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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Did Bush Administration Bamboozle Media?; Coverage of Bob Woodward's Book
Aired October 1, 2006 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Smoke and mirrors? Did the Bush administration really bamboozle the media into going along with a disastrous war?
Has Bob Woodward gotten tougher on all the president's men?
And how did "The New York Times" scoop "The Washington Post" on its own reporter's bombshell book, anyway?
Frank Rich and David Gergen square off.
Plus, Salon's editor on breaking the allegations that Senator George Allen once used racial slurs.
And how anger plays on television. Why Bill Clinton has plenty of company from the cable pundits.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on how the president's spinmeisters have sold the Iraq war to the media and whether Bob Woodward's new book on administration infighting will change the public picture of that war.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
The debate kicked up a notch this week when "The New York Times," matched by "The Washington Post" and "Los Angeles Times," ran leaked accounts of the administration's national intelligence estimate saying that the occupation of Iraq has spawned a new generation of Islamic terrorists. President Bush decried the leak but then declassified part of the report which painted a mixed picture of American anti- terror efforts and sparked some skeptical questioning at the White House.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) the war on terrorism. That's what he says.
TONY SNOW, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Yes. I know.
QUESTION: And there are more of them, they're more dispersed, they're harder to find. And yet the president is saying we're winning the war on terrorism.
SNOW: That's right. But we're also fighting the war on terrorism.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: By week's end and with the midterm elections heating up, Bush was intensifying his rhetoric against the Democrats.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The party of FDR and the party of Harry Truman has become the party of cut and run.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But then Bob Woodward's blockbuster book surfaced, accusing the administration of suppressing intelligence about how bad things really are in Iraq, all of which provides plenty of fodder for "New York Times" columnist Frank Rich, who rips the administration in his new book, "The Greatest Story Ever Sold."
Frank Rich joins us now from New York.
You write in this book, "The Washington press corps was more than willing to buy fictions if instructed to do so by the puppeteer."
Are you saying that a lot of hard-working Washington reporters, including those of your own newspaper, acted like puppets?
FRANK RICH, "NEW YORK TIMES": Yes. And not all of them, obviously, but certainly including some at "The New York Times" and other major journalistic institutions.
As President Bush himself said in the past few weeks, the war in Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. And yet, in the aftermath of 9/11, beginning a few months later, the story was sold that there was a connection between Saddam and al Qaeda, that he had weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons with mushroom clouds, and so on, and the press was incredulous. Too much of the press.
As we know, there were some exceptions, like the Knight-Ridder bureau in Washington, Seymour Hersh of "The New Yorker," and others, but unfortunately, as some of these institutions have since admitted, we fell down on the job a bit.
KURTZ: Let me read another quote from "The Greatest Story Ever Sold". "The strutting among the boomer journalist pundits often suggested an overwhelming desire to prove that they could be part of a greatest generation post-9/11, even if it was other people's children who would have to do the fighting."
Who are you talking about here?
RICH: Well, I'm talking about my generation. I'm of that boomer generation. And it's interesting to me that, you know, right before 9/11, right before this whole period, there was a sudden nostalgia about World War II, a lot of it created by boomers, not just Tom Brokaw. "Band of Brothers," you know, "The Greatest Generation," and so on, and I think there was a kind of feeling among journalists that they wanted to be part of something, particularly after this country was grievously attacked, which is understandable the reaction to that attack. It's just that it went on too long when skepticism might have been more helpful to the American people in terms of Iraq.
KURTZ: But are you suggesting that certain pundits -- and do you want to name some of them -- were cheerleading for the war in Iraq, knowing full well that somebody else would have to go do the dirty work of fighting that war?
RICH: Well, most pundits were cheerleading for the war in Iraq, liberals and conservatives alike. And as we know, the people in power in this country -- and, by the way, including myself, who has children who would have been of fighting age, although I was not a cheerleader for the war -- not sending -- not sending their kids. That's also true of Congress, for the most part.
KURTZ: All right.
I want to bring in David Gergen, editor-at-large at "U.S. News and World Report" and adviser to four presidents, and a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School.
He joins us from Boston.
David Gergen, Frank Rich in his book portrays the Bush administration as making a deliberate, even brazen attempt to mislead the public and the country into war, to mislead the country about the war in the last four years.
How do you see it?
DAVID GERGEN, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, "U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT": I think it's becoming clearer than ever that the -- especially with Woodward's new book, which -- you know, the outlines of Bob Woodward's new book have been clear for a long time. But it's a classic case of the devil's in the details, and I think as the details come pouring out in this book and in others it becomes clear that the administration has dissembled, that it has put a very happy face, a very upbeat face on the war, even as it knew -- its own internal documents said that it was going badly.
I think very importantly now what we also know is that the internal documents of the administration show that -- or say that the war next year will be worse. And this is a time when the Bush administration has been claiming that we've reached a turning point, this is going to get better. So I -- but there is a credibility gap in this administration that has now become a canyon.
KURTZ: Frank Rich, you have very little in your book about the Democrats. Why, even as an anti-Bush columnist, let them off the hook?
RICH: Oh, I don't let them off the hook at all. I actually have a whole chapter about the Kerry campaign.
I think the Democrats' behavior has been in some ways parallel to that of the press, not -- not challenging the information enough. We now know that the NIE prepared on the eve of war, as Congress passed its resolution in October of '02, was read by a total of six senators in its entirety. So Democrats were asleep at the switch, and they're very much taking to task in my book and continuing to do so in my column.
KURTZ: David Gergen, is it asking too much of the media to sort of be the opposition to the Bush administration when the other party is either AWOL or doesn't have a unified position as some people believe the Democrats do not on Iraq?
GERGEN: The press does need to play a role as a watchdog. That's been traditional in our society. Somebody needs to hold government accountable, and the press is the institution. That's why we have the First Amendment, so that they will hold the president accountable.
You know, when you're in government, I must say -- and Frank Rich has accused me in the past -- in the past of putting spin on it -- and I think he was right sometimes. There is a tendency in government to say, you know, we want to put -- you want to be -- you want to be upbeat because you're trying to -- you think ultimately you'll do it right or get -- it will turn out right, but there's also a sense in the press and in the government that this watchdog, the press, has become a Rottweiler, and that's when you get -- and that's when you get this enormous tension between press and government. But I think in this case what we are learning is that sadly, tragically, we have another administration that's come in with another war, that's behaving very much like two administrations did during the Vietnam War, and that is they have internal information which is inconsistent with what they're saying to the public and it's misleading the public.
KURTZ: Well, it took a few years, Frank Rich, but you got David Gergen to admit being a past spinner, at least.
GERGEN: Well, I'm not sure that's true either.
RICH: David hits a very important point. It is tragic, because this is not spinning about, you know, someone taking money from the till. This is a war which has led to the deaths of thousands.
My point, though, about this and in my book is that it's been clear, and I think Dave was say this, for some time this was the case. The last 80 pages of my book are simply a list of administration statements in public and secret reports that they -- or intelligence they had or information that contradicted it going back to, you know, early 2002.
KURTZ: Let me jump in here because the publicity campaign for the Bob Woodward book kicks into high gear today. Front page excerpts in "The Washington Post," cover story and excerpts in "Newsweek," "60 Minutes" interview tonight.
Let's take a look at some of what Woodward will say when he sits down with Mike Wallace.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BOB WOODWARD, AUTHOR, "STATE OF DENIAL": The truth is that the assessment by the intelligence experts is that next year -- now next year is 2007...
MIKE WALLACE, "60 MINUTES": Yes.
WOODWARD: ... is going to get worse. And in public you have the president and you have the Pentagon saying, oh, no, things are going to get better. Now, there's public, and then there's private.
But what did they do with the private? They stamp it secret. No one's supposed to know.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Frank Rich, "TIME" magazine in its piece on the Bush -- on the Woodward book this morning, calls it "the end of an affair," suggesting, unfairly, mind you, that there was some great romance here that is now over.
Is this book a departure from Woodward, in your view?
RICH: Well, it is. I'm glad that he finally got to the story that's been apparent for several years, that there is a public White House spin and there's private stuff they know that contradicts it. But I think the end of the affair is less about whatever the relationship was between Woodward and the administration -- I don't know that -- but it's a political issue for the White House for this reason: they have endorsed the previous books.
In fact, I think in an article with you, Howie, Mary Matalin, when the 2004 book, the last one, came out said it was an extraordinary job and this was history that they thought was accurate. So they can't now, now that he's found out what's really going on, turn around and trash him without it coming back to haunt him.
KURTZ: Although the White House is mounting a campaign against what it calls missed (ph) in the Woodward book. President Bush did not grant Woodward an interview this time, although he was interviewed for the two previous books.
David Gergen, you've known Woodward a long time, you were a source of his in some of your days in government. Do you think he felt some pressure to produce a book that was tougher on the administration because he had been criticized over the last two books?
GERGEN: I think that's the wrong motive behind this. I mean, I know there's critics who are saying that, but, you know, I have great respect for him because I did, you know, see him through the Watergate period. And we all thought in the Nixon administration he was wrong, and it turned out he was right.
And, you know, so I've had a lot of respect for him for over 30 years now. And beyond that, I think he goes where his reporting leads. And I think there's probably a remorse on his part that his earlier reporting he was mislead himself, and that his early reporting, his first book -- you know, we've had three now, the first book about going into Afghanistan, and then the next book about going into Iraq -- you know, did not get at some of the deeper issues he's revealed in this book. And I think he's probably angry about that.
It reminds me, there's not an exact parallel, but there is something of a parallel between what happened to Teddy White in the 1972 campaign. You know, he wrote a book about the 1972 camp in which Watergate was basically treated as a very third-rate burglary, to use Ron Ziegler's phrase. And then Teddy White came back out with another book later in which he was -- it was a pretty angry book because he felt he had been mislead.
KURTZ: Right. Well, Woodward told me he'd wished he had had some of this material for his earlier books, but that he did not.
Frank Rich, on Friday "The New York Times" beat "The Washington Post" by putting on its front page the contents of the book. It was reported that one of your reporters went out and just bought this, presumably at a bookstore.
Why -- why would "The New York Times" make such a big deal of a book, by a reporter and editor for "The Washington Post"? In other words, why are Woodward books such a big event?
RICH: Well, look, he is a celebrity. He and Carl Bernstein are arguably the foremost at least print journalism celebrities of our time and broke one of the greatest most important stories in modern American history.
I would also say -- maybe I shouldn't say this, but I think that "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" like to stick it to each other. So the idea -- to a certain extent, we're somewhat friendly rivals -- so the idea that a "New York Times" reporter could walk into a bookstore and buy the book at retail, as we pointed out, and beat "The Post," which they knew was going to run excepts from the book, is sort of fun in the old school of journalism way.
I want to turn now to a story in the "London Sunday Times" this morning. The video is on the paper's Web site.
This is video of two of the 9/11 hijackers. Mohammed Atta one of them. And you see him on the right there. We have the still photo.
They're laughing. They're smiling. This is well before 9/11.
Apparently, they were citing their wills. We presume that. There's no sound that goes with this tape. FOX News is running it because it's owned by the same Rupert Murdoch company that owns the "Sunday Times."
David Gergen, the "Sunday Times" is demanding payment from other networks to air this movie -- to air this film, I should say.
What do you make of that? CNN has not run it so far.
GERGEN: That's so old school it's painful. I mean, everything is out now and it becomes common usage. Charging payments to other news organizations, I guess there are probably some legal basis for that argument. But I think for most of us we regard it as silly.
KURTZ: Well, The Associated Press television is reporting it has bought the rights to this video. So I think that we will be seeing it everywhere soon. And it's interesting that they had to pay for that.
Frank Rich, just a closing thought here. The byline on this article is by a guy who is also the chief investigative correspondent for Al-Jazeera.
RICH: Well, I love the fact that Rupert Murdoch is finding a way to -- no one ever said he wasn't a brilliant businessman -- to make -- collaborate with al Qaeda, make money off a video about mass murderers who killed Americans. I guess it will be on MySpace by the end of the day.
KURTZ: All right. MySpace, another Murdoch property.
Bob Woodward, by the way, joins CNN's Larry King tomorrow night to talk about his new book and the midterm elections. That's Monday, 9:00 p.m. Eastern.
When we come back, the media take Bill Clinton's finger-wagging FOX interview to the next level. Why are we still arguing about who's to blame for 9/11?
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
David Gergen, you worked closely with Bill Clinton and his White House. We've all seen his rather testy interview with FOX's Chris Wallace last weekend.
Do you think that any part of his outrage, as some observers are suggesting, was premeditated?
GERGEN: I think he went ready to counter punch. My understanding was he didn't think he'd get to hit as hard, and he counter punched harder than he expected. But do I think he went in willing to go back at him? Yes, I do.
I think he wanted -- I think he was trying deliberately to send a message to Democrats that listen, we, Democrats, as a Democratic perception, we Democrats think we're getting (INAUDIBLE), we get bullied, we don't hit back. We've got to hit back, and this is the way to do it. And I think he was trying to rally the troops in that sense.
But I don't think -- I don't think the whole thing was premeditated. No, I don't.
KURTZ: I would agree with that.
As a former theater critic, Frank Rich, was this performance art?
RICH: I thought it was fantastic. There was something for everyone in this. It's like the Janet Jackson thing, where, you know, people who hated decency could rail about it and people who love indecency could wallow in it.
There was something here for FOX News haters, something here for Clinton haters. And I think that's one reason why it's had such long legs. It's actually unified the country around an entertainment event.
GERGEN: But you know...
KURTZ: Go ahead.
GERGEN: Go ahead, please.
GERGEN: I was just going to say, what's been interesting to me about this, I think the Democrats are using this as sort of almost a metaphor in helping them.
You know, they're been accused of being -- of being cut and run on Iraq, showing no muscle, having no backbone. So they're using -- they're fighting against FOX as a way -- it's almost like a false fight because they want to show how tough they really are.
KURTZ: A number of Democrats, Frank Rich, have been attacking FOX News or Democratic politicians on the air, making fun of the "fair and balanced" slogan. Is that a smart political strategy?
RICH: I think it's a sort of wasted breath in a way. We've got to remember that FOX News, even though it is leading, you know, cable news ratings, has a really small audience mainly of people who agree with it. You know, two or three people at night, which is nothing compared even to the decline in evening news.
So, as David says, to use this as a surrogate, maybe they should get to the main event and take on their real adversaries rather than the proxy.
KURTZ: And the media coverage of the subsequent argument about, well, who had a better, more aggressive record on terrorism, David Gergen, the Clinton administration or the Bush administration -- Hillary Clinton came out and defended her husband -- is that a healthy debate or is it just, you know, typical journalists trying to fight the last war? GERGEN: Well, there are new details coming out. And Bob Woodward's book has some new interesting details. But basically, I think Condi Rice was right, this is a fruitless debate.
What we really need to be debating now -- and Frank Rich was just making this point -- where are we going now in Iraq in a war that's going to get worse? Are we going to have a plan B coming up after the elections? That's what many in Washington think, the Bush administration is going to change gears.
But where are we going in this war? And then what are we going to do about Iran? I think those are much, much tougher issues now that in the prospects on both fronts are getting a lot bleaker.
KURTZ: Of course it's a lot more fun to keep replaying the Clinton FOX interview.
But David Gergen, Frank Rich, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
RICH: Thank you, Howie.
GERGEN: Thank you.
KURTZ: Up next, a real president makes his fake news debut and a fake journalist visits the real White House and gets lots of attention from real reporters.
We'll try to sort it all out in our "Media Minute".
KURTZ: Time now for a look at the news business in our "Media Minute".
KURTZ (voice over): By now "The Daily Show" has gotten so popular that Jon Stewart is getting top guests from presidential candidates to former presidents, but he hosted his first head of state this week when Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, pushing his book as he did in an earlier appearance with President Bush, stopped at Comedy Central.
JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": Now, I know it is customary in Pakistan to offer tea to a guest for hospitality's sake. Is it good?
Where's Osama bin Laden?
PRES. PERVEZ MUSHARRAF, PAKISTAN: I don't know. Do you know? Do you know where he is? You lead on, we'll follow you.
KURTZ: You may have seen the unusual four-page advertising spread in "The New York Times" this week boasting about Kazakhstan in the 21st century. Well, it turns out that the former Soviet state has been mounting a P.R. blitz to neutralize a none-too-flattering movie.
Plenty of media folks in Washington turned up at Kazakhstan's embassy the other day to hear one supposed journalist mouth off about the country's claims of prosperity.
SACHA BARON COHEN, "BORAT": These are disgusting fabrications. These claims are part of a propaganda campaign against our country by evil nitwit Uzbekistan.
KURTZ: The man who calls himself "Borat" is actually British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who plays a fictional foreign correspondent in an upcoming film.
COHEN: Please, you come see my film. If it not success I will be execute.
KURTZ: So, on the eve of a White House visit by the real president of Kazakhstan, it was a fake reporter...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The White House is that way.
KURTZ: ... who captured the attention of many real journalists.
Question: how do you deal with an X-rated story? Answer: very carefully.
The NBC station in New York obtained secret police tapes involving Jeanine Pirro, who's running for state attorney general. Pirro suspected her husband Al was having an affair, so she called her pal Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who was later convicted in an unrelated case, and asked that he wiretap the family's boat so she could snoop on her husband's extracurricular activities.
NBC's "Today" show read part of the expletive-filled transcript after a consumer warning.
JOHN DIENST, NBC NEWS: Kerik responds, "But Jeanine, I'm having the same (EXPLETIVE DELETED) problem with everybody. Everybody is panic-stricken because it's you."
Pirro says, "What am I supposed to do, Bernie, watch him (EXPLETIVE DELETED) her every night? What am I supposed to do? I can go on the boat. I'll put the (EXPLETIVE DELETED) on myself.
KURTZ: News organizations haven't been this challenged since the Star report.
By the way, no bug was ever placed on the Pirro boat or there'd be a lot more beeping.
Coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, ABC News follows the sad and raunchy e-mail trail between a Florida congressman and underage House pages. But why did his home state paper spike the story?
And the editor of Salon tells us how her Web site broke the story about Senator George Allen allegedly using racial slurs.
Plus, a controversial sportswriter tackles the media's breathless coverage of the supposed suicide attempt by football star Terrell Owens.
All that after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
Florida congressman Mark Foley was co-chairman of the Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus, but a very different picture of Foley emerged when ABC's Brian Ross obtained an e-mail to a 16-year-old male page that asked for a picture. After writing about that somewhat ambiguous message on the network's Web site, Ross received far more sexually explicit instant computer messages that Foley had sent to former pages. This from a lawmaker who often denounced pedophiles.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. MARK FOLEY (R), FLORIDA: They're sick people. They need mental health counseling. They certainly don't need to be interacting with children.
BRIAN ROSS, INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER, ABC NEWS (voice over): But according to several former congressional pages, the congressman himself used the Internet to engage in sexually explicit exchanges.
They say he used the screen name Maf54 on these messages provided to ABC News...
MAF54: "What ya wearing?"
TEEN: T-shirt and shorts.
MAF54: Love to slip them off of you.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Hours after the ABC inquiry, Foley resigned.
Joining us now to talk about this story, as well as the latest controversy in George Allen's Senate campaign, in Boston, Bob Zelnick, former ABC News correspondent, now professor at Boston University. And in San Francisco, Joan Walsh, editor of salon.com.
Joan Walsh, ABC and Brian Ross initially posted this story online before it made it to network news. More and more graphic, very raw e- mails came in as a result. Is this another example of the power of the Web?
JOAN WALSH, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, SALON.COM: Yes, I think it definitely is, Howie. I think they had reason to believe that these e-mails were authentic, they went with them in a quick way, which the Web lets you do. And then they saw that more people came forward, that there was a lot more evidence out there. And I think that was a completely defensible thing to do.
The story came together, and Foley's career fell apart in a matter of hours. And that's because there was plenty of evidence.
KURTZ: Bob Zelnick, did ABC make a mistake by not airing a story on the earlier, somewhat milder e-mail, or -- and just dealing with the Internet, or was the network just being cautious?
BOB ZELNICK, FMR. ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: I think they were being reasonably cautious. I wish the "St. Petersburg Times" had been a little bit more aggressive earlier when they learned about the e- mails. But, no, I think ABC handled it well, and I think the result is evident, that it fleshed out some damaging evidence and led to Foley's resignation.
KURTZ: Let me share with our viewers, since you brought up the "St. Petersburg Times," what that Florida newspaper reported on Saturday.
"'St. Petersburg Times' reporters obtained the original e-mails last fall and interviewed two former pages, but didn't write a story. The 16-year-old boy did not want to be named. The other boy who was willing to be named said Foley hadn't done anything inappropriate. It's a 'Times' policy to not make acquisitions in stories based on unnamed sources."
Joan Walsh, the alternative, though, is that the newspaper didn't share this information with the public and Foley continued to remain in Congress and possibly to be in contact with more underage pages.
WALSH: Sure. Sure. You know, I have no problem with "The Times" policy, and that's very similar to our policy when we talk about the Allen story.
We were in a very similar situation with people telling stories but not letting us use their names, and we didn't run with that. I think that the problem comes in, it seems to me -- and again, I wasn't in the newsroom -- it does seem to me like there was a web of pages and former pages who were talking about this. So it seems to me like the alternative was, OK, this is our policy, it is sensitive stuff, we're not going to go with it right now, but to be quite aggressive in trying to seek out others.
The other thing to do with that information, I think, would have been to talk to some of the House leadership. And I think that's the most disturbing thing that's come out of this story, arguably the most disturbing... KURTZ: Just to explain for a moment, House Speaker Dennis Hastert was told about at least the initial e-mail some months ago, supposedly looked into it, didn't do anything.
KURTZ: There's conflicting explanations from other House leaders, GOP leaders about why they didn't act. And that's now become a front-page story.
WALSH: That's much -- to me that's a bigger story than what "The Times" did or didn't do. I do wish "The Times" had been aggressive in finding other pages and also going to the leadership and perhaps smoking out the fact that the leadership knew about this and effectively covered it up.
KURTZ: But here you have a major Florida newspaper effectively sitting on the story because of a policy about unnamed sources, which I understand there's a clear conflict there.
ZELNICK: Howard, I'm not even sure that it was an anonymous source. Once you have documentary evidence it loses its anonymity very quickly. And I also very much agree with Joan that following up and doing some real shoe leather reporting would have produced results earlier, and I think the paper is to be faulted for that.
I do think there is a very legitimate issue as to the inaction on the part of senior Republicans in the House who knew about the problem, at least some of its dimensions. It's a serious matter that has nothing to do with gay or straight. It has -- it's a question of sexual harassment of people who are much lower on the power chain than the congressman himself.
ZELNICK: It's outrageous, it can't be tolerated. And I am ashamed to think that members -- senior members of the House let it slide.
KURTZ: Joan Walsh, you alluded to this just a moment ago, your -- your magazine, Salon, broke a story this week about Virginia senator George Allen quoting people who said that years ago he'd used the "N" word when referring to blacks.
KURTZ: And ultimately, you had only one person on the record. Was this a difficult decision, whether to publish or not to publish?
WALSH: You know, it was a difficult decision, actually. You know, in the wake of the "Macaca" incident, where the senator used a made-up name that happened to be a racial slur, but he says he didn't know it, at a campaign rally about a young brown-skinned man, there were -- there started to be people coming forward after that saying, whispering, sending e-mails saying that they had personal knowledge of the senator using the "N" word and other racial slurs.
We -- what we did -- and there's been a lot of speculation about what we did, so I'm happy to clear it up for the record -- Michael Sherer, our Washington correspondent, sat down with the University of Virginia football roster from the early '70s and he cold-called upwards of 30 people, Howard. And what we found was we got pretty quickly a couple of guys who had very elaborate and believable stories about these racial attitudes and racial slurs, but they would not let us...
KURTZ: But the problem is they wouldn't go on the record?
WALSH: Exactly. And so...
KURTZ: And at that point you were not prepared to publish?
WALSH: No, we were not prepared to publish. So Michael kept calling and calling and finally found Dr. Ken Shelton, and when we found Dr. Shelton, who had a lot of personal knowledge, we really looked at Dr. Shelton for a while as somebody whose credibility we had to try to impugn, because we knew the Allen campaign would do that.
We found that Dr. Shelton was a registered Independent. Though he'd been a Democrat, he supported Republicans. He had no history of any activism or animus against Senator Allen, and he was a really upstanding source who was willing to use his name.
KURTZ: All right.
Let me bring in Bob Zelnick.
Is this an important news story? Yes, it comes after the "Macaca" controversy, it comes after the senator's belated admission that his mother was Jewish. This did happen years ago.
Important story or not?
ZELNICK: No, I don't think it's an important story. I think if you go back to the early 1970s, it was a much different era, attitudes were much different. And I think what a person may have said with his fellow football players is dwarfed by 30 years of public record or being a well-known private citizen.
KURTZ: So, just briefly, if you were still at ABC News you would not have run that with the same evidence?
ZELNICK: I would not have run -- I would not have authored this story if I were the correspondent who had learned it, no.
KURTZ: All right.
ZELNICK: I went to the University of Virginia in the early to mid-'60s, and I'd hate to see people penalized for the expressions they offered in that very early era.
KURTZ: All right. Let me turn to one more media issue now. Linda Greenhouse has covered the Supreme Court for "The New York Times" for some three decades. In June she gave a speech at Harvard, she had some things to say, which we're going to take a listen to right now.
(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)
LINDA GREENHOUSE, "NEW YORK TIMES" SUPREME COURT REPORTER: Our government has turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law into creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha, other places around the world, the U.S. Congress, whatever.
GREENHOUSE: And let's not forget the sustained assault on women's reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism.
(END AUDIO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joan Walsh, Greenhouse told me that this doesn't affect her coverage at all, these are facts, not opinions, in her view. But doesn't it create perception problems?
WALSH: You know, it may create perception problems for sure. However, the most interesting thing I heard about this controversy this week came from Daniel Okrent, who had been "The Times" public editor who stated that he'd never had a complaint about accuracy or bias about Linda Greenhouse's reporting. She's a fabulous reporter, and I think that we really need to focus -- when we get into these debates about liberal bias, conservative bias, I think we really need to focus on the work. Are her stories strong, are they accurate?
KURTZ: All right. I've got to turn to Bob Zelnick.
ZELNICK: I don't -- I don't think anybody will ever read a Linda Greenhouse story again, anyone familiar with these words, and think of it as an unbiased news report. "The Times" has a policy on this, as do most news organizations. I know ABC certainly did.
When I wrote something that bordered on opinion I had to submit it to the vice president of ABC, whose job it was to maintain objective standards. Again, I'm sure "The Times"...
WALSH: Outside statements that you made?
ZELNICK: Pardon me?
KURTZ: All right. This debate will continue -- this debate will continue, but we have got to go.
Bob Zelnick, Joan Walsh, thanks very much for joining us.
When we come back, why did journalists refuse to believe football star Terrell Owens when he insisted that he never attempted suicide?
KURTZ: It sounded like big news Wednesday morning when Dallas station WFAA obtained a police report staying that football star Terrell Owens of the Cowboys had tried to commit suicide. That sparked a day-long media frenzy saturated with speculation, even after Owens, who had been released from the hospital, met with reporters, along with his publicist, Kim Etheridge.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TERRELL OWENS, FOOTBALL PLAYER: You know, I'm just trying to be here just to clarify any of the rumors that's out there as far as me, you know, having a suicide attempt. There was no suicide attempt.
KIM ETHERIDGE, OWEN'S PUBLICIST: Just to state that he was trying to commit suicide is just -- it's unfair. Terrell has 25 million reasons why he should be alive.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: That's $25 million. But even after the colorful Dallas Cowboys star said he had an allergic reaction to painkillers, the media kept piling on.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: Police say Cowboys superstar Terrell Owens tried to kill himself with pills.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Owens says he had a bad reaction to mixing the pills with supplements.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: The rumor ran wild in the news media.
CHARLIE GIBSON, ABC NEWS: One of the most talented and troubled players in professional football.
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: One thing he can't seem to shake is controversy.
KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: T.O.'s playing status for Sunday's game has been upgraded to probable from suicidal.
PAULA ZAHN, HOST, "PAULA ZAHN NOW": What happened in his early childhood...
JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: He's considered a world-class jerk in Philadelphia, right?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely.
(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Joining me now from Kansas City to talk about the coverage, Jason Whitlock, sports columnist for the "Kansas City Star" and AOL Sports.
So, a police report says Terrell Owens appeared to have attempted suicide, that's a story. But did it warrant this kind of 'round-the- clock TV coverage?
JASON WHITLOCK, "KANSAS CITY STAR": Oh, I think absolutely. Had Terrell Owens, one of the biggest stars in sports, tried to commit suicide, yes, it deserves around-the-clock coverage. And I think the fact that he may not have or he didn't try to commit suicide still warrants the coverage.
This guy is one of the most fascinating athletes of our lifetime. He's done everything he can to draw attention to himself. And now he needs to deal with the ramifications of making such a buffoon and making such a character of himself.
KURTZ: But Jason, the story sort of crumbled on closer inspection. Even the police report was later amended. Terrell Owens comes out and says absolutely not. His P.R. woman says absolutely not. They were misquoted, and yet the media drumbeat continued.
You don't see that as a little bit of...
WHITLOCK: No. I don't -- I don't see the story crumbling at all. I think, obviously, there's been a different story put out than the original one given at the scene.
And listen, I'm inclined to somewhat believe he did not try to commit suicide, but the journalist in me, the skeptic in me, makes me wonder, OK, he's taken painkillers and he's taken too many of them. A lot of people take painkillers on purpose trying to get a high.
Is that what transpired? Or should we just assume because Terrell says it's an allergic reaction it's an allergic reaction?
KURTZ: Well, in your mind, obviously there are lingering questions.
Speaking of drugs, I want to ask you about a story in this morning's "Los Angeles Times". Roger Clemens, the star baseball pitcher among a half-dozen players named, according to the "L.A. Times," in an affidavit filed in federal court linked to what's euphemistically called performance-enhancing drugs. According to the story, a source with authorized access to an unredacted affidavit allowed the "Times" to see it briefly and read aloud some of what had been blacked out of the public copies. There was also a second confirming source.
Do you have any problem with the newspaper running that kind of story based on a court document that they're not supposed to have? WHITLOCK: Oh, absolutely not. I think that's just good journalism, given the names that were mentioned. And I think it's what we in the sports world need to be doing in the sports media world, because I've always contended it's wrong to focus in strictly on Barry Bonds, strictly on the homerun hitters.
I think there's a reason why Major League Baseball players never were that voice first with their complaints about the hitters using steroids or performance-enhancing drugs because the pitchers have been doing the exact same thing. And the performance-enhancing drugs are far bigger than just Barry Bonds.
I think there they're rampant in professional sports. I think human growth hormone is rampant in all professional sports.
WHITLOCK: So, you know, I think this is just good journalism.
KURTZ: Roger Clemens has denied using steroids or other illicit drugs, as have a number of the other baseball players named in this "L.A. Times" report.
Let's talk about you, Jason Whitlock. You were dumped this week as an ESPN commentator for criticizing two other ESPN contributors, Mike Lupica and Scoop Jackson, in a blog interview.
Are you upset about this sudden termination?
WHITLOCK: No. I think, one, I understand the power of the Internet, and I knew when I gave the interview that some people at ESPN would be uncomfortable. I've known ESPN and worked for ESPN long enough to know how they normally react when they are criticized by people that are contributors or employees of theirs.
You know, I can't say I did not want to be dumped, but I knew the ramifications and knew what could happen. I'm not that surprised. ESPN is very thin-skinned, and I don't say that as a criticism or that I'm upset about it at all.
KURTZ: It sounds like a criticism to me.
WHITLOCK: I'm always...
KURTZ: It sounds like a criticism to me.
WHITLOCK: Well, they're certainly thin-skinned. I think their record speaks for itself.
KURTZ: All right.
WHITLOCK: I'm not the first person that this has happened to. It's happened to Tony Kornheiser, it's happened to John Feinstein, it's happened to Dan Levitar.
KURTZ: But they're all still on the air. WHITLOCK: I'm not the first, and nor will I be the last.
KURTZ: In the interest of equal time, let me bust in here. A statement from ESPN vice president: "There are numerous examples of allowing people to voice diverse, critical opinions of our company, including from Jason himself over the years. These were personal attacks that went too far."
Went too far?
WHITLOCK: No, I don't think so at all. I just think they were just honest opinions, responses to questions that were asked.
And to any time I've been critical of ESPN I've also received a phone call from an executive trying to send me the message of not to do it. And I know you mentioned those guys that are all back on air, but for a time they were banned or kicked off the air for their comments critical of ESPN.
This is just what ESPN does. It's a monopoly. It's the most powerful sports entity, I think, in America, but it's not properly covered by the American media because too many of us are in bed with ESPN.
KURTZ: Good subject for another show.
Jason Whitlock clearly not toning it down.
Thanks for joining us.
WHITLOCK: Thank you, Howard.
KURTZ: Still to come, Bill Clinton is not the only public figure to lose his temperature or television. A look at anger on the air next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It was in upstate New York tonight, so...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: You've all seen maybe a thousand times or so Bill Clinton tearing into FOX's Chris Wallace last weekend while defending his record on terrorism.
CLINTON: And you've got that little smirk on your face and you think you're so cleaver.
KURTZ: Well, that's not the first time the former president has let his temper show. Some of you might recall this sitdown with Peter Jennings two years ago when the anchor alluded to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. CLINTON: You don't want to go here, Peter. You don't want to go here. Not after what you people did and the way you, your network, what you did with Kenneth Starr. The way your people repeated every little sleazy thing he leaked.
KURTZ: But Clinton is just one of a long line of politicians to use anger as a public weapon. There was candidate George Herbert Walker Bush in a confrontational 1988 interview with Dan Rather.
DAN RATHER, CBS: And Mr. Vice President, these questions...
GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I don't think it's fair to judge a whole career. It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?
Now, would you like that?
KURTZ: And when someone tried to shut down a 1980 debate staged by Ronald Reagan, he got mad.
RONALD REAGAN, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am paying for this microphone.
KURTZ: But it's not just candidates and office holders who demonstrate their toughness with a little red-faced display. Some cable news hosts are increasingly using emotion to get ratings as well.
With each passing day, for instance, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann seems to gets madder and madder at the president.
OLBERMANN: After five years of skirting even the most inarguable facts that he was president on 9/11, he must bear some responsibility for his and our unreadiness. Mr. Bush has now moved unmistakably and without conscience or shame towards rewriting history and attempting to make the responsibility entirely Mr. Clinton's.
KURTZ: At "Headline News," Nancy Grace is often prosecutorial, seemingly determined to prove that every suspect she talks about must be guilty.
NANCY GRACE, HOST, "NANCY GRACE": And I want you locked away for the rest of your life, John Mark Karr, but that's not going happen.
He's about to walk free because the district attorney's office lost the evidence.
KURTZ: CNN's Lou Dobbs, who once anchored a straightforward financial show called "Moneyline," has been on a long crusade against illegal immigration.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When I watch you talk about it and there is literally steam coming out of your ears you're so angry. Why?
LOU DOBBS, CNN ANCHOR: There are tens of millions of middle class Americans, working men and women and their families right now, who have no representation in this debate.
KURTZ: And FOX's Bill O'Reilly, he's always ticked off at someone, whether it be loony professors, soft-headed judges, or the pinheads in the media.
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: You guys spread propaganda that these far-left Kool-Aid drinkers believe that this network is trying to promote the Bush administration and run down the Clinton administration.
O'REILLY: That's flat-out false.
JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Guilty. Guilty. We're guilty.
O'REILLY: Yes. Not only are you guilty, you're both stupid.
KURTZ: High-level conversations, civil disagreement? That's boring, right? What sells on TV, some hosts convinced, is conflict.
So Clinton's little outburst would hardly have been noticed if he were a talk show host badgering one of his guests. It's almost enough to make me mad.
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.
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