Few names tower over the news business like that of Jonathan Capehart.
The classy, intellectual journalist worked his way up the industry from his native New Jersey to the newsroom of The Today Show, and to the pages of The New York Daily News. His work on the editorial board of the newspaper earned him a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1999.
Capehart hit a new level of fame when he landed a job as a columnist for The Washington Post in 2007, as well as a contributor spot on cable news network MSNBC. Throughout his career, Capehart has lived as an openly gay man, wedding husband Nick Schmit in 2017. It should come as no surprise then that much of Capehart’s work has focused on issues of sexuality, gender and race, and how those factors play a role in American politics. His contribution also earned him a spot as an honoree in Queerty’s Pride 50 in 2020.
Now Capehart embarks on his biggest platform to date as host of MSNBC’s talk show The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart. It debuts on the network December 13.
We snagged some time with the very busy Capeheart to chat about his career, the new show, and how a man on the front lines survived the doom and gloom of the Trump years. The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart debuts on the network December 13.
So let’s start with the basics: what’s the title?
The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart. When trying to think of a name, people were telling me to think of a name that, when people hear it, they have an idea of what the show is about. I kept talking about how I would love to have a Sunday show. Especially when we were auditioning, I was so fixated on Sunday. Sunday is the day when I want to compete, to play in the space. So one night it hit me: The Sunday Show. So that’s where the name comes from.
Good title. I’d say having your name in there is a major win. What can we expect?
I want to do a different kind of Sunday show. We’re going to have newsmaker interviews. We’re going to have smart people, opinion makers, elected officials talking about news of the day and giving analysis. The person that comes to MSNBC between 10 and noon on Sunday, they know what the news is. They know the headlines. What they come to us for is context: they want to know what the story means, how it fits into the larger narrative and why they should care.
That’s what I want to do on Sundays with the best people I can get on air. That is my goal. When I say I want a different kind of Sunday show, I mean that when my show debuts on Sunday, there will not be anyone else like me in an anchor chair on television in that Sunday space. As you well know, I’m black, I’m openly gay, and I’m married. Being black and being gay—those two identities have always been part of my journalistic career. They feature prominently in my writing in newspapers, in my commentary over all these years. So I bring all that to the anchor chair on Sunday.
But what’s so important: when I was a kid, I always knew I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to be a television journalist. It started when I was watching The Today Show with Tom Brokaw and Jane Pauley. I’m a huge news nerd.
You’re in good company.
It wasn’t until Bryant Gumbel took over the seat from Tom Brokaw that I saw someone who looked like me doing a job that I wanted to do. Just seeing Bryant Gumbel do that job—someone that looked like me—showed me that the sky’s the limit. Then, to work as an intern on The Today Show and to be able to watch him in action was awe-inspiring. I hope that when a young, black, queer kid turns on the television, or their parents or watching, or their loved ones are watching and they see me, that they see anything is possible. They see they don’t have to deny any part of themselves to play on such a big field.
That’s a beautiful sentiment. That’s also good segway. You were honored this year as one of our Pride 50.
Yes! That’s right! The number of emails and tweets that I got about that was incredible. Thank you so much for that.
Well, thank you for inspiring us. It’s always beautiful to see a member of the family succeeding. Now, have you always been out throughout your career?
Yeah. I had a brief moment where I was in the closet to my editors at The Daily News. But that lasted all of six months or so. Because of what I was writing about, I had to say to my editor, “You know I’m gay right?” So yes, my entire journalism career.
Do you feel like that has helped or hindered you, especially in the early days? You’ve been doing this 30 years.
It has been 30 years. Do I know for a fact that being black and gay has held me back? No, I don’t. Do I suspect it had in some way? Sure. Early in my career, I would have been more definitive. But I’m a little wiser. I’m sure it has played a role in something that has been a roadblock. But what makes getting this show so fantastic is that it shows it did not prevent me from getting the show. It did not prevent Phil Griffin and Rashida Jones and Cesar Conde from looking and saying “This guy can do the job. He’s the best person for Sunday. Make him an offer.”
Look, all careers have ups and downs. Mine has had ups and downs. You get obstacles thrown your way. But as I’ve gotten older and hindsight being what it is, it’s what you do when the roadblock appears, how you handle it, how you get around it. Thankfully, I’ve been able to clear some of those obstacles. I hope one day I will be able to write some kind of “the lessons I’ve learned” book. In any job you have, whether high profile or essential workers, what you want to do in your career is not linear. There is nothing linear about careers or our lives. It’s how you deal with the roadblocks thrown your way that determines how far you’ll go and how much you will grow.
Beautiful answer. Now, you’re prepping this show at a very sensitive moment in history. In prepping for this interview, I ran across an interview you did with Channel 4 in November 2016. When asked if this would remain your America under Donald Trump, you said “The election of President Obama was a great moment for this country. Now we stand two months away from all of that disappearing. As an African-American, as an openly gay man, as an American, that frightens me.” How did you survive the past 4 years?
It has not been easy, David. The way Jon Snow asked me that question, it hit me right in the tear ducts. I didn’t expect it. And yes, I cried on national British television. I was frightened. I was scared for my friends and family and for my country. You’re right: we made it through these four years. But it has been a rough ride. I liken it to those bad flights where there’s such rough turbulence that you’re gripping the armrests. It seems to last forever. It feels like it will never end. But you get through it.
I look at the first and only term of Donald Trump as a really bumpy flight. The election was us getting through it. That doesn’t mean that all of the problems that have been unleashed by him will disappear. But at least we have competent leadership, leadership with empathy and heart in the White House.
How do you cope with the horror and the pain you have to report on?
Honestly, I withdrew a little bit. It just became too much. So I started reading nonfiction history books trying to get perspective on what we were going through. David Blight’s fantastic biography about Frederick Douglass [Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom] has, early on as he’s setting the scene for what we will learn about Douglass, he writes that Douglass was born into slavery. He escaped, became the greatest orator of the 19th century, saw abolition, saw reconstruction, and lived long enough to see it all betrayed. When I read that it moved me in such a way because it showed me how history is cyclical. What really put it in perspective for me, David, was realizing here I am in my apartment in Washington DC where I live as a gay man with my husband, a free, black man working for a premier newspaper in journalism. My life in that moment was something that Frederick Douglass could only dream of for his people.
So to take a step back and realize things are bad now, but they were infinitely worse when he was alive and fighting. That grounded me. So I started reading more. I started reading more history and talking to historians trying to understand my country from an African-American perspective, but also to understand these people who went out and voted for Trump, trying to understand where our country really is. I read more books in these four years than I ever did in college as a way of escaping, of trying not to be worn down by hourly torrents of degradation. I also watched movies and was streaming things and taking long walks to unplug as much as I could. Then, the most fabulous thing I did: in July 2019 I went and spent a month in Rome.
Oh that’s awesome.
I went to go write a personal project, but I didn’t listen to any news. I deleted Twitter from my phone and my iPad. I only listened to jazz, and I took long walks. It was in the middle of a heatwave. It was fantastic. I came home refreshed with new purpose and fresh eyes. It was the best thing I could do. That’s how I survived. I also survived by paying more attention to the Democratic primary races, the candidates, and put all my focus on what America could be if Americans went out and voted.
That’s inspiring, and a beautiful lesson. Take action, don’t sulk. And it has been so easy to sulk the past four years.
We’re living in a time of an infodemic. Cable news gets a lot of criticism for not so much reporting the news as offering nonstop—and often confusing—commentary on current events. This is especially relevant in the Trump era. What role do you feel that cable news plays in the infodemic?
I’m not going to play doctor on the cable news industry. I think really the problem is the democratization of information. There are no more gatekeepers. There are no more trusted sources. Everyone is in their silo, and their silo is the authority. What Donald Trump has done in the presidency is push journalism—not just cable news, all journalism—to understand what its role is in the United States. People either don’t know or forget: there is only one profession protected in the United States constitution. That’s the press.
The founders believed that an independent press is what is needed to hold power accountable. An informed citizenry is also how you keep the powerful accountable. So did journalism get to the point where it just favored the horse race or the shiny object over information and news that people needed? Sure, but that’s not just a problem of cable news. That’s a problem of the industry in general. I think what Trump did was remind people why they are in this business to begin with: to tell human stories on one hand, and to hold power accountable, to not have a President of the United States stand in the White House briefing room and tell provable lies to the American people.
It took a lot longer than I think people wanted, but I’m sure as hell happy that the profession stepped up to the plate and realize we cannot let him lie to the American people without telling people he’s lying. We have to show people the truth. It has certainly made our profession better. People finally understand a tan suit is not a scandal. A President telling people to drink bleach or get UV rays in the body—that is one of the myriad scandals from this White House. If anything, this presidency has reoriented the Washington press corps’ attention as to what needs to be said and how it needs to be said.
I hope you’re right. I hope it’s a motivator to everyone in our industry.
I don’t think we should put all the onus on our profession. A lot of this would not be happening if people within the president’s own party would have had the guts to stand up from the beginning and say “No Mr. President. You are wrong. This is not how we do things. This is not what the Republican Party stands for.” But they didn’t do it, and he had free reign.
So where do we go from here?
We’ve been keeping people informed. We need to keep doing that better and smarter. I think that the trouble the country is facing from the pandemic to the economic crisis to the racial disparities that are now apparent—these are issues that are important, not just from a policy level, but from a human level. So many reporters—TV reporters, print reporters, radio, podcasters, anyone in this profession—are out there telling stories. That needs to continue. When it comes to holding the powerful accountable, I think the incoming Biden-Harris administration has a healthy respect for the press. They know the press has a job to do which is grounded in the constitution. They also know they will not like every story as a result of them taking over and trying to govern in the midst of all this. But the one thing we can count on is that we will not have a President of the United States or anyone in his administration calling us in the press enemies of the people simply because there’s a story they don’t like. That is going to change the tenor and tone of coverage, and of political debate for the better. Then we can focus on what’s really at stake.
The Sunday Show with Jonathan Capehart debuts on MSNBC December 13.