Extended Interview: Brit Hume
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TERENCE SMITH: Things have changed since you and I talked about the cable news competition about three years ago. In January of this year, Fox actually got more viewers than CNN. What’s happened?
BRIT HUME: Well, a couple things have happened. One is we’ve had a series of major news stories that have brought in viewers who either were sampling to see what else was available or were normal news watchers who were just tuning in to see what was out there. The Florida recount and the end of the election was a huge development. We had thrown a lot of our resources into our political coverage. And then, of course, 9/11 came along.
And so, we’ve had a chance to be seen by viewers who had never seen us before, and we’ve kept a lot of them. And CNN’s pattern has been similar to CNN’s pattern in the past. It is known as the Crisis News Network for a reason. Major breaking news story, people who are not habitual news viewers go to where they’re accustomed to finding news all the time. They go to CNN, and they’ll stay with them for a time. And CNN, doubtless, will pick up some loyal viewers in a situation like that.
But the pattern has been they don’t pick up as many as we’ve been able to hold, because I think we’re giving people something new that people didn’t know was out there before.
TERENCE SMITH: And what happened in January?
BRIT HUME: Well, the month of January, we were number one. That is, we won about everywhere you can win. We won in ratings; we won in households; we won every which way. Now, this is something we’re proud of, because we recognize we’re up against a formidable operation there at CNN.
And it’s big, it’s strong, it’s successful, and it’s not to be underestimated. And they have still 9 million more homes that they’re in than we are. So even with that handicap, for us to win, that’s something we’re all very pleased about.
TERENCE SMITH: And State of the Union was a big night for television watching. What happened then?
BRIT HUME: On the night of the State of the Union, among the cable news channels, we had more viewers than CNN and MSNBC combined. So it was a good night for us from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. That was the State of the Union and its aftermath.
TERENCE SMITH: What does this whole pattern tell you, and what does, then, the State of the Union experience tell you?
BRIT HUME: Well, it tells us first of all that our emphasis on political coverage from the day we were born here was well-founded, and that we believe there were opportunities there that we could do it in a more interesting way and a more appealing and a more balanced way and that there was a market for that, and it just proved that that is the case.
TERENCE SMITH: And do you think that applied particularly State of the Union night? That’s a political night, of course.
BRIT HUME: Particularly Florida recount. Particularly State of the Union. And in the aftermath of 9/11, it seemed to me that there was a tremendous interest in the government leadership. There was a tremendous focus on the president — tremendous focus on how the Congress would respond and so on. So that played to our advantage. What played to what had been a relative weakness for us was the fact that this was exploding overseas as well, and we had to scramble to mount some reach and get into places and be competitive on the ground. And we had a couple of minor coups that made a big difference. We snared away from a competitor a correspondent already on the ground in Afghanistan. That was an enormous help to us, because there we were. And they were there, as one might expect, but we were there, too. And, you know, so that kind of thing matters. You have to qualify, and I think we have long since qualified in covering domestic stories and politics. International coverage, we needed to show we could do it, and I think we have.
TERENCE SMITH: And that’s a tough competition, because CNN has 30-odd bureaus around the world.
BRIT HUME: They’ve got reach, and they’re good. And so it was something we had to hustle and get up early in the morning. We did.
TERENCE SMITH: Why do you think people have come to Fox?
BRIT HUME: Two or three reasons. Surveys have shown going back, you know, as far as you and I can remember that people have perceived a leftward tilt in the basic coverage that they get on TV news from everywhere. There was, therefore, we believed a market that if we could do a more balanced product, people would be attracted to that if we could just let them know it’s out there. That’s one.
The other thing is television has certain imperatives that CNN had the luxury of ignoring for a long period of time. And CNN could take the position that the news would be the star, because in most of the programming day, they were the only all-news operation on the air. So if people wanted news, they had nowhere else to go. And CNN did a very competent job of getting them the news. It was very solid, but there was a kind of wire service quality about it that I think they embraced, actually. And so, the ordinary demands that you see that are made upon the network news shows, for example, which are competing with each other all the time — and that is, you have to have pace, you have to have high production values, you have to have interesting graphics, and you have to have attractive people — CNN could afford not to be so obedient to those commands, and for a long time, it wasn’t. We were kind of built from the ground up with the idea that that gave us an opportunity, and I think it did. I think in terms of our liveliness, our look and the attractiveness of our people, I think that’s an area where we were able to do better.
TERENCE SMITH: You referenced polls that have shown a public perception — whether it’s true or not is another matter — of a liberal or left-of-center tilt in television news. Do they then perceive a conservative or right-of-center tilt in Fox?
BRIT HUME: They may very well. You know, we get a ton of email; everybody does now. It gives us a kind of a pulse that you can feel. What we hear people saying is thank you for being fair; thank you for being balanced. So my sense of that is that within the media world, among my colleagues, the conventional wisdom is we’re a right-wing network. I don’t accept that view, and I don’t think our viewers do either.
TERENCE SMITH: Why don’t you accept that view?
BRIT HUME: Because I don’t think that’s the way that we cover the news. I think we have a wide variety of voices, and if you look at our news coverage day in and day out, the packages, the reports from the field, the stuff we do, the bread and butter of our product, I think it’s down the middle and fair.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you think that impression comes perhaps more from the commentators and the talk shows that you have as a regular feature on Fox, including Bill O’Reilly and some of the others?
BRIT HUME: Well, sure, Terry. But, again, these are subjective matters. You can make an argument that Bill O’Reilly is a conservative or a Republican, and he certainly, I think, lines up that way on some issues but not on all. Bill’s kind of unpredictable. Somebody might say that he would have been comfortable in the Democratic Party of [the late U.S. Senator] Scoop Jackson. So it’s, you know, it’s not that easy to pigeonhole. And you look at the other people who have shows — Hannity and Colmes, Greta Van Susteren has just been hired to do a show here, and she will succeed in the 10:00 time slot. I don’t think very many people would accuse Paula Zahn [a former Fox News Channel anchor, now with CNN] of being a conservative, and given the amount of flak we’ve caught from some conservative news organizations and groups over the hiring of Greta Van Susteren, I don’t think many people think she is either. My sense about Greta is that people ought to wait and see and see if she doesn’t indeed turn out to be as balanced as we hope and expect she will. But there you are.
TERENCE SMITH: This competition between the cable news channels has gotten hot rhetorically as well, between Roger Ailes and Jamie Kellner and so forth. What’s gone on there?
BRIT HUME: Well, it’s just the kind of thing that happens in competition. It’s a battle, I think, to be seen in the world of advertisers and in the world of business as a serious force. Now, when you’re five years old, and you’re running a business that people did not think there was room for and least of all thought that if there was room, that you would occupy it, getting attention is not a bad thing. And letting it be known by whatever colorful language is necessary what the facts are is not a bad thing. And Roger is good at that, and he’s done it, and that’s made for some great copy for journalists, and my guess is, on balance, it’s helped. Because it’s hard to win an exchange with Roger Ailes on a situation like that.
TERENCE SMITH: It’s made it seem — and this may be his purpose — but it’s made it seem a two-organization race, CNN and Fox, rather than three, including MSNBC. Has it become a two-network race?
BRIT HUME: Well, pretty much, because if you look at the numbers, MSNBC lags pretty far behind. And I would point you to State of the Union night. Now, that’s a big night. Now, you know, NBC News gets potential MSNBC News viewers on a night like that. But we were up on the broadcast network, too, and, in fact, we had more viewers on the broadcast network, I think, total than we did on the cable channel. But we still won handily, and they lagged far behind, and they tend to lag far behind. You look at the ratings night after night; they are lagging. I think what happened with MSNBC is they’ve got some very good people. They’ve got a good-looking set. All of that — they’re first-class. Somewhere along the way, they kind of lost their identity as a news channel, and they started doing a lot of other sort of magazine-type programming and so forth. And I think that what people want from these cable news channels is the sense that if there’s hard news, it’s going to come up immediately no matter what may be on the air at that moment. I think that’s true at CNN; I think it’s true here. I think for a long time, it was not true at MSNBC. And I believe MSNBC is going to be broadcasting, for example, some of the Olympic Games. Now, that’s wonderful programming, and a lot of people will watch, and they’ll get a big rating.
But it only further dilutes the brand as a news brand. And my sense is that MSNBC has sort of lost its identity as a news channel and therefore is farther and farther behind. It may be smart for them to move into other areas, but they’re going to be competing with A&E and who knows who else? The History Channel, perhaps, and we’ll be competing with CNN.
TERENCE SMITH: In response to this competition, CNN has taken a number of steps. They’ve raided talent; they have added new people; they’ve changed to a degree their look. What’s your take on all of that?
BRIT HUME: Well, I think that broadly speaking, they’re sort of moving in the right direction. They’re beginning to obey the imperatives of television that we all, ultimately, if we’re going to compete, have to live by. It’s a question of whether they are picking the best people and whether there is anybody there that has a real programming genius. I think we are very blessed by the fact that Roger Ailes is one of those people who combines many talents. He’s a terrific manager, which is rare in television news, rare in television. He is a leader, but he is also a programmer with an eye for talent. And I just don’t think in the long run in a situation like this I’d bet against him.
TERENCE SMITH: And Geraldo Rivera, who Fox News recently hired, what do you make of that move?
BRIT HUME: Well, I think that’s worked out. Look, for the last couple of nights, for example. We’ve got — Geraldo has been in Lebanon. He has done some excellent reporting out of there, and of course, we now know by virtue of the president’s speech on Tuesday night that the terrorist organizations that operate in that area are now on the list. Wonderful, timely stuff.
TERENCE SMITH: You say it’s worked out.
BRIT HUME: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: Which suggests that it didn’t work out at the beginning.
BRIT HUME: Well, what it suggests is that he came in with a certain amount of burden on his shoulders, because there have been two Geraldo Riveras through his long career.
One of them was a reporter who over his long career has done some remarkable work. The other was a television show host who did what it took to get an audience. And in so doing, he offended some journalists. And I think that’s natural and perhaps understandable. He came to us with a proposition that he wanted to go back into the field and be a field reporter. And our feeling was that if he did that, he’d be good. And I think he has.
TERENCE SMITH: What’s going to be the impact of this intensified competition on the cable news business, particularly at CNN and Fox?
BRIT HUME: Well, what I think about that, Terry, is this: that in the end — and the 9/11 situation has proved it — you make your reputation and you have your success based upon credibility and being able to provide people who are really hungry for information what they want. Now, that doesn’t mean there are not going to be news lulls during which you’re going to have to grope around to find stuff to keep the conversations and the news coverage lively during the course of long days and nights. But that you must qualify when a major story breaks, and you don’t have to reach out and grab people by the lapels to get their attention. They are riveted to you and hungry for perspective and for context and all the things that we as journalists who go to journalism seminars like to talk about. And you had better be able to provide that. You had better have smart and seasoned and talented and able people able to do that, because if you can’t, you will fall by the wayside, and it doesn’t matter what you do the rest of the time; you’ve got to be able to deliver. And my sense about that is that all of us are going to be better as a result of this.
TERENCE SMITH: CNN does lead in one important category, revenue. By an almost two-to-one measure, and it’s a very profitable network. When we talked three years ago, Fox was losing money. You estimated about $50 million a year at that point. What’s the situation today?
BRIT HUME: Well, we broke even last year or reached break-even. I’m not sure what the final result was after 9/11. And everybody is hurting this year for two reasons, and I suspect CNN at this moment isn’t profitable either. Nobody’s profitable at this moment, because recession is on; advertising dollars are down, and expenses are way up. So that kind of belies the situation that you would expect, because the ratings are way up everywhere. Our ratings are way, way up. In the fullness of time, and it won’t be long, when the economy recovers, our revenues will pick up, and we’re going to be a very profitable undertaking, I’m confident, for a very long time. This is a tough environment, and it’s tough for everybody.
And it will be interesting. CNN is a more diverse brand. It’s spread out over more products over there. And that allows all sorts of things to be done to, for example, lay off your cost base over four or five channels and so forth, and it’s not as easy to get a fix on their profitability or lack of it as it is on ours. I’m not saying there’s any funny accounting going on. I’m just saying it’s harder to judge.
TERENCE SMITH: Looking to the future, what can Fox do better?
BRIT HUME: Oh, we need more foreign reach; no question about that. And we’re working on getting that. We need more people abroad; we need some more bureaus; we need more ability to respond in that situation. That is really an important job. And I think that, you know, that’s probably the critical undertaking. And in our domestic coverage, obviously, I think we could use, you know, more people here, there, wherever. But I think we’re pretty competitive domestically. It’s around the world that we need more reach.
[And] there’s an issue that has to do with what you see. For example, on the broadcast networks, everything they do every day is crammed into a 22-minute hole at the end of the day, and a very high degree of quality is involved. In other words, the production values are high; the quality of the shooting is high and so on. Now, we are producing a very much larger product, but there will be a premium, and there will be value in trying to upgrade the quality of the production, the quality of the packages, the coherence of it all, the quality of the pictures, all of that, and that’s important, and that’s an area where none of the cable news channels really excels now, and the one who does first will gain from it.
TERENCE SMITH: And ideologically, does Fox have to be careful? Is there a danger of being perceived as too much to the right?
BRIT HUME: There’s a danger of being pigeonholed. But it’s a perception that has to take hold with viewers in large numbers. It doesn’t matter all that much if the chattering classes in Washington and New York have pigeonholed you, because that doesn’t necessarily affect viewers’ attitudes. So we don’t worry a whole lot about that. If it comes to be believed, however, that we are simply a propaganda organ of some kind, as a lot of people believe about some of our competitors, that would be a problem. And I think that’s something that we all have to look out for.
Reasonable viewers — and those are the ones you want because there aren’t enough nuts out there to make a good audience — will see balance, and they’ll respond to it. And whatever their sympathies are, they don’t expect them to be pandered to. And if you do [pander to them], I think they’ll move away from you.
And there is also this question, Terry, and there’s a certain elitism that has crept into the attitudes of some in journalism, and it played out perfectly over the issue of these little [American flag] lapel pins.
TERENCE SMITH: Which you’re still wearing.
BRIT HUME: Which I still wear every day, proudly so. And it told you things that I think are not attractive about the attitudes in newsrooms in some places around our country, and the attitude was that it was inappropriate journalistically to wear an American flag lapel pin, because it was deemed what? It was deemed a symbol of some political administration. It was deemed to be jingoistic and all those things. Now that, I think, is ridiculous. And it was one of those things where, when it was happening, and there were controversies about it at the other networks, it was all I could do to keep from celebrating, because I think it conveyed an unmistakable message that some in journalism consider themselves apart from and to some extent above the people they purport to serve. And this little symbol is the symbol of us all. It is the symbol of our country. It is not the symbol of any political party or any political cause or any political undertaking or any war or any branch of the government. And if we can’t display it at a time when people are feeling a sense of national unity and patriotism, then something is wrong.
TERENCE SMITH: What are you saying by wearing it?
BRIT HUME: It says I’m an American at a time when America is under attack, and it is a gesture of solidarity with my fellow citizens of this country.
TERENCE SMITH: And you make no apologies for that.
BRIT HUME: None whatever.
TERENCE SMITH: Is Fox getting better access or cooperation from this administration, this Bush administration, than it did from the Clinton administration?
BRIT HUME: Oh, yeah. The Clinton administration hated us, and it was a terrible struggle with them. And I think that they felt if they didn’t play, they could strangle us in our crib. And it didn’t work. And over time, it got better with them. People realized that they could come on Fox News Sunday, and they would be well and fairly treated. And so, it got better. I actually asked the president about this — President Bush when he was President-elect Bush. I said, Mr. President, I would like to ask you to see to it that Fox News is treated fairly. I said, I don’t want any special treatment for us. I don’t want us to have any more than anybody else, but I don’t want us to have any less. And I would be grateful if you’d see that that happens. So far, it has.
TERENCE SMITH: What did he say?
BRIT HUME: He said, I don’t see any reason why you shouldn’t be treated fairly, and I’ll say that you should, right?
TERENCE SMITH: So what’s been the experience?
BRIT HUME: Well, the experience has been that if Don Rumsfeld is out, and Colin Powell is out, we get our turn. We get the same kind of treatment CNN, ABC News, NBC, CBS get.
TERENCE SMITH: And Fox is on some of the television sets, I’m told, in the West Wing.
BRIT HUME: I’ve heard that. It’s very encouraging.
TERENCE SMITH: Right; where, presumably, it might have been CNN during the Clinton administration.
BRIT HUME: Right; well, I suspect people channel-surf, as they tend to everywhere. But I’m told that we’re not much on at the State Department, so we’ll have to look into that.