Britt McHenry

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ESPN is a striking entity to behold.

It’s a place where television stars are made; where names go from regional obscurity to national recognition. Chris Berman. Stuart Scott, Dan Patrick. Rich Eisen. Robin Roberts. Kenny Mayne. Linda Cohn. Whether you like these people or abhor these people, you almost certainly know these people. Their stylings. Their catchphrases. Their high and low TV moments.

You know them.

Just being honest … I’m not sure how many people reading this know Britt McHenry just yet. Yeah, she’s got 65,200 Twitter followers and 19,200 more on Instagram. But, at age 28, she only arrived at the network in March, and seems to randomly pop up here and there. This game. That locker room. This moment. That moment.

The relative obscurity won’t last.

Why? Because McHenry is very good at her job. She asks strong questions, without merely nodding robot-like at the answers. She follows up. She insists she’s not in this for fame or endorsement, but because she loves sports and loves journalism. Her pedigree (Stetson University soccer player; Northwestern masters in journalism) backs it up.

Anyhow, I love the idea of having rising stars explain how, exactly, they became rising stars.

The Quaz welcomes Britt McHenry …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Britt, I’m gonna start with a totally weird question. My daughter is 11, and r-e-a-l-l-y tall. You’re 5-foot-10—also really tall. How was that for you as a kid, being taller than boys? Being—I’m guessing—the “gangly, skinny, long girl”? Did you have to grow into your height? Were you always happy being tall?

BRITT MCHENRY: I played a lot of sports as kid, predominantly soccer. Ironically, I was the shortest on every roster for a long time. Coaches used to call me “Little Brittany” when I was your daughter’s age. I absolutely hated it and would cry to my parents about it weekly. My dad is 6’3 and my mother is 5’7, so they constantly reassured me that I wouldn’t be vertically challenged. Turns out they were right. In seventh grade, I grew 6 inches. Yes, 6 inches. The following year, I grew another three. I was skinny, gawky, and had big feet before I grew into them; oh, and don’t forget the braces. It was a really attractive time in my life.

Now, I love being tall. It benefited me in athletics and afforded me an opportunity to work with the Wilhelmina Modeling Agency in college. Thanks to Wilhelmina, I never had to work another day at the T-Shirt and Sandal Factory Outlet in Key Largo or enlist in another real “character building” summer job, much to my parent’s chagrin. Tell your daughter height pays off.

McHenry, left, during her college soccer days.
McHenry, left, during her college soccer days.

 J.P.: You’ve had a crazy fast rise—you’re 28, holding a prime position at ESPN. So … how the hell did this happen? I mean, I know you’re a New Jersey kid, know you played college soccer at Stetson. But I’m sure many aspiring TV journalists would love to hear the path.

B.M.: Honestly, until about the age  of 18, I wanted to be the next Mia Hamm. Clearly, that wasn’t in the cards. To this day, I still idolize her. But, I was never one of those people who dreamt about being on television. I was an English major and thought I’d go to law school. My parents were actually the ones who recommended the reporting route (fearful I’d end up on their sofa with a seemingly worthless English degree). In high school, I’d always wanted to go to Northwestern’s acclaimed journalism program, so I decided to apply there for my masters. Since I graduated Stetson early and Northwestern’s masters program is only one year, I ended up at the ripe age of 22 in Washington with a community reporter job at the local cable station, NewsChannel 8.

It was very unglamorous. On my first day, I was handed keys to a beat up Ford Focus, a camera, a laptop, and told to go shoot a story. I had never even driven in DC before that. I started out in news and a year later graduated to weekend anchoring. It felt forced, though. As a former athlete, sports just seemed to fit my personality better. My news director, who oversaw both NewsChannel 8 and the ABC affiliate (the promised land to us cable reporters), was like most local news directors: He hated sports. I remember him telling me, “the sports department just asked to cover Nats Spring Training. If I won’t send a news reporter out of state for budgetary reasons, why would I send a sports reporter out of state?” Well, It just so happened that I was going home to Melbourne, Florida for a brief vacation. It also just so happened to be Stephen Strasburg’s first big league training camp, and the Nationals train 20 miles away from my parent’s house. So, I grabbed my camera and told the sports guys I would shoot video for them. In turn, it led to my first shot at anchoring (because nobody wanted to work on Easter) and my news director figured it’d be a slow news day. Wrong. Donovan McNabb was traded to the Redskins that night.

There’s no better test than live TV, and somehow I passed. They permanently moved me to the ABC affiliate as a sports reporter, and I gradually became a weekend anchor as well. When Rachel Nichols left ESPN, there was an obvious void and opening within the bureau department. An aside, I’ve always looked up to Nichols, who’s a fellow Northwestern alum. Fortunately, I didn’t bomb my audition. The hiring process is grueling at ESPN, you meet with no fewer than 20 people, and they really test your sports knowledge. Understandably, there was some concern about my age for a role that is entrenched in professional sports (I auditioned at age 26), but some great people at the network believed in me. I owe several people thanks for the opportunity.

Alongside Pete Rose.
Alongside Pete Rose.

J.P.: So when I did a YouTube search for you, the very first thing that pops up is a video titled, BRITT MCHENRY..SHE’S GOT WHATEVER IT IS. Many of your Instagram photos are accompanied by sexual comments. It seems like women in journalism go through this shit all the time, and I wonder how it makes you feel. Weirded out? Concerned? What?

B.M.: It definitely weirds out my close friends and family. My best girl friends joke they hate being in any photo with me because they instantly get followed by 10 strangers. I don’t get bothered by it because I don’t pay attention to it. There’s always going to be some list or ranking of “hottest this” “hottest that,” and it’s both subjective and trivial. At the end of the day, and hopefully a very long career, I want to emulate women like Hannah Storm, Robin Roberts, Suzy Kolber, Wendi Nix. All those women are beautiful, no doubt. But they’ve proven themselves as credible journalists and empowered business women. The goal is to have somebody watch my reports and enjoy the substance. Good or bad, the only feedback that truly matters is that of my employers and colleagues.

J.P.: I’ve always been a writer, and I sorta cringe when I hear TV reporters called “The talent.” Britt, serious question: Does it really take that much talent to be very good on television? More than it takes to write? Or produce? And what are the necessary skills?

B.M.: I wouldn’t say either requires more “talent,” but obviously all are very different skill sets. It is absolutely difficult to host a show when the prompter goes down, segments get cut, guests are sitting next to you, and you have to quarterback the whole situation. It’s also very challenging to ad lib and come across smoothly on camera if things break down in the field.  Essentially, in my opinion, the best on air people can combine all of those skills. A great example is Trey Wingo on NFL Live. He has a producer’s mind, he’s extremely poised on air and like all of us, he writes his own material. It’s a personal favorite of mine when the occasional critic will say, “Thank God you have a writer and a teleprompter or else you wouldn’t have a job.” Well, we have neither in the field. That particular insult is actually a compliment (in a weird Twitter sort of way).

J.P.: What does it feel like to absolutely fuck up on air? And what’s your biggest fuck up?

B.M.: It’s not ideal, can tell you that much. We have so many hits throughout the day, you’re bound to trip up from time to time. It’s just inevitable. The key is to be able to recover quickly—which isn’t always easy when things replay. I used to take mess-up’s particularly hard because I know there’s a large base of people out there waiting for it given that I’m both young and female. It doesn’t matter if you have 20 perfect hits, viewers will harp on the one that’s not. So, you have to learn to let that go. If I pronounce a name wrong every now and then, so be it; just don’t make it frequent (and pray it’s not recorded).

J.P.: You’re all over Twitter and all over Instagram. Serious question: Why?

B.M.: Good question. Facebook was created my freshman year of college, so my generation is arguably the first to grow up with social media. From a news gathering purpose, I love Twitter. I very rarely read newspapers anymore. Instead, I follow all my favorite writers and publications which span a variety of topics. If something interests me, I’ll click on the tweet. I genuinely like engaging with viewers—even find it to be a test of wit if I can respond to mean tweets creatively. Do I wish I had a thicker skin handling inappropriate comments on social media? Absolutely. There are people far better at handling it.

What bothers me is when the trolling comes from fellow media members. In a Utopian world, we would all have enough professionalism and respect for one another to avoid such behavior. Not always the case. For example, a local Philadelphia anchor, whom I had never even met before, tweeted a response to a picture I recently posted that read, “Crazy how modest you are.” The picture was of me as a teenager wearing a polo and pigtails. It was hardly meant to brag; if anything I was poking fun at myself. It was intended in jest as part of the “throwback” trend on social media and to engage with viewers. But, the picture came from Wilhelmina, whom I included in the tweet. I have no doubt in my mind this man took issue with it because the picture was related to a modeling agency. Which in my opinion is a bit sexist.

The fact is, anytime the positive comments start to proliferate so will the negative ones. Everybody in media, in this growing age of social media, needs to learn to deal with that. My focus is journalism. It’s not anything else. But, I don’t see the harm in documenting travels or sharing creative ideas or jokes that might come along. I’ve rarely, if ever, posted anything regarding my personal life, nor will I. Professionally, however, Twitter and Instagram are great vehicles for the network and for branding. I believe you can balance the serious element of things with what you enjoy on the side. I did it as a student athlete and hope to continue to do that as a professional.

With Teddy Bridgewater
With Teddy Bridgewater

J.P.: Sometimes, especially when something like Ferguson happens, I think to myself, “Damn, why do I care about sports?” I mean, it just feels so meaningless and inconsequential. Do you ever get that way? Are you ever like, “Steelers? Who gives a crap when climate change is melting the planet”?

B.M.: To an extent. I think no matter what you’re doing, it’s important to stay abreast of current events. During football season, I buy a copy of The Economist every week for that very reason. I’ve found it can be dangerous to get too involved in subjects like Ferguson because I’m not covering it, nor am I completely knowledgeable about everything that’s happening. Once again, it goes back to the previous question and issues with Twitter. More often than not, it’s wise to hesitate before typing to ensure any kind of opinion is warranted.

J.P.: Random question alert: Tell me everything about your senior prom experience.

B.M.: The only thing any girl remembers is the dress (apologies in advance to my friend and date, Dustin Brookshire). I wore a rhinestone studded hot pink gown, and my mom took a million pictures. The allure of prom was always the stuff leading up to it, not the actual dance. I do vaguely remember dancing to Lil Jon’s “To the Window, to the Wall.” Not sure if that’s the actual title of the song, just remember those genius lyrics. It’s an early 2000’s classic.

J.P.: Britt, I just read this story about former NFL star Darryl Talley, and I have to ask: When do we, as a profession, say, “We’re done glorifying a sport that is destroying people?” We don’t endorse cigarette smoking, crack, coke, etc. Even soda and fast food. But we cover and glorify football as if it’s this amazing thing. You agree? Disagree?

B.M.: Since I’m currently in the middle of NFL coverage, I’m going to abstain from answering this one.

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J.P.: Bob Ley spoke with me about “red light fever”—the arrogance, the ego that comes with excessive TV exposure. Do you ever feel it? The high of airport recognition? Of signing an autograph? Is it a real thing? And why do you think people are so drawn to those who appear on TV? I mean, it’s just a box in our living rooms, no?

B.M.: Living out of a suitcase, I rarely look all that put together at the airport so hopefully people don’t recognize me. Occasionally, I’ll get a weird stare like, “Hey, you look familiar,” or “Did I just see you on TV?,” but that’s about it. I used to think all of that would be much cooler than it actually is. While flattering, it doesn’t matter if your name trends on Twitter or a thousand people follow you because that’s not tangible love or affection. Ultimately, what matters is if you’re fulfilled in real life; the day to day interactions with people you care about and trust. Loving your job is part of that. Even though people see what they think is a glamorous version of an individual covering their favorite sport, when the camera stops rolling that individual is probably headed to a dingy satellite truck to eat fast food with their producer. Still awesome, but that’s the reality. No disrespect to Jimmy Johns…

Having the opportunity to start at the network so young has taught me that crucial lesson early. Reporters shouldn’t become the story. Now, do I like using the platform to help certain non-profits? Yes. Is it fun to do an occasional magazine shoot? Definitely. All of that has its perks but should be used in doses. Thankfully, I have a family that will bring me back down to earth real quick, if I ever acted or thought otherwise.

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• Tell me three things about your dad: He’s incredibly intelligent, a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, and he asks more questions than any reporter I’ve ever met—fact.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Darren McFadden, spiced nuts, Rick Ocasek, Johnson & Johnson, Chris Hemsworth, Adam Levine, Cage the Elephant, your coat hangers, Kingpin, neck tattoos: Chris Hemsworth was the only thing I saw in this sentence.

• The world needs to know: What was it like being soccer teammates with Brittany Jones?: If the world finds out, let me know. We weren’t teammates. I was, however, teammates with US Women’s National Team goalie Ashlyn Harris. To this day, she’s the most naturally gifted athlete I’ve ever seen. Ask her to randomly play any sport, you’ll see.

• When you hear “Reggie Jackson,” do you first think of the Yankee slugger, the Thunder guard or my third grade classmate?: Your third grade classmate told you he knows me? Man, some things aren’t sacred anymore …

• Greatest moment as a San Diego Padre dugout reporter?: When I left. Quitting a job after two weeks was something I never thought I’d do. Technically, I never truly started, there were contractual issues. I wanted to be more than just a sideline reporter in my career. Therefore, it’s probably the best “worst” decision I’ve ever made.

• If roses smelled like shit, and shit smelled like roses, would we love the smell of shit or roses?: Roses. We’re a culture that loves visual stimulation, even if what’s beneath the surface stinks.

• You last updated your Facebook page in 2012. Why?: I made the mistake early on in my career of accepting EVERY friend request, thinking it would help people see my work online. Big mistake. My Facebook is beyond repair in the amount of strangers it’s accumulated. Also, who doesn’t get sick of the constant baby and proposal pictures. It’s a sad world when you consider Twitter to be your respite.

• How many times per year would you say you pick your nose? And do you think the phrase, “I never pick my nose” is a 100 percent lie when uttered by adults?: I’m sure in 20 degree temperatures during some of my live shots recently, there’s a lot of questionable nose activity in an effort to compose myself on air.

• Five reasons one should make Mount Holly Township his/her next vacation destination?: None, ha. I was born there, but my parents moved shortly thereafter. Dad knew what was up (my very feisty mother, who’s a New Jersey native, will not approve of this comment).

• One question you would ask Priscilla Presley were she here right now?: Can we go back to the Chris Hemsworth question. What about him?