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Beth Knobel

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My Colleague, Mike Wallace

Posted: 04/ 9/2012 1:29 pm

It's rare to get to know a legend. But I was lucky enough to know Mike Wallace.

Mike and I got acquainted when we worked for CBS News, where I served as Moscow bureau chief until 2006. We also wrote a book together, Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists.

He could be terrifying. I could barely string two words together the first time Mike called me for help on a story. But it didn't take me long to realize that there was one man for the cameras, and a very different one behind the scenes.

On screen, he was Mike, the grand inquisitor. He was tough, probing, and unyielding. But off screen, he was Mike, the mensch -- kind, funny, and down-to-earth.

At CBS, I got to see the tough Mike in action several times. My favorite was in 2005, when Mike came to interview Russian President Vladimir Putin. Kremlin officials had arranged the interview to commemorate the 60th anniversary of World War II. The day before the interview, Putin's press secretary lunched with us and laid down the rules for the interview: Mike was to ask 20 minutes of questions about how Russia and the United States cooperated during the war, and how they can do great things when they collaborate. Then, if there was any time left, Mike could ask about other things.

"Absolutely," agreed Mike.

But when the interview actually happened the next day, did Mike follow the ground rules? Of course not. Mike asked what Mike wanted to ask. He realized that Putin, not his press secretary, would be the one to really set the rules for the interview.

Mike not only didn't start with World War II, he didn't ask about it until more than two hours into the interview. By then, the press secretary practically had smoke coming out of his ears. And every half hour, when the 60 Minutes cameramen needed to stop for a moment to change tapes, Putin's press secretary would walk up to the president to urge him to end the interview, since Mike wasn't following the rules. But Mike kept asking what he wanted, and Putin kept right on talking. I'm sure Putin knew Mike's reputation, and understood that getting through a Mike Wallace interview intact was a rite of passage.

This story illustrates a lot about Mike. He was fearless. He played by his own rules. And he would ask anyone anything if it got at the truth.

But it's the off-screen Mike that I'll really miss. Getting to work with Mike to try to put his journalistic techniques onto paper was one of the highlights of my life. We tried to load Heat and Light with everything that a high school or college student needs to know to get started as a reporter. Our hope was that it would be adopted by schools and universities that want to turn out the kind of journalists who can do stories worthy of Mike's legacy.

The book is filled with the wisdom gleaned during Mike's magnificent career. But if I had to pick just three points that illustrate the core of Mike's approach to news, it would be these:

• Interviews are a negotiation. Mike understood that while the journalist wants something from the subject, the person giving an interview wants something, too. By tapping into that and creating what Mike called a "co-conspirator," the reporter can get the most out of an interview.

• Prepare, prepare and prepare some more, as Mike always did. The journalist's ability to do homework and really dig into a subject determines whether or not the interview will result in new information coming to light.

• Don't shy away from asking the tough questions... several times, if necessary. That's a journalist's responsibility. And it's what Mike did better than pretty much anybody.

There are so many things about Mike's career that are noteworthy. How he migrated through entertainment, films, Broadway and commercials before settling down in hard news. How he showed incredible bravery in admitting to a problem with depression in the 1980s, helping to bring mental health issues into the forefront. How he dabbled in philanthropy, helping to endow a fellowship program for journalists at University of Michigan, his alma mater.

But more than anything, Mike's real legacy is his penchant for hard-hitting journalism -- journalism that is tough, but fair. Those of us who try to serve the world with our journalism would do well to emulate Mike Wallace, today and every day.

Fordham Professor Beth Knobel and Mike Wallace published Heat and Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists in 2010. More information at www.heatandlight.org.

 
 
 

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