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Mike Wallace made ‘60 Minutes’ tick

Veteran newsman personifies show and its traditions
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“60 Minutes” without Mike Wallace? It’s almost like “Oprah” without Oprah. But yesterday Wallace, 87, confirmed that this season on the Sunday-night CBS News program will be his last.

“The time comes, for crying out loud,” Wallace said from his apartment in New York. “You want to do it while you still can, under your own power.” Wallace said that he plans to remain at CBS News and that he will continue to work on occasional pieces as a “correspondent emeritus.”

At CBS News and in the TV business generally yesterday, there was speculation that the retirement is not Wallace’s idea—that his departure was part of a purge of aging veterans so younger faces could fill the screen.

“Oh, God, no!” was Wallace’s reply to such rumors. In a prepared statement, he said, “CBS is not pushing me.”

“I’m sure there is skepticism,” Wallace said. “All I can tell you is, I had a long talk with [CBS News President] Sean McManus, and I made the decision. To suggest there weren’t different opinions about this within the news division—of course there were. But I figure, what the hell, they’ve been so damn good to me for so long, it’s no time for sour grapes.”

He said that he will continue coming into the office, albeit a different one from the one he has occupied for decades (“I’m going to be on the same floor, just around the corner”), and that he has stories in the planning stages that will air by fall. “I have a couple of things lined up—interviews that may surprise you,” he said.

Embodiment of ‘60 Minutes’
More than any other visible individual, Wallace embodies and personifies “60 Minutes” and its long tradition of outstanding and aggressive broadcast journalism—his appearance, now a wrinkled visage, still looks young and energetic around the eyes, and his commanding voice is one of the most distinctive and recognizable in broadcasting history. It’s a voice that hasn’t aged a day during his 60-year career.

In his book “Between You and Me,” Wallace wrote: “I have the happy distinction of being the only correspondent who has worked on ‘60 Minutes’ every year since its inception.” The program debuted in 1968 with Wallace and Harry Reasoner as its chief correspondents.

Later in the same book, however, as part of what he calls “a final word from the old geezer,” Wallace does not sound like a man ready to hang up his trench coat. “As I write this in the spring of 2005, I realize some people are wondering when I’m going to retire. But for the moment I continue working because I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t. And I continue to be given great opportunities I can’t turn down.”

In broadcasting, though, there is a tremendous effort to push out older personalities and bring in younger replacements, moves designed to attract younger viewers. On “60 Minutes,” the new generation includes Lara Logan, an attractive young Australian-born reporter who has gone from working as a page at CBS News in London to the fast track on “60 Minutes” and perhaps other CBS News broadcasts. And the show’s executive producer, Jeff Fager, is only 50.

In a statement, Fager said that “Mike Wallace has been the heart and soul of this broadcast” since it began. “Millions and millions of Americans have tuned in . . . to see him in action and to find out what questions he would be asking each week.”

Of the emphasis on youth in his business, Wallace had no complaints. “The world, God help us, moves on,” he said. “I don’t want to go with anything but a good taste in my mouth about this place and the people in it. I’m a happy fella.”

Everything at CBS, it is widely believed within the organization, is being placed in a state of readiness for Katie Couric, the NBC “Today” host who is expected to take over the “CBS Evening News” after her NBC contract runs out in May.

Wallace was sounding warmhearted and upbeat, however, reminiscing about his start in broadcasting six decades ago at a Grand Rapids, Mich., radio station that paid him $20 a week. Later, he and Douglas Edwards were “The Cunningham News Aces” on station WXYZ in New York. Cunningham was the name of the drugstore that sponsored the program.

Recalling his favorite times at “60 Minutes,” Wallace said: “The happiest, of course, was when Hewitt and Reasoner and Wallace got on the air in 1968, at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday night, opposite an NBC movie and ‘Marcus Welby, M.D.’ “ on ABC. No one watched, and as a result, Wallace recalled, “we had five full years to find out who we were and what we wanted to do.” Hewitt is Don Hewitt, the show’s original executive producer and a former colleague of CBS legend Edward R. Murrow.

It was something of a fluke that saw the show moved to Sunday nights at 6 p.m.—a time period the FCC had ruled must be devoted to news programming or children’s shows. Eventually, “60 Minutes” moved to 7 p.m., its present spot, and has stayed there ever since. Wallace said it became a hit during the era of a gas shortage in the United States, when people stayed home to watch TV on Sundays “because they didn’t have the gasoline to go visit Grandma.”

Wallace credits highly respected CBS News President Richard Salant with giving him a chance at the network. “There was a lot of skepticism about me, because I had done things that CBS News correspondents weren’t supposed to do,” he said. Wallace had hosted his own interview show with a cigarette sponsor and did commercials for the cigarettes even after the show ended.

Ironically, cigarettes became a huge issue for Wallace after he was firmly established at “60 Minutes,” in the ‘90s. Company attorneys succeeded in getting “60 Minutes” to censor a report on a whistle-blower who had accused tobacco companies of putting chemicals in cigarettes to make them addictive. Wallace wrote in his book that he lost respect for Hewitt when Hewitt went along with the decision to censor the story.

“I could no longer view him with the respect, much less the affection, that I once had felt so profoundly,” Wallace wrote.

In more recent years, Wallace tangled backstage on occasion with Dan Rather, the deposed former anchor of the “CBS Evening News” and a former “60 Minutes” correspondent as well (one who still appears on the program from time to time). Yesterday, Rather expressed no bitterness.

Calling Wallace “a tough man and a tough interviewer,” Rather said, “Mike was there from the start at ‘60 Minutes,’ and his departure truly signifies the passing of the torch to a new generation on the program and new directions for CBS News.”

What directions? “We await to see,” Rather said.