Fox News' Melissa Francis on #MeToo in media and why "you cannot just have one news source"

Salon talks to the journalist and former child star about being called "fake news" and the myths of perfection

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 23, 2018 4:00PM (EDT)

Melissa Francis (Getty/Mike Coppola)
Melissa Francis (Getty/Mike Coppola)

Melissa Francis has been working her entire life — she booked her first commercial when she was six months old. But after a high profile stint on "Little House on the Prairie" as Cassandra Cooper Ingalls, she stepped away from acting, got her education and embarked on a career in journalism. Today she's the co-anchor of "After the Bell" on Fox Business and a regular on Fox News.

When her latest memoir, "Lessons from the Prairie: The Surprising Secrets to Happiness, Success, and (Sometimes Just) Survival I Learned on "Little House," came out in 2017, her network was embroiled in the double disgraces of Bill O'Reilly and Roger Ailes. Now one year, a #MeToo movement and the Cambridge Analytica scandal later, "Lessons from the Prairie" is out in paperback, and her observations about harassment and media accountability have taken on new resonance. Salon spoke to Francis recently about public trust, reaching across the aisle and why she wouldn't want to live a fairy tale.

You've talked about your experiences with sexual harassment early on in your career. I've read some of the interviews you did a year ago about what was going on at Fox News and what you thought about those things. Now, what began as a few seemingly isolated examples of men in power abusing their positions is an entire movement. We are seeing this conversation across all industries. You were one of the first people really talking about this in your book. What has this year changed for you?

I’m in awe of the distance that we have traveled. I will never forget that the first day I went out to promote my book was the day after Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox. I was going over to the "Today" show to be on with Hoda and Kathie Lee. I knew, of coursem that they were going to ask me about Bill O’Reilly because they’re reporters. How could they not?

One of them said to me, in essence, “What is in the water over there at Fox — the combination of Bill O’Reilly and Roger?" I said something to the effect of, “It’s been very painful, and we’re going through our stuff, and I do believe that the network is committed to cleaning things up. But I've got to tell you, there are predators in this building too and they’re at every network. It’s not a left/right thing. It’s not a media thing. It’s not a network thing. It’s everywhere. I bet people here know who the people in this building are who do really similar things."

I had had experiences where other women at NBC had come to me crying in the aftermath of having been grabbed, various things. And I had offered to that person to go be the witness, because I was there in the direct aftermath. And they had said, “No, I don’t want to because I think that would be the end of my career.”

My husband had said to me, “Why do you think it is that it’s all come out about Fox, but we know this is going on at the other networks?” He was there at the time when I came home and said, “You’ll never guess what happened at work." And I said, “I don’t know. Hopefully, the movement's big enough that the women at these other networks will feel safe finally coming forward and they’ll see a light rather than, they'll will never work again in this industry by virtue of the fact that they've have reported this incident. They’ll instead feel like there is the support out there for them to come forward." And sure enough that’s what happened.

I know it’s really hard. And I even faced blowback since then, where people say, “If you knew about people at other networks who were doing this, why didn’t you say anything?” Number one, I would say, “Because it didn’t happen to me. It happened to someone else, and I was a witness for that person. So it was their decision as a victim whether to come forward or not.” But at that time, I certainly sympathized with their feeling that there was no point in coming forward.

In fact, as I said in the book, my first experience with this was when I was very young at a local station and my news director showed up [on] my doorstep in the middle of the night.

I was doing an early morning shift, and so I had been asleep for quite some time. I opened the door, and I was very disoriented, and he was clearly inebriated. He was on the phone, mumbling about telling his wife that he was on the doorstep of this young girl and what he thought was going to happen when he entered the apartment. I was floored because I couldn’t figure out what I had ever done to give him the impression that that was going to be OK.

Somehow I faked some sort of highly contagious disease that kept him from coming in my apartment. But in the morning when I woke up, I called my agent and I said, “You got to get me the hell out of Dodge. He’s going to sober up. He’s either going to be angry, or humiliated, or whatever, but no matter what it is, I can’t stay here because he also thinks that this is OK.” And I fled the city.

What I realize now in this day and age is that I left that monster there to prey on many more women. I feel really bad about that. I also don’t know if there even was an HR at that station. He was the boss. I don’t know who I would have told, but I did leave him there. I think that we have come a really long way.

This was a very pervasive problem and it had nothing to do with politics, or what side of the aisle, or any of the other things. It was a pervasive problem in industries where the jobs were highly coveted, where people would stay quiet about horrible things because it’s so hard to get the job and so hard to keep the job. That was one of the things that contributed to it. But I do really believe it’s over because it has swept so wide and so pervasively.

I also think that for many of us for a very long time, it seemed like experiences were isolated. You weren’t hearing other women coming forward, so the idea that, “Oh, yeah. This guy is doing this to other people,” seemed almost impossible.

It just didn't seem possible. There was also that pervasive thing that we know as women, where when a woman is successful, they would say, “Oh, she’s sleeping with the boss.” I used to cover energy for CNBC, and I broke a lot of stories on energy. I remember there was this pervasive [rumor] that there was something going on between me and the Saudi Arabian oil minister. He was over 80. It was the most ridiculous thing in the world. I wasn’t even insulted by it because it was just so common to claim that something was going on based on the fact that a woman was getting ahead, that that conditioned me to be like, “Nah. Nobody’s having sex in our office, that’s just a rumor.”

In your book, you talk about how you have tried to figure out how to balance the illusion of objectivity in your career. And you ask specifically, why should news people be neutral? That's fair enough, but we look at where we are now from where you were writing this book, about two years ago. Katie Couric has brought up this distrust that is so pervasive among people now with the media. And she's said it’s because we’re all so much in our silos and we are getting our information from sources that reinforce our own points of view.

How do we get past that? How do we, as journalists, work our way back to public trust? How do we reach across the aisle and foster real dialogue and real diversity of opinion?

One thing I do on a very basic level is read everything: read the competition, read the other side, read the groups that are painted as being in opposition to Fox or Fox Business, and try and see how their take is different.

I do a lot of debate shows here at Fox where they have liberals on. I think you have to constantly expose yourself to the other side of the argument. But I think what’s a lot more nefarious than a lot of people give the credit is really about the algorithm. When you click on a story online, when you click on a video, there’s an algorithm out there. The point of Facebook, and the point of Google, and the way they make money is by the amount of time that you stay on their site. One thing they figured out through the algorithms is, “Oh, she likes this kind of story, so I’m going to feed her stories that are similar. What are the keywords, and what’s the point of view?”

People warned me about this a year, two, three years ago, that the most dangerous place to get your news is Facebook. I knew about this ages ago because there were engineers who had written the algorithms, who told me the point is they’re customizing what you’re seeing to make you feel satisfied and happy and stay there longer. There’s nothing wrong with that; that’s their business. The amount of time you spend on the site is something that they monetize. But the way they do that is by reflecting stories back at you that already agree with what your opinion is. That’s really dangerous from a journalistic and human being point of view because you live in this echo chamber forever. I have been knowledgeable of that and make sure I break out of that, also because it’s my job.

What’s different about my job is that when I’m facing a guest one-on-one, my job is to take the opposite side of that guest, whatever it is, and challenge them. If there are two people that I’m interviewing, my job is to try and keep their debate balanced and if somebody is really getting their hat handed to them, to intervene on the side of the person who’s weaker to help the debate be balanced. When I’m in a group show with four or five people, my job is to bring an original point of view or nugget of information and a fact to the discussion or a point of view that the others haven’t considered. All of those things take a ton of research every day. I have to dig down into all different types of points of view to know an angle from everybody’s side.

[For] people that, it’s not their job and they’re just trying to get their information in the morning, it is incredibly dangerous. You sit there in an echo chamber. I can tell because when I go out and I talk to people casually, they’ll tell me, “Oh, my goodness. I can’t believe . . .” and then they fill in the blank about a news event of the day. And I can tell by virtue of what they’ve said which channel they watched that day. I’m like, “You've got to try and mix it up.”

If you want to really know what’s going on, you cannot just have one news source. Even if you think there’s a news source that you trust and you believe in, you've got to continue testing that and go look at something else. I think now since the truth that we all knew about Facebook has been exposed, more people out there understand that you've got to educate yourself across all lines.

We’re never going back to the days when there was one guy telling the news at 6 p.m. and that was it. We have so many opportunities now to really micro-curate the information that we get.

The other thing that’s amazing about it is that I ask reporters, “Why do you think it is that all all these stories have come out about predators and before, those predators were able to use lawyers and money and intimidation to keep the stories from being published?” And they say, “Social media.” Before, as a news organization, you would have to really bring a lot to your editor to publish a story that was so shocking that it was going to really take someone down. You had to have so much evidence, and chances are that person, if they were powerful enough, they would have gone in to threaten somebody. It was so hard to do before, that the stories weren’t getting out.

Now, a victim can post their account on social media and the news organization can then investigate it without worrying about being sued because they’re investigating a claim that’s already out there. The reporters have said, “If somebody wants to hide what they’ve done, they probably aren’t able to find and buy out every single victim. Someone’s going to go online.” Or a friend of someone is going to say, “Guess what I heard about this one?”

You just can’t keep things quiet any longer, and yes, it makes it easier to make false claims. When you see one claim about someone and then no one else says anything, you kind of wonder. But when there's this chorus about somebody, you’re like, “Well, wait a second. There must be a nugget of truth in here, let’s investigate.”

The reactiveness has changed so much in the past year or so. I think that the willingness to believe survivors has really changed. The initial, “No, no, no,” because he’s famous or he’s rich or he’s powerful, has definitely deteriorated.

But speaking of image and power in the media, one of the things you are very, very much trying to advocate for is keeping it real, Melissa.

It would break my heart any time I went on a field trip and a mother next to me would say, “How do you make your hair so perfect? How do you do this?” I’m like, “I don’t. There are fairies that do that. I’m wearing three pairs of Spanx and I have 47 fake eyelashes on right now. In the morning, I look horrible.” It’s important for people to know that, because when we hold ourselves up to this false, fake idea, we drive ourselves crazy, and we miss what is important and what is beautiful in our everyday lives.

I joke about showing everyone your cellulite, but there’s a plus side to being vulnerable and to being real, and it's that people like you better. We hate Superwoman. We hate her. She’s usually a bitch, and if she’s nice, that’s just one more thing that we can’t possibly achieve.

There’s no reason to pretend. And it’s exhausting. I’m also at an age where I don’t care that much about what other people think. I’m me. I’m fine with it. I’m tired. I've got yogurt in my hair most of the time and you know what? I’m doing the best I can.

That’s one of the blessings of getting older. You have the wisdom of experience to know that you will bounce back from challenges. You certainly talk about that a lot in the book. But I’m wondering why, Melissa, do you think we still are fascinated with perfection? Why do we buy into it? Why do I go on Instagram and look at pictures of beautiful women who do seem to have it all, and their table is perfectly set and their hair looks wonderful?

I was having this conversation with, of all people, my makeup artist this morning. I was saying, “It’s funny that we like to watch royal stories and fairy tales and not only the royal wedding, but 'The Crown' and all that kind of stuff.” I said that it’s funny because it’s almost like watching the perfect fantasy. You would think it would be irritating, but for some reason, it’s escapist and you watch that like, “Isn’t that pretty?” I guess maybe the next layer is knowing you look at it as pleasure to the eye. It’s interesting to see what’s going on. But then, on some level, it’s not annoying because you know that so much of it isn’t real. And the truth be told, would any of us really trade places with Meghan Markle? I know I wouldn’t. She’s got a lifetime of no privacy and no time to herself ahead of her. The night in which she gets in bed to eat bonbons and watch reruns is never going to happen.

Or pizza bites! When the Duchess of Cambridge left the hospital with her baby the same day that Louis was born, I was like, “Come on, lady. You've got to be kidding me.” The hours after you have given birth are not a beautiful People Magazine cover by any stretch of the imagination for most of us.

I can’t imagine anything worse than knowing that the whole entire world is standing outside the hospital waiting to take a picture of you when you exit. Can [you] imagine if you went into a delivery room and you told a woman, “The whole entire world is going to be standing outside the hospital to put you on camera forever the second you leave”? I think that we would have to be put in a straightjacket.

The truth of their predicament isn’t glamorous or fairy tale at all. But still, there’s that moment where it’s a happy story, and you escape, and you look at them with the kids and how much they look like they’re in love, and you escape into that fantasy. It’s a little diversion during the day.

You talk in the book about the liberal and progressive media. I appreciate when someone is willing to talk to someone who carries around different opinions and who sees things through different eyes and [is] able to say, "Can we have a civilized conversation about pizza bites, or parenting or other important things?" Because it is really important.

My seven- and 11-year-olds have both gone to school and had people tell them, “Your mom works for fake news.” One even said, “Your mom’s a liar.” It’s hard for kids to hear that. Megyn Kelly’s a good friend of mine, and certainly she's faced a lot worse than that. What I always tell [my children] is that, “We are like opposing sports teams or football teams out there. We may go out onto field and you say, 'This one’s fake news. That one’s fake news. You’re doing this. You’re doing that. But at the end of the day, we’ll all meet on the field and shake hands.'" That is honestly my view of it in real life. We’re all moms, and dads and humans.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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