Media critic

Fox News Channel debate moderators Chris Wallace, Megyn Kelly and Brett Baier in August 2015. (Aaron Josefczyk/Reuters)

On Oct. 19, Fox News anchor Chris Wallace will moderate the third presidential debate at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas.

Conflict of interest(!) screams David Brock, founder of Media Matters for America. The problem for Wallace, argued Brock in a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates, runs through Roger Ailes, who ran Fox News before a massive sexual harassment scandal knocked him out of his bunker. Though Ailes was ousted in July, he’s still an adviser to 21st Century Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch. Brock: “It is a glaring conflict of interest that Roger Ailes, who resigned from Fox News in July, simultaneously provides advice to Donald Trump while serving as a paid adviser to Fox News chief Rupert Murdoch—debate moderator Chris Wallace’s boss.”

Sounds impressive, no? How could Wallace possibly be tough on Trump given this supervisory structure?

Oh, because he has a record of doing exactly that. The coziness between Ailes and the Trump campaign isn’t a recent phenomenon. As CNN’s Dylan Byers and Dana Bash reported this week, Ailes has been counseling Trump for months and months, all while running Fox News. The two have been friends for years.

To boot, Wallace has nostalgia for his ex-supervisor. “Roger Ailes is the best boss I’ve had in almost a half a century in journalism. I admired him tremendously professionally, and loved him personally,” said Wallace as Ailes headed out the door.

And yet! Even when Ailes was still working from his Fox News bunker, Wallace participated in some of this campaign cycle’s most bruising coverage of Trump. He was part of the debate panel on Aug. 6, 2015, when colleague Megyn Kelly rocked Trump with her famous question about Trump’s misogyny. And there he was in early March, at another Fox News debate, scorching Trump with graphics that destroyed a couple of his baseless talking points. One of them pertained to how Trump claimed he’d balance his budget by eliminating certain federal agencies. This blog wrote up the beatdown at the time, and we re-run the nitty-gritty here:

The Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency, said Trump, would be kaput — or at least drastically reduced — in a Trump administration. “We have various other things,” he continued. “If you look at the IRS, if you look at every single agency, we can cut it down, and I mean really cut it down and save. The waste, fraud, and abuse is massive.”

The moderator wasn’t buying. “Please put up full screen number four,” Wallace instructed his producers. “The Education Department, you talk about cutting, the total budget for the education department is $78 billion. And that includes Pell grants for low-income students and aid to states for special education. I assume you wouldn’t cut those things. The entire budget for the EPA, the Environmental Protection Agency, $8 billion….The deficit this year is $544 billion. That’s more than a half trillion dollars. Your numbers don’t add up, sir.”

Busted, Trump limped into another talking point: “Let me explain something. Because of the fact that the pharmaceutical companies — because of the fact that the pharmaceutical companies are not mandated to bid properly, they have hundreds of billions of dollars in waste.” Then this exchange took place:

TRUMP: Take a look — excuse me. You are talking about hundreds of billions of dollars…

WALLACE: No, you are not.

TRUMP: … if we went out to the proper bid. Of course you are.

WALLACE: No, you’re not, sir. Let’s put up full screen number 2.

Let’s indeed put up full screen number 2! Full Screen number 2, it has to be noted, drew applause from the audience at the very moment that Wallace mentioned it. It broke down a couple of key facts, as Wallace narrated: “You say that Medicare could save $300 billion a year negotiating lower drug prices. But Medicare total only spends $78 billion a year on drugs. Sir, that’s the facts.”

Trump had trouble recovering. Here’s how his effort at damage control played out:

TRUMP: I’m saying saving through negotiation throughout the economy, you will save $300 billion a year.

WALLACE: But that doesn’t really cut the federal deficit.

TRUMP: And that’s a huge — of course it is. We are going to buy things for less money. Of course it is. That works out…

WALLACE: That’s the only money that we buy — the only drugs that we pay for is through Medicare.

TRUMP: I’m not only talking about drugs, I’m talking about other things. We will save $300 billion a year if we properly negotiate. We don’t do that. We don’t negotiate. We don’t negotiate anything.

If this is the sort of grilling generated by a conflict of interest, please let’s have more of them.

On paper alone, Brock has something of a point: Ailes’s advisership will create appearance problems for Wallace as well as other endeavors of Fox News. In Wallace’s case, however, the appearance appears unlikely to spill over into substance, at least if history is any guide. Merit accounts for Wallace’s choice as debate moderator: He has cornered a lot of politicians from both sides — again, even while working under a serial predator who worked on the side as a GOP operative. Despite those faults and so many more, Ailes appeared to understand that people like Wallace needed to be left alone. Back in January, for example, Wallace told an interviewer that Ailes gave him no instructions before debates.

So it’s hard to believe that Wallace’s former boss — now a discredited and disgraced man — would all of a sudden start poisoning Wallace’s work. In any case, that very work explains why Wallace was chosen to moderate in the first place. And it should be sufficient to have Brock cheering Wallace’s inclusion on the schedule.