The title of this documentary is meant to suggest what a prominent person might be told if Mike Wallace and his camera crew showed up at said person’s office or atelier. The reaction of the person to be interviewed was said to be “Mike fright.”
Wallace, who died in 2012, was for decades the famed — and dreaded — interviewer for 60 Minutes, the CBS television newsmagazine that changed television news, inspired imitators and perhaps ultimately led to the dreck that passes for news on television today (not that the last is Wallace’s fault.)
This documentary, composed entirely of film of the man’s career, operates on two levels: It tells us about Mike Wallace’s struggles as a person, and it canvasses the evolution of television as a news medium.
The filmmaker, Avi Belkin, was given access to many, many, many hours of television archives. That he managed to edit it down to something like 90 minutes is impressive, but it is useful to question whether his Israeli background (not the Jewish part but the unfamiliarity with US television) limited his confidence about describing the impact of television from the late 1940s to the current day on journalism in this country.
The general story is this. Wallace came to television in its very early days. He was a jack of many trades — sometime actor, sometime game show host, frequent pitch man for products from cigarettes to lipstick — as no doubt many others were in his day. He also did news and developed a reputation as a good conductor of interviews.
In the late 1950s, he was the face of Night Beat, a one-on-one interview program that didn’t shrink from booking contentious guests, including a Ku Klux Klan Wizard. It was new and unusual and led to another half-hour interview show and finally to Wallace’s hiring by CBS, the classy home of elite correspondents like Walter Cronkite and Edward Murrow. When CBS agreed to let Don Hewitt try 60 Minutes in 1968, Wallace was an obvious choice for the team.
Suddenly television news became more than serious guys reading reports occasionally accompanied by film. 60 Minutes had a more documentary feel and ultimately created news events. It developed a huge following.
Some of Wallace’s work for the show interesting and newsworthy, but some of it is hard to watch. Examples:
According to the documentary, Wallace’s gotcha question for Noriega was this: “How much (money) do you make?” The only goal of a question like that is to get a bad guy’s facial reaction on film. It may have been good television, but it was off point.
— Wallace interviewed Barbra Streisand and asked her why she had spent 23 years in psychoanalysis. She called Wallace “a son of a bitch.” Twice.
Mike Wallace the Man
The movie shows us Wallace talking about his teenage acne, about the accidental death of his son and how it stiffened his resolve to become a serious news reporter and about his late-in-life diagnosis of depression and a suicide attempt.
Wallace was willing to say all this, which was his business, but the fact of it and the public interest in such matters are relatively new phenomena. People are being drawn to this documentary at least in part because they felt a personal connection to Mike Wallace. This is part of the break television has made from journalism in the traditional sense. (Yes, television viewers “trusted” Walter Cronkite, but did they know about his emotional life? Would it have occurred to his colleagues even to ask such questions?)
The movie seems to want to raise questions about the direction of television journalism, but more than a few critics see it as an homage to Mike Wallace and his 60 Minutes years of fame, understandably perhaps, given that its content consists entirely of news footage and outtakes. (In fact, Wallace was no dummy and wrote serious articles and books.)
Midway through the movie, in a discussion probably filmed in the early 1980s, the editor of the Wall Street Journal describes 60 Minutes thusly: “I think it’s more obvious and has very little to do with actual journalism.”
The documentary opens with a 15-year-old conversation between Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly and Mike Wallace. O’Reilly says, “People want straight talk. You’re a dinosaur.”
Then O’Reilly twists the knife. “You’re the driving force behind my career.”
We know that O’Reilly was washed out of his self-named show several years ago after it was revealed that he paid millions of dollars of hush money to women he had harassed sexually.
We also know that Walter Cronkite’s successor, Dan Rather, was let go after he ran with a story that seemed to confirm his beliefs about George W. Bush but that was discredited almost immediately upon its release.
These sorts of scandals used to end journalistic careers, but no more.
Curiously, Rather is quoted in this documentary. And a feature film, amusingly called Truth, was made championing Rather and his producer in the matter of the episode that got them fired.
For his part, O’Reilly launched a syndicated radio report this spring that is carried on at least 100 stations nationwide.
A fair question is whether either O’Reilly or Rather would dare to sit for an on-camera interview with Mike Wallace if Wallace were alive today.