Mike Wallace, the iconic television journalist who died Saturday night at the age of 93, traveled to Birmingham in the fall of 2003 to work on a 60 Minutes segment on Richard Scrushy, the founder and former CEO of Birmingham-based HealthSouth Corporation. Scrushy had been deposed as CEO the previous spring, when he was charged in connection with the massive securities and accounting fraud that caused the value of the company’s stock to plummet, costing shareholders millions. The segment, titled “Cooking the Books,” aired that October.
In addition to Scrushy himself — who proclaimed his innocence — among those Wallace interviewed while in Birmingham was Paul Finebaum, host of the eponymous radio sports talk show. Reached on Easter afternoon for comment on Wallace’s death, Finebaum recalled his turn in the barrel with the man widely acknowledged as the best in the business.
“He was so disarming,” said Finebaum. “The interview was at our studio. He was supposed to be there at 1:30 and he showed up at 2:30, walked in with this incredible entourage. He said, ‘Hello, Mr. Finebaum. Thank you so much for taking time out to see me. May I call you Paul?’ Well, he was about 40 years older than me, so I said, ‘Sure.’”
Having been fairly well acquainted with Scrushy and with the trial pending, Finebaum was hesitant to say very much. As the interview began, he said, he was determined not to let Wallace work his trademark magic and pull a provocative remark out of him.
“I was giving a lot of one- and two-word answers,” remembered Finebaum. “I kept telling myself that I’m a pretty good interviewer myself, that there was no way this guy was getting the best of me.
“Then he asked me, ‘People don’t like Richard Scrushy, do they?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know about that.’ He said, ‘People hate him don’t they?’ and I kind of brushed it off again. He said, ‘Richard Scrushy’s a jerk, isn’t he?’ and I said, “Well….” And then he said, “He’s a prick isn’t he?” And I said, “Yeah, Mike, he’s a prick.
“He got me.”
A 60 Minutes producer later told Finebaum that Wallace loved the moment and that the production team debated for days over whether to use the remark in the broadcast, but ultimately decided to cut it. As it turned out, though, the opening clip of the show that featured “Cooking the Books” was another remark of Finebaum’s, to the effect that if Scrushy went to jail, it would end up being renamed the Richard M. Scrushy Penitentiary, a dig at Scrushy’s penchant for donating millions to have everything from libraries to baseball fields named for him.
Acknowledging Wallace’s passing as the end of an era in journalism, Finebaum said he “learned a lot” from his brief encounter with the veteran newsman.
“Any time you think you’re good,” he reflected, “just try and take your chances with the best. You can say a lot of people are great at what they do, that they’ll be missed when they’re gone. But in any field, there’s only one person you can call the best, and that’s what he was. He was the best interviewer who ever lived, and I’m glad I got to experience that firsthand.”