It was a journalistic coup for the venerable CBS news show "60 Minutes," but, alas, veteran correspondent Mike Wallace wasn’t up to the task. Interviews with the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, are rare in the American media. Given what was broadcast on Sunday evening, it’s probably just as well. The Iranian leader outfoxed, outwitted, and outflanked Wallace.
Wallace, a familiar figure to American television viewers, prides himself on being a tenacious interviewer, unafraid to mix it up with the best of them. But for some reason, he was hesitant in this interview, unwilling to press the wily Iranian president, and was thrown off stride by the tough, even snide, comebacks, including a threat to end the interview prematurely.
Moreover, Wallace seemed unexpectedly charmed, perhaps even won over, by the president, which also may have dulled his usually sharp instincts.
Had this been a boxing match, the victory, I’m sorry to say, would have gone to Ahmadinejad in a knockout. It wasn’t even close.
Here was a chance to press the leader of a country that seeks nuclear weapons; actively supports Hezbollah; calls for Israel’s annihilation; engages in terrorist activity far from its borders; imprisons political reformers, protesting students, and independent journalists; subscribes to a disturbing theology; and suppresses the rights of the Baha’is, among others.
How did Wallace handle these issues?
He lamely suggested that the United States believes Iran to be pursuing nuclear weapons, failing to mention that this is also the conclusion of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He presented no evidence to challenge the Iranian leader, who used the question as one of many opportunities to give a long-winded and factually inaccurate statement.
He allowed Ahmainejad to go on at length about the suffering in Lebanon, without pursuing why the conflict had begun — a Hezbollah attack on Israel on July 1′ — or pressing him on his outrageous claims about Israeli actions.
Did viewers learn anything about Iran’s intimate links with Hezbollah, its transshipment of weaponry and funds through Syria to the terror group, or its link to the 199′ and 1994 bombings of Israeli and Jewish targets in Buenos Aires? Were viewers reminded of the fact that Iranian-backed Hezbollah killed more Americans in terror attacks prior to Sept. 11 than any other international terror group? Nothing.
And what did viewers learn about the Iranian president’s own background, including allegations that he was involved in the 1979 takeover of the
U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and the holding of American hostages for well over a year? Zero.
Regarding Israel, Wallace didn’t come back at his interviewee to suggest that Israel’s existence was more than an outgrowth of the Holocaust but the realization of a link between the Jewish people and the land that has existed for more than 3,000 years. He simply let stand Ahmadinejad’s contention that since the Holocaust, if it took place at all, was a European problem, the solution lies in Europe, not the Middle East. Otherwise, the six million inhabitants of Israel are fair game for Iran.
On human rights, inexplicably, not a word by Wallace. Here is a leading journalist who, given the chance to address the plight of fellow journalists in Iran, fails even to refer to it. No wonder Iran feels it can act with impunity against those whose views challenge the leadership. Human rights violations require the spotlight of exposure, not silence. Why didn’t Wallace name names, show pictures, and expose false charges? And he might have asked the president’s view on Salman Rushdie, the celebrated writer who has faced a longstanding death threat from Iran.
Another particularly fascinating area that could have been explored was the president’s theology. After all, faith is important to him and his worldview, and experts say it’s impossible to understand him without grasping the significance of the Hidden (or 1’th) Imam, a central doctrine of Shi’a Islam, and how this translates into public policy. But the subject never came up. Instead, valuable time was wasted pursuing such inanities as the president’s hobbies and vanities.
No doubt, there must have been some ground rules for this interview. Viewers learned, for example, that the interpreter, whose voice was heard throughout, was selected by the president, not CBS. Were there any other ground rules that viewers should have been told about?
True, it’s impossible in any single interview with an airtime of less than 30 minutes to cover the entire waterfront, especially with an individual who shrewdly gave long and at times rambling answers. Even so, viewers of "60 Minutes," used to tough, unflinching interviews, were rendered a disservice.
While the Iranian president was given a prestigious platform to present himself as an eminently reasonable leader, the abundance of evidence to the contrary was raised barely, if at all, by a disappointing Wallace. Score one for Iran.
David A. Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee.