Mike Wallace - The Difficult Question

This story’s about a young reporter who started his career in television many, many years ago — the early 50’s. Me, Francis Xavier Maguire.  I was working at a television station in New York City…and the thing about NYC is they say that “if you can make it there you can make it anywhere.” Yeah.

I was employed by a little station called WABD, founded by Dr. Alan B. Dumont, We were not doing well against the big networks – the biggest of which was NBC.  They had a star by the name of Steve Allen – host of The Tonight Show -- who everybody used to stay up and watch every night. The ratings that we had at 11 o’clock (when everybody went to their news program) were negative.  Nobody, and I mean nobody, was tuning to WABD for the news.

Our ratings picked up slightly at 11:30, when a man by the name of Ernie Kovacs came on the air. Ernie Kovacs -- one of the true geniuses of the early days of television -- was solid competition against a star of Steve Allen’s magnitude, but little ol’ WABD was still operating in the red zone of late night television.

It got so bad that the men who were running WBAD decided that they were going to try SOMETHING REALLY NEW for the 11:00 slot. So they sent around a notice announcing something new and innovative to come. I, being the still wet-behind-the-ears assistant director (the kid who pushed buttons) at the time, was told to “just show up next Monday night.”. Nothing more. I was obviously curious to see what this new something was going to be. It never even occurred to us that the “something new” would be to cancel the Miller High Life 11 O’clock News with Don Russell.

Those were the days when TV news was called “Rip and Read.” We’d gather the copy, put it in story form and hand it to Don, who then would literally stand in front of the camera and “rip and read” the copy. That was our news cast – performed with the help of a 5-man crew and myself.

Monday night, I’m obediently sitting in the newsroom waiting for something to happen and it’s ten fifteen and we got 45 to go on air. I heard these two voices coming down the hall – talking, laughing. Halfway down the hall to the newsroom, one of them said

“I need to make a pit stop.

The other replied “OK, I’ll go on ahead.”

The voice walked in, tall well-dressed guy and inquired “Is Francis Maguire here?” 

“Yessir, that’s me.”

“Hello, Francis. My name is Ted. I’m the producer of this new format that we’re going to try out tonight. Wanted to fill you in. Basically, it’s going to be an interview show. Going to have a host and a guest every night. The theme is going to be of interest to EVERYBODY OUT THERE – something never done before on television and the gentleman conducting the interviews has never been on television before either.”

As I was digesting the less-than-confidence-inspiring implications of that last statement, I hear the footsteps from down the hall. In walks this young guy -- pockmarked face, a gleam in his eye, an attitude that began to change everything in the room the moment he entered.

And the producer says to me, “Frank I want you to meet our new host, Mike Wallace.”

I said “Good Evening, Mr. Wallace.”

He said “Hello Francis. Y’know, I hope this thing goes all right for us…never been done before y’know.

“Yessir , I know.”

We talked for about 15 minutes then went up to the studio --  Studio 5A at the Dumont station. Mike sat down, nervous, like all of us. Then in walks his guest for the first night – a guy that everybody knew. As head of the Transit Union, he ran the NYC transit system and his name was Michael J. Quill.

Now Quill was an Irishman…and he let you know it the first time he met you. And he was in charge of everything. He determined whether the people of New York City went to work or didn’t go to work on any given day. He was “The Man.”

Mike shook hands with Mr. Quill, then escorted him to his seat. No fanfare, no prepared set. Just two chairs and a small end table. They just sat down and the show started.

Mike Wallace came on with “Hello, I’m Mike Wallace.”

 He introduced himself and extended an invitation to join him every night, then turned to introduce Michael J. Quill, and off they went.

The initial discussion had nothing to do with the Transit Union. It was about power…and the use of said power. Quill was very direct. He was convinced (and it became very clear)  that it was his obligation and his alone to keep the trains running – regardless of the methods employed.

The more they talked the more Wallace challenged Quill -- each question tougher than the one before. The more Mike pushed, the hotter the Irishman got. It became obvious that Michael Quill thought he deserved better treatment from this kid across from him, but Mike kept on, relentlessly firing questions the heft of which I had never experienced before. This was not light late night chatter – this was a gauntlet. I was sitting there astounded and amazed. Quill started to make his move to get up and walk off the show, off the set.

And I’ll never forget that moment when he looked at Mike Wallace through the red mist of his boiling anger and mounting frustration and sputtered “You are nothing more than a…Scalliwag!”

Quill had the assembled crew and onlookers convinced that this was a “fight to the death” and that he was battling the devil himself. But it was just Mike Wallace.

And that night, Mike Wallace gave birth to a new breed of news reporter. Those who have made a career out of asking the tough questions. Up until that time, it was about the star power, the (relatively) harmless chatter, the easy question.

Mike introduced the tough question. And a generation of interviewers in various capacities took a shot at making the tough question their stock in trade. Mike was class...real class. Today the medium of television has a group of authentic questioners who insist on getting answers to the tough questions. It’s really not the answer that counts, it’s the question. And from that I say, Thank you Mike for showing us that THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR THE TOUGH QUESTION.