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Interview With Thomas Friedman; Interview With William Bastone

Aired August 31, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): A conversation with Tom Friedman. "The New York Times" columnist is just back from Iraq with a different view of the post-war chaos than the media's reporting would suggest. Are journalists holding the Bush administration accountable? Is there cause for optimism despite the nightly pictures of violence and protest? And what about the rising death toll in the Middle East? The Pulitzer Prize-winning author analyzes the coverage.

Also, who's behind The Smoking Gun, and why are they digging into Arnold Schwarzenegger's sex life?


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

There's no other way to put it. The news from Iraq continues to be bad. Just four months ago, the media coverage of President Bush was nothing less than celebratory.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.

KURTZ (voice-over): Now after months of negative headlines, the president is sounding very different about Iraq.

BUSH: There will be no retreat.

KURTZ: Same for his national security adviser.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We must remain patient. When Americans begin a noble cause, we finish it.

KURTZ: What changed the story? Many Iraqis are angry at the poor conditions there, of course, and the bombing of the U.N. headquarters dramatically underscored the danger. But mostly it has been about the numbers, the continued killing of American soldiers, one or two a day, it seems, and this week the numbers reached a symbolic milestone that the press wasn't about to ignore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The deaths today of two more American soldiers brings to 140 the number killed since President Bush declared on May 1 that major combat operations had ended.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: More U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the end of major combat than during the first phase of the war itself.


KURTZ: The media are reluctant to declare the situation in post- war Iraq a failure, but numbers, journalists understand numbers, and the casualty behind these numbers all but ensures that, while the Iraq story may ebb and flow, it will not go away.

Well, joining us now to talk about all this is Tom Friedman, "The New York Times" columnist, and winner of three Pulitzer Prizes, who has just returned from a trip to Baghdad. His latest book, "Longitudes and Attitudes," just came out in paperback.

Tom Friedman, the prevailing media picture in Iraq is that things are just falling apart. How did that square with what you saw in your trip to Baghdad?

TOM FRIEDMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I guess I would summarize my own sense of Iraq right now, Howie, which is that nowhere nearly as bad as the reporting suggests and nowhere nearly as good as we should be four months into this operation.

KURTZ: Were you surprised that things weren't as bad as the drumbeat of headlines and so forth might indicate?

FRIEDMAN: Not really, because I've actually been going there fairly regularly. I've been there three times now since April 8, and so really since Saddam's statue was brought down. And I've always had a sense each time of the evolution.

For instance, last time I was there before my most recent trip, which was two months earlier, no one went out after 6:00. I mean, the streets were completely (UNINTELLIGIBLE). You wouldn't even think of going out after the sun went down.

This time I came back, people were out until 9:00 at night. You know a lot of places in Baghdad now. Stores were chock full of electronic goods; they were out on the street everywhere. You saw a lot more commerce. The road from Amman to Baghdad that I came in on was full of trucks coming in.

KURTZ: On the other hand, was there any point where you were scared? You had a run-in of your own during this most recent trip.

FRIEDMAN: And that's the downside of it. That's the not as good. On my way out -- the only way journalists can get into Iraq today basically is driving.

It's a 12-hour drive from Amman to Baghdad and back, and that's how I went. You hire basically these Jordanian taxi companies. Leaving Baghdad, at the end of my trip, I was in a five-car caravan that was stopped by a gang basically of guys with their heads wrapped in tefillahs (ph), just their eyes. They stuck Kalashnikovs in everybody's face and demanded their money.

And we forked over in our five cars probably somewhere around $10,000 or more, which I fear may go to them buying a trip to Hawaii. But, more likely, to buying people to kill Americans. So it is not a secure environment.

KURTZ: That is a harrowing experience. Let me put up on the screen something that you wrote in one of your columns talking about the stakes here. You wrote that the "Bush team talks as if it gets it, but it doesn't act like it. The Bush team tells us rightly that this nation-building project is the equivalent of Germany in 1945, and yet so far it has approached the postwar in Iraq as if it's Grenada in 1982."

If that is the case, why do I not see a drumbeat on the nightly news and in the papers every day about whether this was a spectacular miscalculation? The postwar, not the war, and whether there were enough U.S. troops there.

FRIEDMAN: Well, I think we are starting to see that drumbeat now. What triggered it was the U.N. bombing explosion, because if the U.N. isn't safe, then of course, you know, who is, basically? So I think we're starting now to see people questioning, who are ready to give them time, wait a minute, we clearly do not have a secure environment there.

Now don't tell me that the generals say we have enough troops, because the generals know better than to ask for more troops now because they know there really aren't a lot in the cupboard anymore. The postwar planning for this war, if one can call it planning, to me was a colossal fiasco.

KURTZ: But you can say that as a columnist.


KURTZ: There have been. Obviously a beat reporter can't use quite that language.


KURTZ: But, you know when it came to the uranium claim in the State of the Union address, the press made that into a scandal. Some people are starting to believe that maybe the press was -- bought into the Bush spin that winning the peace would be as easy as winning the war. Why -- are journalists afraid to make these kind of judgments that, look, it appears there are not enough American troops to keep the peace there?

FRIEDMAN: Again, being a columnist, I've been making this judgment since day one. So it's hard to speak for the press in total. But I think one of the problems, Howie, is that not a lot of journalists writing about this war have been to postwar Iraq and seen the reality on the ground, which is very complicated. And you have to live it and experience. Just getting in there is a difficult exercise. And because of that, I think that maybe more people have been willing to rely on what they've been told in Washington. But I think that's changing now.

KURTZ: Talking again about the media portrayal of Iraq versus what you and others have seen with your own eyes, what about the picture of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, when admittedly it was far more difficult to interview ordinary Iraqis, for example? But the 10 years before this war, did we get a fair picture of what was going on there?

FRIEDMAN: I think the journalism before the war, about Saddam Hussein's Iraq, was not a great period of American journalism or European journalism. I don't think...

KURTZ: Because?

FRIEDMAN: Because we really did not capture the reality of Iraq. What was the reality of Iraq? This country had been driven into a ditch by Saddam Hussein.

I must say, I was shocked to see outside of Baghdad how poor this country is. These are people living in mud huts. This was Babylon with electricity poles.

We defeated the Flinstones in this war, Howard. I mean, this was not some modern army by any stretch of the imagination. That was not captured. I fear sometimes reporters, news organizations pull their punches to get their visas and didn't really capture how much Saddam had driven this country down, which now we, in being responsible to rebuild it, now have to dig it out.

KURTZ: You're saying they were afraid of getting kicked out?

FRIEDMAN: Yes. I think there's little question about that. I'm sure there were examples to the contrary, but for the most part no one really captured this is the Arab Liberia. That's what it is.

KURTZ: So when critics, particularly conservative critics, say that the media have been too negative, that every time a couple of American soldiers are killed that turns into another story and therefore we're painting a picture of a quagmire-like situation, Vietnam-like and so forth, it sounds like you're saying that actually in some ways things are worse than we had been led to believe in terms of the state of Iraq that we now own. To use your phrase, "We broke it, we own it, we've got to fix it."

FRIEDMAN: We broke it, we own it, we have to fix it. And I'm judging it on my own kind of standard. And my standard is a standard I think they should be held to not because it's mine, but because I think it's what counts.

Do we have an Iraqi self-governing authority in place? OK? We were led to believe, certainly by the administration before the war, that they were going to decapitate the army, decapitate the bureaucracy, put in a new regime relatively quickly and we would be out relatively quickly. That's not the case. KURTZ: Were journalists skeptical enough about those claims? Dick Cheney said on "Meet The Press" we will be greeted as liberators. In retrospect, which is always very easy...


KURTZ: ... did the media buy into these reassuring phrases and comments by White House officials?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I have no doubt that in general they were bought into. But I believe today, you know, I think people are wising up to what is the complex reality on the ground there. It is a really complicated project.

We are not just, as I said the other day, rebuilding a broken vase. That vase is gone. We are now mixing the clay, shaping the thing. We've got to paint it, fire it and take responsibility for it. So this is actually the biggest nation-building project, I would argue, in the history of the United States.

KURTZ: You write as well about the humiliation that many ordinary Iraqis feel about what they see as a Western occupation. Has that story been underplayed perhaps by the press? You know we sort of feel like, hey, they got rid of Saddam, we should all be grateful. But, in fact, things look very different to the ordinary Iraq, who sees soldiers around, he doesn't have a job, he doesn't have electricity. Has the press not fully grasped that reality?

FRIEDMAN: You know I have a hard time speaking for the whole press, but it's something that in previous trips I didn't hear Iraqis talking about. In my last trip, for the first time I heard them complaining about their interaction with Americans. I believe all of this, Howie, is really overcomable, if I can coin a word here.

I operate on the six out of 10 rule, you know? In a place like Iraq 10 things are happening every day. The question is, are six in the right direction or the wrong direction? That's the job of a journalist, because we can all either focus on the four or the six, the four bad or the six good or vice versa.

There are trends there and there are events. And the hardest thing -- and why it's a hard environment to report from is how to sort out the trends from the events. The U.N. thing happens. That's big; that can create a new trend of its own.

But is it the underlying trend? I'm not so sure. I still believe this thing is winnable, OK? But it's still very losable as well. But it is still winnable.

KURTZ: And clearly it's going to take a long time, which is not the impression I think that the press gave the American people, certainly in the throws of victory when Bush was on the aircraft carrier.

Now, one thing that really struck me is that after the statue came down a lot of the big-name correspondents pulled out. And suddenly you turn on television and you see Laci Peterson, you see Kobe, you see Arnold now. You didn't see a lot of Iraq. Certainly some reporters continued to work there until the U.N. headquarters was bombed.

So how do you explain the fact that what was such a huge story seemed to shrink on the media radar?

FRIEDMAN: Well, because I think a lot of people really didn't feel emotionally invested in this story.

KURTZ: Despite the presence of U.S. troops there?

FRIEDMAN: I think the reason was that this was always, in my view, a war of choice. As you know from my column, I thought it was the right choice.

KURTZ: You supported the war.

FRIEDMAN: I thought it was the right choice.

KURTZ: But with reservations?

FRIEDMAN: Exactly. It had to be done the right way. But it was a war of choice that the president turned into a war of necessity or tried to by introducing the WMD issue.

As a result of that, a lot of people didn't feel really invested in the war. Those who cared about the WMD side, well there wasn't any. Those who believe the president was lying didn't feel -- didn't care less what happened afterward.

KURTZ: Doesn't the press have a responsibility now, with so many U.S. troops there, with U.S. troops getting killed, to make people care, to bring the same resources that we brought to bear when the shooting was going on every day, when we were at war with Saddam's regime, to covering the peace, the very uneasy peace?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I certainly feel so. I've been there three times as a columnist, you know, because...


KURTZ: ... go up and down.

FRIEDMAN: Absolutely, because I believe that this is the story of our time. This is the most -- somebody wrote a book, I forgot his name, "The Fifteen Great Battles in History." I think this is number 16, OK?

An enormous amount is riding on the future of the world and the future of America in the world in this story. And my attitude as a columnist is other people will know this story as well as I do. But I'm going to do everything I can to make sure nobody knows it better, because this is the story.

Now for my colleagues and for liberals -- and I'm a liberal in many other respects -- my mantra is some things are true even if George Bush believes it, all right? So at some point you've got to kind of step back and say, separate yourself from Bush and the politics and where you were before the war and focus on the postwar. We're there now.

I'm an opinion writer, so we're there now. And we ought to make the best of it.

KURTZ: Let's turn to the Middle East, which you've written about for two decades now. The latest cycle of violence, as the press puts it. Hamas takes credit for a suicide bombing on a crowded Israeli bus in Jerusalem. Israel retaliates by killing a Hamas leader. Hamas says it's pulling out of the truce, which lasted I guess about six weeks.

Does the coverage reflect fairly that Hamas struck first? Or are we back in the, well, both sides are equally culpable because they both engaged in violence?

FRIEDMAN: You know, I think so. I think the average viewer or the average reader understands that Hamas started this latest tit for tat. But the question that I'm really asking myself as a journalist who follows this story -- and actually, I'm actually going there next week -- is, are we in a whole new world?

Are we in fact beyond the two-state solution? You know we're all kind of right, well, we've got to get the thing back on track, so...


KURTZ: It seems like it keeps getting blown up...

FRIEDMAN: Exactly.

KURTZ: ... by the hatreds (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

FRIEDMAN: As a journalist, I'm starting to ask myself, well, wait a minute, maybe there's actually a whole different framework here. Maybe we're actually beyond the two-state solution anymore and we're now in a one-state solution, OK, that either this is going to become a bi-national state in some way or there's going to be, you know, some kind of ethnic cleansing. Or there's going to be an election in the Palestinian majority, or I don't know what. But all I know is I'm asking myself some really fundamental questions now.

KURTZ: Just briefly, do you ever get tired or depressed about writing about the continuing Middle East violence that has gone through so many iterations since you were in Beirut in the early 1980s?

FRIEDMAN: I do. But you know I'm a fundamental optimist. There's still a lot of Minnesota boy in me, and there's always a struggle between the Middle West and the Middle East in me.

And I'm emotionally tied to this part of the world, Howard. I can't shake it. KURTZ: So much more to talk about, but we'll have to leave it there. Tom Friedman, thanks very much for joining us.

FRIEDMAN: My pleasure.

KURTZ: Still to come, I'll talk to the editor of about he unearthed a steamy 26-year-old interview with Arnold Schwarzenegger and why his tiny staff keeps scooping the rest of the press. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. It may have a tiny staff, but for the past six years has carved out a big niche for itself in the world of online journalism. The site is known for unearthing legal records that shed new light, often embarrassing light, on actors, politicians, even reality show contestants.

Now the Smoking Gun has taken aim at Arnold Schwarzenegger. And joining us now in New York is the editor of, William Bastone.



KURTZ: Bill, you've got the big Arnold scoop this week. Television is going crazy. A 1977 interview with "Oui" magazine, in which Schwarzenegger talks about in his bodybuilding days, how he once participated in an orgy, talking about -- in very graphic terms -- about his sex life at the time, his view of women as sex objects.

My question is who cares about his sex life 26 years ago when he was a muscle man?

BASTONE: Well, I mean, I don't know who cares about it. We had received a tip that there was this interview in which he talks very frankly about a lot of subjects. And we figured we would try to hunt it down just because it doesn't seem as if he's answering too many questions on the campaign trail.

So I mean, we obtain it, we take a look at it. He says some things that are, to us seem fairly interesting and, you know, we obtain it, we do a story, we publish it for other people, you know, it's for other people to determine whether they think there's any, you know, if it's newsworthy or it really means anything.

KURTZ: Yes, but you're sort of sidestepping responsibility here. I mean, on one level you're kind of pandering to the media's admittedly bottomless appetite for celebrity gossip.

BASTONE: Well, I mean, I don't know if this is celebrity gossip. These are words that are coming out of his own mouth. These are his accounts of the way he views women, the purpose of women, you know. He was not doing this when he was 16 years old. He was a 30-year-old man. And I think that if you believe what you read in other places, his -- what he was talking about back then was maybe not something that were isolated instances as he continued forward.

I mean, there have been plenty of stories that indicate he's had involvement with women and allegations of...

KURTZ: Well, when you say plenty of stories, obviously some of that is speculation. But Schwarzenegger says in a statement that, you know, look, a lot of the statements he made were ludicrous and crazy and outrageous but he wasn't living his life as a politician. It was a long time ago, and obviously he's changed his views.

But does this shed any light on his run for governor? You could be digging into his business dealings, for example. But instead, you unearthed this interview that's mostly about sex.

BASTONE: Well, I mean, we're looking at other areas. It's not the only thing we're looking at. You know, it's the first thing that we've been able to find. Is it the most important thing in the world? No, I'll grant you that. It's not.

We're certainly looking into real estate transactions and business dealings. And if we come up with something that's a little bit more meaty, we're certainly going to do something on it. And...

KURTZ: So there could be more to come.

Now, your site is just remarkable for finding legal documents and court findings that often embarrass people in the public eye. How come other journalists don't do this. What is the secret of when it comes to this sort of thing?

BASTONE: Well, I mean, we, when we started the site in early 1997, we kind of decided that we were going to focus just on documents. Now, that tends to limit to some degree what we can do, but it also allows us to focus really narrowly on, if we're chasing a story, what we're looking for and what we might be able to get.

So I mean, we're not -- you know, we're not sitting on the phone, trying to convince sources to provide us with information and go on the record and all the stuff that every other journalist...

KURTZ: Right.

BASTONE: ... in town does. So I mean, I think that there are people who do what we do, but it's the only thing that we do. So it allows us to...

KURTZ: I see. You disclosed, for example, that Rick Rockwell on "Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?" had a restraining order from a former girlfriend. That got a lot of attention.

You also, just looking at the site, do a lot of sort of weird crimes like Oregon woman in naked yoga bust. And I won't even get into the details about the lactating lap dancer. So to some extent are you looking for Internet traffic by -- with some of this more sensational or flashy kinds of stories?

BASTONE: Well, I mean -- you know, I mean, if we did -- if we wanted to have the traffic go through the roof, all we would do would be celebrity stuff. But for us, I mean, we -- you know, you get a really interesting police report about a bizarre crime or some strange occurrence, and oftentimes, the narrative is just fantastic. And sometimes it has details that will not fit into a family newspaper or on a television network.

KURTZ: Right.

BASTONE: But that we let people plow through on their own. And I mean, it doesn't really, you know -- the story of the lactating lap dancer, the yoga -- you know, the naked yoga woman doesn't really drive huge amounts of traffic. But as a document, as a narrative, we find them compelling. And...

KURTZ: OK. Well, we'll see whether it drives CNN ratings.

Just briefly, your Court TV show has just debuted and the reviews were not kind, to put it mildly. "San Jose Mercury News" saying "it took a good idea and mangled it into something really, really bad."

So did The Smoking Gun misfire in terms of its television debut?

BASTONE: Well, I mean, we, you know, we didn't exactly run the television show. I think what they're trying to do -- network is trying to do, is kind of figure out what the TV application is to what we do. We're about as far away from television as you can possibly get. We're just a stack of documents.

I think that the show -- to defend the show, I thought there were parts of the show that were very funny. And I think that they're kind of looking at the show now, and when they do the next one in three months or so, they'll take into account kind of what worked, what didn't work. And I'm assuming it's going to get better.


BASTONE: I'm pretty sure about that.

KURTZ: It sounds to me like you'll be making some more news with your patented document hunting technique. Bill Bastone of, thanks very much for joining us.

BASTONE: Thanks.

KURTZ: When we come back, Fox News versus Al Franken. Who's laughing now?


KURTZ: Welcome back. How do you send a book soaring on the best-seller list even before it's been published? Fox News found out the hard way this week as Al Franken hit number one on with "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right." A federal judge this week rejected the Fox claim that the liberal comedian was unfairly ripping off its "fair and balanced" slogan.

Franken told me the suit was filed to placate Fox anchor Bill O'Reilly, whose face appears on the book cover. O'Reilly says he was trying to expose the vicious tactics of Franken, insisting he's not really a satirist.

We'll talk to Franken on the show next week, and I hereby promise a fair and balanced interview. 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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