Skip to main content

Mike Wallace, the face of investigative reporting in America

By Brant Houston, Special to CNN
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 9, 2012
Mike Wallace moved from undercover tactics to pieces that relied more on documents and analysis, says Brant Houston.
Mike Wallace moved from undercover tactics to pieces that relied more on documents and analysis, says Brant Houston.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Brant Houston: Mike Wallace, who died Sunday at 93, defined image of hard-charging reporter
  • He says Wallace reflected evolution of investigative reporting over decades
  • Wallace exemplified the attitude that people in power should be held accountable, he says
  • Houston: Wallace spoke openly of corporate interference in stories, and of his depression

Editor's note: Brant Houston holds the Knight Chair of Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois and is co-author of "The Investigative Reporter's Handbook."

(CNN) -- For decades, Mike Wallace defined the image of the hard-charging investigative reporter. News of his death at 93 came Sunday and with it a multitude of remembrances and assessments of a complex man.

Wallace's longevity and his medium -- the TV network -- put a face on investigative reporting for the public. His career reflected how investigative journalism evolved from the 1950s into the 21st century -- and showed why we still need it.

We watched his work on "60 Minutes" go from undercover tactics and ambush interviews in the 1970s to pieces that relied more on documents and analysis -- and in which targets were not entirely surprised by what was coming.

Brant Houston
Brant Houston

We also watched as Wallace showed how complex and confrontational investigative reporting can be. He spoke openly of subjects dodging interviews and of management and corporate interference in investigative stories. He acknowledged many of his own flaws and revealed his clinical depression resulting from the stresses of the work.

We watched too as he underwent two major controversies that would have demolished other careers. One was a $120 million libel suit by Gen. William C. Westmoreland over a story that said the military had deceived the American public about the size of opposition forces during the Vietnam War. The suit was eventually withdrawn but not before it had damaged reputations and sent Wallace into depression.

Morley Safer: Mike Wallace 'fearless'
Death of a legendary journalist
King and Kurtz remember Mike Wallace

The second was over an investigation into the tobacco industry that led to a fierce internal dispute at CBS on airing the story. Eventually, all the information came out and Wallace criticized his own bosses at CBS. But the controversy still resulted in a film highly critical of the network and Wallace's handling of the story.

In addition to those controversies, his methods periodically came under attack from inside journalism, and friendships were lost and colleagues estranged or disillusioned.

However, the public stuck with him -- perhaps because he continued to give hope that liars could be exposed, that dangerous practices could be stopped and wrongheaded policies overturned.

Backed by a series of talented reporters and producers over the years, he was the front man -- the "closer" so to speak -- for teams of investigative journalists and for the public. In the theater of the interview, he conveyed the outrage and skepticism of journalists who spent months digging for the truth.

One of his former producers, Charles Lewis, wrote Sunday, "Mike Wallace will go down in history as the finest investigative interviewer on the most popular and most honored network television news program in U.S. history."

Lewis, a founder of two nonprofit investigative journalism centers, added, "At 60 Minutes, he literally set the gold standard for fearless, 'tough but fair,' go-for-the-jugular questioning and showed the world and the profession how investigative television news could look, should look."

Wallace also exemplified a very American attitude that no matter how powerful someone is, he or she is expected to answer to the public for actions taken and mistakes made.

When he confronted someone, many viewers felt Wallace represented their frustrations and spoke for them. When Wallace said the subject of an interview had to be kidding, he really meant the subject had to be kidding everyone watching. Before the camera, he embodied the democratic attitude that everyone is equal and everyone is accountable.

In the end, one might wonder how he could continue to get those interviews after all those years of blistering confrontations, but I got a clue in 2000.

At the time, I was executive director of the professional organization Investigative Reporters and Editors and Wallace had been invited to be on a showcase panel at the annual conference in New York City. He came half an hour early and cheerily talked with the conference staff.

But while waiting backstage he suddenly said he needed one of his well-known catnaps. We offered to get a cot, but he said no thanks, folded his suit jacket inside out into a pillow, lay down on the floor and promptly fell asleep.

For 10 minutes the staff delicately stepped over and around him. Then he got up, completely alert, thanked everyone for inviting him, and smiling went on stage to chat with a thousand journalists.

I suspect it was that kind of regular guy attitude that got so many to talk to him, to believe in him, and even some of his targets to forgive him.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Brant Houston.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT