9:56am

Sun April 8, 2012
Remembrances

Veteran Newsman Mike Wallace Of '60 Minutes' Dead

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 8:53 am

The urbane Mike Wallace, a CBS News correspondent equally at home questioning con men, celebrities and chiefs of state, died Saturday in New Canaan, Conn. He was 93.

No question was too pointed during Wallace's storied and notorious television career. The ambush interview. The gotcha. That trademark inflection conveying disbelief. Was there ever a more entertaining American television interviewer than Wallace? Not according to longtime 60 Minutes colleague Steve Kroft.

"Mike was always the center of attention," Kroft says. "Didn't make any difference who he was sitting down with. Mike Wallace was certainly — in his mind and probably in the mind of his audience — the most formidable person there."

Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of 60 Minutes, got his start as a young producer on the show.

"People tuned in for the questions not the answers," Fager says. "Funny thing about Mike — and I think a huge part of the attraction to 60 Minutes — in the early days was not so much who he was going to interview but what he would ask."

Myron Leon Wallace's influence in broadcast journalism was felt well before anyone ever heard a ticking clock on CBS. He was born in Brookline, Mass., a suburb of Boston, in 1918. His first brush with radio came during his days at the University of Michigan. A job soon beckoned in Grand Rapids as a radio announcer.

"As a radio announcer, I read rip-and-read news but I wasn't a reporter," Wallace told Terry Gross on WHYY's Fresh Air in 2005. "I was reading the wire, and the other thing was I was reading commercials — and I could do a hell of a commercial."

He served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and bounced around the radio dial, playing roles in nighttime dramas and interviewing newsmakers for several broadcasters, including CBS.

"One of the most persuasive ways to get somebody that you're interviewing to open up is to write down maybe 50 questions on a notepad," Wallace told Steve Inskeep on NPR's Morning Edition in 2005. "And when you sit down with an interviewee under those circumstances, you become co-conspirators – they suddenly realize, 'He knows a lot about me, so I'm going to help him draw a round picture of me.'"

Wallace reported for Westinghouse radio from Vietnam, India and Africa, and then joined CBS for good. He filed reports from the front lines of war and of politics — and was forcibly ejected from the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

A few weeks later, the legendary CBS producer Don Hewitt launched 60 Minutes with Wallace and Harry Reasoner as its leading men. It was a news magazine that mixed high and low — with celebrity culture and crusading investigations all in the same hour.

"Don used to say he needed a 'white hat' and a 'black hat,'" longtime 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer said in describing the formula. "Harry was a white hat, and Mike was the black hat."

Wallace brought drama to the small screen, chasing after congressmen in the corridors of power or pursuing a cleric accused of abuse.

"You can't subpoena people to talk to you," he explained on Fresh Air. "If you write to them and try to call them on the phone and they don't answer or so forth, then take them unawares."

Yet Hewitt and Wallace ultimately scaled back the stunts.

"The problem became this," Wallace said. "We became a caricature of ourselves. We were after light, and it began to look as though we were after heat."

Their flashy style also drew criticism for losing sight of what an interview, and journalism, is really for.

"Mike Wallace enjoys the swagger, going in and having the question being more important than the answer," John Sawatsky, who oversees interviewing technique for the cable sports giant ESPN, told NPR in 2006. "It's important for him to look good."

Wallace's journalism also inspired critics who said he was — forgive me, Mike, their words not mine — irresponsible, even libelous. CBS and Wallace were sued by Gen. William Westmoreland in a $120-million libel suit, which was ultimately settled with a simple apology.

The case triggered a clinical depression in Wallace that he battled for the rest of his life. He would often seek refuge at his home in Martha's Vineyard and support from writer William Styron and satirist Art Buchwald, who were similarly afflicted. They called themselves the "Blues Brothers."

Yet Wallace's legacy remains enduring. Together, Wallace and Hewitt proved the news could be fun. And edgy. Entertaining. Illuminating. And very, very profitable.

"With all due respects to Walter Cronkite, some of the other giants of the business — from [Chet] Huntley to [David] Brinkley," Kroft says, "Mike Wallace is every bit as important in changing television news."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LAURA SULLIVAN, HOST:

The urbane Mike Wallace, a CBS News correspondent, equally at home questioning crooks, celebrities and chiefs of state, is dead at the age of 93. He passed away Saturday night, CBS made the announcement this morning.

In his four decades with the TV show "60 Minutes," he dogged his interview guests relentlessly. And as NPR's David Folkenflik recalls, no question was too pointed during his storied and notorious career.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The ambush interview, the gotcha, that trademark inflection conveying disbelief. Was there ever a more entertaining American television interviewer than Mike Wallace? Not according to longtime "60 Minutes" colleague Steve Kroft.

STEVE KROFT: Mike was always the center of attention. Didn't make any difference who he was sitting down with. Mike Wallace was certainly, in his mind and probably in the mind of the audience, the most formidable person there.

FOLKENFLIK: "60 Minutes" executive producer Jeff Fager got his start as a young producer on the show.

JEFF FAGER: Funny thing about Mike, and I think a huge part of the attraction to "60 Minutes" in the early days, was not so much who he was going to interview, but what he would ask.

FOLKENFLIK: Newsman and showman, let's hear that distinctive voice once more. Here he was on "60 Minutes" drawing out a retired Secret Service agent who had been part of President Kennedy's detail on a fateful November day in Dallas. Former agent Clint Hill blamed himself for not reacting quickly enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TV INTERVIEW)

MIKE WALLACE: You mean you would've gotten there and you would've taken the shot?

CLINT HILL: The third shot. Yes, sir.

WALLACE: And that would've been all right with you?

HILL: That would've been fine with me.

FOLKENFLIK: In one of Wallace's trademark gotcha interviews, he sprang a surprise on retired U.S. Army General William Westmoreland while asking whether the Army faked reports about enemy troops in Vietnam for political reasons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TV INTERVIEW)

WILLIAM WESTMORELAND: Decidedly not. That...

WALLACE: Didn't you make this clear in your August 20th cable?

WESTMORELAND: No.

WALLACE: I have a copy of our August 20th cable.

WESTMORELAND: Well, sure. OK, OK. All right.

FOLKENFLIK: And Wallace wasn't above goading even the Ayatollah Khomeini shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TV INTERVIEW)

WALLACE: Imam, President Sadat of Egypt says that what you are doing now is, quote, "a disgrace to Islam." And he calls you, Imam, forgive me - his words, not mine - a lunatic.

FOLKENFLIK: Myron Leon Wallace's influence in broadcast journalism was felt well before anyone ever heard a ticking clock on CBS. He was born in Brookline, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, in 1918. His first brush with radio came during his days at the University of Michigan, a job soon beckoned in Grand Rapids as he told Terry Gross on WHYY's FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WALLACE: As a radio announcer, I read rip-and-read news, but I wasn't a reporter. I was reading the wire, and the other thing was I was reading commercials - and I could do a hell of a commercial.

FOLKENFLIK: He served in the U.S. Navy in World War II and bounced around the radio dial, playing roles in nighttime dramas and interviewing newsmakers for several broadcasters, including CBS. Wallace described his approach on NPR's MORNING EDITION.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WALLACE: One of the most persuasive ways to get somebody that you're interviewing to open up is to write down maybe 50 questions ahead of time. And when you sit down with an interviewee under those circumstances, you become co-conspirators. They suddenly realize, he knows a lot about me, so I'm going to help him draw a round picture of me.

FOLKENFLIK: Wallace credited the death of his son Peter in 1962 for a turn to harder news. He reported for Westinghouse radio from Vietnam, India and Africa, and then joined CBS for good. He filed reports from the front lines of war and of politics, and was forcibly ejected from the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

A few weeks later, the legendary CBS producer Don Hewitt launched "60 Minutes" with Wallace and Harry Reasoner as its leading men. It was a news magazine that mixed high and low, with celebrity culture and crusading investigations all in the same hour. Longtime "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer describes the formula.

MORLEY SAFER: Don used to say that he needed a white hat and a black hat. And Harry was a white hat, and Mike was the black hat.

FOLKENFLIK: Wallace brought drama to the small screen, chasing after a congressman in the corridors of power...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TV INTERVIEW)

WALLACE: Why are you so reluctant? Why are you so reluctant?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You're going to have to get over here, Mike. If you want, just get right over here...

FOLKENFLIK: ...and pursuing a cleric accused of abuse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TV INTERVIEW)

WALLACE: She lost her virginity that day. Now, why would she say that about you, Father Kirsch, if it were not so?

FOLKENFLIK: On WHYY's FRESH AIR, Wallace explained why.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WALLACE: You can't subpoena people to talk to you. You - if you write to them and try to call them on the phone and they don't answer or so forth, then take them unawares.

FOLKENFLIK: Yet Hewitt and Wallace ultimately scaled back the stunts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WALLACE: The problem became this. We became a caricature of ourselves. We were after light, and it began to look as though we were after heat.

FOLKENFLIK: Their flashy style also drew criticism for losing sight of what an interview and what journalism is really for. John Sawatsky oversees interviewing technique for the cable sports giant ESPN.

JOHN SAWATSKY: Mike Wallace enjoys the swagger, going in and having the question being more important than the answer. And it's important for him to look good.

FOLKENFLIK: More seriously, Wallace's journalism also inspired critics who said he was irresponsible, even libelous. CBS and Wallace were sued by General Westmoreland in a $120 million libel case that triggered a clinical depression in Wallace that he battled for the rest of his life. The suit was ultimately settled with a simple apology.

Wallace was also deeply embarrassed by the network's initial refusal to broadcast his interview with a tobacco industry whistleblower because of the fear of a billion dollar lawsuit. The incident became the basis of the hit 1999 movie "The Insider." And Wallace, played by Christopher Plummer, did not come off well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE INSIDER")

CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER: (as Mike Wallace) Do me a favor, will you? Spare me, for God's sake, enter the real world. What do you think? I'm going to resign in protest to force it on the air? The answer's no. I don't plan to spend the end of my days wandering in the wilderness of National Public Radio. That decision I've already made.

FOLKENFLIK: Wallace and Hewitt later conceded they had mishandled the tobacco story. Yet Wallace's legacy remains enduring. Together, Wallace and Hewitt proved the news could be fun and edgy, entertaining, illuminating and very, very profitable. Steve Kroft.

KROFT: With all due respects to Walter Cronkite and some of the other giants of the business from Huntley and Brinkley, I think Mike was every bit as important in terms of changing television news.

FOLKENFLIK: Mike Wallace is survived by his wife, the former Mary Yates, his son Chris Wallace, who is a political anchor for the Fox News Channel, as well as several stepchildren and grandchildren. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.