Tamron Hall, TV host and now mystery novelist, created a heroine to be "the reporter I wish I was"

The Emmy winner appeared on "Salon Talks" to discuss writing fiction and her challenging, ever-changing career path

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published November 6, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)

Tamron Hall speaks on the runway at The American Heart Association's Go Red for Women Red Dress Collection 2020 at Hammerstein Ballroom on February 05, 2020 in New York City. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for American Heart Association)
Tamron Hall speaks on the runway at The American Heart Association's Go Red for Women Red Dress Collection 2020 at Hammerstein Ballroom on February 05, 2020 in New York City. (Mike Coppola/Getty Images for American Heart Association)

"I was terrified to write this novel," Tamron Hall said of "As the Wicked Watch," published by William Morrow in late October. "What was I thinking? I should've wrote a beauty book." 

Watch the full "Salon Talks" video conversation with Tamron Hall and D. Watkins here.

On the set of Hall's daytime talk show, produced by Disney-ABC and airing across the country in national syndication, the Emmy Award winner is in a different element. Before the cameras roll, she greets everyone on the set with her warm, glorious smile before switching into full business mode in an instant –– directing the crew, checking the shot and shifting her plan before shifting it again. Hall has a way of commanding all of her surroundings with ease. She trades jokes with her staff. She makes her guests feel relaxed. Her audience isn't here just to be entertained; they're like extended family, proudly calling themselves the Tam Fam.

Hall makes hosting her own show for more than a million viewers look easy. In 2014, she made broadcasting history becoming the first African American woman to co-host NBC's "Today," but this show, the one with her name on the door, is what she calls "the hardest version of TV that I've done."

As the show's host and executive producer, Hall says she feels a great responsibility for her guests, who trust her with telling their life stories. With her writing, which she is sharing publicly for the first time, it's about trusting herself.

Hall wrote "As the Wicked Watch," the first in a series of mystery novels, during the height of the pandemic. The novel introduces us to Jordan Manning, a savvy crime reporter from Texas, who relocates to Chicago for a job at a television station. While dealing with the challenges of acclimating to the big city, the murder of a 15-year-old girl named Masey James changes Manning's life and career forever. "It was inspired by a real part of me, something that I wanted to reconcile and write about," Hall said. 

What does Hall have to say on the page? For starters, Hall did not give us the tell-all memoir viewers may be expecting or hoping for. In a memoir, she could have documented the details of her childhood, the loss of her sister to a violent abuser and the fact that the case remains unsolved, the drama behind her exit from "Today," including how the ratings dipped after Megyn Kelly took her place and then soared as soon as Kelly was terminated. That memoir would undoubtedly be a great read.

RELATED: Tamron Hall is back, and she's ready to talk with America

Fifty-one-year-old Hall, who grew up in the small town of Luling, Texas, has a story ripe for telling. During childhood, her father pointed at the television to a Black woman anchor named Iola Johnson — a trailblazer in Dallas-Fort Worth network news — and said to his daughter, "That can be you one day if your get your C's up." Young Tamron rode that dream all the way to Temple University, where she studied broadcast journalism. She spent her early career as a camera operator at Wade Cablevision in Philadelphia, then worked as a general assignment reporter back in Texas at KBTX Channel 3 and KTTV where she covered the Brazos Valley and Fort Worth for six years before landing a position as an anchor on "Fox News in the Morning" in Chicago. 

Hall's memoir could detail her rise to the MSNBC anchor chair and her history-making position at "Today." She could revel in that accomplishment and what it means symbolically, before unloading the details of her 2017 departure, dishing dirt and inviting us to ride the emotional waves with her. She could take us behind the scenes of her personal life, including her relationship with husband Steven Greener and their struggles to conceive son Moses.

Hall could end the book in 2019, the first day "Tamron Hall" aired. Readers would leave extremely satisfied, motivated even. But what about Hall? Could she truly open up about everything? 

While her show has quickly enjoyed success, it's only in its third season. Hall is 30 years into her career as a journalist, but her tenure as a daytime talk show host is young. Many of the relationships that led to this opportunity, this moment, are still new and developing — and way too fragile to slash with the kind of brutal honesty that has the potential to crush feelings, dismantle friendships and, well, makes a great memoir. The story of Tamron Hall is still being written. Writing no book at all would be the easiest option, but Hall chose the even greater challenge of writing a novel.  

"Jordan is inspired in some ways by my real life as a reporter for 30 years, but she's also someone I wish I could have been in newsrooms when I watched and heard things said that made me anxious or uncomfortable," Hall says. Through this fictional character we see the ups and the downs of the media business that Hall may not be able to talk about yet. Through Manning's story we see Sunny Hostin, April Ryan, Joy Ann Reid and other Black women leading in the journalism field today. "As the Wicked Watch" gives a real glimpse of what successful Black women journalists must have endured to obtain and maintain their positions. 

Hall calls her relationships with other Black women in the industry "a beautiful infrastructure of solidarity that didn't always exist because you were one for one." 

"When I was going through all of the Donald Trump stuff, Tamron was whispering 'Keep going, you've got this' in my ear," recalled Ryan, White House correspondent for The Grio, referring to 2018 when President Donald Trump called her nasty and threatened to revoke her press credentials. "She also offered a lot of great advice about how to handle this industry from a strategic standpoint, by taking the emotion out of situations as you carefully plan to make your mark." 

Hall writes early in her novel that her heroine Manning is in a business "where independent, successful women still kept secrets about gender bias and sexual harassment while reporting on these very matters." Through the character of Manning, readers witness the fear that comes with taking a leap of faith – and relocating to a big city alone as a single woman in pursuit of a dream, coupled with the reality of being a Black woman in an industry where both racist and sexist stereotypes are readily accepted. It's a perspective Hall doesn't have to imagine — she's lived it.

"Tamron is at the highest level. We are Black women in a white, male-dominated industry who don't have the pedigree of Yale or Harvard, yet we are still rising," Ryan said. "We are still doing exactly what they do. We are working hard, breaking stories and rightfully claiming our seats at the table." 

And Hall has her own experiences as a young crime reporter to tap into when writing about the struggles, too. 

"I stood up for myself against a cop who was being very derogatory toward us about getting off of a crime scene," Hall recalled. "I said, 'Look you know you can't talk to us like that. We are within the lines. I'm a reporter.'"  

When Hall and her white, male producer got back to the newsroom, he took the liberty of telling the story in an animated way that he thought was complimentary to Hall, but instead leaned on every Black woman stereotype available. The producer swung his neck and hips, wagging his finger left to right, rolling his eyes like a character from the sitcom "Martin" in an attempt to imitate Hall standing up for herself. One would think he would have had her back on the crime scene where he remained church-mouse quiet in front of the disrespectful cop, while his coworker, a woman, was being disrespected. But no, he could only move his lips when it was time to mock the Black lady. 

Hall wanted to unleash on that insensitive producer, right in the newsroom, in front of the laughing faces he carelessly entertained, putting him in his place and calling him out on his racism, but she couldn't. That would have proven him absolutely right, playing into the stereotypes he was so happy to imitate. It might have kept Hall from moving up to the next level. So she said nothing. Years later, Hall approached the producer to tell him how horrible his actions were. He did not remember it. A horrifying, unforgettable day for her was apparently just another day at the office for him. 

Manning, however, doesn't have to stay silent. When writing a fictional character, Hall has the luxury of dictating what she wants Manning to get out of any situation in a way that Hall could not do for herself in real life, while offering multiple teachable moments. That, along with how Hall uses Manning to the address the trauma — rarely talked about — many beat reporters endure, is why this character is important.

When Hall was working the graveyard shift, she would sometimes arrive at crime scenes before the police, like Manning does. On one occasion, Hall stumbled upon a lifeless male victim at a salon, lying across the ground speckled with blood. The sight of the body caused Hall to freeze. Nothing in her life had prepared her for that moment. Police arrived shortly after and were taping the area off when the victim's wife exploded onto the scene from a gray Lexus. She had heard there was a robbery at the salon her husband owned and wanted to make sure he was OK. Watching the wife fall apart in real time upon learning of her husband's demise, Hall stood by her car with Toni Braxton's "Unbreak my Heart" spilling out of the speakers. "For a very long time I couldn't hear that song," Hall said. "If I heard that song it was triggering." 

Manning, who has a reputation for arriving at crime scenes first, takes us home with her too, as Hall carefully shows how the stories reporters cover don't just disappear when the workday ends. These tragedies can affect your mood, the way you think and your relationships. TV journalists, people who are often dismissed as talking heads, are often tasked with telling us the terrible stories of our cities. We never really consider how they have to interact with people who are directly connected to the pain and tragic events that shatter communities. 

If Hall would've been as assertive, as forthcoming, as emotionally in-tune as her character Manning — "the reporter I wish I was," as Hall puts it — then she might never have made it to where she is today. Hall checked every box as a broadcast journalist. She joined "Today" in 2014, becoming the first Black woman to host the show, and still was replaced by Kelly in 2017. The tag team of Hall and Al Roker was extremely successful; however, Fox News was No. 1 in cable news, and by bringing Kelly on, NBC signaled it wanted some of that audience, to gain viewers and align, in a way, with America's shift into the Trump era. That plan backfired; personalities with strong political views are niche, and normally aren't going to flourish in apolitical spaces like mainstream network TV. 

Salon's TV critic Melanie McFarland commended Hall for how she handled being fired and turned it into something bigger. "Unlike Megyn Kelly, Hall doesn't make it all about herself," McFarland said. "Tamron Hall is the conduit, while Megyn Kelly is this personality who needs to insert and say, 'This is me, and this is me presenting my view of the world to you in this space.' And that was never going to work on the 'Today' show." 

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Hall occupies a uniquely independent space. She can deliver the news with great credibility and an intellectual authority that some daytime hosts don't have while also connecting with a diverse group of daytime viewers. "When I lost a job," Hall said, reflecting on "Today," "I laugh about it on air now because there was something in that moment where I decided, maybe unbeknownst to me, that I wasn't going to let that weigh me down.

"The thing that I am most proud of is that I didn't let it make me bitter," she added. Instead, Hall saw an outpouring of support online and from fans as an opportunity to create the show. "To see it succeed gave me the confidence to write this book." 

More "Salon Talks" with D. Watkins: 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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