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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Are Media Turning Against War in Iraq?
Aired March 26, 2006 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Souring on the war. As President Bush goes toe to toe with White House reporters, are news organizations turning against the war in Iraq? Are they focusing almost exclusively on the car bombings and mosque attacks and brushing aside signs of progress? Three years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, are they playing to the opinion polls with skeptical, even hostile coverage, or is the administration just blaming the messenger.
We'll ask CBS's Laura Logan, White House and Pentagon reporters, and commentators Bill Bennett and Bill Press.
Plus, women who run from the press or play to the cameras.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today from Baghdad to here at home we turn our critical lens on this charge: that the media are providing a distorted picture on Iraq.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
President Bush and Vice President Cheney launched an all-out blitz to sell their policy this week, and the media's tendency to focus on the violence in Iraq was part of their message.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Perception, if you will, that's created because what's newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad. It's not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces in terms of making progress towards rebuilding Iraq.
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Footage of children playing or shops opening and people resuming their normal lives will never be as dramatic as the footage of an IED explosion.
They're capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And joining us now from Baghdad is Laura Logan, chief foreign correspondent for CBS News.
Lara Logan, you just heard the president and the vice president.
LARA LOGAN, CBS NEWS: Thank you for having me.
KURTZ: Thank you.
Bush and Cheney essentially seem to be accusing you and your colleagues of carrying the terrorist message by reporting on so many of these attacks. What do you make of that?
LOGAN: Well, I think that's -- that is a very convenient way of looking at it. It doesn't reflect the value judgment that's implicit in that.
As a journalist, if an American soldier or an Iraqi person dies that day, you have to make a decision about how you weigh the value of reporting that news over the value of something that may be happening, say, a water plant that's being turned on that brings fresh water to 200 Iraqi people. I mean, you get accused of valuing human life in a certain way depending on how you report it.
And also, as -- I mean, what I would point out is that you can't travel around this country anymore without military protection. You can't travel without armed guards. You're not free to go every time there's a school opening or there's some reconstruction project that's being done.
We don't have the ability to go out and cover those. If they want to see a fair picture of what's happening in Iraq, then you have to first start with the security issue.
When journalists are free to move around this country, then they will be free to report on everything that's going on. But as long as you're a prisoner of the terrible security situation here, then that's going to be reflected in your coverage.
And not only that, but their own figures show that their reconstruction project was supposed to create 1.5 million Iraqi jobs. To date, 77,000 Iraqi government jobs have been created. That should give you an indication of how far along they are in terms of reconstruction.
We have to put everything in its context. We can't go to one small unit and say, oh, they did a great job in this village and ignore all the other villages that haven't seen any improvement in their conditions.
KURTZ: There is no question that the dangerous conditions for journalists there are making it much harder to report on some of these signs of progress, as you point out. But I look at just the last couple of weeks of your coverage. Besides covering the Saddam trial, you reported on allegations that U.S. troops had killed a group of civilians. Then you reported an attack on a police station, the bombing of a police convoy, you talked about the threat of a civil war. All legitimate stories. But critics would say, well, no wonder people back home think things are falling apart because we get this steady drumbeat of negativity from the correspondents there.
LOGAN: Well, who says things aren't falling apart in Iraq? I mean, what you didn't see on your screens this week was all the unidentified bodies that have been turning up, all the allegations here of militias that are really controlling the security forces.
What about all the American soldiers that died this week that you didn't see on our screens? I mean, we've reported on reconstruction stories over and over again, but the order to (ph) general for Iraqi reconstruction says that only 49 of well over 100 planned electricity projects happened.
So we can't keep doing the same stories over and over again. When a police station's attacked, that's something new that happened this week. If you had any idea of the number of Iraqis that come to us with stories of abuses of U.S. soldiers and you look at our coverage over the last -- my coverage over the last few weeks, or even over the last three years, there's been maybe two or three stories that have related to that.
So, I mean, we have to do the stories that when we've tested them and tested them and checked all our sources, and that they are legitimate stories on that day, that that is the biggest news coming out of Iraq, then that's what we have to do.
KURTZ: So what you're saying...
LOGAN: I mean, I really resent the fact that people say that we're not reflecting the true picture here. That's totally unfair and it's really unfounded.
KURTZ: So what you're saying is that what we see on the "CBS Evening News" or other networks actually is only a snapshot, is only perhaps scratching the surface of the kinds of violence and difficulties that you are witnessing day after day because you can only get so much of this on the air?
LOGAN: Oh, yes. Absolutely. And, I mean, our own -- you know, our own editors back in New York are asking us the same things.
They read the same comments. You know, are there positive stories? Can't you find them?
You don't think that I haven't been to the U.S. military and the State Department and the embassy and asked them over and over again, let's see the good stories, show us some of the good things that are going on? Oh, sorry, we can't take to you that school project, because if you put that on TV, they're going to be attacked about, the teachers are going to be killed, the children might be victims of attack.
Oh, sorry, we can't show this reconstruction project because then that's going to expose it to sabotage. And the last time we had journalists down here, the plant was attacked.
I mean, security dominates every single thing that happens in this country. Reconstruction funds have been diverted to cover away from reconstruction to -- they've been diverted to security.
Soldiers, their lives are occupied most of the time with security issues. Iraqi civilians' lives are taken up most of the time with security issues.
So how it is that security issues should not then dominate the media coverage coming out of here?
KURTZ: I want to play for you a piece of tape involving Laura Ingraham, the conservative radio talk show how who was on "The Today Show" earlier this week and criticized "The Today Show" for not doing more from Iraq.
Let's listen to what she had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: To do a show from Iraq means to talk to the Iraqi military, to go out with the Iraqi military, to actually have a conversation with the people instead of reporting from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs going off.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: What do you make of that comment about reporting from hotel balconies?
LOGAN: Well, I think it's outrageous. I mean, Laura Ingraham should come to Iraq and not be talking about what journalists are doing from the comfort of her studio in the United States, the comfort and the safety.
I mean, I don't know any journalist that wants to just sit in a hotel room in Iraq. Does anybody understand that for us we used to be able to drive to Ramadi, we used to drive to Falluja, we used to drive to Najaf. We could travel all over this country without having to fly in military helicopters.
That's the only way we can move around here. So, it's when the military can accommodate us, if the military can accommodate us, then we can go out and see.
I have been out with Iraqi security forces over and over again. And you know what? When bob Woodruff was out with Iraqi security forces and he was injured, the first thing that people were asking was, oh, was he being responsible by placing himself in this position with Iraqi forces? And they started to question his responsibility and integrity as a journalist.
I mean, we just can't win. I think it's an outrage to point the finger at journalists and say that this is our fault. I really do. And I think it shows an abject lack of respect for any journalist that's prepared to come to this country and risk their lives.
KURTZ: All right. I do...
LOGAN: And that's not just me. That's the crews, that's all the people that make up our teams here.
KURTZ: I do want to point out that Laura Ingraham was in Iraq last month for eight days, and that was part of the reason for her appearance.
Lara Logan, stay with us. I want to bring...
LOGAN: For eight days.
KURTZ: I want to bring into our discussion Richard Wolffe, "Newsweek" senior White House correspondent, and Pam Hess, Pentagon correspondent for UPI.
Pam Hess, you spent nine weeks in Iraq. What do you make of this notion that some people apparently have that reporters are reporting from the balconies when basically some of them are just trying to avoid getting blown up?
PAMELA HESS, UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL: And I've actually spent five months in Iraq over the last three years.
Television reports from balconies because that's where the infrastructure was. But I was up in Tal Afar with Laura Logan. I can promise you that she's out in the country. And everything that Lara Logan said is true.
But there's an important part here. And it's -- and it sort of plays in with what the president said, which is, news media is biased towards drama. And in an insurgent campaign, drama is always on the side of the insurgents. So there is something that we need to do as reporters, which is to recognize how media is used by both sides, by the U.S. and by the insurgents, and try to balance our coverage that way.
And the way that you do that is by developing sources within the military who are out in other places where you can find out about things that are going on that you can't get to.
KURTZ: Whatever the reasons, Richard Wolffe, is it true, does the administration at least have a point that the press is not giving us a complete picture of what's happening in Iraq?
RICHARD WOLFFE, "NEWSWEEK": No, I don't think so. Let's face it, the administration is winding down spending on reconstruction. And, at the same time, they're going out saying, we should do more reconstruction stories. It's a bogus argument.
The reason they're doing it is a political strategy. It's much easier to talk about the media. It's a common enemy for their base, for their supporters, than it is to talk about Iraq itself, to talk about port security, to talk about immigration. It's a political -- it's a political ploy, and it's successful. But that's what it is.
KURTZ: Pam Hess, are there times when you want to report on something the military has done, perhaps something more positively, and you don't get much help from the Pentagon?
HESS: Just this week, as a matter of fact, we asked Donald Rumsfeld and Admiral Giambastiani about the successful hostage rescue in Baghdad which released the British hostages that had been there. One of their -- a number -- an American had been killed. And they punted on it. They said read the transcript from Baghdad. They didn't tell us about it.
So when we want to report something positive, a rescue, they didn't give us the information.
KURTZ: Richard Wolffe, the people who complain that the coverage of Iraq is bias -- and there are a lot of them out there...
KURTZ: ... do they want objective reporting?
WOLFFE: No, they don't. They want to replace one piece of bias with another. And that's what we should know about the sort of bias witch hunt that has been going on, not just about Iraq, but about politics and political reporting in general over the last 18 months or so.
If they were defending objective reporting, they would say, let's uphold journalistic standards that many journalists, by and large, want to support and perform and execute every day. In fact, what they're saying is, no, set aside the violence and just deal with the positive things. It's not a reporter's job...
KURTZ: I don't think they're saying just deal with the positive aspects.
WOLFFE: They are saying that the balance is wrong and they want to see us doing things that advance a cause. Our job is not to advance a cause. Our job is to report on what's newsworthy.
Why do cable shows talk about the murder of pretty young women and not about positive things in life like childbirth or cooking? Why? Because what grabs people's attention is violence and murder. It's a fact of life.
KURTZ: All right.
Lara Logan in Baghdad, do you sometimes get flack from the military over your reporting or of this perception that television trains its camera lens particularly on negative news and on the continuing spate of attacks?
LOGAN: You know, it's a question that soldiers often raise with me, but from watching my report and knowing my work, they know that I am extremely fair and extremely balanced and don't just go out and do the bad news stories. So it's not so much an issue for me.
I mean, I'd like to point out, I've been vilified by certain Web sites because of my recent piece on Tal Afar, where I showed how the administration is taking back a city and is working to rebuild the city and improve the situation for Iraqi lives. I mean, you really can't win.
You're in a situation where you're being attacked by both sides. And I can honestly tell you that you go out and you report to the best of your ability based on years and years of doing this. You frame it in a context that is the most accurate. And you hope that the picture that you present overall reflects the picture that you see on the ground here.
And I really -- the soldiers ask about it, but I think that, you know, the smarter ones realize that journalists report what they see. And we're very, very fair. And there's a lot of stuff that you pick up from being with the soldiers that the military would hate you to have out there on air.
And if you're -- you know, if you're smart enough and you can put in it your context, you realize that may be the view of an individual soldier who is tired of being here after six months, and so you don't put it out there. But you do have to use your judgment.
KURTZ: Absolutely. It's interesting that you are getting it from both sides, not just people who think that the coverage is too negative.
Lara Logan, in Baghdad, thanks very much for joining us. Stay safe. We appreciate it.
Up next, the president takes his P.R. blitz on the war into dangerous territory, the White House briefing room.
And coming up later on CNN, Wolf Blitzer's interview with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. That's on "LATE EDITION," 11:00 a.m. Eastern.
And at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, CNN Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson is on the story of the dangers of reporting from Iraq.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
When the president held a news conference this week, most of the questions were about Iraq. And most of the questioners -- that is, the reporters -- were openly skeptical of how the war is going and how the Bush administration is handling it.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID JACKSON, "USA TODAY" Are you concerned that the Iraq experience is going to embolden authoritarian regimes in the Middle East?
BOB DEANS, COX NEWS: Is there a point at which having the American forces in Iraq becomes more a part of the problem than a part of the solution?
JESSICA YELLIN, ABC NEWS: Are you willing to sacrifice American lives to keep Iraqis from killing one another?
KATHLEEN KOCH, CNN: Do you believe Rumsfeld should resign?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And joining our panel now, Frank Sesno, who covered the White House for CNN And The Associated Press. He's now a CNN special correspondent and a professor of public policy and communication at George Mason University.
And still with us, "Newsweek's" Richard Wolffe and Pam Hess from UPI.
Frank Sesno, you heard those questions. To people sitting at home, what is the cumulative effect of hearing reporters ask those questions?
FRANK SESNO, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: Probably for the people sitting at home the cumulative effect, Howie, is that there they go again: the journalists doing what they do best, pounding away, badgering the witness, sounding overly negative. To those in the -- in the press room, however, it's their job. And it is also an expression of the frustration of reporters who try to cover the White House to get, frankly, a straight answer.
KURTZ: What do you make of this White House offensive charging that things are actually going better in Iraq than the media portrayal would have you believe?
SESNO: It's absolutely inevitable. We've seen it at every -- in every White House that I've covered or watched. It reflects what's happening in public opinion.
Look, when the president declared major hostilities were over in Iraq in mid '03, his approval rating for handling Iraq was 69 percent. Now it's 29 percent. All right?
The White House has to get out there. They have to counter the images. Whether you like them or not, whether they're right or not, it's part of the dynamic, that the White House gets out there, and counters these images that are coming back. Because, Howie, here's a very central point.
Yes, it's about numbers. Yes, it's about politics. But it's also about maintaining public support for a war, public support for a war. And they just have to do this out in the public.
KURTZ: Richard Wolffe, you heard those questions. Were you at the briefing? It sounded like the reporters were somewhere between skeptical and hostile towards the war effort.
WOLFFE: Well, for starts, it's the three-year anniversary of the war. So it was inevitable that the questions about Iraq were going to dominate. But they're also reflecting public opinion.
At 29 percent approval on the war, the president has lost about a quarter of his own base. So it's not like reporters have cooked this up. There are deep concerns in the country about the direction of the war. Opinion has turned against the war and the question of whether it was worth it. And reporters reflect what their audiences are interested in.
KURTZ: So is it the job of reporters to reflect the public opinion polls? In other words, if public support for this war was now at 60 percent, then the questions would not have had that tone?
WOLFFE: They reflect the interests of their audience. We are all feeding our own customers. And that's what we do. I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
SESNO: The question is -- the question is, is it a feeding frenzy, or does the -- and I've sat in that press room, as have you, you know. The question is, does this group thing take over where one negative question leads to another negative question and it becomes sort of the thing to do?
WOLFFE: It's the third anniversary of the war in Iraq, of the invasion in Iraq. As I said, were people obsessed about it? Sure. Is it the biggest thing in American life right now? Yes. It's costing a huge amount in blood and treasure.
HESS: Just to ask a question implies negativity, because it is questioning of authority. So people will automatically see all of those questions as negative, even though they're not. They're just questions asking for information. Are you willing to sacrifice lives to stop a civil war? Answer the question.
KURTZ: Right, but there is a cumulative effect that comes...
KURTZ: ... across the screen when there are so many in succession.
You go to press briefings with Donald Rumsfeld. He has given some speeches lately on press coverage.
KURTZ: This week's briefing, he took a shot at Maureen Dowd of "The New York Times."
KURTZ: Is Rumsfeld, in your view, at least in part blaming the messenger? HESS: Oh, sure. Rumsfeld takes a very long view of history. And I think he has said and I believe he believes that in the long term his view of this war is going to vindicated.
What he knows about insurgent wars and counterinsurgencies is that they are -- the progress made in them is incremental and it's very hard to see. I'm not saying that that progress is going on in Iraq either way. But I'm saying that if it's happening, it's very hard to see and it's incremental. And in 20 years we'll know.
And he's satisfied to wait for 20 years. I don't think he cares what we think of him.
KURTZ: The press corps is obviously not satisfied to wait for 20 years.
HESS: Right. The problem that I think that they're facing right now is that even if you look at the incremental gains, the three successful elections that they've had, some of the improvements that they've made in the infrastructure, things that are improving, that I saw improving across Iraq, the problem that you have is that we're still losing two people a day.
So, big picture, it looks the exact same way now as it did two and a half years ago. We're still losing two people a day.
KURTZ: For all of the violence and all the mounting death toll in Iraq, Frank Sesno, there is a rebuilding process going on there. There is some progress being made with the economy. But you hear relatively little of that in the media.
SESNO: I've never been happy with that side of the story and the way that's covered. I never thought that that has the full attention that it deserves.
The fact of the matter is there are several stories in Iraq to cover. First of all, let us say this, it's a war. The president uses that term and terminology, Rumsfeld, everybody does. So it going to get war coverage.
So the first thing that's going to be covered is, what's happening on the battlefield? That's why the violence gets the attention it does, and it should. But there are these other stories, the billions that are being spent to rebuild...
SESNO: ... the billions that are being focused or the attention that's being focused on the political rebuilding. Those should get more attention than they do. But for a whole host of reasons, some you heard from Lara Logan, it's very difficult to do that.
WOLFFE: Don't assume that the reconstruction story is a positive story. They spent a lot of money, and electricity isn't that much better. The oil industry is still struggling. This has not been -- you know, don't think that focusing on these billion of dollars being spent is going to be positive for the administration.
KURTZ: But are you willing to concede that because of the dangerous conditions for journalists in Iraq -- and we've all seen too many instances of journalists both being killed, injured, or kidnapped, or placed in danger -- that it is hard to get the voices of ordinary Iraqis into these reports because simply to go into a market could be dangerous?
WOLFFE: Sure it is, absolutely, which is why it's so outrageous that, frankly, people, conservative commentators and people in the administration, are criticizing these war reporters who are literally risking their lives for the story. Yes, it's difficult, but these people are trying. And we should respect them for it.
SESNO: Can I say one other thing? I want you to imagine that something like this were happening here in this country, that there were two or three or four suicide bombings a day in Washington, Chicago, Dallas, California. What do you think the coverage would be like? What would people want to know about? What would be the dynamic of that story?
There's no question.
KURTZ: I think the question answers itself.
All right. We need to get a break.
When we come back, is the reporting coming out of Iraq starting to look like coverage of another unpopular war?
And later, two of the country's top talk radio hosts, Bill Press and Bill Bennett, weigh in on the media and Iraq.
KURTZ: Welcome back.
The Committee to Protect Journalists now says that 67 journalists have been killed in Iraq. That's one more than they say were killed during the entire much longer span of the Vietnam War, which is a sobering figure, indeed.
Pam Hess, do you see echoes of Vietnam and what is happening in the press coverage?
HESS: I think that there's actually a hangover in both sides. From the government's side, one true thing that I think most people in this government think is that Vietnam could have been won if only the will of the American people to stay and fight had held. And they blame the media for undermining that.
KURTZ: For turning the country against the war. HESS: Right. On the media side, there's a hangover because what they saw happening with the government is saying just 10,000 more guys and one more year and there's a light at the end of the tunnel. And we don't want that to happen again. We don't want us to be in another losing war for 20 years.
So there's this loggerheads going on, but the two both have a hangover.
KURTZ: This three-year anniversary of Iraq has reminded me of the Vietnam coverage in that there is much more sharply-defined, aggressive stories and questions about, what are we doing there, can this thing be won, is there any light at the end of the tunnel, to use the famous Vietnam phrase.
SESNO: Exit strategy -- my thoughts are that I think it's inevitable. It's part of the process. And here's where it really matters, and that is the impact on public opinion. Will the public remain and support the war?
And let's stop just aiming exclusively at the media here for just a minute. Sure, people use the media to get their information, but they also judge this against a whole bunch of other things: their own personal experience, do they know people over, have they got friend or relatives in the military, what they see around them, their own historical thing.
It's not just from the military that people are making these opinions. So t shift in public opinion on the president's -- on the support for the president and on the war in general, it's not just the media creating these things. People are much smarter than that.
KURTZ: You said earlier that the news organizations are quite understandably reflecting the shift in public opinion, which clearly has turned, at least a majority of Americans now oppose the war and question whether we should have gone there in first place. But would you acknowledge that the media are also influencing that public opinion if you see every night on television, car attacks, suicide bombs, mosque attacks? Of course you're going to think things are going badly.
WOLFFE: Sure, I don't deny that. But again, our job is -- is to cover what is newsworthy. And let's just put it into some context about Vietnam, because you raised it.
When people think about Vietnam, the stories that stand out are generally reporting about American atrocities. What we're seeing here is reporting, extensive reporting about violence by Iraqis on Iraqis. It's Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence. It's a totally different thing.
So when people say it's undermining support for the war in some way, well, all they're doing is, A, reporting the news, but B, look at what that news is. For the most part, this is not about American troops. It's about Iraqi civilians. KURTZ: Well, it's certainly in part about American troops.
SESNO: It is about American troops, and it's about American involvement, because that's where the -- look, the president of the United States gambled here. And I actually interviewed him in another context once upon a time and he talked about what leaders need to do is they need to get out, they need to get out front and take their chances. And that's what he's done.
He believes the big gamble is to change the equation in the Middle East and the region. We don't know yet whether he's going to be successful. We're just reporting the story along the way.
KURTZ: This debate about the media coverage, as well, will go on for a long time.
Sorry, Pam Hess, we are out of time.
Richard Wolffe, Pam Hess, Frank Sesno, thanks very much for joining us.
Ahead in our next half hour, is Washington columnist Helen Thomas crusading against the war? Bill Bennett and Bill Press square up on that and other issues next.
And later, we'll talk to the founder of the world's most popular political blog, Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos.
Plus, why the cameras can't resist women in trouble, especially if they're running away.
All that after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Betty Nguyen here at the CNN Center in Atlanta.
"Now in the News," in Afghanistan, conflicting reports this morning about a man threatened with execution for converting from Islam to Christianity. A Western diplomat and Afghan officials say Abdul Rahman is expected to be released today. But sources in Afghan -- in the Afghan judiciary say that might not happen because the case was thrown out on technical grounds and prosecutors are gathering new evidence.
We're going to stay on top of that and bring you the latest.
The families of two dozen victims of the 9/11 attacks will be able to listen to recordings of 911 calls made by their loved ones in the final moments of their lives. The New York City fire Department is releasing the recordings. The families can't decide whether to keep them private or to make them public.
We're going to have more headlines in just 30 minutes. RELIABLE SOURCES continues right after this break.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
Three years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the coverage has never been more negative and the media's role has never been more controversial.
Joining us now to talk about the president, the war, and the press, Bill Bennett, host of "Morning in America" on Salem Radio Network, and Washington fellow at the Clairemont Institute. And Bill Press, host of "The Bill Press Show" on Sirius Satellite Radio and a former "CROSSFIRE" co-host here at CNN.
Bill Bennett, do you believe that most journalists have turned against this war or are just being aggressive in the way that they cover it?
BILL BENNETT, SALEM RADIO NETWORK: Well, I think most -- most -- yes, I think most journalists, most mainstream journalists are turning against the war. You just had an interesting sample. You had four journalists on.
Interesting, not one bit of question about whether there's any bias in the media from them. Four journalists who don't think there's any bias at all, shocking.
A more serious point, not one bit of introspection. You know, well, maybe we are, maybe we do a little bit. Absolutely not -- I heard the word "outrageous" five times.
Who are these, you know, gooney Americans who could possibly think that we are biased? Well, there are -- it turns out there are a lot of Americans who think they're biased and they think they can cite chapter and verse.
KURTZ: The White House and the P.R. blitz that I referred to earlier in the show, are they trying to make the media an issue to deflect attention from the war itself?
BILL PRESS, SIRIUS SATELLITE RADIO: Oh, totally. I mean, it's a totally orchestrated campaign. But I think it's a silly campaign, Howie. You know...
PRESS: Silly in the sense, you know, I've been around either playing politics or talking about it and commenting on politics for like 30 years now, I hate to say. And I've never met a politician yet who, when he got in trouble, he or she, didn't blame the media.
I mean, Lyndon Johnson did it, Bill Clinton did it. Richard Nixon did it. And now George Bush is doing it.
And the fact is, there's a lot of good news out of Iraq, there's a lot of bad news out of Iraq. Today, there happens to be, I think more -- not today, today, but at this time, more bad news than good news, and that's what we're hearing. But we hear both.
I know about some of the good stuff that's happening in Iraq. I haven't been there. How do I know about it? I saw it on television, I read about it in the newspaper. So you do see both.
KURTZ: All right.
I want to play for both of you again the comments by your talk radio colleague, Laura Ingraham, on "The Today Show," followed by a rebuttal, a very strong rebuttal, from MSNBC's Keith Olbermann.
Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: To do a show from Iraq means to talk to the Iraqi military, to go out with the Iraqi military, to actually have a conversation with the people, instead of reporting from hotel balconies about the latest IEDs going off.
KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: That hotel balcony crack was unforgivable. It was unforgivable to the memory of David Bloom. It was unforgivable in the consideration of Bob Woodruff and Doug Vogt. It was unforgivable in the light of what happened to Michael Kelly and what happened to Michael Weisskopf. It was unforgivable with Jill Carroll still a hostage in Iraq.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: What do you say?
BENNETT: Well, those are -- those are heroic people. I happen to know several of them very well. But I don't think there's any question either that some people are not venturing out. "The New York Times" even reports that they're not.
KURTZ: Well, they're limited in their ability to get out.
BENNETT: Well, sure.
KURTZ: And they need security escorts. And sometimes they need to be...
BENNETT: I understand. And they should be prudent. They shouldn't get themselves blown up. And that's obviously a sensible concern. John Burns of "The New York Times" says that the reporters are under-reporting the good news. He says we're guilty, absolutely guilty.
You were asked the other day -- you're a fair-minded guy -- and you said it's negative, of course it's negative. You're just seeing exactly what the American people are seeing.
KURTZ: Why it's negative. I don't believe it's negative because journalists are trying deliberately to paint a negative picture of this war.
What do you think, Bill?
PRESS: Well, I just wanted to say -- I have to say -- I hate to use the word again, but I think it is outrageous for a talk show host to go to Iraq and admittedly, in very secure conditions, and be taken care of and give a report, and then come back and attack the journalists who are there covering it day by day by day, putting their lives on the line, you know, it's an attack on Laura Logan.
Come on. It is. It's an attack on Nic Robertson, who does it here.
BENNETT: Some are putting their lives on the line and some are not.
BENNETT: Those who are putting their lives on the line, I'm going over the to Iraq.
PRESS: You and I are not putting our lives on the line, but they are.
BENNETT: Well, if I go, then you can praise me for doing it. Laura was out beyond the balconies. I think it's a side issue.
PRESS: He's doing his job.
BENNETT: Fine. I admire him. I salute him. He's courageous.
Let's talk about these bureaus. Let's talk about Helen Thomas at the press conference. Let's talk about David Gregory. Let's talk about Dan Rather. You think the American people can't see what's right in front of them?
KURTZ: Since you brought up Helen Thomas, she got a lot of attention this week for questions she asked at the news conference. She spent decades with the United Press International, now a columnist for Hearst.
Let's take a look at her question for the president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HELEN THOMAS, HEARST NEWSPAPERS: Mr. President, your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly, at least, has turned out not to be true.
My question is, why did you really want to go to war?
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In all due respect -- no, hold on for a second, please. Excuse me. Excuse me. No president wants war.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: What did you make of Helen Thomas' comments?
BENNETT: Well, I mean, first of all, it's untrue. What she said is untrue. A number of reasons were cited, and those reasons turned out to be true, the kind of butchery that Saddam was practicing. It is much better place now by any objective criteria of life and death.
KURTZ: So you're disagreeing with the premise of the question, but is it a fair question?
BENNETT: Yes, but, I mean, her hostility -- her hostility was evident. Her notion that she regards the president as a liar was clear to everybody who saw it.
PRESS: Look, it's a fair question. Obviously it's fair.
BENNETT: Badly asked.
PRESS: Bill, please. We are at war. The president gave reasons for going to war like weapons of mass destruction. Above all, like a connection with al Qaeda, like nuclear weapons, like a threat to the United States, none of which proved to be true. So fair question.
And if the president goes in front of the press corps at the last minute, which that was, he's got all those people there, presidents get tough questions. Every president has. What's the big deal? He can take it.
BENNETT: Of course he can take it. But, I mean, we can leave it at this: show that tape, as you did, let people decide whether they think that is a fair question asked in a fair way. The journalists say fine. The American people just don't think it was. Many of the American people.
PRESS: Just a final point. I think if there's a problem in Iraq, right, I would have to suggest, the way to fix it is not to blame the media, not to play the blame game. The way to fix it is to fix the problem.
I think the other thing they've been caught in is their own expectations, Howie. They're -- the White House is playing today against its own expectations that they put out in the media, like greeted as liberators, if I can just finish that, like...
PRESS: ... we're going to have -- we've seen the last throes of the insurgency. And they're not matching up. And so of course the media reports on that.
BENNETT: The game is up. It's not the press it used to be. It's not the American people it used to be. They blog, they talk to each other, they find out the lies.
KURTZ: Let me play one more piece of tape for you, the president making a speech this week in West Virginia. A woman in audience asked him about all the car bombings and other attacks she sees on the news.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It seems that our major media networks don't want to portray the good. They just want to focus...
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Fairly or unfair, there are a lot of Americans who agree with that woman.
PRESS: Yes, there are. There are, because, you know, propaganda works. If the White House puts it out there enough that the media is biased, a lot of people are going to believe it.
KURTZ: Are you suggesting that people are too dumb to...
BENNETT: That they're stupid. You think the American people are stupid.
PRESS: I'm suggesting it's an orchestrated campaign, and spin does work if you hear it enough from the very tops of this administration.
BENNETT: This is the attitude, those dumb people, they're propagandized, they're brainwashed.
PRESS: I didn't say that.
BENNETT: No, you said propaganda works. Propaganda works on people not smart enough to see through it. They can see through it, Bill.
PRESS: No, propaganda works from the masters of the propaganda, Bill. BENNETT: You think Bush is -- now you think we're masters of propaganda?
PRESS: I agree with you, I think the game is up. I think the blame game is up and it's not going to work for the administration.
KURTZ: Let me sneak in here. It's hard to keep radio talk show hosts...
BENNETT: I know. I'll tell you.
KURTZ: Isn't it absolutely natural, Bill Bennett, for stories about schools and health clinics and rebuilding to be overshadowed by all of the suicide attacks that kills 20 people or a roadside bomb that kills 10 U.S. soldiers? Isn't that by definition news?
BENNETT: Yes and no. This analogy that's made in local news, well, you know, if there's -- if there's a fire we cover that, not if there's peace, if the question is, are things working in Iraq -- you know, the question is, you know, should we get rid of the police department or fire department in Washington? Are things working in Iraq? How about giving some at least equal time to the notion that thing are working? Because that is really the question.
PRESS: If anything, I think things are actually worse in Iraq, I believe, than they're being reported. And if anything, they're not reporting as much as we do it in this country. And I want to use that analogy.
What if you found 40 police officers killed in New York City or Washington, D.C.? What if they blew up the National Cathedral? What if there were three car bombs a day?
BENNETT: Would you leave New York?
PRESS: No, but I'm telling you...
BENNETT: Would you abandon Washington?
PRESS: ... it would be more than just one story.
BENNETT: Of course.
PRESS: My point is, it would be more than just one little story, one night on the news. It would dominate this country.
KURTZ: All right. I want to thank you both for being so restrained.
Bill Bennett, Bill Press, thanks for joining us.
Just ahead, people, power, politics and the blogosphere. Do liberals have the Internet advantage this election year? We'll talk to one of the Web's most popular political bloggers, Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas.
KURTZ: And turning now to the blogosphere, joining me is Markos Moulitsas, founder of dailykos.com and co-author of the new book "Crashing the Gate: Netroots, Grassroots and the Rise of People- Powered Politics."
MARKOS MOULITSAS, AUTHOR, "CRASHING THE GATE": Pleasure.
KURTZ: "The Washington Monthly" recently quoted you as saying, "The simplest fact about American politics is that Republicans have a noise machine and we don't."
Are you changing that?
MOULITSAS: We're trying to change that. The fact is, they have this incredible vast machine. We're talking the entire AM dial -- AM radio dial, Rush Limbaugh.
KURTZ: There's a few liberal radio voices.
MOULITSAS: There's a few. It's growing.
We're talking "The 700 Club," "Washington Times," FOX News. We don't have a partisan liberal media. They have a very partisan conservative media that works with the conservative movement to get their message out to market themselves.
We don't have that. Now, we have the blogs, we have "Air America." We have a couple of liberal radio shows. A couple on television, a few.
We're growing, but we're very, very tiny compared to what they have.
KURTZ: You have raised money online for Democratic candidates. Are you part of this emerging Democratic machine? How much contact do you have, for example, with Democratic lawmakers or Democratic staff members?
MOULITSAS: I generally avoid politicians in general. I find them pretty dull.
KURTZ: Pretty dull?
MOULITSAS: So, but I do like the staff, because staff...
KURTZ: But you want to change politics.
MOULITSAS: Well, we talk to the people who I think actually could change politics, the new politicians, emerging leaders in the progressive movement. Those are the people that I'm more interested in talking to.
And yes, we do a little raising money. But I think we work more effectively as a buzz machine, as the ability to promote the Democratic message, the progressive message in the media landscape that has generally been fairly hostile to that message.
KURTZ: What about when there's not a unified Democratic message? You may have your own views that may not be the same as some of those in the party.
MOULITSAS: Well, we argue in our book that to get that message, you actually need to build a full machine. I mean, the right wing has this vast right wing conspiracy. It's a funny term, but in a way it's actually true.
It's not much of a conspiracy, it's out in the open. But they had the think tanks and the leadership training institutes and the -- and the noise machine and the media machine. And they have very effective campaign tactics.
We don't have any of that. So it's very difficult for us to actually even begin to have a unified message when we're so dysfunctional on so many different levels.
KURTZ: I think I know the answer to this, but do you believe that the mainstream media are too easy on the coverage of President Bush?
MOULITSAS: Oh, absolutely. There's no doubt about it.
I think they -- the -- the mainstream media, I like to call it the traditional media -- has been obsessed with Bush's numbers. They have talked about Bush being a popular president long after his poll numbers fell south of 50 percent.
KURTZ: But certainly they're not saying that now.
MOULITSAS: Not now. It took them a while. It took them about a year to get to that point.
And so now, finally, they're realizing, well, maybe this popular president isn't so popular after all. We've been saying this for years in the blogosphere. So...
KURTZ: Has that produced a change in the tone of the coverage both of the president and of this war? We were discussing earlier how poll-driven the media sometimes tend to be.
MOULITSAS: I think -- I think it might. And it shouldn't.
I think the media should have been critical of the administration when it was warranted from the beginning instead of being afraid to offend the administration because its poll numbers said one thing or their consultants said another thing. They were really afraid to really -- to really get at the truth of the matter, whether it was the war or whether it was Bush's domestic agenda. And now we're seeing more critical coverage because the poll numbers make it safe for them to criticize the president. I think they shouldn't be looking at poll numbers. KURTZ: They were afraid because why, they were intimidated?
MOULITSAS: They were intimidated, absolutely. And it's one of the things that helps the right in having this right wing noise machine is that they can beat up on a journalist who actually had the gall to criticize the president from the beginning.
So it was a very intimidating environment for journalists, for nonpartisan journalists to be critical of this administration. Now one of the things that we're trying to show on the left is that we can also beat up on journalists that don't look for the truth, that skew one way or the other. It's not just a right wing anymore, it's both sides can do it now.
KURTZ: Washingtonpost.com this week hired a conservative blogger, as you know, Ben Domenech. He quit three days later after your site and other liberal sites not only criticized his hiring, but found numerous instances of plagiarism going back to when he was on a college paper. But you criticized his hiring even before some of that came out.
MOULITSAS: Well, there was two things that we saw. And we're putting this all on Jim Brady, who is the -- who runs...
KURTZ: The executive editor of the washingtonpost.com.
One, they claim that the hire was to balance out a liberal blogger already writing on washingtonpost.com. This liberal blogger does not exist. There is a journalist who has been very critical of the administration who is somehow being accused of being a liberal blogger. He's just very critical of this administration.
KURTZ: Actually, wait. Brady just said he wanted a diversity of opinion on this subject.
KURTZ: What's wrong with that?
MOULITSAS: ... that's fine. Then have a liberal blogger, have a conservative blogger, activist partisan liberal and activist partisan conservative blogger. That would have been fine.
But what we saw was that not only did Jim Brady not understand the nature of partisanship online, but he doesn't know how to use Google. He runs washingtonpost.com, couldn't simply Google Domenech's previous writings and realize that the guy was a serial plagiarist.
The guy has no clue how the Internet works and he runs "The Washington Post" online operations. It's startling.
KURTZ: Well, I think no clue is a little harsh. And also, to go back to somebody's college newspaper writings to find out they did plagiarize is not usually part of a typical background check when somebody is hired. Let me move...
MOULITSAS: Well, it wasn't just -- well...
KURTZ: Go ahead.
MOULITSAS: ... it wasn't just a college paper. It was actually "The National Review." He plagiarized work that he did in "The National Review."
KURTZ: Right. He has denied plagiarizing, but there are certainly a lot of instances that you and others have dug up.
Got about half a minute. The Internet obviously gave a big boost to Howard Dean last time around. How important will bloggers be, liberal and conservative, in 2008?
MOULITSAS: Oh, I think they're going to be huge. We talk about the consultant primary and the money primary. I think we're going to be talking about the blogosphere primary for both parties.
These are the people that are the core activists of the party. These are the people who are putting in yearly (ph) money, they're putting on -- they're going out on the streets and they're working for the parties. Having these activists behind the candidates is going to be extremely important to them as they try to wrap up their nominations.
KURTZ: So it's not just you personally but the people who read Daily Kos?
MOULITSAS: Oh, absolutely. It's not even me. No, one of the nice things that I think about what I do is that it's not be being the leader, it's I provide a structure and a platform for people to be leaders.
KURTZ: All right. Markos, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up on RELIABLE SOURCES, what do you do with all those reporters won't stop chasing you? Well, it's all about the spin.
We'll take a look right after the break.
KURTZ: It's a subject that television just loves: women in trouble. And how these women handle their public relations challenge makes all the difference.
KURTZ (voice over): Take Carla Martin. She's the Transportation Department lawyer who almost got the 9/11 case against Zacarias Moussaoui thrown out of court by coaching witnesses in a way the judge found highly improper. So, did Martin call a news conference to defend herself, hire a glib spokesman, go on "LARRY KING LIVE"?
No, she was seen like this.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ms. Martin? Ms. Martin, why did you do it?
KURTZ: And this, racing away from the cameras, looking like she had something to hide.
(on camera): She could have made a bland statement like this, "No one cares about seeing justice done in this case more than I do, but unfortunately, my lawyer has advised me not to comment." Instead, she looks like a fugitive.
(voice over): Now, compare that to the case of Debra LaFave, a former Tampa teacher who pleaded guilty to having sex with a 14-year- old student. Did she go running away from the cameras or put a bag over her head? No way.
When prosecutors dropped the rest of the charges this week and let her off with three years of house arrest, LaFave met the press, where she got penetrating questions like this...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Deb, do you think because you are so attractive that that had anything to do with the case personally?
KURTZ: LaFave even lectured reporters for ignoring what she said was her illness.
DEBRA LAFAVE, PLEAD GUILTY TO HAVING SEX WITH 14-YEAR-OLD: I want the world to see that bipolar is real. If anything, I am tired of the media. I don't think not one time has the media brought up the subject of my bipolar. And I challenge you to read a book or an article on bipolar illness.
KURTZ: Oh, and she's decided she wants to be a journalist. Look out, Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer.
One other woman who always seems to spark media controversy is Hillary Clinton. The latest fuss has been over the Dubai ports deal because she opposed it while her husband favored it. So through the magic of leaking, this story appeared in "The New York Daily News."
Sources say the New York senator will now have final say over anything the former president says that could hurt her bid to become the next president.
KURTZ: Right. Sure. We'll see how long that lasts.
But did you notice how Senator Clinton didn't even have to grant an interview or make a statement to get her spin out? Now that's image management.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
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