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Recollecting the time Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes actually apologized.
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I reiterated our terms. Live and unedited, or no dice. Wallace wasn’t happy. He said he never agreed to terms like that, “not even for Henry Kissinger.” He demanded that Livingston call him.
Long story short, Livingston did call back. But only after I was set up to record the phone call, secretly. (It was perfectly legal in D.C. to record one’s own phone calls.) If 60 Minutes could do some of the ambush jobs it was known for, we darn well would ensure that we were protected.
On the phone with Wallace, Livingston repeated his terms, including, quite explicitly, his offer to go on camera if his conditions were met; he also outlined his concerns about the tenor of the show’s investigation. Wallace tried repeatedly to change Livingston’s mind. He reiterated his line about Kissinger—and said he wouldn’t agree to those terms for the pope or the president either. Livingston wouldn’t budge, and encouraged Wallace to read the report I had written. Wallace was furious.
A MONTH OR SO LATER, after we sent a certified letter repeating our concerns about the story’s directions and Livingston’s offer to go on camera live or unedited, the segment on the cat-shooting finally aired. As expected, it was a hit job. It made the scientist sound like a saintly Albert Schweitzer. It made the protesters, none of whom amounted to any political threat to Livingston’s safe seat, sound more extreme than Greenpeace. Worse, it used footage of animal rights activists in high lather who were protesting some other subject at some other place—but with a voice-over making it seem like these were the protesters against the cat project. The deliberate impression was to make Livingston sound like a scared congressman pandering, fearfully, to those protesters.
Oh—and Wallace said, on air, that he had repeatedly offered Livingston a chance to discuss the situation, but that Livingston refused.
Not, mind you, that Livingston had offered to be interviewed live or unedited, but instead as if Livingston had totally ducked all questions. The next day, Livingston called Wallace and chewed him out. Again, my tape was running, again secretly.
Said Wallace: “One way in which you’re dead right, and I apologize to you for it and I don’t know how the hell it got through, and that’s the business of, ah, not saying ‘live and unedited’—in other words, that you didn’t want to go on camera to tell us….My friend, I apologize to you, I really do. I’m ashamed of myself because you told it to me. …It’s unfair. Because you were perfectly willing to go on….That was just dishonest of me, and that was stupid of me.”
Livingston told Wallace that if he had to choose again what to do about the cat-shooting research, he “would have done it exactly the same way.”
Responded Wallace: “I don’t disagree with you.”
I went to work. I produced a 27-page, footnoted, single-spaced refutation of the entire 60 Minutes report. Fact after fact, citation after citation (including the misleading protester footage), I laid out the blatant dishonesty. I sent it to 60 Minutes demanding a retraction. I sent it out to a bunch of reporters. And I noted (without mentioning our audiotapes) that Wallace had lied when he said we had refused to cooperate. But no public apology came to match the apology in the private phone call.
Amazingly enough, 60 Minutes re-ran the segment in July. With no corrections. Not one.
THIS TIME, we called the president of CBS News. Bob played our audiotape for him. And then played it again. There was Wallace apologizing and admitting to having been “dishonest” and “stupid.” And yet the show had run again, without correction. It was clear we had a slam-dunk legal case if we wanted to press it.
The CBS president was irate at his own team. He made that clear. The tape did the trick. Apparently the news president then came down hard on Wallace. Really hard. Wallace soon called back. His voice was shaky. “Well, um, you know something? You’re a better man than I am, Congressman.” He promised to go on the air and apologize to the entire country. Then, after more of what can only be described as groveling, Wallace said this:
“You can get this on your tape recorder—I wish you told me you had a tape recorder going; that would have been the gentlemanly thing to do, the first time….”
Livingston interrupted, lowering the boom: “It would have been, but then I didn’t think that I was necessarily dealing with a gentleman.”
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