Have you ever wondered what it’s like behind the scenes of a busy television news station? The frenetic pace, the scoops, the glamour, the wardrobe, the makeup, the lights… right? Right? Maybe not so much. In her debut novel It’s News to Me, Olga Campos Benz, TV news anchor with over 30 years experience, throws the curtain back to reveal the man behind the wizard. Take a look at what she exposes….
Her protagonist, Marissa, wants to expose some things of her own. Namely, the fact that although she’s a beautiful Latina reporter, she is more than capable of holding her own with the “hard news stories.” She’s tired of being assigned to the pet store openings and the ribbon-cutting ceremonies. She wants a scoop and she wants it badly. She’s willing to work harder than anyone else in the office to prove her worth. Marissa has her chance when the scoop finds her. Quick on her feet and ready to run with her instincts, she uncovers what looks to be an exotic animal smuggling ring… but ends up being something much more than that… and Marissa steps into the thick of it. She unwittingly entangles her twin sister– or are there things about her twin that Marissa is blind to? Marissa’s faithful accomplice is a hot photographer who wants to give the newsroom something to talk about in the department of workplace romances.
Many people have asked the author if this book is a memoir. She laughingly denies this, but freely admits to some similarities. Olga is the mother to twin girls, and their middle names are the first names of the book’s characters, Marissa and Carissa. She jokes that her girls came to her after the book was finished, demanding that she tell them which of them is the “good twin” and which is the “bad twin.” Olga’s husband and true love is a photojournalist that she met on the job early in her career. Olga herself is a beautiful Latina who fought against the system, working harder than anyone else to prove that she was an equal. Austinites will likely recognize her name, as she is a regional celebrity, having anchored at a local station for the last 18 years of her career. They will also enjoy this book for nostalgia’s sake, recognizing streets, buildings, and even headlines.
Olga writes with abandon, reveling in the liberty of fabrication, after a lifetime of needing to state only the facts. The pages turn themselves, as fast-moving as the pace of a newsroom. It’s a fun, light-hearted thriller that touches on some very timely topics, such as immigration, women’s rights in the workplace, and the importance of the media’s role in our daily lives. You’ll never watch the news the same way again.
I had the privilege of meeting Olga Campos Benz at the Texas Book Festival this month. She is exactly as I had pictured: stunning, poised, bubbly, and very comfortable in an interview setting. We spoke rapidly and covered a myriad of topics. Please enjoy the highlights of my conversation with the author!
Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you. Could you start by telling me in a nutshell the timeline of your career?
Of course! After I graduated from U.T., (the University of Texas), I spent one year in Corpus Christi, then five years in Austin, ten years in Houston, which is my hometown, and then back to Austin for the last 18 years of my career. Our daughters were four when we moved here, and we were able to maintain some stability. In the news business, people move around so much. Especially when both spouses are in it. Very often, one spouse’s job will take them to a market, and then the other one has to find a job in that market, too, and it’s really not easy. We are lucky that we stayed here throughout the girls’ upbringing.
You have some sensational stories in the book. Were any of them drawn from real life?
Some of those did happen! Not necessarily to me or to anyone I know, but I know the market and those kinds of things happen. Some of those on-air faux pas for example… well, I never saw a port-a-potty turn over, but God knows we’ve all seen reporters have something happen. The monkey bites them on the shoulder, someone drops an f-bomb on the air… we know that those things do happen. I know a crew that slept through a hurricane. It was years ago, but we never let them live it down. I bet that even if people think that they recognize themselves in the book, they’re going to be too embarrassed to say anything.
Like in The Help.
Exactly what I was thinking of! Want a bite of this pie??? They’re not even going to take a second bite.
How hard was it for you to separate fact from fiction while writing and to fictionalize so many years of experience?
That was the easy part. That was the part that I think you and any other writer will find exhilarating. For me particularly, for 30 years it was all about facts and accuracy and double-checking sources. Doing all that, to finally have the liberty to be able to create scenarios and outcomes was wonderful. Fiction is a good genre to allow us to take all of our life experiences and then portray them however we want, without worrying about ramifications. I had the liberty of changing names, genders, outcomes… and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was very liberating.
The book did a great job at portraying how much WORK the news business is– long hours, deadlines, etc. Tell me more about the work behind a TV news anchor.
Well, the way ideally it would work is that you have a team of assistants, producers, assistant producers, and they write the bulk of the newscast. But since you’re the one who’s reading and presenting it, you have the responsibility to reread everything, besides the items that you have been assigned to write. So, in a 30 minute newscast, I might have three items that I have to write, but I have to read another ten. The problem is, with changes and cutbacks in many newsrooms, plus shortening stories because they want to pick up the pace, you end up with so much you have to read that there were literally instances where I wasn’t able to read the copy until seconds before. As my coanchor was reading, I was scanning the page right before I had to read it, and that’s not always enough time to catch grammatical, or heaven forbid, factual errors, so you’re really at the mercy of someone else’s work. And, if they are in a rush, we know the result can be mistake-ridden. I used to joke that (before people had such easy access to the Internet), I’d joke that we were on speed-dial for every English teacher in the area who was watching for grammatical errors or spelling errors on the ticker. Now, of course, it’s just a slew of emails that tell us how stupid we are. When you’re the one that’s spitting out verbs and subjects that don’t match… when it would happen to me, I know I had this look on my face like, “What am I reading??” But it’s too late by that point. You just have to keep it moving, but you want to be able to hold up a little flag that says, sorry about that!
I found that your book includes so many timely issues, one of which being immigration. I loved that although you talked about immigration from Mexico, you also included the story of the Iranian brothers. They were the “villians,” but…
But it wasn’t easy for them! They were pulled from an overthrown government and brought here from a young age, and that was truly something that was happening when I was working in Houston. At the time, under former President Bush, who was a good friend to the Shah of Iran, all of his family came here for medical needs, and we would cover it. It gave me an insight into that culture that I could write about. You are right that it’s a negative time right now, so I like the fact that my main character portrays the strength and the determination to prove herself, even coming from very humble beginnings. My parents are not immigrants, but the neighborhood I described was the one I grew up in. There are homes and yards and mothers and grandmothers with dishtowels and smells coming from the kitchen, and all of that. That is my neighborhood, and where my mother still lives in Houston. Come to think of it, I need to call her and ask her what she thinks about the book. I don’t know if she’s read it yet! (laughing)
Not only immigration, but you speak so much to the issues women face in society, and in the workplace specifically. It’s such a hot topic right now with the “Me, too” campaign, Mika Brzezinski’s book Knowing Your Value…
And Gretchen Carlson is here, too!
(Note: Gretchen Carlson was one of the authors at the 2017 Texas Book Festival as well, presenting her book Be Fierce.)
As you are considered a groundbreaker in your field, how have you seen women’s issues change over the years?
I think women are gaining confidence in their positions and taking on more responsibilities, but it’s true that there were a few of my male co-anchors that I had to set straight. That we would be equal partners. Just because he had come in to be my co-anchor didn’t make him in any way superior to me. I don’t remember the exact thing he said, but there was one who made a joke about me on the air. When we cut to break, I said, “If you ever say anything similar to that again, I’m going to get up and walk off the set.” He was flabbergasted because no one had ever told him that before. So, as long as women understand that they have the right to speak up and exercise that right, we ARE making progress. We are. When I graduated from UT in ‘78, there were only two Latina reporters on the air. When I first started working, there were only a handful statewide. When I was hired to do the 5pm newscast by myself, there were no other Latina solo anchors at that time. I didn’t even realize I was the first until looking back. I was just doing my job. That meant I had to work longer, harder, the holidays that no one else wanted, the assignments that no one else wanted. You had to be the one to volunteer to do this stuff. I knew my best defense was to work harder and to prove myself. However, the area in TV where I feel we are not making progress is one that I do talk about in the book– and that is the aging factor for women. They are pushed aside, lightly, but pushed aside in order for a younger replacement to come, and it’s not the same for men. It’s not. They get paunchy, they get grey hair, but they’re distinguished, so they can stay. Not that way for women. You can count them on one hand: Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters… and that’s about it! That needs to change.
What was your biggest scoop, or favorite story to cover?
Similar to one I told in the book, I was the consumer reporter for a while, and it was very rewarding to uncover what you knew were disreputable businesses and to share those with the public so they would be more aware. You can’t go out and tell them that this one’s a scam, but you can lay everything out for them to make an educated decision for themselves. For example, there was a workout facility that was taking new memberships, but when people went to go work out, it was completely shut down. For a business to continue taking people’s money, fully knowing that they were about to go out of business– it was terrible. Not that I had anything to do with this, but there was a new law enacted that requires businesses to put up a bond, so if they close suddenly, that bond is used to pay off the customers. So, I think the government can work very well with investigative reporters to make those kinds of changes.
What is your plug for local news, as opposed to national news coverage or news analysis?
I love it all! It’s what I’ve been telling audiences as I travel and speak: regardless of the national negative bashing that is happening about media… fake news, unscrupulous media, etc… local news is still the number one source for people on a day-to-day, direct life-impacting basis. It’s still where we’re tuning in for the weather and the sports from the night before, local election results, and all of those things that directly impact our lives– streets that are closed, traffic. All of that, you’re not getting anywhere else but local places. I do think that there’s a place for all of it. What’s happened is that it’s become very specialized. There’s the local news, then the political analysis. And that’s okay because there’s something for everyone.
Is there a recipe that you’d like me to share with my readers?
My grandmother’s Spanish rice. It’s a little bit involved, but I’ll send it to you! Also, my serrano margarita that I talk about in the book. Once I discovered how to add that little bit of serrano, that was a game-changer. Of course now, there are mixes that are already pre-spiced with a little jalapeño, and most of the best known restaurants and bars, they’re making their own margaritas with a little kick to them, but I was the first! A little bit of serrano cut up in your shaker, and it’s perfect.
Thirty minutes flew by, so effortless was our conversation. True to her word, Olga sent me the recipe for her Abuelita’s Spanish Rice. Click here to continue reading and see the recipe, plus the finished product!