Mike Wallace loved to expose stories conventional wisdom got wrong. He said the perfect piece for the CBS program 60 Minutes was finding a story everyone was reporting, digging in to the facts to discover the opposite, and standing the story on its head. When I heard the broadcast veteran died Saturday night at age 93, I remembered his visit to the Mississippi in 2004 as he pursued one of those perfect stories.

In his first month in office, President George W. Bush nominated U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering, Sr. to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Democratic leaders and left-wing special interest groups seeking to put the kibosh on the new president's agenda and appointments, targeted Pickering with a smear campaign. Howard Dean called Pickering a "racist judge." Wesley Clark said he was an "un-American judge." And John Kerry referred to Pickering as a "cross burner." Editorial writers, like those at the New York Times, echoed these attacks despite contradictions by their own reporters who visited Mississippi and discovered Pickering fought against the Klan during segregation and helped integrate schools and community institutions.

One of these true articles wound up in front of Mike Wallace. Wallace called Pickering and told him he wanted to tell his story on 60 Minutes. Knowing of course his own reputation for hard-hitting journalism that drained the blood from corporate CEOs and brought celebrities to tears, within an hour Wallace followed up his conversation with Pickering with a faxed note.

Wallace wrote, "I hasten to add this note, in light of our telephone conversation half an hour ago. You told me you very much wanted to sit down for a 60 Minutes interview, but that you had to run it by 'some people.' Candidly, I fear those people may be telling you, 'You're out of your mind if you sit down with Wallace. He's sold you a phony bill of goods. He will crucify you.' Judge Pickering, I am a man of my word."



'Mike Wallace pours color and energy into the room: simultaneously salty and respectful, boisterous and demur, rowdy and relaxed, cosmopolitan and earthy, questioning and knowing - the twinkle in his eyes says there is a wonderful joke in the world all around us, and he is about to deliver the punch line.'




Wallace said when he read the article discussing Pickering's supporters including civil rights activist Charles Evers and Mississippi's first black federal judge Henry Wingate, as well as Pickering's work against the Klan, he knew he wanted to tell that story, "That's the Charles Pickering who deserves a hearing on 60 Minutes, the man I want to talk to."

Pickering recounts that visit and the friendship he developed with Wallace in his second book, "A Price Too High: The Judiciary in Jeopardy." He writes of Wallace, "Mike Wallace pours color and energy into the room: simultaneously salty and respectful, boisterous and demur, rowdy and relaxed, cosmopolitan and earthy, questioning and knowing - the twinkle in his eyes says there is a wonderful joke in the world all around us, and he is about to deliver the punch line."

Wallace and his crew headquartered at the Best Western in Collins and conducted interviews in Laurel and Hattiesburg. They transformed Pickering's farm lodge into a television studio for interviews with Pickering and his son, then Congressman Chip Pickering.

At the time, I served on Congressman Pickering's staff and working with Wallace (and his producer Bob Anderson) was one of my favorite experiences: both professionally and in enjoyment. Wallace and Anderson, along with executive producer Don Hewitt, knew and committed to tell the true story of Judge Pickering. Reportedly, nearly everyone else in the CBS news room was skeptical. We were frequently on the phone or trading e-mails with Anderson in response to false or misleading accusations raised in production meetings, but in the end it was Wallace, a man of his word, who sealed the segment with only slight edits by opponents.

Nearly 17 million people watched the Wallace interview with Pickering , the highest rated 60 Minutes program in the first quarter of 2004. Pickering heard from many who watched that night, including former President George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush who called to chat about the program and wish Pickering luck. Others interviewed for the segment received calls from around the country demonstrating the reach Wallace had into diverse homes: wealthy and modest, black and white, Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative. After the airing, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus approached Congressman Pickering to apologize and admit that rather than attacking Judge Pickering, they should have been praising him.

Columnist Nat Hentoff, who had himself covered the true story of Judge Pickering for years, called Wallace after the segment and told him, "you gave the man his reputation back."

The segment on Pickering won an award from the Columbia Journalism School's "Let's Do It Better" Workshop on Race and Ethnicity: "Finding the Untold Story." While hardly comparing to the twenty-one Emmy Awards Wallace earned during his career, it showed Wallace maintained his passion for standing a story on its head.



Brian Perry is a partner in a public affairs firm. He assisted Charles W. Pickering, Sr. in writing "A Price Too High: The Judiciary in Jeopardy." Reach him at reasonablyright@brianperry.ms or @CapstonePerry on Twitter.