Conversation with Ari Melber packs Alliance campaign event

MSNBC anchors talks politics, courts and Judaism


PROVIDENCE – A lot of people figured that a guy like Ari Melber, MSNBC and NBC chief legal correspondent and host of “The Beat,” would have some insight into the current political situation in the United States. They packed the Baxt Social Hall at the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center. There were so many people that they spilled into the adjacent Board Room to watch on a livestream set up there.

Melber did not disappoint.

On Nov. 3,  an evening when there was plenty of competition for sports fans’ time, Alliance CEO Adam Greenman welcomed the 450 people in attendance with the promise that “we will get you out of here by 8 o’clock,” in time to get home for the Patriots’ showdown game against Baltimore. He went on to thank the crowd for their support of the annual campaign to foster a stronger, more vibrant Jewish community.

There were welcomes by event chairs Pamela and Jeffrey Vogel and James Pious, chair of the board, who announced that the 2020 campaign thus far has raised more than $1.3 million from 787 donors.

Alan Rosenberg, executive editor of The Providence Journal, asked Melber questions in an informal interview-style format followed by audience-submitted questions. The program lasted about 90 minutes and here are some highlights:

Is the impeachment process fair and open or unfair and fatally flawed?

This was a big week even in a series of big weeks. This almost never happens. We try to give people the facts. I’m not here to tell people if it’s fair or not. Democrats have started a process that gives the President more protections than in past impeachment processes. One fundamental difference from Clinton and Nixon is there is no special prosecutor. Is that fair? I’ll let you make up your mind.

There are Jewish people at the center of the impeachment inquiry. Has this invited anti-Semitic tropes?

I think we are looking at an administration that has repeatedly trafficked in divisive bigotry. It’s always something to monitor.

This thing is moving so fast, it’s hard to keep up. One day’s “fake” news becomes part of the inquiry the next day.

The news keeps you on your toes and intellectually humble.

Melber asks for a show of hands of how many people thought the president was going to be impeached 6 months ago and today. Many more people now think impeachment is likely.

We really focus on the information that we can put before the audience that is the most relevant and has the least spin. One of the least interesting things you can get from your news anchor is his opinion on what is happening. You try to stay mentally open-minded to all the data, and you present the data.

Impeachment is only an indictment and its only half the process. Then you have the Senate. What would it take to convince the Senate?

The short answer is I don’t know.  We are now getting into serious times so we are looking at constitutional remedies. There are many reasons people revile Donald Trump, but there are very few reasons to remove Donald Trump from the presidency and that’s how the framers intended it. The Senate trial will ultimately play this out.

You talked about the importance of a newsperson keeping an open-mind. You come to your job from a law and a political background. Coming from a Democratic background, how do you take a step back and report both sides?

When I practiced law I had to put my client first. The legal training helps this. You figure out how to advocate for something, but you can still see the whole case. I think about that when I do my work now. How can I best present the whole case? And if there’s an opinion you mark it and the audience will figure it out. It’s silly to think everyone is totally neutral. Everyone has a viewpoint but you have to figure out how to present the facts.

He pointed out that many Republicans as well as Democrats have been guests on “The Beat.”

I think it’s important to make sure all those people come on the show.

On Melber’s background

 He’s the son of an Israeli, grandson of Holocaust survivors. He went to a Jewish Day School.

[My father] wanted us to grow up as Americans. Any Diaspora community makes you acutely aware that you are a minority. It also made me able to identify with other minorities.

On covering Trump

He was a New York Democrat for a long time.

Everything he does is deliberate, including appointing judges.

If you read “The Art of the Deal” he talks about how if you tell a little lie you don’t get much press. But if you tell a more outrageous lie you get more attention. Then the fact-check is put out there, and you get more attention.

Everyone needs to be civically educated on how the constitution works. If we have a politician who says he or she is going to stay beyond his term then the people can say, “no, it doesn’t work that way.” The Constitution is very specific about the peaceful transfer of power.

On fake media/false news

If you are reporting the news you have to take every fact and fact-check it. It’s a meticulous process. That doesn’t mean you always get it right. We do have to prove ourselves. Media and press criticism is important part of public debate. Fake news is B.S. I listen to the serious criticism, and I just move forward and do my job.

FRAN OSTENDORF is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.