Trust and Trump: Chris Wallace, Dean Baquet and Christiane Amanpour at FT Future of News
Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who moderated the first presidential debate, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, and CNN presenter Christiane Amanpour discuss the future of news
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CHRIS WALLACE: I have a wonderful researcher, and she and I had spent weeks, literally over 100 hours, putting together, doing the research, digging down, putting together what I think was a really good, serious, substantive debate, the debate that I think the country very much wanted, and six different topics, subsets in each topic, thoroughly researched, what their positions were, what the quotes that I was going to use were.
I compare it a little bit to putting together this perfect cake and the frosting and everything just right, and then you present it on the stage, and one of the participants-- you can guess who-- puts his foot right through it. And that's very much the way it felt. So my immediate reaction, and it's interesting-- you ask, and I'll try to be brief about this-- as it began and as President Trump began to engage and interrupt Joe Biden, my initial reaction was, well, this is good because so often these debates are sort of parallel news conferences. You ask one candidate a question. They answer. You ask another candidate a question. They answer.
MATT GARRAHAN: And they can be quite formulaic. Right? They follow a certain pattern.
CHRIS WALLACE: Right. So when they actually are talking to each other, my immediate reaction, this is what I want is a debate. My feeling is the moderator should be as invisible as possible. And if it's all over and then people say, "That was a great debate. By the way, who was the moderator," that's a success. But obviously at a certain point, pretty early on, it became clear that it wasn't that and that the president had decided to disrupt the proceedings.
I think, I can only put myself in his mind, so hypothetically I think he thought that he was going to disrupt the event and rattle Joe Biden and throw him off and that Biden would then have one of the senior moments the president accused him of. But after that didn't work, he didn't go to plan B. In any case, when it was over, I felt quite disappointed because it was not what I had planned.
But as time has gone on, I've increasingly come to think that it was actually quite a successful debate because in the end, what are these events about? They're trying to clarify the choice for people. And if you believe the polls, there's been a whole lot of clarifying that has gone on.
MATT GARRAHAN: Well, indeed. His poll numbers have sunk pretty precipitously, haven't they, since that night. And you said you don't think he had a plan B. Do you think there was any kind of tactical plan going into it other than just to make noise and to rattle Biden's cage?
CHRIS WALLACE: Well, but that's a strategy. You can argue whether it was a good one or not but I think the thought was, I'm going to dominate him, I'm going to throw him off, and he'll have a senior moment. And I'll be able to show the country The unintended consequence of that was that I think he ended up, because of his constant interruptions, and Fox did an analysis-- some poor fellow had to look at it-- 145 interruptions by the president in 90 minutes. Do the math.
I think it propped Biden up because Biden was not all that good in the debate, but because of the fact that he couldn't really screw much together without the president interrupting him, I don't think people noticed that very much. If I were going to advise him, plan B would have been to sit back, let Biden talk, and then try to undercut what Biden was saying. But the president didn't do that.
There is certainly opinion in prime time on Fox. I think people understand the difference between what happens on the day side, what happens on Sunday mornings, and the opinion side. And it's pretty clearly-- even if we don't have a flashing light in the lower right hand corner saying opinion, I think people understand that. Where I push back is I think that the opinion is just as pronounced on CNN in prime time and certainly on MSNBC in primetime.
And I think one of the reasons that that isn't labelled opinion as much and the opinion on Fox is labelled opinion is because a lot of the people, especially media writers, they agree with the opinion on CNN, so that's fact. They disagree with the opinion on Fox, so that's opinion and somehow objectionable. No bones about it. Fox has a news side and an opinion side, but frankly so do all of our competitors on cable news.
MATT GARRAHAN: I wonder what that does to your head or when you're trying to live your life or you're trying to do your job when the commander in chief is singling you out for abuse on a social media platform read by millions and millions of people. Can you give us some insight into how you react when you see those things?
CHRIS WALLACE: Well, it's interesting. The first time or two it happened, it does get into your head, and even if you think, oh, it's just a politician complaining, the fact that it's the President of the United States attacking you, it's a little bit-- it gets your attention.
[INTERPOSING VOICES] There's no question about it. But frankly, it has been so much of it that it, Matt, has become noise. It's like, oh, there's another tweet. I will say this. One of his frequent themes is to say that I don't measure up to my father, Mike Wallace. I'm sure a lot of people watching know who my father was. And my response to that is one of us, the president and I, one of us has daddy issues, and it's not me.
Having been in this business such a long time, I kind of feel you've got to play the long game. You have to have a sense of the sweep of history, the sweep of fads, conventions, moments in a country's life, and that the truth will out and people who may at this point just want to hear arguments and facts they agree with will come back to wanting a more objective reality at some point. That's what keeps me going.
So many of us were so wrong about four years ago. I remember we all meeting in the executive suite at Fox on election night about 5:30, and the exit polls were out. And they basically-- they didn't say Hillary is going to win, but anybody with a lick of sense saw that that's what they were saying. Hillary's going to win. She didn't win. So you have to take everything with an enormous grain of salt.
There's no question in my mind that Biden is ahead now He's acting that way. Trump is acting that way. All the polls seem to be indicating that. We still have as of yesterday three weeks. A lot can happen. I think it was in the final three weeks of the last campaign of 2016 that Trump made up a lot of ground. In terms of whether it'll be settled that night, I just hope for a landslide, either way, whether it's a Biden landslide or a Trump landslide, something that is so conclusive that there can't be any talk of Ballots being harvested or voter suppression on either side and that we're able to say this is the President of the United States.
DEAN BAQUET: Right now a handful of big players, including the New York Times, are doing particularly well. That's great for the New York Times. It saddens me about the rest of the industry, and I think we have to spend some time, those of us who are succeeding, thinking about why the rest isn't. But I think for us, it's because, frankly, generations of building an international/national news report that was filled with things that people have to read has been paying off.
We have a newsroom that's big enough to give you the news of the day minute by minute, really compete with CNN in covering those Supreme Court hearings and covering the world but also is big enough to provide the kind of investigative enterprise that also draws people in. So I think mainly what we've been able to do is to build a business based on our journalism. And that's a pretty profound change.
The traditional American newspaper model was the business was based on advertising. Of course, advertising is still important to the New York Times, but it's profound to have the business now built on having an audience and having an audience that cares about news and cares about enterprise and investigative reporting. And that's where we've invested. And that's why we're succeeding.
I think what we've learned now that we've listened to our readers is they never understood half the stuff we thought they understood. I think we were like in some weird way sort of academic, speaking Latin. We just assumed our audience understood it. We now joke. We thought our audiences understood the diff- two-column headline, a one-column headline. Then we put something in italics. I think we developed this whole language that we laboured over. I think a lot of that they didn't understand.
Rukmini Callimachi, who's a very courageous reporter who's been covering terrorism for the New York Times and for the Associated Press, has been accused of essentially doing a series of podcasts built around a character who described himself as an Isis member. And now law enforcement is questioning whether he really was or whether he was a fabulist and she fell for it. And that is open.
Many people have since raised some other questions about stories Rukmini was involved in. I've set up a couple of senior editors in the newsroom to look at Rukmini's stories to see whether or not there are things we need to correct, to see whether or not there are things we got wrong. If there are things we got wrong or things we need to correct, we're going to do that.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Even today, now in the midst of a global pandemic, it's not so advanced today because I think most people understand, wear a mask. It'll make you safe. It's not about your freedom. It's about keeping you safe. But even then you can see, wow, some people say, "It impinges on our freedom to wear a mask or to protect other people from what we might have."
So I would just say that we need to really get a grip and understand where the truth is and report the truth and understand that that is what's being objective. And I don't understand why the big leaders of the big social media platforms, which are effectively news platforms-- let's face it. They cannot keep running away from this. They're not just publishers-- or they're not just platforms to share and to disseminate information They are publishers. They should be accountable to the same rules that we are accountable as journalists who work for reputable organisations with a code of conduct and a code of ethics.
They must because if you go to-- let's just put aside for a moment the United States and Western democracies. Let's talk about Myanmar. Let's talk about the Philippines. Let's talk about India, these countries where news equals Facebook, where that's the only place people get their news, so the room for misdeeds by those who would manipulate these social media tools is massive. And nobody knows what's true and what's not, so of course, on the one hand, social media, Facebook, Twitter, all the others, came up and gave people so much information that they might never have before, particularly in nations which did not have that luxury of being able to go to the library or do a LexisNexis search or whatever it is, objective news organisations in their own home countries.
They were all perhaps being fed a diet of whatever you want to call it, misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, by their state-run news organisations. It's still happening in Russia, by the way. Social media has been revolutionary for them just like CNN was when CNN went international in 1985. The idea was to break down the barriers of state control over basic truth and information.
I think there is a moral imperative by the big tech companies to get with the picture and to stop obfuscating and to stop telling untruths to the world about what they're doing to clean up their act because every day we hear from whistleblowers on my show and many other areas of news about how this is going on, how that is going on, and despite the promises that are for coming from Silicon Valley or wherever it is, Palo Alto, actually some very nefarious practises continue.
I think authoritarianism, like any of those isms, flourish when populations are under massive stress, when there's economic crisis, when there is a confusion about where the truth lies and, therefore, they can exploit that confusion and those holes. What worries me is that authoritarianism is creeping westward where it has no business belonging. That's really what worries me.