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Should CBS Have Held Prisoner Abuse Story?; What Will Al Gore Do With His New Cable Network?

Aired May 9, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The prisoners and the pictures. Should Dan Rather and CBS have held the story for two weeks? Was the rest of the press too slow to grasp the importance of the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners?

And should journalists worry about the damage to America's image?

Plus, Al America. What will the former vice president do with his new cable network?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on CBS and the pictures that have shaken America and the world. I'm Howard Kurtz.

When Dan Rather and "60 Minutes II" got their hands on those horrifying photos of Iraqis being abused, the ones we've all seen so many times now, it was gripping television and a story that no one would soon forget.


DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: It turns out photographs surfaced showing American soldiers abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners at a prison near Baghdad.


KURTZ: But CBS sat on the story for two weeks after Joint Chiefs Chairman Richard Myers called Rather and warned that American lives could be lost, especially during the confrontation in Fallujah.


GEN. RICHARD MYERS, CHAIRMAN, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF: You can't keep this out of the news, clearly. But I thought it was -- would be particularly inflammatory at that time.


KURTZ: CBS decided to press ahead after learning that Seymour Hersh will be publishing similar findings in "The New Yorker." But it took a couple of days for the story to catch fire. With such newspapers as "The New York Times," "Los Angeles Times," "Washington Post" and "Chicago Tribune" running pieces inside the paper. And it didn't initially lead the network newscasts, even on CBS.

But as the storm gathered force, reporters questioned Don Rumsfeld's response.


QUESTION: It's been one week now since it was on "60 Minutes II." It's the first time we've heard you talk about it. In effect, the damage has already been done. There didn't seem to be a plan to even deal with this.

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Are you critiquing the Department of Defense's PR handling of it? Is that what the question is?


KURTZ: By midweek, President Bush took the unusual step of granting interviews on Arab television.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES; First, people in Iraq must understand that I view those practices as abhorrent. They must also understand that what took place in that prison does not represent America that I know.


KURTZ: Joining us now, Terence Smith, media correspondent for PBS's "Newshour." David Frum of "National Review." He's also a former Bush speechwriter. And Pamela Hess, Pentagon correspondent for United Press International. Welcome.

Terry Smith, you're the president of CBS News, the chairman of joint chiefs calls up and asks you to hold this story for two weeks. Do you?



SMITH: If the argument is made that there were hostages being held at that time who were in jeopardy, that there was intense fighting going on in -- in Fallujah at that time, that was a reasonable request for a reasonable period of time.

When they finally did run it, the fighting had -- was largely under control in Fallujah. And they were moved, of course, as you just said, by competitive impulses.

KURTZ: But how could CBS sit on such an explosive news story?

DAVID FRUM, NATIONAL REVIEW: Well, I'm startled by it. I'm impressed. I'm impressed.

KURTZ: You would have thought that they would have just go, go, go?

FRUM: I would have thought that -- you know, I heard Dan Rather give an interview. It must have been very early in the Bush administration, early in the war, where he talked about how there were people whose requests he would take and people whose requests he would not take.

And he specifically named Donald Rumsfeld as someone he had known for a quarter of a century, had a high degree of regard for and knew that Rumsfeld understood the media, did interviews. And if he got a call from him, saying, "This is important. Hold off for awhile," that he would take that call.

KURTZ: Then there's some people out there, I'm sure, are saying that CBS shouldn't have reported this story at all, that it's unpatriotic, that it's hurt America around the world.

PAMELA HESS, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL: I'm sure there are people that say that, but once this information becomes part of the public record, which it is about to with the court-martials that are going ahead, it's -- it's off to the races. I mean...

KURTZ: If CBS hadn't reported this, we still probably wouldn't know about it.

HESS: I think eventually it would have come out through the court cases. And that's actually one of the reasons why this -- these photos were so close held for so long, because they're part of the evidence in a criminal case. And so there's been a lot of controls on them.

The fact that they came out when they did -- I think the fact that CBS held off on them for a couple of weeks was reasonable. And I don't think it was actually a problem, because I don't see this as being a time-sensitive story. They're the only ones that had it.

KURTZ: Right.

HESS: And there wasn't some event that it was tied to. And it wasn't ongoing abuse that they'd be stopping.

KURTZ: In the first couple of days, Terry Smith, why wasn't this immediately a front page, top of the news story?

SMITH: It's...

KURTZ: What else do you need?

SMITH: It's a really good question, because papers, even those papers like "The New York Times" had at least covered the initial announcement back on January 16...

KURTZ: Of an investigation.

SMITH: ... of an investigation. And then of charges filed on March 20. Did not pick up right away on it. Did not appreciate the extraordinary impact of these images and how it would change the nature of the story that they'd been reporting in bits and pieces.

It's hard to explain, frankly.

KURTZ: Or was it so revolting that there was just a reluctance to trumpet this?

FRUM: Well, I want to go back to your question to Pam. If -- if there were an alternate universe in which the story could have been covered without images, in which they could -- in which modern technology and the modern ways we do things made it possible to report the facts, that there were abuses, there was an investigation and to leave the images out, that would be a service to the nation, because these images have done tremendous damage to the United States.

And I think a lot of people in the news business, maybe there is a part of them that says, "I understand that these images hurt the country. And I don't want to -- I don't want to be first. I don't want to be first." Seymour Hersh, he wanted to be first. But the rest of us, we don't want to be first."

HESS: At the Pentagon, actually the day after these pictures were aired, the BBC reporter came by to say, you know, interview us to find out what the American response is to this. And we're all kind of standing around and we sort of shrugged and said, "So far, nothing."

And I think that there is actually one particular sensitivity of Pentagon reporters, that a lot of us have sources that are in the military. We know them. And -- and there's a great deal of trust that goes between us. I think the Pentagon reporters, we did feel particular shame for them.

KURTZ: And on that point, I mean, allegations of this misconduct and others have been kicking around.

Here's a CNN story from January in which Barbara Starr reported U.S. soldiers reportedly posed for photographs with partially unclothed Iraqi prisoners, a Pentagon official said. The only thing that's wrong about that is the "partially."

Why weren't...


SMITH: And in fact, to give credit where credit is due, Jamie McIntyre on CNN on January 16 had a report on the investigation and said at the bottom of it there is a report that there are photographs of these activities.

KURTZ: Where...

SMITH: I would differ with David in that I don't think it would have been a service. I think it would have been a disservice to try to withhold these photographs.

HESS: I think without the photographs, the story just doesn't have any legs on it. I think if there's something that the reporters can be blamed for...

KURTZ: Wait, wait, wait. You're saying that the story was insufficiently sexy without visual images for Pentagon reporters to redouble their efforts to find out whether this kind of abuse happened?

HESS: It's not a question of finding out whether abuse happened. These pictures and the details of what happened are part of evidence in a legal case. And getting that kind of information is -- is not easy and illegal for anyone...

SMITH: In the world of Web sites and digital photos, I mean it's just not...

HESS: You have to get permission to release it first. And so without those pictures, you don't have much of a story.

I do think that we should be held accountable for failing to know that there were 35 abuse investigations going on. That is something that we should have known to ask and we should have asked back in January.

FRUM: Well, we do need to make up our minds whether this is a war and a military situation. And it -- if it is a war, then the fact that a story is not as good a story, doesn't get as many viewers, is a very secondary consideration.

These images have hurt the United States. They have damaged America's ability to win the war. They've damaged America's ability...

SMITH: It is a secondary consideration. You're absolutely right. And shouldn't be maybe even mentioned.

What I'm saying is that if they're there, if the public knows that they are part of the story, that photographs were taken, then for news organizations to withhold them, no way.

HESS: Listen. The problem here is not that the pictures have hurt the United States. It's the actions that are captured on the pictures that have hurt the United States. And I think that we can't start blaming the media for what this groups of people did.

FRUM: You -- you can. The country -- the actions were damaging. The pictures -- it is the pictures that are going to be the source of the infection in the wound all over the Arab world.

And if -- I agree, technology probably makes it impossible, but the impulse that I think some reporters had to say if only we can do this story in black and white, in text, it will be better. We can serve justice. We can protect the rights of those people who were abused -- or not the rights, protect the people who were abused. But also protect the country.

That would have been a good thing, if it could have been done.

SMITH: Note, Howie, that Secretary Rumsfeld said that there is video, apparently, as well.

KURTZ: I can just imagine what that's going to do.

SMITH: Imagine the impact of that.


KURTZ: And speaking of black and white text, I want to show you a series of front pages of just the other day, Thursday morning.

"L.A. Times": "Bush Scolds Rumsfeld, According to White House Officials."

"Washington Post": "Bush Privately Chides Rumsfeld."

"New York Times" then said "chastised by president" for his handling of scandal.

And then the president of the United States was asked about this. Let's take a look at what he said.


QUESTION: Senator Harkin said today for the good of the country, the safety of our troops, our image around the globe, Secretary Rumsfeld should resign. If he doesn't resign, the president should fire him.

We know you weren't happy with him yesterday. Should he keep his job?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Secretary Rumsfeld is a really good secretary of defense.


KURTZ: Using your decades of experience, how do you explain the fact that Rumsfeld is made to look -- he was taken to the woodshed in these leaked print stories, but the president isn't saying anything like that when he's asked on television?

SMITH: Well, first of all, we have a society of no apologies, no accountability. We've had the apologies, but the accountability is so far down at a very low level.

The simple fact of the matter is Don Rumsfeld is crucial to the Bush administration, to its pursuit of its policies in the Middle East. And I don't think George Bush could do without him.

KURTZ: But I'm not asking you whether Rumsfeld should be done. You worked in the Bush White House, David. I'm rather asking how did these stories in an incredibly disciplined White House that never engages -- or almost never engages in this sort of finger pointing, how do these stories end up in the paper?

FRUM: Somebody put them there. Somebody put them there. And it's an interesting exercise if we reverse engineer it. And to think, all right, who put them there? Who would have an interest? Who would have the inclination to do it?

Is it a White House source, or is it more probably one of the rival departments? Maybe they've got an interest in doing this.

KURTZ: Well, it's described as White House officials. And it seemed to me like -- it smelled like an authorized leak. In any event...

SMITH: I would bet anything that it's an authorized leak. You see? He's taking -- he's taking Rummy to the woodshed.

KURTZ: Right. Now, as a person who covers the Pentagon, you'll recall that early last year Don Rumsfeld was on the cover of "TIME" magazine. He was almost Man of the Year.

And then, this week, look at "The Economist" magazine. There's a picture of one of those Iraqi prisoners in a hood standing on a box and it says, "Rumsfeld, Resign."

How did he go from being a rock star to everyone's favorite whipping boy?

HESS: Rumsfeld doesn't go. Rumsfeld stays the same, and it's the conditions around him that change.

The things that Rumsfeld is getting in trouble for now, which is sort of his hands-off management style, his delegation of authority, his trust of the people down below him, and his -- I guess you could call his un-curiousness about what was going on, feeling like the system is taking care of itself, people are doing what they will. He'll go about doing his business. A very corporate management style.

This is something that has served him well for the last years and did not serve him well for the first nine months of office, when things were going crazy.

KURTZ: It's not frustrated reporters who have been looking for a chance to get even with the secretary?

HESS: I -- I don't think so, actually. I think it's -- I think it's conditions surrounding him. They cap -- he's either this sort of corporate tough manager hero, or he's a corporate tough manager pain in the butt.

SMITH: It's also just sort of exhaustive overexposure. I mean, I think we've all had it with Rumsfeld's briefings in which he wants to parse the meaning of torture versus abuse. People lose patience with that. FRUM: Rumsfeld is one of the greatest secretaries of defense in the nation's history, and it's not true that he's a hands-off manager. He has at ever step clashed with generals about the kind of force the United States ought to have, both in peace and in war.

He's a tough guy. He's sometimes an abrasive guy. And it's not entirely surprising that the press, which used to be frightened of him, has now stopped to get a little bit of its own back.

But the context of this should be run -- the president is right. This is a great public servant.

HESS: Just for the record, David, I've never been frightened of him. And he is a hands-off manager. What he does is he sets policy and he expects it to be implemented. And...

FRUM: But he parries questions with these guys, and says, "Are you sure you need all those -- or you don't."

HESS: I'm one of these guys.

KURTZ: OK. Pam Hess, bold and unafraid.

I want to get to one more piece of tape. General Janis Karpinski. She was in charge of the prison. She has been on about every network this side of Comedy Central. Let's take a look at some of her interviews.


GEN. JANIS KARPINSKI, FORMERLY OF U.S. ARMY: Had I even had a hint or suggestion or a question, I would have investigated it immediately.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, FOX NEWS' "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": All right. Now, this is...

KARPINSKI: When I saw the photos, I was sickened by them. I -- I just find it unbelievable.

The prison, in fact, was not under my command or my control at the time when these incidents allegedly took place.


KURTZ: Terry Smith, can you ever recall a time of a senior military official going out and -- and doing so many TV interviews and trying to distance herself from what's going on?

SMITH: And how about the line of defense? "I didn't know what was going on. I was out of the loop." It just doesn't work if you're the -- if you're the officer in charge.

KURTZ: "Wall Street Journal" editorial the other day said, speaking of the media and Democrats and other critics of the administration, "The goal seems to be less to punish the offenders in this prison scandal than to grab one more reason to discredit the Iraq war."

You think that's what's really going on?

FRUM: I don't know whether anyone consciously intends that, but it certainly has become part of the larger discussion. That's why the pictures are so damaging.

Certainly when you talk to the international press, a little bit less here. When you talk to even the British and certainly the Europeans have been involved in getting a lot of media requests these days. They're -- it's hard to miss the tone of gloat that, well, this was to be expected. You embarked on this immoral war. It's Vietnam all over again. What did you expect?

And so that -- that press...

KURTZ: I've got about 30 seconds. The -- on the other side of the spectrum, "Salon" magazine says, "Finally, we're getting some bolder coverage from the press" after what it calls a year of "dutiful, if not outright timid coverage."

You said you weren't feeling intimidated, but is the Pentagon press corps now feeling emboldened by what's going on?

HESS: I'm not sure. I actually have a very high regard for my colleagues at the Pentagon. And I think it's probably one of the most professional press corps. The people there have been covering the military for a long time. You don't -- you don't just drop in on the Pentagon. People are there for a long time.

I think that what you're seeing are questions that reflect the events as they're unfolding, and it's -- I think that's responsible, as opposed to us having some kind of an agenda and some axe to grind.

KURTZ: Diplomatically put, Pam Hess. Thanks very much for joining us.

Terry Smith, David Frum, stay put. When we come back, Al Gore's new media venture. Is the former vice president quietly creating a liberal network?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Al Gore is embarking on a new career as a media executive.

The former V.P. announced that he and a group of investors are planning to launch a new cable network. But he denied that the venture will have a liberal tilt.


AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What has been reported at various times during the last year or so, that we're starting a Democratic network, or we're starting a liberal network -- we're not. We never said we were. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Gore and investors bought the tiny Newsworld International, which reaches 17 million homes from Vivendi Universal.

David Frum, do you believe Gore when he says he doesn't have a liberal network in mind?

FRUM: Well, I need to be very circumspect about what I say about this, because I'm terrified he'll lock me out of the IPO for this network.

KURTZ: You want in?

FRUM: Exactly. I think it is an example of how everyone in Washington really wants to move to Hollywood. And he was the vice president of the United States, and he wants to be a cable exec.

I can't see a business justification for it, so there had better be a political justification or the whole thing makes no sense at all.

KURTZ: Why else would Al Gore want to get into the cable business? I mean, because he has a burning desire to create programming for younger people?

SMITH: I don't know. But if he thought politics was rough, welcome to cable. I mean, these are tough guys. This is not George W. Bush. This is the kings of the television world and so forth.

KURTZ: Who control whether or not this small network can get on more homes?

SMITH: Precisely. Distribution will be his big problem. Getting it on enough systems. There's an old rule of thumb that you need 30 million viewers. He said they have 17. You need 30 million to be viable, to exist, and sort of have a place in the market place.

That's -- that's a long way to go.

KURTZ: Al Gore is doing this with former Democratic Senate candidate Joel Hyatt. He's been outspoken lately with his criticism of Fox News and of Rush Limbaugh. Why not do liberal TV? Could it work?

FRUM: I actually think it might well work. I mean, it certainly works for CBS, ABC and NBC. So it stands to reason that you could -- you could make a success out of it.

KURTZ: You're going to let him get away with that?

SMITH: He didn't include PBS.

FRUM: So the thing that I think is the troubling thing is he says he wants to do -- from a business point of view -- he wants to aim it at younger viewers. And public affairs TV for people who hate public affairs TV doesn't strike me as a promising formula. SMITH: Listen, if you accept the notion that -- CNN insists that it's neither left or right, but straight news. And if you accept that Fox is over on the right, with a liberal voice, what's wrong with another corresponding left?

KURTZ: Well, the Air America Radio Network, the new liberal network in that medium, is floundering. It hasn't gotten very far at all. And I wonder if that might have given Gore cold feet.

Now, Howard Dean was exploring getting a talk show. This in the tradition of Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes and others who have run for president and then want to sort of stay on the tube.

FRUM: How'd their shows do?

KURTZ: Well, OK. You make the point that neither of them are still on the air. Is -- but is this becoming the new battleground for out of work politicians?

FRUM: Well, there is some overlap between the skills you need in politics and the skills on television, but look, you remember Marshall McLuhan? He used to be famous. And what he said was that TV is a cool medium.

And whatever you say about Howard Dean, he ain't a cool personality.

SMITH: Well, the irony is that Al Gore suffered by his own performances on television politically. And now he may suffer in the business world. I don't know.

KURTZ: Just briefly, David, you know, says that ABC, CBS and so forth are, of course, part of the liberal media. Whether you accept that or not, why is there so little hunger out there for a self- proclaimed liberal network?

SMITH: I don't know. The argument is that it hasn't been done well enough and therefore that there's an audience there and it hasn't been found, because it hasn't been done well.

KURTZ: Well, we'll have to see whether Gore goes in that direction. Terry Smith, David Frum, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, in our "Media Minute," is the FCC crackdown on smut broadcasting threatening to undermine news coverage?


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


KURTZ (voice-over): Could the FCC crackdown on indecency undermine news coverage? The CBS affiliate in Phoenix curtailed its coverage of the funeral of Pat Tillman, the pro football player killed in Afghanistan, because some mourners were using words banded by the government. After the commission ruling that Bono's use of the "f" world at a Golden Globe ceremony was profane, news executives are openly worrying about their ability to bleep live news events.

A big week for "Esquire," winning four national magazine awards, edging out "The New Yorker," with three. "Newsweek" took the general excellence prize in the big circulation category.

Ted Koppel reading the names of the fallen in Iraq didn't produce a blockbuster hit for "Nightline" last week. But despite being banned by Sinclair Broadcasting in a half dozen markets, the controversial program's ratings did jump more than 20 percent.

Meanwhile, former ABC correspondent Chris Wallace, now the anchor of "Fox News Sunday," took a shot at his old colleague, saying Koppel's reading of the names lacked context and was a ratings stunt.



KURTZ: Last week, we talked about the media coverage surrounding John Kerry's throwing away his Vietnam decorations, and many of you weighed in.

Jennifer in Florida asked, "Why are we wasting our time discussing Kerry's war medals when there are so many more important issues? What John Kerry did with his medals is his own business. He earned them, by serving honorably in Vietnam."

But Scott in South Carolina writes: "Equal focus on Bush? Are you kidding me? The press was an absolute vulture when President Bush's National Guard record was questioned. That story was aired for weeks upon weeks. Only one or two days since Kerry's tossed medals story broke, and the liberal media are panicking and bringing up Bush's record again. Equal focus on Bush? Absolutely not."

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 now.


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