The Fox News Thorn in Hillary’s Side
If President Obama were to bequeath something noteworthy to Hillary Clinton—short of an endorsement, that is, especially now that his loyal vice president is thinking about entering the Democratic nomination race—Fox News’s Ed Henry would likely be high on his list.
The 44-year-old Henry, the chief White House correspondent for the conservative-leaning “fair and balanced” channel since July 2011, seems to have gotten under Obama’s skin on multiple occasions—like when he asked the president, during a televised press conference, to respond to a charge from a political opponent, and Obama sneeringly retorted: “I didn’t know you were the spokesperson for Mitt Romney.”
Indeed, Henry has managed to create several memorable YouTube moments with a somewhat irritated Leader of the Free World—a skill he also deployed while covering George W. Bush as CNN’s White House correspondent from 2006 to 2011.
It was Henry—after being warned never to shout at Bush, who preferred to call on reporters from a list of pre-selected names—who went ahead and shouted anyway at his first Rose Garden news conference, asking about the employment future of beleaguered Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and eliciting Bush’s famous phrase, “I’m the decider.”
Former Bush White House Press Secretary Dana Perino, now a regular on Fox News’s The Five, recalls that Henry’s pointed questioning in the briefing room frequently made her scowl—a sour expression captured in photographs—while she affectionately refers to him as “a stone in my shoe.”
Former CNN-U.S. president Jonathan Klein, who was Henry’s boss, calls him “a real old-style reporter who shows no fear or favor—and it can be annoying to the target...He’s just an aggressive son of a bitch when it comes to confronting politicians—and that’s exactly what you want in your reporters.”
Henry has clearly been sharpening his son-of-a-bitchiness while he doubles as the Fox News reporter assigned to chase candidate Clinton to Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond.
“I think you’re just trying to do your job, and sometimes it becomes a little more contentious,” says Henry, who is occasionally giving Clinton fits with his headline-making interrogations, such as last week’s dogged grilling of the candidate, during a stopover in Las Vegas, concerning her use of a private email server while secretary of state.
“But, Ed, you’re not listening to me!” an exasperated Clinton chided at one point, adding, “Ed, I know you want to make a point,” as Henry kept asking about the FBI’s criminal investigation of the State Department’s email practices, and Clinton’s press secretary, Nick Merrill, kept trying to cut him off, saying “We gotta go!” and “Thanks very much!”
“Did you wipe the server?” Henry persisted.
“Like with a cloth or something?” Clinton replied—a jokey answer that, judging from the viral attention it received, proved to be too clever by half.
“It’s a simple question,” Henry rejoined.
When Clinton turned her back on the press gaggle and walked off, NBC News’s Kristen Welker called out that the email issue “isn’t going to go away.”
“No one talks to me about it other than you guys,” Clinton protested over her shoulder, shrugging in disgust—the other viral quote from her campaign that day.
“But there was no arm-waving, there were no raised voices,” Henry says. “All I’m saying is that sometimes people believe that TV correspondents are trying to make moments, playing to the camera to force a fight. But I think ‘Did you wipe the server?’ is a pretty direct, fair, blunt question. She repeatedly refused to answer it and then spent three or four days trying to clean it up. That’s called ‘news.’ That’s straight-up journalism.”
Back in May, Henry was also the fly-in-the-ointment who interrupted a staged panel discussion with pre-screened Iowans to demand that Clinton—after 40,150 minutes of unavailability—start taking questions from the press.
“I might. I have to ponder it. I will put it on my list for due consideration,” said the candidate, who ultimately relented and, at Henry’s prompting, held her first news conference in a month.
“She had gone 28 days without taking a question,” Henry recalls. “They [the campaign staff] got a little mad at me then, because they felt like I was interrupting her. But we had gone, myself and other reporters, to a series of these events, and if you don’t interrupt, she waves and she’s out the back door. And at some point it becomes ridiculous.”
He adds: “It sounds goofy, but it’s not just for a ‘moment,’ it’s for the American people to get some answers to these questions—whether it’s email, whether it’s the Clinton Foundation, whether it’s her economic plan. And I would argue that it’s not serving her well to not take questions for so long. Because now, when she does get questions, she’s struggling.”
While Henry says he has decent dealings, and even enjoys an occasional off-the-record drink, with members of Clinton’s senior staff—including a bantering relationship with her closest aide, Huma Abedin—he barely knows the candidate.
“It seems like she knows my name—she said ‘Ed’ several times,” he quips about their Las Vegas encounter. “But I’m more worried about doing caricature coverage, where you’re just doing ‘She’s got an email problem,’ or ‘She’s this robot who wants to be president of the United States.’ And if you don’t really get to know the candidate, it’s really hard to understand where they’re coming from...To me she’s a distant figure.”
Henry remains mystified that given his perch on the highest-rated cable news network, he was excluded, as the campaign formally got underway in April, from a couple of off-the-record social events in Washington and Brooklyn between Clinton staffers and political reporters—although it seems clear that if they had to do it all over again (much like the candidate’s recent regrets over her private server), the Clintonistas would have invited him.
His tie loosened and his suit jacket slung over a chair, Henry is nursing an iced coffee in a sidewalk café a couple of blocks from Fox News’s Manhattan mothership.
Although he doesn’t have his own show, Henry, who is based in Washington, appears pretty much daily on Fox News, often in prime time, and is one of the cable network’s more recognizable franchise players.
When he’d sat down a few minutes earlier, another patron—a middle-aged New Yorker dressed much like Henry—had jauntily called out to him, “Keep giving Hillary hell, Ed!”
Henry walked over and thanked the man.
"Ed’s relentless pursuit of the truth has been on display throughout his coverage of the Clinton campaign, the Obama White House and the Bush administration,” says Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes. “He’s a tenacious reporter whose ability to ask the hard-hitting questions without losing his likability has enabled him to stand out among the Washington press corps.”
Henry is certainly (as presidential candidate Obama once said about his 2008 rival, Clinton) likable enough; in 2012, he managed to get himself elected president of the White House Correspondents Association, demonstrating that he has political chops of his own.
It’s an influential post requiring a collegial personality and enough backbone to aggressively argue the case with the president’s spin-meisters for increased access and transparency at the White House, but whose most valuable perk is the authority to parcel out tables to various media outlets at the association’s annual black-tie dinner at the Washington Hilton.
Needless to say, Fox News did very well table-wise at the 2013 dinner, at which Henry and Fox News Executive Vice President Michael Clemente schmoozed with Obama for three hours on the dais. Henry, however, points out that NBC News obtained as many tables as Fox—an astronomical 14 in the jam-packed basement ballroom.
Henry—who covered Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign for CNN before switching beats to the Obama administration—said there was a noticeable change in the White House attitude toward him after Ailes and Clemente recruited him to Fox during the summer of 2011, as Obama’s reelection effort was ramping up.
For one thing, he quickly became an especially juicy target for Media Matters, the left-leaning press watchdog group run by Hillary Clinton acolyte David Brock, which started “painting [Henry] as a right-wing nut job,” according to an article in The Wire, which called the denunciation “a little silly.”
Meanwhile, Henry clashed repeatedly in the briefing room with White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, a former Time magazine correspondent who had left journalism to work for Vice President Biden, and then was chosen to replace departing Obama loyalist Robert Gibbs.
“Pretty awful,” Henry says about his relationship with Carney. “I think Jay is very condescending…Jay could never see past ‘You’re at Fox, you’re doing it because you’re at Fox.’ He would never look at my record.”
Henry adds: “With Jay, ‘Fox’ was always a failsafe. If he didn’t have you on the facts, he was on defense…As a former reporter, Jay went out of his way to let us know, ‘I’m not on your team, I’m not with the news media, I’m with the White House now.’”
By contrast, Henry says he enjoys good rapport with Carney’s successor, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.
“Josh and I have had our moments, and he’s tough but fair. Josh doesn’t throw in a cheap shot,” Henry says. “Josh is much more professional and at the end of the day he does a better job for his boss. He keeps it on the level. He’ll fight you, but he doesn’t make it personal.”
Carney, who today works for Amazon as the online retail giant’s senior vice president for global corporate affairs, fires back: "More than any Fox News reporter I dealt with, Ed carried the network's political agenda into the briefing room, day after day."
That, however, appears to be a minority view (and despite the proliferation of Republican and right-leaning personalities on Fox News’s programming, the network has long insisted that its straight-news operation has no political agenda. “Doesn’t Jay have bigger things to worry about right now than obsessing about Fox?” says a Fox News spokesperson).
Earnest, for one, tells The Daily Beast: “Ed has earned his reputation as a tough reporter, but I’ve also found that although we often disagree, he’s a professional. That means we have an effective working relationship...He’s doing his job effectively, and we’re doing our job effectively...Anybody who’s seen Ed ask a question on camera in the briefing room knows he is not going to pull any punches, but he will usually let you give an answer—which I don’t think I can say about all of his colleagues at other news outlets, by the way.”
Clinton campaign spokesman Nick Merrill, meanwhile, emailed: “Ed can be as colorful as his pocket squares in a press conference, but we like him all the same. He's always the guy that picks up the phone to check his facts with you, and on the ‘rare’ occasion that FOX airs something we find to be factually flawed, he's there to hear us out, and address it with his colleagues.”
Lis Smith, former director of rapid response for Obama’s reelection campaign and currently press secretary to presidential candidate Martin O’Malley, calls Henry “eminently fair. He doesn’t fit the stereotype of the Fox News reporter who shows up and shoves a camera in your face...I think he’s a huge asset to Fox because he comes across as someone who approaches his reporting with an unbiased perspective.”
Henry, who is married to NPR Washington producer Shirley Hung and has a teenage son and daughter from a previous marriage, hails from Queens and grew up, the son of a grocer and bookkeeper, in the Long Island town of Deer Park. After graduating from St. John the Baptist High School—where he was taught by Franciscan friars and wrote for the school newspaper, The Promethean—he attended Siena College in Albany.
He left before graduation for a $250-a-week job with Jack Anderson, the famed investigative Washington columnist who was entering his dotage and whose column was published in The Washington Post’s comics section. “So I know what it’s like to be an outcast sometimes,” Henry says, noting that he caught the journalism bug in a Senate hearing room one night in 1991 as embattled Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas complained of a “high-tech lynching.”
“I thought, wow, I want to be in the middle of this,” Henry recalls. “The whole thing was a spectacle, but there were real issues on the line.”
After securing his college degree by attending night classes at American University, he went on to work for Roll Call, eventually becoming managing editor of the Congress-focused newspaper, and sought out career advice from influential pundit Robert Novak, who, over breakfast at the Army-Navy Club in 2003, told Henry to look into television.
It was the curmudgeonly Novak, Henry says, who helped him move to CNN, where Novak was an on-air contributor. In a celebrated incident two years later, Henry was anchoring a live segment with Novak when the columnist took offense at a comment by fellow panelist James Carville, uttering the word “bullshit” and storming off the set—before Henry could ask him about his role in the outing of CIA employee Valerie Plame, the subject of a criminal investigation.
“Novak flipped out and started yelling at me, ‘How could you do this?’”—referring to Henry’s intention to grill his onetime mentor and advocate about the awkward Plame incident. “But I thought I was just doing my job.”
Still steaming about the encounter shortly before his death, Novak called Henry in his memoir, The Prince of Darkness, a “duplicitous phony.”
A decade later, Henry says he feels fortunate to be working at Fox and “exhilarated” by the constant adventure of campaign coverage, but is nurturing higher ambitions for his career after the 2016 election.
“You always want to take on more, and you always want to be rewarded for it,” he says, noting that he re-upped last years and every so often talks with Ailes about his future. Apparently a program of his own is not in the cards just yet.
“Every day part is spoken for and Mr. Ailes has told me that,” he says. “I love all my colleagues. We’re winning every hour. He doesn’t need anybody else. Hopefully there will be a new challenge that he’ll throw my way, and I will eagerly accept it.”