Van Jones seems like a person who keeps in mind the old adage about not being able to make an omelet unless some eggs get broken in the process.
“I just want to mix it up a little bit,” says Jones, the author, activist and one-time advisor to President Barack Obama. He is set to unveil at 9 p.m. this evening the second in a series of “town hall” specials called “The Messy Truth.” A third is set to air on January 25. The goal, says Jones, is to get people with different political and personal beliefs talking to each other again.
Viewers will see the results of his travels to swing states like Ohio and Michigan, where he chats with voters who once picked President Obama, but more recently voted for Donald Trump. He finds their concerns very different from the issues that are taken up by big media outlets. “There are so many things that we obsessed about in the national media that just don’t seem to have had any relevance to the decision-making of the people who ultimately determine the election, especially in the Rust Belt,” Jones said in a recent interview.
Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm and former Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina will take part in the January 11 special and take questions from the audience.
CNN’s initial push behind the show suggests the network is eager to test new programming ideas to lure a viewership that has been fascinated by the recent presidential election, but could choose to reduce that interest in that event’s aftermath. Jones said he would like to continue doing “Messy Truth” events for CNN for the immediate future. “We could do this a couple of times a month,” he noted. During the first 100 days of the new Trump administration, he suggested, “there are so many topics to get out there and humanize.”
Jones likens the shows to what might happen if globe-trotting chef Anthony Bourdian combined his series with Phil Donahue’s once-popular daytime hot-button topics program. One of the ways people can bring America’s divided populate together, he argues, is to go out to various parts of the U.S. to meet with residents and “bring very strong, very well-known political leaders into a room with ordinary voters and community members, and let the community members really drive what we talk about.”
The program aims to show viewers that “listening makes for a better conversation,” says Rebecca Kutler, executive producer of the program. “People might disagree but they don’t have to be disagreeable.” She said CNN was focusing on the next two specials and declined to say if more might be in the works.
Jones cited his unique background as an impetus for the series. He grew up, he says, as a “red-state progressive” in western Tennessee, where he attended public school and Sunday church. “I really understand how dad-gum smart people in the middle of the country are. I also understand how the coastal, cosmopolitan crowd can really come off as holier than thou and snotty, but of course, I really embrace those strong liberal values you find in the blue states,” he explained. “I really think that gives me something to bring to the national conversation.”