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Have American Journalists Become cheerleaders?; Interview with Bob Woodward

Aired February 10, 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 with a conservative and a liberal magazine editor about whether American journalists have become cheerleaders for the war effort and are stifling dissent in the process.

But first, how much does the press really know about what went on in the Bush White House in the wake of the September 11 attacks? "Washington Post" reporters Dan Baltz (ph) and bob Woodward tackle that question in "Ten Days in September," a lengthy series which ran last week based on some extraordinarily high-level access.

We sat down with Woodward to talk about his reporting a short time ago.

Bob Woodward, welcome.

In this series, you and Dan Baltz unearth some pretty interesting anecdotes, Dick Cheney giving the order to shoot down an airliner on September 11, the one that turned out to crash in Pennsylvania, George Bush scolding his chief of staff, Andy Card, for warning him in front of reporters that there was another threat on the White House and refusing to be evacuated. That turned out to be a false alarm.

You had on-the-record interviews with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, and others. Why would they talk to you in such detail about what went on behind the scenes?

BOB WOODWARD, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I think they feel it's a good story, that war is going well, and it shows Bush in his most decisive mode. And there's no question about that. At the same time, I'm doing a book on Bush's first 18 months. I had some of the story. Dan Baltz was doing a very long piece about just one day, September 11. And we decided to pool what we had, and the editors at "The Post" said, Let's get this in the paper in detail, and take those 10 days and let it run, explain what was happening, how the decisions were made, what the debate was, what the emotions were.

KURTZ: In fact, you've sometimes been criticized in the past for vacuuming up newsworthy material and holding it for a book that might come out a year or two later. Was that in the back of your mind in deciding to give this away for 35 cents a day? WOODWARD: I guess maybe, in a way, just because having covered the war since September for "The Post" and particularly on the FBI's, CIA end, it's a very serious confrontation, much, in fact, I think you could argue, it is a pivot point in history, quite obviously.

So telling people what really happened, what's the dynamic, I think, was critical at this point, and the editors at "The Post" felt the same way.

KURTZ: What really happened, though? Critics say this is a self-portrait, by and large, in which the principal people, from the president and the vice president on down, say they performed brilliantly, that they -- it's a very glowing portrait, and that they're not likely to tell you anything that is too embarrassing. Is that a fair criticism?

WOODWARD: Well, inevitably, if you're writing about the Bush war cabinet, you have to talk to the Bush war cabinet. And we talked to note-takers, people who actually wrote things down. And there are a lot of unofficial sources in there, and there's some unflattering things, like when they were planning to show a slide for special forces operations to the president, where they were proposing thinking out of the box, Let's poison the food supply in Afghanistan.

Now, that's against all treaties that we've signed. You know, it was on the verge of being an outrage that even that would be proposed to the president.

So we cross-checked and used the kind of tried-and-tested means of verifying, seeing who had documents and notes.

KURTZ: This was not all spoon-fed or dictated to you by these very important people.

WOODWARD: I mean, how could it have been? We don't operate that way. I don't think they feel that Dan and I are going to sit there and catch it. We had some of the story, and went to them and said, Secretary Powell has said something happened on Friday afternoon. Rumsfeld says it was Thursday night. Which was it? What is the language? What exactly is the sequence in the meeting and the discussion? Because that's critical.

And so by going, and then going back and going back to people that we had interviewed once or twice, we came up with this portrait, which lots of people say, OK, it shows them being very strong, but very critical and important decisions were made that may look right now, they may turn out to be wrong.

KURTZ: But you're comfortable you got the full story, or as close as reporters could come at this juncture.

WOODWARD: Well, as we said in the first piece, this is inevitably incomplete. Like any piece of journalism, one of your books, one of my books, but it's thoroughly reported from all the perspectives that we could obtain. And sometimes the note-takers' perspective was more important than the president's. KURTZ: Always good to have notes.

And here's a front page from last week, big splash for your series, "We Will Rally the World," picture of Condy Rice. Right next to it, "Cheney Refuses Records Release," this about the showdown with the General Accounting Office over the energy task force.

Some might say an inconsistency here, perhaps even hypocrisy. They're spilling their guts to you about this great war effort, of refusing to turn over records to Congress's investigating arm.

WOODWARD: I mean, I followed the Enron story and Cheney's position on that. I would say they should turn over everything and try to respond as completely as possible. And I think people are right, maybe there is an inconsistency here. So people should be knocking on their door and say, Give us the Enron documents. Explain it to us. Let's hear your side, let's hear what may be hidden.

KURTZ: And reporters should be knocking on that door as well.

Now, this was a very lengthy piece of work, eight parts, about 40,000 words, some individual parts of the series took up three full pages in the paper. Any concern that you just would lose a lot of readers who wouldn't have the time to plow through that much newsprint?

WOODWARD: Yes, because I'm sure we did lose lots of readers. But it's up -- no one is forced, it's not like television, if your clicker's broken, that you have to watch. No one has to read. This is such an important matter, worthy of even more in-depth coverage.

KURTZ: And you're going to continue part of this in the forthcoming book?



WOODWARD: Certainly.

KURTZ: Reporters always agonize, did they get it right? They got to write every day, if you're working for a newspaper. Do you see a gap between what was reported at the time about those 10 days in September and what you were able to piece together with relative luxury after the fact?

WOODWARD: Yes. I think there are two things, or maybe even three tests, for a series like this. Is there lots of new information? Does it justify it? I think that speaks for itself. I mean, there is -- most of this is really new information.

The second would be, does it tell you about how the president decides, how he runs the war? And I think it tells that. Third, does it tell you what the war is in a way that you didn't know? And I think it explains very -- in great detail the hidden, invisible part of the war. There's a worldwide attack matrix that the CIA has. They have covert operations going on or proposed in 80 countries.

KURTZ: But in part, for example, the press widely scoffed at this notion that there was a threat against Air Force One on September 11, perhaps a cover story by the White House to avoid -- to cover up the embarrassment that Bush didn't return directly to Washington. You found out that there actually was a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) threat that made it seem more serious than it was. So perhaps the original reporting was not very good there.

WOODWARD: Well, I don't know, the -- it's not been fully explained. But the -- but as we show, and I think this is kind of one of the dark sides of all of this, on the first day, they didn't know what was going on. It was chaos. There were -- the plans really didn't work. Lots of people didn't know what to do. And in the White House, somebody got a report allegedly that Air Force One was threatened, and a watch stander translated it into the code word for Air Force One, which is Angel, or was Angel, and (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

KURTZ: And they said, Oh, my God, somebody's got the code word.

WOODWARD: Exactly, and...

KURTZ: But it turned out to be a White House official throwing that -- or a staffer putting it into play.

Just briefly, this has widely been described as the most secretive administration in some decades, not withstanding the access, pretty high-level access, that you had on this series. Would you agree with that assessment?

WOODWARD: I don't think so. I (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

KURTZ: The press is just whining here?

WOODWARD: No, it's not a matter of the press whining. It's a matter of, we should do more in-depth stories like this, demonstrate our seriousness. I have found them quite responsive to serious questions. Daily reporters have their beef, and I think it's legitimate, that the White House wants to control the message, and they don't respond that way to the breaking news story.

KURTZ: Right.

WOODWARD: So maybe the message here for the press is, OK, let's go and ask for detailed answers about complex subjects and see if they respond. Dan Baltz and I found they did.

KURTZ: Well, we haven't used as many words as you did in your series, but we are out of time. Bob Woodward, thanks for joining us.

When we come back, is the press being spoon-fed by the Pentagon on the war in Afghanistan? Two very different views, next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Joining us now to talk about the war coverage, from New York, Lewis Lapham, the editor of "Harper's" magazine. And here in Washington, Jonah Goldberg, the editor of National Review Online.

The Pentagon and the press are still at odds over the difficult issue of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. And it turns out that the official explanation for a U.S. raid a month ago is now inoperative.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS READER: U.S. military officials are admitting that a raid last month north of Kandahar may have been a mistake and that innocent people may have been killed. At least 15 people died in the raid on what was believed to have been a Taliban compound.



JOHN McWETHY, ABC CORRESPONDENT: There are some indications now that U.S. forces not only got some people that they were going after but also affected many friendly Afghans, both capturing them and killing them.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And now it appears that friendly forces in Afghanistan may have been misadvertently targeted in that attack.


KURTZ: Lewis Lapham, at the time of the January 24 raid, "The New York Times," like everyone else in the press, reported, "American troops killed as many as 15 Taliban fighters and captured 27 others, Pentagon officials said." Now, it's, Oops! What does that tell us about the war coverage?

LEWIS LAPHAM, EDITOR, "HARPER'S" MAGAZINE: It takes a press release. The war coverage is coming out of the Pentagon, and the press is repeating what it's told.

KURTZ: Jonah Goldberg, should journalists be more skeptical when the Pentagon that everything is just super-duper?

JONAH GOLDBERG, EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: Well, the press should always be skeptical. That's why they're called the press. And I don't see why -- I mean, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- maybe I misheard, but I'm pretty sure that these news reports did say "the Pentagon said" blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. You know, it didn't say that these things objectively were confirmed by these news organizations, and it said the Pentagon said these things, and then when it turns out the Pentagon was wrong, they said the Pentagon was wrong. I don't really see the scandal. KURTZ: Well, it's not a scandal, but of course there is the question of whether or not journalists should spend more time digging beyond and behind, especially now that so many are in Afghanistan, the official version.

President Bush this week reversed himself and agreed to apply the Geneva Convention rules for the Taliban prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. And Don Rumsfeld, meanwhile, is still ticked off about the media coverage of that photograph -- released by the Pentagon, by the way -- of those kneeling, handcuffed prisoners at Guantanamo.

Let's take a look at what the defense secretary had to say.


DON RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: ... that yelled, Torture! What's next, electrodes? And all of this rubbish was so inexcusable that it does make one wonder, as I said to Jamie, why we (UNINTELLIGIBLE) put out any photographs, if that's the way they're going to be treated so irresponsibly.


KURTZ: Lewis Lapham, that was a British paper that printed the "Torture!" headline. But why did it take the European press to get the American press to cover the whole issue, the whole controversy about the detainees and their treatment at Guantanamo Bay?

LAPHAM: The European press, by and large, is far more skeptical of power and of authority and of the Pentagon, whether it's American government or British government or French government, than is the American press. The American press tends to be cheerleading and up the side and wave the flag, whereas the European press, generally speaking, has a more skeptical attitude.

KURTZ: Cheerleading. Why do you say you use the word "cheerleading"?

LAPHAM: Well, because they -- when I read the little -- Why don't we bomb Iraq? for example. I mean, you get Dick Morris on Fox News suggesting that we not only invade Iraq but also Libya, Syria, and Lebanon. And that is the general run of the editorials in, let's say, "The New York Post," to some extent in "The Wall Street Journal." Even -- you find even Tom Brokaw in the early days of the adventure in Afghanistan wanting to know why we don't have division-sized forces on the ground in Kandahar and so forth.

Or you have Ted Koppel on "Nightline" introducing two critics of the war by turning to his audience and saying to the audience, "You don't have to -- you're not going to like what you're going to hear tonight, and you don't have to listen."

KURTZ: Jonah Goldberg, I saw you shaking your head.

GOLDBERG: Well, I mean, look, starting off with Dick Morris as somehow a bellwether or American journalism, whatever you may think of Dick Morris, he's -- I don't really quite understand the relevance. And, you know, this notion that...

LAPHAM: Well, who is relevant if not Morris? I mean, take your own magazine, take "National Review."

GOLDBERG: Yes, oh, "National Review"'s an opinion magazine which actually happens to be very aggressive about the war on terrorism...

LAPHAM: Well, so is Fox News and so is "The New York Post" and so is "The Wall Street Journal."

GOLDBERG: And therefore it follows from that the press is being spoon-fed from the Pentagon and that the American media is rah-rah...

LAPHAM: Yes. Of course it is.

GOLDBERG: ... and that it (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- I don't see the connection, I...

LAPHAM: Of course it is. You just saw it. You just saw it on television. You just saw Rumsfeld...


LAPHAM: ... You just saw Rumsfeld -- poor Rumsfeld was complaining about a caption.

GOLDBERG: Yes, well, look he...

LAPHAM: And a -- and...

GOLDBERG: ... he had every right to be furious about (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

LAPHAM: Well, that was a -- No, he -- it's a military photograph...

GOLDBERG: Of course he did, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the British media was outrageous in its coverage, reporting that there was torture going on and all those sorts of things.

LAPHAM: The press is supposed to be outrageous.

GOLDBERG: And (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- no, the press is supposed to be...

LAPHAM: Yes, it is.

GOLDBERG: No, look, the press is supposed to ask tough, skeptical questions. I have no problem with that.

LAPHAM: That's exactly what -- that's exactly what...

GOLDBERG: Yes, but declaring, declaring...

LAPHAM: ... the British press did.

GOLDBERG: ... torture -- Look, there's no reason why a government official shouldn't be angry about being accused of torturing people. And if you think it's the height of journalistic responsibility for a media organization to accuse a government official of torture and then not allow the government official to respond in kind and deny it, that strikes me as absurd.

LAPHAM: We're not talking about the accusation. We were talking about a photograph taken by the Pentagon...

GOLDBERG: With a headline that said, "Torture!"

LAPHAM: So that...


LAPHAM: ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE) you've got the secretary -- you've got the secretary of defense complaining about a word.

GOLDBERG: No, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) an editorial...

LAPHAM: It seems to me rather...

GOLDBERG: ... I've read those editorials from the British tabloids, and they all went on at length -- not all of them, but a good number of them went on at length talking about torture.

KURTZ: OK, I want to take a broader view here of just British tabloid headlines. Now, in "Harper's" magazine, Lewis Lapham, you wrote that, "The media, among others, have made it clear they prefer as little discussion as possible, domestic political consent" -- excuse me -- "domestic political dissent they regard as immoral and in times of war treasonous." Immoral, treasonous? Those are pretty heavy words.

LAPHAM: Well, I don't think we're in a time of war, to begin with, Howard. I mean, it's -- this is not, in my view, a war. And the -- to call it a war is already to promote it into a emphasis and a magnitude that I don't think it deserves.

And for the critics, I mean, on the right, the people who say that people like myself who question the premise of the war, even question the definition of the war, are somehow unpatriotic, un- American, and so on. There was a paper put out by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni last November saying that it was -- to even raise the smallest of questions was un-American, treasonous, and so on.

And on the board, the people who are responsible for this organization, include William Bennett, Martin Poretz (ph), Irvin Kristol, Lynne Cheney...

KURTZ: Let me break in here. I want to just put up one more thing on the screen that you wrote, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) about President Bush. And you said, "Six months ago, we were looking at a man so obviously in the service of the plutocracy that he could have been mistaken for a lawn jockey in the parking lot of a Houston golf club."

So I'm wondering whether your distaste for the president has an impact on your view that the American press is not only too easy on the Pentagon but too easy on President Bush.

LAPHAM: No, it's this -- it's the sudden transformation in -- I -- that's a fairly sharp criticism of the president. But what I was interested in was the almost immediate transformation. There were other people, other than myself, critical of Bush last summer. The Republicans had lost the majority in the Senate, the economy was dwindling under the recession. It was quite clear that conservative compassion was neither conservative nor compassionate. And the tax bill that was pushed through last June was a travesty.

KURTZ: Jonah Goldberg, media transforming Bush into some sort of Churchillian figure?


LAPHAM: Within a week.

GOLDBERG: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) there's no surprise, and it's hardly shocking. I doubt it would happen -- I doubt if it wouldn't have happened if it been a Democratic president either. But there is a certain rally-round-the-flag, support-the-president phenomenon. And the idea that somehow this constitutes some sort of cultural or journalistic fascism or herd mentality or McCarthyistic atmosphere, I quite -- frankly, I find baffling.

And the idea that somehow the right has been accusing all sorts of -- I mean, I hear this constantly from liberal critics of the right saying that the right is accusing people of being unpatriotic and questioning their loyalty to the government, and frankly, I think it's so much psychological projection. I have no idea what these people are talking about.

I don't know anybody who's questioned -- who's sort of come out of the gates questioning people's patriotism or -- it's -- frankly, I think it has a lot more to do with the psychology of the left than it has anything to do with anything the right is saying.

KURTZ: Lacking a degree in psychology, I want to move on to one other subject in the minute that remains to us, and that is, "Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl still missing, kidnapped two weeks ago in Pakistan. Now last weekend, as you know, Jonah, ABC reported that Pearl had been killed, his bullet-ridden body dumped on the street, retracted an hour later. Fox News also followed with a false report.

In the pantheon of journalistic sins, how serious a mistake was that?

GOLDBERG: I think it was a pretty serious mistake, and I think it also relates in some ways to the topics we've been discussing tonight, in that I do think the American public has an absolute ironclad right to know. It doesn't necessarily have an ironclad right or need to know right now.

And the idea that ABC News should have come out of the blocks like that, reporting about Danny Pearl's death, when the news value is relatively so slow, and it seems to me kind of ghoulish in the competitive ratings game.

KURTZ: Lewis Lapham, I would say the news value was high, but why not wait an hour or two and make sure you've got it nailed down, if you're actually going to declare somebody dead on national television? Just briefly, your thoughts.

LAPHAM: I agree with Jonah, I would have waited the hour until I knew what I was saying.

I also could tell Jonah the number of -- he says there are no critics on the right, but he obviously doesn't read "The New York Post" or "The Wall Street Journal." I mean, there are people like Michael Kelly, there are people like John Podhoretz...

GOLDBERG: But you love the outrageous press, so I don't know why you're complaining about (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

LAPHAM: I don't see which -- I don't -- I don't know what you think...

KURTZ: Got to blow the whistle here.

LAPHAM: If you think that's the outrageous press, I don't know, I don't know what press...


LAPHAM: ... you're referring to.

KURTZ: OK. I got to step in here. We'll continue this debate another time. Lewis Lapham and Jonah Goldberg, thanks very much for a spirited debate.

Well, up next, the media going for the gold in Bernard Kalb's Back Page.


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

BERNARD KALB,RELIABLE SOURCES: So when it's all over, what medal for the media, the gold, the silver, the bronze? Whatever, it's the kind of story you can't miss, an extravaganza that erupts every four years, a kind of United Nations of sports, so many athletes, so many countries, all in the full glare of the media, with an estimated 3 billion people around the world tuned in.

Now, the memory of 9/11 is everywhere. Security has never been tighter on the ground, in the sky. The media portraying these Olympics as a showcase of global defiance of terrorism, of not letting terrorism set the world's agenda. And for the next two weeks, Salt Lake is where it's all happening. These stories here will be sharing the media spotlight with the big stories out of Washington, Afghanistan, the Middle East, wherever. And as stories go, this one's got it all -- competition, passion, winners, losers, countries fighting each other nonviolently.

Not that the Olympics over the years have been immune to violence. There was that bomb explosion at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The most notorious instance of violence taking place at the Munich Olympics in 1972, when 11 Israeli athletes were murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

Nor are the Olympics immune from politics. Adolf Hitler tried to turn the Berlin Games of '36 into a triumph of Aryan racial superiority. But the son of an Alabama sharecropper, Jesse Owens, laughed the Fuehrer off stage by winning four gold medals.

But even before these games are finished, the great competition is already under way over which country will get the nod to host the games of 2010.

But back to the media angle of the Olympics. This story has got it all, drama, excitement, countries fighting it out to the last split-second. In other words, even a cub reporter should have no trouble winning the gold.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb.

And that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch us again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.




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