Mike Wallace is a hard-hitting journalist. But did he hit too hard? Did he hit too low? Yes, said General James Jones, the commandant of the United States Marine Corps, who demanded an apology. No, said Wallace, the co-anchor of CBS's 60 Minutes, who then apologized anyhow. Let's back up a month.
Wallace is working on a story about the V-22 Osprey aircraft, which flies like a plane and takes off and lands like a helicopter. That, at least, is what it is supposed to do. But in the past eight years, two Ospreys have crashed. Twenty-six men have been killed. There are serious doubts about the aircraft's safety. Wallace is looking into it.
Then on December 11, 2000, a third crash. This time there are four deaths, including the pilot, Lt. Col. Keith Sweaney. Within 48 hours of the accident, Wallace makes a call to Sweaney's home, trying to arrange an interview with his widow. A friend of Mrs. Sweaney answers the phone and will not put him through. The attempt, however, infuriates the Marines.
This was "reprehensible and irresponsible behavior," says General Jones. It "went beyond the pale of common decency." Wallace disagrees. "I did what any reporter would do," he says. "I made a polite, sensitive call."
Jones's letter is quoted in the Washington Post. Wallace rethinks his position. He writes to Mrs. Sweaney, telling her he is "deeply sorry if my telephone call to your home yesterday was an unwelcome intrusion, and in retrospect I can see that you and your friends could well have perceived it as such." Some years ago, Wallace probably had similar perceptions. In 1962, his son Peter died. He too got calls from the media. He does not say whether he found them "polite, sensitive."
But was the letter sincere, or was Wallace merely trying to make amends with Mrs. Sweaney, hoping that she will consent to an interview when her grief is less raw? Is that what any reporter would do? After all, American taxpayers are spending $40 billion for Ospreys; if the machines are not safe we have a right to know, and the journalist who tells us may be a greater public servant than any we could choose at a polling place. And, on countless occasions during his career, Mike Wallace has served his public with honor and integrity.
But was he trying to do so in this case? To answer that question, it is necessary to answer this one: How important to Wallace's story is Mrs. Sweaney? Wallace had already interviewed a host of people about the Osprey, presumably building a case against it through the testimony of military people and aviation experts and even relatives of the victims of a previous crash. How likely is it that the widow Sweaney would have provided further evidence for the prosecution? How necessary was that evidence? Or was Wallace just interested in her tears, knowing that they would be compelling television? Shouldn't he realize that, in the final analysis, the case against the Osprey must be made rationally, not emotionally?
Of course, the Marines do not want it made at all. They have refused to be interviewed by Wallace or anyone else about the Osprey. Thus they seem to admit they have something to hide.
But last December, in the wake of the third crash, the Marines were not important. Mike Wallace was not important. Carol Sweaney and her family were important. It was their grief that mattered, not the story, and they had a right to express it in private, without interruption. Sometimes, a journalist serves his public best simply by showing kindness to a small number of its members.
So did hard-hitting Mike Wallace hit too hard a month ago? No. Did he hit too low? No. He hit too soon, as reporters almost always do in cases like these, and thereby made a tragedy just a little more tragic for those who were its primary victims.
After we talked about this story on last week's show, viewers responded with an incredible amount of mail. Most of you seemed to agree with the thoughts expressed above. Here is a just a fraction of those letters:
I can't believe the four journalists on your panel think that it's okay for a reporter to intrude on someone's grief just to get a story. Disgusting! This type of disrespect is why people think journalists are low-lifes. And your analysts are idiots if they think Wallace was contacting the spouse to get technical information about the why of the Osprey crashes. The only thing he was trying to get was a grieving widow that he could display on 60 Minutes — at her expense. Although my comments may sound harsh, I watch and enjoy your show, and will continue to watch your show. —Anonymous, Jacksonville, Florida.
Maybe Wallace did not think he could make his case without the emotional pandering of an interview with a grieving widow. Equally shameful is the way you in the media closed ranks behind him. Are you all of the same cloth? —John Allan, Los Altos, California.
Your panel condemns "reality TV" programs for obviously being rigged to pander to people's emotions, fine. But then one panelist defends Mike Wallace for calling a widow 48 hours after her husband dies in a crash as news research. Bull, she could not possibly be the best source of information about the crash or aircraft, why not just admit Wallace was just trying to air the widow's emotions as news, far worse than "reality TV." —Dan Aldridge, San Antonio, Texas.