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Interview With Mike Wallace; How Has Media Covered Crisis in the Middle East?

Aired April 13, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Today, a special interview with one of the most tenacious and recognizable journalists on the planet, CBS veteran Mike Wallace. Wallace has a very interesting perspective on Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. He also announced this week that he's cutting back on his grueling schedule at "60 MINUTES", the legendary program where he's made his reputation for hard hitting interviews of the famous and the infamous over the years. We spoke with Wallace before Arafat made his statement condemning terrorist activity.


KURTZ: Mike Wallace, welcome. We want to talk about you, but first to the Middle East. You interviewed Yasser Arafat in 1989. He said we are fed up with this bloodshed. We want peace. You interviewed him in 2000 -- we want peace. A couple of months ago you accused him of inciting Palestinians to violence. He denied it. Is the press helping to build up Arafat by portraying him as kind of a victim under siege?

MIKE WALLACE, CBS NEWS, 60 MINUTES: Well I -- look he is a victim under siege. There's no doubt about it. The last time that I talked with him in Ramallah, which was just a month or six weeks ago, for the first time I asked him questions and he gave me answers. I've known him since 1977. He gave me answers that didn't seem to track with the truth.


KURTZ: That's a polite way of saying that you think he lied to you Mike.

WALLACE: I think he's lying to himself. I think that he's lying to -- yes, I think that he is lying to his own public. Look, the fact of the matter is that Arabs in the street both in Gaza and in the West Bank really do not trust the Palestinian Authority anymore -- as far as money is concerned, four out of five of them in a recent poll believe that these people at the top, PA, are corrupt.

The people who are sitting there in his office when I talked to him six weeks ago -- I said look, you have your cars, you have your homes, you have -- you're very comfortable. You live comfortably here in Ramallah and you live comfortably, believe it or not, down in Gaza. What have you given the people, the Palestinians, whom you represent? You've not given them state. Unemployment is -- I guess it was around 35, 40 percent in Gaza, 30 to 35 percent on the West Bank. And you can't blame all of this on Israel.

KURTZ: And yet despite those kinds of questions, Mike, you've been over the last 20 years occasionally criticized by pro-Israeli groups as saying that you're not fair to the Jewish state. What do you make of that kind of criticism?

WALLACE: Oh, my. I'm a self-hating Jew. It's so -- it's hilarious. The only thing is that if my mother and father up there ever hear that, they'll roll over.

KURTZ: Is the press getting a little tougher on Israel in light of the West Bank invasion?

WALLACE: What I worry about is the emergence of anti-Semitism. Look, in Western Europe -- in the Arab countries I suppose it's understandable. They were happy, a lot of them in the street, when 9/11 came along. I just think that we've been somehow sending the wrong signal. You know who the real terrorist is, I believe? He's an Israeli, the man who shot Yitzhak Rabin and killed him. If Rabin were living still, this would not be happening.

KURTZ: Unfortunately that's not the case. All right, let's talk about Mike Wallace. You are 83 years old -- it's funny you don't look a day over 82, and you told ...


KURTZ: ... "The New York Times" that you're going to cut back your workload by as much as half. Say it ain't so. Say it ain't so.

WALLACE: Why? Look, I'm an old man. Look, you're a sedentary reporter in Washington, correct, Kurtz?

KURTZ: I leave town occasionally.

WALLACE: You sit -- you leave town very occasionally. I mean, you sit there at your typewriter or your computer or whatever. There are those of us who -- can you imagine being 83 and packing a bag which you take on wheels because you don't trust the airlines to get your bags there if you check them?

In addition, then you have a garment bag because you have a couple of suits and some shirts here. Then you have another satchel with your material when you walk a mile to your plane, and then you take off your shoes and it's -- and if it's winter time, you have a 10-pound winter coat on. The heck with it -- I mean, come on. It's just too damn hard for an old bugger.

KURTZ: The travel definitely wears you down, but when the next big story comes along ...

WALLACE: It does.

KURTZ: ... is Mike Wallace really going to say, I'm going fishing, give it to Morley or Leslie Stahl?

WALLACE: Give it to Morley?

KURTZ: In other words ...

WALLACE: Are you out of your mind?

KURTZ: ... you've talked before about cutting back and you don't quite seem to do it.

WALLACE: Yes. No. I -- I'm going to try to -- I really am. I'm going to try to do it. We'll see.

KURTZ: Now "60 MINUTES" is still after all these years the top rated news magazine, number 16 overall in the ratings. A part-time Mike Wallace has got to hurt the program.

WALLACE: No, come on. We have Safer. We have Bradley. We have Stahl. We have -- we have Steve Kroft. But most of all we have Rooney. And Rooney, of course, he believes that he is the reason that people stick around all the way through the show. They'll put up with anything, you know, in order to get to Rooney, and that's why we're at number 16 or 14 or whatever.

KURTZ: But in an era, as I'm sure you know, when television values youth and young performers, Steve Kroft is your -- Steve Kroft is your spring chicken at the age of 56, so ...

WALLACE: That's right.

KURTZ: ... why hasn't what might be described as this aging demographic hurt "60 MINUTES"?

WALLACE: Because -- I'm quite serious about this -- we don't have all that much competition at 7:00 on Sunday night, except during the football season.

You remember -- I think you're old enough to remember when there was an detente, an understanding among the three networks that they were going to put either children shows or news shows on at 7:00, and that's when they moved us into that 7:00 Sunday night spot.

Well, it became a habit. Then came the Yum Kippur war, 1973. We'd been on the air for about five years at that time, and we were regularly finishing 85th, 90th, whatever out of 100. No longer did they have the gas -- Americans have the gasoline to travel to grandma's on Sunday afternoon -- and they began to fool around with their dials, and they found us. And this was at the time of Watergate, and this was at a time when we were doing investigative pieces that nobody else was doing on television.

KURTZ: But now lots of people are doing them. And you know -- you know the buzz about broadcast news, that it's on the decline. You guys are all -- Koppel almost lost his job to Letterman. Your friend Dan Rather, a relative adolescent at the age of 70. Do you find any of that disillusioning after all the years in the business that people are saying that it's going in the wrong direction?

WALLACE: I don't find it disillusioning, no. Look, life moves on. How old are you?

KURTZ: I am 48.

WALLACE: So you're -- well, no, you're more than half my age. I don't know how many years you have left, Kurtz.

KURTZ: Well, if I can still be doing what you're doing when I reach your age, I'll be very happy. But I'm still trying to understand -- because you could have retired at 65, 75. What prompted you to do this now? I understand the travel is hard, but why now? Did your wife want you to retire?

WALLACE: My wife had an input in it, yes. But she says -- she's in her early 70s, I'm in my 80s. Are we going to spend a little more time together before we go? That's a pretty good question.

KURTZ: A couple of years back you very loudly and famously opposed the creation of "60 MINUTES II", thinking, I think, that it might kind of dilute the brand that you helped build up. Looking back, was that a mistake?

WALLACE: I think that "60 MINUTES II" is a first-rate broadcast. I'm sure you do too. We insisted that a man by the name of Jeff Fager (ph) be the executive producer of "60 II". He had been a producer on "60 MINUTES," and he has honored the obligation that we put upon him not to water it down, not to go for the easy score.

KURTZ: The -- when people think -- hear the name Mike Wallace, they thing aggressive, confrontational. When you look back on your career and some of the journalistic techniques you've used, anything you regret, whether it's ambush interviews, hidden cameras, things you wouldn't necessarily do today?

WALLACE: I thought -- I think that we were wise to do what are called ambush interviews. What's an ambush interview? You walk up to a fellow who you want to talk to, and he hasn't been -- he hadn't been willing to talk to you before. You've sent him letters, and you've tried to talk to him on the phone. So you walk up to him on the street and ask him a question -- that's an ambush?

KURTZ: Well isn't that about getting the dramatic footage of Mike Wallace, superhero confronting the bad guy on the street corner while the camera is rolling. Isn't there a little bit of a showbiz element to it?

WALLACE: It -- yes there was a certain drama. Are you after heat or are you after light? If in the course of telling your story you want the opportunity to see that individual on camera, and of course we're talking about something that we do almost never, no. Because so many people were copying that in the various other magazines and so forth, news magazines on television, that we decided we would -- we did not want to become a caricature of ourselves.

KURTZ: It became an electronic cliche, so to speak.

WALLACE: Yes, exactly right. So we stopped it, and we have -- we've tried to be -- we try to be tough and fair, both. And I think that the years have shown that the American people believe us. In a sense, we're kind of ombudsman.

KURTZ: "New York Times" piece, Mike Wallace, suggested, implied that one of the reasons you're still working as hard as you are was you wanted to -- you were worried about any lingering impact on your reputation from the movie "The Insider", which was about CBS' fighting of your tobacco industry investigation about a half dozen years ago. Any truth to that?

WALLACE: None whatsoever. The fact of the matter is that when we put the first piece about Brown & Williamson and Jeff Wygand and we were not permitted to name Jeff Wygand who was the -- who was an extraordinary man.

Yes, but I said on the air this is the first time that I have been working here at CBS that we -- I said this on the air -- and that we were disappointed at the fact that CBS so fit not to let us put what we wanted on the air. And sooner or later we're going to get this on the air, and we'll continue to work without fear or favor.

Well, within two, three months we did get the thing on the air. But that wasn't interesting enough for -- that wasn't interesting enough for Michael Mann who produced "The Insider." He wanted a more dramatic story. So he had to have Hewett (ph) and Wallace and so forth losing their moral compasses and caving into CBS, which simply was not true.

KURTZ: But the movie clearly bugged you?

WALLACE: You know, when I finally saw it, I couldn't believe -- I thought the movie was going to be a good movie. They would never let me see the movie ahead of time. I wanted to go to some of the screenings. They would not let me see it.

So I finally on a Saturday afternoon went to see the movie, and they still had -- they still had a line in there about Walter Cronkite -- I didn't want to wind up like Walter Cronkite, wandering the halls of National Public Radio, or something of that sort. I mean, where this stuff came from is -- if that's drama, if that's controversy -- you know, the picture, by the way, lost between $40 million and $45 million, according to ...

KURTZ: Well, I detect ...

WALLACE: Eisner.

KURTZ: ... I detect a note of self-satisfaction when you say that. It also got pretty good critical reviews.

Now, it's well known that you have for some years taken medication for depression. Could that have been a factor at all in your thinking about whether you want to continue to work as hard as you have?

WALLACE: No. No. I'm in good shape. I continue to take my medication, as I'm told to by my doctor, and I'm told that recidivism rate on depression is about 70 percent if you don't take your medication. So I take that, and I've never felt better, and ...

KURTZ: And finally, you started in this business a long time ago as a radio announcer doing programs like "The Green Hornet." Are you ever ...

WALLACE: Oh, no, no, no, before that.

KURTZ: I'm sorry, I'm picking it up too late.

WALLACE: "The Sack of Silver" at the time that "Pot of Gold" was going on, I did "The Sack of Silver" at WOOD in Grand Rapids. And ...



WALLACE: ... Ripken (ph) read the news, and with Douglas Edwards at WXYZ in Detroit after leaving Grand Rapids, I was one of the two cutting ham news aces on WXYZ. I have -- I've been in the business since 1939, and so I've seen and done a lot of things, and it wasn't really until I got out of the Navy that I decided, hey, I don't want to -- I want to do something that I -- that I like to do and that I take pride in doing.

KURTZ: Is that how you've lasted as long as you have in this tough, competitive cutthroat business?

WALLACE: I came late to it. I was 38 before I really settled down to do nothing but what I'm doing now and I'm -- it's a lot of years. And because I came late to it, and because I have such a good time doing it, and because I work with people half my age or less, who keep me -- who keep challenging me, Howard there's not a better job in journalism than the one we have, seriously on "60 MINUTES" -- not a better job.

KURTZ: Well, then we hope you'll keep doing it to the extent that you can do it, and we'll look forward to seeing you. Mike Wallace, thanks very much for joining us.

WALLACE: Thank you, Howard.


KURTZ: When we come back, we'll go live to Jerusalem and talk with CNN's Wolf Blitzer about the media's Middle East coverage.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES, and joining us now from Jerusalem CNN's Wolf Blitzer. After 20, 30 suicide bombings and with Colin Powell on his doorstep, Arafat finally issues a statement condemning attacks on civilians. Given his history, Wolf Blitzer, shouldn't the media report this with extreme skepticism?

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I think a lot of elements of the media are reporting him with skepticism. There's been a lot of statements that have been made and U.S. officials, Israeli officials certainly are saying those statements often times don't mean much when they're coming from Yasser Arafat. As a result, they want deeds, they want actions to back up the words. That's what Powell is going to be seeking when he meets directly with Yasser Arafat in Ramallah Sunday morning. But I think that's skepticism is coming through unless you haven't heard it come through, if you miss -- am I missing something?

KURTZ: Well obviously in the media world you have everything reduced to a sound byte or a headline. The headline is Arafat renounces violence. If you were writing the headline for tomorrow's papers would it be Arafat renounces violence or U.S., Israel scrutinize Arafat's statement?

BLITZER: I think I'd write a headline Powell to meet with Arafat following Arafat's statement -- something like that. I think that would be the main -- the main headline, but you're absolutely right. There should be skepticism, not only as far as Yasser Arafat statements are concerned, but statements coming from the Israeli government and skepticism often times coming from U.S. statements as well. That's our job. We have to ask those tough questions -- questions that you ask, that I ask, at the same time we report the news as fairly as we can.

KURTZ: Have the media played a role, perhaps Wolf, in hyping the Powell mission so that if he doesn't magically end violence some journalists are going to say well that was a failure.

BLITZER: Well there's no doubt that they're all so sensitive to the -- to what the media is going to reporting. The Israelis are certainly very nervous, for example, right now that once the media goes into that refugee camp on the West Bank of Jenin, there are going to be bodies there. The Palestinians have already accusing the Israelis of war crimes and massacres.

The Israelis have not let independent observers, including reporters into that camp yet. They deny any such thing, any such massacre, but they're real sensitive to it. Powell is sensitive, of course, to what the media's going to report on the failure or the success of his mission, and the Palestinians are very sensitive to it as well. All of them look to those of us in the media hoping to try to get their points across, but they know that what we report often times does have a substantive impact on the course ...

KURTZ: Right.

BLITZER: ... of negotiations.

KURTZ: I need a 15-second answer Wolf Blitzer. You've been reporting on this region for a quarter a century. Is it depressant to be back there and talking again about suicide bombings and the carnage?

BLITZER: It's very depressing to see Jerusalem right now. I've been here -- I've been coming here for, as you say, at least 25 years. And right now people, even if they want to do a simple thing like go to a restaurant, they check it out. They see if there's security, going on a bus or going to a supermarket it's -- these are ordeals in Jerusalem right now.

KURTZ: Right.

BLITZER: It's very sad to see what's come to the city.

KURTZ: OK, Wolf Blitzer on duty in Jerusalem. Thanks very much for staying up late with us tonight.

And when we come back, Ted Koppel, Louis Rukeyser, William Safire and more. We'll look at who's up and who's down in our media watch.


KURTZ: Time now for the week's ups and downs in the media world.


(voice-over): It was a good week for Ted Koppel, the best week, in fact, since ABC tried to replace him with this guy. Koppel and Disney Chairman Michael Eisner cutting a deal for "NIGHTLINE" to stay on the air for at least two more years.

A good week for Louis Rukeyser, who's reviving his "Wall Street" program, the one that public television booted him off, on CNBC.

A good week for "The Wall Street Journal," which now has front page color, actual color in its first redesign since World War II.

A good week for Buffalo news cartoonist Tom Toles, who's jumping to "The Washington Post," filling the shoes of the legendary Herb Block (ph). But George W. Bush may not like the way he's rendered by Toles.

A good week for "The New York Times," which won a record- shattering seven Pulitzer Prizes. That's half the total mostly for its war and terrorism coverage under new editor Howard Raines (ph).

Though some folks say New Jersey's Bergen (ph) record was robbed by not winning a photography prize for this moving picture of three firemen on 9/11.

And a not so good week for "Times" columnist William Safire, who keeps getting exclusive interviews with Ariel Sharon. "Washington Globe" columnist Mark Jurkowich (ph) said Safire is serving as an unabashed propaganda outlet for the Israeli prime minister. Nonsense, says Safire, I've always been a right-winger on Israel and America.


You can catch RELIABLE SOURCES again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern.


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