CNN anchor Alisyn Camerota, 51, recently published a novel, Amanda Wakes Up, that satirizes the world of TV news. Born and raised in New Jersey, she went to American University and for many years worked at WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston and at America’s Most Wanted before becoming the local correspondent for Fox. The network eventually brought her to New York, where she was a co-host of Fox and Friends. She now co-anchors New Day on CNN. She lives in Westport, Connecticut, with her husband and three children.
Jonathan Soroff: Three kids. A highly demanding job. How the hell did you find the time to write a book?
Alisyn Camerota: I began writing this book during the presidential race of 2012. So it took a long time. And during that time, I was a weekend anchor, and I filled in during the week. But when you’re a weekend anchor, and you’re not working five days a week, you really can take up a hobby. It would be impossible for me to do it now.
What inspired it? Well, just to remind people: During the 2012 presidential election, there were some pretty colorful characters in that race. We forget that now, but there was Michele Bachmann. There was Herman Cain. There was Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry. So there was definitely some fodder, I felt, for writing. And at the time, I was personally wrestling with some ethical dilemmas on how to cover all of it. What do you leave in? What do you leave out? What tone do you take? What do you do when people come on the show and you know they’re not being honest? So going home and trying to fictionalize it was cathartic. Giving it a kind of satirical slant made it easier for me and less frustrating. It gave me the energy somehow to go back and do it again the next day, and I felt it was really ripe for parody. I didn’t originally sit down to write a novel. I was just writing down anecdotes. But they very quickly formed into a narrative.
Journalist you most admire? I’m very grateful to the women who blazed the trail ahead of me, and the deeper I get into my career, the more appreciation I have for Barbara Walters and Katie Couric, and Diane Sawyer. It used to be that women had a shelf life in this business. They broke that. Barbara Walters is working into her late 80s. She certainly broke the mold. So I’m grateful that there’s no longer an expiration date on my career.
What are your major news sources? I read a massive stack of articles every morning that are culled from everywhere. My producers do a great job of compiling for me a lot of primary sources. Sometimes I’m reading statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And I try to get as varied a news diet as I can. It could be The New York Times, Politico, Breitbart, to see what angle they’re taking on a story. I’ll watch Bret Baier’s show Special Report on Fox every night. And obviously, I watch CNN.
Why do you think people don’t trust the media? Well, I guess because the country has gotten so polarized and partisan, and everybody’s in their own echo chamber, so depending upon which way you’re inclined, you don’t trust the other side. And it’s a shame, because there really are facts out there. Journalists really are trying to find the facts. We have all sorts of rules and best practices that we’re adhering to, but not all news is created equal, and you really have to consider your source. Because guess what? Your Facebook feed is not as qualified to deliver the news as CNN is.
How would you describe your average viewer? On CNN? The average viewer is well-educated, plugged-in, looking for information, looking for facts. They are on top of it. I don’t get the impression that they’re passively or idly watching. I think they’re pretty actively watching and looking for real information, and they come to the TV with knowledge and context. They’re already a few steps ahead, so we have to give them a deeper dive.
Worst on-air faux pas? Oh, God, there are so many. I worked for a long time on a morning show that was a bit of a three-ring circus. There were all sorts of funny moments, but one that jumps out at me is that on morning shows, you have to find a time to eat your breakfast, and it’s usually during the two-minute commercial break. There was one time when I had just inhaled a spinach omelet and launched into reading these hard news blocks, and my cohost was wildly signaling to me from off-camera that I had something in my teeth. I was trying to just press on, but his hand gestures were getting more and more animated, so I finally just stopped in the middle of the news and said, “Do I have something in my teeth?” He said, “A piece of spinach is blotting out an entire front tooth.”
How do you stop yourself from laughing when you have someone in front of you making absurd, patently false statements? Well, I have had a couple of experiences like that. One that went viral was with a panel of diehard Trump supporters who were convinced that 3 to 5 million illegals had voted in California, because they’d read it on Facebook. They said President Obama had told illegal immigrants that they should vote and could vote. Sometimes, it’s just so preposterous. I am always interested in hearing the other person’s point of view and where they’re getting their information. I don’t openly laugh, but in that situation I did inadvertently slap my forehead because words failed. As my mother said, “That was so Italian.” That’s the Italian exclamation point. So I try not to laugh, but sometimes a good face palm does the trick.
How do you keep emotion out of it when you’re reporting something deeply moving? You know, I’ve given up on that. That was what we were always trained to do as journalism students and when I was working for Ted Koppel. We are objective. We don’t let our own emotions enter into it. We are conduits of information. It’s not about you. But I’ve given up, because we are human. When I’m reporting on a terrible tragedy, whether it’s a sick child or, God forbid, a child has been killed, I’ve given up on just being distant and aloof. If it’s an affecting story, I allow myself to be affected. I try not to openly weep on camera, because I think that’s distracting, but if I well up, I don’t beat myself up about it, because some stories really are horrific.
Biggest story of your career? Well, that stumps me, because I’ve covered so many big stories. I’ve covered wars. I’ve covered terrorist attacks. I’ve covered the 2016 election. I’ve covered tragedies. My career has been filled with big, blockbuster stories. But I guess if you forced me, I’d say 9/11.
Moment in history you would most like to have covered? I was a young desk assistant for Ted Koppel when Nelson Mandela was released. Watching that unfold was so stunning to me, that that happened in our lifetime. That someone went from being a prisoner for 25 years under apartheid to becoming president of the country was just the most jaw-dropping thing for me to witness, and I wish I’d had the chance to interview Nelson Mandela. That would have been a dream.
One headline you’d most like to read in your lifetime? Worldwide Peace Breaks Out.
What’s one thing most people would be surprised to know about you? I’m not a morning person. [Laughs.]
Word that always trips you up when you see it on the teleprompter? At CNN, we have so many foreign correspondents in foreign capitals in foreign lands, and I have to make sure I’m not reading the names of those cold. Things like the president of Turkey, Erdogan, is pronounced “Erdowan.” Stuff like that.
Most drastic lengths you’ve ever gone to for a story? Well, when I was a crime reporter at America’s Most Wanted, I went to a lot of lengths. I chased fugitives. I went to scary, backwoods, isolated trailer homes that cops had warned us not to go to, but I had gotten a tip that either the fugitive or someone who knew them would be there. I interviewed serial rapists, mass murderers. I was in a jail cell with them, and they weren’t handcuffed. Now, when I think back on it, there were definitely some dicey situations.
Any really weird fan encounters? Several. Around the time that that Trump panel went viral, I had strangers coming up to me and slapping their own foreheads. It became a kind of universal symbol. But one of my more amusing ones was at Fox, where we had something called Fox Fan Night. People would come from around the country and make a pilgrimage to go to Shea Stadium or whatever it’s called now. All the anchors would go, and we’d chat with everybody. There was one guy in his 30s, there alone, and he was kind of lurking around me. Finally, he introduced himself, and he asked to take a picture with me. I said, “Nice to meet you,” and he said, “I’m pleasured,” so apparently, I had pleasured one of my viewers. We laughed about that quite a bit.
How important are looks in TV news? Well, they’re pretty important. I wish I could say something had changed in that department, but it hasn’t. And looks are more important for women than men in TV news. Men can lose their hair, or go gray, or be a little bit more jowly than women can. It’s a visual medium, and looks are still important.
Do you ever look at footage of yourself and say, “What in the world was I thinking when I put that outfit on?” [Laughs.] That is retroactive. I often look back at things from five or 10 years ago and think, “Why didn’t I burn that outfit?” or “Who told me that was a good haircut?” In the moment, it’s hard for me to see just how hideous it is, but in retrospect I see it quite plainly.
What do your kids think of what you do? They are really supportive. They ask me a lot of questions about the news. They love coming in to CNN to visit. They’re plugged in, because at dinner, we have conversations about what’s going on in the world. My kids are my biggest cheering section.
Ever been starstruck by someone you were interviewing? I am starstruck when childhood idols of mine appear in the studio. I’m really pathetic, actually, because they meant so much to me when I was 5 or 10 years old. For instance, Keith Partridge! David Cassidy showed up, and I turned into the 7-year-old who loved him. I’m completely gaga. Same is true for Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons. I was part of the KISS Army!
Think you’ll ever retire? I think about it on days when I’m tired, but I just can’t see it happening. I get so much satisfaction from being able to talk to newsmakers and interview real people about how they’re feeling. That whole thing about a front-row seat at history is true. ◆