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Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture

Cultural moment: President Obama sings “Amazing Grace”

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

A 336-year-old hymn is amazingly relevant today. Carolyn Rossi Copeland, the executive producer of the new Broadway musical Amazing Grace,  emailed me “The president singing Amazing Grace was so affirming that our show is happening at the right moment.” Certainly, the world can use more of the sort of forgiveness and amazing grace the people of  Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church have shown in the face of horrific evil. They are a living example of the Bible verse “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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From Clio-winning ads to “Hart to Hart” to Fox News: The charmed career of writer/producer Marvin Himelfarb

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Marvin Himelfarb’s next chapter begins. Marvin Himelfarb is retiring from Fox News after nearly two decades of producing both TV and online programming. Before that he was a successful writer of iconic prime-time TV shows (Fantasy Island, Hart to Hart, Silver Spoons) and producer of trailers and other promotional content for Hollywood movies. And before that he ran a successful Washington D.C. ad agency. In his 53 years in media, he has been successful in just about every aspect of the business. He has worked with giants like Aaron Spelling, Steven Spielberg, Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes and me. Okay, I don’t really fit in with that list (yet!) but I did word Fox News for a couple of years — occasionally doing work for Marvin whose personality is even more whimsical than his name. Despite his good humor though, he’s a consummate professional who knows when to play things straight. 

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Today (6/19) is Marvin’s last day at Fox. But to say he’s retiring isn’t accurate. In any event, I had the opportunity to speak with him and ask him some questions about his amazingly diverse media career.

JWK: You were born in Washington D.C. and from there made your way to Hollywood. How’d you get there?

MARVIN HIMELFARB: I took a plane. I can’t resist. Great story. It’s a good story. It’s a real success story. I had a very successful ad agency in Washington D.C. for 15-plus years. My partner was David Abramson. We started with really nothing and we built it up. Actually, let me back up a second. My first partner was Elliot Denniberg. Elliot and I started our own agency and then it morphed into Abramson-Himelfarb with David Abramson. David’s dead but I (still) talk to Elliot every day. We’re still best of friends. He went on to do a successful ad agency in Washington, as well. But I digress.

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David and I had a very successful agency. One of the things I do and do best is commercials. I’ve won a lot of Clios which is the Oscars of the advertising world…I used a fellow named Richard Sanders in a commercial. He’s from Hollywood but he was doing a play in Washington, D.C. Richard said, after the commercial, if he ever can return the favor please let him know. Well, lo and behold, a year or so passes and Richard gets a starring role in a show called WKRP in Cincinnati. He writes me or we call. There was no email. This was like in 1640 or something…Ironically enough — I say “ironically” because I ended up in news — he (played) the news director. He’s a funny guy, a very clever guy. He said “I’m doing this show. If you want to write a story I’ll get it right to Hugh Wilson — who was an ad man himself — who created the show. I did and he sold it. Nothing happened with it but it was enough for me to see that I really had a talent for writing for TV.

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I had been with the agency, again, for 15 years or so and it was time for a move. Fortunately, my wife at the time was all in favor of it. We went to LA and proceeded not to work for a year. I had a house and ex-wives and children and pools and everything. Again, another friend who I had worked with in Washington, David Landsberg — who at this point was being very successful in Hollywood with offices on the Burbank lot (which) at the time was part Columbia and part Warner Brothers. He and his partner Lorin Dreyfuss — who also happened to be Richard Dreyfuss’ brother — were a team of writers assigned to writing pilots. But, while you’re assigned, you’re on salary and they had to write for the shows that Columbia and Warner were doing. Two of them were Hart to Hart and Fantasy Island. They brought me on to be part of their writing team so they could concentrate more on the pilots and I would write for Hart to Hart and Fantasy Island. Talk about a lucky break! After almost going broke for a year, it was wonderful!

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As you know, in Hollywood — and New York too — it’s the old overnight success story. All of a sudden, I was collecting $40,000 dollar checks and living the good life. It literally was practically overnight…As it turned out, working with David and Lorin, we became very close and we opened a company called Hot Spots, a production company on the side, with offices on Sunset…We were very successful with trailers and commercials for movies. Again, Hollywood loves success.

The very first one we did was a little movie called Police Academy. This is a landmark film and I’ll tell you why.  At the time (Warner) had no faith in the movie. Th worst time of year, at that point, was February to open a movie. It was an open (then) to get rid of it kind of thing. Well, it opened and it went through the roof! Eight Police Acadamies later it was still going through the roof!…The reason I say it changed everything (is because) all the other movie companies and movie producers looked at it and said “Maybe February’s not so bad.” Now, it’s really not. Now it almost a year-round business…We had a ball! We did everything.

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We did a lot of trailers for Fox, as a matter of fact. Who’d know that years later I’d be at Fox News. I got to work with people like — here I go name dropping — Steven Spielberg. We did the trailers and the commercials for Back to the Future and stuff like that…It was probably the most fun — just pure fun — (while) making a lot of money that I’ve ever had in my life…We were on the list to come in an do stuff for Fox and Warner (and) everybody. It was just great. It bought me a beautiful home high in the hills. Then, after that, I moved to Malibu and (was) collecting $40,000 residual checks. It was incredible! I was paying off God knows how man ex-wives and my kids loved it! I have three kids — all very successful. It was great.

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Then, living the good life, I get a call from a friend of mind — Clint Holmes — who has a show called New York at Night which was on Channel 9 but it was a super-powered station which is what they called it then. This was 1991. He said can you come out for a couple months and work on the show? I was having a great time. I still had the home in Malibu (but) I came out. Unfortunately — (because) it was a good show — it was cancelled at the end of the season.

JWK: It was a talk show?

MH: Yeah, a talk show. The idea was that it was like a late-night show but done at eight o’clock — for people who go to bed early. But it was typical — with the desk and the band and the couch and the whole thing. Word got around and we were having A-list guests. It was great. It was a lot of fun. Clint Holmes…is still a good friend.

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So, I came in for three months and was about to go back when one of the producers that I worked with on Clint’s show said his dad was working with Roger Ailes to start a network called America’s Talking. I said at the time, you know, “That’s great.” He said “I told my dad you would do an interview.” I told “I’ll do it but, you know, I’m really going back to LA.” Well, I did the interview and it was incredible. I fell in love with it. It was with Chet Collier — who has since passed on — and Roger. And they hired me and I thought “I’ll do it for a little bit.” Then, a year later, the network closed down and (became) MSNBC. I think Bill Gates put up a lot of money and wanted a news network. We were all fired.

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So, I’m going back (to California). I still haven’t sold the house in Malibu. (Then) I get a call from one of Roger’s people — this was in May of ’96 — that Roger has a job for you at a high-level start-up — there was nothing more to it — in July or August. So, I was getting severance from NBC. I figured “The hell with it. I’ll hang around New York, go to the theater, which I love, and see what happens in July. And I did — and that turned out to be Fox News. And here I am nineteen years later. Who knew it was going to be such a success? Roger did and Rupert Murdoch did.

Rupert Murdoch — and Roger too — it’s an amazing story. My grandchildren will read about it in the annuls of broadcasting history, along with Weavers and the Paleys (and) the people that invented The Today Show. It really will. I’m not exaggerating…(It was) against all odds. CNN was number one by so much. MS(NBC) had just come on the scene…Ted Turner (said) “We’ll bury Fox in six months.”

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JWK: You’ve had success in just about aspect of the media — advertising, entertainment content and news. What have you enjoyed the most.

MH: No one’s ever asked me that before, John…Let me just sum it up by saying I’m really, really proud…looking back that I “made it” in three incredibly tough cities — Washington D.C., Hollywood, California and New York. I’ve been successful in all three cities. Not many people can say that.

Note: Marvin also told me that one of his biggest thrills was seeing his name on the credits as an episode of one of the shows he wrote began. So, Marvin, enjoy.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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“Amazing Grace” producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland on the faith-themed musical’s amazing journey to Broadway

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Voyage of the Saved. How slave ship captain and self-described wretch John Newton was saved by God’s grace and went on to become a force in the fight to abolish slavery is the epic story told in Amazing Grace. The new Broadway musical, that draws its title from the timeless hymn written by Newton, begins previews at the Nederlander Theatre on June 25th.
The original songs (including music and lyrics) were written by Christopher Smith who co-wrote the book with playwright Arthur Giron.  Smith also created the concept for the show. Amazingly (there’s that word again), Amazing Grace is Smith’s first work of professional writing. He first came up with the idea while working as a cop in Montgomery County, PA.
As I wrote in this space recently, I had the opportunity to attend a showcase of songs from the show and I was impressed. Afterward, I had the opportunity to speak with the show’s executive producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland — whose resume includes stage productions of Cotton Patch Gospel, Painting Churches, The Boys Next Door, the first revival of Godspell and Freud’s Last Session. 

JWK: You’re a very successful producer and Christopher Smith is a first time writer. How did his work find its way to you? 

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CAROLYN ROSSI COPELAND: Christopher Smith actually read a book in a library about John Newton and he was totally fascinated by it — and then at the end, as a last sentence, they said “Oh, and John Newton wrote the hymn Amazing Grace.” And so he become TOTALLY fascinated by it. He began working on (the play) and invited me to a concert in 2oo6 or 2007. At that point, I was so taken by the music — as you can imagine after what you heard…We brought an entire theatrical team around it and began to develop it.

JWK: And I know the show was very well-received during its test run in Chicago.

CRP: Yes. We actually went to the Goodspeed Opera House (in Connecticut) first, then to Chicago’s Bank of America Theater which has 2200 seats.  It was no small feat and now into the Nederlander Theater.

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JWK: How closely does the show follow the true story of John Newton?

CRP: Some things…are a fictional embellishment for the drama but we follow his life story pretty accurately. His mother died. His father sent him off to boarding school. He was abandoned. He worked on a slave ship. He was enslaved in Africa. He ended up escaping, having his conversion on the ship. He heads back to England and marries Mary Catlett and becomes a minister. He writes the hymn much later in life. We compressed the time on all of that but we follow that storyline. The princess who enslaved him is a real character. Thomas, his slave, is not necessarily a real character but he’s indicative of slaves of the period. But we follow his story pretty closely. The highlights of his life are all there.

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JWK: What did you find to be most interesting and surprising about his life?

CRP: (laughs) That I didn’t know anything about it!

JWK: What do you hope people take from his story?

CRP: I’m thrilled that we’re introducing (audiences to) John Newton who is as important a figure in history as Abraham Lincoln — in terms of emancipation…That’s a really important part of it and then there’s (the idea) that, with God, people can change. John Newton was a wretch — thus the lyric “saved a wretch like me.” He was able to go from a wretch to a man who changed the world.

JWK: Amazing Grace is, of course, widely regarded as one of the greatest songs ever written. Was it a daunting task to create additional songs to stand beside it in this play?

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CRP: The finale is Amazing Grace.  By that time people are cheering and weeping and up on their feet…The storytelling (and original music) brings it to the point where when you hear that song it just really does it justice.

JWK: There was, of course, the film Amazing Grace in 2006.

CRP: But that was about William Wilberforce. Eric Metaxas who wrote (the book about his life) is a dear friend of mine. He actually came to see our show in Chicago and gave us the most amazing quote about how much he loved it.

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JWK: So, the stories of William Wilberforce, the British politician who pushed for an end to England’s participation in the slave trade, and John Newton are related — but they are two different stories.

CRP: John Newton was his mentor…William Wilberforce picked up John Newton’s work (and took it to) the British Parliament.

JWK: Do you see Amazing Grace — the musical about John Newton — being adapted into a movie?

CRP: Oh, my goodness, we would love that. First we have to be a success on Broadway. We just have to get people to buy tickets.

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JWK: This is not the first faith-themed play you’ve produced. There was, for instance, Freud’s Last Session.

CRP: It was a dialogue between C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud based on the book The Question of God by Armand Nicholi. It’s a beautiful play that ran for a couple of years in New York.

JWK: Does your own faith influence the productions you choose to tackle?

CRP: Yeah. I really believe that we’re responsible for the words we put out into the world. When you’re a producer and you’re putting on a play eight times a week, you have some responsibility as to what it is you’re putting into the world. So, I’ve chosen things that enhance and embrace who I am.

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First and foremost, (the productions I do) have to be really good and, secondly, they have to able to be commercial. Like for example, taking a production like Amazing Grace, it’s really important to me that the message in the play is worthy and it also has to be excellent theater.

JWK: Your resume also includes the first revival of Godspell.

CRP: I did Godspell in I can’t remember what year. I (also) was Vice President (of Creative Affairs) at Radio City. So, I’ve been involved in theater for the last thirtysomething years. I worked at Radio City on the Christmas show.

JWK: What personally inspires you?

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CRP: You know, I have raised four of the most fabulous daughters in the world. They inspire me. My husband inspires. And, I think, my calling has been my inspiration…to put one foot in front of the other and walk through the doors that God opens for me and always know that it’s the message and the way in which you make the message. It has to be excellent. You can’t sugarcoat things just because you want to tell a story like John Newton. It has to be as excellent as any piece of theater out there.

JWK: So, you consider storytelling a calling.

CRP: Yeah. I was raised Catholic. I spent my early years in Catholic schools — and all the pageantry involved in the Catholic Church. It’s very theatrical. I loved all of that. And then when I was thirteen, I went to a Baptist summer camp and somebody gave me a Bible and it was sort of like “Oh, I see how this all works together.” I felt God really gave me a vision very early in life that I wanted to be in the entertainment industry but in the way in which I felt responsible to the words that I wanted to put into the world.

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JWK: I know you’re very involved with Amazing Grace right now — but any thought to what’s next?

CRP: Yeah, I’m actually working on a brand-new musical. You know, these things take years.  With Amazing Grace, I put in all my effort into that over the last (few) years….A young Tony-nominated actress (Elizabeth A. Davis) wrote a one-woman show that I thought would make a beautiful small musical. It’s called Indian Joe. We’re doing that at Goodspeed in the fall. It’s about (a Texas beauty queen’s) relationship with this homeless man. It’s really a beautiful story.

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JWK: Anything else you’d like to say about Amazing Grace?

CRP: We’re trying to get the word out. This is not the easiest sell on Broadway. This is a departure from what is traditionally on Broadway — but it is a big Broadway musical. People will be entertained and uplifted.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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“Getting Real” with Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Gretchen Carlson’s Real Story. As a one-time Miss America, popular host of a daily Fox News program, happily-married woman, hands-on mom, occasional movie actress and talented violinist, Gretchen Carlson something of a female Buckaroo Banzai — but, as the title of her new autobiography Getting Real (out today 6/16 from Viking) suggests, is much more real.

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As I posted last week, Getting Real is an entertaining read about and by a woman who has worked hard for what she has achieved and, at the same time, hasn’t forgotten the virtue of gratitude. Unless you’re a real Foxphobe, chances are you’ll find yourself liking her and rooting for her.

I recently had to interview the interviewer.

JWK: First all thank you for your time. What do you hope people take from your story?

GRETCHEN CARLSON: When people watch me on TV they see part of my life. I wanted to let them know the real me behind the scenes. The child who was a concert violinist from the age of six. The young woman who took on the challenge to compete in the Miss America pageant. The television journalist for twenty-five years. The mother of two who, just like most women, struggles to balance work and family. The battles I’ve fought. How I’ve come back from failure and disappointment. Thanks to my upbringing, I always believed in myself and worked as hard as I could to get where I wanted to be. Nothing was ever handed to me. My hope is that when people read my story, it will inspire them to reach for their goals and not give up. The real story is this: if I can do it, you can too.

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JWK: You’re a very busy woman – between taking care of your family and your career at Fox News. How did you find time to write the book?

GC: The first time I was asked whether women can “have it all” was at the Miss America pageant. I said no. I didn’t mean that women shouldn’t fully pursue their dreams, only that we need to be honest with ourselves. I’m a person who likes to give 100 percent to everything I do. I want to be the best at my job and as a mother. But I’m not superwoman. It’s impossible to do everything 100 percent all of the time. And suggesting that women should be able to do it only puts more pressure on them. But I’m the ultimate organizer! My major at Stanford was “Organizational Behavior” so I love to multi-task and stay extra busy. Writing the book was cathartic as I went through 35 scrapbooks my mom had made for me and recaptured so many great memories!

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JWK: You first gained fame as Miss America. Can that be something of a double-edged sword – particularly for a journalist? You get recognition – yet some people have some preconceived notions about the intelligence of a so-called “beauty contest” winner.

GC: Yes. It was as if my entire resume evaporated! My violin skills, being valedictorian and a student at Stanford University. I learned that I had to work triply hard every time I started a new job in a newsroom to prove my value and worth. Miss America gets a lot of flak, but the reality is that it is uplifting and aspirational – 50% percent of my points were based on talent. The money I won helped pay for the rest of my education at Stanford. I’ve never understood why it’s a negative to showcase a talented, smart woman who also happens to be attractive. The discipline learned from putting in time and effort as a child is a skill and a talent you carry with you for the rest of your life in trying to achieve goals.

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JWK: You’ve worked at CBS News and Fox News. How would you compare the two cultures?

GC: Cable News is completely different in the sense that we are on 24/7 and its all about breaking news and being in the moment exactly at that time. It’s also more relaxed and there is more ad-libbing. It’s a totally different talent to be able to talk about a one line breaking news story without very much information at all, than to only read a teleprompter. I love the fact that I’ve added it to my career path because I’m a big believer in always challenging yourself and learning new skills. Plus at Fox, we cover stories that may not be covered at the network. We do a lot on patriotism and spirituality.

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JWK: What is the biggest misconception you think people may have about you – and also about Fox News?

GC: I joke that I reached the bimbo trifecta when I came to Fox News! In being a former Miss America, being blonde and then Fox. If you Google me, you’ll find plenty of “dumb blonde” references–even though I graduated with honors from Stanford and studied at Oxford University. I don’t let it bother me. I’ve learned that sometimes when people don’t like what you have to say, and don’t want to debate you on ideas, it’s just easier to call you a dumb blonde from Fox News.

JWK: The word “Real” is in the title of your show and your book. How important is being “real” to success and happiness?

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GC: Growing up in Minnesota there was something called “Minnesota Nice” and it still exists today! I hope that I am still the same little chubby girl from Anoka, Minnesota who happened to play a mean violin and became Miss America and worked so hard to get to my own national news show. And I always say, if I can do it – you can too! Being REAL means showing people who you are underneath all the TV make up too. That’s why I did part of my show – the first cable news anchor to do so – with(out) any make up on to honor the International Day of the Girl a year and a half ago. Self esteem is built from the inside out and that is my inspiring message to all people.

JWK: A lot of people think the media in general is anything but real. Why do you think that mistrust exists?

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GC: I feel people don’t feel all stories are being covered. There can be bias just by story selection more than anything else. Trust is the most important aspect of being a journalist. If people don’t trust or find you relatable – you will not have success.

JWK: You’ve interviewed a lot of people over the years. Do you have a favorite and why?

GC: After the Tucson shootings where Congresswoman Giffords was shot, and eight-year-old little girl Christina Taylor Green was killed. Her mom Roxanna wanted to speak to me the day after. We did the interview when I was on Fox and Friends over the phone LIVE and it was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. My daughter was also eight at the time and I couldn’t imagine her pain.

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JWK: You thank a lot of people in the acknowledgments portion of your book and seem to put a lot of value in the virtue of gratitude. How important is gratitude?

GC: So important! The last chapter of “Getting Real” is ‘To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Expected”. I believe giving back is one of the greatest life lessons we can teach our children; that the world isn’t all about them, and that through our actions people will really discover what kind of a person we truly are. Gratitude needs to come back in a big way and I hope to encourage people to get involved.

JWK: What’s ahead? What’s on your bucket list?

GC: The future is wide open. I may actually go back and get that law degree someday. Maybe I’ll be in the pulpit. Who knows? I might even pursue a career in politics. If I do, I will have had great practice dealing with the avalanche of daily criticism from working at Fox News and being a former Miss America. I’m ready for anything!

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Previous Posts

Cultural moment: President Obama sings "Amazing Grace"
Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture. A 336-year-old hymn is amazingly relevant today. Carolyn Rossi Copeland, the executive producer of the new Broadway musical Amazing Grace,  emailed me "The ...

posted 6:00:36am Jun. 28, 2015 | read full post »

From Clio-winning ads to "Hart to Hart" to Fox News: The charmed career of writer/producer Marvin Himelfarb
Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture. Marvin Himelfarb's next chapter begins. Marvin Himelfarb is retiring from Fox News after nearly two decades of producing both TV and online programming. Before ...

posted 5:06:35pm Jun. 19, 2015 | read full post »

"Amazing Grace" producer Carolyn Rossi Copeland on the faith-themed musical's amazing journey to Broadway
Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PicBNNQQ4h0 Voyage of the Saved. How slave ship captain and self-described wretch John Newton was saved by God's grace and went on ...

posted 9:24:47am Jun. 17, 2015 | read full post »

"Getting Real" with Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson
Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture. Gretchen Carlson's Real Story. As a one-time Miss America, popular host of a daily Fox News program, happily-married woman, hands-on mom, occasional movie actress ...

posted 9:16:57am Jun. 16, 2015 | read full post »

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posted 2:34:23pm Jun. 12, 2015 | read full post »

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