Back when I was a crackerjack insurance investigator, I used to amble over to what was then known as "the girls in files" and make my requests in the fashion of a Japanese soldier out of a really bad war movie. I would use a mock Japanese accent, joke about pulling nails and whippings, and then conclude with the threat that if I did not get the file, I would resort to torture. The "girls" loved it -- all but one, that is. She was Japanese.

It turned out she was a temporary, hired for the day, and when I saw her staring at me in disbelief, I felt as rotten and as lost for words as I've ever been. All day long I sat at my desk, trying to think of a way to make things up to that woman, to convince her that one joke does not a bigot make. I think Mike Wallace knows now how I felt.

It is Wallace, the hit man of the "60 Minutes" team, who was sandbagged last March while conducting an interview about an alleged home-improvement fraud in which mostly blacks and Hispanics were the victims. He was interviewing a vice president of San Diego Federal Savings and Loan, and while the CBS crew was taping the interview, a crew from the savings and loan was taping Wallace.

Wallace, of course, knew that he was being taped. What he says he did not know was that the crew kept the camera on during a break in the interview -- not that it matters any. It was then that Wallace, studying what he characterized as a complicated loan application, said he could understand why Latinos and blacks did not know what they were signing: "They're probably too busy eating their watermelon and tacos."

It was a coarse and insulting remark and news that it was on tape reached the newspapers.(San Diego Federal later made copies available.) Wallace, flunking Watergate History I, tried to have the tape erased. Failing that, he said he could not recall making the remark. (Mr. Chairman, to the best of my . . . ) His memory refreshed, he 'fessed up.

Oh, what delight! San Diego Federal, a real class outfit, was beside itself with joy. It had "got" Mike Wallace: "Here's the master of the ambush--the guy who quite literally represents the public's interest in this country Oh, come on now , the final arbiter of truth and justice, if you will--and who'd think a small savings and loan company in California would catch Mike Wallace . . . ? " gloated a San Diego Federal official.

Well, you can understand the sentiment. "Getting" Mike Wallace is sort of like catching the preacher in the cathouse. It is a great tee-hee story. It does not even harm the story any to say that Wallace didn't do anything that most people haven't done also.

But once you get past the snickers, you have to conclude that what San Diego Federal did to Wallace was questionable. Wallace may be the master of the ambush, but he ambushes for a purpose. You do not have to endorse his journalistic ethics to understand that he is, for better or worse, after a story. And the story over the years has generally been about exposing injustices. This has made Wallace a star and "60 Minutes" a smash hit.

So all San Diego Federal managed to do was hold a man up to ridicule. The tape did not "get" Wallace in the sense that it showed his reporting was biased or sloppy and it did not in the least detract from what "60 Minutes" put on the air. San Diego Federal could not possibly offer as a defense for allegedly shabby loan policy the fact that Wallace is on tape cracking an ethnic joke. One thing has nothing to do with another. If the bank was trying to do to Wallace what it thinks he does to others, it failed. It did not ambush him. It merely embarrassed him.

In this sense, Wallace's remark, crude and insulting as it was, is a red herring. It in no way exculpates what may or may not be San Diego Federal's loan policy. And by itself it "proves" nothing about Wallace, CBS or, for that matter, the press.

But at the same time, nothing--certainly not Wallace's explanation that he is always making ethnic jokes--excuses what he has done. I know that from my days in the insurance biz. It did not matter to that Japanese woman that the insult was accidental. The look of pain on her face told me that. The only thing that mattered is that it hurt.