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How Have Media Covered Shuttle Launch?; Interview With Jim DeFede

Aired August 7, 2005 - 11:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: Space-age journalism. With the first shuttle landing in two-and-a-half years scheduled for tomorrow, how have the media covered the problems facing Discovery? Are facts hard to ferret out? And were reporters too quick to accept NASA's initial assurances that everything seemed all right?

Miami vice. We'll talk to columnist Jim DeFede about the last phone call this disgraced ex-official made before killing himself in "The Miami Herald" lobby, and why he thinks it's unfair that "The Herald" fired him for illegally taping the call.

And Stephen Vincent, who investigated corruption in Iraq, now the first American journalist murdered there since the fall of Saddam Hussein.


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the coverage of America's return to space. I'm Howard Kurtz.

On July 26th, two-and-a-half years after the Columbia shuttle disaster, television carried these pictures.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one, and liftoff of Space Shuttle Discovery, beginning America's new journey to the moon, Mars and beyond. And the vehicle has cleared the tower.


KURTZ: ABC's Elizabeth Vargas called it "spectacular." NBC's Brian Williams said the most common description was "awesome launch."

Journalists mentioned some debris falling from the spacecraft, but a NASA official said, we'll get back to you on that.

In little more than a day, the optimism turned to this.


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN SPACE CORRESPONDENT: So the shuttle is grounded, ironically even as Discovery begins its flight. After a day of euphoria yesterday, NASA is forced to reckon with this prospect.


KURTZ: The problem serious enough to warrant a dramatic spacewalk this week to repair some of the shuttle's external damage.

Joining us now in New York, Jeffrey Kluger, senior writer for "Time" magazine and the author, with astronaut Jim Lovell, of "Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13," the basis for the Hollywood movie about the troubled Apollo 13 mission.

At the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, William Harwood, CBS News space analyst. Welcome.

Bill Harwood, it seemed to me there was a certain degree of cheerleading in the coverage of NASA, at least on this flight. The first day, Discovery launch is pretty much described as a huge success, and oh, by the way, there was this minor debris problem. By the second day, it's deemed so serious that NASA cancels all future shuttles until further notice. Was there excessive optimism by the press?

WILLIAM HARWOOD, CBS NEWS SPACE ANALYST: No, I think you really hit half-right, half-wrong in that description. There is certainly always some enthusiasm when you watch a 4.5 million-pound spacecraft vault off the launchpad with all that power and thunder. I mean, that is a made-for-television event that's awe inspiring in its own right, whether you believe it's a good program or not. It simply is what it is.

In terms of the foam coming off the tank, I think you have to give them the benefit of the doubt until they can analyze the situation. It wasn't clear at that moment if this was foam insulation off the tank. They also had paper rocket covers, one of which could have lodged in that area and blown off. That could have been a harmless explanation.

The next day, when as you said, it came out that this was, in fact, foam, I think the media was all over NASA about this. I mean, after all, that was the number one priority of NASA's return to flight after Columbia, was to fix the tank, keep foam from coming off. And when it became obvious that it was, in fact, foam, I think everybody jumped onboard pretty hard to raise a lot of questions about that project.

KURTZ: No question, the coverage turned critical at that point when the shuttle suddenly seemed to be in some sort of jeopardy, perhaps too critical, Jeffrey Kluger. Here's Eugene Kranz, former Apollo crewman, writing in "The New York Times" that he's disgusted with the way NASA is covered, because it's a risky enterprise, and journalists don't seem to recognize that.

Kranz saying: "Mission managers have said that the external tank shed 80 percent less foam this time than on previous launchings. Only in the news media, apparently, is an 80 percent improvement considered a failure." Your thoughts. JEFFREY KLUGER, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, I think it's never -- you never go wrong agreeing with Gene Kranz, and I feel strongly that the media has been too hard on NASA in some senses on the small things and not hard enough on the big things.

The fact is, this is perhaps the safest shuttle that's flown in years, if not ever. That 80 percent figure is a real one. That's not pure conjecture. This is -- this is a result of exhaustive photographs of the exterior of the shuttle. It's not a foolproof vehicle. It never will be a foolproof vehicle. So if you accept that this is what we have right now, it's the best, it may be the best iteration of this spacecraft that we've ever flown.

Where in the media I think is missing the boat is on questioning the larger value of the program. Simply because this particular shuttle will probably return safely with a largely successful mission, doesn't mean that there's any lingering justification for the shuttle and space station program to continue. And that...

KURTZ: I want to pick that up with you in just a moment, and we certainly hope that the shuttle early tomorrow morning will return safe and sound with the crewmen aboard.

Bill Harwood, "The New York Times" reporting this week an internal NASA report back in December warned of deficiencies in this foam installation that has caused some of these problems. A quote from the report: "There will continue to be a threat of critical debris generation."

Now, I'm thinking that NASA spent $200 million trying to fix this problem. If the Pentagon had withheld the report on the safety of a tank and it came out, the press would go haywire, but I didn't notice this internal report making -- creating a big wave in the press.

HARWOOD: Well, Howard, part of the problem there was the author of that report said in the same memo that he didn't oppose the launch, that he thought the shuttle was OK to go as is. He was raising questions about procedures and processes that could always use improvement. And I've seen it. I've seen the memo. I've got a copy of that myself, and it's an interesting read, and he raises some valid points. But in the end, he didn't oppose the launch, so I think that's a separate issue.

Now, there are issues with the tank and foam and how it's put together by Lockheed Martin. We've learned last week there was a bit of damage on the spot where this foam came off that was repaired. They're obviously looking at that to see if that contributed.

But you know, Howard, one thing about covering this story, everything NASA does is under the spotlight in that regard, and just about anybody's e-mail or memos ultimately come out. It's really an amazing thing. You don't see that level of exposure to any other federal agency I can think of, in terms of how long it takes for something to get out in the public eye. Eventually, it will.

I think they've been fairly forthright about all of this stuff, and I also agree with Jeff Kluger -- one last thought -- he's right about that. These are separate issues in terms of the value of the shuttle station program, as opposed to what's happened on this flight. I mean, those really are separate issues, I think, and he raised a valid point.

KURTZ: And Jeff Kluger, you wrote in "Time" magazine this past week, "Why NASA Can't Get It Right." "Another black eye for the space agency. Should the shuttle fleet stay grounded?"

Now, there was a piece in "The Washington Post" this morning raising questions about whether the shuttle should continue until its planned retirement in 2010, but do reporters raise enough fundamental questions about why we're flying, continuing to fly these very expensive missions?

KLUGER: No, and I think that is really where the media should be looking at itself. The fact is, this is a vehicle that costs about a half a billion dollars every time we fly it, and its principal purpose for existing now is to service the space station. The principal purpose of the space station now is to give the shuttle somewhere to go.

Neither one of these spacecraft have achieved what it was that they were intended to achieve. The shuttle was supposed to be a reliable, affordable, quick and easy to operate means to get into and out of orbit...

KURTZ: Let me just break in here. Why do you think journalists are not asking these questions more frequently?

KLUGER: I think they're large policy questions, and I just don't think they have the juice, the drama of a 14-day flight, which may or may not end well.

And look, I mean, that's the media's job. That's our mission, to come out and keep people engaged and keep people interested and keep them watching. And the idea of a 4:47 a.m. landing in Kennedy, to which people will be tuning in, anxiously hoping that the vehicle is going to operate properly, that's drama, and that's news, and that's what news is about.

Larger policy questions are harder to get people engaged in, and these are policy questions.

KURTZ: Bill Harwood at the Kennedy Space Center, how do you get information from NASA? Is it a difficult bureaucracy to penetrate? I'm talking about beyond the official statements and the press spokesman and so forth. And when you cover a beat for such a long time as you and a relative handful of others have, do you begin to identify with the people you're covering and maybe pull your punches a bit?

HARWOOD: I'll take your last point first. That's always a threat with a beat reporter. You know, there's the -- the strength of being a beat reporter is you do it long enough that you finally get to the point where you understand some of the technical aspects of a program like this. I mean, most reporters aren't engineers, and this is an engineering project. And of course, the danger is obviously, you get too close to the story and you don't turn as critical enough. That's an obvious threat, and obviously I try to guard against that, and I think most people do.

Getting information from NASA -- you know, they have a big public affairs operation that spends a lot of money to get their message out. But I find that to get real information about what's going on in this program is like any other beat, I think, Howard. You have to go to the people that are running the actual program. You need to develop sources, and you have to talk to those people and find out what's really going on.

And you know, there's -- a lot of times there's a disconnect between senior management and the middle level guys and ladies and gentlemen who are actually making the work take place, getting it done. And finding reality in there is sometimes a challenge, but you can't rely on the public relations aspect of the agency to get that level of insight. You have to talk to the people doing it.

KURTZ: A big challenge indeed. Bill Harwood and Jeffrey Kluger in New York, thanks very much for joining us.

Ahead, we'll talk to that fired "Miami Herald" columnist Jim DeFede about why he lost his job in the aftermath of an ex-official's suicide, and why he thinks he should get it back. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Jim DeFede had been a hard-hitting "Miami Herald" columnist for three years. Arthur Teele had been a city commissioner who is now under indictment on fraud charges. They'd known each other on a friendly basis for a decade-and-a-half, and on July 27th, their lives intersected in a moment of tragedy.

Teele called the columnist and was obviously agitated. DeFede made a snap decision to switch on his tape recorder. An hour later, Teele went to the lobby of "The Miami Herald" and shot himself to death. DeFede, stunned and shaken, told his editor about the tape, and was interviewed for an online story about the dramatic suicide. Later in the day, "Herald" executives fired DeFede for violating the law by taping a phone call without permission.

"Herald" editor Tom Fiedler defended the decision saying, "What Jim acknowledged doing violated one of the most fundamental tenets of journalistic ethics, which holds that in all our dealings, we act without hidden motives or practices. Especially troubling to me was Jim's admission that he turned on his tape recorder at a moment when Teele was clearly agitated, when his thoughts were disconnected, rambling, incoherent. When it comes to maintaining our integrity, we must be absolutists."

Joining me now from Miami in his first national television interview is Jim DeFede. Welcome.

JIM DEFEDE, FORMER "MIAMI HERALD" COLUMNIST: Thank you for having me, Howard.

KURTZ: Let's explain what happened here. Why did Art Teele call you shortly before committing suicide?

DEFEDE: Well, I hadn't spoken to Art in about four months, and when he called me, he was calling me -- he was very upset, as you said, he was very distraught. He was almost in tears. He wanted to talk to me about allegations that were about to surface that he'd had a homosexual affair with a transvestite prostitute, who was in jail telling his story to various news media, and he was devastated by this. And as I started talking to Art, I didn't turn on the tape recorder until several minutes into the conversation, because initially I thought Art was just venting.

But what I heard in Art's voice was a sound of such despair and defeatism, that, you know, it was clear that he'd given up. And it was an impulsive -- it was an impulsive decision, one that I didn't give a lot of thought about, whether or not it was right or wrong, or legal or not. I pushed the button the way you would sort of want to preserve a 9/11 tape. I did it out of concern for Art.

That's one of the things -- you know, I wish I would be able to sit down with Tom Fiedler and explain to him. He says he thinks that the reason I taped -- or the fact that I taped a distraught man, you know, was a serious violation. To me, I did it out of concern for Art, and I think that if you listen to the tape, and others who have and will, will understand that all the more.

KURTZ: Let me come back to that one second, but the reports you referred to were actually posted online that morning by "Miami New Times." It was a police report, a raw, unedited police report that contained allegations about prostitutes and multiple mistresses. And Jim Mullin of "Miami New Times" said that he believes that Teele forfeited his private life once he became under indictment, but he acknowledged that critics saw the disclosure as a malicious attempt to humiliate Teele. Did you see it that way?

DEFEDE: Well, I hadn't seen the reports. And when Art was talking to me, I didn't even realize that these reports were about to come out in "The Miami New Times." So I hadn't seen the story. I was just trying to more calm Art down, because he was sounding so despondent, and I was trying to give him the idea that he had hope. I was telling him to trust an attorney, that he could get through these allegations, that both the state and federal public corruption charges against him.

KURTZ: Hold on, hold on! This guy is a politician, you're a columnist. I know you've said he's your friend, but what are you doing giving advice to somebody in that situation? Is that your job?

DEFEDE: Well, it was at that moment, I felt. It wasn't so much it was my job, but it was -- look, I'm also a person, and when I hear someone on the phone coming apart, you know, I can't just ignore that. And I felt very strongly that Art was coming apart. And all I told him, I said, was, Art -- because he kept professing his innocence to me. He told me over and over again, these charges were not true, they were not true. And what I told him was, I said, Art, trust your attorney then. Your attorney will get you through this.

And I think that -- and I don't have any regret about giving him that advice, especially under those circumstances.

KURTZ: Now, Tom Fiedler, "The Herald's" editor, told me the other day that he's listened to the tape, and that on the tape, during that conversation, you asked Teele to go on the record. And Teele said no. And that later you said to him, well, you can call me any time if you want to talk off the record.

You then wrote a column about this, which "The Herald" declined to publish. Even though the guy was now dead, how can you write a column about a conversation that was off the record?

DEFEDE: Well, let's be clear about whether or not this was truly on or off the record. Halfway through the phone conversation, when it was clear to me that Art thought he had no avenues to pursue and no ways of fighting back -- and I agreed with him that I thought these were scurrilous charges that had nothing -- I thought the transvestite homosexual allegation had nothing to do with his public corruption case.

And so I said to Art, I said, Art, if you want to go on the record with that, I'll write a story about that, because I agree with you. I think that's scurrilous. But I was doing it as much as anything to give him the idea that he had ways of fighting back.

The thing that scared me most about Art was that he had given up. This was a man who was a legendary fighter in this town, and he had all but but given up. And he said no. And it's clear to me now why he said no. He said no because he had already made up his mind to kill himself. He wasn't interested in the story attacking the prosecutors directly.

But I have no doubt in my mind that he wanted me to tell his story. He called me, he tells me during that conversation I'm the only journalist in Miami who he can trust to tell his story. He calls me within an hour of killing himself, even though we hadn't spoken in four months.

KURTZ: Right.

DEFEDE: I have no doubt in my mind he came to me with -- a reporter with a very large megaphone in Miami. He knew he was going to kill himself, he knew he was going to get very, very bad press, and he wanted at least one person to tell his side of the story. I'm absolutely confident of that.

KURTZ: Coming back to your firing, Tom Fiedler told me that he admired you as a columnist -- in fact, he hired you at the paper, but that if he let you stay, future sources might have trouble trusting "Herald" reporters. A lot of other journalists are saying that the punishment was way harsh for what you did.

What do you say to Fiedler's argument that the credibility of "The Herald" is at stake? DEFEDE: First of all, I think these are extraordinary circumstances. You know, there's nothing like this in the handbook that you can go on how to handle a situation like this. So I mean, these are -- these are -- I've never heard of another situation like this anywhere in the country. So there's not a lot of precedent for it.

So I think if you explain that -- also, I'd said I was willing to accept, you know, a suspension of some sort and then apologize, because I want the paper's integrity to be preserved.

KURTZ: So you acknowledge that you made a serious mistake. No dispute about that.

DEFEDE: You know, I made a judgment that is clearly, in hindsight, I wish I hadn't done at the time. I mean, I wish -- the thing I regret most is I wish I had stayed on the phone with Art more and talked to him.

But let me make this point clear. I think the message that's sent from this isn't about protecting the integrity of the newspaper. I'm afraid that this decision to fire me hurts the newspaper and its reputation, because I'm the one who came forward and told them about the tape.

KURTZ: Right.

DEFEDE: I'm the one...

KURTZ: Jim DeFede, we have less than a minute. Clearly, you're the one who notified the paper of the offense that led to your firing.

DEFEDE: And let me make this point -- I have to make this point, Howard.

KURTZ: You've talked to prosecutors in the case. "The Herald" has now played the tape for prosecutors. Are you worried about being charged here?

DEFEDE: What I respect is the fact that prosecutors are taking their time to look at all the evidence, and they spent -- and I walked myself into the state attorney's office without immunity, without protection, and talked to them for two-and-a-half hours. "The Herald" based its decision to fire me on a 10-minute conversation that took place while Art Teele's body was still in the lobby and he was still bleeding to death. I would just hope that "The Miami Herald" would take a step back -- and we can all take a step back -- and look at this in a calmer light.

I like the fact that the state attorney's office is taking their time. I just wish "The Miami Herald" and its executives would sit down with myself and give me a chance to sort of talk to them, explain to them in much greater detail what happened.

KURTZ: OK. Jim DeFede, we are out of time. Thank you for taking the time to sit down with us and talk about this difficult situation. We appreciate it.

DEFEDE: Thank you.

KURTZ: Just ahead, an American journalist killed in Iraq. Plus, Robert Novak in the hot seat, defending himself in the Valerie Plame case and walking off a CNN set during an on-air argument.


KURTZ: It's been a rough few days for Robert Novak. The syndicated columnist and CNN commentator started the week on the defensive about his role in outing CIA operative Valerie Plame two years ago. Former CIA spokesman Bill Harlow told "The Washington Post" that Novak got part of his original story wrong, and that he strongly warned the columnist not to use Plame's name.

Novak responded in a column Monday, breaking his previous silence about the case. He insisted he had the details right and would not have named the covert employee if anyone from the CIA, quote, "had told me that Valerie Plame Wilson's disclosure would endanger herself or anybody."

Then, on Thursday's "INSIDE POLITICS," during a debate with James Carville on another subject, Novak walked off the set after uttering an obscenity. CNN apologized, and has pulled Novak off the air for an undetermined period of time, calling his behavior "inexcusable" and "unacceptable."

Novak later told the Associated Press that he apologizes for his conduct, but that his sudden departure had nothing to do with the fact that anchor Ed Henry had warned him that questions about the Plame controversy would follow shortly.

Novak has continued to dismiss calls from other journalists to explain how he came to learn about Plame's identity, and whether or not he has testified in the case.

In other media news, Stephen Vincent has become the first American journalist abducted and murdered in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Vincent contributed articles to "The Christian Science Monitor" and "National Review Online" among others, while working on a book about Islamic fundamentalism and local militias in the southern city of Basra. Vincent wrote in a "New York Times" op-ed just last Sunday that, quote, "a few police officers are perpetrating many of the hundreds of assassinations, mostly of former Baath Party members, that take place in Basra each month."

Numerous witnesses saw Vincent's kidnapping on a busy street in Basra just two days later, and said the abductors appeared to be driving police vehicles. Vincent was later found shot to death, one of at least 52 journalists to die in Iraq since the 2003 invasion; 19 of them, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, deliberately killed.

Ahead on RELIABLE SOURCES, remembering a Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic at "The Los Angeles Times." (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: David Shaw, who dissected the media for "The L.A. Times" for three decades, died this week. Before almost anyone else, the Pulitzer Prize winner wrote these long, multi-part, nuanced series about the shortcomings of news organizations, including his own. He talked about his role at the paper on this program four years ago.


DAVID SHAW, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": It's my job, and it has been for more than 25 years, to write critical analyses about how the news media performs. When "The L.A. Times" does a good job, my stories say so. If they aren't doing a good job, and the people I interview say they aren't doing a good job, my stories say that, and I've been fortunate that the paper has given me the freedom to write those things."


KURTZ: Shaw's finest moment may have been when he wrote 35,000 words, ripping "The Times" over the Staples Center revenue sharing scandal, sparing no one, including top editors. David Shaw was 62.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Be sure to 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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