Journalistic “Moxie” in the Age of Trump

[Autonomous q&@] Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace on Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump, Roger Ailes and why he’ll never join Twitter

Chris Wallace has covered presidential elections since 1980, so you can rely on his assessment when he describes 2016 as “surreal.” The Fox News Sunday host has journalism in his DNA, going back to his father, Mike Wallace, a journalistic institution at 60 Minutes.

Today is the 20th anniversary of Fox News Sunday, and the 13th year Wallace has hosted it and made it his own. While Wallace is delivering the show its highest-rated year ever in total viewers and biggest increase in total viewers among all Sunday morning shows, we talked to him about interviewing Trump (and every other GOP candidate), Obama, journalistic “moxie,” and not giving in to the impulse to let Trump phone it in. This is the latest in our Autonomous q&@ series.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Autonomous: You’ve been front-and-center in this election, co-moderating some debates which I think have thread the needle between substance and entertainment. You’ve been covering presidential campaigns for a while, since 1980 for NBC News. What has surprised you about this race, and what can you say, ‘you know, I saw that coming’?

Chris Wallace: Oh everything has surprised me about the race. I didn’t see Donald Trump coming at all. I’m happy to admit it. He’s been flirting with running since 1988. In fact the other day on the internet I saw a clip of me, as a floor reporter at the GOP convention, interviewing Trump on the floor about him flirting with running, back then. I didn’t believe he was ever going to get in the race. He’d been doing this for almost 30 years. After he announced, like everybody else, a half dozen times I thought he had destroyed himself with comments about illegal immigrant rapists, and John McCain being a loser because he got captured, and on and on and on. It wasn’t until October really, when I had my first sit down interview with him for Fox News Sunday — as you know we had refused to do these phoner interviews — I really began to understand his appeal, and the skill with which he had tapped into the disaffection people feel, the frustration they feel with politicians and politics as usual. I went on the air the next day and said, ‘I could see this guy getting elected president.’ And I remember everybody on the panel looking at me like I sprung a leak.

I think you’ve begun to see, finally, Trump pivot to be more of a disciplined and more traditional candidate. It’s not going to be as much fun for us but it’s probably a smarter way for him to run.

A: Six months later it looks like you were right on, at least in the possibility. You mentioned people’s disdain with politicians, but you could make the same argument about the media. You gave one of the tougher interviews with Corey Lewandowski, and I wonder, are you surprised by the nontraditional way the Trump campaign has gone about handling the media?

CW: Yes, and it’s interesting, because I think he’s changed. Having a long perspective really helps you. I remember in 1980 I covered Kennedy in the spring, in the primaries, but then I covered Ronald Reagan’s election in the fall of 1980. And I remember at the beginning of the campaign, even though he was the nominee, it was easy to shout a question at him, and he’d give you an answer. And I think what happened was, here was a guy who for years had longed for people to pay attention to him and ask him questions and it was like a new toy he could play with. And at some point, fairly early on, because he kept stepping on his own message, people persuaded him, ‘you’re the Republican nominee, they’re always going to pay attention to you, so you should say what you want to say, not what they’re going to ask you about.’ And I think we’re beginning to see that with Trump. What struck me for a long period of time was just his sheer delight in having a voice, in having people listen to him. To be able to tweet something out, and it get instant attention and own the news cycle for 24 hours, he loved it, but it wasn’t helping him, particularly in recent weeks. And I think you’ve begun to see, finally, him pivot to be more of a disciplined and more traditional candidate. It’s not going to be as much fun for us but it’s probably a smarter way for him to run.

A: Yes, but you talk about the media balance and maybe Trump fed into this himself. But I’m reminded of the time you pulled out the $300 billion fullscreen graphic and were able to call him out. I wonder what you think of the media in general, and the coverage of the Trump phenomenon and the horserace aspect, versus the substance of what he was talking about.

CW: We’re always fascinated by the horserace, and the idea that Donald Trump was the frontrunner for the Republican nomination was a pretty interesting and almost surreal story. But people began to take him more seriously, not just as a phenomenon but as the potential Republican nominee and a potential president. And that’s one of the reasons why in that debate in Detroit, I had prepared these slides and was ready. I had noticed he had this tax plan which he said was going to blow a 10 trillion hole in 10 years, and he said he could cover that with waste, fraud and abuse, and I noticed there were several things he kept saying and none of them were true. I think it was the first and only time a graphic got a standing ovation at a presidential debate.

photo via White House

A: One of the most recent interviews you had was with President Obama himself, as he made his long-awaited return to the show. I’m curious your reaction to the reaction to the interview — especially his biggest regret — but also overall your thoughts on his legacy when it comes to the press and dealing with the media?

CW: He certainly has been accessible to some people. He’s done an amazing number of interviews — I think 870 one-on-one interviews, and we got one of them. He’s a good salesman for himself. I think he sometimes thinks it’s all about selling. I have to laugh because oftentimes when one of his policies is in trouble, like when Obamacare had the terrible roll-out, he kept saying, ‘we think the real problem is we haven’t communicated to the public what’s going on well enough’ as opposed to what I think the real problem was, which is there were real problems with the policy, and especially the Obamacare website. So sometimes he confuses substance for ‘we haven’t talked about it enough.’ But I’ve interviewed him several times — twice on Fox News Sunday, once in 2008 and a few weeks ago — and we’ve always had a very pleasant and professional relationship. The interview could not have gone more smoothly. He was only supposed to talk to us for 16 minutes he ended up talking to me for 25, so I was pleased with it and afterwards they seemed to be too.

A: You’ve sat in the White House briefing room for past presidents. You hear from some people, across the board, certainly not just Fox News, that there was a bit of contentious relationship at times with the press from the whole administration.

CW: I think I was there in a golden era. I was there in 1982–1988, covering Reagan, along with Sam Donaldson and Bill Plante, and you had a president who loved to engage with the press, and if he was having an event and having a question, he’d answer. Which made a lot of us famous and wealthy. It’s like security in Washington — it’s just gotten tighter and tighter as time has gone on.

A: 20 years ago was the launch of Fox News Sunday, starting with Tony Snow, and I know you took over when you joined Fox News in 2003, after Tony left. Tell me about coming to Fox News, but also the early years of hosting your own Sunday show (after previously hosting Meet the Press) and an institution you’ve made your own.

CW: That’s the thing I think I’m proudest of. When I came to Fox News Sunday it was treated as a second class citizen on the Sunday show landscape. Not only Democrats, who were downright antagonistic to it, but also Republicans didn’t seem to take it that seriously. I’d like to think over the last 13 years we’ve made it a must-see part of the Sunday morning landscape. I’d like to think there’s a Fox News Sunday primary, and we do tough interviews, and all the candidates for president feel they have to pass muster on Sunday mornings to feel they’re going to be taken seriously. And a lot of Democrats as well. Hillary Clinton came on repeatedly in 2008. They keep promising they’re going to come on this year, but so far they haven’t. I think we’re a mainstay of the Sunday morning programs. Personally it’s been the joy of my career. I’ve had a lot of different jobs over my career, but I’m so grateful to Roger Ailes for hiring me. I remember our first meeting I said ‘look, I just want to make it clear, I’m not going to pull any punches, I’m not going to push an agenda’ and he said, ‘I have one question for you, can you treat everybody the same?’ And I said yes, and in 13 years he has never second-guessed me on a guest I’ve booked or a question I’ve asked. And he just wants us to be as tough, thorough and probing with one side as we are with the other, and that’s easy. That’s in my DNA.

One of the problems is, with so many different outlets, instead of giving you the news you need to know, people want to give you the news you want to know

A: Well talking about DNA, your dad, Mike Wallace, was one of the most accomplished journalists, and I watched an interview you did with Larry King, describing his “moxie” — not shying away from those tough, uncomfortable questions —and you’ve certainly carried that along. But as you look at the state of the media, what is the state of “moxie,” especially with so many outlets — social, digital media too — that all get grouped together?

CW: One of the problems is, with so many different outlets, instead of giving you the news you need to know, people want to give you the news you want to know. And there’s an awful lot of people who just want to find news outlets that agree with them. And I get pushback — if I do a tough interview with a Republican — I’ll get emails from people saying, ‘why are you giving conservatives such a tough time.’ My answer is usually, ‘have you seen my interviews with liberals?’ I like to think we’re an equal opportunity inquisitor. I was really surprised all of my colleagues in the Sunday morning shows allowed Donald Trump to phone in for interviews. I was shocked when I saw that last summer. I’ve never seen that with a presidential candidate before. I understood it, because it gave them a cheap ratings boost, but it seemed to me that if a guy is running for president, and you can’t look him in the eyes and see how he’s reacting and if he’s got talking points in front of him, I just thought that was a real lessening in standards. From the very moment it happened I said, ‘we’re not going to do that at Fox News Sunday’ and we never have.

A: It almost goes to how important TV is in general. TV kind of combines all the senses, that you can’t get from print or digital. You can see people react, tics…

CW: Absolutely. Is the guy in his pajamas or not? Is there someone whispering in his ear? You want to see the look in the guy’s eye as he’s asked a tough question, and how he takes it.

A: We talked about the debates in the beginning, and you and your co-moderators, Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly, I think have really stood out in this election season. As you look at your co-moderators, how do you think Bret and Megyn have come into their own in 2016?

CW: I think they’re outstanding. The three of us, I think we did the best debates, the toughest debates. Anybody who thought, ‘well Fox is a conservative-leaning network and they’re going to go easy,’ — I’d put the questions and the follow-ups we gave to the Republican candidates up against anybody. And to me, I was amused and a little surprised that people were so surprised by that. Because anybody who would be surprised by how we approached it just doesn’t watch us. If you watch Bret on Special Report or Megyn on her show or me, we don’t play favorites, we don’t pull punches, and we’re going to be tough on anybody, of whatever political stripe. That’s what we do every week, and that’s why we’re number one.

A: Any chance you join Twitter?

CW: No. There’s so many ways for me to blow up my career… Every once in a while I’ll see something on Twitter, or someone will tell me I’m trending on Twitter. I’ve got enough outlets to say what I’ve got to say, I’m not looking for more. And I’m certainly not looking for ones that are going to get me in trouble.