Fresh out of college, Brit Hume (Col ’65) landed in the noisy newsroom of the now-defunct Hartford Times in Connecticut. He immediately knew that he’d found his calling.
The young newspaper reporter would eventually move from behind a typewriter to in front of a camera. Hume enjoyed a 23-year run with ABC News, where he contributed to World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, Nightline and This Week, and served as the chief White House correspondent from 1989 through 1996.
He joined the fledgling FOX News Channel in 1996 and serves as Washington, D.C., managing editor and anchor of Special Report with Brit Hume, the highest-rated political program on cable television.
Hume recently took time out to talk to Virginia Magazine about the challenges and rewards of journalism, criticism of FOX News’ alleged right-wing bias and his formative years at the University of Virginia.
You’ve been at this for a long time. From your perspective, what are the most profound changes you’ve seen in the country over the years?
Well, that’s a long story. I came on the scene as a reporter in the days before Watergate and before the Vietnam War turned out to be the immensely unpopular undertaking that it became. I’ve observed the media’s role in both those stories and the effect that they’ve had on the country and the effect that they’ve had on the media itself. We now inhabit a very much more adversarial and skeptical culture than we ever used to. Things have really changed quite a lot. And I think that’s a singular fact of life that everybody who’s in public life has to deal with.
The premium now is on the investigative exposé. Reporters are terribly concerned about not being seen as “tough enough” and so on. You see it in the atmosphere at the White House; you see it in the atmosphere of coverage generally.
There used to be a general view that America was not what was wrong with the world. In many corners now today and in academia and in the media, I think we see an interest in the idea that maybe America is what’s wrong with the world. There’s a worry that when the U.S. undertakes something, that the U.S. is likely to be the problem, not the solution. I think that’s an attitude that didn’t exist when I first started in this business and I think it’s not for the better.
You mentioned that our culture seems more adversarial than ever. Why do you think that’s the case?
It’s a question of what’s rewarded. The recognition that came to the journalists who raised the skeptical questions about the Vietnam War was the first phase, and then you had the unbelievable celebrity and hero status that was accorded those who were involved in reporting the Watergate story. That had an effect on the style and the approach that journalists came to take. At the same time, you had the rise of television news and the emergence of television journalists as stars in a way that was never true of print journalism, with the exception of a very small number. It changed the atmosphere. Journalists in America today exercise far more influence and power and have more prestige than they ever used to. That’s not all bad, but it’s certainly not all good either.
How have the news business and the audience’s expectations changed with the rise of the Internet and cable news?
There’s a tremendous premium on speed that didn’t always used to be there. That’s meant that lead times for a story being discovered and appearing in some form of reporting have shrunken dramatically. You have to respond to that by trying to get faster, or you have to respond to that by trying to do it better in such a way that people are willing to wait for you to provide it. We do a mix of both here at FOX News.
By the time the dinner hour rolls around, people have heard a great deal about many things and the evening news no longer has the first crack at the audience.
You have to ask yourself “How much of this is already on the morning news? How much did people hear about this on the way to work? How much of this did they pick up during the course of the day on the Internet?”
You’re constantly calculating how much people have already heard and whether it has exhausted their interest or has simply sharpened their interest. There’s a lot of guesswork involved—who’s got the first crack at the audience now is something you can’t always know, but you often know it isn’t you.
UVA has produced a good number of prominent journalists. Is there something in the water in Charlottesville that you’ve been able to identify?
No, there really isn’t. But there is one thing that was in the atmosphere in Charlottesville that certainly affected me and it’s been with me all along and that was the Honor System. We had an honor system of sorts at the prep school where I went, but it wasn’t fully enforced the way it was at the University of Virginia. You got down there your first year and you were confronted by this single sanction Honor Code and you saw that everybody took it very seriously.
It was a wonderful thing. It affected me very profoundly and it’s been with me ever since. Of course, if you’re a journalist, your credibility and your sense of honor is a big part of what you’re supposed to be about, so nothing prepared me better for the world that I work in than the world I lived in at the University of Virginia.
Fred Barnes (Col ’65) of The Beltway Boys, and a regular guest on your show, was a UVA classmate. Were you friends in school?
We were friends even before we got to the University of Virginia—I’ve known Fred for now 50 years. Fred and I were very different in the sense that he was always interested in the news and the world of politics, long before I was. I remember he had a room on Chancellor Street in a boardinghouse one year. The floor was basically coated with newspapers. I said, “God, Fred—this is a mess.” He said, “Yeah, it ain’t the Ritz.” From then on, his room was known as the Ritz because it was so ridiculous.
When you were named the National Press Foundation Broadcaster of the Year in 2004, there was controversy surrounding that award because some believe that you and FOX News lean to the right and do not present a balanced picture. How do you respond to that perception?
Through my years as a reporter, it became pretty clear to me that among journalists, there was a sort of an unconscious acceptance of certain views on a whole range of issues and it tends to be to the left. Now that doesn’t mean that these are political activists working to advance some political cause. It doesn’t quite work that way. It’s far more subtle than that, but it is a pretty strong consensus.
You don’t find many journalists who are, for example, profoundly anti-abortion. You don’t find many journalists who think that the concerns over global warming are overblown. You don’t find many journalists who don’t think that gun control and more of it is a good idea. You don’t find many journalists who are particularly sympathetic to undertakings by the U.S. military, and so on down the line. I think any news organization with a more neutral stance on those issues is going to look conservative to a lot of journalists.
As long as our competitors are convinced that we’re a right-wing news organization out to promote right-wing causes, they never will get it. That’s good news for us. They can’t fix their problem because they don’t understand it. As long as they continue to think in that way, they’re probably not going to gain much ground on us.
I think the viewers have spoken on this. We have, on a typical 24-hour cycle, an average of twice as many viewers as CNN does. We have more viewers than MSNBC and CNN combined.
How do you handle the criticism that comes your way?
Back in 1970, I wrote a column about the mine worker’s union that produced a libel suit that dragged on for years. I was confronted with the question of whether to identify the source and if not, whether I could have a default judgment entered against me or even be sent to jail, or both. I had to live through that and it was a painful experience. Eventually, the source came forward voluntarily and testified and we won it at trial, but it took four years and it hung over me during that period. There was a lot of pressure and I think it was a useful learning experience.
Having lived through that, the kind of controversies you get into where some political candidate is squawking about his or her coverage kind of rolls off you like water off a duck’s back.
On the other hand, I’m always alive to the possibility that you might get it wrong. And I’m also a great believer in the idea that when you do get it wrong, the thing you need to do is acknowledge it immediately, make amends the best you can and try not to let it happen again, but to be very straightforward about it.
What are you proudest of?
At the moment I’m proudest of my granddaughters. As far as I’m concerned, they can do no wrong and they know that. I’m very fond of them both and they mean a great deal to me. I guess I’m also proud that I’ve been in this business for 42 years, and I’ve sort of never been anything but a reporter and I’ve always believed that it was a wonderful thing to be.
On the other side of that coin, what is your biggest regret?
Well, I’ll always regret that I didn’t study harder. I probably would have done better earlier in my career if I hadn’t had such a good time at UVA. I kind of barely got in and barely got out, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.
I had to do a lot of catching up, but I’m grateful for the education I got—it prepared me pretty well.
Of the stories you’ve covered, which has had the biggest impact on you?
A story that really affected me was attending the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994. Before that, I went with the first President Bush to the Gulf during Thanksgiving before the first Gulf War and came face to face with a lot of the soldiers who were posted out there in the desert in Saudi Arabia.
Seeing what they were made of, seeing their attitude, their morale and their esprit, I thought how far the military had come back from the terrible setback of Vietnam and the terrible morale problems that the military suffered during that period. It fit together with what I learned about Amer-ican forces and their role in the world when I was covering those D-Day observances.
It got me to thinking a lot about the role that the American military played in the world of the 20th century and what a different perception I came to have of that role compared to the perception that so many of us had in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Have you ever thought about what you might do if you weren’t a journalist?
Yes, I’ve thought about that sometimes and I always feel like if I weren’t a journalist, I’d have to get a real job. If I’ve had a great blessing—and it was a very great blessing indeed—it was that when I got out of the University of Virginia, I was married by the fall of that year. I had a child coming, I needed work and I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I hadn’t really gravitated toward journalism. I didn’t work on the Cavalier Daily, but I caught on with a newspaper up in Connecticut that fateful year of 1965. Those were the days of battered typewriters and copy editors shouting “Copy!” across a crowded and busy newsroom. The first day I was in that place, working in that hectic and cacophonous atmosphere of that old newsroom, I knew I was home and I loved it. I thought it was the coolest thing you could possibly do.