Hemmer plays center, show leans right By Howard Kurtz Washington Post
NEW YORK -- Bill Hemmer, a middle-of-the-road guy from the middle of the country, sees himself as the straightest of straight arrows when it comes to news.
"The opinion-makers on our channel have enormous talent," he says in his Fox News office in midtown. "I deal in facts. I deal in evidence. And opinion, frankly, is not my comfort zone. Opinion news is something I'm not good at. It is in the DNA of certain individuals. I'm not one of them."
As the co-anchor of "America's Newsroom," Hemmer is supposed to kick off the straight-news stretch of Fox's daytime schedule at 9 a.m. But the bookings on the two-hour program, and sometimes the story selection, tilt markedly to the right.
The first solo guest on every show but one, from June 1 through July 2, was a Republican or conservative -- including Karl Rove (twice), Steve Forbes (twice), House GOP leaders John A. Boehner (Ohio) and Eric Cantor (Va.), Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, economist Art Laffer and Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute officials. Conservative commentators such as John Fund and Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal, and Byron York and Chris Stirewalt of the Washington Examiner, appeared by themselves. Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce, a Republican who is a leading opponent of illegal immigration, was on three times. By contrast, a relative handful of Democratic lawmakers were given solo spots, while Democratic strategists were generally paired in debates with Republican counterparts.
"If the booking leans one way, it's the responsibility and duty of me as the host, the presenter, the interviewer, to make sure the topic is evenly treated," Hemmer says.
Asked about Rove, a Fox contributor who was interviewed after major primaries, Hemmer says of the most recent appearance: "I would argue that was a segment shot right down the middle. I wanted to know his opinion, based on his eight years at the White House. Karl Rove is the type of guest that not just our audience, but any audience, wants to hear from. If Mike McCurry was available to us, I would put him on TV tomorrow."
Despite the guest lineup, Hemmer, 45, takes a generally balanced approach, a style he honed in his native Cincinnati and during 10 years at CNN. After joining Fox as a daytime anchor in 2005, he was paired in the morning with rising star Megyn Kelly; when Kelly got her own 1 p.m. show in February, Martha MacCallum became Hemmer's co-host.
To Hemmer, who recently signed a multi-year, multimillion-dollar contract that has not yet been announced, the secret of the morning show's success is the pacing. "At 9 we put the gas in the tank, floor that accelerator and drive toward the news of the day," he says. "A viewer needs to understand a story in a short period of time, otherwise they will zone out or they will change the station. Complexities are difficult to sell."
With his infectious grin and golly-gee demeanor, Hemmer exudes boyish enthusiasm both on and off the air. He is quick to sing the praises of his network, his colleagues, Chairman Roger Ailes (a fellow Ohioan), even the Sixth Avenue lobby for its mix of visitors. Has he ever said anything on the air that he regrets? "Knock wood, I think I've been lucky to, as my mother would say, be careful before you speak," says Hemmer, his eyes occasionally wandering to his four television monitors in what he admits is a Pavlovian response.
As for his other assets, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Patricia Sheridan once asked him: "Do you think being a good-looking guy helped move your career along?" (Hemmer didn't deny it.)
"He's a wholesome reporter, he's from Ohio, he grew up in a large family, he has an innate curiosity and he's likable," says Fox Senior Vice President Michael Clemente. "He's almost an Everyman, a decent guy."
Hemmer's only overt act of rebellion took place at age 26. Having paid his dues at as a local Cincinnati producer by logging every Reds pitch and Bengals play, Hemmer was working as a sports reporter for WCPO -- an experience he still regards as valuable: "A sportscaster is taught at an early age how to marry images and thoughts in your mind and translate it into words on the screen."
But he grew bored and resigned to backpack around the world, spending a year in countries from Vietnam to India to Egypt. When Hemmer returned, WCPO made him a local reporter. Two years after that, in 1995, Hemmer jumped to CNN. He gained a bit of national attention during the 2000 election recount, when he spent 37 days in Tallahassee and was nicknamed the "Chad Lad."
Hemmer is diplomatic in describing his departure from CNN, where was co-anchoring "American Morning" with Soledad O'Brien. "I think they saw a better opportunity for me in Washington," he says, but "I loved New York City." It's true that CNN executives offered Hemmer a White House correspondent's job, but that was after they decided to remove him from the morning show. Two months later, he signed with the competition. "What struck me about Fox from afar is they seemed to have such energy and vibrance that others had lacked," Hemmer says.
Hurricane Katrina struck the day after he started, and Hemmer spent weeks in Louisiana. A nimble performer in the field, he has also reported from Iraq and the earthquake in Haiti, showcasing the tragedies rather than his emotions.
Closer to home, he spends weekends at his house in a woodsy area of Sag Harbor. Sounding like a man who missed something on life's checklist, Hemmer notes that his four siblings are married and he has 11 nieces and nephews. "The next chapter has got to be children," he says.
Hemmer says his staff is smaller than at CNN, with a dozen people helping him and MacCallum get on the air. The program dominates its time period, averaging 1.3 million viewers this year, more than the combined audience for CNN, MSNBC and HLN.
A turning point, in Hemmer's view, came during the health care debate in the summer of 2009: "We covered those town-hall meetings with greater vigor than our competition, and we were rewarded with viewers. It was better television."
Another view is that Fox seized upon the footage of angry constituents shouting at Democratic members of Congress because it undermined the president's health-care push. Hemmer begs to differ. "I don't think it was anger toward the Obama administration," he says. "It was an honest insecurity on the part of average Americans."
Immigration is a major issue on Fox, and "America's Newsroom" covers it almost daily, as illustrated by the repeated booking of Pearce, the lawmaker who pushed for the tough Arizona immigration law that the Justice Department has sued to invalidate. As Hemmer, who uses the preferred Fox shorthand "illegals," recently told Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.): "We talk about this story an awful lot." One Democrat who appeared twice recently, Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, opposes the White House stance on immigration.
Hemmer also feels strongly about federal spending, a constant topic on the show. "The deficit is staggering," he says. His lead-off commentator is often Fox business anchor Stuart Varney, who rarely misses an opportunity to criticize the administration's fiscal policies. "The president has demonized all kinds of industries," Varney said on another Fox show. Another frequent commentator on the program is former judge Andrew Napolitano, whose book "Lies the Government Told You" has a foreword by Ron Paul.
On July 2, two Republican congressmen, Michigan's Pete Hoekstra and Texas's John Culberson, appeared in the first half hour.
Hemmer insists he is not concerned by the ideological nature of the bookings as long as his interviews are "even-handed." He is unfailingly polite with his guests, and says Democratic members of Congress "are welcome with open arms."
At times his Midwestern upbringing is all too evident. During the recent airing of a much-bleeped audiotape from the trial of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, Hemmer visibly blanched and looked embarrassed about the excised expletives.
Unlike media mavens whom he sees as being "locked in the Manhattan world," he remains conscious of his Ohio roots. "I hear from the folks back home all the time," Hemmer says. "Too often in our industry we forget about the rest of the country."
War and the GOP
After falling out with National Review several years ago, Ann Coulter is now taking on the editor of the Weekly Standard. She is supporting Michael Steele's criticism of the Afghan war and taking on Bill Kristol for slamming Steele:
"Our troops are the most magnificent in the world, but they're not the ones setting military policy. The president is -- and he's basing his war strategy on the chants of Moveon.org cretins.
Nonetheless, Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney have demanded that Steele resign as head of the RNC for saying Afghanistan "was a war of Obama's choosing" -- and a badly thought-out one at that. (Didn't liberals warn us that neoconservatives want permanent war?). I thought the irreducible requirements of Republicanism were being for life, small government and a strong national defense, but I guess permanent war is on the platter now, too. . . .
"Inasmuch as demanding resignations is another new Republican position, here's mine: Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney must resign immediately."
No way, says Kristol. And what exactly would Liz Cheney resign from? Her family?
At Politics Daily, Matt Lewis sees an important schism on the right?
"Until now, there has been somewhat of an unspoken rule, adhered to by most on the right, that conservative Republicans would vigorously oppose Obama's liberal domestic policies while supporting his efforts to win in Afghanistan. After all, Republicans had staunchly backed George W. Bush when he made the case for fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Changing course now would seem craven -- playing politics with national security. . . .
"Is Coulter's position a less high-minded one? After a decade of defending Bush's actions, and getting beat up for it, are Republicans now saying it's time for a Democratic president to get the Bush treatment?"
It's ironic that Steele, who was initially savaged for his gaffe in calling Afghanistan a war of Obama's choosing, is now being credited with sparking a serious debate.
In the New Republic, Andrew Bacevich skewers the president as a non-believer:
"Much as Iraq was Bush's war, Afghanistan has become Obama's war. Yet the president clearly wants nothing more than to rid himself of his war. Obama has prolonged and escalated a conflict in which he himself manifestly does not believe. When after months of deliberation (or delay) he unveiled his Afghan 'surge' in December 2009, the presidential trumpet blew charge and recall simultaneously. Even as Obama ordered more troops into combat, he announced their planned withdrawal 'because the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own'. . . .
"Today, when they look at Washington, Americans see a cool, dispassionate, calculating president whose administration lacks a moral core. For prosecution exhibit number one, we need look no further than the meandering course of Obama's war, its casualties and costs mounting without discernible purpose. . . .
"The question demands to be asked: Who is more deserving of contempt? The commander-in-chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause, however misguided, in which he sincerely believes? Or the commander-in-chief who sends young Americans to die for a cause in which he manifestly does not believe and yet refuses to forsake?"
A more charitable view is that Obama is trying to prevail in what is now a nine-year-old war while acutely aware of the eroding political support at home.
Sympathy for Palin
The Dave Weigel story is being kept alive by . . . Dave Weigel. In an Esquire piece, the former Washington Post blogger says:
"The Drudge Report ran the story. Millions of people knew I was a mean, snarky, stab-your-back punk behind the scenes. . . . I felt terrible, but at some level I knew I could handle it. I prepared for the deluge of calls and e-mails asking me to comment.
"The surprise: I didn't get many calls. Some people asked for interviews: the Post's ombudsman Andy Alexander, media critic Howard Kurtz, blogger Greg Sargent, Michael Calderone of Yahoo! News, and Keach Hagey of Politico. Later, Daniel Foster of National Review, David Carr of the New York Times, John Aaron of Maryland's WTOP, Mitch Berg of Minnesota's AM1280, and a producer for Good Morning America. (I politely no-commented -- something I hated when it was done to me -- until I apologized for the e-mails on BigJournalism.com.) As far as attempts to get comments went, that was it. If it sounds like a lot, try a Google News search for my name; you'll find more than five hundred articles about what happened. Approximately 1 percent reflect any attempt to contact me. . . .
"Over the first churning forty-eight hours of this whole mess, I resisted -- and then accepted -- a new sympathy for a politician I'd never pretended to admire much: Sarah Palin. A political celebrity who raises money and appears on TV needs the media in a way that a reporter doesn't. But damn if I didn't feel sorry for the way every utterance Palin ever makes is taffy-pulled and inspected for lies."
The LeBron circus
That ESPN special is still getting panned -- you can see my interview with Mike Wilbon here -- with the likes of James Rainey calling the network LeBron James's "chief enabler" in the LAT. But Daily Beast writer Bryan Curtis says the sports channel should be judged by a different standard.
"ESPN isn't a pure-as-driven-snow news network the way that CNN is. ESPN pays hundreds of millions of dollars for the rights to televise sports events like Major League Baseball, NASCAR, college basketball, college football, Monday Night Football, and the NBA. (Example: ESPN recently paid a reported $500 million for the right to televise four college-football bowl games over a period of four years.) So from the jump, the network is in business with its subjects in the way CNN would never be with, say, Barack Obama.
"At the same time, thanks to its swashbuckling executive editor John Walsh, a veteran of Rolling Stone and U.S. News & World Report, ESPN has a very robust, fairly old-school newsgathering operation. The network's reporters -- many of them print veterans -- try to break news about athletes that athletes would rather not have broken. . . .
"Don't blame LeBron James, who has already been demonized, for his star turn. ESPN has been televising James' games since he was in high school; you can hardly blame him for coming back to it when he needed a time slot. 'We created this monster, and he's just playing along,' Jackie MacMullan, yet another ESPN basketball reporter, commented on ESPNews, yet another ESPN outlet, the other day."
Atlantic's Marc Ambinder examines the process through a political lens:
"For things like this, single-topic exclusive interview programs almost never go well. When was the last time that a politician, or, anyone, really, gave an exclusive interview where they revealed their decision and it didn't come off as self-indulgent? Using the Boys and Girls Club as a backdrop looked cynical when it was announced, and it looks like LeBron used the good folks there as a prop. . . .
"The media always makes the story about themselves, somehow. ESPN's lugubrious and unnecessary prime-time special is getting as much attention from the sports media as the decision itself. . . .
"Forget, for a moment, that the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers was recently in favor of moving his team to Oklahoma. His churlish, arrogant, and parochial response to LeBron's decision was beneath his dignity. It may make Clevelanders (Clevelagonians) feel better about themselves for a few days, but it makes no sense."
After a rough period that also included his decision to leave his CNN show, Larry King's divorce is off. TMZ reports that King and his wife have withdrawn the papers as part of their reconciliation.
Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."