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Is Osama bin Laden Still in Tora Bora?; Do British and Middle Eastern Journalists Cover the War Differently Than Americans?; Donald Rumsfeld Charms the Press Corps

Aired December 16, 2001 - 09:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn the critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Just ahead, we'll talk with the panel of international correspondents about how the American media and the war are viewed by news outlets around the world and about how the events in Afghanistan are covered outside the United States.

But first, Osama bin Laden. In the wake of his chilling home video about the September 11 attacks, he is still very much in the media's crosshairs. He is in on the cover of both "TIME" and "Newsweek" this Sunday morning. These words in "TIME" magazine's cover story: "It's one thing to expect someone to die; it's another to look forward to that day, not secretly, guiltily, but openly, eagerly, a morbid jubilee."

Lets go now to CNN's senior international correspondent Walt Rodgers in Tora Bora.

Walt Rodgers, you have been reporting this morning that al Qaeda forces in that mountain ridge appear to have been driven from the area, no sign of them, no sign of Osama bin Laden. This based on the word of an anti-Taliban commander. My question, how do you know, as a reporter, that this is not just spin or exaggeration?

WALTER RODGERS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, we don't, but we should say that it was not just one anti-Taliban commander that is one Eastern Alliance commander. There were two, there was Hazrat Ali (ph) and there was Haji al Zaman (ph). Both of them said that after a three or four day military campaign into the Tora Bora region -- their troops going up into those valleys -- they said there was some fighting but they concluded after looking in the caves in the Tora Bora region that the al Qaeda fighters are gone and that Osama bin Laden is not there.

Now that's one version of the story. Within the last 30 seconds, we heard U.S. jets flying overhead, and even though the Eastern Alliance commanders are saying the was is over in this region, and they're declaring a big victory within -- as I said in the last minute we have heard U.S. bombers dropping more bombs in the Tora Bora region. So we're getting conflicting reports here. All we can do is report on the claims that the Eastern Alliance commanders make and then compare that to the fact that bombs are still falling -- Howard.

KURTZ: Conflicting reports indeed since presumably the U.S. planes are not engaged in just a military exercise. But speaking of conflicting reports, you know, there was a report yesterday, as you know, about U.S. officials saying bin Laden's voice perhaps had been heard on the short-range radio.

The Christian Science Monitor reporter named Philip Smucker reported the other day that bin Laden actually had escaped to Pakistan some 10 days ago. This he based on interviewing an Afghan journalist, who talked to a Saudi financier who supposedly knew bin Laden. Smucker talked about the Saudi financier on the Today's Show.


PHILIP SMUCKER, "CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR": Whether he's telling us the truth that Mr. bin Laden has skipped over into Pakistan, we'll never know, because Mr. bin Laden is likely to have taken a right turn into Afghanistan and stayed here. I mean, no body really knows but certainly, I think we can say definitively, he's not in Tora Bora.


KURTZ: Sounds a little contradictory to me, but, Walt Rodgers, how do you deal with these conflicting reports? Some say he is in Pakistan, some say he's in the caves, some say they can't find him. How do you sort through it from your advantage point?

RODGERS: Well, there are number of ways to look at this. The Monitor report certainly was reinforced today by the claims of the Eastern Alliance commanders. One of them, Haji Zaman (ph), said he too thought that bin Laden had perhaps escaped into Pakistan. Now, that's a difficult proposition because the Pakistanis wanted to avoid that. They've got troops along the border, and they would have theoretically at least interdicted bin Laden or any large exodus of the al Qaeda forces who had gone across.

Another conjecture here is Mr. bin Laden is not a small man. He is six feet four inches tall. How do you hide him? It is possible, but he would be easily recognized. It's just simply not possible at this point to say where he is. United States intelligence sources still thought he was in the Tora Bora region. They are, however, working with Eastern Alliance commanders who say he's gone. I can't tell you where he is. I wish I could, but we just can't because the reports are so in conflict -- Howard.

KURTZ: If you could, we'd put you right on the air cause you'd have world exclusive. Finally, something I've been wondering about for a couple of weeks now; how can you and another reporters be there in Tora Bora, so close to a small area where there is constant bombardment by American warplanes and where there is gun fighting going on? It seems like a very small area. Aren't journalists there in danger?

RODGERS: Well, the closer you get to it -- well, let me put it this way -- behind me is a tank, I believe it's an old Soviet T-62 and closer to me are fifteen 110-mm tank shells lying on the ground. So you are always in danger when you come to these places, but everything is relative in the degree of danger you take in terms of risk and calculation. We are a considerable distance from where the bombs are falling. Those have been falling seven, eight, nine miles from where I'm standing. So in that sense, we are in an area, which is, at least currently, controlled by the Eastern Alliance.

The real risk will come of course if civil war breaks out in this region of Afghanistan, and the local tribal chieftains, who are now collaborating against al Qaeda and against bin Laden, suddenly decide to declare war on each other and then nobody is safe in this region -- Howard.

KURTZ: Walter Rodgers, stay safe. Thanks very much for joining us from Tora Bora. And joining us now Donatella Lorch, a correspondent for "Newsweek," who has reported extensively from hot spots around the globe including Afghanistan, Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief for the Beirut newspaper "As-Safir," and Tom Carver, Washington correspondent for the BBC.

Tom Carver, how is the British coverage of this war different from the picture being painted by the American media?

TOM CARVER, BBC: I think, probably in general, the British are more willing to take some liberties. I was talking about newspapers...

KURTZ: Some liberties...

CARVER: Well, in the sense...

KURTZ: Liberties with the truth?

CARVER: Well, there was a columnist in Britain that one said that British coverage often has the ring of truth about it. It's a problem, I think, sometimes in the sense that they get ahead of themselves. For instance, let me give you an example, couple of weeks ago, a lot of newspapers carried the report that Omar was surrounded in Kandahar and had actually been under house arrest. Now, as we all know, he's basically disappeared.

The American press, at least the Washington Post and the New York Times, are much more cautious about that sort of thing, and that's very credit worthy I'd say. There's obviously an intense circulation battle that goes on in Britain because you have got five national dailies there and also five tabloids, and I think that's probably why they're all got correspondents in Afghanistan. They are all pushing to get the latest exclusive.

KURTZ: I remember we -- go ahead, Donatella.

DONATELLA LORCH, "NEWSWEEK": And I would sense that there's also a lot less flag waving with the British press because they need to wave the American flag and patriotism...

KURTZ: They could wave the British flag. There are British troops involved.

LORCH: Yes, but that's not been that much of a tradition...

KURTZ: Are you more skeptical when you read something that's an exclusive report in of the British newspapers that somebody has been captured, something is about to happen. I remember reading in September that the war -- the bombing was going to start in the next 24 to 48 hours according to one London newspaper. When it didn't happen, they said, "Well, the plans have changed." Are you more skeptical of your British counterparts?

LORCH: Yes, but I also know that they give the scoop in many ways more often than we do. When I lived in England, I definitely read the British papers more often and here, in the United States, I would rather often see what the BBC is reporting out of Afghanistan, and that's not because I know Tom in anyway than looking at network news in large part because the footage is more original. They get further in. They know the country, I think, a lot better. Their teams have been there a lot. They know the people. They have amazing contacts in there. I think that makes a difference in a story.

HISHAM MELHEM, "AS-SAFIR": Let me make a comment. Comparing the British press or the European press with the American press -- European, British and French correspondents sometimes seem to interject themselves into their own stories.

KURTZ: American correspondents would never do that.

MELHEM: No, American correspondents at least when they report from the field, they try to detach themselves as much as possible. I mean, British journalists, whether Fisk or others or French ones would interject themselves into their own stories and the demarcation lines between reporting an implicit or hidden opinion of theirs.

The other thing is the British press knows the Middle East and that part of the world better than the Americans. Many of their correspondents speak languages. I mean, I'd rather read their columnists, for instance, than read any American weekly. If the...

KURTZ: What if I read your newspaper? How am I going to get a different picture from "CNN" or "NBC" or "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post" or "Newsweek?"

MELHEM: There is more cynicism and skepticism about the American war aims. Sometimes the coverage of my paper and most Arab papers, especially this one in Afghanistan relied mostly on wire services and on the few correspondents who went to Islamabad rather than to Kabul. Only few privileged ones were given by the Taliban the access to Taliban sources or to Kabul for that matter. But the coverage in the Arab press, in general, was superficial. It was mostly editorializing, and I would argue, from September till now the performance in the Arab media, in general, was not stellar. KURTZ: I want to come back to that, but I also wanted kind of turn to the Osama bin Laden videotape, and I ask you, Tom Carver, was the coverage in the British press, excuse me, more skeptical or different in tone than that which we've seen in the American media?

CARVER: Not only is it a question of authenticity. I don't think anyone seriously writing in the British press doubts it's authenticity basically. But I would say that Europe is kind of halfway between the Middle East and America in the sense of skepticism generally about the war and that's reflected in the press.

You know, there is a sense on which they stand back and say well, why did the Americans release this? I mean, I haven't seen much questioning here in the American press about why have the Americans released it? Was there any sort of ulterior motive to this? And I think that there is always an element in the British press about what is the American motive about doing anything. There's a kind of -- not a mistrustfulness but a sense of questioning and sometimes I think that lacks in the American press.

KURTZ: Donatella Lorch, when the American journalists are talking and writing about this videotape, you know, using words like chilling and hideous and bloodcurdling, I wonder if there is more emotion because we were the ones who were attacked. We're sitting in New York and these couple of buildings are no longer there. A more emotional response, perhaps, than elsewhere in the world.

LORCH: Oh, I think very much so. I think that reporters and a lot of -- especially ones that are, you know, the New Yorkers, they feel just as much that, you know, the war has come home to them, that they have been victimized as much as, you know, the regular people.

KURTZ: And that affects the journalists.

LORCH: And that affects the journalists. I think, it really does. I think that -- and the same way when you go to -- this is a war that's ran out of press conferences and you know, the way the war is reported from the Pentagon, you know, when Rumsfeld speaks, you know, it's almost, you know, God speaks. So...

KURTZ: Yes, and we all listen. Now, I saw reports that some Egyptian newspapers gave the Osama bin Laden videotape a power graph and that elsewhere in the Arab press there were lots of questions raised about its authenticity. What do you make of that? People -- do some news journalists seriously believe that this was something that was concocted Hollywood style by a very devious Bush administration?

MELHEM: Howard, believe it. Yes, they do believe it unfortunately. Many of them believe that it was doctored or they question the -- not only its timing, they question the motivations. From the beginning, there was a huge mountain of cynicism in the Arab world and the Muslim world about the war in Afghanistan. Many of them didn't want to believe, to begin with, that Osama is responsible for the horror in New York and Washington.

KURTZ: So is that journalism or is it propaganda?

MELHEM: It's a political culture. It's the political culture in general. I mean, there is a great deal of cynicism when it comes to U.S. policies in the region. People find it extremely difficult to isolate, for instance, the current war between the United States and the world terror or because what happened in New York -- divorcing it from the impact of the totality of American policies in the region which are rejected and resented by most Arabs partly because of the American support for Israel, partly because of the plight of the Iraqi people, partly because of the American support for Arab dictatorial autocratic regimes.

So in the end, you're dealing with this kind of already-existing suspicion, which is, by the way, well grounded. I mean, you can defend it rationally. The problem is, many people were in denial when it came to Osama bin Laden, the Islamists in particular and the others were intimidated. And many journalists really find it very difficult to challenge the mainstream thinking of their own governments or of their own religious establishments.

KURTZ: As a result of? Go ahead.

CARVER: Well, I was just going to say -- just picking up on that. I mean, one interesting thing that I've noticed that the London-based Arab newspapers seem to accept it without questioning. I mean, like "Al Hayat," I noticed, in their (UNINTELLIGIBLE) saying this is genuinely the real article. There's no question about it. So it seems if you're slightly distanced from the Middle East, then you're probably more willing to accept...

LORCH: But it's the same thing for us though.

MELHEM: Some in the region did accept it too. I mean, some in the region accept...

KURTZ: Could you please wait.

LORCH: No, it's same thing for us. If, you know, we're based here in Washington, our view of the world is very different than we'll talk to foreign correspondents who have been two years, you know, overseas in London or who, you know, who are based out of New Delhi and they -- their view of the world is way more international than our view of the world. I mean, the joke is, you know, we don't see beyond the Beltway here, and sometimes I feel that's the case.

MELHEM: I mean, that's what make us journalists that, you know, sometimes as much as we like to claim that we are objective we cannot be totally objective. I mean, remember the British press in the Malvinas and the Falklands. I mean, they were jingoistic. Remember those days?

CARVER: Yes, I do. I do remember those days. OK, OK. Well, I just -- I think, it's an interesting point to raise. If this had happened to Britain, would we be equally -- you know, if we had lost the World Trade Center in Britain, would we have the same sort of perspective that the Americans do? I don't know. I think Europeans are generally more skeptical.

MELHEM: We are not that objective when we talk about own conflicts and the Arab press was not "objective" -- quote unquote -- when they were covering the Iraq-Iran war. Most of them were with Iraq and there were a few of us who dared to swim against the current.

KURTZ: Hold that thought and when we come back -- brief time-out here -- we'll look at how the president is portrayed around the world as well as the Arab-Israeli conflict, in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. A dip into our e-mail bag. We have one viewer named Dave who writes: "American coverage of the war is so one-sided it's pathetic. Americans are really upset that 3,018 innocent civilians were killed in New York, but not one channel has reported that 3,700 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan. I had to get that from the BBC."

Well, Tom Carver, that sounds like it has your name written on it. I don't know if that casualty figure is correct, but -- one- sided, pathetic. Does the American press not deal at all about civilian casualties in your view?

CARVER: I think that is true. I think that's a good point actually that we don't know anything really about the infliction of the American bombs on the civilians in Afghanistan.

KURTZ: I have seen pictures of injured and dead civilians on American news networks.

CARVER: But nothing like the coverage I'd suggest that's in Britain. I mean, each time this has happened in Britain, it's become a front-page story just about, and I think that that -- partly because they see that as a very important story, it seems to me Americans do not see that as the main worry. They see that as unfortunate side effect, but the main thing is bin Laden and Mullah Omar.

I think, Europeans and the British and hopefully, the BBC tend to see Afghanistan in it's whole as an issue. There's an issue here of a nation that's being bombed.

KURTZ: Do you want to defend your American colleagues?

LORCH: Well, not necessarily.


LORCH: I think that we're covering the story right now of civilian casualties. You'll see in the papers the story of, you know, the village that was hit by an errant American bomb.

MELHEM: This is the story (UNINTELLIGIBLE) today.

LORCH: And that was the reason -- but early on in the war this was not the case. Even when they had access, two places that have been hit by -- not so much the print as television. And I believe -- I mean, print is often -- well, it has more space, it has

KURTZ: You've done both.

LORCH: I've done both. I've seen that television, early on, did not show casualties, did not go and give an impression of what was really happening in Afghanistan.

KURTZ: And that was deliberate in your view?

LORCH: Partially, yes. I believe that there was the feeling of, you know -- they'd go to and they'd ask, you know, at the Pentagon press briefings, you know, what has happened. And they would say, "Well, you know, it's a war," Rumsfeld would say, "There are, you know, collateral damage. Hey, this is a war."

KURTZ: I mean that's the thing that amazes me is the willingness to take the Pentagon at it's word. I think that's what astonishes...

CARVER: I think that's...

KURTZ: ...what astonishes a lot of European press.

MELHEM: We're still covering the war mostly from the Pentagon and we highlight, I mean, the American press highlights what Rumsfeld and others say. At the same time, it was function of access too. Until before -- before the fall of Mazar-e-Sharif and the other major Afghan cities, people could say, "Look, we cannot verify that the stray bomb hit this village," but...

KURTZ: Now, there are lots of reporters there.


MELHEM:, there are lots of reporters. And we're beginning only now, especially in print, to see that. I mean, "New York Times" or "Washington Post" are writing now about civilian casualties. But initially, every time American reporters cover an American war they tend to side with the government and then later on the criticism and the introspection comes.

KURTZ: How is President Bush portrayed in your newspaper and in much of the Arab press?

MELHEM: Initially, President Bush was portrayed as a positive force. Mainly, I don't know, but mainly because he's the son of George Bush Sr., and people still remember George Bush Sr. because he stood up to the Israelis at one time, to Yitzhak Shamir and in the Gulf, of course, Bush Sr. was admired because of his stand on Iraq.

KURTZ: And there was a change or has it changed?

MELHEM: It changed a lot because of his initial hands off position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fact that he refused to see Arafat. He saw Sharon three times, and also because the American president, particularly in the last few weeks, has totally adopted the Israeli objectives in the conflict with the Palestinians. And that's seen through out the Arab world, in the press in those Arab friendly states of the United States -- and not only in the press in those countries that are critical usually of U.S. policies.

So George Bush today in the Arab world is not seen in the same positive eyes that he was seen in the...


KURTZ: ... of the Middle East conflict.

MELHEM: Exactly.

KURTZ: Now, before September 11, Tom Carver, president was widely viewed in much of the European presses as a cowboy who's running rough shot over the allies and blew up the global warming agreement and so forth. Now, how has this media image changed, for example, in the British press?

CARVER: Well, I think, the jury is out basically. I think, there is a sense that he is having a good war. I think, people are very relieved that Colin Powell is there as a kind of steadying hand. There's tremendous respect for Colin. I think Europeans will elect Powell as president tomorrow probably.

And I think, that there's a surprise probably that he's done well, but I still think when you have things like last week's announcement about the ABM treaty. That whole spectra -- George Bush wanting to go it alone is kind of unilateralism that so terrifies a lot of Europe. Comes back and they realize that it's not far beneath the surface. It might have been on the back burner for the moment because of the war because they need us, the allies, but it's soon going to come back.

LORCH: But it's Tony Blair that is rah-rah-ing George Bush all the time.

KURTZ: You took the words out of my mouth.

CARVER: Well, I mean, there is a big difference, I think, between the British establishment and the British people.

KURTZ: The American press has lionized Tony Blair as America's most articulate and outspoken ally, but is he getting more mixed reviews in the British press.

CARVER: Well, I think, he again is considered to be having a good war. There haven't been any British deaths. It's gone well and so forth. But there's much more skepticism on the streets in Britain about, is this a good thing. We should be getting into bed with Europe, you know. People are much more -- because Britons travel much more. They go to the Middle East. They travel around Europe. The idea of just accepting America as the best thing is now, you know, not nearly so commonplace.

KURTZ: The consensus here seems to be that the American press doesn't have the adequate reserves of skepticism when it comes to covering the President, the Pentagon and the war. Do you agree with that?

LORCH: I think initially, yes. And I think it's gradually changing. I think that it was -- and I remember discussions in my office about the fact that at a certain point, you know, they'd been too close to the horror of the World Trade Center, to all those deaths and we all have to stand united. Initially, that was very much the feeling.

KURTZ: OK, we will have to leave it there. I'm sorry. Hisham Melhem, Tom Carver, Donatella Lorch thanks very much for joining us.

Well, coming up next Donald Rumsfeld in the media limelight on Bernard Kalb's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.

BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, how did this happen that the tough guys in the media with a reputation for hardball questions, skepticism, no nonsense...


(voice-over): How did it happen that they turned this guy into a America's newest celebrity? Sure, it took a war to make it happen, but at the moment at least, the secretary of defense has conquered the Washington press corps. Rave reviews everywhere. A big feature article in "The Washington Post," which describes him as "the articulator-in-chief of this perilous national effort." The cover of "U.S. News & World Report," this cartoon in "Newsweek," Sunday talk shows.

And the ultimate compliment, being spoofed on "Saturday Night Live."


DARRYL HAMMOND, ACTOR (as Donald Rumsfeld): Now, what kind of question is that?


KALB: Of course, the U.S. is winning the war. If it were the other way around, the media might not be chuckling along with Rummy.

In short, Rummy has taken the press corps prisoner, and the triumph of it is that it's happening while the reporters actually covering the war are screaming their heads off, complaining that the Pentagon has slapped more restrictions on them than even in the Persian Gulf War, and that was when the Pentagon defeated both Iraq and the media.

Now, if you split the screen on this story, it seems as though the Pentagon has worked out a good cop/bad cop strategy. Rummy, good; the brass out in the field, bad. Even though Rummy stated press policy is maximum coverage, minimum hassle. In fact, relations hit such a low key in Afghanistan that the Pentagon apologized the other day for some of these restrictions, but whether this will translate into minimum hassle and more access is still an open question.

(on camera): The fact is reporters in the field may be frustrated but seen from this end of the war, the Washington press corps has surrendered faster to Rummy's charm than Osama has to Rummy's bombs.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb with "The Back Page."

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Saturday evening at 0630 Eastern for another critical look at the media.

Live coverage of America's new war continues on CNN, including "Reporter's Notebook" with Nic Robertson in Tora Bora. Major Garrett at the White House, terrorism expert Peter Bergen and General Wesley Clark. They'll be taking your e-mails at Thanks for joining us.




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