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Prominent journalists speak on campus

Sheila Flynn | Thursday, October 30, 2003

Known for his abrasive interviewing style, “60 Minutes” anchor Mike Wallace found himself on the other side of tough questioning Wednesday at Notre Dame.

While participating in an interview and question-and-answer session in McKenna Hall, Wallace was asked about controversial comments he made at a 1987 ethical panel discussion. When faced with a hypothetical situation in which an American war reporter could choose to follow a story or warn U.S. troops of danger, Wallace disagreed with another panelist and said journalists had no higher duty other than to report.

“You’re a reporter. Granted you’re an American,” he told Jennings. “I’m a little bit at a loss to understand why, because you’re an American, you would not have covered that story”

“You don’t have a higher duty. No. No. You’re a reporter!”

But Wallace expressed a very different view Wednesday when asked if his views on the hypothetical situation had since changed.

“Yes,” Wallace said. “I made the wrong quick reaction.”

Wallace participated in an interview with American Studies professor Robert Schmuhl and answered questions from the audience. And the theme of journalistic responsibility – not just in wartime situations, but in politics and society, in general – figured prominently in the session.

Wallace said he has witnessed various changes in news reporting during his 36 seasons with “60 Minutes.”

“So much of news, or what passes as news, is now opinion,” Wallace said, and therefore reporting is “not as pure news as it used to be.” He attributed part of the decline to a rise in the number of news channels, saying that the competitive drive to report the best news had been stronger when only three news networks existed.

When Schmuhl asked if Wallace thought news reporting was better in past decades, such as in the 1960s, Wallace said it “probably was.”

He did, however, applaud various recent journalistic developments, such as the embedding of reporters with American military units in Iraq and the relentless coverage of corporate crime – watchdog reporting which, Wallace said, is having beneficial effects.

“Little by little, because we have been focusing on it, it’s beginning to change,” Wallace said.

Wallace also praised reporting immediately after Sept. 11, 2001, but he noted the decline in quality that followed. Coverage of developments in Afghanistan, for example, disappeared, Wallace said.

“When you’re covering a story like Afghanistan, you’ve got to stay, and you’ve got to find out what’s going on,” he said.

Wallace was also less enthusiastic about recent relations between the Bush administration and journalists.

“Never, in my memory, has there been a tighter, less cooperative, less interested in dealing with the media administration,” he said.

“I don’t think that they have told us the truth, and they haven’t given us the opportunity to question them about it.”

Wallace defended, when questioned, the tendency of media powers to focus more on negative developments than on positive ones.

“It’s not news when things go right,” he said. “Reputations of reporters are made when they find things that go wrong. You don’t make your reputation as a reporter because you’re reporting happy news.”

Despite drawbacks to the American media, however, Wallace said he would not change anything about news reporting today.

“I sure wouldn’t want to change the news in any way,” Wallace said.

“I can deplore the fact that I don’t like some of what goes on, but it’s a free country.”