That’s fact and incontrovertible, announced to us from every page and media source. It’s taken me these five days or so to get my thoughts together sufficiently to comment. Mike was a lion among journalist-commentators and brought to his trade a new paradigm. Not only virtually invented it, but left a streak across the sky in the process. He will be missed, probably not ever effectively imitated and thus a void exists at the exact time we need his style of accurate, fair, courteous and unflagging willingness to confront.
We can hardly complain that he was taken from us too soon, as was Steve Jobs, for Mike was at an age some years past his contribution. Sixty years a journalist, thirty-eight of them with 60 Minutes.
Still in all, a giant has left us.
Those who imitated his style merely practiced gotcha-confrontations, lying in ambush to catch their quarry unawares while loading groceries in the car, counting among their trophies the terrified look facing cameramen. Wallace did a bit of that himself, quickly eschewing it as cheap stagecraft with no honorable purpose. His developed style was to present exactly the opposite, a non-confrontational and relaxed environment in which he set a stage comfortable enough to bring an interviewee into the conversation, essentially to make him (or her) a co-conspirator in the interview.
He had a twinkle about his eyes and willingness to listen as well as ask. He was mercilessly prepared, knowing everything about the man or woman across the table. That was his deep debt to professionalism and he never sold it short. Louis Farrakhan came as close to coming over the table at him as anyone and Mike leaned back in his chair and took it without interruption. Because, as Mike knew, that was the story.
60 Minutes was a remarkable news magazine, the brain-child of Don Hewitt and a continuing work in progress that endures today as a Sunday evening must-watch in families across the nation. Mike shaped it in no small way and he and his close friend Hewitt had periodic screaming-matches over content and presentation. Needless to say, they both had strong views. But I grew up on 60 Minutes, a steady watcher throughout the seventies and eighties until I moved to Europe in 1993.
Asked about its success in an interview with Charlie Rose, Hewitt said he attributed it to the fact that the stars of the show, rather than the subjects, were and remained its reporters. Viewers came to see not so much what stories would be presented as what Harry Reasoner, Ed Bradley, Dan Rather, Morley Safer or Dianne Sawyer had waiting for them. But the glue was Mike Wallace.
Mike’s trophies included interviews with the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Ayn Rand, the Shah of Iran, Salvador Dali, Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry Kissinger, Barbra Streisand Yasser Arafat and Malcolm X. That list merely shows range and diversity, the occasional gangster and con-man was thrown in for color.
If it is true as some say that reportage has fallen victim to the sound bite, flash over substance and culture being crowded from the stage by entertainment, then Hewitt and Wallace are the last to hold us to those standards. Catch Mike’s remarkable interview with Luciano Pavarotti or his last personal interview with Charlie Rose for intriguing evidence of the man at his best and most personal.
Then ask yourself if, perhaps with the exception of Charlie Rose, Mike Wallace was not quite possibly the last man left standing of his remarkable genre.