The Media Today

Chris Wallace, an old approach, and something new 

December 13, 2021
FILE - Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News speaks as President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate in Cleveland on Sept. 29, 2020. Wallace says he's leaving the network after 18 years and is “ready for a new adventure.” Wallace made the announcement, Sunday, Dec. 12, 2021, at the end of the weekly news show he moderates, “Fox News Sunday.”(Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP, File)

Yesterday, at the end of Fox News Sunday, the weekend show that he has hosted for eighteen years, Chris Wallace made a surprise announcement. “It is the last time—and I say this with real sadness—we will meet like this,” he said. “Eighteen years ago, the bosses here at Fox promised me they would never interfere with a guest I booked or a question I asked, and they kept that promise. I have been free to report to the best of my ability to cover those stories I think are important, to hold our country’s leaders to account.” It “may sound corny,” Wallace added, “but I feel we built a community here. There’s a lot you can do on Sunday mornings. The fact you’ve chosen to spend this hour with us is something I cherish.” He went on to say that the decision to leave Fox was his (his contract was up) and that he’s keen “to try something new, to go beyond politics to all the things I’m interested in. I’m ready for a new adventure.”

Wallace’s departure instantly made waves across the mediasphere: not only was he a big beast at Fox (and in American media more generally), but he has often been namechecked as one of—if not the only—last Real Journalists at the network as it has leaned into far-right conspiracism. Numerous Fox critics concluded that the network had just lost a key fig leaf for its increasingly wild opinion programming. “Wallace gave Fox News a thin veneer of respectability; and now, the veneer is gone,” Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, said. “Wallace’s unceremonious departure puts to rest any lingering notion that the network has a ‘straight news’ side. Fox executives made it clear that this is Tucker Carlson’s network now.” (Fox said in a statement that “the legacy of Fox News Sunday will continue with our star journalists, many of whom will rotate in the position until a permanent host is named.”) In his signoff, Wallace gave no indication that he was quitting in protest of the network’s broader direction, but commentators speculated that it may have factored into his decision. NPR reported recently that Wallace was one of a number of journalists at Fox to have objected privately to management after Fox Nation, the network’s streaming service, aired Patriot Purge, a series, hosted by Carlson, stuffed with ludicrous lies about the insurrection.

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Some articles on Wallace’s departure seemed almost to eulogize his status as a rare straight-shooter at Fox. The New York Times called him “an equal-opportunity interrogator of Democrats and Republicans,” while the Washington Post referred to his “talents as a skeptical and probing newsman”; numerous journalists, meanwhile, praised his interviewing skills, citing the tough sitdown with Vladimir Putin for which he (Wallace, not Putin) was nominated for an Emmy, as well as a confrontational interview with then-President Trump last year. Not that such praise was unanimous or unqualified. Some media critics pointed to occasions when Wallace seemed to channel Fox’s id; Carusone argued that by staying at the network for so long, Wallace allowed “his reputation to be exploited and his presence used to enable Fox News’ recent abuses.” Stories including the Post’s noted that he only rarely called out the recklessness of his opinion-side colleagues in public, often dismissing questions about their output. (“I am only responsible for and only have control over my piece of real estate,” Wallace told the Financial Times just last month. “Why on earth would I share any concerns I have about Fox News with the readers of the Financial Times?”) Numerous articles yesterday, meanwhile, referenced criticisms of Wallace’s weak moderation of the first presidential debate between Trump and Joe Biden last year, which Trump brutally derailed.

Soon after Wallace signed off from Fox for the final time, Variety was first to report what his “something new” will entail: he’s heading to CNN’s soon-to-launch streaming service, CNN+, where he’ll host a weekday interview show. CNN quickly confirmed the news and shared a statement from Wallace, who said he was looking forward to “the new freedom and flexibility streaming affords in interviewing major figures across the news landscape—and finding new ways to tell stories.” (He presumably did not mean streaming flexibility of the Patriot Purge variety.) As Wallace noted on air, he’s looking to expand his horizons beyond covering politics—according to the Times, he’s hoping to incorporate business, sports, and entertainment coverage at CNN+—though politics will remain part of his purview, and he’s expected to pitch in during big political events like election night. His hire was a serious statement of intent for CNN’s ambitions in the streaming space, which is emerging as an important, future-facing arena of competition for all the major networks as the traditional TV model declines and cable viewers age. CNN+ has been staffing up in recent months, including by luring Kasie Hunt from NBC.

Still, beyond his high profile, it’s somewhat curious to me that Wallace is (at least so far) the marquee hire for a new, still somewhat experimental news format—his journalistic approach is nothing if not old-school. In 2017, Wallace used his speech at an awards ceremony to make the case that while Trump’s attacks on press freedom were dangerous, “when he talks about bias in the media, unfairness, I think he has a point”; he then singled out three stories and segments for criticism, including an assertion by CNN’s Jim Acosta that Trump has an “unhealthy fixation on what I call the 3 Ms: the Mexicans, the Muslims, and the media.” (“I’m sure some of you hear those comments and think they’re ‘spot on.’ But ask yourself, honestly: do they belong on the front page of the paper?” Wallace said. “We shouldn’t be drawn into becoming players on the field—trying to match the people we cover in invective.”) Ahead of the debate last year, he said that his job was to stay “as invisible as possible”; after Trump walked all over Biden, Wallace sounded shell-shocked, telling the Times that he “didn’t realize—and there was no way you could, hindsight being 20/20—that this was going to be the president’s strategy, not just for the beginning of the debate but the entire debate.” This summer, Wallace accused Jake Tapper, also now his colleague at CNN, of “moral posturing” after Tapper said he’s reluctant to host election deniers on his show. “I cover the news, wherever that takes me,” Wallace said. (Wallace has grilled complicit Republicans on their support for Trump’s election-overthrow attempts, but not always; see Lindsey Graham on his final show yesterday.)

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Wallace is a tough political interviewer, at least by the standards of mainstream American TV. A streaming show that gives him a more regular platform to be just that might be very watchable; he may be expanding his horizons beyond politics, but politics has a way of infusing everything at the moment. Still Wallace’s approach to political journalism isn’t very CNN, nor does it always meet the moment we’re in. We’ll have to wait and see, ultimately, what his new show looks like, and how it slots into the broader balance of programming at CNN+; Wallace is a big get, but there may be yet more eye-catching hires to come. But it seems unlikely, to me, that his straight-down-the-middle approach will stand out so positively—or at all—in a context where his colleagues are Anderson Cooper and Don Lemon, and not Tucker Carlson. It remains unclear that streaming is the future of TV news. The same might be said of Chris Wallace.

Below, more on Chris Wallace and cable news:

  • Fox News: According to CNN’s Brian Stelter, staffers at Fox News had no idea Wallace was leaving until he announced it on air. “Minutes after the show, Wallace entered the newsroom and received an ovation from staffers as he walked toward his office,” Stelter reports; one source said that Wallace’s exit felt like “a death in the family.” According to the Wall Street Journal’s Benjamin Mullin, Bret Baier, Dana Perino, Bill Hemmer, Jennifer Griffin, and John Roberts will take turns filling in on Fox News Sunday while the network finds a replacement. The Post’s Erik Wemple writes that bosses will be looking for “a heavy hitter who has compiled years of experience in Washington—meaning, someone who’s fully aware of Fox News’s descent into anti-democratic Carlsonian madness. Perhaps a nine-figure contract will help that someone look the other way.”
  • MSNBC: Wallace’s move was just the latest in a season of star upheaval across the cable landscape: CNN’s Chris Cuomo was recently fired by that network, while at MSNBC, Rachel Maddow is expected to step back from her current nightly slot next year. Last Thursday, Brian Williams, who hosted the 11pm Eastern hour on MSNBC, signed off; he’s leaving NBC News after twenty-eight years with the network. “The truth is I’m not a liberal or a conservative, I’m an institutionalist,” Williams said on air. “I believe in this place and my love of country I yield to no one. But the darkness on the edge of town has spread to the main roads and highways and neighborhoods.” He plans to “experiment with relaxation” before a likely return to the TV limelight.
  • CNN: Wallace wasn’t CNN’s only hire yesterday: the network also added Alyssa Farah Griffin, who served as communications director in the dying days of Trump’s White House but has since been increasingly critical of the former president, as a political commentator. (Last month, Farah Griffin told CNN that she wouldn’t vote for Trump if he runs again; Trump responded by calling her a “backbencher” and an “inglorious lightweight.”) Numerous media-watchers criticized the hire. Farah Griffin “served as a professional liar in the Trump administration,” Mark Jacob, a former editor at papers in Chicago, wrote. “She’s part of a history of CNN hiring corrupt right-wing commentators.”
  • Interviews: For CJR’s recent magazine on political journalism, I profiled Mehdi Hasan, an anchor on MSNBC and the NBC streaming service Peacock who has brought the tougher interview style common on British TV to American cable news. Hasan praised Wallace’s interview with Trump and a similarly tough sitdown that Jonathan Swan, of Axios, conducted with the former president last year; he also told me that he likes Tapper and Pamela Brown, of CNN. “The more of us who do it,” he said, of his rigorous approach to political interviews, “the fewer safe spaces there will be.”

Other notable stories:

  • Late Friday, tornadoes tore across six states, wreaking immense damage and killing at least ninety people, with the true toll not yet known. National TV news anchors headed to Mayfield, Kentucky, which was particularly hard hit; meanwhile, CNN’s Brian Stelter spoke with Bill Evans, who oversees local papers and a TV station in western Kentucky. “As part of our interview process with any meteorologist, we asked them, What do you think your job is if you come to work for us? And, you know, they give their answer, but we correct them real quickly and say, Your job is to save lives,” Evans said. “When these cameras go, when the other networks go,” he added, “we’re going to remain.”
  • Yahoo’s Jana Winter reports that a secretive division of Customs and Border Protection has “routinely used the country’s most sensitive databases to obtain the travel records and financial and personal information of journalists, government officials, congressional members and their staff, NGO workers and others”; the division, which is still operational today, vetted as many as twenty reporters in the course of its work, most notably Ali Watkins, a reporter at the Times. Jeffrey Rambo, the former official who investigated Watkins, has been portrayed as a rogue actor, but told Winter his work was authorized.
  • In a new report for CJR and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, Gabby Miller reports that 6,154 news workers, from both the editorial and non-editorial sides of media companies, were laid off between March 2020 and August of this year; meanwhile, at least a hundred news outlets shuttered (fourteen of which subsequently reemerged) and a further forty-two were absorbed by other publications. The data, updating Tow’s earlier work, “shows the scale of an industry further devastated by the pandemic,” Miller writes.
  • The Hardwick Gazette, a weekly in Vermont that was hammered by the pandemic and had already scrapped its print edition, is selling its building, applying for nonprofit status, and asking the communities it covers to “in essence cover themselves” via citizen-journalist volunteers as it tries to survive. “Residents choosing the topics do a much better job than a Gazette correspondent who has limited bandwidth,” Ray Small, the owner and editor, told Vermont Public Radio.
  • Grace Morgan and Melissa Lewis, two photojournalists in Portland, Oregon, are suing Andy Ngô, a right-wing provocateur, for copyright infringement, alleging that he steals protest footage and repurposes it to portray leftists as violent. “As a media figure, Ngô is well within his rights to comment or share the works of others,” Robert Silverman writes for the Daily Beast, but Morgan and Lewis say Ngô “has exceeded those boundaries.”
  • Debra Tice, the mother of Austin Tice, an American journalist who was kidnapped in Syria in 2012, met on Friday with Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, to discuss a plan she believes could bring Austin home. “I’m at the point in this journey where this isn’t going to be me showing pictures of my sweet boy,” Debra told Axios ahead of the meeting. “The things we’re discussing have to go up the chain.”
  • In other press-freedom news, Jesus Malabanan, a journalist in the Philippines who worked for Reuters and other outlets, was shot dead at his home. Elsewhere, the Biden administration invested in a fund to support global independent media that is chaired by the former Times CEO Mark Thompson and the prominent Filipino journalist Maria Ressa. And Ressa and Dmitry Muratov received their Nobel Peace Prizes in Oslo.
  • The Financial Times reports that newspapers in the UK are facing a fresh financial challenge: newsprint inflation. “Prices have risen in recent months at the fastest pace since at least the mid-1990s,” with high energy costs also a concern, the paper reports. “Unless the pressures ease, some executives said, publishers will be forced to raise cover prices, reduce page counts or accelerate the closure of more titles.”
  • And Michael Strahan, a host of Good Morning America, became the first US journalist to go into space (unless you don’t think he’s a journalist, in which case he didn’t). “The idea of an American journalist going to space has been in the works since Strahan was a teenager, but several attempts were thwarted,” CNN’s Jackie Wattles and Kerry Flynn write. Strahan made the trip with Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos’s space company, on Saturday. (Oh, and on the subject of space travel and obscenely rich people, Time just named Elon Musk as its person of the year. Stay safe online today.)

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.