Like many cable news personalities, Ali Velshi, anchor and business correspondent for CNN programs World Business Today and Your Money, doesn’t mind saying things that are controversial. In fact, he joked to a crowd of Drexel students, faculty and staff that he recently warned viewers not to throw anything at their televisions before sharing his view on what we need to do to conquer the federal deficit.
“Most Americans say that taxes should go up on the wealthy, and my argument was, actually you can’t deal even partially with the debt based on increasing taxes only on the rich. If you confiscate – never mind tax – if you confiscate all the earnings of the wealthy in this country for the next 10 years you’d actually only get to half of where you need to get. So the bottom line is the math says, probably, taxes have to go up on everybody, which is remarkably unpopular. But that’s part of what I do. I put it out there for people to think about.”
On that show, Velshi booked Former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich because he knew Reich would take the opposite viewpoint. “At the end I see that as a good discussion. Not a win or lose.” Velshi says these types of disagreements – conducted in a respectable way – are the best avenue for his show to add value to the national conversation about how to solve important problems.
But beyond his willingness to say controversial things, Velshi’s programs feel different than many other cable news programs. For one, they do not feature the type of screaming and yelling arguments that many such programs are known for. He says at first, people warned him that his respectable debate-based approach would make his shows seem “too academic,” but ratings have only gone up. “There’s a lot of that [yelling] out there. I said, ‘I’m going to try something different.’ And as I tried it, it’s quite remarkable: It seems the smarter the shows gets, the more people come along.”
Asked about the polarizing effects of cable television on different sides in politics and where he thinks CNN should stand, Velshi says, “As I read more and more about history, I realize the media has been involved in mucking up politics for a very long time. But we do have a landscape that’s changed in cable news. I do think history will look back at CNN and say, CNN was wise to take its time in deciding where it fits into that landscape.”
He says that while other cable news networks focus more on taking sides in politics, CNN retains a clear vision that its number one job is to report big news events, like Election Night and Hurricane Sandy. “There’s just no one who can do it like us. International events: the Arab Spring; the tsunami in Japan. People who identify themselves as liberals and conservatives all say when stuff like that happens you’ve got to be at CNN.” He adds what CNN is still working out is what it does the rest of the time, when there are no major news events happening. “We all think about this a lot.”
In response to a question about entrepreneurship, Velshi indicated his passion for American innovation. He says he enjoys working with the X Prize and judging business plan competitions. Calling himself an engineer-wanna-be, he said: “I’m fascinated by the world of entrepreneurship and innovation. When I go and talk to these people, they don’t talk about the fiscal cliff. I don’t even know if they know there’s a fiscal cliff. They think about problems as something to be solved. And they think of themselves as these people in the continuum of solving the problems… Engineers will run the world someday.”
Velshi summed up a column he just finished writing for an upcoming issue of Money magazine that says “once the fog of this nonsense in Washington clears, our future looks quite bright… America is a very innovative place. We just get bogged down by all this talk about politics.” He added that he’s looking forward to 2013 so that he can stop talking so much about politics and focus more on things he wants to talk about on his programs, like the future of America.
The event was co-sponsored by LeBow College of Business and the Kal and Lucille Rudman Institute for Entertainment Industry Studies of the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.