Wallace - playing journalist on TV, and being one too
Thursday, May 3, 2012
WHAT A WEEK for media and power, and their incestuous inter-relations.
Maybe it was long-overdue, that condemnation of Rupert Murdoch as "not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company", when it finally came from a committee of the UK Parliament ... an institution containing many members - including its most senior, we can't forget - who actively sought Murdoch's favor in previous times.
And it was certainly predictable that President Barack Obama's evidently necessary agreement-signing trip to Afghanistan would also include a president's (and campaigner's) live television address from a pre-dawn Kabul. And that with little subtlety it would re-emphasize that it was this president, remember, who ordered Osama Bin Laden's killing a calendar year ago. Oh, and a presidential appearance would separately be made for NBC's long pre-prepared 30 Rock show to mark that anniversary ... in the White House Situation Room no less, to which the Navy Seals had fed back their dramatic operational imagery.
This entire nexus of politics and reportage made it a very apt week for Mike Wallace's memorial - held following a considered delay by his family and CBS colleagues after his death in early April at very nearly the age of 94. I myself held off from writing about Mike until now - sensing at the time of his dying that there seemed very little to express ... except that ineffable feeling of loss.
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Mike's importance to our world and our knowledge of it was put into perspective by ... of all things, perhaps ... the almost banal appearance of Mitt Romney at the memorial, looking forlorn at this time of an Obama day-in-the-sun (when the presidential script characterized Kabul's imminent sunrise as the "light of a new day on the horizon", a sign of a war finally ending ... sometime soon, anyway). I hadn't even seen Romney - and had to have his lackluster presence there pointed out to me on the video news-coverage. But of course it was important that a presidential candidate be there.
Among the many references during the ceremony (adulatory, and sometimes a bit critically barbed - for which read 'jealous') to Mike's high-profile performance-skills in his long tenure at 60 Minutes, there was, thank God, some recognition that sheer journalism lay at the core of his work. His well-recognized penchant for attention-getting was called into play in service of that journalism.
It seemed like a joke when Jeff Fager (modern times' Executive Producer of 60M, following the late, great Don Hewitt, and now also CBS News chairman) opened by saying Mike would have been amazed to see the room (Lincoln Center's Rose Theater) so jam-packed. "He would have called for a count," said Fager, and then delivered a punchline imagining, probably rightly, that Mike would have boasted "that more people showed up at his memorial service than at Hewitt's".
But there's a simple truth in that Mike constantly did insist on numbers ... facts ... checkable certainties.
Chris Wallace said in a cracking voice at the event's close he should remind us, for instance, that his father's famous 1979 encounter with Ayatollah Khomeini - when Mike asked the mullah how he reacted to being called "a lunatic" by Egypt's president - wasn't a sudden, easy walk-in for his father. It followed years of diligent reporting and contact-cultivating among Iranians, in-country and in exile, including a notable 1974 report that confronted the Shah of Iran with his secret police's track-record of murder and torture.
WHILE EAGERLY GARNERING facts and connections, Mike was equally leery of the vague and unproven, or unprovable.
He habitually and irascibly questioned my work with him as a producer (which colleagues' work didn't get tough questioning?) and - in character - he would combine the searching with the ostensibly cutting. I once wrote for him an opening line to a historical program (about the Joe McCarthy period, in the series "The Twentieth Century with Mike Wallace") that said: "It was one of the most frightening times in our nation's history ..."
He glared at me over his glasses, looked back at the script, muttered barely aloud, "most frightening times in our nation's history" - and then blasted out, "You don't know sh*t about our nation's history, Tereshchuk!"
And so we got down to modifying the phrasing.
I can't say my ego wasn't affected by the experience; I indeed felt decidedly miffed. On later gaining my US citizenship (and answering with earnest exactitude all those constitutional and historical questions that are part of the process) I sent him a copy of my certificate of naturalization, clipped to the questionnaire that I'd so knowledgeably filled in, and topped it with my cover-note: "See! I really DO know sh*t about our nation's history, Wallace".
He then, of course, good-naturedly congratulated me: "You're a good American, Tereshchuk".
I was also journalistically chastened by our exchange. Since then I always look very carefully, more than twice, at every superlative I ever write.
Mike Wallace was a superlative journalist.
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