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War & the Media

Aired March 30, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to this abbreviated edition of "Reliable Sources." I'm Howard Kurtz.
There have been explosions in Baghdad, fires are continuing to burn in the Iraqi capital. We'll keep that live picture up for you to take a look at, and we'll keep an eye on that story as well with CNN's continuing live coverage.

But right now, joining us are two correspondents imbedded with the U.S. troops. John Roberts of CBS News with the 1st Marine Division north of Nasiriyah, and Walter Rodgers, who is with the 3rd Infantry Division, 7th Cavalry, south of Baghdad. And John Roberts, there's been a surprising amount of criticism here at home that the imbedded correspondents are somehow too close to the soldiers their covering and reporting mainly upbeat stories. Fair or unfair?

JOHN ROBERTS, CBS NEWS: I think it's totally unfair, Howard.

We're close in terms of proximity. Certainly we share a lot of the facilities that the Marines have here, but in terms of being close, as far as story goes, and message goes, I don't think that's true at all. I mean, speaking for my own reporting, I think we've been foursquare with the American people. We'd certainly would like to be able to report a lot of the things that I can't report because of operational security, but I think that we've been straight down the line. You know, watched the piece I have on the air tonight on "60 Minutes, and I think that's a pretty good example that we're certainly not sending out a message that's been watched or promoted through the military.

KURTZ: OK, Clarence Page, what is the Pentagon, which created this program, getting out of all these images and what I call gas mask journalism?

CLARENCE PAGE, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, they call them imbedded journalists. They're really escorted journalists. They are doing an excellent job. I can't say that enough. But...

KURTZ: Anything bother you about...

PAGE: Because they're escorted -- why don't they want to use that word? Because we all know, when you are escorted, you're being directed to a story, and they're covering a story very well, but it's a very narrow view.

We also need journalists who are not imbedded roaming around on their own just for the credibility of everybody's sake, and that also means that if you are only getting a narrow picture. and it is stunning and it's riveting our attention, but there's not that much discussion of the larger issues.

KURTZ: Walter Rodgers, you're out there, and you've been under fire. You're vehicle has taken bullet fire. Your with the Seventh Calvary. Doesn't that kind of situation create a bond between you and the troops, and does that in any way color your reporting?

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I suppose it does, but there's always that bond, whether it's reporters talking to reporters who've been under fire...

KURTZ: OK, we seem to have lost the audio connection with Walt Rodgers. We'll see if we can get him back shortly.

Let me come back to John Roberts.

As Clarence Page mentioned, we are getting incredibly vivid, realtime portraits of this war from correspondents like yourself. There's 500 to 600 of them out with U.S. and British forces. But are you, because you're attached to one unit, necessarily getting a kind of a tunnel vision in which one attack on your men and women make it seem like the war perhaps is going badly?

ROBERTS: Yes, I mean, I agree with Clarence Page that when you're embedded as we are, that you get a narrow slice of the war. But that's why we have myself with the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. That's why we have Jim Axelrod with the 3rd Infantry Division. That's why we have Byron Pitts with an Apache helicopter group, why we have a number of correspondents all over the theater. It's so that you take those narrow slices and you add them up, and they complete a pie, so you get an overall picture of the war by looking at those narrow slices.

But by being here, being on the front lines with these Marines, you get a very vivid picture of what they are going through on any given day, and if you go back to World War II, World War II war coverage was narrow slices. It was a raid on Dresden. It was, you know, the D-Day invasion, which of course was a pretty big picture.

KURTZ: But of course it wasn't coming into our living rooms live and in color.

ROBERTS: Exactly, but you know, this is an instant gratification society. They want to see everything all at one time, but I think what this opportunity gives us is a chance to get to the front lines, to get with the people who are there and give you just that -- even if it is a narrow view, it's a piece of the big picture.

But the thing that I don't understand, Howard, and this -- we've been talking about this for the last two weeks that we've been on the road with these Marines is, you know, journalists and editorial writers were complaining left, right and center up and down that the military wasn't taking us along with them. Now that they are, they're complaining again. It just doesn't make any sense to me.

KURTZ: Can't win.

Walt Rodgers, back to you. You were telling us a moment ago about bonds that developed when you were out there, particularly in a hostile environment, with Army troops.

RODGERS: That's true. But I don't find it overly incestuous, certainly no more incestuous than the White House press corps, or for that matter, the reporters who cover the Senate or a state legislature, and it hasn't caused me to pull any punches. When the 7th Cavalry accidentally killed two children about four or five days ago, we reported that, and what happened was, one of the Iraqi paramilitaries took refuge in the dark behind a building, and there was no light in the building. A 25 millimeter Bradley gun opened up, it knocked down a wall, two children were killed inside. The Army knew I reported that. They had no problems with it at all. So I don't see this as any different than any other beat reporter.


Clarence Page, do all of these bang-bang pictures from the front and analysis from the armchair generals, are they adding up to an overly negative view of a war that's after all been going on for seven days? Don Rumsfeld on "ABC This Morning" talked about hyperventilating critics of the war.

PAGE: Well, he makes a good point. However, it was Rumsfeld, Cheney, Ken Adelman and others before the war speaking in such hyperventilated, optimistic terms that set up these expectations of a brief war.

Now over a week, people are saying, how brief is it? So he can't fault us for raising these questions now.

KURTZ: John Roberts, the fact that you're eating and sleeping with the troops, does that give you some insight you wouldn't otherwise have into the nature of military conflict, and are they being completely open with you, or are they being somewhat guarded since you are, after all, a journalist?

ROBERTS: No, I think that most of them, particularly at the command level, and maybe lieutenant and above, are always sort of keeping in their mines that they're talking to a journalists, but they talk freely with us, and they know that we won't compromise operational security, but I picked up little tidbits here and there from a lot of the folks we talked to, from motor transport sergeants to people who are in the light armored vehicles, to the ones who are right there laying their life on the line at the front lines, and they chat with you, they feel free chatting to you, and you can pick up little bits and pieces of information about how they're feeling about how the war is going.

But just to reflect back on what Walt Rodgers was saying a second ago, two days ago, we put on the air a story about a vehicle carrying a group of Iraqi farmers, innocent, noncombatants, that was attacked by a light armored vehicle. It was completely destroyed. Three people inside were killed. The Marines went to the vehicle, they were asked by the surviving family members if they would take the bodies to the local mosque and help bury them.

So here we had the Marines freely admitting they made a bad, bad mistake, that they accidentally killed these three people, and we told that story, and they didn't have any problem with that. Mistakes will happen. There are bad stories along with the good. I think they realize that, and I think they're comfortable having us report on those things.

KURTZ: And that's the key to good journalism, is to provide both sides when things also are not going so well. Walt Rodgers, could you do a better job if you were unimbedded, if you were free to go wherever you wanted in Iraq, as some journalists are trying to do, or under the current conditions, would that simply be too dangerous?

RODGERS: First, I think it would be too dangerous. You would have a lot of dead reporters. But I don't think you could do anywhere near as good a job. As John Roberts has said, they do trust us, and I find they trust us explicitly.

For example, the other night I was sitting in the back of the Lieutenant Colonel Terry Farrel's (ph) Bradley fighting vehicle. I was listening to him calling in artillery shots at grids. I was listening to the radio crackling and letting you -- letting them know that B-52s were coming in. They trust us totally.

As a matter of fact, I think the military is somewhat naive about us, that is to say, they're really giving us virtually everything and trusting us. So far I hope we haven't disappointed them, but we are hearing -- we are getting an eye on battlefield operations that was just unthinkable before this concept of embedding.

KURTZ: Right, and whatever the flaws of imbedded journalism, I think we have to agree, Clarence Page, that it beats the alternative, which is being shut out.

We'll have to leave it there, John Roberts, with the 1st Marine Division, Walt Rodgers with the 7th Cavalry, Clarence Page, here in Washington, thanks very much for joining us.


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