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Appreciation: Mike Wallace’s pit-bull style made him a household name

By Meg James, Los Angeles Times –

The death of CBS News’ pit-bull reporter Mike Wallace marks not only the passing of a broadcast lion but, in many ways, also the brand of journalism that he helped to define.

Wallace, 93, died late Saturday at a care center in New Canaan, Conn., where he had been staying for the last few years. CBS plans a tribute to Wallace and his career on “60 Minutes” next Sunday.

In announcing his death, CBS lauded the brazen tactics that it said had made Wallace a household name “synonymous with the tough interview — a style he practically invented for television more than half a century ago.”

“All of us at CBS News and particularly at ‘60 Minutes’ owe so much to Mike,” Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and a longtime executive producer of “60 Minutes,” said in a statement released Sunday.

“Without him and his iconic style, there probably wouldn’t be a ‘60 Minutes.’ There simply hasn’t been another broadcast journalist with that much talent. It almost didn’t matter what stories he was covering, you just wanted to hear what he would ask next.”

Wallace’s most memorable interviews often made headlines and stirred controversy.

During the Watergate years, he interrogated such Nixon associates as John Ehrlichman, G. Gordon Liddy and H.R. Haldeman. Wallace was at the center of one of the biggest libel suits ever for his 1982 “CBS Reports” investigation that alleged that Gen. William Westmoreland, who commanded the U.S. military in Vietnam, had deceived the public by undercounting the enemy.

In 1995, Wallace interviewed Jeffrey Wigand, a high-ranking tobacco executive turned whistle-blower, who said the industry long had known that tobacco caused cancer. CBS initially sat on the explosive story, but Wallace’s interview aired on “60 Minutes” in 1996. (The flap became the subject of the movie “The Insider.”)

In 1998, Wallace’s interview with Dr. Jack Kevorkian sparked another controversy because it included video of Kevorkian lethally injecting an ill patient.

In the early 1980s, Coors beer took out newspaper ads that read: “The Four Most Dreaded Words in the English Language: Mike Wallace Is Here.”

Wallace’s tenacious spirit and blistering questions helped build “60 Minutes” into a ratings juggernaut as well as establish the program as the gold standard for broadcast journalism.

Although down from its zenith three decades ago when some 40 million people would tune in on Sunday nights for the stories that followed the familiar tick, tick, tick, the program has remained in the top 10 of the Nielsen rankings for an unprecedented 23 seasons. (This season, “60 Minutes” has been averaging 13.5 million viewers an episode.)

The durability of “60 Minutes” proves that viewers continue to have an appetite for hard-hitting newscasts. The program still thrives in an era when the format that inspired it — the once-a-week newsmagazine — has lost relevance compared to the immediacy of the Internet.

Across America, newsroom leaders are struggling to redefine their magazines, newspapers and local TV and radio newscasts. They are doing so amid dramatically shrinking resources and the reality that readers and viewers probably have already seen or heard a snippet of the news elsewhere.

Fewer news outlets are practicing the brand of investigative journalism that Wallace and “60 Minutes” helped to define. It is easier and cheaper for news outlets to turn to talking heads to fill air time.

Not only are there fewer grillers such as Wallace around, but the business executives and politicians who might be a target of tough reporting can also more adeptly avoid the harsh glare these days. There was a time when a person came across as suspicious or cowardly if he or she failed to appear on “60 Minutes” or — worse yet — tried to scurry away from Wallace and his intruding camera crew. But now, people can use Twitter or Facebook to get their message out, or turn to a sympathetic news outlet, where the host will lob only softball questions.

Wallace, in contrast, honed his hard-hitting interview style in the 1940s and 1950s on the ABC TV news program “The Mike Wallace Interview.” He also experimented on a local New York television guest show called “Night Beat” before joining CBS News permanently in 1963.

“Wallace’s relentless questioning of his subjects proved to be a compelling alternative to the polite chit-chat practiced by early television hosts,” CBS said in its statement. That led CBS News’ Don Hewitt to pick Wallace as a counterweight to the more measured Harry Reasoner for the original reporting team on “60 Minutes.”

Wallace’s last TV appearance was in January 2008. His sit-down interview on “60 Minutes” with baseball pitching great Roger Clemens, who stood accused of using steroids, made front-page news. It was a fitting finale that served to underscore Wallace’s legacy.

CBS strives to maintain its edge in hard-news reporting. It promoted Scott Pelley as anchor of the “CBS Evening News” last year, replacing Katie Couric. The network this year began a revamp of its “CBS This Morning” program with the installation of Charlie Rose, a pivot designed to inject a more serious tone into a genre that has become increasingly soft. CBS News chief Fager has said he believes that viewers still care about news with substance.

Wallace’s passing might inspire others in the news business to consider that too.

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