Photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
Sep 12, 2022
Tony Doukopil tells us what it’s like to sit in Walter Cronkite’s old seat
The "CBS Mornings" co-host joins the Brooklyn Magazine podcast to discuss going from print to TV, his "total fuckups" and his party hair
There’s no other way into this story than to break the fourth wall: I met Tony Dokoupil back around 2006. He was a very green, earnest, handsome, young cub reporter at Newsweek, where I was a slightly less green and less handsome and less young reporter and editor.
It was another lifetime ago, and in a sign of how strange life can be if you hang out long enough, that green cub reporter is now a seasoned on-air broadcaster. He is the co-host of “CBS Mornings” with Gayle King and Nate Burleson, who are this month celebrating one year in as a team under the restructured morning news framework at the network.
This week, Tony — a Brooklynite for nearly 20 years now — joins me as a guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast” for a chat about his career, going from print to TV and all of the various missteps that entailed. We talk about his upbringing, which it’s a safe bet to say was less conventional than yours. (Unbeknownst to young Tony, his father was a massive marijuana smuggler in South Florida, responsible for bringing in literally tons of weed into the country in the 1980s until he was busted. Tony tells that story in his 2014 book, “The Last Pirate,” so we talk about that.)
We talk about the news business in general, the state of broadcasting, and we swap some hopefully not too boring war stories.
What follows is a somewhat redacted transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity and flow. For the fun stuff, though, you’ll have to actually listen to the podcast, wherever it is you get your podcasts.
I was going to start off with the disclosure that you and I both worked at Newsweek many moons ago. I’d been there a few years when you got there. I think you got there in 2007?
I started in 2006 as an unpaid intern in Fareed Zakaria’s international Newsweek. Then I went over to the domestic side. I got a paid internship and you were already there when I got hired and you were like the culture or music writer. I think about you often because “Almost Famous” is one of my favorite movies of all time. And I remember hearing that you were leaving Newsweek and I went to visit you in your office because at various points I’d come for guidance as a younger writer, and I was like, “Wow, Rolling Stone magazine, this is amazing. He’s living the dream.”
And the dream lasted three months before I was laid off.
I know, before everything went to hell.
Everything went to hell, 2008. But I do think back fondly. Newsweek was a really important part of my life and my career. And the whole industry has really changed. We sort of caught the tail end of when magazines mattered.
Honestly, it upsets me because, no offense to anyone who currently works for whatever the latest incarnation is of Newsweek, but it’s almost like coming up as a young writer there you were getting a degree at what was a prestigious organization with super talented people who’ve gone on to great things and you were learning under them. But now your Harvard has become Phoenix University, or like the Trump online real estate college. You put it on a resume and it doesn’t have the cachet it once did when it was winning National Magazine awards, it had three million paid subscribers, and it’s so funny to think of Newsweek as being the hip magazine, but it was the first one to put marijuana on the cover. The first one to put Bruce Springsteen on the cover. There were great people who worked there and came out of there. I do miss it.
Talk about the transition from print to onscreen reporting. It’s not a super common trajectory and there are different skill sets. For a bit I wrote for “Nightline” at ABC, and I found TV writing infuriating … The patter for the anchors and stuff.
Oh, really? I found it to be somewhat natural because when I was writing for magazines, I was a big believer in that you should be able to say it out loud. I used to hate how New York Times writers are esteemed as great writers just because of the affiliation, but if you were to take their news copy, it’s like a computer wrote it. It’s not human speak. It’s newspeak. One of the great things about CBS is it has actually a history of hiring print people. These have a very old and sexist ad that said, “Not just news readers. News men.” I started thinking about it also as you’re writing a little nonfiction play. It’s like, “All right, what does this moment call for? Something serious? Something lighter? What’s the inflection? What’s the tone?” Writing is so hard on the page because you only have the page. TV is so easy by comparison, to me anyway, because I have not only the words, but I have my eyes, I have my hands, I have my expression, I have clothes, I have seven or eight different other ways to tell you what I’m feeling about something and communicate, and that makes it simpler and more fun.
Were there any initial missteps or surprises?
Total fuck-ups. Like unbelievable where you wouldn’t believe, total failures.
Like what? What’s a good one?
The story of how I got into TV is the most embarrassing story for TV that I can tell. After doing quite a lot on MSNBC, on air, and finding my footing, I did not have a firm offer from MSNBC. I was still on a writer’s contract, which wasn’t even a contract. I was dating my now wife, Katie Tur, who grew up in a TV family, knows the TV business very well. She was like, “All right, look, you’re wearing your herringbone coat and your chunky glasses and you’re looking like a magazine guy because that’s your identity and you feel comfortable that way. But TV is different.” Her suggestion, while I was in Arizona on the border covering the primary there in 2015 for MSNBC, she was like, “Look, you’re in a dusty, sexy location. You should ditch the glasses, push your hair up real high, get a windy location, do 100 push-ups, put a black t-shirt on and hold a stick mic.” And I did it. And I shit you not, ABC called, if not that very day, definitely that week.
They saw your pecs.
They saw the pecs and they were like, “Whoa.” So once ABC called for the completely superficial reason that I looked like an ABC guy, then NBC was like, “Whoa. We like you, too. You’re great. We love you. We’ve been ignoring you for six months, eight months, but, whoa, now we love you.” I actually called CBS myself and I said, “I’d love a job … I see myself here.” And they were like, “Great. Here’s way less money than ABC’s offering, but if you really like us, come on board.” And I did. And then the next big failure happened … So they hired me in the middle of the summer of 2016, I think, and everyone’s on vacation. Scott Pelley‘s evening news puts me on a story about a guy climbing Trump Tower with suction cups.
I think I remember that guy.
It was a wild story. First of all, I’ve still got the big hair. For some reason I’m wearing a lime green linen shirt like I’m on my way to a party. I don’t know what I’m doing. To me, it’s a lighthearted story. So my tone is wrong. Everything’s wrong. They decide to lead the broadcast with that story. The issue is, I’m standing there live outside of Trump Tower. I get the toss. Imagine the contrast between Scott Pelley in the studio, the lion of news at the time with such elegance and such a sober approach, tossing to me with my party hair and a lime green shirt. I look preposterous. I’m like, “Eh, some yahoo’s climbing the building.” To Pelley, it’s a possible terrorist situation. There’s a guy climbing the building of the leading candidate for the presidency on the Republican side.
But they kept you.
No, I was banished from evening news for months. I mean, it might have been half-a-year.
Did anyone sit down and explain to you what you did wrong? I’ve found in a lot of these high-octane newsrooms, whether it’s TV, print, whatever, it’s sink or swim. You either do it or you’re out.
No one explained anything. No, it was just like, “You’re no longer welcome on that broadcast.” I don’t know who decided, but it ended up being a blessing because it gave me time to pitch the Sunday show and pitch features to the morning show since no one trusted me at that point with breaking news anymore. And it allowed me to do stories that developed my reputation here and created this relationship that has now led to me being a cohost of the morning show, which turns out to be the best job in the world.
It looks like a lot of fun. You’re the cohost of the morning show with Gayle King and Nate Burleson. It’s the one year anniversary of this relaunched program?
It’s been a hell of a year. Gayle’s Gayle, she’s the most natural person on television. She’s exactly what you see on TV. Off camera she’s exactly as candid, as caring. And Nate, he brings to the mix this joy for live television that I find to be completely freeing. The only downside is, prior to Nate joining the show, I was like the athlete and sports guy because I played mid- to low-level college baseball and [there are] some awkward moments when Gayle will sometimes be like, “Well, you guys are athletes.” And I’ll be like, “Mm, athlete?” Nate played professional football. I mean, he was a professional athlete. It’d be like a state senator being on a panel with a former president of the United States and it’s like, “You guys are politicians.”
I think it’s only fair to point out that CBS is the perennial underdog, third place behind “Good Morning America” [and “Today”].
And we can talk about why. It’s actually really interesting. Morning television was not supposed to be a thing that worked for news. And then Sigourney Weaver’s father, of all people, was working for NBC in the ’50s, I believe, and he was like, “I’m going to make a bet on morning.” Comes up with the “Today Show” concept and CBS is like, “Good luck with that. You’re going to fail, crash and burn.” And they do it. It builds for years, five, six, seven. More than a decade. Meanwhile over at CBS, we’re running Captain Kangaroo. We’re not running morning news. And so the reputation and the familiarity and the habit and the brand recognition all developed around the “Today Show” while we were twiddling our thumbs. When we finally got around to launching a morning show, one of, if not the, first anchor is — I sit in Walter Cronkite’s former seat. The difference [is] his cohost was a sock puppet named Charlemagne the Lion. When people say “You should be more like Cronkite,” they forget that detail.
So that’s all ancient history. Does this third place status give you room to improvise? Get a little weird? How do you differentiate in this field?
We differentiate actually by being the opposite of Cronkite and Charlemagne the Lion. We have fun. We have fun, we do. It is still morning television. It’s a variety show.
You’re interviewing Hanson for “MMMBop”’s anniversary.
Totally. But our pieces are longer, our interviews are longer. We do more hard news. We do more international coverage. We are not going to compete on froth and concerts and cooking segments. We are going to compete on the thing that historically we’ve done very well with Sunday morning and “60 Minutes” and with morning and evening, which is storytelling. And we like explanatory journalism and we are not afraid to bore you if we also get to educate you from time to time, which is a different philosophy, believe it or not. I like to say that our demographic is the smart demographic.
Well, speaking of demographics, the average age of the audience for network news, and I’m not picking on CBS. This is across the board …
And cable, by the way. It’s in the ’60s.
It’s even older in cable. Yeah. So it’s in the 60s [for] network news. Is this something that you personally, actively think about? I mean, as your audience ages and ultimately is not replenishing itself?
There are two parts to that question. The replenishing side, it remains to be seen because I think the delivery mechanism will change. The network TV may be replaced by some sort of over-the-top thing. People do need to age into the news, so there’s always been an older demographic to news coverage. But I do think about the audience age while also thinking about how I want to make a show for people my age and a little bit younger who are starting to think about the world for the first time because maybe they’re thinking about buying a house. Maybe they’re thinking about having kids. Maybe their friends are having kids. They’re starting to have a deeper stake and tie to the planet. It takes time.
The show airs every weekday from 7 to 9. What’s your workday like? What time did you wake up today?
I got up at 4:30. I generally get up at 4:30, which is cumulatively terrible for mind and body, and I don’t make serious decisions about love or money after four o’clock in the afternoon because my brain is just complete mush. It’s not easy. It’s really not. But it is such a pleasure because when the camera turns on and you’re on at 7 a.m. there are still multiple millions of people who watch the show and you’re meeting those people in their home at a tender part of the morning, and I love that. I think that’s terrific.
If you’re on air by 7 … how much prep work do you do the night before? How much do you know going in? How much time do you have to prep for any given breaking news segment or whatever in the morning?
It varies. A lot of stories in the news are continuing stories, which is a plus and a minus of the news. So whatever the latest thing on the Mar-a-Lago search of documents, if you’ve been following the news for the last three months, then you pick up the new information. It’s network television. There’s a portion of our audience that I am proud to be delivering the news to because they fell asleep on the couch the night before watching a game show. And that’s awesome. They’re not buying or not buying Bitcoin based on our… They’re not making big life decisions on it. They just want to have a sense of the world, the big forces that are tossing them around, and so you got to keep it simple at the end of the day.
Well, let’s talk about the big forces that shape your world. Your personal background is fascinating. You wrote a memoir in 2014 called “The Last Pirate: A Father, His Son, and the Golden Age of Marijuana,” about your relationship with your dad who spent years as a marijuana smuggler.
What’s the takeaway for people who haven’t heard the story?
My dad was a drug dealer, tons of marijuana. Literally. The job he got caught on was the federal task force that broke the ring up, it was 17 tons of marijuana.The effect on me as a kid is we were essentially living the life of rich people when I was a kid. Private school, boat, Mercedes-Benz, vacations, all the things you would want to be comfortable. And then dad gets busted, the money goes away.
You’re 10 when he’s busted?
I was about 10, but he’d also been succumbing to drug use himself, so he was out of the house. To make it extra complicated, my stepfather was his partner and he became my stepfather after he cooperated with the feds and then married my mother.
Oh, my gosh, that’s Shakespearean.
So he was actually arrested in ’92, but the investigation was going on earlier and we moved out of Florida under cover of night without telling my father’s side of the family, my grandmother, my cousins, my uncle, my aunt, where we were going. We disappeared into the night. We just vanished, which always seemed weird to me, and we popped up in Maryland and we didn’t have money. The money that had been there was gone.
And you didn’t know necessarily what was happening at the time?
I knew something was not right, but I didn’t know what was happening. And then I became a journalist and I got like a tip, you could call it, from a different aunt who told me that my father had been a major drug dealer. So I was like, “All right, we’ll see about that.” And I was at Newsweek. I called the federal archives, which keep the most important documents, the top 2 percent of documents the federal government ever produces, including criminal cases like Al Capone’s criminal filings. And they kept my father’s case. I remember the day. I was 30 and I got a faxed indictment from the National Archives with my father’s name at the top, and it was for this 17 tons of Columbian weed in one job, $10 million wholesale. And it was enough marijuana to roll a joint for every college age kid in America at that time, which is nuts.
Is he still with us?
He is still with us. He took his annual visit to Brooklyn on my dime just a couple of weeks ago. And he’s a kind of a tragic figure. He pled guilty to the 17 tons, smuggling and dealing, but he beat the tax fraud charge. Pro tip to criminals: Always pay your taxes. And as a result, he’s in federal housing in the Boston area. So he’s like an old guy there. He lives off government largesse.
What does he make of the increasingly legal status? He’s in Massachusetts where it’s legal.
He’s tried the legal stuff and he can’t handle it.
I wonder if you think about luck much and the role it plays, not just in your life, but everyone’s?
Really, everything is luck. This is all a game of cards. We all get a certain set of cards at birth and some of the cards suck, and some of the cards may not seem great at first, but turns out they are going to help you in some way. And so I do not credit talent and hard work. I credit good fortune for finding myself in the position I am now after the implosion, explosion, disarray of the print business.
Speaking of luck … You are married to Katie Tur. Do you guys talk shop at home other than her giving you advice to do push-ups? I’ve never had much of a relationship with anyone who does what I do, and I don’t know if I would love living with someone who does what I do, or if it would be kind of great.
I think it’s kind of great, actually. And we do talk shop and we talk about everything we don’t like about what another show is doing or another person is doing. And then we talk about everything we do like. Good artists borrow, and great artists steal. We talk about how to do it better, because the cake that was once the media world has become a cupcake and you have to work harder to keep people’s attention, and that’s a challenge. We’re constantly talking about how to solve it. And also where this industry’s going. It’s clearly a period of change and I really don’t know what I’ll be appearing on in a decade from now … four, five years even. It’s an uncomfortable time.
You’re in Brooklyn. What’s a typical day off? What do you do?
I’ve been in Brooklyn for almost 20 years now. I mean, I am an expert now in all the playgrounds. I have four children, and as I get weaker, they get stronger.
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