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Mike Wallace Gives University Lecture; Remains Reticent on Dan Rather Story

Matthew Hersh

Mike Wallace, the octogenarian 60 Minutes news correspondent, who has interviewed every president in the last half-century (except for the current one), recounted last week at Princeton University his August 2000 interview with former Chinese President Jiang Zemin.

Calling it his personal favorite interview, the CBS News veteran recalled his thinking throughout the often contentious, now famous, debate with Mr. Jiang.

The lecture was the inaugural installment of the Goodman Lecture on Media and Global Affairs at Princeton University's Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS). Jerry Goodman premiered on television as "Adam Smith," the anchor and editor-in-chief of PBS's Adam Smith's Money World for 13 years. Thomas Christensen, professor of politics and public and international affairs at the University, was also on hand to speak on "World Leaders on 60 Minutes."

In an interview that preceded Mr. Jiang's visit to the U.S. to meet with American business leaders to help increase investments in China, Mr. Wallace grilled the former president in a way that admittedly, even he "couldn't believe."

He recalled President Bill Clinton's commentary after seeing the interview:

"Clinton came over to me and said 'Well, that was very, very good. How come you were able to tame him? You handled him better than we have for years'."

"It turned out to be a very important interview for Chinese/American relations," he continued.

The U.S., he said, had long sought more of a presence in China's buyers' market, which is over a billion people. Mr. Wallace called the interview "important" because Mr. Jiang closed it by saying he wanted to normalize trade relations with the U.S.

The screening spawned discussions of other current events in China and other world leaders. The lecture also turned into a broader conversation about Mr. Wallace's career and his position on the place of the media in shaping world events.

The lecture, which included a Q&A session after the talk, quickly turned to the subject of Dan Rather's 60 Minutes II report about President George W. Bush's time serving in the Texas Air National Guard.

Mr. Wallace offered a tame view of the CBS report alleging Mr. Bush had not completed his commitment to the guard, and that he had received special treatment because of his father. A report which, while having not been proven false, was determined to have been based on false records.

"The [report] was poorly put together. Everyone acknowledges it," he said, adding that he did not believe the story represented a "systemic problem" within the media.

When asked if the media was exacerbating an increasingly politically-polarized country by pushing a political agenda, Mr. Wallace pointed to his 60 Minutes interview two weeks ago with Bill O'Reilly, the FOX News host of The O'Reilly Factor, saying it represented the confluence of ideals between CBS and FOX, ideals that are largely perceived to be opposites, no matter how unfounded those perceptions might be.

"Look, we have no excuses to make for [our work], we are not polarizing the country, we are trying our best to reflect what is on the minds of Americans.

"Candidly, I don't understand why a lot of what goes on in America does, but I think [the news] is a fairly accurate representation."

Anne Marie Slaughter, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, asked how much discretion is put into the images that are aired on national newscasts. Specifically, she spoke of the photos released illustrating prisoner torture in Abu Ghraib prison. She questioned the wisdom behind painting a single image to represent a whole conflict and likened the potency of those pictures to the image of a young student standing down a tank in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

"Knowing how that picture is used around the world as a potent symbol, would you have thought twice about emphasizing so heavily that one image as an image of China," she asked.

"Of course," Mr. Wallace responded. "That's what our job is."

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