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Is the Press Only Now Waking up and Covering News That Counts?; Is the Media Reporting on the Anthrax Scare Responsibly?

Aired October 28, 2001 - 09:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. This morning we'll talk with two very opinionated journalists: Tom Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for the "New York Times," and the editor of "National Review," Rich Lowry.

Also ahead, CNN medical correspondent Rea Blakey gives us her take on whether reporters are fueling the national hysteria over anthrax.

First, here's what's on the covers of the news magazines. "TIME" magazine: "On the spot: fighting elusive foes at home and abroad, Bush and his team are feeling the heat." "Newsweek": "Protecting America: What must be done?" On the cover of "U.S. News & World Report": "Death by mail" -- referring, of course, to anthrax.

Well joining us now Tom Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for the "New York Times" and Rich Lowry, the editor of "National Review."

First, a look at the Sunday morning newspaper headlines. On the front page of the "Washington Post": "CIA Weighs `Targeted Killing' Missions." The "New York Times": "Allies Preparing for a Long Fight as Taliban Dig in; Optimism of Early October Fades."

And speaking of optimism, Tom Friedman, the Pentagon briefers have talked in the early days about eviscerating the Afghan forces. We saw those nifty gun camera videos of bombs exploding, always hitting their target. The ones that hit the Red Cross facility, we didn't see those videos. The ground raid of special operations last weekend was declared a success.

Was the press snookered by all this official reassurance, and maybe is just now waking up to reality?

TOM FRIEDMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I think to some extent Howie. You know, one of things that struck me about the press coverage -- it goes back to President Bush's speech before a joint session of Congress, and all the praise of that speech afterwards, but praise that was appropriate.

But the thing I kept saying to myself was, You know, it's so much easier to get a speech exactly right. The right combination of firmness and passion, you know, forward looking and historical. You can get a speech exactly calibrated. But getting a policy on the ground in Afghanistan exactly calibrated is much more difficult.

It's going to be a long war. I can't think of a more difficult terrain to fight it in. It was though, to me, a bit of understandable -- look, we're all Americans, we're all -- we want to believe we're going to win this war. I think people got caught up a little early.

KURTZ: Caught up with it, yes. And I wonder, Rich Lowry, if the press, though, has gotten into a kind of miniseries mentality, Hey, it's been three weeks, how come we haven't won this thing yet? The Gulf War only took a few days.

I mean is there -- are we guilty here of a little bit of journalistic impatience?

RICH LOWRY, "NATIONAL REVIEW": I think so. And I think the impatience characterizes the journalists and the elite more than it does the public, where the public seems still four-square behind us. And I think there'll also be -- we'll see a split between the media and the public when it just comes to the amount of information the media is getting.

KURTZ: We are very unsatisfied...

LOWRY: Sure.

KURTZ: ... complaining about the Pentagon stage-managing this war, and not giving out much information. But you don't have a problem with that?

LOWRY: Well, I think ultimately it's a political question. And the administration should be as forthcoming and as honest as it takes to keep the public sort of on board and to keep the public's faith. And the public has a different threshold than that than the media does.

And I think the public would be satisfied to learn about a special operations raid a month later, and not think it really had much bearing on how it evaluates how the war is going or not. But the media wants to get on -- wants to get the scoops, wants to get on things much faster. And I think it goes too far in that direction sometimes.

KURTZ: And speaking of the public, Tom Friedman, a "Newsweek" poll out today says 79 percent believe it is somewhat or very likely that U.S. forces will oust the Taliban. And I'm wondering whether journalists, maybe up until the last couple days when the coverage seems to have gotten more skeptical about the war effort, little concerned about criticizing too aggressively in a climate where everybody is rallying behind the president and the Defense Department.

FRIEDMAN: Well, I don't doubt that beneath the surface there is a little bit of that concern. But I think the best thing, you know, we can do is simply reflect accurately as possible how difficult this war is going to be. This is not Kosovo. Kosovo -- or even the war around Belgrade. This -- Belgrade was a modern European city, and through bombing of Belgrade, you could accomplish a real lot, because those people just did -- they wanted to be a part of Europe, all right.

KURTZ: Right.

FRIEDMAN: But when you're dealing with Afghanistan, bombing from the air simply is not going to do it. We have to go in on the ground with large number of troops and extrude these people. And I think to the extent that the Zeitgeist around the story has really changed in the last 72 hours. It is with the awareness that, well, this Northern Alliance that maybe we hoped was going to do a lot of it for us is not going to do it.

We are going to have to go in with, hopefully, some allies and extrude these people on the ground. It's going to take time. It's going to take casualties.

KURTZ: These reporters hanging with the Northern Alliance that have done stories about how to some extent it's kind of a ragtag bag of rebels.

LOWRY: That's absolutely right. Peter Baker, especially -- the "Washington Post" -- down there on the ground with the Northern Alliance, a couple of weeks ago was on top of the strategic difficulty that we're facing, which is that the Northern Alliance is a ragtag bunch of guys, and also that we weren't bombing the Taliban front- lines...

KURTZ: Front-lines, right.

LOWRY: ... so that the people on -- the reporters on the ground were on top of that much quicker than the people sitting in the Pentagon briefing rooms watching these green videos of warehouses.

KURTZ: Let me move on, and back to the media role. You've covered the Middle East, of course, for years. Is the press giving enough attention to Osama bin Laden's claim that Israel is somehow at the heart of this conflict, or is it kind of politically incorrect to dwell on that?

FRIEDMAN: Geez, I don't think he himself has even emphasized that much, Howie, that Israel is at the center of this. He really only introduced that in any prominent way...

KURTZ: Yes, in his video, yes.

FRIEDMAN: ... with that tape we -- and there's a reason for that. Osama bin Laden's real crusade, as it were, is against all infidels: Jews, Christians, you know, Buddhists, Hindus. That's really been his message -- I want to cleanse the Middle East of all of these people. And it was quite striking when he first introduced the Israel-Palestinian thing. Palestinians said, No, no, not us. He -- this guy is not our spokesman. So, I think we've gotten that one pretty right in the press.

KURTZ: And speaking of Palestinians, has the press let President Bush off the hook when he makes these dramatic declarations about any country that harbors terrorists we will consider them to be guilty of terrorism, but doesn't appear to apply that quite as aggressively to Yasser Arafat and Palestinian suicide bombers?

LOWRY: Sure. Well so far the mantra and the common wisdom from the press has been, it's extremely important to hold together as broad a coalition as possible.

KURTZ: The coalition, yes.

LOWRY: So that's been the common wisdom. So that common wisdom, the logic of it dictates that you ignore Yasser Arafat's connections to terrorism, you ignore Syria's connections to terrorism.

And going back to the Israel question, I think, if anything, Osama bin Laden has been playing to the Western media, and the Western opinion about Israel, because the common wisdom here is that Israel is a big part of the problem, and that was a late addition to his list of complaints because he knew it would play, I think, to the Western mind.

KURTZ: And speaking of the coalition against Afghanistan, Tom Friedman, how is it that the press seems just to be waking up to the fact that Saudi Arabia is a corrupt and repressive regime? This hasn't been a secret, but before this, you know, you basically read stories about, They're our friends, they give us oil, OK they don't treat their women so well. What accounts to this new awakening?

FRIEDMAN: One of things I learned as a Middle East correspondent, Howie, is that people who come out to the Middle East tend to cover it as a conflict, and not as a country. So they're interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict and everything -- which is what the regimes out there want -- and everything, then, is subsumed under that or hidden under that. And, in fact, now we are finally getting stories about Saudi textbooks and what they say about us, what they say about Christianity, what they say about infidels...

KURTZ: Which is not exactly positive.

FRIEDMAN: Which is not only not positive, it's deeply hostile. Now we're getting information that, well you know, earlier on in the war, the Saudis were the biggest funders of the Taliban. Now we know that 15 of the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. And for the first time we are looking at these countries as countries, as failed states, in some cases, and not just as a part of some Arab-Israeli conflict.

KURTZ: I would have questioned why we didn't do more of that before and why it took this kind of conflict to do that.

But let me just toss this your way, Rich Lowry. You're kind of professional hard-liner. Has the press been too soft on Islam, or particularly the more radical varieties of Islam?

LOWRY: I think so, and it goes back to the Saudi Arabia question as well. Looking deeply at these countries and at this faith in a critical way risks sort of offending important multicultural pieties, which is that all cultures are equal, all religions are equal, all religions are equally peaceful. And that just may not be the case. It may be that Islam has a slightly different character and cast. And President Bush has been ignoring that for, I think, political reasons. He has to say we're not at war with Islam because he wants to...

KURTZ: But what about the media?


LOWRY: ... this as much as possible.


LOWRY: ... but the media doesn't have to play along with it, and so far it has. And I think that's just because it offends our modern sensibilities. That it would seem too judgmental. It would seem too critical of a different civilization and culture.

KURTZ: Do administration officials make any attempt to spin you or lobby you about what they're doing? I mean, you're a prominent columnist; do you get a lot of phone calls from White House, Pentagon, State Department?

FRIEDMAN: Not one.

KURTZ: Not one? They've lost your number?

FRIEDMAN: They must have. I think they lost it after Florida, Howie.

I would say that the stance that I've sort of encountered with the administration is that any time I have called, like the State Department, I would like to see, you know, an official, a senior official they've always made it happen. I've never felt stiff-armed in any way.

At the same time, what has struck me about this administration in general, not just applying to me but, you know, to anyone else -- they have not in any way reached out to get their message, their strategy, their vision across to reporters in general, or at least to more liberal columnists in particular.

KURTZ: Well, we'll put up your 800 number in case anybody wants to call.

We have to take a break. And when we come back: Was the press corps, the one that thrived on scandal and celebrity, unprepared to cover the rest of the world?

And Bernard Kalb looks at one of the casualties of war in his "Backpage."


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We're talking with "New York Times" foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman and "National Review" Editor Rich Lowry. Let's take a brief look at what the media world looked like just a few short weeks ago.


UNIDENTIFIED NEWS ANCHOR: The plot has thickened in a story that has been increasingly gathering national attention since the first word that a young Washington intern was missing.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And his family accuses the congressman of waiting so long to tell investigators the truth about his affair with their daughter, that it may have led police down one trail while others were going cold.


KURTZ: It seems such a long time ago; and I see people laughing, because the world just seemed very different.

Isn't it true, Tom Friedman, that -- Chandra Levy aside -- that until the terrorist attacks, the American media was largely uninterested in anything beyond its borders except for war, plane crashes and maybe Princess Diana?

FRIEDMAN: I did actually -- and I do letters from different world leaders sometimes in my column. I did a letter from Osama bin Laden to his men two months before September 11. I did it after America withdrew -- the Bush administration, in the face of a cell phone threat, they withdrew the FBI from Yemen, the Marines from Jordan -- a Marine training mission -- and the Fifth Fleet from Bahrain. In that column, this is bin Laden saying to his men, "Look at what we did with a few threats over cell phones." OK?

In that column, I included a line, and the White House reporters haven't even asked President Bush about it. You know, I put it in there to try to scream, "Ask about this."

I just want to tell you one quote over that piece. The next day I got two e-mails from Marines on the USS Harpers Ferry who had been evacuated from Jordan, telling me how ashamed they were to be evacuated. They wanted to go to Afghanistan and fight Osama bin Laden. But you just couldn't get this through.

KURTZ: Why was that?

LOWRY: Well, it must have been very frustrating for Osama bin Laden, because here he was, he was bombing our embassies, you know, killing our Marines and he can't get -- he can't beat the Gary Condit story.

But to some extent, it was the soft bigotry of low expectations. This is all that was expected of the media. This is all that really the public wanted. You know, do you want to read a Washington sex scandal, or about a brewing problem in the Middle East that may not show up for another decade?

KURTZ: In some country with a hard-to-pronounce name.


KURTZ: And also, foreign -- international coverage is expensive, and the networks and some newspapers began to dismantle their bureaus because there was a perception, at least, that Americans were not very interested in these other topics, not when you had sex scandal and celebrity at home.

FRIEDMAN: That's apropos, though. Jim Hoagland and I, I think, are the only two columnists for any newspaper, you know, that cover foreign affairs in all of the United States.

KURTZ: As a full-time job.

FRIEDMAN: As a full-time job.

KURTZ: And something tells me that there may be a growth in this field. You may have more competition.

Here on the homefront, the anthrax coverage has been pretty much all anthrax, all the time in the last 10 days. The war has almost taken a backseat, I believe, to that. Are journalists going overboard, perhaps fueling the hysteria over this particular threat?

LOWRY: I thought that was true initially. I was very sympathetic to this harsh Michael Kelly column that appeared in the "Washington Post" saying the media was just obsessed with this because they were a bunch of scaredy-cat whiners and they've happened to get a couple of letters so they...

KURTZ: Their newsrooms were targeted, obviously.

LOWRY: Right, right.


LOWRY: But then it's turned out to be much more serious than anyone expected, I think. So I think the coverage has been justified, except for one thing where, I think, the media has really driven a hysteria on is Cipro, which -- there's no evidence that Cipro is any more effective than any other antibiotic when it comes to treating anthrax. And it's just because Tom Brokaw happened to hold it up on TV one day...

KURTZ: It's a...


LOWRY: ... it's a drug that became a celebrity, yes.

KURTZ: Yes, absolutely.

Anything about the anthrax coverage that you find a little over the top? FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, what always worries me is that so many people talking about this subject on TV. And I often wonder how many of them really know what they're talking about. That's number one.

KURTZ: The experts.

FRIEDMAN: Exactly. But for me, Howie, the big issue is we have to win this war, OK. Anthrax, I think we can handle. We have to win this war on the ground in Afghanistan. And if we don't do that, and if we lose sight of that because of this anthrax scare, I think we're going to be in deep, deep trouble.

LOWRY: It's absolutely right. It's fundamentally a foreign policy problem. You know, you can confiscate as many nail clippers at airports as you want, but the problem is not going to go away until you kill our enemies overseas.

KURTZ: Yes, but if you're worried about getting anthrax in the mail, then you may see that as a domestic problem.

Is the media, just briefly, being unfair to the Bush administration in terms of beating up on Tom Ridge and Tommy Thompson and saying they're confused and they're bumblers and they haven't handled the anthrax situation very well?

LOWRY: Maybe. I'm of two minds. I have some sympathy for the administration. This is something totally new, and lots of people were fooled by it. Bill Frist, who's gotten rave reviews for being a calm and reasonable voice, he was downplaying how serious the Daschle letter was.

But on the other hand, you know, Bushies told me during the Florida controversy, looking back at that, that something that was extremely reassuring was when James Baker went down there, the first thing he said is, We're not going to say anything that's untrue. We're going to check it three times. Now, you can argue about the extent to which they adhered to that, but that ethic is extremely important. And it would have been nice if it had been operative in this crisis as well.

KURTZ: There's a tension between putting information out quickly and making sure it's right. I know the White House has struggled with that.

We have about 30 seconds Tom Friedman; I understand that you ran afoul of America's new turbo-charged airport security system.

FRIEDMAN: They did find a pair of tweezers in my dop kit, my overnight bag, and asked me to check them. And as I wrote later, I had the sudden vision, Howie, of me going back to the Delta desk and saying, "I'd like to check these tweezers to La Guardia, please." And the woman would wrap the luggage tag around one side, and I'd write my name around the other and she'd put it on the belt, you know, with the other suitcases like a mouse among elephants. Then I would have to go get it in New York. You know, it's unfortunate we do live in a world, though, where a tweezers in the wrong hands, in the hands of super-empowered angry people, actually can be a lethal threat to us as individuals and to our country.

KURTZ: And I'm glad you got stopped.

Rich Lowry, Tom Friedman, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, coming up we'll talk to a reporter who's been on the front- lines of the ever-shifting anthrax story. And the collateral damage done to the press: Bernard Kalb's "Backpage."



And joining us is CNN medical correspondent Rea Blakey. Let's take another look at the new cover of "U.S. News & World Report": "Death by Mail; the Terrifying Anthrax Maelstrom has America on Edge."

Do you think covers like that, and the pretty much nonstop reporting of anthrax has contributed at all to scaring people in the country?

REA BLAKEY, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I have to say honestly, Howard, that I'm sure that there's a certain level of anxiety out there that wouldn't be present if the media wasn't all over the story.

But in reality, if we weren't all over the story, there would be millions of Americans who would have no real concept of what was going on. And as it is, there are many people who are sort of lost in the fog. What their general understanding is, it appears, that they know that people have died, they know that it's going through the mail. But a lot of Americans, I would imagine, are still confused about the finite details. And quite frankly, so are some journalists, as are the people at the CDC. And, you know, it's an evolving story. So, I'd say it's about 50-50.

KURTZ: We get to that confusion in a moment.

But we got some e-mail on this subject asking how the anthrax story is being covered. Says one of our viewers: "Report it, yes, but stop the nonstop coverage. The coverage is out of proportion to the risk, and that is precisely what raises the fear level."

Another person says: "The media's propensity toward sensationalism drives them to report stories in such a way that literally scares the public into watching."

Are you conscious, when you're reporting the story, not to be unduly alarming even though, obviously, some of the details are, in fact, very unnerving?

BLAKEY: I think a responsible journalist has to be conscious of that. It's a difficult position though, because we're walking a tight rope, you know. I mean at a certain point, we're not absolutely certain that it's not over the top. Based on what CDC officials are telling us or D.C. public health officials, you know, we're trying to walk that fine line and try and gather any other supportive information that may or may not quell the anxiety. But at the same time, it's a story that makes people anxious.

KURTZ: As a daily reporter, or a minute-by-minute reporter, as CNN correspondents tend to be, is it hard to keep up with the blur of the story, particularly when top officials, experts, consultants seem to be giving out conflicting information?

BLAKEY: I'd have to admit, on occasion, it is. There have been some times when, for example, we've been out on the field and maybe we haven't been able to actually see a news conference that was underway. And then you're hearing from one source that this is the circumstance and another source -- for example, the CDC obviously is coordinating its effort in a particular way. It took a while for them to let the D.C. Public Health Department get on the bandwagon. Now those two agencies are in lockstep...

KURTZ: Which is why there was the delay in testing the postal workers, which so many people are critical of...

BLAKEY: Precisely; right.

KURTZ: ... and of course, you had two deaths there.

BLAKEY: But then you also have local hospitals that are also doing their own news conferences and saying, we have somebody here and sort of, you know, calling for the media's attention. So it does tend to blur sometimes. The hard part is to get it all sort of spread out evenly and say, "All right, here's the finite detail on how this works."

KURTZ: Have you reported things on the air, whether, for example, the anthrax that was sent to the Senate was weaponized anthrax or regular anthrax or finely ground anthrax or chemically treated anthrax, that turned out not to be true, or were taken by events because you were repeating what the authorities are saying?


KURTZ: How have you managed to avoid those pitfalls? I mean...


KURTZ: ... I don't know to this day just what kind of anthrax that was because I've seen so many different characterizations of it.

BLAKEY: I have to admit that when that "weaponized" term came out, that wasn't something that I was necessarily covering. But quite frankly, because there have been so many specifics that, for example, have come down from the White House or from Capitol Hill, that hasn't really landed in a quote, unquote, "medical (UNINTELLIGIBLE)" we've been more on top of who's ill, why are they ill, and sort of following the trail of illness, if you will. So that is not something that's kind of fallen in my lap.

KURTZ: Should reporters have asked President Bush whether he had anthrax after some mail -- some traces of anthrax were found at a White House mail facility that was several miles away from the White House?

BLAKEY: I think so. I think the public deserves to know: A, you know, is the president aware of it? Is the president ill, for example. That's something people -- you know, when Vice President Cheney was having his heart issues, everybody wanted to know that information. It is germane to how we function as a country. So I think, yes, absolutely, the public deserves to know.

KURTZ: Very briefly, is there too much speculation on this story? Lot of talking heads out there.

BLAKEY: It's hard to say. The problem is that there really are still no finite answers. We're all sort of evolving the information as we go. So, you know, it's a bit of a toss up. We try to be as firm as we can about where the sources are and what information is going on, but it can be difficult.

KURTZ: We hope you'll come back and educate us again Rea Blakey. Thanks very much for joining us.

Time now for "The Backpage." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Whenever there's a war, there's also what's become known as collateral damage. It's one of the side effects when the bombs start falling.

(voice-over): But what I'm talking about are not those civilian casualties on the fringes of legitimate military targets, but rather the collateral damage that's already taken place in relations between the Pentagon and the press. In this latest war the news media, says the "New York Times," "are operating perhaps under the most severe limitations of any recent conflict." Noting that "the Pentagon itself has almost complete control over access to combat." And the "Washington Post": "Rumsfeld Assails Leak on Troops; Secretary's Warning to Pentagon Staff May Spur Friction With Media."

Fact is, such friction erupts with every war. It's part of the legacy of reportorial skepticism that goes way back to the Gulf War, for example, about some of the claims by the military about the accuracy of pinpoint bombing. Skepticism, too, that goes back to the Vietnam War, when the U.S. military briefings in Saigon were described by reporters as the "5:00 follies" because of their accent on the positive light at the end of the tunnel, et cetera.

Of course, this is not your usual war, with conventional armies, front lines and reporters in the field giving eyewitness accounts of U.S. troops in combat. In this anti-terrorist war, it's so far been just the reverse, with reporters unable to go along on whatever combat missions take place, and with the Taliban imposing restrictions on reporters' movements.

This leaves the Pentagon with a near monopoly on real-time information, and leaves the media frustrated and filled with questions, all of which makes the credibility of the Pentagon all the more critical; and credibility is critical because of its impact on the public and the public support for the war.

(on camera): Obviously, neither the Pentagon nor the press want to jeopardize the lives of U.S. soldiers in the field. But in asking questions about the official version of what's happening on the ground, the press is not out to undermine the military. Just the opposite in fact: It's the press pushing for as full and as accurate a story as possible. In that sense, skepticism is patriotic.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb with "The Backpage."

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media. CNN's coverage of "America Strikes Back" continues right now.




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