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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Coverage of War in the Middle East
Aired August 6, 2006 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR, RELIABLE SOURCES: War and more war. As the Israeli/Lebanon conflict heads toward the second month, how long can it remain the dominant story here at home?
And should some journalists be blaming the Bush administration for the lack of a cease-fire? Plus the Pentagon reporter who says the Iraq war was a fiasco from the start.
Drunken tirade: Are the media treating Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic rant as mere entertainment? And will they forgive and forget if his next movie is a hit?
Also, a presidential farewell to the most famous and most disgusting press room in America.
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we'll turn our critical lens to what has become a familiar story line by now, more fighting in the Middle East. No end in sight. I'm Howard Kurtz.
We begin this morning in Kfar Giladi, Israel with CNN International Correspondent Matthew Chance on the scene where 10 Israelis were killed by Hezbollah rockets today.
Matthew Chance, this is one of the largest totals for a single barrage during this war. Is there a growing sense of fatigue or fear among Israelis that you have been talking to during these weeks of rocket attacks?
MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SR. INT'L. CORRESPONDENT, RELIABLE SOURCES: Yes, Howard, I think there is certainly a growing sense of fatigue amongst Israelis because for the past 24 days or more we have been seeing these daily barrages of Katyusha rockets landing in towns and villages across northern Israel on a relentless basis, sometimes more than 200 a day.
What's interesting, what's different about this rocket that hit here in Kfar Giladi, which is very close to the Lebanese border, is that one of the rockets hit a large concentration of people that had gathered in this car park, right behind me, and exploded and killed 10 of them, according to the Israeli defense forces.
Because of the censorship laws that we've all agreed to abide by here in Israel, I'm not allowed to tell you the identities or the kinds of people these were, but certainly this is a kibbutz. And it's a kibbutz where a lot of Israeli soldiers were based in preparation to go in and out of Lebanon, Howard. KURTZ: Our viewers should understand that all reporters in Israel operate under these military restrictions.
The other big news this morning is Israel says it captured one of the Hezbollah guerillas involved in the original kidnapping of the two Israeli soldiers that triggered this war.
Matthew Chance, will this make an iota of difference in the conflict?
CHANCE: Well, the Israelis hope that it will give them more information as to the status of these two soldiers that were abducted by Hezbollah on July the 12th. They haven't given us much details as to how and when this Hezbollah fighter was captured, but a few days ago, you may remember, there was a commando raid in northeast Lebanon in the ancient city of Baalbeck where Israelis raided a hospital. They captured at least five Hezbollah members and brought them back to Israel for interrogation.
So I think it's conceivable, although this is not confirmed, that this individual was one of those people. Apparently, under interrogation, he admitted to being part of that initial July 12th abduction of the two Israeli soldiers, Howard.
KURTZ: In the time that you've been in Israel, have you noticed increasing skepticism in the media coverage about the progress of the war since, obviously, this is has proven to be a more difficult and more painful slog than perhaps Israel had anticipated at the outset?
CHANCE: Yes, I think there has been a growing sense of frustration amongst Israelis because at the outset of this, 24 days ago, the impression you got from the Israeli military and the Israeli government is that this would be over in a first in a few days, then in a few weeks. But obviously, it's lasted a lot longer than that. And at this point there isn't any real end in sight, despite the negotiations underway at the United Nations Security Council.
So, there is a lot of frustration here that the most powerful military force in the region has been hitting Hezbollah with a great deal of explosives, with its air power, with it's artillery strikes with 10 to 12,000 ground troops, on the ground in southern Lebanon; yet even so, they're able to hurl these rockets still, into Israeli towns.
KURTZ: All right, Matthew Chance, stand by, thank you for that report. We will come back to you.
And joining us now here Washington Anne Compton who covers the White House for ABC News, and Thomas Ricks, Pentagon reporter for "The Washington Post" and author of the new book "Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq."
Tom Ricks, you've covered a number of military conflicts, including Iraq, as I just mentioned. Is civilian casualties increasingly going to be a major media issue? In conflicts where you don't have two standing armies shooting at each other? THOMAS RICKS, REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I think it will be. But I think civilian casualties are also part of the battlefield play for both sides here. One of the things that is going on, according to some U.S. military analysts, is that Israel purposely has left pockets of Hezbollah rockets in Lebanon, because as long as they're being rocketed, they can continue to have a sort of moral equivalency in their operations in Lebanon.
KURTZ: Hold on, you're suggesting that Israel has deliberately allowed Hezbollah to retain some of it's fire power, essentially for PR purposes, because having Israeli civilians killed helps them in the public relations war here?
RICKS: Yes, that's what military analysts have told me.
KURTZ: That's an extraordinary testament to the notion that having people on your own side killed actually works to your benefit in that nobody wants to see your own citizens killed but it works to your benefit in terms of the battle of perceptions here.
RICKS: Exactly. It helps you with the moral high ground problem, because you know your operations in Lebanon are going to be killing civilians as well.
KURTZ: All right. Also joining us from Tyre, Lebanon, Richard Engel, Middle East bureau chief for NBC News.
Richard, thank you for joining us. We are glad to have our satellite connection with you.
I want to play a brief clip of something you reported on NBC, you've also been reporting for MSNBC on this conflict for weeks now. This is when you covered a small community in Lebanon that has been a kind of a magnet to refugees. Let's take a look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RICHARD ENGEL, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: "We are dying of hunger," she said, "No water, food, milk, diapers, nothing. This small Christian village has been overrun by thousands of refugees, most of them Muslim.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: You went on to say that some of these refugees had asked you for a ride as you were leaving. Is it inevitable, when you do this kind of up-close and personal reporting, that your reporting creates sympathy for one side of the conflict? And I've asked the same question to people who are reporting from Israel.
ENGEL: I think, naturally, people do feel an affinity or sympathy for the people that we're reporting on, certainly. These are civilians who are trapped in this village, they were refugees. There were a lot of women and children, not fighters. We didn't see and fighters when we were walking around that day. So I think part of the mission is to give these people a voice, and to empathize with them. You wouldn't want to go too far and let that color your reporting entirely, but I think it's natural that you would feel some sort of sympathy for these people; these war refugees, tens of thousands of them, who were literally starving and drinking filthy water.
KURTZ: Richard, I asked at the top of the show whether there was -- we were starting to see the beginnings of any war fatigue as the conflict drags on toward its second month. Every day there is a certain sameness now with the rockets landing in Israel with Israeli bombs creating casualties on the Lebanon side.
Do you find you have to strain, at all, to make the days' news sound different than the day before and the day before that?
ENGEL: There's no doubt that is an issue, that just in the last few moments there's been more shelling in the hillsides behind me. And it's coming to the point that you don't necessarily notice anymore. That's something for us, that's certainly the case for the viewers. But if you try and go out into the villages that are still cut off and that are on the front line closer to the Israel/Lebanon board, you will continue to find stories, people who have remained behind.
There are very few people left in the villages now. The only people, when we went recently, and found were just young military-age men, most likely Hezbollah or Amal Party fighters. So it is difficult to continue to find compelling stories, but every day the conflict is changing. And usually when you're just waiting for something to happen that's when things develop.
Just a few nights ago, there was an Israeli mission here in Tyre and there was a commando operation. And it was literally going on right above our heads. We could hear the helicopters landing, the 50- caliber machine guns firing in the city. So it is still very much a developing story.
KURTZ: Anne Compton, is there a tendency, by the Washington press corps, to blame the Bush administration for this war and for the slow pace of the diplomacy. Condoleezza Rice having a news conference today about a draft resolution, but clearly this is going to take many days.
ANNE COMPTON, ABC NEWS: Well, it is interesting that this broke on the White House the day President Bush was going to Germany. He was going to a big international meeting, the G8, and they have kept the president just out of the glare of the spotlight on this.
Secretary Rice has been all over the map. Steve Hadley, the national security adviser. President Bush hasn't had a major news conference. He's had one or two shorter news conferences. They have announced that he's made phone calls to foreign leaders, but you haven't really seen President Bush wrestling with this.
I don't know that the press corps assigns blame, but I think Americans and world opinion, look at the United States saying can't you do something to stop this, especially with the civilian stories that you've been seeing. And there is frustration at that the White House did not do more to stop the extent of the Israeli response.
KURTZ: Tom Ricks, "The New York Times" reported the other day, quote, "Israel is now fighting to win the battle of perceptions," which to me says the battle of headlines. And, in fact, an Israeli cabinet minister was quoted, not by name, as saying, "That the narrative at the end, is part of the problem." I'm starting to hear echoes of Iraq.
RICKS: Echoes of Iraq, yes. But also the Israelis are very sophisticated in their handling of the media. They consider it part of the battlefield, officially. The word "narrative" always comes up with conversations with Israeli national security officials. They consider shaping the narrative, the battle for the narrative, to be key as part of any war fighting. So they see the media as part of the battlefield. And, in fact, there's some belief from our reporters that they have occasionally targeted the media.
KURTZ: Richard Engel in Lebanon, let's talk a little bit about your efforts to cover Hezbollah. Have you had instances in which Hezbollah guerillas have tried to interfere with your reporting?
ENGEL: Yes and no; and the reason I'm giving you that answer is that until now Hezbollah has been very difficult to cover. We've come into town several times and only found Hezbollah fighters. They don't want to be on film. They will talk to us off camera, but when the cameras come out they suddenly go quiet.
They've not tried to stop us filming other events while we're in the field, but they have, on several occasions, threatened reporters here in Tyre, south Lebanon. From the location where we're standing right now, we've been able to see, today and on other days, outgoing Katyusha rockets. And on more than one occasion people from Hezbollah have come and said, "Do not film the locations of these rockets when they're being launched."
At one time, when we were talking and having a conversation with this Hezbollah representative, he said, "Look, we're serious, we will kill you if you film these outgoing rockets." So it is a threat, but when we've been out in the field, we've not had situations where they told us to stop filming.
KURTZ: You, like other correspondents, a couple of weeks ago got a guided tour of one of the bomb-damaged areas of Lebanon by Hezbollah people. My question is when something like that happens, do you feel used at all? And how much responsibility do you have to tell the viewers that we're operating under very tight restrictions here, folks. We can't just go into any building and investigate for ourselves their claims that these are purely civilian areas?
ENGEL: I think it is clear that we have a lot of freedom, certainly much more than we do in Baghdad. We can go to the front line villages. In that report you aired a clip from, earlier today, we organized a convoy, reporters did, and slipped behind the Israeli front line. And we were hearing the artillery being fired from Israel into Lebanon, going over our heads.
So we have a great deal of mobility, but it is difficult to report on Hezbollah. There are certain restrictions that they put on us, particularly about filming the outgoing Katyusha rockets. And there's obviously the dangers; it would not be wise to try and join up with the Hezbollah unit, or watch them launch rockets, or to just rush into any of these frontline villages. So we have to be careful.
We hear reports all of the time about families trapped in a house that collapsed on them in a village, where the fighting is underway, in this area where Israel and Lebanon are fighting over a buffer zone. But just to go into the middle of the night and try and verify that would be very difficult.
So I don't think that the restraints or our inability because of the danger, or anything at this stage, that would require us to put serious qualifications on our reporting, but we have been able to move around quite a bit, but there obviously are dangers and risks like any frontline environment.
KURTZ: Right. Especially since Hezbollah is known to hide some its rocket launchers in civilian areas. Richard Engel stay with us. We're going to get a break here, when we come back, more on the fighting in the Middle East, and we'll talk about the Iraq war.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We'll go straight to Brent Sadler; CNN's Brent Sadler reporting from Beirut.
We've talked a lot on this program, Brent, about the PR war. And now that in recent days you have Israel bombing roads and bridges in not just the Hezbollah-intensive areas, but Christian areas of Lebanon, killing some agricultural workers, killing some fleeing families. Is this starting to change the perception of this conflict in terms of the eyes of the world the way Israel is conducting it?
BRENT SADLER, CNN BEIRUT BUREAU CHIEF: I think, Howard, it's fair to say that many Lebanese have been exercising a form of political correctness here. In the interests of national unity they're trying to speak with one voice. That's why you're hearing the government rejecting, basically, the resolution, the draft resolution to end the conflict in a phase one resolution.
But really now, people are beginning to talk out about the way the Hezbollah rocket fire and the eruptions of this conflict is destroying this country. I think we're going see far more people, if you like, coming out of the woodwork condemning those that don't agree with the Shia hard-liners, like those who don't support Hezbollah. The Christians, certainly some of the Sunnis, supporting the voice of Lebanese, who represent the parliamentary majority, that would not want to see what's happening in south Lebanon, and throughout the country, continue for a minute longer.
Right now, Howard, there's an ongoing attack on the capital.
KURTZ: And tell us a little bit more about that. Are you near where these bombs are going off?
SADLER: I can certainly see plumes of gray smoke rising over the southern suburbs. There's been about eight or nine detonations in the last 10 or 15 minutes. We're not sure what weapons are being used, but certainly this is the first time you've seen Israelis, striking the southern suburbs of Beirut in hours of daylight, Howard.
KURTZ: Let me just ask you briefly, Brent Sadler, you reported a couple of times, this week for CNN, about Hezbollah sources, has it put you in a difficult position as a journalist to be getting information on background or off the record from Hezbollah officials, who won't come on camera, who won't allow their names to be used?
SADLER: Well, we do get some of them on camera. The interesting point is that we're seeing a lot more presence of Hezbollah's MPs, two of them are in the parliament here giving statements. We've had one of them coming on air speaking English.
I've been watching Hezbollah since their birth some 25 years ago, almost 25 years ago, they really are learning very quickly the power of the international media that's here. Once upon a time this city was a no-go capital for journalists like us to come to, during the kidnap years. But Hezbollah is certainly learning -- and has learned very well -- how to play the media card in getting its message out.
KURTZ: All right. Let me go to NBC's Richard Engel in Tyre.
Richard, you've probably spent more time in Iraq than any other correspondent. This week, congressional testimony, General John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, acknowledged that country may be sliding toward civil war. Is this a significant admission in your view, and does it kind of catch up with the reality of media portrayals of what's been going in Iraq for the past year, or so?
ENGEL: Well, other journalists I've spoken to in Iraq basically rolled their eyes and said, Well, finally they're saying what reports have said all along. The people in Iraq for over a year have said that the country is in a civil war. I did an interview the with Iyad Allawi, I think about six months ago, when he said that in his opinion, the country is in a state of civil war.
So, it was no surprise for people who have been reporting this conflict. It's not just a civil war, it's chaos -- is generally the best way to describe it. Where you have criminal gangs. You have kidnappers who are looking for ransoms. You have a Shiite Muslim versus a Sunni Muslim and a Kurdish national element, all fighting each other, looking for land.
There is the anti-American sentiment. There is desperation and frustration with revenge tactics from the old Saddam regime. So it is more than just a civil war. It's chaos and it's violence and it's -- people I talked to just today, said it's the worse they've ever seen it.
KURTZ: All right, Richard Engel of NBC and MSNBC, joining us this morning from Tyre, Lebanon, thanks very much.
Turning further now to Iraq. Tom Ricks, your book, "Fiasco", has rocketed to No. 1 on the bestseller list. You argue that the administration is to blame, for not foreseeing many of the problems that are affecting Iraq today and 130,000 U.S. forces there?
RICKS: Well, not just the administration. Yes, the administration made huge mistakes, but the argument of the book is you don't get a mess as big of Iraq just through the mistakes of the Bush administration. That the U.S. military also bungled the occupation, and that other players also helped create this mess, including the media.
KURTZ: Including the media. In fact, you write, quote, in the run-up to the war, quote, "The media didn't delve deeply enough into the issues surrounding war, especially the threat of Iraq and the cost of occupying and remaking the country. We're seeing those costs right now."
Why didn't the media delve more deeply? Was there a certain level of intimidation?
RICKS: I don't think it was so much as intimidation as partly a lack of information, credible information. Congress didn't hold hearings in which credible information was presented that said, no, the administration's case is wrong.
KURTZ: Since when do reporters have to wait for Congress to hold hearings?
RICKS: They don't. But Congress is kind of the engine of Washington, the engine of government. And if Congress is asleep at the wheel, if war seems inevitable, at some point your editors say, why do you keep writing about doubts about this war, when it's going to happen?
KURTZ: Do you include yourself in this indictment? Did you run into that kind of skepticism from your "Washington Post" editors?
RICKS: Absolutely. There was a sense that, look, this thing is going to happen. You've written a lot of stories about the doubts about the war. Give us more stories about the war plan, because it is going to happen, whether or not all these generals oppose it.
KURTZ: Let me bring in CNN's Aneesh Raman who spent a year in Iraq and he joins us now Damascus.
In the time that you spent in Iraq, would you agree, Richard Engel used the word "chaos" and others are saying, "sliding toward civil war". The administration has argued, as you well know, that the media portrayals have been too negative. Is the administration now catching up with the reality as depicted by journalists?
ANEESH RAMAN, CNN INT'L. CORRESPONDENT: I think they're catching up, Howard, to the reality that Iraq will live or die based on what happens in Baghdad, the Province of Baghdad, the capital. I just talked last evening with the head of the Iraqi parliament, the speaker, he echoed the comments made by General Abizaid. He said, essentially, you know, there are only three provinces or four that are under sustained violence. And we often hear critics of the media say that all the media concentrates on is where the violence is. But he was the first to say, as well, if Baghdad -- if the capital cannot be secured -- and it is crippled with chaos, it is crippled with a sustained attacks, if Baghdad cannot be secured now years after the invasion, that is what could keep Iraq from staying together.
For every story you report there, there are obvious caveats, for every incident of violence there may be a school that is opening elsewhere. And it's a difficult judgment call, when you're there, to figure out what is the head story of that day.
KURTZ: All right.
RAMAN: And to try and rope everything into every live shot that you do, or every package, is simply -- it takes too much time, Howard.
KURTZ: Ann Compton, do you agree with Tom Ricks' argument, and others have made it as well, that basically the media either fell down on the job, or certainly fell short in the run-up to the war, in terms of reporting -- giving us a fuller picture of the threat from Saddam Hussein?
COMPTON: I've only covered from the White House.
COMPTON: So I have only covered what President Bush has been a saying.
KURTZ: But that's where the argument was made.
COMPTON: That's where the arguments made.
And you know, when you ask at the White House, how about civil war?, you wonder whether if the leaders at the top, if President Bush hasn't consistently -- who has consistently said, look, some of these provinces are doing fine. You have to remember that it's not the entire country falling apart. The minute the president -- or even the prime minister of Iraq says, Oh, my gosh, we are in a civil war, self- fulfilling prophecy, how do you ever get it back on track? So, I think the White House has been very, very careful not to throw more fuel on that fire.
KURTZ: All right, Ann Compton, thanks for joining us, but you'll be back later in the program to help us deal with another subject. We'll get another break here. Back with more on the other war, the war in Iraq, in a moment.
KURTZ: Welcome back. Tom Ricks, you are a beat reporter at the Pentagon for "The Washington Post". Now, you've written a book that concludes not only that the U.S. occupation there was a fiasco, but that the military made huge mistakes that contributed to the success of the insurgency. Doesn't that make it difficult to continue to cover the Pentagon as a objective observer?
RICKS: No, the striking thing to me has been the number of soldiers, in Iraq, who have sent me notes thanking me for writing this book. One battalion commander wrote to me, you finally said publicly what we've been saying privately for the last couple of years. The military wants to win in Iraq. And they appreciate somebody who comes along and sympathetically writes about the problems there, and also looks at some of the successes that have been neglected internally in the military.
KURTZ: And why were some of the mid-level people willing to talk to you, since obviously, to some degree they were contradicting their superior commanding officers?
RICKS: Because they've been worried about failures of leadership. It's an army that is very self-critical up to the level of colonel, but generals have remained off limits for criticism and that has led to real problems in Iraq. We've not had a single general relieved in Iraq -- a real change from other wars where generals routinely were moved out, while they were looking for good commanders.
KURTZ: All right. Aneesh Raman in Damascus, "Time" magazine cover just out today says, life in Iraq is hell. Would you agree with that characterization? And is Iraq now getting, you know, back burner status, because so many reporters, like you, have moved to another part of the Middle East?
RAMAN: I think so. I mean, Iraqis themselves say amid the crisis we're seeing in the Middle East, that the world is essentially turning a blind eye. They're also saying that, by the way in Gaza. There are a number of areas within the world, within the Middle East that are embroiled in conflict and the world tends to, at one moment, only really be able to focus one area.
In terms of life being hell for many Iraqis, and, again, I stress we're talking about the capitol and the most extreme of situations, it is nothing short of that. They run the risk, as they go about their daily lives, going on a bus, traveling to the market, of being blown up.
The electricity in some areas is still about four hours a day that they have access to. It is unbearably hot right now in the summer in Iraq and for journalists, as well. And it's not even a comparison, but it's a very difficult lifestyle, because it's claustrophobic suffocating, given the security bubbles that we are in. And it's frustrating at many levels, given our attempts to try and connect and engage beyond that bubble.
KURTZ: All right, CNN's Aneesh Raman, reporting from Damascus this morning. Tom Ricks, author of "Fiasco," thanks very much for joining us. Coming up in the second half hour of "Reliable Sources, we'll go back to Beirut for an update on those explosions there today. Plus, Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic remarks set off a media firestorm. And after 36 years, the White House press room gets a much-needed makeover.
All that after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everybody. I'm Betty Nguyen, at the CNN Center in Atlanta.
Now in the news, I want to give you these pictures just in to CNN. Take a look. You can see smoke, if you look really hard there to your right of the screen. Smoke rising over Beirut, Lebanon.
Now, our reporter says there have been several loud explosions. This is the first time that we have seen daytime attacks in the southern suburbs of Beirut. Of course, we'll have much more on this.
The Israeli military says it has captured one of the Hezbollah militants responsible for kidnapping two Israeli soldiers last month. A spokesman says the man confessed during interrogation. Now, the abduction of the soldiers happened on July 12 and that triggered the current fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says no more status quo in the Middle East. She says a draft U.N. resolution end to the strife in Lebanon aims to neutralize Hezbollah's control of the region. Rice says the resolution will expose who is for peace and who is not.
Well, pairing up, Ayman al-Zawahiri says an Egyptian militant group is joining forces with al-Qaeda. Zawahiri is al-Qaeda's second in command and founder of the Egyptian Islamist jihad. His videotaped message aired on Al Jazeera.
Well, we'll have more headlines in 30 minutes. In the meantime, it's back to "Reliable Sources" right after this.
KURTZ: We're going to go straight back to CNN's Brent Sadler in Beirut. Brent, tell us about these explosions in the capitol area today and why they are significant in light of all of the bombardment by Israel of that country in recent weeks.
SADLER: Howard, a continuing bombardment against the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capitol, this is different because it's happening right now in the hours of daylight, normally when Hezbollah's stronghold in that area has been targeted.
It's normally been in the early hours of the morning when hardly anybody is out and about in the streets, but this time it's happening late afternoon here in Beirut. We've seen in the past 20 minutes, half an hour or so, as plumes of gray smoke rising over buildings in the distance from our live shot location. Here we've heard the thud of detonations. We're not sure what weapons the Israelis are using, but certainly it is causing yet more damage in an area that has been targeted many, many time. I'm not hearing any aerial activity over the skies over Beirut, but certainly there are reports saying that this could be naval gunfire or it could be very high altitude bombing.
At this stage, we don't know, but we can confirm a daylight raid against the southern suburbs of Beirut.
KURTZ: All right, CNN's Brent Sadler, thank you for that breaking news update from Beirut.
Turning now to a very different kind of story, a war of words, so to speak, over Mel Gibson. As the whole world knows by now, the movie star got sloshed in a Malibu bar, was pulled over for speeding, made a comment about a female officer's anatomy and asked another officer if he was Jewish and announced that Jews had started all of the wars in the world.
Suddenly everyone was talking about Mel.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: Prosecutors in Los Angeles have now filed charges against Mel Gibson following his arrest last week in Malibu.
MATT LAUER, NBC CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The authorities say he went on an anti-Semitic rant while he was in custody.
BARBARA WALTERS, ABC CORRESPONDENT: I don't think I want to see any more Mel Gibson movies.
GERALDO RIVERA, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: If he said that to me, what he said to that Jewish deputy, on the side of Pacific Coast Highway, I would have smacked him right in his face.
BOB SHRUM, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: I think if a president said it, if a politician said it, a CEO said it, they'd be drummed out of the business.
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: There comes a point when the media and individual Americans start to enjoy the suffering of rich and powerful people.
JAY LENO, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": I don't know what Mel Gibson's next Hollywood project will be. I think we can rule out "Fiddler on the Roof." I think that's out.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Gibson apologized for what he called his "despicable remarks" and asked to meet with Jewish leaders to make amends. Joining us now in Los Angeles, Ray Richmond, who writes for the "Hollywood Reporter" and blogs at "Pastdeadline.com." Also in L.A., veteran entertainment reporter, Jane Velez Mitchell.
Ray Richmond, does this story about Gibson and his arrest and so forth have special resonance not only because Mel Gibson's father is a holocaust survivor, but because there was this whole debate about "The Passion of the Christ," his movie, and whether it contained anti- Semitic elements.
RAY RICHMOND, "HOLLYWOOD REPORTER": Absolutely, I think it does, Howard, you know, and that hasn't been played up enough in the media, I don't think, the fact that this is not news to Hollywood. This is not a huge shock to Hollywood that this man would have an anti-Semitic meltdown by the side of the road in a drunken stupor.
I mean, this is more or less business as usual with Mel. I mean, there's also been charges of, you know, homophobia and sexism along the way as well, but it hasn't stopped him from being a religious icon and that's, again, why this is such a big story, because of the way "The Passion of the Christ" was a humongous blockbuster and the fact that Mel Gibson is a brand and the brand has been compromised and all the king's horses and all the king's men are trying to put him back together now.
KURTZ: Jane Velez Mitchell, the sheriff's office originally told reporters that Gibson was arrested for this DWI without incident. Boy, nothing could be further from the truth. And then the police report leaked to a Website called "TMZ.com."
So not to put too fine a point on it, was this was a cover-up?
JANE VELEZ MITCHELL, CELEBRITY ENTERTIANMENT REPORTER: I certainly think it was a cover-up. It wasn't without incident and they said it was. And this is really because he's a VIP, he's a very important person.
And this kind of thing goes on all the time, not only in Los Angeles, but around the country. People are treated differently based on who they are. We see it all of the time here in Los Angeles. You drive around the streets, you see a minority kid in a jalopy pulled over, immediately spread-eagled on the ground and cuffed, in a very humiliating fashion.
So I think this points out that we have a double standard in our society and we need to all look at it. How do we all treat people? Based on who they are? Based on whether they are more important than us or less important? Based on whether they count or don't count?
This is rampant in our society and it's not just law enforcement.
KURTZ: On the other hand, if Mel Gibson was Mel Jones, I don't think we'd be giving him all this attention.
RICHMOND: And I was going to say, Howard, if I may interject for a moment, I have heard a different school of thought on this approach by a few different quarters, that the arresting officer, being Jewish himself, had something of a vendetta and made sure he got every last word down on that report, didn't just scuttle it, didn't just make it a rubber stamp and made sure that he got into the limelight and Mel got into the limelight because of his resentment over what he was...
VELEZ-MITHCELL: Listen, I beg to differ. Obviously, Mel Gibson has a very close relationship with the sheriff here. He's done public service announcements. He's made donations to the sheriff's favorite charity. And this went all of the way up to the top. They were all trying to figure out how to handle this.
There was discussion of whether to sanitize the original police report and the truth came out. I think this is a victory for information. I think it puts internet journalism on the map, thanks to my good friend Harvey Levin and "TMZ." And I think that it shows that you cannot cover up in this day and age, because there's just too many ways to get the information out there too fast.
KURTZ: It certainly was an interesting look at the role a Website can play and what became of...
RICHMOND: And that's the thing.
KURTZ: Let me just jump in here, Ray, because I want to play for our viewers a part of an interview from two years ago where Mel Gibson, at that time, was responding to allegations of anti-Semitism. Let's watch.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MEL GIBSON, ACTOR: It's ludicrous. It's ludicrous to think this. I don't want to lynch any Jews. I mean, it's like it's not what I'm about. I love them. I pray for them.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Ray Richmond, do you see the press treating this as a pretty dead serious story, even though some of Gibson's friends have argued that, you know, he was so drunk that he barely knew what he was saying or is it kind of a celebrity spectacle of the kind that journalists are known to enjoy?
RICHMOND: I think it's both a spectacle and a serious news story because it's Mel Gibson. Absolutely, there's a tabloid element to this and everybody is reveling in the man's misery, but by the same token, it is a serious story.
This is a religious icon. He did get in huge trouble for what he said and, you know, he's looked at as, you know, the idol of a lot of Christian America. So there's a huge element of that to this and it's interesting from the media's standpoint to see just how the mainstream has been chasing the Internet's tail on this.
Without a "TMZ.com," we wouldn't be sitting here and talking about this. Arguably, this would have never gotten out. It would have just been another drunk driving arrest and they would have thrown it out.
KURTZ: Just briefly, Ray, what do you make of Gibson's apologies? Do they seem to you to be sincere or is this your basic PR strategy?
RICHMOND: I think this is absolutely basic PR strategy. I don't see sincerity behind that. I mean, if there was huge sincerity, he might have said it himself to the camera and wouldn't have just thrown -- asked his publicist to throw it out there.
I absolutely see this as, you know, him doing the bare minimum that he had to do, didn't even mention the Jewish angle in the first apology and, furthermore, he's not even going into rehab in a full way, something the media hasn't been picked up on in a big way yet.
KURTZ: Let me jump in. We'll cover the rehab angle next week.
Jane Velez-Mitchell, "ABC" has announced that it's dropping a miniseries on the holocaust that Gibson had planned to do. But what do you make of the fact that almost no Hollywood moguls or studio chiefs have dared to criticize Gibson? And should we cover Hollywood's response more?
VELEZ-MITCHELL: Yeah, I mean, it's a big story. Why didn't Hollywood respond more? In fact, a producer placed an ad in the "L.A. Times" saying basically let's not ever work with this, quote-unquote, "jerk" again and scolding his colleagues for not standing up more.
But this is a town that's built on relationships and Mel Gibson is an industry into himself and then if you speak about him, you are also possibly offending all the people that come with him, agents, producers, writers, directors, fellow actors.
So people are afraid because this is a very polarizing issue and they really don't know whether it's over for him or not. It really depends on a lot of things, Apocalypto, the box office.
KURTZ: OK, got to go, we'll see. Jane Velez-Mitchell, Ray Richmond, thanks very much for joining us from L.A.
When we come back, the White House press corps evicted from its home and the president seems to be enjoying it. That's ahead.
KURTZ: Welcome back. The White House press room may look glamorous on TV, but it's a cramped, dirty, rat-infested fire trap that has housed them for 36 years. On Wednesday, five former presidential press secretaries gathered, along with President Bush, to bid it farewell.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know you've been complaining about the digs for a while. Let me just say we felt your pain. We want to double the size. Forget it. We may have some air conditioning, if we decide to. (END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And there was one rather loud voice from the past, Sam Donaldson.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SAM DONALDSON: Mr. President, should Mel Gibson be forgiven?
BUSH: Is that Sam Donaldson? Forget it, you're a has been. We don't have to answer has been's questions.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Anne Compton, welcome back. You're an incoming president of the White House Press Correspondents Association.
You've spent endless hours in that room. How badly does it need a renovation or fumigation?
COMPTON: It's incredibly dingy and, look, we're hard on a press room. When I first walked in there, Howard, when I was just out of college, it looked like a men's club, plush sofas, career knives, prints on the wall. It was basically a place where a lot of men reporters sat around waiting for briefings that were never on camera.
Now, because of CNN, because of 24-hour news for everybody, it is a working newsroom and, sure, it gets banged up and dingy. It was refreshed in the first Reagan administration and that's when they put in the theater seats. Those seats were literally falling apart on the floor.
KURTZ: So you don't suspect a Bush administration plot here to permanently move reporters across the street and out of the West Wing?
COMPTON: Why in the world would any administration allow the press corps to have real estate that is literally 20 paces from the Oval Office? You have to wonder why we are still in that space, when the president himself, in that little farewell ceremony, said we will be back in those quarters.
And, frankly, we have designed space that streamlines it a little bit, but, Howard, we don't get one extra inch of space, not one.
KURTZ: But explain why the geography is important. A lot of people out there might say, "So what, the president's across the street." Why is it important to be there, near the press office, the Oval Office and so forth?
COMPTON: To give an accurate description of what an administration is doing, not just what they're saying, not just the paper they hand out. You have to be there and see it for yourself. Right through the door is the Rose Garden, where he holds a lot of events, up those stairs to the Oval Office.
To be able to even see the president get on and off a helicopter can be a big news story. Bill Clinton walking to the helicopter the day he testified about his...
COMPTON: Reporters should be able to see it and not report remote control.
KURTZ: I've got about half a minute. Bush seemed very at ease there joking around with reporters. But he's not known as a president that goes out of his way to accommodate the press. Is that starting to change at all under the Tony Snow regime?
COMPTON: Not really. Presidents have held us in kind of a love- hate relationship. Remember, he comes to our big press dinners. He makes fun of himself, makes fun of us. He knows that the press is part of the system and while he hasn't had a lot of press conferences recently, he knows that the more he opens up, and he's good at it, the better he'll do.
KURTZ: Well, he was pretty fun there. Anne Compton, thanks for joining us a second time.
COMPTON: Thanks, Howard.
KURTZ: When we come back, blogging the war in the Middle East.
KURTZ: Returning now to the conflict in the Middle East. Bloggers are providing a more personal view of life in a war zone. We spoke last week with a blogger who had just left his home in Lebanon. This week we hear from Allison Kaplan Sommer, a former reporter for the "Jerusalem Post," originally from Rhode Island, but now living in Israel.
She produces the blog, "An Unsealed Room," and writes for "Isreality.com." I spoke to her recently from Tel Aviv and asked her what her blog and others like it add that news reports do not in this heavily covered war.
ALLISON KAPLAN SOMMER, ISRAELI BLOGGER: I think that blogs add an insider's perspective to covering war and also covering anything that happens overseas.
You know, normally, the typical foreign correspondent comes in from outside and covers the war scene and the glamorous correspondents hop from troubled spot to troubled spot, which is all well and good, but the truth is you're getting the perspective of somebody who's coming in from the outside. So he has trouble now explaining to people the context of the conflict, the background of the conflict and what people who live there are thinking.
And what you can get from blogs that you can't get from that war correspondent is an understanding from the inside of what that society is going through at that particular historic or traumatic moment in history. KURTZ: You say the media are more sympathetic to the underdog in a military conflict, in this case, Lebanon. And I'm quoting you, "We're losing the 'who is the biggest victim' PR contest."
Now, how did it become a PR contest and why do you think that Israel is on the losing end?
SOMMER: Listen, you can't dispute these days that world public opinion is another battlefield, another level of battlefield, in addition to the military battlefield. And in a way, you've got a difficult choice to make. The Israeli diplomat, Abba Eben says that he would rather be condemned than consoled.
When you're on the world stage, when you're in the media, especially on television, you're generally cast in the role of the oppressor or the victim. It's often a very simplistic story and a very simplistic portrayal. And if you have the dominant army, if you have the best warfare, if you're in a position to win the conflict or if you're in a position to dominate the conflict, you're going to come off as the person who's going to be condemned no matter who is at fault.
KURTZ: How do you feel when you see footage on the television or video that's been posted online about the devastation in Lebanon, the civilian casualties, the people, seemingly innocent people who have been killed or injured in this conflict?
SOMMER: I feel absolutely horrible. I feel absolutely horrible, terrible. You know, my heart goes out to any innocent victims of conflict and it's an awful thing. But that doesn't lessen my sense that this was an unavoidable war, that this was something that Israel had to do in order to defend its cities, its sovereignty and the country.
KURTZ: What about the Israeli media? Is there starting to be a lot more dissent and questioning about how the war is being fought by your own country's news organizations?
SOMMER: I think that we're still in the early stages now. You know, bombs are still falling on Israel cities. The media is not in a position right now, especially to question whether the war is justified. I think that there's almost a national consensus.
The polls are showing above 80 percent of people feeling that this war was unavoidable and it was something that we had to do. There are some questions as to how it's being conducted and I would say a debate whether we should be restrained by world opinion and how we're coming off looking in the world media, whether that should restrain us and hold us back, and there is really a very strong voice in the media.
And a lot of columnists, one influential columnist wrote, on the highest circulation newspaper, recently, that he thought that if any way we're going to get the world condemnation, if any way we're going to look bad, then we really should use much more overwhelming force, to put it bluntly, to get it over with. KURTZ: All right, Allison Kaplan Sommer, thanks very much for your blogger's perspective, from Tel Aviv.
Well, that's it for this edition of "Reliable Sources." I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 10 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
"Late Edition" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.
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