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Interview: Rick Ungar on His New Project “The Daily Centrist”

(Gage Skidmore)

“My reputation is, ‘Every conservative’s favorite liberal.’ That’s because I don’t hate people because I disagree with them.”

Rick Ungar, the co-host of the Sirius XM show Steele and Ungar, has a new media project brewing. His recently launched website The Daily Centrist aims to provide middle-of-the-road political commentary. Aiming to combat a culture “where news and opinion comes at you hard and, more times than not, from the extremes of the political spectrum,” Mr. Ungar is looking to create a platform for political discussions from a centrist perspective. He joins Merion WestErich Prince to outline his plans for his new website, the differences between radio commentary and written journalism, and the future of political polarization in the United States.

Mr. Ungar, thank you for joining us today. To begin, could you talk about the process behind launching The Daily Centrist—when you conceived of the idea and said, “This is the project I want to pursue”? 

The Daily Centrist was really born out of something of a frustration that while it’s easy to find a lot of op-eds and editorials from the extremes of both sides, there just wasn’t much that offered intelligent information and conversation for people who identify more as center-left and center-right. For me, being a pretty devout centrist, I just thought we needed that. There was a hole in the marketplace, if you will.

I was reading an interview you did with Newsmax in April of 2017. You talked about how you were drawing from a whole range of sources for your radio discussions, from ThinkProgress to Breitbart. At the The Daily Centrist, do you conceive of it as centrist in the sense that you present a whole range of views and allow the reader to choose from those views? Or will you feature content that is, in and of itself, more explicitly moderate and middle-of-the-road?

That’s a good question. Probably more of the first. When we talk about choosing from a range of views, there are limits on it because if you want to read what Breitbart publishes, for example, the best place to go for that is Breitbart. If you want to read what the other side has to say, go to The Nation. There are lots of places to find that stuff. What I was looking for was people whom I respect. Even if I don’t agree with them, I respect their point of view and ability to communicate it in writing.

We don’t put limits on it. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at an article yet and said, “Yeah, no, that’s too far Right,” or “That’s too far Left.” That really hasn’t happened. But the people who are writing for us know that what we want is smart solutions and discussions. Don’t start taking potshots at the “other side.” That’s just not what we’re looking for.

So more of a reasoned, informed discussion on the issues?

Yes, which is what I’ve always done. I mean, my reputation is, “Every conservative’s favorite liberal.” That’s because I don’t hate people because I disagree with them. Truly, some of my closest friends would shock you if you talked about conservatives. You don’t pick your friends by their politics, and you don’t discount somebody because they disagree with you. If somebody knows what they’re talking about, the fact that they come to a different solution or a different conclusion—they have every chance of being right as you do.

They say a somewhat similar thing about David Brooks: he’s every liberal’s favorite conservative, except sometimes when he actually says something very conservative.

That’s true!

Pardon something of perhaps a leading question, but do you think there is a tension in that some people say they want to engage with the other side but actually like to retreat to their echo chambers when push comes to shove? Is this an aspect of human nature you’re pushing back against?

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That’s an interesting question. Probably. We know that the majority of Independents actually have sympathies towards one party or the other.

Right, I think they call them “leaners.”

Yes. I think that the way they view themselves—and I think it’s perfectly fine—is, “Even though I may have those sympathies, that doesn’t mean I’m always going to vote for the candidate from that party.” They want to see themselves as being open to choosing the best people. That’s not an unhealthy way to go.

The other thing I found, though, which is interesting is that if you talk to people who are Independent and you say, “Well, how would you describe yourself beyond that?” they will almost invariably say, “I define myself as being fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” And I think that’s how they come to the conclusion of, “I don’t necessarily fit with either party.”

As far as your writers, who are some of your current contributors?

We’ve got people like Rich Galen, who’s always been one of my favorite writers. He’s there. Danielle McLaughlin filed a great piece today on the Hanoi summit. Myself, of course; I write there. We have Evan Siegfried, who is a young Republican but very moderate, very reasonable, totally fits the M.O. of what we’re doing.

That’s a helpful overview. What is the main difference in going from being a radio personality to the editor-in-chief of your own media company?

Well, it’s obviously doing different jobs, but they’re all jobs I’ve done before—and frankly jobs I’m doing currently. I’m still hosting radio, and I’m editing The Daily Centrist. It’s switching hats at different times of the day; that’s probably the best way to put it. It’s a lot more fun to be the editor than it is to be the writer who gets edited.

It’s funny, I had an experience—I wrote for Forbes for a long time. I got a kick out of being the only liberal ever on their op-ed page, and then I left for a period of time and went to Mother Jones. I thought, “Ok, I really should be writing for a progressive place like that.” So, I go to Mother Jones, and I had an editor, who shall remain nameless, and you know what? I could never find the guy when I needed him. You know, you write these stories and you want them up there immediately so they’re current. I could never find the guy.

The nice thing about Forbes was that nobody bothered me; nobody really edited me. About once every eight months, I might get a call from somebody saying, “Did you really jack out that story? Because so-and-so is complaining.” And I said, “You bet I did! Go ahead, vet it.” That’s the way I like to do The Daily Centrist; I pretty much let the writers post their stories once I have the confidence that they know what they’re doing. I don’t bother them or bother their stories unless I absolutely must. That’s a big distinction, and hopefully, that helps us attract better writers.

You’re a writer; you know it stinks to get edited.

As far as driving traffic to your site, what are some of the avenues you think you’ll use to help get eyeballs on your site? I know, for instance, Michael Smerconish has used his Saturday morning CNN show to drive traffic to his site (Smerconish.com) through asking viewers to vote on polls housed on his site. 

The honest answer is I don’t entirely know yet. I’ve been really focused on getting it up and running and attracting writers. We have started doing some advertising on Facebook, and that’s driven some traffic. I’m sure we’ll get into some of those other things.

It’s funny you mentioned Smerconish. I actually intend to sit down with Michael to get some advice on this because he’s done a good job with that. He really has. But the honest answer is I don’t know yet. We’re so early in this adventure that I’m really focused on the look of it and the content and the quality. Once I feel more comfortable with that—and there are other people dealing with some of those things. My job is to complain when I don’t think it’s good enough. And, of course, it’s much easier to complain than to actually come up with the ideas to do it.

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I think that’s a common pastime: criticizing the status quo without actually proposing solutions.

Absolutely!

Back to that Newsmax interview I had mentioned—you talked about how the country has seen polarized times before and has stood them down. I think there’s sometimes a tendency to have a bias towards the present and not see these phenomena in context. Where do you see polarization going in the near-future? Are we on the brink of people saying, “It’s gone far enough,” and finding a new hunger for your kind of website and platforms? 

The best answer I can give you is that I hope so. I genuinely hope so. We have seen this before. This is not new. My goodness! I lived through the 60’s—I remember what that was like. Talk about polarization! I did not live through the Civil War, though some people think I’m old enough to have. Look what happened there.

We’ve seen this. We had massive polarization going back to the founding of the country. We think the media is tough now. Go back to when Jefferson and Adams were running against each other, and you have publishers writing about how Adams was a hermaphrodite. It’s always been nasty.

We’re going through a really polarized time. We’ve seen it before. I don’t know when it ends. I have a suspicion it might allay a bit depending on who is next elected president.

You mentioned other media outlets being particularly partisan. At The Daily Centrist, are there any plans to foster a back-and-forth like a historical editorial page, op-ed exchange, with both sides responding to one another on a particular issue?

We actually could at some point. I’ve seen that attempted, sometimes successfully, sometimes not so much. If you can find the right writers to pair—and that’s more of an adventure than you might think because it takes a chemistry, and chemistry is kind of weird to achieve when it’s in writing. You could put two people on camera together on TV or in front of a microphone together, and that kind of chemistry will either be there or it won’t. That’s really hard to do when you’re trying to get them to react to each other in writing. I would do that in a heartbeat, presuming I could find the correct writers who fit so well together and can debate things in a way that people will come in and come out saying, “I agree with this person, or that person, but, more importantly, I learned something.”

Thank you for your time today, Mr. Ungar. 

Nice talking to you, Erich.

Erich J. Prince is the editor at Merion West. Erich has contributed to a variety of publications including The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Hartford Courant, The News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, and The Hill. His opinion writing has been honored with two awards from the Columbia University School of Journalism. He studied political science at Yale, completing his thesis on the history of polarization in the United States Congress.

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