It's easy to be cynical about cable TV. But anchoring MSNBC is a dream come true.
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It's easy to be cynical about cable TV. But anchoring MSNBC is a dream come true.

I know none of this is what an anchor is supposed to say. It’s too Pollyanna, too eager, too Kenneth from “30 Rock.”
Illustration of MSNBC host Joshua Johnson and a MSNBC newsroom in 1996.
Broadcasting had been my dream since age ten. But I soon realized that I wanted to stand out and take risks.MSNBC; Getty Images

Help us celebrate MSNBC’s first 25 years by joining us every day for 25 days as our anchors, hosts, and correspondents share their thoughts on where we've been — and where we’re going.

The desk… was round.

As a kid who watched television far more discerningly than any kid should, it stood out to me instantly. Anchor desks were supposed to be flat. The sets were supposed to be flat.

Frankly, the networks were pretty flat, too! Mirthless. Anodyne. But not MSNBC.

Frankly, the networks were pretty flat, too! Mirthless. Anodyne. But not MSNBC.

When this network debuted in 1996, cable news was in its adolescence. It had only been about five years since CNN’s Bernard Shaw and Peter Arnett reported live from Baghdad as Operation Desert Storm bombs began falling. CNN was on constantly in our house; my grandmother still stans “Larry King Live.” And I had just taken the CNN Studio Tour in Atlanta, weeks before the Olympics, leaving me even more captivated by broadcasting.

Broadcasting had been my dream since age ten. But I soon realized that I wanted to stand out and take risks. As a child of the 1980s, I grew up with MTV and BET, and with tastemakers like “The Arsenio Hall Show” redefining how people of color brought our stories into the mainstream. As a gay kid I ached to use my talents in authentic and unvarnished ways. I liked conventional journalism, but I wanted to do it unconventionally.

The advent of “cable news” changed the TV landscape dramatically. I watched both Fox News and MSNBC pretty much from the beginning. They felt similar in some ways: faster paced, more colorful, experimental. They were clearly the new kids in school trying to get noticed. But something about how MSNBC tried to get noticed appealed to me as a 16-year-old. Its focus on interactivity and its partnership with Microsoft felt unusual and interesting. Too much of TV news still talked at its audience rather than with its audience (and it still does), but this new channel felt like a chance to be heard.

Now, let’s be real: MSNBC tried a lot of programs that didn’t last, or didn’t work. Without naming names, there were plenty of shows that made me as a viewer turn away. Had I been savvier about the business, I might’ve had a more cynical view of the network’s frenetic changes in look, sound, graphics and lineup. But as an aspiring broadcaster growing up in the infancy of the Internet, this work-in-progress aesthetic just made MSNBC cooler. This was a network where you could try things and experiment.

All of this was on my mind the first time I anchored on MSNBC. In early January 2019 I guest hosted a weekend morning program called “Up with David Gura.” The Christmas tree was still shining in Rockefeller Plaza. No one called it an “audition” explicitly, but I believed that it could open a door for me. Sure enough, I was invited to host my own show officially in February of 2020 — just before the New Hampshire presidential primaries and, unbeknownst to us, the pandemic. It felt like Alice through her looking glass, entering a new world in all its reality and oddity.

I was dumbfounded to hold my employee ID in my hand for the first time. I was delighted to sit on the panel the night of the N.H. primaries and watch the dizzying ballet of television production. I was disarmed by how charming and comfortable the on-air team felt: Joy’s warmth, Brian’s suavity — even Rachel offering me a Reese’s as we watched Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaking to supporters.

I was disarmed by how charming and comfortable the on-air team felt: Joy’s warmth, Brian’s suavity — even Rachel offering me a Reese’s.

Connecting with this fantastic team in person is the biggest thing Covid-19 ruined about my freshman year here. These days 30 Rock is still getting back to normal, repopulating thanks to vaccinations and redesigned for remote work. I sure would’ve liked to be in the thick of traditional election coverage, with newsrooms buzzing and studios hot 24/7. But the chance to figure out how to cover a crisis and survive it at the same time was both grounding, sustaining (at a time when so many people lost their jobs) and deeply gratifying.

And sure, I would’ve loved to anchor from inside a circular desk with a retracting monitor (preferably a flat screen — the 90’s-era monitor they had at MSNBC’s original studios in Secaucus looked like it was the size of a dorm room fridge). Instead, I got to work in Studio 3A, and you know who used to do the news there? Chet Huntley: an anchor who paved the way for what is now “NBC Nightly News.” I’ll take that full circle experience over a fancy round desk any day.

I know none of this is what an anchor is supposed to say. It’s too Pollyanna, too eager, too Kenneth from “30 Rock.” It’s easy to get cynical about television, a business that author Hunter S. Thompson once described as a “cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs.”

I know: none of this is what an anchor is supposed to say. It’s too Pollyanna, too eager, too Kenneth from “30 Rock.”

Despite that, we’re still a network unafraid to stand out and take risks. There’s a mandate from the top to make this network reflect even more of the nation we serve. There are more doors to get your foot into, more places to raise your hand, more chances to tell stories that matter to you and make them matter to others and, above all: more ways to serve.

And even with all the competition for people’s attention, we have more opportunities than ever to influence the next generation of “Kenneths:” the kids we may never know, the viewers who’ll watch our work and not just say “I love that” but “I can do that.” When someone gives me a fist bump on the street, or tweets about something I did that they enjoyed, or emails us that an interview we aired brought cathartic tears to their eyes… wow. Achievement unlocked.

Happy Birthday, MSNBC. I’m grateful we grew up together, and I’m honored to be here for the party. May the years to come give us even more to celebrate.