People: Controlling Her Arc
Fox News morning host Gretchen Carlson wants her story told her way.
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She insists that I’ve confused her with “opinion show” hosts like Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. What she doesn’t acknowledge—or even seem aware of—is that her network considers “Fox & Friends” to be in that same “opinutainment” category. In an October 2009 New York Times article on the “war” between the White House and Fox, a network spokesman asserted that Fox’s weekday news programming runs only from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m., excluding not only the “Friends” but veteran anchors like Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren.
Carlson and Hayre are also not happy to learn that I plan to use “liberal” watchdogs like Media Matters among the sources for my profile. “Blogs are not documented or true journalism,” Carlson says. “I can give you a whole list of Republicans and Democrats, very reputable people, who will give you their analysis of our show.” Interjects Hayre, “We don’t want this story to be political, we want it to be about Gretchen.” When I assert that I don’t feel it’s quite proper for Fox to be telling me what kind of story to write, Carlson admits, “I get where you’re coming from, Pat. But if I worked for CBS News, would you still be using sources like these?” Actually, yes.
I’d also be more than willing to consult whatever sources Carlson recommends. Alas, I don’t get the chance. As I prepare to leave, Carlson and Hayre tell me that they’d like a “time-out” to evaluate whether to continue with the story. Hayre adds that she plans to consult with my boss, Connecticut editor Charles Monagan, the following day. When she does, she makes a few remarkable claims, a key one being that during the previous afternoon I made “everyone,” including Carlson’s children, cry (the latter being especially puzzling, given that I never saw them after that one brief encounter in the game room). Fox wants Connecticut to drop the profile altogether, even threatening legal action if we run it without their approval. I’m a little troubled by these developments until several of my “disreputable” sources inform me I’m far from alone.
“The Fox News publicity department is notorious for a variety of reasons,” says one individual who works with the network regularly. “We actually have a very good relationship with them, but they can be contentious. They are very good at what they do, and by that I mean they’re very hard to work with sometimes.”
For the record, I did conduct a previous interview with Carlson that, to Hayre’s openly expressed satisfaction (she was present for that one too), was All About Gretchen. In June, I headed to News Corp.’s Manhattan headquarters to watch part of a “Fox & Friends” broadcast and get the skinny on Carlson’s background.
Born and raised in Anoka, Minn.—a northern suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul that’s the self-proclaimed “Halloween Capital of the World” (officially certified by the U.S. Congress in 1937) and the model for hometown boy Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon—Carlson grew up within a bucolic mile of all of her extended relatives, including one grandfather who was minister of what she calls “the second-largest Lutheran church in America” (with a flock 8,500 strong). Her other grandfather established a car dealership in 1919, now known as Lee Carlson’s Main Motors, featured on Fox News in 2009 as one of the dealerships selected to close in the wake of General Motors’ bankruptcy and reorganization. “But thanks to the hard work of my parents, we got it back,” Carlson says.
Young Gretchen distinguished herself early on as a classical violin prodigy. She took up the instrument at age 6; by 10, she’d begun making frequent trips to Manhattan to study with esteemed Juilliard School of Music instructor Dorothy DeLay and spent her summers at Colorado’s equally renowned Aspen Music Festival and School. “I was a very serious musician; that’s what I thought I would do with my life,” she says. “My goal was to be a famous concert artist. At the same time I was a tomboy who’d play ‘army’ outside with my brothers.” And football. “Mom made me stop that because I broke the pinkie on my violin hand, which meant six weeks off.”
In high school, she excelled at academics (graduating as class valedictorian), had “tons of friends” and loved drama, acting in all the school plays. But she began to soften on her blossoming musical career and the four to five hours a day of practice it required. “I realized I loved too many things in life to have tunnel vision,” Carlson says. At 17, she chose to matriculate at Stanford University, which apparently caused some family consternation. Her parents preferred she go to Yale, where at least she would be close to New York City and could continue her musical studies on the side. “Here’s a funny story,” she says. “On the day I had to mail my decisions to the schools, my dad called the postmaster of Anoka to delay his pickup, because I sat at the kitchen table and bawled my eyes out for hours over the decision. I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.”
At Stanford, she developed an interest in organizational behavior and at one point considered a career as a corporate lawyer. “If I have one regret in my life, it’s that I never did get that law degree,” she says. “I think it’d be helpful to have that for TV. Maybe I’ll fit it in at some point.”