Mike Wallace, Entertainment, and Journalism

Mike Wallace, veteran media personality, died the other day at age 93.  May he rest in peace.  If air time and salary are measures of merit, Wallace was a television star and an unqualified success.  He was a triple-treat too: pitchman, game show host, and actor.  On the back nine, Mike liked to think of himself exclusively as a journalist.  The network might have plucked him from daytime television -- but taking the shill out of the entertainer was another matter.  Wallace was the quintessential barker, an ambulance-chaser with press credentials.  He perfected the art of "ambush" journalism at CBS.  With such tactics, copy led only when it bled.  Indeed, Mike Wallace's career echoes some of the more predatory traditions of broadcast journalism.

The idea that daytime television (a mind-numbing mix of games, gossip, cartoons, and fake reality shows) is a good apprenticeship for serious journalism is a little like believing that playing doctor as a child is good training for urologists or gynecologists.  Nonetheless, the career paths of chaps like Wallace, and larger icons like Walter Cronkite, followed that road where entertainment and news merge.  The problem might be worse with women.  Barbara Walters moves seamlessly from bimbo chat in the AM to hard news in the PM.  Diane Sawyer is now another refugee from daytime fluff.

Such media figures usually have one or more characteristics in common: liberal politics, photogenic looks, variable standards -- and a knack with a teleprompter.  Of these, politics and visuals are probably the deal-breakers.  When was the last time you saw an obese, homely, or impartial anchor?

The values are all wrong, and the politics are predictable in the entertainment bullpen.  Standards seem to be confined to appearance, salesmanship, limited expertise, and selective ethics.  Wallace's Vietnam War coverage for CBS and 60 Minutes is an illustration -- a case where Wallace and the network, not content with real issues like military competence, chose to attack an officer's character.  Ethos is more entertaining than issues.

In 1982, fourteen years after the fact, Wallace accused William Westmoreland of cooking the Intelligence books on Viet Cong strength numbers in 1968.  Had Wallace known anything about the Order of Battle calculations, he would have known that commanding generals do not get mired in the details of bean-counting, relying instead on agencies like the DIA and CIA and accepting G2 (Intelligence) numbers as received wisdom.

The 60 Minutes segment alleged that Westmoreland personally suppressed Viet Cong strength numbers, a manipulation which led to the Tet Offensive "surprise" of 1968.

CBS speculations were based on several flawed premises, including a flaky witness (Sam Adams) and the implausibility of underestimates in the middle of a shooting war.  Estimates of enemy strength were not done exclusively at Westmoreland's MACV HQ in Saigon in any case; calculations were also done by agencies in Honolulu and Washington, D.C.

Nonetheless, enemy threat numbers usually err on the high side (recall the ten-foot Soviets of the Cold War).  Threat inflation is a no-lose hedge.  Higher threat estimates are also key to bigger budgets.  The Tet "surprise" may have been a low point in the war, but low numbers were irrelevant in any case.  The war went on for another seven years.

The libel suit against CBS was settled out of court.  Westmoreland might have proved defamation, but probably not the higher standard for "malice."  Still, Wallace's personal conduct after the trail provides a telling coda: admitting first to profound depression and then to at least one attempted suicide in the wake of the battle with Westmoreland.  Is truth depressing?  Are winners suicidal?

With the "uncounted enemy" charade, CBS was telling one story but selling another: a tale of personal destruction.  And the practice of political journalism is not without precedent before or after Mike Wallace.  

Walter Cronkite cried on air for John Kennedy.  What network anchor shed tears for Ronald Reagan when he was shot?  Were Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas a liberal jurist instead of a conservative black man, would he have been savaged by PBS and Nina Totenberg?  More recently, Dan Rather, another 60 Minutes regular, was caught using forged documents to attack George Bush's character.  Even colleagues claimed that Dan Rather was "transparently liberal" -- a charge that might be made about many network journalists today.  Rather was fired for cooking the books, while Mike Wallace was just left to marinate with a troubled conscience.

The producers of 60 Minutes and correspondents like Mike Wallace might better be called "parachute," not ambush journalists.  Indeed, men and women with limited expertise are often dropped onto a hot issue for hours or days and then returned to air-conditioned suites where they judge like experts.  The near-tragedy with Lara Logan, another CBS protégé, in Tahrir Square is instructive.  Who thought it was a good idea to drop a blond waif, with cowardly escorts, into a howling mob of angry Muslim men?

Hemingway was a credible war correspondent because he served at the Italian front in WWI.  George Orwell was a believable critic of retail Communism because he served with Red partisans in the Spanish Civil War.  Joseph Conrad was a reliable source on colonialism because he lived in the "heart of darkness."  Ernie Pyle was beloved by the troops and on the home front because he bivouacked with, and ate the same chow as, the GIs for the duration of WWII.

Recall the mockery of Wallace's CBS colleague, Dan Rather, as "Gunga Dan" for his silly costumes and war zone pretense.  The credibility of reporting is not enhanced by posturing.  Since the Korean War, no correspondent is ever more than a helicopter ride away from air conditioning, happy hour, and room service.

The recent network eulogies for Wallace had all the appropriate spin -- replete with the numbers of Emmy and Peabody awards.  Yet these, like Pulitzers, have become a kind of Special Olympics for the glitterati.  If you have one significant award, it might mean something; 25 awards is a kind of faint praise -- just another statistic.

Few testimonials mentioned Wallace's ethnic paranoia and overcompensation in the form of biased coverage of Jewish or Israeli news items.  Fewer still mentioned his derogatory comments about blacks, Hispanics, or homosexuals, either.  And almost none mentioned Chris Wallace, Mike's son over at Fox News Channel, who became the journalist that Mike Wallace never was.

Ironically, a few days after Wallace passed away, this year's print Pulitzers were announced.  The reporting trophy went to an Associated Press exposé -- a series on the NY Police Department and the city program to collect intelligence on Islamists.  Yes, a little more than a decade after 9/11, cops are again the enemy -- and the Muslim community is a victim (of "profiling"), not a potential source of terror.  Mike Wallace would have loved this choice -- a world turned inside-out by political pretense and journalistic spin.

G. Murphy Donovan writes frequently about Agnotology, politics, and national security.  He served as a junior intelligence officer at 7th AF, HQ in Saigon during the Tet Offensive of 1968.