Mike Wallace hated Michael Mann's "The Insider" complaining that the film took too many dramatic liberties with the story of CBS' decision not to air a "60 Minutes" segment on tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand over fears of a lawsuit.
Lowell Bergman, the producer on the Wigand segment and a consultant on Mann's film, tells TheWrap that what bothered Wallace the most was that the movie pulled back the curtain and revealed that the people behind the camera, and not the legendary newsman, did the bulk of the dirt digging on "60 Minutes."
"I think it was Mike’s insecurity," Bergman said. "He respected reporting and it bothered him that he was living off of other people’s reporting."
When Wallace died last month at 93, the "60 Minutes" correspondent was hailed as an unflinching and incisive television reporter. Bergman (pictured below right) says that Wallace does deserve credit for being a television pioneer, but his failure to go to the mat on the Wigand story is a blemish on his storied career.
That incident was dramatized in Mann’s Oscar-nominated 1999 film, with Al Pacino playing Bergman and Christopher Plummer portraying a memorably imperious Wallace.
In an wide-ranging interview with TheWrap, Bergman, now a professor of investigative reporting at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism as well as a PBS Frontline producer and correspondent, reveals that Wallace was invited to play himself in the film, reflects on his falling out with the newsman and remembers the correspondent as a workaholic who rarely shied away from a tough story.
TheWrap: Mike Wallace was furious with you when “The Insider” came out. Did you ever repair your relationship?
Bergman: It just ended. It didn’t get resolved after the movie came out.
Why was he so upset by the film?
I don’t know exactly what he was personally upset about. I only know what he said in the public record and in brief encounters.
What he wrote, or wrote with a ghostwriter, in his autobiography is that his beef with me appears to be that he was classified in the film as someone who initially or at different points chose not to stand up to management.
Was he upset that he was depicted as someone who wasn't doing the reporting for the Wigand interview?
I think it was Mike’s insecurity. He respected reporting and it bothered him that he was living off of other people’s reporting.
Look, my role, or anyone’s role in network news, is to make the person on camera look good. You don’t do that, you don’t work there. The myth is that the person on camera has done all the reporting and knows every part of the story, but we know in the business that when they say this is Mike Wallace’s story, that’s not true. But we’re never allowed to explain that to an audience; it’s not part of what the grammar of TV news is.
Did he have a chance to tell his side of to the filmmakers?
Mike had a chance to play himself. Mann offered it to him. I arranged a meeting at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel where we were having dinner, but he left before Michael [Mann] showed up. Before he left he said, “you’ll take care of me.” What he meant was I wouldn’t tell the truth.
Do you think “The Insider” was accurate?
Accurate is a funny word in this context, because this is the fictionalization of non-fiction. But it was emotionally, politically and, in general, dead-on accurate.
Now as to the individual characters, I can only speak about myself. In my case, I’m not Italian, I’m not as short as Pacino, I don’t have a blonde wife who calls me honey and I don’t yell at my bosses regularly.
As for Mike, if I were played by Christopher Plummer, I wouldn’t complain.
The film is tough on Wallace regarding his conversations with CBS’ corporate executives. Did he really cave to their demands?
From the beginning Mike was unwilling to commit himself to going to the line with this and with risking his job. In meetings with CBS’ counsel, he didn’t raise his voice, nor did ["60 Minutes" creator] Don Hewitt.
Both were well known for browbeating people in private and public. They didn't say a word really in the meeting.
I couldn’t understand why they folded. Because of the power that he had, it was sort of like, who's going to fire Mike Wallace? My whole point was, why didn’t you talk back to them? If you’re not going to resign, you could make their day miserable. He did it to other people over much less.
I would say objectively that he didn’t agree with what they were doing, but he wasn’t willing to say, “I’m not going to let this stand.” The bigger issue, what upset Mike about the film, was not that it told the story of the tobacco industry’s clout, it was that one of the country’s Fortune 500 broadcasting companies would cave and that he would be part of that. Unlike “All the President’s Men,” they didn’t do the right thing. Mike didn’t like that, and Don Hewitt definitely didn’t like it.
Obviously the Wigand experience was a difficult one, but did you respect Wallace as a journalist?
It was well known at “60 Minutes” that if you wanted to do a hard news story that required heavy lifting, the guy to do it with was Mike Wallace. Just having his voice on the narration gave it a certain gravitas, because the audience knew the voice and it amplified your story.
When it came down to it, if it was a tough piece, it was more likely than not that Mike would do it it. He had balls.
What do you think his legacy will be?
The guy was unique. He was a pioneer. He was incredibly talented. He invented all kinds of things that are now embedded in our news programming. But he was also extremely difficult to deal with. He was a workaholic and he was “Mr. ‘60 Minutes.’”
If other correspondents were doing an average of 21 stories a year, Mike would do 27... when he was 75. What you saw on camera was what you got.