Mika Brzezinski ’89 discusses journalistic career, tour series

In the three decades since Mika Brzezinski ’89 first applied to the College, her career has been characterized by a series of setbacks and triumphs which eventually led her to dominate her field as the co-anchor of cable’s longest-running morning show: Morning Joe.

“I wanted to be in [broadcast journalism] ever since I was watching my dad [Zbigniew Brzezinski] get interviewed by broadcast journalists when he was the National Security Advisor for President Carter in the ’70s. I would watch him on Meet the Press; I would watch him on Nightline; I would watch NBC Nightly News reporters come to the house and set up cameras and lights for an interview where they would cut a sound bite,” Brzezinski said. “I was fascinated by the process.”

Getting to the top of her industry was, however, another story. After not getting into the College as a first-year, Brzezinski attended Georgetown, and applied again to transfer in for her sophomore year, but was rejected again. Before her junior year began, she decided to give it one more shot.

“I tried to transfer as a junior, and I was so focused on trying to make it happen that when I got waitlisted I went and participated as an apprentice at the Williamstown Theatre Festival that summer,” Brzezinski said. “I went to the president’s house. … I literally went and knocked on the door, and was like ‘I’m Mika Brzezinski, I’m trying to transfer into Williams and I’m on the waitlist, I’d like to meet with the president!’ I never got to, but … I think I wore them down.”

Later that summer, though she was anticipating a return to Georgetown, Brzezinski was accepted by the College for her junior year and moved into Bryant.

“I got in days before school started. I was already back home ready to be a junior. I had to throw everything into a Nissan Stanza and drive to Williamstown,” Brzezinski said. “I loved every minute of it; I was challenged by everybody. … I’m telling you, enjoy every moment while you’re in it. I did, and I don’t regret it.”

Brzezinski graduated two years later with her degree in English. She began her career as a broadcast journalist in Hartford, Conn., in her early 20s, working for a local FOX affiliate before joining CBS, where she quickly rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a contributor for 60 Minutes and the Sunday night anchor of the CBS Evening News. Then “Memogate” broke: Two months before the 2004 presidential election, 60 Minutes II presented unauthenticated documents criticizing former President George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard. This led to the firing of multiple CBS executives, whose replacements abruptly fired Brzezinski.

“I spent a year in the wilderness looking for a job and not being able to find one even close to what I’d had, and in a moment of desperation, I took a job that was probably something I would have laughed at 15 years earlier,” Brzezinski said. She began working as a “part-time, night-time newsreader for 30 second cut-ins on MSNBC. I did it because I needed a job, and I did it because I wasn’t going to give up.”

Brzezinski said she felt the odds had been stacked against her, especially as a woman in a historically male-dominated field. Then, an opportunity came her way in 2007 when MSNBC found itself with a vacant three-hour slot after the cancellation of Don Imus’ Imus in the Morning.

“Long story short, they recruited Joe Scarborough, he recruited me, we put together the best political show on television and 10 years later Joe, Willie [Geist] and I are the longest-running anchor team on television,” Brzezinski said.

In addition to her work on Morning Joe, Brzezinski recently embarked on a multi-city tour based on her book, Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth. The Know Your Value tour concluded with a conference in New York City at the end of October and included speakers such as Martha Stewart and Sarah Jessica Parker.

Brzezinski’s inspiration for the book came from her own experiences at Morning Joe. “When the show became an immediate hit and we got all this buzz, and [MSNBC] wanted to sign contracts with us, I was just so happy to be working again that I took the first offer, and it was very low, while Joe and Willie held out and didn’t even show up for work until they got what they wanted,” Brzezinski said. “I ended up with the lowest salary on the set by far, and in the process of trying to fix it I disgraced myself many times just using the wrong strategies and tactics to negotiate a pay raise. So, I wrote a book about it.”

After the book’s success, Brzezinski decided to expand on her message and turn it into an experience by doing an event that included a competition where women pitch themselves onstage. After a successful event in Hartford, she pitched the idea to NBC.

“We went into partnership and we did a five-city tour of Know Your Value, and brought the competition nationwide. We just did our latest big event in New York City,” Brzezinski said. “People were laughing and crying and walking away with a list of things they are doing tomorrow to change their future.”

Since the beginning of Brzezinski’s tenure at Morning Joe, the media landscape has changed drastically, with the 24-hour news cycle and social media covering world news minute by minute. It would be an understatement to say that the media’s relationship with the public, not to mention the President, has become fraught in recent years. Brzezinski shared her advice for any young people who are still interested in pursuing journalism.

“In the old days we had writers, editors, producers and it was a long process before something got on the air. And now everything is on the air all the time, in real time, live, just vomited-out information without … a lot of preparation. Look, in some ways, that’s levelling the playing field, and about anybody who wants to be a journalist can become a journalist right now,” Brzezinski said. “But the press is being so challenged by this White House and this President in a way that is so dangerous that I’m just warning anyone who wants to be in the industry, we’re under fire. We don’t need sloppy journalism. … We need measured, transparent journalism that isn’t ideologically motivated.”

  • I remember meeting Mika Brzezinski ’89 while I taught at Williams College. She seemed quiet, reticent. I do remember that many of the faculty members in the political science department were proud to have the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski at the school. I’m surprised that she struggled so hard to get into Williams given her family background. It is rumored that her test scores were quite low. See, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/magazine/mika-brzezinski-refuses-to-perk-it-up.html