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Reliable Sources

Korean War Story Under Hostile Fire; Are the Media Giving Rick Lazio an Easy Ride?

Aired June 4, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The made-for-TV candidate Rick Lazio comes out of nowhere to challenge Hillary Clinton. Are the media giving him an easy ride?

And a Korean War story under hostile fire. Why journalistic digging into old atrocities is risky business.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb.

We begin with the newest entrant in the New York Senate race suddenly in the spotlight.


KURTZ (voice-over): Rick Lazio hit the road with his campaign on wheels, the Mainstream Express, and reporters in tow. By conducting interviews all day long, the Long Island congressman tried to contrast himself with Hillary Clinton.

REP. RICK LAZIO (R-NY), NEW YORK SENATE CANDIDATE: She's been in this campaign for about a year. I don't think she's been on one Sunday talk show answering the hard questions that get fired at you. I did all that the first day I was out.

KURTZ: Lazio got off to a rough start during a Memorial Day parade, literally hitting the road and falling flat on his face, needing eight stitches to close his split lip.

LAZIO: I know I look a little funny today.


LAZIO: I've heard of this talk about pounding the pavement, but this is ridiculous.

KURTZ: The candidate seemed to be ready for the media onslaught both upstate and downtown at Katz's Deli, where he took in the atmosphere and a pastrami sandwich for the benefit of the press.

And the headlines have been upbeat: "Lazio vows to fight", "Now it's a horse race", "Rising star", "Coronation for Lazio." But how long will all this positive press last? (END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Joining us now, Roger Simon, senior writer for "U.S. News & World Report." And in New York, Martha Moore, political reporter for "USA Today."


Martha Moore, Mike Murphy, who was John McCain's media strategist, now works for Lazio, told me their strategy is to contrast Lazio's accessibility with what Murphy calls Hillary Clinton's defensive shell of a campaign.

Is Lazio in fact as successful as McCain? You're out there on the trail. And is that strategy working?

MARTHA MOORE, POLITICAL REPORTER, "USA TODAY": Well, he is more accessible than Mrs. Clinton, although I don't think he is as accessible as Senator McCain was when he was running. His bus, the Mainstream Express, is not a rolling press conference like the Straight Talk Express. He's giving a series of brief one-on-one interviews to reporters traveling on his bus.

But in contrast to Mrs. Clinton, who isn't doing one-on-one interviews and does do a daily press availability, but not a great deal of it, he is more accessible.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Roger, to what degree has the entry of Lazio reenergized the press? He's a new face. He's come from obscurity to celebrity suddenly. And there's a tendency it seems to be on the part of the media to inflate the newness of Lazio.

Is the media surrendering to him? Or are we getting a fair portrait of him from the media?

ROGER SIMON, SENIOR WRITER, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": Well, the press wants a new story. Giuliani was a good story, but he was a well-known story.

And Lazio is getting good press because he's built a career on being fairly innocuous. But the press gets bored with innocuous fast. And I think as good as the press is now, it's going to toughen up on Lazio in the days ahead.

KALB: What sort of time is there on the eight stitches? How much does he get out of the eight stitches?

SIMON: The eight stitches is already gone as a good story for him because it was revealed that there is a makeup artist on board his bus to take care of the eight stitches. John McCain would have gone and pointed to the eight stitches every day I think.

KURTZ: Roger, I have to disagree with you. I think Rudy Giuliani was not a good story. He was a great story, particularly during his self-emulation. But Martha Moore, in terms of the accessibility we've been talking about, hitting the TV shows and so forth, does it seem to you that there is this tendency by the press to greet a new candidate who we hadn't previously heard of with a kind of an initial rush of upbeat coverage? Or have -- and does there need to be a more serious look at his legislative record in Congress?

MOORE: Well, I think that he has not gotten quite as easy a ride as he would have if he were not entering the race in the middle. I think the coverage has already started to look at his legislative record. There have already been contrasts drawn with Mrs. Clinton on abortion and gun control, among other things.

I think that although Lazio is new in the race technically and he's new to the voters, we've known for a year that he wanted to run. And so I don't think he's quite as new to the press as he would be otherwise. And for that reason, if he's having a honeymoon, I think it will be a very short one.

KALB: Aren't there...

KURTZ: On that very point, excuse me, Bernie...

KALB: ... Go ahead.

KURTZ: ... If Rick Lazio says he wants to run a campaign of issues, doesn't the press really prefer a campaign of personalities?

MOORE: Well, they're getting a campaign of personalities right now because although he says he wants to run on the issues, he has by and large avoided talking about them so far. Mostly he's talked about his own biography and about Mrs. Clinton and the fact that she only recently moved to New York.

KALB: What do you do, for example, about Mrs. Clinton never appearing on the Sunday shows, for example? Is the press being rather docile in dealing with that particular fact? It seems to me there would be some sort of a clamor that she might have to just for sheer survival surrender to a Sunday talk show. How do you handle that, Roger?

SIMON: Oh, I think there's no way to drag her in and tie her to the chair. But I think she'll watch the polls along with everyone else. And if they turn really bad for her later on in the campaign -- don't forget we're still a long way until the end of this campaign, she'll go on.

KALB: Yeah, but you don't see the media hammering away at that issue. That's one of those things you feel needs to be hammered on.

SIMON: Well, I don't think the print media cares very much...

KALB: You're too soft, Roger. You're much too soft.

SIMON: ... if she goes on TV talk shows. The TV talk shows might care. But I suspect they think they're going to get her. But I think there's one factor -- other factor in the Lazio coverage that has to do with polls. Coverage in America today, political coverage, is very poll-driven.

And the poll that came out earlier showed Lazio only two points behind Hillary Clinton, first of all, was declared a tie by the media. And secondly, the media is loathe to attack a guy's campaign if he's doing well in the polls.

If the polls go bad for Lazio, you're going to see stories saying, "What's wrong with the Lazio campaign?"

KURTZ: And that he really stumbled when he split his lip. Martha, in terms of the nastiness that might possibly lie ahead, perhaps we saw a hint of it with the Maureen Dowd column in the "New York Times" which called him Little Ricky and kind of an over-eager puppy. I wonder since he is a rather young looking 42-year-old whether the press after this initial honeymoon phase will focus more on the sort of the gravitas and whether he has the kind of stature to go up against the first lady.

MOORE: Well, I think they will. And I think they've already started to, in fact.

I think they are asking when is he going to start talking more about policy and less about the fact that he was born in New York and that he has two kids and so on and so forth. And...

KURTZ: But you think that is wearing rather thin already, the whole "I grew up in New York and I fished in the waters" routine that he has made a central part of his campaign?

MOORE: I think the voters are responding to it, because voters don't know who Rick Lazio is outside of his district. He's really quite a new face for them.

I think the media, which is in the middle of a Senate campaign not at the beginning of one, that will wear thin with the press.

KALB: You've worked in the Maureen Dowd column where there was a ridiculing of Rick Lazio. What did you make of that column? Did you feel that was ridicule driven to excess, that it was a caricature that was unrelated to reality?

KURTZ: And Roger, you've interviewed Rick Lazio, so you can give us the benefit of your insight.

SIMON: Yeah, but columns are not supposed to be shades of gray. Columns are supposed to be black or white. It was a funny column.

And Gail Collins had another funny column saying that Rick Lazio looked like those characters in "Star Trek" who come on for the first few minutes, and you know they're going to be vaporized by the first commercial. He does have certain aspects to him and his demeanor and his supposedly telegenic abilities that make him ripe for satire.

KURTZ: OK, we're going to have to leave it there. But I think we'll return to this subject.

Roger Simon, Martha Moore in New York, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, the Associated Press under scrutiny for its account of a deadly day in the Korean War. We'll talk about the journalistic challenges of piecing together history so many years later.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We turn now to a 50- year-old wartime tragedy which has become a modern-day controversy.


KURTZ (voice-over): It was a story no one wanted to hear. Those were the opening words of the Associated Press account of the deadly killings at No Gun Reed (ph), a story about South Korean refugees trapped beneath a bridge during the Korean War in July of 1950, many of them women and children machine gunned by U.S. soldiers.

The story survived a 14-month internal battle at the Associated Press and was published last September. It led to widespread coverage in the media along with a Pulitzer Prize for the AP and an Army investigation into the charges.

Now it's been back in the news because of questions about this man, Edward Daley (ph), one of the AP's numerous sources. He repeated his story for other news organizations, including "The Washington Post" and NBC's "Dateline."


EDWARD DALEY, AP SOURCE: It's pretty difficult to describe how you feel. You know that you're killing innocent women and children and old men.


KURTZ: But Daley's account came under attack because of investigations by "U.S. News" and the Web site And Daley now admits he could not have been present at No Gun Reed. But the AP stands by its story saying Daley was only one voice among many eyewitnesses.

Meanwhile, the Pulitzer Prize board has reaffirmed its award. And the Army investigation continues.


KURTZ: So should Edward Daley's recanting of his tale have been examined so closely by journalists? Did that obscure the larger story about the killings in Korea?

What does all this say about the difficulties for reporters of reconstructing the events of wartime? Well, joining us now from New York, Martha Mendoza, national investigative reporter for the Associated Press and one of the original authors of the No Gun Reed story.

And here with us, "Washington Post" reporter Michael Dobbs, who has written for the paper about No Gun Reed.


Martha Mendoza, let's start with Edward Daley. He told the AP he was there, in fact he was haunted by the cries of the children. Later on he said he takes pills for mental illness. And later on, he said, "Gee, maybe I wasn't there at all."

Do you and your AP colleagues feel deceived, misled by Ed Daley?

MARTHA MENDOZA, NATIONAL INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Me and my colleagues feel very sorry for Ed Daley. He's a very confused person. And this has been a very difficult time for him.

I still don't think he deliberately deceived us. I think he was very confused about all of this.

KURTZ: Is there any way, Martha, to guard against even self- deception? In other words, he may have believed he was there, records, and even he now acknowledges he wasn't. You know, you're writing a story with lots of sources, admittedly. But it rests in part on this guy, and it kind of turned into quicksand.

MENDOZA: Well, the way to protect against this type of problem is exactly what we did. You take him out of the story. The story still stands entirely.

We had many, many sources, more than 150 people we interviewed, more than 40 eyewitnesses, military documents. We had eyewitnesses in South Korea and here.

And we also had looked into Ed Daley. And he had not only carried this deception on with us, but with the entire 7th Cav (ph) Association. He had written histories for them. And many of his people who were in Korea at this time believe they were there with him.

KALB: Michael, this is in journalistic true confessions, but in retrospect, do you think you dropped a journalistic stitch with respect to Daley?

MICHAEL DOBBS, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I think with hindsight, we should have investigated his background more. I mean, that's easy to say. But if I were doing it again, I would investigate his background with the 7th Cav. And I probably wouldn't have given him as prominent a role in the story I wrote for the "Washington Post's" Sunday magazine.

KALB: But isn't it Journalism 101 when you get an allegation of that dimension to do that kind of careful checkup that you're itemizing now?

DOBBS: Well...

KALB: How did it slip past you, in other words? You're a heavyweight pro. You're involved in all sorts of big journalistic stories.

DOBBS: I think the reason it slipped past me and a lot of other people, including the Associated Press and as Martha said the U.S. Army and the 7th Cav Association was that his story seamlessly fit into the stories of so many other veterans and also the documents at the time.

If he's a fraud, he's a fraud as I described him in the "Post," a kind of real-life "Zelig" who managed to insert himself into the memories of his fellow veterans. And he did that very effectively.

KURTZ: Martha, do you think that as the inevitable media microscope has focused on Daley and is shifting accounts that perhaps there has been too much attention paid to this one man and that has in fact taken away from what you just said, that there are many other sources who confirm that something terrible happened at No Gun Reed.

MENDOZA: Absolutely. And more importantly, Pentagon sources have confirmed in the "New York Times," to the "Washington Post," to the Associated Press that they have in their investigation at least confirmed that something tragic happened there, that civilians were killed by U.S. troops there.

And this is the stunning piece of news that we wrote about. And this is the piece of news that is changing people's lives on both ends of the world here. And that...

KURTZ: Isn't it also true, Martha, excuse me, that in today's media world somebody like Daley becomes the public face of the story? I've read all these stories. I don't recall offhand the names of any of the other sources. It was Daley who went to Korea with Tom Brokaw so that in the public mind, perhaps the story is somehow a bit tarnished.

MENDOZA: Well, what we wrote -- and I can only stand by what we wrote -- Ed Daley was the seventh of eight veterans named. He was in about the fifty-sixth paragraph. And he was one of many sources.

And frankly, I hope that people who read newspapers are more struck by the fact that U.S. troops murdered and massacred civilians during this Korean War.

KALB: You know, the AP doesn't usually go in for investigative stories. This is a special kind of approach that the AP took.

Martha, has there been any vibrations, big, heavy second thinking second thoughts about covering this story, getting involved in an investigative story that has produced so much controversy?

MENDOZA: This has certainly swallowed up a lot of time for a lot of people at the AP. And it's kept a lot of people busy.

In fact, AP has been doing investigative work, obviously not this scale. But in fact, my understanding is AP plans to do more.

KURTZ: Michael Dobbs, every war seems to have some sort of controversy like this. Vietnam, you had the CNN story about Tailwind and supposed nerve gas use that was retracted, apologized for. More recently, Sy Hersh running in the "New Yorker" made charges about the Gulf War, controversial there about the use of excessive force allegedly against Iraqis.

I'm wondering as something of a historian as well as a journalist whether you find it difficult inherently to reconstruct these kinds of stories and to rely on what you described in a recent piece as the selective memories of people.

DOBBS: Well, of course it's difficult. And that's why you have to be very careful about doing it and talking not just to one veteran but a number and also seeing how their accounts jive with the documentary evidence. And also the documentary evidence is sometimes not 100 percent accurate either.

But I think it is possible to these historic reconstructions if you take a whole variety of sources, as the AP did I believe, and as I believe we did. Of course, there was a flaw in that story. But I don't think the whole story stands or falls by that flaw.

KALB: Martha, do you think there's going to be some kind of what I would call journalistic fallout, a hesitancy on the part of the media to engage in a story like this where it might come under subsequent attack, criticism, et cetera? Will there be a freeze?

I asked you that before about the AP as well. But I'd like to broaden the question. Do you sense among your colleagues a kind of hesitancy, a backing off about taking on a story that may have so many elements of controversy?

MENDOZA: No, I don't. I think that reporters really feel a great duty to report the news to the people. And I don't think there is that type of backing off. I certainly don't see it.

This is inevitable when you unveil something like this. We expected people to be scrutinizing it and trying to poke holes in it. But that's part of being a news reporter.

KURTZ: Is there also a tendency, Martha, of the military establishment to kind of close ranks when these kinds of allegations are made and kind of minimize if not deny what may have gone on in past wars?

MENDOZA: That's certainly the reputation of the military. So far what we've seen is they've formed three investigative committees. And I'm very much looking forward to them coming out with a report with a lot of information in it.

KALB: You know, when you read a story now, Michael, you find a little bit more journalistic judicious carefulness in the presentation of the story. In my re-reading of this story, I read that Daley said and Daley said and another veteran said. But now I'm reading allegations instead of flat-out said. There's been a retreat in much more cautious language.

DOBBS: Well, I think that we're reacting to the onslaught from "U.S. News." And especially in the days immediately after the story came out, we retreated back to some of these phrases like "alleged" and so on.

But I think if you -- the one people's story who hasn't changed over 50 years is actually the Korean survivors. They stuck with their story through thick and thin at a time when the U.S. Army was denying that their units were even in that area.

Much of what they have said has stood up. And so I think that whether you call it a massacre, whether you call it large-scale killings, it's clear that something like that did happen.

KURTZ: Just very briefly...

MENDOZA: I'd like to point out...

KURTZ: ... is it possible -- let me throw this last question to Martha very briefly -- is it possible to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt something that happened under the fog of war 50 years ago? Won't there always be disputed accounts in these kinds of stories?

MENDOZA: Well, as we wrote in our story, there are disputed accounts because everybody has their own perspective. But when you have people, and what we did was report that people in South Korea described this, people here in the United States describe it with matching details. And military documents back up that they were there and that they were under orders to fire on civilians.

KURTZ: Martha Mendoza, Michael Dobbs, thanks very much for joining us.

When we return, Bernie's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page." Bernie.

KALB: Well, let me try a pop quiz for a moment. And this is the question. What do you think of turning a journalistic coup into lots of hors d'oeuvres, offering bits and pieces instead of the main dish? (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KALB (voice-over): Well, whatever you think, NBC News has opted for hors d'oeuvres. And here's the evidence. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Tonight, my exclusive interview with Putin.


KALB: Tom in Red Square on the eve of the president's mission to Moscow with an agenda of big questions to be discussed. And what does the top rated news show do with its exclusive?

They cut it up. The chefs running the network cut it up into lots of tidbits, some q and a on the nightly news, a bit on MSNBC, another bit planned for Sunday's "Meet the Press."

Now you would think that the first American television interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin, to quote the NBC press release, you would think the network would shake up its schedule and find a block of time for an NBC News special so that we could see Russia's mystery man close up instead of cut up. But it didn't happen.

Instead, we got pieces of Putin, which gives you some idea of the way broadcast news has changed. In the old days, an exclusive with the top man in the Kremlin would be a sure special.

Yes, those were the Cold War days. But Russia these days in a state of upheaval from communism into who knows what, Russia may be even more unpredictable. And it still has nukes, and therefore still worth an old-fashioned special.


KALB: Now I'll concede that 30 uninterrupted minutes with the Kremlin's new man might put a big dent in your ratings and hurt the bottom line. But wouldn't it be marvelous if we had been offered Vladimir Putin whole instead of as hors d'oeuvres.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks. Some final notes when we come back.


KURTZ: Before we go, a couple of notes from the world of media news. "Emerge" magazine, a feisty black news monthly is shutting down after more than 10 years.

Despite a circulation greater than most political magazines, Vanguard Media and Black Entertainment Television, which own "Emerge," have pulled the plug.

"Emerge" often stirred controversy by featuring covers such as Clarence Thomas wearing an Aunt-Jemima-like handkerchief. The magazine may emerge again with a different name and format somewhere down the road.

And the TV anchor teams in Los Angeles may look like equal partners. But a new survey by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists found that female co-anchors in LA made 28 percent less than their male counterparts. And in a market of nearly 100 radio stations, not one woman hosts a drive time show on her own. But in a town where Hollywood's leading men have always made more than their leading ladies, perhaps this shouldn't come as a news flash.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll look at Al Gore and George W. Bush making midstream adjustments in their campaigns. Democratic Senator Chuck Robb of Virginia joins the gang to look at the changing politics of the death penalty and much more right here next on CNN.



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