Apr 15, 2022 - Podcasts

Billionaires go after free speech

Elon Musk wants to take over Twitter. He’s offered to buy the company and take it private for 43 billion dollars in cash. This comes after he bought a 9.2% stake in the social media company. And he’s not the only billionaire to wade into free speech battles.

  • Plus, Axios CEO Jim VandeHei on why we all need a little tough love.

Guests: Axios' Sara Fischer and Jim VandeHei.

Credits: Axios Today is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Erica Pandey, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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ERICA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Friday, April 15th. I’m Erica Pandey, in for Niala Boodhoo.

Today, Axios CEO Jim VandeHei on why we all need some tough-love sometimes.

But first, our One Big Thing: billionaires go after free speech.

Elon Musk wants to take over Twitter. He's offered to buy the company and take it private for $43 billion in cash. This comes after he bought a 9.2% stake in the social media company. And yesterday at the TED conference, Musk said he wants Twitter to follow the free speech laws of the country and not regulate users’ speech.

And he's not the only billionaire to wade into these free speech battles. Sara Fischer is Axios’ media reporter and she's here with more. Hey Sara.


ERICA: So Sara, what do we know about Musk's plans for Twitter? I mean, they offered him a board seat to have influence over the company that way, but he declined that offer. So what's happening now?

SARA: Well, now the board has to decide what to do, but there's a lot of moving pieces. As of late on Thursday, Vanguard disclosed a new stake in Twitter, and there's now reports out that there could be private equity firms that are considering bids. And so the situation is in flux, but throughout the day, it was very chaotic. Elon Musk took the stage at a TED conference in Vancouver, and he declined to offer many details about his vision for Twitter's content moderation. At times he contradicted himself. So the board is going to decide what to do, but at the same time, there's so many moving pieces. I don't think they can make a quick decision.

ERICA: But Elon Musk isn't the only super rich person trying to get involved in the online public square. Who are these other moguls who are trying to change the rules of public discourse?

SARA: He's not, you make a good point. If you take a look at all of the Twitter competitors that have launched in the past few years, especially those on the right, they've either been created or backed by billionaires. You know, you think about the Mercer’s backing Parler, you think about Truth Social being backed by a person who runs a SPAC, which is a blank check company, who's also a very wealthy individual. You think about other billionaires on the left, George Soros and Reid Hoffman backing new companies that sort of tackle what they perceive to be as disinformation. And so I think people with money for a long time thought about philanthropy and thought about issues like hunger or vaccination, now we've seen free speech become a big thing that they want to focus on.

ERICA: Right, I mean, I mean, to your last point, is this really about free speech or is this billionaires being billionaires?

SARA: I think it's a little bit of both. I think you have rich people who want to control American discourse. That's always been the case and that always will be the case. But I do think that social media has reignited the debate around free speech, especially in light of Donald Trump being kicked off Twitter as a sitting president in 2021. Since that time things that we wouldn't have considered to be free speech battles, you know, speech around vaccine information, for example, have become lightning rods. And I think that's only going to continue to increase.

ERICA: Sara Fischer is Axios’ media reporter. Thanks, Sara.

SARA: Thanks Erica.

ERICA: In a moment, Axios’ Jim VandeHei with a lesson in leadership for your Friday.

[ad break]

ERICA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Erica Pandey, in for Niala Boodhoo.

We all need a tough-love life coach. That’s some of the latest advice from Jim VandeHei, Axios co-founder and CEO who writes the nightly Finish Line newsletter with me and with co-founder Mike Allen.

Every week he shares guidance on life and leadership from his experience starting two media companies Axios and Politico. He sat down with Niala recently to explain why his wife has been his best and toughest coach…and why we all need someone like her in our own lives.

JIM VANDEHEI: One of the things I've learned is having a tough-love life coach and mine happens to be my wife. I don't think it has to be someone's wife. I think it could be a mentor. It could be a friend. It could be a family member, but in my case, it's just having somebody who knows me better than I know myself sometimes. And also like really knows your insecurities or your flaws, because it's usually those insecurities or flaws that lead you to bad decision-making. And the example I always use with, with my wife is, and this is a true story: It's 2006 and I'm getting ready to leave the Washington Post to start Politico. John Harris, who's my editor at the Post and would be my co-founder at Politico, we're all ginned up to do it. And we go on what my wife derisively calls the famous coffee walk.

John and I are talking and we had just gotten calls from all the leaders of the Post kind of lobbying us to stay and saying, “You should build all this stuff at the Post.” Long story short Harris essentially convinces me “Okay, we shouldn't do this. It's too risky and we can do this at the Post.” And I walk in the door - I still vividly remember it, uh, walking in the door and my wife looking at me and just seeing the shame on my face. And she literally jumped to her computer and said, “There's no way you're backing out.” And wrote this very eloquent letter, like citing Churchill and Roosevelt, basically calling us wimps, uh, telling us to suck it up and go do it. And it was pivotal. We ended up, it ended up being a big reason that we went through with it at a time where we were about to buckle.

NIALA: I want to go back to what you said about your wife being the tough-love life coach, because she knew your insecurities. Why is that important to have someone who knows that about you?

JIM: I think you have to be fully exposed like you - you and I know each other well, but I don't really know what makes - in your sort of, your heart of hearts. I don't know what makes you tick. I don't know what you fear. I don't know what you feel like you need. I don't know what happened in your childhood.

Like my wife knows all of that so she knows my proclivities. So she was able to have enough confidence like “I've watched you and we have, yes, we have young kids, but I think you'll be a success and I also know that John Harris at that point in time has a lot of sway over your thinking because he's your editor and you have a lot of respect for the Washington Post as an institution, and you're allowing your heart to cloud your judgment right now.” So I don't think, unless you're fully exposing yourself to people - like Mike Allen does the same thing for me, in terms of like knows the good and bad. I mean, there was a moment early on, like, I was a real hothead when we launched Politico.

NIALA: You were a hothead?

JIM: I was. I was much more emotional back then and everyone was rooting for us to fail and I wanted to fight every critic. And there was a moment where like I was about to like fight another critic and Mike just pulls me aside and he's like, “Jim, we're going to be in this town a long, long time. Are you sure when you think about this a couple of years from now that you'll be really happy that you're going to do what you're about to do?”

NIALA: So if you're not a CEO, if you're not starting a company or an entrepreneur, how does this tough love life advice apply to your life?

JIM: I would say this is relevant to anybody regardless of your age, regardless of your profession, regardless of whether you went to school or where you go to school, because we all each and every day make choices that dictate kind of how happy and fulfilled and satisfied we're ultimately going to be and, um, I'm often surprised by how many people kind of just let the waves of life move them. When you have a lot more control over your life, your health, your happiness than you might realize if you approach it systematically and really think about the different buckets of life that, and they're different for every person. Each person has different wants and needs and passions, but being a lot more purposeful about that and surrounding yourself with people who hold you accountable and encourage you and, and, and, and come to you when you might not be making the best decisions, like that's awesome. To do it, to do it alone would be a very lonely, lonely journey and probably an impossible journey.

NIALA: Jim VandeHei is one of the co-founders of Axios. He is our CEO and he's one of the authors behind the Finish Line newsletter, which you can read more about this evening. On Thursdays, he writes about leadership. Thanks, Jim.

JIM: Thank you.

ERICA: That’s all we’ve got for you today!

Axios Today was produced by Nuria Marquez Martinez, Lydia McMullen-Laird…and Sabeena Singhani, whose last day with us was this week. We will miss you, Sabeena! Our sound engineer is Alex Sugiura. Alexandra Botti is our Senior Producer. Sara Kehaulani Goo is Axios’ Editor In Chief. And special thanks as always to Axios co-founder Mike Allen.

I’m Erica Pandey - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here on Monday.

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