Mike Wallace Was an Icon of Television, Not Journalism

CBS News' Mike Wallace, who died over the weekend at 93, is being hailed as an icon of broadcast journalism for his foundational role as 60 Minutes' investigative bulldog. This is bullshit. He was a failed soap actor and vaudeville hack named Myron who just wanted to be on television. He was as much a journalist as Ryan Seacrest.

Glossed over in most of Wallace's obituaries is the fact that his pre-60 Minutes career—he didn't join the show until he was 50 years old and on his third wife—was a little more than a desperate and sustained attempt at achieving celebrity. Not journalistic celebrity, or reportorial renown, but the sort of tawdry, famous-for-being-famous notoriety currently reserved for cable reality show cast members. That's the only thru-line that can be drawn from his pre-CBS News days: Radio announcer for The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger; actor (in the role of Flamond) in The Crime Files of Flamond; announcer on the soap operas Road of Life, Ma Perkins, and The Guiding Light; and the male half of a Regis and Kathie Lee-style chat show, Mike and Buff.

These weren't youthful diversions. At the age of 36—by which time Walter Cronkite had already apprenticed under Edward R. Murrow and was hosting his own CBS News show—Myron was starring as Samuel Ellis in Harry Kurnitz's art-world comedy Reclining Figure on Broadway. This is the career arc of a performer and exhibitionist—a TV personality—not the crusader for truth he's being hailed as. And his famously undermining colleagues at 60 Minutes confirmed this morning that television journalism was little more than a vehicle for Myron's fame-seeking. Asked to sum up his career in a word on the Early Show, Steve Kroft chose one that, with its overtones of exaggeration and deceit, isn't generally associated with the giants of the news profession: "Performer."

Morley Safer concurred: "Mike always felt that he had not paid his dues as a journalist," he told Charlie Rose. "He's confessed to a lot of people, including me, that the uncertainty and even shame of having done commercials and silly stuff like that haunted him."

It was that sense of shame, one presumes, that caused Myron to quickly reverse himself after initially siding with his corporate boss—and friend—Larry Tisch in the decision to spike part of a 1995 60 Minutes story on Brown & Williamson. Wallace had interviewed whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand, who confirmed that the tobacco company was deliberately manipulating the amount of nicotine its cigarettes could deliver. That nugget was excised from Wallace's report by company lawyers, ostensibly out of caution against a potential lawsuit from Brown & Williamson but more likely because a tobacco company that Tisch owned was considering purchasing some Brown & Williamson brands at the time. Wallace thought the corporate censorship was just fine, until it became clear that it wasn't, at which point he objected fiercely. (That reversal, interestingly, didn't make it into Myron's New York Times obituary, which reported only his "bitterness" at the episode.)

Myron Wallace was a newsreader and paid actor who played a part—very, very well—on your television screens. His producers, who reported out and prepared his broadcasts, were journalists.

Image by Jim Cooke, source photos via Getty.