Mike Wallace upended television news by dispensing with the softball questions that had been the medium’s stock in trade. On shows such as “Night Beat,” the 1950s program that launched his career, and “60 Minutes,” the news magazine that solidified his place in the journalism firmament, Wallace grilled everyone from movie stars to world leaders in a dogged quest to find the truth.
“Mike Wallace is Here,” a penetrating new documentary about the legendary newsman that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, is a chance to celebrate that legacy, as well as an opportunity to reflect on the way the media landscape has changed since Wallace’s heyday. It’s become more about bloviating. Less about relaying facts. And often seems to be a nasty, ratings-driven race to the bottom.
It’s a climate that Wallace would have little use for, the newscaster’s son Chris Wallace told Variety. Although, Chris Wallace believes his father would have loved a chance to cover the whirlwind Trump administration and the myriad scandals consuming the Beltway. It’s a frenzied atmosphere that Chris Wallace knows all too well as the host of “Fox News Sunday.”
Just before the film was unveiled for the Sundance crowds, “Mike Wallace Is Here” director Avi Belkin and Chris Wallace sat down to discuss Wallace’s influence on journalism, the dangers that reporters face today, and the vital need for news organizations to continue asking tough questions.
Chris, have you seen the film?
Chris Wallace: I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love it. It means a lot to me, because after the film, I googled Mike Wallace and the first name that popped up, the first picture that popped up, was a wide receiver for the Miami Falcons.
First of all I think it’s a wonderful piece of work, but secondly I think it will introduce Mike Wallace to a generation that really doesn’t know who he is. He’s only been gone seven years, but in the world we live in now that seems to be kind of an eternity and there are a lot of people out there who don’t know what a special man and a great journalist Mike Wallace was.
Would Mike have liked the movie?
Chris Wallace: An hour and a half about him? He would have loved it.
Avi, why did you decide to make this film?
Avi Belkin: This was before Trump got elected, but journalism felt like it was already struggling. ‘Spotlight’ had just won the Oscar and I was looking for an origin story and Mike had an unparalleled career. He was kind of like a Forrest Gump of the profession. He was in all the right spots and all the right evolution points of broadcast journalism. I fell in love with his story. Then Trump won the election and it became much more relevant.
Avi Belkin: I feel like in the last 20, 30 years there’s been a fight between journalism and people in power. It seems like it’s always been going on and I feel like Trump has moved it one notch up in that fight where he’s trying to discredit journalists today.
Chris, how would your father have navigated a climate in which journalism is under such serious attack by powerful interests?
Chris Wallace: He would have been fine. Yes, this is an extraordinary time, and I don’t think we’ve seen a time in such recent history a president who went so calculatedly about the idea of trying to discredit the media. But my father was around for some pretty revolutionary times. He was around for Vietnam. He was around for Watergate. He did a series of groundbreaking interviews with [Charles] Colson and [John] Ehrlichman and [H.R.] Haldeman and Martha Mitchell. The waters would never have been too rough for Mike Wallace to handle.
Would he have relished covering all the controversy emanating from Washington today?
Chris Wallace: People ask as the host of a Sunday talk show how do you feel about what’s going on and I say, ‘as an American it’s tough to handle. As a journalist business is good.’ And I think that’s the way my father would have felt about it. You don’t want to see the country divided and suffering, but on the other hand there are a lot of great stories out there.
My father had a long relationship with Donald Trump. I can’t say that he discovered him, but in the early ’80s he did this profile of him on ’60 Minutes’ that Trump loved. They were close. Close is the wrong word. They certainly knew each other and they hung out together in George Steinbrenner’s box at Yankee Stadium or at some public events. In fact, the president has said to me a couple of times, ‘gee what do you think your dad would think of this?’ And I think to myself, and I never quite give this answer that I’m about to give you, that he thoroughly enjoyed Donald Trump as a larger-than-life real estate mogul. I’m not sure how he would have felt about Donald Trump, 45th president of the United States.
How should media respond to charges of “fake news”? If they push back too aggressively are they fanning the flames?
Chris Wallace: There’s a real danger. There’s no question that the president has had an impact. Whether you like him or don’t like him, he’s got a huge platform and bullhorn and the fact is that if you look at public opinion polls trust in the media has gone down and the number of people who say that the media either purposefully or recklessly tells false news has risen.
The only answer for us is to stay in our lane, do our job, report the news. There are some people who I think have been drawn in by the president going so far over the line bashing the media that they’ve decided to respond by fighting back and they become players on the field. I think that’s exactly the wrong response. You have to be the cop on the beat, wielding the nightstick, keeping everybody honest. Don’t try to match the president or anybody else. We’re not as good at it and it draws us into a role that we shouldn’t be in.
Avi Belkin: The public has to take responsibility. They have to want to know the truth. They have to want investigative journalists to be edgy. It’s partly on the public to look for the right sources of information.
Chris Wallace: My father was all about the questions. Asking tough questions. Trying to get the truth. I think sometimes now the audience is more interested in answers, namely opinions. And not the facts so they can make up their own opinions. You end up searching for a news outlet that reflects your opinions. That wasn’t what my father was about, and I don’t think that’s what journalism should be about.
Are you worried the accusations of “fake news” could incite violence against journalists?
Chris Wallace: Sure. There’s no question. Anybody who’s ever been at a Trump rally and seen the people booing and cursing. It is a danger. Here’s the president of the United States saying ‘all those people back there in the risers they’re all bad people. They’re dishonest. They’re not telling our story. They don’t want you to get the truth.’ Do I think that makes journalists more secure? No, I think there’s the potential for danger there.
It hasn’t happened really yet. There’s been some attacks on the media like the one in Annapolis, the Capital Gazette, but they tended to be about other things. But all it takes is one tragedy and it’s too many.
Avi Belkin: If you look at history it’s just a matter of time.
Mike Wallace was a tough critic of himself as a parent. Was he too tough?
Avi Belkin: Mike was very honest about himself being an absentee father and choosing his career over his family, which a lot of people as great as Mike do. I think in recent years he came around and got more into his family.
Chris Wallace: He was not a bad father. He was an absentee father. I kind of think if there had been two phone calls and I was on line one and CBS was on line two with a big story, he would have taken line two. I remember him saying at one point in his early seventies that one of his joys about having lived a longer life was that he had time to make amends. In the last years of his life we became very close. We became best friends. And he became not only a very good father, but a very good grandfather.
How did Mike Wallace influence today’s media landscape?
Avi Belkin: Mike basically invented the tough question, the direct question. His show ‘Night Beat,’ he revolutionized the way people ask questions. Up until then it was all how’s your movie, stuff like that. Mike came with an approach of lets get to the core of it.
Chris Wallace: My dad was a disruptor in a variety of ways. Journalism at its best, he has a tremendous influence on. I think a lot of the shouting, a lot of the opinions, a lot of the tribalism, he’d have no use for. In fact if anything he was a contrarian. He never wanted to be pigeonholed. I can think of stories he did about what phonies conservatives were and just when you thought that’s who he was he’d do a story that went after liberals. Nobody was safe.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.