Chris Wallace: First debate host and Fox anchor unloved by Trump

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Chris Wallace awaiting the arrival of former Vice President Al Gore on the set of "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace" at FOX News D.C. Bureau on June 4, 2017Image source, Paul Morigi

"I took the test too when I heard that you passed it," the veteran TV journalist Chris Wallace told Donald Trump in a one-on-one interview in July of this year, referring to a cognitive test that the US president had boasted about "acing".

"It's not the hardest test," he continued, noting that one question involved identifying a drawing of an elephant.

The president, affronted, responded angrily: "That's all misrepresentation. Yes, the first few questions are easy but I bet you couldn't answer the last five questions."

It was the kind of sharp-edged exchange with Mr Trump that viewers don't normally expect to see on Fox News - the hugely influential conservative cable network that the president watches religiously.

But Chris Wallace is not any Fox News anchor. Instead, the 72-year-old has made a name for himself and his Sunday news show for precisely not being the kind of cheerleader for President Trump that some of his high-profile colleagues on the opinion side of the organisation are often accused of being.

Instead, he's seen as a serious, interrogative and even-handed journalist, with a measured delivery that at times seems to hark back to TV news anchors of the 1960s and 1970s. (He was, in fact, a young assistant to the legendary anchorman Walter Cronkite during the 1964 Republican National Convention.)

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On Tuesday, in Cleveland, Ohio, Wallace will moderate the first of the 2020 US presidential debates between President Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden.

It won't be his first debate rodeo. Wallace, who had a long career at other broadcasters including NBC and ABC before joining Fox in 2003, burnished his long standing reputation for fair treatment of both sides of the US political aisle in 2016, when he became the first Fox News anchor to host a presidential debate.

His calm but firm handling of the third debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was widely praised. Staring through his all-black, thick-framed glasses, he calmly asked detailed, policy-oriented questions of both candidates and admonished them when they talked over each other, or him.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Chris Wallace was widely praised for his assured handling of the third 2016 presidential election debate

At one point he told Donald Trump he was "not a potted plant" and was here to ask questions. He also asked the Republican candidate about the many sexual assault allegations against him. At the same time he pressed Mrs Clinton about allegations that she gave preferential treatment to Clinton Foundation donors when she was secretary of state.

"Chris Wallace did Fox proud" was the headline of Politico's debate post-mortem. "No one could watch the final debate and deny that Chris Wallace is among the best in the business," wrote a Washington Post columnist.

Even Democrats were effusive. "He works for Fox but Chris Wallace deserves exceptional praise," said Howard Dean, who ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004. "He was tough and he was right down the middle fair. His dad would be proud."

Media caption,

How will Trump or Biden win the debate? Anthony Zurcher assesses their strengths and weaknesses

The shadow of Wallace's father, himself a highly regarded journalist and tough interviewer, is never far from the Fox anchor.

Mike Wallace, who died in 2012, was one of the original correspondents for CBS's 60 Minutes programme. Over more than 50 years he interviewed everyone from Deng Xiaoping and Barbra Streisand to Salvador Dali and Yasser Arafat.

Both father and son have sat down with the long-time Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Chris Wallace's testy 2018 interview, in which he pressed the stern-faced Mr Putin on US election interference and the deaths of his political opponents, drew a huge audience and earned Fox News its first Emmy nomination.

Named Christopher because he was born on Columbus Day in Chicago in 1947, Wallace's parents separated when he was an infant and he was raised by his mother, Norma Kaphan, and stepfather, Bill Leonard, a journalist who would become president of CBS News.

Mike Wallace only came back into Chris's life when he was 14 years old - after his older son, Chris's brother, fell off a cliff while hiking in Greece.

At Harvard, Chris Wallace reported for the student radio station WHRB. When young protesters occupied University Hall in 1969 he was there to cover it. And when he was detained and taken to jail along with them, he used his only phone call to file a report, signing off with youthful bravado: "This is Chris Wallace in custody."

Image source, TASS/Getty Images
Image caption,
A tough 2018 interview with Vladimir Putin earned Fox News its first Emmy nomination

He joined NBC News in 1975, later becoming chief White House correspondent, co-anchor of the Today show and host of Meet the Press. He moved to ABC News in 1989 before joining Fox in 2003 as the host of Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.

The registered Democrat (who says that was only to vote in local elections and that he's voted for politicians from both main parties) has refrained from publicly criticising some of his more bombastic and partisan colleagues but told the New York Times earlier this year: "Look I work at Fox. Do I agree with some of the stuff I hear? Absolutely not."

But he insists that he has editorial freedom on his show. "I don't pull punches, I'm not playing favourites," he said. "That's what matters ultimately to me."

Wallace has described his job as being like a "cop on the beat, walking around with a nightstick and trying to keep people honest". That has not gone down well with President Trump, who has frequently denigrated the journalist on Twitter, calling him "nasty" and saying he will "never be his father".

Wallace, meanwhile, has accused the president of engaging in "the most direct, sustained assault on freedom of the press in our history".

Mr Trump has already tried to suggest the 2020 debate won't be fair. But Wallace's history suggests he will ask probing questions of both candidates.

"I take it very seriously," he said in 2016 before the Clinton-Trump debate. "This is not a TV show. This is part of civics, the constitution, if you will, in action, because this is helping millions of people decide who we're going to elect as the next president".