Monday, April 09, 2012

A Fighter Remembered

In the course of my infamous college career, I held many majors. One of the fun ones, one I wish I had stuck with, was journalism.
I went to college in the glory days of journalism: Reporters had just brought down a war machine, reporters were just about to take down a President.
Reporters were doing their jobs. Gathering facts, not repeating talking points. Investigating to see if there was a "there" there, and then writing stories that fit the facts, not just parroted position papers.
Think of the world-altering stories that came out in that time frame: the Pentagon Papers, the scandals at Willowbrook and other homes for the developmentally disabled (it was still ok to call them "retarded" back then), and of course, Watergate.
It seemed that journalists would roll up their sleeves and tackle any story to see what was behind the curtain. And then it all fell apart, and they herded into the same meadow the rest of us sheeple were grazing.
Once in a while, one of the old rams would rear his head and break a big story. Usually, it was this man: Mike Wallace.
It was once said that the most frightening sight for a CEO or politician was Mike Wallace walking up the driveway with a film crew. Certainly, Wallace's questions were the highlight of any interview, because the answers rarely mattered. The questions exposed the facts Wallace learned, all he was fishing for was a reaction.
Wallace was one of the last of a breed of journalist who can trace their roots back to the Golden Era of TV: Eric Sevareid, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, the wrongly disgraced Dan Rather, even Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein owe a debt of gratitude to the television news departments of that era, and particularly the legendary Edward R. Murrow (born Egbert, so we can imagine where he got his fighting spirit).
Indeed, Keith Olbermann signed off his now extinct "Countdown" with Murrow's catchphrase "Good night and good luck," some 55 years after Murrow was off the air.
Murrow's career ended gloriously, ironically pointing out in a famous speech in Chicago (you can watch it recreated in the movie "Good Night and Good Luck") how news had taken a backseat to entertainment and getting fired for it. Murrow would no doubt blanch today watching any local news broadcast promotion of the network's latest offerings or the corporate overlords latest pet film project or product.
Wallace's confrontational style, best described as "tough but fair," is a direct descendant of Murrow: play their words back to them, then make them answer for their words. Cite facts, not opinion, and don't interpret. Let them either make their cases or dig their graves, even tho you already know which will happen.
And he had to do this in an era when TV news went under the unmbrella of entertainment and was expected to turn a comparable profit, something even Murrow never had to truly contend with (usually, Murrow's programs had a single major underwriter to pay the bills.)
Wallace made mistakes, the largest being smearing General William Westmoreland, for which Wallace was forced to issue a public apology. He claimed that the United States military had deliberately underestimated the size of the North Vietnamese forces arrayed against them.
They had, but Wallace claimed it was a cover-up for incompetence in the original analyses, while in truth, it was a political expediency. Westmoreland sued for $120 million. He settled for an apology. That should tell you how not-far fro the truth Wallace was even then.
So it was reporters like Wallace that made journalism attractive, that made finding out the truth important. It's a goddamned shame that America doesn't have anyone to pick up that mantle. Who really does exposes anymore? The only reporter I can think of is Greg Palast and he free-lances for the Beeb.
Now we have news agglomerators (yours truly included.) The best ones find out the truth as best they can, and relate it to you with all their experience and knowledge. The worst ones just repeat what you've read elsewhere and call it "news".
You listening, Drudge?
Godspeed, Mr. Wallace. You were enough.