Rashida Jones—the television news executive, not the actress—spent her early childhood in York, Pennsylvania, a small town in the center of the state where she was the oldest of the three “Adkins kids,” as students and teachers in the nearly all-white school referred to young Rashida and her siblings.
“There were three of us, we all went to school together, and we were known, because our school wasn’t very diverse,” the 40-year-old Jones, a divorced mother of two, told The Daily Beast as she started her fifth month as president of MSNBC—the job she took over from longtime cable network chief Phil Griffin in February. “At various times we were the only three Black students in the school. The funny thing is there were two others at various points of our eight years of school there, and we still keep in touch.”
Growing up in central Pennsylvania and later on—when her father Richard Adkins, now a retired truck driver, and mother Alice, who runs a cultural arts facility, moved the family to Richmond, Virginia—the specter of racism was seldom absent from her life.
“Of course, of course,” Jones acknowledged. “When I was in school, I was always the only Black person in my class, and I was constantly underestimated. I constantly made honor roll. I was constantly the best writer with the best handwriting, the best at math. And I think people just assumed certain things—not only because of who I was and where I lived, and they didn’t know us—and constantly proving people wrong, by actions, not by words, is just something I’ve always kept in mind, and I’ve always operated that way.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Jones discussed her plans for making the Comcast-owned cable network, in this freshly Trumpless news environment with its predictable ratings slide, a go-to outlet for breaking stories, rigorous reporting, and insightful “perspectives”—the anodyne term that she and her boss Cesar Conde, chairman of NBCUniversal News Group, decided on to brand MSNBC’s liberally opinionated, revenue-critical programming from 4 p.m. to midnight.
“The strategy is really doubling down on differentiating between our hard-news programming and our perspectives programming,” Jones said, noting that the ubiquitous dayside chyron on the lower right-hand corner of the screen, “MSNBC REPORTS,” signals fact-based journalism instead of opinion. “The audience needs to understand what to expect of you and to know when to come to you—that’s been a big driver.”
Jones continued: “We very much want to be the place where people go for hard news when news is happening”—traditionally the role of CNN, an entrenched viewer habit that MSNBC execs in the past have found difficult to break. “CNN has the reputation for being the place to go for hard news, and it’s something we’re continuously chipping away at. I think what you’re seeing is that we punch above our weight,” Jones argued, although CNN, with around 4,000 employees worldwide, dwarfs the resources of MSNBC and NBC News combined.
Beyond that, Jones is intent on pouring talent and money into a new MSNBC-branded unit dedicated to long-form journalism, as well as investing in a new digital channel on NBC’s streaming Peacock service featuring anchors such as Mehdi Hasan and Zerlina Maxwell “where we’re reaching audiences who aren’t necessarily consuming the core brand.” Jones said she’s also investing in the expansion of MSNBC’s digital content overall.
Yet, this is all happening during an extended and alarming period of media-fueled racial discord in the United States, marked by a spike in brazen white nationalism and Fox News-incited warnings about “critical race theory,” as well as an apparent epidemic of unjustified and occasionally lethal police violence against African Americans, to say nothing of the disparate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on communities of color.
MSNBC—whose array of Black personalities includes Joy-Ann Reid, Craig Melvin, Al Sharpton, Jason Johnson, Joshua Johnson, Tiffany Cross and Jonathan Capehart—happens to be the No. 1 cable outlet for African American viewers, a Black audience significantly larger than CNN’s (MSNBC’s average of 450,000 compares to CNN’s 367,000) and—no surprise—Fox News, which boasts a scant 46,000 Black viewers, according to recent Nielsen numbers.
For that and other reasons, it’s impossible to overestimate the significance of Jones’ ascension as the first Black woman to run a major television news organization.
“It’s about damned time and long overdue,” said digital television anchor Roland Martin, a board member of the National Association of Black Journalists, who also cited the appointment of longtime CBS News exec Kimberly Godwin as president of ABC News a few months after Jones’s promotion. “The media has been largely defined through the prism of white men and white women. So to bring a different perspective, a different flavor—someone who can bring a different analysis and viewpoint to storylines—is critically important,” Martin added.
“The great thing about what’s happened to Rashida,” said Washington Post editorial board member and longtime MSNBC contributor Jonathan Capehart, “is that you have an enormous talent coinciding with meeting a moment. With Rashida what we had was an enormously capable television producer and executive who was rising at a time when the nation and the media business were taking a cold, hard look at who we are and what are we doing and who’s making the decisions, and how can those things be changed,” Capehart said.
“So yes, Rashida Jones is the first Black woman to run a national cable network, but I would argue that even if we weren’t at that moment of media navel-gazing and trying to course-correct, she still would have gotten the nod.”
Before her new job was announced last December, Jones, then a senior vice president in charge of daytime and weekend programming for MSNBC and specials for both the cable outlet and NBC News, was an influential voice in Capehart being named anchor of MSNBC’s The Sunday Show, having supervised his auditions last summer.
“It was clear to me, even then—before any noise was being made about ‘Phil Griffin could be leaving any day now’—I remember saying to my husband [international business consultant Nick Schmit], ‘Mark my words. Rashida Jones is going to be the next president of MSNBC,’” Capehart recalled.
According to MSNBC insiders, Jones’ brisk style of leadership—disciplined back-to-back meetings designed to achieve specific goals, with a minimum of chatter—presents a sharp contrast to the schmoozy, ego-nurturing approach of Phil Griffin, who liked to shoot the breeze with the on-air stars he hired and developed, franchise players such as Nicolle Wallace, Rachel Maddow, and Griffin’s longtime work buddies Morning Joe co-hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.
So far Jones—who came to MSNBC barely eight years ago after stints as an executive producer of storm coverage at the Weather Channel and as news director of the NBC affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina—has managed to navigate the personal relationships while respecting Griffin’s legacy. “She is really good—calm, kind, communicative, smart,” one of Griffin’s on-air hires told The Daily Beast. “She has none of the history we all have with Phil. But she knows that.”
“She is someone who leads with a very firm sense of the direction she’s going in, but also is very calming and encouraging, and I think that’s what makes her such an effective leader and producer and colleague frankly,” said NBC News’ Kristen Welker, co-chief White House correspondent and co-anchor of Saturday Today with Peter Alexander.
“We’ve been together for hours during specials coverage, when we’re covering breaking news events, whether in the early days of the Trump administration or covering developments on Capitol Hill, and she’s been a constant voice in my ear providing editorial guidance—steady and calm in the eye of the storm.”
Welker said Jones was especially important in preparing her to moderate last October’s second and final televised presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. “I told her, ‘I want your producer-brain in my head when I moderate that debate. We’ve got to run the traps,’” Welker recalled. “And that’s what we spent weeks preparing for”—with hours and hours of daily mock debates in which Jones helped Welker practice and hone techniques for getting two of the planet’s most loquacious politicians to stick to the issues and answer the questions.
It was a high-stakes gladiatorial contest not only for the candidates but also for Welker, a registered independent who had been targeted by the Trumpist media mob because her parents had been active and financially generous in Democratic Party politics.
In the end, Welker’s performance—unlike that of Fox News’ Chris Wallace, moderator of the first debate—was widely praised. “If social media is to be believed, there was only one winner of the final presidential debate—the person in charge,” declared the BBC.
“Rashida was very clear—head down, do the work,” Welker recalled.
Rashida Adkins was drawn to journalism as a precocious pre-teen. In Pennsylvania, “we had a two-a-day newspaper, the York Daily Record, so I’d pick up the morning copy on my way to school, and I’d pick up the evening copy on my way back,” she recalled. “I was always just interested in and fascinated by information and news. I didn’t know what that meant at the time. I thought I wanted to be an English teacher because I knew writing and English were two things that went hand in hand. But I remember starting a neighborhood newsletter when I was in the third grade because I liked the idea of talking to people and writing things down.”
At Henrico High School in Richmond, she joined the newspaper club and ultimately became editor of the student paper. A few years later in Norfolk, Virginia—where she was a mass media arts major at Hampton University, a historically Black college boasting a robust broadcast journalism program—she was a star intern at WTKR Channel 3, the local CBS affiliate.
“She was always trying to go the extra mile for the assignment,” said longtime WTKR anchor Barbara Ciara, who for two semesters at Hampton University taught a broadcast journalism course in which the then-19-year-old Rashida was her top student. “She understood, when there were others in the class who didn’t, how you were supposed to construct a news story, put it to video, seek out interviews, research, all of that.”
Ciara recalled telling Rashida that she was excellent producer material, and arranged for her to intern at the station while holding down an academic workload. Rashida quickly evolved from part-time to full-time producer and was given the premier 11 p.m. newscast to oversee. “She was an incredible knowledge sponge,” Ciara recalled. “The fully formed adult that came to me knew that she wasn’t going to take no for an answer, had a mission, and understood her role in the industry at an early age.”
Ciara, who remains close to Jones, added: “Rashida can read a room and connect with people in the room no matter where they’re from or who they are, and that can be someone to the manor born or a person with a third-grade education. And that works well in the corporate world because she doesn’t absorb those expected blows that happen sometimes for Black females in the news industry climbing up the corporate structure… I think that she has found a way around the ‘Negative Nellies.’”
Jones was working at the Weather Channel, which was part-owned at the time by Comcast, when she took part in a storm coverage planning session attended by Yvette Miley, the NBCU News Group’s senior vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion. “She was so impressive, in command of all the information, there was not a question that came up that she wasn’t able to answer,” Miley recalled.
Miley kept track of Jones as she left the Weather Channel for the news director’s job in South Carolina, and when an executive producer opening came up at MSNBC, Miley urged her to apply and Jones was hired to launch a daytime show featuring Chris Jansing. That program didn’t survive but Jones thrived.
“Leadership is something that, in a lot of ways, cannot be measured, but you kind of know it when you see it, and that was the case with Rashida,” Miley said.
Jones, for her part, told The Daily Beast: “I’m still routinely either the youngest or the only person who looks like me in a room and at this level and with the track record that I have, there’s a lot less convincing industry-wide about what I can do and what I’m capable of, but—in real life, in work life—people make assumptions and I just let it roll off my back,” Jones said.
“The more you distract yourself with what other people think, the slower you are to get to your goal. And I, very much from the beginning, decidedly tune that stuff out. If someone had a question or a concern or challenge to what my skill set was, my ability was, what I was capable of, I always viewed it as that’s their problem, not my problem.”
Jones’ colleagues at MSNBC, meanwhile, marvel at how she has managed to work 18-hour days while mothering a 15-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter—frequently FaceTiming them in suburban New Jersey from 30 Rock, where, unlike many of her colleagues during height of the the pandemic, she made a point of coming to the office every day. For the past six years, Jones has been seriously involved with a fellow Hamptons University alum, Edward Fisher, the community and government relations exec at Washington, D.C.’s American University.
And she did find time recently to make contact with her actress-doppelgänger, the other Rashida Jones.
“We have exchanged some messages. We have threatened a Zoom or cocktails at some point, but have not been able to schedule it yet.”