Laura Coates and Abby Phillip aren't 'mouthpieces.' CNN hopes they can revive the brand

Two women pose back to back
Laura Coates, left, and Abby Phillip pose for a portrait at CNN's offices at New York's Hudson Yards.
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During the last two years, the "C" in CNN easily could have stood for "chaotic" instead of "cable."

The all-news network has been staggered by a flurry of high-profile embarrassments: an executive scandal involving its former president Jeff Zucker; the firings of veteran anchors Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon, a widely criticized Donald Trump town hall and the turbulent reign of Chris Licht, who was booted from his job as chairman after 13 months. The network's reputation was severely damaged and its ratings sank.

Under the leadership of newly arrived chief executive Mark Thompson, CNN is aggressively moving to regain its footing and put its missteps in the rearview mirror, propelled by a revamped prime-time lineup that will spotlight two of the network's most seasoned journalists.

Abby Phillip, the network's former senior political correspondent and host of "Inside Politics Sunday," will anchor "CNN NewsNight With Abby Phillip." Laura Coates, who was senior legal analyst, will follow with "Laura Coates Live." Both nightly shows premiere Oct. 16.

Read more: Don Lemon was the brightest star at CNN. Then he became the story

Phillip and Coates say their respective shows will move beyond the headlines and be more analytical than the standard CNN newscast. They also praised the network for elevating two Black women into its prime-time slate.

"I'm so excited that Abby and I get a chance to pass the baton from one to the other," said Coates. "Having two Black women at the helm of prime-time coverage speaks volumes about CNN's commitment to representation. We are not mouthpieces. We are women who take seriously this enormous and generous platform we've been given, and we will do it with a unique perspective that is unlike anywhere else on TV."

"It's a bold statement, however you want to look at it," added Phillip.

Phillip and Coates discussed their new ventures in separate Zoom interviews with The Times. The following conversations have been edited for clarity and length.



The headline words 'I'm no shrinking violet'
The headline words 'I'm no shrinking violet'
A woman in a blue blouse poses for a portrait looking serious
A woman in a blue blouse poses for a portrait looking serious

Coates joined CNN in 2016 and was its senior legal analyst. She served as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, and also as an assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia. Coates is a graduate of Princeton University and the University of Minnesota Law School. In her interview with The Times, she spoke about being passed over for the job of hosting "Jeopardy!" despite being recommended by Alex Trebek, the recent turmoil at CNN and more.

Before he passed, "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek recommended you as his successor. But you were not even offered an opportunity to guest-host. In an interview, you said you are a believer in the adage, "When one door closes, another one opens." Is "Laura Coates Live" a demonstration of that?

I was very grateful to have Alex mention my name. The universe has a funny way of winking. When doors close, it's hard to keep faith in things or be confident about what's coming next. But you just have to have faith that the universe will embrace you. I am fundamentally a storyteller, and I love a vehicle where I can do that. Perhaps doing "Jeopardy!" would have been a lot easier because I would have had the answers in front of me. What a joy that would have been! But I'm still going to ask the questions and get to the bottom of things.

What was the process of this show happening?

I'm not a shrinking violet. I was very vocal in raising my own hand and being my own champion. I felt I had a home in the prime-time space and wasn't shy about asking for that. It wasn't ego-driven — I wanted the opportunity to elevate the conversation by doing the stories people most care about at a time they're able to fully engage. I had multiple opportunities filling in at various hours. Don Lemon very early on allowed me to sit in for him. He was very eager to give me the space to grow and professionally mature. I will always be grateful for that — not every anchor was as accommodating or immediately encouraging on that front.

Speaking of Don, what's your feeling on how the situation with him was handled?

I was sad to see a man that I respected so much, and had been a mentor and unapologetic supporter of causes and news stories I care deeply about, no longer be beside me. I believe he will reemerge in a space that really is his calling. I miss him deeply.

So there's been a lot of turmoil at CNN over the past few years...

Really? [Laughs.] I hadn't noticed.

What was your process in dealing with what was happening around you?

I was as frustrated as everyone else that the reputation of CNN — a network and institution I deeply respect — seemed to be in question. I tried to remain encouraged that the people I work with would collectively find the way to course-correct. I took the approach of "Keep your head down, do the work." While all this was going on, the news didn't stop, and the American people and the world had a right and need to hear about the news, not those who produce the news.

What was your working relationship with Chris Licht like?

When we would speak, it was always clear that he had a directive that was amorphous, and I was not always privy to what the endgame would be. I always felt I had to be my own champion, and I was fighting for myself during those conversations. Even though what I was championing was not ultimately honored. I'll leave it there.

How has it been with Mark Thompson and the new management?

I'm thrilled to have a fresh perspective and someone who is extremely excited about CNN programming. Mark has a real hunger to ensure that it's not just the stories inside the Beltway that get our attention. That speaks volumes to me as someone who has lived most of her life outside the Beltway. He has become an intellectual kindred spirit — he subscribes, like me, [to the view] that it's not the quantity of the stories. It's the quality.

It will be a renaissance and rejuvenation of the Larry King experience. It's not coincidence that the show is called "Laura Coates Live," like "Larry King Live."

Coates on the style of her CNN prime-time show

What is your show going to be like?

It will be a renaissance and rejuvenation of the Larry King experience. It's not coincidence that the show is called "Laura Coates Live," like "Larry King Live." I always loved the intimate experience, where the viewers feel like they are in the room where it's happening. I am a conduit to the questions they want asked. It will have a late-night vibe.

The topic of race in this country is extremely divisive. What is your opinion on how it is handled in the media?

I don't have blinders or rose-colored glasses on when it comes to the state of America and how race shapes the way people see the world. We shouldn't shy away from it and I will not, especially at a time when people would prefer to remain in a comfort zone — even if that means erasing history. We have to fight that perspective that we should not tell the truth, even when it is uncomfortable.

Do you watch Fox News or other conservative platforms?

I watch and study conservative voices on the news. I think it is essential that we understand how people are getting their news and what's informing them. I want to understand how people think, the nature and substance of their arguments. and I want to be able to prove the truth where it does not exist.

What are you most excited about with "Laura Coates Live"?

Disrupting the status quo of what you think the news is, and bringing you what the actual conversation is, the way real people think and talk. What a dream it is to have a platform where I can bring people's stories to light, ask the questions that I myself want answers to, and become the person who is the perpetual friend or colleague at the head of the audience.


A woman dressed in red leans against a glass window's frame.
A woman dressed in red leans against a glass window's frame.

Phillip joined CNN in 2017 to cover the Trump administration. She also has served as senior political correspondent and host of "Inside Politics Sunday." Phillip is a graduate of Harvard University. In her interview with The Times, she addressed why TV reporters have such difficulty doing live interviews with Donald Trump, Lemon's departure from the network and more.

Congratulations on your show. How did it come about?

If you had asked me six months ago if I thought I would be anchoring a 10 p.m. show, I would have said, "You're crazy." It felt to me like it happened very quickly.

What was your reaction when you were offered the job?

I had to reframe in my own mind what I thought prime-time could be, and whether I fit into that. Once that happened, I felt it was a great opportunity — and an important one, at a critical moment.

How so?

Right now I think there's a real appetite for understanding the news. That's what I think I can offer our audience. Part of my role as a TV journalist is not just to tell people what is happening, but to help them digest and put it in the proper context.

This move is taking place following a period of incredible tumult at CNN. How did you process that period and deal with what was going on in the newsroom?

It was a chaotic and challenging time, coming after a major presidential election. I was a new anchor at the time, and I just focused on the task at hand, keeping my head down, getting settled in my time slot and developing myself as an anchor. It's unfortunate that so much of what was going on was a distraction from what most of us have been doing.

What's it been like moving past that messy drama?

I feel really good about where things are right now. I have worked in a lot of places in journalism, and I think the relative stability of the Jeff Zucker years was rather unusual. Upheaval is to be expected in this business. There's a lot of work to do, but there's a hunger in this organization to get our sea legs again.

What was your working relationship with Chris Licht like?

It was always very cordial. I was not super high on the list of things he was working on, so it wasn't a terribly deep relationship. But it was always pleasant. That's about as much as I can say.

What's your feeling about how the Don Lemon situation was handled?

Don is a friend. It was a sad time for me and a lot of people. He is an adult, and I think he is responsible for his part in anything that transpired. But the way that everything happened, the negativity that was associated with it — it was unfortunate to see his time at CNN end that way. I believe in treating people with respect, especially when they've given a lot of their lives to an organization. That's what they're entitled to.

What have your interactions with CNN's new head Mark Thompson been like?

Mark has the right mix of skills for the challenge like this. He's very pleasant to be around in the brief interaction we've had so far. His job requires someone with a lot of experience and who has a track record of collaboration. I'm in a hopeful place and I think it's going to be great.

I don't like to see people yelling over each other on TV. I don't think it's effective. But I will not allow people to come on my show and tell blatant lies.

Phillip on handling combative interview subjects

What will be distinctive about your show?

This show is going to evolve and grow and expand as it goes along. One of the things that I think people know me for is raising perspectives that are not always the obvious ones, getting us to think harder about what is happening and why it's important to you. I want it to be a deeply analytical show.

One of your most distinctive characteristics is that you always are measured and calm, even when the people you're talking to are lying or getting agitated.

That's just who I am as a person. If someone around me is getting really loud, I will get really quiet. I respond to that energy by just taking it down a notch and getting to the heart of the matter. I'm not going to get whipped up into hysterics because someone is lying to me. I'm going to say, "Hold on, let's just state what the facts are." I think it's also just a more effective approach. I don't like to see people yelling over each other on TV. I don't think it's effective. But I will not allow people to come on my show and tell blatant lies if I am in that position.

Speaking of lies, mainstream journalists on TV have still not mastered the art of interviewing Donald Trump live. He just steamrolls over them and takes control of the conversation. Would you want to have him come on your show?


What are journalists doing wrong when they try to interview him?

There is no magic bullet in doing an interview with him, particularly when he sees a journalist who is adversarial toward him. Everyone who has tried to interview him have all tried to do the same thing. People who think it's a walk in the park don't know what they're talking about. They say, "I can do it better." But they've never done it.

I've never interviewed him live or to tape on television, but there's only one way to have control over the conversation to the extent that you can. You have to know where he is going, and interrupt when you need to, to move on or redirect. He needs to be interviewed on a regular basis because he very well could be the Republican nominee for president. You need to be armed with an encyclopedic knowledge of where he is going with every question you ask, a willingness to speak up or stop things before they get out of hand. We have learned there is a risk with just letting his falsehoods roll out and into the world.

What is your feeling about the explosive discussions revolving around race, and how the media is handing the issue?

It's an inescapable topic in our society. I cover not only race but politics, and you cannot cover politics in America without covering race. It's essential to understanding what's going on in our nation. But sometimes the discussion is two-dimensional, and it gets overly partisan in a way that is not clarifying. I'm interested in exploring how race plays out in people's lives, dealing with it in a way that doesn't fit into the usual pockets.

Do you watch Fox News or other conservative platforms?

Not really. I'm aware when things come to my attention. But I don't have the time to watch, and I don't see the value in doing that.

What are you most excited about with your new show?

Thinking creatively about ways to do stories, bringing in voices that we don't regularly hear from. I want to spotlight people who can reflect a perspective that's closer to the average person, and not just people in Washington or New York. Hopefully people will see something that they don't usually see on CNN.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.