It's been said that the four most dreaded words in the English language are, "Mike Wallace is here."
American journalism lost one of its defining and most memorable figures a week ago today. Wallace, one of the original reporters on "60 Minutes," was the heart and soul of America's most popular news program. He created a new style of journalism and was loved — and hated — for it.
The Brookline native, who was 93, officially retired five years ago, but his health had been in decline for years.
His style of interviewing — grating, cajoling and revealing — was unlike anything else that was on the air when he became a CBS News regular in 1968. He was well-known for facing down powerful figures, but it was his dogged devotion to exposing wrongs that made his a household name.
"Wallace took to heart the old reporter's pledge to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable," recalled his "60 Minutes" colleague, Morley Safer. "He lectured Yassir Arafat on violence. He asked the Ayatollah Khoumeini if he were crazy."
Said the late Harry Reasoner of Wallace: "There is one thing that Mike can do better than anybody else: With an angelic smile, he can ask a question that would get anyone else smashed in the face."
Wallace asked the questions that needed to be asked and wasn't afraid to confront the powerful on their own turf.
On the other hand, he came to question the value of a journalistic technique he made famous — the "ambush interview" in which the fleeing subject is chased by reporter and camera crew. Wallace noted that while it made for good drama, it provided little useful information and eventually removed that particular approach from his playbook.
Wallace's style has been mimicked, but never matched.