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Dec. 12, 2021, 5:07 p.m. EST

Chris Wallace surprises viewers of Sunday show by breaking news of his departure from Fox News

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Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Veteran anchor Chris Wallace has left Fox News after 18 years for CNN, dealing a significant blow to Fox’s news operation at a time that it has been overshadowed by the network’s opinion side.

Wallace delivered the surprising news that he was leaving at the end of the “Fox News Sunday” show he moderates, and within two hours CNN announced he was joining its new streaming service as an anchor. CNN+ is expected to debut in early 2022.

“It is the last time, and I say this with real sadness, we will meet like this,” Wallace, who is 74, said on his show, which airs on the Fox network and is later rerun on Fox News Channel. “Eighteen years ago, the bosses here at Fox promised me they would never interfere with a guest I booked or a question I asked. And they kept that promise.”

Wallace was a veteran broadcast network newsman, working at both ABC and NBC News, before the late Roger Ailes lured him to Fox with the promise of his own Sunday show. Methodical and never showy — in contrast to his father Mike, the legendary “60 Minutes” reporter — Chris Wallace was known for his willingness to ask hard questions of all guests no matter their politics.

He was the first Fox News personality to moderate a presidential debate, doing it in 2016 and 2020. The debate he moderated last year went off the rails when then-President Donald Trump repeatedly interrupted Democratic challenger Joe Biden and Biden wondered if Trump might “just shut up.”

There has of late been renewed discussion of whether Trump was consciously COVID-positive at the time of that debate and might knowingly have exposed Biden, 3½ years his senior, to the coronavirus causing the disease, after arriving late and sidestepping health screenings put in place for the event. (The Cleveland Clinic was a debate co-host.)

From the archives (June 2021): How to treat ‘election deniers’ and ‘Big Lie’ adherents is an ongoing challenge for mainstream news organizations

Also (November 2020): ‘This is an extremely flammable situation, and the president just threw a match into it,’ says Fox News Channel’s Chris Wallace of Trump’s false claim to have been the election’s legitimate winner

“He is the most tenacious interviewer in the television business, based on intense preparation and plain old persistence,” said Howard Kurtz, host of Fox’s “Media Buzz,” of Wallace. “He has the kind of seasoned judgment that only comes from so many years of covering political issues and he may be the best debate moderator ever.”

Kurtz said it was “a major loss for Fox News, no question about it.”

Wallace generally co-existed with Fox’s opinion side and infrequently took them on publicly, although in 2017 he said it was “bad form” when opinion hosts bashed the media.

But he had grown privately frustrated with the overall tenor at Fox, where conservative opinion hosts have been elevated and amplified, particularly after the network’s ratings took a brief hit following the 2020 election. The network ousted two news executives involved in the controversial — but correct — Election Night declaration that Biden had won in Arizona, a call that infuriated Republican Trump.

Wallace had expressed his concern about the strident opinion programming to Fox executives multiple times, including recently after Tucker Carlson’s purported documentary on the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, “Patriot Purge,” aired on Fox’s streaming service. Two Fox News contributors, Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes, cited that program in choosing to quit the network.

See: Two noted conservative commentators leave Fox News fold over Tucker Carlson’s Jan. 6 film

Wallace was one of a prominent triumvirate of straight-news anchors at Fox who offered a contrast to popular opinion hosts such as Carlson and Sean Hannity. Shepard Smith left in 2019 and is now doing a news show at CNBC. Bret Baier remains at Fox as host of a Washington-based evening news program.

Fox News parent Fox Corp. /zigman2/quotes/209921865/composite FOX +0.49% /zigman2/quotes/207816609/composite FOXA +0.39% and News Corp /zigman2/quotes/204787942/composite NWS +0.62% /zigman2/quotes/201755982/composite NWSA +0.63% , which owns MarketWatch publisher Dow Jones, share common corporate control.

His track record had given Wallace a large measure of independence at Fox, despite the network’s overall tilt. “I have been free to report to the best of my ability, to cover the stories I think are important, to hold our country’s leaders to account,” he said on Sunday. “It’s been a great ride.”

His announcement came as a surprise; even guests on his show Sunday hadn’t been tipped off they were seeing his finale.

In contrast to when Smith left, Wallace was coming to the end of his contract with Fox. But he turned down an offer for a multiyear extension and pay raise to leave for CNN, a unit of Warner Media, which is owned by AT&T /zigman2/quotes/203165245/composite T +0.94% .

“We are extremely proud of our journalism and the stellar team that Chris Wallace was a part of for 18 years,” Fox said on Sunday. “The legacy of ‘Fox News Sunday’ will continue.”

Wallace’s announcement followed by just three days the final MSNBC show of Brian Williams , host of the cable channel’s nightly “11th Hour” program, after some 28 years at NBC and MSNBC /zigman2/quotes/209472081/composite CMCSA -0.02% .

Until a successor is named, Fox said Wallace will be replaced by a rotating series of guest anchors, including Baier, John Roberts, Shannon Bream, Martha MacCallum, Jennifer Griffin, Neil Cavuto, Dana Perino and Bill Hemmer.

Wallace said that he wanted to “try something new, to go beyond politics to all the things I’m interested in.”

In CNN’s announcement, he said, “I look forward to the new freedom and flexibility streaming affords in interviewing major figures across the news landscape — and finding new ways to tell stories.”

CNN said more details about Wallace’s new role will be forthcoming. He’s the biggest name among the hires at CNN+, which has also brought on former NBC News correspondent and anchor Kasie Hunt and noted business journalist Scott Galloway.

MarketWatch contributed.

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