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Should the Press Report Sensitive Details While the U.S. is at War? Has the Media Reported Responsibly About Anthrax?

Aired October 21, 2001 - 09:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Welcome to Reliable Sources where we turn our critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Front page reports in the Sunday papers this morning about a CIA plot to kill Osama bin Laden, and the United States and its allies secretly intercepting communications among bin Laden's associates. But should the press be reporting such sensitive details while America is at war?

These developments capping a week in which the anthrax scare continues to dominate the media coverage.

Well, joining us now, Michael Isikoff, Investigative Correspondent for "Newsweek," Karen Tumulty, National Political Correspondent for "TIME" Magazine; and Robert Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

Michael Isikoff, this Washington Post banner headline this morning, Bob Woodward story, CIA told to do whatever is necessary to kill bin Laden, reporting that President Bush signing an intelligence order last month, bringing the CIA into this effort, and talking about new and specific weaknesses in bin Laden's organization. Fascinating story, but a lot of people would say, "Should the American press be reporting these kinds of details in the midst of war against terrorism?"

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, "NEWSWEEK": Well, if you read the story closely, well, there is a lot of fascinating detail in there. I didn't see anything operational that would compromise any CIA operation. I think Osama bin Laden has long since concluded that the United States government is going to do everything it can to get him. I don't think he is going to be shocked by reading this story this morning.

KURTZ: He is not going to drop his morning coffee?

ISIKOFF: I highly doubt it. You know, one would assume well, as may be, you know, that bombs are going off all around him, and he pretty much knows that he's the target, here. But, you know, I mean as -- the most fascinating detail I found in the story was just how jittery the American government is as well as the citizens, where we have rumored talks about this threat matrix that goes to the top level every...

KURTZ: Every morning. ISIKOFF: ...every morning, which has all these threats, which sound ominous, which sound serious, and a lot -- and in 99 percent of the cases, they turn out to be bogus. One coming from a woman who reported her husband was plotting to blow up the Sears Tower, it turned out she was a angry wife who had discovered her husband was having an affair. I mean these are the kind of things that are going to the highest levels of the government and on which the decisions are being made on.

KURTZ: OK. Karen Tumulty, New York Times story talks about electronic e tapping of the conversations among bin Laden's associates. Now a lot of people would say he would just telegraph to them, "Don't talk on your phones, we're listening in." Again, is the press pushing the envelope here in terms of reporting sensitive information?

KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, I think that both of these stories are perfectly justified and useful, because in both cases, there really sort of weigh down a predicate, lay down a rationale for what we're doing. For instance, a week and a half ago, we were wondering why is the FBI issuing these very vague, you know, "everybody get on top alert status" kind of warning.

KURTZ: Right.

TUMULTY: They're not giving us any detail. When you see a story like this, both of these stories, and you understand what sought of environment the government is operating. And then I think actually, in particularly the Woodward story, it appears that there was a fair amount of cooperation. This was not going after sort of sublevel sources. There is an interview in this story with Vice-President Dick Cheney.

KURTZ (on camera): Right, and a senior official has quoted the Woodward story saying the gloves are up. So somebody wanted this out.

TUMULTY: This is suggesting that they understand that as we go into these really uncharted waters, it is necessary for the government to lay down the predicate, explain to the public the rationale behind one's doing, and that's precisely what I think these stories do.

KURTZ: And Bob Lichter bottom line. However journalistically justified these story maybe and journalist, of course, are careful about this sort of thing. When people see these headlines, when they see these kinds of stories, don't a lot of American public resent the press?

ROBERT LICHTER, CENTER FOR MEDIA AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS: The press is in the tough spot here, because an old complaint about the press is that they don't support us enough in wartime.

KURTZ: Whose side are they on?

LICHTER: Whose side are they on? Are they supposed to be independent and dispassionate even in wartime, or they're supposed to be on our side? The irony is this is a war, we keep hearing, is being fought in the shadows that's being reported in whispers. This is an intrepid reporter gathering CIA secrets. This is somebody talking to an official who want an American official who wants to leak this information to send the message to bin Laden. In another words, this is really a conduit for what could be called American propaganda, but the public will look at it as the unpatriotic paternalist.

KURTZ: The unpatriotic paternalist. Obviously, this story couldn't be reported without some cooperation at the highest levels of the government.

LICHTER: Yes, exactly.

KURTZ: Now, just 24 hours ago, Michael Iskioff, we had the first part of the ground war really to wage American commandos in southern Afghanistan, and the Pentagon released those nifty night scope pictures; we saw soldiers jumping out of planes and advancing on the air bases.

It was hard to tell what was going on. As the Pentagon reached the point, will they understand that without compelling pictures, it's hard to tell there story, because television has such a consuming need for these kinds of -- this kind video?

ISIKOFF: Oh, sure, and this is -- I mean look it's the Gulf War all over again. I mean, you know, the man is back.

KURTZ: Really smart "smart Bombs"?

ISIKOFF: Yes, smart bombs, the videos of, you know, the bombs going in; you get the before-and-after pictures. You know, none of this tells you a whole about what's really going on on the ground. I mean, you know, here we have with the reports this week about the commando operations going into Afghanistan. I mean something is going on big time on the ground there that it would, you know, I mean there would be a hunger to know about and...

KURTZ: You say it doesn't tell you a lot, but doesn't it create the impression of U.S. success? I mean the chairman of Joint Chief of Staff won't even say how these soldiers got out of Afghanistan, but the pictures made it look like "Well, we must be doing pretty well."


ISIKOFF: In all these operations we're not going to really know what's happening there for a long time to come.

KURTZ: Thirteen more civilians last night killed in U.S. bombing raids. This is a particular raid on Kabul, and we saw some of those pictures in Al Jazeera, the Arab TV network, Karen, in a way, providing a counterpoint to the defense department video of the commandos doing their thing. In media terms, are pictures of injured civilians, pictures of rubble, able to compete with the Pentagon pictures in what we might called an info war?

TUMULTY: Well, I think that certainly the Pentagon hopes that its own pictures are more compelling, and they understand that this is precisely what they're up against -- they're going to be up against -- for broadcast reporters, it's going to be images like the ones that we saw last night. Among front reporters, it's going to be, you know, scores of interviews with refugees coming out of there, telling really dire, you know, tragic stories. So it's that much more incumbent on them to manage the image, and unlike the Gulf War, this is not a situation -- given the terrain, given the opponent that we're up against, that reporters can be really out there on the frontline.

KURTZ: They're not out there. We don't even know where the front lines are.

TUMULTY: That's right.

KURTZ: Bob Lichter, a battle of the video images here?

LICHTER: This is a common misunderstanding. You go all the way back to Vietnam, the first living room war. Studies failed to find that pictures of casualties, pictures of dead American soldiers turned the public against the war. It's not just the images, it's how those images are framed, the meaning that journalist give to those images. When it's seen as Americans being cool, Americans being morally debased, then the public turns against the war. The medium isn't the message here. The journalism is still the message that counts.

KURTZ: OK. Let's take a look at the news magazine coverage for this Sunday morning.

The Time has the home front, "The anthrax war and going in." Newsweek, SPECIAL OPS, "Can our commandos finish the job?" And U.S. News, "High anxiety. Are anthrax scares just the beginning?"

Anthrax. Certainly, we can't seem to get away from. The anthrax story, of course, has been receiving saturation coverage, particularly when tainted letters reach news rooms at CBS, NBC, and ABC. That gave the network newscast a decidedly personal tone.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My assistant's experience -- that was a big part of the nightmare. Thank God, she and her husband understood the gravity of what they were dealing with. They always believed it was anthrax.

DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: What happened to a respected and loyal colleague and beloved friend here at CBS New today? Drove home the point in a very personal way that it has been just over five weeks now since everything changed, and the threat of terror in this country became a real part of everyday life.

TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR: The good news is that our producer and her son who tested positive for anthrax are now at home, and the baby is doing well.


KURTZ: Rob Lichter, some of those anchors in other interviews made clear they were angry, they were upset, they were outraged; should anchors in this kind -- in this sort of situation where they are the targets, obviously, you know. Rather's name is on the letter, Brokaw's name is on the letter; should they get so personal about this, or should they not step out of their anchor role?

LICHTER: Well, you did not see an infected mail carrier taking prime time television to express such anger. We've been taking about the media and the military. The reference for this is "media health scares". I mean this is cell phones, this is Three Mile Island. This is a case where journalists get upset, and it's easier to be a dispassionate observer when somebody else is the target.

All of a sudden, you have journalists becoming the story and making a great deal more of it than they would otherwise. In fact, the tabloid - just very quickly, the tabloid, where the only person, who has died, who was targeted, said - one of the people was quoted saying, "We become one of our own headlines."

KURTZ: Michael, you look like you're ready - itching for something to say.

ISIKOFF: Yes, yes. Because come on, I mean the big story this week was what happened on Capitol Hill where these -- the letter arrives to Daschle's office, and the next day speaker Hastert and minority leader Gephardt are shutting down the House, producing a big fury. So it's not just network anchors that were reacting this way. This is the way, you know, most people are going to react. We all are all human, and people are going to get excited.

Now, there was a lot of second guessing about how the -- you know about the shutdown of the House, but the problem there was the contradictory information that was coming from government officials, where you had one day ...


ISIKOFF: Yes, you know, one group talking about "this is highly refined weapons grade anthrax," and then Tom Ridge's people get up and they say the next day, "No, it's not." Then they, you know, the house gets briefed and they say, "Oh, yes, it is." I mean there was a total confusion. This was one of the most confusing stories, if not the most confusing story to come out since September 11.

TUMULTY: And then what does the media do with the confusing story, though. If they take the single most sensational quote of the day, which is that "this was weapons-grade anthrax." In this -- in this environment where they see a lot of confusion, what do many major outlets do? They put that in the headline, which I think was pretty irresponsible.

LICHTER: Yes, politicians and journalists have been fighting about everything for years and years, we've, look, being concerned about media negativism; but one thing they have managed to agree on is to do everything they can to panic the population. But all the stuff with the anchors that have - that started before this mess with the government, which clearly did make it much worse. KURTZ: Right, now this confusion is not over. U.S. News reporting this new issue that despite television's assurances, two top government bioterror experts are convinced that the anthrax sent to Senate Majority Leader Daschle's office was proficient made and was, in effect, weaponized. So we are not done with this particular part of the story, but we are done with this particular part of the segment.

And up next, our journalists overreacting to the anthrax scare because their own newsrooms have been targeted. Also, did the media miss the big story about the coming war on terrorism? Bernard Kalb grades the press in its back page.


KURTZ: Welcome back to "Reliable Sources". And Karen Tumulty, Bob Lichter used the word "health scares" in describing the anthrax coverage, and let's take a look at the volume of it. I mean this has been on CNN, MSNBC, FOX, about 27 hours a day, all over the paper, news magazines. And that even though that each story has a caveat about, "Well, only one person is dying, only eight people have been affected." Isn't the relentless nature of this coverage contributing unintentionally, however, intentionally to scaring people?

TUMULTY: Certainly, certainly. But it's also addressing an enormous appetite on the part of the public, and I might add every news organization has played very, very heavily on the angle of what should you be doing, what steps make sense here, on cautioning people that they shouldn't be going out and starting on Cipro, that sort of things. So I think that while there has been a lot of it; it's been very, very balanced, in my opinion, other than some lapses like, you know, the day that everybody was putting weapons-grade anthrax in their headlines.

KURTZ: Right. Do you think, Michael, it itself is the fact that the big networks were targeted, the New York Post to young editorial assistant posed for the front page, let's say putting up one of her fingers that was infected, sending a message to Osama bin Laden, New York Times and others, that this has just given a boost to the story much more so than would have been the case if a bunch of anonymous secretaries of corporate offices were the victims here?

ISIKOFF: Well, see the problem here is we don't know whether this is a bioterrorism attack that is designed to sort of psychologically destabilize the American public by targeting the media, by people connected with bin Laden or al Qaeda, or whether it is bunch of cranks, a group of cranks, sophisticated cranks clearly, but who are trying to, you know, it's a Ted Kaczynski type crank...

KURTZ: But even sophisticated cranks were sophisticated enough to know that if you sent these letters to Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather, you probably get a lot of media's coverage.

ISIKOFF: Right, but it's that uncertainly that I think it's driving the coverage, because as long as you have, you know, responsible people in the government, who are concerned that it might be connected to, you know, a bin Laden operation, then it feeds right into all the anxiety that people have about September 11.

KURTZ: Of course, then you are opposed at that big front-page headline that said, "Wimps, referring to the house leaders -- if they decided to adjourn while the senate did not, although the discovery yesterday that there was some anthrax at a House Office Building mailroom maybe makes them seem a little less like wimps and little more like somebody, a bunch of people taking precautions.

Now that was in the Newsweek poll out today: 71 percent of those surveyed said the government is really setting up a reliable information about anthrax, 57 percent say it's somewhat to very likely that large numbers of Americans will die from anthrax through the mail. Now, maybe they're right, but I wonder if they're not reacting to again this relentless media coverage.

LICHTER: The problem with the way journalist look at this is if Tom Brokaw goes on prime time television to talk about this, and then there is a careful explanation of the low probability what you do. Most Americans don't follow the careful explanation or caveats. Over the water, couple of people will say, "You see, Tom Brokaw was on prime time news talking about this," and people start hoarding Cipro. But the problem is journalists are aware of all these things. They follow everything. Most of the -- most Americans, this stuff comes in the morning paper. They here something about it on CNN, and they react about. There's such a huge difference in levels of information that this giant wave of information catches everybody out there in it, and they don't wait.

KURTZ: And do they react as well to seeing prominent anchor people angry on the air, understandably angry about letters that targeted them. In other words, you used the phrase earlier whether the media are the message here. But you know, you've got pretty well- known people who've been coming into America's living rooms for two decades now part of the story as well as reporting the story is that a factor in the coverage.

LICHTER: There are two kinds of people, we say, those who go on TV and those who are not on TV. Larger than life people celebrities, entertainers, anchors are like that, I mean, they capture people's attention and for better or worse television anchors are now in this category. If they say something, it's important, it can be a force for great good as it was in those four days right after the terrorist attacks.

KURTZ: Right.

LICHTER: And I think it can be force for bad when they can stimulate panic just by their very presence, talking about this no matter what they say.

KURTZ: Karen Tumulty you are on TV, so I can ask you this question. Should the press hold back -- in my view they should, I'll give you my view right here -- from reporting letters that appear to be suspicious, that appear to be dangerous but where the presence of anthrax is not confirmed? I mean in a 24-hour news environment you have these constant reports, where such and such of us received a letter and it has been sent off for testing. Maybe we all report bomb scares, maybe we are feeding the frenzy by reporting things that turns out three days later, "Oh by the way, I guessed one sensed that it came back negative."

TUMULTY: Well, I agree - I agree that probably they shouldn't be reported but right now anthrax is such a new phenomena.

KURTZ: None of us have ever been through anything like this.

TUMULTY: That's right bomb scares are something that you know people have lived through for decades. So I think that at some point we will reach the point tragically that this will not be so new, so you know, novel, that it's a news but right now its news.

KURTZ: We're out immediate playing into the hands of those who are trying to you know turn the clench to just scare the hell out of the country.

ISIKOFF: I mean look, I mean clearly the media shouldn't report scares until you know for the sake of doing so and unconfirmed letters shouldn't be reported. But there is you know a fascinating story here, I mean somebody is doing this, some group of people. I mean, you know, and they've been doing it quite extensively. We keep learning about more and more reports, and you know from just the investigative point of view like how did this happen, who did it, how is the government putting it together. I mean, I think that's going to be the real story that's going to keep this going for some time. And at some point presumably we'll learn some answers.

KURTZ: I just want to move one other topic here and that is the growing controversy about CNN submitting written questions to Osama bin Laden and waiting for a videotape at this after being approached by a representative of Al Jazeera, the Arab TV network speaking on behalf of presumably of bin Laden and his organization. Let's take a look at what both of you have to say the other day about this situation.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to stress that CNN has no information about where bin Laden is or whether he is alive or dead. We do not know how al Qaeda communicates with Al Jazeera or how Al Jazeera plans to get the questions to bin Laden. And we agree to no prohibitions or preconditions from Osama bin Laden's organization or from the Al Jazeera television channel.


KURTZ: And CNN has made no commitment to air any answers that bin Laden might provide, so far no videotape has surfaced. But a lot of people, Rob Lichter, are going to say, "Why is CNN submitting questions to a mass murderer?"

LICHTER: Well this is one of those rare cases in which I actually believe our media organization is behaving perfectly responsibly. People are going to say well we have submitted questions to Hitler in World War II. Hitler was out there, you know, if we had TV at that point, you could have seen him. Here you've got somebody who is hidden away, you are reserving the right to total editorial control.

And I'd say if CNN mediates what bin Laden says as well as they mediate what American presidential candidates say, it's safe to say that he not going to propagandize the American public.

KURTZ: Brief answer.

TUMULTY: Also the nature of the questions are get to exactly to what we want know which is what he is doing, what he is taking responsibility for, this isn't sort of just probing his taste in restaurants here.

KURTZ: But isn't it still a propaganda platform for Osama bin Laden.

ISIKOFF: Sure but it's not going to be played that way, it's not going to be covered that way. And look, if the American government learns that bin Laden is saying something to a group of followers and then its gets leaked to the press, we'd all report it, what it is bin Laden is saying? Here is a chance to get it more directly, it's going to be put in context, I don't see any problem with it.

KURTZ: OK, we'll see if public agrees if in fact Osama bin Laden deigns to answer the CNN's questions, we'll have to wait and see. Rob Lichter, Karen Tumulty, Michael Isikoff, thanks very much for joining us. And when we return Bernard Kalb looks at some awkward media moments in "The Back Page."


KURTZ: Welcome back to "Reliable Sources." Time now for "The Back Page," here's Bernard Kalb.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: One day when the press finally gets around to writing it's memoirs it will have to confront some very awkward moments.


(voice-over): Like this one, you remember him at all -- congressman from California? Day and night all through the summer of 2001, the media whipped up the Condit-ization of America, kept asking whether he had any role in the disappearance of the young intern from his home state. But in an apocalyptic instant media discarded him. Terror replacing sex, Osama suddenly the constant face in the news and now war.

That whole story the pre 09/11 era might be called how the media abandoned the world and gave us OJ, Diana, Monica, Gary because that's what the media did during most of the 90s, not all of the media but much of and especially cable TV. The stock market was up, the Soviet Union down and the media treated us to an escapist cocktail of celebrities, scandals, titillation, a holiday from reality, a kind a journalistic fools paradise, all of which provided perfect cover for the terrorists. They really may be evening news's and the front page as they quietly went about preparing their big surprise. And then suddenly from what we thought was out of nowhere al Queda, Afghanistan, anthrax, who knows what.

May be we shouldn't be to hard on the media's failure to tell us what was incubating after all there is no record of viewers and readers staging demos in favor of international news. But an interesting question: supposing, just supposing, the Condit story had broken the very same day as the terrorist crashed the planes into these towers. Would TV have split the screen to bring us both stories at the same time?


(on camera): I think I know the answer, and the answer is no but just raising the question makes me shudder.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb with "The Back Page." 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. CNN's coverage of "America Strikes Back" continues right now.




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