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My Quarter Century With Mike Wallace
Posted on Apr 9, 2012
By Barry Lando
I worked on “60 Minutes” for more than 26 years, most of the time as a producer with Mike Wallace. Each report on the show has “produced by” written on the artwork introducing it, but most viewers have no clue what “produced by” really entails.
Indeed, the great irony of “60 Minutes” was a question of truth in packaging. That is “60 Minutes,” which prided itself on ruthless truth telling, exposing cant and fraud, was, in itself, something of a charade.
The fact is that although viewers tuned in to watch the ongoing exploits of Mike, Morley, Harry, Lesley, etc., most of the intrepid reporting, writing and even many of the most probing questions posed in the interviews were not the handiwork of the stars, but much more the effort of some 30 or more very talented producers who researched and reported the stories that the stars presented—as their own exploits—each Sunday night.
I was willing to go along with that system because it allowed me to help shape what was the most powerful news show on television. I was also willing to rein in my ego because Mike Wallace brought so much to the team himself: a sharp, penetrating mind, an uncanny ability to seize the essence of a story, to sense an opening in a tense interview then thrust with a rapier-like question for the journalistic kill.
To Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who had once been a radical underground leader, Mike asked, “What is the difference between the Yasser Arafat of today and the Menachem Begin of 1946?”
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Or to Arafat, in a backstreet building in war-torn Beirut. After Arafat excoriated the U.S. for ignoring the human rights of the Palestinians, Mike leapt at the opening to ask the PLO chairman about a small article he had found in the back pages of the Times, in which Arafat had praised former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
Mike asked a startled Arafat, “In other words, Mr. Chairman, Idi Amin, the butcher, you admire?”
Afterward, Arafat’s aide, Mahmoud Labadi, said to Mike as we were wrapping our equipment and PLO armed toughs roamed the room, “Mike, you’re not going to use that part about Idi Amin, are you?” Mike smiled and asked ever so quietly, “Mahmoud, do I tell you how to do your job?
“No,” said Labadi.
“Then please don’t tell me how to do mine.”
Remembering our hasty retreat from the site of that interview, one of our camera team, Andy Thompson, writes me: “Our drivers were convinced we wouldn’t get out alive. Crews set off in two sets so that someone would get out OK!”
On another occasion in western Iran, we were with a group of journalists being escorted by a particularly crazed Iranian colonel to cover the war with Iraq. After the colonel had delivered a long diatribe against the U.S. government, Mike turned to him and said, “You know, colonel, I don’t think much of your government either.”
Later that evening, in a room off the hotel lobby with other journalists watching the evening news, the colonel entered, unholstered his .45, strode up to Mike with a wild look in his eyes and moved forward until the muzzle of his revolver almost touched Mike’s forehead. Everyone in the room froze. Mike looked up at the colonel and with his hand pushed the revolver so it pointed toward the ceiling. The officer grinned and pulled the trigger. The gun was empty.
Mike was part reporter, part actor playing reporter. He had a flair for the dramatic, the ability to achieve almost instant rapport with interviewees no matter their wealth, achievement or background. He made them forget the camera and the lights; he was totally with them in the moment, fascinated by whatever they happened to be saying, from a famine-stricken mother in Ethiopia, a child dying in her arms, to the crooks of all shapes and sizes who attempted—almost always unsuccessfully with Mike—to lie their way to respectability.
Mike’s political agenda never seemed to get in the way. There was no story that he wouldn’t agree to go after, from detailing the enormous power of AIPAC (the pro-Israel lobby in Washington) to the peccadilloes of Walter Cronkite, who we accused of accepting airline tickets for a piece we were doing on the widespread practice of press junkets. Mike’s targets were often livid, but their rage only heightened his pleasure. He loved controversy, being the center of a story, seeing the sparks fly.
Though he greatly admired the Shah of Iran, was charmed by his wife and Iran’s ambassador in Washington, when I suggested a report on the Shah’s brutal secret police (the Savak), Mike immediately concurred.
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