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so what do you do?

So What Do You Do, Bill Hemmer?
The people in your media neighborhood.

BY DAVID S. HIRSCHMAN | There's a certain look of the network television anchorman. He's square-jawed and serious, able to convey sometimes-difficult information with a minimum of emotion and a maximum of energy. Attractive, but in that high-school quarterback kind of way; all-American, reassuring. Certainly those TV journalists who end up as anchors have paid their dues and done their reporting on local council meetings and water-main breaks, but there's also a definite, hard-to-define quality that an anchorman needs to convey. Bill Hemmer has that quality.

Hemmer has worked at CNN since 1995 and he became an anchor on "American Morning with Paula Zahn" nearly a year ago. The show has been surprisingly popular, having emerged in the wake of September 11th, and has become a fixture in many American households. Hemmer received an Emmy Award for his work on CNN's coverage of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, and was named one of People magazine's 50 most eligable American bachelors in 2001. Here he gives some insight into ethics and the fear factor in today's news media.

Birthdate: November 14, 1964
Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
First Section of the Sunday Times he reads: Front page

Are you a news junkie?
Yes, thoroughly. I have it bad. I have a news addiction. It drives my girlfriend crazy, because she doesn't enjoy it nearly to the extent that I do. I've always thought, though, that, in our business, you need to have that. Because if you don't have it, then something's missing and you're probably not going to go deep enough into the stories and the issues that you need to in order to relay that information to the viewers.

You must need to keep track of a lot of different issues at the same time.
I think the criticism that a lot of people have about cable news broadcasters is that they know [a very small amount] about [a lot of different things], which I think is a reality we're facing today. And you could probably argue that depth in which we cover things isn't as deep as it could be. But it's a 24-hour news operation and I think that if you gage us over a 24-hour period you'll find that we get our fingers into a lot of different pies.

I would have said the opposite. It often seems like one story totally dominates the news, to the exclusion of all else. For example: the recent DC sniper investigation.
I knew you were going to mention the sniper. I was down in Rockville (MD) for three weeks for that, and it's true that we had a lot of people down there. Not just our network, but every network. Everybody was trying to offer their own theories about who it was and what they were doing. Our business deals in facts, we don't deal in theories and speculation, so that was a really tricky story for us to cover. People were honestly just looking for answers, trying to figure it out, and in the end everything we thought was thrown out the window. This was story that no one had experienced before; it was new to all of us and we all waded through it together.

Tell me a little bit about your career path.
I went to school in Ohio. Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, class of '87. I started working in Cincinnati as a sports writer. But I've got to be honest with you, I was in my mid-twenties and I got really bored with sports coverage. It became really apparent to me that you could only score a touchdown so many ways, and it was time to branch out. So I quit my job when I was 27 and backpacked around the world for a year, almost all solo and almost all in third world countries; Vietnam, Nepal, India, China, parts of the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and then when I came back I got a job as a reporter again for a couple of weeks in Cincinnati and then soon got picked up by CNN. That was in 1995. Working at CNN I find every day I'm incorporating what I learned that year abroad, the time I spent studying religions, politics, histories. That knowledge that I accumulated, first-hand, about Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, has really helped me a tremendous amount.

Who in journalism do you admire?
I admire the big three. I especially admire the guys at the big networks; Peter Jennings, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw. They do what they do, day in and day out, and they're damn good at it. I admire their ability to retain knowledge as well as during breaking news or during conventions or election night coverage. To be as good as they are—and as fluid as they are—is really something.

Where were you on September 11th, 2001?
I was in Atlanta. I arrived in New York the evening of the 14th and stayed on the streets for the next four weeks.

Do you think news coverage has changed as a result of 9/11?
I think whether it's a big news day or a slow news day, that's always in the back of our heads now. It has a significant influence today on what we decide to cover, editorially. Homeland security is no joke. It's going to be with us for decades to come. In the near term—whether it's Iraq or North Korea—I think most of these stories can be related back to 9/11, and most of it is about personal security and how Americans feel about themselves right now.

I remember I woke up a few months ago and there was a bombing in Israel when I turned on CNN, and the headline along the bottom of the screen read "Morning Terror". At the time I thought to myself that you could probably rename the show that, because every morning when you turn on CNN there's some new awful thing to be afraid of.
I have people who tell me that they specifically don't watch news, because they don't want to hear the bad stuff. And, I tell you, there's a lot of it around us right now. Any day, you can tune in and watch us report on the latest terror threat; the latest scare for how we are going to die. And, over time that has a measurable impact on viewers. And, right or wrong, they always have the option to turn that TV off because they don't want to be reminded of [that threat]. Conversely, however, I think there are people who watch the news specifically because they starve for that information. Who tune in to find out "What are they saying now? What information do I need today?" Do we beat it? I hope that we are trained enough and have enough restraint to say "our logic tells us this is where we need to go with this story and these are the facts that we have." So many people in so many parts of the world have been living with terrorism for years. But this is a new phenomenon in America, and that's why... Do you think we beat it?

No. But there are times when I turn off the news as well. Sometimes it gets to be too much.
Believe it or not, sometimes it gets to be a lot for us too. I felt that covering the streets for that four week period after 9/11 had more of an impact on me than anything else I've done in television. This might strike you as an obvious answer, but it's not obvious to me. I think journalists in a lot of ways have a sense of keeping things at arm's length; if you keep things away from your heart your head can still operate. So as a journalist you can still function despite the amount of tragedy that's around you. But on 9/11 it was inescapable. There was no way to avoid the fact that thousands and thousands of people on the sidewalks of New York had had their lives forever changed. And, covering that story, from that angle, had a profound influence on me. Personally, prior to that day I still felt I could keep things at arm's length. I can still do that, but not like I could prior to 9/11.

Many people these days say that the media has been instrumental in building support for George W. Bush and the coming confrontation with Iraq, even though traditionally the media has been thought to have a bias to the left. Do you think that the media has shifted to the right, politically, since September 11th, and, if so, why?
I think there are certain entities within the media that perhaps tilt that way, and there are definitely some that conceal it less well than others. However, it is our duty at CNN (and it should be for all journalists) to keep it down the middle and to play it straight. For us to come short of that is to really do a disservice to our viewers. That's our foundation. And if we rock that foundation, we've done a lot of damage to ourselves.

David Hirschman is a freelance writer and interim editor of mediabistro.com.


So What Do You Do? appears on Tuesdays.

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