MSNBC’s Ali Velshi: Journalism and the Business of Making People Smarter

Ali Velshi, MSNBC Anchor and Business Correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC, joins the Outside In podcast to talk about the big issues of our time: fake news, the global decline in trust, corporate responsibility, wealth inequality, and Donald Trump.

Charles Trevail

CEO at C Space

On a rain-soaked September afternoon in New York City, traffic refused to move. Street closures for the United Nations (UN) General Assembly meeting had created gridlock. Earlier that morning, Donald Trump addressed the UN, giving a speech with a decidedly anti-globalist tone.

A taxi – finally – dropped me off at 30 Rockefeller Center.

I was meeting Ali Velshi, MSNBC Anchor and Business Correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC. He had agreed to join me on the Outside In podcast. Velshi is known for his sharp business and economic analysis, and he has written two books about managing money and the financial crisis of 2008. A former anchor and chief business correspondent at CNN and Al Jazeera America, Velshi says, “I wanted to be in the business of helping people get smarter. That’s what my earliest role in journalism did for me.”

He is passionate about the importance of journalism – of speaking truth to power and curating facts and stories from around the world that people would otherwise not know. “It’s not our job to take sides on one side of a growing divide in the world,” he says.

Trust and disruption were on my mind, and I knew they would be on his; besides Trump at the UN, Toys R Us had just filed for bankruptcy, and the first lawsuit against the Equifax data breach was filed in Massachusetts. Who better to talk to on a day like today? I thought. But then again, every day is starting to feel weighty and newsworthy. It’s the world we live in – a confluence of fragmentation, inequality, and chaos – and I wanted to hear Velshi’s thoughts about it.

As you might expect from a professional broadcaster, Ali Velshi is cogent, articulate, and to the point. It’s a fantastic episode. Our conversation touched upon a lot of topics. Here are some of the highlights.

Is “fake news” merely a symptom of a deeply divided society, or is there something else going on?

A few months ago, Velshi gave a TEDx Talk on the value of integrity in journalism and the dangers posed by “fake news.” During our interview, he says that, globally, most people simply don’t trust journalists. In the U.S. alone, surveys by Gallup and others have found that roughly one-third of Americans trust journalism.

Velshi stresses that people need to “triangulate their news” from a variety of sources rather than just one. “If you get your news from one radio show or one TV show, you have no ability to know that the host is not telling you the truth. So, not only are you consuming fake news, but you’ve become accustomed to the idea that this person who’s been lying to you is telling you that everything else is fake news – and you have an inability to now go somewhere else and rely upon other information.”

 What can journalists do to engender more trust in society?

It’s a matter of exposing and disseminating facts. Velshi says journalists must establish a baseline for what it is they report on, ground opinions formed from interviews in that baseline as a reference point, and, ultimately, be story curators. “If we curate a little bit better, people might start to rely upon us in a way that matters,” he says.

Journalists must also ask themselves: Why do I matter? How do I keep myself relevant to the story that concerns you? “People see the news as something removed from their lives – elitists who cover stories that have nothing to do with them and who miss stories that have something to do with them.”

Velshi says that this starts with journalists telling more complete stories. “We have a sense that officials and wealth give you the real story, and then you go to regular people for their reactions. What if you start the story with regular people and then push their concerns up? It’s just not the model that we have been accustomed to using. And I think we’re going to have to continue to evolve so that our viewers and our listeners and our readers believe that we might be engaged in and interested in their story.”

Do CEOs need to get out of their bubble?

If nothing else, events like Brexit and the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign showed us the risk in holding too narrow a world view and living inside our echo chambers. This goes for everyone: elites, politicians, journalists, even CEOs.

Velshi acknowledges that some business leaders, like Richard Branson, are embracing outside perspectives and working to solve issues that matter most to people. But Branson seems to be an exception. “I meet a lot of CEOs, and it’s kind of unbelievable the view they take about things, the distance they have from their customers,” says Velshi. “There are so many examples of missteps, and, generally speaking, the missteps come from there being too many people between the CEO and the customer. Or, too many people between the CEO and the world. Or, too many lawyers involved.”

This year’s Edelman Trust Barometer shows us that trust between people and businesses – and other institutions – is at an all-time low. What’s causing this disconnect? Where is this heading?

Velshi recalls a particular day during the 2008 financial crisis when no bank was lending money, not even to other banks. It was the literal manifestation of society’s inability to function without trust. Since then, consumers have a different perception of companies, and their relationship with them. Consumers now grasp that everything’s just a transaction, businesses are looking out for themselves, and, increasingly, so are consumers. “I think people are coming around to the idea that, ‘I know where my value is in the world as a consumer, and I’ll extract that value,’” Velshi says.

The growing lack of trust is seeping into all facets of society. In the world’s streets, we see the response – in rallies and in protests. “The deterioration of trust institutionally is a very serious matter. I don’t want to overstate it, because most things still work. But, we should look at that trend in the Trust Barometer and say, ‘Collectively, we can’t lose our trust for each other. It is the basis on which our society operates.’”

Will consumer and political activism drive more transparency and, ultimately, create more trust?

That’s an optimistic but not necessarily unlikely outcome, says Velshi. It might not be consumers or voters that drive change, but a young workforce that wants to work for companies that share their values.

“One of my biggest complaints as a very pro-business economics journalist is that our corporations have seen their constituencies too narrowly. There are shareholders and there are customers and, if you’re particularly forward thinking, there are your employees,” Velshi explains.

“When you look at the Millennial workforce around the world, there are remarkable similarities in this crowd that is a quarter of the world’s workforce now. They want social responsibility. More than they want the raise and the title, they want to know that they are not spending eight hours a day in a place that is harming the world.”

Donald Trump’s campaign: was it a piece of brilliance in communication?

“I think so,” says Velshi. “I think it’s incredibly brilliant. To work around the media? To continue to work around the media and still get the media riled up because you’re working around them?”

He believes that Donald Trump has shattered the apathy in American society. “He has woken us up. He has made us realize what we’ve done wrongly, what we can do better. I will never say that Donald Trump did not stand at the front of some sort of revolution, or at least catch the wave of a global revolution. And we must all learn from this, about the way he communicates. He is masterful at this, and he’s very, very instinctive. He’s used it to some very strange ends in some cases. But as he likes to remind people: he’s president, and we’re not.”

Ali Velshi, MSNBC Anchor and Business Correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC, is the co-host of “Velshi & Ruhle” and he hosts “MSNBC Live.” Follow him on Twitter @AliVelshi.

Photo credit: MSNBC

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