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Correspondents Discuss Coverage of War Overseas and at Home; Interview With Washington Bureau Chief of Al-Jazeera

Aired October 13, 2001 - 18:37   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media.

A bit later in the program, we'll talk with the Washington bureau chief of the Middle East TV Al-Jazeera.

But first, joining us now are Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor of "Newsweek," Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for "The New York Daily News," and in the Middle East, CNN senior international correspondent Walter Rodgers in Behring.

Walter Rodgers, you've just spent seven days on the USS Carl Vinson, watching warplanes take off. Were you getting the full picture there, or more of a Pentagon-produced snapshot?

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Howard, it was the best of times and the worst of times. I was on the USS Carl Vinson in the Arabian Sea. Best of times in that we actually circumvented the Navy. They said we wouldn't know when the first strike was underway or had been sent to Afghanistan until the last plane returned safely. We beat the Navy on that in the sense that we saw cruise missile flashes from a guided missile cruiser off to our starboard quarter in the distance at night. We also saw planes taking off, many more than normally take off in a routine training exercise.

Additionally, we were on what's called Vulture's Row on the carrier. That was packed with young sailors out there with their cameras. They wanted to get nighttime pictures of the launches of the F-18's and the F-14's. So, we knew the launch was underway before the bombs every fell.

The worst of times, plainly and simply, the Navy locked us down and we could not file live. We just could not file live. And it was 20 hours before we could get our story out. Howard.

KURTZ: Very frustrating. You also were a bit of a captive audience, as you've made clear. Now, on Saturday we learned that one of those U.S. bombs accidentally hit a residential neighborhood in Kabul. Several civilians at least killed. Is that the kind of information you would have access to on that ship?

RODGERS: I think the Navy would not have denied us that. Actually, in terms of giving us access to the ship itself, they were superb. The only thing they denied us was access to the nuclear reactor which nobody was looking for anyhow. The nuclear weapons locker and the intelligence center.

We probably would have been able to confirm pretty quickly aboard the ship that a bomb had gone astray. Point of fact, however, we were off the ship just about the time of that raid.

Again, the hardest part of the story was that the world went topsy-turvy for journalism. Television journalism these days is this, now. Me, standing live, talking to you. In point of fact, the newspapers and the wires beat us because they could go to the e-mail on the aircraft carrier, punch out their story, and it would be electronically instantly back in the United States.

The television operations had the worst of all worlds there. We couldn't file live from the ship, we had to package our material, put it on a cod, fly it three hours to Behring and then have it edited here. It was actually 12 to 20 hours after we completed a story that it ever made air. It was like ancient television.

KURTZ: Very frustrating indeed. And here on the home front, Evan Thomas, Tom Brokaw's assistant opening a letter and getting anthrax. "The New York Times" reporter Judith Miller, author of a book on bioterrorism, getting a threatening letter, a white powder, that turned out to be negative. Five more apparent cases now at the supermarket tabloid offices in Boca Raton. Is there any doubt in your mind that the media are under attack?

EVAN THOMAS, "NEWSWEEK": Actually, there is. I mean, it may just be nut cases, I don't know that it's terrorists. It could be a weird coincidence. I'm not sure.

KURTZ: And Tom DeFrank, this whole anthrax scare, if we don't want to jump to conclusions here, is certainly getting a huge amount of media attention. Certainly, on the airwaves. Is that because it now feels, at least, like it's in our backyard? That journalists themselves are feeling nervous and vulnerable?

TOM DEFRANK, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": Well, that's part of it. And also relevant is that Dick Cheney, the vice president, the other night suggested there might be some linkage here. And also, it's pretty clear that this number of anthrax cases almost never occur. And so, you've got to ask yourself, wild coincidence? I doubt it. But Evan is right, the jury is still out, I think.

KURTZ: And Walt Rodgers in Behring, also on Saturday, Al- Jazeera, the Arab TV network, released some pictures obviously taken with Afghan help of some crying, injured children in the hospital. Up until that, the Pentagon had been releasing those nifty looking gun camera videos of bombs exploding. I wonder if you feel that the Pentagon, to the extent that it can, is trying to control the pictures here.

RODGERS: Well, to the extent that the Pentagon locked us down, it was at least initially for security reasons. We could have reported well in advance, before those bombs ever hit Kabul, Kandahar and Jalalabad, we could have reported the planes were on the way. Of course, we wouldn't have done that.

The second day, we could have legitimately reported flights were taking off round the clock day and night. We wouldn't have compromised anybody's safety, because they knew what was happening in Afghanistan.

The other interesting thing was, Thursday night we knew there was going to be a bombing pause, everyone saying that the bombing paused because it was, was because the following day, Friday, was the Islam Sabbath. In point of fact, there was a bombing pause at least in our area because the ships had to refuel, take on another million gallons of jet fuel to replenish that which had burned off in the bombing raids and take on whole new stores of bombs, tons and tons of them. Howard?

KURTZ: It's hard to think of television not being able to report in real-time because of the constraints that you and your colleagues were under.

Coming back to the situation here, Evan Thomas, as it's been widely reported, Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser, called the networks, network news chiefs, asked them to delay, review, not put on the air immediately those tapes of Osama bin Laden that had gotten so much airplay.

Just on Saturday there was another one from an al Qaeda spokesman. CNN and other networks did not immediately put it on the air, but reviewed it first. They, of course, the al Qaeda spokesman blaming the United States for intentionally bombing, in the spokesman's words, this residential neighborhood.

Were the networks handled that reasonably, or were they kind of pressured by the administration?

THOMAS: Both. They were pressured by the administration, but I think the reasonable response is to be careful here. There is some evidence of terrorist groups using Web sites to transmit coded messages, so it's possible that bin Laden, stuck in his cave, unable to talk on landlines, by phone, would find other means of getting his orders and his messages out. And so, conceivably, he's doing it through these videotapes that have been run by Al-Jazeera.

That's maybe far-fetched, but it's possible, and any editor or publisher has got to be realistic about the possibility, at least, and be careful.

KURTZ: And White House spokesman Ari Fleischer also asking newspapers, print organizations, not to run the text and transcripts, although those are coming out a day later. I wonder what you make of that.

DEFRANK: Well, I think that's a little over the top, Howard. I mean, the fact of the matter is, if Osama bin Laden is using these tapes with codes, there's no way for any journalist to be able to figure out what the code words might be. I mean, a good sound bytes, the networks and the newspapers are going to run anyway, so it's a little tricky to figure out what to do.

But I do, I do like the notion of being a little more careful. Now, there is a tendency sometimes for the networks, especially the cable networks, to rush this stuff out there without taking a critical look at it. And I think to the extend that there's a bit of pullback, I think that's fine.

KURTZ: I would agree with that. You know, the idea of putting everything on, immediately, unedited, unseen by news executives, has always given me some trouble.

We've lost our satellite connection out to Walt Rodgers, so we'll continue our discussion here.

What do you make, Evan Thomas, of the coverage of President Bush? Even "The New York Times" editorial page, no fan of this president, praised his performance in the Thursday night news conference. Now, clearly, he's put on a stronger performance in the last month than we had seen earlier, but are the media also afraid to criticize this suddenly very popular president?

THOMAS: Oh, a little bit. I mean, this is a different time, as we've all said a million times. Journalists, believe it or not, are human beings, and they're spooked by what's going on. They want a strong leader, so their own emotions make you lean towards giving the guy the benefit of the doubt.

KURTZ: So, they're responding as Americans in part?

THOMAS: Yeah. I mean, I know that sounds hard to believe, but it's not. It's not. This is a different situation. A different time.

KURTZ: Tom DeFrank, you were -- go ahead.

DEFRANK: I was going to say, also, we're notoriously fickle, Howard. I mean, a couple of times...

KURTZ: This may not last, you're saying.

DEFRANK: Yes. The president has been very strong and very impressive, but he's had a couple of moments where he lapsed back into what shall -- how shall we say it, the old Bush, and six months ago, five months ago, there would have been some smart-alec stories on that, and that's -- nobody is even thinking of doing that.

The bottom-line is, he has done very, very well, and I think the media is reflecting that.

KURTZ: Now, you were over at the Pentagon this week, Tom DeFrank, and -- a place that you know well. We talked to Walt Rodgers about the difficulties, at least the logistical problems he had from reporting from the USS Carl Vinson. What's your sense of the information flow? I mean, Don Rumsfeld is briefing almost every day. How much are journalists finding out? DEFRANK: Well, we're getting, we're getting more face time with the secretary of defense than we did ten years ago, but the information flow is much, much less. I mean, there was a lot more information handed out by the Pentagon in 1991 than now. And that's a reflection of a couple things.

One, it reflects Don Rumsfeld's personality. I mean, when Rumsfeld was White House chief of staff 25 years ago an I was covering him, he'd have backgrounders and he's say, now, on background, it's exactly like Ron Nessman (ph), the press secretary, said to you this morning...

KURTZ: Thanks a lot.

DEFRANK: So, he's pretty well buttoned-down. But I mean, I think he's a very impressive and very strong briefer. What you're not getting is much operational detail. And there's operational security...

KURTZ: And the Pentagon would say you shouldn't get it. They do not want to jeopardize the lives of our troops.

DEFRANK: Fair enough, but look, I was an Army public affairs officer for 22 years. Two in active duty, 20 in the reserves, all of the Pentagon, I think, I have a pretty good sense of what you should never talk about and what it is OK to talk about, and all I'm saying is there is that zone, and this Pentagon, and especially this White House, is not interested in going into that area of where you could talk about things without compromising operational security.

KURTZ: Will it be like after the Gulf War, Evan Thomas, where we don't find out until a month or months later, that, you know, some weapons didn't work well and there were these screw ups?

THOMAS: Sure. Yeah.

KURTZ: And there's not much that journalists can do about it in this environment? I mean, the Pentagon controls the information, decides where journalists go. Right now, they've put people like Walt Rodgers out on the aircraft carriers, but they haven't put them on any ground troops.

THOMAS: I'm sure we're going to find out all sorts of things that went wrong later. I think that is inevitable. I do think that journalists have been burned enough by the Pentagon in the past and know enough history to add cautionary notes.

I mean, I just finished writing an endless piece for "Newsweek" that's full of cautionary notes about how past special operations went and how past bombing campaigns. So, by providing an historical context, if you will, we can warn our readers that things aren't going quite as well, or not necessarily going as well as they seem on those, on those daily briefings.

KURTZ: I wonder if journalists will also be criticized for reporting what the enemy is saying now that the Taliban apparently is letting at least a few journalists into Afghanistan for what everyone thinks is the coming ground war.

Tom DeFrank, Evan Thomas, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, the network that delivered to the world Osama bin Laden; we'll talk with the Washington bureau chief of Al-Jazeera TV.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Al-Jazeera, the Arab TV network, keeps scooping the world as it did with this videotape after the U.S. bombing began.


OSAMA BIN LADEN (through interpreter): What America is facing today is something, a very little, of what we have faced for decades.


KURTZ: Joining us now is Hafez Al-Mirazi, Washington bureau chief for Al-Jazeera TV. Welcome.


KURTZ: What do you make of Colin Powell complaining to the government of Qatar, which partially finances your network, that Al- Jazeera should tone down its anti-American content?

AL-MIRAZI: Well, I think that the U.S. government in general, because Secretary Powell was actually one of the pioneers in reaching out to Al-Jazeera a few days after the 11th of September events, in order to give an interview, something that we haven't seen just recently, very recently, the last two days, is that a few other U.S. officials have started to realize the importance of Al-Jazeera.

But, the U.S. government in general made a big mistake. Instead of encouraging the independent media in the Middle East -- Al-Jazeera is a unique case, it was actually trying to influence the government of Qatar to use any influence that the government of Qatar might have on Al-Jazeera to drag down or censor us, which is really a very bad precedent, and I think many international organizations criticized the U.S. government for doing that, including the U.S. and the New York- based (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

KURTZ: And, obviously, you wouldn't like it very much as well.

It's clear that your network has extraordinary access to Osama bin Laden and his organization. By running the tapes, like the one we just saw, and selling them to other media organizations, the criticism is, aren't you surrendering your airwaves to a terrorist?

AL-MIRAZI: No. We are running the tapes that actually counts to a few minutes, from one party of the conflict. And that's the account percentage wise, from about 5 percent to 10 percent compared to 90 percent coming from Washington. In our Washington bureau, we carry daily hours and hours of President Bush's major speeches, news conferences, briefing at the Pentagon by Secretary Rumsfeld or Secretary Powell at the State Department.

And there is audience, I mean a segment of our audience consider that propaganda. So, if you count how much we put from the U.S. point of view compared to 5 percent or a few minutes of a tape sneaked to our correspondent in Kabul, actually we are not balanced in that regard. We are not balanced because we are...

KURTZ: And some of your audience resents that. They think you're devoting too much time to the American point of view.

AL-MIRAZI: Too much time. And they think that we are influenced by the U.S. government because they are complaining while, I mean, the fact is that we feel, whenever we feel there is news, we do carry it.

KURTZ: Do you find the coverage on CNN and other American networks to be in some ways anti-Muslim or too pro-American?

AL-MIRAZI: Well, I don't want to criticize CNN.

KURTZ: Oh, go right ahead. Here's your chance.

AL-MIRAZI: But, at least we consider that the U.S. media should at least look at Al-Jazeera, review it, not only just to attack Al- Jazeera or criticize it -- some footage from Kabul that other U.S. media didn't have a chance to carry, but to look at the idea of giving the point of view and the other point of view.

We rarely find that. I mean, look at, for example, if we're talking about CNN. When was the last time that CNN, for example, even (UNINTELLIGIBLE) go to Howard. When was the last time you had an Arab journalist or Arab-American journalist why the Middle East and Arab issues and how the U.S. is dealing with others. To really discuss, look at, for example, yesterday, LARRY KING LIVE with Prime Minister Barak, former prime minister.

I mean, all this kind of praise, soft Christians, there is nothing against that, as long as you lead with Arab leaders the same way.

KURTZ: Well, CNN does interview some Arab leaders and does have some Arab-American guests to give that point of view. Your organization has the only correspondent in Kabul. A man reported to have pro-Taliban views. Wouldn't he be kicked out if he reported too negatively on the Taliban regime?

AL-MIRAZI: Same way for Peter Arnett in '91.

KURTZ: When he was in Baghdad for CNN.

AL-MIRAZI: When he was in Baghdad. Actually, CNN and Al-Jazeera were offered, two years ago, at the same time, when Taliban was looking for a commission by the International Community, the same facility, the same permission to work. CNN, according to my understanding, declined, because there was no way for them to be there. It happened that after two years of us being there, that we found ourself in the right time at the right place, but we were not picked up by Taliban and said, come on, now, we are going to cover the war with us. No. It happened that we were there, and the only international organization, international news agency, to be there.

KURTZ: We have about 20 seconds. Do you find, suddenly the network is very famous and also getting all this criticism, that some Western news operations are a little jealous of Al-Jazeera's success?

AL-MIRAZI: Unfortunately, I sense that, especially in the press room of the State Department, when I feel that they were instigating against (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And that's bad, unfortunately. But, I feel the support also from people in CNN, ABC and others, and that's enough for me to feel confident that we have honest media people that we should be proud of in the U.S.

KURTZ: Well, the networks are certainly running a lot of your material. Hafez Al-Mirazi, thanks very much for coming in.

AL-MIRAZI: Thank you, Howard.

KURTZ: Well, before we go, two sad notes in the media world.

Rush Limbaugh, the most popular man in talk radio land, says he suffered severe hearing loss and expects to soon be deaf. The conservative host says he's determined to continue his program, without callers if necessary.

Fortunately, doctors now say there's a chance that Limbaugh could retain some of his hearing.

And Herb Block, who chronicled every president from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, died this week. "The Washington Post" cartoonist won three Pulitzer Prizes and coined the term "McArthy- ism." The liberal commentator never tired of bashing Richard Nixon, though he did remove Nixon's 5 o'clock shadow in 1969 on the theory that every new president deserves a free shave.

He is remembered by those of us at "The Post" as a kindly uncle, ambling around the newsroom in his trademark flannel shirt. Showing people five or six sketches, as he tried to decide just who to skewer in the next day's paper.

Herbert Block was 91.

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.




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