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Earlier this year, former New York Times columnist and MSNBC contributor Anand Giridharadas agreed to host a weekly news talk show for youth-skewing media company Vice. The idea of his show, Seat at the Table, was to shine a spotlight on the power balance in the U.S. and offer regular people a chance to discuss the major issues of the day. The series was planned to debut towards the end of May.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and Vice asked him to get the show on the air even quicker.
Giridharadas faced two challenges; the first was putting together a show during quarantine. The author of Winners Take All, which looks at the inner sanctum of the new gilded age, was living in a house in Sullivan County in New York state with his family that had dial-up speed Internet, “the travails of rural America,” he says. This was not conducive to the new way of working, so he and his family found a new home and he turned a barn on the property into a studio. This one had working Internet.
“We had one or two meetings with the team after we agreed to do it before the pandemic struck. This show has been entirely developed in the new world, in the new way that we’re all operating. It’s probably a lot more unusual for a lot of people on this team, but I’m a writer and I’ve always worked by myself, so for me, it’s not a huge change,” he tells Deadline.
The second challenge was retooling the show for the new times.
“Clearly there was a shift; everything is now seen through the prism of this pandemic,” he adds. “The pandemic is not a transformation of America, it is a revelation. It’s the job of this show not to ask questions that are 24-hour questions, that are not weekly questions, but questions that go deeper. Who are we? What are the social choices and collective decisions that we have made over the last generation to be in the state that we’re in, and not to have had South Korea’s outcome, and not to have had other countries’ outcome.”
Morgan Hertzan, EVP & General Manager at Vice TV, tells Deadline that Giridharadas’ outsider view of U.S. politics is particularly pertinent in these times. “His voice and his thinking is so relevant, even more relevant than it was eight or 12 weeks ago. Right now, there are so many millions of Americans quarantined at home, asking questions about healthcare and the economy and the government. Who better to hear about the stuff than from Anand?” he says.
Hertzan, whose network is airing a raft of shows produced remotely including Vice Quarantine Hour and Shelter In Place with Shane Smith, adds that it started working with technology company VCC, which essentially makes video calls into HD-quality footage, when the pandemic started. “There’s two instincts with making shows in this time. With some shows, it makes sense to delay, but we actually accelerated. As all of this stuff started happening. We really wanted Anand to be on TV so we said ‘let’s get going.’ ”
Giridharadas’ aim is to give voice to people who are not usually seen on television — for instance, uninsured people talking about healthcare. He believes that there is an over-representation of affluent white men on television. However, he says that the outbreak has actually already helped shift this balance. “The obvious person [to put on television] right now, which a lot of people are actually doing, are doctors and nurses. In a way because of this crisis, that is happening because people like me don’t know that much about what’s going on and pundits are valueless right now. There has been a pretty remarkable shift with frontline people and experts getting on the air in recent weeks. Imagine what that would be like for everything.
“There’s no reason the same logic doesn’t apply when talking about wealth tax. I want to put a minimum wage worker on air talking about the wealth tax. I’m sure they might have a different perspective. I would love to put more teachers on air to discuss education. If we’re going to be discussing issues of race or gender, it is not uncommon to have four or five white guys sitting at a table. Maybe I notice this because I am brown and I have the special brown goggles,” he adds.
A number of major corporations have, in recent weeks, stepped up to help with the crisis, from the likes of Giorgio Armani converting its factories to make masks or Twitter’s Jack Dorsey pledging up to $1 billion in coronavirus relief. However, Giridharadas says that many billionaires are part of the reason the country is currently in crisis due to a “war on taxation,” “bottle-service public policy” and off-shoring and outsourcing.
“Society is in bad shape and some rich people are stepping up. If you tell the story that way, it’s like watching the movie from an hour and 45 minutes in and it’s a heartwarming tale. But what happened [at the start] of that movie?,” he says. “A lot of the people stepping up are of that class, which is the reason that we’re in this right now. I am very skeptical of the notion that the most qualified firefighters are arsonists.”
The first guest for Seat at the Table, which airs at 10 PM on Wednesday April 22, is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who will discuss the future of the progressive movement and the ways in which this global pandemic should fuel political imagination.
Giridharadas says he wants to ask her how her experiences working in non-profit and bartending “gave her a view of how class and power works in America that informed her when she got this new job.”
But how is the host going to get something different from someone who is constantly on television and Twitter? “There’s a reason I’ve never been named White House Correspondent for any publication. In my career, whenever I’ve had to be on the news talking about the story of the day, I’ve never been quite as good at that.
“When I was in India, I used to get lectured by my editors at the New York Times, who said, ‘You wrote a beautiful 2,000-word story about being on a train for 24 hours with lower class migrants migrating to the city, but the stock market went down by 10% and you didn’t file a story, that’s really unusual.’ I’ve always been interested in the more human side…I follow my curiosity and I’m going to bring that to the show.”
Given his outsider status, how does Giridharadas square the circle of working with a company that is part owned by companies including Disney and a number of private-equity investors? It’s something that he has considered.
“If 12 minutes into the episode, you suddenly here a loud noise and it goes to black, I suppose you know what happened. But every indication I have had so far is that they want me to have those conversations.”