How Fox’s Chris Wallace Became Irrelevant

Eric Boehlert

by Eric Boehlert

You think the Obama White House hit a nerve over the weekend when it purposefully left Fox News Sunday off the president’s generous list of Sunday talk-show appearances?

The subsequent whining and childish name-calling from Fox News Sunday‘s Chris Wallace became incessant and, of course, revealed more about the bitter and bruised host than it did the White House. No doubt the pity party that the thin-skinned journalist threw for himself in the wake of the embarrassing snub was genuine. But it went on for so many days and became so consuming that it seemed there was more to it than Wallace being forced to watch the Obama newsmaking parade from the sidelines. I think the slow-motion temper tantrum perhaps reflected Wallace’s larger realization that his days of being taken seriously as a journalist are fading and that he can no longer be associated with the collectively unhinged Fox News family and maintain any dignity in the process. (Wallace’s Sunday program airs on Fox TV, the entertainment sister to Fox News.)

Wallace realizes his days of having it both ways — of being able to cash Rupert Murdoch’s annual seven-figure checks without being tarred by Fox News’ unique brand of idiocy — are over, that the jig is up. Not only does the White House not care about Wallace’s perennially last-place Sunday show, which functions as an in-house RNC broadcast and is watched by about as many people, but there’s little indication that Wallace is still viewed as an important player within the Beltway press crowd.

His nonentity status has been hastened by Fox TV’s unprecedented decision this year to essentially ban the president of the United States from its prime-time broadcasting, to refuse to carry not only nighttime presidential press conferences, but even the president’s recent address to a joint-session of Congress. (Question: Will Fox TV air next year’s State of the Union address? I have my doubts.)

In the past, Wallace starred in those types of telecasts. But no more. With Fox TV’s entire national "news" operation now consisting of a last-place, 60-minute Sunday morning talk show, Wallace has been relegated to the sidelines.

It’s every celebrity journalist’s worst nightmare, and it’s come true for Chris Wallace: He’s become irrelevant. And that’s a nasty career tumble for somebody once pegged as a possible nightly news anchor.

Once upon a time, Wallace stood out as Rupert Murdoch’s Serious Person. He was among the very few Fox stars who came over from a rival network news team. (Wallace spent time at ABC as well as NBC.) And Wallace was seen as the adult supervising the Fox News romper room. Remember in 2008 when Wallace, on the air, slapped the wrists of Fox & Friends hosts for their relentless bashing of Obama?

But no more. Wallace in 2009 has become just another willing cog in the Fox misinformation machine. Wallace, who has been telling fellow journalists for years that he’s a "straight newsman," has ditched the outdated "fair and balanced" shtick and has given in to the Fox fever swamp.

To be realistic, it’s not like Wallace had any kind of choice. Short of resigning, that is. Because of the radical changes that Fox News has embraced this year with the arrival of Glenn Beck and the unvarnished hate and paranoia he peddles, it’s been impossible for Wallace to stick to his old above-it-all script from days gone by. There’s no longer a middle ground for Wallace to occupy within the Fox family. You either drink the Kool-Aid there or you don’t. And it’s obvious that Wallace, especially with his comically distorted "death book for veterans" fiasco from a few weeks back, is willing to play along with whatever warped brand of so-called journalism Roger Ailes is now peddling.

Either Wallace is completely comfortable with the new Fox News — where the president is attacked relentlessly around the clock via bogus "news reports," where guest rosters are routinely stacked in favor of conservatives, where the news organization sponsors purely political rallies, and where hosts routinely demonize the president of the United States as a racist Nazi — or Wallace is uncomfortable with it.

The silence from Wallace so far this year has been deafening, which means he clearly supports what Fox News is doing.

And again, we know that in the past, Wallace wasn’t shy about calling out what he considered to be egregious Obama-bashing by Fox News. We know that because in March 2008 (when the host was trolling around for a Fox News Sunday interview with Obama), Wallace appeared on Fox News and expressed his irritation after having listened to a morning full of nonstop attacks on the Democratic candidate. "I think you’re somewhat distorting what Obama had to say," he told the Fox News hosts. "I didn’t think it was fair," Wallace subsequently told The New York Observer. "I didn’t think we were providing the full context of what [Obama] was saying."

Today, of course, Fox News bashes Obama hour after hour, week after week, and month after month. Today, Fox News unfairly rips quotes and facts out of context pretty much as the newsroom rule, yet it’s crickets from Wallace, who sits quietly. Ever since Fox News’ meal ticket Beck arrived, Wallace has had almost nothing to say about anchors and commentators who are not "fair" to Obama or who are "distorting what Obama had to say."

By contrast, Fox News anchor Shepard Smith had the courage and the decency earlier this year to call out the right-wing "crazies" on the fringe who targeted Obama and were feeding off incessant, conspiratorial hatred — hate "that’s not based in fact," as Smith stressed. (Naturally, right-wingers online immediately called for Smith’s firing.) At least that Fox anchor expressed a commonsense concern about what that kind of raw, irrational hostility does to a democracy. But not Wallace. He knows to sit on his hands and to keep his mouth shut.

Except, of course, when he’s not busy spreading nonsense like the charade about the "death book," an absolutely absurd conspiracy theory that Wallace must have known came without even the faintest hint of reality to it. (Here’s the theory: In order to contain health care costs, the federal government under Obama is using a booklet on end-of-life counseling to urge U.S. veterans to kill themselves; it’s trying to convince them that their lives aren’t worth living.)

It was the type of patented foolery you’d expect a proud partisan like Sean Hannity to push. But it was Wallace who signed on as the smear’s chief sponsor. It was Wallace who sat through two Fox News Sunday segments teasing out purposefully ignorant questions about how bureaucrats were trying to off veterans. Wallace played dumb like it was an Olympic sport. While the other Sunday shows were at least trying to engage in actual civic debate, Wallace spent his Sunday clowning on air.

And as a bonus, Wallace may have made the single dumbest statement uttered on a Sunday-morning talk show this year. Playing dumb, Wallace wanted to know why anyone would think about end-of-life counseling unless they’re, you know, dying [emphasis added]:

Usually people don’t even contemplate end of life until they’re in an irreversible coma.

Flash to Wallace: When somebody slides into in "an irreversible coma," it’s a little late for them to begin end-of-life counseling.

With the "death book" production, Wallace didn’t merely engage in lazy journalism or allow his guest to sidestep important questions, he served as archetype — as a co-sponsor — of the debacle. He plucked the story (a smear campaign, really) from relative obscurity, and then he trampled the facts in hopes of launching the story nationally.

To me, the "death book" nonsense marked a new low for Wallace. And who knows? It may have marked the tipping point in terms of when the White House wrote off Fox News Sunday as a serious enterprise. The insult-to-injury part for Wallace professionally, though, was that the soggy "death book" plot went nowhere. The stupid conspiracy theory had a shelf life of about 36 hours, as not even the fact-free denizens of the GOP Noise Machine could hoist the lame story off the ground.

Honestly, though, I can see why Wallace was grasping at the "death book" straw: His Sunday morning ratings remain dismal, and if the phony controversy had taken flight, maybe he could have boosted his shaky viewership, which, over the summer, reached astonishing lows, even for Wallace. In fact, he hit the ratings basement just weeks before the "death book" nonsense aired, which makes me wonder if alarms had gone off inside the producers’ offices at Fox News Sunday, and if perhaps that’s why a desperate Wallace agreed to push the "death book" smear in a naked attempt to manufacture some (right-wing) buzz.

Why the panic? For its August 2 telecast, Wallace’s show attracted just 924,000 viewers.

It’s hard to explain just how difficult it is to air the same program for more than a decade on affiliated television stations all across the country, as Fox has with Fox News Sunday, and have that show fail to attract at least 1 million viewers in some weeks. With the dormant Fox News Sunday, Wallace has defied the television odds. (An often-forgotten fact: Wallace briefly hosted NBC’s Meet the Press in the years before Tim Russert turned the Sunday program around and built it into a ratings powerhouse.)

In a business built on ratings and "gets" (i.e. landing the most newsworthy guests, such as Obama), Wallace has neither.

Of course, it’s not the ratings woes that have done the most damage to Wallace’s reputation this year. (He’s been plagued by those for most of this decade.) It’s Fox News’ relentless campaigns of turbo-misinformation. And the fact that Wallace has loyally signed up for duty. That’s why, as a newsman, he’s become irrelevant.

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Source: Media Matters for America