Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Chris Wallace
Award-winning journalist and host of "Fox News Sunday," Chris Wallace followed both his father, "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace, and stepfather, CBS News president Bill Leonard, into broadcast journalism. Prior to joining Fox News, the 63-year-old spent more than two decades working at NBC and ABC. The Miami Herald called him "an equal opportunity ravager."
Fox News is celebrating its 15th anniversary, and Mr. Wallace is coming up on eight years at the network, which was created in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes.
Tell me what you see as Fox News' biggest contribution to journalism.
Boy, start off with an easy one. Well look, I think it really has changed the landscape of broadcast journalism. When you think that Fox News didn't even exist 15 years ago and now it is the dominant voice, certainly in cable news, and one of the most powerful voices in all of journalism. It's really quite extraordinary. It was created out of nothing. I think that Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes were smart enough to realize that a number of people, millions of viewers, didn't feel they were getting the full story.
Everybody else was thinking there are only a certain number of viewers out there interested in 24-hour cable news, and I think Rupert and Roger realized that there were millions of people who felt there was no news broadcast for them. So they created a different product, a different news brand, and attracted millions and millions of viewers who were not watching or not satisfied with what they were getting from all the broadcast channels and from CNN.
You told Jon Stewart in an interview that you felt Fox was a counterweight to mainstream media liberal bias. But as a counterweight wouldn't that mean it harbors its own bias?
Well, no, and that's a good question. If I had a do-over, and I guess I do with this interview, I would say yes, I agree it's a counterweight. One of the things I said was, "We tell the other side of the story." I think I should have said we tell all sides of the story. Listen, I spent how many years -- I think 11 at NBC and 13 at ABC -- so certainly a good quarter of a century in the mainstream media and really to agree, I didn't realize it, I think there is a liberal bias in the mainstream media. That doesn't mean we should therefore have a conservative bias. It means we should tell the whole story and both sides of the story. That's really the point.
You've asked Michele Bachmann if she was a flake, and you asked Newt Gingrich why so much of his staff left his campaign. You got a lot of flak for both.
Yes, so much for us being a megaphone for the Republican Party. I mean it's nonsense. The fact is I was hired to be an equal-opportunity inquisitor. In my almost eight years (in November it will be eight years) at Fox, I have never been second-guessed or directed by any of the bosses in New York in terms of a question I ask or a person we book on the show. What they do say is "Treat everybody the same." I think if you watch the interviews you would be hard-pressed to see any bias or any pulling of punches or any pushing of an agenda.
What was the most awkward on-air moment for you with Fox?
I don't know if it's awkward, but there's no question what my most outstanding memory is and that's the Bill Clinton interview in 2006. That was an interesting case. We had tried for a long time to get him on. I think he's one of the most fascinating political figures of the last quarter-century, and he finally agreed to do it as part of his Clinton Global initiative. The ground rules were pretty simple: 15 minutes has to be on his initiative and the other half can be on anything we want.
I asked him in an almost innocent way, because there had been a docudrama that ABC television had done, "The Path to 9/11," in which they had been quite critical of him and his White House and that they hadn't done more to take out Osama Bin Laden during the years that he was president.
So I asked him exactly that question, and he went off. I was shocked because I didn't think it was that tough a question. One of the interesting things was he kept saying, "You don't ask these kinds of questions of the other side."
I said back to him, "Do you ever watch our show?" because again, as you know watching Fox News Sunday, we ask exactly those kinds of questions of both sides. Nobody was tougher in 2003 once I came on in questioning the Bush administration -- top officials in the Bush administration -- about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. So I was a little surprised that he was surprised because that's what I do.
With the growing perception of Fox as a Republican megaphone, did you feel you had to be tougher on Republicans to make the point you were not?
No, because I think that would be wrong, too. Not playing it straight either way -- going soft on Democrats or going hard on Republicans -- would have been mistakes. Look, it's in my DNA. It's how I grew up, Patricia, with my dad. I see a public figure and a number of positions they have taken and their record and look for avenues to pursue, questions to ask. I think we play it right down the middle, and I think that's just what we should do.
Speaking of your DNA, I read that it was your stepfather, not your biological father, who influenced your career path.
My folks were divorced when I was very young, a year or two old, and my stepfather, Bill Leonard, who was at that time a reporter for WCBS-TV in New York, ended up as the president of CBS News, [laughing] and coincidentally my father's boss. He really was my first father. My mother married him when I was 9. He was an enormous influence on me in addition to being the nicest, sweetest, most decent man in the world. My path to forming my relationship with my [biological] dad was more complicated, but by the time I was a teenager, 14 or 15 years old, we had become quite close and over the years he became my best friend.
You've been covering politics for most of your career. Has the campaign to be elected become more the focus than the actual job?
I think that's always the way it is. The fact is you can't serve as president until you get elected president. You can't get elected president unless you do a good campaign. So you know that is one of the problems, I think, with our system. I'm not sure there's any particular way around it, but we end up voting for somebody because they are a good political candidate. That doesn't always ensure they are going to be a great executive.
I think you can make that criticism of Barack Obama, who I think ran a terrific campaign in 2008 and against all odds beat Hillary and Bill Clinton. I think [he] has found actually leading the country, forming the right policies and marshaling them through Congress to be a different and much harder task. And at least so far one he's not as good at.
Do you count anything off-limits in your questioning or are there questions you find hard to ask?
Oh, sure. You certainly are aware you are on thin ice if you are in a sensitive area, but that doesn't necessarily mean you won't ask it. I had a long interview with Newt Gingrich after he decided he was going to run. We went into a lot of depth into his personal history because it was out there. It's an issue. I knew it was something he wasn't going to be comfortable with. As somebody who has been married and divorced myself, I'm not particularly comfortable asking about it but it was a serious question.
I basically said, "I'm going to ask you about this this one time and I'll never do it again, but let's have this conversation." He understood that and, I think, he answered the questions seriously and very candidly.
Rupert Murdoch closed the News of the World after the phone tapping scandal erupted in Britain. What was the reaction inside Fox?
I feel as Rupert Murdoch does. It was an unacceptable breach of journalistic ethics. I'm glad he shut down the paper. Having said that, I have not seen a scintilla of evidence that it was ever done at Fox News. We've been assured by our bosses from Roger Ailes down that it's never happened. There certainly has been no indication in the weeks and months since the scandal broke in Britain that Fox News was involved in any of this. I have utter faith and trust that it didn't happen, and if it ever did it would be immediately stopped, and people would be out of Fox News before the day was done.
First Published October 10, 2011 12:00 am