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General News    H4'ed 4/8/12

Sayonara to Mike Wallace And the TV News Era He Led

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Message Danny Schechter

The two men had a great laugh and I learned a big lesson about how it is often the small things some times that piss people off enough to stand up for their rights.

Somehow, because of that late fifties moment, I thought of Wallace as some kind of a progressive until it was reported that he had voted for Richard Nixon.   (His son Chris now works for Fox News, perhaps because of the values he was taught as a kid. I am not sure about that!)

Many of Wallace's interviews were far more combative and he turned the macho face-off into a personal signature that resembled nothing so much as wrestling, a far more successful TV format. At ABC he was labeled, "the Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition."

Ironically, Wallace later said the interviews he enjoyed the most were the more honest probing ones he did earlier in his career.

Later in his life, he would become the center of an embarrassing scandal when 60 Minutes, at the behest of the CBS brass, killed an investigation of a cigarette company accused of knowingly manufacturing a product that caused cancer.

Wallace got into a very ugly spat with his long time producer Lowell Bergman that was later featured in a movie that exposed Wallace's complicity. (He later did the story but his reputation suffered a blow.)

Wallace would became famous not for probing questions about the working class but for stagey interviews about the ruling class.

The New York Times cited one:

"Mr. Wallace created enough such moments to become a paragon of television journalism in the heyday of network news. As he grilled his subjects, he said, he walked "a fine line between sadism and intellectual curiosity."

His success often lay in the questions he hurled, not the answers he received.

"Perjury," he said, in his staccato style, to President Richard M. Nixon's right-hand man, John D. Ehrlichman, while interviewing him during the Watergate affair. "Plans to audit tax returns for political retaliation. Theft of psychiatric records. Spying by undercover agents. Conspiracy to obstruct justice. All of this by the law-and-order administration of Richard Nixon."

Mr. Ehrlichman paused, and said, "Is there a question in there somewhere?"

No, Mr. Wallace later conceded. But it was riveting television."

Later he was caught paying for interviews and usually became more important in television terms than the person he interviewed. In TV, landing a big interview is called "Getting the Get" and he got some amazing ones including Ayatollah Khomeini.

His producers would be seductive and patronizing in setting them up, but then Wallace would find a way to go in for the kill.

He took pleasure in being seen as a tough guy, the role he played on TV. David Bauder of AP said of him, "Wallace didn't just interview people. He interrogated them. He cross-examined them. Sometimes he eviscerated them. His weapons were many: thorough research, a cocked eyebrow, a skeptical "Come on" and a question so direct sometimes it took your breath away."

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News Dissector Danny Schechter is blogger in chief at Mediachannel.Org He is the author of PLUNDER: Investigating Our Economic Calamity (Cosimo Books) available at Amazon.com. See Newsdisssector.org/store.htm.
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