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Convervatives Blast "New York Times" on Iraq Coverage

Aired August 24, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Ganging up on the gray lady: Conservatives savage the "New York Times" over its Iraq coverage. Is the paper beating the anti-war drums?
Those terror tapes: Should CNN have paid for them? Why won't the network say who got the money?

And strike three for baseball? Keith Olbermann on why the media are calling both players and owners out as a strike showdown looms.

Welcome to Reliable Sources, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. We've got a full plate today, so let's get started.

We begin with CNN's Al Qaida tapes, airing on the network all week, obtained by correspondent Nic Robertson in Afghanistan, showing Osama bin Laden, Al Qaida operatives in training, and the testing of some kind of chemical agent on an unfortunate dog.

And with us now is CNN national correspondent Mike Boettcher.

Monday's New York Times, right here on the front page, says, Nic Robertson and senior CNN executives say they did not pay for the tapes. Now, that is not true. CNN has acknowledged it has paid $30,000 for these 64 videotapes.

Why wasn't the network candid about this?

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The network was cautious, and I'll tell you why from a personal level, Howard. They were cautious about reporters like me and Nic out in the field who sometimes have to carry cash to pay for stuff.

And should they have been more forthcoming? Yes. They never said that CNN did not pay. There was a misunderstanding. Truly there was.

But I have to tell you, from a personal point of view, I don't want the figure of money we pay for these sorts of things published, because, you know, I've been held up a couple of times out in bad places, with people knowing we carry cash, and it's a problem.

KURTZ: Understood. But even after the miscommunication, CNN's spokesman saying it was a modest sum, a five-figure sum, which could be as low as $10,000. I understand the concern that correspondents in the field have, but in retrospect, in that other journalists were going to ask this question, do you feel that the network could have been a little more forthcoming?

BOETTCHER: Well, you know, if I had my wish, this is the way it would have worked. Instead of saying we just obtained the tapes, which Time magazine did report that way on Monday morning, that we had obtained the tapes, CNN should have said at the beginning, "We paid for the tapes," but not give the amount. That's what I'd like to see the rule be.

But as soon as CNN saw the New York Times report, Eason Jordan, our chief news executive, who was in Baghdad, e-mailed Judy Miller, the author of that New York Times article, and said, hey, we paid for the tapes. So it really wasn't a case of CNN trying to hide that fact. When they saw what the New York Times had written, immediately Eason from Baghdad called and said, that has to be changed.

KURTZ: These were tapes made by Al Qaida that were obtained by CNN from some unnamed middleman or middlemen. How can the network assure the world that the money paid for these tapes did not somehow end up in the hands of Osama bin Laden's forces?

BOETTCHER: Well, I'd say right off the bat that if bin Laden wanted these tapes out, he's a bad media manager, because you're showing tapes of dogs being gassed, you're showing his security detail, you're showing intricate training, and before everything else that's come out, with one minor exception, has been heavily produced Al Qaida material. For me, in my mind, without knowing the sourcing, I would say that's proof number one.

Proof number two is, Nic Robertson, who's been working there for six years, when, you know, frankly, other networks have kind of ignored Afghanistan during that period, Nic was in there and knew a lot of people, and if Nic Robertson says that this source is not Al Qaida, not Taliban, I believe him, Howard.

KURTZ: OK. Now, this is a good story, an important story, some compelling footage, as we've seen this week. But CNN has trumpeted it day after day; you've been on the air day after day talking about these tapes.


KURTZ: Los Angeles Times editorial says the tapes must be incredibly important because they're broadcast endlessly, right? Not necessarily.

So what do you say to the criticism that these tapes, 4 years old and older in some cases, have been somewhat overplayed?

BOETTCHER: Well, personally -- well, number one, which would be the standard answer, CNN is a 24-hour news network, and we have to show this to...

KURTZ: To reach all the viewers.

BOETTCHER: People don't watch -- to everybody, you know.

KURTZ: Right.

BOETTCHER: I mean, it's just as important in Los Angeles as it is in New York.

But, personally, as a reporter who's been covering terrorism a long time, I did my graduate work 25 years ago on this, and I've been following Al Qaida for a long time, and we've been doing stories before 9/11 -- we were working on a documentary called "One Day Soon," about the likelihood of a terrorist attack against the United States. We did plenty of stories about chemical testing by Al Qaida but had no pictures, and no one paid any attention.


BOETTCHER: Until people saw the pictures. And the pictures -- for me, it's been great, because it's validated what we've been talking about, Howard.

KURTZ: Well, television's a visual medium, the pictures do sometimes bring it home. The New York Times, "NBC Nightly News" led with it, so obviously some other news organizations also thought it was an important story.

We'll have to leave it there, Mike Boettcher. Thanks very much for joining us.

BOETTCHER: You're welcome.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now to talk more about those Al Qaida tapes and about the conservative assault on the New York Times over its war coverage, in New York, syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and here in the studio, Tony Blankley, editorial-page editor of the Washington Times.

E.J. Dionne, does it make you uncomfortable at all that CNN paid $30,000 for those Al Qaida tapes?

E.J. DIONNE, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: You know, I'm a kind of old- fashioned print guy. The places I've worked -- the New York Times, The Washington Post -- have always had rules against paycheck journalism. And so, it makes me uneasy right off the top.

KURTZ: But of course they pay for photographs.

DIONNE: I'm sorry?

KURTZ: They pay for the photographs.

DIONNE: Well, I was going to say, I understand that there are -- television does have to do a lot of purchasing of tape. And it's among networks, and it's in all sorts of other places.

But I think you raised the right question earlier. It seems to me, if you do something like this, you sure don't want any of a news organization's money going to Al Qaida.

I was trying to think about this. What would it be like for somebody to buy film from the SS during World War II? Most of the time I would say, God, that would be an awful idea. The only circumstance I could imagine frankly, is if some renegade SS guy got us tape -- our side tape of the Holocaust early on. Could that have stopped it if people had known? Maybe in an extreme case like that, but it makes me uneasy.

KURTZ: OK. Was it PR blunder for CNN not to explain the payment from the outside?

TONY BLANKLEY, "WASHINGTON TIMES": Yes, I think that was the zone of mistake. I disagree with E.J. I don't have any problem with it. I wouldn't even in his scenario of the SS and Auschwitz. I would think even if the money went to Himmler himself, if it was a chance to show the horrors to the world, that would have been $30,000 well spent.

DIONNE: That's what I was saying, Tony...

BLANKLEY: But as far as CNN, obviously they didn't get the accurate story out in the first effort, regarding whether they paid. And I think that was -- that's always a credibility problem, particularly where there's a politician or a journalist. Not getting an accurate description of an event is a problem, and they had that problem.

KURTZ: Sure. Let me move us now from World War II to a possible war against Iraq.

Now, conservative media and commentators -- the Weekly Standard, columnist Charles Krauthammer, Wall Street Journal editorial page, your editorial page of the Washington Times -- seem convinced that the New York Times has an agenda when it comes to writing about possible war against Iraq. Why are you so convinced of that?

BLANKLEY: It's not a question of whether they have an agenda. They have every right to have an agenda. And as long as their reporting is within the normal bounds, that's fine, certainly on the editorial page. And even opinion in reporting these days, I don't have any trouble with.

My concern was that they mischaracterized, in their top story above the fold, they mischaracterized Kissinger's position.

I had read the Washington Post piece. I did a column on it. But, you know, I thought it was significant that Kissinger had crossed -- was now supporting preemptive war against all of his theories in his entire career, and that he was backing Bush. And he said -- and then, even on Sunday, on Meet the Press, he said that he thinks the intellectual case has been made. His only qualification was that it has to be a political sales job, which obviously Bush would agree to.

To have that characterized by the New York Times, as he's part of the dissenters, the people who are opposed to him, I think it's a tremendous and shameful, I think, mistake.

KURTZ: You're referring here to an op-ed piece in The Washington Post by Henry Kissinger.


KURTZ: E.J., what's your take on that particular and controversial New York Times story?

DIONNE: You know, I think the story itself was an important story and that they didn't have to use Kissinger at the top, because it was a story about cracks on the Republican side, and Brent Scowcroft and Chuck Hagel and Dick Armey were important enough.

Now, I re-read that Kissinger piece over and over. In the body of the New York Times story, they were very clear, saying far from ruling out military intervention, Mr. Kissinger said the challenge was to build a careful case for it. So in the body of the story, they were perfectly straight.

If I would have been the editor or the writer, I wouldn't have used Kissinger as an opponent. But that piece was full of qualms and very interesting questions about policy, and it raised a lot of potential problems. I think there was a way they could have used Kissinger and been totally out of the woods.

And my question is, is there a concerted campaign against the New York Times, because the side that favors the war really doesn't want critical coverage?

Howell Raines, the editor of the Times, when he was Washington bureau chief, ran a pretty strong campaign against Bill Clinton on Whitewater. I didn't hear any conservative complaints back then about that.

KURTZ: Actually, Howell Raines was editorial-page editor when Whitewater broke.

DIONNE: But during Whitewater, initially he was Washington bureau chief, in any event.


BLANKLEY: Yes, I mean, I don't think the criticism is that the New York Times has an opinion. They are entitled to an opinion. And I don't have a lot of trouble these days with opinions somehow reflecting itself in the analysis part of reporting stories. But it's the factual issue that is central. And of course at the time, Howell Raines was dominantly on the editorial page when he was criticizing...

KURTZ: But there is also this drum beat on the right that the New York Times is using its news columns to pursue some sort of anti- war agenda, because they've written on the front page about what the impact on the economy would be of a war, what people on the street thing. What's wrong with covering the voices of dissent? BLANKLEY: There's no doubt that part of the method by which, whether you're a news outlet or a politician, you get your message through is the number of repetitions you do. If a newspaper decides to run a front-page story 10 days in a row, they're going to drive that component of reality stronger than if they do one page on A9.

By the way, the piece in question, when we pointed out in our editorial, they didn't get to explaining Kissinger's position until over 700 words into the story, on the jump page of a thousand-word piece. And the trouble was, most people, even most journalists in town, glanced at the front page. They saw the headline of the New York Times, they saw Kissinger's name out there. And then they wandered around town, and I met some of those...

KURTZ: Well, we live in a soundbite age, but let me come back to E.J. Dionne.

Is there something about Howell Raines and the New York Times that just gets the conservative blood flowing, particularly on this sensitive subject of Iraq?

DIONNE: Well, first of all, conservatives have been running a campaign for 30 years saying the big media is biased against them, and whenever they find something that they can run with, they do it.

You know, and just in particular in terms of coverage, the one place I would fault the Times is I don't think they gave enough coverage to Condi Rice's arguments for the war. It seems to me, even if you're against the war, if you think the arguments for it don't work, you should lay them out and let people judge them.

But in general, I think the idea of having a newspaper ask skeptical questions, as the New York Times is doing, about whether we are going to engage in what all of us would agree will be a historic and very important action, I think it's very good to have critical journalism. And I think it would be very bad if this attack or this line of criticism were used to intimidate if not the Times then other people from asking very hard questions.

KURTZ: Now, during the mid '90s, Tony Blankley, you were the spokesman of Newt Gingrich. Howell Raines was the editor of the liberal editorial page of the New York Times. I'm sure you didn't like some of the things he had to say about the then House speaker.

Could this influence your view at all, now that he's running the paper, of whether or not the paper is playing it straight?

BLANKLEY: No, I mean, I've been out commenting on politics in the news for six years. My editorial last Monday was the first time I've mentioned Howell Raines -- I didn't mention him by name, even in there.

This is a specific...

KURTZ: You've been restraining yourself.



... look, I mean, there's bias all over the place. That has never (inaudible) by that.

The particular violation that occurred in the New York Times was beyond, I think, what we've come to expect from any responsible newspaper. They misrepresented a material fact.


BLANKLEY: And to defend him by saying that others have attacked him at other times on other matters is not to be able to make the case -- and I don't think there is a case to be made -- for defending his decision in that particular paper.

KURTZ: No, I don't think Howell Raines helped himself by refusing to comment to me when I wrote about this, or to others, about the Times' coverage. After all, it's a fair -- these are fair questions to raise, E.J. Dionne, and the paper did with seven Pulitzer prizes this year under his leadership.

But is this something, of what we would call in baseball, a brush-bat pitch from conservatives that might be trying to get the Times to back off a little bit, in terms of its coverage of this issue?

DIONNE: I think that's exactly right. I mean, as I said earlier, I think you can make a critique of the early part of that story. But again, I would underscore that when you got into it, they were, I think, quite fair. And that Kissinger piece was a kind of elliptical piece. I agree with Tony. He ended up siding with the war, but only after raising a slough of questions.

So yes, I do think this is about a brush-bat pitch. And it's not only directed at the New York Times, it's directed at all of us in the media.

KURTZ: In the sense that...

DIONNE: In the sense that -- I mean, conservatives have done a very good job for 30 years in saying the media is really liberal, even in cases when it isn't. And I would make a strong argument that the world of commentary, thanks to a lot of very smart conservative analysts, is actually much more on the right than it is on the left. But the whole...

KURTZ: OK. We'll have to have you make that argument on the next show.



KURTZ: We'll leave it there. E.J. Dionne, Tony Blankley, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, has the press gotten sick of the all-American pastime, baseball? We'll ask Keith Olbermann about that next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to Reliable Sources.

They're at it again, baseball owners and players, as if they didn't have enough money, duking it out off the field with a strike date set for August 30th.

And in the batter's box in New York, CNN contributor Keith Olbermann.


OLBERMANN: Thank you, Howard.

KURTZ: Journalists aren't supposed to take sides in labor negotiations, but they basically are describing both sides in this matter as spoiled, greedy, whiny. Is that unfair?

OLBERMANN: I don't think it's unfair, because it's obviously a $4 billion industry that cannot get everybody on the same side of the dollar bill and is threatening a labor action in the middle of the most solemn commemoration of certainly the last 50 or 60 years. There's the prospect of, you know, something where players might be a picket line rather than in a ballpark on September 11th. I think that does merit some editorial concern.

But you're right about the idea that perhaps the notion that there's more to this than there would be in almost any other kind of high-profile labor negotiation, there's more side-taking.

KURTZ: Well, Fortune magazine, for example, likened Commissioner Bud Selig and Don Fehr, the head of the players union, to Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon. Is that sort of thing over the top?

OLBERMANN: Only in the sense that it kind of demeans the seriousness of what's going on in the Middle East and elevates the madness of what's going on in baseball to that kind of level, that there should be that sort of comparison.

I don't think in another sense that it's wrong because, of course, you're speaking in sports vernacular, and anything that is covered in terms of sports, especially if it's not truly a sports issue that's being covered by sports people, tends to get reduced to those terms, it tends to be viewed as heroes or failures or striking out or dropping a pass or whatever else.

It's very difficult for people who cover sports for a living to suddenly shift over to labor. I mean, the two things are not necessarily overlapping, despite what we've seen in the last 20 years, and a lot of people have a hard time understanding a story like this. And certainly they think that to convey it to a sports audience they must couch it in those terms.

KURTZ: Well, to continue the metaphor, should we be crying foul, then, when Newsweek has a headline, "The End of Baseball Again. Players and Owners are Working Hard to Kill the Game. Are They Crazy?"

OLBERMANN: Again, because of the lopsidedness of any given editorialization, I think that's where the question has to be raised.

Covering this story has been so difficult this year because there really isn't anybody who knows what's going on, and I include in that the owners and the players. There are owners who are far closer to the players' position than they are to the position of other owners. And I have spoken to two players in the last week who think that the current state of what the owners want to do to remodel the game is not sufficient to protect the jobs of the fringe major-leaguers.

So there are hawkish players and dove-like owners, and there are owners who are threatening to sue each other over the proposal that's on the table at a given moment. And the entire complication, it really isn't just players versus owners, there's also players versus players and owners versus owners.

KURTZ: Right. It's more complicated than you might think.

And we're not talking here about dock workers or steelworkers who are trying to feed their families, we're talking about a sport where, you know, utility infielders make a couple of million dollars a year.

And I wonder whether journalists who cover this are reacting in part as fans, as well as journalists, and reflecting the revulsion that many fans feel in the wake of the '94 strike -- here they go again, how stupid can these people be that they're actually contemplating a work stoppage.

OLBERMANN: In crunch time, to use another sports analogy, when the chips are down, those of us who cover sports do tend to let our fandom show, and this is despite the jaded nature of the average sports reporter.

It doesn't pertain to this current negotiation, but during the 2000 World Series, when it was the New York Mets versus the New York Yankees, there were things in the paper presented as fact in New York, and even in the New York Times, that were clearly -- the writers were clearly identifiable as either the guys who covered the Mets or the guys who covered their Yankees. Their coverage was genuinely pro- Yankee in one hand and in another pro-Met.

KURTZ: Right.

OLBERMANN: And so when it becomes something of far more importance, where the entire context of what our jobs are, you know, is in a sense threatened or held up to ridicule or holds itself up to ridicule, yes, I think that's going to naturally occur.

KURTZ: We have a little less than 30 seconds, Keith Olbermann. I have the impression, reading the sports pages, that baseball gets the worst press of any major sport, at least when it comes to these sort of off-the-field issues. What do you think?

OLBERMANN: Yes, with the caveat being that they've earned it.


There has been no sport that has managed to throw away as many advantages and as much good will as baseball has. And as they have been saying since the 1890s, Howard, baseball has always somehow managed to survive the stupidity of the people who run it.

KURTZ: Well, I'm glad you haven't pulled any punches here. Appreciate your sharing your strong opinions. Keith Olbermann, thanks very much for joining us.

OLBERMANN: Certainly, sir.

KURTZ: And when we come back, Bernard Kalb weighs in on the future of the republic if Bill Clinton gets his own TV talk show. That's coming up next in the Back Page.


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


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: By now, it's all turned into a great debate, whether the ex-pres should morph into a talk show. And it's been non-stop ever since this story last Tuesday.

The subject of Bill has been fodder for the tabloids, print and TV, and so, too, these questions: Should he or shouldn't he? Will he or won't he? Is it perfectly OK or just plain trashy for the man who once was the leader of the free world to join the jabber on TV?

One thing that these talk shows did find, that the man from Hope is still a polarizing figure. We love him or loathe him.

The whole idea of Bill as a TV host, does sound innocent, doesn't it? But -- and this point was missed in all the chatter -- there could be an unintended consequence. If Bill does do it, the result would be a split-screen America: Bill and George W. simultaneously, courtesy of the media.

Now, it's true that the U.S. Constitution says you can only be a two-term president. But there's nothing in the Constitution that says we can't two presidents at the same time.

OK, one of them is a former, but hey, that's only a technicality. He might only be the president of a talk show, but he would still be sounding off on all the big issues facing the country. It would be almost as though he set up a rival government disguised as a talk show. The real president would then find himself in a non-stop duel with the ex. And the media of course, not at all concerned about the future of the republic, the media would milk it for all it's worth, pitting the two presidents against each other, "Clinton says this, Bush says that. Who's right?"

Sure, we still could have a lot fun thinking about all this, but if Bill does transition into a talk show, and emerges as a kind of competing numero uno, it would be the end of democracy as we know it. In other words, my fellow channel surfers, there's a lot more at stake here than meets the camera's eye.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb.

Well, that's it for this edition for Reliable Sources. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern.

Capital Gang is up next. Al Hunt has a preview.





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