Hussein in your living room
WASHINGTON — About the greatest coup you can score in journalism, as Dan Rather demonstrated anew last week, is an exclusive interview with your country's principal antagonist. As the interview with Saddam Hussein of Iraq also demonstrated, that doesn't necessarily win brownie points with the people running your own country.
I had the experience myself in 1957 when, as CBS bureau chief in Moscow, I landed Communist boss Nikita Khrushchev for a "Face the Nation" interview filmed in the Kremlin. It was a big deal. Mr. Khrushchev had never been interviewed on television before, not even on Soviet television.
The Communist boss talked a good game of peaceful coexistence. He got ruffled when I introduced the subject of tension between him and China's Mao Tse-tung. The interview made banner headlines around the world, not so much because of what Khrushchev said as the fact that he was saying it in America's living rooms.
CBS was pleased; the White House was not. President Eisenhower irritatedly suggested at a news conference that CBS had performed an unpatriotic act. "A commercial firm trying to improve its commercial standing," was how he put it. CBS responded by allocating an hour of airtime the following Sunday for anti-Communists responding to Khrushchev.
In 1961, I filmed an interview with East Germany's Communist boss, Walther Ulbricht, for a CBS documentary titled "East Germany: The Land Beyond the Wall." Unaccustomed to the American interviewing style, Ulbricht bridled at my pointed questions about his Stalinist past. In the middle of one of my questions, he suddenly flared up and stomped out of the room with the camera running.
In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat launched his Jerusalem peace mission with a trio of interviews with Walter Cronkite of CBS, Barbara Walters of ABC, and John Chancellor of NBC.
VIP interviews with American television stars had become now almost routine. In 1979, even the Ayatollah Khomeini, during the Iranian hostage crisis, gave a trio of not very revealing interviews to Mike Wallace of CBS's "60 Minutes," John Hart of NBC, and Peter Jennings of ABC.
The Rather interview with Saddam Hussein was straightforward and unsparing, and it got excellent ratings. Once again, CBS was happy; once again, the White House was not. CBS had rejected a proposal that an American spokesman be permitted to make rebuttals between segments of the Hussein interview. CBS said only if the spokesman was the president, the vice president, or the secretary of State. The White House said thanks, but no thanks. President Bush contented himself with a prime-time speech carried by all the major networks.
And, once again, freedom of the press had been vindicated.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.