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Are the Media Providing Balanced Coverage of the Middle East?; Are the Media Giving Enough Air Time to Democrats?

Aired April 20, 2002 - 18:30   ET


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

The Democrats say the cable networks are tilting toward the Bush White House, and all but obliterating them in the process. Just ahead, a special conversation with House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt.


REP. RICHARD GEPHARDT (D-MO), MINORITY LEADER: People need to know there are different views out there on a lot of these issues. I go around the country and have Democrats come to me and say, why don't you people say something?


KURTZ: But first, we turn to the ongoing situation in the Middle East. The press is trying to sort through the spin from both sides in the increasingly deadly conflict.

And joining us now, Janine Zacharia, Washington correspondent for "The Jerusalem Post," and Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper "As-Safir."

Janine Zacharia, we've all seen the pictures, the devastating TV pictures of the aftermath of the Israeli raid on the refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin. Clearly, some civilians were killed. But in the British press, parts of the British press, they are describing this as a massacre. This is the headline in the "London Independent": "Amid the ruins of Jenin, grisly evidence of a war crime."

And then you read the American press, and they describe these as "unsubstantiated allegations." What do you make of this trans- Atlantic split?

JANINE ZACHARIA, "JERUSALEM POST": Well, I think we've seen this even before the incident in Jenin, where the American press has been a bit more responsible in their reporting on the Middle East than the European press.

KURTZ: Are you saying, therefore, the European is irresponsible? ZACHARIA: Sometimes when it comes to the Middle East, they tend to be a little bit more sensationalistic, maybe to grab headlines, that's the way it's -- a little more tabloid-ish, where the American press I think has held to a slightly higher standard. There are some of them even say the American press, in particular the TV press, has sort of given the distorted view of what happened in Jenin, that this is -- somewhat the Israelis are a little bit responsible for this, because there were no journalists on the ground what was happening. This has fed speculation that there was something abhorrent that happened there.

KURTZ: Right. Let's take a look at some of the recent coverage on CNN to get a sense of it.


SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This camp, say the Israelis, was the heart of the Palestinian terror infrastructure, and the civilians who lived here, the women and children, they say, were used as shields.

On Tuesday, the Israeli military took journalists to the camp to show what they say is evidence of a highly prepared terrorist fighting force. Over and over, they denied Palestinian allegations there had been a massacre here. They say they evacuated civilians.


KURTZ: CNN's Sheila MacVicar.

Hisham Melhem, how is the Arab press seeing the battle in Jenin, and do you think there is something of a -- even a cover-up by the American press?

HISHAM MELHEM, "AS-SAFIR": No, I think the American press, traditionally speaking, has been pro-Israel and more sympathetic to Israel, although in recent years we've seen that the coverage is more nuanced, is more textured, and on the whole now in the last few weeks, especially with the coverage of Jenin and what happened after the Israeli invasion, we've seen a more and more balanced coverage, especially in the print media.

The situation, when it comes to editorial writers and columnists, you have the typical Israel-armed corner with very well-known columnists with their pro-Israeli views, like -- we can name a few, if we want to.

KURTZ: But that's very different than saying there's no substantiation or evidence that there were actual, intentional atrocities, intentional killing of civilians.

Janine, does the American press do an adequate job of covering the Palestinian side, or is their bias, blatant bias against the Palestinians?

ZACHARIA: Well, it's funny, because you have both say -- American Jewish groups saying that there's bias against Israel, and you have American Palestinians who are saying there is bias against Palestinians.

I think very much sometimes the bias is in the reader themselves, and looking for something that will sort of justify or make them feel good about their side of the conflict.

I think overall, I think "The Washington Post" ombudsman did acknowledge that there has been more coverage of Palestinian civilians and their feelings and the hardships they've suffered, and I think that some...

KURTZ: He was talking about a particular story. And that's part of the problem here, because one story, where in the first paragraph you talk about Palestinian killed, and in the fourth paragraph you talk about Israelis killed, somebody is going to then jump up and say, you're biased.

MELHEM: But when you have the suicide bombings inside Israel, you had saturation coverage, of course.

KURTZ: Not so much on some of the later bombings.


MELHEM: Yeah, but also you saw a lot of bloody fingers of people who were victimized and all that. And talk to the Palestinians, they'll tell you, they are not covering the Palestinian suffering the same way, with the same intensity that they cover that.

KURTZ: But would you agree that when somebody straps a bomb to their chest and goes into a restaurant, a bar mitzvah, a discotheque, a hotel, blows themselves up and other people...

MELHEM: Of course that's a different story.

KURTZ: ... that that is -- deserves saturation coverage?

MELHEM: No, it deserves a great deal of coverage, just as the killing on the other side also deserves a great deal of coverage. Look, I mean, I know it jars our sensibilities to see someone blow themselves up with other people, but also, I mean, once -- it should jar our sensibilities too if -- if excessive force was used and civilians died, even though we don't see that on camera or even though we don't see the bodies immediately after the bombing.

KURTZ: But do you believe that the Western press plays up Israeli casualties more so than Palestinian casualties?

MELHEM: I mean, a lot of Arabs would say that. A lot of Arabs say that. What I'm trying to say is that in the media's coverage, it's more nuanced, more balanced. In television, it's less so, particularly with some -- with some cable news networks, where you have really blanket support for Israel, almost jingoistic support, like Fox News, for instance...


MELHEM: Absolutely, especially with the talk show programs. My God, whipping support for Israel, the fervor for Israel. CNN was more balanced. ABC was more balanced. There were programs like "Nightline" and what Christiane Amanpour did, what your correspondents did, they tried to convey a more balanced picture that shows both the suffering of innocent Palestinians, as well as Israeli civilians.

KURTZ: Of course, talk shows are built on opinion, but do you agree that the television coverage is sensational, simplistic, distorted?

ZACHARIA: I think we're seeing extraordinary sensationalism in the coverage right now. Particularly take the example of Jenin, where you got correspondents going around, interviewing people, and basically taking people's words for it. And it's very dramatic footage. And so it's not really -- it doesn't really shed light on actually what happened there necessarily when you go and you interview...

KURTZ: What else can a television correspondent do other than interview people on the scene, while trying to make clear that this is not definitive evidence?

ZACHARIA: Well, I think it's important to give context, and I think we see this both in the TV and as well in the print. Very often, they'll give an example -- they'll talk about what happened in Jenin, but they won't explain why the Israelis went in, or they'll underplay or not give enough time for the Israeli explanation for what happened there.


MELHEM: ... Israeli officers, Israeli commentators, justifying what they did to Jenin. I mean, obviously they do that all the time.

Of course, you have to interview victims. You don't have to take their word as the final word, but obviously they have an interest in this thing, and they cannot crate a myth when there is no myth. You cannot create victims where there are no victims.

ZACHARIA: We can. We can, actually.

MELHEM: And we've seen victims and we've seen the amount of destruction. I mean, the physical destruction, you'll have to admit, is awesome, and this is not only the journalists saying, but relief agencies and others.

KURTZ: You work for "The Jerusalem Post."


KURTZ: How upset is the Israeli press over the restrictions that basically journalists, Israeli, American, other, are kept out of these areas so they can't really fully cover the story and can't -- and it makes it harder to sift through these conflicting claims of atrocities or excessive force.

ZACHARIA: Well, I think every journalist in Israel and elsewhere wants to have maximum press freedom in every case. But in Israel, I think there is somewhat more sympathy to the idea that this is -- because Israeli journalists, as well as Israeli civilians, feel threatened by what's going on, feel threatened by suicide bombings. There is a general understanding for it.

But I think they -- and they also see a double standard, in terms of, well, why isn't the world outraged that the American press couldn't cover Tora Bora and the civilians...

KURTZ: Well, there was a lot of said among American journalists.

ZACHARIA: It didn't seem to carry on the same.

KURTZ: Obviously, the situation is really different.


KURTZ: Want to turn just quickly to the coverage of President Bush. Two weeks ago he said the Israelis should withdraw from the West Bank without delay. Just the other day, he said the withdrawal seems to be going fine, and he called Ariel Sharon a man of peace. Has the press been tough enough on these apparent changes of position by the president?

MELHEM: Only recently we've seen some critical assessments and analysis of why the president did what he did, why the president seems to be backtracking in the face of what everybody in the whole world, including European press, are saying Sharon's challenge and defiance of the American president. Obviously, sometimes people say this is in part due to domestic pressure or the lack of interest on this side, or maybe because of his previous impulses, which are really in support of Israeli policies, and in particular with Sharon.

KURTZ: This is a conversation we'll have to continue. We hope you'll both come back. Hisham Melhem, Janine Zacharia, thanks very much for joining us.

And when we come back, are the cable networks denying the Democrats air time? Our conversation with House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. The Democrats are not happy with CNN -- or MSNBC, or Fox News. House minority leader Richard Gephardt and Senate majority leader Tom Daschle have fired off letters to the heads of the cable networks, saying they devote huge amounts of live coverage time to President Bush and his team, while all but ignoring the opposition.

We sat down with Dick Gephardt in his Capitol office to talk about his complaint.


KURTZ: Congressman Gephardt, welcome.

GEPHARDT: Good to be here.

KURTZ: To write a letter like this, you must be really frustrated with cable news. You must be shouting at the set every time George Bush comes on.

GEPHARDT: I don't shout at the set. Look, I understand that the president gets the dominant attention always, whoever the president is. And they deserve that. We're also at war, war against terrorism. We've got big problems in the Middle East. I understand that needs to get a lot of attention, and I'm glad that it's getting attention.

KURTZ: So, what's your beef?

GEPHARDT: Well, the beef is that it's been almost impossible in these last months for the loyal opposition to get any views in front of anybody. When we had campaign finance reform on the floor, on that day, there were lots of attention being paid to the war against terrorism. We had briefings from the Pentagon. You had other administration officials out there, and I'm not saying that all that isn't important. It deserves coverage and it ought to get it.

But if you look over the last three months, we've gotten about 4 percent of the attention to about 96 percent of the attention paid to the administration's views on a whole range of issues, not just the war.

KURTZ: And we're talking here about live coverage, not newscasts.

GEPHARDT: Live coverage, yes.

KURTZ: But, nevertheless, you feel, I mean, when Dick Gephardt or Tom Daschle meets with reporters, most journalists don't consider that as newsworthy as a speech by the president or a briefing by Don Rumsfeld or a press conference by Colin Powell?

GEPHARDT: No, I understand that Cabinet officials need and are going to get a lot of attention, especially when you're at war, when you have all of these foreign policy issues.

But there are lots of times given to Ari Fleischer, who's the press secretary to the president. I'm not saying he shouldn't get attention, but if he's going to get his full newscast put on cable news, could we not get a minute for a Democrat or a Democratic senator or a Democratic House member to posit some very important views on campaign reform or the budget or education or prescription drugs or Social Security? These are important issues too that are being decided that people really care about out in the country.

KURTZ: Any response to your letter from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News?

GEPHARDT: Not that I'm aware of. KURTZ: They're blowing you off?

GEPHARDT: Well, I don't care about the response. I just want the result. I just hope that we were able to get more attention paid. And again, look, we're not asking for a stopwatch to be put on who's getting what on the news. We're not asking for newspapers to get a measuring stick out to see who gets the most space.

We're just asking for a little more balance. People need to know there are different views out there on a lot of these issues. I go around the country, and I have Democrats come up to me and say, "Why don't you people say something? You're silent. You're not saying anything."

KURTZ: So it's hurting the party, in your view?

GEPHARDT: Well, it's hurting the country. The country is based on dissent and argument and differences of opinion being expressed. That's what democracy is about. If we're not out there, on the media, which is the way people get information, then we're hurting the country.

KURTZ: Let's get specific. Democratic National Committee study on CNN, roughly the first three months of this year, 157 live events involving the president, first lady, Bush aides; seven live events involving Democrats. Is this because CNN somehow favors the Bush White House?

GEPHARDT: I don't think that. I don't think these networks are showing a motivation to be for one side or the other. I just think that sometimes we don't pay attention enough to what actually is getting out to people. And we're just trying to bring that to the attention of the executives of these networks.

It may be that just by accident or happenstance this has come to be. Look, again, we know that the president and his administration always has the bully pulpit.

KURTZ: And this was true in the Clinton administration...

GEPHARDT: It was absolutely true.

KURTZ: ...and Republicans didn't like it then.

GEPHARDT: It was absolutely true in Clinton. I don't think it was this true. I don't think it was this one-sided.

KURTZ: Now, your people are also saying, well, some of the speeches given by President Bush that get this live coverage are on domestic issues, not terrorism. One time, he gave a speech at a fund- raiser for Elizabeth Dole, Senate candidate in North Carolina. That gets live coverage. So the justification that this is because of the post-9/11 environment, do you not entirely buy that?

GEPHARDT: Right. I think that what's happening is that almost anything the administration does, certainly the president, certainly a lot of the Cabinet secretaries, gets attention, even when it's not about the war against terrorism, it's not about what's happening in the Middle East. And again, I'm not saying that those things shouldn't get attention. They deserve to get their debate out on Social Security, on the budget, on jobs, on education. But when those things are the subject of attention on the media, we'd like to be able to get a little bit of the other side of the news.

KURTZ: Is part of the problem that you, as minority leader, can't just snap your fingers and make something happen, unlike an administration that can set policy sometimes without the consent of Congress?

GEPHARDT: Well, that's always part of the consideration. Presidents take action. They issue an executive order, which arguably has made something happen. We have to get a vote here. We have to amass enough votes to be able to pass something.

But even when we're on the cusp of actually doing something, like passing campaign finance reform, we didn't feel that we could get any of that information out, simply because there was so much attention being paid to other things that were happening on that day.

KURTZ: So this is not a question of you and the Democratic Party not being media savvy enough to stage events that would be appealing to cable news executives. After all, they worry about ratings, right?

GEPHARDT: Well, I understand...

KURTZ: They don't want people clicking away to another network.

GEPHARDT: I understand the ratings, and in the past we've tried to make things visually interesting and exciting, and we continue to do that. We've had lots of press conferences, lots of visuals that we thought up that we think would get the message across to people. But even when we did that, we just couldn't get the people to pay attention.

People have the TV on all day long. They're watching what's happening all day. It's kind of a stream of consciousness, if you will. And if we're just not there, if you're totally silent, you're totally out of those news features, then you can't get a message across.

KURTZ: Very unusual for the two Democratic leaders to write to the heads of the three cable news networks. Do you think this is -- is this like working the referee? Is this going to have any effect on future news decisions?

GEPHARDT: Well, I don't know. I'm not Bobby Knight. I don't know whether it'll work or not. But we think it's important for the country. We think it's important for people to know there are other views out there. And so all we can do is ask for fairness, is to ask the cable network executives to take a look at what they're doing.

KURTZ: Finally, whenever stories are done about the political campaign, you are always quoted as saying that you're working to take back the House and become speaker. And the stories almost always note that, yes, but you're eying the presidential campaign in 2004. Does it bother you that those intentions are always being read into what you're saying?

GEPHARDT: Mainly because I'm really focused on taking back the House.

KURTZ: I knew you were going to say that.

GEPHARDT: I've said many, many times that I've been at this for seven years now. I feel very strongly about it, not because of me, but because I think America needs a new and different agenda in its House of Representatives on Social Security, on Medicare, on health care, on education, on the environment. And so that's what I'm looking at.

I've tried to use an analogy to get people to understand this. If I'm Kurt Warner, our great quarterback in St. Louis, on the one yard line, I'd better be thinking about getting it into the end zone and not about the next game. I'll figure out what happens after 2002 after 2002. But we've got to keep focused on the goal that's in front of us. We can do this and we're going to make it happen.

KURTZ: Well, if you were as colorful as Kurt Warner, you'd probably get on TV a little bit more, but we're happy to have you on CNN today. Congressman, thank you very much.

GEPHARDT: Thanks so much.


KURTZ: You can e-mail us and let us know what you think of Congressman Gephardt's charges that the cable networks aren't giving enough time to the Democrats. Our address is

Well, when we come back, a new player in the New York newspaper wars, a black eye for "The New York Times," and a solo flight for George Stephanapoulos. A look at who's up and who's down in our "Media Watch."


KURTZ: Welcome back. Time now for the week's ups and downs in the media world.


KURTZ (voice-over): It was a good week for "The New York Sun," a right-leaning daily making its debut with an initial run of 75,000. Editor Seth Lipsky even got a congratulatory call from Hillary Clinton.

But "The New York Post" dissed its new rival, calling it "so gray it makes your eyes glaze over." What a tabloid town.

It was not a good week for Arthur Sulzberger Jr. "The New York Times" publisher is sporting a big black eye, telling people that a crazed bicycle messenger accosted him on the street for no apparent reason and punched him in the face. Reminds us of, "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?"

A bad week for "The Los Angeles Times," with a temporary employee facing charges for allegedly stealing $64,000 from the newspaper's 9- 11 disaster relief fund.

And a good week for George Stephanopoulos. The former Clinton aide got a try-out as the solo anchor of NBC's "This Week." Sam Donaldson was off, and the brass told Cokie Roberts to stay home. And while nothing is official, Stephanapoulos is selling his New York apartment and house hunting in D.C.

Finally, did this helicopter footage from Thursday night remind you of the Bronco chase? Will the media treat the arrest of another L.A. celebrity accused of killing his wife like the second coming of the O.J. Simpson case? The charges against actor Robert Blake have already sparked hours and hours of live coverage, and debate on programs like "CROSSFIRE."

The year-old murder case is pretty interesting, but it's not likely to become a full-blown, wall-to-wall media obsession like the Simpson saga. First, "Baretta," the detective once played by Blake, ranks nowhere near Simpson on the celebrity wattage meter. Second, there is no racial aspect to this case. And there are other things going on in the world -- terrorism, the Middle East -- that will keep journalists from indulging in saturation coverage.


KURTZ: That's how it seems at the moment, at least. But better check back with us next week.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch this program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern. "CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


East?; Are the Media Giving Enough Air Time to Democrats?>



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