As a longtime television correspondent and anchor, Contessa Brewer ’96 has guided viewers through major breaking news and traversed the divisive issues. From hurricanes and presidential elections to financial markets and the immigration debate, Brewer has sought to tell stories through the people they impact. And in today’s 24/7 world of instant information gratification, she counts critical thinking as an invaluable skill and believes it’s important to consider life lessons and have time for reflection. “I’m still grappling with an increasingly complex world where there’s so much to learn,” she says.
Brewer, a CNBC correspondent and fill-in anchor since 2017, broke onto the national cable news scene in 2003 when she joined MSNBC as an anchor and also hosted the documentary series “Caught on Camera.” Prior to that, she worked at television stations in Reno, Palm Springs and Milwaukee. Looking back, Brewer credits her time at Syracuse University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, in broadcast journalism from the Newhouse School , with preparing her for her professional career. “I was engaged there—my professors engaged me, my experience engaged me, and my experience in the honors program was really rewarding,” says the national Emmy Award-winning journalist.
As a lifelong learner, Brewer has always been curious and independent—two characteristics that have followed her since childhood. Her parents were in the Air Force when she was born, and her father later turned to the ministry, becoming a Baptist preacher in Kentucky who moved the family from place to place, one church to the next, before settling in Maine when she was in junior high school. She came to Syracuse where her hard work paid off with admission into the Renée Crown University Honors Program . Eventually, Brewer’s curiosity and independence led her to question what she had been taught.
A Broad Foundation
It also laid the groundwork for her studies at Syracuse. Even today, she recalls classes and experiences that influenced her personal and professional growth. After a contentious encounter in an African American drama class, she learned the value of “walking a mile in somebody else’s shoes.” In a philosophy class, she learned how to use logic in debate and view all sides of an issue. As a work-study student in the Maxwell School dean’s office, she had a demanding job that taught her about time management, setting goals and networking. She also spent a semester studying abroad in Strasbourg, France , where she got a firsthand look at the implications of xenophobia when Bosnian refugees flooded western France.
Passing the Torch
Brewer also proudly cites being a Remembrance Scholar for shaping her journey. She still feels a deep personal connection to those killed in the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103. After her 1995 semester abroad, she vividly remembers flying home from London, where the tragic flight had originated. In her senior year, she interviewed artist Suse Lowenstein, who lost her son, Alexander, in the bombing and created “Dark Elegy,” a collection of sculptures displayed on campus that depicted the grieving mothers who lost their children.
At the time, Brewer was also working on an honors documentary on death and dying. “There were a lot of themes that wove together for me,” she says. “As a Remembrance Scholar, the feeling was so palpable that I had been handed a torch to go and achieve things that those kids were not able to achieve. It’s amazing the University keeps that alive and that there are now so many Remembrance Scholars who have the opportunity to go forward and let that light shine. I envision it like an Olympic torch—that you’re handed this flaming baton, and your job is to move forward and make sure that you’re lighting other torches along the way. And that’s one thing with my job—it allows me to light the torches of curiosity, of knowledge, of education. Even the entertaining stories, if you can bring that bit of peace and calm and humor and inspiration into someone’s life for a minute, it’s part of the way that fire lives on. And I hope the parents are somewhat comforted by that.”
Those lessons from Syracuse remain with Brewer—and she remains dedicated to her alma mater. She’s served on the Syracuse University Alumni Association Board of Directors, co-chaired and emceed events at Orange Central, and been involved in the Newhouse School’s Mirror Awards recognizing media coverage. She also emphasizes the importance of students building their alumni network. She landed her first broadcasting job, in Reno, that way—reaching out to a recent graduate who had worked in Reno and spoke to a Newhouse class.
Advice for Today’s Students
When asked what advice she would give to aspiring journalists, she offers wisdom that all students can apply. “Serious students who are approaching a complex world have to be very disciplined about setting aside media consumption so they can focus on creation,” she says. Noting the paradox inherent in a journalist cautioning others about the media they follow, she says, “There has to be discipline about setting aside time for pondering the big questions that life presents us and for coming up with complex, innovative approaches to answer them.”