Nick Nehamas: We should have looked more closely at how easy it was for him in Florida. You can win a statewide election in Florida without shaking a single hand outside of a back room.
Brooke Gladstone: Ron DeSantis was hyped by the national media, despite red flags in his home state. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: I'm Micah Loewinger. Opponents of Donald Trump are hoping his run for office will be stymied by the 91 indictments he's facing but--
Dahlia Lithwick: None of this matters to him. It's just an opportunity to be on CNN one more night of the week. He is very good at winning for losing.
Brooke Gladstone: Plus, a new TV show puts public radio under a satiric lens.
Lauren: My post-show kombucha isn't just a treat. It's a prescription-strength blend of yeast and bacteria cultures.
Fabian: The only cultures you seem to respect.
Micah Loewinger: It's all coming up after this. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm Brooke Gladstone. On January 16th, Donald Trump won the Iowa caucus by a 30-point margin over rivals Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis. Then--
News clip: Florida governor Ron DeSantis has just announced that he is no longer running for president.
News clip: It is now a two-person race.
Brooke Gladstone: Trump took New Hampshire handily, seemingly clearing the path of any obstacles to his party's nomination. DeSantis once considered a formidable and well-financed challenger to Trump, flamed out after just one primary race in a campaign that gave the political press a lot to work with. From the laugh-
Brooke Gladstone: -to the boots-
News clip: A number of people have been claiming he wore special big-boy boots to make him taller.
Brooke Gladstone: -to the alleged pudding incident-
News clip: During a private plane flight four years ago, DeSantis enjoyed a chocolate pudding dessert by eating it with three of his fingers. [chuckles]
Brooke Gladstone: -and his campaign kerfuffles.
News clip: He's raised a lot of money. He's burning through a lot of money.
News clip: DeSantis spent $1.5 million on a private jet in the first six weeks of the campaign.
Brooke Gladstone: Then, on the way out, splatted by one of his spiritual leaders, trademark loogies.
Donald Trump: On the sanctimonious, as you know I got him elected, but now he's a failed candidate. He failed. He went down like an injured bird out of the sky.
Brooke Gladstone: It took just a few short months for DeSantis to go from a right-wing darling to a laughingstock.
Micah Loewinger: DeSantis was, in many ways, a creature of the media, and the arc of his campaign offers lessons about how to cover elections.
Nick Nehamas: Fox News made him a star.
Micah Loewinger: Nick Nehamas is a politics reporter for the New York Times where he covered the DeSantis campaign. Before that, he worked at the Miami Herald.
Nick Nehamas: He earned Trump's endorsement in 2018 because he was on Fox News so much.
Micah Loewinger: DeSantis got a bump from the Murdoch-owned New York Post and Fox News at a time when the family business was down on Trump, whose January 6 lies had ensnared them in the Smartmatic defamation case. The moment that DeSantis went from governor of the Sunshine State to a media-approved contender for 2024 was the day he won reelection, November 8th, 2022.
Mary Ellen Klas: DeSantis, he's seen as the GOP front-runner for 2024. Check out this New York Post headline front page calling him the future.
Micah Loewinger: According to Nick Nehamas, DeSantis' big 19-point victory was not all it was chalked up to be.
Nick Nehamas: Because of the way elections are run in Florida, because of the way that you can just use money and TV to win elections, because of the way that the Florida Democratic Party was in shambles for so many years that it could barely mount a candidate against him. The media could have done a better job exposing that before the fact.
Micah Loewinger: As other Florida journalists have observed, there were more signs he wouldn't cut it on the national stage.
Mary Ellen Klas: Florida reporters picked up on something really odd with him at first, and that was that he could not do eye contact with anybody.
Micah Loewinger: Mary Ellen Klas is an opinion writer at Bloomberg and a former Capital Bureau Chief for the Miami Herald, one of many news outlets that DeSantis routinely dodged.
Mary Ellen Klas: I would tell his staff, for example, steel sharpen steel. If you want your guy to get better, he's got to be able to subject himself to difficult questions but they just could never convince him of that. Ron DeSantis took the idea of fake news and the idea that you shouldn't be talking to the media, literally. He tried to avoid the media, and that worked to his disadvantage enormously.
Micah Loewinger: Whether he earned it or not, DeSantis was elevated by the election media machine, hungry for its usual diet of horse race narratives, shorthand zingers, and a more compelling election storyline than a simple, and let's be honest, dreaded Biden-Trump rematch.
News clip: Ron DeSantis is on the front of Time magazine at the moment and the picture is of him peeling an orange.
News clip: I think when people see DeSantis, it's Trump Lite.
News clip: DeSantis is Trump without the baggage or DeSantis is Trump without the crazy.
News clip: DeSantis, everybody says, is a leaner, meaner, scarier version of Donald Trump.
Micah Loewinger: This was the idea expressed in Frank Bruni's 2023 New York Times op-ed, titled Dismiss Ron DeSantis at Your Peril. Full honesty, I bought into this narrative that if Trump's burn-it-all-down presidency failed to get the full MAGA agenda passed, then Ron DeSantis, the shrewd policy nerd, would get it done. This, says Mary Ellen Klas, was another overstatement.
Mary Ellen Klas: The national press didn't cover the Florida legislature like many of us did. They didn't look at the nuance of how he was able to get his agenda through. He made so many mistakes in pushing through some of these things that the legislature often had to come back and fix it. He was sued for the Martha's Vineyard flights.
News clip: It's a stunt using human beings to score political points. 50 undocumented migrants, including several children arriving in Martha's Vineyard, flown in by Florida Republican governor and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis.
Mary Ellen Klas: He was sued when he went after Disney because Disney voiced opposition to his proposal to limit gender discussions in schools. The legislature had to come back and rewrite that legislation so that he wouldn't lose that lawsuit. I think the national press just didn't hone in on how he was kind of a sloppy executive.
Micah Loewinger: One explanation we're seeing for why the campaign failed was that it was too online. Was that something that you observed as well?
Nick Nehamas: Absolutely. The topics that DeSantis ran on in the beginning were things like, and I'm just going to use the acronyms, ESG, DEI, CRT.
Micah Loewinger: Nick Nehemas from the New York Times.
Nick Nehamas: He used the acronyms too in his stump speeches. He didn't explain, that ESG is environmental and social governments, CRT is critical race theory, DEI, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the polling showed that Republican voters were much more concerned about the border and the economy. Those were their issues and DeSantis was running a war on woke.
Micah Loewinger: Even after signs that his shtick wasn't connecting, DeSantis doubled down.
News clip: Governor Ron DeSantis is urging the state's pension fund manager to consider legal action against Bud Light's parent company, Anheuser-Busch. Now it comes after recent conservative backlash to the company's social media campaign launch that promoted Bud Light with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney.
Nick Nehamas: His campaign also produced a series of bizarre, bizarre videos for Twitter. There was one that had a Nazi symbol. There were others that had homoerotic imagery. It was just very online, strange stuff that his campaign was mocked for.
Micah Loewinger: Then on May 24th, 2023, after months of acting like he was running for president, there was his official campaign announcement on the audio-only Twitter Spaces, featuring the site's owner, Elon Musk, and for some reason, venture capitalist David Sacks.
Ron DeSantis: I'm broadcasting live from Twitter headquarters, and we want to welcome you to this historic Twitter Spaces event and more broadly, a first in the history of social media.
Nick Nehamas: It was a disaster, an unmitigated disaster. There were so many people trying to watch that no one could load it for 25 minutes. There was just this dead air.
Ron DeSantis: All right, sorry about that. We--
Nick Nehamas: Then when they did come on, it was cutting in, it was cutting out.
Ron DeSantis: I am running for president of the United States to lead our--
Nick Nehamas: I should say that not a lot of voters necessarily, especially in Iowa, were listening to the Twitter Spaces, but we know that Republican donors were people who bankroll campaigns and keep them going and they were not impressed by this launch.
Micah Loewinger: Neither were the conservative press, which by this point was back to enjoying the Trump bump.
Nick Nehamas: I think you saw the start of a change in the way conservative outlets treated DeSantis around July. His poll numbers had already been sinking. He'd waited so long to enter the race because he wanted the Florida legislature to finish its session and pass all these bills that he'd given Trump the opportunity to just hit him and hit him and hit him and paint him as weak and disloyal and a traitor to the MAGA movement.
Ron DeSantis: He's got basically a Praetorian Guard of the conservative media, Fox News, the websites, all this stuff.
Micah Loewinger: Here's DeSantis speaking to a crowd in Iowa just a few days before the caucus harping on the very machine that had once propped him up.
Ron DeSantis: They don't hold him accountable because they're worried about losing viewers and they don't want to have the ratings go down. That's just the reality. That's just the truth.
Micah Loewinger: He's not wrong, but just a week later, DeSantis left Iowa in defeat and joined the Praetorian Guard himself.
News clip: In a video posted on X, just moments ago, DeSantis endorsed, begrudgingly, former President Trump previously his chief rival for the White House.
Ron DeSantis: Winston Churchill once remarked that success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts. While this campaign has ended, the mission continues.
Micah Loewinger: As multiple outlets would report. Churchill had never delivered these words. The aphorism appears to have been lifted from a 1938 Budweiser ad A Little Too On the Nose. While it's easy and quite fun to mock Ron DeSantis, according to longtime political observer, Tom Scocca, the creator of the Indignity Newsletter, DeSantis's Candidacy may have been successful even as it failed.
Tom Scocca: One of the striking things about the whole DeSantis phenomenon to the extent that it really was a phenomenon, is that it took place in this reputable precinct, but in the end, his target audience seemed to be more centrist-inclined people, and even liberals, the people who really feel like wokeness has gone too far and they're happy to see someone try to reign it in.
Micah Loewinger: Like who?
Tom Scocca: The one that jumped out at me because it happened at the same time that DeSantis was washing out, was David Brooks, in the New York Times, was writing his column and he was actually writing about the problem of bureaucracy, which is something that a respectable conservative has been able to complain about since long before I was ever born. Then, he threw in a line about how diversity, equity, and inclusion is a dangerous ideology that has seized control of American life, and that's bizarre race panicky cant.
There's just this weird rollback of the clock to people talking about racial integration and equal opportunity in disparaging terms that they wouldn't have dared to use a generation ago or two generations ago. Now, somebody like David Brooks who is a New York Times columnist whose entire deal is built on being palatable to liberals, it's just taking potshots at diversity, equity, and inclusion because he has picked up from a year of Ron DeSantis helping to shape the national conversation that this is something that can be said in polite company now.
Micah Loewinger: Scocca points to another New York Times piece from last week, an investigation by Nicholas Confessiore who had obtained private emails between anti-woke activists and leaders at the conservative think tank, Claremont Institute, and other right-wing groups. Emails which featured candid discussion of the “low IQ 3rd world,” why patriarchy was good for society. Policies outlawing homosexuality, and how anti-woke activists should carefully craft and titrate their messaging for the public. Emails that revealed a sustained effort by the Claremont Institute to meet with and encourage Ron DeSantis in his anti-woke crusade.
Tom Scocca: The idea of the Ron DeSantis campaign was this point through which those things were fed into the mainstream. Again, it seems like the DeSantis campaign reached a certain segment of the elite and advanced this cause within them while the crowds in Iowa were hearing DeSantis talk about university accreditation and just blinking in confusion.
Micah Loewinger: In other words, just having a prominent messenger for unpopular ideas was worth it for a sect of his supporters and donors. Even as the pundits exaggerated his challenge to Trump predicting a tight race in the GOP that never came to bear.
Tom Scocca: I think this was a useful case study in how hollow the whole creation of these narratives is. These people were following their old refluxes of how you pick out a candidate and you decide that they're going to be the front runner, and as if the Jeb Bush experience didn't already illustrate the shortcomings of that approach. Jeb Bush was the governor of Florida and seemed like a respectable, competent chief executive with a solid family brand name. He had this package of attributes that seemed to add up to him being a serious presidential contender. He got crumbled up and thrown into the trashcan by Donald Trump.
Micah Loewinger: In the lead-up to this election. Every election, political journalists fall into the same stupor covering the same old he's up, she's down, nonsense. By bullying his competition and skipping the debates and campaigning from the court, Donald Trump has driven home yet again, how little he cares about our democracy, but also how empty the normal election media pageantry was all along. At a time when outlets are closing daily and the ones left are failing to reach the people who need to hear their reporting most, newsrooms literally can't afford to do business as usual.
Brooke Gladstone: Coming up, our legal system won't defend our democracy. It wasn't designed for that.
Micah Loewinger: This is On the Media.
Micah Loewinger: This is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week Trump took to the witness stand again to confront the rider he was previously found to have sexually abused and defamed, E.Jean Carroll.
News clip: Trump sat on the stand and testified in his own defense for just three minutes yesterday afternoon. He denies Carroll's claims.
Male Speaker 5: When he said before taking the stand, I don't know who the woman is, Judge Kaplan reprimanded him for interrupting. Exiting the courtroom, Trump was overheard saying, "This is not America."
Donald Trump: Now, we're here, and this is the campaign folks--
Brooke Gladstone: Pared by SNL in a recent Cold Open.
Donald Trump: This is all there is, me yelling in courthouse lobby.
Brooke Gladstone: In what is apparently an effective strategy.
Donald Trump: We've seen a lot of success with saying things that did not happen. I think we'll continue to do that. It's an innovation I'm particularly proud of, seems to be working very well.
Brooke Gladstone: Yes. His legal woes seem to have no impact on his march to the nomination, except perhaps to invigorate his base, losing this case again as he did on Friday. Incurring an $83 million fine does not deter this candidate. Dahlia Lithwick recently laid out the lessons of New Hampshire in a Slate piece titled The Law Alone Cannot Curb Donald Trump's Lawlessness. She's frustrated by the mainstream media's preoccupation with horse race questions and political implications in much of the coverage of Trump's various trials.
Dahlia Lithwick: Overwhelmingly, what I was hearing, the big brains in the legal academy fighting about was tactical questions. Is it just going to foment the next insurrection to disenfranchise a bunch of Trump supporters? Whether constitutional democracy can withstand the Supreme Court signing off on that. Then, I think the sense that the trials are taking too long, the question then becomes how do we make this happen in time to have meaningful accountability before the election? Those questions are not legal questions. They're political questions that are coming in the garb of legal questions.
Brooke Gladstone: There are narrower questions too, like, should the Judge impose a gag order on Trump if he tries to intimidate members of the court or the jury because if he does, he'll be charged with bias and that'll have blowback as well.
Dahlia Lithwick: Right. Why are all these trial Judges treating Donald Trump differently than they would treat any other defendant? Of course, their answer is because he's running for president. If a Judge says to him, "You cannot use my courtroom to intimidate the court staff, you cannot use my courtroom to threaten the prosecutor." He just does it on Truth Social. All of these questions are, in my view, different versions of the same question, which is, "Why can't law be better?"
Brooke Gladstone: You write that Americans have, "Somehow been convinced that the justice system alone can somehow be deployed or in the parlance of the insurrectionists weaponized into becoming the shiny entity that could preserve democracy," but you also say, we get into trouble when we think of the law as a tactic.
Dahlia Lithwick: The law is not a toolkit that you can pull out to make fascism end, but I think that there is a uniquely American fascination with the kind of morality play of we'll all sit back and we'll watch the arc of this thing play out and it's going to be just like law and order, and at the end, the right thing will happen and the guy will go to jail. That is a part of what accountability for Donald Trump must include. I think principally the judicial system is something that we use to determine what happened. By definition, that is a slow exacting process. It's really built to do something quite different from, "Stop Donald Trump from being the next president."
Brooke Gladstone: Trump, you observed has always managed to evade legal accountability because he doesn't allow the legal system to look back at facts. He disputes them even after they've been adjudicated. Look at the case of E. Jean Carroll just this past week. He has an entirely different goal for the mechanisms of the legal process you say.
Dahlia Lithwick: He loses the first E. Jean Carroll trial. The jury finds that he defamed her. What does he do? He says he won, and throughout the weeks of this trial continues to defame her in Real Time. He uses law as a tactic, not as a search for truth.
Brooke Gladstone: His goal then isn't to win the case?
Dahlia Lithwick: If he's determined to have criminal responsibility, that will be a material loss, I think, if he eventually actually pays fines. Right now, none of this matters to him. It's just free airtime. He is very good at winning for losing.
Brooke Gladstone: You argue that the narrow focus on Trump's various trials actually plays in his hands because he's using them as campaign stops because his numbers seem to go up, at least he says with every indictment. I'm not sure what the alternative is.
Dahlia Lithwick: This goes back to the old Jay Rosen quote, "Not the horse race, but the stakes." I think when we get really, really in the weeds of covering these trials as a series of, "Oh my God, did you see what Alina Habba did today?" Cover them as a series of really dramatic horse races. It's of a piece with the sort of much bigger indictment of how the press is covering elections.
Brooke Gladstone: Competitions.
Dahlia Lithwick: Competition contests, good guys-bad guys, oopsie moments. All that stuff is incredibly interesting. My question is whether it really surfaces what the stakes are of no legal accountability for Donald Trump.
Brooke Gladstone: Case in point, you mentioned the Colorado Supreme Court ruling that Trump is ineligible to run for president because of his involvement in the January 6th effort to stop the certification of Biden's win last time. The 14th Amendment bars those who violate the oaths of office from holding government positions. The Supreme Court will hear the case and though you support the pursuit of legal accountability for Trump, you don't see that happening in this case.
Dahlia Lithwick: I don't think that a majority of the Supreme Court is going to vote to uphold the Colorado Supreme Court's ruling. I think it's for exactly the reason that we started at, Brooke, which is this is fundamentally a political question that comes to the court dressed as a legal question.
Brooke Gladstone: Is that what the founders were thinking when they wrote the 14th Amendment?
Dahlia Lithwick: No, I think it's fairly clear that removing Donald Trump insurrectionist from the ballot so that he cannot get office again was exactly what the framers were thinking about. I don't think that's very much in dispute. The question is whether the Supreme Court, which is at the lowest public approval in your and my lifetimes. Since they've started Gallup polling, their numbers have never been this low. Does the Supreme Court want to be the entity that yanks Donald Trump off the ballot? By the way, if Colorado was allowed to take Donald Trump off the ballot, Texas and Florida will take Joe Biden off the ballot and say he's an insurrectionist. There are very, very real, and I would say urgent political questions that are undergirding this. I think in a sense we are hoping that law is going to solve our politics problem.
Brooke Gladstone: As you said, the law can't be boiled down and reconstituted as a vitamin and then chugged down with a Gatorade to save us from an authoritarian strong man. Back in 2016, the journalist Masha Gessen who was raised in Russia warned us that our institutions won't save us. Clearly, it's not a lesson we've learned.
Dahlia Lithwick: 100%. I think the point is all of these things absolutely should be pursued and absolutely this is not a call to say we should pump the brakes on what Fani Willis is doing or Jack Smith is doing, or Alvin Bragg is doing. No, no, no. I'm not saying that. I'm saying the idea that we can sit around and pop popcorn and watch that happen and think that it's going to be in and of itself, the basis for him not winning the election just strikes me as deeply dangerous.
Brooke Gladstone: You fear that thinking and resources are being diverted from other perhaps more effective avenues. What should we be doing instead?
Dahlia Lithwick: Americans at this present moment have a very thin relationship with the work of democracy.
Brooke Gladstone: What do you mean, "a thin relationship to the work of democracy"?
Dahlia Lithwick: For most of us, most of the time, Brooke, I think their notion is that the system works and we're going to go out and vote, and the system doesn't work. The system barely held in the 2020 election by the skin of our teeth. We got out of a meaningful effort to set aside the election results. The Electoral Count Act, which is the reason that Donald Trump was almost able with the help of John Eastman and some of his flying monkeys to set aside the 2020 election that's been reformed. There was a loophole in there that has been fixed by a lot of democracy projects working very hard.
Brooke Gladstone: That was that maneuver that was going to try to get Pence to set things aside, right?
Dahlia Lithwick: Yes, they were going to capitalize on vague language and that's been fixed. Things are fixable. Voting rights are fixable, mail-in voting is fixable, gerrymandering is fixable.
Brooke Gladstone: What are you proposing that listeners do?
Dahlia Lithwick: I would listen to the folks at the Brennan Center or Protect Democracy who do this work every day as their bread and butter. Here's a practical answer. There are a lot of election workers who are older, who used to do this out of the goodness of their heart. They are nonpartisan and they are scared to go be poll workers on election day. Every single person listening to this show who is capable of signing up to go work at a polling place should do that because we see when folks are driving up in trucks in Arizona to polling places with guns and scaring folks, this is what happened to Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman, terrorized as people working at a polling place.
Shaye Moss: The flame that Giuliani lit with those lies and passed to so many others to keep that flame blazing, changed every aspect of our lives, and we're still working to rebuild. Our greatest wish is that no one, no election worker or voter or school board member or anyone else ever experiences anything like what we went through.
Dahlia Lithwick: The reason people are losing confidence in voting is because we are not performing what it is to be confident about voting. Almost more than anything, we have to believe that our vote matters. That finding out about the candidates matters. That our state elections matter. That races like State Supreme Court races matter. We have learned this over and over again since Dobbs. We have the scaffolding for a really cool democracy and we are so unwilling to throw ourselves into the machinery of that democracy, or we want to think about it in October before the election. I think the pragmatic answer I'm giving you, which is so boring, is structural democracy reform. That's the answer. I always remember in the hours and days after Donald Trump enacted the travel ban after the 2016 election.
Brooke Gladstone: The Muslim ban.
Dahlia Lithwick: The Muslim ban, the first one, and every lawyer that I knew showed up at an airport and went to baggage claim and held up a sign that said, "Dude, I'll be your lawyer." Some of them were real estate lawyers, some of them were family lawyers, and they just realized that this is not a spectator sport, I guess I can teach myself immigration law. Remember all those people who showed up at JFK, and all of the people who weren't lawyers who showed up, the taxi drivers, and the Uber drivers. What I think is we can very quickly tilt into what I'm describing as a very thick relationship with democracy preservation, but it's a muscle, Brooke, and we have to use it and we have to use it much sooner than October of 2024.
Brooke Gladstone: Thank you so much, Dahlia.
Dahlia Lithwick: Thank you for having me.
Brooke Gladstone: Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts for Slate.
Micah Loewinger: Coming up, having a laugh at public radio's expense.
Brooke Gladstone: Because this is On the Media.
Micah Loewinger: This is On the Media. I'm Micah Loewinger.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm Brooke Gladstone. As host of a public radio show, I know well how easy public radio is to parody.
Margaret Jo McCullen: Hello, I'm Margaret Jo McCullen.
Terry Rialto: I'm Terry Rialto.
Margaret Jo McCullen & Terry Rialto: You're listening to The Delicious Dish on National Public Radio.
Brooke Gladstone: Saturday Night Live debuted The Delicious Dish skit in 1996 and it ran for years. So soft spoken, earnest, earthy.
Terry Rialto: Halloween is one of my favorite times of the year. I have such happy memories from childhood dressing up and going door-to-door collecting for UNICEF.
Margaret Jo McCullen: I know, same.
Brooke Gladstone: Soldiering on in hand-knit sweaters with delicate stomachs and modest dreams.
Terry Rialto: Now, what's on your list this holiday season, Margaret Jo?
Margaret Jo McCullen: Terry, I really got greedy this year. I'm asking Kris Kringle for a wooden bull, some oversized index cards, and a funnel.
Terry Rialto: Ooh, a funnel. That'll be great for funneling.
Margaret Jo McCullen: I know. I feel like a glutton.
Brooke Gladstone: This week on Peacock, an updated rendition, one that reflects our current culture wars, or more narrowly, the intramural feuds among progressives. The new show is called In the Know, about a daily NPR show produced in New York City. The rather cringy characters are portrayed by stop-motion puppets, and each episode features an interview with a real person who appears on Zoom.
The show is written by Zach Woods, Brandon Gardner, and Mike Judge, creator of Beavis and Butt-Head, and who also voices the character of Sandy, the music critic in In the Know.
Zach Woods, who played Gabe from The Office and Jared from Silicon Valley, plays the central role of Lauren Caspian, billed as the third most famous NPR host. Zach Woods and Brandon Gardner, welcome to On the Media.
Brandon Gardner: Thank you.
Zach Woods: Thank you, Brooke.
Brooke Gladstone: You wrote, "We love public radio. It's engaging and comforting, but it also reflects aspects of ourselves that we're embarrassed by, which is why we created a show about an NPR host who is, sadly, an only slightly exaggerated version of ourselves."
Zach Woods: Being quoted back to yourself is one of the coolest punishments that I think a person can impose on another.
Brooke Gladstone: Slightly, Lauren Caspian, NPR's host of In the Know, is insufferable.
Barb: Lauren, what is it? Your mid-interview.
Lauren: I think the sit warmer feature on my office chair might be causing my passive sperm. I need you to exchange it.
Barb: Fine. Right after the interview.
Lauren: No, right now, Barb. I'm not trying to give my semen an endless spa day.
[end of clip]
Zach Woods: Here's the thing. This is Zach talking. Insufferable. Listen, we can keep up a façade for probably the length of this interview but the truth is, if you were to hang around, you would witness us behave in ways that are troublingly similar to Lauren Caspian. Hopefully, we're less socially catastrophic. He's pretty inconsiderate of the people he works with. In terms of the cosmetic morality stuff, I think we probably sin the same sins. I don't know. What do you think, Brandon?
Brandon Gardner: I think Lauren has a lot of, at least I'll say, my vanity at times and ego at times, and desperation to be loved and included, which I also have.
Brooke Gladstone: There are several things that you parody about a public radio interview. Lauren is always self-referential right down to his passive sperm. He interrupts his guests constantly and the way he says, "Molly, our producer, thinks that sounds like Michael Barbaro from The Daily."
Zach Woods: You got it.
Brooke Gladstone: She was right?
Brandon Gardner: Good ear, Molly.
Brooke Gladstone: The quick subject change.
Lauren: I like to treat my interviews like a trampoline and boing from one subject to another.
Kaia Gerber: I'm ready.
Lauren: Boing, boing.
[end of clip]
Brooke Gladstone: Tell me, what are some of the other hallmarks of a classic public radio interview?
Zach Woods: Again, at the risk of being like an ingratiating LA nightmare and too obsequious, Brooke, I will say, hearing your voice say, Lauren suffers from passive sperm is like a career highlight for me. I just want to say that and then we can move on. I think one of the hallmarks is that diversity of guests, so many different kinds of people who get interviewed on NPR. I like the reporting the vast majority of the time.
In terms of the more skin-crawly stuff, I would say, we talked about making this Instagram filter to promote the show. That was like an NPR Instagram filter where you would speak into your camera and then the filter would give you an enormous forehead and insert random pregnant pauses into your speech because I think a slightly self-conscious cerebralness combined with a very practiced collection of verbal affectations is closely associated with NPR in my head.
Brandon Gardner: One thing I think we were excited about and you're excited about playing Lauren was the opportunity to do the act of listening, the sort of, "Mmm," those empathetic sounds that we do associate sometimes with public radio interviews.
Brooke Gladstone: Mmm.
Brandon Gardner: Exactly. Honestly, they're both funny and soothing to me. The other thing is there's probably some overlap that's accidental because we are at the same time as we're trying to be funny, we're genuinely trying to do a good hour-long interview with the guests where we really did do our best to research it and we have all these topics we want to cover. Like the boing-boing is us just being like, how do we switch to this line of thought and we couldn't think of something more eloquent?
Brooke Gladstone: Let me ask you about those interviews with the real-life celebrities, Kaia Gerber, Jonathan van Ness, Ken Burns, Tegan and Sara, Mike Tyson, Roxane Gay, and Hugh Laurie. The real guests talk to these characters on Zoom, like how we were speaking. Is that scripted? Who are the guests actually talking to?
Brandon Gardner: The only heads up we give them up top is I'll pop on real quick over to Zoom and thank them for participating with this show that doesn't exist yet and say, just act like you're doing a real NPR interview. The only thing we ask you not to point out is that you're talking to a puppet.
Zach Woods: There's one interview that is scripted. At one point we asked Tegan and Sara to pretend that they were being made nauseous by Lauren's voice [unintelligible 00:36:14] but other than that, it's all improvised.
Brooke Gladstone: The one with Tegan and Sara. It is absolutely hilarious where Lauren opines on what makes Terry Gross special.
Lauren: In regard to Terry Gross, unfortunately, that is all an act. She's cold as an icicle and dumb as rocks. We call her very gross. If you've ever seen her eat, you know what I'm talking about. Ranch dressing seems to linger on her lips like a memory on a summer night. I consider her the marm of public radio and I don't throw that term around lightly.
Zach Woods: When I met Mike Judge, who was one of the co-creators on the show, I said, "I'm not by nature a jealous person, but you did fresh air. I wished badness on you because I'm so jealous of that." I felt that Lauren would naturally blow with Terry Gross. He has a bitter rivalry with Malcolm Gladwell who's probably unaware of the rivalry.
Brooke Gladstone: Among the other hallmarks of public radio, the pledge drive, the tote bag, the kombucha.
Lauren: Chase, my post-show kombucha isn't just a treat. It's a prescription-strength blend of yeast and bacteria cultures.
Fabian: The only cultures you seem to respect.
Lauren: This is terrible.
Carl: Are you okay, Lauren?
Lauren: My bowels are a delicately constructed Swiss clock, and the smallest irregularity can trigger the end of time.
Brooke Gladstone: Lauren's various physical maladies are they symbolic?
Zach Woods: I feel like it wouldn't surprise me if, in the world of NPR, there's a inversion where the degree of your lactose intolerance would almost be like a status symbol. Like how little you could tolerate dairy would be something that you would have swagger about. Maybe that's not true.
Brandon Gardner: When we're talking to the animators who are actually moving the Lauren puppet, is that Lauren has a very difficult relationship with his own body. Both in terms of his digestive tract, but also if you were to see Lauren dance or try to physically express excitement, he's such a cerebral person that he can only do small arm gestures. That's something I associate with a certain type of person who's maybe a little too intellectual and a little too self-aware.
Zach Woods: The other thing that goes along with that hyper-cerebralness is there's this very gentle, soft-spoken disposition that I've noticed but just behind that very nonviolent, therapized facade often lurks what to me seems like machismo and competitiveness, this kind of unowned ambition or something. I always think that's funny when people are so allergic to their own complicated interior lives that they can only present these very soft parts, but it doesn't make the hard parts go away. It just makes them go underground.
Brooke Gladstone: Now about progressive hypocrisy, I know you say that you see it in yourselves, but you chose public radio to take it down. There must have been things that you knew you wanted to skewer.
Zach Woods: For a long time, Brandon and I would have these quiet conversations where we would talk about things we thought were obnoxious. Inevitably, these conversations would end in the same way, the performative, virtue-signally stuff. I would get annoyed, and then I would hear my own voice getting so shrill and sanctimonious and then I'd be like, but I'm full of shit because I don't walk the walk in any real way. I hear what you're saying, Brooke. You're probably like, "Okay, okay. You're [unintelligible 00:39:57]. You guys are nice, you're not threatening anyone, everyone's friends. You're liars."
Brandon Gardner: Give us the real deal.
Zach Woods: [chuckles] The real deal really is that we hate ourselves.
Brandon Gardner: I think like what Zach said too of quiet conversations, Zach and I would have quiet conversations because we had just been at a party or with people at the improv theater we perform at, and someone had said something, and I didn't have the courage to say something in the moment, but afterwards, I'd be like, "That was sort of weird that they said that. That seems a little outrageous." I was nervous to say it in a group, so I would have to quietly say it to Zach. One thing that was exciting about this show is like, "Oh, all these things we've whispered about, we can actually put it into a show and try to make funny."
Brooke Gladstone: We talked about Lauren, who's insufferably holier than thou overcompensating for what would otherwise probably be disabling insecurity. There's Fabian is a perfect match for Lauren. She can't stand him, and she is equally in high dudgeon most of the time. Then there's Barb, the senior producer played by the great J. Smith-Cameron, who just absorbs constant attacks for being the man. There's Carl, the engineer, who really likes Barb, and who is wonderfully self-possessed. Then there's Sandy, the cultural critic, which seems to be a carryover character from the early days of WBAI Pacifica Radio.
Brooke Gladstone: I'm just wondering how you came up with this particular collection of people.
Brandon Gardner: One thing that always is interesting to me is there's articles about big battles within the New York Times between older progressives and younger progressives. I want to be in those conference rooms when they're fighting about something. That was one thing I had in the back of my mind with the idea of Barb, and Lauren, and Fabian as three generations of liberal, and how they're more or less all on the same team with more or less all of the same ideals, but they will brutally go after each other for anything that they think is less than perfectly in line with what they think the current point of view should be.
Barb: Oh, I also wanted to let everyone know that that homeless gentleman is still in the bathroom.
Lauren: That is hate speech. He is an unhoused person.
Fabian: Actually, the preferred term is person who is currently without housing.
Lauren: No, I don't think so. Are you sure?
Barb: Oh, I'm sorry. I'm really very empathetic to the man's situation. I volunteer at a homeless shelter.
Lauren: No, you volunteer at an unhoused shelter.
Fabian: A shelter for persons currently without housing.
Lauren: It just feels very clunky.
Fabian: Oh, I'm sorry. Is it too inconvenient to treat vulnerable populations with respect?
Lauren: How dare you? I was using the term Inuit back in the '90s. I've been spelling women with a Y since before I could spell my name.
Fabian: Either way. Until he leaves, everyone on the floor will have to use the Starbucks down the street.
Lauren: Maybe that will teach us about the lack of water closets in this country. May I remind you all that this is public radio. Let us urinate and do all other washroom shamefuls in solidarity with our unhoused brothers and sisters.
Fabian: Brothers, sisters, and non-binary siblings currently without housing.
Lauren: God damn it.
[end of clip]
Zach Woods: They become so preoccupied with updating their glossary of terms that they're ignoring the fact that Barb is really the only one walking the walk in any meaningful way. Brandon and I really agree that language matters, but when language becomes a filibuster to avoid the more challenging and uncomfortable work, it's obnoxious.
Brandon Gardner: I will fully admit, I'm one of the people who put a black square on my Instagram in support of Black Lives Matter because I was like, "I don't know what else to do." I really don't think that helped anyone, but I was like, "I don't want to seem like I don't support this." Have I been actively going to city council meetings trying to get legislation passed? No, I haven't. Things like that, it's like, I'm as guilty as anybody where sometimes I just take the most convenient route to showing my support for something.
Zach Woods: As insufferable as their behavior can be, another thing that felt really important to me and Brandon was not to just create these tired archetypal hyper left-wing pin cushions for us to sink our little satirical pins into and to start from humanity.
Brooke Gladstone: There's a lot of redemption as the series progresses. There's a moment in the sixth episode when Lauren's kid is visiting. It's between Lauren and his producer, Fabian, that get at this idea.
Lauren: Okay, tell me what to do.
Fabian: Just be a dad. Be a normal, boring dad.
Lauren: I don't know how to be boring.
Fabian: Wrong, bitch. You are boring. So am I. That's why I hate you. You're like a magic mirror that shows me what a sweaty fraud I am. I mean, look at us. I'm staging a protest for nobody, and you're dragging your son to get mercury poisoning with nerds who don't even like you. For what? We're still boring, Lauren. Now we're just boring and alone.
[end of clip]
Zach Woods: I think there's a tendency to make ourselves one thing. You're this identity, or you're this opinion, or you're this act that you did. It just doesn't really resonate with my experience of people. I just feel like people are this bird's nest of irresolvable, beautiful, frustrating, horrible, transcendent pieces. For me, comedy, stories, art, that's where I go to have the complexity restored to the world. I love this quote from Cherry Jones, the theater actor, where she said, "Theater is where we comfort each other with our shortcomings." I think that's such a beautiful sentiment.
I think that's what we were trying to do here as best we could. Again, it's like puppets and there's jokes about passive sperm and foreskin restoration and stuff. Lest we get too high and mighty in our discussion of it, I think it's important to remember that it's a dumb-as-hell animated show, but that is the foundational worldview that I think we're trying to express. Right, Brandon, or no?
Brandon Gardner: Yes, definitely.
Brooke Gladstone: You have six episodes. Do you see a longer arc for what's going on here? What's the best-case scenario?
Zach Woods: Merchandising, baby.
Brooke Gladstone: Bobbleheads.
Zach Woods: Bobbleheads, baby, we want that.
Brandon Gardner: We have not completely mined everything that is ridiculous about ourselves, so there's room.
Brooke Gladstone: Or about public radio, by no means.
Brandon Gardner: Probably not. We now need to do some actual research.
Zach Woods: Can I ask you, Brooke, what do you feel are the major ones we missed?
Brooke Gladstone: The tone of public radio has changed a lot. Your depiction of public radio, which I know is not the point. The point isn't for you to do an accurate depiction of public radio. It's a framing device, but it struggled so much with the internet that its tone has gotten a lot looser and a little less homogeneous than it was before. The idea was always Terry Gross. Now you have all sorts of people who don't sound like Terry Gross. I think there's been a tremendous effort to loosen it and to diversify it. How successful it is from location to location is something else. It felt more like local radio, given the lack of resources than like NPR, which is kind of corporate these days.
Zach Woods: I like the intimacy and the cozy provincialism of radio sometimes. Even if it's like on a car trip, if you go and you're hearing the local NPR station, or even not an NPR station, it's a quick way to get a strong feeling for the place you are without ever having to get out of your car because you're terrified to meet actual people.
Brooke Gladstone: It's a super intimate medium. One thing that Ira once told me, he tried to bring This American Life to television, and he did for a season, but he said that people are so much less relatable when you can see them.
Zach Woods: Maybe that's why it's a little bit of a sin to have a medium that can carry so much intimacy and then cover yourself in affectation. You could imagine it's kind of like bad sex or something where it's like, it's the most intimate situation, but if you're pretending to be something you're not, it ruins the whole thing.
Zach Woods: The one thing I'm a real expert on is bads.
Brooke Gladstone: Thank you guys so much for being available.
Brandon Gardner: Thank you.
Zach Woods: This was the best.
Brooke Gladstone: Zach Woods and Brandon Gardner are the co-creators and showrunners of the new show, In The Know, out this week on Peacock.
Zach Woods: If you were stuck in a library during an apocalyptic blizzard, what is the first book you would burn for warmth?
Brooke Gladstone: Oh, wow.
Zach Woods: For me, it would be Malcolm Gladwell's blink because I just believe-- I mean this in a neutral and objective way, it's pure horse shit.
Micah Loewinger: That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Eloise Blondiau, Molly Rosen, Rebecca Clark-Callender, and Candice Wang, with help from Shaan Merchant.
Brooke Gladstone: Our technical directors, Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week are Andrew Nerviano and Brendan Dalton. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Micah Loewinger: I'm Micah Loewinger.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.