“A tip of the Stetson to Chris Wallace,” tweeted former CBS News anchor and native Texan Dan Rather. “A consummate pro. Tough. Prepared. Fair.”
The interview was praiseworthy, though it really should not be quite so remarkable to see a journalist hold the president’s feet to the fire. (Wouldn’t this have been just another day at the office for the late Tim Russert on NBC’s “Meet the Press”?)
Laudable as it was, the Wallace interview also does some insidious harm to truth-telling writ large.
It serves as a journalistic fig leaf for Fox News — something the network’s brass and public relations staff can point to in order to counter the criticism that Fox News is nothing but cheerleader for the president. Call it the “but Chris Wallace!” syndrome.
Sunday may have been a spotlight for Wallace’s chops, but Monday morning things were back to their democracy-damaging normal at the nation’s most popular cable network.
We learned that Tucker Carlson — who took a sudden vacation after justifiably harsh criticism earlier this month — would be back on the air. His extremely mild rebuke of a key staff’s racist and misogynistic behavior, coupled with his own appalling commentary on Sen. Tammy Duckworth (he described the Purple Heart recipient as a coward who hates America) are bygones. Apparently, this kind of thing simply doesn’t matter if the ratings are high enough — and Carlson’s are.
On “Fox & Friends,” the president’s favorite morning show, the Sunday interview got a proud mention (“our very own Chris Wallace”), as it should, but otherwise the hosts, as usual, let the president have his way twisting the facts. They aired a clip in which Trump defends the shockingly high rates of covid-19 by claiming that it’s because the United States is doing more testing (the greatest testing, don’t you know). That’s not the case, as Wallace duly pointed out on his show — but “Fox & Friends” didn’t show that part. Once again, Trump was allowed to get away with misleading the public.
Viewers also were treated to the sound of host Steve Doocy repeating Trump’s usual trashing of factual information he doesn’t like: “We’ve heard, according to the polls — although the president said yesterday, he does not believe the polls, they’re fake polls — the federal response has been poor.”
Business as usual, in other words.
Sean Hannity, second only to Carlson in ratings popularity on Fox News, is devoting much of his time and energy to Portland, Ore., using alarmist video of unrest in a city where federal officials — some in camouflage without badges to identify them as law enforcement — have seized racial-justice demonstrators on the street and detained them without charges or record of an arrest.
CNN’s Brian Stelter, who is writing a book about the culture of Fox News, suggested in his Monday newsletter that the Trump administration and Fox News’s talk shows have picked Portland as a new stage for Trump’s “Law and Order” show: “Programs like Fox & Friends have been prioritizing urban violence over the Covid-19 crisis for several weeks; Portland was just the latest news peg.”
During the Wallace interview, Trump criticized Fox News, which he claims to have been disappointed in since co-founder Roger Ailes stepped down in disgrace a few years ago. He professes, at times, to prefer the upstart One America News.
But let’s face it, Trump has absolutely nothing to complain about with Fox News, which — for the most part — is a water carrier for a president who consistently lies and attacks democratic norms. It’s not going too far to call a lot of what Fox News offers by its proper name: propaganda.
That Chris Wallace swoops in, on rare occasions, to show how Fox News journalism might be done with integrity doesn’t change that one iota.
By providing cover to Fox News’s dependable sycophants and cheerleaders, he may even make things worse.
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