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Mike Wallace: The Mother Jones Interview

In 1979, the late "60 Minutes" pioneer opened up to MoJo about his politics, his salary, and his view of women.

| September/October 1979 Issue

Wallace with Nixon during the 1968 campaign. Inset: With Nancy Kissinger at Bill Buckley roast.Wallace with Nixon during the 1968 campaign. Inset: With Nancy Kissinger at Bill Buckley roast.MJ: It seems that for a television story to work, you need not merely characters, but colorful ones. In a way television doesn't care whether they're radical or conservative. For example, a few years ago 60 Minutes did a good show on Robert Pollard right when he was quitting the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in protest over the inadequate monitoring of safety standards at a Consolidated Edison plant.

MW: Now there's a perfect example of a Fortune 500 corporation—Con Ed. And yet we took them on.

MJ: I bet you took a lot of flak for that story.

MW: We got a lot from Charles Luce, who wrote to Bill Paley [chairman of CBS], I understand.

MJ: Charles Luce?

MW: The head of Con Ed. He wrote to Paley to try to point out that we had done a less-than-faithful job. This, of course, was not true. That story today looks almost like a scenario for The China Syndrome.

MJ: Is that one of the stories you're proudest of?

MW: We are certainly proud of that story. We took a lot of flak for it—[John J.] O'Connor, television critic of the New York Times, took us apart; he said the anti-nuclear bias of the piece was almost blatantly apparent.

MJ: That's the only time I can think of that the Times criticized you on a substantive point. Why on this story?

MW: My estimation is that O'Connor was gotten to—and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense—that he was reached by the NRC's public relations counsel, who said that entrapment of Con Ed officials had taken place. That's when other people began to write about our confrontation journalism, drama for drama's sake.

MJ: Are those charges unfair?

MW: I think they're fair comment, but basically invalid. They miss the point of how one gets a story. Had we come foursquare at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and told them ahead of time just exactly what we knew and what we were after, we would have gotten a carefully rehearsed, PR answer to our questions.

MJ: The Times was a lot more helpful with your Johnny Carson piece. You framed that story—indeed you frame so many light and heavy pieces—around the discovery of just how much money an individual is making. Why?

MW: Well, I was amused that Johnny Carson, little by little—and I think for reasons of ego—let me find out that contrary to his published salary figure of $2.2 million or $3 or $3.7, that it was $5 million or more.

MJ: He let you find out?

MW: We had a little conversation, and, you know, some things are on film and some things are off. And then I confirmed the figure with his attorney, who shook his head, smiled, and said: "Ego. Ego."

MJ: But why did finding out his salary make the piece important?

MW: It just seemed to me that it was quite an extraordinary sum. I thought it was a pertinent fact. NBC's in trouble; their profits are down by half this year. And they are also in trouble with Carson, one of their biggest money generators.

MJ: Once you got that figure, plus the information that Carson was planning to leave The Tonight Show, how did you make these bits into news?

MW: Although hardly world-shaking in its implications, that's a big entertainment story when the New York Times plays it on the front page.

MJ: But how did the Times get the information that he was thinking of leaving?

MW: They did a little reporting of what I was doing.

MJ: In other words, you leaked it to the Times. Otherwise, they would have no other way of knowing. You created a news item that made it into a big story.

MW: And waited 10 days before we put it on the air because I wanted to check my understanding with Carson and his attorney, since we had been planning just to run a profile in the fall.

MJ: Well, if Johnny Carson is news, how much of what you do is entertainment? In your boss Don Hewitt's words, "People tune in 60 Minutes really to watch 'The Adventures of Mike, Dan, Morley, and Harry.'" Do you agree?

MW: I'm not sure I would put it quite that way, but effectively, yes.

MJ: And to CBS executives, ultimately, you're the same kind of star that Johnny Carson is.

MW: I'm sure they regard me as a valuable employee. But as far as compensation is concerned, it's minuscule compared to entertainment broadcasts.

MJ: You make at least $250,000 a year just from 60 Minutes.

MW: I've never talked about specific figures that I make to anybody.

MJ: But you ask the question of everyone. And you wouldn't say that a quarter-million annually was way off? [Wallace smiles while shaking his head no.]

MJ: Of course I'm going to report you shook your head no. And as a matter of fact, you admitted way back in 1957 that you were making $150,000 a year.

MW: So that if your current figure is right, I would be making less today—because of inflation—than I was making in 1957.

MJ: Unless you've made terrible investments, you must be a millionaire.

MW: If by that you mean: With the house that I own, and a bank account there, and a few stocks here, etc., etc., does it add up to a million? I would imagine, probably.

MJ: Now I know with sports stars, because of the leapfrogging of salaries it's hard for them to feel well paid. Does any of you feel, "60 Minutes and I are as valuable to CBS as Carson is to NBC—I should be making more"?

MW: I think that those of us who were in at the borning of 60 Minutes and developed its character—it seems to me—are entitled to more compensation than we're currently getting. After all, this year we were the top broadcast in circulation on all of CBS.

MJ: I understand that commercials on 60 Minutes now sell for as much as $215,000 a minute. Six years ago you were only getting about $25,000 a minute. It's obvious that the executives are intent on maximizing profits.

MW: And particularly for this past year…In all fairness, CBS also regards its news division as the Tiffany of the Tiffany of the networks.

MJ: And the Tiffany reputation is also profitable.

MW: No doubt about it. I'm sure that the executives at CBS during these last two or three difficult years know full well that had it not been for the Cronkite news and 60 Minutes, there would have been many more defections of affiliate stations from CBS to ABC.

MJ: So does your own financial success affect your sympathies?

MW: You have to be the judge of that—take a look at the kinds of stories that I've done.

MJ: Let me ask the question another way: Why wouldn't it affect your sympathies?

MW: Because I'm professional and have been at the job long enough to know that the day it begins to affect my judgment, I immediately diminish my own effectiveness.

MJ: But isn't there an unconscious bias because your friends are wealthy and powerful?

MW: First of all, I'm not very close to very many people in high levels of industry or government. Occasionally I will see them at a dinner party or something of that sort…I don't know why he said this, but recently Henry Kissinger commented to my wife, Lorraine, how pleased he was at the success of 60 Minutes and the kind of work that I've been doing on it. He also said: "And I particularly admire the fact that Mike has done it without compromise." That's all. Lorraine didn't go on about it. But she was moved by the fact that he would say that.

MJ: Doesn't William Shawcross' book Sideshow, about Kissinger's cynical bombing of Cambodia, affect your opinion of him?

MW: I read the Shawcross book with fascination, and I'm waiting for Henry's book to see what side I come down on.

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