Ed Driscoll

Mike Wallace, Dead at 93

The Washington Post, of all places, has the obit line of the year:

Mr. Wallace developed a compelling persona that seamlessly blended country club locker-room bonhomie with the prosecutorial zeal of Torquemada.

As they go on to add:

With his theatrical baritone, he pitched softball questions that could take a sudden detour into an uncomfortable line of questioning meant to sniff out misdeeds or fun gossip.

He became known as one the most skilled interviewers of the powerful, famous and elusive — world leaders, Hollywood celebrities, controversial newsmakers, notorious criminals and the hinkiest scam artists. He was a pioneer of the surprise or “ambush” interview, a technique intended to shock its targets into spilling information they might not in a scheduled interview.

“Unexpectedly,” as Bloomberg.com would say, Wallace was none too happy when the techniques employed by 60 Minutes were turned on him, a story that Roger Ailes recounted 20 years ago in his how-to book on media relations, You are the Message:  

Recognize that any time you are in the presence of a newsperson, the conversation is fair game for the record. Jimmy Carter’s famous confession that he sometimes had lust in his heart for women other than his wife was uttered to a Playboy magazine journalist as he was leaving Carter’s home at the conclusion of the formal interview. Even Mike Wallace, big-game hunter of the unguarded moment, got caught in this snare. As recounted on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal by TV critic Daniel Henninger in March of 1981, Wallace:

was interviewing a banker in San Diego about an alleged home improvement fraud involving mainly black and Hispanics, who supposedly had signed contract they couldn’t understand, which led to foreclosures on their home mortgages.The bank hired a film crew of its own to record the interview with Mr. Wallace. The bank apparently left its recorder running during a break in the CBS interview, and the tape has Mr. Wallace saying, in reply to a question about why the black and Hispanic customers would have signed their contracts, “They’re probably too busy eating their watermelon and tacos.”

When the Los Angeles Times got wind of this indiscretion and reported it, there was at least a minor uproar from reporters and others about Wallace’s “racially disparaging joke”. Wallace ultimately pleaded “no bias”, admitting that over time he’d privately told jokes about many ethnic groups but that his record “speaks for itself”. Henninger added, “Needless to say, this has to be the most deliciously lip-smacking bit of irony to pop out of the oven in a long time. Here we have the dogcatcher cornered. The lepidopterist pinned. The preacher in flagrante delicto. This is the fellow who has imputed all manner of crimes against social goodness to a long lineup of businessmen and bureaucrats. From here on out, all future victims of Mr. Wallace can take some small comfort in knowing that although they may stand exposed as goof-offs, thieves and polluters, he’s the guy who made the crack about the watermelons and tacos.”

30 years after Wallace was ambushed, when the video equipment that 60 Minutes used was affordable by all, and could be quickly and easily disseminated on blogs and YouTube, and used by conservatives such as James O’Keefe to attack ACORN, NPR, and other lefty establishment institutions, the rest of the left decided they weren’t too crazy about those techniques, either. Or as I wrote last year, “Investigative Journalism: It’s All Fun and Games until the MSM Gets Stung.”

Incidentally, a decade before he started ambushing his subjects, the pre-60 Minutes-era Wallace had some fascinating long-form interviews in the late 1950s with Ayn Rand, Frank Lloyd Wright, Margaret Sanger, Malcolm Muggeridge, Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Roosevelt, and other newsmakers of the day. Kinescopes (converted to flash video) and transcripts of those interviews are online at the University of Texas at Austin, with the exception of the Rand interview, which can be found here.