On a Friday evening in early December 2018, cable news shows such as MSNBC’s Hardball had to improvise around an immense challenge.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller was due to file legal documents with fresh information on investigations into Paul Manafort—the former chairman of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign—and Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer. Yet as the sun set on the East Coast, the court filings were still under wraps.
The heavily redacted memos were finally released less than an hour before Hardball began airing at 7 p.m. that night. For associate producer Rachel Witkin ’14 it was the sort of night she finds both edgy and exhilarating as the show’s team pored quickly through the documents to find the news in them.
“We have to produce a show with what we know,” says Witkin, who majored in Writing Seminars and environmental science. “Knowing that it might totally get overturned. [That night] was an example of a day when the news is really big, but we weren’t able to really know that for sure. It’s a question of being able to adapt to what’s breaking at the moment.”
Witkin says that her job often requires her to fill in gaps. Recently, she’s been working on Hardball’s social media profile to make sure Hardball discussions and video excerpts reach an audience beyond the show’s broadcast window.
“Digital is such a huge part of the job,” she says. “Social media is a great way to get people who might not be sitting down and watching the show.”
Witkin observes that the political deluge of the past four years has altered the metabolism of cable news in other ways. “What goes on that show, or how much time we have to produce it, can change every day,” she says. “It’s a very hectic time, but it’s very important work to be doing. And even if the day is kind of crazy, we’d rather be covering all this news than scrambling to find a story to put on air.”
Witkin has been rising through the ranks of NBC’s television news division. Her initial NBC production internships were at Hardball and at another MSNBC show, The Daily Rundown with Chuck Todd. Her first full-time job was as a desk assistant at NBC News.
The desk assistant job was a rotation position that allowed Witkin to try her hand at a number of jobs and dig deep into all aspects of the television news business. “What I love about TV is there are so many jobs that you wouldn’t even know existed,” she says. “I’m very curious about all of them, and I’ve wanted to try as much as possible.”
She says that she is especially fascinated by tasks outside the realm of writing, interviewing, or finding video. “On cable TV, there’s also a technical side,” Witkin observes. “What actually gets on to the TV. Here’s what the graphics look like. The banners everyone’s working on. Those things are just as—if not more—important. So I really wanted to learn more about that side of it.”
Witkin says that working at The Johns Hopkins News-Letter as a student—including stints as the newspaper’s managing editor and editor-in-chief—was excellent preparation for a career in journalism.
“I started off in my freshman year getting thrown into a news editor position, and having to figure out what was important to cover,” she recalls. “And how do I edit this in a way that’s not only interesting, but informative and accurate?”
Added responsibilities at The News-Letter meant developing skills in management as well as journalism.
“Being editor-in-chief was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Witkin. “It was a lesson in working with other people. Not only having to do the work, but also work well with other people.”
Witkin adds that her Hopkins experience also instilled a work ethic that has helped her navigate the hustle and bustle of a cable television newsroom. “I was always very busy at Hopkins,” she recalls, “and that led me to enjoy being busy at work. Having to do something under a deadline.”
In all the commotion of putting together Hardball, Witkin says those who watch the show “might not expect that we have a lot of fun.” But in fact, she and her colleagues do enjoy themselves, amid all the bustle. “It’s a high-pressure environment, but everyone is very personable.”