Why can’t more reporters be like Mike Wallace?

So I was watching the 60 Minutes send off for Mike Wallace and I was wondering: Why can’t more reporters be like Mike? Why can’t anyone else ask the Grand Ayatollah on his opinion of the prince of Egypt calling him insane? Why can’t anyone fearlessly shatter the image that a celebrity puts on for the public? Are they all too scared?

Mike was asked if he was scared to ask the Ayatollah that question and his reply was something like “what was he going to do, was he really going to take me hostage with the others?” I guess he enjoys the advantage of having very few of the other reporters asking tough questions, so people might expect him to do the same.

The other 60 minute reporters are alright, but no one was as good as Mike. Is there any hope that we might see guys (who don’t work for comedy central) ask the questions that Mick Wallace is capable of asking?

Number one reason not to ask your subject a question you know they’ll hate: they might end the interview, and they might not talk to you again. That’s probably the single biggest pressure that could keep a reporter from asking a source a question like that. Perhaps because talking to the Ayatollah was such a once-in-a-lifetime thing - or perhaps because he was just brave, and gambled correctly about the retaliation - Wallace didn’t worry about that. And good for him.

I wish I’d seen the 60 Minutes in question, but press coverage has undeniably changed over the years. The celebrities take more care of their images and I think they put a lot of effort into avoiding people and situations who could ‘shatter’ them. And when they do something wrong, there’s practically a template to redemption - apologies, teary-eyed interview, blah blah blah, and it all equals more coverage.

Then how did Mike Wallace manage to make a career out of doing it?

I wonder if Wallace will ever get to interview Kim Jong Il?

Or, indeed, that most elusive of world premiers in terms of live, unscreened one-on-one interviews, GW Bush?

He didn’t do that his whole career. You can’t. He made sure to get powerful first.

I remember seeing Wallace on Letterman’s show in the 1980s. Letterman had some hysterical footage of Wallace in a 1960s commericial for Crisco or some similar product. “Ladies, be sure to use Crisco in all your baking” or words to that effect.

It was “Fluffo”, don’t know who made it.
I don’t see Wallace as a great journalist. I think he’s all about Mike, first and foremost. “In your face” journalism has a very limited roll and that was his main schtick. It was good for entertainment value and sensationalizing, but not good investgative journalism.

He was also a radio announcer in the 1940’s and a television game show host in the 1950’s.

As for his style, he essentially built up over the years. When he started doing these interviews in the 1950’s, it was against fairly easy targets. He progressed from there.

And when you get where he is now, to refuse to grant him an interview becomes newsworthy, and a minor embarrassment, in its own right. Whaddaya got to hide?!

Ambush journalism, which Wallace was very good at, has its own minefields, and those who practice it are mindful of the lawyer’s courtroom adage, “Never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.”

I don’t think most journalists today are any less courageous than Wallace or the other 60 Minutes crew. But neither are they as interesting as the godlike figures we learn to worship in J-school; nor have they as much to lose. Ed Murrow’s battle with Joe McCarthy was so interesting because Murrow actually had skeletons in his closet. They all did back then (although today most of those skeletons wouldn’t be considered scandalous at all.) It wasn’t just Murrow’s courage that allowed him to do what he did, it was a certain recklessness, too. Bill Paley really didn’t have anything to lose from cutting Murrow off at the knees (phones ringing off the hook moments after a live broadcast were never a true indicator of viewer opinion.)

Wallace, on the other hand, never gambled. Yeah, he asked some pretty rude questions, but he never stepped up and duked it out with a bad guy like Murrow did. Paley and the other execs at the major networks made sure that would never happen again. Wallace and the rest of the 60 minutes inquisitors knew the outcome of every interview before they went into it.

The truly courageous journalists are the ones who risk everything to bring stories out of Iraq, Somalia, Darfur and Iran. Among journalism’s ranks, the “hotspot” journalists are the elite. When I was in college, we all dreamt of going to El Salvador and Guatemala to report on the “new Vietnam.” Most of us never made it, and we laughed our asses off at Dan Rather tricked out in an Afghani costume to “report” on the Soviet invasion there. These guys and gals are not hotdogs or hotshots or hotanythingelses (except Christiane Amanpour, who is just plain hot) – they are devoted journalists who do a very hard job and risk their lives to do it.

The reason why Wallace is the last of a dying breed is that journalists are petrified of losing access. Piss someone off, they (and their party) never talk to them again. That’s why we have a White House Press Corp that is only recently getting pissed offed enough themselves to start asking the tough questions, and even then, one is obliged to ask the journos, "you’re just starting to do your jobs now?

As to points raised that Wallace practices “in your face” or “ambush” journalism, I beg to differ. He deals with bigwigs, mostly; they know what they’re in for. How’s that an ambush? And frankly, how is that less respectable than most of the current crop of journalists who are more or less stenographers for the current administration? Their race to the bottom is certainly disheartening to a progressive blue stater such as myself. Fortunately, in spite of the constant disdainful tut-tutting of journalists with respect to the writing of political bloggers, they are indeed poised to eat the journalists’ lunch.

Agreed, up to a point. It does get tiresome, however, when the talking head puts on his “We’re not gonna answer that question” face and refuses to answer, and the jackdaws in the plush seats down front just keep asking the same asinine question over and over. They shouldn’t have to get pissed off to do their jobs. They should approach their profession with the understanding that it is the government’s job to fuck over the American people and then hide it; it’s the press corps’ job to uncover the overfuckings and report on them. You don’t do that sitting on your ass in the briefing room and acting belligerent. You do that by reading, reading and more reading, and then asking, asking and more asking.

I don’t mean to imply that “ambush” was the only type of journalism Wallace practiced. The issue wasn’t semantics, the issue was how courageous he was. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to ask embarrassing questions, especially when the interviewee knows damn well they’re going to be asked. I did it for years, especially to a right-wing fundy state legislator named Marilyn Musgrave. Maybe you’ve heard of her? I didn’t feel particularly courageous asking her why, if she was so pro-education, she home-schooled her own children. Hell, it was my damn job to ask her that question! My point was, if you want to talk about courage, let’s talk about stories you can’t cover in a necktie; let’s talk about stories that kill journalists. I’ll dope-slap Marilyn Musgrave and Wayne Allard and Pete Coors and Ken Salazar all day long, but you’re not gettin’ me within 1,000 miles of a shootin’ war. Or a rattlesnake hunt. God, I hate rattlesnakes!

It’s true, Mike doesn’t do much ambushing anymore. That’s left mostly to the minor-leaguers at local stations.

:smack: I’m not gonna try to explain what just happened there – can a moderator please unscrew my quote screw-up? Malienation made some very good points, and it’d be nice if his/her quotes were cited in an intelligent manner, which I am apparently unable to do. I am such a :wally

Jeffrice, you make some good points, but you seem to place too much emphasis on avoiding rudeness as a sign of good journalism. There’s something to be said for this when, say, interviewing an otherwise ordinary citizen that has been dragged into the public eye for one reason or another, but for public figures my philosophy is different. I see no way out of browbeating the answer of of recalcitrent pols; if they are bluntly asked the same question 5 times, and they don’t answer it, too bad. They will look evasive because they are evasive. If they can’t answer a legitimate question, they deserve to be portrayed as such. Reminds me of an old episode of MASH in which a general says, “this is a press conference! The last thing we want to do is answer a lot of questions!”

It’s worth noting that in this environment, that’s something they have good reason to fear. And it’s not just the Bush administration; people bypass the news media whenever they can so they can get their version of their story out.

Wallace’s aggressiveness didn’t always serve him well. I remember him trying to pin down Nixon assistant John Ehrlichman during the Watergate investigations. Ehrlichman basically told Wallace they weren’t in court, Wallace couldn’t cite Ehrlichman for contempt, and to go shove it.

And I agree with the others who say that these days, a subject can just freeze out a reporter, and get away with it.

But remember how that turned out, in the long run.

Of course, the early '70s were a different time . . .

All true, although I have no qualms about being rude to obstreperous interviewees – apologies for giving that impression. My point is that arranged interviews are just that – arranged. Meaning that arrangements have been made. And the first arrangement that should be made is research and background. Now, I don’t have any problem with reporters hounding an administration official for an answer to a question. But it doesn’t pass for real reporting. Here’s a classic example of how the White House press corps simply failed to do its job, and was out-reported by a bunch of bloggers. And here’s an example of just how worthless even the most seasoned veteran of the White House press corps is. How many times have we watched Helen Thomas, Jim Axelrod and David Gregory ask the same questions over and over, only to be stonewalled? Why waste the time? If bloggers can discover that the White House has planted a PR operative in the briefing room, why couldn’t the “real” reporters? Because they’re lazy, ineffective prima donnas who spend too much time bitching about how they’ve been co-opted by the Bush White House and not nearly enough time doing what the bloggers do – getting dirt under their fingernails digging out the truth. But they don’t do that. Consequently, they were never able to nail Scott McClellan to the wall they way their predecessors staked out Ron Ziegler 30 years ago. And that’s just the White House press corps – supposedly the best of the best.

I know it’s a hard job – I’ve been there (not the White House, of course, but the Colorado Statehouse and numerous county courthouses in three states) and when it’s done right, it breaks up your marriage, estranges your children and destroys your faith in humanity. That’s why I’m not in it any more.

And I guess that’s one of my pet peeves with people like Mike Wallace. He’s a talking head. He rides a limo to and from work. He only rolls up his sleeves when the air conditioning in his office goes out. He asks the questions his staff – the closest thing to reporters CBS has – feed him. I’m not saying he’s not capable of real journalism, but I am saying he doesn’t do any real journalism, and hasn’t for a long time.

Courage? See my previous posts.

I’ll most definitely agree with you on the courage part. Risking your life for the news takes a lot more courage than upsetting your interviewee.

Though I haven’t thought of this before, I think it would be more fair to compare Wallace to other TV journalist and not to other genuine reporters. In that category, which has the most influence, Wallace is more courageous than the rest. I fear that after he is gone TV news will significantly become even more useless than it already is, and that there might be no hope at all to save it.