No one can calm Alex Wagner down. My suggestion of Cardi B as a possible guest comes up during a conversation about the upcoming midterm elections as we sit in her cramped, undecorated corner office at 30 Rock. She will be moving into a more permanent location after her fellow MSNBC host, Rachel Maddow, departs. Wagner’s face lights up at the suggestion of the rapper, even though Kyrsten Sinema, a Democratic senator, and John Boehner, a former Republican House speaker, are higher on his ideal guest list. She gestures enthusiastically, her eyes sparkle, and she leans toward me as she tells me her plans to include poets and filmmakers in discussions of the day’s events.
When I meet with the 44-year-old journalist, she is quite enthusiastic about several things: In June, it was reported that Alex Wagner will be taking over for Rachel Maddow on four of MSNBC’s primetime evenings at 9 p.m. Days from now, on August 16, is tonight. She likens the call she received from MSNBC president Rashida Jones offering her the position to the climatic scene in a romantic movie, where the protagonist finally gets the marriage proposal they’ve been hoping for. She tells you that your life is about to drastically alter since “you wanted this for so long.” You’re making a long-term commitment, and just like any marriage, it’s bound to have its share of ups and downs along the way.
What Wagner’s exuberance glosses over is that she has spent her entire career working toward this opportunity. She has followed an unconventional career path for the past two decades, shifting from scene-y culture journals to a nonprofit opposing genocide to TV news. Her former coworkers praise her as a hard worker who does her homework before doing impromptu interviews, helps out with guest booking, and is a considerate boss. Jennifer Palmieri, a former director of communications for the White House and Wagner’s co-host on Showtime’s The Circus, attributes much of her improvement in that department to Wagner. If you ask Palmieri, “She’s very good at making television,” and he’ll tell you that. She has a firm grasp of the intricacies of the medium and its potential for dramatic effect.
Wagner seems to be the type of guy who would put in a lot of effort to acquire the knowledge and abilities essential to flourish in a challenging environment. The network’s biggest celebrity, Maddow, has been hosting her show, Rachel Maddow, on Monday nights for nearly 14 years. Her show on MSNBC had an average of 4.3 million views in January 2021, when news of the aftermath of the Capitol riots and the inauguration of the Biden government was front and centre. Audiences dropped by 21 per cent in February when Wagner filled in for Maddow as host compared to Maddow’s regular nights. (Jones has stated, “it’s not Rachel’s numbers or bust” when referring to their success.)
In our conversation, Wagner makes an effort to inhabit a chair that is far too huge for her. She claims that she is not aiming for perfection and that the programme would look very different in three months and three years. “The route is the destination, or whatever,” she says, trying not to sound like a person who throws around Zen koans. “I hope to appreciate the development”
Wagner was born to Tin Swe Thant and Carl Wagner, and he grew up in the Maryland suburbs. Her late Luxembourger Irish father met her late mother, an exile from Myanmar (formerly Burma), at a national trade-union centre. Wagner’s father was a renowned party strategist who advised President Bill Clinton, Senators Edward M. Kennedy, and George S. McGovern, therefore Wagner spent her childhood immersed in Democratic politics. I grew up hearing my dad bash Ronald Reagan constantly,” she recalls. And I recall Dad walking in the front door in the ’90s and saying, roughly paraphrased, “Bill Clinton has just terminated welfare as we know it.”
Wagner revealed her inner nerd in her 2018 autobiography, Futureface: A Family Mystery, an Epic Quest, and the Secret to Belonging. Even at a young age, she recognised that the world didn’t always see her the way she did: She was asked by a white-line cook if she was adopted when she was 12 years old. Not for the first time did someone inquire as to her sexual orientation. According to her, “in the perspective of certain persons, who were universally certain white folks, I was not generically American.” I used to be somebody different. Time magazine’s cover just before Wagner turned 16 featured a computer-generated depiction of a woman’s face designed to represent what a future multicultural American will look like. It was so reminiscent of Wagner that she was floored by the discovery. At the same time, it prompted a profound philosophical query that Futureface sought to address: to whom and where did she truly belong?
After graduating from high school, Wagner continued his education at Brown University, where he rounded out his varied background. She got her first internship after cold contacting a Los Angeles music magazine known for its daring layout and coverage of alternative rock while she was there for spring break. She also contributed to the street art and culture magazine Tokion, situated in Tokyo. At the time, she and her friends “thought we were such hot shit,” she recalled afterwards. Clinton’s former chief of staff and Wagner’s childhood neighbour John Podesta established the Center for American Progress and appointed Wagner to a job with a vague title that sounded like the minister of culture because of her prescient awareness of cultural trends. Wagner departed for the music newspaper The Fader, where she eventually became editor-in-chief, before being poached by Not On Our Watch, a humanitarian group co-founded by George Clooney, where she gained insight into the influence of television.
According to a 2012 Elle feature, Wagner returned to Washington in 2010 to cover the White House for an AOL-owned politics news site, “another unsolicited job offer,” and was soon making regular appearances on MSNBC. The premiere of her 2011 show, NOW With Alex Wagner, which featured roundtable talks on current events, pop culture, and politics in a dinner party setting, cemented her reputation as a warm and welcoming presenter. Senior producer Joshua Chaffee explains that the show was able to appeal to a wider audience because of the unique perspective provided by the host. After a fascinating interview with the director of the White House National Economic Council, Alex can bring on 2 Chainz for an equally fascinating discussion on music, government spying, and wealth disparity.
Wagner replaced Mark Halperin in 2018 after Halperin faced allegations of sexual harassment, but the weekly documentary series The Circus cancelled the show in 2015 as part of the network’s push for more breaking-news coverage. She would frequently come up to shoots famished, and footage would show her shovelling tacos or beignets into her face as she tried to hide her hunger. The production involved extensive research and shooting field portions across the country with little time off. Wagner understood there was merit in addressing the beliefs of Trump supporters in North Carolina, Three Percenters who are against the government, and activists who are against critical race theory on camera, but she often found herself in uncomfortable situations when doing interviews with these people. Lisa Ling, host of CNN’s This Is Life and HBO Max’s Take Out With Lisa Ling, says of her: “You watch her once, and you can see that she’s different from everyone else.” “She just has this sharpness,” he said. “I think she’s disarming in many ways because she often has this sort of smile on her face when she goes for the jugular.”
It’s absurd,” Wagner says when I ask her how it feels to be one of just a small number of Asian American women to become an anchor or host at major national news networks. To be counted among them is an incredible privilege. Plus, that needs to alter as well.
Patti Hidalgo Menders, leader of the Republican Women’s Club in Loudoun County, Virginia, and opponent of critical race theory was one of the guests on Wagner’s show. Wagner questioned Menders about her claim that teachers racially discriminate against students, to which Menders replied that a rap song with lyrics “putting down Andrew Jackson” was being taught to sixth graders. To which Menders replied, “Well, I think a lot of people would blame Andrew Jackson with the genocide of the Native population,” Wagner said. That’s true, but how do you bring it up without —” To take a breath, Menders paused. Disparaging white people? Wagner proposed. “Yeah!” Reconcilers reached a consensus. “Like, when do you forgive and stop segregating?
Without being condescending or provoking an argument, Wagner identifies her interviewee in detail. She cautions against coming across as overly sympathetic toward those whose “minds and hearts have been willingly poisoned by misinformation, social media, or circles of friends,” but adds that “just because someone is unsavoury or holds racist viewpoints, doesn’t mean that we can stop seeing them as human.”
Wagner’s decision to make field reporting an integral part of her new programme was inspired by her time spent on The Circus. She believes that “with few exceptions,” “every show is a reflection of the anchor in many respects.” The Obama family all attended their 2014 wedding, and Vogue named them “politics’ It couple of the year.” Together, she and her husband, Sam Kass, an entrepreneur who was Barack Obama’s White House chef and senior policy adviser for nutrition, are raising two sons, Cy and Rafael. Wagner is concerned about her children’s safety at their new school this fall and how they will cope with the repercussions of climate change as they get older. She will adjust her reporting based on these worries. The events in Newtown were “gruesome and awful” while she was on television, she claims. Being a parent of a 5-year-old child entering kindergarten changes your perspective on that tragedy and all school shootings.
The ultimate goal for Wagner’s show is to attract as many viewers as possible, which she plans to do “by putting a great fantastic show on the air.” As for the outside influences, there’s only so much I can fret over. After the premiere of Alex Wagner Tonight, she will be the only Asian American to host a prime-time cable news programme. Although her rise cannot be reduced to a single instance of representation in an industry that has been hostile to Asian American women for decades (for example, Ann Curry has fired from NBC’s Today only ten years ago), it does highlight how viewers are let down by narrow conceptions of who can be a news anchor.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) are the fastest-growing demographic in the United States and a key voting bloc in states like Georgia; the nationwide increase in anti-Asian hate crimes brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic shows no signs of abating; and despite improvements in AAPI representation in the media, many newsrooms were still caught off guard when a white gunman went on a shooting rampage at three Atlanta-area mosques. The community has been treated by white journalists for far too long as if it were another country. I had no idea how significant it would be to have someone like Wagner take on this position until I saw the preview for the show. Something truly monumental happens whenever you learn about Asian American life from someone who lives there.
Wagner tells me during our interview, “I have no intention of disregarding what’s happening to Asian American people in this nation” on the show. My mother, who is 78, tells me she feels unsafe just strolling down the street in the swing neighbourhood where we reside. And it’s a concern for me and our culture as a whole, that individuals feel they may be pushed onto a train track or off a subway platform just because of the way they look.
Wagner, the daughter of immigrants, will be able to speak authoritatively on the subject, and her on-air discussion will have a very different feel than if she had simply told the story in passing. Wagner figures that if she’s worried about something, a lot of other people must be, too, and that now that she’s in charge, she can help her network’s employees at least have a sense of what it’s like to be in their shoes.
In the nearly three decades since Connie Chung made history as the first Asian American co-anchor of CBS Evening News, only a small number of additional Asian American women have become anchors or hosts at major national news networks. I ask Wagner humbly how it feels to be a part of this group, and she replies, “It’s insane. To be counted among them is an incredible privilege. Plus, that needs to alter as well. However, I tell her, that is occurring. You’ve been accepted into the group. I am aware of that, she replies. So long as it’s possible, I’d like to remain here.
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