Monday, January 28, 2002

Hemmer rates high at CNN

Former Channel 9 reporter chases the big stories

By John Kiesewetter
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        In CNN's ratings war with Fox News and MSNBC, Bill Hemmer has become an MVP — most versatile personality.

Bill Hemmer, photographed in front of the Kandahar Airport, recently returned from Afghanistan.
(CNN photos)
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        After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the 1983 Elder High School graduate spent a month anchoring and reporting for CNN at Ground Zero, the former World Trade Center site.

        He hosted CNN's 8 p.m. signature war show, Live from Afghanistan, from the makeshift U.S. Marine base at Kandahar Airport, and contributed to newscasts throughout the day.

        In the past 15 months, he also spent a month in Florida covering the Bush-Gore recount; anchored the weekday 10 p.m. news until the hiring of Aaron Brown; covered the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh; delivered news updates for Paula Zahn's new American Morning show; and anchored his own newscast 10 a.m.-1 p.m. weekdays.

Hemmer interview New York Gov. George Pataki at Ground Zero.
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        “I'd like to think I've got enough versatility to do whatever is requested of me — report the news, host a talk show, or fly half-way around the world to cover a story,” says Mr. Hemmer, 37, who returned to CNN's Atlanta headquarters a week ago after his stint in Afghanistan.

        He resumes his 10 a.m. newscast today. For how long? Who knows?

        “He'll be going out again, knowing him — and knowing us,” says Walter Isaacson, CNN News Group chairman and CEO.

        “You know me,” Mr. Hemmer says. “When history happens, I want to be there and see it. That's why I'm in the business.”

Channel 9 departure

        That's why he quit WCPO-TV (Channel 9) in 1995 to join CNN, the world's biggest TV news organization. His lifelong passion for international news convinced him to take a one-year leave from Channel 9 in 1992-93 to backpack around the world.

        “I must be a real pain to my (CNN) bosses when the big stories hit, because I want to go,” says Mr. Hemmer, who finally celebrated a delayed Christmas with his parents in Delhi Township over the weekend.

        “I wanted to see Ground Zero. I needed to go to Afghanistan as a journalist. I needed to have the personal involvement in the story. It gives me such an enhanced understanding that you can't get from reading The New York Times sitting in Atlanta,” he says.

        He arrived in the war zone on Dec. 22. For four weeks, he slept in a sleeping bag on a tile floor at the bombed-out Kandahar Airport — a roof, but no walls — about 100 yards from the runway. About 30 C-130 cargo flights arrived nightly, he says.

        The five-person CNN crew had no heat. No running water. No electricity. Generator power was undependable, he says.

        “Our biggest challenge each day was to figure out how to get clean that day, when we could eat, and what stories we'd shoot,” he says.

        He washed his hair with a 32-ounce bottle of water from a well dug by Marines. He'd warm water on a propane heater to shave.

        “It's TV. You have to look somewhat decent,” says Mr. Hemmer, who had a burger and beer as soon as he arrived back in the States. He had a Skyline three-way before reaching his parents' house Thursday.

He's always on the job

        The 1987 Miami University graduate describes his combat assignment as 24/7, which is what you'd expect working for a 24-hour news channel.

        “We'd wake up in the middle of the night (3:15 a.m.) to do live reports on Wolf Blitzer's show,” he says. The 9 1/2-hour time difference put Blizter's 7 p.m. (EST) show at 4:30 a.m. in Afghanistan.

        His Life from Afghanistan (8 p.m. EST) came at 5:30 a.m. local time, followed by live reports for NewsNight with Aaron Brown (10 p.m. EST) at 6:30 a.m. In the late afternoons, he was live on CNN's American Morning with Paula Zahn (7-10 a.m. EST).

        Ms. Zahn, who jumped from Fox News to CNN a week before the Sept. 11 attacks, says she has been impressed with her new colleague.

        “I'm a huge Bill Hemmer fan,” she says. “He's prepared. He's smart. And he also is very good with people.

        “I watched him very carefully after Sept. 11, because he was doing a lot of live remotes from Ground Zero, and he had this way of putting the rescue workers at ease. He had compassion. He was sensitive, but he also asked some very good questions,” she says.

More praise from colleagues

        Mr. Hemmer arrived in Manhattan three days after the twin towers collapsed. He believes he's one of only a few journalists who have reported from Ground Zero and war-torn Afghanistan.

        “There could not be a great difference between those two worlds, New York and Afghanistan. It was truly surreal to think about,” he says.

        Mr. Brown, the former ABC newsman hired to anchor CNN's flagship 10 p.m. newscast, also praises Mr. Hemmer's work.

        “He's been really solid,” Mr. Brown says. “He's in that kind of funny place in life, where he's been given a lot of opportunities and he's learning very quickly to be both a reporter and anchor. He's done terrifically well.”

        His CNN bosses have noticed, too. Mr. Hemmer was named as one of CNN's news “stars” in December, when the network dropped veterans Joie Chen and Roger Cossack.

        Mr. Isaacson, the former Time magazine managing editor who took over CNN last year, mentioned Mr. Hemmer four times during his recent press conference with TV critics in Pasadena, Calif.

        The new CNN chief has kept Mr. Hemmer in the late-morning slot while supervising the most radical makeover in CNN's 21-year history.

        In the past year CNN has added Ms. Zahn, Mr. Brown, Connie Chung, Lou Dobbs, Keith Olbermann, Anderson Cooper (an ABC newsman before hosting The Mole), MTV's Serena Altschul and NBC's Fredrika Whitfield. Gone are Greta Van Susteren, Washington Bureau Chief Frank Sesno and original anchors Bernard Shaw and Lou Waters.

        “When we put Leon Harris, and Daryn Kagan, and Bill Hemmer in the day parts, there are people that don't have slots,” Mr. Isaacson told TV critics.

        But that could change. Days after boasting to TV critics about CNN's Live from Afghanistan franchise, Mr. Isaacson hired Ms. Chung to fill that 8 p.m. time period opposite Fox News' Bill O'Reilly.

        Soon after he returns to the Atlanta anchor desk, Mr. Hemmer figures he'll be plotting his next travel assignment. He relishes being a roving anchor-reporter.

        “I really think I have the best of both worlds right now,” he says.

        “If I had an opportunity to go back to Afghanistan, I'd jump on it. I wanted to stay longer, but I was just exhausted.

        “I feel very privileged and honored being able to witness these events first hand,” he says. “It's been a fascinating 15 months. Who knows what is around the corner?”


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