“If I’d written all the truth I knew for the past ten years, about 600 people — including me — would be rotting in prison cells from Rio to Seattle today. Absolute truth is a very rare and dangerous commodity in the context of professional journalism.” — Hunter S. Thompson
THE SERIOUS PLAYBOY
Hugh Hefner is 86 today.
As I’ve bloviated previously in these precincts, his Playboy magazine was my doorway to the worlds of civil rights, free speech, feminism, anti-war protest, and a host of other issues that define my overall philosophy.
Oh sure, I picked up the mag for the pix — natch — but the articles caught my eye as well.
WALLACE, GOOD AND BAD
So, Mike Wallace will ask no more questions.
The old interrogator signed off forever Saturday night at the age of 93.
Wallace had a well-earned rep as a tough-as-nails interviewer who wouldn’t stand for the bullshit dished out by pols and other reprobates. I imagine his mug has been adorning the dorm room walls of journalism school students since the 1960s.
My own feelings about him are mixed. Viewed in a vacuum, Wallace was indeed the apotheosis of the hard-hitting reporter. On the other hand, he was part of a corporate media Frankenstein’s monster called “60 Minutes,” that, for my dough, has been mightily responsible for journalism’s descent to the level of pro wrestling.
See, long ago creator and producer Don Hewitt gave these marching orders to his charges at the nascent news magazine operation: Tell me a story.
“60 Minutes” personalized its delvings into corruption, greed, malfeasances, racism, crypto-fascism, and all the rest of the -isms that underpin this holy land.
Putting a face on a story made “60 Minutes” one of the most popular and successful shows in American television history. TV Guide mag once named it number six on its list of the 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time.
People actually planned their Sunday evening dinners around the show. It was the number one or number two most-watched show on TV in six of its seasons on the air. It’s the longest continually-running prime time show in the history of the medium.
People, in other words, dig it.
Over its 44 years on air “60 Minutes” has brought us such story-friendly, faux dramatics as the Point-Counterpoint hiss-fest, the “gotcha” interview, hidden cameras, and interviews edited for effect rather than pure accuracy. These gimmicks may have made for compelling viewing but they quickly transformed news gathering into a Broadway production or, worse, a made-for-TV movie.
The problem with “telling a story” as opposed to a straight reporting of the news is that stories need dramatic arcs, conflict, heroes and villains. “Telling a story” must be show business.
“60 Minutes” was nothing if not show business.
And because it was so wildly successful, the vast majority of news operations in whatever media you care to mention, quickly followed suit.
“60 Minutes” was the first TV news show to actually make money for its network. Before Hewitt’s baby was born, news was considered a loss leader. The networks aired news as a way to demonstrate how serious they were, how concerned, and how righteous. Because of that news producers decades ago had a freer rein than they could possibly imagine today.
But once “60 Minutes” became a profit center for CBS, television execs decided they no longer needed to appear serious, concerned, or righteous. They only needed to cash their news advertisers’ checks.
So now, big-time corporate news has devolved into a pulp novel, a cheap romance, a 24-hour-a-day soap opera. It’s all drama and next to no content. Hell, you can pick whichever news channel you’d like to tell you just what you want to hear. And guess what — your hero always wins!
Maddow Or Carlson — Take Your Pick
Not that Mike Wallace alone was responsible for this mess. I’ll reserve my demonization for Don Hewitt. But Wallace was an integral part of Hewitt’s monster.
Sometimes you have think twice about the company you keep.