Mike Wallace: The Chuck Norris of American Journalism?

Within the span of a few minutes over the weekend, the New Yorker and Politico published first-person remembrances of legendary newsman (and Brookline High grad) MIKE WALLACE, both of which had essentially the same headline: I Was Scooped By Mike Wallace. 

The anecdotes related are more than 20 years apart, but they feel like they could've happened on consecutive weekends. In both cases, great reporters have a big story dead to rights -- and suddenly find that Wallace has somehow out-hustled them in super-heroic manner. Mike Wallace: the Chuck Norris of journalism?

The first story comes from another journalism legend, Sy Hersh, now at the New Yorker. (Hey, while you're at it go read him on the links between American intelligence and the MEK.) It's 1974, and Hersh, then covering Washington for the New York Times, has stumbled onto a source in Oregon who's got the goods on a White House spying ring. Hersh flies out to Oregon, interviews the source, files his story for a Sunday page one story, and then gets on a plane with the source to fly him back to the East Coast for further interviewing. It's Saturday. We'll let Hersh tell the rest:

We had a layover of an hour or so in Denver and we both went off to make a few phone calls; Radford [the source] said that he wanted to check in with his wife and children. Radford boarded the Denver-Washington flight at the very last moment. I asked him if there was anything important going on back home. No, he said, but some radio guy from New York called me and we had a long talk. Radio guy? Yeah, he said, Mike something. Wallace? I asked. “That’s it.”

You’ve got to remember that it was a Saturday night in New York City. Mike had seen or been tipped off about my scheduled Times piece quoting Radford, made some calls, found Radford’s wife, and somehow persuaded her that she had to give her husband the message to call him immediately at CBS. When Radford did, Wallace interviewed him from the Denver airport. He immediately splashed the interview all over CBS radio. Wallace had scooped me by interviewing Radford while I was flying with him in tow. I was more embarrassed than angry. The Old Man had shown me his moves, and taken my candy away.

Fast forward to 1997, and Josh Gerstein is covering the White House for ABC News. He's about to be scooped by Wallce twice in the same day.

Gerstein happens to be on Martha's Vineyard, covering the Clintons on vacation, when word comes that Princess Diana has died. He's assigned to ferry Diane Sawyer to an interview with Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham -- one of the Princess's closest American friends. Here's how he recalls scoop one

There aren’t usually many broadcast TV crews on the Vineyard, even when the president is there—and most of them were tied up dealing with the reaction from the First Family. We pulled up at Graham’s home and, as I recall, Sawyer told me and the crew to wait in the car while she went in to make sure everything was set. After we’d been waiting for a few minutes, I was stunned to see someone emerge from the front door of the house with a camera tripod and a couple of videotapes. I remember being a combination of shocked and kind of pissed off that, despite the way we hustled, someone had beaten us to the punch.


I felt a bit (but not entirely) better when Sawyer came out a bit later and told us the reporter who had just beaten us to Graham was Mike Wallace. I thought to myself: getting scooped: not good; getting scooped by Mike Wallace: nothing to really be ashamed about. 

But that's not even the most impressive part of the story. Later the same day, Gerstein and Sawyer have tracked down Hilary Clinton at the home of novelist William Styron. They pull up at the house:

Suddenly, however, there was something of a kerfuffle. Someone had leapt over a fence a couple hundred feet from the Styrons’ house and was coming up their lawn towards the dining party. My recollection is the Secret Service agents didn’t budge, which I thought was a bit odd.

I couldn’t immediately see who was boldly striding across the lawn towards the First Lady, but as he came closer we recognized the familiar face of Mike Wallace. He lived nearby and was looking to get Mrs. Clinton to agree to an interview about Diana. I don’t think the First Lady agreed to do it, but it was an impressive and fearless effort on Wallace’s part—not to mention his agility to be jumping fences at age 79.

Seventy nine! Maybe we have it all wrong: Chuck Norris was the Mike Wallace of action movies. 

And since we're on the subject, we'll also throw in one final recollection of Wallace, this one courtesy of our former media reporter Dan Kennedy -- and also from 1997. The Boston Globe had just run a hit piece on former Boston mayor Ray Flynn, and Wallace came to Boston -- not to pour gasoline on the Flynn story, but instead to stick it to the Globe. Kennedy called Wallace to find out what's what. Here's how the conversation went, according to Kennedy's 1997 piece in the Phoenix

"As far as I'm concerned, the Globe never showed the connection between his public performance and his drinking," Wallace said. "How were the vital interests of the United States of America damaged? Was it worth two-and-a-half pages above the fold in the Boston Globe?"

Wallace then turned his attention to me, and specifically to a piece I wrote that was largely supportive of the Globe story and critical of the paper's decade-plus silence on the issue of Flynn's drinking ("The Globe vs. Ray Flynn," News, October 10).

"Jesus Christ, did they really have to do this to poor old Ray Flynn?" Wallace asked. "And you, you bastard . . . " He proceeded to read an excerpt in which I wrote that Flynn was preparing to run for governor because "he can't think of anything better to do."

"Is that a fact?" Wallace demanded.

I mumbled something about its being an opinion piece. If I'd been a little quicker on my feet, I might have added that my opinion of Flynn's motive is shared by a broad cross section of media and political insiders. Still, Wallace had a point.

And he was equally unimpressed with my contention that Flynn ran afoul of cultural changes surrounding alcohol and public drunkenness -- that behavior once viewed as acceptable is now condemned, and that journalists, as a result, are less inclined to look the other way.

"You yuppies aren't telling me that things have changed," Wallace sneered. "Things haven't changed at all." He recalled the case of Wilbur Mills, an Arkansas Democrat who, in the early 1970s, was chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Mills, an alcoholic, became publicly involved with a stripper; among other misadventures, he was photographed groping her drunkenly at a Boston club. Mills lost his chairmanship and ultimately left Congress.

"When Wilbur Mills got drunk on duty, so to speak, they ran him out of office. And that was a long, long time ago," Wallace said.

At one point, he interrupted the interview to interject: "You're writing this all down so you can make me out to be a horse's ass."

 No, sir. Noooo sirrrreeee. On the contrary, all us horse's asses are pouring one out this week for Wallace. 

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