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Coverage of Orange Alert; Is Washington Press Corps Too White?

Aired August 8, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Terror on the airwaves. Has the press gotten carried away with the Bush administration's latest orange alert? And are journalists allowing the issue to hijack the presidential campaign?

Why is the first lady taking a swipe at the media?

And 7,000 minority journalists meet to pose an uncomfortable question: Is the Washington press corps too white?


Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the media's handling of the latest terror threat. I'm Howard Kurtz.

From the moment Tom Ridge announced that al Qaeda terrorists had targeted five financial buildings in New York, Newark and Washington, the media went on high alert.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Homeland security chief Tom Ridge today raised the threat level to orange in financial centers in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The terror alert was unusually specific. The evidence of a new al Qaeda plot was startlingly detailed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Federal government has never given a threat warning so detailed, with specific warnings that buildings like this one, the Citigroup Center located in midtown Manhattan.


KURTZ: And reporters asked President Bush some skeptical questions.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some of your own advisers oppose creation of a national intelligence director. Why did you override their objections?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why wait three years after the 9/11 attacks to call for this kind of reform?


KURTZ: But even as administration officials were hitting the TV circuit, "The New York Times" and "Washington Post" reported that the dramatic information was three or four years old. And journalists began to question whether they were being used in an attempt to draw attention from John Kerry's post-convention bus tour to the president's preferred issue.

Joining us now, Armstrong Williams, radio talk show host and syndicated columnist. Michael Isikoff, investigative correspondent for "Newsweek." And Joe Trippi, author of the book, "The Revolution Will Not be Televised: Democracy, the Internet and the Overthrow of Everything," also the former campaign manager for Howard Dean and an analyst for MSNBC.

Michael Isikoff, Tom Ridge issued this alert on a Sunday, and the media go wild. And then we find out that the computer files were a few years old. Did journalists overreact here?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK": I don't know if the journalists overreacted, but given the nature of the warning, the unusual nature, a Sunday press conference, that alone sends a message, "Oh, my God. There might be an attack tomorrow or the next day."

Plus, the way they described the intelligence, they clearly weren't very clear about what was old, what was new.

Everybody I've talked to on this says, yes, this is serious information. Yes, there have been some serious developments and it comes in the context of the last several months, they've been talking about real concerns. But I think that it certainly could have been handled more adroitly by the -- by the administration.

KURTZ: And Joe Trippi, your former boss injected himself into this controversy. Let's take a look at what Howard Dean had to say.


HOWARD DEAN, FORMER DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I am concerned that every time something happens that's not good for President Bush, he plays his trump card, which is terrorism. It's just impossible to know how much of this is real, and how much of this is politics. And I suspect there's some of both in it.


KURTZ: Now, Dean doesn't have any evidence that it's politically motivated, but did he very cleverly make it a media issue by saying what Kerry would not say?

JOE TRIPPI, AUTHOR, "THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TELEVISED": Yes, I think he did. But I also think there are a lot of people out there who believe that, and he's -- you know, he's talking to them. KURTZ: Doesn't make it true, though.

TRIPPI: No, I -- I -- well, I'm not getting into whether it's true or not. We won't know.

One thing I think is going on, though, with the administration and the press, the penalty for not saying something is much worse if you don't say something. In other words, I think...

KURTZ: If there's an attack.

TRIPPI: Right. If there's an attack, and the administration did not have this information, and it wasn't -- they didn't warn us, the press, all of us, would be saying, "It was three years old. You knew for three years that this was coming, and you didn't tell us."

KURTZ: Professional second-guessers.

TRIPPI: So the same thing happens to the press, where once the administration says this, whether the press thinks they're being used or not, they have a responsibility to say something.

KURTZ: Have journalists become too cynical about these terror warnings?

ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST/SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: No, I think -- I don't think so. I think it is a catch-22. I think people think that when you have these terror announcements that somehow it favors the sitting President Bush. That's not necessarily true.

Obviously, the 9/11 Commission has put a lot of pressure on our government and on the media, and in that report. I read that book that is now in bookstores, and it made it clear that we missed many opportunities, that many opportunities were not reported.

So I think what this administration is doing is that it's best for us to go -- to be over cautious and instead of having a situation -- like...

KURTZ: You don't think that they're not cognizant of the impact on the campaign? I mean, terror is the war president's issue.

WILLIAMS: No. No, but I think it's much more than that. We have the war on terrorism, it is very real. We cannot forget about 9/11. If they can do anything to alert the American citizens to prevent a car bombing, a blowing up of a mall or anything else, they have an obligation to do so, no matter how old the information is.

And let's not forget, much of this came from the al Qaeda operative that was apprehended earlier this summer, and based on a lot of the interviews with him.

KURTZ: I want to come back to the media's role. Michael Isikoff, after Iraq and WMDs that we have still not found, and the previous terror alerts, many of which didn't go anywhere, does the Bush administration have a credibility gap in the eyes of the press?

ISIKOFF: Sure. I mean, and not just the Bush administration. I think the U.S. intelligence community clearly has a credibility gap, and you know, deservedly so. Look at the Senate Intelligence Community report, which just lambasted the way the CIA and the intelligence community misjudged the intelligence on Iraq.

In that case, they were accused of being over -- you know, inflating the threat to -- in Iraq. In -- in the 9/11 report, they're accused of understating the -- or not acting swiftly enough.

TRIPPI: That's what I think Governor Dean was speaking to in that clip. There is a lack of credibility when you have these -- these reports happen, and alerts happen over and over again, and nothing happens. And now you find out it's three years old. The information is starting to remind people of weapons of mass destruction, that's all I'm saying.

ISIKOFF: But the answer -- the answer to that...

TRIPPI: But...

ISIKOFF: The answer to that, I just want to say, is -- if you calmly and dispassionately, you know, disclose what you know and the limits of what you know, if that had been emphasized by Ridge in the initial press conference, "Hey, listen, this is mostly old information."


TRIPPI: One of the things, I think, where the press really is missing it, though, is we do orange alert, and no one still has explained to the American people what do you do. What should you do? What can you do?

KURTZ: Of course, this one was about five particular buildings...


TRIPPI: I'm talking about alerts in general. I mean, there's no one -- the administration hasn't done it, and neither -- I think the press has a responsibility here to give some people guidance as to what you do in a yellow alert, a green alert, or red, or orange alert.

WILLIAMS: But Joe, this threat, unlike others, has been more specific and in more targeted areas than any other announcement they have made thus far. They were areas that they were able to focus on -- and let's not forget where they stopped and apprehended these people in this mosque who was trying to purchase Stinger missiles.

I mean, we cannot -- I mean, you cannot ignore those situations.

KURTZ: I want to go back to the press' role, Armstrong Williams. Kerry's convention speech in Boston was a lot, in large measure, about strength and defense and the war on terror. So is he in a position to complain the press jumps on the issue when there is some evidence of possible terrorist planning?

WILLIAMS: No. No, he's not, because it was part -- he decided that in order for him to win this election, he had to take away the credibility that Bush had. And that's in the war on terrorism and keeping our borders safe here in this country.

KURTZ: But John Kerry didn't challenge the terror alert. Howard Dean did.

WILLIAMS: Oh, yes, but it's all politics. I mean...

KURTZ: Well, politics...


WILLIAMS: John Kerry cannot -- Kerry couldn't do it, because I mean, that is the issue that he's trying to build his credibility around now. And he just doesn't have it. No matter what. Even though he did not get a bounce out of his -- out of his convention, it's still the American people seem to say that when Iraq is going well, and there is not a killing of our soldiers, they're more apt to support Bush and give him a notch.

Kerry had to do something to take that away from the president.

KURTZ: Well, you're trying to determine how real these threats are, whether they're old, whether something imminent might happen, whether the intelligence is any good.

Aren't you in a position of having to go to U.S. intelligence sources who, most of whom work for the Bush administration?


KURTZ: ... and might have a vested interest in saying, no, no, no, this is very dangerous stuff?

ISIKOFF: Well, if you work the beat for any period of time, you do develop some sources who have been there through several administrations, who are career professionals. And it's always good to bounce the information off them.

And you often get a somewhat different take. You often get different takes from going from one agency of government to another agency of government. They all got it.

But the problem is, the real bottom line here is, nobody really knows how serious that is. There isn't anybody in the U.S. government that can tell you...

KURTZ: Or in the press.

ISIKOFF: ... with any precision, and certainly not in the press, as to how imminent a threat is. People have a lot to be concerned about, but...


TRIPPI: The press -- the press, like it or not, are embeds on this. And they started with the war. No, but now what happens, once the administration says, these buildings are threatened, the press, they're embedded. They've got to go tell people that these buildings are threatened.

Whether -- even if Mike can prove that it was -- that it was...

KURTZ: That it was hyped.

TRIPPI: Hyped, he -- you know, if the networks didn't report this, and anything happened at all, they would be responsible. It's almost like this dominoes effect that starts happening once the administration decides it's going to do this. And they have the same problem. If they don't report a threat, and it happens...

KURTZ: You mentioned...

TRIPPI: ... the Bush administration is over.

KURTZ: You mentioned the 9/11 Commission report. Now it seems to me that the stories just as easily could have said, "President Bush, who opposed the creation of the 9/11 Commission, flip-flopped when he embraced the recommendation of the national intelligence director, even though he wouldn't give that person as much power as the commission wanted."

Why are the press not reporting that as a change of position on the part of George W. Bush?

WILLIAMS: I don't know, as someone in the media, you can report that as a change of position. The president has become wise. He realized that no matter how much they may have tried to discredit the 9/11 Commission, the 9/11 Commission made what some people see to be a very credible recommendation on what we need to do to make this country safer.

If that's the recommendation that they made, the president has shown his willingness to at least embrace much of what the 9/11 Commission has said, to at least try and implement some of their findings.

KURTZ: OK. Now we have a new media critic, and there is a lot of them out there, joining, adding her voice to the debate. Let's take a quick look at the first lady.


LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY: A lot of times the media sensationalize or magnify things that aren't -- that really shouldn't be. Different issues, maybe, or different opinions, more than reporting.

I do think there is a big move away from actual reporting, trying to report facts.


KURTZ: Does Laura Bush have a point?

ISIKOFF: Well, it sounds like a point that almost every White House makes, you know, about the press. I mean, sure, she's got a point. And sure, there's plenty of that. But it's an old one, and I think it depends a lot on, you know, everybody (UNINTELLIGIBLE).


TRIPPI: As -- as someone who witnessed a certain speech being played out over and over again on television, yes, I can agree with that. I mean, if there is, you know, the Dean scream speech, which wasn't a scream, got way overplayed by the media. And that -- and that wasn't something we should have focused on.

KURTZ: Laura Bush herself gets very positive press, compared especially to the controversial Teresa Heinz Kerry.

WILLIAMS: Well, listen, Laura Bush is -- is more of a -- she's different. She's more down to earth, what American see as what a president's wife should be. But I want to go back...

KURTZ: You're saying she fits the traditional wife.

WILLIAMS: She does.

KURTZ: You only have 20 seconds. Go ahead.

WILLIAMS: I wanted to go back to Mrs. Bush. Her comments necessarily were not talking about the political stage. She could have been talked about entertainment or many other things. I'm not going to assume that she was talking about politicians.

KURTZ: Mike Isikoff, appreciate you not taking that call from your intelligence sources.

Joe Trippi, thanks very much for joining us.

Armstrong, stay put.

When we come back, minorities in the media. Thousands of journalists hear from President Bush and John Kerry. Are they taking sides?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Still with us, Armstrong Williams, radio talk show host and syndicated columnist. And joining us now, CNN correspondent and National Public Radio host Maria Hinojosa.

At the convention this week in Washington, 7,000 journalists, black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian American organizations, put out a report saying that 10.5 percent of the Washington journalists for newspapers are minorities, and only three are bureau chiefs. Why is that?

MARIA HINOJOSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, my gosh. That's a huge question, Howard. I mean, that's one of the -- you've got 7,000 journalists here, more than 7,000. Yes, they happen to all be of color, but this is a historic event, because you've never had this many American journalists in one place, ever. The fact that they're of color sort of misses the point.

KURTZ: But their complaint is that it's hard to move up to choice assignments like Washington.

HINOJOSA: It's not a complaint. I mean, if you look at the report, it's a reality. You have 574 people who are part of the press corps, Washington press corps here, and only 60 of them are of color. So it's not just a complaint; it's a reality.

And I think that a lot of the people who come to this convention raised that question.

Let's look at -- we're reporters. We want to look at the facts. And I think to say, why is that? It's a historical problem that for -- you know, for some people will say 150 years there's been an issue of trying to get more journalists of color and more equality, and it just hasn't happened.

KURTZ: Armstrong Williams, you said that you weren't particularly dying to go over to this convention, perhaps you thought it would be a liberal convention. Did anything there surprise you when you went?

WILLIAMS: Well, I wasn't invited, the first thing.

KURTZ: You crashed it.

WILLIAMS: No, I just -- well, I -- Jonathan Rogers ,..


WILLIAMS: No, here's my point. I'll tell you, something good did come out of it for me. I assumed that with many of these journalists, they're only interested, whether it's on television, radio or in print, only covering either black issues, Latino issues, or Asian issues. And what they do is...

KURTZ: Ghetto-izing the coverage, in other words.

WILLIAMS: Right. They put themselves in a box. And so you've got to have somebody who can cover the gamut -- foreign, whatever the issue is. There's -- not everything is race, racial issues.

KURTZ: Did that surprise you about the convention?

WILLIAMS: Because in talking to many of these journalists, they said one of the issues that they want to get across to many of the television executives is that they're not here representing blacks, Hispanics or anything else. They want to cover the broader issues. That is something different, and that is progress.

KURTZ: Now John Kerry, as you know, spoke to the convention. Let's take a brief look at some of what the Democratic candidate had to say.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Where would we be without Carol Simpson, Frank Delomo (ph), Bernard Shaw, Ed Bradley or Max Robinson?


KURTZ: Now, President Bush also spoke to the gathering, and he talked about the importance of diversity in media. Kerry, it was reported, got a standing ovation from about three-quarters of those there, and Bush got what was described as a polite reception. And there was one minority journalist who stood up and challenged him about the war.

What do you make of the differing ways in which the candidates were greeted?

HINOJOSA: You know, it was interesting, I have to say. When John Kerry walked out, there was -- people stood up and applauded for him. And there were many of us, many, many of us who didn't, because when you're a journalist, you don't applaud for a politician, no matter what.

KURTZ: But a lot of your colleagues in these organizations apparently disagreed.

HINOJOSA: I was very concerned about that, and I raised the issue. There were some people who said, you know, you have to remember, there are also a lot of corporate representatives here, there are a lot of people who are public relations people.

Nonetheless, what happened with President Bush was that when he came out, there was also -- people stood up and applauded for him as well. There was tepid response to the issues that he I think expected to get applause on. Very, very tepid.

In fact, what was interesting was that more of the journalists who were asking the questions of him were getting more of the applause, because these are journalists who have this complaint: We want to be part of the Washington press corps, we want to be able to ask you questions that have to do with all issues, not only issues of journalism of color.

KURTZ: So are they journalists or activists? Is this the national association of liberal minority journalists?

WILLIAMS: They are activists, and it was quite clear. And the thing is, the reason why they don't identify with the president goes back to what I said earlier. Black journalists, in most instances, are only concerned about issues of race and Africa, and Latino and Asian journalists are the same.

And the fact is, they don't see that Bush represents affirmative action, quotas, more welfare and the kind of issues that they see as social issues which they believe have defined their progress in this country.

KURTZ: You're shaking your head.

HINOJOSA: I have to disagree.

WILLIAMS: Of course you do.

HINOJOSA: Because you know what? You can't say -- no, wait. Where I am going to disagree with you is on this. You can't say that 7,500 journalists from all across the country are activists because they are part of the National Association of Latino Journalists or black journalists. I disagree entirely that they're activists.

These are journalists who are saying, why is it that the media can look at any quality in other issues, in other corporations, in housing and education, but the media has a difficult problem at looking at inequality within -- within themselves.

To take that position is not an activist position. That is simply a journalist asking basic questions about why. So to say they're activists all across the board -- and the other thing, Armstrong, I would say that overwhelmingly, and I've been attending these conferences for over 10 years, I have never heard journalists say, "I'm a Latino, and I only want to cover Latino issues." Never.

What they're saying is we want to be taken seriously as journalists, point blank.

KURTZ: I'm going to pick up on something you said earlier. You talked about affirmative action, the president's position and so forth.

If there is a reality, a complaint that there aren't enough people of color, journalists of color at the top ranks of these organizations in places like Washington, does that need to be fixed by affirmative action, or could that in your view become dangerously close to a quota system?

WILLIAMS: That is not President Bush's problem. They need to check the newsrooms.

KURTZ: Leave President Bush out of it.

WILLIAMS: No. At this point in America, I think most Americans agree, no matter who you are, it is time for you to rise and fall on your own merits.

KURTZ: There aren't a lot of African-American talk show hosts like you.

WILLIAMS: Well, maybe they don't work as hard and maybe they create barriers for themselves and think that race is a barrier. I never see race as a barrier. I create and make my opportunities. My boss is the marketplace. It's how you see yourself.

HINOJOSA: That's very interesting.

WILLIAMS: I have -- I have...


WILLIAMS: It's a different perspective.

HINOJOSA: Because I base -- what I do on my reporting, I was asking someone about yourself and what you do, and they said, "If Armstrong Williams believes that fairness is so great, then why is it that there are so few African-American commentators, television people who have their own shows?" They said why is it that...


WILLIAMS: Do you think it's because of race?

HINOJOSA: No, this was somebody who was saying if you believe that fairness is so equal and it's so -- that there is...


WILLIAMS: I don't think it's so equal, though. I don't think it's that.

HINOJOSA: I just think that people would take concern when they say if an African-American journalist heard you say, they don't work hard enough...

KURTZ: OK. OK. I'm going to jump in here because I want to ask about story selection. Jessica Lynch, huge story. Wounded in Iraq. Media made her a heroine. Book, movie, magazine covers.

Shoshana Johnson, was in the same unit in Iraq, wounded in Iraq, happens to be black. Got very little attention. Coincidence?

WILLIAMS: Well, listen. Jessica Lynch's story was a far better and far more of an American story. Even though Shoshana was hurt and injured, our hearts went out to her, but she did not sustain the kind of injuries that Jessica Lynch -- it was not about black and white. It was just a different kind of story.

Even Shoshana herself when they were talking about the benefits, said she did not deserve what Jessica deserved.

KURTZ: But it can't be a coincidence, Maria Hinojosa, that all of these missing and murdered women happen to be white and middle class. Talking about Lori Hacking, and Chandra Levy, and Elizabeth Smart and all the rest.

HINOJOSA: And that's what the journalists at this convention want to say. We don't have to say it to each other. We have to say it to the news executives, to say we're not represented not only in terms of hiring, but when it comes to story selection, it's not only enough to have us at the table. In those editorial discussions, it's a matter of listening to us and making those stories real.

KURTZ: Luckily not (ph) at this table, Maria Hinojosa, Armstrong Williams, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, a media scheme for the selling of just about anything.


KURTZ: Seems like everything is for sale these days. Baseball stadium names like Houston's Enron Field, now called MinuteMaid Park, or for rent, the bottom of "USA Today's" front page. Or for hire, Bob Dole as Viagra pitchman.

Now, the Internet is no longer safe. has come up with a money-making scheme, according to "The New York Times." Why not sell links inside news stories? Meaning you'd click on a word, and be transported to an advertising Web site for the product.

Imagine if television caught on to that idea. I could be sitting here, ostensibly reading the news without fear or favor, and I could say that Bob Shrum is the Rolls Royce of political consultants, and a little picture of a luxury car could appear in the corner of the screen.

Or I could remind you that Bill Clinton's campaign song was "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow," and presto, a plug for Fleetwood Mac. Or an ad for Clinton's book.

Or how about this. John Edwards may be inexperienced, but there has been no hint of scandal about him -- a real Mr. Clean. In the background, you'd hear the jingle.

Now, wouldn't that tempt me to tailor my copy to keep the cash register ringing? So why don't the people at realize they are tarnishing the Forbes family name with this little scheme?

When we come back, Will Ferrell on George W. Bush, and the news.


KURTZ: Those who suspected that comedian Will Ferrell was being a little too mean in playing George Bush in all those "Saturday Night Live" skits may have been on to something. Ferrell has now made a Web video ridiculing the president on behalf of the liberal anti-Bush group, Americans Coming Together. And the doofus W., portrayed by Ferrell, has some advice on media coverage.


WILL FERRELL, COMEDIAN: So stick with Bushy and don't vote. And don't listen to liberals, or Democrats or other Republicans that make fun of me, or read the news, or watch the news -- except for Fox.


KURTZ: What an endorsement.

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...


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