July 19, 2010
Posted: 12:07 PM ET
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from “Heat & Light: Advice for the Next Generation of Journalists”. The paperback came out last week.
Journalists also have to be brave, or at least bold. The profession often requires that reporters do things that are emotionally difficult, or expose themselves to some degree of danger. Reporters who cover war or conflict obviously put themselves in great peril. Such was the case when Mike flew to Tehran in December 1979 to interview the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The ayatollah had just taken power after leading an Islamic revolution in that Middle Eastern nation, sending Iran’s king, the shah, into exile. The Iran story touched America directly: on November 3, 1979, a group of radical students supporting Khomeini took fifty- two American diplomats hostage inside the U.S. Embassy, threatening their lives and keeping them in captivity for more than a year.
The interview with Khomeini was a huge “get” for Mike, as it was considered a first look at the new face of Iran. But Khomeini did not naturally make for good television. The cleric was so conservative that he wouldn’t even look at Mike during their interview. Khomeini stared at the floor or off into space as he talked. So Mike asked him something that was sure to provoke him. After thinking long and hard about just how to phrase a question that would be certain to get a response but would not seem insulting, Mike quoted the words of the Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat— like Khomeini a Muslim, but someone who was a close friend of the deposed Iranian king. “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.’ ” Mike covered his heart with his hand as he delivered the question, as if to request forgiveness for asking something so tough. The statement was so explosive that Khomeini’s translator didn’t dare relay it at first. “The translator was looking at me as though I was the lunatic for asking the question,” Mike remembers. Before Khomeini answered, Mike had to confirm to the worried translator, “Yes, that’s what I heard President Sadat say, on American television.” The ayatollah did not speak English, but he sensed there was a problem. “Khomeini saw what was going on between me and the translator— and he was making up his mind exactly what he was going to do, if the question was finally translated for him. He started to answer and began to say, ‘Sadat,’ ” Mike recalls. Khomeini was then speechless for several seconds as the question sank in. Finally, he said that Sadat could not be considered a Muslim because “he compromises with the enemies of Islam.” The ayatollah’s expression remained stony throughout, but Mike got to him.
Where did Mike get the chutzpah to ask this question? “What are they gonna do? Make me a hostage?” Mike says, laughing. “You know something, I’m quite serious about that. That would be a hell of a news story, wouldn’t it? ‘Wallace has finally done himself in.’ ” Mike felt, as many journalists do, that there’s some safety in being a reporter, and that Khomeini was unlikely to retaliate in response to a tough question. And while that was true for Mike, Khomeini was brutally harsh with others. “At that moment I didn’t know yet that Khomeini was sending youngsters out to step on land mines, to permit his troops to advance in this war between Iran and Iraq.” Mike’s interview with Khomeini was a major event, and the lunatic question would go down as one of the most provocative of Mike’s long career. The legendary creator of 60 Minutes, the late Don Hewitt, called the interview historic and “one of the great moments on television.” Mike says that his boldness is probably one of the reasons he has succeeded as a journalist. “I haven’t the slightest reluctance to break in and say, ‘Hey, explain it’ or ‘Why?’ or ‘Because . . . ?’ or ‘Forgive me’ or ‘Come on!’ They are wonderful interruptions. They suddenly make the object of your scrutiny explain,” he says. And that’s what a good journalist has to be willing to do— to keep pressing until he breaks new ground with his questions. (We’ll talk in more detail about how to ask such questions later, in the interview chapter.) Good journalists are often skeptics— but they need to be skeptical without being cynical. Linda Mason, the senior vice president of CBS News, remembers working on a story years ago about why the price of eggs was going up. It seemed like a simple matter of supply and demand to her, until she got a call from an anonymous source who claimed that an organization was limiting the egg supply. She almost ignored the source’s claims but ended up following through on them to break a story. “Luckily, I listened to this other voice,” Mason recalls. “It isn’t always the easy solution that’s the right answer. Sometimes the more complicated things are true.” Last, good journalists are humble. We’ve seen reporters lose their jobs for being prima donnas— treating their colleagues rudely or getting so full of themselves that they didn’t do their work well. Most important, journalists must never let their egos get so big as to become insensitive to the plight of the people they cover.
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