Harris Faulkner on 2020, #MeToo and what frustrates her about politics

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There’s a popular caricature of a cable news host: an opinionated, 50-something white man prone to heated rhetoric, willing to play loose with the facts in service of a broader point, preaching to the choir from the comfort of his own hour-long show.

But that image is looks nothing like Harris Faulkner, hosts two hours of Fox News programming every weekday. For starters, she’s a hard-news journalist who cut her teeth as a local reporter, covering the Oklahoma City bombing. She's diligent about trying to fact-check her guests in real-time, often texting her producers live on-air. She’s been unblinking about rooting out the vestiges of the systemic harassment that was once endemic throughout much of the media. And she’s the only woman of color to solo-anchor a weekday show on any of the three major cable news channels. She may not be what you imagine when you think of cable news, but the future of cable news could look a lot like her.

In an interview with Anna Palmer for POLITICO’s Women Rule podcast, Faulkner spoke candidly about all of this and more. What follows is a transcript of their conversation, edited for length and readability. For more, listen to the interview on the newest episode of Women Rule.

Anna Palmer, POLITICO: There are three big cable news channels: Fox, obviously, CNN and MSNBC. And across those three, there’s only one woman of color who hosts her own weekday TV show: you. How significant do you think that is?

Harris Faulkner, Fox News: Well, at the time, it felt big because I was the first in primetime, and I had done that for six years with “Fox Report” on the weekends at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday nights. And so to segue to weekdays and to have a single presence in that seat felt particularly significant to me as a journalist.

But personally, it was important because my girls were going to get to see mom, and they were going to get to see her do something that was maybe not “record-breaking” — because I’m not the first — but “groundbreaking.” And certainly, that has lasted, as no other news network on cable has met us where we are with that: a female in a solo chair as an African American woman. So it’s been a big deal to me and then for the wider industry, it’s a wake-up call and a reminder of what people need to do if they want to keep up with Fox.

Palmer: You have such a prominent position where all eyes are on you, and I’m wondering if you ever feel this additional pressure as the only woman of color?

Faulkner: I don’t think about it in moment-to-moment. I’m not thinking about covering that White House story or covering that protest, wherever it may be, or a plant closing or whatever the news is, from the perspective of a black woman at all times. That would be odd. I don’t shop that way. [Laughs] Like, “Oh, these shoes are lovely. But as a black woman, I don’t think I should wear them.”

But there are certain things where the topic comes up. I think from the perspective of covering stories where being a minority is part of the story, it matters. When a black church is hit in South Carolina by someone with hate in their spirit, that’s something that touches all of America, but as a person of color, I see that story even through a deeper prism of, “Gosh, that takes us back to a time when black churches were targets in this country.”

I always harken back to something my dad said. He was a war pilot twice in Vietnam. He had a choice of how he would feel about America. He said, “We didn’t have it perfect in the ’60s and early ’70s, but what we have that no other nation on earth has is the kind of potential that feels anointed; that feels meant for us.” And he loves America; loved it then, and would have fought no matter what — even at a time when there were signs up that relegated him to a different water fountain or a different bathroom. So I was raised with that spirit, and I totally believe that our potential outweighs and goes beyond anything in race and diversity that we could ever fight about or disagree about. So I approach the news with that hopefulness.

Palmer: [As he served in the military,] there were often times when your father was not physically able to be with you.

Faulkner: A lot, growing up.

Palmer: And I read that he would record messages for you?

Faulkner: Yeah, he would make — well, I don’t even know if the young kids know what a cassette tape is. It’s about the size of a good slice of cinnamon bread, and you stick that into the old cassette player. And they had these things all over the planet at the time, and dad had them in the field, at war. And every now and then — it would take a month to get things from that part of the world when he was fighting, but he did “The 12 Days of Christmas.”

He would talk to me. I was a little one, just a toddler, and he didn’t want me to forget that storytelling is so important to us. That sounds so cliché now that I’m a journalist. I shouldn’t even say that out loud anymore because it’s just like—

Palmer: No, it’s very sweet.

Faulkner: But it’s true. I do what I do because I come from a guy who literally sounds like he could be a broadcaster. He made Walter Cronkite just sound wimpy. That voice was amazing, and the way he would tell, “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” It would have you hanging — “So what happens?” — like you didn’t know. My mom would play these over and over.

The first time he came home from a lengthy deployment, I think I was two. And my mom said that when he would speak, I would just freeze. That voice — that’s the only way I really knew him. We didn’t have cell phones, so it’s not like he could send us a selfie. Can you imagine that?

Palmer: You talk a lot about the lessons you took from his example. I’m curious about your mom. Can you tell us about her influence on you?

Faulkner: I love that question. Mom is never forgotten. In many instances, that’s where the discipline came from because when you’re not home as much at a young age, you don’t want to have that.

Palmer: And it’s easier to be — you want to be the fun guy.

Faulkner: You want to be all unicorns and rainbows. And my mother was in the kitchen going, “I’m going to chase that unicorn down.” [Laughs] But, yeah, my mother taught me sensibility and to balance what you have going on in your life at all times with what’s expected of you.

As I got older, my mother taught me to remember that your connection with people is based on what you’re allowing them to touch about you, which was the opposite of what you get as a military kid, because dad’s in a uniform. He’s official; you don’t poke that. But with mom, you do: Always question authority. And now, my job is to talk to generals. How cool is that?

Palmer: Now you get to question them.

Faulkner: My mom said, “The facts matter. And right now, your dad is off fighting on behalf of a country that believes in getting it right.” It’s part of what kind of frustrates me right now with where we are in social media and “fake news” and all of that: I find I am hungrier than ever to just get to the truth, and I run out of patience sometimes when I think I’m not getting it.

I have a certain perspective and intolerance for people who try to twist and bend whatever the truth might be. So I feel like I’m right for this moment, because I have the patience to listen, but I’m hungry enough to just keep asking the questions.

Palmer: One of the things I think a lot about is the public persona versus the private persona. You are an on-air personality. You’re doing events. But is the on-air persona different than when you’re at home with your girls or —

Faulkner: No.

Palmer: — is it kind of all the same?

Faulkner: It’s all the same. I’ve been on TV for a quarter-century — most of my adult life. And I learned early on in my career that it doesn’t serve me well to try to be Ron Burgundy. Because you slip — and I tend to slip when I see someplace that I’ve [worked] have a disaster.

The Oklahoma City bombing was really the first place that I saw death up close. One grandmother, I’ll never forget it: She lost her grandkids in the daycare that was on the first floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. And she said she had fights with God over that. I think it’s impossible to be up close with people and to ask them to let you in if you’re fake. I tried very early on just to be real.

Palmer: You mentioned fake news and vitriol of the environment that we are in.

Faulkner: Yeah.

Palmer: It’s certainly unlike anything that I’ve experienced in 15-plus years of doing this kind of journalism. On TV, though, it’s different, where you almost have to real-time fact-check people at times.

Faulkner: Yeah.

Palmer: How do you handle that responsibility?

Faulkner: People have lied since the dawn of [time]. What complicates it now is people think they know things from what they see in social media. People will come on and say all sorts of things that they think they know: “Well, I saw up on Twitter…”

Sometimes, you have to see what they think they know and debunk it before you can go on. I have a team that’s in the control room and they’re listening and watching. Live on the air, sometimes you’ll see me texting, and I’m actually asking people questions, like especially on “Outnumbered,” the talk show. You’ll say, “What is she doing?” And I’m able to multitask. In those moments, especially on unscripted shows, you can give a little leeway for making mistakes, but you can’t make them every two seconds because you let somebody off the hook.

The other thing that I think has come into play that we never had before was this mean-spiritedness. Just tell the truth and be civil, and sometimes you win in those instances where you can’t like, “What did that person just say? I’m not quite sure if I heard it.” That happens a lot, too, because you’ve got an earpiece in —

Palmer: Sure, you’ve got a lot of things happening.

Faulkner: — and you didn’t quite catch it, or whatever. But sometimes what can help you out is, “I didn’t catch every word of that. This sounded not right to me.” I had to do that recently with somebody who had spit out the name of the whistleblower in the impeachment process, and at the same time, taken down anybody who might be nonbinary: “Okay, I’m going to just pick the one I think I heard because I didn’t hear the other one clearly.” Yeah, we’re not going to play the, “Be mean based on pronoun game here.” So you call it when you can see it and when you can hear it. You’re not going to catch everything, but I think you are helped in the audience’s eyes by trying.

Palmer: Throughout the media, there’s been a reckoning on the “Me Too” movement over the last several years. Almost all networks, lots of newspapers, lots of Hollywood has obviously been hit by it. When the news of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly first hit — I know you’ve talked a lot about this and I don’t want to belabor it, but what was your reaction? How did you handle it?

Faulkner: Well, those two instances were time apart. The news broke with Roger Ailes first. By the time the news broke with Bill O’Reilly, it had progressed to the point where women in the building were talking about it daily. I mean, it was the topic. And the topic was: “People are focused on us at Fox News; is this really the only place it’s ever happened? Are we broken? Did women stay silent for so long that, in some way, it’s our fault?”

We had difficult conversations as a team of women, and we would have them in the bathroom. We would have them in our office. We would have them in the hallway. And then things started to come apart in other places. When I started seeing it unravel on Capitol Hill, and women coming forward, I said, “This is big.”

We have a role in history. And I know that it’s not one that any one of us would ever choose, but I made a determination as things were kind of unfolding that, yes, this was leadership in our building: Roger Ailes, the most powerful man in news. But what he did was wrong. And it happened, first. But it had been happening, and when you look at the calendar of how long these women at other networks and in Hollywood — I mean, Harvey Weinstein, I don’t even have a word as that plays out.

Now, fast forward, I struggle with how we take this into the next generation of protecting our daughters and our female co-workers who are young and coming up, and those next conversations about #MeToo; talking about believing one another, and investigating, and making sure that the facts come out, and holding people accountable, and firing people who deserve it, and can we go deeper than that: Were laws broken?

As we do all of that, can we simultaneously make sure that women don’t become a secondary target again? Like, “Well, I guess we just better not hire women because they can be trouble.” And then corporately, what’s it like when a woman is hired? Do you see her as competition? This is where I think it is an advantage to be a person of color, because we have to look at it as the more opportunity there is for everybody, the better it is all around. There just simply have to be more seats to put us in them.

Palmer: Has the culture changed here? Have you seen it in terms of kind of out of this movement that now — I know you’re involved in some of that yourself here at Fox?

Faulkner: You’re talking about inclusion and diversity?

Palmer: Yes.

Faulkner: So here at Fox, it’s changing constantly. It’s a journey. Am I going to tell you that we flipped on the lights on a Tuesday and, “Oh, my gosh, #MeToo solved”? It doesn’t work like that. And you hope that it doesn’t work like that, because that doesn’t leave room for people to still come forth. People share their stories at different times. We’re talking about sexual discrimination; not everybody wants to have that conversation openly. But the story is benefitted by every voice. And so I think we are definitely going in the right direction, and I’m thrilled that leadership here at Fox are open to having conversations and not treating this like, “We put it in a box, we closed it. We’re ready to move on.” The inclusion part of our journey here is neverending.

Palmer: In the next year, we’re going to be [covering a presidential race]. Things are going to get more interesting and crazy before everything is settled. What should we be watching from your show, from you, what are you hoping the next year brings?

Faulkner: Okay, you’re going to find this hard to believe: I’m going to be silent. I want to hear from the voters. I just want to hear what’s important to them. I like a poll. It can be interesting. I think people sometimes don’t tell the truth in polling. [LAUGHS] We certainly know that because when people were asked, “Are you going to vote for Donald Trump?” A heck a lot of them did, and they said they didn’t, or didn’t say anything at all.

So I want to hear what’s important. I want to know why President Trump and Bernie Sanders resonate with their bases. Those [two] are completely oppositional, but they kind of have the same energy when you go to their rallies, it’s this, “We love this candidate, and blah, blah, blah, blah,” a love and an energy that you don’t see with every candidate out there.

To hear more from Harris Faulkner, listen to the full podcast here. Women Rule takes listeners backstage with female bosses for real talk on how they made it and what advice they have for women looking to lead.

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