BIG SKY, Montana – From the outset, Jenna Lee had the dream life: a 30-something, prominent FOX News anchor, married to a decorated Navy SEAL, a buzzing ‘Big Apple’ lifestyle, and the beginnings of a new and flourishing family. But we don’t see the sweat and blood beneath the shell of the journalistic high-life and the burning desire signaling that there was something else, a deeper calling, a broader resolve to serve millions of Americans in a different way.
“I wanted to disrupt this model of quantity over quality in the news, as well as this concept of journalists acting like they are morally superior to the audience,” Jenna tells me thoughtfully. “We are in this time in which people are being forced to look at the information, to make decisions on their own. So, we’re finding ourselves in this historical period and having many important conversations about media bias.”
For Jenna, it meant walking away from the snow-capped skyscrapers, and into the Texas Hill Country with an untamed commitment to birth a business centered not on commentary but curiosity – cue the inception of SmartHER News in 2018.
Armed with an increasingly rare ideology, Jenna has since built a brand based upon shedding light on the big news stories of the day, breaking them down into bite-sized pieces we can all understand across multiple digital platforms, including Instagram, YouTube, and a podcast, without the elitism, over-complication and partisanship that has prompted so many of us to turn away from the mainstream feeds. In many ways, she represents the creaky, glory days of news gathering to a new generation. It feels like something left behind in old-time America, with a newfangled technology spin.
“Who is telling you the truth? We see a lot of developing stories, and we don’t always know how they will end, and it is okay to question what is happening. That is what journalism is supposed to be about,” Jenna continues. “It is supposed to be about the question, not the conclusion. We are in a time when people have to think about what personal liberty looks like to them and how that fits into what they are being told.”
SmartHER News seeks to bridge that detachment between the deliverer and the masses. Initially, the idea was to arm women with information – but it has expanded far beyond that into something more akin to a movement to forge real change in the news space.
Emblematic of the modern-day couple, entrepreneurship runs between spouses. Jenna is married to former U.S. Navy SEAL Lieutenant Commander Leif Babin, co-founder of the leadership firm Echelon Front and co-author of the best-selling book “Extreme Ownership.”
Yet the rise to notoriety for both parties – and a rough road of sustaining a relationship chartered by long-distance and deployments – did not come easy.
Born in San Francisco to a public-school teacher named Janice and a former NFL quarterback named Bob (Jenna reminds me that back then, in the 1970s before she was born, her pro footballer dad earned less than his wife), the self-confessed, lifelong “nerd” graduated in 2002 with a B.A in English and Global Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara. Months earlier, she was studying abroad in Spain when planes struck the Twin Towers. The television screens were filled with graphic imagery typically censored from the American airwaves. And while it didn’t prompt any fervent desire to go into journalism at that moment, it did spark an interest in how stories are conveyed so differently in varying pockets of the planet.
Her real attraction to illuminating the edges of the earth, and the importance of this storytelling to audiences far and wide, was cemented by the legacy of her grandfather, a war reporter for the Associated Press.
“I liked writing, and I was fascinated with my grandfather, who died when I was young,” Jenna recalls.
She did, however, relocate to New York and, in 2005, just as she was finishing her master’s degree at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She attended a depressing “job fair” where it was evident no one would be called by any of the major media players in attendance. But a student gathering a local bar led to a conversation with a managing editor at Forbes.
“I worked in corporate fields for a couple of years between college and graduate school, and he encouraged me to try business news. I told him I knew nothing about business; I couldn’t even read stocks,” Jenna recounts with a slight smile. “But he said that was the easy part; they can teach that and stressed that I had actually worked in the business world, managing a big recreational center in Santa Barbara while at school and later Director of Operations at a large private club after school. So, that is how I got my first big break.”
The exchange developed into stints as a writer/producer for the 24-hour local station NY1 and in the then-emerging multimedia space of Forbes.com. Then, in 2007, FOX launched its Business Channel and sought a combination of known and unknown names. For Jenna, it was a big deal to get an offer. After all, she had been rejected from nearly every other outlet she had applied to and merely compelled an L.A.-based agent to represent her despite his overtures that she had nothing special to offer.
With a foot in the door, life would dramatically change in other ways, too, thanks to a charity dinner, raising money to honor and aid some of the nation’s most elite special operators – a guest of honor was eponymous FOX CEO, Roger Ailes.
“Roger had several tables he needed to fill with guests, and Leif and I happened to be seated at the same table,” Jenna says breezily. “It was a different time in 2009, before the bin Laden raid. Then, people were not talking about Navy SEALs, and it was a solemn event as many Gold Star families were there. Growing up, I had not had a military connection, but I found it overwhelming.”
Living on opposite ends of the country, Jenna in New York and Leif stationed in San Diego, the wide-eyed and inquisitive news anchor had a myriad of questions for Leif: What is a platoon leader? How many people are in it? What sort of training is it? How do you operate?
Jenna handed the uniformed sailor her business card as a token parting gesture, not expecting to reencounter the Texas native.
That was until Leif called and returned to town several weeks later. Still, they piloted “totally independent lives” even while dating. Yet, it was Jenna’s core characteristic of curiosity that gave her a much more profound appreciation for how much we as civilians do not know about missions, battles, and bloodshed far from our purview of life.
“There were some things he obviously couldn’t talk about even as our relationship developed. For example, there was one point I remember being in San Diego, and Leif had been in submarines, and I remember innocently saying, how deep does it go? And was like, I can’t talk about that,” Jenna notes.
She pauses for a moment, lost in memory. An intensely private person, Jenna kept her personal life completely quiet during her professional life, not disclosing her budding romance with any colleagues. That wasn’t always smooth sailing; no pun intended.
“When Leif was deployed, I knew roughly where he was, but there was a lot I didn’t know,” Jenna says softly.
Working under the buzz of breaking news, information would sometimes cross the wire of an insurgent attack in Iraq – citing high and horrific casualties – but Jenna had no choice but to remain collected and composed, delivering a General Motors earnings report. Yet, at the same time, the fear of the unknown percolated through her stomach.
“It all became very real to me in a way that wasn’t before, very personal and very stressful. It was hard to communicate during that time,” Jenna remembers. “If you missed the call, you missed the call. And you didn’t know when you would get another one.”
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Leif went on to serve 13 years in the Navy, nine of them in the Teams. He led extensive combat operations as a platoon commander of SEAL Team Three’s Task Unit Bruiser, which became one of the most distinguished special operations units of the brutal Iraqi war theater.
While Jenna contemplated eventually living a quieter California life with Leif in San Diego, ready to turn her heel on consumer and financial news, she got the call to take that journalistic dream job in the form of moving to the more established Fox News Channel side of the house, with a huge promotion to co-anchor of the daytime news program “Happening Now.”
The couple wed on July 3, 2011, just as Leif left active duty.
Despite both working in the same towering Fox News building simultaneously, mine and Jenna’s paths never directly crossed during that era. I, of course, knew of the calm, engaging anchor who had a reputation among us writers as always reaching out with questions and appreciation if covering someone else’s story on-air. Such a sentiment might seem standard in news practice, but it is, in fact, scarce.
Jenna also possessed a unique love for balanced news, something that FOX prided itself on in the early days, a commitment to unearthing different perspectives. However, through time and the explosion of social media, a mandate for more “red meat” in the programming filtered through. Nevertheless, no one questioned whether Jenna would ever shoot her mouth off at any time; she had built a solid reputation as the straight newswoman.
A wife and new mom, Jenna wanted simply to be an information vessel – even advocating to go behind the scenes as a writer or producer or into the less prestigious digital realm, a rarity in the television arena – only to be waved away.
“I didn’t want to be part of any part of the extra exposure and any sort of status that came with doing something that wasn’t authentic to me,” Jenna observes. “I didn’t want to be a talk show host. I just wanted to be a working journalist.”
The seams seemed to have come undone in 2016: Jenna was rushed to hospital giving birth to her second child and on maternity leave just when Gretchen Carlson filed a landmark sexual harassment suit. She returned to a changed newsroom, with a contract approaching its end and many questions about her future and the future of news. No amount of money could ever be enough to continue down that almost dystopian – mechanized, soulless – career path. So, she left the network in 2017, and the seeds of SmartHER News were planted in rural Texas soil.
Yet, for Leif, departing active-duty years earlier and bringing to life a world-renowned leadership consulting company centered on the tenants of elite performance, teamwork, and guidance, were far from easy feats. A fish out of water in New York, he was accepted into law school but chose not to go. Jenna playfully looks back at the days when his teammate and partner, Jocko Willink, would sleep on their couch. The notion of leadership courses was only passing chatter until she pushed Leif – over dinner at a Mexican restaurant– to step outside and make the call to his former teammate, commit to the idea, and get the ball rolling.
Over the few days I spent with the Babin family in the lush, picturesque peaks of Big Sky, Montana – a rare reprieve for the persistently working Texas couple – I observed Jenna’s passion for making a powerful dent in the news cycle but also how the phone and chaos crumble away when navigating the ups and downs of mothering three young, wildly-spirited children – Trace, Liberty, and True – all with sun-streaked hair and scraped knees, evident of time spent climbing trees and careening through the dusty tracks of Big Sky.
Leif returns from a morning bow-shooting in the Montana mountains and distant open prairies with Willink and a small group of savvy shooters wearing weathered, sun-glowing faces. Jenna and I escaped for a late afternoon wine in a nearby bar. She sat down elegantly, studying the menu with a glance that reflects equal exhaustion and intense curiosity. Whatever falls in her lap, Jenna studies with full enthusiasm.
Pools of sunlight accentuate her bright blue eyes, flowing strawberry blonde hair and fair, freckled face luminous without a hint of makeup. A natural bare-faced beauty, Jenna films her daily news snippets, sans the professional hair and makeup, and perfected studio lighting that dominated her newsroom career for years. Heck, Texas living was also the first time in her professional life that she had actually to dress herself. (No wardrobe department with a pre-selected dress suit waiting.)
That raw approach cuts to the heart of what SmartHER News stands for: unbridled, without fanfare, stripped of erroneous commentary. I hear from friends and acquaintances from various sides of the world about how such a simple, straightforward news site brought new life into their relationships, dinner table conversations, and even saved marriages crumbling under the weight of disconnect.
“I think journalism is like being a waitress; you’re just delivering a different menu of options to people. It is your job to be useful to them,” Jenna points out. “And I think we (SmartHER News) have been able to be useful during really critical times, and I am proud of that.”
She has a strangely explicit memory for details, for every development in any story featured on the SmartHER News feed and for every permutation in her own life. It is also impossible to get Jenna to speak adversely about anybody. I tried. But she will call out partisanship, inaccuracy and the censorship of information and viewpoints. She worries about where this rabid divisiveness in the American population goes from here.
At 42, Jenna’s path is perhaps a more philosophical life lesson wrapped all in one: the destruction of legacy media, embracing the suck and challenge of starting something from the ground up, thinking outside the box, and standing stoic and tall in a First Amendment landscape shirking with voices desperate to inflame and play the blame game.
“What we have to do is present the best quality of information so you can make up your own mind at that point in time,” Jenna underscores. “Some things you might agree with today, you will think differently about tomorrow. You may vote Republican now, and someday you might vote Democrat. You might believe in the vaccine now, and someday you do not. And it is okay to give yourself that leeway. I am never going to tell you what to think. That is totally crossing the line.”
And while her independent platform endeavors never to dictate, something special must come with reporting on military matters.
“Being a military spouse, people automatically see me as one way, so you have to be careful. But it is important to disclose that sometimes, depending on the story. For example, when the Marines were killed in Afghanistan (amid the chaotic 2021 withdrawal), I could talk differently about that in a different way than others. Thank goodness, the person I love came home. But I have seen many other families experience that loss, and it is just horrible,” she says, her voice gaining impassioned momentum. “A lot of people in America don’t know that their nightmare has just begun, what this means for these families not just now but in six months, for the rest of their lives.”
Jenna stares out at the undulating mountainside, hued pink beneath the fading daylight, holding her words for an extra moment.
“It is unlike anything most of us have ever known,” she adds. “It is important to connect the dots because many Americans still do not know anyone in the military. And that is one way we can do it, lend personal experience without inserting ourselves into the narrative.”