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Are Media Ganging Up on Michael Moore?; Interview With Bob Edwards

Aired July 4, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): "Fahrenheit" boils over. Is the press ganging up on Michael Moore, or just reporting factual errors in his anti-Bush movie? And why is Moore accusing journalists of peddling propaganda?

NPR's Bob Edwards on life after "Morning Edition."

And the media's veep stakes. Breathless. Relentless. And often wrong.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the movie that everyone in the media seems to be talking about. I'm Howard Kurtz.

"Fahrenheit 9/11" is Michael Moore's latest and most intensely political film, skewering George W. Bush over the war in Iraq.




KURTZ: And love it or hate it, the partisans and the pundits have plenty to say.


PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": It is a deeply patriotic movie, and I think every American ought to see it.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": There's nothing deeply patriotic about Michael Moore.

BEGALA: It's deeply patriotic.

CARLSON: ... who has attacked this country.

BEGALA: He loves this country, and it's a -- the movie is a love letter to America. ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": He is a demagogue. He's anti-American. He lies.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just a big, fat, unshaven bully.


KURTZ: But journalists aren't just writing reviews of the box office smash, they're digging into what they say as Moore's cinematic distortions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Even though there are facts in this movie, on the whole it's not accurate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One character in this film suggests that President Bush is even worse than Osama bin Laden, one of the excesses and distortions that may undermine the credibility of Michael Moore's message.


KURTZ: Moore is fighting back, hiring Democratic strategist Chris Lehane to run a war room against the film's detractors, and the liberal filmmaker has been getting in his shots at the media's Iraq coverage.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE; Someone said propaganda. Do you buy that? Op-ed?

MICHAEL MOORE, FILMMAKER: No. I consider the "CBS Evening News" propaganda. What I do is provide...


MOORE: Why? Well, it's not a movie on that. It's...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You know what? Let's talk about your movie.

MOORE: But seriously, but why don't we talk about the evening news and this network and the other networks that didn't do the job they should have done at the beginning of this war?


KURTZ: But joining us now here in Washington, "Newsweek" investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff. Christopher Hitchens, columnist for "Vanity Fair" and a contributor to "Slate" and "The Atlantic." And Bill Press, political analyst for MSNBC and author of the new book, "Bush Must Go: The Top 10 Reasons Why George Bush Doesn't Deserve a Second Term." Welcome.

Michael Isikoff, you say the film is just flat-out wrong on, for example, the question involving the bin Laden family after 9/11. Explain.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, NEWSWEEK: The movie clearly gives the impression that a lot of Saudis were allowed to flee the country, to fly out of the country at a time when nobody else could, because of the political influence that the Saudis have with the White House and that they weren't adequately vetted by the FBI.

This is in some cases flat-out wrong. In some cases, he is raising a legitimate issue, but he's leaving out a whole lot. Mainly, that there has been an independence investigation of the Saudi flights after -- that took place after September 11. The 9/11 Commission looked at it. They determined that many of them were interviewed in detail, that they were screened by the FBI, and that none of them were wanted for or needed to be interviewed who had any information relevant to 9/11.

But most importantly, it says the White House approved these flights and gives the impression this was because of the Bush family nexus with the Saudis. Well, we know who at the White House approved the flights, and it was Richard Clarke, a holdover from the Clinton White House.

KURTZ: Christopher Hitchens, you write that the movie is "a piece of crap," "a sinister exercise" and "a big lie." I get the impression that you didn't like it.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, VANITY FAIR: Actually, I didn't say the first thing. It's not my style. But if pressed, I probably would have wanted to say that.

KURTZ: Why do you dislike the movie so much?

HITCHENS: I made also some of the points that Michael has just made about the -- Moore must have known that Richard Clarke could say this. Maybe he did say it, and Moore didn't think it was useful, because it wouldn't work to say that Richard Clarke had authorized the flights.

So that's one small lie, but there's a bigger lie that it's helping to propagate. He says that the whole of American foreign policy is determined by the Saudi Arabian royal family. Now, the Bush administration has been to war with two of Saudi Arabia's friends. The Taliban, who they helped to impose in Afghanistan, and the government of Saddam Hussein, which they regarded as their buffer state against the Shia.

The actual history is exactly the opposite of what Moore's paranoid suggestions are. He openly says that he believes that the other side of this war, the Islamic jihad, torturers, saboteurs, beheaders and fanatics and murderers are the equivalent to the American Minutemen. So welcome to his contribution to the 4th of July celebration. The man is openly on the other side in this war, and the film shows it in every frame.

KURTZ: Speaking of the other side...

HITCHENS: What the Democrats are doing with such a person is beyond me. Beyond me.

KURTZ: Let me go to Bill Press. Let me go to Bill Press. You've practically written a blurb for this film. You called it a "must-see movie." Do you admire Michael Moore?

BILL PRESS, MSNBC: I'm here to defend the premise that the left can be as hard-hitting and sometimes as careless with the truth as the right.

KURTZ: But you don't approve of the careless with the truth part, do you?

PRESS: Michael Moore is a polemicist. He's making a point there. Look, is he -- does he get sometimes over the top? Absolutely. Does he put himself front and center?. Absolutely. Does he take the cheap shot occasionally? Absolutely. But they've talked about the lies...

HITCHENS: Does he believe the war in Afghanistan is about a pipeline that was never built?

PRESS: There are also -- there are also some basic truths that have come out of this movie -- if I can finish my opening statement -- one of which is that this administration and previous ones have been far too cozy looking the other way on the Saudis. And two, that this president led us into an unnecessary and unwise war. That is true.

KURTZ: So you're saying it's OK to distort the facts, as long as it's in the service of the side that you believe in?

PRESS: All I'm saying is, let's not have a double standard. OK? If we are going to pick, pick, pick, at everything Michael Moore says, let's pick, pick, pick at everything Bill O'Reilly says, Rush Limbaugh says, Sean Hannity says, and everybody else on the right.

HITCHENS: Excuse me. Can I just say? I have made a number of documentaries myself, including one that was in theaters, calling for Henry Kissinger to be tried for war crimes. And I'm not a friend of Limbaugh or Hannity, thanks all the same.

No one has ever made a factual objection to anything that appears in my movie or my book, as a matter of fact. They don't. Because they couldn't. Because I don't play fast and loose. Michael Moore says that Americans are being killed by people who he supports, incidentally, by jihadist guerrillas in Afghanistan because the Bush family wanted to build a pipeline. That pipeline project was abandoned in 1998. And Moore knows this perfectly well. What he says is flat-out false and sinister.

PRESS: I don't believe that.

HITCHENS: And his propaganda...


HITCHENS: ... deliberate, deliberate propaganda for the other side is...

KURTZ: Well, let's let viewers see for themselves, because I want to play a brief clip from the movie in which Michael Moore runs up to and accosts -- verbally at least -- Congressman Mark Kennedy. Let's take a look.


MOORE: Congressman? Michael Moore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How are you doing?

MOORE: Good. Good. Trying to get members of Congress to get their kids to enlist in the Army and go over to Iraq.


KURTZ: Now, what was left out of the trailer to the movie was Congressman Kennedy's response when he was asked about we're trying to find out whether members of Congress have kids in the war, which is "I have two nephews in the military." That wasn't used.

Do you find a lot of omissions in this movie as well? In other words, things that are kind of true are put in and things that might change the view are left out?

ISIKOFF: Well, yeah. I mean, there are glaring omissions. Such as on the pipeline issue, the fact that it was abandoned in 1998.

KURTZ: And this is a pipeline that Moore says that the reason we went to war in Afghanistan was so that Bush's pals could build an oil pipeline in Afghanistan.

ISIKOFF: The actual truth of it is quite fascinating, which is that this was a project that was being pushed in the late 1990s by Unocal, the oil company, and according to Steve Call's (ph) book on -- in which he deals with this, you're a managing editor, Howie -- he talks about how Unocal was having repeated meetings with the Clinton White House trying to promote the project, and getting a quite receptive audience. The problem is that the Taliban, clearly as they hardened their positions and became more and more a protector of Osama bin Laden, the project became untenable. Unocal turned -- and Unocal pulled out of it.

And then what Moore does in this movie...


ISIKOFF: What Moore does in the movie is then cut to...

HITCHENS: He's a liar.

ISIKOFF: ... a Taliban envoy coming to Washington in March of 2001 and suggesting that the Bush White House was embracing this project. Well, it was a dead issue at the time. It wasn't on the table. PRESS: I don't buy the pipeline argument at all for the war in Afghanistan. I think the war in Afghanistan was justified. What I want to make is, why suddenly everybody piling on Michael Moore?


HITCHENS: ... Taliban side of the war is why.

PRESS: I want to say...


KURTZ: You think he's been treated unfairly?

PRESS: We had an administration that put out lie after lie after lie about why we had to rush into war in Iraq, and the mainstream media just swallowed it hook, line and sinker and repeated it. And put it out on the network news, on the front pages of papers every day. Why...


KURTZ: Let me jump in. Let me jump in.


KURTZ: Are there any parallels between "Fahrenheit 911" and your book, "Bush Must Go," where you say -- it's all in black in white. He lied us into war, he never tells the truth, worst president ever. Black and white.

PRESS: I will say this, OK, in my defense. I don't think you will find any untruth in that book. (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Sure. I talk about the war in Iraq, I talk about the war on terror, I talk about the economy. But I'm very, very careful with my facts. But you know, I'm a journalist. I'm a journalist. Michael Moore is not. He's a filmmaker. He is a polemicist. He is the Rush Limbaugh of the left.


HITCHENS: Documentary means documentary, I'm sorry. It is not kosher to tell conscious lies, it is not kosher to tell them in order to boost the cause of the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

KURTZ: I got to jump in here. First of all, I want to mention my pet peeve, which is the film opens with a suggestion that Bush stole the election, and Moore says that few people know that Bush's cousin at Fox News helped call the election for the president. "Washington Post," November 14, 2000, by Howard Kurtz, "Bush Cousin Made Florida Vote Call" for Fox News. So much for that. Now I also want to turn -- all right, I guess not that many people read it.

HITCHENS: No, I remember it very well. It was a very good piece.

KURTZ: I want to turn to what Moore has had to say about your profession, our profession, the media. Let's take a look at an interview he gave to George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week."


MOORE: I mean, listen, George, if the media had done their job, if they'd asked the hard questions of the Bush administration, about these weapons of mass destruction, demanded proof -- the media and everybody watching this knows this, got on board. They took the soup. They took the Kool-Aid. They just became cheerleaders for this war. And it was -- and that was a disservice to the American people.


KURTZ: Michael Isikoff, doesn't Moore have a point that the press was less than aggressive in challenging the shaky evidence presented by Bush and Cheney in the run-up to the war in Iraq?

ISIKOFF: Yes, he does. I mean, I think that's a legitimate point. It's been made in a lot of media, you know, inquests since then.

KURTZ: "New York Times" editors know it, for example.

ISIKOFF: "New York Times," and I think we all could have been more aggressive. And there's been a lot written about this and a lot exposed about how intelligence was manipulated and overstated, and I think the media's been quite aggressive. My...

KURTZ: Christopher is shaking his head.

HITCHENS: Well, look, as someone who was in favor of the intervention, I remember thinking in the run-up before -- to it, that you couldn't -- you could hardly open "The New York Times" without being told the administration's claims were not up to much. And now I would say the media gives everyone the impression that Saddam Hussein was no problem with regards to either weaponry or contacts with terrorism. I think, by the way, that's a very dangerous misapprehension.

But Michael Moore's film shows pre-war Iraq and says, no problem. This was a happy place, a sovereign country. Which it wasn't. It was under international sanctions, for very excellent reasons, by the way, where children are flying kites. And everything is cool in Iraq. And so suddenly the nightmare weapons of American...


KURTZ: Moore uses the word cheerleaders. Journalists were cheerleaders for the war. Do you agree with that?

PRESS: I don't think they were cheerleaders for war, but I do think, as I said earlier, they swallowed the administration's line and reprinted it without doing the homework that they should have done. But the related issue on this, I think one of the strengths of the movie is that Moore shows some video that I have never seen before. I think most Americans haven't. That seven minutes of President Bush sitting there while the teacher continues to read "My Pet Goat." I mean, did he want to -- what was he waiting for? Did he want to see how it ended?

I mean, America was under attack. And if I may just finish, quickly, that this footage of Lila Lipscomb, the woman who lost her son, which is certainly the most powerful part of the movie.

HITCHENS: Nauseating.

PRESS: I have seen tons of interviews of families of troops in Iraq on network television. I've never seen one stand up and say, this war is wrong.

ISIKOFF: I actually agree with you on both. I thought those were the two most powerful parts of the movie, and I think the movie does raise a lot of legitimate questions and is provoking a lot of real debate.

My problem is that for many people, millions of people who are going to see this movie who don't perhaps read the media or watch CNN regularly, this is going to be all they know about what has taken place in the last few years, and it is...

KURTZ: The Oliver Stone argument.

ISIKOFF: Right. And it is a selective, highly selective use of the facts, and I think the media does play a role here in perhaps fleshing things out and sort of pointing out that which has been...

HITCHENS: And it comes from someone who is arguing for the other side. He is an advocate for the other side in the war.

KURTZ: We have got about 30 seconds. Does Moore try to have it both ways? He wants to be taken seriously as a documentarian, but when you press him on some of these points, he says, you know, I'm a satirist, this is just entertainment.

HITCHENS: Well, then he shouldn't say to people like Stephanopoulos, no, this is the truth at last. I mean, he can't have it both ways. But there is a truth about it, he should be taken seriously. It is a sinister thing that we make a culture hero out of someone who is in favor of the Taliban and al Qaeda and the Iraqi military.

PRESS: I say don't demand any more of Michael Moore than we've always demand -- ever demanded of Rush Limbaugh. He's got a right to be on the left the way Rush is on the right.

KURTZ: From the left, you're Bill Press. Michael Isikoff, Christopher Hitchens, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, NPR's Bob Edwards on his departure from the helm of "Morning Edition," and what Edward R. Murrow would think of today's 24 hour news culture. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back. For a quarter century, millions of Americans woke up to the soothing voice of NPR's Bob Edwards. But executives at the public radio network recently removed the veteran newsman, making him a senior correspondent. I spoke with Edwards about the change and about his new book on Edward R. Murrow.


KURTZ: Bob Edwards, welcome.


KURTZ: First off, how are you coping with no longer being the host of "Morning Edition" after an incredible 25-year run?

EDWARDS: Well, I'm not getting up at 1 o'clock in the morning anymore, and that's just as well with me. So I'm coping nicely. Thank you.

KURTZ: NPR never quite explained why you're being replaced, except for some corporate babble about wanting a new direction. Do you understand why you were dumped?

EDWARDS: It was part of the natural evolution and refreshing the program.

KURTZ: You think it had anything to do with being 56 years old?

EDWARDS: I think it had to do with wanting new people, developing new hosts and keeping the hosts you have and making them senior correspondents, keeping them around, while giving somebody else a chance and giving the listeners someone new to listen to.

KURTZ: Were you ever asked to speed things up or change your style or do anything differently?

EDWARDS: Not really. No.

KURTZ: So it just came out of the blue, as far as you're concerned?

EDWARDS: Absolutely.

KURTZ: I think you're being diplomatic. Aren't you upset? It's a great show. People listen to you.

EDWARDS: I got -- I got over it. And, you know, it doesn't do any good to mope about it. You move on and -- and embrace new challenges.

KURTZ: What's your reaction to all the people who have written, called, yelled from the rooftops that they don't want Bob Edwards to leave "Morning Edition"?

EDWARDS: Well, I never argue with my listeners. And I'm grateful for their support.

KURTZ: Moving now on to your book. How important was Edward R. Murrow, and "See It Now," his program, in taking on Joe McCarthy?

EDWARDS: Enormously important. Murrow was a fearless man, fearless in covering the blitz in London, fearless in flying combat missions over Germany, and then fearless in taking on the most powerful political figure of the era during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s.

KURTZ: A senator who a lot of people at that time were afraid to touch, correct?

EDWARDS: That's correct. And Murrow's problem with him was not so much the cause of anti-communism and using that for his own political advantage, McCarthy's, but the lack of due process, the trampling on the Constitution, the bullying, the demagoguery. And that's what Murrow was able to show, using television, that didn't register with people when they read it in newspapers.

KURTZ: Murrow himself was later asked to sign an affidavit saying he'd never been a member of the Communist Party. How did he react to that?

EDWARDS: Well, the whole network was asked to do that, and the -- the troops looked to Murrow to rebel and say no. But he didn't. He said, "I'll sign it, and so will you."

I think he picked his battles carefully.

KURTZ: I want to read a quote from your book. You say that "CBS management regarded 'See it Now' as a ratings loser that angered politicians, vexed sponsors and alienated Southern affiliate stations when it carried programs on civil rights."

Why didn't they kill it?

EDWARDS: Murrow had this sterling reputation, beginning with his war reporting on radio. CBS changed. It added television, became a big conglomerate, added new properties, diversified, had different holdings. It was a whole different company, and therefore William Paley, the founding chairman of CBS, had a different relationship all of a sudden with -- with Murrow.

KURTZ: But he was seen as kind of untouchable, because of his reputation that had gathered over the years?

EDWARDS: Right. And he was a critical success, if not a ratings success.

But he was a ratings success in his entertainment program, "Person to Person." So he was bringing in some money for CBS, if "See It Now" was losing money.

KURTZ: Why did Murrow leave CBS back in 1961?

EDWARDS: He was marginalized. He had lost all of his programs. He was only nominally part of the series "CBS Reports." He had burned his bridges, too, in a 1958 speech to the Radio- Television News Directors' Association, just a stinging indictment of television. He was really finished.

KURTZ: But we look back on him and his name sort of evokes that golden era, if indeed there was a golden era. We look back at him as a giant of journalism, but he was more controversial or cantankerous figure at the time?

EDWARDS: He was certainly controversial, and his programs were bold and aggressive, unlike anything you see today.

And Paley told him, "Your programs give me stomachaches." And Murrow told Paley, "Well, they go with the job."

KURTZ: But he wasn't immune to the idea of commercial television. He had the "Person to Person" show. He interviewed people like Marilyn Monroe. So it wasn't like he was always doing hard, driving, investigative reporting.

EDWARDS: Murrow thought television could make money. Television could present entertainment, even frothy entertainment, which it certainly did.

But it should also have a place for discussion of public affairs and the critical issues of the day. He thought his program -- and he thought there should be other programs, too -- would provide that.

KURTZ: Why -- you write about today's media world and how Murrow might have reacted to it. You say cable news squanders its resources by descending to tabloid sensationalism, personality cult shows and aping talk radio with high-testosterone shout shows.

And let the record show I'm not shouting while I'm asking that question. But you don't seem to think much of the current, particularly on cable, current news environment.

EDWARDS: I think if you have 24-hour news channels, you should cover news for 24 hours. I think that's what Murrow would feel, too.

But instead, you have talk radio in prime time. You don't have news coverage. I'd like to see the news.


KURTZ: Bob Edwards.

Up next, a great American political pastime this July 4th, the veep-stakes.


KURTZ: Any day now, if the media are to be believed, John Kerry is going to announce his running mate, and the dogged bloodhounds of the fourth estate have been busy sniffing out the story.


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL": Is it Gephardt, Clark, or is it Edwards?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, there's certainly a short list that sort of gets shorter and longer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Democrats that we're talking about are Dick Gephardt, Tom Vilsack and John Edwards.


KURTZ: After plowing through all the coverage, I can tell you right now that the nod will go to John Edwards. After all, the press keeps telling us that he's young and charismatic. But if Kerry decides Edwards is too inexperienced, it will definitely be Dick Gephardt. Solid, Midwestern. Labor loves him. Unless Kerry decides he's dull as dish water. The press isn't taking Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack too seriously, and the Tom Brokaw rumor has faded. But after a Wes Clark (UNINTELLIGIBLE), my colleagues seem to be resurrecting the chances of Bob Graham, though he flopped in the primaries, and such dark horses as Joe Biden and former Pentagon chief William Cohen.

Oh, and Drudge says it will be Hillary.

This is the silliest of journalistic seasons. We don't know. Our unreliable sources don't know. And yet the orgy of speculation continues. We can only hope that Kerry makes his move soon, and puts us out of our misery.


KURTZ: That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Have a happy holiday, and join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" begins right now.


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