Oxon Hill, Md.
Unlike the young conservatives milling around the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) with cameras waiting for their favorite politician or pundit to turn the corner so they can get a “selfie,” Jan Helfeld is here with a camera for a different reason—a serious interview. Politicians and pundits are usually eager for free publicity, so Helfeld often scores big names, despite having no mainstream-media affiliation or even many Twitter followers. But many of them have found that sitting down for a conversation with him can come with costs.
Helfeld’s video interviews on YouTube are essentially five-minute Socratic rodeos, in that they almost always end spectacularly with someone being tossed. Whether Helfeld is the bull or rider is a matter of perspective, I suppose.
His interviews have been seen millions of times, thanks to YouTube and the hyper-viral nature of niche political websites. He lacks the self-promotion gene that most CPAC attendees have—along with almost everyone else in Washington. But almost despite himself, Helfeld has a following.
Jan Helfeld interviews journalists, economists, and pundits, but he’s most famous for a handful of viral interviews with politicians like Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden (1) (2), and Barney Frank. Most of these interviews were done for his now-defunct cable access television show in Northern Virginia, The Bottom Line.
His videos have a cult following (especially with economic libertarians) because his interview subjects work themselves “into a pretzel,” as one video headline put it. Pelosi abruptly cut her interview short when Helfeld’s compare-and-contrast with her support for the minimum wage and strict enforcement of minimum wage penalties and her practice of not paying all interns became too much for her. She threatened to call the Capitol Police.
Congressman Pete Stark was so angry at the end of his interview, he told Helfeld on tape to “Get the f— out of here or I'll throw you out the window.”
A talk with Congressman Esteban Torres in 1995 resulted in perhaps some of the most bizarre behavior exhibited in a Helfeld interview. A staffer, Roderic Young, took action when Helfeld’s questions began to frustrate his boss. The L.A. Times reported the incident this way at the time:
Young snatched the videotape from the camera and threw a microphone at Helfeld.
Young tried—but failed—to take back a release form that Torres had signed consenting to the interview.
After Helfeld was asked to leave, Young called Capitol Police to report that Helfeld had stolen a document—the release form.
After Torres repeated the stolen document charge, Helfeld was arrested, frisked, handcuffed and escorted to a police van. His bag containing the release form was taken.
Helfeld wasn't charged with anything. He claims the Capitol Police told him he wasn't technically arrested, and he got back his bag and the release form. He sued and won $45,000 and got an apology from Torres in a settlement.
His lawyer in the case is now a Republican congressman from Kansas. Roderic Young is now vice president of communications for the Dartmouth-Hitchcock health system. His Twitter bio says he is a “Former Crisis Communications / Reputation Management Consultant.” In a way, Helfeld was one of his first mentors in the field.
Helfeld doesn't say it, but it’s clear he views himself as a teacher of sorts. Perhaps it’s because his father, David Helfeld, was a law professor and, later, the dean of the law school at the University of Puerto Rico.
A graduate of Yale Law School, David Helfeld wrote a controversial legal review article on the Federal Employee Loyalty Program established by an executive order of President Truman. The program was not a discount insurance plan for longtime, loyal federal employees, but rather a program designed to eliminate Communist influence in the U.S. government through various means, including wiretapping. Helfeld’s father and a colleague criticized the program because, among other reasons, it didn't afford due process to the federal employees being investigated. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover wrote a rebuttal to Helfeld that the Yale Law Review published.
This made it difficult for David Helfeld to find work as a law professor, and the University of Puerto Rico was one of the few schools that would take him. Eisenhower revoked the order six years later, but Helfeld was in Puerto Rico, and he stayed there. His son attended the university for both undergraduate and law school.
I discovered Jan Helfeld's videos as a young congressional aide. Staffers tend to be defensive about their bosses—though they don’t usually steal the tapes of bad interviews from journalists—but I enjoyed watching them because they were informative and usually entertaining.
Not much is out there about Jan Helfeld and his background. When I emailed him before CPAC, suspecting he’d be attending, with the target-rich environment it offers to journalists, he responded promptly to say he was amenable. But I sensed he was skeptical about talking about his life outside of Jan Helfeld, Internet provocateur.
I treat Jan and his cameraman to lunch at CPAC. “My career is in your hands,” he jokes as we sit down. Jan tells me that he’d like the conversation to be off the record until the end, when we’d do 10 minutes on the record. Since most write-ups of Jan tend to be only about his work, I was disappointed. Ten minutes, especially with a wordy guy like Jan, would give me about enough time to ask three or four questions. But halfway through lunch, Jan tells me that he’s changed his mind and I can use all that we’ve discussed; we’re on the record. The 10 minutes he offered turned into 50.
At CPAC, he has already been approached by a person he once interviewed, a relatively unknown left-leaning comedian/journalist, who has asked Jan to take down the videos of their interview. Apparently, there’s this thing called Google, and when you search for this person, it shows up. It doesn’t reflect well on him, as he’s quite rude to Helfeld. Jan doesn’t think it’s right to take it down, so he offered a compromise: He’ll change the tags and the description so it might fall from top rating, but it stays online. Jan seems to find it funny that people like this guy—who was initially eager to take him on—later come back to ask for the videos to go away.
Jan gives me his opinion on others known for their unconventional interviews—people like Sacha Baron Cohen and James O’Keefe. People like O'Keefe have stories, usually constructed ahead of time, that help him and his affiliates make their explosive videos. Cohen never seems to be playing himself, only a caricature or imaginary persona. Helfeld doesn't agree with these practices, having performed all of his interviews as Jan Helfeld.
“He is about embarrassing people,” Helfeld says of Sacha Baron Cohen. “I'm not about embarrassing people. You can embarrass yourself, that's your own business. I don't think it works if you try, either. If you focus on the truth, I'm as surprised as the next guy when somebody gets upset or says something crazy.”
Helfeld has been doing these interviews for years. Being the son of a lawyer certainly seems to have inspired him. “When I was very young, I liked to argue, say 10 or 11 or whatever, and I realized something interesting: If you catch another person in a contradiction, you won the argument.” Contradictions play a big role in Helfeld interviews, which employ what he calls the “Socratic interviewing” method.
“In order for the Socratic interviewing to work,” says Helfeld, “you have to know your stuff. You have to know why you think what you think. What your premises are, what the relationship is. You have to have an integrated philosophy, at least in that area, where you understand what principles depend on what principles or what conclusions depend on what conclusions.”
He worked as a lawyer for a while before transitioning into business. “I did mortgage financing and property development at a small time level. And a few other small businesses, like a restaurant I had, this or that, inconsequential stuff.”
Helfeld then submitted a request to do television on a local variety show. “I had a little section there which was called the happiness section. It’s kind of like philosophical, I did like a little tip, a little analysis about something in life.” Helfeld’s section on the show led to him being offered his own show, called What's your Philosophy? On his new show Helfeld landed his first big interview—Jaime Benitez, chancellor of the University of Puerto Rico. “The guy was talking philosophic nonsense. Every time I tried to offer him a way out, he just dismissed it out of hand.... He was an arrogant son of a bitch.”
Benitez gave his father his first job as a law professor. But, Helfeld recalls, “I said ‘Aw, hell, my commitment is to the truth, f— it.’ I did the best to help him out... He doesn't want any help? Down you go! And so from then on, that was when I have been committed to the truth, and that's what I try to pursue.” Helfeld is most happy when “everything ends amicably, it’s friendly,” he says. “You know, that’s what I’d prefer. But I’m not about to let the truth go down the drain to keep a friendship in an interview.”
“For 30 years, [Benitez] was an institution in Puerto Rico,” he continued. “He was a friend, so I had to take him home in the car to his house after I crucified him. So then afterwards I went to celebrate at a discotheque. And I was thinking, ‘You know, I kind of like this. This is fun. It's like trying to catch a greased pig.’ … That was the image that came to my mind and I said, ‘You know, I like this, I am going to continue with this career.’”
Helfeld later hosted a radio show in Puerto Rico and did some interviews in New York, but made his way to Washington in the mid-nineties to host a show on a now-defunct small political network. The offer fell through after the proposed contract changed, and Helfeld pursued freelance opportunities instead. In Virginia, Helfeld created a show called The Bottom Line on cable access, and proceeded to interview a whole host of elected officials. Much of his viral content came from his cable access show.
Cable access shows have always been a good source for interesting content that normally wouldn’t get airing on normal television channels, but they don’t last forever. After all, time and bandwidth are finite. Helfeld still goes with the title of his show these days, since what he’s after is “the Bottom Line.”
The Internet has been good to Helfeld, but it has changed what he does.
On one hand, the costs of getting his interviews out to viewers have been reduced dramatically, thanks to YouTube. (Helfeld only posts clips of most interviews, but his website does sell some of the full ones.) Before the proliferation of Internet video, Helfeld had to copy his own tapes to get them out there. “Man, was that a pain in the ass,” he tells me. On the other hand, it would stand to reason that it makes it harder for Helfeld to get interviews, since he’s a Google search away from being denied an opportunity by a rightly skeptical press secretary.
But Helfeld disagrees. He recounts the story of Mike Wallace connecting him with his agent in New York. “The agent said, ‘You have a good gimmick here, Jan. But I don't think it's going to work because the people will not want to do interviews with you.’” Jan wasn’t worried.
“Some people are careless. Some people are good—they admit being wrong. Some people overestimate—‘Oh, the other guy got screwed, but wait til I get him. I'll show him a thing or two.’ And the last thing is there are so many people, the universe is big.”
How did Helfeld get all of those congressmen and senators to sit down and talk to him in their offices? He started a nonprofit group in Puerto Rico called Rational Solutions, Inc. and back when he was doing The Bottom Line on cable access, he and this nonprofit “would send out hundreds of invitations to do interviews, explaining who I was, the interviews, subject matter, and most people would just ignore it, some people would get back to me.”
So far as direct mail campaigns go, this one was pretty successful.
Helfeld's first viral hit, he thinks, was a Harry Reid interview on whether taxation was voluntary. A friend of his put it online at his request, but another blogger with more influence recognized its potential and posted it to YouTube. There, it got 2 million views. Jan feels that the initial lack of credit this blogger gave him was downright impolite, but he didn't pursue any legal action; he seems at peace about it. He tells me he tries “to contribute to the political and philosophic discussion in America, and therefore, to its development.”
“You know, what I do is pretty hard.” Helfeld says. “There’s a lot of tension and conflict sometimes, that wears on you psychologically. So, there’s a sense of satisfaction of doing a good job… you know... I think I’m not the only one that’s doing these exposes, I don’t know who the other people are, so, somebody’s gotta do it, but it’s not what I’d call pleasant.”
The grind of finding people to interview wears on Helfeld, he admits. He hopes that with his body of work, interested parties could set up some of the interviews for him, concluding, “It seems to me that I could be very useful to people that have a particular agenda that is consistent with mine, and they need me to interview a particular person.”
An ideological, journalistic hit man for hire. But Helfeld doesn’t want just to kill the interview subjects with kindness—he wants to kill them with reason.