Mike Wallace: Newsman's death symbolizes passing of an era
Mike Wallace, the 93-year-old pitbull of CBS' "60 Minutes," died this weekend in New Canaan, Conn.
CBS announced his death Sunday morning by lauding Wallace's brazen brand of reporting, which "made his name synonymous with the tough interview -- a style he practically invented for television more than half a century ago."
More than any other broadcast network, CBS has been most closely associated with its broadcast news team, which over the years has boasted such heavyweights as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite as well as Wallace. Each of the newsmen helped define CBS as a beacon for serious journalism.
“All of us at CBS News and particularly at '60 Minutes' owe so much to Mike," Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and a longtime executive producer of "60 Minutes," said in a statement. "Without him and his iconic style, there probably wouldn’t be a '60 Minutes.' There simply hasn’t been another broadcast journalist with that much talent. It almost didn’t matter what stories he was covering, you just wanted to hear what he would ask next."
Wallace's tenacious spirit and blistering questions helped to build "60 Minutes" into a ratings juggernaut, and establish the program as the gold standard for broadcast journalism. "60 Minutes" has logged an unprecedented 23 seasons in Nielsen's annual ranking of 10 most popular programs.
The durability of "60 Minutes" proves that viewers continue to have an appetite for hard-hitting newscasts. The program still thrives in an era when the format that inspired it -- the once-a-week newsmagazine -- has lost relevance with the immediacy of the Internet.
Across America, newsroom leaders are struggling to redefine their magazines, newspapers and local TV and radio newscasts. They are doing so amid dramatically shrinking resources and the reality that readers and viewers probably already saw or heard a snippet of the news elsewhere. Meanwhile, the lure of celebrity news, which drives ratings and Internet traffic, has become an irresistible urge for many in the news business.
Fewer news outlets are practicing the brand of investigative journalism that Wallace and "60 Minutes" helped to define. It is easier and cheaper for news outlets to turn to talking heads to fill air time.
Wallace, in contrast, honed his interview style on the ABC network TV news program, “The Mike Wallace Interview.” He also experimented on a local New York television guest show called “Night Beat.”
"Wallace’s relentless questioning of his subjects proved to be a compelling alternative to the polite chit-chat practiced by early television hosts," CBS said in its statement.
Wallace's last appearance on television was in January 2008. His sit-down interview on "60 Minutes" with baseball pitching legend Roger Clemens, who stood accused of using steroids, made front-page news. It was a fitting finale that served to underscore Wallace's legacy.
CBS strives to maintain its edge in hard-news reporting. The network is revamping its "CBS This Morning" program this year with the installation of Charlie Rose, a move to inject a more serious tone. CBS News chief Fager believes that viewers still care about news with substance.
Wallace's passing should inspire others in the news business to consider that, too.
-- Meg James
Photos: Mike Wallace, right, is shown in 1968 with "60 Minutes" co-anchor Harry Reasoner, left, and the show's creator, Don Hewitt. Credit: CBS News archives