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Was the Media's Reaction to Newest bin Laden Tape Too Emotional?

Aired December 15, 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 lighting was bad, the sound quality poor, and the Arabic needed subtitles, but it was the tape seen and heard around the world; Osama bin Laden talking about the planning for the September 11 attacks and rejoicing that so many people were killed.

From the moment the Pentagon released it Thursday, all the broadcast and cable networks went right to the videotape, with many commentators heaping abuse on bin Laden.


DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: We've seen it, can't watch and listen to it without being struck, without being struck by the cold-blooded cynicism of that tape.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: It was creepy, wasn't it? That tape? It was creepy and repulsive and just about any other sickening adjective you can apply to the bin Laden tape seems to fit.

TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR: In his language and in his behavior, Osama bin Laden was a damning witness against himself.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now in Los Angeles, syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington. In New York, James Wolcott, contributing editor for "Vanity Fair." In Boston, Mark Jurkowitz, media critic for "The Boston Globe." And here in Washington, Robert Lichter from the Center for Media and Public Affairs. Welcome.

James Wolcott, this video was clearly chilling and absolutely hideous; a couple of guys sitting around laughing about the deaths of thousands of people. Did we need the anchors and the commentators and the talking heads and prognosticators to tell us how awful it was? Or were they just being human and reacting to what they saw?

JAMES WOLCOTT, "VANITY FAIR": Well, I think they were just being human. I don't, I don't know if they needed to -- the tape did so speak for itself. I mean, one of the most loathsome things about bin Laden has always been the sort of feline preening he does. He coats everything he says with a sort of slick coating of sort of fake gentleness. And that to me is far creepier than the words that come out of his mouth, or rather the contrast.

But it's understandable that they would do it, and I, I mean, I can't really fault them for that.

KURTZ: Understood. Mark Jurkowitz, Hafez al-Mirazi, who is the Washington bureau chief for al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite network, was asked on "Nightline" about the Osama bin Laden tape. Let's take a look at what he had to say.


HAFEZ AL-MIRAZI, AL-JAZEERA: Unfortunately, there are elements, are enough elements, technically speaking, in the tape, that would prevent me to pass judgment as of the authenticity of the tape. The issue now in the Arab streets is about the authenticity of the tape.


KURTZ: I think the technical term there is cop-out. What does it tell us, Mark Jurkowitz, about the attitudes of al-Jazeera, and the Arab press in general, that they're debating whether the tape was essentially, you know, doctored or invented by the American government?

MARK JURKOWITZ, "BOSTON GLOBE": Well, in a lot of parts of the world, Howie, this was not a smoking gun, or didn't appear to be. It was a lukewarm gun which, of course, you know, it gets back to this whole issue of showing the tape. It's, in a political sense, it's an interesting move. Obviously, people in this country were outraged. I don't think the anchors really went overboard in this case. However, every poll will show you that support for this war and support for this effort is already over 90 percent, so in a way they're preaching to the converted.

How did it play in the rest of the world? I think that a big chunk of the Islamic world that is very upset with the United States and the United States policy, for some reason this is not seen as necessarily credible.

But, having said that, I also think, and I've seen stories about, you know, the street in Pakistan, for example, where there may be a 20 percent or a 30 percent of the world sort of sitting on the fence waiting to be persuaded, and I think on some level, for those who were not -- didn't have their minds made up one way or the other, I think on some level, there was some degree of persuasion for folks who were on the bubble before, and that works for the United States government.

KURTZ: We'll have to see. Arianna Huffington, the Bush administration at first said to he networks, don't show these Osama bin Laden videotapes because they're propaganda, their aiding the enemy cause, and the networks kind of saluted and fell into line.

Well, now comes along this videotape that they discovered, or say they discovered, I guess the Arab press would say, in Jalalabad, and "The Washington Post" reported its existence, and suddenly they want it shown. They want it out there. So, are the media just pawns? They don't show it or they do show it, depending on what the administration desires?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, it shows how dangerous it is when an administration goes into the news management business. But also, Howard, as you know, they were reluctant to show it at first. They were not sure what the impact would be, and it was a lot of pressure from the media that made it clear to them that they had to show it. So, even to the very end, they did not trust the publics response, even though they were proved very wrong on that.

KURTZ: Yeah, I was surprised by any reluctance at all to show this videotape.

Bob Lichter, let me read you a couple of headlines. "The Washington Post": "U.S. says tape proves bin Laden was behind attacks." "The New York Times": "U.S. says it proves his guilt."

Now, I'm all for careful attribution, but anybody watching the videotape in which bin Laden talks about how many floors of the World Trade Center might collapse, do we really need to write this as U.S. says/others disagree?

ROBERT LICHTER, CENTER FOR MEDIA AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS: It depends on what you think a journalist should be doing. If journalists should be patriots who are saying this is reality, or if journalists should stand up and say, stand up above things, and say there are two points of view.

This is a specific case of a general principle. Where some people see a smoking gun, others will see smoking and mirrors. There is no such thing as evidence that speaks for itself. And you have to realize this. It's not just this particular instance. It is a psychological principle that leads millions of people to reject the notion that the Holocaust existed and to accept the notion that people are being abducted by aliens.

So, is this an -- is this a people are being abducted by aliens case, or is it this is so obvious that we shouldn't question it?

KURTZ: I don't know that the media need to buy into it just because some people out there may think that the earth is flat.

James Wolcott, let me read something that you wrote in the current issue of "Vanity Fair." You say that "Chris Matthews, Geraldo Rivera and the Viagra posse at FOX NEWS refilled their gas bags and began taking turns on Mussolini's balcony to exhort the mob."

Now, are you daring to suggest, sir, that some of these esteemed pundits are out there inflaming passions over the war?

WOLCOTT: Oh, well they, you know, they're doing everything but renting their own helicopters and, you know, firing rockets. I mean, I mean, Geraldo Rivera now, I mean, he's champing at the bit. He claims he wants to be the man who goes into the cave. No, they worked it up. You know, and you can understand why, but I do think that there ought to be a certain coolness. After all, the fact is, we may not like the people we're bombing, but we are killing people. There is a certain gravity to what we're doing. We're creating widows. We're creating orphans. And this is going to have repercussions in the future.

I mean, it seems neat on television, but it's not neat, and I do think that, you know, it's a great victory we've achieved so far, but I do think we have to have a certain sobriety about it. I think the administration has had the sobriety that much of the press hasn't.

KURTZ: You think the media coverage has been too jingoistic, perhaps?

WOLCOTT: Oh, I think it's been, I think it's been very jingoistic and, in fact, it's not only that it's -- that certain people are beating the drum, but then they get on the ones who don't. I mean, look at the people who have been criticized for not wearing the flag on the air. Look at the ones who get criticized for using certain hedging or equivocating phrases.

LICHTER: Jim, are you talking about straight news or the pundits?

HUFFINGTON: But the even more troubling thing...

WOLCOTT: Well, I'm talking about the anchormen too. Dan Rather -- I'm sorry?

KURTZ: Arianna, why don't you jump in here?

HUFFINGTON: Yes, I was just going to say that even more troubling than the coverage of the war has been the sort of rubber- stamping of so many administration policies on the domestic front. When there's been a lot of coverage of a story like Enron, not making the bigger connections with money and political influence and the administration's role.

So, there's been a real stifling of dissent on many issues, and that's even more troubling than the jingoism that we've talking about, when it comes to the coverage of the war itself.

KURTZ: Mark Jurkowitz, you write about the BBC as kind of an alternative, some of it can be seen here in this country, to American coverage. And you say that BBC fans find their approach refreshingly objective, but that foes consider it downright anti-American. Talk a little bit about that, if you would.

JURKOWITZ: You know, I mean, there are other outlets in other places that are covering this war a lot differently than we are, and I do believe that there is some serious level of jingoism going on, but I tuned in one morning to a BBC broadcast and listened while an on- the-scene reporter talked about something I had not frankly heard from American journalism, which was essentially the victims of an American bombing raid on Kandahar. First hand accounts of people who lost their homes, people who had lost friends, and this was just sort of suddenly -- you know, there is an aspect of this war that we are not seeing, we are not hearing about. Now, it's interesting, and Britain's support for the war, even though they're part of the coalition, is a lot less than it is in this country, and I think, you know, one of the things we don't get in this country is a sense of how other folks are covering the war. I think there are a lot of closet BBC fans out there, frankly, and I think a different perspective doesn't hurt in this case.

KURTZ: Arianna Huffington, why are the American media, at least, always warning about new dangers ahead, new problems, new complications. Why hasn't there been a VA day, Victory in Afghanistan? I mean, this was a pretty remarkable performance by the American military in two short months.

HUFFINGTON: Well, it has been a remarkable, but Howard, I think it's part of the difference that we are seeing. The victories in terms of the war in Afghanistan. But no real victories at home, in terms of finding people who are really, absolutely involved with September 11th. Or being clear about what all the pending dangers are.

And I think, frankly, the fact that we had Tom Ridge again issue another high alert is reducing the credibility of these alerts. In fact, in many cases, it didn't even lead the news broadcast and it didn't get the kind of coverage that the first two alerts got. So, they have to be very careful about that crying wolf again and again without any details.

KURTZ: Clearly, it's hard for the media to cover these unspecified alerts about unspecified dangers.

Bob Lichter, is one of the reasons, perhaps, that there hasn't been any great rush to declare victory is because there has been so much media attention on bin Laden and as long as, whether he's holed up in one of those caves or not, as long as we haven't got bin Laden, we can't quite say that the United States has won?

LICHTER: I don't think so, Howie. You can't really have jingoism without triumphalism. I don't think the American media are saying go get that mad dog and shoot him. It just isn't that kind of tone. It's a patriotic tone. A sense that journalists are joining with Americans in a feeling that we have been attacked. Innocents have been murdered. And there's a sense that that brings us down to earth, and saying we are not representatives of history above our role as citizens. And we are fighting evil. But not let's go get the S.O.B.'s, everything else be damned. You are not seeing that.

KURTZ: Bringing us down to earth, probably a good thing. And down to earth, we need to take a commercial. But when we come back, the coverage of President Bush during the wartime, some new findings that may surprise you.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Bob Lichter, your Center for Media and Public Affairs just completed a study of the president's coverage on ABC, CBS, and NBC evening news, and while it's still very positive, you reported that the coverage of Bush is down by about 38 percent since the September 11th attack. Since we're in the middle of a war, how can that be?

LICHTER: You know, the news is good for George Bush. He's getting positive coverage, but he's getting less of it overall, as the amount of coverage is down by 38 percent from what it was before the war.

KURTZ: Because?

LICHTER: Because it's up for other members of his administration. He's stepping back, out of the spotlight, which was his managerial style before the war. He's kept it up. Now, it's Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Tom Ridge...

KURTZ: Colin Powell.

LICHTER: Colin Powell. He's doing what he did before the war, which is remarkable. If you had said six months ago we'll be in a major war and the president's coverage will drop by nearly 40 percent, we would have thought you were nuts.

KURTZ: James Wolcott, the network newscasts aside, President Bush can't sneeze without getting on CNN, MSNBC, FOX NEWS. What do you make of the president's coverage as presented on this grand scheme of the media universe?

WOLCOTT: Well, it's pretty unfiltered. I'm not sure we need all the live events we get. I mean, you know, every speech now is covered, and a lot of the things are fairly mundane. I mean, I think, in fact, there have been too many administration people out there.

One thing I've noticed though, there's a disconnect between -- television has toned down -- the insults against Bush have toned down on television. In the on-line world, it's as if they're six months behind. They still talk about Bush as if he were, you know, a moron, as if he were, you know, hasn't got a clue. Cheney's pulling all the strings.

So, there's an undercurrent of Bush animosity, but it's not on the radar screens of the networks or the cable news networks either.

KURTZ: Arianna Huffington, are the media too soft on this suddenly very popular president?

HUFFINGTON: I think they are, Howard. Although this week we saw a change, especially in the editorial pages, with many editorials against Bush's abandoning of the Antiballistic Missile Treaty. Against his expansion of executive privilege when it came to some internal Justice Department documents that had nothing to do with the war but had to do with FBI misuse of mob informants. So, I think that he's going to begin to see a reluctance to just rubber stamp every administration policy and just basically accept the principle that dissent is unpatriotic.

KURTZ: Mark Jurkowitz, do you think the media have been a little bit more aggressive when it comes to the anti-terrorism policies here at home? Questions raised about civil liberties. Is it there that the president is getting a little less than a free pass?

JURKOWITZ: Well, he's not getting a free pass, Howie, but every -- I think every story is so consumed by the war effort and by two fundamental stories: what's going on in Afghanistan and what are we doing to protect ourselves here, that it's not really impacting the president's popularity in any significant way.

Yes, there's frankly a debate about it. Yes, there had been a lot of media voices that complained about it. But frankly, I'm not sure the public even wants to hear that kind of an argument right now when we're still on war footing. And if you look, for example at Gallup surveys, you know, Bush's popularity is still running between 85 and 90 percent.

So, you know, there may be time in the future when these stories will generate much more public scrutiny and much more thought, but I think given the priorities right now, even media focus on these stories is fundamentally not affecting Bush.

KURTZ: Right.

JURKOWITZ: Almost every other story goes under the radar screen.

KURTZ: He's got kind of a missile shield.

James Wolcott, the attacks in Gaza are continuing, and I wonder if you think the media have basically adopted the narrative that what Israel is doing to the Palestinians is similar to what the United States is doing against al Qaeda?

WOLCOTT: I think they have. I mean, I think one of the -- you know, I feel a certain poignance whenever the Palestinian officials go on the cable news networks to plead the case of the Palestinians, because I think they know that no one really is paying attention, that no one cares, that they're on for the sense of balance.

I mean, there's no question that the cable news networks, all of the networks, have always been much more sympathetic to Israel for a lot of reasons. And the terrible thing is that we sort of ignore the buildup to these uprisings, and then when they come they just seem sort of random and sort of almost nihilistic. But in fact it's been a long time brewing.

KURTZ: Right.

WOLCOTT: I mean, I think what's happening there is tragic, and with no end in sight.

KURTZ: The media coverage is very episodic.

Arianna Huffington, we're running a little short on time, but you've written that President Bush should not be, or at least you question whether he should be calling the al Qaeda gang evildoers. In light of the Osama bin Laden tape and the people sitting around talking about how many thousands would die when the planes hit the buildings, many evildoers is not such a bad choice of words.

HUFFINGTON: No, Howard, what I'm objecting to is not that he's calling them evildoers, but that he makes this kind of distinction between evildoers like the al Qaeda gang without American passports and those within this country who are clearly also evildoers, like the people who appear to have been behind the anthrax attacks. There is more and more evidence, for example, that they are here, from this country, that they are not al Qaeda members.

Or the case of John Walker. When Bush was asked by Barbara Walters about John Walker, he called him misled. Now, what is the distinction between somebody who is evil and somebody who is misled?


HUFFINGTON: I know this is a bit of a metaphysical question, but it should be addressed.

KURTZ: Well, a metaphysical question is probably a good point to end, because we are out of time. Arianna Huffington, Mark Jurkowitz, James Wolcott, Bob Lichter, thanks very much for joining us.

And when we come back, the "Spin Cycle" on what's been missing from the TV airwaves.


KURTZ: Time now for a look at the "Spin Cycle." Gary Condit is back in the news. The California congressman -- well, hold on. That's not quite right. Gary Condit made some news by announcing he's running for reelection. But he's not exactly back in the news.


KURTZ (voice-over): Condit, you may recall, if you haven't been living in a cave with Osama bin Laden, was in the eye of a powerful media hurricane over the disappearance of Chandra Levy. This time, however, there was barely a drizzle, "The New York Times" devoting just four paragraphs to the story.

Why? Afghanistan. Anthrax. Terrorism. There's a war on, leaving very little media oxygen for other stories.

Take the collapse of Enron, the nation's seventh largest corporation. It's been a big business story: the cover of "Fortune," "Business Week," and all that, but not a major political story, despite the fact that CEO Ken Lay is a close pal of President Bush, that company executives have donated nearly $2 million to Bush, that Lay played a role in shaping Dick Cheney's energy policy, that White House aide Karl Rove owned as much as $250,000 in Enron stock.

This has all the makings of a Beltway scandal. Where are Chris Matthews, Larry King, Geraldo -- oh, right, Geraldo's gone off to cover the war.

Remember the budget surplus, $127 billion to be exact? It's history. In fact, White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels says the government will be spewing red ink for the rest of the president's term.

The press used to obsess on deficits. Now it's all about Konduz, Kandahar and Tora Bora.

One of the biggest tabloid frenzies of the '90s was the O.J. murder trial, which was carried live by CNN. But when police raided Simpson's house on a drug investigation, the cable networks provided little coverage. Same for the recent trial in which Simpson was acquitted for road rage.


BROWN: Today, no matter the cost, we're not running anything about O.J. Simpson. We don't care that police searched his home. We don't care that he may have been stealing satellite television.


KURTZ: Finally, the one year anniversary of the down and dirty recount battle in Florida.


DARRYL HAMMOND, ACTOR (as Al Gore): Whenever people come up to me, they talk about the campaign and the extremely narrow election and how I feel about it.

WILL FERRELL, ACTOR (as George W. Bush): Well, come on, you're Al Gore. What else are they going to talk to you about?


KURTZ: In real life, though, Gore is off the radar screen.


KURTZ: It's been pretty much all war all the time since September 11. Some important stories are being overshadowed in the process. But we're also being spared more O.J. journalism, and for that we can all give thanks this holiday season.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Join us again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern, when we'll talk with a number of international correspondents about how the war is viewed by news outlets around the world.




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