One Of Cable News’ Most Objective Voices

[Autonomous q&@] A Fox News moderator of the final GOP debate before votes get cast, on Donald Trump, Rachel Maddow, Megyn Kelly, Kurt Russell and the future of media

As our politics and our media — and our country as a whole — becomes more polarized than ever, it’s hard to be a public figure while keeping your opinions private (especially with 140-character bursts of thought so prevalent and at your disposal). And when you anchor a show on Fox News, many presuppose a point of view.

But Bret Baier has proven to be a steady, unwavering, objective exception. Through 18 years on Fox News, 7 at the helm of FNC’s nightly newscast Special Report (and 35,000+ tweets), he has kept his opinions on the sidelines. Baier moderates his second GOP debate tomorrow night, as voters in Iowa prepare to brave the cold and (finally) cast the first votes of the 2016 cycle. As Donald Trump plays will-he-or-won’t-he attend the debate (here’s Fox News’ latest statement on that matter), we talked to Baier for the latest in our Autonomous q&@ series.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Autonomous: It feels like it’s been years, but really, it’s been almost a year since the candidates started running for president. Now we’re less than a week away from the first actual vote being cast. You’ve covered a lot of these - does this cycle feel different?

Bret Baier: Yeah, I think this is unlike we’ve seen before — both parties, with a pushback from non-establishment outsiders, and the level of anger overall about both parties in Washington. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen. I think it’s exciting for a political junkie like me. We’re in our sweet spot.

Both parties are affected by people who are upset with the status quo.

A: When you talk to the smart political minds on your show or that you’re friends with, what is the bigger surprise — Trump’s place in the GOP race or Clinton’s place in the Democratic race?

BB: It’s a great question and — it’s almost tied. If you went back to right before we did the first debate in August, I don’t think anybody could tell you that down the road this far, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz would be 1 and 2 heading toward the GOP nomination. I just don’t think anybody could see that developing, but it‘s happened, and it’s really unique. On the other side, Hillary Clinton was a prohibitive favorite. And to see Bernie Sanders up by 27 points in New Hampshire, that’s shocking. And it goes to show you that both parties are affected by people who are upset with the status quo.

A: You talk about that August debate, which feels like ages ago, but even Scott Walker dropping out so early — it seems like the conventional wisdom is really out the window this year.

BB: Exactly. On paper, Scott Walker looked like he was well-positioned. And it turned out that his campaign just never took off. And the outsider is running the day. Now, a lot can change in a short time, and it’s important to point out that, in Iowa and New Hampshire, a lot of people decide in the last week. So it makes this last debate that much more important.

A: You have the final debate tomorrow. When you go into these debates, you moderated one in August as well, do you have a strategy going in, points you want to hit or a tone you want to come across?

BB: Ideally we want to have a balance. We want to press on issues to get them off their talking points. We’ve heard their stump speeches again and again, but we want to get to the heart of various issues and how they’d respond as president. This is different in that there have been several debates up until now, and one of the preparation things is there’s a big binder full of transcripts of every question and every topic to each candidate, so it’s a lot of studying. There are some topics we’ll hit again but in a different way, and there are some issues that will be new. But it’s a balance of the meat and potatoes of getting policy answers, and then letting it breath enough so candidates, three days from voting, can interact with one another.

A: It seems like people who follow politics — and there’s more of those people than ever — remember August with you and Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace moderating. Do you think debates have had a bigger impact on the race this year?

BB: I do think they’re markers. They are moments, and people are influenced by the debates. They always have a place in people’s decision-making. And ideally if we do our job well, it illuminates the issues that voters make their decisions on. I think this time there’s just more interest, perhaps, and you could give a lot of that to Donald Trump, but I also just think there’s more interest overall, on both sides.

A: I know you put the chips on different people…

BB: Candidate Casino. And the reason we came up with that was we were trying to get candidates on the panel to tell us how they felt. Like, who they thought was doing well. They were a little skittish about laying their cards out if you will. So we came up with a system where you have $100 in chips and you put the chips on who will be the nominee. So it sees where the panelists are in their thinking.

A: As a gambler I appreciate that. But it does seem like if you were to do Candidate Casino in 2012 or 2008, there may be a couple names, but this year you have a bunch who have had chips on their name over the last several months. You talk about interest — have the sustained ratings surprised you?

BB: We have had ratings that have roughly been the same throughout — knock on wood, we’ve been doing great, and our show, which is a news show obviously, deals with the topics a lot. My bar is — I’m trying to get after network newscasts, and I think we’re beating them in seven or eight big cities. There’s a lot of news — world news, a lot of concern about where we’re headed economically.

A: Whether it’s the center seat interviews or other appearances, I believe you’ve talked to all of or most of the GOP candidates.

BB: Every one. I did a contender series at first where we did long bio pieces. We did everybody but Trump with the Center Seat series, but I did go interview him up in New York.

A: It would have been fun to have him sitting next to Krauthammer and Stephen Hayes. Did any of those interviews stand out to you as surprising or interesting?

BB: Carly Fiorina was the first Center Seat candidate. And she did exceptionally well, to the point where she went from the first debate and then accelerated to the top tier. She since hasn’t seen her fortunes rise in the polls, but I think Center Seat was an intro for Carly Fiorina in the race. And I think John Kasich is the same way — he had an interesting exchange with Krauthammer and George Will, and he has seen some good numbers in New Hampshire.

A: You remain one of the most objective people on all of TV, not just Fox News. And it’s a TV business that is getting more opinion-y in every area. I call Media Matters the Fox News opposition research department, and I would say you have the least results of every major host on Fox News on there. In this increasing opinionated atmosphere, how do you keep your opinion on the sidelines?

BB: Well when I took over for Brit Hume, my mentor and friend, he said, ‘the one piece of advice I can give you is let the news drive the show, and it’s not about you.’ And I took that to heart as much as I could. So we have a fantastic stable of correspondents and reporters who break a lot of stories, and I let that drive the show. And on the panel, I try to push back when they make an argument where there’s another side to, and make sure we’re balanced. And that’s kind of an organic discussion with people who have covered Washington for decades.

I engage a lot on Twitter. And probably more than some might want me to. I know my wife wants me to put it down sometimes.

A: Objectivity on the air is one thing, but you’re extremely active on social media also — is it harder to stay objective there as well?

BB: Listen, I engage a lot on Twitter. And probably more than some might want me to. I know my wife wants me to put it down sometimes. But I think if you engage, it’s a good back and forth, even with people who have some of the more pointed things to say. I spend about an hour and a half on social media and emails.

A: I think something that distinguishes Fox News in general is the stability that comes with working there. You’ve been with Fox News since 1998, and have hosted Special Report for seven years. A lot of the Fox News line-up is stable, and it’s not normal in cable news or journalism in general. Where does that come from, and how does it feel to work at a place that generally doesn’t have that?

BB: It comes from Roger Ailes. He has the vision, he can see around corners in the industry, and I think he sees things that work, and when they’re working he leaves them alone to work. I’ve had a great relationship with him, and he’s created this Fox family environment. Every network has their internal battles, but for the most part it’s like a family that has been together, and you’re right, stability is unique. And I don’t think we’re going anyplace anytime soon.

A: There is a sense also with places I’ve worked at that people work in a particular job for a year or two then say ‘ok where’s the next move.’ That doesn’t happen at Fox as much. People seem to be in a good position, then they’re happy and just stay.

BB: It’s true. I try to have a lot of stability on Special Report. My executive producer, Doug Rohrbeck, has been with me since day 1. And was with Brit before that. Making people happy, making people feel a part of the team, really does go back to Roger. We’re still pretty scrappy. And we still have that mentality that’s about digging it out. You get this team mentality and I think that’s worked well for us.

A: Fox News has been #1 for 14 years now, and I’ve probably read every couple years for the past 14 years about the demise of Fox News being imminent. And it just doesn’t seem to happen…

BB: I did an interview when I took over Special Report in January 2009, and the whole interview was that the new Obama administration was going to cause the demise of Fox News. There would be an exodus of viewers. And if anything, our viewership continued to rise. It has been at a high level ever since.

A: You’ve personally adapted to a new media landscape, but how have you seen Fox News itself evolve, its priorities, as new media has become so important?

BB: I think everyone is now engaged. On social media, there’s a lot more interaction. Foxnews.com syncs with our on-air product really well now. Our Facebook page is a significant part of the digital platform. On our show, we really try to incorporate it. It’s about interaction in real-time. We were the first show to do that, and I think we’re the only national news program to do that. There’s a realization that it is the future — the future is a lot more interaction and integration.

I think we’ll always have premiere content. Content will drive it…And I think there will still be a desire to have it packaged like we have it.

A: As we move into a more digital landscape, where do you see TV going in the next 4 years. Do you think you’ll still be doing a show at 6pm every night, or will it just be on demand — where do you see the industry going by the 2020 campaign?

BB: The industry is definitely changing. I don’t know how fast it’s changing, but it’s changing. We’ll be doing many more streaming things very soon. Does that happen in 5 years? It’s already starting to happen. A lot more people are watching on mobile. But I think we’ll always have premiere content. Content will drive it. Fortunately Fox has had tremendous content from the beginning. And I think there will still be a desire to have it packaged like we have it.

A: You covered the Bush White House as a White House correspondent. As someone in D.C., what do you think about access for journalists, both in this administration and generally — do you think it’s getting better or worse as there are more journalists and more outlets that resemble journalism?

BB: I think it’s worse today. Every reporter probably says that, that it’s bad. Access is bad. We fought the Bush administration on a number of things, and those fights have continued exponentially with the Obama administration. And for their pledge to be the most transparent administration in history, it’s hard to back that up by all of the things we’ve seen. And you could ask any network that question and they’d have a similar answer. Working through the White House Correspondents Association, pushing the White House to be more transparent, no matter what administration, is probably going to be a constant battle. But you’re right, there are more outlets now, and there are more ways to get information. And in Washington, there’s a challenge to balance that out, as far as who gets in.

Access is bad. We fought the Bush administration on a number of things, and those fights have continued exponentially with the Obama administration.

A: Do you think outlets like Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept and others that refuse to play “the game” is helpful or is it making officials pull back more?

BB: It’s a good question. I don’t know how that plays out, but I do think more investigative journalism is better than less, no matter the outlet. Digging in, uncovering things, is always welcome.

A: As you look out on the TV news landscape, who do you see as some rising stars, on Fox News or otherwise?

BB: There are a lot of people at our network who are clearly rising stars. Megyn Kelly has found her voice, and I think she’s clearly a superstar. One of the things Roger Ailes does best is find talent and develop them early on. But rising stars — I think Harris Faulkner does a great job and is on her way to bigger things. James Rosen, our Chief Washington Correspondent is the best writer and packager at the network. Our Pentagon team, Jennifer Griffin and producer Lucas Tomlinson, are breaking stories every week, and an up and comer in London, Benjamin Hall is doing really solid work, as is Conor Powell in Jerusalem. On other networks, I look at somebody like Jonathan Karl at ABC, who’s constantly doing great stuff, and I think Thomas Roberts does solid work at MSNBC.

The Kicker

A media outlet you consume regularly that might surprise people: “It might not surprise people that I watch the Golf Channel in my down time. But I do record The Rachel Maddow Show, and I watch that. I think she’s a great broadcaster and I like to watch how she frames things.”

A random Twitter account that you consider a must-follow: “This account @DavidRoads. It’s motivational quotes that I look at everyday. There’s at least one I RT.”

A non-political interview you’d like to land: “Pope Francis. No doubt about it. We’ve been trying.”

A phone number in your cell that people wouldn’t expect: “Kurt Russell. I played golf with him at the AT&T Pebble Beach and Bob Hope Invitational, and just kept in touch. He watches the show. Every once in a while he sends me a text.”

You’re given the power to make one GM move for your favorite team. What’s the move? “I’d figure out a way to get Steph Curry to come to the Washington Wizards.”

Where is your happy place? “Golf course. I played in college, and for some reason I can totally unwind while playing golf.”

Worst piece of advice you’ve ever received: “That this business chews you up and spits you out and nice guys finish last.”

First sign growing up that you’d end up doing what you’re doing today: “I can remember watching the 1980 conventions and all the anchors with the big headsets and balloons falling on the floor, and being really excited watching that.”