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Why Did Media's Coverage of Pentagon Turn Negative This Week?; What Role Did Media Play in Olympic Skating Controversy?

Aired February 16, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. Just ahead, we'll talk about why the media's coverage of the Pentagon and civilian casualties in Afghanistan turns so sharply negative this week.

But first, the thousands of journalists gathered in Salt Lake City are still feasting on the Olympic ice skating scandal. International intrigue and alleged vote fixing have produced a classic feeding frenzy, one that prompted Olympic officials to take a gold- plated step at a news conference yesterday.


DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: Under growing pressure, officials at the Winter Olympics finally address the fixing scandal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The International Olympic Committee today announced the Canadian pair skating team would get a gold medal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Surprised just about everyone by announcing that the Canadians would get a gold medal too. It's all been very high drama.


KURTZ: From the evening news to front pages across the country, the skaters are very big news, but what role did the media play in turning a simple skating flop into a cold war style melodrama? Joining us now John Feinstein, sports journalist and author of "The Last Amateurs"; from Salt Lake City, Sally Jenkins, sports columnist for "The Washington Post"; also from Salt Lake, James Shelledy, editor of the "Salt Lake Tribune".

John Feinstein, this has been treated the biggest international story since Afghanistan, since Enron, maybe since Watergate. Is the press going totally overboard about a couple of ice skaters?

JOHN FEINSTEIN, AUTHOR, THE LAST AMATEURS, SPORTS JOURNALIST: Well yes the press is going overboard in the sense that you're right, it's just ice skating, but remember when you get to the Olympic Games and you have three times as many journalists as you have athletes, this is bound to happen. The other thing is people are acting as if corruption in the Olympics is something new. Corruption in the Olympics goes back forever. It goes back to Hitler in 1936 pressuring the USOC not to let Jewish sprinters run in the relay and Avery Brundidge (ph) rolling over and playing dead for Hitler back then. So this isn't new corruption in the Olympics. It's just that it's here, it's now, it's in our country, and you had a couple of photogenic kids from Canada losing a gold medal to a couple of Russians, and we still haven't quite gotten over this whole Soviet block versus Western era.

KURTZ: Sally Jenkins, were skating officials essentially forced to cough up a second gold medal for the Canadians because of relentless media pressure?

SALLY JENKINS, THE WASHINGTON POST: Absolutely. I mean you're talking about the International Skating Union and the IOC, which are two of the great stonewalling organizations on the face of the earth. And I would disagree with John that the story was over covered. I think the level of media pressure that was brought to bear was brought as a direct result of the fact that the press knows how these organizations would have behaved if we hadn't followed the story the way we did.

The other thing is it's not just ice skating. It's a scandal about corruption and fixing a sporting event, which is a -- it's the cardinal sin of all athletics, and it's a much bigger story than a sport itself.

KURTZ: Jay Shelledy, is all this media attention that has played out in the last few days really distracting attention from the rest of the games and the other athletes?

JAMES SHELLEDY, THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE: A little and it's understandable. There's some hyperventilating going on, but you have 10,000 reporters here, half of whom don't cover sports normally and half -- the other half unlike Sally here would know triple lox (ph) from a sow cow.

And the problem is, is that he got by the ability to find there in Utah, the security isn't causing any problems and the transportation -- no, there really wasn't anything going on other than the performances themselves so this was ready made for a heart of journalists to dig their teeth into.

KURTZ: John Feinstein, I won't ask you to talk about triple loxes (ph), but are journalists who kept pounding on this story and have rolled the French judge and all of that, are journalists the good guys here fighting for truth, justice and the Olympic way?

FEINSTEIN: Well I think we always feel that we are, and you know Sally has to disagree with me because that's part of our friendship -- we always have to disagree with one another on some level, but I'm not saying the story shouldn't be covered. I'm not sure it belongs on the front page. I'm not sure it belongs ...

KURTZ: Not on the front page. FEINSTEIN: Oh I'm not -- day -- for five days ...

KURTZ: Everybody's talking about it.

FEINSTEIN: ... for five days in a row. But it certainly, though it is a story that needed to be covered because as Sally said very correctly, it is a story about corruption, although Olympic corruption isn't new. The IOC does stonewall all the time, and the only reason -- the only reason the Canadians got their gold medal was because Jacques Roga (ph) wanted this story to go away, and he went to the International ...

JENKINS: John I ...

FEINSTEIN: ... Skating Union, said we're going to make this go away by giving the Canadians a gold medal.

KURTZ: Sally ...

JENKINS: I have a question John. If this -- if this was a basketball fixing story, would you think it should be on the front page ...

FEINSTEIN: Not for five days in a row Sally, not if it involved one event and also, basketball fixing much like corruption in the Olympics isn't new, but we certainly don't have it every single time there's an Olympics. There's always some kind of corruption in an Olympics in the events that are judged -- figure skating, gymnastics and boxing.

KURTZ: Let me pick that up with Sally Jenkins.


SHELLEDY: That ...

KURTZ: Go ahead, Jay.

SHELLEDY: Well the problem really is, is that you have these international sporting federations that are answerable to no one. You have the IOC that's answerable to no one. The IOC sort of sets the example, I'd have to say that this skating scandal is really a blueprint taken right off the bidding process of the IOC. But the -- but the fact of the manner is the press is partially culpable. It just simply does not cover thoroughly and with the scrutiny it ought to the entire structure of the International Olympics Committees, sports federations, and its games, which are, in many -- in many cases, rotten to the core and have been for a long, long time.

KURTZ: Sally Jenkins ...


KURTZ: ... let me just -- let me jump in here with a question. John Feinstein makes the point that maybe the media is stretching this out a little bit and today there was another press conference featuring the Canadian skaters and the questions were all along the lines of are you mad at the Russian skaters; do you feel awkward; do you feel sorry for them.

Phil Hersher (ph) of "The Chicago Tribune" asked -- I have it here somewhere -- well I don't have it here somewhere. He basically asked why haven't you called them as a gesture. Sounds like they're trying to turn this into some kind of soap opera.

JENKINS: Well I think -- I think those questions maybe at this point, you know, are rather soap operaish and not entirely appropriate. But I do think that the story does need to continue to be covered because we've got a corrupt judge sitting on the panel at the ice dancing; a Ukrainian judge who four years ago was caught fixing the ice dancing and who's been reinstated and is here judging this Olympics. That's an unconscionable state of affairs, and I don't think the press can afford to let that go on without continuing to examine this story.

So if it has to be on the front page for four or five days to get the ISU and the IOC to tackle it properly, that's just the way it's going to have to be, and it's a real shame for the Russian pair. I know they're feeling defensive and embattled. In fact I think most of the Russian delegation is. However they too could have diffused the situation somewhat by, I think, probably saying you know what, we understand there was a corrupt judge on that panel. We understand that some of this is necessary ...

KURTZ: Right, John Feinstein ...

JENKINS: ... even -- and even if it is unfortunate.

FEINSTEIN: Well, and I agree with Sally that this overall picture of corruption is something that needs to be continued to be reported on because this isn't just about this one event. This has been going on in skating for years. There have been other scandals involving judges who, as Sally points out, are still working. And so that story needs to go on, but ...

KURTZ: Now where has the press been until now? In other words you made the point ...


KURTZ: that this is not really new ...



KURTZ: ... a lot of corruption here over the history. Some people are calling this boxing with pretty costumes, but the ...


KURTZ: ... average reader of the newspaper unless they ...


KURTZ: ... really dig into the sports section would not know that.

FEINSTEIN: And that's why I would ask Sally and Jay the question because they're out there and they'd know this better. If the -- if the silver medal had gone to just say a Czech couple that wasn't nearly as photogenic as the Canadian couple is, would this have been as big a story as it is?

KURTZ: Jay Shelledy, does ...


KURTZ: ... this kind of -- go ahead, Sally.

JENKINS: Well if they had skated as cleanly as the Canadians skated, yes. I mean what was the problem that night was not about nationality. I mean the fact that it went to a couple of lovesick Canadian kids -- yes, that's a charming, attractive story. But the fact that the central miscarriage of justice that night is what provoked the outrage in the arena, not just by the press. I mean you should have heard the boos from the entire arena.

FEINSTEIN: Yes, but you're in the United States, Sally.

JENKINS: And it really had nothing to do with their nationality.

FEINSTEIN: But Sally you're ...

JENKINS: Well ...

FEINSTEIN: ... in the United States number one.

JENKINS: ... yes we're ...

FEINSTEIN: And number two ...


FEINSTEIN: ... how can you say it's not political when the other judges -- forget the corrupt ...

JENKINS: I didn't say it wasn't political.

FEINSTEIN: ... French judge. Take her out of it, the other judges, there were four judges from former Eastern ...

JENKINS: Correct.

FEINSTEIN: ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE) countries who all voted for the Russians. So clearly politics were in play here.

KURTZ: Jay Shelledy ...

JENKINS: But of course they were in play -- of course they were. KURTZ: OK, I'm going to try to get Jay Shelledy ...

JENKINS: The point ...

KURTZ: ... back in here.

JENKINS: ... the point is it wasn't ...

KURTZ: Go ahead Sally.

JENKINS: ... it wasn't a Canadian issue. It was -- it was how the skating went that night.

KURTZ: OK Jay Shelledy, it's your turn.

SHELLEDY: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) well Sally's on mark, but the fact is it is political. It was political. Canadians have the second biggest contingent at the games and so they were marching up and down the streets weeping and gnashing their teeth right after that and they were singing "Oh Canada" all over the place, and we were trying to find the French judge who was held up. And on top of all that, Ottavio Cinquanta did his usual regal imperial self. Stonewall (ph) was outraged that anybody would even question whether there was any problem with the judging.

KURTZ: Jay ...


KURTZ: Jay Shelledy ...

SHELLEDY: ... I'll go back and ask one more question.


SHELLEDY: I want to ask the question is how come we haven't followed up when these things have happened in the past. This isn't the first time that the judging has been suspect. This has been going on ever since God invented East German judges who now speak with a French accent, as it turns out. But the fact is these are going on in every game, and we just let it ride out. They've been -- they made a mockery of the Olympic ideals and this isn't the only sport. We've had bobsled scandal. We've had a speed skating scandal.

KURTZ: OK well ...

JENKINS: I think what happened there ...

KURTZ: I got to cut you off there.


KURTZ: I got to cut you off there, but I do want to make the point that the press has a short attention span, and it takes, as John said, a couple of good looking Canadians to get this perhaps on the news magazine covers. Also since gold medals have been handing out now. I want to give you all a extra Pulitzer Price to add to your collection.

Jay Shelledy, Sally Jenkins in Salt Lake, John Feinstein, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next on RELIABLE SOURCES: The media and the military. Why is the Pentagon suddenly a wash in negative headlines over the war?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. The media are suddenly filled with tales of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, of blunders by the Pentagon, allegations that prisoners were beaten. All this in stark contrast of the general glowing coverage of the victory over the Taliban.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A mountainous region of Afghanistan is ground zero for what has become the most contiguous challenge yet to the claim of the U.S. military about its targeting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did the U.S. manage to kill some high-ranking members of the Taliban or al Qaeda or was a hellfire missile fired at a group of civilians? Is the Pentagon telling the truth? Does the Pentagon know the truth?


KURTZ: So what happened? What's behind this flood of negative stories, and did journalists wait too long to challenge the official explanations?

Well joining us now Mark Thompson, national security correspondent for "Time" Magazine, and Martin Walker, chief international correspondent for "United Press International".

Mark Thompson, why are we seeing all these stories now about civilian casualties and Pentagon screw-ups when the coverage of the war for five months was generally upbeat.

MARK THOMPSON, TIME MAGAZINE: Yes the first several months of the war, Howard, were us against the Taliban, massed armies, you know, us hitting them.

KURTZ: Us including the press?

THOMPSON: No but as of December 22 you had a new government in power. All of a sudden the war went from being a big war to a little war, and in a little war mistakes are more likely to happen when your Special Forces are going against pockets of al Qaeda and Taliban, plus the press is now in there. The press wasn't in there for the first several months of the war, and I think that's made a big difference as well.

KURTZ: Martin Walker, the American press had pretty much dismissed those allegations about prisoners being mistreated and then on Monday of this week, "The New York Times", "The Los Angeles Times", "The Washington Post" all reporting claims by some of these Afghans that they were beaten, kept in cages and so forth. Why the change?

MARTIN WALKER, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL: Well bear in mind the context, and the context is that whereas, I think for the past two or three months these stories have been a success. It's suddenly clear it's much more difficult, much more problematic, much more -- much more of an unstable situation there in Afghanistan. We've seen it all this week.

We've seen attacks on the Kandahar base of the U.S. troops. We've seen shootings by the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), perhaps by the British troops again in the last 24 hours. We've also seen this big riot at the football stadium with German troops getting involved. In other words, the context does not look like a really good successful news story any more.

KURTZ: Right, but in some cases, Mark Thompson, it's not just what's happened in the last 10 days. Journalists are going back and reporting about raids as far back as October and raising ...


KURTZ: ... questions that it didn't raise then or couldn't raise then ...


KURTZ: ... about what happened, and I'm wondering whether you feel like the Pentagon -- your beat reporter is giving you bad information or information that turns out to be inoperative, to use an old phrase.

THOMPSON: Well, I think what you're finding is that you know when you go back in time and reporters get into a new area for the first time, to a village, for example, where 21 civilians I guess were killed back on October 27, that once the press gets there and interviews people -- this is something the military generally doesn't do. It isn't the military didn't know they made a mistake. More importantly, I think, what we're seeing in Afghanistan is not black and white.

We're seeing dark gray and light gray. You hit the convoy on December 20 going to Karzai's inauguration. Plainly the Pentagon believes there were good people and bad people on that convoy, and they took the decision to take out the convoy even knowing some innocents might be killed. I mean that is war.

KURTZ: Until now, the coverage of the incidents, the undeniable incidents where civilians were killed, were kind of a sidebar story because the war was raging, and the country was feeling patriotic. Why were these aspects so much more prominent in the European press and the American press and what's the -- how the European press dealing with the war effort now?

WALKER: Well first of all the European press was very much more ready to quote the kind of Al Jazeera stories in October, November before the real American military victories about bombings that were -- that were misplaced. The second thing is that this has followed, this latest sort of alarm has followed in Europe the real sense of shock aroused by President Bush's "axis of evil" State of the Union speech, which has really got European governments not just the European press, really very antsy indeed about whether they're going to be doomed into some kind of phase two of a war against Iraq.

In other words, there is an increasing skepticism about the entire American adventure in part of the Eurasia and where it's taking us all.

KURTZ: How critical is the press being of American policy and the Pentagon?

WALKER: Huge. I've never seen anything quite like it.

KURTZ: Never seen anything like it?

WALKER: I've never seen anything like it. Well, the nearest I can think is the early 1980s and the whole row about putting cruising missiles and Pershing missiles into Europe. But you've got even sort of centralist British papers like "The Independent" saying this is no longer about terrorism. This is about us setting American hegemony around the world.

Allied papers in South Korea and Japan, it's just the same. Across Europe, the chorus is really one of mass condemnation reinforced by these kinds of claims of American atrocities or American carelessness, the smart weapons that seem to be firing at almost any tall Afghan who can be caught. It's hugely unfair. This is a war. It's still a nasty war. It's hugely unfair, but it's happening, and it's got a political impact.

KURTZ: Last weekend "The Washington Post" reported Doug Struck (ph) went to one of these villages north of Kandahar to try to talk to civilians there about what appeared to be civilian casualties. He was turned away at gunpoint by U.S. military forces who told him that if he proceeded any further he would be shot. Now the Pentagon says he was told he would -- he might be shot in a firefight. Struck (ph) says no, no, he was told he would be shot. There's no dispute he wasn't allowed to go any further. What do you make of that?

THOMPSON: I think what you've got are nervous Special Forces soldiers who don't want to see ingredients they don't understand coming into their recipe, and they're taking a very hard line. I mean as I understand it, Doug (ph) was accompanied by armed guards of his own. They don't need guys like that when they're doing a mission, and they're saying stay away. And that's what they told him and apparently they told him with some degree of relish.

KURTZ: Go ahead.

WALKER: One other thing that's important because the story has died down a bit in Afghanistan, quite a lot of the European correspondents have been going back over the old Al Jazeera stories of October, November of bombings of village areas following those up and coming up with more and more of this kind of story.

KURTZ: Yes a lot of that had been dismissed as propaganda by the U.S. press.

WALKER: A lot of it has been dismissed very much as Afghan propaganda particularly the village where the Taliban took people in from Afghanistan. And it turns out that looks as though that could have been another misplaced smart weapon.

KURTZ: Was the American press more reluctant, to use that word, to do some of this more aggressive reporting about civilian casualties during the time that bombs were falling, American lives were in jeopardy, Donald Rumsfeld was procured on magazine covers as a rock star.

THOMPSON: I don't think that you can criticize the press when they're not at the scene interviewing the folks. I mean ...


THOMPSON: Right. I mean ...


THOMPSON: ... this week the story that was big was the folks were held and who allegedly were beaten because reporters got to interview those folks, not because someone who wasn't there asserted it. Once you get an eyewitness or a participant, the story becomes much more compelling and begs to be printed on the front page.

KURTZ: It's real reporting. I've got to hold it there. Martin Walker, Mark Thompson, thanks very much for joining us. When we come back the Spin Cycle on what's real and not so real.


KURTZ: Time now for the "Spin Cycle." In a world of political smoke and mirrors journalists try to report what's real -- that anyway is the goal.

Real, not real, real, not real, real, not real. Hey how did that get in there? Real, not real, but what do you do when reality is a bit harder to figure out? Former Enron Chief Ken Lay says no one should draw negative conclusions from his failure to testify, as if taking the Fifth is oh, like taking out the garbage.


KEN LAY, FORMER ENRON CEO: It may be perceived by some that I have something to hide.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senators insist they're looking for answers, not just beating up on Lay for the benefit of the cameras.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. Lay, I've concluded that you're perhaps the most accomplished confidence man since Charles Ponzey (ph). How did you think that you could get away with it?


KURTZ: Right. The Pentagon said American forces killed and captured Taliban members in a raid near Kandahar three weeks ago, and the media ran with the story.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In Afghanistan U.S. Special Forces have been involved in gun battles during raids on a pair of Taliban compounds.


KURTZ: But the Pentagon later admitted that these were not Taliban members and freed the 27 captors. The famous fog of war.

Did the president work against a main campaign finance reform bill before the House vote? "The Los Angeles Times" said no, Republicans battle finance bill without Bush.

But "The New York Times" said yes, White House is backing foes of finance bill. Ari Fleischer said the president supported campaign finance reform but wasn't lobbying for it. And then there's NBC's Olympic coverage where there's a cozy fireplace burning behind Bob Costas. Oops, the fire's a fake. A real fireplace, says NBC, might make him sweat.

So is everything you see here real? Are you kidding? If we were to use a pretend set, we wouldn't have this elegant furniture, it looks like it was bought at a rummage sale, and you should see the rug.

Well that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Tune in tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern for a special live RELIABLE SOURCES. We'll talk about the big vote this week on campaign finance reform and former CBS news correspondent Bernard Goldberg will join us to talk about his book "Bias."




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