In Memoriam

Mike Wallace: Cheesy or Riveting or Both?

More than his share of compromises will taint his reputation as a no-holds-barred interviewer.

By 4.16.12

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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?

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.

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.