Q&A: Gretchen Carlson

Getting Real, out June 16
Getting Real, out June 16

Photograph courtesy Viking

FOX News show host—and a WCPO reporter from 1992 to 1994—Gretchen Carlson has penned a new memoir. Her book, Getting Real, will be out June 16, and will cover, as she says, “a lot of messages; everything from perseverance, all the way to faith, all the way to parenting.” Her journey thus far is worth writing about: A child violin prodigy, Carlson went on to study at both Stanford and Oxford, win the Miss America pageant in 1989 and work her way up through the ranks of local news, eventually landing her own show at FoxNews: The Real Story with Gretchen Carlson. We asked Lisa Murtha, author of the May 2015 feature “Anchorwomen,” to catch up with Carlson and see if her experiences in the big time have mirrored those of Cincinnati’s current local leading ladies.

Your book’s called Getting Real. I know this is a tie-in to your Fox News show title, but what else does “getting real” mean to you? What do you want people to come away knowing after reading this book?
I think sometimes people feel like they only see the exterior of somebody who’s on TV, especially on national TV. I just wanted people to know that I’ve had the same struggles and life problems that so many other people do. I wanted to talk about things that have happened to me for the very first time, like sexual harassment, [and] a life threatening stalker situation that I endured.

You describe yourself in the book’s publicity materials as having a “fierce determination”—this comes up in my “Anchorwomen” story a lot as well. Is that a crucial trait for women in broadcasting?
Yes, but I feel that that’s a trait you need to be successful in whatever career path you choose. I actually think the TV news business is now a place where women can really thrive. [But] you still need the fierce determination because it’s not easy to get to a top position. If there was a set path to become Diane Sawyer, we all would have done it. It’s so ultra-competitive.

Speaking of competition, I learned how to do live shots in Cincinnati, how to do investigative pieces, and seriously gin up my competitive spirit! John Matarese and I were the two nightside reporters. We would go out every night and our producer, Stephanie, would say: “I’m going to read your scripts when you guys put your stories in, and then I’m going to determine who gets to lead the newscast.” John and I are still friends to this day—we really inspired each other. We [each] always wanted to be the lead, so we worked as hard as we possibly could.

Body image is something you say you’ve struggled with in the past. Would you agree that it’s still an ongoing struggle for most women on air today, especially as it relates to viewer criticism and management ideals?
Over 40, I don’t really think a lot about management ideals. With regard to viewers, yeah, it’s still not an equal playing field between men and women on that front. I will say the majority of the e-mails and the comments and social media still has a lot to do with your hair or the dress you have on, or too much cleavage that day, or the dress is too long or the dress is too short, or they don’t like the color, or your earrings. And some of it’s positive too, [but] I’m not so sure that my male counterparts get the same kind of attention with regard to that. But listen, we do it to our political candidates, too—it’s not just TV people. Two times ago when it was Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, a lot of it was about how they looked in pantsuits and blazers and hair. Men don’t get that same kind of attention. I hope that we’ve come a long way and it’s my goal certainly to empower young women—that it’s all about who they are on the inside.

When women started in TV (in the ’50s and ’60s), they pretty much just had to be good-looking to get on air. WCPO’s Tanya O’Rourke put it best when she said that now “you have to be so many different things, sort of like a rainbow—versatile and strong and smart.” And I would add: sexy. Do you think visual news (TV or Internet) will ever get to a place where appearance—whether of men or women—doesn’t matter as much as knowledge?
By the way, Tanya’s still a great friend of mine! Television is a visual medium, so to a certain extent you’re always going to be talking about the way people look. That’s just the way it works. Do I wish there was more conversation about the brains behind the beauty? Yeah. Are most people in television attractive? Yeah. But I don’t think that’s where it stopped in 2015. Most people [on air] have amazing credentials and are really smart. I hope that after people watch my show they think: Those are some great interviews, I liked her guests, and she asked some smart questions. And maybe as a side note, I loved that color of her dress, too.

A lot of women today will identify with your thoughts about not trying to be superwoman and “do it all.”
I think women should be able to feel comfortable in whatever they choose to do. If that’s staying home and raising kids, hallelujah! I was so lucky to have my mom do that. And guess what? Now my mom’s a CEO of a corporation. She’s lived both lives. [But] I just feel like it’s undue pressure for women to have to have this expectation that they do have to have it all. When I’m at work I’m giving work 110 percent. I’d be lying if I told you I was also giving 110 percent to my kids at the same time. I’m not. When I’m with my kids, I hope that I’m giving my kids 110 percent. But then I’m not giving work the same amount of attention at that point in time. It has nothing to do with the fact that women can’t do it all—I think they can, because so many of us are living that life. But I don’t think it’s fair for us to have to live up to that perfectionism. I think it makes women unhappy and frustrated and feel bad about themselves, so that’s why I’m really open about it.

Social media and privacy were big issues for the anchorwomen I spoke with. The pioneers were definitely more guarded and the new on-air personalities let viewers in quite close—sharing photos of family, some opinions. What’s your stance, especially given that you’ve had issues with stalkers in the past?
I think I’m somewhere in between. It is the way of engagement in 2015: If you are going to be in the public eye, you have to use it as a vehicle to have conversations with your viewers. I also think parts of being real is sharing parts of your life, so I do share some of those things. [But] there is a fine line there between sharing too much and not sharing at all.

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