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The final presidential debate might represent the last best opportunity for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to preach their messages to an enormous television audience just weeks before Election Day. The face-off in Las Vegas may be just as consequential for Fox News Channel in a campaign where the media has been shoved center stage.
The network, launched 20 years ago this month by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, finally gets its first opportunity to moderate a general-election presidential debate. The milestone represents a major event for Fox News to showcase its “fair and balanced” branded news programming with a bipartisan audience that could potentially tip 80 million viewers.
Veteran newsman Chris Wallace, who anchors public affairs program Fox News Sunday, moderates Wednesday’s debate at a major inflection point for the network. Network staffers are putting the ugly ouster of news chief Roger Ailes amid a cloud of sexual-harassment allegations behind them. And the network itself — during a year of intense scrutiny on the media — became embroiled in the campaign due to Trump’s sometimes bombastic feud with anchor Megyn Kelly.
Fox News, which built a $30 million studio at its Manhattan headquarters that it will unveil on Election Night, has a lot riding on how the debate plays out. The channel’s execs tell THR they believe the debate will demonstrate the network’s journalistic chops, and further delineate Fox News from its opinionated programming.
“There’s always been this lame conventional wisdom that we’re going to go easy on conservatives or Republicans,” said Jay Wallace, Fox’s executive vice president who oversees news coverage (and no relation to Chris Wallace.). He points out the primary debate team of Kelly, Bret Baier and Chris Wallace “have been the fairest and they’ve asked the most difficult questions. I think year after year we’ve shown that we are separate from the opinion side.”
As for the channel’s confidence in Wallace: “He’s representing all of us at Fox who have worked so hard to build this network into a first-class news operation.”
Fox News arguably kicked off the campaign back in August 2015 with the first GOP debate. It still holds the tune-in record for a primary debate — 24 million watched — and is notable for igniting the Kelly and Trump firestorm when she questioned the candidate about misogynist statements. Fox still had a bumpy ride in securing this week’s moderating duties.
The Democratic National Committee rebuffed the network’s entreaties to host one of the party’s sanctioned primary face-offs; though Baier did book Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders for a town hall. So Fox News took its case to the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates — and was successful.
“At the end of the day we had to make a judgment: Is Chris Wallace going to do the job that we would expect of a moderator irrespective of network affiliation?” Mike McCurry, co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, told THR. “And we all felt very comfortable that he would do a good job.”
Like his fellow moderators, Chris Wallace has not made himself available for interviews in the run-up to the debate. Unlike with the primaries, the preparation for the presidential debates is not a team effort at Fox News. Chris Wallace works with a researcher and writes all of the questions himself. And he has said that he would not begin to craft questions until after the first two debates. He’s also stayed out of the network’s coverage of the previous debates. And Baier sat in for him on Fox News Sunday last week.
“Chris didn’t want to put himself in a position where he would be showing his cards in any way,” explains Jay Wallace. “So since [the first debate at] Hofstra [University], he’s been pretty quiet.”
There is always a certain amount of scrutiny on presidential debate moderators, and much of it is partisan. As McCurry noted: “It’s easy to bomb, and hard to succeed.” But social media and the vituperative tone of the campaign has intensified the pressure. (This time, the candidates will be back behind podiums; they roamed the stage for the town hall debate on Oct. 9, which was co-moderated by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Martha Raddatz.)
So far nonpartisan reviews for NBC’s Lester Holt and Cooper and Raddatz have been mostly positive. But much of the scrutiny stems from the fact that Trump is especially fact-challenged; Politifact has rated numerous Trump statements “pants on fire” — making real-time fact-checking a hot-button issue this time around. Chris Wallace has said he does not intend to be a “truth squad,” a comment that prompted some criticism, especially from left-leaning media. He subsequently clarified that his mandate is to stay out of the way and let the candidates’ debate and (mostly) fact-check each other, though if they don’t, he’ll correct the record.
What if the fact that Ailes is an informal advisor to Trump comes up in the debate? Jay Wallace brushes off the notion that his anchor would in any way be influenced by his previous boss. “It’s complete rubbish. He’s an equal opportunity, hard questioner.”
Baier says Chris Wallace intends to adhere to the “Jim Lehrer model, to get in when you have to, but for the most part to be a timekeeper and to keep it fair between the two candidates.”
“He really wants to get them on track on policy,” adds Baier. “He’s going to have to deal with the news of the day, but he really has a goal of trying to keep them on the tracks. And I hope he’s able to do it. If anybody is, it’s Chris.”
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