Opinion: Mike Wallace documentary reminds us of importance, power of TV journalism

For many of us who have spent our careers in print journalism, it’s easy (though grossly unfair) to blame TV news–and particularly its pundits, for the credibility crisis we find ourselves in. 

TV needs slick visuals. TV needs drama. TV has its watcher-in-chief who also likes to tweet, and those tweets make for good TV (as well as ink.) Television news, we console ourselves, is the problem, made worse by the fact that nearly half of all Americans still get their news from it, according to the Pew Research Center.

But a new documentary about the late “60 Minutes” legend Mike Wallace is reminder of how important and powerful TV journalism is to our political discourse and to the reckoning it provides for our leaders and policymakers. “A nation’s press is a good yardstick of a nation’s health,” Wallace tells us in archived footage in the film. 

I watched “Mike Wallce is Here,” an hour and a half documentary about the news legend that opened this summer and is playing in select theaters, for a peek inside and perhaps a history lesson. I got both. Director Avi Belkin offers us clips from some of Wallace’s most memorable interviews, including Martin Luther King Jr., Johnny Carson, Barbra Streisand, Vladimir Putin and even a young Donald Trump.

But the documentary from Magnolia Pictures delivered much more than that. “Mike Wallace is Here” is a call to all of us in the business to keep asking the tough questions, to be relentless and to do our jobs even when people second-guess our motives. (Wallace, a former cigarette pitchman and TV actor, spent his remarkable career in journalism constantly trying to prove himself, long after he had anything to prove). 

Recent attacks on the press dehumanize us and make us into the other. And this doesn’t just happen at the national level. It’s found a way to make us feel distant in small communities. Our children may go to school with the children of our readers, we may worship in the same place, we may shop in the same place, but somehow the adopted and distorted narrative is that we are different, less American, tainted by our profession.

Mike Wallace, who died in 2012 at the age of 93, could be a jerk in Streisand’s words; the film makes that clear. But he also was a man who lost a son in a tragic accident in Greece, a grief we experience, not from him, but through his interview with a tearful Leona Helmsley. Wallace battled depression and admits to “60 Minutes” colleague Morley Safer, after repeatedly denying it, that he tried to take his own life. As I watched this human form of Wallace emerge on-screen–and yet off-screen because of the unprecedented access Belkin had to CBS archives, I couldn’t help but wonder how our vulnerability could connect us better with our readers. What if we turned the cameras and the pages onto ourselves a bit more, not to make ourselves the story, but rather to explain how we got the story? Could we do a better job of showing our readers that we are also part of the communities that we cover, that there is a mother or father or child or taxpayer or patriot behind the byline?

(Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

It’s easy to demonize us when we don’t make it clear to our readers what is at stake and why we chase tips and stand up and question when a government body insists on conducting public business behind closed doors. On behalf of the public–a point that is often lost, we ask the uncomfortable questions as Wallace shows us time and again in his unfiltered style. When he interviews Eleanor Roosevelt, he tells her that people hated her husband. “They even hated you,” Wallace says. “Why?”

“Mike Wallace is Here” didn’t set out to be an all-encompassing film about TV journalism or even about journalism. But in many ways, with Wallace as our pinhole, it does offer us both commentary and lessons on surviving our critics. One is simply to outlast them as CBS and Wallace do when retired Army Gen. William Westmoreland brought a $120 million libel suit, accusing Wallace of “executing me on the guillotine of public opinion.” The suit, which dragged on for several years, settled in 1985 before it went to trial.

Another is seen in Wallace’s battle with the network to air his interview with tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand. As big as his star power was, Wallace tells us that he was well aware that his power to get the story broadcast was limited. If he had walked in protest, he would be replaced. Maybe, maybe not. But more important for young journalists, it’s a reminder that star power is fleeting and that all of us are owned in some way by the people who pay us.

These stories collectively or even individually don’t tell us how we got here, to this disrupted place where journalism is so quickly labeled “fake news” by people who disagree with it. But they certainly tell us how to move forward.

“Is it hard to ask the tough questions?” Wallace is asked at one point in a documentary largely told through his own words and interviews.  “Not at all,” he replies. “I’m nosy and insistent. And not to be pushed aside.”

If there is a lesson for journalists in 2019, that would be it.

This story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner. 

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