Women Running the Show

As producers of the top news shows on TV, they're the first people on the scene when wars erupt, earthquakes hit — or a politico cheats. And they're busy trying to beat each other to big stories as we speak.

Barak Obama reading the news
(Image credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The News Junkie

Subrata De, 39, Senior Producer, NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams

What I do: I'm always trying to get Brian Williams into countries that are in chaos: Egypt amid the revolution, Indonesia after the tsunami, Haiti after the earthquake. It was dicey getting into Haiti, and when we got there, Brian and I slept out on the tarmac, receiving visits from rats, since that was the safest place to sleep amid the aftershocks.

Crazy adventure: Once, when Brian and I were flying into Kabul, a tribal elder tried to kick me out of my seat. I was sitting near the front of the plane — which is equivalent to business class — and the man thought he should be sitting there instead of me, since I was a woman. The only way we could convince him to let me stay was to say that I was Brian's wife. We got a good laugh out of that one later. So did Brian's wife, Jane.

Proudest accomplishment: There are times, like when I'm strapping on my body armor in Afghanistan or getting ready to shoot an interview with Brian and President Obama, that I feel awfully proud to be doing this job as a woman of color and as a person with a disability. I was born without a left hand, and while it really is a nonissue for me, I'd like to give myself a little pat on the back for having come this far in a job that deals a lot in first impressions, and can also get pretty physical out in the field.

What it's like to work with Brian Williams: He's wickedly funny. That humor gets us through some trying times in the field. I just wish he'd eat a vegetable every now and then. When we're on the road, we often have standoffs over fast food versus healthy food. He usually prevails, due to sheer stubbornness. Somehow, we always end up at Arby's.

Worst part of the job: Being away from my daughter. She's 6. My greatest joy.

Biggest surprise: The fact that you can still be surprised in this business. Just when you think you've seen it all, something new happens: This year, it was the Arab Spring. Standing in Cairo's Tahrir Square during the revolution, I was most definitely surprised.

Greatest challenge: Keeping your emotions in check. It's hard not to lose it when people are sifting through the wreckage of their homes. You have to hold it together.

How I got my start: I started as an intern at TV Nation, the satirical news show, in New York City. I would sit in a back room slogging through tons of research, but I loved it.

Word to the wise: Follow your gut instincts. Treat others well. Break the rules, and don't take no for an answer.

The Morning Warrior

Santina Leuci, 41, Senior Editorial Producer, Good Morning America, ABC

What I do: I'm in charge of 20 producers, and we're on the front line for all breaking-news stories for the network. Competition is fierce in the morning-show wars, and I live off that. It's a blast — I get the best phone calls: One day the Atlanta police called to say they were arresting one of my bookers who was trying to woo a guest from another morning show — while the show was actually on the air, on location in downtown Atlanta. Another producer got locked in a basement by a competitor and couldn't get out. Another snuck into a competitor's studio and made off with the world's fattest cat, and its owner. He had talked his way into the studio by pretending to be one of the cat's owners himself. Most recently, one of my producers nabbed Ted Williams — the homeless man with the "golden voice" — when he walked out of a competitor's studio for a smoke. We basically kidnapped him.

Crazy adventure: One time I was in downtown Manhattan, looking for a prostitute who got away from serial killer Joel Rifkin. I was leaning into the window of my town car, telling my driver my plan, when a policeman came by and said, "Keep it moving, lady." I was like, "What? I am not a hooker!" He said, "Yeah, right, and I'm Sleeping Beauty."

Best part of the job: I love the chase. I've booked everyone from Ashley Dupré to Charlie Sheen to the Iraqi microbiologist known as "Dr. Germ" in the days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I've tracked down FBI informants and Ku Klux Klan members. I've spent a day with Sarah Palin, who treated us to caribou. The Palins make a mean caribou.

Worst part of the job: Wishing you could help families of violent crimes. It never gets easier working with people like the families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks and knowing that you cannot change their situation.

Biggest surprise: I was on a stakeout at Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch for two months when he was first accused of an incident with a young boy. One day, Michael called me on speakerphone from inside his home and asked if I wanted a drink.

Greatest challenge: Sleeping. I wake up every couple of hours checking my BlackBerry. It's part of the deal. We work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Luckily, my husband, Michael, is my biggest cheerleader, and helps me with our two amazing kids, Luca and Gia.

Secret weapon: My father used to work for the New York City Police Department, and I call him all the time, asking for his opinion on cases. He makes me think outside the box—more like a cop or an investigator—when I attack a story.

How I got my start: I started as an intern at a local TV station in Boston. On my first day on the job, I was hooked.

Word to the wise: Work harder than anyone else. Be aggressive. Trust me, it will get you far.

The Super-Sleuth

Kristin Whiting, 39, Field Producer, 48 Hours Mystery, CBS

What I do: Our show is all about murder mysteries, so I spend a great deal of time in courtrooms and jails, talking to accused killers and the families of the victims. It can be captivating, but also soul-crushing to experience firsthand such depths of depravity. We use the power of the show and our viewers to bring about change wisely — we recently got an alleged serial killer charged in an 18-year-old cold case.

Crazy adventure: Before my current job, I lived in Baghdad, at the height of the war. I was hired to set up a public-broadcasting service funded by the U.S. Department of Defense. A bombing had destroyed the country's primary TV network — commonly known as "Saddam TV" — which would often broadcast nothing but archival video of old men reading from the Koran. I lived in Iraq for a year and a half, establishing the new TV service and falling asleep to the sound of rockets and mortars, which sometimes landed within feet of my trailer in the Green Zone. A friend from National Geographic advised me to get out of Baghdad because living in a war zone frays your nerves irrevocably. (He was right. To this day, when a dumpster lid slams or a firecracker goes off, I jump out of my skin.) But on the upside, I was surrounded by Navy SEALs. Not a bad deal! There was a serious shortage of women in the Green Zone — about four men for every woman. Being a rare commodity, I never longed for male company.

Worst part of the job: Meeting people in such pain. Like anyone, I am not without vulnerabilities. I felt that covering the school shooting in Columbine might break me. It was my fourth school shooting in short order, and after 10 days in Denver, I couldn't bear the thought of spending another day among what I call the "ghosts" of the community — an entire town destroyed by tragedy and grief. I went home to remind everyone in my life how much I love them, then flew back to Colorado two days later.

Greatest challenge: We often have to travel at a moment's notice, and I'm a single mother to a spectacular 5-year-old daughter, Scout. I'm fortunate that my mother loves watching her granddaughter when I travel. And sometimes my daughter travels with me: Recently, on a trip to L.A., she and I spent a Saturday at Disneyland, and then on Sunday I was in an L.A. County jail all day with an accused serial killer. It works for us.

How I got my start: I wanted to work in TV news for as long as I can remember. I got my first producing job with PBS Frontline.

Word to the wise: Be fearless. Be willing to jump out of airplanes, climb mountains, go to a war zone. Do anything, go anywhere. And attach yourself to powerful women in the business; a high-powered colleague from my first network job has had a hand in every career move I've made since.

The Night Owl

Katie Nelson Thomson, 43, Senior Broadcast Producer, Piers Morgan Tonight, CNN

What I do: I recently started running a team of top bookers for Piers Morgan, in the cutthroat nighttime zone, after years of producing for Barbara Walters.

Crazy adventure: When I met with Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh in prison, he said he wanted to marry me.

Proudest accomplishment: I like challenging viewers to think about the news in a different light. For instance, I arranged the first interview with John and Patsy Ramsey after their daughter JonBenet was found dead in their basement. In my research, I discovered that much of what has been said and written about the Ramseys was completely untrue. At the time, there was widespread consensus that they were responsible for JonBenet's death, based on reports that there were no footprints in the snow, meaning no one had entered the house. I obtained copies of the crime-scene photos, which told a very different story: In fact, there was only a smattering of snow on the ground that day; there were footprints; and there was evidence of entry in a basement window. Another example: I met Michael Jackson and was struck by how different he was than the "Wacko Jacko" he had been made out to be. It was particularly evident in the kind of caring and involved parent that he was. I loved it when he showed me how he made his son laugh by moonwalking! I think our interview helped to show this, and also allowed him to describe the toll the paparazzi can take on a star. The same was true with Monica Lewinsky, who was and is intelligent and poised, and who was very brave to open up in our interview the way she did.

Major mishap: Occasionally, I'll pop up in paparazzi photos, like a "Where's Waldo?" In one photo, I'm with Monica Lewinsky, identified as her 20-something friend. In another, I'm sitting behind Michael Jackson's children at his memorial. And I'm in a video of a Fidel Castro interview — hugely pregnant — in the classroom where we were filming.

Best part of the job: Being a witness to history. I worked on the first interviews with President Bush, Rudolph Giuliani, and Vladimir Putin after the 9/11 tragedy. I often meet people in the news long before their stories are public, and it is always fascinating.

What it's like to work with Piers Morgan: He's totally unflappable. He can go from judging flamethrowers on America's Got Talent to doing an intense segment about Mideast unrest on CNN.

How I got my start: I ended up in TV accidentally. I was planning to start law school when I did a summer internship at the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C. I got an offer from the show The McLaughlin Group, and decided to go for it.

Word to the wise: If you want to be a producer, be prepared to give up a portion of your life because you can't control when news breaks. On the other hand, be prepared to set a few personal boundaries, because certain life events happen only once.

The Politico

Betsy Fischer, 41, Executive Producer, Meet the Press, NBC

What I do: I stay on top of the biggest political stories of the week — elections, the economy, world affairs — and book the newsmakers: House and Senate leaders, presidential candidates, heads of state.

Proudest accomplishment: Navigating the transition that the program went through after the untimely death of longtime moderator Tim Russert three years ago. I had worked closely with him for 17 years — I've been with Meet the Press ever since college — and it was very difficult emotionally to go through that personal and professional loss while producing the show every week. But I knew that Tim would want us to move forward and "go get 'em," as he would say. Tom Brokaw moderated the show for an interim period of six months, and then David Gregory took over as permanent moderator. Together, we have been able to evolve the show, which is the longest-running TV show in history — it debuted in 1947 — while also staying true to its mission.

Major mishap: Last year, I was chewed out by the chief of protocol from the Afghan embassy for failing to properly greet President Karzai when he arrived at our studio for an interview. I explained that I was on strict orders from U.S. Secret Service agents not to get near him. The man remained completely unimpressed with my excuse.

What it's like to work with David Gregory: He's supersmart, motivated, and amazingly self-aware. We both have kids, so we're on the same wavelength when it comes to family. We actually went to college together at American University — even though I joke that with all his silver hair, he looks 10 years older than me!

Greatest challenge: The alarm clock at 3:45 a.m. every Sunday morning.

How I got my start: I started interning at Meet the Press when I was a senior in college, and worked my way up to executive producer.

Word to the wise: Anticipate what your bosses need. Eventually, you will know what they want before they do — a key way to become indispensable.

Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.