60 Minutes is by far the most popular public-affairs program in the history of American television. Recently there has been a flood of articles about the show—and about Mike Wallace in particular. Most have celebrated 60 Minutes' success, but have also wondered aloud whether Wallace and his colleagues aren't becoming a little too aggressive. The US Supreme Court has also mused upon the show's cheeky independence; this year it ruled that the plaintiff in a libel suit had the right to probe "the state of mind" of Wallace and his producer, in order to evaluate how fairly they made their editorial decisions.
Since television has become so many people's daily newspaper, favorite entertainer, most reliable babysitter, and cheapest tranquilizer (not to mention its primary function as ingratiating salesman), it's crucial that we question the tube's influence. But it is the medium's essential timidity—not its brash, tick-tick-tick, microphone-in-the-face reporting style—that demands scrutiny. Alas, the print journalists who report on television journalists are usually working for similar (if not the same) corporate employers. Fundamental questions that they should ask have been taboo for so long that there's no need for censorship.
Because they are discouraged from probing into serious political and economic areas, many reporters are tempted to ask Mike Wallace when he stopped beating his wife. Since Wallace himself often browbeats and tricks his subjects into revealing themselves, he is fair game. But this overemphasis on technique leads off the main track: the medical quacks, diploma mills, bureaucratic boondoggles, vanity publishers, land frauds, religious humbugs, and corrupt county politicians whom 60 Minutes focuses upon should be exposed. We just wish that such an enterprising, prestigious program would investigate America's major problems and spend less of its time on minor conmen.
Why 60 Minutes doesn't go after the big fish—why it can't—is the thrust of our interview. We wanted to find out how as curious, intelligent, and ambitious a journalist as Mike Wallace got channeled onto the bunco squad.
Wallace, however, wasn't eager to be so questioned; he refused our initial request. When we persisted, he said repeatedly that he'd get back to us, and then never did. When later he begged off because of his grueling travel schedule, we offered to fly anywhere and interview him on the plane. This offer turned out to be doubly fruitful. We finally accompanied him from Los Angeles to New York City; during the course of the long, physically confining flight, Wallace relaxed and became remarkably candid.
Mother Jones: Why is such a large audience—roughly 35 million people each week—attracted to 60 Minutes?
Mike Wallace: I think we are perceived as ombudsmen—that more than any single other factor. No one really knows where Morley [Safer] or Dan [Rather] or Harry [Reasoner] or I stand on any particular issue. I think we're perceived as fair, more daring and innovative than other broadcasts. Also, our pieces are constructed almost as morality plays.
MJ: Politically, how do you think you're perceived by viewers?
MW: Maverick—or independent.
MJ: Is that true for all the correspondents?
MW: I'm sure that's true for Morley and Harry. When Dan came aboard, the Republican people were unhappy that he'd joined the broadcast. That reaction took about six months to be blanched out.
MJ: So there's an uneasiness when correspondents are perceived as having an ideology?
MW: I'm not sure about that. I was regarded by my peers at CBS News as the house conservative for a while, which I found rather funny because I'd come from a family of Roosevelt Democrats. And to begin with, my instincts were more liberal. But over a period of time I began to understand that the conventional wisdom was not necessarily wisdom; I covered Nixon, for example, in 1967-68 for CBS News. I found I came to him with fresh eyes because I'd never been exposed to him on a day-to-day basis. I was able to bring to my coverage of Nixon a less-than-doctrinaire view.
MJ: You also became friendly toward Agnew when he was running for governor of Maryland. How could you have so misjudged both these men?
MW: Well, let's deal with Agnew first. If you go back to Agnew's initial campaign, you'll find many of the liberal Republicans and Democrats supported him. And at first, he was a not-illiberal governor. I got to know him early in his campaign, when he was going from house to house to address small gatherings. I rather liked the man, and he developed into a pretty good source. At conferences it's fine for a journalist to have a relationship with a politician from whom one can get a quick reading of what's going on behind the scenes. And I must say that Agnew—because I had been with him near the beginning—was pretty open. Little by little—after new reporters took cheap shots at him by reporting his "fat Jap" and "If you've seen one slum, you've seen them all" slips—Agnew believed himself beleaguered and captive of a hostile press. And then he acted out. After all, what was he? A county politician projected into national politics overnight.
MJ: This wasn't the only time in your career that your contacts—being in close at the beginning—influenced your judgment. In 1968, after you covered his campaign, Nixon offered you a chance to be his press secretary. And you admitted that you were tempted to take the job, in order to see what life was like on the inside.
MW: If you talk to any of the four other reporters who were doing the preprimary coverage of Nixon, I think you will get the same story. He seemed to be a "new Nixon"—accessible to the press, reasonable. By his actions he conveyed the impression that he understood he would have to change the way he handled himself and his relationship to reporters. And the coverage that he got was first-rate—he almost served as his own press secretary at that time.
MJ: Nixon certainly must have made you and the others feel special, because even after you left for 60 Minutes, you kept up your admiration. In 1970, you said you were "not concerned that the administration is trying to play Big Brother." Later you said you found Nixon admirable and attractive.
MW: Look, I came late to the game. Some of the things that Agnew said in his famed Des Moines speech—about the incestuous relations among the press, the silent majority, and the nattering nabobs of negativism—some of that I was inclined to agree with. So I found it difficult to acknowledge conspiracy theories about Nixon and Agnew. I thought that I knew these two men and their associates better than I did. I was simply wrong.
MJ: Let's go on to 60 Minutes. In the past 10 years you've done a few exposés that involved big companies. And once you get such a story, you don't seem afraid to run it. We were proud and impressed that you picked up our Ford Pinto exposé—Ford was and is one of your biggest sponsors. So this is not a question about guts, but why proportionally, do so few of the scandals you uncover deal with America's largest corporations?
MW: It's certainly not because of pressure from above. There has never been an instruction from anybody to that effect—up to and including stories about CBS. We took on CBS itself in our junkets and corporate perks pieces. In that corporate perks piece we also took on Dupont and Rockwell International. In the case of Valium, we took on Hoffmann-LaRoche.
MJ: But when you add up all the pieces 60 Minutes has done, these kinds of stories don't constitute a big portion. And when you consider dollar amounts of business conducted in this country, the percentage is much, much lower. Is there some structural flaw in the way you conceive of stories? Are large corporations more difficult to catch?
MW: They are probably more difficult to catch. And then we have to bite off a 15- or 18-minute piece. Fraud inside a corporation, when it takes place—if it takes place—is not susceptible to that kind of treatment. I'm guessing now, because I've never really sat down to think of it; there's never really been this kind of discussion, that I know of, at 60 Minutes. If you have a company president with his hand in the till, then you have a character on whom to focus. But other kinds of money pieces are sometimes quite hard to tell on television, because they're complicated.
MJ: What's an example of an important financial story that wouldn't work on TV?
MW: Perhaps the Bert Lance investigation, because you're talking about banks and loans; it's a very technical story involving labyrinthine, if not Byzantine, financial dealings. It would be hard to tell that story without the full cooperation of all concerned.
MJ: The Lance investigation involves potential illegalities. What about an economic story that focused on questionable acts or trends that weren't illegal? For example, the biggest corporations in this country are increasingly eating up other businesses. In 1978, the Fortune 500 bought up some 350 other companies, some of which were enormous themselves. Is that a kind of story 60 Minutes could do?
MW: Let's say you were going to do stories on UV Industries. I happen to know—I play tennis with—a fellow by the name of Horowitz, who heads UV. Sharon Steel. Victor Posner. You absolutely need the participation and cooperation of these individuals to talk about the takeover, proxy fights. And that you do not get. And without the cast of characters, it's a story you simply could not tell.
MJ: Could 60 Minutes do a story on structural unemployment, about unemployment that's built into the system?
MW: It would be pretty hard.
MW: Well…I'm trying to think of how to go about it: Conceivably, if you had a fascinating couple of guys from management and labor, and you decided to do what is in effect an essay, a "talking heads" essay. But it is not a story that I'm immediately drawn to for 60 Minutes, I confess.