Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm hadn’t planned to make cable news her next career move after leaving office. But when former Vice President Al Gore called her up and asked Granholm to help fill out the prime time lineup at Current TV, she couldn’t resist. Before her show, The War Room, launched on January 31, Granholm promised to use her experience delivering talking points to call out politicians who try to sell them to the American public. I spoke with her about what her time in public service lets her bring to the cable news environment, why Fox, MSNBC, and CNN called on men rather than women to discuss President Obama’s contraception rule, and which guests she’d love to land. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Before you started your television show, what holes had you identified in the media that you wanted to fill? What really turned you off or dissatisfied you that you wanted to avoid?
Well, I wasn’t planning on doing a show. So I was called by Al Gore at Current here, and they wanted to build out their primetime lineup. So it’s only after that that I began thinking about what could be done in primetime that wasn’t already being done by others. One benefit I bring is that I have served. I was governor of the state with the toughest economy in the country for the last 10 years. The economy is the most important issue in this debate. And I know most of the candidates, Gov. Mitt Romney, Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Gov. Mike Huckabee. I’ve served with them, I know what they’re doing in their states, and I can peel back the curtain. On both politics and policy, I can describe wht it’s like to be in the war room, to be preparing for debates.
One of the things you mentioned at the Television Critics Association is that you’d bring to the table the ability to see when politicians are delivering talking points and calling them out on it.
I’ve delivered so many talking point [that] I recognize when it’s happening. Maybe you’re not going to be able to get them to answer honestly, because they’re on a script, but I can identify for people what’s really going on behind the scenes. Having been there, I know exactly what’s going on. Calling them out if you can’t even get them to answer the question is important.
You seem to be part of a new generation of cable journalists who are bringing non-journalism experience to the networks, like Melissa Harris-Perry at MSNBC. Do you think this is a lasting trend? And what impact does it have on coverage?
I hope it’s not a blip. [It lets viewers understand] why is something just happened, not just that it’s happening. If Current wanted an anchor, I’m the last person they would hire. I think that’s interesting to viewers. They want to know what’s behind the curtain. They want to know the inside scoop. And that’s true whether that’s someone bringing the historical perspective, or someone like Lawrence O’Donnell, who worked [in various capacities] inside the Beltway.
Some of your coworkers have suggested that viewers are looking for a channel that’s bluntly progressive, and maybe even a little angry. Do you agree? And how do you fit into that equation?
We’re obviously a brand-new network, so we hope that it will translate into viewership. What Current brings is no need to have this false moral equivalency that other networks require. It’s interesting to have people on both sides of the issue that you want to get to the bottom of things. But to pretend that the president is just as culpable for not getting something done as people who went to Washington for the purpose of obstructionism, that is a false equivalency. Call them out on it. That is something that we have the freedom to be able to do because we don’t have owners who want a “fair and balanced” approach. You need to be fair, but you don’t need to be balanced.That’s interesting, because Politico had a recent story suggesting that both Fox and MSNBC are moderating their stances a bit.
I think Fox wants to gain viewers, and an extreme right-wing attitude may be limiting their opportunities. I don’t know if that speaks more to Fox or to having a candid position. Keith [Olbermann] is very different from me and Cenk is different from me. Cenk takes on both sides. He is a great, fantastic flame thrower and God bless him for it. I will, probably, be more aligned with the president’s position and the Democratic Party’s position because that’s what I feel, and I have been the establishment, and I understand it. I think people appreciate candor about where the host is coming from. I just want to be honest about it…I don’t think it’s so much that people don’t want to see partisanship, it’s that they want to see authenticity.
How do you think gender plays into television news? Often, female anchors are confined to so-called women’s stories, or even when, like Katie Couric, they do tough interviews, they’re treated as if they’re nothing but fluffy.
Well, I didn’t consider that for me going in. I’ve always been a first woman governor, first woman attorney general, and this isn’t even a first. I think women viewers expect that the people who deliver their news to be candid and smart no matter their gender. I think the way women anchors have been treated is disrespectful to their brains.
It seems telling that, as ThinkProgress reported, cable networks asked many more men than women on to discuss President Obama’s contraception rule.
Many of the men were going to be talking about issues related to freedom of religion. The women were more pragmatic in that respect. I thought it was fascinating to see the gender divide on that in the commentary, as well as in the polling. I think it’s important to have women speaking about issues that are relevant to women in particular. I know some men also felt uncomfortable not having women there. There were men who understand that this is weird…It’s not like there are no women out there who are pundits or analysts…I had Sen. Kristen Gillibrand on the show and we were talking about how women need to be asked to run for office. I’d love to use the show as a way of exhorting women to run for office. If your voice is not present, policy gets made and it’s not good for you. Having women at the table is really, really important.
Who’s your dream guest?
I want the president on. I’d love Meryl Streep on. I’d love George Clooney on. I have an imagination that some of these guests who have done political art could come on and opine because they have political opinions as well…It’s really intriguing to me because so much of opinion is swayed by pop culture as opposed to political speechmaking. Will.i.am’s videos, I think, probably added a couple of points to President Obama’s victory.