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Does the Media Cover War Responsibly?

Aired December 9, 2001 - 09:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN HOST: Welcome to "Reliable Sources," where we turn a critical lens on the media. I am Howard Kurtz. Just ahead, we will talk with New York Times columnist, Frank Rich and National Review editor, Rich Lowry about press coverage of the war abroad, and the political battles here at home.

But first, as U.S. planes continue heavy bombing around Tora Bora, the suspected mountain hideout of Osama bin Laden, reporters are still struggling to learn details about the war's progress and it's causalities.

When three American servicemen were killed, earlier this week, in a friendly fire incident near Kandahar, journalists were denied access to survivors and doctors on the Marine base, eventually prompting an apology from Pentagon spokeswoman Torie Clarke.

CNN's senior international correspondent, Walt Rodgers, is one of twelve reporters at the Marine base know as Camp Rhino when the injured arrived. He joins us this morning from London.

Walt Rodgers, how frustrating was it for you to be about 100 feet from wounded American servicemen and to be locked in a warehouse, kept captive really, by the military.

WALTER RODGERS, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT: Howard, it was more then frustrating. It was an egregious incident in news management. We had known, that is, my desk in Atlanta had told me and I was the pool reporter, that a B-52 bomb had gone astray and several Americans had been killed.

I went to the Marine PAOs at Camp Rhino, asked them about this. When they discovered we knew about it they said, don't go anywhere, stay here, we will have something for you very quickly. In point of fact another Marine PAO at Camp Rhino came out and said, the general is going to come and talk to you, stay right where you are, don't wander off in any direction.

The general never came to talk to us. We believe that was a ruse, an attempt to keep us from seeing the wounded who were being transferred from a helicopter to a C-130 Hercules or another airplane. They just didn't want us to know these people were on the base. This had nothing to do with ongoing military operations. This was an extraordinary case by the Marines on that base of news management. The wounded were there, the wounded Americans, the wounded Afghans, they just didn't want us to talk about it or see it -- Howard.

KURTZ: I understand Walt Rodgers, that when you and other journalists arrived at the base -- you were asked to sign a piece of paper, promising to abide by certain rules. What's that about?

RODGERS: Well, it's a very reasonable request on the part of the Pentagon as long as they enforce it themselves. We have to sign a statement, saying, we will not report on ongoing military operations. At Camp Rhino, we saw light armored vehicles going out the day before there was a deep probe towards Kandahar by the Marines.

We didn't report it; we didn't want to injure any Americans. We saw the Huey and Cobra helicopters. The whole base suddenly became deserted; we knew there was an operation underway. I was personally threatened that if you report this we'll see that every member of the pool is evacuated from the base. I didn't need to be threatened; I'm not someone who violates the law.

What happened after that was egregious because the Pentagon decided that it had the right to report on ongoing operations and muzzle us in the field. Steve Myers (ph) of the New York Times went ballistic at that point and he really started letting the Pentagon -- letting the Marines on that base know that they had a very shabby double standard in terms of news coverage.

We couldn't report what we saw but the Pentagon could report those elements it wanted covered -- Howard.

KURTZ: That's very telling. Given all these restrictions, given the frustrations you had, given the fact that you can't even see wounded soldiers, right at the same base where you were located. I am sure this has occurred to you, what is the point of your being there? Are you able to perform your basic journalistic mission, given these restrictions?

RODGERS: That occurred to every one of us. There are two things, when you have these tight constrains on reporters you get bad reporting, worse than that, and here's the philosophical issue which I see at the core of this. If you insulate reporters from danger, that is, you don't not let us expose ourselves to the danger that the troops are exposed to and we can't go up to the front, if you then prohibit us from covering news as it happens, then you reduce our coverage to essentially soft feature reporting and that equals being turning us into propagandas. And I personally am not happy with being a propagandas; I consider myself a journalist -- Howard.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Walt Rodgers, any other incidents during your time at Camp Rhino that made you feel that the military is not helping itself in terms of allowing the American people to see what's going on? Just briefly.

RODGERS: Absolutely, they had a very fine general, their Maine General James Mattis. We were allowed to stand off and hear him giving inspirational speech to his men with Charlie Company out on the perimeter lines of the base, you know essentially in their fighting holes and foxholes. It was a terrific speech. The American people should have heard that speech. They were so afraid, the Marine PAOs that he might have transgressed and said something he shouldn't. They wouldn't let us report it. The American people should have heard the general's remarks to his men. They were very, very motivating and inspiring. No (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- Howard.

KURTZ: Walt Rodgers in London. Thanks very much for that fascinating behind the scene glimpse of how journalists operating at the Camp Rhino, in Southern Afghanistan.

And joining us now in New York, New York Times columnist Frank Rich, author of the memoir "Ghost Light". And here in Washington, Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review.

Frank Rich, we just heard Walt Rodgers talk about, essentially being locked up by the military and prevented, at least in that one instance from covering the news. How shocked are you that the journalists there are operating under these kinds of military restrictions?

FRANK RICH, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I am not shocked; it's been evident since the very beginning of this engagement. And I think Walt Rodgers, you know, gave a very eloquent testimony as to what's going on and what it means.

On the other hand, I'm not sure, sadly I feel this, that really most of the American news consuming public really cares at this point. There's a general sense that things are going well, and which they seemed indeed to be, and so people really aren't wanting to push this issue very much.

That could change if things went less well, and it could get very ugly in terms of the press versus the military.

KURTZ: You're exactly right, 82 percent of those surveyed in the recent pure research poll are perfectly satisfied with the amount of information the military is releasing.

Rich Lowry, let's take half a step back, after two short months despite all journalistic nay-sayers American forces have basically annihilated the Taliban. Are the media celebrating?

RICH LOWRY, "NATIONAL REVIEW": No, they are not. They are telling us every step of this war is going to be more difficult than the last. And there has been I think pervasive defeatism in the media, which is really an extraordinary thing given how easy almost all of this has been. And you know, before the conflict started, Afghan fighters are played up as most fearsome warriors in the world, and it turns out that really the only two good things they are good at is surrendering and betrayal.

KURTZ: New York Times headline this morning, Rich; "Shifting fronts, rising danger, the Afghanistan war evolves". So is the New York Times part of this chorus of defeatism, as you described it? LOWRY: Absolutely, now it may be that this actually is difficult hunting down two single guys, bin Laden and Mullah Omar. But every step of the way, as you know, Kandahar was supposed to be extremely difficult after the easy victory in the north. But I thing there is, you know, The New York Times famously had this news analysis piece, that said compare this conflict to Vietnam...

KURTZ: They were not alone...

LOWRY: ... after four weeks.

RICH: But there weren't alone in -- you have to look at the weekly standard and the very hawkish New Republic declared the war -- basically declared, that the American to been defeated three weeks into it. So this kind of defeatism -- if that's what it is, it may be more just skepticism -- has been, you know, true on all sides -- all political sides. And you know, it's a good idea I think for the press to try to be realistic and not be pollyannaish about everything that's happening. And as Rich just said, you know, it's quite possible, this is going to be very difficult to find these two guys.

LOWRY: Well, Frank, sometimes though when your step go about the capacity as an ability, as though the American military are being extremely unrealistic and I think if anything, the coverage has been unrealistic in the way its portrayed, this war is been so difficult when it hasn't.

And you are right, there have been voices on the right that are also skeptical about the way this war has been conducted. But I think the tenor of that criticism was entirely different. There was an impatience on the right with actually getting to the job of killing Taliban troops, bombing Taliban frontlines in north, which is entirely different from saying this can't be done and this is another Vietnam, which is what we are hearing from the New York Times.

RICH: But these armchair generals, that was extremely defeatist if you know if we pull out the actual rhetoric, it was you know, pretty bleak. And I'd also make the point that the president has been very cautious.

I mean, I think that he has done a really good job of trying to tamp down over enthusiasm about how successful we'll be overnight and continues to do that. And he is setting a tone, which I think is right and which isn't that far off from that -- which much of the press follows.

KURTZ: Let's take a look, Frank, Rich, at somebody who you don't think is doing a really good job. You had a column in the Times yesterday, Headline: Confessions of a traitor, referring to what John Ashcroft told a senate panel earlier this week. Let's take a look.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: To those who scare peace loving people with phantoms of lost liberty, my message is this, "your tactics only aid terrorists, for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends."


KURTZ: Do you really think that the attorney general was targeting the press, among others there, Frank?

RICH: Yes, I do think he was targeting press and political opponents, the few that there are, of what he's doing and what's interesting to me about that statement was it wasn't some throwaway remark under pressure, this was a prepared, duly considered opening statement before that committee.

LOWRY: Well, there's no doubt about that, I think that was a clumsy thing to say and Ashcroft, one of his problems I think is that, he is politically tone deaf. But I do think he has been getting unduly harsh treatment, and I think it's because he sort of a stepchild of the Bush cabinet.

The press can't beat up on Colin Powell, because they consider him sort of sacred, President Bush has a 90 percent approval rating, Rumsfeld is just terrific...

KURTZ: It's like Rumsfeld is on the cover of the U.S. News, as the sort of, glamour boy of the war.

LOWRY: Absolutely.

KURTZ: But, isn't that a sort of a press fiction, because I mean, after all, John Ashcroft isn't doing anything that President Bush doesn't approve off here.

LOWRY: Exactly, well, this is the amazing thing. You know, if you read the press coverage, you think, John Ashcroft, one night, you know, drank a warm glass of milk, went to bed and all of a sudden shot awake at two in the morning saying what we need is military tribunals to win this war, when in fact, it was entirely a White House idea.

It came from the top. You can actually hear some grumbling from the justice people, they weren't consulted on this, yet, it's all put on Ashcroft's shoulders, and that's just because he's easy to beat up on.

KURTZ: Easy to beat up on, Frank Rich?

RICH: Well, he is but, be that as it may, you know, I think the press has certainly reported that it was the president who came up with the idea, decreed the idea of military tribunals. One of the problems with Ashcroft is, he is a very inarticulate and poor spokesman for things like military tribunals.

His facts or his explanations of things he's doing seem to change from day to day and still -- just on the issue of why he wasn't releasing the names of detainees -- the story seemed to change from moment to moment, and the fact is that Ashcroft plays an enormous role in national security at home. The home front is a (INAUDIBLE) in this war too and I don't think he inspires confidence and I don't think it's frivolous to criticize him at all because our lives are at stake, depending on what he does, including law enforcement and it's not clear what he's doing.

KURTZ: One thing about this war in Afghanistan is that they are tracking a lot of big name media luminaries, going over there to earn or add to their journalistic stripes. Lets take a look at one well- known correspondent in action.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the forces of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda retreat from one ridge to the next, under relentless pressure from American bombers from the air and these freedom fighters from the ground. It can't last; it can't last much longer. It can't last much longer. Their backs are literally to the wall.

KURTZ: Geraldo Rivera, now with Fox News, I love the fact that he never stopped talking despite the apparent action there. Frank Rich, Rivera says on the air that he's there as a New Yorker for revenge and whenever he reports, he refers to American forces as the "good guys." You have any problem with that?

RICH: Yeah, I think he is a clown, basically, and I thought Saturday had it right last night, where he has to carry a gun you know, to protect himself from his own fellow journalists including of his own network, and you know, this is the kind of performance that has nothing to do with journalism of any kind, it's another version of going to Al Capone's vault and finding nothing there and it's silly, I think.

KURTZ: But Rivera is risking his life, I mean, is Frank being a little harsh here?

LOWRY: I have to -- I must confess, that a couple of times that I've actually caught Geraldo, I haven't been able to turn off the TV, it makes some weirdly compelling viewing, and you, maybe, it's probably because you expect a chair to be thrown at any moment or his nose to be broken by someone. But let me defend the "good guys" thing, because this is a mistake.

I don't think that the American media should try to be objective between the United States and its enemies, in this case. I think that it's impossible to do that and it would be a mistake to try.

KURTZ: So we're talking about -- Frank, you want to take that on? Perfectly OK to talk about "good guys" and the "bad guys?"

RICH: You know, I don't think there really is anything wrong with it but when you're constantly doing it, that's about Geraldo Rivera's self-aggrandizement, it's not about patriotism or anything else, it's about him trying to basically have reflected glory from the American military and tell us what a "good guy" is and it's his own image building.

KURTZ: That sounds like a good point for us to take a breath, and when we come back, the media and Yasser Arafat -- are journalists finally turning up the heat?


KURTZ: Welcome back to "Reliable Sources." More violence in Israel today as a suicide bomber injured 29 people on a bus in Haifa. And Rich Lowry, given these terrorist incidents, there's been a huge media focus on Yasser Arafat, and whether this is his last chance to prove that he can control terrorism and somehow be a partner in the peace process.

What do you make of the coverage that Arafat has been receiving from the press?

LOWRY: Well, I think finally it's beginning to turn a little bit but for the longest time, I think Yasser Arafat is arguably the foremost anti-semi (ph) in the world you know, his government controlled media over there spews the most poisonous and paranoid lies about Jews, you know, spreading poisoned candy throughout the West Bank and what not, yet his coverage has been pretty darn good, which is one of the great PR mysteries of our age and I think there are a couple of things at work there, one is that...

KURTZ: Balance...

LOWRY: Yes, there is a false, even hand in this...

KURTZ: ...sense of balance?.

LOWRY: know there will be a story -- 20 Israeli civilians blown to bits today, both Israel and the Palestinians to blame and then also I think...

KURTZ: Cycle of violence as (UNINTELLIGIBLE) wrote.

LOWRY: And also Yasser Arafat, I think, still benefits from the sense that he is some great revolutionary leader, sort of a Nelson Mandela like, I'm not sure that ever was appropriate and it certainly isn't now.

KURTZ: Right, let me turn to Frank Rich. Do you think that Arafat's coverage has been, over the years, too soft, to sympathetic by the press?

RICH: Probably a little bit, but I'm not sure there's anything (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or valiant at work. I think it has to do with the general problems of foreign news coverage during the 1990s, and where we have sort of an accepted narrative, it didn't have much depth, it was very, very bland and now suddenly we're riveted by that part of what's going on in the Middle East, in a way that we weren't, two or three years ago -- at least the general public wasn't until -- the coverage is getting deeper and I think that's showing us much more of Arafat than we have seen in the superficial of the past.

KURTZ: Well Frank, that sounds like a bit of an indictment of the coverage. Previously, and it seemed to me, that the whole Israeli-Palestinian story, would kind of fade in and out of the news, you'd have these you know, "and in other news today, three Israelis were killed," why has that changed? Not just the severity of these recent attacks, but isn't it really the prism of September 11 that has changed the way we view it?

RICH: It's totally that, and the news media, which really before September 11 should have been more often following the news abroad, rather than what the public wants, now feels this is news we can use, and so you're totally right.

That is why it's changed, it has nothing to do with politics, it has to do with our focus on that whole area of the world.

LOWRY: Well...

RICH: Yes, go ahead.

LOWRY: ...even after September 11 though, the dominant media angle, when it came to the Israelis and Palestinians, was the peace process needs to be made to work. We just need to get both sides around the table.

And the media was willing to ignore the fact that one side, in the person of Yasser Arafat, is a terrorist or at least, a dangerous cretin who plays footsie with terrorists. And that's because the media gets caught in these ruts and these cliches, like -- and the peace process, I think, is foremost one of those.

RICH: I do think that the press gets caught in ruts and cliches, and one storyline that, you know, no one wants to change or revise, no matter how events may effect it. However, let's face it, it was a backburner story in the Bush administration too, before September 11. Even now, I would add that we are focusing on this and the coverage does have much more depth.

It's still not quite being connected, I feel, to the rest of what's going on in the war, you know, for instance, how, if we did go on to Iraq? How that would play, in terms of Israel and the Palestinians and so on?

LOWRY: Frank, I see that in, almost, every story that talks about Iraq, and I think, this is another case of this media defeatism, where it's portrayed as the most difficult thing, in the world, for United States to go and smash the draggled Third World army in Iraq.

And if we do it, the Arab street is going to rise up against us. Well, that's exactly the line we heard prior to the war in Afghanistan. It turned out to be false.

KURTZ: Before we...

RICH: Right. Well, I am...

KURTZ: OK. Go ahead.

RICH: That's not the point I'm making though, the point I'm making is -- let's have more reporting about how true that is, how that connects to what is going on with Arafat and the rest of it -- it's not getting beyond those cliches, whatever they are, and I wish -- you know, but, presumably it will, now.

KURTZ: I think that tough reporting in fairness, also has to look at Israel, Israel's assassination of a Hamas leader, sometimes, they are civilian casualties when Israel strikes back -- without losing sight of the fact that Israel does not send suicide bombers into shopping malls and pizza parlors and buses and to kill innocent civilians.

We have about a minute left, Rich Lowry. Yesterday, the Washington Post front-page news, Gary Condit -- you remember, Gary Condit -- running for re-election. New York Times ran a four- paragraph wire story, deep inside the paper. Who was right?

LOWRY: I think, probably, the Washington Post is right, although, it's a tough call. It's still an -- it's an interesting story. It's a story that if you run at the front page, you should run very far down, which is exactly what the Washington Post did. But, you know, there was a missing girl there. It is a compelling mystery.

KURTZ: There is a missing girl, yes.

LOWRY: Yes. Sure there is a missing girl. But, look, it doesn't compare to what events -- events going on in the Middle East, now.

KURTZ: It seems very small compared to a war on terrorism, Frank Rich, but the media cared so much about Condit before...

RICH: Right. It is (UNINTELLIGIBLE) . I mean the Washington Post, I think, was right. It is the Washington Post to put it on the front page. It's a local crime story after all.

But, you know, just think, months ago, not that long ago, troops were combing to Rockreed (ph) Park put on this case, and compared to what troops are doing now in the world, it seems like a dream from another civilization.

KURTZ: It does seem like another century at least. We'll have to leave it there. Frank Rich, with the New York Times. Rich Lowry, National Review; thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, ride along with the press to the war in Afghanistan, in Bernard Kalb's "Back Page".


KURTZ: Welcome back. Turning now our e-mail bag. Last night, we asked, "Are the media too critical of John Ashcroft and his antiterrorism tactics?" And many of our viewers said, "Yes." One wrote, "You should gather, assemble and present the news and lay off the criticism of the attorney general."

But, plenty of viewers said just the opposite -- one writing, "The media have not been asking Ashcroft questions that are tough enough. They are letting him slide in fear of being accused of "giving comfort to the enemy".

Well, speaking of the enemy, time, now for "The Back Page," and here is Bernard Kalb.

BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Right this way, ladies and gentleman, front row seats to the war in Afghanistan.


KALB (voice-over): Ride along with the bomb, tag along on a commando raid, follow the Taliban on the run; and no need to get off of your couch, just a little click, and you are there.

And now this, one of the latest things in electronic gadgetry: The video phone, which brings you bang-bang from, just about, any remote spot, that is if the military doesn't get in the way of the video phone getting there.

The gadget fits into a few suitcases, the pictures are a little herky-jerky; but hey, they'll get better, in time for the next war. Speaking of which, have you noticed that the more sophisticated the weapons, the more hi-tech the coverage. Almost, as though, these two things were working in sync. The fact is, it takes quite a few wars to get to this point in covering a war.

It was only back in the mid 1800s, that combat cameras first went into action. During the civil war, all we got were still photos; but then again, the explosives were much less efficient. Then things began moving swiftly, in World War I, newsreels; World War II, newsreels plus radio, the Nazis rolling over Europe; Pearl Harbor attacked just 60 years ago.

There was some TV film footage during the war in Korea, but Vietnam was called "the first living room war". But it was war on a delayed basis. The film first had to be developed, then satellited, and the whole process could take a day or two.

The Persian Gulf War produced the big breakthrough, the war in real time, live. CNN's "legendary broadcast from Baghdad," to quote the Washington Post.

And, now, Afghanistan, all war, all the time. Wherever the cameras and video phones can penetrate, and you are there.


KALB (on camera): Oh, one thing, I forgot to mention: No popcorn.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb on the hi-tech coverage on the war in Afghanistan.

Well, that's it for this edition of "Reliable Sources". I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again, next Saturday evening at 0630 Eastern for another critical look at the media.

Straight ahead on CNN, an interview with Israeli Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, on the situation in the Middle East.

Thanks for joining us.




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