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Were White House Reporters Used as Cogs in Pro-War Machine?; What Is Life Like for Journalists on Front Lines?

Aired March 9, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.
Ahead we'll talk about the Bush press conference and whether White House reporters were used as cogs in the president's pro-war machine.

And few words about television's newest odd couple, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole.

But first, we look at life on the journalistic front lines in the Persian Gulf.

And joining us from Kuwait is John Roberts of CBS News.

John Roberts, how much have you been able to learn about the state of the U.S. military there in Kuwait, or is this journalistic deployment producing the kind of feature stories that the Pentagon loves?

JOHN ROBERTS, CBS NEWS: Well, I think that for the moment, Howard, it's producing a lot of feature stories. It's producing a lot of stories about how the military deploys into an environment like this, how the military engages in training, what kind of life the soldiers are leading, a lot of personal stories about those soldiers.

But that's all going to change if and whether the president calls for military action. It will then go into the war mode, and we'll be covering a lot of breaking news, as opposed to trying to come up with something to kind of keep the ball rolling here, as has been done over the last month or so.

So I think that, while you're seeing a lot of personal stories now, a lot of stories about how the military operates, definitely it will get into a lot more hard news in terms of how the military machine is advancing, if and when the president should give the order for them to cross over the border between Kuwait and Iraq.

KURTZ: Right. Now, you are one of about 500 journalists who are going to be embedded, to use Pentagon lingo, with the troops, when and if it begins. But do you feel at this point that this Pentagon plan, this apparent openness to the media is part of an effort to kind of rally support for our fighting men and women by kind of humanizing the story? ROBERTS: Well, certainly, Howard, a lot of people have said that the United States, President Bush in particular, has not yet made the case to go to war against Iraq. So it is in their best interest to try to rally public support, and perhaps the media may play a role in their overall game plan.

I think, though, that the real core of this goes to the idea that President Bush has always been talking about Saddam Hussein has been (UNINTELLIGIBLE), he has not been truthful about what he has, what he's done with whatever missile programs he might have been in the past. Of course, there's all the charges about him having a nuclear program, having chemical and biological weapons. Saddam Hussein, of course, says he doesn't.

When we were doing our military orientation -- and I did some at Ft. Benning in Georgia, back in December -- I was kind of wondering to myself why are we here? Why is the military going out of its way to try to teach us about their methods and to try to ensure that we would be safe if we were to go into the battlefield with them? Why do they want us in the battlefield with them at all?

And then, I think it was the second to last night we were there one of the senior officers said, "What better way to put the lie to some of Saddam Hussein's statements than to have you there with us on the front lines?"

KURTZ: Really?

ROBERTS: So I think that that may play a big role here, yes, in the idea that the United States as been making these arguments, Saddam has been denying them. If we're there on the front lines when that lie, if it should be a lie, is exposed, we'll be there to capture it.

So if a dam, let's say, in Iraq is blown up and Iraq claims it was the U.S. military that did it, they'll have independent reporters on the front lines to say whether or not that, in fact, is a true statement.

KURTZ: But couldn't there, John Roberts, be a flip side to that access, which is if things go wrong, if things don't go so well, say, for some U.S. military units, reporters will be there to report on those setbacks and that may cause some resentment for the people with whom you are embedded?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. I mean, look what happened in Vietnam. It was Morley Safer's story on that unit setting fire to huts in a small village in Vietnam that kind of got the ball rolling in terms of this adversarial relationship between the military and the media.

Certainly, if things go wrong, the military is not going to like some of the reporting that's done. So they are taking a chance. I mean, they could have their side of the story told one way or the other, depending on how it goes. So it could work as much against them as it does in their favor. It all depends, really, I guess, on how the war goes, if there is a war. KURTZ: Given that history -- Given that history of tensions between the military and the media going back to Vietnam, continuing through the Persian Gulf War and in Afghanistan, where journalists loudly complained about a lack of access, what's been the reaction to your presence so far, not just among the soldiers but among some of the military higher-ups?

ROBERTS: Well, to tell you, Howard, it's always been the case with the people who are in the lower chain of command with the soldiers, who are there on the front lines with their commanders, that they want to have us there with them. They want their stories told. It's always been at the upper echelons that they want to preserve operational secrecy is usually the way that we hear about it.

But really I think it's the idea that they remember what happened in Vietnam. They remember how American opinion turned against them when the stories about how wrong it was going in Vietnam came out. And so I think that they're really the ones who didn't want to have us there.

But a good idea of what the people on the front lines are thinking about this came in a lecture that we had -- or it wasn't really a lecture, it was a talk that was given to us at Ft. Benning by Lieutenant General Harold Moore, who was then Colonel Moore in 1965 in the Idurang (ph) Valley, when he led one of the first major U.S. assaults against the North Vietnamese. Of course, that was an assault that was most recently documented in the Mel Gibson movie, "We Were Soldiers Once."

And Harold Moore said, you've got to have independent observers there on the front line. He thought the fact that only the marines had people embedded with them to record history in the Gulf War was, quote, "a missed opportunity," as he said.

And that's really the sense that we get in amongst the units that we're embedding with, is that they want to have their stories told. They want us to be there on the front lines. As they put their life on the line, they want us relaying their stories...

KURTZ: On that point...

ROBERTS: ... back to their loved ones back home.

KURTZ: And on that point, there's been some journalistic criticism, or at least concern, that this system of embedding might mean "in bed with." In other words, that since you're going to be attached to one particular military unit, that you might come to identify with and sympathize with those are, after all, in part helping to protect your life.

ROBERTS: Well, sure, I mean, there's always a process of getting to know the group that you're with, them getting to trust you to know that you can preserve operational secrecy. I went out on a mission on Wednesday night in which we weren't allowed to tell some of the details about the mission, because it was classified. But we were still allowed to go along with them. So there is a certain sense of building trust with them. But they have to know that, even though we're living with them and traveling with them, we are independent journalists. And if there is a story to be told, it is unfavorable to the military, we have to tell it. And it's a chance they take and it really all depends on how things go for them, should they go into action.

KURTZ: John Roberts, let me ask a question people at home, I think, might be wondering. And that is, you had a comfortable job here in Washington covering the White House, anchoring the news occasionally.

Why did you want to do this? Why did you want to put your personal safety at risk to go out with the troops?

ROBERTS: Well, I guess "The New York Times" war correspondent Christopher Hitchens said it best, that war gives you a sense of adrenaline. It's almost an addictive type of thing, and not to say that we're junkies for this, but I mean this is going to be a terrific story. It's already a terrific story.

It's one that we need to be on the front lines of to bring back to the American people, because it's been since the Vietnam era that we've really been able to do this. We didn't do it in Grenada, we didn't do it much in the Gulf War. It was rarely done in Afghanistan. Now we have the opportunity to do it, and I think that we really have a duty to get up there and do it.

KURTZ: John Roberts, thanks very much for joining us. We're glad you survived boot camp. And stay safe there in Kuwait.

When we come back, covering the run-up to war here at home. President Bush talks to the press in prime time. We'll talk to former Bush speech writer David Frum and the editor of "The Nation," Katrina Vanden Heuvel.



And joining us now here in Washington, David Frum, a columnist for "National Review Online." He's a former Bush speech writer and author of the bestseller about the Bush presidency, "The Right Man."

And in New York, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, the editor of "The Nation."

President Bush held a prime time news conference on Thursday night, only the second of his presidency, but all but two of the questions were about Iraq, with reporters taking a skeptical approach.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, are you worried that the United States might be viewed as defiant of the United Nations if you went ahead with military action? UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What went wrong that so many governments and peoples around the world now not only disagree with you very strongly but see the U.S. under your leadership as an arrogant power?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wonder why you think so many people around the world take a different view of the threat that Saddam Hussein poses than you and your allies?


KURTZ: David Frum, in listening to those questions from CBS's Mark Knoller, ABC's Terry Moran and FOX's Jim Angle, does it seem to you the White House press corps is taking, now, a more openly skeptical approach to this approaching war?

DAVID FRUM, FORMER BUSH SPEECHWRITER: I think that they are taking a properly skeptical approach without going too far. Those are all fair questions that they ask.

It is a fact that there has been among -- some opposition to the president's policy among many traditional allies. The allies are wrong, but nonetheless Americans need to hear from their president why he thinks those allies are, indeed, wrong.

KURTZ: Katrina Vanden Heuvel, is the press being tough enough on Bush during this run-up to war?

KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR, "THE NATION:" Well, there were some more skeptical questions, Howard. At least one had a sense of the fact that a majority of world opinion, a majority of world governments were opposed to this war.

But one had a sense of being at the court of King George. I mean, Bush at one point said, this is scripted. He looked down at his list, this was the first time in modern memory when a president had a list of reporters he was going to call on. This was not democracy. This was managed democracy.

KURTZ: Wait a minute. All presidents decide who to call on, whether they tell you there's a list or not.

VANDEN HEUVEL: There was no follow-up. There were no follow- ups.

KURTZ: Right.

VANDEN HEUVEL: There was, for the first time in history, no calling on the dean of the White House press corps, Helen Thomas, because she is on record as taking issue with this war, calling President Bush the worst president in her memory. She has a long memory.

Finally, there were some tough questions, but there might have been some tougher questions because this administration -- and this was the penultimate example of it -- has launched an audacious campaign of propaganda and misinformation. Where were the questions, President Bush, you repeat over and over again that there is a link between al Qaeda and Iraq. There is no evidence. You have lied about evidence of Iraq's nuclear capabilities. Your evidence seems to be based on a forged document showing Iraq's nuclear capabilities.

KURTZ: OK, now, hold on.

VANDEN HEUVEL: What about the plagiarized student dossier that was brandished about?

KURTZ: OK, hold on, hold on. Is it the place, David Frum, of a White House correspondent, to say Mr. President, you have lied. Mr. President, you're not telling the truth about this, that and the other thing?

FRUM: I think Katrina had a question line, Mr. President, are you a liar, yes or no.

Look, I don't know how democracy becomes more democratic if the reporters are shooting their hands up in the air, saying, "Ooh, ooh, ooh, call me" than if they put their names in a hat the night before and the president says, well, we're going to call in this order on those people.

KURTZ: Is the president entitled to skip Helen Thomas, who's made no secret of her anti-war views, now that she's a columnist?

FRUM: I don't think that the questions are -- you call on people in order of seniority. That I think sometimes younger people are also entitled to ask questions, as well. I'm sure Katrina would agree with that.

And I don't think -- if journalists want to editorialize, there are a lot of places to do it other than in the president's house on the president's air time. There are plenty of opportunities for Katrina to say, outrageously, that the president is a liar, which he is not. But I think people who have an understanding of what the job of a reporter is would say that's really not the reporter's job.

KURTZ: What do you make, Katrina Vanden Heuvel, of the fact that there, I guess, there were two questions about North Korea but no questions about Osama bin Laden, nothing about homeland security, nothing about the state of the economy or should we be cutting taxes on the verge of war.

Has the White House succeeded in sort of blacking out every other subject except Iraq?

VANDEN HEUVEL: It seemed that way and it seemed as if there were no questions, for example, your CIA director says that the risk of terrorism will increase if we go to war against Iraq.

You know, Howard, there was also a sense of inevitability. There is a real distinction, as you well know, between the elite press, "The New York Times," "The Washington Post," certainly in their news coverage they have finally come to see this extraordinary unprecedented opposition to the war, not just those who protest but those who have real doubts.

But the inevitability the cable channels, who filter so much through a pro-war coverage, as if that war is the only alternative. Any other alternative is either demeaned, is treated with scorn.

KURTZ: Is demeaned and scorned? What do you mean? You're saying that anti-war voices can't get on cable TV, because so much air time is eaten up by administration officials?

VANDEN HEUVEL: There are, of course, exceptions. There are, of course, exceptions, but you know, our democracy at this crucial moment doesn't need scripted press conferences. It needs a full throated debate, which the media needs to be convening.

And only now, only now have we seen the beginning of the puncturing of propaganda, the extraordinary campaign to make 9/11 a rallying cry for going to war against Iraq. Howard, that will be the great untold story if we do go to war, how this president and his administration used 9/11 in such a duplicitous, cynical way to lead a country into war.


VANDEN HEUVEL: All I'm saying, full throated debate.

KURTZ: I -- I thought the criticism of President Bush was that he didn't hold enough news conferences, only eight news conferences until now. But has there not been a full throated debate in the media?

FRUM: I think what Katrina says is that she objects to the media. She doesn't want them to be propagandists, she wants them to be publicists for her point of view.

VANDEN HEUVEL: No, I didn't say that.

FRUM: The president probably should have more press conferences. I thought he did well at this one. I thought he actually showed, not just in his answers but also in his demeanor, this is a guy -- he is -- the cartoon of him that you often hear of someone who's hell bent on war, who's deaf to opposing arguments, is wrong. This is a very thoughtful president that we saw and he should do more.

If I were to make a suggestion to him, my suggestion would have been they ought to have remembered to call on some foreign reporters. There were people from Japan there.

KURTZ: Right.

FRUM: There were people from Britain. That in this moment of global debate, I think the president would have served himself and the world and the country by allowing some of those questions to be heard.

KURTZ: Well, you're not on the payroll anymore so you'll have to send an e-mail.

Now this question of anti-war coverage I asked in an interview last week with Dan Rather whether he felt that the media were devoting -- particularly television -- enough attention to anti-war views.

Let's take a look at what he had to say.


DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: ... that we've tried on the "CBS Evening News," for which I'm responsible, we've tried to give the coverage we think is merited, but I'm open to the criticism.

The White House and the administration power is able to control the images to a very large degree. It has been growing over the years. And that's the context in which we talk about, well, how much coverage does the anti-war movement merit? And I think it's a valid criticism it's been underreported.


KURTZ: Katrina Vanden Heuvel, you've criticized "The Washington Post," among other newspapers, on this question. Is it the pro-war editorial pages that you're unhappy with or the news coverage, as well?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Well, I think it's the whole spectrum, Howard. What we've seen is that the media is now playing catch-up, because the majority of the world governments, the majority of world opinion, millions of Americans are either opposed to this war or doubt this war. And as Patrick Tyler in "The New York Times," redeeming "The New York Times'" lack of coverage for months and months, finally said, this is the other superpower.

What Dan Rather said is also interesting, in referring to the control that this White House exerts on the press, again, an untold story because people are fearful of losing access. This White House treats anyone who dissents from them with truly -- well, Machiavellian is probably too kind a term.

But I think what's important is that the cable TV, or TV, even broadcast TV, which is where millions of people get their news, has treated the opposition to this war as on another planet, as irrelevant, as serial protesters, when this opposition and the doubters, if you combined them, run through the heartland of America and are the silent majority on much of cable.

KURTZ: Let me get another view.

FRUM: Let me stop Katrina's filibuster. I agree with her that there ought be to more coverage of the anti-war movement.

KURTZ: Why isn't there?

FRUM: Because what Katrina -- people like Katrina want is they want coverage of the fact of the anti-war war movement. I think the media should go cover what's in the anti-war movement. This is an ugly movement.

This is a movement that, as "The Washington Post" reported this week very effectively, that convened on September 12, 2001 immediately after September 11 to oppose everything the United States...

KURTZ: Now, surely you're talking about some of the leaders of these organizers of these protests and not the millions of Americans who are just expressing their views or their doubts about the war.

FRUM: No, there are millions of Americans who are expressing anxieties. There are thousands of Americans who are expressing opposition.

And as "The Washington Post," again, as Avril (ph) reported, many of these are now talking about acts of sabotage against military installations. Some of those are going on in Europe.

I think the media also ought to do some more exploration of the connection between the anti-war movement and the pro-al Qaeda, radical Islamic movements in Europe, because they have forged common cause. So let's not just cover the fact, let's cover the content, because it's...

VANDEN HEUVEL: David -- David, you are defaming a movement that is filled with mothers and fathers who fear for -- that this war of choice, not necessity, will make America less secure. This movement runs through the heartland of America. It is joined with millions around this country who care about America.

FRUM: It also plays footsy with al Qaeda proponents.

VANDEN HEUVEL: Labor, churches, business...

KURTZ: I've got to jump in here, Katrina. Hold the thought. We have to take a break.

When we come back we'll look at the coverage of the war on terrorism, as well as the looming war. In just a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel, on Friday morning the cable networks all went with an Associated Press report that Osama bin Laden's son, two of his sons, had been either killed or captured in a raid, despite the White House saying there was no confirmation of this. They later pulled it back with varying degrees of speed.

Is that kind of "this just in" reporting irresponsible?

VANDEN HEUVEL: Is that kind of what? I'm sorry, Howard.

KURTZ: You know, "this is just in off the wire," without waiting for any checking or confirmation, should the cable networks be doing that? VANDEN HEUVEL: I think the cable networks should be reporting as quickly as they can. I think the real danger is that this White House is using secrecy in this war against terror in a way that Americans will never be able to judge how successful it is.

And I think the key question, to go back again, is the story of how they have used the war against terror and transmuted it into the war against Iraq and what that will mean in terms of increased terrorism. How will we, as citizens, consumers of news, be able to measure that if this White House is also throwing a blanket of secrecy over it?


VANDEN HEUVEL: And Condi Rice saying that the war against terrorism is successful. How do we judge that?

KURTZ: Should we get these facts nailed down, at this sensitive time, before going with the reports about it?

FRUM: Well, I think that that story showed, by the way, how reliable this White House is. That when they had a story that was exciting but not true, they quickly got the word out that it's not true.

And I don't know how Katrina in the very week after the arrest of the mastermind of September 11 can say the war on terror is not going pretty well. It's going pretty well. There have been no attacks on American soil in a year and a half. They're one by one nailing these people. And the White House is giving as much information as it safely can.

KURTZ: We will have to hope that that remains the case. You two can continue this debate later. Katrina Vanden Heuvel in New York...


KURTZ: ... David Frum here, thanks very much for joining us.

And when we come back, the "Bill and Bob Show" debuts on "60 Minutes."


KURTZ: Bill Clinton and Bob Dole weren't all that funny during the '96 campaign. In fact, they got lousy ratings, the worst ever, for their debates. But they had me laughing the other day when they got on the phone to talk about their new two-minute debates on "60 Minutes," which debut tonight

"Dole sucker-punched me into the idea," the former president said.

"Well, if it doesn't work out, CBS can always fire us," the former senator said. Clinton admitted it would be hard for him, famous for those hour- long State of the Union stem winders, to abbreviate his wisdom to 45 second bursts.

The new odd couple is promising civility, not crossfire. No hatchets, said Dole. No, "Bob, you ignorant slut."

Well, I confess, I still think it's a little unseemly for a former president to be such a high-profile commentator, one who will inevitably be criticizing his successor.

Clinton loves to be on television, but part of the country clearly wishes he he'd just go away. Others still love the man.

Can the Clinton/Dole comedy team restore some of the once impeached president's lost luster? Can polite debate still make good TV? Will the whole thing aggravate Andy Rooney?

Let's tune in and find out.

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 begins right now.


Machine?; What Is Life Like for Journalists on Front Lines?>

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