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Fox News' Chris Wallace Enters Spotlight As Debate Moderator


As we heard, tonight's debate will be moderated by Chris Wallace of "Fox News," and it's the first time a Fox News journalist will moderate a general election presidential debate. That makes it a milestone and a point of pride for the network, but it came at a time when Fox is still dealing with the scandal surrounding its former chairman Roger Ailes. NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Those who follow Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday" know the man doesn't go easy on anyone.


CHRIS WALLACE: Forgive me, Secretary Clinton, but the Americans know what they think of you. Two-thirds of them don't trust you.

FOLKENFLIK: Michelle Jaconi says Wallace will have to strike a careful balance tonight. She's a veteran television news producer and a senior adviser to the millennial news site Independent Journal Review.

MICHELLE JACONI: I joked with one colleague that there is - there's no greater sin than being caught performing journalism on live television. It sometimes is perceived as a gotcha (ph) format.

FOLKENFLIK: Trump's complaints about the media have escalated in recent weeks. Back in August 2015, Wallace was one of three Fox moderators for the first Republican primary debate.


WALLACE: Mr. Trump, it has not escaped anybody's notice that you say that the Mexican government - the Mexican government - is sending criminals, rapists, drug dealers across the border.

FOLKENFLIK: Wallace pressed Trump for proof repeatedly.

WALLACE: Mr. Trump, I'll give you 30 seconds.


WALLACE: I'll give you 30 seconds to answer my question, which was - what evidence do you have - specific evidence - that the Mexican government is sending criminals across the border? Thirty seconds.

FOLKENFLIK: "Fox News" plays an outsized role in Republican Party politics and in conservative circles. In fact, four Republican presidential candidates who participated in the "Fox News" debates that night were previously on "Fox News'" payroll. Until now, the Bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates has excluded Fox journalists as moderators. The commission's Democratic co-chairman, Mike McCurry, told me the selection was an endorsement of Wallace, not of "Fox News." Fox is, nonetheless, celebrating its evening. Again, veteran television producer Michelle Jaconi.

JACONI: This is a really big moment for him and for Fox because everybody wants to see how they do. I also think that it's a huge moment for their audience, which feels that a lot of the elite media looks down upon them.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox marked its 20th anniversary this month. Bill O'Reilly called into the morning show "Fox And Friends" to reminisce.


BILL O'REILLY: Yeah, I was there in the beginning, and it's amazing how two decades can zip by.

FOLKENFLIK: It's been a subdued celebration. Little mention was made of former "Fox News" chairman Roger Ailes. In July, "Fox News" had to pay Ailes $40 million to leave. He had been accused by former host Gretchen Carlson of sexual harassment. Other women made similar accusations.

GRETCHEN CARLSON: I was walking to a taping and just said simply hello to him. And he looked at me, and he said, we need to get you a tighter dress.

FOLKENFLIK: Suspended "Fox News" host Andrea Tantaros recently spoke about her own lawsuit on ABC's "Good Morning, America." She alleges she was demoted after complaining of harassment and told to ignore it by her bosses.


ANDREA TANTAROS: This was, Amy, after numerous times of him insulting me, making degrading comments about personal relationships, about my figure. That's what he did, and then the retaliation was even worse.

FOLKENFLIK: Fox and Ailes deny those charges. Two complicating factors for "Fox News" and Chris Wallace - Ailes advised Trump in recent months, and the Trump campaign itself has been consumed by allegations he made unwanted physical advances on women. The issue is likely to arise tonight - an unwelcome echo of scandal for the network on what otherwise should be a night of glory. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.

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