On the night of Thursday, March 19, Chris Hayes sat in a quiet, nearly empty studio and stared directly into the camera. His 8 p.m. MSNBC show All In with Chris Hayes opened with haunting footage from Bergamo, Italy, where hospitals are so overwhelmed with deaths that a convoy of military vehicles was used to transport corpses out of the city. "What we are desperately trying to avoid here is their fate," he said to the camera. "The grim dispatch is quite possibly a look into our own future."
Hayes has been a constant presence on both my TV and my timeline for the last couple of weeks. During the day, his COVID-19 pandemic coverage is a constant drumbeat as he tweets out a mix of his own new reporting, breaking news from other media outlets, and sometimes his own unfiltered horror at the situation. "This is all feels both scary and surreal and part of what's hard about getting our minds around it is searching for some kind of analogue or precedent. But there really isn't a perfect one," he wrote March 16.
And then there's his show: Hayes has switched to almost exclusively to COVID-19 stories since the beginning of the month. Just this week, he's reported on the severe risk coronavirus poses for detained immigrants, the urgent need for mass testing, and the extreme lack of resources for frontline healthcare workers. More people than ever are watching him—since March 6 more than 2 million people a night have tuned in, which are some of his highest ratings since the show premiered in 2013. Watching Hayes report on the COVID-19 crisis is dizzying. The reality of what's facing the country—hospital bed shortages, grossly inadequate testing—is laid bare, and it is raw and disorienting.
Chris Hayes on Trump’s disastrous leadership in the era of coronavirus:— All In with Chris Hayes (@allinwithchris) March 13, 2020
“This has been the fear…since day one when we elected and then swore in a racist game show host to the most important job in the country to manage huge systemic risks on our behalf." pic.twitter.com/9wJAcWM4xV
When not covering a pandemic, Hayes often looks like he's about to crack a smile. He's got a way of presenting complicated news and wonky political topics with a zoomed-out perspective and a good-humored raised eyebrow. He feels like your smartest friend explaining the news of the day, with a "Man, can you believe this?" tone. Lately, his coverage has the same urgency, the same jam-packed-with-research foundation. But for the past few weeks, since the virus began ripping through the United States, his frustration and anger have become obvious.
"That tone you’re talking about is me being like, we are headed for disaster here! Like, wake the fuck up!" Hayes told me. When we spoke on the phone on Wednesday afternoon, he was getting ready to head into 30 Rock in Midtown Manhattan, where he's been filming his show with a skeleton crew. We talked about his coverage, how he's explaining the crisis to his three young kids, and what happens next.
Esquire: What’s been your strategy for covering COVID-19?
Chris Hayes: The challenge in the beginning was to communicate two different ways of thinking about risk. What’s been challenging about this story is that it gets to the core of what’s hard about news coverage in an existential sense, right? We cover plane crashes, not plane landings. The local news covers muggings and crime and not every walk that happens that’s pleasant and lovely. So, it is in the nature, almost in a kind of definitional sense, of news coverage to often give people a misperception of risk. And because of that, I think there’s some understandable skepticism about how the media communicates risk.
In the beginning there was an understandable impulse for people to be like, "don’t panic people, don’t get too wound up." So, there had to be a way to communicate these twin ways of taking a risk: Your individual risk, random American who is not immunocompromised and not over 80, if you’re watching my show right now. The risk you yourself will find yourself on a respirator or dead because this virus is numerically quite small. The risk to the system is enormous. And we’ve seen that fundamental cognitive dissonance play out in country after country. We see it with Boris Johnson, I even saw it with Ron Johnson today talking about how many people die in car crashes.
“So far, nearly everything the president has promised has been nothing more than an attempt to get a good headline that turns out to be far, far less than it appeared," @chrislhayes says.https://t.co/Bi1YG3taub— MSNBC (@MSNBC) March 20, 2020
Almost in an understandable way, the mind rebels against the idea we have to shut down the American economy because 115 people have died. Right? As it’s been said, we’ve got 60,000 flu deaths, and we’ve got 40,000 flu deaths. But the logic of exponential growth is very hard to get your mind around, and the fixed nature of health care capacity and what’s happened in every country that has gone up that exponential curve, is they’ve had much worse.
So, to me, the key thing to do is, be clear and precise in your language and even-tempered in the way you communicate. Talking to experts, synthesizing information in a way that’s accessible, asking questions that are out ahead of where things are.
Everyday things are going to change because we’re not used to a world with exponential growth. Nothing happens exponentially in our lives. Right now I think the thing is there’s so much information, so much information. A thing I’m cut out for is just reading a ton of information and synthesizing it. It’s like, kind of what I do for a living. And so I think that skillset is serving well at this point.
Does this feel different though?
Yes! It feels unlike anything else.
Your show covers a lot of politics, how are you thinking about covering the politics of the crisis versus the science and public health?
We should do both of those. I’ve covered government accountability. To be honest, I think the depth of the failure of our federal government and the Trump administration still has not been grasped, but it is Katrina level. We are anywhere between generously 3 weeks behind, ungenerously 2 months behind.
One strange feature of Donald Trump is he has no fixed ideological positions other than bigotry and narcissism, so you can probably sell him on literally any policy as long as it's framed to him as "This Makes Donald Trump Look Good and The Chinese Virus Look Bad."— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) March 18, 2020
I watched what happened after 9/11 and I watched Katrina and I watched the worst financial crisis in 70 years and now I’m watching this and it’s like, you cannot take competence at the top for granted. A lot of times, the very serious people or the people who are like, ‘We have it under control’ are bullshit.
You're often tweeting news from your sources before it airs on your show. How do you decide what news to break on Twitter?
It’s been a vital avenue because we only have one hour a night. And things are moving so quickly. So, if an ER doctor 6 hours before showtime says, ‘It’s showing up in New York City hospitals, it’s a mess right now, you should tell people that.’ I will tell people that. And not wait until 8 o’clock as, “Exclusive! My ER source is in New York saying this.”
How do you vet information you’re getting quickly and how do you decide which information is trustworthy and worth passing on and what is bunk?
It depends on the source, the number of sources, the level of trust, and what you’re reporting. If I talk to three different ER doctors, all of whom say, "we’re seeing it today," I’ll post, "here’s a quote from one of them." Whereas I’ve gotten other tips that are way bigger deals that I have not put on Twitter because it’s like, I’m not just going to put that on Twitter unless I can confirm that, so I will try to run that down and if I can I’ll say it and if I can’t I won’t. I’ve been getting constant calls and texts from people throughout this. 90 percent doesn’t get published in any way. It’s public health here, you’ve gotta be really careful.
Speaking of Twitter, Eric Trump offered to buy you dinner if now proved not to be a good time to invest. Ever hear from him?
Eric Trump has deleted his ‘now is a great time to invest’ tweet — even after challenging Chris Hayes to a bet that he was right. pic.twitter.com/jFyvO1dFkJ— andrew kaczynski🤔 (@KFILE) March 14, 2020
[LAUGHS.] He was quite civil, I have to say. I just retweeted him being like, buy big on February 28. And he’s like, I think now’s going to be a good time to put money in those 401(k)s. I was like, February 28th? And he was like, nobody’s investing for 7 months, come to me back in like 3 years or something.
So, did you hear from him?
No, I did not hear from him after that exchange. That was the end of that. I would say that exchange is like the thousandth thing I’m thinking about right now.
What has it been like broadcasting a show? What precautions are you taking for yourself and your staff?
It’s intense. We have a very strict work from home regime so we have very few people in the office. My wife and kids are in another place. Originally I was like, should I stay separated as long as this happens? And I just felt like in the risk-balancing equation, I would … lose my mind? My heart couldn’t bear to deal with it. So, I’m going back and forth to them a little bit. I just had a conversation tonight about stripping my clothes off and putting them in the washing machine when I come in and then taking a shower right away.
You know, 30 Rock [where the MSNBC studio is located] does not feel like the best place to be. But we’re one of those industries that I would say is sort of an essential service, right? You just have to keep going. I assume I’m going to keep broadcasting through this. We’re trying to figure out a way to have a remote camera in a location that I can be in that's not 30 Rock or somewhere I can be in if I’m under quarantine or get sick. The odds of that are not low if the curve goes the way that I think it is.
Does that mean filming at your house?
Yeah, some kind of house cam set up. What I worry most about is either getting sick unrelated to this but having to self isolate for awhile and not being able to broadcast, or actually getting the virus and being relatively low on the symptomatic scale and also not being able to broadcast. And both of those just seem kind of unbearable right now. To just not be able to do the show because I’m self-quarantining.
For now, you’re feeling good?
I feel great, yeah. I’m not sure that New Yorkers quite understand that we’re like at the center of it now. But for New Yorkers ... I think there’s going to be a lot of cases in New York.
Are you doing things like not taking the subway? Are your crews standing six feet apart?
Yes. We are trying to. We’re implementing all that. Those of us in the office don’t go into each other’s offices. Everything is done by phone now. We’ve cut down non-essential shots. For instance, in the normal show, there’s what’s called a jib cam, which is a handheld camera and that requires an operator. And the shot looks a little better, slightly artsier, more kinetic. We don’t have that now. The amount of production we’re doing is less. We’re stripping down the show to try to really dramatically reduce people’s risk. I’m trying to go to the building as little as possible so I’m basically working from home until like 4 or 5.
I saw you wrote on Twitter you had to tell your 5-year-old their birthday party was canceled. I just had to do the same thing.
Ugh! It was really brutal. The big thing is kids seem basically to be asymptomatic or very mild if they get it. One of the things we communicated very early on to our kids was, you guys are fine. There’s this crazy thing about this bug that kids can’t get it. So, they know that. It’s both true and also helpful for their peace of mind. But when trying to explain why we canceled the party, they were like, ‘But kids can’t get it!’ And then we had to explain asymptomatic transmission, which is like, what? They can’t get it but they can be carriers, and they can pass it along to one of us or Nana and Papa, and that’s a tough one!
How are they dealing with it? Especially being apart from you a bit more. Is your family doing OK?
There’s already a little bit of dogs-before-a-hurricane energy in the kids like a kind of of restless rambunctiousness. My oldest daughter Ryan and my son David, they’re 8 and 5-going-to-be-6, and they’re like wrestling really hard and getting onto each other. That thing where they’re like compulsively goading each other. I separated them, like, 'This is day one! Day one! You got two months of this. You better figure out how to co-exist.'
And how are you doing?
I am personally feeling very lucky and privileged. I have a tremendous amount of privilege, which I am aware of in a million different ways that become sharper during a crisis. I don’t have two kids in a small apartment in the Bronx and a job that just got ended. And I genuinely feel grateful for that every day.
This is such a cliche thing to say, I was just saying to my wife, there are so many things I was anxious about in January and February of this year, about the future, or the show, or this or that, and that all seems very trivial now. I’m anxious about the loved ones in my inner circle who are vulnerable to this. Very anxious about them but we all are.
I am very scared and worried for the country and consumed with the worry. I’m also intellectually obsessed with the problem. It combines basically all aspects of human life on the planet, like biology, epidemiology, math, statistics, modeling, epistemology, what we can know and what we can’t know, sociology, psychology, behavioral science, economics—fiscal, monetary, macro, micro—law, institutions, governing, political science, group decision-making, bureaucracy. It’s every problem a human society faces suddenly all in one place at this moment and no clear path out and so I feel like weirdly inspired—both obsessed in an unhealthy way but like profoundly motivated, if that makes sense.
Are you doing anything to give yourself a break? Or are you just letting yourself ride the obsession and motivation…
I am doing a lot of riding the obsession out but I have been watching some good Netflix. I can’t watch anything really scripted after the day, even paying attention to character, plot and story is too much for my brain. I tend to watch standup specials or food shows. I watched Ugly Delicious last night, which I love. It was just very comforting. Like, oh, how do they make pizza in different parts of the world? This is comforting. That’s where I’m at.
What are the next few weeks going to be like for you?
I’m going to keep doing the show, keep doing the show. And I’m going to keep doing the show until I get sick, basically. That’s the plan.
This interview was edited for clarity.
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