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'Fresh Air' hosts Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley talk news, Detroit and psychedelics

Tonya Mosley credits her grandfather with inspiring her career in journalism. She is the new co-host of <em>Fresh Air.</em>
Erika Verik
Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley credits her grandfather with inspiring her career in journalism. She is the new co-host of Fresh Air.

For as long as she can remember, Tonya Mosley, the new co-host of Fresh Air, always wanted to be a journalist. It's a passion she traces back to her grandfather.

"[My grandfather] loved newspapers. He loved watching television. He had the radio on in his home all the time," Mosley says. "And because of how he exposed me to news, I then became interested in it ... and the rest is history."

Mosley grew up in Detroit in the 1980s and '90s, and attended the University of Missouri with the intention of becoming a print journalist. But in her senior year of college, she landed a job as a teleprompter operator at the local ABC affiliate, which launched her into TV news. She worked her way up to became a producer for the morning and afternoon shows in Columbia, Mo., then branched out as a TV reporter in several cities, including Seattle and Louisville.

Through it all, Mosley was frequently the only Black person in the newsroom, which left her feeling scrutinized, "like I had to be better than everyone else, or I had to make sure that I was twice as good, because if I make one mistake, everyone, their eyes are on me," she says.

In meetings, coworkers sometimes dismissed stories about the Black community as not interesting or newsworthy. "I kind of became someone who had to explain Black culture to newsrooms or fight a little bit harder to cover stories on certain parts of town," Mosley says. "I always had to fight against who I was in this moment to tell teams why we should care, which was pretty exhausting towards the end of my career in television."

In the 2000s, Mosley shifted into public radio. She worked as the Silicon Valley bureau chief of KQEDin San Francisco, and was an anchor of the midday news show Here & Now. She is also the creator and host of Truth be Told, a Webby Award-winning podcast designed to be a safe space for Black people to talk to each other about a variety of subjects, including family, work, trauma and joy.

The newest season of the podcast examines the use of psilocybin to heal racial trauma; as part of her reporting, Mosley went to a retreat in Jamaica to take mushrooms in a therapeutic setting. She vows to continue to lean into her own life experiences and curiosities as she joins the Fresh Air team.

"If it's truly coming from my curiosities, then that will allow people to see things in a new and different way, or experience a topic that they thought they knew in a new way," she says. "That lets them not only understand the person I'm interviewing, but also understand my point of view as a Black person in this country."

Interview highlights

On being judged for her appearance when she worked in TV news

I always consider myself on the edge of "TV attractive." I believe that I'm attractive, but in the TV world, I was on the edge of that. I'm Black. I'm not skinny. I prefer to wear my hair short. I wear glasses. It was difficult for me. We'd have consultants come in and talk with us about how to speak, what to wear, how to style our hair, what makeup to use. And while I really love adornment and I love expressing myself through my hair and makeup and clothing, for the purposes of my job, all I really cared about were the stories.

Mosley reports live in 2003 from Fort Wayne, Ind., during her first on-camera job.
/ Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley
Mosley reports live in 2003 from Fort Wayne, Ind., during her first on-camera job.

And so I was a very nervous television reporter. ... There was always like a script in my mind that was happening, two of them at the same time. So the first was the story that I was sharing with the public, but the other was my appearance. I was always very aware of it and it was very stressful. It really is part of the reason why I transitioned out of news, because something happened in the mid 2000s where the look for television became even more vampy. And at that time, I knew I could not really compete in that sphere. And I also could feel it in my career like I wasn't exactly the look of the time.

On feeling like Black communities were being overlooked by white newsrooms

I remember when I was working in Seattle, the first week I started, a photographer, very well-meaning guy, we were driving through a neighborhood that was considered a Black neighborhood, and he said to me, "So, you know, I want to give you the lay of the land. This neighborhood is not the place to be, and this is not the area that you want to cover." And I thought, like he has no understanding of who he's talking to. I mean, this is exactly where I want to be. And this is exactly the community I want to cover. And it really says a lot that you actually don't see this community as part of the greater coverage that we're supposed to do to serve this community.

On covering George Floyd's murder

Every time a Black person is killed by police and I have to cover it, it affects me personally. It affects me profoundly. I don't think there is a story about police violence that I don't cry over when I go home at night. And it's because it's so close to me. I've seen it all of my life. ... It is a life that is lost and it's another tick on our history with Black people in interactions with law enforcement. ...

[Floyd's murder] was particularly hard because I had been ... covering some of the worst news in the history of our nation, and here we were with another one. And this was a flash point because the entire nation seemed to rise up. There was something about the quiet and the stillness of the pandemic that allowed us to see ourselves a little more clearly. That's the positive thing that I saw come out of it. But with that, I was also faced with a reality that I've seen in every single newsroom that I've been in.

You asked me [if] there were times where I was the only Black person in a newsroom. Yes. And there's a cost that comes with that. Oftentimes, there's not an understanding. And so when George Floyd was murdered and people were taking to the streets again, I had to be a translator for my team and I was broken. I did the job, but it was so tremendously hard. I was almost to the point of talking to my husband about, "Is there something else I could do? Could we still survive and not have to cover this? Like, what are our finances like?" It was a really dark period.

On the problem with "objectivity" in journalism

It's interesting because oftentimes we have this warped notion of what objectivity is in this country, and especially when it comes to journalism. Somehow we feel like not having a connection to something makes us better at covering it. But we all have connections to everything that we cover. You have a point of view. Bias is a natural human trait. I had heard for many years, even before George Floyd, that, "Oh, will you be able to cover stories that involve your community? Black people, can you be objective? Can you be neutral?"

It makes me a better journalist to have experienced firsthand some of the things that I'm covering because I understand all sides of it. And I'm able to maybe tap into parts of a story that others don't think about.

Which, there's no such thing. And how I would always think about that is we don't say that to white reporters or to white journalists. We don't say, "You covering the day-to-day events where you only talk to white people, can you do that and still hold your objectivity?" And so I actually think it makes me a better journalist to have experienced firsthand some of the things that I'm covering because I understand all sides of it. And I'm able to maybe tap into parts of a story that others don't think about. ...

I think the misconception that we often have in journalism is that the white way is the right way. The white way is the neutral way, is the objective way. And everything else is kind of like a side view. It's not the main view. And that's flawed because if we all think of ourselves as equal, that's not true, all of our vantage points really sit in the center, but it's making space and room for that experience and that lens on the world.

On growing up living both with fear and community connection

My mom said when she knew that I was doing this [interview], she said, "Please don't talk bad about Detroit." And I think everyone feels that way about where they live, but especially with Detroit, because growing up there in the '80s, in the '90s, with so much economic divestment, people were just desperate and there was so much crime, it was constant. And I will say, that is the complexity of being from a place like Detroit. I did live in fear, but it was also a place with so much love. And so I felt a combination of things, like I felt held and safe and connected to community, but I did feel fearful constantly and mostly fearful for my future. In the moment, I felt like I'm just doing what I need to do to get through and dreaming about a future where I could be out of this place and feel safe. And so if I'm honest with myself, it's part of why I've never gone home permanently, because there was so much desire as a child to get out of there so that I could feel safe.

I still hold a tremendous amount of survivor's guilt around being able to make it out. It has allowed me, though, to see that these types of things happen everywhere. I've lived in seven cities and states, and in every case, there's crime that happens there, people who die randomly, people who were targeted, and it's just part of life, and it's the way that life works. And in many ways, that has given me solace, but in many ways, it also re-traumatizes me every time I experience or see a shooting that happens, a school shooting, for instance, or a wave of crime that happens.

On losing peers to violence growing up, and confronting her trauma in with psychedelics

After January 6th, I felt completely broken down. A lot of the things that I had experienced in my life started to surface, and I think it was in combination with the quietness of the pandemic and being stuck in the house and alone with my thoughts more really brought them to the surface for me. So I had already been dealing with so much of that consciously. But when I went to Jamaica and I was afraid of what would come up for me, I thought like, "Oh my gosh, now I'm really going to sit in it."

What actually ended up happening was that I had an experience with my family, my grandparents, my aunts, my uncles. It was a beautiful thing because I didn't understand before I took psilocybin that that would be the thing that I need to contend with, is my relationship with my family and that connection.

Tonya Mosley with her grandmother Ernestine.
/ Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley
Tonya Mosley with her grandmother Ernestine.

I have been running for so long, and when I say running, it's in two ways. One, running away from the trauma that I experienced as a child, but also just trying to find myself. And seeing [my grandmother] in my journey, I think allowed me to come back to myself to say, you don't have to be dictated by fear in your life. You need to come back to who you are and the foundation of who you are is us, your family. And what my grandmother represents is myself. She represents me.

On how the psychedelic trip helped her be less of a workaholic

One thing that is true about me, it may be one of my greatest attributes and also my greatest weaknesses is that I am a workaholic. I am a perfectionist. I love to be in control. I love to know all the answers. I'm going to research so that I know all the answers. If I need to be somewhere at 7:00, I'm going to be there at 6:15 or 6:30, and something happened where I just can't do that anymore. I'm much more normal and balanced. It's almost like my body doesn't allow me to do that. And I think that what that meant was that I was able to process a lot of my trauma, the trauma that was kind of fueling that type of workaholic behavior, that sense of always having to be up on it. I feel much more balanced now. I'm now learning how to sit in that balance because it's counter to who I've been all of my life.

Ann Marie Baldonado and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.