Gayle King Has the Spotlight All to Herself
Posted November 2, 2018 11:10 p.m. EDT
Gayle King doesn’t so much enter a room as envelop it. The day we meet, in early October, the co-host of “CBS This Morning” is wearing pumps in a plaid felt material, like a Scottish kilt, that match her tricycle-red sheath dress. She is 5 foot 10 and carrying an iridescent bucket of a handbag that she periodically digs through, excavating her iPhone to show me photos of Tina Turner, whom she’d just interviewed in Zurich, and of the disappointing eyelash extensions for which she’d just paid $189.
On her way to a table at Norma’s, an opulent Midtown breakfast spot, families of tourists look up from their $29 towers of French toast to wave and point at King, who responds with “Hi guys!” and “I see you know where to eat!” and “Your son is very cute!” Yet even though King has emerged as the most esteemed personality of morning TV news — all the more so now that a high-profile rival, Megyn Kelly, has been vanquished — she says she does not feel famous. Not Oprah famous, anyway. She knows something about that level of celebrity. For decades, King was best known for being Oprah Winfrey’s best friend. “I have literally seen people brought to their knees, crying and sobbing,” she tells me, over an egg-stuffed quesadilla and blueberry pancakes with maple syrup. “That, girl, is a star.”
The whole idea behind “CBS This Morning” when it premiered, in 2012, was that it would be a beacon of seriousness in the silly sea of a.m. TV news. Set in front of Walter Cronkite’s iconic map, the program was anchored by King; Charlie Rose, then of PBS News and wooden-table fame; and Norah O’Donnell, previously the network’s chief White House correspondent. The broadcast would have no workout demos or clumsy attempts at dancing, no gimmicky test kitchens or celebrity stunts.
The industry scoffed. NBC’s “Today Show” and ABC’s “Good Morning America” were ratings behemoths. Did the harried millions who watched TV in the morning, as they cleaned up O.J. spills and packed school lunches, really want hard news? What would that even look like?
Soon enough, we got the answer. King established a distinct brand of news delivery: chatty but not snarky, empathetic but not sappy. By 2017, the King-Rose-O’Donnell formula was working, “CBS This Morning” was regularly catching up with the competition, and King was being hailed for her own talents — no longer a sidekick.
But in the past year, King’s apparent triumph has collided with accusations of sexual misconduct against CBS’ executives. In the swirl of #MeToo, perhaps no woman has found herself at the center of the storm quite like King. Millions of viewers have watched, again and again, as she and O’Donnell have had to explain — live on air — the alleged misdeeds of executives at their own network.
Most recently, it was Jeff Fager, the executive producer of “60 Minutes,” who six years earlier had played a key part in tapping King, a longtime local Connecticut anchor and occasional “Morning Joe” contributor, to co-host the morning. Now, King was covering the downfall of Fager, who had been fired for sending a threatening text message to a reporter investigating his behavior. “This is a very difficult story for us to cover,” King told viewers. “Big trees are falling at CBS.”
Days earlier, the biggest tree of all, Leslie Moonves, the king-making CBS Corp. chief executive, had fallen, after The New Yorker published multiple reports of women accusing Moonves of sexually harassing, assaulting or intimidating them. “I am so sorry, again, that it hits so close to home for us,” King said on camera. “I am sick and sick of the story and sickened by everything that we keep hearing.” And before Moonves, in November 2017, King had confronted what for her was the toughest story of all: the ouster of her dear friend and co-host Rose.
The Washington Post had published an article in which eight women said Rose made unwanted sexual advances, and he was fired the next day. On air, after O’Donnell delivered a forceful statement, a shaky King said that she was still reeling. “Oprah called me and said, ‘Are you OK?’ I am not OK,” King said. She commended the women who came forward, adding, “What do you say when someone that you deeply care about has done something that is so horrible?” Winfrey told me she watched that morning’s broadcast from her home in Santa Barbara, California. She was on the edge of her sofa, saying, “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” to will her friend not to cry. “Norah was up there kicking ass, for women and #MeToo,” Winfrey said. “And Gayle was like” — she put on the voice of a sad Southern belle — “'Oh, my daddy died. Oh lordy, my daddy died.'”
Winfrey returned to her normal tone. “I said, ‘Girl, pull it together!'”
‘Hallelujah,’ Typed Rose
By the time I contacted King to get a meal and talk about her career and #MeToo and how, at 63 years old, she is no longer just known as Winfrey’s bestie, people had started to stop her on the street to offer condolences, like somebody had died.
There was the time at the U.S. Open. “Somebody came up to me and touched my arm and said, ‘Oh, are you OK with all that’s happened at CBS?’ with the dog head like that,” King said, tilting her head like a cocker spaniel.
King has chided CBS and called for full transparency in its investigation into Moonves. She has said emphatically that she supports and believes his and Rose’s accusers. But King also believes that “you can hold two ideas in your head at the same time.” That is, you can believe and empathize with the women, but also think that not all men accused of wrongdoing should be banished for life.
I asked King if redemption was possible for some of the #MeToo men. “Amy, murderers are walking around,” King said flatly. “People who kill people are walking around. They might not be able to get [their] jobs back, but surely there must be room for some redemption somewhere.” She paused. “I don’t know what the answer is to that, and it might be too soon. Maybe people don’t want to hear that.” She knows that in our era of acute sensitivity, this seemingly tepid sentiment has gotten other public figures skewered. Matt Damon faced days of backlash when he called the climate around #MeToo a “culture of outrage” and said not all alleged wrongdoing was equal. “They took his head off, and I actually agree with what he was saying,” King said. “That doesn’t mean I’m discounting what the women are saying. I’m just saying we can’t paint everybody with the same brush.”
As for Rose? “I don’t know what his second act is, but Charlie is a very smart guy. Do I see him coming back to CBS? No.”
Part of King’s appeal — what CBS brass calls her “authenticity” — is that she knows she might be saying something unpopular, and she doesn’t care. King has emerged as a tough-love truth-teller, delivering straight talk between posts on social media about squeezing into her Spanx. It’s not that she is trying to offend anyone, as some cable news hosts do. She is just herself, and she likes being herself, and she doesn’t know any other way to be. “I kind of like me,” King told me a couple times.
She hasn’t been shy about the fact that she remains close with Rose. “I know there are two sides to every story, that’s what I know,” she said. The day we met at Norma’s, King had just called Rose to check in after he’d had a health scare. Rose is her friend and friendship is important to King, who for most of her life was known only as the professional best friend to America’s best TV friend.
“She lives strong,” Winfrey said. “Her friendships are strong and so, you know, when this happened, she said, ‘I feel terrible, but I don’t think you abandon people when they make a mistake.’ You certainly don’t abandon them when they’re down and everybody else is turning away from them.”
Rose has not given an interview since his termination, but in late October, I emailed him, figuring he might make an exception for King. He replied promptly. “Hallelujah,” he wrote, “the Sunday Times is profiling Gayle, there is a God in Heaven.” After that, Rose — who regardless of what you now think of him knows what makes a good interview — worried that whatever he said about his former co-host would sound so “over the top in unadulterated admiration” that it would be unusable. I told him to give it a try.
We met for lunch in a booth at Gabriel’s, on the Upper West Side. Over a pillowy pasta dish that the owner had chosen for us, Rose tried to explain what it was about King that he admired so much.
“She loves being Gayle King and all that goes with it,” Rose said. “This isn’t a sacrifice or a drudge. Her personality, her presence, her skill, her joy of life. She knows she is one of the lucky people on this planet, as am I, who gets to do exactly what she is cut out to do.”
OK, so it’s still a little over the top, but the sentiment — that King appreciates who she is and what she gets to do, even if it means her alarm goes off at 3:22 a.m. each day — helps to explain why King has been able to speak her mind without igniting a social media firestorm. Her gratitude is something that viewers can sense, even when they’re rushing to get to work, or brushing their teeth, or waiting out a Cialis ad because Gayle King said “We’ll be right back...”
— Slightly Rich and Slightly Famous
In 1992, when King’s son Will was 6 and she was an “Eyewitness News” anchor in Connecticut, he told his mom, “You know, I wouldn’t want you to be Auntie O famous. I like you how you are now, slightly rich and slightly famous.'” And that is how King still sees herself, slightly rich and slightly famous.
Born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, King spent much of her childhood attending an American school in Turkey, where her father worked as an engineer for the U.S. government. She had a swimming pool and a housekeeper, luxuries that were unheard-of in Winfrey’s childhood in rural Mississippi, where her teenage mother worked as a maid. “She was the first black person I’d ever met who wasn’t hit by her parents,” Winfrey said.
The two met in their early 20s at a Baltimore TV station, where Winfrey was an anchor and King a production assistant. A snowstorm hit the area and Winfrey let King, who couldn’t get home, crash at her house and borrow her clothes. They stayed up all night talking. The next day they went to a Casual Corner at the mall. King was blown away that Winfrey could afford two $19.99 sweaters.
“We were two black girls who loved being black, who loved the experience of growing up black girls in America, and we felt our value system was very much the same — our dreams were the same,” Winfrey told me. They had grown up in different types of homes, but they both experienced racism and were taunted for talking and acting ‘'white.” (It didn’t help matters that they both loved Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond.) “Both of us,” Winfrey said, “grew up as black girls striving to do better in our lives.”
As Winfrey rose to supernova stardom, “my friend Gayle” became a known entity to “Oprah” viewers, along with the intimate details of her life: her children’s births, her husband’s infidelity. King served as a special correspondent on the program and had her own show on Winfrey’s Sirius XM station, Oprah Radio. In 1999, King joined O, The Oprah Magazine as an editor-at-large and monthly columnist of “The World According to Gayle.” Winfrey even asked King to take over “Oprah” when she wanted to focus on movies, but at the time, King didn’t want to leave Connecticut, where her children were close to their father, her ex-husband.
She had her own short-lived “Gayle King Show” on Winfrey’s cable channel, OWN. “It was essentially Gayle sitting in a chair talking to viewers, and she was in her moment of glory,” Winfrey said, noting that King is often late to meet her because she’s been chatting with her cabdriver. Winfrey blamed herself for the show not catching on. “Nobody told me that nobody programs cable in the mornings,” she said.
By 2012, when Chris Licht, then the executive producer of “CBS This Morning,” asked King to audition for the show, the low-rated OWN was getting skewered in the press. “I said to Oprah, ‘Can you imagine the headlines if I leave OWN?’ They’d say, ‘It’s so bad, even her best friend is jumping ship,'” King told me. Winfrey insisted she do it. “For heaven’s sake, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for,” Winfrey recalled telling her friend.
Licht had previously been the executive producer of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and had been impressed with King’s occasional stops on the show. He thought her down-to-earth appeal could balance Rose’s more cerebral approach. Today, King jokes about how odd the pairing must have seemed at the time: a staid PBS host and the woman whom millions of “Oprah” viewers know pooped herself during childbirth.
But somehow it worked. King and Rose had a palpable connection and an easy, on-camera banter. In an interview, David Rhodes, president of CBS News, gave the example of an economist appearing on the show. “Charlie could have a very different shorthand, and she’s approaching it like the average viewer — ‘What do you mean?'” Rhodes said. Another time, when the panel interviewed a deputy CIA director about the Islamic State group, King interjected with a classic Gayle King question: “Can you remind the audience, why do they hate us?”
O’Donnell, who joined the panel nine months after its debut, said King “is the emotional center of our show,” reacting to the news she’s delivering even when producers are prodding through her earpiece that it’s time to move on.
Ryan Kadro, who followed Licht as executive producer, said he thought of the show as an “emotional accordion” and that “you really do need the right balance and melody.” Five years after its debut, “CBS This Morning” had doubled its audience to 3.8 million viewers, making it the most lucrative property in the CBS News family, according to industry analysts. When the show started to catch on, hardly anyone outside local Connecticut markets knew that King had spent nearly 20 years as an anchor. They assumed she got the CBS job because of her connection to Winfrey. “People said to me, ‘It’s so amazing how you picked this up so quickly.’ Uhhh, this was my job for a long time,” King said. To which people would regularly reply, “I didn’t know you had a job!” or “I didn’t even know what your last name was!” That is what it’s like to be Oprah’s best friend.
“CBS This Morning” is still scrambling to recover from Rose’s abrupt departure — a process in which King has been a somewhat passive observer. John Dickerson, a respected Washington journalist who previously hosted “Face the Nation,” joined the panel, and as I was reporting this article, CBS named Bianna Golodryga as a fourth co-anchor. King said she hadn’t known about the move until the day it was announced.
According to Nielsen, ratings have fallen by roughly half a million viewers, to 3.2 million last month. But the show has remained competitive with “Today,” which suffered its own #MeToo shake-up with the firing of Matt Lauer. King’s contract is up in a little over a year, adding to speculation about the show’s future. King said, “I’m excited about whatever the future may hold.”
— Oprah 2020
A week after our breakfast, I visited King on the “CBS This Morning” set, with its circular Lucite table and sepia-toned news memorabilia. King and her co-hosts had just finished a discussion about fathers talking to sons about the #MeToo movement, a story line the show and the network (and the country) can’t escape. Earlier that morning, King had dropped off lottery tickets to the guys in the control room, a tradition whenever the pot is upward of $300 million. (She even made Winfrey buy a ticket, over the billionaire’s objections. “I said, ‘I’m not going to play the lottery, because if I ever won the lottery, people would turn on me,'” Winfrey said. And then King pulled over to a gas station and bought her friend a lottery ticket.)
After the panel recorded the West Coast version of the show, King walked to the green room, where she sat on a sofa and ate Starbucks egg-white bites on her lap before doing a Facebook Live interview with 19-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason. Typically, she leaves CBS before noon to head to what is essentially a second full-time job, at O magazine, where she writes her column and is responsible for making sure each issue reflects Winfrey’s tastes. After hours, there are the extracurriculars that go with being a prominent personality in New York — the book launches and charity events and moderator gigs. Winfrey always tells her, “Gayle, ‘No’ is a complete sentence.” But King can’t say the word.
King’s celebrity means she has a different relationship with the people she covers than most other anchors do. King was at Winfrey’s home in Hawaii one Christmas when Mitt Romney arrived for a visit in his van “and all these Romneys piled out.” Last year, she vacationed with Winfrey, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen and Barack and Michelle Obama on David Geffen’s yacht in Tahiti.
In January, Winfrey gave an impassioned speech at the Golden Globes, causing the entire political universe to wonder if she would run for president in 2020. King fanned the flames when she said Winfrey was “intrigued” by the idea. She then clarified that her friend was not “actively considering” a run.
I confessed to King that I have a (nonpartisan) fantasy of covering Winfrey’s presidential campaign. We would, of course, grill her on policy and ask all of our usual probing questions. But after a grueling day on the campaign trail, the traveling press corps would get O as our in-flight magazine and Weight Watchers-approved diets. We’d have a book club, obviously, and practice some self-help. “It’s a bit of a fantasy for me, too,” King said. She put emphasis on the word fantasy.
King said Winfrey “is very, very, very happy with her life, and her life would drastically change” were she to run. That hasn’t stopped King from urging Winfrey to do it.
The day Winfrey called me from her Santa Barbara home, her dog barking in the background, she seemed a bit baffled by King’s persistence. The two women had just talked, and King had, again, urged her to consider running. “It’s actually really surprised me,” Winfrey said. “She is still talking about ‘the perfect ticket,’ and I said, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t get why you keep doing this? You of all people are supposed to care about my life,’ and she said, ‘The country is bigger than your life.'”
— ‘There’s Only One of Her and Only One of Me, and I Kind of Like Me’
The rhythms of a morning TV host are brutal. King is 63, with two grown children, but when she tells me about her life, she sounds like a college student or one of those girls who moves to New York to live like a “Sex and the City” character. The night before we first met, King had eaten only cereal for dinner, and her Fitbit reported that she slept 3 hours and 15 minutes. She and Winfrey used to talk four or five times a day, but when she started at CBS, the late-night calls began to wane. Winfrey said, “I remember talking on the phone and then I’m like, ‘Gayle? Gayle? Are you there?” She had fallen asleep on Oprah. Winfrey worries about King’s lifestyle. “This lack of sleep thing is going to catch up with you,” she tells her. She’d also like her to take the time to date and find a partner, maybe a professorial, bookish type who lives a quieter life, preferably someone who could cook and stock the fridge.
Before leaving her Upper West Side apartment for work each morning, King takes a bath and browses the headlines. She sends notes to producers, flagging stories that might make it into the broadcast. Sometimes it’s a Kardashian baby (producers rejected that one), or the U.S. Embassy in Australia accidentally sending out invitations to a cat pajama party. But she also pushes to spend more time covering social justice issues. “Amy, there are still kids who are separated from their parents,” she told me at one point, noting she’d recently traveled to the Texas border to report on immigration.
I asked King if the DNA of Winfrey’s eponymous show, which mixed levity and heft and held unprecedented sway over its audience of mostly female viewers, informed the way she thought about “CBS This Morning.” King seemed slightly annoyed at this question. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said. “No.”
That’s the thing — while King has enjoyed the trappings of being close to Winfrey, she has never wanted to be Oprah. “Genuinely, the reason that this friendship has worked and why we remain solid is because she is comfortable with herself and with her own aspirations and never aspired to anything I have,” Winfrey said.
I thought back to my first meeting with King. I told her that when I mentioned to several friends that I was writing about her, they didn’t initially think of her as Oprah’s best friend — they think of her as atop the media ecosystem in her own right. “Where have your friends been, in a cave?” she asked. (Well, kind of, the New York media bubble.) That’s nice, King said, but she doesn’t mind being known in the context of her richer, more famous friend.
“I’m very proud to be her friend, and she and I are very, very, very tight, and that’s never going to change, so I don’t feel overshadowed by her,” she said. “But I feel like there’s only one of her and only one of me, and I kind of like me. I like me. I like her, too, but I really like me.”