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Mike Wallace switched on his smile like an electric light as he strode into the auditorium at the University of Illinois in 1975 with all the pomp and circumstance of a head of state.
The legendary newscaster from “60 Minutes” came to the Champaign-Urbana campus of the university to appear on a panel about changes in journalism. He would join another legend, Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko, two radio commentators and a brash, unknown reporter from a downstate Illinois newspaper.
Wallace glad-handed Royko, nodded to the radio talking heads and looked down at the lowly newspaper reporter, asking “and you are who?”
“Doug Thompson,” I said, sticking out my hand.
Wallace ignored the hand and moved on.
I sat down next to Royko and said: “Not much of a people person.”
“He doesn’t have to be,” Royko said. “He’s a big TV star now. TV news is entertainment, not journalism. He’s a performer who has researchers gather his information, producers to set up interviews and other staff members to write out his questions.”
A series I wrote about drug pushers in the St. Louis metro area brought an invite to participate on the panel, pretty heady stuff for a 27-year-old reporter who got a chance to mingle with some of his profession’s greats.
But any stars in my eyes dimmed quickly during the event when Wallace launched into a tirade against newspapers while proclaiming television journalism as “the future” and the only medium capable of delivering information to the masses.
Royko led the charge to defend print journalism and I tried to offer as many points as a relative novice could under the circumstances. After the three-hour session, we retreated to a reception. I stood in one corner when Royko approached.
“You handled yourself pretty well kid,” he said. “Don’t let Wallace get to you. He’s an asshole. Always has been.”
Wallace approached and started talking to Royko, telling the dean of newspaper columnists that his comments weren’t personal.
“Sure sounded personal to me,” I said.
Wallace turned and sneered.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Was I talking to you?”
“I guess not,” I said.
“If you want to go anywhere in this business you need to learn your place,” Wallace said. “Keep your mouth shut and learn.”
Then he walked away.
“Like I said: An asshole.”
Royko and I became friends from that day on. When I was in Chicago covering the Illinois Board of Higher Education meetings for my newspaper we would meet for drinks. He introduced me to the Billy Goat Tavern. He would send notes about articles I wrote, sometimes offering praise, sometimes handing down criticism but always with encouragement.
“You’ve got a good writing style kid,” he said, “but you tend to go off on tangents when you’ve made your point. Say what you need and turn it in. It doesn’t take a lot of words to tell a good story.”
In 1996, after Capitol Hill Blue published a series about crooks and scoundrels in Congress, Wallace’s producer called me and said they might be interested in using our stuff for a 60 Minutes piece.
“Forget it,” I said. “It will be a cold day in hell before I work with Mike Wallace or 60 minutes.”
The producer made some comment about “blowing your shot at the big time.”
“If 60 Minutes is the big time I can live without it.”
When Mike Royko died at age 64 in 1997, I mourned his passing. I still miss him.
I doubt I will miss Mike Wallace. I’m sorry I can’t.