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Are Some War Images Too Grisly for News Media to Carry?; Did Media Pressure Force Bush's About-Face on Rice's Testimony?

Aired April 4, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The pictures from Fallujah. Are some wartime images too grisly for news organizations to carry?

The war over 9/11. Did media pressure force President Bush's about face on Condoleezza Rice's testimony?

Has Richard Clarke used the press or been used as a conservative punching bag?

Plus, JFK Jr. Why does the press keep exploiting dead celebrities?

And did Janet Jackson help drown out Diane Sawyer?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we begin by turning our critical lens on the disturbing images of war. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Four American civilians were murdered Wednesday in a vicious attack in the Iraqi town of Fallujah. Their bodies were brutalized, dragged through the streets and hung from a bridge.

That left editors and news directors with a dilemma, how to show the horrors of war while still respecting the victims and the sensibilities of viewers.

CBS and ABC showed some of the more graphic images, with Dan Rather offering this disclaimer.


DAN RATHER, CBS EVENING NEWS ANCHOR: The American civilian deaths and events that followed were especially gruesome. So I must emphasize that some pictures in this report are not for children's eyes.


KURTZ: CNN and Fox News mostly stayed away from the ghastly pictures, with brief exceptions. The question for the daily papers was which photo to put on the front page. "The New York Times" picked one showing Iraqis celebrating near a pair of strung-up bodies.

The "Washington Post" and "USA Today" chose a slightly less graphic, though still disturbing image, of Iraqis dancing around what appeared to be charred remains.

Joining me now here in Washington, Linda Douglass, chief Capitol Hill correspondent for ABC News; "National Review's" David Frum, a former speech writer for President Bush; and Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for the "Washington Post." Welcome.

Linda Douglass, should television play these horrifying pictures to convey the savagery of what has been happening in Iraq?

LINDA DOUGLASS, ABC NEWS: Well, I think the decision was to -- at least the decision by ABC News and clearly CBS News, was that you couldn't really tell the story of what happened if you didn't represent in some way what did happen.

But I think ABC News, at least, took great care to pixilate the picture so you couldn't see the bodies. We didn't show some of the more inflammatory pictures, which would be the actual body being dragged behind the car through the streets. Didn't replay it over and over and over again, which can also be, I think, inflammatory and misrepresentative.

We took great care to make sure that several hours had passed so that relatives could have been notified. But I think to tell the story, you had to see some of the pictures.

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, many newspapers, not all, used more graphic photos than television did of dead bodies. Although seven out of 20 of the top 20 papers did not put them on the front page -- only seven out of 20 did. Excuse me.

Why the difference between print and broadcast?

DANA MILBANK, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, broadcast, actually, I think, can be even more powerful. So they have a serious issue there. The print media could be available to -- you know, the parent may not be able to control when the child sees the newspaper, whereas the parent can control where the child sees the broadcast. So that's one difference.

But I don't think there actually is that large a difference. I think we all have an obligation to show some footage, because that's the story. You have to tell what's actually happening there.

But we all have an equal obligation not to be overly grisly or ghastly about it, to show it from a distance, to conceal some of it so that people can get the picture without losing their breakfast.

KURTZ: Now, White House spokesman Scott McClellan asked news organizations to act responsibly on this footage. If you still worked in the White House, would you ask television, for example, not to show this footage?

DAVID FRUM, FORMER SPEECHWRITER FOR PRESIDENT BUSH: I don't even think you have to ask, because I think actually the media have -- I think impressively got it right.

And I would draw three levels, not just print versus TV, but print versus cable TV, where things are on at unpredictable moments, where people can see things without knowing they're going to and what you might call appointment TV, like the "CBS Evening News," where you know Dan Rather is on at this time. If you're watching, you're watching to see the news. It's not on at the airport over and over again.

And so I think they basically got it right. I think the White House always has to be very careful whenever making suggestions to news organizations about what to do and what not to do.

KURTZ: You know, in terms of images of war, for example, we saw this statue of Saddam coming down. That was played millions of times.

We've seen the aftermath of a lot of these attacks in Iraq. Understanding that -- I understand completely you're talking about the sensitivities of lots of people who are coming into their living rooms, but aren't we sanitizing the war to some degree by not showing this, the full brutality, if the pictures are pixilated, if we show it only briefly?

Aren't we making war less ugly than it really is?

DOUGLASS: Well, I think there are questions of taste here, really, more than anything else. I mean, more than the question of whether there is a political impact of what the picture might have. There are people who are talking about whether this would inflame people, as Mogadishu did.

This is a question of burned bodies. And that is the kind of thing that we always take great care to consider before we would ever put on television. There are always discussions about whether something is simply too nauseating, too shocking.

There are children watching, absolutely. There are certainly family members. I mean, some pictures, they're just too shocking for the mainstream audience.

KURTZ: You mentioned Mogadishu, that is of course a reference to Somalia in 1993. Those bodies that were dragged in that country, those dead bodies, proved to be a turning point, in influencing the American pullout.

MILBANK: Well, I don't think people, journalists should be worried about showing images because they're too inflammatory. That's not a journalist's decision.

And I'm not even that sympathetic to the argument about the need to protect the audience, although that deserves some consideration. To my mind what this is about is protecting the dead. These are Americans who were ex-servicemen, apparently, who were human beings. And I think there ought to be a taboo about treating the human body like a broken object.

You know, some day I'd like to go back and do a research project on this. But I can remember until very recently that you never saw a picture of a dead body in a newspaper. And then one day I noticed that you suddenly did. And I think that is a change in attitude toward the dead, not the reader.

KURTZ: Well, my sense was that cable TV, in particular, became particularly uncomfortable with this story on Wednesday, and by the afternoon, they broke away from Iraq and spent two hours covering the safe return of this missing Wisconsin teenager. We saw a couple of hours of dog walking around, searching for evidence. I think they thought that that was a happier story than the very disturbing news from Fallujah.

I want to turn now to the politics and the media coverage of the 9/11 commission. Let's take a look at what was on the airwaves before the White House changed its mind, surrendered and agreed that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice could testify before the commission.


ALAN COLMES, "HANNITY & COLMES" CO-HOST: It's hypocritical for Condi Rice not to want to testify publicly, not go public with her testimony on this 9/11 commission...

CHRIS MATTHEWS, "HARDBALL" HOST: Do you think she's afraid to be put on this -- put on the chair and asked personal questions about the president's reaction to the news he got 9/11?

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": It's the greatest mass murder in American history. Shouldn't she be forced to testify?


KURTZ: Didn't the sheer saturation coverage here force the White House to cave, that only to change the subject?

FRUM: Well, it did, but that's only because we're in the middle of an election year, and it's echoing through all kinds of television ads, as well.

This White House has since the beginning stood on this principle of not being very eager to share information. It happened with Vice President Cheney and the task force. They've until now gotten away with it, and if we weren't smack dab in the middle of the election year, and if there weren't this combination, this perfect storm of the book, the televised testimony on Capitol Hill, they would have gotten away with this, too.

KURTZ: Condi Rice was just on the cover of "TIME." A lot of articles written about her. For three years she got such fabulous press. Why is she now being pummeled?

MILBANK: Well, this isn't the first time. She got some bad press during the -- last year with the question of the uranium coming from Niger and the whole weapons of mass destruction issue.

KURTZ: But not like this.

MILBANK: No, not like this.

KURTZ: "Will Condi testify?" Every day. "Will Condi testify? What has she got to hide? Why won't she testify?"

MILBANK: Because it's a very simple thing. She has been forced into the spotlight by this because a large number of contradictions have come up in terms of what she said to the media.

It's not that she wasn't talking at all. She had, what, 15 interviews, or the administration did, on the same day that other people...

KURTZ: One of those interviews was on "60 Minutes" a week after Richard Clarke, the former counterterrorism official, launched his book and his attack on the Bush administration on "60 Minutes."

Have the media built Richard Clarke up into sort of a super bureaucratic hero, blowing the whistle on the White House?

DOUGLASS: Well, I think you have a couple of issues here. I mean, yes, it is very hard to resist the temptation. The dramatic appeal of a whistle-blower. I mean, a whistle-blower is automatically a sympathetic character, and it's difficult to resist the drama of that story.

On the other hand, the White House may have contributed to his becoming sort of a mythical figure by the all-out assault on his character, by tearing him down, by scorning everything he said. That naturally produced some pushback, I think...

KURTZ: Made him seem a sympathetic victim?

DOUGLASS: Exactly. And made him a victim in the first place. I'm not so sure he would have been seen as a victim if he'd just been left hanging out there with his own testimony and his own words.

FRUM: I think if you regard this as an all-out assault, I mean, you should see -- this is a very gentle White House...

KURTZ: Gentle?

FRUM: Gentle.

KURTZ: This is unbelievable! Hour after hour, Scott McClellan was out there, Vice President Cheney, Condi Rice, Dan Bartlett.

FRUM: It was prolonged but it was not intense. There were a lot of things that they could have said that they did not say. KURTZ: What are you suggesting by that?

FRUM: I'm not going to say. But you can imagine. But there are -- look, here's I think why this got off the charts (ph). The people who have been on the national security beat have known Richard Clarke for many years as one of America's finest public servants in the counterterrorism war. He's been -- and he's been a good source to a lot of journalists. They know -- they know what he was doing for those eight years where he was the only one at home on the counterterrorism brief.

And so they were ready for a good story for him. And I think they had in mind that he would be a certain kind of person on television.

And then I think the story turned, because journalists -- not just the White House. Journalists were shocked that the Richard Clarke they knew was not the Richard Clarke they were suddenly seeing. This was a different guy. Much more partisan, you know, much less straight with them. I mean, the idea that Richard Clarke...

KURTZ: And do you think that journalists therefore gave him an easy ride because of their biased (ph) view of him? Or did he not get an easy ride?

FRUM: I think he started with an easy ride. I think this is not quite the Joe Wilson trajectory, where he went from hero to zero in 15 minutes. But it's more a sense of we were ready, you know -- this is a man we take very seriously. We are ready to think well of you, but we can't believe that the Richard Clarke we heard all those things from over the past eight years was suddenly saying that Bill Clinton was a valiant terrorism warrior. That's not what you said to us in '93 and '94 and '95 and so on.

KURTZ: What do you know of Richard -- David Frum's description of the White House counter attack here -- 24-seven on about 172 TV shows -- as gentle?

MILBANK: I can't say it seems gentle, but I -- we have heard the whisperings of other things that could have been said. Indeed, some conservative commentators were saying, maybe she has a -- he has a problem with a black woman in a position of power.

So you can see sort of that kind of innuendo coming out.

I think the White House made a mistake here, because their policy had been, we don't do book reviews. You know, Paul O'Neill comes out. David Frum comes out, admittedly not with a Richard Clarke kind of an attack. And they just try to say, OK, well, you know, laugh it off.

Now if they just said, Well, of course, we didn't pay as much attention to terrorism before September 11. Who would have? And just let it just go at that. We wouldn't be sitting here talking about it.

DOUGLASS: But he kept the story going. And he kept the story going. KURTZ: And did he keep the story going because it was seen by the media as overkill?

DOUGLASS: Well, because you had to react when every official in the White House comes out against this guy and diminishing him in every way. You have to -- I mean, obviously, that's a story. When he responds, that's a story.

Then Senator Frist comes out and accuses him of perhaps lying before Congress, that's a story.

KURTZ: So it was escalating warfare here?

DOUGLASS: So that confluence of events, I think, also added to the pressure on Condi Rice to testify.

Just want to add one thing, too. The Republican commissioners on the 9/11 commission probably were the single most important factors in her testifying. Because John Lehman said, "There is no separation of powers issue here."

KURTZ: And did the press give it more credibility, the criticism, when it came from the Republican side?

DOUGLASS: The Republicans. Absolutely.

KURTZ: All right. We have to leave it there. Linda Douglass, Dana Milbank, David Frum, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, a new book hauls charges at the late John Kennedy Jr. Why are the media still so focused on the former first son?



It's been nearly five years since John Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn, and her sister, Lauren, were killed in a plane crash near Martha's Vineyard. Now actor Michael Bergin, who claims he has a long running affair with Carolyn Bessette, is peddling an allegedly kiss- and-tell book about the couple.

So why are the media so obsessed with JFK Jr.?

Joining me now from New York, Lloyd Grove, gossip columnist for the "New York Daily News." Welcome.


KURTZ: JFK Jr. is dead. Why won't the media let him rest in peace?

GROVE: Well, because the tabloid media particularly just can't. I noticed that "The New York Times" hasn't touched this story, and the "Washington Post" has only mentioned it, I think, in something you wrote, commenting on the tabloids.

So I think what we have here is just the primal grip of sex and death, except that in this case, Rupert Murdoch's Harper Collins, which published the book, and Rupert Murdoch's "New York Post," which excerpted it, has reversed the equation. Now we have death and sex, so we're in kind of a...

KURTZ: I was going to ask you on that very point. "60 Minutes" got criticized when they put Richard Clarke on to peddle his new book, which was published by another arm of parent company, Viacom.

Now you have Murdoch's company publishing the book, Murdoch's "New York Post" excerpting, as you said, and then the first interview going to Murdoch's Fox News. So is this Murdoch going after the Kennedys?

GROVE: Well, oddly, I think they were trying to shop the book to other entities. I know they went to "Vanity Fair." I think they went to other magazines, and they wouldn't touch it with a barge pole. So it found its natural home at the "New York Post."

KURTZ: On the other hand, Michael Bergin was also interviewed by CNN's Paula Zahn. In fact, let's take a look at a brief segment of that interview.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: You've been called a parasite for writing this. You've been called self-centered.

MICHAEL BERGIN, AUTHOR: That's a new one.

ZAHN: It has been said that what you have written is total B.S. and is totally self-serving.

BERGIN: I wanted to put an end to all this. I just wanted closure.


KURTZ: Is it OK to put him on if you also ask tough questions?

GROVE: Well, sure. I'm not going to make moral judgments about all this. But that's, I think, a case of having one's cake and eating it, too. I mean, beat him up, but you're still trafficking in the book and helping his sales, presumably.

KURTZ: So you're saying that, look, I mean, Michael Bergin says and writes a book and says he had an affair with Carolyn Bessette. I don't know if that's true, and I don't particularly care.

But you're saying that the media, even in the guise of, you know, grilling him are giving this guy a platform to smear a dead woman who can't respond.

GROVE: I think that's -- I think that's absolutely right. And there is kind of a repulsive aspect to all this, but even good people that I know, including I have to say, myself, are -- can't resist reading about this.

KURTZ: Well, you are in the gossip business for a major metropolitan newspaper. If -- if the publisher had come to you and said, well, we're giving you an exclusive. You can go first and you can charge Michael Bergin, former underwear model, had this affair and all this other salacious stuff about Kennedy and his marriage, would you have bitten?

GROVE: I probably would have bitten, but I might have done what my colleague Rush Malloy (ph) did and raised serious questions about the veracity of his account of a post-marriage affair.

KURTZ: There seems to be a little bit of -- I don't want to say contradiction, but perhaps inconsistency. You're saying on the one hand, you would have taken this and run with it because it's news. It would have sold copies. People are interested in this sort of thing.

On the other hand, you're being kind of critical of those who are giving this author a platform.

GROVE: Well, this is the business we've chosen, Howie. And I am a gossip columnist, and I can't pretend that I wouldn't do it.

KURTZ: And so some of what you do in the business makes you uncomfortable? And this would be an example. You'd write it because it's a good story. But on the other hand, would you feel like taking a shower afterwards?

GROVE: It doesn't make me uncomfortable. I would take a shower.

KURTZ: We're all in favor of showers.

Now, are we going to be reading more and more Kennedy books about the whole clan and JFK and Carolyn forever? Is this the Princess Di- ification of the media?

GROVE: It's going to go on forever. In fact, "Vanity Fair" is excerpting a book about Jack and Jackie that -- that will be out on Monday, by Sally Bedell Smith (ph).

And then later this month, Ed Klein (ph), who did the initial book about JFK Jr. and Carolyn, is coming out with what he calls a tribute to Jacqueline Kennedy. I'm sure the family is looking forward to that.

KURTZ: We'll have to wait and see. I think I'll feel like taking a shower after a little bit more of this.

Lloyd Grove, "New York Daily News," thanks very much for joining us.

GROVE: Great pleasure.

KURTZ: Still to come, CNN's mea culpa after tangling with David Letterman. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Janet Jackson is jiggling back into the spotlight. Let's go "Behind the Headlines."


KURTZ (voice-over): Janet Jackson is out promoting a new album. But she's become far more famous for a certain wardrobe malfunction. So David Letterman naturally asked about her Super Bowl unveiling.

JANET JACKSON, SINGER: It was very embarrassing for me, to have so many people see this little breast, kind of.



KURTZ: Diane Sawyer tried the same approach on "Good Morning America." Wasn't it intentional?

JACKSON: It was an accident. It truly was an accident.

KURTZ: But the crowd had other ideas.

DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: OK, got an insurrection out here.

KURTZ: Sawyer kept on trying, but Jackson's fans kept getting louder.

JACKSON: I think they're basically saying they want to hear about the album.

KURTZ: Did Jackson's people orchestrate the revolt? Was Michael involved? Why does she keep appearing in her bra?

And speaking of Letterman, the late show host did a bit with video of President Bush speaking and a 13-year-old kid not exactly paying rapt attention. CNN thought it was so amusing, it aired the Letterman footage, but moments later seemed to take it back.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We're being told by the White House that the kid, as funny as he was, was edited into that video. Which would explain why the people around him weren't really reacting. So that from the White House.

KURTZ: Which drew an outraged reaction from Dave.

LETTERMAN: Now that -- that, ladies and gentlemen, as sure as I'm sitting here, is an out and out absolute 100 percent lie.

KURTZ: Turns out CNN got it wrong, as anchor Daryn Kagan acknowledged.

KAGAN: Turns out, due to what we might say a misunderstanding among the folks who are usually so fantastic behind me here in the newsroom, turns out that was not true. The White House turns out I guess never did call us about the tape. The Letterman show, if you've been watching at night, strongly denies it was fake. Boy, do they strongly deny that. And we've been looking through our tapes. And apparently we now see no evidence that it was faked. So, Dave, we apologize for the error.

KURTZ: Now 13-year-old Tyler Crotty (ph) is enjoying his 15 minutes in the spotlight, and the White House, oddly enough, is managing interviews with the Bush fund-raiser's son.


KURTZ: Fame can be fleeting. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Finally, this note. Earlier this week, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News went wall to wall, as they say in the business, with the story of a supposedly abducted Wisconsin college student. Hours of helicopter footage of a police dog searching the scene. I believe that story was way overplayed in any case, but police said Friday they don't believe Audrey Seiler and have videotape of her buying the knife and rope she claimed were used in the kidnapping. In other words, the cable networks went live and pumped up one of these dramatic "young woman is missing" stories without having all the facts. They, and you, were had.

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


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