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Did Embeds Provide Clear Snapshot of Combat in Iraq?; Did Television Sanitize War?; Are Media Losing Interest in Iraq?

Aired April 27, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: They traveled with the troops, slogged through sandstorms, risked their lives covering the war, but did journalists provide a clear snapshot or a misleading picture of the combat in Iraq? Did television sanitize the ugly face of war? And are the media now losing interest in the messy aftermath? We'll ask three top war correspondents, ABC's John Donvan, "The Washington Post's" Rick Atkinson and CNN's Walter Rodgers. Also, journalists join the looters and cable TV returns to its old obsessions.
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. And joining us now are three veteran war reporters just back from Iraq. Here in Washington, John Donvan of ABC's "Nightline." He covered the war independently in southern Iraq. Also, with me "The Washington Post's" Rick Atkinson, who was embedded with the 101st Airborne Division. He just won a Pulitzer Prize for history for his book about north Africa during World War II, "An Army at Dawn." And in London, CNN's senior international correspondent, Walter Rodgers. He was embedded with the 7th Cavalry during its drive to Baghdad.

John Donvan, you tried to cover the war without being embedded with a military unit, and that turned out in some ways to be a frustrating experience. Why?

JOHN DONVAN, ABC NEWS: It was frustrating and rewarding. It was frustrating because the existence of an embed system meant that anybody who wasn't an embed in a way was treated like an orphan or persona non grata as far as the coalition forces were concerned. It was a little bit don't ask, don't tell. If you could get yourself into Iraq from Kuwait, which is where I came in from, you could operate without anybody really telling you to leave. The difficulty was getting in in the first place. It was very, very difficult to cross the border. The coalition did not want journalists crossing independently.

KURTZ: And this was a dangerous place for you to be running around.

DONVAN: It was -- you know, Victoria Clarke said that the reason that they didn't want journalists wandering around the south was because it was dangerous. Well, she's right. It was I think almost crazy dangerous to be doing it. The other side of it, though, that really was a different story to get from the one that the embeds were able to see, which is what were the civilians doing when the coalition forces weren't around? KURTZ: I want to come back to that, but first I want to ask Rick Atkinson, one week into the war you interviewed the Army ground commander William Wallace, who said, "the enemy we're fighting is a bit different from the one we war-gamed against," and that the war might last longer than anticipated. This started a lot of criticism of the media for being too negative about the war and so forth. Was too much made of that comment? Why would he tell you that?

RICK ATKINSON, WASHINGTON POST: I think he was just voicing the frustration and the anxiety that he was feeling at the time out there. I don't know whether too much was made of it. To be honest with you, out there we were somewhat oblivious to it. We just didn't know that it was a big stink back in Washington and the U.S.

KURTZ: Did it seem to you to be a big story that such a senior Army official would be in effect questioning the war plan?

ATKINSON: Well, I knew that he was speaking truth to power and that it was probably truth that they didn't want to hear back here, and that it was somewhat at odds with the party line. I think the fact of the matter is that you have to walk a mile in his shoes at that moment, where their supply lines had been overstretched, they were under attack. The weather was horrendous. And so I think that he was giving a snapshot of the war as he saw it at that moment.

KURTZ: Walt Rodgers, the live reports that we saw so often from you and other embedded TV correspondents, did they really convey the ugly reality of war as you saw it?

WALTER RODGERS, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Sometimes, but not usually, and the reason being that if you look at a television camera, its focus is about 45 degrees total. That leaves a huge swing behind you, 360 degrees (AUDIO GAP) limited by the very nature of the limited focus of the lens itself.

If I can add just one thing, I happened to talk to General Wallace, an Army three-star, about the embed process in the field in Kuwait as the 7th Cavalry paused at one point, and I asked him, what do you think of it. I walked up slumming in a gray t-shirt, and General Wallace said he thought it was "one of the best innovations of the war." That's a precise quote.

KURTZ: But, Walt, was there also a hesitancy perhaps on the part of various networks to show -- to be too graphic and show too many dead bodies, to turn off the audience with the carnage of war?

RODGERS: Well, I can't speak for other networks. I can speak for CNN, and, yes, I believe that to be the case, and I think the network was essentially responding to its viewers at that point. There was one point, as I say, just outside I guess it was north of An Najaf, just when we were west of the airport, we had come upon a burning Iraqi T-72 tank and a burning armored personnel carrier and there was a dead Iraqi soldier lying in the road between them. It was 75 yards away or at least 50 yards away, and we showed -- and I narrated and there's a dead Iraqi soldier lying there. I thought that was basic and relatively sanitized. It was just a body in the road 50 meters away, but he was dead, and the switchboard I'm told lighted up and I was asked not to show dead bodies on the air, and this was, as I say, a dead Iraqi, no face, nothing really graphic. You couldn't see the flies. He wasn't bloated yet. He didn't even stink yet, but that was what they don't want to see, and I think that's a viewer problem.

KURTZ: John Donvan, you talked just a moment ago about wanting to get out as a unilateral, non-embedded reporter and talk to ordinary Iraqis about what life was like during this war, what their views were. But there was a time when you kind of became unofficially embedded and you rolled -- and when you went to interview ordinary people, there were military folks with you. Did that make life difficult?

DONVAN: Actually, the arrangement I was able to make somewhat unofficially was to spend nights under the protection of a military unit, but then in the daytime I would actually leave them behind and go out, feeling that if there were U.S. -- first of all, to most Iraqis it's bad enough from their point of view already that I'm an American, a lot of them were very hostile, and so the pass that's given in other wars I've covered to myself as a journalist because I'm a journalist, that pass wasn't given here because I was an American journalist.

KURTZ: Therefore you became a focus of resentment?

DONVAN: Focus of resentment. People saw me as being part of the invading force to some degree. I'm not saying that they threatened to kill me as a result of that, but they saw that foreigners had come into their country, I was a foreigner. I was driving around in from their point of view in a very prosperous looking car, although from our perspective, it was just a four-wheel drive, and they were initially -- the hostility that they weren't going to take out on the troops, those people who were inclined to be hostile, they were taking out on us. A lot of screaming and shouting and yelling and hostile questions and a lot of pilfering of things from our car, and things like that.

KURTZ: When the 101st Airborne moved into towns like Karbala and Najaf, Walt Rodgers was just talking about sort of the limited view of the camera, you were met by cheering crowds as you rode and hugs and kisses from some of the population, but that was not the reaction everywhere, and so did you get a limited view because you were with one unit that happened to have that reaction, and is it hard as a reporter in your situation to know -- to see the big picture, in effect?

ATKINSON: Well, sure, and I think that you have to realize that it is a soda straw view, even if you're with the division commander, as I was all day every day right at his elbow, you're still seeing only what that one unit commander sees, and we weren't greeted by cheering crowds initially. We went to Najaf first, in the wake of the 3rd Infantry Division blowing past on their way to Baghdad, and there was a pretty sharp fight. No one was cheering during the air attack and the artillery and the tanks and so on. It was only after the fighting had stopped and they pushed into town that there were indeed large cheering crowds. So, yes, you have to be a little cautious, I think, about the conclusions you draw, about the temperament of the populace, for example, because you don't know. Is this just one narrow slice of a Shiite town that reflects all of Shiite Iraq, or is it really representative of the whole country?

DONVAN: I must say on the other side of that, I was beginning to get skeptical of some of the hostility I was encountering because people still assumed Saddam was out there, and I think at least some of the people who were chanting "down USA" were doing it because they wanted to make sure they were punching their ticket in case Saddam agents were still in the neighborhood.

KURTZ: Right. So there was a lot of filtering that journalists had to do to figure out what were the true opinions and emotions of the Iraqi people during this tumultuous time.

Walt Rodgers, we at home saw you on TV a lot during this war, and there were times it looked pretty grim. You came under attack. Let's take a brief look at one such episode.


RODGERS: I think we're going to break off this live shot for the time being. We're not sure what we see up there. Good-bye. We've got to dive for vehicles, we think. See you, bye.


KURTZ: We're glad that turned out well, but my question is why -- how candid were you able to be at various points in the war about the degree of danger to which you and your unit were exposed?

RODGERS: I could be totally candid. I must say I deliberately understated the degree of danger that my crew and I were in. The reason for that was, I think the worst mistake a reporter can make is to hype a story. I didn't want to hype it, and there were many times when we were under extraordinary danger, and one of the things, again, one of the technical limitations which downgraded the degree of danger was I used what's called a lip mike, which you hold right to your nose like this and it doesn't pick up the ambient sound, that is, you can't hear the mortars falling next to you and you can't hear the machine guns rattling all around you. And if we had a normal microphone, which wasn't good for broadcast quality at that point, you would have heard a much, much more severe firefight and you would have realized the danger we were really in.

KURTZ: Rick Atkinson, on April 8 you wrote: "The U.S. Army said today it had tentatively identified nerve and other chemical agents discovered in a military compound on the Euphrates river and that more testing was needed." That turned out not to be confirmed. In fact, we have a preliminary test this morning again of possible chemical weapons. Do you think in retrospect you should have held off on writing such a story because it's an unconfirmed finding?

ATKINSON: Well, it was hedged eight ways to Sunday throughout the whole story, not only in the lead hat you read there, Howie. No, I think that they said publicly, made a big deal out of it that, in fact, they had found what they believed to be nerve agents at the time. They brought this special analysis team up from Kuwait to take further tests, and I think we handled it pretty responsibly.

KURTZ: But is the first rough draft of history problem, what appears to be a possibility on Tuesday may be completely discarded on Wednesday.

You mentioned, John Donvan, that you were sleeping during part of your sojourn there with the military unit. Did you feel that if you had to report on that unit, if you were with them full time, that you could do so objectively? If you had been embedded. This is the problem that so many journalists grappled with, were they identifying with those who they were traveling with.

DONVAN: I think exactly what you're saying, is the thing that you have to be aware of, that to a degree people who are offering you protection, who literally may be saving your life, it's a little bit like having your mother and father there, and you have to realize that you have to be careful and remind yourself that you're also covering them. I look at, you know, "The Post," Bill Brannigan (ph), did report on his unit, the unit he was embedded with, firing on and killing a lot of civilians by mistake. He went ahead and he did that report, and I suspect that that was probably a tough decision for him to make, or a tough piece for him to write because he respected these people, yet he wrote it.

KURTZ: And he lived with these people.

DONVAN: And he lived with them. But so, to answer your question, I think, yes, you have to be conscious of the fact that you're getting close to the people who are protecting you, but ultimately, if it comes down to it, if there is going to be a story that is not going to be favorable but is a story, you are going to have to write it.

KURTZ: All right, we have to take a break. When we come back, how interested are the media still in what's going on in Iraq? We'll tackle that question in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Walt Rodgers in London, you're 62 years old. Did anyone tell you you were crazy to be running around a desert battlefield at your age? Why did you keep wearing that gray t-shirt?

RODGERS: I wore the gray t-shirt to separate myself from the military, which was generally wearing desert camouflage. I thought I needed to make a statement of independence. And was I too old, heck, no. And would I do it again? Yes, I would do it again. And there's no such thing as too old, and I felt younger every day I was out there.

KURTZ: But clearly as we just showed some of the tape of some of the harrowing moments you went through, you must have given some thought to your personal safety. It would seem impossible not to.

RODGERS: Yes, people asked me if I was afraid. And the answer is, no. Was I concerned, yes. Was I alert? A friend of mine told me years ago, stay alert, stay alive. I was alert. My crew was alert. There were times when we were tense, but fear, fear, you cannot let fear enter into it, because the moment you entertain fear, you disintegrate, you panic and it's all over. So I wasn't afraid. I was tense.

KURTZ: We were all tense there for a while. John Donvan, we talked earlier about the journalistic challenges of being out as a so- called unilateral reporter. But you're out there on your own, with your crew, driving around in your car, no protection from a military unit.

DONVAN: Sounds ridiculous now that you put it that way.

KURTZ: Did you have any second thoughts at the time about whether this was a good way to cover a war.

DONVAN: Yes, I did. I did. I would like to keep thinking about how to have made it safer. We had some bulletproof cars initially, and they broke down and we ended up going in non-bulletproof cars, but you know, that whole question of whether the story is worth your life, I tend to come down on the no on that side. Like Walter says, you try to stay concerned. And so I wouldn't say that I was afraid every moment, but I allowed my deep concern about my safety to guide decisions that I was making about whether I turn left, or I turn right.

KURTZ: So there were risks you decided to take in the interest of common sense.

DONVAN: Absolutely.

KURTZ: All right. Rick Atkinson, you went from sitting in your comfortable study writing about World War II to being out there on the front lines. You had the opportunity to sit with a general as he made minute-by-minute decisions during a battle. Did you have to hold back a lot to protect him? How was it you got this incredible access?

ATKINSON: I did have to hold back some to protect him, to be honest with you. Because I think that if you're at his elbow, day in, day out, hour in, hour out, you can't expect him to be guarded all the time. You can't expect him to have to filter everything that he is saying. You can't expect to have that kind of access and not accept the responsibility that comes with it. I don't think that I pulled my punches in any substantial way. It was more a matter of trying to shield him from the passions of the moment and seeing them on the front page of "The Washington Post" the next day.

KURTZ: But it certainly wasn't like in World War II, as you've been writing about, where journalists were in uniform and were considered part of the team. I'm sure you didn't consider yourself part of the team. ATKINSON: No, it's quite different in World War II. They were in uniform. They were subject to very severe and stringent censorship. There was, of course, no television, there was no instant communication. Everything took days if not weeks to get published. And, no, you feel different today as a journalist than a reporter would have in, say, 1943.

KURTZ: Walt Rodgers?

RODGERS: I think the embedding process was kind of Don Rumsfeld's private joke. Rumsfeld has been in Washington at least since I started covering the House of Representatives in '66, and Rumsfeld knows reporters are generally a whiny lot, and if they don't get to go where they want to go, they whine a lot and they complain. I think Rumsfeld's private joke was, you guys want to go to war, go to war.

KURTZ: Well, sometimes they even whine on this show. John Donvan, now that there are no more bombs bursting in the air, there are fewer dramatic pictures, we're doing stories about the animals at the Baghdad zoo, is television starting to lose interest in Iraq more quickly than perhaps any of us expected?

DONVAN: I was very surprised when I came home and I saw already that some programs have moved on to Laci Peterson, et cetera. And part of the reason I'm so surprised is, that if you've just come from there, the sense that this is just beginning rather than over is very powerful and very palpable, and obviously it's still in the newspapers, it's on the front page of the newspapers today, but I would say that in very important sense is this is just the beginning, and I am surprised that there's -- that the nation, maybe not just television but the nation seems to want to move on to other subjects.

KURTZ: Well, we all said that winning the peace would be as difficult and as important as winning the war.

DONVAN: Not just a cliche. I mean, it's really true.

KURTZ: It's absolutely true. But I wonder about the media's attention span here as other things intrude, murder stories, SARS disease and so forth. Do you think, Rick Atkinson, in three months Iraq will be like Afghanistan, which is to say somewhat off the media map?

ATKINSON: To some extent, probably. I mean, most of the big organizations are going to keep a substantial presence there, because the story is ongoing. There's still very large American military presence there, and I think as long as the American military seems to be invested, they'll still be some media attention, because you're still going to find episodes of sniping, the occasional grenade tossed over a wall and that sort of thing.

KURTZ: Well, we will have to see how the media do as the story continues with great importance, but perhaps with less drama.

Walt Rodgers in London, John Donvan, Rick Atkinson, thanks very much for joining us this morning.

Once you cover a war, what do you do for an encore? The cable networks grappling with that very question, and the results aren't always pretty. That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Time now for a trip through "The Spin Cycle."


KURTZ (voice-over): For weeks what you saw on television was this. But now suddenly Iraq is old hat, ancient history. Turn on the TV these days and you're much more likely to see this.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Scott Peterson, the accused killer of his wife and unborn son, spending day five in the county lockup.

KURTZ: A few years ago, the murder of Laci Peterson would have been just a sad local story, but now it's a round-the-clock cable obsession, perhaps even the harbinger of a trend?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What is the greatest threat to the lives of pregnant women? Is it health problems, or homicide?

KURTZ: Even some of the O.J. figures, like Robert Shapiro and Mark Fuhrman have come out of talking head retirement to act as commentators on the Peterson case. It's almost like clockwork, the war ends and it's back to the days of stories like Elizabeth Smart. Even Monica Lewinsky is back.


MONICA LEWINSKY, HOST: Let the masquerade begin.


KURTZ: Of course, television is still interested in terror here at home, even unconfirmed reports of possible terror here at home. When some powder turned up at a postal facility in Tacoma, Washington, all the cable networks trotted out experts talking about botulism and other dangers. The powder turned out to be harmless.

That's how it goes in televisionland. One day it's life and death in Baghdad; the next, the camera finds a miracle dog cheating death.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First, she was hit by a truck. Then she was shot, and finally she was put in a freezer.

KURTZ: Don't laugh, CNN did the dog story, too.

Television needs drama, and apparently the arduous task of rebuilding a shattered country lacks great visuals, so it's back to the old formulas. Can another summer of killer sharks be far behind? (END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: To be fair, many correspondents remain in Iraq and some are even still embedded with the military. But how long will that last now that the shooting has stopped? Let's put it this way: When was the last time you saw a TV report from Kabul?

When we come back, the looting story takes an unexpected journalistic turn.


KURTZ: Before we go, from the moment Saddam's statue came down journalists have been all over the story of looting in Iraq. In some cases we now learn, literally. Fox News engineer Ben Johnson has been charged with smuggling for allegedly bringing 12 paintings, some of them from a presidential palace, back to Washington. Fox didn't even wait for the charges to be announced before firing Johnson. There were no charges against "The Boston Herald's" Jules Crittenden, but he had to turn over a painting and other souvenirs to customs agents. Crittenden told CNN that taking battlefield souvenirs is a, quote, "time honored tradition," but not one that makes the media look terribly good.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Be sure to stay with CNN throughout the day for the latest on the news with Iraq. Straight ahead is "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER." Guests include King Abdullah of Jordan and chief nuclear weapons inspector Mohamed ElBaradei. Then stay tuned at 3 p.m. Eastern to watch CNN correspondents recount their own stories from the front lines on a special edition of "CNN PRESENTS." And at 4:00 Eastern, "CNN LIVE SUNDAY" with Anderson Cooper brings you the latest on today's news. I'm Howard Kurtz in Washington. Join us again next Sunday morning for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" begins right after this.


Television Sanitize War?; Are Media Losing Interest in Iraq?>

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