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Abby Phillip Asks the Right Questions

Media’s voice of sanity and clarity, in conversation with Gayle King.

Ganni dress. AGMES earrings and rings. Jennifer Fisher ring. Photo: Alexander Saladrigas
Ganni dress. AGMES earrings and rings. Jennifer Fisher ring. Photo: Alexander Saladrigas

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As the new editor-in-chief of any publication, I find the first cover is always a big decision. But especially for the Cut, a place where I was an editor years ago and have such a deep love for, it’s a responsibility I take incredibly seriously. Much of my time has been spent analyzing how I can make our point of view more inclusive and questioning who we give this platform to, how do we decide equitably who is “cool” or “worthy” or “important” to feature on a cover. I know firsthand how much representation means to marginalized communities, and how it can change your life. Growing up, I would rip out pages of every magazine and put them up on my wall, and my mother would tell me, “Lindsay, none of these people look like you, have the same background as you, and if you want to work in magazines one day, you’re going to have to change things.”

And in light of being a year into this pandemic, and with social-justice movements like Black Lives Matter to Stop Asian Hate finally given the respect they deserve, I wanted to put someone on my first Cut cover that brought these issues to the forefront and gave people comfort in times when it felt like there was no hope. Abby Phillip is all that and more — she has given countless women of color someone to look up to, someone who would speak the truth we were all thinking at home, and someone who wouldn’t be afraid to call out white supremacy on national television. Even throughout the most tumultuous days, Abby has been a consistent voice of sanity and clarity, providing thoughtful commentary that we desperately needed.

Abby has a new show on CNN called Inside Politics, a new book in the works, and a new baby girl on the way, so I couldn’t be more excited to listen to her discuss this new chapter with the legendary Gayle King, two iconic Black women who have had parallel careers in journalism and understand the weight and responsibility of this moment.

AMI Paris jacket. Fendi bodysuit. Jimmy Choo heels. Dodo Bar Or pants. Agmes earrings. Photo: Alexander Saladrigas

Gayle: I’m thrilled to be sitting here talking to you. I’m not kidding, I just adore you. The thing about you is you always appear to be so cool, so calm, so graceful under pressure. But before we get to that, I want to know — where did you come from? Because for me, one day, I turned on the TV, and there you were. Growing up, did you harbor any, Oh my gosh, I really want to be in front of the camera?

Abby: Not at all, honestly! I came from the print world — I was at the Washington Post right before I came to CNN. I wasn’t sure at first that I actually wanted to be on TV — the idea of people watching me every day was just not something that I was sure I wanted for my life. And I thought, I don’t have the personality for TV.

Gayle: Stop here. What is the personality that you thought you did not have?

Abby: I’m a print reporter at heart — I like doing the work. I like interviews. I like reporting. Earlier in my career, I had worked at a TV company and saw all of these big personalities, whether it was Diane Sawyer or George Stephanopoulos, or David Muir. And I’m thinking to myself, I don’t feel quite like that. I don’t think I have a big personality. Sometimes, when people meet me, they think I’m quiet or even shy, but I’m not — I keep to myself. And I’m not very attention-seeking; in fact, I am attention-averse in some ways.

When I started out, anytime my own mother would tell me she had watched me, I would just be like, “Oh my God.” I do not want to know that people I know are watching me, even though I know thousands of people are.

Gayle: I do think it’s harder to be watched by people who know you than strangers. I totally get that. The reason why is because their opinion matters to you. You don’t want to let them down. When did you start to feel comfortable?

Abby: Maybe six or seven months into the job. We have people who coach us on television performance, but I struggled with how you’re supposed to talk in the news. It just wasn’t comfortable for me. I don’t have a TV background, I never did local news, I don’t have a TV voice. It was not working for me to try to sound like other people.

So I started speaking in the same way I would if I were talking to a friend or a neighbor — I think people do want their news from authoritative sources, but they also want to understand you. They want you to speak in a way that feels familiar to them. I try as much as possible to be my authentic self, and I think that is what has always resonated. I don’t try to be anything that I’m not, and I try to meet people where they are. People come to TV news while they’re doing their laundry or washing the dishes or taking care of their kids — they just want to know what’s happening. They don’t want to be lectured.

Lavin shoes. Jennifer Fisher bracelet and ring. L’enchanteu necklace. Mounser necklace. Khiry earrings. Syd + Pia ring. Christopher John Rogers dress. Photo: Alexander Saladrigas

Gayle: So in 2017, you’re hired to cover the Trump administration when they are really just getting started. What were your thoughts, trepidations going into covering that particular president at that particular time?

Abby: I had not covered Trump before, and that was a bit of a concern that I didn’t have the deep sourcing that others had who’d covered him throughout the campaign. People were obsessed with the personality stories — who was up, who was down, who he was upset about. I was less interested in that. And as a Black reporter covering politics, you know that some of those stories are less accessible to you — sources are not going to give me the gossip in the same way they might give my white colleagues the gossip.

Gayle: Doesn’t that hinder the way you do your job?

Abby: I think it can. But the story is not just the gossip. The story is also about the bigger picture, about whether this administration is actually prepared to govern. Because from the start, all the warning signs were there — the inability to tell the truth, the chaos of the administration, the lack of attention to policy-making, everything we saw develop over the next four years.

When they put the travel ban in place, that bigger picture was a part of the story. In reporting on this story, we needed to be clear with our audience that this is not going all according to plan, that the chaos we’re seeing at airports all across the country is because this is an administration that doesn’t know how the government works.

Gayle: I remember in late 2018, Trump was on his way to going somewhere, and you were part of a gaggle of reporters asking questions. And you asked yours, and he says in response to you that you “ask a lot of stupid questions.” 

I was so angry. I heard the word “stupid” and Abby in the same sentence, and I was so offended by that. And I’m wondering, what do you remember about that moment?

Abby: So this was just after Trump had fired Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, and replaced him with Matt Whitaker — who a lot of people believed was sort of a lackey. My question was, “Do you want Matt Whitaker to rein in the Mueller investigation?”

The thing about questioning Trump is that sometimes he just might answer you truthfully. But I remember being surprised, because he had not reacted to me like that before.

Gayle: You struck a nerve.

Abby: He must have thought so. But after that aired, I got calls and texts from girlfriends and colleagues, especially my Black female friends. They were furious about it because of the implication of him telling a Black woman that she’s stupid.

I know that what he said is not true, and I don’t take things like that personally, particularly from this president who has such a long history of insulting people. I don’t get my self-esteem from Donald Trump or any other politician, frankly.

Gayle: Good! I was rattled, but I’m glad to hear it didn’t rattle you. And I love that you said, “I knew it wasn’t true, so he couldn’t be talking about me.” It’s like — sit down and take several seats.

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Gayle: As CNN started to elevate your profile, did you start to feel you had to bring a certain point of view because (a) you’re a woman, and (b) you’re a Black woman?

Abby: Yes. I always have to do that. It’s always the case that simply who I am is the different perspective, the one that’s otherwise going to be missing. This is after years of being on many, many panels with political reporters who are all older and many of them —

Gayle: Male.

Abby: Male and white! But these experiences forced me to think beyond the conventional wisdom. On these panels, they always come to me last — I’m the most junior person, usually. And because they come to me last, I can’t say the obvious thing, because that’s already been said by three other people.

Gayle: It’s always a balance. You want to do the best job you can, but you also don’t want to be pigeonholed to the point where it’s, “Because you’re Black, you cover this.” That said, it’s so important for people of color to have a place at the table, to draw attention to things that no one was looking at.

Abby: I also think that the lesson of 2020 has been that more people need to be involved. We can encourage and empower other people to speak confidently and knowledgeably about race in this country. It’s often said that Black people have a Ph.D. in race in America, but I think the time has come for the rest of America to get their education in these issues as well, so that they can share the burden of moving this country forward.

It’s long overdue for us to critically rethink what is considered “mainstream” or “objective,” versus what is often treated as a special interest. Journalism, particularly political journalism, has never treated communities of color as deserving of the same level of attention and coverage as they do white communities. I’ve been really happy to see this changing in recent years. This conversation is being led by a critical mass of young, outspoken reporters of color.

Gayle: You have a new show, Inside Politics. How is that going for you?

Abby: Every week is a process of thinking, How do I maintain the integrity of the show? So we’ve done a story about a woman named Claudette Colvin — before Rosa Parks refused to get off the bus, she did the same thing, and she was 15 years old. She was part of the Supreme Court case that desegregated buses. More recently, we interviewed Daniel Kaluuya, from Judas and the Black Messiah. Those are all themes I want to continue to explore through the show. I want to use it in part to revisit moments in history that don’t get enough attention.

That’s a theme of the book I’m writing, too — it’s about Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. People know Jesse Jackson for all kinds of reasons, but people don’t really talk about his political work. If they do, though, it’s to say the same thing: If he hadn’t run, it’s not clear that Barack Obama could have won. Back then, Jesse Jackson activated Black voters and created this very powerful Black electorate — it’s probably why Joe Biden is president right now.

Gayle: Jesse Jackson might’ve been the first politician I ever interviewed, when I was a baby reporter. I was so nervous my hand might’ve been shaking. And he was asking me about the job, and he said, “Well, I’ll just say this to you. Excellence is the best deterrent to racism. So be excellent.” I never forgot that. Now people are looking at you to share your thoughts: What’s Abby thinking, what’s Abby going to do, what is Abby saying? They’re not going to you last anymore, Miss Phillip.

Abby: It is weird. The higher you climb, the more you have to deliver something that people really value. But I want to keep up with my own life as well.

Gayle: What is your own life? When you’re not at CNN, where are you?

Abby: I am married. I live in D.C. with my husband Marcus, and we have a dog named Booker T. We’ve been together for almost ten years, married almost three.

Gayle: What do we like about Marcus?

Abby: Look, if you’re in this business, you can’t do it without someone who is flexible, because your life is just a mess. It’s unpredictable, it’s busy, it’s ever-changing. And he’s just always like, “What do you need? How can I help you?” I remember one of our first dates — we were supposed to meet up and I left my wallet at home and I was an hour and a half late. He just waited and wasn’t pissed off. I swear to God, I knew then.

I should tell you also that we are now expecting our first child, a little girl this summer. The experience of pregnancy has only made me become more in awe of what we as women are able to endure. It was tough: battling morning sickness while balancing a demanding job with long, unpredictable hours. But it has been a reminder of what I am capable of — and what so many women do every day.

It’s obviously been a difficult year to be Black in America — not just because of the turmoil this summer over racial justice but also the danger that Black Americans faced from the COVID-19 pandemic. I really tried to practice self-care this year — taking breaks and even bowing out of certain conversations and opportunities in the interest of self-restoration. But as a journalist, I always reengage, because this is my way of making a small difference. If I can shine light on these issues and bring the perspectives and the challenges facing Black people in this country to light, it’s a good day. And that’s what keeps me going.

Gayle: Oh, Abby! God, look at your life. Baby on the way, a husband you love and who loves you back. And most importantly, the two of you are in sync. But let me ask you this: What scares you?

Abby: Not meeting expectations.

Gayle: Yours or someone else’s?

Abby Philip: Other people’s, mostly, right now. All of a sudden, there are people who are saying, “Oh, I really look up to you. I want to be a journalist because of you.” That’s a lot of pressure — which I’m sure you feel, because I bet people say that to you all the time. I look up to you.

Gayle: I know, but when they say that — “I want to be just like you” — I go, “Nope. What you want is to pave your own path.” So be excellent, Abby.

Ganni dress. AGMES earrings and rings. Jennifer Fisher ring. Chelsea Paris shoes. Photo: Alexander Saladrigas
Abby Phillip Asks the Right Questions