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Television

He’s no potted plant: With steady debate performance, Chris Wallace shows path forward for Fox News

Chris Wallace
Fox News anchor and debate moderator Chris Wallace at the third presidential debate last month in Las Vegas.
(Getty Images)

Bad hombres. Nasty women. Puppets. 

There were a lot of instantly meme-able moments in the third and (mercifully) final presidential debate Wednesday in Las Vegas.

But one of the most significant exchanges of the night was almost lost in the din. About 30 minutes in, as an argument between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton regarding Vladimir Putin spiraled out of control, moderator Chris Wallace intervened.

I’m not a potted plant here,” said the “Fox News Sunday” anchor. “I do get to ask some questions.” 

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And that he did. 

At the tail end of an election that has increasingly felt like the pilot for the world’s worst reality show (on Wednesday, Trump invited Sarah Palin and President Obama’s estranged half-brother as his guests), Wallace facilitated a debate that was unusually heavy on the substance.

Unlike other moderators this season -- particularly NBC’s Lester Holt, who was criticized for being too hands-off in his approach -- Wallace also managed to rein in Trump and Clinton, a feat akin to wrangling two feral alley cats coated in Crisco, while asking pointed, well-prepared follow-up questions. 

For all the personal rancor and intimations of civic unrest, this was also a debate with some wonkish discussions of policy. At points it even verged on boring, which in a campaign that’s been entertaining but hardly enlightening, is far more of a compliment than it normally would be. 

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As the first Fox News personality to moderate a general election debate, Wallace would have faced tremendous scrutiny under any circumstance. But given the well-documented turmoil at Fox News, and the complicated relationships between Trump, prime-time star Megyn Kelly and ousted founder Roger Ailes, who is reportedly advising the GOP candidate, Wednesday night’s debate had the potential to be as uncomfortable as a Tudor family reunion. 

Instead, Wallace’s steady performance, praised by observers from all ends of the political spectrum, assured that the big winner was neither Clinton nor Trump, but the anchor’s embattled network. (And not just because it handily won in the ratings, drawing 11 million viewers.) 

The 69-year-old Wallace is roughly the same age as the average Fox News viewer. A second-generation newsman (his father was famously pugilistic “60 Minutes” correspondent Mike Wallace, while his stepfather Bill Leonard was the head of CBS News in the early 1980s), he has been in the business for five decades, and at Fox for 13 years. 

In other words, he doesn’t exactly qualify as a rising star, yet his moderate approach suggests a path forward for a news network in transition after a scandal-plagued year and facing increased competition from more extreme right-wing media outlets (including, if numerous reports are to be believed, Trump TV.) 

From the starting pistol, when he asked about the Supreme Court, Wallace focused on issues that while not exactly overlooked were nevertheless important: immigration, guns, the economy. 

Some pundits felt that Wallace, though evenhanded in his treatment of the candidates, prioritized conservative issues. For instance, in the final segment of the night -- and by extension, the election -- Wallace focused on the national debt and entitlement reform; meanwhile climate change was absent from all three presidential debates. But if Wallace’s questions reflected concerns perhaps more typical of the Fox News audience, they were also relevant and weighty enough to earn rare bipartisan consensus around his performance. 

Like a dad scolding unruly kids in the back seat during a family road trip, Wallace even tried mightily to quell the audience, which erupted into laughter when Trump proclaimed that “nobody has more respect for women than I do.” 

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Would you believe they seemed to listen?   

If this is the new face of Fox News, it’s arrived just in time. 


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