Commentary: The arrival of Joy Reid as weeknight anchor makes MSNBC and all of cable news better

Joy Reid speaks onstage during the 2019 Global Citizen Festival: Power The Movement in Central Park on September 28, 2019 in New York City. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Global Citizen/TNS) ******
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By David Zurawik The Baltimore Sun (TNS)

The arrival of Joy Reid Monday as a weeknight anchor not only makes MSNBC better, it makes all of cable news better.

For now, she is the only Black woman anchoring a major nighttime cable news program at this watershed moment in racial history. The diversity she brings to the cable news landscape matters.

But Reid, one of the few Black women to ever anchor a nightly news program on cable or broadcast television, also brings passion, intensity and a high seriousness of purpose to the 7 p.m. hour of American television.

Furthermore, she brings a more progressive vision and commitment than the man she replaced, Chris Matthews. And despite Matthews’ career in politics before journalism, I find Reid every bit as politically savvy, with a keener sense of how politics are really played today.

Add to all of that a clarity at the anchor desk that Matthews has not shown in recent years, and it is hard to see how MSNBC is not much better with her.

Reid’s clarity and focus could be seen in the very first words of her new show Monday.

“There could not be a more striking contrast. This weekend, we mourned an icon who fought for civil and human rights. And we also witnessed the incoherent rambling of a president who spent the last four years burning democratic norms to the ground,” Reid told viewers.

“John Lewis died after a life spent fighting and literally bleeding for the right of people who look like me to vote and the right of every American to live free of violence,” she continued. “And then there’s Donald Trump, who this weekend openly teased that he might not accept the results of a democratic election. The context for that, of course, is that Trump has spent the last four years aspiring to something other than democracy.”

Who she is for and against are crystal clear. We need that kind of transparency from our media voices at this time of reckoning on race, public health, the economy and what kind of leader we want in the White House in January 2021.

(I am on the record saying that I believe MSNBC owes viewers an independent investigation of allegations that Reid wrote homophobic and anti-Semitic posts on a blog in the past. Her explanations that she did not remember writing them or, perhaps, the pages had been hacked have been met with some incredulity. But her explanations have been good enough for her bosses at MSNBC.)

I don’t base my judgment of Reid on her first shows this week. It’s unfair to do that to anyone, and first shows are in some ways not all that representative. No one’s energy level is going to be as high every night as it is on opening night. The guest list isn’t likely to be as star-studded or high-powered either on subsequent nights.

I am basing my judgments about political knowledge, intensity and seriousness of purpose on regular viewing of her weekend morning show, “AM Joy,” which she has hosted on MSNBC since 2016. I cannot remember ever seeing her looking as if she was phoning it in.

What you can often see clearly on opening night is what the host and producers want the show to be. One of the first images in the opening montage — the first thing viewers see — on Monday’s “The ReidOut” is that of a young woman holding a sign over her head that says, “Black Lives Matter.” Couple that kind of visual with Reid’s words about Lewis “bleeding for people who look like” her, and you know matters of identity, race and social justice are at top of her list. She is going to do everything she can from 7 to 8 p.m. on MSNBC five nights a week to make them part of the national conversation.

I am convinced that cable news TV — mainly CNN, MSNBC and Fox News — has come to play a larger role in shaping that conversation than any other media entity, including The New York Times, The Washington Post or even The Associated Press. This is not just a matter of what is discussed, but how we discuss it. And, for better or worse, the largest role is played by prime-time hosts like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Tucker Carlson, of Fox News.

My hope for cable TV and we, the viewers, is that the level of prime-time dialogue is going to be wider, deeper and more inclusive with Reid as part of the mix.

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David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: david.zurawik@baltsun.com; Twitter: @davidzurawik.
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