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Brit Hume Looks Back

6 minute read
Alex Altman

Whether or not John McCain pulls off a comeback, conservatives will suffer a loss on Nov. 4. Brit Hume, the managing editor of FOX News Channel’s Washington, D.C. bureau and the anchor of the network’s “Special Report,” will step down from those duties after the election. (He will remain on air in a limited capacity.) Hume worked as a correspondent for ABC News for 23 years before moving in 1996 to FOX, where he has been the network’s elder statesman and a leading proponent of its “fair and balanced” credo. Hume spoke with TIME about stamping out bias, what’s next for the GOP and the differences between FOX and other mainstream media outlets.

You’ve said that at this major moment in American politics, your enthusiasm has waned. Is it the length of the campaign?

It’s more that I’ve been doing it a long time. It’s not as interesting as it used to be. Despite the history that’s been made — and history will be made; we’ll either have the first female vice-president or the first African-American president — the underlying issues are the same old ones.

You’ve denounced the “bitter,” “partisan” tone of the campaign as well.

Yeah, and after a while you get tired of covering it. For a while it’s fun and exciting, and it makes news. After a while it just gets to be tiresome. Dispiriting, even.

What prescription would you give to media outlets to improve the fairness and objectivity of their coverage?

The first thing you need to do is to search yourself and determine if you have a bias. If you acknowledge that, it’s not that hard to screen it out. But you’ve got to acknowledge it. If you’re an intelligent person with an interest in this stuff, you’re going to have your views and opinions. And it doesn’t mean you’re trying to press them through your work. That’s not how bias works. Bias is insidious; it works its way into your attitude.

What are some examples of the ways people have failed to confront their biases during this campaign?

In Barack Obama, we have one of the most remarkably impressive political figures we’ve ever seen. But he’s still a relative unknown. Has there really been a searching examination of his past? He doesn’t have a long record to examine. Most of his time in the Senate he’s been out running for President — something he’s done very well, and that’s a point in his favor. But I think there’s been a decided lack of interest in [his record]. There were media outlets who barely touched the Rev. Wright example. And that was a compelling story. I think that’s an example of how the Obama bandwagon has caught up a lot of journalists.

Does the discontent in some quarters of the GOP over the Palin nomination reflect fissures within the party?

Oh, I think so. The Republican Party basically has two factions. One of them is what has crudely been referred to in the past as Country Club Republicans. The other is the movement conservatives. Sarah Palin seems to have stepped on that fault line.

If the election result is unfavorable, how does the GOP go about regrouping as a party?

My guess is there will be a certain number of conservatives who rally around Palin as the next bright hope. There will be others who say, look, what’s killing us is we’ve got this stand on abortion that’s an albatross around our neck. They will look for some champion, somebody of the Jim Leach school of Republican thought.

Are there any other rising stars we should watch out for?

There are a few in Congress. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is somebody conservatives might look to. He’s been a young star in the House of Representatives.

As a conservative, which direction do you hope the party goes?

I don’t know. As a conservative, I expect them to be conservative. I’m really more of a conservative than I am a Republican. I’m not a party guy. I just think conservatives have had the better of the national argument in recent years, and we’ve had some genuine successes with conservative policies.

As someone who spent 23 years at ABC and then went to FOX News when it was a nascent operation, you’ve been a major part of both a mainstream media outlet — perceived by many as having a liberal bias — and then at a cable powerhouse perceived by many to have a conservative bias. Behind the scenes, is there a fundamentally different approach to news gathering?

There’s a real difference. The mainstream media have a fairly consistent set of views about a range issues: abortion, the environment, taxes, use of military force and so on. It’s not that they’re obsessed with them or motivated by those views to do journalism. [But] there is a pretty broad consensus. And it leads to a [homogenous] way of looking at the world. At ABC, I often saw that there were alternative ways to do stories that were every bit as newsworthy. When I proposed them, I didn’t get any resistance. It’s just that nobody but me would think of them. I wasn’t looking to proselytize any viewpoints. I was just looking to do stories in ways I thought were meaningful.

It is fair to characterize FOX as a group with a prevailing worldview?

There really isn’t a prevailing worldview. We knew from the beginning that we couldn’t be just like everybody else, or we’d fail. If we were a carbon copy of CNN or somebody else, why would anybody bother to watch us? We needed a valid but nonetheless distinct product. So I set out to look for stories that could be done in a different way and valid stories that others weren’t doing at all.

There’s no doubt FOX News as a whole has more conservative voices on the air than anyone else. It also has to be said that that’s not saying much. There’s a scarcity of conservative views on the other channels. I would argue that our stable of liberal commentators dwarfs the other networks’ stable of conservative commentators.

Is the line between commentary and news clear to your viewers?

I think sometimes it’s not. It’s something that some don’t get, and our critics, who never watch us anyway, don’t care. They believe that Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity anchor FOX 24/7. There are two pieces of FOX News. One is the hard news side. And the other is the talk side. The talk side, I would argue, is pretty well balanced. But because the other [stations] have so few conservatives and some of ours are pretty conspicuous, it looks like it’s all conservatives, all the time.

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Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com