Tonight’s final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton isn’t just a test for the candidates — the stakes are also high for moderator Chris Wallace and the network he represents.
Wallace will be the first-ever Fox News moderator for a presidential debate, and his moment comes at a crucial time for his network. It’s been a wild 14 months since Wallace and co-moderators Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly hosted the first Republican primary debate in August 2015. The faceoff became the most-watched non-sporting event in cable history, with 24 million viewers, and helped establish Trump as a viable contender.
But Kelly’s tough grilling of Trump about his treatement of women sparked a long on-and-off spat between Trump and Fox News. (His treatment of women would turn out to be one of the biggest issues of the 2016 campaign.) That fight helped fuel questions about whether Trump might start a rival to Fox News.
Meanwhile, Fox News chief Roger Ailes stepped down in disgrace following accusations about his own treatment of women — and soon became an adviser to Trump.
Moderating a debate is hard enough — and it’s even harder given Trump’s tendency to work the refs by accusing moderators of siding with Clinton. But Wallace’s job is even trickier. He needs to demonstrate his network’s ability to deliver fair and balanced journalism, and prove he hasn’t been rattled by Fox News’ tumultuous year.
He also has to deal with criticisms that he has an innate conflict of interest because Ailes, his former boss, later aligned with Trump. (And there’s always the whole live-up-to-his-father’s-legacy thing.)
But here’s the good news for Wallace: He’s been preparing his whole life for this moment. He delivers strong ratings on his show, “Fox News Sunday.” And he’s never seemed inclined to let anyone push him around.
Here are the five things he needs to do to succeed.
1. Make Fox News look good
Wallace knows any sign of bias could hurt Fox News journalists’ chances of moderating future debates. Though network is best known for a primetime lineup of right-leaning opinion shows, its journalists pledge to be fair and balanced. Wallace has refused to allow Donald Trump to call in, saying he should sit down for a formal grilling. And he landed the first interview with Clinton after she secured the Democratic nomination.
2. Let the candidates debate… but don’t forget to fact-check
ABC’s Martha Raddatz argued with Trump over military tactics in the second debate, and some pundits and media critics said she should have left it up to Clinton to fact-check her opponent. On the other hand, NBC’s Matt Lauer was widely criticized for his failure in a town hall to question Donald Trump’s claim that he opposed the Iraq invasion all along.
Wallace has to strike a perfect balance between staying out of the candidates’ way and pressing them on errors and falsehoods.
3. Make them answer the questions
During the second debate, CNN’s Anderson Cooper repeatedly asked Trump a tough question about whether he had assaulted women until the candidate was finally forced to give a flat denial. The candidates have been trained to quickly address questions and then go into safe, boilerplate speeches. Wallace shouldn’t let them.
4. Be fair to Clinton
Anyone who wants to be president should face intense scrutiny. But if Wallace is harder on Clinton than he is on Trump, voters and pundits will point to his affiliations with Fox News and Ailes to accuse him of bias.
A Fox News rep told The Huffington Post that Ailes isn’t a factor: “Roger has zero influence on our news coverage as he’s no longer with the network,” the rep said.
5. Be fair to Trump
Trump seems to think everything is rigged these days — he famously declared during the last debate that it was three against one, meaning the two moderators and Clinton were ganging up on him. Wallace needs to be careful not to give Trump a reason to accuse him of unfairness, even though Trump will do that anyway, if he loses.