The outsider

Mike Wallace could've been my mentor. Where did I go wrong?

Topics: CBS,

“Good evening. What you are about to witness is an unrehearsed, uncensored interview. My name is Mike Wallace. The cigarette,” says a stern, young Wallace, holding up his smoky stub in black and white, “is Phillip Morris.”

Cut to noir-ish title sequence, complete with smoke curling its way up the television in fast-motion as the words “The Mike Wallace Interview” pop up on the screen one at a time.

It’s now 42 years later, and the very industry that helped put Wallace’s kids through college is at the center of a controversy that threatens to undermine his five-decade career in a mere two and a half hours. That’s the running time of a new movie chronicling what was may turn out to be the lowest point in Wallace’s career. “The Insider” centers on the “60 Minutes” debacle over whether to air a controversial exposi of the tobacco industry.

Wallace is said to be fuming over his portrayal, and rightly. Despite his reputation as the country’s No. 1 hard-nosed journalist, Wallace, as interpreted by Christopher Plummer, is a sell-out. He throws his loyal, longtime producer to the wolves (network executives), who are terrified of repercussions (lawsuits) from the big bad tobacco industry. Only after another media outlet breaks the story does the real-life Wallace reportedly burst forth with bravado, insisting that CBS run the story of whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand.

From Wallace’s point of view, the timing of this movie couldn’t be worse. To be made to look foolish in the twilight of his career must seem to him grossly unfair. Had the tobacco fiasco occurred, say, 20 years ago, he would have had a couple of decades to repair his tarnished reputation. Instead, the battle went down in 1996, and now that every ugly detail has been preserved on celluloid, Wallace is starting to think about how he will be remembered.

And it’s easy to see why he’d be concerned about his legacy: He’s won 19 Emmys, three Peabody Awards and three DuPont Awards. He’s interviewed everyone from LBJ to JFK, from the Ayatollah Khomeini to Nixon to Baryshnikov — and now, at 81, this is how he stands to be remembered? As the wuss who nearly brought down CBS? How … anti-climactic.

In the summer of 1992, I’d just won an Emmy while working for a small television production company in upstate New York. It was time to try to break into the big leagues: a job in New York City.

So what’s a girl from Albany to do if she doesn’t know anyone in the business? She gathers all her moxie and calls everyone she knows to see if they do. And, as luck would have it, someone does.

A friend of a friend used to go to school with a man who writes for Dan Rather at CBS. I make my cold call, and he agrees to give me a few minutes of his time. A few days later, I take the Amtrak down to the city for one of those “informational meetings” that rarely lead to a job, and usually lead only to more “informational meetings.”

After our brief chat, I’m standing in the hallowed halls once roamed by Edward R. Murrow, and for some reason, Mike Wallace pops into my mind. I dare myself to try to get him on the phone. “Call him!” says one side of my brain. “Are you crazy?” says the other. “He’ll think you’re a stalker. Forget it.” I exit the building and head toward the train station. After a few hesitant steps, I turn around and go back into the building. What do I have to lose? I stand in front of the bank of in-house phones for a good 10 minutes before I gather up the nerve to give it a shot.

The operator answers. “Mike Wallace please,” I say with every drop of courage I possess. “Just a moment.” I prepare to leave a message that will never be returned. Waiting, waiting … and suddenly a forceful “Hello” from the other end of the phone. This voice is male. It is strong. It is confident. And, it is a bit impatient when I don’t immediately respond. “Hello!” the voice shouts. It is Mike Wallace.

I’ll be damned. He answers his own phone! “Uh, yes, I’m looking for Mike Wallace?” “This is Mike Wallace.” I stumble my way through a brief “bit” I haven’t even bothered to rehearse.

“I’m a television producer living in Albany, I’ve just won an Emmy for a piece I produced about a pedophile, and I really want to break into the TV business down here. It’s time for the big leagues, but I’m not quite sure how best to do it. I’d love to get some advice from someone I admire, and I’ve always admired you. I’m, uh, well, actually, I’m downstairs at CBS. Right now.”

“Well, today’s really not the best day for me,” he says. Here it comes: the rejection. “I just came from a memorial service we had for Harry Reasoner.” Long pause. “But you know what? I’ll betcha Harry would’ve done it. Come on up.” It’s an impossibly nice gesture, even if he was doing it out of the goodness of someone else’s heart. My pulse racing, I cross 57th Street in the pounding rain, walk into Wallace’s building and jump in the elevator. (The same elevator Mike rides!)

As his secretary leads me into Wallace’s office, I feel as if I’m having an out-of-body experience. Wallace greets me and invites me to take a seat. Only when he points it out do I realize I’m clutching my umbrella so hard that my knuckles are white. “Relax,” he tells me. “Put your umbrella down and tell me your story.” I reiterate exactly what I’d said on the phone.

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He asks me if I have a copy of the Emmy-winning story with me. Of course I have it. I figure he’ll take a copy and never watch it. Instead, he motions me over to the VCR and takes the tape from me, puts it in the machine and presses play. We watch my piece — called “Chain of Pain” — in its entirety. My story holds Mike Wallace’s attention for eight whole minutes!

As the piece is ending, Don Hewitt walks by. To my shock, Wallace grabs his legendary executive producer and asks him if he has a minute to come in and meet a producer who just won an Emmy. This experience gets more surreal by the second as the three of us proceed to watch my story again. My confidence building, I even manage to make a wisecrack or two. When the piece ends, sensing my time is up, I thank them both for their time. Wallace offers up the name and number of his agent and tells me to call her in a week. He’ll put in a good word. I walk out of the “60 Minutes” office with a skip in my step, convinced I’m going to become the next Diane Sawyer.

And of course, if I’m going to be Diane Sawyer, I’d better carry myself like Diane Sawyer. These upstate clothes just aren’t going to cut it. I go into the first store I see, one of those Israeli-owned discount joints on every other corner in New York, and proceed to buy myself three suits I can’t afford. OK, they’re not Armani, but I have to start somewhere. I remember two of the three suits: Both have very short skirts (bad choice, in retrospect); one is a tan and cream plaid number and the other is a blinding primary purple. What did I know.

On the train back upstate, my head is in the clouds. I’m thinking about what I’ll say to my boss when I give notice, and what it’ll be like working my way up to becoming the youngest correspondent in “60 Minutes” history. I send follow-up letters, and a few days later, I begin leaving phone messages for Mike Wallace and Don Hewitt. They don’t return my calls, so they must be very, very busy. I know this must be the case — we’re chums!

Two weeks later, when there is still no response from Wallace or Hewitt, I become impatient. I want answers. I start leaving more messages.

The secretaries at “60 Minutes” are beginning to get really tired of me. As I’m leaving what may or may not be my fourth message for Don Hewitt, his secretary lets out her most vicious bark. “He’s gotten all of your messages,” she tells me. “You can stop calling now.” And what do I do? Thinking it will actually earn me points to be ballsy, I make the mistake of barking back.

“You don’t have to talk to me that way. I’m just trying to be conscientious. I have left several messages and he hasn’t returned even one of them. Are you giving Don Hewitt my messages?”

At the time, I’m sure Don Hewitt will hear from the secretary how feisty I am. He will like that, I think. It’s a good trait for a “60 Minutes” correspondent to have. And I’m sure it’ll get him to return my call.

He calls me back on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. I’m in my parents’ living room in Albany, in the middle of breaking the fast, when the phone rings.

“Hello?”

“Yeah, is this Caroline Sommers?” asks an angry, older man.

“Uhh, yes it is.”

“Yeah, well, this is Don Hewitt. Stop calling my office and harassing my secretary. You’re not going to get a job at ’60 Minutes,’ so leave us alone.” Click.

I feel like I’ve been sucker-punched. Eventually, the sting wears off and, a month later, I get a job working for another TV show (albeit one that is much less prestigious). And within no time at all, I manage to put my “60 Minutes” experience behind me.

One night about three years later, I’m covering a black-tie gala at the Waldorf. I’m about to interview Mike Wallace. “Before I get to my questions,” I say, “I just want to thank you so much for what you did for me.” Blank stare. I start recounting the events of that late summer day, someone else grabs his attention, and he’s gone.

I experienced what I still believe was genuine kindness on the part of Mike Wallace. It was a gesture that spoke volumes about the man and his instincts. But by the time the tobacco story came about, four years later, the newsman was pushing 80. He may simply have been tired of fighting the good fight, and unwilling to take on another underdog.
Imagine — he has the scoop of a lifetime, but it’s risky. It could get ugly and expensive — for him and for CBS. He figures he’s in the home stretch — why stick his neck out now and jeopardize his legacy and good name?

As I read about Wallace’s current troubles, I wonder. Why did he ask me up to his office that day — and was he thinking about how he’d be remembered? Was he just acting, in a sentimental moment, the way he believed a great man (like Harry Reasoner) would act? Or is it possible that he really is a brave man, who truly cares about helping people and about pursuing the truth? If it’s the latter, then Mike Wallace has nothing to worry about. His legacy is safe. At least with me.

Caroline Sommers is a television producer who has covered stories for "Inside Edition," "Extra," A&E, CBS and Court TV. She lives in New York.

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