Jasmina Basic (JB), Director of Communications at DRI: Hello and thank you for joining us today. DRI's 2023 Annual Meeting is coming to San Antonio on October 25th to 27th and you won't want to miss this flagship event of the year for the Civil Defense community. Join us to make lasting connections to first-class networking opportunities, expand your expertise in your practice area with cutting-edge education, develop your book of business, and more, all while enjoying the historic city of San Antonio.
In anticipation of the Annual Meeting, we're here today with one of our wonderful keynote speakers. Mara Liasson is going to give us a little taste of what you can expect from her session this fall. While you'll have to join us in Texas to get the full story, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson (ML) is an expert storyteller whose reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning news magazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Since 1998, Liasson has been a contributor to Fox News, appearing on Special Report with Brett Byer and Media Buzz with Howie Kurtz. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, D.C., focusing on the White House and Congress alongside reports on political trends beyond the Beltway. Each election year, she provides key coverage on the candidates and issues in both presidential and congressional races. Mara, thank you for joining us today.
Mara Liasson: Thanks for having me. I'm looking forward to being in San Antonio with you.
JB: Likewise, we're excited for the Annual Meeting.
Today, Mara will be interviewed by Jennifer Snyder Heis (JSH), a partner at Ulmer and Byrne LLP in Cincinnati, OH, and a member of DRI's Annual Meeting Steering Committee this year. Jenny has more than 20 years of experience defending manufacturers and distributors of pharmaceutical products and dietary supplements. She has represented these companies in complex litigation, including multidistrict litigation and consolidated state court proceedings, as well as individual cases throughout the country.
She focuses on developing effective legal strategies for the defense of multiple related lawsuits in multiple venues and is experienced in handling all phases of litigation, including trial. Her product liability experience also extends to a wide variety of other industries, including consumer products and construction and industrial machinery. She also counsels food and dietary supplement companies on regulatory issues, including labeling and risk management.
Jenny, thank you for leading our interview today. I'll turn it over for you to begin.
JSH: Thanks, Jasmina. And thank you, Mara, for being here. This is really an honor for me to get to talk with you. So thanks very much.
ML: Well, thanks for having me.
JSH: I love that in your bio, you're described as an expert storyteller. Also, it wasn't in your bio for today, but you also, I know from following you, that you regularly report for NPR, but you also regularly contribute to Fox News.
ML: And that's a story in itself.
JSH: Yes, exactly. And so, my first question for you is when you're thinking about a story and how you're going to tell it, do you tailor it to your audiences, particularly in this somewhat polarized world that we're living in?
ML: Absolutely not. And that is the story of my appearances on NPR and Fox, who definitely have different audiences. But I don't say anything different depending on where I am. Now yes, being on television is different than being on radio. And on Fox, I sit on a panel, we discuss the news of the day, and on NPR, I do podcasts, I do two-way interviews with hosts. Sometimes I do more long form reporting and produce pieces. You know, the formats are slightly different, but the content of what I talk about is the same. And I sometimes say that I am the exception that proves the rule about media polarization, where, you know, the joke is MSNBC and Fox don't even cover the same natural disasters. But I've been, as you just said, I've been on NPR since 1985. I like to joke that I started when I was 10 years old, and I've been on Fox since 1998, and I don't say anything different, you know, either of those places. So I think that there is still my other story is that I believe there is still room for objective, straight-down-the-middle analysis. Not everyone has to be a pundit or an opinion monger.
JSH: Well, we, I love that. And you know, we trial lawyers at DRI are always needing to tell stories to audiences that might not always be sympathetic to us or to our clients. What suggestions do you have for trial lawyers who are trying to persuade a judge telling a story too? We're trying to tell our story to persuade a judge or a jury or sometimes even the other.
ML: Well, that is, that is way above my pay grade. I don't really, I'm sure I could never tell you guys how to do your job, but I want to have full disclosure. My husband is also a trial lawyer, but he's a plaintiff's lawyer. So when I told the speaking agency about that, I think the guy wrote back LOL, they'll love that. But anyway, look, storytelling is the same, I think, whether you're in front of a courtroom, a judge, a jury, or an audience of radio listeners or TV watchers.
I mean, it should be compelling. It should have things in it for the audience to relate to. And it should first and foremost explain why they should care. Some of the things I report on seem really esoteric, like why should anyone care about a state Supreme Court race in Wisconsin? Or why should anyone care about some obscure thing called the independent state legislature theory that just got struck down by the Supreme Court today?
You have to explain it to people why it matters to their lives. And my beat, you know, I'm the national political correspondent. So I cover elections. I cover Congress, I cover the White House. And I often say that the big story of my beat right now is that it operates on two very different levels. One is completely normal. Who's going to be the nominee? Who's going to win the next election? What is Congress going to do about taxes or immigration or China or the environment, whatever. The other track is not normal. It's the “will democracy survive” track? And we know from polling that 69% of Democrats and Republicans think it might not. And how come? And why don't Americans understand the, well, let's put it this way, why don't so many Americans understand the most basic principles of how our democracy works? What separation of powers? What's checks and balances? What are all these institutions that we keep on hearing are under a lot of stress lately? You know, how are they faring and what is the rule of law mean, what does the independent judiciary mean? And obviously I don't have to tell you guys that, but so that's the part of my beat that's not normal because I normally didn't have to think about that or report on that. I just reported on what the various branches were doing with or to each other you know, on a daily basis. But I think we're in, as you said, very, very polarized times. We're in a hyper partisan moment and there are a lot of people who are questioning the basic fundamentals of our system and it's my job to try to explain to people why that's important.
JSH: So since you posed the question, I'll ask you what's your impression? Will democracy survive?
ML: Yes, yes, yes. But democracy needs care and feeding and an engaged citizenry is what saves democracy. And people have to pay attention to democratic institutions. They have to participate in democratic institutions, and hopefully that would mean voting in every election and for every single race up and down the ballot. And also for advocating for simple reforms that could make our democracy stronger, like K-12 civics education. Like shared civic experiences, maybe mandatory national service with the military and nonmilitary option. There are lots and lots of things making it easier to vote but harder to commit voter fraud. I mean, there are a lot of things that we can do to make our democracy stronger, but yes, I do think it'll survive. I think that the American system of free market capitalism and little D democracy has been the best one that man ever devised. But it's not a static system and it needs care and feeding and occasional reform as it has had in the past.
JSH: I love that. I love the K-12 civics education.
ML: That disappeared for some. Well, there are a lot of reasons it disappeared because there's only so much time in the day and you have to teach STEM and you have to teach a lot of other things, and that just went by the wayside. But it's worth reviving.
JSH: Oh, I completely agree. I when I drive carpool with my kids, it's amazing the things that I hear.
ML: Oh, how about those late-night competitions? Understanding. Yeah, right. Well, how about those late-night comedy shows where they send the guy out onto the street with a microphone and they ask people, what are the three branches of government? Nobody has any idea.
JSH: No one knows.
JSH: Well, speaking of three branches of government and sort of the not normal reporting that you've been doing lately, the Supreme Court has been recently encompassed in just a flurry of negative news, which is unusual for them. Usually, they're the bastion of integrity in our system, at least in my view. But there's been a leak. There's been all sorts of questions lately about money and trips influencing justices. Have you noticed that that kind of news has made an impact on Americans' confidence in our legal system and government as a whole?
ML: Yes, it has, and it's made a negative impact and it's really sad and bad. And the problem is that Americans are losing faith in all of their democratic institutions, and the Supreme Court was probably one of the last ones to dip as low as it did in terms of polling on how people feel about it. Congress has been in the toilet for a very long time, but the Supreme Court has sometimes had a liberal majority and sometimes has had a conservative majority. That's very different than Americans thinking it is a partisan institution. But now most Americans think that it is a partisan institution and I think that even though it doesn't seem like the Supreme Court justices want any kind of ethics rules that would be published that they would live by, I think a lot of people who care about the court wish they would because it would increase confidence in their impartiality. And I don't know where this is going. There's no law or institution or entity that can make the Supreme Court adhere to a certain list of ethics rules.
What to me was extremely interesting is the latest chapter, which of course is Sam Alito. Pre prebuttling, you could say the Pro Publica story about his trips, his fishing trip. And that just went under the headline to me of Supreme Court justices are not the best politicians. Because you know, to say there weren't $1,000 wines being served, oh my goodness, like who drinks $100 wines? And if I hadn't sat in the seat, it would have been empty. It was just incredible. Yes, it was a little bit of he does protest too much.
JSH: Exactly. Exactly. Are there any ways that you see for lawyers, you know, those of us who work in civil defense or in your husband's case, even on the plaintiff side, how we can work to improve sort of the general public's view of the court system and our government system as a whole?
ML: Well, I'm not sure about what lawyers can do, but I do think that it has to come from judges. It has to come from the top in this case. And that's why there's so much attention on the court, on the Supreme Court, because that's where it starts. And I think, I think John Roberts would have liked that to happen. But he's not as powerful as he used to be.
JSH: Yeah, I agree with you. I think John Roberts is struggling with wanting the court to move back to its prior stance, as you know the beacon of integrity and the legal system.
ML: It's calling balls and strikes was his famous description and nobody thinks they do that anymore. They think it's rigged and if you know...although look what the Supreme Court has done. I'm not a court reporter. You know you could have Nina Totenberg come and talk to you. But look what they've done. You know they've done things that people didn't expect from a really conservative court you know lately.
ML: They've surprised some people.
JSH: Right. So one of those surprises was their recent decision rejecting an attempt to erode the Voting Rights Act. And anybody really thought that was going to go the way it did?
ML: No, especially because John Roberts has really been an opponent of a lot of the parts of the Voting Rights Act since he was probably 25 years old.
JSH: Exactly. Exactly. What other surprises or changes do you anticipate from the Supreme Court going forward?
ML: Well, I guess we got to wait for affirmative action, but that'll happen before I see you guys, right? JSH: Yeah.
ML: Yeah. Yeah. That'll happen before because I'm not seeing you till the end of October, right? Yeah. So I think that'll be a big one. And the question I have is what decisions? And again, I'm not a Supreme Court reporter, I'm the national political correspondent. But for me, the question is what decisions by the court will have political impact in 2024 like obviously Dobbs did?
I don't know if the affirmative action case, I think it'll have real world consequences because all these colleges are going to have to figure out what to do. But I don't know. Will it galvanize one group of voters more than another? I truly don't know the answer to that. The same thing with student loan forgiveness. I'm not sure about that, you know, but they'll definitely have real world consequences. But I don't know if they're going to have political consequences. The abortion ruling was clearly one of the most politically consequential rulings we've ever had. And by the way, I would put that under the normal part of my beat, having a debate about abortion. That's normal. That is not something that's threatening democracy. That is something people are now going to argue on the state level instead of the national level. It's going to cause--I think there is a silver lining in this for people who are pro-choice and didn't like the decision. I say to them, hey, look what's happening on the local level. People are paying more attention to state Supreme Court races. People are getting more involved in local politics because they realized that the Supreme Court is no longer in charge of this issue. Your state legislatures are. Your state Supreme Court justices are. Your governors are. So that's, you know, it's certainly has given a boost to civic energy and involvement on a local and state level.
JSH: Yeah, here in Ohio we have certainly seen that to be true with a lot of local engagement on the abortion debate and I'm glad you said that that is a normal part of your--
ML: Totally normal, totally normal.
JSH: --because I think so many people feel like this is new and different and kind of scary.
ML: I mean, it is, it is unusual that rights get taken away after they've been granted. I mean, historically the trend is the opposite, but there's nothing abnormal about a democratic country system arguing about whether abortion should be legal or not. And should it be legal with restrictions, should it be illegal with exceptions? I mean, that's a legitimate debate to have. That's not something that's going to destroy our democratic institutions.
JSH: Right. And it's wonderful to hear someone like you say that because I think all of us want, no matter what side you're on, I think people tend to take it to the extreme and make that one issue you know, "our rights are going to end," or you know "the states are going to take over," or who knows.
ML: Well you know it's because our politics are so apocalyptic and zero-sum that we take every single issue and say if my side loses, it's the end of America, you know, that's what's so wrong. My favorite New Yorker cartoon, which I will discuss in October, two dogs are sitting in a bar and one dog says to the other, "it is not enough that dogs must win, cats must also die." You know, I mean, we just like our opponents are not just somebody we disagree with. They're like enemies of our system. You know, they're fascists, they're communists, you know, if they win, you know, the whole country will be destroyed. So anyway, people have to stop that. We used to fight between the 50-yard lines, which actually was not a bad place for a democracy to be. Now we fight from the end zones and believe me, I'm not a sports fan, so I probably don't even have my metaphors right. But there's no middle anymore, is what I'm trying to say.
JSH: Yeah, it does seem like we could have a conversation and a debate on some middle ground and that would be far more productive. And just to bring it back to abortion again, there was a middle ground on abortion and 2/3 of Americans liked it. They wanted to abort. They wanted abortion to be safe, legal and rare, mostly legal with restrictions or mostly illegal with exceptions. However you want to look at it, you know whatever you think of 15-week or 20-week ban is and that polling has not changed.
JSH: What other key issues are you monitoring as we head into this presidential election year?
ML: Well, I think the economy obviously is always #1, even though we've witnessed something kind of weird, which is that the economy and the president's approval ratings are getting disconnected. They used to be completely connected. So the economy, immigration, crime, what else? You know, foreign policy always plays a very small role in national elections, but I think Ukraine is a is a big deal especially because so many Republicans are now moving away from feeling that we should be supporting Ukraine in a fight against Russia. But definitely immigration, crime, the economy, I think. I think abortion politics will still be around in 2024. I think gun violence could be. That really depends on if we keep on seeing this rate of mass shootings. Gun violence is one of those things where just like abortion, where the Republican base feels very strongly in one direction and they're the people who vote in Republican primaries versus the majority of public popular opinion, you know, which is which is different. So in that sense, Republican politicians in political incentives are misaligned the things they need to do support to get to win a primary is very different than what they need to support to win a general election. Unless you're in a safe red district.
JSH: Yeah. And some of those things have been key issues in as many elections as I can remember. Certainly certain places, certainly gun rights in certain places. Immigration in certain states is a bigger issue than others. Are there key differences you're noticing between this election cycle and prior ones?
ML: You mean in terms of those issues?
JSH: Yeah, in terms of other issues being important.
ML: Well, I think that well, first of all, I think a lot of these things depend on what's happening next year. In other words, like I said, will there still be a lot of mass shootings that reminds people about gun violence, and it allows one side to say we should have background checks, we should have an assault weapon ban on the other side. Just to talk about the Second Amendment, immigration, you know what's happening at the border, we've seen immigration really subside. Certainly it did that before the 2018 elections. Crime, that depends on what's happening in cities around the country. I think that the this is an issue that we haven't had before, but age is a huge issue. Right now, you'd have to say the two likeliest nominees are Trump and Biden, and both of them are old and both of them are seen by a majority people as not the first choice that they want to have running next year. Biden especially has terrible numbers on this, on his ability to, you know, his mental acuity, his ability to do the job at age 82, which is what he would be. So that's something that we really haven't seen before. And it's interesting to me because Trump is 77, I think, and he is overweight. There really are no two ways about that. But he does not have a quote age problem. I think because he comes off as vigorous and aggressive and people don't mention that as a problem with him. Now they have other problems. You know, swing voters think he's too extreme and he's not focused. He's focusing on his own problems too much and not the country's, but he doesn't have an age problem. But that's going to be a huge issue in the campaign. Huge.
JSH: Yeah. So it's interesting that you mentioned age, I feel like we hear more and more about age and generational differences, not just in in the context of a particular candidate, but in terms of, you know, people in their 20s don't feel like people in their 50s have the same issues or can even understand the issues that are relevant to a younger generation. How much does that play a role in sort of the way people vote or the way the politicians are framing their issues?
ML: I think that there have always been generational politics. I think that we do see a big split in terms of the partisan affiliations of different age groups. There's no doubt that younger voters, and this is the thing that I can never understand. How can a party, the Democratic Party, do so well with younger voters when all of their leaders are aged? I mean that is just, I don't, I don't get that, you know it's amazing to me. But they consistently do a lot better with younger voters, older voters who came of age during the Reagan years tend to be more conservative and that I don't think that's necessarily new. Certainly we went through the 60s and 70s definitely during the Vietnam War where generational politics were huge.
JSH: Right. While we're talking about the young folk, there's been so much buzz this year about artificial intelligence and tools like ChatGPT, and how they're influencing everything everywhere. How do you see those tools shaping the field of journalism over the next decade?
ML: Well, I'm glad I'm old. That's all I can say. So I don't have to. So I don't have to be replaced by a bot. Okay. So, I think that they have the ability to take over a lot of basic writing jobs, and that's scary to me. A much more immediate concern is whether AI-generated what we used to call deep fakes are going to have a play role in the 2024 elections. We've been waiting for them to come online and now they're here, and how are we going to develop the ability to spot them, to label them?
In Europe they're talking about digital watermarks for anything that's generated by AI, so you know if you're looking at the real thing or something that's fake. I think that, you know, AI has the potential to supercharge disinformation and it could play a really big and negative role in the elections. In terms of journalism itself, all I can say is I hope that human beings continue to generate journalism content forever and ever.
JSH: Well, I can say the same thing about humans and practicing law, because it's certainly being heralded as something that can really change, be a game changer in our practice, and as much as it might be a helpful tool, I'm with you. I hope that humans continue to have the primary role.
And switching gears for a second, I wanted to ask you what is your view of the balance between corporate accountability and defending businesses in the face of regulatory challenges? It's kind of getting back to that civics question, but from a corporate standpoint.
ML: That's really that's a question that I haven't given a lot of thought to. I would hope as a citizen that all our corporations are very responsible, but that's why we have government, because those are the two giant forces in our society, business and government. And you want to find the right balance. You want enough regulation so people are safe, but you don't want too much so business is squelched and the economy suffers. I mean, that's kind of been the age-old you know, hunt for the right balance and equilibrium. What I'm also kind of interested in is the fact that the Republican Party is changing its approach to business and corporations. And instead of wanting pure free market capitalism where you have the lightest possible regulatory hand, now it's okay to punish Disney because they were on the wrong side of your LGBTQ bill. And that's something.
And I think in Congress you find more and more conservative Republicans who are more willing to use the heavy hand of government to regulate business. And that makes me wonder, as a political journalist, where do corporations go? Especially because now Republicans, at least in the House, represent a majority of low-income districts and Democrats represent a majority of the highest-income districts. So as the Republican Party becomes more and more a blue collar, non-collar, non-college educated party, where does that leave corporations and big business? I don't know how much longer the Republican Party can say it's a blue-collar party and still vote for tax cuts for the rich and not for the middle class or you know that we now have Republicans in Congress that want the government to send cash payments to parents because they think that that's a good thing, that this is just a whole new interesting debate. Yeah. The two parties are really in flux on this and that's what I'm interested in. Where does this leave the corporate community? The Republican Party wants to punish the Chamber of Commerce through the Business Roundtable if they are, you know, seem to be too, well, now the word is woke.
Yeah. So really, lots and lots of things are changing and I'm very interested in watching that.
JSH: Yeah. It really is a role reversal from describing what is a Republican when I grew up.
JSH: What is a Republican now? I feel like maybe the Democrats haven't changed as much. And so it'll be interesting how they react, but not as much.
ML: But now you also have a whole different view of trade and immigration. Republicans used to be the party of immigration. Well, we have a huge labor shortage in this country. It's even a labor shortage crisis in this country. Well, the simplest answer to that, or one of the most obvious ones, is to reform our immigration system so we get more legal immigrants, make sure there are no illegal immigrants, but business can't survive without immigration. I mean the story that I read recently, which was amazing in Florida after they passed this, very tough immigration bill, you had some of the Florida Republican legislators go and speak to immigrant groups to say please don't move to another state. We really need you, don't listen to what we just did in the legislature. So, you know, a lot of these issues are now up for grabs.
JSH: Yeah, it'll be interesting to see how it goes.
JSH: What is the best advice you've gotten during your career?
ML: Wow, that is a really good question. Well, I can this seems a little parochial, but Cokie Roberts, who was my mentor, and she was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful journalist and a human being, and she passed away. She told me, just keep your head down and keep filing. Don't pay attention to office politics. Don't worry about what's happening, like in your workplace so much. Just focus on what you're covering and keep going. And that's what I've done.
JSH: And would you-I think-that's directly applicable to good career advice for attorneys, just focus on your cases and not all of the distractions on the side. So I think that would that's really nice one for our audience. Is there anything else, any other career advice that you'd share with our audience of defense attorneys and in-house counsel.
ML: Geez, I don't know. First of all, I don't know-except for my husband who has his own firm-I don't really know, the law seems extremely demanding and it asks a lot of you, and I would not presume to give you career advice in a field that I don't know. Firsthand I would just say in general just keep your eye on the horizon on the long term, think about where you want to be in 5 or 10 years instead of tomorrow and that I think has always been helpful for me.
JSH: Speaking of sort of a demanding career, yours is also I think from my outside the journalism world perspective--
ML: Except for I don't have to bill hours.
JSH: Well, I mean that is the worst of it all. But, you've been doing this demanding job at a very high level for a while. What keeps you going?
ML: Oh, because I'm so interested in it. I mean just the subject matter and I really care about American democracy and I'm really interested in how a democratic society solves problems. And that, to me is not abstract at all. And I have just never lost interest in what I'm covering. And to NPR's credit, they've always--I've done a lot of different things for them. I've covered Congress. I've covered the White House now, I've been covering politics for, you know, over 20 years. They've always had something really interesting for me to do, and I'm really grateful.
JSH: So last question, as someone who's passionate about their job but and super well-educated and always busy, what is someone like that binge watching these days?
ML: Well, someone like that is wishing she had time for binge watching. But I'll tell you what I want. I can say this, I'll tell you what I want to binge watch. First of all, I started binge watching Ted Lasso and I think I did two seasons and I want to do the rest. I can't remember. I don't even know how many there are now, but I want to watch The Bear. The thing about the restaurant, I want to binge watch that.
JSH: Well, I will tell you I finished Ted Lasso and no spoilers, but it the end doesn't disappoint even though I'm sad it's over.
ML: OK, good. So how many how many seasons were there all together?
ML: Great. So I'm only missing one. OK. Yes. And I really like that.
JSH: I recently heard about that one. So, yeah, I'm gonna have to look into it. Well, Mara, thank you so much for your time. And we can't wait to hear more from you in San Antonio in October. Great seeing you then.
ML: Yep, Me too. See you then. All right. Thank you.
JSH: OK, take care. Bye.