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University alum Mike Wallace, a notoriously tough interviewer, defined an age of broadcast news

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By Adam Rubenfire, Daily News Editor
and Peter Shahin, Daily Staff Reporter
and Steve Zoski, Daily Staff Reporter
Published April 8, 2012

Pioneering broadcast journalist Mike Wallace, a University alum and former Michigan Daily reporter, best known for his scathing interviews on the CBS News program “60 Minutes,” died Saturday in New Cannan, Conn. Wallace was 93.

Wallace graduated from the University in 1939, but he long remained connected to Ann Arbor. He endowed an investigative reporting fellowship to the Knight-Wallace fellowship — a year-long program for mid-career journalists to study at the University — and donated the fellows' residence at 620 Oxford Road, which is filled with memorabilia and awards from his six-decade long career.

Wallace also worked at the University’s radio station, and after graduating he reported for news radio station WOOD-WASH in Grand Rapids, and later at WXYZ in Detroit.

Known for being an exceptionally tough interviewer, Wallace was one of the journalists who helped launch “60 Minutes” in 1968. Wallace formally retired from the program in 2006 to become a “correspondent emeritus.” He did many major interviews in this role, including his last appearance on the venerable news magazine show in January 2008, in the first public interview of former Major League Baseball pitcher Roger Clemens after a report suggested he used performance-enhancing drugs.

Wallace has interviewed many notable figures, including Jack Kevorkian —a famous doctor and University alum who was imprisoned for assisting individuals in committing suicide. Oakland County prosecutors used his interview with Kevorkian during a trial that resulted in the doctor’s eventual imprisonment for second-degree murder.

Wallace began the “ambush” interview, in which he presented his subjects with otherwise unknown evidence of wrongful acts they had committed. Wallace later admitted that such tactics were more to create attractive TV rather than good journalism.

Wallace was the subject of several libel suits, which endangered his career and reportedly caused him much stress, eventually driving him into clinical depression.

Wallace earned 21 Emmy Awards, five DuPont-Columbia journalism awards, five Peabody awards and the Paul White Award, the most prestigious award given by the Radio and Television News Directors Association. He also won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award grand prize and television first prize in 1996, and was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in June 1991.

Yesterday morning, Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News and executive producer of “60 Minutes,” said in a statement that Wallace was critical to the formation of “60 Minutes.”

“There simply hasn’t been another broadcast journalist with that much talent,” Fager said. “It almost didn’t matter what stories he was covering, you just wanted to hear what he would ask next. Around CBS he was the same infectious, funny and ferocious person as he was on TV. We loved him and we will miss him very much.”

CBS News producer Don Hewitt picked Wallace for the program in 1968 because of his “hard-charging” style, according to the release.

“Wallace was as famous as the leaders, newsmakers and celebrities who suffered his blistering interrogations, winning awards and a reputation for digging out the hidden truth on Sunday nights in front of an audience that approached 40 million at broadcast television’s peak,” the release read.

Harry Reasoner, Wallace’s original partner on “60 Minutes” who died in 1991, said Wallace’s interviewing abilities were one-of-a-kind.

“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,” Reasoner said before his death.

During Wallace’s time on “60 Minutes,” the show spent 23 seasons on the Nielsen top 10 list, including five seasons as the number one rated program.

A front-page article in the April 7, 1938 edition of The Michigan Daily announced that CBS hired Wallace to join its radio broadcast team.