The women of MSNBC are reshaping the television landscape
“We should have been blasting ‘9 to 5,’” said Stephanie Ruhle, sitting at her anchor desk in the MSNBC studio at 30 Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan. It was nearing 9 a.m. in late May and Ruhle, who anchors “MSNBC Live With Stephanie Ruhle,” was referring to the photo shoot two days earlier when she and four other female anchors on MSNBC’s daytime schedule — Katy Tur, Hallie Jackson, Nicolle Wallace and Andrea Mitchell — had gathered in Manhattan for a group photo.
“When I started at NBC, I’m quite sure there wasn’t a plan or initiative that we need to make sure the girls are anchoring the shows,” said Ruhle, a former managing director at Deutsche Bank, who began her show in July 2016. “I think it worked out that way because it’s who rose to the level at that point.”
But the fact is that they did rise. This morning, as Ruhle readies herself to take control from the unwieldy forces of “Morning Joe” and begin her own hourlong program, she does so as a leadoff hitter for a lineup that has helped reshape the landscape of television. Between the bombast of Joe Scarborough in the early-morning hours and the opinion-driven fist-pounding of Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell in the evening, the news anchor positions these five women now hold at the network reflect a telling shift in the ever-changing, ever-shuffling world of cable news.
To be certain, these moves have not occurred within a vacuum. As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently pointed out, the BBC has gone to considerable lengths to make sure that women take prominent roles on its airwaves. And in the United States, women are now the executive producers of all three network morning shows.
But MSNBC’s on-air efforts stand out.
“Nothing happens by accident,” said Andrea Mitchell, NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, who has anchored her own show, “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” at noon ET since 2008. “Our leaders, our company are so committed to women’s advancement. I know this better than anyone, having been here 41 years. I’ve seen it evolve. I’ve seen it when it was not so great in the ’80s and ’90s.”
This has been the result of the directive set forth by Andrew Lack, who returned to NBC in 2015, this time as chairman of both NBC News and MSNBC. While the company has come under considerable criticism for its perceived sluggish investigation of sexual harassment claims at NBC (see: Matt Lauer) and the controversial handling of Ronan Farrow’s reporting on Harvey Weinstein (which Farrow took to The New Yorker and then won a Pulitzer for his work), it was also he who oversaw a major overhaul of MSNBC, and who believed reporting should drive the dayside hours, with the nighttime serving as the home for more opinion-led content.
Of building that daytime lineup around women, Lack said, “It was not conscious, but it is enjoyable for me.
“I’m glad that it worked out that way,” he added. “They have to have done the work, had the experience and the skillset to get these jobs.”
And while all five women are decidedly less opinionated (at least on air), than Maddow, O’Donnell, et al, they are all characterized by a certain toughness when it comes to the current occupant in the White House and his administration. Make no mistake, these are not “Fox & Friends.”
When the lawyer for Brett Kavanaugh came on Tur’s show after a third woman came forward to accuse the then-Supreme Court nominee of past sexual misconduct, Tur burrowed in, demanding to know if Kavanaugh thought the woman was lying and whether his accusers, including the original one, Christine Blasey Ford, were part of a Democratic plot to derail his nomination.
“Let me read you something the president said about this this morning,” Tur said to Beth Wilkinson, Kavanaugh’s lawyer: “‘You don’t find people like this. He’s outstanding. He’s a gem and he’s being treated unfairly by the Democrats who are playing a con game. They know what they’re doing, it’s a con. They go into a back room and they talk with each other and they laugh at what they are getting away with.’”
“Does your client believe it’s a con game by the Democrats?” Tur asked. “That these women are part of a con by the Democrats and that the Democrats are laughing in a backroom about what they are able to pull off?”
Wilkinson refused to take the bait, instead repeating, “My client knows that he didn’t do this.”
Tur admits to some hesitancy in taking the 2 p.m. anchor slot in 2017, thinking she would miss the on-the-ground reporting that had brought her fame — and even some death threats from people who apparently thought she was being too hard on then-candidate Donald Trump. (Tur, who also fills in for Chuck Todd on the Monday edition of “Meet the Press Daily,” is currently on maternity leave following the birth of her son with newly named “CBS Morning News” co-host Tony Dokoupil.)
“I think I had an incorrect assumption that anchors had it easy because they had writers and producers who were helping them,” Tur said. “And then when I sat in that anchor chair, I realized, ‘Oh no, you’ve got a lot of help but you are the one that’s on television.’ You’re the one who’s responsible for all this information and there’s only so much a producer can do — even the best producer, and I’ve got some great producers on my team.”
Jackson, now the chief White House correspondent for NBC News, had been on the campaign trail in 2016 when she was asked to do a daily afternoon show. It was a moment in which she remembers thinking, “This is the busiest point I’ve ever been in my life and now I’m going to anchor a show on the road?”
As with the others, Jackson pulls double duty, appearing at various points during the day before and after her program, which now runs in the 10 a.m. time slot, regularly appearing on both “The Today Show” and “NBC Nightly News With Lester Holt.” Asked to run through her day, Jackson admitted, “It looks insane.”
It could be said that whatever developments have come at this point wouldn’t have happened without Mitchell, who began holding down her own show in 2008. “Andrea Mitchell Reports” is now the network’s longest-running program, with executive producer Michelle Perry on board for the duration. To be certain, even Mitchell, who has witnessed the total transformation of American politics, has adapted her coverage along with it.
Mitchell pointed to a recent conversation on her show to illustrate the importance of women’s voices on air. In addressing the passage of Alabama’s bill essentially banning abortion, Mitchell turned to NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund president Sherrilyn Ifill and MSNBC legal analyst Maya Wiley to discuss its broader consequences.
“That’s a conversation women will respond to because we’re talking about something that involves women’s bodies and women’s health and women’s reproductive systems,” Mitchell says. “I just don’t think that same conversation would have taken place had there not been women involved and women producers.”
Likewise, the Post’s Sullivan certainly applauds women anchors but finds the more pressing issue lies with “the experts and pundits and commentators that are brought on to give their expertise.”
“There clearly has to be a basis of knowledge and merit and expertise,” Sullivan says. “You don’t want to trade that off. In my experience, when you pay attention to more diverse voices in my work, it actually always helps the work because you’re going beyond the usual suspects and you’re getting a broader array of experience and expertise and knowledge. There’s plenty of knowledgeable people and experts out there who aren’t only white men.”
So far MSNBC’s efforts seem to have worked. According to Nielsen data, MSNBC’s dayside programming saw increased total year-to-year viewership, compared to May 2018. In contrast, Fox News and CNN daytime programming lost viewers over that same period, according to Nielsen.
To Wallace, whose panel program “Deadline: White House” at 4 p.m. is seen by Lack and others as a bridge to the network’s nighttime programming, those viewership numbers are telling. “All the women are there because they’re the best at their job,” Wallace said. “It’s this critical mass of women at the top of their fields and every one of them are having incredible success with the viewers and breaking stories.”
THE TALE OF THE TAPE
Anchor: Hallie Jackson
Show: “MSNBC Live With Hallie Jackson”
Premiere: Sept. 6, 2016
Background: Jackson was hired by NBC in 2014, after working as a national correspondent for Hearst Broadcasting and as a reporter for local TV stations.
DNA: NBC News’ chief White House correspondent uses the hour to grill lawmakers on the show before heading off to the White House to confront the president directly.
Signature moment: On July 6, 2017, when she was not in her anchor role but at a press conference in Poland, Jackson asked Trump, “Will you, yes or no, definitively say that Russia interfered in the 2016 election?” Trump’s response? “I think it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries and I won’t be specific. But I think a lot of people interfere. I think it’s been happening for a long time.” Says Jackson: “Few people get the opportunity to directly question the most powerful person in the country, so I feel a real sense of responsibility to make sure our questions are sharp, direct and relevant.”
Anchor: Andrea Mitchell
Show: “Andrea Mitchell Reports”
Background: Mitchell joined NBC in 1978, serving as, among other things, chief White House correspondent and chief congressional correspondent. The ultimate Washington insider, she has been married to Alan Greenspan, the former chairman of the Federal Reserve Board, since 1997. Supreme Court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg officiated at their wedding.
DNA: The established journalist engages with the country’s power brokers and media commentators to understand the world at the midday hour.
Signature moment: On July 19, 2018, in an interview with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats at the Aspen Security Forum, Mitchell informed him that “the White House has announced on Twitter that Vladimir Putin is coming to the White House in the fall.” Coats responded, “Say that again?” Mitchell repeated: “Vladimir Putin coming to ...” Visibly shocked, Coats said. “OK, that’s going to be special.” Recalls Mitchell: “I was stunned by his candor in this live moment.”
Anchor: Stephanie Ruhle
Show: “MSNBC Live With Stephanie Ruhle”
Premiere: June 27, 2016
Background: A former investment banker who spent 14 years at Deutsche Bank, Ruhle made the transition to the media world by working at Bloomberg TV as a news anchor and managing editor before coming to NBC as a correspondent and then to MSNBC as an anchor.
DNA: A relative newbie not only to political journalism but to broadcast journalism, Ruhle hammers home how policy decisions affect the lives of her viewers, often diving into detailed explanations of tax policy or tariffs.
Signature moment: June 2018, anchoring coverage of the crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Anchor: Katy Tur
Show: “MSNBC Live With Katy Tur”
Premiere: Jan. 10, 2017
Background: A foreign correspondent pressed into covering presidential candidate Donald Trump when few people took him seriously, Tur was often the object of Trump’s scorn — he regularly referred to her as “Little Katy” — and once had to rely on Secret Service security to escort her out of a rally.
DNA: “I have the witching hour,” Tur said. “Everything happens at 2 o’clock — 2 o’clock seems like the time of day when everything falls apart.”
Signature moment: On March 23. 2019, when she was nearly nine months pregnant, Tur anchored three straight hours of network coverage following Attorney General William Barr’s four-page summary to Congress of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report. “The bosses were literally taking bets on when I would go into labor,” Tur recalled. “But I had been covering Trump since June 2015. There was no way I was going to miss that moment.”
Anchor: Nicolle Wallace
Show: “Deadline: White House”
Premiere: May 9, 2017
Background: The former campaign strategist for John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid (she was played by Sarah Paulson in HBO’s “Game Change”) and communications director for George W. Bush, Wallace later did turns at “The View” and as a political pundit on cable shows such as “Morning Joe” before finding her place as the GOP voice of reason on MSNBC.
DNA: A lapsed Republican taking on the president for, in her view, damaging the reputation of the party of Reagan, Bush and McCain.
Signature moment: On Feb. 20, 2019, in a wide-ranging interview, former acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe spoke about a number of subjects including the first “rambling” draft by Trump to fire James Comey as FBI director. “Andy McCabe’s interview was so haunting,” Wallace said. “Everything he said was a revelation.”
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