A Story-Teller On The News Beat Powers On
Giselle Fernandez: Her mission to expose ivory tower corruption, and protect the common man
By Alex Ben Block
An expanded profile about Spectrum One News Anchor Giselle Fernandez, honored with the L.A. Press Club Presidents Award
“I feel I'm doing the best work of my career”
After an Emmy award-winning career as a correspondent for CBS News, anchoring the Sunday NBC Nightly News, and covering stories from the U.S. invasion of Panama to the Persian Gulf War to the bombing of the World Trade Center to interviewing Fidel Castro, Presidents H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and others, Giselle Fernandez had been away from journalism for 15 years. Then, in 2018, the phone rang in her Los Angeles office.
“I finally got a call from one person, one fabulous woman who remembered me and said, ‘would you like to come back to television?’” recalls Fernandez, who was running a production, management and media strategy business in Los Angeles at the time. “ And I thought, let me think who I have in the roster of my company. I have some wonderful talent. I was representing talent at the time too. And she goes, ‘No, no, you!’
“And I was like, you know I'm in my fifties,” she said with a laugh. “Will you please come see me?’”
The call was from Cater Lee, Spectrum’s VP News & Content, telling her that they were creating a news network, and wanted her to host their morning show, a prime-time interview show and a podcast.
When they met, Lee shared a vision for news that would be “hyper local, deeply embedded in the community,” recalled Fernandez, “where people report on the issues that are important to these communities.”
“I'd known her many, many years,” said Fernandez. “She knew my work. But, when you think of people in this business, it's so fickle... Your career is on the whim someone's subjective taste. And so, I (had) thought, ‘okay, my time was done’ but I used to secretly say, ‘you know, I'm going to do it anyway.’ And doing it gave me a template to just exercise that muscle and do what I feel born to do, which I love to do, to tell people stories.”
Now nearly five years later, Fernandez is telling her stories and Spectrum News 1 is well established. In January, it reported “more than 2.4 million (viewers) daily,” plus millions more on Spectrum systems nationwide and the Spectrum Plus service.
“The stories I get to tell, the people that I get to be with, it's the greatest job in the world,” says Fernandez. “Even with the crazy dynamics of divisive politics, bigotry and anti-Semitism on the rise, the challenges to democracy and our first amendment rights - you know, fake news and enemy of the people - when you shut out the noise and stick to the facts and stories and really build trust in your accuracy and empathy and try to see all sides, what a gift that I'm able to do this in a local market, which I no longer see as secondary to a network.”
"Giselle is telling stories that no one else in Los Angeles is telling," said Los Angeles Press Club President Lisa Richiwne. "She is shedding light on all corners of the city and approaches her stories with curiosity and empathy.”
That is why Fernandez received the Los Angeles Press Club’s 2023 President’s Award for Impact on Media, which was presented by Sharon Stone on Sunday, June 25, in downtown Los Angeles.
In her introduction, the Basic Instinct star made clear she was not just there as a celebrity to add glitter to the affair. Her relationship with Fernandez is personal.
“She did my story and I want to tell you that story changed my life,” Stone said. “And it is changing very much so the trajectory of my career that was greatly derailed by my disability when I had a stroke and a massive brain hemorrhage. I am here not only because I understand the integrity of Giselle’s work. I am here because her work and her ability to let people see the truth of my life has greatly changed my life.”
“I feel I'm doing the best work of my career,” said Fernandez, “and I feel so grateful to be able to do it as a result and have a deep sense of mission in doing it.”
“I'll just tell you one quick story,” Fernandez added, recalling an interview she did while working for Access Hollywood. “When I interviewed Barbara Streisand, I showed her a picture. She is in her seventies, and she did, The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996) with Lauren Bacall…I always tried to make those interviews have much more depth.”
“I wanted to be the 60 minutes of entertainment coverage…They (the Access Hollywood producers) could care less about the layers that I was interested in. But I tried,” added Fernandez. “I showed her a picture of herself at 29 when she did Funny Girl (1968). And I said, ‘when you look at that picture, what do you think of?’ And she told me something that stayed with me all these years later, which was, ‘I look at that and I think, gosh, why can't you know when you're in it that you're good? I look at that and I look at myself and I'm beautiful. I thought I was ugly. I had a big nose. I couldn't compete with the glamor women of the day, but now I look and go, ‘it was good. Why couldn't I have known it then?’”
“And that really resonated with me,” said Fernandez, “because as so many women in the business, no matter how accomplished, I have thought I was, I under the impression that I wasn't as good as the titans in the industry.”
“I didn't go to a fancy school” Fernandez recalled with a laugh. “I didn't have, a lot of money. I didn't have fancy friends. I was just a kind of dogged reporter, very ambitious. But now, when I look back at my work, I go, ‘gosh, I was good.’ Why didn’t I know it then?”
“I am so proud of the work I'm able to do and feel so lucky to do it,” she added, still laughing. “And that's the benefit of being a seasoned bottle of wine, darling.”
“My work in journalism was always about trying to be of service and really viewing reporting as a very, integral part of our democracy. I took it very seriously, probably righteously” she said. “So, my younger self fought for every edit. And then people would say, ‘Giselle, choose your battles.’”
“Every story is important. Every frame is important. And I'm sure I was a pain and the arse,” she added. “I’ve learned to choose my battles now. But, I had a tenaciousness and a sense of mission about exposing ivory tower corruption to protect the common man. It was never just a job to me. I missed that. Nothing can compare to being a journalist or a storyteller.”
“I tried everything,” she recalled about her years out of reporting. “I did History Channel International, I did a talk show for a Latin channel. I did entertainment news. But what I really loved was traditional news, just old fashion, traditional news, the human experience. And so, when I went into this guy's big office, a big name, I said, ‘I really want to come back to television.’ And the meeting lasted five minutes. He doesn't have those offices anymore. He's no longer in the business. But he said to me, ‘I think your time is done.’ But I've always had a crush on you.”
Giselle Fernandez when she interviewed President Obama
“And then he said, ‘thanks for coming’ and I got up and I went to my car and I was just sobbing, thinking, how can somebody else define your destiny? I didn't get a chance to fulfill this. I didn't feel too old. And I was sobbing and my makeup was running down my face… I felt like Scarlet O'Hara. And I said, ‘all right, I'm going to do in the way that I can.’’”
That deep desire to tell people’s stories is something that began in her very unorthodox childhood. “My father was a dancer and my father would tell a story through dance,” she explained. “My mother was interested in folklore. She took down stories, stories mattered. So, to me, I just wanted to make sure that my stories could move people to action, to understanding, to a sense of the world that opened their lives. That's what I wanted to do.”
She was born in Mexico to an American mother and a Mexican father. Her mother came from New York, from a very progressive kind of Jewish family and was brought up Unitarian (she practices Judaism). She went to Dalton (prep school) and Sarah Lawrence and had a very upscale upbringing. But her mother was enamored with Mexican music and flamenco dancing.
A very young Giselle with her father
He mother went Mexico to visit an Aunt. While there, she took a flamenco dancing class. The teacher was a 61-year-old maverick flamenco dancer. They fell in love and got married when to her father, Jose Fernandez. Her mother was still in her early 20s.
Her mother became a professional Flamenco dancer. ”She toured with my father and then came back to the States when I was three.” They lived in East Hollywood, the Echo Park area. Her father taught dancing. Her mother got a PhD in Mexican folklore. Then they divorced.
Her mother continued to dance and sing. “Then she met my stepdad when I was around seven, and he was getting his PhD in 19th century Spanish literature,” said Fernandez. “And, they fell in love. He was from Germany, she's from New York, but they both had a passion for Latin life and Mexican culture. They married, and then mom taught him to sing Mariachi music, and they became a duo singing on both sides of the border.”
“My mother's American, my stepfather's German, but they speak better Spanish than most people who are born into the culture” she said. “And I lived in a culture full of dance and music and the best Mexican food and my mother's passion.”
As she and a brother grew up, Fernandez - known then as Gigi - never forgot the masses of people on the edge of life, many in poverty. She saw very the rich live one way and everyone else very differently. “I've always been a social justice advocate for Latinos and for women particularly, and the underserved,” said Fernandez. “I come from humble beginnings and I've been able to have this incredible adventure in my life. And I think everybody should have that opportunity.”
One of the many magazine covers Giselle Fernandez has graced. This one is from 1997
“I had a deep sense of social justice because we'd travel with my mom through the bowels of Mexico, dancers and mariachi singers. We're not living in palaces. So, you know, we were regular people and struggled and did our best.”
Fernandez went to Cal State, Sacramento and studied journalism. She had a teacher there, Bill Doman, who inspired her. She became editor of the school paper, The Hornet.
“He was a really big influence because he infused in me something that inspired me throughout my career, how important journalism was to our democracy and how important chronicling human nature, our triumphs, our tragedies, our missteps, our failures, our successes was. He'd always say ‘be a keen observer of the human condition because when you record our history, in real time, it impacts policy, it impacts archetyping and stereotyping of communities, how we define opportunities for people. So, what you write down and record in our human development and daily life matters.’ It's not just a drop in the sea that gets diluted.”
Fernandez said living in Los Angeles gives her an education every day: “We have people here deeply connected that want to know that they are valued. And if we do not value them, if their kids are slaughtered, if they feel invisible, it is incumbent upon every news station to throw shine on every community. So, every community is heard because otherwise we'll only be seen as a white mainstream America when that is no longer the case.”
“So, when we see the rise of antisemitism and bigotry, anti-Mexican, anti-Latino narratives, why is that happening? We have to do a much better job of telling the story of who we are, our contributions to this country, and how we are driving the future, not just in population demographic, but in economic power. And that story has yet to be told,”
“And it becomes difficult in a very sensitive environment,” continues Fernandez. “Look, what's happening to the news stations trying to figure out journalistic ethics as you're being called, you know, fake news, when you have a major political party lying about an election, mitigating the attack on the capitol, still being given a platform to continue to propagate misinformation. If you challenge that, then you are being partisan. You have to be extremely careful and walk on eggshells and not call it out because you will then alienate a certain segment of your population. I think we have a love hate relationship with the business side of news. You could say the same thing about entertainment and the art and service of journalism.”
Giselle when she worked with Hal Fishman at KTLA , one of two times she was on the L.A. station
“Obviously that's a battle I've always fought and not always been celebrated for,” she said. “I fought for every story, every frame. Giselle, choose your battles. Um, but we should have the money to go overseas and cover this story of what's global is local and it impacts us. We don't have the money for it. So, you have bureaus being decimated. We don't have money for investigative journalists, so we drink bad water that meets CPA standards, but you still have carcinogens in our water in Los Angeles. And who does that impact more - under resourced communities, but why aren't we covering it?”
“The titans are taking in billions and millions as we just saw in the LA times. The media giants are still raking in the dough, but somehow or another it doesn't trickle down to actually making sure that we are able to fulfill this democratic need, this pillar of democracy, this service to our constituency, our, our citizenry, letting them know what's going on.”
How can Spectrum One compete against established news on ABC, NBC. CBS, CNN, Fox and others? When others in media told Fernandez not to join Spectrum they sniffed and called it “Cable Dine Medium.”
What they didn’t know was that Spectrum had something called “Power On,” said Fernandez. That means each time a subscriber to Spectrum, the dominant cable provider in Southern California, turns on their TV, the first thing they see is Spectrum News One. “That was their secret superpower,” said Fernandez, adding: “At the beginning people were like, ‘What’s this?” They start changing channels but then they notice we are different in the way we tell a story…We were telling character driven stories that are hyper local. That is our secret sauce.”
Over the years Fernandez has won numerous awards, including seven Emmys, but she said her L.A. Press Club Award, for her impact on journalism, was special, especially since she could share it with her 17-year-old daughter. Her mother, father, Tater Lee and many friends were on hand as well to applaud her success.
“It's really meaningful to me that my daughter gets a chance to see her mommy shine and have a purpose,” she explains. “You know, my daughter was adopted from Guatemala, a country that's deeply challenged and troubled, but with great Mayan history and so much to celebrate in her culture. I've brought her here to live the American dream which I do my very best to provide her.”
“She'll was my date that night and saw her mom celebrating that way,” added Fernandez. “That means more to me. I feel very humble. When you get awards, it's nice, especially when you're rising in your career. But this one matters to me because I feel proud my kid can see that I make an impact in my work. And it's nice for me at this stage in my life that my work is being acknowledged and that I still am relevant and can still tell a story that makes a difference - as corny as that may sound.”
She recalled those times industry big shots, invariably men, told her she was too old to make a comeback.
“I remember sitting back there and saying, don't let anybody ever tell you your dream is done,” said Fernandez proudly, “because I actually started to buy into the fact that maybe it had passed me by, like they all say it said. And I sat in that room and just for a moment, because I never do, I allowed myself to think, ‘What’s the catch?’”
“Now I can just allow myself for a second to say, ‘if this is real, my dream has just come true in my late fifties.’ How great is that?”
Giselle Fernandez with the author of this profile Alex Ben Block at the L.A. Press Club Awards evening