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‘I’m a Contrarian.’ Chris Wallace on His Role at Fox News and His Latest Book

7 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

A video screen is of course just the place to meet up with Chris Wallace. That arched brow and knowing smile have existed as pixels since the 1970s, when he began a television news career that took him from NBC to ABC to Fox, where he has hosted Fox News Sunday since 2003. But the face on Zoom is not the strangely ageless one known to viewers, as indistinct at its edges as the features of an infant. Without makeup, Wallace even at 72 hardly qualifies as craggy. But at least there are lines on his face.

“I’ve always in my career been the Kid,” says Wallace, who at just 34 became NBC’s chief White House correspondent. “I’m kind of the elder statesman now, which I kind of enjoy.”

He’s been riding out the lockdown in his Annapolis, Md., vacation home, working out of the guest apartment above the garage. As he pans his laptop to the left, the largely vacant space appears to be draped with several pairs of dress pants–exactly the thing you don’t have to wear in quarantine. In fact, the fabric turns out to be bunched-up blackout curtains for a makeshift studio. This is a work space, and lately Wallace has been working on more than just the first draft of history.

The book is out June 9. Countdown 1945 covers the 116 days between Harry S. Truman’s becoming President and the destruction of Hiroshima. Its brisk, naturally propulsive narrative rotates among players that include Manhattan Project scientists, a B-29 flight crew and a 10-year-old Japanese girl who manages to survive a blast that 135,000 people did not. The idea for the book’s structure came from Jay Winik’s April 1865: The Month that Saved America, but Wallace didn’t know where his book would start until February 2019, when he found himself in the U.S. Capitol hideaway where, shortly after FDR’s death, Truman got a call from the White House, set down the phone and exclaimed, “Jesus Christ and General Jackson!”

“And at that moment, I thought: That’s it!” Wallace says.

As a work of history written by a Fox News personality, the book aims for the best-seller list long crowded by the ousted Bill O’Reilly, whose Killing series has sold millions. But Countdown also reflects the rigor and fealty to facts that have distinguished Wallace, and made him a bit of an outlier at the network that pioneered spin. Researching the book, Wallace was stuck by Truman’s “decisionmaking process.” The novice President famously owned all final decisions–a plaque reading the buck stops here really was on his desk–but decided only after soliciting advice widely. The question of whether to deploy the atomic bomb was mulled by a committee that included the president of Harvard, physicists Enrico Fermi and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and other great minds.

“The inclusiveness and the deliberateness of that process does seem to contrast with the way decisions are made these days,” Wallace says, naming no names. “I wasn’t looking to do that. But it became evident as I researched the book.”

Wallace may be the physical embodiment of the media establishment. His father was Mike Wallace, the feared interrogator of 60 Minutes. But his parents divorced when he was a baby, and Chris was raised by his mother and stepfather Bill Leonard, the CBS News president who oversaw the creation of 60 Minutes and much else in network news. Chris attended Hotchkiss and Harvard, and worked at the Boston Globe. His own stepchildren were fathered by Dick Smothers, half of the folk-singer comedic team that, via The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in the latter 1960s, became a touchstone for a liberal sensibility that eventually enforced a new orthodoxy across the national media.

The anchor says Rupert Murdoch and the late Roger Ailes, who together created Fox News, “took a completely different view: ‘We think there’s a big untapped market out there that feels, Hey, I haven’t been getting the news, the news as they understand it, as straight news, ever. And that these three broadcast networks are all telling a version of the news, and it’s all very similar–as you say, one set of facts. But they’re not speaking to us’ … And that’s the secret to the success of Fox News.”

Wallace says he has never been pressured to toe any line at Fox, and still enjoys the independence Ailes promised when he was hired. Wallace held Vladimir Putin’s feet to the fire in a widely praised interview in 2018. And he points out that he recently confronted both Trump Administration officials and former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden with uncomfortable facts. “I’m a contrarian,” he says.

“The problem is I think people want Fox to be one thing,” Wallace says. “It isn’t. It’s a lot of things. And I understand why that becomes uncomfortable or difficult for people.” He notes that after Trump claimed to be taking hydroxychloroquine to prevent COVID-19, it was Fox host Neil Cavuto who warned viewers, “It will kill you.” But in general, the line Wallace draws runs between news and talk. “I do what I do, I’m proud of what I do. What happens in prime time, they run their operation.”

The President is not a fan. In an April 12 tweet, he called Chris Wallace a “Mike Wallace wannabe … even worse than Sleepy Eyes Chuck Todd of Meet the Press (please!), or the people over at Deface the Nation. What the hell is happening to @FoxNews. It’s a whole new ballgame over there!”

Is it? Control of the parent company passed in 2018 from Rupert Murdoch to his son Lachlan, but Fox News remains (as well as the most popular channel on cable) so synched to the White House that it has faced complaints that it may bear responsibility for deaths that resulted from its amplification of Trump’s early dismissal of the virus.

What has changed is the story. Politics, being about perception and framing, comes with a builtin flexibility that’s visible by toggling between Fox and MSNBC. But science is nothing if not facts. And public health requires consistent, clear messaging to coax the behaviorial changes necessary to contain contagion. Wallace lists his recent guests on Fox News Sunday: Bill Gates, Johns Hopkins’ Dr. Tom Inglesby, Frieden and National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci. “I want anybody who watches my show to have nothing but the facts,” he says. “Nothing but the science. And there’s plenty else out there, and I can’t control that. I can control what I’m communicating to people.”

What does he make of the current President? “Well, it’s interesting,” Wallace says. After sitting down with candidate Trump in October 2015, he recalls telling his Sunday panel the man could be elected. “They all looked at me as if I’d come in in tennis shorts.” What persuaded Wallace, he says, was Trump’s argument that globalism had left behind millions of Americans who felt Washington no longer cared about them.

To a student of the Fox News formula, it had a familiar ring.

“We can talk about the President,” Wallace says. “I have plenty of critical things to say about him. But he clearly speaks to a feeling out there that there is an ‘inside game’ that those voters are not part of and that nobody is looking out for them, and he is.”

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