On Friday afternoon, Chris Hayes was in his new office at 30 Rock, trying to reconcile two sets of data involving U.S. household debt. He wanted to make a chart to use on an upcoming episode of Up With Chris Hayes, his ambitious, month-old MSNBC show, and he had just half an hour before his guest spot on Martin Bashir.
On his P.C. screen two fragments of a line graph did not quite meet. If one squinted, though, they fused into squiggle with two spikes, one in 1929, and one in 2007.
“It’s a pretty intensely evocative visual,” Mr. Hayes said, stripping down to a T-shirt and taking a sip of a Diet Snapple.
Two months ago, Mr. Hayes was Rachel Maddow’s understudy. Now he’s anchoring his own show. Up With Chris Hayes, a two-hour weekend program, has added a healthy dose of opinion and analysis to lazy Saturday and Sunday mornings, when viewers have a slightly longer attention span than they can muster during prime time.
At 32, he is the network’s youngest anchor, and as he hung his button-down shirt on a rack between a heather gray hoodie and a camera-ready blazer, he seemed even younger, like an NBC page getting off work.
With black-rimmed glasses, a down-turning mouth and a messy side part, he actually resembles a cross between Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann—as if engineered in a lab in a network subbasement. And he’s every bit as loquacious and encyclopedic as you’d imagine their unholy progeny would be.
Especially when he’s talking about debt. Mr. Hayes is fairly obsessed with wealth inequality and tends to address the topic at a machine-gun clip. “The core economic fact of America since 1973 is rising, accelerating income inequality, more specifically, in a pattern that confers the largest gains to a smaller and smaller group at the top,” he explained.
At the sight of a nod, he moved on.
“I’m using data from Pikkety and Saez,” he explained, “He won the John Bates Clark medal.”
“I call it fractal inequality, because inequality reinscribes itself every level.”
This is not blowhard punditry; Mr. Hayes, an editor-at-large at The Nation, is deep in it right now. On his days off, he works on revisions of his book, due out from Crown Publishing in spring 2012. “The book is about how accelerating inequality has produced dysfunctional elites,” he explained, “which have produced failing institutions and broken the bonds of trust between the people and the leaders of the institutions.”
Up viewers are already familiar with Mr. Hayes’s journalistic side, which translates on-air into a certain writerly wit and a fact-checker’s affinity for data.
In a representative sequence on Up, Mr. Hayes delivered a parable about Inequalistan, the fictional nation with a flat tax and a population of 10, where Grover Norquist is president, David Brooks is senate majority leader and the Koch brothers are co-speaker of the house. Mr. Hayes stood before a 10-foot-tall graph of the fictional country’s wealth distribution and superimposed the image with a line representing the U.S.’s. Surprise! We look a lot like Inequalistan.
He rejoined his panelists at the Up table. “Well, that was awesome,” he said.
The son of a retired public school educator and a community organizer turned Department of Health advocacy worker, Mr. Hayes was born and raised in the Bronx. After graduating from Hunter College High School in Manhattan, he attended Brown, where he studied philosophy, wrote and acted in plays and met Kate Shaw, now a law professor and former associate counsel to President Obama. The two wed in 2007.
While Ms. Shaw attended law school at Northwestern, Mr. Hayes landed a fellowship writing for In These Times, a leftist investigative journal. When she began a clerkship in D.C., he got a writing and editing gig at The Nation. There, his eloquence made him seem a natural for cable appearances.
After a run of successful guest spots, including hosting for Rachel Maddow in spring of 2010, MSNBC offered him a network analyst contract. In July 2010, he was among several invited to sub for Ms. Maddow while she was in Afghanistan, in what is now seen as an audition.
Booked for Tuesday, Mr. Hayes took the train from Washington, D.C., on a Sunday night. On Monday, he read from the Teleprompter for the first time.
“It was the first intoxicating experience of saying, ‘I want this to be on TV,’ and then it’s on TV,” he recalled.
When Mr. Hayes’s was in talks to renew his contributor contract this spring, he pitched the idea of a weekend show over lunch with Phil Griffin. He thinks the pitch was persuasive because a personality-driven show would bring “Lean Forward” programming, the new MSNBC branding strategy, to the weekend.
Launched last fall, the “Lean Forward” campaign was an appeal to the viewer put off by Fox News’s “heated rhetoric.” It was widely mocked.
“It’s like when Nike came out with ‘Just Do it’ and Reebok came out with ‘For where your pants end,’” Jon Stewart said.
For his part, Mr. Hayes, a fan of Mr. Stewart, is aware that being a liberal caricature is among his qualifications for the job. After signing his contract, he and Ms. Shaw packed up their Prius and moved to Park Slope. (He now gets around on a bike.)
“I feel embarrassed about how giddily infatuated with it I am,” he said of brownstone Brooklyn.
The couple is expecting their first child, and are deciding whether or not to hyphenate his or her last name. The due date is marked on his office calendar as “D-Day.”
“I’m slightly panicked,” he said, his voice trailing off as he stared at the calendar.
The weekends surrounding D-Day are already filled with the names of guests for Up, which is centered on a themed conversation. Mr. Hayes likes to say he built it that way because he doesn’t have the personality to carry off a two-hour show solo.
He does not want for charisma, but one can imagine how an uninterrupted monologue would grate. His voice is high and occasionally cracks higher at the end of a (complete, perfect) paragraph, and he can get a little flappy in the hands. He doesn’t beat himself up; Ms. Maddow taught him that investment in the content reads much louder than poise.
Equally important is the dynamic of the group.
“I would say we’re the most diverse show on cable news,” he bragged. His guests are carefully chosen—“Like a Rubik’s cube,” he said—in hopes of creating tension and conflict while maintaining civility. Fittingly, his signature set piece is a plate of muffins.
On Sunday, Mr. Hayes was joined by playwright Katori Hall, a Manhattan Institute alum John McWhorter, former Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert, actor Sam Seder and Nation editor Melissa Harris-Perry. The network dictated that the topic of the day would be Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to whom a memorial was being dedicated in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Hayes focused on the dissonance between Dr. King’s legacy and his media reception during his lifetime, a nuanced historical discussion that lasted through three commercial breaks. Except for developing stories, such depth is virtually unheard of in cable news.
“I’ve known Chris a long time and I knew he would be good, but when I first found out about the length I thought, ‘I don’t know, it’s a long time to fill,’” said Mr. Herbert, a frequent guest. “It turns out the two hours fly by.”
Mr. Hayes attempted to segue from Dr. King to the news story of the day, Occupy Wall Street, by showing a crackly black and white clip of Dr. King on Meet the Press, in 1966. “Recent polls suggest that in terms of national reaction, demonstrations are now counterproductive,” the interviewer told the civil rights leader. “By continuing them, don’t you run the risk of doing more harm than good?”
“I have never felt that demonstrations could solve the problem,” Dr. King replied. “Demonstrations dramatize the existence of certain social ills that could very easily be ignored if we did not have demonstrations, and the initial reaction to demonstrations is always negative.”
Mr. Hayes’s guests followed up, eventually concluding that the plurality of news sources today insulated Occupy Wall Street from negative press reactions.
“The mainstream is not the mainstream anymore,” Mr. Seder said. “We’re a lot more niched in our media.”
“We have about 30 million people watching us right now, so I don’t know what you mean by ‘niche,’” Mr. Hayes joked. (It was actually over 150,000 in the target demographic.)
But when they went to commercial, the smile faded. Judging by his off-camera demeanor, Mr. Hayes is serious about leveraging his new platform to advance the ideas he believes in.
“Seriously, this is what keeps me up at night,” he muttered in between blocks. “Can you solve climate change in the current balkanized epistemology?”
“You can’t solve climate change,” said one of the guests.
But can Mr. Hayes effectively advance a liberal agenda without resorting to theatrics of his cable news cohort?
“Chris is good at projecting the idea that he is actually curious about how other people think,” said Reihan Salam, a conservative columnist at The Daily and frequent Up guest.
The Dr. Martin Luther King episode was Up’s most highly rated episode ever, beating CNN both hours. For the first time, MSNBC re-aired the show it in the afternoon.
Mr. Hayes could tell it was going well. During the last commercial break, he mimed shooting his guests.
“You guys are killing it!” he said.
He spoke too soon. As he signed off, he called Mr. Herbert, Mr. Heebert.
“I screw up the ending every day,” he said, laughing, before doing it again.
“See you next year, here on Up With Chris Hayes,” he said.
With any luck, maybe we will.