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Playboy Interview: Mike Wallace
  • April 09, 2012 : 11:04
  • comments

Playboy: In the wake of the story, you went on the Charlie Rose show to discuss it and took Morley Safer along with you. Yet you hadn't told Safer that 60 Minutes had paid Wigand $12,000 one year earlier as an expert consultant on another story; nor had you told him that CBS had indemnified Wigand against libel suits, so long as he told the truth.

Without knowing any of this, Safer went out on a limb during the show, condemning the lawyers at CBS. Three days later, it came out in the press that Wigand had taken the consultant's fee. When Safer found out, he got angry and put out a statement saying that you had "sandbagged" him. Had you?

Wallace: The truth is that Morley didn't know anything about this story. My mistake was suggesting that he come to the Charlie Rose broadcast and talk about something he didn't know about. There was no sandbagging. Morley knows now that was utter nonsense.

Playboy: So his statement was issued in the heat of passion?

Wallace: Maybe the heat of passion, or after a few drinks. He called me at home at 7:45 that night. He was standing in the Palm, the noisiest restaurant in Washington, D.C. He told me he was writing a letter to all and sundry. And I'm hearing of his dismay for the first time. I said, "Mo, we'll talk about this tomorrow."

Playboy: He then issued a public apology to Charlie Rose and his audience.

Wallace: I had no idea he was doing that. It was an asinine overreaction—based on ignorance. I hated the fact that this was going to fracture our friendship.

Playboy: Did it?

Wallace: Well, the next day, a Saturday afternoon, I called Mo and said, "I want to come see you, and I want to give you this background. I value your friendship and our closeness so much that I am going to come over hat in hand and try to explain this to you—you who are never wrong and seldom in doubt. I'm going to explain to you what went on."

Playboy: And?

Wallace: And we sat there for two hours, without a drink in our hands, and talked and got it all straightened out. I have nothing but respect for Morley. But he went off half-cocked.

Playboy: Looking back, do you feel you had anything to apologize for?

Wallace: Nothing whatsoever. I thought he had something to apologize for. But, as I said, he's never wrong and seldom in doubt. And I love him.

Playboy: Let's touch on another incident that brought you some bad publicity: the hidden camera. In 1994 a journalist was helping you with a story, and you videotaped her with a hidden camera during a background conversation in your office. Someone leaked that information to The Washington Post, and you got your knuckles rapped by the president of CBS News.

Wallace: That was a big mistake, and I'm ashamed of it. I made a speech at Harvard later, and I proposed an annual malpractice award for egregious sins against the standards and principles of journalism. I said that I should be the first recipient.

Playboy: How did something so obviously out of line happen?

Wallace: The problem was that the journalist, Karon Haller, was willing to tell us everything she knew about a story we were working on, but she was shy about going on camera. So my producer suggested using a hidden camera and then showing her the tape afterward. But we didn't play it back right away. Why not? Because we weren't planning to put it on the air without her permission. We said, "Let's put it together and see what we're going to use—and then check with her." I should have said no. It was a mistake. That's when someone in our shop leaked it to The Washington Post.

Playboy: You seem contrite now, but when the story broke, you were very defensive. Are you a naturally defensive person?

Wallace: I used to be, but I'll tell you what changed me. In 1982 General William Westmoreland brought a libel lawsuit against me, CBS and several others who worked on a CBS Reports broadcast about alleged enemy strengths during the Vietnam war. That's when I began to understand what happens to somebody who is suddenly propelled into the public eye. You have microphones, reporters and cameras looking down your throat. Some of the stuff that is undertaken in pursuit of a story, some of the tactics journalists use, I found distasteful.

Playboy: Such as?

Wallace: Such as an ambush interview, while I'm walking down the street with my wife.

Playboy: And you found that distasteful. Why?

Wallace: Because I was totally unprepared for it. I had been very open with the press, and all they wanted to do was get me on camera saying what I had been saying publicly—but they wanted their own little exclusive thing.

Playboy: So the Westmoreland experience was chastening for you?

Wallace: Oh, yes. Chastening for a couple of reasons. First, because we made mistakes and, suddenly, we're on trial for our lives, so to speak.

Playboy: And second?

Wallace: Because it triggered a depression in me, a clinical depression. When you pick up the paper every morning and read that you are a thief, a liar, a murderer, a fake, a fraud, whatever. . . .

Playboy: And that made you feel ----

Wallace: It made me feel lower than a snake's belly. It did. It would be like a doctor getting sued for malpractice because somebody lost a limb or his sight or his life. He's a servant of health. He's not trying to hurt people, he's trying to help people . And a reporter, in a strange way, is the same. What does he have? His credibility, his integrity. When that's brought into question in a courtroom, over and over and over again. . . . In my case, it triggered some chemical imbalance, plus a clinical depression. Suddenly every insecurity I ever had took over.

Playboy: Such as?

Wallace: Self-doubt. I would walk into a restaurant with my wife, and I was convinced that I was being seen as a liar, that everybody was whispering behind my back, "There he goes—the liar, the fake, the fraud. He tried to destroy a national hero. He tried to do it in a dishonest way."

Playboy: But if you knew in your heart that you weren't a liar and a fraud ----

Wallace: You're suggesting that depression is rational. Depression is not rational. The most eloquent understanding of depression that I know about is the book Darkness Visible, by my friend Bill Styron. He writes, "Depression is so mysteriously painful and elusive as to verge close to being beyond description." It really is. In my case, it also involved pain—knives in my arms, weakness in my legs.

Playboy: Did you talk with Styron about the depression?

Wallace: Not at first. I was working. I was going to the trial. I didn't let people know I was suffering from depression. I was ashamed. I didn't want anybody to know. Then one night Styron and his wife, Rose, and Art Buchwald were here in my living room. Artie is a good friend, and I knew that he had suffered an episode of depression. And Styron was just at the beginning of his depression. He began to tell me how bad he felt. And I was thinking, Oh, that's so good to hear. He's in so much worse shape than I am. I swear, I felt up for 24 hours after hearing that.

Playboy: Did that bring you out of the depression?

Wallace: Oh, no. A depression takes over your life. It is an utterly irrational descent into something close to madness. You wake up in the morning and all you want to do is go back to sleep—but you can't get to sleep. You've taken sleeping pills to try to stay asleep the night before, and you're groggy. It's an incredible experience. You think about suicide. You think about what a worthless character you are. I had to go into the hospital for two weeks.

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  • anonymous
    Farewell to an important man.