More than his share of compromises will taint his reputation as a no-holds-barred interviewer.
With the possible exception of the egregious Geraldo Rivera, I cannot think of another television interviewer who has stirred emotions quite the way Mike Wallace did. I knew him slightly, sat for an interview that was never broadcast, and witnessed his strengths and weaknesses.
Heavenly praise and hellish condemnation always flowed in his wake, and his death at 93 on April 7 prompted a renewed flood of reaction. The admiration is over the top. Much of the hatred is unprintable.
Although retired since 2006, his death has prompted a divided public to give him one last word, pro and con.
The takedown artists let him have it:
“Good riddance to his ilk — the dinosaurs are dying off,” shouted one blogger.
A master of “cheesy ambush interviews,” wrote another.
One amateur observer thanked another for “reminding me for all the reasons I despised him.”
“Repulsive, narcissistic, condescending,” said another.
And praise from such barometers as the New York Times was loaded in the opposite direction. He was a “paragon of television journalism” who could be “riveting” to watch.
He had a “glorious career” of “great interviewing moments,” said the Washington Post.
In fact, many journalists mistrusted him for failing to pay to his dues. He never worked on a weekly or daily in the smalltime world of reporting. He never did time in Los Gatos, California, like I did, learning how to keep yourself out of a story or the basics of objectivity. He came from the very unjournalistic world of quiz shows — hardly the classic route.
He jumped the queue much the way Anderson Cooper has at CNN, “making it up as I go along,” as Cooper once put it. Real journalists are resentful, and not just about the salaries.
Like Cooper’s record, Wallace’s is a mix of good and bad, magnified by the power of television. Wallace won 21 Emmys and was the lead interviewer on 60 Minutes for 40 years. Cooper has a long way to go, but will probably end up an icon of sorts, too, if he can stay out of trouble.
Perhaps Wallace’s shortcut to fame at CBS News accounts for his many lapses. How could a real journalist schmooze with the “Queen of Mean,” Leona Helmsley? How could he pull his punches in the Brown & Williamson investigation of spiked nicotine? How could he use his weapons on an icon such as Oscar Hammerstein and nail him for “excessive sentimentality”? How could he produce such a limp interview with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
And how could he fault beleaguered Soviet Jews in the 1970s for “breaking the law” in Russia?