How Joy Reid Took on Trump and Became MSNBC’s New Star

Joy Ann Reid portrait
Patrick James Miller for Variety

When Joy Reid takes over MSNBC’s broadcast for two hours each Saturday and Sunday, she knows she has to walk a tightrope. Her show, “AM Joy,” is supposed to have a broader perspective than the rat-a-tat-tat breaking-news coverage that normally fills MSNBC’s dayside grid. But in this current news cycle, headlines are always breaking.

The trick, sometimes, is to nod to the news but use it to build up a bigger idea. “We want to keep adding to the story we are focusing in on,” Reid says. “It’s part of the job, to be flexible and nimble with the news cycle, because it’s so crazy.”

One of her recent broadcasts shows the technique. “We woke up to a storm of tweets and retweets, you know, because old habits die hard,” she told her viewers on a Sunday, after a week in which the president had been feuding with ESPN. Reid could have opted to stick with the easy stuff: offering the same recaps as everyone else. Instead, she used the outburst as a starting point, shepherding panels of guests not through the usual cable-hour shouting matches but into reasoned explorations of single-payer healthcare and the controversy about ESPN host Jemele Hill calling Donald Trump “a white supremacist.”

The New York/New Jersey Issue

Nine months into Trump’s presidency, the nation’s political conversation isn’t the only thing intensifying. The 24-hour feedback of cable news has become the nation’s first — sometimes flawed — draft of history. MSNBC’s take on the situation, which calls for a progressive primetime lens on the swirl of controversy around the White House, has lent the NBCUniversal network new momentum. Its ratings have soared, adding a wrinkle to its ongoing battle with Fox News Channel and CNN to win viewers.

Along with “Morning Joe” and Rachel Maddow, among others, Reid has been part of the network’s winning formula. Her overall viewership for “A.M. Joy” rose 59% in the third quarter, while viewership in the 25-54 demo rose 55% in the same time period. She’s creating appointment viewing for MSNBC weekends, which in the past were simply devoted to straitlaced breaking-news coverage. She is also becoming one of the network’s most reliable pinch hitters. In recent weeks, MSNBC viewers have seen her filling in for the cabler’s most-watched personalities: Chris Matthews, Chris Hayes, Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell. Each substitute stint, says Reid, requires a different focus. “You’re kind of going into a different area of the theme park each time you sit in on a different show,” she notes.

A testament to her increasing buzz factor: She recently scored MSNBC’s second sit-down interview with Hillary Clinton about the former presidential candidate’s book “What Happened” (Maddow had the first).

“You’re kind of going into a different area of the theme park each time you sit in on a different show.”
Joy Reid

Reid has “an ability to break down some complex things to make it something that is digestible for viewers,” says Yvette Miley, the senior vice president of MSNBC and NBC News who oversees weekend programming. “But she does not serve it in a pandering way.”  Reid believes her job is “putting the puzzle pieces together,” she says. “In general, what we hope to do is take what happened in politics and give it more context, more information.”

There’s no shortage of issues to delve into each weekend. Russian interference with last year’s U.S. presidential election — and the investigation into it — can’t be probed enough, says Reid. “I think the Republicans should want to know about it as much as the Democrats.” She believes viewers need to know more about how the nation handles immigration, voter rights and climate change. It’s enough to fill a news outlet’s whole schedule, let alone a two-hour show.

Reid’s position is all the more remarkable, given that she was one of the MSNBC hosts affected by the network’s programming pivot in 2015. At the time, MSNBC scotched many of its daytime shows, which offered a decidedly progressive take on the news of the day, turning to breaking-news coverage. Reid, who had been at the helm of an hour-long early-afternoon program for about a year, was offered a position as a correspondent.

“When it happened, it was bad — disappointing, embarrassing, all of the things that being canceled is,” she acknowledges. But she felt challenged by the idea of going out into the field. “I decided to do it,” she says.

Reid didn’t go to college to become a journalist, but she explored a similar path: She studied documentary filmmaking at Harvard University. She had originally intended to pursue a medical degree, but “that didn’t work out,” she explains. Her mother had died just 23 days before she went to school. “I could not even walk into a hospital,” she says. She took a year off and stayed with an aunt who moved to Brooklyn’s Fort Greene “right around the time when Spike Lee was active.” She also worked in a temporary position at Columbia Pictures — in a building very close to Trump Tower.

Joy Reid’s “AM Joy” aims to put the day’s headlines into context.

Various twists took her from an early consulting job to a stint at Miami’s WTVJ-TV, then to Radio One and the African-American news site the Grio, but she’d still like to indulge her filmmaking dreams. “There’s such a great space opening up” for documentaries, thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, she says. “You can really create a meaningful work that is a longer-form version of journalism but has that storytelling aspect to it.” She thinks about chances to conceive such projects, she says, as well as what it might be like to have a career in Hollywood.

For now, Reid has to focus on the audience tuning in to her on MSNBC. She realizes some people may simply not watch her and dismiss her work as too liberal, but she says she thinks her program is open to all ideologies.

“We do have some conservatives who watch the show,” she says. “Some hate-watch. Some watch it on purpose. We have a lot of Republicans who are on the show, part of them are Never Trumpers and neocon Never Trumpers. In an ideal world, people would take the opposite position and work from a common fact base and draw their own conclusions.”

NBC News executives say they see Reid as a unique voice to viewers who are accustomed to getting headlines and a bickering panel of talking heads. “We are all drinking from a fire hose of information, and I think Joy wants to slow us down a little bit — not to go away from the news but to provide more context and perspective around the news we are covering,” says Miley.

Of course, the big question is whether, after getting more hours on MSNBC’s primetime schedule, Reid would like to test other time slots. “I think we’re making an impact on the weekend,” she says. “I’m happy there.” But as her profile continues to rise, every day of the week might seem like a good place for a little Joy.