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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES

Coverage of Iraqi Elections; Schieffer to Replace Rather

Aired February 6, 2005 - 11:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Dancing in the streets. Were journalists so busy reporting bad news from Iraq that they missed the hunger for democracy on display in the elections? Does President Bush have a point when he says progress in Iraq has been overlooked? And how much of the president's unpopularity overseas is driven by a hostile press? We'll ask "New York Times" columnist Tom Friedman.

Schieffer to the rescue. The veteran CBS correspondent will replace Dan Rather for now, but who's next in the anchor chair?

And a Michael Jackson media frenzy is officially under way.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the coverage of Iraq and the rest of the world. I'm Howard Kurtz. Our special guest this morning, "New York Times" foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman. He's a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, best-selling author and National Book Award winner. He's been to Iraq and Europe in recent months. Part of his frequently flying effort to explain the world to the rest of us. Tom Friedman, welcome.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN, NEW YORK TIMES: Good to be here.

KURTZ: Many Americans were surprised by the sight, the inspiring sight of millions of Iraqis braving those death threats turning out to vote. Is that because the press coverage for a year, really, has focused so heavily on suicide bombs and car bombs and all the negative violence there?

FRIEDMAN: Well, there is no question that the press coverage did focus on that, Howie. That was governing the theater in Iraq and really defining it in many ways. But I must say, as someone who has worked there -- I've been there now four times -- the third time when I left Iraq I was in a taxi cab where it was stopped by insurgents and had a gun pointed at my head and asked for all my money. And...

KURTZ: Did you provide all your money?

FRIEDMAN: And I provided all my money, credit cards, family pictures, anything they wanted.

I lived in Beirut for five years. Iraq is 10 times more dangerous than Beirut. It is the most dangerous environment I have ever been in as a reporter. I have nothing -- every reporter who ever worked there in my view deserves the Medal of Freedom, because every time you walk out the door you are in danger of being shot, deliberately or accidentally. Kidnapped, beheaded, and so if anybody got anything wrong, certainly I wouldn't be blaming the press for that who are there on the ground. But here is what...

KURTZ: Because the conditions are very difficult.

FRIEDMAN: The conditions are not difficult, they are impossible.

KURTZ: But let me just say this, because there are a lot of people out there in red-state America who are saying, liberal press opposed this war, can't stand George Bush, and is all too happy to depict this as a quagmire, and that perception, though, turned a little bit on election day.

FRIEDMAN: Right. I think that is true. I think that, first of all, I think we have to acknowledge the Iraqi themselves were a little bit surprised by what happened. You know, there was a wonderful advertisement that the U.S. put on Iraqi TV, I don't know if you saw it, where these two insurgents are in an alley, and they're confronting an Iraqi, and then another Iraqi comes out and another Iraqi, and they kind of stare them down. And in a way, that's what happened. I think the Iraqis surprised themselves.

Now, as someone who wanted there to be elections, who also believed that there would be a good turnout, I wasn't surprised. But I was hopeful. I mean, I didn't know what was going to happen. I'm glad it happened. But I'd be charitable with the press there.

I'll tell you who I think really got it wrong, much worse than the American press, the Arab press. Because they could circulate much better. And if you watched Al Jazeera, if you watched or read the Arab media, OK, these guys completely missed what was going on.

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they deliberately...

FRIEDMAN: They deliberately missed. And we may have missed it for not being able to get out. These guys I believe deliberately missed it. And really misled their readers. And they don't have egg on their face. They have an omelet on their face this morning, Howie.

KURTZ: Now, on your last -- on your last visit to Iraq, you went with General Richard Myers, chairman of the joint chiefs. When you go in with a military unit, a high level military one in fact, aren't you going to get a portrait painted for you that things are going well, they always say things are going well?

FRIEDMAN: Actually, you know, they don't. That's what's great about going -- hanging around the U.S. military. You know, in this case I was able to travel with General Myers. And he'd go off and talk to troops and I'd go off and talk to troops. And our guys and our gals, they're very frank. You know, and what I wrote at the end of that trip was, basically, let's listen to these people. They're the closest on the ground. They're going to be the first to tell us if this isn't working. They're the canary in the coal mine, as far as I'm concerned. And what they were telling me two months ago was, you know what, we still think this has a chance to work. And that's what I was guided by.

KURTZ: But your point about it being incredibly dangerous to go anywhere, particularly outside of Baghdad for reporters there, and there have been many incidents where reporters have been killed, kidnapped, threatened, you had that yourself. But has that left the American media, as President Bush complains, in a situation where they're not really able to find out what ordinary Iraqis are thinking?

FRIEDMAN: There may be some limit on that. But again, I think that Iraqis themselves didn't quite know what they were thinking until the very day. And also, it's very lard to speak about Iraqis, because you have the Shiites in the south -- we knew they were going to vote and people reported that. "Times," "The Post," all the major newspapers reported that. The Kurds, we knew what they were going to do. The real surprise was how many Sunnis were going to vote. And going out to interview them was taking your life in your own hands. Just as their voting was taking their life in their own hands.

KURTZ: Exactly. Now, if you look at the last two years, the day of mission accomplished, President Bush lands on the aircraft carrier, the media went wild over that. And then there was this capture of Saddam Hussein when he was fished out of that spider hole. And I heard commentators come on TV and say, the insurgency is going to fade now; this thing is over. Obviously, that didn't happen.

So didn't journalists, as well as the Bush administration, underestimate how hard, what a slog this was going to be?

FRIEDMAN: Some did, some didn't. You know, some said from the very beginning, this is going to be really, really hard. And if you are going to go into this, you better understand one thing: There's no country in the world we cannot destroy by ourselves. And there's no country in the world we can rebuild by ourselves. That's certainly was what I believed going in.

But there's no question that there was a herd mentality at different points. Ah, mission accomplished, you know, show that film of the president landing. Can we see that one more time? You know, and the next day it's the insurgency and my God this is a -- it's Vietnam. You know, you got to I think keep some equilibrium as you approach these kind of stories certainly as a commentator. You know, and I have, you know, certainly my moments of real pain, because I did want this to succeed. You know, it was a close call. But I really -- in terms of supporting the war, in the end I did, and I wanted it to succeed. And believe me, I went through angst during these last three years, thinking, my God, have I been behind something that's going to be the biggest catastrophe in American foreign policy? It still might. But at least, after these elections, there is now a chance for a decent outcome.

And Howie, if this works, this is going to be bigger, in my view -- this is going to be the biggest thing since Napoleon invaded Egypt. This is really, really big. KURTZ: It's a long period of time you're covering.

Want to turn now to the coverage of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Everybody has seen many times that Tennessee guardsman asking the question, basically, why aren't our vehicles armed, why aren't our humvees armed? People are dying. And they have also seen the clip of Rumsfeld, which was played again this morning on "Meet the Press," when the secretary was on Tim Russert's show, saying, "you go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you want or might wish to have." And talking about how even armored tanks and armored humvees can be blown up.

Let's take a look at what happened when Russert played that clip for the secretary this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: That was unfair, and it was selectively taking out two sentences from a long exchange -- there it is -- that took place. And when you suggested that that's how I answered that question, that is factually wrong. It is not how I answered that question.

TIM RUSSERT, HOST, MEET THE PRESS: But, Mr. Secretary, it clearly represents the exchange...

RUMSFELD: It does not.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Rumsfeld went on to read his entire answer. Does he have a point about the way that incident was covered?

FRIEDMAN: I have no doubt, Howie, that about that point, that issue, he may have a point, that he put it in a much larger context. But I think there's even a bigger context, you know, that also has to be asked.

The fact is, before this war, General Eric Shinseki, the commander of the U.S. Army, who had been in Bosnia, had been in a nation-building situation, said we're going to need several hundred thousand troops to control this situation. He was dumped on by Rumsfeld and by the deputy secretary of defense, who basically sneered at his projection. That was wrong.

So, yes, maybe the full context, you know, what Rumsfeld said this time was not actually portrayed properly, but the fact is there's a larger issue. These guys completely underestimated how difficult this war was going to be, and as a result of that, it has taken longer, it has cost more money, and it has cost lives. And I think that is the issue. And I think they have run away from that. A simple, a simple apology, a simple you know what, we didn't get that right. You and I both know the press, Howie. If people come and say, you know what? I got that wrong. And here's why I got it wrong, we tend to cut them slack.

KURTZ: Not a lot of apologies that come from this administration, though, particularly on foreign policy.

FRIEDMAN: Not at all. None at all. And that's why the press is constantly coming at them, because we know they were wrong. And when I know you're wrong, all right, and you won't acknowledge it, I'm going to be in your face over and over again. I don't have a real lot of sympathy.

I was on CBS "Face the Nation" with Rumsfeld a few months ago, when he said, I never said there were any nuclear weapons in Iraq. Well, I had three quotes that came very close to him suggesting just that. And you know, so he's not innocent here of some journalistic abuse as well. Let's -- before -- this is the pot calling the kettle black here. And that's what I feel about it.

KURTZ: Want to turn now to your trip to Europe. You're just back from several countries there. Bush's unpopularity in Britain, in France, in Germany, other countries, is it driven in part, in part, by the hostile press he gets in those countries? For example, that famous London tabloid headline "How can 59 million people be so dumb as to reelect Bush?" Your thoughts?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, there is no question. Look, you know, my friend George Affy (ph), a European, German analyst, has a nice saying, Howie, you know. Power corrupts. You know what else corrupts? Weakness corrupts. Weakness makes you stupid. And weakness has made the Europeans stupid also. Weakness vis-a-vis us in the world.

KURTZ: You're going to get mail from this, Friedman.

FRIEDMAN: Well, make my day, you know?

KURTZ: What about the European columnists and the headline writers?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah, I mean, because they -- my whole approach to this Iraq thing is that, as I wrote before the war, some things are true, even if George Bush believes them. Took me a long time to come to terms with that. OK? But there is an issue here, and so the point is, if you're going to think about Iraq, whether you are for it or against it, you've got to think about Iraq, 9/11 and the Middle East. And unfortunately, to many people, this was only about George Bush. And that means if you're going to think about it critically, you've got to think about, is the Bush team doing the right thing, OK, in terms of their objective? That's where I'm critical. But at same time, you've got to look at Iraq and not just make it about George Bush. And that's what the European press has done over and over. And, therefore, reading the European press half the time is like reading Al Jazeera in German, French, English, Italian, Spanish.

KURTZ: It's that hostile to the president of the United States?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I mean, Europe is one big blue state, Howard. Just one big blue state.

KURTZ: All right. Want to ask you also about Afghanistan. There was a time, as you well remember, when Afghanistan was the big story. Not just the war there, but the aftermath, the toppling of the Taliban, the election of Hamid Karzai. And now according to American journalism view, only "The Washington Post" and "Newsweek" have full- time reporters in Kabul. "New York Times" has a full-time stringer. ABC has a freelancer. CNN has a freelancer. Isn't this another example of a monumentally short attention span on the part of the media?

FRIEDMAN: No question. We have short attention span and we have limited and increasing limited resources. You have to know what...

KURTZ: It's expensive to cover these places.

FRIEDMAN: Really expensive, and it's dangerous. I think basically Afghanistan's kind of going OK. We have had an election there. And Afghanistan's going to be what Afghanistan is going to be. I wish I knew more about it. In an idea world, I would. But if I have to make choices, I would be investing not just in Iraq now, but in the wider Arab world. Because this election, Howie, is an earthquake.

KURTZ: But kind of going OK is not news, therefore? We only go where the trouble spots are, the nature of journalism?

FRIEDMAN: Yeah. We only cover airplane crashes, not the 99 percent that land safely.

KURTZ: All right. We have to take a break. When we come back, Tom Friedman weighs in on the challenges of covering the Middle East.

And later, as Dan Rather plans to leave the anchor chair, CBS announces its plans for now.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Our special guest this half hour, "New York Times" foreign affairs columnist Tom Friedman.

You've interviewed two French Muslim girls in Paris who say they get all of their news from Al Jazeera. You mentioned Al Jazeera earlier. Their hero is Osama bin Laden. Is Al Jazeera just beating the heck out of the United States in the message war?

FRIEDMAN: We would be much better off, Howie, in terms of the message campaign buying ads on Al Jazeera than the money we're spending on all these cockamamy radio shows and TV shows. We have not broken through.

Now, part of the problem, we have to be honest about this, we do have a transmitter problem, in terms of just getting our voice out there and getting our act together to do it. But in fairness to the administration, there's also a receiver problem. The receiver is broken. People don't want to hear that under an American occupation in Iraq, Iraqis had their first free and fair election in modern times. Under an American occupation, and they all came out and voted against these Nasserite (ph) insurgents. They just don't want to hear it in a lot of places. They don't want to hear that under Israeli occupation, the Palestinians just had a free and fair election. And under the American occupation in Afghanistan, they had a free and fair election there.

People -- we don't just have a transmitter problem, in fairness. We have a receiver problem.

KURTZ: All right, want to turn now to the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice in Jerusalem today. You wrote in a recent column, maybe half facetiously, that "never lead your story out of Gaza or other places with a cease-fire, because it will be over by the time the morning paper is out." Should journalists also be wary of reading too much into this upcoming meeting between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas? (UNINTELLIGIBLE) go high, or have highs and lows about the possibility for peace between Israel and the Palestinians?

FRIEDMAN: You know, another one of my rules in that column that I wrote, Howie, was that never -- what you should focus on when you're listening to people from the Arab or Israeli world is not what they say to you. It's what they say to themselves. So what I always follow is what Ariel Sharon is saying in Hebrew to Israelis, through the Israeli press. Same in Arabic. And the reason I am optimistic now is what these guys are saying to their own people in their own language, is that we want a deal. That's the most important reason for optimism.

KURTZ: "New York Times," "The L.A. Times," "The Washington Post," "The Boston Globe," you name it, are constantly accused of either being pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. How much has that happened to you? And why is there so much distrust in this country of coverage of this conflict?

FRIEDMAN: Another rule I have, Howie...

KURTZ: You have a lot of rules.

FRIEDMAN: A lot of rules. I learned them while covering the Arab/Israeli conflict. And one is, I love the Arabs and Israelis. I spent all my adult life -- but God save me from their American friends, OK? And God save me even more from their European friends. Because the fans in the stands are always holier than thou. OK? And I'm really just not interested, you know, what some guy out here who has not been out there, not been on the ground, is only interested in why you're not more on their side, you know, than the other...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Is that what it's about? It's about their own political beliefs and that you're not catering to their political beliefs?

FRIEDMAN: This is my third rule about this, this has nothing to do with journalism. This is all about politics. OK? I've never...

KURTZ: Not to say that journalism is perfect?

FRIEDMAN: No, not at all. And there are mistakes. And when we make mistakes, and we've made them tilting toward Israel or tilting toward the Palestinians, but these people are not concerned about journalism. They're concerned about getting you to write about their side. And I really don't have any time for them, because they don't really care about journalism. They're into politics.

KURTZ: All right. Message from Friedman, don't e-mail me.

FRIEDMAN: Don't e-mail me.

KURTZ: I got less than a minute.

FRIEDMAN: They know that.

KURTZ: You're just back from Europe. You wrote that there's "an absolute conviction in Europe that the Bush team is just itching to invade Iran." Bush administration has denied that. Where did this absolute conviction come from? Did the press play a role in that?

FRIEDMAN: I think it's really kind of a cliched, European, knee- jerk reaction. Oh, they've done Iraq, and now they're going to do Iran.

KURTZ: What's next?

FRIEDMAN: What's next, you know? And these bunch of wild cavemen at the Pentagon, that's their next project. I don't think so. I think the Bush people, Howie, my own sense is, they go home every night, whatever they say on these shows, and they thank God that they've gotten this far, OK, without a complete disaster in Iraq. Anyone thinks we're going to Iran next in any big way, oh, man, not these guys. They are really lucky if they get out with their body intact at this stage.

KURTZ: All right, Tom Friedman, you've got a book coming out, "The World is Flat." We look forward to that, around April. Thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, the main event in Los Angeles. The media circus takes on the Michael Jackson trial. And Geraldo Rivera has some very definite views on the subject. We'll explain just ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back. It was a big day, a historic day, in many ways an inspiring day as millions of Iraqis showed up to vote, despite the threats of violence. And the next morning, television was all over the big story.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... at home finally, it goes to court.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Michael Jackson will be in court today.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jury selection begins today in the pop star's child molestation trial.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: By nightfall, with people around the world still stunned by the Iraqi turnout, the prime-time cable shows blanketed the unprecedented event.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, COUNTDOWN: And as Michael Jackson went to the start of jury selection for his child molestation trial today, there were 1,000 reporters credentialed.

APHRODITE JONES: The fans are out in hoards outside, from Japan, from Poland, from England, from France.

NANCY GRACE, COURT TV: He truly is the King of Pop. He is beloved almost all over the world. In fact, Larry, believe it or not, some people actually believe Michael Jackson is a deity, a God.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: With a new Iraqi assembly still to pick a president and prime minister, I'm sure that television will keep its laser-like focus and not be distracted by sideshows.

And speaking of sideshows, 1,000 members of media descending on California for the Jackson trial. This question: Is Geraldo Rivera a journalist or a defense lawyer?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): He interviewed the gloved one for a FOX News report last night, and in promoting the interview with "Today's" Katie Couric, Rivera made clear he believes Jackson is innocent of child molestation charges. First, he attacked prosecutor Tom Sneddon.

GERALDO RIVERA, FOX NEWS: He understands that he's up against a district attorney who is ruthless and will do absolutely anything he can in his power to convict Michael.

KURTZ: Then he slimed the mother of Jackson's young accuser.

RIVERA: What mother -- this isn't a mother. This is a madam presents, you know, a target for entrapment.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: No wonder Geraldo got the Jackson interview. He's made no attempt to be fair and balanced. I'm tempted to say he's in bed with Michael Jackson, figuratively speaking, of course.

Ahead, a tough task at CBS News: Filling the anchor chair for the departing Dan Rather. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Time now for a check of the latest from the world of media news.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): The race to succeed Dan Rather is over, sort of. "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer will take over the coveted anchor chair on March 10th, but only for a few months. CBS for the moment can't figure out what it wants to do. Network President Les Moonves is seriously considering multiple anchors. White House correspondent John Roberts could be paired with one or more women on CBS, after Moonves apparently failed to land a big name from the outside.

Rather was shocked by the news, because CBS executives didn't bother to tell him in advance.

Schieffer, who moderated one of last year's presidential debates, was the safe choice for a news division still smarting from its discredited "60 Minutes Wednesday" report on President Bush's National Guard service.

Schieffer says he wants to get the focus off that fiasco and back to covering the news.

And finally, Washington has a new newspaper. "The Examiner" debuted this week. Launched by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, a surprisingly meaty tabloid, whose editorial page editor says he'll run columns by top journalists and politicos under the pseudonym Publius, so they don't have to reveal their real names.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: And the best part for readers, it's free. Hard to beat that price.

Before we go, the Deep Throat mystery lingers on. John Dean, who went to jail over Watergate, writes in this morning's "Los Angeles Times" that Throat, Bob Woodward's super secret source who helped bring down President Nixon, is ill. What's more, says Dean, former "Washington Post" editor Ben Bradlee, the only other person beside Woodward and Bernstein who knows Throat's identity, has said he's already written the source's obituary.

How exactly does Dean know this? He has got his own Deep Throat, a source he won't identify, who gave him the information. We'll see.

That's if for the Super Bowl Sunday 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.

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