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Ambushing Mike Wallace

Albert Lanier
for The Corbett Report

Posted 18 October, 2009

We were told after the election of Barack Obama last year as the 44th President of the United States by commentators and analysts in major newspapers and on TV newscasts that we now live in a different America—a Post-Racial America, in fact.

Even some African-Americans who were interviewed in the wake of the 2008 election said they considered themselves Americans, not African-Americans.

More than 100 days into Obama's term, it is obvious that—with the controversies over Obama's comments about the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry "Skip" Gates, the so-called birther issue and the virus-like spread of the Obama Joker poster—that talk of a Post-Racial America comes from the tongues and minds of people who live in a Post-Rational America.

As always, when issues of racial disharmony arise, the mainstream news media usually showcase conversations about race that end up being low-brow therapy sessions that usually sidestep the true issues of racial oppression and discrimination in African-American and other communities of color. Instead of building bridges, these so-called discussions end up constructing bridges to nowhere on the subject of race.

When it comes to discussing race, African-Americans need to look beyond the tangible and concrete manifestations of racism they live with every day and cast their critical eyes at media outlets, newscasters, reporters and pundits in general. What are their bona fides? What are the views of such individuals when it comes to African-Americans and their communities? Are they racist?

It might be instructive to consider an example and I have one that might surprise some and cause others to nod their head in agreement: Mike Wallace.

Known for his more than 30 year stint as one of the hosts of CBS' 60 MINUTES and for his notorious brand of "ambush" interviewing, Wallace has been accused by some on the political right of being a bit too liberal as a reporter and interviewer.

Unfortunately, Wallace has been anything but liberal when it comes to black people.

During the filming of a 60 MINUTES segment on insurance fraud in 1981, Wallace revealed what he really thought about African-Americans and Latinos when he stated "Blacks and Hispanics were too busy eating watermelons and tacos to read the fine print on their insurance policies. "

Though Wallace apologized for his revealing slip of the tongue, the reality of Wallace's racism—the fact he saw black people as low-grade simpletons content to eat food used for years as a visual symbol of racist intent and stereotyping—could not be written off by forced mea culpas.

All one needs to do to see how phrases uttered in haste, anger or supposedly in secret can reveal the obvious racist intent of prominent personages is look at the scandals involving actor Michael Richards and Dog the Bounty Hunter.

Another instance of racism on the part of Wallace came during a 60 MINUTES interview he did with Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan when he confronted Farrakhan with the charge that Nigeria was the world's most corrupt country.

Even if one is critical of the heads of states and governments in a number of African nations, to offer as a salient and rational argument that Nigeria is the paradigm of corruption on Earth is preposterous at the least and moronic at best.

It is not surprising that Farrakhan responded by pointing out that Nigerians weren't responsible for slaughtering Native Americans or bombing the Japanese City of Hiroshima during World War Two, underlining the weak and faulty premise of Wallace's allegation.

Again examine Wallace's underlying racism by citing an African nation as the cesspool of global corruption. Wallace's assertion serves a dual purpose: one, to get a reaction or rise out of Farrakhan to spice up an already contentious TV interview and two, to guild the racist lily by continuing the decades-long critique of Black Africans as dark-skinned savages with childish brains who are incapable of creating viable economic and political systems without the beneficence and altruism of supposedly more civilized and advanced Europeans and Americans.

If Wallace were merely a racist, he could be written off simply as an anti-black TV journalist.

However, Wallace's questionable tactics and stratagems as an on-air correspondent and reporter as well as his pre-60 MINUTES background also need to be examined.

In 1994, The WASHINGTON POST revealed that Wallace and his producer Bob Anderson had secretly taped an interview with journalist Karon Haller by placing a microphone in curtains of Wallace's office.

According to NEWSWEEK's account of the controversy entitled "Just Talk Into the Curtains," Haller-who was aiding 60 MINUTES with a piece on assisted suicide, an issue she had written about-was "baffled by the whole thing."

I would be too if I were in Haller's shoes. The NEWSWEEK piece states that CBS executives "reprimanded" Wallace and Bob Anderson and that "Wallace acknowledged he was wrong and apologized. " Mea Culpa, Mea Culpa redux.

More than a decade earlier, Wallace came under fire for his interview with General William Westmoreland- the Commander of U.S. Army troops during the Vietnam War- for the 1982 CBS Reports documentary THE UNCOUNTED ENEMY: A VIETNAM DECEPTION.

According to an article on Wallace on the Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC) website, both "TV GUIDE and CBS' own in-house investigation charged that the producers had violated standards of fairness." Westmoreland opted to sue both Wallace and CBS for Libel.

The MBC article notes that the thrust of the charges made in the documentary-that there was a "conspiracy to cover-up the size of Viet-Cong troop strength" appeared to be backed by evidence during the trial but that "CBS' editorial tactics proved suspect.":

The matter came to a close in mid-trial when CBS offered a formal apology to Westmoreland who accepted it and thus terminated his suit in February of 1985.

It is no wonder that Wallace has always been dogged by controversy as one of the hosts of 60 MINUTES for in reality Wallace is essentially a cheap entertainer who has posed as a serious, hard-hitting newsman for decades.

Born in 1918, Myron Leon Wallace attended the University of Michigan graduating with a BA degree in 1939 before working in Radio in Michigan for a spell and then serving in the U.S. Navy during World War Two.

After the war, Wallace jumped back into the world of radio and broadcasting with a vengeance. The MBC article notes that Wallace "performed in a variety of radio genres—quiz shows, talk shows, serial, commercials, and news readings. "

An AOL Television online bio of Wallace further notes the he "leapt into the then-nascent medium of television with full abandon, working in any and every capacity allowed him including dramatic roles, game shows and the occasional assignment hosting a talk show."

Yes, you read that right, Mike Wallace&mdash:the paragon of televised investigative journalism&mdash:hosted a couple of talk shows including ALL AROUND THE TOWN and MIKE AND BUFF along with his then-wife Buff Cobb.

According to Wallace's MBC article, he even had a "brief stint" as an actor on Broadway after MIKE AND BUFF was canceled.

But Wallace—obvious theatrical ham that he was—knew where his bread was buttered and went back to television. This time, Wallace made the plunge into newscasting as the anchor for the now-long defunct DuMont Network's station in New York City in 1954.

However, Wallace first attracted real media buzz and attention when he became the host of interview program NIGHT BEAT which appeared on the same channel from 1955-1957.

NIGHT BEAT was the genesis of the Mike Wallace we know and loathe, the "bruising inquisitor who gave his subjects 'Mike Fright'" according to the MBC article. Wallace seems to have found a role worth his meager talents as a hack actor with his host spot on NIGHT BEAT: the tough, prepared interviewer who asks the questions no other reporter has the guts too.

In a sense, Wallace was the Jon Stewart of his day except for the fact that, as a comedian, Stewart makes no pretense to being considered a real journalist, unlike Mike Wallace.

Wallace then went on to host an interview program on ABC for a season then served as a pitchman for Parliament cigarettes (ironic considering his interview decades later with Brown & Williamson whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand for 60 MINUTES) until deciding to "go straight" and return to news-this time at CBS in 1963.

Wallace hosted a Morning News show for three years and then became a standard on-air reporter until he was hired by producer Don Hewitt in 1968 to be one of two then on-air hosts (newsman Harry Reasoner was the other host) of the new news magazine show 60 MINUTES.

If NIGHT BEAT was Wallace's first meaty role, 60 MINUTES was his breakout part. This was the show that made Mike Wallace a household name and a superstar.

Interestingly the MBC article backs up my thesis of Wallace-as-actor-posing-as-newsman by noting that "Hewitt cast Wallace in his usual role as the abrasive, tough guy reporter."

The AOL Television bio also notes that Wallace's "trademark 'adversarial style' of journalism" was matched with co-host Harry Reasoner's "genial, nice guy approach."

The result was a program that eventually received "astronomical" ratings. Wallace was credited with perfecting his favorite journalistic weapon-the ambush interview which often involved using "hidden cameras and one-way mirrors" to confront crooks and con artists, according to the MBC article. He added "theatrical panache" to his "on-camera muckraking" after segment producers-as they always do on television magazine shows-laid the fieldwork by doing the lion's share of the reporting.

Wallace retired in 2006 as a full-time correspondent for 60 MINUTES although he has often appeared on the show from time to time.

Why go after Mike Wallace now? After all, his time as a major presence in TV reporting is over, some may argue.

Because Wallace has been a major television presence for more than 30 years and he should be revealed for what he is and has always been: an actor playing the part of a television journalist and a racist who has given himself away on at least one occasion.

It is high time that the reporters and anchors on TV and writers and editors in newspapers be vetted in the way that politicians are. Their motives and their backgrounds should be examined in the same way that those of candidates for higher office are especially in regards to race.

How does it feel to be ambushed Mike?