Mike Wallace: the legendary '60 Minutes' career that almost wasn't

Mike Wallace, who died this weekend, considered another path after covering the 1968 presidential campaign. But in the end, he set a high standard for serious long-form investigative journalism.

Bebeto Matthews/AP
This May 2006 file photo shows Mike Wallace, longtime CBS '60 Minutes' correspondent, during an interview at his office in New York. Wallace, famed for his tough interviews on '60 Minutes,' has died, Saturday, April 7.

News flash: Mike Wallace, the veteran CBS newsman who died this weekend, almost chose a berth in Richard Nixon’s White House over the just-launching “60 Minutes.”

Mr. Wallace had been covering the 1968 presidential campaign and Mr. Nixon offered him a job as his press secretary, says Fordham University media and communication professor Beth Knobel, who is also Wallace’s co-author on the book “Heat and Light.” “He thought about it long and hard because he really liked Nixon,” says Professor Knobel. “But in the end, he chose ‘60 Minutes,’ and the rest is history.”

This little-known brush with GOP affiliation may come as a surprise to many who over the years have come to presume a liberal bias in mainstream broadcast news shows, such as “60 Minutes,” Knobel says. But in many ways, this moment is “emblematic of the values he stood for,” she says. “Mike didn’t believe in wearing his politics or his personal opinions on his sleeve,” she says.

During his decades-long career as a television journalist, adds Knobel, “Mike was committed to digging out the facts and presenting them to people to make up their own minds.”

Wallace’s career, she notes, was built on years of feisty, confrontational interviews –ranging from the 1982 tangle with Gen. William Westmoreland over whether the military had deliberately misled Americans about troop reductions in Vietnam, to the moment he told Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat considered him a lunatic. Wallace, she says, understood the importance of drama, or what he called, “heat,” as well as the light of objective information. “That’s where we got the title of [our] book,” she adds.

The CBS newsman was always impeccably prepared, and he set a high standard for serious, long-form investigative journalism, as “60 Minutes” continues to practice to this day, says Leonard Shyles, communication professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

From a critical perspective, he notes, it is not a stretch to assert that Barbara Walters was influenced by Wallace. Her long-form celebrity interviews were in the style of Wallace in many ways. And Geraldo Rivera did his investigative work in war zones and for other topics “following in Wallace's (perhaps larger) footsteps,” Professor Shyles writes in an e-mail. “Did they have the gravitas of Wallace? Arguably no. But at times they reached for his gravitas.”

No doubt, Wallace set an example for the generation of journalists that followed him, says Lee Kamlet, dean of the School of Communications at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. He showed them the importance of being tenacious about seeking interviews and information, says the former NBC news producer via e-mail, adding, “and to not be afraid to ask questions that made their subjects uncomfortable.”

Wallace was a “force of personality, though he wasn’t a warm personality,” says Dean Kamlet. “He growled. He sneered. And yet, there was a certain ‘everyman’ quality about him. People tuned in to ‘60 Minutes’ in large part because he was their champion, exposing wrongs that had affected their own lives.”

However, notes Shyles, Wallace’s involvement with “checkbook journalism” – such as the H.R. Haldeman interview “for which CBS paid $100,000” – was a misstep. Wallace later regretted it, saying it was “a mistake to engage in checkbook journalism.”

The deaths of iconic broadcast journalism figures such as Wallace and, a few years ago, Walter Cronkite give the journalism field a chance to take stock of how its craft is being practiced and to make improvements based on the example set by these giants, says Ronald Bishop, communication professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia. However, he says, these celebrations have the markings of what one sociologist calls a “status degradation ceremony.” Professor Bishop explains in an e-mail, “The journalist is revered, but the approach to the work is subtly marginalized, treated as obsolete.”

Indeed, Wallace’s name hardly registers in the classrooms of incoming journalism students, says Knobel of Fordham. “When I mention his name to freshmen, I get blank stares.” While she sees many of her students aspiring to engage in serious journalism, the time and money that made Wallace’s achievements possible are rare today.

“Who gives journalists the months Mike had to do serious investigations anymore?” she asks. Every day, she says, we hear about more news outlets working with skeleton crews on tight deadlines with less and less money devoted to serious content.

Still, Wallace’s legacy will endure in at least one way, says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “Wallace went a long way in demonstrating that news could work as prime-time entertainment,” he says via e-mail, adding that his interviews were like theater, often more compelling than the fictional theater on other channels. “That legacy,” he adds, “has been both a blessing and a curse to television journalism.”

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