Mike Wallace earned a well-deserved reputation as a tough and resourceful interviewer during his long career on CBS’s 60-Minutes, from which he retired last year. But now Wallace is back, with a special interview of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a prime sponsor of Hezbollah who has personally threatened Israel with destruction while his country races to build nuclear weapons in violation of the NPT. The Iranian despot has also said he would like to see a world without the United States.
While Ahmadinejad’s extreme rhetoric and policies might suggest that Wallace will give him a grilling, history suggests otherwise – for the reality is that Wallace has a soft spot for dictators, especially anti-Israel ones. And the initial signs regarding the interview are not good. According to press reports, Wallace found the Iranian president quite charming and “dismissed the common perceptions” about him:
"He's actually, in a strange way, he's a rather attractive man, very smart, savvy, self-assured, good looking in a strange way," Wallace said. "He's very, very short but he's comfortable in his own skin." (Hollywood Reporter, Aug. 10, 2006)
And USA Today reported that Wallace said of Ahmadinejad:
He's an impressive fellow, this guy. He really is. He's obviously smart as hell... You'll find him an interesting man. I expected more of a firebrand. I don't think he has the slightest doubt about how he feels ... about the American administration and the Zionist state. He comes across as more rational than I had expected. (emphasis added)
The late Jerusalem Post Executive Editor and Eye-on-the-Media columnist David Bar-Illan noted Wallace’s unfortunate tendency to kowtow to despots in a 1990 column regarding an effusive interview Wallace did with Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad in which terrified Syrian Jews appeared on camera to assure viewers that they loved living in the Assad police state. As Bar-Illan points out, Wallace pulled the same low trick regarding Soviet Jews, assuring viewers that life was great for them in the worker’s paradise. Of course, this was just a few years before the great exodus of Jews from the Soviet Union, which tended to prove that maybe things were not that great after all.
Reprinted below is Bar-Illan’s original 1990 column, Wallace’s response and Bar-Illan’s rebuttal.
Wallace’s interview of Ahmadinejad will air tomorrow, August 13, on 60-Minutes.
The Jerusalem Post
November 23, 1990, Friday
Mike Wallace Minutes
by David Bar-Illan
“YOU AND your friends won't like what you'll see on my program in a couple of weeks,” said Mike Wallace to an American acquaintance in Jerusalem last week. Wallace is of course one of American television’s most enduring celebrities, whose documentary-style news-magazine program 60 Minutes has been one of the most popular television entertainment shows for years.
Familiar with Wallace’s biases, the American visitor would have gone into catatonic shock had a Wallace program – especially one produced in Jerusalem – been anything but a hatchet job in which Israel is the unregenerate villain.
Wallace is different from run-of-the-mill Israel-bashers. The anti-Israel bias of most reporters is part of a media trendiness which began soon after the Six Day War (not, as many would like to believe, with the Lebanon War or the intifada) and seems to be driven by a pseudo-idealistic compulsion to be on the side of the underdog - a role Israel relinquished by winning in 1967.
Most reporters do not see the Palestinian movement as an avant garde of an Arab world bent on Israel’s destruction, or as part of an Islamic movement of Khomeinist ferocity, but as an uprising of the downtrodden against a “foreign occupation.” While they side with the Palestinians against Israel, they simultaneously – and ostentatiously – support the Soviet Jewry movement and passionately inveigh against antisemitism.
Not so Mike Wallace. Like many professed liberals, he seems so awed by dictators that he often acts as a public relations huckster for strongmen. It may, of course, be simply a matter of expediency. Reporters curry favor with totalitarians in order to have access to their countries and receive preferential treatment over the competition. That is what happened in Beirut in 1982. Western correspondents knew that their sources of information – if not their lives – depended on their being nice to the PLO.
In Wallace’s case, kowtowing to tyrants has become a trade mark. When he first went to Syria in 1975, he missed no opportunity to lionize Syria’s “cool, strong, austere and independent” leader, Hafez Assad, whose “unrelenting aim is to retrieve the rich farmland of the Golan taken from him by the Israelis.”
He also gave a clean bill of health to Assad’s treatment of Syria’s 4,500 Jews, a passport to respectability Syria’s representatives use even now, 15 years later, at the UN. He was particularly delighted to show that the Jews of Syria – though suffering from some travel restrictions – were quick to declare on camera that if they could only join the Syrian Army they would be eager to fight against Israel.
Wallace produced this program soon after a Jewish woman, Lili Abadi, and her two small children were murdered and dismembered in Damascus following the reading of an anti-Jewish tract in a mosque. As every child knows, any Jew expressing anything but adoration for the regime would be risking his own and his family’s life. A very similar interview, in which an Iraqi Jew praised Saddam and blamed Israel for all evil on earth, was recently shown on television screens throughout the world. Not having Mike Wallace around, the Iraqi propaganda ministry had to produce this one all by itself.
A SIMILAR situation on a much grander scale enticed Wallace to the Soviet Union. From 1980 on, Leonid Brezhnev claimed that no Jews wanted to leave the Soviet Union. But pesky Jewish organizations in New York and that intolerably intransigent government in Israel kept insisting that 400,000 of them, risking jobs, jail and family safety, had applied for visas to Israel. Again Wallace knew whom to believe: Standing in front of the Kremlin, he announced, with an arrogance only celebrated TV know-nothings can muster, that all the Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union had done so and the rest were doing just fine.
Then came AIPAC’s turn. In a program whose tone was egregious even for him, Wallace portrayed the “Jewish lobby,” as an insidious, all-powerful, multi-headed Washington Svengali manipulating the U.S. Congress and administration. Any Congressman who voted against arms sales to Arab countries, implied Wallace, had been bought by Jewish money. The only difference between that program and the neo-Nazi tracts which accuse “the Jews” of controlling Washington, Wall Street and everything else was that Wallace did not blame the Jews for controlling the media. He knows better.
Last year, he interviewed Arafat, treating him with the kind of deference the media reserve nowadays only for Saddam Hussein. Had he treated American – let alone Israeli – politicians this way he would have been drummed out of the profession. The toughest question he could think of was what Arafat thought of Israeli leaders Ben-Gurion and Shamir. Not surprisingly Arafat, who could not have had a better straight man if he had paid for one, came across as a reasonable man dedicated to peace and justice.
Israel will survive Wallace’s desperate efforts to prove that Jews – whether in the USSR, Syria, Washington or Israel – are not his favorite people. But one wonders what other business would continue to celebrate a “professional” whose observations have been proven as childish and totally wrong as Wallace’s. And one wonders, too, how many lives have been put in jeopardy because Mike Wallace and his colleagues instilled in the hearts of millions a faith in the truth of totalitarians.
The Jerusalem Post
December 7, 1990, Friday
Mike Wallace Responds
by David Bar-Illan.
ONE OF THE numerous reasons television cannot be considered a news medium is that it does not permit legitimate rebuttal. It is unthinkable, for instance, that CBS-TV would screen a highly professional, Jerusalem-made documentary on the Temple Mount riot to refute the exercise in disinformation on the subject aired by 60 Minutes this past Sunday.
Only the printed press is expected to allow rebuttals, at least in the form of letters to the editor. I believe a legitimate response deserves to be published with the same prominence as the original charge. Hence the following letter by TV superstar Mike Wallace, sent in response to my column on him:
To The Jerusalem Post:
I’d be a fool not to respond to David Bar-Illan’s contemptible, biased and inaccurate attack on me in “Eye On The Media” in The Jerusalem Post of November 23.
Not that he lacks the license to criticize me; a reporter who broadcasts on controversial issues fully understands that criticism comes with the territory. It is Mr. Bar-Illan’s tone and especially his statement that “lives have been put in jeopardy” because of my reportage and that of my colleagues, that stirs my contempt for him. Seldom have I read a piece more filled with tendentious and frothing invective than Mr. Bar-Illan’s.
He says, in a wildly inaccurate statement, that I “gave a clean bill of health to (Hafez al) Assad’s treatment of Syria’s 4,500 Jews.” Let me quote from my 1975 piece:
"It is perfectly apparent that the Syrian Jewish community is kept under close surveillance ... Jews cannot emigrate, they cannot leave the country temporarily, except for emergencies, and then only with great difficulty. They must carry cards which identify them as Jews. They must notify the authorities when they travel inside Syria ..."
And finally, I quoted a non-Jewish Syrian friend as telling me: “Life for Jews here is no paradise, but it’s not much better for us.”
Let’s move to my reportage of Yasser Arafat. In 1979 in Beirut, we had the following exchange:
WALLACE: Tell me something. We hear that there are Palestinians fighting alongside President Idi Amin in Uganda. Is that true?
ARAFAT: For training mission. It is a training mission, and not more. It was from five years till now we have this mission.
W: Why, if you are - have such a feeling for human rights, why would you have a Palestinian training mission with Idi Amin?
A: It is a - it's a fi - it is to help him for training his - his army.
W: The butcher Amin you help, and you talk about human rights?
A: I am not helping him as - only helping ...
W: You are helping to train his people. You - you admit it.
A: I am helping the - the - the Ugandan people. Idi Amin is not interfering in any other country.
W: Is he a man you respect, admire?
A: At least he is beside the Palestinians.
W: So, you'll take help from wherever it comes?
A: He - he is not aggressor - aggressive?
W: He is not aggressive against his own people?
A: Against the Palestinians.
W: You are proud of your relationship with Idi Amin?
On the subject of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Mr. Bar-Illan says I implied – not “charged,” but “implied” – that “Any Congressman who voted against arms sales to Arab countries had been bought by Jewish money.” He then goes on to liken me to a neo-Nazi. All this because 60 Minutes reported accurately and dispassionately that AIPAC supports candidates for Congress who are sympathetic to Israel and tries to defeat those who they think are not. The close of our AIPAC piece in 1988 said this:
"This past week, three major Jewish organizations took issue with Aipac. The leaders of the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith asserted in a letter to the president of AIPAC that 'AIPAC does not speak for the consensus of the organized Jewish community.' "
On 60 Minutes, which is in its 23rd year on CBS and remains far and away the most watched and among the respected news series on American television, we pride ourselves that we cannot be tabbed as liberal or conservative, pro-or anti-any country.
Let me set something straight for those doubters who have from time to time ascribed what they label my “biased reporting” on Israel to their perception of me as “a self-hating Jew.” I am proud of my heritage and I practise my Judaism in a personal and private manner. I am as committed to Israel’s integrity and safety as any Zionist. I come from a family of Zionists and have made my own contributions over many years to various Israeli projects and causes, none of them political. That, of course, has nothing to do with my reportage.
(signed) Mike Wallace.
UNFORTUNATELY, Wallace’s letter reinforces every charge I made against him, not least because he evades two of my main accusations.
Unable to rebut my imputation that he acted like a public relations agent for Arafat in a 1989 interview, Wallace – with a deftness worthy of a professional card shark – responds by quoting an interview conducted ten years earlier, in 1979. At that time, of course, Arafat was not yet the darling of salon liberals nor the white hope of the White House, and it took little courage to treat him as if he were an Israeli politician.
A second charge, which Wallace ignores altogether, is that in 1987, when 400,000 Soviet Jews, risking their lives and livelihoods, had requested Israeli visas, Wallace stood in front of the Kremlin and declared that, with few exceptions, the 1.5 million Jews of the USSR, whose story was “largely untold,” were happy there and did not want to leave. Within two years this proved to be one of the greatest journalistic gaffes of the century, surpassed only by a prominent New York Times reporter’s prediction in 1975 that the Khmer Rouge assumption of power in Cambodia would bring “for most a better life.” (They slaughtered 2 million civilians soon after.)
At the time of Wallace’s broadcast, the Soviet authorities were refusing not only Jewish emigration, but travel for desperately sick individuals who needed treatment in the West. To many Americans his program served to confirm the Soviet contention that Soviet Jews were content, and Western efforts on their behalf were ridiculous. (How many lives were thus jeopardized? ) To make his point he chose to interview the most notorious “court Jews” in the USSR, Samuel Zivs and Mikhail Milschstein, despised by all self-respecting Jews and representing solely the authorities. He even stooped to portraying the Jewish autonomous region of Birobidjan, that monumental insult to the intelligence constructed by Stalin – where there are no Jewish schools and no study of Hebrew, and where Jews are incessantly pressured to disappear as an ethnic group – as a viable alternative for those who wish to live a Jewish life. In his one interview with a refusenik, mathematician Victor Brailovsky, he omitted the facts of his imprisonment, five-year exile, 15-year unemployment and ceaseless harassment by the KGB.
WHAT WALLACE does try to refute is my charge regarding his attack on AIPAC, the “Jewish lobby,” an attack which served as a precursor for Pat Buchanan and others who see “the Jews” controlling Washington.
Wallace cites part of a letter from three Jewish organizations asserting that AIPAC does not represent the Jewish consensus. What he fails to mention is that the quote from the letter, taken out of context, referred to a specific issue, not to AIPAC as such. He also forgets that the ADL, vehemently protesting his show, called this quote “entirely incorrect,” and that the largest Jewish organization, Hadassah – hardly known for fire-eating militancy – demanded to know “why CBS promotes the ugly notion that Congressmen who vote against certain arms sales to Arab states have been bought by Jewish money.”
Wallace also tackles my charge that he whitewashed Assad, citing what he said on camera about travel restrictions on Syrian Jews. Of course, there was nothing to rebut: I mentioned Wallace’s reference to these travel restrictions in my article. But this lonely negative note about Assad, was more than offset by the consistent obsequiousness with which he treated that champion butcher. Following is an example.
WALLACE: "You invite Jewish former Syrians to come back and visit their families, or American Jews to come here, go to the Jewish Quarter, be with their friends, relatives, in perfect safety, and no reprisals against Syrian Jews who may have either emigrated in the old days or escaped recently?"
Poor Assad. Pressed against the wall with these tough no-nonsense questions, he had to confess that, yes, he was a benevolent humanitarian who treated his Jews with boundless kindness. But Wallace would not let go. He knows about Jews. “But Jews are Jews,(! )” he somberly perorates to the camera, “and Israel’s guns are only 40 miles away. Most governments, even our own, as with the Japanese in World War II, would consider these people potentially dangerous to national security. Apparently President Assad does not, though they are watched more carefully than others ... why? Most here would point to Israel as the reason. But it is getting better under President Assad – for all Syrians, and for Syrian Jews among them. To deny this is to deny what we have seen.” No wonder Syrian diplomats cite Wallace as objective American evidence of their kindness, generosity and brotherly feelings for Jews.
If I thought it would do any good, I would suggest that Wallace view a documentary titled “In the Shadows,” premiered in Toronto last month, which portrays Syria as what it is; a country where arbitrary arrests, torture and executions are commonplace. Wallace may even want to take pride in his contribution to the world’s relative inattention to this vileness. But I doubt anything can change his mind.
THE REASON for Wallace’s bias may be hidden in the last paragraph of his letter. In it, Wallace gratuitously protests that he is not a self-hating Jew. But, deeming it totally irrelevant, I never mentioned his Jewishness. Qualified professionals will have to diagnose his compulsion to protest so much, and his concomitant need to kowtow to sworn enemies of Jews.
Having studied the transcripts of these programs, the only good thing I can say about them is that his show on the Temple Mount riot is worse. Swallowing the Arab line without reservation, Wallace revises history by reversing the sequence of events. There can be no doubt in the mind of anyone who has seen the available professional and amateur films that no live ammunition was fired at Arabs on the Mount before they rioted. But Wallace, basing his conclusions on nothing but Palestinian testimony, concludes that before the Arabs “went into a frenzy” the police shot Arabs down. More on this next week.