Poppy Harlow has a lot on her plate these days.
The 34-year-old journalist just took on a new role anchoring CNN Newsroom, the two-hour weekday morning newscast, alongside John Berman. But that’s not all. Harlow, who most recently anchored weekends for the network, is also spearheading American Opportunity, a CNN Money series on the “successes and struggles of making it in America.” And launching a podcast of her interviews with leaders in business. And spending time with Sienna, her young daughter born last year.
“I get a manicure every day,” she jokes. “I have so much free time, I don’t know what to do with it. It’s amazing.”
In all seriousness, Harlow says she feels incredibly blessed (“As my husband says, #blessed.”) for all she has going on. And for the opportunity to go beyond the news of the day to bring the stories of people across America to the masses.
“As much as the headlines are so important — and they are — it’s the stories of the human experience that matter, and I think we have a responsibility to bring them to light,” she says. “I don’t know if I get it perfect, or right, but I do my best to bring their stories to light in a respectful, honest way.”
Harlow spoke with Refinery29 by phone about her approach to the anchor chair, the challenges of covering the news in the age of "alternative facts," and what she’s learned from being open to opportunity — and failure — in her career.
How do you see your voice and what do you hope to bring to the air?
“Very simply, I think my voice is two things. In one respect, it is being a voice for those people who don’t have a voice or who aren’t heard. So when you sit down for an interview, asking the questions you know people sitting at home have, that they can’t ask because they don’t have access to these interviews. When I sat down with the governor of Michigan about the Flint water crisis, I spent that whole morning and day before the interview talking to people affected by the lead crisis — mothers who had children who had been drinking this water that was poisoned with lead. And I felt like it was my responsibility to ask the questions that they had of people in power.
“And the second part of bringing my voice is just facts. Facts, facts, facts. They’re stubborn things, like John Adams said so long ago, and they’re really important right now, and that’s our responsibility. I am an equal opportunity fact-checker.”
We’re living in very strange times for media — a president calling networks and major publication fake news; actual fake news on social feeds; White House officials contradicting each other, putting out “alternative facts.” Has that role of fact-checker become more difficult?
“I wouldn’t say more difficult. It’s part and parcel of the job. I think an important thing to remember is that we are not the news. Too often, the journalists can become the news. We are not the news, we don’t want to be the news. We want to tell the news, and report the news to you with the facts. And when anyone says something that is not factual, it is our job and our responsibility to point that out and I think that’s what we continue to do on all sides, on all the political spectrum. So I wouldn’t say it’s harder, it’s just a more constant part of our job.”
But is there more distrust of the news and media in general? Does that affect your work?
“I can give you an anecdotal experience. I was in Kentucky just three weeks ago. Getting people to agree to talk to us on the phone, just to set up these interviews, was a real challenge. Some people were lovely and welcoming and happy to talk, but a number of people said to me or my producer, ‘We don’t want to talk to CNN.’ One person said to us, ‘We don’t trust CNN’ — they cited what the administration said. For a lot of the key interviews, I said, ‘Will you meet me? And then you can decide. If you don’t want to talk to me on camera that’s fine, but meet me.’ And they agreed. And all of them went on camera with us. I got so much feedback from them, saying ‘Thank you for telling our story the way you did, honestly giving us the time it needed.’ So that was more encouraging to me than anything.”
It also goes back to the importance of leaving the anchor chair to find and tell those stories.
“Yes! And it’s a struggle for me a little bit because I hate leaving my baby. It’s hard for me because as a journalist, I want to be all over the country all the time, and, as a mom, I want to be home with her and putting her to bed. And it’s just a struggle that I’m learning to cope with. I grew up with a mother who was working — my mother got her doctorate. I remember her defending her dissertation when I was 7 years old, and how cool that was for me to see my mom being a professional. So I try to remind myself of that story when I feel bad about leaving Sienna. And I try not to be gone too long if it’s not breaking news. But it’s important to be out there.”
You mentioned the importance of fact-checking. Some networks at different points have declined to book White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway over credibility issues. [Morning Joe has reportedly banned her as a guest.] What do you think about that? If she goes on air and is saying things that aren’t true, do you continue to give her a platform?
“To be very frank with you, I think that’s a decision far above my pay grade. In general, how I view things as an anchor — and to be very clear, I’m not talking about Kellyanne Conway — is that I don’t care how high-profile a guest is, whether it’s an executive, someone in the government, a celebrity. If they are not going to answer questions, then I generally tend not to have them back. I’m not talking about [Kellyanne Conway], because I’d have her on my program.”
You didn’t set out wanting to be a journalist. What have you learned from your own professional journey about being open to opportunity and taking risks in your career and life?
“I was totally going to be a lawyer, and I applied to all the top law schools. I had straight As, I was a dork in college, thought I was a shoo-in, and I didn’t get in. I was devastated. I had been interning in news all through college, so I thought, alright then, if this law thing isn’t happening, I better try the news thing. And it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. So my lesson is, life never goes as planned, but oftentimes that can be the best thing in the world for you. The fact that I didn’t get [into law school] was a pretty great thing for me. I wish I could’ve seen it that way instead of crying at the student union when I got all the rejection letters.”
What career advice do you have for our readers?
“One thing I’d love to mention with the new launch of our show, is my co-anchor John Berman and how important it is to find cheerleaders and advocates at work. There’s no one smarter, there’s no one funnier, and he’s just good to the core. When you are anchoring a show, there can be very difficult moments. You need someone sitting next to you who you know has your back all the time. And that doesn’t always happen in this business, or any business. My advice would be to find that person at work who is a big advocate and a partner and supporter. It matters a lot.”
Are there other advocates or mentors who have been crucial to your career development?
“A lot of my mentors have been men, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think that a lot of women look for women as mentors and that is wonderful, but men can also be great mentors to women. Larry Kramer, who started CBS Marketwatch and gave me my first internship, has been an incredible mentor. Andrew Heyward, the former president of CBS News. I actually interviewed him while he was president of CBS News while I was in college for a paper I was writing on the news coverage of the California recall election, and he has been a tremendous mentor to me really throughout my career.”
That’s a great lesson in just reaching out and making those connections.
"Yes! I asked the president of CBS News, when I was a college student, for an interview. And he said yes. If you don’t ask, it will never happen."
Are there other examples of when that approach worked for you?
“The first time I ever interviewed Warren Buffett was in the middle of the [2008 financial] crisis. I was walking out the door to the Fortune Most Powerful Women conference, and my boss at the time said, ‘By the way, Warren Buffett is going to be there. Try to get an interview with him.’ And I was like, I’m going to fail. I’m losing my job. Warren Buffett has no idea who I am. Lo and behold, I went up to Warren Buffett at the conference, asked him for an interview, and he gave us an interview, and he made news during it. It was a huge deal for me professionally. It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t just asked. So I always remind myself: What’s the worst thing that can happen? And it’s just that they can say no. But if you don’t ask, you’re never gonna know.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.