Mike Wallace’s career parallels and illustrates the major shifts in American journalism during the second half of the 20th century. In the aftermath of the unifying experience of World War II, reporters were more inclined to accept public pronouncements from government officials. Following the twin shocks of Vietnam and Watergate, however, journalists became more skeptical and confrontational, and Wallace and “60 Minutes” helped lead the way.
During the early postwar period, most Americans expressed a faith in their leading institutions that seems stunning today. Polls routinely showed that 2/3 to 3/4 of Americans trusted the government to do the right thing all or most of the time. Such beliefs underpinned the “consensus” liberalism that dominated politics between the late 1940s and mid-1960s, as both Republicans and Democrats supported programs like the interstate highway system, public housing, and the G.I. Bill.
As a result, the media did not challenge politicians in the same way they do today. Reporters often accepted Senator Joe McCarthy’s accusations about communist influence in government without engaging in serious investigations of his charges. Many simply couldn’t believe that a senator would prevaricate about such an important issue. As George Clooney’s 2005 film “Good Night and Good Luck” demonstrated, journalists such as CBS’ Edward R. Murrow eventually took up the cause of fighting Senator McCarthy, though they largely did so after his power started to fade following the end of the Korean War in 1953.
The deceptions surrounding the Vietnam War during the 1960s inspired a change in the ethos of American journalism. In the early years of U.S. involvement, reporters such as David Halberstam and Neil Sheehan watched U.S. military advisers claim that their South Vietnamese allies were winning a war that the journalists thought they were actually losing. After the Americanization of the war began in earnest in 1965, the Johnson Administration repeatedly claimed the U.S. was making progress against the Viet Cong (VC) and their North Vietnamese backers (NVA), even as casualties mounted. Reporters grew so frustrated by the lies of the military leadership that they began to call the military briefings in Saigon, “the Five O’ Clock Follies.” After the shock of the Tet Offensive by NVA and VC forces in January 1968, the continuing pronouncements by U.S. commanders that they could see “the light at the end of the tunnel,” lost any credibility.
“60 Minutes” premiered on CBS that same year and Mike Wallace was one of the original correspondents. Reflecting the more cynical climate of the time, the show pioneered the “newsmagazine” and became the leading edge of investigative journalism on television. When the show began, Wallace was a relative unknown but his confrontational style made him the star of the program, impressive given that it featured (at various times) leading journalistic lights such as Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, Dan Rather, Ed Bradley, and Lesley Stahl.
The Watergate scandal and the Washington Post’s iconic coverage of the story furthered public cynicism about politics while enhancing the prestige of journalism. Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s investigation into the scandal for the Post, as well as Hollywood’s portrayal of their work in “All the President’s Men” (1976), inspired a new generation to pursue careers in investigative journalism.
During this era, Wallace and “60 Minutes” thrived, particularly after it began airing on Sunday nights. The quality of the show’s reporting, along with the lead-in provided by NFL football on CBS, made the program one of the most successful in television history, as it was no. 1 in the ratings for five consecutive years (NYT, April 9, 2012). The show’s ticking clock became iconic and the program inspired numerous imitators, including “20/20” and “Dateline”
By the 90s, some bemoaned the more confrontational tone of the modern media, claiming that a generation of reporters striving to be the next Woodward and Bernstein turned every scandal into another Watergate, regardless of its merits. Such criticism became particularly strong during the Clinton impeachment coverage of 1998-99.
Some also believe that corporate ownership of the major broadcast networks has compromised the independence of their news divisions. Even the venerable “60 Minutes” did not escape this controversy, especially when corporate officials at CBS, fearing a lawsuit from a tobacco company, watered down a Wallace report about a whistleblower in the mid-1990s. This led to an unflattering depiction of Wallace in Michael Mann’s 1999 movie “The Insider.”
Finally, others critics think the media has reverted back to 1950s-style journalism, alleging that the New York Times and other mainstream outlets simply regurgitated the Bush Administration’s claims regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Even Woodward, who became an icon of establishment journalism, came under fire for writing two books that painted the Bush Administration’s wars in a positive light. Whereas conservatives have criticized the media for “liberal bias“ going back to the 1960s, liberals began to distrust the mainstream media in the early 21st century, turning to nontraditional sources like blogs for news.
Throughout all of this change, Wallace and “60 Minutes” continued to thrive in the ratings. Indeed, one could argue that “60 Minutes” is the most successful program in the history of television, given that the show has remained a hit for over four decades. Though Wallace himself retired in 2006, “60 Minutes” continues to be the most enduring example of the skeptical journalism that emerged from the 1960s and 70s.