Chris Wallace faces challenges as debate moderator

Chris Wallace of Fox News will take on arguably his toughest role yet in his 50-plus years in broadcasting when he moderates the third and final presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on Wednesday.

{mosads}For the network, it marks the first time one of its anchors has been chosen to moderate a presidential debate in the general election.

Wallace has said he will not seek to be a participant in the third debate. 

He told his network colleague Bret Baier in his only pre-debate interview that if there’s need to intervene, he will, but he would “prefer not to.”

“Basically, you’re there as a timekeeper,” Wallace told Baier, who was filling in as “Fox News Sunday” host for him this week. “But you’re not a participant. You’re there just to make sure that they engage in the most interesting and fairest way possible.

“And I take it very seriously. It’s not a TV show that we’re doing.” 

The selection of Wallace is a source of pride for Fox in what’s been a tumultuous year for the cable news giant. Fox became one of the political news stories of the year after former chairman and CEO Roger Ailes left his post just 15 days after former host Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him. 

Ailes’s departure ushers in a new era for Fox where it is competing not only with CNN and MSNBC, but with new conservative powers such as Breitbart that have complicated the picture of political news.  

So far, the changes at Fox have done nothing to slow it. Through the first nine months of 2016, the network is enjoying its highest-rated year ever.

But all of that backstory means people will be watching Wallace closely on Wednesday night. 

Moderators in the first two debates both came under criticism for bias. 

NBC’s Lester Holt, for example, interrupted Donald Trump 41 times to Hillary Clinton’s seven, while fact-checking the Republican six times to Clinton’s zero.

ABC’s Martha Raddatz also received some blowback for openly debating Trump, even at one point going back and forth with the candidate on proper military strategy.

Wallace, because he works for Fox, will be expected by many to take a tougher approach to Clinton than the previous moderators. But Wallace also has a long history of challenging members of both parties. 

Former political reporter Erin McPike, most recently of CNN, sees Wallace as someone who will be tough on both candidates.

“He’s a tough questioner, and he’s the only Sunday show moderator who didn’t allow Trump to phone it in,” noted McPike. “Both sides may be frustrated with the questions, but it’s always better for the moderator to step back a bit.

“They’re called moderators rather than referees for a reason.”

Noah Rothman, the assistant online editor for Commentary Magazine, agrees.

“Wallace is a great interviewer. We will see if those skills translate in the job of moderating a debate, but he’s known as an honest broker,” Rothman said.

Rothman also believes Wallace’s plan to not jump in unless absolutely warranted is the right strategy.

“Martha Raddatz’s decision to act as a foil to Trump reflected poorly on her,” argued Rothman. “Wallace would be smart not to intervene unless brazen lies are being promulgated.”

But Jeff McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University, said that plan will be easier said than done from an execution standpoint.

“Wallace intends to not intervene, [but] evidence from the primary debate he helped host shows he might not be able to resist,” McCall said. “In one notable exchange with Ted Cruz, Cruz pointed out that panelists had asked questions that invited opponents to criticize the Texas senator.”

“Wallace shot back to Cruz, saying, ‘It’s a debate, sir,’ ” McCall recalled. “The problem for Wallace in this case was that he was not one of the debaters and should have left the candidates to attack Cruz without prompting, if they so chose.”

Still, McCall thinks Wallace is aware of the criticism prior moderators received after their respective debates.

“He has surely has heard the criticisms directed at Holt, Raddatz and [Anderson] Cooper for their ineffective attempts at moderating, so I would think Wallace would learn from their experience.”

Brian Flood, a media reporter for The Wrap, thinks Wallace coming from Fox News will mean extra scrutiny. 

“He’s a veteran reporter that knows any sign of bias could impact Fox News personalities moderating future debates,” argues Flood. “He knows how important it is to be the first moderator from Fox. He has been fair on ‘Fox News Sunday,’ not allowing Donald Trump to call in, and even landed the first interview with Hillary Clinton after she secured the nomination.

“That said, supporters of whichever candidate gets exposed in Las Vegas will surely blame Wallace.”

In the end, while Wallace is making history for the network, he hopes the reviews center on the candidates and not himself.

“If people say, ‘It was a great debate and I don’t remember you being there,’ I will have done my job.” 

Tags Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Ted Cruz

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