“When you’re starting at a new network and a new show, there’s always a certain amount of anxiety involved.”
That’s what Fox News Sunday moderator Chris Wallace recently told us, proof that even the most experienced, well-respected and celebrated of television news journalists are never fully at ease in front of the camera.
Wallace has been celebrating 25 years of Fox News Sunday all month. The public affairs program airing Sunday mornings on Fox TV affiliates (and Fox News in the afternoons) launched in 1996 with the late Tony Snow as its original host. Wallace joined Fox News in December 2003 after a lengthy stint at ABC News, and he replaced Snow as Fox News Sunday moderator. He has been holding court Sunday morning on Fox ever since, probing Republicans and Democrats with equal vigor every week.
TVNewser conducted a wide-ranging conversation with the longtime newsman on Thursday. He told us about his 17+ years on Fox News Sunday and gave us his thoughts about the general Sunday show format, the state of Fox News and the Biden administration.
*This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity purposes.
I want to go back to your first broadcast of Fox News Sunday in December 2003. What was that day like for you? Do you recall it?
What I remember was that I very much wanted to have top guests from both parties. Our guests for that show were Andy Card, who was then the White House Chief of Staff, and Howard Dean, who was at that moment, the front runner for the Democratic nomination. And one of the things I wanted to do right from the start was say, “This is going be a straight news, right down the middle of show, and we’re going to have good top republican guests, and good top democratic guests. And we’re going ask them all tough probing questions.” And as I remember, we started on that first show and never looked back.
I remember the second show better, because that was the day that Saddam Hussein was captured. And I remember my executive producer calling me up at three in the morning or something and saying, “They’re going to make an announcement, but we think they’re going to be Saddam Hussein has been captured.”
Fortunately, again, in my effort to have, good, top guests from both shows, we had booked Sen. John Kerry, who was one of the other top Democratic candidates and also a foreign policy expert, as it turned out. And so, we were in good shape for that for that show.
What are some of the biggest ways that Fox News Sunday has changed over these 25 years, going back to the Tony Snow days?
I think it really hasn’t changed that much. I would say there were some changes after I came in, because of the fact that I had covered both sides, and I think had the reputation of what somebody later called “an equal opportunity inquisitor.” I was able to book more Democratic guests than had previously been on the show and wanted to ask all sides tougher questions. But certainly, since I took over in December 2003, I don’t think that the basic culture of the show has changed at all.
What’s one interview or moment even that stands out to you almost over these 17-plus years?
I’d say there are three. First of all, in 2006 I interviewed Bill Clinton. It was really hard to get Bill Clinton to come on, on any Fox show. And as part of the Clinton Global Initiative, he came along, and he was taking some heat at that time because there had been a docu-drama on ABC called The Path to 911, and it was critical of Clinton and what he had done in terms of going after Osama bin Laden.
The agreement was that we’re going to have 15 minutes, seven and a half on the Clinton Global Initiative, seven and a half on whatever we wanted to ask. And at one point, I said, “you know, in preparing for this interview, a lot of people gave me advice. The question most of them wanted me to ask was, “Why didn’t you do more to put Bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business when you were president?’” Anybody who looks at the interview, you can see that he went off. [Former Virginia governor] Terry McAuliffe called it, which I guess was a was well known in the White House, is “purple rage.” But that’s certainly one of the one of the interviews that and I remember after that interview, thinking, this is really something this is a fascinating insight into Bill Clinton, and knowing I had a very special exchange was going to be interesting to our viewers.
I felt exactly the same thing after the Vladimir Putin interview in Finland in 2018. One of the things that I remember about that interview is that three days before Robert Mueller, the special counsel, had indicted two units in the GRU, the Russian military intelligence, and one of the things I pride myself on is preparation. You don’t just go into an interview and ask a question. You have thought of the question, you’ve thought of what his thought his answer is likely to be and what your follow up is; and I had seen enough interviews with Putin that I knew that he would divorce themselves from any responsibility for election interference and say some Russian citizens do this, I can’t control it. But the indictment gave me a piece of evidence, and also a product. And so I had my assistant immediately print off the indictment. And I think the key moment in the interview, is when, after he said, what I expected him to say, which is “I had nothing to do with this. I can’t control the Russian on the street,” which is arguable right there, I then handed him the indictment and said, “You know, this is an indictment of two units of your Russian military intelligence. This isn’t freelancing, this is the government.” And from that moment on, I had his undivided attention and his ice blue eyes focused on my eyes for the rest of the interview.
The final moment would be the Trump interview in July of 2019 in which, again, I came armed with props. One of the things that you do, almost like a trial lawyer is you prepare for what you expect their answer to be, and then come up with an “how are you going to respond to that?” I’ve seen enough interviews with Trump where he would play down the number of cases and the number of deaths. So, I came with a chart showing them that right at that moment, in July of 2019, there was a big spike, and it had went from about 35,000 cases a day in April, now up to about 70,000 cases a day. I showed that to him. I had a chart about the mortality rate in the U.S. and that we were doing worse than a lot of other industrialized countries. He challenged that and we ended up getting [then-White House press secretary] Kayleigh McEnany with charts that didn’t prove anything. I thought it was very interesting, because it was clear that his staff was giving him bad information to make his case. I thought that was a special interview.
As the only person who has anchored two different Sunday shows, you know the genre as well as anyone. There’s been a lot of criticism of the format in recent years. There was one writer at the New Republic who said “the format feels exhausted, a relic from an earlier more consensus driven era.” In this day and age of social media and extreme polarization, can this Sunday show format still be successful at informing and educating the audience about public affairs, or are we starting to lose that?
I think more than ever, particularly in a polarized era where facts are fungible, I think there’s a premium on having a responsible Sunday show where a well prepared interviewer can hold top newsmakers to account and hold them to facts. I’ve had a feeling for a long time facts are nonnegotiable truth is nonnegotiable, that doesn’t your truth versus my truth. There’s just the truth. And I think so often in our media, both broadcast news, cable news, the internet, people have their versions of the truth. I think a Sunday show where you get one of these top newsmakers for 10 or 12 minutes, which is probably about the longest, live unedited interview format that there is for top newsmakers in media these days, to be the cop on the beat and swing the night stick and hold them to account. I think that’s more relevant, and more of service than ever.
You get a lot of bashing from Trump supporters –
And the president himself!
And the president himself. So, how do you deal with all of that?
It’s just noise. And look, I’ve often had interviews where I get bashed by both sides. Same questions, same facts. I’ll have a conservative say, “you’re a left winger. You should go someplace else.” And I’ve had liberals say, “you’re a conservative, parroting Republican talking points.” And I’ve also had a lot of people say, “I am never going to watch your show again.” The next week, they come back. As long as they’re listening and paying attention, I’m satisfied with that. The one point I try to make to people is asking a question is not making a statement. I ask tough questions of everybody. I challenge everybody, but that doesn’t mean that you know that when I challenge a conservative that I’m a liberal, it just means I’m challenging a conservative. When I challenge a liberal, it doesn’t mean that I’m a right-winger, it just means that I’m trying to ask them questions.
My feeling about this, A.J., is, these politicians who come on is–first of all, they decide to come on, we don’t have subpoena powers. They choose to come on. They’ve got big staffs, they’ve got talking points, they’ve got a script, they have no problem getting out their side of the story. My job is to try to get through the talking points, and to get them thinking and reacting in real time.
We’re approaching 100 days. Is the Biden administration performing at the level you thought it would be? Worse? Better?
I think the biggest surprise for me is how ambitious it is. There had been a lot of a lot of talk, in fact, from [President] Joe Biden that he was going to be a transitional president, between one generation and another, and I actually think he’s trying to be a transformational president. More ambitious than, for instance, Barack Obama. When you look at the the size of these spending bills, and the scope of what he wants to change in America, that’s what I’m most impressed by. It’s that he really does want to make some once in a generation changes in the country–the economy, the education system, the infrastructure, climate policy, you know, when you could argue, depending on your point of view, whether these are good ideas or bad ideas, but they’re big ideas, and that has surprised me.
We’ve seen a couple of the network’s time slots, formerly news, be given over to opinion in the past few months. Do you worry at all about the importance and prominence of news going forward at the network?
I’m always going to push for more news. You never want to give up real estate, which is what our slots are on television. But, Fox has always been a hybrid of news and opinion.
Getting back to Fox News Sunday, one thing that hasn’t changed is the promise that [the late former Fox News CEO] Roger Ailes made to me when I came on, he asked me one question when I had my job interview in 2003. He said, “Can you be just as tough on Democrats as you can on Republicans?” And I said, “Of course, that’s what I do.” And from that day to this, they have never second guessed a guest that I booked, they’ve never second guessed a question that I’ve asked. They just tell me to go out every week and do journalism, and I don’t think anybody that watches us would say that we’re pushing an agenda or pulling our punches.
One person you’ve yet to interview, but would really like to?
This is going to sound funny, and I think probably a little surprising to you, if she would really let down her hair, and speak candidly, which is why this is never going to happen. I would love to interview Queen Elizabeth. I’m a fan of [Netflix original series] The Crown. This is a woman who has been a world figure my entire life. I was born in 1947. She was current coronated in 1952 or ’53, and over the course of that time, she has presided over every Prime Minister since Winston Churchill, every president since Harry Truman. If you could really get her to talk candidly about the personalities she’s dealt with, the changes in the world she’s seen. I can’t think of a more fascinating interview. Now. Do I expect to get it? No. But you can always hope maybe for my 50th anniversary.
You have accomplished a lot over a long career in television news. How much longer can we expect to see Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday?
When I sat down and talked to Roger Ailes when I was 55 in 2003, I said, “You know, I can only give you 30 years.” I’ve given Fox 17 and a half years, so I guess the math is 12 and a half years more. My father [the late 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace] worked well into his 80s!
One more, since you brought up your father, what would he think about the state of media in 2021?
My father and I didn’t always agree. What father and son do?. But I think we would agree on this: I get praised a lot these days for being fair, for playing it straight, and while I like praise, I think it is a sad commentary on the state of journalism today.
When I started out, being fair was the bare minimum requirement to keep from getting fired. Now, being fair makes you stand out. That’s a shame.