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.
“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.”
A couple days after Hemmer had been there, he asked Hughes if he would make a good Marine. “Nah,” Hughes replied. “I kind of see you as Air Force.” Air Force is known as the country club of the armed forces. For the next month and a half, Hemmer and Ornstein lived side by side with the soldiers in a bombed-out airport terminal in Kandahar. It was fifteen degrees, and jets bringing troops and supplies would land all night long. “Literally like having the space shuttle land on your head,” says Ornstein. “Every once in a while, a plane would get too close and you’d wake up caked with dust.” The bathrooms were nothing more than cement-block privies without walls. They didn’t have any showers. Hemmer loved it. “Some of the best times in my life were backpacking around corners of the globe where most people cannot go. To live in such a raw environment,” he says, “I found it thrilling.”
“Bill cowboyed up,” says Hughes. “That brought about a level of trust that otherwise he wouldn’t have had.” His sports chatter and joking around with the Marines—they wanted to know if he was dating supermodels—broke the ice, but it was actually “living in the filth” like one of them, as Hughes puts it, that got him his stories. “More than once I would say to myself, ‘I wonder if that State Department guy is supposed to be talking to Hemmer?’ or ‘I wonder if that FBI guy is cleared hot’ ”—in civilian terms, permitted—“ ‘to engage with Hemmer?’ ”
Because of the nine-hour time difference between Afghanistan and Atlanta, Hemmer had to get up at 3 a.m. every day. Hughes still has an image in his head of Hemmer’s “sitting there with fingers in gloves, breathing smoke, doing a Google search,” says the soldier with a laugh. “I just remember seeing that and thinking, You know, it ain’t so damn glamorous.”
Before Hemmer headed back to Atlanta, Hughes pulled him aside and told him he’d make a good Marine after all. “And I said, ‘No way, man,’ ” says Hemmer, “ ‘I’m Special Ops.’ ”
By 2002, Hemmer had covered the Washington, D.C., sniper shootings and moved on to his own three-hour broadcast from Atlanta in the middle of the day. Meanwhile, in New York, CNN’s highest-wattage show, Paula Zahn’s American Morning, was in flux with a seemingly endless pool of contributors. Nothing was gelling, and Hemmer was asked to come to New York to give it a shot. Since he took over the show from Zahn last May, its ratings have climbed 5 percent. While Fox is beating CNN in this time slot (and in many others), a 5 percent gain in the overheated environment of morning TV news is a good trend. As a consequence, feelers have been coming in from major market affiliates, syndicated magazine shows, and other networks.
TV executives measure their talent’s likability with Q ratings, and Hemmer’s are highÂ—both on the tube and in person. He’s gone from simply being a TV fixation to a New York fixation. Sightings of him at Jefferson Market result in postings on Gawker.com. He’s inundated with invitations to movie premieres, to see Springsteen (with Whoopi Goldberg), to charity galas, book signings, and fashion shows (he had a front-row seat at Victoria’s Secret), and to Soho House, from which he disappears like Cinderella by 8 p.m.
Hemmer’s private partnering has become a point of speculation. “When I broke the news to my office at NBC that I was leaving,” says Soledad O’Brien, “people were like, ‘Yeah, congratulations. Now, Bill Hemmer … does he have a girlfriend?’ ” He did have one recently, a corporate publicist, though with his schedule, it doesn’t seem like there’s much time or inclination for romantic spontaneity. Hemmer is a man of routine.
From the time he wakes up until the time he’s on air at 7 a.m., he can’t bear to spend more than a few seconds out of news earshot. His alarm goes off at 4 a.m. blaring WCBS 880, which is at that moment running down the day’s headlines. “The headlines invigorate me,” Hemmer says. “That’s what gets my brain going.” At 4:15 a.m., he flips on ABC’s World News This Morning, the only live newscast at that hour. He showers and puts on the suit he’s laid out the night before.
Of course, CNN has a car waiting for him outside his building to whisk him up Sixth Avenue to the studio. The elevator, which Edwin, his doorman, sends up for him precisely at 4:45, takes 28 seconds to get to the lobby. Hemmer knows because before he moved in, he timed it.
The conventional wisdom in TV news is that it takes eighteen months for an audience to find a show. But Hemmer disagrees. “That’s too long. People catch on quickly, people will watch, and people will talk … or not.”
He says this in a rare moment of downtime in his apartment; he’s preparing to meet some friends for dinner. Of course, in Hemmer’s version of downtime, the cell phone is constantly buzzing, his laptop is logged on to CNN.com, one TV in his office nook is tuned to Lou Dobbs Tonight, and another in his living room is set to NBC’s Nightly News. Tom Brokaw, looking much the elder statesman, is broadcasting from Iraq, with Baghdad as his backdrop.
Hemmer is watching with envy. Since he returned from Kuwait last April, he’s been stuck behind the desk, the longest stretch of stationary time in his CNN career. He’s obsessed with going to the Iraqi capital. “I’m hearing it’s one of the most dangerous environments journalists have worked in,” he says. “I want to learn it.” At the news Emmys in September, he’d attached himself to Ken Robinson, CNN’s senior terrorism and national-security analyst and a former Special Forces officer, who excitedly filled Hemmer in on his plans for a global-terrorism piece. When Hemmer asked to be the reporter, Robinson replied with a look of “fat chance.” The irony of Hemmer’s rising status is that he’s become too valuable to be sent “down-range,” Robinson’s lingo for the most hairy sectors of the war zone.
“Let’s say he has a visa problem, which happens, and suddenly you have this high-profile person out of the net for four days,” says Robinson. “Everyone thinks, Is he going to be crucial to any other breaking news coverage? Is Reagan fixing to die? Is there a pending coup in Russia? There is a global-impact thought process that goes into the management of him as an asset.”
Furthermore, Robinson says, most of Hemmer’s international adventures were under Isaacson’s regime. While the current network brass sort out Hemmer’s travel plans, their decision to keep him deskbound is making him restless.
“Look at Tom,” the CNN anchor says, turning his attention to the TV and full of admiration. He studies the man on the screen further, then says with a big smile, “Doesn’t he look grrreat?”