At the outset of the presidential campaign, Democrats shut Fox News out of sponsoring any of its debates, frustrated over what party chairman Tom Perez called an “inappropriate relationship” between the network and President Donald Trump.
But a number of candidates have still gone on to participate in the network’s town halls, the most recent being Pete Buttigieg, who appeared in a Des Moines event last week moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday.
Not too surprisingly, Wallace thinks it was a “foolish mistake” for Democrats to shun Fox News as a debate sponsor.
“You know it’s like Willie Sutton said, when they asked why did you rob banks, he said ‘That’s where the money is.’ Why would you not go on Fox News?” he says.
Iowa voters can change their registration on caucus night and vote in the Democratic caucus, he notes, and “why wouldn’t you want to appeal to the millions of people who watch Fox News who are persuadable and might conceivably vote for your candidate? And lord knows you are going to need the Fox audience come the general election.”
The network continues to be Trump’s favorite for sit down interviews, like Sunday’s Super Bowl pre-game with Trump-friendly host Sean Hannity, yet the president has taken to lashing out at the news side. In one outburst last week, Trump predicted the “beginning of the end” of the network, and groused that Wallace “should be on Fake News CNN or MSDNC.”
Deadline spoke with Wallace late last week about this moment in the news cycle, as the media is embarking on its coverage of the 2020 primary season amid a bitter impeachment battle and continued attacks on journalism.
DEADLINE: In any other election cycle, the caucuses would have dominated coverage the week before the vote. Instead, it’s impeachment. What impact do you think it’s going have on the caucus vote?
CHRIS WALLACE: We don’t know. The Republicans were putting out a line in the last week that this was an effort…to help Biden by tying the Democratic senators to the Senate floor for the impeachment trial and implying that this was like what the Democrats did to hurt Bernie Sanders in 2016. But all the polls indicate that there’s been a surge for Bernie Sanders.
I was out in Iowa this past weekend, for the town hall I did with Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and I was talking to the political director of The Des Moines Register, and also for WHO-TV. They had absolutely no idea who is gonna win. I can write you different scenarios as to who’s going to win, and different scenarios as to what that’s gonna mean if they win, but we’ll be a lot smarter around midnight Monday night.
DEADLINE: You mentioned Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He did the Fox News town hall with you last week and his campaign made quite a big deal about it. Why do you think they are they so emphasized him appearing on Fox News, given that the DNC won’t agree to a Fox News-sponsored debate?
WALLACE: First of all, one of his [campaign’s] appeals from the very start, and that’s why he did a Fox News town hall with me back in New Hampshire in May, is they’re trying to say, ‘This is a guy who’s ready to go anywhere to talk to anybody. And he could unify the nation.’
And I think they think that’s an appeal, not unlike Barack Obama who talked about it’s not a blue America or red America, it is the United States of America. … They’re making a very strategic decision to go to some of the congressional districts in southwestern Iowa that went for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 and make a moderate appeal to them. These are areas that are very much swing districts, maybe even lean a little bit Republican. And so I think they feel appearing on Fox News plays very much to that strategy.
DEADLINE: One thing that stood out to me watching the town hall, was Pete Buttigieg’s answer to the question about abortion. A woman who is a pro-life Democrat asked him if there was room for me in the Democratic Party.
WALLACE: I was quite surprised. You know, in any interview or any town hall, and particularly this close to the to one of the key votes, in this case the Iowa caucuses, the politicians pretty well have their lines down. You ask as tough or probing a question as you can, or a citizen does, and you pretty much know what their answers are going to be. What I thought was so fascinating about that moment is, I had never seen it before. I’m sure it has happened in Iowa, but I had not seen it before with Buttigieg, where a woman was saying, ‘I’m a loyal Democrat. I want to vote in the party. I just want the [party] platform to say that there’s room for me. Not that you’re not a pro-choice party, but that you welcome pro-life people then and that you will have a big tent.’ And he was unwilling to go there, and I thought that was a very revealing moment.
DEADLINE: What do you think of President Trump’s comments? He seems to get kind of annoyed anytime Fox News gives airtime to Democrats. He was talking about Senator Chris Van Hollen the other day. He complained after the Fox News town hall with Pete Buttigieg.
WALLACE: I think that the president fails to understand what Fox News is all about, which is that we are covering the election, and there are two other two parties in the election, the Republicans and the Democrats. And we’re going to give equal coverage and equal exposure to both sides, and ask equally tough questions of both sides. But to suggest that there’s something wrong with putting a Democrat on the show or covering a Democratic political event, just shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what Fox News is all about.
DEADLINE: What is it like when he attacks you personally?
WALLACE: Because I have to get up at 5:15 a.m. to do [Fox News Sunday], after the show I’ll usually have lunch with my wife and then I go upstairs with the paper and take a nap. And when he [attacked me] about [the] Steve Scalise [interview], and he called me ‘nasty and obnoxious,’ I woke up and I’m just sort of checking on my iPad to see what’s there and suddenly you see the president of United States has attacked you.
I would say that, on the one hand I understand it. If I thought I’d done something wrong, it would bother me. I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong. So in a professional sense it didn’t. But on some basic level I suppose it hurts your feelings a little bit to have the president of the United States, whoever he or she is, attacking you.
Now, when he did it again this week, what I found was I didn’t it didn’t bother me as much because I guess I’m getting used to it.
After I did the Scalise interview… my oldest son called me up and he said, ‘Nasty? No. Obnoxious, well maybe.’ [Laughs] I have been in the business a half century and I have been attacked by all sides. Generally speaking, I think it is an indication that you’re doing your job. I mean I’m not in this to make friends. I am in this to do the best reporting that I can do.
DEADLINE: As we enter the primary season, a lot of Democrats are expressing concern over disinformation. What do you think your role is in terms of combating disinformation that is out there?
WALLACE: If it’s something that rises to the level, and I’m doing an interview and somebody says something, I have and will continue to point out, ‘Well that’s not true.’ But if you were going to try to track down all the disinformation that’s out on social media, you wouldn’t have time to do your job. It’s out there. It’s why one of the reasons why I say to people when I’m speaking before an audience, and they say, ‘You know, how should we get through all of the spin and all of the information and disinformation?’ I always say every day, watch, or read something that disagrees with you. If you’re conservative and you like Fox News, read the New York Times. If you’re a liberal and you love NBC News, then read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. I just think that in this world is the news business has become so tribal that, and then politics has become so tribal, that I think if you really want to be an informed consumer, you have to go out of your way to read something that disagrees with you, so you can kind of triangulate, what the truth is. … People come up to me, and the thing they say most often is, ‘I love how fair you are. I love that you’re equally tough on both sides.’ And while I like praise, I actually find it kind of depressing. Because when I started in this business 50 years ago, being fair was the basic job requirement to keep you from being fired. And the idea that I stand out now because I’m fair, I think is a kind of sad commentary on the state of journalism.
DEADLINE: Do you ever get pushback, say if you fact check some of the Fox News opinion hosts and Fox News commentators?
WALLACE: You know, they do their job, we do our job. I’m not usually fact checking them. I’m not on their show and they’re not fact checking me. And you know, it’s not unlike a newspaper where you have a front page, that one hopes is objective and fair, and then you have an opinion page, which is about opinions and people are entitled to their opinions.
DEADLINE: Do you think your role has changed at all given this atmosphere of disinformation?
WALLACE: One of the things that I feel is that the president has gone over the line and try to demonize and delegitimize the media. But I think that the big mistake that some of my colleagues make is that that gives them an excuse to push back, to become an advocate for the other side. That’s not our job. Our job isn’t to get into the fight. Our job is to be the umpire and call balls and strikes. That’s what I thought the job was when I started out working for the Boston Globe in 1969, and it’s what I think my job is today, working at Fox News in 2020.
DEADLINE: What was the reaction that you got from the administration at your speech at the Newseum? You said that the Trump White House has engaged in “the most direct sustained assault on freedom of press in history.”
WALLACE: I remember at one point when the Obama administration declared war on Fox News and refused to put any guests on. I called the White House ‘the biggest bunch of crybabies I’d ever seen.’ So I made my points about what I think [this] White House is doing, and they make their points back. We’re playing hardball so that’s fine. What I will say, and I think this is most important, is that I got nothing but complete backing from the executives at Fox News. They agree with me that as long as we’re calling balls and strikes, and we’re equally tough and probing on both sides, they don’t have a problem with it.