Mike Wallace parlayed a caustic interviewing style mixed with probing questions into an art form, becoming one of the most influential television journalists of our time. His crowning achievement came on Sept. 24, 1968, when he and Harry Reasoner debuted the CBS Sunday night weekly news show “60 Minutes.” The show’s correspondents rotated but the one constant for 38 years was Wallace.
Wallace wanted to be a broadcast journalist after he graduated from the University of Michigan in 1939. He worked in radio in Grand Rapids, Mich., Detroit and Chicago. He was also a communications officer in the Navy during World War II. His ship was stationed in the Pacific but never saw live combat.
In 1949 he jumped to television, then a medium very much in its infancy. It was not unusual at that time for a newscaster to also read commercials and even host game shows. And Wallace, as well as icons Walter Cronkite and John Cameron Swayze, was the host of several.
He started at CBS but moved to ABC. It was there on “The Mike Wallace Interview” show that his questioning of journalist Drew Pearson led to the revelation the John F. Kennedy did not really write the book “Profiles in Courage,” for which the soon-to-be president won the Pulitzer Prize. Pressure by the Kennedy family forced the network to offer a full apology. It later came to light that Kennedy only directed the writing of the book.
Another notable controversy stemmed from his 1982 “CBS Reports” in which he accused Gen. William Westmoreland of deliberately inflating enemy casualty counts during the Vietnam War in order to engender public support. Westmoreland sued Wallace and CBS for $120 million but dropped the suit during the trial.
Christopher Plummer played Wallace in the movie “The Insider,” based on whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand’s attempt to expose the dangerous practices of the cigarette industry. Wallace went head-to-head with his bosses at CBS, who were cautious about airing such an explosive story.