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Fate of Daniel Pearl Remains Unclear; Positive Reviews for State of the Union; How has the Media Covered the Enron Collapse?

Aired February 3, 2002 - 18:30   ET


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

Just ahead, we'll talk about the coverage of Enron's collapse, the media's rave reviews for the president's State of the Union, and that Al Jazeera tape of Osama bin Laden, which was obtained and aired by CNN.

But first, the fate of Daniel Pearl is still unclear this morning. The kidnapped "Wall Street Journal" reporter remains missing in Pakistan, two days after news organizations received an e-mail claiming he had been killed, an e-mail that now appears to have been a hoax.

Three young men were detained in Pakistan yesterday in connection with the e-mail and with a ransom call to the U.S. embassy in Pakistan.

CNN's Ben Wedeman is in Karachi and joins us now.

Ben Wedeman, a "Wall Street Journal" executive told me last night that managing editor Paul Steiger and reporter Helene Cooper, a friend of Danny Pearl's, have been appearing on CNN International, Fox, and BBC, because those networks reach Pakistan, the target audience.

How big a story is this kidnapping in the Pakistani media?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, matter of fact, Howard, it's not a very big story. Pakistan has many problems of its own. It's got its eyes on Afghanistan. The disappearance of Daniel Pearl is a front-page story, but it is not the top story. Certainly there is a lot of international attention, but as I said, the Pakistanis really have many other concerns.

Karachi, it's worth noting, is a city of kidnapping. There are dozens of kidnappings every year, some for political reasons, some for money. Many Pakistanis who regret this kidnapping of Mr. Pearl will tell you that it's nothing new for them, just in this case it's a far more prominent person who has been kidnapped, a kidnapping that has drawn international attention.

But kidnappings here are nothing new.


KURTZ: Take us into the reporting process. When these e-mails surface, of unrelia -- of unknown unreliability, how difficult is it for you to get any hard information at all about the situation, what to believe, what the Pakistani authorities are doing?

WEDEMAN: Howard, it's a real challenge. The other night at about 11:00 p.m. local time, when we thought the day was over, one e- mail came claiming that Mr. Pearl had been executed. Another phone call came to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad demanding $2 million for his release. Sent us scrambling, and really it took hours and hours to ascertain whether these separate but simultaneous messages were serious or not.

And in fact, it turned out that as far as the Pakistani authorities and "The Wall Street Journal" are concerned, that they were bogus. But you -- obviously, you have to do what you can, call who you can, look at, scrutinize these e-mails, look at the phone calls as closely as you can to try to ascertain their veracity.

Now, for instance, we went live following these simultaneous messages, and I had in my hand a copy of the e-mail claiming that Mr. Pearl had been killed. The anchor asked me to read it on the air, and I hesitated, in fact, I didn't do it because I felt that although there were passages that were worth noting, to read the entire thing would have been a mistake if it had turned out to be bogus. And in fact, it did, so I don't regret that.

But you really have to be very careful, because, as I said, we have no way, nobody has any way of talking to the kidnappers themselves.


KURTZ: Right. Just briefly, Ben Wedeman, the kidnappers have also issued threats against other American journalists in Pakistan. I'm wondering if you and your colleagues there are concerned for your personal safety and whether you're doing anything differently in light of these threats.

WEDEMAN: Well, of course we are concerned, because we are some of the very few American journalists here in Karachi. We are doing things differently. We're not going out and about in the manner that we normally would. We're keeping in close touch with one another. We have taken security measures to make sure that we can be as safe as possible. And we've been informed by our headquarters that where security is concerned, there's -- we should not spare any expenses.


KURTZ: Ben Wedeman in Karachi, thanks very much for joining us.

And joining us now from Atlanta, Eason Jordan, chief news executive and news-gathering president for the CNN News group.

Eason Jordan, on Friday CNN got that e-mail that Ben Wedeman was just talking about saying that Danny Pearl had been killed. CNN put that information on the air. There's now a lot of second-guessing and some criticism. Should you have held back, should you have waited for some kind of confirmation? Now with the benefit of hindsight, now that it appears that that e-mail may well have been bogus, do you wish CNN had held off?

EASON JORDAN, CHIEF NEWS EXECUTIVE, CNN: Oh, we actually did hold off, Howard. We received that e-mail several hours before we reported anything about it on CNN. We shared it first with Dow Jones, with "The Wall Street Journal," we also shared it with authorities who are investigating this case. We did in the end decide to report what was in those e-mails, as other news organizations did, and in fact "The Wall Street Journal" issued a statement about the e-mails, and we actually received several statements, and in some cases "The Wall Street Journal" has reacted to those statements even before we had reported them publicly.

KURTZ: But CNN did -- was really the first news organization to put this out internationally and to give the message to Danny Pearl's friends, families, and colleagues -- I was watching at the time -- that he was probably dead. You -- again, with the benefit of hindsight, you do not wish that you had waited even longer to try to authenticate -- to try to establish the authenticity of that e-mail?

JORDAN: Oh, it was very difficult to establish the authenticity of the e-mail. It took obviously several days to determine that the e-mail was bogus. You know, in the benefit of hindsight, I think we all would do a lot of things differently in this business and in our lives. But at the time, we felt like we were doing the right thing. And certainly "The Wall Street Journal" and authorities took those e- mails very seriously.

KURTZ: On Thursday night, Eason Jordan, CNN aired portions of an interview, as you know, with Osama bin Laden, the only television interview that he's given since September 11, the one in which he said that America would become an "unbearable hell." The interview was conducted back in October by a reporter from the Al Jazeera television network. The Al Jazeera general director issued a statement saying that Al Jazeera would, quote, "sever its relationship with CNN and take the necessary action to punish the individuals and organizations who stole this video and distributed it illegally."

Al Jazeera basically saying CNN stole this tape and put it on the air. I -- was that a difficult decision for you?

JORDAN: Actually it was not difficult at all. We have to back up a little bit and go back to October, when CNN and Al Jazeera together submitted written questions that we thought would be responded to in writing by Osama bin Laden. Only four days later, after we submitted those questions, in fact, the interview took place. But we didn't find out about that interview until December. Because we had heard rumors, we asked Al Jazeera if there was any truth to rumors about an interview taking place. We were repeatedly lied to and told there was no such interview.

And it was only after "The New York Times" disclosed it in mid- December that we actually knew for a fact that the interview had taken place.

And so we feel that we were entitled to the interview not just because of the previous arrangement on the submission of the questions, but because CNN has an affiliate relationship with Al Jazeera that gives us rights to use all Al Jazeera material, regardless of whether or not it's televised.

KURTZ: Are you not particularly concerned about Al Jazeera now severing that affiliate relationship, which has obviously been useful to CNN in the past, because you're upset about the fact that you were misled by Al Jazeera executives?

JORDAN: Well, we would very much like to have a good relationship with broadcasters all over the world. In this case, Al Jazeera took a decision. Now, Al Jazeera is backtracking a bit and trying to see if there's any way to salvage the relationship.

What I would encourage my colleagues at Al Jazeera to do is to tell the truth about all of this. I was extremely disturbed yesterday to see Al Jazeera come out with a statement to say essentially the interview was a phony interview because it had been done with prepared questions, prepared by bin Laden himself, and that the reporter was under duress when the interview took place, so therefore Jazeera decided not to air it because it was not a legitimate interview.

Well, I can tell you, Howard, I've viewed the tape many times myself. I've read the transcript many times. That is absolutely false. The questions were clearly the questions of the correspondent. There were follow-up questions...

KURTZ: So it's just -- just a cover story...


KURTZ: ... in your view?

JORDAN: Oh, absolutely.

KURTZ: Just a cover story? Is...

JORDAN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) truth about this.


Now, CNN only put on the air about six to eight minutes of what was a nearly hour-long interview. Why not air some of the other parts? And why not release the full transcript so other journalists and the world can look at what Osama bin Laden had to say?

JORDAN: Well, in light of this allegation yesterday from Jazeera that the interview was not a legitimate interview because the questions were dictated by bin Laden and the correspondent was under duress, I'm more inclined now to make sure to see to it that we do release the entire transcript.

But this is something that needs to be discussed with my colleagues. We'll probably make a decision on this tomorrow.

I felt on Thursday we did the right thing by airing limited amounts of it. Osama bin Laden is a mass murderer, he incited people to do these things, if not planned it himself directly. We want not to surrender our air time to Osama bin Laden, even in this type of format.

But now, now that there are questions about whether the interview itself was even a legitimate interview, and whether the correspondent was able to conduct it as he should, I think we have to now reconsider whether we hold back on the rest of that interview.

KURTZ: Well, I for one would look forward to seeing the full transcript.

Eason Jordan in Atlanta, thanks very much for joining us.

JORDAN: Thank you, Howard.

KURTZ: And when we come back, we'll look at a tearful interview that became part of Enron's damage control effort. And the media swooning over the State of the Union.



The Sunday morning papers are leading with an Enron internal report blaming management for the company's collapse because of financial manipulation and self-enrichment by top executives.

Ken Lay, the former CEO, will testify on the Hill tomorrow, but in recent days he sent out his wife, Linda, for an emotional "Today" show interview with NBC's Lisa Myers.


LINDA LAY, KEN LAY'S WIFE: Devastated, devastated for his employees.

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


KURTZ: Linda Lay talking there about the suicide of a top Enron executive. And joining us now, Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for "USA Today," and Rick Dunham, White House correspondent for "Business Week" magazine.

Susan Page, that "Today" show interview was a scoop for NBC. But what did we really learn about Ken Lay and the company from listening to his wife say what a great guy he is?

SUSAN PAGE, "USA TODAY": Well, you know, there are a lot of different angles to a story, and one of the angles to a story is the human side, and that's something we hadn't seen elsewhere. It's not the most important thing that happened within Enron coverage. I'm sure that even on the "Today" show it wasn't the thing they thought was most newsworthy.

But I think there's a value in getting a 360-degree view of a story, and that was -- and sometimes talking to people, including people who are quite unsympathetic, as I think the Lays are right at the moment, is a valuable thing to do.

KURTZ: These are, after all, human beings. But at the same time, Rick Dunham, Linda Lay said that they were broke, that they were just out of money, and yet we had to wait for other news organizations to report that they own 18 properties in Texas and Colorado and have $10 million in non-Enron stock. So I'm wondering if the media were kind of used here.

RICHARD DUNHAM, "BUSINESS WEEK" MAGAZINE: Well, definitely. But it reminds us that in this world, we have facts and then we have perceptions. And the media creates heroes and villains. And I think that the Lays want to make sure that they don't fit in the black hat villain role.

But -- and there's an interesting question that's raised. Her interview could be used in court, and it could be used in some of the civil cases involving the Lays. The wife can't be forced to testify in a criminal case against the husband, but again, this could come out again -- this could come out. And so it's a double-edged sword, to a degree.

KURTZ: The -- Ken and Linda Lay are not the only ones playing the damage control game. The White House, obviously, continues to insist that there is no involvement here by the administration, despite a Justice Department request for documents relating to Enron.

How are reporters dealing with the White House responses here and the White House's refusal to release, publicly, at least, any records relating to Enron contacts, phone calls, the Cheney task force, and so on?

PAGE: Becoming -- I think it's becoming a big issue for the White House. You know, it's the first time this White House has really had to deal with a -- with what has the potential to become a scandal. And you saw them stumbling early on, you know, you saw President Bush first trying to pretend that he didn't know Mr. Lay and that perhaps Mr. Lay supported his opponent in that first gubernatorial race.

They've really come around now to a much more aggressive damage control policy, where the president talks about how his mother-in-law lost money. And just this weekend came out with proposals to deal with one of the big issues arising from the Enron scandal, which is people's ability to control the investments in their 401(K)s. So...

KURTZ: And is the press buying this approach, or still voracious for more of the scandal-type details? PAGE: You know, I think the press is still searching for examples of behavior by the administration that would make this -- take this from being a business and financial scandal, which is clearly is, to being more of a political scandal. And that's one reason there's so much interest in getting the records from the energy task force that Vice President Cheney led.

KURTZ: In terms of the business press, this is a hell of a complicated story. How are financial journalists doing explaining to the public the off-the books partnerships and the derivatives and all that? It's kind of difficult to translate it into English.

DUNHAM: Well, it's a lot easier for a publication like "Business Week" or like "The Wall Street Journal" in that we just have saturation coverage. I mean, we've done in-depth coverage of everything from the facts of the case to the accounting questions to 401(K)s to regulation. Again, it's a lot easier to do that, and it is complex.

But I think it's hard for a lot of Washington reporters. We're used to covering politics. But the -- much of this story is still a business story, even with the questions that have been raised about fund raising and contacts with the White House. And it's really hard, if you don't have a lot of space to explain the difficult and complex business issues.

KURTZ: We're all having to learn a lot more about 401(K) diversification rules and other seemingly arcane matters involving money.

Turning now to the State of the Union, the pundits seemed to love the president's speech on Tuesday night. Let's take a look.


TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: The first half was sober, chilling, but very, very effective, as he tried to refocus the country on the threat of terrorism...


MARGARET CARLSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: It turns out no one is better than our current commander in chief in saying, We're going to come and get you, watch out. And that part of the speech was just magnificent.


KURTZ: Now, Rick Dunham, you wrote in "Business Week" that President Bush's speech fell short, that it was not a great speech, but most of the people we heard from, there were many more like them, seemed to be in the magnificent category. So who's right?

DUNHAM: Well, I think I was in the minority here, but I'll stand by what I wrote. I think he delivered a good speech, but it fell short of the brilliance of the September 20 speech, which is one of the best presidential speeches I've ever heard, either seen live or watched later.

And there were two areas that I thought that a lot of the analysts just didn't deal with. One is -- had to do with the budget. There are a lot of programs here that would cost the government money, from his spending on homeland defense and national defense to the tax cuts...

KURTZ: And in fact, there's a front-page story in "The Washington Post" today saying a lot of domestic programs have to be cut.

DUNHAM: Right.

KURTZ: That kind of got lost in the buildup about all the things they were going to spend money on, like homeland security.

And Susan Page, isn't the press wowed by the fact that this president is at 85 percent? And somebody said he could have come out and read the Houston phone book and we would have said it was a great speech.

PAGE: The Houston phone book...

KURTZ: What do you think?

PAGE: ... with all those Enron listings? I don't know, that's a word he was trying to avoid.

You know, I think it was a good speech, and it was a difficult speech. it was more difficult, really, than the September 20 speech, where he had a shocked and grieving nation quite united behind him and a single task at hand.

Now he has this complicated task of dealing with the war on terrorism, trying to continue support, and also deal with some domestic concerns that are going to be -- turn out to be more partisan.

So I thought it was a good speech, and I think your instant analysis that you do that night tends to be based on the feel of the speech...

KURTZ: The theater, the style?

PAGE: ... as opposed to the detail of what did he not say about the budget. That comes the next day. That will come tomorrow when the budget itself is released.

KURTZ: Well, we'll see how long that lasts.

DUNHAM: And if you look at the CNN...


DUNHAM: ... Gallup polls, president always gets a big bump out of State of the Union. There hasn't been a bad State of the Union speech, according to instant reaction, for -- I mean, for all these years.

KURTZ: Well, we see how much the media coverage changes when the budgetary details come out.

Rick Dunham, Susan Page, thanks very much for joining us.

And when we return, a new face on cable, and the stories that stay with you for life, on the Back Page.


KURTZ: Time now for the Back Page. Here's Bernard Kalb.

BERNARD KALB: For most reporters, there's a whole world out there, lots of stories, economic scandals, political upheavals, human tragedies. But all of these stories keep getting swept away by more of the same the next day.

But for some reporters, there are stories that never get swept away, that are ineradicable shrapnel in their hearts.


(voice-over): It's been more than a quarter of a century since the U.S. escaped from Vietnam, but the memoirs never stop of what it was like when the U.S. went to war confident it would win, and lost.

This is the newest memoir, 850 pages, just published, "The Cat from Hue: A Vietnam War Story" by John Laurence, who went over as a 25-year-old CBS news correspondent. He first began writing this book in 1966 and stayed with it ever since. He couldn't escape, and his strong and sometimes controversial views stayed with him.


UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: Fast forward to page 531 in your book, "Trying to stop the war was a burning issue with me." What happened?

JOHN LAURENCE, AUTHOR, "THE CAT FROM HUE": I felt a kind of moral obligation based on what I had learned to do whatever I could to help to try to stop the war. And the only way that I could do that was as a correspondent for CBS.


KALB: In fact, Vietnam has kept its grip on lots of reporters. Neil Sheehan was once described as the war's last prisoner because it took him 16 years to write his book, published in 1988. He too was 25 years old when he first landed in Vietnam.

And it's not only journalists who are obsessed. Here's Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense, back in the mid-'60s, who helped lead the U.S. into the quagmire. It was only some 30 years later when he went public with his feelings about the war in his 1995 book, "We were wrong, terribly wrong."


LAURENCE: It's the very best journalists want to keep the American public as well informed as possible, even if it means risking their lives or losing their relationships or their sleep or their comfort or their health, which has happened in many cases.



KALB: John Laurence could have been talking about Daniel Pearl of "The Wall Street Journal."

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb with the Back Page.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Saturday evening at 6:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media.

"NFL Preview" is just ahead on this super Sunday, but first a look at the top stories from CNN in Atlanta.




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