Bret Baier is taking a cue from John Oliver.
The Fox News “Special Report” host was watching Oliver’s inaugural show on HBO last Sunday when it hit him that the world’s biggest election — where up to 800 million people in India will be voting — is getting almost no coverage in the U.S. “After I saw that, I said ‘we are dropping the ball on that coverage,’ Baier told us at the TVNewser Show on Tuesday. His team is now working on a story about the election which wraps up May 12.
Baier says shows like Oliver’s as well as “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” “can really penetrate on news stories.”
We interviewed Baier for about 20 minutes following his keynote speech. We discussed everything from the 2014 and 2016 elections, to how he engages with “the most fervent critics of Fox News,” and the current state of the media’s relationship with the White House: “I think there is a sense that the president feels like he doesn’t get enough good treatment in a media that has, for the most part, turned a little bit on this White House, in policy and substance.”
I began by asking Baier what he thought about the president’s approval rating, which an ABC News/Washington Post poll released earlier that morning showed it had dropped to 41%.
Bret Baier: I think there’s been a lot of focus on domestic issues — jobs and the economy. But foreign policy, there’s a lot of concern about that. That poll is the culmination of a number of polls, Chris, that have shown a decline. That’s a real potential problem for vulnerable red state democrats, who, I think, you’re going to hear more vocal about their opposition to the administration and the president, one way or another.
Chris Ariens: Let’s talk a little bit about foreign policy. Your colleague Ed Henry at a news conference this morning asked the president, ‘What is the Obama doctrine?’ And I’m going to quote from Playbook, give a hat-tip to Mike Allen. The president said, ‘Well, Ed, I doubt that I’m going to have time to lay out my entire foreign policy doctrine. And there are actually some complimentary pieces as well about my foreign policy, but I’m not sure you ran them.’ This is an ongoing thing between the White House and Fox News. What is the animosity there?
Baier: There is, and has been, little digs here and there, between the president and Ed Henry, particularly, about the network. Overall, I’ll just say that we have a great working relationship over there because we still get questions answered, behind the scenes we’re getting things done. Even in the darkest hours, years and years ago when there was a dust-up and the White House was using Fox News as a talking point, we were still reporting for the news side of Fox News Channel. I think there is a sense that the president feels like he doesn’t get enough good treatment in a media that has, for the most part, turned a little bit on this White House, in policy and substance. And I think what the message was on his foreign policy answer was, ‘don’t screw things up.’ He essentially used a baseball analogy saying we’d rather have singles and doubles and no errors. And I think there are politicians in both parties who think there needs to be more to his foreign policy and they’re getting challenged on the front pages of papers that usually support him one way or another and news outlets that are usually complimentary.
Baier: Well he’s getting criticized in the New York Times and the Washington Post, traditional outlets and not just noting criticism, really forceful criticism over policy.
Ariens: Let’s bring it back to politics. There are at least 25 members of the house, six members of the senate, who are not running again. Any races that you find particularly interesting that you’re covering or will be covering on your show?
Baier: We will cover a lot of races on the show, especially in the senate because the balance of power shifts if the Republicans win six seats they win the majority. Right now, it seems like they are spreading the field, a lot more than democrats thought about at the beginning. There are a couple of big races: Mary Landrieu’s race in Louisiana. And in North Carolina, Kay Hagen. Mark Begich in Alaska, the Shaheen race in New Hampshire. On the democratic side their hopes are pinned on the daughter of Sam Nunn down in Georgia who is running what looks like to be an effective race toward the middle…
Ariens: Which you would need to do in Georgia…
Baier: Which you would need to do in Georgia, yes. There are a couple others. Mitch McConnell, if he makes it through the primary, and he’s expected to, in Kentucky, he could face a serious challenge from (Alison Lundergan) Grimes who’s down there, and she’s an effective campaigner and a centrist Democrat. One surprising race is Michigan. The Republican, a female, Terri Lynn Land, is ahead in the polls in blue Michigan. That is not a good sign for Democrats.
Ariens: Let’s jump ahead a couple years and 2016. We know the names that are out there on the Democratic side and the Republican side. Is there anybody that you’re following, that we’re not talking about?
Baier: Under the radar, increasingly coming over the radar, is Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. I think he’s going to run. We’ve talked about Scott Walker in Wisconsin and we’ve talked about others: Chris Christie and Jeb Bush, that sort of thing. I do think that there is a possibility that (Massachusetts Senator) Elizabeth Warren makes a run in the democratic primary and challenges Hillary Clinton and that Hillary Clinton is not a shoo-in. One: that she is going to run is not 100%. And two: that there’s this angst in the Democratic party that she’s the one. I think it’s going to be fascinating. But we have, as you know, a ton of time before 2016.
Ariens: Let’s talk about debate on cable news. It seems to me that the days of fiery debates, with lots of shouting and little revealing, are past. Do you think there is still good substantive debate on TV news? Who’s doing it well?
Baier: Well, I like to think our show has a pretty good debate, and the panel…
Ariens: Softball, I guess… other than your show.
Baier: Right, right. I watch the Sunday shows. I like Chris Wallace and what he does on his panels. I think Jonathan Karl, when he sits in (on ABC’s ‘This Week’), is a really great guy to get things stirred up and the discussion is interesting. A lot of our shows have interesting debate that doesn’t devolve into yelling perhaps as much as it used to. Obviously there’s a split between opinion shows and news shows and where my focus is, is on 6 to 7, and not what everybody else is doing. We try every day to advance the ball in some way that is not conventional wisdom talking points but analysis of the news of the day and something that somebody can bring to the water cooler the next day.
Ariens: You talked about having to rein yourself in on Twitter when it gets pretty heated. You have to have pretty thick skin in this business. Your colleague across the street at NBC, David Gregory found that out last week. How do you deal with that when people are coming at you, and you’re in a publication like the Washington Post or New York Times, or even on Twitter?
Baier: I find that when I engage with people, the most fervent critics of Fox News overall paint with a huge broad brush. Suddenly I’m exactly like Hannity’s show, so my show’s the same. And then they’re very adamant and angry on twitter and I’ll tweet back and say, ‘hey thanks for watching’ or ‘thanks for the tip’ or ‘we did x, y, z’ and I actually engage them and I do it on email too, and I’ll get amazing, vitriolic emails. And I’ll respond to them and they’ll say ‘wow, I didn’t know you respond to them.’ And I take about an hour and a half every day to deal with email, Twitter and Facebook and I think that as crazy as it sounds it’s like one viewer at a time. And if I can convince the people who have preconceived notions about Fox that my show from 6 to 7 is a news show that I’m proud of, then I think we can get viewers who don’t usually tune in.
Ariens: We talked a little bit about debate shows. CNN recently brought back “Crossfire” but then pre-empted it for coverage of missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. What do you think of CNN’s non-stop coverage of that?
Baier: I spend a lot of time just preparing for my show, getting ready for my show and then on my show. My producer, during a piece will tell me what the competition is doing just to say … that we’re not missing something. Yesterday, was the first day in about a month that he was in my ear saying that it was not plane coverage that Wolf Blitzer had at 6pm. And they had tornado coverage. Listen, it’s their decision. They obviously rode high with the ratings at the beginning. I think it’s a matter of news judgement about when something is actually advancing with facts that you can report. And at some point the American people are like a pendulum, and they know when too much, is too much.
Ariens: Does your producer do that at 6:30, too, when the network evening newscasts come on? Does he tell you what the leads are so you have an idea…
Baier: Yeah, we get a sense. He doesn’t do it as much at 6:30. We do it at 6, because we’re really the only option on cable for viewers who are hungry for that. But I do get a sense of what the network newscasts are doing.
Ariens: Joe Klein was at the 92Y on Sunday night and CNN’s coverage came up and he works for TIME, of course, which is part of Time Warner, soon to be split off, CNN will be a part of Time Warner and TIME will be part of Time Inc. He essentially said the only newscast on at 6 o’clock now is “Special Report with Bret Baier.” Did that surprise you?
Baier: It was a welcome surprise from Joe Klein. And I Tweeted out, thank you Joe, we’ll take one viewer at a time.
Ariens: News as satire. There’s a new show on HBO, premiered Sunday night. John Oliver’s show. What do you make of news as satire. Do you think there’s room for another show like that?
Baier: I do. I have actually watched it and I think he does a pretty good job. And it’s amazing. I’ve given speeches at high schools and colleges. And I’ll do the whole thing… ‘raise your hand, how do you get your news?’ And first you do newspapers. And almost nobody raises their hand. And then internet, and there’s a few people smattering, who get solely their news from the internet. Cable news, a little bit more of the room and I’ll say ‘well, how many of you watch Daily Show or Colbert Report’ the whole room has hands up. And that’s how they are getting news. And there’s something a little scary about that. I will tell you that some of these shows really penetrate on news stories. For example, John Oliver this past week did a pretty long piece about the elections in India and it was funny, but it was also penetrating about our business in that we have not focused on that, in that it is the number one election in the world in terms of voters…
Ariens: Something like 800 million voters…
Baier: 800 million voters … As I said, we have 310 million in the U.S. It’s insane. Not only that, it’s an interesting election in that the main candidate has a controversial past. He’s leading. And he’s been campaigning around the country of India using holograms. He stands in New Delhi …
Ariens: Didn’t CNN do that a few years ago?…
Baier: It worked better for the India guy … anyway, we’re going to do a big piece on the India election which wraps up May 12. After I saw that, I said ‘we are dropping the ball on that coverage.’ And it’s something that people, I think, need to know about, just for the betterment of us.
Ariens: Are you going to give a hat-tip to John Oliver?
Baier: I may have to.
Ariens: What do you think of Stephen Colbert taking over for David Letterman?
Baier: I think it’s going to be interesting to watch, in that he’s not going to be in character. He’s going to be Stephen Colbert. Or really Colbert (pronounces the hard “t.”) And I think it’s going to be an interesting transition. I look forward to seeing it.
Ariens: You talked about your son Paul and how he’s on the mend. What if comes up to in 10 years or so and says, ‘Dad, I want to do what you do, I want to be a journalist.’ What would you tell him?
Baier: Go for it. I tell him every night that he can be whatever he wants to be. He says he wants to be a doctor which is pretty amazing after three open heart surgeries and seven angioplasties. My advice for anybody, not just my son, is that whatever you do, you have to have passion about it — it sounds cliche — you just have to keep on going. And in the beginning, in news, at affiliates around the country, it’s not exactly an easy business. The pay is not great. Some of the stories … I covered loggerhead sea turtle nesting in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina in my first on-air job.
Ariens: You talked about how you engage beyond Twitter, hosting Google+ hangouts and doing your after-the-show show. Have the research people come to you and said, ‘wow this is really translating into viewership because you’re reaching an audience that may not be tuning in at 6pm, and they’re coming back and watching you at 6?’
Baier: I don’t know that we’ve pinpointed it down to that. I know simply by numbers that the more you engage with people, the better the chance that some of those people are going to have Nielsen boxes and they’re going to be on the business side of news potentially affecting your ratings. I think we draw more and more people in the more we try and reach out. The future of our business is going to be that. I can foresee a time when it’s going to be much more interactive in your living room. It’s like computer-slash-TV. You’re voting on things. Things are much more interactive, because, we are getting trained that we have a voice every day and people are going to want more of that. We’re trying to figure out the best utilization of that and we’re trying everything. Throwing everything out there to possibly do.
Ariens: Fox has a loyal audience. People who watch the show, day after day… watch pretty much the whole schedule. Shepard Smith told us it’s a very linear viewership. How does knowing who your audience is, play into how you produce a show every night?
Baier: That’s interesting. That doesn’t really factor in to our equation, about knowing our audience. We’re actually striving for the audience that we don’t have. The people who maybe haven’t given us a shot. We’re not changing what we’re doing coverage-wise. Our mentality is that, if you build it they will come. In other words if you have a solid news product and you are proud of it and at the end of the show, you say, ‘that was a good show.’ Word of mouth. Social media. Whatever. Joe Klein. However we can take the promotion, will eventually lead to more people reaching out to us looking for a solid newscast.
Ariens: Who’s your dream interview?
Baier: Pope Francis.
Ariens: Working on that?
Ariens: You have an in there at the Vatican. Right? Greg Burke, the former Fox News correspondent now working for the Vatican?
Baier: Former Fox News guy. Right. You know you would think that would be an in, but he’s careful about his former allegiances. But, I’ve been over to Rome. I think I’d love to say we have a shot at it. I think it’s divine intervention about whether we get an interview or not.
Ariens: Well, hopefully somebody will tweet this out. He’s on Twitter. @Pontifex
Baier: That’s right.
Ariens: Bret Baier, thanks so much for coming in.
Baier: Thanks, Chris.
Ariens: We really appreciate you helping us celebrate 10 years of TVNewser.
Ariens: Good luck with the book. June 3 it comes out.
Baier: June 3. “Special Heart” you can pre-order now.