Thursday, August 8, 2019

He built a career asking questions

The late Mike Wallace -- once a TV actor and genial pitchman -- evolved into a hard-nosed TV reporter with an unrelenting style of interviewing. Wallace made his bones on Nightbeat, an interview program of the 1950s. On small black-and-white screens, Wallace and his guests were bathed in cigarette smoke and controversy. In Mike Wallace is Here, director Avi Belkin reviews Wallace's career with archival footage that works like a highlight reel of a TV newsman's work. Belkin opens with a Wallace interview with Bill O'Reilly, himself no stranger to antagonism. O'Reilly declares himself to be the spawn of Wallace's take-no-prisoners style. But unlike the contentious O'Reilly, Wallace's questions weren’t connected to a political point of view. His career brought him into contact with so many bold-faced names, it's difficult to keep track: from Barbra Streisand to Vladimir Putin to Ayatollah Khomeini. Belkin also touches on Wallace's personal life: notably his marriages, the loss of a son and a battle with depression. Wallace’s restless competitiveness helped give rise to 60 Minutes, a show on which he was an original participant and mainstay. It was the crowning achievement of a life that kept him working well into his 80s. Belkin also covers some of Wallace's professional struggles: a suit brought by General William Westmoreland over Vietnam coverage and CBS's refusal to air a Wallace interview with a tobacco whistleblower. I was never a particular fan of Wallace or of his style of journalism, but there's no dismissing the fact that he was an influential force on TV and perhaps in helping to form the public's idea of how journalists supposedly behave. To his credit, Wallace didn't flinch from trying to lift as many lids as he could. The mere mention of his name was supposed to strike fear into the hearts of people who had something to hide. The man knew his way around a story, and he sometimes raised, even if inadvertently, questions about a journalistic line that’s still not entirely drawn: the one that defines the difference between the personal and the public. Wallace died in 2012 at the age of 93.

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