The ranks of trail-blazing newsmen diminished by one loss
As you probably heard, broadcast journalist Mike Wallace died last Saturday at 93. As some were heard to say, Mike Wallace succumbed “at a ripe old age.”
We suspect that Mike might have bridled at that expression. We can hear him saying something like, “‘Ripe old age?’ Cheeses have a ‘ripe old age.’ You could say that good wine has reached a ‘ripe old age.’ But, hell, I’m neither a cheese nor a bottle of wine. In fact, I’m too busy to think of my age at all.”
But some descriptions of Wallace do fit. He was a “pitbull” among interviewers. For better or worse, he pioneered the technique of “ambush journalism.” That involved setting up a hidden camera or microphone to capture a subject saying something awkward or illegal that would then be played back while another camera caught his embarrassed or angry reaction.
My path and Wallace’s crossed only once, in a hotel elevator while we were both covering the GOP presidential nomination in Miami in 1968. I was with Mutual at the time. He was an acknowledged star of the broadcast firmament at CBS.
When I mentioned my network, he smiled broadly (yes, he had a lovely smile) and said he had worked for MBS, voicing our nightly “World Today” show in the late 1950s. That was the time when Wallace managed entirely to blur the line between broadcast news and entertainment. He did announcing duties on all four networks, he served as the pitchman for L&M cigarettes, and he even starred in a Broadway show, a trifle called “Reclining Figure.”
His flair for the dramatic served him in good stead as a “gotcha” interviewer, using third-degree techniques to make his guests squirm and often blurt out secret stuff that actually made for real news.
He was the unofficial star of “60 Minutes” from the program’s outset. The show took a few years to develop into the biggest diamond in the Tiffany Network’s jewel case, but when it hit its stride, it was perched on the Top 10 list for an unprecedented 23 years.
At CBS, he found himself in the shadow of such journalistic giants as Ed Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Andy Rooney and Harry Reasoner, all of whom had first distinguished themselves as writers, not broadcasters. Never one to languish in the shadows, Wallace aggressively attacked stories and interviewees with the same pitbull intensity, asking the tough questions, disregarding all the proprieties, leaving the field littered with broken and bloody bodies. The targets of his verbal punches ended up loathing him.
But the television audience loved the show.
Politically, it was impossible to peg him. He attacked Democrats and Republicans with equal relish, although he confessed to being a Nixon Republican until about 1968.
After his victory that year, Nixon even offered Mike the job of White House press secretary, a position that Wallace sensibly declined.
In the journalism community, Mike Wallace always will be a controversial figure.
Some believe he did enormous harm in pursuing his “gotcha” tactics in seeking stories and headlines. Others not only applaud his aggressive manner but try to copy it in their own search for journalistic truth and, maybe, personal glory.
Like many hunters, Wallace preferred the chase to the conquest. At the (shall we say) ripe old age of 89, back in 2008, his grilling of accused steroid user Roger Clemens produced some major news.
Mike thoroughly enjoyed his pitbull reputation. He recently recalled his early interviews, where a strong light shone on the interview subject. The camera would move in closely to reveal beads of perspiration forming on the subject’s brow.
“I was asking tough questions,” said Wallace, “and I had found my bliss.”
On his passing, we are reminded that former CBS colleagues Dan Schorr and Andy Rooney also died in the past two years. Schorr was 93; Rooney was a year younger.
All were notable for their irascible personalities. At least, that was their public persona. We are told that all three were actually gentle, pleasant people when the camera lights were off.
We hope so. We’d rather not believe that Leo Durocher was right when he proclaimed that “nice guys finish last.”
Dick Rossé is a 36-year veteran of Mutual and NBC News and is currently a member of the Delaware Speakers’ Bureau. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.