The star Fox News anchor Chris Wallace announced on Sunday that he was leaving for CNN, stripping the Rupert Murdoch-owned network of its most decorated down-the-middle journalist as stridently conservative hosts like Tucker Carlson have increasingly set the channel’s agenda.
The network has pulled far ahead of CNN and MSNBC in the ratings with an expanded slate of right-wing commentary that denounces President Biden and defends former President Donald J. Trump. But some members of its newsroom have been unnerved by programming that has given weight to vaccine skeptics or amplified conspiracy theories about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
Mr. Wallace, 74, had expressed concern to Fox News management about a recent documentary from Mr. Carlson, “Patriot Purge,” which included the false claim that the riot was a “false flag” operation created to demonize the political right. The anchor’s objections, first reported by NPR, were confirmed on Sunday by two people who requested anonymity to share private discussions.
Mr. Wallace’s contract as host of “Fox News Sunday” was up at the end of December, and three people familiar with his thinking said he weighed several factors in choosing to leave, including a desire to expand his portfolio beyond politics to include business, sports and entertainment. He will host an interview program starting next year on CNN+, a new digital streaming platform.
Fox News often pointed to Mr. Wallace and his tough interviews of both Democrats and Republicans to rebut critics who accused the channel of jettisoning traditional reporting. Mr. Wallace was the first Fox News anchor to moderate a presidential debate (in 2016, and again in 2020) and its first journalist to be nominated for an Emmy Award, for a widely praised 2018 grilling of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
He follows other journalists who have left Fox News, including Shepard Smith and Kristin Fisher. In May, the liberal Juan Williams was removed from his spot on the network’s afternoon talk show, “The Five,” and the Democratic analyst Donna Brazile left Fox News for ABC. A pair of conservative pundits, Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg, quit last month in protest of Mr. Carlson’s special. (Fox News said it had not intended to renew the pair’s contracts.)
“For lots of serious journalists of all stripes, we looked to Chris as a guide on how to do real news and real reporting in sometimes disorienting moments over the last several years,” Mr. Hayes said in an interview.
Mr. Wallace’s exit caught the TV news industry off guard on Sunday. “I’m ready for a new adventure,” he told viewers at the end of his regular broadcast.
He also offered praise for Fox News, his home since 2003. “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,” Mr. Wallace said. “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.”
Fox News said in a statement: “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.”
Among the expected fill-ins are Bret Baier, who hosts the network’s 6 p.m. newscast, as well as Neil Cavuto, John Roberts and Dana Perino. While Mr. Wallace’s exit leaves a gap on the reportorial side of Fox News, the network still boasts respected journalists like the Congressional reporter Chad Pergram and the Jerusalem-based correspondent Trey Yingst.
The network’s biggest star is Mr. Carlson, who is the top-rated host not just on Fox News but in all of cable news, and who enjoys strong support from management. Fox News has not commented on the controversy around “Patriot Purge,” which is one of several documentaries that Mr. Carlson has in the works.
But internal tensions over Mr. Carlson’s special have spilled into public view. In October, the Fox News host Geraldo Rivera told The New York Times that the special seemed “inflammatory and outrageous and uncorroborated,” adding: “I’m wondering how much is done to provoke, rather than illuminate.”
Fox News’s turn has been a major success for the network, in terms of ad revenues and Nielsen ratings. In November, Fox News shows represented 71 of the 100 top-rated telecasts in all of cable television.
It also comes as cable news programmers have sought to reflect the country’s more partisan climate. MSNBC, for instance, replaced Chris Matthews, its moderate 7 p.m. anchor, with the left-wing commentator Joy Reid, who also co-hosted its election night coverage.
John Malone, a major shareholder in Discovery Inc., which may soon control CNN, said last month he wanted CNN to “actually have journalists, which would be unique and refreshing,” a seeming critique of the channel’s reliance on commentary. (Mr. Malone also praised Mr. Baier of Fox News for trying “to distinguish news from opinion.”)
Fox News briefly lost viewers in the wake of Mr. Trump’s defeat last November. Many of the network’s fans balked at its anchors’ willingness to declare Mr. Biden the president-elect; some defected to the harder-edged right-wing network Newsmax, which had a surge in viewership.
Fox executives replaced a 7 p.m. newscast with conservative commentary, and shifted an 11 p.m. newscast back an hour to make room for a talk show hosted by the pro-Trump pundit Greg Gutfeld, which is now dominating its time slot.
The network also fired a veteran politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, roughly two months after he had helped make an early election-night projection that Mr. Trump would lose Arizona, infuriating allies of the former president.
Mr. Wallace’s willingness to critique Mr. Trump on-air was often praised by liberals, but he also confounded Fox News critics by refusing to denounce his opinionated colleagues.
“Look, I work at Fox. Do I agree with some of the stuff I hear? Absolutely not,” Mr. Wallace told The Times last year. But he said he had not felt pressure to report the news with any particular slant, adding, “I’ve never been second-guessed on a guest I booked, a question I’ve asked.”
He was recruited to “Fox News Sunday” by Roger Ailes, the network’s co-founder, who believed a robust news operation helped legitimize a channel whose conservative opinion programs were a TV novelty at the time of it started in 1996.
A former White House correspondent for NBC News, Mr. Wallace had a knack for irritating presidents. Bill Clinton accused him of having a “little smirk on your face,” Barack Obama shunned his interview attempts for eight years, and Mr. Trump frequently rebuked him on Twitter, comparing him unfavorably with his father, the “60 Minutes” anchor Mike Wallace.
As moderator of the final debate of the 2016 election, Mr. Wallace received high marks for keeping the candidates in line. In 2020, it was a different story: Mr. Trump ran roughshod over his questions and accused him of bias. “A terrible missed opportunity,” Mr. Wallace conceded afterward.
At CNN+, Mr. Wallace will help cover election nights and nominating conventions. He is also likely to indulge other interests: A product of the East Coast establishment, he is friendly with some celebrities, including the actor George Clooney, with whom he has vacationed in Italy.
It is not the first time Mr. Wallace has considered a move. In 2017, CBS approached him about anchoring the “Evening News,” but he ultimately declined.
CNN’s president, Jeff Zucker, has been trying to lure star talent — including Rachel Maddow of MSNBC — for his new streaming service, which media analysts believe is critical to the channel’s future as viewers shift away from traditional TV. To borrow industry parlance, Mr. Wallace is a “big get.”
“It is not often that a news organization gets the opportunity to bring someone of Chris Wallace’s caliber on board,” Mr. Zucker said in a statement on Sunday. The hiring comes in the wake of an embarrassing episode for CNN, which fired its top-rated anchor, Chris Cuomo, over ethical concerns.
On his final Fox News broadcast, Mr. Wallace said he felt “real sadness” that his time at the network was up.
“For the last time, dear friends, that’s it for today,” he concluded. “Have a great week, and I hope you’ll keep watching ‘Fox News Sunday.’”