Whether they were making television history or history history remains to be seen, but American TV networks finally got the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to their cameras yesterday, or rather, got their cameras to him -- for the first TV interviews with the Iranian potentate since a mob took over the U.S. embassy in Iran two weeks ago.
No one wanted to say whether this breakthrough for TV also might mean a breakthrough for American hostages still held captive. But network news personnel were in agreement that they had a terrific catch in the ayatollah and they endured hours and hours of the royal runaround in order to get him on the air last night.
Mike Wallace of CBS News' "60 Minutes" got the first audience and the longest -- nearly an hour as compared to about 15 minutes each for correspondents from the other two networks, Peter Jennings of ABC News and John Hart of NBC News."60 Minutes happens to be the most popular news program, and one of the most popular programs period, in all of television. That may have helped.
Earlier it had appaeared that Robert MacNeil of public TV's "MacNeil/Lehner Report" would scoop the big three networks and get an ayatollah exclusive on Friday. But MacNeil flew to Tehran only to have a rug pulled out from under him; he was told he would have to wait until after the networks each had their turn and, miffed, left.
Puller of the rug was none other than CBS' Don Hewitt, the supercharged executive producer of "60 Minutes." MacNeil had flown to Tehran alone, without a camera crew, because PBS had arranged for a "pickup crew" from ABC News. In return for this, Hewitt learned, ABC would be able to use any or all of the courtesy material shot by MacNeil, thus upstaging CBS initiatives on this delicate diplomatic front.
Hewitt put in a call to Sahejh Ghatbzadeh, director of the Iranian radio and television authority, and cried foul because Ghatbzadeh had called Wallace on Wednesday offering him the first interview.
"I raised hell about MacNeil and I don't mind saying so," said Hewitt yesterday as the Khomeini film was getting a final edit for last night's telecast. "I wasn't trying to shoot down MacNeil; our competition is ABC and NBC. I called Ghatbzadeh and said, 'Come on, I don't mind PBS, but you can't give this to ABC.'
"I said, 'Do you want our 50 million viewers, or do you want THAT?'" Hewitt recalled. Apparently Ghatbzadeh wanted those 50 million viewers (actually 65 million last week, perhaps more last night) and once more, Mike Wallace got his man.
Ghatbzadeh had called Wallace personally on Wednesday because Wallace was the correspondent he worked with on another "60 Minutes" piece -- one concerning the now-hospitalized shah -- earlier this year.
But Wallace was in Sacramento when the call came, so Hewitt spoke to Ghatbzadeh and made the arrangements. Getting flights was not that difficult, but Wallace didn't have his passport with him. So after Wallace left California on a Pan Am flight for London, Wallace's secretary left New York for London with her boss' passport in hand.
The passport hand-off occurred on schedule at Hearthrow Airport and Wallace made his connecting flights to Iran. After arriving there, he and the other network correspondents found themselves alternately cooling and warming their heels over on-again, off-again interview arrangements. Finally at 4 p.m. Saturday in New York, Hewitt got the call he hoped for; Wallace had been given the benediction of a go-ahead.
At the bargaining table of Global Television, the ayatollah was obviously not about to bargain anything; he was no more flexible than the fanaticism of his followers would suggest. In all the interviews, his face was so aloof, distracted and implacable, that he almost could have been mistaken for a still photograph of himself.
Even if he felt like applying them, this was clearly no place for the famous Mike Wallace thumbscrews. Instead, on the 15-minute "60 Minutes" report, Wallace -- sitting crosslegged and in his stocking feet -- tried the in-the-name-of-decency approach.
"I ask you, as an American and a human being . . . is there no room for compromise, or is Iran not, in effect, at war with the United States?" Wallace asked. But the answer was more rhetorical vituperation. Wallace had to contend with an obtrusive official interpreter (which CBS supplemented with its own New York translator" who refused to ask the ayatollah Wallace's question about what would happen if both sides refused to give in.
"Please ask him," Wallace implored. "It's a very simple straightforward question." Earlier, when referring to remarks made about Khomeini by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Wallace played the soul of expedient supplication: "He called you, forgive me, Iman -- his words, not mine -- 'a lunatic.'"
Khomeini, responding to a Wallace request, said Wallace could visit the hostages in the embassy compound, but when Wallace showed up there, in scenes not filmed, the foreign ministry turned him away.
Normally, "60 Minutes" appears almost to enjoy getting turned away. It's so dramatic. But not this time.
Earlier, on ABC's "World News Tonight," there was little Khomeini footage -- about two minutes worth -- and it was of little value. Jennings seemed tonguetied, perhaps because he rarely interviews in the lotus position, and the voice of Khomeini's interpreter was muddled and unclear. Jennings made reference to the "limited length of time" he had with Khomeini when he introduced the segment from Tehran.
At two o'clock yesterday, during an ABC News Update, Tom Jarriel cited an NBC News report that Khomeini, when asked if he could guarantee that no hostages would be killed, declined to make such a promise. Jarriel misleadingly called this "the first direct threat to the safety of the hostages," an alarmist assessment that was not repeated on the evening newscast later.
Only Tom Snyder on the NBC News program "Prime Time Sunday" dealt with the granting of the interviews as a news story in itself. State Department correspondent Richard Valeriani told Snyder on the air that 'the administration is getting information from the networks; they don't have that kind of contact with the ayatollah themselves."
Snyder alone among network commentators mentioned that all three networks, not just his own, had been given interviews and asked White House correspondent Judy Woodruff if the White House had watched all three. They "looked at all three very carefully," she replied.
Not since the networks helped precipitate the Mideast summit by scrambling for interviews and setting up electronic pipelines between the parties involved has television played such an active role in shaping as well as reporting world affairs.
Fifty million viewers or no 50 million viewers, the networks had to abide by elaborate ground rules -- constraints they would have rejected in most other circumstances. Among them was the requirement that all questions be submitted in advance. When Wallace tried to get around that one during the interview, interpreters refused to repeat his question to the ayatollah; they told him it had been "crossed off the list."
Hewitt said he didn't think submitting to the ground rules constituted a journalistic compromise -- not with a lollapolooza of a newsmaker like this ayatollah character. "I would make the arrangement with anybody who would give a good story, and so would The Washington Post or anybody else, as long as you level with your audience in advance and tell them how the thing was set up," said Hewitt.
All three network interviews were beamed back to the United States by satellite early Sunday morning. CBS News had a brief clip from the Wallace piece on its "Sunday Morning" news show. ABC repeatedly interrupted programming yesterday for updates on the situation, but did not air any ayatollah until the 6:30 evening newscast, 30 minutes before "60 Minutes."
ABC News claimed to be first on the air with footage of the few hostages allowed to speak before cameras, with a five-minute report interrupting programming at 1:18 Sunday afternoon. NBC delayed the start of "Meet the Press" at noon for one of several special reports, but could not air its ayatollah until "Prime Time Sunday" at 10 p.m.
As luck would have it, the regular Sunday night telecast of NBC Nightly News was pe-empted yesterday by a football game. That meant the ayatollah would have to wait until after three hours of scenes from old episodes of "Little House on the Prairie." Television, like international politics, has its priorities.