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.

How The Ratings Have Fallen

Last night the CBS Evening News tied its all-time low for viewers in a week.  Only 4.89 million viewers tuned in.  For that same week, about 19 million Americans — only a miniscule fraction of our total estimated population of 309 million — watched one of the three network nightly news shows.

This is a far cry from 1969, when Huntley & Brinkley and Walter Cronkite ruled the airwaves and half of all American households watched one of the three network news shows.   In 1980, 55 million Americans watched the evening news, and as late as 1993 more than 40 million Americans watched nightly newscasts. In short, in 17 years, as the population of the United States has grown, nightly news viewership has been cut by more than half.

Why?  I’m sure that having more viewing options, the ability to get news at any time through the internet or 24-hour cable news, and longer work days that make it harder to be home and in front of the set at 6:30, all have had an impact.  No doubt the identity of the anchors also is relevant; Katie Couric just doesn’t have the same gravitas as Walter Cronkite.  And perhaps Americans don’t really feel like the “news” reported by the networks is all that compelling any more, given the prevalence of “for your health” segments and other lifestyle pieces and concerns from some corners about biased reporting.

Although the causes of this phenomenon may be debatable, the consequences are not.  Whereas nightly news anchors used to have tremendous influence because they had tremendous audiences, that is no longer the case.  Political campaigns used to focus on getting shown on the nightly news because even a few moments of footage would define the public’s perception.  Now, if the NBC Nightly News decides not to cover a politician’s comments, that politician can count on getting the message out through friendly talking heads on Fox, CNN, or MSNBC, or through blogs or Youtube.  Events are no longer seen through one lens or defined by one report.  That is bad news for the networks, but it is probably good for democracy that a few people no longer have a chokehold on the images presented to Americans over their dinners.