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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Special Edition: Coverage of Iraqi Prisoner Abuse Scandal
Aired May 16, 2004 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Betty Nguyen at CNN headquarters in Atlanta. Here's a look at headlines.
Secretary of State Colin Powell offers a new apology to Iraqis abused at Abu Ghraib prison. At a gathering at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, the U.S. is devastated by what happened. He also says U.S. troops are in for a considerable stay in Iraq.
Word yet of another American killed in Iraq. This time from a roadside blast in Baghdad. A second soldier was wounded in the attack late yesterday. That brings the death toll to 783 U.S. troops killed in Iraq. Most of the deaths after President Bush declared an end to major fighting.
Israel's supreme court gives the go-ahead to demolitions in southern Gaza at a refugee camp there as a security measure. Palestinians say Israeli troops have bulldozed dozens of homes, leaving more than 200 people without a roof over their heads. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the destruction counterproductive.
Well, that is the news at this hour. Now "RELIABLE SOURCES."
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The photos that shook the world from a Baghdad prison to an execution. Are the media showing these disturbing images too often, and should CBS and other news organizations have shown the Iraqi prisoner photos at all?
Have American journalists hurt the country or unearthed an ugly reality of war? And has digital technology taken these decisions out of the media's hands? We'll ask the executive producer of the CBS Evening News, the editor of The Washington Post, the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times, and Arab journalists, veteran Pentagon reporters and political commentators.
ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, this is a special edition of "RELIABLE SOURCES": The Power of Pictures.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Today, we turn our critical lens on the power of images and the responsibility of journalists in putting out those images in a time of terror. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
KURTZ (voice-over): What's become a global embarrassment for the Bush administration began with Dan Rather and "60 Minutes II," airing shocking, revolting photos of American soldiers abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners. New and equally sickening pictures were soon published by The New Yorker, The Washington Post and The New York Times. This week, "60 Minutes II" was back with video of one soldier whose identity was obscured, talking about what she saw at an Iraqi prison camp.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They've already had two prisoners die, but who cares. That's two less for me to worry about.
KURTZ: The prison misconduct was condemned by President Bush, Don Rumsfeld, John Kerry, and of course the Arab press. And some said the media had gone too far and put Americans in danger.
SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: I'm also outraged by the press and the politicians and the political agendas that are being served by this.
KURTZ: Next came the horrifying Web video on a site linked to al Qaeda of terrorists beheading American contractor Nick Berg. The footage seemed irresistible to television, which kept replaying it, although not the grisly decapitation. And that sparked complaints in some corners that perhaps the airing of the prison photos had led to this gruesome retaliation.
KURTZ: So how do leading journalists grapple with the pros and cons of showing graphic pictures? Joining me now, Leonard Downie, executive editor of The Washington Post; Philip Taubman, Washington bureau chief of The New York Times; and in New York, Jim Murphy, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News" with Dan Rather.
Jim Murphy, CBS kicked this off by showing the first prisoner abuse photos. Other news organizations have shown their own pictures as well. Now some critics are saying this was irresponsible, inflammatory, damaging the country. How do you respond to that kind of criticism?
JIM MURPHY, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, CBS EVENING NEWS: I respond with a two-part answer. First, don't shoot the messenger. History has proven over and over again that doesn't work, and it's not the right thing to do.
And second, I don't think the pictures were out before 9/11. In other words, these guys were determined to do what they do, no matter what the circumstances. They have a long list of grievances, whether they're real or not, or imagined. And this gets added to their list.
And it was obviously something that's not great for the country, for people to be able to see those images who are fighting this country. But they exist, they were going to get out somehow. And they always do. And the bottom line is, they always do, and a free press deserves to -- or should actually do its job.
KURTZ: Leonard Downie, you put on the front page of The Washington Post the now famous picture of the Iraqi prisoner on a dog leash. But unlike The New York Times and some other pictures, The Post ran on page 19 The New Yorker photo of those dogs menacing a prisoner, an equally dramatic picture. Why the disparity?
LEONARD DOWNIE, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, THE WASHINGTON POST: In the case of the first picture, we were able to completely report out was in that picture. We knew the identification of the soldier and exactly what was happening. And we also were able to crop that picture to preserve some of the dignity of the Iraqi detainee by cropping out parts of his naked body.
In the case of the dog picture, it was more difficult to do that. And by that time, a number of these disturbing pictures had already run.
And when the newspaper goes into people's homes, it's like a visitor in their home. And what's on the front page is inescapable. Your children will see it. It's there on the table. Whereas, what we put inside, you make a decision to go inside and see that particular picture.
KURTZ: And on that point, Philip Taubman, The New York Times ran about a half-dozen photos on page one of wounded Iraqi prisoners, in one case a soldier sitting on a prisoner. Any hesitation about that kind of display for these troubling images?
PHILIP TAUBMAN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I don't think so. You know, the first step we had to take when this whole story broke was to determine that the pictures were authentic. Once we had learned that they were, then it was just a question of cropping for taste. But I think the images that were being shown were so powerful and spoke so strongly to conduct that was going to be damaging to American interests, that they belonged on the front page.
KURTZ: Jim Murphy, I want to turn to the question of how often television, for example, continues to show these pictures. And I want to read from a column in the Boston Globe by Jeff Jacobi (ph), who writes, "I'm sickened as well by the relish with which the scandal is being exploited by those who think that the defeat of the Bush administration is an end that justifies just about any means. I'm sickened by the recklessness of the media, which relentlessly flogged the graphic images from Abu Ghraib, giving them an in-your-face prominence that couldn't help but exaggerate their impact."
MURPHY: My thoughts are that I completely disagree with what he wrote. I mean, there's a small kernel of truth buried in there about how sometimes the media just uses these images as wallpaper. We try, on our broadcast, at least, to be as judicious as possible with how much gets used, what gets used, how often it's shown.
That's an important part of our decision-making process. I'm sorry if he's offended by what we have shown.
But the other part of his argument, that there's some agenda here, it's just -- it's ridiculous. I mean, there are people in all media and in all walks of life who, you know, bring a political set of arguments to the table. We don't on my broadcast. I don't.
It's an important story. We had to inform people of it. We had to show people what was behind it. I mean, that's the evidence, that's a major, major part of the story, the biggest part of the story that's in our hands. And I just have to disagree that it's wrong to use it.
KURTZ: Disagreement noted. Now, I work at The Washington Post and I was surprised to see you quoted as saying that the paper has 1,000 prisoner photos, but has only run about 10. Why?
DOWNIE: Well, first of all, these are images that come from digital cameras. We receive disks of photographs taken by probably a number of soldiers with their digital cameras. And a lot of them, of that 1,000, the vast majority are kind of tourist shots, if you will, pictures of places in Baghdad, pictures of places around the prison.
Some odd things, pictures of animals of various kinds, alive and dead. Bizarre and unexplained kinds of pictures.
KURTZ: But some are clearly more troubling.
DOWNIE: And then a small fraction of them are these abuse pictures. And out of the abuse pictures, there were those that we could determine exactly what was going on in the picture and who was doing it. And there are others that we still have that we're not sure what happened here.
KURTZ: Why not put them online and let people make up their own minds?
DOWNIE: Because we believe we ought to be able to provide facts and not just explained imagines. For instance, we have some images of prisoners with wounds of different kinds. We have no idea where those wounds came from. Until we can explain that, we're not going to publish those pictures.
KURTZ: Pew Research Survey you probably saw said that 50 percent of Republicans and only 26 percent of Democrats say the press is giving too much attention to this prisoner abuse story. There is a sense out there, fairly or unfairly, particularly among conservatives, that the press is kind of relishing this as an administration scandal.
TAUBMAN: That's certainly not true in our case, and I'm sure in Len's case as well. There's no pleasure in this. It's a very disturbing story. The decisions to run these pictures are not easy to make. No one is relishing this, believe me. KURTZ: In other words, this is -- I mean, journalists love scandal and they love stories that land on the front page. But this is also something that we're all grappling with, our own shock and dismay at what happened.
TAUBMAN: Yes, and I think -- you know, let's not get carried away with the idea that journalists love scandal. I mean, you know, some news organizations love scandal, not all. And in this case, it's an important political story, an important military story.
It cuts to the role of America in the world and our credibility now as we try to stabilize Iraq. It couldn't be more important. And there is no -- no one's having fun doing this.
DOWNIE: We've now published these images with alacrity. And an awful lot of debate and worry goes on in the newsroom over making decisions. The decision of where to put the pictures of the dog confronting the naked prisoner, for instance, went on for hours on and off in deciding just how to use that image.
TAUBMAN: And I think it's -- if I may interject, it's important for people to understand that the news organizations, at least the ones that are represented on this show this morning, we don't have an agenda about the Bush administration. I mean, The New York Times has run all kinds of photos on the front page during the Bush administration. Many of them which would be perceived as critics of Bush as somehow supportive of him or somehow flattering of him. So that's just a...
KURTZ: Like when he went to Baghdad on Thanksgiving and served turkey to the troops.
TAUBMAN: Right, and served turkey, right.
KURTZ: Jim Murphy...
DOWNIE: If I could just interject on just one point. I would like to say to the point that you were just addressing, I would be a lot more concerned about the journalists who ignored this story for a political reason than the ones who just did their jobs the way they're supposed to do them. Plenty of people let this story pass them by, and there's something wrong with any news organization that doesn't take this seriously.
KURTZ: But Jim Murphy, is there a double standard? I'm reminded of just a few weeks ago, when those four American contractors in Fallujah were killed, mutilated, their bodies strung up on a bridge. On the "CBS Evening News" you electronically blurred those pictures.
MURPHY: Yes, parts of the...
KURTZ: Is that because there's more sensitivity when there are Americans involved?
MURPHY: No. I mean, "60 Minutes II" blurred parts of the images from the prison, and also didn't show a lot more heinous activity than what aired.
And in the case of Fallujah, I thought we actually went pretty far in showing people how grotesque that scene was. And we argued publicly that people needed to see that because it's so important. We did show the bodies hanging from the bridge. We did show people dragging a torso through the street.
I mean, yes, we digitally, you know, blurred some of that image, because I saw the raw footage. It is -- most human beings can't bear looking at that stuff. It's really difficult. Just like with the Berg video the other day.
I mean, I watched the entire video. Actually, I didn't, because I had to turn it away and stop it before the end. It was just that gruesome. I mean, it's stomach churning.
And none of us enjoy looking at this or broadcasting this. I just think that people need to see a good amount of it to understand what we're up against. I mean, people who argue against what the media does, we get it from both sides. At one point, they're arguing show Berg's beheading so we can steal the country's spine, but then they argue, don't show anything else.
KURTZ: All right.
MURPHY: I mean, you can't have it both ways.
KURTZ: Got to break in here. On this question of the execution of Nick Berg, here's the front page of The Washington Post the next day. Got the large picture of the family grieving, and then very small image below it of Berg sitting in front of his killers. I'm sure there was a lot of debate whether this picture should have gotten more prominence.
DOWNIE: Or even, obviously, pictures of the beginning of the beheading and the beheading itself, which just as television producers said, we want to be careful about what people can stand to see on the front page of their newspaper. And we felt that the picture of the family grieving conveyed so much about the horror of this particular incident, that that was sufficient without showing the actual beheading.
KURTZ: Now, other newspapers, for example, The New York Post, The New York Daily News, ran a big image of that shot before the execution. The New York Times has a war photo on the front page that day. This was this past Wednesday. A small image here, if we can see it, of that shot of Nick Berg with his executors.
TAUBMAN: I think the same thinking that Len has just articulated.
KURTZ: Not trying to play it down?
TAUBMAN: No, we weren't trying to play it down. But I think there was a sense that the execution as it unfolded, the actual beheading, reached a level of violence and gruesomeness that was not appropriate to put in the paper.
KURTZ: All right. We have to take a break. When we come back, should journalists worry about hurting American interests?
And later, I'll talk to an outspoken Arab commentator and check in with two veteran Pentagon reporters on this special one-hour edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
Stay with us.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. DUNCAN HUNTER (R), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE CHAIR: We're blaming the media for putting out pictures when they were asked on this specific occasion with Americans in danger not to put pictures out that could cause hostages to be harmed. The media failed to refrain from doing that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter taking issue with the messenger. Welcome back to this special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
Phil Taubman, of The New York Times, there are some things American journalists won't do. We don't, for example, run stories on troop movements in time of war that could endanger American soldiers. Don't these prisoner pictures endanger American lives as well? Is that something you have to take into account?
TAUBMAN: I think it was taken into account, but I think the argument that General Myers made, I believe, to "60 Minutes" before the first photos were aired, suggested that almost there was no other reason in Iraq that anyone would do violence against Americans there. And that hostages who had been held, for example, might feel retribution from airing these photos.
I think there are multiple problems in Iraq that lead to violence against Americans. And to single out these pictures, they make contribute, but I think to withhold them simply for that reason is to suggest that they alone would cause violence against a hostage. I don't think that's likely to be true.
KURTZ: Len Downie, of The Washington Post, this argument, I hear it on talk radio, I get it in my e-mail, that journalists shouldn't do anything that hurts the country or undermines the war effort. It seems to strike a cord with a lot of people who don't really care much about the first amendment.
DOWNIE: First of all, we don't know what really hurts the war effort or not. As Phil suggested, there are a lot of problems with the occupation in Iraq, and a lot of things that cause danger for American troops. It has absolutely nothing to do with the American media coverage of the war.
But more importantly, what makes this country different and what we're supposed to be fighting for in Iraq, is a system in which there's accountability of our elected representatives and the people who work for them to everybody else. And the most important part of that accountability is for the media to inform citizens about what their troops are doing and what their leaders are doing, and then have the citizens judge whether or not that's the right course to take.
KURTZ: Just briefly, on January 16, the Pentagon announced the investigation of possible detainee abuses. There was no story in The Washington Post that day.
DOWNIE: Yes. There was a one-paragraph announcement. If you read it in its entirety, it's pretty difficult to figure out that it was going to lead to something like this. And yet, at the same time, we were slow to pick up on -- to pick up that particular thread and follow it out to what it really turned out to be.
MURPHY: But can I say something there, too, Howie? You know what? We are like every other American. We want to win this war.
We believe in the country. And the reason that the prisoner abuse story took so long to come out is that there was no proof of it. We heard stories like this last summer. People -- every journalistic organization in Iraq has been approached by people who claimed things like this were going on at detainee camps and in prisons, but without any real evidence. And so you couldn't do anything with it.
KURTZ: But wasn't there a mindset, Jim Murphy, that, well, you know, these are a bunch of detainees, maybe they're exaggerating? In other words, how aggressive were journalists really?
MURPHY: Well, that's part of the mindset, because, also, if you work in that part of the world, you know that rumors rule. And we don't run with rumors.
And you also can't believe a lot of what you see, because insane things are said all the time. Look at the strange conspiracies that float around this war and about the attacks of 9/11 and everything else. We can't buy into that. So we get evidence before we tell stories.
KURTZ: All right, Jim.
TAUBMAN: People have jumped on Congress for reacting too slowly to this. I think the press reacted too slowly as well back in January. We were just not aggressive enough in understanding the import of that announcement.
KURTZ: A rare admission of candor. Phil Taubman, thank you for that. Len Downie, of The Washington Post, Jim Murphy of CBS, thanks very much for joining us.
Still much more to come on this special hour-long edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Still ahead, a conversation with journalist Irshad Manji on whether the Arab press is capitalizing on the prisoner abuse scandal.
Stay with us.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
The prisoner abuse scandal in Iraq and the grisly execution of Nick Berg are dominating the news here in the United States. But much of the Arab media are taking a different approach.
Joining us now from Toronto is Irshad Manji. She's the host of TV Ontario's "Big Ideas" and author of the big, "The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim's Call for Reform in Her Faith."
Thank you for joining us.
IRSHAD MANJI, AUTHOR, "THE TROUBLE WITH ISLAM: Thanks for having me, Howard.
KURTZ: Is much of the Arab media enjoying or even relishing playing up these pictures of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners?
MANJI: Actually, no. My survey of the Arab press, both English language and Arabic language, shows that they're not capitalizing on these images at all. Mostly, by the way, for tactical reasons. The assertion being that if we allow these images to be played up as gruesome and as grisly as they are, then what that will only do is detract and deflect attention away from the so-called real crimes that the Bush administration is inflicting on Arabs.
KURTZ: Those real crimes being?
MANJI: Well, obviously the -- you know, photos of the prisoner abuses in Abu Ghraib, among the other photos that are going to be making their way to the Arab press very shortly.
It is interesting, however, Howard, to point out that in the English language Arab press there have been strong condemnations and denunciations of the Berg beheading. You know, in The Arab News, which is a Saudi daily, The Jordan Times, The Lebanon Daily Star, whose editor in chief is a highly westernized Palestinian, there have been very strong, you know, words used, "barbarism," for example. But in the Arabic language press, very tepid, very cautious.
KURTZ: And at the same time, Egypt's leading newspaper ignored the execution. The Syrian press had nothing.
MANJI: That's right.
KURTZ: How can it be that it is not news when an innocent American is murdered for at least some elements of the Arab press? How can that be? MANJI: I think, Howard, there is a culture of victimhood going on here, whereby, you know, for example, if there's a story that waxes about Arab oppression at the hands of Israel, then that story will immediately and always trump any story about, you know, criminal activity that Arabs conduct in their own backyard. And I've got examples to show that.
This is not a recent one, but it did happen, you know, in the lead-up to the Iraqi invasion. I think you can see, this is the Pakistani Daily Dawn. And it shows Arab women being trained to defend Iraq and defend Palestine. OK? The two are inherently linked in December of 2002.
And what this photo shows, as grisly as it is, is women being trained to tear a white live rabbit apart. Blood literally on their hands. So it is interesting to note some images are considered too disgusting but other images are not.
KURTZ: That's quite a front page picture.
KURTZ: Let's take a listen to something that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently had to say about the Arab media.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD RUMSFELD, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We have been lied about, however, day after day, week after week, month after month, for the last 12 months in the Arab press, in Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. So there's an awful lot of people that already have a rather unfavorable impression of what the United States is doing in Iraq.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Your reaction?
MANJI: I couldn't disagree with him entirely. We know that the Arab press, at least large elements of it, are controlled by governments, autocratic dictatorial governments. And I think many Muslims are right to point out that these dictatorial governments are propped up by American interests.
But that in and of itself does not explain a lot of what's going on. Al Jazeera, for example, trumpets itself as a free, independent form of media.
MANJI: Well, you know, cast your mind back, Howard, to about three weeks ago, when car bombings happened in Saudi Arabia and in Iraq. And, you know, that was the main story in most of the world's media. But not on Al Jazeera, where they focused instead on eight Palestinians killed in the Gaza Strip, even though the body count there was infinitely less than it was in these other cases. KURTZ: Right. But what you're saying is basically that a lot of these media organizations engage in old-fashioned news management, and they play up something that they think will help their agenda and they play down things that will not be helpful. Now, our time is short...
MANJI: It's called propaganda.
KURTZ: OK. I guess that word had escaped me. I just want to touch on President Bush's recent interview with the Arab television network, Al Arabiya. He went on, he apologized to the Muslim world. Did that sort of thing gain him any points at all, at least in the eyes of Arab journalists?
MANJI: Not a lot for one very clear reason, and that is, you know, he appeared, for example, on Al Hurra, which is a new Arab broadcaster, but it is based in Richmond, Virginia, and therefore, doesn't have a whole lot of credibility because it's seen as an arm of American propaganda. He did also, of course, go on to Al Arabiya, but what he refused to was go on Al Jazeera.
MANJI: And, again, I think that spoke volumes to a lot of Arab viewers.
KURTZ: We're going to have to leave it there. Irshad Manji, thanks very much for joining us. We hope you'll come back.
MANJI: Appreciate it.
KURTZ: Still to come, two defense reporters talk about life in the trenches of a Pentagon under siege.
But first, to Betty Nguyen in Atlanta for a check of the hour's top stories.
NGUYEN: From CNN Center in Atlanta, I'm Betty Nguyen with the headlines.
Coalition forces are locked in heavy fighting in southern Iraq in an effort to secure a mosque. U.S. troops took on mortar fire from the Mehdi militia in Karbala. No injuries were reported. The fighting in Najaf stretches to five days. And Italian troops face heavy fighting from insurgents in Nasiriyah.
Officials say a U.S. soldier has been killed in an attack in southern Afghanistan. Two others in the combat patrol were wounded in that ambush. Military officials tell The Associated Press two Taliban suspects were captured in the incident. At least 122 U.S. troops have died in action in Afghanistan.
Well, Kuwait takes a step toward giving women the right to vote. A proposal to amend the Middle Eastern country's elections is on the way. Any changes to Kuwait's 1962 election law must be approved by parliament. A similar proposal was defeated in 1999. But this time, it is expected to pass. I'm Betty Nguyen at the CNN Center in Atlanta. RELIABLE SOURCES continues right after this break.
KURTZ: Welcome back to this special hour-long edition of RELIABLE SOURCES on the power of pictures.
Joining me now here in Washington, "National Review Online's" Jonah Goldberg, and in New York, the editor of "The Nation" magazine, Katrina Vanden Heuvel. Welcome.
KATRINA VANDEN HEUVEL, EDITOR, "THE NATION": Thank you.
KURTZ: Jonah Goldberg, you write, "CBS should be ashamed for running these photos." So even though everyone from President Bush on down has apologized for this terrible misconduct, you don't see that as good journalism?
JONAH GOLDBERG, NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: Actually, in a follow-up column, I qualified that a bit. I do think CBS made the wrong decision and I do think that the media in general should be ashamed for not even considering the possibility that maybe it wasn't a good idea to release these photos.
KURTZ: How do you know they didn't consider it? How do you know there weren't long, anguished debates about whether or not this is something that should be put out?
GOLDBERG: Well, usually when these sorts of photos come out, we get all sorts of hand-wringing columns, we get all sorts of reports of these sorts of debates, from people like you, Howie. And yet in this circumstance, we heard none of that. In fact, until I wrote about it, I was the only one to write that CBS shouldn't have done it. And in your own column, you criticized me -- you criticized that position fairly strongly, saying that you couldn't even fathom why there would be this debate. And yet almost in the same breath, you said that you thought it was very odd that the networks would run as much footage of the Nick Berg execution as they did.
That's my problem. I don't mind restraint. I don't mind news management to a certain extent. What I do mind is this double standard that when the issue is making America look horrific and creating real repercussions, dangerous repercussions for America, the media goes whole hog. When it makes...
KURTZ: Well, your first column was even before the execution of Nick Berg.
GOLDBERG: I agree.
KURTZ: But I want to bring Katrina Vanden Heuvel in. And I want to turn the question around to you. What about this criticism that CBS and "The New York Times" and "The New Yorker" and "The Washington Post" are just using this story, pumping it up, exploiting it to try to discredit the war? VANDEN HEUVEL: Americans have a right, Howard, to know what this administration is doing in our name. This is reality, Howard. This is a reality which this administration has consistently tried to suppress, to manage, to whitewash.
But I speak here as a citizen. I don't speak here as editor of "The Nation." I think all concerned, decent citizens in this country need to know, and there is more coming out, Howard. And beyond these pictures, which have made the unimaginable imaginable, which have given horrible flesh and -- to the stories we've seen on the front page of "The Washington Post" about torture being used in Afghanistan, in Guantanamo. We know see the picture, a pattern, the more important picture of an administration, Howard, which condoned essentially the abuse of interrogation techniques as an integral to this war on terrorism. And I think that's a tragedy for a country that fights for accountability, that believes in the freedom of the press, which we must uphold and not subvert the very values we claim to stand for.
KURTZ: So first you argued, Jonah Goldberg, that CBS and others could have done the stories without the pictures. The pictures, of course, clearly damaging to America. There is no debate about that. And then you argue that we should see more of the execution photos, and you think that there's actually a political agenda as opposed to questions of taste about somebody's head being lopped off?
GOLDBERG: Well, what I'm saying is I don't know if it's a political agenda. I know it's a double standard.
KURTZ: What's the double standard?
GOLDBERG: The standard is, is that when we have images that clearly -- and they're of terrible things, but when they make Americans look like barbarians, then it's whole hog, there is no restraint whatsoever. When we get footage of actual barbarians doing barbaric things like beheading someone, and as terrible as anything that so far has been reported about Abu Ghraib, it doesn't come close to this beheading -- then all of a sudden, restraint is in the air. And I've got to tell you that disconnect, that chasm between those two standards is really noticed by a lot of Americans.
KURTZ: So you would...
VANDEN HEUVEL: But Jonah...
KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) footage of the guy's head being cut off?
GOLDBERG: No, I just think CNN is in a double bind. CNN, you know, all due respect, I love CNN, I get a paycheck from CNN, but CNN held off reporting all sorts of things from Iraq when Saddam was still in power, because of the repercussions for its staff and because of the repercussions for Iraqis on the ground. Fine standard. But when it comes to the repercussions for Americans on the ground in this war, it's whole hog, let everyone see it. I think that's a double standard.
VANDEN HEUVEL: But Jonah, Jonah, it's the reality of the situation. The reality. Someone said earlier on the program, there were multiple factors that would have led to the brutal beheading of Nicholas Berg. Maybe it had something to do with reports we're learning now in our media that the International Red Cross repeatedly brought stories of abuse, of torture to the attention of this administration, or that 70 to 90 percent of Iraqis were swept up by mistake. The conflation of 9/11, the horrors of that, with this war in Iraq have made this administration blur the lines for decent citizens in this country, who now think that these innocent Iraqis were terrorists. That is the reality, Jonah. Don't talk about the news media distorting pictures. Inhofe, James Inhofe...
GOLDBERG: We're here actually to talk about the news media, not the administration, which I know is what you want to do.
VANDEN HEUVEL: No, I don't. I want to talk about ...
GOLDBERG: Of course you do. That's all you've talked about so far as we've been here, is about the administration.
VANDEN HEUVEL: ... the role of America.
GOLDBERG: And I'm not...
VANDEN HEUVEL: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Red Cross...
GOLDBERG: And you insinuated that I'm for suppressing free speech. I am not at all. I would never dream of saying the government should have censured these pictures. I am saying...
VANDEN HEUVEL: I think you've said something to that effect.
GOLDBERG: I am saying that the media has an obligation to show self-restraint, which it shows all of the time. And yet -- and the idea that somehow that the pictures are so revealing of truths is not in fact true. We know from time and again that pictures are more sensational than the actual facts. And just...
KURTZ: But some would say more accurate than the actual facts. There's nothing -- there is no amount of brilliantly crafted words that could have conveyed the horror of some of these images.
But I want to turn to another aspect of this. Sean Hannity on his radio show -- didn't show pictures, it's radio -- he played the entire audiotape of the Nicholas Berg execution, including the blood- curdling screams. Is that over the top, or is that a good use of airtime in your view?
GOLDBERG: I think it's probably a bad call. Personally, I just think it's just bad taste. But at the same time, I think that's the place we're in now. Once you start on this path of saying that you're going to have one standard for one thing and one standard for another, then this culture is so fixated on consistency, now conservatives are saying, let's see everything. We are going to be seeing -- I know, from talking to people around town -- we're going to be seeing a lot of ugly pictures coming from Saddam's prisons in the next week or two. And I think that comes -- that is the blow-back from this story. KURTZ: Katrina Vanden Heuvel, I want to read a quote from a writer in Salon.com. That magazine -- Eric Bollet (ph) writes, "The media are finally showing the war in its full horror. What took them so long?" Do you agree with that?
VANDEN HEUVEL: I would simply say that "The Nation," just reporting on what "The Washington Post" put on its front page December 26, 2002, there were allegations of torture being used by military interrogators against al Qaeda detainees. We know that there were deaths in Afghanistan.
What is surprising is that these photos, because this war is also a war of images, Howard, that these photos now are -- it's a tipping point moment. Because we've known, the media has known. But again, I think because so much was -- so much of the media was intimidated by this administration, and continues to -- this administration continues to try to intimidate the media, that these pieces weren't put together. And there was an atmosphere created in this country, again, by an administration determined to say everyone was a terrorist in this war.
KURTZ: All right...
VANDEN HEUVEL: It didn't allow these stories to surface in a way they should.
KURTZ: We're a little short on time. Why do I have the nagging suspicion that one of the things that you object to is that these pictures and this story -- and we can argue about how much it's overplayed or it continues to be overplayed -- is hurting the Bush administration. Maybe you would not be quite as exercised if it was a Democratic administration.
GOLDBERG: I'm not sure that's true, but I think what annoys me to the extent that partisanship comes up in this at all, is that you do get the sense that the overplaying of these stories is driven in some part by partisanship. Look, I would gladly see George Bush lose if we could win in Iraq. And that's where I come down on this. And I think as damaging -- I don't care about the American people knowing about that. It's their right. It's what it does to our boys in Iraq that I'm worried about.
KURTZ: Katrina Vanden Heuvel, on "The Nation" online, there's this headline on the story: "The U.S. Has Just Lost Its Last Remaining Rationale for the Misbegotten Invasion of Iraq." Is that what's driving the coverage here, your distaste for this war in the first place?
VANDEN HEUVEL: No, what drives our coverage is not partisanship, it's citizenship. It's the importance of a citizenry knowing the full story of what its administration is doing in Iraq.
But I do think that these images provided a tipping point. And as Richard Holbrooke, former U.N. ambassador said that the U.S. position is increasingly untenable, because if this is a war in order to win the hearts and minds, these photos are just another disaster in an occupation. They're called (ph) the evidence, these photos of a failed occupation.
KURTZ: All right. I've got to blow the whistle. Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Jonah Goldberg, thanks very much for joining us.
When we come back, with Don Rumsfeld under fire over the prison abuse scandal, we'll get the inside story from two reporters covering the latest twists and turns at the Pentagon. That's next.
KURTZ: Welcome back. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a surprise visit to Iraq this week, visiting the prison where the much photographed abuses took place and giving a pep talk to American troops.
Joining me now are two veteran Pentagon correspondents, Mark Thompson of "Time" magazine, and Pamela Hess of United Press International.
The one comment by the secretary that really caught my eye, I'm going to play it for you right now, I'm sure you noticed it as well, let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: Let me say one last thing. I don't think it will come as any great surprise to you that I've stopped reading newspapers.
RUMSFELD: You've got to keep your sanity somehow.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Has Rumsfeld had it with the press?
MARK THOMPSON, TIME MAGAZINE: Well, I think he's been under a lot of pressure. Last week, he was on the Hill three times testifying for nearly 12 hours. He appeared a little wan and weary on this trip. He had to stop talking to reporters for a change, which some on the plane found that somewhat refreshing. The fellow plainly is under a lot of pressure, and basically I think there was sort of a gathering of the wagons here, and he was telling the soldiers in Iraq basically, I feel as bad about this as you do, and I just stopped hearing about it because I'm not reading the papers.
KURTZ: This surprise trip was the mother of all photo ops. And so Rumsfeld was seen on television answering questions not from annoying reporters, but from the troops, who obviously have a high opinion of him. Was this in part about circumventing the media?
PAMELA HESS, UPI: I don't think so. I think at that point Rumsfeld probably had to go over there. The media -- the military's in danger of having a real morale problem with this, because they're all getting painted with a brush of what these soldiers did. And I think also this trip was probably as much for his morale as for them. There was a marked difference in his humor and attitude and energy level when he was there, I noticed, than from when we've been dealing with him all week. He's really taking this very hard.
KURTZ: Yeah, you know, Rumsfeld is usually so confident, some would even say smug, when he fences with the press. But I did not see that in recent press briefings. In fact, let's take a look at how he handled this question about the word "torture."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUMSFELD: I think that -- I'm not a lawyer. My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Has there been growing pressure between the press and not just Rumsfeld but the top Pentagon brass over the daily pounding they're taking on this story?
THOMPSON: I think, Howie, what we're seeing is this story is devolving in two pieces. You've got centrifugal forces pulling it apart. You've got the soldiers actually who have been charged with the wrongdoing, and the sense that there's a gravitational pull back to Washington. For good or for ill, was it all confined just to the military police, or was military intelligence involved? And if military intelligence were involved, that leads very quickly to Washington. And that sort of has been the tension between the press and the Pentagon civilians in the last couple of weeks.
HESS: And for the Pentagon, there's an unfortunate nexus with the treatment of prisoners in Iraq and the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo. And there are two separate sets of rules, or so they say. And I think people are sort of -- the idea that there is harsher treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo is painting what we're seeing in Iraq, and people thinking that there's the Pentagon connection.
KURTZ: What really strikes me is that in time of war, Rumsfeld and the Pentagon, they really controlled the message to a great degree. They controlled access to the troops by reporters, they controlled the release of those bombing videos, they controlled the casualty counts, and even whether we see the caskets coming home. For the first time, it looks like he's now lost control of the story.
HESS: Sure. I mean, this is a story with legs of its own, and once images of that power get out, there is no managing it. There's no controlling it. They did, I think, what came out last week is they lost their opportunity to shape this message by not going to the press in general before "60 Minutes" aired the photos first.
THOMPSON: What you see you see from World War II when the press -- when there was really censorship of the press by the military. In Vietnam, it went the other way, where it became the living room war. Now with soldiers armed with digital cameras, you know, the screening function of the military superiors really has gone away.
KURTZ: In fact, the whole age of digital technology and Web sites, I think, is taking away from even journalists the ability to make these editorial decisions, because those pictures would have come out one way or another, even if CBS and those hadn't done it.
Seymour Hersh in "The New Yorker," another piece out late yesterday, saying that Donald Rumsfeld laid the groundwork for this prisoner abuse scandal by authorizing secret and tougher interrogation tactics last year. This got a very strong denial from the Rumsfeld spokesman, calling it outlandish and conspiratorial. Do you get the impression that the press is maybe just trying to push Rumsfeld overboard?
THOMPSON: No, I think what's happening here, Howie, is that it's the notion that the secretary and other senior Pentagon officials may have created a climate in which these abuses have occurred. I doubt we're going to find a hard and fast black line connecting Don Rumsfeld to any of these things. But the question is, did his demeanor and his attitude act as an incubator for it? And that's where I think this story is going in the next couple of weeks.
HESS: And I think one of the other problems that they have is that the press has been asking questions about violations of the Geneva Convention and whether or not they applied, and trying to get into that word parsing. We've been doing that for the last two years, and now all of a sudden there's evidence that feeds into that preconceived worry that we had that these kinds of abuses could be going on.
KURTZ: This investigation began some months ago. There have been isolated stories about various detainees or former prisoners alleging abuse. Did you and your colleagues dig hard enough to try to break this story?
THOMPSON: Well, I don't know. When you look at how the press went to Gitmo and tried to get in there and figure out what was going on, reporters couldn't get within 500 yards of any detainees. There's only so much you can do from afar. Plainly, the pictures crystallized everything. You know, literally, it was worth 1,000 words. The press did hammer away. There were stories. But when you read the stories, you sort of shrugged your shoulders. And when you talked to people...
KURTZ: But you say you sort of shrugged your shoulders. Is that because maybe you're too close to the Pentagon culture, where people say, you know, it's time of war, some rough stuff...
THOMPSON: No, it wasn't that so much, because a lot of the people investigating the prison abuses were not Pentagon regular reporters. They were more of the human rights kind of school of reporting. And they were there, really trying to get the stuff, but once again, when you're that far away from the prisoners, and when pictures don't exist, all you've got is basically hearsay. And people find it tough to take hearsay seriously, especially in a time of war.
KURTZ: How difficult is it to get information now as we're exploring the question of whether this was a handful of rogue soldiers who were ordered from higher-ups, or military intelligence involved? How hard is it to do your job right now and try to advance the story?
HESS: It's actually incrementally easier, because more, I think, that whoever was responsible for releasing that Taguba report, other people are feeling emboldened to say a little bit more, and there are a lot of people now trying to explain things. And so we're getting a lot more information about military interrogation techniques, we're getting a lot more access to folks that we wouldn't normally otherwise be able to talk to. So I think it's actually incrementally easier to cover this story than it was in January when the charges first broke.
KURTZ: "U.S. News" has the prisoner story on the cover again. "Time" has a cover with President Bush, "Moment of Truth," again, about this story. Any concern that people out there think that the press has an agenda here, just trying to overplay this?
THOMPSON: Well, Howie, if you do the Google news search, last weekend there were 3,000 hits on this story at any one time. Today it's close to 600 or 800. So the story is in decline a little bit. But if more pictures come out, if there's a tougher link -- tighter link to Rumsfeld, the story is going to take right off.
KURTZ: I think it has a long way to go before it gets in decline. But thanks for joining us. Mark Thompson, Pam Hess, good to see you.
Up next, you weigh in on whether the media are pumping up the prisoner abuse story. Your e-mails next.
KURTZ: Last week we asked where the media should be publishing photos of Iraqi prison abuse.
Marty in New Mexico writes: "CBS should have withheld the photos. They should still be withholding the photos. Without the photos, the story would not be a big deal. The photos are inflammatory and damaging to the U.S. And they give aid and comfort to our enemies. Journalists cannot hide from the damage they caused just because it makes a good story."
Colleen agrees. She writes, "I would like to know the motive for releasing those photos. Was it to destroy Rumsfeld, Bush and the Republican Party? Was it to destroy the war effort? I would like to know why the public needed to see those photos. In my eyes, it was the most irresponsible thing that could have been done."
But others insist the pictures should be publicized. One viewer saying: "We have the right to know about the prisoner abuse going on in Iraq. We should also see the rest of these photographs Donald Rumsfeld told us about. To withhold information from the American people makes us no better than Iraq under Saddam's control."
Up next, Tim Russert, Colin Powell and an unscripted moment this morning. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
KURTZ: Before we go, Colin Powell was making the rounds on three talk shows this Sunday morning, which led to a rather testy moment as time was running out with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: Tim, I'm sorry, I lost you.
TIM RUSSERT, HOST, "MEET THE PRESS": I'm right here, Mr. Secretary. I would hope they would put you back on camera. I don't know who did that.
POWELL: We really...
RUSSERT: I think that was one of your staff, Mr. Secretary. I don't think that's appropriate.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The camera did eventually return to the secretary of state, for one final question, but Russert did not look happy about losing his guest prematurely.
And Tim Russert will be my guest next Sunday on RELIABLE SOURCES.
Well, that is it for this special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Be sure to join us next Sunday morning at our regular time, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.
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