During last fall’s election coverage, Abby Phillip sat among her CNN colleagues during a live panel and discussed state-by-state results. Phillip, a senior political correspondent for the network, was asked a question, and she paused, stumbling for a second or two. She recovered brilliantly, but before she did, she joked offhandedly about her brain and mouth not connecting. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me tonight,” Phillip said, laughing. The moment not only hit a pause button in the deadly serious proceedings, but it also was endearingly honest. Amid a sea of televised pundits, it further distinguished Phillip as someone who can dish political-insider intel, offer a national context and appear real.
I ask Phillip about this two-second lapse and mention how, in that moment, most of America was likely right there with her. It was a chance for all of us to breathe. “The one thing I’ve learned about TV is that it’s important to be as close to yourself as possible,” she says. “People get tied up by being this serious person on TV; they think this is required because so many folks are watching.” Which is why, since the dawn of radio and TV, we recognize a faux broadcast voice immediately—lower in tone, with odd inflections that sound comically unnatural. Phillip says the solution for working in television might sound counterintuitive: Practice being yourself. “I think about the people I’m talking to on the panels, and I think I’m simply having a conversation with a friend or my mother,” she says. It’s easy to picture Phillip as the whip-smart neighbor chatting wonkily over the backyard fence, her opinions nuanced, her cadence familiar. Just like TV.
That Phillip, 32, is a rising star isn’t surprising; that she’s on television at this moment, or any moment, is. All of this—hosting her own show, CNN’s Inside Politics Sunday, and being named to Time’s 100 Next list 2021—wasn’t part of her career plan. After graduating from Harvard in 2010 with a degree in government, she became a reporter for Politico, covering the Obama White House, and eventually worked as a reporter for The Washington Post.“When I was at the Post, it was my dream job, and I thought I’d be there forever,” she says. “In terms of personal aspirations, TV wasn’t on the list.”
“I think about the people I’m talking to on the panels, and I think I’m simply having a conversation with a friend or my mother.”
But during stints as an occasional political commentator on CNN, it became clear Phillip had a natural ability to connect to an audience and frame subjects perfectly, much like her idol Gwen Ifill. “When I was younger, I wanted to be like her. I saw myself in her, a rare Black woman covering national politics. She didn’t dabble in clichés, was incredibly well respected, and real people respected and trusted her.” Phillip made the leap to CNN. She knew it was a bit of a gamble and says the entire move was terrifying. Putting the pivot into context, she says, “I’m going to drop something I know how to do and choose something I don’t know how to do at all? Why would I subject myself to this? [But] sometimes you simply take those chances, and it pays off. I needed a new skill set. I had help refining the skills since CNN offers lots of practice—we were on the air all the time covering the Trump White House.”
Cruising past the White House and other landmarks around town was part of Phillip’s childhood. Raised in Trinidad until she was 8, she moved with her parents and two sisters to Germantown, Md. The family moved to Bowie, where she attended Bowie High School (her father works for DC Public Schools, and her mother now works in real estate; she was a stay-at-home mom when Phillip was a child). “My parents always took us to the Smithsonian’s museums because they were free. And my parents were so well informed— the news was always on. There were lots of political discussions and arguments at the dinner table. We were only allowed to listen to NPR in the car, which we kind of hated,” says Phillip, laughing. “But in retrospect, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. By the time I was in high school in my history and government classes, I was always very up to date on current events. It was part of my life; I didn’t think of it as different. I was always in awe of American history and its institutions. It didn’t occur to me that not everyone gets to grow up in such close proximity to Washington.”
“So much of DC is still real neighborhoods and real people... who have so much pride in the city.”
The idea of storytelling for a living occurred to Phillip while at Harvard. She attended an alternative spring break trip for civil rights in Mississippi and Tennessee. “I was talking to people whose stories never get told, and they had so much to share,” says Phillip, who soon realized she could do this for a living. “I can talk to people, share their life experiences, and share what I’m seeing and experiencing.” In 2015 for the Post, Phillip covered the Charleston church shooting, an event that also profoundly impacted her as a journalist, especially when talking to family members who lost loved ones. “You learn so much about how to be a good human from real people as they’re going through the worst thing that’s ever happened to them. It gives you so much hope.”
These days, of course, the journalist spends most of her time talking to politicos and those whose jobs are linked to Capitol Hill—all while relishing and living in what she calls the other DC. “In some ways, it’s two different worlds, the neighborhood where I live and the DC you might experience if you only came here during [White House] Correspondents Dinner weekend,” says Phillip, who is expecting her first child in August. “So much of DC is still real neighborhoods and real people… who have so much pride in the city. Union Market and La Cosecha are great examples. It’s an old area, but it still nurtures local artists and artisans, and I try to spend a lot of time in those places.”
She’s also spending time writing a book about social reformer, activist and politician Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential bid. Phillip says Jackson got much closer to winning the Democratic nomination for president than a lot of people remember. “He had a huge impact on the Democratic party as it exists right now,” she says. “In reporting this book, most people have said they can’t believe no one has written this yet—and I’m diving into this political narrative that foreshadowed Barack Obama.”
If journalists are often defined by their eras, I wonder if Phillip thinks about the tumultuous period we’re experiencing and her place at its epicenter. “I think about it all the time. Mostly, [how I] need to keep better notes or a better journal of what’s going on because everything moves so fast,” she says. “It’s hard to keep up with what happened a week ago, much less a month ago. It won’t be long until we’re doing retrospectives of this era—actually, we’re doing it now. If you think back to the reporters who were around during Watergate and the civil rights era, they’re legendary. And I do wonder how people will look back on us. Which ones of us will have legacies that live on beyond this moment. It’s an amazing thing to think—this is the era people will look back upon and wonder, ‘What was it like?’”
In the world according to Phillip, we know the era will look and feel extraordinarily real.
Photography by: Photos by Greg Powers