Legendary producer Lowell Bergman worked for "60 Minutes" for nearly 15 years. He describes the ambush interview's surprising origins and thorny legal history. In this interview, originally broadcast in June, he also explains why reporter Mike Wallace eventually stopped using the technique.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If the ambush has fallen into disrepute, it had an honorable start, relatively speaking. Lowell Bergman is an award-winning journalist and educator who for nearly 15 years was a producer for CBS’s 60 Minutes. During his long tenure there he watched as Mike Wallace pioneered, refined and then more or less abandoned the ambush interview. He says that showing up on the doorstep of reticent sources was a time-honored print reporter tactic but nobody knew if it would work in the age of television. LOWELL BERGMAN: The big question in the news business was could you do that with a camera. What Mike started doing was confronting those people on the street, and that can be pretty dramatic. It’s what Don Hewitt used to call “that delicious moment.” Mike came out of a closet in a number of cases and surprised somebody in an [BROOKE LAUGHS] undercover operation. One of those cases, the Colonel Herbert case, led to a major First Amendment decision in the Appellate Court in New York. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you tell us about that case, briefly? LOWELL BERGMAN: There were allegations about his conduct in the Vietnam War. He sued. The case went up to the Appellate Federal Court in New York and came back with it being thrown out and providing more privileges for us for operating in terms of – and for fear of libel litigation. That became part of the signature moment of 60 Minutes, including the moment where Mike and now, let's say more recently, Steve Kroft, comes up on someone, like a used car dealer, after they've been surreptitiously taped talking about how they're going to cheat their customers, and then they confront them. All of that has really become a lot more entertainment and noise than really enlightening. BROOKE GLADSTONE: But you think in the old days it actually yielded more news and less heat? LOWELL BERGMAN: There’s nothing that says that news shouldn't be entertaining and get people’s interest. But, as Mike himself has said in the past, he stopped doing it really by the early 1980s because it had become a cliché; everyone was imitating it. You had Geraldo chasing people down the street. What’s clear in the more recent controversies is that we're not really talking about news. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, let's talk about how it is used nowadays. Obviously, Bill O'Reilly, also Michael Moore. In some cases, this is commentary. In some cases, this is entertainment? LOWELL BERGMAN: Yeah, and some cases it’s just simply titillation. You know, all of this began with programs in the old days called Candid Camera- BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. LOWELL BERGMAN: - showing people when they're off guard, when they're weak, when they're not expecting someone not only to come up to them and ask them a question, but recording it at the same time. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think Mike Wallace may have taken some of his inspiration from Candid Camera? LOWELL BERGMAN: Oh, I know he did. [BROOKE LAUGHS] And I’ve talked to him about it. Mike and some - the producers used it as a way to really dramatize what would often be either, a) a boring story, or b) a story you couldn't get on film without actually confronting someone. In the tobacco stories that I was doing with CBS, we were trying to interview the media consultant for Brown and Williamson Tobacco. He gave me some expletives and said, you know, there was no way it was going to happen. I called him back and I said, look, we also need your picture, we don't really have a picture of you. And I said, why don't you dress up the way you want to dress up and look on camera and walk down the street for us, as opposed to us having to ambush you? Right? BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. LOWELL BERGMAN: He again blew me off. So we stationed a camera crew right outside his building in Manhattan, and it really was just to get a shot of him. He was startled by seeing that, and he walked right up to the camera and started talking to it. It made a great sequence in the piece. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Did 60 Minutes distinguish and does it now distinguish between true public figures and those who actually might be vulnerable? LOWELL BERGMAN: Oh, yeah. I mean, they've, they’ve got assets. They've got to worry about litigation, and privacy and other litigation can be very tough. An example is the primary Supreme Court case, as I recall, related to taking a camera crew into a restaurant to find somebody. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. LOWELL BERGMAN: The Supreme Court ruled that, in fact, CBS violated the privacy of everyone in the restaurant by just simply going in when the owner said leave. So the result is you won't see camera crews rushing into where people have an expectation of privacy. So there are rules of the road out there that normal news organizations will follow. BROOKE GLADSTONE: When Bill O'Reilly cites Mike Wallace as an influence, as he has, does he have a point? LOWELL BERGMAN: Well, sure. Mike, to a certain extent, had a great flair for entertainment. He was a drama major in college, and he was the announcer for The Green Hornet and other radio shows, so that the line between entertainment and, quote, “news” in broadcasting wasn't as developed until much later, when he got involved in television. There’s a real difference, though. Bill O'Reilly is not a news person. He’s a journalist. He’s an advocate. He’s a personality. He’s very wealthy and successful, and good for him. [BROOKE LAUGHS] But I don't think he can cite news standards for what he does. He’s not interested in the other side of the story, and he makes that very clear in the way he conducts himself. And I don't think you could say the same of Mike Wallace. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lowell, thank you very much. LOWELL BERGMAN: Thank you. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Lowell Bergman is a producer and correspondent for PBS’ Frontline. He’s also a professor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and was a producer for 60 Minutes between 1983 and 1997. [CANDID CAMERA THEME SONG] BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the timeless art of the pitch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, from NPR. [THEME SONG FROM CANDID CAMERA AND APPLAUSE UP AND UNDER]