Trump Has a New Punching Bag at Fox News
(Bloomberg) -- On Oct. 13, Chris Wallace, the host of “Fox News Sunday,” grilled Secretary of Defense Mark Esper about the administration’s response to the growing Ukraine scandal. That night, President Donald Trump jumped on Twitter and compared Wallace unfavorably to his late father.
“Somebody please explain to Chris Wallace of Fox, who will never be his father (and my friend), Mike Wallace, that the Phone Conversation I had with the President of Ukraine was a congenial & good one,” Trump tweeted.
Expect much more of the same to follow.
Two days earlier, Shepard Smith, whose tough and factual reporting style often drew the ire of Trump and his supporters, abruptly left the network. For years, Smith served not only as Fox News’ premier breaking news anchor but also as the most prominent banner carrier for the network’s team of straight-news reporters. His abdication positions Wallace as his natural successor.
It’s a role guaranteed to attract fire. Trump has made it clear that he doesn’t appreciate it when his favorite TV channel exposes its viewers to unflattering news about him.
Smith’s departure also makes Wallace more important than ever to the network, which relies on the credibility of its news division to counter criticism about its Trump-friendly prime-time hosts.
“Smith leaving is a big deal” because Wallace can’t do it on his own, said Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report, which monitors newscasts. To be considered a legitimate news outlet, “you can’t just point to one person.”
Fox News says Wallace is just one of many respected journalists at the network who have confronted members of the Trump administration, including Bret Baier, Neil Cavuto and Martha MacCallum. But Wallace’s tough interviews, especially with Republicans, have been shared on social media and cited by other news outlets, reinforcing the notion that Fox News is feeding viewers more than just conservative talking points.
While Smith appeared on Fox News every weekday, Wallace’s show only airs on Sundays, making him a less regular presence to viewers. (Wallace will join a rotating cast of news anchors filling in for Smith’s vacated 3 p.m. hour until the network names a permanent replacement.)
“Chris becomes the next voice of realism at Fox News, but I’m not sure that he replaces Shep,” said Conor Powell, a former Fox News foreign correspondent. “Chris is a really good interviewer and plays an important role. But he only has one show once a week. Shep was on every day.”
Wallace’s contract keeps him at Fox News through the 2020 election. His journalistic credibility is also good for business, helping Fox News host presidential debates, attract advertisers and charge distributors like Comcast Corp. higher fees to carry the network.
“If it turns out you’re not a news organization anymore, you lose bargaining leverage with cable operators,” Tyndall said.
Wallace, 72, was praised in 2016 for his performance moderating a presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Trump. More recently, he’s gained attention for pushing back on explanations from the White House. He described responses by Trump aide Stephen Miller as “an exercise in obfuscation” and said Trump’s backers had been “deeply misleading.”
Wallace calls himself an “equal opportunity inquisitor” and has said that he has the full support of Fox News executives.
His father, Mike Wallace, was one of the original correspondents for “60 Minutes” on CBS. He died in 2012.
Mike passed down his confrontational, devil-may-care gene to his son, said Jonathan Klein, a former president of CNN’s U.S. network.
“Chris plows ahead and does what he thinks is right,” Klein said. “It serves Fox News viewers well because Chris knows they deserve to hear the truth.”
The late Fox News founder Roger Ailes hired seasoned journalists like Wallace because he thought it would deflect criticism of the network’s right-leaning opinion hosts, Klein said.
“That’s been their mantra for decades: ‘We’re a real news organization. We have Shep Smith and Chris Wallace,’” Klein said. “But these days I’m not sure how much they care about that. Their brand has morphed.”
Fox News executives say they are investing more in journalism, a push that includes hiring new reporters, opening a high-tech studio and launching a news program at 11 p.m.
Trump has attacked Wallace before. In May, he complained that Wallace complimented Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, tweeting, “I like Mike Wallace better.”
At a recent event during Advertising Week, Wallace reacted to Trump’s comparison: “One of us has a daddy problem, and it’s not me.”
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