Return to Transcripts main page
CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Coverage of Bombing of Libya; Fox News Says Nic Robertson Became Human Shield for Gadhafi
Aired March 27, 2011 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: At first there seemed to be a journalistic no-fly zone when it came to questioning the bombing of Libya. But now news organizations have zoomed into action with important questions about what President Obama is trying to accomplish.
I have got my own questions, including are liberal commentators who denounced George Bush over Iraq giving a Democratic president a pass?
And the Fox News charge that CNN's Nic Robertson became a human shield for Gadhafi by inspecting bomb damage with government escorts, even though Fox had some facts wrong, do reporters risk being used for propaganda purposes?
Plus, the anchor who launched "Nightline" three decades ago says the media have become too partisan, too superficial, and too disengaged from the rest of the world. But is this just nostalgia for a bygone era? We take our cameras to visit Ted Koppel.
I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
As you can see, we have a different look here in the studio, new music which I've just heard for the first time. And we hope it matches the fast-changing media landscape we're trying to cover. We'll keep tinkering with it.
The military intervention in Libya kind of sneaked up on the media. There was no drawn-out debate, no Oval Office address. The White House won't even call it a war, which it most obviously is.
That left journalists to try to decipher some apparent contradictions. The president saying, on the one hand, that Moammar Gadhafi must go. But on the other hand, that this no-fly zone is designed only to prevent a massacre. And commentators seem to be wrestling with their own views as well. Some conservative pundits who had demanded action, praising Obama's decision but still finding reasons to criticize him. Some liberal pundits, chiding Obama for not consulting Congress, but still backing the decision -- kind of.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: What is the goal of the mission? No spin. The goal of the mission is to remove Gadhafi. CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: What is the real mission in Libya? Not the no-fly zone. That's a method. What's the mission? How do we end this thing?
ELIOT SPITZER, CNN: Civil war rages on the ground, yet President Obama still hasn't answered the most basic question about America's military operations -- what is our mission?
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: You've got conflicting messages within the administration between Hillary, the defense secretary. They can't even define what the actual mission is.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: There seems to be some confusion on the mission.
Joining us now, Jane Hall, associate professor at American University's School of Communication, and a former Fox News commentator; Jennifer Rubin, of "The Washington Post," whose blog is called "The Right Turn"; and Bill Press, syndicated radio talk show host.
Jane Hall, has the news coverage been fair to President Obama as he has tried to make a complicated and somewhat nuanced case about Libya and this not really a war, war?
JANE HALL, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY'S SCHOOL OF COMMUNICATION: I think it's been fair. I think journalists, within their initial stories, tried to raise questions about the discrepancy or the seeming discrepancy. I think it is --
KURTZ: Not for the first couple of days. I don't think they liked hanging out there by themselves before other politicians started to criticize.
HALL: Well, I was going to say -- right. They were dependent on politicians. You know, Jane Harman came on Christiane Amanpour's program and talked about her concerns early on.
"The New York Times" on the day after had a story questioning. But within their stories I think journalists have to rely on officialdom too often. And there weren't voices saying outside -- sort of the alternative media, there weren't a lot of voices saying, should we be doing this? Now that you have Republicans criticizing --
KURTZ: And some Democrats.
HALL: -- and pundits criticizing, and Democrats, now you've got the media dealing with that.
KURTZ: Yes. It took two or three days, I thought, for it really to kick into high gear.
HALL: I agree with you.
KURTZ: Now, conservative commentators, Jennifer Rubin, are generally supportive of the president, but nobody much seems to like this approach.
JENNIFER RUBIN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I think there's a lot of qualms, rightfully so, in my view, about the lack of leadership, if you will, that he hasn't explained what the aims are.
KURTZ: Giving a speech tomorrow night for the first time.
RUBIN: He's giving a speech finally.
KURTZ: Nine days after the bombing began.
RUBIN: Exactly. And that there was really no preparation with Congress. George Bush, if we remember, who was ridiculed for being a unilateralist, got authorization from Congress. And, of course, he had a very large coalition.
KURTZ: But, of course, this was a ground invasion of Iraq --
RUBIN: Yes. But this is a major war. And I think presidents generally, because of political reasons, not necessarily constitutional ones, find it advisable -- and I think it is -- to get the country on board, to get Congress on board to explain what they're doing. And this president hasn't. It's almost unprecedented.
KURTZ: I want to quote from columnist Bill Press.
You want through some of the reservations that you have about this whole approach in Libya. And then you wrote, "What's a good liberal to do? Hold your nose and support it, at least for now."
So you're just being a partisan cheerleader -- hold your nose and support it.
BILL PRESS, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: But wait. I think the idea of "hold your nose and support it for now" is a lot different from the conservative people, commentators that we saw with the war in Iraq, that just said rah, rah, rah, George Bush and Dick Cheney, go, go, go.
KURTZ: But hold on. If it had been George Bush still in office, sending bombers into Libya, not calling it a war, you wouldn't be holding your nose, you would be thumbing your nose.
PRESS: Well, I don't think so. You know, that's a hypothetical.
But look, I think there's a qualitative difference, and that's where I came around to, reluctantly supporting this. A qualitative difference between the way George Bush went into Iraq and the way Barack Obama went into Libya.
At the same time, I agree with Jennifer. The lack of clarity, I would say, not leadership, has been pretty stunning. And reporters have been really asking -- since he got back from South America, at any rate -- really tough questions that have to be answered, like what is the mission? What is our role? How much is it going to cost? How long are we going to be there?
HALL: You know, Jon Stewart, actually, was very early to say, aren't we in two wars already? And how come we're not going into Yemen? The questions were not asked that day of, which I think is the point you're trying to make.
KURTZ: And what about hypocrisy in the punditry? If this was a Republican president saying it's not a war, while bombing the country, wouldn't they be going apocalyptic over at MSNBC?
HALL: Well, you know, I'm not sure. Unfortunately, or fortunately, I think presidents get supported. And I think it is hard for the media until people begin to express official opposition to express opposition themselves. I think it's a problem.
RUBIN: But I think that's not right, Jane. I think Howie is exactly right.
I think there was this suspension of disbelief in part -- and I give the media a little bit of a pass in this -- that because there was no run-up to the action, there was a lot of just explaining to do. What are we doing? Who's doing what? There's a predicate that they have to set before they begin to comment.
HALL: But the fact is if you raise -- I mean, "The New York Times," in their initial story, when the bombs starting dropping, said -- raised questions. But it is very hard I think for media to step outside official voices condemning this. I mean, it's very different.
PRESS: On your point, I just want to say, this is a war. This is America's war. It's a third war that we're involved in.
KURTZ: Right. Let's not play the semantics game.
PRESS: Don't play the game.
KURTZ: But speaking of semantics, let's look at Newt Gingrich, what he said a couple of weeks ago, and what he says now about a U.S. military action in Libya.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: What would you do about Libya?
NEWT GINGRICH (R), FMR. HOUSE SPEAKER: Exercise a no-fly zone this evening. We don't need to have the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening. This is a moment to get rid of him. Do it. Get it over with.
I would not have intervened.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: That was on "The Today Show" this week.
Now, this has gotten some traction on cable and on the Web. I haven't seen any newspapers stories about it. Here's a guy who's gearing up to run for president.
Why not more attention to what you would have to call a flip- flop?
PRESS: I think there should be a lot of attention to this. And frankly, I think it has maybe destroyed Newt's chances of being taken seriously as a presidential candidate.
KURTZ: Destroyed his chances?
PRESS: Yes, right. Early on, to make a mistake like this so publicly, I think is a fatal flaw. And it shows him as just somebody who's -- he's for it if Obama is against it. He's against it if Obama's for it.
RUBIN: And I think this does revive the concerns about Newt, which is that he's unpredictable, that he's sort of in every pie and on every side simultaneously.
KURTZ: I like politicians who unpredictable, but I don't think that they should be doing a 180 within two weeks, yes.
RUBIN: Yes, exactly. I will take exception to one thing that Jane said about the media. I think it's their job, and they often do step outside of officialdom. And you saw the difference between new media and old media initially.
HALL: I'm speaking mainstream media.
KURTZ: Interesting distinction.
RUBIN: Right. And there's this blurring now, who is old and who is new? I work for an old media outlet, but on the Internet.
So I think old media has to lay this factual predicate, has to explain what's going on. And because the president did no briefing, because there wasn't preparation, they didn't have a lot of the explanation that preceded the Iraq invasion, for example. The new media jumped in, was able to offer analysis, commentary, criticism, defense.
KURTZ: It's an interesting distinction. And I think the old media were slow. It happened over a weekend, and I'd just there was no rub (ph).
But I want to get to an amazing piece of video that just happened yesterday. You may have heard about it. This is when reporters were sitting in a hotel in Tripoli, where many of them are based, and this Libyan woman came in and started screaming about how she had been gang-raped by Gadhafi's forces. She had some visible injuries on her body. And then the government escorts the minders who keep an eye on journalists, immediately started to drag her away.
And then, in the second part of this tape, you will see some -- the journalists getting roughed up or in a tussle with police and security forces. In fact, CNN's Nic Robertson reporting that CNN's camera was taken and smashed.
Let's take look at this video.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, no, no, no! No! No!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Well, we're not seeing the part where the journalists are getting knocked to the ground in one case.
What do you do in a situation? We don't know whether this woman's telling the truth. On the other hand, we really saw Gadhafi's government in action.
PRESS: I just think you have to -- first of all, that's a shocking video, the first time I've seen it. You have to jump in and try to protect her, and then get --
KURTZ: Is that the role of a journalist?
PRESS: If someone's life is in danger, I think it is. Particularly protect her against these government thugs. I would do so. I wouldn't be able to stand aside and watch that.
HALL: I think most journalists would take that stance, and did take that stance. I mean, you don't know if she's telling the truth, but I think it points up -- you know, she said this is what happened. It points up the inadequacies of journalists trying to report on this and not having access to somebody like that until she burst into the hotel room.
KURTZ: And it also dramatized the way in which the Gadhafi regime treats the press. And as I said, a journalist got roughed up, CNN's camera taken. It's hard to do your job right there with that kind of constant surveillance.
RUBIN: It is. And this is the continuing story that we now have in the 24/7 media realm when we are investigating, when we're reporting on wars, military incursions, whatever you want to call them, that the media cannot separate itself. They are part of the story -- totalitarian regimes --
(CROSSTALK) KURTZ: They are part of the story.
I've got to get a break, Bill.
When we come back, talk about the fog of war, CNN's Nic Robertson angrily denying allegations that Gadhafi used him as a human shield. Is there any merit in these charges by Fox News?
And later, a special sit-down with Ted Koppel.
KURTZ: It is a serious charge to hurl against a journalist in a war zone. CNN's Nic Robertson was among a group of journalists taken by the Gadhafi regime to inspect bomb damage in Tripoli. That prompted Fox News Pentagon correspondent Jennifer Griffin to report that Robertson's presence had foiled an ally attack on the Gadhafi compound.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JENNIFER GRIFFIN, FOX NEWS NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Fox News has since learned from British sources that the coalition had to call off the mission to complete the strike on Gadhafi's compound when they noticed journalists broadcasting from the scene. About 15 journalists, including CNN and Reuters crews, were taken to the compound and unwittingly found themselves serving as human shields for the Gadhafi regime.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Serving as human shields.
Robertson responded with considerable anger in an interview with Wolf Blitzer.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this allegation is outrageous, and it's absolutely hypocritical. You know, when you come to somewhere like Libya, you expect lies and deceit from a dictatorship here. You don't expect it from the other journalists.
Why do I say that? Because Fox News has said that they didn't send somebody on this trip last night because they said it was a "propaganda trip." They sent a member of their team. And the idea that we were some kind of human shields is nuts.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Jennifer Griffin later apologized for one point, not knowing that Fox correspondent Steve Harrigan had sent a staffer on the very same trip. Nic Robertson also chided Harrigan, saying he seems to spend most of his time at the hotel in Tripoli. That didn't sit too well with Harrigan, who told "The Huffington Post" that such trips are "a waste of time," and besides, he was too busy doing live reports as Fox's only correspondent in Tripoli.
"What's more," said Harrigan, "Nic Robertson is dull. I can stand outside my balcony and report what I see. I can talk to people about what they see. But for someone to say I'm lazy, who doesn't know me, who's not in our working condition, doesn't know our schedule, this guy has a screw loose."
Now, Bill Press, we didn't invite Nic Robertson and try to get someone from Fox because we didn't just want to further the he said/he said.
Let's get to the larger issue here. When you go on a trip -- and this is common in a war zone -- "The New York Times" had a story on this yesterday in Libya -- sponsored by a brutal regime, with government minders to show off bomb damage or civilian casualties, are you aiding propaganda?
PRESS: You could be. I mean, I must say, I've traveled -- sometimes you have no choice.
I have traveled in Israel, when the only way I could get around was with a government guide. I've traveled in Nicaragua during the war, the only way I could get around. And the same thing in Bosnia.
So then you just have to understand that you're probably being used and do the best you can, and keep your objectivity. I don't blame either one of these guys, by the way. I don't know what the truth is. I just have to tell you, as a talk show host, I loved it, because they took the gloves off.
KURTZ: All right.
Jennifer Rubin, this came up in the Iraq War when CNN was reporting on a milk factory that the Bush administration claimed was actually being used for legal weapons. So, if you take a policy that it's a waste of time, as Harrigan says, and you don't go on these trips, well, then you're passing up a chance to see for yourself what's going on in the war zone, even though you're fully aware and you always share with your viewers or your readers that it's being stage-managed.
RUBIN: Well, I think the key to this is context, is to explaining that you were brought there, to explain that they were making a representation, and to raise exactly that issue with the audience, that we don't know what this is. And then to try to counter-pose that with facts that you do know, including the regime's ability to suppress and abuse journalists so that they are not allowed to roam freely.
We still don't know, by the way, whether the story is true or not. We don't have independent confirmation of whether the Brits --
KURTZ: Right. Robertson says that he and the other journalists were there for about half an hour. So how much of a human shield could they have been?
Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying on "Face the Nation" this morning that the Gadhafi regime actually moving corpses to bomb sites to show or trump up the idea that there are civilian casualties.
You worked at Fox News. Was this a half-baked attempt to whack CNN, or is that unfair?
HALL: Well, I don't really know. And Jennifer Griffin is a good reporter. And I think that, yes, it looks like Fox, trashing CNN.
And if I were Nic Robertson, and I was risking my life, as he's often done, I would be pretty pissed. But I think there is a larger issue.
Nic Robertson said in that interview with Wolf Blitzer, we went because we didn't want the government telling us and editing video. You always run that risk.
Secretary Gates says they are moving corpses. You know, people said that during the Civil War, that Matthew Brady moved corpses.
All you can do, as Jennifer said, is show the context, go and try to say Hamas has led us here, or Gadhafi has led us here. But I think the subtext is Fox trashing CNN. CNN is doing well with this story, and I can't help but believe there's some connection there.
KURTZ: But, at the same time, should Robertson have then slammed Steve Harrigan essentially as a lazy guy who doesn't leave the hotel? Harrigan hadn't said a word about CNN, so then it became very personal.
HALL: Well, then it becomes personal and ugly. And Harrigan can have his reporting stand on its own. I mean, people can make that judgment, who's doing better reporting between the two reporters.
PRESS: At the same time, I have to tell you, my hat is off to these guys in the field like Richard Engel and Lara Logan. And I've always thought Nic Robertson is one of the best. And the detention and the pressure that they are working under, and to have -- I can understand where Nic, having his credibility challenged by another -- a representative of another network, did piss him off.
HALL: Well, I know on O'Reilly they used to criticize Richard Engel. And I would feel like, go out there yourself. You know, go out and sit in the studio and say he's not doing enough.
RUBIN: If that's it, I don't thing Nic helped his cause by turning this into a personal vindictive sort of performance there.
KURTZ: He was angry. I've never seen him show so much emotion on the air.
RUBIN: Exactly. He clearly had lost his temper.
And I think many of us don't like these stories that are journalist versus journalist that seem to get off the point. But, understandably, he and others have this problem. How do they determine whether they are being used or not? How do they determine whether what they are seeing is accurate? And that is a problem that he shares, that Fox shares, that everyone who is involved there shares.
PRESS: And, you know, it does underscore the fact that in this war, so much more than this operation, whatever you want to call it, so much more so than Egypt, reporters are really like the slaves almost of Gadhafi's regime. Their every movement is controlled. They can't go out of their hotel unless they go on --
PRESS: -- from what I've read.
RUBIN: I mean, Richard Engel has pointed out somebody was carrying a toy gun that he was with.
KURTZ: And I would be remiss not to mention that, of course, it was after our show aired last Sunday that those four "New York Times" journalists were released by Libyan authorities. It turns out they ran a harrowing front-page account about how they had been beaten up, how the female among them had been groped, how they had been threatened with death.
An awful experience. We're so glad they are home safely. But it underscores difficulties that journalists face in Libya. It is easy to criticize.
You all will be back a little later in the program, so stick around.
Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, we'll take you to the home office of Ted Koppel for a wide-ranging conversation on how foreign news plays in the American media, why he thinks cable news is heading downhill, and how he responds to some sharp criticism from Keith Olbermann.
KURTZ: Network news was a very different business decades ago, with plenty of bureaus around the world and owners who were willing to lose money on these operations. They were seen -- and it sounds kind of quaint to say so -- as a public service.
These days, ABC, NBC, CBS must compete with increasingly opinionated cable channels, with millions of blogs and Web sites and Twitter, and not surprisingly, some broadcast veterans believe the business is -- and this is a technical term -- going to hell in a hand basket.
Ted Koppel has become an outspoken voice in that debate more than 30 years after he launched the late-night ABC program that came to be called "Nightline."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TED KOPPEL, ANCHOR, "NIGHTLINE": Good evening. This is a new broadcast in the sense that it is permanent and will continue after the Iran crisis is over. There will also be nights when Iran is not the major story.
I'm Ted Koppel in Ramallah.
This is Ted Koppel in Mogadishu.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: I sat down with Koppel in his home office, which is in a converted barn in the Maryland suburbs. We're bringing it to you now. Our conversation took place before the Japanese earthquake and the military action in Libya.
KURTZ: Ted Koppel, welcome.
KOPPEL: Thank you.
KURTZ: Thank you for having us out to the barn.
We are in a rare period right now where the media devoting significant reasons to international stories. First, Egypt. Now Libya.
Is that refreshing or rather temporary, in your view?
KOPPEL: I think it's one of these regular occurrences that happens when there is an international crisis. And it lasts for a couple of weeks, sometimes even a couple of months. And, I mean, is there any doubt in your mind that we're not going to be hearing much out of Egypt a month from now, or much out of Tunis a week from now or --
KURTZ: Very little doubt. And why is there, in your view, so little appetite on American television in particular, the media in general, for covering the rest of the world? I mean, there's a war in Afghanistan going on 10 years now, and it almost seems to be a forgotten war.
KOPPEL: You're absolutely right. There are two reasons. One, it is incredibly expensive, as you know, to cover overseas news, and particularly to cover war zones.
KURTZ: But it was expensive back in the day when you did a lot of globe trotting. KOPPEL: It was. And back in those days -- I mean, back in the 1960s and '70s, networks tended to look upon news organizations as being loss leaders. They were making their money on the comedy shows. They were making their money on the cop shows. And they were very possibly losing money, although there's some argument about that, on their news divisions.
And they were prepared to do that because, among other things, the FCC, in those days, had some clout. And, among other things, the FCC, in those days, actually had the ability and an apparent willingness to take the licenses away from radio stations, television stations and, although it never happened, even hypothetically, a television network.
KURTZ: And now, news is expected to be profitable.
KOPPEL: That's correct.
KURTZ: And therefore you think -- but I also wonder whether it's not just the expense. That's clearly a major factor. Isn't there a sense that there's been a great appetite among the public for coverage of the rest of the world?
KOPPEL: It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, Howard. I mean, if you tell people long enough, you don't have an appetite for foreign news, and if you convince yourself that the American public doesn't have an appetite for foreign news, then, after a while, you say well, they don't have an appetite for it, we don't have the budget for it. Perfect.
I would argue it's our responsibility to develop an appetite. Most people don't start life, you know, enjoying a good steak. They only learn to do that --
KURTZ: An acquired taste.
KOPPEL: It's an acquired taste.
KURTZ: Let me ask you about a "Washington Post" opinion piece you wrote a while back that caused a bit of a stir. You said you were saddened by the partisanship in prime time --
KURTZ: -- on Fox News and MSNBC. Why saddened? A lot of people say, well, look, by evening time, people know the headlines, they've seen them online, they've read the newspapers, they like opinion.
KOPPEL: Again, if we're only talking about it through the prism of entertainment, I take the point. But if the purpose is to provide some journalism, then I think the journalism requires and our times require a little more serious objectivity. And I think there has to be a willingness on the part of the public to accept that journalism is trying to do an honest job of giving them an objective accounting of what's going on in the world and an objective appraisal of what's really important in the world. In the face of what Fox is doing, and in the face of what MSNBC is doing, there's no reason for the public to assume anything other than that what we're doing is putting forth our own opinions.
KURTZ: You particularly went after Keith Olbermann pretty hard. You said that he was avowedly, unabashedly and monotonously partisan.
KOPPEL: Well, I went after -- I went after Mr. Olbermann at that time because he was very much in the news. You may recall at that point, he had been suspended for, what was it, two days or three days?
KURTZ: It ended up being two days for contributing money to three Democratic candidates. And, in fact, the fallout from that episode led pretty directly to his leaving MSNBC.
KURTZ: Did that --
KOPPEL: I mean, I could just as easily have picked on someone over at Fox, or other people at MSNBC. It --
KURTZ: As you know, he came back at you pretty hard.
KOPPEL: He did. He did.
KURTZ: And he wrote among -- he said on the air, among other things, that you were "worshipping the false God of utter objectivity." That's a word you've already used. And then he brought up the run-up to the Iraq War.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: The stories of Mr. Koppel's career will emphasize the life he's so admirably shown on the Iran hostages. Those stories though will probably not emphasize that in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 and 2005, Mr. Koppel did not shine that same light on the decreasingly coherent excuses presented by the government of this nation for the war in Iraq.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: I'm sure you'd like a chance to respond.
KOPPEL: Well, I'm not sure I feel I need a chance to respond. He clearly didn't see all the "Nightlines" that we did. And most particularly, he cannot have seen a 90-minute or even two-hour town meeting that we did, the title of which was sort of self-explanatory, "Why Now?"
And we did that in early March of 2003, literally a couple of weeks just before the war began. And the whole point of the program was, why is it so important that we go in and that we invade Iraq?
So I don't expect Mr. Olbermann to have seen all the programs. But before he makes a wide-ranging charge like that, I do expect that he'd have someone else do the research.
KURTZ: But, you know, he got good ratings at MSNBC.
KURTZ: Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck have good ratings at Fox. CNN has struggled a bit with an approach that's probably closer to the objective news you're talking about. There are exceptions, Eliot Spitzer.
KOPPEL: You're describing the problem, Howard.
KOPPEL: I mean, if they were not getting good news doing --
KOPPEL: -- you know, wildly-opinionated material, they wouldn't be doing it. They're only doing it --
KURTZ: Why is it a problem if people like to watch it?
KOPPEL: Because we're not talking about entertainment, we're talking about news. And news is important in a democracy because the idea that a voting public actually have access to objective information and that the focus of the journalism be on issues that are of genuine importance, not just of wide-ranging interest -- I realize that Mr. "Two and a Half Men" --
KURTZ: Charlie Sheen.
KOPPEL: -- Charlie Sheen, Charlie Sheen clearly is entertaining an awful lot of people in his real life role. But is that really important? Is there --
KURTZ: Your former network gave Charlie Sheen an hour in prime time on "20/20." Other networks gave him a platform. Look, he's a highly-paid television star --
KURTZ: -- who got a very public divorce from CBS over a popular show.
Is that not news in some fashion?
KOPPEL: Sure it is. Is it worth a primetime documentary? I don't think so.
And I don't think so in particular in a world in which however many people it is now -- and the numbers vary -- 15 to 20 million people unemployed in this country, 6,000 Americans who have died over the course of the last eight or nine years in Iraq and Afghanistan, the whole Mediterranean, North Africa, Persian Gulf up in flames, in danger of going up in flames. I think there are things we need to know about as an informed electorate.
KURTZ: So you see the media as kind of chasing the shiny, superficial, the sensational?
KOPPEL: I see the media --
KURTZ: Too often?
KOPPEL: I see the media as trying -- as chasing the -- what are we going to call it, the popcorn rather than the broccoli, and even the steak and the baked potato. I think the media, these days -- with notable exceptions -- I think the media is so desperate to try to turn a buck at a time when the competition has become much fiercer than it's ever been in years past, that the inclination to do hard news over the kind of fluffy news that draws a big audience is irresistible.
KURTZ: More of my conversation with the longtime ABC anchor in a moment, including Koppel's thoughts on that undercover sting against NPR and whether the taxpayers should keep subsidizing the embattled network.
KURTZ: More now of my conversation in his home office with Ted Koppel.
KURTZ: From this very office you do commentaries for National Public Radio.
KURTZ: Obviously, NPR suffered a big embarrassment with the hidden camera video that found a top executive making very disparaging remarks about the Tea Party. An NPR chief executive resigned this week, which helped fuel a debate that was already on the way, which is why should, at a time of huge budget deficits, an organization like NPR get taxpayer dollars?
KOPPEL: Well, I must confess, I'm not the best person to tell you about the financial breakdown. But my understanding of it is --
KURTZ: Ten to 15 percent of its budget.
KOPPEL: Yes. But most of the stations that will be hardest hit are, by definition, as I understand it, the smallest stations in the smallest communities. And that those stations tend to get as much as 50 percent of their annual budget from that congressional funding, whereas NPR itself, I think, gets a relatively minor amount.
It's not NPR per se that is going to be most damaged by this. It's going to be the smallest stations in the communities that have the fewest options anyway, that probably don't have a local newspaper, that may not have a radio or a television station with a news department that depends almost exclusively on NPR for any sort of insight into what is happening both in the country and in the world outside.
They're the ones that are going to be hardest hit.
KURTZ: That debate will not go away.
Let me come back to your "Washington Post" piece.
KURTZ: You wrote that, "Broadcast news has been now outflanked and will soon be overtaken by scores of other media options."
Was this inevitable? How did they lose this war?
KOPPEL: The same way that radio initially lost the war to television, the same way that newspapers lost the war to television news.
KOPPEL: Technology. Technology always has to be addressed, but, you know, when one technology -- I mean, there's no question in my mind that television did a lesser job of covering the news than newspapers did in their heyday. But the technology was so attractive, that people just flooded over to television by the tens of millions. And newspapers had to accommodate to it.
So, too, I think network television is -- has had to accommodate already to cable television, is going to have to accommodate to the blog sites and the Internet, and eventually even to Facebook and Twitter. But there is a danger there, you know.
KURTZ: A lot of TV people are on Facebook and Twitter.
And what is the danger? What is -- what are we in danger of losing as we migrate online to sites that we like, perhaps opinions that we like or agree with?
KOPPEL: In and of itself, when you frame it as narrowly as that, the danger is not all that great. But when we find a large segment of the information-consuming public consuming information that is limited to 140 characters, consuming information that, by virtue of Facebook, for example, tends to deal with some of the more frivolous parts of our lives, that's attention, then, that is not being given to some of the issues out there that are of much greater importance.
There is a need. You know, there's no way of saying this, Howard, without sounding a little bit like an old man who is losing touch with new technology, but the fact of the matter is that in a democracy, an uninformed electorate is the greatest danger that there is. If we confuse just the rapid-fire exchange of small morsels of information on trivial subjects with real information, then I think we knock the props out from under a really functioning democracy.
And there's a certain irony in the fact that at precisely the time when we are celebrating what we perceive to be the rise of democracy, encouraged by Twitter, encouraged by Facebook, in places like Tunisia and Libya and Egypt, that we fail to see that that is just the first step in the process. And already in Egypt, we're beginning to see that what we thought was the revolution was just the overthrow of a tyrant.
KOPPEL: The process is going to take a long, long time.
KURTZ: Before we go, you have a very nice life here. You do the NPR commentaries.
KURTZ: You do commentary for BBC, as well.
After so many years of "Nightline," do you miss the adrenaline of daily journalism?
KOPPEL: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. I don't think anyone who has loved this business as I've loved it can honestly say that, you know, when stuff starts happening in Benghazi and Tripoli and Cairo and Tunis, that --
KURTZ: You want to get on a plane.
KOPPEL: -- I'm not, you know, sort of in my mind's eye, packing a backpack and trying to get on the first jet, yes.
KURTZ: Ted Koppel, thanks very much for letting us visit you here at your office.
KOPPEL: My pleasure.
KURTZ: After that conversation, Koppel showed us around his converted barn. I saw all the editorial cartoons that he was in, magazine covers and newspaper headlines, particularly around the time when ABC tried to replace "Nightline" with David Letterman. And then, of course, the photos of him with various famous people. We see there Kermit the Frog.
One of them that caught my eye was Henry Kissinger. Here's what he had to say about the former secretary of state.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: When you get to know some of these people over the years, Kissinger, for example -- I'm sure you've interviewed him dozens and dozens of times -- do they become friends and not just interview subjects? KOPPEL: Henry Kissinger has become a friend over the years. And that happened before I came to the conclusion that being friends with people who were still policy makers was not a good idea. We became friends, we are friends, we will remain friends. I never will allow that to happen again.
KURTZ: So you took a lesson from that, not to get too close?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: After the break, our panel returns, and we'll ask this question: Is Michele Bachmann serious about possibly, maybe running for president, or is all the noise coming from journalists rooting for her to take the plunge?
KURTZ: According to an unnamed source cited by CNN this week, Michele Bachmann will form a presidential exploratory committee in June. Why leak that news so far in advance? Perhaps a better question is whether she's really running, as ABC's Jonathan Karl asked the Minnesota congresswoman.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. MICHELE BACHMANN (R), MINNESOTA: I'm in for 2012 in that I want to be a part of the conversation of making sure that President Obama only serves one term, not two. Because I want to make sure that we get someone who is going to be making the country work again. That's what I'm in for to work. But I haven't made a decision yet to announce, obviously, if I'm a candidate or not, but I'm in for the conversation.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Bill Press, why does Michele Bachmann get 50 times as much coverage for something -- saying that she might run three months from now, as her fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty got when he actually announced an exploratory committee this week?
PRESS: Because everybody -- the media. The media really wants her to become a candidate because she's such a laughing stock. I think it's the dumbing down of American politics.
But here's the problem, I think. We are in a perpetual campaign mode. We have been talking 2012 since 2008. And you know who drives it? We do. We just want to talk about campaign, campaign, campaigns.
KURTZ: OK. But let me turn to Jennifer Rubin, because you just called her a laughing stock.
Here is Michele Bachmann's picture on the front of "The New York Times" this morning. She apparently, you know, blew the room away at one of these cattle call events in Iowa, got a great reception. And so I wonder whether the liberal media are too quick to dismiss Bachmann as a kind of a colorful character who we shouldn't take seriously.
RUBIN: I think they do. And remember, she's a lawyer, she's a multi-term congresswoman. She can be very effective in these debates.
And if she decide to run, she's going to make trouble for a lot of the other candidates. She's going to serve up, I'm sure, some red meat to Mitt Romney about his health care plan. She's going to question Newt Gingrich about his flip-flops. She could be a very potent force in the race, and I think there's a bit of sexism and a bit of dismissiveness from a lot of the liberal media that she's completely out of her league.
HALL: I think she is a twofer, actually. She makes mistakes like Sarah Palin. She is an attractive woman. I think there is some sexism involved in that.
And she may actually get some votes. She might be Ross Perot. You know, she might be this year's Ross Perot.
PRESS: I don't think it's sexism to say she's not a serious candidate, but I want to point out --
HALL: There's sexism to focus so much on her, as opposed to Tim Pawlenty. There's a weird reverse sexism.
PRESS: I want to point out that the first Republican debate is scheduled for May the 2nd at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley. So, if she isn't coming until June, she's not going to be on stage in the first debate. So some --
RUBIN: Well, neither is Mitch Daniels.
PRESS: But at this point, there is not one announced candidate. Not one.
KURTZ: I don't know if it's sexism or not, but I do know the media are in love with Michele Bachmann, and often in love with criticizing her, especially when she makes a gaffe.
Before we go, I want to talk about a story that I reported on Friday, is which that Katie Couric, almost certain to leave the CBS anchor chair when her contract expires in June. CBS looking for candidates both inside and outside the network. Scott Pelley of "60 Minutes," one of those candidates.
And Jane Hall, if that comes to pass -- and it's not definite, but it is likely -- what will be the five-year legacy of Katie Couric as the CBS anchor?
HALL: I think she did a very good job. And I think that -- you know, she was the first woman to be the solo anchor. I think Diane Sawyer benefited from the fact that Katie Couric took a lot of shots. You know, people critiqued her wardrobe in the first year. I think she did a very good, very straight newscast, after doing a newscast that looked like "The Today Show" in a --
KURTZ: But too many people in our business called her a failure because the ratings were in third place with the "CBS Evening News."
HALL: Right, because CBS set her up for that. Les Moonves said she was going to revolutionize the news. That's not her fault that she didn't revolutionize the news.
KURTZ: All right. We'll talk more about that if and when it comes to pass.
Bill Press, Jennifer Rubin, and Jane Hall, thanks for coming by this morning.
Still to come, a Detroit auto columnist quits when his own newspaper hits the brakes on his review. And "The Huffington Post" brief alliance with conservative Andrew Breitbart turns pretty ugly.
That, and more, in our "Media Monitor."
KURTZ: Time now for our "Media Monitor," a weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business.
"The Detroit News" went into an ethical tailspin by toning down a review of a redesigned Chrysler car after an advertiser complained. Critic Scott Burgess resigned after some of these lines were digitally erased from the online version of his review: "The Chrysler 200 is still a dog. If this car came in tortoise shell, the EPA would have to put it on the endangered sedan list to prevent trappers and automotive enthusiasts from rightfully shooting it into extinction. It's vastly improved, but only because it was so horrendous before."
Publisher Jon Wolman apologized this week, writing, "While our intent was to improve the piece by making these passages less grating, our decision to make these changes after fielding an advertiser's complaint was a humbling mistake."
"The Detroit News" really tarnished its reputation by censoring its critic. Now, Scott Burgess, who had the integrity to quit, has agreed to come back.
When "The Huffington Post" started putting conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart on its front page, I thought, well, now that Arianna has taken her operation to AOL, she's going to start featuring at least a few conservatives. Still, her old acquaintance, Breitbart, was responsible for that misleading Shirley Sherrod video and for giving a platform to James O'Keefe and those undercover ACORN videos in which he played a pimp.
But "The Huffington Post" has now bounced Breitbart right off the front page. This, after the liberal group Color of Change called him a liar and a race-baiter. Breitbart didn't exactly turn the other cheek. He told the conservative "Daily Caller" Web site that a founder of Color of Change, former Obama aide Van Jones, is "a cop killer-supporting, racist, demagogic freak. And a commie. And an eco-fraudster."
"The Huffington Post" said that Breitbart's remarks violate the tenants of debate and civil discourse. You think?
I'm all for people speaking their mind, but if you want to hang out in nicer neighborhoods, you can't shout quite as loud.
I like this one. It's about striking a small blow for journalistic independence.
TechCrunch, which sold itself to AOL a few months back, recently interviewed Jake Gyllenhaal as the star of the movie "The Source Code" and posted a piece. Well, the writer, Alexia Tsotsis, soon got an e- mail from another part of the (INAUDIBLE) called Moviefone.
It seems the filmmaker, Summit Entertainment, "felt it was a little snarky" and wondered if the star (ph) can be toned down. Seriously, the folks at Moviefone wanted to smooth things over with the poor studio, though its editor said it was really passing on a complaint from a publicist.
TechCrunch went public with that complaint, saying, "The issue is simply that Summit thinks they can pressurize us through an AOL sister site into making a balanced report more glowing. What is surprising and sad is that Moviefone/AOL actually tried to comply with their request and asked us to change our post. It's not just sad, it's wrong."
Four stars. Good for TechCrunch for blowing the whistle.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.