Ahmadinejad's '60 Minutes' Interview
August 15, 2006 · CBS News' Mike Wallace interviewed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a piece that aired on Sunday night's 60 Minutes, and boy, was it intriguing television.
Was it revealing journalism? That's another question. Ahmadinejad doesn't give a lot of access to the Western media. According to CBS News, USA Today was the last American news organization, back in February.
This time out, Ahmadinejad was alternately prickly and elusive. He frequently turned Wallace's questions back against him. And that's where I come in. Yesterday, we ran a profile I did of an ESPN interview guru named John Sawatsky who points to Wallace's work as rife with mistakes that should be avoided.
Sawatsky argues dramatic-sounding questions -- like the ones Wallace favors -- tend to antagonize people and are therefore often deflected instead of answered. Sawatsky prefers neutrally phrased ones that force people to address the subject. Wallace provided Sawatsky with plenty of grist for future critiques, as in this exchange:
Mike Wallace: I am told that your revolutionary guards, Mr. President, are taking bombs, those roadside bombs, the IEDs, into Iraq. And what they are doing is furnishing the insurgents in Iraq with the kind of material that can kill U.S. soldiers. Why would you want to do that?
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: We are very saddened that the people of Iraq are being killed. I believe that the rulers of the U.S. have to change their mentality. I ask you, sir, what is the American Army doing inside Iraq? Iraq has a government, a parliament, Iraq is -- has a civilized nation with a long history of civilization.
Ahmadinejad: These are people we are dealing with. Why are the Americans killing...
Wallace: Was Saddam...
Ahmadinejad: ...Iraqis on a daily basis?
Wallace: Was Saddam a civilized, reasonable leader? Were we wrong to go into Iraq?
Ahmadinejad: Well, Saddam's story has been finished for close to three years, I would say. He belongs in the past.
Wallace: I just asked...
Ahmadinejad: ... and the Americans are openly saying that we are here for the long run, in Iraq that is. So a question for you...
And so on.
Despite his title, Ahmadinejad isn't the most powerful figure in the Iranian government, but he seems to rally a fair degree of public support at home. Abroad, however, he's a contentious figure, as he regularly denounces the U.S. and Israel -- often fundamentally challenging that the Holocaust ever occurred to undermine the rationale for the creation of Israel after World War II -- and rejects Western demands that Iran open up to nuclear weapons inspections.
It's not clear viewers would have walked away from the 60 Minutes story with much more understanding of Ahmadinejad than they had before -- but they would have seen him articulate those beliefs, and watch Wallace seemingly confront him on them.
The blog world is filled with amateur Sawatskies today -- critics who argue about Wallace's approach to the interview. CBS's own Web site about journalism, called Public Eye, drew waves of comments that also give a feel for the intensity of the response.
A footnote: Truly interesting things can come from crisis. Public Eye was started after the 60 Minutes Wednesday debacle, in which the network had to retract a story on gaps in President Bush's service record. It's become a clearinghouse for spirited discussion of journalism practices.
And a last note: There was a reason I started yesterday's blog by pointing your attention to NPR's Felix Contreras. He will be taking the helm of Mixed Signals first thing tomorrow morning for a few days. He's a talented guy looking for yet another medium to master. Give him a read -- and thanks for indulging me the past two days.
-- David Folkenflik