"The Partisanship Comes Through Very Slyly": Bret Baier Has Some Skeptics

Bret Baier - Publicity - H 2019

The anchor, key to Fox News' claims to impartiality, has friendly ties with Trump's team, although he appears to use those relationships primarily to lobby for newsmaker interviews.

Over his 11 years as anchor of the 6 p.m. news show Special Report, Bret Baier has cultivated an image as the consummate down-the-middle, straight-news anchor. When the Fox News Channel touts its commitment to journalism, particularly amid criticism of the network's primetime opinion hosts, it points to Baier, along with Sunday morning host Chris Wallace and anchor Martha MacCallum.

But those who work with Baier at Fox News, have worked with the anchor in the past, and those who watch the channel increasingly question his impartiality in this polarized media landscape. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to more than a dozen cable news insiders and industry observers who see challenges for a network that depends, in part, on Baier for his palatability to national advertisers. And, in the event that Joe Biden is elected president this November, Fox would also likely have to rely on the anchor's journalistic reputation for access to a Democratic administration.

"I think the partisanship comes through very slyly," says a network source, who isn't authorized to comment publicly. A former on-air colleague adds: "He leans pro-Trump now."

Baier, who has built a reputation for nonpartisan journalism, raised eyebrows recently with an "exclusive" April 15 story headlined, "Sources believe coronavirus outbreak originated in Wuhan lab as part of China's efforts to compete with US." The story was based on "classified and open-source documents and evidence" that the network did not "directly view."

On May 5, though, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, seemed to contradict the report, telling reporters that "the weight of evidence is that it was natural and not man-made."

While Baier's story was quickly touted by conservative politicians and media figures, it was also met with criticism. Tech scholar and law professor Tim Wu wrote: "The first 2 lines of this Fox News story (reported as news, not opinion or speculation) are a serious lapse of journalistic ethics even by the network's own standards."

Anti-terrorism consultant and NBC News analyst Evan Kohlmann, who wrote on Twitter last month that the story "is premised exclusively on anonymous White House sources, cites no specific intel or evidence, [and] acknowledges that no such evidence was provided by the sources" says he is still baffled by it a month later. "I have only known Baier to be a respected, hard-news journalist at Fox, and I still do not fully grasp why this story was presented in the way it was," he tells THR.

"We stand by the story," a Fox News spokesperson says. The network did not make Baier available for comment for this article. 

Unsurprisingly, Baier's toughest critic is Angelo Carusone, the president of Fox-monitoring advocacy group Media Matters for America. "He's supposed to be the news guy, and there are quantifiable illustrations of him advocating for conservative, partisan politics and ideas," he says.

But critiques extend beyond anti-Fox advocates, even to people who have largely positive impressions of Baier as a journalist and as a person. "He is affable. He was always professional," a former Obama administration official says of Baier. "I do think, though, that this idea that he is a sort of straight shooter at Fox News is a complete misnomer. He is part and parcel to the editorial bent of his network."

A former colleague who sees him as one of the last remaining news pros at Fox admits that Baier's nightly panels clearly skew conservative, with several people mentioning the commentary of The Federalist senior editor Mollie Hemingway.

Others ding Baier for his almost preternatural ability to avoid criticizing the occasionally inflammatory commentary of opinion hosts Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. "My experience was that Bret never said a harsh word internally or externally about anybody at Fox News," says David Shuster, who worked with Baier as a D.C.-based correspondent for Fox News into the early aughts. "And, from what I've been told in recent years, he keeps quiet about Carlson, Hannity, even Judge Jeanine Pirro. Bret doesn't rock the boat and management clearly loves that about him."

Some current and former colleagues see that as a positive attribute. "There's no chatter, no back-biting, he stays out of that fray," an ex-colleague says. "Bret seems to be above that fray, and that's to his credit."

Baier's journalistic reputation precedes him in Washington, D.C., reporting circles, where he is a member in good standing of the media establishment. "Bret Baier is one of the most respected guys in the business," says ABC News chief White House correspondent Jonathan Karl, head of the White House Correspondents' Association. "He is a straight shooter and a true reporter."

"Bret is a straight arrow," says former anchor Greta Van Susteren, who worked in the office next to him at Fox News' D.C. bureau. "He does not see news as a team — Democrat or Republican — sport."

Eric Bolling, a former Fox News host who now anchors for Sinclair Broadcast Group, calls Baier "the most unbiased of any anchor on cable news."

Even Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez, who said that he doesn't "have faith" in Fox News Channel's leadership when explaining the decision to bar the network from hosting a 2020 debate, said last year: "I have great respect for Bret."

Working at a network that is forced to frequently put out fires started by the likes of Laura Ingraham and Diamond and Silk, Baier generates almost no controversy. And, with the sudden resignation of anchor Shepard Smith in October 2019, Baier is one of Fox News' top remaining avatars of journalistic integrity, giving the network a comeback when competitors like CNN president Jeff Zucker attack it as "state television." (Morning show co-host Brian Kilmeade recently described 7 p.m. host MacCallum as "right up the middle, to the right.")

"He’s a smart, serious dude who seems to try his damnedest to play it straight and newsy," says Axios CEO Jim VandeHei. "I can only imagine how jarring it must be to marinate in the news and factual world when some of those around you stew in some pretty crazy shit a few hours later for sport or showmanship."

When Baier, who has no registered party affiliation, does draw critical attention, it's for his friendly ties with members of the Trump administration — although he appears to use those relationships primarily to lobby for newsmaker interviews.

After Baier played a round of golf with the president in April 2018 as part of an effort to finally land an interview with him, Fox News president Jay Wallace "addressed the matter" with him. In November 2017, Baier and his wife, Amy, were photographed with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. The network said at the time that Baier "was asked to take a photo with [golf legend Jack Nicklaus] and the president and obliged.”

"I think the president likes him as a person," a former administration official says of Baier.

A month earlier, in October 2017, Baier had reached out to then-Treasury Dept. spokesperson Tony Sayegh to request a tour of the U.S. Mint building for his family and friends, according to private emails obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. Baier, however, was very undemanding in making the request, writing in an email: "If it doesn't work — don't worry about it. Meant to request last week. Don't spend too much time on it. If you can point us to someone — and it's easy — great. If not — no worries. Thanks."

Baier also invited Education Sec. Betsy DeVos to be his guest at the annual Gridiron Dinner in March 2019, seemingly as part of a personal touch to lobby DeVos to appear on his show. A month later, Baier appeared frustrated when DeVos booked an interview with colleague Dana Perino's afternoon news show but not his, writing in an email, "Again?"

Those close ties also extend to Baier's wife. When Amy Baier posted a photo of herself and her two sons in front of a SoulCycle fitness studio in September 2019, Louise Linton — Treasury Sec. Steven Mnuchin's wife — commented, writing: "Wish I was there with you guys!" along with a kissy-face emoji. (Linton and Baier reportedly go to SoulCycle "many mornings.") The Baiers were spotted dining with Mnuchin and Linton at D.C. steakhouse The Prime Rib in January 2019.

Serving as a straight-news anchorman for the Fox News Channel has paid off handsomely for Baier, who signed a contract extension in early 2019 and lives in a Washington, D.C., home that has been priced at nearly $8 million and features an indoor basketball court and movie theater.

"What Bret Baier provides them is an acceptable face for advertisers, and it lets their claim that they're journalists hold water," says Carusone, who claims that brands have moved their ads to Baier's news show when the network's opinion hosts get in hot water. "If they didn't have Bret Baier, they'd be in big trouble."

Baier joined the network in 1998 as an Atlanta-based reporter after working his way through local television stations in Raleigh, North Carolina (WRAL-TV), Rockford, Illinois (WREX-TV), and Beaufort, South Carolina (WJWJ-TV). In a 2014 book, Special Heart, Baier described his rise at the network this way: "I had gone from being an unknown reporter, to Pentagon correspondent, to chief White House correspondent for Fox News."

"Bret came into Fox News before it was off-the-rails completely, and he was a straight-news guy," a Fox News veteran says.

While working in South Carolina for low wages, Baier had a side job as a bartender/delivery guy at an Applebee's restaurant. "Bartending is very helpful for reporting," Baier told THR in a 2018 email. "Having to strike up conversations, ask questions, learn things. Those are all good skills to have." (Several of Baier's opinion-side colleagues, including Ingraham and Pirro, have mocked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her background as a New York City bartender.)

While Baier's background is in nonpartisan journalism, his circle in D.C. skews conservative — though his event calendar looks more like that of a Washington socialite than an ideological warrior. In September 2019, Baier gave a toast at the 50th birthday party of Todd Ricketts, who runs the joint fundraising committee for Trump's re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee.

Mnuchin, Commerce Sec. Wilbur Ross, Transportation Sec. Elaine Chao and counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway (along with a handful of Democratic legislators) attended a January 2019 party at a D.C. restaurant celebrating Baier's 10-year show anniversary, and Ross, Chao, Conway, Jeff Sessions and Larry Kudlow attended Baier's book party in May 2018. (Baier attended Ross' birthday party in December 2017.)

While Fox News generally likes to protect Baier's journalistic independence, he raised eyebrows when he hosted a six-part documentary series called The Unauthorized History of Socialism for the streaming service Fox Nation in February. He was also forced to explain his use of the term "Trump Derangement Syndrome" to describe critics of the president in January of this year, a phrase more commonly used by the network's opinion hosts.

During the Obama administration, Baier closely covered the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi and the so-called "Fast and Furious" scandal that was seized on by conservative media opinionators. "Bret Baier wasn't a straight shooter in any of that," the former Obama administration officials says of his coverage. "He was at the tip of the Fox spear."

Although he's billed as a straight-news guy, Baier regularly appears on the network's right-skewing opinion shows. On a recent Friday, he was the "one lucky guy" on the afternoon opinion show Outnumbered and appeared on Carlson's primetime opinion show. 

Critics say that Baier has a habit of sanitizing some of the president's more unpresidential comments. Last week, when the president called Speaker Nancy Pelosi "a very sick person" with "a lot of mental problems," Baier chuckled and said that Trump hit her with a "classic counter-punch about the Speaker's mental acuity."

"I think that Bret is among the more fair ones, but he's not a fair journalist," a Democratic Party strategist says. "He is still leading with Obamagate. He is still framing things in this completely, outrageously unfair way that ignores objectivity."

"Hannity can be more inflammatory and more conspiratorial, but Baier is pushing the agenda in a more impactful way because he's doing it under the veneer of being a newsman, and that is more insidious," the former Obama administration official says.

An adept news presenter, Baier is remarkably consistent in his external messaging. When asked about the president's attacks on the press, he condemns them generally but almost always resorts to a "both sides" approach of castigating some reporters for "going over their skis" in their coverage, a specific phrase that he used during a April 2017 interview with THR, a September 2017 interview with THR, October 2017 interview with The Atlantic, a May 2018 interview on The View, a November 2019 Washington Post event, and a May 2020 People magazine interview.

Like Wallace, Baier's journalistic independence is buttressed by the president's occasional animosity toward him, though he was wowed when the onetime chief White House correspondent attended his coronavirus task force briefing on April 21. "It's an honor to have Bret Baier here," Trump said.

In August 2017, Baier called out the president for not sitting down for an interview with him. Exactly 593 days elapsed between Baier's interview with Candidate Trump in October 2016 and an Air Force One sit-down that aired on June 13, 2018.

While the perception was that Trump was afraid of sitting down with a real journalist, the former administration official says "there was just no compelling reason" for the president to agree to an interview with Baier, whose show airs before primetime. "It was not like he offered an audience that you couldn't get somewhere else," the person says. "Hannity and others have a much bigger audience."

Trump's real animosity seems to be reserved for Wallace, whom he regularly attacks on Twitter as a "wannabe" version of his late father, CBS News legend Mike Wallace.

Compared to Baier's subtle "partisanship," a person who knows them both says that Wallace's political leanings are nearly impossible to discern, adding, "I rarely see anything steep out of Chris Wallace, one way or the other."