Symone Sanders on Harris, ‘Em-Effers’ and Her MSNBC Show
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If ever there were doubts that Symone Sanders doesn’t phone anything in, they quickly dissipated in a stunning moment on a March night a little over two years ago when anti-dairy protesters overtook then-candidate Joe Biden’s security perimeter and seemed heading toward Sanders’ boss. In an instant, Sanders—with an assist from Jill Biden—stepped in with the block and wrestled one of the belligerents off the stage.
It’s that fierce sense of action that has made Sanders into one of the stars of her generation, and then the entire Democratic Party. She made her national name in 2015 and 2016 as Senator Bernie Sanders’ top spokeswoman, parlayed that into a CNN contributor gig and a memoir at age 30, and then landed on everyone’s must-hire list for 2020. Washington was stunned when she signed up with Biden (a white septuagenarian, who represents the same establishment that she was attacking in 2016), despite being a rock star, an all-too-rare Black woman with access to the table and the millennial badass.
But Symone Sanders saw Biden’s potential. Symone Sanders was one of Biden’s top advisers. She advised him on how to deal with women and voters younger than him. Sanders decided to go with Kamala, Vice President-elect Kamala, and her team. She was both the first Black-American and Indian-American woman to hold the position. Sanders served as Harris’ chief spokeswoman and a senior adviser until December, when she announced her departure.
On Saturday at 4 p.m., MSNBC will debut Sanders’ new weekend show, a weekday version of which will air on NBC Universal’s Peacock streaming service. She will also deliver the commencement speech on Sunday to American University graduates in Washington.
The network brass clearly notice her and plan to make her a guest anchor on other shows.
Sanders spoke to the D.C. Brief by phone this week. This conversation was edited.
So congratulations on the show and Sunday’s American University commencement. It’s a huge weekend for you. It’s a long way from Omaha. What’s going through your head right now?
My name is a little black girl in North Omaha. It was always my dream to own my own TV show. My dream was to host my own TV show. Donna Burns was my TV name. Now I don’t have to pretend anymore, but it also comes with an enormous responsibility.
I’ve worked in this White House, I’ve worked for the current president of the United States, the current vice president. I’ve worked for an icon in the progressive movement, Bernie Sanders. I’ve worked on more than 20 campaigns. I’m not here to be a spokesperson for the administration. That was my job. My old job was still available if I wanted to continue being a spokesperson.
Your comments were caught from South by Southwest. I liken the weekend show to an informal group chat. Are those still available? Maybe even For HousewivesMy phone has taken group chats to a more political level.
When I say the non-political group chats, I’m talking about the people who are not professional politicos like you and I. Some people don’t have the time to follow the 24-hour news cycle. Yet, they care. They want to know what is happening and what’s going on. They have lots of thoughts about what’s happening in politics, but they don’t necessarily care to watch Senator Joe Manchin on C-SPAN or waking up early to catch all the Sunday shows.
Although they may care about politics they talk about how Netflix’s activities relate to wider cultural conversations. The company had poor numbers last week, and is now cutting back on a few creators they hired recently. The majority are women of color. They are engaging in non-political political conversation. They are open to me talking to them.
This is how you will calibrate your tone. It’s all about Netflix. Every situation takes on a politics-infused overtone. What can you do to deal with this?
Every day is full of new developments. Mock episodes are being made. We did mock shows yesterday. I was doing the Netflix thing under the title of culture. We’re going to dig a little deeper. We’re going to talk about James Corden leaving late night, and how late night used to be the final destination for so many people, but now it seems like it’s a pit stop on a larger journey. And that spiraled into a conversation about how the changing social media and streaming landscape has allowed for more voices and more people, but also has allowed people to tune out news entities and outlets that they don’t necessarily want to consume.
I’m not a White House reporter, right? I’m not a Capitol Hill reporter. A school in the Midwest gave me a degree in business management. I value the knowledge of those who are on my show. These people have qualifications. It is my responsibility to make sure that I provide information to my audience. I want people to know that when they turn on my show, they’re going to learn something.
Would you consider yourself a journalist in that role?
I’m a part of the media apparatus. No, I’m not a journalist. No. However, as part of the media system I have an obligation to maintain journalistic standards. My executive producer, who is also the WRC Washington’s managing news editor, is a true news woman. She’s regularly talking to me about standards. We’ll get the standards under control. I have surrounded myself with a team of people who have done this for a while and can help me tease out what I’m trying to do in a way that is responsible.
When I was a commentator, I was very concerned by the fact that I was sitting in a Green Room with people and we would have a conversation and then we would go on television and they would say things that I know they don’t believe. They didn’t get fact-checked. They then repeat their statements in group chats. They’re talking about it in their communities.
You’re not the first to move from administration insider to trusted journalist. It might not have taken you the longest time to get from insider to having your own show. You are not the only young person who hosts pretend shows, there are many others. Talk to them about how you made this dream a reality.
A lot of grace, goodwill, and blessings have come to my way. The work was my own. It is a valuable experience that I have had and will continue to enjoy. I took risks. I remember when I moved to Washington, D.C., and didn’t even have an apartment. When I worked for Senator Sanders, I was willing to take a chance. People I admire so deeply, mentors of my, told me I would ruin my political career. Forever, Senator Sanders would label me as progressive if I was to go work for him. It was 2015 back then. ProgressiveWas a bad word. Everyone wants to be progressive.
After becoming a CNN commentator, I realized I had to return on the campaign trail. People told me that I was foolish. It was absurd that I would give up an opportunity to serve a President who might not be my friend. I went into the White House and people were, like, you’re working for the Vice President; don’t you want to work for the President? They didn’t understand that I had the opportunity to help make history every single day with the first woman, the first Black woman, Vice President of the United States of America. People called me stupid when I left government.
Many people think that I’m a smuggler. However, I have experience at every level. It is a place I feel proud of.
Everybody who worked with you knows that. The question here is, who knows you better than your advocacy and activism? Hence, audiences should trust you. Not You can bring this framework to the studio. Will you also bring that framework, but with more transparency?
I’m not going to shy away from who I am. My activism and advocacy have made them familiar with me. I make no qualms about the fact that the reason I wanted to work on a campaign in 2016 and in ‘20 is because I thought that Donald Trump was a danger to democracy. The viewer is not forced to accept my opinions. Let’s have a discussion. That’s why I’m going to have Republicans on, so we can have a well-rounded conversation and maybe every now and then, maybe more than that.
You were one of the Vice President’s top aides. You must have experienced moments of maddening press coverage.
I was at a lot of events for the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and I made a joke: Everyone at the table I believe, has been cursed at some point or another, and all this in the name I do my job.It was funny, and we laughed together.
Please tell me, which is the greatest error we have made in her coverage? You’re not on the payroll anymore.
Let me start by saying that Vice President Harris, who is also a woman of color and the first Black woman to have been employed for her. Thinking back on my career, it is clear that I’ve worked with older white men as well as two Black men. I was able to understand how people treat women, especially Black women, by working for them.
Hillary Clinton was, by far, the most qualified person to seek the presidency. I don’t care what the hell anybody says. Hillary Clinton was better qualified than these em-effers.
However, I must say that Hillary Clinton is the best qualified presidential candidate ever. Your work was on the opposing side in the Democratic primary that denied her the nomination. So I do feel I can’t let that one go by.
Just because she’s qualified doesn’t mean no one can run against her, you know? The media talked about her in a way as though she wasn’t. All you have to learn is that Hillary Clinton emails are the most scandalous.
Although you might be critical of Harris, there are other things that can be said about her.
You’re one the sharpest political minds in the Democratic Party. You don’t have to be a part of a cable program.
What is the point of television? What is the point of television? This is, I believe, one of America’s most significant moments. It is rare to find a voice as strong and passionate as mine. With my knowledge and experience, I know the President, Vice President, and leader of the progressive movement Bernie Sanders intimately. There’s not someone like me currently on television, who has worked at every single level and that can provide the insight that I can.
Last but not least, I must ask: Are you going to be the same host when your guests get out of line?
I’m going to bring that same ferocity to my show. If people want to come on and not tell the truth, if they want to say we really just need to get Build Back Better done, I’ll correct them. You keep repeating that. Because it ain’t happening.
You’ll say that on the air?
The sweeping Build Back Better bill that y’all have all written about it is dead. It’s true. It’s true. The White House is aware of it. It doesn’t exist, as we all knew last year.
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