Voice Of Reason

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON - Brit Hume has the Voice. Perhaps you've heard it before. Deep and unwavering, at once assuring and assured, it instantly conveys authority. The Voice is one you might secretly long to hear from an airline pilot or surgeon.

Hume is the chief Washington anchor for Fox News Channel, a calming presence for the cheeky ratings king of cable television news - a grown-up among fraternity boys.

Unlike Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, Hume is unlikely to blurt out a coarse sexual term on the air or bump his car into a woman over a parking dispute. Not for Hume the patriotic rants of Fox talk-show host Bill O'Reilly or anchor and commentator Neal Cavuto.

Hume's is a more reasoned tone. Just listen to the Voice characterize how the conventional media - much of it very good, by his account - left an opening for an upstart station like his.

"I had come to believe over time, that there, indeed, was - and is - a distinct bias in the way news is covered," Hume says. "This was largely an unconscious thing, but it was real."

Reporters for major news outlets - newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Sun, networks such as ABC News, his former employer - absorbed the values of certain social movements of the 1960s and '70s, Hume says. Gay rights and environmental efforts are given uniformly uncritical hearings. Legalized abortion is largely portrayed as an unquestioned good, he says. Religious conservatives see themselves placed on the fringes of respectable society.

Even the journalistic aphorism "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted" is itself loaded with a political agenda that not all Americans share, he argues.

"A very large percentage of readers and viewers out there were really insulted and found their sensibilities offended," Hume says. "I had always had the feeling that if somebody built a broadcast network that challenged that, that there would be a tremendous market for it."

And so there is. Fox News has combined hard news and sharp talk, with an emphasis on perceived outrages from the elite classes of politics, media and popular culture. Less than 7 years old, Fox News now dominates cable news ratings.

CNN maintains a much larger staff of journalists. During the war in Iraq, Fox leaned heavily on its British sister network, Sky News, to supplement stories from reporters abroad such as Greg Kelly and Rick Leventhal. Yet Fox's ratings lead expanded, upending conventional wisdom that held viewers turn back to the networks and cable pioneer CNN in times of crisis.

"We both have good stories we can tell," says Larry Goodman, president of CNN's sales and marketing division. So far this year, 637,000 people are typically watching Fox at any given time, compared to 445,000 viewers for CNN - far fewer than the average network evening news program, but a strong showing for cable. Even according to Goodman, Fox News is the fastest-growing cable network, up 139 percent over last year's levels.

On a recent spring morning, Hume sits in his office just a block from the U.S. Capitol sorting through possible items for his two-minute, sharp-edged "Grapevine" feature on his weeknight newscast, Special Report. An assistant suggests an item about a Web site calling for the return of anti-war activist Michael Moore's Academy Award. While Hume loves tweaking Hollywood and liberals - and Moore would be both - he quickly concludes the story doesn't reach his standards of what's worth noting.

Hume's reading glasses dangle from a string that reaches below his long face. His striped tie is perfectly complemented by the handkerchief tucked into the pocket of his double-breasted suit jacket. He is surrounded by framed photographs of presidents and senators, a promotional poster for Fox in the black-and-white style of the old Saturday Evening Post, commemorative images of the Sept. 11 attacks.

A native Washingtonian and a product of St. Albans School and the University of Virginia, Hume would, just a few weeks shy of 60, seem the very personification of the political establishment.

Overhead, a disembodied female voice beckons with news of a "320" call - a reference to a line reserved for a hot development. Washington bureau chief Kim Hume brought the idea with her to Fox from ABC News, where she also once worked. The couple was married in 1993.

On Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume makes little secret of his skeptical conservative take, but on Special Report, he creates a newscast that mixes polished taped stories with updates of breaking stories. And Hume argues that Fox News sits atop the cable news world because of the value placed on the kind of old-fashioned reporting he favors, not political posturing.

He describes with pride, for example, the April evening when Carl Rochelle of MSNBC broke the story of U.S. bombing raids over a Baghdad restaurant to try to kill Saddam Hussein. After being beaten by about 20 minutes on the story, Hume says Fox News reporters such as Bret Baier and Carl Cameron chipped away so proficiently that they had wrested control of it by night's end. (A disbelieving Rochelle disputes that. "I don't think they owned that story. I don't even think they came close," he says.)

Colleagues say Hume is "fair and balanced" - the foundation of Fox's marketing campaign. He earned that reputation over the decades at the news service United Press International, the Baltimore Evening Sun and ABC News. In 1991, he won an Emmy for his coverage of the Persian Gulf war. In April, CNN's top audience draw, Larry King Live, was surpassed in the ratings not just by O'Reilly but, for the first time, by Hume as well.

Fox has been unabashed in its desire to be expressly American - make that pro-American - even as executives say they are tenaciously independent of the government. Hume, like many others, wears a flag pin in his lapel - an issue that causes consternation among some journalists and almost no concern among viewers.

Yet a study to be released in June by the left-of-center media watchdog group FAIR found Hume's program in the middle of the pack of major television newscasts in including sources other than current or former government officials for comment on the war in Iraq. Hume's weekday evening show Special Report interviewed more "official sources" than NBC's or PBS' nightly news programs did, but it involved fewer than appeared on CBS or CNN.

FAIR concluded that all the outlets were tilted toward the Bush administration, with debates about tactics rather than goals. But Hume's show, often derided by FAIR as blatantly conservative, was judged to be little different from his competitors.

Hume, who's been with Fox News since 1997, says he takes great pains to be even-handed. He cites his coverage on ABC of the 1984 Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale, a liberal former senator and vice president, as an example. "Personally, I didn't want Walter Mondale to win that election," Hume says now. "But I admired him - and I was determined to be fair to him."

President Clinton found Hume incredibly unfair and imbalanced a decade ago, stalking out of a press conference in response to Hume's question about the selection process for then-Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Hume had little admiration for the Democratic president and would later write pieces for the avidly anti-Clinton American Spectator, a political magazine.

Still, here's how the Voice, then with ABC, posed the question in that rumbling baritone:

"The withdrawal of the [Lani] Guinier nomination, sir, and your apparent focus on Judge [Stephen] Breyer, and your turn, late it seems, to Judge Ginsburg, may have created an impression, perhaps unfair, of a certain zigzag quality in the decision-making process here. I wonder, sir, if you could kind of walk us through it, perhaps disabuse us of any notion we might have along those lines. Thank you."

Polite. Restrained. And a question that political reporters at the time agreed had to be asked. Within days, Clinton signaled that he might have reacted intemperately.

John Moody, Fox News' senior vice president for news editorial says of Hume, "He's so experienced and consistently unflappable. Whether it's Monica Lewinsky, Gary Condit, 9/11 or the war in Afghanistan, he's the person that you most want on the air."

Maxine Isaacs, Mondale's press secretary and deputy campaign manager in 1984, says Hume was among the fairest journalists she encountered. "We had reporters who would put a tag at the end of every story that would imply what we were saying was spin," she says.

Hume, by contrast, "was willing to hear our explanation of what happened and take it into account," says Isaacs, now an adjunct lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "When I see him on Fox, I don't agree with him politically, but I trust him."

There is, of course, another way to look at Hume and Fox News, rather than as an antidote to a liberal press.

You can find this alternate view most recently in the work of Eric Alterman, media critic for the left-of-center Nation magazine and for MSNBC.com.

Alterman's new book, What Liberal Media?, directly confronts the way Hume - along with former CBS News reporter Bernard Goldberg, among others - characterizes the press. The Fox mantra of "fair and balanced" is a poke in the eye of the rest of the media, Alterman says, a deliberate provocation intended to feed the grievances of conservatives who feel alienated.

Reporters continually prove themselves to be social liberals and economic conservatives, Alterman says. For the minions of Rupert Murdoch - owner of Fox News, the New York Post, the Fox network, the Weekly Standard and a number of other media outlets - to say they are countering a smothering "liberal" press with middle-of-the-road fare is false, Alterman says.

Fox News executives, after all, were the ones who gave O'Reilly, a populist conservative (with a few stray stances), the platform to upstage Rush Limbaugh and, through his show The O'Reilly Factor, become the biggest mouth on television, Alterman notes. They are the ones who allowed Geraldo Rivera to reinvent (and embarrass) himself anew when he presented himself as a super-patriot after the terrorist attacks. Who gave a war correspondent's microphone to disgraced former Reagan aide Lt. Col. Oliver North - then added the disclaimer "please be sure to label him a 'contributor.'" Who pairs an insistent conservative (Sean Hannity) with a soft-spoken liberal (Alan Colmes) and call it balance.

Hume "is actually a journalist," Alterman says. "He is more grown up, and he doesn't have a rabid-dog approach. He's not someone who has a blatant disregard for the truth." But Alterman also argues that Hume frames stories selectively, often seeking out the worst light in which to portray Democrats and liberals, while soft-pedaling issues that might affect Republicans.

The cable network has become a favorite target of Comedy Central's Daily Show, a satirical news program, which routinely mocks its often-overt nationalistic tenor. More serious commentators, particularly within journalistic circles, have expressed qualms as well.

Over at CNN, which is enjoying robust ratings even as it loses ground to Fox News, executives like to say Fox News has a talk-show format with only incidental news offerings.

"We're a news network that has some talk on it," says Jim Weiss, a senior spokesman for CNN. "They didn't defeat CNN on its field, so they changed the field."

Hume says that's untrue - a condescending attempt to cloak Fox's ratings success.

But the network's fortunes have depended at least partly on a brawler's instincts. Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes recently acknowledged to The New Yorker that he had directed the hosts of Fox's morning shows to insult CNN anchor Aaron Brown on the air. Other Fox stories routinely attack other media outlets. Ailes, a brilliant former political strategist for former Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, learned well the lesson that successful campaigns often depend on defining one's enemies.

Even Hume - Fox's Voice of Reason - says the news channel's more controversial figures, such as Rivera and North, are useful as part of the mix. But he suggests Fox relies far less often on insult and invective than its critics would suggest: "There are going to be extremes, maybe. It's not what's encouraged."

Hume's own newscast is much more sober than that of Smith's, the New York-based anchor. And it betrays the former network correspondent's hunger for highly produced, carefully knit stories. The approach often conflicts with the live-television, update-happy philosophy rooted at Fox's Manhattan headquarters. But Hume says his outlook is nonetheless welcome at Fox News - and says it is the foundation of Fox's ratings successes.

"If you can't come to the plate with solid, well-analyzed news content, then you're going to lose," Hume says. "Everything else is secondary."

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