Mike Wallace Signs Off

Mike Wallace died over the weekend.  He was 93 years old, and he left behind a true broadcast journalism legacy.

Wallace was synonymous with the CBS show 60 Minutes, where he was a regular contributor for more than 30 years.  His hard-hitting stories helped to make the broadcast the most popular show in the land, because watching Mike Wallace relentlessly drill down on a sweating interview subject was great television.  I’m confident that every sleazy politician, corporate executive, or head of a charity who got a phone call that Mike Wallace was doing a story and wanted an interview felt a cold chill and inward pucker, knowing the jig was up, the awful truth would be exposed, and there was nothing they could do about it.

Although people associate Wallace with his tough on-air persona, he also was a very capable journalist.  Unlike most modern broadcasters, he wasn’t all about theatrics.  His interviews and stories were usually thoroughly researched and carefully presented.  His approach followed that of radio and early TV newsmen who sourced their pieces just like print reporters did; they were simply using different technology to present the story.  At some point, broadcast “news” veered off into the land of preening personalities, titanic egos, empty suits, ambush interviews, and advocacy stories that never would have made it past an old-line editor.  Does anyone think that Katie Couric, Bill O’Reilly, Diane Sawyer, or Brian Williams — or any other modern newscaster — is comparable to Mike Wallace?

Wallace’s death not only marks the passing of a broadcast icon, it also marks the final and unfortunate end of an era.

A Damned Good Idea

At his meeting with the House Republican caucus on Friday, President Obama said that some Republicans had misrepresented his health care bill as “some Bolshevik plot.” The Republicans in the audience responded with good-natured laughter. There was a lot of laughter at the event, actually. I joined in when Obama called Republican Illinois gubernatorial candidate Paul Ryan “a pretty sincere guy” then quickly added, “by the way, in case he’s going to get a Republican challenge, I didn’t mean it.”

It’s nice to see Democrats and Republicans laughing together at how ridiculous partisan politics have become in this country. Public dialogue between the two parties has reached a new low. Better we all find humor in it than be overwhelmed with frustration and spite.

One party makes a big deal out of a supposedly bombastic statement made by a member of the other, usually taken out of context. Guests on TV news channels blame their ideological opposites for refusing to compromise. Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann warn us that certain politicians would steal America’s soul if they had their way. The media, which loves drama as much as any reality tv show producer, stokes the fire.

All this bickering helps explain why Congress had so much trouble getting anything done in 2009. As Obama said at the caucus, the Republicans spent so much time demonizing his health care bill that any Republican who wanted to support it would fear the ire of his constituents and would become a pariah within the party.

Friday’s meeting was a welcome break from this mayhem. No one accused Obama of trying to force elderly Americans in front of “death panels” or asked him to provide a birth certificate. There were no shouts of “you lie!” Instead, the tone was friendly. A handful of Republican congressmen politely criticized the President, who actually admitted to some mistakes – like that he should have done a better job of keeping his campaign promise to put meetings between health care interests on C-SPAN. Like I said, there was lots of joking: the transcript I linked to above indicates 22 breaks for laughter. The President and his audience disagreed a lot, but always in a civil fashion.

It just shows what is possible when all that separates the two parties is a microphone cord. The other party doesn’t seem so bad when everything they say and do isn’t filtered through the bloodthirsty media and party leaders who want to demonize them as much as possible before the next election.

The New York Times notes that Britain has a tradition similar to Friday’s meeting. I’d like to see this become an American tradition. I don’t know if any compromises will come from it, but it’s certainly better than the way things are. At the very least, political dialogue will distract less from the real issues.