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On the Brink of War: New Challenges for Reporters, News Organizations

Aired September 29, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. On the brink of a new war, new challenges for reporters and their news organizations. And new fears that the administration may not only restrict information, but may even try to deceive reporters; a concern that was put directly this week to the secretary of defense.


QUESTION: Will there be any circumstances, as you prosecute this campaign, in which anyone in the Department of Defense will be authorized to lie to the news media in order to increase the chances of success of a military operation or gain some other advantage over your adversaries?

DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: I cannot imagine a situation. I don't recall that I've ever lied to the press. I don't intend to. And it seems to me that there will not be reason for it. There are dozens of ways to avoid having to put yourself in a position where you're lying. And I don't do it.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Mark Thompson, national security correspondent for "Time" magazine, Frank Sesno, CNN's Washington bureau chief, and Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio, Television News Director's Association.

Frank Sesno, "USA Today," huge story yesterday, big headline. U.S. special operation forces have been in Afghanistan for two weeks looking for Osama bin Laden. Now, I'm told that military officials are furious over this story and that some journalist had this information and held it back. Would you have run that story?

FRANK SESNO, CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: Probably not been the first with it.

KURTZ: Why not?

SESNO: Because we are sensitive and this is our policy, to any information that disclosed would endanger lives or ongoing operations. It's very simple. We're not going to self-censor, but we're going to be very conscious of these things and, if asked by authorities, and if presented with information that any of the kinds of things that we would be reporting would fall into those categories, endanger lives or ongoing operations, we won't do it.

KURTZ: I should note that "USA Today" points out that some of the information had been printed in papers in Pakistan and so, therefore, might not have been a complete surprise to Osama bin Laden.

Mark Thompson, you've covered defense for years. How difficult, in this tense environment, has it be to pry information out of the Pentagon?

MARK THOMPSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Howie, it's been quite difficult. I mean, reporters like to think of themselves as being good reporters, but in reality what we're now seeing is the lack of good leakers. You go to the Pentagon, and you talk to your sources. They won't talk to you on the phone anymore. They want you to physically visit with them. They don't want to sit and talk with you in their office, they want to walk along hallways with you and not and fake as you ask them questions that can be answered very quickly.

I mean, the United States here has lost the element of strategic surprise. The U.S. military is trying to hold very tightly to the element of tactical surprise, and a big part of that is, you know, not telegraphing where we're lining up our forces and what they're going to do. And that's why the information is clamped down so tightly.

KURTZ: Yes or no: have you been asked to hold anything back that you otherwise could report?

THOMPSON: No, I work for a weekly. Generally, I don't have that problem.

KURTZ: OK. Barbara Cochran, you've written a letter to Secretary Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, asking to allow journalists as broad access as possible to information and ultimately to America troops.

Given the unusual sort of secrecy shrouded nature of this war, do you really expect that to happen?

BARBARA COCHRAN, PRESIDENT, RTNDA: Well, I'm sure it's going to be very different. I mean, like the generals who fight the last war, we journalists may also be looking at the rules that came up for the Persian Gulf War, the kinds of principles that were agreed on. And they may not be totally relevant to the kind of conflict that's going to be fought now.

But still, we could be doing a little more than seems to be being done right now, and I understand that the military has said that they are going to make efforts to, as they say, embed journalists with small units that are going out, but I don't believe that's begun to happen yet.

KURTZ: Forgive my skepticism, but we went through this during the Gulf War, as you well remember, Frank Sesno. Reporters were basically, at least not officially, allowed to cover the ground war. Some copy was censored, and I think the military liked that just fine. Why wouldn't we see a repeat of that now? And have you gotten any indication in talking to Pentagon officials that any of this may change?

SESNO: Well, what we've gotten in talking to Pentagon officials and other officials is the commitment, as Barbara has said, to try to provide as much information as possible. But, we've also been told it's going to be up to individual commanders in individual areas as to what information they think is going to -- may jeopardize their troops or their operations.

You get into that kind of thing, especially if we're relying and we're seeing a lot here from a military point of view on covert operations, and the news media are going to have a really difficult time.

An important thing that viewers need to understand here, this is not just about sour grapes and about the access to a story because we want to write a good story. This is about chronicling history. This is about making sure there is some kind of independent observation as to what's going on so that we have some -- we, the public, the world, have some sense as to what is truly taking place. Again, being sensitive to the security and the lives that are involved.

KURTZ: But if this war consists of, or at least the first opening salvos of this war consists of cruise missiles and commando raids, lightening commando raids; how do journalists cover that?

THOMPSON: Basically, you don't. I mean, a lot of this war is going to take place away from television and away from journalists. I mean, that's why the press is basically screaming. We've been told, yeah, you'll be able to go to air bases, and yeah, you'll be able to go on Navy ships, but the point of this spear is going to be the commando raids, and there's not likely to be any press there early on, or perhaps even later on.

But another thing about this conflict Howie, is this -- you know, if you look at it as an astrological phenomenon, this is not going to be an eclipse, this is going to be a season. This is a campaign that's going to go on for a long time.

KURTZ: Right.

THOMPSON: So, the pressure you used to have of you got to do it now because this is the first of three nights of this war is not going to be there. So, I think the press could take a step back and sort of say, hey, we're going to be in this for the long haul, and if the first week isn't right, maybe we can improve things in the second week or the second month.

KURTZ: Barbara, Frank Sesno makes the point that journalists are not clamoring for access for reasons of self-aggrandizement, although I wouldn't completely rule out some people like covering wars. But, given what happened in the Gulf War, isn't it true that if there is a big fight between the Pentagon and the press over this kind of access that the public overwhelmingly is going to side with the government and is going to view the press complaints as kind of whining?

COCHRAN: That's true, and -- but that still doesn't mean that we shouldn't be seeking that access. And, you know, I think the public needs to think about some things that happened after the Gulf War. The whole phenomenon of Gulf War Syndrome was something that was dug out in spite of military stonewalling and opposition to getting this information out, and it was really the journalists who went forward with some whistle-blowers and got the story told.

KURTZ: We also found out that some of the smart bombs were not so smart and other things that were not apparent during the sort of video game nature of the televised war.

SESNO: You know, as one senior official put it to me, this way, he said this is going to be a 21st century war, covered by a 21st century media. Which means that both of us are, both sides are on uncertain ground.

21st century war. Small groups. Covert activities. An unidentifiable, sometimes invisible enemy. As you say, a season, not an eclipse. A 21st century media. Real-time pictures. Satellite phones. Instant imagery potential. We can all see -- common sense suggests where the pressure points are going to be here.

But one thing hasn't changed, and we can talk about any war, especially Vietnam; if credibility is sacrificed, if truth is sacrificed, if information, real information is sacrificed, then there is fallout that goes way beyond the context...

KURTZ: And on that point -- go ahead, Barbara...

COCHRAN: You know, that's the most disturbing thing that seems to me to be a little bit different about this, is the -- what might happen in terms of planting disinformation in the press. I mean, the "USA Today" story was not knocked down by the Pentagon, because they said they were going to take a position of not correcting stories, you know...

KURTZ: Even if they're wrong...

COCHRAN: If a story is erroneous, that's -- you know, never mind about that. And that's -- that puts the press in a terrible situation and it's bad for the military, because it undermines their credibility.

KURTZ: Well, I quoted one military officer in a news story this week as saying we're going to lie about things. If it's an information war, certainly the bad guys will lie.

On the other hand, Mark Thompson, we just saw Donald Rumsfeld saying, at least, that he personally would not lie to the press. But do you expect disinformation efforts, or at least efforts to confuse the media at levels below the Rumsfeld level?

THOMPSON: Oh, sure. I mean, it's already happening. I mean, the fact is...

KURTZ: It's already happening?

THOMPSON: They're not knocking down bad stories. They -- you know, we're in a hall of mirrors...

KURTZ: The one today? The one today?

THOMPSON: Yeah, the one today on these soldiers who were apprehended. No, they weren't, our Pentagon told us. But the fact of the matter is, when you clamp down on all information, any risk that comes out, the press focuses intensely on it. And it tends to distort the picture that the public is getting.

And indeed, the public might be against the press early on in any conflict, when they're really feeling gung-ho. The question is, if this is going to be a long war, and we're going to have hits and we're going to have misses, the public will have a great interest later on and really know what's going on, because we're not going to be able to do this just on faith.

SESNO: I think there's one thing that needs to be said here. We're going to need to be, everybody, very sensitive about this. If we went out and conducted a poll today, I suspect 95 percent of the American public would say, you know, what, if it gets the bad guys, and it brings this thing to a conclusion, you have to lie the press, go lie to the press.

KURTZ: But we saw lying to the press during Vietnam, and that eroded the credibility of the government.

SESNO: That's my point. That's my point. And the military understands that, and the public needs to understand that. Because it's a very precarious balance. The presses role as an adversary and a truth-teller, at least in theory, right? That's what we're -- that's the role that's supposed to be played.

But also the military's role to get something done here, and that will bring the two sides at odds, but it's a balance that we've got to work on. It's going to take a lot, a lot of effort.

KURTZ: Well, we'll have to work at it on the other side of this break. And when we come back, more on the story of the press and the Pentagon and a look at coverage of the president.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES and our conversation about journalism and the campaign against terrorism.

Barbara Cochran, in this environment, people are rallying behind the president, waving flags, there's just a great surge of patriotism in this country; in this environment, do journalists run the risk of being called unpatriotic if they so much as criticize either the president or the Pentagon?

COCHRAN: Oh, sure. There's, you know, it's a tough time to be a journalist, and yet I think we have to take the long view and realize that down the road, the public will be grateful for an independent news media. KURTZ: Tough time to be a journalist because, you're not on the team, nor should you want to be on the team? Even though you might sympathize with the efforts of the team?

COCHRAN: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, the flap about whether journalists should or should not wear flag pins on their lapels or ribbons or whatever, you know, that kind of -- the fact that you might not think it is appropriate for a journalists, that you are then criticized by the public or their might be an advertising boycott of the station or whatever. I mean, that's really pretty extreme.

KURTZ: One of my colleagues got an e-mail, not about any sensitive information that was reported, just saying that any criticism by the press right now of the administration is giving aide an comfort to the enemy, to the terrorists. That's the mind set of a lot of folks.

SESNO: Sure. And not the first time we've been down this routine, that we've been down this road. I mean, again, that happens at any time of conflict, at any time of...

KURTZ: Except that this is a situation where the country, unlike, say, in the Persian Gulf War, actually feels threatened. People are worried that their town could be next...

SESNO: Well, let's go back to World War II...

KURTZ: Sure.

SESNO: I mean, it's the same sort of thing. And I very much doubt that there are very many journalists who happen to be Americans or who aren't Americans, who didn't feel personal pain and shock at what happened. That breaks all the rules, what took place in New York and in Washington.

KURTZ: How could you not -- how could you not feel that? Thousands of people are dead.

SESNO: You couldn't. You'd have to be inhuman not to feel it.

KURTZ: Right.

SESNO: We have friends and relatives and neighbors there, and that presents the challenge. It is our job to ask tough questions. If you are a lawyer, you will probably, at some point in your career, represent someone you may detest. That person, constitutionally, is entitled to that representation. We have to represent the story, and there will be times when we have to ask tough questions.

KURTZ: If you report, Mark Thompson, that a Pentagon weapon didn't work, or a strategy fell apart, or there was internal dissension over what to do, or anything like that, do you expect to get a lot of flack?

THOMPSON: I don't know. I think the key thing on that, Howie, is that if something happened yesterday, something failed yesterday, I think reporters tend to cut themselves slack.

The question is, what about tomorrow? And I think reporters are very judicious and generally, you know, adhere to a careful line to protect the lives of U.S. forces, we're not talking about future operations.

But I don't think in terms of what went on yesterday or in the past, they're that reluctant, because it's -- they're trying to chronicle history.

KURTZ: But people are going to get awfully mad at you if you are the one -- I don't care whether it happened yesterday or last week, who says, folks, this war effort is not what it's cracked up to be. It's not working very well.

THOMPSON: Yeah, but as Frank says, that's our job. You know, sometimes the job is tough, and sometimes you got to do stuff that you may not want to do, but, you know, that's why you get paid the big bucks.

SESNO: I do think, too, that the public realizes something, and we've seen this in some of the polling, as much as people want to make sure that law enforcement is as aggressive as it can be, intelligence gathering is as aggressive as it can be, and even some of their civil liberties may need to be compromised along the way, there's a line. People understand that you don't want to destroy the village to save it. You don't want to destroy the Constitution to save it. You don't want to destroy freedom of expression and press to save it.

Again, a very fuzzy and delicate line and people will have very different definitions of where that line lies.

THOMPSON: And the public is showing sophistication here. While they do want an attack, a military strike, they're saying don't rush into it.

SESNO: That's right.

THOMPSON: They're saying let's do it right. And that's a good level to see, a good level of sophistication, and hopefully they can apply it in these other ways as well.

KURTZ: Since September 11, Barbara Cochran, President Bush has gotten fabulous press coverage. And, obviously, he'd been kicked around a bit by journalists before that, and some of it, much of it, is deserved. We've seen a much stronger performance, more confident performance, on the president's part.

But do you have the sense that journalists are reluctant now to criticize him? You know, a little pulling of the punches, after all, the country is unified behind him.

COCHRAN: Well, I'm not exactly sure about that. I'm not exactly sure what you would criticize, and I'm sure as the weeks go by we will see particular decisions or particular, you know, meetings or whatever, will be criticized, but... KURTZ: So, you think this moment is temporary?

COCHRAN: I think it is. I think it is. And, you know, one thing that we're not seeing any more stories about jockeying among the president's foreign policy team. We were seeing a lot of that before. Now it's being treated as if it were pretty much working in unanimity, and I suspect as time goes on we'll see some stories about divisions there and which side is...

KURTZ: You were starting to say something about that...

SESNO: There have been a couple of those. There have been a couple of those, and actually I've talked to some people who are concerned about impatience that the American public shows because there is not a major military campaign. This represents a lull, that sort of quiet time where those kinds of stories, who's up, who's down, can fill the void.

Let me say one other thing, though, about the president and whether he's getting criticism. You know, it's not our job to criticize the president. Maybe on the editorial page...

KURTZ: We haven't been reluctant to do it before.

SESNO: Wait a minute. Wait a minute, though. The president's critics aren't criticizing the president.

KURTZ: Right, the Democrats.

SESNO: And that's, I think that's a critical point. The president has remarkable support and that's part of the story too.

KURTZ: But beyond that, it's beyond criticism or lack there of -- obviously, if the political community has become united behind the president, that doesn't produce much friction, the kind that journalists love to cover.

But we also have a White House that has gotten pretty skillful now at putting out information, anecdotes, background about how the president is in charge, about his speech to Congress and how it was written, and how he's firmly in control of this process. All of that may be true, but I wonder if there might be a little less skepticism than might ordinarily be among a cynical press corps in retelling the story.

SESNO: There may be. There may also be a little less time, Howie, to focus on that. These are times that hold very big issues, very big questions, very big dangers. And some of that other stuff, frankly, is pretty trivial.

KURTZ: Doesn't seem as important.

SESNO: It isn't. It doesn't seem as important. It's not as important.

KURTZ: I want to come back, Mark Thompson, to this question about disinformation or lack of information or lack of guidance; the Pentagon take this position, which I assume it doesn't usually do, that if you have a tip, a story, an allegation, a rumor, that you might publish or put on "Time's" Web site, and they're not going to give you any guidance on whether that's wrong or right, why would they do that? Why would they deliberately allow journalists or, let's just say not encourage journalists, or steer them away from information that is clearly wrong?

THOMPSON: Well, the flip side of that is, Howie, if you steer them away from what's wrong, if you're not steering them away, it's right.

KURTZ: Process of elimination.

THOMPSON: And, you know, I mean, the secretary said this the other day, and he was speaking to every journalist in the Pentagon briefing room when he said if there are five facts alleged in the paper in the morning, and I knock down four of them, you all are going to assume the fifth one is accurate.

KURTZ: But maybe it's a little more than that. Maybe, if wrong information is reported and confuses not just American readers, but foreign terrorists, they wouldn't think that's a bad thing.

THOMPSON: Of course. Right. I don't think they'll deny that. I think what they're saying, basically, is we're not giving you guys any oxygen. You know, you write whatever you want. And that's why I say these wisps of little truisms that come out, you know, the press focuses on them and it sort of distorts the whole thing that's going on, because we know so little, every smidgen of fact becomes bigger than it really should be.

SESNO: Again, an important point, here. The public is going to want to have information. That's a given. And they're going to want to have information in this particular case, not because they're merely curious, but because in many cases it is perceived that their very survival may be at stake.

People are scared. People are nervous. People want to know what's going on and they want to have faith in their government. That's one of the great ironies of this whole thing, is people now believe in their government, because their government is there to protect them.

And our role, as difficult as it's going to be throughout this thing, whether it's real-time, on-line or on TV, is going to be to try to walk that balance, but bring them the information and ask the tough questions...

KURTZ: Journalism is going to be on a tightrope and we're going to have to get a lot more serious, and that's all the time we have for now.

Barbara Cochran, Mark Thompson, Frank Sesno, thanks very much for joining us.

I'll be back in a moment with a final thought. Now, a look at what's coming in the next hour and "CAPITOL GANG"'s Mark Shields.


KURTZ: Finally, the Reuters News Agency has come under fire, rhetorically, that is, for its refusal to use the word terrorists in connection with the attacks. Why? Chief Editor Steven Jukes told me that, quote, "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter."

Well, frankly, this value-neutral approach is hard to understand. If someone deliberately crashes an airplane into a skyscraper with the intent of killing thousands of innocent people, isn't he by definition a terrorist? One columnist says Reuters could use the phrase "casualty facilitators."

But why play around with euphemisms? For the horrifying events of September 11, the "T" word fills the bill quite nicely.

CNN is using the word "terrorist," but has asked correspondents to refer to alleged or accused terrorists when naming individuals. Well, when it comes to those holding for questioning, that makes sense. I sure hope it doesn't apply to the hijackers, excuse me, alleged hijackers, who died on those planes. We all know what they were doing.

I'm Howard Kurtz. CNN's coverage of "America's New War" continues right now.




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