Wallace talks about politics,
polling and 'fair and balanced'


Fox News anchor Chris Wallace discussed the recent presidential election, bias in the media and more during a question-and-answer session hosted by the School of Communications Nov. 8 in Whitley Auditorium. He was on hand at Elon to help announce a new Broadcast scholarship presented by Larry and Dee D'Angelo in honor of Wallace's stepfather, former CBS News President Bill Leonard.

Before beginning the Q-A session, Wallace paid heartfelt tribute to Leonard, sharing a brief biographical sketch of his fascinating life in communications. "This is a sentimental journey today," he said. "Bill Leonard was a special man."

After working as editor of the Dartmouth Daily, Leonard graduated in 1937 and worked for a small newspaper in New Haven, Conn. He served in the Navy in World War II and afterward was hired as a radio broadcaster for CBS. His show moved to television, and eventually Leonard became a producer and TV news executive. He pioneered the first "vote profile analysis" in 1962 as head of the CBS News election unit - it was the first use of statistical analysis of a voter cross-section used to accurately project election outcomes. "The competition was left flat-footed, and it established CBS News as the pre-eminent news organization of the time," Wallace said.

Leonard was in on the creation of "60 Minutes," "CBS Sunday Morning" and many other landmark television programs. He became president of CBS News, leaving that post in 1992. "He was a tremendous influence on me personally," Wallace said, citing times they shared together when he was a young man. "He was the best newsman I ever knew and the best man I ever knew."

Wallace said that during his preparation to come to Elon for the announcement of the scholarship in Leonard's honor he began to think about what has happened to television news in recent years. "He died in 1994," he said. "Ten years ago. He would not recognize the news business if he were to come back today. Back then, at least 70 percent of the audience watched CBS, NBC and ABC. Now we have cable networks and countless news sites on the internet."

He cited two examples of "how the world has changed" in regard to broadcast news. First, fewer and fewer people are watching the traditional broadcast networks - the "Big Three" - to get their news. "I was working at the Republican and Democrat conventions this year, covering them for Fox News," he said. "While I was on the floor I saw on a monitor that NBC was running 'Fear Factor' instead of the convention - people eating ants. The regular networks have gotten out of the business of covering the conventions and left it to the cable networks." Second, the explosion of news sites on the internet and the accompanying increase in the popularity of weblogs are changing how people consume news and are redefining news delivery. "It puts a demand on us as news providers and on you as news consumers," he said, "because sometimes that information in a blog is information and sometimes it is disinformation. This is a different world from the one Bill Leonard worked in."

Wallace, who has won every major broadcast award for his reporting, including three Emmy Awards, said the media do all they can to be objective. "Objectivity is very hard to (achieve) under the best of circumstances," he said. "I think that in the end we can't just spoonfeed it to you. There's some truth on both sides, and it's my job to present the information to you and let you decide. That puts more responsibility on the viewer. There's some comparison shopping to do ... a more active role on the part of the consumer."

Wallace, who launched his show "Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace" last year, discussed the failure of exit polls to predict the outcome in last week's presidential election. He worked on Election Night 2004 as Fox's designated "exit poll correspondent."

"We went into Election Day feeling quite confident," Wallace said of the revised exit-polling system implemented by the major networks for this year's election. "As it turns out, the polls were wrong. We've got a big problem." He pointed out some difficulties with the exit research as it is being done now. "One theory is that there are so many polls out there today that some people lie or give disinformation. There's also a possibility of 'slamming' - people who act as if they have just voted walking out of the polling place and saying (to the exit pollers) that they did ... It's going to take two years, until the next big Congressional election, to figure out if polls can work."

He dismissed the idea that media outlets might intentionally broadcast inaccurate exit-polling data to skew election results. "This is a consortium of all networks, and there is no bias," he said. "We're just trying to get it right. Sometimes people like to read conspiracy theories into just sheer incompetence."

Wallace covered many other topics in his chat:

- He said news-based infotainment programs such as "The Daily Show" are "healthy" - "There's more choice out there. If you don't like it, it's easy to just turn it off."

- He said when he became a White House correspondent it dispelled myths he'd had about great politicians. "I realized everything I thought I knew about being president was wrong ... I found that character (not intellect) was the most important thing."

- He agreed with an audience member that "Fair and balanced don't always mean the same thing," and said that in order to be fair reporters sometimes should not give all sides of a story equal weight.

Wallace spent the day at Elon with his mother, Kappy Leonard, and Larry and Dee D'Angelo, former chairs of the Elon Parents Council who are members-elect of Elon's Board of Visitors. The D'Angelos established The D'Angelo Family Scholarship in Honor of Bill Leonard. Matt Belanger, a senior from York, Pa., is the first recipient of the scholarship, which will be awarded each year to a Broadcast major in the School of Communications. To read more about the scholarship, click here.



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Last Modified:  11/08/04
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