Obama, McCain, Pelosi on the death of Walter CronkiteContinue reading.
Chris Wallace reflects on key ‘father figures’ — plus 50 years in broadcast news
Newsman Chris Wallace will celebrate his 50th anniversary in the broadcasting industry this summer — dating back to his first job working as a “gofer” for the legendary Walter Cronkite at the Republican National Convention in 1964. The Chicago-born son of “60 Minutes” icon Mike Wallace and stepson of onetime CBS News president Bill Leonard, Wallace himself has carved out an award-winning career as a reporter and anchor for CBS, NBC and ABC — currently hosting Fox News Sunday, as he has since 2003. Actually Wallace’s first full-time TV job in news was working as a reporter for WBBM-TV in Chicago, 1973-75.
Recently, I chatted with Wallace about his long career and his thoughts about the news business and how it’s evolved over the past half-century.
Q: How do you feel about reaching this amazing benchmark in the news business?
A: Yeah, the 50th is a little made-up. But even though I started as a gofer for Cronkite when I was 16, I’ve been in the business for 50 years.
Q: You had two father figures who were broadcast news giants — your dad, Mike Wallace, and your stepfather, Bill Leonard. What was the best advice they each gave you about the business?
A: I would say with my stepfather, with Bill Leonard, it was that life is marathon, not a sprint. He shared the idea there will be lots of ups and downs in both one’s career and personal lives — and that the ups as heady as you think they are, and the downs are not as depressing. So, just keep plugging away.
With my father, it was the idea of preparation and hard work. He always felt there were a lot of people who had more innate talent than he did, but if you out-worked them, you could beat them.
Q: You were born in Chicago, and of course, also grew up in New York, but when you think about Our Town, what comes to mind?
A: It’s such a great city. I’ve really lived in four cities in my life: New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington. I think more than any of the others, Chicago is the great American city. When we think of an American city and the melting-pot aspect and all the different ethnic groups. I don’t know if it’s still true, but when I lived in Chicago in the early 1970s, there more Greeks in Chicago than any city in the world except Athens; and more Poles in Chicago than any city but Warsaw. One of the things I loved about Chicago was the ethnic vibrancy of the city. You could go into a part of town and the language was different, and the faces were different. So it was melting pot, but all the differences hadn’t melted away entirely, so you had this sense of groups. It was also a wonderful city to be in the news business. WBBM was my first television job and I was the political reporter there. I covered Richard J. Daley — and that was like a time capsule of a great old political machine.
Q: So much has been made about gridlock in Washington. You’ve observed that first hand. What do you think can be done — if anything — to change that?
A: I have been in Washington for more than 35 years, and I do think it’s worse than I’ve ever seen it before. Not that there haven’t been huge divisions in the past over wars and scandals and principles. But the center has disappeared in American politics. I think a lot of it has to do — particularly in the House [of Representatives] — with the fact that districts have been drawn so scientifically, it’s almost impossible for the other party to win in each individual district. I think of the 232 seats that Republicans hold in the House, 215 of the 232 were carried by Romney. So if you’re one of those Republicans who won in those seats, you’re not worried the Democrats. The only concern you have is a primary and that you’re going to be opposed by someone who is even more conservative than you. So, as a result, politically, from your point of view, there’s nothing to be gained by reaching to the center and making a deal [on an issue] and there’s everything to be lost by doing that. The smart political move — maybe not the responsible, statesmanlike move for the country — is to vote even further to the right.
And the same goes for the Democrats. I’m a believer in two reforms that they’ve got in California. One is that the redistricting every 10 years, when a new census comes out, should be done by an independent commission, and not by the politicians. So there’s more of a chance it will equally benefit both parties and include a variety of ethnic groups as well. At least you’re not scientifically calibrating a district that only one party can win.
And the other thing I like they do in California is they have open primaries. So the top two vote-getters face each other in the general election in November. Again it gives people an incentive to be more inclusive. You can’t go too far to the right or left and appeal only to your base, because you need votes from the other side and from the independents. So there’s an incentive to reach out and moderate your views.
I think it’s a terrible problem, and it’s an institutional problem, and it is going to require an institutional fix.
Q: You followed in your father and Bill Leonard’s footsteps. Are any of your children so inclined to follow you into the news business?
A: Not the slightest. I’ve got four of my own and two stepchildren who I regard as my children. None of them have shown the slightest interest in the news business. Maybe it’s something I did wrong, but it might also be because the news business has changed so much. Back when I went into it in the ‘60s, it was a pretty stable business, in the sense there were three networks and there were a half-dozen major newspapers. But now, it’s gotten so split up, that I think my kids have seen me have to negotiate the rapids of the media business and don’t know if it’s looked all that attractive to them.
Q: You are the only person who has had an anchoring role on two Sunday morning news shows. How do you see the role of the Sunday morning shows and how that’s evolved?
A: The reason it’s such a joy to be the anchor of a Sunday news show is that unlike in so much of the news business you have to almost apologize for being serious — for talking about policy. There’s a pressure to get off it as quickly as possible. The Sunday morning shows are the places were policy and serious subjects and in-depth interviews are desirable. That’s why people tune in to a Sunday talk show. You can talk in depth, you can talk seriously about issues. It’s more about light than heat, and you make no apologies for it. It’s sort of a self-selecting audience. It’s an audience that doesn’t want stunts, doesn’t want flash, they want a serious discussion of issues by serious people. It’s a joy to be presiding over that.
Q: How do you see the impact of celebrity culture on the news business?
A: I am amazed at how the weekday evening news have been influenced by that. I’ll say it, I believe in old-fashioned news gathering and the way you cover a story in depth. That’s why I love anchoring a Sunday show. People are tuning in to see the picture of the week, or what’s trending online or some Internet YouTube video. I’m frankly disheartened by some of the stuff I see creeping into newscasts. The weekday morning television shows have really been overrun by it, and I am kind of disheartened to see it creeping into the evening, weekday news. Walter Cronkite, my first boss, would not be happy to see what’s happening in the evening newscasts.
Q: Speaking of Walter Cronkite, what was it like to be a 16-year-old kid getting a front row seat to watch him at work?
A: It wasn’t just him. The anchor booth at the 1964 Republican Convention outside San Francisco was amazing. Along with Walter Cronkite, there was Eric Severeid. Fred Friendly was the head of the news division. My stepfather, Bill Leonard, was the head of the election unit and the person executive producing the coverage. Then there was Robert Traut, Roger Mudd… I feel very blessed to have had that kind of grounding, training and experience. I don’t think at [age] 16 you think ‘I will really live by these values, ‘but they do become a part of your life and a part of who you are.