Wallace departure from Fox seen as loss for the network

Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceWolf Blitzer will host an evening newscast on CNN's streaming service Audie Cornish hired by CNN, will host show and podcast on streaming service The five biggest media stories of 2021 MORE’s surprise departure Sunday from Fox News has shaken up the Washington media landscape and prompted new questions about the direction of the network’s news programming as one of its most trusted journalists leaves for its fiercest competitor.

Wallace has been a staple of the Beltway media for decades, spending the past 18 years helming “Fox News Sunday,” where his tough-but-fair reputation has earned him credibility from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in addition to his coverage of the past five presidential elections, the last of which had him at the center of one of the most chaotic and erratic debates in recent history.

Wallace, 74, shocked audiences at the end of Sunday morning’s broadcast when he announced it would be his last and that he was leaving Fox News effective immediately. Later that morning, CNN announced Wallace would be joining its new streaming service as a weekday anchor early next year.

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Fox News has already circulated a rotating roster of journalists it plans to cycle through in the interim to host one of a handful of premiere Sunday morning political talk shows. Potential guest anchors include Bret Baier, Martha MacCallum, John Roberts, Neil Cavuto and Bill Hemmer, to name a few.

But experts say Wallace’s exit leaves an undeniable hole in the network’s political coverage.

“It means that [Fox has] lost a very important and significant part of their brand, but it may be a part of their brand that has fallen out of favor with a large part of their audience,” said Frank Sesno, former director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at the George Washington University.

“His presence gave Fox News some cover to say it was doing some legit journalism and giving everyone a run for their money. His departure deprives them of that,” Sesno said.

Network spokespeople and executives regularly rebuff criticism of its opinion programming by pointing to the strength of its hard news team, which includes Baier and MacCallum, who helmed Election Day coverage.

And even without Wallace, who hosted the one-hour Sunday show while appearing on other shows and Fox News's election coverage, the network has a deep bench of old-school journalists, from figures such as Baier and Roberts but also the congressional reporter Chad Pergram, the security correspondent Jennifer Griffin, foreign correspondent Trey Yingst and White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich.

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Fox earned kudos on Election Night 2020 when it called Arizona for then-Democratic candidate Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Romney tests positive for coronavirus Pelosi sidesteps progressives' March 1 deadline for Build Back Better MORE before other networks made the projection. Fox stood by its call for days even as other outlets waited for more results until it was ultimately called for Biden, helping hand him the presidency.

Yet that also led to headaches, as then-President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer chairman of Wisconsin GOP party signals he will comply with Jan. 6 committee subpoena Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon tells Russia to stand down Billionaire GOP donor maxed out to Manchin following his Build Back Better opposition MORE was left incensed by the network’s decision.

Fox’s opinion hosts, including its prime-time stars, meet a regular wave of criticism from media watchdogs, Democrats and at times even some Republicans for rhetoric about the COVID-19 pandemic, the outcome of the 2020 election and portrayal of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

With the departure of Wallace and other figures known for their reporting, such as Shepard Smith, critics say Fox is increasingly defined by its opinion hosts overshadowing its news operation.

“Fox News used people like Shep and Chris and Bret Baier to say, ‘Look, we have a news division. Yes, we have our entertainment side, but we also have news people,’” political commentator S.E. Cupp said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” the morning of Wallace’s announcement.  

“When you have this carve-out and say 'look at someone like Chris Wallace as evidence that we’re in this sort of clean category,' but then you don’t protect him from attacks inside the building, it’s no wonder he wanted to leave and do something new,” she said.

Cupp is a contributor for CNN, a big competitor to Fox that regularly airs criticism of Fox's lineup.

CNN itself has come under some criticism from opinion seeping into its coverage. The network parted ways with anchor Chris CuomoChris CuomoThe five biggest media stories of 2021 Wallace departure from Fox seen as loss for the network Broader implications of Chris Cuomo's departure from CNN MORE earlier this month after it became clear he had advised his brother, former New York Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoJudge strikes down New York's indoor mask mandate Hochul raises .6 million since launching gubernatorial campaign Former aide says she felt 'abandoned' by Democrats who advanced Garcetti nomination as ambassador to India MORE, about how to handle sexual harassment allegations.

John Malone, a member of the board of Discovery Inc., which is merging with CNN, has recently gotten attention for comments to CNBC in which he said he would "like to see CNN evolve back" to the journalism it started with and noted that Fox News had been successful in distinguishing news from opinion.

Within Fox, there have been signs of tension between the news and opinion sides. 

Wallace was reportedly among some Fox News personnel who shared objections to a recent documentary produced by prime-time opinion host Tucker CarlsonTucker CarlsonConservative pundit who left Fox News signs with NBC Soros group pushes back on Tucker Carlson documentary Is it journalism if the 'news' is crafted to fit audiences' biases? MORE that attempted to cast the Jan. 6 riot by Trump supporters in an alternative light. It featured at least one subject who suggested it had been a “false flag” operation. 

The documentary spurred the resignation of two long-time network contributors, Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes.

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The network’s defenders point to continued strong ratings, and they dispute that Wallace’s exit leaves behind a dearth of strong reporting.

“We are extremely proud of our journalism and the stellar team that Chris Wallace was a part of for 18 years. The legacy of FOX News Sunday will continue with our star journalists, many of whom will rotate in the position until a permanent host is named,” the network said in a statement Sunday.

Fox has previously handled departures of its top talent with varying levels of success. When former prime-time host Bill O’Reilly was forced out of the network in 2017 amid allegations of sexual harassment, he was quickly replaced with Carlson, whose segments attacking Democrats and so-called elite members of Hollywood and the media have earned him the designation of highest-rated cable news host in the country. 

The network has not named a full-time replacement for its 7 p.m. opinion hour after Martha MacCallum’s “The Story” was moved in January from that time slot to 3 p.m. on weekdays, but the program averages 2 million viewers a night, leading the competition.

Wallace in recent years sought to steadfastly avoid any commentary on what was happening elsewhere at the network, even as he was at one point the subject of criticism from one of its own opinion hosts.

“Look, I work at Fox. Do I agree with some of the stuff I hear? Absolutely not,” Wallace told The New York Times last year.

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Wallace has been adamant that Fox never interfered with his interviews or with guests he did and did not choose to book, something he reiterated in his sign-off message on Sunday.

“I have been free to report to the best of my ability, to cover the stories I think are important, to hold our country’s leaders to account,” Wallace said. “It’s been a great ride.”

Jane Hall, a former regular contributor at Fox and now a professor at American University specializing in media and politics, called Wallace’s departure a “significant loss for serious news people.” 

“Everybody is going to be watching what kind of person they bring in,” Hall said of a potential Wallace replacement at Fox. “It really has to do with, what does the Murdoch family want this network to be? ... This has real implications for our democracy, and so far they seem to be listening to the ratings.” 

This story was updated at 1:52 p.m.