On October 7, 1996, the "on" switch was thrown at the Fox News Channel — and the TV news universe hasn't been the same since. A one-hour special, Fox News Channel — 15 Years — Fair and Balanced (Friday, 10pm/ET; Saturday, 10pm/ET; and Sunday, 3pm/ET), will reflect on the rise of the cable news ratings leader. Among the Fox News veterans looking back is Special Report anchor Bret Baier, who opened the channel's Atlanta bureau in his apartment with just a fax machine and a cell phone in FNC's early days. The Biz recently talked with Baier, who became anchor of Special Report in 2009, about the anniversary, the channel's critics and his emergence as the face of Fox News in the Beltway.
TV Guide Magazine: Glenn Beck was giving you a huge audience lead-in, but the ratings for Special Report have held up since he left this summer. Why do you think it's become an appointment program?
Baier: A lot of that has to do with the reporting that we're doing. News sells in this environment. It's like drinking from a fire hose. It's coming out of Washington fast with a lot of things that are affecting people in America directly.
TV Guide Magazine: So many of the Fox News on-air anchors have been there since the launch. Why is there such longevity and loyalty?
Baier: There is a family aspect to it. The company really takes care of people if you go through a tough time. [Fox News chairman] Roger Ailes was one of the first people I received a call from when my son was diagnosed with a heart condition and had to go into surgery. That's one reason. Two is, even when we became number one, we had the scrappy start-up mentality that unified folks from the beginning. When you're number one, you come under fire a lot, and we have. That also unifies folks, especially when you believe in the journalistic stuff that we're doing.
TV Guide Magazine: There are still critics who look at Fox News as an outlet that caters to conservative viewers and politicians. You have a reputation for playing it down the middle, and you've been out there defending the network's journalistic integrity to people like Jon Stewart. How do you feel about having to do that?
Baier: I believe in the place I work. I think Roger Ailes created an amazing network. I focus on my show everyday. I know what we do in Washington and how we try to cover things. I'm comfortable talking about this network and this show every day. I think people acknowledge that there is a difference between opinion programming and news shows. The biggest critics of Fox are usually people who haven't watched it. And I say, watch my show for three days. Watch Shepard Smith's show, The Fox Report, for three days. And then come back to me and tell me what you think of it. And the loudest critics would come back and say, well I think that was covered pretty fairly.
TV Guide Magazine: The "Fox All-Stars" panel segment on your program often has two conservatives (Charles Krauthammer and Stephen Hayes) and one liberal or neutral commentator. It does seem like a pile-on some nights.
Baier: I've heard that criticism. I think our panel does a good job of discussing topics not from an ideological point of view all the time but from knowledge of Washington. [They] can articulate where both sides are. The analytical aspect of the panel helps people go to the water cooler and say, 'This is what both sides are saying and this is what I think.' I get the criticism. We strive to find left-leaning columnists and luminaries. It's a challenge sometimes. We're trying to mix it up.
TV Guide Magazine: Why is it a challenge? Is there resistance?
Baier: No. Some people have contracts at other places. Others are just not into doing TV. It's a number of different things. Day to day, we strive to provide balance on that panel.
TV Guide Magazine: The late night comedy clip at the end of your program is always very funny. Who picks it?
Baier: It's me. I have someone who is called the kicker person on the staff. It's actually a high-pressure job. That man or woman has to go through all the clips and they have to make a presentation to me at about three o'clock.
TV Guide Magazine: You're on Twitter a lot. Are you sending out your own tweets?
Baier: I am. I set aside about an hour a day to do social media. But it happens throughout the day. My wife wishes it didn't happen as much as it does.
TV Guide Magazine: A job requirement now?
Baier: It is the new reality. People feel more connected if they know the guy who's sitting there with them in the living room every night can occasionally answer their tweet.
TV Guide Magazine: Earlier you mentioned your son. How is he doing?
Baier: He's fantastic. He's four. He's growing like a weed. He is hilarious. We have more challenges ahead. He'll have another open-heart surgery in a year or two and one probably when he's in his teenaged years. It's always in the back of our minds. But right now — it's cliché to say — you enjoy every day.