Ali Velshi on His Return to Ukraine, Move to Mid-Mornings and State of the Cable News Business

By A.J. Katz 

Arguably MSNBC’s most versatile on-air journalist, host and the network’s chief correspondent, Ali Velshi is currently in Ukraine covering the one-year anniversary since the start of Russia’s invasion.

This war isn’t close to being over. Just today, Velshi’s alarm clock consisted of three overnight explosions and a rocket landing in the town he and his production team are staying in.

Yes, they’re OK.


“It appears the Russians are testing to see how many and what types of their projectiles can be defended against by the Ukrainians,” Velshi told TVNewser Thursday by phone. “Now, the percentage is relatively high. In the last 24 hours, of 32 projectiles that came in, the Ukrainians got 16 of them. They’re expensive projectiles, and the Russians have to think about how much money they want to spend on this. However, they can still inflict a lot of damage in the next couple of weeks to celebrate the one year of the invasion.”

Velshi is reporting across MSNBC programming from the ground and will guest-host All In with Chris Hayes next week, not to mention his regular show, Velshi, which will air a new time beginning this weekend, 10 a.m.-Noon ET.

We spoke with Velshi Thursday about how the region has changed from one year ago, moving his weekend MSNBC show from early to mid-morning and the state of the cable news business, of which Velshi has been a high-profile part for more than two decades.

This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity purposes.

TVNewser: We’re approaching one year since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I know you spent time on the ground early on. Now that you’re back, how has the scene changed from 11-12 months ago?

Velshi: There are two ways of looking at this. In one way, it’s become normalized. A year ago, during air raid sirens, there were still some people who didn’t react to them. But most people ran. Most people went somewhere. They went to a shelter, or they got out of the streets. Now, nobody seems to move. In the course of my day, I think there were five of them [air raid sirens] today, and no one reacted. We were in the middle of interviews; no one blinked. They just didn’t react. I don’t know whether that means, “When the missiles are going to hit me, it’s going to miss me, but if they hit me, but I can’t do anything about it.” Or, “I’m not going to let this change my life.”

On the other hand, while we think about war fatigue in the West, there is zero over here. There are people with every extra attack who are more determined that they’re taking the country back. There’s no let up in their determinate. There’s no sense that maybe the government should negotiate a way out of this, or maybe Putin needs an off-ramp, or maybe, “we’re not going to get Crimea back, but at least we can get Donetsk.” There’s none of that going on. These people are more determined than they were a year ago. A year ago, there was shock, and there was that determination that comes from getting punched in the face. A whole different thing. This is a, “We’re going to win this war.”

Every last human who talks to me about it credits America and NATO and the western partners with that. But they’re going to fight the war. They need the help; they need the arms; they need the support from the West. They’re prepared to fight to the last man and woman here.

Aside from your actual surroundings, are there other differences in how you prepare to host a show from the ground versus from a climate-controlled studio?

Security is the biggest concern. We want reporters like me as close to the story as we absolutely can, and our employers want to support that because that’s good storytelling, to get as close as you can. However, they also want to make sure that we don’t take unnecessary risks. That level of discussion is ever present all the time, every day. So the idea that I plan a good story and decide I want to do it will be subject to review however many times you can count. Everything is reviewed all the time in live time. I’ve got a day of shooting planned, which I just finished today; 12 hours of shooting. At no point was it obvious that the next thing will happen the way we plan it to. They might be ignoring the air raid sirens, but we’re not in a position to.

What’s one event you’ve covered from the ground in your career that really sticks out to you? Is it Ukraine? Perhaps the Minneapolis protests? 

Minneapolis stuff was interesting insofar as it was a personal revelation for me. As much as you want to try to be outside the story, sometimes the story drags you in. That story being a very big social justice story writ large. That was just an interesting moment for me because I realized that this issue is one you can’t — it’s a day I went from thinking that I have a front-row seat to history to realizing that we’re all in the arena. We’re all in it. There are no seats. We’re in the whole thing.

What Ukraine reminds me of, which by the way, tornado coverage reminds me of because I’m often in people’s homes before they get there, and I see people as they return to their homes. I’m always taken by the sort of triumph of the human spirit, that somebody comes back to their wrecked home, and their first thought is to start cleaning their yard or getting errant pieces of wood out of the way; and I thinking it was going to take you a year at this pace. But that’s what humans do, and what I realized in Ukraine is that this is what humans do. The odds were completely against them. This war was supposed to be over in days or weeks, and everybody just does their own little bit. There’s no grandeur to it. It’s like picking up the pieces of your destroyed home after a tornado. There’s no grandeur to it. You’re just doing what you can do, and together doing what people can do is the triumph of the human spirit. I’m not seeing any weakness in it.

Look, lots of people in the world are heroes. They’re being heroes for living their lives and just trying to get on with it. A young woman told me today—the one I interviewed today, who I met in Poland a year ago—that it’s hard to live when you’re just trying to exist. That stood out to me. Ukrainian civilians are going to live again. They’re existing right now, and they’ll manage. They managed without heat, and they manage with blackouts and power outages and missiles and air raid sirens. But they’d like to live, and that’s what they’re fighting for.

You are moving to mid-mornings this coming weekend for the foreseeable future. How will your 10 a.m. show be different from the early morning offering, if it all? 

I kind of want to say it won’t be different at all. We’ll just do what we always try and do and try and make it better. I, on a personal level, as you know, always anchor Fridays at 10 p.m. So, I get two extra hours of sleep [weekends at 10 a.m. versus 8 a.m.], which is going to be amazing, although it won’t figure into my life for the next couple of weeks because I’m here in Ukraine, and we’re on weird schedules anyway.

I think we’ve grown something interesting. It’s the third anniversary of Velshi this week, and the world turned upside down. I had this show planned, and then Covid came, and then George Floyd came and then January 6 came, and I’ve never done the show that I actually planned to do. It became something else because America became something else. The world became something else.

I think we’re going to keep on going down the path that we’ve been going on, where we curate a show that our viewer trusts us to curate. I have a sense that my viewer doesn’t share my view on some of the things I say and wouldn’t necessarily choose the stories that I choose, but they trust that I’m doing the curating. They’re still handing the keys over to me for that, and I think I’ve earned their trust. I’m going to continue to earn their trust to say, “this may not be the way you curate a show, but trust me for two hours, and hopefully you’ll like it.”

In addition to your weekend show, you guest host MSNBC primetime frequently. You’re doing so again for Chris Hayes next week. Do you prepare for All In the same way that you do for The Last Word?

Yes, in fact, all the primetime shows that I fill in for—8, 9 and 10 p.m.—generally are all slightly different in the way they build their shows. My view as being a backup host is that it’s an Airbnb. Don’t rearrange the furniture. Enjoy yourself in the house, but do not move anything.

All In [with Chris Hayes] is actually very similar in its DNA to Velshi. Chris dives a little deeper into policy-oriented issues like I do. It feels like stepping into a comfortable slipper. I have a great relationship with all three of those staffs. They’re very, very different staffs. They’re very different shows, but All In is very easy for me to fit into. It’s not easy to do. None of these primetime shows are easy to do, nor should they be easy to do. They’re all different. They all have a different approach. I definitely feel a real comfort level when I’m sitting in for Chris, so I’m pleased to be doing that this week.

A lot of us are wonky at MSNBC. It’s kind of the nature of what we do. Chris and I definitely geek out on some similar policy issues like climate and healthcare, so I can always lean into those when I do a show. Obviously, this week’s going to be a little different because [President] Biden will be in the east for the anniversary of the war, and we don’t know what Russia will do. We’re going to be nimble. It may not be exactly the way that show would look, normally in studio, but Chris gets out a lot anyway. His staff and I are used to it. I think we’re going to have a good and interesting week.

You’ve been in the cable news business for 20+ years now—CNN, Al Jazeera and now MSNBC. In what ways has the cable news business changed for the better, and what ways do you think it’s worse?

There’s a better and a middle answer and a worse.

The worse is that we have to do a better job at resisting the urge to be subjected to the polarization to which our society is subjected. We need to be careful not to be the tip of the spear of polarization. We are a polarized world, not just America, and we are contributors to that sometimes. I think we have to take on the responsibility, particularly those of us who’ve been in the business for a long time who have inadvertently or deliberately contributed to it, have got to make a deliberate effort to say dialogue and understanding have to become touchstones of the work we do. So, I think we have an opportunity to perhaps undo some of the damage we’ve done. I hope that’s my that’s the glass-half-full side of me saying, “We’re not better at this than we used to be.” I think 20 years ago, we didn’t know the potential that we had to do damage, and I think every one of us now has to understand the potential that we have to inflame the situation, to create greater polarization, to make things worse. We need to own up to that, and we need to make pledges to ourselves and to our companies and to our viewers to say, “I need to first do no harm, and then hopefully that I can try and improve things.” We’ve been at the front end of damage, and I’d like to not leave my career in that position.

The middle ground is that it’s not all us. Societies have become more polarized. We need to find ways to exist in a world that needs more complicated answers than sometimes cable media is prepared to provide. I do this a lot on my show. There’s a lot of table setting, a lot of context and providing of context. It’s part of why I take assignments like this. If you want to hold people to account, you have to bear witness, you have to actually be there talking to people who you don’t think you would make as guests on your show or necessarily interview, but you’re just hearing things because you’re sitting with them, and you’re talking with them.

I spent 10 hours with this girl and her family—her father, her mother, her sisters, her church. You’re not going to see it all on TV, but I have a richer understanding after 10 hours. We have to do a lot of that. We have to lean into the fact that people need more context than they even think they want. What people think they want dessert, right? They want cable news anchors who lean into their perspective and tell you how the other people are all the enemy. We have an opportunity to say, “That’s not what you get from us.” I like to lean into that.

It’s a bit of a stretch, the beginning of your question, which is why I went backwards. In what ways are we better? We have better technology. We can get to people. We can, if we choose to, hear from more people than we used to. We have a broader spectrum of people and voices from which to choose. So, you have greater diversity on television, not just cultural, ethnic diversity and racial diversity, but every kind of diversity—economic diversity and gender diversity. These are just things we didn’t do. So, when people harken back to the great days of network news, and how terrific it was, there were a lot of things fantastic about it. That said, there was zero diversity of thought and opinion. You could have watched ABC or NBC or CBS, and you got the same news every night. We have a lot of diversity of views. Some of it’s dangerous, but some of it’s actually additive to the process. If you are prepared to make the effort, you can find the guests from any perspective. What we’re starting to do is not just have these people on the topic that you think that they would know about because they are Black or Queer or something else. We’re having those guests on mainstream topics that are not specific to their identity, and I think that’s where I think the growth has been. When I have a transgender guest on digital media issues in digital media and things like that, that’s when I realized, “Oh, it’s not about a topic that you’re specific to because of your identity. You just happen to be an expert on this and I’m going to show my viewer that we dig a little deeper than the obvious sometimes.”