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Not so pleasant memories of Mike Wallace

By DOUG THOMPSON
A Capitol Hill Blue commentary
April 9, 2012

Mike Wallace

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.

Royko smiled.

“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.”

I laughed.

“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.

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13 Responses to Not so pleasant memories of Mike Wallace

  1. Sandy Price

    April 9, 2012 at 9:32 am

    Doug, you are not alone in your words about Mike Wallace. I’m still fairly new to television and have always preferred the written word when it comes to “news” and will always lean into a newpaper or even these discussion forums’ home pages.

    I have never been a fan of 60 Minutes and thinking back it may have been Wallace’s caustic attitude.

  2. woody188

    April 9, 2012 at 5:21 pm

    Not much has changed since 1975. TV “news” still isn’t journalism, but the number of jerks on TV has surely increased. Although their days appear numbered as their audiences are slowly whittled away by Internet and interactive news services. Today kids say, “What is 60 Minutes? Never heard of it.”

    • Almandine

      April 9, 2012 at 5:37 pm

      And they darn sure couldn’t tell you what “The Gray Lady” is…

      Wallace may have been a jerk, but he was pretty much right on regarding the demise of newspapers.

      • Doug Thompson

        April 10, 2012 at 2:36 am

        I’m sorry but I disagree. While newspaper readership at the national level has declined, community journalism has grown in both circulation and readers. Much of my newspaper work these days is with community newspapers — both weeklies and dailies. In small towns and rural areas, newspapers often poll as the primary source of news for residents and the daily and weekly records of life in many communities. Community journalism is taught in many college and university journalism programs.

        I work as a mentor to journalism and photo journalism students at two universities in our area and find that young people have a deep interest in the print medium and a solid understanding of the tradition of standards of journalism like the Grey Lady, aka the New York Times. More high schools today offer journalism as a course than at any point in history.

        Sneer all you want but newspapers will be around long after you and I have met our “demise.” The future of journalism lies more in online offerings than on television and most online publications rely more on the written word rather than talking heads.

        • Almandine

          April 10, 2012 at 10:29 pm

          I hope you’re right Doug about the future of newspapers, as I used to work on the production side in my youth. Many a morning I got off at 5 am after a full night of getting our local paper out. Also, I still get more enjoyment from our local Sunday edition as I do any other medium. Too bad its half-sized content is now mostly ads… staff has been cut, worthy news is apparently hard to come by, and – most importantly – the attention span of the up-and-comers is woefully short. So, while I don’t (and can’t see why you think I do) SNEER about any of this, I do think print media, as a way of information transfer, has a short future. Too many papers, magazines, etc., have died or are on life support to argue otherwise.

          Having said that, your evaluation as to the necessity of the written word is well taken… but I do wonder about the modern turn away from cursive writing as an indication that a reliance on the written word may be anachronistic.

  3. David

    April 9, 2012 at 6:12 pm

    Thanks for the reminiscing. I was also a big fan of Royko when I was a kid.

  4. Davld Clark

    April 9, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    I know the feeling. I met the mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes at the University of Texas. I wanted to tell him how much I admired his work and went up to shake his hand. He refused the handshake and turned his nose up at me. My admiration turned to disgust, and I have hated the guy ever since. Boy, what an asshole.

  5. Davld Clark

    April 9, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    Now that I’ve thought about it, I guess I could consider the people I have snubbed when I was in my asshole mode. The one I remember the most is Micheal Jackson. He was still a kid that had just achieved fame and was getting off the plane I was getting on at O’hare in Chicago. The press was there, and I was pissed because my departure was being delayed because of his publicity bullshit. He was a small fat kid with the worst case of acne I have ever seen. He looked up at me with adoring eyes and said a meek, “hi.” I said, “Damn kid, you need to do something about your face!” He looked hurt and sulked away. I meant he needed to do something about his acne, not that he should cut his nose off. I don’t think any of us realize how much our actions hurt other people. There is an asshole lurking inside all of us.

  6. Almandine

    April 9, 2012 at 8:54 pm

    Amazing that anyone could give up control of their self esteem so readily.

  7. Mark Thomason

    April 10, 2012 at 12:22 am

    I too miss Royko. Great man. It was pleasant to read of your experience with him. That is what I would have expected of him.

  8. Jim B.

    April 10, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    Well, I learn a lot here, and it came in a concentrated form today reading Doug’s article on Wallace. But…even more enlightening were Doug’s comments about community journalism. Excellent stuff!

    Regarding “60”, I have conflicted feelings about the show. I like watching it and yet I know their tough, aggressive questioning can sometimes distort, transforming someone who did nothing wrong legally and ethically into appearing as if they are tainted and should be ashamed. I think many times they get the story right, but sometimes unfortunately their bulldozer approach can trap the innocents under the blade.

    And, I do have to say, Woody188’s comment: “Today kids say, “What is 60 Minutes? Never heard of it.”
    …There is truth to it….Just viewing the commercials for the show, the demographic they’re shooting for appears to be at least > age 50….maybe 60…Quite a few Viagra-type marketing spots all throughout the hour.

    One last comment…OK…One last comment in this specific post….Doug mentioned Mike Royko….I live in the Chicago land area, and years ago and for untold years I read and loved Royko. I think many in this area still miss him. The guy who replaced him at the Chicago Tribune, John Kass, is good, but there was one and only Royko.

  9. Davld Clark

    April 11, 2012 at 8:42 am

    I was just pondering on the great journalism that was done in the newspaper days and how most of it was done by people with a fifth of whisky in their desk drawer and got to wondering about what role whiskey played in the formation of our nation and came across the Whiskey Rebellion. It was a case of our government using force to supress the will of the people and also concerned taxation and the national debt. It doesn’t seem like much has changed. It makes for some interesting reading.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiskey_Rebellion

  10. realoldguy

    April 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    Thanks for the nice memory of Mike Royko, a real journalist — not somebody who played a journalist on television. Sometimes I think our only cause for optimism about “the news” these days is that young people aren’t watching the teevee like old people do.