Praise for Mike Wallace as a probing investigative reporter saturated news media immediately after his death April 7 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 — usually pitched softballs and parroted propaganda.
Wallace spent parts or all of seven decades in journalism, 38 as a correspondent on CBS Television’s “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.”
• In 1984, a Wallace “60 Minutes” segment rehearsed Syria’s line about its regional interests. “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 sought a multiparty democracy there rather than imposed a police state occupation. Regarding Israel, Wallace said Syria wanted the Golan Heights back. He did not explain that Israel gained the Golan in self-defense in 1967 and retained it similarly in 1973.
• In 1987, Wallace glossed over oppression of Russian Jewry the way he had Syria’s treatment of its Jews. “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,” he “reported.” This just before, under Mikhail Gorbachev, hundreds of thousands of Jews would emigrate, most going to Israel. In this segment Wallace suggested that the Jewish Siberian region of Birobidzhan — where Jews were a small minority — could be home for Soviets seeking a life of Jewish culture.
• In 1988, “60 Minutes” examined 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 George Ball, a former undersecretary of state known for his anti-Israel stance, but not George Shultz, the incumbent secretary of state. 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, among other things, the Palestine Liberation Organization leader’s misrepresentation of terrorism as “resistance” or his insistence that a PLO group intercepted by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon had been on its way to attack troops, not civilians. The late David Bar-Illan, then executive editor of The Jerusalem Post, wrote of the interview, “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 Jerusalem’s Temple Mount. He aired interviews with seven Arab eyewitnesses but only one Jew, and cast doubt on the latter’s statements; skipped over the cause of the fighting — efforts by Fatah and Hamas to reignite the first intifada; and did not interview the main Israeli investigators. Wallace 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 for a “60 Minutes” segment on Israel’s absorption of the 400,000-plus Soviet Jews who had arrived in the previous three years. Their unemployment rate was 11 percent and many worked at jobs beneath their level of education and training. Prominent refusenik immigrant Natan Sharansky painted a more positive picture, but his comments were cut. Wallace wrongly implied that a U.S. loan guarantee to assist Israel absorb the immigrant wave was a grant and that it would help Israel annex the West Bank, something the government did not plan.
• In 2006, Wallace fawned over another dictator, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby summarized the interview 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.”
The lionizing of Mike Wallace epitomizes news media refusal to describe accurately, warts and all, those they hold out as journalistic exemplars.
(Eric Rozenman is Washington director of CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.)