Mike Wallace: An Appreciation

In observance of the death of Mike Wallace, I am reposting a feature I wrote for Public Relations Tactics on the occasion of Wallace’s retirement in June of 2006.

Sometime over the last four decades, the public relations community settled on a simple yet chilling phrase to characterize a worst case crisis scenario; “Mike Wallace could be waiting in your office.”

In an era of prolific “investigative” news programs, furious competition among cable news outlets, and an increasing emphasis on titillating sensationalism over journalistic substance, it seems hard to believe that aggressive, confrontational TV journalism became popularized with one show –and one reporter. And while the show must go on, its only remaining original cast member is finally turning in his press pass at the age of 87.

When Mike Wallace ends full-time duties at 60 Minutes later this Spring, he walks away from a journalistic institution that not only changed the way television reporters work, but also the way PR practitioners think. And while Wallace did his share of celebrity interviews and human interest pieces, it will doubtless be his sledgehammer investigative pieces that stick in –and haunt- the memories of PR practitioners everywhere.

Much will be made of the way Wallace, along with founding 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt, created a niche in TV journalism. This new kind of news show featured hosts doubling as reporters, who pursued their stories through aggressive confrontation, well researched surprise questions, and a refusal to accept weak or “empty” responses. Any statements which seemed the least bit dubious were investigated for accuracy. And all of this took place in front of the TV cameras.

Above all, Wallace refused to give up, or give in. His virus-like tenacity forced his interview subjects to be on their toes with every question. It may be said that Wallace dug deep into his stories, but just as often he allowed his interviewees to do that work: digging themselves in.

For that reason and others, Wallace’s legacy has had a palpable impact on the art of public relations. First and foremost, Wallace taught us that simple catch phrases and hackneyed messages don’t work on every journalist. It is a different reporter on a different network who coined the phrase “No Spin Zone”, but Wallace was operating in that zone decades ago.

Wallace also showed us that PR practitioners need to think very carefully before agreeing to put clients in front of certain reporters; whether they are guilty of any malfeasance or not. Although Wallace was capable of making no-shows seem guilty merely by their absence, this was often the lesser of two evils, the other being Wallace eviscerating an unsuspecting client on national television.

Although Wallace himself will no longer be out humiliating corporate evil-doers, he leaves behind several younger generations of reporters who strive to emulate him –with occasionally regrettable results. Mike Wallace’s tactics can be downright abusive in the hands of neophyte reporters who lack Wallace’s experience and credibility.

News shows of today chase ratings by employing flashy journalistic gimmicks without the content to merit them. There was a time, for example, when hidden cameras were to be used only as a last resort during investigative news pieces. These days, they are ubiquitous.

Mike Wallace didn’t have to go undercover or gratuitously ambush an interviewee in order to be feared by the corrupt elements of society. He was an old fashioned journalist who discovered that the brave new world of television could put a fresh paint job on the field of investigative reporting. Some in the PR world will celebrate his retirement. They would be well advised to beware of those who will take his place.

Mark Bernheimer

Mark Bernheimer is a former CNN correspondent and the founder of MediaWorks Resource Group, an internationally renowned media training and consulting firm.