Mike Wallace: The archetype for watchdog journalism on TV
Dead Sunday at 93, he was linchpin of '60 Minutes' success
April 08, 2012|By David Zurawik | The Baltimore Sun
"I got impressed with Mike through his work on Night Beat," Hewitt said yesterday in answer to a question about Wallace's persona and how he came to choose the former talk-show host, along with newsman Harry Reasoner, as founding correspondents."At the start of 60 Minutes, I had two guys, Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace, the white hat and the black. Harry was the guy who came from the heartland and brought Iowa to New York, and Mike was the tough guy in the trench coat. ... People tuned in each week to see the adventures of these correspondents."
Hewitt, who was Wallace's boss until 2004 when he assumed an executive editor emeritus position, added: "Mike was the ultimate eclectic, nonbeat reporter. The whole world was his beat. How many correspondents can interview [rhythm & blues singer] Tina Turner one week, and [classical pianist] Vladimir Horowitz the next. That's a rare talent."
While there was speculation that Jeff Fager, who succeeded Hewitt as executive producer of 60 Minutes, had been urging Wallace's retirement, Hewitt said Wallace was not being forced out: "This is purely Mike's decision," he said.
Fager yesterday pointed to the seminal role Wallace has played in shaping the culture of the newsmagazine. "Mike Wallace has been the heart and soul of this broadcast since he and Don started it almost four decades ago," Fager said in a statement issued by CBS. "Millions and millions of Americans have tuned in to 60 Minutes on Sunday nights over all those years to see him in action and to find out what questions he would be asking each week. I'm glad he'll be around to do an occasional interview. He's had such a powerful impact on all of us who work here, on how we conduct interviews and how we report stories, that there will always be a piece of Mike in everything we do."
Beyond the ground he broke as a broadcaster, Wallace was also one of the first celebrities to speak about his struggle with depression over the years. In a 1991 interview at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Wallace said the illness had made him "feel like a fraud and fake" and "like everything that had been good" in his life had been "blind luck."
Wallace said he suffered depressive episodes in the 1980s during and after the Westmoreland libel trial and in 1991 after he had a pacemaker implanted. (Westmoreland -- who 60 Minutes reported had misled President Lyndon Johnson on enemy troop strength in Vietnam -- dropped the lawsuit, and CBS issued a statement saying it had not intended to defame the general.)
Over the years, Wallace has been a workhorse for 60 Minutes. While he announced three years ago that he was cutting back to half time on the broadcast, he continued to be an on-air presence.
Last year, he served as correspondent on 11 stories, this year on six, including a much-discussed interview with Morgan Freeman on Black History Month. Indicative of how long he has been at the center of American media life, in 1959, Wallace was one of the first mainstream TV correspondents to interview Malcolm X in a controversial broadcast.
"He has done them all for 50 years," Hewitt said yesterday. "And not just newsmakers and celebrities. Mike was able to bond with so many people from so many walks of life -- from the prisoner in his cell, to the cop on the beat. And he brought all of that to 60 Minutes week after week. I hope he enjoys his retirement -- he's earned it."
Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.