Voice Of Reason

Brit Hume brings to Fox News an authoritative presence that helps keep the cable station at the top of its game.

June 02, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

WASHINGTON - Brit Hume has the Voice. Perhaps you've heard it before. Deep and unwavering, at once assuring and assured, it instantly conveys authority. The Voice is one you might secretly long to hear from an airline pilot or surgeon.

Hume is the chief Washington anchor for Fox News Channel, a calming presence for the cheeky ratings king of cable television news - a grown-up among fraternity boys.

Unlike Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, Hume is unlikely to blurt out a coarse sexual term on the air or bump his car into a woman over a parking dispute. Not for Hume the patriotic rants of Fox talk-show host Bill O'Reilly or anchor and commentator Neal Cavuto.

Hume's is a more reasoned tone. Just listen to the Voice characterize how the conventional media - much of it very good, by his account - left an opening for an upstart station like his.

"I had come to believe over time, that there, indeed, was - and is - a distinct bias in the way news is covered," Hume says. "This was largely an unconscious thing, but it was real."

Reporters for major news outlets - newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Sun, networks such as ABC News, his former employer - absorbed the values of certain social movements of the 1960s and '70s, Hume says. Gay rights and environmental efforts are given uniformly uncritical hearings. Legalized abortion is largely portrayed as an unquestioned good, he says. Religious conservatives see themselves placed on the fringes of respectable society.

Even the journalistic aphorism "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted" is itself loaded with a political agenda that not all Americans share, he argues.

"A very large percentage of readers and viewers out there were really insulted and found their sensibilities offended," Hume says. "I had always had the feeling that if somebody built a broadcast network that challenged that, that there would be a tremendous market for it."

And so there is. Fox News has combined hard news and sharp talk, with an emphasis on perceived outrages from the elite classes of politics, media and popular culture. Less than 7 years old, Fox News now dominates cable news ratings.

CNN maintains a much larger staff of journalists. During the war in Iraq, Fox leaned heavily on its British sister network, Sky News, to supplement stories from reporters abroad such as Greg Kelly and Rick Leventhal. Yet Fox's ratings lead expanded, upending conventional wisdom that held viewers turn back to the networks and cable pioneer CNN in times of crisis.

"We both have good stories we can tell," says Larry Goodman, president of CNN's sales and marketing division. So far this year, 637,000 people are typically watching Fox at any given time, compared to 445,000 viewers for CNN - far fewer than the average network evening news program, but a strong showing for cable. Even according to Goodman, Fox News is the fastest-growing cable network, up 139 percent over last year's levels.

On a recent spring morning, Hume sits in his office just a block from the U.S. Capitol sorting through possible items for his two-minute, sharp-edged "Grapevine" feature on his weeknight newscast, Special Report. An assistant suggests an item about a Web site calling for the return of anti-war activist Michael Moore's Academy Award. While Hume loves tweaking Hollywood and liberals - and Moore would be both - he quickly concludes the story doesn't reach his standards of what's worth noting.

Hume's reading glasses dangle from a string that reaches below his long face. His striped tie is perfectly complemented by the handkerchief tucked into the pocket of his double-breasted suit jacket. He is surrounded by framed photographs of presidents and senators, a promotional poster for Fox in the black-and-white style of the old Saturday Evening Post, commemorative images of the Sept. 11 attacks.

A native Washingtonian and a product of St. Albans School and the University of Virginia, Hume would, just a few weeks shy of 60, seem the very personification of the political establishment.

Overhead, a disembodied female voice beckons with news of a "320" call - a reference to a line reserved for a hot development. Washington bureau chief Kim Hume brought the idea with her to Fox from ABC News, where she also once worked. The couple was married in 1993.

On Fox News Sunday, Brit Hume makes little secret of his skeptical conservative take, but on Special Report, he creates a newscast that mixes polished taped stories with updates of breaking stories. And Hume argues that Fox News sits atop the cable news world because of the value placed on the kind of old-fashioned reporting he favors, not political posturing.

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