Presidential Debate Throws Spotlight on Chris
Noah Willman for Variety

Chris Wallace once grilled none other than President Ronald Reagan. While serving as a White House correspondent for NBC News in the 1980s, he got the Chief Executive sometimes known as “The Gipper” riled up by asking a simple question after the U.S. had intercepted an Egyptian airliner.

“Do you have anything to apologize for?” Wallace asked. The President’s response: “Never!”

Wallace will have to tap that reserve of moxie this evening, when he becomes the first Fox News Channel anchor to moderate a general-election presidential debate. The two candidates, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, are not likely to be any easier to crack than President Reagan.

“Trump is Trump, and he runs a campaign much more on personality than on issues. He is just different than anyone I’ve ever covered,” the host of “Fox News Sunday” told Variety in April. Clinton can also be difficult, and has during this campaign been less-than-eager to engage with journalists in a setting that would allow for deep, expansive revelations.

When Wallace greets the two White House hopefuls Wednesday evening, however, he will do so under a great deal of scrutiny – and not only because the event is a pivotal stopping point in the battle to win one of the most powerful positions in the world. Wallace will also be putting a foot forward for himself, the media and his employer, which appears to be recalibrating itself after a roiling turn of events this past summer that left its chief architect exiled from the operation.

Wallace is aware of the pressure. “This is a high wire act,” he told Brit Hume on Fox News recently. “Certain elements of the media can or will use anything you say or don’t say against you,” he added, citing the recent experience of Matt Lauer, the popular anchor of NBC’s “Today,” who met with a barrage of criticism while hosting an NBC News forum with the two candidates.

Over the course of three past debates – two with the presidential candidates and one with the vice-presidential nominees – many of the moderators have appeared to scramble in a no-win position.

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NBC’s Lester Holt allowed Trump and Clinton to spar for much of the first debate and was critiqued for not riding herd on them (he did hold Trump to the fire when the candidate denied expressing support in the past for the U.S. moving military into Iraq). CBS News’ Elaine Quijano was criticized for taking the opposite tactic, keeping close watch on both participants and urging them to move along after their allotted speaking time had elapsed.

The bar has been raised higher by the co-moderators of the last debate. ABC News’ Martha Raddatz and CNN’s Anderson Cooper took a more active stance in working with Trump and Clinton in a second presidential debate held earlier this month. Raddatz quibbled with Trump over details of foreign policy. Both moderators were quick to stop candidates from relying on promotional stump speeches. If someone were to pitch a show called “Raddatz & Cooper” to some of the TV-news networks, one of them might do well to show interest.

Wallace has stirred up sentiment by suggesting he would prefer the candidates’fact-check each other during the debate.  “Let’s say she says something that I think is false., Do I want to get into an argument with her? I would rather have her and Trump fight it out and vice-versa if Trump says something that Clinton believes not to be the case,” he recently told Hume on Fox News. “You know, you make yourself too big a figure as moderator in the debate, it’s not a debate  anymore. It’s like a couple of side by side news conferences, and I don’t think that is your point.”

Wallace’s performance will also be analyzed for what it might suggest about the future direction of Fox News Channel. The 21st Century Fox-owned outlet is under new management after the recent ouster of leader Roger Ailes, who had been accused of sexual harassment by multiple female employees and associates. He has denied the allegations.

In a recent interview with The Huffington Post, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith indicated Rupert Murdoch, the Fox guiding force who has taken a chairman role at Fox News, is looking to build up the network’s news credibility. Murdoch, Smith said, wants “to hire reporters to work on beats, just enlarge our news-gathering,” Smith said, adding that the executive in a recent conversation “didn’t mention one thing about our opinion side.”

That could offer opportunity for hard-news Fox anchors like Smith, Bret Baier, Megyn Kelly and, yes, Wallace, who has cultivated a reputation over the years for being eager to ask the impertinent question. In 2012, while moderating a primary debate, he sparked the ire of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who accused the anchor of asking “gotcha” questions. But politicians and TV-news personnel alike have said Wallace is known for doing his homework and having the tenacity to hang in there when the questions he feels ought to be asked do not get answered.

Wallace could have been born to the industry – his father was legendary “60 Minutes” anchor Mike Wallace and his stepfather was former CBS News President Bill Leonard  – but he has instead worked his way through it. Wallace moved from a stint at The Boston Globe to jobs at local TV stations, a path that eventually took him to NBC News and even a short tenure leading NBC’s venerable “Meet the Press.” He is the only anchor to have hosted two of TV’s long-running Sunday public-affairs programs.

On Wednesday evening, his long resume will have to serve him well while he is under a short but very intense spotlight.

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