A young woman ‘languishing’ at CBS gets a quick career assist from Mika Brzezinski

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Scarborough, Brzezinski and Coll on stage last night. (Peter Sterne)
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Peter Sterne

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On Tuesday night, “Morning Joe” cohost Mika Brzezinski—looking elegant in a ruffled black dress and a black coat with a ruffled fringe to match—stood in a pair of Louboutins before a long line of young women in the lecture hall of Columbia’s journalism school.

The women—mostly students and alumnae of the school—told Brzezinski one by one that she was an inspiration, a strong woman in the boys’ club of broadcast journalism. They asked to take selfies with her.

“Check if it’s good!” Brzezinski called out after every cell-phone picture was snapped. If it was blurry, she insisted they retake it. If it was good, she asked them to tweet it. (Many obliged.)

As the line dwindled, one young woman—dressed casually in a lacy, somewhat sheer purple sweater—approached Brzezinski.

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She told Brzezinski that she wasn’t a journalism student, but a professional journalist. Now 24 years old, she was working as a correspondent for Newspath, the national wire service that serviced local affiliates of CBS, Brzezinski’s old network.

She had been working for Newspath for a few years, she told Brzezinski, and she felt a little trapped. She wanted to know how she could break out and take on a role with more responsibility.

Brzezinski listened patiently, but seemed distracted. She reached for her iPhone, which was plugged into a charger on the stage, almost as soon as the young woman began speaking to her. She flipped through her contacts, tapped the phone, and made a call. The young CBS correspondent stopped talking.

Only snatches of the conversation between Brzezinski and the CBS executive could be overheard from where the young woman stood—“she’ll be in your office for 5 minutes to talk,” “she is languishing in her current job,”—but it was clear that Brzezinski had arranged a meeting between the reporter in the purple sweater and someone high up at the network.

The young woman, who declined to give her name or the name of the executive that Brzezinski had called on her behalf, later told Capital that she was surprised that Brzezinski had vouched for her.

“I did not expect that,” she said softly. “I just thought she would give me advice.”

Earlier that night, Brzezinski had given advice, as part of a panel discussion with her “Morning Joe” co-host, Joe Scarborough, and the Columbia Journalism School’s dean, Steve Coll. The three were perched on high stools, and Brzezinski's sunglasses were perched atop her head; it was a contrast with Scarborough, looking like the frumpy Catholic high-school debate-team star in tan chinos, a blue blazer, a white dress shirt and chunky black oxfords.

She first instructed the women in the audience to stand up for themselves when negotiating salaries. (She’s also written a book about this.)

“Don’t worry about being friends with everyone in the room,” she told them. “That’s what girls do. We tend to apologize on our way into things.”

Then she emphasized that women who want both a fulfilling career and a fulfilling personal life must work hard at both, rather than assuming that the latter will just happen.

“Finding a life partner is really hard. Having kids is really hard!” she said. “It’s not the kind of thing where you can just turn a switch and children just appear.”

“You’re going to be working when you have kids, that’s the reality,” she added.

Scarborough weighed in on this too. He offered that he had known many women who ignored their personal lives and focused exclusively on their careers, only to eventually be let go and have nothing. “Then they’re crying in the newsroom,” he said.

Brzezinski was a role model in this, too, Scarborough seemed to say. In 2004, she was unceremoniously fired from CBS, where she worked as a correspondent and an anchor for the evening newscast.

“Mika gave everything she had to CBS. She got fired on her 39th birthday,” Scarborough said, with a hint of self-righteous outrage. “She actually had her family to go home to.”

After being fired by CBS, Brzezinski was out of work for a few years, until she eventually landed a low-level job at MSNBC. When MSNBC created “Morning Joe,” she tried out as Scarborough’s cohost, and got the job.

Once Brzezinski got off the phone with that CBS executive, I asked her why she had been willing to go out on a limb for a young woman she had known for only a few seconds. She seemed surprised by the question.

“Because that’s what women should do for each other, anyone should do for anyone!” she said, laughing. “And because I can.”

Then she praised her new friend. “I can tell she’s going to be a star. She just needs a break,” she said. “I made the meeting. I would have loved for someone to have done that for me, let me just tell you.”