Praise for Mike Wallace as a probing investigative reporter saturated news media immediately after his death April 8 at age 93. Virtually all tributes omitted the fact that when it came to anti-Israeli tyrants, terrorists and oppressors of Jewish minorities, Wallace – son of Russian Jewish immigrants – pitched softballs and parroted propaganda.
Wallace spent parts or all of seven decades in journalism, 38 as a correspondent on CBS Television News’ “60 Minutes.” He won 21 Emmys. This makes his record of failure when it came to covering Israel and Jews noteworthy and peculiar. Among the many examples:
* In a 1975 segment on a terrorized minority in Syria, Wallace reported that “today, life for Syria’s Jews is better than it was in years past.” He described Syria’s brutal dictator, Hafez al-Assad, as “cool, strong, austere and independent.” The uproar over the misleading report forced Wallace to produce a second, less enthusiastic installment.
* In 1984, a Wallace “60 Minutes” segment rehearsed Syria’s propaganda line about its interests in Lebanon and Israel. “One thing Syria wants in Lebanon is a government representative of all the peoples of that country,” he intoned, as if Damascus then recognized Lebanese sovereignty and wanted to establish a multi-party democracy rather than continue its police state occupation. As for Israel, Wallace said Syria wanted the Golan Heights back and Washington to be more “evenhanded.” He did not explain that Israel gained the Golan in self-defense in 1967 and retained it similarly in 1973 or that Washington had no incentive to treat Syria, then a loyal Soviet ally, the same way it did its own ally, Israel.
* In 1987, Wallace glossed over oppression of Russian Jewry the way he had Syria’s treatment of its Jews. At a time when the refusenik movement was still strong and Jews clamored to leave the Soviet Union, Wallace “reported” that “the fact remains that one and a-half million Soviets identified as Jews apparently live more or less satisfying lives there. … And theirs has been a story largely untold.” This just before, under Mikhail Gorbachev, the gates would open and hundreds of thousands of Jews emigrate, most going to Israel. In this “60 Minutes” segment Wallace uncritically interviewed the Jewish deputy leader of the official Anti-Zionist Committee and suggested that the Jewish Siberian region of Birobidzhan – where Jews were a small minority – could be home for those Soviets seeking to live a life of Jewish culture.
* In 1988, “60 Minutes” looked at pro-Israel activism in the United States, focusing on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Wallace claimed “there are many who charge that AIPAC, with its sights set only on Israel, is just too demanding of U.S. politicians.” Among other tilts in the segment, Wallace quoted a former undersecretary of state known for his anti-Israel stance, George Ball, but not the incumbent secretary of state, George Shultz. This even though Shultz had said that U.S. support for Israel shouldn’t be called “foreign aid” because “this money goes for our security first of all. It helps us that Israel is strong.”
* In a 1989 interview of Yasser Arafat, Wallace failed to challenge the Palestine Liberation Organization leader’s misrepresentation of terrorism as “resistance or Arafat’s false claim that a PLO group intercepted by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon had been on its way to attack troops, not civilians. He also indulged Arafat’s fantasy of an economic union between Israel, “Palestine” and Arab states, all of which – except Egypt – boycotted Israel at the time. David Bar-Illan, then executive editor of The Jerusalem Post, wrote of the Arafat interview that “had he treated … America politicians this way, [Wallace] would have been drummed out of the profession.”
* In 1990, Wallace “probed” an outbreak of violence on Temple Mount in Jerusalem – after it had been investigated by Israel, the United Nations and other news media. He aired interview snippets with seven Arab eyewitnesses but only one Jew, and cast doubt on the last’s statements. Wallace skipped over the cause of the fighting – long-standing efforts by Fatah and Hamas to provoke a new surge in the first intifada – did not interview the main official Israeli investigators and referred to Temple Mount as Islam’s third most holy place but did not mention it is Judaism’s most holy site.
* In 1992, Wallace returned to Israel for a “60 Minutes” segment on absorption of the 400,000-plus Soviet Jews who had arrived in the previous three years. They were among those living “more or less satisfying lives” in Mother Russia during Wallace’s 1987 report. Their unemployment rate was 11 percent and many others worked at jobs beneath their level of education and training. But when prominent refusenik immigrant Natan Sharansky painted a more positive picture, his comments were cut from the broadcast. Wallace wrongly implied that a U.S. loan guarantee to assist Israel absorb the wave of immigrants was a grant and that it would help Israel annex the West Bank, something the government did not plan to do.
* In 2006, Wallace was still fawning over dictators, flying to Tehran to interview Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby summarized the segment this way: “Wallace let Ahmadinejad brush him off with inanities and lies he would have pounced on had they been uttered by a business executive or an American politician.” Wallace said he found the Iranian president, one of the world’s leading Holocaust deniers and a man who’s called for Israel’s destruction, “infinitely more rational than I’d expected.”
Perhaps nothing so illustrates news media’s refusal to see themselves and those they hold out as exemplars clearly as the lionizing of Mike Wallace.