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Podcasts Servant of Pod with Nick Quah
Kara Swisher

Kara Swisher is a journalism powerhouse known for cutting through the nonsense talking points and asking the tough questions to some of the most powerful people on the planet. She’s been doing this for nearly 30 years, and after launching two successful podcasts – Recode Decode and Pivot with Scott Galloway – she’s taking on her third: Sway with New York Times Opinion. In this week’s episode, Nick talks to Swisher about her new show’s focus – who has power and how they use it – the surprising place she found inspiration for seeking the truth, and her ultimate dream podcast guest.

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Servant of Pod Kara Swisher Episode 20

Thu, 11/19 4:42PM • 24:49

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

people, power, question, laughter, sway, kara swisher, kara, talk, spalding gray, jesus, thought, wrote, recode, struck, interview, theater, early, idea, feel, elon musk

SPEAKERS

Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Kara Swisher, Nick Quah

Kara Swisher 00:00

I think people have their little dog and pony show like, "Here's my act! Ahh!" I have an act, you have an act. Everyone has an act. And very few people have genuine discussions anymore, right? It's all performative.

Nick Quah 00:13

There is a mythology around Kara Swisher, and it goes like this: she is the tech journalist known for cutting through the bull**** of the most powerful people on the planet. Like Elon Musk, Tim Cook, and Jeff Bezos.

Kara Swisher 00:26

You know, we're not going to get to this, you know, "let's put on our pajamas, and cuddle up, and have a real talk" kind of thing. But I'm hoping that it will be... That's the idea. You know, the idea is, "Alright, look, I know what you want to say here. But do you understand the price of what you're doing?"

Nick Quah 00:46

And on her new podcast, Sway, she wants to go beyond the tech world into the heart of the matter: who has power, and how do they use it? From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week: the power of Kara Swisher. Kara Swisher is a journalism legend. She's been writing about the intersection of technology and business, and its effect on our world, since the 90s. And she is regarded as one of the most influential and important journalists in the business right now. She's also an experienced podcaster who's launched two successful shows: Recode Decode and Pivot, with Scott Galloway. Now she's launching one with New York Times Opinion. This time, she's focusing on power. And she says the title, Sway, really showcases the vibe of the podcast.

Kara Swisher 01:49

The idea of persuading, since it's for the opinion section, to sway someone is a nice... You know, in this sort of twitchy, horrible, partisan time we're in, swaying someone is actually a better way. It's like persuasion, versus debating or forcing your opinion on people. And so I thought that was a nice connotation. There's another connotation of it's bringing fresh voices, or being fresh. And I like the idea of fresh. It's got a wind feel, I don't know, it just...

Nick Quah 02:15

[Laughter] So tell me, what's the difference between... So what are you trying to do with Sway that's different from what you were doing with Recode Decode?

Kara Swisher 02:23

The main thing that is different is that it will really do the gamut of everything, not just tech or business. I had started to move out of my concentric circles, I had done all the tech people, and then I did a lot of big business people, because they were impacted by tech, but tech was always the formation of it. And then it moved out to... I did a lot of politics in the last year or two--two years, it's maybe three--and then started doing--I didn't really get to artists--and some science, more science, and stuff like that. And so I was moving outward already. And I think the New York Times, if you define it as power, and what it is in this country, because that's really what's happening right now. It's shifts in power, and who has it, and how do you get it? How do you take it? I think really does sort of explain it. And it gives me permission to talk to just about anybody about that stuff.

Nick Quah 03:12

How do you define power?

Kara Swisher 03:14

Well, it's interesting, I kind of define it in a different way than other people. I mean, there's obviously traditional power, like you can look to who holds the big jobs, whether it's in law enforcement, or entertainment, or science, or things like that. You can define it by people who have ideas, to me. And that's one thing I was doing on Recode Decode that I am going to be doing a ton more here. I think I had a lot of people before they became powerful, like Stacey Abrams, I had very early, when she was a state legislator. And I just was struck by her language. This was before she was mentioned as anything, really. Same thing with Shoshana Zuboff, who is a professor at Harvard. I had her on very early, talking about surveillance capitalism, which was the topic of her book. And so I think they have power because they're starting to persuade people of new ideas. I also want to talk to people not in power, and what's that's like, and how they can get there. There's obviously these emerging movements that have been there forever, but are starting to gain different either political grounds or intellectual ideas. And then I want to talk to people who are in power and why they think they need to grasp onto it, right? Why they need to hold onto it. One of the reasons I loved covering the Internet in its early days is that when I got to the Wall Street Journal--I had been covering it for The Washington Post, and then wrote a book about AOL--I got there and there was a power structure. There was... Media was the most important... Media moguls is who they interviewed, all the media moguls, all the time. And I came in and I was like, "This new medium is going to decimate everybody, and it's going to flatten power." Right? Or/and spread it out. And I remember being greeted by people there, like, "Oh, you're in the CB radio area, Kara," and I'm like, "No, this is going to change... These people are going to be the most powerful people in the world. They're gonna be the richest, they're going to be..." and nobody agreed with me. I thought that was like... I remember that, how quickly industries can be decimated--in this case by a technology, and it's usually a technology. And that was always fascinating to me, how quick it happened, and how the collapse was so vast, and now we're in a societal collapse around politics and civility, and...

Nick Quah 05:19

Yeah.

Kara Swisher 05:20

...And information, really.

Nick Quah 05:22

Do you feel like there are fewer people with more power these days? Than like...

Kara Swisher 05:26

Yes.

Nick Quah 05:26

...10-20 years ago?

Kara Swisher 05:27

Oh, yeah, I mean, look at I mean, what what I spend my life doing: yelling at Facebook, right? [Laughter] So, really. And I was early to that, I was like, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, do we understand what they can do?"

Nick Quah 05:37

Yeah.

Kara Swisher 05:37

Yeah, I do. I think it's really quite amazing that, not just in terms of the ability to reach citizenry, but having no accountability, and vast sums of money, and the coalescing of power around certain--actually individuals, in this case--much like, you know, back in the day, when we had these giant monopolies that were then busted up by Teddy Roosevelt and others.

Nick Quah 05:58

I feel like companies like Facebook, and Twitter... You know, they were once up and coming companies, and I get the idea that they still see themselves as underdogs.

Kara Swisher 06:07

Well, you have to figure out, "What, are they just lying to themselves?" Or what's going on in their minds? "Oh, I'm still wearing my flip flops and hoodies, so therefore, I'm a regular guy." I remember talking to a lot of them, including Zuckerberg, and you know, he always tried to be "regular guy," and I'm like, you're not a regular guy, you're a billionaire. "Well, I can still be the same." I'm like, "You can't." You have enormous power or enormous... I think one of the things I was always struck by, among a lot of them, is very few of them took the responsibility of the power they had. They pretended it was like, if you look at--Zuckerberg is a good example. He uses terms like "we," and "the community," and "together we will." Yeah. And I was like, you run the whole thing, and you control the whole thing, and you made certain you did, so why is there a "we" going on here?

Nick Quah 06:50

Yeah.

Kara Swisher 06:50

So I was always really struck by the inability to acknowledge their power and at the same time take responsibility for it. Because when you do that, you have to admit that you might have done things that were problematic. And they have. And then they don't... They aren't like regular people, right? Secretly, behind the scenes, they have... their hoodies are made of this cashmere they can only get on the top slope of Peru, and the sneakers are perfectly crafted to their feet, and they're eating food that was grown by, you know, small children, who were very well paid, by the way, you know what I mean? Like...

Nick Quah 07:22

Yeah.

Kara Swisher 07:23

Whatever, I'm teasing, but it's an unusual group of people who hold enormous and potentially rapacious power that pretends that they're benign. And that's always struck me as unusual.

Nick Quah 07:34

Well, let's flip this around a little bit. Who would you say is an example of an individual who appreciates that power difference?

Kara Swisher 07:41

The power they have?

Nick Quah 07:42

Yeah.

Kara Swisher 07:43

The adults.

Nick Quah 07:45

The adults. [Laughter]

Kara Swisher 07:46

The adults. Tim Cook understands his power. And I think he does. he doesn't pretend he's a benign force. He doesn't. I've never heard out of Tim Cook's mouth, "That was mean, Kara," or "I didn't deserve that." He's an adult, he takes it. That kind of stuff. I would say, again, the adults. Reed Hastings, from Netflix, he's an adult, he knows what he's doing. He knows what he's disrupting. And he knows the power he has now.

Nick Quah 08:11

So what would you say is our way out of this moment we're in right now, with all these corporations holding this much power? I mean, short of government intervention, which I don't think is happening anytime soon.

Kara Swisher 08:21

I think it is government intervention. I don't think there is any other way. I don't think you can... You know, people are naturally inclined to want to move to power and money, right? I don't... Like, this is the human race. So you know, as much as we hope that we're better, powerful people get things, right? So I think that if you're allowing unfettered power with no accountability, the only way to deal with is the government of the elect of the people. Whether you like your officials, they're elected compared to everybody else. And so, you know, there's flawed but elected, and so... And maybe the whole system's screwed, and we should change that, but they are the closest thing we have to us, and our voices. I think taxing these people better, and not letting them decide what diseases or things like that we're going to solve; as a society, we should decide, with, by elected officials, and elected government regulators, and the people they put in place. I think government's The only way... I think that that's, historically, that's how all these companies have been brought to heel--and not down. I don't think they should be brought down, I think they just have to be brought to heel.

Nick Quah 09:25

So they can be shamed into better behavior, essentially, which it feels like the current modality of activity now, is public shaming.

Kara Swisher 09:32

Well, I don't know about that. We can have a long debate. I don't... this "cancel culture" thing is not our biggest issue in our society right now, although a bunch of really privileged white people think it is. Here's what I think's happened is, a lot of people have had a lot of ****ty takes for a long time from positions of power, and then people say, "Hey, that's ***ty." And they're like, "You're attacking me!" Like, too bad. Stop having ****ty takes. Stop saying offensive things and then cherry picking the results. It's just... Jia Tolentino wrote about... a really beautiful essay on that. That's what she was talking about.

Nick Quah 10:01

Yeah, that's in The Trick Mirror, right?

Kara Swisher 10:02

Yes. Wonderful. Wow, what a talented... That's another person, her. I want to talk to her, because I want people to hear her voice more widely. Like people's voices, and ideas, like that really fresh... She's a fresh--besides being a beautiful writer--she has fresh ideas, I think. Fresh takes on things. I want to introduce voices that you need to hear more of.

Nick Quah 10:23

Right.

Kara Swisher 10:23

At the same time, as doing the, you know... talk to Gavin Newson about the fires, talk to Nancy Pelosi about the election, talk to Elon Musk about neural nets and "Battery Day." Those are all going to happen.

Nick Quah 10:41

Coming up: Elon Musk, Spalding Gray, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jesus. More in a minute.

Kara Swisher 11:01

Do you feel a duty to pay them and make sure they're okay, despite the fact that you don't agree with how they feel about COVID versus how you feel about it?

Elon Musk 11:09

Let's just move on.

Kara Swisher 11:09

"Just move on." That's what you want to do.

Elon Musk 11:15

Kara, I do not want to get into a debate about COVID, this situation.

Kara Swisher 11:21

Okay. All right. Okay. I want to finish up talking about...

Elon Musk 11:23

If you want to end the podcast now, we can do it.

Kara Swisher 11:25

Okay. What did you say? No, we don't... I don't want to end it. I just want to understand the way you feel. But I do I feel like I understand where you are.

Nick Quah 11:31

Kara Swisher is known for her direct interview style. And she says that she can do this because of the power that she has.

Kara Swisher 11:37

I think my power is--I know it sounds crazy, but--going, "Huh? What you just say? I'm sorry, that doesn't make any sense." I think I say what everyone's thinking a lot of the time.

Nick Quah 11:48

Like, cutting the gaslight, essentially.

Kara Swisher 11:49

Yeah, I'm willing to say, like, "What? I'm sorry, that doesn't make any sense." And I think most reporters, by nature, are... even though there seems to be like, "Oh, reporters are so mean," I'm like, most of them are really polite. Right? They don't ask that question. And then when they do, like, for example, when you see it out play in these White House sessions, they're asking reasonable questions. It's just that they're made to seem like those are rude. "That's a nasty question." Trump always does that. That means it's a good question, whenever he does that. Some are nasty questions, some... But so what? You're just trying to provoke an insight. I try to do an interview where if I never have an interview again, it's fine. Right? I'm not trying to hold on to access or get them again. And I think that's what makes it better. At the same time, I'm not disrespectful. I don't think I'm like, "Aren't you the idiot everybody knows you to be?" You know, I don't want to treat people like they're wrapped in cotton batting; at the same time, I don't want to needlessly poke them unfairly. It's kind of a weird dance. But I think I do say, "Huh?" Like, a lot. Like, "What? I don't understand what that just said, that's..." Or, "That's bullshit." Like, "That's not true, why are you saying that?" And it's not like, they said something, like, "Defend yourself." If you're going to say something inane like that, you have to explain it.

Nick Quah 13:07

Getting to the truth: that's what Kara wants. And interestingly enough, she found her inspiration for that in the theater.

Kara Swisher 13:15

There was a show that I saw at the Kennedy Center when I was in my 20s. I covered theatre for The Washington Post in my spare time when I was just a newsie. Yeah, I just had a column called "Backstage." I love...

Nick Quah 13:28

It's like, a classic column name, too. [Laughter]

Kara Swisher 13:30

"Backstage!" "I'm backstage with everybody!" Yeah, it's a good name for a podcast! I'll bring it back. [Laughter] Spalding Gray. I went to the theater all the time. And Spalding Gray, who... For people that don't know him, he was an actor, he ended up committing suicide, a very tragic story of him. But he was also a wonderful writer, and playwright, and all kinds of things. He wrote Swimming To Cambodia about his time doing Apocalypse Now. Beautiful writer, beautiful thinker, great actor, all... Just sort of this renaissance man in that regard. And he had a show at the Kennedy Center, I don't remember the name of it. And what he did is he plucked people from the audience, just every night, three people from the audience. And he had conversations with them. And they were riveting. They were just the stuff he... His whole contention was everyone has a wonderful story, if you only get it from them. And so I really was always amazed by that. Every time I went--I went, I don't know, half a dozen times--just these stories, you couldn't believe it, what these people had gone through, or the kind of pathos he got out of them, and their life story, and their experiences. And I just... And they weren't anybody. They were like, some guy, or some woman, and I thought that was just really... I'll never forget it. I'll tell you. It's stayed with me, 30 years later, this ability, and I think his contention was everybody is interesting. Everyone has a story to tell about their lives and their experience and I can make it interesting. You will be interested in this person even though they don't have a movie, or they don't... You know, aren't a sports star, or run a corporation. I just thought that was a beautiful piece of art and journalism at the same time.

Nick Quah 15:11

But her love of the theater stretches way back before she was a journalist.

Kara Swisher 15:15

Yeah, my mom and my dad, when I was living... We went to theater a lot. I went all the time to Broadway. I never was on stage, which is interesting. I was... Actually, you know what, in fourth grade, I played Cordelia, in a really bad version of King Lear. I know, I can't believe fourth graders were doing that. For a fourth grader, I was excellent. In any case, that was my end of my stage career. I always thought that people "putting on a show" was really interesting, especially choices they made around, not just the play or how they interpreted it, but the lighting, and the revelation that they would bring you because of the immediacy of the closeness. It's so analog, and it's so... You're right there, and you can see them--and not just big shows like Hamilton, which did send a shiver through me when I saw it. But I saw the early versions of Rent, I'll never forget that. When you're... sometimes in the theater, I have revelations about life in ways that are really profound. Like Angels in America is another good example: two parts, very long, huge commitment of time. I went and saw that a dozen times, because I thought it was beautifully written, it was about an issue that was important to me, which was AIDS. And being gay at that time period, it captured it. It had Roy Cohn in it, the person who we really should go back in time and like, find a way to throw into the ocean, because he had such an impact on so many awful people. He's sort of the font of awful that then begat other awfuls, including Donald Trump. The ability of people to get on stage and give you a revelation is what I think I'm trying to do; is give you a little revelation into the truth of the people I'm interviewing, and willing to ask a question that people would sort of, I always like when there's a sharp intake of breath, when I do live events, and I ask a question, by the audience, like, "[Gasps] She just asked that?"

Nick Quah 16:57

Yeah, like Mark Zuckerberg.

Kara Swisher 16:59

I think I was one of the--I think I was the first person to ask about these issues in Myanmar. You know, people have done great reporting on it. But no one had asked him, they're too polite to ask him. And I was essentially like, "Don't you feel guilty about all these people dead on things that you made, and because of your sloppy management?" You know, I asked it in a more deft way, but that's essentially the question.

Kara Swisher 17:19

Can I ask you that? A specific about Myanmar? How did you feel about those killings and the blame that some people put on Facebook? Do you feel responsible for those deaths?

Mark Zuckerberg 17:28

I think that we have a responsibility to be doing more, to be doing more than...

Kara Swisher 17:33

I wonder how you feel?

Mark Zuckerberg 17:34

Yes, I think we... I think that there's a... There's a terrible situation where there's underlying sectarian violence there, and intention. And it is clearly the responsibility of all of the players who were involved there.

Kara Swisher 17:49

And he's like, "But solutions are where I really... I think we all together..." He did a "we" kind of thing. "We hear..." This is your fault. Like, I'm sorry, I want to know why you did this and how you feel about it. And he went back and forth like that for several back and forths. And I didn't let up, and I was like, "No, you're going to answer this question." And then I talked about who should be responsible. And then we used that clip in the marketing for this, is where he said... I said, "Who should be fired for this?" And he said, "Well, I guess because I'm in charge, it should be me." And what they didn't include was right after that, I said, "Okay. But to be clear, you're not gonna fire yourself right now? Is that right?"

Mark Zuckerberg 18:23

Not on this podcast right now.

Kara Swisher 18:24

Okay. All right. Well, that would be fantastic. I mean, I think you'll do okay. So, let's get to the the privacy and data part of it. One of the things you kept saying in Congress, which really drove me crazy, because you said it, like, I counted...

Mark Zuckerberg 18:32

You really want me to fire myself right now?

Kara Swisher 18:37

Sure. It's...

Mark Zuckerberg 18:39

Just for the news?

Kara Swisher 18:40

Yeah, why not? [Laughter]

Mark Zuckerberg 18:41

Oh.

Kara Swisher 18:43

Whatever, Mark, whatever works for you. Now...

Mark Zuckerberg 18:45

I think we should do what's um... what's gonna be right for the community. So I...

Kara Swisher 18:49

All right, okay.

Nick Quah 18:50

So you spend all this time with these super rich, super powerful people who the average person might see as disconnected from the world. And all that coupled with this really divisive political reality we're in. So I'm just curious, I mean, how hopeful are you, really, for the future?

Kara Swisher 19:08

Well, it's hard not to be like, "Ugh, Jesus." You wake up and you're like, "No." Like, when you're sort of like, "I'm getting back in bed," like, what the hell? And at the same time, I do think it... Everything is arrayed against the forces of good. They just... You know what I mean? And I always I use this example a lot. This idea of "Star Wars vs. Star Trek" point of view of the universe, right? Star Trek is like, "We're all gonna be together and we're gonna figure it out, And even the villains will change their mind and become with us, be part of our team of multiracial, multicultural, multi-everything group, and we'll all pull together as a team, and we'll beat evil in every episode that..." It never ends sadly on that show, you know what I mean? And then you have the Star Wars themes, which are all about the Empire always striking back, right? No matter what these people do, "We're gonna, you know, we put up our sword, we're gonna do the fight!" It doesn't end well for anybody in that movie. It just doesn't. And they die, right? And badly! And so I don't know why I'm so up, given how dire everything is. I have no idea why that is. But I do think--I still do think--that individual people, at a price, can change things. And I want to put a focus on both the bad people doing these things and understanding their evil natures, essentially, and the good people. And I think that really great big ideas do move humanity forward. Just like in Angels in America, the line at the end is, "The world only spins forward." I was in the middle, I didn't... I had a lot of friends who died of AIDS, I remember it was dire. It was like, "We're never gonna solve this." And then we slowly... the community slowly worked its way out of it. And gay people were never going to get rights. And then everyone's getting married, I have another new baby, I never would have thought that. And here we are. And then history then slaps you back, and then you push forward. And so I do have a sense that it's really important to put a light on the people who are pushing us forward despite all that we're dragging behind us. And I think that's what I am going for here in a lot of ways.

Nick Quah 21:25

Very, very last question. Dream guest: one dead, one alive.

Kara Swisher 21:31

Oh, that's a good question. You're a good interviewer. Nick.

Nick Quah 21:34

Oh, I appreciate that.

Kara Swisher 21:35

Gosh, that's a really interesting question. I think about that a lot. Obviously Trump. I'd like a go at him too. Everybody would, right? He seems to like, talk to the door. He's like, "I'll talk to you," he's talking to everyone. So I don't know. I mean, I'm so hostile to him on Twitter. I think he'd love it. Like, why not? Well, Putin, I guess. I think Putin's a fantastically evil person. Not fantastic in any way, but just like, I'd really like to have a real conversation with him. I don't I don't understand what motivates that person. Dead? Oh, so many people: Cleopatra, book to interview. Julius Caesar. I'd like to interview Shakespeare that would be the... Well, I'm back with white guys again. I can't get away from them. All right. Here's one who is not a white guy, which everyone always portrays as, Jesus. I'd like to interview Jesus. The historical Jesus.

Nick Quah 22:27

Like at the time? Or like, if he can pop up right now and you...

Kara Swisher 22:29

Well, he's coming back, I don't know if you know that. [Laughter]

Nick Quah 22:31

Right, well, some people don't, but...

Kara Swisher 22:32

Allegedly! [Laughter] He's coming back and he's real pissed. He's gonna be real pissed. Jesus, the historical Jesus. Yeah.

Nick Quah 22:40

Oh, man. That's a... I don't think I've ever heard that answer before. I think that that's a really...

Kara Swisher 22:45

I'm going with Jesus, Nick.

Nick Quah 22:46

Well.

Kara Swisher 22:46

How much do I get for that?

Nick Quah 22:48

You get 500 points. [Laughter]

Kara Swisher 22:49

What would be your first question to Jesus? "So you're back." [Laughter]

Nick Quah 22:55

"How'd you do it?" [Laughter]

Kara Swisher 22:56

"Glad you're back. Tell us how that worked. Tell us how you did that resurrection thing." What would be your question for Jesus?

Nick Quah 23:03

Kara, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me.

Kara Swisher 23:05

No, seriously, Nick, what would be your question for Jesus?

Nick Quah 23:07

My question is just, "Did you ever think everybody would **** this up this hard? And because of you?" That would be my question.

Kara Swisher 23:13

Interesting.

Nick Quah 23:14

I mean, because that's the thing that we're afraid of, that somebody misunderstood what I was trying to do.

Kara Swisher 23:19

Right.

Nick Quah 23:19

And turns me into... I think a lot of celebrities probably deal with this, where they had a certain idea of something to do going forward.

Kara Swisher 23:24

Right.

Nick Quah 23:25

Artists do this all the time.

Kara Swisher 23:26

I would say "Was it worth it? The death, was it worth it? Or would you rather have your father flooded everybody, just like the Noah era?"

Nick Quah 23:33

Damn, that's a good question. Do you think...

Kara Swisher 23:36

Oh my god, every Evangelical's gonna come after me now, but that's okay. Whatever. I'm booking Jesus! [Laughter] On Sway!

Nick Quah 23:45

Thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate this. I've been a fan of your work for so long.

Kara Swisher 23:49

Thank you so much.

Nick Quah 24:03

Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Albert, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.