Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Iran's rulers have learned to play the media game.

Bernard Goldberg, The Wall Street Journal:
An old line that used to make the rounds at CBS News held that the last thing the CEO of a major corporation wanted to hear was "Mike Wallace on line one."

Anyone who has ever seen my former colleague in action gets the joke immediately. But I'm guessing that Ayatollah Khomeini didn't watch "60 Minutes" very often back when he was leading the Iranian Revolution and holding Americans hostage. I'm also guessing he didn't know Mike Wallace from Kate Smith.

Big mistake. The ayatollah was no match for Mike when they sat down in 1979. It was like Muhammad Ali going up against some old, washed up guy in the gym. Mike understood television. The ayatollah was living in the seventh century; he didn't get any of it. So Mike did what he does best. He calmly, gently and most of all politely hit Khomeini with a shot he never saw coming. "Imam," Mike said, "President Sadat of Egypt says what you are doing is, quote, 'a disgrace to Islam.' And he calls you, Imam--forgive me, his words, not mine--'a lunatic.' "

Who remembers the answer? And who cares? This was Mike at his best, taking on a world leader and challenging his credentials--in this case his very sanity. But as they say, that was then and this is now. Two nights ago Mike went up against another Iranian leader, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Mike was good. He asked lots of tough questions. But President Ahmadinejad was no patsy. He lives in the present. He's smart. And more important, he's television savvy. He understands the media at least as well as Mike does. READ MORE

On at least two occasions Mike asked President Ahmadinejad why he has said that "Israel must be wiped off the map." Please explain, Mike said. But Mr. Ahmadinejad never really did, except to finally say, as he has before, that Israel should be somewhere else, like Germany. Is this what he means by "wiped off the map"--or is he just being prudent on television?

Who knows? Mike tried to ask him about Hezbollah missiles and rockets, which are furnished by Iran and are being lobbed into Israeli cities. But President Ahmadinejad didn't feel like answering that one, either. So he deftly changed the subject.

Still, over the course of the interview, Mike got in more than a few good ones. But somehow it didn't matter. Somehow this man, who many fear is building nuclear weapons for use on Israel, who has called the Holocaust "an overblown fairytale," who presides over an autocratic regime and who is seen as one of the greatest threats to world peace, came across as--no kidding--a fairly reasonable person, at times even a likable one. When Mike asked what his hobbies were, Mr. Ahmadinejad said studying, reading and spending "quality time" with his family. Quality time! You think you'd ever hear those words coming out of Ayatollah Khomeini's mouth? No, this is the language of a modern man who understands the power of television and who knows how to speak American.

In fact you got the impression that Mr. Ahmadinejad, unlike the ayatollah, was talking right past Mike and straight to the American people. He had a message to deliver, and he was going to deliver it no matter what Mike wanted to talk about. So the president of Iran told us what a shame it was that 1% of the American people are in prison. And how unfortunate it was that 45 million Americans don't have health-care insurance. "That," he said, "is very sad to hear." You just know that every liberal tuned in to "60 Minutes" was nodding in agreement. "He's not such a bad guy, after all," they were probably thinking. "So much more reasonable--and intelligent--than Bush."

In fact, instead of seeming like a modern Hitler (a not unreasonable comparison, given that one wanted to exterminate all the Jews while the other wants to wipe Israel off the map), Mr. Ahmadinejad came across as, well, a fairly typical, run-of-the-mill liberal. I listened carefully as he laid out his position on the war in Lebanon and on the Bush policy in Iraq, and I could not detect any significant difference between his views and those held by a lot of blue-state liberals, especially the liberal intellectuals on our college campuses. "Killing innocents is reprehensible," he told Mike Wallace. "Why are Americans killing Iraqis?" he asked. Hey, I just heard the same thing on Air America.

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? He simply has no time for details about that. The answer might offend his new allies in America: the ones listening to him for the first time and being won over by his compassion for all those Americans without health insurance; the ones he is hoping will pressure George Bush to get out of Iraq, stop supporting Israel and lighten up on Iran.

Even at age 88, Mike is still Mike, which is another way of saying he's still the best out there. But after watching his "60 Minutes" interview, I came away thinking that Mr. Ahmadinejad understands us a lot better than we understand him. Over the years, dangerous men like him have learned how to play the media game. They have gotten quite sophisticated. I'm afraid we haven't. Unfortunately, "Mike Wallace on line one" doesn't scare anybody in Tehran.

Mr. Goldberg, a correspondent at CBS News from 1972 to 2000, is the author of "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News" and, most recently, "100 People Who Are Screwing Up America."