Bret Baier, Fox News’ chief political anchor and executive editor of Special Report, will co-anchor a town hall with President Donald Trump on Sunday evening along with The Story host Martha MacCallum, against the dramatic backdrop of the Lincoln Memorial.
It will be Trump’s first town hall with Baier and MacCallum since March 5, in Scranton, PA, just before unprecedented stay-at-home orders swept the country, the economy took a nosedive and more than 60,000 died of the coronavirus.
The crisis also has put some focus on the way that Fox News covered the emerging pandemic — but that largely has been of the opinion side of the network, not for its news anchors and reporters. Sean Hannity, for one, has challenged claims that he downplayed the virus and this week even threatened to sue The New York Times, which is not backing down.
Baier has stressed a division between the news and opinion side of the network, and he points to a recent scoop on the origins of the virus as an example of type of reporting he has done for Special Report, which last month topped cable news ratings.
In an interview with Deadline on Thursday, he talked about what he wants to ask Trump on Sunday, how he feels about getting lumped in with opinion hosts, and about why Fox News chose to carry the president’s daily task force briefings live and uninterrupted. He also talked about media coverage of Tara Reade’s allegations against Joe Biden — and whether there is a double standard in the way that sexual assault allegations are handled.
DEADLINE: The town hall with President Trump will be held at the Lincoln Memorial. How did that all come about?
BRET BAIER: I know that the [Fox News] executives talked with the White House folks about different venues. I am not sure who suggested what, but they got the approval, and it’s going to be pretty iconic. I don’t remember an event being on the memorial like that. My focus now is on the questions and the follow-ups, but it’ll be quite a sight on the National Mall.
DEADLINE: Just the other day the president complained about Fox News on Twitter. I’m sure you saw it. He said, “[Viewers] want an alternative now. So do I.” What do you think is going on there?
BAIER: You know, I have been on the backend of some tweets from the president, not happy with coverage of him on the news side of things. I know my colleague Chris Wallace has as well. Sometimes, that’s the way this president operates. Do I love it? No. But, you know, we’ve got a job to do. We’re going to provide both sides, and sometimes the good, the bad, the ugly, is not a good day for him, and sometimes he expresses himself that way. He does tweet about Fox a little bit, but we kind of go about our job and we still ask him the questions that we think viewers want to hear.
DEADLINE: Do you think he was, quote unquote, working the refs a little bit. In other words, he was looking for more favorable coverage?
BAIER: I don’t know. And he’s tried, he’s done that before. We had a town hall in Scranton; Martha and I last hosted that. And we had solid audience questions and tough but fair follow-ups to the president and elicited some substantive responses that I think went well. I mean, we didn’t hold back. And obviously, this is where we are now. It’s a different environment, really, with the country in the position it is now. I think when the president talks, just like those briefings, and I was just in one two weeks ago, there’s pushback on some of the things he says. You know you want to get people’s questions answered. But you want to press him on some of the big issues of the day.
DEADLINE: How will you counter misinformation? For example, the president often says that his administration was early in its response in that instituted a travel ban from China, but there were exceptions to that.
BAIER: Right, and there definitely were thousands and thousands of people that came in from China — most of them Americans, I should note. Right. We will note that. Some of the things he said numerous times in the White House briefing. You know, it follows a bit of a script on some of what he’s talked about. So, of course, there’ll be some challenge to that. I think the focus of a lot the viewer questions, at least so far, is more forward-looking than it is back. But there will be some looking back to how the administration’s handled this. You have to be ready for what you know the president will bring to the table, and that’s part of preparation. This time, we found out confirmation [of the event] a little bit later, so we don’t have as many days to prep. But Martha and I will be ready, and we look forward to it. You know it’s a great opportunity to not only ask the president questions whenever, but also in this time, when obviously so many people are paying attention to what the future is going to look like across the country.
DEADLINE: One of the major criticisms of the Biden campaign has been empathy, that the president has not shown it during the crisis. Is that something that you want to raise with him? I mean, I think this came up when he was boasting about the size of his audience for the briefings.
BAIER: Right. We know. I don’t want to give you all the questions, but clearly the criticism will be noted on a number of fronts, and the president will address that for sure.
DEADLINE: What about what he said last week about disinfectants? You talked about this on-air last week. Is that something that you plan to raise with him? Some critics of the president believe this goes to the heart of why Trump’s riffs can be dangerous, but the White House clearly wants to move on from that.
BAIER: I obviously made my feelings clear as I was asked questions on various shows about it. And, you know, it just was not sarcasm, looking at that briefing. I think Dr. [Deborah] Birx was pressed on it a couple of different times, a couple different ways. Who knows? We may go down that road, but again, a lot of the focus is going to be what America looks like going forward. There’ll be opportunities. You know this was going to be a cross section from various kinds of folks all over the country dealing with various types of issues — not all Trump supporters, not all Biden’s supporters. Americans dealing with the circumstance that they’re in. And then Martha and I will be in position to follow up on that. We’ll see if that particular line of question comes up.
DEADLINE: There has been some pressure on the news networks, when they were having the briefings, not to carry them live. What did you think about that? Other networks had kind of come in and out of the briefings for fact checking.
BAIER: Well, I just think, you can press the president, you can fact check — I just think that those briefings provided information. And you didn’t know when the doctors were going to be pressed about a question. I was there. I asked all different kinds of questions. I asked the first questions to the president about the whereabouts of Kim Jong-un. That led to a whole bunch of stories. The questions ran the gamut, and I think that, for our viewers, was important. Now, you could criticize how the president handles it or he talks too long. But coming out of those things was a lot of information, whether it was from [Dr. Anthony] Fauci or Dr. Birx or Vice President [Mike] Pence or the president.
DEADLINE: But what about this whole argument that the network should be fact-checking the president in real time?
BAIER: I think that is an interesting editorial decision, what you do with your on-air chyrons, … I think that you have to trust the viewer. And you have to trust that they are following the coverage and you let it speak for itself and then afterwards you analyze different elements of it. Sometimes when you make an editorial decision definitively on the screen, it may be more nuanced than black and white. There may be more to it. And that’s where you can get into trouble.
DEADLINE: I want to talk about Tara Reade because this is a big story right now. There’s been some criticism of the political media for not asking Joe Biden about these allegations in the media availabilities that he’s had. [Biden appeared Friday, after this interview, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, to deny the allegations.]
BAIER: I don’t know. I think that the egregious element of it is the disparity between the coverage of Brett Kavanaugh and the allegations against him and what we’re seeing now. You don’t have to withdraw skepticism from any element of Tara Reade’s story. You don’t have to say that she’s 100% accurate, but you do have to look at how the media in general has covered one person who was in the spotlight, obviously in a Supreme Court hearing, and one person who is now the presumptive nominee for president, and that disparity is real. I hope she does an interview with someone who is tough but fair. I hope it’s on Fox.
DEADLINE: When do you think it’s fair game to raise with a presidential candidate.
BAIER: Well, if it was fair game with Brett Kavanaugh — all of the things that flew against the wall in that time — arguably Tara Reade has more dots connecting the past than when Christine Blasey Ford did at the time. So we covered both fairly. We did both sides on Special Report. We are going beyond, you know, to make sure that all sides are being heard. But the fact that Joe Biden has not been asked about it is kind of egregious.
DEADLINE: The Trump campaign has been tweeting about her accusations, do you think that makes it fair game to ask the president about accusations against him, even on Sunday at this town hall?
BAIER: Sure, it opens the door to all kinds of things, once the Trump campaign opens the door to that. The president has been asked numerous times about his multiple allegations. I’m not sure the town hall is going to be the place to go down those roads. This town hall is called America Together — how we are trying to get together as a country to beat not only the health crisis but the economic crisis. Our focus really is going to be that, and ideally providing substantive information that helps people, and you know there’ll be other questions, there’ll be other topics. I’m not sure that’s going to be one of them.
DEADLINE: Fox News did extensive coverage of the protests of the stay-at-home orders on the news side and the opinion side. What about the criticism that this was excessive, especially since the network has its own social-distancing policies in place?
BAIER: On my show, we made sure to focus on the calls and the warnings from Tony Fauci and the CDC director about, if you’re going to protest make sure there’s social distancing. We also pointed out that there wasn’t a lot of [that]. And we covered the side of concern about the businesses they see evaporating before their eyes and the concern about people in these various states. I think we handled it in my show, which I’m really focused on, 6 to 7 [PM ET], the appropriate way.
DEADLINE: There was a Pew poll that said roughly eight of 10 of those whose main source Fox News said the media slightly or greatly exaggerated the risks of the pandemic. How do you account for the difference between how viewers of Fox viewed the pandemic versus other networks?
BAIER: I don’t know. I don’t go over the rundowns of the primetime shows. They don’t go over mine. So I can’t really speak to how from the beginning all of it was talked about. I do know that if you look back in time, the February-to-March timeframe, people like Tony Fauci were saying things like, ‘Americans don’t have a lot to worry about,’ or that largely people can go about their business. And I think some of that perspective is lost back in those days, in the early part of this pandemic. Clearly, the story changed. The story evolved. And the threat evolved before our eyes. The medical experts made their determinations and the administration made its about what policy we’re going to follow.
DEADLINE: Do you have concerns that, working on the news side, you are mixed in with the same criticism that is aimed at the opinion hosts like Sean Hannity and some of the others in primetime.
BAIER: I have been at Fox for 23 years. There have always been people who paint with a broad brush, who lump in opinion and news together. I think our viewers know what they’re looking at. They know, just like a newspaper — one side is an opinion page and one side is the news page. Each has a job to do. And each does it in a different way. I respect those folks, a lot, but my job is to have kind of blinders on from six to seven to make sure we’re as fair as we can be to all sides. Most people who look, who follow my wish that if they haven’t seen Fox to tune into my show and watch it three times, and then drop me an email, Facebook [message], or tweet, and tell me if you think it was fair. And most people who do that, come back and say it was.
DEADLINE: You have in the past said that Sean Hannity has called you and he asked how much trouble he causes the news side on a scale of 1 to 10, and you said a solid six. Has that changed?
BAIER: I was just on Sean’s show last week. Actually weeks ago and another time, we had broken the story about the U.S. intelligence community investigating the Wuhan lab and what happened with the virus in the very beginning. Today the [director of National Intelligence] confirmed our reporting [from] 11, 12 days ago. So I was on Sean’s show. Again he has a different job. He does his job as an opinion maker very well. I have a news job, and occasionally we intermix like that day. And we’ve talked back and forth about all of this, going forward.
DEADLINE: He’s been very upset over criticisms that he has received for how he has handled the coronavirus coverage. Do you think they’re unfair?
BAIER: Listen, I don’t go over Sean’s rundown back in the day, and what he said exactly. I know what his defense is. And I’ve heard it loudly. So I’m gonna let him fight that battle for himself.
DEADLINE: By going on his show, do you think that confuses the viewer ever because you’re going on an opinion show yet you are on the news side?
BAIER: You know, we work for one company. And when the news side breaks a big story, and the opinion side says, ‘Will you come on and talk about it?” I think it behooves us to share the news that we’ve broken. I’m not going on there as an opinion maker. I’m bringing the facts that we’ve brought to the table, and both sides so I think it’s fine.
DEADLINE: This is a concern at other news organizations too. There was a study from the Committee to Protect Journalists that actually said that was one of the recommendations, that maybe news organizations should rethink having their news side personalities go on the opinion side.
BAIER: Unfortunately, it’s usually Fox that’s the only one that’s focused on. We get a lot of media spotlight, but that’s okay. We also get the most viewers, so that’s alright.
DEADLINE: Is there anything you would have done differently, since this crisis started, in the way that it was covered.
BAIER: I think some of the trusting — now this comes from experts as well — of the models that came out at the beginning. I think there were more questions to be had to medical experts at the beginning who were saying that 2 million people, or that one million plus, could die. Remember they all got scaled back. Those models drove policy decisions. We still have so much to learn about the coronavirus and how to treat it and what to do. Hopefully, we’re going to be better prepared the next time, and I know as a news organization, we’re going to be better prepared to ask the questions that everybody didn’t see at the beginning.
DEADLINE: Personally, how have you handled this. What changes will you be doing in the next week or so?
BAIER: I’m obviously antsy always. I love being up at the office. I haven’t been there. The home studio has worked out great. Fox jumped on this right away with being able to, technically, get all of its anchors up on the air, with really minimal disruption. I mean, kudos to the technical side to be able to do that. There’s a part of me that has really enjoyed being with my family every day. I prior to this had traveled nonstop, to town halls and election coverage. Now I’m every day with my 12-year-old, my 9-year-old, my wife, my dog. There’s something nice about that. They probably want to throw me out, but it’s been it’s been kind of an interesting time. And it’s gonna be interesting to see how America gets back, including getting back to work every day.
DEADLINE: In so many of the briefings, Trump has attacked the media, do you think that that has an impact?
BAIER: It does have an impact. I mean, he tweets about the media as well. I don’t think it’s great, just as a spectator of politics. He thinks that it stirs up his base. I will say that some of the questioning, sometimes, seems to have a personal tone to it, that is attacking. Not everybody. But sometimes, and it gives the president ammunition against press in general. And I think that journalists, all of us need to be careful to not go over our skis either way to enable that to happen. This president expresses criticism a lot more than any other, but every president says the media is against him, all the way back to FDR.