More than his share of compromises will taint his reputation as a no-holds-barred interviewer.
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I was in Moscow at the height of the Jewish protest when he breezed through looking for the truth, as he often put it. He spent a half hour with me digging into KGB harassment. I had reported on the issue for the Associated Press and as a result my Volkswagen had been vandalized. A stone wrapped in a Soviet newspaper ended up in my front seat, including a hand-written note, “The worst is yet to come, you reptile.” It was an unsettling time for all the foreign press but none of this made it on the air.
I didn’t begrudge him. Television is a crowded medium.
And so few years later, sitting in my 37th floor office at McGraw-Hill World News in New York, I sent Wallace a note about a story I felt would be a natural for him. The limo of the mayor of Miami had vanished without a trace. It turned up a few months later in the possession of a Haitian government official. I immediately saw this as a perfect Mike Wallace vehicle — Mike sticking his mike in the black face of a sweating Tonton Macoute demanding an explanation for obvious car theft.
To my surprise, Wallace telephoned me at my office to discuss this suggestion. His normally super-confident voice seemed tinged with embarrassment. He explained that this would indeed make a great 60 Minutes story but it couldn’t be done. Wallace confessed that he had a personal seaside property in Haiti and did not wish to jeopardize his friendship with authorities — or risk violence — by rubbing their noses in a case of petty theft.
The conversation was cordial, although he might have worried that his prevarication could end up as an unfriendly story somewhere. He carried on with an offer. He was in the market for good business and economic stories, he said, and would welcome my input. I was vain enough to imagine that this could lead to a spot on the 60 Minutes among the worker-bees. I sent him five or six good ideas over the next few weeks. He never responded.
In his position, I probably wouldn’t have, either.
Mike Wallace accomplished great things as a trend-setter in television interviewing but he also made more than his share of compromises. His legacy will forever be tainted by his lapses in journalistic ethics. Given the choice, I wonder if he would do his time in small-town journalism. Probably not.