Wallace’s Sunday morning interview show is often riveting, creating newsworthy moments — whether he is grilling former FBI director James B. Comey as he did this week or holding White House adviser Stephen Miller’s feet to the fire as he did in late September.
“According to POTUS, Chris Wallace is a partisan hack. In reality, he’s consistently the gold standard for American political interviewers,” Jonathan Swan of Axios noted on Twitter shortly after the Comey interview aired.
Tough, well-prepared and knowledgeable, Wallace is willing to interrupt, ask follow-up questions and assert facts when his subjects are insistently spewing talking points. That President Trump bashes him as “nasty and obnoxious” or calls his interviews “dumb and unfair” doesn’t detract from that reality.
But Wallace’s presence on Fox News can seem like a hallucination for regular viewers of the pro-Trump network that is often a seamless extension of the White House’s communications staff.
Earlier on Sunday, during the two-hour “Fox & Friends” show, this typical chyron led the cheers: “Trump’s Week of Winning Despite Impeachment.” And the hosts’ softer-than-Charmin interview with former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) mocked Democrats for talking about “prayerfulness” as next week’s impeachment vote approaches.
For years, Fox News’s public relations staffers have defended the network by insisting there’s a clear distinction between the straight news coverage and the heavily conservative opinion shows. (“Real News. Real Honest Opinion.” went the ad campaign.)
But that distinction is an illusion. Most of the time, the difference is one of degree, not of substance.
And so, when truth-telling host Shepard Smith announced that he was leaving the network a few months ago, my first thought was, “And then there was one.”
The one, of course, being Wallace — a high-profile Fox staffer who is willing to insist on the facts, not succumb to pro-Trump talking points.
“You have been taking something of a victory lap,” he began his interview Sunday with the former FBI director. And when it came to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report concerning how the FBI investigated Trump’s Russia connections, Wallace got Comey to admit that “[Horowitz was] right and I was wrong” on some aspects.
Wallace isn’t really the only one left. There are plenty of solid Fox reporters and other contributors. But their work is often obscured by relentless disinformation and failures to enforce basic journalistic standards.
The network eventually had to retract its false reporting in 2017 on Seth Rich, which had fueled the baseless claim that Hillary Clinton had the former Democratic National Committee staffer killed because he was a source of campaign leaks. For years, Fox promoted the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. And, as my colleague Paul Farhi reported, the network won’t even keep Fox contributors or staffers from appearing at pro-Trump rallies and fundraisers — despite a public rebuke of Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro for doing so last year.
Conservatives love to defend Fox News by equating it with MSNBC or CNN. But while those cable network do offer plenty of left-leaning commentary and do make their share of mistakes, they also hew to reality and standards in a way that Fox too often does not.
Overall, it amounts to the difference between propaganda and journalism.
Wallace closed out his Sunday show with a pointed comment on the media coverage of a speech he made last week at the Newseum’s First Amendment celebration. He had made headlines by saying that Trump “is engaged in the most direct, sustained assault on freedom of the press in our history.”
Wallace didn’t back off, but he wanted to underline another point that got less attention: that reporters should be “umpires,” not participants.
“We shouldn’t be drawn into the fight,” he said. (It sounded something like what Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said in 2017: “The way I view it is, we’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work. We’re doing our jobs.”)
Wallace is a straight-shooter and a pro.
We need lots more of what he offers.
But his contributions to truth-telling and holding public officials accountable — important as they are — don’t make up for what goes on at Fox News too much of the time.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan