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'Fox News Sunday' host Chris Wallace to join CNN's streaming service

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

"Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace surprised his audience by saying he's leaving the network.

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CHRIS WALLACE: I want to try something new to go beyond politics to all the things I'm interested in.

INSKEEP: Hours later, it was learned that Wallace will join CNN's new streaming service. His departure says a lot about the direction that Fox has gone and where it's going.

NPR's David Folkenflik reports.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: As he revealed his departure, Chris Wallace told viewers part of the network's pitch to join.

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WALLACE: Eighteen years ago, the bosses here at Fox promised they would never interfere with a guest I booked or a question I asked. And they kept that promise.

FOLKENFLIK: And that appears to have been true. What Fox News executives reward, however, involves what Fox News viewers demand, and that's shifted greatly. Wallace's father was the legendary Mike Wallace at CBS's "60 Minutes." Chris Wallace himself had distinguished stints at ABC and NBC. He'd covered the White House, hosted "Meet The Press." That is to say, he arrived at Fox with stature - no scandal and no notable ideology - known, as the phrase goes, for asking tough questions of Democrats and Republicans alike.

Fox viewers, however, did not prove eager for tough questions of Donald Trump.

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WALLACE: Mr. Trump, it has not escaped anybody's notice that you say that the Mexican government - the Mexican government - is sending criminals, rapists, drug dealers across the border.

FOLKENFLIK: This was from the first Republican presidential debate in August 2015 on Fox News.

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WALLACE: Mr. Trump, I'll give you a 30 seconds...

(CHEERING)

WALLACE: I'll give you a 30 seconds to answer my question, which was, what evidence do you have?

FOLKENFLIK: Trump called in to Don Lemon's show on CNN the very next night to denounce Wallace.

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DONALD TRUMP: And the son is only a tiny fraction of Mike. Believe me, there's a big difference between Mike Wallace and Chris Wallace.

FOLKENFLIK: As President Trump demanded loyalty of his supporters and of Fox News stars - and for the most part, he got it - goosing the ratings of ardent supporters, like Fox's Sean Hannity and Maria Bartiromo, by showering them with interviews. Figures who were skeptical of Trump left the network, including former correspondent Carl Cameron and anchor Shepard Smith. Wallace stuck it out. Sometimes he contradicted his Fox colleagues' false claims about Trump.

Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, Wallace fact-checked Trump repeatedly during an interview at the White House.

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TRUMP: When you talk about mortality rates, I think it's the opposite. I think we have one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.

WALLACE: That's not true, sir.

FOLKENFLIK: On social media and in hateful private comments, many Fox News viewers trashed Wallace. There seemed to be an absence of leadership from Fox News' executives. Many of Fox's stars peddled Trump's lies about COVID and the 2020 election. The network dismissed two top political editors who supported the Fox decision desk call that Joe Biden would win Arizona. Fox is now fighting two multibillion-dollar defamation lawsuits in court. Then came Tucker Carlson's three-part series, embracing lies to claim the January 6 siege of the Capitol was harmless and also a hoax.

JONAH GOLDBERG: It traffics in all manner of innuendo and conspiracy theories that, I think, legitimately could lead to violence.

FOLKENFLIK: That's longtime Fox News analyst Jonah Goldberg. For Goldberg and another conservative commentator, Carlson's series was the last straw. They quit Fox three weeks ago. On the air, Wallace and Fox political anchor Bret Baier contradicted Carlson's claims. Off the air, they both denounced Carlson series to Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott. Carlson wasn't reined in. Now Wallace has also left. He is to start at CNN+ after the streaming service's launch early next year.

David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.