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Should TV Be Airing bin Laden Tapes?; Are Media Helping to Scare People?; 'Boston Globe' Accuses Kerry of Lying About Health

Aired February 16, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The Osama tape: Should television be airing terrorist propaganda? Why did Fox News carry all 16 minutes of the alleged bin Laden diatribe?
Code orange: Are the media helping to scare people with all these stories about plastic wrap and duct tape?

And John Kerry's cancer diagnosis: Why a "Boston Globe" reporter accused the presidential candidate of lying about his health.

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

Turn on the news just about any time, any hour this past week, and the warnings are impossible to avoid.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A chilling warning from the Bush administration today. The United States is at high risk for a terrorist attack.

BRIAN ROSS, ABC CORRESPONDENT: Peter, an FBI bulletin issued today said al Qaeda had enhanced its abilities to conduct mass- casualty chemical, biological and radioactive attacks.

DIANE SAWYER, CO-HOST, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": We're going to show you five concrete tips on how to be prepared in case the terror alerts prove real.

JIM AXELROD, CBS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The new guidelines set off a buying spree at a Washington hardware store.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It seemed like almost every other customer was coming in for plastic sheeting, duct tape.

AXELROD (on camera): There is no question about the urgency being felt across America. What there is a question about is whether arming Americans with duct tape and plastic sheeting will actually make a difference.


KURTZ: And joining us now, Terence Smith, media correspondent for "The Newshour" on PBS, Laura Ingraham, host of "The Laura Ingraham Show" on Westwood One Radio and author of "The Hillary Trap," now out in paperback, and Steve Roberts, syndicated columnist and professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. We are fully prepared on this show for any eventuality.


KURTZ: And I'll be using this on the mouth of anybody who gets out of control.

Steve Roberts, every TV program, every front page -- here's "the New York Daily News," "Cyanide alert," people rushing to the hardware store, "Fear stalks the streets" -- are journalists scaring people?

STEVE ROBERTS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Yes. And unnecessarily. Now, it's not all our fault, not all journalists' faults, because I think the administration plays a role here. They have sent out warnings, and to some extent, we're reporting them. But then people run out and buy duct tape, and then we do stories all about people buying duct tape, and it gets -- it's a rolling -- it's a rolling thing. And I do think that we have been bordering on hysteria. I think we've fed into this anxiety, and I think we've gone too far.

KURTZ: Is this the latest cable melodrama?

LAURA INGRAHAM, WESTWOOD ONE RADIO: Yes. We call it "tragedy TV" on my program for a reason. I mean, when cable news...

KURTZ: But the tragedy hasn't happened yet.

INGRAHAM: Well, yes, but it's -- it's preemptive tragedy TV. No, but when cable news can take a local kidnapping story in California and turn that into, you know, 24-hour-a-day coverage, almost, of course they're going to take these terror warnings by the U.S. government and have the little icon in the corner of the screen. They're always going to keep you updated. So to me, it's just -- it's a logical follow-up on how cable television has been treating all these types of stories.

KURTZ: But what about the Department of Homeland Security? We do have to report the -- what Tom Ridge says.

TERENCE SMITH, "NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER": Absolutely, you have to report it, and it's a legitimate story. But it's not -- it doesn't call for wretched excess, and that's what -- that's what you've had. And I have to include this network, Howie.

KURTZ: Go ahead.

SMITH: CNN yesterday -- or this week, anyway -- on "TALKBACK LIVE" were talking about who is the biggest threat to the United States, bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il? I mean, take your pick. This -- it's a kind of a spreading of hysteria that really doesn't help that much.

ROBERTS: And I think it's partly because fear breeds attention to television, which breeds ratings. You know, if people -- you can almost put it on a graph. The more afraid people are, they more likely they are going to tune in their televisions, and it's going to produce ratings.

KURTZ: But that is pathetic! I mean, you're basically saying that all these highly-paid TV executives, anchors and correspondents are trying to scare the hell out of the American people so they can get more folks to watch.

ROBERTS: Well, to some extent, I think that's true. I think Terry's right, it's a legitimate story that we have to cover. If people are buying duct tape, we have to cover it. But we also have to point out that it's not going to do any good and that, you know, it's silly.

SMITH: You know, I have to give Tom Ridge some credit. When he announced this, he said, I know how difficult this is. I know people don't know what to do when we tell them this. And yet we think it's serious. We think it's serious enough to increase the alert and tell you about it.

INGRAHAM: And part of the media criticism, to some extent, of the Bush administration, as echoed through Tom Daschle saying, Oh, duct tape isn't going to help -- the point is, if the Homeland Security Department hadn't given any guidelines, then that would be a complaint. Well, what -- what are you tell -- why aren't you telling people what to do? So they passed out these guidelines. Then they were criticized. Then the media gets criticized for publicizing them. You know, it's hard to -- hard to figure this situation out.

KURTZ: And it's not just television. Just some random headlines from around the country...


KURTZ: ... "Minneapolis Star-Tribune" -- "On guard and braced for attack" -- "Atlanta Journal-Constitution" -- "Atlantans stock up as if their lives depended on it" -- and "Rochester Democrat and Chronicle" -- "Locals prepare for terror."

But when I turn on the tube and I see people sticking microphones in other people's faces and saying, What are you doing? Aren't you scared? Then after a while, it breeds a kind of collective nervousness.

ROBERTS: Very much so. I had a student this week -- I teach at George Washington, as you mentioned. She was on her way to London with a friend for the long holiday weekend. The friend got -- had a panic attack and bolted from the airport as she was about to get on the airplane. I had three kids in my office yesterday in tears. The level of fear and anxiety is very high, and it's unnecessary. It's unnecessary.

INGRAHAM: Well, how many...

ROBERTS: Vigilance is good. Fear is not. INGRAHAM: How many of us over the last week have heard, We're going to red. We're going to red. We're going to orange. We're going to -- I mean, every day, there's a new -- there's a new, you know, concern.

KURTZ: And I've gotten a lot of e-mail from people who don't like all the cable networks, including CNN, keeping that little box on the bottom of the screen...


KURTZ: ... Terror alert high," because it's almost like a 24- hour reminder that something might happen. So I wonder...

SMITH: Including Laura Bush, who has publicly criticized and said, You're scaring people.

KURTZ: And does she have a point?

SMITH: Yes, she has a point.

KURTZ: And what about this...

SMITH: You can report it -- you can report it, and you can document it as best you can and not frighten people.

INGRAHAM: Well, it's...

SMITH: It's possible to do both.

INGRAHAM: It's much easier to report on mass hysteria and fuel it a little bit than it is to dissect exactly what Hans Blix or Mohamed ElBaradei are saying at any given moment. It's much easier to cover the hysteria than it is to cover the substance of what's going on.

ROBERTS: And it's much easier to send a camera down to your local Wal-Mart...


ROBERTS: ... than it is...



KURTZ: It's called a "reax" story. It's the easiest thing in journalism.

ROBERTS: It is. But also, I think that there is a -- what also happens is -- it's not just you raise the anxiety level, you raise the guilt level because if you're sitting there and everybody else says, Well, I'm buying duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect my children from a gas attack, you're sitting there and saying, Wait! I'm a terrible parent... KURTZ: I have no bottled water!


SMITH: By the end of the week, ABC is reporting that the source on the threat may be very questionable.

KURTZ: That in fact, this particular...

SMITH: So where...

KURTZ: ... who talked about a dirty bomb attack perhaps in Virginia didn't pass a polygraph exam.

SMITH: Right.

KURTZ: So what happens now? We all come out and say, Never mind?

INGRAHAM: But then it's confusing because we -- we did hear from U.S. government officials that they're intercepting chatter. They're hearing a lot more of a higher volume, a greater frequency of chatter from people they think are actual al Qaeda operatives around the world. That's serious, and that's different from the one source at Guantanamo.

ROBERTS: And it's also true, to be fair, that there is a role for people to play in this. Vigilance is a good thing. People being on alert, watching for suspicious characters. We want that. So we want people -- it's the line between...


ROBERTS: ... preparedness and panic that's hard to find. I think they've gone over it.

KURTZ: And the volume and the just sheer relentless of it. And so I think we're all agreed that this has not been the media's finest hour.


KURTZ: Haven't had to use this, but I do want to ask you about the Osama -- or the alleged Osama bin Laden videotape, which got a lot of play this week. Suddenly, it's on the satellite, right direct from the Federal Express delivery to al Jazeera. You can take it down off the -- of the bird and play it. Do you run it? Terence Smith?

SMITH: Absolutely. In that case, remember, Secretary Powell had talked about it on the Hill in the morning, even before it was aired by al Jazeera. And he turned it to his advantage in a -- in a somewhat dubious way, saying that this was evidence of collusion between al Qaeda and Iraq.


KURTZ: ... audiotape not a videotape, but he scooped the networks, the secretary did, by putting out the word...

SMITH: He did.

KURTZ: ... before anybody...


SMITH: And the networks simply concluded that that was their license to go ahead, and it's a legitimate piece of news when we hear from good old Osama. We don't hear from him that often.

ROBERTS: Look, the oddity is that, you know, after 9/11, Condoleezza Rice went to the networks and said, Use your judgment. Be careful. I actually felt she was making a legitimate request because I think that's what professional journalists do every day is use their judgment. But they didn't want that first tape out, remember, when he was in the cave. They didn't want that getting a lot of publicity because it made him look good. It made him look like kind of this ascetic warrior. It was very resonant and powerful.

This tape they wanted out because it served their purposes, which was to make the link with al Qaeda. So he -- Condi Rice 18 months ago saying, Be careful, don't run it -- now you have Powell acting as a programming promotion executive because they wanted it out because this one did serve their purpose.

KURTZ: That was exactly the argument made by Fox News. And just to include the viewers in who maybe don't watch this stuff 24 hours a day -- CNN ran a couple of minutes of the translated audiotape and summarized the rest. MSNBC did the same. Fox News ran all 16 minutes of this voice purporting to be that of Osama bin Laden. And I wonder, since all the networks did agree with Condoleezza Rice not to...


KURTZ: ... sort of act as a platform for this kind of propaganda, do you have any problem with Fox's decision?

INGRAHAM: I thought it was a little bit low-rent. I mean, to run all 16 minutes -- what's the news value of that? I mean, I think running a few minutes is fine, but at some point, you have to say not only are we running a network but we're concerned. We're concerned that there might be messages in this tape. There might -- the entire 16 minutes might include more information than just a couple of minutes that are newsworthy information to people living in the United States who want to do Americans harm. And Fox did agree, in principle, along with the other cable outlets, to not air full video -- audiotapes or videotapes before, I think, the government -- well, they had some agreement that they wouldn't do this, and they did.

KURTZ: An informal agreement...


KURTZ: ... in the conference call with Condoleezza Rice. ROBERTS: A lot does have to do with whether this works for the administration or not. Remember, there was a third tape. About two months after the first tape with him in the cave, there was that tape of him sitting around, joking, which had been made -- kind of a home movie.


ROBERTS: At that point, American State Department made copies of that tape...


ROBERTS: ... and sent it around to embassies all over the world because, again, they thought that worked to their advantage. It portrayed him as a less than serious person. So a lot of it does come back to politics.

SMITH: I've got to take the PBS approach here. Run all 16 minutes. If there's anything interesting and valuable in this, it is the context of what he's saying and his arguments. It gives you insight into, I would argue, a rather twisted mind, but an approach, and to understand it and to understand, for example, whether Secretary Powell was right that there is a link or collusion or even cooperation between al Qaeda and Iraq, a very dubious assertion. Make your own mind up by listening to the whole thing.

KURTZ: But he also had some -- he also had some negative things to say about Saddam and company.

SMITH: He called them socialists and -- you know...

INGRAHAM: I thought that the question was one of timing. I mean, when you actually release all 16 minutes. I mean, and I thought there was some issue about the sequence of events here, and the other networks decided they were going to go for a shorter -- a shorter spurt of the tape, and I just thought that was more appropriate. And I don't -- I'm not saying it's inappropriate to run 16 minutes. I just thought, at that moment in time, what's more important? I mean, what's more important, the safety of Americans, potentially -- it's always potentially -- or getting it out first, before CNN, before MSNBC, so we can say we're Fox and we're going to do it this way?

ROBERTS: Well, that's -- that's why it's important to use judgment. That's why I thought Condoleezza Rice's original request was not unreasonable. You have to run enough so that people do understand who this person is. The notion that we're giving him a platform, running anything, is totally wrong. You have -- you're absolutely right. You have to...

INGRAHAM: He wants to kill Americans (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

ROBERTS: You have to run enough so that the average American says, OK, I understand him better, but not so much that you're raising him and elevating him and giving him a platform to spew propaganda...

INGRAHAM: How big is the audience for 16 minutes.

ROBERTS: ... and manipulate us.


ROBERTS: There is a middle ground there that works.

SMITH: You know, he has a worldwide audience that is all over the Muslim-speaking world, all over Europe...

INGRAHAM: Yes, but we're concerned about what happens here, right?

SMITH: I understand that, but don't think there's -- the whole world is here.

KURTZ: All right, I'm going to have to exercise some restraint here and call a halt to this segment.

And when we come back: presidential candidate John Kerry's cancer surgery. Did the senator mislead the press?



Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry had surgery for prostate cancer this past week. He's expected to full recover and be back at work soon. The senator found out about the cancer in late December but only let the press in on the story on Tuesday, the day before the surgery.

About 10 days before that, he was asked by "Boston Globe" reporter Glen Johnson whether he was ill. Kerry said no. At a press conference this week, the same reporter challenged Kerry about his denial.


GLEN JOHNSON, "THE BOSTON GLOBE": Do you think people should draw any broader conclusion about your truthfulness, based on the answer and the...

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No. I think every American would understand, Glen, that if a reporter sticks his head into your car door as you're leaving to drive away and ask you if you're sick, that you don't owe them necessarily an answer at that moment about what is happening. I wanted to be able to announce this to America in the way that I am doing it today, where I know exactly what I'm doing, where I have the answers, where I have the medical answers, where my family is fully notified and I am able to do it on my terms. And sometimes, Glen, that's more important than the headline of a newspaper.


KURTZ: Terry Smith, didn't John Kerry, though, mislead or lie to "The Boston Globe," and isn't that a legitimate story?

SMITH: You know, this is exactly what infuriates the public about the press. In a case like this, anybody is willing to cut John Kerry a little slack and give him some sense of privacy. Take him at his word that he hadn't shared it entirely with his family. It's a very personal matter. He told a white lie as to whether or not he was healthy, and I think the public -- I score it Kerry 1, reporter 0.

ROBERTS: I agree. I think that the question bordered on harassment, actually. I think that...

KURTZ: Harassment?

ROBERTS: Yes. I mean, he badgered him into -- the reporter was badgering him on an issue which I think was a very slender question of truth. He was trying to make it out as if this guy was trying to cover up his illness. He was not trying to cover up his illness. I agree with Terry, he -- if there was any question about hiding facts, then you'd have a case. But in this case, I think he deserved to have his privacy until he knew the facts and released it to the public.

KURTZ: The press did come off as heartless because here's a man talking about how I have cancer, I'm going into the hospital tomorrow. And the questions were very prosecutorial. But at the same time, don't presidential candidates have a duty to level with the American people about such matters? We've been through this before.

INGRAHAM: Depends on the meaning of the word "ill," I guess. I mean, the thing is, you do want to cut Kerry a break because he has cancer. He probably didn't want CNN, MSNBC and Fox to have diagrams of what the prostate looks like for the five days or weeks preceding his surgery. So you can't blame him. I think, at that time -- probably, in retrospect, he would have said, You know, something, I'm in a rush. I'm not going to -- not going to get to these questions. But you know, he's rushing around. I would hope that both Republicans and Democrats in this situation would get the same courtesy, and I think -- I think it's much ado about nothing here.

ROBERTS: I do think that, of course, there's a history here. A former -- another Massachusetts senator who ran for president, Paul Tsongas, did dissemble on his cancer...

KURTZ: And the cancer that eventually killed him.

ROBERTS: ... that eventually killed him, when he ran for president in '92. So there's an understandable level of suspicion here, and -- look, I believe -- I agree with your premise that every presidential candidate owes total and full disclosure of their medical history if they're seeking to be leader of the country...



ROBERTS: But I do think that...

KURTZ: But not necessarily two hours after he gets the diagnosis.



ROBERTS: Exactly. And if there is any hint that he was trying to cover up the condition -- legitimate story. Not this case.

SMITH: Look, I think John Kerry learned a lot about what lies ahead if he pursues this presidential campaign. And I agree with Laura. He'll learn to handle these questions in a way that does not lie but simply declines to answer at the time the question is posed.

KURTZ: Kerry...

SMITH: Once he gets into it, though, his health is a legitimate issue.

KURTZ: And that's what I was going to come back. Now, a Kerry adviser told me they were concerned about this misstep, this misleading of the "Boston Globe" reporter, and they tried to handle it by putting out lots and lots of information, making the doctor available, when he did go public at the news conference. So my question now is, how much of this does the press continue to make an issue out of? I'm reminded of Bill Bradley's irregular heartbeat during the 2000 campaign, a much less serious condition. That certainly got a lot of media attention.

INGRAHAM: I -- I -- again, I just think, right now, with everything else that's going on in the world, this -- whether Kerry told us the day before or two weeks before or two months before -- I just don't think -- I think it's...

ROBERTS: I think the principle's an important one. Not only do they owe, I think -- whether Clinton came clean or not, I think they owe a full disclosure of medical history, and I think even of certain mental conditions. You remember back in -- you don't remember. You're too young. But back in 1972, when Thomas Eagleton was named to the Democratic ticket...


ROBERTS: ... and it came out that he had suffered from depression and had received electric shock treatments, he -- every -- the uproar was so great, he was removed from the ticket.

KURTZ: I actually do remember that, Steve, and I also...


KURTZ: I also remember that last week, Bob Graham, who also may run for president, Florida senator, had heart surgery, and obviously, there will be questions about his records and his health. So this is not going to evaporate just briefly.

SMITH: Well, John Kerry, welcome to the big time because here's what it's going to be. I would say this. Now that it's out, he should -- he should and must disclose his condition, his -- the results...


SMITH: ... of the treatment. Not too much. We don't have to get too personal. But he needs to do it. The subject of a candidate's health is legitimate news.

KURTZ: Final point. One of the reasons Kerry gets so much scrutiny and has been getting so much scrutiny from the press on his position -- the nuances of his position on Iraq, the fact that he once had a Jewish grandfather -- is that he's perceived as the frontrunner, or at least a frontrunner, and that brings a lot of attention. We will have to...

SMITH: For this five minutes.


KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there. Terry Smith, Steve Roberts, Laura Ingraham, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back: "Just a third-rate burglary." Famous words and an infamous legacy from a White House spokesman.


KURTZ: What do the following people have in common? Marlin Fitzwater, Dee Dee Myers, Mike McCurry, Joe Lockhart, Ari Fleischer? They've all tried to avoid the fate of Ron Ziegler. Ziegler, who died this week at 63, had the misfortune to be White House press secretary during Watergate. That means President Nixon and his team sent him out to lie to the press. Watergate was just a third-rate burglary, Ziegler famously said. When the White House lies didn't hold up, Ziegler simply declared his previous statements "inoperative." Knowingly or not, he was used as part of a criminal cover-up.

Since then, every White House spokesman has tried to avoid the Ziegler trap by refusing to comment on investigations or reading official statements or referring questions to the lawyers, all to avoid risking their personal credibility. Ron Ziegler eventually apologized to Woodward and Bernstein for accusing them of "shabby journalism," but he stayed loyal to Nixon to the very end, and his reputation never recovered.

Finally, those on-again, off-again talks about a merger between CNN and ABC News are off, this time for good. AOL Time Warner, CNN's parent, has told the Disney folks, who own ABC, that it's too busy with other matters to work out the complicated details of who would run what. AOL, you may recall, lost a stunning $99 billion last year. So Peter Jennings and company won't be appearing on our air, except perhaps as guests.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Thanks for watching.

"LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer is just ahead.


Scare People?; 'Boston Globe' Accuses Kerry of Lying About Health>

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