Mike Wallace’s journalistic philosophy provides a life lesson

Almost everyone commemorating him agrees that Mike Wallace was a legendary journalist without an equal. The 60 Minutes news man, who died yesterday, was incomparable in many ways, but during the course of his career, Wallace did have a counterpart of sorts: controversial Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci. The two were often compared, side-by-side, as the vanguards of a journalistic revolution, particularly because of their tenacity in getting to a subject’s core.

“The popularity of Wallace and Fallaci derives not only from their producing good stories, but from their adversarial styles of interviewing,” Jack Huber and Dean Diggins write in their book “Interviewing the World’s Top Interviewers: The Inside Story of Journalism’s Most Momentous Revelations.” “While it is probably an exaggeration to say that the American press did not start to look beneath the surface of a story until 1968, it is worth noting that Wallace and Fallaci began long before that.”

In 1985, Wallace asked Fallaci came face to face on ’60 Minutes,’ on which Wallace asked Fallaci about so-called journalistic “power.”

Wallace: Power. Do you have power?
?Fallaci: Oh, no. I have not power. How can you say??
Wallace: None whatsoever?
?Fallaci: We are not one of those who think that we journalists have power.?
Wallace: No??
Fallaci: Nah. We are like dogs. Bow-wow-wow. Nobody listens to us.
?Wallace: You’re an entertainer?
?Fallaci: I’m a historian.?
Wallace: You’re not a historian.?
Fallaci: Yes, I am.?
Wallace: You’re a journalist.?
Fallaci: No, sir. A journalist is a historian.
Wallace: No.

Wallace later told Richard Heffner, host of public television’s public affairs show “The Open Mind,” that he disagreed with Fallaci because journalism is too immediate to be an accurate snapshot. It can keep a record, but that record can’t be read out of context. “[Journalism is] instant history, and you don’t have the opportunity to know what might have gone on in other corners of that episode or other corners of the world while that episode was taking place. So, what you’re doing is getting a quick take. Today’s take or this month’s take, but you’re not putting it into the context of other events.”

It is the historian who “sit[s] back, after the event, five years, ten years, 25 years, and [considers] various accounts of what have taken place” It is then that the “sensible historical context” comes into focus.

That is not to say the journalist does not have responsibilities to paint an accurate picture of a particular moment. (The example he uses is reporting on then-PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat’s admiration for Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.) The journalists asks the tough questions and gets the truth of the moment. The historian puts it all together down the road.

Today, history seems more immediate than ever. Yes, all generations have been aware that they’re seeing history unfold — FDR’s use of “day of infamy” to describe Pearl Harbor comes to mind — but the hard-wired, streaming 21st Century, events are taking on instantaneous historical significance at a breakneck speed, so rapid it almost seems hurried. 9/11, the tsunami in Japan, the Arab Spring — all are presented live, with loads of biased and slanted commentary.

History seems more fast-paced than ever, and it is, but to truly understand it, as Wallace points out, you have to be able to sit back and observe. There’s a certain calmness necessary to comprehending life’s little moments, whether they be newsworthy or not. Wallace seemed to know that no matter what he was learning or unveiling at the moment, there would always be more to the story down the road.

Here’s video of Mike Wallace and Richard Heffner discussing the role of the journalist: