Mike Wallace is such a legendary figure in the news business that few journalists don’t feel a sense of loss with his passing Sunday at the age of 93. But his death truly struck a chord for me personally because I got to see the legend up close: He interviewed me for a 1994 segment of “60 Minutes” that proved a pivotal moment in my life.
It all started with a pink envelope mailed to the student newspaper where I served as editor in chief at Queens College in New York. Inside was a check for $288 and an advertisement from an organization that called itself the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust. As a naïve 20-year-old raised in a traditional Jewish household, I was shocked by the content of the ad being submitted for inclusion in my publication: a pseudo-scholarly screed suggesting the Holocaust had never occurred.
Some research on my part revealed that the newspaper was just one of many college publications being baited by an individual well known for being an anti-Semite. But some of those publications made the choice to publish the ad and return the money in an effort to illustrate this organization’s tactics. After much soul-searching and consultation, I opted to do the same, igniting a media firestorm the likes of which I never anticipated (if you’re curious for more details, read more here about the controversy on page 10).
Maybe it was because I was a Jew on a college campus estimated to be about 30% Jewish, but before the ad was even published, I had attracted coverage from local publications from The New York Post to The New York Times. Then came the call from a producer at “60 Minutes.”
Wallace wanted to do a story on Holocaust revisionism and its impact on college campuses. My own decision would become a featured part of the segment if I was interested in letting “60 Minutes” cameras come down and interview myself and fellow staffers, in addition to shooting an editorial board meeting.
You might think declining would be the best policy. But publicizing the ad was at the core of the rationale behind my decision. I wanted to raise awareness about the very existence of Holocaust revisionism, even at the risk of legitimizing what my many detractors felt was best left ignored.
And that’s how I found myself face to face with Wallace in the student newspaper office where I spent most of my college days. I wish I could vividly recount the encounter, but in truth it was just as much a blur of stress and excitement hours afterward as it was decades removed from that fateful day.
What I do remember: Before the taping even had begun, I watched Wallace dab at his own face with pancake makeup. When he caught me watching, he playfully wagged the brush in my direction. The one memorable exchange I recall from the taping didn’t even make air, when one of my newspaper colleagues giving a rather lengthy answer to a perfunctory question, which led Wallace to cut her off with a somewhat rude reprimand that left everyone laughing.
It set the tone for an interview that was likely a walk in the park for Wallace. Here was this titan of journalism who had grilled world leaders and notorious criminals going face to face with a very nervous college junior who couldn’t be any more intimidated.
Yet when I play back the well-worn VCR cassette of the interview, it’s such a tame back-and-forth I’m not sure what I was nervous about. I got a few minutes of airtime, which took a lot longer to get on camera due to the endless tinkering and stops and starts of any production shoot.
In the annals of Wallace’s storied career, I’m sure my story won’t merit even a footnote in his biography. But looking back, the episode set me on the path down which I continue today.
While I was getting invaluable experience in college getting my feet wet in the rigors of print journalism, I wasn’t quite set on making it a career. A major in psychology had me considering being a therapist, though as the fascinating introductory courses gave way to more advance-level science-oriented curriculum my interest was flagging.
But journalism scared me. I wasn’t sure I was good enough and it was something of a non-traditional career choice in a religion best known for breeding accountants, lawyers and doctors.
But there was something about being on the opposite end of a “60 Minutes” story that proved revelatory to me. Suddenly I was intoxicated by the possibilities the profession offered in a way that journalism internships I suffered through in my college years never did.
I couldn’t put my finger on it then, but looking back I realize “60 Minutes” gave me confidence to pursue journalism because I felt I had gone toe to toe with Wallace and survived. Of course, that may have made me just as suited to public relations but it was more than that. I wanted to be the one doing what Wallace did, not be the story or be the one manipulating the story.
I had navigated one of the most challenging predicaments of my life and managed to come out the other side with pride in my actions, critics be damned. And at a time when I was looking for fate to give me some kind of sign as to what path to pursue, my “60 Minutes” experience felt like I had gotten the nod from a journalism god.
So thanks, Mike, for helping steer me in the direction of taking a risk that led to one of my life’s greatest rewards. I honestly couldn’t have done it without you.