Talking Trump and media with Chris Wallace and Maggie Haberman

In a panel discussion with the Monitor, the Fox News host and New York Times reporter sought to correct misperceptions and agreed it’s not the media’s job to fight with the president.

Barbara Alper/Common Ground Committee
New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman and Fox News correspondent Chris Wallace discussed Trump and disinformation with the Monitor's Linda Feldmann at an event at the Columbia University School of Journalism in New York on February 25, 2020.

Dear reader,

In the rough and tumble of political journalism, respect can be a casualty. And so it was Feb. 25 in India, when President Donald Trump and CNN’s Jim Acosta clashed at a press conference.

Mr. Acosta had said, in response to criticism, that his network was better at “delivering the truth” than the president. Later that day Chris Wallace, host of Fox News Sunday, said he was “horrified” by the CNN correspondent’s behavior.

“It’s not our job to get in fights with the president,” Mr. Wallace said at an event at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York. “It’s not our job to one-up presidents.”

The other panelist on stage, New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman, agreed.

It was a “common ground” moment at the event, sponsored by an organization devoted to bringing “light, not heat” to public discourse, the Common Ground Committee.

I was delighted to moderate the Feb. 25 panel, titled “Finding Common Ground on Facts, Fake News, and the Media.” Mr. Wallace and Ms. Haberman are two of the best in the business. But I didn’t imagine there would be much conflict to resolve. After all, they’re both news reporters, not partisans.

I soon learned that, in the public sphere, they are often associated with the political leanings of their outlets’ opinion departments – liberal at the Times and, at Fox, not just conservative but sometimes closely linked to President Trump.

Indeed, Mr. Wallace said that he’s often called upon to answer for Fox’s prime-time lineup (Sean Hannity et al.) – more so, he surmised, than Ms. Haberman is with regard to the Times’ opinion pages. She agreed.

Mr. Wallace spoke of a “firewall” between news and opinion at Fox. Still, I pointed out, the two do clash at times. News anchor Shepard Smith crossed swords with Mr. Hannity, and eventually resigned. Mr. Wallace himself recently told conservative Fox contributor Katie Pavlich, on the air, to “get her facts straight.”

“That wasn’t my best moment,” Mr. Wallace acknowledged. But he also made clear that his “marching orders” from Fox News are to “tell it straight, not to push an agenda, not to pull punches.”

On the fundamentals of news reporting, the two panelists agree. There’s also no doubt that covering the norm-breaking Trump presidency comes with unique challenges – including how to deal with Twitter.

On that, Ms. Haberman and Mr. Wallace part ways. She’s an avid tweeter. He doesn’t even have an account. But they’ve each been attacked by Mr. Trump on Twitter, and have each responded. Ms. Haberman says she regrets it every time. Mr. Wallace, in contrast, recounted a response to the president he rather liked.

“One of us has daddy issues, and it’s not me,” he said, an allusion to his late father, the legendary Mike Wallace of CBS’s “60 Minutes.”

I encourage you to watch the event video, found here. Audience questions were excellent, including many from journalism students.

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