On April 7, Mike Wallace (’39) died at 93 years old. Among his many accomplishments, the LSA alumnus covered the Vietnam War, interviewed Ayatollah Khomeini, and grilled Nancy Reagan. Yet the famous 60 Minutes anchor began his career humbly with the help of U-M Professor Waldo Abbott, who encouraged him to lose his Boston accent so he would have a better shot at becoming a radio announcer. It was Abbott’s classes, some of which were held at the WJR radio station in Detroit, “that first formed my understanding of what was necessary as a journalist,” said Wallace.
LSA Magazine spoke with Wallace in 2006. The interview is below.
You’ve made a career asking tough questions. But should there be a limit to what journalists can ask, especially post-September 11?
There is a misapprehension on the part of the American public that reporters will do anything to break a story in search of a journalistic prize. But journalists are patriots, too. They don’t want to put their fellow Americans in jeopardy. And of course there are limits to what people need to know. As a journalist you don’t want to reveal information that will lead to a loss of life in the armed forces, or to an American defeat in battle.
But how do you find that balance? For example, was the New York Times right to break a story about the National Security Agency's wiretapping practices, which the Bush administration said jeopardized victory in the war on terror?
The record of the New York Times ensures that they will be thoughtful, careful, and sensible, yet they’re going to pay attention to what freedom of the press is all about. No matter their politics or the personal views of editors, they are committed to act as professionals, and sometimes that means putting a brake on the politicians who want to do things their own way, uncriticized.
Americans don’t always have confidence in the way the government is run, particularly at a national level, and that has a tendency to make a person question some of the government’s tactics. Yet, if you’re a professional journalist, you talk about these questions, and your stories, with your editors and your colleagues and do your best to be responsible. When there is doubt, you talk it over and make the best decision possible.
Are journalists of that caliber — of your caliber — a dying breed?
In the old days, as it were, there were three networks, plus public TV. Now there are so many outlets that the average American can pick and choose. For this reason, some news is sensational, infotainment. There is too much tabloid coverage. It used to be a race to the top — with accuracy and responsibility. Now, sometimes it’s a race to the bottom in the search for audience, ratings, and money. But despite all this, there are still news outlets and journalists who have proven themselves reliable, savvy, thoughtful, and accurate. I am confident there will always be this kind of journalist.
What was, for you personally, the single most extraordinary piece of news that you reported?
In 1979, after American hostages were taken by Ayatollah Khomeini and his people in Iran, for some reason he was willing to talk to me. I guess it was because of my prior work in Iran on 60 Minutes that the Iranians knew who I was and what I’d done. I went to interview Ayatollah Khomeini — he was the big mystery man and no one knew what to make of him. I sat there on his rug with him and we talked about what it would take to get the U.S. hostages free. Probably that whole adventure was the single most extraordinary news-making piece I’d done up to that point.
Is this the kind of reporting you envisioned yourself doing after you graduated from U-M?
I yearned to be a radio announcer, whatever that meant. I could read a hell of a commercial, even back then. After graduation I went to Grand Rapids to a 500-watt radio station and was able to do “rip-and-read news,” as it was called, to do play-by-plays of high school sports, to do interviews, and for me that was glorious. After I spent some years in the Navy, I realized I wanted to do more reporting, deeper reporting, which eventually led to my being assigned to 60 Minutes in 1968. It was a tremendous thing, really, to have enough money and time on the air to do a 15-minute story each week on an interesting subject.
What’s your favorite U-M memory?
My mother’s brother, Leo Sharfman, was the chair of the Department of Economics, and that’s how I knew about U-M. His wife was my Aunt Min, and I was enchanted by her. I used to visit with her often at their place at 1108 Baldwin Avenue. My favorite memory is that she was the first person who ever fed me alcohol — an “old fashioned.” That’s the first time I remember being a little bit drunk.
Overall, though, I am just so grateful for what I learned at U-M. Not just about radio, but about life. I have a special feeling for the place — it just gave me so damn much.
Photos: Betsy Corsiglia