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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Eason Jordan Resigns

Aired February 13, 2005 - 11:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): CNN executive Eason Jordan resigns over his remarks on U.S. soldiers killing journalists in Iraq. Was he too slow to apologize? And did bloggers help seal his fate?

Jeff Gannon, who covered the White House for a conservative Web site, quits under fire. Is he a journalist? What about all those talk show hosts and pundits who came from the political world, or still advise politicians? What about a new generation of bloggers? Just who is a journalist anyway?

We'll ask David Gergen, Bill Press and blogger Jeff Jarvis.

Also, John Dean sparks a media frenzy with a few words about a secret Watergate source. What explains the endless fascination with Deep Throat?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on two dramatic resignations, in which bloggers, both conservative and liberal, played a critical role.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

CNN chief news executive Eason Jordan resigned Friday night, two weeks after sparking a furor over comments he made at a conference in Davos, Switzerland, about U.S. soldiers targeting journalists in Iraq. Jordan says he backed off the statement when challenged, and that his mistake was saying that the military intentionally targeted journalists. Jordan says he never stated, believed or suspected that U.S. military forces intended to kill people they knew to be journalists, and that he apologizes to anyone who thought he said otherwise.

But there are conflicting accounts of how far he backed off at the conference.

The controversy over the remarks raged mostly online, on sites by "National Review" and radio host Hugh Hewitt and others. In the mainstream press, there were a handful of stories, one by me in "The Washington Post," others in "The Boston Globe," "Wall Street Journal" and "Miami Herald," but nothing in "The New York Times," "Los Angeles Times," "Chicago Tribune," "USA Today," and nothing on CNN itself. Although Jordan was criticized on talk shows on FOX, CNBC and MSNBC.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY: This CNN leader has defamed the honor and integrity of our brave men and women in uniform by reckless charges that were presented in the most cowardly way, behind closed doors in conferences packed by international elites.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Jordan said in a statement he was stepping down from a 23-year career, quote, "to prevent CNN from being unfairly tarnished by the controversy."

Joining us now here in Washington, the moderator of that controversial discussion in Switzerland, David Gergen, columnist for "U.S. News and World Report," a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School, and he was a White House aide in four presidential administrations.

In New York, author and commentator Bill Press, a former talk show host at CNN and MSNBC, and one-time chairman of the California Democratic Party.

And Jeff Jarvis, journalist and former magazine editor who writes a blog at BuzzMachine.com.

David Gergen, you were there. What did Eason Jordan say? And did he deserve to lose his job over it?

DAVID GERGEN, U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT: He made a mistake. I did not think he deserved to lose his job over it.

A little context is important. He had just come back from Baghdad, 16th trip. We were on the eve of the elections there. He was extremely tense, because he thought a CNN journalist as well as other journalists were in great danger there, and he was -- he praised U.S. troops for protecting CNN journalists and others, but he said, look, this is a place where we lost 63 journalists on all sides, and journalists on all sides are being -- are getting killed often carelessly -- and he used the word targeting. And certainly left the impression that U.S. troops were targeting journalists on the other side -- Al Jazeera, for example -- just as insurgents were clearly targeting American journalists.

And it was a startling charge, and I think everybody in the room sort of, you know, their head swerved. But as soon as he said it, it was clear he knew he had made a mistake. He had gone too far. Used -- he'd been -- his emotions I think just got the better of him. And he tried to walk it back. And he tried to be -- clarify it. But soon it was on the blog, and frankly, the -- it just -- the story just built up.

KURTZ: And I want to pick up that point with Jeff Jarvis, if I might. Bloggers, particularly conservatives, but not exclusively, just ripping Jordan over this. But most news organizations didn't touch it. In fact, as far as I know, this is the first time it's being discussed on CNN, which I think is a mistake given Jordan's importance and the air time devoted to Dan Rather's problem. So how did this reach critical mass?

JEFF JARVIS, BUZZMACHINE.COM: Witness the news judgment of the people versus the news judgment of the big guys. Bloggers didn't want his head, most of us didn't. We wanted the truth. We wanted to see that transcript from Davos. The issues here are that the gatekeepers are no longer gatekeepers.

The second issue is news of -- the speed of news has really changed. You can't wait 12 days, as Dan Rather did, or as Jordan did, to say something substantive. And finally, off the record is dead. Because now, anyone who is a witness to news can be a reporter, because anyone and everyone has access to the press, to the Internet.

KURTZ: Right.

JARVIS: Everyone is a Wolf Blitzer in sheep's clothing.

KURTZ: The conference was supposed to be off the record, obviously. The Internet made that irrelevant.

Bill Press, some bloggers -- there is even an EasonGate.com site that sprung up rather quickly -- say these remarks by Jordan were outrageously anti-military, even if he did try to back off, and that the mainstream press here was lazy, incompetent, or simply covering up.

BILL PRESS, FORMER TALK SHOW HOST: Well, we certainly see the power of the bloggers here, Howie. But it seems if anybody was targeted -- and by the way, I accept both David Gergen's and Eason Jordan's explanation. Which one of us watching this show or on the show has not said something that he later regretted?

But I think Jordan was targeted, because of his connection with CNN. If this had been General James Mattis, who had said this, even inadvertently, nobody would have paid any attention. Eason was targeted, I believe, to get at CNN, and it worked. But I have to tell you, I also think that this would not have been an issue if immediately Eason Jordan had demanded the release of that transcript, got on top of it, and said, this is what I said, I didn't mean it, I apologize. I think you know what it's like? Swift boats and John Kerry. He waited too long to act.

KURTZ: And of course it wasn't just the bloggers that criticized Eason Jordan, it was also a couple of liberal Democrats, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd who were there, who did not like his remarks.

But David Gergen, here's the problem. Using the phrase "targeting journalists," I think we can agree, not a very smart thing to say. But also, Eason Jordan was already a lightning rod, because he wrote in "The New York Times" two years ago that CNN didn't report some of Saddam Hussein's abuses over the years to protect its Iraqi employees in that country, which some people saw as accommodating to the Saddam regime.

GERGEN: I think that's right. But to go back to the targeting, one of the reasons the phrases can be deeply offensive, is it's so contrary to what the U.S. military policy has been. You and I are both aware of many instances in which U.S. troops had gone to rescue journalists and they have protected them. They have got a long and I think an honorable history of doing that.

So the whole charge struck many of us as, whoa, that's way beyond anything that we think is reality. But I do think he walked it back. And it's only in essence -- for a fellow who's put 23 years in, to -- and built a reputation as a good journalist and building up CNN, I thought that the price he paid far exceeded the crime.

And that's why I find this sad. It is true that he got himself embroiled in another dispute over a piece that he wrote in "The New York Times," the one you cite that seems to suggest that CNN had not put certain stories on the air in order to keep their journalists on the ground in Baghdad, that they had not revealed the full savagery of the Hussein regime.

KURTZ: Right.

GERGEN: And that that got him -- that got him into some controversy, so he should have been even more careful not to leave himself open to this kind of controversy.

KURTZ: And Jeff Jarvis, on the reaction. Let's say he misspoke. Could he have diffused the controversy with a quicker reaction, with a quicker apology, or is this a kind of a cyber-McCarthyism, where somebody says something controversial and...

(CROSSTALK)

JARVIS: We didn't fire him, the bloggers. CNN did. I agree it doesn't fit the crime, because we don't know the crimes that are in CNN's heart here. Something else happened here that we don't know. The story's not over. We have to see that transcript from Davos. There's no reason for that to be hidden still, and CNN has to realize that they have to tell us more of what's going on.

The problem here is that by just asking for the truth, knocking at the doors of the news temple and saying, tell us what's go on, we're being portrayed as a lynch mob. We're not. We're citizens wanting to know the truth. It used to be the job of journalists to report that. So let's get to the truth, let's get to the facts. I think if Jordan had come right out and said, I'm sorry, I blew it, I was wrong, I didn't mean to say that, he wouldn't have made any more friends that he has now, but he still would be at his job.

KURTZ: Bill Press, let me just briefly touch on the substance. Did Eason Jordan have a point but used the wrong words, in the sense that there have been instances of military overzealousness, for example, the U.S. shelling of the Palestine hotel, a known haven for international journalists where two were killed? There have been incidents like that that have certainly been troubling to the people in the media.

PRESS: I believe he simply misspoke. I think what he was trying to say, having come back from Baghdad is, look, this is dangerous territory, there are 63 journalists who have been killed -- either killed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or they happened to get caught in the crossfire, or they were mistaken for the enemy.

I do not believe that the United States military targets or would ever target American or any other journalist. At the same time, I have to admit I didn't think we'd ever torture prisoners at Abu Ghraib either.

KURTZ: OK, David Gergen.

GERGEN: I just want to say, I agree with Jeff Jarvis on one fundamental point, and that is the bloggers serve an enormously important purpose as citizens in a town square asking for more accountability from people in power. I think that is a valuable role to play in our society. In this case, I have to say, Jeff, while there were bloggers who were simply getting at the truth, I think there was also a quality of vigilante justice building up among some of the bloggers who wanted his head.

JARVIS: You got a good point there. There were two issues for this with the bloggers. One is CNN's history with covering this war and the military in general. And the second was Jordan's own history here. And yes, there were some who just don't like him and nothing would make them like him. But those of us who wrote -- I wrote about this on my blog as a media story, because it is.

KURTZ: OK. I'm going to...

JARVIS: I think today "The New York Times" is very embarrassed that they didn't write about it beforehand.

KURTZ: I'm going to let you expand on that when we turn to our next part of the discussion.

Another resignation driven by bloggers just this week. Jeff Gannon, an openly conservative reporter writing for two Web sites, TalonNews and the clearly partisan GOPUSA.com, drew fire after asking President Bush this inaccurate and somewhat loaded question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

J.D. "JEFF GANNON" GUCKERT, TALON NEWS: Senate Democratic leaders have painted a very bleak picture of the U.S. economy. Harry Reid was talking about soup lines, and Hillary Clinton was talking about the economy being on the verge of collapse. How are you going to work with people who seem to have divorced themselves from reality?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Gannon quit after liberal bloggers revealed his real name and his registration of several sexually provocative online Web addresses that he never turned into Web sites. Gannon, who said he and his family were being harassed, defended his work on CNN's "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GUCKERT: Talon News is a legitimate conservative online news service. And my questions are things that my readers, 700,000 daily subscribed readers, want the answer to. And those are my questions. I created the questions. Nobody fed questions to me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Bill Press, should the White House have given day passes to an online reporter for a site like GOPUSA so that he's in a position to ask the president of the United States questions like "Harry Reid is talking about soup lines." Well, Senator Reid never talked about soup lines. That was a characterization, Gannon later admitted to me, he picked up from Rush Limbaugh?

PRESS: First of all, let's make a big distinction, all right? I mean, Eason Jordan is a real journalist for 23 years. I think this guy is a phony. And let's call him by his real name, James Dale Guckert. And you know what he was? He was in there for two years, Howie, every day getting a daily pass under a pseudonym by the White House.

KURTZ: But there are lots of people that change their names. Woody Allen isn't his real name. What's the big deal about that?

PRESS: Big deal? After 9/11, you try to get into the White House not using your real name. I mean, it would not work for anybody else. They let this guy in, clearly, as a lifeline to Scott McClellan, who is -- and so whenever he got in trouble, he'd call on old James Dale Guckert, who would bail him out with a softball question, Howie. Nobody else would be able to get in like that. And you know what I really want to know? Is not only why did the White House let him in, but why didn't the other so-called mainstream press, who knew this guy was a phony all those years, why didn't they do something about it?

KURTZ: On the other hand, David Gergen, there are a lot of colorful characters in the White House briefing room. You've worked there. Lester Kinsolving comes to mind. And some people there are just out-and-out liberals. Liberal columnists and others. So why shouldn't Jeff Gannon or James Guckert be able to ask his question as well?

GERGEN: I am sorry, I really have a hard time getting excited about this story. I think it's trivial compared to paying off journalists like Armstrong Williams or others and giving them money to go out and support you. In this case, the White House has had a lot of wild cards in there over the years, and you well know that. And various presidents -- President Kennedy made no bones of the fact that there was a woman from Texas who was sort of -- who was a liberal, and she was out there in the audience, and when he got in trouble on a question, he'd always find her. He knew where she sat. And he turned to her in press conferences because she'd get him off the took. This has been going on for a long, long time.

KURTZ: But Jeff Jarvis, liberal bloggers like DailyKos and Atrios, among others, went after Gannon on some personal stuff. Some of them say he's anti-gay; he denies that. Did they go too far in using these kinds of online tactics against somebody whose politics they clearly didn't like?

JARVIS: Well, online or off-line tactics, yes, I believe so. The story here is did the White House stack the press deck and then pull out a friendly card, as Mr. Gergen puts it? That's the real story. The story of Gannon, he may be a little, well, hard to take, but to go beyond the main story here and go after his personal life does make you look like a bit of a lynch mob.

And as we in blogs who are opinionated -- Kos calls himself an advocate -- get press passes for things like conventions, we have to, you know, be concerned about saying that someone else shouldn't because they're not a legitimate journalist. Well, we're all legitimate journalists today, and that's a line that's very fuzzy now.

KURTZ: But how do you...

PRESS: Howie?

KURTZ: Go ahead, just briefly.

PRESS: Yeah, if I may, just to make a point here. I think that Media Matters for America, which is a blog where I found out about this Jeff Gannon thing, they weren't going after his personal life. The point they were making is a point we were talking about earlier, how did this ringer get in the White House so often and called on so many times by Scott McClellan and President Bush, and I think that does get down to the credibility of the media. When you have somebody there who's not under his real, who's representing a site that links you to GOPUSA, it's really questionable...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: That's a very legitimate question, Bill. But it was the personal stuff I think that drove Gannon or Guckert to resign.

We need to take a break. Ahead, we'll ask, just who is a journalist? And later, Watergate's Deep Throat and the media still looking to solve that mystery.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

Bill Press, you were a California Democratic chairman before coming to CNN. Are you a journalist? By which I mean also, do you have an obligation to be fair?

PRESS: I stopped beating my wife, too. Howie, let me just say this, when I was California Democratic chairman, I auditioned for "CROSSFIRE" at CNN. I got the job. The first thing Rick Davis told me was, you must quit your job, which was a volunteer position, by the way. I was never paid a dime when I was California Democratic chair. Rick Davis said, you must quit your job. You can have no other source of income but CNN. That's your job now. You take it or leave it. And I took it.

For 30 years, I have made a living doing radio and television commentary. I think that qualifies me as a journalist.

KURTZ: All right. Jeff Jarvis, you've helped found "Entertainment Weekly," you've worked for "TV Guide." Now, you pop off on your blog, among other professional pursuits. Are you a journalist or are you somebody who holds journalists accountable?

JARVIS: We're all journalists. We all hold journalists accountable. That's the new world here. Anyone who witnesses news now can report it. Everybody has a press. The only thing that made journalists journalists before was access to the guy who owned the press, or the guy who owned the broadcast tower. Now we all have that.

We're also all pundits now. We have opinions and views, and we have the Internet, and we can get those across. And as a journalist, I think that's great news. More information, more diverse viewpoints make for a better democracy.

KURTZ: I also think it's a healthy development. David Gergen, you write for "U.S. News," you also teach at Harvard and you've also worked for Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Clinton. So I could say, well, you're a recovering political operative.

GERGEN: Yeah, you'd be right, too. And I'm not sure I've recovered. The -- I, look, I think the lines have become so blurred that it's very -- between entertainment and the press, between politics and the press...

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Armstrong Williams going on, he's a talk show host, he also owned a PR firm, even before we knew he took $240,000 from the Bush administration. Is he a journalist, a talking head? Do people confuse him with other kinds of political analysts?

GERGEN: I think people now wear multiple hats, but if they're going to be journalists, then they -- if they pretend to be journalists, then they ought to observe some codes of ethics. One of them is you don't take money from the government.

But secondly, I disagree with Jeff. I think it's wonderful that citizens are armed with all of this information through the blogs, but it does seem to say that to say, well, there's no such thing as off the record anymore, that we no longer are going to observe that creed of journalism, there is no such thing in effect as background or anything else, I think that that's a real setback for the craft of journalism.

JARVIS: I think it was shocking that a journalist, the head of a journalistic organization, agreed in a public forum to be off the record. I think that, you know, when I left "Entertainment Weekly," I refused to sign a contract that had a shut-up clause in it from this very company, because I think we as journalists must be transparent. That's the ethic of the age online. That's what the online expects. If you're not transparent, we've got a problem. KURTZ: I want to get Bill Press back in. I want to rattle off some names of people you see on television. George Stephanopoulos, Tony Snow, Tim Russert, Chris Matthews, Joe Scarborough, your old sparring partner Pat Buchanan. All came out of the world of politics. And you have people like Bill Kristol, who's a "Weekly Standard" editor; he still provides some advice to the Bush administration, and Carville and Begala on CNN advised John Kerry while being on "CROSSFIRE." So what do we make of whether these people are journalists, talking heads, pundits, you name it?

PRESS: Well, David Gergen is right. I mean, the lines have blurred. But you certainly can come out of politics and go into the media and make that your new profession and your new life, and thereby, if you will, I guess, convert yourself into a journalist. I think the ones you mentioned are all journalists today.

But the rule I think what David said is correct, but the rule is if you're in this business, you don't take money from the government to espouse a particular point of view. That is wrong, whether you're a journalist or not a journalist.

KURTZ: I think we can agree on that. There's more to debate here, but again, we're out of time.

But up next, it's still the biggest guessing game in Washington. Just who is Deep Throat? More than 30 years later, why does anyone still care?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back.

David Gergen, you worked in the Nixon administration. Are you willing to deny right here on national television that you were Deep Throat?

GERGEN: I've been denying it for years. But I, listen, this fellow, whoever he was, was a central player in bringing down the president of the United States. The only time in history we had anybody resign. A major scandal. And it's one of the last great mysteries of Washington. Everything is transparent today.

KURTZ: Could you have been shallow throat? Had you ever leaked to Bob Woodward?

GERGEN: I knew Bob Woodward. I had a relationship with Bob Woodward, and that's in the public record. But I still don't know who it is.

KURTZ: All right. Bill Press, John Dean started all this by saying that his own source, his own Deep Throat had told him that Bob Woodward had told "Washington Post" editor Len Downie that Throat was ill. Downie has denied such a conversation to me. Isn't this an awfully thin read on which to build all this speculation?

PRESS: I think it's very, very thin indeed, and David Gergen looks like he's in good health, and so did Pat Buchanan the last time I saw him.

(CROSSTALK)

PRESS: Howie, I don't know who Deep Throat is, but I have to tell you, I don't want to know. This has been one of great mysteries of my life. I don't know what we will talk about at Washington dinner parties if we ever find out who Deep Throat is.

KURTZ: Why spoil it.

PRESS: Don't destroy the fun.

KURTZ: All right. Jeff Jarvis, it is fun, it's not fattening. Anybody can play this game. But why do people who weren't even born during Watergate seem to find this so fascinating?

JARVIS: I think those under 40 probably don't care as much as those of us with white beards. You know, I wonder today if Deep Throat would, pardon me, but start a blog. I think the tradition of revealing the secrets of government is important to maintain. And I hope it continues. And so when Deep Throat does reveal himself, I think we should have a big salute.

KURTZ: All right. Throat.com, you heard it here first. Jeff Jarvis, Bill Press, David Gergen, thanks for joining us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Join us again next Sunday morning, at 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.

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