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Like Wallace, Eulogies Are Honest and Complex

Mike Wallace (journalist)

Mike Wallace: One of a Kind


As I said Monday, just about everything about broadcasting legend Mike Wallace will have been said or written by the time “60 Minutes” gets around to its celebration of his life on this Sunday’s edition of the CBS program.

Sure enough, there were Morley Safer and Steve Kroft discussing Wallace’s legacy with Charlie Rose on CBS’ morning show Monday — two days after Wallace’s death at age 93.

There was “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl talking with CNN’s Anderson Cooper (also a “60 Minutes” contributor) on Monday night.

And there was footage of Wallace himself in an old interview in which he referred to himself as a bit of a “prick.” (Now, there is a word you are unlikely to see in a print interview in many family newspapers).

It all painted an honest and complex figure of a one-of-a-kind, award-winning journalist whose philosophy of “asking the tough questions” was formulated four or five decades before Channel 2 News used it in its promotional campaign.

Stahl was my favorite when it came to reminiscing. She said she loved Wallace and that he helped get her hired. She added that he served as her mentor in some ways, telling her how to ask the tough questions without looking weak or worried about the response.

And when Cooper brought up Wallace’s legendary habit of stealing stories from reporters, Stahl smiled and said Wallace had done it to her and she still loved him.

The story that was stolen from her was an interview with entertainer Barbra Streisand that CNN played bits of Monday and undoubtedly will make Sunday’s show on CBS. In it, Wallace unapologetically made Streisand address some painful criticism from her mother.

You wouldn’t blame Stahl for thinking “it served Stresiand right” for changing interviewers.

It apparently took Safer longer to forgive. He said Monday – with a smile I think — that although he and Wallace lived in the same building in New York City they didn’t talk for three years because of stolen interviews.

While listening to Stahl, Anderson and Safer talk and watching footage of some of Wallace’s memorable interviews, I couldn’t help but think of how much “60 Minutes” has changed in the last decade or two. Believe it or not, I also couldn’t help think of Ryan Seacrest.

Let me explain. “60 Minutes” remains a very interesting and informative show on a weekly basis without Wallace, the late Harry Reasoner and the late Andy Rooney. Sunday’s show featured an exceptional, heartwarming feature about a man who started a musical orchestra in the Congo. It probably would make for a good movie.

But it is rare these days that program does any of the investigative or combative pieces that made Wallace a legend. If memory serves me, those interviews pretty much ended when Wallace was still on the program. Kroft may come closest to the Wallace legacy in interviews, but TV has been around so long now that most subjects have learned — with the help of crisis managers — how to defuse tough questions.

Why would I be thinking of Seacrest, you wonder? It is because of all the skepticism about whether the “American Idol” would be able to ever take the place of Matt Lauer as host of the “Today” show because he doesn’t have the requisite journalist experience.

As the filmed tributes illustrated, Wallace didn’t have the journalistic experience, either. He did commercials and was an actor before deciding in his 40s to become a journalist.

And there’s no question that Wallace’s acting career helped him in his journalism career. After all, his intimidating voice, impeccable diction and arched eyebrows could practically frighten anyone he interviewed. Acting made him comfortable in front of the camera and helped make his subjects uncomfortable.

No one appears more comfortable in his skin on TV these days than Seacrest. Seacrest won’t scare anyone he interviews like Wallace did if he ever gets Lauer’s seat. But as I said before, it is harder to scare anyone in interviews these days now that TV has been around so long. Seacrest has the disarming smarts to sneak in the tough questions if he ever lands in Lauer’s seat.

I can even envision Seacrest pulling a Wallace and stealing stories and interviews from his colleagues.

It is hard to see anyone ever calling Seacrest “a prick.” But no one gets in the position of power that the “American Idol” has gotten into without having more than a little toughness in him.


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