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Here’s why Chris Wallace blew it

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Chris Wallace moderates 2020 presidential debate (Fox News/screen grab)

I hate to say, “I told you so,” so let me just say: Elizabeth Warren told you so.

So did Tom Perez, the head of the Democratic National Committee. Both rejected offers from Fox News to host political events during the 2020 Democratic primary, a town hall in Warren’s case and a candidate debate for the DNC.

“A Fox News town hall adds money to the hate-for-profit machine. To which I say: hard pass,” Warren plainly stated. And while he claimed “Chris Wallace isn’t my concern,” Perez correctly identified that “at the highest levels of Fox News they” — meaning right-wing ideologues — “have infiltrated the news side.” Perez had to defend his decision to Democrats at the time, but Chris Wallace’s hapless performance as a presidential debate “moderator” on Tuesday evening may have finally made clear that Fox News is not an honest media broker. Not one host from the network can be trusted to present facts outside the requisite right-wing narrative.

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It’s easy to feel for Wallace. At no point during that rage-inducing national embarrassment did Donald Trump allow the first presidential debate of the 2020 campaign to play out as planned, at least according to what Wallace repeatedly reminded the president were the mutually agreed-upon rules. Wallace lost control in the first 90 seconds and Trump ran roughshod over him for the next 90 minutes.

“I’m the moderator of this debate and I’d like to ask my question,” Wallace pleaded with Trump at one point.

The host of “Fox News Sunday” told The New York Times earlier this week, “If I’ve done my job right, at the end of the night, people will say, ‘That was a great debate, who was the moderator?'” Wallace not only failed to meet his own low standard of uselessness, he actively aided Trump by peddling dangerous misinformation and pushing modulated versions of the same right-wing narrative deployed by Trump, creating a dangerous feedback loop.

Despite Trump’s day-after complaints, for much of Tuesday’s debate it was clear that Wallace simply let the president moderate. “If you want to switch seats, we can do that,” Wallace offered Trump a little more than an hour into the debate. Wallace repeatedly interrupted Biden to ask Trump questions. He then permitted Trump to keep talking over Biden without cutting him off, and allowed lie after lie to go unchallenged. Much too late, Wallace tried to exert some control, but he rarely, if ever, succeeded.

To be fair, no moderator deemed acceptable to the Trump campaign would conceivably have the chops to rein in the president. That would defeat his whole debate strategy. Indeed, I’d predict that Wallace will eventually be graded the highest of the three presidential debate moderators after CSPAN call-in host Steve Scully and NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker get their turn.

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As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote, the idea that either of them “can hope to control things any better is a dubious one unless the format changes substantially.” On Wednesday, the the Commission on Presidential Debates announced it may do just that: “Last night’s debate made clear additional structure should be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues,” the commission said in a statement, adding that it is “considering the changes” and will “announce those measures shortly.”

But what was even more troublesome than Wallace impotently shouting “Mr. President!” in exactly the way I ask my 10-month-old to not put every single thing he picks up into his mouth was the frame and premise Wallace deployed for several of the night’s most serious topics.

On police violence and the ongoing protests in Portland, Oregon, the Fox News host portrayed the issue as nightly riots by the protesters — rather than nightly violence by police. People have assembled in Portland to protest police violence every night and cops have responded by brutalizing them. Wallace didn’t mention the Trump supporters driving down the streets following a pro-Trump rally, shooting random people with paintball guns and pepper-spraying them. Wallace brought up antifa — all-purpose right-wing bugaboo of the moment — but made no mention of the men who traveled to a Walmart in El Paso and a synagogue in Pittsburgh to carry out what they interpreted as a mission of violent racial animus supported by the president.

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Even if Wallace deserves plaudits for pressing Trump to denounce white supremacists, we wouldn’t even be in this situation if Fox News and the right-wing media hadn’t spent decades and billions of dollars promoting hate. Trump’s most rambling monologues on Tuesday night were hard to follow for anyone not completely immersed in the Fox News conspiracy universe.

Right after his horrific call-out to the Proud Boys, Trump declined an invitation to call for restraint following the election, calling instead for his supporters to show up as an intimidating force at the polls. Wallace then just let him go on unabated, making groundless allegations about election integrity.

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When Wallace asked Trump why he insisted on holding campaign rallies in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump falsely said all of his rallies had been outdoors. Wallace simply replied: “You are right.” Wallace also tried to get Trump to shut up by promising him a softball: “You’ll like this next question.”

Give Wallace credit for asking a climate change question, the first in a presidential debate since 2008, and almost getting an answer. But he failed as a moderator because Fox News can’t be trusted when the network’s entire motive is propaganda. The network even ran Trump campaign propaganda after the debate. Wallace’s own colleagues won’t defend him from Trump, even in the next hour, because they rely on Trump and his viewers.

https://t.co/HUSFkHqsyC

— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump)1601438270.0

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And no, Bernie Sanders, who famously held a Fox News town hall, would not have fared better. Although Sanders’ Fox appearance was widely perceived as successful (he got wild applause for mention of Medicare for All), the Fox News website posted no viral clip of Sanders explaining why health care is a human right. Instead, his answer to a gotcha question about why he didn’t personally cut a check to the IRS if he wanted higher taxes was weaponized for wide dissemination. Media’s fake commitment to “fair and balanced” goes beyond Fox News. It is killing people and our democracy.


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