'We Lead the Way': Thomas Roberts on MSNBC's LGBT Coverage
Thomas Roberts is a true trailblazer. Cable news viewers witnessed the culmination of his years-long coming-out process as a gay journalist and media personality when it hit the mainstream media after he discussed it during a panel at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association’s annual convention in Miami in 2006.
Roberts has continued breaking down barriers and offering comprehensive coverage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and LGBT-inclusive antidiscrimination protections on the air at MSNBC. Since then, Roberts has made a habit of leading the way and setting a standard for inclusive coverage of LGBT issues at the network.
After joining MSNBC as a freelance anchor in early 2010, Roberts was promoted to full-time anchor later that year and took on host duties for MSNBC’s 11 a.m. slot, where he began making inroads and actively pushing for increased coverage of LGBT and other social issues at the network. In January, Roberts started hosting of Way Too Early, the show that begins MSNBC’s weekday lineup, and he also serves as a contributor to Morning Joe.
Roberts spoke with our sister site The Advocate about his views on LGBT coverage at MSNBC, trans inclusion in MSNBC programming, himself, and more.
The Advocate: You were one of the first hosts at MSNBC to discuss issues like ENDA on the network, at a time when virtually all of the mainstream media focus on LGBT issues was on the repeal of "don’t ask, don’t tell" and same-sex marriage. What do you see as your role, and that of other openly gay and lesbian hosts on the network, to promote the inclusion of these issues?
Thomas Roberts: I see my role as a reporter and conversation starter. But on a personal level, I know all too well how it feels to lose a job … and how it feels to worry about having a successful career while being openly gay. In my younger years, when I was just starting out, I was constantly worried that any honesty about me being gay would derail my career goals. It was not being gay — it was about being honest and authentic about it in the workplace that worried me. No one should have those worries. I have worked very hard to get where I am and I am proud to utilize that platform and help elevate the conversation. We all deserve a safe place for employment to work hard and thrive without fear of discrimination.
You've been more aggressive than other MSNBC hosts in promoting discussion of social issues on the network, even challenging MSNBC on-air to do a better job. What is your assessment of how MSNBC is doing now, and what kind of continued progress would you like to see going forward?
Hands down, MSNBC is the conversation and news coverage leader as America continues adjusting and perfecting her social contract. We all have a commitment to each other to help make this country the strongest, smartest and most equal place on earth. That is baked in to our national DNA … and as a network we take that very seriously. I am biased, but I feel strongly and confidently we do it best.
One of the criticisms of MSNBC's coverage of LGBT issues is that there's still too little coverage of transgender-specific issues and very few openly trans on-air guests, particularly in the case of the network's most popular hosts like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes. Do you think this is an important concern, and would you like to see more trans issues and guests on the evening shows and on MSNBC in general?
First, I reject those criticisms — I know we lead the way. Secondly, I am happy to see more trans representation across the board … and I don’t think if a person is openly trans they should be pigeonholed into being just a “trans community” representative. I feel strongly that activists like Janet Mock and Laverne Cox have a lot more to offer politically and socially than just first-person perspective on the trans community. ... We are not lacking trans inclusion. We continue to grow and thrive with any community/policy concerns. I think that demonstrates quite a commitment.
What goes into deciding which LGBT stories make it to broadcast on MSNBC and which don't?
I am not part of all editorial show team meetings. I attend the Way Too Early and Morning Joe meetings. If I have an editorial suggestion concerning an LGBT-related story that I think we have missed, it typically gets included.
Let's talk about you. Many viewers saw you for the first time when you began at MSNBC, but we know you had a life and career before that. What would you like people to know about who you are and what you were doing before you came to MSNBC?
I started in news in 1994 after graduating from college in Maryland. I bounced around the country thru my 20s in local news markets, from California to Virginia, until I landed at CNN in 2002. After I signed my second contract at CNN, I publicly came out in 2006. It is hard to believe that was nearly a decade ago when no one else was out — how times have changed! It is fantastic! I left CNN in 2007 for a brief and — I will say it — failed stint with The Insider and Entertainment Tonight in Los Angeles. I stayed in L.A. and worked freelance for CBS News until joining MSNBC in April of 2010.
Last year you came under fire from many progressives for traveling to Moscow to host the Miss Universe pageant at a time when Russia was in the news because of its recently enacted anti-LGBT laws. In an op-ed for the MSNBC website last year, you said in response to calls for a boycott, "I am not going to boycott. Boycotting and vilifying from the outside is too easy. Rather, I choose to offer my support of the LGBT community in Russia by going to Moscow and hosting this event as a journalist, an anchor and a man who happens to be gay. Let people see I am no different than anyone else." Do you think you were successful in that goal? Knowing what you know now, would you still have chosen to go?
I would absolutely do it again. I also feel strongly in accepting the opportunity I was able to keep Russia’s hypocritical and discriminatory practices in the headlines. That show was seen by a billion people living in countries that also need to see positive examples from the LGBQT community. I was proud to represent that with my husband.
I've heard online chatter from some viewers who would like to see an MSNBC show focusing on LGBT concerns, in the same way as Melissa Harris-Perry prioritizes topics appealing to African-American viewers and Jose Diaz-Balart has a focus on issues of key concern to Latino and Latina viewers. Do you support that idea? Would you like to host that kind of show?
It is an interesting idea. But is there a big enough audience to support it? That is the real question for a concept like that to get a green light. I would certainly be happy to consider hosting an affairs show like that, if offered.