LOS ANGELES (CNNMoney) — Wednesday night, Chris Wallace, an Emmy award winner who has spent more than 40-years in broadcast journalism, will become the first Fox News host ever to moderate a presidential debate.
The presence of any Fox News personality on the presidential debate stage, even one with Wallace’s sterling reputation, would normally be cause for controversy and complaint among progressives who view anyone with the Fox imprimatur as inherently biased.
But in 2016, when the Republican presidential nominee is at war with his own party and Fox News is a network in transition, the issue is significantly more complicated.
Left-wing media watchdogs like Media Matters are mining Wallace’s archives for every controversial remark and whiff of bias in an effort to set expectations and work the refs, but their complaints have largely fallen on deaf ears. And Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party have been notably accepting of Wallace’s appointment as moderator.
There are several reasons why the 2016 campaign complicates longstanding liberal anxieties about Fox News.
First, Donald Trump is waging an all-out assault against that part of the Republican establishment that has long found quarter at Fox News and especially on “Fox News Sunday,” the public affairs program Wallace hosts. Trump’s embrace of far-right populism has left a number of Fox News’ voices — Sean Hannity not included — at a distance.
Second, Trump has also waged war against many of Wallace’s own colleagues, driving the wedge even deeper. He spent the Republican primaries badmouthing Megyn Kelly and also took shots at prominent Fox News contributors like Charles Krauthammer and George Will.
Third, as moderators of three GOP primary debates, Fox’s Wallace, Kelly and Bret Baier gave Republicans, including Trump, some of the hardest grillings they faced throughout the 2016 campaign cycle. Indeed, it was Wallace who won audience applause for challenging Trump over his claims that he could reduce the federal deficit — “your numbers don’t add up,” Wallace told Trump at one point — at the final Fox News debate.
Finally, and most importantly, Fox News is a network in transition. Though it is still a home for Trump boosters like Hannity, the 21st Century Fox brass that took over following Roger Ailes’ ouster has indicated that the network’s future belongs to journalists like Kelly, Baier and Wallace. So while Wallace will be looking to prove himself as a journalist on Wednesday night, Fox News will also be looking to him to demonstrate that it can be truly fair and balanced at the highest level.
On Sunday, Wallace said being moderator “means a lot personally,” but also “means something for Fox.”
“I’m the first Fox moderator to do a general election debate, and i’m very proud for the news organization,” he told Baier on “Fox News Sunday.” “I think it’s a recognition of the fact that we do serious journalism. Some critics say no, but you and I know we do, and here’s the Commission on Presidential Debates recognizing that.”
Liberal suspicions of Fox News are well-founded, and there are 20 years of evidence to point to. But the insinuation that Wallace might go easier on Trump or tougher on Clinton because he comes from Fox News is as baseless and unfounded as any insinuation that has been leveled in this campaign cycle.
Wallace is stepping onto the debate stage Wednesday night cognizant of his own reputation and that of his network, and he is likely to go above and beyond to be fair.
“I take it very seriously,” Wallace said Sunday. “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.”