Having Coffee With Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes

Mike Wallace was the greatest interviewer in TV history but also an innovator always on the lookout for new ideas

60 Minutes Correspondent Mike Wallace

In the back recesses of my memory is a ‘mind chalet’ with different rooms for different purposes.

There is a special space I visit only occasionally, it contains a wistful story from a time when there were few media heroes in the world and everything followed their lens. Mike Wallace was surely one of, if not the most, fabulous journalists of his time. I first met him at an award dinner I threw for Morley Safer, his 60 Minutes co-host.

That’s me on the right sharing a martini with Morley Safer

Wallace was Morley’s introducer that night and he gave what you would expect, a sharp, funny, warm and sentimental hug of an introduction with a few jabs to Safer’s ribs. He started off by observing Safer liked to think of himself as ‘everyman’ but added wryly, that it took a great leap of faith for someone who drove around New York in a Rolls Royce and wore English Turnbull and Asser ties to work, to believe in some way he was still a regular guy. At the end of the evening, Safer had a few more laugh lines around his eyes, and we stood around over drinks talking about how lucky he was to have such a lousy friend as Wallace.

Then Wallace asked me about my work at Forbes and I talked about his at 60 Minutes and we discovered by chance that although very different organizations, we were both doing similar investigative journalism. He said, “Jeff, why don’t we do something together, you publish it and we film it?” Then he invited me up for coffee to his office at CBS to chat.

Mike Wallace’s letter to the author

Most of us don’t think about celebrities having offices. We think they work in a studio where staplers and coffee cups get filled magically. That is how I found myself waiting in Mike Wallace’s reception area at CBS headquarters overlooking the Hudson River off 9th avenue.

He greeted me in in an open collared shirt with sleeves rolled up, and we walked back to his lair. It was a room you might expect for a mid level vice president in an office supply company. Desk in the back with two visitor’s chairs in front. Lots of bookcases, of course.

Then Morley Safer and Don Hewitt, the famed producer of 60 Minutes, poked their heads in, asking us if we wanted coffee. I thought, who is going to believe that Morley Safer fetched me coffee (“Morley, just a dash of milk and spoon of sugar, thanks.”)?

Safer and Hewitt returned with the java and the four of us worked out a fairly simple but nuanced plan in which Forbes would write a story and get it to 60 Minutes the week before we published so they could air on Sunday evening and we could come out on the Monday after. It had never been tried before on TV or in publishing. This was not just a career maker but a game changer.

I brought the deal back to Forbes Magazine where my editor was lukewarm. In the magazine world, a publisher and editor collaborate, they don’t tell each other what to do. A very healthy way to run a business. I took him to meet Wallace to see if that would broker the deal, but still, no dice. The editor felt it could backfire, given 60 Minutes’ reputation for savaging businesses. He might have been right in the sense that a hatchet job on a company, let’s say the level of IBM, would be a long term headache for Forbes, outweighing the sensational publicity it would generate in the short term.

We pay people big salaries to make these hard decisions and, as a bright boss once told me, you can’t always judge things by outcomes but only by the process you use to arrive at them. Business is about which risks are worth taking, not about certainties.

In the end, I think we made the wrong call but will never know, and Wallace and Safer are gone now.

But I’ll tell you this, the next time I get an idea this good, I’ll put it in the living room of the mind chalet.