Son of '60 Minutes' icon makes his own mark at Fox News

Moments before airtime, the computer at the Fox News Channel’s Washington bureau crashes, much to the consternation of frazzled network staffers. Host Chris Wallace, a seasoned journalist, remains poised despite the technical glitch, improvising for several seconds when a video fails to cue.

It’s a recent Sunday morning, and Wallace arrives at the bureau at the ungodly hour of 4:15 a.m. to speak with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by satellite from Jerusalem about the situation in Iraq. This isn’t his usual routine, but it’s one he’ll gladly follow to chase down the important story of the day.

 
 


Later, he discusses the United Nations with former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). To finish, he moderates a panel debate on recent controversial comments by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). A man of refined taste, Wallace wears a French-cuffed shirt with gold cufflinks.

Since taking over “Fox News Sunday” from Tony Snow in December 2003, Wallace has cultivated a noticeably younger audience than other Sunday shows. For the Rice program, for example, the median age of his viewers is more than seven years younger than that of ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” the program with the next youngest viewership.

Unlike Stephanopoulos and NBC’s “Meet the Press” host, Tim Russert, who began their careers as spokespeople for politicians, Wallace got his start in journalism. “I like my background,” he says, explaining that his lack of experience as a spinmeister doesn’t make him less of an interviewer.

Wallace, 57, was born in Chicago, the son of CBS “60 Minutes” icon Mike Wallace. A father of six, the younger Wallace lives with his wife, Loraine, in the Washington area.

He got his first taste of journalism in 1964 when he worked at both national conventions. After graduating from Harvard in 1969 — in the same class as Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones — Wallace was accepted to Yale Law School but took a job with The Boston Globe. “If I was ever going to do print,” he recalls his thinking at the time, “I should do it from the start.”

Wallace says some wondered to what degree his father’s name helped him land the job with the Globe. “It was never enough of a concern for me to stop me from doing it,” he says. After a short time, Wallace broke several stories and made his own name as a journalist.

Wallace still remembers the moment when he realized he wanted to move to television journalism. During the 1972 presidential conventions, while serving as national reporter for the Globe, he noticed that all of his fellow reporters were watching the proceedings on television rather than in person. The power of television became apparent to him.

Wallace moved to WNBC-TV in New York City in 1975 and stayed with NBC through the end of the next decade. From 1982 through 1989, he served as chief White House correspondent for the network, during which he moderated “Meet the Press” for the 1987-’88 season.

“It’s a different world,” Wallace says, comparing his experience at “Meet the Press” to his show on Fox. “The packaging of politicians has become even more sophisticated.” As a result, he says, the interviewer must get the politician off-message by throwing questions from different angles.

In 1989, Wallace moved to ABC News, where he was a substitute host on “Nightline” and senior correspondent on “Primetime Thursday.” Reflecting on his 2003 move from ABC to Fox News, Wallace says he didn’t forsake objectivity in favor of a more pointed view.

“When I was at ABC and NBC, I had always thought we were ‘fair and balanced.’” In retrospect, he now believes that many of his colleagues in the so-called “mainstream media” held a number of “unexamined assumptions.”

Wallace says he and the “Fox News Sunday” panel spent as much time dissecting Frist’s comments on Terri Schiavo as they did debating Durbin’s comparison of the tactics used in Guantanamo Bay to those of the Nazis and Stalin. Wallace sees the panel of Brit Hume, Bill Kristol, Mara Liasson and Juan Williams as the greatest advantage of the show.

“They have tremendous credibility,” an obviously biased Wallace remarks.

Still, Wallace admits that finding the balance between entertainment and content can be difficult. “You want to have light, not just heat,” he remarks. Nonetheless, he adds, “They are performers.”