In recent days, NewsNation anchor Leland Vittert has been busy preparing to moderate his first presidential town hall for the network. The live, televised event features Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy and is scheduled to take place at NewsNation’s Chicago headquarters on Monday night at 9 p.m. ET.
This past Friday night, Vittert anchored his evening newscast On Balance live from the Iowa State Fair. Iowans will be among those peppering Ramaswamy with questions during the town hall, and Vittert, along with his team, wanted to capture the mood on the ground and hear directly from Iowans in the lead up to Monday’s event.
This approach is part of the network’s brand promise, “unbiased news for all America.”
Vittert has been at NewsNation for over two years and was recently appointed the network’s chief Washington anchor. He will continue to anchor special political event coverage, including recent Trump arraignments and moderate town halls like the one with Ramaswamy.
TVNewser spoke with Vittert ahead of tonight’s town hall, where we discussed what it will be like to moderate his first town hall, and his time at NewsNation.
*This interview has been lightly edited for clarity purposes.
TVNewser: What should viewers expect from you as you moderate your first town hall?
Vittert: Well, I think our goal is to ensure that the audience and Vivek are the stars of the show in a world where so many reporters and networks have an agenda and a favorite candidate and are cheering for one side or the other.
This is a chance to be respectful and be advocates for the audience who are Republican primary voters trying to learn more about a really exciting candidate; and to give the audience, both the studio audience and our audience at home, a chance to really see Vivek Ramaswamy in a different way. The voters are going to make the decisions, to get the opportunity to talk with him and to question him, and when appropriate, we’ll try to facilitate as best we can a more in-depth conversation.
What goes into preparation for your first town hall?
A lot of reading. I feel like I know Vivek Ramaswamy better than I know some of my best friends right now because I spend more time with him than with my girlfriend or some of my good friends. I’ve been watching his interviews, his campaign rallies, listening to podcasts that he’s on, reading a lot of what he’s written and then reading a lot of what’s been written about him; trying to understand who this person is and how to best help the audience see him.
We have to be really honest that this isn’t a one-on-one interview, right? This is a chance for him to introduce himself and explain himself. Voters have a right to have tough questions, and I think one of the most important things about NewsNation is that we really trust the viewer to be smart. We trust the viewer to have their own opinion, and we believe that those opinions, wherever they fall on the political spectrum, are valuable and worth exploring.
I think that you’re going to see us really try to bring out Ramaswamy, trying to get him to crystallize where he stands on issues that are important to the voters and let the voters have their moment to question him and to understand where he stands and also question on where he’s been on certain issues before and why he’s changed his mind.
It’s been a very busy week for you — your conversations with Presidential candidates North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and former VP Mike Pence. How does talking to these politicians help with your town hall preparation?
I think as you’re looking at the Republican field right now, you’re seeing each candidate try to define a lane, and the more you understand the lane for each candidate, the better you can understand how to question and how to examine critically, which is what a reporter’s job is: To critically examine statements, ideas, answers from any given candidate. That would be my big takeaway, is it’s up to the voters to decide, and it’s up to the viewers to pick their favorites.
I would go back to the direction I’ve always been given, and the reason I’ve been so excited to work at NewsNation from the very beginning. When I signed up with NewsNation, [Nexstar Networks president] Sean Compton, said, “Look, I want you to go be a journalist,” and that’s really the only editorial direction I’ve ever been given. Just go be a journalist. Go ask tough questions to everybody. There are no safe spaces. Nobody gets a pass. Republican, Democrat, smurf, hippopotamus doesn’t matter. So nobody gets a pass, and we don’t pick any favorites. Then, you become advocates. Rather than for one side or another, we’re advocates for all of America.
Moderating a town hall is a challenging feat. Fact-checking the candidate, ensuring you touch on all your planned topics, keeping the audience engaged but not TOO engaged, etc. Who has given you the best advice as you embark on your first live town hall?
Well, I’m very grateful to be surrounded by people who have done this time and time and time again, both [NewsNation political editor] Chris Stirewalt and Cherie Grzech, who’s our svp of News and who obviously did this a lot at Fox [News]. So I’ve been very grateful for their advice. Chris described it in the same way as going into a war zone back when I was a war correspondent, which is you should be uncomfortable because, as television anchors, you always want to be in control of the conversation, and in town halls, by design, we’re not in control. The audience is in control, and the candidate should be the star, and the audience should be the star, and we’re there to facilitate. So, the best advice I’ve had is to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
I’m about as nervous today going into this as I was the first time I headed into a war zone in the Middle East. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The other part of this is there’s a responsibility to fact-check, and there’s a responsibility to get into a lot of topics, but there’s also a responsibility to not make it about yourself. These voters are smart, and the voters are going to fact-check. The questions we’ve gotten are extraordinary, showing a group of people who are really invested and interested in the process. What surprised me the most is that the questions we’ve gotten aren’t “gotcha culture war” questions. They’re really meaningful questions about policies, a lot about education, some about abortion, a lot about the military. I think the thing that makes me the most confident, aside from having Cherie and Chris in my corner and going to be in my ear, is having the knowledge that the audience is really smart. I’ve been so impressed by the audience questions, their grasp and understanding of the issues, and what that foretells for Monday night is a good thing.
How’d you end up at NewsNation? What were the discussions to get you on board, and how do you feel about your time at the network so far?
You know, after the 2020 election, I think everyone can read what Fox thought of my coverage and my questioning of Trump and the way I journalistically covered his claims about election fraud. I got approached to come help start NewsNation with the promise of being able to be a journalist. Just go be the skunk at the garden party, and that’s missing today across the spectrum – the left and right. There’s nobody who’s there just giving both sides a hard time and doing so respectfully but doing so aggressively. I think that’s the lane that we’re trying to carve out, which is being old-fashioned and dogged in our journalism and being fair to both sides.
We call ourselves “the fairest show on television” because we’re fair to both sides. The direction I’ve been given, and [NewsNation president of news] Michael Corn has helped me out a lot on this, is not to give the other side or to give each side its worst argument, but to give the other side or both sides their best argument, and then pick apart the best argument. Because that’s what everyone’s entitled to, their best argument, not the cheap sound bite. Give them their best argument, and then ask tough questions about their best argument.
How is the culture at a start-up like NewsNation different from that of a long-established network like Fox News?
I’m a big believer that cable news programs and life is about the future, not the past. So, I always look forward, and what I can tell you that I love about NewsNation is, as you rightly point out the startup culture. We’re able to take risks. We’re able to go after stories without fear or favor. There are no editorial sacred cows. There are no agendas, and I say this is as the Chief Washington anchor and a 7 p.m. prime time anchor. I’ve never been given any editorial direction other than just go cover the news and do so aggressively and do so fairly, and that’s it. That is just shockingly rare in today’s media landscape. I think what I find sort of stunning is that if my bosses have an editorial agenda, I don’t even know, I don’t even know what it is, much less it being enforced.
Our [Nexstar] chairman, Perry Sook, says, “NewsNation is the last great adventure in television,” and it’s awesome. I think we’re seeing real buy-in from people. The media landscape right now, I think, has gotten to the point where both the advocacy media on the left and advocacy media on the right is almost just like feeding a child more sugar, and you have to give them more and more sugar to get a bigger sugar high. I think our show is a little bit more like a balanced meal. We’re going to give you dessert, but there’s going to be some meat and potatoes along the way, and smart people want that. There’s a desire among people who care, are smart, believe in America, and understand how fragile the experiment of 1776 is to know that real journalism is needed to protect it. I take nothing away from those on the left and those on the right. Obviously, the First Amendment protected the press; it didn’t just say the unbiased press or the fair press. But I think that group in the middle has been missing for a while, and it’s a lot of fun to try to bring it back.
You were recently named chief Washington anchor. What new responsibilities come with that?
Well, I’ll be doing this town hall, I’ll help out during the day, with special programming, and as a guest on programs. I never really put a lot of weight into titles. I think that the viewers are smart enough to watch you, and you can have a fancy title and not add anything, or you can not have a fancy title and add value and insight to what’s going on. I view Washington a little bit like I view Paris, which is I love Paris but hate the Parisians. The values of Washington are really messed up, and they just are, and the people who live here and enjoy that Washington value system are missing out on Middle America. They believe the rest of America is here to serve Washington, which really angers people. When we go to the Iowa State Fair, nobody likes Washington, it is the least popular group of people in the world, and my hope every night and every day is to advocate for those people and our viewers. I’m a Midwest kid, born, bred, and corn-fed, so the lead I’ve been given is you’re there to bring the Midwest to Washington, not to bring Washington to the Midwest, and to bring a Midwestern sensibility and values and thought to what’s happening in Washington. I’m not here to explain Washington to the Midwest. I’m here to advocate for the Midwest and all of America to Washington, and there’s a big difference there.
In this new role, will you be in charge of election-type programming?
I do what I’m told.
Final question: What do you hope the viewing audience takes away from this 90-minute event?
I hope they come away with a better understanding of who Vivek Ramaswamy is. His strengths, his weaknesses. There’s going to be audience questions of people who seem more positive towards him, and there’s going to be audience questions of people who have real, difficult questions for him. That’s the landscape right now, so I want people to come away feeling like they understand a lot more about who he is and that he’s gotten a fair 90 minutes of being able to explain to the American people who he is and why he wants to be president and the audience has gotten a fair opportunity to question him. Remember, all of these people running for president are asking for the job that George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama had. Nobody deserves a free pass when they’re coming to interview for the most important job certainly in America, if not the world.