On the legacy of Mike Wallace and ’60 Minutes’

David Brancaccio Apr 9, 2012

David Brancaccio: The death of CBS newsman Mike Wallace at the age of 93 has industry veterans reflecting on the role of the program for which Wallace was most identified, that Sunday night fixture of the television schedule: “60 Minutes.” Wallace and two other big names were among key players in the mix: Frank Stanton, the former head of CBS; and Don Hewitt, the boss of “60.”

Columbia University professor Richard Wald is the former head of NBC News. Good morning, Prof. Wald.

Richard Wald: My pleasure.

Brancaccio: So the idea was primetime network time would typically begin at 8 o’clock, but then there was the idea of ‘How about on Sunday?’ If it’s programming that’s in the public good, the network could have a chunk of that — and that’s where “60 Minutes” slotted right in.

Wald: That’s right. It was Stanton’s idea to put news in there, and it was Don Hewitt’s idea to put “60 Minutes,” as he then conceived it, in there. And it was not successful at the outset. “60 Minutes” took — I don’t remember but two or three years before it became what we know as the dominant news magazine of its time.

Brancaccio: A lesson to anybody who tries to start a new venture or a new program that sometimes it takes a while to gel. Now, how did Mike Wallace play into the success of “60 Minutes”?

Wald: Well, Hewitt was looking for somebody who had a bit of electricity about him. He had started with Harry Reasoner, who was the folksy, homespun guy across the street. But he needed somebody as a pair, and Mike was a blazing personality — he was tough, he was smart, he riled people — and it was a perfect combination. It was salt and pepper. And Mike, of course, just stayed forever.

Brancaccio: A good long time — I mean, he was doing those keynote interviews, like with Roger Clemens, just a couple of years ago.

Wald: Oh yeah. He never lost his edge. He swore to me that he never colored his hair also, but he never turned gray. Or he didn’t turn gray until very, very late into his life. He was perpetually young. He was always ready to charge out and go and do something, preferably jump up and down on somebody’s leg.

Brancaccio: And he’s a man who liked to do his homework, right? By all accounts?

Wald: Oh yeah, yeah. He really did a lot of work, but homework was, in a way, the essential. You had to steep yourself in the event or in the information at hand in order to ask the questions that bring light and truth. And Mike was preeminent in that.

Brancaccio: Well, Dick Wald, thank you very much for this. I really appreciate these insights.

Wald: Thank you.

Brancaccio: Former NBC News president Dick Wald teaches at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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