This article, from November 2010, was selected in September 2021 by longtime editor Charles Monagan as one of his favorites from his time at the helm of Connecticut Magazine: "Gretchen Carlson’s publicist at Fox News proposed a profile of the then Fox & Friends star, not realizing that writer Pat Grandjean might wish to go beyond Carlson’s love of baking cookies. The tough questioning raised alarms at Fox, which tried to get the story stopped. Much later, of course, Carlson herself quit the network and railed against its workplace practices."
Fox News morning host Gretchen Carlson wants her story told her way. 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.”
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.”
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.”
Others maintain that the show is weak sauce, and not simply because it’s part of a network they see as the publicity arm of the GOP. “The problem is not so much that they’re conservative; it’s that they put out a lot of false information,” says Jed Lewison, contributor to the online political community Daily Kos. The misinformation “Fox & Friends” has been said to spread takes many forms. Sometimes it’s described as a politicized twist on the truth, one example being a recent discussion on illegal immigration and “anchor babies.” Says Media Matters’ Rabin-Havt, “Gretchen Carlson described the 14th Amendment as the one that allows illegals born in the U.S. to be citizens. That’s certainly not how you’d describe it in civics class.”
Other times it’s insidious. In September, Park51/“Ground Zero Mosque” organizer Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf expressed his concern, on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” that relocation of Park51 would send an anti-Islam message that would strengthen radicals in the Muslim world and help their recruitment, compromising the security of American troops and citizens overseas. Subsequently, the “Friends”—relentless proponents of relocation—used his comments to fear-monger, referring to them on-air as a “threat” 10 times in one three-hour show.
Chyrons flashed onscreen during the discussions bore the messages “More Mosque Threats—Imam Says Center’s Move Could Spark Violence” and “Imam Warning A Veiled Threat? Rauf: Moving NYC Mosque A National Security Risk.” Finally, Fox colleague Chris Wallace came on the show and challenged their claim, saying he didn’t hear the Imam’s remarks as a threat and pointing out that Gen. David Petraeus had expressed similar concerns.
Overall, the biggest problem with the show may be its chronic disingenuousness, a characteristic blithely satirized by “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in a segment titled “Gretchen Carlson Dumbs Down.” Noting that on various occasions the Stanford organizational-behavior grad had told her audience that she needed to “Google” the meaning of the words “double-dip recession,” “czar” and “ignoramus” (she still managed to get the last one wrong), Stewart thundered, “How do you get a job on television if you appear to be one of those people who need to pin their address to their sleeve so a stranger can help them find their way home? Unless . . . you’re just dumbing yourself down to connect to an audience who sees intellect as an elitist flaw.”
Quinnipiac’s Hanley feels it’s clear that the audience that’s coming to Fox has the same mind-set as the network, and doesn’t want its preconceptions challenged. “Fox is reinforcing their beliefs, if not driving them,” he says. “They understand that the audience is not going to fact-check. So they can ignore the fact that the top shareholder of News Corp. [Alwaleed bin Talal] is a Saudi prince who also happens to be an investor in the ‘Ground Zero Mosque.’ They avoid this purposefully. Much of the issue with Fox is not what’s said, it’s what’s not said.”
He also notes that the network is masterful at getting across a message without saying much at all. “Optics matter more than words on television,” Hanley says. “You can put a visual up, say something, and people will remember what they’re seeing, not what is being said. That’s been part of the news landscape since the presidency of Ronald Reagan.” Last April, “Fox & Friends” ran a segment displaying the logo from this year’s Nuclear Security Summit—inspired by the Rutherford-Bohr model of the hydrogen atom—alongside the crescent-moon-and-star Muslim flags of Turkey, Tunisia, Algeria and Pakistan so viewers could see the similarities, while Carlson intoned that “it had been suggested” that President Obama had chosen this summit logo “as a continuation of his outreach to Muslim nations.” (The accompanying chyron: “Islamic Image? Summit Design Looks Like Crescent Moon.”)
Is Fox the only news network that ever plays fast and loose with the facts? No. It’s just the only one that has a notable lack of editorial standards regarding content, says Media Matters’ Rabin-Havt. “We sometimes have issues with what Joe Scarborough”—the former Republican congressman from Florida who hosts “Morning Joe”—“says on the air. But NBC has editorial controls in place that clearly work. And to his credit, when we’ve pointed out things he’s gotten wrong, he plays it straight and corrects himself.”
You can count Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the Media Research Center (an organization that sets out to document, expose and neutralize what it feels is liberal media bias), as one person who appreciates “Fox & Friends,” and Fox as a whole, for being the “one place that actually lets conservative voices be heard. Critics see it as a ‘rah-rah Republican’ show; I would tell you that I think ‘Morning Joe’ is liberal media. I don’t see a lot of dissent on ‘Morning Joe.’ We in particular have not been invited on in three years. From our perspective, the value of ‘Fox & Friends’ is that they’re not shy about doing stories that the liberal media doesn’t want to cover.” At the same time, he admits, “Fox is disappointing to social conservatives” in not taking stronger stands vis-à-vis abortion and gay rights. “On the day of the annual ‘March for Life,’ they may do one news story, but ‘Fox & Friends’ and Sean Hannity won’t touch it.’”
The network’s practice of fairness and balance toward its staff has apparently been contradictory. On the one hand, for several years now Fox has actively supported the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), a professional organization concerned with fair and accurate news coverage of the LGBT community. They’ve made annual donations and co-sponsored some NLGJA benefits. Says the association’s president, David Steinberg, “Fox has good nondiscrimination policies regarding its LGBT employees.” On the other hand, the network has recently been sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for retaliating against news reporter Catherine Herridge, due to her 2007 claim of unequal pay and job conditions based on her age and gender.
Some worry about the growing influence of the “right-wing fringe” on Fox. Ellen Brodsky of News Hounds, a Fox-watching website that grew out of the Outfoxed documentary, believes that provocateurs like Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin and Laura Ingraham have become “all too common on Fox and their points of view seen as normal. The current level of hate on the network alarms me to a degree I’ve never felt before, and I’ve always been alarmed by the hate-mongering that goes on there.” Others maintain that Fox’s reach is simply not broad enough to fear. “There are 114 million TV households in the United States; one million of them watch Fox,” Hanley says. “That’s 113 million that don’t. And Fox’s presence on the web is minimal, compared to MSNBC, CNN, The New York Times or USA Today. To the growing Internet news audience, it’s really irrelevant.”
It’s time to say a fond farewell to Gretchen Carlson. If she’s reading this, she probably wishes it was more fair. I did try to contact other conservative sources, from Accuracy in Media (AIM) and the Washington Times to the blog Instapundit. They claimed not to watch her. Something she told me when she was contesting my intentions sticks out: that she “really wasn’t in this line of work to be a celebrity.” I get that—she doesn’t want to be a lightning rod. All I can say is, it’d seem much more convincing coming from a corporate lawyer than a Miss America.