April 9th, 2012
With the passing of Mike Wallace, the world has lost the architect of accountability journalism. I do workshops nearly every week at AR&D client TV stations helping reporters develop their skills at asking the accountability questions that hold those in charge responsible for their actions. It is something viewers demand above all else these days. The media has access to the politicians and public employees who are spending their hard-earned tax dollars – many of these viewers would say “mis-spending” those monies. The viewers want answers – and they must rely on the media to get them.
Mike Wallace raised this tough questioning to an art form. Harry Reasoner once said, “There is one thing that Mike can do better than anybody else: With an angelic smile, he can ask a question that would get anyone else smashed in the face.” How did Wallace get away with it? He was first and foremost a fearless questioner – but – and probably more importantly – he did his research. He knew the answer before he asked the question – therefore he cut through the person’s spin – by asking the question the right way the first time – or following up relentlessly until the subject fessed up.
Mike Wallace had certain famous opening lines he used for this type of questioning. For instance, “Forgive me for asking….but…” OR “Not my words….but some say…” He used this technique during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979. Wallace asked Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini — a feared world figure at the time — what he thought about being called “a lunatic” by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
In the 1990′s Mike Wallace landed a rare interview with Barbra Streisand, and mocked her over 20 years of being in psychoanalysis by asking, “What is it you’re trying to find out that takes 20 years?” That brought tears from Streisand who stammered, “I’m a slow learner.”
Wallace also was famous for his reaction to some stone-walling or lame answer by someone he was questioning saying “Oh, come on…” OR “What do you mean you have no idea?” Then he would sit and wait – letting the camera roll until the person felt compelled to say something – usually the answer to the original question. I recommend this technique to reporters all the time – they don’t have to use the “come on” line – but don’t be afraid to sit there and let the camera roll – usually the subject of your question will cave and say something to break the silence.
But for all his bravado – Wallace’s greatest asset was being armed with research. I tell reporters that they MUST know the answer to the question before they ask the question. That way the politician cannot wiggle off the hook with a lame, stock answer. Remember this: Most politicians rehearse answers to your expected questions – so you need to do your research to continue to probe until they give you an actual answer that responds to your actual question.
With the death of Mike Wallace, the Internet is filled with links to many of his famous interviews. Spend time to watch some of them – and while you are doing that pay close attention to the demeanor and the questioning techniques exhibited by Wallace. This will give you a masters degree in the art of accountability journalism.
In the end, the greatest compliment anyone ever paid Mike Wallace was most likely an advertisement taken out by the Coors Brewing company in the early 80′s. It said – “The Four Most Dreaded Words in the English Language: Mike Wallace Is Here.”