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CNN’s Peter Hamby On Politics And Journalism In The Twitter Age

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HH: Great fun for me, first time ever on the Hugh Hewitt Show, another one of those CNN people, Peter Hamby. You know, Jake Tapper’s totally corrupted me into believing that they’ve changed everything over there, and it’s wonderful. Peter Hamby, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, it’s great to have you on.

PH: Thanks, Hugh, it’s nice to be here.

HH: First of all, follow him on Twitter, @PeterHambyCNN. What’s your gig?

PH: I have an awesome gig. I don’t have to be in the CNN building ever, because I cover campaigns. I travel, I’m on the road all the time, Senate, House, Gov. races, obviously ramping up for the presidential. But I’m not, you know, in the weeds on covering the White House and the Hill, which you know, is kind of a blessing at times when nothing is happening over there. So I get to do the fun stuff. I get to go out, go to tailgates with Rick Perry, get in the weeds in different states, learn the issues, learn the players on the ground. You know, it’s nice. That’s one reason it’s nice to work at CNN. They give me money, and I get to travel.

HH: And this is now called, at http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com, but you’ve got a thing called, what are they called? Hambycast?

PH: Hambycast.

HH: And how do they find it?

PH: This is the future.

HH: Just Google it?

PH: You can Google Hambycast, you can follow me on Twitter. I tweeted about it the other day. It is, look, most people, myself included, and I think if you’re under the age of 40, you don’t watch a lot of live TV these days.

HH: No, you don’t, yeah.

PH: So it’s really geared toward an internet audience. It’s two minutes. You can watch it on your phone. The goal is to kind of bring people on with me on the road, and sort of see what I do. Like so much of political coverage on TV and on the web is you know, we’re both in studio wearing suits, and that’s sort of what it looks like you know, a bunch of guys talking about politics in a room. This is more out in the country talking to candidates, talking to politicians and leaders in both parties, but doing it kind of in a different sort of environment. Like I would love to go to Iowa and milk a cow with Joni Ernst, and go hit the Bourbon trail with Rand Paul, and do those kinds of things. And the first episode debuted last week. Rick Perry was in South Carolina doing some fundraising. Obviously, he’s running for president. But he did a tailgate at the University of South Carolina-Texas A&M game, which is the big season opener for the SCC.

HH: I wonder who Perry was rooting for?

PH: I know. He’s a big A&M guy.

HH: He’s an Aggie, yeah. He’s an Aggie.

PH: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And he was hanging out in the parking lot. It was 100 degrees out there. So we kind of went around the parking lot, talked to people.

HH: How was his name, his visibility? Everybody, I think everybody knows who Rick Perry is.

PH: Well, this is really interesting. So you know, South Carolina football tailgate, most of those folks are Republicans. It’s just sort of the geographical nature of the place. And I would go up to people and be like, just start, like we assume in D.C. everyone knows who Rick Perry is or Tom Cotton or whoever, and most people don’t know those things. So I just go up to people and say do you know who Rick Perry is, and a lot of people actually did. They’re like oh, yeah, I like him, he’s a nice guy, the governor of Texas. And that’s something you hear a lot, nice guy.

HH: Yeah.

PH: And I think he is genuinely a warm guy.

HH: He’s terrific in a room. I’ve done a number of events with him.

PH: Very good in a room.

HH: He’s terrific in a room with the people at the back at the room who don’t matter.

PH: Yeah.

HH: …to the production, who aren’t the big names, he’s working the wait staff.

PH: Yeah, totally. And when he was running for president in 2012, my grandmother, who lives in Greeneville, South Carolina, and she’s a Republican voter, she gets all the direct mail, in fact, she’s my best source, because…

HH: She’s listening right now on 94.5.

PH: Yeah, I hope so. She has a scanner, so she scans all the direct mail pieces she gets me. So every time there’s a hit piece in the mail, I get it directly from her, and all these campaigns are like where the hell are you getting this mail?

HH: Okay, let’s give her a shout out. What’s her name?

PH: Gerry Hamby in Greeneville, South Carolina.

HH: Well, Gerry, listen to 94.5, Conservative Talk

PH: I call her Gigi.

HH: Go Gigi. So you don’t…

PH: But anyway, so Perry, I brought Perry over to meet her in 2012, and this was sort of after oops, this was after he was sort of…

HH: Yeah.

PH: His campaign was falling apart. And he spent a good few minutes with her talking to her, and you know, she fell in love with the guy. Voted for Romney, but she liked the guy. And that’s the thing with Perry. You have a lot of Republicans you meet who really like him. They’re just not sure if they can be for him.

HH: What did you do in 2012? You wrote the big piece on killing the boys on the bus for Harvard, which we’ll talk about after the break, but were you on the Romney bus?

PH: I wasn’t specifically on the bus. In 2008, I was an embedded producer, so I was on the bus with Romney, Hillary, McCain and Palin.

HH: Okay.

PH: So I covered all the people who lost. In 2012, I covered the Romney campaign generally, but I just had a little bit more of a long leash. I was on the bus sometimes, but you know, just traveling the country. But yeah, during the primaries, I was mostly covering the Republican primaries.

HH: And the paper I just referenced, we’ve got a minute to the break, groundbreaking. You exposed what I kind of figured out early on, that the entire dynamic of political campaigns have changed because of Twitter. And it’s completely different, and when Dan Balz, I was reading along in Collision 2012, and he quotes a tweet that I tweeted in the course of the presidential debate. I thought what in the world, and Dan came on, and he said that’s where it’s made now. You figured that out before anybody else did.

PH: Yeah, I mean, I think we all kind of, in the political class, we all knew it. I had the chance to go do a fellowship at the Kennedy School at Harvard, which is really great and kind of cathartic. I had a break after the campaign, and I got to interview all the folks on the Romney campaign, the Obama campaign, all of these reporters, about what happened. And it was, you know, an interesting window into our psychologies. And we, you know, I just came to the conclusion that Twitter is the gathering place. It’s the agenda setter. Both campaigns said that. It’s no longer the front page of the New York Times or CNN or CBS or Fox, although those are very important. They’re just one piece of the puzzle. Everyone in the political class is on Twitter, so that’s where sort of the narratives are set. That doesn’t mean that America is on Twitter. Only about 15% of the country is actually on Twitter. But the elites who are shaping public opinion, left, right, center…

HH: The old Mark Halperin 300 has become…

PH: Gang of 500, right.

HH: …the 30,000…

PH: Exactly.

HH: …because there are really 30,000 influencers.

PH: Yeah.

—- – – —

HH: How old are you, Peter?

PH: I’m 33.

HH: You’re 33. So you’re like ancient compared to Weigel and the rest of these guys. And tomorrow, we’ll have Lachlan Markay and the gang from the Washington Free Beacon.

PH: Nice.

HH: And they’re all 10 as far as I can tell, so you’re an old man. How did you end up doing this? People always want to know the backstory. Where were you born? Where were you raised? How did you get into the business?

PH: My parents met working in local TV here in Washington in the 70s, working at a bunch of local stations. Dad was a producer, my mom was an editor. So news was always sort of in the genes. I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. I went to journalism school.

HH: Did you go to the University of Richmond?

PH: No, I went to Georgetown, went to NYU for journalism school.

HH: Oh, you did?

PH: Yes.

HH: With Nick Lehmann?

PH: What’s that?

HH: Nick Lehmann? See Lehmann up there?

PH: Yeah, accumulated student loans, as one does at journalism school.

HH: Yeah, okay.

PH: I came to CNN after the 2004 election, which is kind of unusual. I’ve been at the same place for a long time, but sort of weaseled my way up the food chain.

HH: You’ve been at CNN for almost a decade?

PH: Yeah, yeah.

HH: That’s like, you know, Leno outlasted 14 NBC presidents, but you’ve probably been through five CNN presidents.

PH: In fact, yes, that’s true. Yeah, I think four or five.

HH: Is that right? Okay.

PH: I’ve been through a lot at CNN. But 2016 will be my third presidential. I covered the ’08 campaign, the ’12 campaign, the ’16 campaign as well as you know, midterms. And you know, I’ve kind of had this job now where I, as I said before, so many of us are native to the web. We get all of our news online. And CNN is kind of restructuring itself a little bit where they’re investing heavily in digital. So I write and report for CNN.com, and then go on TV around it, which is a pretty fun job.

HH: It’s a reverse.

PH: Usually, in TV news, it’s the opposite is true. You know, reporters are geared to going on TV, and then the people that run the website are begging and pleading for them to send them content. I kind of work the opposite way, which I think a lot of people my age do.

HH: Have you thought through the ideal time frame? Two minutes is my limit. I will not watch YouTube. I read much faster than I watch. Everything is too slow.

PH: Yeah.

HH: So have you figured out what your limit is for the Hambycast?

PH: Yeah, so again, I think a lot of politics shows on TV have made the mistake of mimicking the sort of tropes of television and just putting that online. Research shows viewership for all kind of web video just drops off at like two minutes.

HH: Oh, is that it?

PH: So today, I’ve been editing episode two, and editors love all the content. They’re just sticklers. They’re like cut here, cut here, cut here, because you know, they don’t want to push it longer than 2:10, because you know, that’s the limit. Again, if you work in politics, you work in campaigns, and that’s who the kind of audience is for this, you want it to be short. We’re all busy. We have no attention spans anymore. I have a friend that works for Scott Brown who emailed me and said thank you for telling me this is only two minutes, otherwise I wouldn’t have watched it. So yeah, the goal is to keep it mobile friendly, digital friendly, just short. I mean, we’ve got so much content in South Carolina last week with Rick Perry. We could have filled up a whole hour. But you know, we just didn’t have the space.

HH: So we’ve got 57 days to the election. Do they shift your priorities? Let’s use Scott Brown.

PH: Yeah.

HH: Professor Lessig attacked him today wrongfully, slandered him.

PH: Saw that.

HH: And I’m not asking you to comment or not. I slammed Lessig He’s not who he says he is. He’s fabricated. And so Scott Brown came back at him with a hammer. It’s a fascinating story. It matters to nobody outside of New Hampshire. To Peter Hamby, what do you do with something like that? It’s a great story for me.

PH: Scott Brown loves running against these Harvard professors.

HH: Yeah, he does. But do you have to say that just doesn’t work?

PH: It’s tough to say. So Lessig is running this Mayday PAC, which is running a sort of, you know, on a good government mission. I mean, you were talking with Tom Cotton earlier about whether judges matters. Or I always wonder if ethics issues matter in campaigns. It’s hard to tell. This doesn’t seem like it’s going to be central to this race. I think it’s kind of, they were trying to make a foil out of Lessig, and again, portray Scott as sort of a regular guy, and his opponent as being dishonest. I think the foreign policy stuff is really what’s going to hurt Shaheen in this race.

HH: It is peaking. People are afraid. And down in South Carolina when you were following Perry around, how many people brought up ISIS? Anybody?

PH: Not a lot. Perry, it was mostly, well, I was also with Rubio earlier in the week, but so for Perry, most people brought up the indictment and brought up the border, and that’s what people were talking to him about. I was with Marco earlier in the week in Anderson, South Carolina, which is probably one of the most conservative parts of the state. He talked a lot about ISIS. That came up organically.

HH: Curious, Rubio is the real deal sports fan. When I last saw him, it was when LeBron had signed back with the world famous Cleveland Cavaliers, about to begin their five-peat. And he talks knowingly with knowledge base. He knows his professional sports. I think this is a huge advantage in American politics. When you followed him around, did he?

PH: Not when I was with him. But just today, after the Ray Rice news, after TMZ leaked that video of Ray Rice in the elevator…

HH: Beating the hell out of his girlfriend, yeah.

PH: Rubio tweeted that he should just be suspended for life.

HH: Forever.

PH: Yeah, forever and ever. This is…

HH: Interesting. He did that?

PH: Yeah, look it up.

HH: That’s bold.

PH: This is something that’s very interesting about these younger candidates, especially on the Republican side who are going to be running for office if they run against Hillary Clinton, is a kind of literacy in pop culture and sports, and just regular people stuff that frankly, Hillary Clinton hasn’t been exposed to for gosh, three decades.

HH: That is a good insight that I’m going to steal.

PH: Yeah, I just think…

HH: You’re right.

PH: But think about like the Class of 2010 Republicans, whether you’re a governor or a senator. You know, I was in South Carolina last week. Nikki Haley came into office in 2010. Just a few years ago, she was out there, and she still is, honestly, going to the grocery store, buying gas, buying milk, just sort of conversant in what regular people are talking about. I’m not saying Hillary Clinton can’t get there and doesn’t know how to talk to people. It’s just one of those limitations of being in the bubble that she’s going to have to deal with.

HH: Now four years ago, Tom Cotton was dealing with enlisted men. And enlisted men have trouble when they’re deployed. They have trouble with their girlfriends, they have trouble with their wives, they have trouble with the appliance breaking the car being repossessed. And he knows that. And I don’t think Hillary Clinton’s had to worry about, well, she left the White House broke. I’m not asking you to buy into that. But Rubio has that pulp culture, sports is endemic in America.
PH: Well, speaking of TMZ, there was, I mean, I remember last year, and I put this in my Harvard paper, this is sort of the environment that the candidates are going to have to encounter, a camera with you at all times. TMZ was in Washington, ran into them at Reagan airport, and asked him if his favorite rapper was like Biggie or Tupac.

HH: He had an answer?

PH: He had an answer lickety-split.

HH: Yeah.

PH: And he was totally conversant in hip-hop.

HH: Yeah.

PH: And it was like huh, he handled that pretty well.

HH: Have you read An American Son, his book?

PH: I haven’t, yet.

HH: It’s a very good book. Cruz, by the way, is also very…you don’t win nine Supreme Court arguments because you’re lucky, and he’s also very conversant, not that our Supreme Court is.

— – – — –

HH: If someone had told you ten years ago follow Chuck Todd, that would be like me telling you to follow Peter Hamby. I’m pretty good at this. Same with Weigel, same with Lachlan Markay. But Peter, journalists used to have a path. And you know, you used to do it like when your parents were over at Channel 4 and working for Bob Ryan, the greatest man ever in weather. They had a way to go, a career path. There are no career paths. So what’s your career path?

PH: Well, I speak to a lot of college students, and even high school students, and as someone who went to journalism school, I mean, look, I do think it’s important to learn the basics, you know, just the who, what, where, why, when, how to write fast, how to write clear. That served me so well. Working at a TV network and knowing how to write has really helped me. But Twitter has really changed the game. I mean, if you are, Weigel is a great example. Like if you are, if you have a voice and you are an expert in something, you can punch through. And look back at, like, 2010 in D.C. There was just this explosion of young reporters in this city who really hustled and kind of broke…

HH: Guy Benson, Mary Katharine Ham, David Weigel…

PH: Yeah, totally. Totally…

HH: Ezra Klein.

PH: Yeah, and it made for this disconnect between…

HH: Greg Sargent, yeah…

PH: …watching the Sunday shows and seeing the sort of same old pundits talk about whatever. And then you also had these people online who are breaking news, who are making sort of compelling, well-researched arguments…

HH: And are much funnier.

PH: Yeah, and you’re allowed to have a voice.

HH: Yeah.

PH: It’s okay to have a voice. You don’t have to write in sort of dry wire copy anymore. Just be an expert in like one or two things, and totally own it. It could be sports, fashion, politics, you know, economics, whatever. If you’re smart and you have a voice, the internet has really empowered people like us so that the path is really just to be smarter than everyone else and sort of work really hard.

HH: So do you have a metric that you want to follow? I don’t know how many followers you have right now, Peter Hamby of CNN. Let’s say it’s 50,000. Do you have a growth exponential that you know…there’s only about 75,000 people that matter in America as influencers. Do you know what that metric is?

PH: No, I have no idea. I mean, the funny thing is like every time I break a story that’s big, I’ll pick up, you know, 150-200 followers. You know, when I was, this is a good example. In 2009, during the Mark Sanford debacle in South Carolina, I was one of the reporters on the ground who had previous experience in South Carolina and broke a lot of news. And that was sort of when Twitter was sort of coming to our attention here in Washington, and I just picked up, you know, 1,000 followers.

HH: A thousand…

PH: And then broke a couple stories in 2012 and picked them up that way. On your show, I’ve just picked up 40. So thank you for that.

HH: Well good, we’ll push for more.

PH: But there’s no metric. When I was asked, and I think people ask young journalists like what do you want to be one day, do you want to be you know, Tim Russert or John King or whatever? As much as I respect those guys, there’s no model anymore.

HH: That’s exactly…

PH: You know, I want to be what…

HH: That’s exactly the right answer.

PH: We can always change the game every year.

HH: Who the hell knows?

PH: Yeah.

HH: @PeterHambyCNN, Peter, come back early and often.

End of interview.

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