I met Alex Witt early in the semester at Annenberg’s grand opening. She spoke to the audience about her experiences as a student at USC and how she made it to the anchor chair. I introduced myself after the ceremony and asked if she’d be open to an interview about her career and the future of journalism – and she said yes.
Witt is the host of MSNBC’s “Weekends with Alex Witt” and has worked with the network since 1999, covering everything from presidential elections to foreign news.
GLAM Life Blog: So. You’re a USC alum (Fight On!) and now work as anchor with MSNBC, but when did your interest in journalism begin?
Alex Witt: My interest in journalism really began before I can remember. I’m told I was always asking questions, always interested in whatever was happening around me. So I think my pursuit of a career in journalism was innate. I know I started getting serious about it when I started writing stories for my high school newspaper. I studied Broadcast Journalism at USC and learned how to write, interpret and share the news. Of everything I learned at USC, probably the most valuable was how to write. I say this over and over again. But I think writing well it is the singularly most important aspect of being a good journalist. I was lucky to get some great internships during college at both KCBS-TV and KNBC-TV. Those led me to my first production assistant job and I was off and running. I worked my way up behind the scenes in various LA local newsrooms, until I got a job field producing pieces for the TODAY Show out of the NBC News Burbank Bureau. I loved every minute of every day producing.
GLB: How did you move from behind the scenes as a producer to on the air?
AW: Going on the air, in front of the camera, was something I’d thought about, but it never stuck with me enough to give it a try. In part because it meant I’d have to leave my home in LA and head to a small market to learn how to be a reporter and anchor and make the inevitable mistakes in a place where the consequences of that weren’t as high as they would be in the number two market in the country. One day, while back in New York producing a series, I was called into an exec’s office. It was suggested I should try on-air reporting. When I asked what made him think I could do it, he said, “Well, you don’t look like Quasimodo and you don’t sound like Minnie Mouse and you’re pretty much doing the work of a reporter already without shooting stand-ups and tracking the scripts with your voice.” I decided the timing was right, so several months later I got a job in the Monterey-Salinas-Santa Cruz, CA. market, and spent about two years learning how to report from the field and deliver the news from the anchor desk. My path eventually brought me to MSNBC where I have worked as an anchor for 16 years since January 1999. I can’t believe I’ve been here that long but I am really proud of it.
GLB: We’re huge fans of HBO’s “The Newsroom” and saw that you were a consultant for its final season! What did that role entail?
AW: “The Newsroom.” I can’t say enough good things about being a consultant on that show. Aaron Sorkin is the most brilliant and distinctive playwright and screenwriter of our time. (No pressure sharing my thoughts on the inner workings of a TV newsroom!) Aaron would come up with his ideas, scenarios, and send emails asking me whether they were realistic, or how they might play out in a newsroom. For example, the Boston Marathon Bombings made up a big storyline in Episode 1 this final season. Aaron asked me to describe how my newsroom first got word of the bombings… and then how we gathered information… the timeline in which it happened… the logistics of how we covered the unfolding events of that terrible day… and so on. He wanted to gather information to make his characters as credible as possible. I wrote in detail the answers to his questions, as well as some questions reporters on the scene would ask in the various press conferences from officials. I added some logistics from Boston that day, like the area hospitals and numbers of patients and types of injuries they got. Aaron wanted as many details as possible. I think that’s reflected in the way he writes dialogue. His characters are wonderful in part because they are always so authentic. When I flew out to LA for the premiere of “The Newsroom” in November, Episode 1 was screened and it was beyond cool for me to see how Aaron incorporated my notes into his script.
GLB: Do you have any interesting stories from working on the show?
AW: I inadvertently made an appearance in Season 1, Episode 4. The episode covered the 2011 Tucson, Az., shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. I was anchoring on MSNBC that January Saturday. At one point, referencing the NPR report that Rep. Giffords had been killed in the shooting, we joined the chorus of networks inaccurately reporting her death. Obviously, and thankfully, she survived. However, I still feel guilty about the chaos of that day and making such a terrible mistake. Cut to July 2012, and me watching “The Newsroom” at home in my pajamas, eating popcorn… when that storyline appears. I sat up on the couch and intently watched Aaron’s interpretation of how things went down. Right up to the point when Don and Mac are in the control booth. Don tells Mac, “CNN, MSNBC and FOX are all saying she’s dead.” And Mac says, “Let me hear MSNBC.”
So guess who says in the show, “A lone source is reporting Representative Gabrielle Giffords has been killed in this heinous attempt on her life…”? Me. I yelled, “NO!” and threw popcorn at the screen, before burying my face in my hands with a resigned, “Ugh.” After talking for a couple of hours the first time Aaron and I met, he was about to make a clean getaway… until I said, “You know, Aaron.. I have a little something I want to discuss with you…” and I proceeded to explain in excruciating detail the experience of watching myself report on Rep. Giffords ‘death’ and having that difficult day now available on DVD replay forever on “The Newsroom.” Poor guy. He listened and then kindly explained that he rarely – if ever – used sound from news broadcasts in the show, adding that he wasn’t calling ME out for reporting the Representative had died. Rather he liked how I reported it and needed that to make his point for Will and the senior staff at ACN. And so began our friendship. Go figure.
GLB: What are the most memorable stories you’ve reported on?
AW: When you ask me the most memorable story I’ve reported on, it has to be 9-11 and the week following from Ground Zero. It was the biggest story of my career. It was the biggest challenge for me to not get personal or overly emotional with the story. But it quickly became apparent things would never be the same. We live with the reverberations of that day across our daily lives in every community. I’ve also covered Presidential elections, reporting from both Democratic and Republican campaigns. Election night coverage is always thrilling. I have done exit polling reports from a studio at 30 Rock, and once from the ice rink at Rockefeller Center with a huge map of the 50 states colored in red and blue as the state vote finals were tallied.
In other news, I reported from outside Kensington Palace in London during the 10th anniversary commemorations of the death of Princess Diana. I also broadcasted my show from a set offering Windsor Castle as a backdrop the day Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles. I recently held my own with Jon Stewart in a great interview for his 2014 film, “Rosewater”. It’s quite a potpourri of experiences.
GLB: Who inspires you?
AW: There are so many people who inspire me with acts of courage or compassion every day. But if you are talking about journalists, it’s got to be those who put themselves in dangerous places where terrorism runs rampant and innocent lives and individuals rights are threatened. It’s also the reporters who have a wealth of experience and articulately put today’s news into context for us. Those reports often seem to offer a sense of history repeating itself. I could name so many who have influenced me over the years. But I’ll narrow it down to two women for their consistency: NBC’s Andrea Mitchell and ABC’s Diane Sawyer. They are my definition of intelligent, capable, industrious, intrepid, respected journalists.
GLB: What’s your favorite part of your job? Least favorite?
AW: My favorite part of the job is covering breaking news. There is no rush like being in the anchor chair with information coming at you from every direction. I love the challenge of delivering the news clearly and accurately to my viewers when it’s chaos in the studio, the control booth, all the while with my Executive Producer talking to me in my ear through my IFB. I’m sure that makes me sound a little bit crazy. But I love it. My least favorite part of the job is waking up in the middle of winter at 4 AM to get to midtown Manhattan to start my day. I never get used to it. But I am really bad at going to bed early enough to better manage it. I’ve got to work on that. Getting my hair and makeup done for air every day is also a pretty fabulous perk. “GLAM Life Blog” totally understands that!
GLB: What advice would you give to a student or young professional just starting out in TV news? You mentioned in a presentation once the importance of finding a niche. What are some other steps you would take if you were beginning your journalism career now?
AW: I think digital journalism is the key thing for up and coming journalists to focus on. Learning the nuances of broadcasting via the internet, rather than a large tv screen. The mechanics of putting a story together are the same of course – marrying words with pictures – but the trick is understanding how to capture the attention of the audience. Finding a niche… immersing yourself in one subject and making yourself an expert in that area can be helpful. But I want to add this: no matter what you set your sights on, don’t take shortcuts to get there. If you do, you won’t last in this business. It’s like trying to learn an aerial without first mastering a cartwheel before you try doing it without using your hands. Create for yourself a solid foundation and build a career from there. Put in the time… do the hard work in a small market and then move up the ladder. Make your mistakes and learn from them.
GLB: If you could choose one, what has been your proudest accomplishment so far?
AW: My proudest accomplishment is earning the respect and loyalty of my colleagues. I’ve survived 16 years at MSNBC. Hard work, preparing well, being flexible, appreciating your colleagues, and being respectful of the rigors of the industry are all key to turning a job into a career. Many of the people who work directly with me have done so for years. That’s not the norm. I’d like to think they’ve stayed because they value the show we put on the air and enjoy working with me and our team. There’s a fair amount of ego involved in the business. But that can better be translated to being confident. I love what I do and I’m good at it. That said, I never forget that anyone can be replaced. If I’m not sitting in the anchor chair one day, I guarantee the network won’t come out of commercial and point the camera at an empty chair behind the anchor desk. Perspective.
GLB: Finally, where do you see the future of journalism and the media world in general heading?
AW: I’m a little cynical lately at what I sometimes see passing as “journalism.” I can’t tolerate shoddy reporting. Sloppy inaccuracies… using gossip as a story source… copying a story from a news website and posting it without either verifying it or digging deeper into the story… not providing context when it’s needed to fully understand the story… things like that are all too common across the vast universe of news on the ‘net. But seeing what’s happening in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism restores my faith in what lies ahead. I am so impressed with what’s available to the students in both the technology and the personnel. Every administrator and professor with whom I have spoken demonstrates the highest standards of journalism. Students are eager to learn and get out there in the working world. And I can’t wait to see what they bring to it.