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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Coverage of Libby Indictment: Fair or Unfair?; Did Commentators Push Miers to Withdraw?

Aired October 30, 2005 - 10:00   ET

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


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Tony Harris at the CNN center in Atlanta. Here are some stories now in the news.
Hurricane Beta is pounding Nicaragua after making landfall about three hours ago. The storm came ashore as a Category 2 storm. It is packing torrential rain, raising fears of flood and mudslides. Thousands of people have moved to higher ground.

In Iraq, a rash of violence has killed at least nine people today in Baghdad. Among them the brother of Iraq's vice president. More than half-a-dozen other Iraqis were killed in several other attacks in Baghdad.

A rough estimate of the number of civilians in Iraq who have died at the hands of insurgents is buried in a pentagon report. That document was presented to Congress and dated October 13. It estimates nearly 26,000 Iraqis were killed or wounded in insurgent attacks from the beginning of last year through mid-September of this year. The number does not include civilians killed by coalition forces. The U.S. military has never acknowledged tracking civilian casualties.

Those are the headlines. I'm Tony Harris in Atlanta. There is more news in half an hour. Time now for CNN's RELIABLE SOURCES.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PATRICK FITZGERALD, SPECIAL PROSECUTOR: We're now going from a direct grand jury investigation to an indictment, a public charge and a public trial.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The CIA leak charges. The indictment of "Scooter" Libby sparks a media frenzy. Has the coverage been fair and why did journalists keep predicting that Karl Rove would also be charged?

Power of the pundits. Harriet Miers bows out after Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, George Will, Laura Ingraham and other conservatives helped sink her Supreme Court nomination. What explains the revolt on the right? David Frum joins our discussion.

And chilling number. As Americans keep dying in Iraq, why did the arbitrary figure of 2000 deaths become big news? A conversation with "New York Times" Baghdad bureau chief, John Burns.

Plus, blown away. Why can't some anchors stay out of the rain? (END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, which now brings you a full hour of media analysis at our new time, 10 a.m. Eastern. I'm Howard Kurtz.

We begin with the indictment of Dick Cheney's top aide in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald described Scooter Libby's allegedly deceptive testimony to a federal grand jury.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FITZGERALD: He spoke to reporter Tim Russert, and during the conversation Mr. Russert told him that, "Hey, do you know that all the reporters know that Mr. Wilson's wife works at the CIA?"

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Russert said he gave Fitzgerald a very different account when asked whether he and Libby had discussed Valerie Plame.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TIM RUSSERT, HOST, MSNBC's "MEET THE PRESS": The answer was no. And whether I knew Valerie Plame's name or where she worked as a CIA operative and the answer was, no. And that was the extent of it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The indictment charges Libby with perjury and obstruction of justice for lying about his conversation with Russert, his conversation with "TIME's" Matt Cooper and his conversation with Judith Miller of the "New York Times," all of whom could be witnesses if there is a trial.

Libby resigned on Friday, but the media chatter before the indictment focused on a better known White House official.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE AIDE: To me the most important question is whether Karl Rove will be indicted.

TED KOPPEL, HOST, ABC'S "NIGHTLINE": Then there is the possibility -- here in Washington it's actually risen to level of an expectation -- that by tomorrow at this time, indictments will have been handed down against the president's top political adviser, Karl Rove.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is the man some call Bush's brain about to be indicted?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining me now are four top Washington journalists: Elisabeth Bumiller, White House correspondent for "The New York Times"; Dana Milbank, political reporter for the "Washington Post"; David Frum, who writes the "National Review" online column and is a former Bush speech writer; and "Newsweek" investigator correspondent Michael Isikoff.

Elisabeth Bumiller, did some in the media go too far in chattering about a possible Karl Rove indictment?

ELISABETH BUMILLER, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I would just say that at the "Times" I don't think we did. I think we were very careful.

The -- this was not, by the way, something that we were making up out of whole cloth. This was coming from people extremely close to the investigation. We were citing lawyers close to the investigation.

And I think the real story right now is -- is what happened the last few days. We were also reporting that Karl was very close -- very likely to not be indicted towards the very end.

KURTZ: Right.

BUMILLER: So I think we closely tracked the story. My colleagues, by the way, David Johnson and Dick Stephenson, who went through reporting this, and I think they were terrific.

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, though, the echo chamber of all of the media, you had the impression that the indictments are going to rock the White House. So by the time it happened, the White House can say, "Well, it's not so bad; it was only Scooter Libby."

DANA MILBANK, POLITICAL REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST": Maybe it was overdone a little bit. I actually think the traditional mainstream media was more responsible and you had a lot of wacky stuff in the ideological press and in the blogs. I think we probably did a better job as a whole, as far as that goes.

Now, Karl Rove is "official A" -- let's face it -- in this indictment. He's not out of the woods. It's -- it was accurate he was -- just a week ago spent 3 1/2 hours before the grand jury. He was, and apparently still is, being investigated. So it's not unreasonable that people would have had that expectation.

KURTZ: But there is a difference between being investigated and being indicted, and it's dangerous to predict indictments.

David Frum, the cover of "U.S. News" today, as we put it up there, it has "Bushwhacked" as the big headlines. "Washington Post" has "A Big Leak, and Then a Deluge," and a poll not favorable to President Bush.

Are journalists making too much of this or maybe taking a little bit too much glee in this Libby indictment?

DAVID FRUM, COLUMNIST, "NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE": I can't help thinking there's some glee and there's a certain amount of wishful thinking in it. I think there's some internal media rivalries. Judith Miller of the "New York Times," who figures prominently as apparently disliked by many of her colleagues. I don't know why. That's of course not reported, but there's that.

On the other hand, this may be -- this could be a market bottom here. Because I think in this story is a lot of good news for the administration.

There is a big theory about what happened here, that there was a kind of conspiracy at the highest levels of the Bush administration: first the lie to get the country to war, and then to punish those who exposed this. I think the result of the investigation is to completely discredit that. No conspiracy charges, no charges of violating the secrecy of the agent's identity.

That Patrick Fitzgerald seems to have endorsed the little theory, which is this was about one aide to got carried away, spoke too much. He's now -- he's now in a lot of trouble. But the rest of the administration can now actually move on.

KURTZ: The charge does involve the cover-up, and not the original alleged crime.

Michael Isikoff, you asked Patrick Fitzgerald at a news conference why he wouldn't identify "official A." What can you tell us about that?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK": Well, because it wasn't, you know, a prosecutable crime. In fact, that's probably the thing that leaps out to a lot of us when we read the indictment most, which is that this began as an investigation into whether there has a violation in the disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity in the first place, the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. And then later people were talking about possible violations of the Espionage Act.

KURTZ: But did you know at the time that you asked the question that "official A" was Karl Rove, who by the way, is described as Robert Novak's source, even though "official A" is not named in the indictment?

ISIKOFF: Right. Well, actually, no, it wasn't 100 percent clear to me at the time I asked the question that it was -- that it was Rove. It very quickly did become clear.

But remember, Rove is Novak's secondary source. He wasn't the person who put Valerie Plame's name in play in the first place. He was not the original leaker. He was the confirming source who says, "Yes, I heard something like that," or something like that.

So, at the end of the day, we don't know, at this point at least, who Novak's original source was, nor do we know why that person wasn't charged. We can infer from Fitzgerald's comments that he didn't conclude that the original disclosure was a violation of federal law or prosecutable crime. And one can also infer that that person was identified, because we do report, and I think it's been widely assumed for some time, that Novak did cooperate, identified his source. That source, of course, would have been questioned by Fitzgerald.

KURTZ: Right.

ISIKOFF: And one can presume that person simply told the truth and said, "Yes, I told Novak this" and, no, he didn't get charged.

KURTZ: Let me move on to Elisabeth Bumiller. You're on the front page of the "New York Times" today, a piece about Vice President Cheney. How much collateral damage has Mr. Cheney sustained, you ask? Is it fair to -- you know, Cheney was -- was described in the indictments having told Scooter Libby about Valerie Plame working with the CIA, but he hasn't been charged with anything.

BUMILLER: That's absolutely true. And the process...

KURTZ: Why is he getting all this attention in your newspaper?

BUMILLER: Because there's -- because if you look at the indictment, and I'm sure you have, the -- Cheney's office is -- is described in the indictment as a hub of activity for finding out about Joe Wilson, the person who was sent to Africa to investigate these -- to investigate these claims.

And also he's the person who tells Scooter Libby that Joe Wilson's wife Valerie Plame works at the CIA. And there's also many other appearances in the indictment of Mr. Cheney's top aides, though they're not named.

So my story raises the question, because as you know, that was the conversation in Washington on Friday.

KURTZ: Sure.

BUMILLER: And there's a lot of comments in there from people who say this doesn't do any damage and, you know, it's a very balanced story.

KURTZ: I'm sure it is. Not everyone, Dana Milbank, thinks this is a huge, huge scandal. In fact, FOX's Bill O'Reilly had this to say about it on Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, FOX NEWS CHANNEL'S "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": This story dies for the public, it dies for the public on Monday. The public doesn't care about it. They'll watch tonight. The weekend, they'll run wild. This is a media-driven story.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: According to O'Reilly, we've only got one more day. But will the press find ways to keep this alive past tomorrow? MILBANK: I'm sure that's Bill's fervent wish, that it dies. And it may die temporarily if we get a new Supreme Court nominee that can brush this story out of the way for awhile.

But if there's going to be a trial, then it's going to keep it constantly in the news. And even if there is a plea bargain or something, there isn't a trial, this does permanent damage in the sense that people may take a new view of the credibility of the administration.

That's why I think, David, there's a bit of a pile-on effect here as reporters fell for a while. These guys aren't being straight with us. And now you're having a prosecutor, appointed by the Bush administration, praised by the president, saying, "Wait a second, this guy was lying."

KURTZ: And if there was a trial, David Frum, and you have, on the one hand, Lewis Libby talking about his conversations with these reporters, on the other hand you have Tim Russert, the host of "Meet the Press," who's going to win that credibility contest?

FRUM: But it doesn't matter. I think the real parallel to this scandal is the Enron scandal. Remember Enron? It blew up and a lot of people in the Bush administration had been close to Enron. But what quickly became clear was that this was a financial scandal. It didn't have -- it didn't have a strong tie-in to any of the political decision making in the Bush administration.

KURTZ: You're saying now it doesn't matter that the vice president's top aide has been charged with lying in a case about -- and retaliating against a critic of the administration's WMD claims before the Iraq war? It doesn't matter?

FRUM: If that was his individual decision. If Scooter Libby, if he did lie, and if he had been somehow designated by the vice president's office to go attack a critic, then, yes, you have a very big political story.

But if, as the indictment is -- seems to suggest, if the allegation is that this man on his own went and did these things and that he didn't have a broader connection to the rest of the administration, that does seem to be the logic of the prosecutor's case, then I think it's a -- you have a scandal involving Scooter Libby. He's in a lot of jeopardy; we wish him well. But it doesn't have larger implications, just as happened with Enron.

KURTZ: Michael Isikoff, I'm sure you feel, as I do, that you don't want to see a lot of reporters subpoenaed and threatened with jail and in some cases put behind bars. Let's take a look at what Patrick Fitzgerald at his news conference had to say on this subject of going up or trying to drag reporters into the process.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FITZGERALD: No one wanted to have a dispute with "The New York Times" or anyone else. I read newspapers, and I'm glad you have sources. This is different. This was a situation where the conversation between the official and the reporter may have been a crime itself.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Is Fitzgerald right, that this was the only way to prove his case, by bringing in reporters and forcing them to testify?

ISIKOFF: Well, it's hard to see how he could have brought these charges without the testimony of the reporters involved. You know, it just would have been a complete abyss. You would have had Libby's account, but you couldn't have it contradicted.

You know, one of the most fascinating things is, if there is a trial, is that it will be the reporters who are the star witnesses. I mean, Russert is the central witness in the case, as far as I can see, because it's his lie, alleged lie, to Russert that's at the heart of the case.

And you know, it's interesting because NBC struck a deal for Russert's testimony before the grand jury. It was extremely limited, or limited to only what Russert told Libby. So Russert could say, and NBC could say, they weren't violating the off-the-record nature of what Libby was telling Russert.

At the trial, that's not going to fly. Russert is going to have to break Libby's off-the-record confidence and testify about the full conversation. You can't have court testimony any other way.

KURTZ: Right.

ISIKOFF: And you know, he could end up being the guy who puts Libby in jail.

KURTZ: If, in fact -- if, in fact, there is a trial.

ISIKOFF: If there was a trial.

KURTZ: It's often said, Elisabeth, that there were no heroes in this tangled Valerie Plame story. The reporters who were involved, do they look to some people like conduits for a smear campaign? They were protecting Libby. They didn't want to give his identity up. And now we know a little bit more about what Libby was doing.

BUMILLER: Well, in this narrow case they do. But as you know, this goes on in Washington every day, all day. And everyone talks to anonymous sources, and everyone knows that certain persons have axes to grind, and it's our responsibility to convey to our readers the motives of sources. You know, that's what's at work here. And I'm sure it doesn't look pretty on this page, but it's part of the bigger process.

KURTZ: Do you agree with David Frum this is not as huge a deal as journalists, who are obviously fascinated because other journalists are at center of the case, are making it out to be? How much do people care about this? MILBANK: Well, a lot of it has to do with how the opposition party plays it. And as usual, the journalists are not really the crusaders here. We're following what's going on in Congress.

Now, for the 2006 elections, the Democrats intend to use this, along with Tom DeLay, Bill Frist and the whole thing...

KURTZ: ... I want to know how the journalists intend to use this, thanks to all these front page stories?

MILBANK: That's what I'm answering. If the Democrats are constantly going to beat the drums on this, that will keep it as a news story. Because we follow; we don't lead.

KURTZ: You say we're dependent on outside critics?

MILBANK: We are not leaders in campaigns. We are followers. And if the Democrats are going to make this the central 2006 issue, it stays alive.

KURTZ: I'm not sure that's entirely true but I'm going to give you the last word, so people will think it's true.

When we come back, how big a role did conservative commentators play in the demise of Harriet Miers?

And later, Pulitzer Prize winner John Burns from Baghdad. And Al Roker defends his daring and rain-soaked hurricane coverage.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

In the space of 24 days, conservative journalists, commentators, columnists and bloggers led a concerted charge against Harriet Miers, picking a rare fight with their president. They said she was too inexperienced, too unqualified and clearly not conservative enough to warrant a seat on the Supreme Court. And when she pulled out Thursday, the right was overjoyed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANN COULTER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: We love him; we love the president. He made a mistake. The mistake is gone now.

BAY BUCHANAN, PRESIDENT, AMERICAN CAUSE: There is real excitement now amongst the base and real energy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Relieved, renewed, revitalized.

PAT BUCHANAN, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: As I finished my column today, I said in the words -- the title of the old gospel song, "Oh, Happy Day." The conservatives are elated.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: David Frum, how is it that you and Krauthammer and Kristol -- you're pundits that just have words as weapons -- were able to galvanize opposition to Miers and knock her out in 3 1/2 weeks?

FRUM: Well, we had a lot to work with. I mean, that's -- I mean, if she had been a good nominee, obviously, words would have bounced off. If this had just been -- if this had just been -- there had just been one thing wrong with the nominee.

But you know that old joke about is it a breath mint or is it a floor wax, it's actually both. The problem with -- Harriet Miers had so many problems. She had ideological problems. She had merit problems. She had independence problems.

Just one. What conservatives want is somebody who upholds executive authority to wage the war on terror effectively. She would have to recuse herself from all of those cases. Or if she did not, her judgments would have had no credibility. So it was a whole series of problems.

KURTZ: Now, you helped form a group called Alliance for Better Justices.

FRUM: No, it was...

KURTZ: Excuse me. This was a group that raised $300,000 and some anti-Miers TV ads. Is that what a journalist should do? You're not usually an activist.

FRUM: Well, in this case, I think one of the things is that the monastery of the -- the journalistic monastery is maybe having its walls pierced a little bit. And some of us are sort of on both sides of the line at the same time.

But this was so important to the people who care about the conservative movement, to people who care about this administration. You had to do something, because there was a real risk, because there was so little time, that organization -- if opposition had not organized quickly, the normal instinct of deference to the president would have kicked in, and a David Souter would have been put on the Supreme Court.

KURTZ: All right. Michael Isikoff, reporters during this period dug up old speeches and old writings of Harriet Miers on subjects like abortion and affirmative action that did not please the conservatives. And of course, her suck-up notes to then Governor Bush about how cool he was and what a great governor he was. How much did that hurt as this process unfolded?

ISIKOFF: Well, I think some of those speeches hurt with the conservatives. I mean, it sort of emboldened then and said, "Ha, you see that she is, you know -- could be a closet David Souter and, you know, a liberal. Or liberal instincts."

But I think at the end of the day it was the competency that did her in, more than anything. Apparently, her appearances with members of the Senate did not impress them with her knowledge and grasp of constitutional law, and the fact that her resume was so thin on constitutional legal issues, which is what the Supreme Court primarily does, is what -- what left out more than anything else.

KURTZ: Elisabeth Bumiller, about 10 days ago you wrote a piece about the White House prepping Miers for the Senate hearings, which is now -- will never be held. Now we learn that she didn't do very well in those sessions. How hard were White House officials spinning you about what a great nominee she was going to be, how she was going to hit a home run at the hearings, looking back?

BUMILLER: Really hard. Although they weren't saying she was going to hit a home run at the hearings. They were very...

KURTZ: Single? A double?

BUMILLER: The language was very couched.

KURTZ: Sacrifice fly?

BUMILLER: They kept on saying, "Well, she's not John Roberts, you know. She's very -- she's got a different style. She has -- she speaks more softly." She -- you know, they were -- there were a lot of key words in there. But yes. No, they said that she was doing well. So of course.

KURTZ: Was it hard -- was it frustrating to you, was it hard to penetrate what was actually going on behind the scenes? In other words, the president was 1,000 percent behind her until suddenly he wasn't.

BUMILLER: Absolutely. You know, but you could see -- you could also see what was going on on Capitol Hill. We're not totally tapped into the White House. You could see that she was coming out of these meetings, and Republicans were -- were saying that, "We're very uncomfortable."

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, this was a week now. I mean, made a lot of mistakes, the White House made a lot of mistakes, but the press did not exactly cut this woman any slack. I'm wondering if they were just sort of loaded against her from the very beginning.

MILBANK: Possibly. But can I say, I think this actually should get rid of the whole canard about the liberal media. Because if it were a liberal media, they would have loved Harriet Miers. Because what -- like Harry Reid, because what are the chances that there'd be a more liberal nominee coming from this president?

But no, the media amplified what Dave and others were saying. The reason is we love a great fight. And so that's why...

KURTZ: You're saying if it was ideological, the liberal press would have said, "This is the best we're going to get from President Bush."

MILBANK: Yes. They would have been -- we would have been very flattering of Harriet Miers, but instead we were writing about everything from her, you know, not -- dropped -- being dropped from the bar to her eyeliner.

FRUM: Well, I think one of the things that this story is about is the power of new media. I mean, that is -- that became the conveyer belt where conservatives through the country were sort of taking -- trying to take the temperature on who is this person. Are -- we've never heard of her, but should our normal instincts to defer to the president be followed in this case or not? And that information came forward. One of the things...

KURTZ: Your first post appeared two hours after the president nominated Harriet Miers. That would have been -- not happened a decade ago.

FRUM: Not possible. And I was doing it two or three -- but I had -- see, I had information that those people who had it were not going to tell. And those people who were prepared to tell perhaps didn't know her personally. I had worked with her, so I could talk about it. It was one of those awful moments in those first two hours where you say, you know, "I'm alone with this satchel information. What do I do? What are my responsibilities?"

KURTZ: Michael Isikoff, I've got about 20 seconds. Is the press machine likely to gear up to -- against the next Supreme Court nominee who the president could name in the coming days?

ISIKOFF: I don't know about against, but it's certainly going to be intensely covered. Remember, at end of the day, this is an enormously consequential Supreme Court choice. It's not just any. It's the swing vote on the court. So from the ideological perspective, the stakes couldn't be higher.

KURTZ: Well put. Michael Isikoff, Dana Milbank, David Frum, Elisabeth Bumiller, thanks very much for joining us.

Just ahead, reporters in the rain and the howling win of Hurricane Wilma. Florida's governor takes a shot at the media's up close and personal coverage of the storm.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: It's become the video cliche by now: hurricane approaches, normal people flee, network reporters parachute in and they compete with each other, Dan Rather like, to stand out in the wind and the rain and get blown around like Raggedy Ann dolls.

But rarely in all my years of storm watching have I witnessed as ludicrous a scene as NBC's Al Roker trying to report from the middle of Hurricane Wilma in Florida.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL ROKER, NBC METEOROLOGIST/"TODAY SHOW" CO-HOST: A truck operator, Tom Gehrer (ph), said don't you wish you had your weight back? Right about now I do. KATIE COURIC, CO-HOST, "THE TODAY SHOW": Is he OK?

ROKER: We're OK, we're OK, we're OK.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: A guy who was holding onto his leg should get a medal, or at least a raise.

Now, the intrepid, rain-soaked correspondents have enjoined a Category 5 scolding from Bush, the governor of Florida, that is.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. JEB BUSH (R), FLORIDA: To see these characters on television reporting the news and putting themselves in harm's way doesn't do much good either. Creates a bad example, I think, for others. They think somehow this is fun. It isn't fun. It's very dangerous.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Why don't Roker and the rest of the hurricane crew find a safer assignment, like covering Baghdad?

Well, Roker isn't so happy about all this criticism. On his web site he's telling print hacks -- I wonder who he has in mind -- to stop whining: "Just because your medium is irrelevant when it becomes to covering a breaking story like a hurricane doesn't mean you have to trash others who are out there covering it."

Hey, all we did was play the tape.

Coming up in the second hour of RELIABLE SOURCE, we'll go to Baghdad to talk to the "New York Times" Baghdad bureau chief about whether insurgents there are targeting journalists and why coverage suddenly spikes when the U.S. death toll in Iraq reached a milestone.

That plus a panel of top bloggers on corruption in the White House, a doctored photograph in "USA Today" and the "Boston Globe's" ill-gotten gains from a World Series win.

All that after a check of the hour's top headlines from the CNN Center in Atlanta.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES, now a full hour Sundays at 10:00 a.m. Eastern.

As the media have focused on politics, scandal and hurricanes in recent months, Iraq has been greatly overshadowed, even as Americans have continued to die there day after day.

But the story burst back into the news this past week for statistical reasons. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: Word came over the news wires of another American soldier's death in Iraq, and with that, the U.S. arrived at a kind of benchmark.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The military said today that 2,000 American servicemen and women have now died in the war on Iraq.

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: More than 90 percent of the 2,000 who died in the war have died since the president declared major combat was at an end in May 2003.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: In print, papers like "The Washington Post" and "New York Times" played up the milestone, while the New York tabloids took a more emotional approach.

Well, joining me now from Baghdad is John Burns. He is the bureau chief there for "The New York Times." Thanks very much for joining us.

Day after depressing day, you're confronted with five Americans killed, 10 killed, 20 killed. Suddenly the number hits 2,000, and it's on the front pages of a lot of papers. Why does it take such an arbitrary milestone to make this a big story?

JOHN BURNS, NEW YORK TIMES: I don't think we need to be too intellectual about this. I think that it's something that most Americans would instinctively understand: 2,000 lives lost is an important benchmark. And it was an occasion to look, as I believe my paper and your paper, Howard, did as well, seriously into the breakdown among those figures. And as you know, it was pretty interested to read.

So, do we need any more justification than that? It was interesting, it was significant, and I think if you stopped the first 100 people on any street in America, they would say they too recognize that as an important juncture in this war.

KURTZ: Do you find it frustrating that the daily death toll, the depressing mortar attack and suicide bombings that continue to claim American lives are not, at least on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, getting quite as much coverage as it was -- as they were earlier in this conflict?

BURNS: Howard, I've been in this business for 40 years, and there is a cycle to everything. We have marched across the front pages of America and the evening newscasts and CNN for 30 months now since the war was launched. After Katrina and some of the other things that have happened in Washington lately, it's no surprise. But we know the story comes back to us, unfortunately, you might say, because it's so far from ended here, and because every week, as this past week demonstrated, produces shattering events here. KURTZ: I want to read you an e-mail, John Burns, from Lieutenant Colonel Steven Boylan. He's the director of the Combined Press Information Center. And he says, went out and told people, that "2,000 service member killed in Iraq supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom is not a milestone. It is an artificial mark on the wall set by individuals or groups with specific agendas and ulterior motives. In some cases, this could also be the creating of news where none really exists." Your thoughts on that?

BURNS: Yes. I read that. Colonel Boylan is a man we respect. He is a man we deal with a great deal. He's one of the officers who stands at the interface between the American command and us. I read that statement as a kind of cry from the heart. And I think it's very easy to misunderstand it.

I'm sure that Colonel Boylan would agree that every American life that's lost is one too many, and that 2,000 are too many. And it's the complaint of the command, of course, that we undercover many things that the American command gets right.

Where I thought that perhaps his statement hit the wrong turn was in suggesting -- if you'd only suggested that we should spend more time covering some of the things that go right here, I don't think anybody would have particularly noticed that statement. I think what was wrong about it, and I think emotions perhaps got the better of Colonel Boylan in this, was suggesting that we should have somehow allowed that benchmark to pass unnoticed, and that, frankly, to anybody who knows our business, and frankly, I think to those who know the heart and soul of America was not going to happen.

KURTZ: Tragically, John Burns, an Iraqi journalist and photographer for "The New York Times" was killed last month. He was abducted by a group of masked, armed gunmen. How much do you rely on Iraqis to help with your reporting and how much do you worry about their safety in this unstable environment?

BURNS: We do rely heavily on Iraqis, and they are very brave and very principled people. And just as the Iraqi population had taken the brunt of this war, so among the journalists, it is the Iraqi journalists, who, unfortunately, have been principal amongst those who have been killed and wounded.

That doesn't mean to say that of course Western journalists just simply sit in their hotels or their bureaus and compounds and don't go out and face some of these dangers themselves. We try to be sage about this and sensible. There are some things that we won't do anymore. We will not take long overland journeys anymore, and not only because of the danger to ourselves as individuals, but because we'd have to be responsible both towards our employers and what it would mean for them, I mean, in terms of the trauma that it would create for our institutions and I guess across America.

KURTZ: And on that point, John Burns, you had a harrowing incident last year, where you were blindfolded and detained by insurgents for about eight hours. To what extent are these conditions that you were just talking about stopping you from doing the kind of reporting you'd like to do? Making your job difficult or some would say near impossible?

BURNS: They do make our lives difficult. But as you know, Howard, in the very difficult job you have to do in Washington, D.C., the nature of this job, like so many other jobs, is to overcome the obstacles. The obstacles here are pretty high. But there are ways to get the job done.

We think that we can still get the job done. What is the job? The job is to keep the readers of "The New York Times" and television networks and other newspapers, their audiences, informed about all that truly matters here.

I think we're still doing that. If we felt we couldn't do it, I think we'd be brave enough and honest enough to say so. And we just have to hope that day doesn't come.

But my sense is it's still a long way off. We can still operate here. We can still do a lot of things. And I think anybody who reads my paper or your newspaper knows that to be true.

KURTZ: All right, well, my job is a lot easier than what you're going through. John Burns, stay safe. And thanks very much for joining us.

With me now to discuss some of these issues and much more is veteran political journalist Roger Simon, who writes a twice-a-week column at RogerSimon.com. In Denver, Jeralyn Merritt. She's a defense attorney who blogs at TalkLeft.com. And in Knoxville, Glenn Reynolds, University of Tennessee law professor, the blogger known as Instapundit, and the author of the upcoming book "An Army of Davids."

Roger Simon, you wrote on your Web site just the other day that the reporters are looking to ask the president one difficult question. What is that question?

ROGER SIMON, ROGERSIMON.COM: White House reporters. Our bloggers have already asked it. To do a brief setup, George Bush has made two speeches in the last week, upbraiding leaders for being hypocritical, for not making the sacrifices they ask others to make. And the question that needs to be asked, and has been asked by bloggers, is has George Bush ever had a discussion with his two daughters, both of whom are 23 years old, about going and enlisting in the armed forces and fighting in Iraq.

KURTZ: And is it fair to personalize it that way?

SIMON: It is, because their answer is not point. And I don't care what they do. I'm certainly not pushing them to go and fight in Iraq. The point is what the president of the United States does, and has he had this conversation that he has urged other parents to have.

KURTZ: Jeralyn Merritt, why have American deaths in Iraq been on the back burner for some months now until this magic 2,000 figure was hit?

JERALYN MERRITT, TALKLEFT.COM: One of the reasons is, we don't see it on television anymore. You know, even during Vietnam, we'd come home and turn on the network news, and you'd see pictures of the battlefield, pictures of things going on. It's gone from the news. We've got Katrina now, we've got the crisis in the White House over the corruption scandal. And it just doesn't come home to people anymore. Except for the people who are involved.

KURTZ: Glenn Reynolds, is this 2,000 deaths just a bloody milestone that naturally was going to get some media attention, or is there an anti-war tinge to the sudden focus on 2,000 deaths, the press's way of saying, see, this just isn't working out?

GLENN REYNOLDS, INSTAPUNDIT.COM: Well, it's more than that. It's a manufactured event by a press that has largely been anti-war from the beginning, and I think is dogpiling on the Bush administration for as many opportunities as it can find.

Ran Siemberg (ph), who is a blogger, had an amusing parody from World War II of the media making a big deal out of another milestone, the 250,000th death. And I think that provides all kind of perspective, on the difference between the two wars, and the difference between the press' treatment of the two wars.

Too often, war coverage now is just another opportunity to try to go after Bush, who the press has disliked from day one. And I think that's very, very unfortunate.

KURTZ: Roger Simon, you are shaking your head.

SIMON: I just don't find much comparison between World War II, in which we were fighting predatory fascism that was trying to take over the globe, and invading Iraq for reasons that the administration now admits were false.

KURTZ: All right. I want to turn now to the coverage and the blogging coverage as well of the Harriet Miers debacle nomination, which ended abruptly last Thursday. Want to play a clip from Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, talking about what happened before her nomination was pulled.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Instead of a hearing before the Judiciary Committee and a debate on the Senate floor, Ms. Miers' qualifications were subjected to a one-sided debate in news releases, press conferences, radio and TV talk shows and the editorial pages.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Jeralyn Merritt, if there was a one-sided debate, as Senator Specter says, why was that? Weren't liberals and senators free to join in? Come on TV and defend Harriet Miers?

MERRITT: You know, I think the senators and the liberals were willing to let her have her hearings and prove her case, and let us see whether or not she was qualified to be on the court. It was the radical right that was up in arms, because they didn't think that she was conservative enough, and they thought that when Bush got reelected, he promised them a conservative on the court. And they brought her down.

KURTZ: Well, why do you say the radical right? There were a lot of people who most folks would regard as mainstream conservatives who felt that she wasn't qualified. Why do you use the phrase "radical right?"

MERRITT: Because it was the radical right who wanted a litmus test on abortion and they brought her religion into it, and they said that it's not enough, it's not a guarantee that she's going to vote to overturn Roe versus Wade if she gets on the court. And they shouldn't have brought her religion into it, and they should have given her a chance. They're the ones that always say, give us the up-or-down vote. And Mrs. Miers didn't get an up-or-down vote.

KURTZ: Glenn Reynolds, you want to pick that up?

REYNOLDS: Yeah, I don't think it was just the radical right. You know, I'm pro-choice myself, and I probably like her position on a lot of social issues better than I would, say, that of a Michael McConnell. The difference is, Michael McConnell is qualified to be on the Supreme Court, and I don't think Harriet Miers was.

KURTZ: Glenn, you wrote that the White House could have saved itself a lot of trouble on the Miers nomination by reading the blogs. What did you mean by that?

REYNOLDS: Well, in fact, the week before Miers was nominated, Mickey Kaus had a post contrasting Harriet Miers with Michael McConnell, and pointing out what a sharp difference there was in their resumes, and that was a sort of tip-off that I think they could have looked for.

This was just a terribly bungled decision. The White House completely blew it. And as Henry Fielding said, if a man lays the foundation of his own ruin, others are too apt to build upon it. And that's what happened.

KURTZ: Roger Simon, did conservative pundits flip from saying you shouldn't ask nominees about their specific legal views as in the case of John Roberts, to suddenly demanding to know everything about Harriet Miers' views?

SIMON: I think there was an element of that. And certainly conservative bloggers laid a foundation for Harriet Miers' fall, her doom. But what really doomed her -- we just saw Arlen Specter. Arlen Specter is the same senator who, after meeting with Harriet Miers, came out and told the press she needs a short course in constitutional law.

What doomed Harriet Miers was not the press, not the bloggers. It was her bad performance in front of members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in private, and they knew she could not survive a public hearing. KURTZ: Well, I think the press and the bloggers had something to do with it, but certainly those one-on-one meetings did not help.

We need to get a break here. Coming up, we'll ask our bloggers about the indictment of Lewis Libby in the CIA leak case, and dissect the role of the partisan media in the coverage of Libby, on Karl Rove and the White House.

And later, the new president of CBS News is a sports guy? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FITZGERALD: I've read one -- one day I read that I was a Republican hack. Another day, I read I was a Democratic hack. And the only thing I did between those two nights was sleep.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.

Glenn Reynolds, is the Scooter Libby indictment as earth shattering a political event as the mainstream media are making it out to be?

REYNOLDS: Not so far. If this is all there is, I'd say the mountain has labored and brought forth a mouse. We had a big investigation to find out who at the CIA leaked this stuff to Robert Novak. We still don't know that. And the only indictment we have is for things that happened during the course of the investigation. So either there is more to come, or this is pretty much investigatus interruptus. We'll just have to see.

KURTZ: Novak told me he was going to tell all on Friday, but decided not to when one of his sources was described in the indictment as Official A.

Jeralyn Merritt, did the media go too far in trumpeting, some even kind of predicting that Karl Rove would be indicted in this case?

MERRITT: I don't think so. I think right up until the end, he might have been indicted. And I don't think that Fitzgerald is done.

I think -- and one of the things that I wish more reporters would ask is, you know, where are the plea agreements? Who got immunity from prosecution? And are we going to see that other people plead guilty later on? And I don't know that Karl Rove isn't going to be one of those people.

The question is going to be, what did Fitzgerald promise them and how many of them are going to get sentences of probation or at least avoiding jail in exchange for their cooperation against Libby? And is Libby going to fall on his sword to protect the vice president and plead guilty to all of this and make it go away? KURTZ: Well, I still think it's dangerous to predict indictments, speaking as an old Justice Department reporter.

Now, one of the three journalists who had these conversations with Libby is Judith Miller of "The New York Times." She's reported to be negotiating a possible separation from her paper.

You wrote a blog posting a couple of weeks ago, saying that people around Washington were calling her a crazy person, which I thought was a little harsh. Does she look worse or better now that we've seen her role in this indictment?

SIMON: Oh, I think she will be an unindicted victim of this case. She's done nothing criminally wrong.

KURTZ: You see her as a victim?

SIMON: Well, victim is wrong.

KURTZ: She certainly went to jail...

SIMON: She's one of the people whose lives is going to be changed for the worse by this incident. There is almost no journalist I know of who says good things about Judy Miller. I just reported it; I didn't endorse it. I don't know her. I have never met her. I just find it hard to believe she's going to return to "The New York Times," which presumably is a job she loves.

KURTZ: Glenn Reynolds, are some in the press trying to make this -- and Fitzgerald specifically said you shouldn't do this -- to make this case and this indictment into refighting the whole debate over whether we should have gone into Iraq, did the administration lie about WMD, all of that?

REYNOLDS: Yes. And you've got two things going on here. You've got a lot of revisionist history, in which a lot of people in the press who reported more or less the same things Judy Miller did are now trying to make it sound as if she was the only one saying there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, when of course everyone was saying that. And you've got this sort of egged on, I think, by the bureaucratic warfare that's been going on between the White House and the CIA, in which there are a lot of leaks coming out from the CIA.

KURTZ: Judy Miller had plenty of company, as you observe, Glenn.

Jeralyn Merritt, what about this notion that this has become a vehicle for journalists to revisit, re-excavate and refight the whole debate over Iraq?

MERRITT: Well, I think it's important that we do do that. I mean, there weren't weapons of mass destruction, and that was one of the main reasons...

KURTZ: But we've known that for two years now. Why is the indictment of Scooter Libby on the specific charge of lying about what he did or did not say about Joe Wilson's wife, why is that an opportunity or an invitation to the press to get into this broad a debate?

MERRITT: Because it's the coverup, because of their attempt to smear Joseph Wilson because he was a critic of the war. And we need to revisit that. We're entitled to have this administration admit we didn't have grounds to go to war.

KURTZ: All right. We'll be revisiting it on your blog and these others as well. Jeralyn Merritt, Glenn Reynolds, Roger Simon, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, our media minute. One newspaper shows Condoleezza Rice in a rather ghoulish light. And the "Boston Globe" ombudsman reels a foul play at his own newspaper. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Time now for the latest from the news business in our "Media Minute."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): You may not know the name Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, but you undoubtedly know his dad, sportscaster Jim McKay. Because of his father, McManus grew up around legendary ABC czar Roone Arledge, the first network executive to run the sports and news departments at the same time. And this week, CBS Chairman Les Moonves bestowed the same double burden on McManus, naming him president of CBS News. In doing so, he let go Andrew Heyward, whose stock had dropped after he approved last year's botched Dan Rather piece of challenging President Bush's National Guard service.

When the Red Sox won the World Series last year, "Boston Globe" President Richard Daniels and publisher Richard Gilman accepted World Series rings from the team. Not only does "The Globe" cover the Sox, but the team is partially owned by "The Globe's" corporate parent, the New York Times Company. Talk about an out-of-bounds play. "Globe" ombudsman, Richard Chacon, who broke the news, says the executives should give back the rings. He nailed that one.

And take a look at this picture of Condoleezza Rice. Now look at the version that ran on "USA Today's Web site, until blogger Michelle Malkin blew the whistle on it. The secretary of state looks like a vampire, because the newspaper brightened part of her face. "USA Today" editors took down the picture, saying it didn't meet the paper's standards.

Was this an early Halloween joke? What on earth were they thinking?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Are you one of the thousands or hundreds of thousands of RELIABLE SOURCES fans who just can't wait until Sunday morning to find out what we'll be talking about? Then sign up for our weekly electronic newsletter. We'll tell you what we'll be discussing on the show and who we'll have on. Just go to our Web site, cnn.com/reliablesources. Click on the link that says "sign up to receive an e-mail," and follow the directions from there. And if you have any comments about today's show, e-mail us at reliable@cnn.com.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Be sure to join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.

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