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Fox News's Bill Hemmer melds middle-of-the-road persona with conservative guest list

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 12, 2010; C01

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 Boehner and Eric Cantor, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, economist Art Laffer and officials from the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute. 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." Referring to the Clinton White House press secretary, he added, "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 News 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 as a producer by logging every Reds pitch and Bengals play, Hemmer was working as a sports reporter for Cincinnati's 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 quit his job to backpack around the world, spending a year in countries from Vietnam to India to Egypt. When Hemmer returned, WCPO hired him back to report local news. Two years after that, in 1995, Hemmer jumped to CNN. He gained a bit of national attention during the 2000 election recount in Florida, when he spent 37 days in Tallahassee and was nicknamed the "Chad Lad."

Hemmer is diplomatic in describing his departure from CNN, where he 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, N.Y. 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 push for health care reform. 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 leadoff 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."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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