Ahead of Tuesday night's presidential debate hosted by Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace, two of the network's top news anchors spoke with Insider about how they're approaching the event and how they view their role in a polarized atmosphere.
They also reflected on news echo chambers, with Fox News Chief Political Anchor Bret Baier saying, "Of course, people are in silos a lot of times, but the news as I do it, I'm looking at it through horse blinders. I'm looking at my hour, and Twitter is not real life."
Martha MacCallum, anchor and executive editor of "The Story" and Baier's co-anchor for debate coverage, added that she thinks "cable news viewers are the most informed people in the world."
Baier and MacCallum said they undergo daily coronavirus testing at the debate site at the Cleveland Clinic, but their goal remains the same: "Helping voters make a decision."
With Fox News Sunday's Chris Wallace hosting the first debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday night, two of the network's top news anchors spoke with Insider about what to expect and how they approach their coverage.
Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum also discussed how echo chambers impact the way the American public consumes news, how they've been drawn to debates from a young age, what they see as the best roles for a debate moderator and TV panel, and what they're looking out for Tuesday as Biden and Trump face off for the first time.
Baier, the chief political anchor for Fox News and host of "Special Report," has been at the network since 1998, while MacCallum, anchor and executive editor of "The Story," joined the channel in 2004 and has anchored some of its most high-profile event coverage.
Baier and MacCallum will helm Fox News' pre- and post-debate programming live from Cleveland, where the network has a set erected at the Cleveland Clinic debate site.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jake Lahut: Just to start out, I was wondering if you guys watched the debates growing up and what politics was like for each of you?
Bret Baier: I was in New Jersey from age zero to 10, so it wasn't a lot of politics watching, but I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and I became a little bit of a political junkie. I remember specifically watching the conventions and balloons dropping and being fascinated by politics overall. But as I got older, I really paid attention to debates, and the classic moments in debates — the Reagan debate where he said, "I paid for this microphone," the George HW Bush debate with Clinton and Ross Perot, where he checks his watch — the iconic moments that you remember. You just think back to the big debate moments and then you think forward to where we are now. The last cycle was quite something.
Martha MacCallum: Some of my earliest memories actually are as a little kid watching the Watergate hearings. I come from a family that is full of political debate. We have folks on both sides in terms of their political philosophy so there was always a lot of vigorous debate at our dinner tables. I come by it naturally.
I remember Lloyd Bentsen looking at Dan Quayle and saying, "Jack Kennedy, was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." And Ronald Reagan with his moment of, "I refuse to use the advantage of my opponent's youth and inexperience" — I think I just mangled that a little bit, but you remember the one. I mean, what I love in that moment — I just actually saw that moment again yesterday — is that [Walter] Mondale just give this good-natured laugh when [Reagan] said it. And really, it made me realize what a different era we are in now. And the tension you can cut with a knife between these two candidates.
I think that with Donald Trump's arrival on the scene back in 2016, we saw this game change in a way that has not changed back. And I don't know that it ever will.
Lahut: What do you think your colleague Chris Wallace brings to the debate stage?
Baier: Well, he's just been in the seat before. He knows how it goes. You know, debates are different. They're not town halls, they're not Q&As. They're an effort to set the table so that the two candidates can go at each other, ideally over policy and substance. Chris does that better than most. And I've worked alongside him for many years. We've practiced and worked on primary debates together, and he's very methodical about how he goes about his job. And now he's in this cone of solitude, preparing for the questions and the blueprint that he's going to have, but he's going to do a great job.
MacCallum: I think he's returning this year because he did such a great job. I went back and watched his debate from 2016 and it was fascinating. I also thought it was interesting that the first two questions out of the gate in 2016 were 'What kind of Supreme Court nominee would you pick?' and 'Would you accept the results of the election?' So it's interesting with all that has happened, a lot has come full circle and here we are again. But Chris is a hard worker and he believes in being very thorough and having all of your follow-up points and understanding the history on what each candidate has said on that topic in the past, and holding their feet to the fire on it. So I think it's a masterclass for anybody who's just starting in this business and I will enjoy watching every minute of it from our set here in Cleveland.
Lahut: Has the coronavirus changed your jobs and the way you prepare for an event like this?
Baier: Well, for us, it's a smaller footprint in Cleveland. It is different with coronavirus, but we've dealt with this now through big events, the Democratic National Convention, the Republican National Convention. And we're going to follow all the protocols. We get tested every day at the Cleveland Clinic. Those things are all different, but the substance of the coverage, and ideally, helping voters make a decision, I think is really the goal of not only what we're doing, but what the commission is trying to do with the debates.
MacCallum: We've all adjusted, and I'm just really glad that our team has been very forward-leaning in this, and we haven't let it keep us from doing our job. We wear our masks, we wash our hands, we get tested. We do everything we can to be able to bring the story to the American people because I feel that it's really important for us to be actually on location and not, you know, in a camera booth somewhere.
Lahut: What do you think about the notion — or almost conventional wisdom at this point — of Americans being in echo chambers when consuming their news? When it comes to your roles at Fox, are there things you try to do to counter or break through that?
MacCallum: I think anybody who chooses to watch what we will do tonight and tomorrow night will — if they don't normally watch Fox — probably say, 'Wow, that's a pretty fair panel. That's a pretty even-handed discussion.' I know that's what we do. So I feel that anybody who thinks otherwise doesn't really watch us very closely. I know that there's a tendency at other networks to dig into this story or that story and do it all day long, and that they think is a negative for the president. We tend to cover pretty much everything. And also, I do think it's surprising that there's been so little negative coverage of Joe Biden so far.
Baier: I've been doing my show for almost 12 years; I've been on the network for 23. So on the news side, of course we're trying to reach people who really want a fair look at all sides. The opinion side, those folks do a different thing — they do it very well, but they come from an opinion place. So I think the opportunity is there to reach new viewers for us. And that's what we're looking at every time. But the biggest responsibility we have is to present both sides fairly, and most people who you ask say that's happening.
Lahut: Do you worry about what people expect from their news in terms of just confirming their prior beliefs, particularly with how social media and newsfeed algorithms operate?
Baier: Of course, people are in silos a lot of times, but the news as I do it, I'm looking at it through horse blinders. I'm looking at my hour, and Twitter is not real life. You know what I mean? It is viewers [who tweet], but they're very opinionated one way or another. And on my Twitter feed, I do respond, and Jack will say, "You're so in the tank for Trump, it's ridiculous how in the tank for Trump you are." And then Bob will say, "You are such a never Trumper. You hate Trump." And I'll say, "Jack, meet Bob. Bob, meet Jack. Let's work this thing out. I'm going to cover the news." So that's kind of where my mindset is, and we're just going to do our job. And if you build it, they will come.
Lahut: What makes TV the most appealing medium for you as journalists?
MacCallum: I love the accessibility of cable news in particular. I think that cable news viewers are the most informed people in the world. I think they watch all day long in many cases. I love television news, especially in the middle of a plot of a political cycle like this. I read everything else. I'm on social media. I'm looking at blogs. I have a blog called The Untold Story. So I think there's a lot of different places for us to put content right now, which is terrific. I love all different forms of news expression, but especially in an election year, there's nothing like being on camera, being with a great team of panelists and analysts and having them weigh in in real time. There's nothing like that.
Baier: I just think people are tuned in. I've worked in all of them — I've written in papers, I've done radio. TV, I think, is a visual medium, and people seem to gravitate to it now, but it's also digital. You know, our business is going to change eventually, and more and more it's going to be online. But right now it is a way to present stories in a shortened form, but still be able to get to the meat of the subject.
Lahut: Bret, I know you make a point on air and on your Twitter page to note how you ask the Biden campaign if he can come on your show every week, but to no avail. So, if you could ask Joe Biden one question, what would it be?
Baier: There's so many questions, but if you had to pick one, I'd say, come on my show. How about coming on the show? [Laughs.] I think that the important questions here are about substance of policies, or it comes down to all of this stuff about personality and how people deal with things. What matters is what is actually happening in the new administration. And I think that there's a lot to dig into about plans for the future, and that's where our focus really should be — taxes, regulation, where the Obama economy was and where he sees it now. The argument on the other side is that they turned things around and it was the Trump action that changed the economy. So I'd like to kind of dig into where the future of that goes.
Lahut: Martha, for a quick follow to your point on negative Biden coverage, do you think some of that might be an over-correction from 2016 with Hillary Clinton and her emails, even if unconsciously?
MacCallum: I don't think you should overcorrect — I think you should tell the story. There are storylines out there and they deserve to be covered. The vice president does misspeak quite often. He has a complicated medical history. That's just a fact. So I just think that you have to be open to following these storylines and asking the questions. If there's nothing there then there's nothing there, but it doesn't seem that he gets the same kind of scrutiny that the other side gets. So I just, you know, I think it's important to ask these questions and if they go somewhere, you've got to follow that lead, if they don't, you move on.
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