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Did the Pentagon Lie to the Media?; How Will Bloomberg Interact With the New York Press?

Aired January 6, 2002 - 09:30   ET


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

Just ahead, we'll ask a New York television reporter how billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg is treating the fourth estate in his first week on the job.

But first, Pentagon spokesman Craig Quigley last week denied to reporters that the marines were involved in trying to hunt down former Taliban leaders in Afghanistan, but it quickly turned out that the Marines were heavily involved in doing just that, leading to some testy moments in the Pentagon briefing room with Spokeswoman Tori Clarke.

She began by saying that the Defense Department doesn't discuss ongoing operations.


QUESTION: Tori, Central Command yesterday morning was talking about an operation as it was in progress, and that seemed to only be 12 to 14 hours after Admiral Quigley said that there is no operation of any kind. Was Admiral Quigley just misinformed? Was he lied to, and how do you explain all of that?

VICTORIA CLARKE, PENTAGON SPOKESWOMAN: You know, I don't think it's particularly useful to go over everything over the last couple days, as I said. As I said, it was...

QUESTION: I don't think it was on the part of the journalist that made it that confusing.

CLARKE: I didn't say that. I said it's been confusing, and I'm just trying to reassert and reestablish what our general policy will be.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Did the United States military spokesman lie?

CLARKE: Oh, absolutely not.



KURTZ: Well joining us now Tom Ricks, national security reporter for the "Washington Post"; Pam Hess, Pentagon correspondent for United Press International; and Bob Franken, CNN national correspondent, who's been covering the Pentagon since September 11.

Tom Ricks, we just saw Tori Clarke. Did she mishandle what was obviously, at least to me, a serious screw up with the press?

TOM RICKS, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, Tori's a very good spinner and I think she capped it down very neatly. The press didn't get the answers it needed at the moment because she said it would not be useful to get into it.

KURTZ: Not useful to whom?

RICKS: Clearly for her.

KURTZ: Bob Franken, you're the one -- I recognized your voice, asking whether a top Pentagon spokesman lied to the press. Was -- you know, there were some nuances here about whether those particular marines that Admiral Quigley was asked about were involved in the operation. Obviously many marines were. Was the press clearly, unequivocally, undeniably misled in this instance?

FRANKEN: There's a difference between being misled and being lied to. It's fair game if there's an honor among thieves, there's also among press spokesmen and it is OK sometimes to obfuscate, OK sometimes to sort of cover an answer in fog in the hope that that's going to keep people at bay.

KURTZ: It's OK to obfuscate?

FRANKEN: Yes, it is OK to obfuscate.

KURTZ: I think you've been drinking the Pentagon Kool-Aid, Bob.

FRANKEN: No, but I'm saying there's a different between that and lying. I'm not drinking the Pentagon Kool-Aid. What I am saying is, it is only the good reporter who recognizes when he's not getting the answer that he's supposed to get, and pursues the question until he gets the absolute accurate answer. It is the advocate spokesman's job to see to it that his point of view, or her point of view, is presented to the best.

For instance, when she said, it is not useful for us to pursue that. Useful to whom? Useful of course to them. She had every right to say that. It should have been up to the reporters to forget about being concerned about how they looked and taken her on and just insisted that she answer.

KURTZ: That's what called in Watergate days, a non-denial denial.

FRANKEN: Correct. KURTZ: Now Pam Hess, do you think it's OK for Pentagon spokesmen and women to use careful linguistic constructions to give the press a false impression about whether the marines are involved in an operation or not?

PAM HESS, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL: I think if you take this back to the facts of the case, of exactly what happened here, things have really gotten out of hand. It was a photographer that saw a helicopter taking off with -- people in combat gear taking off. He assumed that these were marines going off on a mission.

So the question was asked, "are marines on a mission right now?" And the true answer, which Admiral Quigley gave, was "no, they're not." Marines were getting ready to go on a separate mission, and this was a Special Forces mission that was going on.

It's up to the reporters to ask the right questions, and it's up to reporters not to stop after one question. We have an adversarial relationship with them. They know it, we know it. And we have to expect that they are going to answer very narrowly the questions that we ask.

KURTZ: And the very next day, Tom Ricks, Don Rumsfeld briefed the press and he got one question from a Fox reporter about this incident and handled it with ease. I'm wondering why were reporters not questioning the Secretary of Defense more aggressively about this, and while also continuing to write these glowing profiles and magazine pieces about what a rock star he is?

RICKS: Well, I think a couple of reasons. First, Rumsfeld's very good at briefing the media. The second thing is, he's a very tough guy to deal with. I think he's intimidated a lot of members of the press.

KURTZ: Intimidated?

RICKS: I think he has.

KURTZ: How has he done that?

RICKS: He comes back at people very hard. He doesn't just sort of say, you know, throw your hardballs at me. He'll throw fastballs right back at them, and they know it. I think that has scared some reporters and sort of made them a little bit wary and leery of taking him on hard.

FRANKEN: Possibly the most neurotic group of people in the world are the members of the press. We all absolutely love to throw the hardballs and throw the bean balls, but really don't understand it when somebody throws them back.

So here comes a Donald Rumsfeld, and he will try and intimidate. There's a famous incident, famous among Pentagon reporters, where he continued to question a reporter about the credibility of her questions. And I sat there -- and I told you this before, but I'll mention it again. I would love to have been at the other end of that, so I could have said to him, "I could have sworn I'm supposed to ask the questions."

He will try in his honorable role as the advocate to gain as much advantage as he can for his point of view. It is up to the reporter to have the grit, the determination, the security to say "wait a minute. This is the question. Answer my question."

KURTZ: Go ahead.

HESS: One of the first rules in dealing with Donald Rumsfeld, it's been my experience, is you can not ask him a question based on someone else's reporting. It has to come from work that you have done. You have gotten firm information.

KURTZ: Otherwise he does what?

HESS: Otherwise he attacks you. Where did you get that information? Who are these sources that are saying that? I don't even believe the basis of your question. Next question.

KURTZ: Ah-hah.

HESS: So if you are not on firm ground, you can not ask him a question and I think that's actually good discipline for the press, because there is a lot of pack journalism and things do spin out of control, the way I think this Admiral Quigley thing did.

RICKS: A larger problem I have with Rumsfeld though is, for all the body language and all the tone of candor, he doesn't really convey a lot of information. He's given well over 100 briefings and interviews since September 11.

But if you look at the major facts of this war, the U.S. military deployment in Uzbekistan, the use of Predator drones with hellfire missiles for the first time ever in military history, several other facts, none of this have come out of Rumsfeld or Pentagon briefings.

FRANKEN: But there's something about Rumsfeld that I think exposes one of the major weaknesses in the media. He's considered a rock star. There's been nothing but this laudatory reporting about his style. We're not at the point where we deal so much with style, that oftentimes we lose site of substance.

KURTZ: And is part of the substance that we lose site of, for example, United Nations citing reports last week about 52 civilian casualties in a U.S. bombing raid in Afghanistan. That was reported, but is that whole thing getting enough attention, while we deal with questions of style and the politics of the war and so forth?

FRANKEN: No. The answer is no.

KURTZ: Why not?

FRANKEN: Because the questions are asked, and the Pentagon knows how to not make news with its answers. Therefore, we have nothing to report. HESS: But that's our job. It's our job to go out and find out if these 52 people were killed. People can get in there. There are reporters all over Afghanistan, and we can independently confirm this information, and I don't think it's up to the Pentagon. It would be nice if they'd give us this information.

FRANKEN: But they won't.

HESS: But they won't. We don't have a job if they do.


KURTZ: Now the war obviously is not quite over, as we learned again Friday, when the U.S. servicemen was killed. But the level of combat is way down from the early days when the Taliban controlled most of the country and there were daily U.S. bombing raids.

I am wondering whether the media, Tom Ricks, who were geared up and assembled this war machine really want this war to be over? I mean, it's good for ratings and it's good for circulation. It's a serious topic. Any danger that we're sort of going to prolong this now?

RICKS: I don't think so. I think the bosses might like the ratings, but remember you've had eight reporters killed in Afghanistan since September 11. This has been -- and that's a higher rate than any war I'm aware of. I think in the Vietnam War, all told, about 35 reporters and photographers got killed over the course of years. This is just a few weeks.

So I think reporters would very much like to get out of Afghanistan, especially the really dangerous parts.

KURTZ: Right; but of course there are hordes of journalists who have never set foot in Afghanistan who are just dealing with it from Washington studios like this.

Now, last night we asked whether the press is prolonging the war coverage for ratings, and we got some e-mail back.

Leslie in Laramie, Wyoming wrote: "They are doing it because they are lazy. They have fallen into the war zone and built their war rooms, and it's easier to stay there than to follow the news where it really goes."

But another viewer said the press is prolonging the coverage with good reason. Quote: "It just so happens, the American public wants to hear about the war on terrorism. It's simple supply and demand. If Americans were more concerned about the economy, we'd be hearing about the war on recession."

RICKS: My worry is actually the opposite, which is the American public will get bored with the war on terrorism. I think back to Somalia in 1993. A large U.S. military presence there, a lot going on, not much interest in the American public in it, not much interest in the media, and it was a very hard story to go cover. The U.S. military didn't want you there in Mogadishu.

KURTZ: The war on terrorism?

FRANKEN: Allow me, sir, to remind everybody that we're less than four months away from two jets crashing into the World Trade Center, another one crashing into the Pentagon, thousands killed, just a couple of months after the start of this war. I suspect that the argument could be made that this is a story of some significance, ratings or no ratings, and possibly deserves some coverage.

KURTZ: A story of some significance, but as we've learned in recent years, if there isn't good footage and if Americans aren't being killed, at least in the past the media appetite for international news can be rather limited.

Do you think there's any -- I mean is it harder now for the media to cover what looks to be a kind of a long, hard slog in Afghanistan than it was to cover it when there were lots of bombs dropping and lots of people being killed?

HESS: There's certainly less hard news if bombs aren't dropping. You don't have the numbers to report, but there are plenty of stories that are over there. I do think we'll see news organizations ratcheting back. It's incredibly expensive -- just getting satellite time out of Afghanistan is nuts, and staffs have expanded -- their international staffs have expanded dramatically. So I'm sure that will be cut off when there's less hard news.

But keep in mind, there are 60,000 National Guardsmen and reservists that have been activated for this. There's I think 40,000 or 50,000 active duty folks in that area, and there's at least 1,500 uniformed soldiers on the ground, plus untold amount of CIA officers and 200 or 300 Special Forces. So this war is a long way from over.

KURTZ: It's a long way from over, but you think the financial bottom line may shrink the coverage or if, after all, it's a lot cheaper to send a reporter up to the Hill and report on what Tom Daschle said today.

HESS: I think we'll still see people in Afghanistan, but probably fewer. There's been a great deal of emphasis on putting bodies there, and I think some will be pulled back.

FRANKEN: I'll tell you one thing we've learned, one thing we've learned about the last year in journalism, is we can't anticipate anything. Who know if we're going to cut it back? Who knows if there's going to be a new uprising among the al Qaeda? Who knows what country might be next, if any country?

KURTZ: Oh sure, if there are unforeseen developments, it will be all over again.

FRANKEN: So quite frankly, to talk about what our coverage is going to be is just an exercise in futility. We just don't know. And quite frankly also, if we don't have a war as we learned in the last year, there's always something to fill the news with. KURTZ: Right. Tom Ricks, whether you've got America's New War, that's the logo, but if it's no longer new and it's no longer quite an act of war, it's harder to cover. It takes a little more journalistic ingenuity, it seems to me.

RICKS: And it is kind of a veiled war, out in the shadows, like thunder and lightning on the horizon. Think of Iraq over the last 10 years. We've bombed Iraq on and off, especially since 1998, fairly frequently, yet there's almost no coverage of that. And I do have the sense that this war might go down to a low boil, kind of a simmering conflict on the horizon that really doesn't occupy much of the American consciousness.

KURTZ: Until the heat gets turned up again. Now before we go, Bob Franken, last night we saw those rather dramatic pictures of the 15-year-old kid who flew a single engine airplane into a building in downtown Tampa, and television naturally was all over this story. I mean just the shocking nature of a teenager being involved, and yet here's the morning newspapers this Sunday morning.

The "New York Times" front page, no mention of the incident, it's inside. The "Washington Post" front page, no mention either. They do have a little picture at the bottom, keying to a story inside. So was this a big story or not?

FRANKEN: Well, sure it was a big story, particularly since the United States has this raw wound about airplanes flying into buildings. But I think that the media again acted very responsibly by very quickly ascertaining or getting strong information and reporting the information, this did not seem to be connected to any terrorist incident.

But the coverage certainly was appropriate, given the sensitivities in the United States to something like that.

KURTZ: Well I think the coverage was a little too restraining, because yes everyone kept repeating that yes, this 15-year-old was not a member of al Qaeda, but at the same time the evidence seems to suggest this was done deliberately. He took off without his flight instructor and so forth, and it is fairly shocking that somebody can commandeer a plane and fly into a building -- briefly.

FRANKEN: But erring on the side of caution is probably not a bad thing these days, as opposed to the alternative which would be erring on the side of hysteria. I think that you have to really take a chance on reporting too little.

KURTZ: Bob Franken, last word. Tom Ricks, Pam Hess, thanks very much for joining us.

And when we come back, the mayor and the media. We'll talk with a New York reporter about His Honor Mike Bloomberg.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We turn now to the new man in the Big Apple.


(voice over): Former media mogul Michael Bloomberg is finishing his first week as New York's Mayor, with a much lower key style than the press savvy Rudy Giuliani.

Bloomberg put his desk right in the middle of City Hall, the way he had done at Bloomberg News. Wait a minute, that's a Bloomberg Financial computer right next to the new mayor.

The billionaire rode the subway with photographers and TV cameras in tow. But so far at least, fewer press conferences.


KURTZ: And joining us now, Dominic Carter, senior political reporter for the cable station New York 1.


DOMINIC CARTER, NEW YORK 1: Good morning, Howard. Mayor Bloomberg says he may go days without holding a news conference. That would be unremarkable in any other city, but quite a change from the Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani mold. How is that approach, that sort of lower key approach playing with the press?

CARTER: Well, we don't know exactly if that's going to happen. The mayor has said that he may do that, but time will tell. It will be quite hard for him to carry that out in terms of we're used to Rudy Giuliani and his strong personality, and Ed Koch, and even David Dinkins.

And just about every day during the week, we have heard from the mayor of this city and so we'll see. So far, going on his record, he has talked to use every day since he's been in office, Howard.

KURTZ: He even says he may give up the mayor's weekly radio show. I've never heard of a politician giving up free airtime. Now when the mayor who's faced with a big hole in his budget suggested cuts of up to 10 percent in the police and fire departments, the "New York Post" whapped him with this front page story, "Hands Off Our Heroes," based on an online poll in which most readers thought that was not a good idea.

Is the New York press trying to show the new mayor who's boss here?

CARTER: Well, I think we've definitely drawn a line in the sand as far as the new mayor, and he's trying to accommodate us. He's trying to work with us so far. But the story, if you will Howard, thus far on this new mayor has been, you know, this billionaire -- in terms of press coverage, this billionaire trying to relate to everyday New Yorkers.

And as you said in your opening, the riding the subway, the office in the cubicle, this is unheard of. So that's been the coverage thus far. We're going to have to wait and see just how accessible that he's going to be with us. But, you know, he has been pretty open so far. The question though is going to be whether or not he loses his cool in the future.

KURTZ: And speaking of that and sure, he's been a corporate executive for most of his life. He hasn't had to deal with a daily barrage of media and journalists asking annoying questions. There was a news conference early this week where Mayor Bloomberg was asked about reports that he was considering giving city jobs, I guess, to his sister and his daughter. How did he react to being pressed on that question?

CARTER: Well, he didn't really like facing the heat on that topic.

KURTZ: Didn't like it?

CARTER: He had never been in a situation of a Blue Room news conference where you have 25 reporters going after him, and his first response in fairness to the new mayor, was that he would bring them on board at $1-a-year salary. And after that wasn't enough in terms of a response for the media, he sort of bristled if you will, and said "well if you're correct on the law, then they won't join the administration," and that made headlines.

So during the campaign he also lost his cool once or twice, and so that's something that we're going to be looking for in the future.

KURTZ: Now the new mayor is not moving into Gracie Mansion. He says he'll take vacations without telling the press, and basically seems to feel that his private life, including his girlfriend, are going to be off limits to the media. I can just hear the New York Press Corps saying "forget about it." Your reaction?

CARTER: Good point. We'll see how long that lasts. We'll see how long he's able to carry that out. We're known for our aggressive style, as you know Howard. We've followed him just about everywhere, even though he was able to get out of the country and go to his home in Bermuda right before the inauguration, and he did so without the knowledge of the press corps. But we'll have to wait and see on that one. I doubt it's going to happen very long.

KURTZ: I'm sure you'll be chasing him Dominic.

We have about 30 seconds. A lot of talk about how the people of New York and the country don't know very much about Mike Bloomberg's positions on a lot of issues. Was this a failure of the press in the campaign, obviously distracted by September 11 and not telling us more about a guy who most reporters didn't think was going to win until the last week or so?

CARTER: I would have to say yes, it is a failure, and that's due to the fact that up until a couple of weeks ago, he was considered a long shot at best of defeating Mark Green. The story on Bloomberg was this man who spent $69 million to get elected. And so, he also had advisers that kept his positions away from us. Well we'll find out in the next couple of days and weeks what his positions exactly are.

KURTZ: Yes, and the press has stumbled by not covering more aggressively people who look like they're not going to win, because guess what, sometimes they win. Dominic Carter, New York 1, thanks very much for joining us.

CARTER: Thank you.

KURTZ: And when we come back, Larry Flynt takes on the Pentagon in our media roundup. And the big story in Europe this week is not the war as we'll learn in Bernard Kalb's "Backpage," right after this.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Time now to check the latest in the world of media news. We begin with an unlikely advocate for the press during wartime.


(voice over): A federal judge in Washington heard a lawsuit yesterday demanding greater media access to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Was it filed by the "New York Times," "Newsweek," CNN?

No, the plaintiff is Larry Flynt, who demands that the Pentagon allow reporters for "Hustler" magazine to accompany American troops in combat.

Flynt says he's fighting not just for "Hustler," but for journalists everywhere. A Justice Department lawyer argued that the Marines have given reporters plenty of access since Flynt sued Donald Rumsfeld, and the judge seemed skeptical of the suit.

But Flynt says the First Amendment is at stake.

LARRY FLYNT, PUBLISHER, "HUSTLER": Basically what we're hoping will come as a result of this suit, if the judge will rule that we have a First Amendment right to cover the war.

KURTZ: Greta van Susteren is leaving CNN for Fox News Channel. The defense lawyer, who first became a familiar face during the O.J. Simpson trial, went on to co-host CNN's legal talk show, "BURDEN OF PROOF" along with Rodger Cossack. The show was canceled in the wake of September 11 and the war coverage that followed.

Van Susteren also went primetime during the past year with the highly-rated show "THE POINT." FOX is retaliating for CNN signing Paula Zahn four months ago, and is giving Zahn's old primetime slot to Van Susteren.

"A Nation Challenged" has become familiar to "New York Times" readers since the September attacks, ended its run as a separate section of the newspaper on the last day of 2001. "A Nation Challenged" drew plenty of positive reviews as a fine and expensive public service, though some critics say it bombarded readers with too many pieces.

The "Times" also wrapped up its "Portraits of Grief," short profiles of more than 1,800 victims of September 11. The paper expects to publish additional profiles from time to time.

Finally, aspiring crime writer Vanessa Leggett was released from a Texas jail yesterday after five months behind bars. Leggett refused to turn over her notes about a murder case to a grand jury, claiming that the information would have jeopardized her confidential sources as she put together a book.

Her attorney will continue her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to keep her out of jail in the future. Prosecutors say Leggett is not a journalist, and that her case doesn't fall under the First Amendment protection of the press.


KURTZ: Leggett's book will probably now do better than she expected.

Well, time now for the "Backpage." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Happy euro to Euro. The euro just making its debut as the new kind of currency they'll be using over there.

(voice-over): And the story's all over the media on both sides of the Atlantic, new money to bring in the New Year. Nearly 300 million Europeans in a dozen different countries have thrown out their old money, the franc, the lire, the deutschmark, et cetera, all out the window and replaced by this.

And this is not only a big economic story with big implications for the U.S. dollar, it's also a big political story; one of the hopes being that uniting Europe with a single currency might make war impossible on a continent that, in the last century alone, has given us two big wars.

And so far as the economic reformers in Europe are concerned, Neil Armstrong, all those years ago, was talking about the euro.


NEIL ARMSTRONG: It's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.


KALB: But in focusing on the economic and the political, the media have shortchanged a third big element of this story. That is, the impact of a common currency on the differing cultural identities of those 12 euro-ized countries.

Just think of the French without their proud franc. Will they be able to survive? And the Germans without their mighty D-mark. And the Italians without their lyrical lire -- what about them?

And if those reformers in Europe take away the different money, what's next? They'll do away with the languages and make all of Europe sound the same. And after that, the different cuisines will go down the drain. No more pasta. No more wienerschnitzel. No more cokie san Jaques (ph). Instead, just like the common currency, one common diet.

By the way, the U.K., with a stiff upper lip is still holding out, clinging to its pound.

The fact is, just the intro of the euro has already robbed U.S. tourists of a bit of romance, of changing their dollars into a dozen different and distinctive cultures, all of this turning the continent into one big, homogenized land mass.

And just think, doing all that in the name of economic efficiency.

(on camera): In other words, the media did a good job in covering the debut of the euro, but they missed the other big story.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb with the "Backpage."

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Saturday evening at 6:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media.




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