Film & TV

Before Jim Acosta, There Was Mike Wallace

From Mike Wallace Is Here
A new documentary on the late 60 Minutes ‘reporter’ reveals his chyron-crusader shtick for the theatrical performance it always was.

TV newsman Mike Wallace died in 2012 but it’s time to see that great old muckraker in action once more. In his half-century as a TV interviewer, mostly for 60 Minutes, Wallace struck so much fear into so many hearts that any old Widget Co. executive whose secretary uttered the words “Mike Wallace is here” must have contemplated exiting the building via a window, preferably one many stories off the ground.

How he nailed those wingtip-wearing bastards, those human-rights-violating tyrants, those smarmy politicians! He destroyed every one of them, such as . . . er, well, such as . . . I mean, you know. But you don’t, really. Did Wallace nail . . . anybody important? Even anybody we remember? Or was he just really good at playing the role of a truth-seeking, take-no-prisoners, holy-man-on-a-mission journalist?

Avi Belkin’s new documentary, Mike Wallace Is Here, tries to make the case for Wallace’s importance but pretty much comes up empty. If Wallace, 60 Minutes’s attack dog on so many Sunday nights, did in fact line his trophy room with the skulls of the men he’d vanquished, you would think a documentary would provide the evidence. It doesn’t. There isn’t a single shot of Wallace really nailing anybody you’ve ever heard of, though there is a bitter exchange with the Vietnam War general William Westmoreland, who sued Wallace and drove the reporter to depression and a suicide attempt before dropping the case. If Wallace ever got a scoop that mattered, it isn’t in this film. One time he exposed a small-time dirtbag who was selling kiddie porn. Lots of times he managed to get shoved aside on camera, or to have people dramatically stalk off the set or try to put their hand over the lens. But that’s all theater, not journalism.

Wallace got started in showbiz and never really left, working first as a radio announcer, then as a small-time actor and pitchman, notably for Parliament cigarettes. He then segued into celebrity interviews. The movie is replete with clips of him talking to Barbra Streisand and Oprah Winfrey and Shirley MacLaine and Johnny Carson and Rod Serling and Kirk Douglas and Larry King. He interviewed Richard Nixon and Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, too, but elicited the same kinds of quotes they gave other interviewers. Once he interviewed Bill O’Reilly, who said he’d learned his nakedly hostile, confrontational style from . . . Mike Wallace. O’Reilly did a bit more shouting and name-calling, but the link is clearly visible: He was just the blue-collar version of Wallace.

Belkin is largely sympathetic to Wallace and his travails, such as the severe depression he suffered during the Westmoreland case. He takes us through Wallace’s mourning after his son Peter’s death in a 1962 mountain-climbing accident. (His other son, Chris, is a Fox News mainstay.) Yet the director, in the spirit of his subject, can’t help busting Wallace’s chops a little. Wallace, a celebrity himself, appeared on virtually all of the major talk shows as a guest and seemed averse to the taste of his own medicine. One interviewer is seen asking how many times Wallace has been married. The answer is four, but note the sanctimonious fury and the attempt to rule the question out of bounds: “How many times have I been married? Well what in the world do you want to ask a question like that for? What relevance does that have? That’s the kind of a question that you might hear on Hard Copy or A Current Affair.” Cut to Wallace interviewing Larry King: “Women and Larry King: What a saga! . . . You’ve been married how many times?”

A Donald Trump interview from 1985 is amusing: “There is a new billionaire in town. Trump’s the name,” Wallace announces gravely. “Donald Trump is a major dealmaker. A swashbuckler.” He asks his subject, “You’re in your late 30s. You got 40 years to live, minimum. What are you gonna do?” (Hard-hitting Wallace was not when he was in suck-up mode, which was often.) Trump says what the future holds is “not politics,” although he allows that he would obviously be far better at negotiating arms-control agreements than anybody currently doing that, meaning Ronald Reagan. Then he previews his American carnage shtick: “Somebody has to help this country and if they don’t, the country and the world are in big trouble. Because within a short period of time, as sure as we’re sitting here, there’s not gonna be a country and there’s not gonna be a world.” This seems a tad dark for 1985.

What Wallace did when playing investigative reporter was not break people à la a skilled courtroom prosecutor but rather behave so obnoxiously that he elicited an angry reaction for the audience’s entertainment. The way to handle him was simply to choose not to react. Sitting with the ironically named Nixon consigliere John Ehrlichman and reading him a laundry list of administration misdeeds, Wallace elicits only a stone face. “Is there a question in there somewhere?” Ehrlichman asks. (There wasn’t.) With Westmoreland there’s this exchange:

Wallace: You couldn’t ask for more troops. Therefore you couldn’t let the enemy be perceived as larger.

Westmoreland: That’s absolutely fallacious. It has no validity whatsoever, I’m absolutely amazed that you would come out with a statement like that.

Wallace: It’s not a statement, it’s a question.

There is a word for this, and the word is “grandstanding.” It’s not meant to bring information into the public eye, it’s meant to make the reporter look like a hero. It’s the model for Dan Rather, Jim Acosta, and every other chyron crusader who ever used current events as a stage upon which to perform.

The film supplies footage of a panel discussion in which Wall Street Journal editor Frederick Taylor is asked about Wallace’s “journalism” and bursts into laughter. Wallace sits there looking like a schoolboy who has been caught snapping the girls’ bras (as it happens, this was a favorite Wallace trick with his coworkers, although he didn’t just snap them, he unclasped them). “I think it’s marvelous drama and it has very little to do with journalism,” Taylor says. “I cannot believe that I’m hearing this from you,” Wallace replies. Sorry, Taylor shoots back, “I don’t think it’s journalism. I think it’s show business.”

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