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Chris Wallace celebrated his 50th anniversary in the news business this summer. The biological son of legendary 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace got his start as a 16-year-old assistant to Walter Cronkite, a job he landed courtesy of his stepfather, future president of CBS News Bill Leonard. As the host of Fox News Sunday, Wallace has seen his overall viewership spike 20 percent year-over-year to 1.22 million per episode in August. Wallace spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the changes he has seen over five decades and the coverage of today’s biggest news stories.
When did you decide to become a journalist?
I was a week away from starting Yale Law School and I also thought about government service. But I guess it’s in my DNA, so I went to work as a reporter for the Boston Globe.
What was your opinion of Cronkite?
At the Republican convention in 1964 I was his gopher — go for coffee, go for pencils. It was my first job in TV news. He was the best. He was the voice of authority. He had tremendous credibility and could relate to the audience. But what I saw behind the scenes was the tremendous amount of hard work. I was also an intern the next year at a Gemini space shot at Cape Canaveral, and he had a timeline for every minute, and he had complete command. The other thing I thought about Walter Cronkite was how beautiful his eldest daughter Nancy was, and she was my first girlfriend.
Your stepdad got you that internship. Some would call that nepotism.
At that time, there was a common practice that all the networks would hire as interns the kids of their correspondents and producers. It was a great thing because it allowed you to see what your mom or dad did, and it built up a sense of pride. I treasured the opportunity to work with my father and stepfather. There’s a lot of negatives to having a father in this business, too. They miss holidays, school events, vacations, so I don’t think this was an improper benefit.
Was Cronkite an unbiased journalist?
I know as time goes on there’s some revisionist thought. And clearly, after he stepped down from the anchor’s chair it became clear he was a liberal Democrat. But from my vantage point as a teenager, then a college student, then a young professional, I got the feeling he was telling it straight.
I’ve seen stats suggesting that 87 percent of journalists lean left. You think that’s accurate?
I have no clue. But, look. The reason Fox News succeeds is because the audience felt they weren’t getting the full story, and they needed an outlet that presented both sides. Does the mainstream media tilt left? Absolutely.
Is that a problem?
Not as much of a problem now that you have more outlets than just the three networks and a handful of newspapers.
And you personally?
I’m pretty independent, but I’m a registered Democrat because where I live, in Washington, D.C., the only elections that count are the Democratic primaries. But I’ve voted for Democrats and Republicans for president, and in 2016, I have absolutely no idea which way I’ll go.
How do you respond to the charge that Fox News is biased to the right?
We’re providing fair and balanced coverage, and part of that is because many of the other networks are tilted to the left, and we provide both sides of the story. … I defy anyone to watch Fox News Sunday and say the show tilts right or left. We’re equal opportunity inquisitors.
I watched MSNBC at the height of the Ferguson riots and heard multiple times that Mike Brown surrendered and was shot in the back for no reason. Then I watched Fox News and heard multiple times that Brown broke a bone in the cop’s face and was charging at him when he was shot. Both can’t be accurate. Is someone lying to me?
There were sources who told us the cop was hit in the face and the Washington Post reported it, too. If we attribute it to sources and the sources are credible, it’s sound journalism.
So what’s the point of watching TV news if I get a completely different set of facts from one news network than I get from another?
That’s true of all media — TV, newspapers, Internet. It puts more of the obligation on the news consumer to figure out whom you can trust and whom you can’t.
That seems new. In Walter Cronkite’s day, you were expected to believe he was reporting the truth. But now we should take everything from news media with a grain of salt?
Well, we probably were not as well served by the fact that there were so few sources of news back then. There were points of views and sides of stories that weren’t expressed. I don’t have a problem with letting a thousand flowers bloom. It puts an onus on the news consumer — and maybe it’s good not to put too much trust in Uncle Walter, or anyone else.
With Ferguson, some folks accuse the news media of purposely exaggerating things to gin up the mob mentality.
I will say this — and I was on vacation the main week of the riots — but I was troubled at the idea that all the cable networks, including my own, scheduled specials to cover the riots at night, before there were even riots those nights. In effect, it was putting gasoline on the fire and saying, “Come on out and do your worst, because we’ll be there.” That was a mistake.
Has Fox’s coverage of Ferguson been fair and balanced?
I can only talk about myself, and I was very proud of our debate with Jesse Jackson and Ben Carson. We got different views from inside the African-American community, personal responsibility, grievances, and to what degree the focus should be on the police and to what degree the focus should be on dysfunction among young black males.
It’s been weeks. Why don’t journalists know what actually happened the night Mike Brown was killed?
I’d like to know everything, but until we get subpoena powers we’re going to have to wait to hear what authorities have to say. Among other things, the officer has not gone public at all. We’ll find out within a few weeks. You’ll know if the grand jury feels a crime was committed or not, and if there’s an indictment, there will be a trial.
But when I tune in to the cable news channels I hear a lot of commentary from people who think they know exactly what happened that night.
Well, I routinely say I don’t know what happened. That’s the fact. None of us know.
What’s the most important news story today?
Without a question, the threat from ISIS and how the Obama administration and the civilized world will respond to it.
And how has the coverage been?
Pretty solid. We did an hour special about the rise of ISIS and the threat it poses, and I was very proud of it.
What was the most exciting story you ever covered?
The most unforgettable was in 1979 when I was at the NBC magazine show Primetime. I spent a week in Calcutta with Mother Teresa just after she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Whether in a religious sense or secular sense, she was a saint. She operated on a different spiritual plane than anybody I had ever met. Also memorable was covering Ronald Reagan in 1980 because he was a larger-than-life figure and it was my first time as a lead correspondent on a presidential campaign. One of the things I’ve always admired about Reagan is that he presided over a White House that was very professional, and even when you criticized them they didn’t take it personal. I felt that was because Reagan was in Hollywood and knew you could get a bad review and it wasn’t personal, and you didn’t hold grudges.
How about the current White House?
They don’t like criticism. They take it personally. They’re much more thin-skinned.
What was your feistiest interview?
Without question, Bill Clinton in 2006. An ABC docudrama, The Path to 9/11, had just come out and it was critical of his handling of the Osama Bin Laden terror threat. I asked why he hadn’t done more to put Bin Laden and al-Qaida out of business, and he just went off on me. The video speaks for itself. (See the video below).
Whom do you want to interview that you haven’t yet?
Queen Elizabeth and the pope. … I think he’s a really inspiring figure to the world.
You’ve been on Today, Meet the Press and NBC Nightly News. Which did you like best?
Fox News Sunday. I have the best job of my career. It says something that when the alarm goes off at 5:15 a.m. I wake up with a smile, rub my hands together and say, “I get to play today.”
What’s the role of the Sunday news shows?
There are about 10 million who watch them, and these are people who could be doing a lot of other stuff — going to church, reading the paper, relaxing with family — and instead they want to watch a serious news show in which there is detailed analysis and interviews about policy. So they have a big role to play, but I’m a little concerned that the in-depth interview has gone the way of the dodo bird. That’s a big mistake. This is the one platform in the TV landscape where you can get the thoroughly researched, carefully prepared interview of a top policymaker.
In this era of digital print, what’s more influential, The New York Times or the Drudge Report?
There certainly was a time when the front page of The New York Times set the agenda. But I don’t think that exists on the right, left or center, and I think that’s healthy. But The New York Times is still more influential because it does its own reporting — sometimes strong, and sometimes I’m not impressed. But the Drudge Report is much more of an aggregator that takes news from other sources.
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