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Press Turns on Bush; Should CBS Have Aired Video of Pearl Killing?

Aired May 18, 2002 - 18:30   ET


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

Ahead we'll talk about CBS' controversial decision to air parts of that video of murdered "Wall Street Journal" reporter Daniel Pearl and media reaction to Jimmy Carter's visit to Cuba this week, including the view of one of our guests that the press has been way too easy on Carter while ignoring dissidence in Cuba, and George W. Bush talks about the press. I'll fill you in on my interview with the president.

But first: For months, the charge was that reporters have been soft on the Bush White House in the wake of September 11. Not anymore. President Bush is at the center of a media storm over reports that his administration received intelligence warnings about possible hijackings linked to Osama bin Laden before September 11. This led to some heated exchanges Thursday in the White House pressroom.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president, when asked, said we had intelligence hits. He didn't say and you know, we had a warning about hijackings. Why not? Why didn't he level with the American people about what he knew?

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: The president did level with the American people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These questions were asked after September 11th of the president, of the vice president, of you yourself, and no one in the White House said yes, the information had come in.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The American public know about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) before they got on planes in the summer and fall. (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NAT'L SECURITY ADVISER: It is always, as you've learned since September 11th, a question of how good the information is and whether or not putting the information out is a responsible thing to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Well, joining us now from our New York bureau, Jay Nordlinger, managing editor of "National Review," and here in Washington, Frank Sesno, a CNN contributor and professor of public policy and communication at George Mason University. Welcome.

Jay Nordlinger, as we just saw, the reporters were not just aggressive, but almost indignant, demanding to know why this information hadn't been released. From the moment this story broke, were the journalists just waiting to pounce on the president?

JAY NORDLINGER, NAT'L. REVIEW: I think so, and I think the media don't like the idea that George Bush is getting a free ride or that he's too popular, and I think it's important for remain a critical -- to have a critical focus when you're in the press, and so I think that the media leap at any opportunity. You know they get criticism from Democrats just as they get criticism from Republicans on certain things and they want to prove that they're neutral, that they're not pro president ...


KURTZ: Wait a second -- wait a second. You're saying that the reason that journalists are aggressively pursuing this story about what the government knew or didn't know before 9-11 is not out of legitimate news value because they think the president is too popular?

NORDLINGER: The story is surprisingly slight in my opinion. When I first heard about it, and I heard about it just vaguely before I could study it. It seemed terrible. In fact there was a headline blaring here from the "New York Post" in my city that said Bush knew. That was an incredibly accusatory headline. My God, he knew, and he did nothing to prevent it? But I think the story is far slighter than some people are trying to make it. There were ...


NORDLINGER: ... these generalized threats and we all knew that al Qaeda was bad news ...

KURTZ: Right.

NORDLINGER: ... bad news, they bombed our embassies. They bombed the USS Cole. No surprise there and I -- yes, I think -- I think that aggressiveness is one thing, but I think there's been a strange twist put on the story.

KURTZ: Intelligence warnings as we've all learned are necessarily vague. But -- so is this case of the press kind of smelling a White House cover up?

FRANK SESNO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, a little bit. It's, you know, spring is in the air, so it's time to go looking for food and there's no better place to find food if you're a reporter than at the White House. We call them feeding frenzies. There's a slim sliver of information, a suggestion and there is a pack mentality and it jumps on it. Now to some extent, that's part of the process. We don't like watching sausage being made, but we like it with our eggs.

What you saw there, that clip from the White House briefing room, that was sausage being made. That happens all the time. It's a ritual at the White House. The difference is people now see it, but it's accusatory and people -- reporters, others think that there may be something in the air. That "New York Post" headline, by the way, is just this side of indefensible and the White House called the "New York Post" to task. They said they thought it was fair, the "Post" did, to the White House.

KURTZ: Well, just to clarify, the headline in World War III type was "Bush Knew," and in smaller type underneath it said "Pres. Was Warned About Possible Hijackings Before Terror Attacks."

SESNO: Fine, read the fine print and you know, split the difference.


NORDLINGER: I suppose there could always be warnings about hijackings, and hijackings are a perennial, it seems.


KURTZ: But I think the question as spun by the press, Jay Nordlinger, is not why didn't the government gear up to do something about these vague unspecified warnings, if they did include possible hijackings. Of course at the time we didn't think of hijackings as being flying planes into buildings. But I think the question is, why wasn't this released not only before September 11, but afterward? Why did the White House hold this information back? Isn't that a legitimate question?

NORDLINGER: It is a legitimate question, and because it looked cover-up like, and that's why the administration had to answer it and I think that there are officials, Rumsfeld and some others, have answered it pretty well. And I bear in my mind something that I learned from the Defense Department early, that Rumsfeld was meeting with congressmen in his office about terrorist threats when the Pentagon was hit, at the very moment, and it seems almost cinematic, but he was. So the government knew all about this, but not with enough specificity. I mean 9-11 was, for many people, out of the blue, even if al Qaeda's evil was not.

KURTZ: Well, that actually raises an interesting question, Frank Sesno, because you -- when you were at CNN, you had to grapple with how do you deal with these -- with these terror alerts and is there a double standard here, because when the White House released these other alerts in recent months, yellow, green, purple, whatever the system is, a lot of the press made fun of them -- and now it's sort of like, why didn't you release this?

SESNO: That's the legitimate part of this story. The legitimate part of this story is forget the accusatory headline "Bush Knew," that's preposterous. But at what level -- at what threat level does an administration say to the public oh, we've got something here. Do you just nearly say we've got a suspicion -- we've got some activity, that it may be a hijacking? You don't have a place.

You don't have a time. You don't have an airline. You don't have a country, and in fact, since 9-11, when the White House administration has done that, they've been pilloried by others in the press and in the public. I think that clearly there is something of a -- of a double standard, if you will, and part of the dividing line rests right on 9-11 because what seems obvious now didn't before 9-11.

KURTZ: And there are also legitimate questions about what an FBI agent knew in writing a memo, why that agent -- why that memo ...


KURTZ: ... wasn't shared with the CIA.

SESNO: Connecting the dots, and those are very fair questions for the press to ask. They need to pursue it. They should lean on it hard because that bears not only on how they dealt with things in the past, but how they're going to deal with things in the future. Are we prepared? Are we communicating? Are we going to protect our people?

KURTZ: Jay Nordlinger, columnist Andrew Sullivan seems to be more on your side of this debate. He writes, "It's not a story. The real story here is the press and the Democrats' need for a story about the war to change the climate of support for the president." It's not a story. Is that going a little too far?

NORDLINGER: It is going too far. I think the Democrats have been irresponsible. Maybe that's no surprise for me. But I think they really have and I think the press ...


KURTZ: There have been some Republican criticism of the White House as well on this.

NORDLINGER: Indeed there has. There was Senator Shelby. I think that the administration from now on will probably err on the side of disclosure, and let people mock them, let people call them alarmists and people make fun of Tom Ridge's color coding, as was mentioned before, but I think the administration will have to err on the side of disclosure, and I know that a lot of my people, my people on the Republican side, jumped all over California Governor Gray Davis when he released on -- he alerted the public to an FBI warning that he had received, having to do with the targeting of bridges in California, and it's a very difficult thing to manage ...


NORDLINGER: ... proper notification versus alarmism and I ...


SESNO: Can I tell you something too, Jay, because this is very interesting. Talking around yesterday to are some Democrats up on the Hill, Howie, what they're saying, among things, is you know what, the administration has been treated by kid gloves by the press all along. He's gotten away with murder.

KURTZ: In fact, Dan Rather ...

SESNO: Dan Rather ...


SESNO: ... went out and said it, yes.


KURTZ: ... since 9-11 journalists have been practicing a form of self-censorship because they don't want to appear unpatriotic. Do you agree with that?

SESNO: No, I don't think it's self-censorship, but I will tell you ...


KURTZ: You said kid gloves.

SESNO: Well, no I said -- I said that that's what some of the Democrats have said.


SESNO: And they're saying it, and they're leaning on their friends in the press.

NORDLINGER: Howard ...

SESNO: But there is -- there is something to it because there has been an atmosphere in which in this sort of patriotic wartime atmosphere, raising questions, ask any reporter on the street, especially those who appear on television, merely ask the question has -- and in some cases unleashed a torrent of critical mail saying what are you, unpatriotic? What are you asking these questions for? You're aiding and abetting the enemy.

KURTZ: Let's go briefly, Jay Nordlinger, to the media flap, the flap before this flap, which was a few days ago, about that 9-11 photo of Bush on Air Force One talking to Cheney just hours after the attacks, suddenly became part of a Republican fund-raising venture, $150 to get that picture. Was this a big deal or at least as big a deal as the press seemed to think?

NORDLINGER: Well I don't think it was a big deal, and I hesitate to say this because I'm a Johnny one-note here. Here I think is another almost non-story. Again, I heard about this just vaguely before I looked into it, and it sounded bad. Bill Simon (ph) campaigning out in California hadn't seen the photo, didn't know exactly what the Republican Party was doing. He said my gosh, it sounds awful, and it seemed like the deceasing of Betty Ross' flag or something like that, and it turned out to be a photo of the guy on the phone on Air Force One. This is presidential rah, rah stuff -- these are pictures showing George Bush as a leader ...

SESNO: But, Jay ...

NORDLINGER: ... it's for presidential supporters and it just ...


SESNO: Come on, how can you say it's a phony story, Jay? You've got all this discussion about, you know, going ...

KURTZ: Not politicizing ...


SESNO: Not politicizing 9-11.

NORDLINGER: This is hardly an exploitation. Did you see the thing? It was ...


NORDLINGER: I thought it was going to be terrible.

SESNO: Why put it out there at all? In fact, even the White House says oops, you know, next time the RNC and those guys over there need to coordinate with us because this really doesn't look very good.


NORDLINGER: For this reason, this was to be a typical political celebration of the president's first year and the president's first year involved warmaking, involved his leadership as commander-in- chief. I'm not sure how you can air brush that out.


NORDLINGER: I don't think it was not tasteful. I don't think it was ...


NORDLINGER: It wasn't an exploitation.


SESNO: If I were on the other side of the fence and I were picking the photo to put in an enclosure like that and make him look, you know, like a commander-in-chief, I wouldn't have him on the phone on the day of, in Air Force One. I'd have him in the Rose Garden looking presidential.


SESNO: ... you don't need to do that.

NORDLINGER: If that photo is illegitimate, then a whole lot is out of bounds ...


NORDLINGER: I don't know. I ...


KURTZ: All right hold on ...


KURTZ: I want to jump in here and just say that one other aspect here is the Democrats went ballistic over what they saw as the merchandising of 9-11 and part of what the press does very unfairly (ph) is to report charges from the opposition party.

SESNO: That's right and they're not -- and they're not -- remember the Lincoln bedroom, you know, I mean lots is for sale in Washington, D.C.

KURTZ: As we saw in the Clinton administration as well. We're going to hold it there and when we come back, the "CBS Evening News" decided this week to air that controversial footage of Daniel Pearl. The family didn't like it. We'll talk about that in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. When the "CBS Evening News" decided this week to show footage of reporter Daniel Pearl being terrorized by his kidnappers, Dan Rather had this to say.


DAN RATHER, CBS EVENING NEWS ANCHOR: This video, slickly produced, is being used by terrorists to recruit new soldiers for their cause. "CBS News" has obtained this video and we're about to show you edited portions of it so that you can see and judge for yourself the kind of propaganda terrorists are using in their war against the United States.


KURTZ: Frank Sesno, what did showing even some of those awful pictures add to our understanding of the story?

SESNO: Probably not much, and I might not have decided to do what CBS did. I don't think I would have put that on the air, but there is another side, and it's an important one. We often in this country complain that we have a short attention span, that we forget. What happened on 9-11 and what happened to Danny Pearl is so heinous and so important to remember, to maintain public support for what is going to be a long effort that as painful as it is sometime to see this image -- sometimes to see this imagery, it's important to see. All that being said, seeing Danny Pearl on that video at this time is right at the edge and I think I probably would have recommended otherwise. KURTZ: Jay Nordlinger, Danny Pearl's widow, Marianne, called "CBS News" president Daniel Hayward (ph) to beg him not to show that. She later said the decision to show this despicable video in her words was "heartless." Should "CBS News" have given more weight to the feelings of the family?

NORDLINGER: I think CBS should have given weight to the feelings of the family, and I imagine they did, and then they decided otherwise, and like a lot of people, and I think Frank Sesno's remarks reflected this. I'm of two minds about all of this. I feel for the family. It's a kind of terroristic pornography. Actually the best argument I've heard against this is that it might inspire copycats. You know, murder on tape, get yourself on American television and so on.

But I, too, was glad to be reminded of the nature of the enemy we're facing. It's been a long time since 9-11, since we saw those initial pictures of people jumping off of buildings, grasping each other's hands for comfort and so on. And a reminder isn't such a terrible thing, and I think that the nation ought to be treated as grown ups at long last about Muslim extremism. Even now we hardly know it's in the Arab press everyday and for that reason, thank goodness for something called the Middle East Media Research Institute, which provides all this ...

KURTZ: Right.

NORDLINGER: ... including on a Web site, but this is -- this is nasty stuff, but I guess -- I'm not sure I would have aired it.



KURTZ: ... no other -- no other network has aired it. But Frank Sesno, what did you -- do you have any problem with officials from the State Department or the Justice Department calling CBS and basically pressuring them not to air it?

SESNO: No I don't -- I mean, I used to get calls like that all the time when I was bureau chief here.


SESNO: And you can call it pressure. You can say what are you doing? Why are you doing it? And I think that the legitimacy of a journalistic decision, especially in a time like this needs to stand up to some -- to a little bit of pressure ...


SESNO: ... and some transparency, so what the heck ...


SESNO: ... you know, number is published, use it. KURTZ: Jay Nordlinger, Jimmy Carter's trip to Cuba, you've got a big piece on this in "National Review." You've got a lot of problems with the coverage. You've got the floor.

NORDLINGER: Cuba's been a long standing heartache, and I don't think the American press has covered Cuba very well, and I think we've ignored political prisoners. We've ignored the dissident movement. I think we've been way too soft on Castro. The Cuba democracy and human rights beat is one of my beats, and I don't quite have the field to myself, but it seems like that sometimes.


KURTZ: ... we delivered a double message. He wanted the consideration of the end of the U.S. embargo and at the same time he called on Castro to allow greater democracy on that island.

NORDLINGER: I think the good that Carter did will stand. I think he did the minimum for a former U.S. president. He mentioned the Varela project ...

KURTZ: But the way ...

NORDLINGER: He met with ...

KURTZ: ... the way that he was covered.


NORDLINGER: I think -- I think he was -- he was covered properly. I don't think Cuba in general is, but I think his trip was covered about as it should be covered, and that we should be free, then, to criticize Carter. I don't fault -- I don't fault the media for coverage of Carter's trip, no. I fault the media for Cuban issues more broadly.

KURTZ: I had the impression, Frank Sesno, that a lot of conservatives who didn't like Jimmy Carter as president and don't like him as ex president just jumped all over him from the moment that he arrived.

SESNO: Well, that's because he was there at all. That's because he was, you know, standing next to Fidel Castro, letting Fidel Castro wear a suit and look like -- look like a statesman himself.

KURTZ: Or playing baseball ...

SESNO: Whatever it is ...


KURTZ: ... at a time when the Bush White House ...

SESNO: Yes ...

(CROSSTALK) SESNO: ... in the old -- in the old adage of, you know, put the picture on and let the words be, you know, be ignored, Fidel Castro looked reasonably good there. But I think the fact of the matter is that the coverage of Jimmy Carter allowed these issues that Jay was complaining about often don't get on, which is true, to get on, and for there to be some focus on it and having a former American president standing in front of Fidel Castro and others, calling for elections and democracy is a powerful thing and that was reflected around the world.

KURTZ: Do you think, Jay Nordlinger that if there has, indeed, been media neglect of the dissident movement in Cuba, is that because of some sort of ideological propensity? For example, a lot of journalists sympathetic to the idea of ending the U.S. embargo and therefore that might have affected the coverage of the Carter trip.

NORDLINGER: Oh I think of something that Vernon Walters (ph) told me in an interview shortly before he died. I said why don't we get any coverage of Cuba's prisoners? He said that the media would go to the deaths searching out the prisoners of Franco, the prisoners of Pinochet, the victims of apartheid, and they simply didn't care about prisoners in communist cells. And I think there's an ideological factor, and I think Castro's been perfumed and legitimated for a great many years.



KURTZ: ... we're going to have to leave it there. We've covered a lot of ground today. Jay Nordlinger in New York, Frank Sesno here, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, "Inside the White House Spin Machine" based on interviews with Ari Fleischer and the president himself, plus your viewer e-mail on cable news chasing the ratings next.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Everyone knows that the Bush White House lives and dies by message control. What I found out recently is how deeply President Bush is involved in that effort.


(voice-over): In an interview for the "Washington Post" magazine, the president told me he pours over the newspapers and takes it up with his spokesman, Ari Fleischer, when there are leaks from what Bush calls level fours and level fives, mid level aids outside his immediate circle. The president doesn't watch much TV, but calls Fleischer to say how'd it play tonight on the news? And says Bush, Fleischer will tell him so and so played it straight while such and such is totally biased on the subject.

Bush, who even helps pick the guests for the Sunday talk shows, allows Fleischer to sit in on his meetings and phone calls with world leaders saying he understands the fine line between the need to know and the need to say. In Bush's first year the White House rarely leaked presidential decisions in advance. I thought it would have been more profound if no one knew about it, Bush said, but Fleischer helped change his mind. Take the day that Bush was giving a speech on global warming.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will not commit our nation to an unsound international treaty that will throw millions of our citizens out of work.

KURTZ: The morning of the speech Fleischer made sure the story was already on the front pages of the "New York Times," the "Washington Post" and the "Chicago Tribune," with little of the usual criticism from environmentalists. The White House also plays a game in which the press secretary is used to signal changes in policy even while stubbornly that there is no change in policy.

After weeks in which Bush was hammered for being disengaged while violence mounted in the Middle East, Fleischer insisted, with a straight face, that the earlier period had well, never existed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you see no complicity on America's part in not being involved enough early enough to prevent things from getting to this state and perhaps weakening our hand with our Arab allies?

FLEISCHER: Well no, the president has been deeply involved from day one, the events in the Middle East and he remains deeply involved.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you not see that having done more earlier might have strengthened the U.S. hand?

FLEISCHER: Wendell (ph), I just answered that question.


KURTZ: As Fleischer told me, if the president is happy and my coworkers are happy, I'm happy.

And if frustrated reporters are less than happy, so be it. When the Doonesbury strip made fun of Fleischer's by-the-book style, he just laughed and hung a framed copy on his office wall.

We're turning now to our viewer e-mail. Last week we talked about a couple of car chases that were carried live by the cable networks, and I said they were basically meaningless, over dramatized pictures, phony news for slow news days. Plenty of you disagreed.

Fred in Lilburn, Georgia wrote, "Yes, maybe covering a car chase for 90 minutes might have been overdoing it for you or me, but aren't you being kind of a snob about it? I don't believe there can ever be too much news."

And Malcolm McKinney, Texas said, "In general, I agree with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) car chases, but this one was different. It was tremendous fun to watch. After all, that is the narcotic of news, the experience that events can take surprising, although sometimes trivial turns of fate."

Narcotic of news -- I like that. If you have any comments about our program, e-mail us at

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.





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