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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Was Cannon Targeted by Liberal Blogs?; Interview With Matt Cooper

Aired February 20, 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): War in the blogosphere. With X-rated pictures of former White House reporter Jeff Gannon hitting the Internet and reverberations over their campaign against high- profile television types, bloggers themselves come under scrutiny. Are they a powerful mechanism for fact-checking the mainstream media or a new form of vigilante justice?

One step closer to jail. An appeals court rules against "TIME's" Matt Cooper and "The New York Times'" Judith Miller for the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. We'll ask Cooper why protecting administration officials is worth risking a prison term.

And just a blip: how local TV is tuning out politics.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the growing power of bloggers. I'm Howard Kurtz, part-time blogger.

In the wake of several controversies involving high-profile media figures, the debate has shifted to the people, more than eight million of them, who post their opinions online. Are there any rules? How personal is too personal? Are bloggers becoming a thriving alternative to the mainstream media or just a collection of carping critics who live to slam the news outlets, anchors and reporters they don't like?

Joining me now in Minneapolis is John Hinderaker, a lawyer and one of the founders of PowerlineBlog.com. He was one of the first to question the National Guard documents used by Dan Rather in that discredited "60 Minutes" piece on President Bush's military service.

And here in Washington, John Aravosis, political consultant and the man behind AmericaBlog.org. He helped uncover graphic details of Jeff Gannon's background that received wide coverage in the stories about the online reporter who had been covering the White House.

And Jacki Schechner, a journalist who specialized in covering blogs.

Welcome. John Aravosis, you posted some X-rated pictures of Jeff Gannon from what were obviously gay escort sites. He'd already quit his job reporting for these two conservative Web sites, Talon News and GOPUSA. Why put up the pictures after the fact?

JOHN ARAVOSIS, AMERICABLOG.ORG: We put up the pictures because the issue really wasn't whether Jeff Gannon had been working with escort services. The issue was how Jeff Gannon, what we would consider a fake journalist with fake credentials, got into the White House to report fake news.

And the issue of whether he was an escort came to the larger issue of who was this guy and how could he get regular access to the White House for two years, access to the president, and reportedly, according to him, access to classified information regarding Valerie Plame.

KURTZ: Gannon, or James Guckert, which is his real name, is now defending himself. He says yes, he's made mistakes in the past, but why should that disqualify him from being a journalist? Why shouldn't he be able to move on, change his life and pursue a journalistic route, just like bloggers practice journalism, as well, without any license?

ARAVOSIS: Right. I don't think it necessarily does disqualify him from being a journalist. The question is, was he acting as a journalist? A lot of folks feel that he wasn't even reporting news. He was reporting press releases and talking points from Republicans verbatim, that it was really a Republican advocacy site and not a news site.

But as I said, for us there is the larger issue of who was this guy, should he have been in the White House, should he have had access to the president? Was he a plant? We don't know.

KURTZ: John Hinderaker, do you think that Jeff Gannon has been treated fairly by the blogging community? And what about this question of should he have had access to the White House? Yes, he's a self-described conservative reporter, but there's some liberal reporters at the White House as well.

JOHN HINDERAKER, POWERLINEBLOG.COM: Howard, I think this is an absolute outrage. The idea of these people posting those photographs, I mean, it is pure, flat out gay-baiting. I think it is contemptible.

And the idea that Jeff Gannon is somehow not a real reporter, I don't know what a real reporter is. It's not like there's a test that you have to take.

There was a survey done a few years ago that indicated that about 90 percent of the White House press corps consists of Democrats. And the impression I get is that the folks on the left think it's a scandal that it's not 100 percent.

You know, this guy has a right to be pro-administration, just like Helen Thomas, for example, has got a right to be anti- administration.

KURTZ: Do you want to briefly respond to this?

HINDERAKER: And he represented an online news service, so I think it is an attack on him.

ARAVOSIS: Yes. I mean, you know, right. I mean, the gay- baiting is a cute line that the right likes to throw out there. I mean, as a gay man who's been working on gay issues for years, I wish there were more people on the right who claimed to care about gay issues.

But we have an administration here that goes out of its way to bash gays, whether it's the marriage amendment or what. And then we've got a writer like Jeff Guckert -- or I can't even get his name right anymore; nobody can -- who writes anti-gay articles and then wants the protection of saying, "Oh, I'm a gay man."

The bottom line is we had a hooker in the White House talking to the president two weeks ago, and if that president's name was Bill Clinton, it would be people like John and others who rightfully would say, "What's this guy doing there?"

KURTZ: All right. Well, he can -- Gannon denies running anti- gay articles. But I want to broaden the conversation. Now Jacki Schechner, you follow this for a living. How typical are these kind of tactics in the blogosphere, these brass-knuckle tactics where it gets really personal? And in your view, does it go too far?

JACKI SCHECHNER, BLOG REPORTER: Well, I think what they're covering is information. And I think when you're looking for something, I think it was Wolf Blitzer who asked him about these Web sites. And Jeff Gannon said, "Oh, I don't know. I set them up for a client." That sort of thing. He wasn't forthcoming with that sort of information.

And then John went out and found the information. I mean, there is some credibility that comes along with being a journalist.

You know, John in Minneapolis was saying that, you know, "What does it mean to be a journalist? I don't know who a reporter is." Well, you know what? You earn your credibility. You earn your honesty. You become a trusted source.

So I think there is some level, and especially, I would imagine that to cover the White House beat, you'd have to have some sort of background behind you, and some level of credibility and honesty.

KURTZ: All right. Well, now, after several of these high- profile media controversies in which bloggers have played a key role, Steve Lovelady of "Columbia Journalism Review" had this to say: "The salivating morons who make up the lynch mob prevail."

And then he wrote, "The Captain Eds, Jay Rosens and Jeff Jarvises of this world have always celebrated the blogosphere as a self- correcting perfect democracy where the participants supply accountability and oversight. The other side of that coin is to say that the mob is headless."

John Aravosis, do you plead guilty of being at least a member of the mob?

ARAVOSIS: Which mob? You know, there was a mob that took over the Bastille in 1789, as well. I mean, which mob are we talking about? It doesn't necessarily make you wrong.

And I'll go maybe even farther than John might go. You know, it wasn't a mob that took Dan Rather down. Dan Rather's mistakes took Dan Rather down. Eason Jordan at CNN's mistakes -- well, don't mean to bring it up, but you know, brought him down.

What brought James Gannon down was his own mistakes. And the reason that the White House is being questioned now is the White House let him in. We need to know about their mistakes.

KURTZ: So John Hinderaker, is it now bloggers like yourself and your online brethren who are taking on this kind of self-appointed role of holding news organizations accountable? And do you feel that there's a lot of resistance to this in the old dinosaur, mainstream media?

HINDERAKER: Well, there certainly is, Howard. I mean, the reaction of some of the mainstream commentators to the Eason Jordan story was completely over the top. First of all, the mainstream media, for the most part, completely blew that story.

Second, they were take surprise -- by surprise when Jordan resigned, or I suppose was forced out by CNN. And some of them lashed out at the bloggers with these ridiculous quotes like the one that you read.

Look, the fact is, I didn't fire Eason Jordan. CNN fired Eason Jordan. And what the bloggers did was to bring to light what Eason Jordan did and what he said. He repeatedly, not just once, but repeatedly, made unsubstantiated accusations against the United States military. CNN decided, apparently, that that was enough to cost him his job.

KURTZ: Well...

HINDERAKER: To try to blame the bloggers for that, I think, is ridiculous.

KURTZ: Just for the record, you know, Eason Jordan resigned. He was not fired. But on the other hand, there was this question about the videotape, which we still haven't seen, of what he actually said, which would have made this story easier for everybody to cover.

When bloggers are pounding away at somebody, pounding them into the pavement -- there's even this phrase now, bloglust. Is that part of a healthy debate? Or if you're on the receiving end of the pounding, it probably seems pretty unfair.

SCHECHNER: I think you take it as far as the story goes. I mean, I really think as a journalist or as a writer, as a reporter, as a blogger, the idea is to incorporate as much communication as possible.

It was the PressThink blog that we looked at the other day, Jay Rosen at NYU, was talking about the way to sort of combat this is not to excommunicate but to mass communicate. And I think we're just looking for more information.

I mean, you and I know from mainstream media, you have TV and you have newspaper. And you have a certain amount of inches that you're allowed to write in. And you have a certain amount of time that your package can air or your piece can be on.

So you have to be an editor, or you have an editor who says to you, "These are the things that are important. These are the things that..."

KURTZ: Today, tomorrow, next week.

SCHECHNER: It changes all the time.

KURTZ: Right.

SCHECHNER: But you only have a certain amount of information you can get in. You run a blog, you can go on forever. And you're your own editor, because there are really no rules yet, and there probably won't be, because frankly, it's the Internet. And so they can say as much as they want and as much time as they want. You can get in as much information as you think is pertinent to the story.

KURTZ: Just to give us a sense of how this works, John Aravosis, how were you able to dig out the naked truth about Jeff Gannon? Is it because the mainstream press shies away from sex stories, or is it because you have technological tools that didn't exist even a few years ago?

ARAVOSIS: No, I was able to get the story out with the technological tools. I was able to get the story by basically being a good journalist. I mean, I've been writing for years on a number of issues. I've written for "The Economist." My name has been out there on gay issues.

And frankly, somebody had this story. They asked their friends out in California, "Who should I call?"

And they said, "You know, you ought to call Aravosis. We trust him." I would put that in the journalist category.

But I think going back to what Jacki said, she raises a very good point in that there has to be some self-regulation. I think in politics especially, once you're getting the bad guy, you can get too wrapped up in it. And I think I certainly worry about that. I hope John worries about it. And I think we all have to worry about just controlling ourselves a little, sure.

KURTZ: Well, John Hinderaker, how did you -- how are you able to raise those questions so quickly about CBS' National Guard documents? You're not a typography expert, I presume?

HINDERAKER: Well, that's exactly right, Howard. In fact, we've told this story many times.

The information that we put out during the day on, I think it was September 9th of last year, all came from our readers. It was in several categories. Some had to do with typography. Some had to do with military protocol. Some had to do with the contents of the documents, which were wrong in various respects.

All the information came from our readers. Our role was to sift through it, identify what seemed to be the most interesting and the most reliable and sometimes where there were conflicts...

KURTZ: OK.

HINDERAKER: ... we published both sides. And put it out before the audience.

KURTZ: All right. Ten-second answer. Does the blogosphere need some kind of code of conduct? Or is that unrealistic when you have so many people doing it all the time?

SCHECHNER: I think Peggy Noonan had it right. It's self- regulating. I mean, I think that bloggers will check each other. I think that there's a need to keep the blogosphere honest, and bloggers want that.

KURTZ: And if they're found not to be honest, then they will just lose the ability to draw people to their site?

SCHECHNER: For lack of a better term, I think they'll eat their own. I really do.

KURTZ: Well, on that delicate note there, we're going to end the discussion. Jacki Schechner, John Aravosis, John Hinderaker in Minneapolis, thank you very much for joining us.

Just ahead, one step closer to jail for two reporters in connection with the Valerie Plame leak investigation. We'll speak to one of them, "TIME's" Matt Cooper, about the latest developments and a "Chicago Tribune" columnist who thinks journalists don't deserve special protection.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

A federal appeals court ruled this week that reporters don't have any First Amendment protections that allow them to conceal information from a criminal inquiry. Bad news for Judith Miller of "The New York Times" and Matt Cooper of "TIME" magazine, who are fighting grand jury subpoenas in the Valerie Plame investigation. Both reporters talked to unnamed sources about the undercover CIA operative and are facing jail time for refusing to testify about those sources.

"TIME" magazine's Matt Cooper is back with us today. Also with us in Chicago, Steve Chapman, columnist for "The Chicago Tribune."

Matt Cooper, the argument I'm hearing is you may have witnessed, or at least been complicit with, some kind of crime, there's a law against outing a CIA operative, covert agent, so to speak. So why don't you have the same legal authority -- legal obligation, excuse me, as any citizen to testify?

MATT COOPER, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, this is the question, Howie, that the courts are pondering.

Just to clarify one thing, I mean, no one's suggesting we're complicit. The question is whether we're effectively witnesses to a crime and do we have the same obligations as other witnesses.

KURTZ: But a conduit, perhaps. You wrote about it.

COOPER: Well, not complicit in the sense of accomplices.

KURTZ: Sure.

COOPER: Let's put it that way. No one is suggesting that. The question is whether -- what are our obligations as journalists and citizens? I mean, these are profound questions.

Our position is this, that society affords a kind of privilege to priests, rabbis, imams, psychologists, even social workers, according to the Supreme Court, have a kind of privilege where society has decided that it's more important to grant them a privilege from doing certain kinds of legal testimony than it is to compel their legal testimony every time.

Now, in 31 states, this isn't even up for discussion. We have it...

KURTZ: Unfortunately for you, you're up in the federal government. And again, critics are saying that you're trying to protect people, administration officials, who may have done a pretty underhanded thing for reasons of political revenge. Why protect them?

COOPER: Well, first of all, it's not entirely -- I -- without saying, disclosing, what everyone wants to know, I wouldn't be entirely certain about, you know, the motivation of the leakers, who leaked what, when, where, how.

But that said, look, journalism needs to be able to protect its sources in order to be able to function. It's the only way to ferret out information. And we need to be able to do that.

Now, I will readily concede that at times that may not make the life of a prosecutor easier. But that's not my job in society is to make the life of a prosecutor easier. You know, I gave limited testimony to a prosecutor last year after one of my sources absolved me of our promise of confidentiality, and I was happy to do so, and would do it again.

KURTZ: An aide to Vice President Cheney. COOPER: I would do it again, right. But this time the prosecutors asked for really, basically, every one of my sources and my notebook. That's much harder to comply with.

KURTZ: I want to bring in Steve Chapman. You've written that both Matt Cooper and Judith Miller should absolutely have to testify. Why?

STEVE CHAPMAN, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, because I think when a journalist has evidence of a serious crime that's been committed, he has the same obligation as any other citizen to provide it to a grand jury when he's asked.

And I feel very bad for the situation that Matt finds himself in, where he's given a promise to a source. But I think when a journalist has a conflict between obeying the laws of a democratic country and protecting a criminal, or a potential criminal, from exposure, he has an obligation to obey the law.

KURTZ: And if they continue to refuse on what they see as an important journalistic principle, you have no problem with them being sent to jail?

CHAPMAN: Well, I would -- I would hate to see Matt Cooper go to jail. I would much rather have him out doing stories than locked in prison. I don't think the prosecutor or the courts have any choice. And two courts have found that there is no protection for Cooper and Miller in this case, either in constitutional law or in common law. And I think therefore, they -- you know, the Supreme Court is likely to go along with that, and they are likely to end up in -- ordered to jail.

KURTZ: Do you find it strange, Matt Cooper, that you're facing jail and yet Robert Novak, the columnist and CNN commentator who originally published this leak two years ago isn't, at least at the moment?

COOPER: I find this whole case strange, Howie. It's very complicated. It's hard for me to follow, and I've been in the middle of it for a year. But certainly, Robert Novak is entitled to the same protections that Judith Miller and I are seeking in court.

If I can address what Steve said, I have enormous respect for Steve, but I think he'll acknowledge that oftentimes some of the leaks that we've treasured most in journalist folklore, like the Pentagon Papers, to a degree involved crimes. I mean, Daniel Ellsberg was not supposed to be dumping those papers onto "The New York Times." Yet we all acknowledge it served a societal interest. We don't really believe that "The New York Times" should have been prosecuted for aiding and abetting what was essentially stealing of classified documents.

So it can't be the illegality itself that I think Steve finds so onerous. Maybe it's the nature of the crime that's alleged.

KURTZ: Well, you know, the special prosecutor in this case, Steve Chapman, is Patrick Fitzgerald. He's the U.S. attorney in Chicago. Is he anti-press or not sufficiently respectful of the role of the press? And what if other prosecutors start bringing cases like this, too? Wouldn't you concede that that could have a chilling effect on reporting and turn all of us into little more than official stenographers?

CHAPMAN: If prosecutors decide to make journalists the first target of opportunity, then it certainly is a concern. That's why we have shield laws in 31 states. And that's why I think we ought to have a shield law at the federal level.

But even those shield laws would not protect a reporter in a situation like this, where there's a -- where the story itself, the disclosure, which was illegal in this case, really served no public interest. In the case of the Pentagon Papers, it's clear that it did serve a public interest. And that would have been a defense in a lot of states for a reporter who refused to disclose the source.

And I think something like that ought to be written in the law at the federal level.

KURTZ: Is there some picking and choosing going on here? Well, this case is OK for a journalist not to divulge, because it did serve the public interest, it didn't serve the public interest. And who is to decide which leaks are OK?

COOPER: Right. I think that's one of the issues here. You know, I don't feel like I can pick and choose which confidences I'll honor, which ones I won't, which ones I think have ill motives and which don't.

But I think, you know, Steve, whom I have enormous respect for, acknowledged that, you know, the Pentagon Papers was, in a sense, a criminal act and the reporters were aiding and abetting it. Now we approve of that in retrospect, because it seemed to have served the public interest.

But in that case, the standard can't be the criminality of the act. It has to be, by Steve's measure, you know, whether it serves the public interest.

KURTZ: It's also illegal to leak your grand jury information. Yet, the recent "San Francisco Chronicle" story about steroid abuse by baseball players, I think most people think that serves the public interest.

We have about 30 seconds. You know, some people are saying, "Hey, this is a big career move for you. You become famous. You go to jail. You write a book." I suspect you don't look at it that way.

COOPER: Howie, there are easier career moves than spending a year in litigation and potentially facing incarceration. Look, I had a fine career before all this, and I'll have one afterwards. It's not to get ahead. It's to establish a principle here. And hopefully, we'll be able to do that.

KURTZ: All right. We'll be following this case closely. Matt Cooper, Steve Chapman in Chicago, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, Baltimore reporters left out in the cold by the governor. And watching local TV doesn't mean we'll find out much about local politics. We'll explain in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Checking now on the world of media news. If you're looking for news about local politics, you can forget about trying to find it on television. A new study which surveyed stations in the months leading up to election day, found that local TV news has pretty much given up covering state and congressional elections. Just 8 percent of the local evening newscasts spent time covering races and issues in their area.

And now a follow-up on our story about Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, who ordered state employees to stop talking to two "Baltimore Sun" reporters. A U.S. district judge dismissed a lawsuit this week by "The Sun." The governor had barred employees from speaking with reporters because of two incidents, one involving an inaccurate map which ran in the paper, and the other over a columnist's description of an official as "barely keeping a straight face," even though he didn't witness the facial expression in question.

The governor's office says it's pleased by the decision, and that the lawsuit was unwarranted. "Baltimore Sun" editor Tim Franklin says this is, quote, "a clear case of a government official retaliating against people based on what they write and say." The paper plans to appeal.

Our viewer e-mail about Jeff Gannon, the White House and the blogs when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back. Checking our viewer e-mail about the bloggers' role in the Jeff Gannon story, Vernon in Little Rock writes: "The American public can no longer tell who is a journalist or a political hack. The true losers are the American public, the First Amendment and the truth."

But Sam in Vero Beach, Florida believes there was nothing wrong with Gannon receiving White House press credentials. "There are large blocks of the American people who have no confidence in 'The New York Times,' 'Washington Post,' 'L.A. Times' or CBS. The bloggers will, in short order, make the current media structure irrelevant. The print media will soon be a thing of the past."

Guess I better start looking for a new day job.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins now.

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