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A Look at Media's Coverage of Middle East

Aired March 30, 2002 - 18:44   ET



HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Tom Friedman, welcome.

TOM FRIEDMAN, "NEW YORK TIMES": Good to be here.

KURTZ: It's been a roller coaster ride in the Middle East over the last couple of weeks.

Did the press in some way overreact, some might even say overdramatize, the idea that Vice President Cheney might possibly, maybe meet with Arafat if certain conditions were met?

FRIEDMAN: Well, you know where I start, I really start with this Arab summit. You know, at a time in the world where nothing really is going on much anywhere else, in terms of big news stories, and everything in the Middle East is going bad in a kind of dangerous way, somehow this Arab summit became a big, big thing. I know Tom Brokaw went there and a lot of very prominent news people gathered, hundreds of journalists.

And so I think, as a derivative of that, then Cheney's trip around it became a big thing. And the story line of would Arafat go, would he meet with Cheney first as a way of being able to go, became a very big story as well.

KURTZ: Do you think the media were deliberately casting it as a big story because they needed something different in the endless violent landscape of the Middle East?

FRIEDMAN: Well, a little bit. I think there is a tendency on all of our parts to, when all of the news is bad and really unremittingly violent as it is, if we sense that, gosh, down this track there seems to be some hope, you know, this summit, maybe this meeting with Cheney -- we're all optimists after all, you know, especially wanting to be optimists about this story. I think it was invested obviously then with more significance and more attention.

KURTZ: I have a theory that journalists are just growing tired of covering the endless suicide bombings and the Israeli military attacks and the killing on both sides, and that this thing offered some kind of glimmer of hope, even though obviously there would still be about a million miles to go even if they had all gotten together at the Arab summit. Do you have a sense that there is a weariness? You have been writing about this most of your professional life. Is there a weariness, a depressing aspect in writing about the continued death toll?

FRIEDMAN: No question about it. You know a lot of people will call me, just friends, colleagues, whatever, people stop you on the street, "What's the way out?" I have to tell them all the same thing. I'm not being coy. "I just don't know. I'm out of answers."

KURTZ: You're out of ammunition...

FRIEDMAN: I'm out of ammunition, you know. I see things happening before my eyes that are so bad, so violent and heading to such a dead end for both peoples, for all of the peoples out there, that it is just utterly, utterly depressing.

You know, I feel -- I said before I feel like I was putting a 5,000-piece puzzle together as someone who is following this story. And I thought with Camp David, we maybe only had a few more pieces to go. Somebody came, tipped over the table, the pieces are all over the floor now. The dog has eaten some. Somebody spilled coffee on the others. Now all we have to do now is put it back together. And as much as we want to, there is a sense of "God, can we anymore?"

And I think that's really affected all of us. So if we see a little glimmer, maybe we seize on it a little bit.

KURTZ: Right. The Bush administration's role -- now, at one point Vice President Cheney and the administration were saying, "Well, Arafat couldn't go anywhere unless he agreed to do certain things -- force a cease-fire, crack down on terrorism." He didn't do those things and yet the White House is saying, "Well, we think he should be able to go anyway."

Was that a -- not just a change of position, but a plain, old flip-flop, and was the press reluctant to maybe call it such?

FRIEDMAN: I think two things were converging there. One is what we were just talking about. They are as out of ideas as anybody else. And if they could begin a different narrative, a different diplomatic story line and contribute to this Arab summit, that would be a good thing. And so I think...

KURTZ: Or they wanted a hands-off approach, and now they're more hands-on.

FRIEDMAN: Right. And that gets to the second part of the story. Cheney was in the Middle East. He was in the Arab world trying to sell an American attack on Iraq, to put it bluntly.

And so, precisely because he was there, meeting with all of these Arab leaders in the region, being written about by the Arab press, I think there as real desire by the White House to frame his trip in a very different way. And that's why you had the president say, "While Cheney was out there, Sharon's crackdown was unhelpful, and that Cheney would meet Arafat." I think it was a desire to really frame the Cheney trip in a different way as well.

KURTZ: Given the morass that is the Middle East, was it unfair for many journalists to characterize Sharon's decision not to let Arafat out of house arrest, as you might put it, as a setback, a defeat for the Bush administration? It is really -- can the Bush administration be blamed for these kinds of outcomes?

FRIEDMAN: You know, I don't think so anymore. I've lost the thread of blame, you know? Between the car bomb and this and the retaliation, you don't even remember anymore who started what.

But at the same time, you know, I personally was disappointed for a very simple reason. Given America's support for Israel, given the fact the Bush administration has cut Sharon a lot of slack, it seems to me when the president, the vice president, the secretary of state all ask the prime minister of Israel to do something that actually could potentially advance the cause of peace here, that the right answer in 99 cases out of a 100 should be yes.

KURTZ: But don't reporters, whether it's campaign finance reform or Enron or the Middle East, don't they have sort of scorecards? And didn't the Bush administration invite this to some degree by taking a very restrained approach to the Middle East process early on and now investing its own prestige?

So was the press wrong to revert to that kind of scorecard mentality?

FRIEDMAN: Oh, it was perfectly legitimate. Once you enter the fray...


FRIEDMAN: ... then we're going to keep score, you know, how you're doing. And because they were reluctant to enter the ring, and then once they entered the ring, they did a little -- tiptoed first, and then with both hands and both feet they jumped in, there's going to be a tendency to keep score.

But at the end of the day, I think we shouldn't lose sight of something. This is about Israelis and Palestinians. No administration, no Democrat or Republican administration is going to be able to make peace for them, without them, or in place of them. And so, you're going to be as successful as they let you be.

KURTZ: You are, in a sense, the spiritual godfather of the Saudi peace plan, in the sense that you brought to public attention, this was the plan was going to be discussed. It was pitched at the Arab summit.


KURTZ: It involves Israel returning to its pre-1967 borders. And this grew out of an off-the-record discussion you were having with Saudi Prince Abdullah in which you said you felt this was a good idea, and he said that he'd been thinking the same thing. And then you had to persuade him to go on record.

My question to you is, has it been a strange experience to watch this being debated around the world when it's something you played such a personal role in?

FRIEDMAN: It has been a little strange. And I've tried to handle it in the most professional way possible in a couple regards. And it was an odd and, for me, a unique situation.

The first was, you know, I've probably been the biggest single critic of Saudi Arabia since 9/11 of any...

KURTZ: As an incubator for terrorism and teaching hate in the schools and...

FRIEDMAN: Exactly, yes. And that's why I went there. I went there to try to get a better handle on it myself.

KURTZ: I wouldn't say they welcomed you with open arms.

FRIEDMAN: And they wouldn't.


But the fact was, I think they understood that if they were even going to begin to start explaining themselves to the world with any effective way, they were going to have to start at least with their critics.

KURTZ: So because you were such a harsh critic, that's why you got to...

FRIEDMAN: Exactly. Exactly.

KURTZ: ... (inaudible)?

FRIEDMAN: I think that's why it happened, frankly.

Now having gotten in there, what was all of this about? I mean -- or how did I handle it? First of all, when I got the -- when they agreed to put it on the record basically, I wrote a very restrained column. If you remember, I didn't say, "In the breakthrough said to me, me, me by the Saudis, the biggest plan ever." I just said, "Here is what he had to say, you know, and take it for what it is worth. I was, you know, invited here as part of their outreach program. Here is what he had to say. If this goes to the Arab summit," I said, "it could be a significant breakthrough."

So I really tried to play it down, number one. When I got back I was inundated by requests from Arab media, among others, you know, Arab media, to do interviews about it. "What happened, what did he say?"

KURTZ: Did you do it?

FRIEDMAN: And I refused, as they will all tell you. Because my attitude was, "This is his baby. This is not the Friedman plan. His name is on it. He has got to sell it." And it will only go as far as Saudi Arabia is ready to take it.

KURTZ: So you don't feel invested in it? I mean, you'd like it to succeed, you'd like to...

FRIEDMAN: I would like to see it succeed personally, but I do not feel personally invested in it in any sense. And in fact, when I saw them starting to waiver, starting to play with the language, I was the first to point that out to the world. When they started changing "normalization" to "full peace," now they've gone back to "normal." You know, I want to study all of this.

But basically I've tried to deal with it as a professional way I can and not seem like I'm invested in it. And that's really all I can say.

KURTZ: In a more recent New York Times column, in which you sounded rather weary of the whole thing -- you talked about being out of ideas -- you floated the notion of perhaps U.S. troops would have to get involved in some peacekeeping capacity.

Is that the role of a columnist to make those kinds of proposals, as opposed to a State Department official?

FRIEDMAN: Sure. I think it's the -- again, if our -- if we're in the opinion business, basically, and the ideas business, I definitely think it's our role.

You know, this is an area of the world I've lived in a long time, I care about enormously. And, you know, I have no hesitancy about it because we really want to stir debate, stir discussion. So you toss an idea out here, you know, put American troops in here. Here is why, here is an argument. You provoke a lot of people talking. That's the business we're in. We're in the idea business.

And in some ways you provoke those ideas by floating, you know, a very different idea. Sometimes it's by attacking someone. Sometimes it's by praising someone. But I think they're all fair game for a columnist, for someone who is in the opinion business.

KURTZ: The worst thing is to have someone ignore your column. You don't want that.

FRIEDMAN: Absolutely.


KURTZ: And the last question. Geraldo Rivera on Fox News -- happened to be watching -- talked about how he is a Zionist, how he would die for Israel. But after reporting from the West Bank, he said, "You have to call it what it is, that Israel is practicing terrorism."

My question is not whether you agree, but whether or not the press in some sense is starting to turn on Israel with some of its recent tactics?

FRIEDMAN: I smelled it a little, Howie, starting to begin. But I'm deeply uncomfortable with that. I think that, you know, the minute we start jumping in on one side or the other as a collective, I think you're in a very dangerous game.

You know, one of my firm beliefs is that we really have to -- and this problem, you know, both sides, no one has a monopoly here on morality.

KURTZ: OK, I think we will leave it at there.

Tom Friedman of the "New York Times," thanks very much for joining us.

FRIEDMAN: A pleasure.





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