If investigative journalism has a face, that face belongs to Mike Wallace. Wallace, who died April 7 at age 93 after a long illness, did a wide range of jobs in his time, and he was just one of many journalists who practiced an adversarial style of interview in the prime of his career. But even more than reporters like Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in the Watergate era, Wallace, with his hawklike attentiveness and softly disarming questions, came to personify the devastating interview because, at the head of the 60 Minutes team, he knew how to make good journalism into good TV. When Mike Wallace showed up at your office door, generations of TV viewers came to know, you were in for it.
“Without [Wallace] and his iconic style, there probably wouldn’t be a 60 Minutes,” said the program’s executive producer, Jeff Fager, in a CBS statement.”It almost didn’t matter what stories he was covering, you just wanted to hear what he would ask next. Around CBS he was the same infectious, funny and ferocious person as he was on TV.”
Wallace was not a bloodhound reporter from the get-go. Like many journalists of his time, he got early experience in the military, serving as a communications officer in WWII. And like many broadcasters in the early days of radio and TV, he bounced between news and entertainment jobs in his early days (see video, above): he wrote news, hosted game shows, made cigarette ads, acted on the stage and in the movie A Face in the Crowd, and did narration for radio action serials. But in the 1950s and into the 1960s, he made his reputation doing interviews, hosting ABC’s The Mike Wallace Interview and an early incarnation of the show Biography. Viewers and reviewers were captivated by his tenacious, dogged, controversy-courting style.
So did CBS news producer Don Hewitt, who hired Wallace to head up the reporting team for 60 Minutes when it launched in 1968. The show came along at a watershed time for journalists digging into the workings of power–Vietnam, Watergate–and Wallace took the questions to government officials, business leader and celebrities with relish and a delightful nosiness.
60 Minutes popularized the “ambush interview,” though Wallace stepped off that tactic eventually. Instead, he developed the persona of the velvet-gloved inquisitor, going into interrogations with a skeptical attitude and sheaves of research, the better to build the bonfire under his subjects: world leaders, crooks, celebrities, athletes, presidents, business and religious leaders. After a time, Wallace became his own best weapon. His mere presence was an interrogation spotlight; in 1984, Saturday Night Live immortalized him (played by Harry Shearer) in a sketch with Martin Short as Nathan Thurm, the sweaty, defensive novelty-toy-sweatshop attorney self-immolating under Wallace’s questioning. It was funny because it was true: persistent and well-briefed, Wallace did not need a gotcha set up to get you. Often enough, your own words would do the job.
Have a long and illustrious enough career and you’ll make some mistakes and take some criticism. Wallace fell into occasional controversy over his remarks and his investigations. Most notably, Gen. William C. Westmoreland sued Wallace and CBS over a report that alleged intelligence manipulation in the Vietnam war; the suit settled before trial. Wallace and the program also came off poorly in the 1999 movie The Insider, which charged CBS and 60 Minutes with backing off an investigation into the tobacco industry under pressure.
Wallace kept working nearly to the end; his last TV interview, in 2008, was with steroid-using pitcher Roger Clemens. (His son, Chris Wallace, now hosts Fox News Sunday.) The larger picture of Wallace’s decades in television is a testament to the power of reporting and broadcasting–to the idea that extensive homework, a steady line of questioning and the occasional willingness to call B.S. on a subject’s answers could affect change, and could make palms sweat atop some of the finest desks in the world. Mike Wallace was television’s grand inquisitor. RIP.