Mike Wallace And The Art Of The Ambush Interview

Legendary CBS News reporter Mike Wallace died on Sunday at the age of 93.

Mr. Wallace interviewed dozens of the world’s most important figures, but he will likely be remembered most for pioneering the “ambush interview.”

Looking back on his career, Wallace told CNN’s Howard Kurtz that he and the late 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt “came to the conclusion that there was more heat than light that came out of that. We weren’t getting a lot of information from those so-called ambushes. So we quit … I have no doubt that what we started has become a plague.”

Although Mr. Wallace and Mr. Hewitt came to the right conclusion regarding ambush interviews, many other television personalities (some of whom I hesitate to call journalists) have continued his tradition. They imitate Wallace’s legacy by following a public figure down the street, racing them through a parking lot, or showing up to their office without warning.

Little scares media spokespersons more than the prospect of being ambushed. I recently wrote two posts about how spokespersons can survive ambush interviews (here and here), in which I wrote that:

“The single best way to ‘win’ an ambush is by denying the reporter a great visual.”

This excellent obit piece from CBS News highlights Mr. Wallace’s aggressive interviewing style:

If you’re ever ambushed, remember the advice offered in that old deodorant ad: Never let ‘em see you sweat. By remaining calm, you can prevent reporters from getting the compelling “money” shot they desire.

If a Mike Wallace-type ever shows up without warning, try saying something like this:

“Thank you for coming. I’d be happy to speak with you. I wish I knew you were coming – I have a meeting scheduled in a few minutes that I’m already running late for. Please contact my office so we can set up a time to talk.”

Mr. Wallace left one other important legacy behind. As a result of his interrogative interviewing style, politicians and top executives began to live in greater fear of media interviews than they ever had before. They reacted by hiring media coaches. Therefore, it’s probably not hyperbolic to suggest that we media trainers owe our very profession to Mr. Wallace.