Mike Wallace, master of the ambush interview, was himself ambushed in his “60 Minutes” dalliance with the president of Iran, coming across as the outwitted victim of a media-savvy politician using the occasion to spread outrageous propaganda made to sound reasonable.
Even his usual show-biz panache — cultivated as a radio and Broadway actor, quiz show host, celebrity interrogator and on-air mouthpiece of a cigarette company — seemed to escape him as his guest stayed on message, denied the undeniable and insisted he would walk off the set if he couldn’t continue his filibuster.
“Oh, really?” Wallace asked at one point — not exactly what you would call a precise, pointed question — but then Wallace lacked any of the kinds of powerful, surprise queries he has so often employed in his made-for-broadcast voice, looking a guest squarely in the eye as the poor soul disintegrated into embarrassed mush before millions of viewers.
I’ve never been a fan of this style of “gotcha” journalism. It strikes me as unnecessarily deceitful and less an exercise in substantive investigation than entertainment meant to appeal to the worst in us, to the schadenfreude residing in our breasts, the pleasure of seeing others hurt. All the advantages belong to the “60 Minutes” producers, who can edit content for dramatic effect, deciding themselves what context is or is not crucial. The interviewee — instead of somehow deserving this problematic means to a supposedly good end _ may have been guilty of nothing more than naivete in submitting to the set-up.
But if ever our experienced executioner should have taken his hanging rope on a trip, it was when he traveled to Iran to visit with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The rope was left behind. Wallace loaded up with some of the usual, broad material about the president’s nuclear ambitions, Holocaust denial, support of the Hezbollah terrorists and hatred of Israel and mostly looked flummoxed — himself embarrassed — while Ahmadinejad evaded direct answers and engaged in sophistry about the real evil-doers in the world: Israel and the United States.
Wallace then compounded this slippage with hype. Clearly, the big deal for him was getting this interview that lots of other news outlets would have loved to have, despite its producing nothing Ahmadinejad has not said a thousand times. He wanted the viewers to tune in, to applaud this coup he pulled off at age 88. So he went on radio with Sean Hannity to promote the interview, saying against all evidence that Ahmadinejad was not an anti-Semite, that his hope of wiping Israel off the map was just a desire to relocate the place and that this fascistic, dissent-squashing, murderous freak show of a human being was smart and impressive, a rational man.
This same TV journalist — who referred to the “so-called free world” in the “60 Minutes” interview — also said in the course of this discussion with Hannity that he thinks Ahmadinejad was put in office by means that can reasonably be called democratic. “Are you suggesting he wasn’t elected by his people?” Wallace asked.
So much for being prepared. No one can run for office in Iran who has not been approved by a group that itself must be approved by the supreme leader and by others he has appointed. That’s about like letting George W. Bush decide who the candidates will be in the next presidential election here, or maybe members of his cabinet.
And, if Wallace had been prepared, if he had been willing to risk having Ahmadinejad walk away from the cameras in order to put something truly enlightening and useful on the record, what might he have asked? Several commentators have made a number of splendid suggestions, but one stands out above all. The real journalistic coup for Wallace would have been to have received an answer on whether Ahmadinejad believes what he is reported to believe — that the world will soon come to an end and that this will be a wondrous event.
The issue is important because Iran is clearly in pursuit of nuclear weapons, however much Ahmadinejad denies it, and will happily use them if Iranian leaders cling to what the scholar Bernard Lewis describes as their “apocalyptic world view.” As Lewis says in a Wall Street Journal piece, they won’t be deterred in trying to destroy Israel or the United States by fear of a retaliation they would actually welcome as a way of reaping the heavenly rewards of martyrdom.
Before telling the world Ahmadinejad was rational, Wallace should have tested the assumption with this ambush question.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)