April 12, 2012
BOSTON — For most of us, "60 Minutes" was appointment television in a time before 700 channels, Tivo and endless reruns. When news reached me of Mike Wallace's death, it took me back to the days when you actually had to get up to change the channel. It also took me back to the night I appeared in a "60 Minutes" story, ever so briefly.
Wallace was a merciless interviewer. On Sundays we'd see him confront a newsmaker. On Mondays, we'd all talk about it. But for all the ambushes, the pointed follow-up questions and the celebrity interviews, Wallace was a big believer and a strong advocate for making you, the news consumer, more responsible.
His death led us into the WGBH Vault, a climate-controlled room where thousands of archives are carefully stored. It is here where our team found a 1970 seminar at MIT in Cambridge. The topic centered on television news, which was still in its infancy. So the audience was suspect and ready to take on Wallace as if he were the spokesman for the entire industry.
"Catering" to short-term sensation
"Do you really think that in fact the profit motive of exactly appealing to your audience isn't accelerating, isn't teaching people to have a shorter time span, and to want more sensational things?" one attendee said. "Aren't you really reversing all the things that people learn from kindergarten to 12th grade about how to really appreciate complex issues by your catering to the sensational short-term, let's-do-this-and-move-on-to-another-thing type news broadcast?"
Wallace said television news was "getting better" but admitted, "We err sometimes, still."
At the time, the country was in the middle of the Vietnam War and college campuses were the focal point of anti-war rallies against President Richard Nixon and Vice President Agnew. Television news was getting battered from both sides, as Wallace noted, referencing a disparaging comment recently made by the vice president.
"I could hardly believe I would have to come to Cambridge to find so many allies of Spiro Agnew," Wallace retorted. "In three separate seminars today, it's become painfully obvious to me that the MIT community looks askance at television news just about as much as Agnew does, although for different reasons."
Wallace responds to the critique
Long before personal computers, cellphones and "apps," Wallace knew the audience's attention span was pivotal.
"If we in broadcasting fail at the mass communication of complicated issues, and I think we should plead guilty, we fail because first of all, the attention span of our viewers is probably minute," Wallace said. "If we delve too deeply, or linger too long on something difficult, we lose our audience — the ratings prove it. Second … there is almost no chance to savor and test an idea before another proposition has replaced it on the tube. And finally the average viewer or listener finds so many issues so overwhelmingly complicated to begin with that he despairs of understanding them anyway and says to hell with it and settles for a movie or a paperback whodunit or an episode of 'Mission Impossible.'"
But the audience isn't off the hook
In the WGBH Archives, I'm struck by the give-and-take, Wallace's comments and audience laughter, and think of a simpler time in journalism. But whether it was 1970 or throughout his career, Wallace always believed that you, the audience, held a powerful responsibility.
"We can sketch the outlines of the story. We can convey its feel. We can get the citizen involved, whet his interest, make him want to know more," he said. But for the complications and intricacies, the viewer would have to go deeper, "to the newspapers and journals, to the magazines and books, to public conversations and to private thinking — and in the final analysis, of course, that’s where he must go: to himself."
Wallace added, "It's hard work to learn about complicated issues. It is easier to pin the tail on the mass media for failing to keep us informed than to suggest that we ourselves lack the discipline to inform ourselves."
Which gets me back to my flash frame on a "60 Minutes" broadcast — when Wallace became interested in a situation that followed when my television station delved into complicated issues on the air.
In 1996, after a year's worth of work by top-notch, respected journalists, my station aired an investigative series on Northwest Airlines detailing safety issues, sizable fines and a culture that prevented employees from coming forward. We also had whistleblowers (something that, coincidentally, Wallace would come to know in his controversial story on big tobacco).
To this day, I believe Northwest knew the story would hold up in court. So instead of staging a legal battle, the airline filed a grievance with a public watchdog group called the Minnesota News Council. Its criticism of our investigation was lengthy; our defense was equally thorough. The result was a very public airing of journalism standards, tactics and techniques in newsgathering. We didn't stand a chance.
Over the years, I had testified before the council and defended news stories. But this case was different. Wallace was advocating for a national news council, where aggrieved subjects could take their case before a similar group. So when Northwest filed a complaint, Wallace came to town and "60 Minutes" covered it. Sunday night. Appointment TV.
A Wallace effect?
There was plenty of intrigue before and after the council ruled against the story. Did the glare of "60 Minutes" impact the council's decision? Was my station being held to a higher standard? How would Wallace's own, famously aggressive newsgathering tactics hold up in front of an ad hoc panel of former newspaper people and community members? Not well, I bet.
When the council ruled, there was celebration at the airline and a chilling effect in our newsroom. We realized that a news story could win in the courtroom but lose in the court of public opinion. The next night, my station won an Emmy for the Northwest investigation.
In subsequent years, instead of ignoring News Council complaints as my competitors did, I returned to the lion's den to defend more stories — none of which, I believe, we won. But it was important to face this "jury" even if its decisions seemed off the mark. The News Council disbanded in 2011 after 41 years.
Mike Wallace's passing could be the end of a conversation about journalism standards and the public's role. Or it could be a fresh start.
I'd like to know what you think. Tell me in the comments or email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ted Canova is the executive editor for news at WGBH Radio.
WGBH OPEN VAULT
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