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“I Had Grown Too Big to Shrink”: Tiffany D. Cross on her Journey from the Control Room to the Green Room

by on August 13, 2020

Tiffany D. Cross has been a major player in the news media for nearly two decades, from working as an Associate Producer for CNN, to co-founding the influential newsletter The Beat DC, to her current appearances as an on-air political analyst on MSNBC. In her new book, Say It Louder: Black Voters, White Narratives, and Saving Our Democracy, Cross digs into the current landscape of the news media, exploring how a lack of diversity in newsrooms shapes not only what stories are covered but also how they are reported, and then examining the resultant effect on day-to-day life in the United States. Through comprehensive data analysis as well as exploring key moments in U.S. history, Cross investigates the critical role Black voters have played in past elections, and how that role has been misunderstood and under-reported by the media. The result is an illuminating look at the current political moment that profoundly shapes how readers consume and examine news media. Say It Louder has earned praise from critics. Publishers Weekly stated that Cross “writes with an eloquent rage and makes a convincing case that ‘empowering and employing’ people of color in the media is essential to preserving democracy,” while The New York Times noted that Cross’ “proposed solutions are practicable and wise.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Cross via telephone on August 3rd, 2020.

How did you arrive at the book’s title? Why was Say It Louder the perfect title for your book?

At first, I was talking to my friend Albert Sanders, who used to work in the White House Counsel Office for Obama, and he suggested Say it Loud. I thought that was great, but then I tooled with it and thought, “I really don’t like that, because it sounds antiquated.” I feel like the whole point is there’s a new generation of people out there, even behind me. My friend and nemesis, Dr. Jason Johnson, who I appear with on air all the time, we were going back and forth on Twitter and people kept saying, “Say it louder, Tiffany, for the people in the back.” He said, “That should be your book. Say It Louder for the People in the Back.” I meshed a bunch of different ideas together and came up with Say it Louder: Black Voters, White Narratives, and Saving Our Democracy, because I really wanted the subtitle to explain what people were getting.

While the book is not a memoir, you do include a lot of stories from your own life throughout. How did you decide which parts of your personal narrative to share?

That was another challenging thing. I had the idea that nobody would be interested in my personal story. My friends, in helping me edit the book, including Dr. Jason Johnson, including my friend Albert, they kept telling me, “No, people want your story.” I thought, “People aren’t really interested in that.” I only included a little bit because I had this idea that people would read it and say, “Oh my gosh this is all about her.” (laughs) I really could have written an entire book on my time at CNN, because there was so much I left out, so much about my own complicated entrée into the [news media] world at sixteen years old. I’m really surprised, elated, and happy that people connected to the world of my personal story. It gives me the courage to write another book, and maybe include a little more about my personal life. I really wanted to focus on the subject matter, and I was trying to use my life as a touchpoint to punctuate the larger points that I was trying to make. Honestly, I regret not including more of my personal story now that people have received it well. I think we’re all thirsty for public adoration sometimes. I’m no different! (laughs) I was afraid people would drag me, and the opposite has happened. People have found it relatable, which is the most touching thing of all.

Have you gotten a lot of response from readers already?

I’ve heard from a lot of people. People email me through my website. So many young people reach out and ask if I can mentor them. I’ve heard from people who are in the biz, people who are older than me, who say that they wish that they had a book like this when they were younger. One of my favorite things is when people send me pictures of them reading the hard copy that they’ve completely marked up: highlighted, folded pages, filled with sticky notes. That is a really engaged reader! I love when people tag me in those posts or when people tweet me and ask me questions. This is a subject I care deeply about. I’m excited to talk to other people who’ve found a connection with the book and want to talk about it.

That reminds me of you writing about how you wanted to be Murphy Brown when you were younger, but there was no representation on TV for you.

I wanted to be the brown Murphy Brown! (laughs) I had to envision myself. They did their best to make Murphy Brown this soulful white woman. She loved Motown and she was all about equal rights and power to the people. I really admired her, but I still had to imagine a Murphy Brown who looked like me. This was during the rise of Oprah, and that was super exciting. I remember the day Oprah’s show premiered. I never missed a day of her show. That was one way in which I felt, “Yes, perhaps there’s space for me.” Even now, when I’m exhausted and I’ve worked an eighteen hour day, I think, “Does Oprah get this tired?” But I also think, “Would the ancestors be this tired? What right do I have to be tired?” Or even when I’m mad about things, when I feel like, “Damn, this is still a system where white men control so much about my life,” and I get so irritated that white men are controlling how I advanced in my career, I remind myself, “Think about what the women before you went through, and the women before them.” They never got tired, they never gave up. They kept fighting. They spoke their truths, despite some people potentially being uncomfortable. They spoke it and endured the consequence of it and lived to tell about it. For the most part. Some people didn’t, but many people did. I let that carry me. Even today as we speak. I’m super annoyed about a lot. (laughs) I find a way to find a smile on my face and keep going, and most importantly keep writing.

At one point in the book, you write, “Newsroom diversity literally impacts democracy.” Can you talk about what you mean by that?

For so long, the white media gatekeepers would bleach the American experience. That came in the form of a lot [of things]. One example is the narrative that Black people just didn’t show up in 2016 and we got Donald Trump, which is one, a lie. Black people did show up. If you’re going to talk about the Black drop off we had, it is obligatory upon the news landscape to immediately follow that up with GOP-led voter suppression, with foreign-led voter suppression that specifically targeted Black voters, and with disproportionate gerrymandering that diluted Black voting power with surgical precision from the Supreme Court down. But you didn’t hear that story. Even voter suppression. We did not see a lot about voter suppression until recently. But you remember what we saw in Wisconsin—shots of people standing in long lines in the rain during a global pandemic—and everyone saying, “Oh my gosh look at how awful this is. For anybody who grew up voting in a Black neighborhood, there was nothing spectacular about that scene. This is how Black voters have always endured participating in democracy. We’ve long stood in lines for hours risking our lives and livelihoods to vote. It didn’t become a story until Donald Trump started attacking mail-in balloting, which affects white people. Then all of a sudden it was, “Let’s do a story on voter suppression.”

Even the way the media talks about voters. You hear how they talk about white voters. They say, “White college-educated women, non-college-educated white men, NASCAR dads, Soccer moms”—all the euphemisms we have for white voters. But when it comes to Black voters, it’s just a simple “The Black Vote.” But guess what? Black voters aggregate in the same way, but we’re never afforded cute little colloquialisms or nicknames discussed playfully in the media. We still live under the same umbrella. Those are just surface ways, but there are also a myriad of policy ways that we’re impacted by the media doing this as well, which I detail in the book.

In your transition to on air political analyst, how did you apply what you had learned and observed working on the other side of the camera to your on-camera appearances?

Because I had spent twenty years of my life in television and politics, I grew up in newsrooms. It was a very smooth transition for me going from the control room to the green room. I did talent development, I scouted reporters, I looked for analysts who could bring it. I realized that the years I was doing that, I was really trying to teach people to be like me! (laughs) I was too insecure to ever be on camera, but I knew what I wanted to say and I knew how I would say it. I would try to train people to be authentic on camera. “You’re talking to me one way, and then when I hit record you sound completely different.” When it was my turn to do that, I had to make a commitment to myself that I was going to show up and be my authentic self. The same way I’m talking to you on the phone is the same way I’m talking to my mother when I go to her house, it’s the same way I talk when someone stops me on the street, it’s the same way I’m talking to the president of NBC. There is no different me. I think that has afforded me credibility with viewers. For so long I’ve tried to shrink myself in news rooms that didn’t value me, that overlooked me, that underestimated me, but I got to a point in life where I was tired of doing that. I had grown too big to shrink. I had grown too confident to shrivel, and I just refused to do it.

Ambition, as we’ve seen, has become such an ugly word to apply to women, but I knew when I was on that set that I had earned the right to be there. I was ambitious enough to claim my space, and to not yield my time to other people. I was going to say what I had to say, and I knew that was going to make some people on set and some people at home uncomfortable, but as you know in the book, I’m very comfortable making people uncomfortable. It’s a moment in time where we need truth tellers to spark this important conversation we’re having right now and to move this racial reckoning that has been centuries in the making.

You dive into different moments of U.S. History, including the Red Summer of 1919. How did you decide to focus on that period of time?

I wanted to focus on the Red Summer because that was the first time the Russians tried to infiltrate our election process. I also wanted to focus on the Red Summer because I wanted to create a wrinkle in time for the reader and show that a century later, not much had changed. Remember, I wrote this before Ahmaud Arbery, before George Floyd, before Breonna Taylor. It just shows how systemic and routine the brutality against Black people has been in this country. I didn’t anticipate that we would be at this moment at the time when my book came out, but I knew all the years that it had been this way, so why would I anticipate that it would be any different? The only difference was the media was at a moment where they had to pay attention to it, because Black people have always had to die in spectacular fashion to pierce the white narrative of what happens to us. When my book came out in this particular time it almost seemed divine, that yes, a hundred years ago we were dealing with the same exact thing. We were dealing with the Spanish Flu, we were dealing with increased brutality against Black people, we were on the precipice of slowly walking towards the Great Depression. This wrinkle in time is a very scary wake-up call to what we could be facing for anybody who reads this book. I don’t know what tomorrow brings, but it feels like we’re standing on a shore with a tsunami at our front and a raging wildfire to our back. What do we, as a collective human race, do at this moment?

What role has the public library played in your life?

When I was writing this book, I spent so much time in public libraries. Being enclosed in a space, surrounded by books, afforded me the opportunity to go and read a chapter in a book, and then go back and write. I think for people who want to be great writers, you have to first be great readers. I love the written word. I love reading. Sometimes I would get stuck and I would go read a page out of a Toni Morrison book, I would read a chapter out of Baldwin. They were my muses. I proudly carry my public library card with me. Growing up, my mother used to take me to the public library all the time. That’s how I first got introduced to reading, and it was how I first got introduced to writing. The public library has been such a part of my growth as a writer, a part of my rearing, as someone in the literary community, and just an escape. When life has thrown me a curveball or two, I could always go to the library.