Pioneering broadcast journalist Mike Wallace, a U. Michigan alum and former Michigan Daily reporter, best known for his scathing interviews on the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” died Saturday in New Cannan, Conn. Wallace was 93.
Wallace graduated from the University in 1939, but he long remained connected to Ann Arbor. He endowed an investigative reporting fellowship to the Knight-Wallace fellowship — a year-long program for mid-career journalists to study at the University — and donated the fellows’ residence at 620 Oxford Road, which is filled with memorabilia and awards from his six-decade long career.
Wallace also worked at the University’s radio station, and after graduating he reported for news radio station WOOD-WASH in Grand Rapids, and later at WXYZ in Detroit.
Known for being an exceptionally tough interviewer, Wallace was one of the journalists who helped launch “60 Minutes” in 1968. Wallace formally retired from the program in 2006 to become a “correspondent emeritus.” He did many major interviews in this role, including his last appearance on the venerable news magazine show in January 2008, in the first public interview of former Major League Baseball pitcher Roger Clemens after a report suggested he used performance-enhancing drugs.
Wallace has interviewed many notable figures, including Jack Kevorkian —a famous doctor and University alum who was imprisoned for assisting individuals in committing suicide. Oakland County prosecutors used his interview with Kevorkian during a trial that resulted in the doctor’s eventual imprisonment for second-degree murder.
Wallace began the “ambush” interview, in which he presented his subjects with otherwise unknown evidence of wrongful acts they had committed. Wallace later admitted that such tactics were more to create attractive TV rather than good journalism.
Wallace was the subject of several libel suits, which endangered his career and reportedly caused him much stress, eventually driving him into clinical depression.
Wallace earned 21 Emmy Awards, five DuPont-Columbia journalism awards, five Peabody awards and the Paul White Award, the most prestigious award given by the Radio and Television News Directors Association. He also won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award grand prize and television first prize in 1996, and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in June 1991.
Yesterday morning, Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of “60 Minutes,” said in a statement that Wallace was critical to the formation of “60 Minutes.”
“There simply hasn’t been another broadcast journalist with that much talent,” Fager said. “It almost didn’t matter what stories he was covering, you just wanted to hear what he would ask next. Around CBS he was the same infectious, funny and ferocious person as he was on TV. We loved him and we will miss him very much.”
CBS News producer Don Hewitt picked Wallace for the program in 1968 because of his “hard-charging” style, according to the release.
“Wallace was as famous as the leaders, newsmakers and celebrities who suffered his blistering interrogations, winning awards and a reputation for digging out the hidden truth on Sunday nights in front of an audience that approached 40 million at broadcast television’s peak,” the release read.
Harry Reasoner, Wallace’s original partner on “60 Minutes” who died in 1991, said Wallace’s interviewing abilities were one-of-a-kind.
“There is one thing that Mike can do better than anybody else: With an angelic smile, he can ask a question that would get anyone else smashed in the face,” Reasoner said before his death.
During Wallace’s time on “60 Minutes,” the show spent 23 seasons on the Nielsen top 10 list, including five seasons as the number one rated program.
A front-page article in the April 7, 1938 edition of The Michigan Daily announced that CBS hired Wallace to join its radio broadcast team. According to the news brief, Wallace’s “cultured tones” and tasteful use of emotion in his stories helped him beat out his peers in his broadcasting classes for the coveted job. The Daily cited a telegram from Wallace to his parents announcing his appointment.
“Announcing Columbia network Thursday 4:15. Whee!,” Wallace wrote in the telegram.
“No radio station WHEE in Boston. Please explain,” his parents wrote back.
Wallace also spoke at the University’s 1987 Spring Commencement, delivering an address to graduates on racism and intolerance.
“Here on this university island in which you’ve lived these last few years, you are about as sensitive, as pure probably, as you will ever be in all your lives,” Wallace said. “Your minds are open, you’ve been stretching them, learning more about yourselves and others, other societies, other struggles, other notions of fulfillment, other ideas.”
Wallace’s speech came despite protests over a remark he made in 1981 while conducting an on-air interview regarding faulty housing contracts that were signed by Black and Hispanic Californians.
“You bet your ass they’re hard to read if you’re reading from over watermelons and tacos,” Wallace said in the interview.
At the 1987 commencement, a group of graduates turned their back to Wallace wearing signs on their robes that said “Anti-Apartheid Commencement.”
Wallace addressed the risqué remark in his commencement address.
“(Bigotry is) an easy out. It can be downright comforting to feel bigger, better, than the next fellow,” Wallace said. “Your sense of injustice will flag.”
Wallace additionally angered some students when he made another racially insensitive comment during the speech.
“It never occurred to me back in college that one day I would be listening to Polish jokes, or Jewish jokes, or Italian jokes, or Black jokes, and laughing,” Wallace said.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Wallace’s youngest grandson, Lowell Bourgeois, an LSA senior and Wallace’s fourth grandchild to study at the University, said his grandfather joked that his first grandchild to go to the University would receive a car.
“Obviously none of us got a car,” Bourgeois said. “But his purpose from a very early age was to instill us with this idea of Michigan and Michigan pride.”
Bourgeois said Wallace’s home is abundantly decorated with Michigan memorabilia. He reflected back to 2006, when Wallace addressed a crowd at halftime during a Michigan football game.
“He was always super aware of what was going on at Michigan,” Wallace said.
Bourgeois said a shared connection to the University allowed for a very meaningful relationship to his grandfather.
“It was a very nice way to be able to connect with my grandfather,” Bourgeois said.
Bourgeois added that his grandfather may have been inspired to donate to the Knight-Wallace program because he often argued that undergraduates should major in subject areas outside of journalism, in order to study what they’re passionate about and later translate that passion through journalism. He said the fellowship program allows journalists to hone their skills later in life.
Bourgeois said Wallace told him he gained his love for radio and journalism from working at The Michigan Daily and the University’s radio station.
“I think that his experience with journalism and his role in the media comes from exploring his interests here on campus,” Bourgeois said.
Though Wallace married four times, Bourgeois said he loved all of his grandchildren equally.
“There was never a shortage of love he gave to us, and he has a very constant presence in all of our lives,” Bourgeois said. “He has seven grandchildren, and all of us have extremely personal, close connections with him.”
Wallace’s stepson, Angus Yates, said in an interview with the Daily that the University held a special place in Wallace’s heart.
“He never forgot the place, worked his whole life at improving Michigan and helping Michigan,” Yates said. “It was a very, very important part of Mike’s life.”
He added: “I think a lot of what happened later in his career came together or began at Michigan. And that stayed with him and became a very important part of his persona and his life, and he, I know, wanted to make sure that other kids coming through Michigan had the same chances that he did, so he and his wife Mary Wallace spent a lot of time making sure that Michigan offered opportunities that were important to Mike.”
Though Yates adored his stepfather, he acknowledged that Wallace knew how to get under the skin of his interviewees.
“He was a gifted genius, a very sweet man but you could never let your guard down,” Yates said. “He knew how to find your jugular, and he knew how to … he knew how to get inside your soul. But he was a lovely man, and a real angel.”
University President Mary Sue Coleman said in a statement that while Wallace may be remembered nationwide as a journalist, he meant much more to the University than his professional record.
“Society will remember Mike Wallace as a dedicated, hard-charging journalist,” Coleman said. “At the University of Michigan, we know him as that and so much more. He was extremely generous with his time, his papers, his financial support, and, most important, his belief in this University and its role in today’s world. We could not have asked for a more enthusiastic and loyal alumnus, one whose words and actions changed both the University of Michigan and the world beyond.”
LSA freshman Justin Goldman — president of the University’s chapter of Zeta Beta Tau, the fraternity to which Wallace held membership in during his time at the University — said the chapter is thankful for his legacy as a brother of ZBT.
“We send our condolences to Mr. Wallace’s friends and family,” Goldman said. “It’s ZBT Michigan’s 100-year anniversary in September, we want to thank him as a beneficial, benevolent alumni and appreciate everything he’s done for ZBT in the past.”
Wallace is survived by his wife, Mary Wallace, his son, Chris, host of “Fox News Sunday,” his stepdaughter, Pauline Dora, two stepsons, Eames and Angus Yates, seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren.