WALLACE, MIKE

U.S. Broadcast Journalist

Although he spent many years in broadcasting before turning to journalism, Mike Wallace became one of America's most enduring and prominent television news personalities. Primarily known for his work on the long-running CBS magazine series 60 Minutes, he developed a reputation as an inquisitorial interviewer, authoritative documentary narrator, and powerful investigative reporter. While his journalistic credentials and tactics have been questioned at times, his longevity, celebrity, and ability to land big interviews made him one of the most important news figures in the history of television.

Wallace's early career differed from those of his well-known peers at CBS News. Murrow, Cronkite, Sevareid, Rooney and others worked as war-time radio and print correspondents before moving to television. Wallace, however, studied broadcasting at the University of Michigan and began an acting and announcing career in 1939. Throughout the 1940s he performed in a variety of radio genres--quiz shows, talk shows, serials, commercials, and news readings. After service in the Navy, the baritone-voiced radio raconteur landed a string of early television jobs in Chicago. As early as 1949 "Myron" Wallace acted in the police drama Stand by for Crime and later appeared on the CBS anthology programs Suspense and Studio One. He emceed local and network TV quiz and panel shows while also keeping his hand in radio news for CBS throughout 1951-55. Wallace's move into interviewing at the network level came in the form of two husband-and-wife talk shows, All Around the Town and Mike and Buff, which CBS adapted from a successful Chicago radio program. With his wife Buff Cobb, Wallace visited various New York locations and conducted live interviews with celebrities and passers-by. In 1954, after a three-season run on CBS, Wallace had a brief stint as a Broadway actor, but immediately returned to broadcasting.

In 1955, Wallace began anchoring nightly newscasts for the Dumont network's New York affiliate. The following year his producer, Ted Yates, created the vehicle that brought Wallace to prominence. Night-Beat was a live, late-night hour of interviews in which Wallace grilled a pair of celebrity guests every week night. Armed with solid research and provocative questions, the seasoned announcer with a flair for the dramatic turned into a hard-hitting investigative journalist or probing personality reporter. With the nervy Wallace as its anchor, Night-Beat developed a hard edge lacking in most television talk. Using only a black backdrop and smoke from his cigarette for atmosphere, Wallace asked pointed, even mischievous questions that made guests squirm. Most were framed in tight close-up, revealing the sweat elicited by Wallace's barbs and the show's harsh klieg lights.

After a successful first season talking to the likes of Norman Mailer, Salvador Dalí, Thurgood Marshall, Hugh Hefner, William Buckley, and prominent politicians, the program moved to ABC as a half-hour prime-time show called The Mike Wallace Interviews. Promoted as "Mike Malice" and "the Terrible Torquemada of the TV Inquisition," Wallace continued to talk to prominent personalities about controversial issues. But ABC executives, particularly after brushes with libel suits, proved wary of the brinkmanship practiced by Wallace and his guests. The show lasted only through 1958, turning more cerebral in its final weeks when the Ford Foundation became its sponsor. Intellectuals such as Reinhold Neibuhr, Aldous Huxley, and William O. Douglas replaced the Klansmen, ex-mobsters, movie stars and more sensational interviewees seen before.

For the next five years, Wallace continued to parlay his celebrity into odd jobs on New York and network TV: quizmaster, pitch man for cigarettes, chat show host (PM East, 1961-62), and news reader. But he began to sharpen his focus on mainstream journalism as well. He anchored Newsbeat (1959-61), one of the first half-hour nightly news programs, for an independent New York station . Wallace also began working as host for David Wolper's TV documentary series, Biography, narrating 65 episodes of the syndicated program. (His distinctive voice continues to be heard in many such educational productions, including the 1995 A and E cable series The 20th Century.) Increasingly he became a field correspondent. After a chain of Westinghouse-owned stations hired Wallace to cover the 1960 political conventions, he started travellingd extensively, supplying them with daily radio and TV reports from across the country (Closeup U.S.A., 1960) and abroad (Around the World in 40 Days, 1962).

The following year, as he described in this 1984 autobiography, Wallace decided to "go straight," giving up higher paying entertainment jobs for a career exclusively devoted to news. In 1963 (a year in which the networks expanded their news divisions), the CBS Morning News with Mike Wallace premiered. Wallace remained on the show for three years before resuming full-time reporter's duties. Although seen frequently on other CBS News assignments (Vietnam, the Middle East), Wallace's beat was the Richard Nixon comeback campaign. A confessed Nixon apologist, in 1968 he nevertheless rejected an offer to be a press secretary for the candidate.

Instead, that fall Wallace began regular duties for 60 Minutes, a prime-time news magazine for which he and Harry Reasoner had done a pilot in February 1968. To contrast the mild-mannered Reasoner, producer Don Hewitt cast Wallace in his usual role as the abrasive, tough-guy reporter. While he could be charming when doing softer features and celebrity profiles, Wallace maintained his reputation as a bruising inquisitor who gave his subjects "Mike fright." With his personal contacts in the Nixon (and later Reagan) circles he proved an expert reporter on national politics, particularly during Watergate. Throughout his run on 60 Minutes he consistently landed timely and exclusive interviews with the most important newsmakers of the day.

As 60 Minutes was becoming a mainstay of TV news Wallace developed its most familiar modus operandi: the ambush interview. Often using hidden cameras and one-way mirrors Wallace would confront scam artists and other wrong-doers caught in the act. Field producers did most of the investigative work, but Wallace added the theatrical panache as he performed his on-camera muckraking. His tactics were both praised and criticized. While he has won numerous awards as a sort of national ombudsman, a reporter with the resources and ability to expose corruption, some critics have judged his methods too sensational, unfair, or even unethical.

Twice Wallace was entangled in landmark libel cases. His 60 Minutes report, "The Selling of Colonel Herbert" (1973), questioned a whistleblower's veracity about war crimes. Herbert sued Wallace's producer. Although the news team was exonerated, the Supreme Court ruled in Herbert v. Lando (1979) that the plaintiff had the right to examine the materials produced during the editorial process. A far bigger case followed when Wallace interviewed General William Westmoreland for the CBS Reports documentary The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception (1982). When TV Guide and CBS' own in-house investigation charged that the producers had violated standards of fairness, Westmoreland sued the network. The charges Wallace aired--conspiracy to cover-up the size of Viet Cong troop strength--were substantiated by trial evidence, but CBS' editorial tactics proved suspect. Early in 1985, just before Wallace was to testify, CBS issued an apology and Westmoreland dropped the suit.

Despite such occasional setbacks, Wallace continued his signature style of globetrotting reports and "make-'em-sweat" interviews throughout the 1980s and 1990s. A CBS News special, Mike Wallace, Then and Now (1990), offered a retrospective of his 50 years in broadcasting, but the senior correspondent of American television journalism continued his 60 Minutes work unabated.

-Dan Streible

 


Mike Wallace
Photo courtesy of Mike Wallace

MIKE (MYRON LEON) WALLACE. Born in Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 9 May 1918. Educated at the University of Michigan, B.A., 1939. Married: 1) Norma Kaphan, 1940 (divorced, 1948); 2) Buff Cobb, 1949 (divorced, 1955); 3) Lorraine Perigord, 1955 (separated, 1988), children: Peter (deceased), Christopher, Pauline. Served in U.S. Navy, 1943-46. Newscaster, announcer, and continuity writer, radio station WOOD WASH, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1939-40; newscaster, narrator, announcer, WXYZ Radio, Detroit, Michigan, 1940-41 on such shows as The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet; freelance radio worker, Chicago, Illinois, announcer for the soap opera Road of Life, 1941-42, Ma Perkins, and The Guiding Light; acted in The Crime Files of Flamon; news radio announcer, Chicago Sun's Air Edition, 1941-43, 1946-48; announced radio programs such as Curtain Time, Fact or Fiction, and Sky King; host, Mike and Buff with his wife, New York City, 1950-53; host, various television and radio shows and narrator, various documentaries 1951-59; star, Broadway comedy Reclining Figure, 1954; organized news department for DuMont's WABD-TV, 1955; anchor in newscasts and host for various interview shows, 1956-63; CBS News staff correspondent, since 1963; co-editor and co-host of 60 Minutes, since 1968. Member: American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (executive vice-president, 1960-61). Recipient: 18 Emmy Awards; Peabody Awards, 1963 and 1971; DuPont Columbia Journalism Awards, 1971 and 1983. Address: CBS News, 60 Minutes, 555 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.

TELEVISION SERIES (selection)

1950-53 Buff and Mike
1951-52 All Around Town
1953-54 I'll Buy That
1956-57 The Big Surprise
1956-57 Night-Beat
1957-59 The Mike Wallace Interview
1961-62 PM East
1963-66 CBS Morning News with Mike Wallace
1968- 60 Minutes

STAGE

Reclining Figure (actor), 1954.

PUBLICATIONS

Mike Wallace Asks: Highlights from 46 Controversial Interviews. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958.

A Mike Wallace Interview with William O. Douglas. New York: American Broadcasting Company in association with Fund for the Republic, 1958.

Close Encounters, with Gary Paul Gates. New York: Morrow, 1984.

"60 Minutes Into the 21st century!" Television Quarterly (New York), Winter, 1990.

"5 Badfellas: In a Lifetime of Interviewing, It's Not the Heads of State You Remember But the Guys Named 'Lunchy.'" Forbes (New York), 23 October 1995.

FURTHER READING

Adler, Renata. Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v. CBS et al., Sharon v. Time. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Bar-Illan, David. "60 Minutes and the Temple Mount." Commentary (New York), February 1991.

Barron, James. "Wallace Is Rebuked for Taping Interview on Hidden Camera." The New York Times (New York), 17 November 1994.

Benjamin, Burton. Fair Play: CBS, General Westmoreland, and How a Television Documentary Went Wrong. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.

Brewin, Bob, and Sydney Shaw. Vietnam on Trial: Westmoreland vs. CBS. New York: Atheneum, 1987.

Brown, Rich. "Wallace Blasts Trend to 'Sensationalism.'" Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 30 September 1991.

CBS News. "60 Minutes" Verbatim. New York: Arno Press/CBS News, 1980.

Clark, Kenneth R. "Getting Good Being Bad: Chicago's Salute Brings Mike Wallace Back to His Roots." Chicago (Illinois) Tribune, 20 September 1989.

Colford, Paul D. "The Very Demanding Mr. Wallace." Newsday (Hempstead, New York), 13 October 1988.

Darrach, Brad. "Mike Wallace: The Grand In at 75." Life (New York), June 1993.

Griffith, Thomas. "Water-torture Journalism." Time (New York), 23 May 1983.

Hall, Jane. "The Frustrations of Tough Guy Mike Wallace." Los Angeles Times, 26 September 1990.

Kaplan, Peter W. "For Mike Wallace: A Welcome Pause from Trial." The New York Times, 21 December 1984.

King, Susan. "Q and A: Mike Wallace: 40 Years of Asking." Los Angeles Times, 23 September 1990.

Lardner, James. "Up Against the Wallace." Washington (D.C.) Post, 18 September 1977.

Moore, Mike. "Divided Loyalties: Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace in No-man's-land." The Quill (Chicago), February 1989.

"Myron Leon Wallace: Fifth Estater." Broadcasting (Washington, D.C.), 9 March 1992.

Rosenthal, Donna. "Mike without Malice." San Francisco (California) Chronicle, 23 September 1990.

"60 Minutes: A Candid Conversation about Hard News, Muckraking and Showbiz with the Creator and Correspondents of America's Most Trusted Television Show." Playboy (Chicago), March 1985.

Vietnam: A Documentary Collection--Westmoreland v. CBS. New York: Clearwater, 1985.

Weintraub, Joanne. "Mike Wallace Takes Look at the 20th Century." St. Louis (Missouri) Post Dispatch, 12 July 1995.

 

See also Anchor; 60 Minutes; Talk Shows; Uncounted Enemy