Sad News About Mike Wallace

Mediabistro is reporting on Chris Wallace’s Playboy interview. Part of what he said about his father, Mike Wallace, was very sad.

Mediabistro is reporting on Chris Wallace’s Playboy interview. Part of what he said about his father, Mike Wallace, was very sad.

He’s in a facility in Connecticut. Physically, he’s okay. Mentally, he’s not. He still recognizes me and knows who I am, but he’s uneven. The interesting thing is, he never mentions 60 Minutes. It’s as if it didn’t exist. It’s as if that part of his memory is completely gone. The only thing he really talks about is family— me, my kids, my grandkids, his great-grandchildren. There’s a lesson there. This is a man who had a fabulous career and for whom work always came first. Now he can’t even remember it.

I can’t think of anyone who’s been on TV longer and with more impact. He was on when I was a little kid hosting PM East in a darkened studio as cigarette smoke wafted toward the rafters.

I have great respect for Mike Wallace. He was a relentless reporter. He was a hard ass advocate for his stories. There is iconic footage of Wallace fighting with 60 Minutes EP Don Hewitt that still serves as an inspiration to anyone who works in news.

It’s too early to eulogize Mike Wallace. It’s still tough to hear.

Commercializing Sixty Minutes

At the end of Sixty Minutes tonight, right after Andy Rooney, Steve Kroft came on with a little follow-up to two recent deaths in New York City: Brooke Astor and Leona Helmsley. Both, he said, had been profiled on Sixty Minutes by Mike Wallace. He then proceeded to show a few snippets from the original interviews.

When the clips finished, Kroft offered up they were on DVD and for sale on the CBS website.

Maybe I’m too pure and idealistic, but it seemed like that content was included primarily because it was on sale. I could be wrong. It’s the impression I got.

If my suspicions are right, I am very disappointed. There was once a “Chinese Wall” separating news content and network commerce. That line has been, obviously, blurred.

Rod Serling Documentary

I have two DVRs. One is from Comcast. Its strength is being able to record digital cable channels. As DVRs go, it’s not very good.

The second DVR is self built. It runs MythTV software – a totally free Linux based application. I claim to have installed it on old throwaway hardware, but there were enhancements as I went along. It’s not totally reclaimed from scrap.

MythTV’s strength is its software. It is elegantly programmed and takes full advantage of a MySQL database. That means I can search for TV shows by title, genre, actors. You get the idea. It even knows how to record a show once, no matter how many times it airs or how many channels carry it.

I can also program what Tivo calls a ‘season pass.’ Every episode of a single show gets scarfed up on my hard drive.

That’s what I did with PBS’ American Masters series. OK, I’ve only watched a few, but they’re on my drive, just in case.

Tonight, after Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert, I decided to delve into the episode on Rod Serling. Good move.

As a kid I watched Serling’s Twilight Zone. I remember having the crap scared out of me by some episodes. They were genuinely scary without being violent and with no special effects – none!

I knew they were good, because I heard they were good. I was too young to make that kind of value judgment on my own.

Now I understand more of what Serling was about. His work seen today, some of it fifty years old or more, is very impressive.

Rod Serling worked in the Golden Age of Television. You could make the case he was an integral reason it was the Golden Age.

Black and white clips of The Twilight Zone, Studio One, Kraft Television Theater and other dramatic anthologies present TV as a different animal. Writing and acting were critical. Production values were an afterthought.

Nearly every clip has featured actors I recognized from appearances long after the 50s. Many, like Robert Redford, Mickey Rooney, Jack Palance, Burgess Meredith and Jack Klugman had distinguished careers beyond television. There were also quirky scenes with actors out of place, like Ed Wynn, normally a slapstick comedian, playing a fight trainer in Requiem for a Heavyweight, or 14 year old Mickey Dolenz in The Velvet Alley, part of the Playhouse 90 series. Mike Wallace is even there, lit cigarette in hand, interviewing Rod Serling one-on-one.

Today’s episodic television looks for quick payoffs. TV shows have multiple plots going simultaneously. We no longer have the attention span to absorb ethereal writing. Serling would be quite unhappy. Serling’s type of television isn’t done today.

There’s no way to go back in time. That’s a shame. I’m just glad there are moments like this when I can take another look at why television became such an influential medium and why, even today, so many clearly remember these shows.

A Career Well Spent

I have just sat, spellbound, watching the 60 Minutes tribute to Mike Wallace. I am beaming from ear-to-ear, and I hope Mike Wallace is too. He has been involved in some incredible stuff.

Yes, it’s true, I miss the ‘low hanging fruit’ portion of his career, when he went in, cameras rolling, to confront some two bit crook, never Mike’s intellectual equal.

It was classic TV – though easy for Mike. He doesn’t do that anymore.

Let me back up. 60 Minutes is a show I’ve been watching forever. I remember when the stopwatch still had its manufacturer’s name on the face (it was a Tag Heuer), when the show aired on Thursday’s, and then when it was done live on Sunday evenings (and began with news headlines).

I used to love the letters segment at the end of the show, but never (quite) understood… their interesting use (of) punctuation when they edited.

I remember Shana and Jack and Nicholas and all the other Point-Counterpoint commentators. Andy Rooney hasn’t been there forever. It just seems he has.

So, yes, I saw Mike Wallace interviewing Horowitz and Streisand and busting the gas station guys who preyed on people in RVs – all first run.

Mike Wallace could have easily been a hack. He could have stuck with the one-no-one, single point lighting, interview shows he did in the 50s. He didn’t. Hell, he could have left 60 Minutes decades ago. It is difficult to think he might need the money.

Instead, he stayed and worked hard and always did work that he could be proud of. I know he is difficult to work with. I suspect he enjoys that reputation. It is the passion that comes with pride.

As Mike Wallace was finishing his career at 60 Minutes, I was celebrating my 22nd anniversary at the TV station. My career hasn’t been as Earth shattering.

There have been many times when I’ve thought how ill equipped I’d be to do a job like Wallace’s. I think I could confront the evil, but not the weak or those who’ve already suffered greatly. That’s part of what he does.

This is not to say my 22 years have been without merit. There are lots of things I’ve done which have had a positive impact – storms where people were protected or causes which were advanced through my efforts. I’m just no Mike Wallace.

Who is?

Mike Wallace Retires

I’m going to hit the pause button on vacation entries for a sec to chime in on Mike Wallace’s retirement. This is a story that floated through the ‘blogosphere’ (gotta add that word to the spell checker) before it was officially confirmed.

I’m a big 60 Minutes fan. I watched the show when it was on Thursday nights. I watched when the Sunday show used to be produced live. Back then, Wallace would begin the show with stories that needed updating since the Sunday papers went to bed.

Life was so very simple before 24 hour cable news.

Mike Wallace was a broadcaster more than a newsman – at least by training and resume. He hosted a talk show, PM East (where I believe Barbra Streisand got her TV start) and a game show. He delivered live commercials as cigarette smoke snaked skyward.

I think the role of journalistic training (i.e. a journalism degree) is overrated. A well read and bright person is really what’s needed.

His strength on 60 Minutes, where his reputation was made, was the confrontation interview. He was the guy who walked in with the videotape, showing the evil doer being evil.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly wouldn’t have the guts to do that sort of thing. I’ve seen people thrashed on camera (Andy Houlding on Channel 8, as an example). The camera records, it does not protect.

With Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace gone, it will probably be a new 60 Minutes. Maybe that’s good. I don’t know what they have planned. Much of what magazine TV has become hasn’t been all that sparkling, so I’m a little scared.

60 Minutes is an anachronism in broadcasting and has stayed successful in spite of that!

They were among the last to go from film to tape. They continue to produce long stories… very long stories, often about obscure people or people out of the mainstream. They have old folks on the air, with little sex appeal… except Lara Logan… definitely except Lara Logan.

There will still be Morley Safer, though his role has already been diminished. Ed Bradley and Steve Kroft remain&#185. I like Andy Rooney, but he’s certainly not the first of the ‘back of the book’ commentators, and doesn’t represent the show’s early days (except he did write for Harry Reasoner, a 60 Minutes original).

I wish they still read viewer mail.

There are other correspondents, but they were the early signs of the diminution of the show.

How long a run can a show or its staff have? Must the shift to younger, fresher talent be inevitable? Do you trade your family in if they are perceived as being too old?

&#185 – I ‘ran into’ Kroft on the street in Manhattan. He seemed very nice. Genuinely so. He’s been on the show since 1989 and I still think of him as the new guy.