R.I.P. Mike Wallace, fearless 60 Minutes reporter

R.I.P. Mike Wallace, fearless 60 Minutes reporter

CBS News has reported the death of longtime 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, a reporter who racked up 21 Emmys for his incomparably hard-hitting contributions to TV journalism, and whose dogged, uncompromising interview style so embodied the mark of “Tough But Fair,” Wallace himself said he wanted that as his epitaph. Wallace died at the age of 93, after a long history of heart trouble.

“Nosy and insistent” was another of Wallace’s favorite means of describing himself; treading “a fine line between sadism and intellectual curiosity” was another. As his colleague Harry Reasoner put it, Wallace was capable of asking questions that, in any other situation, would have seen the inquisitor “smashed in the face.” As his fellow colleague and friend Morley Safer said in his tribute, Wallace was "the toughest guy on television."  And as Associated Press reporter David Bauder noted in his obituary for Wallace, the newsman’s reputation for fearless, merciless interrogation was such that “’Mike Wallace is here to see you’… were the most dreaded words in the English language, capable of reducing an interview subject to a shaking, sweating mess.” And over four decades of reporting for 60 Minutes, Wallace spread that terror and flop-sweat throughout myriad corridors of power, confronting some of the most important and controversial figures of the 20th and 21st centuries, then giving them all the toughest grilling they’ve ever had in their lives.

Among those who faced Wallace’s unbroken stare and prosecutorial line of inquiry were sitting U.S. presidents and combative foreign leaders, disgraced corporate executives and bureaucratic screw-ups, pop stars, athletes, and assorted swindlers—all of them living in fear of Wallace’s incredulous “come on” to a less-than-satisfactory response, and especially the dangling Sword of Damocles that was “Forgive me, but…,” which Wallace often deployed just before dropping his interview’s biggest bombshell question. And of course, any time Wallace threw to a videotape, it was over: He all but invented the “ambush” interview, capturing evidence of wrongdoing via hidden camera and then using it to nail the wrongdoer right before the viewer’s eyes.

One of Wallace’s most famous interviews was with the Ayatollah Khomeini during 1979’s Iranian hostage crisis, when he asked Khomeini what he thought about being called a “lunatic” by Egypt’s Anwar Sadat. (Khomeini offered a rare smile, then calmly responded that Sadat was a heretic and predicted his assassination.) In 2005, he challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin with “this isn’t a real democracy, come on!” to Putin’s visible disconfort. And in 2006, he stepped out of retirement to apply similar pressure to Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over his nation’s support of Hezbollah, only to have Ahmadinejad interrupt and ask Wallace, “Are you the representative of the Zionist regime? Or a journalist?” Wallace’s redundant response, “I am a journalist” didn’t mollify Ahmadinejad, who shot back, “This is not journalism, sir.”

Though Ahmadinejad’s response was obviously an extreme example, it wasn’t the only time Wallace’s blunt, provocative style caused its recipients to wonder whether they were there to answer actual questions ,or simply to face the firing squad. During the Watergate scandal, for example—the era when America’s thirst for muckraking heroes helped make Wallace a household name—Wallace read Nixon aide John Ehrlichman a long laundry list of the administration’s alleged crimes, everything from perjury to money laundering to spying, prompting Ehrlichman to ask Wallace, “Is there a question in there somewhere?” Wallace simply conceded there was not. Nor was there really a question when Wallace drew the ire of Louis Farrakhan by asking, more or less rhetorically, whether Farrakhan could think of a more corrupt country than Nigeria. (“I’m living in one,” Farrakhan replied angrily)

 

Ditto the time Wallace famously upset Barbra Streisand—who had been a regular guest on his early-’60s variety series PM East/PM West—by telling her in no uncertain terms that he really didn’t like her back then, that he thought she was “totally self-absorbed,” that he questioned what sort of “problem” she could possibly have that would necessitate 20-plus years of psychotherapy, and as the kicker, made her cry by confronting her with a quote in which her own mother said Streisand just didn’t have time to be close to anyone anymore. (Wallace later said he felt he “overdid it.”)

 

Of course, not even the wrath of a million protective Streisand fans could compare to the aftershocks of some of Wallace’s most controversial reports. In 1982, Wallace’s exposé on Vietnam War Gen. William Westmoreland alleged that Westmoreland had deliberately undercounted the number of enemy combatants, thus shoring up his optimistic claims that the war was winnable. Westmoreland responded to the report by filing one of the largest libel suits in history at $120 million, though he finally withdrew it mid-trial. But by that time the damage had been done to CBS’s credibility, and Wallace plunged deeper into a depression that he battled most of his life—and as he later told his colleague Morley Safer, it even drove him to attempt suicide.

 

According to Wallace’s autobiography, even that awful incident was outdone by his infamous interview with Jeffrey Wigand, the whistle-blowing chemist at the heart of Wallace’s report revealing that tobacco executives were knowingly manufacturing an addictive, disease-causing product. As dramatized in the movie The Insider (in which Wallace was portrayed by Christopher Plummer), the network withdrew Wallace’s story at the last minute, out of fear of a bankrupting lawsuit—and, not coincidentally, because one of those tobacco executives was the son of CBS’s then-president, Laurence Tisch. The report later ran in 1996, after Tisch’s departure, but it remained a sore spot in Wallace’s career. 

And then there was Wallace’s 1998 interview with Dr. Jack Kevorkian, during which Wallace ran videotape of Kevorkian administering a lethal injection to a patient. The broadcast generated weeks of op-ed arguing across all corners of the media, but even more impactful, it led to Kevorkian’s arrest and conviction, with the tape of Wallace’s interview being used as evidence at Kevorkian’s trial. Wallace maintained his support of Kevorkian throughout his imprisonment, and continued by giving the doctor his first interview after his release.

But beyond the controversies, aside from the “nailed ‘em” moments, and underneath all the other flash that made Wallace one of TV’s most fascinating inquisitors, Wallace’s most important legacy was holding TV journalism—and all journalism, really—to a higher, more honest standard. It’s true that Wallace was a performer in many ways, beginning his career hosting quiz shows and making ends meet by working as a cigarette pitchman, and even dabbling in acting by turning up in movies like Elia Kazan’s A Face In The Crowd or TV shows such as Studio One In Hollywood and Murphy Brown (usually playing a reporter, and typically playing himself). Yet there was no artifice in his interviews, from the early days of his work on Night Beat through The Mike Wallace Interview to his many years as one of 60 Minutes’ original and longest-lasting correspondents.

That’s evident across the mind-boggling whole of Wallace’s talks with some of the past century’s most interesting people—many of which you can revisit here—whether he was pushing Ayn Rand to address her mission to “destroy almost every edifice of the contemporary American way of life,” getting Malcolm X to open up (a year before his assassination) about the threats on his life, asking mobster Mickey Cohen straight up how many men he had killed, lecturing Yassir Arafat on violence, or, in what would prove to be his last-ever TV appearance, pressing Roger Clemens about allegations of steroid abuse (and proving that even at 89 years old, Wallace remained a fierce combatant). Throughout his career and unto the very end, Wallace spoke truth to power and demanded it in return. The world of investigative reporting would do well to continue following his example.