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Mike Wallace: The archetype for watchdog journalism on TV

TelevisionTelevision Industry60 Minutes (tv program)CBS Corp.JournalismMike Wallace

I was in the CNN green room in Washington Sunday when I heard about the death of pioneering CBS newsman Mike Wallace at 93 Sunday.

Being a live show, host Howie Kurtz and the CNN team scrapped the planned opening and went with a segment on Wallace that I was part of. I will post that video here as soon as CNN makes it available.

UPDATE (2:25 p.m): The video from CNN's "Reliable Sources" has been added at end of this post.

But here's what I think matters most about Wallace, who I was lucky enough to interview over the years.

First, he is the archetype for watchdog journalism on TV. He and his legendary executive producer Don Hewitt, adapted that important role to TV with the advent of "60 Minutes"-- and no one ever has or will do it better.

Watchdog journalism is a crucial element of a press that serves democracy, and Wallace personified that in his role on the CBS newsmagazine, which has become the most successful and honored show in the history of television.

Don't judge watchdog TV journalism by the downsized and debased versions you now see exploited by second-rate ntework newsmagazines like NBC's "Dateline" and every local news operation in every city in America that has some version of an I-team.

Here's the piece I wrote in 2006 for the Sun when Wallace retired. It has wise assessments from the colleagues who knew him best at CBS News, including Hewitt who died in 2009. They both were titans of TV news.

Mike Wallace, a pioneering figure of American broadcasting whose on-air persona at 60 Minutes came to represent the press as watchdog of those in power, said yesterday that he will retire as a regular correspondent at the end of the current TV season in May.

CBS announced that Wallace, who will turn 88 on May 9, will remain affiliated with the most successful program in the history of network television as correspondent emeritus, though it was vague as to what his duties will be. Wallace was one of two founding correspondents for 60 Minutes, TV's first prime-time newsmagazine, in 1968.

"I've often replied, when asked, `I'll retire when my toes turn up,'" Wallace said in a statement yesterday. "Well, they're just beginning to curl a trifle, which means that, as I approach my 88th birthday, it's become apparent to me that my eyes and ears, among other appurtenances, aren't quite what they used to be. And the prospects of long flights to wherever in search of whatever are not quite as appealing."

Wallace, who joined the network in 1951 and became a CBS News correspondent in 1963, stressed that he was not being forced to retire: "CBS is not pushing me," he said. "I'll be in a comfortable office on the same floor -- just around the corner from where I've holed up for the past 43 years -- available, when asked, for whatever chore CBS News, 60 Minutes, the CBS Evening News have in mind for me."

CBS News President Sean McManus, in announcing the emeritus title, said: "Mike Wallace is one of the few giants of broadcast journalism for whom a list of superlatives can't and don't do justice. From his genre-creating early days in radio, to his standard-setting work on 60 Minutes for the past 38 years, and from datelines all over the world, Mike has completely embodied what good, tough, fair journalism should be over the course of his 60-plus years in the business."

Wallace's remarkable career spans newspapers and radio in Chicago in the 1940s, as well as network quiz and late-night talk shows in the '50s. He covered the war in Vietnam for CBS News in the 1960s before joining 60 Minutes.

In the 1980s and '90s, Wallace was at the center of two of the most controversial moments in the history of the fabled newsmagazine: the 1982 libel lawsuit brought against the network by Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland and a 1994 interview with a tobacco industry whistle blower, Jeffrey Wigand, that was initially kept off the air by seniormanagement.

It was on the talk shows Night Beat (produced out of New York for the DuMont network in 1956-1957) and The Mike Wallace Interview (on ABC from 1957-1960) that the University of Michigan graduate developed the hard-edged, on-the-attack interview style for which he became known to viewers of 60 Minutes.

The newsmagazine, which was seen by 30 million viewers a week at its peak and remains one of the highest-rated shows on network television, owes its success more to Wallace than anyone still associated with the program, according to Don Hewitt, who invented the newsmagazine genre with the creation of 60 Minutes.

"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."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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TelevisionTelevision Industry60 Minutes (tv program)CBS Corp.JournalismMike Wallace
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