People: Controlling Her Arc

Fox News morning host Gretchen Carlson wants her story told her way.

 

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It’s an overcast Tuesday in mid-July, 2010. I’m spending my afternoon in Greenwich interviewing Gretchen Carlson, co-anchor—alongside Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade—of Fox News Channel’s popular morning show, “Fox & Friends,” airing Monday through Friday 6 to 9 a.m. How popular? Well, according to Nielsen Media Research, it’s the No. 1 cable-news network morning show on television, winning on average a million viewers daily, and leaving in the dust its closest competitors: MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and CNN’s “American Morning,” both of which hover around one-third of Fox’s viewership. It wouldn’t be a  leap  to suggest that Carlson is a key factor in “Friends” success: After all, she came to Fox in 2005 with nearly 15 years of TV news experience (five with CBS News) and a touch of telegenic celebrity glamour, having been crowned Miss America 1989.

She’s lived in Greenwich for three years in a home that she and her husband, prominent baseball agent Casey Close—who represents the New York Yankees’ Derek Jeter, among others—designed from the ground up, with help from Carlson’s parents. Thanks to a gracious tour, I’ve seen every room of the spacious, tasteful contemporary manse, even all the one-of-a-kind bathrooms (the work of her father). Along the way, I met her two young children, Kaia and Christian, engrossed in a computer game in the playroom. “They’re allowed only 30 minutes of computer time a day,” Carlson tells me.

Even with their busy profiles, Carlson and Close are active community members: Both teach Sunday school at First Presbyterian Church in Greenwich. Carlson, 44, is also a national celebrity spokesperson for the March of Dimes, having worked with the organization for 25 years, since planning a fundraiser with her high school’s Key Club. Given the total package, Carlson would seem to be an ideal candidate for a Connecticut Magazine profile. Carlson and her Fox publicist Tanya Hayre certainly thought so when they proposed, a month or so earlier, that we do a piece that, among other things, might share Carlson’s “summertime barbecue tips.”

But today, things start to go sour  roughly an hour after the house tour ends, as the conversation turns to the subject of Carlson’s job. Established in 1996, Fox News Channel is part of News Corporation, owned by controversial Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Network President Roger Ailes is a former Republican Party political consultant who worked on election campaigns for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Though Fox has always claimed adherence to the operating slogans “fair and balanced” and “we report, you decide,” other media figures have long excoriated Fox as a blatant propaganda arm of the GOP. In the 2004 documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism, even some former Fox contributors and correspondents joined with national media watchdog organizations like Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and well-known commentators Walter Cronkite, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Vanity Fair cultural critic James Wolcott to testify to the news network’s role as handmaiden to the George W. Bush presidency.

With the January 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama—and the arrival of the Elmer Gantry-esque Glenn Beck at Fox the day before—the network’s GOP identification has intensified with a series of attacks on the current  administration. One lowlight was Beck’s assertion, during a July 2009 guest appearance on “Fox & Friends,” that Obama is a “racist, with a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” Fox is also believed to have played a significant role in the rise of the “tea party” movement. In the two-week run-up to the April 15, 2009 tax-day rallies, “the network ran 70 spots promoting these events,” says Ari Rabin-Havt, vice president of research and communications for Media Matters for America, a web-based nonprofit organization that monitors, analyzes and corrects what it views as conservative misinformation in the media.

In August, News Corp. donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, prompting Ben Smith of Politico to write that it was “a new step toward an open identification between News Corp. and the GOP.” While other media outlets have certainly made donations to both political parties in the past, what was significant about this was, as Rabin-Havt puts it, that “no media organization had ever made a lopsided donation on that scale to a political organization.” (At press time, News Corp. had doubled down, giving the GOP-affiliated U.S. Chamber of Commerce another $1 million.)

Naturally, I’d like to talk to Carlson about all this. What’s her take on Fox? What does she think about issues of the day, particularly some of those covered on “Fox & Friends”—such as the 2010 midterm elections or Park51, the controversial Muslim cultural center to be built near Ground Zero? But Carlson would rather not discuss these subjects. She’s encouraged in this by publicist Hayre, who never leaves Carlson’s side, and who assures me “no journalist” would answer such questions: “We don’t want anything to be mischaracterized, that’s why we can’t get into specifics.” For her part, Carlson sticks by the standard Fox News slogans. “I can’t tell you how many times I say on air, ‘a fair and balanced debate coming up—we’ll report and you decide,’” she says. “That’s my job.”

People: Controlling Her Arc

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