Chris Wallace is the host of “Fox News Sunday.” Celebrating 50 years in the media, the 67-year-old Wallace began his career as Walter Cronkite’s assistant. The son of “60 Minutes” reporter Mike Wallace, he has served as coanchor of the “Today” show, NBC’s chief White House correspondent, moderator of “Meet the Press,” anchor of the Sunday edition of “NBC Nightly News,” senior correspondent for ABC’s “Primetime Thursday” and occasional host of “Nightline.” He joined Fox News in 2003.
Here, Wallace talks about the looming elections, journalism, George Clooney and more.
WWD: The midterm elections are a few weeks away. How do you see the race shaping up?
Chris Wallace: Republicans have slim leads in most of the key states they need to flip to take control of the Senate. But so far, their leads are within the polling margins of error. And this does not look like a “wave” election, where one party runs the table. Turnout is always key in a midterm election. And despite a proven edge in the ground game in 2012, I doubt Democrats can turn out Obama voters when Obama is not on the ballot. Overall, I give Republicans a small advantage in picking up a net of six seats and taking control of the Senate. And they could flip as many as eight seats. But I wouldn’t be shocked if the Democrats hold onto the Senate.
WWD: Are you seeing a shift in political leanings in the U.S., and if so in which direction?
C.W.: I’m not quite sure whether it’s a shift of ideology or of personality. I think in 2008, people were pretty fed up at the end of eight years with President Bush. They were unhappy with the way the Iraq War had gone, they were very unhappy with the situation in the economy. In 2008, you saw Obama win and you saw big Democratic majorities in the House and Senate. I don’t know whether that was the country turning to the left and becoming more liberal, or just that they were just fed up with Bush. This time, I think it’s possible that you could see Republicans score a big victory. I’m not sure if that’s because the country has turned more conservative or if people are increasingly fed up with Barack Obama’s presidency
WWD: Many journalists have said that the Obama administration has given less access to the press than previous administrations. Have you experienced that?
C.W.: Some of the criticism is legitimate and some of it is a failure to understand the changing dynamic. I think this is a White House that takes things very personally, that is thin-skinned. The White House I covered most in depth was the Reagan White House. I covered it for six years. I think the White House reflects the personality of the president. To a certain degree all the officials tend to act the way they feel the president would act. The Reagan White House was pretty thick skinned. Reagan understood from Hollywood that just because you got a bad review today, it was not personal. The person didn’t like the movie. You could remain friendly with the critic. Chances were, if he liked your next movie, he’d give you a good review. That was the reaction of that White House. This White House is much more thin-skinned, much more unhappy with criticism, and much less open to critics, or even to tough reporting.
WWD: You’d mentioned the changing dynamic. Please elaborate.
C.W.: Regarding access, I think some of that is not understanding the times. One of the things they [reporters] are upset about is that the White House puts out its own videos and pictures. The fact is, when I covered Reagan, the Internet didn’t exist. If they wanted to get a picture out, they had to give it to the networks or the newspapers because that was the only way it was going to get out to the public. Now, they can take a picture or video of the president doing something and get it out to the public on their own.
WWD: How has journalism changed from 50 years ago?
C.W.: It’s completely different because the platforms are different. When I started out as a 16-year-old high school senior, it was a very hierarchical system. There were three networks, a half dozen major newspapers, and that was about it. There was a very small universe at the top of the pyramid. Now, it’s much more diffuse. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. A thousand flowers bloom — and the idea that there are more avenues to get out information and more platforms for reporters to give information and more competing views out there, on the one hand, it allows you to have access to a lot more perspectives. The flip side is it puts the burden on the news consumer to be more informed and to be able to distinguish between a legitimate news source with a serious news process as opposed to a blog where there is some guy in his pajamas in his mother’s basement.
WWD: Coming from the TV world, how do you view native advertising in print publications? Do they do a disservice to the reader?
C.W.: I’m quite troubled by it. When I started at the Boston Globe in 1969 there was an absolute firewall between the news side and the business side. They largely didn’t even talk to each other, and that was at the express order of the publisher of the Boston Globe. Anything that blurs the lines and particularly anything that would confuse the reader or listener or viewer into thinking that something was objective editorial content when in fact it is advertising, is just misleading. That’s just about the worst thing you can do in our business.
WWD: What about brand extensions as a way to support a struggling publishing business?
C.W.: I fully understand, especially on the print side, the constraints of the business and the fact that it’s getting harder to make the bottom line work. But to stay alive you can’t do anything to compromise your journalistic integrity whether it’s ads that pose as editorial content or these conferences, which I think sometimes can leave a publication or a news source beholden to the officials that they get to speak and that they raise money off of. I think anything like that is dangerous.
WWD: What are the challenges facing broadcast today?
C.W.: One of the challenges, particularly for 24-hour cable news, is getting enough time to report and to think. Regardless of the news outlet, often you’re forced to go on the air and report before you have time to digest all the facts, and to think about what they mean. Most of the people in our business do it very well. When I was in the field working at NBC covering the White House, there were only two shows you were worried about. There was the “Today” show in the morning and “NBC Nightly News” in the evening. You had plenty of time over the course of the day to talk to people and get different perspectives and do the real editorial process. Now, oftentimes, you’re going from one show to the next, doing stand ups. It’s hard.
WWD: How do you view Yahoo’s endeavor with Katie Couric as global anchor? Can Internet broadcast news succeed?
C.W.: I don’t know. I’m interested as a content provider in any venues that are out there that are going to provide more content — it means more jobs and more opportunities for me and my colleagues. When I was at ABC — we put up video on our Web site — I used to do some five-to-eight minute magazine pieces that we put on abc.com. I think it’s hard to get people to sit still for long interviews or other content.
WWD: What did you learn from your father about being a good journalist?
C.W.: It’s interesting because people think of my father now looking back at his career as this great superstar, but that wasn’t how he started and it isn’t how he felt about his career. Growing up he had a complexion problem and he was sensitive about that. He was insecure because he came to CBS News late in his career. He didn’t feel he was blessed with great innate talent — although I did think he had it — he thought he had to work harder than anybody else. He was fiercely competitive. He felt he had to be better prepared. One thing he used to say to me about interviews was, “You’re never going to know as much about the person you’re going to be interviewing.…But you can know enough that you can make it pretty clear to the person very quickly that they can’t spin you.”
He was a deep believer in preparedness and research, in hard work. He used to say to me, if he were to pick out the single key quality that made people successes or not, it wouldn’t be natural talent, it wouldn’t be intelligence, it would be energy and persistence and drive. I think that’s how he led his career. That was instilled in me.
WWD: Your father was notoriously good at asking tough questions without flinching. Did he teach you how to do that? How do you do it?
C.W.: I think you have to be polite and respectful. You can’t be antagonistic and like you’re going in looking for a fight. In my time asking questions, if you ask it in a polite, respectful way, the interview subject will respect it and respond and won’t take offense.
WWD: OK, well, here’s mine: There are many examples of journalists whose parents were in the business that end up finding success through those connections. How do you view nepotism in the media industry?
C.W.: Oh, I think like any business, if you know people and if people know you, it may get you in the door, but I certainly don’t think it lasts very long. This is a business where what have you done for me lately is an understatement. It’s what have you done for me this minute? What have you done for me in the last 30 seconds? You can’t build a career on that. Do I think it helped me get my first job? Yes. My second job? Probably not. Fifty years? Absolutely not. I think that’s generally true for the sons and daughters, you have to prove yourself.
WWD: Do you think it’s possible to be an unbiased journalist?
C.W.: There’s no such thing as perfectly objective journalism, but I do think you can try as hard as possible to be unbiased, to be objective and more importantly, to present, if not all sides, at least the main sides of an argument, to allow the viewer or the reader to make up their mind. When I go in and do a story, I’m not thinking what’s the conservative angle to the story or what’s the liberal angle to the story? That said, if you and I covered a story, we might do it differently.
WWD: What do you read and watch for pleasure?
C.W.: I love “Mad Men.” I’m a late convert but a devout convert to “Breaking Bad.” I like “Boardwalk Empire” and “Masters of Sex.” For comedy, I like “Modern Family.” I always like to have a book on my bedside table. Right now I’m reading a book called “The Boys in the Boat.” It’s about the U.S. crew team that rowed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It’s about how they rowed for personal glory.
WWD: Are you interested in fashion?
C.W.: I thought Amal [Alamuddin] looked beautiful. I’m a friend of George Clooney’s.
WWD: Did you go to the wedding?
C.W.: No I did not, unfortunately, but I have gone to his villa in Lake Como, and we e-mail each other. I have to tell you, it’s been very sweet because he’s been gushing about Amal like a love-struck teenager. He really has. I like fashion, too, and my wife really likes fashion. We were talking about what she [Amal] wore. She was pretty darn stunning.
WWD: Who makes your suits?
C.W.: Fox has a deal with Hickey Freeman. Almost all of the on-air people at Fox wear Hickey Freeman. Before I had a deal with Fox, I used to get them myself. In terms of ties I like Hermès and Zegna. In terms of casualwear I really like Ralph Lauren. There’s something about putting on a Ralph Lauren polo shirt that makes you feel great.