If we want diverse backgrounds represented on the show, whether that's by race, by gender, or by anything else, we build around the fact that, yes, okay, I'm there as a white male starting out and any other demographic you might want to ascribe to me. Then we do try to reach out to make sure that there are people not like me in the conversation. Another thing that I've always tried to do with women guests in particular from early on is make sure to call them by their titles, by their honorifics.
Because I think that there was probably less now, but 30 years ago and we started, probably more of a tendency to be familiar with women and feel like women were more going to be your friends in a public conversation and men were going to more be the authority figures. The women coming on also had doctorates and were in Congress or the state legislature or something. Instead of calling somebody, Mary Katherine, your name I would always make sure to call them professor so and so or Congress member so and so as just a little contribution to leveling the playing field.
Kai Wright: Brian, it makes me think about a conversation we had when I first started hosting call-ins and I had anxiety about the fact that not everyone enters these conversations on equal footing. If you have somebody of a particular political viewpoint who doesn't believe, say in the right of gay people to get married and I'm supposed to debate that with them, I'm debating my rights, my own humanity. I had anxiety about that, about how do we host these conversations when not everybody shows up equally safe. You help me think that through a little bit, and I just want to put it to you now alive on the radio. It sounds like it's similar to what you're saying there. How do you hold that reality as you host these conversations?
Brian Lehrer: Well, I also have to recognize my privilege in the very stance that I have toward doing my show. I mentioned before, growing up, listening to talk radio as a teenager, I realized that I was curious about other voices, people who are not like me, but there's a certain observer status to that. There's a certain assumption of my own comfort. Again, being white and male and middle class, my parents weren't rich. They were both the first people in their immigrant families to go to college but I never had to worry if I was going to have a roof over my head or a meal on my plate and so that gave me a certain privilege to be interested in finding out what everybody else thought and wanting to be a facilitator in that respect.
There are other people who come to journalism or to talk radio or to anything in the media from that standpoint of my group needs to have their story told and I think that's a little of what you were just referring to. The starting point is different. I think the media needs both and that those who are coming from, by definition, marginalized groups who were marginalized from having those roles but that's another thing that I try to be aware of.
Kai Wright: Let's go to Stephanie in Forest Hills. Stephanie, welcome to the show.
Stephanie: Hi. Thanks so much for taking my call. Brian, I'm a really big fan and I've been listening for a long time. I listen to you almost every day throughout my early 20s, since I was working in a homeless outreach job. I feel so much of how I listen to you, engage callers, it's a really big part of how I think about doing my work. I'm a social worker now and I'm really curious. I still listen to your show at time. I still think that that's really true. I'm curious if there are some guiding principles or philosophies that allow you to create so much space and also just have so much acceptance for the callers that call into your show. I'm really curious about where that comes from in your work.
Brian Lehrer: It comes from my parents. It comes from the way I was brought up, for sure. It comes from being disgusted by seeing other people not treat other people well. If I had a early political awareness, certainly had to do with, again, even though I was white, I was interested in the civil rights movement in the 60s when I was coming up as a kid and as a teenager anyway, and other kinds of politics that seem to not be rooted in love. If I was going to disagree with somebody, the first thing I was going to try to do was recognize their humanity. I think a sense of morality and personal responsibility also comes with restraint and ability to exercise restraint. I think I used that word before so that's maybe a partial answer to your question.
Kai Wright: That's moving, Brian. Before the break, we were talking about the way that President Trump impacted the public conversation. Let's talk about some other elected officials. What about President Biden? He's going to deliver his state of the union later this week. Do you think he has changed the nature of public discourse over the past year? I want to be clear. I don't mean has he unified the country or not, which is everybody wants to ask him that, but I mean just the nature of discourse. What if any impact has he had, do you think?
Brian Lehrer: I think that's a multi-layered question. I think that on the one hand we just have to acknowledge that he's not Donald Trump and he is not out there throwing daggers into the public discourse all the time, polarizing in pursuit of political gain. On the other hand, I think Biden set himself up as this great unifier, even if some of it was fantasy because ultimately he has to do something as president.
He was elected to do something and it's been hard enough for him to get his agenda through. He was going to be the new FDR and Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema had a lot to say about that but at the same time for somebody who was the working class Joe, who was going to be able to appeal to a lot of Trump voters who didn't find resonance in Hillary Clinton or Bill Clinton, or maybe Barack Obama, I don't know that he's done it. I don't know that he has reached out in ways that say I get it to people who didn't vote for him as well as he might do one on one with people.
Kai Wright: Do you think Obama, Clinton, those folk, do you think they did do that?
Brian Lehrer: I think it's really hard because I think Clinton ran on that. How many times are we going to go through this cycle of the Republican?
Kai Wright: Democrats always ran on this.
Brian Lehrer: That's right. The cycle, Republicans going further to the right than they went before, we talked about Reagan earlier, so that was certainly a case of that and how did a Democrat get elected? Not by going further to the left, but rather by rejecting the liberalism of Walter Mondale and George McGovern and Clinton running as the so-called new Democrat. He did manage to get himself elected. I think a lot of white working class people who might otherwise be Republican voters did identify with Clinton enough that he got reelected. Obama got reelected too. There was a time in 2008 when there were a lot of centrist independence who really had a tough time choosing between John McCain, who was a Maverick in his party, and Barack Obama, who they saw as an eminently reasonable guy, I think partly because they saw him as an acceptable Black person.
Kai Wright: It seems like a whole another universe.
Brian Lehrer: A whole another universe and he did lose so many of those people eventually. It's hard.
Kai Wright: It's hard. We're getting short on time here, but I have to ask you about Eric Adams also Mayor Adams in the minute we've got. What impact do you think he's having on a public conversation a little bit?
Brian Lehrer: I'll throw in one promo, because I can't resist tomorrow morning we're going to have Garry Kasparov the chess master and very prominent Russian dissident who's going to connect a lot of these themes about democracy and Putin and democracy in this country. Garry Kasparov at ten o'clock tomorrow and Eric Adams, we could start a whole conversation here that we don't have time for, but coming from the Black working class in New York and having a mix of what we might consider progressive and conservative policy views that scramble everybody's brains, especially white people's brains from what they think is expected.
Kai Wright: Brian Lehrer has been taking your calls live five days a week for 30-plus years. He will be there tomorrow more at 10:00 AM as always with a fascinating show. It sounds like I'm going to tune in. Brian, thank you so much for this time.
Brian Lehrer: Thank you for having me, Kai. Pleasure and honor.
Kai Wright: Thanks to all who called in. If we didn't get to you, feel free to still chime in record a voice memo on your smartphone and email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I in particular, want to hear what entices you to join a difficult conversation. We didn't get a lot of those calls. If you got a thought, send it to me. This is United States of Anxiety. You can subscribe to us wherever you get your podcast, or you can check us out at wnyc.org/anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. You can find me on Twitter at Kai_Wright or you can find me right here next Sunday evening. Thanks for spending this time with us.
Kai Wright: United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band mixing by Jared Paul, Matthew Miranda was at the boards for the live show. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillman, and Kousha Navidar, and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter at Kai_ Wright. Of course, you can find me for the live show next Sunday, 6:00 PM Eastern. Stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC. Till then, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves.
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