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A Critical Lens on the Media: Analysis of Media Coverage of the War in Afghanistan

Aired November 18, 2001 - 9:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to "Reliable Sources" where we turn a critical lens on the media. The political jockeying for the control of Kabul continues today; as does the U.S. bombing in parts of Afghanistan, amid conflicting reports about the whereabouts of the elusive Osama bin Laden.

That's the subject on the covers of all three news magazines this morning. Time, "Inside the Manhunt;" U.S. News and World Report, "On The Run, The Taliban Head For The Hills;" and Newsweek has, "The Hunt For Bin Laden, U.S. Forces Zero In On 'The Evil One.'" On the front page of The New York Times this Sunday morning, "U.S. To Press Afghan Rebels Not To Form Government."

Well, joining us now from Kabul, CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour. Events are moving so quickly in Kabul from questions about who will control the new government; to reports of another negotiate surrender with the Taliban, to reports about Northern Alliance massacre of some Taliban soldiers. How do you, as a reporter, sort through the claims and the counterclaims and make sure you're not being unduly spun, for example, by the Northern Alliance?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Howard, we're used to being spun by everybody, and it's a question of experience and it's a question of being on the ground and trying your very best to get to the bottom of what's going on. There are people who've been in Afghanistan, who've got quite a lot of experience in Afghanistan and in covering war, and their aim and their daily work involves getting to the bottom of whatever we can get to the bottom of.

Look, the deal here in Kabul is it's not just political control being, sort of, tried to be established here, but all over Afghanistan. What's happened in the last several -- in the last week, really, is that the military situation has moved faster than anybody imagined. The Northern Alliance told me today that the challenge about putting together a political settlement is enormous because the military situation has moved so fast and because the political situation, including the United States and the United Nations, was moving so-so slowly relative to that.

So in terms of all those things, we just have to do our best to try to get to the bottom of it. We've been trying to, for instance, follow the story of the main issue as been identified in this war, which is trying to pursue the terrorist network and terrorist trail, and over the last couple of days, journalists, including CNN, have found an enormous amount of documentation that has sparked a lot of interest in the international community, in various houses that were apparently linked to al Qaeda, documentation about all manner of terrorist activities and terrorist intent.

In terms of massacres, we have not been able to confirm any Northern Alliance massacre, but of course, there have been, sort of, some revenge and lynch killings of some Taliban people, including their Arab foreign legion members as the Taliban left the city. But what we've been able to see here, in Kabul, is an attempt by the Northern Alliance to try to control the place, to try to keep it calm, and there has been no sense that it has been out of control since they arrived. And they are very, very aware that the...

KURTZ: Let me break in now. Let me break in now, because I want to move on.

AMANPOUR: ...that the international community is watching them.

KURTZ: OK, first part, a confusion also about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

AMANPOUR: Go ahead.

KURTZ: There were some reports, as you know, that he had left Afghanistan. Last night I saw reports saying he is within a 30 square mile area in the country. But I want to draw on your international experience by asking you the following; we've been watching these very inspiring scenes of women throwing off their burka, of kids flying kites, of people playing music for the first time in years under the Taliban.

Do you the think that the mainstream media, by which I mean CBS, NBC, New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Washington Post, devoted enough attention over the years to this incredibly oppressive Taliban regime when the United States was not directly involved?

AMANPOUR: Well, I think by the newspapers, yes. You know, John Burns, of "The New York Times," won a Pulitzer Prize for covering Afghanistan and "The Washington Post" has had a lot of reports out of here. Your newspaper, Pamela Constable and others have been here many, many times, and there's been a very heavy wire agency presence, and CNN has been here a lot, and there has been a certain amount of reporting.

But certainly, Afghanistan, as you know, has fallen off the radar screen for the last 10 years and so very, very few people have been covering it on an ongoing basis. And when it was covered, it was mostly about the plight, rightly so, of the people living here, the women that sparked a huge amount of controversy, particularly in the international community. And the harsh regime of the Taliban sparked a huge controversy, but obviously, not as much attention was paid to the safe haven that Afghanistan was being made for terrorism and the likes of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. KURTZ: OK, we have about 20 or 30 seconds. If the fighting stops in Afghanistan and if there is a rough political settlement, will the country, the story, again, fall off the media radar screen, because you won't have the conflict, the drive so much of the western coverage?

OK, I'm told we have, now, lost Christiane Amanpour, so even though she can't hear me let me thank her for joining us.

And joining us now here in Washington, former CBS News correspondent Phil Jones, Karen Tumulty, National Political Correspondent for "TIME" Magazine, and in New York, Rich Lowry, the Editor of "National Review."

Rich Lowry, in light of the remarkable U.S. military success in Afghanistan, where does that leave the quagmire crowd? By which, I mean all the reporters and columnists and commentators and analyzers who said that this war could drag on for roughly, you know, the rest of the century.

RICH LOWRY, NATIONAL REVIEW: Well, it should leave them pretty embarrassed. There's no sign that it actually has, but quagmire is just one of the worst cliches in the business, and I think every reporter should have a special feature on their spell and grammar check and when they try to type in the word quagmire, it pops up and says, "Do you realize you're using, probably, the laziest, most inappropriate cliche possible, please reconsider."

KURTZ: Although, you also, you know, were very strongly calling for ground forces and suggesting that the war could not be won without them?

LOWRY: Sure, well, I think, impatience about the United States trying to adopt a correct strategy was appropriate and called for. When we were avoiding bombing the Taliban frontlines in the North, that was intolerable, and there was reason for complaint. But once we started to do that, the idea that if the war didn't end in a matter of weeks, it was somehow another Vietnam. And "The New York Times" repeated this idea over and over again in news analysis and editorials, just the idea that this was another Vietnam was absurd on its face.


LOWRY: You know, the Taliban wasn't getting re-supplied by another superpower. So it's -- a lot of the media is caught in a rut where they are caught in the Vietnam mindset, where the U.S. military always has to be cast in the role of bunglers and liars. And the fact is that role is not correct.

KURTZ: Phil Jones, I didn't know the Taliban would collapse so quickly and neither did anyone else.


KURTZ: Right, so why all this relentless negativism in the press when the truth is nobody really knew what was going to happen?

JONES: I'm not sure, and I'm afraid that a number of the people in the press lost the lesson of the Gulf War. Remember how we prepared for the Gulf War? Remember all of the dire predictions that were going to happen in that battle with the Iraqi forces?


JONES: Oh, we were going to lose so many people. And then we started the war and all of a sudden they caved in. It was over in the matter of days, and then we thought it was just the greatest victory, going.

But I don't think that the people in the press paid enough attention to what the administration was saying at the beginning and that is, that we were going to know a lot going on in this war. They were going to tell us a lot, and we're now finding out that there was a whole lot going on in the war that we didn't know about and that has helped lead to where we are now to what looks like, at least, we have won a battle.

KURTZ: The famous...

JONES: Not the war...

KURTZ: The famous fog of war. Karen Tumulty, predicting the course of the war, it turns out, is harder than predicting the outcome of the New Hampshire Primary, which we're not very good either.

KAREN TUMULTY, TIME MAGAZINE: But that's part of our -- part of our job is to hold up whatever the strategy is to the light and subject it to analysis and to subject it to criticism. And we were not the only ones questioning it. The military officials, themselves, I mean, this information comes from somewhere, and even this morning on the front page of the "Washington Post," despite the fact that the war seems to be going swimmingly, we have a long piece suggesting that there have been several points and -- that have been to the great frustration of top, you know, four star generals of the Air Force.

KURTZ: When the bombing was delayed.

TUMULTY: Because we essentially had the bad guys in the crosshairs and decided not to bomb.

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, is the coverage of the Northern Alliance beginning to turn from kind of being portrayed as, kind of, a ragtag band that, possibly, wasn't up to the task of capturing Afghanistan or retaking Afghanistan, now to, kind of, a headstrong bunch that marched into Kabul over U.S. objections and engaged in massacres and maybe can't be trusted? Do you see a shift in the media pendulum there?

LOWRY: Yes, I think pretty definitely that shift has happened, and what was extraordinary to me was that after this stunning military victory that no one could have predicted, you know, the triumph for the U.S. military and the Northern Alliance, the first thing a lot of the media elite, including Maureen Dowd, who's a crucial weathervane in this regard -- the first thing they could say was, "We should be embarrassed because the Northern Alliance has shot some people on the ground in Afghanistan."

And the fact is, the United States doesn't have control over everything that happens in Afghanistan. And this seemed to me to be another indication of exactly what Karen is talking about: The media relentlessly trying to adopt an adversarial attitude to anything that happens in anything that the United States does in Afghanistan, even when it's a smashing success.

KURTZ: Well, I think, the public may agree with you, Rich Lowry. There's a Gallup Poll asked a question, "Do you approve or disapprove of the way the media are handling the war on terrorism since September 11?" Fifty-seven percent disapprove of the media coverage. Only 43 percent approved. Big change from the early initial coverage after the terrorist attacks.

Phil Jones, take a step back. You were a CBS News correspondent for 32 years. You've covered Vietnam, campaigns, impeachments, just about everything. Now, you are viewer. What do you make of the way television has covered this fast moving story given the fact that you are now on the other side of the set?

JONES: I think, for the most part, the media has done a good job. I think the deep reporters, those who cover the Pentagon and military affairs, have done a fantastic job. They have been accurate. They have been right on.

KURTZ: Got to be some criticism there, somewhere?

JONES: No, not as far -- and the people the foreign correspondents who are there. I think they have done an excellent job. I think that -- and I don't know the answer to this. But one of the problems is and why, I think, you see in the polls that people are little uneasy with our coverage is that we have had the administration, the president saying, "Look, Americans, you have got to get on with your normal life." And yet we have 24 hours a day, seven days a week we are bombarded by the news.

In some instances this has been a case where there has been no news, but it has been hyped for the next cycle. And this goes on, and the people are worn out. And, you know, for the national security of this country, we do have to get on. But I don't know how we do it when you have this much media coverage.

KURTZ: OK, so Jones those will return to normalcy -- go ahead.

TUMULTY: But wait, but also when you have this much news, it's really hard. I mean, for instance, our cover last week was a Thanksgiving cover, you know, looking at -- you know, it was a very up beat, you know, cover looking at how the country has been changed, but also how people are using this holiday to get on with their lives. But, you know, by the time that cover had been on stands for 18 hours, we had a plane crash in New York. So there's a lot of news.

JONES: But there are days, there are days that go by where there are no headlines. There are no...

KURTZ: No, there's no such thing.

JONES: There are days, believe me.

KURTZ: Every time I turn on the set it says breaking news.

JONES: Exactly, my point.

KURTZ: OK. Rich Lowry, do you think looking at the coverage of this war that there was too -- that the western media fell to a bit of a propaganda trap in covering perhaps the civilian causalities in Afghanistan too much, perhaps at the expense of the larger picture of the war on terrorism.

LOWRY: Yes, I think, absolutely. You know, these stories were extraordinary, and I think there was a reaction against them among some editors and we saw them temp down a little bit. But for the longest time, there're stories everyday in Washington Post and New York Times about a bomb going stray somewhere in Afghanistan. There are a couple of things to be said about that.

KURTZ: It's not news?

LOWRY: Well, no, it's not news. Bombs go astray in wartime. And also we saw media organizations adopting somewhat a neutral stance between the rankest lies coming out of the Taliban and statements of the U.S. government. And if you want to go back to your poll, why do people dislike the media, it's because they've rallied around the U.S. government and our nation and they think the media adopts a relentlessly negative and adversarial attitude towards the government.

So they see it as a competition and that's why they dislike the media and that's why they like President Bush and Congress and the U.S. government a the moment.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Rich Lowry, will any journalist apologize for being so spectacularly wrong about the prospects of this war in Afghanistan?

LOWRY: No, of course not. But let me tell you, you know, I didn't expect a victory to come within a week. It's an extraordinary and amazing thing. So, but no one will apologize. We're not in that business, Howard. That's not part of our job description.

KURTZ: Being journalist means you don't have to say, "You are sorry." Well, we have to take a break and when we come back the story that consumed the media before September 11, does anyone still care?

The President of Russia does National Public Radio. And Bernard Kalb's "Back Page" on the armchair generals in the press court.


KURTZ: Welcome back to "Reliable Sources." You know, we all make fun now of the Gary Condit story putting some kind of temporary insanity for what went on this summer. But it is still about a congressman and a missing, presumably dead, 24-year-old woman. So when I looked at this headline in the metro section of "The Washington Post," "Rep. Condit Gets Federal Subpoena," I sort of wondered how come everybody is blowing this off now -- Phil Jones.

JONES: Well, they're occupied -- preoccupied with another, much bigger story.


JONES: And that's a reason, and they should've been preoccupied with other stories during that period. You were talking earlier about -- should journalists now apologize for they're being wrong and predicting how this war is going to turn out. I guess there's one person who really doesn't have to apologize on the Condit story, and that's Dan Rather.

KURTZ: Right...

JONES: ... who put it in common -- in the perspective that it probably should have been back then.

KURTZ: Well, some people think he didn't do quite enough, but -- Karen.

TUMULTY: Well, this is an incremental development on an apparent crime story, and that is exactly where it belongs.

KURTZ: Yes, but if there was no war going on, I imagine it would be all over the talk shows.

JONES: But "The Washington Post" played that story in the Metro section for most of the time that others were making it headline news.

TUMULTY: Wait a minute. Not, not in print media, I think, was it on the front. It was just -- it was 24-hour cable that really had it going.

KURTZ: Right. They have a lot of company -- Rich.

LOWRY: There needed to be -- there's airtime that needed to be filled, and this was the -- Condit was the only thing to fill it. So that's why we saw him walking from his -- back and forth from his office with his jacket over his shoulder, because there weren't anymore exciting pictures to be had. And now it's a different environment and the Condit, you know, it's mystery endures, but it doesn't seem as important, relative to the other things going on.

JONES: Let me just make a quick point on this. The media is not the only one involved in the Condit story here. At one point before all of this current crisis came up, the Democratic House leadership was ready to move on Representative Condit. They were unhappy with this conduct, and they were going to do something to him. That's gone to wayside. He is on the top committees involved with all secret information and intelligence stuff in this crisis. KURTZ: Well, people however are distracted by anthrax and some other things at the moment. You know, the war has even overshadowed the President Bush's three-day summit with Vladimir Putin. In fact, the president of Russia took to the airwaves on NPR where he answered about 30 questions. And we can take a look at the news hour where Jim Lehrer ran some excerpts of that, quite a remarkable scene.

Rich Lowry, is Vladimir Putin the new media superstar? And was the media coverage of that summit, a little too soft and fuzzy, after all they had a great time down at the ranch at Texas but didn't accomplish a whole lot?

LOWRY: It was a little too soft and fuzzy, but the fact was it was a remarkable sight seeing Vladimir and George standing up before the students at that school and having such a warm and fuzzy time together. And Bush, you know, in some ways is driving this coverage, because he can't say a sentence about Russia now without talking about how much Putin loves his wife and loves his children, and how important that is. And, I do think, the substance is being lost here. And the fact is, I think, Bush really got his shirt stolen by Putin down at that summit. But the atmosphere was nice, the pictures were nice, and that's what inevitably drives a lot of the coverage.

KURTZ: Phil Jones.

JONES: Well, I would disagree with that. I don't think we know everything that goes on, but I think that the substance was also the symbolism here. Now I think it is important that these two men have a good relationship, that they develop it. It appears that they have done that, and there are a lot of things that are going to have to happen that Putin can do. But he's not going to come out, and they're not going to sign some big treaty. There're going to be a lot of winks and nods in this developing relationship. This was one of the beginning.


KURTZ: Karen Tumulty, let me just move on to our last topic and that is we're now six days after the dramatic media recount in Florida. Eight news organizations, including, CNN, finding that President Bush, likely, would have won under the two recount scenarios that were being considered at the time. Given all the money and time spent on this, was this worth doing? Does anybody still care in this current environment?

TUMULTY: Oh, I think, people very much care, people who are partisans, and also a lot of people who feel that they were left out of the process in Florida. And I think it was important for history's sake to get to the answer, even if the answer is confusing.

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, briefly what do you make of the wave that the press played, this examination of the 175,000 disputed ballots in Florida? A lot of people thought it would be a good day for Al Gore, but most of the headlines were that Bush would have won anyway?

LOWRY: Yes, well, I think that's the appropriate way to play it, the recount that Gore wanted, Bush would have won. And as far as I'm concerned, the media can keep reporting every two or three weeks that Bush won in Florida, if they want to. It doesn't seem like news to me, but if that's the way they want to report it, that's fine with me.

KURTZ: Sounds like you're not getting tired of it. May be we'll take you up on that.

Rich Lowry, Phil Jones, Karen Tumulty; thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up: Bernard Kalb grades pundits on the war in his "Back Page."


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Time now for "The Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So how were the pundits doing these days, firing off their fuselage, waging war, sounding off? Should we be giving them medals, or should they be put on KP?

KALB (voice-over): And the reason this awkward question comes up is this: The sudden victories by the Northern Alliance. With a little help from these guys in the skies, and bingo, everything's changed: The Taliban on the run.

But wait a minute, there's something wrong here. This wasn't supposed to happen. "War Behind Schedule," from a column in "The Washington Post." And this on the editorial page, "...there is no sign that the Taliban hold on Kabul and other major cities is weakening..."

And here's some military advice to the president, "He should put down the bull horn and tell Rummy to get moving."

TV also has its wannabe generals.

ROBERT NOVAK, CNN "CAPITAL GANG": Because I don't know what's going on, and I'm afraid that not that much progress is being made.

KALB: All of this just perfect for the VP, once the Taliban started fleeing.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When you read the Washington press and see what all the pundits have to offer and some of the talking heads on Washington have to offer, it's nice at a moment like this to be able to remind them that a lot of what they put out over the course of the last two weeks was just dead wrong.

KALB: True, the critics are in a minority, but their running critic is too much even for a fellow pundit who spoofed it all in a column called "All Negative All The Time," " light at the end of the tunnel". Now, don't get me wrong. We're all in favor of digging up the facts, raising questions, that's the way Pulitzers are won. Remember Woodward and Bernstein, and Watergate?

But there is something in a pundit's DNA that makes them challenge whatever is in sight, Pentagon strategy, government policy, even war. The fact is, pundits are the prima donnas of journalism, and they are paid to be opinionated. The tougher the better. Right or wrong, they are always certain.

(on camera): And if they are right, it's great. If they're wrong, it's forgotten, and anyway, it's all past history. And they've already moved on to the next pronouncement, which right now is this, "What comes after the war? How come nobody knows?"


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. CNN's live coverage of the "War on Terrorism" continues right now.





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