Not long after arriving at CNN, Alisyn Camerota learned that her new workplace was nothing like her old one. She was just moving in to her office, she says, when CNN Worldwide President Jeff Zucker stopped in. “How would you feel about hosting a prime-time show tonight at 9?” he asked, in Camerota’s recollection. “I was like, ‘That’ll work.’ ”
That wouldn’t have worked at Fox News, where Camerota had worked for 16 years before landing at CNN in mid-2014. During the prime-time hours, Fox News leans on conservative opinion programming driven by personalities — Bill O’Reilly, until he was forced out of his job over settlements stemming from his treatment of women; Tucker Carlson, a slayer of Trump detractors, who replaced O’Reilly; “The Five,” a round-table discussion program that worked well before the catastrophic addition of O’Reilly protege Jesse Watters; and Sean Hannity, who ends the prime-time shift with poor ethics and few facts.
The open floor plan at CNN, however, means hard news and panel discussions at every hour — and, thus, more opportunities for people like Camerota. “When you think of other cable news networks in the morning and in the evening in particular, they have partisans,” says Zucker. “At CNN, we have personalities. … I don’t think they’re interchangeable, but they are not partisan and that is the big difference, and it’s the reason there’s a lot of running room.”
A nice spot, in other words, for a woman who was running away from a stalled career. Over a chunk of her time at Fox News, Camerota served as a co-host of the morning program “Fox & Friends Weekend,” as well as a substitute host on the weekday version of the franchise. The leading morning show in cable-news ratings, “Fox & Friends” musters a mix of lifestyle and news-discussion segments that range between hokey-cum-harmless and ignorant-cum-noxious, much of it unfolding on the confines of its signature curvy couch. Think of the time that a co-host falsely claimed that President Barack Obama had made an out-of-pocket donation to a Muslim museum, just because; or the time that a co-host joked about the Ray Rice domestic assault story; the time that a co-host treated with dignity a National Enquirer story alleging Ted Cruz’s father’s involvement in the JFK assassination; or the far-too-numerous moments when the program’s trio has attempted to help Donald Trump out of a bind.
Talent that welds too strong a bond with “Fox & Friends” runs the risk of trimming the list of prospective employers, especially under the Trump administration. The same president who denounces “fake news” outlets as the enemy of the people; who singles out reporters in menacing ways at rallies; who prides himself on sinking the trust levels of U.S. media — he also tweets out thoughts based on “Fox & Friends” programming.
The effect has been to amplify the idiocies of “Fox & Friends.”
Meaning: Camerota escaped a couple of years before veering into a “Fox & Friends” cul-de-sac. “It is one of the things that appealed to me as I watched her,” says Zucker. “I knew she wasn’t getting dragged into ideological morass, and so I knew that she was a real journalist.” As part of his scouting efforts, Zucker concedes he would tune into Fox News’s morning broadcasts. “Nobody needed to show me tapes; nobody needed to tell me who she was; nobody needed to tell me how to spell her first name,” he says.
For Camerota, the journey to the cutthroat world of cable news morning shows kicked off on a different couch. “I figured it out at 15 years old,” says the 50-year-old Camerota, who grew up in New Jersey. “I was at home on the sofa watching Phil Donahue, a show I routinely watched.” As she observed the host doing his thing with the audience, “it dawned on me. Wait a second — he’s asking questions and they’re telling interesting stories. Is that a job?”
Yes, and a very competitive one, too. To gather her bona fides, Camerota worked as a volunteer at a radio station; secured a broadcast journalism degree from American University; worked at Koppel Communications, where she assisted Ted Koppel with big stories; reported for “America’s Most Wanted”; got critical live-TV experience at D.C. Fox affiliate WTTG; served as a national correspondent on NBC’s “Real Life” before the show’s cancellation; and was kicking around as a freelancer when a friend suggested she send a tape to Fox News. “They hired me without ever meeting me. There was no litmus test,” says Camerota, who started working from the network’s Boston bureau in early 1998.
Back then, Fox News put an accent on the News, says Camerota. Plane crashes, a beached whale on Cape Cod, medical breakthroughs at area hospitals — these were the stories that she did in the early days. “Then it slowly shifted,” she reports. Producers started wanting a certain perspective in their pieces. “I just became conscious that they wanted something different and … that they had a position and that’s it,” she says. She eventually moved to New York to get behind the anchor desk.
Serving the “Fox & Friends” franchise, recalls Camerota, was as memorable for her as it likely was for the viewers. “It was a three-ring circus in its heyday — with cooking segments and animals coming in and a piglet race out on the plaza, and we did kayaking races,” says Camerota. “There is no substitute for having to do that on live TV.” Her mother, 77-year-old Elaine Camerota, watched it all very closely. “She did things on that show — just crazy capers that I thought were dangerous,” she says.
The proceedings were being audited, too. From camera angles to set design to hemlines, the late Roger Ailes — ousted last summer after a sexual-harassment scandal — was famous for controlling every aspect of his news operation. The micromanagerial tendencies fell heavily on the weekend “Fox & Friends” crew, if only because it was then that Ailes could dedicate his full attention to the show. “Roger would wake up and get his coffee and watch our show. And therefore, we heard from Roger a lot,” recalls Camerota.
The septuagenarian network exec was at his interventionist best on a weekend in early December of 2010. The occasion was perfect for the Sunday edition of “Fox & Friends”: Just the day before, a White House proposal to effect a tax hike for the richest Americans was blocked by Republicans. At issue were the George W. Bush-era tax cuts, which Democrats wanted to extend for middle-class earners, though not for upper-income types. The fracas set up a tidy debate about tax policy on the following morning’s “Fox & Friends.”
When she looked over the show outline that day — Dec. 5, 2010 — Camerota told her producers that the guests leaned a bit too heavily in the Republican direction. “When you do this, you put me in a tough position because I have to play the other side,” she said at the time. “I have to be the devil’s advocate.”
That role apparently didn’t please Ailes. In a segment just after 7 a.m., Camerota and fellow “Friends” Dave Briggs and Clayton Morris pulled off an authentically fair and balanced discussion of the matter. “We got a message through our earpieces that Roger had called and Roger was unhappy,” recalls Camerota. “We were not making the case for keeping taxes low.” In such situations, says Camerota, the people in the control room would “freak out” as they passed along the real-time marching orders from Ailes. They were specific in this instance: Camerota, per Ailes, was to tell the Fox News audience “that if taxes are raised on the wealthy, charities will suffer because they won’t give as much money to charities,” Camerota says.
No problem, said Camerota — provided that Ailes talking point is true. She wanted to see the research. So the “Fox & Friends” folks dispatched an intern to plow through the Internet in search of supporting data. Hastily the aide found a thick report and rushed it to the attention of the anchors. “It was actually, like, a study — an academic study from the University of Chicago or Harvard — on charitable giving and its headline was the lowest-income earners, the poorest, give the largest percentage of their income to charity,” said Camerota, who looked at the material during a commercial break. Wrong message! “Roger needs you to say what he wants you to say,” Camerota says a producer told her. “They said, ‘Those are the wrong facts. We need to find different facts.’ ” In the end, Camerota and fellow co-host Morris settled on some less controversial data points that kept their integrity intact.
Moments like this — in which Camerota refused to parrot talking points passed along to her — stirred tension between her and Ailes, who routinely coached her to change her on-air ideological profile. “Roger told me as much in several conversations — that he wished that I could get on board with sounding more conservative,” recalls Camerota. As it turned out, those weren’t the most baleful of Ailes’s inducements. In a headline-making interview with her now-colleague and CNN media czar Brian Stelter, Camerota described what Ailes said after she asked for a bigger portfolio: “I would have to work with you on that case. I would have to work with you really closely, and it may require us getting to know each other better, and that might have to happen away from here, and it might have to happen at a hotel. Do you know what I’m saying?”
Before his death last month, Ailes, through attorney Susan Estrich, had denied all allegations of sexual harassment, but they forced his ouster last summer. Though Camerota has come forth with some unflattering comments about Ailes, she insists upon fairness and balance in detailing his legacy: “I thought Roger was a very astute, brilliant TV programmer. When Roger would call me into his office and say, ‘You should have asked this,’ he was always right,” recalled Camerota in an interview that preceded Ailes’s death. “He just had a way of sort of zeroing in on the heart of a segment.”
Things are simpler at CNN, where Camerota has earned herself the perch of co-host on the morning show “New Day,” along with veteran broadcaster Chris Cuomo. In addition to doing the morning shift, she traveled to Brussels to report on the terrorist attacks there, covered the GOP debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and has participated in various prime-time specials — all opportunities that wouldn’t have arisen at her former employer. “It became clear that I didn’t have any more prospects there,” says Camerota.
No longer does Camerota filter ideological messaging through her earpiece. “At ‘New Day,’ I don’t get any marching orders,” says Camerota. No circus moments, either. At a media event for the launch of “New Day” four years ago, Zucker was asked whether the program would do some of the gimmicks — cooking, eating, goofing around — that populate competing programs. No, came the reply: Just news.
The formula has worked. Interviews conducted by Camerota and Cuomo commonly claim a foothold on the Internet and, at the least, drive coverage through the rest of the day on CNN. Selected topics come straight from the Zucker Doctrine of hammering the prevailing storyline hour after hour after hour, critics be damned. These days, of course, that means a certain country led by Vladimir Putin. “Let’s dive into all these different Russia threads,” Camerota said to former New Hampshire governor John Sununu in a May 30 interview. After the pol minimized the latest news on this front, Camerota asked, “Is there anything about the Russia investigation connected to the Trump campaign that troubles you?”
Yes, Sununu replied: The media coverage. Apparently not wishing to engage in such an exchange, Camerota asked whether Sununu was concerned about reports that Trump son-in-law and White House aide Jared Kushner had met during the 2016 presidential transition with the Putin-connected head of a Russian bank. Scrolling back to his time as an official in the first Bush administration, Sununu said, “I can’t tell you how many people tried to meet with me.” And when Camerota asked whether Sununu had met with a Russian banker, Sununu said no.
NewsBusters, the website that polices the mainstream media’s lefty lapses, accused Camerota of “carrying the anti-Trump torch.” Tim Graham, executive editor of NewsBusters, is little moved by the notion that Camerota no longer gets political coaching now that she has left Fox News. “It doesn’t matter if you’re not told to move to the left at CNN if you’re already in the mind-meld,” says Graham, who cites contrasts in how Camerota interviews a guy like Sununu vs. how she interviewed former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. Sample question: “For you to have to sit on the sidelines and watch some of the signature issues of President Obama’s administration, such as environmental regulations, the Paris climate accord, Obamacare, be dismantled: How frustrating?”
“There’s no hostility,” says Graham. “It’s all buddy-buddy, pally-pally. … People can’t remember Barack Obama being asked a tough question.”
Asked to identify her favorite interviews at CNN, Camerota cites a well-circulated encounter in which she face-palmed at the claim from a Trump voter that “3 million illegals” voted in California; a voter panel in which a Trump supporter claimed that there were “busloads of people” streaming into New Hampshire to vote illegally; a tete-a-tete with Newt Gingrich that featured a clash over crime statistics, exposing the former House speaker as an advocate of emotions over data; a 2015 interview in which Donald Trump displayed the flexibility of his views on Afghanistan; a marathon 2015 session with then-presidential candidate Ben Carson about his life story and past statements, featuring this soundbite by the hopeful: “I can’t believe that you used to work on Fox News!”; and a February interview with GOP Rep. Sean Duffy in which the lawmaker said, “Bring it on, Alisyn!”
One thread running through Camerota’s list: The people on the other end are GOPers or their backers. Is that bias? NewsBusters & Co. might say so. Another possibility: People like Ben Carson, Donald Trump and anyone sticking up for these fellows say the darnedest things these days, with stunning television the invariable result. In that Ben Carson interview, for example, Camerota was questioning the candidate about a CNN investigation that failed to corroborate Carson’s claims that he had been violent and erratic in his boyhood years. “If you choose to believe that I’m incapable of these acts, I guess that’s kind of a compliment to me,” said Carson, when pressed on the wobbliness of his early life story.
The interlocutors of Camerota and Cuomo appear to relish the encounters. And it’s here that “New Day” has something of a franchise: patience. The show is famous for blowing through commercial breaks and turning normal-length interviews into epic exchanges. In the early days of the Trump candidacy, for instance, Zucker himself approved zipping through breaks to keep Trump engaged in a then-fascinating dialogue with Cuomo (the president’s real-time mental meanderings are no longer fascinating). A recent barn-burner between Cuomo and White House aide Sebastian Gorka chewed up 18 minutes. And Camerota’s interview with Carson clocked in at nearly 30 minutes.
Would that the interviews with newsmakers left no time to hear from Jeffrey Lord, CNN’s hired-gun apologist for President Trump. It was on “New Day” that Lord in late 2015 made cable-news history. After then-candidate Trump proposed a Muslim entry ban, Lord dialed “New Day” back to the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had issued orders against various nationalities. Though Camerota pointed out that those were wartime orders, Lord blew past such considerations. So did Trump, who later repeated Lord’s defense on “New Day” as well as on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “If you look at FDR, ’cause I watched Jeffrey Lord this morning, and I thought he was fantastic, by the way. If you look at him, the presidential proclamations 2525, 2526 and 2527 — that was very, very stringent. Very, very stringent and I thought that Jeffrey Lord did a fantastic job explaining it this morning on your show,” said then-candidate Trump to Cuomo on “New Day.”
Of Lord’s tactics, Camerota says, “Like everyone, I’m interested in whatever historical reference he’s going to say, but sometimes they need to be challenged.”
Whatever your view of Camerota’s performance, Zucker claims that her addition to the program has given “New Day” a key asset in its bitter ratings battle against “Morning Joe” over on MSNBC. In 2015, Camerota’s first full year on “New Day,” the program zoomed to an impressive lead over “Morning Joe” in the pivotal 25-54 age demographic, after establishing a tenuous edge in 2014. “You have to look at this and go, ‘Huh, something changed,’ ” says Zucker. In 2016, “Morning Joe” regained a narrow lead in this category. The competition, as far as Zucker is concerned, doesn’t include the morning offering at Fox News. “We don’t look at them as a direct competitor. … That’s not a news program at Fox in the morning, and I don’t think anybody looks at it that way.”
Bouncing among local TV and cable news outlets has vested Camerota with some stories — stories that she has adapted for a novel, “Amanda Wakes Up,” due out in late July via Viking. The storyline follows anchor Amanda Gallo through her travails on a morning show — “Wake Up, USA!” — of FAIR News network. There are misogynistic emails from viewers, social-media backlashes and the cold shoulders of Brooklynites who despise the worldview of FAIR News. Cable-news watchers will appreciate the insider sensibilities that emerge from the narrative. “I think generally stories about the tax code are a little wonky, but if we make it about class warfare, that could work,” says a cable newser in the novel.
In an author’s note, Camerota writes, “What do you do when you know someone isn’t being honest? How do you check your bias at the door? … How do you respond when you can’t wear pants? I didn’t have the answers back then, but handing these challenges to a fictional character somehow helped me figure it out.”