Legendary broadcast journalist Mike Wallace is getting his due respect at hundreds of media outlets in the wake of his death this past weekend. And then there is Gawker. Judging by the way Nick Denton’s popular media gossip site trashed Wallace’s memory a day after he died, one would think the staff had a personal grudge against him — or they’re rabid for attention, or both.
The John Cook piece, Mike Wallace Was an Icon of Television, Not Journalism, wasn’t a typical, sharp Gawker-as-provocateur offering. It was as clever as a clubbing — and came complete with an insulting image of Wallace’s head superimposed over the body of a stage performer getting the hook.
The piece refers to Wallace as “a failed soap actor and vaudeville hack named Myron who just wanted to be on television. He was as much a journalist as Ryan Seacrest.” Here’s a momentary pause, to allow the absurdity of that statement to sink in as we recall Wallace having the nerve to go to Iran two weeks after the U.S. Embassy takeover in 1979, and to ask Ayatollah Khomeini to his face what he thought of being called a disgrace to Islam and a lunatic.
It continues, “Glossed over in most of Wallace’s obituaries is the fact that his pre-60 Minutes career—he didn’t join the show until he was 50 years old and on his third wife—was little more than a desperate and sustained attempt at achieving celebrity.”
The implication that Wallace landed in news after failing at other professional pursuits is wrong. In fact, according to Wallace, his decision to devote himself entirely to journalism caused his income to fall to about a quarter of what he’d been making as a multi-career man — for awhile. As those who are familiar with Wallace’s story will recall, the death of his older son, Peter, during a 1962 mountain climbing excursion, was a pivotal event for him. As Wallace told Marilyn Beck: “It turned my life around, in a strange way…I decided, ‘How do I make something useful out of this tragedy? What can I do that he would have been proud of?’ …To me, news stood for substance, social usefulness and integrity. I decided to limit myself to news.”
That’s not to say Wallace’s career was unblemished. Cook writes of the scandal over his handling of the 1995 story involving tobacco company whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand. To criticize his actions would be one thing. But to say he was never a newsman at all is preposterous.
He reportedly wanted his epitaph to read “tough but fair.” RIP, Mike Wallace, you strove to live up to that credo and inspired countless others as well. Which is more than we can say for this cowardly smear job of a dead man — a follow-up to Gawker’s post-mortem smears of Steve Jobs and Andrew Breitbart. Time for the hook, indeed.