Media People: Stephanie Ruhle Wants to Win Hearts and Minds
Stephanie Ruhle is not a flame thrower, but there are occasions when she has no choice but the throw some heat.
During an interview in January on her MSNBC program “The 11th Hour” with Lauren Boebert — the cartoonish, gun-toting Republican representative from Colorado — Ruhle’s questions about why the hard-right rump of the GOP were futilely blocking Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s quest to become Speaker of the House were so insistent as to leave metaphorical grille marks.
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“What you’re doing today is blocking your own party. Is that what your voters asked you to do?” she quizzed Boebert from beneath arched eyebrows.
When Boebert began to spout off about the intentions of the “founding fathers,” Ruhle cut her off: “Our founding fathers aren’t here, so let’s get real.”
When Boebert insisted she was striving for “consensus,” Ruhle retorted: “Maybe you and I have a different definition of consensus.”
And so it went. Until Ruhle wrapped up by thanking her guest and inviting her to come back and discuss “red flag laws” which, not incidentally, are “overwhelmingly popular with the American people.”
Boebert was left sputtering insults before her mic was cut off. She has not returned to “The 11th Hour.”
Since Ruhle, 47, took over the 11 p.m. show in March 2022 — after Brian Williams retired from his longtime TV news home — she has carved out a persona as a pragmatic, voice-of-reason interlocutor who is not led by ideology. She is an increasingly rare iteration of a TV news anchor: one whose “guiding light,” as she puts it, is “let’s just look at the facts.”
Ruhle — a married mom of a 9-year-old daughter and two boys, ages 14 and 16 — segued from an early career in investment banking (at Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse) to TV news at Bloomberg, where she was an anchor and managing editor for Bloomberg Television and editor-at-large for Bloomberg News. She joined MSNBC in 2016. She continues to serve as NBC News senior business analyst and has also anchored the network’s political coverage, including the State of Union with co-anchor Ali Velshi and the midterm elections alongside Rachel Maddow, Nicolle Wallace and Joy Reid.
She may be one of MSNBC’s star anchors, but her approach to journalism is service-oriented. It’s an ethos she exudes in her off hours too, where she is active in women’s mentorship programs. She founded the Corporate Investment Bank Women’s Network and co-chaired Women on Wall Street. She’s a member of the board of trustees for Girls Inc. NYC (and has been honored as one of their Women of the Year) and has served on numerous councils including iMentor and The White House Project.
The shift from morning TV — she previously anchored the 9 a.m. hour on MSNBC — to late night has offered a welcome lifestyle shift because she gets to see her children after school and participate in school events. And, she says, nighttime TV affords an opportunity to forge a deeper connection to viewers.
“Where are people at night? In their beds, on their couches. They’re in their trusted space,” she says. “You’re not just on a random screen in somebody’s office or an airport, you’re in their home, you’re in their bedroom. I think we have to take that very seriously and build a trusted relationship with our audience.”
Viewership for Ruhle’s “The 11th Hour” indicates she is building that connection. In February, “The 11th Hour with Stephanie Ruhle” extended MSNBC’s winning streak over rival CNN to 79 months among total viewers, and four consecutive months among the advertiser-coveted 25-54 age demographic.
As Ruhle marks one year in “The 11th Hour” anchor chair, she talks to WWD about disarming Twitter haters, the human riddle that is Elon Musk and why she doesn’t really mind if her teenage boys are Joe Rogan fans.
Brian Williams was an outsize figure at NBC News. Was there any trepidation about following in his footsteps?
When I was moving into this slot, people said to me, “What are you going to call the show? How are you going to change it?” Why would I ever change the name of the show? Brian made it a special destination at a chaotic time during the Trump administration. So I wouldn’t say there was trepidation. It was a huge honor for me to get this opportunity. Especially because I never viewed Brian as particularly opinionated or tied to any ideology. And my goal has been, how do I step into that role and put my stamp on it?
During your time at MSNBC, which is a decidedly left-leaning network, you have also have managed to carve out a persona not tied to any ideology. How have you managed to pull that off?
I’m the senior business analyst for NBC News, and that’s really important to me. And it was important to me when I took over this show, because I wanted to be sure we stayed grounded in covering the most important stories. My bias is to help people get better and smarter. A through line for everything I cover is, follow the money. It’s oversight. I think every person out there deserves to be financially secure, socially free, physically safe. And if we can cover stories and follow the money in a way that will help people, that’s a recipe for success.
So why does everything seem so polarizing?
I think that during the Trump administration, things seemed more one-sided for many reasons. There was a whole lot more fact checking because there were a lot of facts to be checked. We have a segment called For Facts Sake, where we’re calling out everybody. One of the most important stories we covered last year was about members of Congress trading stocks. Who was the person who held up any possible legislation [on that issue]? It was former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I think the majority of Americans don’t actually care about politics. They care about taking care of their families, they care about education, they care about putting food on the table.
I agree with you. I don’t think most Americans care about right or left. I think that they are frustrated by the performative outrage and the bickering and the pettiness in Washington. So much of our political media is focused on the fighting, the heat, instead of the light. How do you break through that?
To be provocative is not news. I don’t need to throw fire. I don’t need to drop bombs on Twitter to be relevant. I have the privilege of working here. I think over time, if you can be good, and if people can trust you, it’s a better way. At least for me. When I took the show over, we didn’t try to start it with a bang. We didn’t need jazzy new graphics and a new title. We just need to help people. There are major things going on. We’re coming out of COVID[-19]. We’re in a really difficult economic recovery. And there’s a war on the other side of the world. I don’t think we have to be flashy.
Let’s talk about that Lauren Boebert interview.
We definitely got a lot of flak from people saying, “How could you bring her on given her record?” Lawmakers who are just fire-throwers, who like to get lots of media attention, but who aren’t on committees, who aren’t involved in legislation, are not really people I would bring on. And that’s irrelevant of one’s political affiliation. Lauren Boebert came on TV in the middle of the Speaker vote when she was one of 20 Republicans who was blocking Kevin McCarthy getting the gavel. I thought it was a hugely important time to have Lauren Boebert on. She wasn’t on talking about gun control. She wasn’t on talking about the vaccine. She was at that moment in the center of an issue that was stopping our government from working. If you don’t have a Speaker, Congress doesn’t function. We were there to talk about the Speaker vote. And I think we did that successfully. I’m glad we did the interview. Of course within the next 48 hours, she changed her mind. I get why someone might not want to hear from a person who’s just seeking media attention. But in that case, it had real consequences about a functioning government. I think it was a super important interview.
I don’t dispute that it was appropriate to have her on, given the insanity she was in part responsible for in the chamber at that moment. I guess my question is, how do you get politicians to just be honest on TV?
I’m not going into those interviews looking for a fight for the sake of a fight. I’m not looking for somebody to win and somebody to lose. She went on for a reason. We stuck to the topic. We’re not here to talk seven, eight different topics, especially with someone who has a history of not telling the truth.
I have noticed that you also are not shy about engaging with people of Boebert’s ilk, the flame-throwers and hecklers, on social media.
Every single night when I am on my way home from the show, I go on social media and I respond to almost every mean tweeter. I don’t ever respond back with hate. I think that we’ve all gotten really lazy and mean-spirited on Twitter. I take every piece of feedback and I think about it, and I try to respond to every person, every hater with something constructive. And what’s really interesting is, more often than not, people will apologize, they’ll take it back, they’ll delete it. I don’t think people actually want to be that mean. I don’t want to be mean for the sake of being mean. I’d like to raise the discourse. And when people tell me they don’t like how my voice sounds or how I look, I thank them for their criticism. And usually people come back and say, “I don’t know why I said that. I’m sorry.” If that little bit of effort that I’m making from 12 to 12:15 every night when I’m heading home from work, before I do Wordle, if that will help make a connection or get somebody to open their mind or open their heart a little bit, that’s a huge win for me
Yes, I can see how that would be disarming.
Right? If you respond with love, if you responded with an open heart and open mind, what’s the worst that could happen? They could shoot another insult at you? Or maybe just maybe, I changed that person’s mind.
Who is the one person you really want to get on the show?
What would you ask him?
He has an enormous fan base. Recently, when he [tweeted] something a little frat boy-ish, I wrote: Imagine if Elon Musk used his enormous power and influence to be positive, to be a force for good? I have 14- and 16-year-old sons who worship him. They think everything he does is the coolest thing imaginable, whether it’s SpaceX, or Tesla, or even in a crypto space. And so I’m saying imagine if somebody like this, who had all that influence, especially over young boys, how much it would change things if he just took a different stroke. And he responded back to me and said: Imagine if MSNBC did that. People interpreted that as this argument. And I responded: Well, great. Come on my show tonight. I’m just saying what I’m trying to say in our show every night. What if we try to raise the discourse? It doesn’t mean you can’t call people out when they’re wrong. But it does mean you don’t have to be nasty and snarky for the sake of it.
Are you going to get him on the show?
I don’t know. But I’d sure like to. There are other hugely important cultural figures who have huge influence in business and politics. Look at Joe Rogan. I can also see the influence he has over my teenage sons. As a mom to two boys who look up to him, I wonder if [he knows] the awesome responsibility he has. I think it’s interesting and I think talking to people like that is interesting. And I’d love to do more of that in the coming year.
So your sons listen to the Joe Rogan Experience.
[Laughs] When they can, and they’re allowed to. Be honest, in a universe of what our children are allowed to do and what they do — especially when it comes to my 16-year-old — if the worst thing they’re finding on the internet is a provocative podcaster, I consider that a blessing in my life.
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