Mike Wallace, the “60 Minutes” interrogator famous for his adversarial interview style and hard-hitting journalism, passed away Saturday at the age of 93. As friends, colleagues and pundits remember his many accomplishments, some are wondering if his passing marks the end of quality television news in America. In an essay about Wallace, “60 Minutes” correspondent Morely Safer wrote, “Wallace took to heart the old reporter’s pledge to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather said Wallace helped make TV news “…more investigative, more aggressive and relevant.” Wallace was well known for his “ambush” interview, a technique meant to surprise targets into revealing information they might not otherwise share in a planned interview. This merged elements of news and entertainment in a powerful and profitable way. At its peak in the early 1980s, “60 Minutes” had a weekly viewership of 40 million and CBS was considered the most formidable of network news providers for years.
But these days television news feasts on fame and opinion. It’s more common to see Sarah Palin co-hosting on the Today show and Piers Morgan fawning over Paris Hilton, than it is to see the likes of Mike Wallace challenging someone like Russian President Vladimir Putin. “CBS This Morning,” which was launched in January with Charlie Rose and Gayle King, has gotten good reviews for prioritizing news over sensationalism. But their ratings are down 10 percent from last season.
Are Americans no longer interested in “real” journalism? Or is it simply too expensive to be profitable? Do TV executives have an obligation to provide solid news in the public interest, regardless of ratings? What journalists and news outlets do you respect and trust the most – and the least – these days?
Judy Muller, Professor of Journalism, USC Annenberg School for Communication; correspondent for SoCal Connected (a newsmagazine on KCET), NPR commentator and a former news correspondent for ABC News; author of ""Now This: Radio, Television, and the Real World"