At a network largely defined in the public consciousness by Tucker Carlson berating campus activists and Sean Hannity stumping for Donald Trump, Bret Baier is something of an anomaly. His nightly newscast, Special Report, is probably the closest Fox News has ever come to achieving the “fair and balanced” standard set by its original slogan.
While the show has attracted no shortage of complaints from press critics, Baier makes an effort to feature a range of Washington voices on his panels, and Special Report has become known among congressional Democrats as a (relatively) safe space at Fox—a show where they are unlikely to get ambushed with “gotcha” questions or wind up as partisan punching bags.
But even as he dominates the cable-news ratings battle in the 6 p.m. hour—drawing nearly 2.5 million viewers on an average night—it is the primetime partisans like Hannity who continue to serve as the faces of Fox News. And while they join in Trump’s ever-escalating culture war on the press, Baier seems to identify more with the targets of the president’s wrath.
I met with Baier one morning last week at the Hyatt Regency, not far from Fox News’s D.C. bureau. Even in person, the host gives off a kind of televised vibe. He was clad in a camera-ready outfit—dark suit, crisp white shirt, cufflinks, and a flag pin—and spoke between sips of coffee in the same authoritative news-anchor voice that he employs while discussing North Korean missile tests on the air.
Baier was careful throughout our conversation not to insult his primetime colleagues, but he seemed eager to distinguish between his work and theirs. He also discussed his yearlong struggle to book an interview with Trump, and criticized the president’s “over-the-top” attacks on the news media. “For the country,” he told me, “it’s not a good thing.” Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
McKay Coppins: Fox News has been defined, especially in the Trump era, by the Sean Hannitys and the Tucker Carlsons and the Fox and Friendses of the world. How does that affect your role at the network?
Bret Baier: Listen, our opinion shows are really successful and they make a lot of news. That’s what they do. But just like a newspaper splits the news side and opinion side, my job is the news side. If I can be the place where liberals and Republicans and Independents go and say, “Hey, that hour is fair,” that’s the mandate that I’ve been given.
Coppins: So, rather than pushing for a certain approach to the news within Fox, you just focus on your hour and try to tune out everything else?
Baier: I’ll give some editorial guidance for the network overall, but how the opinion shows choose to use that information is not my deal. I do think we get painted by a broad brush, and the loudest critics of Fox News are often the people who’ve never watched Fox News. I tell them, “Watch my show three nights and then send me an email and tell me what you think.” And usually the people who do it come back and say, “You’re right, you covered it fairly.”
Coppins: I want to ask you about the Seth Rich story that was retracted, the one claiming the young Democratic Party staffer who was killed had leaked internal emails to WikiLeaks. Some critics say the network owes a larger explanation for how this story happened—do you think that’s fair?
Baier: I think it’s fair for the critics to say that. We never did the story on the news side or on my show. I felt and we felt that it was necessary for the flagship news program to issue the statement [responding to a related lawsuit] on behalf of the network. How it got there, I don’t know. There’s a long investigation looking into all of that. I don’t think I can get into the details of it. But the editorial checks on my side of the house were in place.
Coppins: Do you think viewers make the distinction between the opinion side and the news side of Fox?
Baier: Well, I hope they can. We try to make that clear, and viewers that have watched Fox for a long time clearly know the difference. I think the opinion folks do amazing stuff almost all the time in terms of tapping into their point-of view and expressing that. When there’s a mistake, they deal with it. And I think on the news side of the house we’ve done a pretty good job of expressing that on behalf of the network.
Coppins: Was covering the Obama administration easier or harder than covering the Trump administration?
Baier: Even in the darkest days of the relationship between the [Obama] White House and Fox, I was still getting calls answered. We were still getting information from [former press secretaries] Jay Carney, Robert Gibbs, or whomever. What has changed is the perception that we have this buddy-buddy, chummy relationship because of the Hannitys and the Laura Ingrahams and the defenders of Donald Trump. But it has been equally hard to get, on the news side, some of that access. We’re in the same boat as every other news network when it comes to asking, pressing, trying to get interviews. It’s been a challenge to try and get President Trump to come do my show. It’s coming up on one year since I last interviewed Trump, right before the election.
Coppins: Some people might be surprised to hear Trump’s not willing to sit down with a news anchor at Fox.
Baier: I know, isn’t that surprising? I mean, I’ve been working every week, almost two or three times a week to talk to people, meet with people, email. And I’ve seen [Trump] off the record for a number of different events. I asked him directly.
Coppins: What did he say?
Baier [attempting an impression of Trump’s voice and hand gestures]: “Oh, yeah, yeah we’ll do it. Definitely, we’re going to do it soon, really soon. Hope [referring to White House Communications Director Hope Hicks], make sure that happens.” But you know it’s sort of a delay-and-we’ll-get-to-it. Finally, I made a public appeal on the show and said it had been 300 days. I’m guessing it’s because [Trump] hasn’t done a lot of hard-news interviews. I hope he does soon. He continues to say that it’s coming but I have yet to see it materialize.
Coppins: Do you have trouble booking Democrats?
Baier: No, I haven’t. I think they appreciate the approach of the show and that a lot of people watch. It gets a lot of eyeballs. We had Hillary Clinton on a couple times. Bernie Sanders hosted a town hall before the Michigan primary.
Coppins: You’ve covered Washington for a long time—how does Trump’s attitude toward the press differ from the other presidents you’ve covered?
Baier: I mean, it’s night and day. Every administration thinks they’re getting bad press. The Bush administration did. The Obama administration thought it was getting bad press from both sides, although arguably that wasn’t the case.
The Trump administration not only complains about it behind the scenes, but the president obviously takes that case to the American people—and sometimes in a very pointed and, in my opinion, over-the-top way, which for us as journalists is very uncomfortable. It may work to fire up the base because we’re a target, we have lower approval ratings than Congress. But for doing our jobs, it’s not a good thing. And probably for the country, it’s not a good thing.
Coppins: When he does things like calling the press “enemies of the American people,” does that concern you?
Baier: Of course it does. Now on the flip side, I will tell you that there have been stories by some organizations where they’ve gotten over their skis. I mean, they’re clearly advocating [against Trump] and not covering [him]. Every time one of those stories happens, it gives ammunition to the president and the people to say it’s all fake news.
Coppins: Fox News often holds itself up as the one outlet with its finger on the pulse of the heartland. How many of your colleagues at Fox saw Trump’s victory coming?
Baier: One: Sean Hannity. Seriously. Maybe two—Laura Ingraham, she was always convinced he was going to win. Most people inside the Fox building believed that Hillary Clinton was going to pull it out. Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham really, truly believed that the country was in a different place. I used to say to Sean, “Really? You think that’s going to happen?” And then I took Uber like 22 times and the drivers were from every ethnicity, around the country. I said, “Listen, you don’t have to tell me, but if you want to tell me, who are you voting for?” And 21 out of 22 people said they were voting for Trump. Every ethnicity! And I said, “This is a moment, you know. This is something that we’re not seeing.” The media missed that.
Coppins: Including you?
Baier: I would include myself. I think we covered it effectively. We covered the anger, we covered the thoughts [that voters had] that both sides suck, and [they wanted to] kick the table over, and something’s got to work better than this. And that’s what happened.
Coppins: How have you accounted for the changing conservative landscape as you’ve assembled the panel each night for your show?
Baier: I try to be balanced in how I book it, but in this landscape, it’s not just left and right. It’s left, right, and Trump. I’ve had to rotate some different people in. Laura Ingraham had been on my show a lot more, as she sort of balanced out my panel from the Trump side. I think that may have led to [her recently announced] 10 p.m. show. I don’t know.
Coppins: During the Obama administration, there were efforts to freeze out Fox News, but for the most part the White House press corps pushed back on that. Do you think your network has shown the same kind of solidarity with President Trump’s favorite punching bags in the media?
Baier: From my perspective, the news side—when there’s been a pushback on those kinds of things like interviews, access—we’ve been fighting along with the White House Correspondents Association for that, even if it wasn’t us. Now, opinion shows clearly have different takes and a loud megaphone, and they had a different stance.
Coppins: With the primetime opinion shows in general, it feels like the media-bashing has been ratcheted up this past year. When you watch this stuff, does it upset you at all as a news guy? I think you know that most journalists are coming from an honest place. Does it bother you to see this stuff?
Baier: Of course it does. There are some times, just like I said, there are organizations that have gone over their skis; there are [Fox] opinion shows that have gone over their skis about that media criticism. Yeah, sometimes you cringe as somebody who covers [the news] alongside other colleagues in Washington.
But I think you can point to other networks where they have opinion shows that say some pretty outlandish stuff, too, at times. There’s not a lot of love out there for the media in the country, but for the most part [journalists] are just trying to do their job. What I know is most [journalists] are pretty good people, and when they make a mistake the perception I know is that they’re jumped on for that.
Coppins: What most concerns you about what this administration is doing when it comes to press freedom?
Baier: What most concerns me is when they were thinking about doing away with the White House briefings, and then they did them off camera. I thought that was a trend that was heading in the wrong direction. I was advocating always that the briefing is key for all sides to be able to ask questions. And I think [Press Secretary] Sarah Huckabee Sanders has done a good job at trying to be accessible.
Coppins: You talked recently on Fox News about the controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. This president seems especially attuned to the culture war, and he knows what he’s doing. He knows what his base wants; he knows these things are going to get attention; he knows it’s going to drive news cycles. As a reporter, how do you view your role in covering these culture-war provocations?
Baier: I think you have to cover them on their face: what it is, what he’s saying, what people react to. But then you have to have, ideally, analysis of what may be behind it—“Look at the shiny thing over here!” I remember thinking during the campaign that [Trump] was throwing out a giant hook and we were fish he was trying to lure to get a day of coverage on whatever the issue was. And it was true! He steered the media a number of days. It still happens, where people’s heads explode about something he said. But I think our job is to cut through that and to say, “Here’s what else is happening.” [To say,] “This may be why he’s doing this: He lost in Alabama; he’s losing health care; he’s not exactly in a great place with North Korea. There’s a number of big things that he really doesn’t want to focus on.”
Coppins: One of the big things it seems Trump often tries to distract from is the ongoing Russia investigation. Do you think that Fox has covered the news aggressively enough? Have you guys broken enough news on that?
Baier: I would like to break more, but I want it to be accurate news. There have been a lot of things that have petered out, that turned out not to be accurate. And sometimes the anonymous sourcing [that other outlets use] seems to be not as strong. I’d rather take our time and be right, but I would like to break some more news.
Coppins: Fox should have some of the best sources in this administration, right? It seems like you could be breaking a lot of news related to the investigation if it was a priority.
Baier: I think it’s going to get to a more fevered pitch soon. It seems like things are coming to a head, and there’s a sense on the Hill that there are going to be some indictments. We want to make sure we’re on top of it, and every morning meeting it’s on a checklist of what we’re covering that day. And we haven’t shied away from doing the story. That said, the original charge and some of the really heated rhetoric about it I don’t think has panned out as of yet. Clearly, [Independent Counsel Robert] Mueller’s onto something, and he’s doing interviews I think this week with White House officials, so we may be hearing more about that.
Coppins: What’s next for you? Do you think you’re going to be doing this until you retire?
Baier: I don’t know if I’m going to be doing it until I retire. I know I’m going to be doing it through 2020.
I think for all the challenges that Fox has had in the past year—and I’m not going to sugarcoat it, it’s been a tough year—it’s remained No. 1 even through the toughest times. This is a channel that didn’t change anything for 15 years—we had the same lineup. I think we’re hitting our stride, and there’s a lot of optimism inside the walls. It’s not just talk—you really feel it. They’ve told me the resources are there to expand our news operations. That makes me happy because Washington is the center of the news universe.