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White House Seizes Offensive in Coverage of War on Terror; What Is Missing From 'The Washington Post?'

Aired June 9, 2002 - 09:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Ahead in the program, we'll look at what was missing from this week's "Washington Post." That's later, in Bernard Kalb's "Back Page." And later, your e-mail on whether the network anchors are ready for "Jurassic Park."

But first, the White House tries to seize the offensive on coverage of the war on terrorism with a more favorable story line.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

COLEEN ROWLEY, FBI AGENT: I did see a real common theme emerging. It seems ...

KURTZ (voice-over): The big media sensation this week was supposed to be this.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: On Capitol Hill today there was dramatic testimony from an FBI whistle-blower. Coleen Rowley told the Senate Judiciary Committee the agency is rife with roadblocks to investigations and endless, needless paperwork.

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: Already there's a growing feeling on Capitol Hill that the attacks might have been prevented.

KURTZ: Instead the big story turned out to be this.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And this terrible knowledge requires us to act differently.

AARON BROWN, CNN HOST: The president tonight proposed an enormous government reorganization, a Cabinet-level position on homeland security.

BOB KUR, MSNBC: President Bush there a little bit of a pep talk, a little bit of a reality check on the war against terror tonight in the White House.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was quite a surprise to everyone that the president came out, particularly on this day when the administration was under such heavy fire on Capitol Hill with this new reorganization plan.

KURTZ: The coverage of President Bush's prime-time speech pushing aside the headlines about whistle-blower Coleen Rowley's congressional testimony and quieting the chatter about CIA and FBI intelligence failures surrounding September 11. That debate has been at fever pitch since last week's "Newsweek" cover story, "The 9-11 Terrorists The CIA Should Have Caught."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: So did the White House manipulate the media with one presidential speech, and will reporters be distracted from investigating the 9-11 foul-ups at the FBI and CIA?

Well, joining us now one of the authors of that exclusive "Newsweek" cover story, investigative reporter Michael Isikoff; also with us CNN contributor Bill Press; and in New York "National Review" editor Rich Lowry.

Mike Isikoff, your cover story here on the CIA dropping the ball on these two hijackers ended up slamming the plane into the Pentagon. Without getting into confidential sources, was there a moment in your reporting when you felt like you had this nailed down and felt confident that you could go with the story?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NEWSWEEK: Yes, it was coming together actually over several weeks, and I actually was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at the start of the week tracking down and nailing down a couple of key parts of the story. But you know it's interesting, talk about connecting the dots, there were elements of this story that were out there from the earliest days after September 11th.

In fact, I -- my colleagues at "Newsweek" wrote the first story about Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, the two hijackers whose pictures on our cover this week, the week after September 11th, and at that time the story was that the CIA had sent this urgent cable August 23 alerting the FBI to their existence, that they might be in the country and asking them to go out and find them. And the story then was the FBI's scramble -- scrambling and frantic search in the - in the days before September 11th, that ultimately futile search to find them.

But what we didn't do back then and the rest of the media didn't do is really put under a microscope of how and when the CIA first learned about these guys. And when we began to do that and learn more, the story became much bigger and much broader.

KURTZ: That's when you hit pay dirt.

ISIKOFF: Yes ...

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, help us connect some dots here. Is all the journalistic second guessing about what the FBI and CIA should have done or might have done or could have done a bit unfair, but too easy for reporters after the fact? RICH LOWRY, NATIONAL REVIEW: Yes, it's definitely a little unfair. But let me say first I think that the biggest thing to say about this story is just how important and crucial it is, and the administration did not want to have this conversation and this debate about pre-September 11 failures. And it's only because of the media or at least in a big part because of the media that we're having this conversation. I think it's an important one to have and we shouldn't have to wait until administration officials write their memoirs to know what went wrong.

But that said, yes, sure, it's very easy in retrospect to say what signals or clues or hints should have been followed up on and definitely should have been paid attention to, because only in retrospect do you know the threat that's actually going to come to fruition and in general, this is generalized complaint I have against the media.

You know Congress and the media in the last 30 years, I think, have really conspired to help create this culture of caution at the FBI and the CIA, because whenever has there been a media scandal about a FBI agent or a CIA agent not being aggressive enough? The tone of the coverage has always been here are these cowboys and these spies who are out to trample on our civil liberties, and I think -- so I think the media and Congress bear some responsibility for these failures and that should be a story as well.

BILL PRESS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well I ...

KURTZ: The media conspiring with the FBI ...

PRESS: No, wait a minute, I've got to say thank God for the media. I'm not just trying to puff you up here, but the White House denied having any warnings in advance; so did the CIA; so did the FBI; so did the leaders in the intelligence committees of Congress. If it hadn't been for the media digging this out and for some courageous whistleblowers coming forward, we might have to wait 30 years for the memoirs. These are important questions, I think, that have to be resolved and fixed right now.

KURTZ: Well ...

(CROSSTALK)

LOWRY: Well I agree -- Howard ...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Go ahead.

LOWRY: ... I agree -- I agree with that. This reporting is good and it's important, but over the last 30 years, I think the FBI and the CIA have been kind of beaten into submission and into this culture of caution in the spirit that your career is going to end if you are too aggressive and make a wrong step, and you're pulled in front of a congressional committee and your picture shows up in "The Washington Post" ... KURTZ: Well I'm not sure that reporting on the Wen Ho Lee case or the Robert Hanssen betrayal case ...

PRESS: Or Waco ...

KURTZ: ... necessarily means beating the FBI into submission. But let me turn back to Mike Isikoff. In your story you quoted a senior FBI official as saying the CIA's inaction in this case was unforgivable. You cited a detailed FBI chart on how they might have uncovered the plot had they been able to put the pieces together.

ISIKOFF: Right.

KURTZ: It sure sounds like the FBI was pushing this story, at least in part.

ISIKOFF: Well you know as you know Howard, you've done a lot of these kind of stories. It never works that way. Big, long investigative stories like these are not dumped on your lap, and in fact, we at "Newsweek", you know, beginning to put the pieces together when looking in various aspects of this story for weeks. And certainly, there were people, you know, it's indisputable that people in the - in the FBI who thought they were taking the lion share of the blame ...

KURTZ: Absolutely ...

ISIKOFF: ... when there were others that were culpable here, and you always want to find those sorts of people to help you out. But, this was definitely not, you know, a dump on the lap ...

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF: It wasn't anything like that.

KURTZ: And there were some counter leaks after that that ...

ISIKOFF: Right.

KURTZ: ... appeared to be from the direction of the CIA or CIA supporters ...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Now Rich Lowry, turning to the president's speech, just looking at the headlines here, "USA Today", Friday two-thirds of the page on the Bush speech, a little picture of Coleen Rowley, the FBI whistleblower -- that story's inside "Washington Post". Four stories on the president's speech and the reorganization or proposed reorganization of the bureaucracy, little picture of Coleen Rowley. Was this - I mean let's just be blunt here. I mean was this a successful case of news management by the White House?

LOWRY: Oh yes, absolutely. I think you can't argue that the timing was anything but news management in a way to knock the story that they didn't want to get top billing ... KURTZ: Ari Fleischer ...

LOWRY: ... off the front pages ...

KURTZ: ... says it was just a coincidence.

LOWRY: ... or at least down on the front pages and ...

KURTZ: Ari Fleischer says it was just a coincidence. You don't buy that?

LOWRY: The -- I do think they were probably working on this reorganization before and Ridge had proposed some things that you know, that would have moved us in this sort of direction. But the timing of the announcement is absolutely clear what they wanted to do and they did it.

PRESS: I would just have to point out this -- Ari Fleischer also said creating another Cabinet agency does not solve anything. He said that for months and months until this week. But you know what strikes me about -- of course it was -- it was news management. The White House megaphone, you can't beat it and it just put -- pushed Coleen Rowley off the front page. But what I wonder is why.

I think they're being so defensive at the White House about any criticism of the FBI and the CIA because, the way I read it, any criticism does not go to the Bush administration. It goes to those agencies over several administrations; certainly during the Clinton years, during the Bush one years, during the Reagan years. So I don't know why they just don't take the attack as these guys haven't ...

LOWRY: Yes ...

PRESS: ... been doing their job and we're going to clean them up. Instead they just don't want any talk about any failures ...

(CROSSTALK)

LOWRY: That's an excellent -- that's an excellent point. I think it's almost temperamental with Bush. It goes right to the top that he kind of puts his circle of loyalty -- once he puts his circle of loyalty around you, he's going to protect you and be very defensive of you no matter what ...

(CROSSTALK)

LOWRY: ... in sheer political terms, I think Bill's point is very sound. They should have fired some people and sort of opened the whole thing up to ...

KURTZ: OK ...

LOWRY: ... criticism instead of taking ownership of it.

KURTZ: That doesn't mean that journalists have to completely turn over most of their real estate on the errand (ph) and print (ph) ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right.

KURTZ: ... on this reorganization story, which is a great story in Washington because it involves all these turf fights, and people are going to lose power, but I don't know how much of the country cares that much about the Xs and Os on the organizational charts. You were trying to get in.

ISIKOFF: No, I was just going to say that, you know, there is a certain amount of -- for the Bush White House -- first of all, the president himself just finds all this kind of, you know, stories about internal screw-ups, as untidy. He doesn't like that. He likes ...

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF: ... everything nice and neat and to have agency people, you know, taking shots at other bureau people -- that's not his -- offends his sense of decorum. But I also think that look, I mean this is a huge story, I mean the bureaucratic story, I mean you know if it goes through, it is an enormous change in government, and I mean I think that's a legitimate story as well.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: ... flooded with stories ...

ISIKOFF: I don't think ...

KURTZ: Go ahead.

ISIKOFF: Yes, I mean I don't think they cooked it up in the last few days just to get ...

KURTZ: Well, clearly it had been pending, but are we now going to be flooded with weeks, if not months of stories, Bill Press, about unnamed administration officials and congressional committee chairmen who are going to say it's a terrible idea to move the Coast Guard or to move FEMA or some other agency as everybody tries to protect their little power base.

PRESS: I think -- I think Michael is very -- or maybe you said it, that this idea of moving people around -- deck chairs on the deck of the Titanic is a perfect Washington story and you get -- you know, the bureaucrats are going to be complaining they're losing this power, they're losing that money. It's going to be a great turf battle, but I'm old enough to remember when Democrats were the ones who suggested we needed more big government. I find this refreshingly funny.

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, Bill Press suggests that this is a bit of a flip flop by the administration's part, first opposing any kind of Cabinet status for the Tom Ridge operation, now proposing to give him, oh, 170,000 employees. Should the press be covering it more as a reversal or is that just one of those "got you" Washington games.

LOWRY: No, I think it is a reversal, and I think it has been covered. You know the "New York Times," I think had a front-page news analysis saying as much the day after the speech. And the fact is the administration had established a line that was unsustainable and that was everything was more or less hunky dory prior September 11. Nothing could have been done to avoid this attack and we should just move on to fighting the war. And I think that was a mistake from the beginning and has been exposed as such thanks to Mike's work and others, and now we're going to have a rigorous debate about how to fix these problems.

KURTZ: I want to get this on videotape because you have Rich Lowry saying several nice things about the mainstream media. It's not usually the case.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: All right ...

PRESS: Right, even more unusual.

KURTZ: Let's take a break, and when we come back, Tom Ridge. Talking head with a message.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge blitzed the networks Thursday night and Friday morning, and he was on message about his boss' speech.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: During his presidency, Harry Truman recognized that our nation's fragmented defenses had to be reorganized to win the Cold War.

TOM RIDGE, HOMELAND SECURITY DIRECTOR: Very similar to Harry Truman's decision after he won World War II in recognition of the new threat of the Soviet Union to call on Congress to reorganize government, to deal with that threat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Ridge really had the talking points. The media has really savaged Tom Ridge in recent months, the color-coded alerts. There are hints now he may not get the job running this -- running this department. Is it because he doesn't schmooze reporters and is such a kind of a rigid, ex-Marine, by-the-book figure?

ISIKOFF: Well there's some of that, but also the job that he was put in was an impossible one. I mean, you know, it was the classic job where you have all the responsibility but no authority. I mean, so you get blamed for everything and you really can't do anything, because the fact is the government agencies out there that were responsible for this weren't listening to him.

He made proposals for consolidating agencies, consolidating parts of it and all the Cabinet secretaries just sort of, you know, dismissed him. And you know he was left there holding the bag. He wasn't -- it's not even clear he was completely plugged in on key intelligence that was coming in ...

KURTZ: Right ...

ISIKOFF: ... so he was in a helpless -- totally helpless position.

KURTZ: But, Bill Press, was he not terribly effective at working the press, which a lot of people who don't necessarily have a lot of power know how to deal with the media and get the message ...

PRESS: You say he was effective or ineffective?

KURTZ: I'm saying was he not terribly effective?

PRESS: I think he was very ineffective in dealing with the press. You know, we had him on "CROSSFIRE" not so long ago and I was -- I mean before this, actually when he was still governor of Pennsylvania, during the campaign, I was impressed with him. I found him very smart, very tough, very right on point, very congenial, and he gets this job, and I think, as Michael said, you know, you can't con people in this city.

People know you have power or you don't have power. He didn't have power and they kept saying, oh, his power is he can walk down the hall (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and walk into the Oval Office. But when he calls the Defense Department and says we need an X number of people over here, or he calls the FBI, you've got to do this, they just shined him off.

ISIKOFF: The key -- the key problem for Ridge, though, was something else I think, which was that the -- for the Bush White House the most important thing they cared about is that he not testify before Congress ...

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF: ... because to them it's the core ...

KURTZ: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF: ... principle, confidentiality, you know, resisting congressional encroachments on executive privilege, and so therefore Ridge was not able to go up on the Hill and state his ...

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF: ... and as a result, he had to curtail a lot of his media appearances because it would be ludicrous for him to like be appearing on CNN every night and then not telling Congress he couldn't testify on matters ...

(CROSSTALK) KURTZ: I'm not sure ...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: ... I'm not so sure CNN thought it would have been ludicrous. Go ahead, Rich Lowry.

LOWRY: It was a bizarre and unsustainable position because, as Michael points out, he didn't have the bureaucratic power and he couldn't really fulfill his roles of public spokesman either because they wouldn't let him go up before Congress, and I don't think he's that effective a media spokesman anyway. So he's kind of a loser all around, I think.

KURTZ: OK, Rich Lowry, let me go to a border point with you.

PRESS: So much for Tom Ridge.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: We've taken care of Ridge.

LOWRY: Since I was being easy on you guys, I decided to take it out on Tom Ridge.

KURTZ: John Ashcroft's proposal to expand FBI powers, a new proposal on fingerprinting, mostly Middle Eastern men, immigrants coming into the country. Be honest, didn't you expect the bleeding liberal media -- bleeding heart liberal media to be more loudly exercised about what some might call an erosion of civil liberties?

LOWRY: I thought there was a critical edge to a lot of the coverage. I think it got submerged because there's so many other events. But this goes to the point I was trying to make earlier that all of you persistent, rejecting for some reason, but let's look at that Phoenix memo. Now everyone in the media agrees what a horrendous mistake it was not to follow up on it.

But the reason why the FBI didn't follow up on it, at least one of the reasons we've seen in "Newsweek" and the "New York Times," is that they were afraid of doing something that could be perceived as racial profiling. And why were they afraid? Because they knew someone in Congress or the mainstream media and the "New York Times" and the "Washington Post" could jump all over them ...

(CROSSTALK)

LOWRY: ... if they did something like that. So how's the media ...

(CROSSTALK)

LOWRY: ... that's how the media has helped create this culture of caution that now -- that we now all agree was a mistake.

PRESS: Rich, you've been nice to me and I hate to disagree, but that is pure spin. That is pure FBI spin that has no basis in reality. Look, if you -- if you stop a black kid driving a car that's doing nothing wrong simply because he's black, that's racial profiling. If you know there are people who are trying to fly jets and learn how to turn them and not how to land them and you don't go after them because they happen to be Muslims, that's just plain stupid.

LOWRY: Right. Well that's what I ...

PRESS: It's stupid.

(CROSSTALK)

LOWRY: The political sensitivity -- the political sensitivity on anything that would be perceived as racial profiling was created by Congress and by the ...

PRESS: Right.

LOWRY: ... media. It was not something created ...

(CROSSTALK)

LOWRY: ... entirely by the FBI.

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF: There may be some element of that, but I think the investigations have shown that the primary reason the Phoenix memo wasn't acted on is that there weren't aggressive people in FBI headquarters ...

(CROSSTALK)

ISIKOFF: ... who are -- who are alert enough to take this seriously and start pushing and pushing it, and that was the real problem ...

LOWRY: Well, Michael ...

ISIKOFF: ... it was not ...

LOWRY: ... one of the reasons, though ...

KURTZ: When we come back, Bernard Kalb's "Back Page" on the strange absence at the front page and other pages at "The Washington Post."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): In the week of big global stories, I'd like to take a moment to talk about a small local story about a journalistic mystery.

I picked up a copy of "The Washington Post" Wednesday, and it looked funny, kind of faceless. The mast head was there, but something was missing, something familiar. And then, suddenly, it struck me. Not a byline on the front page, except for this one on the very bottom.

There was a story about the scandal in the Catholic Church, Bush on the CIA and the FBI, the impact of the '90s, but on these big stories, no bylines. Instead, "by a Washington Post staff writer" or writers.

Have the staffers suddenly given up the ultimate ego kick of a byline? Never! Had "The Post" suddenly gone anonymous? Impossible. I mean, just think of "The Post" without the bylines of Woodward and Bernstein in the days of Watergate.

The mystery thickened on Thursday. Again, no bylines, except for this one.

But it turned out to be not that much of a who-done-it after all. There in the Wednesday paper, once I found it, was the explanation on page 2. "Post staffers hold byline strike protest." That nearly all of the papers' reporters, photographers and artists withheld their name in a byline strike called by union leadership to protest the current contract offer by the "Post's" management.

And the union, by the way, took out a quarter-page ad in that other newspaper, setting out the union's case and saying this would be a two-day byline strike. In other words, holding back on bylines was a strategic move by the union, but it raises this big question for journalists. The byline may be the ultimate paycheck, but how much is it really worth?

By coincidence, the byline strike began on the very day that "The Post" put out a special section celebrating the 125th anniversary of a scrappy little newspaper called "The Washington Post." And bylines in those days were unheard of, but in recent decades, bylines became a fixture of journalism, until just the other day.

Whatever the outcome of the contract negotiations, this may turn out to be a case history of whether bylines have all that clout, and whether, and I think they do, whether readers really care about who wrote what.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Byline: Bernard Kalb.

Well, turning now to our viewer e-mail, last week we talked about Tom Brokaw's decision to step down from the anchor desk in 2004. And we asked whether the broadcast network news anchors are, well, dinosaurs. One viewer wrote: "Not only are Brokaw, Jennings and Rather worn out journalistic hacks, they are failures in the entertainment business, where they've ultimately landed. And they wonder why the ratings are down." But another said: "I would refer to the news anchors as experienced and seasoned professionals, who've earned a respected reputation, not dinosaurs."

They will be happy to hear that.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Saturday evening at 6:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. Next weekend, we'll bring you a special interview with renowned journalist Sir David Frost. As the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in approaches, he'll take a look back at his groundbreaking interviews with Richard Nixon.

Thanks for watching. CNN's "SUNDAY MORNING" is just ahead.

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