Roger Ailes and Me

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of Roger Ailes. Not just because of the recent coverage of sexual harassment allegations at Fox News. And not just because the unexpected news of his death has put his name and reputation in  the headlines once again. Whatever else you might say about the man, he knew how to make compelling television. He impacted my own life and career in many ways — for better and for worse.

Ailes hosted an 8 pm interview show on AT, pictured 4th from left, bottom row.

First, let me extend my condolences to his family, Beth and Zachary. It’s never easy to lose a loved one, and it must be immensely more difficult in the glare of worldwide publicity and controversy.

Immediately after interviewing Ailes for a political story, I went into labor with Andrew the Action News baby.

I first met Ailes when I was reporting for WCBS-TV in New York City on the 1989 mayoral election, in which Rudy Giuliani was defeated by David Dinkins before going on to become mayor in 1993. The political reporting duties were divided between Josh Mankiewicz and me. He covered the always-exciting Democrats while I got the comparatively dull Republicans. There were a couple of Republican strategists that we counted on for soundbites, including Roger Stone and Jay Severin. But Roger was the king of them all. Not surprising that the man who wrote “You are the Message” could say a lot in 7 seconds — the amount of time it takes for an audience to judge your credibility. As a talent coach I still refer to that book often when advising TV presenters, corporate spokespersons, business analysts, attorneys and others on their media image. Social media demands authenticity and much of his advice rings as true today as it did in the 1990s.

My next job took me home to Los Angeles, where I was an anchor of Action News AM on KCBS-TV and political editor at the same time.  I was also extremely pregnant. The challenge of this job was to arrive in time to prepare for my 6 am anchor duties, and then hit the streets to cover the top political stories, including a tight race for governor of California between Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Pete Wilson. It was a brutal combination: an obscenely early wakeup call plus a full day of dragging my pregnant body out on the campaign trail for live shots. When I heard Ailes was in town, I eagerly arranged to interview him about the governor’s race. That was the last story I did before my water broke. Yes, you could say that Roger Ailes made me go into labor with the Action News baby.

Hosts at the launch of America’s Talking.

I next heard from Ailes after I left KCBS. Or, more accurately, I heard from the Executive Producer at a new cable TV network he was starting for NBC. Beth Tilson said Ailes was considering me for a co-hosting spot alongside a political pundit by the name of Chris Matthews. Would I be willing to come to New York for an interview? Doing this job would mean relocating to the East Coast again for the uncertain prospects of a startup network. Fortunately Roger and Beth were willing to allow me to commute from Los Angeles, and were open to considering a “coast-to-coast” format if the show was successful. And so, I don’t have a sleazy sexual harassment story to tell about how I got the gig. The interview with Mr. Ailes was thoroughly professional and we mostly talked about politics. A few months later, I ended up on the Oprah Winfrey show as the “cross-country commuting mom.”

With my family on the AT In Depth set.

Ailes pulled together an eclectic collection of people to launch America’s Talking. AT was billed as the first “interactive” network, which in 1994 meant mostly phone calls from viewers. All of the hosts had to pass muster with Chet Collier, Ailes’ right-hand man for talent wrangling. Chet was a leading figure on the purebred dog show circuit, and I always got the feeling that he appraised a female talent like me pretty much as he would judge “a really nice bitch” in the show ring. He also told me the my role as a woman on TV was to simply be “likable” — and not have strong opinions.

Co-hosting with Chris Matthews. Literally a thankless job.

The job turned out to be a difficult balancing act. “AT In Depth” was a live two-hour national show from 6-8 pm EST, devoted to a panel discussion of the top stories of the day. That sounds pretty much like every cable news show these days, but it was a groundbreaker when we had the OJ Simpson story to chew on. Chris Matthews wanted his own show and he resented having a co-anchor who was there to be cordial to the guests and hit the computer-controlled “hard breaks” on time. Heaven forbid I should actually prepare for the interviews and ask a tough question or two! With the support of my fearless producer, Josanne Lopez, I was able to do both. I was even nominated for a national Cable ACE award for best newscaster. This was a little bit like beating the boss at golf. Mr. Matthews and Mr. Ailes, who hosted his own talk show on the network, were not nominated. Still, Roger always greeted me with amiable banter and occasionally helpful feedback when he came to the studio for his program, which aired right after In Depth from the same freezing cold studio in Fort Lee, NJ. Ailes believed that cold studios made the hosts and guests more lively, and you could probably see me shivering in those tiny skirts.

Fortunately, I received invaluable talent coaching from the great Jack Reilly, who told me he had coached Joan Lunden at Good Morning America. “I told her to sit up straight and she’d be a star,” he said. “So YOU, sit up straight!” Reviewing the show, the Hollywood Reporter wrote that “Anzur showed star quality in her ability to keep opinions and facts straight and to move the program along, like a young Judy Woodruff. This show was so well done, in fact, that it could certainly supplement the ‘MacNeil Lehrer’ News Hour for savvy viewers.” So I guess I was sitting up straight enough.

The original “news babe”? In a limo of course.

I was also arguably the first “news babe” with a desk that allowed the audience to see my legs, accented by special leg-lights. All  of the clothing came straight from the garment district, selected by the network’s professional shopper. Short skirts were preferred, but we were instructed to visit a tailor to install a “modesty snap” if the neckline of a jacket or dress showed too much cleavage — a rule that some of the present-day hosts on Fox News Channel could benefit from.The makeup room was a full-service beauty salon for both hair and makeup. I still use the custom set of application brushes that was bought for the makeup artists to use on me.  The appearance rules were ruthlessly enforced by Beth Tilson, who was known to call female hosts into her office in the crucial minutes before showtime to complain about a lipstick color or wardrobe choice. More than one of us left her office drying our tears and trying to compose ourselves in time to do live TV. Beth was not on the air, but spent a certain amount of time in the makeup room preparing for meetings, she said.  We suspected there was something going on between her and Roger. His dog, a tiny Yorkie who frequently visited the office, seemed to know Beth just a little too well. Suspicions were confirmed when Roger and Beth later married.

A PR appearance by AT broadcast babes. Front row, left to right, producer Gail Frank, me, Beth Tilson, Host E. Jean Carroll. Back row: Host Carol Martin, producers Marlaine Selip and Renata Joy.

I will always be grateful for what I learned about television from Roger Ailes and his team. Above all, he was a showman. He knew how to make people watch. Most of the shows on AT had titles like “Have a Heart” or “Am I Nuts?” As co-anchor of the marquee news show, and paired with an outspoken Democrat who had worked for legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill, I had no problem providing balance on the conservative side of the story. But I saw myself as a journalist, not a pundit. When I hosted a network special called a “Day of Compassion” for people with AIDS, a couple of the stories on such things as free needle exchanges were killed, presumably for showing too much compassion for people with AIDS. What was even more troubling to me was what I perceived as an undercurrent of women being treated as mere set decorations. There were a few guys you definitely didn’t want to be alone with in the elevator, who roamed the place with impunity as far as I could tell. NBC held anti-sexual harassment seminars but reporting an incident only seemed to me to get the whistle-blower tagged as a troublemaker. I was grateful when Chris moved on to his own show and I was able to co-host mostly from Los Angeles, with John Gibson holding down the fort in Fort Lee.

“AT In Depth” Coast to Coast with John Gibson replacing Chris Matthews.

Eventually after two years, the AT network achieved enough cable subscribers to attract the attention of Microsoft. NBC closed AT and relaunched it as MSNBC. Staying with the new network would have required yet another move back to the East Coast, and Ailes’ new FNC start-up with Rupert Murdoch didn’t have a place for a West Coast anchor either. I stayed in Los Angeles and achieved my dream job of co-anchoring KTLA News at Ten, with the legendary Hal Fishman. Once again, I was the “nice” girl alongside a strong and frequently difficult man. With Roger Ailes you were either his shining star or the lowest inhabitant of the dog house. There was no middle ground. As I watch endless “panels” on CNN, FNC and MSNBC, I can’t help but think back on what grew from the little network that we started. Some of the men — like Steve Doocy — are still there after all these years. The women, by contrast, were as disposable as tissue paper. Now Ailes is gone. But he won’t be forgotten. At least not by me. Weirdly, I don’t have a single personal photo of him.

This article represents my own opinion and recollection of events that I personally experienced. Please contact me if you’d like more info or permission to reprint. And kindly follow latest adventures on my new blog and Facebook page @strangersinthelivingroom. 

The prototype for Fox and Friends? Filling in on AT’s morning show with Bill McCuddy and Steve Doocy.