MARK HOLMBERG: Mike Wallace’s connection to Richmond, and big tobacco

Posted at 12:04 AM, Apr 11, 2012
and last updated 2012-04-12 00:19:11-04

Among Mike Wallace’s many accomplishments as a journalist was his crusade against big tobacco, and what he believed to be their executives’ lies about the safety of their products.

But long before Wallace went after big tobacco, he was selling it. He was a very effective pitchman for Parliament and Philip Morris cigarettes.

There can be little doubt that the gravelly-voiced Mike Wallace made a ton of money for Philip Morris and the Richmond workers who made the cigarettes he smoked and pitched on his first big news show.

“So I’m more convinced than ever,” Wallace said in a typical 1950s ad at the beginning of “The Mike Wallace Interview,” “that today’s Philip Morris is something special . . . here is natural mildness, genuine mildness . . .”

There can also be little doubt that tobacco executives saw millions go up in smoke because of Wallace’s pursuit of them and the product he once championed.

He got the huge interview with Brown & Williamson’s former research director, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, who alleged that firm’s executives knew full well their product was addictive and dangerous . . . and lied about it to Congress.

That interview was famously shelved in Nov. of 1995 because CBS feared it would be sued for encouraging Wigand to break a confidentiality agreement.

But it finally aired in February of 96. CBS 6 covered the fallout from the story, since this is a tobacco town and Philip Morris’ stock plunged.

The next month came the second of a one-two punch.

Dr. Ian Uydess, a Richmond-based researcher who had left Philip Morris in good standing, came forward to say that firm could make a safer, less-addictive cigarette, but hadn ‘t.

Dr. Uydess and his wife, Carol, would spend a lot of time with Wallace during the next few years as they fought to hold the tobacco industry accountable.

“He was an extremely thoughtful and caring person,” Uydess said during a telephone interview with CBS 6. “He was very personally involved in what he was doing at that time.”

Both Uydess and his wife were trusting Wallace with their lives.

Dr. Wigand had seen his life turned upside-down after details leaked about the story before it aired. And that would be just the beginning of the attacks that ruined Wigand’s marriage.

Uydess said Wallace handled their story honestly, with total journalistic integrity.

His story was a carefully measured one in which, at one point, the researcher held up a cigarette, saying he supported the rights of people to enjoy their cigarettes and the manufacturers to make them.

He just wanted them to be a safe as possible.

Dr. Uydess had a second career with the pharmaceutical industry after testifying in hearings and trials that cost the tobacco industry tens of millions of dollars. He says he didn’t get a penny of it.

He moved from his home in Midlothian and now lives in Pennsylvania.

And for all those years of smoking cigarettes and high-stress journalism, Mike Wallace lived a long time – 93 years.