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For E!’s Ken Baker, the ‘kiddie pool’ of journalism can get deep

LOS ANGELES – It’s just past 9 a.m. when Ken Baker hustles into the glass-enclosed lobby of E! News. The LA rush hour has made the network’s senior correspondent several minutes behind, but Baker is smiling as he removes his Buffalo Sabres cap and heads to wardrobe. He selects a dark sports coat to slip over his black-and-gray striped polo and announces he’s got breaking news.

“When I woke up, I had an email from 3 a.m. from someone telling me that Kim brokered a peace accord with Amber Rose,” said Baker, heading straight to the hair and makeup room. “So that’s our big news of the day.”

That’s “Kim” as in Kim Kardashian West and Amber Rose as in her arch rival. This may not be the kind of news you’d expect a Buffalo-born, Hamburg-raised, 46-year-old hockey-obsessed dad to be chasing as his day job. But for Baker, this is the stuff on which he’s built a Hollywood career that’s in its 20th year.

[Photo Gallery: Ken Baker of E! News]

On other days, including some that will come soon, Baker’s stories can dig deep into crime, mental health or tragedy. When those stories happen, said Baker’s friend Ryan Seacrest, “he offers great empathy” and “insightful emotional intelligence about what’s happening in the community.”

But today’s insightful emotional intelligence is going to be focused on the apparent truce between Kim and Amber. Here’s a Kardashian cheat sheet, should you need it: Kim is married to rapper Kanye West, who used to date Amber Rose. Rose had tweeted something rather, uh, personal about Kanye, flaming up a social media war.

Baker, who’s covered the Kardashian-Jenner clan for a decade and has what he calls a “professionally friendly” relationship with the family, keeps close tabs on this. So it qualified as legitimate news last night when Kim invited Amber to the home of the Kardashian matriarch, Kris Jenner, for tea.

By 9:30 a.m., Baker is sitting behind the anchor desk on the set of “Live from E!” He’s flanked by his co-hosts for the day, Zuri Hall and Melanie Bromley.

He turns to Bromley, a London native who speaks with a thick British accent.

“What do you think?” Baker asks Bromley about the latest Kardashian kerfuffle. “Were you expecting this to happen?”

Bromley says no, then uses Baker’s question as an opportunity to take the discussion deeper into Kardashian-land. The co-hosts then delve into other topics: Bill Cosby’s ongoing court battles, George and Amal Clooney’s recent red carpet appearance, Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue and Kim’s brother Rob Kardashian getting a Snapchat.

Twenty minutes later, they wrap.

Ken Baker on the set for E! News in Los Angeles, Ca., on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (© Jenna Schoenefeld. No usage without permission.)

Ken Baker on the set for E! News in Los Angeles. (Jenna Schoenefeld)

Minutes later, Baker is sitting on an outside bench at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf cafe in the building adjacent to E!’s headquarters. He knows what you’re thinking.

“It’s easy to dismiss it, right?” Baker says. “It’s like Ken’s wading in the kiddie pool of journalism, you know?”

He’s thought about this, and he agrees with the assessment.

“It is the kiddie pool,” he says. “But did you ever look at the kiddie pool? Those kids are having a lot of fun.”

Baker likens it to sports: Tom Brady getting suspended, or the question of whether Peyton Manning took human growth hormone, doesn’t affect our lives any more or less than the day-to-day choices of entertainers. But just like sports fans rabidly absorb news, talk and opinions about their favorite teams, pop-culture addicts need their daily fix too.

“I cover sports,” he says. “Kim had a game last night. She played Amber Rose. It was a tie. They both win. Let’s talk about it this morning. Monday morning quarterbacking.”

And, he points out, it gets more serious. Baker has covered a lengthy list of celebrity stories that provide a window into some of society’s most harrowing issues: mental health, crime, addiction and death. He covered the breakdowns of Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and others. He’s investigated the mysterious death of actress Brittany Murphy – six years after it happened. He’s covered O.J. Simpson’s legal battles and Michael Jackson’s death.

[Byline foretold Ken Baker's future]

Even the Kardashians have provided heavier news: When their in-law Lamar Odom ended up on his deathbed, Baker drove to Las Vegas and covered the story. (Odom survived.) But when 18-year-old Kylie Jenner makes a fashion statement, he’s on that too.

“When Lamar Odom was in the hospital, it’s like, that’s my thing,” Baker says. “I mean, I’ll also talk about Kylie’s cleavage, and that’s the juggle. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

But it’s not what he was planning to do as a hockey kid in Buffalo. Growing up in Hamburg, Baker was a star goaltender who earned a scholarship to play at Division I Colgate University. In college, he found a passion for writing and journalism that led him to Washington, D.C., where he worked for a year as an assistant at ABC News. Next came graduate school at Columbia University, followed by a summer internship at The Buffalo News and a full-time job at a newspaper in Newport News, Va.

In 1996, a friend in California connected Baker with the LA bureau of People magazine. Baker moved to the West Coast and spent the next 12 years working the print side, first as a People reporter, then as a writer, editor and bureau chief for Us Weekly. In 2008, E! hired him to build the network’s online and on-air news operation, transforming him into a TV personality.

“I went into journalism for an adventure,” Baker said. “I didn’t go into it to be Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein.”

There’s a full day ahead: Baker will be recording teasers and packages for E! News’ evening program, going live on KNBC in LA and texting and emailing Hollywood sources about a variety of stories he’s following. He starts walking back to his office, where a large gold seal that reads “President of the United States of Gossip” sits close to a ceramic plate with a pair of baby footprints and the words “i love daddy” written along the edges.

It doesn’t take Woodward and Bernstein-esque investigative skills to figure out which of these things is most important to Baker.

Ken Baker co-hosts Live from E! with Zuri Hall, center, and Melanie Bromley in Los Angeles, Ca., on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (© Jenna Schoenefeld. No usage without permission.)

Ken Baker co-hosts Live from E! with Zuri Hall, center, and Melanie Bromley in Los Angeles. (Jenna Schoenefeld)

It’s early evening in El Segundo, Calif. Planes are flying in to nearby LAX airport. The parking lot is packed at the Toyota Sports Center, an ice-rink complex that is home to the Los Angeles Kings and the team’s junior hockey program.

The entire Baker family is here: Ken; his wife, Brooke, a native of northern California; their son, Jackson, who is 13; and their daughter, Chloe, who will turn 12 on July 2. Jackson and Chloe have their mother’s sunny-blond hair and their father’s hockey DNA: Both Baker kids, like their dad before them, are goaltenders. They’re serious, and they’re good. Chloe and Jackson are among the top-ranked goalies in California.

Ken is chatting inside a room with windows overlooking a pair of rinks when Jackson walks in, back in street clothes after practice.

“Hey, Jackson!” Ken greeted his son and then turned to a visitor. “He’s big, isn’t he?”

Jackson grabs a rope hanging from the ceiling. It’s intended to help figure skaters practice acrobatics, but he has a more Tarzan-like purpose.

“I love this room because sometimes, when there’s nobody in here, I just take this thing down and start ‘Wheeee!’ ” he said, swinging back and forth.

Jackson still knows how to have fun, but hockey is serious business in the Baker household. Playing on travel squads in California means spending plenty of time on planes; in a few weeks, Jackson’s team was headed to Quebec for a tournament, while Chloe’s otherwise all-boy team was Boston-bound.

Next season, Chloe and Jackson will be playing for the San Jose Sharks’ junior program, 5 1/2 hours from home. And Chloe is considering attending high school in Buffalo at Nichols School, which could mean either moving in with Baker’s relatives here or the family relocating to his hometown.

“She wants to live where it’s cold and it snows, and she wants to play hockey when it’s snowing outside,” Baker said. “This is like her dream.”

The Bakers are considering it. They have the money, the flexibility and the willingness to consider all options, whether it’s joining a hockey program on the other side of the state or helping Chloe realize a California goalie girl’s dream of playing hockey where it snows.

Jackson knows his dad didn’t have such choices growing up.

“It’s different between me and my dad,” Jackson said. “I got the life right now – pretty decent. We live in California, which is cool.”

Jackson doesn’t elaborate, but he knows the story: His dad grew up in multiple smaller homes in the Hamburg-Blasdell area, the fourth-youngest of divorced parents in a financially struggling family of five boys.

“He literally was like the Drake song: ‘Started from the bottom, now I’m here,’ ” Jackson says, imitating the rapper. He turns to his dad, who seems to be tearing up.

“Am I crying?” Baker says to Jackson. “No, no, I’m just like …”

“You look like you’re crying,” Jackson says.

“If you want me to, I will,” Ken answers, joking – mostly.

Seeing his kids play his sport is an emotionally charged experience for Baker, who still plays today.

As a kid, Baker loved the game and approached it with seriousness. He even quit his high school Catholic confirmation classes because they conflicted with his hockey schedule. “I chose hockey as my religion,” Baker said.

But that faith came into question in college. At Colgate, Baker was easily fatigued and, despite long, hard workouts, had a flabby frame. He could never achieve the ripped, sculpted muscularity of the other guys on the team.

It wasn’t until years later that Baker figured out what was going on: He had a benign brain tumor suppressing his development. The tumor was inhibiting his testosterone, thus weakening his ability to do everything from build muscle to perform sexually.

At 28, Baker had surgery to remove the tumor. The successful procedure, combined with medication, allowed his body to play biological catch-up; essentially, essentially he went through puberty in his late 20s.

That tumor had inhibited Baker’s social, emotional and physical development – but it hadn’t slowed him intellectually. He was a skilled storyteller, and as he recovered from the surgery and built his life, he decided to turn his pen on himself. In the late ’90s, Baker wrote a memoir, “Man Made,” which detailed his battle against the brain tumor and dug deep into the challenges of his childhood.

[Read the News Review of "Man Made"]

That book, released in 2001, was Baker’s first. (He’s written six more since and is at work on two more.) For more than a decade, the rights for the story bounced from one production company to another. Finally, the film was shot last year by Kevin Pollack, a noted actor who’s making his directorial debut.

The movie, retitled “Late Bloomer,” will be released in October. It’s based on Baker’s story but uses fictionalized characters.

“It’s very funny, and it’s very R-rated,” said Baker, whose memoir also is being re-released under the new title. “All the important messages that I wanted to be in a movie are in it, like learning the difference between being a man and being male. That’s a big deal.”

Ken Baker holds up a "President of the United States of Gossip" sign in his office in Los Angeles, Ca., on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016. (© Jenna Schoenefeld. No usage without permission.)

Ken Baker holds up a "President of the United States of Gossip" sign in his office in Los Angeles. (Jenna Schoenefeld)

It’s late morning on the second Sunday in June. Ken’s brother Kris, 40, is sitting inside Spot Coffee in Hamburg. Kris is the youngest Baker brother and the closest to Ken. With a voice that’s slightly raspy yet squeaky clear, he sounds like his brother. With a prominent nose – a joking point between the brothers – and high cheekbones, he looks like Ken. Kris is even a media man in his own right: He runs a Sabres prospect website that commands the attention of hockey fans and executives alike and is a regular contributor to the team’s website and mainstream media outlets.

“When I think of Ken, I don’t think of LA, celebrity journalism,” Kris says. “I think of hockey.”

Though he talks to his brother every day, Kris admits he never watches him on TV – he has no idea what channel the E! network is on his television.

“To me, in full disclosure, I think it’s just a job to him because it’s something that he’s good at. I don’t really think that he’s interested in it like many people might think that he is,” Kris said. “His real labor of love is everything else that he does on the side: the books, the hockey stuff, family.”

Through their daily conversations, Kris sees just how seriously Ken takes hockey.

“It’s very consuming for Ken. He has goals, and my challenge is figuring it out: Is it the kids’ goals or his goals? I have to be honest with you about it.”

The Bakers’ late father, Larry, always pushed Ken and Kris to play hockey at the highest level. And Ken, with his brain tumor, was never able to fulfill the potential he seemed to have as a kid. In his early 30s, after a decade away from the ice, Ken spent a year playing goal for two minor league pro teams, the Bakersfield Condors and the Quad City Mallards, and chronicled the experience in his book, “They Don’t Play Hockey in Heaven.”

“He clearly had unfinished business,” Kris says. “I don’t know if he’s channeling that through the kids now, like our father maybe did to us. But I think there’s something to that.”

While Kris Baker was sitting in Hamburg mulling over the “complex mind” of his brother, Ken was in Orlando, working a story he never expected to be covering. The day before, on a Saturday morning, Ken was taking Chloe to a store when she looked up from her phone and said, “Oh my gosh. This is so sad. That girl from ‘The Voice’ was shot and killed.”

“What?” said Baker, who tries to avoid looking at his phone on weekend mornings. “What are you talking about?”

Chloe showed her dad: Christina Grimmie, a 22-year-old singer who became famous on the competition show “The Voice,” had been murdered at a meet and greet the previous evening.

Baker checked into the story and emailed his executive producer: “I think I should be in Orlando.”

That night, he was on a red-eye flight to Florida. He landed at 5 a.m., around the same time that, unbeknownst to him, police were in a shootout with Omar Mateen, the gunman who killed 49 people in an Orlando gay club while Baker’s flight was in the air. He figured out what was happening around noon, when he was interviewing Christina Grimmie fans at the club where she was killed but noticed the streets were quiet.

The city was in a state of emergency.

Baker spent the next two days in Florida covering both stories: the tragic killing of a young celebrity and the shocking massacre in a club. He reported on the decision to still run Broadway’s Tony Awards that evening. He called into Ryan Seacrest’s radio show Monday morning and did “Live from E!” on his iPad. He talked to fan after fan, including a young girl whose mom bought her Justin Bieber tickets but was now afraid to go to the show, lest another tragedy happen.

After he wrapped his work, Baker went to a vigil for the shooting victims. He’s been on a spiritual journey of late; his next book is a memoir about his search for faith in Hollywood. The Orlando tragedy had him thinking and reeling.

“I’m still processing it,” Baker said by phone Tuesday, back in Los Angeles. “Every time these things happen, I don’t understand why. I don’t get it.”

He repeated himself: “I don’t understand. I’m trying to understand. It kind of forces you into this deeper level of trying to understand it.”

Sometimes the kiddie pool of journalism is deeper and wavier than it appears.

While he was an intern at The Buffalo News in 1994, Ken Baker’s byline appeared on an article on one of the most famous intersections of news and entertainment in the 20th century. Read that story here.

email: toshei@buffnews.com

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