The Illinois Prize
for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism
2007 Honoree: Mike Wallace
The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Department of Journalism in the College of Media (formerly College of Communications) presented the Illinois Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism to Mike Wallace, distinguished CBS “60 Minutes” correspondent, on October 13, 2007, at The Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.
Mike Wallace almost became an English teacher.
At the University of Michigan in the 1930s, that is what he was planning for, or perhaps, he says, he might have gone after a law degree.
“Inasmuch as there was no journalism or broadcasting curriculum at the University of Michigan in the 1930s, I got a good liberal arts education instead,” he says.
His only previous journalism experience had come when he was a teenager covering his high school teams as a sportswriter for the Sagamore, his high school newspaper.
After graduating from Michigan in 1939, he got a job at a Grand Rapids, Michigan, radio station, WOOD/WASH. A year later, he was at WXYZ radio in Detroit, then headed to Chicago and WGN.
During World War II, he was a communications officer in the U.S. Navy. After the war, he anchored the late nightly radio news on WMAQ radio and worked as a reporter at the Air Edition of the Chicago Sun.
Then New York beckoned. In 1955, he took over the news anchor position during two nightly news slots at the Dumont local television station. The news director, Ted Yates, who would become Mike’s longtime collaborator and friend, produced the first half-hour news programs in New York, which aired at 7 and 11 p.m.
Then came “Night Beat.”
When “Night Beat” first aired, “I was anonymous as far as the New York audience was concerned when we began looking at subjects far from the typical celebrity and entertainment fare audiences were accustomed to watching,” he says. “We covered politics, racism, religion and sex. It was an instant success.”
ABC came calling, and “Night Beat” morphed into “The Mike Wallace Interview.”
In the early 1960s, from New York, Mike started narrating the award-winning “Biography” series. But, he says, he wasn’t a reporter as much as an anchorman and narrator.
In 1962, a tragic accident on a mountain in Greece took the life of his oldest son, Peter, and became the catalyst for Mike’s new focus.
“I wanted to do something to honor his memory,” Mike says. So he quit the various jobs he’d been involved in and vowed to “do nothing more than be a reporter.”
CBS News hired him as a fulltime correspondent, traveling and reporting on news all over the world.
During the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggles of the 1960s, CBS News producer Don Hewitt asked Mike and Harry Reasoner to take on a new TV news magazine program, “60 Minutes.” For the next 39 years, Mike interviewed world leaders, tackled controversial subjects, parried with Presidents Kennedy through George H.W. Bush, with leaders Menachem Begin, Anwar el-Sadat, Yasir Arafat, the Shah of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, plus celebrities ranging from Carol Burnett to Mikhail Baryshnikov, from Jose Canseco to Luciano Pavarotti.
In May 2008, he will turn 90. And, as for his legacy, Mike hopes Americans will remember that he was, as he wrote in his book, Close Encounters, “tough, but fair.”
VIDEO: Illinois Prize 2007 - Mike Wallace
Comments from Friends and Colleagues
“Mike Wallace has secured his place as a legendary American journalist the old-fashioned way—he earned it over 40 years of distinguished reporting from around the world with his distinctive and memorable style. As a friend ... I especially like to hear him tell stories of his childhood in the 19th century.”
—Tom Brokaw, anchor and managing editor of NBC Nightly News, 1982-2004
“He’s the best interviewer on television.”
—Andy Rooney, American radio and television writer most noted for his weekly broadcast “A Few Minutes With Andy Rooney”, a part of the CBS News program 60 Minutes since 1978
“Mike Wallace is unique—an interviewer with charisma, courage and confidence. He is in a class by himself, and I congratulate him on receiving this special honor.”
—Barbara Walters, broadcast journalist and author and host of morning television shows Today and The View, the television newsmagazine 20/20, and co-anchor of the ABC Evening News and correspondent on World News (then ABC Evening News)
“Most journalists would kill for a career like Mike Wallace’s. And it’s not over.”
—Ken Auletta, writer, journalist and media critic for The New Yorker
“Having worked with all the greats at CBS News —Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, Walter Cronkite—I just want to say that Mike Wallace was not one of them. He was two of them.”
—Don Hewitt (1992-2009), television news producer and executive, best known for creating 60 Minutes
“Since Mike’s retirement last year we now have the opportunity to celebrate the achievement of his life’s work with the great honors long due him. I heartily join the chorus of those who sing his praises—he’s a compelling journalist and one of my most treasured friends.”
—Walter Cronkite, broadcast journalist and anchor for the CBS Evening News, 1962-1981