How things change. How rapidly the TV industry has evolved in sharp twists and turns. The near-past of the medium suddenly seems very distant.
This year is the 50th anniversary of Johnny Carson taking over The Tonight Show from Jack Paar and the 20th anniversary of Carson’s retirement. These anniversaries and the death, on the weekend, of Mike Wallace compel us to look back, take notice of how much changed, especially in TV news, and ask: Has it changed for the better?
The New York Times obituary for Mike Wallace called him “a reporter with the presence of a performer.” Apt indeed. Wallace was an able TV performer in the 1950s, appearing here, there and everywhere. A forceful presence, he could swivel from game shows to news programs with ease. Then on ABC’s The Mike Wallace Interview, and a local New York show called Night Beat, he honed his allegedly aggressive style of interview.
It was a time when the theatre of television was being explored and better understood. The lure of the interrogation-style interview, with the interviewee/suspect under the lights, proved irresistible. Especially in the pre-colour TV era. Wallace was good at it, grasping the theatrical mannerisms and exaggerations needed to make it work. That’s what he took to 60 Minutes and he performed in the same style right up to his final interview, with Roger Clemens, in 2008.
Most of Wallace’s career unfolded in the pre-cable era. A time when Americans and Canadians had few news choices. That made 60 Minutes matter, with a significance and heft that is unthinkable today. Before the 24/7 news cycle, there existed a short list of news events that truly mattered and a short list of TV outlets covering them.
It’s not that those were, necessarily, the golden days of TV news. There was a pomposity to it all. Sure, there was skill to Wallace’s method of abrupt questioning. It also stood in stark contrast to the sort of amiable chat that happened on The Tonight Show. But 60 Minutes was often full of itself. With CBS News and a tiny handful of other outlets it set the agenda with an arrogance that is unthinkable today in the era of e-mail, blogs, online news, Facebook and Twitter.
At the same, it’s possible to speculate on what Mike Wallace wrought. Some might say his aggressive, skeptical style inspired the hostile-interview tactics of Bill O’Reilly on Fox News. What happened, maybe, is that Fox News and, later, its cable-news competitors, merely embellished the “gotcha” style of questioning that made Wallace famous and feared.
And simultaneously, it’s possible to admire Mike Wallace for his indefatigable quality. He was working in TV, travelling and doing his job into his eighties. He created a persona and he held on to it. He was a gentleman reporter, defined by the trench coat, the blue button-down shirt and solid-coloured tie. He was the prosecutor, the FBI agent, the truth-seeking journalist. His look and his style borrowed from conventional TV types – such as the blunt courtroom lawyer – to the point where his look and style were iconic and, on TV and in movies, a plausible crusading journalist had to look and act like Mike Wallace.
Much of the coverage of the death of Mike Wallace has correctly focused on his strengths as an interviewer and his involvement in memorable TV moments. But much of it too has been drenched with foolish nostalgia. That is, nostalgia for a time when there was less television, and things were simpler. In truth, they were not simpler. It’s just that a handful of outlets had a proprietorship over news coverage.
We’re better off now. And it’s better if we understand that Mike Wallace was as much a performer as a reporter. He was better at it than most, but it was still theatrics. Respect is due and so is a tincture of truth. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Titanic with Len Goodman (PBS, 8 p.m.) has Goodman, the English guy who is a judge on Dancing with the Stars, explore a myriad of stories from the background of the Titanic’s passengers. Goodman began his working life as a welder with Harland and Wolff, the company that built the Titanic, and is an amateur historian. He’s good here, teasing out compelling human stories. And he’s more than bit outraged that so few of the third class passengers survived.