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Will Northern Alliance Victories Change Tone of War Coverage?; What Effect Will Media's 2000 Election Recount Have on America?

Aired November 11, 2001 - 09:34   ET


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

Just ahead, we'll talk about the coverage of the war and the continuing anthrax melodrama and the Florida election debacle, about to make a big-time comeback in the press.

But we lead this morning with Osama bin Laden, sitting down for his first face-to-face interview with a journalist, a Pakistani newspaper editor. Bin Laden claiming, among other things, that he will use nuclear or chemical weapons if the United States uses them first.

CNN's Nic Robertson sat down with the journalist who conducted the interview, and he joins us now from Islamabad.

Nic Robertson, the Pakistani newspaper editor...


KURTZ: Go ahead, I'm sorry.

ROBERTSON: No, I was just going to say, Howard, that obviously the first thing on our agenda at CNN when sitting down with Hamid Mir, the Pakistani journalist who says he conducted that interview, was first sort of verify that the interview had taken place.

And we asked him to show us photographs, because he had had photographs published in the daily newspapers here. He also showed us the negatives. He also played for us a partial part of an audiotape that he said recorded the interview. He said the voices we could hear were that of Osama bin Laden and Osama bin Laden's deputy Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri. He also showed us the his passport with his Afghan visa with his exit stamps from Pakistan and his entry and exit stamps from Afghanistan, as well.

KURTZ: So we're reasonably certain that the interview took place. But let's talk about the content. The editor, Hamid Mir of the newspaper "Dawn" sits down with bin Laden, who tells him, or claims to have -- or have access to nuclear weapons. He doesn't know if that's true. You interviewed the editor, and now CNN is reporting that bin Laden claimed to have nuclear weapons. Anything about this make you uncomfortable because, after all, neither of us have any way of verifying this latest claim by Osama bin Laden.

ROBERTSON: No, our reports don't make me uncomfortable at all. And Hamid Mir himself -- and we include this in all our reports -- questions bin Laden's ability and capability to have the nuclear weapons that he claims that he has, as well as the chemical and biological potential that he claims to have.

And we also obviously include the opinions and views of analysts who examined Osama bin Laden and his ability to fight during this war on a day-by-day basis. And they all say -- and we've reported this quite carefully, as well -- that Osama bin Laden, in the view of international experts as well as experts here, just does not have this capability. And it is important to put our reporting in that context, and that's what we do.

KURTZ: Absolutely. Tell me briefly what conditions this interview took place under: when, where, how?

ROBERTSON: The night of the 7th of November, the early morning of the 8th of November. According to Mr. Mir, he said he was taken from a small hotel in Kabul in the middle of the night. He said he was wrapped in a carpet, bundled into the back of a four-wheel drive jeep, driven for about five hours. At times he said he was blindfolded.

We asked him was he -- did he conduct this interview in a cave or -- as we've heard Osama bin Laden lives in caves -- or was it a house? He said he believed that it was a mud-brick type house. He said he believed it was high in the mountains, because it was very cold. When we listened to this audiotape of the interview, we could hear people coughing. And I asked Mr. Mir who was coughing? Because obviously, we've heard reports, as well, that Osama bin Laden's health is suffering. He said that everyone was coughing, that it was very cold -- Howard.

KURTZ: Very interesting, bin Laden choosing to do a newspaper interview since the videotapes that he's been sending out getting, certainly, a lot of play in the Arab world but not much on American networks under some pressure from the administration.

Let me just turn now, Nic Robertson, to the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, where you've done a lot of reporting. Now that we have the Northern Alliance -- we just heard a spokesman for the Alliance claiming that the rebels have taken additional towns in addition to the key, pivotal city of Mazar-e Sharif -- is it difficult as a journalist to confirm in fog of war, if you will, just whether to what degree these various pieces of territory are, indeed, coming under the control of the Northern Alliance rebels?

ROBERTSON: It is difficult to verify, but when one listens to Dr. Abdullah there giving an account of the territory they've taken, it sounds militarily and geographically quite correct. A few years ago, we were in the town of Taloqan when the Northern Alliance controlled it before the Taliban took it. Now the front line -- the position that he describes they've got to now some few miles west -- east, rather, of Konduz, is at an area called Bangi (ph). And we were there on the front line with the Northern Alliance a few years ago.

And it is a geographical military feature that would hold up an advance. It is a ridgeline. There's a river -- we talked about the bridge of that river and a ridgeline. If you can get the high ground there on that ridge, then you can begin to shell towards Konduz. When you can do that, you can begin to push the Taliban back. He also talked about the fall, possibly, of the city of Pul-e-Khumri. This will give great cause for concern for the Taliban.

If they are retreating from the city of Konduz, then this is the one of the ways that they would retreat. Pul-e-Khumri is a key town, it's on a key fork in the road. The road goes north to Mazar and to Konduz. This will be -- could be, if correct, a big loss for the Taliban.

KURTZ: Nic Robertson in Islamabad, obviously knows the geography. Thanks very much for joining us this morning.

And joining us now here in Washington: Jake Tapper, Washington correspondent for; John Fund, member of the editorial board at "The Wall Street Journal"; and Jay Carney, White House correspondent for "TIME" magazine.

John Fund, what do you make of Osama bin Laden given this newspaper editor in Pakistan an interview making this claim about nuclear weapons, and now, it's kind of like a bang shot that's been heard around the world. From purely PR standpoint, a shrewd move by Osama bin Laden?

JOHN FUND, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Of course, because he doesn't have anything remotely able to duplicate the World Trade Center bombing. This is the latest effort of the psychological war, to destabilize us, to make everyone nervous. And he had some, I think, success with the anthrax regardless of who was behind that. This is the next step.

KURTZ: Jay Carney, let's talk about the coverage of the war itself. Last couple of days, we haven't seen a lot of pictures but we certainly heard a lot of reports about the Northern Alliance rebels taking this city of Mazar-e Sharif. Now, this comes after about a month of the administration getting pummeled in the press about the war, it's dragging on, it's not going well, do they really know what they're doing, is this another Vietnam? Do you think we will now see a change in the tone of the coverage?

JAY CARNEY, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, if as seems to be the case, these accomplishments by the Northern Alliance are verifiable, then I think, yes. Well, you know, President Bush has gotten what, I think, he's desperately needed which is some signs of progress in at least one -- on one of the fronts of the war which is the Afghan front.

And I think in terms of reporters covering the war that are at a vantage and advantages in the situation because the actual people on the ground are the Northern Alliance troops and there are reporters with the Northern Alliance who can at least verify that. It's not the kind of situation we had in the past with previous administrations where U.S. military action has taken place either in Panama or Grenada or other places, Bosnia, the Gulf War where we're having to rely solely on the Pentagon to tell us what's happened and whether or not it's actually an accomplishment or a failure.

KURTZ: But will this satisfy the armchair generals, Jake Tapper, including many conservative columnists and magazines and including the new republic who are saying this is a half-hearted effort. We need ground troops, enough of the -- we need to put more U.S. forces on the ground. I mean there's a tremendous grouse, well, in some parts of the media for an escalation of this war, kind of the opposite of what we saw in Vietnam.

JAKE TAPPER, SALON.COM: Yes, you know, I tend not to care so much what the armchair generals recommend.

KURTZ: You don't care, you dismiss their opinion?

TAPPER: But I do think that. I talked to senators Kerry and McCain a couple of weeks about this and they were concerned as Vietnam veterans. They were both concerned that the United States was being -- the military was being hemmed in by political considerations, not bombing on Ramadan, you know, concerns about our coalition partners, those things. And they are Vietnam veterans -- and I take what they say a little more seriously than some of the armchair generals.

FUND: I think this bone will satisfy the armchair generals because when you see people moving on a map, when you show graphics, territory shifting, it not only, I think, satisfies the media for something that's concrete to report, it also, I think, shows that there is a visible progress. So I think it gives them more time to build up the coalition government that they're trying to do. That's why they're waiting to not take Kabul until they have something to replace it with.

KURTZ: We can at least now see a tunnel that there might be some light at the end of to use a Vietnam phrase. I'm wondering, Jay Carney, if the media are not quite as transfixed by the war and the whole turn of the situation as perhaps was the case in the weeks following September 11.

Thursday night, as you all know, President Bush giving a major speech in Atlanta. Three of the four broadcasts networks blowing it off. NBC, CBS, Fox showing instead "Survivor" and "Friends." I guess Jennifer Aniston beat George W. Bush in the ratings. Does this suggest that the press is kind of inching back towards business as usual?

CARNEY: Well, not just the media but obviously the -- the leading, the vanguard of public opinion might be the media. And that is that there is a return to normalcy happening here. I mean that the war is an established fact, the news doesn't change that much day by day, and the president has been speaking out quite a bit. So a new speech by the president of the United States is not as anticipated as it was in the first few weeks of this war.

KURTZ: And it also wasn't an Oval Office address. It was held in front of an audience, it didn't have the trappings of the Oval Office.

CARNEY: And also the White House didn't ask. Did not ask the networks...

KURTZ: Or did they sort of imply that it would be really nice if you would take the speech...

TAPPER: They also made it clear that there really wasn't going to be any news coming out of it. It was President Bush doing -- well, trying to reassure the nation in a way that others in his administration have tried and not really been able to achieve: Tom Ridge, Tommy Thompson, etc. And it was more of a psychological speech than it -- he wasn't providing any information, for instance.

KURTZ: Well, the call for more volunteers for civil defense forces. Well, I admit it was not the most newsworthy speech he has given and he is on TV a lot these days, quite a contrast to before September 11. But do you think, Jake, that the administration is getting very concerned not just about the military situation, not just by the anthrax situation but about the PR situation?

We have this new White House effort launched in connection with Britain to set up a public relations effort to counter claims by the Taliban in real time rather than waiting until folks here in Washington and London wake up. How concerned are they about how this is playing?

TAPPER: They're very concerned and they should be. This is a, I mean, one of the -- obviously, when we provided arms, and the U.S. provided arms to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the '80s. Osama bin Laden is -- it's not the United States' fault that Osama bin Laden is a repercussion, a byproduct of that and the United States has to worry about what are the byproducts of what we're doing now, twenty years from now, thirty years from now. Are there a whole bunch of new Osama bin Laden's suicide bombers, et cetera being raised and educated in madrases in Pakistan and elsewhere? This PR campaign is very, very important. I think that they're probably still not doing enough.

KURTZ: Does the administration have to win the info war as well as the military war?

FUND: Well, I think it's a two-front strategy. You have to at least be at the game and having real time responses helps. But I also think long term, as Jake says, you have to shut these madrases, these religious schools because they incubate monsters and we have -- we're going to have a continuing series of terrorists come out if we don't shut those down and turn them to actually learning something other than just the Koran.

KURTZ: And they're funded by our Saudi friends. So it's kind of like a political campaign. Rapid response, real time.

TAPPER: It's the reality of modern warfare, because you cannot, I mean, they were slow to recognize this in the White House, surprisingly. But you cannot ignore the power of information even when the first weapons are hijacked airplanes or anthrax in the mail. The second one is always the aftereffects and, you know, the continuing impacts of these kind of acts are carried out in the media and fear is spread or a lack of faith in the military effort. And if you don't -- if you don't counter that, you loose.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Jake Tapper, you have a profile of Tom Ridge in the new issue of "Talk" magazine, the homeland security director. Not exactly getting rave reviews from the press. The press being somewhat unfair to the former governor of Pennsylvania?

TAPPER: Well, no. The press is not being unfair. In fact, I think there's still more room for criticism. I think the job itself -- it's not Tom Ridge's fault -- I think the job itself is setting up whoever takes it for failure. It's a job with no power, no control over the agencies he's supposed to be coordinating. Tom Ridge was chosen because he is a loyal Bush soldier. That might not be what we're looking for. That might not be what the job actually needs.

KURTZ: Ridge does have one power, which is the power to go on television quite a bit.

TAPPER: Right.

KURTZ: When we come back: the election that wouldn't end one year later. And what's really happening in the war in Afghanistan? Bernard Kalb looks at the standoff between the Pentagon and the press.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Here's what's on the cover of the news magazines this week. "TIME" looks at "Thanksgiving 2001: How American lives have changed and how they haven't." "U.S. News & World Report" ask: "Are you too scared to spend?" "Newsweek" has Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg with "The New New York."

And Jay Carney, that "Newsweek" cover would suggest that Michael Bloomberg -- it's a pretty good story, but Michael Bloomberg did not get a lot of press, and New York mayor's race did not get a lot of press, because we're all so focused on Afghanistan and anthrax. Even in New York, the race didn't make it to the front pages until the final days. I'm wondering if the press missed an opportunity here to write about some pretty interesting elections, because we were all so focused on topic A.

CARNEY: Well, I think we did, and I think that losers of election day 2001 in terms of the parties are going to be glad for that because, might not...

KURTZ: Not really much of a story.

CARNEY: Well, exactly. I mean and losers always say that -- local -- you know, it's all about local issues, and it won't have any impact in the future. But the fact is is that Republicans, Michael Bloomberg notwithstanding, you know, took some severe losses on Tuesday in the Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races. And those losses would, in a traditional sense, carry over into next year's elections. But, I mean, they seem like they didn't even happen, practically, in a political sense; so I don't think the Republicans will suffer.

KURTZ: John Fund, the Democrats and the Republicans were trying to spin these election results even before they happened. It was pretty clear that the Republicans would lose in New Jersey and in Virginia. But I'm wondering if the press, even despite the other static of the war and so forth -- you know, takes a few local races in this off year and tries to sort of imbue it with some kind of national significance. Did we go overboard in that direction?

FUND: No, I think they were probably discounted. The Republicans certainly did come out with the short end of the stick, although not dramatically.

But I think in Michael Bloomberg's case, you're absolutely right. I don't think Bloomberg would have won if there had been real press scrutiny. He had two things happening: He had Rudy Giuliani come in on him, and he had all for him -- and he had all of this incredible background that he had. This rather, you know -- all the sexual harassment suits -- none of that was really covered. I think if he had really gotten the negatives out there in the media -- the earned media, not from Mark Green, it would have hurt him.

KURTZ: Well, he also had $50 million of his own money spent on paid advertising. Jake Tapper, did the media fall down in not scrutinizing the background of a millionaire media mogul -- billionaire media mogul, who is now the next mayor of New York?

TAPPER: Yes, I think that they did. I think that the media didn't -- I mean, obviously, the New York press did to a degree.

But John's right. They didn't cover a lot of the things. Look, Michael Bloomberg -- it's going to be a gaffe a day. I mean, the guy has never -- well he -- he's just -- he can be very crude, and I think New Yorkers are going to wake up and they're going to be like, "This guy's our Mayor?" Not like Mark Green would have been any more pleasant.

KURTZ: All right; well, it's a great story. Now, tonight, long- awaited to some, the eight media organizations, including CNN, "Wall Street Journal," "New York Times," "Washington Post" and others, are going to come out with the results of their 10-month examination of the Florida recount, how it might have gone. And some people -- you may not be surprised to hear -- have never quite gotten over the 2000 election.

Let's take a look.


BILL PRESS, CO-HOST, CNN'S "CROSSFIRE": What's really significant is that yesterday was the one-year anniversary of the presidential election of last year. Here we are a year later, and we still don't know who won.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Jake Tapper, you're the author of a book on Florida. How much is the public going to care in this wartime environment about what a bunch of news organizations say about Florida?

TAPPER: Not as much as they should, and here's why. I tend not to think so much about media recounts, because it's not how the actual recount would have gone down -- it depends on the perspective of the canvassing board members in each county.

But that said, there was a huge travesty last year. And you know, not just a 175,000 ballots in Florida, but about 2 million nationwide. And America should care about the fact that, you know, our election came down to within the margin of error, and we just accepted, "OK, well, that's the way we'll take it."

KURTZ: Some Americans are going to say, Boy, the press just not getting over this Florida story.

FUND: Well, I think the mistake the media made is that any recount after the fact means you're not going to be able to duplicate the exact number of ballots. No county, except for a couple, actually had the same number of ballots for the media recount as they had on Election Day.

I think what the media should have done is taken some of those resources and gone to the other 49 states and said, How sloppy are your systems? How can we make those better? Because we have the sloppiest election systems of any industrialized country.

KURTZ: That would have been even more expensive. Jay Carney, how is this going to play out? Is it going to be a big story, or post-September 11, are people going to say, Look, George Bush is President and that stuff is ancient history?

CARNEY: I think, oddly enough, it had already become ancient history even before September 11. It would have played much bigger, had these terrorist attacks not happened. But there had been enough -- you know, a previous recount and enough confusion over what the outcome might actually have been that -- and so many caveats involved in saying, Gore could have got this many votes, or Bush this many. The people would have thrown up their hands and said, you know, It's just as confusing now as it was a year ago, forget about it.

KURTZ: Right, this may well be a muddle. We'll find out late tonight. And I'll make one prediction: This story will be on the front page of every newspaper tomorrow, but sharing space with Mazar-e Sharif and other matters of world importance.

FUND: And not having any legs.

KURTZ: We will see. John Fund, Jay Carney, Jake Tapper, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up: Is there a credibility gap, that dreaded phrase, between the Pentagon and the media? Bernard Kalb tackles that in his "Backpage." (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Time now for "The Backpage." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was bound to come sooner or later: a head-on collision of credibility between the Pentagon and a journalist, raising the question of whom to believe about what's really happening in the war in Afghanistan.

(voice-over): And by the end of the week, the two sides were still sticking to their guns, the standoff getting a bit of coverage. On one side, the Pentagon, saying that that highly publicized commando raid into Afghanistan the night of October 20 was a success. The other side saying it was a near disaster, with 12 Delta members wounded, three of them seriously.

That story in a current issue of "The New Yorker," written by perhaps the country's best known Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh. There are lots of other details, but those are the bones of the story, and the Pentagon swung into action to try to knock down the Hersh account.

GEN. RICHARD MYERS, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: Well, I've not read the article, but I've heard that it portrays that we ran into some stiff resistance. Now, that's simply not true. From my view, it went flawlessly.

KALB: But Hersh stood by his story as he made the TV rounds.

SEYMOUR HERSH, "THE NEW YORKER": And it was just a debacle, a near disaster, I wrote.

Generals often -- that's why they're generals, you know, they don't like to be told something that's a little different from what they want others to believe.

Twelve serious injuries, three very serious, and all of this was kept from the American people.

KALB: The running controversy finally prompted the secretary of defense to go beyond every single detail and try to put the story into some kind of perspective -- the Pentagon's perspective.

DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: I get the feeling we've got an instinct for the capillaries, the littlest pieces of things possible. Let's go to the heart of the matter.

KALB (on camera): But of course, the heart of the matter also has to do with credibility. Regardless of whether the story is just a capillary or an artery, credibility is important because it has a major impact on public opinion and support for the war.

Remember Vietnam? The last time I checked the argument was still going on. The story left in a kind of no-man's land with clashing versions of what really happened the night of October 20 in Afghanistan.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, with "The Backpage."

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Saturday evening at 6:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. CNN's live coverage of America's new war continues right now.




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