Ana Kasparian appeared at the Berkeley Forum on November 10, 2016. Ms. Kasparian’s address centered around how her career has informed her passions for issues such as feminism and education reform. The event was moderated by Jackson Rigley.
Jackson Rigley: I wanted to first ask you about your time at [The Young Turks], you’ve been working there since 2007 so obviously you’ve seen a lot of political change over the years, factions rising and falling. My question is, how has the political landscape changed while you’ve been reporting and how has that changed you?
Ana Kasparian: The political landscape, I would say, hasn’t really changed for the better. I’m actually pretty worried about it considering how this election went down. Now, for those who are supportive of Donald Trump, I would hope that you don’t at least agree with the rhetoric. But I think that this election has really opened the floodgates for some scary times and I think that we need to take a step back and think about the way that we perceive one another, the way we disagree with one another, the way we interact with one another. I’ve seen politics become more corrupt, which I think has led to the backlash toward candidates like Hillary Clinton. And what we need to do more than anything, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, is fight to take our democracy back. I think the biggest issue for everyone who’s interested in politics, for everyone who cares about our democracy is getting that money out of politics. And it’s actually the most non-partisan issue impacting us right now. There are Republicans and Democrats right now that see this as a big problem, and they want to do something about it. So I would say that politics has definitely become more corrupt and with this election, it’s gotten bigger.
Jackson Rigley: This corruption – you’re referring to Citizens United as being a part of that – so what kind of solutions then do you bring about? Because obviously there are constitutional difficulties with freedom of speech and trying to overturn the Citizens United ruling, so what is the best way of bringing about this change?
Ana Kasparian: Well, I don’t agree that corporations are people – I think that’s a ridiculous notion. So I don’t think that this is a freedom of speech issue. Now, with that said, what I think is important is that we have public financing of elections. So one proposal – and I’m personally tied to this – is to create a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics. There’s a political action committee known as Wolf PAC that TYT has launched. What we want to do is to get state representatives to agree to a constitutional convention where there will be dialogue about how we move about with a constitutional amendment. And I think it’s doable. States like California, I believe Vermont as well, have already signed on for this, so people get it. And this is the good thing about this – it’s not a partisan issue, so it’s not like we’re having a debate about abortion. We’re not having a debate about gay rights. We’re having a debate about democracy. And so Democrats get it, Republicans get it, Independents get it, the Green Party gets it, everybody gets it. We’ve actually had Republican state representatives sign off on this, which is great. It’s a long road ahead of us, and sometimes we feel discouraged because we launched this back in And even if it’s a slow progression, I do see us moving towards progress, because people are tired of corruption. And again, I think the election of Donald Trump shows that, even though he’s someone as I mentioned earlier, who benefits from that corruption quite a bit.
Jackson Rigley: Now in your address, you’re very critical of mainstream media which has a lot of influential advertisements. I’d like to ask you, as a political commentator, what value do you bring to the democratic process. Does partisan commentary work to further dogma?
Ana Kasparian: Yeah, I come from a progressive point of view and I think the important thing is to always be honest with your audience. It doesn’t matter if you’re watching CNN or The Young Turks, you are getting a point of view. The question is are you getting a point of view that’s open and honest and transparent or are you getting reporters who are pretending to be objective. There’s a difference between being objective and being neutral. And what you see a lot in the media is this confusion – or confusion isn’t the right word. You see reporters attempting to be objective, when in reality, they’re just treating both sides as if they’re equal when they’re not equal. I’ll give you a quick example. I was watching Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC today, and I don’t know why I do this, but whenever I’m traveling for work, I love watching the mainstream media. It’s because I don’t have cable, like I won’t pay for cable, it’s just not worth it.
Jackson Rigley: When you’re alone in a hotel room, it’s nice to have a voice.
Ana Kasparian: Yeah, it’s nice to have a voice, and I love to watch and get angry at the TV. So, I’m watching Hardball and Chris Matthews is supposed to be a liberal, but he had this montage where he was comparing Donald Trump and Barack Obama. Now, they had their meeting today, and a lot of people are confused about it, whether they get along or what happened. And Chris Matthews was like how could they possibly get along? Look at the terrible ways they attacked one another. And so you see Trump, and Trump’s like “Show me your birth certificate! You’re black, you can’t be an American!” – he didn’t say that, but that was what was implied. And it was hideous, Donald Trump is pretty brutal and hideous to him. And then, Obama’s attacks were “This is unacceptable rhetoric, we can’t talk to each other this way, he’s trying to divide us.” It was just like a completely different way of dealing with someone. And so the way the montage was put together, it had made it seem as though they were both equal – but they’re not equal to each other. They’re not both equal. I’m not a big fan of Barack Obama, i think that in a lot of ways, he has failed us. But, to say that he uses the same tone and the same rhetoric as Donald Trump in attacking Donald Trump is ridiculous. And so, that kind of neutrality is unacceptable in my book. You need to be a truth-teller.
Jackson Rigley: Now, before we speak more about the election, because obviously that’s something we will get to, I have to ask you a little bit more about the name of the show, Young Turks. Because as the group that committed the Armenian Genocide where more than 1.5 million people died in 1915, can you explain to me a little bit more about this name or what I’m missing, because it almost seems if someone because they enjoy states’ rights uses the Confederate flag as a symbol. Can you explain that?
Ana Kasparian: Yeah, so the Confederate flag or a word like Nazi means one thing. So a lot of people like to attack us and say, “Oh it’s just like naming your show the Young Nazis.” But the English definition of Turk, Young Turk, is someone who rebels against societal expectations. I’m Armenian, and I get it, Armenians are angry with the name of the show. I can be as honest as I want, I hate the name of the show. I despise the name of the show. If I could do anything in the world right now, I would snap my fingers and the name of the show would be different. Unfortunately, the name of a show is a brand, and once you change it, the brand disappears. And so, we’ve had so many talks about this, so many tears have been cried, so many difficult moments have been had, and it’s been difficult for me personally. Now, that said, the name of the show is not meant to hearken back to a genocidal group – that would be a really bad business idea. You know the intention of the name is, right – we want to be rebels, we’re rebelling against societal expectations. What a lot of people don’t even realize – which is what I find interesting – is the Young Turks originally arose to challenge the Ottoman Empire which was horrendous to Armenians. And so, at first, they actually wanted to give Armenians more rights because they were disenfranchised and treated horrendously by the Ottomans and that’s how it started out. But then there were rebels within the rebels. There were rebels within the Young Turks that wanted to continue being horrendous to the Armenians, and so, that’s the group that of course, that I hate, I despise beyond words could even explain or describe. My family was tortured, brutalized by Turks and so it’s a difficult issue for me to even talk about without getting emotional. But I just want to assure you guys we have no intentions of denying the genocide, I’ve talked about the genocide on the show. There are videos about the Genocide on the Young Turks’ channel. I was able to do those videos with Cenk’s blessing so I encourage you guys to check that out, but I hear you, I totally understand where our viewers are coming from.
Jackson Rigley: You’ve been very outspoken, in that regard, is it something that you feel like is reasonable that people are still reticent of the name? Do you get maybe some more insight into how commercial imperatives for other markets, and for other newspeople play into their decision-making? Because you know keeping to the name because of brand recognition, there are other imperatives around media. Does that give you insight?
Ana Kasparian: We’re not really worried about other members of the media or anything like that. We’re more concerned about not disappearing because we’ve worked so hard to build what we have and changing the name means that we disappear. That’s why we try to refer to us as TYT, every time I introduce as the host of the Young Turks, I kind of cringe a little bit, if I’m going to be honest with you. But I had to make a decision and ultimately my decision was to stick with the show that didn’t censor me and gave me a voice. That’s more important to me right now.
Jackson Rigley: I really appreciate you’re honesty, I have a billion questions to ask you, but I think we only have time for one more so the audience can have the chance to ask you their questions before you get out of here. I think that a lot of people are wondering about what role gender played in this election. And why do you think so many women supported Donald Trump?
Ana Kasparian: Yeah, it’s interesting. There was certainly a split in female demographics that Hillary supported. And so, Donald Trump did do well with white female voters, which I think is telling. And Hillary Clinton did well with minority women.
Jackson Rigley: Why do you think that’s so?
Ana Kasparian: I mean it’s telling considering the rhetoric that Donald Trump has used throughout his campaign. I think even his strongest supporters could agree that some of the things that he’s said about minorities has been offensive, and beyond questionable – talking about banning Muslims, referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. I mean that kind of language turns a lot of minorities off. But I think the reason why a lot of people were kind of just able to brush that kind of rhetoric under the rug and vote for him anyway is because they are tired of the status quo. I don’t think that all Trump supporters are necessarily bad people so I don’t want anyone to think that I have that frame of mind. I think some of them, that we’ve interviewed during our field reports are very clear about their bigotry and very honest about their bigotry which concerns me, but I think that a lot of the people that voted for him really believed that he’s anti-establishment and he’s really going to change things. There are people that feel the economic burden of failed policies, but again if you want to focus on the mainstream media, his economic proposals have a lot to do with trickle down economics and we’ve had a very, very, very long experience with that. And it hasn’t worked. And so I’m curious to see how it all plays out. Who knows? Maybe he will make America great again.
Audience member: Thank you so much for being here. There’s been a lot of talk recently about social media acting as an echo chamber that’s feeded into polarization of beliefs. Can you comment on that?
Ana Kasparian: Absolutely. So I’ll actually talk about it in a more broader sense and how much of an impact it has on everyone regardless of what you’re political ideology is. So in a journalism class that I teach at Cal State Northridge, a lot of the lessons that I discuss is the echo chamber of the Internet. Particularly Google. So everytime you’re searching for something on Google, or every time you go on to one of your favorite websites, whether it be a conservative website or a liberal website, Google keeps track of all that information. We know that. And the reason they do it is because they want to perfect the algorithm to better suit you, so that you’re always exposed to information and content that will always appeal to you. But there’s a huge downside to that, because your entire life becomes an echo chamber. We tend to associate with people we agree with anyway, but the Internet is supposed to be a place where we go, where we have unlimited resources to educate ourselves. We’re supposed to have an open mind and be exposed to varying opinions and varying perspectives. And Google, in its effort to kind of cater to us, has actually deprived us of different perspectives and I think that’s polarizing American politics even more. And you see it in social media because, again, we tend to be friends with people we agree with. But I would argue that it’s more important to be open-minded to people that you disagree with. Now again, rhetoric matters, so if we’re attacking one another and we’re calling each other names while we disagree, that’s only going to further divide us. Look, I’ve been guilty of that as well, so I’ve got to be honest, but everyone in a while after my rage relaxes and I tone it down, I try to think about the conversation I just had and I try to think about whether or not that other person had a point. Best example is when I was debating about prostitution and whether or not we should legalize it, with Cenk Uyger, the host of our show. And he’s in favor of legalizing and regulating it and at that time, I had bought into the conservative propaganda and I’m like “No! You legalize it and there’s going to be prostitutes everywhere!” And we’d gotten into a huge fight about it – I was super stubborn, I wouldn’t agree – I was like “No! You’re wrong! You’re wrong! I don’t want to brothels right next to schools! It’s going to be terrible!” And then I started secretly on the down low, doing my own research, like what the pros and cons, what’s happening in other countries that have legalized prostitution. And I started changing my mind. And all I ask is that we all keep an open mind, let’s go out of our way to expose ourselves to the other perspectives.
Audience Member: If you look at independent, media-based kinds of resources that are customizable, specifically the Young Turks, you guys target a very much more progressive audience which seems to contribute to this kind of echo-chamber effect, so do you feel that your outlet is at all responsible in part for this kind of polarization? How much of the burden of otherwise Donald Trump for example, are you willing to take for leading to this polarization?
Ana Kasparian: Yeah, that’s a great question actually. So I would like to do more research into our audience to figure out what portion of it does consist of conservatives but we shockingly have a lot of conservatives watching the show. And the reason why that happens, in my opinion, is because we do attack Democrats a lot. Because of the corruption and the politics, Democrats and Republicans behave very similarly once they’re elected into office. And so we talk about that a lot, and so, like I said earlier on during my talk when President Obama was elected and we started criticizing him, people who wanted the echo chamber started dropping like flies and it sucked. We felt like we made a lot of progress with the show in 2008, like oh, we grew our audience, we thought our audience was great and then all of a sudden our subscriber base just dropped. It didn’t just stagnate, all of a sudden you see a huge dip. And you also saw that dip during this election when Hillary Clinton was nominated and we had to keep it real with the audience and be like, “Hey, Hillary Clinton is now the Democratic nominee.” And we had varying voices and a lot of disagreement on our network about whether or not we should vote for a third party, whether or not we should support Hillary, is it better to have Trump. And the theory behind that was well if you elect Trump, he’s going to burn the country to the ground and start again. Literally, there were people on our network that have theories like that. And so, there was a lot of disagreement on the echo chamber, just because we come from a progressive point of view doesn’t mean we totally agree with one another so we really go out of our way to make sure we don’t have an echo chamber and I think our audience also reflects that.
Audience member: I’m a huge fan of your show, and the feed on Tuesday was one of the few things that kept me sane. With the recent subcommittee note on corruption and the Democratic party, I’m curious about your level of optimism about if the DNC is really able to make some change and allow true progressives who aren’t accepting their money to come in and change the Democratic party?
Ana Kasparian: So I don’t know if you guys saw, but Howard Dean would now like to be the head of the DNC, which I think is not a good idea because he’s a gigantic lobbyist and that’s not what we need. But I think that TYT as an organization is very optimistic about leading the way to change for the DNC. The DNC is very corrupt. What happened with the primaries, it irates me beyond belief. Like it was the hardest thing to stomach, to see what the DNC did, to see what Debbie Wasserman-Schultz did in manipulating the primaries to ensure that we had a flawed candidate as the Democratic nominee and that ultimately led to Trump winning. And so, what we want to do is we want to fight and Cenk is a little more aggressive in his wording, but he wants to go to war. And a lot of people are like “Oh, it’s a liberal echo chamber,” but we want to go to war with liberals, specifically members of the DNC, we want to change the DNC and we want to do it aggressively. We want people like Bernie Sanders to be part of the DNC, people who refuse to take corporate money, people who understand that corporate greed is unacceptable in a place that’s supposed to function as a democracy. And so, we’re working on a game plan right now, obviously it’s a very early for me to give you any details, but we’re going to fight and we’re going to fight hard.
Audience member: I think it’s safe to say that most liberals really did not see the result of this election coming, and one cause of this might of course be because of the whole echo chamber effect, do you also think that there’s something wrong in the way we conduct our polling?
Ana Kasparian: Yes, think that a lot of the organizations that do the polling are part of the echo chamber, and I think that they’re so caught up in their establishment bubble that they just don’t believe that someone like Donald Trump could ever win the presidency. And so, that bias, I think, impacts their methodology. And there was also the issue of people not being honest about who they’re going to vote for. Or maybe not being honest about whether they’re even going to go vote. There are a lot of people who didn’t vote, a lot of members of our electorate who just decided to stay home and it might be because they were tired of this system where you have to pick the lesser of two evils. You’ve heard that quite a bit. So I think that if I ever hear Nate Silver or FiveThirtyEight again in a credible, legitimate way, I will strangle myself. I don’t know how often you guys watch the show or how regularly you watch the show, but I don’t care about polling. Like I care about it a little bit, to kind of get a sense of what people are thinking, but I don’t put too much weight behind it. There are other members of our show, who love FiveThirtyEight, but I don’t care what Nate Silver says. Instead of focusing on polling, why don’t we focus on policy? Policy over polling – that’s what elections should be about. What are these people proposing to do for us? Like forget about their character, forget about whether or not they’re unsavory. What are you going to do, Donald Trump? What are you going to do about foreign policy? “Oh, I’ll let you know when I’m elected” – no, that’s not good enough. That’s what we should focus on. So, i think that yes, the pollsters are part of the echo chamber, and I think that hopefully, after this election, they experience a little bit of humility and they realize that they need to get themselves out of that bubble.
Jackson Rigley: In fairness to Nate Silver, I think we’d still count him for sports. I think that’s all of it.
Ana Kasparian: Sure, as long as it doesn’t have to do with our democracy.