By Christopher Sharrett.
The premises of the new documentary Mike Wallace is Here are contradictory, and I suppose meant ironically so. The late TV journalist, most famous for helping start the television “magazine” 60 Minutes, is portrayed as the founding father of hardball electronic journalism – and a shameless huckster who sold things on TV, as well as the father of modern junk news who led the way for companies like Fox. On the latter point, filmmaker Avi Belkin is partially correct – Wallace began a career on TV in its grubbier realms in the 1950s. He appeared on quiz shows and many, many commercials. On both points there are real problems. But some remarks are unreasonable.
Wallace was strident, known for a bit of confrontation, but he never told people to “shut up,” nor did he tell outright lies, as was the case with the big-mouthed talk show bully/sex criminal Bill O’Reilly, who was bounced out of his job by Fox, as was his boss and Fox News founder, former Nixon lackey Roger Ailes, also for crimes against women – corporate America is only too happy to rid itself of “bad apples.” To suggest a kind of equivalence of Wallace and O’Reilly is terribly unfair. And television’s morphing of information into entertainment began long before Mike Wallace.
On the idea that Wallace, who died in 2012 (not mentioned even with the end credits), set some sort of journalistic standard now totally lost, I must say rubbish. Edward R. Murrow was the only TV journalist ever to possess a moral vision – he was gone from CBS in the early 1960s, his criticisms of the nation’s ills too much for the network, even when he modified his arguments. Murrow is shown only as one of a crowd, a group of talented newspeople who populated CBS during its golden age. In fact, the team of journalists that Murrow assembled during World War II, forever known as “Murrow’s Boys,” populated all the networks, yet none, for all their skills and presence on air, had anything like Murrow’s moral vision. At a typically eloquent, extraordinary speech at a broadcasters’ meeting after he left CBS, Murrow said that television had a profound responsibility to help educate the American people; if the industry failed to meet this responsibility, TV would be nothing but lights in a box. There are statues to Murrow all over the nation (even one at “black rock,” CBS headquarters in New York), and schools named after him – but no one wants a new Murrow around, and such is actually unthinkable. Murrow stands out in our history as an exemplary figure.
Back to Mike Wallace is Here, the annoying feature of this film is its rapid cutting, use of split-screens, shifting of formats (some of this necessary with the shifts in medium of each time period examined); in other words, the film imitates stylistically all of the commercial cinema, with the assumption that people have short attention spans. On the factual content the film is reasonable: Wallace confronted the Pentagon and mass murderer Gen. William Westmoreland on the false claims about “North Vietnamese” troop strength during the U.S. incursion into Southeast Asia, which provoked a years-long lawsuit against CBS, and Wallace personally. The suit was finally dropped, but it had a chilling effect on broadcast news to this date – actually, the networks were only too willing to transform any adversarial stance to power to the role of lapdog. The transformation became embarrassing during the Reagan regime, which the media taught us to love – until the Iran/Contra affair, which provided grist for the press even as they protected Reagan (telling us things like “we don’t need another Watergate,” to which I said “who is we?”).
The film also mentions Wallace’s focus on the tobacco industry, and his interview with Jeffrey Wigand, a scientist at Brown & Williamson who testified in court, and told Wallace that Big Tobacco intentionally “hooks” consumers – and even poisons them (the incident is dramatized in the fine film by Michael Mann, The Insider ). A suit was brought by the tobacco company that could have effectively shut down CBS, showing dramatically the integration of financialized capital in the neoliberal moment.
The Westmoreland incident threw Wallace into a deep depression, about which he spoke in later years, along with other people with the malady, like talk show host Dick Cavett and former presidential candidate George McGovern, partially taking away a little of the stigma from mental illness.
But there are things left unsaid, necessarily so. 60 Minutes had some importance in its early incarnations, but for years it has been mostly worthless, spending time on celebrity profiles and investigations of used car dealers. I lost interest years ago, and return only for the truly sensational (like the interview with porn star Stormy Daniels, whose tale of paid-for sex might have been added to the allegations against Donald Trump; unfortunately Daniels’ story faded, and her attorney charged with all kinds of criminality – but not because of her). There is an early Wallace interview with the young “buccaneer developer” Donald Trump, his psychopathy visible behind his social mask in his earliest incarnation.
Wallace’s interview with Westmoreland is important, but it was anchorman Walter Cronkite who came out in 1968 – after the Tet offensive – against the war, helping to turn the tide of public opinion against the U.S. invasion. This was at a time when corporate America began to have grave doubts about the profitability of the war, but U.S. policy was never interrogated by anyone except the Daniel Ellsbergs and Noam Chomskys. Moral issues were never brought up in the press, only issues of practicality. There is a Wallace interview with one of the military killers at My Lai. Wallace asks “How could you kill babies?” I was expecting a Kubrickian joke like “you don’t have to track them.” The real joke here is that Wallace, here and elsewhere, goes for the emotional moment over detailed facts. At the time of the My Lai massacre, there was a genocidal policy in place against all of Vietnam (and then Cambodia), seen as one big hiding place for “insurgents.” Richard Nixon told Henry Kissinger, in a disgorged and ignored memo, that he wanted “everything that flies on everything that moves”; as Chomsky noted, this is a clearer call for genocide than anything now known that came from Hitler’s pen.
Mike Wallace is Here has some value, but at this time I am afraid it will bolster claims of the Trump supporters that the media are “fake news,” since only what the disturbed, adolescent Fearless Leader says is true. The media are made up, of course, of working people, some of whom are very well paid, some less so. Since the rise of the mercantile press, media have taken the side of private interest, the side Trump actually works for, even if many in capital don’t like his performance. This makes the cheers of his working-class supporters all the more confounding – until we look a bit at the rise of European fascism.
Too often, Belkin’s film seems like hagiography, strangely undercut by Wallace’s unpleasant, graceless demeanor (to think that he was portrayed by Christopher Plummer in the Mann film), and one’s memory, depending on age, of Wallace’s early manifestation as a junk food and lipstick salesman, a black-and-white image graven in my head. There is a PBS film called This Reporter, about the life and career of Edward R. Murrow. If one wants to reflect for a moment about the lost potential of electronic news and its sole hero, see it.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.