Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace says he is as shocked and troubled by President Donald Trump's attacks on the news media as everyone else, but he warned White House reporters against responding to the President's invective in kind.
That came in a speech Wednesday (Oct. 24) at the Media Institute's Free Speech America Gala in Washington. Wallace was accepting the Institute's Freedom of Speech Award.
"Will we look back on our coverage with pride—or regret?," he asked. "Will we say we played our role as impartial observers—or as players who crossed the line into advocacy? During a time of divisive, tribal politics—did we fall into our own tribal news coverage?"
"Having grown up in journalism—having spent half a century as a reporter—you can imagine how I felt when I saw that Trump tweet on February 17th of last year," said Wallace. “The fake news media (failing NY Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN) is not my enemy. "It is the enemy of the American people.” To say I never imagined the President of the United States would say that about a free, vigorous, adversarial press is a big understatement."
Wallace associated himself with the response to that tweet by retired Admiral Bill McRaven, former head of the U.S. Special Forces, who headed up the missions that captured Saddam Hussein and killed Osama bin Laden. "It turns out McRaven graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in journalism," Wallace said. "And here’s what he said: 'Both the President and I swore an oath to the Constitution. And the First Amendment of that Constitution is freedom of the press. When the President says the media is the enemy of the people, to me that undermines the Constitution. So I do think it is a tremendous threat to our democracy.'"
But he said more alarming still was that the public had bought into that presidential narrative. "A Gallup Poll in June on attitudes towards the media—found 69 percent said their trust had decreased," he said. "An Axios poll found 70 percent of Americans now agree—“traditional major news sources report news—they know to be fake, false, or purposely misleading.”
Wallace said that journalists can't stop the the President's tweeting, particularly when that line of attack seems to be working so well. But the reaction of too many journalists has been to take the "exactly wrong approach" of responding to the President's bashing with attacks of their own.
He said he is fine with fact checking, "calling balls and strikes. That's our job." But he said he saw news reports coming out of the White House, both TV and print, that are more opinion than fact. "When we fall into that trap, we are playing the President's game."
But Wallace also suggested this too shall pass. "Let’s remember: Donald Trump may be larger than life. But all of us have seen Presidents come and go. They capture the spotlight—grab the nation’s attention—and then pass from the scene. And we need to think where our business will be when Mr. Trump is no longer in the White House."
Wallace said the stakes are, referring to the final column of murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which talked about repression of free speech and press in much of the Arab world. “Arabs living in those countries are either uninformed or misinformed," Wallace said, quoting from the column. "They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative.”
Wallace said he could not see that happening in the U.S. anytime soon, but said "when 70% of our fellow Americans believe major news outlets “report stories they know to be fake”—It is past time to be vigilant."
The Media Institute is a nonprofit First Amendment think tank supported by media outlets.
Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.
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