NYU goes behind the scenes of cable news with Anne Milgram, CNN legal expert and distinguished scholar in residence at NYU School of Law.

Anne Milgram. Photo by Jorge Corona.

Keeping up with the 24-hour news cycle—not to mention the onslaught of commentary on social media—is challenging enough as a consumer. Can you imagine if you were one of the experts responsible for helping the rest of world better understand events as they unfold?

News networks routinely call upon analysts to share their perspectives on the air, and Anne Milgram, a professor of practice and distinguished scholar in residence at NYU Law, knows a thing or two about distilling complex developments in real time—in front of millions of people, no less. Since the spring of 2018, the former attorney general of New Jersey has been under contract with CNN to appear regularly as a legal analyst, explaining everything from Supreme Court cases to the college admissions scandal. With the impeachment hearings developing as we write, she’s been appearing weekly, which made us wonder what her life looks like behind the scenes.

Milgram recently talked with NYU News about how she’s navigating her on-camera role, from keeping up with headlines to dealing with online trolls.

How did you get started as a pundit?

I was on Stay Tuned with Preet in spring of 2017, and we did a pretty deep dive into the Mueller investigation. I ended up getting a lot of calls after that, and then you fall into a rhythm with the booking producers. They see how you answer questions, and they know whether they want someone who’s going to be feisty, or someone who’s going to be more legal and factual.

I got to a point where I was doing a lot of [appearances], and it got hard to manage the paperwork. If you have 10 different booking producers coming at you from one network, and you’re working with two or three networks, it's difficult to figure out a schedule. The answer is you affiliate with one network. It’s a much easier way to control how often you do it.

What’s the process like now that you’re affiliated with CNN?

People think the networks are centralized, but it’s the opposite. Most of the shows have their own booking producers who reach out to you individually. When they do, it’s whatever my schedule allows. Once [the incident in] Iran happened, I got emails saying, “We may not need you,” but they do give you a few hours’ notice [if they cancel]. It doesn’t happen a lot. When they book a legal analyst, they’re betting that three days from now there will be legal news. Right now, there often is, but there are times when it’s all national security or all healthcare. [With the impeachment trial,] the next month will be very busy.

What part of it do you enjoy most?

The first is having a voice at a time when I think it’s really important. It’s been great to try and help people understand what’s happening—some of which is complex and some of which is made to seem complex. I may draw certain conclusions, but I usually try to be really conscious about saying, “Here’s what matters,” and then I want the audience to draw their own conclusions.

It’s also a really smart, engaged group of people. The anchors are great and the other analysts are great. I often leave with someone having stimulated me to think about something differently.

How do you manage to stay a few steps ahead of a subject?

I have to stay generally informed, but I’ll do a deep dive if I know I’ll appear to talk about something in particular. I read a ton of stuff. I read The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal.  I’ll go online and look at CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. I read law blogs, and then I always read the underlying documents. I’ve been a state and federal prosecutor, and when I read those papers, I get a different sense of the matter. I find it’s really important to not rely on other people’s takeaways.

You must read quite fast!

It depends how tired I am. [Laughs] For Stay Tuned, Preet and I were frantically reading [the Mueller Report]. Even as a lawyer who is used to reading documents like that, it was still dense. For a layperson, it would be really hard to go through it in a few hours and understand what it meant. I think people rely on other people to tell them because there’s so much information now.

Has there ever been a time when you didn’t know what to say?

Knowing what you know and what you don’t know is helpful. I have a lot of confidence in saying, “Well, I don’t know,” or “We can’t really say that yet.” I watch folks who feel pressured to make the guess, but I have no problem saying, “There’s too much we don’t know yet, but here are the pieces we should be looking at.”

How did you learn what to wear?

No one really tells you. I feel like color is great—just having a brightly colored blouse or sweater. I tend to prefer dresses, personally. There’s no dress code. Obviously for men I think it’s a little easier because they wear suits. [CNN does] an amazing job with hair and makeup. They always do it.

Have you ever dealt with critics or trolls?

I don’t always read the comments. Just like when I was AG, you get credit you don’t deserve and blame you don’t deserve. I always want notes and feedback from anyone I’m working with, and I always ask my mom.

What’s something the average viewer might not know about how news shows work?

One misconception is that it’s really scripted. It’s not. If I’m told something, I’m told a general topic. They have you on for your expertise and opinion. You can agree with the anchor or disagree. People feel like because you can answer a question, you somehow knew the question beforehand, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.