On the screen was Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes," the biggest of the big stars on the biggest, most profitable CBS series of them all.
There he was in his protective vest one Sunday last September, inside maximum-security Pelican Bay, California's controversial high-tech dungeon that houses the worst of the state's bad apples, asking tough questions about alleged inhumane treatment.
There he was last November, on a story about the CIA's reported involvement in the smuggling of cocaine into this nation as part of an undercover operation it undertook without the knowledge of any U.S. law enforcement agency.
There he was again last month, a laser of aggression in dangerous south Beirut, mincing no words with those blamed by the U.S. government for some of the worst anti-American terrorism in recent history. There he was, in the heart of Hezbollah country, telling Sheik Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah:
"Americans believe that you--as an Islamic fundamentalist--that you are a leader that contributed to the bombing of the U.S. embassy, the killing of the 241 Marines, the plane hijackings and the taking of the hostages."
There he was, arguably the most recognizable reporter in the United States, affixing his big, looping journalistic signature to some of the best and highest-profile investigative stories "60 Minutes" had to offer.
Great work . . . Lowell.
\o7 Lowell\f7 ?
That's right, for the man behind those stories and many others that Wallace does is Lowell Bergman, 48. Unsung, unheard, unseen Lowell Bergman. Well, nearly unseen.
"I'm sort of like Alfred Hitchcock," Bergman said recently, citing the legendary director who liked to make fleeting appearances as an extra in his films. "If you looked closely in the Beirut piece, there I am among the faithful--probably the first and last Jew to do this--being frisked on the way into a mosque."
Instead of being a director, though, Bergman is a field producer, a sort of "60 Minutes" West as he operates mainly from his Bay Area home in Berkeley Hills. As co-founder of the highly regarded Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, he's one of TV's top journalist-detectives. He's a shrewd, talented blue chipper among the blue-collar reporters who for years have anonymously underpinned television newscasts and magazine programs, doing much of the work while remaining faceless as others bask in the glow of the stories that go on the air.
In his autobiography, Wallace himself lauds some of those who have labored off-camera for "60 Minutes." For the most part, though, it's television's dirty little secret that the people in news who toil the hardest are generally the ones who are least known and least paid.
In fact, some equate the relationship between correspondent and producer as that of a dog and a fire hydrant.
"The public," "60 Minutes" producer Joe DeCola once said, "thinks the correspondent has done all the running around, interviewed all the people, read all the government reports, spent hours on the phone. Wrong. It's the producer who's done all that."
Not only on the network level. "I probably do 80 to 90% of everything," says a field producer who's done investigative series at several local stations. "Most reporters don't get involved until it gets on the air. You basically have a news reader who delivers what you researched."
As vividly affirmed by Diane Sawyer's new ABC contract, estimated to pay $5 million to $6 million a year, the business nourishes--and is nourished by--a star system. Although she's smart and has had posh assignments at ABC and CBS, where she once co-starred on "60 Minutes," Sawyer is infinitely less valuable as a journalist than as a charismatic personality and human trademark.
Although no box-office slouch himself, interviewer deluxe Wallace is a different case. Bergman is awed by the 75-year-old Wallace's drive and says he's the most actively involved of the correspondents he's worked with in 11 years at "60 Minutes" or at ABC's "20/20," where Bergman began on TV after working for alternative newspapers.
As Wallace himself acknowledged recently, though, "most of the reporting on a given piece is done by the producer and the researchers. How the dickens could you possibly turn out 25 to 30 stories a year by yourself? We, the correspondents, are like co-producers."
Bergman is "one of the best reporters I've ever come across, plain and simple," Wallace said.
"Few reporters have better contacts in certain areas like police, crime and terrorism," added "60 Minutes" creator and executive producer Don Hewitt. "He's plugged into elements of our society that other reporters just guess at."
Yet it was Hewitt who titled that recent terrorism story "Three Days in Beirut," Bergman said, because "Mike was there three days." Bergman was there seven days.