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War on Terrorism: What are the Challenges of Covering the War From Inside Afghanistan and Inside the Pentagon?

Aired November 4, 2001 - 09:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to "Reliable Sources," where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. This morning we will talk about the challenges of covering the war from inside Afghanistan and inside the Pentagon with three veteran journalists.

Lets go right now to CNN's Nic Robertson who is just out of Afghanistan. He joins us now from Quetta, Pakistan. Nic Robertson, when you are going into Afghanistan for a few days for a guided tour, if you will, to what extent do you become, however unwillingly, part of the Taliban propaganda effort?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): I think when a journalist goes into Afghanistan, any journalist, they want to be as independent and objective as possible and that is what you strive to be inside Afghanistan.

Now, the Taliban do put restrictions on, they do limit the places we can go to, and they do set the agenda. But it is possible to try and break away from that. On the third day of the visit we were able to go out unescorted and talked to people quite freely. So that's what we are trying to do, that's the objective of our mission not fulfill whatever idea it is they have for us to do. It's for us to report what we want to report.

KURTZ: When you reported the other day from a village north of Kandahar, you said the following that you saw mud houses turned to rubble, fragments of what appeared to be bombs and missiles, family belongings strewn around. You also interviewed a local mullah who said that 92 people had been killed. Did you have any way of knowing whether that estimate was true or wildly inflated?

ROBERTSON: Impossible to verify a figure of 92 or indeed who the 92 people were, 15 houses inside that village -- we were told that there was 15 -- would perhaps -- and normally in Afghanistan each house would accommodate may be anywhere between, sort of, 8 and 15 people. So the numbers are believable.

Certainly, the village was substantially destroyed. I mean it is, obviously, unusual in an air bombardment of any site where all the members of a village or a building to be killed. But the numbers could be believable. In that context, the village was substantially destroyed. There could have been that number of people living there. Who was killed? We don't know. KURTZ: To the extent that you were, in at least in a limited fashion, able to interview ordinary Afghans outside of the gaze of Taliban officials. Do you have the impression that they felt free to talk to you or that they are also worried that they can't possibly criticize the government there?

ROBERTSON: Yes, it -- they did appear to feel free to talk with us. I think, having covered other conflicts as well and having been taken by other governments to see devastation after bombing or whatever it is, one has in mind particularly Iraq and the way journalists were allowed to work inside Iraq with government minders.

The sophistication with which the Taliban run this type of event, if you will, for journalists, they are not as sophisticated, they don't control it in that type of way, there are very fluid situations. Often times the officials who are leading us around don't know themselves where we're going to go to next. There is a real feeling there that the level of control applied on the people that one might imagine happens in other countries is not there in Afghanistan.

I believe from previous experience and from the genuineness with which people talk with us very freely on the streets. In fact, they came forward to give us their opinions that they were voicing their opinions.

Now, they may have been taking advantage of the fact that there were western journalists there, to come and say whatever it was they wanted to say. That they would hope, perhaps, might influence an abatement to the bombing on their cities and perhaps so that they could feel safer themselves. But the indications we have were that they were putting forward their own views.

And I should stress again that the level of control that the Taliban applied on this trip is much lower in terms of administering and making sure that people who come our way are filtered and much lower than I have seen on other government sponsored trips in other countries -- Howard.

KURTZ: Nic Robertson, just briefly, you mentioned reporting from Iraq certainly CNN's Peter Arnett got grandly criticized for some of his reports from Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War. What do you say to those when you know there is inevitably this criticism in the United States that journalists, you and others, who go into Afghanistan and who are helping to narrate those pictures of injured civilians are somehow, you know, aiding the enemy of the United States however unwillingly?

ROBERTSON: I think the role of journalist in these types of situations is to try and establish the truth about what's happening and put that out in the public domain. I don't think it's for us to help one side or another if there is - there has been a lot of human suffering and very many conflicts around the world and whether we're covering the human suffering aspect of what's happening inside Afghanistan or any other country, or whether we're covering the destruction of government buildings that we're able to do as well, or try and asses the damage to the Taliban's military machine. It's not for us to put their agenda, it's for us to try and establish to the best of our ability the truth and try and put that in a public domain. But at the same time it's also important for us to lay down the restrictions that are applied to us so that...


ROBERTSON: ...people can form an accurate impression of how free we are to report and how truthful and accurate what we are being told is.

HOWARD: Nick Robertson thanks very much for joining us this morning from Pakistan.

And joining us now here in the studio Susan Feeney Senior Editor of Morning Edition on National Public Radio, Bryan Bender, National Security Correspondent for The Boston Globe and a contributor to Jane's Defense Weekly, and Tom DeFrank, Washington Bureau Chief of the New York Daily News.

Tom DeFrank, what do you make of these Taliban tours of civilian damage? Are reporters, despite their efforts as we just heard from Nic Robertson, being used to some degree by the Afghan rulers?

TOM DEFRANK, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: Well, of course they are. They wouldn't be allowed on the tour, Howard, if the Taliban didn't understand that they were going to use Americans and other correspondents for western publications.

It's part of the way it works but you just have to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism. You don't take everything at face value, and you need to say to your listeners and your readers, basically, this is a government sponsored promotional tour. Say it as politely as possible but make the point that you're not really -- you don't have a chance to go out and report independently really.

KURTZ: Bryan Bender, doesn't this underscore to some degree how little access American reporters have to U.S. troops? In other words, there's very little footage other than that supplied by the Pentagon of what's going in the war, so these Taliban orchestrated pictures are getting a lot of airplay this past week on the air.

BRYAN BENDER, NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, BOSTON GLOBE: I think there is no doubt that this war is different, in that sense that much of Afghanistan, Southern Afghanistan at least is off limits to reporters unless you're on some Taliban sponsored tour, that makes our job harder certainly.

Back in the Gulf War, you could at least report some of which what was going on the front. Here, you don't have that. And it does, it makes our job harder, and I think, ultimately though -- I think what's going to have to happen is the Pentagon is going to have to provide some more information to the press that it has already. Not necessarily, sensitive information but more to keep the press happy.

KURTZ: And also to compete in this battle of images. And Susan Feeney, I want you to weigh on this in just a second. But lets take a look first at how a couple of networks are handling reports from Afghanistan.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Many of the reporters on the tour were skeptical. There was no way to confirm the number of casualty we were given, and we weren't taken to a hospital to see the injured.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And no apologies today for bombing a Red Crescent relief agency in Kandahar yesterday. Pentagon officials say the Taliban was using it for a command and control bunker.


KURTZ: What do you make of the journalistic performance given that everybody knows that they are not -- they don't exactly have free reign inside Afghanistan when they are escorted in?

SUSAN FEENEY, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: Well, you can't blame journalists for taking whatever information they can get in this environment. It's sort of we've this semi-controlled reporting that's coming out of Afghanistan and not to be too snide, but you can bounce it against the semi-controlled information you have sitting at the Pentagon everyday. And I think it's fair to say we're not getting very much out of either side.

KURTZ: So you're saying both sides in effect are engaged in a propaganda war?

FEENEY: Absolutely in trying to get only their information out. As for the press, to me it's a little ironic in the sense that we're both accused of being not patriotic enough by the Pentagon and too patriotic in some quarters that were saying too "rah rah United States," and I can't figure out how you balance that for anybody's approval.

KURTZ: And on that very point, CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson put out a memo this week about reporting from Afghanistan and dealing with this question, I mean, he didn't use the word patriotic. What Isaacson wrote was "As we get good reports from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, we must redouble our efforts to make sure we do not seem to be simply reporting from their vantage or perspective. We must talk about how the Taliban are using civilian shields and how the Taliban have harbored the terrorists responsible for killing close to 5,000 innocent people."

Tom DeFrank, what do you make of that kind of marching order?

DEFRANK: Walter's a good guy, I know him from the old news magazine wars and I think he was trying to say something responsible. I'm a little troubled by it because it seems to suggest he is telling his reporters what to print, what to write, what to say, what to tell readers or listeners to think and I saw, I thought that was little bit over the top. On the other hand, anything where executives say that networks think a harder about what you do, what you say, what you write, is not a bad thing.

KURTZ: Well, Isaacson's point is that there were to be some context when we look at the tragic, some one said unavoidable, pictures of ordinary civilians being killed in Afghanistan, we ought to be reminded what started this and that is the September 11 attacks, but don't most of viewers already know that and should this be a standing order?

BENDER: Sure they do, but I also think that the -- it's also evidence that the government, the Pentagon has been making its case rhetoric to the press, that they are getting increasingly frustrated about these Taliban reports out of Afghanistan, which often times do not have a second source, it's just according to Taliban spokesman so and so and than it forces the Pentagon to go and prove, but largely, in many cases it's a negative.

And the Pentagon is diverting assets away from the war effort to go and see whether or not a bus really was blown up in this sector of Afghanistan. I think the Pentagon will argue that in some cases, they are held to a higher standard of truth than the Taliban's, whatever happened to a second source. The one branded information?

KURTZ: Well, one thing is important is to get cross examine Don Rumsfeld in a way that you don't get opportunity to do it with Taliban officials. You use the word "patriotic" really. Do you think CNN and other networks are perhaps becoming so sensitive to the charge of appearing unpatriotic that this kind of memo comes out saying, "Make sure you mention we didn't start this, we were attacked?"

FEENEY: Well, I'm with Tommy in the sense that anytime you tell people to think about what they're covering, we're not really there to be patriotic or not patriotic, we're not there to be liked. I'm sure all of your news organizations like mine, we get letters and calls all the time from the people who think we tell too much about terrorism or we don't tell enough about this and that.

We're really there to try to bare it out what we can find out as best we can. Now this is hard, we're going to report a lot of things that aren't true because information that's so scarce. My favorite other journalists who think that eventually all of this will come out, I'm not sure.

KURTZ: OK. Headlines in the morning papers. Washington Post, on page - "Afghan Rebels Plan Assault On Kabul," New York Times - "Afghan Rebels Seem A Reluctant Force So Far." The media take on all this, Tom DeFrank, after say four weeks, seems to be "that things are not going well, the war us turning sour, it's frustrating." Little journalistic impatience here, little rush to judgment on part of reporters?

DEFRANK: A little Howard, just a little bit. But on the other hand, this is inevitable, this is the way reporters are, but what it tells you is that there is such frustration on the part of the reporters that there is this news vacuum -- almost really a news blackout on the part of the Pentagon that there is no -- it's inevitable that this is going to happen. I think we are rushing to judgment.

But I do think that there's evidence that the war is not going as brilliantly as reporters would like it to, not as -- I mean -- as government officials would like reporters to believe it is.

KURTZ: Bryan Bender, is it a news vacuum or is it the sort of, you know, "live 24 hour, get it now" culture in which we want to this thing to be wrapped up in time for the 11 o'clock news and is that realistic?

BENDER: Well, I think first of all, I think it's partly noted in the beginning of these operations, there's always an over -- an under estimation if you will of how easy it's going to be, how difficult it's going to be. If you go back to the Gulf War, if you go back even as recently as Kosovo, we're at point now, about a month end where people and the press in particular are starting to question whether or not it's working.

KURTZ: Is that...

BENDER: In Kosovo, we thought it would be a few days of bombing, it ended up being over 70. In around the one-month part, the questions started to come up and that's the factor, and I think back during the Gulf war too. First, we had the air war. Everybody started to ask after several weeks, when is the ground war going to start.

KURTZ: So is this journalistic skepticism helping in your view or do you think it's a little over the top? Given that -- the president warned from the beginning this was going to be a long war.

BENDER: Well, I think it's a little bit of both. I think certainly they have the president, Rumsfeld, have said repeatedly this is going to take a long time. But at the same time, the press is keeping the Pentagon on its toes and making the pentagon...

KURTZ: Ms. Feeney.

FEENEY: It's healthy; it's what we do. I mean, in the sense if you think of it in different times when we asked questions about how the hijackers got Virginia identifications. Well, the attention on that caused that problem to be fixed. That's what we do.

KURTZ: Well, clearly a lot of people out there that are watching these Pentagon news briefings don't think that's what we should be doing. They think that we are not to be giving the military a hard time, but journalists of course have a different view. When we come back, a network news president says he has no opinion about the attack on the Pentagon. "No opinion?" That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to "Reliable Sources." I'm taking a look at the news magazine covers this week. Time - "Inside al Qaeda, Bin Laden's Web Of Terror," Newsweek - "Generation 9-11 Terror. War And Recession Hit Home On Campus," U.S. News in one report - "Altered State of America, coping with life after 9-11."

We're talking with Tom DeFrank, Susan Feeney and Bryan Bender about the war. Tom DeFrank, yesterday, another one of those Osama bin Laden videotapes was released through al Jazeera television and interestingly CNN, MSNBC, Fox News showed a still photo of bin Laden, read a couple of quick excerpts and that was it, in other words they did not air thing the way the earlier tape had been aired on the day the air war began.

I am wondering, you know, you recall that Conde Rice of the White House had asked networks to exercise restraint, but now they're just not airing these tapes at all. Is that a good journalistic decision?

DEFRANK: I don't think so Howard. I think there's a difference between exercising restraint and exercising journalistic judgment. I think the pendulum has swung the other way and I think there's been an over correction.

KURTZ: Susan, the network news bosses said they would determine whether these videotapes were newsworthy. Well, bin Laden said some things that were interesting, may not be true, but they're provocative. You know, attacking the United States and the United Nations on various fronts. Why not show the tape?

FEENEY: Well, it's really - I think it's a very difficult balance because at one hand the White House National Security Adviser is saying that they believe that bin Laden is giving some message, perhaps, to cells that aren't activated without telling us how or why.

And it's very hard for, I think, the news media to (AUDIO GAP) the credibility of that. You alluded to it earlier, no one wants to be accused of being anti-patriotic or putting American service people in danger and I think, that's why you see the over correction at times.

KURTZ: And since you brought that up, we got an e-mail from last night's show, William in Harisson, New York saying, "You should stop thinking that you are under some sort of moral obligation to disseminate what is in fact enemy propaganda. Realize that 'balance' is not necessarily called for in time of war. In short, guys, think patriotic." Your thoughts.

BENDER: Well, I think, in some ways he makes a good point that this is different. This is not the same as the Gulf War, as Kosovo. In the sense that there really is a war on the home front.

KURTZ: Balance is not necessarily called for in time of war. That doesn't sound like...

BENDER: I don't know if I agree with that but...


BENDER: He is making the point that again, that this is like nothing we've seen before and in many ways military and the media have never really gotten along. We know that. KURTZ: Sure.

BENDER: Their cultures are completely different.

KURTZ: You certainly know that.

BENDER: And I think, in this case where we have a war over there, a war on the home front and it's very unclear whether we're going to win or lose in Afghanistan.

KURTZ: And therefore you're saying journalists have to be careful.

BENDER: I think we have to be much careful.

KURTZ: More careful than even in a conventional war.

BENDER: Than in the past.

KURTZ: Tom DeFrank, ABC News President David Westin stirred up a little bit of fuss when he told Columbian journalism students that he didn't think that he as a journalist should offer any opinion on whether the Pentagon was a legitimate target for attack in the September 11 tragedy. Westin later apologized to these marks. He said that it was not what he had meant to convey. Is it taking sides to depict terrorists as mass murderers?

DEFRANK: This was one of the dopier statements that I have heard from an executive or anybody these days. You don't have to surrender your objectivity to acknowledge the obvious. These terror acts were what they were, you don't have to, I mean, there is no moral equivalence here. I mean, I just thought it was goofy. And I think to his credit, Mr. Westin figured that out or somebody helped him figure it out within 24 hours.

KURTZ: This reminds me Susan Feeney, of the continuing policy at Reuters news service of not using the word terrorist to describe those who perpetuated these attacks because it's all matter of opinion and...


KURTZ: man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. So we talked earlier about journalists perhaps feeling under pressure to be patriotic and some of these statements seemed to indicate, well, we can't take sides here. What do you make of this?

FEENEY: Well, it's a very, very difficult balance. With Reuters it's especially interesting because to all of us it seems like, isn't it terror. And that seems to me to be going too far in the other direction. But it's something that comes up every single day with almost every story. You're looking at and trying to say is this the best information we have with what we know and there's no question that weeks down the road we'll look back at a lot of our reporting and probably not be too proud of it. But it's the old, you know, rough draft -- the first rough draft of history -- you do what you can -- the best you can everyday and it may stand up, it may not.

KURTZ: For the record, do you have an opinion on the Pentagon attack?

FEENEY: I think that we can definitely say that the Pentagon attack was a terrorist attack.

KURTZ: I'm glad to hear that. Bryan Bender, The New York Times had a story this weekend about a secret CIA office in the World Trade Center complex that had been operating behind a front company being destroyed in the September 11 collapse. Have you heard about this story?

BENDER: Yeah, that was actually one of the worst kept secrets I think. In the days after September 11, certainly a lot of people at the United Nations, U.N. diplomats, who evidently were one of the main reasons why the CIA station was there so they could monitor activity at the United Nations.

KURTZ: Well, did you try to report that story?

BENDER: Well, I did hear about it a couple of days after and I called the CIA. I called some other government officials who confirmed that I was on the right track that there was, in fact, something there but urged me not to write about it, immediately.

KURTZ: And did you hold off because of that?

BENDER: And I held off and I'm kind of kicking myself on the rear now because in the craziness of day-to-day reporting I never really got back to it, and of course, The New York Times reported it today.

KURTZ: And for those who think that journalists always rush into print on whatever they have, clearly sometimes they do not.

BENDER: Clearly, they had a very important role in the investigation of Osama bin Laden. The embassy bombing...

KURTZ: We will have to leave it there...


KURTZ: We will have to leave it there. Bryan Bender, Susan Feeney, Tom DeFrank thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, are the media looking for an easy victory in Afghanistan. Bernard Kalb tackles that in his "Back Page."


KURTZ: Welcome back to "Reliable Sources." Time now for "The Back Page," here's Bernard Kalb.

BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The war in Afghanistan, the war in Vietnam. How big a difference in media coverage of the two wars? (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): Big, big and fast, very fast. It took years before the media did a flip flop in the way it covered the Vietnam War. It was gung-ho in the mid 60s, Washington confident that it could defeat the other side. But by the end of the decade, the media began raising serious questions about how the war was going.

Walter Cronkite in his famous and highly unusual personal assessment saying that the war wasn't being won. That we are mired in a stalemate and that it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out would be to negotiate. This against a backdrop of escalating casualty lists and anti-war demos across the country. In the end it came to this, 1975, America fleeing from a rooftop in downtown Saigon.

By contrast, in this war, its taken just a few weeks, less than a month, for the first media shots to be aimed at the pentagon strategy in Afghanistan. With questions being put directly to the pentagon and carried live on TV. Then too, phrases like "The sluggish pace of the campaign" and words like "Quagmire" echoing Vietnam, all this creating a downbeat resonance prompting this rebuttal by the U.S. army general in command of military operations in Afghanistan.

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Of course I don't believe that this operation is at a stalemate.

KALB: All these elements factor into the other war, the United States is fighting, to hold on to public opinion, public support, at a time when the front-page features a survey about doubts stirring on terror war.

(on camera): By no means has there been a heavy barrage of questions about the way things are going in Afghanistan, not at all, but the questions have gotten off to a fast start, which wasn't the case in Vietnam.

Now these questions maybe out of touch with reality but even so they could take a PR toll putting extra pressure on the Pentagon to produce some kind of military spectacular even though no one has promised a quick war and an easy victory -- just the opposite.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb with "The Back Page." Well, that's it for this edition of "Reliable Sources," I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Saturday evening at 6:30 eastern for another critical look at the media.




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