Greta Van Susteren: How a toga party helped her become an accidental anchor (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)
WASHINGTON, DC. (WECT) - Greta Van Susteren has spent more than 25 years working in television, hosting shows on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and Voice of America. The on-camera career began while Van Susteren practiced law in Washington, DC, and the Wisconsin native always thought she’d return to the legal profession full-time.
“I’m the accidental anchor, I never saw TV as a permanent job for me,” said Van Susteren, who is now Chief National Political Analyst for Gray TV, and host of Full Court Press on the company’s stations across the country. “I always thought ‘Okay, I’ll do this for a while’, then I’d sign another three-year contract and said ‘Okay, I’ll do this for another three years’.”
Most people may first remember seeing Van Susteren providing legal analysis for CNN during the channel’s extensive coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial in 1994. That opportunity morphed into co-hosting a nightly show opposite Roger Cossack called Burden of Proof. But Van Susteren’s regular appearances on CNN began in 1991, when the network hired her to provide similar insights during William Kennedy Smith’s rape trial in Palm Beach, Florida.
“They decided to go gavel-to-gavel with covering the William Kennedy Smith case because in Florida, unlike in DC, you could have cameras in the courtroom,” she remembers. “So, they called the American Bar Association in (Washington) DC and said, ‘Who would you recommend to do gavel-to-gavel coverage?’, and they recommended me!”
Van Susteren certainly had the credentials for the job. The University of Wisconsin grad had earned a pair of degrees from Georgetown Law school and was an adjunct professor there while practicing criminal defense law in Washington, DC. Reporters in the market had come to know Van Susteren from the high-profile murder cases she’d tried. In 1990, the city’s mayor, Marion Berry, went on trial after being caught on camera smoking crack cocaine in a hotel room. Without the ability to put cameras in the courtroom, local news stations turned to Van Susteren for help following the proceedings.
“At the time, I thought the (American Bar Association) person recommended me (for the Kennedy Smith trial) because I had tried these big cases, violent crimes, I had TV experience which nobody had at the time because there weren’t any lawyers on TV at the time, I had a second law degree which women never had at the time and it was in trial practice, and I was an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law School teaching courses like evidence and trial practice,” she says. “So naturally, I thought it was because I thought ‘You know, they were looking around to see who was the best qualified person to do this, and they thought of me’. That’s not exactly what happened.”
The back story begins in 1976, when Van Susteren moved from her home state to the nation’s capital. The youngest child of Margery and Urban Van Susteren, a practicing attorney who would later become a District Court Judge, had her sights set on a legal career and entered Georgetown Law School. Van Susteren did not live in the same area on campus as most of her classmates, who she says had earned undergrad degrees from more prestigious Ivy League institutions. After receiving an invitation to a party, the admittedly shy L1 decided to go. She wore a sheet, to attend her one and only toga party.
“So, I go over to this party, I walk in and there’s a woman sitting down, drinking beer, who lived in the house (with the classmates),” Van Susteren recalled. “She was not a law student, and we sat and talked the whole night. We had a conversation. It was very nice.”
Fast forward twenty-five years later. It’s 2001. Greta Van Susteren has become a staple on national cable television through Burden of Proof and another show on CNN called The Point. She receives another invitation, from the American Bar Association, asking if she will fly to London to take part in a panel discussion with then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s wife Cherie. Van Susteren accepts, not knowing the reunion that lies ahead in the United Kingdom.
“So, I went there, go up to the table, still feeling a little bit shy, and there’s a woman handing out the cards that say ‘Hello, my name is’, and I go up and say, ‘My name is Greta Van Susteren’. She goes ‘I know you. Do you recognize me?’ I say to myself, ‘Okay, I don’t recognize her’, but I’ll be polite. I said, ‘You look familiar’. She said, ‘I work for the ABA. I’m the one who recommended you to do the William Kennedy Smith trial for CNN’.”
Wait, there’s more to the story.
“Then she said to me ‘But don’t you recognize me?’ I said, ‘You sure look familiar’. She said, ‘I was at that toga party. You and I sat and talked that night!’.”
THAT toga party.
“So basically, here’s the story,” Van Susteren says. “I ended up on TV, not because I had two law degrees, tried these cases, was an adjunct professor at Georgetown, had some experience. But because I went to a toga party and I was shy, this other young woman was shy too, and she didn’t know all these fancy students there, I didn’t know the fancy students, so we just sat and drank beer and talked for the night. So, it was based on a toga party is how I ended up on television.”
After several of her close co-workers at CNN lost their jobs following AOL’s purchase of parent company Time Warner in 2000, Van Susteren left for Fox News where On the Record with Greta Van Susteren was born. She would spend 14 years at the network, interviewing politicians, world leaders and newsmakers, covering breaking news not just in the United States, but all around the world.
“I had a huge budget for my show,” she says about On the Record. “I traveled the world, went to North Korea three times, did a show live from North Korea. I went to Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, all over the world, I never had anyone tell me what to say or do at Fox News. Nobody ever told me what to do, I enjoyed it immensely. Then one day in July of 2016, we all wake up and Fox has blown up and some shocking things come out. I worked in the DC Bureau, and the shocking stuff was out of New York Bureau which is 200 miles away.”
Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, who hired Van Susteren for her show on the network, was accused of sexual harassment by nearly two dozen women, including several on-air anchors. Van Susteren left nine months before Ailes’s death in 2017, using a clause in her contract that paid her if she elected to leave. I asked Van Susteren if colleagues or co-workers had ever told of Ailes’ alleged behavior prior to her departure.
“I never saw or heard anything,” she said. “Nobody ever confided in me. Nobody ever told me that. I never saw that. I never saw the movie Bombshell, by the way, because when I walked out of Fox News, I shut the door. That was it.”
After a six-month stint on MSNBC in 2017, Van Susteren joined Voice of America where she still hosts Plugged in with Greta Van Susteren. She has also worked on several documentaries for VOA, which have taken her to locations including Turkey and Bangladesh.
In 2019, Van Susteren’s career went in another new direction. She joined Gray Television as Chief National Political Analyst, providing coverage of national and international stories for newsrooms in the company’s local stations across the country. Van Susteren also hosts Full Court Press, a weekly syndicated political affairs show originating in Washington, DC, which airs on many of those same Gray TV stations.
“If you look at the polls the last few years, who do viewers go to and who do they trust?” she asks. “Overwhelmingly, it’s now local television. Local television has earned the trust for decades with the viewers, they live in the communities. I’m lucky that I’m coming into the Gray family, now about two years, but I’m hoping that the trust and the incredible product of Gray TV rubs off on me, that I get a lot of the benefit of it.”
Van Susteren says she wants viewers of Full Court Press to see it as fair, factual and informative. She prides herself in uncovering information and providing facts, not opinions.
“The only criticism that really gets to me, and I take to heart, is when someone says I’m not fair,” she says. “I’m not always right. I strive to be right. But I’ll tell you one thing, at the end of the day, I can’t accept that I couldn’t be fair. I really care about being fair to people and fair to the issues.”
You can watch Full Court Press with Greta Van Susteren every Sunday at 11:00 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. on WECT. I hope you enjoy the conversation with Greta as much as I did.
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