Contemporary American Success Stories

Famous People of Hispanic Heritage - Volume III

Mitchell Lane Publishers - Childs, MD
LIC# 95-75963

Excerpted from:
Giselle Fernandez - Reporter, Broadcast Journalist
by Barbara J. Mavis

Giselle Fernandez

    Giselle was involved in all the leadership events at school. She kept her hand in everything. And from these experiences, she decided she was interested in politics and wanted to make the world a better place. In 1979 she graduated from high school. Her graduating class voted her "best all around," and "most likely to succeed." They certainly were right.

    When Giselle decided on a career in politics, she wanted to be close to the nation's capital, where she thought all the action was. She received a partial scholarship to Gaucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1979 she enrolled there and chose a major in international relations. During this time, she was given a Lyndon B. Johnson scholarship internship with Barry Goldwater, Jr., who was her district representative in Washington, D.C. Giselle's experience was not a positive one. She says she was totally disillusioned by Washington life on "the hill." She met with considerable sexist remarks; she found there were more followers than leaders and very few visionaries. She decided that politics was not for her after all. Through her experience, however, she was introduced to the news media, and she was impressed by the reporters she saw. She thought she might like to become a reporter instead.

    Giselle spent only one year at Gaucher College. "It was too expensive and I wasn't studying much, "Giselle says. She transferred to Sacramento State in Sacramento, California, and enrolled her sophomore year as a journalism major In 1983 Giselle was awarded a B.A. in Journalism with a minor in international relations.

    During her three years at Sacramento State, Giselle worked as a reporter for the school newspaper, The Sacramento Hornet. She also worked for a brief time for a magazine called Executive Place Magazine. Since she was right at the California state capital in Sacramento, it was easy for her to cover news events there. When she would go to cover a story, she would see television reporters, who seemed to be having much more fun than she was. "There I was," Giselle remembers, "holding a notepad all day. The television reporters breezed in and breezed out. I said, 'something's wrong here!"' She decided that it would be much more fun to be in broadcast journalism. But most broadcast journalists have degrees in communications. She hadn't prepared for a career in front of a television camera, but now she wanted one. Never mind. She could fix that.

    Giselle knew that she needed to make a videotape to send out to prospective employers if she were ever to break into television news reporting. She approached the communications department at her college and asked if they would help her make a tape. She wrote a story about merit raises for teachers to record on her video. Her biggest obstacle was what to wear. Her family still did not have much money - they had two children in college - and Giselle wanted to be wearing a very expensive suit like all the other newscasters wore. She could not afford to buy one. Her mother remembers that this was no problem for Giselle, either. "She went to Robinson's, an exclusive local store, and picked out an outfit to wear," her mother tells us. "Then she went to the manager and convinced him to let her 'borrow' the outfit for just a few hours. Giselle told them she would not forget them when she became a successful journalist." The manager let her borrow the outfit!

    Giselle sent out about one hundred tapes to stations all over the country. She got ninety-nine rejections. But there was one person in Pueblo, Colorado, who saw Giselle's tape and called her for an interview. Giselle says, "Keith Edwards called me and said: 'We'll fly you out here for the interview and pay for your plane fare if you take the job. If you don't take the job, you'll have to pay for half of your airfare.' He was looking for female Hispanic reporters and he really didn't care if I was any good or not. He just wanted a pretty face. I immediately said I'd take the job."

    For Giselle's first job, she was hired as a reporter and photographer for the Pueblo bureau of the Colorado Springs station, KRDO-TV, an ABC affiliate. Pueblo, Colorado, is home to Colorado Fuel and Iron (CF&I), which employed mostly Hispanic families. "Generations of families had worked in this steel mill," says Giselle, "which was the largest west of the Mississippi. They were closing parts of the mill daily and a lot of families were out of work. Main Street was starting to look like a ghost town, and a lot of my stories centered around CF&I." It was here that she saw her first drowning, saw her first dead body, and shot a camera for the first time.

    Soon she was promoted to the KRDO headquarters in Colorado Springs. After about a year, Giselle missed home and she wanted to find a job back in California. She took a job at KEYT-TV in Santa Barbara, another ABC affiliate, as a weekend anchor and reporter. She did a lot of stories about immigration, health, and AIDS. Her first AIDS coverage was a profile about Ernie, who was dying from AIDS. It was very sad when she had to cover his funeral.

    Since the immigrant population is so big in this area, Giselle found that being Hispanic was an asset. "Some people say it is a point of discrimination, "Giselle says. "But it is not. It got me in all the doors in this business. It helped me get my jobs. It always put me ahead of the pack. Of course, after that, I had to prove I was competent in order to keep my job." A story that Giselle covered in Santa Barbara turned out to be a critical point in her career. Her acquaintance with Fess Parker, who had portrayed Daniel Boone, later proved fortuitous in her climb to a major city reporter. Fess Parker lived in Santa Barbara and owned a ranch there. He was trying to convert the last piece of public land from parkland into commercial property along the beachfront. Giselle covered the story each day. There was a large immigrant population nearby who were poor and needed a public place to enjoy Santa Barbara. "It [Santa Barbara] was getting increasingly exclusionary and more expensive," says Giselle. Mr. Parker held a public referendum, which he won. He built the Red Lion/Fess Parker Resort and Convention Center, and left a small portion of the land as public park.

    One day Giselle got a phone call from Hal Fishman, a famous anchorman. He said, "A friend of mine told me about you. He said you were quite good. We're looking for a Latina reporter. You should send me a tape." Giselle asked, "Who's your friend?" "Fess Parker is my best friend," answered Hal Fishman. So Giselle sent a tape and was hired as a weekend reporter for the independent station KTLA-TV in Los Angeles, her first major market. KTLA is the number-one independent station in the country and is very well respected for its news coverage. From 1985 until 1987, Giselle worked in Los Angeles, where she got increasing recognition. She learned a lot, too. "People started to notice me," says Giselle. "Hispanic talent was very much in demand and I started getting job offers from all over. I had offers to go to New York, to Miami, and to stay in L.A." There was one offer Giselle liked a lot, however.

    In 1987 Giselle went to Chicago to interview with Ron Kershaw, the news director at WBBM-TV. This was a very exciting time for her. She loved Chicago and was in awe of this talented news director. "The bottom line," Giselle says, "is that I was always battling the fact that I was being hired because I was pretty and Hispanic. When you're young and still learning your craft, you have to work three times as hard to prove yourself, not only to others, but also to yourself. You're always scrambling. Then as you keep gaining levels of competency, the old stereotypes stick. It's hard to contend with the insulting comments that you're hired only because you're pretty and Hispanic, especially once you've proven yourself."

    Giselle worked very hard at her job in Chicago. She found she was trying to please her news director at every turn. "I was young and impressionable," she says, "and he spent a lot of time with me." In fact, Giselle said this might have been love at first sight. She had called her best friend in Phoenix shortly after she took the job and told her she had met the man she was going to marry! Giselle admits it is difficult to find someone compatible outside the business who wouldn't be completely taken with the glamour of TV. "People would always say, 'Oh, it's your news director.' But we worked together constantly. Because we're in the same business, we understand the [daily] pressures. You spend sixteen hours [together] in this place." And Ron and Giselle found they indeed had a lot in common; soon they were engaged to be married.

    It was never to be. The year 1989 was a difficult one for Giselle. In July, Ron Kershaw died of pancreatic and liver cancer. He was only forty-three. One month later, in August, her father died from Alzheimer's disease. Giselle was devastated. She felt she needed to leave Chicago so she could get on with her life. She took a job in Miami as a weeknight anchor and reporter for WCIX-TV.

    At first, the television managers thought it would be difficult for Giselle to adjust in Miami because she was not Cuban. But there was no problem at all. She was accepted right away. She anchored the 6:00 P.M. and the 11:00 P.M. news. She covered the Persian Gulf War, the unrest in Haiti, the crisis in Cuba, and the U.S. invasion of Panama. She tackled a number of social issues that were widely reported on at the time, including homelessness, gay discrimination, and mothers on the run with their children. She covered much of the ethnic tensions between African Americans, Anglos, and Hispanics in Miami.

    Two years later, Giselle landed her first network position: she was hired by CBS News in October 1991 as a New York- based correspondent and substitute anchor. She served as a substitute anchor on CBS This Morning for Paula Zahn; she substituted for Dan Rather on the CBS Evening News and for Connie Chung on the CBS Weekend News. In February 1992 she became a regular contributor to the Eye in America series on the CBS Evening News and took assignments for CBS Sunday Morning, Face the Nation, and 48 Hours. She covered everything from Hurricane Andrew to the World Trade Center bombing. "It was a wonderful time," says Giselle. "I covered the biggest domestic stories." She loved being in the middle of all the news. She even went to Cuba and interviewed President Fidel Castro in October 1994. She was the first reporter to interview him in English in two decades!

    When Giselle's contract with CBS was up, she found she had a number of options. She had several job offers from all three of the major networks. The opportunity at NBC gave her a chance to keep her hand in reporting. In February 1995 Giselle began a new job with NBC. "I miss being a full-time correspondent," she says. "I'm just learning my hosting duties, which are new to me. I'm trying to find a balance that will allow me to combine both into one job. I'm looking for a perfect blend of reporting and hosting. I have a four- year contract with NBC, and who knows what'll happen in the next four years. My goal is to find the proper niche. I don't want to be just a host, or just a correspondent, or just an interviewer. I don't know if what I'm about is out there yet. I'd like to do a little bit of entertainment, some programming... I need to find a venue that has diversity, which I don't think exists in today's news and entertainment. I'd like to do something that's a cross between [Dave] Letterman and [Ted] Koppel. I don't want to leave the news, and I don't want to be entirely in entertainment."

    Giselle loves her career because it gives her access to the most interesting and fascinating people of our time. "I have a front-row seat to current history," she says. "[My career] is my pass to go backstage beyond the velvet rope. I get to go beyond the yellow crime scene line. I get to experience the most amazing moments that define our times. I have had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Luciano Pavarotti, who has the most phenomenal voice of any tenor in the twenty-first century. I have had a chance to talk with Vice President Al Gore about issues I feel are important. I get to talk to leading scientists ... Who else gets this kind of opportunity? I feel I have a front-row seat, and, to me, there is nothing more exceptional ... As a woman, I take great pride in being able to cover a story with some sensitivity and a sense of cultural perspective. I can bring it to the nation my way."

    Giselle's current assignment with Today requires her to get up at 4:00 A.M. to do her show at 7:00 A.M. She is really not a morning person, but she is sure she will eventually get used to the hours. She has generally enjoyed every challenge she has undertaken in her career. She finds the news business to be too rigidly formatted, however, and wishes there could be more flexibility in the coverage and scope of reporting. "I'd like to see a format that is more international in scope," says Giselle. "I wish it [to] be more diverse in terms of coverage of communities and cultures, the arts, and religious interests of our nations. I think we are much too limited in our perspective and approach. I think that international issues are news, not just when there is an explosion or high death toll. The world is much too small technologically these days to ignore trends and cultural diversity in other parts of the world; they should be a part of our domestic coverage, and I think someday they will be. We're just a little late in getting there. If I were to change anything [in this business], I guess it would be our very mid-America approach to the news. We are not a bland nation; we are not a narrow nation. Los Angeles, New York, and Washington are not the only corridors of news."

    For those who wish to follow Giselle to a career as a news reporter, she has this advice: "Be prepared to read as much as possible. If you want to be a reporter, there is no greater preparation than just reading. . . This will give you a broad-based tap on what's happening. . . If you read, you will become a wonderful writer. If you think clearly as a result of your reading, you'll be an even better writer. This business is about thinking clearly and writing. You don't have to be a genius to be a reporter, but you have to have a natural curiosity and passion for life. That's the essence of what will make you a good reporter.

    Giselle's greatest asset is really her people skills. Her mother says she was just born with a natural talent for people. She has always had the guts and the drive to succeed. "Even with all her success," says her mother, "Giselle has not changed her being. Fame has not destroyed her. She is still the most wonderful daughter a mother could hope for."

Copyright © 1995 Mitchell Lane Publishers.
All rights reserved.

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