Coffee With Mike and Morley
Two of the greatest interviewers in TV history asked me to drop by for a cup of Joe.
Mike Wallace was sure of himself, at least when it came to who was buying coffee.
The eminent and audacious host of 60 Minutes and I first met at an award dinner I threw for Morley Safer, his co-host. Wallace had a more straightforward job. He was to introduce Safer, giving what you would expect: a sharp, funny, warm, and sentimental bearhug with a few jabs to Safer’s ribs.
He started by observing Safer liked to think of himself as ‘everyman’ but added that it took a special kind of humble hubris to greet the world while modestly driving around New York in a Rolls Royce wearing English Turnbull and Asser shirts. Yet, imagine yourself to be a regular guy. At the end of the evening, Safer had a few more laugh lines around his eyes, and we stood around over drinks talking about how lucky he was to have such a lousy friend as Wallace.
Then Wallace asked me about life at Forbes, and we discovered by chance that although the two were very different organizations, we were doing similar investigative journalism.
He said, “Jeff, why don’t we do something together? You publish it and we film it?”
Then he invited me up for coffee at his office at CBS to chat.
Seinfeld may have a series about comics driving in cars, but most of us don’t imagine celebrities having normal offices. They work in a studio on a Hollywood lot where staplers and printers get filled magically. That is how I got gobsmacked, waiting in Mike Wallace’s reception area at CBS overlooking the Hudson River off 9th Avenue.
He greeted me in an open-collared shirt with sleeves rolled up, and we walked back to his lair. It was a room you might expect for a mid-level vice president in an office supply company. Desk centered towards the back of the room with two visitor’s chairs in front. Lots of bookcases. Pictures like you can’t imagine. But still, a humble office.
Then someone poked their head in, someone I could immediately identify because I knew the voice, who shouted, “Want some coffee?”
No other than Morley Safer — he had also asked Don Hewitt, the famed producer of 60 Minutes — to walk him to the canteen. Wallace answered for both of us, “Yes, Morley, two.”
I thought, who will believe that Morley Safer fetched me coffee (“Morley, just a dash of milk and one Splenda, thanks.”)?
Safer and Hewitt returned with the java, and the four of us worked out a relatively simple plan in which Forbes would write a story and get it to 60 Minutes the week before we published so they could air on Sunday evening and we could print the Monday after. It had never been tried before. This was not just a career maker but a game changer.
I brought the idea back to Forbes Magazine, where my editor was lukewarm. A publisher and editor don’t tell each other what to do in the magazine world. A very healthy way to run a business. So I took him to meet Wallace to see if that would broker the deal, but still, no dice.
Given 60 Minutes’ reputation for savagery, the editor felt it could backfire. He might have been right. A hatchet job on a company the level of IBM would be a long-term headache, outweighing the sensational publicity.
Business is about risks worth taking. Beyond that, it’s all ego. Ultimately, I believe we made the wrong call, but as Wallace and Safer are gone now, we’ll never know.
But I’ll tell you this: it took one day in his office to show me how a maestro of the media operates.