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What Happened to Daniel Pearl?; Was bin Laden's Tape Worth Airing?

Aired February 2, 2002 - 18:30   ET


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

It's been a confusing and stressful 36 hours as the press struggles to cover the kidnapping of "Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl.

Yesterday afternoon, CNN reported the contents of an e-mail, supposedly from the kidnappers, saying that Pearl had been killed, and a conflicting phone message demanding a ransom for his release.

As you've just heard, the Pakistani authorities have arrested three boys in connection with the e-mail and ransom demand, leaving it agonizingly unclear whether the 38-year-old reporter is still alive.

"Wall Street Journal" managing editor Paul Steiger held out some hope, saying in a statement today, "Based on reports from Pakistan, we now believe that both of the messages received yesterday about Danny were false. We continue to believe that Danny is alive."

Well, joining us now in Chicago, Colin McMahon, foreign editor of "The Chicago Tribune." He recently returned from five years in Russia and spent time in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan during the war. Here in Washington, Donatella Lorch, Washington correspondent for "Newsweek." She spent many years overseas as a reporter and is just back from Afghanistan. Loren Jenkins, senior foreign editor of National Public Radio. He spent 25 years as a foreign correspondent for "Newsweek" and "The Washington Post." And Frank Sesno, CNN contributor and former Washington bureau chief.

Frank Sesno, CNN ran with that e-mail yesterday, saying that Pearl had been killed, without any corroboration. FOX NEWS got the same e-mail and held off on airing it. Some people are saying that CNN perhaps was premature or even irresponsible in this tense climate to put out that kind of claim, again without any corroboration.

FRANK SESNO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think this shows the difficulties and the dangers of 24 hour real-time news. I think it's arguable, you know, with a little hindsight, that CNN could have, should have, and that's a question mark, held back. Could it corroborate it?

The problem is, you're literally in the fog of the information war here. And it's easy, 24 hours later, to say, yeah, hold back. We don't know who these people are. We don't know where these e-mails are coming from. They've got an e-mail address, and that's about all we've got to go on right now.

KURTZ: And that's exactly the problem. Donatella Lorch, I could setup an e-mail account, you know,, and send an e- mail to CNN claiming to have knowledge of this. Should CNN have hit the brakes, at least for a few hours, after getting this tragic e- mail?

DONATELLA LORCH, "NEWSWEEK": I'd like to put myself in the shoes of maybe Danny Pearl and his family, and if I was the one who was kidnapped, I would like the information first, if CNN had gotten, had contacted my family, had contacted my employer first, and then said, hey, we got this e-mail. What do you think? What would you like us to do? Because the critical thing is handling the case right now.

I'm sure that "The Wall Street Journal" and the family is trying to figure out how to deal with information as it comes through, whether to talk to the media, what to say to the media, what to put out, in terms of a message, because their number one priority is Danny's life, and getting him back alive. Or trying to figure out a way of keeping him alive and making sure that this has a happy resolution.

KURTZ: When I saw that story, I thought he was dead, and we very much hope that that turns out not to be the case.

Loren Jenkins, you've been in a lot of war zones. With the benefit of hindsight, did Danny Pearl take an unnecessary risk by going off to a nonpublic location with a couple of shady characters? Or is really very hard to know in these situations just what is safe and what is risk?

LOREN JENKINS, NPR: Yeah. I would say he did, you know, he did his job as a foreign correspondent. There are a lot of risks involved. It's dangerous business a lot of times, and you never know where following a source can lead you.

I mean, these are, you know, Pakistan is a really wild and woolly place. You know, everyone judges their own risks they're going to take.

KURTZ: Colin McMahon, you've just been in the region. How do you judge who you can judge when you're in an unfamiliar country, when you're dealing with people you don't know, and when your life may well be in jeopardy?

COLIN MCMAHON, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, that's the big question, of course.

I think one of the things you do is, you know, you always try to surround yourself with people that you do trust. And sometimes it's a very small circle. Sometimes it's other correspondents, sometimes it's a good fixer or a good translator, or somebody who knows the region, a local journalist. And you allow them to kind of -- you talk out things. And you say, should I do this? Is it worth the risk?

And it's the same thing when we send correspondents places. We decide with whom they're going. We talk about who they're going with, what they're going to do, how they're going to get there, and we decide whether it's worth the risk for the benefit.

LORCH: If I can just interrupt here -- I don't know Danny Pearl personally. I know a lot of his friends, and I know a lot of people that traveled with him in Pakistan. And he's known throughout the press corp as being tremendously cautions.

In November, when he was in Peshawar, he was chatting with some friends of mine, and there was this mad, you know, rush to how in the world are we going to get into Afghanistan. We've got to get there before everyone else does, in the press corp.

And Danny was one of the few who said I don't want to go. My wife is pregnant. I just got married. You know, we have someone on the other side of the border. There's no need for me to go. I will just stay here and report.

I mean, Pakistan, in a way, can be more dangerous than Afghanistan, but Karachi is a big city. You know, it's 12 million people. It's like any other huge city. And I think that if we start -- when I got out reporting, I mean, I get a good fixer, I get a good translator -- in Somalia, the AP reporter was captured by her driver that had been working for AP for over eight months.

KURTZ: Right. Of course, Pearl was meeting people who he believed at least had links to terrorists, so he knew these were not nuns.

Frank Sesno, have you been in these situations before, where you worried about your own safety abroad?

SESNO: Sure, sure. And in a very public, prominent place.

This was some years ago when I was covering the war in the Falkland Islands -- this is some 20-odd, almost 20 years ago now, which is a little scary, right.

And the reason that the contrast is so great is this was a totally civilized, totally under control place, one thought. We were in a public square and suddenly the crowd surged because they thought that I was an American reporter and, fortunately, somebody that I was with, a quick thinking Argentine, said he's Brazilian. And I said, oh yeah, I'm a Brazilian, which explained the funny accent in Spanish. And they left us alone.

But you know, the crowd mentality, a hostile environment -- you don't need to be kidnapped. You don't need to be, you know, in a place like Karachi to be in danger, because you just are a lightening rod sometimes.

KURTZ: Loren Jenkins, the group that took Danny Pearl, and it's a group that apparently most authorities have never heard of, and I'd never heard of, they've also issued a threat against other American journalists in Pakistan, saying that others could also be abducted or also could be killed.

JENKINS: That's right.

KURTZ: How do you decide whether your foreign correspondents should stay there? Should stay in Afghanistan? How do you go about making decisions when other people's lives, your colleagues lives, may be in jeopardy?

JENKINS: I don't, basically. I leave it up to the correspondents.

They're there. They're in place. They can assess the dangers and the risk to them much better than we can from afar.

We don't know who this group is. It could be four people sitting in a Karachi slum. We don't know it's a major group.

I leave it really up to the correspondents. And this...

KURTZ: You would not put out an order saying I'm pulling you guys out? I just think it's too dangerous.


KURTZ: Because they are on the ground, they can best assess the situation.

JENKINS: Yeah. We have a constant dialogue every day, and I try and assess what their feelings are in all of this.

But I come to this from -- I was in Vietnam at the fall of Saigon. I was the "Newsweek" bureau chief. And about two weeks before the end of the war, the war we'd been covering for 10 years, all of the sudden I get a call from my bosses at "Newsweek," as "The Washington Post" correspondents got from their bosses, that said pack up, leave, you have to get out of here. We've been briefed in Washington. We know there's going to be a bloodbath. We don't want you there.

We were sitting there covering this way, knew the risks, and we all rebelled and said no, we're not going. We're going to stay and cover it.

KURTZ: You refused to leave?

JENKINS: We refused to leave. We were ordered to leave by our bosses, and they didn't understand it. They were getting briefings in Washington that had their own agendas about trying to get the press out of there before we were going to cover the defeat of the American soldiers.

SESNO: ... the same situation, very similar situation, at the time of the Gulf War. Bernie Shaw, the late John Holliman and Peter Arnett, in Baghdad. We were contacted by the United States government, CNN was, and they said beware.

KURTZ: The bombs will be dropping.

SESNO: Well, basically. They didn't exactly advertise it, but we had a pretty good sense of what was going on. Then when it started, they said we can't guarantee their safety. They're on their own. And our conversation of them was respectful of their knowledge, they were there, and most chose to stay.

KURTZ: Colin McMahon, would you be reluctant to go back to the region now, in light of these threats by the kidnappers? In light of the apparently unstable situation there?

MCMAHON: I think like Loren was saying, unless you're on the ground, you don't know the full picture.

But sometimes when you're on the ground, you know even less of the picture, and sometimes you do need the perspective of being away from it, and you know all the information coming in from various sources about whether or not -- how safe it is there.

So without being there, it'd be hard for me to say exactly how difficult it would be. I would not be reluctant, personally, but what we do is we start the day at the "Tribune" every day talking about who is where and should they be there. And we talk to the correspondents, and we talk to other people, and we talk to other foreign editors, and we try to decide, should they be there.

Because most of our correspondents, they'll say, they'll be anywhere -- they'll go anywhere, and we have to sometimes hold people back and say you know what, wait on that. We're not sure if that's the right thing to do, if that's the safe thing to do.

So I agree that the correspondent is in the best position to know what to do, but I think the editors also have to, you know, sometimes be there and say wait a minute, maybe this isn't the way.

KURTZ: Inject a note of reason.

Now, obviously, this is an excruciating experience for Pearl's friends and colleagues and editors at "The Journal."

Managing editor Paul Steiger put out a statement the other day saying that "Journalists are, by definition, trained messengers. Danny can be your messenger," he said, addressing the kidnappers. "A freed Danny can explain your cause and your beliefs to the world. His record as a journalist is proof that he can do this honestly and effectively. A captive or killed Danny cannot speak for you, cannot help you or your cause."

Donatella Lorch, some people were critical of that, saying he appeared to be negotiating with kidnappers. On the other hand, you've got to make some kind of humanitarian appeal, do you not?

LORCH: I think you have to make a humanitarian appeal, and I certainly hope that if I'm ever kidnapped, that my bosses would do the same thing for me.

I think we are messengers. We go and we give all sides of the story. And that's what we're out there to do. And that's what he was out there -- at the same time as he was trying to dig and find out who this guy, Reid, was, he was also there to hear someone else's side of the story so that he could gauge, you know, good or bad, evil or not.

KURTZ: You're referring to Reid, the shoe bomber.

LORCH: The shoe bomber, yes. Which is what he was there -- going back to another different thing about the danger of going to places, now, Karachi was a place that apparently Pearl had even been thinking of temporarily moving there with his wife, to continue, since the war had sort of moved over there.

But the decision -- the problem as a reporter, on the ground, is that you're also under a lot of stress and by saying that, well, I may decide that I don't want to go to country X or I don't want to stay here, but my colleagues are staying here, and if they're staying here, then I sort of have to. And your editor does ask you that.

In Somalia in '93, just before the American soldiers were killed there on October 3rd, there was a decision among all the editors of the American newspapers and magazines and television networks, basically to pull the American citizens, reporters, out of Somalia, and to work out of Nairobi, because it was so dangerous.

KURTZ: So dangerous.

And, Loren Jenkins, is "The Journal" in the uncomfortable position -- you know, reporters pride themselves on being fiercely independent -- of now having to ask the United States government for help in this terrible situation?

JENKINS: No. I don't think so. I think you expect all the help you can get from any corner in a situation like this.

And going back to the idea of, you know, do you negotiate with the captors, yeah, by all means. We all do. And everybody does, including the United States government. They negotiate for hostages. They say they don't, but they did in Beirut. They've done it before. This goes on.

And I think you use anybody in any position of importance you can to try and get to them.

SESNO: If I may just, on the issue of messenger, you know, we know, because we are journalists and we know that our job is to be a conduit for information. We are the messenger.

Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, and this may be one of them, journalists are not always seen as messengers, because in many parts of the world they work for the government. There is state run media.

KURTZ: So the kidnappers make this assumption that seems ludicrous to us here in Washington that Danny Pearl worked with the CIA or with the Mossad...

SESNO: Happens all the time.

KURTZ: You're saying that is not unusual in other cultures.

SESNO: That is correct. Because it is state run media, and in many cases the media has as much credibility, or as little credibility, as the government.


JENKINS: Beyond that...


LORCH: ... the number of times we've been accused of being CIA agents.

SESNO: That's right.

JENKINS: I think a good journalist does exactly what a good intelligence agent should do, you go and ask embarrassing questions of strange people in strange situations to try and get at the information.

KURTZ: But the difference is...

JENKINS: It's easy for someone to perceive you as, oh, he could be an intelligence agent. What's he doing here?

KURTZ: That's right. The difference, of course, being that you're not affiliated with the United States government.

We have to leave it there and take a break.

And when we come back, the flap over al-Jazeera's interview with Osama bin Laden. Why did CNN air the tape? And why did the Arab television network sit on it for three months?



CNN Thursday night aired portions of an interview with Osama bin Laden, the only television interview he's given since September 11th, in which he said America will become an unbearable hell.

The interview was conducted back in October by a reporter from al-Jazeera. The network's director general issued a statement saying he would have expected CNN to, quote, "... respect it's special relationship with al-Jazeera by not airing material that al-Jazeera itself chose not to broadcast. Al-Jazeera will," the statement went on to say, "... sever its relationship with CNN and will take the necessary action to punish the organizations and individuals who stole this video and distributed it illegally." Colin McMahon, if you had had this video available to you, would you have aired it, even though it was three months ago? Even though it was done by an Arab satellite network?

MCMAHON: I think the interesting thing about that is that when it first came out, al-Jazeera said, as I recall, that it chose not to broadcast because it felt the video wasn't newsworthy.

KURTZ: First they said it didn't exist. First they denied it.


KURTZ: And then they said it wasn't newsworthy. And then they said, well, their reporter was kind of intimidated and bin Laden didn't really answer the questions. So was it newsworthy? Was it worth airing?

MCMAHON: You know, I looked at it, I didn't feel it was that newsworthy.

I mean, I think they should have aired it when they had it. I don't think there is any question about that. It was another piece of information of the story of our generation, and I think that they were wrong not to air it at that time.

But the fact that we're talking more about whether or not they should have aired it, and the relationship between al-Jazeera, shows that the substance of the tape itself was not that important, was not that illuminating, itself.

KURTZ: Actually, when bin Laden, on the tape, essentially says "we are terrorists," when asked about his responsibility for September 11th, if that had come out in October, before the United States government got that other video in which he was sort of bragging about his role in September 11th, that would have been huge news around the world.

MCMAHON: Exactly.

LORCH: Well, can I play devil's advocate here...

KURTZ: Please.

LORCH: ... and say, well, let's think about how the American television network sand cable reacted to our own government asking us not to broadcast the entire early tapes coming, you know, statements from Osama bin Laden, where everyone agreed, we'll either say what they're saying or we'll only put a little tidbit on the air.

Now what if that tape was, you know, damning America but not saying -- not basically admitting that, you know, we're going to make America into a hell. Would we have reacted the same way if we'd had access only showing a little bit of it?

KURTZ: Well, this whole question of how much to show, Frank Sesno, CNN aired about six to eight minute of an interview that was almost an hour. But what I don't understand is why CNN doesn't release the whole transcript. It seemed like they've got something that's newsworthy.

SESNO: I, frankly, I think CNN should release the whole transcript. Whether you chose to put the whole thing on the air is another matter, but I mean there are Web sites and there are places to read.

Let people chose for themselves. We live in a transparent environment now, where you don't have to put it on the air. It doesn't have to consume the time for everybody and to the exclusion of all else.

What he says is more than interesting, it is newsworthy. And it may be disturbing and I disagree with Condy Rice...

KURTZ: Chilling? Infuriating?

SESNO: All that. All that. And let the world see it.

KURTZ: OK. I want to get to the president's State of the Union before we go, because, as you all know, Mr. Bush talked about the axis of evil, and he included Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Let's take a look.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... states like these and their terrorists allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.


KURTZ: Loren Jenkins, obviously those comments by the president got huge coverage. The next day, these senior administration officials surface and say, well, we're not really changing our policy and the president perhaps is being misinterpreted. Then the day after that, they say, well, the president meant it and he's going to stick with it.

What are the media to make of the conflicting signals from the White House here about just what is our policy toward these other states?

JENKINS: I'm not sure we know. We know what the rhetoric is, and we know that the administration considers all those nations dangerous threats. But to lump them all together is rather strange because there is no -- when you talk about axis, immediately you think about World War II and the axis powers. They were all linked and had relations and all of that.

I think, you know, to lump Iraq and Iran together -- first of all, they fought an eight year war against each other. They hate each other. They don't cooperate. They're totally different issues.

KURTZ: Right. JENKINS: And I think North Korea is a different issue, too.

KURTZ: Colin McMahon, are you confused about the White House interpretation, shall we say, and the media coverage of these remarks?

MCMAHON: Yes, certainly. I think -- and, you know, it started even that night. I mean, there were White House officials who were giving background briefings that suggested that this did not mean eminent military action, that they were even back pedalling that very night.

So we're trying to figure out not only what he meant, but what the White House policy is and what it intends to do, and whether or not the White House even has a consistent policy about what its plans are.

SESNO: I will disagree. I think that what the president did, while it -- if it's studied literally presents issues of, you know, is this an alliance or what have you. But nonetheless, it is aimed very deliberately at explaining to the American people and to the world, A, what's at stake, and in such graphic terms that they buy in for the long haul.

KURTZ: Then why are senior administration officials coming out and saying -- and reinterpreting what the president said?

SESNO: Because they're not all in agreement internally, and they don't...

KURTZ: So there is an internal dissension here, and the media are trying to sort it out?

JENKINS: Well, the bottom-line is, I don't think there's a policy. There is not a clear policy. I think there are divergent points of view in this administration, we all know that, between the Pentagon and the state and various others.

LORCH: I think our president also wants to paint everything with this incredible broad stroke of good and bad and evil. He loves that word evil.

KURTZ: And what do journalists do, and you've got about 10 seconds to tell me.

LORCH: Well, I want to just be cynical and say, well, journalists should point out that at the same time, they're asking for a massive increase in the Pentagon budget as their talking about those evil people out there, we need to get more weapons, because there are so many evil people out there.

KURTZ: Well, obviously, we all want to know what is the policy. And that, I think, is still evolving.

SESNO: And the threat.

KURTZ: And the threat as well. Donatella Lorch, Frank Sesno, Loren Jenkins, Colin McMahon in Chicago -- thanks very much for joining us.

And when we come back, the "Spin Cycle" on a tearful TV interview by an Enron spouse and the art of damage control in an electronic age.


KURTZ: Recognize this stuff? Looks like a bunch of Enron memos. But it actually represents something larger: Shredded reputations.

And when your public image looks like this, thanks to the media, some people use the media to fight back. Here's a look at the "Spin Cycle."


KURTZ (voice-over): Ken Lay hasn't said a word to reporters since his company collapsed.

But this week, Lay sent out his wife Linda to tell NBC's Lisa Myers that he's really a heck of a guy.

LINDA LAY, WIFE OF FORMER ENRON CEO: The only truth I know, 100 percent for sure, is that my husband is an honest, decent, moral human being, who would do absolutely nothing wrong.


LAY: Devastated. Devastated for his employees.

KURT (on camera): This is an age-old media tactic, trying to generate public sympathy after doing something terrible, or just plain stupid.

(voice-over): Who else needs to smooth over a bruised image? Mike Tyson, the ear-biting heavyweight, who started a brawl at a press conference to hype his fight with Lennox Lewis.

More than a decade ago, Tyson sent out his then-wife, Robin Givens, to make his case to Barbara Walters on "20/20."


ROBIN GIVENS, ACTRESS: There's a time when he cannot control his temper, and that's frightening.


KURTZ: This time, Tyson wanted to get off the mat by scheduling an interview with Larry King, but that plan got KO'ed, along with the fight.

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": According to Tyson's publicist, Scott Miranda (ph), Mr. Tyson's management team changed their mind late this afternoon. KURTZ: When Gary Condit's sit-down with Connie Chung didn't go too well last summer, he sent out his kids to speak for him.

CADEE CONDIT, GARY CONDIT'S DAUGHTER: It's just been horrible. I mean, it's just absolutely the worst thing, to watch your mom and dad be demonized by the press.

KURTZ: OJ played the media card by calling Greta Van Susteren. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker did it with Ted Koppel. And Hugh Grant, who had gotten caught with a hooker, did it with Jay Leno.

JAY LENO, HOST, "TONIGHT SHOW": What the hell were you thinking?

KURTZ: Bill Gates, who got gigabytes of bad publicity during the Microsoft anti-trust trial, is now the $24 billion philanthropist, smiling with his wife on the cover of "Newsweek."

But when all else fails, blame the press, as Ken Lay's wife did when asked about the suicide of a top Enron executive.

LAY: It's a perfect example of how the media can play such havoc and destruction of people's lives.


KURTZ: The media have their excesses, Mrs. Lay, but the media didn't create the corporate mess your husband presided over. In fact, they were rather late in discovering it. That's why, for now, his reputation remains in the shredder.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Tune in tomorrow morning at 9:30 a.m. Eastern for a special live edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. We'll get an update from Pakistan on the situation with "Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl, and question a top CNN executive about the coverage and that controversial tape of Osama bin Laden. And we'll ask reporters to grade the press on its coverage of Enron and the State of the Union.

Thanks for watching.

CAPITAL GANG is up next.




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