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Anchor Dreams

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Bill's Excellent Adventure: Hemmer on set with O'Brien in 2003.  

“When he left,” says Janson, “his mom said, ‘Billy, please, no bungee-jumping.’ ” So one of Hemmer’s first stops was this bungee-jumping center in New Zealand. In Vietnam, he did a piece on early signs of capitalism—sidewalk cafés were sprouting up with co-opted American names like Good Morning Vietnam and Apocalypse Now. He took the bus from Nepal to Calcutta, where he volunteered at Mother Teresa’s clinics and did a piece about how many people she’d touched, physically, with her hands. Somehow, he found a guy with a Bengals jacket in the middle of Poland.

The finished product was a documentary called Bill’s Excellent Adventure, and in 1993 it won him two regional Emmys, one for Best Entertainment Program and another for Best Host. Jackie Harris, an agent at William Morris, saw the tape—part MTV’s Road Rules, part History Channel—immediately signed him, and took it to Atlanta to show Bob Furnad, the executive vice-president and senior executive producer of CNN at the time. Intrigued, Furnad scheduled Hemmer for an anchor audition, sat him in a cold studio by himself, then had him read a script filled with names like that of the Polish ambassador to Iraq. Next, Furnad unplugged the teleprompter. “It just didn’t faze Bill,” Furnad recalls. For the finale, he told Hemmer through his earpiece that there’d been a plane crash outside St. Louis. A spokesman, played by Furnad, was on the phone, and that’s all he knew. “Go! You’re on the air!” Every question Furnad had on his checklist Hemmer nailed. “I said there were ambulances, and he asked if there was a fire—nine out of ten anchors fail that,” says Furnad. “It was like this guy had been on air doing breaking news his whole life, and he’s a kid! He’s so smooth. It was beautiful.”

In TV, you’re always looking to move up to the next market, but making the jump from an affiliate in Cincinnati, which is the 32nd-largest market in the country, to an international cable channel is like going from AA ball to the pennant race. Hemmer was hired as a floater, meaning he’d plug holes when other anchors were away. There was one caveat to his new position: “We told him he needed to put on some age,” says Furnad. They suggested the glasses.

Since he moved here, Hemmer's become a New York fixation. Sightings of him at Jefferson Market result in postings on Gawker.com.

Hemmer’s first night on CNN was July 24, 1995. Three weeks after he started, he was given a permanent weekday slot at 5:30 a.m. Next came the 7 a.m. broadcast, and by 1997, he was co-anchor of a 10 a.m. show with Kagan.

Hemmer was climbing the anchor ladder, gaining gravitas, but he was still itching to get out from behind the desk and do some real reporting. In 1996, he covered the Olympics, but they were in Atlanta; not exactly his definition of the field. He covered Kosovo and Italy during the bombardment of Yugoslavia, but it was his marathon performance in Tallahassee during the 2000 Florida recount that signified his breakout. He’d packed for three days and ended up staying 37, doing live shots from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. The newsroom nicknamed him the “Chad Lad” for his comely dispatches. It was during that period that the Websites started going up and People magazine put him on its “Top 50 Bachelors” list. His next life-changing assignment came September 11. Hemmer was at ground zero around the clock for a grueling month. His parents, hearing depression in his voice, rushed to New York, but missed him. Hemmer had fled back to Atlanta for some new clothes—“I just had to get off the island,” he said.

Then, days before he was to leave for a Christmas 2001 Ohio reunion—his brother and three sisters and their families were going to be there—the hunt for Osama bin Laden officially began, and Hemmer got a call from Susan Bunda, CNN/U.S.’s senior vice-president for news, asking him how he’d feel about spending the holidays . . . in Afghanistan. “I felt so bad,” she says. “I even sent a note to his mom.”

What was going to be a Christmas special, reuniting the troops with their families back home, turned into a six-week adventure. To get Hemmer and his producer, Peter Ornstein, into the country, CNN had paid a convoy of Afghan guards to escort them across the border. “They gave us these northern-style hats” as disguises, says Ornstein. But “we were wearing them in the south! We looked like two white guys in Afghan outfits for Halloween.”

Major Chris Hughes remembers their arrival distinctly. “We were getting threats that terrorists were going to hit us via the media,” says the career Marine. “Then, I kid you not, Hemmer pulled up in what looked like a big gypsy wagon with all these lights and a mountain of gear.” The Marines were not amused. “We were like, ‘We’ve got to take all this stuff apart to make sure there are no explosives in it.’ It literally took hours.”


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