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Was Reporter Playing Fair By Having Soldier Ask Rumsfeld Question?; Should Journalists Have Covered Steroid Abuse in Baseball Earlier?

Aired December 12, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Planted question. Was the reporter playing fair by having a soldier ask Donald Rumsfeld about the troops feeling vulnerable?

Striking out. Was the press rooting on the likes of Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi as they bulked up their bodies and their home run totals, or should journalists have cried foul about steroids years ago? Warner Wolf joins our discussion.

Risking jail. "Time's" Matt Cooper explains why he would rather serve time than reveal his confidential sources.

Plus, why is "The Baltimore Sun" suing Maryland's governor?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. A jam- packed show today. And we begin with what seemed like a spontaneous moment, a tough question from an American soldier to the secretary of defense.


SPC. THOMAS WILSON, U.S. ARMY: Now why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles, and why don't we have those resources readily available to us?


DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.


KURTZ: But that question in Kuwait on Wednesday was planted by Edward Lee Pitts, an embedded reporter for "The Chattanooga Times Free Press." He admitted in an e-mail, which ended up on the Web, that he prodded the soldier into asking the question.

Joining me now at the Pentagon, CNN senior Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre. And here with me in the studio, "Time" magazine's White House correspondent, Matt Cooper.

Matt Cooper, was it unfair, underhanded or sneaky for Pitts to ask the soldier to ask Rumsfeld that question?

MATT COOPER, TIME: No, I don't think so. I think it was clever. And look, the soldier was perfectly free not to ask it. Clearly, it was something that was on the soldier's mind and the minds of the other soldiers at the event, who whooped and hollered when he asked the question.

You know, this reporter probably should have mentioned in his own story that he'd been way involved in kind of planting the seeds of the question. But...

KURTZ: Should have mentioned that he stage-managed this, that he helped orchestrate this emotional moment.


KURTZ: Jamie McIntyre, would you have done such a thing?

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I've certainly been in crowds of soldiers, and when they've expressed an opinion about something, I might have encouraged them, you know, to -- if someone said to me, gee, we're really concerned about armor, I might have said, boy, you know, you might ask the secretary, that's why this is here.

I think the question here though is that this issue has been around a long time. Lots of stories have been written about it. Congress is asking questions, stories have been written, including Edward Pitts', but what made this an event was that -- not that it came from a reporter or a member of Congress, but from one of the soldiers on the front lines. And the fact that it might not have happened had this not been orchestrated by a reporter, I think is something that could cross the line.

KURTZ: And would you agree therefore that "The Chattanooga Times Free Press" made a mistake, as its editor, Tom Griscom, now acknowledges, in not at least disclosing that this was not some spontaneous emotional outburst on the soldier's part, but that the reporter had worked on the question with the soldier in advance, as he -- as the reporter later admitted in this e-mail.

MCINTYRE: Right. And also arranged for him to be called on. I think that the paper has acknowledged in the discussions with CNN that in retrospect, that should have been disclosed. I think they have disclosed it in the follow-up article that they've done.

But again, this became a real seminal event. It sparked a whole debate about the armor thing. And it was because it came from the soldier. Now we find out it actually came from a reporter, who also brought the soldier with him, and as you said, didn't just suggest he write a question, but said he worked on it with him. And it looked like the soldier was actually reading it initially from a piece of paper. So I think it does cross a line.

KURTZ: None of us had any way of knowing that in advance. Jamie McIntyre at the Pentagon, thanks very much for joining us.

Matt Cooper, want to turn now to your legal situation. As the whole world, I think, knows, you've been cited for contempt of court in the case involving Valerie Plame and the outing of her status as a CIA operative. There was a federal appeals court hearing this week, two of the three judges did not sound sympathetic to your lawyer, Floyd Abrams, who is also representing Judith Miller of "The New York Times." How worried are you at this point about actually having to go to jail?

COOPER: Oh, well, Howie, I would have to be foolish not to be a little bit unsettled by that prospect. But look, this is not about me, it's really about the question of the reporters able to do their jobs and be able to retain confidential sources. And you know, it's worrisome to me. I've got a colleague, though, Michael Weisskopf, who lost his arm in Iraq, just down the hall from me. I mean, that's suffering, and what I'm going through is just the tedium of the American legal system.

KURTZ: But are you frustrated or angry that, as you see it, you were doing your job, you may have to pay for that by spending time behind bars?

COOPER: Well, I do, and I'm also baffled by it, frankly, this investigation has centered on, you know, Robert Novak, the CNN commentator and columnist who originally mentioned the CIA operative's name in print. I don't know how putting me in jail is going to reveal who leaked to Robert Novak, or what that was about.

KURTZ: Would you view yourself as outing Valerie Plame? Your story last year ran three days after Novak's column.

COOPER: No, I don't. I mean, it was out, and I mentioned her by name. What I was trying to do in my piece in July of 2003, Howard, was to point out what the leakers were doing. I was trying to call attention to it. And I think Novak was in a way kind of a transmission belt for the leakers, basically repeating their smears.

I was trying to say, hey, they're smearing this guy. There are some malevolent things going on here. Take a look.

KURTZ: Judith Miller, who, as I mentioned, also faces jail time. She is a "New York Times" reporter, had this to say the other day on CNN.


JUDITH MILLER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I don't think journalists really responded with the alarm that we should have. Some liberal journalists said, oh, Bob Novak is conservative, he was carrying water for the president and therefore he didn't deserve the protection of the First Amendment. Well, I think we were all a little perhaps quiescent about this threat.


KURTZ: Does she have a point?

COOPER: I think I might differ with my co-defendant, Judy, on this. I mean, I think the press -- I don't recall anyone in the press saying Bob Novak didn't have the same right to protect his sources that Judy or I do. So I'm not quite sure I agree with her on that.

KURTZ: This is not a theoretical possibility. Jim Taricani, Rhode Island television reporter, was sentenced this week. He has also been cited for contempt in a source case. He was sentenced to six months of home confinement. The judge said the only reason he didn't send him to jail was because he has had a heart transplant.

In Taricani's case, the source at the last minute voluntarily came forward. Why are you still protecting the source or sources in this case, who, after all, may have possibly committed a crime in leaking the name of Valerie Plame?

COOPER: Sure. Well, I think there is a larger principle at issue here, Howard, which is protecting the confidentiality of sources. I think if reporters go picking and choosing which confidences to honor, which ones we'll break, whether we think our sources have proper motivations or not, we're really going to send a message to all potential sources who may be whistle-blowers uncovering government waste or what-not, that reporters' words can't be trusted.

And so I feel a need to protect this confidence, despite that.

KURTZ: And on that point, what has been the effect of all this on your daily reporting right now?

COOPER: Well, it has taken up some time and it's obviously unsettling to have to go through the legal system.

KURTZ: Chilling effect?

COOPER: Haven't seen the chilling effect, but I think in part by standing firm here I think if anyone doubted I could keep a secret I think they've seen I can.

KURTZ: Have you asked the source or sources involved to consider coming forward so that you don't have to face the possibility of going to jail?

COOPER: Well, I had this very thing happen earlier in the year. I did give a limited deposition to the special counsel after one of my sources, the vice president's chief of staff, Lewis Libby, waived me, essentially, of confidentiality...

KURTZ: You quoted him by name in that article. COOPER: Yes. And I went to him personally and said, look, can I talk about anything we might have discussed confidentially? And I got his explicit assurance. I didn't rely on one of these written waivers that's getting a lot of attention now. And I went ahead and did that. I certainly have no problem with that, you know, if the source, if him- or herself wants to be outed, so to speak, I don't think it's a problem for the journalist to do it.

KURTZ: All right. You're married to a Democratic consultant, Mandy Grunwald, I'm sure she understands what's going on here, but what about your 6-year-old son, what do you tell him about this?

COOPER: Well, we haven't, Howard, it has been a strange situation. I mean, I -- he does not watch CNN. He does not read "The New York Times." And so he doesn't know about this case. And we've kept him blissfully ignorant. Our feeling is, why worry him? Frankly, it's a very hard case to understand. It's very hard to explain...

KURTZ: Even for grown-ups.

COOPER: Even to me.

KURTZ: But what if you have to explain why you're going away for a while?

COOPER: Well, I think that's going to be very hard to do. I'm going to try to make the point that I'm doing it for what I hope is an honorable reason. And you know, that there's a principle involved here.

KURTZ: All right. Matt Cooper, thanks very much for joining us.

COOPER: Thanks, Howard.

KURTZ: Coming up, baseball and that steroid scandal. Is the age of innocence over or did sports reporters missed the real story all along? Warner Wolf is among our guests coming up next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Ever since "The San Francisco Chronicle" reported sworn testimony that Jason Giambi of the New York Yankees had admitted using steroids and Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants admitted using an unknown substance from an accused steroid peddler, there has been an uproar that has tainted baseball's reputation.

Commissioner Bud Selig pledged to crack down on steroid use, and the player's union signaled a willingness to consider stricter drug testing. But have the media been too soft on this issue all along?

Joining me now in the studio, "Washington Post" sports columnist Mike Wise. And in New York, veteran sportscaster Warner Wolf, whose new radio show airs on WABC and ESPN Radio. And Steve Kettmann, former sportswriter for "The San Francisco Chronicle," and the author of "One Day at Fenway: A Day in the Life of Baseball in America." Welcome.

Warner Wolf, all you sports guys had suspicions that players like Bonds and Giambi were using steroids, but it remained a backburner issue. Why?

WARNER WOLF, SPORTSCASTER: Well, first of all, not only did the sportswriters and sportscaster all feel, or were suspicious that something was going on, even the fans did. I mean, I can recall, not in San Francisco, but other parks, Bonds would get up and you would hear "STE-ROIDS! STE-ROIDS!" I mean, it was there, but you had to have the proof. And until the three guys, Sheffield, Bonds and Giambi were faced with the choice of perjury or immunity and then said "Oh, oh, you mean those steroids," there was no proof. And I say "hats off" to "The San Francisco Chronicle."

KURTZ: Steve Kettmann, "The New York Post" had a headline recently, "Boot the Bum" meaning that the Yankees should now dump Giambi. Is the press in general overreacting now by declaring this the greatest scandal since the White Sox threw the series in 1919?

STEVE KETTMANN, AUTHOR: Well, it is admittedly a huge problem that I think every sports fan gets very concerned about, and you know, I don't want to say they are overreacting, I want to say they have been too slow. As far back as August, 2000, I wrote an article for "The New York Times" saying baseball must come clean on its darkest secret. At that time, because it was already obvious, and I wrote Mark McGwire has used steroids.

KURTZ: And what was the thunderous media reaction to that piece in "The New York Times"?

KETTMANN: Well, it was a short term thunderous reaction. There was a lot of sports columns written all over the country. There was a lot of radio chatter, but then it died down after a few days, and it never translated into the players' association and Major League Baseball deciding at that point that they had to get tough and serious about this in the way that we're seeing them do now.

KURTZ: OK. Mike Wise, I want to put up some pictures. Jason Giambi back in 1991, when he was a normal-bodied athlete, you see that on the left, and then in 2001, while he has now admitted using steroids, he is a big Popeye kind of guy.

So journalists all saw this. Journalists saw the way he shriveled this year when he stopped using steroids. Did many reporters just look the other way?

MIKE WISE, "WASHINGTON POST": I think they not only looked the other way, they wrote the other way. There was a part of them that were driven by our news divisions now, where they tell us this is the story of the moment, and everything now has got a quick shelf life. And so I think in many cases, not that we didn't know what was going on, not that we didn't want to report it, but when some other trend is happening, when the hot stove league is going and everybody is worried about free agency, where do your bosses give you the time the research a story like that? KURTZ: But in fact, when Mark McGwire broke the home run record with 70 homers back in '98 and Bonds with 73 broke that record, those were great stories, and maybe nobody in the press wanted to interfere with what was a nice story for baseball.

WISE: And that's another question. Do we really want to know what lies behind the curtain? And I think a lot of us saw the -- I don't know, even Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, their muscles were bulging out of their collars, but did we really want to recognize that and look deeper into that? And it wasn't until Mark McGwire was found that he had androstenedione in his locker that that even came out.

KURTZ: Warner Wolf, have journalists, some of them at least, gotten so accustomed to doped-up athletes after all these Olympic scandals and elsewhere that they've become perhaps a little bit jaded on the subject?

WOLF: Well, I'd hate to think that we're immune, and that's what it's come to. But you know what? There were two other tell-tale signs which you asked about, "Did we know about it? Did we suspect?" And this is a great statistic. In the first 95 years of baseball, only 18 times did players hit 50 or more home runs. In the next years, from 1995 to 2002, it was done 18 times. So in other words, they accomplished what it took 94 years, 95 years before, and then here's the key. No one hit 50 home runs or more the last two years. Well, why? Are you saying suddenly all these guys lost their power? No. They didn't take the steroids. They were afraid.

I think that is the most tell-tale sign of all.

KURTZ: I thought it was that the pitchers got a lot better. Steve Kettmann, six years ago, Jason Giambi told you that he had tried this testosterone booster that McGwire had used in his home run record year, which is now illegal in baseball. You are a baseball beat writer, why didn't you follow up on that? Did you ask him about steroid use?

KETTMANN: No, I didn't. I wrote recently in "Salon" that I should have. I had a conversation with Jason about using andro that same year that Mark was using it. He said it really wasn't a big deal. You got kind of a little bit of a high, you felt kind of tingly or something like that, and then the sensation passed quickly. But I didn't follow up.

I think it is important to remember that the strike of 1994 and the canceled World Series left everyone in baseball, including sportswriters, wondering about whether the game had much of a future. There was a lot of talk of football taking over, or basketball taking over. So when Sosa and McGwire pumped up so obviously -- everyone knew what was going on, but there was a feeling that almost like if you criticize the war you're being unpatriotic, that if you criticize steroid use you are attacking the game itself at a time when it was weak. So I think that explains the silence of the media at that point.

KURTZ: That's a pretty troubling indictment. You say everyone knew what was going on, but they didn't want to be seen as unpatriotic in an athletic sense. That's really quite stunning.

KETTMANN: That's my belief, but I guess it comes down to what know means, because know -- you can always hide behind legalisms or epistemological dodges, but the fact is they knew. They knew that these guys, especially little second basemen who had never hit more than 12 home runs all of the sudden pow, pow, pow, hitting 35 or 32 in a season. They knew what was producing this result.

KURTZ: OK, let me get Mike Wise in here.

WISE: I was going to say that I think we do a little bit of disservice to some of the people who have been following this story for five, 10 years, and I can name 10 of them from some of the biggest and smallest newspapers in this country.

The problem is their bosses don't want those stories on the front page. When we turn to a sports page now, we're so ready for human accomplishment because of all the bad news in the rest of the sections that we don't want to go into the nuances and subtleties of steroids, and I think that's what it was presents.

KURTZ: Including the violence like the big basketball brawl, including drug use, including the Kobe case. I mean, a lot of bad news coming up. But I want to ask you about Victor Conte. He's the guy who's been charged with steroids trafficking involved in this case. He was going to get on "20/20" and made all kinds of charges, 50 percent of the players in baseball are using steroids. Should journalists be skeptical about his claims and maybe it's not quite as big and widespread as he is contending?

WISE: Yeah, I mean, bottom line, Marion Jones hasn't been charged by the World Anti-Doping Agency. The other athletes haven't been banned. This is one man's opinion. If it's true, I think we should be as graphic as possible. You talked about the basketbrawl, that video was shown ad nauseam to where we got outraged by it. More outraged than we are by steroids, I think, in a lot of aspects, but if it's true, I want to see somebody reenact Marion Jones injecting herself. As disturbing as that would be, it would prevent a lot of kids from doing it.

KURTZ: Warner Wolf, do you expect Barry Bonds' home run record, the 73 home runs, to be struck down or covered with a giant asterisk? Do you think that people in the media should perhaps start some sort of campaign, because what we now know that we didn't know then about what Bonds was using?

WOLF: I wouldn't be opposed to an asterisk at all and say "home runs hit with steroids," or maybe we should take the opposite side and say, Roger Maris hit 60 home runs, asterisk, without steroids. That's one way to look at it. But I think except in San Francisco, Bonds, if he continues to play, he is going to be booed unmercifully. And you know, again, here's Hank Aaron. Hank Aaron made a great point. He said, "You know, when I was 39, I hit 40 home runs." That was a lot for a guy of 39. The next year when he hit 40, it went down to 20. When he hit 41, it went down to 12. And that's the way it's supposed to be. Not going this way. KURTZ: All right, Warner Wolf, always ready with the perfect baseball statistic. Thanks very much for joining us, as well as Steve Kettmann and Mike Wise, we appreciate it.

Just ahead, John McEnroe swings and misses on cable, and a governor orders his administration to stonewall some members of the press. We'll explain, next.


KURTZ: Time now for the latest from the world of media news. Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich has a problem with "The Baltimore Sun." He does not like the reporting by state house bureau chief David Nitkin, who wrote a story that included an inaccurate map, and he doesn't like columnist Michael Olesker, who said the governor's spokesman, quote, "struggled to keep a straight face" without actually witnessing the facial expression.


GOV. ROBERT EHRLICH (R), MARYLAND: With respect to this newspaper and the series of stories over the past few weeks, you are getting not just misstatements of facts, but in some cases wholly invented stories.


KURTZ: So Ehrlich has not only stopped speaking to the two "Sun" men -- nothing unusual there -- but ordered everyone in state government to stonewall the journalists, which prompted the newspaper to sue the Republican governor for trying to punish its staffers for exercising their First Amendment rights.

Now Ehrlich may be backing down, agreeing to meet with top "Sun" editors next week to discuss the ban.

And game, set, match. John McEnroe is losing his CNBC talk show. And there's no umpire to yell at. The former tennis star never got any traction. His ratings sunk so low they couldn't be measured by Nielsen, and CNBC has pulled the plug after just five months. The network also recently axed the highly regarded but low-rated Washington show "Capitol Report," replacing it with reruns of "Conan O'Brien."

Coming up, Treasury Secretary John Snow on his way out, right? That's what the press told us. I'll explain when I go "Behind the Headlines" next.


KURTZ: If you believe what you read in the papers, John Snow was toast, history, practically packing his bags. "The Washington Post," November 29th: "One senior administration official said Treasury Secretary John Snow can stay as long as he wants, provided it is not very long." "The New York Times" this past Monday: "President Bush has decided to replace John Snow as treasury secretary and has been looking closely at a number of possible replacements." And television picked up the story as well.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have not talked to a single senior official who has said that John Snow is going to stay in his job.


KURTZ: Well, guess what? Bush this week asked Snow to stick around. So either the sources didn't know what they were talking about, the reporters were just passing on Beltway gossip, or the president changed his mind just to stick it to the press.

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


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