A master in the art of getting the story, Chris Wallace prepares for his broadcast of his weekly TV show Fox News Sunday.
If Chris Wallace handles Fox News Sunday with the expertise and presence of someone who’s been deeply immersed in television journalism—it’s because he has been. When he was 16, his stepfather, Bill Leonard, then president of CBS News, arranged for him to be a gofer at the 1964 Republican Convention for the legendary Walter Cronkite. Still only a teenager, he later visited the CBS News studio to meet Malcolm X with his father, 60 Minutes journalist Mike Wallace. At the 1980 Republican Convention as one of NBC’s floor reporters, he was first to reveal George H.W. Bush as presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s running mate. “I beat Leslie Stahl by 45 seconds,” he notes.
Now 66 and celebrating his 50th year in television, Wallace has won every major broadcast news accolade, including the Peabody Award, three Emmy Awards, and the 2013 Paul White Award for lifetime achievement and service to electronic journalism from the Radio Television Digital News Association. And he continues hosting Fox News Sunday, a top-rated weekly news show in a field so crowded that he likens booking guests to hosting a dinner party on a night when four other hosts in town are planning the same—and you all want the same people. Wallace says it was bad enough when he ran NBC’s Meet the Press from 1987 to 1988: “[Now] you’re not only competing against the Sunday shows [but also] against 24-hour cable, seven days a week.”
Chris Wallace interviews President Obama on events in Syria this past September.
He calls his current show “a work in progress all week”; as the news evolves, so does the list of potential guests to talk about it. “The challenge is figuring out during the week what would be of most interest to viewers on Sunday,” he says. “Obviously, the Navy Yard shooting [in September] was horrific. But it was on Monday. Would it still be pressing on Sunday?” (Following our interview, it wasn’t: His Sunday program focused on the budget and Syria.)
With both his father and his stepfather prominent in television journalism, Wallace chose the same career path. He got his formal start as a TV reporter at WBBM, the CBS affiliate in his hometown of Chicago, in January 1973. However, “for obvious reasons,” as he puts it—meaning that it would perhaps have smacked too much of nepotism—CBS is the one national news network at which he has not worked. He was 14 when he first got to know his then-estranged biological father; after that, he says, “I saw him at home, and I saw him on the air.” So how much did his late father influence him? “What I internalized was his work ethic: the standards you keep [and the way] you prepare for an interview in great depth, so that you can demonstrate to them, ‘If you try to fool me, I’ll catch you,’” Wallace says.
A 1987 letter to Pat and Richard Nixon from Ronald Reagan, who writes he may challenge Chris Wallace to arm wrestle.
Journalists differ in their quest for truth. Some extract information by massaging egos. Wallace is more adversarial—the word “grilling” comes up more times than at a barbecue. Even some of the memorabilia in his office have a combative flavor. His favorites include a photo of himself shooting hoops with Michael Jordan and two souvenirs from Ronald Reagan, one of Wallace’s political heroes. One keepsake is a copy of a letter from Reagan to Pat and Richard Nixon, with Reagan complaining that he had seen Wallace’s reporting, which portrayed him as “over the hill, and having to ask directions to the bathroom. I may challenge him to an arm wrestle.”
And when it comes to his show, Wallace is even-handed. “When I have a big Republican guest on the show I grill him,” he says. “When I have a big Democrat I grill him.” See? There goes the grilling again.