Former New York Observer editor Elizabeth Spiers tells all on Recode Media with Peter Kafka.
On yesterday’s new episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Gawker.com founding editor Elizabeth Spiers discussed her year-and-a-half-long stint as editor of the New York Observer.
During that time, she worked for Observer owner Jared Kushner, now best known as Donald Trump’s son-in-law and one of the most influential people in Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. You can listen to the full episode in the audio player above, but here’s a lightly edited transcript of what Spiers had to say about their time working together:
Peter Kafka: You worked for Jared Kushner, who is Donald Trump’s son-in-law. It seems like you got along with him reasonably well.
Elizabeth Spiers: Uh, I got along with him better than any of my predecessors. I think some of it was, he knew that I had an entrepreneurial streak, and so we could talk about the business side. A, I wasn’t afraid of it and B, I was like, actively interested in it.
‘Cause he was married into the Trump family when you were working for him, right?
So what was your perception of his relationship with that family at the time?
He loves Donald Trump. They have a good relationship, I think partly because they’re families of similar histories. They’re both dynastic commercial real estate people. The fathers on both sides have their share of notoriety, for different reasons. I think that’s also probably part of the reason Jared and [his wife] Ivanka [Trump] bonded. And Trump has always been, I think, good to him. So they have a good relationship, and it doesn’t surprise me. I think Ivanka’s very close to her father, and that’s a factor, too.
Now, by all accounts, Jared’s intimately involved in the campaign and offering advice.
Did it surprise you that he would get himself that immersed into the workings of Donald Trump’s presidential aspirations? Or do you figure, “All right, that’s what the father’s doing, that’s what he’s going to be doing.”
No, it doesn’t surprise me. I think Jared’s always been interested in politics and had very strong political viewpoints. Like any newspaper owner, he was on the editorial board. So when you look at the Observer’s editorial page, you’re seeing viewpoints that reflect the owner’s. He didn’t have any involvement in the rest of the paper, on any material basis, but if you want to understand his politics, you could look at the edit page of the Observer and you would see that.
So, the Observer was, for a long time, the successor to Spy Magazine, at least in New York: Very snarky, very insidery, media-centric, created many people who’ve gone on to great success in the media world, was kind of graduate school for media — and a money-losing one. And then Kushner bought it and it went through a succession of editors. When he brought you on, what was his ambition? What did he want the Observer to be?
He didn’t know. He knew that it wasn’t working. Like, my immediate predecessor had a plan to kind of turn it into a competitor to Crain’s.
Local business publications.
Yeah, I thought that was strange. It wasn’t really what the Observer did. I initially started talking to Jared because he had — we’d met earlier, after he’d bought the paper and we were talking about maybe doing a partnership between Dealbreaker, a Wall Street site that I started, and the Observer. Subsequently, the Observer tried to buy Dealbreaker and the deal didn’t come together, but he asked me to come in to talk about maybe consulting for them and figure out what the editorial strategy should be, and in particular, what the digital strategy should be. When I came in, I frankly was overbooked and I wasn’t terribly interested in consulting for the Observer ‘cause I knew they didn’t really have a budget. I didn’t think the problem was the look and feel of the website, which is what they were approaching me —
They wanted a new website.
Yeah. And I said, “The problem with the Observer isn’t the website. It’s that it’s not the Observer any more. If you want it to have the influence that it had during its heyday, it’s really got to talk about power elites in New York, it’s got to cover that.” When I came in, they were doing these features — they had a feature that particularly infuriated me called “The Player,” and it was just a profile of, like, a junior real estate broker.
And it was just painful to read. And I told Jared, “If you go back to when the Observer really had a lot of power, it was because it didn’t pull any punches and it talked realistically about what power structures in New York looked like.”
“This is really who’s running New York, this is who really matters.”
Yeah! And you wouldn’t see these blowjobby pieces about junior people. And I think Jared was still trying to figure out, like, what it meant to be the owner. When he bought the paper, he thought it meant that he suddenly had a media property that would be a PR vehicle for all of his interests.
And you had to disabuse him of that notion.
And how’d that go?
Uh … Mixed results. I feel like I had some — We had some thorny conversations, but we somehow managed to end up in the right place most of the time. I do know at least one of my predecessors’ reaction to those conversations was to just avoid Jared, and I don’t think that’s a really good policy. I’m reserved, but I’m not afraid of having those conversations, and they don’t intimidate me, so the best thing I could do was kind of explain to Jared, inasmuch as he was willing to listen or see it demonstrated, that the paper would have no credibility if it didn’t do these things.
And I think you’ve written that he basically gave you a lot of room to operate.
Yeah, especially in the beginning. For the first couple of months, he sort of said, well, do whatever you think you need to do. Unfortunately for me, six weeks in, Donald Trump declared his candidacy for the presidency.
This was 2012, right?
Yeah. And then thankfully, he dropped out shortly thereafter. We had a lot of arguments about that. I think if he’d stayed in the race, I wouldn’t have lasted there very long at all.
Because you wouldn’t have wanted to cover Trump, and cover his campaign …
Yeah. I think we would have just hit these untenable walls, where if Donald Trump’s getting up and saying insane things, and he’s the front-runner, it’s very difficult for a paper to be in that position. Historically, one of its strengths is that it covers New York politics. In this case, you have two New York politicians who are the front-runners in a major presidential contest, and one of them is very vocal and keeps saying the kind of things that the Observer would normally latch onto. For a while, because Jared knew that I admired [former Observer editor] Peter Kaplan, whenever I would do something that he didn’t like, he would go, “Peter Kaplan would’ve never done that!” Like, really? Peter Kaplan would’ve never covered Donald Trump? Can I point you to the six times he was on the cover?
Trump is saying insane things, it seems like it might actually be having an effect. It’s mid-August, as we’re taping this. Things could change, but it looks right now as if he’s going to get destroyed in the election.
Again, who knows? Assuming that Trump loses, do you think Jared’s ambitions politically are done, or do you think he wants to remain in that orbit?
I don’t know that he would run for office, but I do think this whole process has probably whetted his appetite for being more politically involved.
You think he likes it?
Yeah. I think he, historically — Well, he’s not the kind of person who really likes keeping a low profile. He would say otherwise, but at some point … I remember, he bid on the Dodgers while I was at the Observer. And we were doing a CIA story that the CIA didn’t like and so they were calling and trying to find Jared, and at some point, their spokesperson called and said, “Leon Panetta wants to talk to Jared and can’t find him.” And I said, “Really? The CIA can’t find Jared Kushner?”
“I mean, he’s married to Ivanka Trump and just bid on the Dodgers. He’s not living in a mountain somewhere.”
He’s not laying low.
He has this patrician effect, as if he doesn’t, you won’t see him being interviewed on — “Crossfire” doesn’t exist — whatever replaced “Crossfire” on CNN.
He doesn’t have the same appetite for attention that Donald Trump has. But I think he wants to be, like everyone, respected. And I think he believes that having influence and power is a direct route to that. And I would imagine that being behind the scenes on the Trump campaign, at the level he is, has probably given him a little bit of an education about how you do that in a way that is not operating in a teeny-tiny industry in New York that is mostly dynastic and small.