When Don Hewitt died a couple of years ago, I thought about how it marked the end of Edward R. Murrow’s legacy. Hewitt was Murrow’s director for the landmark series See It Now launched in 1951 and, of course, the creator of “60 Minutes” which he remained involved with well into the 21st century.
At the time “See It Now” was on CBS, The Mike Wallace Interview was on ABC. Like PBS’s Charlie Rose today, Wallace masterfully interviewed celebrities and newsmakers one-on-one against a stark, black, “limbo” background. It was a perfect backdrop for the wisps of smoke arising from Wallace’s omnipresent Philip Morris cigarette.
Murrow, of course, was a heavy smoker, on-air and off. But Wallace didn’t just smoke Philip Morris, he opened his show praising their quality and endorsing them as his show’s sponsor.
In those first formative years of television, the lines between entertainment, commercialization and journalism were just taking shape. NBC’s first newscast was the tobacco-sponsored Camel News Caravan with John Cameron Swayze, which invited viewers to watch, and light up a Camel.
Walter Cronkite, who would later supplant Murrow as CBS’s stalwart representative of integrity, hosted the historical dramatization series, “You Are There” and, like Wallace, spent time as a game show host. Wallace also had been an announcer for radio dramas and wrestling matches.
Murrow had become famous on radio for his live rooftop broadcasts of German bombing raids during the London Blitz. His television work was equally fearless, most famously taking on Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy over his reckless accusations of communist sympathies in the military and State Department.
The later partnership of Hewitt and Wallace to make “60 Minutes” was in many ways a perfect marriage of Murrow style gravitas and Wallace’s showmanship and dramatic flair. A classic “60 Minutes” story always had a clear good guy and bad guy, and often a surprising twist.
Like the advent of television in the Fifties, our era has seen its share of disruptive communication technology. The Web and related tools like Twitter challenge conventional notions of journalism. So-called “reality” programs dominate the airwaves.
But the long career of Mike Wallace is a good reminder that the tension between news and entertainment has, and always will be present. Look at “60 Minutes” contributor Anderson Cooper, former host of the reality game show “The Mole” and now of a daytime talk show.
And for what it’s worth, Wallace outlived fellow on-air smoker Murrow by 36 years, reaching the age of 93, after having worked well into his eighties. Murrow was dead at 57 of lung cancer.