On Wednesday, July 2, with the national news cycle threatening to slouch into a summer lull, a promising story suddenly popped up from an unlikely spot, several thousand miles south of Barack Obama’s cute daughters in Chicago and equally far removed from Christie Brinkley’s messy divorce in the Hamptons.
According to the wire services, a team of Colombian special forces, disguised as humanitarian workers, had pulled off a daring rescue, tricking armed Marxist-inspired rebels, known as FARC, into turning over 15 longtime hostages. Among the freed captives: French-Colombian activist politician Ingrid Betancourt and three American contractors, all of whom had been held against their will in the jungle for more than five years.
Across the city, every TV booker in New York began salivating on cue.
Roughly a week later, the race for the big get was over. Ms. Betancourt had chosen to be interviewed by Ann Curry on NBC Nightly News (average viewers in June: more than 7.5 million) and by Larry King on his eponymous CNN show (average viewers in June: 1.13 million).
The three Americans chose to sit down with … Robin Meade, the lead anchor of Headline News’ Morning Express (average viewers in June: 238,000).
How’d that happen?
It was a Tuesday afternoon around lunchtime when Ms. Meade, a pretty 39-year-old anchor (and onetime Miss Ohio) who joined Headline News in 2001, got a call from her boss. That morning, she had already anchored Morning Express, from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., and then filed a report for Accent-Health—a medical network she appears on with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, which is shown in physician waiting rooms.
Her boss explained that representatives for the freed hostages had called for her. Ms. Meade didn’t waste much time asking, “Why me?” The Fates of journalism had smiled upon her. She was ready to go. Less than 48 hours later, on Thursday morning, Ms. Meade, dressed in a wine-red jacket, an above-the-knee dark skirt and dark pumps, walked into the Fort Sam Houston military facility in San Antonio, Texas.
Ms. Meade was no stranger to the facility. For Veterans Day last year, she traveled to the base to do a story about its sled hockey team, made up of amputees from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She also did a story there about doctors using pets as therapy.
So it must have seemed to those who were administering the “reintegration” program in which the three contractors were engaged that she was a relatively safe choice to interview them.
Ms. Meade said she never did find out why the former detainees had decided to appear solely on her show.
“They indicated that they felt they could trust me, that they liked the way I conducted the show,” said Ms. Meade. “But to be honest, I didn’t say, ‘Enough about you, what do you like about me?’”
When Ms. Meade arrived on Thursday morning, a major general told her the former hostages were out on a deck, gazing up at the big Texas sky. After five years in the confines of the canopied jungle, the sight of an open horizon reassured them when they were feeling tense. Ms. Meade was also told that they had been given a secret hand signal. If they were feeling uncomfortable during the interview, one flash, and the big get was kaput.