FIVE MINUTES before NBC called the 2020 election for Joe Biden, Kristen Welker was sprinting. After rising at 4 a.m. and coanchoring Weekend Today in New York, the White House correspondent darted into a car and began racing back to her post at Biden campaign headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware. Welker knew Pennsylvania would be called imminently, and she risked missing her historic live shot if she was stuck at a gas station in New Jersey when the race was decided.
“It was out of a movie,” Welker, 44, said of arriving at Wilmington’s Chase Center at the final hour. (Her producer later scored a TikTok video of her dashing onto the set to the Rocky theme.) “I made it in time to get a sip of water, hear the special report start to gear up, and we were on.”
One hundred and twenty miles north at 30 Rock, and in Welker’s earpiece, Savannah Guthrie officially projected Biden to win the presidency. The Today coanchor had been on-air for more than 29 hours since Election Day. (Guthrie’s husband, communications consultant Michael Feldman, who had been looking after their six-year-old daughter, Vale, and four-year-old son, Charley, sent supplemental clothes and contact lenses.) She had steered the network through a series of unprecedented events—like President Trump’s 2 a.m. speech on Wednesday baselessly claiming victory. During that speech, Guthrie had to cut in to inform viewers that several of his statements were, frankly, not true.
“It gives me and it gives our network no pleasure to interrupt the president of the United States,” Guthrie, 49, told me about a week after the election, at an outdoor café near her Tribeca apartment, an ever-present Starbucks cup close at hand. But letting lies stand on national television would not have been acceptable: “A politician’s spin is expected. A false statement is not. There’s a difference.”
In a season of political tumult, amid an increasingly polarized and partisan media landscape, Guthrie and Welker have emerged as pillars of the fourth estate—two roundly tough-but-fair network newswomen determined to hold leaders of both parties to account. For viewers raised on voice-of-God, elder-statesman anchors, they are redefining who occupies the seats of power in television media. Against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s attacks on the free press, Guthrie and Welker delivered two of the more improbable journalistic feats of the 2020 election cycle: Guthrie’s interview with President Trump at NBC’s controversial town hall in Miami in October and, one week later, Welker’s moderation of the final presidential debate. “They prepare like no other people that I’ve met in this profession,” said their colleague NBC News chief foreign-affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell. “They’re extremely self-confident on camera—unshakable, despite the pressure.”
From the start, Guthrie was up against not just the challenges of engaging with President Trump, but ill will toward the event itself. NBC had triggered outrage when it slated the town hall with Trump at the same time as a Biden event on ABC. Critics accused the network, the former home of The Apprentice, of turning what should have been an honest conversation into a ratings war. (Trump, who had revealed he’d been diagnosed with COVID-19 two weeks earlier, had refused to attend a virtual debate.)
“I was aware early on that some people didn’t like that NBC had offered a town hall to the president, but almost immediately I shoved all of that out,” Guthrie said. Her hair is in a pert high ponytail, and she is wearing two gold necklaces, with C and V charms, for each of her children’s initials. “It’s not the first time I’ve had that experience, where there’s controversy swirling around something that I’m involved with at work, so that’s a muscle I’ve learned to flex—the muscle of putting my head down and trying to just focus.” She holed up in her Miami hotel room, buried in policy papers and Post-Its. “I joke I was like Carrie from Homeland,” Guthrie says, able to laugh in hindsight. “I had no idea until it was over how a certain segment of our population was really mad at NBC and maybe mad at me.”
The backlash wouldn’t last. With a delicate mix of authority and relatability, Guthrie salvaged the town hall with sharp, straightforward questions and unrelenting follow-ups. In the Florida heat, she asked an evasive Trump no fewer than three times whether he tested negative for COVID-19 before the first presidential debate. “It reminds me of being in high school, coming home after my curfew, and my mom saying, ‘Did you buy cigarettes?’ and she wouldn’t let me get out of it until I gave her the answer,” Guthrie said with a smile. (Before the town hall, Guthrie and NBC received their own assurances that Trump was not contagious, including a test independently conducted by the National Institutes of Health.) When the president defended retweeting QAnon conspiracy theories about Biden, Guthrie memorably quipped, “You’re the president, not, like, someone’s crazy uncle.”
Many consider Trump to be a notoriously tricky subject—not Guthrie.“I’ve interviewed a lot of people who are hard to interview,” she said, shrugging. “In point of fact, I thought the president was very respectful.” (She declined to mention that after the town hall, Trump called her “totally crazy” at a rally in Fort Myers, Florida.)
Critics applauded Guthrie’s grilling: “It was like somebody putting a roadblock right in front of the bs,” Salon television critic Melanie McFarland told me. But as an impartial journalist, Guthrie is loath to be hailed as a Trump-slayer: “It’s more important than ever that journalists recognize that we are on no one’s side,” she asserted, her usually chipper tone intensifying. She aims to challenge subjects of both parties, prodding Biden last year in Iowa, asking him about his son Hunter Biden’s business dealing with Ukraine. “He did not enjoy that question,” she noted. Objectivity, in this moment, can seem like a dying art. “I don’t see a lot of people looking for neutrality and straight reporting,” she said. “I do see a lot of people and politicians wanting press coverage that reflects their worldview.”
Guthrie has been honing the art of dispassionate interviews since she began her career in 1993. After studying print journalism at the University of Arizona and spending more than five years as a local TV reporter, she earned her law degree from Georgetown University in 2002, before returning to broadcasting as a trial correspondent for Court TV—a circuitous path for the eventual face of NBC News. “The fact that I’m here is shocking to me,” Guthrie mused across the table. “I’ll never be over it.”
After the town hall, Guthrie jetted back to New York, enjoying a vodka soda with extra lime on the plane. But “every time I thought about Kristen, I felt sick to my stomach, because I knew her work was in front of her.”
WELKER STUDIED Guthrie’s town hall closely as she prepared to moderate the final presidential debate in Nashville one week later, calling it “a gift and a guide.” When NBC made Welker a White House correspondent in 2011, she followed Guthrie, who became a friend. “When she was preparing for her debate, I would just text or call her and say, ‘You were born for this moment,’ ” Guthrie said. “There is no way in heaven or Earth that anyone was going to work harder than Kristen. Fairness is in her bones. She has such a lovely way about her, but she’s nobody’s shrinking violet.” Known for her unflappability, Welker went viral last year for plowing through a live report from the White House even as a gale-force wind knocked towering light stands into her path.
Welker was raised in Philadelphia by a mother who ran for City Council, establishing the importance of “good government.” Welker’s earliest assignment: interviewing her stuffed animals for a homemade newspaper. While studying at Harvard, she interned at Today, spending the summer of 1997 assisting Katie Couric and toiling in the NBC library, doing research for segments on Gianni Versace’s murder. She ascended the ranks with Mitchell as her mentor (Welker calls her “my D.C. mom”) and with guidance from the late Gwen Ifill, who took Welker to dinner when she first arrived in Washington. Covering the Obama and Trump administrations, Welker never lost a sense of wonder: “If you walk through the gates of the White House and you don’t feel awestruck, it’s time to get a different job.”
Moderating the debate thrust Welker to a new tier of fame and scrutiny. No sooner had the Committee on Presidential Debates chosen her than she drew President Trump’s ire. He assailed Welker, a staple in his briefing room, as “a disaster,” “terrible,” and “unfair,” even lashing out at her parents for making campaign donations to Democratic candidates. “It never feels good to be insulted or to have your family criticized,” Welker said via Zoom from her Wilmington hotel room. But “I really had to keep my head down.” Her husband, marketing executive John Hughes, and producers confiscated her phone to tune out distractions as she tore through briefing books and rehearsed mock debates. (Sadly, she will not reveal which NBC staffers played Trump and Biden.) Preparing “became my entire life,” Welker said.
It did not go unnoticed that as only the second Black woman to moderate a presidential debate (and the first since ABC’s Carole Simpson in 1992), she faced even larger pressures. “I say this as a Black female journalist and a Black professional,” Salon’s McFarland told me, “if you are in that arena, you have to win and you have to win decisively.” More than 60 million people around the world would be watching. But “no matter how overwhelming it was to go into the final debate with all of the harassment and criticism that had come her way from the president,” said Mitchell, who aided in the prep, “when she walked out on that stage, she was as calm as possible.”
With the gravitas of Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite and poise all her own, Welker coolly restored order and civility after the disastrous first debate moderated by Fox News’s Chris Wallace. “There’s no doubt I was dealt a different deck of cards,” she said. But her purposeful energy and firm direction made all the difference. (Even Wallace later admitted, “I’m jealous.”) Welker barely blinked when Trump paused to praise her: “I respect very much the way you’re handling this.”
The president wasn’t alone. Welker won plaudits for asking Trump and Biden about oft-overlooked topics like the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color and the more than 500 migrant children still separated from their parents due to the Trump administration’s policy. But the most striking moment came when Welker asked Biden and Trump about “the talk”: that Black and brown families often “feel they have no choice but to prepare their children for the chance that they could be targeted, including by the police, for no reason other than the color of their skin,” Welker explained during the debate. “Do you understand why these parents fear for their children?” It was the first question Welker wrote after being chosen by the debate commission, and one that immediately conveyed what she called “the core of the pain that so many families are feeling.” Welker told me, “It’s impossible to separate myself from the substance of that question. It was just within me.”
As the daughter of a Black mother and a white father, Welker received a version of “the talk” from her parents, Harvey and Julie, who were married in 1970, three years after Loving v. Virginia. “The reality that their marriage would have been illegal just three years prior was always something that was hard for me to grasp,” Welker said. Her parents imparted the history of slavery, racism, and the civil rights movement; the reality that because she was “a biracial child…some people would treat me differently.” Above all, they instilled pride. She wanted little girls to look at her performance in the debate and be able to say, “I can do that someday.”
BOTH GUTHRIE AND WELKER are seasoned political reporters who double as sunny presences on Today. Exactly one week after Election Day, at 6:30 a.m., they reunited in Studio 1A in New York amid a skeleton crew and a Rockefeller Plaza starkly empty of the usual throngs of fans. COVID-19 safety supervisors in masks and face shields circled the set. Both women were sprightly, with no choice but to be morning people. After a pretaped interview with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Guthrie pivoted to Thanksgiving sides (she prefers boxed stuffing).
Looking ahead to the Biden administration, neither woman expects her core responsibility to change. “It’s one thing to campaign,” Guthrie said. “Now it’s on them to govern.” The Biden transition team has signaled a desire to set a different tone with the press than their immediate predecessors, but that doesn’t mean that either woman intends to let down her guard. “I’m going to ask Vice President Harris a lot of questions she probably won’t like,” Welker said, “and she would expect nothing less.”