Fox News host Bill Hemmer arrived in Orlando on Sunday night to cover the massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub where 49 people died in an attack perpetrated by 29-year-old Omar Mateen. Being a prominent newsman at a prominent broadcaster in the United States, Hemmer has experience covering mass shootings and acts of terrorism — Boston, Newtown, Fort Hood, Paris. With that experience come expectations, especially about the role of law-enforcement authorities in keeping the media apprised of developments.
On this front, Orlando didn’t impress Hemmer. “You would typically get a news conference every three hours,” said Hemmer in a chat yesterday with the Erik Wemple Blog, referring to other events. “They don’t do this on this story, and why is that? That’s where we get many of our facts. Right now all the reporting is based on sourcing,” he continued, in a nod to the sorts of stories that rely on unnamed “law enforcement sources” and the like. Hemmer acknowledged that such an approach has its merits, but: “How come they’re not answering questions? . . . I understand the investigation is moving quickly, but, as an American, I want to know what’s important to understand about this.”
A look at the Twitter feed for the Orlando police department turns up multiple briefings on Sunday, with a diminishing frequency over the following days. Michelle Guido, a spokeswoman for the Orlando Police Department, responds, “It’s true that there were more briefings on Sunday and Monday than in the days following. This was a very fluid and changing story and it was immensely important to provide the public and the media with the most up to date and accurate information possible. . . . We understand that there is always a desire for more information but that has to be balanced with the investigation and providing only the most accurate information we can.”
Like other mass shootings before it, Orlando revisited a debate among media outlets on how best to report the facts of the event without glamorizing the gunman. On a CNN broadcast Monday night, Anderson Cooper claimed that the name and image of Mateen had already circulated too widely. Hemmer, who on normal news days co-hosts “America’s Newsroom” on Fox News along with Martha MacCallum, doesn’t share Cooper’s zeal for stripping such key data points from newscasts. “The first question I had Sunday morning when I saw the news was, ‘Who did it? What’s their name? And, where are they from?'”
“I find that my audience, our audience, wants to know those answers. They are not afraid of it. They want to understand it,” said Hemmer. From the Erik Wemple Blog’s reading of Fox News coverage, the network named Mateen and ran his photograph at a frequency that appeared to exceed that of CNN, which looked as if it was taking pains to avoid doing so. Researchers and activists have pleaded with news organizations to stop short of providing mass killers notoriety based on evidence that they thrive on such attention. Mateen, for instance, called a local news channel to inquire as to whether it was aware of his rampage. The Erik Wemple Blog wonders whether covering the shooter’s actions 24/7 — while minimizing mention of his name and airing of his photograph — could possibly serve as a deterrent to future mass murderers.
Channeling the sensibilities of his audience is precisely what Hemmer said he was doing last November when his remarks gained him a long tail on the media-watching Internet. The backdrop was President Obama’s much-criticized briefing in Turkey just after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Obama defiantly batted away questions about possible weaknesses in his strategy and pledged to stay the course. On location at the Place de la Republique, Hemmer moved away from his usual role as mediator between competing viewpoints. He said:
“President Obama has made it quite clear in that Q-and-A that lasted more than 45 minutes that he has accepted there are evils in this world and evils in places like Paris, France, and this is something that we all must face today. It’s a reality in the world we live. If you’re at home wondering, with your own set of anger and your own set of fears about what could happen next, you are not alone, because that’s precisely what you feel here in Paris, France. And if you were waiting for clarification on your feelings through that Q-and-A, you weren’t going to get it. The president’s strategy, as stated over the weekend, continues as is.”
That was an anchor responding to breaking news, said Hemmer. “My reaction was, ‘Wait a minute — the people watching this want to know what’s gonna change so it doesn’t happen in their town, and I reacted the way I did because that’s the way I felt, and I’d argue that people around me felt the same way,” he said. “I am a human being first, and you can you get the sense around you what people are experiencing and oftentimes — sometimes — it’s our duty to reflect that.” Fair point, though there’s a concomitant duty to point out that perhaps calls for new strategies in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack may well overreach.
On the full disclosure front, Hemmer has long been among the Erik Wemple Blog’s favorite forces on cable TV, as we celebrated his considerable smoothness in a long-ago post on Fox News’s daytime programming. He’s the Vasily Ivanovich Alekseyev of Fox News, a guy who follows the pit-of-the-earth morning program “Fox & Friends” and, along with MacCallum, power-lifts the network into respectability. We asked him about the co-existence of Fox News’s opinion people — the “Fox & Friends” crew, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, for example — with his news crew. “I know the product we do at 9 a.m. and it’s based on the news of the day and the opinion guys are there for a reason: They are very good at what they do. We believe we’re very good at the news of the day and that’s where we keep our focus.”
That focus, when it comes to mass-murder events, boils down to a simple formula. “I think my feeling then is the same as now,” said Hemmer, referring to his work for CNN in the late 1990s covering NATO airstrikes aimed at ending a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Kosovo. “You talk to people face to face and ask them how they are doing. Ultimately all of this has such a human component to it.” Reporters, anchors, cameramen and photographers, of course, eventually move on to the next story. “We get to fly home. And the victims, the survivors, the families, the communities — they are scarred deeply forever,” said Hemmer.