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Are Journalists Taking Balanced Approach on Iraq Story?; How Is Press Treating John Kerry?

Aired December 7, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Countdown in Iraq, as Saddam Hussein denies having weapons of mass destruction, the media are kicking into high gear over the looming showdown. Are journalists taking a balanced approach or being used by the Bush administration? What kind of access do they have in Baghdad? Is it possible to get the full story and how is the press treating Democrats on national security issues, particularly the latest presidential candidate, John Kerry?
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Journalists around the world are on high alert as Saddam Hussein's government turns over 12,000 pages of documents and assorted material on whatever weapons it may or may not be assembling. But how do the media evaluate this confusing mass of complicated material and sort out the conflicting claims in Washington and Baghdad.

Ahead, we'll talk with veteran reporters Joe Klein and Pam Hess. But first, as the Iraq drama unfolds, the western media are staking out the Persian Gulf. And joining us now from - live from Doha, Qatar is CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Roughly, how many journalists are there with you and how much information are you able to get? Anderson Cooper. All right, we apparently are having a little bit of video difficulty, audio difficulty.

So joining us now from New York is Joe Klein, late of "The New Yorker" Magazine, now the newly anointed political columnist for "TIME" Magazine. And here in Washington, "United Press International's" Pentagon correspondent Pam Hess.

Joe Klein, the White House seems to tell us virtually everyday that Saddam Hussein is lying and that seems to imply or suggest that this whole weapons inspection process is something of a charade. Is the press treating it like a charade?

JOE KLEIN, TIME MAGAZINE: Well no, the press is treating it very seriously all over it and you know it strikes me, we've gotten these 10,000 pages now, and there's probably going to be an expectation that there'll be some kind of results coming immediately, but this is not "The Star" report and it's not the Pentagon papers. This is really complicated, technical material, and it's the sort of thing that we do least well. And it also opens the possibility, Howard, for all kinds of conflicting interpretations, which is not going to be - not going to work to the administration's advantage. It's not going to be the clear-cut story that I think the administration wants.

KURTZ: Clearly, they want a clear-cut plot. Somebody's not telling the truth. We know who they think that might be, and you're right, the complexity here is going to be difficult. Pam Hess, how do journalists make sense of the charges and counter charges there when you have 12,000 pages of documents, none of which have yet been seen by reporters?

PAM HESS, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL: I'm not sure how they can. This is not a story that's cut out for reporters to do. I'm not even sure that reporters are going to get their hands on all these documents, which I was told today is a stack that weighs 100 pounds each. The Security Council hasn't even gotten the documents yet, and apparently they're all in Arabic. So...

KURTZ: Other than that...


KURTZ: ... it's a piece of cake.

HESS: We've got it covered. So I'm not sure that this is something that we're even going to get our hands on and be able to do the independent shoo (ph) that we would normally like to do.

KURTZ: Joe Klein, could any journalist write President Bush wants war and is simply going through the motions here with this inspection process, or is that unacceptable because of the conventions of journalism?

KLEIN: I think it's unacceptable because of the conventions of journalism, but also because of the events of the last three or four months. You know a decision was made in the administration in August to go through the U.N. process, to go through the inspection process. Actually the story I'd really like to see is how well (UNINTELLIGIBLE) at Dick Cheney's speech, which ran up in the face of this policy that was delivered last August was. I mean you know you hear conflicting reports of whether he was freelancing or acting at the behest of the president.

It seems he was freelancing because the policy has been we're going to go through this very difficult inspection process. I don't know that the president knew what he was getting in for with this, and you know, just when you think that Saddam Hussein is the cleverest guy around, he does something like apologize to Kuwait, something so transparent and silly as that.

KURTZ: Well, it was only 12 years late Joe. Now Pam Hess, you're in the trenches, so to speak...

HESS: Yes. KURTZ: ... at the Pentagon. How are you able to get information or are you about what the United States is finding out about these documents and these inspections.

HESS: Right, I have -- let me answer that in a second. There's another perspective on the Cheney speech that is beginning to gain some competency and what officials have said recently is that the intent of the Bush administration was to create a feeling of -- a perception of inevitability that is going to come to war, and it was that frightening perspective for the U.N., for Iraq that brought the inspectors in. So it might well have been that the Cheney speech was sort of the sword that...

KURTZ: But I want to focus on the press coverage. Has the press carried that message and again, how are you getting information about the gory details here?

HESS: The gory details are not coming out very easily. From a Pentagon perspective, Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, keeps everyone in a really close straight line, and anything that they want to get out, they seem to be filtering out themselves. But mostly things are in a pretty strong lockdown, and they don't like to comment on anything outside of their lane, and this is most specifically outside of their lane. This is diplomacy and they're just getting ready for war. When a message does -- when they do want to get a message out, they're tending to go through "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post" and let it filter out from there. They know who their audience is and what their audience reads.

KURTZ: OK, I'm told now we do have our connection with Anderson Cooper in Qatar. Let me go to CNN's Anderson Cooper. Roughly how many journalists are there and how are -- easily is it or not easy to get information?

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's very difficult to get information right now. I mean this exercise, internal look, which is supposed to begin on Monday has just -- you know they've been planning it now for about a month. They've been building this mobile headquarters out at one of these top-secret bases.

But the U.S. military has really not given out any information at all. What we get we hear more from the Pentagon than we do from folks over here. It is very tightly held, and I think that's very purposeful that, you know, the situation here with the government of Qatar is very delicate and I don't think they don't want to be trumpeting their presence here very loudly.

KURTZ: Well, forgive me then for asking, what is the point of having all the journalists there, and is it a frustrating situation to be near the center of the action and yet not really have access to much hard information.

COOPER: I don't know that it's frustrating. It's really a surreal, and it's a little bit like covering, you know, a war from Las Vegas. You know you're staying in a very nice hotel. Shaggy, the performer is coming tomorrow to play. That's what people in the hotel seem most excited about, the Qataris. So it's really a little strange. I don't think it's a total futile exercise to be here. I do think it's very interesting.

I mean I spend a lot of time just talking to people, talking to Qataris, talking to a lot of the guest workers who live and work here. And you really do get a sense of their view of the United States, of their view of the U.S. military, and I think that's important, particularly, you know, if this does become a major base for U.S. operations against Iraq. It will be very interesting to see how the public reacts to any kind of conflict with Iraq, particularly if it goes on for a very long period of time.

KURTZ: And just briefly, if war does come or heats up, do you think there'll be a daily spin, a daily briefing just to sort of feed the beast there in Qatar?

COOPER: I think without a doubt. I do not think you're going to see that in this next week for this exercise. You know we've been told there may be, you know, one media day, as they call it, one media opportunity where they show us a little bit of one of the bases. But these bases are very, you know, tightly held. They're very hard to even photograph right now. You've got to kind of drive by them, videotape surreptitiously, and all you're getting really is pictures of barbed wire and fences...

KURTZ: Right.

COOPER: ... and that's all you're going to see. We don't think we're going to get a daily military briefing at this point.

KURTZ: All right CNN's Anderson Cooper, thanks very much for that update.

Back to New York and Joe Klein. You know, is the press giving anything approaching equal weight to people out there and there are growing numbers of them, perhaps, who think that the whole U.S. policy toward Iraq is confrontational and perhaps reckless.

KLEIN: Well, probably not enough. I mean there's a real sense of inevitability about this. And you know, I think that if you look -- step back and look at it, I spend a lot of time in Europe in the spring, and you know they see this as an American hammer looking for a nail to pound, and there's some truth to that. You know, the situation we're in and you know and is very complicated, you know, war on terror or conflict against terror is more like an American antibiotic looking for a virus to combat. And you wonder about the efficacy of this whole project.

KURTZ: And if, in fact, we do end up going to war, again, will it be even harder for those of you stationed at the Pentagon to find out until well after the airstrikes have taken place, well after the damage assessments have come down to find out information in real time. I mean we've had this experience in Afghanistan and in the first Persian Gulf War.

HESS: And when Afghanistan first started, they were pretty good about giving us the immediate update. They called everyone in on a Sunday, and we were all in place when they were getting ready to announce. So, there is this time lag that happens, and there's a security lag. They don't want to tip their hand about anything that they're about to do. They only want to comment on what they've just done, certainly, nothing that's going on then. So it's a continual push and pull with them, and I think one of the reasons why reporters are in Qatar is in case something happens, that is most likely where the Command Central is going to be, and so reporters need to be there right now just to start covering their bases.

KURTZ: OK, we have to take a brief timeout and when we come back, the media get ready to go to war or at least some war games -- in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Pam Hess, you recently went through military boot camp for journalists.

HESS: Yes.

KURTZ: Take us behind the front lines. Was this a rough experience?

HESS: It wasn't really physically rigorous, although I did suffer a sprained ankle right before, luckily, a live fire exercise where bullets would have been whizzing over my head. So I...

KURTZ: A live fire exercise.

HESS: ... I took one for the team. Yes, they -- we followed around them -- at some points we followed some Marine lieutenants who were going through their leadership training course and these are brand new officers and they were coming in and learning how to sort of take this field. It was just an empty field with some big white bags on it. But the -- there were Marines on a hill firing over their head to teach them about coordinating fires. It was pretty scary...

KURTZ: What was it like being one of the reporters who was having to carry the weights on the back...

HESS: Right.

KURTZ: ... and do all that stuff at the same time other reporters were there to cover it as a kind of a media event.

HESS: On the last days, when the reporters showed up to cover up and your first question, it was pretty physically demanding the incredible amount of weight that Marines carry and that reporters would have to carry if they embed with them. That is if they go into a combat situation with them, which is why they created this training, because they wanted us to be prepared if, in fact, that happens. We don't know if it's going to happen. It didn't happen in the Persian Gulf War. It didn't really happen in the Afghan War, but there is some hope that maybe the reporters will have a closer access.

KURTZ: But did you feel that you had become the story? In fact, your picture appeared in certain newspapers...

HESS: Yes...

KURTZ: Tell us about that.

HESS: ... I ended up being the cover girl of the media training. There was a day that they did a weapons demonstration for us. We sat for four hours on metal bleachers while we leached the heat out of our bodies, and at the end of it they invited us to come down and take a look at the weapons. I walked down and a Marine handed me a M-16 and showed me how to aim it. We were all -- reporters were there experiencing it and covering it and photographers were there and as soon as I picked up this M-16 with my blue bandana and my braids, the photograph started clicking, and nobody really gave it a thought until Thursday when it appeared in the "International Herald Tribune," possibly "The Financial Times" and it keeps popping up across the country. I keep getting e-mails from people wondering why I'm shooting M-16s.

KURTZ: Brief moment of fame.

HESS: Yes.

KURTZ: Joe Klein, I guess neither you or I had to find out how we'd fare in bootcamp, but take just a couple of steps back. How would you grade the president's handling of the media as a wartime leader, going back to when he seems to be going on a unilateral confrontation with Iraq, then going to the U.N. All of this could be portrayed as kind of a flip-flop and yet, it seems like the president has gotten pretty good press.

KLEIN: Well I think he has, but could we go back to the coverage of this thing? You know one point that I think is real important is that most of us when we think about this war, we think about the CNN coverage of the Gulf War, of the people in the hotel room and watching the bombardment take place. And one thing that we should be very much aware of is that's going to be different this time. Saddam Hussein needed CNN in 1990, 1991 to get his story out.

Now, he has Al Jazeera, and I think that the American crews who are in there now and the other international crews may be in some real danger if this thing actually bursts open. I don't know whether people have considered this or talked about it, but it's a thought that comes to mind, especially when you see this film that's made for TV movie that's coming out about the CNN coverage of the Gulf War.

KURTZ: That's a terrific point and...

HESS: I think there's also some concern about reporters that might be embedding with Kurdish groups, Kurdish rebellious groups. These are the ones -- these are the people that Saddam Hussein gassed 15 years ago and so, if it comes to chemical weapons, and reporters are with the Kurds, they could be facing a really ugly situation.

KLEIN: Yes, this could be an incredibly dangerous war for journalists. But then, you know, we're in a situation that's fairly dangerous for those of us who live in places like New York and Washington.

KURTZ: That's right. What used to be considered only a threat for journalists who actually put the helmets on and went out with the troops, that has changed in the age of terrorism.

We have to leave it right there. Pam Hess, thanks very much for joining us. Joe Klein, stay put.

When we come back, John Kerry joins the presidential campaign. Does the press treat him differently on national security issues because of his experience in Vietnam?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Continuing our conversation with Joe Klein, who has just joined "TIME" Magazine as a political columnist. Have had the media portrayed the Democrats on the Iraq issue?

KLEIN: Well, it's been hard because the Democrats have been hiding on the Iraq issue. I think that they've gotten, you know, the very worst of this during the recent campaign because most of them decided to take it off the table, which is the term of art that political consultants use now. And furthermore, it seems that the issue that really hurt them the most was the issue of homeland security, where they came up with the idea for this new Homeland Security Department in the first place and then opposed President Bush's bill because of objections from some of the labor unions, and paid a real price. Apparently...

KURTZ: Right.

KLEIN: ... in women's voter -- with women voters.

KURTZ: You just finished a long "New Yorker" profile of Senator John Kerry, the latest Democratic presidential aspirant and he's focused pretty heavily on Kerry's record, his days as a decorated Vietnam veteran. That also -- subject also came up recently on Kerry's appearance on "MEET THE PRESS." Let's take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You were a highly decorated veteran of Vietnam. Your wife has said several times that you still have nightmares about your experience. How so?

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D), MASSACHUSETTS: Well occasionally, depending on sort of where I am and what's going on, depends (UNINTELLIGIBLE) if you're traveling and there's movement or something, it -- you know it takes you back to Vietnam, and you have a nightmare.


KURTZ: When it comes to national security issues, does Kerry's experience of Vietnam and to some degree, Joe, inoculate him in the eyes of the press? KLEIN: Well I don't know what inoculate means. It certainly gives him more credibility because he's been to war and I think that what also gives him credibility on these issues is that he specialized in them for the 18 years since he became a member of the United States Senate. He served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He's very well versed in military policy, but it does make it easier for him to do things like criticize the United States military's handling of Tora Bora in Afghanistan and Operation Anaconda, which is something that you didn't hear anybody else except for Kerry and also John McCain, by no accident another Vietnam veteran.

And actually there really isn't an accident here because the group of Vietnam combat veterans who are in the United States Senate are extremely close, and they talk to each other about these issues all the time, and very often they come up with common and very nuanced and complicated positions on these. And they're a very credible voice on these issues...

KURTZ: Right. Well I was just...


KURTZ: ... I was just wondering whether that service would help Kerry particularly I'm talking about issues in the post 9/11 era with reporters, many of whom don't seem terribly fond of the senator.

KLEIN: Right. Well I guess he's had a reputation -- I mean, you know, Bob Kerrey, another former Vietnam combat veteran said John Kerry is cursed by the way he looks, and he looks like he came out of central casting, you know. And he has a reputation of being aloof. I've known the guy for 30 years, and he lived up to that reputation for a great many of them, but I think he's gotten a lot looser over the last 10 years, and he certainly gave me all the access that you could ever desire from a politician. I think he learned quite a bit from John McCain's campaign for president in 2000 when he gave us more access than we even knew what to do with.

KURTZ: In the 30 seconds we have left, Joe Klein, why would somebody who's gearing up to run for president, though, spend so much time with you, open up his files, talk so candidly about his early days when he went out and got drunk on weekends and that sort of thing. Sounds like risky business for somebody preparing for a White House run.

KLEIN: Well I think it's business as usual. These kind of stories, the sort I did have been going on for the last two or three, four cycles, and they happen at the beginning of a cycle when a politician wants to become known to the public, wants to get his story out, and for someone like me, it's a difficult call to try and get the story out, but also to try and be as critical as possible...

KURTZ: Right.

KLEIN: ... about that story.

KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there. Hopefully, we'll come back and talk to you again. Joe Klein, thanks very much...

KLEIN: My pleasure.

KURTZ: ... for joining us.

Well before we go, the critics were convinced that Roone Arledge would ruin ABC News. He was a showman, a charlatan, the wide world of sports guy when he was handed the reigns in 1977. All he did was create "NIGHTLINE," "THIS WEEK WITH DAVID BRINKLEY," "20/20," "PRIMETIME LIVE," and though the word is much overused, really revolutionized the news business. Arledge died this week at 71, but his creation, ABC News, lives on.

Well that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Saturday evening at 6:30 evening for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


How Is Press Treating John Kerry?>

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