Bret Baier found himself swept up this summer in the whirlwind engulfing Fox News Channel and its now-erstwhile chairman Roger Ailes when, less than a week after Gretchen Carlson filed her bombshell sexual harassment suit, Baier was on Stephen Colbert's Late Show answering questions about the allegations and appearing to defend his boss of 18 years. "I was mourning the guy that I thought I knew," Baier, host of the daily Fox News program Special Report, explains to THR. "As I said at the time, Roger had always been decent to me and my family, and I spoke about him based on my personal experiences with him. After all that came to light, I was very sad for the women involved. But that sadness quickly turned into anger. None of that should have ever happened. Period. The end."
Baier, 46, says he's now focused on his leading role in the network's coverage of the wild 2016 presidential election. His DC-based program finished the third quarter with an average of 2.4 million viewers (392,000 of them in the demo), up double digits in both metrics and the show's second most-watched quarter ever. He's moderated Fox News' GOP primary debates alongside Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. (The first Republican debate in August 2015 still holds a viewership record of 24 million and kick-started Donald Trump's feud with Kelly.) He booked Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for a town hall, after the Democratic National Committee declined to entertain a request to host a sanctioned primary debate. And on Election Night, he'll host Fox News' nonstop coverage alongside Kelly from a new $30 million studio at Fox News headquarters in New York.
It's been a particularly ugly campaign. Who's to blame?
I would put the blame on both sides. Clearly Donald Trump has changed the dynamic in how he talks about things. But the Clintons don't shy away from rolling up their sleeves and getting into negative campaigning either. Politics is an ugly sport. I bounce around the country and talk to people, voters from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and they do feel that they want to take a shower after campaign days that get down in the weeds and ugly. But that is where we are.
You've moderated multiple Republican primary debates and also interviewed Clinton and Sanders. Do you think you've succeeded in getting them to actually answer questions?
I think we had a lot of success, more success than others. We spent a lot of time trying to hone those questions so that candidates didn't have an off-ramp to be able to get to the talking points. The thing about Donald Trump is, a lot of what he says is extemporaneous. A lot of what he says is from the gut and he's not really on talking points a lot.
Trump claims that the media is trying to "slime" him.
Right or wrong, there are some organizations that have made a decision about how they are going to cover Donald Trump. And I think that making that decision has skewed the traditional balance that you would seek about stories and story time. These [groping] allegations are serious, but there are serious issues on the other side as well: the WikiLeaks emails; what we're learning about [Clinton's] answers on the email server; Iran sending warships off the coast of Yemen; Syria in a death spiral. These are huge issues that get put to the back burner because some organizations made the decision that Donald Trump cannot be president.
I'm not going to name names, but I think it's pretty obvious when you look at them or read them. I'm not defending actions or statements. I'm just making a statement about balance, and it's a tough thing to do, but you have to do it in order to be fair to at least half of the country.
Fox News marked its 20th anniversary Oct. 7 with a more low-key celebration than originally was intended. What is the mood there now?
Obviously we've had a bumpy year, but you wouldn't know in our product and our ratings. There's optimism in the new leadership and where Rupert Murdoch and Bill Shine and Jack Abernethy are going to take the channel.
One of the knocks on Fox News Channel is that its audience is old and not well positioned for a cord cutting, unbundled landscape.
I've heard that criticism. We often and regularly beat our competition in the 25-54 demo and sometimes by big numbers. I think that there is an effort to get more, younger viewers. My philosophy - and this is just how we look at it on Special Report - is that if you build it they will come.
What is it like to be part of the news stories? Have you talked to Roger since all of this happened?
No. Nor do I plan to. … It was awkward. It was something we'd like to put in the rearview mirror, and we clearly are trying to do that every day.
There has been a lot of written about Megyn's future at Fox News...
There have been stories written about Megyn?!
There have! Do you want Megyn to stay?
Of course I want her to stay. She's a true pro, and she's very good at what she does, and I enjoy working with her. We're really excited about election night. … She's very comfortable on camera and can deal with tough interviews on both sides. This is her decision completely.
How do you unwind at the end of the day covering this crazy election?
(Laughs.) So, the other day, for the first time in a really long time, I drove my two boys to school in the morning. My son Paul is 9 and my son Daniel is 6. And I got in the car and they started talking about video games and songs and suddenly this peace came over me. I was not talking about politics. And there was something very grounding about even that short drive to school.
How do you explain this election to them?
I say, sometimes politics is kind of nasty, and they call each other names. But we're electing a president, and that's really important. That's how I explain it. They talk about it with their friends. Obviously, parents talk in front of their kids. And kids are like little microphones. So you get some really interesting takes. But we've instructed our kids that they are to be very fair and balanced on the playground.
A version of story first appeared in the Nov. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.