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How Mike Wallace changed TV journalism: "You had to compete"

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“Mike Wallace Is Here” is Avi Belkin’s rollicking (though not hard-hitting) documentary that shows how Mike Wallace became the unflappable Mike Wallace. The Mike Wallace who was known for being intimidating. The Mike Wallace who was feared as a journalist. The Mike Wallace who dominated interviews with nosy, insistent, “gotcha” questions that sought the truth.

Belkin’s documentary briefly mentions its subject’s strict mother and shows how the acne-scarred youth “discovered his voice,” working on radio and in early television. However, it was Wallace’s hosting of the show, “Night Beat” — and later “The Mike Wallace Interview” — that shaped his career and put him on the path to become a serious journalist. When he went to work at CBS, he got the opportunity to co-host a news magazine for television called “60 Minutes.” And it was, of course, at “60 Minutes” where Wallace honed his style of confrontational interviews, starting with the key players of Watergate, and later turning into investigative stings, and profiles of political figures including the Ayatollah Khomeini.

“Mike Wallace Is Here” briskly shows these highlights from Wallace’s career. Belkin intercuts these scenes with Wallace being interviewed, as well as with Wallace interviewing folks, from Larry King, Bill O’Reilly and Oprah Winfrey to Barbra Streisand, Donald Trump, Johnny Carson, and Bette Davis, among others. (Belkin shrewdly employs a split screen so viewers can see Wallace and his subject simultaneously).

The documentary also probes into some of Wallace’s unhappier moments, from his personal struggle with depression and thoughts of suicide, to his professional tribulations, including a $120 million lawsuit that General William Westmoreland waged against CBS for libel and the nixing of a key interview with tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand.

Belkin, who also helmed the forthcoming true crime documentary series, “No One Saw a Thing,” submitted to a phone interview with Salon to talk about his film, its legendary subject, journalism, and interviews.

Why was Mike Wallace such an appealing subject for you that you wanted to make a documentary about him?

Wow! To tell you the truth, he wasn’t. Every time you start a documentary you go in with a question mark. You have an........

© Salon