Mike Wallace and the Legacy of 60 Minutes

An appreciation of the late, great journalist by the former president of CBS News

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Frank Franklin II / AP

Mike Wallace gestures while responding to questions during a news interview at the New York Press Club on March 21, 2006

Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes were the perfect marriage of man and medium. It’s hard to picture one without the other.

The great news producer Don Hewitt, who imagined much of what we take for granted in broadcast journalism today, brilliantly paired the combative Wallace with the reassuring Harry Reasoner to launch his experimental “television newsmagazine” in 1968. Wallace helped invent a distinctive style of fearless reporting that was perfectly suited to this new genre. Mike’s so-called ambush interviews with assorted villains lingered in the popular imagination years after he stopped doing them. His encounters with world leaders, celebrities and scoundrels — or combinations of the three — built the program’s reputation for unflinching pursuit of the truth on the viewers’ behalf. Think about it: if a correspondent is willing to ask the Ayatullah Khomeini whether he is a lunatic, as Mike famously did, he’ll ask anyone anything. And even as 60 Minutes became an all-star team of television news greats — Ed Bradley, Morley Safer, Dan Rather, Lesley Stahl, Diane Sawyer, Andy Rooney, the list goes on — Mike’s colleagues always acknowledged him as its on-air personification.

(PHOTOS: Mike Wallace, Veteran CBS Journalist: A Legacy of Tough Questions)

But it wasn’t just Mike’s journalistic skills or his on-camera charisma or that crackling live wire of a voice that made him connect with viewers. Mike was the same man off-camera as on: challenging, mischievous, fearsome yet vulnerable. He struggled with personal tragedy, including the loss of a son. He was himself enmeshed in public controversies, such as the libel suit filed by General William Westmoreland and the delayed interview with tobacco-industry whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand. But he wasn’t afraid to show vulnerability, eventually revealing years of struggle with depression.

Like the late Andy Rooney, Wallace was the real human being he appeared to be — the fashionable word today is authentic. And they both hailed from a time when it was still O.K. to be “colorful,” meaning outspoken, irreverent, sometimes hurtful.

Today, much of television news is just the blond leading the bland, and what passes for colorful is often merely cartoonish. Mike Wallace was unapologetically a showman but always in the name of the story. He wielded righteous indignation years before doing so became cool on cable, and he served no ideology other than practicing great television journalism.

60 Minutes continues to thrive despite Mike’s stepping down from his full-time reporting role six years ago. That’s a credit to the superb people who still work there on both sides of the camera. But my theory is that many viewers think Mike is still on the program. I’m not sure that will change even now.

Heyward was president of CBS News from January 1996 to November 2005.

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