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Media Scramble to Cover Increasingly Chaotic Situation in Afghanistan; Are TV Networks Tilting Toward the Left?

Aired December 8, 2001 - 18:30   ET


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

A bit later we'll talk with veteran CBS correspondent Bernard Goldberg about his charges that his former network and the rest of the networks are tilting way, way to the left.

But first, today the media are scrambling to cover a chaotic situation in Afghanistan. The Taliban withdrawal from Kandahar has sparked looting and local warfare as the search for Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden continues.

In the Middle East, meanwhile, a tense standoff a day after Israeli warplanes bombed Gaza again. But terrorism in the region now being overshadowed by the dramatic events in Afghanistan.

Joining us now in Los Angeles, Sharon Waxman, a "Washington Post" correspondent who has covered the Middle East on and off for a decade. And here in Washington, Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor of "Newsweek."

Well, Evan Thomas, the Pentagon finally let some reporters into Afghanistan and treats them like dirt. Three soldiers -- three soldiers, excuse me, were killed in that errant U.S. bombing incident and the reporters were kept out of the area, even detained in a warehouse for awhile. Now Pentagon spokeswoman Tori Clarke told reports:

"We owe you an apology. The last several days have revealed severe shortcomings in our preparedness to support news organizations and their efforts to cover U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. We intend to provide maximum media coverage with minimal delay and hassle."

What does this incident tell us about the governments dealing with military information?

EVAN THOMAS, "NEWSWEEK": Well, at least they apologized. I mean, they usually don't do that. All this -- old story, Howie. I mean, every time we have a war we can't get the reporters close to it and Pentagon just clams up. They don't like having reporters mixing with their frontline troops and when the frontline troops are their, then they hold their dispatches so that they feel futile. It's a familiar story, and I don't think it's ever going to get better. It's just built in.

KURTZ: Of course, the friendly fire incident was not a terribly flattering story for the U.S. military.

Sharon Waxman, watching the coverage of Afghanistan in recent days, Kandahar has fallen. No, it hasn't. The Taliban are withdrawing. We know exactly where Mullah Omar is. He's agreed to immunity. No, he hasn't. We have no idea where he is. Do you get the impression the press are having a hard time making sense of these fast moving events?

SHARON WAXMAN, "WASHINGTON POST": No, that's -- isn't that the way war goes? I mean, I've not been spending time covering the war here or on the ground in Afghanistan. I've been watching the events more from the Middle East, where I just came back, and it's certainly a very different view from there.

But, you have a lot of people on the ground in the Arab world who are watching all of this very closely and it's a very different point of view that you get over there.

KURTZ: We'll come back to that in just a second. Evan Thomas, the story of John Walker, the American kid turned Taliban fighter, was broken by "Newsweek" earlier this week, discovered the presence of this guy. And let's take a look at some video of John Walker being interrogated by CIA agent Mike Spann, who was killed just hours after this took place.

ABC and CBS got together and paid about $80,000 for this video.

You've just written a story that's going to be on the cover of "Newsweek" in the upcoming issue about John Walker. Why so much media attention on this guy? We don't care what other Taliban soldiers say.

THOMAS: Well, it's an inherently fascinating story. I mean, think of the shock that you felt, I'm sure, when you saw the face of this young American guy who is not only Taliban, he says, but al Qaeda. How does a kid from Marin County, California, nice, apparently a sweet kid according to his parents, end up working for a terrorist organization which our bitter foe?

This is an inherently interesting story. We had, I was told that we had a million hits on our Web site on this story, which is just over the top numbers. I mean, it tells there is huge interest.

KURTZ: So, clearly a lot of public fascination with the tale of this Marin County...

THOMAS: Sure. Just a human, obviously just a great human interest story.

KURTZ: Right.

Now, Sharon Waxman, you're just back from Cairo, where you spent a lot of time watching al-Jazeera TV, the Arab satellite network, and you described one scene, story, where a bunch of reporters are at a poverty stricken area of Afghanistan and the al-Jazeera correspondent says, "This is what the world's most powerful country has wrought upon the world's most wretched country."

Based on your viewing, is it all anti-American bias all the time?

WAXMAN: I wouldn't say that it's all anti-American bias all the time in terms of the facts that you're seeing reported, because the facts you're seeing reported are facts. But it's always presented through this prism that seems to be very anti-American, and that was one case. But I wouldn't have singled that out if it wasn't typical of the kids of digs that are made at the United States all the time on al-Jazeera.

KURTZ: Now, couldn't an Arab just as easily argue that American television networks are mostly showing pro-American viewpoints and devoting very little airtime to the Taliban point of view?

WAXMAN: Well, we're not devoting time to the Taliban point of view, but I think that American news networks -- well, yes, first let me just say that yes, of course we have an American point of view and, you know, we are rightly criticized for some networks, you know, showing, wearing American flags and that sort of thing, and I know that's been a topic of debate here in the media.

The difference is, in the Middle East you don't have that kind of debate about where the media should or shouldn't be, that's number one. And number two, apart from the sort of cultural point of view, sort of generally that you're going to have differentiation between an American news organization and a Middle Eastern one, this seems to -- the slant seems to go beyond that to sort of deliberate editorial choices that would make the United States look bad, and for some reason not call the Taliban on a lot of the things that are reported to be true about them.

KURTZ: It's really not possible, is it, for a Western network to have sort of an artificial balance here? I mean, the U.S. of A. on one side and mass-murderers on the other? Nobody would endorse that.

THOMAS: This story is a pretty highly charged story. I mean, it is a little bit different. I -- if you'd told me before September 11th that they'd have waving American flags on a news broadcast, I wouldn't have believed it. But in the context of September 11th, the shock to the country, I do. It doesn't seem so strange. Now, there are...

KURTZ: ... you say highly charged, and that suggests to me that if journalists question the U.S. military effort, if they question the Bush administration, that they're going to be seen as not on the team. They're going to be seen almost as unpatriotic.

THOMAS: There's a little bit of that. Sure. I mean, don't you think that we would be tougher on the Justice Department on these disappearing, these poor, disappearing Middle Eastern folks in this country, but for the war?

KURTZ: Disappearing in the sense that they're being detained and interviewed.

THOMAS: Detained. Yeah. I mean, I think "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" would be going crazy over this but for a war. Now they already are objecting, or at least raising questions about it, but there is a pro-war tilt. I don't think there's any question about that.

KURTZ: Sharon Waxman, same question about the Middle East, where you have spent some reporting time. Should the Western media give Palestinians the same air time as Israelis when you have Yasser Arafat at least condoning, if not fostering, the kind of horrible suicide bombings that we've seen over the past ten days?

WAXMAN: Well, that's exactly the kind of thing that the American media gets accused of in the Arab world all day long, and I spent many, many hours trying to defend, you know, the values of the Western news media while acknowledging that we do have, obviously, a pro- American bias. But why would we not want to be covering both sides of a very difficult, very complicated conflict as even-handedly as possible?

KURTZ: What is the, what is the Arab accusation about the American coverage, Sharon?

WAXMAN: The Arab -- well, it just ranges from...

KURTZ: Take a few minutes.

WAXMAN: We are the puppets of the Israeli government. We are the puppets of the American Jewish lobby. They practically -- we publish their press releases. You know, that was from the head of the Egyptian State Information Service who lived for I don't know how many years, 10, 20 years, in Washington. Don't try and tell me any different. You know perfectly well that the American media is in the control of either the Jewish conspiracy or the Israeli conspiracy.

That's the -- someone will tell you exactly what they're thinking. People who soften that view will tell you that, you know, we do not spend very much time looking at or thinking about the Palestinian suffering in this, and there is a very deep feeling of anger that Americans have an almost, what Arabs feel is a knee-jerk response of support from Israel...

KURTZ: I can just tell from the tone of your voice...

WAXMAN: ... despite the fact that there...

KURTZ: I'm sorry. I can just tell from the tone of your voice that you've gotten an earful.

Now, what about that, Evan Thomas...

WAXMAN: I've gotten many earfuls.

KURTZ: Are the American media pro-Israel? Is Israel held to the same standard when they retaliate and civilians are killed, or is there more understanding by the media because Israel is often being attacked?

THOMAS: We're not, we're not pro-Israel the way that the Egyptian press says that we are. I mean, you know, the Egyptian press still thinks it's all a big Mossad plot.

I -- there probably is a pro-Israel tilt over the years, vis-a- vis the Arabs. I think probably if you, if you took a dispassionate study, you'd find one. I don't think it's pronounced now. I think actually there is a lot of impatience in the press with Israel's tit for tat retaliation and concerns that Sharon is maybe going too far at times.

KURTZ: But at the same time, Evan, hasn't September 11th made all of us, including journalists, look a little differently at the victims of these suicide bombers, because now we can relate? Now we can -- it touches a nerve, perhaps, in a way it didn't before. I had the impression that Palestinian terrorist attacks, except the really big ones, were kind of becoming old news. And now I think there is a heightened sensitivity.

THOMAS: Yeah, I think if you live in New York, it's a little -- if you live in New York, you know, you have some sense of what people in Jerusalem feel on a daily basis. It's not the same, but you have some sense of it.

So, yes, I think we're more sympathetic. On the other hand, there is an endless quality to, to terrorism, retaliation, reprisal. You know, it's like this horrible tennis game, and people are sometimes in a way bored by that, but also sort of depressed by it.

KURTZ: Sharon Waxman, do you think the American media have been too hard or too soft in covering Yasser Arafat and the whole question of whether he can control the hard-line terrorist factions in that area?

WAXMAN: Well, I think the coverage is probably a reflection, to some degree, of how the State Department is viewing him, or the White House is viewing him, at any given time. There's -- that seems clear. But on the ground, the correspondents who are out there are going to be reflecting what the tenor of the, of the street is, both on the Israeli side and the Arab side, or, you know, both sides of that conflict have very, very well-organized media machines and are very skilled at spinning the facts or spinning the coverage one way or the other.

So, if Arafat is losing credibility, some of that came out of the reality that he's been criticized from among the Palestinian elite, who feel that he's sort of come to the end of the road with this anti- Fatah strategy, and where is he exactly intending to take this.

KURTZ: OK, need a short answer: will the Arab/Israeli conflict fade in and out of the news...

THOMAS: Sure, it has for the last several decades, and it will continue to forever.

KURTZ: Evan Thomas, Sharon Waxman, thanks very much for this discussion on Afghanistan and the Middle East.

And when we come back, we'll talk with a former veteran CBS correspondent who says the television networks have abandoned objectivity for liberal bias.



And joining us now from Miami, Bernard Goldberg, who spent nearly 30 years as a correspondent for CBS NEWS. He's the author of the new book "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News."

We invited CBS to send someone to appear on this program and the network declined.

Bernie Goldberg, welcome. Is CBS, in your view, more biased than NBC, ABC or CNN?

BERNARD GOLDBERG, AUTHOR: No. No. I think the problem, the problem goes across the board among the media elites. And we should point out that they don't come in every morning, Howie, with a piece of paper and on the paper is their liberal agenda and then they go into a room and pull down the shades and decide how they're going to screw conservatives that day...

KURTZ: No secret meetings?

GOLDBERG: It's never, ever, ever happened that way.

KURTZ: I'm very disappointed to hear that.

GOLDBERG: No, that's a bulletin, right? No secret meetings. It doesn't happen that way. And if there are some people on the right who believe in conspiracies think it does, it doesn't.

It doesn't even happen with a wink and a nod. What we call "liberal bias" you can make a case is really a cultural bias. Most of the media elites, Howie, and you know this, live in Washington and Manhattan, two liberal communities. They go to dinner parties in Washington and Manhattan. They go to cocktail parties in those cities. And the sophisticated, hip, cultured people they go to these parties with are by and large liberal.

And after a while, you can make a case that they're doing the news not for the people watching us here or their audience, they're doing the news for their pals at their cocktail parties. So, it becomes group think.

And then they say they can spot a conservative view 100 miles away, but they think their views aren't liberal views. They think their views are merely reasonable, sensible, civilized views. That's the problem.

KURTZ: Is the bias that you see partisan, pro-Democratic? And if so, how do you account for the fact that President Bush has been getting pretty positive coverage during this war, and that Bill Clinton got some pretty harsh coverage during the Monica Lewinsky saga?

GOLDBERG: That's a very important question. And as I say in the book, there may be some of that, but that's not my concern, because that's not really the problem. It isn't political, it's about social issues.

I mean, I think most journalists...

KURTZ: Social issues. You mean abortion. You mean gay rights. You mean religion.

GOLDBERG: Yes. Feminism. All that stuff. I think most journalists would run over their liberal grandmas if they thought it could further their careers. I mean, so they go after a liberal president or a conservative president -- that, in that sense, it really doesn't matter to them. But it's how they see these big, important social issues of our time that defines their liberal bias.

KURTZ: Now, you use some very personal language in the book, for example likening Dan Rather to a Mafia don who wanted you whacked off the face of the earth.


KURTZ: And some CBS people I've talked to, as you well know, have referred to you as selfish, as sleazy, as a snake in the grass, and some other things that I can't say on the air. My question is...

GOLDBERG: Is treason in there? How about treasonist and traitor?

KURTZ: All right, well you can say those words I think, let me check with the FCC. My question is, the name calling back and forth, your decision to describe at least some of your former colleagues in very personal terms, does that kind of mud-ball fight distract at all from the message here that you're trying to deliver in this week?

GOLDBERG: Only when you portray it the way you just did, and I know you mean no harm by doing that. I think the things that I say ultimately in the book relate to journalism. It relates to the way they do their business.

For instance, when I talk -- do you really think that I believe that Dan Rather is part of the Gambino crime family? I mean, I don't think that. But when I compare the media leaks to the Mafia, what I mean is that the most important thing, the biggest sin you could commit if you're in the Mafia is to break the code or silence, the sacred code of Omerta.

But the biggest sin that you could commit if you're a newsman is the very same thing. To break the code of silence. If William F. Buckley, a brilliant guy, had written word for word what I wrote in "Bias," every comma, every semicolon, every period, every exclamation point was exactly the same, they would brush William F. Buckley off like a piece of dandruff on a blue suit.

What's causing all of this stir is that it was one of their own that broke the code of silence.

KURTZ: Now, you broke the code of Omerta five years ago when you wrote a "Wall Street Journal" op ed piece accusing CBS of liberal bias...


KURTZ: ... and you became a pariah at the network, as you recount in the book. And you -- assignments that you wanted, like getting on "60 Minutes II" didn't happen, and you left the network last year.


KURTZ: Some people, Bernie, you know, are going to say a lot of sour grapes here. The guy was unhappy, now he's writing a book; he's getting even.

GOLDBERG: First of all, I don't mind the question, Howie. I have been described as a disgruntled former employee. First of all, that's coming from disgruntled current employees, disgruntled over the fact that I think I've hit a nerve. But anybody that sits down to write a book to get even is a lunatic.

I don't know about you, but writing a book was hard for me. I mean, I'm sitting there in the morning staring at a blank computer screen for hours and hours and hours. If you want to get even with somebody, if you're just disgruntled, you look at the TV screen, when your least favorite anchorman is on and you either give him the finger or you give him a raspberry, but you don't do this. I mean...

KURTZ: You say in the book...

GOLDBERG: I mean, I wrote a book. I didn't expose myself to being called a traitor, by the way, when do they ever call anybody a traitor? They don't even call this kid from California, who was with the Taliban trying to kill American soldiers, a traitor, but I'm a traitor.

I didn't expose myself to all of this, Howie, if I didn't think this was important. I think it's important.

KURTZ: Clearly, you think it's an important subject. Now, you write in the book that when you were at CBS, you went to CBS NEWS president Andrew Haywood (ph) and proposed a special or a segment on media bias. Tell us what his reaction was.

GOLDBERG: This was in 1993. "Eye to Eye with Connie Chung" was just starting up and Andrew Haywood (ph) was the executive producer. And I figured instead of the 10 millionth story about did the wife kill the husband, who kidnapped the baby, you know, is this shampoo better than that shampoo, why not do something that's never been done before? Why not do a story on liberal bias? And I said we can get all the anchors in there, we can get critics, we can have an intelligent discussion.

KURTZ: His reaction?

GOLDBERG: His initial reaction was, he looked at me like I -- he thought I was on drugs or something, I guess. But then he went to the president of CBS NEWS, he said, and he came back and he said, OK. OK, you can do the story, but you can't ask Dan any tough questions.

So, I thought he was kidding. I mean, if I had said I wanted to do a piece on Newt Gingrich and he said, OK, you can do the story but you can't ask Newt any tough questions, it would be a joke.

KURTZ: OK. So how about -- we have about 20 seconds, so let me break in.


KURTZ: Was it hard for you to write critically about Andrew Haywood (ph), a guy who kept you on at the network despite all the controversy, until you turned 55 to get a bigger pension? Was it hard for you personally to take on some of your former colleagues?

GOLDBERG: It's a lot easier writing about strangers, but just because your sources, your sources -- because Andrew tells you that he kept me on and this and that, you know, it wasn't that simple. I was radioactive after I wrote about liberal bias, so I wasn't treated all that well from 1996 until I left.

KURTZ: OK. Well, this debate obviously is going to resonate through a lot of newsrooms. Bernard Goldberg, author of "Bias," thanks very much for joining us.

GOLDBERG: Thanks, Howie. I appreciate it.

KURTZ: And when we come back, a few words of wisdom about cables latest fad.


KURTZ: Finally, everyone seems to be talking about "the crawl." You know, the little news ticker at the bottom of the screen that's become a cable TV fixture. Peter Beinart, editor of "The New Republic," writes that the crawl is, quote, "distracting; it draws your eyes downward, and by the time you've processed the latest news nuggets crawling past, you've lost track of what the person on the main screen is saying."

Well, let me just say this to Mr. Beinart, we at CNN are sorry that our valiant effort to provide the public with more news is straining your brain. Most people, I guess this doesn't include magazine editors, can process more than one piece of information at a time. Walk and chew gum, so to speak. My kids can do it, anyone can do it. The world's a complex place, lots of data coming in at once. I could be talking about Afghanistan, and the crawl could tell you about that super-duper scooter called "It". You wouldn't want to be the only guy who doesn't know about "It," would you? It's the Internet age, we all have to adapt, or the terrorist will have won.

So, my advice, Mr. Beinart, get with the program.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern when our guests will include New York Times columnist Frank Rich.

CAPITAL GANG is up next.




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