By RODNEY HO/ email@example.com, originally filed Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Brooke Baldwin is the only CNN anchor born and raised in Atlanta. Her star has been on the rise there (along with her ratings) as afternoon host sandwiched between Wolf Blitzer and Jake Tapper from 2 to 4 p.m. weekdays. This Saturday, she’ll be returning to her roots as commencement speaker at Westminster Schools, where she graduated 18 years ago.
I caught up with her last month to talk about her time there and her move to New York last year after several years at CNN Center. She is enjoying her time in Manhattan so far and likes the fact she can sub in on shows based in New York such as the morning “New Day” program and “CNN Tonight” at 10 p.m. while having face-to-face access to more guests.
And she told me in an exclusive bit of news: Fox News almost lured her away from CNN in 2010.
Read myajc.com story about Baldwin here for you lucky (and valued) paid subscribers. It includes comments from her boss, her high school best friend and a former teacher of hers, plus a bit about her Baltimore veterans snafu, which happened after this interview I did with her.
Here’s my Q&A with her, edited for length.
Q: How are you going to make your commencement speech special?
Baldwin: I went back to my college alma mater UNC Chapel Hill last year to talk to the journalism school. I found myself Googling some of my favorite speeches like Conan O’Brien’s and Steve Jobs‘. Those are fantastic commencement speeches. I came up with three good stories that hopefully the students can relate to me. This time, I’ll try to figure out the right stories for 18 year olds. The trick will be how long can I hold their attention?
Q: Was it easy to get into Westminster for you?
Baldwin: I’ve been told it’s harder to get into Westminster in ninth grade than Harvard after high school. I feel fortunate I got in. There were some amazing people I met there. I was blessed to take the classes I did. I developed a sense of leadership and integrity at Westminster. The fire in my belly, a sense of real drive was instilled there.
Q: Do you expect this will create major sentimentality on your part?
Baldwin: What’s wild is I was president of the senior class. I actually spoke at my graduation in 1997. This is like a weird full circle moment to be back. [She recently visited.] Driving in the front gate, it felt the same. But it’s grown bigger with lots of fancy buildings.
Q: What did your parents do to afford it?
Baldwin: My mom was a teacher. My dad was a consultant at Deloitte. He worked his tail off as a consultant. Somehow, they made it happen.
Q: How did you end up at CNN in 2008?
Baldwin: I was in D.C. working as a reporter. It’s a non-traditional story. Imagine as a kid growing up in Atlanta drinking Coca Cola. You know about CNN. My very first internship was at CNN when the bug bit. I had a boss who ended up at CNNI. She said, “Brooke – take the plunge!’ I had conversations but there wasn’t an official job offer. I then took a big leap. I just jumped. I came on CNN as a freelancer. I ended up freelancing for two and a half years. You’re a freelancer with a yellow badge. I worked my tail off. The economy then took a nosedive. They froze freelance positions. I was down to working two days a week. I was wondering, ‘What have I done? I left a sure thing for Atlanta and now I’m barely working!’ Slowly but surely, things picked up. I’ve never shared this before but Fox News called me. Roger Ailes [president of Fox News], I owe you one. Join Fox, he said. CNN said, ‘Whoa! We invested two and a half years on you. Let’s make you a full-time correspondent.’ That could have been a major opportunity at Fox. But I stuck with CNN. Slowly but surely I began working on certain shows. Then they made some changes and needed me to anchor at 3 p.m.
Q: That was quick!
Baldwin: It was October 2010. I was the new kid with a show. There were a lot of eyeballs on me. I’d been in the business at 10 years at that point. I was barely 30 years old. [Technically, she was 31 at the time.]
Q: And you were on in the mid-afternoon when a lot of breaking news happens.
Baldwin: Big news happens. You have to be ready to roll at any given moment. You have to be pivot from a to m to z. I have an awesome executive producer who helps me pivot. We knew. We’re CNN. We cover the major stories. We emerged as the show that tackled stories you would definitely be talking about with your colleagues at work… We did a lot of political news of course during the election season. Sometimes when I get my way, I get to talk to a musician. I recently got to talk to Bill Withers. He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He was so lovely. He referred to the two of us as old buddies. Willie Nelseon became a buddy. I talked to him a few times. Dolly Parton was super fun. We got to go to Nashville for her. I’d love to get Stevie Wonder.
Q: How has Jeff Zucker (president of CNN since early 2013) treated you?
Baldwin: He’s been really good to me. We have an awesome relationship. He pops into my office daily, sometimes to joke with me about something. Sometimes, we’ll rib on each other. He has done awesome things. I’m in the same spot [she did move from 3 to 5 p.m. to 2 to 4 p.m. a couple of years ago.] I still have a job. I had an incredible year. I love being in the field. I’m a reporter at heart. When he first came on, he threw resources at major stories. I think that’s when CNN really resonates with people.
Q: You spent a long time in Boston after the marathon bombing.
Baldwin: That was the highlight of my recent career. I happened to be there the weekend before. They spun me around and I was there for a month to live it and breath it. I worked 21 straight days. It helps me now to cover the Tsarnaev trial. I have all these contacts.
Q: So how’s the adjustment to New York?
Baldwin: I think it came time when I was doing a new [contract] deal. [Zucker] said we think you could really soar up here. I agreed. I love Atlanta. Atlanta will always be home to me in a unique way no other CNN anchor can say. But moving up here has been wonderful with the access and events, the people I brush shoulders with. I can get people to come on the show when I meet them face to face. It’s a lot harder to turn me down when I’m right there.
Q: It’s easier to do interviews in person than by satellite, right?
Baldwin: Having a person sitting next to you is better than having people in boxes next to my head. It makes for more compelling TV. But I try to make it back to Atlanta every other month. [Her producers are still based in Atlanta.]
Q: What part of New York do you live in?
Baldwin: I’m in the West Village. I have definitely taken advantage of it. I refer this to be the season of yes. If you invite me to do something cool, I’m going to figure out my schedule to say yes. I want to take it all in. I was just on Broadway. Jerry O’Connell invited me to his show. That was flattering! I was there opening night and I met his wife. I’m invited to all these wild things and I find I’m pinching myself.
Q: What was your reaction when Cecily Strong on “SNL” imitated you?
Baldwin: I’m going to sound like a loser but I had the flu that weekend. I was asleep. I woke up the next morning and my phone was blowing up. I started seeing the memes and texts and tweets. I went on Hulu to watch it. She had the same purple dress I had worn the Wednesday before. She had her hair curled. She was me. I couldn’t believe it. Even though it wasn’t entire kind to CNN, the fact they parodied you is kind of a big deal. It means you made it.
Q: How do you like Cecily Strong?
Baldwin: She’s the best. Not only that, I have a buddy over there who’s a crew guy. He showed up at my office the next Monday. He had procured the cue card that had my name on it. I have it in my office!
Q: You just came back from a vacation in Tanzania and climbed Mt. Kilamanjaro.
Baldwin: I’m still working through it. I have never been to Africa before… It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I was with people who do marathons and are triathletes. None of us knew how challenging it would be. If we had, we would never have signed up. It’s like having a baby. You want to do it but it’s so incredibly painful in a way you can’t describe. Then you want to do it again. You forget the pain. You have the bug again… The idea of kicking back seven days, no shower, no make up, no cel phone. That was the best. Normally, I have to be presentable every day. It was great to be on a vacation and truly be in nature like that.
CNN Newsroom with Brooke Baldwin, 2 to 4 p.m. weekdays, CNN