The Assignment with Audie Cornish, premiering on CNN Audio today, sees the host sitting down for one-on-one discussions with people at the intersection of news, politics, and controversy to get a pure, unfiltered view of their perspectives.
“I still wanted to do interviews that felt intimate, and that really acknowledge and embrace the kind of political messiness of the moment,” Cornish tells ESSENCE of her pivot into podcasting. “It felt like the right time because podcasts are so popular, and fundamentally, podcast or radio, it’s the same approach. That people-to-people dialogue.”
The host detailed plans for some conversations to be placed in video format as well, broadening the scope of the material to audiences who prefer visual media as well. Dubbing herself “platform agnostic,” Cornish says she wants her platform to be accessible across the media landscape.
“I just wanted to make something that can live in a number of places. And [CNN has] the sort of breadth and scope and ability to do that. It’s hard for me to imagine any journalist at this point saying, ‘Oh, well, I want to only do X.’ That’s not where the industry is anymore. That’s not where the news is anymore.”
For Cornish, who joined CNN after spending 20 years as co-host of NPR’s flagship news program, All Things Considered, the transition to an all-new solo format after decades of sitting in a familiar chair is a bit of a hurdle, but a welcome one.
“I feel like if a transition isn’t work or isn’t challenging, then maybe you’re not doing it right. And this has been a challenge,” she says. “When I left NPR, I told a lot of my friends there that I really wanted to do something that scared me for a bit. And I felt I was perhaps a little too comfortable where I was, and now I’m getting all of that and more.”
Leaving All Things Considered as a self-proclaimed member of 2021’s great resignation, Cornish initially joined the CNN+ streaming platform as a correspondent. However, the platform folded after just one month in operation.
“You know, I absolutely believed in what they were trying to do,” Cornish says of CNN+’s abrupt end. But as a seasoned journalist, she took the news in stride.
“I think one of the things that is hard for people to understand is there are some things that are literally above your paygrade, so to speak. I’m not in the work of journalism to run a news company. I’m in journalism so that I can bring stories and model discourse and surface the things that matter so people can take it in and engage with it. So, I think other people were more disappointed than I was, because I see these all as just at-bats. They’re all opportunities to try something. If that doesn’t work, you move on, then you try something else. And if that doesn’t work, you move on. When you give up, that’s when it’s a problem. And I no way have given up.”
Episode one of The Assignment, streaming now on CNN Audio, finds Cornish in conversation with parent activists-turned-elected school board officials, each hoping to change curriculums to exclude materials they find inappropriate for children to learn in schools, including lessons on race in America.
With figures at the center of divisive political and societal issues seated across from her each week, it leads to wonder if Cornish feels the pressure of potential scrutiny for amplifying voices that may carry messages of hate, bigotry, or intolerance.
“Well, I think I see my role a little differently than maybe journalists did in the past. I’m not a gatekeeper. I’m trying to open up the many as many seats at the table as possible,” Cornish says of giving a voice to figures with controversial viewpoints. “I don’t look at journalism as being the owner of a stage and you let certain people on the stage and you tell certain people, they can’t be on stage.”
“What does it mean to have a conversation with someone who may not really believe in your rights? What if that person is in power? How do you reckon with that?”
While opening the floor to people with differing viewpoints on the topics that currently divide the nation could prove tumultuous in the hands of the wrong host, Cornish is up for the challenge. When all is said and done, it’s all about bringing awareness to the issues at hand and starting a bigger dialogue about the topics that matter.
“All I want to do is bring more people in and model discourse. ‘This is what it’s like to have a conversation where you don’t end up calling each other awful things at the end.’ And it may sound really naive, but it’s important to me.”
The Assignment with Audie Cornish streams on Thursdays, weekly on CNN Audio.