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Bret Baier at the Fox News bureau in Washington in September 2022

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New York CNN  — 

Bret Baier’s standing as a “fair and balanced” newsman is being called into question like never before.

The Fox News chief political anchor has long enjoyed a strong reputation in Washington circles and among viewers, anchoring major news events for the network and moderating presidential debates. While its never been a secret that Baier’s program carries a conservative bent, he’s widely been considered a respected figure who adheres to traditional journalistic ethics and standards.

That reputation, however, has been ruptured in recent months by the release of leaked private text messages sent in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, casting the “Special Report” anchor in a dramatically different light.

On Thursday, the Daily Beast reported that Baier and now-former host Tucker Carlson engaged in a conversation on November 4, 2020, about potentially delaying Fox News’ call of the election. Both men complained that they were receiving blowback from their Trump-supporting viewers over the network’s controversial early projection that then-candidate Joe Biden would win the state of Arizona, putting him on the brink of capturing the White House.

“We need to do something to reassure our core audience,” Carlson wrote Baier in the wake of the Arizona call, according to The Beast. “They’re our whole business model.”

Baier replied that he had been “pushing for answers.” He then added, according to The Beast, “I have pressed them to slow. And I think they will slow walk Nevada.”

Days later, the network was, in fact, last to call the presidency for Biden.

When reached for comment Monday, a Fox News spokesperson pointed me to a previous statement from the network.

“Fox News stood by the Arizona call despite intense scrutiny,” the statement said. “Given the extremely narrow 0.3% margin and a new projection mechanism that no other network had, it’s hardly surprising there would be postmortem discussions surrounding the call and how it was executed, no matter the candidates.”

While much attention has been paid in recent months to the shocking comments Carlson made about Trump and his colleagues inside the right-wing network, Baier has managed to escape much of the scrutiny in the press. But the leaked messages exposed that Baier, like others at the outlet, feared its Trump-supporting audience and seemingly went as far as to urge that editorial decisions be made to placate its viewers, a brazen breach of journalistic norms.

The report in The Beast followed an explosive March story from The New York Times that quoted Baier pushing Fox News President Jay Wallace to pull the channel’s Arizona call and “put it back in [Trump’s] column,” even though it was never in Trump’s column.

Typically, anchors are not involved in discussions related to making election calls. That process is left up to a network’s decision desk. And normally, decision desks base their calls off of data and voting statistics, without taking into consideration politics or potentially alienating a channel’s audience.

“There has been some misdirection in the sense that all of the coverage tends to flow to the most outrageous behavior and less outrageous behavior, but still extremely troubling behavior, gets less attention,” Erik Wemple, a media critic at The Washington Post, told me. “I think that’s the case with Baier.”

That’s not to say, however, that certain circles in politics and media are not taking notice of it all. In Washington, Baier’s peers in the news media are paying close attention. I’m told that over the weekend there was consternation among other network anchors about the latest embarrassing revelation involving Baier.

The revelations about Baier are especially noteworthy given that he is the face of Fox News’ so-called “straight news” division. The channel has long argued that its right-wing talk show hosts, which make up the bulk of the outlet’s programming, operate in a separate world fire-walled from its journalists. This argument makes it easier for Fox News to pitch itself to advertisers who might otherwise be wary about marketing their products.

“I am one of those people who does observe some distinction between Bret Baier and Sean Hannity … but the text messages show they are all panicking about the same thing,” Wemple told me. “And the news operation sees its existence as hinging on the crazy. They see their future as imperiled if the fringe isn’t happy.”

In the wake of departures of Fox’s stable of even-handed news anchors in recent years — including Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace — Baier has effectively stood alone as the final member of the old guard. But after the leaked messages showed an attempt to meddle in the race calls, Wemple said, Fox’s ability to use Baier as a fig leaf will be much more difficult to maintain.

“It’s clear now that the fig leaf is translucent,” he said. “It’s not covering anything up.”