The Passing of Mike Wallace: Entertainer and Shill

Even though I’ve never quite understood the reasoning, we’re told it’s bad form to speak ill of the dead, which is why we shouldn’t be saying negative things about Mike Wallace, who passed away Saturday, at age 93.  In addition to having been the legendary point man on CBS’s legendary and wildly successful “news magazine,” 60 Minutes, Wallace was the acknowledged paradigm of the tough, hard-nosed TV reporter.

A couple of clarifications:  60 Minutes is not a news show.  It’s a glib, slickly produced entertainment package disguised as a news show.  With the time allotted for lead-ins, promos, commercials, and the late Andy Rooney’s wry commentary, each story is/was given barely 16 minutes of air time, not very long even for a frivolous topic (such as a profile of an actor or athlete), and a ludicrously short amount of time for the serious, complicated topics the show pretends to cover.

Ask anyone who’s ever been closely associated with a subject 60 Minutes covered, and they’ll tell you they were flabbergasted at how shallow and misleading it was. The reason the show succeeds is because the overwhelming majority of its topics are ones we know little or nothing about.  If you return from, say, a trip to Iceland, you can pretty much tell everyone anything you like about Iceland, and they’ll believe you.  until you run into somebody who lived there.

Further proof of the show’s lightweight credentials is its high ratings.  Take a peek at which television shows regularly lead the pack week after week, and you’ll find talent shows, singing shows, dancing shows, cop shows, sitcoms and major sports events.  There’s not a “hard news” show anywhere to be found.  That’s because hard news doesn’t get high ratings.

As articulate and tenacious as Mike Wallace was (and, personally, I liked his rugged looks and confrontational style), he was, above all, a performer.  Just as Charlie Sheen’s shtick (on Two and a Half Men) was raunchy, dead-pan comedy, and Simon Cowell’s shtick (on American Idol) was abrasive criticism, Mike Wallace’s shtick on 60 Minutes was penetrating, come-to-Jesus interrogation.  But make no mistake….it was shtick, plain and simple.

In fact, many will recall that Wallace’s persona got him and his network in hot water some years ago.  It’s common practice in TV to use “inserts,” where the interviewer is re-filmed asking the same questions.  This is done long after the subject has left the room.  The goal is to get a flattering shot of the interviewer. While the guest’s answers remain unaltered, the questions have been juiced up, and the new footage is inserted into the televised interview.  It’s pure show business.

60 Minutes once used a Wallace insert in an interview with the Shah of Iran, where Mike aggressively pointed his finger in the Shah’s direction and demanded to know about SAVAK, Iran’s notorious secret police.  Although the Shah adroitly deflected the question, the audience got the point CBS was trying to make—that this Mike Wallace cat was a fearless interrogator, and that we must continue to tune in on Sunday nights.

It was all a sham, of course. Had Wallace used this same tone and manner while the Shah was still in the room (instead of in his limo, halfway to his hotel), the Shah would have stood up, removed his mic, and walked out.  After all, the man was King of a country; he wasn’t going to let some network shill grandstand at his expense. Alas, the Shah’s people found out about the ruse and raised a stink.  William Paley, then-president of CBS, apologized, pleaded ignorance, and vowed to eliminate the use of inserts.

Inserts are still being used by TV interviewers (i.e., actors and actresses posing as journalists). Why?  Because television is all about allusion and image, and inserts have been proven to be effective.  It’s show biz, folks, plain and simple.

David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author (It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor), was a former union rep. He can be reached at: dmacaray@earthlink.net. Read other articles by David.