Mike Wallace -- a champion of accountability

  • Article by: GARY GILSON
  • Updated: April 9, 2012 - 9:25 PM

On a visit to Minnesota in 1996, the tables were turned -- in good fun, for an important cause.

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Mike Wallace, on the day he announced his retirement from "60 Minutes," at his Manhattan apartment in New York, March 14, 2006.

Photo: Ruby Washington, Associated Press/NYT

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When Mike Wallace, the toughest interviewer ever in television news, came to Minneapolis a week after his 78th birthday in 1996 to speak at Orchestra Hall for the benefit of the Minnesota News Council, the 1,500 people in the audience got an extraordinary insight into a complicated and gifted man.

Wallace, a pioneer correspondent of the CBS News program "60 Minutes" who died Saturday at 93, had made his mark in 1950s television as a hostile interviewer, drawing harsh criticism as much for doing cigarette commercials and game shows as for his blunt-force interrogations. He set the tone for "60 Minutes" investigations by doing "ambush" interviews of people in the news who had refused to grant him access.

In the face of all that, his values underwent a tremendous transformation. Unlike most powerful figures in the news business, he came to embrace public accountability for the news media. That's why he agreed to help raise money for our News Council. His normal speaking engagement brought him as much as $50,000. For us, he did it for no fee.

As executive director of the News Council, I had the privilege of introducing him at our 25th anniversary event. He agreed to speak for 10 minutes about the value of media accountability in building public trust, then to sit with me and tell behind-the-scenes stories of his interviews of famous and infamous people.

(His appearance created one of the highlights of the News Council's history. The council closed its doors one year ago, after 40 years of serving the public and the media, upholding half the complaints it heard and denying half. Regardless of outcomes, those hearings and public forums generated discussions that empowered the public and raised journalistic standards.)

Before Wallace came onto the stage, I told the audience about his rise from those early days of confrontational and sensationalized interviews; about the shock he experienced at the death of his young son in a hiking accident in Greece, and about how his reputation as a rough-riding interviewer had made it impossible for him to find work in the legitimate news business.

Finally, the president of CBS News, Richard Salant, sensing Mike's potential, hired him at the paltry salary of $25,000 a year, just to give him a chance. And look at what Wallace did with that chance. He became the iconic interviewer, the master of holding powerful miscreants accountable.

When Mike stepped to the podium in Orchestra Hall and opened his mouth to speak, I took a great risk: I reached out and grabbed his left forearm and said, "Wait a minute; you don't get to say anything until you answer a few questions."

He had no idea this was going to happen. He tensed up. I watched his eyes to see if this gambit would work, and when I asked the first question -- in Mike Wallace's style -- I saw his face soften: He was ready to have some fun.

"You claim to have been born in Brookline, Massachusetts?"

"Yes," he said.

"And you claim that you ran track in high school?"

"Yes, but not very well."

"And then you went to the University of Michigan, where you continued to be interested in sports, especially the football rivalry with the University of Minnesota?"

"Ah," he said, now smiling. "I see where you're going with this."

At that point we showed, on a giant screen, film of the 1935 and '36 Gophers, then national champions, destroying Michigan in Mike's freshman and sophomore years.

His look said, "This is the way you treat a visitor?"

Onto the stage came Rickey Foggie, the last quarterback to lead the Gophers to a victory against Michigan at Ann Arbor. Rickey said, "Mr. Wallace, we want to make it all up to you."

Mike said, "How in the world do you expect to do that?"

Suddenly I pulled out a referee's whistle and blew it long and hard, and a 100-member marching band from Irondale High School burst through the rear doors of Orchestra Hall and forged down the center aisle playing the Michigan fight song.

In the midst of this melee stood Mike Wallace, laughing and singing the lyrics: "Hail! to the victors valiant, Hail! to the conquering heroes, Hail! Hail! to Michigan, the champions of the West."

Then, just before we sat down to review his career, Bonnie Hammel, a real-estate agent from Hopkins with an operatic voice, stood in a box overlooking the stage and led the crowd in "Happy Birthday" to Mike.

He looked like he was having the best time of anyone in the hall.

Finally, during the Q&A, someone asked him if there was anyone he lusted to interview more than anyone else.

"No contest," he said. "The pope." He meant Pope John Paul II.

"He was a Renaissance man -- an athlete, an actor, a playwright, a scholar, a man with strong views on controversial social and spiritual matters. But as hard as we have tried we have never been able to get him." They never did.

Later that night Mike told me privately that if the complaint Northwest Airlines had filed with the News Council against WCCO-TV's I-Team report on airline safety ever came to a public hearing, "60 Minutes" would come out to cover it. That did happen, and Mike's report ran for about 14 minutes.

Months later I found out that to get the story on the air Mike had to battle with the program's executive producer, Don Hewitt, who didn't want the story; he didn't believe in the idea of a news council.

But Wallace fought hard -- even against his old friend the boss -- because Mike did believe, passionately, in the news media's responsibility to live up to the same standard of accountability that they insist upon from the people they cover.

Mike won. He did it for us, the public. That was his abiding goal, and he achieved it -- again and again and again.

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Gary Gilson, a writer and writing coach, lives in Minneapolis.

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