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Are American Networks Beating War Drums in Confrontation With Iraq?; Is European Press Sympathetic to Anti-War Forces?

Aired February 23, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Gearing up for war. Are American networks beating the war drums in the confrontation with Iraq? Should they be more skeptical towards the president's showdown with Saddam?
And is the European press more sympathetic to the anti-war forces or just indulging in anti-Americanism?

We'll ask a "New York Times" columnist, a former Bush speech writer and a BBC correspondent.

Also, the once impeached president launches a media blitz and television's obsession with the weirdest celebrity around.

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

The Iraq drama has now become two stories for the media: President Bush's march toward war and a global explosion of protests against the war.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In 600 cities on every continent across the globe, hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets protesting against any U.S.-led war against Iraq.

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: At the White House today, President Bush said last weekend's worldwide anti-war protests will not influence his decisions on U.S. security or war with Iraq.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR; It is quite clear in Washington tonight that the administration is prepared to jeopardize its relations with several of its oldest and best friends in order to get its way about Iraq.


KURTZ: But are the American media siding with the administration as the showdown grows closer, or is the European press all but campaigning against the Bush war effort?

Well, joining us now in New York Paul Krugman, "The New York Times" columnist and a professor of economics at Princeton University.

And here in Washington, David Frum, a columnist at "National Review" online. He's a former speech writer for President Bush and the author of the bestselling book about the Bush presidency, "The Right Man."

Also with us, Katty Kay, Washington correspondent for the BBC.

Paul Krugman, you write in "The New York Times" for months both cable networks -- both U.S. cable networks have acted as if the decision to invade Iraq has already been made and have, in effect, seen it as their job to prepare the American public for the coming war.

Are you saying that CNN and Fox are essentially rooting for war?

PAUL KRUGMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Fox is clearly. CNN is a little more ambiguous but both have -- the point that I was trying to make is that both networks and MSNBC, as well, have essentially gone into war mode. They've treated this as a done deal.

They've used essentially the kind of logos, martial music and so on that we saw after we saw Gulf War I had started. So from the point-of-view of the American public, Iraq is already the enemy, we're already at war.

And the point I was trying to make in "The Times" column was that, you know, if you ask why do the Europeans see things so differently, well, one answer is not culture, not society, not politics but, just hey, they don't have, you know, "Countdown: Iraq," "SHOWDOWN IRAQ," "Target Iraq" on their screens nonstop.

KURTZ: David Frum, should American networks be devoting more time to a debate about whether there should be a war? Should there be more room for anti-war voices on these networks?

DAVID FRUM, "NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE": Paul Cartman is an economist and the central belief of economics is that numbers matter. And I think he would want to begin by noting that there are networks, as well as cable networks and the audiences for these networks are ten times the size as the cable networks, sorry. And there's a third cable network, as well, that also has an audience.

And that while Fox certainly has tended to be supportive of the administration's position, CNN much less so. The networks, the big networks, much less so again.

And I'm afraid, with respect, that the European networks are no models to follow at all. I mean, not just in their intense anti- Americanism but in, I mean, the record of who's been right. I mean, it was the BBC that swallowed the Jenin hoax story wholeheartedly.

And they have given a kind of publicity to the anti-war movement without, at the same time, doing the work of engaging with the content of the anti-war movement and realizing how much of the anti-war movement is, in fact, actively pro-Saddam, sympathetic to...

KURTZ: Let's get a response. What's wrong with the idea of listening to a very important and burgeoning anti-war movement around the world?

KATTY KAY, BBC: In fact, I think that part of it is that, is that there isn't such a large anti-war movement here in America, and therefore there isn't so much reporting of it.

I think that European networks felt that American networks missed a trick last weekend in reporting the anti-war protests, which were seen really talking to people back in Britain as epoch making. That was the single largest peace time demonstration ever.

FRUM: I didn't criticize you for covering it. I'm criticizing covering it without focusing on the content. You can't just cover the size of the crowd and ignore, for example, Tony Bend saying that -- saying that Kurdish demonstrators are CIA stooges. That's...

KAY: But the interesting thing about those demonstrations is that this was not just your classic anti-war demonstrators. These were middle class people who had never demonstrated before, many of them from the Conservative Party.

This was -- I think this was misportrayed, actually, by some of the American networks and certainly some of the cable networks as your -- what were they described as, your classic demonstrators. These were not your classic demonstrators. This was very different.

KURTZ: Paul, you also had some critical words for CNN and Fox's coverage of the anti-war demonstrations last weekend.

KRUGMAN: Fox, which, of course, had it's -- you know, the demonstration was basically right outside their windows, were saying, oh, it's just the usual serial protesters, the usual gang. Very few pictures conveying to the audience the impression it was a bunch of bearded flag burners, which manifestly just wasn't true.

CNN was better on that, but then there was this peculiar business about the next day treating it as the main story being that the demonstrations lent aid and comfort to the Iraqis.

So there was some flat misstatements to the U.S. media, and you know, just -- my -- the real point is aside from who's right, who's wrong, we should say, look, something is awry here. Somebody is reporting the world very differently from the truth. Maybe both sides; obviously I think that the BBC has been much closer to getting it right. But...

KURTZ: But the BBC also has its critics, as you well know, Katty, there seems to be a feeling that some programs are giving a lot of air time to what we describe as anti-Americanism. And, in fact, the British commentator Andrew Sullivan now refers to it as the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation.

KRUGMAN: Andrew Sullivan is not exactly your most objective observer, can we say?

KAY: But certainly, though, we do have critics here who say that we have done too much protesting of the anti-war movement. But I actually think that it has been refreshing to see some reporting of the anti-war movement which does exist here in America.

We've sent over correspondents, we had somebody out in Iowa a couple of weeks ago. We have reported from Pennsylvania on different pockets of the anti-war movement here, and it's reporting that frankly I haven't seen much of on American networks but the BBC has covered.

KURTZ: Why do you think that is?

KAY: Because I think that there is not so much impetus to cover the anti-war movement. I think that Paul Krugman has a point there that there has been a selling of the war almost as a fait accompli.

FRUM: Can I break in?

KURTZ: Go ahead.

KRUGMAN: Let me just say, something remarkable happened in the U.S. I mean, even if you think this is right, that, you know, war in Iraq is the right thing, something very odd happened.

Here was one guy, Osama bin Laden, who launched a terrorist attack and the administration, aided by the networks -- including the broadcast networks, by the way, that's a canard -- have engaged in a sort of transference. Bush himself last -- as far as we can make out -- last mentioned Osama bin Laden in a speech last June. Suddenly it was, you know, Osama, Osama, Osama, Saddam, Saddam, Saddam.

And the networks, the broadcast media simply picked that up, transferred our feelings of alarm and anger from one villain to another villain, a villain no doubt. And that didn't happen in the rest of the world and that, more than anything else, is the reason why views of the world look so different in the U.S. from...

FRUM: Before we make the BBC a touchstone, I wasn't in London last week but was there for the previous big set of big rallies in October. I was standing in the middle of them. And I saw them, how they were covered on the BBC.

And I'm sorry, it is not true that if you want to leave the idea these are rallies in which mothers with perambulators are marching down Piccadilly, that's not the way it happened. I was there.

I saw people chanting Islamic slogans; I saw people dressed like suicide bombers. I heard the chant of "Allah Akbar."

And I think that the complaint that people here who question the objectivity of the BBC's coverage of British -- of the British anti- war movement is that they cover the fact of the war movement without covering the content of the war movement and -- which is something that with regular politics they do exactly the opposite of.

I mean, when they interview politicians on the British Broadcasting Corporation, and they treat them like hunted animals, and they treat them like liars and criminals.

KAY: We have a history of more critical interviewing, certainly, of our politicians than you would find in America. It was interesting when Tony Blair came over a couple weeks ago, and standing there with President Bush at the White House, the most pointed and critical question certainly came from the British journalist.

That is our history of debate. That is the way we have always questioned our politicians.

FRUM: Also, your temptation to elbow the politicians a little bit out of the story.

KURTZ: What about when British tabloids, one in particular ran a picture of Tony Blair with blood on his hands. It does seem that at least some elements of the British Press are part of this anti-war movement.

KRUGMAN: Hey, one of our tabloids ran a picture of the U.N. Security Council, with the heads of France and Germany replaced by weasels. I mean, tabloids -- And that was, by the way, one of Rupert Murdoch's papers, so...

KAY: And another -- And another Rupert Murdoch paper, "The Sun," ran a special French edition on Thursday, which was distributed free in Paris, calling President Chirac a worm.

Now what this has also done, this debate, is it has shifted, I think, slightly in Europe away from a debate about the war in Iraq to old rivalry, certainly. This has given all of the media a chance to dig up our favorite pastime, which is France bashing. And so you have...

FRUM: The favorite pastime of the British medium -- media is not France bashing, it's Israel bashing. And that is one of the things that, when you look at, again, the content of the British press, it is very striking.

I mean, the British press, for example, bought the Jenin hoax entirely. And I don't know that any of them has ever apologized.

KURTZ: I don't want to debate that particular episode right now.

Paul, let me ask you this...

FRUM: It does go to the question, though, of how, if they're going to be Paul Krugman's touchstone for authenticity and reliability, how truthful are they?

KURTZ: Well, he's saying they're presenting a different perspective from that of the American media.

FRUM: And it might be untruthful.

KURTZ: Paul Krugman, you've written, also, that -- you've criticized the American press, which you've seen as leaning conservative, for coverage of Bush's domestic policy. You say the president is often lying about taxes and the budget and the U.S. press are not very critical. Do you see a connection between what you would describe as the rather flaccid coverage of Bush's domestic policy and the coverage of the war effort?

KRUGMAN: I'm going to surprise you and say I think they're quite different. I think Bush has gotten a lot of free passes on domestic policy. I think it's amazing how little criticism, you know, really -- obviously untrue statements by the Bushies and so on.

But the truth is, the war is something else. This is another level. This is -- I think that the U.S. media, by and large, you know, have taken it as -- for one thing they've just sort of moved ahead in time. It's as if the bullets are already flying and it's a different level.

You can -- the coverage on war on terror-related stuff is -- if I think that there's been some conservative leaning in the coverage of tax cuts or deficits, that's nothing compared with the dramatic difference in the way -- between U.S. and the rest of the world's media on the whole issue of war.

KURTZ: Just briefly, isn't it true that, by and large, President Bush doesn't get a lot of respect from the European press and this spills over into the coverage of Iraq?

KAY: There is a vitriol in the European press in the anti- Americanism, certainly. And I think that the cartoons that we are getting of Uncle Sam as a gun-toting Texan cowboy have a very personal nature -- which is, by the way, incredibly damaging for Tony Blair -- that is almost inexplicable.

Being on this side of the Atlantic, it's difficult to understand where it comes from.

KURTZ: Isn't that truly at odds with the notion of, quote, "objective journalism"?

KAY: It's certainly directed against President Bush. There is something to do with style here, that there is something in President Bush's style which has really got the backs up of Europeans.

It did it before September 11, you know...

KURTZ: Sure.

KAY: ... the Kyoto Accord, the international criminal courts. And now every time that President Bush speaks in what I've heard called, you know, fluent Texan, you can sense in Europe again that people are dismissive of the American position because of President Bush's language. And it has a real problem being sold in Europe.

KURTZ: Paul Krugman, Katty Kay, thanks very much for joining us.

David Frum, stay put. When we come back, we'll go inside the Bush White House and get the scoop on your new book.



We're talking with David Frum. He's a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for "National View Online," and the author of bestseller, "The Right Man," about his years as a speech writer inside the Bush White House.

You say in your book that you considered suing CNN's Robert Novak. Explain.

FRUM: Well, on the -- my last day at the Bush White House, when I was packing up all my things and folding the box and we just had the cake and the coffee for the going away party. And somebody runs into my office and says Bob Novak was just on TV and he said the president fired you.

"What?" And so I, you know, I got the transcript as hastily as I could and he had sort of not said it exactly but insinuated it. And...

KURTZ: This was over supposed resentment about an e-mail sent by your wife in which she credited you, rightly, with the phrase in the State of the Union "axis of evil," originally "axis of hatred."

FRUM: Exactly, and I went to the White House press office and said, you know, would you please issue a statement saying this is false, this makes me look kind of bad. And it was a great White House moment. They said, "It makes you look bad. It makes the president look bad. Makes him look petty and vindictive."

I said, well, I hadn't thought of that.

Well, they, " You're not out of the building and you're already thinking like a civilian."

KURTZ: Why would you -- If that was -- If you were not pushed out, forced out, why would you quit after only one year?

FRUM: You know, if you're a writer, it is a -- I mean, look, it's a great honor to work at the White House, the honor of a lifetime, and it's exciting and thrilling.

But if you're a writer, what you want to do is write, and write in your own name, in your own voice. And so I was delighted to have a chance to do what I did, but there comes a point where you say, you know what, I have a life, too, I have a mission in life and what I want to do is to tell stories the way I see them.

KURTZ: When that story hit, you were deluged with press calls.

FRUM: It was unbelievable.

KURTZ: What did the reporters want with you?

FRUM: Well, it was strange. I look back on it and think, at one point I was, like, have it your way. I was fired. OK? Why is this a story?

I mean, I look back on the column inches, and it was a bigger -- my supposed firing was a bigger story than the actual firing of the entire Bush economic team.

KURTZ: You're an important guy.

FRUM: No, I'm not. It was absurd; it was crazy.

KURTZ: But did the journalists want you to jump on the president?

FRUM: Well, that was the best moment. At one point, I got a very simpering phone call from one of the networks that said, you know, we want to give you a chance to tell your side of the story, you and your wife. And you can come on and really speak from the heart.

And I really -- You get sort of suspicious and you want to know what I really think?

"Oh, yes, want to give you a chance to say what you really think."

So I then went into my best imitation of White House spin mode: "Well, I think that President Bush is a strong leader with a vision for all of America and America's children."

And you could feel the warmth of the call dropping minute by minute.

KURTZ: By many degrees. Now, the book is largely favorable of a portrait of what became a wartime president. So were all those stories about White House aides being furious at you over writing this book, just sort of drummed up for publicity?

FRUM: Well, I...

KURTZ: You didn't drum them up?

FRUM: I didn't drum them up. I have no idea where they came from. I mean, I can maybe make guesses but, look, this is the White House that does tend to not talk. And I'm not sure that that's always a very good strategy.

And I tried when I came out and decided I was going to -- And after this whole sort of Frumgate business, this madness, I asked one of the reporters why, why all the calls? You know, so what. So have it your way. Why does this matter?

And she said to me, well, you have to understand we know so little about what's going on that anything, we're prepared to believe anything that gives us any light.

KURTZ: And those who say that you were cashing in by writing this book after such a brief tenure? FRUM: Well, you know, I came out and discovered that, look, there is this degree of ignorance such that such an unbelievable story could be believed.

My response to that is, you know, I'm out, I've made a decision to leave. I am a writer. That's what I did before. There are other people who did other lines of work before; they go back to their same line of work. This is mine. I don't...

KURTZ: Just briefly, the White House, you say, doesn't often talk. Is that because of the mistrust of the press and does that hurt the president's image?

FRUM: I think that comes out of very much the lessons learned from the way you did communication in the 1990s. And there's a great tendency to learn lessons and then to keep applying those same lessons, even when the situations have changed.

And in a time when people want to believe in their president and maybe openness would work better, there still is a great tendency to used the lessons learned from the politics of the 1990s.

KURTZ: All right. We'll have to leave it there. David Frum, "The Right Man."

FRUM: Thank you.

KURTZ: Thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, he's back. Bill Clinton speaks his mind to the media in "The Spin Cycle."

Plus the Michael Jackson obsession and man's best friend beats out the secretary of homeland security. That's next.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Spin Cycle."

No matter what's going on in the world, the man who dominates the media stage is almost always the president.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Saddam Hussein will be stopped.


KURTZ: But suddenly, the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania seems to be sharing that stage with the previous occupant.

Bill Clinton has been popping up in the morning with Katie Couric, in the afternoon with Judy Woodruff and at night with Larry King. He talks about Iraq.


BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the greatest victory of all would be is if Saddam Hussein saw the whole world arrayed against him and thought, you know, the jig was up.

KURTZ (voice-over): He talks about Bush's latest tax relief plan.

CLINTON: I don't think that you and I should be getting a tax cut, Larry.

KURTZ: And he talks about himself.

CLINTON: My biggest problem always is there's nothing I'm not interested in, so I tend to do too much.

KURTZ: Clinton was always a godsend for the media: the first president to go on talk shows, to talk about his underwear on MTV, to play the sax on the air, as well as the first to be dragged down in a sex scandal involving a White House intern and the first in this century to be impeached.

And he's still mad at the press over the Ken Starr investigation, as he told Katie Couric.

CLINTON: Innocent people were indicted because they wouldn't lie. And a lot of people in your business legitimized it.

KURTZ: And therein lies a clue to the Clinton media blitz. He didn't much like his coverage while in office, and he's using his new platform to combat what he sees as the media's conservative tilt, starting with the five national radio hosts on the air for more than two hours a day.

CLINTON: Who are they? Howard Stern. Near as I can tell, old Howard's not political. If he is, he's done a great job of hiding it.

Don Imus, who's more Republican than Democrat. And the other three are Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, who are very outspoken and to -- on the right wing of the Republican Party.

KURTZ: Why the political offensive? James Fallows, who interviewed Clinton for this covered story in "The Atlantic," says the former president is still running for something: vindication by history.


KURTZ: Former presidents usually just fade away, but Bill Clinton is determined to talk his way back into the spotlight. And journalists, who always had a love/hate relationship with the man, are more than happy to help.

Well, elsewhere in the media world, if there's one person getting as much coverage as Bill Clinton, it would be this Michael Jackson fellow. "Dateline NBC" devoted two hours to the gloved one after failing in a $5 million bid to buy an interview and some video from Jackson that would have replaced Dateline's own report, at least temporarily.

ABC paid $4-5 million for a Jackson interview.

Fox ran outtakes from the ABC sit-down; CBS's "60 Minutes" is said to be pursuing Jackson, and CNN's Connie Chung and Larry King did Jackson stories, as well.

Since we already know that he's weird, had plastic surgery and likes young children, there's only one rational explanation. It's a sweeps month.

The cable networks, meanwhile, dumped out of a Tom Ridge speech on homeland security on Wednesday to cover something much more compelling subject than the safety of 270 million Americans, the rescue of a dog from an icy river in New Jersey. Are they barking up the wrong tree?

The verdict was unanimous on CNN, Fox and MSNBC as split screen coverage gave way to the doggie drama.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He is safe, he's in the boat.


KURTZ: Before we go, a quick look at our viewer e-mail. Last week, we asked whether the media were scaring the public about these terror alerts.

Lenny in Florida wrote, "It seems lately the media have been doing the terrorists' job for them -- spreading terror and mass hysteria."

But another viewer said, "I am only 13 years old and I watch CNN all the time. I can see the public needs to know about any terror threats going on. You are not scaring us -- just informing us."

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 eastern for another critical look at the media.

I'm Howard Kurtz. Thanks for watching. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" is just ahead.


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