I admired his courage, but I admired his work ethic even more. Mike Wallace was a real reporter. He buried himself in research before he sat down for an interview.
It wasn’t widely reported, but Mike Wallace actually died twice. His first death came in 1995, when his network, CBS, refused to air an explosive interview Wallace had obtained with cigarette industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand.
Wigand accused Brown & Williamson of intentionally adding nicotine to cigarettes. CBS killed the story, not because it was wrong, but out of fear that the tobacco giant would file suit. (The network eventually did air the interview, and the whole fascinating ordeal was made in to a movie, “The Insider,” that starred Russell Crowe).
That story marked the end of real investigative TV journalism. The beginning of the end can be traced back a few years earlier, when Food Lion sued the ABC network for a story about expired meat. The North Carolina jury determined that ABC crossed the line by having their undercover producer lie on a Food Lion job application in order to get hired and gain behind-the-scenes access to the Food Lion meat department featured in the report.
The jury didn’t challenge the news report’s conclusions, but punished ABC for the way it gathered the information, and TV journalism would never be the same.
Before ABC’s Food Lion and CBS’ cigarette stories, the maxim journalists faced was “be sure your research is correct, because if we get sued, we have to win.” After Food Lion and Wallace’s cigarette stories, the maxim became, and continues to be “no matter what, we can’t get sued.”
You see, lawsuits are incredibly expensive, win or lose. Today, newsrooms and news managers measure every investigative news story against the possibility of the story’s subject being well-heeled enough to sue the station or network.
I had my own Mike Wallace moment in 1991. I had spent months conducting an undercover investigation of a dance lesson business that preyed on elderly women. The business encouraged their young, good-looking male dance instructors to “cozy up” to their elderly dance customers, and convince those female customers to spend extravagantly on collateral material (shoes, dresses, trips) offered for sale by the dance business.
The four-part report was the highest rated news series in the history of the Nashville, Tenn., TV station, but then came the law suit. The dance club had a smart attorney, who realized based on the ABC example, that my former station would likely stop pursuing the evolving dance business story, and subsequent police investigation, if the dance club filed a lawsuit. They did, and that’s exactly what happened.
It takes real courage for networks, and local TV stations for that matter, to air real investigative journalism. It’s a lot easier to air house fires, car wrecks and drug shootings. The people involved in those tragedies have a lot more to worry about than suing a TV station.
In my case, it didn’t matter that the dance club suit filed against my former station was thrown out the first time it reached a judge. The station had to spend a fortune preparing for a suit that never went to court, and they wouldn’t be caught in that predicament ever again.
Mike Wallace and his kind will be greatly missed, but make no mistake — Mike and his kind truly passed away in 1995.
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