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Did the Media Rush Into Judgment of American Prospects in the War in Afghanistan?; Was the Coverage of Bush-Putin Summit Skeptical Enough?

Aired November 17, 2001 - 18:30   ET


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

The airwaves and the headlines have been filled with the news of the remarkable U.S. military success in Afghanistan.

"Taliban Under Assault" glared the Washington Post. "Taliban Troops Retreat" proclaimed the "New York Times." "Tightening the Noose" said "USA Today."

But all this may have come as a surprise if you were listening to the pundits just a week or so ago.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think it's been very clear that whatever action we've taken so far may have been sufficient, maybe within the president's plan, but it has not been so effective as to knock out the Taliban.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There have been stories over the weekend that gives the perception that this war after three weeks is not going very well, that the Taliban is getting stronger, that Osama bin Laden is still at large, that one of the chief opposition leaders has been assassinated and that the Red Cross warehouse has been hit by U.S. bombs. Is the war just not going as well as you had hoped it would at this point?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And the truth is, I think it's pretty clear the military campaign has not gone the way the Pentagon wants it to and I don't think really we're doing any service by pretending that everything is going according to plan when it isn't.


KURTZ: So did the media rush to judgment about American prospects in the war, and were they overly suspicious of Pentagon pronouncements that the military campaign in Afghanistan was going just fine?

Well joining us now are Ron Brownstein, senior political correspondent for the "Los Angeles Times," Mark Thompson, national security correspondent for "TIME" magazine, and in New York, Mark Whitaker, the editor of "Newsweek." Welcome, all.

Ron Brownstein, for a month now many commentators, even reporters have been saying "we're losing this way. It's a quagmire. It's Vietnam. The White House is blowing it." Don't a lot of media people look pretty dumb right now?

RON BROWNSTEIN, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Yes, well I think in fact there was a lot of skepticism, probably more than was warranted, but it's not only here Howard. I think it's really a continuation of what we saw in Kosovo.

There is a difficulty in the press, I think, in sort of seeing the potential of air power to be decisive and to have enormous effect in these kinds of conflicts. So we're all sort of going through a learning process.

In defense of the press, I would make two points. One is that the military did seem to exercise or execute a mid-course correction through this war. I mean the last few weeks have been fought in a different manner than in the first few weeks, when many of those quotes that you raised were being offered.

And secondly, to the extent it has been a political debate on this war in Washington, it has come from those primarily conservatives who have argued that air power isn't enough, that we would need ground troops, whether it was John McCain or Bill Crystal and Bob Kagen. And the press does take its lead in reporting the debate from the debate that is occurring.

I mean that was the debate that was beginning to germinate and so I don't think it was really inappropriate for the press to discuss it. Now maybe it should have been more skeptical but those arguments were out there and it wasn't only reporters raising them.

KURTZ: Relying on our experts no matter what the field is often a risky business. Mark Thompson, you are our military expert. Was this the case of premature prognostication?

MARK THOMPSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, Howie, the press is a bunch of first-rate second guessers. That's our job. We're like nosy neighbors, saying "how come it's taking you so long to build that addition?" You know, it didn't take me that long.

This generation of military reporters has grown up on wars like Grenada, Panama, even the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo. Week 1, air war. Week 2, ground war. Week 3, how come it's taking so long.

KURTZ: Cut to commercial.

THOMPSON: Yes. I mean that's what it boils down to and I think if you saw what the U.S. military was doing, it was methodical starting at the rear and moving to the front. Once they moved to the front, the front was better because they had no reinforcements from the rear and the thing collapsed this week.

KURTZ: OK. Mark Whitaker in New York, Newsweek last week said "hopes for a quick victory are fading fast. A faint air of desperation has set in among Washington policy makers." Would you like to have that one back?

MARK WHITAKER, "NEWSWEEK": I think that was two weeks ago.


WHITAKER: Last week we talked about the fall of Mazar-e Sharif and said things were moving fairly quickly on the ground. Look, I think one thing we have to keep in mind is that this all unfolded much faster than even I think the Pentagon was expecting.

In fact, I think they had and we had been writing for awhile that there was the danger that the military success on the ground might outstrip the political arrangements for the future of Afghanistan, and I think that's what you're seeing now.

And, you know, they thought they could keep the Northern Alliance from storming Kabul. Clearly they weren't able to do that. At the same time, I think that we've got to be careful now to not swing too far in the other direction and not just declare victory too quickly because things are still very chaotic on the ground there.

You have warlords turning against each other. We still don't know where bin Laden is. So, this is not necessarily going to be over in a matter of weeks.

KURTZ: I think you're all being too generous. This was a spectacular miscalculation by the press, one of the biggest I've ever seen. Although as Mark Whitaker said, we need to be careful about the pendulum swinging.

BROWNSTEIN: Part of the thing that makes it so unusual Howie is there was no capacity for independent verification one way or the other. What was going on in the early stages of the war, when you had the voices from the Northern Alliance as well raising those questions about what the strategy was, whether Taliban forces were moving to the frontline. The Northern Alliance said because that seemed to be the safest place to be.

There was really no capacity for the press to be on the ground in the battle zone sort of assessing what was going on really on either side, so it was a very odd situation.

But I agree with you. I mean look, this has unfolded and broken in a way that probably no one, very few people outside of the Pentagon sort of gave allowance to the possibility of, but that doesn't mean it was illegitimate to raise the questions earlier when they were raised.

THOMPSON: The Pentagon knew where this was going to end up. The question was how long would it take and I think the Pentagon and everybody else was surprised.

But let's divide the press in half here. The military reporters and there are other chattering classes.

KURTZ: And everyone else.

THOMPSON: Yes. And I mean if you read the off-end pages for the last several weeks, there was a lot more negativity there, I think, than in the hard-nosed reporting.

KURTZ: But there was also a front page story in USA Today that said the war is not going well and bringing in all these sort of experts, planners, analysts and so forth. This is an interesting -

THOMPSON: That's my chattering classes.

KURTZ: Well, chattering but sometimes straight reporters do chattering as well. The interesting thing is this is supposed to be an administration that's not given to gloating, but Dick Cheney just couldn't resist the other day. Let's take a look.


RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When you read the Washington press and see what all the pundits have to offer and some of the talking heads on Washington have to offer, it's nice at a moment like this to be able to remind them that a lot of what they put out over the course of the last few weeks was just dead wrong.


KURTZ: Mark Whitaker, any response to the vice president?

WHITAKER: Well, you know, Howie, one of the things I always think has been lost a little bit here is, this has been viewed what's happened this last week as a great military victory and clearly the air war created, laid the groundwork for this.

But this hasn't been a situation where the Northern Alliance even, or U.S. Special Ops had been going in and overrunning Taliban positions. A lot of the retreats were negotiated this week.

So I think what this really did was to sort of crack the Taliban's will more than it was evidence of a great military victory across the country.

KURTZ: There was a bit of media confusion today in fact about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Follow the bouncing ball here.

The Associated Press quotes the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, as we saw a few minutes ago on CNN as saying that bin Laden and his family and eleven wives or whatever have left Afghanistan. The Bush Administration comes out and says they're skeptical of those reports. No evidence.

Then the ambassador tells CNN that he was misquoted, that he never claimed that bin Laden had left Afghanistan. If you were writing the story for the edition of "TIME" magazine that goes to bed tonight, how do you deal with these conflicting accounts? THOMPSON: The whole thing is bizarre about the hunt for bin Laden, because if you don't know where he isn't, you don't know where he is. I mean people keep asking Don Rumsfeld, "well, where is he?"

You know, a sort of a stupid question. If they knew where he was, he'd be dead, and I don't think you can write the story any other way. It's binary. It's black or white. We got him or we don't and all this gray area is just a lot of obliteration.

BROWNSTEIN: Right and there's probably a lot of confusion. I mean look there's a lot of confusion in any way. I mean that is -- how many times since last week have you heard the words "the situation is very fluid." The stock phrase on television, and the fact is there's probably going to be a lot of misinformation and confusing information about the way this is finally resolving.

And in fact, as Mark Whitaker I think said, we still have a big task ahead of us. I mean moving the Taliban out of power is one thing. Denying them control over any part of the country where they can shelter bin Laden is something else. And it may be that that task still does require more American boots on the ground than we have seen so far, and that some of the critics particularly on the right may have had something of a point that in the end we will not achieve what we ultimately want to do without a little more risk of American troops.

KURTZ: Yes, I wanted to make the point that the British press has scored a lot of scoops in this campaign and I guess it was a weekend or so ago, London's "Sunday Telegraph" reported that there was an underground Osama bin Laden tape in which he said "yes, we are terrorists."

The American press largely didn't touch that until two days later. Tony Blair came out and said this was true, though we still haven't seen the actual videotape. Go ahead, Mark.

WHITAKER: Yes, I think that may have been an overhang from, you know, Condy Rice telling CNN and others that they didn't, the administration didn't want the U.S. press to continually air that first bin Laden tape.

My feeling is, and all the evidence we have is that each time bin Laden records one of these tapes, he seems more out of control. He rants and raves. He provides more evidence that in fact he was behind the September 11th attack, and I don't think we should be so circumspect.

I don't think he's necessarily helping his own cause at this point, and I don't see why we have to be suppressing evidence of what he's saying.

KURTZ: Very interesting there for the American networks, and there's some pressure from the White House, have shied away from those reports, but the British press have not and airs the Prime Minister of Britain.

THOMPSON: And some of those British reports end up being true.

KURTZ: Exactly.

BROWNSTEIN: A lot of them don't.

KURTZ: Well, I'm sure everybody here had the same feeling as I did on Monday morning when that American Airlines jet went down in Queens. You were thinking "this can't be a coincidence. It must be related to terrorism. It was a clear day, no apparent cause at that moment."

And there was a lot of speculation on the air, retrained but nevertheless about could this plane crash somehow have been involved, somehow been tied to the people that were responsible for the events of September 11th.

Ron Brownstein, do you think the press went a little too far and we now think, at least the experts think it was a mechanical cause?

BROWNSTEIN: I'm at the other end on you on this one. I think the press was too restrained. I mean I think that we bent over in many ways to avoid the speculation, because it is so explosive that it was related to terrorism in any way.

But I think that there was, I think it was appropriate on the air, on the first air. I think as the week went on and we were looking for explanations, I think the press was under vigilant in sort of pressing the NTSB to be sure that they were not ruling this out prematurely. I think they got a little bit of a free ride on that front actually.

THOMPSON: They were very lucky because they knew within one news cycle pretty much, they had an idea of what it costs, this thing. Look at TWA 100, which took months before they had an idea. If that sort of uncertainty had persisted in this environment, it would have been much more explosive.

BROWNSTEIN: They were also looking for explanation.


BROWNSTEIN: It really isn't as if they have this all bolted down as it were about what really happened here.

KURTZ: Mark Whitaker, a quick question. One other development this morning was that the First Lady, Laura Bush, gave the President's radio address. The first first lady I believe to do this in recorded history. Is Laura Bush getting a sort of a media image makeover in the way she's covered, from the pre-September 11th kind of well- meaning librarian to someone who now speaks about the oppression of women in Afghanistan and becoming more of an advocate?

WHITAKER: Well, one of the things that they've done is they've taken off Laura Bush's burka. We didn't hear a lot from her for a long period of time, and after September 11th she went down to redecorate the ranch in Crawford. But, you know, I think that what happened actually was that they first sort of trotted her out in a few private public speaking settings and they got very positive feedback, and I think Karen Hughes and other people in the press office there realized that there was an asset here and decided to take her a little bit more public.

And look you know, I mean I think it was great that she gave the radio address.

KURTZ: You've got the line of the evening. When we come back, the President and Mr. Putin hit the ranch.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin completed a three-day summit this week that included talk of reducing nuclear warheads. But it was also filled with feel-good activities down at the Texas ranch. And an interrogation of sorts from students at a local school.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was wondering if you've come to a conclusion about whether or not to deploy the national missile defense system?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Are you with the national press corps, or? I notice my friends in the national press corps are giving you a thumbs-up.


KURTZ: Mark Whitaker in New York, the coverage of the summit, these guys clearly got along very well, but was the media coverage skeptical enough? I mean they didn't have a whole lot of hard accomplishments here.

WHITAKER: You know I think in general, I mean you talk about stories that have been lost a little bit or haven't been given enough emphasis in the wake of the terrorist attacks. I mean I think the evolving relationship between the U.S. and Russia and between Bush and Putin is fascinating.

I mean it has many good aspects, but I think there are a lot of questions to be raised, and I think that all of us have to get around to exploring them in greater depth.

I mean you're right in fact, not much of substance was accomplished. Missile defense, NATO, all of those things were kind of put off for another day.

On the other hand, you know I think that, you know, warm relations between the leaders of the super powers is meaningful. You look at Reagan and Gorbachev and their personal chemistry, and this was an objective that George Bush set for himself, that he was going to charm Vladimir Putin and he succeeded. And I guess all I can say is I'm so glad we didn't at least have to watch them dancing the Cotton-Eyed Joe. I think that might have been a little too much.

KURTZ: It's hard to imagine a meeting between the President of the United States and the President of Russia being overshadowed as Mark Whitaker said.

BROWNSTEIN: I think one thing Condy Rice said this week, was quoted as saying, I think actually explained some of the coverage as well, where she said that post September 11th, missile defense in particular is not as big a piece of the overall U.S. Russia relationship as it was before.

And I think that was very much reflected in the coverage, where the fact that they continue to cooperate on the crisis in Afghanistan and the building of a government and the military campaign, it really does overshadow the importance, the continued deadlock on missile defense.

Not that that isn't important, it's just a new reality and there are new issues in the room and new issues in the press to focus on.

KURTZ: So the media can't walk and chew gum and cover a war in Afghanistan and this at the same time?

THOMPSON: Well, that's a function of 24-hour cable. That's a serial enterprise. It can only cover one story intensely at a time.

But you've got two young presidents, early in their tenure. They're becoming friends. I mean things could be worse. I think what we're seeing here is a tilling of the soil for future harvests, and I think the lack of agreement this week really isn't that important, given what else was going on.

KURTZ: Speaking of stories being overshadowed, we had the media recount in Florida. After 10 months, nearly $1 million, consortium news organizations including CNN, "Washington Post," "New York Times," "Wall Street Journal," Tribune Company including the "LA times," and it produced a variety of headlines. The "Washington Post" says, "Florida recounts would have favored Bush." A number of newspapers wrote that.

But here's the Chicago Tribune with "Still Too Close to Call."

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, most people are in the "Post" camp. I mean, obviously the most conventional scenarios of what was in the realm of the possible at the time, the recount concluded that Bush would have still won.

I mean the reality was...

KURTZ: My question is not who would have won. My question is, after all this time, was this worth doing?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, the intermediate events made it probably not worth doing, except there's a historical record. For all practical purposes, September 11 among other things, ended the election of 2000. It was the moment at which Bush became President in the minds of all Americans, even those that didn't vote for him.

I mean right up until September 10, Howie, you were still getting 40 to 45 of the people in the polls saying they didn't think Bush had the experience and skills to be president, most of them, of course, being Gore voters. I mean a 48-48 split in polling, so people were still divided.

But that really ended the question and I think for most voters and for most Americans at this point, this is superfluous. It's not a bad thing to get it. It's a good thing to have the historical record, but it doesn't have much contemporary impact.

KURTZ: Mark Whitaker, "Newsweek" opted out of this expensive effort, so can I conclude that you along with much of the public thinks that this whole recount was a bit of a yawn?

WHITAKER: Well, I mean we did it for reasons really of our deadline and that basically after a lot of negotiation, it was pretty clear that on our deadline we couldn't make much use of the results.

KURTZ: Right, bottom line there?

WHITAKER: You know, I think the bottom line is, you know, after all this time and all that money, you know, it shows that it was still in the margin of error and I think we kind of knew that at the beginning.

KURTZ: That sounds like an awful lot of work, money, effort expended for a finding that didn't really take us that much beyond the last media obsession which was the 2000 elections.

THOMPSON: Howie, good journalism requires drilling a lot of dry holes. This might have been one of them, but you've got to drill ten dry holes for every gusher, and maybe I think some of the folks that have invested so much money might have overplayed the story a little bit. I do think, as Ron says, it is important for the historical record.

BROWNSTEIN: Still going back to what the election commissioner in one county in Florida said, "the margin of victory in this election was less than the margin of error" and that is the reality and I doubt that any recount would have found some decisive result.

This was one in which you can argue forever. It had to be settled. It had to be stopped and it was.

KURTZ: If there wasn't a war in Afghanistan, this would be argued by every talk show for cable for a couple weeks on, because it would be the juiciest thing around.

Mark Whitaker in New York, Ron Brownstein, Mark Thompson, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, the spin cycle on the nation's media critic- in-chief.


KURTZ: Now for a look at the spin cycle. President Bush joined the ranks of media critics this week. Take a number, Mr. President. And he didn't, shall we say, censor himself.

At a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Bush was asked about his efforts to control the fourth estate.


BUSH: I've been trying to tame our press corps ever since I got into politics, and I failed miserably.


KURTZ: And he had the audacity to suggest that some journalists are biased.


BUSH: They get to express their opinions, sometimes in the form of news, any way they want to.


KURTZ: No great surprise there. Presidents often grumble about their press coverage. John Kennedy canceled his subscription to the New York Herald Tribune. Richard Nixon put journalists on his infamous enemy's list, and Bill Clinton complained about the knee-jerk liberal media.

More interesting was Bush's rationale for his National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice asking the networks not to run those videotape diatribes by Osama bin Laden. After all, the President said, the media don't give him a free ride either.


BUSH: I asked them the other day, would it be OK if I cut a 30- minute tape, a piece of propaganda, no questions, just here. Here it is. Here's 30 minutes of me talking, please run it. They said "no, they're not going to do that. If I'm going to have to get on the news, they've got to ask me questions."


KURTZ: Hold on. Bush is on television virtually every day, live and unedited with no questioners in sight, beginning with his post- September 11 address to a joint session of Congress.

And what about this speech to Maryland students? And this speech to business leaders? And this speech to D.C. students? And this one at the Labor Department? And this one at the CIA? Not to mention the president's major address on terrorism in Atlanta last week. Oops, NBC did air "Friends" instead of Bush. CBS and FOX also went with entertainment fare. But ABC and the cable networks carried the president, who's getting considerably more airtime than bin Laden.

And if you still feel you're not getting enough television exposure, Mr. President, you have a standing invitation to come on this program and critique the media some more.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning for a live Sunday edition of RELIABLE SOURCES at 9:30 Eastern. Our guests will include former CBS newsman Phil Jones and "National Review" editor Rich Lowry.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.




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