Q&A: New Takeaway host Tanzina Vega is ‘passed the mic’ at WNYC

Tanzina Vega. (Courtesy photo.)

Yesterday, WNYC and Public Radio International named Tanzina Vega as the new host of flagship morning show The Takeaway. She steps into the booth vacated last year by John Hockenberry, who “retired” in August, then faced allegations of sexual misconduct.

Vega, who has guest-hosted the show several times since Hockenberry’s departure, is an authority on the intersection of gender, race, and class in the media and beyond. After rising through the ranks at The New York Times, she crafted her own race beat at the paper, which drew headlines—and some furor—when it was scrapped in 2015. She’s since reported for CNN, and served as a fellow at The Nation Institute and as a journalism professor at Princeton.

In an interview after her Takeaway appointment was confirmed, Vega told CJR how she’ll bring her long-time focus to her new role, boost listener voices, and keep her public radio bosses honest. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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What’s been your takeaway from listening to (and working with) The Takeaway? What will you bring that’s new?

Well I’m new, for starters. And I am definitely bringing my whole self to the job. I say that sort of joking, but also not joking. I think it’s really important who sits in the chair, who leads the conversation, and when I say ‘who,’ I mean: Who is that person? What are their beliefs? For too long we’ve seen too much homogeneity in media and who’s leading the conversation in media. That’s starting to change, and I think deservedly so. So with, literally, a new voice and some wonderfully ambitious and talented producers here already on the show—who are creative, who are smart, who are eager—I’m really excited about where we’re headed.

 

Your Nieman Lab “prediction for journalism in 2018” called for news organizations to “pass the mic” and boost the representation of women and people of color in their ranks. Now that you have literally been “passed the mic” by The Takeaway, who do you plan to pass the mic to in your coverage?

Obviously, we want to cover the important news of the day, but we want to cover it from a number of different vantage points. One of the areas we hear a lot about is that people don’t feel connected to media. There’s a lot of distrust in media, particularly when we get to people who don’t really see themselves reflected. With the election of President Trump, there was this narrative about the white working class, but people weren’t going out and talking to the white working class until they understood that this was part of the election. So I think we really need to make sure that we’re talking to not just the smartest people in the room, or the “experts,” but that we’re also bringing in voices from people who are marginalized, who don’t feel they get represented in mainstream media or public media. That’s the only way, not only that we’re going to open up the conversation to more listeners, but that we’re going to be able to connect with more people.

 

Your book that’s coming out, Uppity, explores the intersection of gender, race, and class. Here at CJR, we’re really interested in class and journalism at the moment, and how it intersects with those other identities. How are you planning to address that topic, in all its complexity, at The Takeaway?

One of the things I’m interested in is unpacking the narratives around class and race. Along with this idea of the white working class, one of the pieces I wrote for CNN actually looked at the empathy gap: how we empathize with white working class Americans, but there seems to be a disconnect when we talk about empathizing with black and brown working-class Americans. These areas are intimately connected, but those connections aren’t often made because we seem to be very uncomfortable with going against the narrative that ‘you can make it in America, this is a meritocracy, just work hard and you can get there.’ That’s not always the case and money has a lot to do with that.

We also have to think about class in newsrooms. I’ve worked in two of the biggest newsrooms in the world, and there are some wonderful people in both those places, but I think a lot of these larger institutions have often been taken over by people who are Ivy League graduates, people who have really good connections, people who have grown up in the industry. There’s probably a little bit of nepotism here and there. I grew up in a working-class community, I spent 20 years in public housing. People like me generally do not make it that far in journalism, because it’s not very well-paid, generally speaking, and it’s not something we always have access to; it almost seems like a luxury to be able to write and tell stories for a living. I think we as newsrooms have to examine who we’re hiring, why we’re hiring, why we’re not opening the doors to people who don’t go to Ivy League schools as much as we are to people who do.

 

What can WNYC, public radio, and the media as a whole do better to boost representation in newsrooms? Are there concrete steps that could be taken straight away?

Absolutely. I talk about this all the time. What frustrates me is the lack of movement, the lack of action. The excuse is often “we can’t find [reporters of color].” They’re there. I mean, we exist, right? News organizations—because of a lot of this homogeneity, and the fact they’re poaching from many similar places—lose sight of that in their networks. They have to be proactive in going to events to recruit. But they also have to make sure their content is being pushed out. You can’t expect somebody to love you without even knowing you. It’s incumbent on us to make sure that we are trying to speak to audiences that don’t get spoken to very often, or spoken about very often, in order to make that change.

 

A feature that makes The Takeaway stand out in comparison to some other public radio programming is its inclusion of listener comment. What importance do you think that has?  

We’re inundated with commentary on social media—I turn off notifications on my phone sometimes because I can’t handle the constant pinging of texts, and Twitter, and everything else. I do, however, think that people who engage with media are, for the most part, thoughtful about it. For example, we were talking about discrimination against white Americans on one of the [episodes of The Takeaway I hosted]. There were those who said, “Absolutely not, I’ve never experienced that,” and there were those who said, “Absolutely yes, I have.” If you’re taking the step of emailing or calling, I think there’s already a serious interest, hopefully, in whatever it is you would like to discuss. So I think we have to engage our audience. I think we have to make sure they’re involved in the conversation.

 

It’s incumbent on us to make sure that we are trying to speak to audiences that don’t get spoken to very often, or spoken about very often, in order to make that change.

 

I don’t think it’s controversial to say the popular conception of NPR listenership has a certain ideological profile. And yet the piece you mentioned about white discrimination contained an interesting range of voices. What are your plans to reflect that full range of opinion on The Takeaway going forward?

One of the most important things we as journalists need to do is put things in a context. We have lost a lot of context: The news cycle has become frenetic, for both journalists and people who are consuming news. Every day feels like whiplash. So we need to take a moment to say, “wait a minute, this is the context to why, and how, this is all happening.” There are certain things that experts—sociologists or people who’ve studied these issues intimately—can articulate clearly and can help put context around for the listener. That’s what we’re trying to do. It’s not to insult the guest by saying, “That can’t be true,” or “that’s not right.” It’s to say, “OK, here’s a point of view, but here’s some context for that point of view: Why does that person feel that way? Where is this coming from?” You don’t just let it ride.

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It’s been a difficult few months for WNYC—and other public radio stations and news organizations—in light of the sexual misconduct allegations leveled against a number of powerful reporters and editors, including your predecessor at The Takeaway, John Hockenberry. NPR reporters like Mary Louise Kelly and David Folkenflik won praise at the time for their coverage of what was going on internally. How do you plan to keep your bosses honest going forward?

I’ve been a reporter, and I’ve been a media reporter. I’ve been on the receiving end of stories—notably after [my] race beat at the Times was killed. So I know what it feels like to be on that side, and to make sure you’re being represented fairly and accurately. I know what it feels like to have the support of an institution; I know what it feels like not to. But at the end of the day, there is a moral obligation I feel as a journalist to make sure things remain above board.

One of the things I’m excited about is being able to take the mantle and build, not on what the traumatic past was, but on what a lot of women of color who were in these positions prior to me built. I know what it feels like to have your work erased from a major media institution. I know what it feels like to have your work ignored by a major media player, and I know I would never want to do that to someone. So I want to make sure we uplift the women who were in this role before I was.

 

I know what it feels like to have your work erased from a major media institution. I know what it feels like to have your work ignored by a major media player, and I know I would never want to do that to someone.

 

As you mentioned, you’ve worked across a bunch of different media organizations, and also across different platforms: the Times, CNN, you’ve already hosted The Takeaway. Does radio have a power, in your view, that print and television don’t have?

I’m a multiplatform journalist, so I look at the story and where it will best be served. Certain stories are really good for print. Certain stories are really good for visual [pieces]. Certain stories are really good on audio. Radio has a built-in audience, but that audience is shifting, it’s changing. The Takeaway isn’t just available live on-air; it’s available online, you can download it. You can upload it to your phone and take it with you as a podcast. We’re having a renaissance in audio, if you will. But I was around for podcasts circa 2004, I was around for podcasts circa 2009 and 2010….These things are cyclical. Everyone acts like podcasts are new. They’re not new. I worked on them when they were on MP3s. So I think this notion that radio serves one specific function isn’t necessarily true.

Radio is also the only thing that’s often available when there’s a crisis, when people don’t have their laptops. When we’re thinking about what happened in Puerto Rico, there were public radio folks who were trying to get off the ground who were like, “this is the only way we can communicate.” I think people understand that, but might forget the vital role that radio plays not just as a communications tool, but as a tool for public safety and information, in addition to all the cool things we wanna do on The Takeaway.

 

You were a media reporter at the Times a while back. Clearly, the media is a huge story right now. Do you plan to bring more media stories to The Takeaway?

I think media has, unfortunately, become the story again. And if it’s appropriate to the stories we’re covering on The Takeaway, absolutely we’ll cover it. Why not? I’ve already got the chops in that, and in technology, and wealth, and inequality, and criminal justice. So bring it on.

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that The Takeaway is a joint production of WNYC and Public Radio International (PRI).

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.