Old lion and TV-savvy young lion

WallaceIranThere is a rather interesting sort-of GetReligion piece in The Wall Street Journal today, only it isn't written by one of us, and the author -- that would be former CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg -- doesn't really dig into the religion issues all that deeply. The piece is called "Mr. Ahmadinejad's Neighborhood," and it focused on that CBS interview Sunday night that pitted the aging lion Mike Wallace against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The point of the article, of course, is to say that Ahmadinejad got away with murder, in part because he (or his aides) have studied American television and have learned how to avoid answering questions. He has also learned some of the safe words to use about family life, politics and other tough issues. Goldberg also takes some shots at the American left, which is beside the point for the sake of this weblog.

But here is the interesting question: Why did the skilled people at 60 Minutes treat this showdown as a celebrity interview, instead treating it like the subject of a serious 60 Minutes piece?

Now that's a good question. Here is a large slice of Goldberg's take on that, including a reference back to a powerful interview decades ago between Wallace and the Ayatollah Khomeini:

To his credit, Mike never let up. But in the end all a reporter can do is ask the tough question and let the subject answer. If he doesn't, you can try again. But at some point, you have to move on. And that is precisely what Mike and "60 Minutes" should have done. They should have found some people who know the real Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- not the made-for-television, Mr. Rogers version. They should have found some people to fill in the blanks; people who could paint an alternative picture of this man. They should have rounded up a few Iranians living in exile -- the ones who must have been throwing shoes at their television sets during the interview -- and asked them what really makes him tick.

But there were no exiles in the piece. No Israelis, either. Nor were there any historians, people who would have been able to say that Mr. Ahmadinejad is not the first leader of an undemocratic country to speak in platitudes about how much he longs for peace, justice and fairness. Read "Berlin Diary," by William L. Shirer, who along with Ed Murrow covered World War II for CBS News, and you'll learn that Hitler spoke the same way.

Twenty-seven years ago it didn't matter what Ayatollah Khomeini told Mike Wallace. We only remember Mike's question. Now, the tables have been turned and it is the questions that don't matter -- especially when the subject smiles and makes an end-run around them, replying with such soft and fuzzy answers as, we need to "love all people." How exactly, Mr. President, must Israel be wiped off the map?

That's a very good question and it deserved a precise answer. But how many times can you ask that question, if the person on the other side of the microphone declines to answer?

One more thing, just to let GetReligion readers know that I do read their emails.

What question would the famous Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis have wanted Wallace to ask in that interview? We can see rather clear hints in another WSJ piece. Here is a choice paragraph focusing on a symbolic date in the not so distant future:

What is the significance of Aug. 22? This year, Aug. 22 corresponds, in the Islamic calendar, to the 27th day of the month of Rajab of the year 1427. This, by tradition, is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of the prophet Muhammad on the winged horse Buraq, first to "the farthest mosque," usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and back (c.f., Koran XVII.1). This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and if necessary of the world. It is far from certain that Mr. Ahmadinejad plans any such cataclysmic events precisely for Aug. 22. But it would be wise to bear the possibility in mind.

Yes, that would have been a good tidbit to ask about, too.

UPDATE: Hmmmmm.

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