CBS reporter Mike Wallace put the ‘new’ in ‘news’
“The four most frightening words in the English language are ‘Mike Wallace is here.’”
Those words, tt Colorado beer magnate Joe Coors, came to epitomize the career of Mike Wallace, the face of the CBS program “60 Minutes” for 38 years, from its inception in 1968 until his last piece six years ago. They so pleased the master of confrontational journalism that, when CBS used them in advertising to promote the program, he framed a copy for his wall.
Wallace, who died this past weekend, is perhaps best remembered for ambushing the unwary, cameras rolling, wherever he perceived the story to be. But that, according to former colleagues, wasn’t his only forté.
“There’s one thing that Mike can do better than anybody else,” Harry Reasoner once said. “With an angelic smile, he can ask a question that would get anyone else smashed in the face.”
When Wallace became the first Western reporter to interview Ayatollah Khomeini after 53 Americans were taken hostage in Iran, he asked Khomeini what he thought of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat calling him a lunatic.
“What was he going to do, take me as a hostage?” Wallace asked.
It was that attitude that made Wallace’s work stand out in an era when interviews can seem centered on softball questions or just grabbing a quick quote, no matter whether it adds new or useful information, rather than asking about things the public may really want to know.
Not so with Wallace, whose famously asked John Erlichman about the litany of excesses in the “law and order” Nixon administration and quizzed Gen. William Westmoreland about inflating enemy casualty figures to gin up support for an unpopular war in Vietnam.
That latter interview, part of a “CBS Reports” documentary entitled “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” prompted a $120 million lawsuit, which Westmoreland later dropped.
Later, Wallace challenged then Russian President Vladimir Putin on that country’s politics. “This isn’t a real democracy,” Wallace said as Putin aides tried to halt the interview. “Come on.”
The Westmoreland lawsuit brought on a serious bout with depression, one Wallace later revealed caused him to attempt suicide. That revelation came years later, after he appeared in 1996 before the U.S. Senate’s Special Committee on Aging to lobby for federal funding for depression research.
It stands in stark contrast to the description provided by former colleague Diane Sawyer of a man who “bounded through the halls with joy at the prospect of the new, the true, the unexpected.”
Today, it sometimes seems, there’s too little of the “new” in much of what passes for “news,” especially on broadcast outlets.
Most of us no longer get our news from a variety of sources, relying instead on whichever of the many available sources happen to fit our preconceived biases.
Traditional outlets, those with actual reporters instead of commentators, are tagged as “lamestream media,” or worse, when reporters have the audacity to present differing sides to a story. Any major event quickly degenerates into competing efforts to apply a political or philosophical slant in the aftermath.
What often passes for interviews are talking heads on retainer by the various networks to argue in what might be termed the “let’s you and him fight” school of journalism. But paying the Carvilles and Fleischers, the Sharptons and the Matalins to shout over one another is still cheaper and easier than sending a reporting crew to flesh out a story on the ground and add actual information, rather than opinion, to the stories.
Mike Wallace did his last piece for “60 Minutes” in 2006, when he was 88-years-old. That same year, the program’s creator, Don Hewitt, said, “If they were allowed to put plaques up at CBS for three journalists who would stand out, they would be Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Mike Wallace.”
Wallace’s 60-plus years of broadcasting earned him numerous awards. They included 21 Emmys, five Peabodys and five DuPont-Columbia journalism awards. Though he never won a Pulitzer Prize, his body of work fit well with the credo of the publisher who’s the namesake of those awards.
“Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.” — Joseph Pulitzer.