Bill Hemmer, the boy-next-doorish co-host, is perched in his swivel chair on the set of CNN’s American Morning. If you look closely, from time to time you’ll see him lift the black lid of his laptop for a peek at the screen. You’re supposed to think he’s checking the wires for breaking news. And he is. But he is also e-mailing his friends and scanning his in-box, which can be full of e-mails from Marine buddies he made while on assignment in Afghanistan, notes from family, and, often, missives from his admiring female fans. Hemmer himself is self-effacing about his appearance. His ears, he likes to say, are his best assets. He means, of course to deflect attention from his leading-man looks to his professional listening skills. But his ears—literally or figuratively—are not what the legions of ladies who have posted scrapbook-style Websites in his honor, would place at the top of their Hemmer lists.
“Was it me or was Bill just a honey this morning? He seemed to be just beaming golden sunshine. Yummy Yummm,” writes one of the Hemmerati in a Yahoo chat room.
And on other sites: “If only I could have met him before he became a CNN god, I’m sure I’d have his baby now.”
“I want Bill tied to a chair with whipped cream on him.”
“I bet he would taste better than a hot-fudge sundae.”
In person, with his finely cut features, Chiclet teeth, and studious glasses, Hemmer, 39, looks like Clark Kent. He talks, however, like Tony the Tiger. “Isn’t she grrreat?” he gushes about Soledad O’Brien, his American Morning co-host. Regarding the summer’s blackout, he says, “What a grrreat time to be in New York!” And about his job: “What a grrreat time to be at the edge of history!”
After the show most days, Hemmer heads downstairs to his windowless office, grabs a box of baby wipes to remove his makeup, and rewinds the tape in the VCR/TV on his desk. He settles in to watch not the latest Bengals game (he’s from Cincinnati) or the latest mind-numbing comedy (to decompress) but a tape of . . . the show. He sits face-to-face with himself, remote in hand, and analyzes his phrasing and inflections, the way he leans on his elbow and laughs during a toss to weather, or how he looks when he sips from the two silver containers he always keeps next to him on the desk. One is filled with coffee to keep him sharp, the other with ice water, which he says helps keep his mouth primed for enunciation.
Sartorially, he’s also a perfectionist: As a rule, it is Hugo Boss or Paul Smith suits (which, he proudly notes, he selects himself) that fill the closets in his West Village penthouse. Every day at around 6 a.m., he does his own makeup, too. “At that hour,” he says, “I don’t really like people touching my face.”
But Hemmer would say good-bye to the wardrobe, the penthouse, and the anchor desk in a second for a plane ticket and an assignment in Baghdad. His office walls at CNN’s studios in New York—a city he’s loved from the moment he arrived last fall from Atlanta (“If New York were a woman, Bill would marry her,” says Daryn Kagan, his former co-anchor)—are covered with photographs he’s taken on his travels. There’s a shot he snapped of a dusty street in Kandahar next to one of the still-smoking ground zero. There’s an Egyptian pyramid bathed in a Technicolor sunset and an alleyway in Nepal. “I’m the kind of person,” Hemmer says, “who always wants to be where I’m not.”
It’s no secret that an anchor job is not what it used to be; that the journalist-as-senior-statesman figure cut by Jennings, Rather, and Brokaw is becoming an anachronism. “It is the frustration of every anchor that they report too little and entertain too much,” says Ken Auletta, the author of Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way. “And for Hemmer, who’s a young guy, he’s got to do more than be an entertainer. He’s cursed, as are all morning anchors who make noise to people who have just awakened, because he must also be a likable entertainer.”
The Catch-22 of Hemmer’s early success, says a network-news insider, is his early success. “Rather’s 72; he was 49 before his reporting was restricted . . . Brokaw got in in his forties. Jennings got in in his mid-forties. Those guys earned the chair. They had the looks, they had style, but they were fucking great reporters. Hemmer hasn’t lived enough life. The question is, will the anchor chair have cheated him from developing sufficiently as a reporter?” With American Morning, Hemmer is trying to figure out how to do the television impossible: be both a glamour-boy newsreader and a swashbuckling field correspondent, in the vein of NBC’s Arthur “Scud Stud” Kent during the ’91 Gulf War or ABC’s Middle East correspondent Charles Glass, who was taken hostage in Lebanon while researching a book and then escaped.
On-air talent is usually from one camp or the other and seems uncomfortable when forced to cross to the other side. David Bloom, a powerhouse in the field who died while delivering remarkable coverage of the war in Iraq for NBC, often looked like a caged animal in the Weekend Today set. And can you imagine Brian Williams anywhere except in a hermetically sealed studio?
What Hemmer does have is an appealing mixture of seriousness and cheeriness, which morning television requires. What’s unusual about his TV persona—so Boy Scout that even his female fans gently mock it—is that there appears to be no difference between Hemmer on air and Hemmer off the air—except for the view of the gray hair growing on the back of his head. One effect of Hemmer’s cartoonish good humor is that he’s misperceived as small-town and laid-back. But Hemmer has got something driving him. Says Walter Isaacson, former president of CNN, “He is a journalist at his core.”
“People don’t realize,” says Daryn Kagan, “that he begged and fought for a long time before he got his opportunity on American Morning. I mean, it probably took a good four years of always being in there and always saying, ‘Put me in, Coach,’ before he got his chance.” And after tireless lobbying for high-profile assignments at the network, he wasn’t going to blow his shot. Hemmer pushed for Soledad O’Brien, David Bloom’s co-anchor on Weekend Today, to be his co-host over the many disappointed internal candidates who were given the chance to sit in the chair next to him. He knew that in order to get a show people would talk about, he’d need a boldfaced name. “For all the sweetness and wholesomeness,” says Dennis “D.J.” Janson, a sportscaster in Cincinnati who worked with Hemmer in his pre-CNN days, “there’s some steel braid that runs underneath.”
And his ambition goes back a lot farther than CNN. After an all-boys’ Catholic school upbringing, then college at Miami University of Ohio, he put in a few years as a sports reporter at WCPO, the CBS affiliate in Cincinnati. He was desperate to get out of the stats-and-sideline ghetto—and out of Ohio—but he knew he would never get a news job with a reel of local-sports coverage. So he made a deal with the station’s news director, took a year’s sabbatical, and at 27 set off on a world tour, which he financed himself. His idea was to produce segments from abroad—the station didn’t exactly have the budget for a foreign correspondent—and ship them back by DHL pouch (it was pre-e-mail 1992). He grew a beard and traveled alone to Ho Chi Minh City, the Great Wall, India, and the Middle East with his Hi 8 video camera and a 35-millimeter camera in his backpack. He slept in cheap, dirty hotels, he says, and wrote dispatches in longhand every three weeks for the Cincinnati Post, a Scripps Howard property like WCPO, and mailed them in together with undeveloped rolls of film.