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Is the media too negative about Iraq?

Aired August 3, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Quagmire journalism. Is post- war Iraq turning into another Vietnam? The president says no but much of the press says yes.

Are journalists just playing up negative news from Baghdad or are they finally getting tough with George Bush after his first press conference in five months?

"The New York Times" will finally hire an ombudsman after a newsroom panel blasts its handling of the Jayson Blair scandal. Can this tough report help editor Bill Keller put the scandal to rest?

And dead man writing. A most unusual obituary of Bob Hope in our "Media Minute."


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

In the three months since Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled, the news from Iraq has sounded awfully similar day after day.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In Iraq today two more American soldiers were killed in ambushes.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: It was another bad day for U.S. forces in Iraq.

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: At the same time, in Iraq today, more Americans were killed.


KURTZ: Hardly a day goes by when American military deaths aren't a top story on the evening news.

Are things as bad as they seem or are the media too obsessed with negative news out of Iraq? President Bush certainly seems to think so, answering reporters' questions this week about the justification for war.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, I know in our world where news comes and goes and that's this kind of instant news and you must have done this and you must do this yesterday, that there's a level of frustration by some in the media. It's going to take time for us to gather the evidence.


KURTZ: Well, joining us, "National Review" online editor-at- large Jonah Goldberg and "TIME" magazine White House correspondent John Dickerson.

Let me start by putting a quote up on the screen from columnist Andrew Sullivan. He says, "The press, which in large part opposed the war in the first place, has done all it can to turn this success into a 'quagmire.'"

Do you believe that biased journalists are deliberately painting a dark picture of the events in Iraq?


KURTZ: Deliberately?

GOLDBERG: Well, I think that they are deliberately highlighting the negative aspects.

It's not so much they're reporting things that they shouldn't report. I think we should report when American servicemen are killed but I do think that there is a certain -- seems to be a campaign to undermine or not highlight all the positive things going on.

KURTZ: A campaign for ideological reasons, perhaps?

GOLDBERG: No, I don't think anyone's taking marching orders or anything like that, but I do think there's a certain -- now that the war is over a lot are turning back to form, you're having a lot of reporters listen to international diplomats, experts in the region, a lot of people have their own agendas to undermine the American war effort.

KURTZ: OK. Let me turn to John Dickerson.

Is there some truth to the charge that journalists are playing up negative news out of Iraq? We do like negative news.

JOHN DICKERSON, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, I was going to say, I think it was Cronkite who said, you know, we don't get on the news every night and say ten planes have landed successfully today.

I mean, when there is an American death almost every day that's going to lead the news. A lot of the things that happened in Iraq were dogs that didn't bark. You know, we had famine that didn't really happen. We had refugees that didn't really show up. And these were positive stories for the administration, but television news leads these kind of things and without pictures of long lines of refugees, it's hard to do a story about refugees that didn't show up.

GOLDBERG: On that point last week, when Saddam Hussein or allegedly Saddam Hussein issued the tape bemoaning the death of his sons, the 24 hours after that was the first 24 hours where no U.S. servicemen had been killed.

After a barrage of day in and day out of every night the nightly news opening with another serviceman was killed, two servicemen were killed, no one mentioned it. No one highlighted the fact that it was confirmed that these guys were dead was actually having the exact effect that the administration was hoping for.

KURTZ: Of course, unfortunately the attacks later started.

And there are some Iraqis who are frustrated with lack of jobs and lack of electricity. And obviously that has to be reported.

Could it be that the coverage right now is affected by the White House's prewar spin that this would be easy and Iraqis would be throwing flowers at the feet of our soldiers? In other words, they set the expectations bar pretty high.

DICKERSON: I think that's right. I think the White House always, before the war, they underplayed how much it would cost, either in human terms or financial terms. I think they still are trying to talk about how well things are going and so the media has to challenge those expectations.

I think also we've got to remember, a lot in the media were criticized during the war period when we had embedded journalists of essentially turning the newscasts into advertisements for U.S. forces. And so I don't know if that has anything to do with what's going on now.

KURTZ: A balancing act, the pendulum is swinging back?

DICKERSON: Perhaps, but we did have an instance in which U.S. journalists were accused of basically turning themselves over to the U.S. government.

KURTZ: We did have an instance this week in which President Bush, asked a question about the struggling economy, for a brief moment played the role of media critic.

Let's take a look.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And then we had the drum beat to war. Remember, on our TV designs -- I'm not suggesting which network did this -- but it said "march to war" every day from last summer until the spring, "march to war," "march to war."

That's not a very conducive environment for people to take risks when they hear "march to war" all the time.


KURTZ: Now, excuse me, all the networks did that. But that was the time when the president was coming out every day and saying Saddam Hussein must disarm, otherwise there are going to be serious consequences. So was that the media's fault?

DICKERSON: Well, this is -- the president is, of course, trying to place the blame somewhere else. He did talk a great deal about this.

They always got frustrated, though, that when they would try to change the topic back to the economy or some other issue, that they were constantly asked about it. So it's kind of a chicken and an egg kind of thing.

But the president loves to play media critic.

KURTZ: He does?

DICKERSON: It's not just an instance -- he always talks about the number of questions reporters are trying to slip in.

KURTZ: Those five-point questions.

DICKERSON: Try to interrupt with a follow-up. He's always on them.

KURTZ: Let's take a look at some of those questions. This was -- the tone of this news conference was very different than the one back in March, and let's see what some of the White House press corps had to ask the president.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But there's a sense here in this country and a feeling around the world that the U.S. has lost credibility by building the case for Iraq upon sometimes flimsy, or some people have complained, nonexistent evidence. I'm just wondering, sir, why did you choose to take the world to war in that way?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why is Dr. Condoleezza Rice not being held accountable for the statement that your own White House has acknowledged was a mistake? And also, do you take personal responsibility for that inaccuracy?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And with 15 fund-raisers scheduled between -- for the summer months do you worry about the perception that you're unduly attentive to the interests of people who can afford to spend $2,000 to seat you?

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Do you think, Jonah Goldberg, that White House reporters, having been criticized in the past for being too soft on the president, are trying to restore their reputation as junkyard dogs and not pussycats?

GOLDBERG: I think there's something to be said about that. And I think the fact that you go for five months without a press conference, you're going to build up a lot of bile on these guys and they're going to unleash it on Bush.

And I think John is right, absolutely right, about President Bush being a part-time media critic. He has some bitterness, allegedly, about how the media treated his dad and he's always been hyper attentive to these things. And so, you know, it doesn't mean he's wrong.

KURTZ: Isn't it easier in the Rose Garden to ask very aggressive questions to the president in the aftermath of war, as opposed to when the country is on the brisk of going to war and all the soldiers are ready to go in, there's a great patriotic feeling in the country? Could that account for what seems to me to be a much tougher zone here?

DICKERSON: I think that might be right. We also have a few more facts now. I mean, there is this question of whether WMD has been found or not. And many people would say nothing has been found.

So you have something to go up against what the president is saying. Whereas, before the war you had only, really, to rely largely on intelligence that he was interpreting for the American people, so it was hard to push back on some of those things.

KURTZ: Jonah mentioned nearly five months without a news conference. A full dress news conference where it would have gone on at least a half hour or so.

This came 24 hours after a "Washington Post" editorial chided the president for not meeting the press more often. Is Bush suddenly taking orders from the media elite?

DICKERSON: I don't think so. If anything that would have delayed.

They tell me in the White House that they've been thinking about this for awhile. They always do a press conference before he leaves for Crawford. So that is a sort of regular thing to do.

And there is always eventually a call for a press conference from somebody in the media. Helen Thomas called for one before the last one, and I know the White House doesn't take their marching orders from Helen Thomas.

KURTZ: But I'm always puzzled why the president doesn't do this more often, because he's pretty good at it. I mean, he doesn't lose his cool. He manages to -- you know, the questions he doesn't want to answer he finesses. So why is it that he so seems to dislike these encounters with the media?

GOLDBERG: It's an interesting question because he seems to charm the media quite often, also. I think part of it is that this is a tightly controlled White House. I mean, these guys don't give up any color or information generally, and they play everything close to the vest and they compartmentalize things amongst the staff.

One of the things I'll add on the press is I also think one of the things that we've been seeing is a certain amount of British envy in the way the British -- the British press have been beating the dickens out of Tony Blair in those joint news conferences.

They're always going hard at Blair and I think the American press corps has been watching that a lot, and I think there's a little bit of envy going on. They want to do a little bit of the same to their own guy.

KURTZ: There was one British reporter who yelled, "You have blood on your hands, Prime Minister. Will you resign?" I don't think we'll be seeing quite...

GOLDBERG: That wasn't Helen Thomas?

KURTZ: You got a question in at the press conference, and let's take a look at what John Dickerson had to ask the president.


DICKERSON: Mr. President, many of your supporters believe that homosexuality is immoral. They believe that it's been given too much acceptance in policy terms and culturally. As someone who has spoken out in strongly moral terms, what's your view on homosexuality?

BUSH: Yes, I am mindful that we're all sinners.


KURTZ: Now the president went on to turn that into a discussion of gay marriage, which he said he was opposed. Did he duck your question?

DICKERSON: Yes and no.

KURTZ: You're ducking my question.

DICKERSON: I know. I remember Tsongas' line, "Let me figure out how I can duck your question."

It's not clear. He got both messages out he wanted to. He wanted to show a message of tolerance, although a lot of people are unclear exactly what he meant: was he calling it a sin, was he not?

And he also wanted to get out his message on gay marriage. He wanted to appeal to two different audiences and he did a pretty good job of hitting those two targets. KURTZ: That produced a lot of front-page stories. Why did you decide to ask that question? It seems like the kind of question that wouldn't have come up in the day-to-day situations where reporters only get to ask a couple of questions of the president.

DICKERSON: Well, as a news weekly we are often trying to think a week ahead, in advance and off-topic. And I know a lot of my colleagues are going to be talking about lots of different issues that are in the daily papers.

But this was certainly in the air and President Bush, when he campaigned, and has often talked about the role of leaders in standing up on cultural issues, and he talks about the culture of responsibility. And so, I was interested in his larger view, not just about the gay marriage but to see if he would give us a look into his views on a cultural issue and the way he thought about it.

KURTZ: Now your magazine has come out against gay marriages. Is this an issue that is really resonating out there in the heartland or is it kind of being whipped up by the conservative press?

GOLDBERG: I don't know if it's being whipped up by the conservative press. It is something that speaks powerfully to the rank and file conservative base.

And it is something -- I thought it was a great question and really timely because the stakes involved, if Bush caves on gay marriage -- I'm sort of off the reservation among conservatives on these issues -- but if Bush is seen as caving on this, if you add it to all the other things that he's been seen as running to the center on and moderating his image, there could be real, real rebellions among the Christian right activists, among the conservative base.

And this came as a surprise to everybody because everybody thought it was the Democratic Party that was going to have a problem with gay marriage in these primaries, dealing with Howard Dean and all that kind of stuff. It's the Republicans. It's going to be a huge issue, depending on how Bush comes out on this, and huge stakes involved.

KURTZ: Very briefly, coming back to Iraq -- is the coverage of Iraq night after night another American serviceman was killed -- is that having a real political impact on Bush and is that likely to continue in terms of the media's focus, now that there is not a full- scale war going on now there?

DICKERSON: I think it does and it has more of an impact than this question of the 16 words in the State of the Union, because it's about competency.

And people are looking at the White House and how they can manage this post-war period. And the daily death of soldiers suggests that there are some issues there.

But don't forget we had an orgy of coverage over the death of Saddam's two sons. KURTZ: Right.

DICKERSON: It's very favorable for the White House and may have turned that pendulum.

KURTZ: Well, we'll have to wait and see. John Dickerson, Jonah Goldberg, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, "The New York Times" will finally hire an in- house critic in the wake of the Jayson Blair mess. We'll talk about that next.



"The New York Times" has released a harshly critical internal report in wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. Bill Keller, who took over this week as executive editorial, said in a statement that "the Blair fiasco was made possible in part by a climate of isolation, intimidation, favoritism and unrelenting pressure and we are determined to correct that."

Well, joining us now, Steven Holmes, an editor in "The New York Times" Washington bureau, and a member of the committee that wrote that report. And in New York, Susan Tifft, professor of journalism at Duke University and co-author of "The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family behind 'The New York Times'."

Steven Holmes, "The New York Times" has resisted for more than two decades the idea of hiring an ombudsman or public editor, as it's being called. Why did you recommend it and why is it being adopted now?

STEVEN HOLMES, WASHINGTON BUREAU EDITOR, "NEW YORK TIMES": Well, actually we resisted, if you think about it, for 152 years.

Well, we felt there was a number of reasons. We felt that -- it's always been the belief at the "The New York Times" we didn't need an ombudsman because that was the job of editors, that editors would make sure that the paper didn't get itself into trouble and...

KURTZ: Or dealt with criticism from viewers?

HOLMES: Or dealt with criticism from readers, exactly. We found in the Jayson Blair case that the editing failed. We also found that one of the problems with the Jayson Blair -- that was exposed in the Jayson Blair case was that people couldn't find a way into "The New York Times" when they saw something in the paper that was wrong and they wanted to get it corrected.

KURTZ: People who were misquoted or never gave interviews that Blair said they gave didn't know who to call?

HOLMES: Didn't know who to call, didn't bother, didn't think that we were responsive, felt we were arrogant. And so we needed to do something to provide a mechanism for people to respond, to have a representative of readers.

And thirdly, we have a credibility problem at the moment. And it was felt that we needed to do something demonstrable, something that was fairly dramatic to reassure the public that we were really taking to heart the criticism that we were hearing.

KURTZ: Susan Tifft, how dramatic a step is this, given the long resistance in "The New York Times" and will it take more to change the culture of the "Times"?

SUSAN TIFFT, DUKE UNIVERSITY JOURNALISM PROFESSOR: Well, I think it will take more than this to change the culture of the "Times." But I think this is really a stunning development at "The New York Times."

You know, I was thinking about this. A couple years ago "The New Yorker" did a column in which -- it was one of those "talk of the town pieces" where they said, "We've been trying to think of what the voice of 'The New York Times' is, what the tone of 'The New York Times' is and we decided that the voice is that of God."

And I think what this report is saying is, "No, actually we're not God. We're mere mortals, and we have to have a very human kind of way of dealing with, as Steve said, these kinds of credibility problems."

KURTZ: Does it bother you, Susan, that the ombudsman, they are saying, at the outset will not write a weekly column to readers, will not write a weekly memo to the staff? In other words, it will not have some of the sweeping authority that ombudsman at some other papers have.

TIFFT: You know, no, it doesn't really bother me because, you know, this is only a one-year appointment and I think that's important to emphasize. You know, it's a bit of an experiment, I suppose. They can change that later on.

And as you know, I mean, change comes very gradually to "The New York Times." You know, they were very late to put color in the newspaper. They didn't use "Ms." instead of "Miss" or "Mrs." For a long, long time.

KURTZ: That took many years.

TIFFT: And so I think change is going to have to be very gradual. S that doesn't bother me. They can do that later, if they want.

KURTZ: OK. Let me come back to Steven.

There's a lot of stuff in this report about encouraging civility and penalizing rudeness and not overworking reporters and having communications at broadband (ph) lunches. Some of it starts to sound a little touchy-feely.

HOLMES: It does sound somewhat touchy-feely, but the big problem that the Jayson Blair scandal exposed was poor management. It was people not being valued. People not being listened to. People -- cronyism, favoritism, people not knowing where they stood in the newsroom. Those kinds of problems contributed to the Jayson Blair affair.

And, in fact, while much of the comment and the coverage of the report has focused on the ombudsman, I personally feel the more important critical things were the other kind of management reforms that the committee recommended and were eventually -- are going to be adopted.

Because I think -- the ombudsman, basically, will take care of or deal with problems once they appear in the paper. We manage the newsroom better. We value people. We listen to people better. We set up standards. We won't need him. I think the goal here is to give the ombudsman nothing to do.

KURTZ: To make the job obsolete.

HOLMES: Exactly.

KURTZ: I'm sure the board would like that.

Susan Tifft, Bill Keller has already signaled that he plans to run a friendlier, more open newsroom. So is this report, in a way, kind of a repudiation of the Howell Raines style of management, the former editor, who by all accounts ran a very autocratic system that alienated and angered a lot of the people that worked for him?

TIFFT: Oh, yes, I think absolutely. You know, I thought it was very diplomatic and gentlemanly in some places towards the ambient (ph) regime, but, yes, I do think in fact what it's saying it is, "This is a new day; we're really getting back on track here."

You know, it does sound a little touchy-feely when you read some of the language, but I think that the purpose of it is correct, which is that they're trying to make it a news room that's going to be much more open and much more accessible, especially for younger reporters.

KURTZ: Now, your committee report acknowledged that race was a factor in the sequence in which Jayson Blair kept getting promoted despite a very erratic work record, to put it mildly.

Does that worry you? Are African-American reporters at the paper worried that somehow their careers might be hurt, even though they had nothing to do with this debacle?

HOLMES: Well, initially, I think there was that concern among African-American reporters and younger reporters, as well. I think we tried to point out and to -- where things went wrong.

I mean, I don't think anybody should make any apologies for doing affirmative action. But I think you should make apologies for doing affirmative action badly. And you could make the case that it was not being done very well here at "The New York Times." And so we went out of our way to reassure people that the paper still is committed to diversity, still is committed to trying to seek out people from all various segments of society and move them on when they show that they can do the job.

KURTZ: So that was an important declaration. In other words, the paper is not going to walk away from diversity.

HOLMES: That's exactly right.

KURTZ: But at the same time, reporters of any color shouldn't be coddled if they're not doing the job.

HOLMES: That's exactly right. And coddling reporters, as you put it, has in some ways -- it may seem a little contradictory -- part of the culture.

"The Times" never fires people. It's been -- They find it very difficult. And, in fact, it used to be said that what do you do when somebody who works poorly? We said, we try to make them work less. Which is just, you know, really bizarre when you think about it.

KURTZ: OK. Steven Holmes, Susan Tifft, thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come, could journalists who name Kobe Bryant's accuser wind up in jail. And the "Dallas Morning News" under fire for a jailhouse interview conducted by an interview. That and more in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ: Time now for the latest from inside the news business in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ (voice-over): Naming an alleged rape victim against her will may be sleazy but is it illegal?

The judge in the Kobe Bryant case issued an order this week threatening legal sanctions against anyone who identifies the basketball star's accuser, as radio host Tom Leykis did on his syndicated show.

Media lawyers call this an outrageous infringement of the First Amendment. But Judge Fred Gannett says he'll ban any journalist who names the 19-year-old woman, from his courtroom.

Question, how does a 20-year-old intern for the "Dallas Morning News" slip into jail to interview Baylor basketball player Carlton Dotson, the suspect in the death of teammate Patrick Dennehy?

Shani George told CNN she just gave her name at the jailhouse and Dotson agreed to see her. Then, the intern says, she told him she was a reporter. But Dotson's lawyer says George didn't come clean and she passed herself off as a member of a prayer group.

George admits she took no notes, saying she memorized what the jailed athlete said.

When Bob Hope died this week, "The New York Times" gave the 100- year-old comedian a nice send-off with a long obituary. The byline belonged to critic Vincent Canby, who as it turns out, died three years ago.

How did the late Vincent Canby manage this miraculous feat? Newspapers routinely prepare obits of major figures far in advance and "The Times" wanted to credit Canby for his work, no matter how strange it looked.


KURTZ: That's our "Media Minute" -- all right, we went a little over -- for today. 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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