Like any working journalist, I feel a great debt of gratitude to Mike Wallace, the hard-hitting “60 Minutes” investigative reporter who died yesterday at age 93. Wallace was the epitome of the take-no-prisoners journalist who wasn’t satisfied with canned, fluffy answers. In his storied career, he taught all of us to probe harder, ask deeper questions and not settle for press release statements, all with a sense of fairness, honesty and integrity.
Of course, the testimonials for the legendary, hard-charging Wallace are ubiquitous right now, as they should be, given his profound impact on contemporary journalism, broadcast and print.
Here’s my own little reminiscence of him.
Back in March 1987, when I was a cub reporter for the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES, “60 Minutes” did a controversial piece on the status of Jews in the former Soviet Union that was denounced by several national Jewish organizations as being highly imbalanced and distorted. Remember, these were the days when leading American Jewish activists were routinely being arrested outside of the Soviet embassy in D.C. Former refuseniks speaking about the harsh treatment and persecution of Jews in the FSU were a common sight in Baltimore and other Jewish communities around the nation. The liberation of our brethren living under communist totalitarian rule was a unifying mission among American Jews of all denominations and stripes.
The “60 Minutes” piece, now largely forgotten, was condemned by major American Jewish groups for depicting life for Soviet Jews as being fairly pleasant and upbeat, save for those pesky, troublemaking refuseniks.
My editor at that time, Sherwood Kohn, assigned me to write a story about the controversy and even suggested I call Mike Wallace, who anchored and reported the segment. Initially, I felt that Sherwood’s suggestion to call Wallace had no merit whatsoever, that I might as well try to climb Mount Everest barefoot in a half-hour. But wisely, I kept my feelings to myself and called CBS in New York.
“`60 Minutes,’ please,” I said to the receptionist there who answered the phone. (Remember, this was back in the days when human beings actually answered phones at companies and corporations.)
A few seconds later, I said to the “60 Minutes” receptionist, “Mike Wallace, please.” To my great astonishment, about 10 seconds later, I heard, “Hi, this is Mike Wallace. Can I help you?”
I probably stuttered for a second or two – completely in shock that I was interviewing arguably the most famous and influential journalist of the latter half of the 20th century – and then I identified myself and my publication. Wallace couldn’t have been any kinder or more charming, probably noticing I was a bit young and nervous.
“Hi Alan, so nice to talk to you. Hope you’re doing well. Tell me about yourself and the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES.”
We spoke for about a minute about the JEWISH TIMES and its circulation and such, and then I explained to him why I was calling. Again, Wallace couldn’t have been more pleasant, even though I was calling to say that the leaders of American Jewry were really steamed with him (born Myron Leon Wallik to Russian Jewish immigrant parents) and his piece, even to the point of calling him a traitor.
Calmly and thoughtfully, Wallace defended the piece as well-researched and balanced, noting that he and the producers had intermittently spent six months on the project to make sure it was done right and thoroughly. “To say this story wasn’t well-researched or [was] one-sided is absurd,” he said. “This was done with a lot of care. I don’t think there was any distortion or lack of balance.”
When I pointed out to him that many Soviet observers strongly felt the piece completely bought into the Kremlin party line that Jews were treated quite well there – maybe in my naivete I was trying to “out-Mike Wallace” Mike Wallace – the veteran reporter didn’t even flinch or balk for a moment.
“Why isn’t the other side of the story ever covered? I deplore the Soviet Union’s policy of denying exit visas,” he said. “But as a reporter, I try to find interesting stories and shed light on our society and world.”
As far as Jewish communal criticism of the segment, Wallace said, “We don’t calculate what effect a story has with our audience. That’s up to the public. We don’t anticipate or second-guess.”
In the long run, history might now take issue with Wallace and his segment’s depiction of a sanguine life for Jews in FSU. Maybe Mikhail Gorbachev and the boys in Moscow did somehow pull the wool over the characteristically jaded eyes of the planet’s best-known “gotcha” reporter.
But on a personal level, I’ll never forget Mike Wallace’s easygoing manner, grace and spirit of generosity toward a young, nervous reporter who couldn’t begin to fathom that he was merely chatting on the phone with one of the field’s true giants.