Mika Brzezinski Tells Lesley Stahl: My Departure From CBS Was Pretty Ugly

MSNBC

Mika Brzezinski just published her memoir, All Things at Once. In an interview with wOw’s Lesley Stahl last year, the “Morning Joe” co-host spoke about balancing career and family — and how she was “going to be brutally, painfully, embarrassingly honest” in her memoir. Read on …

LESLEY: So, Mika Brzezinski, we are delighted and thrilled that you’re with us today. This is so nice of you. I know how busy you are, and we love “Morning Joe” and we love you on it. You cover the news by chitchat, and it absolutely works. So my first question is: How did the format evolve? How did you all get to this?

MIKA: That’s a great question and I think it has a lot to do with how Joe and I both evolved up and to the point that we started doing the show, which is basically the point that we met. As you know, I’d been at CBS for quite some time, twice, and MSNBC before. So I’ve been around. A good 20 years or so in TV will beat you up a little bit. And my departure from CBS was painful.

LESLEY: It was pretty ugly, wasn’t it? Pretty ugly.

MIKA: It was pretty ugly and I don’t lie about that. It really hurt. I hated leaving. I loved everyone there. I still do. And it was a very difficult experience, in terms of trying to figure out what you’re made of and your identity. I considered it very much a part of me. Joe had been in Congress, has been around the block in politics and he’s been beat up a time or two. And we both were kind of thrown together. I met him and Paul and he was about to do the show the next day, to fill in for the Imus show that had been thrown off the air.

LESLEY: Right.

MIKA: And Joe wanted the job and he had a vision for it, he just didn’t know who he wanted to do it with. I met him in the hall. He said to me, “Oh, you’re freelancing here and I noticed that when you talk back to my show, ‘Scarborough Country,’ during these news updates, you’re kind of making fun of my show.” And I said, “I don’t make fun of any show I haven’t watched.”

LESLEY: Oh, Mika! Mika!

MIKA: I really hadn’t watched. I was busy doing homework with my kids between news updates, not watching “Scarborough Country.” I was sort of getting by, quite frankly, because I had come back into the business after a year of not being able to find a job and no one wanting to hire me at all. And I was still getting my bearings, and certainly wasn’t going to spend my time watching cable talk. So he immediately keyed into that comment and thought, “Hmm, she doesn’t give a damn.”

LESLEY: Ha! I love it.

MIKA: So we went on the air basically two or three days later, in the morning, starting at six o’clock AM. The red light went on and, Lesley, we didn’t even know it went it on. We didn’t care. We were just gabbing away and we did whatever we wanted. We talked about what we were interested in; we broke all the rules. We had intelligent discussions that went on for long periods of time. We had fun. We totally made fun of the news business and ourselves and politics, as well as covered it.

LESLEY: I really love when Joe says something and you roll your eyes, but it’s kind of sweet. It’s not mean. It’s sassy. I love the chemistry between the two of you.

MIKA: Absolutely.

LESLEY: You’ve now taken us in about 20 different directions for me to ask you questions, so I’m going to stop asking about the show, but I’ll come back to it. You can’t leave us hanging on when CBS fired you. We’re not going to gloss over it. As you said, you were very honest about it.

MIKA: Yes.

LESLEY: You worked here at CBS for how many years?

MIKA: Well I was for three and a half years the overnight anchor on “Up to the Minute.” And then I came back for seven more years.

LESLEY: Well, let me tell you, as someone who works here, you were up and coming. They were even talking about you coming over and doing some pieces for “60 Minutes.” And, boom, you were gone. Did it come as a total shock?

MIKA: Yes.

LESLEY: Were you just blown over? Was it, as you said, an identity crisis? I think a lot of people in these hard times can learn something from you?

MIKA: Absolutely. I’m writing a book about it and I’m going to be brutally, painfully, embarrassingly honest. And I see myself and my identity as a part of CBS News, because I loved telling stories, I loved the people I worked with and I loved the job I had. And I had been brought up through the ranks.

LESLEY: Right.

MIKA: And my kids thought I was the ultimate of modern working mothers, because I followed my parents’ model and followed the model of women out there before me, and melded marriage, work and family. And I would bring my kids to work with me. I brought my daughter Carlie to a “Sesame Street” shoot. If I did the Sunday evening news, chances were one of my kids were under that desk for the entire show. I made them a part of my work life and I made my work life a part of my home life. And I thought I was doing the right thing. But the bottom line is, I tried to be everything to everybody and I ended up being nothing, ultimately. And it was very public, it was very painful and a lot of women in our industry, and in any industry where you go up really fast and you get ahead really fast, you start to drink your own Kool-Aid and you think you’re untouchable.

LESLEY: You couldn’t get a job. I’m actually astonished.

MIKA: I could not pay someone to hire me. I was damaged goods.

LESLEY: But why? You were at the top of your game. I don’t even know why you were fired. There’s never been anything negative said.

MIKA: No. In fact, I’ve spoken to [CBS News president] Sean McManus since then and we’ve talked. It was subjective — and that’s what he said at the time. And I think I was the “It” girl of the Hayward regime, the regime before Sean McManus. And why would you go with the idea of the regime that you’re replacing? I don’t know. I’m making that up because I have to hold on to something. I don’t think my work was bad.

LESLEY: No, it wasn’t. Your work was great. But the lesson here is that if you work in a company and a new regime comes in, they often — and who knows why — decide to clean out the old regime. And there are lots of victims. Now, tell us, when you couldn’t get a job – how did you cope, psychologically? What did you do?

MIKA: Well, I looked for a job. And, I’ll tell you — I learned how to be a better parent, and it really helps now with this new job. When I left CBS, I knew I was leaving and I hung on for a few weeks trying to fulfill my end of the deal, but it was really tough to come to work. I wanted to tell my kids that I would be leaving. So I told Emilie and Carlie, just while hanging out with them in the living room.

LESLEY: Wait one second. You have two daughters?

MIKA: Two daughters, who are 13 and ten.

LESLEY: So you told them —

MIKA: Your immediate reaction when something bad happens is to protect your children, right?

LESLEY: Right.

MIKA: My immediate reaction was to try and make this good news. And, so, I was like, “Girls, listen, mommy has some good news.” And they perked up. They could hear it in my voice. And I said, “I’m going to be leaving CBS. I’m going to have more time with you. We’re going to have a lot more time together. Isn’t that great? I am so excited.” And they looked at me, completely stone-faced, and screamed, “No way! No way!” And the older one says, “That’s the only reason the library lady likes me! You can’t leave! You can’t leave!”

LESLEY: Oh, my God.

MIKA: And the younger one got very quiet. And I continued with my little game, my little charade — what I thought was good mothering — and convinced them there’s a positive aspect.

LESLEY: And there is. Not if you’re not being honest with them, because they’ll know.

MIKA: That’s right.

LESLEY: Don’t do it.

MIKA: And the next day, without missing a beat, I get a call from the teacher – Carlie’s teacher, the younger one who had been quieter and more withdrawn. And she said, “You need to come in here if you can.” She knows not to call me unless it is an emergency. She knows she’s not going to find me, usually, and that she should either call my nanny or my husband. And so the fact that she was calling was a little weird. So I thought, “Here’s my next moment as a good mother. I’m going to swoop in and be there for her because I haven’t been able to before.” Then I dash into the school and I’m ready to beat up the kid who’s beating her up, or talk to that parent, or solve the problem. And the teacher is there in the hall and my daughter is in a fetal position.

LESLEY: Ah, no!

MIKA: And I crouch down because I’m swooping in now on my moment to be the perfect mother and I say, “Honey, what’s wrong? I’m here for you.” And without missing a beat, she still has her head down, the teacher crouches down and goes, “That’s actually the problem.” And I’m like, “Huh? What?” I’m totally thrown off. She continues, “Your daughter told me you’re leaving your job and she’s very upset.” And I looked at her and I said, “Carlie, honey, it’s good news, isn’t it? I’m going to be able to spend more time with you.” And she looked up, deeply into my eyes and said, “But mommy, you love it so much. I don’t want you to have to leave your job. You love it!” And, Lesley, that was the first time I cried about it — right there in front of her. I hadn’t cried. I hadn’t mourned. I had been tough and strong and defiant. And then this kid shook me into submission, and made me realize that not only was I lying to her, but I was lying to myself about how I felt.

LESLEY: Oh, my. That little girl picked up on everything that was right below the surface. She just reached inside of you and knew it at some level that was below her own consciousness, too. Oh, what an unbelievable story.

MIKA: Yeah. Kids can see that their mother is more than mom or wife, that she has things that define her and make her happy and bring her joy and they want them to be able to have those things.

LESLEY: So, what happened?

MIKA: I started to cry. I was very embarrassed and I realized at that moment that I needed to be honest. In a situation like this — when you lose your job or there’s a death or a divorce — you’ve got to be honest with everybody about it, because they’re going to know. I realized that this was as good a lesson for my children as any story I took them on or any intellectual debate. It was life.

LESLEY: Wow.

MIKA: And so from then on, they went through the interview process with me. When I had a good interview, which was not often, they knew about it. When I had really bad ones and I knew I flubbed it or wouldn’t get the job, they knew about it. And they watched my phone stop ringing and certain friends leave. And they watched it all. And you know what? It has been extremely good for them, as tough as it was, to see their mother fail. And now in the shadow of success again, they’re a little more careful, too. And they’re a little bit wiser, too. And we love what’s happening now, but it doesn’t define us.

LESLEY: I had to learn that, too. I wonder if all mothers eventually understand that being honest with your child will improve your relationship with them.

MIKA: Absolutely.

LESLEY: That’s a wonderful story and thank you for sharing it with us. You’re married, right?

MIKA: Yes.

LESLEY: First husband?

MIKA: Yes.

LESLEY: How many years?

MIKA: We’re on 15.

LESLEY: Fifteen! And what does he do? He’s a reporter, right?

MIKA: He’s an investigative reporter for Channel 7 in New York City

LESLEY: So he’s in our biz.

MIKA: He’s in the biz. Oh, my God, thank God.

LESLEY: And he understands you. That’s clever of you to have done that.

MIKA: It was the only way I was going to meet a man, working so hard!

LESLEY: That too.

MIKA: But no, it helps a lot. And I think I’ve helped him. And he helps me. We know what this business is about on many levels and it helps keep the conversation going on a very real level.

LESLEY: Now I’m going to double back and change our mood here.

MIKA: OK.

LESLEY: I’d like to ask you some questions about the show and your new role. During the campaign, John McCain came on “Morning Joe” and accused you of being an Obama supporter.

MIKA: Right.

LESLEY: Was that awkward, or was it simply the truth? Do you now have a job where you can be an Obama supporter, where you could never have been an Obama supporter if you worked at CBS News, for instance?

MIKA: I’ll tell you, it was not only awkward, but it could have been the truth. But it might have been the truth that I was a McCain supporter. I’m not sure from what angle he was speaking to me. A lot of people will talk about my family affiliation with the Obama administration. My brother Mark worked on the campaign and is still involved. And my dad was one of the first to endorse Obama.

LESLEY: Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser.

MIKA: Yes. You know him well. And then my other brother Ian worked in the Bush administration under Paul Wolfowitz for six years and worked on the McCain campaign. So my father, as you know, allows for freethinking, as long as it’s high-level thinking. Let me put it this way: He brought up three very different kids.

LESLEY: I guess my point was, now that you do this kind of a show, Joe Scarborough comes on every day and says, “I’m a conservative.” Are you trying to preserve your objectivity by not telling us? In other words, what roles are you playing on the show, politically?

MIKA: It’s a great question and I will answer it as honestly as I possibly can, given the fact that I am still trying to find my voice. My role is evolving. It started out as the objective reporter and obviously that changed. If you take everything I’ve ever said on “Morning Joe” and put it in right/left boxes, chances are you won’t really know my affiliation. I would say I’d lean to the left, but it’s not necessarily my role. My role is to challenge Joe when necessary and for the two of us to try our best to create an accessible show. And I would say my role is far less ideological and on one side than Joe’s, although I’m happy to lean left when necessary, because that feels more natural to me.

LESLEY: Let me quote you back to yourself, because there’s a purpose to all these questions. You said, and I’m quoting you – at least I’m quoting someone who quoted you, “You can hide behind objectivity. It’s a safe and lazy place to be. It’s much harder to put yourself out there.” I thought you were talking about yourself when you said that.

MIKA: Yes, I was. When I started the show, I would say things like, “You know, Joe, some would say that … ” And I would hide behind that, as if it was safe, legal and within the realm of journalism. Well, guess what? Our show has a lot more to do with a visceral reaction to Barack Obama’s news conference last night or to the stimulus package and how we understand it, and how we interpret the messages that we think are being given; how we challenge them; how we learn together about them. When you have such long, deep conversations, your opinions come out. And if you don’t have them, then I’m not sure you should be on the show.

LESLEY:
My point was that — you said that being objective is safe and lazy and I totally disagree. I think that you have to work very hard at objectivity. That’s part of our job here at CBS News. And it takes a lot of energy. I think it’s much easier to spout off and say what you think and what you feel.

MIKA: I think we’re actually both talking about the same intellectual struggle, because in terms of putting together a piece, you’d better work damned hard on being objective and fair and making sure you’ve got both sides right. And I know the kind of work you put into your pieces. I know you pull all-nighters at CBS trying to get it right, trying to be there, trying to be accurate, trying to be “objective” on another level. On live television, with a visceral reaction to something, there are more chances that you’re going to be wrong, that your interpretation will be criticized. It’s a challenge to sit out there between six and nine in the morning and then ten and noon on the radio, with, well, now we do have a seven-second delay, but otherwise …

LESLEY: Oh, that’s right. That’s right, because of your partner. Oh, my goodness.

MIKA: Yes. But otherwise, there’s basically no veil.

LESLEY: Did you ever say anything so embarrassing on this show that you wished there had been a seven-second delay?

MIKA: Oh, my God, probably every day. It’s very hard, because I’m a full-time wife/mother and I get up at 3:30 in the morning every day. Everything I say, I worry about. I have to find that voice that I feel determined and strong about. And you know what? I will not lie to you. I’m still a work in progress. Joe has great visceral, political, analytical skills. It’s what he does, coming from politics.

LESLEY: Yeah, he’s a politician really.

MIKA: Right. I come from a place where I made sure my personal opinion didn’t shade my script. And now I’m using very different reflexes and very different intellectual muscles, and I find it to be incredibly challenging.  I think you and I actually are talking about the same muscles being used to do different things – different forms of communication and fairness that we must have in the mainstream media.

LESLEY: I know exactly what you’re saying. But you did say one thing in there. You said you get up at 3:30 in the morning.

MIKA: Yes.

LESLEY: And I think people love to know how other people actually get through their day. So, you get up at 3:30. Do you really feel lousy?

MIKA: I feel like crap.

LESLEY: I did the morning show once and used to get up at 3:30. And I actually didn’t know how bad I felt until I stopped. And I’m not trying to be amusing, I really didn’t know how bad I felt. But tell us about your day. You get up at 3:30. What time do you go to sleep? You must go to sleep at … now. Are we past your bedtime? It’s five o’clock.

MIKA: No. Are you kidding me? The day goes on into the night, five days a week, pretty much. Four days a week. Friday nights I conk out.

LESLEY: When you see your children?

MIKA: I will often track them down at their events and they’ll roll their eyes and go, “Mom!!”

LESLEY: Are you one of those mothers who embarrasses them?

MIKA: Absolutely. I’ll show up at those riding lesson, or the tennis lesson and it’ll be unusual. That’ll happen once every two or three weeks. I see them on Friday afternoon. I see them all weekend. But you know what? I work a lot and I am not going to hide behind that, because that is a little bit of who I am. And they are always testing me and always calling me. I prioritize by the hour with these kids, because that’s how my life is at this point. But it is a long day. It is a 12-, 13-, 14-, 15-hour day sometimes.

LESLEY: And how do you read in and study up, because you talk about every single subject on the planet on that show.

MIKA: I’m constantly getting e-mails. I’m constantly logging on to political websites and The New York Times, the Washington Post. Things are e-mailed to me before they hit newspapers and we are reading our BlackBerries until we go on air. I fall asleep with my BlackBerry on my face.

LESLEY: I have to tell everybody. I did your show once and what’s hilarious is, the minute they break for commercial, everybody buries themselves in a computer or their BlackBerry or a newspaper, and they quickly read up like mad as if they’re about to take a test that they didn’t study for in school.

MIKA: That’s exactly the case.

LESLEY: I watched it with great amusement. And then the little red light comes on, and they’re back on the air as if they hadn’t just been cramming. It’s very amusing.

MIKA: I’m also on my BlackBerry while I’m on the radio show. We had a meeting after the radio today. I was on my BlackBerry while I was doing that meeting.

LESLEY: Radio, right. So, first you wake up at 3:30. You come into work. You read in the car, I assume.

MIKA: I do all the op-eds in the car, the must-read op-eds at 6:30 AM are picked by me in the car on the way in.

LESLEY: OK, so you’re on the air from when to when, on “Morning Joe”?

MIKA: From six to nine AM.

LESLEY: Six to nine you’re on the air. Then you do a radio show right after that?

MIKA: We dash down to Penn Plaza and we do a radio show that airs right now in New York, Dallas and L.A., and we’re picking up other markets as we speak, on WABC – from ten to noon.

LESLEY: Oh, my God, Mika! When do you breath?

MIKA: I ask myself that question a lot and, in this economy and after the year I had out of work, Lesley, honestly that’s all I need to think about to keep going. I tried so hard for what seemed like an eternity to find a job and it seemed like it was over. I had gotten a “no” from everybody. I went from this feeling of complete paralysis and doom and fear to having a job that I love so much. That’s enough when I’m really tired. It really is. Once you’ve been down low, real low — I refuse to forget it, because it’s what keeps me going.

LESLEY: That really is a lesson for everybody. In this economy a lot of people are losing their jobs. And it’s traumatic, whatever the situation, whatever the reason. And a lot of people, a lot of women, could have the same kind of difficulty you had in finding a new job. So, what’s the message? Just keep plugging, don’t give up?

MIKA: I’ll tell you what the message is, and I’m writing a book about this, because it’s such an important one. You have to not be afraid to take a very big step back. I was not only afraid to take a step back; I was not afraid to show exactly how I felt. And I called every network again, like it was like a third or fourth round …

LESLEY: You mean after they said no you’d call them again?

MIKA: Yes. And I said, “What do you have? Tell me what jobs you have. I don’t care what you think I should have, I want to know what you have now, because I need to work.” And MSNBC had a freelance job that, ten years earlier, Lesley, I probably wouldn’t have taken because I would have thought, “Yeah, I’ve already been here and there. I don’t need to be that.” Well they had a freelance job doing 30-second updates, four nights a week, and they would hire me on a day rate and bring me in on an as-needed basis.

LESLEY: And you took it?

MIKA: I went from my little “60 Minutes” contract – Sunday anchor, “60 Minutes” contract with CBS, to that – at 40.

LESLEY: At 40? You don’t even look 40 now.

MIKA: Aren’t you nice? I’m about to turn 42.

LESLEY: You were saying that you were willing to take many steps backward? Was it because you just needed the money or because you need to work? I’m a need-to-work person.

MIKA: I’m a need-to-work person, too. And you know what? I did need the money at that point. But even more than needing to work, I needed to walk into a building and take out an ID and check in, and to feel it suck me in.

LESLEY: I know that feeling. I want to tell you a piece of wisdom that I was told many years ago, because like you, I have been – although my daughter’s now married – I was a working mother for many years and had a very demanding job in Washington. And someone said to me, and they were really thinking about my daughter, they said, “When you’ve got all those balls in the air, the main thing is to make sure that the ones that are made of glass never drop.” I’m sure that is something you think about all the time.

MIKA: I do. And I really try and balance it as best I can. But part of that balance is being true to who you are and honest about what you’re made of. And my kids know that. They’re amazing, because of it.

LESLEY: I believe that the single most important reason that children grow up — let me say, “healthy, and ready to face the world” — is if their parents are happy. If they’re unhappy, that creates more problems than anything else. I know this to be true.

MIKA: You are so right.

LESLEY: I have one more question, and then I’m going to let you go make dinner. I’m sure you cook, right?

MIKA: I’ve got microwave burns all over my arms to prove it.

LESLEY: The final question, which I’m sure you’re asked all the time, but I’d love to know the answer: What is your relationship with Joe really like? Are you friends? I know what it’s like on the air, because you’ve got that sassy thing going, but are you friends in real life?

MIKA: What you see on the air is really close to how it is off the air. Sometimes we don’t even know we’re on the air. Also, off the air, at this point — he’s writing a book, I’m writing a book, we’re both doing radio, and we’re both doing TV. We’re like little automatons now. The only people who really know what our lives are like are each other. And that definitely bonds our friendship, because we both are so exhausted all the time and we’re trying so hard to balance our families. He has four kids and a baby. There’s no one who really understands, in terms of how to balance what the other needs, except each other, because we’re in this world together. That makes the friendship really tight and strong and builds the trust on the air strong, because we both kind of have to hold each other up.

LESLEY: It does.

MIKA: Everyone that sits on our set feels like, “Wow! There’s a real comfort here.” I have two older brothers who I sparred with for my entire life and it’s as if Joe has always been there at the table, throwing the first arrow. We both love a good debate and we learned that about each other from the get-go.

LESLEY: Well, this has been a wonderful conversation! I thank you!

MIKA: Oh, Lesley, thank you so much. I can’t wait to read it. I try and be honest, so we’ll see where that leads me.

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