Film & TV

Mike Wallace: Hero Reporter or Political Egotist?

The reporting staff of CBS’ 60 Minutes gathers from the left: Steve Kroft, Ed Bradley, Morley Safer, Andy Rooney, Mike Wallace, producer Don Hewitt, and Lesley Stahl, in 1998. (Larry Downing/Reuters)
A new doc reveals the origin story of broadcast journalism — and fake news.

Mike Wallace, the late TV commentator known for accosting people on 60 Minutes, very likely had a more powerful effect on American political journalism than Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. WoodStein is praised for “taking down a president,” but Wallace took down anyone in his path toward media dominance. That reputation is the subject of the new doc, Mike Wallace Is Here.

Born Myron Leon Wallace, he started out as a smiley product salesman and parlayed his rugged good looks and aggressive ego into becoming a journalistic figurehead for CBS (“Voice of authority, voice of the establishment”). Wallace was central to that major broadcast network’s quest for political importance and what has developed into modern media propaganda of false narratives and confirmation bias within an elite profession. Director Avi Belkin gathers archival footage of Wallace from the 1950s to his retirement in 2006.

Belkin’s panoply of the ad-based institution’s history departs from typical mainstream-media vainglory to make an unexpectedly frank portrait of a man and the industry he fronted. Wallace’s career – examined in light of fascinating, unbiased research by Belkin’s team — resembles an origin story. It’s the secret backstory to today’s many biased, slanted TV and print journalists. Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, Don Lemon, Chris Wallace, Shepard Smith, George Stephanopolous, Christiane Amanpour all seek Wallace’s fame.

It starts with former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly reversing the signature Wallace gotcha tactic. “You’re the driving force behind my career,” O’Reilly brags, adding that he warns people “If you don’t like me you got to go to Wallace.” Mr. Obnoxious meets Mr. Obnoxious. Clearly, this isn’t a hagiographic, media-congratulating documentary. Belkin recognizes TV journalism’s boundless hucksterism, concluding with Wallace’s revering Death of a Salesman‘s shallow author, Arthur Miller (totem of the self-pitying Left). Through Wallace’s (the industry’s) self-regard, Belkin shows that the recent “enemy of the people” allegation has roots in TV journalism’s unique combination of narcissism and brazen partisanship.

That’s why the phrase “Fake News” feels fearsome — it rankles sanctimonious industry insiders. Wallace’s personal choice of enemies and friends (from Manuel Noriega and Vladimir Putin in the former category to Barbra Streisand, Vladimir Horowitz and the always patronizing Barbara Walters in the latter) trace the development of broadcast journalism culture. “I was a hawk,” he says when recalling his first assignment to cover the Vietnam War. Belkin skips Wallace’s service in the Navy as a non-combatant during WWII, but, equally important, we’re informed of Wallace’s later, fateful choice between an offer to be Richard Nixon’s press secretary and the job on 60 Minutes. Exposing friends such as the Nixon administration’s John Ehrlichman and Charles Colson during the Watergate years cemented Wallace’s anti-conservative reputation at CBS. (He bragged of joining the deified CBS lineage Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Edward R. Murrow.)

To comprehend how contemporary media works, one must understand how Wallace’s egotism was sold to the public through the ultimate commercial medium. The phrase “Fake News” cites selective rather than objective journalism — and the media’s lust for power, which goes unrecognized by gullible viewers.

When candid, Wallace simplified his journalist credentials: “I was nosy and insistent and not to be pushed aside.” 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt’s bond with Wallace (they were “two roughneck kids,” he says) elucidates their arrogance. This foreshadows today’s Fake Newcasters — whose unconvincing defenses against an “administration’s attempt to crush the free press” are not new. Thanks to Belkin, we can appreciate the difference between what Wallace called “tough questions” and what an irate interview subject called “rude.” Wallace himself owns up to the overlap between “serious questions and abrasive questions.” Today’s Millennial media disingenuousness and ruthlessness are exposed.

Walter Cronkite, Wallace’s hallowed CBS colleague, is shown boasting, “We’re defending the people’s right to know.” Yet Cronkite doesn’t admit that corporate decision makers determine what CBS wants the public to know. This is still the case when it comes to which stories make it to air and those that don’t. Details about General Westmoreland’s $120 million suit against “unscrupulous and arrogant” Wallace in 1982, and the Wall Street Journal’s bailing out Wallace’s contentious Big Tobacco story on 60 Minutes (subject of Michael Mann’s The Insider, in which Christopher Plummer impersonated Wallace’s grand imperiousness) helpfully undercut Wallace’s “hero reporter” role. On a TV panel discussion, the late Wall Street Journal editor Frederick Taylor critiques Wallace’s work to his face: “I still don’t think it’s journalism. It’s show business.”

My favorite scene shows celebrated Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci correcting Wallace’s self-congratulation: “I don’t believe in objectivity. A journalist is a historian who writes history in the moment history happens, and it is the damned best way to write history.” Wallace made history not by his grasp of truth but by his control — through corporate power – of history in the moment. We must know this or else the enemies of the people win.

Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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