Breaking Away

By Dick Anderson

Mother of two and yoga enthusiast Yasmin Vossoughian ’00 brings her passion for storytelling to the MSNBC anchor desk

Yasmin Vossoughian ’00 does not consider herself a writer. “I like to interact with people—that’s how I learn,” she explains. For an economics class at Oxy, the assignment was to do a report on the differences between what people do in society. With video camera in hand, she chronicled a day in the life of a sewage worker and a CEO, shooting in manholes and high-rises and talking with both about their work—one for minimum wage, the other for millions a year.

“A lot of people wrote papers, but I wanted to do it this way,” Vossoughian recalls. When she showed the finished piece in class (“I wouldn’t say it was a documentary—it was a four-minute video by a 21-year-old kid”), everyone liked it. “Someone said, ‘You’re gonna be the next Barbara Walters,’” she adds with a laugh. “I definitely don’t think I’m headed in that direction, but I thought, ‘Maybe there is something here.’”

Vossoughian still dismisses any comparisons to the pioneering broadcast journalist, but she is still telling stories as an anchor for MSNBC, cable’s second-most-popular news channel (trailing perennial leader Fox News) and the only cable network in the top 25 to grow by double digits in 2018 (up 12 percent in average daily viewers).

Since joining MSNBC in 2017, Vossoughian has been a fixture on the channel as co-anchor of “Morning Joe: First Look,” the predawn newscast that leads into MSNBC’s signature morning show, and her own Sunday afternoon news hour, on which she and a panel discuss the week’s biggest headlines.

“Yasmin is genuinely compassionate about the stories and topics she covers,” says “First Look” co-anchor Ayman Mohyeldin, “and she always has a keen interest in listening to what her guests have to say.”

He cites an on-air moment at the height of the immigration debate last summer, at a time when migrant children had died in U.S. custody. “Yasmin closed out her Sunday show with a poignant reminder about the need to focus on the human cost of our policymakers’ inaction,” Mohyeldin recalls. “Her words were a powerful and compassionate reminder that this debate is about much more than dollars and miles, but about real people and their lives.”

“I love breaking news,” Vossoughian says, sitting down in mid-December at MSNBC’s headquarters at 30 Rock in New York City. (Leading the news cycle that day: former Trump attorney and “fixer” Michael Cohen’s sentencing to three years in federal prison.) “I’m just this junkie when it comes to that.”

Hearkening back to her days at Oxy, she admits, “I never liked writing long papers. I didn’t take three weeks to study for a final—I studied the night before. That’s not a great thing, but it actually serves you well in news. I download all this information, it sits inside of me and marinates, and then I go on the news. Then, the next day, it’s all different. Breaking news just fits my personality.”

Growing up, Vossoughian went to Northfield Mount Hermon, a boarding school in western Massachusetts renowned for its commitment to equity and multiculturalism. When it came to choosing a college, she was looking for a school with a similar demographic—and Occidental’s No. 1 ranking for diversity among liberal arts colleges in U.S. News & World Report made an impression on her: “One of the main reasons why I went to Oxy, and it rang true, was the diversity.”

Vossoughian is Iranian-American: “My parents are from Iran. I was born and raised in the United States,” she says. “I grew up in a smaller town about an hour north of New York City that was not diverse. My family is Muslim. There were maybe three Jewish kids and three black kids in my hometown. And so I really crave diversity in my life—it’s something I’ve always been drawn to.”

Classes at Oxy on the African diaspora and genocide in 20th-century Europe made a lasting impression on Vossoughian, but it would take her some time to find a career path to her liking. Prior to Oxy, she flirted with the idea of a job inside the Beltway, but after doing an internship on Capitol Hill as a teenager, “I recognized politics was not my thing,” she says. “I didn’t want to work for the government—but I maybe wanted to work in a capacity in which I could question the government.”

While her sister was a physician and her brother was pursuing academia, “I was kind of the rebel,” she says. “Immigrant parents are always wanting their kids to be physicians, especially in the Persian community.” Her father, a doctor, urged her to pursue economics: “That’s where people are making money these days and making a difference.”

But after taking a few econ classes, she says, “I realized I just wasn’t into it. Straight finance is tough for me to wrap my head around.” (Even now, on the job, “Whenever there’s a market or finance story I’m like, ‘Oh God,’” she adds with a laugh.) So she went the history route instead with a theater minor—good preparation for a journalism career.

“Ever since I was a kid, I had this craving to interview and talk to people, and since I was living in L.A. at that point, I thought maybe it would be in an entertainment capacity,” she says. As a sophomore, she did an internship in A&R with a music company, and instead of going abroad her junior year she came back to New York for a semester, took some classes at NYU, and did an internship at MTV (followed by a summer internship at Cosmo Girl). “I was definitely trending in the entertainment journalism realm,” she notes, but it was that video for her econ class that “kind of put me over the edge.”

After graduating from Oxy, Vossoughian got a job at E! Entertainment TV in New York City. She worked for “The Howard Stern Show” for a bit, and then picked up a second gig as a production assistant for the Style Network (which, like E!, was owned by NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment Group). She was putting in long hours covering New York Fashion Week for Style in September 2001 when “I changed my tune with regards to what direction I wanted to go in,” she says.

On the morning of September 11, “I was at the gym, and I remember watching the towers fall, and getting off my treadmill immediately and trying to call people. And then I went out into the streets—I had to be at work in the next hour or so—and I remember seeing people from the towers starting to drift uptown just covered in soot.

“My whole family lives in New York. My sister lived five blocks from the World Trade Center. There was this moment where the Fashion Week people were trying to figure out if Fashion Week was gonna go on, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s what we’re thinking about right now?’

“In the aftermath of 9/11, we started to see a lot of hate crimes,” she continues. “There was such a huge divide between our country and the Middle East and the understanding of the people over there.” As a first-generation American, born in New York to Iranian parents, she thought, “I have this opportunity where I can explain what people in the Middle East were like—and I also can explain what people in the United States are like. Because I’m both. I have to use my language skills, my Farsi skills. I’ve got to do this—I’ve got to change my track.”

In 2004, using the Handycam that her parents gave her for graduation, she spent eight weeks traveling around Iran, conducting interviews for a piece on what it was like to be a young person there.

“I would shoot things by candlelight, and I would be at these parties with these young people, which were illegal,” Vossoughian says. “It would be as if I shot it all on my iPhone now.” She returned to New York, edited the material together, and submitted it to Current TV “because they were looking for video journalists. It became my first piece to be played on Current, and from there I started doing a bunch of pieces for them out of Iran.”

In October 2006, Vossoughian became a world poll correspondent for Gallup based in Washington, D.C. “Gallup was polling all around the world, and I was their online liaison,” she says. “I would travel to Israel and Africa and the Middle East and put stories to these numbers.” For example, if a Gallup survey said that 82 percent of people were confident in running a business in the West Bank, she would do a story on a business in Ramallah. She also interviewed Fatah youth leaders about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, young West Africans with HIV/AIDS and malaria, and experts in water filtration and environmental protection in Singapore—all without any formal newsroom experience.

“I was going in the online direction way before online took off,” she says. “I had been doing guerrilla-style reporting at Current, and then I was doing online packages at Gallup.” After a brief layover in Greenville, S.C., working for One Minute News, a new YouTube news channel targeting millennials, she landed back in New York City at NY1, the local cable news channel.

NY1 proved to be an invaluable training ground for Vossoughian. “I had to set up my own camera, do live shots all day, edit and write my own pieces, and get them on the air,” she says. “It was really long days, and then you’re looking at your bank account and you have negative money in it. But it was the best learning experience of my life.”

Vossoughian would spend a month on Staten Island covering Hurricane Sandy (aka Super Storm Sandy) for NY1. “That was the first time I’d ever covered a hurricane like that,” she says. “We were the first team to be on the ground after the destruction of Sandy, because we ended up staying on Staten Island and waiting out the storm. It was an unbelievable experience, just the stories that I heard of people losing everything.”

Whether it’s a natural disaster or one of the countless mass shootings that have taken hundreds of lives since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, tragedy often leads the news. “When you’re doing those stories, there’s so much emotion involved—there’s death, there’s loss,” she says. “You’re seeing that firsthand but it’s your job, too, so you try and not get emotionally connected to it.

“We were doing a story on Sandy when one of my cameramen started crying at one point,” she says. “I had to take the camera from him and just keep shooting. You have to suppress your emotions until after, and then you go home and think, ‘OK, I can breathe.’ It’s usually a couple of days later, when you’re exhausted and you’re trying to recover, that things are starting to sink as to what you actually just covered. It’s the hardest thing but also the easiest thing, because you are telling someone’s story.”

Following a stint as a host and producer for a live news and entertainment program at AOL, Vossoughian joined HLN (formerly known as Headline News) in May 2014 as a correspondent, covering a variety of beats including entertainment and breaking news. The following January, she was named co-host of HLN’s “The Daily Share,” an afternoon show targeting viewers in her own demographic—“women who have all sorts of interests, everything from ISIS and Israeli-Palestinian issues to dog videos and taking your dog on the subway to ‘Is Beyoncé pregnant or not?’ to sports,” she told a writer for AdWeek’s TVNewser. The show ran for nearly two years, and Vossoughian remained at HLN until March 2017, when she hopped channels to MSNBC.

Vossoughian was co-anchoring a Sunday newscast with Mohyeldin on Nov. 5, 2017, when news broke of a church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that took 26 lives. “Our boss called Ayman and said, ‘We want you to go to Texas. We want Yasmin to stay on the air,’” she recalls. “I stayed on the air for something like the next five hours.”

Among the people she interviewed that day was a woman whose 5-year-old grandson died in the massacre. “She called in from the waiting room in the hospital and she didn’t know his status,” Vossoughian says, “but she wanted people to know what was happening, and what they were going through. It was one of the most simple conversations and interviews I’ve ever had in my life.”

Twenty-nine months earlier, she spent a week in Charleston, S.C., covering the shooting spree at Emmanuel AME Church that left nine people dead. When Vossoughian covers such stories, “I feel like I have this moral responsibility to get the news out here, so people understand what these individuals have lost,” she says. “You only hope that the feeling that you’re getting when you’re talking to these people comes through.”

During her four-month maternity leave—she gave birth to her second son in August—Vossoughian made a point of stepping away from the daily news grind. “Mostly I watched ‘Real Housewives’ for 16 weeks,” she admits. “I really didn’t want to be on the air when I was off, and I’ll tell you why. The news cycle is a lot right now, and every day you’re like, ‘Wow, wow, wow.’ Sometimes you need a break, and having a baby is tough, it is trying, and you don’t get much sleep. I thought that I was going to leave and be itching to get back on that whole time. I wasn’t.”

Does being a mother of two inform her perspective reporting the news? “Oh, my God, yeah. Everything has more color now. Everything means more. That’s not to discount anybody who doesn’t have children, or chooses not to.” But, she continues, when you talk about education, the economy, or gun violence—or anything, really—“you think about the future of this country, and the future is going to affect our children.

“When I interview a woman whose child was shot at Sandy Hook, I think, ‘God forbid, that could be my child.’ That resonates with me more so than ever before. You find yourself tearing up a little bit more when something like that goes down and you have little ones at home. You imagine your own child in that situation, and it’s so awful to think of.”

In her profession, she says, “There was a time when we had to hide being moms. People didn’t want to know that you were a mother. They just wanted you to be an anchor, a journalist; whatever they wanted you to be, you had to be that person for them. I try to be very open about the person I am.”

In preparing for her broadcasts, Vossoughian reads, makes calls, and talks to her sources—“You get as much information as you can,” she says. “Our producers at this network are incredible, and we have amazing teams that usually come and provide us with research packets pertaining to the stories that we’re covering for that show.”

On top of that, Vossoughian likes to get her aggression out before each broadcast. “I’m a big yoga person, so I do a little bit of meditation,” says the former yoga instructor. “Honestly, I always have a tinge of nerves no matter what day I go on air, and it’s a good thing. That adrenaline gets you excited.”

These are interesting times to be a broadcast journalist—a profession frequently tarred with the sobriquet of “fake news.” On January 9, @realDonaldTrump tweeted:

“The Mainstream Media has NEVER been more dishonest than it is now. NBC and MSNBC are going Crazy. They report stories, purposely, the exact opposite of the facts. They are truly the Opposition Party working with the Dems. May even be worse than Fake News CNN, if that is possible!”

The president is not the only one who’s watching. For the month, MSNBC recorded its best ratings ever, with every show on its schedule, from “Morning Joe: First Look” to “The 11th Hour With Brian Williams,” hitting all-time highs, making it the No. 2 network in all of basic cable.

“Do we question if we do too much Trump?” Vossoughian asks. “I think everybody does. I think the higher-ups do. I think we do. There are times where you’re like, ‘Gosh, the entire show is Trump,’ and it’s tough, because you want to do other stories, and there’s so much going on in this country and in the world that I care about, and that everybody in this building cares about.

“MSNBC is doing really well in part because of the coverage of the current president of the United States,” she says. “That being said, there are days that I wish I was doing other stories besides that.” It is the media’s responsibility to cover the White House, she says, just as it was when the commander-in-chief was named Obama, Bush, Clinton, and so forth. “It just so happens I’m in this position now, under Trump, and I was for some time under Obama. But it’s our responsibility to question authority for people, for the country, because we have a microphone.

“There’s a part you forget that it’s a business, and that’s the reality,” she continues. “It just so happens now that we’re a little bit louder. That’s because more people are watching, and more people are engaged than ever. I just feel like it’s our responsibility to state the facts. Now, more than ever, you need to make sure you know your stuff. Everyone is nitpicking at each other and you want to make sure you have your facts straight, especially when it comes to the White House and Washington, D.C., because you understand that it affects the entire country.”

Less than two weeks after returning to the air in December, Vossoughian landed her highest-profile slot to date, subbing as host of “The Beat With Ari Melber,” which drew an average nightly viewership of 1.8 million people in January. “This network takes prime time very seriously,” she says. “Being asked to fill in for a prime-time show is pretty cool, so I am happy that it was well received.”

Eventually, would she like to do a “60 Minutes”-type show? “I think that’s every journalist’s goal in my arena—that’s the big leagues,” she says. “Who knows, though? The whole landscape is changing. Will that be the coveted thing to get? I don’t know. I just want to tell good stories and inform people and bridge gaps, and that’s what my goal has always been. Being a minority myself, being Iranian-American and growing up with Muslim parents and being from a small town, all of that plays into it.”

Vossoughian has one more story to tell from her Oxy days—from her last day of college, in fact. At Commencement, she recalls, “I was sitting in the Greek Bowl, excited to graduate, and I went across the stage, got my diploma, and sat back down.” Minutes later, she turned to her best friend, Alden Wood ’00, and said, “Oh, my God, let’s look at our diplomas.” Vossoughian opened hers up to find a note inside: “You owe $135 to the Occidental College Library, and you will not receive your diploma until you pay off your debt.”

“So I went and paid it so I could get my diploma. It was so anticlimactic, so hilarious,” Vossoughian says. “I wasn’t the most responsible individual in college, so I was not surprised—and no one else was surprised, either, because they were like, ‘Duh, you owe me money, too,’” she adds, laughing. “Hopefully, I’ve gotten it together by now.”

Photos by C. Taylor Crothers. Additional photos courtesy MSNBC and Yasmin Vossoughian ’00.