Fresh Air Remembers Mike Wallace Of '60 Minutes'

Apr 9, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 8:53 am

Mike Wallace, the CBS News correspondent who became famous for his two-fisted interview style and his hard-hitting conversations with politicians, celebrities and newsmakers, died Saturday. He was 93.

Wallace had been with the weekly CBS News magazine 60 Minutes since its inception in 1968. Working with producer Don Hewitt, Wallace became known for interviews in which he refused to be led away from topics his interview subjects found uncomfortable.

Over the years, those subjects included John F. Kennedy, Deng Xiaoping, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Richard Nixon, Malcolm X, Ayatollah Khomeini and Moammar Gadhafi — in addition to celebrities ranging from Johnny Carson to Rod Sterling to Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In 2005, Wallace joined Terry Gross for a conversation about his memoir Between You and Me, in which he wrote about some of his most dramatic interviews and relayed stories from throughout his career.

Wallace's first job was working in Grand Rapids, Mich., as a radio announcer.

"I read rip-and-read news, but I wasn't a reporter," he said. "I was reading the wire, and the other thing was, I was reading commercials — and I could do a hell of a commercial."

He also moonlit for national radio shows, including The Lone Ranger, and spent time with a variety of shows, including a quiz show, a nighttime drama and interview shows for several broadcast networks, including CBS.

During the Vietnam War, he reported for Westingtonhouse radio from the front lines and then joined CBS, where he covered and then was kicked out of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The same year, he began working on 60 Minutes, where he became famous for chasing after interview subjects and ambushing them with a camera.

"I'm a reporter; you can't subpoena people to talk to you," he said. "If you write to them and try to call them on the phone and they don't answer or so forth, then take them unawares."

But Wallace and Hewitt decided to stop the ambush-style interviews, in part because it became predictable, he said.

"The problem became this: We became a caricature of ourselves," he said. "We were after light, and it began to look as though we were after heat, not to reveal some information or not to find out the story."

Wallace's journalistic style was occasionally criticized by critics. He and CBS were once sued by Gen. William Westmoreland in a $120 million libel suit, which was settled with an apology. But it set off a depressive episode in Wallace that he would battle for the rest of his life. He made his diagnosis public in a conversation with Bob Costas to raise public awareness about clinical depression. He also frequently talked openly about conversations with his psychiatrist, who he said taught him something about the art of interviewing.

"You suddenly realize that if you can persuade somebody, as he persuaded me, to talk candidly," he said, " ... it comes into play because it is useful, because it's part of what you learn as you go. Come on, I'm nearing the end of the road and still learning."

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We're going to listen back to an excerpt of the interview I recorded with Mike Wallace in 2005 after the publication of his memoir "Between You and Me." Wallace died Saturday at the age of 93. He was famous for the two-fisted prosecutorial interview style he developed on "60 Minutes," and for the ambush interviews he used to conduct, a technique that was very controversial. Mike Wallace was with "60 Minutes" from its start in 1968, and was even doing occasional segments when I spoke with him when he was 87.

He developed some of his style on his late-night TV show "Night Beat," which was broadcast in New York. Here's a clip from a famous Mike Wallace interview with Malcolm X on the "CBS Morning News" in 1964. This was eight months before Malcolm was assassinated, after he had become disillusioned with Elijah's Muhammad's leadership of the black Muslims.


MIKE WALLACE: Do you feel perhaps that you should now take over the leadership of the black Muslims?

MALCOLM X: No. I have no desire to take over the leadership of the black Muslims, and I have never had that desire, but I do have this desire. I have a desire to see the Afro-American in this country get the human rights that are his due, to make a complete human being.

WALLACE: Are you the least bit afraid of what might happen to you as a result of making these revelations?

X: Oh, yes. I probably am a dead man already.

GROSS: Here's the excerpt of my interview with Mike Wallace.


GROSS: One of the things you've become best known for in your "60 Minutes" interviews is not only the tough interview but what's been described as the ambush interview, where the camera person walks in with the camera running...

WALLACE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and the person doesn't want to be interviewed but the camera man's there with the camera on and you see the person waving the camera away and putting their hands in front of their faces...

WALLACE: That's right.

GROSS: that no one can see who they are, and you're asking questions even though they're trying to get rid of you. Have you ever had any reservations about that kind of interview? Have you ever thought that there was anything unethical about it?

WALLACE: You know something?

GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.

WALLACE: I didn't think at the time that it was unethical, no. I mean, come on, we're - I'm a reporter. I - you can't subpoena people to talk to you. If you write to them and try to call them on the phone and they don't answer and so forth, then take them unawares. The problem became this. We became a caricature of ourselves. We were after light and it began to look as though we were after heat.

Not to reveal some information, or not to find out the story, but the drama of...

GROSS: It turned into theater.


GROSS: It turned into theater.

WALLACE: It was good theater.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WALLACE: It was good theater. But after a while it became kind of predictable, and so finally both Don Hewitt and I said, hey, enough of this. This is foolishness. Don being the producer of "60 Minutes." This is foolishness, and so we gave it up. I still think it's a perfectly legitimate device to take somebody unaware and say, hey, there's a question that you ought to answer.

GROSS: You have discussed and written about a problem that you've had with depression.

WALLACE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: When you realized what it was, did you...

WALLACE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...comprehend it? And I ask this because I think it's fair to say that a lot of people of your generation didn't grow up, you know, reading Freud and studying psychology, and it being, you know, everybody wasn't in psychoanalysis or some kind of therapy. Things have really changed in terms of dealing with psychological issues, and certainly with depression; our understanding of the biochemistry of depression has changed enormously.

WALLACE: Right. And the genetics, yeah. The genetics.

GROSS: And the genetics of it, exactly. Exactly. Did you get it when you were diagnosed?

WALLACE: When I first began to not be able to eat happily, or sleep enough, or whatever, and had pains in my arms, I didn't understand it. I was going through a tough time. I was sitting - have you ever been sued for libel?

GROSS: Knock wood, no.

WALLACE: Good. She hasn't. Well, knock wood for you, because when you're sued for libel...

GROSS: And this was the Westmoreland case that you're talking about.

WALLACE: That's exactly right. For $120 million, CBS and among others, me, sued for libel and spent four months in a cold and drafty federal courtroom being called liar, cheat, fraud, et cetera, et cetera. I mean, that - I didn't realize what was happening, but I was sliding into a depression. My wife said, Mike, you're depressed. I'm not. I'm - and my own doctor said, no, don't you talk about yourself and depression. It would be bad for your image, Mike. Can you imagine?

GROSS: Well, let me ask you. You say some people warned you that you couldn't talk publicly about your depression, it would be bad for your image.

WALLACE: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And in fact, I mean, your image is of being the really tough questioner. Nothing gets to you...

WALLACE: That's right.

GROSS: ...and you can ask anything to anyone. And so if people thought that...

WALLACE: So who is this...

GROSS: were vulnerable, that...


GROSS: ...that could in fact really affect your image. So did it? When you came out as having suffered from depression...

WALLACE: What happened was this.

GROSS: Yeah.

WALLACE: What happened was this.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

WALLACE: One o'clock, 1:30 in the morning, you remember Bob Costas used to do a show called "Later"?


WALLACE: He wanted to talk to me about "60 Minutes," and I asked him, who watches or who listens at 1:00, 1:30 in the morning, and he said, well, some people who work at that time, but also people who can't get to sleep. And I said, oh, my people. And that's - he got so many answers, so many telephone calls, so many people who said, hey, that's what's going on with me, and you mean to say that Wallace, who apparently is doing his job and was a tough guy and so forth, he's not just a wimp, as a result of that I figured I'm going to go public. Of course by that time I was fairly well established doing what I do.

GROSS: Mike Wallace recorded in 2005. He died Saturday at the age of 93. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.