Amid ethics scandal, Mike Wallace managed to prevent fist fight

Mike Wallace

Mike Wallace generally came across as somewhat of a pitbull. But Wallace, known for his hard-hitting television interviews, was not one to fly off the handle. His producer did just that one evening in New York when he tried to punch a former employee in the nose.

The producer, Don Hewitt, has just finished a talk to journalists in which he lambasted the 1999 movie “The Insider.” Hewitt said that the movie took liberties in describing the way his show “60 Minutes” covered the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp. scandal.

The movie showed Hewitt bowing to CBS corporate interests in not airing a segment about a tobacco company whistle blower.

Although the segment eventually aired, one of its reporters, Lowell Bergman, quit over the delay and was involved in making the movie.

Then at the Waldorf Astoria 12 years ago Bergman confronted Hewitt from the audience at the end of his talk. The discussion flamed anew in the corridor as Hewitt rushed at Bergman, a man many years his junior. The men would have begun a brawl if Wallace did not intervene and grab the diminutive Hewitt in a bear hug.

But angry words continued to fly. Wallace also had been critical of the movie. He was really protecting the 77-year-old Hewitt. Wallace was 82 himself at the time, Bergman was just 54. The incident made the newswires.

The key point of the television news segment and of the movie was that tobacco company researcher Jeffrey Wigand had evidence that executives knew for years that nicotine was addictive even though they had denied that to Congress.

Bergman was played by Al Pacino in the movie. Subsequent commentators agree that the movie gave the CBS reporter a stronger role in disclosing the truth than had really happened.

The major ethical issue was if Hewitt stalled airing the tobacco segment for fear of a major lawsuit or if he did so because CBS
was about to be merged with Westinghouse and a lawsuit would kill the deal. Published reports after the 1995 incident disclosed that the family of Lawrence Tisch, then chairman of CBS, was buying six cigarette brands from Brown & Williamson. So clearly Tisch had a reason to sit on the segment that portrayed the tobacco industry in a negative light.

The tobacco controversy was one of many that involved Wallace during his nearly 40 years at “60 minutes.” He was 93 when he died Saturday.

Wallace was an entertainer in the early days of television and then rose to become one of America’s best known broadcast journalists.

In a statement Sunday, the CBS network said Wallace died Saturday at an extended care facility in Connecticut after a long illness.

Wallace spent nearly 40 years on the ground-breaking CBS news magazine “60 Minutes.” There, he interviewed hundreds of the world’s most prominent public figures, from U.S. presidents, generals, artists and athletes to international dignitaries, writers, playwrights and Hollywood stars. He also interviewed scores of lesser-known figures, including suspected cheats, fraudsters, and many others alleged to have used dubious means to achieve wealth and fame.

CBS on Sunday cited Wallace’s “extraordinary contribution as a broadcaster,” calling him “a force within the television industry throughout its existence.”

Wallace’s relentless style drew millions of viewers and fans to Sunday night television, where “60 Minutes” has been a mainstay since its first broadcast segment in 1968. But that style also drew criticism and a highly publicized lawsuit stemming from the Vietnam War.

That suit, brought by army Gen. William C. Westmoreland — the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam — sought $120 million in damages for a Wallace-anchored “60 Minutes” report alleging the general deceived the American public by under-counting the enemy in Vietnam. The case went to trial in 1984, and months later Westmoreland withdrew the suit.

Wallace later revealed in an interview with colleague Morley Safer that he had attempted suicide during the lawsuit crisis. He later spoke repeatedly about his recovery from depression and said the years after the attempt were some of the most productive of his long life.

Hewitt died in 1999. Bergman is now with The New York Times and also the Public Broadcasting series “Frontline.” He also is a journalism professor in California.

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