Gawker’s John Cook took a stab yesterday at crafting the counterargument to the praise of Mike Wallace’s famed career at “60 Minutes.” Here’s the nut almost-graph:
“He was a failed soap actor and vaudeville hack named Myron who just wanted to be on television. He was as much a journalist as Ryan Seacrest.”
True, he was born a Myron. And yes, the gleaming career at CBS ended a run of show-biz hucksterism of which Wallace was never proud.
The Seacrest-journalist parallel, however, merits a deeper look, if only because Gawker’s contention aligns with a widely held belief about the “talent” that presents the news to us on television — they’re just pretty faces who don’t do any of the hard work. Cook: “Myron Wallace was a newsreader and paid actor who played a part — very, very well — on your television screens. His producers, who reported out and prepared his broadcasts, were journalists.”
Except that Wallace didn’t accede to CBS in 1963 with a platoon of producers and a cushy office at “60 Minutes.” In fact, the show didn’t even exist then. Instead, Wallace started out as a regular CBS News correspondent, responsible for finding his own stories and telling them. Kind of like a journalist.
Then he was assigned to the network’s “Morning News” show, a posting that helped cement his bond with others at CBS via journalistic transactions, according to the 1978 book “Air Time: The Inside Story of CBS News.”
[Wallace’s colleagues] discovered that while he was just a so-so writer, he was an excellent editor, both in terms of his news judgment and his handling of copy, and, like [Walter] Cronkite, he was not at all shy about tossing stories back to his writers for revision. His favorite epithet for copy that displeased him was “baby s___.” The writers assigned to the Morning News came to dread that indignity, and to avoid having it leveled at them, they began putting more care into their work.
Real journalists sometimes have to gather information and present it under pressure. Wallace did that on many occasions, notably as a floor reporter at political conventions in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 election cycles. “Cronkite would come to you,” says Gary Paul Gates, the author of “Air Time” and co-author of two Wallace autobiographies. “You’d better have something to report.” Wallace also covered Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign just before joining the launch of “60 Minutes.”
“He was the furthest thing from a tailor’s dummy,” says Gates, who notes that during his “60 Minutes” years, Wallace was very “hands-on” vis-a-vis the reporting and execution of his segments. “The suggestion that he would go off in the field and do all these stories so he could read them? I find that a little preposterous,” says Gates.
Whatever the level of Wallace’s involvement in the details — whether he authored freedom-of-information requests or conducted database searches or just presided over the enterprise — the stuff he did on camera is more than enough to qualify him as a journalist. Journalism consists of rounding up facts and presenting them to viewers, listeners and readers in a compelling way. The first part of that process — the macho part that involves digging and calling and twisting arms — is a critical part of the process. It’s what Gawker cares about.
But the latter part is no less important. A story, after all, isn’t a story unless it’s told well. An interview isn’t an interview if it doesn’t elicit interesting responses; it’s just a conversation. And we all know how what an interviewer Wallace was.
A former Wallace colleague recounts the runup to a 2005 Wallace interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The event was supposed to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the conclusion of World War II, and Putin’s handler wanted a dialogue heavy on such nostalgia. Writes CBS’s then-Moscow Bureau Chief Beth Knobel:
The day before the interview, Putin’s press secretary lunched with us and laid down the rules for the interview: Mike was to ask 20 minutes of questions about how Russia and the United States cooperated during the war, and how they can do great things when they collaborate. Then, if there was any time left, Mike could ask about other things.
“Absolutely,” agreed Mike.
The next day, Wallace did what Wallace did. “Mike not only didn’t start with World War II, he didn’t ask about it until more than two hours into the interview,” recalls Knobel.
Wallace hoodwinked a flack en route to an historic interview — now there’s a journalist.