Thursday, April 12, 2012

Mike Wallace: An interrogator of the famous and infamous

Before Karan Thapar, there was Mike Wallace.

Wallace, who died earlier this month aged 93, became one of America’s best-known broadcast journalists, according to a New York Times obituary, as an interrogator of the famous and infamous on the CBS news programme, 60 Minutes.


The New York Times obituary, written by Tim Weiner, gives us a glimpse into the man and his interviewing, or grilling, style:

A reporter with the presence of a performer, Mr. Wallace went head to head with chiefs of state, celebrities and con artists for more than 50 years, living for when “you forget the lights, the cameras, everything else, and you’re really talking to each other,” he said in an interview with the New York Times videotaped in July 2006 and released on his death as part of the online feature “Last Word.”

Mr. Wallace created enough such moments to become a paragon of television journalism in the heyday of network news. As he grilled his subjects, he said, he walked “a fine line between sadism and intellectual curiosity.”

His success often lay in the questions he hurled, not the answers he received.

The obit continues:

For a 1976 report on Medicaid fraud, the show’s producers set up a simulated health clinic in Chicago. Was the use of deceit to expose deceit justified? Hidden cameras and ambush interviews were all part of the game, Mr. Wallace said, though he abandoned those techniques in later years, when they became clichés and no longer good television.

Some subjects were unfazed by Mr. Wallace’s unblinking stare. When he sat down with the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian leader, in 1979, he said that President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt “calls you, Imam — forgive me, his words, not mine — a lunatic.” The translator blanched, but the Ayatollah responded, calmly calling Sadat a heretic.

“Forgive me” was a favourite Wallace phrase, the caress before the garrote. “As soon as you hear that,” he told the Times, “you realise the nasty question’s about to come.”

Journalists, especially those working in television, would surely be interested in learning more about Wallace and his reporting techniques. How about the rest of us? Are there any lessons we can draw from Wallace's life? Yes, says Eric Jackson, a Forbes contributor, and they apply whether you care about journalism or not:

1. If you don’t wake up in the morning excited to pick up where you left your work yesterday, you haven’t found your calling yet.

2. When a new medium comes along, embrace its possibilities.

3. If you aren’t breaking the rules a little in your profession, you aren’t going far enough.

4. How would your life be different if your epitaph read “Tough But Fair”?

5. Face your demons head on.

Jackson elaborates on each point on the Forbes website: "5 Lessons from Mike Wallace's Life for All of Us".

Jackson also provides links to highlights of three of Wallace's interviews. Watch the snippet from the 1976 interview with the Shah of Iran and also the nine-and-a-half-minute-long excerpt of Wallace's interview with Ayn Rand. You can watch the full Ayn Rand interview here. It was shot in 1959 in B&W and the production values may not be great. But it's riveting stuff nevertheless.
  • Thank you, Kokila Jacob, for the Eric Jackson tip-off.

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