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Is Media Coverage of the War Biased?; Is the Press Correct in Turning Negative on the War in Afghanistan?

Aired November 3, 2001 - 18:30   ET


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

It was another blur of a week on the war-front and the home- front, with the media coverage itself increasingly becoming an issue.


TOM BROKAW, ANCHOR: A New York City hospital worker today became the fourth person in this country to die this month of inhalation anthrax. Her case, more than any other, is adding to public fright because medical detectives are baffled about how she became infected.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: America's war in Afghanistan has entered a new phase. Again today, U.S. B-52 bombers sweep Taliban front lines north of the capitol of Kabul, dropping dozens of half-ton bombs on Taliban troops and munitions.

PETER JENNINGS, ANCHOR: And now to the terrorist threat here at home, in California today the governor said there was a terrorist threat to the state's enormous bridges over the next few days. He mentioned four bridges, and he said the threat was credible.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Andrew Sullivan, contributing writer to "The New York Times" magazine and the founder and chief executive of John Donvan, correspondent for ABC's "Nightline" and Bill Press, co-host of CNN's CROSSFIRE and the author of "Spin This: All The Ways We Don't Tell The Truth."

Osama bin Laden, another videotape released today, and my favorite part is he accuses the U.S. of targeting innocent Afghan civilians as opposed to, I guess, the way al Qaeda does business. All of the networks are either just showing the still photograph and reading some brief excerpts, CNN, FOX, MSNBC. Now, the network news chiefs, John Donvan, told Condoleezza Rice at the White House three weeks ago that they wouldn't air these Osama tapes live and unedited. But now it seems like they're really not airing them at all. Is that good journalism?

JOHN DONVAN, ABC: Well, I think the decision was made, if there was something that was seen as newsworthy in them, that they would communicate what was newsworthy, and I don't think that's being missed at this point. That the gist of them is eventually being communicated, and to actually have to see bin Laden himself and see his mouth moving and hear the words come out of his mouth, I don't think negates the journalism involved in it.

KURTZ: Andrew Sullivan.

ANDREW SULLIVAN, "NEW YORK TIMES" MAGAZINE: I think that's broadly right, as long as the data that we get from this output of bin Laden is actually conveyed; as long as we know what he's saying so we can make up our own minds about it. There's no reason to give him a platform for the mass media with it.

KURTZ: But, Bill Press, the networks certainly give a platform to George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and Ari Fleischer who move their lips all day long on the subject.

BILL PRESS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, even liberal that I am, I have no problem making a distinction between Osama bin Laden and Donald Rumsfeld or George Bush, but I would play the whole thing. I'd play the video. I think it's wrong not to play the video.

KURTZ: Why is it not being played?

PRESS: It's not being played because of pressure from the White House not to give Osama bin Laden a platform. But I think we can tolerate hearing and seeing the enemy. The day the bombing started, we played the video. I remember Peter Jennings saying the voice, the face and the voice of the enemy. I mean, that struck me.

And, let's face it. We may keep him off the air here in the United States, but he's on the air in millions and millions of homes in the Middle East, so I don't know what we're achieving by all of this other than making Americans feel better.

KURTZ: John Donvan, on the home-front, the anthrax front, as you might call it, journalists for a couple of weeks now have been portraying the administration pretty much as the gang that couldn't shoot straight as they scramble to catchup with the health effects and the precautions necessary to deal with these attacks by mail. Fair or unfair coverage in your view?

DONVAN: I think that's -- I think that's unfair coverage. I also think that may be an unfair characterization of entirely how the media is covering it. I think that, that the medical folks in particular are up against something that they've just never experienced before. And I know that as a journalist in trying to understand it myself, I have had to do a huge amount of reading into anthrax and talking to people about anthrax, and there just isn't a great deal of research on it.

So, they didn't know what they didn't know in the first place. And if they went out initially and misstepped and Tommy Thompson is, you know, the words keep coming back at him that he initially said that maybe Mr. Stevens in Florida picked up the bug in drinking water from a stream. All right, he made that mistake, he made it a few weeks ago. It was one mistake. To repeat it over and over again, I think, is somewhat unfair.

The fact is, it's extremely difficult. It's a moving target. People in public health are trained to track a naturally occurring epidemic in which they know that people sneeze on each other and then they get on planes and travel. They know how to track that. They don't know how to track an epidemic where somebody is deliberately throwing hand-grenades around the area, and to say that they're the gang that couldn't shoot straight because they're not on top of this and have made mistakes, I think, is really unfair.


SULLIVAN: But there's also a case in which we have a story that I think is essentially stalled, probably about two weeks ago. We have a bombardment, a long, slow, difficult war in Afghanistan. We have possible small bore anthrax attacks in this country and so on. The media has to fill the 24-hour cable network, it has to fill new headlines. We have to have a spin every day. We have to have a story every day, because that's what we're used to.

And the truth is, is that kind of reporting is completely unsuitable for this particular crisis, which requires much more sobriety, much more long-term view, much less short-term what's the story of the day, much less spin. And I think the public understands that, but the media, in some respects out of touch with the public, is still spinning on those old wheels, and they need to realize they're out of sink with the country and they need to get their act together.

KURTZ: Out of touch with the public. Where have I heard that before?

Bill Press, you just wrote a book on spin. Tell me how the Bush team and the press are spinning this war.

PRESS: Which war, the war against terrorism or the war against anthrax?

KURTZ: The war involving bombs being dropped on Afghanistan.

PRESS: Well, I think both sides are spinning it. I think certainly Osama bin Laden is spinning it in the worst possible way, saying that these acts are justified or that they're called for by Allah, or that we're doing this on behalf of the Palestinian people. He doesn't care about the Palestinian people. He has no interest in the future of Palestine.

But there's a lot of spinning going on on this side as well. I mean, Donald Rumsfeld says we've run out of targets, like, the second day. Well, hello, I don't think we have. You know, the general says we've eviscerated the Taliban. Again, hello.

And, back to the anthrax, Tommy Thompson says we know what we're doing. I mean, that may be spin, but I think it's manifestly not so...

SULLIVAN: I don't think Donald Rumsfeld is spinning. I think he said what he thought, which is that the major infrastructure had been destroyed. Obviously, the war is different from now on.

I think to call, to equate the positions of a government that's trying to get it's hands on a crisis, launching a war with imprecise information, and so on, and constantly changing terrain, with spin, it's just not fair. And to equate it with bin Laden is outrageous.

PRESS: To suggest that our government does not spin is hopelessly naive. And I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with spin. Spin is not evil. Spin is not lying. Spin is casting things in the best possible light, and...

SULLIVAN: No, this is not -- this is not -- my, God, this is not the Clinton administration. We are not at that level of attempting to spin every single thing.

I think, yes, they are attempting to put the best face on certain things, as any human being is. But I don't think they're spinning in the sense of taking it to a whole new degree in which all they care about is appearance rather than reality.

KURTZ: Let me briefly blow the whistle here on this conversation, and let's turn back to John Donvan. You're a former Middle East correspondent. What do you make of the increasingly, in my view, negative take on the war effort by journalists? I mean, there's been a lot of, you know, we're four weeks into this, perhaps this is way premature, but you see the word Vietnam thrown around. You see the word quagmire thrown around. Are journalists being a little impatient here in trying...

DONVAN: I can see why journalists would be leaping to this conclusion, I will say prematurely. Primarily because it's Afghanistan and Afghanistan was the Soviet's Vietnam, and I can see why people are making that connection. But I think it's way too early, and as the secretary of defense said the other day, it's been three weeks and three days of a war that they have repeatedly said is going to take years and years and years. That means we are about one- tenth of 1 percent into the war at this point, and I do think that to be drawing conclusions of any kind is ridiculous at this point.

KURTZ: Top of the first, to use a baseball analogy. Andrew Sullivan, I want to use the terribly unfair tactic of quoting some of your own words back to you, writing about...

PRESS: That's totally fair.

KURTZ: Writing about (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you wrote recently: "These pampered journalists, who have never seen a moment of real censorship in their lives, take the occasion of the massacre of thousands of their fellow citizens to worry about themselves and preen self-righteously at the same time." Sounds a little harsh.

SULLIVAN: Not necessarily. I think that the cries of censorship that came up when anybody dared to criticize the relativism and nihilism of some of the statements coming from the far left was baloney. It's not censorship. It's not censorship for me to criticize somebody. It's censorship when the government says you cannot say these things. No one in the government is saying you cannot say these things, and censorship is a kind of mirror. It's a smoke-screen to disguise their own particular views.

KURTZ: But you've been criticized, for example, by "Salon" editor David Talbot as being self-righteous, arrogant and judging the patriotism of other journalists who may not agree with you.

SULLIVAN: I'm not judging the patriotism of anyone. I'm saying that some of their views were ridiculous and, in my view, morally obscene after the attack upon 5,000 innocent Americans.

And, look, there is a culture here among journalists, which we all understand. It's especially deep in a particular generation that came of age during the Vietnam War and went into journalism as a crusading liberal effort. And they are viscerally and instinctually opposed to war. They're viscerally and instinctively opposed to any sort of intervention in other countries.

And therefore they have an instinctive response that this must be the wrong idea. And they're coming around, and some of them aren't as bad as others, but that's there. And if we don't recognize it, that the journalistic class is a different class than your average person and it's left leaning and it is actually suspicious of war.

KURTZ: Well, I think that's a little bit of a broad brush, to say that the entire generation is instinctively opposed to war.

SULLIVAN: No, they're not. But the entire generation that went into journalism tend to be of that -- half of that generation, of the Boomer generation, that were scarred, perhaps rightly, by Vietnam.

PRESS: I just have to say that is so manifestly wrong I can't believe that you would say it. I think if you polled the journalistic community, you would find easily as many hawks as you would find doves. In fact, I would say you would find a very hard time finding any dove at all.

I certainly don't know any among my fellow journalists, and to suggest that all journalists are opposed to war and that's why they're raising questions, I really think is unfair.

DONVAN: I do think that there's a reflex at work. I don't think it's an anti-war reflex. I think it may be a distrust of government reflex. And that, perhaps, comes out of that generation.

KURTZ: Vietnam, Watergate?

DONVAN: But I also think that Pentagon reporters, for example, who are a pretty good crop, they're job is to ask questions, and they're hitting walls earlier than they normally would because we're in a very tense security situation. And the fact that they continue to pepper that wall with questions doesn't particularly bother me.

The fact that the wall is solid doesn't particularly bother me either. I think that's the dance now. They're going to ask the questions, and the Pentagon is going to put up a stone wall. But I don't think that it's because they're against war. I agree with you, that...


SULLIVAN: But they tend to emphasize the cost of war rather than the importance of war, and either, you know, Walter Isaacson about this network sends out a memo saying don't just put out there are civilian causalities in Afghanistan. So, it's not just me making this up, Bill. It's actually there for the evidence you read. It's not anti -- unpatriotic, but it is a subtle slant.

KURTZ: I've got to get a break here. And when we come back, you mentioned the Walter Isaacson memo. CNN wants balanced world coverage. Is there such a thing as too much balance? Also, Geraldo goes to war, in a moment.



CNN chairman Walter Isaacson issued a memo this week that said, among other things about war coverage, "As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage or perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people."

Andrew Sullivan, you have any problem with that memo?

SULLIVAN: None whatsoever. In fact, I think it's an important thing. Certainly, watching CNN myself, I've been pretty appalled by some of the stories coming out of Afghanistan which showed no context whatsoever for the propaganda that was basically setup by the Taliban, showing small injured children, which is terrible. And obviously, we should be concerned about civilian casualties and no one is saying we should be heartless about it, but the context was lacking, and I think that Walter was clearly responding to an outcry from the public, because they understand that this is warped, even if the journalists doing it don't.

KURTZ: But, Bill Press, should anchors on CNN be required as a rigid rule every time there's a report on civilian casualties in Afghanistan to read this sort of script or ad-lib a script about yes, but they attacked us first, and yes, remember September 11th? I mean, I don't think most viewers have forgotten September 11th.

PRESS: No, I don't think people should be given a script and told they have to repeat it at every story. I don't think that's Walter's point. I think what Walter was saying is, and I understand, no network wants to be seen as a, as a propaganda platform for the other side.

I think what he's saying is that we're going to be given opportunities, like reporters were the other day, to go in with a Taliban escort and to see this bombing, that you've got to -- we've got to always point out who the sources are, who took us in, what they showed us, what they didn't show us, and the stories that I heard, Andrew, I have to say everybody said, on all the networks I saw, that we saw the bombing, but we were not taken to the hospital. We heard how many civilians were killed, but we were not shown the bodies. And so, the skepticism I heard in every story, and I was happy to hear it.

KURTZ: But, is there something inherently wrong or even unpatriotic, John Donvan, with Western journalists being taken by the Taliban to see the damage inflicted by U.S. bombs? Yes, of course, those caveats should be in there, but is it -- isn't also an important part of this story to look at what the effect is on the ground in that country?

DONVAN: Well, I've been in that situation a number of times, and it's an uncomfortable, awkward situation, to be with the enemy going into their country.

KURTZ: Which enemy for example were you with?

DONVAN: I was in Libya when Libya was bombed in 1986. I was in -- I went into Baghdad at the very end of the war, but hostilities were still continuing. I was in Baghdad just before the war. And it's a very, very complicated position to be in, even in an emotional level. Because what begins to happen is that the people who are depicted back here as sort of a monolith start to become very human to you.

You meet a soldier who offers you a coffee and takes out a picture of his wife back home, and all he talks about is how badly he wants to get back home. And that begins to -- that begins to have an impact on your ability to see the other side as human. Then, when you come in when there are casualties, it's very difficult to approach that as simply an abstract.

What you try to do is to, is to keep the context in mind for yourself. You do not want to go over to the other side. At the same time, you begin to think maybe there's a -- maybe -- in that situation, what I've always thought I should be doing is saying to my viewer if you were in my shoes, this is what you would be seeing right now.

And that can get politically dangerous, because you might begin to say that there's some decent folks over here.

KURTZ: Right.

DONVAN: And I'm not sure that the audience wants to hear that. And sometimes maybe your editors don't want to hear it. Maybe the government doesn't want to hear it, but it gets very complicated.

SULLIVAN: The question is, what data are we getting from those reports? What good data are we -- and all we're getting is something we know already. That, of course, there are civilian casualties. Of course there are some collateral damage. The main benefit of these reports is to get propaganda image of these images of suffering in order to effect public opinion in the West and the Arab world. This is simply propaganda. It is not data. KURTZ: Isn't it also propaganda on the U.S. side? Aren't many hours of airtime devoted to the arguments of American officials? Just to play devil's advocate here. There are civilians...


KURTZ: ... who had nothing to do with any terrorist attacks and maybe don't even approve of the Taliban.

SULLIVAN: Of course, although we don't seem to have much evidence of that. But there is no equivalence between the government of the Taliban and the government of the United States. And we cannot, as journalists, I believe, be neutral between them.

David Westin, the head of ABC, as you know, couldn't even say that the Pentagon was an illegitimate target. When you are moving to a position of that kind of neutrality, you're abandoning morality itself, and we are not some (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of human being. We're regular human beings, journalists. We have a right to see the difference between right and wrong, a duty to do so...

KURTZ: David Westin did apologize for that...

PRESS: I have to say, though, right. David Westin was wrong, and he has admitted that he was wrong. But I don't think that anybody is suggesting that there's any equivalence. It seems to be the point is that it's the job of the newsmen, or newsperson, to ferret out the news from any source that they can get it.

And yes, they've got to ask the tough questions at the Pentagon, because, let's face it, they're not allowing any troops in with the frontline, as they did in Vietnam. They haven't since then, because they don't want the bad news coming out. The Pentagon wants to control everything we know about this war.

SULLIVAN: Bill, don't get me wrong. We should be absolutely tough on them on getting answers.

PRESS: We should, but also, then...

SULLIVAN: But broadcasting images of suffering children is propaganda, not data.

PRESS: I would say you have to go after what the Taliban wants to give you, too, and then you report it accurately.

DONVAN: Exactly. Those images are never reported by any Western reporter, for CNN or anyone else, or myself in those situations, where you go in and -- you know, when Peter Arnett was reporting the baby mill (ph) factory story during the Gulf War, he was raising an eyebrow all throughout that.

You go in and you say they only showed us this, wouldn't let us cross the street. We're surrounded by minors (ph). I did a broadcast in which I said, I'm signing off now because there's a censor standing there and I'm not supposed to say something and I'd rather say nothing.

KURTZ: Let me just break in here to mention that Geraldo Rivera, which I teased at the top, is leaving his CNBC talk show to go to FOX NEWS and become of all things a war correspondent.

He says, I'm feeling more patriotic than at any time in my life, itching for justice or maybe just revenge. Brief response, Bill Press.

PRESS: Go, Geraldo, go. I think it's a good move for FOX. He'll certainly add -- bring some color to the whole situation. And I hope he's more successful over there than he was in Al Capone's cave or tomb or whatever it was.


KURTZ: Just briefly -- itching for justice, maybe just revenge. Is that a good journalistic motivation?

SULLIVAN: I do not believe, after reading Orwell's "Wartime Diaries" that it's inconsistent to be a patriot and to be a good journalist. I think it's perfectly possible to want one side to win and to report the facts. And this pose of being neutral is a silly pose that we should drop.

KURTZ: And we will drop it at this point, at least for now.

Andrew Sullivan, John Donvan, Bill Press, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, the spin cycle, the week the press turned negative on the war.


KURTZ: Now for a look at the spin cycle. This was the week the press turned negative, really negative, on the war. And it began with the newspapers.


KURTZ (voice-over): "The New York Times": "Stung by the stubborn resilience of the Taliban."

"The Los Angeles Times": "Stung by a week of setbacks in its Afghan campaign."

Soon, the Pentagon was feeling, well, stung.

The drum beat continued on television, with analogies to another war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There must be somebody out there saying, wait a minute, are we getting into Vietnam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know if Secretary Rumsfeld has confused and frightened the Taliban, but he tends to confuse and frighten me, because I don't know what's going on and I'm afraid that not that much progress is being made.

KURTZ: When Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld ventured onto the talk shows, he got more of the same.

COKIE ROBERTS, TALK SHOW HOST: There have been stories over the weekend that give the perception that this war, after three weeks, is not going very well.

KURTZ: And the pictures of civilian casualties didn't help.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The U.S. is again on the defensive. Reports claim American air-strikes killed civilians outside Kabul again this weekend.

KURTZ: The secretary was swift to respond.

RUMSFELD: But, let's be clear, no nation in human history has done more to avoid civilian causalities than the United States has in this conflict.

KURTZ: Now that the media had their story-line, the daily briefings turned contentious.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... how would you respond to those who say that the air campaign is not successful?

RUMSFELD: Well, I would say that it depends on what your measure is.

KURTZ: The administration was determined to show some progress, so Rumsfeld disclosed this sort of secret he has scolded the press for revealing.

RUMSFELD: We do have a very modest number of ground troops in the country.

KURTZ: No matter. Now "The New York Times" was raising the specter of a quagmire, and the military was once again playing defense.

RUMSFELD: There's no doubt in my mind that the American people know that it's going to take more than 24 days.


KURTZ: The media are clearly impatient with this war; far more impatient, at least for now, than the American public.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow for a special live Sunday morning edition of RELIABLE SOURCES at 9:30 Eastern. We'll talk about covering the war from inside Afghanistan and inside the press room at the Pentagon.

CAPITAL GANG is up next.




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