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If ever there were doubts that Symone Sanders doesn’t phone anything in, they quickly dissipated in a stunning moment on a March night a little over two years ago when anti-dairy protesters overtook then-candidate Joe Biden’s security perimeter and seemed heading toward Sanders’ boss. In an instant, Sanders—with an assist from Jill Biden—stepped in with the block and wrestled one of the belligerents off the stage.
It’s that fierce sense of action that has made Sanders into one of the stars of her generation, and then the entire Democratic Party. She made her national name in 2015 and 2016 as Senator Bernie Sanders’ top spokeswoman, parlayed that into a CNN contributor gig and a memoir at age 30, and then landed on everyone’s must-hire list for 2020. Even as she was a progressive rock star, a millennial badass and the all-too-rare Black woman with a seat at the table, she surprised Washington when she signed on with Biden, a white septuagenarian who represented the very establishment that she spent 2016 attacking.
But Symone Sanders saw Biden’s potential. She was one of his top aides and counseled the candidate on how to patch his rough spots with voters of color, women, and younger voters. When he won the election, Sanders chose to move with the team of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, the first woman to win the role and the first Black and Indian-American to serve there. Sanders served as Harris’ chief spokeswoman and a senior adviser until December, when she announced her departure.
On Saturday at 4 p.m., MSNBC will debut Sanders’ new weekend show, a weekday version of which will air on NBC Universal’s Peacock streaming service. And on Sunday, she will deliver a commencement speech to graduates of American University in Washington.
The D.C. Brief chatted by phone with Sanders this week. The conversation has been edited.
So congratulations on the show and Sunday’s American University commencement. This is a big weekend for you. It’s a long way from Omaha. What’s going through your head right now?
I am just a little bald Black girl from North Omaha, Nebraska, who wanted to move to Washington because I wanted to do politics. A dream of mine was to eventually have my own show. I used to pretend I was hosting my own show. My TV name was Donna Burns. Now I don’t have to pretend anymore, but it also comes with an enormous responsibility.
I’ve worked in this White House, I’ve worked for the current president of the United States, the current vice president. I’ve worked for an icon in the progressive movement, Bernie Sanders. I’ve worked on more than 20 campaigns. I’m not here to be a spokesperson for the administration. I had that job already. If I still wanted to be a spokesperson, I should have kept my old job.
I caught your comments from South by Southwest, likening the new weekend show to a non-political group chat. Do those even exist any longer? Even Housewives group chats on my phone have taken on a political angle.
When I say the non-political group chats, I’m talking about the people who are not professional politicos like you and I. There are a number of people out there who are not tuned in to the 24-hour political news cycle. But they still care. They want to know what is happening and what’s going on. They have lots of thoughts about what’s happening in politics, but they don’t necessarily care to watch Senator Joe Manchin on C-SPAN or waking up early to catch all the Sunday shows.
While they care about politics, they are talking about how what is happening at Netflix connects to the broader cultural conversation. They had dismal numbers from last week and are laying off a number of creators that they recently hired. And the majority of those creators are women of color. So they are having political conversations in a non-political way. And I want to talk to those people.
So how are you going to calibrate this tone? You bring up the Netflix situation. Everything takes on an overtone of politics. How do you deal with that?
So much is happening every single day. We are having mock episodes. And one of the things that we did yesterday in our mock show, we did the Netflix thing, but I did it under the banner of culture. We’re going to dig a little deeper. We’re going to talk about James Corden leaving late night, and how late night used to be the final destination for so many people, but now it seems like it’s a pit stop on a larger journey. And that spiraled into a conversation about how the changing social media and streaming landscape has allowed for more voices and more people, but also has allowed people to tune out news entities and outlets that they don’t necessarily want to consume.
I’m not a White House reporter, right? I’m not a Capitol Hill reporter. I got a business management degree from a school in the Midwest. So it is important to me to have the folks that know on my show. They have credentials. I have to ensure that I am going to inform my audience. I want people to know that when they turn on my show, they’re going to learn something.
Do you see yourself as a journalist in this role?
I’m a part of the media apparatus. I am not a trained journalist. No. But I have a responsibility as a member of the media apparatus to uphold journalistic standards. My executive producer is the former managing news editor at WRC Washington, which is the NBC affiliate here in Washington, D.C. She is a real news lady. She’s regularly talking to me about standards. We’ll get the standards under control. I have surrounded myself with a team of people who have done this for a while and can help me tease out what I’m trying to do in a way that is responsible.
When I was a commentator, I was very concerned by the fact that I was sitting in a Green Room with people and we would have a conversation and then we would go on television and they would say things that I know they don’t believe. They didn’t get fact-checked. Then people repeat what they said in their non-political and political group chats. They’re talking about it in their communities.
You’re not the first to move from administration insider to trusted journalist. You might have been the quickest to go from being on the inside to getting your own show. There are so many young people out there who are like you were, hosting pretend shows with a spoon for a microphone. Tell them: How did you make that dream real?
I am the recipient of a lot of goodwill and grace and blessings. I also did the work and I cannot underscore enough about the value of doing the work. I took risks. I remember when I moved to Washington, D.C., and didn’t even have an apartment. I took a risk when I went to work for Senator Sanders on his campaign. I distinctly remember people that I respect so much, mentors of mine, telling me that I was going to ruin my political career. If I went to work for Senator Sanders, I would be branded as a progressive forever. Back in the day, in 2015, progressive was a dirty word. Now, everybody wants to be a progressive.
I became a commentator on CNN and then I decided I wanted to go back on the campaign trail. And people told me I was stupid. Why would I give up a platform to go work for somebody that may not even be President? I went into the White House and people were, like, you’re working for the Vice President; don’t you want to work for the President? They didn’t understand that I had the opportunity to help make history every single day with the first woman, the first Black woman, Vice President of the United States of America. And when I left the administration, people said I was stupid.
I think people see me and they think I just catapulted out nowhere, but I have worked at every level of politics. I have earned where I am right now.
Everyone who has worked with you respects that. I guess the question is: everyone knows you from your activism and advocacy. So why should audiences trust you to not bring that framework into the studio? Or will you bring it, just with transparency?
I’m not going to shy away from who I am. They know me from my activism and advocacy. I make no qualms about the fact that the reason I wanted to work on a campaign in 2016 and in ‘20 is because I thought that Donald Trump was a danger to democracy. I am not here to force my views on the viewer. I want to have a conversation. That’s why I’m going to have Republicans on, so we can have a well-rounded conversation and maybe every now and then, maybe more than that.
You were one of the Vice President’s top aides. There must have been moments when the press coverage must have been maddening.
I was at a lot of events for the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner and I made a joke: I think everybody at this table, I have cursed out at one moment or time, all all in the name of doing my job. And we all laughed because it was true.
Tell me then, what is the biggest error in our coverage of her? You’re not on the payroll anymore.
Let me just preface it with this: Vice President Harris is the first woman of color, the first Black woman that I have worked for. Now that I think about my career, I have worked for older white men and maybe two Black men. Working for a woman, particularly a Black woman, allowed me to see that people cover women differently.
Hillary Clinton was the most qualified person, period, to ever seek the presidency. I don’t care what the hell anybody says. Hillary Clinton was more qualified than all these em-effers.
I do have to note, though, that you say Hillary Clinton was the most qualified candidate for President ever. You worked on the other side of the Democratic primary to deny her the nomination. So I do feel I can’t let that one go by.
Just because she’s qualified doesn’t mean no one can run against her, you know? The media talked about her in a way as though she wasn’t. The fact that the biggest scandal about Hillary Clinton was her emails should tell you everything you need to know.
You can be critical of Vice President Harris, but you can also say that the coverage around her has a little sexism and a little racism, too.
You’re one the sharpest political minds in the Democratic Party. Why take yourself out of the game for a cable show?
Why television? Why now? I think that this is probably one of the most important moments in our history in the United States of America. There is not a voice like mine that is out there. There is not someone with my experience and my direct knowledge of the current situation at hand, who intimately knows the President and Vice President and the leader of the progressive movement, Bernie Sanders. There’s not someone like me currently on television, who has worked at every single level and that can provide the insight that I can.
Finally, I have to ask: Will you be bringing the same ferocity to your guests when they step out of line as when you tackled that protester who rushed then-candidate Joe Biden in March of 2020?
I’m going to bring that same ferocity to my show. If people want to come on and not tell the truth, if they want to say we really just need to get Build Back Better done, I’ll correct them. Why do you keep saying that? Because it ain’t happening.
You’ll say that on the air?
The sweeping Build Back Better bill that y’all have all written about it is dead. It’s true. The White House knows it. As we knew it last year, it does not exist.
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