Sunny Hostin, ABC News legal analyst, a co-host of ABC’s daytime morning show, The View, and New York Times bestselling author, spoke to Elon Law students and community members Feb. 9 as part of Elon Law’s 2022-23 Distinguished Leadership Lecture Series presented by The Joseph M. Bryan Foundation.
Elon News Network sat down for an exclusive interview with Hostin to discuss her career path, her advice to college students and the future of the media industry.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
You have had an illustrious career as a journalist and a legal analyst, what drew you into both fields?
“Well, I didn't have much of a choice with law. My undergraduate degree is in broadcast journalism, and when I announced to my family that I was going to be a broadcast journalist… my mom's from Puerto Rico, my father's African American, and they didn't understand what to make of it. Broadcast journalism to them meant acting or television and it meant drugs and weird behavior. And they said, you know, you can't do this, no one looks like you and you won't be successful.
And these are the pre-Oprah days. So there weren’t really a lot of people that looked like me. Unfortunately, in the industry of broadcast television, there still is a vast inequity in terms of representation. So my mom said, ‘why don't you be a doctor? You're really good at math and science,’ which I'm good at it, but I'm not great at it actually. ‘Or be a lawyer.’ And I decided to kind of feel it out. I actually did an internship in a medical office. I wasn't squeamish, but I didn't love it. I could watch surgeries. I watched a plastic surgeon. I was fine. Didn't love it. And then I took an internship with defense attorneys, which is interesting because I became a prosecutor. Not because they were terrible people, but I was in love with it pretty quickly. I was in love with the constitution, it sounds corny, but I was fascinated by a document that I believe is living and breathing, but that was put together so many years ago. I was fascinated by the craft of making an argument. I was fascinated by the dedication of some of the people that I worked with, especially the defense attorneys, and I also met some civil rights icons and I was fascinated by that.
I think the transition from law to legal journalism wasn't that difficult, because trial lawyers, which is what I am, you tell stories. Instead of telling stories to a jury of 12, I just tell stories to three million people. It doesn't feel that different to me. And if you watch me on television, I'm really basing everything that I say on the facts. I don't really do feelings on television because I think facts trump feelings every single time, we learned that in law school.
It was a long journey, but I ultimately found my way into doing what I think I was probably meant to do, and that I always wanted to do, with the bonus of finding this blessing of a legal career, which without my parents, I wouldn't have done.”
And tonight you are going to speak to budding law students and even those coming to Elon University in their undergraduate studies. What advice would you give to them, thinking about your own college journey?
“If you look at the stats and you read the research, we spend more time at work, perfecting our craft, whatever that may be, than we do at home with our families. And so, if it takes 10,000 hours to be really good at something, which is what I think Gladwell says, you really got to love it. You really have to enjoy it. And the way you do that, I think is combining something that you're passionate about, with what you believe your purpose is. And that could be many different things.
Maybe you think your purpose is telling stories. Maybe you think your purpose is defending the defenseless. Maybe you think your purpose is to be a judge. There are all these things that we have dreams about that most people don't get, and it's okay. My advice also would be that it's okay for them not to understand the dream because it wasn't meant for them. Of course they don't get it. And that's okay. You may dream of inventing something, you may dream of being a video gamer. Whatever brings you joy, if you can find a way to pair that with your work, you're winning every single day.
There's not a day that I wake up now that I'm not happy or not ready to do what I do. And the minute I think, for most people, when you start realizing ‘mm, I don’t even want to get out of bed to do this job,’ it's probably not where you're supposed to be.
I think the best advice and what I especially like about Elon, the School of Law, is that you get that experience to try things. Northeastern has a similar program. And I have a friend that went to Northeastern at the time she graduated, she knew what she wanted to do, because she had so many internships. I graduated and I was like ‘I don’t know.’
And so I think trying things out and giving yourself permission to fail, giving yourself permission to switch, try something new, is very, very important. I have friends that have practiced an area of law their whole life that they've never liked. That makes no sense to me. You get one shot, change, transition, and there's no shame. You have to definitely give yourself grace to keep on trying different things.”
And like you said, giving yourself permission to fail, that comes with the ability to overcome those failures and keep going. Can you tell me a little bit about a time in your life where you had a challenge you faced that you overcame and why it was important?
“There have been so many… Actually, I believe that you learn more from failure than success. Success is easy. Sometimes it's difficult to deal with the trappings of success, because people change around you, even if you have not. There's more pressure, the more successful you get. But I recall finally getting this dream job at CNN. I watched CNN my whole life. And I just thought, to really be able to work there and do legal journalism with somebody like Sanjay Gupta, who was like… he's a dear friend of mine and I don't know why fanned out the way I did before, but I was thinking what he is doing with medicine I can do with the law. We don't have anyone that does that. And I got a call out of the blue, asking me to join the morning show. I’m not really a morning person, but I was never late. And I had my own segments and I wrote my own segments and I had a producer and he had Paging Dr. Gupta and I had Ask Sunny Hostin and it was amazing.
And then they didn't renew my contract after the first year.
And I actually went into the meeting with the executive producer with a legal pad, which is my training, to write down… I had suggestions of new segments that I would be proposing, as well as I just wanted feedback about what I could do better. And I remember she said, ‘why do you have that?’ And I said, ‘oh, well, I have some ideas for some new segments. But I also just wanted feedback about this first year and how I've been doing,’ and she said, ‘we're going to go in a different direction.’
And that's TV speak for you're fired, and we're not going to renew your contract. And that was really the extent of our conversation … and I think the shame of it all is that they didn't explain what I could have done better. Why I was getting fired.
What I learned from that is I'm always going to be a lawyer. I'm a good lawyer. I have my law degree. I'm licensed in four jurisdictions. And within a couple of weeks, I had another job. And I started writing more about that experience, and I started writing fiction, so I was still able to sort of make lemonade out of the lemons. And sure enough, a couple of years later, CNN called me back, new leadership … and they were like we always thought you were great, we don't know what happened to you. Would you come back in? And I went back.
I walked in with my head high, because I hadn't been idle for two years, I had been doing work that I love. And I learned that I'm always going to be able to do something that I love, and no one can really take that away.”
That’s really beautiful. I wanted to close out our interview here with [this question], you are obviously in the field of journalism now, what do you think is in the future for journalism, what do you think students journalists … have to look forward to?
“I think what we are missing in journalism now, if I'm being honest, is local print journalism. Our newspapers are folding all over the country. I have friends losing their jobs all over the country. Those are real journalists, those journalists that are doing the courthouse beat, that are doing those local city council meetings. I mean, if you think about it, we picked up, national media… We picked up book banning in Florida from a local print journalist. We picked up the story of transgender discrimination in schools and in hospitals from a local journalist. Without people on the ground doing local print journalism, journalism dies.
So I know that broadcast journalism seems to be the sexier, more attractive cousin, but you really need your chops and gain your chops at student newspapers and local newspapers. I mean, I worked in a local newsroom, an ABC local newsroom. I not only learned writing, I anchored an overnight show. I got to work at eight, we started airing at 2 a.m. and ended at 6 a.m., and I did that for two years. It was the best experience and training I've ever had in my life, aside from my legal clerkship.
People thought it was a downgrade for me, because I went from CNN to doing Court TV and HLN to doing this hokey overnight show, which by the way, I learned all the TV heads watch, because it's the first news of the day. But we got a lot of our news stories from local journalists. We would pour over newspapers and what I have found and it's still my practice, actually, to pour over local news. And what I'm finding is that there's just less and less and less of it, and that saddens me.
And it also saddens me that some of it has been sanitized in a way that I didn't see 10 years ago, 12 years ago, and I'm also seeing a politicization of news coming out of newsrooms, and facts are facts, they don't change. So that has been disappointing, but I think the answer is young journalists like yourself, going into newsrooms, whether they be print or television, but actually starting in local news. I know everyone wants to do national media, but you don't get much training there. Which is why I got fired at CNN. You just get thrown in, and you don't know what you’re doing. So get your chops first, I think.”