Arts, Culture & Media

Remembering iconic journalist Mike Wallace (with video)

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Over the course of a career spanning more than 60 years, Mike Wallace interviewed prominent figures and reinvented the role of TV journalists. (Photo courtesy of Dave Malkoff/flickr).

It is hard to overstate the importance of Mike Wallace in redefining TV journalism.

He interviewed everyone from Louis Farrakhan to Roger Clemens and even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

When Wallace began his media career, newspaper journalists did the heavy reporting, while radio and TV reporters presented as entertainers. Wallace fused the two worlds together, pioneering a new path for media personalities. He has been accredited with inventing the character for what would become television's journalistic identity.

In a 2008 interview with the New York Times, Wallace was asked how he wanted to be remembered.

"Tough but fair," Wallace said. "I think that's a credo for a good reporter, a good journalist."

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Wallace was known for asking challenging questions. In a notable 1982 interview with General William Westmoreland, the former U.S. Army Chief of Staff, Wallace confronted Westmoreland about his decision to withhold information about the strength of Viet Cong troops. The documentary that included the interview led to a multi-million dollar libel lawsuit for libel, ultimately settled right before a verdict was rendered with Westmoreland receiving no compensation and jurors saying the evidence was overwhelming in favor of CBS, Wallace's employer.

"There is obviously an immense satisfaction," Wallace said of the journalistic method. "Because sometimes, you really do expose some wrongdoing, some corruption, somebody with his hand in the till."

Wallace said he did not anticipate becoming a journalist.

"When I was a child gowing up in Brookline, Mass., I thought I'd be a radio announcer. Television didn't exist. The mind's eye was as good a picture as the camera," Wallace said to the Times.

Former CBS Moscow Bureau Chief Beth Knobel co-authored the book "Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists" with Wallace. She remembered Wallace not just as pioneering broadcast journalist — but as a warm, inspired colleague.

"He was kind, he was down to earth, he had a sense of humor, and one of the things I learned working on the book was that he did a myriad of favors for people over the years," Knobel said. "I'd call people up to ask for an interview and they would say 'Mike did me a favor 20 years ago, I'm so happy to repay it now.' "

Beyond his legacy as host of 60 Minutes, Knobel thinks Wallace will be remembered for being defiantly open about his trials with chronic depression in the 1980s.

"Through his career he was very open about his battle with mental health. He went public with it at a time when not that many people were coming out as saying that they had issues with depression," Knobel said. That was a very brave thing to do and helped a lot of people."

Wallace was eventually able to manage his depression with the support of therapy, and continued to do the work he was passionate about.

"He absolutely loved what he did," Knobel said. "He did his last interview for 60 Minutes, which was with pitcher Roger Clemens, just a couple of weeks before his 90th birthday. He only stopped working because he develioped some heart trouble and he really had to retire. But he was really dragged away from 60 Minutes kicking and screaming. He loved every interview that he did. There was nothing that he loved more than being on television, being Mike Wallace."

Wallace was known on television for being a persistent interviewer. According to Knobel, Wallace used interviewing techniques outside of the mainstream journalistic practice. Wallace had an ability to determine the motivations of interviewees and use that knowledge to conduct provocative interviews.

"He was dogged in his preparation. He spent often weeks getting ready for an interview. And that's a lesson I know he wanted to pass on to other journalists," Knobel said. "There was pretty much no question that Mike wouldn't ask if it would get to the truth. Mike didn't shy away, and that's what he brought to journalism, that is his legacy."

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