Mike Wallace’s Journey From Rogue to Respectable

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 19: Mike Wallace attends the Henry A. Grunwald Awards Luncheon on September 19, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Mike Wallace
Photo: Andrew H. Walker/2007 Getty Images

Mike Wallace, who died this weekend at a nursing home in New Canaan, Connecticut, at 93, was as controversial as a lot of the newsmakers he interviewed, and just as infuriating. He was also an example of the notion that if you do something long enough and at a high enough level of visibility, you will eventually seem like a monument to Old Guard values, even if you spent part of your career on the leading edge of the new and disreputable.

The longtime 60 Minutes correspondent grew to be seen as a beloved veteran, an emblem of a more thorough and responsible era in TV journalism, but from his days as an ambitious young interviewer on local New York television through his lengthy stint on 60 Minutes, large numbers of people had major misgivings about how he did things. His icy intensity made him seem like an actor playing the role of TV newsman — which, in a sense, he was; before transitioning into the interviewing game in the late 1950s, Wallace was a stage actor, game show host, radio announcer, and commercial pitchman. Not even Edward R. Murrow had such hammy flair or such an exquisite sense of how to modulate it from one second to the next. Wallace didn’t just work for 60 Minutes, he starred in it; Don Hewitt’s influential CBS newsmagazine became a success by framing its news segments as minidramas, a tactic that brought accusations that it amped up and oversimplified conflict to make viewers feel like spectators at a boxing match. Wallace’s fantastically long career ensured that he died respected, but he didn’t actually become respectable until sometime in the nineties. He was a controversial figure throughout most of his career, and in the first couple of decades of its seemingly endless run, 60 Minutes was the Hard Copy of network television. 

Back in the 1970s, Wallace and the 60 Minutes gang perfected the idea of the so-called “ambush interview,” wherein a TV news team would surprise a newsmaker outside his office or home and pepper him with questions, the more inflammatory the better. (Wallace never actually jumped out of any bushes, though; that was just a hyperbolic joke that somehow became fact in people’s minds, and when I interviewed Wallace for the Star-Ledger about fifteen years ago, that was one of the first myths that he wanted to debunk.) The newsmagazine also did hidden camera stings that caught thieves or corrupt public officials in the act of doing, or seeming to do, nefarious things. As David Blum writes in Tick, Tick Tick…The Long Life and Turbulent Times of 60 Minutes, the show “had been influenced as much by contemporary print media as by anything else then on national television. While Life magazine was Hewitt’s stated model, more often the show resembled the weekly city publications that became popular across the country in the late 1960s. The show’s fascination with rip-offs and restaurants, drugs and sex, echoed the alternative press, or even New York Magazine, at that moment a hot new weekly under the leadership of its own innovative editor, Clay Felker.” Geraldo Rivera, who was then a young, long-haired troublemaker on ABC’s rival newsmagazine 20/20, took things even further, transforming an already provocative reporting style into sleazy street theater, going undercover to expose “bad guys” like a scruffy 1970s TV cop.

Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, Ed Bradley, Dan Rather, Steve Kroft, Lesley Stahl, and Wallace’s other newsmagazine costars were all essentially cast members within the drama that 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt had devised. The idea was to make the news dramatic by framing everything in terms of primal conflict or a mystery to be solved.  Go to CBSNews.com or YouTube and click on any 60 Minutes story and you’ll see that every piece built toward a simple question, which the 60 Minutes correspondent and his backup team answered as definitively as they could. Is this man guilty of murder? Who is responsible for the poisoning of the stream? This was anathema to journalism professors and to quite a few people at Wallace and Hewitt’s own network, who preferred a more open-ended or at least less obsessively narrative-driven approach. The so-called “newsmagazine” format that 60 Minutes introduced back in 1968 did so well that it it eventually became one of TV’s highest-rated, most profitable programs. But ethics watchdogs and journalism professors often denounced its methods. “In its twelve-year climb to the top of the Nielsen ratings,” wrote Jonathan Black in the 1980 Channels Magazine essay “The Stung,” “60 Minutes has also evolved a style and method that occasionally erode the very trust and rigor at the heart of investigative journalism. Too often the show has impaired its own effectiveness with theatricality or slanted editing. The need to maintain the loyalty of 40 million viewers can spawn an overwhelming desire to please.” The program openly acknowledged that news had entertainment as well as informational value and wasn’t shy about giving the viewers what they craved. Wallace, more than anyone else, was the show’s emblem.

Judged against the cut-cut-cut aesthetic of modern documentary filmmaking and the veins-a-popping intensity of Fox News Channel and MSNBC, the 60 Minutes style now feels sedate, like radio with pictures. Its long-lead reporting by a large staff is a relic, too; Internet-age journalism is often content to report on rumors and promise details if and when they emerge. But that’s what time does to upstarts. When I interviewed Wallace in the late 1990s for a TV column about a 60 Minutes commemorative special, I asked him if he ever thought he’d see the day when the program would be celebrated, even lionized as a bastion of old-school thoroughness and tact. He laughed and said, “What’s that line from Chinatown? Something about politicians, whores and buildings becoming respectable if they’re around long enough?” It wasn’t just Wallace’s longevity that made him an institution. He was a resourceful and aggressive reporter, so much so that he stole a scoop from Seymour Hersh while Hersh was flying coast-to-coast with his key source. (“The Old Man had shown me his moves, and taken my candy away,” Hersh writes.) Over the years he amassed an astounding résumé as an interviewer, and it wasn’t just a checklist of people he happened to speak with. More often than not, the pieces he did on his late 1950s interview programs, his mid-1960s documentaries, and on 60 Minutes still feel like primary sources for anybody trying to write about, or understand, recent history.

More than anything else, Wallace proved that in putting together compelling and important TV news, charisma could be as useful a tool as research and storytelling ability. Wallace’s distinctive screen presence — the prosecutor’s stony glare, the bemused eyebrow-lift, the slight tilt of the head and gleam in the eye that presaged a knockout follow-up question — were his TV version of a newspaper reporter’s prose style. He had a voice and mastered it early, starting in the late 1950s when he decided he was tired of being an actor, game show host, and commercial pitchman and eased into a new identity as an interviewer on Night Beat (which aired from 1955-57 on the Dumont Network’s WABD), Mike Wallace Interviews (ABC, 1957-59) and on CBS.  The list of prominent Americans who Wallace interviewed reads like a who’s who of mid-century politics and culture. Many of these sitdowns are on CBS.com and YouTube. My favorites are his interview with Ayn Rand on the eve of the publication of Atlas Shrugged, which is not just the definitive Rand interview but a great summary of mid-century political cross-currents, and his 1964 interview with Malcolm X a few months before his assassination.  Wallace often strained to represent a theoretical “middle-American” viewpoint in his questions and as a result often risked coming off looking like a befuddled square; his 1958 interview with Salvador Dali is especially emblematic, with Dali being his prankish self and Wallace trying to keep the artist’s meandering mind on track. But even there he asked succinct, smart questions that built on the subject’s work and public statements without being slaves to them. He asked Dali about contemporaries, including Picasso, and about fear of death and Dali’s tenuous relationship with Roman Catholicism; it’s fantastic stuff. Here, as in so many Wallace interviews, you got the sense that the interviewer was thinking of the encounter as a small piece of history and doing his best to leave no stone unturned, because 60 years later, people might still be watching it, and he wanted to make sure they got what they needed from it. 

There were huge, nearly catastrophic missteps along the way. The most notorious was probably the 1982 Wallace–anchored CBS Reports special “The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception,” which accused General William Westmoreland and other officials of deliberately over-counting enemy dead during the war. The program drew accusations of ginned-up editing and cherry-picked evidence and prompted a libel suit by Westmoreland that eventually caused CBS News to lose its libel insurance and forced the network to pull the plug on CBS Reports and move away from long-form documentaries. But the excesses of Wallace’s showmanship, and 60 Minutes’, are outweighed by corruption exposed and indelible portraits painted. From Wallace and Dan Rather’s essential reporting on the Watergate scandal through the show’s muckraking reports on post–9/11 foreign policy and homeland security through Wallace’s sixty-year string of “gets” — the last of which, his January 2008 interview with Roger Clemens on his alleged steroid use, won him his final Emmy at age 89 — the broadcast remained thrilling and relevant, even as network audiences shrank and corporate bosses kept cutting news division budgets. 

There were hints of mischief, arrogance and danger in a lot of his work. He generated feelings of anticipation, even dread, when he appeared onscreen. Wags called him “Mike Malice” and “The Torquemada of Television.” (His opening question to Vanessa Redgrave in a 60 Minutes piece that aired after her “Zionist hoodlums” speech at the 1978 Oscars was, “So, you hate the Jews?”) “There is 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.” And for all the journalistic ethics debates that he and his colleagues stirred up over the years, that’s the kind of jocular but smart energy that mainstream media could use more of. I’m not talking about Ron Burgundy-style grandstanding, because Wallace at his worst exemplified that, too; his late-1990s 60 Minutes piece about the absurdity of “queer studies” in colleges might have been his old-man low point. I’m talking about informed showmanship that was designed to draw people toward truth, or at least useful information, but that did not automatically overshadow it.  Wallace was intensely watchable and knew it. That was part of the gimmick of newsmagazines: the idea that the correspondent was our representative, a detective or knight crusading for truth and justice, or at least telling it like it was.

But for the most part Mike Wallace didn’t make every piece about Mike Wallace, heroic abstraction. He was a character in the story, but not the story. He never became Geraldo. He was our stand-in, asking the questions that we might have asked if we were there and had his skill and nerve. And he kept doing it for years and years, long after most people would have given up, because he loved it and was great at it.  “[The actor] Faye Emerson once said to me, ‘Mike, there is no such thing as an indiscreet question,’ Wallace told me in a 2007 interview. “I think that’s true.”

Mike Wallace’s Journey From Rogue to Respectable