You’ve seen Chris Wallace on all three networks—CBS where he got his start, NBC as moderator of Meet the Press and Sunday anchor of NBC Nightly News, and ABC as senior correspondent for Primetime Thursday and Nightline, on occasion. Now, Wallace hosts FOX News Sunday, where he’s manned the moderator’s chair for the past 10 years.
I spoke to Wallace recently about his 50 years in the media industry. Interviewing a veteran interviewer was interesting. After painful pauses and time-delaying “Ums” while fumbling for my first question, Wallace helped me out: “I’ve got the point, just start with your questions.”
That’s lesson No. 1 from Wallace: Just get started.
Wallace got his start as a “gopher” for CBS with Walter Cronkite at the 1964 Republican National Convention with the help of his famous newsman father, Mike Wallace, and stepfather, Bill Leonard, who headed the CBS News elections’ unit and later became president of the network. “In those days it was pretty common practice to hire the kids of anchors or executives to be interns at the national conventions,” Wallace says.
“Here I was, 16 years old, in Walter Cronkite’s anchor booth, watching Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater, in an exciting city like San Francisco, thinking ‘These [news] guys get paid to do this? You get to travel to interesting places, meet interesting people and report on interesting stories.’ That’s what attracted me to the news business.”
Six years covering Ronald Reagan as NBC’s chief White House correspondent gave Wallace what he calls a forced education in world issues. “One day I’d be covering the Middle East, the next, arms control in the Soviet Union, then later the budget and economy,” Wallace says. “As a result, you learned about a wide variety of subjects.”
As a reporter, it served Wallace well to know a little about a lot of topics, because he never knew with certainty what direction the daily narrative would take. Later as host of a national news program, he would have more flexibility to direct the conversation toward more popular, even tabloid-like topics that’ll attract viewers, but Wallace’s early “education” and his own personal interest in politics (he was weeks away from entering Yale Law School when he impulsively took a job with the Boston Globe) kept him grounded in those world issues.
“Sometimes what people need to know and what people want to know are not one in the same,” Wallace says. “You can tart it up and you can go tabloid and it’s not necessarily something you’re going to feel good about.”
Wallace says the times he tried something as a stunt, they failed miserably. Lesson No. 2: Don’t do your job for the ratings, or what you think people want. Just do what seems right.
What seems right isn’t always that obvious. Wallace was three months into the general assignment beat at the Boston Globe when the city hall beat opened up.
“There are turning points in a career where you say to yourself, ‘This is an opportunity to move my future self forward or set myself back,’” Wallace says. “I had to say ‘This is why I’ve worked so hard to get to this moment and I’m going to make it work.’”
Several years later when he was hired by NBC News, he got the opportunity to fill in on the U.S. Senate beat after just three months in Washington. Wallace recalls a March 1978 day, when the Senate was wrestling for two-thirds majority, or 67 votes, to pass the Panama Canal Treaty—a story that would surely lead that night’s national news with John Chancellor and David Brinkley.
Here comes lesson No. 3: When Wallace came to a milestone in his career, he did two things. One, he pushed through the fear, and two, he realized the moment.
“I remember going into work the day of the vote and thinking, ‘This is a big day in my career. This is important. This is one of those moments where you can really help or hurt [your career],’” Wallace says. “Instead of being scared, I decided I was going to own it. I got my piece on the air, it was good and people were pleased with it.
“It was a moment.”