People: Controlling Her Arc

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

 

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Then, her life changed direction again. At the instigation of her mother—who suggested it might be an excellent showcase for her musical talents and high-level scholarship—Carlson left Stanford prior to her senior year (and after completing a summer program at England’s Oxford University) to try out for the Miss America pageant. It all worked out for the best when she walked away with the Miss America 1989 crown, distinguishing herself as the first (and thus far, only) classical violinist to have won the title. Her secret: wowing the judges with an abridged version of Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate’s challenging Zigeunerweisen.

For the year following the pageant, she was on the road 24/7 with her Miss America duties, traveling 30,000 miles a month and visiting a different city every day (which she calls “the hardest job I’ve ever done, hands down”). Thanks to the media exposure, her interest in television—which had previously been piqued by a summer-home-from-college experience interning at a Minneapolis TV station—grew. After returning to Stanford and completing her degree she pursued, and won, a position in the news department at ABC affiliate WRIC in Richmond, Va.

The rest is history, although it’s clear that after roughly 10 years of hard-news experience at stations from Cincinnati to Dallas (culminating in her being hired as a correspondent for Dan Rather at CBS in New York City in 2000), Carlson really found her niche when she got a gig co-hosting CBS’s Saturday morning “Early Show.” Says she, “It gave me a chance to showcase all sides of my personality, including my sense of humor. I wanted to do it more than one day a week, and Fox afforded me that opportunity.”

There are two realms of morning TV news shows—broadcast and cable. On the broadcast networks (CBS, NBC, ABC), the clear king of the hill is NBC’s “Today.” Debuting in 1952, it served as the prototype for CBS’s “Early Show” and ABC’s “Good Morning America,” and finished the 2009-10 season with a Nielsen viewership of 5 million-plus, far and away the highest of all morning news numbers.

Broadcast morning news shows are “designed to give the audience traffic and weather reports within a container of news breaks and light features,” says Rich Hanley, assistant professor of journalism and graduate journalism program director at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. “Their goal is to appeal to a broad base; the idea is that people will attune to stories or guests of particular interest as they’re getting their kids off to school or dressing for work. It’s supposed to be a moderate awakening, as opposed to the nightly news, which has a more serious tone.”

On the other hand, he says, the role cable news networks have granted themselves is to carry a strong narrative throughout a 24-hour cycle. So “the job of the morning show is to set the tone of that day’s narrative. It’s done casually, however, to fit into the dynamics of morning.” As compared to, say, MSNBC’s more informal “Morning Joe,” Hanley defines the “Fox & Friends” style as “casual with a bite.” He doesn’t find the show opinion-free. “The hosts are very pointed in their commentary about certain things, and aggressive in bringing on guests who share their perspective.”

How effectively do the “Friends” sell the message of each day? The opinions I hear make me feel a little like Goldilocks-in-reverse, depending on whether the respondent finds the show “too conservative,” “too liberal,” or in some ways, “just right.” You could put Colby Hall—managing editor of Mediaite, a media-industry news and opinion blog run by NBC legal analyst Dan Abrams—in the last category. “They create an entertaining and fun program that their audience loves, and for that they should be lauded,” he says. “Though they don’t try to be a hard-news show, they don’t shy away from that, so it makes for very entertaining, thought-provoking and sometimes com­pelling TV. A lot of their viewers take them very seriously, and love the fact that they give gut-level reactions to stories that are in the news.”

People: Controlling Her Arc

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