“Hi, it’s Robin, and I have been waiting 174 days to say this: Good morning, America.”
That’s how Robin Roberts began her first day back on the air, nearly six months after taking leave from Good Morning America to undergo a bone marrow transplant. And with that line, Roberts also set the mood for the show: no brooding, no dwelling, just back to work as usual. Yes, fans crowded around outside the studio with homemade signs that said “We love you, Robin!” And the Obamas showed up to wish the anchor well: “You’ve been an inspiration to all of us,” said the President. ABC also played video clips of Roberts getting back into shape by striking yoga poses and lifting weights. “Two pounds? That’s it?” she huffed. “Yeah, but it’s one more pound than I did the last time.” But mostly, she wanted to get back to doing her job.
“I don’t have my froggy slippers on,” she joked. “Or do I?”
Roberts has had a rough couple of years, and she hasn’t been shy about sharing them. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2007, and after going through weeks of chemotherapy, she went on the air without a wig, and even filmed a video about what it was like to lose her hair. She lost her mother last year, and after the bone marrow transplant had been completed, her sister Sally-Ann Roberts, an anchor at WWL-TV in New Orleans, gave her their mother’s necklace for her birthday. You could hear Roberts starting to cry. “This is the first time that I have been through any traumatic experience without her physically being here,” she said, “and it has weighed on me.”
Online, ABC has covered her illness in an especially intimate way. We’ve seen her lying in her hospital bed, a pink baseball cap covering her head, repeating to herself, over and over again, “You’ve got to change the way you think to change the way you feel.” We’ve met her doctors. We’ve read her daily blogs, always struggling to stay positive, in posts with titles like “Miracle Monday” or “Thankful Thursday.”
At times, there has been something uneasy about the way GMA has released its own news along with news of Roberts’ health. The network announced that she got her diagnosis the same day that GMA found out they’d finally beaten the Today show for the first time in 16 years. Roberts herself noted that she was undergoing an unpleasant bone marrow test when she learned that she’d be interviewing President Obama the next day, and that interview went on to make history when he declared his support for same-sex marriage. This morning, Michelle Obama wished Roberts well by plugging her upcoming appearance on the show: “I am looking forward to our interview together in a couple of days.”
Tom Shales, the former critic for the Washington Post, recently took issue with the way ABC has made press releases out of Roberts’ heartfelt messages to fans. “After the anchor recorded a message thanking viewers (“I feel the love and I thank you for it.”) ABC rushed out a press release, this one headlined ‘Robin Roberts’ Message: I Feel the Love and I Thank You For It’ and including a disclaimer: ‘News organizations using material from this report should credit Good Morning, America,'” Shales wrote.
But all of this begs the question: is it still taking advantage of her if she desperately wants to be back on the air? Recently, Roberts said she’d been going through dry runs with GMA, waking up early and going through the motions of being on the air before actually returning for real. She said the harsh lights were hard to endure, since her skin was still very sensitive. “You get a free chemical peel with every bone marrow transplant,” she joked. Hearing that, it was easy to wonder: should GMA tell her she needs more time to recover?
This morning, her co-anchor George Stephanopoulos addressed that issue right away, asking Roberts’ doctors if they were sure it was okay for her to come back to work. “We didn’t exactly have in mind an interview with Mrs. Obama and the Oscars for this weekend as an easy start,” admitted Dr. Gail J. Roboz. “I will confess, that was not what we had in mind for easing back in.” But both of her doctors said they’d take things day by day, reevaluating her health tomorrow, and deciding how many times per week she could return to work. “I don’t care who the interview is with, if you’re not ready to go, you’re not going,” said Roboz.
Moments like this one have kept the show honest. Morning talk shows so often feel relentlessly cheerful, with weathermen cast in the role of the funny uncle, and sportscasters joking around with the anchors, in attempt to show that everyone’s having a lot of fun. But that image has been breaking down a little, especially since Ann Curry delivered her tearful on-air goodbye to the Today show, making it very clear that they weren’t all great friends. So it’s nice that GMA really has felt a little like a family lately. They’ve checked in with Roberts even while she was gone, and updated us about her recovery. They’ve let her be scared. “I remember when the doctor first told me, you’re gonna be out five or six months, I was like, Rahhhhhhhhh!,” she said, scrunching her face into a scream, shortly before going back on the air. But this morning, she had a different attitude: “When you go through something like this, you can be either fearful or fearless,” she said. “And I chose to be the latter.”