Saturday, October 30, 2004

Brit Hume on Liberal Media Bias

A top dog with bite
Brit Hume rules the yard at Fox News Channel, but ever since the 1980s, he's seen it as his duty to guard against liberal bias in the media
October 31, 2004

After spending a highly visible lifetime in a relatively small city where information -- particularly about media and politics -- is the coin of the realm, Brit Hume may be one of the best-known people in Washington.

The basics: He's the managing editor and chief Washington correspondent for the Fox News Channel and has long been a rabble-rouser in a trade where one rarely earns popularity points for rousing the rabble. As a young reporter he drew the wrath of Richard M. Nixon and had the distinction of being shadowed by the CIA for several months. The spooks' code name for Hume was "Eggnog," in wry tribute to his youth and his light blond hair.

Hume, 61, currently enjoys -- or suffers -- a rep as someone who especially relishes lancing what he sees as the ill-disguised liberal biases of other media outlets. This trait can be seen in full view on the "Political Grapevine" segment of "Special Report," his nightly show, which has become an essential part of the capital's media diet.

That's the well-known stuff. Now, here's something you almost certainly did not know: Hume was once a close, personal friend of John Kerry.

Kerry and Hume pals? In what universe? For those readers gobsmacked by that information, consider that the future presidential candidate and TV news power broker were only about 4 feet tall and shared a passion for cartoons instead of politics. They met in kindergarten and hung together through fifth grade.

When Kerry met Hume

In a recent phone interview, Hume recalled that Kerry was "a good athlete, kind of a hot shot, smart guy, aggressive." He adds, sotto voce: "One might even say he was ambitious."

Presidential aspirations in first grade? "Well, when you're smart and athletic and self-confident, you stick out, even in grade school."

Hume, an avowed conservative, adds, "I was less of all those things."

Kerry's family moved from Washington, and the friendship did not endure. But as further proof that Washington really is a small world after all, their paths have converged again. Hume is one of TV news' toughest journalists when it comes to the Democratic nominee, and this toughness has assumed a role in a rancorous media bias debate that has raged throughout this political season.

Fox's big gun in Washington, in fact, has been especially outspoken and occasionally prickly on the subject of media bias, while some critics -- at least left-leaning critics such as Al Franken or Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting -- have charged that the Fox News Channel is a relentless tout for George W. Bush with ill-disguised GOP sympathies. To them, Hume is guilty by association.

Media bias, right and left

Critics on both sides of the political divide have armed themselves with evidence of media bias, of course. CBS News and Dan Rather were blasted in the wake of the forged Bush service documents scandal. And two weeks ago, Sinclair Broadcast Group, the country's largest TV station owner, toned down a documentary on the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that some Kerry supporters feared would smear their candidate. More presumed evidence of media bias: A recent network news content study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs found the evening newscasts on the Big Three stations seemed to air more negative news about President Bush, while Hume's "Special Report" took a decidedly more negative slant on Kerry.

That may be because Fox and Hume have intensely covered the swift boat veterans' charges that Kerry exaggerated his war record -- a story over which the Big Three have stifled yawns. Some media-bias police say that Fox's coverage is proof of its right tilt. Others, including Hume, naturally, say the Big Three's lack of interest is proof of their bias.

"We are controversial, and we are different," says Hume, "and my own view of that is we're different because we provide a much more balanced picture than do our competitors."

"Brit's very defensive about the accusations that Fox is the conservative network," says Steve Scully, political editor for C-SPAN and a longtime observer of the Washington TV scene. "There are some people who just feel the Fox News Channel is a bastion for conservative ideology, and he gets lumped into that because he is one of the highest profiles on FNC [Fox News Channel]. But I watch Brit's show almost every night, and I've found it to be straight down the middle."

How did a member of the Washington media aristocracy find his way to the media bias soapbox? The story goes back some 40 years after Hume graduated from the University of Virginia, found his way to Connecticut, where he worked for United Press International and the (now defunct) Hartford Times and discovered a passion for investigative journalism.

Hume learned he had the soul of a muckraker -- journalism's fond name for those hardy investigative types who stir up the muck to expose misconduct -- and would later land a job with one of its masters, Jack Anderson.

With the aid of assistants, Anderson wrote a widely syndicated column called Washington Merry-Go-Round. But Hume, who joined his staff in 1970, quickly became the star pupil by making one of the column's most sensational scoops when he got hold of a memo that proved International Telephone & Telegraph Corp. had contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund the 1972 GOP convention in return for which the Nixon administration dropped an antitrust investigation against the company.

A 'Beltway Clark Kent'

Young, energetic, smart and a reasonable approximation of a Beltway Clark Kent, Hume testified at the subsequent congressional hearings, which "launched him on his television career," says Mark Feldstein, director of the journalism program at George Washington University, who's writing a biography of Anderson.

Hume was on the news every night, and "the folks at ABC News saw a star."

TV stardom had to wait. Hume left Anderson after a couple of years, wrote books, further built his rep as an investigative reporter and joined ABC in 1973 as a consultant on news documentaries. Over two decades, Hume's run at ABC would be considered -- by average mortals -- spectacular. As chief White House correspondent from 1989 through 1996, he held the second most visible job at "World News Tonight" when it was the nation's most-watched nightly news broadcast. Hume also explains, "Sometime in the early '80s, I began to look at things differently." He began to observe the national media's coverage of Ronald Reagan, he says, "and I began to think, 'Oh my God. We have a problem here.'"

The problem, he says, was bias, and it was something he decided he would address. He says he worked hard to provide balanced coverage of both Walter Mondale and then in the '90s Bill Clinton, Democrats both of whom he says he likes personally. But "I didn't have a long-range plan after the White House. It's the ultimate beat, and there's a long history of guys coming out who were put out to pasture."

Hume hoped to assume a major role at an all-news cable network that ABC had planned, but after the idea was dropped he finally became receptive to offers from Fox. They had made several pitches and also had hired one-time Nixon media adviser Roger Ailes, whom Hume knew to be "a straight shooter."

Broadcast news, he says, was "gradually and inexorably turning out the lights," but he also had this feeling "that if anybody ever built a network with news coverage that was fair and balanced, they would have a huge audience out there."

Fair and balanced? Code for "conservative news," as some have charged?

"We're all biased," he says, "but the questions is: How do you address that bias? If you're not careful, you're going to make a journalistic judgment that may be political, and I've got to be careful about that."