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Media Makes "Wasteland" of Scientist's Life; Bush Economic Conference Disregarded as Political Fluff; What Happened to the War in Afghanistan?

Aired August 17, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The anthrax suspect -- how the media turned Steven Hatfill into the next Richard Jewell. Should the press be reporting leaks from law enforcement agencies that haven't charged the former government scientist with anything?
And what about Hatfill's impassioned denial? Also, the president's big economic summit in Waco. Why are journalists treating it as a political infomercial? And The King still reigning on the airwaves after 25 years. Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media.

I'm Howard Kurtz. He hasn't been arrested or charged with anything. But by now you've probably heard his name in news reports, lots of news reports. And this week, the man dubbed a person of interest by the FBI spoke out.


STEVEN HATFILL: I acknowledge the right of the authorities and the press to satisfy themselves as to whether I am the anthrax mailer. This does not, however, give them the right to smear me and gratuitously make a wasteland of my life in the process.


KURTZ: So has Steven Hatfill been railroaded by the press? Or are reporters just doing their jobs by following the official investigation?

Well, joining us now, Tom Jackman, a reporter for the "Washington Post" who recently interviewed Hatfill; Rebecca Cooper, who's been covering the story for WJLA-TV here in Washington, and Guy Taylor, reporter for the "Washington Times."

Tom Jackman, Steven Hatfill might be guilty or totally innocent and yet the media have basically turned him into the number one suspect as the anthrax killer. Anything about this process that makes you or all of us slightly uncomfortable?

TOM JACKMAN, REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST": Absolutely. There used to be a time when the media did not name a suspect until he was charged with a crime, he or she was charged with a crime.

What the FBI has done in this case is I think what they've done in all cases. They speak to the media sort of covertly. They leak things. Back when I was a young whippersnapper on the police beat in Kansas City, we took that information and we guarded it closely because we felt some responsibility to not name someone knowing the impact that that has of broadcasting or publishing a name before charges are filed. That's all gone now.

KURTZ: Now reporters obviously feast on leaks, Guy Taylor. That's how a lot of criminal justice stories are reported. But the way in which the FBI and other law enforcement officials perhaps are using leaks to put out there all this negative information about Hatfill, who has not even officially been labeled a suspect, should that bother us?

GUY TAYLOR, REPORTER, "WASHINGTON TIMES": Yes. Howard, it suggests that if they do believe that he is a suspect or may be guilty, they maybe do not have enough evidence to get a grand jury to indict him. So it's almost as if they're going out into the media, using the media as a tool to create somewhat of a public indictment.

KURTZ: And do you feel used? And does that bother you at all?

TAYLOR: To a degree I feel used. But I try not to let notions from the FBI that may not be true leak into my stories unless I can back them up with some sort of quote that can have a name next to it.

KURTZ: On the other hand, Rebecca Cooper, when federal agents twice searched the Maryland apartment of a former government scientist in an investigation that is of great news value, this anthrax mailings to senators and to news anchors and others, that's got to be a story, right?

REBECCA COOPER, CORRESPONDENT, WJLA TV: Well, in fact I think, first of all, we have to be very careful that assuming that a lot of this information is coming from leaks, because it's absolutely a story. And when his apartment was first searched in June, we gathered much of the information at ABC-7 that we have subsequently reported.

But my news director, Steve Hammel (ph), my assistant news director, Bill McFarland (ph), were very cautious and had me sit on much of the information we had at the time. And it wasn't until the second search when there was a search warrant obtained and we had spoken to many, many, many sources, colleagues, friends of Steven Hatfill and were able to gather this information that we went forth.

KURTZ: But come on, with the second search ...

COOPER: So we shouldn't assume (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ...

KURTZ: ... there were news helicopters there. There were lots of reporters there. Somebody ...

COOPER: Right.

KURTZ: ... let the press know that this was going on.

TAYLOR: They were there for the first search. COOPER: Somebody did. Now the FBI will tell you that they have their suspicions about where those leaks came from and they say it's not from them. I won't get into where they think that those leaks came from. But I know in my own case -- maybe my colleagues had better luck than I did -- I had a very difficult time getting even basic information from the FBI.

I had to do my reporting by going back over the years of Dr. Hatfill's life and finding people who knew him, who worked with him, who had association with him and gather my information that way.

TAYLOR: I experienced the same thing. The FBI is not forthcoming with information about this case.

KURTZ: So the notion that this is just being spoon fed to reporters on the story is fallacious?

TAYLOR: I think to a degree it is being spoonfed. But the notion that every agent of the media is trying to display that spoonfeeding over the front page of their paper or on a nightly news report, that's not necessarily happening. It's a small amount that is happening.

KURTZ: Tom Jackman, you were approached a week, 10 days ago about the possibility of sitting down and interviewing Steven Hatfill. Tell us how that happened and did you worry at all about being used by Hatfill and his attorney to get out the denial?

JACKMAN: Well, we're regularly used. That's part of the business. So, I guess I'm used to being used at this point in my career. But we were approached because Hatfill's name was out there all over the place at this point. This was mid to late July that they approached me and said, we want to tell our side of the story, top to bottom.

This was before the second search occurred on August 1. They just felt like he's been in a shell. He needs to come out and say I didn't do this. I didn't deal with anthrax. That wasn't getting out there at all because he wasn't answering any questions. And the FBI wasn't talking. And the FBI shouldn't talk. When any law enforcement does investigation, they're not supposed to be disclosing anything about that investigation.

KURTZ: But when you did the sit down, the attorney for Hatfill did most of the talking. Correct?

JACKMAN: He did, only because he was being ultra-cautious about not letting Dr. Hatfill say anything that could possibly be used against him if they ever do try him.

KURTZ: And Rebecca Cooper, you obtained a novel that Hatfill was working on. Tell us a little bit about that. And is it - should it be regarded by the press as anything more than an interesting coincidence?

COOPER: Well, the way that ABC-7 tried to approach this story is we have no idea what evidence the FBI has against him that might possibly link him to the anthrax investigation. We just know that these two very public searches took place. So we wanted to know who is Steven Hatfill. And this novel is an interesting part of his life. It shows just how much he knows about biological warfare. It shows that it's something he's deeply interested in.

It shows that he doesn't have the greatest amount of respect for the CDC and the Centers for Disease Control and what their priorities are. And it also makes the case in the novel that the U.S. is woefully, inadequately prepared for such an attack. His friends will tell you that that's further proof that Steven Hatfill is someone who cares about national security and is trying to protect it, not trying to harm it.

KURTZ: And he of course also argues that he never personally worked with anthrax. Although he worked in a building where a government scientist did handle anthrax. Now Guy Taylor, in one of your stories in the "Washington Times," you quoted a former Justice Department official as saying that there was a possibility that the FBI was using Hatfill as a way to take the heat off. What does that mean?

TAYLOR: There is, there is a possibility that the FBI is equally guilty in this situation as the media for creating slander in Hatfill's life. And it is possible that they've intentionally put the spotlight on him to make ...

KURTZ: To make it look like they're doing something?

TAYLOR: A, to make it look like they're doing something. B, to monitor other people that they think may have done it. There isn't proof for that. But I base that on the notion that FBI agents went to Barbara Hatch Rosenburg (ph) three weeks ago with the day that they were searching ...

JACKMAN: August 1.

TAYLOR: August 1.

KURTZ: Explain who she is.

TAYLOR: Well, Barbara Hatch Rosenburg is a prominent member of the biodefense community. She's a professor at a university in New York. And she has been involved in briefing Senate committees and presidential groups about biodefense. And she's been involved in anthrax. She wrote a report, submitted it around to friends and the FBI about evidence in this case.

It was taken very seriously, I think, clearly both by reporters, but also by the FBI. They have not lent complete credence to her findings. But they have not entirely and openly dismissed them.

KURTZ: That's become an element here too.

TAYLOR: And they appear at her apartment on the same day that Hatfill's apartment is being searched in Frederick, Maryland, August 1. And they start asking her if she thinks that it's A, possible that Hatfill is being set up. Just, you know, Van Harp, the head of the FBI's Washington Bureau says, well, don't lend, don't lend too much ...

KURTZ: Don't read too much into it. Right.

TAYLOR: ... read too much into one question. But it is an interesting question because if she's supposed to be somebody in the know here, why would they be going to her on the day that they search his apartment and asking is he being framed?

KURTZ: A lot of unanswered questions here. And the truth is, the press needs a narrative in these situations. And former government scientists under investigation is a heck of a lot better narrative than FBI anthrax probe appears to stall. Now the day after your story appeared, Tom Jackman, on your interview with Hatfill, he went public, held a press conference. And let's take a look at what his spokesman, Pat Clawson had to say about the reason for that decision.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: After such a long silence, why is Mr. Hatfill speaking now?

PAT CLAWSON, SPOKESMAN FOR HATFILL: Because the crescendo of press criticism and distortion of him had reached such a level, he needed to respond. I had suggested to Steve and his lawyer several days ago that they needed to get the real Steve Hatfill out in front of the American people, not this caricature that the media has created.


KURTZ: Now Tom Jackman, is this counterattack by Hatfill and Clawson and his side working at all? Is it creating ...

JACKMAN: It seems to be. I think a lot of people ...

KURTZ: ... getting his side out?

JACKMAN: Absolutely it is. And I think a lot of people are looking at this guy and saying, hmmm, he didn't deal with anthrax. He is, you know, being forthcoming and he's talking to America. He's looking into the cameras and saying, I didn't do this. And a lot of criminals are unwilling to do that. It's uncriminal behavior.

TAYLOR: It's also getting people to look at elements of his past that may have been exploited in the press. The notion that he worked at a Greendale school, per se, somewhere in Zimbabwe and that's the address that was the return address on the anthrax. Has anybody gone to Harar (ph) in Zimbabwe and found this school? Or has it been that there may be a school there and reporters are running around saying there's a school.

COOPER: Well, we have. We placed a school. It was nowhere near where Steven Hatfill lived. It's not near the medical school he attended. But other medical school classmates were very much aware of it. I think the thing that's interesting about Steven Hatfill is that a lot of these things about his past that he's now having to account for are somewhat of his own making.

You make the point that he very strongly made the point I've never dealt with anthrax in my life. That appears to, perhaps, be the case. But he has in the past bragged to colleagues and friends that he dealt with the anthrax outbreak in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia in the late '70s. That does not appear to be the case. But he's having to answer for things that he has exaggerated, bragged about, said about himself in the past.

KURTZ: On the other hand, I mean clearly there's some information that appears not good for him and other information that appears to suggest that maybe he didn't have anything to do with this. There were 29 other persons of interest held by the FBI. Yet all of the media focus is on Steven Hatfill.

As you know, a lot of people are drawing a possible parallel between this case and that of Richard Jewell, who was accused again by unnamed law enforcement officials of being the Olympic bomber. Later cleared. Later sued NBC and the "Atlanta Journal Constitution." Any worries that it might turn out this guy's innocent and it will be another Jewell type situation?

COOPER: Well, I think any journalist who has said that he is the suspect or is guilty is not being responsible. What we try to do very carefully in our reporting was look at the Richard Jewell model. We sat on much of the information that we had about Dr. Hatfill after the first search. It was only when the FBI made a very public point that he is a person of interest and sought - you know, singled him out as a person of interest and obtained a search warrant which they had to go to court and have some kind of evidence to convince a judge to give them that we went forward. And we went forward (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ...

KURTZ: So you could have done a story earlier with some of these same elements but you decided to wait?

COOPER: Yes. Yes. Out of fairness to Steven Hatfill. And we still in our reporting -- I have no idea whether Steven Hatfill had anything to do with this or not. All I know is that what we've tried to paint for our audience is who is this person who is in the spotlight.

KURTZ: Right. Now I'm hearing Tom Jackman and everybody's being very careful and they're qualifying things and the evidence is mixed. And yet, if you're the average TV viewer or newspaper viewer, you think, well, the FBI kind of seems to think this is the guy. So isn't the cumulative impression here that Hatfill perhaps was up to something unsavory?

JACKMAN: That's what I'm hearing from people is that just to see his name out there is damaging enough to him that that's convicting enough in the eyes of a lot of people, just putting his name out there, even with all the qualifiers that we later add that he still is, you know, guilty by association, where there's smoke, all those cliches.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Guy Taylor. Reservations about the cumulative media impact here that clearly has made this man into a suspect even though he has not even officially been declared a suspect by the FBI?

TAYLOR: I've got to agree with Rebecca on this one. The Richard Jewell case developed very quickly. Two months. And then he was suddenly cleared. This case has gone on for about six, eight months. He's been in the potentially involved, the person of interest.

It's not like the media has jumped on the bandwagon suddenly and said he's it, he's it. But we've had a cumulative approach saying it's possible. There have been problems. I mean, you'll see a lead and newspaper stories that say the FBI is publicly saying that this guy is no more or less important than the other 30 people. Yet ...

KURTZ: Certainly not the impression ...

TAYLOR: ... law enforcement sources say ...

KURTZ: Well, these sources come from somewhere.

TAYLOR: Well, who are these law enforcement sources?

KURTZ: And obviously a lot of journalists are, in some cases, taking these sources and running with the allegations. We'll find out whether there's something to them. Guy Taylor, Tom Jackman, Rebecca Cooper, thanks very much for joining us.

TAYLOR: Thank you.

KURTZ: And when we come back, did the media give President Bush short shrift when he tried to talk about the economy with 240 of his closest friends? And later, the Elvis obsession still rocking the media 25 years later.



BUSH: And I too am concerned about the language of Wall Street not being clear so that the average investor can understand what's going on.


KURTZ: Welcome back to Reliable Sources. We turn now to President Bush's economic summit in Waco, Texas this week. The conference didn't exactly get glowing treatment from the press.

Joining us now from Boston to talk about why is Gerri Willis, Senior Financial Correspondent for "Smart Money Magazine."

Now much of the press, Gerri Willis, derided this conference as kind of a PR stunt. Maureen Dowds, the "New York Times" columnist, for example said the president was staring into space, didn't spend very long in any of the sessions and accused him of running a cliff notes presidency. Why the harsh media treatment?

GERRI WILLIS, SENIOR FINANCIAL CORRESPONDENT, "SMART MONEY MAGAZINE": Well, you know, I really can't blame her for her comments. The president spent 15 minutes at each of these seminars, a very short period of time. Even the people who participated only spoke for five minutes each. It wasn't the kind of format that was really conducive to a real debate on any of the issues.

KURTZ: Particularly because most of those in attendance were in support of the president's policies, so you didn't have anything in the way of criticism?

WILLIS: Well, there wasn't a lot of debate. I mean, did you hear much about the trade deficit or the budget deficit or steel tariffs? I mean, you know, some of the controversial things we might have discussed didn't even come up.

KURTZ: But it seems to me the media have kind of created a Catch 22 situation here. If Bush doesn't talk about the economy, you see a lot of stories saying he's out of touch. On the other hand if he does have a conference devoted to raising public awareness of the, of the economic situation, the media say, well, this is just a political effort designed to give the appearance of concern by the president. Is that unfair?

WILLIS: Well, you know, what we need is not economic awareness. We already know that the economy is having problems. Right? We're living that reality right now. What we need is to work towards some kinds of solution. And I think that this is where this conference sort of fell down.

We didn't see a lot of solutions fully debated or fully aired. There were no studies presented. There was no information out there to chew on. So I think it was disappointing, you know. It was - there was a lot of sizzle, not a lot of steak.

KURTZ: Photo op politics, it's been called. On the other hand, contrast the coverage of this event this week in Texas with an economic conference that Bill Clinton held soon after being elected in 1992. "Washington Post" said of that event, President Elect Clinton today got a refresher course in the complex problems of the U.S. economy. "New York Times" says that Bill Clinton led an elaborate day long seminar.

Another story said he was conducting an experiment in political education. Now granted, Clinton talked a lot more at that event and he wasn't president yet so he had no record to be blamed. But it still seems like an awfully sharp contrast between Clinton and Bush.

WILLIS: Well, I think they are being read differently. Because, let's face it, that was almost 12 years or 10 years ago now, right? So they're being seen in a totally different context. The real heavy hitter on the economy in Washington is of course Alan Greenspan. And on that very day, the Federal Reserve came out and said, you know, what? We think the economy is tipped more towards recession rather than recovery at the same time that Bush was saying he had great optimism about the economy rebounding soon.

KURTZ: Right.

WILLIS: So he even had this mixed message in there. So a little confusing.

KURTZ: Nobody controls Alan Greenspan. Let me ask you about an aspect of cable coverage that drives me crazy. When this conference opened on Tuesday, CNN and Fox News used the opening of it as a kind of a backdrop while their analysts were talking.

And even after Charles Schwaab, the broker, finished talking, the president began to speak, we didn't hear that on those networks. Only MSNBC carried the opening in full. Now I'm not saying all eight hours should have been on the air. But if this is an important enough conference that is was covered for days in the run up to the actual event and afterwards, shouldn't cable at least let Americans hear some of it and make up their own minds?

WILLIS: Well, I think you make a good point. That's really interesting. How much should they cover? And certainly, you know, you would expect someone like C-Span to cover the full proceedings and maybe some extra coverage on some of the cable networks. I certainly don't have a problem with that. But, you know, I think that a lot of the media was reading this for what it was. You know, it was very political, you know? The elections are coming up and it sounded very much like the administration wanted to get on the right side of this issue.

KURTZ: So they treated it not very seriously in terms of a real debate? They treated it more like just a staged event, in your view?

WILLIS: Right. And, you know, we saw a lot of positioning that, you know, Wall Street was on one side, the administration was on the other. And you've got to understand that people out there having lost so much money in their 401(k)s and IRAs are irate with Wall Street right now.

KURTZ: And that is why there is so much interest in this topic. Gerri Willis, thanks very much for joining us.

WILLIS: Thank you.

KURTZ: Up next, missing in action. Bernard Kalb's back page on the low profile war in Afghanistan. And the king of rock and roll still king of the airwaves after a quarter century. Some final words about Elvis Presley.


KURTZ: In these depressing days of news about Iraq, anthrax, child snatchings, West Nile infections and a possible baseball strike, one story has captured the imagination of millions. One story has prompted an annual pilgrimage by those who believe that not all heroes are tainted. We're talking, of course, about the 25th anniversary of the King's death. The Graceland obsession is back in the news from the 14-year-old Elvis impersonator on Good Morning America ...


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My daddy was a mean-eyed man.


KURTZ: ... to the front page report from Tennessee in the "Washington Post." The media are all shook up over Elvis Presley, whose legend seems only to grow in the years after his passing.

By the way, Presley's death back in 1977 didn't even top the NBC and CBS evening news, which led with the debate over the Panama Canal. They'd probably make a different choice today. And unlike with our current crop of leaders, nobody has a bad word to say about the old hound dog whose swiveling hips were once deemed too risque for the "Ed Sullivan Show." Well, time now for the back page. Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I checked out the lost and found the other day and asked if anyone had turned in a war, the war in Afghanistan.

It's been missing lately, missing in action, you might say. No one can forget how it began live on TV. We saw it all from the beginning. The GI's rushing off to Afghanistan, the B52's, the manhunt for Osama, the coverage, non-stop. But now, if you look at the nightly news and the papers, almost nothing. It's the war that ain't, if you are looking for real coverage.

Now to be fair, the war did get a brief mention the other day when the "Times" and the "Post" reported on the death of a Green Beret, the 38th American killed in combat and non-combat operations in the Afghan war. And yes, "Newsweek" did a big take out on Al Qaeda's great escape.

But otherwise, the Afghan war has pretty much dropped off the front page. What happened? Well, partly the inevitable. The war had lost its original drama. The Taliban had been routed even though Osama hadn't yet been caught. Also, there wasn't enough bang-bang that reporters could get close to and that television loves.

And anyway, it was now mostly a political war with the warlords scrambling for power. By contrast, Vietnam was in your living room night after night. But there were half a million troops there at any one time and they were being killed by the thousands. The short and swift Gulf War of '91 also got lots of coverage. And even those 52 Americans held hostage by the Iranians for 444 days, they also got night after night coverage with Walter Cronkite counting off the days one by one.

But the war in Afghanistan seems to have lost its page one grip on the media. Sure, there are lots of competing big stories, Iraq, corporate sleaze, the economy. But even so, there are 7,000 Americans still over there fighting in a variety of operations. In other words, the war isn't so much missing as being underreported. And there are at least 7,000 reasons why that should not be happening.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb. 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. "CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.


Conference Disregarded as Political Fluff; What Happened to the War in Afghanistan?>



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