You may know FOX News Channel’s chief political anchor Bret Baier from his role behind the desk at Special Report with Bret Baier on weekdays 6 to 7 p.m. EST. (After all, it averages 2 million viewers.) If not, his face is about to become a consistent presence as election coverage ramps up. In fact, Baier is moderating FOX News Channel’s August 6 Republican presidential primary debate in Cleveland, Ohio, alongside FNC’s Megyn Kelly and Chris Wallace. Live coverage will begin at 8:50 p.m. EST with the debate taking place from 9 to 11 p.m. EST. But he wasn’t always a national TV newsman. Baier was raised in the small suburb of Dunwoody, Georgia, just north of Atlanta. After attending college in Indiana, he worked in Rockford, Illinois and Raleigh, North Carolina before being hired to work in FOX’s Atlanta bureau (which led him to Washington, D.C.).
From covering loggerhead turtles in Hilton Head, during which he had to rush the days’ tapes to a prop plane in Beaufort, South Carolina—“I had many days rolling down to the airport in a station wagon with the tape hanging out the window,” he says—to tending bar at the Circle Café in D.C.’s Union Station, Baier tells me his experiences throughout the South have informed his career. They’ve made him a better and more thoughtful interviewer. “I got a real flavor of the South. I think what I learned, first from growing up down there and from covering a lot of places, is a Southern sensibility,” he says. “That there is a different approach sometimes to things.” That approach, as most of you know, is slower, kinder, and receptive. Not just of ideas, but of stories.
“Politeness matters in the South, and some of that gets lost in the hustle and bustle up north, but throwing in a y’all every once in a while helps take the edge off,” he says. “Listening is an art I think is sometimes lost in our back and forth. I think some people go into things with a set of questions, but the best interviewers are the ones who go with the flow.”
Those experiences still guide him today. “I think it helps overall in my job now,” he says. “First to be able to identify and relate to those small towns, to remember what matters to them.” Chuckling, he recalls some of his colleagues from the North being shocked by what topics Southerners were interested in. (Sounds like they could use a subscription to Southern Living!) “We ask for viewer feedback,” he says. “So I hear from thousands of viewers, and the perception sometimes in some of those Southern cities … is completely different from what’s on their mind topic-wise.”
Which might account for Baier’s popularity. There’s no doubt that he’s a commanding, sharp presence on camera, but he also knows what Southerners care about. He has family in Naples, Florida, which he calls his “home away from home.” And, unlike many pundits, he actually spends time around the South, simply asking questions and truly listening to the answers he receives, much like he did while bartending in Union Station. “One of the things I like best is going into a diner or restaurant and talking to folks about what’s on their mind,” he says. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have opinions. While he works to “cover campaigns fairly,” he’s biased when it comes to barbecue. After all, what true Southerner isn’t? “I like the red sauce, but I’m not opposed to the Eastern Carolina style,” he says. “There’s nothing like a real side-of-the-road BBQ that’s like the place in that city, in that area.” Catch Bret Baier tomorrow night, hosting the debate. Check Baier’s website for more info. Travis M. Andrews is an associate editor for Southern Living. Follow him on Twitter @travismandrews.