Fox News and MSNBC are the yin and yang of cable news networks; the former, conservative; the latter, liberal. But the networks shared an odd sort of energy when two superstar broadcasters, Chris Wallace and Brian Williams, said goodbye to viewers within days of each other.
Wallace, 74, announced Sunday that it was his last day on “Fox News Sunday.” He had been with the network, which recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, for 18 years. Williams, 62, who made his closing statement Dec. 9, had been with NBC for 28 years.
Neither, apparently, was forced out, but both anchormen used the careful language of people who leave jobs under dubious circumstances. (“Pursuing other opportunities” is usually how this is phrased.)
Williams’ departure had been anticipated; he announced in November that he would leave the network at year’s end. Wallace, however, shocked the broadcasting world — and apparently some of his colleagues — by saying goodbye so abruptly. And what Wallace plans to do next — defect to CNN’s new streaming service — was such a closely held secret that even the host of the CNN show “Reliable Sources” at first didn’t know. (The network has since released a statement confirming Wallace’s new show on CNN+, which will debut in 2022.)
In an industry that is dramatically changing, reshaped by a young audience that gets news online as it happens, Wallace and Williams are most familiar to older consumers of news: Those who remember when the evening news was must-see TV. The terror attacks of 2001 created the 24-7 news cycle; the ongoing pandemic has changed television news even more, as the Los Angeles Times recently reported.
But the biggest change in how news is presented over the course of the men’s careers is the politicization of news that reflects the polarization of the country. Williams seemed to make reference to that in his closing remarks in which he described himself as an “institutionalist,” not a Republican or Democrat.
“I believe in this place and in my love of country I yield to no one. But the darkness on the edge of town has spread to the main roads and highways and neighborhoods. It’s now at the local bar, and the bowling alley, at the school board, in the grocery store. And it must be acknowledged and answered for,” he said.
He continued, “Grown men and women who swore an oath to our Constitution — elected by their constituents, possessing the kinds of college degrees I could only dream of — have decided to join the mob and become something they are not, while hoping we somehow forget who they were. They’ve decided to burn it all down with us inside. That should scare you to no end.”
Williams made no reference to his 2015 suspension for exaggerating an incident that happened in Iraq during the Gulf War, and he did not elaborate on who, specifically, he was speaking about, although the remarks seemed to be directed at supporters of former President Donald Trump who downplayed the Jan. 6 uprising at the Capitol.
The riot and its characterization was also central in the decision of two Fox News contributors who recently left the network. Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes said they cut ties because of a Fox Nation series hosted by Tucker Carlson called “Patriot Purge.” The men called the show an example of “incoherent conspiracy-mongering” and said it’s part of a trend at Fox. (A Fox insider, however, said that men’s contracts were expiring and would not have been renewed.)
There’s been speculation that Wallace’s long tenure with Fox was also a casualty of “Patriot Purge.” (New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz leapt onto that theory Monday, writing that Wallace was ecstatic about never having to ride an elevator with Carlson again.)
Wallace himself said, “I want to try something new, to go beyond politics, to all of the things I’m interested in.” That can be fact-checked easily enough when his new show begins.
Meanwhile, amid all this, Variety reported that the share of cable subscribers who watch political news and opinion programming has markedly grown since 2016. That year, political shows comprised 57% of the top 5,000 shows on cable. This year, political and opinion shows account for 83%. (Sports programming — live events and talk shows — came in second, at 10%.)
Which is to say that, although only a small percentage of Americans watch cable news, there are few casual observers tuning in there, and Wallace’s loss is widely seen a blow to Fox’s credibility, at least among people who already believe Fox isn’t credible. Not so, the loyal Fox viewers.
For its part, the network issued a statement, saying, “We are extremely proud of our journalism and the stellar team that Chris Wallace was a part of for 18 years. The legacy of FOX News Sunday will continue with our star journalists, many of whom will rotate in the position until a permanent host is named.”
It wasn’t quite “don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” but the statement emphasized that Wallace was part of the team, not the whole operation. There is no panic in Foxville, so long as Tucker Carlson remains.
Correction: A previous version said Sports-related programming comprised 30% of the top 5,000 cable shows in 2021. The actual number is 10%.