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'Tough but fair': Remembering 60 Minutes' Mike Wallace
The CBS news pioneer introduced a more aggressive, investigative style of TV reporting. His colleagues and critics remember TV's "grand inquisitor"
 
Broadcaster Mike Wallace's television career spanned 65 years, much of which he spent working on "60 Minutes."
Broadcaster Mike Wallace's television career spanned 65 years, much of which he spent working on "60 Minutes."
Matthew Peyton/Getty Images

Veteran TV newsman Mike Wallace died Saturday night at age 93, after years of health problems including heart disease and, in recent years, dementia. Born Myron Wallace in Brookline, Mass., in 1918, the famously tough interviewer known by detractors as "Mike Malice" was the first man hired at CBS's trendsetting newsmagazine 60 Minutes, which launched in 1968. Wallace contributed to the program until 2008. His hand-picked epitaph, he said in post-retirement interviews, is "Tough but fair." Here's a look at the grand inquistor's remarkable life and career: 

Wallace's TV career was astonishingly long: "It's hard to believe, but when Wallace was born, in 1918, there wasn't even a radio in most American homes, much less a TV," says former colleague Morely Safer at CBS News. But after starting his career in radio — as the narrator for soaps and serial dramas like The Green Hornet — the University of Michigan graduate first appeared on camera in a World War II film for the Navy, then on game shows and other entertainment programs, TV ads for Parliament cigarettes, and finally news. Wallace's final TV interview was with baseball pitcher Roger Clemens in January 2008, 65 years — 65 years! — after his first on-air appearance. 

And he interviewed almost everyone: "There were very few 20th century icons who didn't submit to a Mike Wallace interview," says CBS News' Safer. He questioned Vladimir Putin and Yassir Arafat, asked Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini if he was a "lunatic," made Barbra Streisand cry, and was reduced to tears in his own favorite interview, with pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Wallace also interviewed every president from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton — George W. Bush was the only one to refuse him an interview, says Roger Friedman in Forbes. Still, "the interview he always wanted and never got was with Pope John Paul II," says The Washington Post's Adam Bernstein. "I wanted to talk to him not just about being the pope, but about other things — about acting, about politics, about celibacy, about skiing," he once said.

He was a pioneer of hard-hitting TV journalism: For any newsmaker with a secret, "four of the most dreaded words in the English language were 'Mike Wallace is here,'" says Adam Bernstein in The Washington Post. Starting with a local New York TV show, Night Beat, in 1956, Wallace "developed a compelling persona that seamlessly blended country club locker-room bonhomie with the prosecutorial zeal of Torquemada," throwing politicians, celebrities, gangsters, and other subjects off-guard with sharp turns into shocking direct questions. He also helped popularize hidden-camera exposés and "ambush" interviews. "He paved the way for how investigative journalism is done on television," TV historian Ron Simon tells The Washington Post

But he almost always knew where to draw the line: "He loved being Mike Wallace," says CBS News chairman Jeff Fager. "He loved the fact that if he showed up for an interview, it made people nervous." At the same time, "I don't recall anybody ever saying to me, 'He took a cheap shot'" says Fox News chairman Roger Ailes. "He actually was trying to serve the audience, and that's what made him great." 

In the 1980s his technique backfired: By the late 1970s, 60 Minutes had become a hit — it was the No. 1 show for five years and a top 10 program for a record 23 consecutive years, says Tim Weiner in The New York Times. Wallace had become a very rich and famous television figure "when his life took a stressful turn in 1982," after he hosted a show that accused Gen. William Westmoreland of deliberately lying about the strength of the enemy forces in Vietnam. Westmoreland filed a $120 million libel suit. "After more than two years Gen. Westmoreland abandoned his suit, CBS lost some of its reputation, and Mr. Wallace had a nervous breakdown," falling into a bout of clinical depression that ended with a 1985 suicide attempt. Wallace told The Times, that he had feared "the lawyers for the other side would employ the same techniques against me that I had employed on television."

Still, he changed TV news for the better: Lots of Wallace's contemporaries practiced their own adversarial styles of journalism, says James Poniewozik in TIME. But "Wallace, with his hawklike attentiveness and softly disarming questions, came to personify the devastating interview because, as the head of the 60 Minutes team, he knew how to make good journalism into good TV." His turn as "television's grand inquisitor" is a testament to how good reporting and compelling TV, plus "the occasional willingness to call B.S. on a subject's answers, could affect change." Among the ways he changed TV news "for the better," says former colleague Dan Rather: It "became more investigative, more aggressive and relevant." It will never be the same.

 

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