Ali Velshi is an award-winning journalist, anchor for MSNBC, and Senior Business Correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC. Previously, he hosted “Ali Velshi On Target,” a nightly primetime show on Al Jazeera America. Before that, he served as CNN’s Chief Business Correspondent, anchor of CNN International’s “World Business Today” and host of CNN’s weekly business roundtable “Your Money.” Velshi is the author of Gimme My Money Back and co-author with CNN’s Christine Romans of How to Speak Money.
The Politic: What do you think about the proposed tax plan going through Congress right now?
Ali Velshi: There are a few things at play with this tax bill. One is that this administration needs one big legislative victory, otherwise they will have gone through an entire year with nothing to show for them. It was supposed to be the repeal of healthcare, and it didn’t happen. That’s a really bad reason to do big legislation—on a false deadline because you feel you need a win.
Tax is really complicated. There’s a reason people don’t talk about it and don’t like it. To really reform our very complicated tax system, it should take more than a year of research and study and hearings. I think most people will agree there is stuff to fix.
Taxes are complicated and to some people, they don’t seem fair, but this tax cut plan seems to be very weighted in favor of corporations. When you look at the business world today, corporations don’t seem to be doing too badly. They have record profits, money is available to them, and they wish to expand, so I’m not sure what we’re solving by giving a big corporate tax cut. The effect of that is it might run up our deficit.
Now deficits are hard for people to understand because they don’t feel them on a daily basis. You don’t feel any different if we’ve got a big deficit or a small deficit. But it’s the kind of thing that affects generations to come because when the government has deficits it doesn’t build things, it doesn’t rebuild the highway system, it doesn’t fix the airports, it doesn’t do important things that have kept America at the forefront of economic success for so many decades.
It also seems that a lot of the people who initially voted for Trump were working-class, rural people. And they’re the ones being left out of this tax bill.
Right. If you’re working-class, rural, or poor, there’s not a whole lot in this tax cut for you. Someone used an example with me and they said this is like teaser rates on credit cards or mortgages where there is one year interest or low interest for two years or something, and then you get slammed with these massive interest rates. That’s what this tax plan is like. It gives everybody a bit of a break for a year or two, and then most working class people will see their taxes go up.
But if you’re companies, you get permanent tax cuts. The tax code is broken. I’m not sure this is how we’d fix it. But once again, there are people who voted against their best interests, and they continue to support these sorts of things. When you’re dealing with things as complicated as health care or taxes, you know people have their daily lives and they don’t study into these things all the time. They believe what politicians tell them. The Republicans are holding a very strong line, which is the “middle-class tax cut,” despite lots of evidence to the contrary.
What, if anything, is American about American financial crises or moments of turmoil? Are there any economic policies in place elsewhere around the globe that the U.S. should be looking towards in coming years?
That’s a really good question. The thing that is uniquely American about these crises is how much bigger they are. Everything we do affects the economy, and the economy touches us in so many ways. When things go right, they go really well, and you see examples of that in the ’80s and ’90s. When they go wrong, they go really wrong. We’re not a country of moderation when it comes to our economy.
There are lots of things that we should be thinking about that go on in the rest of the world. For instance, America is the only wealthy country that doesn’t have universal healthcare, and there are lots of ways to get universal healthcare, but everyone else uses it. They have as good or better health care for lower costs. Making education more accessible. Education costs are very expensive in America, which means education is not as universal as it should be. That doesn’t mean everybody needs a college degree, but anybody who feels they want one and qualifies to get one should be able to get one without incurring the debt that we incur in the United States in doing that. And, while it’s a global problem, we’ve got a great deal of wage inequality.
The working class American is not doing fundamentally better than they were twenty or thirty years ago when you adjust for inflation. That’s a problem because the American dream was about doing better than your parents did and your kids doing better than you. And we’re a bit stuck on that. That’s a global problem but, because other countries offer subsidized higher education and they offer subsidized health care, it doesn’t feel as bad. In America, if you’re a working-class American with kids who need to go to school and parents who are sick, you’ll never get ahead. So that’s the kind of thing we have to do. We have to protect our middle class; we have to protect the working classes to ensure they have greater opportunity, which is back to your first question about this tax bill. Those are our real problems in society. The tax bill doesn’t answer those problems. It answers a different set of problems that aren’t really as urgent. Sure, companies, you know, should be treated well but they’re not really the ones suffering right now.
Recently, Roy Moore’s attorney brought up your personal background in an interview. What’s it like navigating the public and the private on public networks in a political climate where even our president often resorts to personal attacks?
It’s difficult. It’s new and difficult. These things weren’t part of the discourse before. It would’ve been thought of as so unusual to have a president launching personal attacks on media figures or individuals. Now it creates an environment where it’s fair game for everyone to do it.
It’s one thing that the president does it. You can isolate that. But now it says that it’s okay to do it in a society where people grow up to believe that these things aren’t relevant. Your background is only relevant to your ability to do the job, but your ability to do the job is key. Once you got that job and you do it properly, that should be all that is judged. When you hear these code words for background or things like that, it’s a strange world today to navigate.
I don’t know what that conversation was about. I don’t know where he was going to go with that and how that was going to help his argument, but it’s a strange place to be. As a journalist you’re trying very hard for the story to never be about you. It’s about something else, so when somebody turns it and makes it about you—and by the way this happens every day with the accusations of fake news and all that—it’s difficult. Personalizing the delivery of news is a phenomenon we’re all going to have to start to understand and deal with.
You gave a TED Talk on the subject of fake news earlier this year. You also report on the economy for a living. What’s the connection between money and fake news—commodification, and media?
There are two connections between money and fake news. The first one is that fake news is cheaper than real news. Real news is expensive. It takes research. It takes fact-checking, and it takes journalism, digging, interviews, sometimes travel, infrastructure, and legal departments that look at it and say, “Do these meet our editorial standards?”
Fake news takes nothing. It takes one person to type—or lie. It’s much cheaper, and it’s generally much more salacious. In an old world that I grew up in, where there was TV and newspaper, you couldn’t sell the fake news because no advertiser would pay for it. But now, on the internet, it’s all algorithms. It’s all sold automatically. My real news story, which might be really important to you, is never going to have a headline that’s as juicy as the fake news story that’s nearby. The person purveying the fake news does it for much lower cost and makes a lot more money out of doing it. So that’s problem number one.
Problem number two, which is a money connection, but entirely different, is that because we live in a world of such inequality, so many people have become disconnected from what they consider the mainstream largely for financial reasons. Because of income inequality, they feel they’ve seen a stock market that’s been going up for years and they see housing prices go up and they don’t feel like they’re participating so they have come to distrust the mainstream narrative. The mainstream narrative is about how good things are. For a lot of Americans and people around the world, that’s not reflected in their life.
It becomes very easy, if you are disaffected, to believe the alternative argument. People put arguments out there that are not true but it fits your narrative, it fits the idea that things aren’t working for you so there must be a better explanation for it. I understand the frustration out there with the fact that the system has not worked for so many Americans, but this has made people open to listening to some of these conspiracy theories and fake news, so those two financial aspects together have made this a fairly lucrative business.
Speaking about how easy it is for people to put fake news out there, one of the most popular avenues for it seems to be Twitter, of which you are an avid user. What’s it like using Twitter under the Trump administration compared to the Obama administration?
I have felt this recent discussion about bots. I notice the number of people who pick fights or accuse me of fake news who don’t have any followers, but have tens of thousands of posts. I think that Twitter and Facebook have to be careful that they are being overtaken by this, and it’s making the dialogue feel a lot less important. I was much more active on Twitter than I used to be, but now, between bots and entirely partisan people, it feels more often than not that I’m fighting than discussing. That’s caused me to pull back. Twitter has become a relatively hate filled platform, and I think they’ve got to be careful that people don’t decide, “I don’t need this in my life.”
I’ve gone through being a journalist before social media, and I have generally thought of it as being a net gain. I’m certainly at a tipping point right now. We hear all these stories about anxiety it causes in young people and then the fake news begins to distribute, and I’m beginning to think maybe our world was better without it.
And if I’m going through that, I think other people are too. I mean that as somebody who believes in technology and hopes that it continues to be a way for people’s voices to be heard. Twitter’s just become a garbage heap. I stay on it because I’ve got a lot of followers, and I discuss the things that I’m talking about. But it’s feeling like there’s diminished usefulness to social media these days.
What risks do you think come with the president’s recent efforts to cut back on net neutrality?
The net neutrality argument is a really important one. When the internet was built, it was built so that everybody had the same access to the pipes. You still had to pay for your website, you still had to have contact, and you still had to have people who wanted to see what you had on the other side, but if you had that, the transmission was there in the same way that if you live in New Haven, the roads are there. You all get to use it equally.
The danger with eliminating net neutrality is that we divide up the roads. We let some people use it at some hours, we let some people pay to use it at different times, and look – we have toll roads so we know what that’s about. We know that sometimes that works, but the problem is, will we inadvertently cut off some of the creativity and important business that is done on the internet because we’re creating tiers of service or access to it? Some of the most creative companies in the world started as small start-ups and some of them benefited from the internet. If you didn’t have net neutrality and allowed Facebook to be able to buy up higher speed access, could the next Facebook not get a start because they didn’t have fair access to the internet? I think it’s a complicated issue.
It’s, to me, not as black and white as it is to some people. There are avid net neutrality advocates and people who say the government shouldn’t be regulating the internet that way. I think the truth is somewhere in between. I’m probably closer to being an avid net neutrality advocate, but I understand what the concerns are about it. And again I think—I think this about everything—this should not be a decision that is made easily. I think there should be a lot of national discussions. This is going to have an impact for decades to come and is going to have an impact on some of the most important things in business and the economy in America. Because all we ever do is use the internet, so we have to think this through. It’s hard because it’s a tough topic and not everybody really understands it, but I think we really have to understand it.
You’ve spoken in the past about journalism as a strong check on the federal government. Do you think the net neutrality case could be any means to diminish this check?
I don’t presume to know why the government wants to lift this net neutrality. There could be lots of reasons for it. One is that this is an administration that has said it doesn’t like a lot of regulation. It would fit to remove the regulations that provide net neutrality.
But I’m not a big believer in the fact that you should eliminate regulation because it exists. You should take away bad regulation, and you should have good regulation. I don’t know that the elimination of net neutrality immediately has an obvious impact on journalism. But I think it could have unintended consequences.
This is one of those things where it doesn’t sound all that serious, the companies have said they won’t abuse it, and everybody says a lot of things, but we don’t know what happens. It’s one of those things that, until you do it, you don’t really know what the effect is going to be. I would hate to find out that inadvertently we shut down creativity on the internet and inadvertently provide start-ups and mom-and-pops and small businesses and creative entrepreneurs with a disadvantage that we didn’t intend to. That’s what I’m more worried about. I think there’s a lot of efforts to silence good, critical journalism. I’m not sure this is one.
You often don’t hesitate to hold people accountable while on air. What’s the process of fact-checking on live television like? Do people ever say things that you know are wrong but at the time you don’t have the facts to correct them?
Yes. The art of fact checking is having your facts. People lie at such a speed these days and about such a wide array of things that I don’t always have the facts that I didn’t know they were going to lie about. That becomes tough because I like to only challenge people when I know what the truth is. There are some interviews where, even in the course of five minutes, the number of lies told are such that not only might I not have the facts, but more importantly, you’d have to stop the conversation every five words in order to correct someone. Sometimes I like to let someone just give me their thoughts. It may be made up of 25 lies, but it’s really just one thought. I get criticism for that. A lot of people say, “Well, he said this and that’s not true.” I think to myself: well, that’s correct that he said something [that] wasn’t true, but he said so much that wasn’t true that I think it might be better to take issue with the entire argument rather than each individual fact in the argument because then that wouldn’t be a discussion.
Sometimes the art of fact checking means letting somebody have their say, let them say what it is they want to say, let them present their argument, and then try to dissect the argument. We can get caught up in instant fact checking of everything everybody says. It doesn’t give you the right win. You can be right, but I don’t know that you persuade anyone of your argument. I think our arguments are better had when we’ve heard someone’s argument and then we present our own, and we don’t get too caught up in having to check every lie.
Now I say that with great caution because I don’t want to normalize lying. I don’t want to get into a world where because people lie so much, we don’t check. I do think we have to know what our argument is fully. I am kind of fascinated in the world of journalism that people will come onto my TV show and knowingly lie, knowing that they may get caught in it, and have no shame. I grew up in a world where there was shame to lying. I think we’re almost in a post-truth world where it’s okay: you lie and you know that some people will believe you, so you just carry on with the lie. The president does it routinely.
Do you ever rewatch your interviews and second-guess yourself? Day to day, how do you make peace with everything you put out into the world?
I work in live TV, so I can’t do too much of that. I certainly always think I could have done better. But you’re dealing with what you’re dealing with in the moment. You have only so much prep time, there is much more news than I ever had to deal with, it’s complicated and nuanced, and there are all sorts of pressures. I think we have to do the best we can do. I think as journalists our focus has to be on accuracy, on accountability, and on bearing witness in telling people what’s going on in the world.
Live, cable TV news is not an art form. It’s a utility. It gives people information on a fast, breaking level about what’s going on. There are other forms of journalism where I’d be less forgiving. But in our world, it’s taking bits of information and trying to make sense of them quickly and convey them to an audience in a way that isn’t like some old fashioned journalism that I really enjoy. That’s not the world we’re in, so I don’t pay too much attention to second-guessing.
Where do you think journalism is headed in the next ten years?
I think journalism has suddenly become a lot more important than it was. I’ve certainly always thought it was important, but it’s really a calling now. It’s a serious business. The problem is it hasn’t improved its infrastructure, in that it’s still not the most lucrative thing to get into, and it’s getting less lucrative by the day because the beauty of the internet is that it has created more access to the news and more news that is free. So it really becomes harder to earn your living as a journalist.
But I think it was suffering from a reduction in people’s trust and a reduction in the amount of money it makes. Now what I think is happening is people are realizing that good journalism is really crucial. For those young people who are thinking about being journalists, I think they can now much more easily say to their parents or friends, “Hey, this is an important thing that needs to be done.” But it remains challenging because it is harder for journalists to make a living, particularly telling stories that are somewhere outside of the absolute mainstream. There’s still money to be made in mainstream news, but some of the most important stories or the context around some of the most important stories is not obvious to you. It’s not breaking news. It’s something else. And that’s extensive, and it’s hard to get, and it takes hard work, and it doesn’t pay well.
On that note of topics that exist outside the mainstream, what do you feel is not getting enough coverage as it should be?
I think when you talk about taxes, you talk about health care, you talk about wages, and you talk about the middle class, you’re talking about the global problem of income inequality, which I think is one of the biggest problems in the world. We talk about all of these things around it like taxes, health care, and education, but we’re not fundamentally addressing the issue. Most people don’t even understand the issue. You understand what you earn. You may think that’s fair, you may think you’re not keeping up with everyone else, but you don’t really understand the concept of, why is the world becoming more and more unequal? Why are fewer people holding the same wealth as all the poor people in the world? That’s a big issue.
Another issue that I think we politicize but we don’t have enough mainstream media discussion around is climate change. Climate change is just one of several physical, engineering challenges in the world that we’ve got to deal with. But we have almost an entirely political discussion about it in mainstream media as opposed to a solutions-oriented discussion.
The way you look at both of these two problems, income inequality and climate change, is you would think everybody in society is really working hard to solve them all the time, but we dance around the edges of these issues. It does feel like we are rearranging the deck chairs while the Titanic is sinking. Unfortunately, getting to the bottom of these issues and really researching them, taking the time to get people’s experiences, or figuring out the research you have to do is expensive and costly and time consuming and doesn’t feel nearly as urgent as the breaking news around the debates on these topics.
And now, some quick Politic Rapid Fire Questions:
Where do you get your news?
Everywhere. These days, everywhere. At NBC, we have a robust news gathering organization, so we find out about these things when everybody else is getting them or we get them confirmed in a certain way, but these days news is everywhere. Two years ago, I could have answered that question properly, but these days, everywhere.
What place would you most like to visit?
Well, I travel a lot. I’d like to visit some place that doesn’t have an internet connection. [laughs] I’m a real traveller. I love travelling the world. I don’t have a particular place that I want to go.
Which living person do you most admire?
I have an old friend who opened my mind to thinking about problems in a much more creative way than the political journalist class thinks about them. His name is Peter Diamandis, and he founded an organization called the X Prize Foundation. They have incentivized prizes to solve big, global problems. He introduced me to a world in which smart people and successful people take problems that haven’t been solved by governments and companies and figure out a way to set up a prize to solve the problem. It’s a remarkable outlook on life, and he continues to do that.
It’s always very refreshing to me because I live in a world of problems and debate and bickering and all of that, and then I go into his world of scientists and engineers and visionaries and futurists and their world is entirely different from mine. The things they think are problems are entirely different from the ones I think of. They don’t even look at problems as problems. Things you have to debate and bicker about, they don’t even see as problems. They want to know what is the actual solution. How do you solve education issues? How do you solve income inequality? How do you solve climate change? How do you solve any of these things? I admire that because it is very easy in our world to get bogged down by a small set of problems.
What keeps you up at night?
The fear of war. I think most government things can be undone or reversed, but I really worry about the march to war with North Korea. Some think it’s just rhetoric, but I do not believe that war and the talk of it should ever be part of rhetoric.
What is your advice for college students?
Dream big. It is a big world that needs your help to keep it going. Don’t let anybody convince you to not think as big as you can about it.
What do you wish you had more time to do, for leisure?
Sleep. That was easy.