Mike Wallace died over the weekend. He was 93 years old, and he left behind a true broadcast journalism legacy.
Wallace was synonymous with the CBS show 60 Minutes, where he was a regular contributor for more than 30 years. His hard-hitting stories helped to make the broadcast the most popular show in the land, because watching Mike Wallace relentlessly drill down on a sweating interview subject was great television. I’m confident that every sleazy politician, corporate executive, or head of a charity who got a phone call that Mike Wallace was doing a story and wanted an interview felt a cold chill and inward pucker, knowing the jig was up, the awful truth would be exposed, and there was nothing they could do about it.
Although people associate Wallace with his tough on-air persona, he also was a very capable journalist. Unlike most modern broadcasters, he wasn’t all about theatrics. His interviews and stories were usually thoroughly researched and carefully presented. His approach followed that of radio and early TV newsmen who sourced their pieces just like print reporters did; they were simply using different technology to present the story. At some point, broadcast “news” veered off into the land of preening personalities, titanic egos, empty suits, ambush interviews, and advocacy stories that never would have made it past an old-line editor. Does anyone think that Katie Couric, Bill O’Reilly, Diane Sawyer, or Brian Williams — or any other modern newscaster — is comparable to Mike Wallace?
Wallace’s death not only marks the passing of a broadcast icon, it also marks the final and unfortunate end of an era.