Gayle King couldn’t stand it any longer. It was a Saturday in mid- June, and King, who is both the co-host of CBS This Morning and editor-at-large for O: The Oprah Magazine, felt overwhelmed by images of tragedy. Stories of parents being ripped away from their children, the ridiculous claims that the Trump administration’s new “zero tolerance” immigration policy at the U.S.-Mexico border had created some kind of “summer camp” atmosphere for kids and the cries that any more empathetic reports on the subject were “fake news.”
She called Ryan Kadro, executive producer at CBS This Morning, and a plan was set in place for King to quickly fly with a team to the scene and begin reporting, to get as close to the truth as possible. “She turned the entire news organization into this mission,” Kadro recalled. “She was the first network anchor to report from the border, and that Monday morning, we brought attention to a situation that was waiting for that catalyst and that moment.”
The results were stunning, not only for the harrowing interviews with emotionally and physically exhausted detainees, and the reality of crying children kept in what amounted to cages, but for King’s dogged presentation of the stories. She came across, in essence, as the conscience of a better America. As part of her heartfelt report, she said, on-air, “The Statue of Liberty is weeping today.”
“She was down there, pushing tirelessly in pursuit of an important story,” said Diana Miller, senior broadcast producer for CBS’ morning news show. “Gayle never does anything halfway.”
The effort and empathy, and the push of justice, all come as no surprise to anyone who works with King, who currently sits alongside co-hosts Norah O’Donnell, John Dickerson and Bianna Golodryga at the CBS morning news desk. Behind them on-set is the map Walter Cronkite used in reports King’s father made her watch as a kid. She feels the connection and kinship deeply, especially in these stressful times.
“I want things to be fair,” King said. “It’s gotten so vitriolic, so partisan in this country. But regardless of your political persuasion or your racial ethnicity, I just want things to be fair.”
It is King’s particular gift that you see myriad aspects of her personality in her face as she delivers her stories. She’s the seasoned broadcasting pro with decades of news experience; the friend who has your back (and, famously, the back of her decades-long best friend, Oprah Winfrey); the mom of two beloved grown kids who smile warmly in the limelight of her star-studded social media; the lifestyle magazine editor who is perennially on the go; the trailblazing woman of color in the media business; and a person who, as the saying goes, tells it like it is. There is “busy,” and then there is Gayle King busy, and yet she always has enough time for you.
“She really connects to people, which is what makes her such a good storyteller,” said Eva Nordstrom, managing editor at CBS This Morning. “And she’s sending me ideas for stories at 4:30 every morning.”
CBS News staffers marvel that, no matter the guest with any book to promote, King has always read it — adding Post-It notes to highlight favorite passages to ask about on-air. “Gayle is just so truly invested in giving people a voice,” Miller said.
That predilection comes from King regarding her career as one learning experience after another, with herself as eager a student as they come.
She earned a degree in psychology and sociology at the University of Maryland, but found her calling on day one of an entry-level job at Washington’s WTOP (now WUSA). “I’d never thought about television, but I walked into that newsroom and I was hooked — by the process, by what it takes to put a newscast on the air, and then the awe and responsibility that comes with that,” she said.
As Interested as Ever
Her fascination with politics, pop culture and the process has never ebbed, first as a production assistant at WJZ Baltimore (where she met Winfrey), and then as a first-time reporter and co-anchor at WDAF Kansas City, where her mentor, Bruce Johnson, told her to “Grow up!” when she arrived in town and called him first thing to complain about various logistical snafus. “That could have knocked me off,” King said. “But all it did was make me go, ‘OK, put on your big girl pants and lets go.’”
Her 18 successful years as a news anchor for WFSB Hartford followed, along with too-brief stints hosting syndicated talk shows, and then finally, the popular Gayle King Show on OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network, which co-aired on XM Satellite Radio. All this time, King was guided by tough love from good friends. “I once called Maya Angelou, complaining about work, and she said, ‘Stop it. You’re whining … and it’s very unbecoming. Whining lets them know there’s a victim in the neighborhood.’ And I thought, whoa, let me write that down! When I’m hit with a problem, I really look at, what can I do to figure this out?”
That guiding principle led her to success these last four years on CBS This Morning. “She embodies everything you would hope a television personality would be,” says Chris Licht, the onetime CBS This Morning exec producer who hired King, and now showrunner and exec producer of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. “Gayle sees the best not only in people but in society as a whole. She made me look really good.” And now, King is as comfortable interviewing John Krasinski as she is calling out Paul Ryan for his failure to expand the Republican power base beyond White men. And with her network caught up in its own #MeToo moments, it has been King calling for on-air transparency.
“Gayle has incredible range and curiosity,” CBS News president David Rhodes said. “And no one’s more up on the news.”
And then there’s this: Her ability, even her need, to chase a story of injustice that requires a spotlight to be seen. That’s what makes Gayle King not only talented and special, but also necessary.