The Incredible Political and Media Journey of Jesse and Tyrel Ventura
Interview with Substack's newest contributors, who may be the ultimate symbols of America's censorship regime
Back on March 12th, not long after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, the New York Times ran one of the first of what would become a series of gloating articles about the demise of Russia Today. The state-sponsored TV network had just been yanked off the air by government fiat in Europe, and removed in America by private carriers like Comcast, Xfinity, and DirecTV. About the channel, the Times wrote:
A role at RT America was a rare job in an industry where if you had screwed up, were washed up or were completely new to the field, there weren’t many other options…
The Times then listed a series of those “screwups” and “washouts,” including the paper’s own former star war reporter Chris Hedges (also thriving now on Substack) and the father-son tandem Jesse and Tyrel Ventura. The paper neglected to mention that none of these figures had failed at anything, but rather had been driven out of the mainstream press essentially over opposition to the Iraq war.
In fact, if not for one of the most scandalous stories in the history of American media, former Navy demolition expert, pro wrestler, and Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura might still be occupying Rachel Maddow’s slot on MSNBC, broadcasting from Minneapolis rather than New York (“All we get is the East Coast, the West Coast,” Jesse told the network then, “You don’t hear nothing from the heart of America, and we’re true America”). Jesse and Tyrel moved to Substack this week, launching their site Die First, Then Quit, but their journey here — by way of two extraordinary censorship campaigns — just might be the ultimate illustration of how politics, not ratings, decides who’s allowed to sit in the big chair on primetime American television.
Jesse and Tyrel tell the story in their own words below, but briefly: in early 2003, at the height of pre-war mania, MSNBC hired Jesse at big dollars to pilot a prime slot. At the time, the “6’4”, Porsche-driving populist,” as the Washington Post sneeringly called him, was on every network’s short list. He had name recognition from the WWE and Hollywood, credibility with middle America as a veteran, and had rattled the two-party system to its core just years before, beating Republican Norm Coleman and Democratic Party royalty Hubert Humphrey III in the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial race under the Reform Party banner.
“I was the hottest commodity out there,” Jesse recalls now. “Fox, CNN and MSNBC got in a bidding war for me. I signed a three year contract with MSNBC. I was supposed to have Rachel Maddow’s slot.”
MSNBC appears to have hired Ventura in the belief the former Navy underwater demolition expert and Predator jungle warrior would wave pom-poms for the coming Middle Eastern conflict. In truth, “I had been very vocal in my opposition to invading Iraq, still am today.” To make a long story short, when the network found this out, they essentially un-hired Ventura, but not before tellingly asking one of his aides about his war stance: “Is there any chance he’d change his mind?” Simultaneously, MSNBC fired Phil Donahue, another antiwar voice.
Unnamed network sources slandered both figures on the way out. Ventura wasn’t fired in one sudden move: “Jesse Ventura’s America” was first shifted to a weekly show at 7 p.m. on Saturdays, the cable equivalent of the graveyard shift, or “the bottom of the cable news closet,” as son Tyrel says now. A Variety account of his dismissal after 12 episodes summed up (emphasis mine): “Even though Ventura had improved the ratings for the timeslot, MSNBC insiders said the program was simply too expensive to produce” — ironic, given the network went on to pay Ventura millions of dollars to not work at all during the early years of the war.
“I’m under contract,” Ventura recalls. “I couldn’t do any other news shows, and they paid me the entire three years.”
Media writers meanwhile were told Donahue was fired for “poor ratings,” even though he anchored MSNBC’s highest-rated show, beating even the heavily promoted Hardball With Chris Matthews. Both Donahue and Ventura insisted at the time that pressure from outside the network led to their dismissals. “It came from far above,” Donahue said. “This was not some assistant program director.”
Ventura in the interview below says MSNBC president Eric Sorenson “got phone calls from two people way up in the echelon of the Dems and Repubs,” asking why Ventura was being given a forum.
Media critic Rick Ellis at AllYourTV.com even published an internal MSNBC memo saying the network was afraid of becoming “a home for the liberal antiwar agenda at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag.” Ventura ended up back on the air with Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura, averaging 1.6 million viewers at its launch in January 2010, TruTV’s best month of ratings ever, before ending up at RT, where son Tyrel also hosted a show called Watching the Hawks.
RT was taken off the air in a more complex but no less unsettling censorship episode, but the notion that Ventura got there by screwing up or washing out is not just fiction, it turns reality upside down. Similar to the criticism Glenn Greenwald gets for appearing on Fox, it ignores that crucial detail that Ventura was blackballed from mainstream green rooms long before he got to Russia Today.
“I was banned,” Ventura says now. “Big media censored Jesse Ventura and they left me no other recourse.”
Die First, Then Quit is going to have broadcast, podcast, and print elements, and will touch on political issues as well as tell personal stories from Ventura’s career, which is a canvas and a half from any perspective. “He’s lived a truly Renaissance man’s life,” is how Tyrel puts it. Jesse, who candidly admits he may have created the blueprint for a future insurgent presidency — “In some ways, I feel responsible for Donald Trump” — came fairly close, as he explains below, to running for president on the Green Party ticket in 2020.
Full disclosure: when I heard Ventura might run, I offered services as a speechwriter, in retrospect an absurd move because Ventura is nothing if not someone who does his own talking. Jesse gets into some weird stuff on air, and I disagree with him about a lot of things, but he has a pair of qualities that helped make him a unique figure in the history of American populist politics. One, he’s honest. Two, his sympathies in politics clearly lay with voters, not donors.
It’s always seemed to me that if one or the other political party could commit to that basic package, they’d never lose another election. But they just can’t bring themselves to prioritize people over money, which is why there’s so much voter dissatisfaction, and by extension why someone like Donald Trump was able to win the presidency despite being outspent nearly 2-1 by Hillary Clinton.
Ventura went from being a talk radio host to a gubernatorial candidate when he heard the state of Minnesota was going to keep a $4 billion revenue surplus. Next thing you know, he was on the ballot, running ads like, “I believe Minnesota should return the entire $4 billion tax surplus to the hard working people who paid it in. I believe Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones are two of the greatest rock bands ever.”
Politics doesn’t need to be hard, but our two reigning parties insist on making it so. “If you have common sense today, that makes you a genius,” Ventura says.
It’s yet another indictment of the American media system that a popular, bankable media figure like Ventura has essentially been squeezed out of the mainstream media landscape. At the same time, his arrival is yet another gain for Substack, and I don’t just say that because Predator was awesome. I’ve heard criticism of Jesse from various Washington-based pundit types who denounce him as a joke and an unserious person, pointing to TruTV episodes about the Bilderbergs or Reptile-People (“Lizard-like shape shifting humanoids: are they real?”). To which I always shrug and reply, “Yeah, but does your party take money from Goldman and Raytheon?” What would you rather have, an honest wrestler or a polished sellout?
Below, he and son Tyrel talk below about their new venture, their political and media journeys, Hollywood, and other topics. Excerpts below: full audio and transcripts TK.
Matt: Governor, how are you?
Jesse Ventura: Good. I wanted to say, personally, thank you, when I dabbled in running and you offered to be my speech writer. That would’ve challenged you probably more than anything else in your life, attempting to write words for me.
Matt: They would have been very general guidelines…
Jesse Ventura: I remember when I did my first NBC Saturday Night Main Event. We’re going to go on NBC and here’s Dick Ebersol, the crown prince of NBC Sports, who runs it. I arrived that night and in front of me was this massive notebook.
I opened it up and started reading and it was my script where a writer was writing, “So and so says this and Jesse replies with this.” I’m reading this and Dick Ebersol walked by and I motioned him over. I said, “Dick, come here.” And he comes over and I said, “Dick,” I said, “I got to be blunt with you.” I said, “Two years ago, NBC didn’t give a rat’s ass about wrestling. And now you’re going to tell me that you have someone capable of writing for me? You have someone who can write what Jesse Ventura thinks and who has more knowledge of wrestling?” I said, “I don’t work that way.” I said, “I respond to what I see in the ring and you can’t write that for me.”
Fortunately for me, Dick Ebersol was good. He sat there a moment and thought he goes, “You’re right. Get rid of that thing.” And I said, “Thank you, Dick.” But I’ll always remember that, this big, thick notebook of, “Here’s what you’re going to do for Jesse Ventura.”
Matt: That tells you that they had absolutely no idea what the appeal of wrestling was all about.
Jesse Ventura: These were Johnny-come-latelies. All of a sudden we were red hot and they’re jumping on board going, “Ooh, let’s get Saturday Night’s Main Event.” We started rotating with Saturday Night Live. It was massive for us. We beat Saturday Night Live’s ratings. When we were building up for Mania III, Saturday Night Live had Madonna as the guest host and she was red hot. We came on a week later and blew her numbers out of the water.
Matt: What was the route from wrestling to politics?
Jesse Ventura: When I left wrestling, I then went and did talk radio, which gave me that experience of dealing with an audience on a daily basis. I even did morning drive, man, for a couple years.
Matt: Christ. That’s heavy lifting.
Jesse Ventura: Oh, I don’t wish it on anybody. Then I also did three years of broadcasting in the NFL. I did two years with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and one with the Minnesota Vikings where I did color commentating. So I made a transition for myself out of being pigeonholed to only wrestling, I expanded myself out… I had become mayor [of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota] in ‘90, over a local issue and then went back to the private sector. And then it was during talk radio I heard they had a huge surplus in Minnesota and they were going to spend it.
I’m on talk radio going, “Wait a minute, that’s our money. You can’t just spend it. Just because you’ve overtaxed us and the economy has been so robust that you’ve brought in more money than what you’ve budgeted for, doesn’t mean you could be kids in the candy store and start running around and buying every little thing. You give the money back.” I actually think the Dems and Repubs in Minnesota today, the two parties, I think they want me back as governor, Matt.
Matt: Really? Would you consider doing that?
Jesse Ventura: You know why? Because we’ve got another $8 billion surplus, which is the very thing I ran on and they’re not giving it back again. So clearly, they want me to come out of the woodwork and run again, so that I could give the money back in a sales tax rebate. They did it three years here. They called them Jesse checks.
Matt: The surplus issue is what led you to the governor’s office the first time around. Were you surprised by how well you did?
Jesse Ventura: I came out on radio and then I made the statement, which got me in trouble. I went, “Gee, maybe I should run for governor.” And when you say that on a popular, statewide talk radio show, it’s like, uh-oh, you’ve just thrown an M-80 into the fire, because it exploded and started to spread flames in every direction. And then I got myself to the point where I had to run because my credibility was on the line then.
Matt: Not to make light of the accomplishment, but what did the fact that you won tell you about the unpopularity of the two parties at that time?
Jesse Ventura: You know, in some ways, I feel somewhat responsible for Donald Trump. He came and visited me after I won. He flew in here on his jet and did big photo ops with me and all of this stuff. I helped blossom him.
At the time, we embraced him because we had affiliated with the Reform Party from the Minnesota Independence Party, and we were just looking to become a legitimate third party. We wanted the movement to rise. And when Donald Trump started playing with us, we all fell under his mystique a little bit. You know: “Donald Trump, the big player, tons of money, ooh.” He rattled his sword, “Maybe I’ll run for president as a third party candidate.” And we thought, “Well, wow.” All we were doing then was begging for legitimacy and anybody that could bring that to us, we would embrace. But the thing about Trump was, he would always rattle the sword, but never pull the trigger. That’s why in 2016, he caught me by surprise because I just thought he was back rattling the sword again.
Matt: What did you think of his tactics?
Jesse Ventura: He did it differently than me. See, and I can’t argue with the way he did it. He took on the Republicans and defeated them first, and then took on the Democrats and defeated them. I like to say he took on the Bushes and he destroyed the Bush dynasty, then he took on the Clinton dynasty and destroyed the Clinton dynasty. Where I would’ve taken them both on at the same time and I might not have been successful doing it that way. You can’t argue with Trump’s success.
He did it, but he did sell his soul to this right wing. I mean, he’s about as right wing as — you’re going to tell me Donald Trump goes to church and really reads the Bible? Laughable. Oh, and can you imagine for a moment if Barack Obama had been married three times and had children from each marriage, what the Republicans would’ve done to him? If Barack Obama had behaved like Donald Trump, he would’ve been just total red meat for the Republicans.
Matt: What does that tell you about Trump? You know him a little, so you must have some insight. How sincere is he in what he’s saying?
Jesse Ventura: He’s sincere as the day is long for himself. For himself. Believe me, he’s sincere — about him.
Matt: In 2020, how close were you to running, and do you think you would’ve won?
Jesse Ventura: Well, I was very close. I literally went to the Green Party and offered myself saying, “Look, let’s make a deal. You got access in all the states. You can get me on the ballot. And then from there, I’ll get myself in the debates.” I said, “Leave that to me. Let me go out on the street corner for a few hours and I’ll get it.” (laughs) “I got that, because you got to get in the debates. But you have the ability to give me that platform.”
I guess they wouldn’t accept. First of all, they’re fractured into two elements, which then required me to do all that repair work. And then I’m going to fix a political party, and in a matter of months, take on the Democrats and Republicans. Not even Jesse Ventura can do that.
Matt: You might have won anyway. I mean, those two candidates were not terribly impressive.
Jesse Ventura: But, Matt, I had to have ballot access. And I couldn’t get the Green Party to pull the trigger. Instead, they want to go with Howie Hawkins. Now, Howie may be a great guy, I don’t know him, but — I already was polling 15 to 18%. The Greenies, to me, dropped the ball. They had the opportunity but their infighting did them in.
Matt: Does it seem like the Green Party, sometimes, almost behaves like it doesn’t want to be a bigger force in politics?
Jesse Ventura: Matt, you hit the nail right on... absolutely. Their behavior was — you know what I had some of them say? Wait till you hear this: “Is he one of us?”’
I threw my hands up. I said, “I was a mayor. I was a governor.” I said, I believe in climate change. I think it’s the most dangerous thing in the world right now.” I said, “What more do I need to do?” Am I one of them? What does that even mean?
Matt: Did they mean, “An insignificant political afterthought?”
Jesse Ventura: Exactly!
Matt: What happened at MSNBC?
Jesse Ventura: In a nutshell, I came out of office and I was the hottest commodity out there. Fox, CNN and MSNBC got in a bidding war for me. I signed a three year contract with MSNBC. I’m supposed to have Rachel Maddow’s slot. I signed a three year deal with them, they’re pretty lucrative to start off.
But I made them do the show from Minneapolis. I had a little power, and I said, “Look, all we get is the coast, the East Coast, the West Coast. You don’t hear anything from the heart of America, and we’re true America. This is the heartland.” They agreed. So we’re building the show in Minneapolis, from St. Paul. Also, the build-up to the Iraq war is happening. I had been very vocal in my opposition to invading Iraq, still am today. I’m still opposed to what we did there, in invading Iraq.
So as we’re getting ready to go on the air — MSNBC president Erik Sorenson had hired me earlier — we had gone to the Super Bowl and were driving up to LA and he said something really interesting to me. He said, “You know when I hired you, I got phone calls from two people, way up in the echelon of the Dems and Repubs. I won’t tell you who they were.” He wouldn’t reveal it to me. But he said, “They wanted to know why we were giving you a national forum.”
Matt: Because they were the impression that you were pro-war?
Jesse Ventura: No, no. Just, why was this guy who’s a threat to the Dems and Repubs now at MSNBC? They saw what I did in Minnesota with the statewide radio show. I became the governor. You give me a national forum, I could be the president.
That’s what they were afraid of. But anyway: moving on from that, what happened was we’re building up to doing the show. We’re getting ready to go on, the producers are on, everything. They had hired Phil Donahue at the time, the daytime guy. Phil was on at night that he was their highest rated show. Well, Phil, just like me, opposed the invasion of Iraq. We were both very vocal, we were against it.
Well, one of my subordinates gets a phone call, “Is it true the governor doesn’t support the upcoming invasion of Iraq?” “Oh no, he’s vehemently opposed to it. He’s a Vietnam veteran. He says this is Vietnam all over again. Very opposed to it.” Next question was, “Does [headquarters] know about this?” “We don’t know.” Big third question, “Is there any chance he’d change his mind?”
And my subordinate goes, “No, I don’t think so.” He said, “I was with the governor for four years. I’ve seen him change his mind, but only when he didn’t know enough and he educated himself and understood something more, then I’d see it.” But he said, “This is war. He’s a veteran. And no, he ain’t going to change his mind.” Well, I wasn’t allowed on and they pulled Phil Donahue. So anybody, if you go back to the run-up to the Iraq war, you won’t find any opposition in the mainstream media. Nobody was allowed on who was questioning it. They made sure of it.
And then, Matt, I’m under contract. I couldn’t do any other talk shows. I couldn’t do any other new shows and they paid me the entire three years. I never did anything for it.
Matt: That’s an incredible story, because it speaks to their willingness to forego ratings. They’re giving up two on air personalities that would’ve been big draws for them. But also, just for purely political reasons, that they would be willing to make that decision is amazing, or it seems like that from the outside. Was it?
Jesse Ventura: Matt, you have to understand something. At that time, the parent ownership of MSNBC was General Electric. Well, they’re a huge war profiteer. Do you think they want two of their paid yapping mouths on TV against the war that they’re going to make a bunch of money on?
Matt: A recent piece in the New York Times about people who had worked at RT talked about how RT was where you went if you had “screwed up, were washed up, or were completely new to the field.” Was that what happened with you?
Jesse Ventura: Oh no. I was banned. Big media censored Jesse Ventura and they left me no other recourse. I have to speak out on things, that’s my nature. RT gave me that platform.
Matt: A question for both you and Tyrel: what was your experience with RT?
Jesse Ventura: I can honestly say this: They flew me to Moscow, me and my wife, at the 10th anniversary of Russian Today and Vladimir Putin was the keynote speaker. I met Gorbachev that night. And Putin came across the room to me, held out his hand and said, “Thank you, governor.” And I said, “You’re welcome, Mr. President, for what?” And he said, “Well,” he said, “I just want you to know that you will have complete artistic control and you can talk about anything you want.” And I said, “Well, thank you. I appreciate that.” I can only tell you, Matt, the man that I met that night, I’m trying to figure out who this guy is now, because he wasn’t the guy I met that night. I can say the four years that I was at RT, never once did they tell me what I could or couldn’t say, never once.
Tyrel Ventura: One of the reasons that I said yes to the RT America deal was simply because I knew that I’m like my dad, I only want to talk about what I think is important to people, important to working class people, important to average Americans, and what will truly impact their lives. And most news stories in today’s world don’t, for lack of a better term. And mostly, it’s all just kind of American Idol in the new’s business. I think that’s why people are flocking. That’s why one of the reasons Substack was so appealing to us, is that prior to this, even at RT, Jesse was given free rein to talk, so was I. I was never censored on stories or anything like that in my seven years there.
But at the same time, you still had to deal with the machinations of corporate news that get in the way of just being able to speak to an audience. That was the most important thing. At RT — they gave us free rein, but at the same time, the corporate culture there was such a mess that it made just the act of doing the job hard. It wasn’t what we were able to do on air, that part was easy. It was just dealing both externally from the pressures of suddenly being labeled as traitors or propaganda pieces for Moscow. But also, internally, they had serious problems on an internal level. It always felt like you were working at a startup that was understaffed.
Matt: Well, welcome to Substack. What’s going to be the format of Die First, Then Quit?
Tyrel Ventura: We’ll probably put out about two to three pieces a week. We’re aiming to kind of go with one article, one podcast, and one video, one kind of video interview or video rant.
Matt: You guys should do live streaming commentary…
Tyrel Ventura: Look, I’m a huge fan of Mystery Science Theater, if you remember that old show. If I can put something together like that on State of the Union addresses and things like that, moving forward with me and Jesse just commenting on what they’re saying as they say it live, we’ll definitely try to make something like that happen.
As far as topics go, I mean, it’s probably going to be a mix of current headlines that everybody’s talking about, as well as stories that no one’s talking about that they should be talking about or should be paying attention to. And also, at the end of the day too, we’re also going to showcase Jesse. One of the great things about my father is he’s lived a truly Renaissance man’s life through everything that he’s done. And so you’re also going to get a good bit of stories from his life and the things that he’s experienced and the wild nights that we’ve had together at times, from hanging out with Harry Dean Stanton and Jack Nicholson late at night at Nicholson’s house. We’ll get into all sorts of wild stories and things like that.
Matt: The father/son thing has to be fun for both of you.
Jesse Ventura: Oh. I couldn’t be happier at this point in my life. I mean, what could be better for a father than at this point in his life to work together every day with your son. I can’t tell you how wonderful that is for a man of 70 years old. Certain things, money can’t buy.
Matt: Last thing. Jesse, are you thinking about running for president in 2024?
Jesse Ventura: Right now, Matt, I can brag to you and say this. I’m probably the only person that can bring the country together. If you elect me president, I guarantee it, within three years, the Democrats and Republicans will be singing kumbaya by the fireside together, as they’ll both be my opponents. See, they’d get in bed together to oppose me.
Matt: But would you think about running?
Jesse Ventura: If I had ballot access in all 50 states and had it at a year or two ahead of time, yeah. As to why: you remember when Robert De Niro in the movie, Men Of Honor, Cuba Gooding turns to him and says, “Why are you doing this, chief?” And Robert De Niro looks at Cuba and goes, “To piss people off.” Well, that’s kind of how I feel now.
Matt: You want to piss people off.
Jesse Ventura: Why not?
Matt: As good a reason as any! Let’s hope this is a good place for you to do it. Welcome to Substack.
Jesse Ventura: Thank you.
Tyrel Ventura: Thanks, Matt.