On most Sundays, Chris Wallace gets noticed for asking a newsmaker, politician, or White House official something that borders on the obnoxious. And yet, he’s been needling authorities for decades – and lived to talk about it.
In the late 1960s, as a reporter for Harvard’s WHRB radio station , Wallace got scooped up by the police when students occupied one of the campus buildings. Being put in jail didn’t diminish his flair for making a point. “They arrested all of us, student protesters and a student reporter. We all ended up behind bars,” Wallace recalls during a recent interview. “We were allowed to make only one phone call. Some were calling roommates. Some were calling their girlfriends. I called the radio station.” He signed off from his report by saying, “This is Chris Wallace, in custody.”
When Wallace recently visited his 50th college reunion, he says, classmates who had followed his career were “not surprised by the course I had taken.”
Wallace, the moderator of the Sunday public-affairs show, “Fox News Sunday,” is getting recognized more frequently these days for his ability to grill his guests. Ask him if he agrees that he has developed a talent for getting aggressive without crossing the line into being disagreeable. He does. But he has also been at this game for some time, having moderated NBC’s “Meet The Press’ for a period of time and worked for ABC News.
Wallace is the first employee in Fox News Channel’s more than 20 years of existence to get nominated for an Emmy, for his July 2018 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s another first for Wallace during his tenure at the Fox Corp. cable outlet. He was also the first Fox News anchor to moderate a general-election presidential debate, in 2016. More recently, his interviews of White House adviser Stephen Miller and White House acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney have also gained notice for the confrontational questions he asked.
“People know that I’m going to ask probing questions and that it’s not going to be softball,” says Wallace.
Many people assume that Wallace gets his on-air demeanor from his father. Mike Wallace cut a fearsome on-screen figure for decades doing investigative reporting on “60 Minutes.” But he also had developed a certain knack for theatricality that is evident from his time hosting game shows and radio programs.
Wallace says he comes by his style honestly. “People often ask me, ‘What did your father teach you? Did he teach you how to ask a question?’ The answer is no, but I’m a believer as the father of six children that kids pay attention to what their parents do, not what they say., What I learned from my father is a level of professionalism,” he says. He understands that painstaking preparation is the only way an interviewer is going to keep a public official from sticking to talking points during an on-air interview. “Certainly, I picked that up from my father.”
His yen for hard-nosed questioning was on display last year as he questioned Putin. At one point, Wallace tried to hand the world leader a copy of an indictment of several Russian operatives accused of by the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller of hacking Democratic targets in the 2016 U.S. election. “Putin sometimes acts like this bored kid in the back of the classroom,” says Wallace. But from that point in the interview, he recalls, “I had his full, undivided attention. I would say it was more like, ‘Game on!’”
Critics like to juxtapose Wallace’s program and style with the content of Fox News’ sundry primetime opinion shows, and suggest he’s in place to lend journalistic credibility to a network that typically skews partisan. But Wallace demurs at the suggestion that he’s doing anything other than the job he’s supposed to do.
“For all the talk about Fox News, they have had my back from the moment I started in 2003, and they have never second-guessed anything about a guest I’ve booked or a question I’ve asked. In the last couple of weeks, with the president’s tweets, I have been pretty direct with Mulvaney and Stephen Miller. All of it gets complete support from the [executives’] second floor of Fox News in New York. I think there’s an understanding that there is a news side and an opinion side, and they want both to flourish.”
Wallace thinks Fox News’ rivals could be more rigorous about separating one thing from the other. He is surprised NBC News allowed Rachel Maddow to be part of the team questioning Democratic candidates during its recent telecast of the party’s first debate. And he feels the same about CNN letting Don Lemon taking part its recent debate broadcast. When it is suggested both news outlets would argue those people are journalists, Wallace takes issue: “I think it’s pretty hard to not see both Rachel and Don are opinion people,” he says. “I’m not saying that’s good or bad, but it is what it is.”
CNN took issue with that characterization. “We’d like Chris to point to any moment in the debate where Don Lemon did anything but ask straightforward, journalistically sound questions,” the network said in a statement. NBC News declined to comment.
Wallace expects more colorful interviews ahead, particularly as the nation’s focus on the 2020 election intensifies. “It’s going to be very interesting to see whether the Democrats go for more moderate, practical and perhaps more electable candidates or whether they are going to follow the push toward the left on issues like health care and climate change. I think that will have enormous consequences.”
He will continue to push Democratic candidates to come on Fox News. “I’m very energized.” Chances are viewers will see some of that on display on many Sundays to come.