TVN’s Executive Session | Van Susteren’s Strategy: Local And Bipartisan
For nearly 25 years, Greta Van Susteren was a cable news fixture as analyst and host of her own shows, first on CNN, then on Fox News and finally on MSNBC. But last year, she accepted a new gig in a new medium — broadcasting.
In an effort to raise its journalistic profile, Gray Television hired her early last year as its chief national political analyst with the goal of developing a public affairs show for the Gray stations and others interested in it.
That show, Full Court Press, made its debut last September with Van Susteren interviewing Democratic presidential dark horse Tulsi Gabbard and NFL TV analyst Tony Dungy. Since then, she has moved on to a bipartisan mix of other key Washington players, including other Trump challengers like Amy Klobucher and Pete Buttigieg and Republican lawmakers like Kevin McCarthy and Lindsey Graham.
The half-hour show, which is seen in 78% of the country thanks to Gray’s own broad footprint and several non-Gray stations in major markets, also leverages the reporting clout of Gray’s newsrooms to explore issues of national importance and tackle big stories with fresh angles.
In an interview with TVNewsCheck Editor-at-Large Harry A. Jessell, Van Susteren talks about her hopes for Full Court Press, its commitment to real political balance and how its grounding in broadcasting rather than cable just might give her a leg up when the scramble for interviews begins in earnest in Iowa and in the campaigns beyond.
An edited transcript.
Let’s talk about Full Court Press. What’s the mission statement? What are you hoping to accomplish?
Let me back up to when [Mitt] Romney picked [Paul] Ryan for his running mate [in 2012]. I was in cable at the time and I watched cable nonstop. They all came on and said that it was a “bold choice” and I thought to myself, that is so weird. What are the odds everybody would come up with the same words? It really drove home what an echo chamber D.C. is. We try not to be an echo chamber.
I grew up in Wisconsin. They have a lot of important things to say about politics, and politics really impacts them. So, the whole idea, the mission, of Full Court Press is to include the country in the discussion, not just those of us inside the Beltway.
We have a segment called “Bringing Politics Home.” The story may be about something that happens in Southern Florida, but it’s something that if you live in Appleton, Wis., you have deal with, too. A perfect example is robocalls, something that happens everywhere. The whole mission is to let the American people reclaim the news environment. [Editor’s note: Van Susteren’s show on robocalls featured an interview with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.]
From what I have seen of the show, you are avoiding any kind of commentary. You’re playing it straight as a reporter/interviewer.
I have always been that way. People tend to think that, because you work at some network, you are part of whatever of the network’s general narrative is, but if you actually look at what I have been doing over the years, I have always been able to get Republicans and Democrats on my shows.
When I was at Fox News, Hillary Clinton was secretary of state. In her four years in that job, I interviewed her eight times. She always thought I was fair.
Also, I only have a half hour and it’s hard to be fair in a half hour because the guests are only on for a short amount of time. If you have a full hour, you have got a lot more time to breathe and do follow-up. In my effort to allot time to the issues, I am taking away from any commentary I might do.
Do you think the other Sunday shows on the broadcast networks are playing it down the middle?
They are, but those are not cable. You know what the problem they have is? They are not seven days a week. They have got to try to do it within an hour and that’s harder than if you are doing it every day.
Gray’s stations are affiliates of ABC, CBS and NBC, so they are part of the mainstream media. What is your response to the president’s characterization of those news organizations as enemies of the people and fake news?
I don’t consider journalism the enemy of the people. The media started off on a really bad foot with the president. Remember what happened when Trump first got into office. The president got into the most ridiculous fight with the media about the size of his crowd. It was like, why was he talking about the size of his crowd? Why did he care?
On the other side, there is that pool reporter who went into the Oval Office with President Trump and comes out with a report that he had removed the Martin Luther King bust, which turned out not to be true. So, in the first days, the journalists and the president got into a rather unfortunate situation. Now, of course, they are basically at each other’s throats.
Let’s get back to the show. How do you coordinate it with the Gray newsrooms?
I went from having about five bureaus when I was on cable to having 143 bureaus in 93 markets, give or take. I mean it’s extraordinary, the amount of resources. I can cover stories in Alaska, Hawaii, Florida and every place in between.
I don’t know if coordination is the word. I watch them, I pay attention to what they do, we pick up topics that they do if it is interesting. There is a station in Georgia that did an incredible investigative piece on housing for the military. And so we picked that up. We asked them to an additional piece for us. That is the kind of coordination we do.
When I was on the road as a reporter, I would watch local TV and this always struck me: Because the local reporters live there, they know the story so much better than those of us who come in for a short time. On our show, I wanted to use the depth of their knowledge [and] experience because they know these communities [and] issues so much better than someone who comes in for a short period.
What are your plans for covering the presidential election this year?
I am going out to Iowa. I know all the Democrats. I think I have interviewed most of them already. I have not interviewed Biden on the trail. I am not sure what I am going to do when I get out there, but I have been covering elections for 25 years.
I guess it’s nice to know wherever you go, you’re likely to have a Gray station nearby for support.
Well, I think we have three stations in Iowa, which actually should help me with bookings because candidates want to get to the Iowa voters. If you are running in Iowa, you might be better off talking to me. I will get a bigger Iowa audience than someone who may be on cable.
If a station is offered an interview with the president or one of the candidates, what would be your advice?
I would take any interview offered if it is presidential. I would take any interview I can get.
Well, sure, but what about advice on how to handle it?
Go for the facts and be fair. The one thing that is troubling is that you may only get three or four minutes. How can you really do much of an interview in three or four minutes?
If an interview is dropped in someone’s lap, whether it is a Democratic candidate or President Trump, I would get whatever there is and let the viewers decide. But let’s say someone gives you a half an hour — a long interview. I make what I think is a fair edit, but then I put the entire interview on the web. We do that on Full Court Press. If you go to our website, you may see [FCC Chairman] Ajit Pai for six minutes on our show, but it may be that he gave us 12 minutes. You will see the whole interview there. So that if someone complains about the edit we can say if you think we unfairly edited, here it is. You can see the whole thing.
There is a sticking point when it comes to Trump. He has about 70 million followers on Twitter and so he doesn’t have to do one-on-one interviews because he can bypass journalists to reach the people. The problem is that you don’t get follow-up questions. That’s the more troubling issue.
You have been in this business for a long time, almost 25 years now. How is the demise of the newspaper changing the game?
That is a horrible tragedy. It all started to happen when they lost their classifieds. And this is actually another reason why I like local TV and why this is important to me. It really is the business of the local TV stations to try to pick up the slack.
Reflecting again on those 25 years, the political world seems more polarized than it was. How does that affect your job and what you try to do as a journalist?
It’s hard to get people to listen to other viewpoints. If you notice on Full Court Press, I try very hard to be fair. When I do the lead-in, I will say first we are going to hear from a Democrat and then we are going to hear from a Republican so people know I am making an effort to be fair and to get both sides.
Generally speaking, MSNBC can only get Democrats, CNN can only get Democrats and Fox can only get Republicans. So, you miss out on a good debate that you might otherwise get. It’s a mistake for Democrats not to go on Fox. It’s a mistake for Republicans not to go on CNN and MSNBC.
It’s important to listen to the other side of the aisle. Sometimes you might even agree. Sometimes you might be convinced. Sometimes you might temper your viewpoint. Polarization is a huge problem not just for the media, but also for the American people. We are losing out on that all-important robust debate.