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Is Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Being Covered Objectively?

Aired April 6, 2002 - 18:30   ET


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

The Middle East remains a powder keg tonight. Just ahead, we'll talk about President Bush, whose handling of the violence has been widely criticized by the press, especially by conservative commentators who had supported him so strongly since September 11, and we'll talk about journalists under attack. Reporters in Ramallah faced a barrage of rubber bullets and stun grenades by Israeli troops Friday on the West Bank. The journalists were waiting for the arrival of the U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni near the compound of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Is Israel now paying a price in the world press? In just a moment we'll talk with CNN's Michael Holmes who was part of the group that was fired upon Friday. Also with us in New York Lally Weymouth, senior editor and special diplomatic correspondent for "Newsweek" magazine. She recently interviewed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. And Rich Lowry, the editor of "National Review", and here in Washington, Jack Kelley of "USA Today" who has reported extensively from the Middle East.

Jack Kelley, you've been in the war zones a number of times. Arabs already think the American press is pro-Israel. How difficult is it to get the Palestinian point of view under these difficult conditions?

JACK KELLEY, USA TODAY: Almost every single interview, whenever something starts up, they begin by asking you what is your personal viewpoint, how do you personally feel about this particular situation?

KURTZ: So, answer that question?

KELLEY: No, what I always begin -- but I always begin doing is say look, I -- my sole purpose here is just to report the news and to be as objective as possible. I'm keeping my personal feelings out and just going to report the facts.

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) suspicious I am sure. Michael Holmes in Ramallah, we've all -- now the whole world has seen the pictures of what happened on Friday with those stun grenades and those rubber bullets, an apparently unprovoked attack on the two dozen journalists including you and your crew who were there. What are the Israelis trying to accomplish by attacking journalists and aren't they tarnishing their image around the world?

Michael Holmes, can you hear us? Apparently having a little audio difficulty. We will try to come back to Michael Holmes. Let me turn now to Lally Weymouth and ask you a version of that question. Do you have any problem with Israeli troops taking this kind of action against journalists or cordoning off areas and saying this is a military zone and reporters not welcome.

LALLY WEYMOUTH, NEWSWEEK: Well I've been in Ramallah quite a few times in the last year, and I think that it's a very difficult area to operate in because, of course, the -- previously the Israeli military wasn't there. I don't think the Israelis are trying to hurt American journalists. I think they're trying to defend themselves, and I think they really have to do so considering the suicide bombing attacks that have been going on for a year and a half.

KURTZ: But surely ...

WEYMOUTH: And now ...

KURTZ: ... the CNN crew wasn't posing a -- any kind of military threat to the Israeli troops there.

WEYMOUTH: I'm sure you're right, but on the other hand, they're trying to clean up -- they're trying to arrest Palestinian terrorists who haven't been arrested by Arafat and they probably don't want to hurt anyone from CNN who happens to be in the way, and I assume that's why they're trying to ask journalists to stay out of the way.

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, because of incidents like these and the inevitable casualties of the Israeli incursions to the West Bank, do you sense that, at least part of the western press is starting to turn against Israel in a way, perhaps, we haven't seen since Lebanon two decades ago?

RICH LOWRY, NATIONAL REVIEW: Oh I think the tilt in the coverage have been pretty obvious and it's been anti Israel. It's because, you know, tanks don't make the best public relations image, especially if you don't have the necessary context, and I think it's really extraordinary the kind of coverage, positive coverage, Yasser Arafat gets, given that he's arguably one of the foremost anti-Semites in the world. He celebrates when innocent Jewish civilians are blown to bits. His official media spouts vicious anti-Jewish lies.

KURTZ: But are you saying ...

LOWRY: He arguably gets better coverage than John Ashcroft. It's truly extraordinary.

KURTZ: But are you saying there's a deliberate tilt in the media toward Arafat and against Israel ...

LOWRY: Well ...

KURTZ: ... that this is the inevitable effect of the kinds of pictures that we're seeing because of this military incursion. LOWRY: There are a couple of things. One, not giving the pictures the proper context is a big part of it. Look, you could have portrayed the U.S. war in Afghanistan in this manner if you wanted to, just you know massive military assault by a first world country against a third world country that results in unnecessary civilian casualties if you hadn't given it the September 11th context, and I think a lot of that context has been missing from the coverage of this dispute.

Also I think the press tends to personalize things, so it plays this as a dispute between two guys who just happen not to like each other very much -- Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat. And they both have legitimate points to make, and it could all be worked out if they just sat down around a table and figured it out. But that's not the case. I mean Yasser Arafat has been ...

KURTZ: Right.

LOWRY: ... engaged in blowing up Israeli civilians for 18 months and something has to be done about that.

KURTZ: Yes, Kelley, do you buy the Lowry indictment? I mean, when he talks about a tilt against Israel; it seems to me that there's an awful lot of coverage given to Palestinian suicide bombers who are blowing up themselves and others at Jerusalem hotels, bar mitzvahs, Passover cities, you name it.

KELLEY: Yes, I think -- it's almost as if we actually sit down and compare the coverage on both sides here. I think it's been relatively fair and balance. One thing that everybody has to keep in mind, there is an -- and there is an intense media war going on. As soon as I show up or somebody else shows up, within about three hours now, we'll get a call from either on Israeli or a Palestinian reporter saying look, let us give you our side of the facts and our side of the story. I mean they're -- this -- I've recently been to Israel, I guess -- I guess my 22nd time and I've never seen the intense media war at such a fury as it is now.

KURTZ: Lally Weymouth, would you agree with -- excuse me -- with Rich Lowry in terms of the images that most Americans are seeing on television? Are they inadvertently or intentionally tilting against Israel by focusing more on the Israeli tanks and the damage being done than on the killings that arguably provoked this response in the first place?

WEYMOUTH: Yes, I do agree with Rich, and I think that, as he said, no invasion is going to make for great coverage. And you know, the pictures of tanks, the pictures of Arafat sitting by candlelight in his headquarters and giving out interviews is, you know, gives -- makes him a sympathetic victim and the Israeli is the evil guys out there with the tanks shooting at journalists and shooting at so-called innocent Palestinians, and we've lost the focus of the dead Israelis lying -- with (UNINTELLIGIBLE) table lying all over the floor and the broken plates and you know, the dead Israelis last year at the discotheque from Russia who were killed, you know, when they're just Russian kids going to a discotheque. We've forgotten all about that and all we see is Yasser Arafat giving out more interviews. We've forgotten about his corrupt regime, and I agree 100 percent with Rich that the whole analysis of this is a personal war between Sharon and Arafat is totally wrong.

KURTZ: Well ...

WEYMOUTH: I think Sharon wanted to resist this.

KURTZ: ... I haven't forgotten all about it, and I hope the many Americans have not forgot about it as well. There are obviously two sides to this story. I want to turn now to the coverage of President Bush's role. OK, before we do that I'm told that we do now have Michael Holmes in Ramallah. So let me come to you Michael Holmes and ask you, you were in the middle of that barrage that we've all seen around the world in terms of the stun guns and the rubber bullets fired without apparent provocation.

What on earth was the Israeli military trying to accomplish by opening fire on journalists who were posing no threat other than trying to cover the story?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Howard, I still don't know. I've heard the response put forward by the Israeli government that the media was trying to, in their words, force their way into the compound. Now, that's bewildering to myself and the 25 or so other journalists who were there. That was not the case. We were sitting quietly outside the compound, 20 feet away from the entrance on the other side of the road, in fact, when the first stun grenade was thrown. So their reason for it is still unclear to us, even though I've heard government spokesmen give that excuse.

They say that Israeli, bewildering to me, they said that our presence was putting Israeli civilians at risk. There's not too many Israeli civilians here, so I really don't understand to this day why they did what they did, at least without warning. If they had said to the media there, this is a closed area, leave immediately, everyone would have done so.

KURTZ: Michael Holmes, we'll come back to you in a moment. Jack, do you want to make a point?

KELLEY: Yes, one of the things that seems to me that has taken place was that both sides now tend to see reporters as the combatants. That is the only way you can possibly express why it's become open season on people like Michael Holmes and people like myself and several others.

KURTZ: OK, I do want to turn now to the coverage of President Bush's role. As everybody now knows, on Thursday he made an announcement in which he's going to send Colin Powell to the region. In the days before the president did that, the press was hammering him -- I mean, he got terrible publicity for not being more fully engaged, and let's take a look at a typical question asked at one of the White House press briefings.


QUESTION: Do you see no complicity on America's part in not being involved enough early enough to prevent things from getting to this state and perhaps weakening our hand with our Arab allies?

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well no, the president has been deeply involved from day one in the events in the Middle East.


KURTZ: Rich Lowry, did you see -- do you see that kind of press attitude, that more engagement by the president is better and he should do something, and he should negotiate, and he should send the secretary of state as really media pressure on the president that might have even played a role in his decision to step up the U.S. role?

LOWRY: Absolutely, Howard, there's no doubt about it, and that question was absolutely typical and the fact is the media, for a variety of reasons, tends to buy the Arab, European, and Democratic spin that this -- the last 18 months of violence is somehow the Bush administration's fault because they hadn't been involved enough, and that's because the media in a deep sense, I think, buys the liberal idea that all disputes are amendable to negotiation, and there's no such thing as evil or implacable demands. You know, if just everyone sits down and talks things out, everything can be worked out, and that's not necessarily true.

If I could just make one last point, though, about the previous question about the stun guns and the rubber bullets. You know, this is a prime example of self-centeredness of the media. This is a nothing story. This is nothing compared to suicide attacks that blow 18 or 20 women and children and ...


LOWRY: ... innocent civilians ...


LOWRY: Nothing. But a rubber bullet in the scheme of things is like a gnat bite in comparison to what's going on in that part of the world, and I just don't think it merits much attention.

KURTZ: Jack Kelley, I see you shaking your head.

KELLEY: Sure, look, I've been shot at. I've been punched. I've been knocked. I've been -- I mean hit -- once hit with a stun gun from both sides. But let me just give you one example.

Last August, I wrote one cover story on Jewish vigilantes in the West Bank and how they fired on a taxi carrying Palestinian women and children, received 3,000 e-mails per day for 10 straight days. After that we had to switch my e-mail address. Got seven death threats and got a bouquet of white funeral flowers right -- sent to our building. Now I got -- I got the message right there. It basically says if you write something we don't like, you will pay a price, and Israel right now is shooting itself in its foot. You don't go after the messenger.

KURTZ: Michael Holmes ...


KURTZ: ... hold on, I want to come back to Michael Holmes. Rich Lowry says that this incident with the journalists is basically almost insignificant compared to the obvious hundreds of people dying in the warfare here, but doesn't it have an effect, whether you like it or not, on journalistic attitudes toward the Israeli army?

HOLMES: Oh, I don't know that it effects how I cover the story at all, and I agree that the incident is minor in the scheme of what populations on both sides of the green line are facing, and I think it would be nonsense to suggest that we've made a big deal out of it. If we were going to make a big deal out of what we've been put through in terms of that sort of activity, I could have done 10 stories on it. This is one story because of what it represents -- it represented a direct blocking of the media covering an important part of this story -- that is General Zinni's arrival at the compound. It's what it represented. It's not the incident itself. You didn't have ...

KURTZ: Understood.

HOLMES: ... journalists coming back to the station going poor me -- poor me, look what happened to us. It's the wider issue here and ...

KURTZ: Right, let me stop you there.

HOLMES: ... that's really the point.

KURTZ: And they obviously provided pictures that are not terribly flattering, at least from a public relation's point of view to Israel.

Well, when we come back, we'll take a further look at whether American journalists are providing both sides in the Middle East conflict.



Lally Weymouth, you interviewed Ariel Sharon recently. Did you have any sense of whether he believes that Israel is getting a fair shake from the American press in light of recent events?

WEYMOUTH: I don't think he was really interested in the media -- American press. I think what he was interested in, he tried and tried, I believe, to avoid what he's doing now. And when I was there a bomb went off in Jerusalem, the streets of Jerusalem were empty. It was almost like a ghost town, people were afraid to go out, and I think ultimately the Passover bombing pushed him and the rest of the Cabinet to the breaking point, where they absolutely had to go after the Palestinian Authority, break up its infrastructure in order to save the lives of the Israeli people, protect the lives of the citizens of Israel. I think he had not choice.

KURTZ: Sharon later took issue with the headline in a "Newsweek" cover story about the situation there, which was how will Israel survive? He said that was just wrong, perhaps, saying that it was too pessimistic. What was your thought about the way that a magazine like "Newsweek" sees the conflict versus the way that the Israelis see it?

WEYMOUTH: Well I was very proud of the package, and I don't -- I don't know. I saw the remark, but I think it was an excellent package, and I think that it threw a lot of light onto the situation in the Middle East, and I'd like to say about President Bush, I think the administration has made a tremendous mistake by inserting itself into this conflict. And I think that the message that the terrorists will take away from the fact that the U.S. has reengaged is that terror pays, that ...


WEYMOUTH: ... suicide ...

KURTZ: If I can get you back onto the media point, though, do you think that the press grumbling, apparently in favor of greater involvement by the American president may have been a factor here in creating the pressure that existed?

WEYMOUTH: I would say yes probably, undoubtedly along with the Europeans, like Rich said, and with the general drum beat of oh gee, wouldn't it be great, we should just go and reinsert ourselves into the conflict, which really loses sight of what President Bush has been trying to do, which is fight a war on terror. Now if you're fighting a war on terror, you can't take Yasser Arafat as your client like President Clinton did. He can't be the guy that comes to the White House, you know, 22 times. He's ...

KURTZ: Right.

WEYMOUTH: ... a terrorist.

KURTZ: Right, and that's, of course, the basic structure that Bush laid down, which is that he -- you don't negotiate or rely yourself with not only terrorists ...

WEYMOUTH: Exactly.

KURTZ: ... but anybody who harbors terrorists. But Jack Kelley, is it fair for journalists to compare President Bush's lesser lack of involvement in the nitty gritty of Mideast negotiations with the Bill Clinton approach?

KELLEY: Well, see, I think, it's almost as if -- it's almost as if Mr. Clinton acted as a Middle East envoy for a great deal of his ad administration, so you're comparing ...

KURTZ: And the press kind of likes that, doesn't it, because it gives us more to write about and our guy is on center stage.

KELLEY: Plus look, this is -- let's get down to facts. This is an opportunity for the press basically to go after President Bush and say look, you aren't President Clinton -- President Clinton showed up here every couple of weeks or had 10 times more involvement than you ever did. But I think the Bush ad administration has learned that they'll pay a greater price for not being involved than if they jump in with both feet.

KURTZ: Michael Holmes ...

WEYMOUTH: I don't agree.

KURTZ: ... in Ramallah -- excuse me -- is the situation now leaving aside the incident with the stun guns, but you know large sections of the West Bank have been closed off by the Israeli military to journalists. Is it like Afghanistan now difficult to get the story -- the firsthand story as a reporter there?

HOLMES: Well, I was in Afghanistan for two months before I came to this region, and it was actually a lot easier to get the story in Afghanistan than it is in the West Bank. Here it's very difficult. We were out today doing a story; we know now very clearly, we're not permitted near the compound at the moment, which of course, is affecting our ability to cover that side of things.

But even just driving around Ramallah today, we had a tank drive aggressively at us, point its turret at us when we were going through a part of town that was deserted and quiet, apart from that tank and us. It's very difficult to be able to cover the story properly. We do not get in the way, as has been suggested.


HOLMES: There's actually very few of us here to do the job, and I can tell you that -- one other thing just from listening to what the other guests have been saying -- from a Palestinian point of view, and that's where I am right now, and I'm talking to their leaders and perhaps even more importantly to their people, they see a lack of U.S. engagement as a lack of U.S. interest and talking to people today in their own homes, I had ordinary Palestinians saying if the U.S. was interested, why isn't Colin Powell here now? Why next week ...

KURTZ: We're going to have to leave it there.

HOLMES: ... they can have Sharon time to finish what he started.

KURTZ: OK, we're going to have to leave it there Michael Holmes. Thank you. Sorry for your earlier audio difficulties. Rich Lowry and Lally Weymouth in New York, thank you. Jack Kelley, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, now here's your chance to fire back at us. E-mail us and tell us what you thought of this program. We'll read some of them on the air. Our address

When we return, goodbye Gumbel, Donahue's come back, and Lou Dobbs plays defense over Arthur Andersen. The media heavies and lightweights this past week.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Time now for a look at the week's media heavies and lightweights.


KURTZ (voice-over): It was a bad week for Bryant Gumbel, bailing out of CBS' "Early Show" after two and a half years. Gumbel once ruled the morning news world at the top rated "Today Show," but his comeback attempt fizzled. Gumbel and co-anchor Jane Clayson not only trailed Katie Couric and Matt Lauer at "Today" and Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson at "Good Morning America", but they even struggled to match the ratings of the previous hosts. Still unclear whether Gumbel and his $6-million a year salary will remain at CBS.

It was a good week for Phil Donahue, the white-haired grandfather of daytime talk, making a comeback with a new evening chat show on MSNBC. No cross-dressing teenagers who've slept with their mother's boyfriends, presumably. MSNBC defined the notion that younger is better by signing the 66-year old Donahue.

It was not a good week for Lou Dobbs. "The Wall Street Journal" and "New York Times" are questioning whether the CNN "MONEYLINE" anchor has crossed the line in defending Arthur Andersen, using his personal commentaries to call the Justice Department's indictment of the Enron auditor "a horrible decision" that "penalizes thousands of innocent employees" -- and interviewing many pro Andersen guests.

Critics note that Dobbs accepted a speaking fee from Andersen in 2000 when he was heading a company called that used Arthur Andersen as an auditor. Dobbs played defense Thursday with CNN's Paula Zahn.

LOU DOBBS, HOST, MONEYLINE: I wasn't working at CNN at all. What's the big deal? Do you think that a speech fee would influence me one way or the other?

KURTZ: Dobbs also portrayed himself as taking on George Bush, whom he financially supported.

DOBBS: I voted for this president. I contributed money to this president. I am attacking the position taken by this administration's Justice Department.

KURTZ: But detractors say Dobbs should have disclosed the speaking fee and Andersen's role as the sole sponsor of the program he once anchored, "BUSINESS UNUSUAL".

And it was a better week for Louis Rukeyser, who says his "Wall Street Week" is on the verge of coming back. He won't say where. But he's still angry at Maryland Public Television for dumping him.

LOUIS RUKEYSER, FMR. HOST, "WALL STREET WEEK": They stabbed me in the back. They didn't tell me they were talking to "Fortune" magazine. They never came up with a single suggestion for -- quote -- "improving" -- unquote -- my show. They really behaved like a bunch of baddies.


KURTZ: Louis Rukeyser, one unhappy camper.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch this program tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern. "CAPITAL GANG" is up next.





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