STEALTH FIGHTER

03.27.14

Joy Reid, MSNBC Anchor, on the Racism of the Tea Party, Family Dramas, and Why She Loves Boxing

Ronan Farrow may have gotten all the attention, but another new anchor at MSNBC started the same day as him. And Joy Reid’s life story is every bit as colorful as his.

Joy Reid loves the sweet science of boxing because “it’s a sport, even at the turn of the 20th century, where a black man could beat up a white man in front of an entire crowd and not get lynched.”        

The even-tempered Reid—whose month-old program The Reid Report airs weekday afternoons on MSNBC—describes the Tea Party as a movement that “under the surface is about cross-racial resentment…a great industry in hatred and anger and self-victimization…There’s a lot of money in it.”        

And while she’s a staunch defender of President Obama, she quibbles that “sometimes he’s a bit too professorial and forgets that politics is carnal.” So it’s surprising to learn who Reid’s television role-model might be. It’s a former Republican political operative.         

 “I patterned myself after David Gergen,” she says, citing the CNN political analyst who worked in the White House for Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and calls himself a “raging moderate.” Unlike the 44-year-old Reid—who is 5-foot-6, the Brooklyn-born daughter of an African father and a West Indian mother—he happens to be a 6-foot-5 white guy from North Carolina, three decades her senior. “If you’re going to write about politics,” she says, channeling her inner Gergen, “you should know it.”        

Reid is MSNBC’s other new afternoon host—which is to say, she’s not Ronan Farrow, whose mother is a movie star, and whose father is either a famous auteur film director or (if you credit Farrow’s provocative tweets and his decidedly un-Woody Allenish looks) the most mythologized popular singer of the 20th century.

The precocious Farrow, 26, a shrewd creature of the media menagerie as well as a publicity magnet, hit the cable outlet like a three-ring circus. Reid, whose 2 p.m. show follows Ronan Farrow Daily, arrived on little cat’s feet. Her program, understandably, is still finding an audience in that challenging daypart, but a good third of her viewers are African-American.

“We’re five weeks and counting, and we’ve survived long enough to be a real thing,” Reid says, sipping a latte with whole milk, for which she settled when there was no half-and-half available in the cafeteria at 30 Rock. “In general, I’m proud of the fact that we put together a good program. We work real hard, we do a ton of research, and I’m getting five weeks under my belt as a real host. I’m really proud of it.”

“I think when you lose a parent, it definitely shakes your faith in everything, so it was difficult to climb back out of that.”

Like most of the talent on MSNBC, Reid leans to the left, but she makes a point of inviting adversaries on her show for a civil, good-natured debate. On Monday’s installment, she mercilessly grilled Katon Dawson, the former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, about the GOP’s unworthy efforts to gut the Voting Rights Act—but she still called Dawson “a good guy” on the air.

She doubtless would even be nice to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee, though she calls Ryan’s recent racially freighted comments about an alleged lack of a work ethic in “urban” neighborhoods “totally offensive.”

“It’s not surprising given his Ayn Randian view that whatever befalls poor people comes down to their character, and that there is something heroic about being rich, even if you inherit your money,” Reid says. “The reality is people who are poor get up every morning and stand on their feet working two and three jobs a day. They work longer hours than most of us, in more grueling jobs—the crappy jobs that nobody else wants to do. They get paid no money, and they don’t have time to help their kids with their homework, and they’re exhausted at the end of the day.”

Reid, who gets out of bed at 5:15 every morning and rides the subway into the office to make a 7 a.m. meeting with her 12-person staff, including an executive producer who spent eight years at Fox News, is hardly a slacker herself. Aside from spending 10- to 12-hours days on her show, she’s finishing a book on politics and writing a newspaper column every other week.

“It’s a West Indian thing, mon,” she says in an exaggerated Caribbean accent. “We always have a lot of jobs.”        

Reid has been an increasingly valuable presence on the network since 2011, when she moved back to Brooklyn from the Miami suburb of Pembroke Pines with her husband Jason, a documentary film editor for the Discovery Channel, and their three teenage kids, to take a job as managing editor of TheGrio.com, the black-oriented news and feature site owned by NBC Universal.

She had toiled in the 2004 presidential contest for a “527” group supporting Democratic nominee John Kerry and briefly helped the 2008 Obama campaign in Florida, where she’d also worked for a decade as a news and opinion journalist in local television and radio, and wrote a column for The Miami Herald.

Her profile at MSNBC was raised considerably when she spent two months in Sanford, Fla., covering the racially charged controversy surrounding the February 2012 shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a white-Hispanic vigilante, George Zimmerman.

“It was a challenge, walling yourself off from the emotional toll of it to tell the story as honestly as you can,” Reid says, “because I have two sons”—a 16-year-old and a 14-year-old. (Her 18-year-old daughter, an aspiring animator, is headed for art school, she says.)         

What is it about Florida, where more recently, another black teenager, Jordan Davis, was shot to death at a Jacksonville gas station by a middle-aged white man complaining about loud music?

“There are a lot of guns,” Reid answers. “It’s a southern state. They love their guns. Florida is a state where one in 17 people have a concealed-carry firearm. It’s a state where people are very much into that gun culture and it’s a state that is run by the NRA. Full stop.”

Along with a sister and a brother, Reid grew up in Colorado after the family moved to Denver from Brooklyn. She attended public high school and worked her way through Harvard, where she started out as pre-med but ended up majoring in documentary filmmaking, by waiting tables and driving a campus shuttle; she only recently paid off the last of her college loans.

But if she has something significant in common with her MSNBC colleague Farrow, who came of age in the rarefied stratosphere of wealth and celebrity, it might be that both of them have daddy issues.

“My father was from the Congo, and my mother was from British Guiana,” says Reid, who was born Joy-Ann Lomena (but later took her husband’s surname and, even later, for the purposes of her cable show and casual socializing, dropped the “Ann”). “They met in grad school at the University of Iowa in Des Moines. He’s an engineer. My sister was born in Iowa. I was born in New York.  They had my brother, got divorced a long time ago, and he went back to the Congo. He lived with us maybe a total of a year or two. Now he’s the guy on the phone.”

Reid continues: “He wasn’t really part of our lives. Yet the first person to call me after Obama won the presidency was my father calling from Kinshasa [the capital of Zaire, today’s name for the Congo, where Reid’s dad runs an environmental non-governmental organization]. I had some ambivalence about it. It’s difficult. He’s a charming, funny guy on the phone. But he didn’t help us in any way as a father. It’s interesting, because he’s become a presence for the first time.”

That is not the only close parallel to the life story of President Obama, who chronicled his poignantly remote relationship with Barack Obama Sr., a government bureaucrat in Kenya and drunken womanizer when he was killed in a car crash in the early 1980s, in the president’s best-selling 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father.

“That’s why I related to Obama,” Reid says. “My father is the same way—brilliant. As a lot of African men did in the 1960s, he came here because there were a lot of educational opportunities that the Kennedy administration had put in place. My father wasn’t a terribly good father. But my mother was an excellent mother.”

Like Obama’s mother, Reid’s died at an early age of cancer, and Joy-Ann, then a girl of 17, was taken in by an aunt in Flatbush. For a while, she fell into a depression and abandoned the churchgoing Methodist tradition in which she was reared. 

“I think when you lose a parent, it definitely shakes your faith in everything, so it was difficult to climb back out of that,” Reid says. “But I think of myself as very spiritual, so I’m still drawn to it. Because during the happiest period of my life, we were going to church. It makes me feel sort of hopeful, and I have a wistful sort of longing for it. I’m reluctant to let go of it. But I’m also very cynical.”

That sweet-and-sour mix of spirituality and cynicism should stand her in good stead in her current occupation. What’s more, David Gergen would approve.