In January, Audie Cornish announced she was leaving her 17-year career at NPR, including 10 years as the host of All Things Considered, to start anew as anchor and correspondent at CNN, where next month she will launch her new podcast, The Assignment with Audie Cornish. Here, she reflects on navigating newsrooms, the power of making space, and the joy of switching gears.
“Try to find the confidence to say, ‘How can I get into this space and what can I demand once I’m there? And how can I make sure that the door is open behind me?’”
—Audie Cornish, CNN anchor and correspondent
Jessica Pliska: At a pivotal moment in your career—having taken a big leap to CNN from NPR and launching your new podcast on November 17—can you reflect on your first job in journalism?
Audie Cornish: It was at the Associated Press during 9/11. The stakes were high, the stories were tragic, there was a sense of peril, and the nation was oriented toward war. I think I could have easily said, “This is not for me. I can’t do this all the time.” But I remember feeling, “I have to be here for this.” I wasn’t on big stories fresh out of college, but the little stories were about people thrust into extraordinary circumstances and how they were dealing with it. I was very compelled by that.
Pliska: Did college prepare you? You majored in journalism and worked for the student radio station.
Cornish: I had a college professor who taught journalism as a holistic practice. I don’t think I ever saw a textbook with, “Who, what, when, where, and why?” We had to read a book a week and write up our own analysis of it in exactly two pages. That’s journalism—concisely synthesizing information and bringing context to it, so people can sort out their own biases and perspectives. I don’t think I’d be in this business if I had been introduced to it in the standard textbook way. I think I would have thought it was boring.
Pliska: In your early days as a young journalist, what do you recall as most challenging?
Cornish: Navigating newsrooms meant learning how to stand up for myself and my ideas. Every interaction felt high-stakes, as if each person had my career in their hands. Figuring out who actually did and didn’t was part of it; there were a lot of people with puffed-up chests making demands. It’s easy, especially as a young woman of color, to be dismissed early in your career. The pigeonhole comes for you quickly in a way that it didn’t for my young male counterparts. Breaking out of that box takes a lot out of you: Which assignments do you try to push for? Which do you make sure you don’t get, without looking like you’re slacking?
Pliska: So how would you advise young people and young women of color starting out now? Those who also feel they “have to be here for this” but face those challenges?
Cornish: I’m very careful about my advice because some aspects of my career were borne out of survival and I don’t want to limit others because of that. The kind of advice you might get from an older woman of color in the newsroom—“Be careful about this”—might stem from the environment we came up in. So, when I’m mentoring, I try to really listen and to ask, “Tell me what you want.”
Pliska: Yes, there’s a generational gap, in which young people of color value advice from those who broke barriers before them, but also may bristle at “respectability politics”¾the notion that conforming to the dominant culture will protect marginalized groups from prejudice.
Cornish: Exactly. Young people make demands that some of us from a different generation wouldn’t have because we were operating in a context that would have had more serious consequences than there might be today. Some are demands I might not make, but I understand that the power dynamic has evolved and I want to be an ally, instead of standing in the way, saying, “Are you sure you want to do that?”
Pliska: It seems like it’s not so much that there aren’t consequences for speaking up now, but that young people want help cultivating their individual sense of self as they navigate microaggressions, or worse, like “When is it important to me to speak up and when would I decide not to?”
Cornish: Yes. Some of that is learning in the workplace itself. There’s so much emphasis these days on spaces where we don’t belong. More and more people ask me, “How do you navigate in an industry that’s harder for Black women?” I’m like, “What industry isn’t?” Racism is insidious because it makes you second-guess yourself and where you should and should not be. It’s far better to try to find the confidence to say, “How can I get into this space and what can I demand once I’m there? And how can I make sure that the door is open behind me?” You have to do the job and not preemptively decide it’s not a space for you.
Pliska: You first made the bold career jump from NPR to help launch CNN+ and that network did not succeed. What was it like to take that risk and not see it come to fruition?
Cornish: One of the things I said to the staff when CNN+ shut down was that they shouldn’t let the experience kill their appetite for risk. It’s easy to talk trash on the internet about what the media gets wrong, it’s a lot harder to “be the change you want to see” and try something new. So I didn’t come away seeing failure. It was just another at-bat. I’ve got faith in myself that I’ve got plenty more ahead.
Pliska: What it’s like now that you are settled in at CNN and are launching your new podcast, The Assignment?
Cornish: It’s exciting. Anytime you switch gears, it forces you to stretch muscles in different directions and only good things come from that. We’re focused on journalism that feels intimate and authentic. Part of my challenge and my superpower is that I’m a news omnivore. I like pop culture things. I like hard news. I like international news, so it will run the gamut. But the constant and the imperative is to put context at the forefront for what we’re experiencing now. Context is the point.
Pliska: Can you give me an example of what that looks like?
Cornish: Do you have a name? Who would you like to see interviewed?
Pliska: You’re asking me? OK…what about Terrell Jermaine Starr. He reports from Ukraine and he’s been talking about the racism he sees among Ukrainian refugees toward Black people, among other things.
Cornish: He’s about what it means to bring your whole self to the job. He looks at people of color in diplomacy, where they’re often dismissed by other countries as being pawns of a superpower. He looks at Russia accusing Ukraine of harboring Neo-Nazis. No matter how far away you get from the US, there is some nugget of racism. He then looks at his own sexuality. War reporting can be macho in its legacy and tradition, and he undercuts that. That’s an example of how I approach guests: What does it look like to be authentic? What does this person bring to the public conversation? What does it tell us about where we are now?
Pliska: You’re good on the spot. But you’re not getting away without telling me who you plan to interview.
Cornish: We’re not focused on big names (though there may be some fun surprises). I wanted to hear the voices of people who are often the anecdote of a breaking news story. Their experiences sometimes end up grist for the media mill or political debates. I wanted to make the strange, familiar. And I wanted to feature stories at the nexus of hard news and culture: the labor movement growing out of the service economy, student activism on guns, how queer and feminist politics have transformed pop culture criticism. Celebrities aren’t driving those things. Politicians are not driving those movements. So let’s hear from the people who are.
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