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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Interview With Bob Woodward
Aired November 26, 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): "State of Denial." The best- selling author who says the Bush administration has bungled the war talks about the backlash from the White House and the critics, why the firing of Don Rumsfeld took so long, and why the president refused to see him.
A conversation with Bob Woodward.
Murdoch's mistake. How a wave of public revulsion forced FOX to cancel its odious O.J. television and book extravaganza.
Spy guys. "Vanity Fair" editor Graydon Carter and Public Radio host Kurt Andersen on the "Hipper Than Thou" magazine they launched in the '80s and how it spawned today's journalism with an attitude.
Plus, no escape. The 2008 campaign already?
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the reporting about the Bush administration at war. I'm Howard Kurtz.
No journalist has had more access to George W. Bush and his top aides and advisers than Bob Woodward. But in his latest book, "State of Denial," "The Washington Post" assistant managing editor paints a very different portrait of the White House than in his previous volumes. A picture of all the president's men, and women, as a dysfunctional and at times incompetent family, and one that has not been honest with the public about Iraq.
The administration, in turn, has sharply criticized it's previously favored author.
KURTZ: Bob Woodward joins me now.
BOB WOODWARD, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Thanks.
KURTZ: You reported in the book that Andrew Card, long-time chief of staff to the president, wanted Don Rumsfeld out. Based on your reporting, did you expect Rumsfeld to be fired? Were you surprised when he was let go?
WOODWARD: I think it was inevitable at some point, but you never know. There were stories saying it might have been before the election, might have been after. But I think if you look at the portrait in the book of Rumsfeld, it's very hard to -- given the situation in Iraq, to keep him on.
To a certain extent he is the center of the failure in terms of the war plan and the aftermath. The war has been going on for almost four years now. And it has just not gone well. And somebody has to carry that burden.
KURTZ: In an interview with you, Rumsfeld compared the administration's strategy against the Iraqi insurgency to a fruit bowl. And you write that you were just speechless when he said that.
WOODWARD: Well, he was talking about the attacks. He said that the attacks are like a fruit bowl, there are different components. There are snipers, there are car bombs. He said they are like bananas, apples and oranges.
Now, these are the attacks that are killing our soldiers and maiming them. I was speechless because I don't see how you compare those lethal insurgent actions with bananas, apples and oranges.
KURTZ: Now, President Bush gave you a fair amount of time for your first two books. For this book he would not see you. The White House said they concluded that you had already made up your mind.
Were you surprised? What did you make of the fact that the cooperation with the president ended?
WOODWARD: Well, it wasn't that I'd made up my mind. It's that I had the secret documents and the accounts of NSC meetings and the reactions of people along the way here. And in a sense, there's no real way to answer that, because these are their documents. This -- Steve Hadley, the national security adviser, giving them a D minus. Condi Rice's counselor, Philip Zelikow, going to Iraq and saying it's a failed state.
These are their own people making these assessments. So, it's very hard -- I don't know what the president would say. And, you know, so, in a real world, I didn't expect that he was going to sit down, as he had in the past, and talk about these matters for hours.
KURTZ: Now, the White House, which had seemed very satisfied with your first two books, mounted something of a counterattack here, particularly on this question of whether Laura Bush had supported the ouster of Don Rumsfeld.
Let's take a look at some what administration folks had to say about "State of Denial."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TONY SNOW, PRESS SECRETARY, WHITE HOUSE: In a lot of ways the book is sort of like cotton candy. It kind of melts on contact.
We've read this book before. This tends to repeat what we've seen in a number of other books that have been out this year, where people are ventilating old disputes over troop levels.
LAURA BUSH, FIRST LADY: Andy Card also went on television and said that's not true. And let me just say the one thing about that book: Those quote of mine were in quotes, and the author didn't call me and fact-check. And it just didn't happen.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Your response?
WOODWARD: Well, first of all, Andy Card, as you know, has gone on television and said the quotes are accurate and that they did happen. And the first lady is saying what she said. And again, there is a way and a habit they have in the White House of you write something and then they kind of take it up one step, and then they deny the version that they say you wrote.
Well, what I wrote in the book is that Laura Bush was concerned about Rumsfeld, and concerned that he might be hurting her husband. You only have to live in the United States of America to know that's a possibility. It's not surprising that she would have some concern.
I did not say and did not report in the book that she favored the ouster of Rumsfeld. The White House then takes that and says, the book says she favored the ouster of Rumsfeld. And then they deny that. It's -- but, you know -- Card is not...
KURTZ: That's something you say you didn't report.
WOODWARD: That's right. It's not an unusual technique. But Card repeatedly has said publicly that the quotes are accurate.
KURTZ: Critics of the president, as you know, said that in their view you were too soft on the administration in your previous two books and now you've finally come around. And you were in a state of denial about administration incompetence.
WOODWARD: Well, they haven't read the books, the first two books. The first book showed how Rumsfeld had no plan for the Afghan war. The second book, as I recall, "The New York Times" did two front page stories on "Plan of Attack," saying that the book jolted the White House because it exposed the rift between Colin Powell and Cheney and other things. Certainly the White House is not going to embrace something that necessarily jolts the White House.
KURTZ: Now, here is "The New York Times" book reviewer saying, "'State of Denial' isn't so much a continuation of his previous work as a repudiation that attempts to 'correct for past obsequiousness.'"
So, was there a change of course? Was there a change in your thinking when you wrote this book?
KURTZ: Compared to the previous one?
WOODWARD: No. And if you read those first two books...
KURTZ: I've read them.
WOODWARD: ... it's clear that there is a consistent portrait.
Now, it is Bush operating on different situations. In the first book, "Bush at War," it was the response to 9/11, going to take the war to Afghanistan. Even John Kerry, in the last presidential debate, said the president did a good job on this.
So, it's all reporting. And a number of people have actually gone through, because it's about 1,500 pages. And when you look at it, there is portrait of the same person, the same process in the Afghan war.
In the first volume, when Condi Rice came to the president and said the war cabinet has some doubt about what we're doing, the president met with the war cabinet in the National Security Council meeting, and said, "Doubt? I don't want doubt. No hand-wringing here. You all signed up for this and went around the table."
In other words, he didn't want a debate, just as we see, I think, in the Iraq war. He's not wanted a debate.
KURTZ: There is in "State of Denial" a much more critical portrait of Bush, of Rumsfeld, of the whole team. I guess, obviously, as conditions in Iraq worsened. So was -- and yet, you say this was no change in thinking on your part.
Why do so many people read this as a much more critical work on your part?
WOODWARD: Well, it is very pointed in the title. And the last three and a half years have been a period when the violence has escalated and they have not told the truth. And I take secret documents and accounts of meetings and show this.
So, I couldn't report in the first book about how the Iraq war went, because the Iraq war hadn't started. What had started was the Afghan war.
WOODWARD: So, it's like a sports writer covering three ballgames. You may have wonderful performance or respectable performance, and then middle performance in the middle game. And in the end, they lose 24 to nothing. And you report those games.
And no one is going to come to the sportswriter and say, "Well, you covered this first game that they won or did quite well on. How come you didn't know that the third game was going to be a blow out?"
KURTZ: Does it seem to you that the criticism of you is ideological in nature in that mostly it comes from the left, from people who do have a very low opinion of President Bush and think that, perhaps in part because of the access you have with him and because you have access to a lot of people at the high levels of the White House, that you got a little too close?
WOODWARD: No, I don't think so. I think that criticism is something to absorb and listen to and learn from. I think I'm the only person who has written three books -- books on the Bush presidency. They cover different phases, but if you look closely at what's in the book it's a consistent portrait.
If I may bore you with an example, you had Laura Bush on. In the first book I was interviewing the president down at his ranch in Crawford. This is in the summer of 2002 about 9/11 and the Afghan war.
And Laura Bush came in and he said, "Oh, she was a real trooper after 9/11 because we had to live in the White House, which was ground zero." And she just looked and said, "No, I was worried."
And then she said to him, "You were up late at night" -- this is all in the book -- "and you were worried." And he went, "Oh, OK."
In other words, she was saying, you're denying the reality. And he acknowledged it.
KURTZ: The contrast has been drawn many times, Bob, to Watergate. You and Carl Bernstein, young local reporters, ultimately finding a criminal conspiracy that went all the way to the Oval Office, when Richard Nixon was president.
Are there inherent limitations in what you do now in terms of reporting from the top ranks of government? I know you also get to the middle ranks of government, but it's a very different world.
WOODWARD: And the lower level.
KURTZ: But it's very different than being an outsider.
WOODWARD: Sure it's different. But if you look at "State of Denial," there are the top level meetings and then there are the memos, and the descriptions of very low-level people, a two-star general, his war diary.
Steve Herbits, who was -- probably no one ever heard of, or didn't hear much about him, was Rumsfeld's kind of Karl Rove in his memos. So, it's reporting at all of those levels. And it's a consistent approach.
As we discovered last year in Watergate, we did have a high-level source. And so it's not just low-level, mid-level, high-level, and you operate at all of those -- work on all of those sources. And this book totally reflects that. KURTZ: Another thing the White House threw out, they said it was a myth that you had claimed that General John Abizaid, the chief American commander in the region, had alleged that Don Rumsfeld "doesn't have any credibility anymore." They put out a fact sheet and they said, Abizaid has nothing but the greatest respect for Mr. Rumsfeld.
WOODWARD: Well, that's right. And in fact, I quote him saying he has respect for Rumsfeld, but he doesn't like him. And this was a meeting with friends, which had been substantiated, that Abizaid said Rumsfeld didn't have any credibility.
Now, this was last year. What happens immediately after that? And the point was, Rumsfeld can't describe publicly our strategy because he lacks this credibility. And who did they decide to outline the strategy, but Condi Rice, the secretary of state.
KURTZ: Did White House officials decide that in order to protect their own credibility they had to go after your credibility? But you did not have this reaction with the first two books, but they made an effort to knock this book down.
WOODWARD: Yes, they did, but it totally evaporated. People -- documents, people came forward and said, oh, yes, by the way, that happened. So, you know, they -- that is what White Houses do.
You're an expert in this. They like to spin, and that's fine. I think this wound up being a circle, because it came back -- their own people came out and said, oh, yes, this is true.
KURTZ: I have seen some spinning once or twice.
Let me go to break.
When we come back, will it be easier for journalists to dig up secrets once the Democrats take charge on Capitol Hill?
More with Bob Woodward just ahead.
And at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, stay tuned for "THIS WEEK AT WAR."
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Continuing our conversation with Bob Woodward.
The last time you were on this program we talked about Valerie Plame and the whole CIA leak investigation, and you said you thought the thing was pretty largely overblown by the media and wouldn't amount to much.
Do you still believe that?
WOODWARD: Yes. Well, that's exactly what happened.
I mean, they indicted somebody for perjury, Scooter Libby, and have not indicted anyone for this alleged illegal leaking of her identity. I always knew who my source was and knew that this was not part of a conspiracy. And that's exactly what has occurred.
KURTZ: You are able now to say who your source was.
WOODWARD: Yes -- he's publicly said -- Richard Armitage, Powell's deputy, and my source and Novak's source, and somebody as much outside the White House control and circle as possible. And it was gossip and almost an accident that I was told this.
KURTZ: But during the more than two years when you were saying things like that, you decided not to go public with the fact that any administration official had told you...
WOODWARD: Why? I mean, it would be absurd, again, to go do that and say, oh, somebody told me, but I can't tell you who it was because it was a confidential interview.
KURTZ: Should you not have told your editors at "The Washington Post"?
WOODWARD: I should have told Len Downey and, as you well know and reported accurately, I apologized for not telling him. But as you know and reported, Len said, "So what would we have done? We would have had somebody who had heard something from a confidential source that we could not report."
This is -- this is -- you know, this is the media environment we live in, where people grasp at something, sometimes straws, and it doesn't turn out to be Iran-Contra or Watergate. And I knew that, because I knew who the source was.
KURTZ: When the Democrats take control on Capitol Hill in January, will people like you who try to dig up secrets, will it become easier because you will have this sort of opposition party subpoenaing things, getting documents and so forth? Will the nature of Washington reporting change for somebody like you?
WOODWARD: That's a good question. I hope so. There is -- there is just, again, a truth here, that if it's Democrats investigating a Republican White House, it's going to be more aggressive and you're going to look at things that have not been looked at in the first year, or six years of the Bush administration.
In Watergate, it was Sam Ervin, the Democratic senator -- I remember he called me up and -- gee, it was 33 years ago, and said, "We're going to investigate Watergate. We're going to issue subpoenas. We're going to try to find out what the deputy campaign manager's role was."
In other words, he did not raise the bar very high. They conducted what turns out to be probably the best Senate investigation ever.
KURTZ: As long as we're on Watergate, there's a new biography out of you and Carl Bernstein by Alicia Shepard, and she says that, during the period when you were working on the Watergate story, Robert Redford called you up and said he was interested in making a movie and that you blew him off.
Is that true?
WOODWARD: I was skeptical. I don't recall specifically blowing him off. I recall talking to him and meeting with him.
KURTZ: But Redford says...
WOODWARD: But there -- but there may have been a moment when we were on deadline or something when he called, and I put it off. But I hope I wasn't rude.
KURTZ: All right.
Bob Woodward, thanks very much for sitting down with us today.
KURTZ: Up next, Dan Rather is back on television.
And we find out what LBJ really thought about "The New York Times."
And later, the public just says no to O.J. TV.
We'll talk about that and more with "Vanity Fair" editor Graydon Carter and "New York Magazine's" Kurt Andersen.
KURTZ: Dan Rather is back on television. The longtime CBS anchor first surfaced on election night as a guest on "The Daily Show," where Jon Stewart had to coax him into delivering some patented Ratherisms.
JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW": We sort of brought you in here though to, you know, give us a little bit more of that Dan Rather. You know what I'm saying? A little bit more of that homespun kind of...
DAN RATHER, JOURNALIST: How so?
STEWART: For example, Hillary Clinton, we knew she was going to win in a landslide, but, I mean, how would you, Dan Rather, you know, describe the largeness of her victory?
RATHER: Well, it was a healthy margin.
RATHER: How about she ran away with it like a hobo with a sweet potato pie?
KURTZ (voice over): Now Rather is back with a weekly documentary program called "Dan Rather Reports." The debut show was an hour-long look at the problems of veterans which the 75-year-old journalists says will be one of its signature issues.
RATHER: Tonight in my first report for HDNet, ordinary soldiers and extraordinary men and women. The question is, does the Department of Veterans Affairs have the money and resources it needs to care for this new generation of veterans?
KURTZ: The program is available on the high-definition channel HDNet, which reaches three million viewers. But Rather, who left CBS after his botched story on President Bush's National Guard service, says he feels liberated because billionaire owner Mark Cuban has given him total independence.
An embattled president saddled with an unpopular war lashing out a major newspaper. No, it's not George W. Bush.
It was Lyndon Johnson, mired in Vietnam in 1966. And according to newly-released Oval Office tapes, he had this to say about "The New York Times."
LYNDON JOHNSON, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: "The Times" is run by a bunch of commies, and they want to get out of Vietnam and yield it to them. And I don't think I can quite do that.
KURTZ: "A bunch of commies." Some things never change, although today's preferred term is "siding with the terrorists."
KURTZ: And coming up in the second half of RELIABLE SOURCES, it brought a new edge to journalism. We'll talk with journalists Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen about "Spy Magazine," the funny years.
Plus, CNN's John Roberts on his recent trip to Iraq and how the reality differs from the televised images.
That's all ahead after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
Some people loved it, some people hated it, but everyone talked about it. From the moment that "Spy" magazine was launched in the late 1980s it was funny, irreverent, cruel, brilliant, and sophomoric -- sometimes all at once. Joining us now from New York are two of the co-founders who went on to big-deal media careers. Graydon Carter, the editor of "Vanity Fair," and Kurt Andersen, former editor and now columnist for "New York" magazine and host of Public Radio's "Studio 360." They have collaborated on a book that, well, is big and weighs a lot, called "Spy: The Funny Years."
Kurt Andersen, I'm going to get to the book in just a moment. I want to ask you about the O.J. Simpson debacle. The public revulsion that forced Rupert Murdoch to cancel this odious TV and book deal, does that send a broader message to trash merchants that there is a line still, somewhere?
KURT ANDERSEN, "NEW YORK" MAGAZINE: I thank that's it exactly. And I think it's grand, it's -- you know, and we've had 20 years, especially in the news business, in the media business, where marketplace values have trumped all other values, and here we found the bottom. And I think that feels good for everybody.
KURTZ: Graydon Carter, did Murdoch simply underestimate the way that booksellers and advertisers and FOX affiliates and even FOX News commentators would revolt against this garbage?
GRAYDON CATER, CO-FOUNDER, "SPY MAGAZINE": Well, I guess somebody there underestimated. I mean, it was a -- a harebrained scheme to make -- you know, for money, and it was -- I think anybody with any kind of sense at the beginning would have said this is not somewhere we should be going.
KURTZ: Denise Brown, who is -- was Nicole Brown's sister, went on the "Today" show, and she talked about FOX offering the family millions of dollars to go along with this project. Let's take a brief look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DENISE BROWN, NICOLE BROWN'S SISTER: When this offer from News Corp came to us, we just thought, "Oh, my god." Well, what they're trying to do is trying to keep us quite, trying to make this like hush money, trying to go around the civil verdict, giving us this money to keep our mouths shut.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, let me just make...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Kurt Andersen, what do you make of that?
ANDERSEN: I don't doubt it. I mean, it would have been far -- I mean, at that point in the triage that News Corp was playing, it would have been less embarrassing entirely apart from whatever money they were or weren't going to make, to go ahead and -- and then also, in the disingenuous way that they have looked, and that Judith Regan has looked throughout this episode, looked like they were doing a good thing by -- by handing over the money to the victims.
KURTZ: Right. O.J. Simpson said in a radio interview this week that he has already spent the money, and he said -- he accused the Goldman family of reopening old wounds. What an amazing choice of words.
Now Kurt -- Graydon Carter, I do want to ask you about one controversy that "Vanity Fair" was involved in. Just days before the election, you put online a piece about prominent neoconservatives who were criticizing President Bush and the conduct of the Iraq war. Some of them did not like the way that came out.
Let me read to you a couple of comments and get your reaction.
David Frum says, "'Vanity Fair' added words outside the quote marks to change the plain meaning of quotations. The editors and publicists at 'Vanity Fair' have repackaged truths that a war-fighting county needs to hear into lies intended to achieve a shabby partisan purpose."
And Richard Perle says, "I had been promised that my remarks would not be published before the election. I should have known better than to trust the editors at 'Vanity Fair,' who lied to me."
What do you make of those reactions?
CARTER: Well, I think having the neoconservatives who helped plan the war and support the war be angry with the magazine is not the worst possible thing. David Frum's comments are completely incorrect.
They were interviewed for the story, the story appears in the next issue of the magazine. And we released it before the elections on VanityFair.com because we felt that, given the fact the president was using the war as a line in the sand for voters, and here you had the architects of the war saying it was a horrible mistake and completely bungled, we thought that was the public's right to know.
KURTZ: All right. Let me now turn to this "Spy" book.
I was ready to nail you two, but then I read the first sentence of the book, and it says -- you say, "We didn't start 'Spy' in order to become the sorts of people the magazine specialized in teasing or satirizing, but that's pretty much the way it worked out."
So, Kurt Andersen, you've become what you once mocked?
ANDERSEN: Well, or at least we can joke that we have and cop to that fact, sure, because we've grown up and we're, you know -- we are now 50 instead of 30. And as the gawkers of the world and the bloggers of the world take no end of delight in doing, they, in their sort of spitball-shooting way, tease us and mock us mercilessly.
KURTZ: On the receiving end of spitballs.
Graydon Carter, "Spy" used to use phrases for prominent people like "bosomy dirty book writer" and "churlish dwarf billionaire" and "short-fingered vulgarian." I believe that was Donald Trump.
You guys can be pretty mean.
CARTER: Well, actually, those epithets were, in part, borrowed from "Private Eye" and a lot of "TIME" magazine from the 1940s and '50s. And the "TIME" descriptions and their epithets for people were not that far off from what we did at -- what we did at "Spy."
KURTZ: Did people get mad at you over some of that name-calling, though?
CARTER: They did, but you know -- well, Donald Trump threatened to sue the magazine a number of times, and it -- but not over the "short-fingered vulgarian" part. It was over some other matter we -- that involved one of our owners.
KURTZ: I see, all right.
Kurt, you also had a monthly column on the "New York Times" that was kind of filled with gossip. So were you pioneers of media criticism, or was -- is that too haughty a phrase?
ANDERSEN: Well, it's your phrase, and I would never call us pioneers. But yes, I mean, it's strange to remember that 20 years ago, when we started -- 19 and 20 years ago when we started doing that column, not only was there not media criticism everywhere you looked, as there is today, but nobody, as you know well, Howie, nobody really said "boo" about "The New York Times." Its power in the culture, certainly in New York City, was unchallenged and, yes, we were the first to do that regularly. It's just -- that's a fact.
KURTZ: But you also made fun of "Times" editors and reporters, I guess, in a way that, you were saying -- in other words, it was such a powerful institution that people were kind of afraid of it.
ANDERSEN: Kind of afraid? Yes, very afraid, because, of course, they were worried about how their next book or -- would be received or poorly received. The cultural power of "The Times" was -- was, you know, a serious thing.
And, you know, it's no coincidence that, you know, as soon as that "Times" column started in "Spy" magazine, "Spy" magazine, despite its success, was never covered by the paper of record.
KURTZ: Except for one story by a reporter that was later killed, and that was a fascinating little anecdote in the book.
Graydon Carter, one of the other people you made fun of in your "Spy" days was the then-editor of "Vanity Fair," Tina Brown. You even ran a fake topless photo of her, which I think we're not going to show here.
What would "Spy" have done with the current editor of "Vanity Fair," a guy who dresses the way you do and throws these big Hollywood parties? CARTER: I hope they wouldn't run a picture of me topless. But that picture actually came after we left -- the fake cover of her topless. I think the fact is that if you're in any kind of these jobs, you are open to the sort of inspection that "Spy" gave to "Vanity Fair" and then "The New York Times" in the day.
KURTZ: Kurt, how much of the snarkiness in today's media, from the "Daily Show" to the blogs, was spawned by "Spy"?
ANDERSEN: I don't know if it was spawned or how much of it was spawned, but certainly we were there doing it early before it was so universal, before there was a web. And therefore, you know, we did some early spade work. And the people who do it after, obviously, are, you know -- either consciously or unconsciously, whether they owe anything to what we did, they are, you know, doing it after.
Yes, I think we -- I think "Spy" had, you know, a not-unimportant role in inserting a sense of mischief and skepticism into -- into the media world.
KURTZ: Same question to you, Graydon Carter. Did you catch this wave early or did you help create the wave?
CARTER: Well, I think, first of all, I think our voice that we created for the magazine, it was -- it was a voice that Kurt and I worked very hard to sort of create over the first three or four issues, and then other writers started sort of writing in the same voice as well. But there was sort of more of a detachment to it, perhaps more detached irony than snarkiness.
I don't think we would have ever described it that way. It was satirical, certainly, but it's different than the kind of stuff you see on the Internet now. I think "The Onion" is closer to what "Spy" does other than the fact that most of it is fiction, but it is -- the Internet voices are not the same voices that "Spy" created.
KURTZ: Well, I'm glad both of you were able to find gainful employment after your "Spy" years.
Graydon Carter, Kurt Andersen, thanks very much for joining us.
Up next, are the media sanitizing coverage of Iraq? We'll talk with CNN's John Roberts, just back from the war zone.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) * KURTZ: Welcome back.
If anything is as hotly debated as the war in Iraq, it's the media coverage of the war in Iraq.
CNN's John Roberts recently returned from a month-long visit to the country, so I sat down with him on the set of "THIS WEEK AT WAR" to talk about how the conflict looks up close.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: John Roberts, welcome.
JOHN ROBERTS, CNN SR. NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good to be here.
KURTZ: The conventional wisdom is that American troops resent the media's coverage of this war as too negative. But there's a Zogby poll of U.S. forces that say 72 percent think they should leave within a year.
What did you find when you were in Iraq military people saying about the mission and the media?
ROBERTS: You know, I spent a lot of time with U.S. troops. In the month that I was there, I spent probably two weeks or a little bit more than that on the ground with them, north of Baghdad, in Baghdad, traveling with a lot of the Stryker units who had been there for 16 months now.
They were very optimistic on the unit level about what they were doing. They believed in the mission that they were undertaking -- you know, clearing operations, trying to secure thee streets of Baghdad, trying to get some of the weapons off the streets, trying to deal with these militia members who are the cause of so much of this sectarian violence.
When they stepped back, though, and took a look at the larger picture, there were a lot of questions about where the direction was headed, where they were going to go in the future...
KURTZ: And did they think...
ROBERTS: ... whether the plan immediately was the right plan.
KURTZ: And did they think the coverage, generally, on balance, was fair or unfair?
ROBERTS: You know, they didn't seem to have too many complaints about the coverage. They appreciated the fact that we were there, and anytime you're embedded with U.S. forces, you're going to see the bad along with the good.
They were always trying to put a positive spin on things from a command level. You know, taking us to certain areas to show us certain things they thought would play well. But by and large, I didn't hear any complaints about the coverage.
KURTZ: If you're sitting at home watching it on TV, you see mass kidnappings, suicide bombings, mosque bombings, death squads. When you're there as a journalist, does the situation seem as chaotic to you as it does to a viewer?
ROBERTS: You know, Howie, I had a perception of Iraq going in, and it was the first time I'd been there in three-and-a-half years. I got out a couple of days after the Saddam statue fell, after the initial invasion. So it was quite a shock to go back and see the chaotic state that the country was in. And as -- I guess you could say as realistic as my perceptions were about going in there, the reality on the ground far exceeded that.
The place is a mess. It's an absolute mess. There is nowhere you can go in the Baghdad area as a Western journalist without an escort, where you could feel safe from being kidnapped, shot at, whatever. The amount of death that's on the streets of Baghdad for U.S. forces and for the Iraqi people is at an astronomical level.
I was out riding with a Stryker unit a couple of days after the election. They got the 911 call, an IED attack against an American convoy. This convoy of Humvees had just been driving up the on-ramp on to a highway when one of those formed projectiles hit it.
It literally disintegrated the guy in the passenger seat, who was right there where the projectile came through, killed the driver. I watched him die on the roadside.
And when you look at that from such a personal level, it does affect your perceptions of what's going on on the ground. And I know that that's not everywhere, all the time, but it does suggest that death lurks at every step in Iraq, and any place where death lurks at every step can be in nothing but a state of chaos.
KURTZ: So in a nutshell, you're saying that the coverage -- that the situation in Iraq on the ground, as you saw close up, is worse -- is worse than it appears from the television and newspaper coverage.
Why is that? Why are we not capturing the full anarchy there?
ROBERTS: Because television can't -- and even print -- can't fully capture the scope of what's going on in Iraq. And to some degree, too, over the last three-and-a-half years, Howie, it's become the daily traffic report, the daily drumbeat.
When you get there and you see it on a personal level, when you watch somebody die before your eyes, it gives you a much different perspective on it than it does being a half a world away, reading about it or watching it on television. Also, you know, the pictures on television are sanitized compared to what they are on the ground.
For example, when we came across that IED attack, we did not shoot pictures that we would show on television of the carnage. We showed pictures of people carrying litters, et cetera, because it's, A...
KURTZ: Too raw?
ROBERTS: ... it's too raw for television. B, it's too personal for the families who were involved, because the fellow who I saw on the ground, Howie, he was ripped apart. And that's just not the sort of thing that you want a family to know.
If a loved one died in Iraq, they died in Iraq. You don't need to show them the graphic pictures of it.
So, to some degree, what we're seeing is sanitized. KURTZ: But here you have administration officials, as you know, repeatedly, relentlessly criticizing the coverage of this war as too focused on the violence and not paying any attention to what they claim are -- is progress, at least in other areas.
Is that argument now collapsing or fading as the violence apparently continues to get worse there?
ROBERTS: I never thought it was a solid argument to begin with. You know, you could say, hey, why aren't you showing the good news? But when most of the news is bad, it's difficult to show what good things that are happening there.
You know, I did notice that in some of the areas of Old Baghdad, when we were out on patrol with the Stryker units, that there is electricity, there is running water to a greater degree than there was before. There are some things that are getting done.
But you talk to the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart Bowen, whom I know quite well, and he'll tell you, face-to-face, that the amount of violence in Iraq is absolutely preventing any real progress on the reconstruction front. So until they get a handle on the violence, it's going to be very difficult to see the good news.
KURTZ: So you're saying the violence is the story; everything else is secondary.
ROBERTS: The violence affects everything in Iraq.
KURTZ: As public opinion has swung against this war -- and we certainly saw that in the results of the midterm elections -- do you think that the media's coverage, and what you described as `the traffic report,' the daily death toll, both Iraqis and Americans, have helped to turn the coverage -- almost reminiscent of Vietnam, John -- have helped to turn the country against this war?
ROBERTS: I think it's because you're not seeing any definable progress. If people were fighting and dying, and yet there was a lot of progress, I think you could -- people back home could make the case in their own minds that yes, this is worth it. But when you see people fighting and dying, and in greater numbers -- I mean, look at the death toll in October, 105, fourth deadliest month...
KURTZ: And you see Iraqis killing each other in greater numbers and with increasing brutality, and then you question what -- and the media increasingly have questioned, what are you U.S. soldiers accomplishing?
ROBERTS: Exactly. What's the end game here, how is this going to turn out? Vietnam, after the Tet Offensive in 1968, public opinion started turning against it. President Bush suggested recently that the upswing in violence by insurgent groups and al Qaeda may be their attempt at instigating a certain Tet Offensive backlash.
I've got to tell you, if that's what they're doing, it's working. But I think to a larger degree, it's not anything strategic on their part, it's just that this is the way that things are going in Iraq. And the more chaotic it gets, the more death there is, and the more people will look at the U.S. involvement in Iraq and say, if there's no progress, if there's no defined end game here, if there's no way of knowing when people are coming home, why are we there?
KURTZ: A firsthand report.
John Roberts, thanks for letting us visit you on the set of "THIS WEEK AT WAR."
ROBERTS: I appreciate it. Thanks, Howie.
KURTZ: And a reminder. You can catch John Roberts hosting "THIS WEEK AT WAR" later today, 1:00 p.m. Eastern.
Just ahead, looking for a break from campaign politics? Forget about it. Not going to happen.
KURTZ: By now you are sick of the negative ads, the sound bite warfare, the polls, the pundits, the pontificators and the predictions. The 2006 campaign is finally over, and we can all take a breather, right? Well, not so fast.
KURTZ (voice over): It's already a cliche to say that the next presidential campaign began the day after the '06 season ended. But sometimes cliches are true.
When John McCain went on "Meet the Press" recently, the first question was about, you guessed it.
TIM RUSSERT, "MEET THE PRESS": Will you run for president in 2008?
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I'm going sit down with my family over the holidays. I always said I would decide early next year.
KURTZ: It must have been a quick family meeting. McCain is already forming an exploratory committee for a White House run.
Many people doubted Rudy Giuliani would run, but the former New York mayor has joined the exploratory committee sweepstakes as well.
So has Tom Vilsack, Iowa's Democratic governor.
And if Hillary Clinton isn't running, why does she keep popping up on magazine covers?
Just in case reporters run out of candidates to cover, don't forget Joe Biden, John Kerry, John Edwards, Chris Dodd, Evan Bayh, Bill Richardson, Mitt Romney, Sam Brownback, George Pataki, Mike Huckabee, Bill Frist, Newt Gingrich, Chuck Hagel and Duncan Hunter. Hint, he's a congressman.
Barack Obama got a huge amount of press for saying he just might make a presidential run after two years in office.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg keeps drawing journalistic speculation, even though he insists he's not running.
Russ Feingold has dropped out, making him the only member of the United States Senate who is definitely off the list.
Now, it's so absurdly early, and Americans are so clearly overdosed on politics, that surely, the media aren't in campaign mode already. Or are they?
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: It would be great to take a break from all of it for a while, but tell that to the folks who are seeking the nomination.
SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: America votes 2006 kind of ancient history now. It's been days, but the focus is turning to 2008.
KATIE COURIC, CBS NEWS: The next presidential election is still two years away, but potential candidates are already taking up positions at the starting line.
KURTZ: Now, journalists ought to have some mercy here and not inflict presidential politics on the audience two years before the next election. But the race is clearly unfolding and we hate to miss a good story.
So here's my advice: When you've had enough, hit the mute button.
One last thought.
On television it's the people who appear on the screen who get the credit or the blame, but the person who deserves much of the credit for this program works behind the scenes.
Jennifer Avalino (ph) has been with CNN for nearly two decades, and for the last nine years she has been the heart and soul of RELIABLE SOURCES. This is her last program as senior producer as she turns full time to the challenge of raising two young daughters.
If you like our show, Jennifer gets the credit. If not, it's probably because I failed to take her advice.
We'll all miss her.
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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