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Bret Baier is an anchor for the Fox News Channel, and he likes to say that he gets a report card every day - his ratings. If so, he's getting pretty high marks. Bill O'Reilly's opinion show on Fox remains the top draw of all cable news shows, but Baier's political newscast, "Special Report," often comes in second.
As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the 40-year-old Baier is at the forefront of a younger generation of stars at Fox News, but he inherits some lingering questions about the network.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: If all you knew about Bret Baier was that he was a Fox News anchor, the moment that might stick in your mind would be his interview a year ago with President Obama the day before the vote on the landmark health care bill.
BARACK OBAMA: So the notion...
BRET BAIER: You guarantee that they're going to be able to keep their doctor.
OBAMA: Well, you've got to let me finish my answer.
BAIER: But sir, I know you don't like to filibuster, but...
OBAMA: Well, I'm trying to answer your questions...
FOLKENFLIK: Fox's often caustic conservative opinion hosts have had tough words for Democrats and their liberal allies, but the network's executives say their news programs are fair and balanced, as the slogan goes.
Nonetheless, Baier's intense back-and-forth with Mr. Obama has been added to a list of complaints that Fox's hard news reporting is often unfair to Democrats, too. Baier tells me he was promised a 30-minute interview that got whittled to 20 minutes and then 15 just as he sat down.
BAIER: So we started, and there was a White House aide over my camera, in the distance, holding an iPhone that was clicking back from 15 minutes over the camera. So I asked the first question, and the president kind of gave this stump answer that I'd heard earlier in the week about health care that was taking a long time.
FOLKENFLIK: That wasn't combativeness, Baer says, just an anchor's need to get the questions out in the time allotted. In person, Baier's a genial guy with a million-megawatt smile that's quick to crease his face, but that fades as he talks about how he got his big break.
He had been a regional reporter for Fox News in Atlanta when, on one bright morning in September, 2001, Baier and a producer were ordered to drive north.
BAIER: So that night, as the Pentagon was burning, I was doing reports for Fox affiliates around the country.
FOLKENFLIK: Baier became the channel's first on-air Pentagon correspondent shortly after.
BAIER: I traveled with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, and a buddy of mine in Washington actually found me an apartment, and I was overseas when everything was packed up and moved. I never went back.
FOLKENFLIK: Baier became White House correspondent and has been in the mix ever since, two years ago inheriting his mentor Brit Hume's political newscast.
Jamie McIntyre was CNN's Pentagon reporter from 1992 to 2008 and says he's always trusted Baier's instincts.
JAMIE MCINTYRE: I remember thinking that if you took the average Bret Baier report at the end of the day, and you took mine, and you stripped the names out so you didn't know who was producing them, I'm not sure you could tell which report was generated by CNN and which report was generated by the Fox News Channel.
FOLKENFLIK: But according to McIntyre, the focus of story assignments was often notably different at Fox, which he says is closely attuned to the conservative sensibilities of its core audience.
Baier's "Special Report" relies heavily on reported segments, but half the show is a nightly discussion he moderates among pundits dubbed the Fox News All- stars. Stephen Hayes of the conservative Weekly Standard is a regular. I met him on the set after a recent show.
STEPHEN HAYES: To me, the single best thing about the panel is the conversation, and it's a real conversation.
FOLKENFLIK: Baier said he and Hayes were friends at DePauw University.
HAYES: Same fraternity.
BAIER: Despite the gray hair, I'm older than Steve. I hazed Hayes.
FOLKENFLIK: On that night, in addition to Hayes, the panel included a conservative who's a former senior aide to President George W. Bush and a political report for the Washington Post. I asked Baier how that lineup reflected the fairness that he promises.
BAIER: We really do strive to balance out the panel every night, and it's more an analysis. You're not getting spin-meisters, you know. You're not getting political types. These are actually journalists or columnists. They come from various, you know, organizations.
FOLKENFLIK: I reviewed six months' worth of Baier's panels, and the same mix typically prevailed: two clear-cut conservatives and one other analyst, sometimes a Democrat or liberal but usually a journalist from a non-ideological news outlet. As I told Baier, that would seem to under-represent the left and also to cast reporters as though they're surrogate liberals.
BAIER: I understand your point. I think numerous people can make the case of what the administration is trying to do, trying to say, that provides a perspective, not perhaps advocating for that position but analyzing it.
FOLKENFLIK: Jamie McIntyre, the former CNN reporter, says that's an encapsulation of Baier's rise at Fox.
MCINTYRE: He's cracked the code. He's figured out what it is he needs to do with the employer he works for. And I think he's also trying to uphold his personal standards, and I think he does that pretty well.
FOLKENFLIK: Baier says his report card, those two million viewers a night, proves his approach to the news is working.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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