The Kenyan-Born, Canadian-Raised News Anchor Who Loves Free Speech, New York and Telling Your Story
Autonomous podcast with Ali Velshi, on microaggressions, Al Jazeera America, Trump and Sanders and more
You may know Ali Velshi as the guy on CNN during the financial crisis (or a natural disaster), or you may know him from his most recent TV gig that came to an end last week, as the first anchor ever hired on Al Jazeera America. This Autonomous podcast will give you a fully look at the person behind the guy you see on TV — on his love of New York (and free speech), his travel across America, and more. We also talked politics, and the surprising rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. [14:21 in the podcast.]
Bernie Sanders can do less damage, in my opinion, than Donald Trump can, because Donald Trump’s damage can be on the global security front and Bernie Sanders can be on the U.S. economy front, and the U.S. economy is in relatively ok shape at the moment.
We talked a lot about media, and it came from a discussion of what went wrong at Al Jazeera America. Velshi said there was “a little bit of an issue with resistance because of the name and logo, but that actually wasn’t the nail in the coffin. It was not being digital. That was the big impediment we couldn’t overcome.” [53:30] Listen to the full podcast here, or below, more quotes from the overall interview:
Velshi was born in Nairobi, Kenya to a family that was originally from South Africa, and had gone to Africa from India at the turn of the 20th century, and were anti-apartheid activists. His great grandfather and Mahatma Gandhi were close friends, which is why he grew up believing in “passive resistance and opposition to injustice.” Soon after he was born his family moved to Toronto, Canada where he grew up. [1:45]
In college, he was kicked out of a political speech. “I asked a question, he didn’t like the question, and I got thrown out of a hall,” he said. “The net result is I’m a huge fan of free speech protests. In Canada, and most of the world, we don’t hold free speech to be as absolute as Americans think it is.” [23:03]
That led to a discussion about microaggressions and what’s happening now on American college campuses. Velshi sees both sides — “I really, really enjoy that people are using their right to protest. I really don’t enjoy that people use it to shut other people down” [24:24]:
I really, very strenuously object to the idea that voices should be cut down and shut down on campus. I’m entirely fine with people protesting speakers and saying why you don’t like that person. But the idea that they shouldn’t be speaking on a campus I think goes against what universities are all about.
We talked about Velshi’s arrival — by motorcycle — as a host at CNN right after 9/11 [34:24], his love of road trips — and one in particular for CNN during the 2008 election [38:35], and the key issue of the 2016 election — global security [13:20].
We talked about the double-edged sword of social media. Velshi says he appreciates the democratization it brings: The idea that everybody now has the power to say anything to any audience. That’s terrific.” But as a distraction, for everyone young and old, it’s “a little annoying” and leads to “cultural problems” (and he’s more bullish on Facebook Live than SnapChat). [41:45]
Velshi has been a longtime resident of New York, and talks about it in glowing terms [45:25]:
It should be like a prison sentence. Everybody has to do some time in New York, and then go back to where they’re from, and apply some of the lessons you learned in the city — where rich and poor travel together, on the subways, in the same cabs, where everybody smells everybody else, where everybody has to eat everybody else’s food and walk on the same pavement with each other. I think that is a lesson for humanity.
And some final notes on Trump [starts at 9:05]. Velshi has interviewed him, shared a table with him at events. One thing that’s clear to Velshi: “He really had thought this through well. This isn’t an accident. This isn’t one of those things where he got in and thought, ‘wow this is really surprising, they all seem to like it every time I say something.’ He worked really really hard to figure out the space that had been vacated in the political population and in the Republican party. The idea he thought this weird campaign out is both shocking and alarming to me.”
As for the coverage of Trump, “I really feel the media has abdicated it’s responsibility in terms of allowing some of the things that are said in this campaign, many by Donald Trump but some by others, to go unchallenged.”
Thanks to my friend Ali Velshi for his time — please listen and give any feedback (good or bad) as we continue the podcast!
Next week: Van Jones, CNN contributor, activist and attorney.