Chris Hayes is an unlikely news presence: He grew up in New York City, directed Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first ever musical (the two attended Hunter College High School in Manhattan), and wanted a career in theater. Instead, he got into journalism by happenstance, writing freelance for an alternative newspaper in Chicago while waiting tables and attempting to turn the stage into his profession. But if it had all worked out the way he had wanted, the rest of us would not have the pleasure of watching one of today’s most popular nightly news programs, All In With Chris Hayes, on MSNBC.
This month, Hayes publishes his second book, A Colony in a Nation. As the state of policing, race, the criminal justice system, and the core of our democracy have reached points of crises across the country, Hayes has reported on all of it tirelessly for his show. In his book, Hayes does a deep dive on the same subjects. Specifically, he juxtaposes white upper and middle class America with black America: Though under the same constitution, each is subject to separate systems of justice, he argues—one that favors the rational order of law, and another that operates like a police state, responsible for a strikingly high number of incarcerated black Americans. In essence, this is our modern day colony in a nation.
Hayes’s frighteningly quick mind and affable manner offers us all an easy-to-digest and clear-eyed guide for thinking about and reacting to an increasingly complex world, and its most pressing issues.
Tell us a little bit about your day-to-day at All in with Chris Hayes: What sort of preparation are you doing until the show airs? The velocity of the news cycle makes any kind of advance planning more or less impossible, so the show is basically conceived and executed in the course of the day. As soon as I wake up (usually around 6:30am or so when our kids get up), I’ll start emailing stories and ideas around. Then [my wife] Kate or I will take the kids to school and I’ll keep sending story ideas, and doing a ton of reading. I might make some calls or exchange texts with sources. My producers get on a morning call to sketch out some possible rundowns and guests, and by 1pm or so we do a full editorial meeting where we decide what we’re going to do in each of the eight blocks in the show.
We then decide who we’d like to have on the show. Our booking producers will already have a list of people who they’ve reached out to, and who are available. We’ll use some of that list and also look for other folks with specific expertise on the story we’re doing in a given block. The booking aspect is really difficult, because so much of it is out of your control: who says yes, who happens to be free that night, etc…
What do you find most most fulfilling about your work—the moments when you feel the effort you put into it makes the greatest impact, or that are personally most important to you? A really great interview is probably the thing that gives me the most satisfaction, particularly in those (relatively) rare moments when we can have someone one who doesn’t usually have a voice in public affairs: whether a soft spoken, blue collar Trump supporter from Kenosha or a refugee from Iran.
In the time that you’ve had your nightly show, what has been your greatest challenge? Is there a conversation or two that you can point to in which you feel you have learned the most? The greatest challenge is navigating the twin imperatives of creating a show that rates, and doing good journalism. It’s like learning to sail: There’s where you want to take the boat, and then there’s the direction of the wind. You cannot just ignore the wind, which, in this metaphor is the audience’s interest and demand. You constantly have to be attentive to what stories are grabbing people’s attention, where the audience is at, so that you can keep them watching, and then use the force of that to drive the show’s journalism.
In terms of learning the most, I think the field reporting I’ve done, from Ferguson, to Paris, to drought-stricken California has been by far the most educational for me. There is no substitute for getting out and talking to people.
A Colony in a Nation covers the two Americas in our country, and the separate (but unequal) systems of justice therein. What led you to investigate this subject in book-length form? The book started with an email from my now-editor at Norton, Tom Mayer. He was watching my coverage of the Freddie Gray unrest from Baltimore and shot an email to my agent saying, “Chris should write a book about this stuff.” At first I was somewhat reluctant, partly because no one wants to read a book that is “White Guy Explains Black Lives Matter.” So I thought long and hard about how I would write a book about policing and race and democracy and the more I thought about it, the more it felt like it was a book I needed to write. And that’s because I grew up in New York City during the peak crime years, and I know first hand the seductive allure of “tough on crime” and all the rhetoric we’ve used to construct this massively unjust system we have. So the book uses both my reporting and my personal experiences to try to get at the answer to the question: why did we—as a polity, as a society, and frankly as white people—build this system?
Who is your dream interview (politically or otherwise)? Right now? Barack Obama
Who is your greatest rival? (Joking/not joking) I’m happy and lucky to say I really feel I don’t have one.
What non-politically-related activities do you spend time with to keep grounded? Spending time with my family. There is nothing better in life right now than walking my daughter to school, her hand clutching mine, or cuddling up on the couch with my three year old son and reading to him. The world, and all its insanity, drops away.
Who would you nominate for this list? My astoundingly brilliant wife, Kate Shaw.