Brian Lehrer and Errol Louis Answer Questions on Reddit

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WNYC's Brian Lehrer and NY1's Errol Louis took questions on Reddit's "Ask Me Anything" thread. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Louis is moderating the mayoral debate on August, 21, and Lehrer is a panelist.


Questions About Politics

What useful information can voters garner from a debate that can't be had through interviews, campaign speeches, etc.?

Brian Lehrer: This is a great question. I often think debates are not the best way to take the measure of a candidate. Tough mayoral and other decisions are not made under the glare of television lights and with your competitors in a campaign trying to make you look bad in real time. They are made in private with your trusted aides and other parties trying to be as constructive as they can. What debates do offer is a chance for voters who pay little attention to the campaigns to compare candidates side by side, and the chance to see how the candidate can communicate with a mass audience under pressure and with opposition, something mayors and other leaders will inevitably have to do in times of crisis or political disputes.

Errol Louis: There’s something the courts call demeanor or affect: whether the person sweats, twitches, smiles, hesitates or shakes their head when answering. Humans have evolved sophisticated ways of reading those kinds of expressions and gestures. The key is to ask something about which the person won’t necessarily have a prepared response. That is the serious part of the lightning-round questions.

This past year has seen a rather large number of controversial events. As journalists who have seen everything there is to see, what recent event has left you genuinely surprised?

Brian Lehrer: Sandy was a shocker for me. It’s the kind of thing you always know could happen but never think actually will, since it hasn’t before at that level. It was a wake-up call.

Errol Louis: The return of Eliot Spitzer was a shocker. He was a weekly contributor to my show and never breathed a word of it in advance. I was also a little thrown by the arrest of the “Manhattan Madam,” Kristin Davis, for allegedly trafficking in prescription drugs. I’m used to seeing sex and money scandals in the political class. Dope dealing is a whole other thing.

I think using Dante de Blasio is playing a race card in a way, but not one that subtracts from the concerns or rights of a large segment of New Yorkers. Do you think Quinn is using the race card by opposing stop-and-frisk (to gain minority votes) but keeping its chief architect to appeal to white voters who associate color with criminality by signaling to that segment that she has their back? If you concur, more or less, will you question her about it?

Errol Louis: Not to be too cynical, but I have often written that in New York, all politics is tribal. Candidates been playing race/ethnic cards since the days when LaGuardia would campaign in four languages and appeal to a thousand ancestral hatreds. The job of the candidates is to put together a winning electoral coalition, so the appeals to one group or another that you cite don’t strike strike me as pernicious (Quinn’s support of Kelly has, on balance, probably cost her more support than it gained , IMO).

Will you be asking the [mayoral] candidates their stances on Common Core and mandatory testing of all students?

Brian Lehrer: You bet! The plan as of now is for me to ask an education question, and I do hope to get their views on Common Core and the relationship between curriculum and tests. By the way, you refer to mandatory testing of all students. My understanding is that parents in NYS can actually opt their kids out of the state tests. But don’t tell anyone as this fact is not widely disseminated. ;)

What questions WON'T you be asking [at the mayoral debate]?

Brian Lehrer: We won’t be asking what they think should happen to A-Rod (Though I can’t rule it out for the always-popular lightning round.)

Errol Louis: I’ll actually be asking very little aside from follow-ups and our always-popular lightning round. Most queries will be handled by Brian, David Chen from the NY Times, Grace Rauh and Juan Manuel Benitez from NY1.

Do you expect Weiner's increasing irrelevance to be the 800 pound gorilla in the room [at the mayoral debate]?

Errol Louis: If his falling poll numbers signal irrelevance, he’s more like a 300 pound gorilla now, in a zoo with some 400-pounders going strong.

What is YOUR biggest concern with New York City? Specifically, what's an issue you think the next mayor should make their priority?

Errol Louis: In my opinion, the biggest issue today is the same as 4 years ago: Will NYC continue to be a place where the middle class can grow and thrive, or will we continue moving toward a “hollow city,” with a thin glossy outer shell of celebrities and extremely wealthy families and a large inner core of poor people? People who warn that NYC could be another Detroit are mistaken: Our peril is becoming more like Rio.

Brian Lehrer: I agree, and it’s really the same issue as for the whole country. Can the middle class grow and thrive and even exist as it did in past generations with the globalization of the economy and political pressures that tend to concentrate wealth.

If you could have asked the 2012 Republican presidential primary candidates lightning round style questions, what would you have asked?

Errol Louis: Mine would include: Have you ever used race, class or sex as a tie-breaker when deciding whether to hire or promote two equally qualified people? Have you ever fallen asleep in church? Ever been arrested as part of a political protest? Ever engaged in a political protest?

It has been five cycles since New York City elected a mayor from the Democratic Party. Any chance that streak will continue? Also, what do you make of former Gov. Patterson so publicly endorsing Scott Stringer over Eliot Spitzer?

Brian Lehrer: The long absence of a Democratic Mayor in blue New York is really something. Demographics may have changed by now to make it much harder for the Republican nominee this year, but it is definitely still possible. Giuliani and Bloomberg were elected mostly because their perceived ability to deal with crime and the economy respectively. I’m not sure there will be any issue this year that most voters will have a fundamental lack of trust in the Democrat over, or that are seen as crises when the election takes place enough to shake people from their usual parties. Watch out for third party candidates, though, like Carrion and Hidery, diluting the Democratic vote.


Questions About Public Policy

Will we continue to see the empire building of the Bloomberg era? The New York Times had a piece on his rezoning and development. I'm wondering if those projects will carry over with support of the mayor's office, depending on who is elected. There are some eminent domain issues coming up.

Brian Lehrer: I think New Yorkers are ambivalent about what you call empire building. Bloomberg definitely broke eggs in some neighborhoods and made other formerly affordable neighborhoods gentrification zones. But a static city is a dead city, and environmentalists believe that increased density around train stations is a good thing — more people, fewer cars. I think the hardest part is providing the affordable housing that the city will need not to become solely a playground for rich anywhere with a reasonable commute to Manhattan.

I would just like the candidates to talk about their actual experience with charter schools instead of simply whether or not they support them. I feel like charter school supporters have a lot of money in the campaign and I would like to know if the traditional public schools have an advocate.

Errol Louis: Traditional schools have a powerful advocate in the form of the UFT, the most politically powerful union in the state. Given the fact that charters cover only about 5% of the city’s students, it would be surprising if the candidates spent any more time on charters rather than the other 95% of the kids. The main question I’ve asked is whether candidates think charters, in the long-term, represent a model for how all public schools should operate. Only a few candidates (maybe Joe Lhota) feel that way.


Questions About Broadcasting

It was nice hearing your voice during Sandy when the radio was all I had for company but I was wondering if you were getting bored reporting the same "story" over and over again, particularly in those early hours before there was not a lot of information available about what was going on, where the damage was, etc. In those cases, where you don't have a lot to report on but the "show must go on," what is your strategy for being able to keep talking and talking and talking?

Errol Louis: After learning the basics of radio as a guest host for Brian, I spent several years as the morning man at AM 1600 WWRL, doing three hours of interviews, phone calls, etc. I grew up on Howard Stern and imitated his format: I’d talk with listeners about raising my son, fighting with my wife, critiquing my favorite show, playing my favorite songs, etc. A lot of that carries over to TV in open, unformatted situations like the hurricane. When we have a lull in the action or lose our signal to a reporter in the field, I always tell my producers: No problem. Put the camera on me, I’ll vamp for 20 minutes until you fix whatever’s wrong. Kind of a lost art.

Brian Lehrer: Thanks for the nice words about the Sandy coverage. You know, in a situation like that, part of the job is just to be there for people as a companion and a kind of community center. While we were waiting for the storm to land, it was as much about being together, sharing stories and preparation tips and things like that as providing hard information. That’s why we included segments like Elmo (pre-scandal) explaining hurricanes for kids and NPR puzzlemaster Will Shortz — to pass the time as family while hunkering down.

Who is a dream guest you have yet to interview?

Errol Louis: Obama. I spoke to him briefly at a Congressional Black Caucus in November 2007 and followed him a bit on the campaign trail. But New York was never important to his political plans and he’s never really been available to local media here.

Brian Lehrer: Bill Clinton. Hillary has come on multiple times and even been a caller, but the Secretary of Explaining Stuff has never said yes. If you’re on Reddit right now, Mr. President, how about it? Any time between 10am-noon any weekday. We’ll cancel someone if we need to. You can do it by phone from anywhere, but we prefer a land line.

I was lucky enough to get Obama on the show early in the 2008 primary season when New York was still seen as a potential political prize. Never again, I suspect.

Errol: Have you found yourself self-censoring on issues of race? Brian: Have you found yourself self-censoring on issues to do with Israel/Palestine?

Brian Lehrer: I don’t think I censor much at all on Israel-Palestine. It’s a complicated and tragic issue and we strive to take both sides seriously, as both have serious aspirations, grievances and flaws. Guests have ranged from Edward Said to William Kristol and I think they all feel they get a fair shake. Of course, anytime we deal with that issue, some people will call me a rabid Zionist or a self-hating Jew, but that goes with the territory.

Errol Louis: Big question, no easy answer. Like everything else on a daily show, you quickly realize that big stories will have to be covered on the installment plan, so to speak. I’m confident I’ll get to every issue and nuance of race I want to talk about. It just won’t be every night. I could say the same about many, many other issues I want to tackle.

What do you consider the proper etiquette for calling into one of your shows, or any radio show?

Brian Lehrer: We can’t expect callers to be on-air professionals in their presentation. So if real people fumble or ramble a little (no excuse for mumbling, though) in a live media situation, that’s fine. Etiquette is just to be substantive and respect everyone else’s humanity. As a wise colleague once told me, “Tell the truth and never be boring!”

Do you play a part in selecting who fills in for you on away days? Do you ever listen to your own show while on vacation?

Brian Lehrer: I play only a minor role in selecting fill-in hosts since I don’t actually work with them. My producers and the station make those calls. I try not to listen much when I’m off so my brain can decompress.

Errol Louis: I have no role in picking my subs. Most of the time it’s Josh Robin, and we once had Grace Rauh fill in. Both are super-talented. I’ve never been away for more than two consecutive nights, so I catch up on Tivo.

What broadcasters or thinkers have inspired you?

Brian Lehrer: Jean Shepherd and The Buddha.

Errol Louis: Howard Stern and Michael Savage are my favorites. Occasionally enjoy Rush Limbaugh but he’s too much of a party hack these days. On the progressive side, Ed Schultz is very good and I like Thom Hartmann. I also really miss Rachel Maddow, who had a really strong program that has mostly been carried over to her TV show. Oh, and I have been a fan of Felix Hernandez for over 20 years, and still catch his Rhythm Revue almost every weekend. That’s broadcasters — thinkers will have to wait for another AMA.



Hi, Brian! What do you like most and least about living in Inwood?

Brian Lehrer: I love that Inwood is urban and diverse but also very green. We have the restaurants, good bus and subway connections and lots of different kinds of folks, but also Inwood Hill Park, a gem that even has woods with trails and Hudson River views. It’s a little far from the major social hot spots of the city if that’s what you need, but if you like being a little off the grid but still in the city, come check out our (pretty affordable) places to live.

Are you really not related to Jim Lehrer? Maybe you should check the family tree.  

Brian Lehrer:  Nope. Not related. We once traced our family trees together on the show, just for the fun of it. His family was German Protestant via Texas, mine Polish Jews via the Lower East Side.

What's your prediction for the World Series? And your favorite cocktail?

Brian Lehrer: My prediction for the World Series is New York will not have a team in it. Dodgers-Tigers would be fun. Gimme a Maker’s Mark on the rocks.

Errol Louis: Not a sports fan: Don’t know, don’t care. In the heat of summer I gravitate toward the traditional gin and tonic. Bombay Sapphire, twist of lime.