A Mike Wallace interview was like “stepping into an arena.” That’s how filmmaker Avi Belkin described the hardball journalistic technique of the legendary “60 Minutes” newsman, who is the subject of Belkin’s new documentary chronicling Wallace’s trailblazing investigative work at the powerhouse CBS News program.
Belkin made the remarks before some four dozen Hunter College students, faculty and staff at the college’s Lang Auditorium following a Nov. 6 screening of his 90-minute film, “Mike Wallace Is Here.” [View video of the full 30-minute panel below.]
Joining Belkin was Wallace’s long-time “60 Minutes” producer, Bob Anderson, who lauded the documentary as a “brilliant movie that absolutely captured Mike. … He was a performer and charmer even when asking annoying, abusive, eviscerating questions.”
“Interviews are a way to learn about others, but we also learn about ourselves.”— Avi Belkin, documentary filmmaker
Hunter journalism’s David Alm led the discussion with Anderson and Belkin after the screening, noting nostalgically how he grew up watching Wallace and “60 Minutes” each Sunday with his family, and crediting its influence at least to some degree for his choice to become a journalist.
For his part, Belkin, who grew up in Israel and never actually saw “60 Minutes” until adulthood, the documentary was less an exercise in nostalgia and more an exploration of the iconic journalist’s “origin story.”
Belkin saw Wallace’s confident, sometimes abrasive, interviewing style as the core not just of his journalism, but of his character. “Interviews are a way to learn about others, but we also learn about ourselves,” said Belkin, adding: “Mike Wallace was not a reflective person. [But through interviews] he was trying to learn about himself.”
Anderson spoke to the relevance of Wallace’s stubborn pursuit of truth. “When truth can be dismissed as fake, it means real journalism from respectable outlets that deals in fact, not fake, is more important than ever.”
Asked in an interview after the panel about whether today’s journalists were reluctant to adopt Wallace’s tenacious interviewing techniques for fear of losing access to sources, Anderson acknowledged that “Mike realized that he’d gotten to the point where he was becoming a parody of himself … And so he used his charm more than his schtick in his later years of interviewing. You can certainly ask tough questions, you go for the same truths and the same tough questions but you ask them in a different tone.”
“Real journalism from respectable outlets that deals in fact, not fake, is more important than ever.”— Bob Anderson, veteran producer, “60 Minutes”
Anderson also offered advice to prospective young reporters, especially in response to a recent report that shows major newsrooms overwhelmingly favor student journalists from Ivy Leagues and top schools.
“Having that Ivy League label is a plus,” Anderson said. “That doesn’t mean you have to have it. That doesn’t mean the world isn’t full of wildly successful people that didn’t go to the Ivy Leagues. And so I would totally ignore that bias and go in there and make yourself the best and make sure they know that you are.”
He added, “What Dan Rather said to me 40 years ago was, ‘Get experience.’ Get experience in college. Get experience during your internship. Wow them with the fact that you have all sorts of experience. And experience should be worth more to them than some Ivy League pedigree.”