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Interview With Ari Fleischer; Another 'NY Times' Reporter Quits Under Cloud

Aired June 1, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Another "New York Times" man quits under a cloud. Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg defends his decision to allow stringers to do some of his reporting, but angry "Times" staffers denounce his hands-off style.

And a rare interview with Ari Fleischer. The departing White House spokesman takes on charges that he fudges the facts and stone- walls the press, and explains why the Bush administration loves secrecy.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead, more on the meltdown at "The New York Times" and the fallout from the Jayson Blair scandal.

National correspondent Rick Bragg has resigned for not properly crediting an intern on a feature story that appeared under Bragg's byline, and his strong defense of such practices has infuriated "The Times" newsroom. Who is to blame for the latest mess? We'll ask two veteran "New York Times" reporters.

But first, when White House spokesman Ari Fleischer announced that he was leaving his post after more than two years, everyone took note, including the late night comics.


JON STEWART, HOST: Fleischer has earned a reputation as an evasive mouthpiece for the president, who stays on message using ambiguous half-truths or, as they're known at the Bush White House, freedom lies.


KURTZ: We sat down with Fleischer at his office at the White House the other day for some frank talk about his departure and his controversial role behind the press room podium.


KURTZ: Ari Fleischer, welcome.


KURTZ: You've been through the wars, two wars literally and I know you have to decide whether to leave for the next period of time because otherwise you'd stay a year and a half for the president's reelection. But bottom line, were you burned out from battling the press?

FLEISCHER: Well, there is an element of that, no question about it. Just really I looked at it, it's the last off-ramp, I mean, four years of service, which no modern day press secretary has done. Marlin Fitzwater did it, of course, for six. I still don't know how.

But since the advent of modern cable and the Internet and that briefing room really being a place where it's televised live on almost a daily basis now, I had to think long and hard, do I have four years in me, especially after the campaign. And I made the determination it was time to go.

KURTZ: In other words, you feel scarred and bloodied?

FLEISCHER: Well, I don't look at it as scarred and bloodied, but there's no question about it. This is an arduous way to make a living. It's a fascinating way to make a living. I will be able to leave it saying I love what I do, that it's a fun way to make a living. But I'm leaving while I can still say that.

KURTZ: In that briefing room, I mean you get banged on pretty hard some days.

FLEISCHER: I've noticed.

KURTZ: I wonder if you think this is especially because it's all televised these days, that didn't used to be the case, whether there's a certain amount of grandstanding by reporters, who want to show themselves interrogating the press secretary?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think there -- a substantial proportion of the briefing is really designed to get information about what the government's doing. But a substantial part of the on-camera briefing is so different from the briefing in the morning, which is off camera, and so different from the briefings in Crawford, Texas, that there is a certain element, both by the press secretary and the press, of knowing that the cameras are on and you respond...

KURTZ: You're a performer?

FLEISCHER: It's not...

KURTZ: You're conscious of trying to produce the requisite sound bite for the evening news?

FLEISCHER: Well, there's no question there's a consciousness that the camera is on and that when you speak for a camera in that briefing, if you give a 30-second answer, it won't make the air. But if you give a five- to six-second answer, it will. It is the reality of modern day television that all governments (ph) adjust to. KURTZ: In this interview, you can take your time. We won't cut it out.

You've had some tough reviews. I mean, you've got your fair share of praise, but a couple of your critics, for example, "Salon's" Jake Tapper wrote that you, "frustrated reporters by going far beyond spinning -- telling untruths and taking great effort to intimidate." And "Slate's" Tim Noah called you an "energetic teller of lies on behalf of the Bush administration."

Are you surprised at that kind of criticism?

FLEISCHER: I think there's always been fanatical wings in both parties, and it gets represented here by some of those things. But I look at what the mainstream people think and say, and they recognize that the job of the press secretary is to faithfully articulate what the president thinks and why he thinks it. That's what a press secretary ultimately does for a living. A substantial part of it is trying to help the press, but never forgetting that you represent and work for the president.

KURTZ: So there's a limit to how much you can help the press, if for example, the president or top officials here in the White House don't want you to go beyond certain set of talking points?

FLEISCHER: Well, absolutely. Here's where I think you get into some of this great interplay between the press and the press secretary. The press says you're being secretive, you're not telling us everything we have a right to know. The tax bill that was just completed that the president signed this week, I got asked repeatedly during the negotiations, will the president would settle for less than 550, would he settle for less than 450...

KURTZ: Billion?

FLEISCHER: ... billion. Why on earth should I answer that question?

KURTZ: To make news, perhaps?

FLEISCHER: The purpose is not to make news. The purpose is to represent the president in the middle of a negotiation so he can get the best policy for the country. The press secretary who starts to narrow down or close the president's options because he answers delicate negotiating questions no longer serves the president.

KURTZ: Let's go to the videotape, look at some of your greatest hits. During the controversy over Senator Rick Santorum and his remarks about gays, you were asked a lot of questions from that podium. And you basically refused to comment on behalf of President Bush.


FLEISCHER: Let me put it to you this way: The president typically never does comment on anything involving the Supreme Court cases, Supreme Court ruling, or Supreme Court finding, typically.


KURTZ: That's not quite right. In fact, the president or you on his behalf have commented on the affirmative action case before the high court.

FLEISCHER: Exactly. Which is why I used the word typically. He typically does not. There's one instance which everybody can cite, and I cited it myself, where the president did comment. But it's true. Presidents typically don't. And in this instance...

KURTZ: Wasn't that sort of a dodge? You really didn't want to get into commenting on the Santorum case, so you used this as a way of kind of side-stepping the question, which is what press secretaries do.

FLEISCHER: No, I did not want to comment on it. But the fact of the matter remains that Rick Santorum was espousing a legal theory that he felt was appropriate for a pending Supreme Court matter. And so it was a legitimate issue pending before the court, where the president should not comment on everybody's legal theories.

KURTZ: In the flap over the president's landing on the USS...


KURTZ: You had to back track a little bit.


KURTZ: You were asked repeatedly about was this necessary, to land in a fighter jet, in a flight suit, and eventually you had to say that he could have landed in a helicopter.


FLEISCHER: Once the initial decision was made to fly out on the Viking, even when the helicopter option became doable, the president decided instead he still wanted to take the Viking.


FLEISCHER: This is a classic case where I say to a reporter -- this is a classic case where if I say to a reporter, how come you don't have Thursday's news in Wednesday's newspapers -- they say, well, because it wasn't made yet. Same thing.

On Wednesday before the president went out, some 27, 28 hours before he even arrived on the aircraft carrier, the ship was too far out for us to take a helicopter. It had always been planned that it would be too far out to take a helicopter. That changed throughout the course of Wednesday as the ship did, indeed, get closer. And on Thursday morning, I didn't repeat that the president had no choice, he only could take a Viking out to the aircraft carrier. In fact, Dan Bartlett on the NBC morning show talked about the helicopter option. And so it's a classic case of the facts changed, but the press wanted to hold the press secretary responsible for the old set of facts. I wouldn't do anything differently.

KURTZ: In the various closed door meetings in this building, when press strategy is discussed, when are we going to put something out? Are we going to open this meeting to reporters, that sort of thing. Do you see yourself as being an advocate for the press?

FLEISCHER: I do. And that's one of the hardest things for anybody to understand about the press secretary job. My job is to be their advocate inside here, to try to get more access, to try to have interviews and questions, things of that nature.

I don't expect the press to say thank-you for the efforts that I make. My job is to try to be their advocate inside here. That comes with the territory.

KURTZ: Are there cases where you basically are functioning as a reporter, there's some controversy, whether it's Enron or the war or some political controversy, Trent Lott for example, where you have to go to people, the president included, and gather information so that you'll be able to talk to the press? And if that's the case, do people in here resent that sometimes?

FLEISCHER: Well, it's a fine line the press secretary has to walk, because yes, you absolutely do have to act like a reporter internally. Because what I say from that podium has got to be accurate, and I'm the only one who's going to be held liable if it's not accurate.

KURTZ: Your face is out there.

FLEISCHER: That's right. And so I take it very seriously, and I double source some of my information sometimes, if I think that the person giving it to me is not giving me the complete, full story. I'll be real cautious before I go to that podium and I'll ask a couple other people who should know. And only then will I have confidence and say it.

KURTZ: Do you ever push back if somebody says, well, I don't think we should talk about that or I don't want to tell you what's going on?

FLEISCHER: Sure, sure. And that's a good part of the healthy exchange that takes place inside the White House, and that's part of the daily give and take.

KURTZ: Here's the perception of the Bush administration, fairly or unfairly. Incredibly closed now, tight-lipped, stick to the talking points, disciplined, follow the script. Is that perception, from where you sit, completely wrongheaded, is there some grain of truth in there?

FLEISCHER: Let me take on this notion of the so-called secretive White House. I think there are some issues where, clearly, when it comes to war, we don't talk. When it comes to classified information, we don't talk. When it comes to leaking behind-the-scenes at the White House, and one person trying to get up beyond another person by getting his or her position out there, we don't do that either.

And I'm very proud of that, because it means the president can have his policy makers join him in the Oval Office, in a thoughtful and deliberative fashion, knowing that it will not leak one person's ideas versus another person's ideas.

KURTZ: Well, once in a while there have been leaks, but not very often.

FLEISCHER: Not often from the White House particularly. And I'm very proud of that. Now that's led to people saying we're secretive and that we're close mouthed. And I take that as a badge of honor, frankly. I'm very proud of the fact that in Washington, this White House has broken the trend where one person will leak in an effort to play himself above another person.

We all serve the president. We have one story to tell, and that's the president's story, because we don't have individual staff stories to tell.

KURTZ: But beyond the spinning matches, and journalists love that, who want to get, you know, Powell and Rumsfeld are involved in a fight...


KURTZ: ... or some kind of behind-the-scenes feud, there is a perception that getting basic government information out of this administration is like pulling teeth. I'm sure you've read this a hundred times.

FLEISCHER: I think that's an exaggeration. I think that what the pros are finding is that we're very good at just talking about what the president sees and hears. We don't talk a lot about the whole back story about it, who the president listened to, whose advice was taken one day, whose advice was not taken another day.

KURTZ: President Bush has held eight solo news conferences. Now that compares to, at this point in the term, 58 by his father when he was president, 30 by Bill Clinton. Why doesn't the president talk to the press more?

FLEISCHER: He just has a different way of doing it. He does talk to the press frequently, and he does it very often in pool sprays, where the pool, which is the regular small group of reporters who accompany him everywhere he goes, even small meetings, they have an opportunity to ask two or three questions on -- several times a week.

KURTZ: And journalists would say, that's totally inadequate, two or three questions. We need more time, we need more access. We need more reporters being able to question the president about what's going on. FLEISCHER: Actually, I think you'll find there's a big debate in the press corps about that. The wire guys and the radio people, they like the fact that they can get the president on whatever issue is hot that given day. The news conferences don't really serve the same purpose they used to, earlier on in a different media environment. And that -- and the president's judgment (ph) because there's just a lot of posturing that goes on at the news conferences, again. It almost has an air of theater to it.

KURTZ: You're taking issue with the air of theater at the news conferences on the part of reporters when this is an administration that sets up these beautiful photo ops at Mount Rushmore and other places with big signs behind the president, about the message of the day. There's an air of theater here, too, it seems to me.

FLEISCHER: Well, there's no question there is. And I think the fact of the matter is that the president, when he gives his speeches, is entitled to have a backdrop that suggests to the viewers what the speech is about.

I think you've seen a trend in Washington where the prime-time news conferences often become a little bit theatrical in terms of the questions that are asked. And that's the president's point of view.

KURTZ: I was trying to compile a list of missteps by you, and there haven't been that many, but a lot of people were -- there was a lot of comment after 9/11 when there were those controversial remarks by Bill Maher and you said Americans need to watch what they say. Any second thoughts about that? Do you think it was misconstrued?

FLEISCHER: Roll that entire tape, and you'll see how this again is a classic example of something...

KURTZ: You're saying selectively wrenched out of context by the jackals of the press?

FLEISCHER: It's so fascinating how that is the one example people like to bring up and then they omit from it the fact that in my answer I talked about, I was asked earlier about a Republican, a congressman who talked about, I see (UNINTELLIGIBLE) people who have turbans around their heads, and he referred disparagingly to the Muslim community in his state. And I talked about the need for tolerance. And that's why it's so important.

Earlier I was asked about a Republican, and about Bill Maher, for people to watch what they do and say, because I was stressing tolerance. The words came out in a way that people took it that way. Interestingly Ted Koppel went on the air that night and defended what I said, because he listened to the whole context.

KURTZ: You're not the type, it seems to me, to write a tell-all book, but is it possible you'll write a modified, limited kind of tell-all book?

FLEISCHER: I would not write a tell-all book, but I may do a little writing about what I've seen here, particularly my interaction with the press, because I think it's a fascinating exchange that serves the democracy very well. It's a wonderful relationship, the people in the press can ask whatever they want and through two wars, and the anthrax attacks, I've had to very carefully decide what can be said, what can't be said and get into that bit of contention with the press over it.

KURTZ: You're not leaving Washington yet. Will you have a hand, at least, in the 2004 campaign?

FLEISCHER: I hope to. That's correct. Still, my first priority is to help the president.

KURTZ: So how do you see your role in the campaign?

FLEISCHER: I wouldn't be surprised if I do some surrogate events for the president, maybe do a little interviews for the president, that type of thing. Wherever the campaign needs is what I'd be more than happy to do. I'll probably raise some money for the Republican candidate and also give some speeches and maybe do some writing.

KURTZ: So we'll still have Ari Fleischer to kick around?

FLEISCHER: Yes, you will.

KURTZ: Thanks very much for letting us into your office.

FLEISCHER: Thank you, Howard.


KURTZ: The outgoing press secretary in his White House office. When we come back, we'll talk to two "New York Times" reporters about the latest correspondent to resign at the paper, Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg. Was he caught up in a dragnet after the Jayson Blair scandal, or is there something wrong with "The Times" system that allowed this to happen? That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. More on the aftermath of the Jayson Blair fiasco at "The New York Times."

National reporter Rick Bragg quit his job this week. The controversy over the heavy use of stringers and interns who did extensive reporting for some of his articles. Standard practice? Plenty of "Times" reporters say, absolutely not.

And joining us now, Peter Kilborn, "New York Times" national correspondent. And David Firestone, commercial reporter for "The New York Times."

I think that I've triggered this latest eruption with an interview with Rick Bragg this week in which he said, "My job was to ride the airplane and sleep in the hotel. Most national correspondents will tell you they rely on stringers and researchers and interns and close -- and news assistants." Why all this anger, David Firestone, at Rick Bragg's comments?

DAVID FIRESTONE, "NEW YORK TIMES" COMMERCIAL CORRESPONDENT: I think the story that you wrote left the impression this was a wide- spread practice among the national desk, that the staff somehow builds its stories almost entirely on the work of other people, which is simply not the case. Although we do rely on stringers to help on wide-spread breaking news stories, for the most part they are not used and certainly not for the kind of story that Rick wrote, that kind of feature story.

KURTZ: I'll come back to that, but Peter Kilborn, you called Rick Bragg's comments outrageous. Why?

PETER KILBORN, "NEW YORK TIMES" NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Because it's simply contrary to everything that we see and how we work, contrary to how we work, how we proceed, how we gather facts, how we identify the stories.

KURTZ: When you go out and do reporting, you want to do it first-hand, to the extent that you can?

KILBORN: I want to do every bit of the story myself. I want to gather every bit of data. I want to gather every quote, every image, every iota. I find it offense and I think the rest of the staff did that Rick Bragg would rely on other people, sort of like Proust sitting in a hotel room, to write his prose.

KURTZ: Let me read from the story that he wrote last year that triggered his two-week suspension because much of the reporting, by Rick Bragg's own account, was done by a volunteer intern who he had taken on.

This is from Apalachicola, Florida. The lead was "The anchor is made from the crankshaft of a junk car. The hull is stained with bottom muck, but the big Johnson outboard motor is brand new. Chugging softly, it pushes the narrow oyster boat over the Apalachicola Bay."

He didn't go on that boat. The stringer went on the boat. What do you make of that?

KILBORN: Well, obviously, he could not have seen those things, and perhaps there are things that, if he had seen first-hand, the lead might have been different.

I think all of us who are -- or who have been national reporters enjoy the experience of going out and reporting your own story. That's, frankly, the fun part. That's what we all got into this business for, to travel around, to meet people, to talk to them face to face. If you can't do it, if you have to do it over the phone, OK, that's acceptable at times. At times you can't be in seven places at once, and you have to rely on a little help, like a big hurricane story, for example. But for that kind of story, you want to be there.

KURTZ: Well, now Rick Bragg told me that he wasn't trying to impugn anyone else's reputation, clearly, there are a lot of angry people at the "Times" over those comments. But he feels singled out. He says there's kind of a poisonous atmosphere now in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. And he was open about all this, that Howell Raines, the executive editor, knew that he had interns who helped him, that these stringers -- the stringer system is set up by the "Times."

So why was this never an issue before?

KILBORN: I can't believe Howell Raines knew this. I think the number of us observed how he worked and that he did make far more extensive use of stringers than the rest of us. But we weren't aware of the extent of it. I don't believe -- I can't think of cases where he had a reporter do four days work and then he just came in and wrote it. But evidently, as we think back, that might have been his standard operating procedure.

KURTZ: Well, people talk about sometimes the star system with "The New York Times." I mean, should this thing have been caught earlier? This story was written a year ago, about the oysterman in Florida.

FIRESTONE: Well, I don't know the extent to which editors quiz reporters or Rick about how they compile the story. I think there's, frankly, an assumption that you do your own reporting, unless it's impossible to do it otherwise. And it would be a little strange, kind of a "don't eat the daisies" situation if you actually say to a reporter, "Did you actually go to this place?

KURTZ: You wouldn't think to ask that question. But at every newspaper, including the "Washington Post," the "Los Angeles Times" and others, there are stringers and researchers who help out on stories, often in a breaking news capacity. Don't they deserve credit? I guess part of the grumbling at the "Times" -- I've talked to some of these stringers myself -- is that sometimes we make a lot of phone calls, we go into a newsroom and our names never appear, even at the bottom of a story.

FIRESTONE: I think that's something that's now under serious consideration at the paper, and I wouldn't be surprised if we do have a change in our credit policy. A lot of papers use taglines at the end of stories to identify contributors, and I'd love to see the paper do that. I'm friends with a lot of stringers who would love to have that kind of credit.

KURTZ: You've been through a rough month at "The New York Times." First there's Jayson Blair, now the Rick Bragg controversy. How's morale at the paper? Has this been a difficult period?

KILBORN: Our morale is pretty resilient. We don't like what we see going around, but -- I mean, these developments, but we know we're good. And we're sticking to being good.

KURTZ: What's your take on the morale?

FIRESTONE: It's difficult, but I think it's also a cathartic moment. I think that there are things that are going to come out of the month that will actually improve the paper, if some of the sessions that are underway actually bear fruit. I think that there will be some changes that will ultimately be good.

KURTZ: Well, we appreciate you both coming on to talk about this difficult situation at the paper. David Firestone, Peter Kilborn, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, why are media barons like Rupert Murdoch, Michael Eisner and Sumner Redstone smiling? We'll tell you why when we come back.



KURTZ: A key vote tomorrow in Washington is expected to radically reshape the media landscape in cities across the country. The Federal Communications Commission will decide whether to relax rules on how many media outlets one company can own. That means you'll probably start seeing the same big corporations controlling several of your local newscasts plus the local newspaper.

Opponents say that more consolidation will make it tougher for diverse opinions to make it to the airwaves. But supporters of the plan, including FCC Chairman Michael Powell say the rules are outdated in a world where the Internet and cable TV give the viewers a vast array of choices.

The big winner after tomorrow should be the major media conglomerates, companies like Gannett and News Corp, Knight Ridder, and CNN parent AOL Time Warner. The losers? Some would say, the consumers. We'll be right back.


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

"LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right after this check of the hour's top stories.


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