The chief White House correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC anchor on her impeccably-timed maternity leave, having a newborn in the midst of a global pandemic, and covering the general election from her makeshift basement studio.

By Rainesford Stauffer
Aug 17, 2020 @ 7:00 am
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NBC. Design by Jenna Brillhart

The last time I spoke with Hallie Jackson, an MSNBC News anchor and chief White House correspondent for NBC News, she was about to moderate February’s Las Vegas Democratic Presidential Debate alongside Telemundo’s Vanessa Hauc, NBC’s Lester Holt and Chuck Todd, and the Nevada Independent’s Jon Ralston  It ended up being the most-watched Democratic debate in history, and Jackson moderated while 8-and-a-half months pregnant.

Jackson, who’s known for getting exclusives with Sen. Ted Cruz and then-candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail in 2016, and who was part of the team that was awarded the 2019 Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism for reporting on the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, is now returning from maternity leave to an entirely different world — and a virtual campaign trail. Her daughter, Monroe Jackson Thorp (“Ro” for short) was born March 9, about the time America began shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Today marks her first day back at NBC News and MSNBC, where she’ll be anchoring MSNBC Live with Hallie Jackson and will join NBC News’ Special Report for the Democratic National Convention.

As Jackson makes her return, InStyle caught up with her about new motherhood in the midst of social distancing, her at-home studio, and what she anticipates being critical issues ahead of the 2020 election.

InStyle: How was maternity leave? How was it adjusting to new motherhood while watching this new world unfold?

Hallie Jackson: The last time you and I talked, we did the debate, and then two and a half weeks later, I had my baby, which was a month early. I had known that the debate was going to be the last time that I was going to do much travel. What I didn't know: It was going to be the last time that anybody would travel, because the pandemic was about to shut down air travel for the country. We walked out of the hospital the day that the president gave that Oval Office address, and the NBA suspended the season, and Tom Hanks said he had COVID-19.

It's certainly not the kind of experience that we expect to have on leave, as far as having sort of a village around us, but we are lucky in that we have our virtual village, and we do a lot of Zooms and FaceTimes with the grandparents. We do some social distance things outside, too. 

My partner said this to me sort of early on: It's like in the midst of a lot of darkness, we have this amazing bright spot in our life, like Monroe knew just when to come. I believe that. It was such a difficult time for so many people, and we were so fortunate to have this one bringer of joy that we were able to just give our full focus and attention to. 

And this is so interesting because, obviously, paid parental leave and childcare and lack of that village are such significant issues right now. 

I'm in a group of new moms that all connected via this program in Washington, and everybody is dealing with this issue of childcare. What's so interesting is right now — especially here we are in August, the back to school rush — moms with kids who aren't babies or kids that are school-age are also having to deal with childcare, and how they, on top of that, have a virtual learning experience for their kids that is in some way fulfilling and educational. It is truly something that is impacting every single person in very different ways, and it's just such a surreal experience.

Could you tell us a bit about returning from maternity leave to a totally different world and totally different campaign trail?

We were very lucky that for us, it sort of happened in this very ideal timeframe, in that I was going to cover the primary,  go out on maternity leave, and come back to the general election. That is what happened, except we missed this coverage of this global pandemic and a once-in-a-generation reckoning over race, so it's not at all been the sort of slow news summer that we thought it was going to be, even though I am coming back just in time for the general election.

I covered the 2016 campaign and covered that in a very traditional way. I was on the road, I want to say, like 340 days out of the year. I'd wake up in the morning and literally would not know where we would go to sleep at night because the campaign didn't know, or whatever the case may be. Now, you're covering a virtual campaign. 

I think that there's just so many question marks, and the word gets tossed around a lot — unprecedented — but truly for people that have covered politics for one year, or four years, or forty years, there is nothing like what we're about to see over these next couple of weeks. And frankly, like what we're about to see in a general election, where both of these candidates are going to have to be very mindful of the fact that people are not going to be down with going to these huge rallies, or feel comfortable doing that, and I think the way that campaigning happens is going to be very different.

How different is it, preparing to cover a virtual convention or virtual campaign event?

Honestly, kind of the same, except you don't have to book as many plane tickets. You still have massive binders of information, and tons of research on the speakers who are coming, on the way that the campaign is working on policies on platforms, all of that still happens. But you're just not traveling. It's not the quote-unquote spectacle that it often is. 

Typically, you have the sky boxes and each network and each outlet has a different box, and you're doing live coverage. It's going to feel different, but the preparation is the same. You still have to know your research, know everything you need to know about the candidates. We’re working hard on the reporting end, looking at: What are the themes of the speeches? What are the ideas that each candidate is going to want to convey? And the messaging that they're going to want to get across to the American people, because this really is the start of the general election.

And what about your work set-up? Are you working from home?

So, for my one job, MSNBC, they actually came a couple of weeks ago and they built a studio in my basement, and I just flip the switch and everything turns on, so hopefully I won't mess it up. It's just going to be me down there, so I'll be doing our MSNBC show every morning from my house.

My other job is, of course, the chief White House correspondent for NBC, where I do TODAY Show, Nightly News, MSNBC reporting all day. My MSNBC show team is just phenomenal. My White House unit is phenomenal. They've all had to figure this out while I've been hanging out with my kid at home, with my new baby. In a way, they kind of had to build the airplane as it's taking off, and now I'm just getting on four months later. So, in some ways it's sort of already set up, and I'm just kind of getting plugged into it. For me, it will be, at least, a new and different experience.

NBC. Design by Jenna Brillhart

What do you think the core issues are going to be as we get closer and closer to November?

I was having this conversation with a colleague this summer — [the core issue will be] the question of the legitimacy of the election … the idea that the president will try to bring up questions about the legitimacy of the election is going to be a massive and critically important storyline heading into November. The specter that he has raised about potential fraud with mail-in ballots, for example, at a time when, obviously because of this public health crisis, people may not feel comfortable going to the polls in person is something the news media, journalists, and citizens cannot overlook. There is just no evidence of rampant voter fraud when it comes to mail-in ballots.

I think that there's also going to be, given everything that happened this summer and the Black Lives Matter movement, the sort of reckoning that this country has had, the fact that there is now a Black woman on a national presidential ticket, is significant. I think that this is a President who has used culture wars to his advantage. He has tried to fan those flames in the past. That's just something he did in the 2016 campaign; it's something he's done as president. So that dynamic is going to be really important, I think, and it's going to be even more important for journalists like me and news media outlets to be unerring and unflinching in calling out things that aren't true, and things that are racist and that are sexist and so on.

Is there anything you’d want your daughter to know about this time period in your life, and hers?

I was looking back through some pictures and I was pregnant in the Oval Office once when I was questioning the president. She was sort of with me then, [and] she was with me at the debate when we were extremely pregnant. So, she's sort of experienced, in utero, some of these moments. I think that I would want her to know that in the midst of a massive global public health crisis, and some scary times for the country, she was safe and loved by her parents.

And that even when her mom did go back to work, it was to try to hold people in power accountable, and to make the country a little bit safer, and make sure that that country's leaders were knowing that somebody was there to hold truth to power, basically. I think that's what I'd like her to know.

You can tune into a nightly Special Report from 10 p.m. to 11 p.m. every day of the Democratic National Convention and Republican National Convention on NBC News and NBC News NOW (streaming), MSNBC’s coverage begins at 7 p.m.