By Dave Astor
Avlon – who’ll keynote the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award evening on June 21 – is a senior political analyst and fill-in anchor at CNN, former Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Beast, author of several books, and more. He has also been a columnist, as well as co-editor of the anthology “Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns” (2011) and its sequel.
Here’s a Q&A I did with John on January 24:
Dave Astor: When did you first become associated with the NSNC?
John Avlon: It was around the time we released the first “ Deadline Artists ” anthology. Seemed like a book that members of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists would appreciate – and I immediately found a group of kindred spirits from all across the country deeply committed to this great American art form.
I love how little “d” democratic the organization is. It’s open to anyone from a local newspaper columnist to someone writing for a national paper or website. And there’s a real sense of being craftsmen and custodians of this art form, learning from the best of the past and then paying it forward.
Dave: How often have you spoken at an NSNC conference?
John: Buffalo will be the second time I’ve spoken to the group and the third conference I’ve attended: Detroit , DC , and Buffalo. I had to miss the meeting where I was awarded best online column for 2012 – which I really hold dear because it came from columnist colleagues. And as Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Beast I always made sure our columnists – like Mike Daly, Mike Barnicle, Erin Gloria Ryan, Goldie Taylor, and Rick Wilson – entered the awards because they carry so much weight.
(The NSNC column contest is open now. Read the rules and enter HERE )
John: As one of those columnists who began my career as a speechwriter, I take my time to get it right. But I’m planning on talking about the form of the reported column – the kind that greats like Breslin, Kempton, Royko, and Dorothy Thompson practiced – against the backdrop of a sustained assault on the free press and even facts themselves.
I believe column writing is much more than simply having an opinion. The greatest value to the society and the news cycle is to be a first-person journalist – a deadline artist – pursuing scoops and fighting the good fight. That means fighting for something bigger than ourselves, telling someone else’s story while using language that makes it really resonate. Our job as journalists is make important stories interesting. And I think columnists have an edge in that.
I just saw the excellent new HBO documentary “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” – and it really captures this spirit in our work and craft. One other aspect became even more clear: the obligation of the columnist to stand up against mobs in the moment, to defend individual rights and articulate deeper values despite the angry passions of the moment.
Dave: Why did you leave The Daily Beast?
John: I loved my time at The Daily Beast – both the five years as a columnist and especially my five years as Editor-in-Chief. I’m incredibly proud of the team we built and the fact that we more than doubled our readership to well over 1 million readers a day by focusing on quality original digital reporting and sharp opinion – which was contrary to conventional wisdom.
But I took over from Tina Brown when our first-born child, Jack, was just three weeks old. Being EIC is a 24/7 job if you’re going to do it right – especially in a turnaround situation. There’s always an obligation to figure out how to do more with less – the economics of digital news haven’t caught up with the eyeballs yet and budget season can start to feel like Groundhog Day. The right opportunity came up at the right time for CNN after almost 10 years as a contributor and I was delighted to embrace a new arena to fight the good fight of our time while feeling nothing but love and respect for the Beast team and the great work they’re continuing to do.
Dave: How do you like your time at CNN so far? What’s it like being on TV vs. in the online journalism world?
John: The truth is that TV is fun and invigorating for me. And hosting allows you to exercise an entirely different set of muscles. I feel that CNN is a vital place to be in the front lines of journalism at this time in our history. It’s perhaps the last great global independent news brand at a time when freedom of the press is under attack at home and abroad. And the sheer size of the CNN online audience means that written columns reach a maximum readership.
But increasingly I think folks are beginning to understand that TV and digital are two sides of the same coin and should not be siloed. Instead, they should inform one another. Convergence is coming and it won’t be wisely ignored.
John: Doing “ Reality Check ” every day on “New Day” is a blast. It’s essentially writing a column to perform on air every day. I’ve been given a lot of freedom to pick the topics and my background as a columnist has been invaluable. Delivering them on live TV adds another layer of adrenaline and urgency. And it’s really gratifying to see how they’ve resonated.
At a time when disinformation is being propagated by foreign powers and the President is attacking real journalists as being fake news because they don’t cater to his partisan perspective, there’s a real need for reality checks that insist not only on a fact-based debate that cuts through the spin but also provides the perspective that comes from history. That’s what I always try to do as a columnist: use humor and history to add perspective while pushing back on bullies, bigots, and hypocrites, on both sides of the aisle where appropriate. Being able to combine “ Reality Check ” with my own written columns and hosting is ideal.
Dave: You’ve been labeled a centrist – is that accurate? If so, is it tough being a centrist in these divided times or a good place to be? Why?
John: I am proudly a centrist and an independent and I always have been. It’s a core theme that runs through most of my work. All my books are about combating hyper-partisanship and polarization to some extent. It was a dangerous dynamic that our founding fathers worried about, expressed in my book “Washington’s Farewell” and the contemporary toll chronicled in “ Wingnuts .” And the history of centrist leaders expressed in my first book “ Independent Nation ,” which I wrote in 2004. I believe it’s our opportunity and obligation to plant a flag, to make the case that this is part of an essential American tradition.
But it’s also vitally important to express the idea that being in the center is not about the mushy middle. I believe in being nonpartisan, but not neutral. And that explicitly means not trying to find a mythic moral equivalence on every issue. It means being an honest broker and calling BS where appropriate. I believe the key quote of our times is from Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts.” That’s a good mission statement for journalists in our time, worth writing on every newsroom wall. It’s also a perspective that principled centrists are qualified to deliver because we can be honest brokers rather than predictable partisans.
And then there’s this: At some point this fever is going to break and we are going to need to find a way to reunite as a nation. That’s the subject of my next book – which I’m working on now – about Lincoln’s plan to win the peace after winning the war and his vision of national reconciliation and reunification. It will be published by Simon & Schuster and I am aiming to finish it by the end of this year for publication in late fall of 2020.
Dave: You were an important speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani when he was New York City’s mayor. Your opinion of him then vs. today, when he’s associated with Trump?
John: I was proud to work for Rudy Giuliani as his chief speechwriter when he was mayor and I think that his leadership – along with the following 12 years under Mayor Bloomberg – helped save New York City. While it’s fashionable to try to deny his successes in some quarters I’ll always be proud of the work we did together before and including the response to 9/11. But good people can disagree and it’s not a secret I disagree with Rudy now regarding President Trump and the Russian investigation. He has his job to do and I have mine – which is to put facts first, without fear or favor. But however much we disagree I will always have a deep reservoir of respect and affection for him. It’s because of that respect that I think honest disagreement is healthy.
Dave Astor writes the weekly “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, blogs weekly at DaveAstorOnLiterature.com, and is the author of “Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time : The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia.”