Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Mike Wallace at 89, at Fordham University

I love teaching, but every once in a while I have a day that captures the very best that can happen at a fine university. It's related to teaching, as most things are at a university, but goes far beyond that.

I've been watching, enjoying, and learning from Mike Wallace on CBS since I was teenager, back in the 1960s. Whether his sage commentary in reporting Presidential election returns, or his take-no-prisoners questions in pursuit of the truth on 60 Minutes, Mike Wallace has always been a one-of-a-kind class act.

He talked today at Fordham University. And not only answered but asked perceptive questions of the students - the kinds of questions that may well change some of their lives.

Here's how that came to be.

In my capacity as Chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, I helped hire Dr. Beth Knobel. About a year ago, we coaxed her into leaving her position as CBS Bureau Chief in Moscow and joining our Department at Fordham. She arranged for Mike Wallace to come talk to her "Innovators in Television" class today (there couldn't be a better fit), and opened the class to the entire university.

I said a few words about Mike Wallace and introduced the President of Fordham University, Joseph McShane, SJ, who provided an elegant, formal introduction. President McShane is himself a keen student of media, and aptly observed that Mike Wallace had invented a significant part of what we take today as broadcast journalism.

As Mike pointed out, it's been somewhat in decline of late on cable. (Mike insisted that he be called Mike, so I'll honor that request here from now on.)

He spoke with passion about how he confronted General Westmoreland and Lyndon Johnson about the deceptions they were spreading about the Vietnam War - no easy task for a journalist back then - and about many other signal moments in his five decades on camera.

But his most significant moments at Fordham today came when he effortlessly moved from his role as guest lecturer to his much more familiar role as astute questioner. He started by asking the students what they watch on television, what they want from television news.

But soon he was asking them about their views on mortality, the after life, whether they believe in a deity, a cosmic plan - something one might expect of an 89-year old, but not in a talk to students about his half-century on CBS.

And it was quite extraordinary. And deeply appropriate. What is a reporter, an investigative journalist, after all, if not a teacher, and sometimes of the most profound things, to the public at large.

His wife Mary, who was also a pleasure to meet, watched all of this with a twinkle in her eye.

Mike Wallace may have "retired" from active broadcasting last year. But he'll never retire as a teacher of the human species, a conveyor of its highest calling in the quest for truth, wherever you might find it.
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