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How Chris Wallace Lost Control Over 1st Presidential Debate


Before moderating last night's debate, Fox News host Chris Wallace had said he had wanted to be as invisible as possible. He didn't get that chance. President Trump was intent on disrupting Joe Biden, reducing Biden at times to name-calling. And Wallace ended up sounding like this.


CHRIS WALLACE: The country would be better served if we allowed both people to speak with fewer interruptions. I'm appealing to you, sir, to do that.

Sir, you'll be happy. I'm about to pick up on one of your points.

I'd like...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: And we will protect...

WALLACE: President, I'm the moderator of this debate. And I would like you to let me ask my question.

MOSLEY: To talk about Chris Wallace's performance and what it suggests for future debates, we're joined by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

Let's start by acknowledging Wallace is a veteran journalist. He's moderated a presidential debate before. He's even interviewed President Trump. How did he lose control of the debate last night?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, I thought he lost it pretty early on. You heard him at one point, about 8 1/2 minutes in, say, you know, and now we'll have an open discussion, which, you know, you might think might segue the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but the Lincoln-Douglas debates it was not. It then led to a question at one point of - Chris Wallace, a few minutes later, asked the president about his plans to replace Obamacare and health care, and Trump essentially interrupted him - might have been 12, 13 times in a row. It was very hard for Wallace to finish his sentence, much less ask the question. And from that point on, it was pretty clear that Trump was going to trample any notion of order, any notion of structure, any notion of deference to allow his opponent to actually say something before knocking him down.

MOSLEY: Could Wallace have just cut President Trump's mic?

FOLKENFLIK: That wasn't a tool available to Wallace or the producers. Just this afternoon, the Commission on Presidential Debates, which is really a bipartisan creation of the two parties, released a statement kind of acknowledging this tsunami of public criticism of the format of, ultimately, what was presented to the public and said that there would be new structures put in place and new tools afforded, effectively, to the moderator to ensure that this would be a more fluid and a more constructive event.

Now, I've got to say that people should remember that the two campaigns negotiate with the commission on pretty much every rule from the height of the podium and lecterns to the temperature of the air conditioning in the room. And so the idea that these can be sort of - an edict can be issued by the commission is just not true. And, indeed, after the commission statement, the Trump campaign came out and said, look; that sounds like it's moving the goalposts and changing the rules mid-game - a hardly fair way to proceed. We'll see what kinds of changes the commission is able to wrangle.

MOSLEY: So if Wallace used all of the tools he had to control this debate, could anyone really do a better job considering the situation?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, a lot of really experienced and veteran journalists say, you know, take a moment and say, there for the grace of God go I. Chris Wallace is, as you mentioned, at the top tough. He's smart. He's a really good interviewer. He's been a good moderator in the past. I think he could have stepped out of his very nonpartisan self and very fair-minded self and sort of said to the president, Mr. President, why do you feel able to such a, you know, striking degree not to adhere to the rules that you and your campaign agreed to for this very event? And it would have at least placed that question on the record in front of the tens of millions of voters who may not have been paying attention. But I think it was a very tough assignment, as it proved. The president was a bulldozer.

MOSLEY: Yeah. With the 20 seconds or so I have with you, what value was there in last night's performance? I mean, many people are talking about, should there even be others?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think you can look at it one of two ways. There was very, very little in the way of substantive policy or any sense of what a second Trump administration or - excuse me - a second term would do for the voters of America. On the other hand, I think certain truths about the candidates were revealed about their nature, their character and how they wanted to address the American public. That, for better or for worse, we saw loud and clear.

MOSLEY: NPR's David Folkenflik, thank you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. 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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