Metro Weekly

Jonathan Capehart: The New Face of Sunday Morning

The host of MSNBC's The Sunday Show gets candid about his life and views as a journalist.

jonathan capehart
Jonathan Capehart on the set of “The Sunday Show” — Photo: Graeme Jennings/MSNBC

“I’ve had a passion for journalism since I was ten,” says Jonathan Capehart. “I became hooked on watching The Today Show. I was also a big tattletale as a kid. I found it interesting that there were people on television whose job it was to tell other people’s business. I was fascinated by what they did, the stories they told, the places they traveled, and the places they reported from.”

Capehart, who grew up in Hazlet, New Jersey, had an uncle who lived in the Bronx and worked as an electrician at NBC. It was that connection — complete with his uncle waving at the camera while The Today Show was filming a segment on its outdoor plaza, where he was working — that got Capehart hooked on becoming a self-described “news nerd.”

One day, after interviewing with Carleton College recruiters at the New York Hilton as part of the college admissions process, Capehart found himself a few blocks from NBC’s 30 Rock Studios. He stopped by to see his uncle, and, upon arriving, was ushered into the Nightly News office, where his uncle was working.

“My uncle had me sit on a sofa that’s in the general reception area,” he says. “There was no one around, except for this one woman who was seated at a desk in front of me. She was eating a bagel, drinking coffee, and reading a tabloid newspaper. I worked up the courage to ask her some questions.”

The woman turned out to be a producer at NBC Nightly News and began asking Capehart about his career aspirations.

“I told her how I wanted to be a ‘news commentator.’ I wanted to first work in the Moscow Bureau of NBC News for a little bit and then come back to the United States and go to Washington and be the White House correspondent. And then after a little while, make my way back to New York and be anchor of The Today Show. I had it all plotted out.

“I don’t even remember the look on her face, or the reaction. My uncle finished the work he was doing, and said, ‘Okay, it’s time to go.’ And I thanked her, saying, ‘Thank you very much for talking with me and answering my questions.’ And she said, ‘Wait a minute.’ She pulled out a notepad, and wrote down the name of the program coordinator of The Today Show and her phone number. She handed it to me and said, ‘Here. Get yourself an internship on The Today Show.'”

jonathan capehart
Jonathan Capehart on the set of “The Sunday Show” — Photo: Graeme Jennings/MSNBC

Capehart managed to get two summer internships at The Today Show. He was later hired as a temporary worker during summers and school breaks.

“It was during those internships and temp work that I truly fell in love with the news business, with all the hard work that goes into it, all of the preparation, the stories you get to tell,” he says. “That’s how my passion for journalism was nurtured.”

A year after graduating from Carleton College, he landed a job at WNYC, New York’s public radio and television outlet. He then took a researcher position with The Today Show, and a year later was hired by the New York Daily News, winning a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1999.

Due to the shifting landscape of the news business, Capehart has had to diversify his resumé and his experience across various media platforms. In addition to serving as an opinion writer for The Washington Post, he also hosts the Post‘s “First Look” livestream roundtable and analysis show, as well as his own Cape Up podcast, and serves as an MSNBC contributor. Most recently, he took on two more responsibilities: hosting MSNBC’s The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart, and providing political analysis and commentary for PBS NewsHour‘s Friday discussion segment “Brooks & Capehart,” co-hosted by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

As he closed with his “Bye Line” segment on the first edition of The Sunday Show, Capehart offered an emotional “thank you” to all those who had supported him throughout his career and life’s various obstacles: His mother, his husband of nearly four years, Nick, and his late uncle, McKinley Branch, who first let the aspiring young writer into 30 Rock Studios, a small kindness that Capehart noted “put me on the right path.”

Capehart has not always trumpeted his identity as a gay man. Nor has he ever shied away from it, believing honesty, candor, and reliance on factual information to be among his greatest weapons for persuasion. But he also attempts to show the human side of issues, holding himself and his own lived experiences as something to which readers and viewers can relate. As a result of his authenticity, he has been able to become a trusted source for many, incorporating his own perspective to walk his audience through the facts of a story and the conclusions he has drawn.

“The thing I’ve learned in all my years in this business is that reporting is great,” he says. “Facts are important. But to change hearts and minds, or at a minimum get a hearing for your ideas, people like stories. They like human interest, coming at an issue through the perspective of a person they can relate to. And I’d like to think that given all my years in journalism and particularly on television, and just being myself, that I’m somebody who, when people see me and listen to me, they have an open heart and an open mind and are willing to listen.”

METRO WEEKLY: How did you transition from a person working in broadcast television to being an editorial writer?

JONATHAN CAPEHART: I had been working a temporary job at the Today Show. I got a phone call about six months in from the op-ed editor of the Daily News, who happened to work with my old boss at WNYC when they were both in the Lindsay Press office. At the time, Mort Zuckerman had just left paper. And the editor was looking for young people who could write for the editorial page. Bob called my old boss, Tom. Tom said, “The perfect person for you is Jonathan Capehart, but he’s not going to want to work for you because he’s having a good time at The Today Show.”

So Bob tells me this and I say to him, “Yeah, Tom’s right. Thanks very much for calling, goodbye.” And in separate conversations, I told my mother and my boyfriend at the time about this phone call. And they each said to me, “Are you out of your mind? Call that man back and see what he wants.”

So I called him back the next day, and we met. And he told me, “Look, we are looking for young people who can write for the editorial page. If you’re really interested in a career in journalism, this is a great way to learn.” Steve Friedman, the legendary executive producer of The Today Show, said to me, “We love people from print because they know how to think and they know how to write.”

And so I figured I’d go to the Daily News for a couple of years and learn how to think and learn how to write. And then I’ll come back to The Today Show and maybe be an associate producer or a producer, thinking of how this would help me climb the ladder in television. And what I figured would be a two-year job ended up being nine years at the Daily News. And really, it turned me from being someone who thought he was going to be a television guy into being a newspaperman, something completely not in the cards, not in the planning. But it was journalism. And as the editors who hired me told me, “If you are interested in opinion writing and learn how to write like this, this is the perfect place. You are, to our minds, raw clay. And so we can mold you and we can teach you how to do this, how to write. I’m like, “And you’re going to pay me? Great!” It ended up being a really fantastic experience.

Yes, The Daily News is a tabloid newspaper. But the rigor of writing for a newspaper where you don’t have a lot of column inches to write about very important things is invaluable. Writing an editorial for the Daily News was akin to landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. You’ve got to bring the thing in, you’ve got to land it, and you’ve got to stop it in a nanosecond. So imagine trying to write an editorial, say, about the latest development in Middle East peace in five column inches. It really forces you to take an issue, boil it down to its essence, and then forces you to be able to write about it in a way that the everyday person can understand it. And that is the kind of training that is invaluable. And so that’s how my newspaper career got started.

MW: Let’s get personal for a moment. When did you come out, and what was that process like?

CAPEHART: I’ve known I was gay since I was about ten. I did not come out until my sophomore year in college. My best friend on campus was Matthew Brooks, who came onto campus, out. And in the first couple of years, I just let my friendship with Matthew speak for itself, as I worked my way through coming to terms with who I was, what it meant, and how to navigate everything. And then when I came home from Carleton, I had a conversation with my mother, where I slyly maneuvered her into asking me if I was gay. And when she did, the first thing she said was, “Why?” And she clutched her face. And then the second thing she said to me was, “Don’t tell anybody, because it’ll hurt your career.” And I looked at her and I said, “No. That’s not possible.”

It still tickles me to this day when I hear from people who say to me, “Whoa, I didn’t know you were gay until you mentioned your husband.” And I’m like, “Are your eyes not open?” And so that’s how I came out, initially. But as you know, we’re always coming out. It is not a one-and-done thing. And so I had to come out all over again at the Daily News when I started writing a bunch of editorials about unsafe sex in gay sex clubs in New York in ’93. So that’s the early to mid-nineties when the whole conversation was about the so-called “second wave” of HIV infections.

And my editor was, after about a third or a fourth editorial, asking me all of these questions. “I don’t understand why younger gays don’t listen to the older gays who have been through all of this. I just don’t get it.” And he kept asking all these questions. And I felt hamstrung in answering, because I had not come out to him. So I finally just said, “Arthur, you know I’m gay, right?” And he didn’t even look at me. He was seated in a chair next to my desk. He just exhaled and goes, “Did I know for a fact? No. Did I suspect? Absolutely.”

I burst out laughing and then I just started answering his questions again. And he kept firing more questions. And that was it. It’s the only conversation we had and it didn’t impact my standing at the office or anything like that. If anything, having come out made my work even better. It made my contributions that much more interesting and vital, because I could be fully myself. I’ve always approached my jobs that way.

When I had the interview for The Washington Post, I talked to them earlier than when I actually came to the Post. It was about 2000 or 2001, I can’t remember exactly. But now that I think of it, it’s more than 20 years ago. I had a meeting with Fred Hiatt about a position that was opening up on the editorial board. And I came down from New York to meet with him. And he asked me a question that, to this day, still sits with me for its compassion and its forward thinking. “Are you really willing to move to Washington?” And that was the question, but it was what he said after that stayed with me. He said, “Because I don’t want to be responsible for the breakup of a marriage.” And I, at that point, had been with my partner for more than seven years. And he recognized that and he knew that we were tied to New York, and that going back and forth between New York and Washington would be a strain on any relationship. But the fact that he recognized my relationship, at a time when there was no marriage equality, for him to recognize that the strength of our relationship was a marriage, meant a lot to me.

In the end, I said no to taking that particular job. But when we spoke years later about the job that I have now, that was already on the table. I didn’t have to come out to him again. He knew all of that. And that, I suspect, factored into my being hired [at The Post].

MW: When you have a chance to do commentary, or an editorial, how does your identity as a married gay man inform how you look at issues and what you choose to highlight?

CAPEHART: As an editorial writer or an opinion writer, or even the anchor of The Sunday Show, I bring my entire self to the table. And my lived experience — whether it’s at an editorial board meeting where I’m sitting there and we’re talking about the Equality Act for marriage equality, or gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, or respecting the lives and dignity of transgender Americans — and being able to speak on these issues as a member of the community holds a lot of weight. It holds a lot of power, particularly and especially for people who are not part of the community.

In these types of jobs, hearing from people who have lived experiences carries a lot of weight. And certainly, in the anchor chair, just being myself carries a lot of weight. Another thing, if I don’t get the “Oh, my God, I didn’t know you were gay until you said so” comment, it usually comes because I’ve just matter-of-factly and casually talked about my husband, just in the way that anybody else on television or in a column does.

For a lot of folks in the community, hearing someone, and particularly someone like me, just say it matter-of-factly, it still hits them because having yourself reflected back to you is very powerful. My entire career has been about being myself. I don’t know any other way to be a journalist. A lot of that has to do with the fact that being an opinion writer, I have the luxury and the privilege of being able to say what I think about the reporting that I do. I have the privilege and the honor of being able to write very personally about the news, about legislation that is about pulling people in.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, I wrote a column in the paper and then went all over MSNBC repeating the mantra about how one of the heaviest weights of being a Black man is carrying the burden of other people’s suspicions. And in that piece, I wrote about the talk that my mother gave me and the rules that she told me that I had to live by, simply because I was Black. I had not seen a reaction to a column like that, ever, where the number of white people and colleagues came to me and said, “I had no idea that any of this was happening in terms of Black kids and Black parents having to have this conversation about survival.” People were able to understand because I was their trusted source.

When you’re a journalist, your word is everything. That is the whole value of being a trusted source. And so because I have always been this way, because I don’t separate out my identities from my being a journalist, it’s all intertwined. I’ve never had to leave my opinions or my identities at the door in order to be able to do the news. My identities and my opinions are part of my job.

MW: Currently there appears to be a widespread feeling of distrust towards institutions, especially the press. As a member of the press, do you feel a responsibility for contributing to that, or a responsibility to resolve that distrust? How do you go about that?

CAPEHART: Well, first thing, I don’t feel any responsibility for the loss in trust of the press, because I have done everything I can to be a good reporter, to do my reporting, to rely on facts. Yes, I get to say what I think about my reporting, but my reporting is factual. I am a journalist. I am about talking to folks, reading the studies, and then coming to what I would hope is a reasonable conclusion. The other thing about being a journalist is — and unfortunately, a lot of folks in our profession don’t do this — I do acknowledge errors. When I have made mistakes, I do correct them, and I apologize. I can’t remember who originally said it, but “Journalists write the first draft of history.” The key word there is “draft.” And we, as journalists, have to be able to make corrections and make amends with the reading public or the viewing public when new facts come to light and cause a change in the story.

The great thing about the internet is that it has democratized access to information. When I was at Carleton and I was the news director of the radio station, I had the UPI machine. And I saw all sorts of news. And because I was the anchor of the 6 o’clock news and the news director, I got to pick and choose what news folks on campus got to hear. But thanks to the Internet, my mother has the same access to information that I do as a journalist. And that’s a great thing. Unfortunately, because of this democratization of information, people have gravitated to silos where their world views are validated. Not challenged, but validated. And I think that’s contributed to polarization, to cleavages in our society.

If I were a genie, and I were granted a wish, I would ask the genie to give the news consumer the discernment and the judgment that is needed in today’s environment to wade through all the news and information that’s coming at them. When I got into this business, you had The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Wall Street Journal, three television networks, and thriving local press throughout the country. Now, local newspapers are decimated. But you’ve got all sorts of news outlets on television, on the internet, and our news consumers are not going to news sources that could remotely challenge their worldview.

I’ve been arguing this since before the Internet took hold. When I was at the Daily News in New York, I would tell people, “You have got to read more than just The New York Times and the New York Post for page six. If a big news story breaks, sure, read the Times, the Post, read the New York Daily News. You’re going to get three different stories but by doing that, you will get a fuller picture of what’s happening with that story.”

I think news consumers now, in order to rebuild their own trust in journalism as a profession, need to not look at one particular outlet as the “devil,” but start broadening their diet of news. If someone is just spending all of their time watching Fox News, or reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page, I would argue that they should spend some time looking at The Washington Post, looking at The New York Times, broadening their news diet. If someone is watching MSNBC all the time, to spend some time looking at Fox, looking at other sources, so that they, at a minimum, can understand or have a sense of what other people in the country are thinking.

Twitter is the easiest way to keep tabs on what a lot of people are thinking, but Twitter exemplifies, I think, the dark side of this democratization of information because again, silos are much more pronounced there, but also the vitriol and the intolerance for anyone who expresses a contrary opinion. And that’s not to say that folks shouldn’t be criticized, but when the criticism gets extremely personal, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, transphobic, that’s where I draw the line. And that’s where my hitting the block button on Twitter gets its biggest workout. I will not abide any kind of hatred on my feed. You can disagree on the facts. But you’re not going to tear me down or anybody else down for who they are when leveling a criticism.

MW: The Biden administration is coming in with a lot of priorities on its plate, including, from an LGBTQ perspective, the recent repeal of the trans military ban and the desire to pass the Equality Act. But, as we’ve seen before, when Democrats control Congress and the White House, they tend to squander opportunities. Do you think the administration realizes they’re operating on a timer to get a lot of those promises accomplished?

CAPEHART: Yes. I do think they realize they are on a timer. Certainly President Biden remembers what happened when he and President Obama came into office, and how that timer worked, and how they needed to move, and move fast. Candidates make promises all the time. What’s important is that the community and whatever community you’re in, if a promise has been made to you, it is imperative that that community hold the administration’s feet to the fire in terms of fulfilling the promise, or at least trying to fulfill the promise.

One of the problems I think a lot of people didn’t fully appreciate with the Obama-Biden administration was that they figured President Obama would come in and everything would be solved, that he could just wave a magic wand or by executive fiat and just proclaim things so. That’s not how our system of government works.

So as much as folks would like an administration to follow through on the promises that it made, they also have to be realistic and mindful of the political dynamics that are at work. Unlike when Obama-Biden came in, when they had all three branches of government for a hot minute, Biden-Harris comes in with a 50-50 Senate, Vice President Harris has the tie-breaking vote. So there’s no margin for error there. And then in the House, the narrowest Democratic majority in decades. So it makes it more difficult to get things passed.

With that being said, that does not mean that the Biden-Harris administration should not try, and it certainly means that constituency groups that have been promised things, like the LGBTQ community, need to keep the pressure on the Biden administration to follow through. One of the things that President Obama would say to activist groups when they came into the White House, he would say to them. “Make me do it.”

MW: How much of that responsibility falls on the Democratic Party to get its ducks in order? If Republicans held the presidency and a 50-50 Senate, and even a one-seat margin in the House, they’d get their entire agenda passed. But the Democrats seem to get into a position where somebody’s always playing the Joe Lieberman role, the skunk at the garden party.

CAPEHART: We’re talking about the difference between the way Republicans operate writ-large and Democrats operate writ-large. Republicans will beat the crap out of each other during the primaries, but once they have a candidate, they circle the wagons, they do everything possible to get that person in. And once that person is in, they walk in lockstep to get their priorities done. And Republican priorities have been narrow. Tax cuts and judges, remaking the federal judiciary. Democrats are the complete opposite, from folks in Congress to folks in the activist communities who are pushing Congress to do things. It’s not as lockstep, as you well know. And so I think Democrats are learning, slowly but surely. And when I say Democrats, I’m not talking just about members of Congress. I’m talking about anybody who identifies themselves as a Democrat and trying to push the party to do things on their behalf.

The point I was trying to make before is that, given the way Democrats do things, it is imperative that when a promise is made, that activist Democrats don’t sit back and think, “Okay, now they’re in office. They’re going to follow through.” Anyone who doesn’t think that outside pressure isn’t imperative to getting things done is being naïve.

The one thing about the four years of Trump, if there is a silver lining, it’s focused the minds of Democrats and progressives about what needed to be done to rid this country of that president. And now that we do have President Biden and Vice President Harris, it’s important to focus on applying the pressure to make sure that the damage done by four years of Trump, and the ongoing damage because of the lunacy that’s happening within the Republican Party, on both sides of the Capitol — meaning Trump-style Republicanism — does not come back. And that’s going to be very hard to do.

MW: Should Democrats just pursue a censure of President Trump, instead of a Senate trial on the impeachment charges against him?

CAPEHART: No.

MW: Why?

CAPEHART: The Senate trial has to happen because of the Constitution. You cannot incite an insurrection against the legislative branch of government, in the U.S. Capitol, seeking to overturn a free, fair, and legitimate election and get away with it. And that insurrection cannot be incited by the President of the United States. There is no way that a trial should not happen, that evidence should not be presented that the American people can hear, and if 17 Republicans don’t want to join the 50 Democrats in convicting President Trump, that is on them. But it must happen, at a minimum, to send a message to anyone who would dare repeat what Donald Trump did. There must be consequences.

And so while I understand and respect Senator Kaine and others who are trying to push this censure resolution, I think let the trial happen, and see where it goes. And if he’s not convicted, then do censure.

MW: As you talk about getting rid of this Trump-flavored brand of Republicanism, we are noticing a rise in right-wing populism around the globe. How do you combat some of the negative and pernicious effects of right-wing populism?

CAPEHART: That is the question of our time. And right now, one of the answers was voting out Trump. But that’s just one battle in what’s going to be an ongoing skirmish. It is imperative that Biden-Harris be successful, so that when the midterm elections come, Democrats hold on to the House and expand the majority in the Senate. That sends a message that the nation is not going to go down the road of other countries that fall further and further in line with far-right populous leaders. It is imperative that the likes of Lauren Boebert, and Marjorie Taylor Green, and others who are so far right that they live in a world of conspiracy theories, that they get voted out of office.

It is imperative that in order to not even tamp down, but to hold this Trumpification of the Republican Party at bay, that the nation rallies around what it used to think of itself, as a beacon of hope, stability, and democracy — however flawed — where the will and the voice of the people is heard at the ballot box through free and fair elections, and not under threat of assault, insurrection, or political violence. We should not give in to the fear that the likes of Trump, and McCarthy, and all of these other people would like us to live under. It cannot succeed. It simply cannot succeed in the United States. And if it does, then democracy writ-large is over.

The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart airs Sundays on MSNBC from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. For more information, visit www.msnbc.com/sunday-show.

PBS NewsHour’s “Brooks & Capehart” segment airs on Washington affiliate WETA on Fridays from 7-8 p.m. For more information, visit pbs.org/newshour/tag/brooks-and-capehart.

Follow Jonathan Capehart on Twitter at @CapehartJ.

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