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Reliable Sources

Is the Press Tilting Toward Al Gore?; Did the Media go Overboard on Wen Ho Lee?

Aired September 23, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The man accused of spying by "The New York Times." Did the media go overboard on Wen Ho Lee? Was the government stampeded by one newspaper?

Also, Campaign 2000. Is this press tilting toward Al Gore? And, the "Oprah factor."

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 media's treatment of the man once billed as the most notorious spy in a decade.


KURTZ (voice-over): After a year-and-a-half of intensive scrutiny in the press, Wen Ho Lee is a free man. The former Los Alamos scientist pleaded guilty to one felony and admitted downloading nuclear weapons secrets.

Fifty-eight other charges were dismissed. His sentence, the nine months he's already served. A federal judge apologized to Lee, and even President Clinton expressed misgivings about the case.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The whole thing was quite troubling to me.

KURTZ: The story first made headlines and topped the newscasts back in March of '99 beginning with page one in "The New York Times": "Breach at Los Alamos."

Lee himself wasn't named until two days later. But the reporting clearly identified him as a prime suspect in allegedly funneling important nuclear secrets to China.

The media floodgates opened. Lee was fired. He kept a low profile in the press. But he denied the charges.

WEN HO LEE, FORMER EMPLOYEE AT LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY: I never give any classified information to any unauthorized person, period. I'm innocent.

KURTZ: Although much has been reported and written about Wen Ho Lee during these past 19 months, "The New York Times" has come under heavy fire for its initial round of coverage, which many have called overzealous and inaccurate.

JAKE SIEWART, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: What they haven't acknowledged is that they were part of the machinery in Washington and around the country that created that focus on a particular individual.

KURTZ: White House Spokesman Jake Siewart says "The New York Times" has changed its tune.

SIEWART: They've never explained why they have a new set of reporters covering this and why their editorial stance has shifted to one of concern that we weren't prosecuting the case hard enough to whether we're prosecuting it too vigorously today. So there's a strange quality to the reporting and the editorials now, which seem to be criticizing the administration for doing something that the paper itself had urged them to do in the early going.


KURTZ: "The New York Times" declined our invitation to provide someone to join us on the program.

With us now to talk about the Wen Ho Lee case and the press, John Donvan, correspondent for ABC's "Nightline," Bob Drogin, who covers national security for the "Los Angeles Times," and in Boston Tim Noah who writes the "Chatterbox" column for


Tim Noah, you haven't minced words here. You say "The New York Times" owes Wen Ho Lee an apology. Why?

TIMOTHY NOAH, SLATE.COM: Absolutely. "The New York Times" launched this story into orbit.

Interestingly, they didn't break the story. The "Wall Street Journal" broke it a few months earlier with a piece on page three that did not generate any kind of hysteria.

"The New York Times" ran a special report in March of 1999 that accused Lee of all sorts of things that turned out not to be true. It said that he hadn't reported a visit to Hong Kong. It said he had flunked a polygraph test.

It quoted a CIA official saying that this case was comparable to the Rosenbergs. The "Times" has backed away from all of these assertions.

But at the time, it had an enormous impact. Two days later, Wen Ho Lee was fired. The editorial page of the "Times," which operates independently from the news side, nonetheless took up the cause, excoriated the Clinton administration for moving too slowly on this, eventually called for Janet Reno's resignation because she was moving too slowly on the case. KURTZ: Tim, let me get...

NOAH: I think the "Times"...

KURTZ: ... go ahead.

NOAH: ... The "Times" clearly created a stampede here.

KURTZ: OK, let me get John Donvan in here.

All crime stories it seems to me, or I should say most crime stories, in the early stages are often based on leaks from cops, prosecutors, or in this case government investigators. What responsibility do the media have not to be stampeded, to use Tim Noah's word, when you've got a high-profile, sexy case involving a suspect and a lot of the people in positions of authority are telling reporters how terrible it is?

JOHN DONVAN, ABC NEWS "NIGHTLINE": There are two ways in which the media may have been stampeded. One is "The New York Times" may have been stampeded by its sources. And then the rest of us have to answer for the fact that we were stampeded by "The New York Times."

KURTZ: The second wave.

DONVAN: Yeah. "The New York Times" is so influential. I know that when we saw the story -- actually, we did see it in the "Journal" and talked about it, then saw "The New York Times." And obviously, that upped the stakes. And we were talking about should we be able to prove this case as well, because the "Times" comes with the credibility.

The more difficult question is what responsibility did the "Times" have? Well, Jeff Girth (ph) is a responsible reporter. He's not some fly-by-night journalist. He does his work...


DONVAN: He does his work extremely well.

KURTZ: (INAUDIBLE) story with James Risen (ph).

DONVAN: I've got to assume that his sources either must have misled him or that that's where the source of the error was.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Bob, I have an old credo I live by. Get it first, but first get it second if that's what it takes to get the story accurately.

Now I'm not going to ask you as the "LA Times" national security correspondent to review the performance of "The New York Times." But what does it tell us -- or speaking about the journalistic culture to rush with that story into print and touch off this word we're using, stampede?

BOB DROGIN, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, I'm not sure it's -- it's not just one institution here. Wen Ho Lee was essentially convicted and sentenced to death on the Sunday morning talk shows right after that story.

And you have to remember what happened in Congress on Capitol Hill. It think there were 26 hearings that came out right after that. And that generated its own continuing part of the stampede.

What I thought was interesting about this case was the dynamic that developed in which one newspaper had a source locked up, or seeming to. And the other newspapers are essentially -- and the other members of the press were required to kind of look at the story from other sources. And so you wound up having a fairly divergent spread of opinion in a fairly quick period of time.

KURTZ: In your situation, it's a big story. This is your beat. The source widely assumed to be a key source for "The New York Times" was an Energy Department investigator. What do you do? Are you then forced to get other points of view because you don't have the original source that the rival paper has?

DROGIN: I think that is what happens here. And it's not the first time. Think about Watergate, or think about the Lewinsky case, where in the case of Watergate the "Washington Post" has somebody. And everybody else kind of starts doubting it. Is that really the way the story is working?

And it takes a while for the facts to really come out. I mean, in this case that is what happened.

KALB: John, did ABC do something immediately after the "Times" broke, unquote, the story?

DONVAN: No, we did something...

KALB: Was there -- was that hesitancy, if that's the right word, because of a desire to check it out or not to appear, to be second on the story as it were?

DONVAN: I think there was a feeling that at that stage we had nothing new to -- what we were doing was looking at it from the point of view of the reaction on Congress, which as Bob has said was pretty strong, almost hysterical.

KALB: Yeah, but the reaction on Congress was not journalistic. It was political. It was partisan. And you might even argue it was biased.

DONVAN: Well, speaking for "Nightline," I'm not sure what was happening on Peter Jennings. I don't recall that we did anything that followed up because we essentially had nothing new to say, until about two months later where we did a piece about the reaction in the Asian American community who were out there initially saying that Lee was being railroaded. And they had great concern that this was going to reflect badly on all Asians.

But I have to say that the Asian complaint was that the media, particularly "The New York Times," was being overtly racist. And when went to show that story, it turned out not to be true.

In that sense, I think that the "Times" was quite responsible. And most of the rest of the media was pretty measured in its tone about this.

KURTZ: Now Tim Noah, you say in your piece in Slate that "The New York Times" helped put Wen Ho Lee behind bars. Now despite the White House's effort now to kind of distance itself from what looks like a bit of a fiasco and kind of put the blame on the media, does one newspaper really have the power to stampede government prosecutors in that direction?

NOAH: "The New York Times" obviously wasn't the only player here. As Bob pointed out, Congress played a huge role. And of course, the FBI played an enormous role.

But the "Times" I think did play a significant role. And it's ignored that role in its own coverage. Obviously, newspapers, all news organizations, are fallible.

What I object to in this case is that the "Times" has been very slow to acknowledge as it's realized that its original story, and hence many of its original editorials, it's been very slow to realize that it was wrong to acknowledge to its readers that it's wrong.

Now as we tape this, apparently the "Times" is preparing some sort of statement. But it's been very slow to do so.

KURTZ: And on that very point, I do think "The New York Times" deserves credit for bringing in some other reporters covering the other developments in the case. Although never acknowledging any possible discrepancy or contradiction with its earlier coverage, it has certainly not slighted the fact that the case has unraveled and that the evidence against Lee mostly -- with the exception of the one count he plead guilty to -- has not held up.

What do you think, Tim Noah, about the "Times," which regularly on its editorial page, excoriates politicians for stonewalling, taking the position that it's not going to talk to any other news organizations about this until it feels like it's going to address its readers directly?

NOAH: Well, they prefer to address their readers directly. I don't particularly mind whether they address their leaders directly or whether they direct it to other news sources.

But I think they should have done so earlier. They realized that they had some serious problems with this story many, many months ago. And they never really owned up to their error.

KALB: John, doesn't the media live in its own kind of culture of luxury of never being held accountable? So suppose "The New York Times" comes out with a diluted mea culpa that "we oversold the story, a little overzealous," et cetera, but it goes on? There's no real accountability. DONVAN: That's why I was smiling when Tim was making his comment. I have to agree that we tend to be terrifically good stonewallers in the media when we get in trouble. We don't hold ourselves to the same standards that we hold other people do.

KALB: Do we give ourselves...

DONVAN: The line comes down. We stand by our story. And nobody ever says -- there is no break in the wall and...

KALB: The word is acquittal, a self-acquittal.


KALB: Well, what about that? What about that?

DONVAN: Well, I think it's probably one of the reasons that we're continuing to lose public trust. And it's a shame. And I think it would be very interesting to see if the "Times" feels that it made serious mistakes, is it going to come out and basically say very honestly, we screwed up? I would be very surprised.

KURTZ: Bob Drogin, is there any possibility now that the media are running a bit too hard in the other direction? I mean, Wen Ho Lee is not a choir boy. He has pleaded guilty to a felony.

And for all of the criticism of the case, including by the federal judge who oversaw the case, he is a guy who downloaded lots of classified information. So are we oversimplifying this maybe too much in the other direction?

DROGIN: There have been extremes on both sides. There's no question about that.

But what I thin the broader point here is that the press really has worked in a series -- in a kind of checks and balances. Just as the judge stood up and criticized the executive branch, public opinion has changed dramatically on this case from the early days when this man was perceived as the spy of the century -- and headlines essentially said that -- to now where he's widely perceived as an innocent man wrongly accused.

KALB: What accounts for that shift in perception?

DROGIN: I think reporting over the past year of how the government case was really much weaker than it had appeared, various groups suddenly standing up to the plate. You have the National Academy of Sciences, the very prestigious organizations that usually are criticizing Moscow of Tehran for mistreatment of scientists suddenly weighing in. Public opinion I think changed dramatically.

KURTZ: OK, Bob, you've got the last word. Bob Drogin, Tim Noah in Boston, thanks very much for joining us. John Donvan, stay with us.

And when we come back, the presidential race and the press. Are journalists prematurely burying George W. Bush?



Still with us to talk about the presidential race John Donvan, correspondent for ABC's "Nightline." And joining us now, Michelle Cottle, senior editor for "The New Republic."

Michelle Cottle, the coverage has changed big in the recent days as Al Gore has had to explain away his anecdote about prescription drugs and the cost of those drugs for his dog.

But by and large for the last month, coverage looks awfully favorable to the vice president of the United States. And some people have the impression that the media are just engaged in Bush bashing. Your thoughts.

MICHELLE COTTLE, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Well, have they forgotten the several months that the media was engaged in Gore bashing? He could do absolutely nothing right.

And this is what happens. They go up, they go up, they go down. And we jump on any little thing. It's Bush's turn.

KURTZ: That would seem to suggest a lack of perspective on the press's part?

COTTLE: Oh, I would never suggest that...

KALB: How could you say that?

COTTLE: ... That would be terrible. But you know, they're looking for the story. And any little detail that makes it more of a horse race -- you know, right now the CW is that Bush has got his groove back and he's on the rise again.

KURTZ: And CW is the conventional wisdom.

COTTLE: That's right.

KURTZ: John Donvan, how much of this media perspective, Bush practically measuring the drapes for the Oval Office, to Al Gore looking like a real solid bet is driven by polls? And how much are journalists just sort of addicted to these polls?

DONVAN: I think journalists tend to be very addicted to the polls. And I say that as somebody who's not addicted.

I need to say this. I'm not a political junkie. I'm not a political reporter. But I spent some time covering Dole in '96. And I covered the White House. And I'm completely out of sync with this whole notion that the polls matter.

It's na


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