Bret Baier has been covering the White House and national politics for a decade. Yet even he still experiences surreal moments with the most powerful people in Washington.
The anchor of "Special Report with Bret Baier" recently ran into Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff for President Barack Obama. Emanuel told Baier, a former WRAL reporter, he was doing a great job since replacing Brit Hume as anchor on the Fox News Channel program on Jan. 5.
Emanuel told Baier the White House senior staff watches his show every night.
"I said, 'Oh come on ...,'" Baier says. "And he said, 'Now sometimes we have the volume down, but we watch it every night.'"
Baier found the story funny and gratifying.
"It told me the administration knows we're there," he says, "and it's in their best interest to watch us."
People are watching.
Baier's 6 p.m. show attracted twice as many viewers as the CNN and MSNBC shows in the same time slot combined, an average of 2,045,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research.
From Jan. 5 to April 6, "Special Report" viewership rose 39 percent over the same period in 2008. In March, it increased 44 percent compared with a year before.
"It has been quite a ride," Baier says. "The information flow coming out of the nation's capital, it's like drinking from a fire hose.
"A lot of it affects everyone. It's our job to sift through everything and make sure we're not missing any big stories."
Fox News' newest anchor says he loved living in Raleigh. His first story was tailor-made for an ambitious reporter: On April 15, 1996, a tornado touched down in Zebulon, and Baier did his first WRAL story, on the storm's effect on a mobile home park in town.
The next morning, Baier returned to Zebulon for a follow-up. During a stop for lunch at a local diner, Baier says he "realized the power of WRAL."
"These six big guys were sitting at the counter," he says. "One of them turns to me and says, 'Hey, Bret.'
"I had been there one day. I'm thinking, 'Wow, Channel 5 is a powerhouse.'"
Baier grew up in Atlanta wanting to be a journalist. He wrote for his high school paper and caught the TV bug during an internship with an Atlanta station.
At DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., Baier earned a bachelor's degree with a major in political science and English in 1992 and was the college TV station's first anchor.
"It was horrible," Baier says laughing. "It was really, really bad. But it was something. And it got me going in TV."
Baier went from college to reporting gigs in Beaufort, S.C., and Rockford, Ill.
The year he arrived in Raleigh, 1996, the Fox News Channel launched. In 1998, Baier returned to his hometown of Atlanta to open the upstart channel's Atlanta bureau "with a fax machine and a cell phone" in his apartment.
"I really wasn't sure what Fox News was," he says. "You'd call people for interviews and introduce yourself and no one knew what it was. They'd say, 'Oh yeah, that channel that runs 'The Simpsons.'"
Baier traveled the Southeast and Central and South America. He covered national stories that came down the pike, from the Elian Gonzalez story and 9/11, to school shootings and the Timothy McVeigh execution.
That led to other Fox News Channel jobs, as national security correspondent and then chief White House correspondent.
Covering the White House, Baier took 13 trips to Iraq and 11 to Afghanistan, including a stint when he was embedded with U.S. troops at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Baier also did rare one-on-one interviews with, among others, former President George W. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus on his final day commanding in Iraq.
Working on the anchor desk, he wants "Special Report" to be the show people discuss at the water cooler. He knows those conversations can include concerns or praise for Fox's conservative reputation.
Baier, a self-proclaimed independent, says people often misunderstand his show's purpose. It broadcasts at 6 p.m., right after Glenn Beck's commentary and two hours before Bill O'Reilly's.
"When the clock strikes 6, it's a news program," Baier says. "I'm not weighing in. ... It's a great balance coming off Beck's commentary hour."
Republicans and Democrats watch Fox News, according to an August 2008 study by the Pew Research Center. O'Reilly's show, according to the study, had an audience that was 66 percent conservative, but Fox's viewership was 33 percent Democrat, 39 percent Republican and 22 percent independent.
CNN's viewers broke down as 51 percent Democrat, 18 percent Republican and 23 percent independent. MSNBC's audience broke down 45 percent Democrat, 18 percent Republican and 27 percent independent.
"It's a straightforward news show," Baier says. "We have a good deal of people who watch and a lot of lawmakers who do who write me saying it's appointment viewing for them."
Baier has time to breathe now that he's doing a live daily show, rather than traveling to do news stories. He gives the time to his wife, Amy, and their son, Paul. Now a healthy, active 21-month-old, Paul was born with several heart defects. Since his birth in June 2007, Paul has had a number of surgeries, including a third angioplasty last month.
Baier says he had to pinch himself a couple of times as a reporter, like he does now as an anchor.
"You're in the middle of history," Baier says. "And any question you ask could be the news of the day, the month or the year."
email@example.com or 919-829-4864