Skip to main content /TRANSCRIPTS


Is the Media Too Close to the Anthrax Story to be Objective?; How Much Should the Pentagon Disclose About Military Operations?

Aired October 22, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST, RELIABLE SOURCES: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Anthrax anxiety continued to unfold today with the discovery of more bacteria on Capitol Hill. The end of a week during which there seemed to be no other story on the airwaves.


UNIDENTIFIED FOX NEWS ANCHOR: More cases of anthrax to tell you about today.

BRYANT GUMBEL, "THE TODAY SHOW," CBS: I guess we've noted the big story this morning is the anthrax scare on Capitol Hill.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: These latest cases are the skin form of anthrax...

UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: Right now we want to get you up to date on a breaking development. We've just learned that there is now an eighth case of anthrax.

KURTZ (voice-over): If the perpetrators who sent the anthrax letters wanted to get the media's attention, they succeeded big time. Along with the Senate and the supermarket tabloids, every broadcast network has now been hit.

TOM BROKAW, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS" ANCHOR: 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 EVENING NEWS" ANCHOR: What happened to a respected and loyal colleague and beloved friend here at CBS News 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.

PETER JENNINGS, "ABC NEWS" 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: By Friday, another case of anthrax exposure in the press, this time at the "New York Post."

So are the media simply reporting the news, or scaring the public with their relentless coverage?


KURTZ: Joining us now, Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent for CBS News and the host of "Face the Nation"; Susan Dentzer, health correspondent for "The Newshour With Jim Lehrer" on PBS; and CNN congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl.

Bob Schieffer, let's start by getting personal. You're on the Hill all the time. Are you taking Cipro?

BOB SCHIEFFER, HOST, "FACE THE NATION," CBS: I am. And it makes you itch. It does have side effects.

KURTZ: Got the inside story here. But has that changed your view of the anthrax story, to have it touch you in that way?

SCHIEFFER: Well, yes. I mean, it's a very personal thing. And I mean, I don't think anybody could say that they're not affected by something like this. But I noticed in the intro, is the media trying to scare the public -- I think what the media is trying to do is inform the public.


KURTZ: You're getting tested. Dan Rather's assistant, Tom Brokaw's assistant -- hasn't that made journalists feel like they're under fire and maybe boosted the coverage of this story?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I think we're obviously a target, because I think whoever is doing this is attacking what they hate, and that is the freedom of the press and the freedom to speak out, freedom to keep people informed. So yes, it's hit all of us in a very personal way, but I still think we have a responsibility here to let people know what's going on and find out to the best of our ability what exactly the situation is. Because, as you know, Howard, through the week you get as many different versions of what's happening here as you do the officials you question. Everybody seems to come out of a briefing with a different idea of what the significance of it was.

KURTZ: And let me pick that up with Jonathan Karl. First of all, have you been tested?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I have not, those lines were so long. I wasn't exactly in the area of the exposure, so I have not.

KURTZ: OK. When the House decided to adjourn, and the Senate did not, and there was all this talk about how dangerous -- what kind of anthrax. How difficult was it for reporters to get information about the situation?

KARL: Oh, it was incredibly difficult. And you were getting vastly different information. I mean, imagine what was going on. You have a situation where the Senate is trying to say "Hey, let's calm down. This is all confined in one area. There's really no problem." And then we had Gephardt come out at various times and talk about replicating spores and talk about how the real threat, and we don't want to be stupidly putting our people at risk.

So you had vastly different messages coming from reputable people who are there, and you think you'd get the straight line from.

KURTZ: All right, to sort it out, Susan Dentzer, with all the talk in the media about weaponized anthrax, and finely grained anthrax, and different strains, and can they get into the ventilation system, how accurate do you think, as a health reporter, that the coverage has been? Have you seen mistakes?

SUSAN DENTZER, "NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER": Lots of them. Some of them, let's admit, all of us were gearing up to cover the first major bioterrorist attack that we have -- any of us had ever covered, and certainly that's ever taken place in the United States...

KURTZ: Were you an expert on this before?

DENTZER: So there's a learning experience.

No, I did my first anthrax story three weeks ago, and this was after years as a health correspondent. So, among others, I was on the learning curve as well. But I think what it took us a long time to do was a couple of things. First of all: get the terminology right. You know, what's the difference between an anthrax infection versus an exposure. Big difference, medically. A lot of that blurred very early on.

And then this whole question about how potent or non-potent these strains, or whatever it was, was. And, in fact, we have public officials saying, as Bob said, one day it was a weapons-grade strain, it seemed to be. At least as reported in the "New York Times" the next day, two days -- actually, yesterday. I mean...


KARL: I mean, actually, they were saying it on the same day. You know, dueling press conferences: Gephardt, it's weaponized; Daschle, nobody has ever said "weaponized." So I don't think you can blame the media for getting this stuff wrong. The official sources clearly did not have a grasp of what was going on.

And this whole question of this possibly -- you know, the media hyping this. I saw in the "New York Times" today an official anonymously quoted saying this is not a weapon of mass terror, it's a weapon of mass hysteria. Well, you know, nonsense. I mean, this is one case where media coverage may actually have saved some lives. And the only death we have from anthrax is from before the media coverage.

Now you have a situation where somebody at the "New York Post" has something wrong with her finger, and because there's been so much attention on this, she gets checked out. And what do you know? She's got anthrax.

So I think this is a case where, I mean, certainly there have been some excesses here and there, and we have to be very careful on how we report it. But this is a big story, and it should be reported thoroughly.

KURTZ: Well, let's talk about the volume and the tone of the coverage. I mean, you get the news magazines, here's "Newsweek": gas mask, "How scared should you be?" "TIME" a couple of weeks ago: "How real is the threat."

On Thursday, I counted up. "Washington Post," 17 anthrax stories, "New York Times," 15 anthrax stories. On CNN, MSNBC, Fox, it is on almost all the time.

And so I wonder, Bob Schieffer, as we're getting that information out, we're covering this important story, and because prominent media figures like your colleague, Dan Rather, are involved, or at least they're the targets, is there a little bit of getting swept away here?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I really don't think so. I mean, how long has it been since anybody has had anthrax in this country? When is the last case? A hundred years ago? Fifty years ago? Susan, you would know.


DENTZER: ... but there have only been about 20...

KARL: Only 17...


SCHIEFFER: And then suddenly, here they are. And the come in the wake of this thing that has happened that is unlike anything that has happened. Two airplanes running into two skyscrapers. Nobody knows where this is coming from at this point, it seems to be. Nobody knows how much more that there is. I mean, yes, we've got all these House buildings closed, and yes, they're going through them. But now today, another smudge of it apparently shows up in another mail room on Capitol Hill. Well, that didn't just, you know, get off the bus and walk in there. It apparently came in a letter. That means that others on Capitol Hill must have received letters. We don't know.

KARL: So you just need to be careful. I mean...


KURTZ: But Susan, do you think that, you know, as opposed to the case where a secretary at a Microsoft office in Reno, you know, received something that looked suspicious. Do you think the targeting of the networks and the "New York Post" and the "New York Times" office in Rio de Janeiro is accomplishing the goal of whoever is sending this awful stuff out, of making this, you know, an American preoccupation? DENTZER: Absolutely. No question about it. I mean, these are well-known public figures, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather. They're probably better known than many of the people in the U.S. government. So the bioterrorists knew exactly how to get our attention, to get the nation's attention.

I will have to agree with Bob. I don't know how you put an upper bound on the coverage of a story like this. I mean, who's to -- how do you say, "This is too much"? We have the first systematic bioterrorist threat ever coming four weeks after the first major attack -- terrorist attack on U.S. soil, killing more than 5,000 people. When you put it all together...


KURTZ: So when I get all this e-mail and people are saying, the media are scaring people, you think those people are just off base?

DENTZER: Well, not entirely off base, because we did confuse everybody. I mean, and frankly, we've tried -- a lot of networks and others have tried to say OK, let's keep focused here. There are still fewer than 10 actual cases of anthrax. There are fewer than several thousand even potential exposures in all this out of a country of 300 million people. So there's an attempt to put it in context.

I do think that one area we have slipped up is not coming back and correcting the record when there is a record available to be corrected. For example, that was the case in the Microsoft case in Reno. How many people now know definitively that there was no anthrax found there? We haven't done a good job on that.

SCHIEFFER: Let me just say -- I mean, I would just like to, you know, at Three Mile Island, I mean, nobody wanted to report that there was radiation leaking out, but we had a dangerous situation. And I think we have an obligation to report that.

We have to be very careful not to cause panic out there, but the best antidote for panic is truth. And I think that's what we have to do, is to get this story sorted out, find out exactly what happened, and then tell people. And when we are able to tell people, they will figure out what to do about it.

KURTZ: This is a very unnerving story, clearly. But I think one of the things the media could do to be a little more restrained here would be not to report every single scare until it's confirmed that something is anthrax. For example, prominent columnists at the "Washington Post" received a suspicious-looking letter with handwriting that seemed similar to that on the envelopes that went to Senator Daschle and Tom Brokaw, and a "St. Petersburg" postmark. Sent it off to the authorities for testing. We haven't reported that, because it may be nothing. And I think there's been too much reporting about things that turn out not to be anthrax -- somebody's got talcum powder.

(CROSSOVER) KARL: But I've got to tell you. I mean we have not reported a lot. I mean, there's been, every few minutes, as Bob knows, up on the Hill, you've got another false scare. I mean, we...

KURTZ: You're holding stuff back because it's not confirmed?

KARL: Well, we even had a situation where Senator Kennedy had had an envelope come in. It had powder, suspicious, everything else. And he actually put out a statement about it because the Boston media started to run with the story. And then he came out and held a press conference about it, but it was our decision that unless this is a real case, we're not even going to report it. Because why give the hoaxsters any attention at all? I mean, that's ridiculous.

KURTZ: I think that's a good avenue to take.

DENTZER: When Northwest Airlines is pulling creamer and sugar substitute off the airlines because people are too panicked, you know that it is not our problem...

KURTZ: Clearly Americans are having to make sacrifices here.

The "New York Post" headline, Jonathan Karl, the other day, a picture of Dick Gephardt and Denny Hastert: "Wimps." This, of course, relating to the House's decision to adjourn rather abruptly while the Senate stayed in session. In light of the fact that we learned today that there was some exposure in the House mail room, or one of the office buildings, was that headline unfair?

Well, how much did it affect the coverage? The next day I saw a lot of coverage about it -- are these people wimps? They're turning tail, they're leaving town.

KARL: It was certainly -- it certainly animated the coverage. And you certainly had a lot of -- you had a lot of people calling you from the House side, calling reporters and pointing out problems with how the Senate was dealing this, and pointing out -- I know if you got this call -- did you know there was Senate fund-raiser on Thursday night? Maybe that's why they wanted to stay.

I mean, some very defensive senior leadership staff over in the House side because they faced so much criticism. But, you know, I mean, in light of today's news...


SCHIEFFER: I thought it was a bit much. I thought the criticism was a bit much. But it was -- it was a public relations disaster for the House of Representatives. I bet, on reflection, that if they had it to do over again, what they would do is they'd do exactly what the Senate did. And that would say: We're in session, but send all the kids home. Send all the employees home.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Bob Schieffer, when NBC was hit, Tom Brokaw went on the air and said he was very angry about this. When the system at your network, CBS, got the infection, Dan Rather held a press conference with Andrew Heyward, the President of CBS News, and said: We're not going to flinch, and we're going to hang in there, and of course praised his assistant as heroic.

And then the "New York Post" woman who got infected, there's a front page piece today with her holding up, shall we say, one of the fingers that was affected and sending a message to Osama bin Laden.

Is it a mistake for prominently media people to personalize this in that way, or is it perfectly natural that folks are going to be angry and going to sort of step out of their anchor roles and express that?

SCHIEFFER: Oh, I guess there are -- you could make an argument either way. But it seems to me -- I mean, I think people are interested. I think people think of Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw and people they see on television as friends, and they're interested when their personal health is at stake.

So I think you have to be very careful, because it's very easy to overdo that. But I don't think they did, and I thought it was just fine.

KURTZ: Anchors, of course, are human beings.


KARL: You know, at a press conference yesterday, you know, they -- we actually had a photographer -- they're usually just snapping pictures -- stop and ask a question because this photographer wanted to know if it affected him. I mean, this was somebody who is taking Cipro, has been tested, was over there. I mean...

KURTZ: This is not a story that we're covering as if it's some distant battlefield. This has literally come into the newsrooms of America, and actually a lot of people are nervous.

Well, up next: Is the Pentagon controlling the pictures and the message as U.S. troops hit the ground in Afghanistan? Also: Should CNN be submitting written questions to Osama bin Laden?

We'll talk about that in a moment.



Army commandos conducted two raids in southern Afghanistan last night, the subject of a press briefing earlier today by General Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Bob Schieffer, at that briefing today. General Myers did not -- refused to answer questions about how many U.S. troops were involved, how they got out of Afghanistan. I thought that was perfectly reasonable. In fact, I was surprised that reporters kept asking over and over again for operational details that he clearly wasn't going to provide. But at the same time, he wouldn't even say -- the general wouldn't even say what the purpose of the mission was. And he said, well, we achieved our objectives.


SCHIEFFER: Well, that's what I thought was somewhat odd. I mean, I totally agree with you. And I don't know why reporters would need to know the operational details.

But what I found odd was when he said, we've accomplished our objective, unfortunately, I can't tell you what the objective was.

KURTZ: Right.

SCHIEFFER: That just -- that just doesn't make sense. And no public official can expect that kind of answer to stand. I mean, he's going to keep being questioned about that.

KURTZ: Now, I was struck this morning that the -- here is basically the first ground action in the war of Afghanistan. And God, I thought modest coverage on the cable networks. But then at noon the Pentagon released its video of the raid, we can take a look here.

And you had some of that cool nightscope vision stuff, people -- some of these soldiers going onto an air base, parachuting out of airplanes, and so forth. Pretty good video which then, I think, made the coverage -- boosted it considerably, Jonathan Karl.

So is this an example of the Pentagon realizing that if you want to get your story out, you've got to have pictures for television?

KARL: I mean, that's clearly -- I'm sure it's not a surprise to them. But I think what's interesting in terms of feedback from viewers, is they often feel like they're getting too much information from us. And they don't want to feel that we're giving away any operational details, they resent when details about, you know, operations on the ground over there are revealed.

So it's interesting. I think what's going to be very important, though, is do we find out afterwards? Do we find out everything that took place afterwards? You know, to find out now, I mean, we could perhaps go a little bit of time so we don't jeopardize the operations, but I think it's going to be...

KURTZ: But if the Pentagon hold a news conference and releases video, then why would people blame the media for reporting on this? Clearly, this was a secret raid, but they wanted the word out.

KARL: Yes, but what do those pictures really tell you? I mean, all they show you is that you've got people parachuting; I mean, they don't give you any details.


KURTZ: Maybe they were shot at a soundstage in Hollywood. KARL: Yes, "Wag the Dog."


SCHIEFFER: ... one thing to this; I've been covering the government here in Washington for almost 33 years now. And one rule that I've found -- this absolutely never changes: If there is good news to announce, the government finds a way to announce it. And the better the news, the more detail you will get. If the news is not good, then you don't get very many details.

So when officials come out, as they did today, and say we accomplished our objective, but we can't tell you what the objective was, every reporter in town is going to say, it must not have gone very well.

KURTZ: Susan Dentzer, the one set of competing pictures this week was the footage someone made available, either by the Taliban or the Taliban authorities letting reporters into Afghanistan, was pictures of the Red Cross facility being bombed accidentally by U.S. forces, kids in hospitals who have been injured, that sort of thing. Are you surprised, given that there clearly are at least some civilian casualties here, that that part of the story hasn't gotten more attention? Maybe it's been just totally overshadowed by anthrax.

DENTZER: I think that's largely been the case. And those stories did not go unnoticed; and needless to say, they don't go unnoticed by the people who really want to fan the flames of that. There are people around the rest of the world who are also watching CNN. So I don't think that's been underplayed and under-covered.

I want to pick up, though, on Jon's point, because a lot of stuff is going to come out afterwards. War -- there's a fog of war for the news media as well. And really what's going to matter is: Are some investigative stories put together in coming days that talk about what was actually going on with these special forces, as we learn more about the casualties. I mean, that's what critical.

The instantaneous coverage here we can assure ourselves is going to be superficial and probably wrong. It's, are we going to get the story in the long run that matters.

KURTZ: Of course, one of the reasons it's superficial is that the Pentagon, for the most part, is now allowing journalists to accompany these troops. I don't think that's possible on a nighttime commando raid, jumping out of airplanes. But clearly the press is going to be clamoring for more action so that we can have some first- hand reporting here, rather than just sitting in the briefing room over at the Pentagon.


KARL: Even if it's pool coverage that's embargoed so it can't be released until after -- I mean, but clearly it's a reasonable request.

KURTZ: Let's turn now to the controversy that's kind of been brewing since Tuesday about CNN and Osama bin Laden. For those who are not familiar with the details, CNN says it was approached by an intermediary of bin Laden's al Qaeda organization and offered the opportunity to submit written questions to Osama bin Laden for which he might deign to answer on videotape.

Wolf Blitzer talked about this the other day. Let's take a look.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We want to stress that CNN has no information about where bin Laden is or whether he's 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: CNN has made no commitment to air this video, if it ever comes in. It would be, apparently, provided to Al Jazeera and then CNN would get a copy.

But a lot of criticism out there, Bob Schieffer, and hardly unexpected. People saying: Why is a network offering a platform to a terrorist or mass murderer?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I don't think you should be defensive about this at all. I think you're doing what a journalist ought to be doing, and that is to track down this story and get to the bottom of it. Send the questions. If he wants to answer them, fine; if he doesn't, fine. But I think that just adds to the store of information.

Now, if the CNN reporter who somehow is transmitting these questions comes upon Osama bin Laden, I think he'll have to decide whether he wants to reveal that or not, because I'm not sure it's his journalistic responsibility to keep that a secret. But the fact that CNN is trying to get questions to this person, I don't see anything wrong with that at all. I think it just -- it helps us understand what's going on here.

KURTZ: Just to clarify, the bin Laden representative approached Al Jazeera, the Arab television network with which it had a close relationship, and then the request was relayed to CNN. And so far, no videotape, so I guess no decision being made.

Should we care, Susan Dentzer, what Osama bin Laden thinks or what kind of propaganda he would provide in response to these questions if he does indeed answer them?

DENTZER: Well, I think it's been useful to see some of the videos that we have seen, the one that was -- came out just a couple of weeks ago. I mean, that gives you additional sense of the texture of the man.

And frankly, despite people's concerns, I didn't see a lot of Westerners saying, "You know, he's got a point there about..." You know, people don't -- people are not snowed by this. People look at this, they see the -- they see the human being behind these horrible, horrible acts.

And frankly, I think I tend to agree with Bob. I hate to sound like a hallelujah chorus of approval on this, but if given the opportunity to hear again from the man and put to him the very legitimate questions that CNN has now decided to put, like what is your case for killing innocent people?

I spent several days interviewing survivors of the bombing -- of the attack at the World Trade Center. Anybody who would do that to human beings will stop at virtually nothing. That is a legitimate question to pose to this man.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Jonathan Karl, the idea of submitting written questions in advance. I mean, you wouldn't do that if you had a sit-down interview on camera, but in this case, it's the only way to get these answers. Does that give you any pause, written questions in advance?

KARL: Well, in fact, I mean, CNN policy is that we don't submit written questions. But this is not an interview. And there is no commitment to air the responses and, you know, there's some concern. I mean, there's concern that, could he be trying to relay messages back to potential terrorists operating in the United States? And I think CNN has been very responsible. They're saying there's no commitment to do this at all. They're going to review it and see if that's -- if that's a possibility. And if so, it's not going to be aired.

KURTZ: We will have to wait and see if it comes in and if, in fact, it is aired.

Jonathan Karl, Susan Dentzer, Bob Schieffer, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, finally, one other media note, Steve Brill's brief career as a media critic is over. The founder of Court TV has shut down his 3-year-old media magazine, "Brill's Content," which was launched with a huge flash when Brill interviewed Ken Starr back in the days of Monicagate. "Brill's Content" hoped to sell 500,000 or 600,000 copies, or about 20 times that of "Columbia Journalism Review" or "American Journalism Review," but Brill now admits his idea just didn't work. Brill had also bought the much ballyhooed media Web site,, which is being sold.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning for a special live Sunday edition of RELIABLE SOURCES at 9:30 Eastern.




Back to the top