Mike Wallace’s impact on Canadian journalism

            While Mike Wallace had a legion of both admirers and detractors, there is little doubt his work exercised an influence over modern Canadian investigative journalism.

            While Mike Wallace had a legion of both admirers and detractors, there is little doubt his work exercised an influence over modern Canadian investigative journalism.

            Many of the genre’s practices and techniques developed in the 1950’s, and Wallace’s Night Beat program for independent New York TV station WABD became an important point of reference for many producers.  He and producer Ted Yates created the show in 1956, and it quickly drew a massive audience for each edition.

            Even though Edward R. Murrow had already popularized the television interview format with See it Now and Person to Person, Wallace and Yates took it to a new level. They intensively researched each guest, and didn’t shy away from asking uncomfortable questions.

            The visual motif of the set also served as a template. It was a stark, black environment, with a single klieg light trained on the guest. Frequent close-ups of the interviewee heightened the drama of the program.

            At around the same time, the CBC was asking producer Ross McLean to create a new public affairs program for the network. While he drew on many influences, including BBC’s Panorama and other shows, McLean clearly wanted to capture some of the intensity and success that Wallace had created.

            McLean’s show was called Close-Up, and it became the most groundbreaking program of its kind to that point. It featured many early versions of investigative journalism, and its signature interviews were some of the most memorable segments. Journalists like Pierre Berton, Jack Webster and Charles Templeton were among the people doing the interviews.

            More importantly, it was a training ground  for some of CBC’s most promising producers, including Patrick Watson and Douglas Leiterman, who later went on to create This Hour Has Seven Days.

            Daily journalism does not often devote the time and expense to the intensive research that’s needed in investigative work. Close-Up created a process for doing just that – establishing a legacy that has continued in current affairs television programs to this day.

            Patrick Watson considered the focused accountability interview to be a crucial component of the investigative work of the era. In drawing up their manifesto for Seven Days, which began airing in 1964, Watson and Leiterman noted the importance of a “hot seat” interview: “a tough encounter with a prominent guest who is hot in the news and prepared to be grilled.”

            Though Murrow and Wallace had pioneered some of the early interviewing techniques, Canadians did far more sustained and impressive work through Close-Up and Seven Days. That became clear to the Americans after 1966, when Seven Days was cancelled. Both NBC and CBS scrutinized the program carefully, trying to find a way to re-create its huge ratings success.

            Leiterman subsequently went to work for CBS, and he was asked to create a detailed planning document for network executives. It eventually led to the creation in 1968 of the long-running program 60 Minutes, a groundbreaking American show but something a Canadian newspaper reviewer said “has roughly the same format we’ve been used to for several seasons.”

            The process came full circle as Wallace joined 60 Minutes. His patented interviewing style returned, and soon morphed into a different genre of attack, involving ambushing perpetrators in the field.

            Showmanship has always been an element of the Mike Wallace style. In his early interviews, Wallace went seamlessly from pitching the virtues of Philip Morris cigarettes (his sponsor) to grilling whoever agreed to sit in his hot seat. Sensation was often used for its own sake.  A 1957 interview featured Eldon Edwards, Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. This Hour Has Seven Days also flirted with the same kind of sensation in its two-year run.

            John Sawatsky, one of Canada’s best investigative journalists and a student of the interview, has often used examples from Wallace to illustrate bad interview practices. Wallace often injected prejudicial comments and trigger words into his preambles; he would often simply make a controversial statement himself rather than ask a question; and he would belligerently pester people with closed-ended questions, all techniques Sawatsky abhors.

            And the image of a crusading Wallace chasing after bad guys on 60 Minutes is something that has polarized opinion. While it is occasionally important to force accountability by door-stopping someone, many feel this has become an overused and tired tactic. In too many items, on too many networks, Wallace’s pale imitators can be seen chasing all manner of unfortunate subjects down the street.

            The “hot seat” interview, meanwhile, is also not what it used to be. But this is mostly due to the savvy nature of politicians and prominent individuals who have become adept at dodging the media altogether. While everyone wanted to appear on Wallace’s Night Beat, it’s now the norm for people to be “unavailable for comment.”

            Still, when a journalist does manage to score an important interview, it requires a great deal of research and courage to ensure accountability. As Wallace said in an interview himself, that often requires the interviewer to “make them squirm a little bit.”  

            While it might be easy to dismiss the showbiz aspect of Wallace’s career, it would be a mistake to discount the influence he exercised over journalism in the last half century. Without him, Canadian investigative journalism, particularly the variety practiced on television, might have developed very differently.