April 08, 2012
Remembering Mike Wallace: Compelling TV -- and an unsettling glimpse of amorality
Col. George Connell, USMC, gives Mike Wallace a look of complete and utter contempt during an episode of Ethics in America.
Mike Wallace passed away this weekend, best known for his five decades of pugnacious interviews on CBS' 60 Minutes. Characterized by one of his fellow hosts as an avuncular interviewer, someone who could get away with asking the kinds of questions that would earn anyone else a punch in the mouth, I'm afraid that the most indelible memory I have of Wallace is quite different, ironically courtesy of PBS, in a show I first saw back in the mid-to-late '80s.
James Fallows wrote a piece for The Atlantic Monthly on why the public hates the media, and later expanded it into a book on the same topic. The piece recounted how Wallace believed himself a journalist first, an American second, if at all.
In the late 1980s, public television stations aired a talking head series called Ethics in America. For each show, more than a dozen prominent thinkers sat around a horseshoe-shaped table and tried to answer troubling ethical questions posed by a moderator.
From the respectability of the panelists to the super-seriousness of the topics, the series might have seemed a good bet to be paralyzingly dull. But the drama and tension of at least one show made that episode absolutely riveting.
This episode was sponsored by Montclair State College in the fall of 1987. Its title was "Under Orders, Under Fire," and most of the panelists were former soldiers talking about the ethical dilemmas of their work. The moderator was Charles Ogletree, a professor at Harvard Law School, who moved from expert to expert asking increasingly difficult questions in the law school's famous Socratic style.
During the first half of the show Ogletree made the soldiers squirm about ethical tangles on the battlefield.
Then Ogletree turned to the two most famous members of the evening's panel: Peter Jennings of World News Tonight and ABC, and Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes and CBS. Ogletree brought them into the same hypothetical war. He asked Jennings to imagine that he worked for a network that had been in contact with the enemy North Kosanese government. After much pleading, the North Kosanese had agreed to let Jennings and his news crew into their country, to film behind the lines and even travel with military units. Would Jennings be willing to go? Of course, Jennings replied. Any reporter would -- and in real wars reporters from his network often had.
But while Jennings and his crew are traveling with a North Kosanese unit, to visit the site of an alleged atrocity by American and South Kosanese troops, they unexpectedly cross the trail of a small group of American and South Kosanese soldiers. With Jennings in their midst, the northern soldiers set up a perfect ambush, which will let them gun down the Americans and Southerners, every one.
What does Jennings do? Ogletree asks. Would he tell his cameramen to "Roll tape!" as the North Kosanese opened fire? What would go through his mind as he watched the North Kosanese prepare to ambush the Americans?
Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds after Ogletree asked this question. "Well, I guess I wouldn't," he finally said. "I am going to tell you now what I am feeling, rather than the hypothesis I drew for myself. If I were with a North Kosanese unit that came upon Americans, I think that I personally would do what I could to warn the Americans." Even if it means losing the story? Ogletree asked. Even though it would almost certainly mean losing my life, Jennings replied. "But I do not think that I could bring myself to participate in that act. That's purely personal, and other reporters might have a different reaction."
Immediately Mike Wallace spoke up. "I think some other reporters would have a different reaction," he said, obviously referring to himself. "They would regard it simply as a story they were there to cover."
"I am astonished, really," at Jennings's answer, Wallace said moment later. He turned toward Jennings and began to lecture him: "You're a reporter. Granted you're an American"-at least for purposes of the fictional example; Jennings has actually retained Canadian citizenship. "I'm a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you're an American, you would not have covered that story."
Ogletree pushed Wallace. Didn't Jennings have some higher duty, either patriotic or human, to do something other than just roll film as soldiers from his own country were being shot?
"No," Wallace said flatly and immediately. "You don't have a higher duty. No. No. You're a reporter!" Jennings backtracked fast. Wallace was right, he said. "I chickened out." Jennings said that he had gotten so wrapped up in the hypothetical questions that he had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached.
As Jennings said he agreed with Wallace, everyone else in the room seemed to regard the two of them with horror.
Retired Air Force general Brent Scowcroft gestures as he tells Wallace it was simply wrong to stand and watch as your side was slaughtered. "What's it worth?" he asks Wallace bitterly. "It's worth thirty seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon."
Retired Air Force general Brent Scowcroft, who had been Gerald Ford's national security advisor and would soon serve in the same job for George Bush, said it was simply wrong to stand and watch as your side was slaughtered. "What's it worth?" he asked Wallace bitterly. "It's worth thirty seconds on the evening news, as opposed to saving a platoon."
Ogletree turned to Wallace. What about that? Shouldn't the reporter have said something? Wallace gave his most disarming grin, shrugged his shoulders and spread his palms wide in a "Don't ask me!" gesture, and said, "I don't know." He was mugging to the crowd in such a way that he got a big laugh-the first such moment of the discussion. Wallace paused to enjoy the crowd's reaction.
"I feel utter contempt. Two days later, they're both walking off my hilltop -- they're 200 yards away -- and they get ambushed and they're lying there wounded, and they're gonna expect I'm gonna send Marines up there to get them. They're just journalists. They're not Americans. Is that a fair reaction? Can't have it both ways. But I'll do it. And that's what makes me so contemptuous of them. And Marines will die, going to get a couple of journalists."
A few minutes later Ogletree turned to George M. Connell, a Marine colonel in full uniform, jaw muscles flexing in anger, with stress on each word, Connell looked at the TV stars and said, "I feel utter . . . contempt. " Two days after this hypothetical episode, Connell Jennings or Wallace might be back with the American forces--and could be wounded by stray fire, as combat journalists often had been before. The instant that happened he said, they wouldn't be "just journalists" any more. Then they would drag them back, rather than leaving them to bleed to death on the battlefield. "We'll do it!" Connell said. "And that is what makes me so contemptuous of them. Marines will die going to get ... a couple of journalists."
The last few words dripped with disgust. Not even Ogletree knew what to say. There was dead silence for several seconds.
Then a square-jawed man with neat gray hair and aviator glasses spoke up. It was Newt Gingrich, looking a generation younger and trimmer than when he became Speaker of the House in 1995. One thing was clear from this exercise, he said: "The military has done a vastly better job of systematically thinking through the ethics of behavior in a violent environment than the journalists have."
Fallows summarized the moral failure, the abyss at the professional (and I'd argue, personal) core of the two newsmen, in as devastating a critique as I've ever read.
Peter Jennings and Mike Wallace are just two individuals, but their reactions spoke volumes about the values of their craft. Jennings was made to feel embarrassed about his natural, decent human impulse. Wallace was completely unembarrassed about feeling no connection to the soldiers in his country's army considering their deaths before his eyes as "simply a story."
In other important occupations people sometimes need to do the horrible [and a soldier on the panel] had thought through all the consequences and alternatives, and he knew he would live with the horror for the rest of his days.
When Mike Wallace said he would do something horrible, he didn't bother to argue a rationale. He did not try to explain the reasons a reporter might feel obliged to remain silent as the attack began -- for instance, that in combat reporters must be beyond country, or that they have a duty to bear impartial witness to deaths on either side, or that Jennings had implicitly made a promise not to betray the North Kosanese when he agreed to accompany them on the hypothetical patrol ... He relied on charm and star power to win acceptance from the crowd.
Mike Wallace on patrol with the North Kosanese, cameras rolling while his countrymen are gunned down, recognizing no "higher duty" to interfere in any way and offering no rationale beyond "I'm with the press" -- this is a nice symbol for what Americans hate about their media establishment in our age.
That's not the epitaph I'd wish for myself, but it's one that Wallace seemed comfortable earning.
My condolences to his family.
Requiescat in pace.
Posted by Mike Lief at April 8, 2012 01:28 PM
How unexpected that none of the MSM articles about his death mention this incident.
Posted by: The Little Coach at April 9, 2012 11:00 AM
It is interesting to me to consider how I would have felt about Wallace's decision not to alert US troops if his reason had been founded in an ethical or moral rationale. Although it's hard to conceive of what ethical or moral consideration might outweigh the life or lives of US troops, at least then one might conclude that when stuck in a genuine ethical quandary, Wallace chose a different path than would most human beings. But in this hypothetical debate, he offers no ethical basis other than it's not his job as a journalist to alert the troops. I'm not even sure what professional benefit he believes he reaps from remaining silent.
At least if his reason for remaining silent had been his fear of being killed for speaking up, that at least is a not-unexpected human reaction to an intolerably frightening dilemma, sacrificing your own life to save the lives of others versus saving your own life. Instead, his reaction is one that seems without any redeeming human characteristic.
And I should note that this isn't limited to saving the lives of Americans. It seems equally difficult to support Wallace's journalistic (?) rationale for remaining silent if the Kosanese forces were planning to mow down any nation's troops.
I am interested to know whether your reaction would be different if the hypothetical had been posed that the troops were going to be captured and sent to humane POW camps rather than being killed. Then, if there had been some ethical basis for Wallace's position, perhaps his ethical basis might be an adequate rationale for his silence? Thoughts?
Posted by: BullButz at April 10, 2012 04:41 PM
I'm taken with your observation that Wallace's response to the hypothetical was "without any redeeming human characteristic."
Wallace had an opportunity to explain himself, and in the horrified silence that followed his self-righteous declaration of independence from American citizenship and comity with American GIs -- as well as humanity and decency -- he certainly could have offered up a rationale.
I don't think your modified hypothetical can produce a different result from either Wallace or me -- Wallace, because he's dead; me, because there's no way to assure the journalist that the troops are about to be captured alive and offered a stay in "humane POW camps."
I think the only explanation that would have sufficed for silence would have been self-preservation, i.e., cowardice.
Posted by: Mike Lief at April 14, 2012 11:46 AM
Well, not to quibble with you here, since I think we agree on the despicable nature of Wallace's response to the hypothetical, but you said:
"I don't think your modified hypothetical can produce a different result from...me...because there's no way to assure the journalist that the troops are about to be captured alive and offered a stay in 'humane POW camps.'"
My quibble with your response is that I was proposing an alternate hypothetical. I grant you that in real life one usually could not be certain the POW camps would be "humane," but this was not real life; it was a hypothetical. To respond to the hypo, by refusing to accept the facts underlying the hypo, doesn't really respond to the hypo.
I was just wondering about the purely ethical question that I proposed to get a sense whether your (and my too) moral revulsion caused my Wallace's response was founded in dual revulsion, part from the offensive nature of allowing human beings to be slaughtered en masse and part from the offensive nature of something bad happening to US troops specifically.
Both aspects offended me, but I was interested in delving more deeply into the weight of each.
Posted by: BullButz at April 15, 2012 04:44 PM
I'll respond to your hypothetical -- as phrased -- but, please, Gaston, you first.
Posted by: Mike Lief at April 15, 2012 04:49 PM
I'm not sure I have much of a response to my own hypo. I know that I feel more strongly about US troops being captured or killed than I feel about any other nations troops being similarly treated.
And I know that I'd like to think I'd have the courage to speak out, particularly if it meant saving the lives of the troops. But I was trying to explore the bases for my feelings and figure out what the ethical issues were. It's not an area where I've ever examined the ethics of the situation, either regarding the feelings of nationalism or journalistic ethics.
I wondered about the dual issues about 1) whether feeling more strongly about the issue for US troops than other nations is ethically supportable or just support for my own country and 2) whether, if the troops were not going to be killed (just captured and humanely treated) is there any journalistic ethic that would support remaining silent when speaking up could prevent the capture.
In short, these issues intrigue me, but I'm not sure I already have a good sense of what the answer is.
Posted by: BullButz at April 16, 2012 11:12 AM