Chris Wallace, Fox News Sunday
Before there was Fox News Channel, there was Fox News Sunday
. The Beltway-based Sunday discussion program celebrates its 11th anniversary on Fox stations this month. While it's still just knee-high to NBC's Meet the Press
(60 years) and CBS' Face the Nation
(52 years), it is part of the opinion-leading sphere of Sunday-morning programs — a tradition that survives in the age of 24-hour cable news and the Internet. Despite those other formats, Sunday-morning shows will provide defining moments for the candidates in the 2008 presidential campaign. The Biz talked with Fox News Sunday
moderator Chris Wallace
about his news organization's role in the long road to the White House.
TVGuide.com: Why do you think the Democratic candidates for president have pulled out of the debates cosponsored by Fox News?
Chris Wallace: I think there is a sense of empowerment on the part of the Democrats. They won [the House and Senate] and they're feeling their oats. In addition, I think the left wing of the party — and I'm talking about the "net roots" — have decided to try to put Democratic candidates through a kind of loyalty test. Part of that is not appearing on debates sponsored by Fox. The interesting thing is a number of the candidates continue to do interviews with Fox. But I think [party activists] made a loyalty test out of these debates.
TVGuide.com: Why do you think they are trying to marginalize Fox News? It really seems like some of the party activists are trying to make Fox News seem less legitimate.
Wallace: I don't think it's the presidential candidates. Frankly, I think they are pandering to that constituency. But they are sort of saying, "Look, we've mobilized, we've won and now you'll pay attention." I don't think it's a boycott of Fox in general. I think there has certainly been an effort by the left wing to try to get candidates not to participate in the debates, because they see the debates in some sense as a party endorsement of Fox. I think it's a somewhat different animal than appearing on Fox. Sen. Barack Obama appeared on Fox last week talking about a variety of issues with Carl Cameron. I think the debates are a special animal. When will it end? It will end when they need us. They'll need us when we get closer to the general election and [they] are going to want to reach the independents, moderate Republicans and Democrats who watch Fox News routinely and form the majority of our audience.
TVGuide.com: Do you think they have a case, in terms of feeling that Fox News Channel has been unfair to them?
Wallace: No more than I think Republicans have a case in saying that the mainstream media has been unfair to them.
TVGuide.com: Do you think the popularity of Fox's conservative commentators overshadows the straight news reporting?
Wallace: The people who want to misunderstand Fox will use some of the prime-time conservative commentators as an excuse. All I can do is base it not only on 2004, because I covered that presidential campaign, but also the last three years as the host of Fox News Sunday. Over the last three years we've had Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, Howard Dean repeatedly — I think they are able to distinguish between Fox News and the opinion shows. We don't have a problem booking Democrats at all. It didn't work out the way anyone expected, but we had Bill Clinton in September.
TVGuide.com: How do you think the events at Virginia Tech this week are going to affect the presidential campaign?
Wallace: I'd love to think it would cause a huge debate on a variety of subjects. My guess: unfortunately, it will be long forgotten by the time the primaries are held, let alone the general election. We move on, and our capacity to process unthinkable information and to accept and go on is disturbing. Something like this should force an examination of gun control, the mental-health treatment of young people, and school security. My guess is it will be swept under the rug six weeks or six months from now.
TVGuide.com: You don't think it will put gun control back on the front burner? The Democrats have decided it's a no-win for them.
Wallace: Exactly. I don't think it will change. It's a loser for them in marginal red states. One of the reasons they won the Congress is they nominated a number of freshmen Democrats in Republican districts.
TVGuide.com: They elected a senator in Virginia who's packing. Wallace: That's right. I don't see it as a crusade for the Democratic Party. They've come to the calculation, going back to 2000, that gun control is a political loser for them.
TVGuide.com: How are you feeling about the early start of the 2008 presidential campaign? Does it surprise you that the level of interest is so high at this early stage?
Wallace: I'm shocked by it. It was traditional that candidates announced around Labor Day the year before. What really bothers me is the frontloading of the primary process. That used to play out over six months.... I thought it was useful for the electorate to see the candidates over a period of time. We got to see how they dealt with the inevitable ups and downs and the crises of any campaign. Instead of deciding to get married after a first date you had to go out with them for a while. This time it seems almost inevitable that we'll have the candidates in both parties decided by some time in February after you have this mega-Super Tuesday. I think it's too soon. I don't think we're going to know enough about the candidates by then. I was in a sit-down session with President Bush — a number of the evening news and Sunday-morning anchors were there — and he said how important the prolonged primary process had been for him. It forced him to confront how badly he wanted to be president. It turned out to be a lot tougher than he thought it was going to be. He had to search his soul as to how important this was to him. The other thing he said was having to... find a place of quiet where you can make a tough decision while there was all this noise, which was very useful to him as a candidate and served him in good stead as a president. He felt this was bad for the process.
TVGuide.com: Do you think there will be a game-changing entrant in either party?
Wallace: I hope so. This race is beyond my wildest dreams. A year ago we didn't think of Barack Obama, but we were thinking, "What if Hillary Clinton had a real opponent?" We knew John McCain was going to run, but what if Rudolph Giuliani got in? And they've all gotten in. Now there's talk about Fred Thompson or Newt Gingrich or Al Gore. As a host of a Sunday-morning talk show, the more the merrier.