The Downside of Being a Fox News Journalist? Getting Asked About Sean Hannity

Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum- Getty - Split - H 2019
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News anchors Chris Wallace and Bret Baier have faced frequent questions about the network's powerful opinion hosts and their commentary.

Chris Wallace was getting frustrated.

"I'm here. You want to talk to me about what I do, I'm happy to talk about it," the Fox News Sunday anchor told The Hollywood Reporter on Feb. 25, at a mini-press conference held after an onstage event at Columbia University and attended also by a reporter for The Guardian.

Wallace had already faced several questions about the network's close ties to the Trump administration.

"Are you tired of being asked about Sean Hannity and the opinion hosts?" THR asked Wallace, referencing audience questions from earlier in the night. "Yes, and I hope you won't repeat them," he replied. "I don't want to talk about what somebody else does. It's silly."

It's become sort of a rite of passage for the network's news anchors, most prominently Wallace, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, to face uncomfortable questions about comments made by opinion colleagues Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham.

Wallace told THR in February that he's consistently faced questions about the opinion side throughout his time working for the network and denied that those questions have increased in recent years. Asked about his relationship with the opinion folks, Wallace said that he knows Ingraham best and "we get along great."

The extremely calm Baier has even visibly expressed frustration about the frequent questions he gets asked about someone else's work.

During a May 2018 appearance on The View, Baier was pushed combatively by co-host Sunny Hostin on Hannity's behavior and whether it was "appropriate" for him to be speaking to the president of the United States on the phone. "I have horse blinders on from 6-7, to try to do all sides fairly," Baier said. Co-host Sara Haines then pivoted quickly to a question about the book Baier was there to promote.

Four months later, on a New York Times panel discussion, Baier admitted his frustration about the TV appearance. "I made it through The View with Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar trying to get me again and again to say how much I hate what Sean Hannity does," Baier said. (He said that Hannity is "a good guy" who has "always been good to me.")

During an interview with Deadline last Friday, Baier said of Hannity, "He has a different job. He does his job as an opinion maker very well. I have a news job."

Baier has leaned on a popular in-house formulation for describing the relationship between the news and opinion sides at Fox News Channel, likening it to a print newspaper that has separate news and opinion sections.

"Just like a newspaper — one side is an opinion page and one side is the news page," Baier said last week. "Each has a job to do. And each does it in a different way. I respect those folks, a lot, but my job is to have kind of blinders on from 6 to 7 to make sure we’re as fair as we can be to all sides."

Asked about that comparison, former Fox News chief political correspondent Carl Cameron told THR that "there's a difference." He added, "Generally speaking, the op-eds are a page or two in a full newspaper and the op-eds come at the end, not the beginning. There's usually also many pages of news before you get to the op-eds." (The Fox News Channel schedule begins in earnest with the morning opinion show Fox & Friends.)

The news and opinion sides at Fox News exist in sort of a quiet harmony, broken up infrequently by clashes that the network does not relish. Shepard Smith, before he resigned suddenly from the network in October, clashed with Carlson and drew Hannity's rebuke for telling a magazine that the network's opinion side doesn't "really have rules." Hannity shot back on Twitter, calling him "clueless about what we do every day." (Hannity has since deleted the tweet.)

Cameron said that Baier, Wallace and the network's other straight-news folks are "absolutely" in "a tough spot to be in."

"They're trying to present facts, and the opinion people often bend them, if not just discard them, so that's awkward," said Cameron, who left the network in the summer of 2017 after 21 years.

Cameron said the balance between news and opinion programming at the network has shifted toward the latter. "The predominance of opinion hosts versus news anchors tells the story," he said. "There's far more opinion than facts on Fox News. The amount of time spent on opinion compared to news has shifted over the course of the Fox News life."

Smith's departure was considered a huge blow to the news side at Fox News, though the channel pushed back against that narrative. The network also lost chief intelligence correspondent Catherine Herridge to CBS News a few weeks later.

Conor Powell spent nearly 10 years as a foreign correspondent for Fox News before leaving the network in August 2018.

Powell told THR that he had some "discomfort" when he first joined the company and was pressed in social settings about the network's conservative leanings. He developed a "stock line," he said, to respond: "I said, 'Listen, do you say to the journalists at The New York Times or The Washington Post, "How dare you?" for Charles Krauthammer or George Will or any of the conservative newspaper writers who write on the editorial page?'"

"Every journalist wants to be judged on their work," Powell said. "I know that's the view that Wallace and Bret Baier want to take as well. I think Wallace makes a good effort to never be a co-host with opinion people." 

Powell said that the reporting on Baier's show is ignored by the primetime opinion hosts if it "doesn't fit a narrative." He added, "At the end of the day, the opinion shows are driving the channel, not only in terms of profit and audience, but also in terms of the narrative every single day."

"It was hard for me to be on the same payroll as Sean Hannity," said Powell, who now hosts the Long Shots podcast. "I can't speak to other people."

Greta Van Susteren, who now hosts television shows for Gray Television and Voice of America, was a key part of the news side at Fox News for nearly 15 years before leaving the network in September 2016.

"At all times, I was 100 percent responsible for my own work," she said. "My colleagues (at Fox and other cables) were never responsible for my work, and I was never responsible for theirs. I had no editorial control over their shows, they had none over mine."

When asked about the pressure put on Wallace and Baier to defend the network's opinion division, Van Susteren said that "asking questions like that is just to create buzz, not news.”

Representatives for Fox News did not respond to THR's request for comment.