Return to Transcripts main page
Interview With Director Bartlett Sher; Biden's Foreign Policy Challenges. Aired 1-2p ET
Aired May 28, 2021 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Hello, everyone, and welcome to AMANPOUR.
Here's what's coming up.
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're in a race to see who wins the 21st century.
GOLODRYGA (voice-over): The Biden administration faces a world of challenges. As the crises mount, a foreign policy discussion with "The New
Yorker"'s Susan Glasser and "The Irish Times"' Fintan O'Toole.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: We have begun a true dialogue between our peoples.
GOLODRYGA: Telling the story of the Oslo peace accords. I speak to the director of Bartlett Sher, as the award-winning play comes to the screen.
KATHLEEN KINGSBURY, OPINION EDITOR, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I do think that it's quite important to make sure that we are always bold and always
courageous about interrogating ideas.
The woman in charge of "The New York Times" opinion pages talks about adapting for our modern age.
JOHN GREEN, AUTHOR, "THE ANTHROPOCENE REVIEWED: ESSAYS ON A HUMAN-CENTERED PLANET": Being human in 2021 is very weird.
GOLODRYGA: Bestselling author John Green talks about making sense of the world through five-star reviews.
GOLODRYGA: Welcome to the program, everyone. I'm Bianna Golodryga in New York, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.
More than 150 government agencies, think tanks and other organizations have been hit in a global cyberattack. That's according to Microsoft. They say
the culprits are the same Russian-backed group that hacked U.S. federal agencies in the SolarWinds data breach last year.
So far, the Kremlin says it has no information on the attack. This all sets the stage for a summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian leader
Vladimir Putin in Geneva next month, a meeting that is already bound to be tense after Belarus diverted a passenger jet to detain journalist Roman
Unfortunately, for the Biden administration, this is just a taste of the foreign policy problems the U.S. is grappling with right now.
Joining me to rake over these complex issues is "The New Yorker"'s Susan Glasser and "The Irish Times" Fintan O'Toole.
Welcome, both of you.
Susan, before we can go abroad, let's start domestically here in the United States and what just transpired in the Senate, where Senate Republicans
effectively blocked a bill that would put together a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6 insurrection attack against the U.S. Capitol.
Talk about the implications that has. This is, again, just to put a commission together. And you sort of preview this in your piece yesterday
entitled "American Democracy Isn't Dead Yet, but It's Getting There."
Are we that much closer?
SUSAN GLASSER, "THE NEW YORKER": Well, that's right, Bianna.
It's really an extraordinary moment. And, in a way, we have become inured to it. But I think it's worth stopping and taking a breath and reflecting
that, basically, Republicans, a minority of Republicans in the U.S. Senate, used the rules just now to block the Congress of the United States from
investigating in a bipartisan fashion an attack upon itself.
This is an institution that is now not even able to muster the bipartisan commitment to investigate an attack upon itself. And I -- to me, I can't
think of a more clear-cut warning sign.
Actually, for my, my column that you mentioned there, I went and I spoke the other day with the author of a book that got a lot of attention here in
the U.S., including from future President Joe Biden, called "How Democracies Die."
And he said the problem that we got wrong there was that it's even worse than we think in a shorter amount of time. That's a book that came out in
2018, when it was still inconceivable that even a president like Donald Trump would actually mount a concerted campaign to undermine the legitimacy
of American elections, including inciting his followers to a violent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol to stop the certification of the vote, and that
he would still command the loyalty of his party months after those actions.
I think it's something that, again, we're in the realm of the unthinkable here, but it's really something that we can't avert our gaze from, even
though I understand the impulse to do so.
GOLODRYGA: And he is no doubt still very popular amongst Republicans. He is the party leader and has overwhelming majority within the party.
You note in your piece that, if this had been Germany, perhaps this party would have been kicked out and banned, but yet it is one of two parties in
the United States.
And, Fintan, let's take that global perspective, because President Biden has really not wanted to focus much on January 6. When asked about it,
obviously, he will reference it. He doesn't talk very often about President Trump or invoke his name.
He's focused on global issues, but he's looking at it through an economic lens. And that is obviously in an attempt to pass his massive
infrastructure bill here in the U.S. He aligned the two yesterday when he was in Cleveland promoting this bill.
And this line from him in particular stood out to me. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BIDEN: One Of the things I've found, I have you know, I'm supposedly -- they'd always announce me in the past as an expert in foreign policy.
Well, let me tell you something. Economic policy is harder than foreign policy. You know what the basis of foreign policy is and our stature in the
world? One thing, Our economic prowess. Our economic prowess.
We must be number one in the world to lead the world in the 21st century. It's a simple proposition.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: So, Fintan, the president noted yesterday that the U.S. is ranked 13 when it comes to infrastructure around the world, his eyes
obviously on China.
But he makes a point that it's very easy or it's much easier to be a foreign policy leader when you come in from a place of economic strength.
When you couple that with what's happening in Washington today, that we can't even get a bipartisan commission to attack -- to investigate an
attack on the country, how is this playing out globally?
FINTAN O'TOOLE, "THE IRISH TIMES": Yes, it's interesting that you played that clip, because it's one that I think might have caused some eyebrows to
rise a little bit in Europe, because, from a European perspective, American leadership is not just about economic might.
I mean, obviously, the wealth and the success of America and -- on an economic level is extremely important. But, of course, it's also been about
values. It's been about democracy. It's been about the ability to articulate, albeit with huge qualifications and many, many failures, but
nevertheless to still articulate some idea of what an open society might be, of how democracy might work, of why human rights might matter.
And, of course, that's exactly what the United States lost under Trump. The loss of American prestige over the last four or five years has not been
primarily to do with economics, actually. It's been to do with the way in which America projects itself in the world.
And I think this is really where Biden's task is somewhat paradoxical. I mean, as he mentions himself, he wants to focus on economics. He has a vast
and incredibly difficult domestic agenda. The irony is that, having made his reputation and the Sanders as a foreign policy expert, he probably
would have been very, very happy not to have to have a foreign policy.
But, of course, the world does not behave like that. And he has these huge challenges. And I think where most of the rest of the world will be looking
to America to Biden for is for a clear articulation that isn't just about American competition with China for global economic dominance, but actually
is a return to some idea of what a coherent set of democratic values might look like on the world stage.
GOLODRYGA: And he has referenced that as well, Susan, when he's talked about going up against authoritarianism, in light following the pandemic
here that countries, like China and Russia and their authoritarian policies may have a different approach in how the world functions and in leadership
going forward, and that the U.S. must do everything it can to fight that.
Given that they are going to be meeting, President Trump and President -- I'm sorry -- President Biden and President Putin, in Geneva next month, on
the heels of yet another cyberattack, we have seen multiple already over the past several years from Russia. Russia, of course, saying that they
need to investigate, they need more information.
But they aren't denying this either. And they're not curtailing it. What do you make of this ahead of the meeting? And do you think it should still go
GLASSER: Well, I'm glad you brought up this Biden-Putin summit. It's, in a way, not what anyone expected in the early months of Biden's tenure,
including perhaps Biden himself.
They would like nothing more than not to have to deal with Russia right now or not to have to deal with another Mideast war and Prime Minister
Netanyahu right now. This is an administration, just like the Obama administration, and in a way the Trump administration, that has said, we
need to desperately focus on the challenge posed by China, and that's the far more overarching threat of the 21st century.
Well, of course, Vladimir Putin doesn't like to be put in a box. And I think the reluctant conclusion of the Biden White House -- now, you can
disagree with this. I think there's some internal dissent as well. But I think their reluctant conclusion is they have no choice but to engage the
president's time with Vladimir Putin.
Look at this enormous buildup of over 100,000 troops on the border with Ukraine, the crackdown domestically. Biden, I think, thinks that he's going
to deliver a message of toughness man to man with Putin.
Other than that, I have to say, it's unclear, what is the point of this meeting? There's not a large positive agenda right now between the U.S. and
Russia. And I don't anticipate -- experts don't believe that there really is a lot specific that can come out of it.
And to your point about Belarus, it seems to me that, in this unprecedented act of essentially a state-sponsored airline hijacking the other day, that
Belarus has managed to get itself on the agenda in the Putin-Biden summit in a way that it probably wasn't before.
And, of course, before that meeting with President Putin and President Biden, President Putin is meeting right now with Belarusian leader
Lukashenko in Sochi.
And I want to ask you, Fintan, about your views on how the E.U. has handled this crisis this past week of an E.U.-based airliner out of Ireland flying
from one E.U. country, Greece, to another one, Lithuania, and being forced to land in Belarus with a bomb threat, so that a journalist who writes
against the Belarusian oppression can be detained.
Do you think the E.U. handled this in a way that is commendable and that actually had seen results? In the past, there had been questions as to
whether or not they can effectively unite in these types of issues, especially vs. Russia.
O'TOOLE: Yes, I mean, there are very good grounds for suspecting that the E.U. is not particularly effective in responding quickly to these kinds of
But this threat was so outrageous, as Susan has said. This was an act of absolutely open piracy. It presented a threat to the entire system of
And, of course, it directly challenged the European Union. So it was it was calculated to do that, because this was an internal E.U. flight. That's --
you really couldn't be more provocative. And the E.U. had to respond and has responded in pretty serious ways.
I mean, there's no doubt about the fact that the measures that have been taken against Belarus, in terms of aviation, are very, very serious. The
sanctions, as they will unfold against the regime, look pretty serious. But nobody expects them to have fundamental, immediate political effects.
I mean, these kinds of sanctions do not do that. They don't bring about political change. And as I think you were suggesting in your question, the
real problem here, of course, is that, either way, Belarus is a proxy for Putin, is a proxy for Russia.
And that's really where the fundamental issue for the European Union is. It's often seen that the European Union can't unite around these issues
because of some of the smaller or newer members of the European Union.
But let's remember that, in relation to Russia, perhaps the most ambivalent member of the European Union is Germany. And Angela Merkel is so careful
not to confront Putin, going ahead, for example, with this huge oil pipeline, which is hugely favorable to Russia's economy, to Russia's status
as effectively now just an oil-producing country. It stabilizes the Putin regime in very many ways.
If the European Union wanted to really hurt Putin, it would close that pipeline. It would stop work on it. That would have a big effect. There's
no real sense that Germany's about to do that. And until Germany is more serious and more prepared to risk that kind of conflict with Russia, then
it's unlikely that the European Union as a whole is ever going to do so.
GOLODRYGA: Yes. And the U.S. had been putting pressure on Germany as well. But, just recently, the Biden administration said that they would not
further sanction the Nord Stream II pipeline, in an effort to save and salvage the relationship with Germany.
But I was just interviewing the Lithuanian foreign minister a few days ago, and he was all in favor of continuing to put pressure on that Nord Stream
pipeline, because, clearly, that is something that could impact Vladimir Putin directly in ways that he hasn't been yet.
I know, Susan, there's been some chatter about possibly even a reunification between Russia and Belarus. We will be following this
But let's move to the Middle East too, because, again, we have a lot of hot issues going on this week. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had just left
the region after those two weeks of escalated tensions and violence there. And while they're in a cease-fire now, effectively, one week as of today,
the secretary of state said that nothing has really been solved, the same issues exist, and that the place is still a tinderbox.
Susan, this was not an area where President Biden had hoped to focus going into this administration, but like "The Godfather," you want to leave, and
they just won't let you. You get pulled back in.
Is he going to have to reconfigure his focus on the Middle East now?
GLASSER: Well, I think they're resisting that.
And the trip by the secretary of state, to me, fits into the American tradition of crisis diplomacy in the region, rather than signaling some
broader new engagement with a renewed Middle East peace process. Certainly, privately, the Biden administration -- and that includes Secretary Blinken
-- are very clear-eyed.
They understand that you can't make peace without willing partners, who are both willing, but also able politically to do so. The Palestinian Authority
is teetering. It's led by Mahmoud Abbas, who once again just recently canceled elections again. He has been leeching political legitimacy for
many years as a result of a refusal to call elections.
The United States, it won't even engage with the people who actually rule Gaza, which is the designated international terror group Hamas. And,
therefore, it's hampered even more. Just even the aid that Blinken brought for Gaza reconstruction, for example, needs to go through the Palestinian
Authority, which actually has no authority in Gaza, where we're just once again repeating this cycle.
And then, of course, there's Israel, which is a very close, but also problematic partner for the new Biden administration. Prime Minister
Netanyahu has openly thrown in his lot in recent years with the American Republican Party, even campaigning for reelection a couple of years ago
with a gigantic billboard of himself and Donald Trump, and now faces perhaps the end of his governing mandate.
We will see. They have just had four elections. They might be going to a fifth in Israel. That's not the moment when anyone's going to be making a
bigger peace. So, I see the Biden administration as trying to sort of be a constructive partner here, but not get sucked back into a fruitless round
of peace negotiations at a time when a lasting outcome is not possible.
GOLODRYGA: Yes. And the only certainty, unfortunately, lately seems to be more death, carnage, destruction and animosity and a lack of trust and
weakened governments on both sides.
Susan and Fintan, we will have to leave it there. Thank you so much. Please come back soon, and we will continue these conversations. We appreciate it.
GLASSER: Thank you.
GOLODRYGA: Well, a lot of thorny issues that can seem impossible in that conversation, but history does show us that these towering obstacles can be
In a timely reminder of this, the hit play "Oslo" has been adapted for film. It follows the genesis of the Oslo peace accords, which brought
Israelis and Palestinians together in a bid for lasting peace.
Here's some of the trailer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: The Oslo channel began with the hopes of creating a dialogue between the Palestinians and Israel.
If this fails, lives will be ruined.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Why would I accept your help?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: The discussion should be held somewhere isolated where you and the PLO can meet.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: I have never met an Israeli face to face.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: The secret Norwegian channel between Israel and the PLO.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You're a junior minister and Terje is just a sociologist.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: You are my first Jew.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: Joining me now to discuss this is Bartlett Sher, who directed Oslo for stage and now the screen.
Bartlett, you so much for joining us.
I saw both. I saw the stage premiere and I also saw the film last night. They're both wonderful. And I want to get to the origins of this story,
because I think many people would be surprised that something as complicated as Mideast peace far away in Oslo Norway actually began in New
York and bringing it to the stage from a soccer field.
And your daughter was friends with another child, actually the child of the couple, the Norwegian couple who helped bring these negotiations together.
Tell us about that.
BARTLETT SHER, DIRECTOR, "OSLO": Yes, I -- it's a very strange and kind of a -- perhaps very fitting for telling a great tale, but my daughter's best
friend in second grade was Emma (ph) Rod-Larsen. She was the daughter of Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul.
And I would sit and watch soccer matches, and Terje would tell me extraordinary stories of Middle East peace. And they caught my attention.
Obviously, they were fascinating. I introduced him to the playwright J.T. Rogers, and away we went, and produced it at Lincoln Center Theater. And,
somehow, it became a film.
GOLODRYGA: What you were able to so masterfully do -- and I was just so impressed by seeing both of your productions -- is, you have kept the
There's something special, obviously, about the stage setting. And you're there in a room and you're just focused on these characters, as they did in
real life, just spend most of their time, hours, in one room, in one setting.
Obviously, you have a bigger budget. You have many more creative opportunities in the film. And yet you chose to really stick to that form,
that small intimate setting.
Why did you do that? And explain the significance you were trying to convey.
SHER: Yes, I mean, one of the advantages and what drew me to it to begin with is that it's so well-matched for theater.
Theater -- why do we even go to the theater? We go because we can experience conflicts, intimacies. It's perfectly matched for the experience
of actual dialogue, of actual communication. And so, in the play, we emphasize that.
But I think it was especially possible in a film, where we could take people to these extraordinary locations, put them in a room together, and
move through these very, very complex, complex questions, because I think, when we hear about them on television, we watch them, we don't really
experience human beings, an actual Palestinian and an Israeli in a room together working out a difficult problem.
GOLODRYGA: And even in -- quote, unquote -- "modern times," it's still baffling, I think, to many people when you hear these exchanges, like that
"You're my first Jew" or the first time I have ever met or spoken with a Palestinian, given how closely they live with each other, and given the
globalness of the world that we are in right now.
And you capture that really well in describing the relationship buildup, the trust.
And I want to play a scene from the film where you have the Palestinian representative, the PLO representative, who's also walking in the woods in
Norway, with the Israeli representative. Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: My daughter says, with me, passion is another word for pigheaded. She says: "Papa, all you care about is being right."
I say, Maya, if a man does not fight for what he believes, who is he? Maya?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Maya?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Yes, my daughter.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: My daughter is named Maya, my youngest. She's the light of my life.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: So, full disclosure, my daughter's also named Maya (ph). She's also the light of my life.
But talk about the connection between these two men--
GOLODRYGA: -- that hours of negotiations can't succeed in bringing that bond in just a few moments and talking about their family.
SHER: Yes, I mean, Terje, who led the negotiations, had sort of his own theory that, if you got rid of all the kind of formal qualities, put people
in a room, let them talk about their families, let them share who they were, you could build trust, you could build connection, and, from there,
you can begin really negotiating.
And that's the premise of this. Uri Savir, who is there played by Jeff Wilbusch, and Abu Alaa, who is played by Salim Dau, those two men's
daughters are still friends. They are still very close.
And I think it tells you something about what we all know, which is, if we really reach out and make that effort, and take responsibility for our side
and the other person's side, and listen, that things can be -- things can change.
GOLODRYGA: And we should note that the Israeli actors and the Palestinian actors were also Israeli and Palestinian as well. So they represented true
to form, and they bring their heritage to this project.
And I'm interested in hearing their perspective, not only as actors, but also their backgrounds and what they bring to their characters. How
important was that?
SHER: Yes, well, they were actors. They had worked together before. They all knew each other. They have been on all these shows that people can see
from the Middle East.
But they had a very deep sense of connection to actually the Oslo story and to these issues. And we had very frank and profound conversations all the
way through the process of making the film. And they became extremely deep friends. I mean, making a film is a kind of bonding exercise anyway, but I
think they -- it meant more to them than almost anything they have been able to work on. And many of them have said that to me.
GOLODRYGA: Yes, I would imagine that. And, obviously, history shows those moments in the Rose Garden with President Clinton and Yasser Arafat and
But it wasn't politicians that made this happen. It wasn't even Americans that made this happen. It was a Norwegian couple that had a vested interest
and were very passionate about the cause and about the region. And they were able to facilitate something that no one else could at the time, that
no one else dared to even do.
And we're talking obviously about Mona Juul and her husband, Terje.
What did you want to convey in their portrayal? They weren't necessarily the main characters, yet they were.
Well, I think that, when we look at the Middle East, it's a very -- very complex and very imposing situation.
And, from a dramatic point of view, Mona and Terje were sort of entrance to us from the outside into this world. They could set the stage.
And it's very difficult to play these kind of parts, because you're really only facilitating. You're only in public service. You're really only
setting the stage for other people to talk, so that our lead characters, Israeli and Palestinians, can really have it out.
And they -- they're really just a kind of surrogate that kind of hold our hand as we go into this world, and lead us into a conversation, which can
be quite intimidating and also which is so important to the whole world. Like, what happens in the Middle East is deep in all of our consciousness
and really matters to everyone.
And so they were a way of having that conversation.
GOLODRYGA: And they were also the ones who people trusted the most throughout this process, in particular, Mona.
And Christiane Amanpour spoke with her recently after the play debuted and got her perspective on all of this. Let's listen to that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MONA JUUL, HELPED FACILITATE OSLO ACCORDS: But the message that this play brings is that it is possible to bring people together.
And the minute you do that, and you start to talk to each other, I think you will realize that we have a lot more in common.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: Yes.
JUUL: And sort of the picture of the enemy starts to sort of to unravel--
JUUL: because you see there are human beings on both sides.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: And that was Mona with J.T. Rogers, the playwright, who Christiane was interviewing.
I'm wondering, just personally, how you feel looking at where things stand now in the region and the latest round of fighting, particularly related to
Gaza. Is it deflating to see how close things were to the possibility of some sort of peace? Or do you still have hope that this too can turn into
something more lasting?
SHER: Well it's a very, very painful time in the region.
But what I would say, we encountered this story in order to do a bit of a history play, to remind people of what the history was and what the
possibilities were. And when we look at the situation now, and having worked on this project for so long, I think there are really two
There's everything Mona just said, which is getting people into a room to be able to really talk. But the other thing that really has struck me over
-- working on this for so long is how important great leaders are.
Rabin such a huge, huge, huge sacrifice to step out of being a proud military leader, and become -- and go across the aisle and make a different
kind of peace. And without great leaders, and with the ability to see each other as human beings. I think those are the primary ingredients for peace.
And, hopefully, there will always be a chance for that to happen.
GOLODRYGA: Yes, Aaron David Miller, who was -- took part in many of these negotiations through many administrations, actually wrote a piece following
up on your movie.
And here's what he said: "The film evokes a world in which empowered Israeli and Palestinian negotiators could actually recognize one another's
humanity and create a pathway through which each side's national aspirations might be realized and secured, a measure of hope amid so much
You see that conveyed throughout the film. You see that connection and that trust. I found some of the most moving scenes were handshakes. They were
very, very powerful.
SHER: Very simple, very -- the simplest gestures, the things we take so much for granted in (AUDIO GAP) situation can make a huge difference.
It's strange, because doing the play in 2016, all anybody talked about was Republicans and Democrats. And then, when we did it in London about two
years later, all they talked about was Brexit.
And so it reaches a deeper thing in all of us, where we have to grapple with some of our greatest fears, our biggest enemies. And now that we're in
the situation we're in now that the film is coming out at a time of great peril in the region, and I'm -- I try to remain hopeful that, at least
somewhere down the road, these kinds of questions can be readdressed and maybe there still could be some hope.
GOLODRYGA: Bartlett Sher, one of my other favorite moments that you captured and kept both on stage and in the film is the important role that
food and alcohol played through all of this.
I mean, it sounds small and simple, but it really is something that connects people. And having that presence, I think, was really impactful.
It added levity, but it also added humanity. And we really appreciate that in the moment and also for viewers to be able to see that there's laughter
and some lighter times as well.
I think it will be surprising for people to see that.
It was one of the more important budget lines in making a movie was, you know, in getting right kind of food stylist to bring food into the room
which people could really share and really eat and really -- like we kind of don't realize how important those kinds of things are just sitting
across from a person you don't know or do know and breaking bread, looking into their eyes and seeing if you can see the human being for who they
GOLODRYGA: Well, I will make it my mission to eat a Norwegian waffle, that is for sure.
GOLODRYGA: Bartlett, thank you so much. It's a wonderful film. Congratulations.
SHER: Thank you. Thank you very much.
GOLODRYGA: And "Oslo" premiers tomorrow on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time.
And now, a conversation about how to navigate the changing media landscape as we grapple with disinformation, polarization and cancel culture. What is
the place of opinion journalism? Kathleen Kingsbury is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. And this year, she took over as opinion editor in "The
New York Times." Here she is speaking with our Walter Isaacson about modernizing the digital age.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WALTER ISAACSON, CNN HOST: Thank you, Bianna. And, Kathleen Kingsbury, welcome to the show.
KATHLEEN KINGSBURY, OPINION EDITOR, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Thank you so much for having me.
ISAACSON: So, you've taken over the opinion section of "The New York Times" just at a time when sub stack is coming along and having great
opinion essays, podcasts are hitting us. We're entering this new age of opinion journalism around the web. Tell me, how does that affect what
you're going to do? How are you modernizing the opinion sections of "The New York Times"?
KINGSBURY: Thank you. It's a great question. You know, I think an opinion just like our newsroom really always aims to have the highest quality of
journalism across the most innovative form. And in opinion, we have spent the last three years really modernizing our report. We now have a video
team, an audio team, a newsletter team, a graphics team. It's a really big investment by the "Times" to make sure we are reaching as wide of an
audience as possible.
But it also hasn't really changed anything about the fundamentals of what we're trying to do day to day. We are trying to be the most powerful report
there is in the world for ideas journalism. We are trying to elevate honest debate. We are going to serve our audiences with opinions that they agree
with, opinions that they don't agree with. Opinion that we don't disagree with sometimes. But we think that's important for, ultimately, helping them
wrestle with and grapple with the challenges of a changing world.
ISAACSON: You talk about providing opinions that your readers may not agree with, you don't agree with. You've changed the name op-ed to guest
columnist. But there seems to be some thought that you're constrained at times for how far you can go, especially to the right after Senator Tom
Cotton wrote an editorial that caused your predecessor to have to step down.
I know those were complicated situations, but do you feel that "The New York Times" is constrained especially when it comes to very concerned and
KINGSBURY: We are constrained in the fact that we don't print things that are inaccurate. And sometimes some of the voices on to the right are making
claims that we simply can't fact-check. That said, I really don't feel constrained. I mean, we have, in our report, almost a daily basis a wide
range of voices and viewpoints. We are trying very hard to serve as wide an audience as we can.
Just a small example, for a New York City issue, we had an editorial that was suggesting that it was a mistake by the prime organization here to
exclude police officers in uniform from marching in their annual Pride Parade. Tomorrow, we're going to have an essay by Roxane Gay talking about
why it's so important that police officers come to the parade but out of uniform.
ISAACSON: Well, let me push where the line may be. I mean, would you be comfortable on running a guest opinion piece against vaccination, say an
KINGSBURY: That's a hard one. Probably not actually. I mean, you know, at our core, we don't want to misrepresent science. And when it comes to the
Anti-Vaccine Movement, they often try to push dangerous narratives around science and what we know to be true about public health.
That said, you know, the Anti-Vaccine Movement is a particularly interesting one because it's become so political. And so, there are people
-- I think there are arguments that we could have in our report that explain people's hesitancies around getting vaccinated without it
necessarily sending the wrong signals around the science here.
I've been watching your coverage as well as opinion of the mayor's race in New York City. And the opinion section seems to be far more transparent
than the old days where you never could figure out how do they make that decision. And we're watching interview after interview with the male
candidates that you all have been doing. Tell me about how conscious it is that you're changing the transparency of how you make your decisions.
KINGSBURY: I think given the mistrust in media we've seen in recent years. It puts a really big onus on us to be as transparent as possible and as
inclusive about how and why we do the journalism that we do. So, you mentioned the change to guest essay from op-ed. We made that decision
because "The New York Times" was the pioneer of the modern op ed page. It's a legacy we're very proud of. It expanded the opinion journalism ecosystem
really dramatically when it was introduced in 1970.
That said, it really is a print construction. Op ed meant literally the page opposite of the editorial page. In the modern digital era, not very
many people understand what even the editorial pages not -- you know, regardless of the op ed page. And so, we decided to find a phrase that was
clearer, that provided more context and that created more differentiation between news and opinion.
Readers and our research groups really immediately grasped what guest essays that they meant, and in particular, they understood what the
relationship between the writer and "The New York Times" was. These are outside writers who are contributing their authority, their expertise or
their experience on the topics that they're writing about.
ISAACSON: Do you we naming it as guest essay and making it far clear what the relationship is with "The New York Times," does that allow you to have
a broader platform, so to speak, in which a Tom Cotton or Marjorie Taylor Greene could write something and "The New York Times" would feel more
comfortable printing it, even if you thought some of the facts might not be totally correct?
KINGSBURY: No. I mean, at the end of the day, we don't publish things that are factually incorrect. That said, I do think that there are arguments
that both Tom Cotton or Marjorie Taylor Greene could make that we would be willing to publish. For instance, Tom Cotton wrote a piece about Greenland
for us just a few months before the op ed that we ran that big proved to be controversial.
I could have seen even that op ed from June of 2020 being something that we could have run if there was a really central idea to it. Tom Cotton is
military veteran. He could have spoken from his own experience in a deep way about why military officers and -- are more better trained to deal with
crowd control than your average police officer.
That said, there was a whole process breakdown around that op ed from June 2020. Look, I'm even calling him op ed still, guess essay. So, you know,
and that is really what we are trying to avoid and prevent going forward. It's part of a huge effort that we've undertaken to provide, like I said,
more clarity, more context about why we are choosing the arguments and ideas that we want to have in our section.
In addition to changing the name, we've taken steps such as providing more biographical information about the author of every piece that we run as
well as presenting to our audiences the number of pieces that we are running from many different angles on whatever the most important topics of
the day are.
ISAACSON: One of your writers in the opinion section that I enjoy, find provocative and always stimulating is Bret Stephens. But he had a run in
with you and your team recently when he wrote something, a guest -- I mean, a column on Don McNeil, a former "New York Times" writer, it was a
complicated issue. But he felt constrained. And I think you spiked his column, walk me through that one.
KINGSBURY: Sure. Of course, I mean, we welcome, as you would see in the aftermath of the Tom Cotton situation, we welcome our columnist to weigh in
on Times' situations, particularly when they become major news events. You saw that with Bret wrote, what I thought was a very well-done column, about
1619, and what he saw as the flaws in that project back in November of 2020.
You know, again, I welcome that. I thought he brought a lot of journalistic integrity to how he did that column. And I was glad that the opinion
section could weigh in on that debate. That said the bar for weighing in on Times, particularly personnel issue is really high in my mind. And, you
know, I think that what happened, specifically with the column you're referring to about Don McNeil was that I don't think that Bret met that
And so, I let him know that we weren't going to publish it. You know, it later was leaked and, you know, you can find it in -- I think it was
printed in "New York Post." So, people can find it and read it and judge for themselves. But in the moment, when there are a lot of fast-moving
things happening around Donald McNeil and his future at "The New York Times", it didn't feel appropriate to let Bret weight what -- on what was a
lot of speculation in that moment.
ISAACSON: You talked about a moment ago, "The 1619 Project," which was this massive project that the newspaper undertook, looking at the legacy of
the first of slavery in the systems of America. That's engendered huge debate. Do you feel comfortable that the opinion section of "The New York
Times" has weighed in fully on all sides of that debate?
KINGSBURY: I do actually. You know, we have run more than half a dozen pieces about 1619, which was an extraordinary project. It really changed
the way so many Americans viewed our history and I think was just spectacular.
That said, we have run pieces that critique it like Bret's and we have run pieces that have been (INAUDIBLE) and then we've read -- run pieces that
take a small angle in the project. And we even had one of our columnists, Jamelle Bouie, who is part of that project and who tried to eliminate why
there is so much the base and conversation around 1619.
ISAACSON: We talk often about cancel culture and deep platforming people. Do you think that one of your goals can be and should be to resist that
temptation of what is sometimes labeled cancel culture or deplatforming?
KINGSBURY: I do. I do think that it's quite important to make sure that we are always bold and always courageous about interrogating ideas, even bad
ones, maybe especially bad ones, because I think that is one of the most effective ways that we can, you know, bat them down when necessary.
That said, I think that what we're seeing is a really complicated conversation. And I do think it's part of my department's mission to make
sure that we are delving into it and trying to expose the many arguments. I mean, cancel culture, that means something's totally different depending on
who you ask. And so, trying to make sure that we are talking about all the ways that people see that and making sure that we are, you know, frankly,
pushing back on it as often as possible is definitely part of what we are trying to do this year.
ISAACSON: Your audience is probably, let me make a sweeping generalization, more on the progressive or left or central left of the
spectrum when it comes to reading "New York Times" editorials. And historically, "The New York Times" has been a voice somewhat of the left or
center left or progressivism. And even in the argument, I notice so many of the things tend to be arguments like are Republicans driving democracy into
a ditch type argument, which seem to come from a particular perspective.
Does that make sense? Is that something you would just say, yes, we do have a general world viewpoint and we're proud of it, or is it something that
you feel should be righted or changed?
KINGSBURY: Interesting. One of my earliest memories is having a show and tell preschool about going to the voting booth and putting the lever for
Ronald Reagan. I think -- I share that story because I think that it creates a perception that some people will feel confirms many of the things
that they think about me. And then, you know, just as the fact that I won a Pulitzer Prize for a series that called for a $15 minimum wage and better
treatment for immigrant workers.
I'd say that story because it's really irrelevant what my personal worldview is or even what the section's worldview is. At the end of the
day, if we want a healthy thriving democracy, people need to encounter views that they both agree with and disagree with. I don't think that it's
entirely fair to suggest that we are a progressive organization, and I would push back on that. We are not representative of any political
parties, especially. We are running viewpoints.
For instance, last summer, we ran this very thoughtful piece by Jeffrey Rosen, who you'll remember was the deputy attorney general for Donald
Trump, on why we needed the death penalty. And we are trying to do that every day. I can give you countless examples from the last month of
viewpoints that run counter to the idea that we are running progressive pieces exclusively.
And so, you know, that's really what I'm trying to achieve every day because I think it's really important. I think that we saw 74 million and
people vote for Donald Trump and Mike Pence in the last election. And for us to have a real dialogue with those people who are still living in our
country, we need to be able to publish pieces that speak to them to.
ISAACSON: Katie Kingsbury, thank you so much for joining our show.
KINGSBURY: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
GOLODRYGA: And our thanks to Walter. And finally, today, we've covered some pretty heavy topics. But our next guest wants us to remember that we
also live in a world full of wonder and possibility. You probably know John Green as the author of bestselling young adult novels like "The Fault in
Our Stars," which was turned into a film.
Well, he's now adapting his popular podcast, Anthropocene Reviewed, into The Anthropocene Reviewed into a book of essays on everything from sunset
to diet Dr. Pepper and yes, even CNN. He ranks all of them on a 5-star scale. And John Green joined me now.
John Green, so great to have you.
JOHN GREEN, AUTHOR, "THE ANTHROPOCENE REVIEWED": It's great to be here.
GOLODRYGA: We really appreciate this and looking forward to this conversation. Can you get us some detail into why you've wanted to focus on
facets of the human experience by rating it on a 5-star scale?
GREEN: Well, the 5-star scale has become a huge part of critical discourse, almost without our noticing it. I think it didn't really exist
in a large-scale way until the rise of the internet. And one of the things I wanted to interrogate in this book is the relationship between us and
technology and the natural world. And I think the 5-star scale is a big part of that.
GOLODRYGA: And you've also gotten to slow down in your life, your work life and personally, throughout the pandemic. We've heard many people talk
about that experience over the past year and a half. What has it been like for you and how did that impact your writing here?
GREEN: Well, I started the book before the pandemic hit the United States, but it certainly dramatically effected the book because it dramatically
affected my life. I think in a lot of ways, I wrote the book as a way of trying to write myself back toward hope or toward attention to the things
in life that are really lovely without dismissing or minimizing the many horrors that also surround us. And weaving through the pandemic for me was
an example of that that, that these things almost live alongside each other.
It was incredibly difficult. It has been incredibly difficult for me personally and for my community. But alongside that has to live -- for me
anyway, has to live hope.
GOLODRYGA: And you don't shy away from that either. You know, many times people will say, well, let's look for a silver lining. It's a tragedy. And
you address this head on. You say, personally, whenever I hear someone waxing poetic about silver linings to all these clouds, I think about a
wonderful poem by Clint Smith, when called when people say we have made it through the worse before.
You address this because it's something that people may do to make themselves feel better, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But
you can't be dismissive of all the tragedy people have experience as well.
GREEN: Yes. One of the things I talk about in the book is that I find attempts to bright side human suffering pretty repugnant. Not least because
suffering is unjustly distributed, and we have to remember that. But I also want to live a life of hope and connectedness and I want to be open to
And so, for me, I was writing this book to figure out how can I have these things live together in my life? How can I have an awareness of suffering
and injustice live alongside an orientation toward hope and wonder?
GOLODRYGA: And only someone like you could go from something as deep as that to scratch and sniff stickers, which I would argue were a big part of
my childhood as well. You're right. When I opened that ancient sticker book and scratch at the yellow stickers, curling at the edges, what I smell most
is not pizza or chocolate, but my childhood. And yet, you only gave it three and a half stars. Why?
GREEN: Well, I didn't have that great of a childhood. My brother has a line in his novel, I had a very happy childhood, but I wasn't a very happy
child. And I had a lovely childhood and I'm very fortunate and grateful for it, but I wasn't always very happy kid. And so, I wanted to write about
that in that essay.
GOLODRYGA: Yes. I thought that was really telling. And of course, it brought me back to my childhood as I'm sure it would for many people who
were up, particularly in the 80's, where scratching sniff stickers were huge.
GOLODRYGA: OK. Something else that I sort of bonded with you over. I grew up in Texas. Of course, you think of Texas and Dr. Pepper. Diet Dr. Pepper.
Out of all the diet drinks, I will still say it taste the most like Dr. pepper. It's magic. And yet, it's full of chemicals, but you give this a
four. Like this project seem to work.
GREEN: I liked Diet Dr. Pepper a lot. And obviously, all of the ratings are hugely biased by my own experience, as indeed I think all 5-star
ratings are. But I love Diet Dr. Pepper. I always think about the pharmacists who created Dr. Pepper, Charles Alderton, saying that he didn't
want Dr. Pepper to taste like anything in the natural world. He wanted it to taste like that soda fountain in Waco, Texas smelled. And for me, like
that's the joy of Diet Dr. Pepper. I am drinking something that is truly engineered for me.
GOLODRYGA: And how have you transferred your experiences here and you're writing to the Anthropocene podcast? Talk about some of the episodes and
what you've learned about that medium as opposed to writing about them.
GREEN: Yes. It's very different to write a book from writing a podcast. You know, I've spent the last three and a half years writing episodes of
the podcast and there's lots of topics covered in the podcast that are in the book and vice versa. For me, when I'm making a podcast, what I love
about it is how close the reader and the listener -- or the writer and the listener are, like how intimate it is. You know, a lot of times like it's
literally in your ears, the voice. And that's a really -- it's an intense experience. And I tried to reflect that, you know, in trying to write
vulnerably and openly.
GOLODRYGA: I'm going to go there. You're on CNN, but you write about it, and I'm not going to ignore that. You know --
GREEN: I do.
GOLODRYGA: -- you did not spare the network. You gave the network a two in its coverage and I can understand a lot of what went into that grade. But
can you give our viewers a sense of why you came up with the two?
GREEN: Well, it was mostly in response to this one particular way of covering one particular news event in 2003. So, I don't want to paint too
broad a brush, the essay is specifically about the creation of CNN and then this one new story that my friend, Hassan (ph), and I saw almost 20 years
But, you know, in general, I think the opportunity -- what I argue in the essay is the opportunity of a 24-hour new station is to provide deeper
context. Like right now, we're having a conversation that is much, much longer than any conversation that I could possibly have on like a morning
television show or something.
So, it's that opportunity to provide deeper context is the opportunity. The risk of it is just because there's always news that's breaking, covering
only the news that's breaking and not having an adequate amount of context provided that can help viewers have the background that they need to really
understand the new stories as they're breaking. And I think that's a really hard thing to do.
And if it were easy, I think that, you know, every news station would do it. But I think it's really difficult. And that's true for CNN. It's also
true for any anyone else that covers the news 24 hours a day.
GOLODRYGA: Yes. That personal experience that you reference from your youth was during the Gulf War and you had a friend who actually could read
Arabic. And I think there was a sign behind the war zone coverage that said, happy birthday. There was some levity to it that clearly wasn't
coming across through the reporting.
You know, I can always use help and guidance as well. We've had a long conversation. You've listened to our previous, you know, interviews as
well. Any help ratings for me? What would you rate this interview?
GREEN: I mean, for me it's been a 5-star interview. But the real question is, what it's been for the viewers.
GOLODRYGA: I'm sure they love it. They love all of your work. We are so glad that you were able to join us. You bring so much joy and
thoughtfulness into a conversation as well. I mean, I do wonder if I'm going to be walking around every encounter I'm going to experience now, I'm
going to be rating on a 5-star scale. You can get a bit OCD there, but it's also an interesting perspective and an interesting way to compartmentalize.
John, thank you so much. Have a wonderful weekend.
GREEN: It was great to talk with you. Yes. Take care.
GOLODRYGA: Well, this is it for now. You can always catch us online, on our podcast and across social media. Thanks for watching and good-bye from