Editor's note: The following column is excerpted from Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson's new book, "Getting Real" (Viking, June 16, 2015).
I like to joke that when I joined Fox News I hit the “bimbo trifecta”: Former Miss America. Blonde. Fox News host. I say that with tongue in cheek, but I may have achieved a Google record for being called dumb or a bimbo. I can joke about it, because it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that the characterization has more to do with silly attitudes and stereotypes than with who I am or whether or not I’m smart. I still scratch my head trying to figure out how being blonde became synonymous in some people’s minds with being dumb, or why attractive women are assumed not to be smart, but I don’t waste my abundant brain cells trying to figure these things out. I’ve learned that sometimes when people don’t like what you have to say, and don’t want to debate you on ideas, it’s just easier to call you a dumb blonde from Fox News.
Long before I started working for Fox, I had to put up with the dumb blonde label, based solely on having been Miss America. Never mind that I'd graduated with honors at Stanford or studied at Oxford. The stereotype is as old as the pageant. Mostly I ignored it.
I tried to avoid the trap of doing things to "prove" I was smart, but when I was asked to be a contestant on Jeopardy! for the "Power Players" week shortly before I moved to Fox, I was happy to do it. It was a week of shows with news media and Washington, D.C., folks, with the money going to charity. Maybe a tiny part of me was thinking it would be a good opportunity to show that I could compete on the level of pure knowledge, but mostly I thought it would be fun. As you know by now, I love to compete.
I called the producers and asked what I could do to prepare. Their only advice was, "Watch the show." But since I've always been big on preparation, I bought the home version, with thirty four games and an answer book. During my lunch breaks at work, and on vacation in Arizona, I quizzed myself on the arcane details of sports, literature, science, American history, state capitals, land masses, authors, presidents, Shakespeare-the list goes on. I lay awake at night mentally scrolling through planets and state capi tals. A friend kindly suggested that maybe I was going too far when I started listing state trees over dinner one night. (Minnesota? Red pine!)
Then I showed up at the studio and saw that I was up against two formidable-and experienced-contenders: MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and Al Franken, who at that time was a comedian, au thor, and radio show host. (A few years later Franken would success fully run for the Senate in Minnesota.) Both had competed on Jeopardy! before-Franken twice. I was the newbie. But I made it through the practice round, and even won the practice Final Jeopardy.
The first thing I have to say about Jeopardy! is that it’s as much about finger work as it is about brainwork. Thank God for all that video game practice! The buzzer is the key to everything. It’s a nickel-sized white contraption, and your finger fits on top of it, al- lowing you to buzz in at the right second. It’s tricky. If you buzz in before Alex Trebek is finished reading the question, you get frozen out. Otherwise, you have a millisecond to beat your competitors to the buzzer. It’s all about the rhythm.
Al Franken won the game, and $50,000 went to the Congres- sional Hunger Center. I wasn’t embarrassed; it was all in good fun.
At one point someone suggested that I was deliberately “dumb- ing down” my material on Fox & Friends. Okay, so now I wasn’t really dumb, I was just pretending! Even Jon Stewart got into the act, chiding me by way of listing my impressive credentials. I actu- ally got a kick out of that, because the subliminal message was that I was smart. But to this day, if I make the tiniest error, Twitter lights up with the dumb blonde narrative. I’m used to it.
It’s ironic that these so-called bimbo sightings happened so of- ten during my seven years on Fox & Friends, because it takes considerable skill and smarts to be on live TV for three hours every day. It’s not just two males and a female hanging out on the “curvy couch.” For one thing, being on cable TV is a whole different ex- perience than working for network TV. It’s far less scripted. You have to have a depth of knowledge to talk back and forth for three hours. The show’s definitely all about chemistry, and it’s not some- thing you just walk into and know how to do the first day. You don’t. You can be the smartest person in the world and you could still be challenged by the format of the show.
But the “dumb” label was hard to shake. By the way, that’s true
of all of my female colleagues at Fox News. I felt we were somewhat vindicated in 2013 by a blog post on the Web site PeppermintFarm titled "The Dumb Girls of Fox," which hit the nail on the head. The introduction read in part, "The next time you hear someone criticizing Fox News for supposedly having a 'bunch of dumb gals' as eye candy ... check out their qualifications ... let them speak for themselves!" What followed was a rundown of the women of Fox News and their remarkable credentials, including multiple de grees and impressive achievements. The post ended with a chal lenge: "So liberals, progs, Alinskyites, when you want to throw rocks take a look at yourself in the mirror. Try to find that many highly intelligent women on your alphabet station. How many degrees do your women reporters have?"
The fact of the matter is, live TV means always being on your toes.
Shortly after I joined Fox News, I was filling in on an after noon show when there was breaking international news. Now, you have to understand that on Fox we cover much more international news than you'd typically see on the networks, and some of it was relatively obscure to the average person.
So when I heard in my earpiece, "A fugitive wanted for questioning in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri was arrested in Bra zil," I can't say I was knowledgeable about the story. When the producer then said in my ear, "Just go with this for three minutes," it felt like being back on Bloopers and Practical Jokes. It goes to prove that it's always good to stretch yourself, and that life is all about learning, experiencing new challenges, and always improving.
One day I had a dramatic experience along with my old friend and colleague from Cincinnati, Bill Hemmer. I was filling in at the anchor desk when we started covering one of those heartstopping car chases. When Bill came on the air, we tag-teamed it, ping-ponging comments across the studio. The video was on the car chase, with our voice-overs doing a blow-by-blow. We had to keep up a constant banter, and believe me, it wasn’t easy. It’s called “go- ing wall to wall.” Suddenly, everything else is blown out.
Behind the scenes they were scurrying to find guests we could talk to so we wouldn’t just be sitting there. I remember having a second to look up and over at Bill, who was sitting at another desk, raising my eyebrows like, “What are you going to say?” I didn’t have a moment to breathe, but later I thought how surreal it was that Bill and I were back together at Fox. A long way from Cincinnati.
Copyright Gretchen Carlson, 2015.