Chris Wallace: Who is the moderator of the final presidential debate?

Wallace is the first Fox News journalist picked to moderate a general election debate

David Usborne
New York
Wednesday 19 October 2016 16:35 BST
Chris Wallace, left, moderating a primary debate in January with colleagues Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier
Chris Wallace, left, moderating a primary debate in January with colleagues Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor moderating the final presidential debate on Wednesday night, is a chip off the old block. Which is to say that like his famous father before him - Mike Wallace, who spent most of his 60-year career at CBS - he is no soft touch.

Even before he steps on the stage at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas and prepares to introduce the two candidates, Mr Wallace will have done something to put him in the history books. He will be first the Fox News journalist to moderate a general election debate.

That is a point of pride for the Rupert Murdoch-owned cable network that will celebrate its 20th birthday on Friday. For assorted reasons, this presidential campaign has not been the easiest for the channel. Above all, it suffered the embarrassment of seeing its founding boss, Roger Ailes, ousted this summer after several female employees accused him of inappropriate sexual advances.

While the Media Matters organisation launched a protest about the selection of Mr Wallace as one of the 2016 debate moderators, it wasn’t so much the journalist they were unhappy about but his employers. The group argued that Mr Ailes’ continuing role as an informal advisor to Mr Trump created a conflict of interest for the Fox channel. But Mr Ailes is long gone from the building and the Commission on Presidential Debates swiftly rejected the complaint.

Mike Wallace, who died in 2012 after 60 years with CBS News
Mike Wallace, who died in 2012 after 60 years with CBS News (Getty)

If you might expect Democrats instinctively to wail about a Fox journalist being given so important a task - Wednesday’s debate will be Mr Trump’s final big moment to attempt a come-back - that is not what has happened.

Mr Wallace, whose main job is as anchor of Fox News Sunday, a one-hour political discussion show that airs on all the Fox affiliate channels nationwide as well as on Fox News cable, has tangled with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in recent months and there is nothing to suggest a willingness to be less tough with one than with the other.

In July, Ms Clinton chose his Sunday show for her first post-convention interview and he grilled her on her handling of the Benghazi raid in September 2012 which left four Americans dead.

Moderating a Republican primary debate in March, Mr Wallace not only cut in to contradict statements made on the stage by Mr Trump, for example on his plans to cut federal spending, but he also surprised the candidate flashing up debunking graphics on a screen by the stage. “Your numbers don’t add up,” he told him.

Some on the left were discomforted, however, when Mr Wallace averred recently that he did not consider it the job of a moderator at general election debates to fact-check the candidates. “That's not my job,” he commented on Fox News. “I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad. It's up to the other person to catch them on that.”

He later eased his stance somewhat, telling Brit Hume, the cable channel’s senior political analyst: “I'm not saying that if they don't that I won't,” he said of calling out false statements. “But what would certainly be my preference is that they ... keep checking on each other.”

His more general message is that the best moderators manage the debate in a way that the candidates receive all the attention, not them. “I view it as kind of being a referee in a heavyweight championship fight,” he recently remarked. “If it succeeds, when it’s over people will say, ‘You did a great job. I don’t even remember you on the stage’.”

Mr Wallace, who is 69, has admitted that having a journalist as famous as his father once was as a stalwart of the CBS Sunday evening current affairs magazine 60 Minutes was a mixed blessing for him as he forged his own way in the same industry.

“Not that he sort of got me jobs or anything like that, but you have access to things,” he told The Washington Post. “You meet people. You see how things are done just by going to visit your father. The negative side is you’re under a cloud. Did you get this because of your dad? When you’re talking to people, they’ll call you Mike instead of Chris. As I got older, it became less and less of an issue.”

That the Las Vegas debate represents a signal moment both for him and for his employer is clearly not escaping him, however. “I think it’s a recognition of the fact that we do serious journalism. Some critics say no, but you and I know we do, and here’s the Commission on Presidential Debates recognizing that,” he told Bret Baier, a fellow Fox anchor.

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