Ep. 504 — Chris Wallace – The Axe Files with David Axelrod



And now from the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio, The Axe Files with your host, David Axelrod.

When Chris Wallace left his perch at Fox News Sunday to launch a new show at CNN, it was a seismic event in the news industry. With 50 years in broadcast journalism and 18 at Fox, Wallace is a name brand in broadcast journalism. His move raised eyebrows and questions about just what his new project would be like. Well, this week we’ll know. “Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace?” debuts on HBO Max and CNN. So it was a great time for me to visit again with an old friend for a wide ranging discussion about Putin, Trump, the news business and of course, Wallace’s new gig. Here’s that conversation. Chris Wallace, it’s great, great to see you again. It’s been, I think, five and a half years since we did our first episode together of The Axe Files. And it’s, and it’s great to see you again.

Well, I have to tell you that after we did it and, you know, it’s a very disarming thing because for somebody who’s in TV with cameras and lights, you know, you and I were sitting around a room at Fox headquarters in D.C. and you kind of lose sight of the fact that this is actually going to go out to the world. And after it was over, I got a ton of people, “Oh, I listened to you on Axe.” So.

I’m sure they they heard stuff that they wouldn’t necessarily hear in the normal course of events, because you have such a interesting story, and I really, that that episode is still available. People should go back because I’m not going to go over all the old ground with you, but they should go back and listen because you have such an interesting life and history and career and it’s well worth the time. But that, you know, the occasion for us to getting together again is that you’re launching a new show at CNN, “Who’s Talking to Chris Wallace?” And I want to I want to talk in-depth about that. But this has been an extraordinary news day today. And you and I are both old news men. And so we appreciate a good news day. And two of the characters who are in the news today are people who have talked to Chris Wallace, people that you’ve interviewed one, Vladimir Putin and the other Donald Trump. And I want to ask you about them and about the events of the day. You’ve obviously been following Putin’s pronouncements overnight about Ukraine. He’s clearly escalating the war. He is he has been saber rattling, the nuclear saber. Tell me what you learned sitting down with, first of all, how did you get an interview with Vladimir Putin? Let me start there.

Well, so it was in 2019 and it was- I think. I forget, it was, it was right after the Trump Putin summit in Helsinki and in July of whatever year it was. And we had been trying to get him for some period of time. And, you know, it’s- the call comes in, you know, as as you well know, as somebody who was a gatekeeper in the Obama White House, you know, you’re out until you’re in. And suddenly one year in, you’re, the door is open and you’re ushered in. And a decision has been made, rightly or wrongly, to allow you to speak to the person in charge. And so we set up at the Russian embassy in Helsinki for an interview right after the summit with Trump. And it was interesting because it was the old Soviet embassy. In fact, they still had the hammer and sickle on over the entrance in these big empty gilded rooms and security, big men in cheap suits all over the place. And the summit with Trump went on longer than it was supposed to. And so we just had to sit there. And what’s interesting is this was very shortly after this guy, Sergei Skripal, a former Russian who had defected, had been attacked with Novichok, a nerve agent in Britain. So now we’re there waiting, waiting. And they put out food for us. And I’m sitting there thinking, do I dare eat one of the sandwiches or one of the apples?

And obviously, you had discussed this beforehand, but you asked Putin why so many people who criticize him turn up dead, which was which was a, I would say, challenging question.

Yes, it was. And I will tell you that the people that were in the room next door that we had made into our control room heard some of the Russian security, some of the Kremlin security swear in Russian when I said that. But in any case, what was my impression of him? My impression was he was not particularly charming, kind of disinterested until I started challenging him. And when I did with questions like, why do so many people who oppose you end up dead? Just laser focused with those ice blue eyes boring into me. And, you know, you could believe anything. Did I believe this is a guy who could say, off with his head? You bet.

Why, by the way, do you think that the doors did open for you? Why did they want to do an interview with you? They obviously knew you were a very you were you know, you were a tough interviewer and so on. Was it the Fox audience that they wanted to speak to? Were what exactly caused them to open the door for you because he doesn’t do that many interviews.

No, I think there were two things. One, the Fox audience and Trump was president. And so that audience was important to them. And I think the message they were trying to send, it’s interesting when you think now of how sanctioned they are, was, you know, this was in the aftermath of Crimea and they’d had sanctions then. They wanted to say, we’re we’re open for business. We want to do business. We want to have normal relations with the West and and with the U.S. in particular. And that speaking to Trump and speaking to Trump supporters and speaking to Trump’s people, although he had just spoken to Trump in person at the summit, I think they thought was going to be good for business.

So when you watch him now, just based on what you observed, what do you think? How far is he willing to go do you believe? This is a fairly serious escalation he took overnight, calling up 300,000 reservists, suggesting that- not suggesting but putting in motion, you know, kind of phony referenda in provinces in Ukraine to claim Russian control over those areas. As a, you know, that that is an escalation because it it suggests that under the definitions of war that he can call this a war. Where do you think he will stop?

If I knew that, I’d either be working at the White House or I’d be in Las Vegas making bets on in the sports book. Look, if you look at history, dictators who get involved in wars, take their countries into wars and lose don’t have a very good track record. So, you know, this is, this could be an existential question for him if he, if he has has put Russia into these this situation and lost, by all accounts, tens of thousands of people. I don’t know that losing is a viable option. So how far is he going to go? If you’re, if you can’t lose, then then you can go pretty far. And, you know, to me, the two things, obviously. Calling up another 300,000 people is is serious. But even more serious to me are one, the idea that they’re going to make, take over parts, annex parts of of Ukraine in eastern Ukraine, you know, Luhansk and Donetsk. And because then if you attack those areas, if Ukraine does with naval weapons, the argument could be that they’re attacking Russia because that then becomes part of Russia. The border expands to the West. And then the other card that he played overnight or early this morning was the nuclear card. And talking about he didn’t say nuclear, but he talked about, you know, advanced weapons, more advanced than the West has. And, and it’s not a bluff. You’ve you’ve gone right to the edge. I don’t know how you kind of walk your way gracefully back from that situation. I think it’s enormously concerning. And the question is, what does the West do in in his initial speech at the U.N., Joe Biden’s reaction seemed to be, you know, full speed ahead.

Yeah, but without a definition of what full speed ahead means, he’s proscribed using American troops in this situation. But yeah, it’s a scary moment. It must be interesting to you. You were a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and you covered the lifting of the Cold War and the end of the Cold War.

Right, the Gorbachev summits and the signing of the first treaty that that eliminated a whole class of nuclear weapons, the intermediate range weapons, in 1987 when Gorbachev came to the White House. Yeah. And, you know, going on from there to 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, and then a couple of years later, the Soviet Union dissolved. And, you know, this was the end of the Cold War. This was, it seemed like the end of history, according to some people. But history has a funny way of saying when it’s over, not, people don’t declare it over. And the thing that I guess I really don’t understand and and I’m, like a lot of people is it was very clear when I interviewed Putin that, you know, he he very much wanted to be part of the community of nations. He had his own view. He he was very bitter even in that interview about what the West had done in expanding NATO eastward and felt that they’d been double crossed by the West, but he very much wanted to be in the game. And, you know, I just don’t understand where he thinks this ends particularly. And, you know, I’ve been watching the news recently as the Ukraine liberates parts of the eastern Ukraine. And we see more of these war crimes, more of these mass graves. I don’t know how you come back from that. I don’t know how, you know, he gets invited to a G20 meeting after that. I just don’t know how he ever rejoins the community of nations. So in that to that extent, does he just think, this is where we’re going to be in this in this not very Cold War, pretty hot war, you know, without end? Because it doesn’t seem like there’s a there’s a an off ramp here.

No, there doesn’t. And, you know, what he may be thinking is he has to have a new paradigm. And, you know, we saw his summit with Xi of China. And clearly he’s hoping to draw closer to China and create, you know, a power alliance, a stronger power alliance with them. But it really is, this feels like a hinge moment in history here. This is doesn’t feel like a transient event. He’s so escalated this now that it may define the global order in some ways, depending on how the West responds to it, depending on how China responds to it. It’s quite a concern and so much of it is being dictated by the man with those cold, blue eyes that you describe. Let’s talk about the other guy who was in the news today.

The former guy, as Joe Biden calls him.

The former guy. Yes. You know, Donald Trump today, you know, three years ago, Michael Cohen was I don’t know if you remember this, but he was before a congressional committee. It was actually AOC who asked him, did Trump, did the Trump organization inflate real estate, the value of their holdings in order to get loans and deflate them in order to reduce their tax liability? And he said without equivocation, absolutely. Today, the state A.G. said that Michael Cohen was a big part of that. But it really feels like Trump is besieged from all ends here. And Chris, what worries me is that the more he’s held accountable for acts of corruption, the more he is, insists on the that the system is corrupt. And that becomes more and more central to what he is saying. And he’s been heading in this direction for a long time. But how do you assess him right now and what do you think is going through his mind?

You know, I think let me make it clear to social media, I’m not comparing Trump to Putin, but there are some similarities here, which is as a person gets under more and more pressure there are a variety of ways of reacting. You know, the old saying, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. Putin isn’t doing that. And, you know, one could argue that Trump, not comparing him to Putin, that is, but in a kind of tactical or strategic sense, is not doing that. You know, you had that weird thing over the weekend where he started talking about the country in very dystopian terms, and they started playing this music and people were putting up one finger and it seemed, not that I’m any kind of an expert on this, kind of heading in the QAnon direction and and what one wonders is, and he is under tremendous pressure, you know, in terms of the January 6th investigations, in terms of the documents, in terms of what he conceivably or may have done down in Atlanta with the DA there. Now you’ve got Letitia James, the attorney general of New York, on whether he committed fraud by inflating the value fraudulently of his businesses. You know, he seems to be going in in a darker and more extreme direction in terms of American politics. And, you know, that would be interesting, but not particularly important, except for the fact that there are millions of people who seem to be willing to follow him in those directions. And that gets very alarming because now we’re talking about the future of American democracy.

Yes. He’s the frontrunner as we sit here today, may not be in the future. He’s the front runner for the Republican nomination in 2024. So he’s not a sort of peripheral player in our politics. You know, he had an interesting conversation with someone, you know well, Lesley Stahl, before he took office and after the election of 2016. And she asked him, she reports, this was a side line conversation, why he was so hard on the media. And he said, because I don’t want them to believe you when you say bad things about me. And in a sense, that’s kind of what, that’s his philosophy of how to deal with all of these challenges, which is to try and impeach those who would impugn him or ascribe corrupt or any other kind of behavior to him to say, you know, they’re corrupt.

Yes. Yeah. And that that actually has, that’s had implications. And this is what I want to ask you about, that’s had implications for journalism, because he had a very, very calculated plan to color the media as partizan players. And so any time you or anyone else reports facts that he finds inconvenient, he fits it into that paradigm. And that has it hasn’t that, it seems like that’s played havoc in some ways with the news media and how it covers politics.

I think in two ways. First of all, I think it was in February of 2017, so it was really only a month after he was in office that he sent out the first tweet that said ABC, NBC, The Times, The Post are not just Myanma, they’re the enemy of the state, which is Stalin-esque language and really chilling. And and, you know, again, this is a guy who had just won the election, who had tens of millions of supporters and still does. So, you know, if he said they’re, they’re not my enemy, they’re your enemy, they’re the enemy of America, that has a big impact in terms of our acceptance and credibility. The other, which to me is more interesting, is what it did to the media. And what I think it did is it it pushed some people, some of our colleagues over the line that I think people push back in a very unfortunate way. And and, you know, he, in effect, suckered them into becoming antagonists on the field when what we should have been doing and I tried to do is is, you know, not play into that. You know, stay stay in our position. We’re not we’re not for Trump. We’re not against Trump. We’re just going to, you know, play it straight and and cover the news. But I think that some people fell into, into a kind of a trap he set and becoming antagonistic, oppositional, and to a certain degree I think kind of fulfilled that tweet that he sent.

You know, we talk about opinion journalism and, you know, Edward Murrow, for example, stood out for challenging Joe McCarthy during the McCarthy era, really played a major role in shining a bright light on the abuses of McCarthy. He did a documentary called the Harvest of Shame about how agricultural workers were treated in the sixties. So there is that bully pulpit quality to journalism that’s important, isn’t it?

Absolutely. But I don’t think that’s opinion journalism. I think that’s investigative journalism. I mean, when Murrow went after McCarthy, the most damaging thing he did was he used McCarthy’s own words against him. He showed clips, long clips of what McCarthy had done to innocent people. When he went into the fields to talk to the migrant workers, he was showing what the real conditions were there. He was shining a light. I mean, that’s a time honored part of journalism. Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable. And I don’t consider that opinion at all. I mean, it’s interesting with Trump because on the one hand, you know, as with McCarthy, he was doing bad things. He was not, there weren’t two sides to it. He was he was calling people communists who weren’t communists. Trump is, has called the 2020 election rigged and false when it wasn’t. I mean, that’s just truth. I don’t think that’s an opinion. And one of the challenges, if Trump really does run for president in ’23 and ’24, is how do you cover a guy who’s a candidate for president and very likely to be the nominee and but also give you know, as part of objective reporting, state what he did. Because he did he did some bad things. It’s not an opinion. It’s fact. And and and and you have to report that. That doesn’t mean you should, you shouldn’t, you know, that you should exclude him or boycott him. That’s not our job. But I think, you know, if you want to say Trump, whose claims about the 2020 election are baseless, or Trump who took the classified documents without authority, to to me, that’s not opinion. That’s fact.

I agree. 100% agree. And that’s the and I agree that that’s the conundrum for news organizations moving forward covering him, because just by stating the facts, you know, his supporters will view what you say as partisan and he will encourage them to view them that way.

But let me say one other thing. It’s also incumbent on us, state the facts. But you don’t have to put your thumb on the scale.

Yeah, yes. Absolutely. You don’t have to put spin on the ball. You don’t have to gild the lily. The facts speak for themselves. I totally agree with you on that. We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. Nobody’s kind of lived the evolution of particularly broadcast journalism more than you have from the time you-

That’s just cause I’m old.

Yeah, well, I know, but there are certain advantages to that, you know, wisdom.

But on your point, you pride yourself, you’ve always prided yourself on being a down the middle journalist. And, you know, I can attest to the fact that I used to go on Fox News Sunday when I worked for the for the Obama administration. And we always had brisk and interesting conversations. But I never felt that you were unfair. I thought you were tough. I never felt that you were unfair. But when you ask questions of Trump and you have asked tough questions of Trump in debates, in interviews that you, I think, believed were right down the middle, that were fair, that went to sort of what is fact and what is not. You came under attack. You were called a traitor by some of the folks who watch Fox. You were called partisan by some of the the Trump folks. How did you process all of that? Because here you’re trying to do what you’ve been trained to do for your whole life. And yet in doing it, because of what the the paradigm that’s been set up, you come under siege.

Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, let me talk, first of all, about the first time Donald Trump attacked me and the president. Forget about the other folks. I’ll get to that in a second. You know, even if you think he’s foolish and he’s got an axe to grind and he’s playing a certain role, the first time that you’re attacked by a president of the United States, it gets your attention. And, you know, one of his go-tos with me was he would always say, well, you know, Mike Wallace was great and Chris Wallace was just a wannabe. He’s not his father. And my reaction to that was-

Yes. Is, what what a projection that is by him. And, you know, that he would think that that would be devastating to me. What I think it really says more about him. And I came up with the line, which I kind of like, where I’d say, well, one of us has daddy issues and it’s not me, but but, you know, it’s not great. You know, it’s not it’s not your favorite day. And as time went on, and particularly after the debate, the second debate we did the first debate in 2016, Clinton, Trump and I moderated that, the first Fox anchor ever to moderate a general election debate just 20 days before the election. Both sides thought it was very fair. Now we had the first debate in 2020, which was the you know, the first of the two debates that they held. And if you remember, it was, you know, it was a train wreck. And afterwards, you know, he kept interrupting. It turned out we had somebody, a poor person, at Fox had to count that he had interrupted either Biden or me 145 times in 90 minutes, which is pretty extraordinary.

Yeah, that’s a lot of work for a guy who had, apparently had COVID.

Yes, well, yes. And was standing ten feet away from me with either, neither of us with a mask on. But in any case, after that, it turned much more hostile. And the Fox audience, because he played it as, I had tried to protect Biden and, you know, was was was siding, which was total B.S. But, you know, people believed it. The answer is you got, you have to have thick skin. I mean, you know, I- look, I’ve had done plenty of interviews in my life and it didn’t start at Fox. It started at NBC covering Ronald Reagan and the White House back in the eighties, where you do an interview, you do a story. And of course, it wasn’t social media then. But but, you know, when social media came where you would get, you’d see comments and one person would say, you’re a commie and another person would say, you’re in the tank to the Republicans. So, I mean, it’s become so hyper partisan and so supersensitive that you can do the same interview and one side thinks you’re favoring their enemy and the other side thinks you’re favoring their enemy.

Probably better than if both sides agree.

Well, I guess the point is, you know, at a certain point, you’ve just got to do your job. You’ve got to turn off the noise. I’m not on Twitter, I’m not on Facebook, I’m not on Instagram. And, you know, one of the reasons is because I didn’t see what that was going to do anything useful for me.

You mentioned the Fox audience. You spent 17 years as the host of Fox News Sunday.

18 years. And as I said, you know, you’ve developed a style of interviewing that is very familiar to people. That and and again, you know I think tough on everyone, fair. That is not what all aspects of Fox was, and certainly it feels like over the years and in later years and partly propagated by the Trump era, but became harder. How hard was it to sort of be in your lane, to be cordoned off doing your thing, which was, as we described it, trying to be the reporter you were you were trained to be and that you’ve, that you’ve been, but being held accountable, on the one hand by people for what was being said by others on your network and being castigated by people who were adherence to the views of others on your network for being too down the middle for not for, or in their view, as you say, being a commie. How hard did that make it for you to do your job?

I’m going to get to your, to answer your question. But let me just say one other thing first. You know, there is certainly legitimate criticism that one can make of Fox, but Fox was not alone. I mean, I think almost all of the media has moved in the direction of opinion and polarization. You know, I mean, it’s not like everybody else was playing it straight and Fox was the only one who wasn’t. I mean, I could say things about newspapers and networks and cable channels, so I don’t think Fox was, I don’t think it was the exception here. I think it was much closer to being the rule. In terms of my particular situation at Fox, it really wasn’t that hard. And this is one thing that I that I give my former bosses at Fox tremendous credit for, in my 18 years there, not once did they ever second-guess me. Not once did they ever say, you know, we second guess a question I asked or a guest that I booked. And, you know, you’re right. I was- was I tough on David Axelrod as a senior counselor to President Obama? Yeah, but I take great pride in the fact that that Mitch McConnell used to say that I was the toughest interview in town. And whenever a new Republican senator would come to town, he would say, hey, listen, if you’re going to go on Fox News Sunday, don’t expect it to be an easy interview. It won’t be. The thing that I feel most about it, though, is I get praised a lot. You know, people come up to me, and just the other day somebody came, just said, thank you for your coverage. Thank you for being straight. And while I like praise as much as the next person, I actually find it a very depressing thing because when I started out in the news business, you know, you talked about us being old news men. I started out in 1969 as the city hall reporter for the Boston Globe. And at that time and, you know, it being fair, it was like being accurate. It was like, get spelling the names of people right. It was what, it wasn’t an object, a subject to praise. It was what kept you from getting fired. And the idea that today, being fair and playing it straight and being even handed makes you stand out and as a, is the source of of praise, it seems to me, is a really sad commentary on the news business.

Yeah, well, I want to talk about what happened to the news business in one second but you know, I just have to push back gently on one point. Yes. There’s there’s a lot of opinion in the news media and opinion journalism has become really, really prevalent. But, you know, it’s one thing to have an opinion. It’s another thing to propagate untruths. And you and I both know and would assert that the last election, for example, was a fair and accurate election and probably the most scrutinized election in American history. And yet there were folks on on your network who propagated the idea that, no, it wasn’t. It was that, you know, who basically amplified Trump’s message, your network then, not your network now. And I’m not holding you accountable for what they said.

Yes. Yeah. But, you know, you have you have star performer on that network suggesting that the January 6th insurrection was a false flag operation. That’s beyond opinion. That’s dangerous, isn’t it, to propagate untruths like that, to promote them, to to be part essentially of what you describe Trump was doing earlier, which is trying to persuade people that the fundamental institutions of our democracy are corrupt, dishonest, are being manipulated in really insidious ways. I presume that disturbs you a lot?

Well, first of all, that wasn’t true for the 18 years I was at Fox. It wasn’t, has it been true since November of 2020? Yes. And it’s one of the reasons I’m not there anymore.

Let me ask you about the evolution of journalism, because, you know, your dad, as we mentioned earlier, he was an iconic figure in television journalism. Your stepdad, who’s less well-known but was also an iconic figure in television journalism, Bill Leonard at CBS. And so you grew up around this? I mean, I read somewhere you dated Walter Cronkite’s daughter. Is that true?

That’s true. My first girlfriend, Nancy Cronkite.

And that was a, such a different time. Like, I remember, I’m old enough to remember when Cronkite came back from Vietnam and reported on how poorly the war effort was going. And Johnson said privately, when you lose Cronkite, you’ve lost the country. Television journalists were considered to be what you describe as the appropriate role, people calling it as it was, and people believed what they heard. Talk about what’s happened over the years and how the news media has changed and why.

One of the few advantages, I promise this is going to get to the point. One of the few advantages of COVID and they’re not many, is that I got to read more books. Probably since March of 2020. I’ve read more books than I probably did during my four years in college. And one of the books that I read is a book you may have read by Ezra Klein called “Why We’re Polarized.” And which I think is a really terrific book.

And one of the, the point I’m going to get to is, the media certainly played a role in this and and the media helped amplify it. But I don’t know that the media was the it was the was the original cause of all this. And one of the things that Ezra points out as he talks about the fact that the that the parties used to be melting pots, ideological melting pots themselves, you had a Democratic Party that had Northern liberals and also had the Dixiecrats. You had a a Republican Party that had the Jacob Javits and Rockefellers and the New England establishment and also had the Barry Goldwaters. So both parties had to balance the the ideological divisions in the country, and that that has become much less true and that you now have a Liberal Democratic Party and a conservative Republican Party. And so fast forward from the 1970s or eighties till now, and what I think you’ve seen is an increasing polarization tribalization where, you know, where what- it’s not just what we believe politically, it’s where, what part of the country we live in. It’s whether we live in cities or we live in the country, whether what whether we believe in God or don’t believe, whether you know, there was a fascinating study I saw after the 2020 election, and it it showed what, they they divided the places by counties that had a Starbucks versus counties that had a Cracker Barrel. So so, I mean, I think it’s cultural, it’s philosophical, it’s religious, it’s geographical. And the media has fallen into that. And part of I think what’s what has happened, you know, you could argue whether the media, they certainly didn’t create it but they certainly followed it, part of it is a business model, is that they’re, generally speaking, I think it’s fair to say that audiences want news, whether it’s in newspapers or on television or the Internet, that they agree with that that supports their worldview. And, you know, so if you’re the bosses at Fox, you’re looking at an audience that’s conservative. And they, there’s a big audience. If you’re MSNBC, you look at an audience that’s that’s liberal. And, you know, I just think that the feeling that you could be all things to all people really no longer exists in the media. And I see bias. I see it in the front pages of newspapers, I see it in cable news, I see it in broadcast news. I think it’s all around us. It’s just in the the pool, the ocean we swim in.

Yes. I think that we have a screwed up incentive system both in politics and media, where you’re rewarded for essentially for pandering to constituencies. You said something interesting a few years ago, though, that you thought that 60 Minutes, with all its success and your dad, you know, was part of that success, helped contribute to the kind of corruption of the the news media. And I was interested in that. Explain that.

Yeah, look, I think the journalism on 60 Minutes is first rate. But let me explain it this way, for a long time, and I you’re right, I grew up in this business. I can remember the fifties, let alone the sixties and seventies in broadcast television news. It was always seen as a loss leader that you that that it was a public service and that a Bill Paley was the head of the CBS. He didn’t expect, if if news broke even that was a huge success. That was enough. And if it lost money, as long as it was reasonable, I think they could live with that. The point I was making was that 60 Minutes was really the first time in broadcast television that news was seen as a profit center. And and that changed the game a bit because once it became evident that you could attract big audiences and and, you know, I think they were doing it the right way with very good, serious, tough journalism and a lot of contrarian journalism, you know, they weren’t- a lot of pieces my father did ticked off liberals as well as as conservatives. But I think it created in, among the business people at networks, a sense, you know, we could build audiences and that then guts to, well, if you’re going to go build audiences, you know, is it just that you try to do better journalism or maybe you begin to pander a bit? And I think, you know, from from the from the mid seventies, when 60 Minutes suddenly became a top ten show, and then for years was the top, the number one show. I think that that has fostered a phenomenon where, you know, the news news organizations go looking for audience rather than just hoping that, do good job and the audience will come to them.

Yeah, I think also just to add to that, some of the causes of this, the Internet, certainly by undermining the sort of advertising base of traditional news sources, particularly in local markets, has contributed to some of these problems. The amount of data that’s available, you know, to help target these appeals has impacted it. But, you know, this is the great struggle for news. The the struggle between being a public trust, which a good news organization should consider itself to be, and being a business which in this day and age, you have to be and perhaps always you had to be. But now it seems more accentuated and it may impact on behavior. We’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with more of The Axe Files. And now back to the show. You mentioned 60 Minutes. You’ve got a show debuting on Sunday that is running opposite 60 Minutes, so you’re taking on the old titan yourself. Talk to me about about the show, because it’s interesting, I mean people think of you as someone who is, you know, interrogating public figures. That’s what you did for 18 years. People saw it every Sunday. They saw you in debates and so on. This is a different kind of show, isn’t it? Tell me about it.

Well, and it’s not just going to be Sunday, it’s also going to be on Fridays. Let me talk about the show first and then the platforms. Basically, after 18 years, I got tired of politics. I don’t mean that I, that I don’t still follow politics. I read about it every day. I’m you know, I’m conversant, as you can see from this conversation with what Biden said today and what happened to Trump today and what Putin did. But, you know, I, like you I suspect, I’ve got a lot of other interests. And I was I was frustrated that all I was doing was focusing on one of them. And, you know, I’m interested in sports, I’m interested in business, I’m interested in entertainment. And I thought about it. And then this was a point when I was kind of looking for something different to do and new to do. And one last chapter in my career, but it’s a long chapter and and I wanted to do something different. And I thought, you know, and I looked around and, you know, there used to be shows, always it seems whether, you know, my father had interview shows, Larry King’s show for forever and Charlie Rose’s show forever. There’s nothing like that anymore where there is a, not an interview, but a good, sensible, thoughtful, extended conversation and with with people across the spectrum of of of interests and activities. And so I pitched to Jeff Zucker back last November, and he bought it right away. And I said, what’s the idea? I said, It’s Larry King meets Charlie Rose. He said, I love it. And of course, they had CNN+. And I was also really interested because, you know, you talk about the evolution of broadcasting. I’ve been in radio, I’ve been in local chat TV, I’ve been a broadcast networks, I’ve been in cable news. When I went in 2003 to Fox, left ABC to go to, to, to Fox, a lot of people thought, why are you going from a broadcast network to cable? Well, you know, that turned out pretty well. And, you know, now streaming fascinates me. So this show is going to drop every Friday on HBO Max, and it’ll be three separate, basically half-hour interviews. And I can tell you, big scoop, our first week, our three interviews are going to be retired, just-retired Justice Stephen Breyer, his first interview since he retired from the court. I did it on Monday at Harvard Law School. And I promise you, David, this is not hype, you have never heard a current or retired Supreme Court justice talk about the court, talk about his job, the way Breyer talks about it in this interview. Then I just did in an interview today with Tyler Perry, who’s just got a new movie out on Netflix. Really interesting, well, and I’ll tell you about Tyler Perry in a second, and then Shania Twain, who I did a couple of weeks ago. I have to tell you, to do Stephen Breyer, Tyler Perry and Shania Twain. I’m like a kid in a candy store. I could not be more excited. So it’ll be three interviews on HBO Max, each separate. You can you can access them separately on Fridays and then they’ll live on there. And then on Sundays we’ll take the best parts of all three interviews and combine them for an hour in prime time at 7 p.m. on CNN. And I’m so excited about it. I mean, you know, the thing I was gonna say, Tyler Perry, and this is what’s so interesting to me, because I was feeling a little bit hands tied, stultified by just covering, you know, the, the incremental difference from one Sunday to the next in the Build Back Better bill and you know, to learn about Tyler Perry and Madea- I’d never seen a Madea movie. Well I’m now kind of an expert on Madea movies and on Tyler Perry at and they’re entertaining as hell. And I am so excited to be able to learn and to give voice to all of my different interests.

Yeah. What do you do to research for these shows? Because you mentioned that some of these people are beyond your experience. You’re experiencing them in some ways in depth for the first time. How do you get ready for them? And what are you what are you trying to share with people? What what what are you trying to get at in these you know, you’re not trying to elicit, you know, an honest answer on Build Back Better from your guests here. What is it that you’re trying to elicit?

Well, it’s a very good question. And the answer is that, and this is one of the things that frustrated me at Fox News Sunday is that everything was so scripted, you know, even 10 minutes, which is a long time on cable news. You know, I spent as much time thinking about what I wasn’t going to ask as what I was going to ask and I knew that the politician, whether it’s a member of the Cabinet, whether it’s a senator or congressman, either party was going to be so scripted and, you know, so many talking points that to try to get past that was really going to be hard, particularly in ten or 12 minutes. Here in a half an hour, and with a lot of people, yes, they’ve got publicists with them, but not nearly as sort of scripted. What I really hope is that at some point in the half hour that the viewer will say, that’s kind of real. That’s kind of surprising that, you know, in a in a world filled with these little five minute interviews on morning television and stuff. You know, I sat there with Tyler Perry. I learned things about him that I didn’t know and that I’d never read before. And I think that if you watch it on Friday on HBO Max, or Sunday as part of the hour on CNN that you’ll say, that was kind of real. You don’t see that on TV very often. And I you know, I’m a pretty good interviewer and I have learned to kind of get you know, to try to blow past the niceties. Oh, tell me about your movie. And and and to try to get more candid, more honest, more real with these folks. And that’s enormously rewarding to me when I feel like, yes, there are cameras and yes, there are lights, and yes, it’s a studio and it couldn’t be more artificial, that we’re just two human beings across a table talking about stuff. Frankly, it’s like a podcast. I’m sure you feel that, you know? That’s what you’re trying to do.

I actually, I didn’t want to mention this, but I, I did did do this podcast on CNN for three and a half years. Yours will be much more successful, I trust. But but I did the same thing. I mean, I had a range of of people and I had a great, it may be- and I just as I’m sure Justice Breyer will be incredibly illuminating and and surprising. I had a wonderful session with Sonia Sotomayor on one of those TV shows, because then the goal is to have a conversation, like a real conversation, not scripted back and forth. And, you know, I’m wondering, you mentioned your dad did them, he did this really highly regarded interview series from like 1957 to about 1960 on various, in various places. Do you remember those shows?

Sure. Sure. Night Beat. And then it became, that was on a local channel five, the Dumont Station. That’s a network that doesn’t even exist anymore. The Dumont Station in Channel five in New York. And it was so groundbreaking because up to that point, nobody had ever asked a real question. It was always very, you know, well, why do you in town for and what’s, you know, what are you what’s your new movie or whatever? And he was was pretty confrontational. And no, it hadn’t happened before. And he was in a totally black studio. He was smoking cigarettes, the cigarette smoke was swirling up and I think put people on the hot seat. I’m not trying, I mean, well it’s in my DNA, will I ask some indiscreet questions? Yes, but but but you know, my real point is to have a thoughtful conversation with folks. And I’m having a great time. I’ve done about 15 interviews so far. I put a lot in the bank and we’re doing some topical ones now, like Stephen Breyer for this week. Some are evergreens and it’s it’s been a really interesting journey.

What is the most surprising thing in the interviews you’ve already done? What is the thing that kind of blew you away? Is is there a moment that caused you to kind of stop and say, wow, that’s extraordinary or move you or I know nothing would cause you not to be able to speak.

No, I’ve not been speechless yet, which is incidentally a bad look both in podcasts, at least in TV, you could see somebody, in an audio podcast-

Although sometimes, so when someone says something incredibly moving, there’s space for a moment, a pause.

Yes, a beat. Maybe two beats but not not long endless silence.

Yes, but anyway. But yeah.

No, no, I mean. Well, there are some things with Breyer. There were some moments with Tyler Perry today where he’s talking about his father beat the hell out of him. He was a he was a a little kid that grew up poor in New Orleans. And I knew about this and I brought it up. And there were so many parts of this that were that were interesting to me. One was he’s done a new movie, and one of the subjects in it is colorism. And colorism, for the folks who don’t know and I didn’t know, is that people even inside a group will judge other people in that same group by how light or dark the color of their skin is. And he basically said to me that my father liked my siblings more than me because I was darker than they were. Now they were all African-American. But that he held it against Tyler that that he was so dark and he talked about how he beat the hell out of him. And then at another point, he talks about, you know, I don’t have any relationship with him. I haven’t spoken to him in ten or 15 years. But the one thing my father did for me is he provided, you know, he was a, he beat my mother, he beat me, but he always brought the money home and we always had a roof to live under and food to eat. And so even though he hates his father and what he did to him, did to Tyler, he he still provides money for him because, you know, he says, I don’t want any emotional relationship with him. You know, he provided for me. I’m going to provide for him. And he also talked about how, you know, I’m giving away, the whole interview. He’s now got a seven year old son. And he talked about his son, who’s now seven, Aman, and how. Because I put up a picture in studio of him as a five year old boy, Tyler as a five year old boy and just as sweet and cute and seemingly untroubled, even though he was living in this hell. And he he talked about how when he talks to his seven year old son now, he’s also talking to that five year old boy inside him, because when he says “I love you” to his son, he’s basically saying, “I love you” to five year old Tyler. That’s pretty, that’s pretty moving stuff.

Yes, it is. You know, it struck me when you said that about him still providing for his father. It’s also a way of saying, you know, whatever you thought of me, I made it, man. I’m a big success.

No, it gets worse than that, actually, because what he says. He he told the story, God I’m sort of catching my throat, as I say it. You’ll particularly appreciate this. He said that his father about ten years ago, after he’d already become a huge success, either called him or sent him- and I forget how the communication came. If I had beaten you a little more, you would have been Obama.

Oh, my. Oh, my. Oh. You know, when you do these, when you’re, when you’re the anchor of a Fox News Sunday or a Thursday prime time on ABC or whatever, you know, you’re not expected to be particularly revealing of yourself. That’s not your role. I know because I’ve done a lot of stuff with you before. I’ve done this podcast with you before. I mean, you had your own complicated relationship with your father. Do you draw on that own, does that experience help inform your interest and your probing in a conversation like this? Do you share any of that? Do you feel any of that?

Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. Well, I mean, first of all, I mean, you know, you’re the product of everything you’ve been through personally, professionally. And, you know, when I’m talking to him, it’s interesting. It’s really interesting. You’re very, that’s a really, you’re very intuitive because as he was talking about how, I don’t know if I should say this, but I will say it. So here you go. As as he was telling that story, I was thinking about my own life and and I almost shared it, I didn’t. And I thought afterwards, I wonder if I should have shared this or not. And the story is basically this that, let me be clear from the start, my father never touched me, never did anything abusive. So I don’t want anybody to think any of that. My father was basically absent.

Yeah, well, absence absence is a form of abuse when you’re a child.

Well, okay, I don’t know, I’m not going to label- he was, he just wasn’t there. And so as he was telling the story about how in dealing with his seven year old son, he was dealing with his own pain as when he was seven years old. I was thinking to myself that when I had children and I would go out and I’d throw a ball to them that my father never did that. He wasn’t around. We became very good friends. And when I became a teenager and, you know, we were best friends by the end of his life. But but, you know, I could relate on a deep emotional level to that because in a very different way and for very different reasons, I felt the same way about dealing with my son and how it helped me deal with some of the wounds that I had as a child.

Yeah, I wish you had, because I think-

Let me get Tyler back. We’ll do this.

No, no, no. But, you know, I do think-

No, but but let me, can I just interrupt to say?

I completely agree with you that one of the things that so, and I have done it, that one of the things that I think really makes these conversations work, whether it’s a podcast or whether it’s on TV, is by sharing some of yourself, not making it all one way. You tell me about you. I’m not going to tell you anything about me. I completely agree with you.

Well, that’s the difference between an interview and a conversation.

So in that light, let me ask you a question.

No, no. This is this is- you went to Jeff Zucker, who’s a great friend of mine, who brought me over to CNN. For whom I have great respect. You pitched this show. They slotted you as kind of a centerpiece of the CNN+. And then all of sudden Zucker is gone. CNN+.

Two weeks into my employment at CNN, Zucker’s gone.

So was there a moment when you said, Jesus, what the hell did I do?

Well, it wasn’t my best day, but but, you know, I wasn’t nearly as unsettled as a lot of people, which is not to say that, you know, I didn’t like Jeff Zucker. I had never worked with Jeff Zucker. We’d had a couple of meetings. I had knew his reputation. He knew mine. But it isn’t like we had any kind of a working relationship. So while I was sad that he was gone, you know, I’ve been in this business a long time and and, now you’ve kind of been in this business a long time. And I’ve you know, I’ve had bosses that I really liked get canned and then to be replaced by bosses I didn’t like. And then other bosses come, you know, it’s just.

But sure, I mean, aside from your relationship with him, did you worry that about what what exactly you were going to be doing?

Honestly, and this may say something about a failure of imagination on my part, not especially. I had enough confidence in myself. I had enough confidence in the contract that I had signed that they were going to have to pay me some money.

That could inspire confidence.

I figured that they would find a place for me. And the interesting thing is, while I’m very sad about the demise of CNN+ and and, you know, really was excited about it, I’m in a better situation now. I mean, HBO Max has 75 million subscribers. And and now I’m also going to be on CNN, the cable channel, you know, so I’m going to have the three half hour interviews on Fridays for people to want to watch the whole thing. If you want to see the the best parts, you can watch CNN. And the other thing, which I’m really grateful about, is I was able to keep every single member of my team. And that was tremendously important because a lot of people, you know, had taken a risk and they’d come over and you know, and this went two ways. One, I was able to protect all of them and they could have gone other places. Every single one of them signed on to stay on this ship. So I’m very excited and I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to them to keep this ship going.

Your dad worked, I think, until he was almost 90.

I think 88, yeah. The answer is no.

You you you’ve got a big birthday coming up. You know, you’ve got, you’ve got a few-

Oh my god, you even know about that.

You’ve got a few miles on you.

75 on October 12, which is why my name is Christopher, because I was born on the real Columbus Day. None of those three day weekend crap.

Well, congrats on that. But so you don’t you don’t see yourself as a, a lifer in the sense that you’ll do this-

I don’t know how long, depends on how long I live. You know, I’ve signed for a few years. I’d like to get through the 2024 election. I’d like, I’d like to do that. And then from that point on, I mean, I certainly wasn’t ready to quit when I came over to CNN. I very much, I don’t know if this is true about you. It’s true about me. When I am sitting home alone and I’ve got nothing to do, my head goes in bad places and I just, it’s not healthy. And and conversely, if I’ve got an interview to think about or a person, I’m going to try to book, project I’m working on, a election to prepare for. I’m much happier. My wife is much happier. And life is much smoother.

No I think the key is, I mean, I’m struggling with this myself. The key is finding the right balance because I’ve got three grandchildren now.

Yeah. There you go. And I’ve got. And I love being with my wife, and we’ve, I’ve cheated her for a long, long time. Decades and decades of. And so I’m trying to figure out how do you strike that balance? Because, yes, I like I like being creative. I like being in the mix. So it’s it’s hard to figure out. But obviously, your dad was driven in a kind of, I mean, I had a mother like that who worked into her eighties. And I guess there’s a certain pathology to that, to just saying, I have to do it. I have to keep going. You see it, by the way, in a lot of our elected representatives, I’m not talking about the president, but, you know, I always and this is.

No you’re talking about Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer and James Clyburn.

Well, I, I often referred to and now we’ll get, my producer will probably want to chop this out of this, the Senate is the world’s most gilded assisted living center. People have a hard time, especially people in the public view when they’re relevant, saying, you know what, I can step away from that. Do you think that when the time comes that you can do that?

Yeah, I certainly hope so. And you know, in terms of work-life balance, I still really want to work. And incidentally, my wife wasn’t clamoring for me to retire either. I think she was very happy that, you know, as I say, for better or for worse, but not for lunch. But but but, you know, I hope at some point I do. I don’t, I certainly have never been as driven by work as my father was. And while I respected that enormously on his part, that that’s what he wanted and that’s what made him happy, you know, and I, look, I’m about to be 75 and I’m out busy traveling all around the country doing interviews. So it’s hardly like I’m taking time off, I’m not quiet quitting by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m not as driven. And I, they’ll they’ll come a point. I don’t know when it’ll be, but they’ll come a point.

Well, what’s very clear is that you’re excited about this project. And I’m looking forward to it. I’m going to look at your technique, see if there are things that I should add to my repertoire. But obviously, it’s going to be it’s going to be interesting to hear these conversations. Chris, it’s always good to be with you. I look forward to seeing you down the line at CNN and we’ll have an interesting couple of years ahead of us, I think.

Absolutely. Thank you very much. I enjoyed this as much as I did the last one.

Thank you for listening to The Axe Files brought to you by the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and CNN Audio. The executive producer of the show is Allyson Siegal. The show is also produced by Miriam Fender Annenberg, Jeff Fox and Hannah Grace McDonald. And special thanks to our partners at CNN, including Rafeena Adhmad and Megan Marcus. For more programing from the IOP, visit politics.uchicago.edu.


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