Jonathan Capehart and Tiffany Cross were supposed to throw glasses at each other, not toast one another with them.
And yet the duo took to Zoom earlier this week to share a cocktail. After weeks of competing for a coveted weekend slot on MSNBC previously held by Joy Reid, both will get part of it: Cross, a political analyst and former resident fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, will anchor MSNBC on Saturdays between 10 a.m. and noon, while Capehart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is an opinion columnist for the Washington Post and has worked as a contributor at MSNBC since 2009, will lead Sundays in the same time period. Their new shows — official titles have yet to be determined — will debut December 12 and December 13, respectively, and hold forth from Washington, D.C.
Both anchors want to build on the efforts of Reid, whose “A.M. Joy” created a new weekend habit for curious MSNBC viewers eager to gain perspective on the headlines. “The people who come to MSNBC between ten and noon are people who know what the news is,” says Capehart, in an interview. “They come to us because they want to know the connection with other big stories, how it fits into the larger coverage, and why should I care?”
The two have since July helped to fill in on weekends, along with Zerlina Maxwell, a political analyst. Maxwell was given a daily program on NBCUniversal’s Peacock streaming-video hub. Each member of the trio was, with every appearance, essentially auditioning for Reid’s weekend job, with MSNBC executives eager to see whether each anchor brought people who followed them in their other jobs over to the network. The process was unorthodox at best.
“The experience was nerve-wracking,” says Cross, in an interview, but notes that in the end, “there is room for everybody.”
Like most mainstream cable-news networks, MSNBC has only a handful of people of color in major on-air roles. CNN’s Don Lemon is the only person of color who anchors a program during weekday primetime hours on the three main networks, while MSNBC’s Craig Melvin, Fox News Channel’s Harris Faulkner and CNN’s Laura Jarrett anchor daytime hours. Reid gained new stature earlier this year when MSNBC moved her to weekdays at 7 p.m., a critical time period previously anchored by Chris Matthews that is supposed to gather audiences for the network’s primetime lineup of Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell.
Yet the new leader of NBCUniversal’s news business, Cesar Conde, has called for the unit’s employee base to be 50% female and 50% people of color over an undefined period of time. NBCU’s news operations are among the industry’s largest, rivaled in size and scope only by AT&T’s CNN. In recent weeks, MSNBC named Alicia Melendez and Joshua Johnson to lead two-hour blocks on weekend evenings.
The new Cross and Capehart shows will further augment MSNBC’s weekend programming, part of a broader initiative to get more competitive on Saturdays and Sundays. For years, MSNBC relied heavily on documentary repeats on weekends, rather than live news programming. While the network’s ratings have soared during the Trump presidency, its weekend programming often loses to CNN’s in the critical category of viewers between 25 and 54 — the audience most desired by the advertisers that support news programs. In recent weeks, CNN’s dominance among that audience has become more pronounced, even as MSNBC’s weekend programming in November spurred record audience levels.
“Jonathan Capehart has been a longtime member of the MSNBC family and his steadfast dedication to great journalism, along with Tiffany Cross’ fresh expert analysis, offer our MSNBC weekend morning audience the best of both worlds from two very different life and worldview experiences,” said Phil Griffin, president of MSNBC, in a statement.
Cross intends to launch a show that weaves diverse voices into a discussion of the week’s big stories. “We are living in a country that is quickly becoming a space where people of color are the steak, not the potato,” she says. “We should not be a separate part of the conversation. We should be woven into the main conversation, just like we have always been woven into the fabric of American society.”
She also wants to leave room to explain news concepts to the audience. She envisions a segment in which viewers might submit questions via video, asking how one becomes a member of the Electoral College or what the Director of National Intelligence does. She might provide the answer, or perhaps turn the task over to an elected official or an NBCUniversal personality. “I may reveal something each week that I didn’t know until recently,” says Cross, who admits her knowledge of sports is not the most detailed.
Capehart, meanwhile, wants to use his perch to become part of the mix of the Sunday programs that bring newsmakers to weigh in on the issues of the moment — with some twists. “I have been covering politics for almost twenty years. It’s going to be about national politics and social issues and culture. But it will not be bound by strictly talking about politics,’ he says. “If something happens in the culture, if something is popping on Twitter, if something is popping with the world of reality TV, or whatever the American people are talking about that week, of course I’m going to try to bring people on to talk about it.”
He recently interviewed former President Barack Obama in a primetime special for MSNBC, and acknowledges the session was one he’d wanted to do for a long while. It’s also an indication his role at MSNBC has changed. Working as a substitute host for an absent Reid was something akin to being invited to house-sit, he says. “You’re reluctant to move the furniture or change the paintings.” Now, he adds, “I know I’ve got the house. Let’s start filling it with furniture and artwork and rugs.” By the time he’s done with a two-hour show, Capehart says, ‘I want everyone to come away with the feeling that they learned something, that they were elevated by watching a conversation that was worthy of their time and certainly that respects their intellect.”