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Mike Wallace: The tough-as-nails TV newsman did it his way, with no second thoughts

Apr 12, 2012 - By Steven R. Peck

Here's an explanation for all the wind overnight. Maybe it was a huge, collective sigh of relief from all the con men, corrupt business executives and shady politicians in the country.

Why? Mike Wallace is dead and buried.

Rest easy, guys. Whatever other problems you have, being interviewed by Mike Wallace won't be one of them. Not anymore.

For decades, if you were a scoundrel, one of your biggest fears must have been seeing Mike Wallace arriving at your door with a camera crew. He helped pioneer the ambush-style TV interviews that first made a name for the Sunday night news show "60 Minutes."

Beyond that, Wallace was a masterful -- and devastating -- studio interviewer, the master of the overwhelming question designed not so much to elicit an answer as to reduce the subject to squirming, uncomfortable silence.

Why in the world would anyone agree to be interviewed by Mike Wallace? He was fearless, ruthless, relentless, well prepared and a great TV performer. Everyone was overmatched on camera by Mike Wallace, yet for more than 30 years he still got people to sit down with him so it could be proved again.

In his entertaining memoir "Between You and Me," Wallace describes his preparation for dozens of him most famous interviews. What comes through as the chapters proceed is the matter-of-fact approach in which Wallace believed. There was no requirement for the interviewer to take it easy on a subject who had agreed to be interviewed. He would ask any question, often prefacing it with "forgive me for asking, but ... "

He wasn't really seeking forgiveness for anything. He didn't feel it was necessary. If he cared what anyone thought about his way of doing things, he didn't share it publicly. He was just there again next week, zeroing in on the next subject.

Mike Wallace worked vigorously on national television until he was almost 90 years old. He came of age in the 1940s and had a long history in broadcasting -- news, entertainment and advertising -- before being hired at "60 Minutes" at age 50. He wasn't part of the great self-examining tradition of earnest focus groups that so many journalists came to believe in. Here's what I'm offering, he seemed to say. Take it or leave it.

Wallace's longtime "60 Minutes" colleague Harry Reasoner said he envied Wallace's ability to, with a smile, ask a question that would get any other reporter a smash in the face. Let us say, on the occasion of his death, that American journalism needs someone like Mike Wallace. He brought the combination of tenacity, curiosity and toughness -- and hard-earned credibility -- that mustn't vanish from the scene of professional journalism. The bloggers who fire their potshots from the protective, unaccountable darkness of cyberspace have nothing on Mike Wallace -- and he would have proved it if he'd ever gotten the chance to interview them face to face. That's the only way he'd have it.

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