Remembering Mike Wallace

Despicable Pig, Mike Wallace

A reader mentions Morely Safer in connection with today’s report that an MSNBC talking head dismissed the concept that  US. soldiers killed in battle are “heroes”. Safer, the reader says, once claimed that he’d act to protect US soldiers from a North Vietnamese ambush “because I’m an American first”. I believe the reader has confused Safer with another 60 Minutes correspondent, Mike Wallace (Safer is in fact a Canadian) who answered that question exactly the opposite way: he’d let the soldiers die. Lengthy excerpt below, but it reveals exactly who and what Mike Wallace was.

Then Ogletree turned to the two most famous members of the evening’s panel, better known even than Westmoreland. These were two star TV journalists: 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 Jennings and his news crew got permission from the North Kosanese to enter their country and film behind the lines. Would Jennings be willing to go? Of course, he replied. Any reporter would—and in real wars reporters from his network often had.

But while Jennings and his crew were traveling with a North Kosanese unit, to visit the site of an alleged atrocity by U.S. and South Kosanese troops, they unexpectedly crossed the trail of a small group of American and South Kosanese soldiers. With Jennings in their midst the Northern soldiers set up an ambush that would let them gun down the Americans and Southerners.

What would Jennings do? 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 fire?

Jennings sat silent for about fifteen seconds. “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 meant 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.”

Ogletree turned for reaction to Mike Wallace, who immediately replied. “I think some other reporters would have a different reaction,” he said, obviously referring to himself. “They would regard it simply as another story they were there to cover.” A moment later Wallace said, “I am astonished, really.” 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 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 “played the hypothetical very hard.”He had lost sight of his journalistic duty to remain detached.

As Jennings said he agreed with Wallace, several soldiers in the room seemed to regard the two of them with horror. Retired Air Force General Brent Scowcroft, who would soon become George Bush’s National Security Advisor, 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.”

After a brief discussion between Wallace and Scowcroft, Ogletree reminded Wallace of Scowcroft’s basic question. What was it worth for the reporter to stand by, looking? Shouldn’t the reporter have said something ?

Wallace gave a disarming grin, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “I don’t know.” He later mentioned extreme circumstances in which he thought journalists should intervene. But at that moment he seemed to be mugging to the crowd with a “Don’t ask me!”expression, and in fact he drew a big laugh—the first such moment in the discussion. Jennings, however, was all business, and was still concerned about the first answer he had given.

“I wish I had made another decision,” Jennings said, as if asking permission to live the past five minutes over again. “I would like to have made his decision”—that is, Wallace’s decision to keep on filming.

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 said, “I feel utter contempt.”


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6 responses to “Remembering Mike Wallace

  1. Anonymous

    That article you linked was a fantastic read, thanks for finding it. Now we’re 16 years down the road and deeper in the muck of professional “journalism” than ever before. What a shame.

  2. HG

    Geez, I certainly remembered that wrong. You are right–celebrate memorial day, spit on Mike W’s grave.

  3. Peg

    I admire journalists who do just about everything to get a story…. but – sometimes, there are limits. Kudos to Jennings to appreciate that the life of a soldier who is fighting for what is right trumps “reporting the news.”

    Apparently Mike Wallace has no clue that there are exceptions to all rules … and that our values have priorities.

  4. AJ Nock

    Wallace was a formidable intimidator. AND a legend in his own mind. He started out as a shill for whoeever was willing to pay him a buck (tobacco, game shows, etc,).Then, as his career advanced he began covering up his tracks and his past and imagined himself more Murrow than Murrow. Jennings was a typical talking head. Good looking, spineless…and not a single original thought in his pretty little head.

  5. Jennings and Wallace both were insufferable. Wallace, especially, should have stuck to game shows. (We sold the teevee back in 1994 and never looked back.)