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Mike Wallace, good-by
April 9, 2012 - Stephen Browne
Veteran broadcast journalist Mike Wallace died yesterday at the age of 93.
Wallace was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on May 9, 1918, to Russian Jewish immigrant parents originally named Wallik, and his life only got more interesting from there on.
Wallace was one of the few remaining survivors of the beginnings of broadcast journalism, back when it was common to have a wider variety of experience than is even possible today. He was at various times a commercial pitchman, a game show host, radio narrator for shows such as the original Sky King and The Green Hornet, sportscaster, and stand-up comic (didn't know that one did you?)
He also served as a communications officer on a U.S. Navy sub tender during World War II.
I feel safe in saying no journalist starting out these days could ever amass a resume like that.
My first memories of Mike Wallace were from the half-hour documentary Biography, which featured informative and interesting, but mostly softball pocket bios of prominent people, living and dead.
In 1959 Wallace and Louis Lomax produced The Hate That Hate Produced, a five-part documentary on The Nation of Islam, featuring one Louis X, later known as Louis Farrakhan.
Wallace began, "While city officials, state agencies, white liberals, and sober-minded Negroes stand idly by, a group of Negro dissenters is taking to street-corner step ladders, church pulpits, sports arenas, and ballroom platforms across the United States, to preach a gospel of hate that would set off a federal investigation if it were preached by Southern whites."
With Farrakhan responding, "I charge the white man with being the greatest liar on earth! I charge the white man with being the greatest drunkard on earth.... I charge the white man with being the greatest gambler on earth. I charge the white man, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, with being the greatest murderer on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest peace-breaker on earth.... I charge the white man with being the greatest robber on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest deceiver on earth. I charge the white man with being the greatest trouble-maker on earth. So therefore, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I ask you, bring back a verdict of guilty as charged!"
It would not be the last time Wallace and Farrakhan clashed on air.
Contemporary critics have called the documentary a "caricature," "one-sided," and even "yellow journalism," but The Nation of Islam and Farrakhan have no reason to complain. Farrkhan and Malcolm X were catapulted to fame and became frequent interview subjects, college speakers, and talk show guests (before Malcolm X's assassination,) and the Nation of Islam's membership doubled to 60,000 in the weeks after the broadcast.
Whether one regards that as a desirable outcome or not, it illustrates something about Wallace as an interviewer. He let his subjects have their say.
Well yes, but isn't that what journalists are supposed to do? Ideally yes, but in this day and age there are an awful lot of so-called journalists who constantly interrupt their subjects, cut them off, argue with them, and shamefully edit their responses.
Wallace did a great service to a lot of people when he revealed he had been treated for severe clinical depression, including a suicide attempt. He said it took him a while to acknowledge because he thought of it as a shameful weakness.
He was one of the founders of 60 Minutes, which created the genre of TV news magazine.
Wallace could be startlingly naive at times. In one interview he spoke of his long professional relationship with Yasser Arafat, and how he'd come to admire him. This from an intelligent, mostly well-informed Jewish journalist would be a little like hearing Walter Lippman profess his admiration for Adolf Hitler. It should serve as a cautionary tale, that journalists get out and about a lot, but our experience on any given subject tends towards the superficial.
Wallace's surviving son Chris is a journalist at FOX News. Mighty big shoes to fill, I must say.
Good by Mike. Somehow it doesn't feel like TV News without you.
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