Communications & Media

Mike Wallace and the Early Days of TV News

By Ted Canova   |   Wednesday, April 11, 2012
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April 12, 2012

BOSTON — For most of us, "60 Minutes" was appointment television in a time before 700 channels, Tivo and endless reruns. When news reached me of Mike Wallace's death, it took me back to the days when you actually had to get up to change the channel. It also took me back to the night I appeared in a "60 Minutes" story, ever so briefly.
 
Wallace was a merciless interviewer. On Sundays we'd see him confront a newsmaker. On Mondays, we'd all talk about it. But for all the ambushes, the pointed follow-up questions and the celebrity interviews, Wallace was a big believer and a strong advocate for making you, the news consumer, more responsible.
 
His death led us into the WGBH Vault, a climate-controlled room where thousands of archives are carefully stored. It is here where our team found a 1970 seminar at MIT in Cambridge. The topic centered on television news, which was still in its infancy. So the audience was suspect and ready to take on Wallace as if he were the spokesman for the entire industry.



Mike Wallace at MIT

 
"Catering" to short-term sensation      

"Do you really think that in fact the profit motive of exactly appealing to your audience isn't accelerating, isn't teaching people to have a shorter time span, and to want more sensational things?" one attendee said. "Aren't you really reversing all the things that people learn from kindergarten to 12th grade about how to really appreciate complex issues by your catering to the sensational short-term, let's-do-this-and-move-on-to-another-thing type news broadcast?"
 
Wallace said television news was "getting better" but admitted, "We err sometimes, still."
 
At the time, the country was in the middle of the Vietnam War and college campuses were the focal point of anti-war rallies against President Richard Nixon and Vice President Agnew. Television news was getting battered from both sides, as Wallace noted, referencing a disparaging comment recently made by the vice president.
 
"I could hardly believe I would have to come to Cambridge to find so many allies of Spiro Agnew," Wallace retorted. "In three separate seminars today, it's become painfully obvious to me that the MIT community looks askance at television news just about as much as Agnew does, although for different reasons."
 
Wallace responds to the critique
 
Long before personal computers, cellphones and "apps," Wallace knew the audience's attention span was pivotal.
 
"If we in broadcasting fail at the mass communication of complicated issues, and I think we should plead guilty, we fail because first of all, the attention span of our viewers is probably minute," Wallace said. "If we delve too deeply, or linger too long on something difficult, we lose our audience — the ratings prove it. Second …  there is almost no chance to savor and test an idea before another proposition has replaced it on the tube. And finally the average viewer or listener finds so many issues so overwhelmingly complicated to begin with that he despairs of understanding them anyway and says to hell with it and settles for a movie or a paperback whodunit or an episode of 'Mission Impossible.'"
 
But the audience isn't off the hook
 
In the WGBH Archives, I'm struck by the give-and-take, Wallace's comments and audience laughter, and think of a simpler time in journalism. But whether it was 1970 or throughout his career, Wallace always believed that you, the audience, held a powerful responsibility.
 
"We can sketch the outlines of the story. We can convey its feel. We can get the citizen involved, whet his interest, make him want to know more," he said. But for the complications and intricacies, the viewer would have to go deeper, "to the newspapers and journals, to the magazines and books, to public conversations and to private thinking — and in the final analysis, of course, that’s where he must go: to himself."
 
Wallace added, "It's hard work to learn about complicated issues. It is easier to pin the tail on the mass media for failing to keep us informed than to suggest that we ourselves lack the discipline to inform ourselves." 
 
Which gets me back to my flash frame on a "60 Minutes" broadcast — when Wallace became interested in a situation that followed when my television station delved into complicated issues on the air.
 
Judging journalism
 
In 1996, after a year's worth of work by top-notch, respected journalists, my station aired an investigative series on Northwest Airlines detailing safety issues, sizable fines and a culture that prevented employees from coming forward. We also had whistleblowers (something that, coincidentally, Wallace would come to know in his controversial story on big tobacco).
 
To this day, I believe Northwest knew the story would hold up in court. So instead of staging a legal battle, the airline filed a grievance with a public watchdog group called the Minnesota News Council. Its criticism of our investigation was lengthy; our defense was equally thorough. The result was a very public airing of journalism standards, tactics and techniques in newsgathering. We didn't stand a chance.
 
Over the years, I had testified before the council and defended news stories. But this case was different. Wallace was advocating for a national news council, where aggrieved subjects could take their case before a similar group. So when Northwest filed a complaint, Wallace came to town and "60 Minutes" covered it. Sunday night. Appointment TV.
 
A Wallace effect?
 
There was plenty of intrigue before and after the council ruled against the story. Did the glare of "60 Minutes" impact the council's decision? Was my station being held to a higher standard? How would Wallace's own, famously aggressive newsgathering tactics hold up in front of an ad hoc panel of former newspaper people and community members? Not well, I bet. 
 
When the council ruled, there was celebration at the airline and a chilling effect in our newsroom. We realized that a news story could win in the courtroom but lose in the court of public opinion. The next night, my station won an Emmy for the Northwest investigation.
 
In subsequent years, instead of ignoring News Council complaints as my competitors did, I returned to the lion's den to defend more stories — none of which, I believe, we won. But it was important to face this "jury" even if its decisions seemed off the mark. The News Council disbanded in 2011 after 41 years.
 
Mike Wallace's passing could be the end of a conversation about journalism standards and the public's role. Or it could be a fresh start.
 
I'd like to know what you think. Tell me in the comments or email your thoughts to ted_canova@wgbh.org.
 


Ted Canova is the executive editor for news at WGBH Radio.

Put the Needle on the Record: Vinyl Is Back

By WGBH News   |   Friday, April 6, 2012
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April 6, 2012

vinyl

 Mike Wilkins and John Damroth play tunes for Callie on a turntable to illustrate the superior sound of vinyl. (Abbie Ruzicka/WGBH)


BOSTON — Over the decades, the venerable vinyl LP has been threatened by cassette and eight-track tapes. It was nearly killed off when compact discs crowded the music stores, and the mighty mp3 was supposed to deliver the definitive, digital blow. But nothing has been able to stop this whirling wonder. Record sales have been going up — last year they were up by 36 percent. Now it looks like the LP is here to stay. In this digital age, who can can resist the tactile pleasure of placing the needle on that first track? And the snap, crackle and pop that comes with spinning a well-worn, deeply loved disc? 

John Damroth of Planet Records in Cambridge and WGBH's own Mike Wilkins joined Callie Crossley to play some favorite tunes and try to explain the appeal of vinyl today.  

vinyl
From the afternoon's set list. (Mike Wilkins/WGBH)

LISTEN: SONGS PLAYED DURING THE SHOW
 
Charles Mingus / Solo Dancer
Willie Colón & Ruben Blades / Tiburon
WAR / Cisco Kid
Major Lance / The Monkey Time
Rip Chords / She Thinks I Still Care
-----
Aretha Franklin / Rock Steady
Pavement / Stereo
Tommy Flanagan / Overseas
Arthur Prysock / This Is My Beloved
The Fresh & Onlys / Summer of Love
-----
Earth, Wind & Fire / Got to Get You into My Life
Cream / White Room
Isaac Hayes / Theme from "Shaft"  

Wilkins credited "the ability to include the visual arts along with the audio arts." When he asks his friends what attracts them to records, "One of the big things that everybody says, first thing was the cover art — it was just giant-sized, beautiful," he said.

vinyl
Closeup of the turntable. (Abbie Ruzicka/WGBH)

Damroth agreed. "Records mean more than just music: It's the cover, it's the experience of holding it and turning it over and reading it and putting it on the player, listening to it, in your comfortable chair," he said. "It is a very different experience."

Ali Nikseresht on Facebook noted the creative possibilities inherent in the format: "I miss the two distinct music arcs you get on old vinyl. A good band could often end side 1 as if it was the end of the album and understood how to use that palate cleanse to its full potential when starting side 2."

And the love's not limited to the baby boom generation. Robert Hertig, a senior at Northeastern, won the university's Prototype Grant in March to create a high-quality but low-cost turntable. "A lot of people my age have their own little record collections," he said. His own is heavy on LCD Soundsystem, Pavement, the Fresh & Onlys and other bands that are releasing vinyl records now.

Long may they play.

The Herald's New Square

By Emily Rooney   |   Thursday, April 5, 2012
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April 6, 2012

 
BOSTON — The Boston Herald has had its share of struggles over the years. The paper almost shut down in 1984; more recently, it's had to lay off dozens of editorial people and all the delivery drivers. But publisher Pat Purcell is optimistic about the future now that the paper has moved out of its old headquarters and revamped its news-gathering model.

Out with the old ...
 
He won't miss the mice or the mold, but Purcell was a little nostalgic about what the old building at One Herald Square meant to him.
 
"It was really, really something for me to, as a guy coming up on the business side, to have Ted Kennedy, Joan Kennedy, governors, other senators, presidential candidates come through the building. It was really amazing," he said.
 
After 53 years Purcell and his team have packed all those memories away, moving to new digs on the waterfront across from the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. As Purcell took me into a humming newsroom, he gestured to all the open space: "We looked at a lot of spaces where there were these partitions and, you know, if it’s 6 feet or 8 feet it doesn’t matter — it’s a wall, it’s a barrier. I wanted to eliminate all the barriers to communication."
 
... In with the news

The wide-open space is now home to the Herald's print, web and video reporters and editors, who now sit side-by-side at long open desks. Gone are the barriers between departments.
 
There are still sections in the paper, "but the idea that we could lead the paper with an entertainment story or a sports story is a new approach and one that I think is innovative and points us in the right direction," Purcell said.
 
Granted, he acknowledged, "the advertising model is lagging" for online properties. But all media outlets face the same problem — and, Purcell said, his audience is larger than ever. Despite drastic declines in print circulation, the Herald gets about 4 million readers a month, most of those online.

No more dead trees?
 
In fact, Purcell can even imagine a day with no newsprint at all.
 
"Back in, I think it was 1988, 1989, I was at News Corp. and we were contemplating what newspapers or what the newspaper industry was going to be like with computerization," he said. "One of the guys who was a big, big proponent of online and computerization said we have to stop chopping down trees and smearing ink on them."
 
The Herald has already shed its 50-year-old printing presses. Purcell admitted it was hard asking his rival The Boston Globe to print his paper — an arrangement that began in January — but said that in the end, it was just a business deal..
 
"I came to the realization that we are in the information business a long time ago," he said. "I didn’t need to be in the production business, I didn’t need to be in the distribution business."
 
As for those persistent rumors that the Herald is on its last legs, Purcell just laughed at them.
 
"People at the Globe tell me they used to predict the budget for our demise almost every year," he said. "It's pretty gratifying that we’re still here …we’ll keep pushing the envelope and hopefully good things will happen."
 
Here’s to a two-newspaper town. 


Skittles and Etch-a-Sketch: When Brands Meet Politics

By Jared Bowen   |   Monday, April 2, 2012
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April 2, 2012

BOSTON — Amid the fallout in the Trayvon Martin murder is a public relations conundrum for a product innocently linked to the Florida teen. It’s an unfortunate circumstance that’s plagued other brands from Kool-Aid to the Post Office.
 
When Martin was shot and killed in Florida he was carrying, as has now been widely reported, a bag of Skittles.
 
In rallies and memorials, Skittles are now used as a symbol, associated with the 17-year-old’s innocence and with the tragedy in general. For manufacturer Wrigley, it’s been a sensitive boon for the bottom line. The company has released a statement reading in part: “We are deeply saddened by the news of Trayvon Martin’s death … [we] feel it inappropriate to get involved or comment further as we would never wish for our actions to be perceived as an attempt of commercial gain following this tragedy.”
 
It’s a sketchy line for the company. Or you could call it Etch-a-Sketchy — another product with ballooning sales thanks to recent Romney reverberations.


The original "Etch-a-Sketch" comment.

 
It’s perilous when products gain national exposure because of news stories. Think of Kool-Aid, the powdered drink mix forever linked with cult leader Jim Jones, even though Jones didn't use Kool-Aid in the cyanide brew that killed more than 900 of his followers. (He used a competing product, Flavor Aid.) Twinkies are forever linked to San Francisco politician Harvey Milk’s murder. The killer claimed that eating the cream-filled cakes made him do it — thereby creating the Twinkie Defense.

By example, then, it’s the handling of the Skittles brand in the next few days that may determine whether it remains just a popular candy or a treat with a sour aftertaste.
 
Marketing consultant Joan Schneider praised Skittles' handling of the situation: "Perhaps they should give a donation to an anti-violence group or something like that but then people might criticize them for trying to capitalize and get good press."
 
And Skittles, at least, doesn't have to shine up a tarnished image, unlike Twinkies and Kool-Aid. "When I heard for the irst time he had Skittles and iced tea I thought [it was] emblematic of how innocent he was," Schneider said. "I think that's why it's become such a big thing. It's a symbol for what's not right."
 

 

 

Lowell Bergman Discusses Murdoch's Scandal

Tuesday, March 27, 2012
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Join a live chat about Murdoch's Scandal with Frontline correspondent, Lowell Bergman and producer Neil Docherty, along with Sarah Ellison from Vanity Fair. The chat begins at 1pm ET. 

Postal Workers Protest Planned Closures

By Sarah Birnbaum   |   Wednesday, March 21, 2012
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Mar. 21, 2012

post office

The Inman Square, Cambridge post office was on the original list of those considered for closing. (Ibby Caputo/WGBH)

 
BOSTON — Advocates and postal workers rallied Wednesday at the Massachusetts State House, warning of service delays and job losses due to planned post office and mail processing center closures in the state.
 
More than 40 post office locations in Massachusetts are slated to close this summer, including branches in Boston, Dorchester, Newton, Fall River, Medford, Springfield and Worcester.
 
But the bigger impact could come from plans to close five mail sorting centers in the state, in Brockton, Waltham, Cape Cod, Shrewsbury and Springfield. See the list of facility closures.
 
A significant portion of incoming and outgoing mail currently processed in state would be rerouted through Connecticut and Rhode Island, slowing delivery times.
 
Ramona Daniel, president of the Massachusetts Rural Letter Carriers Association on Cape Cod, said the closures would double and triple the amount of time it would take to deliver a package or letter:
 
“The post office would like to drop our delivery standards to two to three days instead of one day," she said. "That will impact every customer and that will impact all of my carriers because we will be the one customers will be yelling at because their mail isn’t on time or their card is late.” 
 
Thousands of jobs could be at stake. And not just any jobs, said Dennis Avery, who works at the Waltham plant slated to close.
 
“The postal service has already provided me with a decent wage, a livable wage, good benefits … something that supports me and my family," he said. "I was able to get married, buy a house, have kids, support them. And I mean, that’s being taken away.” 
 
The postal service has said the closures are on hold until May 15 to allow federal lawmakers time to come up with an alternative plan. The service has lost business in the email age. It lost $8 billion last year, and its debt is skyrocketing. The mail center consolidations and closures are part of a plan to save $20 billion by 2015.

 

About the Authors
WGBH News
The WGBH News team comprises the WGBH radio newsroom, The Callie Crossley Show, The Emily Rooney Show and WGBH Channel 2 reporters and producers from Greater Boston and Basic Black. 
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 
Sarah Birnbaum
Sarah Birnbaum is WGBH News' State House reporter. Send her a news tip.

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