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Spider Hole Journalism

Aired December 21, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Spider hole journalism. Are the media a captive audience when it comes to rerunning that video of Saddam Hussein in custody? Were journalists too quick to speculate about an end to violence in Iraq?

Why the conflicting stories on whether Saddam is cooperating? And has there been a rush to judgment over the impact on President Bush and Howard Dean?

We'll ask Sam Donaldson, David Gergen and Robin Wright.

Plus, why George Bush just won't read the papers.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the capture of one of the world's most wanted men and how that is affecting the coverage of Iraq and of President Bush.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

When U.S. soldiers seized Saddam Hussein last Saturday afternoon, it took nearly 24 hours for the news to leak, just after 5 a.m. Eastern.


JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: It appears that there is a high likelihood that the U.S. military may have captured Saddam Hussein in this raid.

KURTZ (voice-over): And two hours later, Iraq occupation chief Paul Bremer confirmed the news with a sound bite heard round the world.

AMBASSADOR PAUL BREMER, U.S. ADMINISTRATOR IN IRAQ: Ladies and gentlemen, we got him.

KURTZ: The networks quickly put their top guns on the air to cover the breaking story.

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: His life as a fugitive came to an end last night.

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: American forces had their ace in the hole.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: One of the biggest manhunts in history has ended.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: After nine months of running, Saddam Hussein has been caught.

KURTZ: And the news magazines literally stopped the presses to get the news onto their covers.

And with few new developments to report as the day went on, television kept showing the same Pentagon-supplied video of a dictator in captivity, and relied on reporters and pundits speculating about what it all means for the future of Iraq.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Clearly, it is a big morale booster for the Americans, a big morale booster for the Iraqi people, which is the most important.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There could be a spike of attempts now against Iraqis by his die-hard supporters. You can imagine kidnappings.

KURTZ: And every television correspondent, it seems, had to crawl into Saddam's spider hole for a live shot.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's very difficult to get in and out of.


KURTZ: For months, the Bush administration has complained the media had been way too negative about Iraq, had focused too heavily on military casualties. So will Saddam's capture change the way reporters look at the post-war violence and George W. Bush? Or will we soon be back to talking about quagmires?

Well, joining us now in Washington, Sam Donaldson of ABC News, who hosts a radio talk show for the network; Robin Wright, a long-time national security reporter for the "Los Angeles Times," who recently joined the "Washington Post"; and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, David Gergen, editor-at-large for "U.S. News & World Report" and a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He's also a former adviser to Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon.


Sam Donaldson, the capture of Saddam Hussein, a great thing for the United States, Iraq and perhaps the world. But did you have the feeling that the administration was providing the pictures and the script, and the media just kind of went along?

SAM DONALDSON, ABC NEWS: Yes, but it didn't matter. It was a big story. It was a story to celebrate. I mean, there will plenty of time, the next day, the day after that, to think, "Well, wait a second. The violence will continue," et cetera. But anyone that day who thought that might be the lead I think is wrong.

It's like 9/11. That was a day of horror for all of us, including those of us in the press. There will be plenty of time to talk about the aftermath, but not that day.

KURTZ: David Gergen, if you were working in the White House, you couldn't ask for better coverage than was provided on the day of that capture.

DAVID GERGEN, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": You couldn't ask for better news. That was a mega-story. I totally agree with Sam Donaldson. It was legitimate for everybody to want to see Saddam Hussein, to keep playing those pictures over and over again.

This fellow has been a fugitive for a long time. We all know he's a butcher. I think what really changed, though, was not only did we see him, but the networks let loose with a lot of footage of his victims. And I think changed the whole -- in a very dramatic way, began to change our understanding of what the war was about, away from the weapons of mass destruction, to the capture of this villain.

And it -- And of course, every time the -- Americans, we love the posse coming over the hill, the cavalry coming in and getting their villain. And that's what happened here. And I think it played right into our whole sort of go-get-them western mentality.

KURTZ: Right. Robin Wright, should journalists have been as surprised as they were that American soldiers finally did capture Saddam?

ROBIN WRIGHT, "WASHINGTON POST": One of the funny things is that the colonel who was in charge of the operation had been claiming for some two months that, in fact, the United States was getting very close and been on his heels several times, gotten as close as finding warm meals and bits of clothing that had been matched with DNA.

Of course, we are skeptics because both Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein had been loose for so long, that there was a general kind of skepticism about whether, in fact, we really were as close as they claimed.

But they had very effectively, militarily, peeled away the different layers of, as they called, the onion of hiding. And they were spot on. They -- in fact, we shouldn't have been as surprised.

DONALDSON: Let me just add, what I think that Sunday coverage shows was that when there's good news, we magnify it. Now some people may say we go overboard, we make too much of it. I don't care.

When there's bad news, we report that.

KURTZ: Do we magnify that? The administration, as you know, has complained loudly and repeatedly that the journalists are too focused on negative news, not the solid signs of progress in Iraq.

That's an indictment that they have delivered... DONALDSON: I beg to differ. Solid signs of progress comes to fruition only when security occurs. Yes, we're educating children. We're building viaducts. But that can never come to the end of the road until we get the security problem settled.

So either the administration is all wet to say, "Well, let's have the good news." First, let's stop the killing.

Now, in capturing Saddam, I think it was reasonable to speculate it will have some impact -- I can't tell you how much -- on reducing the violence. Some impact. And so I think it was right to say good news, and it may in fact help.

KURTZ: And on that very point, David Gergen, within seconds, it seemed, of Saddam's capture, you had a lot of these military analysts and other experts coming on the air, many of whom said that this would definitely reduce the violence in Iraq. Some of whom said it might not.

But does anyone really know? Isn't that a question that's awfully difficult to answer within minutes of the event itself?

GERGEN: I think we don't know. And if anything, I think we've lacked good, hard factual reporting on the ground in the days that have followed his capture about exactly what's happening, so that we can make some better, informed judgments.

But on the issue that Sam just raised, on this one, I part company with my dear friend. I totally agree with him that the mega story on Sunday was covered exactly the way it should have been. But I do think there's been a tendency in the press to swing back and forth in its coverage.

In the lead-up to the war and then during the war itself, in my judgment, there was an awful lot of cheerleading going on in the press. And then after May 1, the pendulum swung the other way. I think the press went out of its way to find a negative storyline and did not pay much attention to some of the good things that were happening in both the south and the north.

KURTZ: Let me get right in there.

GERGEN: And then it swung back the other way.

KURTZ: Let me get -- Do you feel that you went out of your way to develop a negative storyline?

WRIGHT: No, but -- you mean the aftermath of Saddam?

KURTZ: No, no. In -- in the aftermath of the war itself.

WRIGHT: Well, look, there were so many open questions that were not answered by the war, and we began to see very quickly that the optimism that the administration has projected about once you got Baghdad that Iraqis would celebrate one night and return to work the next day, just didn't happen. We were incredibly naive as a country about what would happen in the aftermath of the fall of Baghdad or the regime itself.

And so I don't think -- in fact, I think we gave the administration the benefit of the doubt right up until that very moment.

DONALDSON: Robin, there's another point here. I think the press often looks at something that the administration says, "Everything is roses. Everything is fine." Secretary Rumsfeld said, "Well, this isn't a guerrilla war." And when the obvious facts suggest there is another side, we may in fact bring that repeatedly to our viewers' and readers' attention.

Finally General Abizaid said, "Yes, it is a guerrilla war," and we haven't heard Rumsfeld deny it since.

GERGEN: I agree with that. The -- it seems to me the administration did make -- was wrong in not acknowledging openly and early that some of the misjudgments that it made about the immediate post-war period.

And as Sam's comments underscore, when you do that to the press, which can see obvious facts on the ground which contradict the rosy scenario that is coming out of the White House or the Pentagon, it's like waving a flag in front of a bull. The press just charges at that thing and wants to prove that the administration is being too rosy. I think if the administration had acknowledged, we would have had a much more balanced coverage.

KURTZ: But doesn't the administration, David Gergen, scores some points from people who maybe don't believe the press, don't trust the press, by saying, "Things are going much better out there, folks. But all those negative headlines. Well, you know how the media are."

GERGEN: Well, I do, but I think the administration's credibility is called into question. Had it not been for the capture of Saddam here -- after all, this administration was facing a very deteriorating political situation and a tough situation where it's -- increasingly people were feeling they're out of touch and they're -- they're not really telling us the truth.

The capture of Saddam was such a dramatic turn-around for them, but it really -- it came for them at exactly the right time.

DONALDSON: Yes, but it's not good enough. David, I don't think it's going to last from the standpoint of changing the landscape from here on out.

KURTZ: You think it's a temporary...

DONALDSON: But it was a big bounce, and it was a helpful bounce for the administration. And maybe to all of us. But there are all the factors that have to do with security and trying to put all of the tribes and different religions together are still there. WRIGHT: The most important thing is Saddam was wrapping up the past. And they managed to achieve a huge chunk of finishing that era that should have been finished on May 1 when President Bush declared "Mission Accomplished."

The fact is, the real challenges the administration faces right now are in the future. And that is setting up a form of government, a political formula, that will allow the United States to hand over political power to the Iraqis, end the occupation, and then begin withdrawing.

KURTZ: Let me ask you, somebody who's working a story on a daily basis. Here's your old paper, the "L.A. Times," lead of the paper the other day, "U.S. Says Hussein Is Cooperating."

Your "Post" comes along and says Saddam rants. He's saying a lot of things to his captors, but he's not giving them any information. Has this been a difficult story to get out, this question of whether he's cooperating or not?

WRIGHT: Well, I think both papers play each issue to an extreme. The fact is, Saddam has talked, but he has not cooperated in the tradition of, you know, a suspect talking about this is where he buried a body.

KURTZ: How do you know that? Isn't this information awfully difficult to come by, and don't the sources have a vested interest in maybe making things seem a little better than they are?

WRIGHT: Well, we don't know the whole story. But the fact is that enough people are saying that the documents they found really were the key in unraveling part of the network that facilitated the insurgency.

KURTZ: So what about Hussein's cooperation with ...

WRIGHT: Well, I think, this again where there are a lot of people who are saying that he is talking but not cooperating in the traditional sense. And that he does -- he does tend to be flippant and use a lot of the old standard Saddam rhetoric that we're so familiar with.

DONALDSON: But no matter which is right, whether he's cooperating or not, it's about past events. Not finding cell phones, not finding the ability to analyze the network, he is not directing things, that's the bad news.

KURTZ: OK. We've got to take a break. I'd sure like to know more about what's actually happening now that he's out of that hole.

When we come back, what does Saddam Hussein's capture mean to the 2004 elections? It didn't take long for the pundits to start guessing. We'll talk about that next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Within hours of Saddam's capture, political reporters started asking one big question: what does this mean for the 2004 campaigns?


ROBERT NOVAK, "CROSSFIRE" CO-HOST: By pulling Saddam Hussein out of the hole he was hiding in this weekend, the Bush administration has put the crowd of Democratic presidential wannabes in an even deeper hole.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Up until now, Howard Dean's had -- this is a major challenge to Dean. Up until now, he's had a pretty free ride on this.


BROWN: David Gergen, so every pundit crawls out of his or her hole, and says this is good news for George Bush, and it probably is.

GERGEN: It is good news.

BROWN: But don't reporters recognize that these effects are sometimes temporary?

GERGEN: I think they do, but it also -- everybody knows that this was a moment of real political testing for Howard Dean in particular. And what was striking about this was the fact that on Sunday he was fine, but on Monday when he gave his -- a thoughtful speech out in Los Angeles, he seemed so tone deaf to the capture of Saddam. It -- seemed very dismissive of it. And that has brought an avalanche of negative press.

I mean, if there's one big press trend there since Saddam's capture, it has been the press just pounding on Howard Dean.

DONALDSON: Let me tell you something. I think Howard Dean deserves the bad press. And I'm not against him. I'm not making a case against him.

That one phase, "America is not safer because of Saddam's capture," in context you know what he's saying, which is the war on terrorism is a wide-ranging war in the future and this will not really affect that. But someone on his staff should have said, "Don't use that phrase because every headline and writer, every Donaldson, everybody on television will stick it out, and it's just the wrong message.

KURTZ: He gave them the lead.

DONALDSON: Gave them the lead.

KURTZ: But haven't journalists been underestimating Howard Dean for a long time? After all, six months ago most reporters didn't think this guy was going anywhere. DONALDSON: Yes, I think a lot of us have underestimated him. He clearly has a strong base in the Democratic Party among those who nominate, and maybe in the party itself. And now we're all talking about whether he can win an election, where the great center of this country will make the decision.

KURTZ: Robin Wright, when President Bush landed on that aircraft carrier on May 1, "mission accomplished," and the media were celebrating, many of its members. Everyone said it will be used in a campaign ad. Well, it has been -- by John Kerry kind of mocking the event.

So isn't it true that these events done always turn out the way journalists predict in terms to the way they looked three, six months from now?

WRIGHT: Absolutely. I think the White House actually learned that lesson to a certain degree in the way it reacted on the day that Saddam Hussein was captured.

It was very striking.

KURTZ: No gloating.

WRIGHT: No gloating. And the president didn't give an address from the Oval Office. He gave a very short comment at noon in a way that didn't flaunt the moment. And so they learned their lesson.

I think, though, that Saddam's capture is not at the end of the day going to make a huge difference to the campaign. It will be what happens by July 1, that critical last month in June when the United States tried to figure out if it can hand over power, if there's -- because of the security, because of the violence, because of the failure to come to some kind of political compromise, whether the process is delayed. How bloody it is, when we leave.

That all of these questions will dwarf what happened either at May 1 last year or on the day of the capture of Saddam Hussein...

DONALDSON: May I ask David Gergen, who knows a lot about how presidents shape their message. May I ask him a question -- David, this question. Why won't George Bush, who signed so many execution orders in Texas say that he wants this man to be executed? Why can't he bring himself to use the words? Why does he have to use euphemisms like "the ultimate punishment?"

GERGEN: The -- that's an interesting question, Sam. I think he does -- well, you just took -- went off on Howard Dean because he used a phrase that was picked up and used in that way. And I'm sure Bush is trying to avoid that very thing. He does not want the world to see, "I want this man killed."

I think he doesn't want to seem that bloodthirsty, and he's trying to avoid the very thing that you think and I think -- I think you're right about Howard Dean. If he'd just chosen a different phrase, he wouldn't have had so much trouble come pounding down on his head this week.

KURTZ: But David you remember when the first President Bush won the Gulf War and every journalists I know said, you know, basically we might as well cancel the '92 elections. This guy's going to roll into reelection. Of course, that didn't happen.

So do you agree with Robin Wright that all of this may look a little different six months down the road if Iraq is still a mess?

GERGEN: There's no question that George W. Bush does not have this election locked up. A lot can happen to go the other way. There's a determined group out there to unseat him. There's a large backlash that Dean has given voice to. But at the end of the day, I still think that Saddam capture was a significant event. I do think the president has a commanding height now, heading into this election.

WRIGHT: But we're also not in possession of Osama bin Laden, and he's likely to be far more difficult to nab. And the war on terrorism is the great threat.

GERGEN: I agree with that, but the administration had been more successful, and I think the media has helped in this. He has somehow morphed Osama bin Laden into Saddam Hussein.

DONALDSON: Well, one down and one to go.

GERGEN: Well, that's true, too. But for a lot of people, when we got Saddam it was almost as if we got Osama. There has been a morphing quality that has been -- but I think the press has been helpful in it.

It's really interesting to me, though, that we saw in the polls this week a 10-point increase after capturing Saddam. There was a number of people who thought he was tied up with 9/11, that he was linked to 9/11.

WRIGHT: David, David, the Republican convention is on the eve of the anniversary of 9/11, and if Osama is still out there, you know, it's going to loom very large, what we haven't achieved.

KURTZ: I have to call halt to the proceedings...

DONALDSON: You may be right, but Saddam may be in the dock at that very time and be...

KURTZ: I feel like a timekeeper here. I love this. All right, 10 seconds, Sam Donaldson.

Are the media too simplistic in saying good for Bush, bad for Dean, good for Joe Lieberman...

DONALDSON: The media plays each day, and each day it looks this way and that way. In the long run, we are too simplistic on any day. At the end of the day, we'll know what happened.

KURTZ: All right. Final words, Sam Donaldson, David Gergen, Robin Wright. Thanks very much for joining us.

After the break, we'll go behind the headlines as George Bush and Dick Cheney reveal what they really think of the press, and it's not pretty. That's next.


KURTZ: Everyone was making nice at the White House Christmas party for the press, even Karl Rove was out schmoozing reporters, but it is no secret that the administration doesn't think much of the fourth estate. Those of us who work in the newspaper business like to think our stories are being read at the highest levels, but the president is ignoring us, boycotting us, stiffing us. He relies on Andy Card and Condi Rice for fair and balanced news, as Diane Sawyer asked him about this week.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I get my news from people who don't editorialize, they give me the actual news, and it makes it easier to digest on a daily basis the facts.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: Don't think you're missing anything by not reading them?

BUSH: Missing opinion.


KURTZ: Can a president really get all his news from his trusted advisers? Newspapers have lots of interesting stuff, Mr. President. You really should give them another try. And if you don't like the political coverage, there's always the sports section.

Dick Cheney, meanwhile, doesn't talk to the press very often. Make that almost never. But in an interview with commentator Armstrong Williams, the vice president disclosed that he is not a big fan of the press. First he said some nice things and then...




CHENEY: When I see stories that are fundamentally inaccurate. When I see stories that -- it's the hypocrisy that sometimes arises when some in the press portray themselves as objective observers of the passing scene when they are not -- they obviously are not objective. Cheap shot journalism. Now, not everybody is guilty of it, but it happens.


KURTZ: If Dick Cheney wants to expand on those views, he's welcome on this program any time. No cheap shots here.

And with just 10 days left before we ring in the new year, we want to ask, what do you think was the media's most embarrassing moment of the year? Send your answers to I'll read some of them next week. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now. Now.


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