Since October, Audie Cornish—formerly of NPR, now of CNN—has been doing something surprising: making an insightful news show that delivers substance without a side helping of despair.

On “The Assignment with Audie Cornish,” her weekly half-hour podcast, she interviews people whose lives intersect with current events—progressive district attorneys, OnlyFans workers, activist school-board members—in a format that allows for nuance and intimacy. Often, that format is a trialogue: a three-person conversation in which the guests, who don’t know one another, have real authority in relation to their interviewer. They aren’t chosen to create a spiky point-counterpoint dynamic; their perspectives are unique but tend to complement each other.

There’s no squabbling, no overheated rhetoric—but Cornish isn’t shy about digging in. “Wait, can we go back to walking home from church?” she asks a Texas district attorney, pressing him to reflect more personally on his experience of getting mugged as a teen-ager.

“Wait wait wait, stop stop stop,” she says to a British journalist who’s about to enumerate Prince Harry’s hypocrisies. “For the royal-watchers industrial complex, is the irritant, the annoyance, that the press is not in control?” In another episode, a pediatrician who provides gender-affirming care for trans kids keeps pausing to consider his phrasing. He’s been threatened and harassed for his work; a neighbor called him a “groomer” in the lobby of his apartment building. When he talks about the climate of vitriol, you can hear the anguish in his voice. “There are very real debates that maybe need to be had,” he says. “But they can’t be had in an environment where violence and death threats are ruling the day.”

“The Assignment” is an antidote to that environment. For a decade, NPR listeners knew Cornish, forty-three, as a co-host of “All Things Considered”: a wise, authoritative presence who interviewed Presidents, fostered interesting conversations, and delivered the day’s news. Last January, she stunned many when she announced, on Twitter, that she was “joining the Great Resignation.” Other high-profile journalists of color had recently left NPR, and fans and media-watchers wondered why.

Cornish, in her usual forthright style, explained that she was leaving for reasons of curiosity and opportunity—but that, yes, diversity issues existed at NPR, as elsewhere, and it hadn’t been a secret. In fact, Cornish’s own piece “50 and Forward,” a clear-eyed and affectionate history of the network, from 2021, had made it plain.

In it, we learn that NPR’s first director of programming, Bill Siemering, wanted the network’s voices to reflect the entire country; realizing that vision, Cornish says, is “the work that continues today.” (An NPR spokesperson said that the organization is committed to diversity, and noted that, of its ten newsmagazine hosts, six are people of color.)

What the company had accomplished—thanks largely to Cornish and her peers—was help create the modern audio landscape, even as it maintained the standards of public radio. Cornish later announced that she would host a show on CNN’s new streaming service, CNN+.

In the spring of 2022, soon after Cornish started, CNN+ was axed. CNN’s parent company, WarnerMedia, had merged with Discovery, Inc., and the resulting shakeup led to layoffs, as well as cancelled movies, TV series, and entire platforms, to widespread horror. (“Was This $100 Billion Deal the Worst Merger Ever?” a Timesheadline asked.)

Cornish, a natural on television, now appears regularly on CNN, and she’s even filled in for Don Lemon; her easy intelligence can be a little disarming in a morning-chat format. But her most interesting work is the podcast, on which—flailings of corporate overlords aside—she’s trying, week by week, to create a fresh way to present the news.

Cornish lives with her husband, Theo Emery, and their two young children in a big Victorian house in Washington, D.C. Their décor combines early American and contemporary details—a gate-leg table; a banjo clock; a print of Kadir Nelson’s oil painting “Election Results,” from 2020, depicting a smiling Black girl holding an American flag.

In the fall, as I admired the house’s high ceilings and beautiful windows, Cornish wanted to be clear: “I bought this before CNN.” We sat in rocking chairs on the broad and sunny front porch, overlooking a quiet, tree-lined street. A large fan warded off bugs; Emery, an author and editor, worked inside.

Cornish and her parents emigrated from Jamaica in the early eighties, at the height of Boston’s busing crisis. “They’re regular working-class people, which for immigrants means you’re an upper-middle-class person who comes to the U.S. and is bumped down because of discrimination,” she said. Her dad wanted to be an architect, but ended up working as a defense contractor. (“That’s the American story.”)

They lived in the Mattapan neighborhood, and Cornish went to school in Newton, a wealthy suburb, through a voluntary busing program. The commutes left an impression. “I think everyone is struck by the first time they really understand class and, in the U.S., race. It was like, ‘Why? Why is this a better situation? Why is your house that much bigger?’ ” She looked out at the street below and said, “I’m sitting on the porch of a home that looks a lot like the homes I used to see when I passed on the bus.”

The family eventually moved to Randolph, a racially diverse town on the South Shore, where Cornish’s mom ran for office as a school-board member. “She was this dark-skinned immigrant who was knocking on doors,” Cornish said. “That was probably my first introduction to politics.”

Further exposure came at home, where Cornish and her siblings grew up watching Gwen Ifill and Carole Simpson and Ed Bradley. Her parents were “acutely aware of all the people of color who were in the news,” she said, and during dinner the family discussed current events in a vigorous, democratic style, with everyone getting “a literal seat at the table.”

At the University of Massachusetts, Cornish met Nicholas McBride, a professor who deepened her love for journalism. She read “Gideon’s Trumpet” and Edward Said, texts that enriched her perspective on American politics, and joined the college radio station, which had a news department. “And that was it,” Cornish told me.

She described her first story, covering the anti-affirmative-action speaker Ward Connerly amid a phalanx of student protesters, in a way that evokes “The Assignment”: “I didn’t get there and think, I’m going to fight this guy about affirmative action. It was, Who is he? What does he think? Why does he think it? What would compel a person to stand in a room of angry young people and tell them they’re wrong over their screams?”

After graduating, Cornish moved to Boston and worked for the Associated Press, where she met Emery. She gained valuable reporting experience, including interviewing grieving locals after 9/11, but found that newspaper writing had its limitations. “I really missed hearing voices,” she said. “I just didn’t think print could do it the way an audio story could.” She soon left for NPR, and ended up in Nashville, as a regional reporter on the national desk. “The next thing I know,” she said, “I was twenty-six, married in a house with no furniture with my husband, and we had to cover the South together.” Cornish was different from her colleagues—“there weren’t really other people of color on the desk, or even people under the age of thirty”—but she relished the chance to work on new kinds of stories. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged Black communities, she didn’t want to focus solely on trauma and loss; she also watched George W. Bush’s State of the Union with locals, and learned about Mardi Gras coconuts from a member of the Zulu Krewe. When journalists rushed into the South during the 2008 election, she tried to avoid only going to “this church or that church,” a trope of Southern reporting. “There are some blinkered ways that political journalism looks at people through their identity—like, ‘You should go to a barbershop and talk to people about Obama,’ ” she said. “I was like, ‘You may not know this, but Black people also like to do other things. We don’t just get a haircut.’ ”

Cornish also worried about being pigeonholed herself, and she learned to center diverse sources “without comment,” to avoid being typecast as a race reporter. She began filling in as a host on “All Things Considered,” in D.C., and started hosting “Weekend Edition Sunday” in 2011. “The movement in those rooms was glacial,” she told me. Her predecessor, Liane Hansen, had hosted “Weekend Edition Sunday” since 1989; before Hansen was Susan Stamberg, who had hosted on the network since 1972.

But, in 2012, when Michele Norris, the first Black woman to helm an NPR show, stepped down from “All Things Considered,” NPR asked Cornish to take over. The show had around twelve million weekly listeners. Cornish was thirty-two, and some of her peers had been at NPR longer than she’d been alive.

Cornish made her own mentors, asking Stamberg and other veterans for feedback. “They tried to instill confidence,” she said. “They would talk about what it was like to exert editorial judgment and muscle in a room that may be stacked against you a little bit.”

At NPR, the institution came before the individual, and the institution had a certain way of doing things. “I spent a good amount of time trying to convince people that something was real or should be talked about,” she said. If she wanted to interview one of the biggest d.j.s in the world instead of “the Kronos Quartet or whatever”—“no shade, Kronos!”—she worried about seeming unserious, out of touch. “And the irony is it’s what everyone is talking about, right?” she said. “Like, have you ever read a profile of Serena Williams that was about just Serena Williams? Never is. It’s like maternal health, race and tennis, misogyny, about fifty other things that are not just ‘When is the first time you hit a ball?’ ”

A breeze swept across the porch. Cornish rocked gently in her chair, and thanked a postal carrier who had walked up with some mail. In college, she had been deeply influenced by Professor McBride, who argued that journalism was a holistic discipline. Doing it well required an attunement not just to social forces but to people’s daily lives, their habits and obsessions, the things they watched, listened to, and read.

“The thing I want most of all, and that I hope to do with the next few years, is to be a person who acknowledges that mix at a big mainstream place,” Cornish said. “And I couldn’t do it where I was, because it was like being in a historic home. You can paint, you can change the landscaping, but you can’t knock down any walls, and you can’t fuck with the historic house. And it’s a great house, but I was tired of people trying to tell me, like, ‘Why don’t you make this into an apartment?’ ”

Cornish travels to CNN’s Manhattan headquarters for broadcasts, but she produces “The Assignment” from the company’s D.C. office. As CNN faces its worst TV ratings in a decade, it’s also scaled up its audio infrastructure: “The Assignment” has added a showrunner and more producers, and is finding an audience as it finds itself.

Cornish occasionally struggles with post-NPR questions of identity. (“Who am I without the name of this brand behind me?” she said. “Who am I to the audience of the new brand? And since when do I refer to ‘brands?’ ”)

But she believes in what she does—making intimate, news-oriented work that “focusses on a real person, not a celebrity or media-trained person”—and believes that it can succeed. “Who are the people we don’t hear from?” she said. “That’s the bar. Let’s get into it together.”

So far, getting into it has yielded surprising results. Although the first episode, about school-board agitators, can feel like a respectful conversation with people whose voices are already too loud, the show is almost always novel; you come to know the participants as workers and thinkers, rather than as symbols for political issues.

In the OnlyFans episode, one of the series’ strongest so far, an H.I.V.-positive trans woman in New York and a gay former health-care worker in the U.K. talk about the benefits and drawbacks of doing sex work online. They’re clear-eyed about the stigma of the profession, and understand, for example, that they’ll likely never be able to work as teachers. The episode ends up being about much more than OnlyFans: sexuality, the pandemic, boundaries, the gig economy. It’s hard to imagine Cornish doing something like it on NPR.

The approach is especially powerful in “Life After the Traffic Stop,” which was released in February, after the death of Tyre Nichols. In it, Cornish talks to a writer, Leon Ford, and an attorney, Tim Alexander, about surviving police brutality in their youth. Alexander was assaulted and wrongly arrested; Ford was shot in the chest five times and paralyzed. Both men are Black. Hearing them in conversation with each other—even after years of public discussion about the subject—is viscerally affecting, in part because of their tender curiosity. “Leon, this is Tim,” Alexander says. “If you don’t mind me asking, what year did you have to go through that?” Ford says that it was 2012, when he was nineteen. Cornish observes that Alexander was nineteen when he was attacked, too. “I was thinking the same thing,” Alexander says. “And this is the very first time—I’m fifty-seven today—the very first time I’ve had an opportunity to talk to someone who had shared experiences.” Although he’s there to participate, he goes on, “I’d be more interested in sitting here just listening to you.”

Cornish deftly guides the conversation, but the episode’s strength is its respectful equanimity—the roundtable feeling that Cornish fostered in NPR interviews, and that she experienced around the dinner table in Randolph. “When people are in dialogue with each other in a group, and they outnumber the journalist, they feel comfortable,” she told me. Often, that comfort allows people to “build the story together.”

At one point, Alexander, who became a law-enforcement officer in the years following his assault, expresses sympathy for Ford, and asks how he manages his anger. When Ford tells him about seeing a therapist, listening to jazz, and avoiding violent media, he’s saying it to a peer, someone struggling with the same problem. Later, Ford says, “Hey, Tim, I’m curious . . . how do you separate your personal feelings from the work?” And how does he handle watching police-brutality videos? It varies, Alexander says: George Floyd “devastated me,” but, watching the Nichols video, “I almost immediately went into investigator mode.”

“People want to be understood,” Cornish said recently.

In the episode about police brutality, the story was not—here she adopted the tone of a bloviating newscaster—“ ‘unarmed Black men,’ or ‘The Talk.’ ” It was about two people who nearly lost their lives, and about what those lives are like today.

Cornish has said that some of her favorite conversations at NPR were with regular people who went back to their lives after she briefly quoted them on air, and one of her goals, in “The Assignment,” was to shift that dynamic: to keep listening. By stressing curiosity over persuasion, she returns the work of the news—the puzzling through of a problem, the forging of connection—to the people at its heart. “Leon, I hope we can stay in touch,” Alexander says at the end of the episode. “I hope we can have a much longer conversation someday.” ♦︎


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