He’s the attorney turned award-winning journalist who beams through your television screen on MSNBC five nights a week with his show, “The Beat with Ari Melber.”
Born in Seattle but now living in New York, the 38-year-old Melber was named MSNBC’s chief legal correspondent in 2015. In the early aughts, Melber contributed several articles to the Jewish Daily Forward, and in 2004 he served as a Southern California deputy political director for John Kerry’s presidential campaign, responsible for Jewish outreach.
The Journal recently caught up with Melber who discussed in an email interview his move from law to journalism, where he keeps his Emmy and his penchant for quoting hip-hop lyrics during his show.
Jewish Journal: How did you transition from law to journalism?
Ari Melber: I got some experience appearing as a guest on several news channels, and I thought over the years I would be able to mix practicing law and writing with providing analysis on TV. I didn’t know that would lead to a full-time opportunity that would take me away from my law practice. When MSNBC made me an offer to join, I jumped at it.
“Anchoring breaking news from the studio can be thrilling, but is probably the part of the job that requires the most coffee.”
JJ: MSNBC’s ratings have been known to surpass FOX’s at times. Do you think this could have any bearing on upcoming elections?
AM: Yogi Berra said, “Predictions are hard to make, especially about the future,” and I don’t tend to trust anyone making sweeping predictions about large events in the future. There is evidence showing Donald Trump’s election has stirred more interest in the news, more civic activity and certainly more political controversy throughout our nation. That has an impact on journalism in multiple mediums, and probably on voter turnout. But I have no idea what will happen in the midterms.
JJ: As MSNBC’s chief legal correspondent, you’ve covered the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Supreme Court, and served as an NBC News legal analyst. Which is most challenging and which do you enjoy most?
AM: In law school, you spend days with a single Supreme Court case and can still struggle to grasp all of the nuances. So doing live breaking coverage of Supreme Court cases, and trying to ensure every detail is accurate on live TV, is one of the hardest parts of the job for me. Covering the FBI and criminal investigations is challenging for a very different reason: The internal process is largely secret, and leaks can even be punishable under the law, so reporting out what’s happening and getting it right is difficult even if you are meticulous and well-sourced. And anchoring breaking news from the studio can be thrilling, but is probably the part of the job that requires the most coffee.
JJ: You regularly use hip-hop lyrics on your show to explain political or legal scenarios. How did that practice originate?
AM: Law and politics are often overly complicated because there are people that don’t want the rest of us to know what’s going on. It always rankled me — in law school and the legal profession — when lawyers would speak to each other in their own exclusive language. My job is to be accurate and clear. I’ll reach for just about any reference or analogy that might help. That includes rap lyrics, which have great wisdom, especially about the criminal justice process. But it can also mean tapping Grateful Dead lyrics, or old movies, or “The Beat” staff’s clear favorite — dad jokes.
JJ: Who has been your favorite interview subject?
AM: On the law, Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Professor Alan Dershowitz both make for fascinating discussions of how our justice system works. In politics, Rand Paul, Kamala Harris and Ted Cruz have all made for spirited interviews.
JJ: Where do you keep your 2016 Emmy for reporting on the Supreme Court?
AM: I usually wear my Emmy around my neck like Flava Flav and take it off right before the show starts.
JJ: What are you looking forward to professionally?
AM: [Former CBS News President] Fred Friendly used to convene some of the most accomplished people from across the spectrum for these national discussions on public issues. I would love to be a part of bringing together people for those kinds of seminars, like all the living attorneys general from both parties, to talk about the rule of law. We have more media and more options than ever before, which is interesting and certainly more diverse than the old days of four networks, but we are losing our ability to convene broad national conversations. That has profound implications for civic life.
JJ: Are there any other media formats that you’d recommend for people to follow?
AM: Podcasts are probably the greatest democratization of media since the internet itself. The professionalization of media on the internet has left less attention for truly grassroots voices and independent blogs. But we’re seeing a lot of that diversity still thrive in audiences and commercially, on podcasts. So I’d tell anyone interested in hearing new voices to go plug your topics into a podcast search and see what you find. I like Pete Holmes, the Bodega Boys, Alec Baldwin, Erin Gloria Ryan, Stretch and Bobbito and my former colleague Touré, whose new podcast is a big hit, even though he did not accept my idea for a title, “It’s Time to Get Funky with Touré.”
JJ: Do you have a philosophy that guides your life?
AM: Pay more attention to what people do than what they say. Study the sacrifices people made to get where they are. Big dreams are great and a Plan B is even better.
Mark Miller is a humorist and stand-up comic who has written for various sit-coms. His first book is “500 Dates: Dispatches From the Front Lines of the Online Dating Wars.”