Remembering Mike Wallace

Was there anyone who more surely embodied everything unpalatable about the traditional news media?

Channel surfing the other night, I ran across All the President's Men for what felt like the thousandth time.  I came in about twenty minutes before the end, and – not for the first time – I felt compelled to watch it to the end.  What a splendidly written, brilliantly directed, terrifically acted movie!  What a stirring story!  What a beautiful piece of filmmaking, from the cinematography to the lighting design!  And what a crock!

All the President's Men converted a generation of innocent, impressionable, pre-Internet Americans – myself included – into unthinking fans of the mainstream news media.  Some people in the government might be out to screw us over, and certainly every last man and woman in corporate America was up to no good, but the knights in shining armor at the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the network news divisions were there to come to our rescue – to save our freedoms and preserve our Constitution, wielding the truth like a shining sword.

As I watched Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, in the last shot of the film, taking down Richard M. Nixon one typewriter keystroke at a time, my thoughts naturally turned to Mike Wallace, who since his death the other day at the age of 285 – sorry, 93 – has been celebrated by many commentators as the quintessential embodiment of the crusading, principled, virtuous mainstream news media in its now-bygone, widely lamented heyday.  His death, indeed, has provided his colleagues in the traditional media with a magnificent opportunity – which many of them, of course, have seized upon – to try to resurrect the heroic myth perpetrated by All the President's Men and many other films(Remember, for example, another Redford film from 1976, Three Days of the Condor, in which he's betrayed and hunted down by the CIA and ends up, incriminating evidence finally in hand, at the entrance to the New York Times building, the logo of that newspaper symbolizing his, and justice's, salvation?)  A typical posthumous tribute to Wallace in the Washington Post began as follows: “Mike Wallace had a glorious career at CBS, racking up 21 Emmy awards and an endless reel of great interviewing moments. And to think that this fantastic career....”  Check, please!

Admittedly, Wallace was a gifted showman.  Every cheesy TV show that has ever made use of ambush interviews owes him a huge debt of gratitude.  But too often his antics left a vaguely – or not so vaguely – bad taste in one's mouth.  Yes, the used-car salesman in Cowpie, Oklahoma, who turned back odometers deserved to get nabbed for it – but did he deserve to be nabbed in front a nationwide audience?  Did this pathetic petty swindler deserve to be cast as this week's dastardly villain opposite the golden champion of American fair play and hero of the common man – portrayed, as always, by Wallace, this moneyed member of the Manhattan media elite?

What was especially unpalatable about Wallace's work on 60 Minutes is that one week he'd self-righteously bring down some small-time crook in some shabby little office in flyover America – killing a fly with a cannon – and the next week he'd turn out an unctuous, nauseating puff piece on some insufferable celebrity or other.  I'll never forget the image of him laughing it up with real-estate magnates Harry and Leona Helmsley on the roof of one of their New York hotels.  One had the impression (and perhaps he even said something to this effect; I don't remember) that he and the Helmsleys were chums, or at least went to some of the same parties or had mutual friends among the bicoastal glitterati.  The Helmsleys were ripe for exposé treatment (she ended up behind bars; he escaped prosecution only because of physical and mental incompetence), but their profile by Mike Wallace, investigative journalist extraordinaire, was framed as a portrait of a husband and wife of a certain age who, though high-powered and successful businesspeople, were, far more importantly, still just as deeply in love with each other as ever.

The tributes have made it clear that we're supposed to remember Wallace as a man of conviction – a dedicated newsman whose tough interviewing technique was rooted in a determination to ferret out the truth and entrap the guilty.  It may be salutary to recall that before he became a tough, no-holds-barred investigative reporter, he was a game-show host.  To watch some of the interviews from his pre-60 Minutes show The Mike Wallace Interview, moreover – a number of which are available online at the University of Texas website – is to wonder whether the interrogation business was all just schtick, just showbiz.  In one episode, he actually interrogates the Broadway lyricist, librettist, and producer Oscar Hammerstein II as if the guy just turned back a whole parking lot full of odometers.  The charge: excessive sentimentality!  Exhibit A: the lyrics of “You'll Never Walk Alone” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune.”  Watch it – Wallace's faux aggressiveness, combined with Hammerstein's bemused tolerance (which proves him to be every bit as good-natured as his lyrics, and as much of a gentleman as Wallace was not) actually makes for quite hilarious viewing.

In another interview from that period, Steve Allen mentions having just done a parody of Wallace's show on his, Allen's, own show.  (I wish that were online.)  Wallace doesn't seem to have been terribly amused by Allen's mockery.  Nor was he at all amused, many years later, when Andy Rooney thought it might be a funny idea, for his own lightweight segment at the end of 60 Minutes, to take a camera crew down the hall to Wallace's office and ambush him.  That bit, tellingly, never aired.  In short: Wallace could dish it out, but he considered himself above having to take it, and certainly had no sense of humor about himself.  In that regard, he was indeed the very model of the pre-Internet news-media elite.

(Note, incidentally, that Wallace begins the Hammerstein show by singing the praises of Parliament cigarettes, and begins the Allen show by waxing equally enthusiastic about Benson and Hedges.  As he gives these sponsors their due, he sounds no more or less earnest than he does in his interrogations of Hammerstein and Allen.  Not that there's nothing wrong with being a TV commercial pitchman: just don't confuse that with being a bold crusader for the truth.)

Then there's the small matter of Wallace's reporting about Israel and about his fellow Jews.  After his death, the Jewish Daily Forward ran an admiring article headlined “Remembering Mike Wallace, A Jew Unafraid of the Truth.”  On the contrary, when it came to Jews, Israel, and related subjects, Wallace did indeed seem to be afraid – afraid, that is, of bucking the received opinions of the mainstream news media and the cultural elite.  .  After Wallace retired in 2006, CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) ran a right-on-target piece by Kate Naseef entitled “Mike Wallace's Middle East Problem.”  Among Naseef's observations:

The aggressive questioner in Wallace was not in evidence when he interviewed Yasir Arafat in 1989....Wallace accepted Arafat’s responses largely without question.  He asked if Arafat had renounced “military operations” inside Israel.  Arafat’s response was, “Any people who are facing occupation or oppression have the right to use all methods.”  Wallace did not probe with a follow-up question....The late David Bar-Illan, then editorials editor at The Jerusalem Post, suggested that Wallace “acted like a public-relations agent for Arafat” in the 1989 interview....

In a 1987 story on Soviet Jews, including refuseniks, invited to immigrate to Israel, Wallace concluded that “one and a half million Soviets identified as Jews apparently live more or less satisfying lives.”  Wallace acknowledged that Russia had a history of harboring antisemitism, but then said that anti-Jewish activities were against the law, without mentioning that the law was frequently broken — often by the government....

In late 1990, Wallace reported on Arab riots on the Temple Mount, in which several thousand people stoned Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall before beleaguered Israeli police shot some rioters in regaining control. He based his report almost exclusively on Palestinian sources [and] reversed the order of events, making it appear that the stone-throwing riot followed the police shooting rather than led to it....

In 1975 and 1984, Wallace filed reports on Syria that minimized the oppression of Syrian Jews and obscured the dictatorial nature of Hafez al-Assad’s regime.

And there's more where that came from.

Finally, some of us still remember the notorious 1987 panel discussion on PBS during which Wallace and Peter Jennings, in the presence of several members of the military, were presented with a hypothetical question: if they were reporting from behind enemy lines in a war and learned that the enemy was preparing to ambush and kill American soldiers, would they tip off the Americans or just stand by and report?  When Jennings said, hesitantly, that he'd warn the Americans, a thoroughly unhesitant Wallace upbraided him, saying: “You don't have a higher duty....You're a reporter!”  Whereupon an embarrassed Jennings awkwardly and apologetically reversed himself.

James Fallows recounted Wallace's entire rant – in all its smugness, self-assurance, and self-satisfaction – in a 1996 Atlantic article appropriately entitled “Why Americans Hate the Media.”  Not to speak overly ill of the dead, but – well, just watch the video of that repulsive exchange and try to think of Mike Wallace as anything other than a prime example of why, now that we have other sources of reportage and commentary, the traditional news media are, indeed, dying off as fast as the dudes on 60 Minutes.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Harry Helmsley never went to prison. 

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