Return to Transcripts main page
CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Katie Couric Takes Over the 'CBS Evening News' Anchor Chair; Bush Confirms Existence of Secret CIA Prisons
Aired September 10, 2006 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, RELIABLE SOURCES HOST: Katie in the evening, as Katie Couric finally takes the "CBS" anchor chair. Is she delivering a fresh and lively approach to the nightly newscast or a gimmicky magazine show with little hard news?
Is her chatty and smiling morning show style a good fit at 6:30 and why is everyone talking about her wardrobe?
Terror talk. On the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, President Bush invokes Lenin and Hitler and finally confirms a "Washington Post" story about secret CIA prisons.
Are journalists buying the White House line?
Hollywood fakery? An "ABC" miniseries on Osama Bin Laden draws fierce criticism from former Clinton aide, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger and Richard Clark. "ABC" admits some scenes are fictional. How much artistic license is too much?
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead we'll talk about the controversial path to 9/11 docudrama with former Clinton defense secretary William Cohen and others.
But first we turn to our critical news on the heavily hyped debut in modern network history. We saw many sides of Katie Couric when she took the helm of the "CBS" evening news this week and a new more casual approach to an anchor job that has never been held solely by a woman.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ (voice-over): There was Katie the hard news woman.
KATIE COURIC, "CBS" ANCHOR: Our chief foreign correspondent, Lara Logan, had unprecedented access to some Taliban fighters in one of their new strongholds on Ghazni province.
KURTZ: There was Katie the presidential interrogator.
COURIC: Is this a tacit acknowledgement at all, Mr. President, that the ways these detainees were handled early on was wrong?
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, it's not at all.
KURTZ: There was Katie the pop culture queen.
COURIC: An exclusive first look at "Vanity Fair's" newest cover girl. She's Suri Cruise, daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ (on-camera): And, of course, there was Katie the schmoozer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
COURIC: All summer long, people have been asking me, "How will you sign off at the end of your broadcast?" I've racked my brain and so far nothing has felt right.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So what impact is Couric having on the venerable old evening newscast? Joining us now in New York, Kurt Anderson, a journalist, novelist, columnist and form editor of "New York Magazine," and host of "NPR Studio 360.
In Boston, Emily Rooney, executive editor and host of "Greater Boston" and "Beat the Press" on "WGBH."
In Miami, Glen Garvin, television critic for the "Miami Herald." And here in Washington, Linda Douglass, a former "ABC" correspondent, now at New York University's Brademas Center.
Kurt Anderson, what did you make of Couric's approach to the very traditional anchor job and the broadcast approach to news?
KURT ANDERSON, COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK MAGAZINE": I think she and her producers are trying to, in small ways, break out of the fairly constricted formula, format and formula of the last 40 years of the evening news.
You know, one can't expect her to sort of have a silver bullet and reinvent it all at once, I think, in the first two days, but the fact she's doing more interviews, trying new things at the margins is all to the good.
KURTZ: We'll give her at least a few more weeks to reinvent the news.
Emily Rooney, you've read the reviews. A lot of people didn't like the white jacket she wore on opening night. We see it right there on the screen. Is Katie Couric, as a woman and anchor, judged by a different standard?
EMILY ROONEY, HOST, WGBH "BEAT THE PRESS": Why are you asking me about the clothes? I mean, listen, that argument just doesn't wash with me. Of course, she's going to be judged by a different standard.
Women wear clothing that stands out in a way that clothing that men wear just doesn't. So, of course, we're going to look at her clothing and make a judgment, a passing judgment on it. It's also one of the reasons to watch.
People are going to be tuning in to see what she's wearing. So I don't have a problem with any kind of criticism that people have offered up on that. I happen to think that some of her selection were a little odd and I think she could have been just as conservative, but with something that was, frankly, more flattering.
KURTZ: Linda Douglass, you look nice this morning. You worked at "CBS" when Cronkite was in the chair. This was not Walter Cronkite's evening news.
LINDA DOUGLASS, FMR. "ABC" CORRESPONDENT: Not in many, many ways. I mean, first of all, as Kurt already said, this is not a traditional newscast, with story after story after story.
There's a theory that people already get their news all day. I happen not to agree with that. I think they want to see what happened today from people who are accurate and trustworthy. I kept flipping around...
KURTZ: Despite cable news, despite the Internet, despite the...
DOUGLASS: People are at work. People are living their lives. They might get a snippet of a headline somewhere, they might hear talk radio, they might get a blog.
I don't know if you want to trust a blog. I think at the end of day, you want to see the news and I think it's unfortunate that they put a softer newscast around a woman, because the word "soft" kept being used in describing how this newscast looked.
And I think that Katie is a very serious journalist and that doesn't help her become the authority figure that clearly she's aiming to be.
KURTZ: Glen Garvin, you wrote in the "Miami Herald," "If this is the new direction of the "CBS" evening news, you might want to start watching "Entertainment Tonight." That's a pretty harsh indictment.
GLEN GARVIN, TV CRITIC, "MIAMI HERALD": I thought it was pretty surprising that you had a key ruling in the Mexican presidential election early and that could lead to enormous violence in Mexico. There was no mention of that, but, of course, we heard all about Tom and Katie's baby. I think it was absurd.
KURTZ: There's no question that in an effort to cram into the 19 minutes of airtime, more interviews, more features, there are some stories that you just don't get to.
Kurt Anderson, you've written in "New York Magazine" about Couric's sense of humor being a great asset to television journalists. But Brian Williams is very funny off the air, but his view is the news is serious and he's not there to be Jon Stewart.
So why do you think humor is so important? ANDERSON: Well, I think humor -- I was making the point that humor in the age of Jon Stewart is one way to indicate one's honesty, authenticity. No, in 22 minutes on the nightly news, there are precious few opportunities to say, "Look at me, I'm funny."
But an expression of humor as one of a great range of human emotions that she has shown herself capable of expressing on the air over the last 15 years, I think, is to the point of being less of a robot, more of a normal human being on the air.
And wait until we see her do, you know, the election night coverage, more extemporaneous, spontaneous, improvised performances. I think that range of human emotion can be more effective.
KURTZ: Yes, people sometimes forget these anchor jobs at not just at 6:30, but any breaking news that happens, suddenly you're there without a teleprompter.
Emily Rooney, I want to play this as an example of one of Couric's innovations, a bite from this new free speech segment, the commentary segment. The person who was first up was Morgan Spurlock. He's the guy who made the anti-McDonald's film, "Supersize Me." Here's how he looked on "CBS."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MORGAN SPURLOCK, DOCUMENTARY FILMMAKER: Liberal, conservative, red state, blue state, right, wrong, us, them, tastes great, less filling, you name it. Well, I don't buy it.
You see, today's news has become just like professional wrestling.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So, Emily, did the whole thing strike you as a good mix of hard news, lighter features and rants from contributors?
ROONEY: I sort of liked the free speech segment, although it came out nowhere and I'm not sure it's going to work in the long run. I'm not sure there's that many people who are that interested.
And the guy on Friday, I can't even think of his name, was talking about vacations. That one didn't work at all. Rush Limbaugh felt a little flat to me.
You know, one of the interesting things, Howie, is -- and I actually disagree with Glen about that Suri Cruise thing, too. That was like eight seconds, that was fine. She had a little exclusive there. People were talking about that.
But I noticed that the having the broadcaster talking about the Website, I finally actually turned to the website. That is stunning. You know, she's on at 10:00 in the morning talking about all of the pieces they're going have at 6:30 that night. So to Linda Douglass' point, a lot of people may not know what's going on until 6:30 at night, but they can turn on to that Website now and discover it, if they want to.
ANDERSON: And Emily says, if you look at the Website, her preview of what they're working on, she really goes for the "Today Show" Katie, the sense of humor on that.
So it's interesting if they really use broadband and the Web to say here's one part of her persona as opposed to what she does at 6:30 on the network.
KURTZ: And the "CBS" evening news became the first broadcast this week to simulcast on the Website the actual broadcast people can see, if they happen to be away from a television or, of course, can see it later.
Katie as an interviewer. She talked to President Bush. She talked to Bob Schieffer. She talked to Tom Friedman of the "New York Times." Is that one of her strengths?
DOUGLASS: I think Katie's a very good interviewer. I actually don't think, once again, that this particular show showcased her interviewing strengths. I thought that the way that the interview with President Bush was cut didn't highlight feistier interactions that most surely have taken place between her and the president.
It didn't generate nearly the news that one would think that you would get if you were sitting down with a splashy exclusive interview with the president of the United States.
So I don't think that we saw enough interaction between her and her interview subjects and we didn't see any interaction to speak of between her and the correspondents.
If you're trying to build a team, and Katie is the head of the team, you'd think you'd want to see her interacting with the correspondents and perhaps using the word "I" less.
Walter Cronkite always said "this reporter." You know, in other words, he never spoke about himself in the first person singular. Clearly, "CBS" is trying to build this show around the person rather than around the news.
KURTZ: There was a little more interaction later in the week. But, of course, that was Bob Schieffer's great innovation was that he made it so much about him, but about the team of correspondents.
And speaking of the team of "CBS" correspondents, Glen Garvin, whatever your feelings about the news mix and you didn't like the Tom and Katie baby photos, wasn't there some pretty strong reporting behind Katie Couric?
For example, the lead piece on the first night was an in-depth report from Afghanistan by Lara Logan. GARVIN: No, I thought that was a horrible piece. I noticed you wrote in the "Post" that it was good journalism and I was pretty shocked by that.
Let me say, before we get too far into this, Lara Logan is a fine reporter. I've seen her work on many occasions and she is very good.
That was not a good piece. The piece was all about what an incredible adventure and the arduous conditions under which Lara Logan got into Taliban territory in Afghanistan.
There was almost nothing about what she had actually saw there or, more importantly, what it meant.
KURTZ: But there was footage in a remote part of Afghanistan, and about a 100 Taliban fighters with their weapons, they were praying, the kind of thing you don't often see. And why shouldn't...
GARVIN: That was pretty good.
KURTZ: Why shouldn't the conditions under which journalists penetrate this sort of closed society be part of the story?
GARVIN: Because it's not very interesting or revealing. Reporting is reporting. It's not this boy's adventure or, in this case, this young woman's adventure.
You mentioned correctly there was a lot of footage of guys with guns. There was also an awful lot of footage of Lara Logan and I don't think that's unconnected to the fact that she's very pretty and blond.
KURTZ: Well, of course, the "60 Minutes" style is to put the correspondent at the center of whatever the story happens to be.
Kurt Anderson, you talk about the people, the audience being sort of hungry for authenticity, not the robo anchor type.
Katie Couric is a very real person that comes across on the screen. But that suggests to me, when people are making their decisions about what never to watch, that it's all about personality and not news and not journalism.
ANDERSON: It's television, Howie. I mean, why did people like Walter Cronkite? Because they knew he was a great reporter? No. Because they liked the whole range of seriousness, of trustworthiness, of personal rapport that he brought to the screen.
Just like Anderson Cooper on CNN, as a different example of somebody who kind of embodies authenticity in a different way. I mean, let's not pretend this is not a form of performance. It is.
KURTZ: So is the supporting cast less important? Have you also got to take the "CBS" lineup, you know, Bob Schieffer and Lara Logan and Gloria Borger and Jim Axelrod? That, in your view, just simply fades compared to the star, the star, the person who sits in the anchor chair?
ANDERSON: No, I think you do both, obviously. And I think you try to have great reports and great people in the field. No, you don't just suddenly put the entire weight of your broadcast on the superstar in the anchor chair.
But to pretend as though that person and how he or she connects with the audience or what the audience imagines him or her to be, of course, that's part of what a television anchor is all about.
KURTZ: Emily Rooney, do Charlie Gibson at "ABC" and Brian Williams at "NBC" now have to react to this new approach or do they just keep playing their game?
ROONEY: I don't know how they're going to react. But just to Kurt's point, I think what "CBS" has done is put all their eggs in Katie's basket. They've essentially eliminated the correspondents the way that Bob Schieffer brought them in.
I saw a tease last night. I was watching a tennis match and it was all about "60 Minutes" and Katie Couric is suddenly the face of "60 Minutes." Really? When did that happen?
I know she's got a report on tonight, but it seems to me that is the one dramatic change they have made in the broadcast. They've eliminated that debriefing that went on with the correspondents.
And just, also, on the point of her interviewing. I don't know about any of you, I felt a little uneasy during her interview. She had the big notes on her lap. That seemed unnecessary to me. I can't believe she couldn't go into an interview with Tom Friedman or President Bush without referring to notes. I just was surprised to see that.
KURTZ: I think it's a little strong to say eliminated the correspondents. There were a number of correspondent pieces on.
ROONEY: The debriefs, though.
KURTZ: And as the week went on, there were a few debriefs. She talked to Bob Schieffer, for example, and some others. But it seems you've got to give up something if you're going to make time for these longer pieces and commentary slots.
Linda Douglass, let me come back to the question about the competition.
Charlie Gibson at your old network, "ABC," Brian Williams still number one at "NBC." Do they just keep doing what they're doing, a more traditional newscasts?
DOUGLASS: I think absolutely. I mean, this is a big experiment, what "CBS" is doing, building the show around a personality, making the pieces more featury. Clearly, they're trying to see if people really are sick of the traditional evening news that's filled with stories and correspondents and has a very predictable routine. So this is going to be a contest not only between anchor personalities, but between very different philosophies about how to do a show. I mean, Katie is all about connection, connect to me, and Charlie and Brian are trying to exude authority. It's a different message.
KURTZ: That's why it will be interesting for us to watch in the coming weeks and months. Everybody, stay put.
Just ahead, that controversial "ABC" miniseries, "Path to 9/11," has half the Clinton administration up in arms. Does fiction have any place in a network docudrama?
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We turn now to the controversy surrounding the docudrama, "The Path to 9/11."
This, of course, has been the subject of a furious lobbying campaign by former Clinton administration officials and Democrats who want the movie changed or taken off the air.
My question to you, Emily Rooney, should "ABC" be embarrassed at put on a $40 million movie on this still very painful subject of 9/11, with a number of made-up scenes and made-up dialogue, that only in recent days has the network been scrambling to fix?
ROONEY: Well, there's no such thing as being embarrassed anymore. The only people who should be embarrassed are the ones who tune in to watch this. My feeling is it's like an Oliver Stone movie, you get what you deserve if you tune in and watch this.
It's fiction. It's a novel. I can't even believe it's engendered the kind of acrimony that it has. I mean, I'm so uninterested in this, I force myself to read the articles about it.
KURTZ: Linda Douglass, "ABC" says that it's somewhat irresponsible to criticize before people have seen the final version. I've seen the rough cut they put out to critics and journalists. And, also, they say that a lot of this is based on the 9/11 commission report, but they acknowledge certain fictional scenes.
DOUGLASS: Well, I mean, first of all, I was thinking, I was in the movies last night, I saw a trailer for a movie that said "inspired by a true story," and maybe that's what they should put on this just to tell people that it really isn't completely factual.
But, you know, they do this. I mean, I totally agree with Emily. This is entertainment. It's partially based, I gather, on the 9/11 commission report. Sadly, I think it's going to blow apart this 9/11 commission which was so cohesive and had so much credibility, the group of commissioners, because they're angry now at Tom Kean for having been a consultant on this.
And I think this just shows you that Republicans have more power to pressure a network, to pull the show, than Democrats do, because remember, Republicans got "CBS" to pull back that show on the Reagan family, because they said it was inaccurate. The Democrats haven't won this one.
KURTZ: Tom Kean, of course, the Republican former chairman of the 9/11 commission and a consultant to the movie, a co-executive producer, but no Democrats on that commission were contacted by the filmmakers.
Kurt Andersen, I want to play some comments from film critic Michael Medved. He was on with me on Friday night and follows on now about the campaign against the movie.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL MEDVED, FILM CRITIC: What concerns me is the organized campaign by the Democratic Party, the Democratic National Committee to yank, that's their term, that is, to censor, to eliminate the opportunity for people to see this thing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Kurt, any liberal hypocrisy? Liberals usually oppose censorship or knocking things off television.
ANDERSEN: Well, of course, there's hypocrisy in there. Of course, there's double standards. I was impressed, however, that the very conservative columnist, John Podhoretz wrote a column saying that Sandy Berger, for instance, and Madeleine Albright have both been libeled by this thing and "ABC" ought to be ashamed.
So at least there are some people without double standards. But I think actually that entertainment films about this subject, 9/11, can be more scrupulous. Look at this movie, "United 93," which did an extraordinary job, as best it could, trying to adhere to the facts that they are known.
So I don't think we can say "Oh, it's a movie, therefore, you know, don't watch it." Of course, it's going to be, you know, not adhered to the facts. I think we can hold filmmakers to a higher standard.
KURTZ: Glen Garvin, should "ABC" have tried harder to produce a movie that was more factual or, look, it's a movie and maybe the critics are overreacting? People know there's going to be some dramatic license in a movie.
GARVIN: First, I'd like to go back to something that was said just a minute ago. The Reagan movie was not pulled. It didn't air on "CBS", but it aired on "Showtime," which is simply another arm of the Viacom Broadcast empire.
And I think you can argue that Les Moonves of "CBS" took the more responsible attitude in not cutting the show.
KURTZ: Just briefly on the "ABC" movie, because we're running out of time. GARVIN: Well, I feel a little sorry for "ABC." They retained somebody, the chairman of the commission to ensure authenticity. He's been plugging the thing and saying it was great and now, at the last minute, all of a sudden, they discover there's problems with it.
KURTZ: And perhaps they'll do a bigger Nielsen number as a result of all the controversy. Glen Garvin, Emily Rooney, Kurt Andersen, Linda Douglass, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up, Miami reporters on the government payroll? A dramatic mission springs an American journalist from an African jail and a San Diego investigative reporter under attack and it's captured on tape.
Our media round-up in a moment.
KURTZ: Time now for a look at the news business in our "Media Minute."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ (voice-over): The "Miami Herald" has fired two reporters and a freelancer for its Spanish language edition for accepting money from the U.S. government for appearances on "Radio Marti" and "TV Marti," the broadcasting services beamed into Cuba.
One of them, Pablo Alfonso, who covers Cuba, has been paid $175,000 over the last five years to host programs. The "Herald's" publisher says they violated a sacred trust. All told, at least 10 south Florida journalists accepted payments from "Radio" and "TV Marti."
Some corporate infighting at Hewlett-Packard has led to a nasty bit of surveillance of journalists. Investigators hired by the computer giant secretly obtained the phone numbers of John Markoff of the "New York Times" and reporters for the "Wall Street Journal" and the online news service, "CNET."
The company was trying to determine whether one of its directors, George Keyworth, had leaked confidential information to the press. Hewlett-Packard has apologized. California attorney general Bill Lockyer is investigating.
UNKNOWN FEMALE: Stop that (expletive) camera right now. Oh, yes I will.
KURTZ: Journalism will be a risky business even outside a war zone. Just ask John Mattes, an investigative reporter for "XETV" in San Diego. He was working on a story about an alleged real estate scam when he was violently attacked by building owner, Assad Suleiman and his wife.
JOHN MATTES, XETV INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: Out of the blue, his wife comes running up.
REPORTER: She just shows up.
MATTES: Shows up and we've been ambushed and then she confronts us and I'm thinking, "Well, OK, she's a little hot." She's throwing water on us. The next I know, I'm slapped. Then she takes the bottle and smacks me.
REPORTER: And then the husband comes along.
MATTES: And then the husband comes running up, without any -- no indication at all, bam, he knocks me down.
REPORTER: Did you expect that he was going to hit you?
MATTES: I had no clue. I had no perception or any premonition that that would happen.
KURTZ: Mattes told CNN that he suffered cracked ribs and human bite marks, along with the obvious damage to his face. The caught-on- tape couple were arrested.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get on the ground.
KURTZ: But there was another glaringly obvious question posed by the "Today Show's" Matt Lauer. Why on earth did the cameraman keep rolling instead of trying to help?
MATT LAUER, "THE TODAY SHOW": I'm there as a journalist. He's there to record the event and protect the event and but for him recording this, we would never have known what transpired there.
Yes, we could have turned this into a barroom brawl off-camera, but that's not what this story is about.
KURTZ: Quite a scene. And some good news to report. Paul Salopak, the "Chicago Tribune" reporter held for more than a month by the government of Sudan, was released yesterday and is expected to arrive this hour in Albuquerque.
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson won the release of Salopak, who was on assignment for "National Geographic," by persuading Sudan's president to drop espionage charges against the two-time Pulitzer winner.
Ahead in our next half-hour, former Clinton defense secretary William Cohen weighs in on his portrayal in the controversial "ABC" on the run-up to 9/11.
And David Gergen and Bill Press face off on whether the media have turned downright skeptical toward President Bush's war on terror. That and more after the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. As we mentioned earlier in the program, there's been a huge uproar over "The Path to 9/11," the five-hour docudrama from "ABC Entertainment" that the network admits contains some fictional scenes and composite characters.
The $40 million movie scheduled to air tonight and tomorrow night.
The film portrays former Clinton officials, such as Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright, as undermining U.S. attempts to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden in the years leading up to 9/11.
One of the most controversial scenes, which "ABC" says it's been reviewing, shows Berger putting the brakes on one such mission.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ACTOR: We're ready to load the package. Repeat, do we have clearance to load the package?
ACTOR: Stand by.
ACTOR: Our officers are in place, sir. They're in danger.
ACTOR: I understand that, Patricia, but I don't have that authority.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: On CNN's "Situation Room," Berger said "ABC" should withdraw the series.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SAMUEL BERGER, FMR. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: The produces themselves say it's fictionalized. But the events of 9/11 are very real and we don't need to play fiction with nerve.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: I spoke earlier to one member of the Clinton cabinet, former defense secretary William Cohen, chairman and CEO of the Cohen Group and the author of a new spy novel, Dragon Fire."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: William Cohen, welcome.
WILLIAM COHEN, THE COHEN GROUP: Good to be with you.
KURTZ: You haven't seen "The Path to 9/11," but I have. You're in this movie. You're portrayed by the actor, Michael Murphy. There is a scene, I know you've heard about this, where you're standing there while supposedly CAN people in Afghanistan have Osama Bin Laden in their sights. They want to capture him. There's a phone call. Sandy Berger, the national security advisor, refuses to give the permission. You're standing by. How did it make you feel when you heard about this?
COHEN: Well, as long as it's accurate, it's fine. But as I understand it, the portrayal is inaccurate.
KURTZ: Do you recall being there and having Sandy Berger say, "I cannot give permission to capture Osama Bin Laden?"
COHEN: Oh, no, not at all. Just to the contrary. Sandy Berger was very much involved in trying to either capture or kill Bin Laden. What happened was that there was some intelligence that we might have him at some level of the CIA, but then the director of the CIA, George Tenet, said we can't call this one, so we're going to call this one off.
So the recommendation was not to go and it came from the CIA, not from Sandy Berger.
KURTZ: And that's what the 9/11 commission says, as well. So what does it say about "ABC" and these filmmakers that on this very sensitive subject, this great trauma that the country went through, they make this scene apparently with made-up dialogue and it's a made- up scene?
COHEN: Well, I think when you're portraying real people and real events, you ought to pay much more attention to the facts.
KURTZ: You're a real person. Are you offended?
COHEN: You know, I'm concerned about, obviously, the creative aspect of any film that's being portrayed as being semi-factual.
KURTZ: Millions of people are going to watch this and are going to see the secretary of defense standing by and not allowing -- not intervening when Osama Bin Laden -- of course, CIA people weren't actually in Afghanistan. We know that from the 9/11 commission, as well.
Would a lot of people think that this is history, that this is true?
COHEN: I think that's the danger and I'm hoping that "ABC" will decide that they want to edit that out or moderate it in some way.
But, yes, it's discouraging to see when the facts on something so serious -- it's one thing to have a dramatization of an event, this was historic, this was transformational, and for them to take and shade this or engage in improvisation, this is not responsible.
So I hope that they'll respond to it and say we can still tell the story. It's a story to be told and do it on the factual basis.
KURTZ: "ABC" says, "Look, this is a docudrama." There's a disclaimer at the beginning of the movie saying some scenes are fictionalized, there are some composite characters. It's a movie. Do you accept that reasoning?
COHEN: Not in this case. It's one thing to create a fictional scenario. I do it myself when I write novels, but it's quite another to take something of historic importance, a traumatic moment in our history and then to take the real people who are involved, making decisions, and then have them saying or doing something that is completely contradicted by the record.
That's not something that's responsible and I think that "ABC" can't quite just dismiss it as being a creative documentary/docudrama. They've combined the two into one and are trying to portray it, I think, as representing the facts and in this particular case, it doesn't.
I should, as a matter of full disclosure, say I'm on the board of "CBS." And so this is not directed toward "ABC," from my perspective, but rather to simply say, when you're dealing with real issues that are of importance on a day coming up like we have on 9/11's fifth anniversary, it's serious.
KURTZ: Under those circumstances, is it appropriate for former Clinton administration officials, Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright and others, to write letters to "ABC" and the parent company, "Disney," and try to mount a pressure campaign to get some of these fictional scenes changed?
COHEN: Oh, sure, I think it's fair for them to do it. I think they feel very strongly about it.
Obviously, when you're charged with helping to protect the American people, you take that responsibility seriously. We tried to get Bin Laden. We failed.
The Bush administration I don't think attempted to do so. They had a shorter period of time, but there was also Torah Bora. So it's not to cast fault in this case. What I always try to do is where are the fault lines. Let's not cast fault against the Clinton administration or the Bush administration.
What are the fault lines in our society? Where are the real weaknesses that are being exploited?
KURTZ: Certainly, the Clinton record on terrorism can be debated and should be debated.
KURTZ: The filmmakers and "ABC" hired Tom Kean, Republican, former chairman of the 9/11 commission, as co-executive producer on this movie. He gave it a seal of approval. He says that he asked for some changes, but they didn't contact any Democrats.
Were you ever contacted by the filmmakers?
COHEN: No, I haven't been contacted and didn't know anything about the film, frankly. KURTZ: Does that raise a question to you about fairness, if they hire a Republican as a consultant, but they don't talk to you or any of your former colleagues in the Clinton administration?
COHEN: I think it would have been better if they talked to Lee Hamilton, the co-chair of 9/11, but I don't think they have a responsibility to check with me on something they're putting together.
I think if they're hiring Tom Kean, who I think is a very balanced and unbiased and nonpartisan individual, that one could rely upon him. So I don't see the necessity of having a co-equal balance on that. But I think it would have been better, just for the perception of fairness, to have Lee Hamilton or one of the other commissioners.
KURTZ: All right, William Cohen, thanks very much.
COHEN: Pleasure to be with you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: For more on the issues surrounding this fifth anniversary of 9/11, joining us from Boston, David Gergen, editor at-large for "U.S. News and World Report," a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton.
And here in Washington, Bill Press, host of "The Bill Press Show" on "Sirius" satellite radio.
Bill Press, did Bill Cohen and Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright have a right to be upset over these embellished scenes or are they overreacting to what is, after all, just a movie?
BILL PRESS, "THE BILL PRESS SHOW": I don't think they're overreacting at all. And I think it's unfortunate that "ABC" has chosen to mar with really for all of us ought to be a sacred day of remembrance with a pretty bit of, schlocky bit of political journalism or if you can call it, not journalism, entertainment.
You know, to me, the facts of 9/11 are so powerful, that's what we ought to be focused on today. You talk about the police and firemen at ground zero, you talk about United 93 and our heroes on that flight, talk about the politicians here in Washington who came together, Republicans and Democrats, saying "God bless America."
Let's remember the great parts and not get into this who was responsible. And I have to say, Howie, I'd say the same thing if "ABC" had hired Michael Moore to make a film blaming it all on George Bush.
KURTZ: David Gergen, does anything bother you about this Democratic pressure campaign to force "ABC" to deep six this movie?
DAVID GERGEN, EDITOR AT-LARGE, "U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT": Absolutely not. I think the Democratic officials in the Clinton administration are right to be outraged about the movie, just as the Reagan officials were right to be outraged three years ago about the "CBS" movie on the gipper.
The networks here have, in effect, made a pact with the devil. They used to do these kind of retrospectives through their news divisions and then they found the numbers dwindling, so they turned it over to the entertainment divisions and the entertainment divisions are essentially saying, "We're going to present you 9/11 based on the 9/11 commission report," but then they tart it up with some fictionalized accounts to make it a more interesting movie and they do disservice to the history of what happened.
In this case, I think they did a disservice not only to the individuals like Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright, but they also fuel the conspiracy theories that surround 9/11.
KURTZ: We will come back to that subject. But I need to get a break right now.
And when we return, the network anchors take on the president as the White House tries to change the political subject from Iraq to Osama Bin Laden. That's next.
KURTZ: Welcome back. President Bush has been talking to network anchors in recent days, some of whom have challenged him on the war in Iraq.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REPORTER: Do you have any moments of doubt that we fought the wrong war, that there's something wrong with the perception of America overseas?
REPORTER: That's the one thing that I question whether people do have any sense of. For as loathsome as he may have been, Saddam Hussein was not connected to al-Qaeda and he was not behind 9/11.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: David Gergen, has the press become openly skeptical of Bush returning again and again to the war on terrorism and more or less dismissing it as a tactic for the mid-term elections?
GERGEN: I think to a significant degree, the press has become very skeptical and I think it shows up in their questioning.
On the other hand, there was, for a long period of time, people felt the press ought to be more skeptical, ought to be pressing harder. There is, after all, the press is the medium through which the president of the United States and his cabinet is held accountable.
We don't have a parliamentary system where they go up and answer questions in front of Congress. They do it through the press. So I think it's important for the press to be a vigilant watchdog.
KURTZ: Bill Press, have journalists allowed the president this week to just hijack the national debate? Suddenly he's talking about Osama Bin Laden, who has not exactly been a frequent topic of White House conversation.
How many stories this week did you see about Iraq?
PRESS: Well, I think it's interesting, as David pointed out and in the clips you showed, that the press is getting more and more skeptical about the war in Iraq.
But I think when they get to the war on terror, they come up into another zone and they sort of just repeat. They feel that if it's the war on terror, that's a different territory and they've got to just repeat the White House talking points without question.
KURTZ: But they have challenged the president on efforts to merge the two, the war in Iraq, the same part of the battlefield in the war on terror.
PRESS: Yes, but, you know, the biggest speech -- let's just back up a second. Let's be honest, we're in the middle of a political campaign and the White House, and the "New York Times" outlined it yesterday, in the middle of a strategy to change the subject from the war in Iraq, which is unpopular, to the broader war on terror.
When the president gave that speech, for example, Tuesday, what's the one that got the most attention? I was surprised how laudatory the coverage was, with very few questions asked about the timing of it, for example.
KURTZ: I want to get David Gergen's take as a former White House strategist. I mean, we had this huge blitz going on, Dick Cheney on "Meet the Press" this morning. Is this the kind of thing you would do in the Reagan White House or the Clinton White House, do a major rollout of speeches and interviews in an effort to kind of dominate the political discussion?
GERGEN: Sure, and so would every White House. After all, what's going on here, Howie? We have a five-year anniversary. The whole nation is focused, all the news magazines had pictures on their covers this past Monday focusing on this.
All the television people, the "ABC" miniseries on 9/11. Of course, the president is going to try to shape the debate of what the meaning of 9/11 is. That's what the bully pulpit is all about and so he should be. And I thought he was actually quite shrewd to get the president to Guantanamo and try to shift the debate by saying we've got to have trials.
Now, he's run into this roadblock. What's been interesting is that he no longer has the high ground in this. So that as soon as he goes up and says, "Now, Congress, you've got to pass the laws the way I want to do it," he runs into opposition from Warner and McCain and from Lindsey Graham. And then along comes the Senate Intelligence Committee and rains on his parade about how you guys have been out claiming, in the administration, all these connections between al-Qaeda and Osama, and the Intelligence Committee puts out a bipartisan report, saying, "No, no, no, there was there no connection. The CIA told you that."
KURTZ: And that got a lot of coverage, as well. The president often talks about how terrorists try to use the media, get their scenes of violence on the screen. That drew quite a rebuke the other night from "MSNBC's" Keith Olbermann.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KEITH OLBERMANN, "MSNBC" ANCHOR: The president quoted a purported Osama Bin Laden letter that spoke of launching, quote, "a media campaign to create a wedge between the American people and their government."
Make no mistake here. The intent of that is to get us to confuse the psychotic scheming of an international terrorist with that familiar bogeyman of the far right, the quote, "media," unquote. That linkage is more than just indefensible, it is un-American.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Bill Press?
PRESS: Well, I'd have to say, of course, the White House is trying to use the media to justify its position as the strongest on the war on terror.
Frankly, I don't see anything wrong with that, but where I think it can backfire is it's a double-sided sword, because -- double-edged sword, I guess it is. While the president talks about Osama Bin Laden being the next Hitler and Osama Bin Laden puts out on the media another videotape and suddenly reminded him, "Wait a minute, if is he that bad, why did George Bush let him go for five years?"
So I think this is starting to come around and bite George Bush in the butt, in many ways.
KURTZ: Interesting that that videotape supposedly showing the training for 9/11, became, you know, one of the competing video images.
Now, in the White House press room, David Gergen, the place where you've spent some time, this week we had "NBC's" David Gregory asking a question of White House Press Secretary Tony Snow about the report card that the administration gave itself in the war on terror and asking why it didn't admit to more failings or shortcomings.
Well, Tony Snow accused David Gregory of offering, quote, "the Democratic point of view," and Gregory took vigorous exception to that and Snow called him rude.
It sounds like things are heating up between the White House and the press, David Gergen.
GERGEN: And they could get angrier, you know. This could only be the beginning.
If George W. Bush were running for re-election in 2008, it would be a heck of a lot hotter in there right now.
But we're going to see this. You know, the problem here, of course, is that somebody has got to hold the administration accountable. The Democrats don't do a very good job of it. So the press steps into what seems to be a vacuum and then, of course, from the Republican standpoint, it looks like the press and the Democrats are ganging up on them together.
This is the fate of every incumbent government. If you're a Democratic government in there, I can tell you the Clinton administration often felt the press was in cahoots with the Republicans.
KURTZ: I want to put up some pretty eye-opening poll figures from a Scripps Howard survey about 9/11 conspiracies. Thirty-six percent of those surveyed suspect the U.S. promoted or acquiesced in the 9/11 attacks; 16 percent believe explosives, not airplanes, toppled the World Trade Center; 12 percent believe it was a cruise missile that hit the Pentagon.
This would seem, Bill Press, to show you the limits of media influence that people believe these things without any hard evidence.
PRESS: And, what, 60 percent believe that Saddam Hussein flew one of the planes into the World Trade Center towers. I mean, go figure.
These conspiracy people, and I think they're crazy, but I hear from them all the time and I get, as a liberal, lots of abuse from liberals who say I should be blaming the Bush administration for planning the 9/11 attacks.
I think it's crazy, it's ridiculous, but it shows Americans will believe anything.
KURTZ: Go ahead, David.
GERGEN: But this is the very reason why the "ABC" miniseries is so objectionable, because it feeds that 36 percent. It gives them more ammunition to say, "You see? They had a chance to grab him and they didn't." And it's a totally fictionalized account.
KURTZ: All right, we've got to go on that note. David Gergen and Bill Press, thanks very much for joining us. Those conspiracy numbers really are hard to believe.
Up next, the media vows to get serious after the 9/11 attacks. Have they kept their promise?
KURTZ: You may vaguely remember the media landscape before 9/11. It was, for journalism, a very different world.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ (voice-over): Not much international news, especially on television. The sex and scandal of the Clinton years. A month's long frenzy over missing intern Chandra Levy. And those summertime stories about killer sharks.
Then came the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and the news business got serious in a hurry. The war on terror took front and center, followed by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Far more coverage of the military and airline safety and the likes of Bin Laden, Zarqawi and Zawahiri.
But as politics became more polarized over Iraq, the punditry got more shrill and the coverage of President Bush more aggressive, especially as he dropped in the polls after Hurricane Katrina.
The White House increasingly criticized the press, particularly after newspapers exposed Bush's domestic surveillance program and secret CIA prisons. And Republicans increasingly came to view the media as anti-Bush.
But despite earlier vows that we had entered a new era, the old habits kept creeping back. Television still goes wild over missing or murdered white women, Laci Peterson, runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks, Natalee Holloway, not to mention John Mark Karr, the delusional creep who falsely claimed to have killed JonBenet Ramsey.
There is still no shortage of celebrity silliness over Brad and Angelina and Tom and Katie and their babies.
As for international coverage, well, outside of such hotspots as Iraq and the Middle East, it's still largely relegated to the back burner.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: It's a dangerous world out there and, in some ways, journalism has grown up. But more often than we like to admit, too many of us slip back into adolescence.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. 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.
TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com