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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Coverage of War in Libya; Crisis in Japan
Aired March 20, 2011 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: This is a special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES tracking the coverage of two major international stories unfolding at this hour, the American-led bombing of Libya and the nuclear crisis in Japan.
One major question about the assault on Libya, what happened to the media's skepticism?
U.S. warplanes hitting targets in Libya for a second day today. And I have to say this at the outset -- the media get excited by war, the journalistic adrenaline starts pumping as we talk about warships and warplanes and cruise missiles, and we put up the maps and we have the retired generals on. And sometimes something is lost in that initial excitement.
It reminds me of eight years ago this very weekend, when Shock and Awe was rained down upon Baghdad and the media utterly failed to ask skeptical questions. So, I looked at my "New York Times" this morning, went through all the sections, I looked at my "Washington Post" this morning and looked through all the sections. Didn't see any skeptical articles, columns, editorials about this no-fly position. Two fine newspapers, don't see the skeptical questions.
What if there's a long-term stalemate here? What is this goes on and on? What if there are American casualties? Do you stop this operation with Gadhafi still in power?
These are the questions I think we need to be asking.
And to help us answer them this morning, here in Washington, Rome Hartman, executive producer of BBC "World News America," and a former executive producer of "The CBS Evening News"; Fred Francis, former Pentagon correspondent for NBC News, now consults with clients dealing with the media in times of crisis; and Jamie McIntyre, founder of the "Line of Departure" blog and a former Pentagon correspondent for CNN.
Let's start with you, Rome. Where are the skeptical questions?
ROME HARTMAN, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, "WORLD NEWS AMERICA": Well, I think that it's natural, as you suggested, that at the very outset of something, the operational questions do take precedence. I think that it's not our job to make policy or, frankly, to comment on policy.
KURTZ: But it is our job to question.
HARTMAN: Policy, about that.
KURTZ: And this was -- everybody in the media said this wouldn't happen again. We screwed up on Iraq, we got rushed to war. And I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad decision. Gadhafi is an odious fellow. But I think we need to be doing more challenging.
FRED FRANCIS, FMR. NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT, NBC NEWS: The key issue I think is -- I think the media is exhausted, frankly, in the last three, four, five weeks with what happened starting in Cairo, over to Japan, now back to Libya. I think there's an exhaustion going on and not enough questions have been asked.
KURTZ: But not too exhausted to be on the air 24 hours a day.
FRANCIS: Well, but shallow coverage. In fact, shallow coverage.
You know, we didn't pay enough attention to John Brennan, the president's terrorism chief this week, when he said -- and he was reluctant to advise the president to go to war here. Brennan said this week, we don't know who these rebels are, we don't know what we're getting.
JAMIE MCINTYRE, "LINE OF DEPARTURE" BLOG: Come on, Fred. This is not heavy lifting.
You know, Howie, I think you're exactly right. I mean, there's this tendency in the initial stages to debate whether it's 110 or 112 cruise missiles, but the real question that were sort of absent from a lot of the coverage was, what is this no-fly zone expected to accomplish? Is it too little, too late? How do you have a no-fly zone when you really have to protect rebels on the ground?
You heard -- the Pentagon has been very reluctant about this all along from Secretary Gates to Admiral Mullen, and you've heard them talk about how limited this action is. The military is loath to commit to a goal that can't be accomplished by military means, and clearly they believe that there's a goal here that can't be accomplished through military means.
KURTZ: And the question that hangs over all of this is, is the United States, with very little debate, except about the tactics of this no-fly zone, being sucked into a third war?
HARTMAN: But there's another dimension to it, too. It's not just not just whether it will work in Libya, or whether it's the right thing to do in Libya. But you look at Yemen and you look at Bahrain, and it's a very natural and sensible and necessary question to say, OK, so why there and not there? What are the dimensions that make this different from that?
So there's operational questions that have to be asked. But there are also questions of parity and why intervention in one place where civilians are being killed is OK and not in another where civilians are being killed? As recently as Friday, in Yemen, I mean, there was a massacre there.
I think it's interesting that in this administration -- and this was from remarkable reporting I think by "The New York Times" this week -- that it was three women who pressed the president to go ahead -- Hillary Clinton, who was reluctant at start -- Hillary Clinton, Samantha Powers from the National Security Council, and Susan Rice, the United Nations ambassador, going against the advice of the secretary of defense, Gates, Brennan, the counterterrorism chief, and -- so three women pressed the president to change his mind. But why did they do that?
And I say they did it because Hillary Clinton went to France and realized that the French were going to take the lead and the United States was just going to take the lead politically and policy-wise.
KURTZ: Since you raised that, it's interesting the way these stories get written about reconstructing an important decision. And a lot of news organizations tackle, this but "The New York Times" from yesterday have the headline here, "Shift by Clinton Help Persuade President to Take a Harder Line." "Within hours, Mrs. Clinton and the aides had convinced Mr. Obama that the United States had to act."
When one person -- in this case, Secretary Gates -- gets so much more credit in one news account, I wonder whether or not a certain amount of leaking and spinning was going on.
MCINTYRE: Well, you know, one really interesting thing about journalism, it's very hard to know what's going on at the time it's going on.
I was just talking to Doug Feith the other day from the administration, and we were talking about all these memoirs -- I mean, from the Bush administration. I'm sorry. We were talking about all these memoirs are written after the fact -- Donald Rumsfeld's, everybody's memoir.
And one interesting thing he said was he was reading a lot of these memoirs and he didn't know what some of the people who are actually involved in the decision-making were thinking at the time until he read some of their books. So when you go back in real time and try to reconstruct exactly the dynamics of behind-the-scenes decision-making, it's very difficult to do.
FRANCIS: I think another point we have to make here is, this week was the impression that the Obama administration was not really paying attention. I think it was counterproductive of the Obama administration to show the president -- and even though it was a short period of time -- picking out his NCAA basketball brackets at the same time we had a meltdown going on in Japan.
KURTZ: Well, I would disagree with that, because the notion that the president can't play golf, can't indulge in a little basketball fun I think is something where the media are jumping on --
FRANCIS: It was the symbolism. It was the symbolism. MCINTYRE: But this is a very different situation. Normally when we have military action on the scale that we've seen in the last 24 hours, the president is in the Oval Office. He comes out, he gives the case for why he's putting U.S. troops in danger. And here we saw -- there's a very calculated effort to portray the United States as taking a back seat into the point where the president didn't announce the --
KURTZ: Let me come back to the larger question, which is the way the media are covering what is being sold by the administration as a somewhat limited action, a no-fly zone to prevent a massacre by Gadhafi of the rebels in the eastern part of the country, but really looks like the start -- or could look like, in retrospect -- the start of a war.
We are having to cover this from a distance. I'm reminded of Iraq, because the first pictures are provided by the Pentagon, by the Navy.
We've got video here. We're taking a look at still shots of those Tomahawk missiles being fired from warships off the coast of Libya. This is journalism that, by necessity, we can't get to the front lines --
HARTMAN: On the other hand, though, we have -- I mean, just speaking for the BBC -- have correspondents in Tripoli and in Benghazi reporting sort of two fronts there. And Alan Little, our correspondent live from Tripoli, reporting on what he hears. And obviously it's very difficult to cover this kind of a story.
You're going to have competing versions of what has happened. You already have that.
KURTZ: Gadhafi already saying civilians have been killed. Maybe that is true. Maybe that is not true. We have no way to verify it.
HARTMAN: You know, the hospital pictures are already being trotted out of supposedly innocent victims. This is a very tough, cynical circumstance in which to try to cover this story.
KURTZ: And what about the risk to journalists? You have some experience with cruise missiles. You haven't fired any, but you were there.
FRANCIS: The very first cruise missile from the USS Normandy in the Bosnian war. I was on that ship that fired a cruise missile.
Frankly, I had no idea where that cruise missile was going. They fired 16 of them that day.
The most experience I had and show how difficult this is was exactly eight years ago this week. I was inside Iraq waiting for our country to invade us.
It was a good thing that, as a journalist, it was a great story to be inside Iraq, but we were also scared because we didn't want to get hit by our own forces. You know, it's a very dangerous situation today. Since last Tuesday, we have not seen or heard from Anthony Shadid and three others from "The New York Times."
KURTZ: I'm going to come back to that in the next segment. But let me turn to Jamie McIntyre.
You have been in the situation over many years of being up live on CNN hour after hour when a war is going on. Isn't there -- you know, nobody wants to root against United States forces. Is there a certain rah-rah element that takes over that somehow overshadows or submerges the kind of skeptical questions I was talking about at the top?
MCINTYRE: Well, I'm -- when I was covering the Pentagon for CNN, I was generally rooting for the United States. OK? Let's just get that out of the way. But that doesn't mean you're not skeptical about how the policy is being conducted.
For instance, in this operation, the key questions are -- you know, at the Pentagon, they were referred to as mission creep. It clearly can't prevent Gadhafi's forces from prevailing on the ground with just a no-fly zone. There's going to have to be some sort of action on the ground as well. And whether that will be left to other allies or what that will be -- and what you have to keep coming back to as a reporter is, what are the foreign policy objectives, what are the forces that are being employed to achieve those? Is it possible? Are the right objectives?
And those are the kind of questions you're going to be asking. And the mechanics of exactly how many cruise missiles went are somewhat irrelevant here.
HARTMAN: I've been struck by the difference in the tone between 2003 and even '91, at the first Gulf War.
HARTMAN: I mean, there were weeks of buildup and anticipation. I remember inside newsrooms, just as well as inside the Oval Office or the Pentagon, incredible buildup toward the opening of those assaults.
KURTZ: Everybody is gearing up to cover war.
HARTMAN: This one, when it happened last night, it was kind of like, yes, here we go. It was much more sort of matter of fact, I think.
MCINTYRE: Well, we have been through a lot of wars.
HARTMAN: I know. I think it's a measure of that.
KURTZ: Here we go, indeed. FRANCIS: This is the exhaustion I was talking about, too.
KURTZ: Right, which of course we'll get to later this hour, a crisis that has not abated at all.
Here we go. But the question is, where are we going?
Let me get a break. When we come back, we'll also talk about those four "New York Times" journalists who were supposed to have been released in Libya.
KURTZ: There was no word for several nerve-wracking days after four "New York Times" journalists went missing in Libya. But on Friday, we learned they were safe. Moammar Gadhafi's son told ABC's Christiane Amanpour that the regime was detaining the journalists and they would be released. They are Stephen Farrell, Lynsey Addario, Tyler Hicks and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid.
Here is Shadid speaking on this program soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANTHONY SHADID, "WASHINGTON POST": During the war you did know what you were facing. You did know that bombing was going on. You knew where to go and where not to go. Now there's a little bit more of maybe an unease or an insecurity that something bad could happen from any place.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Since then, no word on the fate of these journalists. Obviously, the aerial attacks may complicate the situation.
Jamie McIntyre, doesn't this underscore the dangers of reporting in Libya?
MCINTYRE: Oh, it's very dangerous. And, you know, the thing is, at the time you're going through it, you sort of put that danger out of your mind, but it's always in the back of your mind that something can happen. And even when things turn out -- like, let's say they are eventually released and they're OK, which we hope that's the case, there's no guarantee that that's what's going to happen.
FRANCIS: My concern is that Gadhafi, who is really very -- the guy is a loose cannon -- my concern is not only will he hold Shadid and the others from "The New York Times," but could well round up the journalists -- and there are about 300 in Tripoli right now -- and for their own protection, and hold them hostage to this thing. He could do this. He could very easily do this.
KURTZ: On that point, a Libyan journalist was killed by sniper fire over the weekend. And an Al Jazeera crew has been detained by Libyan authorities. Could this deter news organizations, BBC, CNN, "The New York Times," you name it, the networks, from sending more journalists or keeping journalists there as long given the treacherous conditions?
HARTMAN: I think this week has proven just how much news organizations -- how much time and effort news organization have to spend on protecting their people and making sure that they are not sending people into harm's way.
At the same time, that's our job, that's the job of our people in the field. And we have people champing at the bit to go and do these jobs.
Libya is extraordinarily dangerous because you have sort of two groups of journalists. You have those that were brought in with the sanction of the Libyan government into Tripoli. And then you have a whole bunch of journalists, and the BBC has people in both of those groups who snuck in, essentially, and came in without --
KURTZ: Right. And the government therefore can say, they're there illegally and we have the right to detain them.
HARTMAN: Right. Well, and that's what "The New York Times" people -- they were in that latter group, and that's the dangerous situation. When you're in Benghazi or when you're with the rebels --
MCINTYRE: But without reporters in Benghazi, you don't really know what's going on.
HARTMAN: That's absolutely right.
FRANCIS: Yes, you have to have -- but it's interesting. Even though the reporters in Benghazi right now -- I know everybody's seen this -- even just this morning I heard a Fox News reporter say he didn't really know who the rebels were.
They are spending so much time staying alive and staying ahead of those advancing pro-Gadhafi -- they don't really know who these rebels are. The reporting has been to get the visuals and cover the bang- bang, but there's no time to do anything --
HARTMAN: We had a BBC Arabic team in Libya that was picked up and very, very badly mistreated before being released. It is a very dangerous place.
KURTZ: I remember that. And this is a reminder of courage of correspondents who go into these war zones.
More RELIABLE SOURCES after the break. But first up, Candy Crowley will be back here to join us with the latest on both Libya and Japan.
CANDY CROWLEY, HOST, "STATE OF THE UNION": We'll return to RELIABLE SOURCES later in this hour. But first, we're covering the breaking news out of the Libya.
We have asked CNN's chief national correspondent, John King, to look at the geography and weaponry as this operation plays out.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Candy, before we take a closer look at the initial wave, let's remind folks of the coalition partners here, the United States and Canada, Spain, France, Italy and Great Britain. And this will be important heading into the no-fly enforcement face.
The United Arab Emirates and Qatar also participating, key Arab partners in this coalition. They will get involved, we are told, when you're in full enforcement of the no-fly zone.
But in the early days, we are told look for a continuation of what we saw in the first wave of Operation Odyssey Dawn, 110 cruise missiles used in the first wave, targeting key installations along the northern Libyan coast. Now, why? In part because Tripoli is the capital, major military installations are up this way.
But principally, this is why. If you look at this purple circle, surface-to-air missiles -- S-200 the United States calls them, S-5 NATO calls them -- Russian-made surface-to-air missiles, range of about 150 miles, a potential danger to any pilot flying in as part of the no-fly zone. That's why these are target number one.
The smaller circles, additional anti-aircraft batteries, surface- to-air missiles. They are being targeted and will be targeted, we are told, in the early days of this operation. Again, to deny Gadhafi the ability to shoot down any pilots coming in as part of the no-fly zone.
Now, another thing that will happen, we are told, in the early days, is look at these Libyan military installations. These are places from which Gadhafi can launch plains.
We know the bases over here near Tripoli have been used against the opposition. This will be another goal of the coalition, pock the runways, essentially, bomb to creator the runways to make it hard -- not impossible, but hard -- for Gadhafi to take off and land on those runways.
Now, how is this being done? We'll take you out here. We'll show you some of the weapons used.
Again, French fighters did launch the first bombs of this campaign, but overwhelmingly in the early days, we are told, look for Tomahawk cruise missiles, the USS Florida, Providence and Scranton, three submarines in the Mediterranean. There's a British sub out there as well. The USS Barry, the USS Stout, both guided missile destroyers in the Mediterranean.
What do all of these have in common? They fire this, the Tomahawk cruise missile. It hovers close to the ground. It can be programmed over its targets, the newer version. But we are told in the first wave, 110 fired, some the older version, some the newer version. All programmed aboard the ships and the subs sent into their targets.
Here's what it looks like on the deck of the USS Barry. This is a Pentagon photograph. You see the cruise missile taking off, heading to Libya for its target.
One other thing just to make a note. People might be asking, what is the U.S. involvement here? From a naval perspective, we just told you about the Stout and the Barry. They fire those cruise missiles.
A number of other vessels, including -- this is important -- the Whitney, the Mt. Whitney, a command and control ship out there in the Mediterranean helping to coordinate the activity going on.
And one more quick look at how this could play out. To remind people of the neighborhood, this is the Libyan coast right here. The French jets that dropped the first bombs, they were from up here. The carrier Charles de Gaulle leaving to make its way into the Med. And these, all U.S. and NATO air stations, naval stations, facilities in Italy that will be used in the days ahead both for refueling, coordination, repairs, and the like, and a number of vessels down here in the Mediterranean.
And again, in the early days, Candy, we are told expect much of what we saw in the first hours, targeting key Libyan installations along the coast, anti-aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, airstrips, communications, command and control. Most of them are right along here -- Candy.
CROWLEY: Thanks to our John King for a look at a very intense part of the world right now.
When we come back, another tense part of the world, the crisis in Japan.
CROWLEY: The other major story we're following this morning is the efforts to contain the Fukushima power plant in Japan.
Joining me for the latest is Sharon Squassoni, director and senior fellow of the Proliferation Prevention Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And that's a mouthful.
Let me start and just get your take on whether we have passed the worst part of the crisis here as far as these nuclear reactors are concerned.
SHARON SQUASSONI, CENTER FOR STRATEGIC AND INTERNATIONAL STUDIES: I don't think we're actually sure about that, but there is some good news coming out of Japan. And that is that they have connected electricity now from an outside source to at least two of the reactors. So that's a very good thing.
CROWLEY: To cool it down.
SQUASSONI: To cool it down, right. That's a great thing. But we're still not sure whether those cooling systems are going to work, and we still have units 3 and 4 which are still very hot.
CROWLEY: And what we're learning though, as we go along, at least from some people that are on the ground -- and I talked earlier today with the energy secretary -- that perhaps the worst fears that we had -- I hear over and over, this is not Chernobyl.
CROWLEY: Can you give me some comparative as to where we are right now? If nothing worse happens, the radiation levels stay where they are and go down, how is this as a comparative to other things that have happened?
SQUASSONI: Well, clearly, it's not a Chernobyl. That spewed radiation over 10 to 12 days, and the radiation effect was over a 1,200 mile circumferential. As a matter of fact, the cleanup is still going on today at Chernobyl. So we haven't had that kind of explosion.
The explosions that they have had have been hydrogen explosions. They did not involve the fuel itself. But that doesn't mean that we don't have problems.
The fuel fire that you saw at reactor 4 in the spent fuel pond, that has created some significant radiation, but is really nothing on the scale of Chernobyl. We'll still have to cool these sites down for months. I mean, this is going to go on for quite some time.
CROWLEY: Let me get your reaction to a couple of stories that are out there. One of them is that the owners of the Fukushima site did not react as quickly as they should have to start pouring seawater onto these plants as they lost their electricity, then they lost their generator, then their batteries no longer worked. And in part, it's because the minute you pour seawater on these plants, they are useless, these are now dead plants.
What do you think about that?
SQUASSONI: Right. I think that's a tough choice.
These utilities that run the plants, they're commercial concerns, so clearly that's in the back of their minds. It was actually the prime minister who ordered TEPCO, the Tokyo Electric Power Company, to inject seawater into the reactors.
You know, it's unfortunate but that is the way the system is set up. Unless you have governments running these plants, I think that's always going to come into it.
I will say though that once they did that, they proceeded to do that almost across the board. And it's been a really urgent race against time to keep the radiation levels down as much as possible.
CROWLEY: One of things I learned when I've talked to a lot of people who are experts in the nuclear power plants in this country -- and what they've said is we're going to learn -- we learn from everything, and we're going to learn the lessons of Japan, and we're going to apply them to our sites. And so far, as far as I can see, the lesson of Japan is, prepare for a 9.0 earthquake, followed by a tsunami.
SQUASSONI: Well, that is one lesson you can take away, but there's another lesson here. And that is this is a chain of events and no one -- people were preparing for one event, but not multiple events.
In the end, the problem with these reactors has been a station blackout. That is, no electrical power. I even heard the transmission tower for the electricity came down, and that's why TEPCO hasn't been able to get power to the site.
So you have to ask the question, if everybody knew that a station blackout would be almost a 90 percent probability of a core fuel meltdown, could they have done more additional backups, not just diesel generators, but additional batteries on site? I don't know the answer to that, but it's not just, gee, we'll never have another earthquake and tsunami together. I think everyone that runs these power reactors across the globe is going to have to take a close look at safety.
CROWLEY: I have also talked to the head of the Homeland Security Committee up on the Senate side, we've talked to Secretary Chu, others deeply involved in nuclear energy in this country. And they've all said, look, we're checking these things, we feel really comfortable where we are in terms of the security and stability of these plants.
Is there anything out there in the U.S., along fault lines or wherever they may be, that should set our hair on fire because it isn't set up to withstand something major?
SQUASSONI: Well, I don't think you can ever say -- you know, never say never, but I think we certainly don't have the kinds of earthquake risks that Japan faces. I mean, we don't have those kind of faults.
There are two reactors in California. But, again, you need to look at safety records, the aging of these reactors. It can be when they are 40, 60 now the industry wants to make them 80 years old. What happens to the materials? They corrode, they get brittle, they get unsafe in some places.
CROWLEY: One would hope we were doing that all along, I should think.
SQUASSONI: Yes, I hope we are.
CROWLEY: Thanks so much.
Sharon Squassoni, director and senior fellow of the Proliferation Prevention Program at CSIS.
We appreciate it.
I will be back at the top of the hour to bring you the latest developments out of Libya. But up next, Howie Kurtz and his RELIABLE SOURCES look at the media's role during the crisis in Japan.
CROWLEY: Before we go back to RELIABLE SOURCES, we want to talk to CNN's Arwa Damon, who's on the phone with us from really where the action is, Benghazi, Libya, the rebel-held town.
Arwa, what do you have?
ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Candy, we were just at this site that's some 20 miles outside of Benghazi where French air power brought Gadhafi's military machine to a halt. While we were there, as we've been reporting, we saw around 70 burned-out military vehicles, a number of burned bodies.
We just meant an eyewitness, a young man who sat in a farmhouse not too far away and saw everything unfold. He shot some of the video on cell phone. We hope to have that for you soon.
But he was describing hearing the French fighter jets overhead at around 5:00 in the morning, hearing the rockets launching, and then seeing the entire sky light up in shades of orange. He then describes how, as dawn broke, those Gadhafi forces that managed to survive the assault were running around trying to pick up their dead. He also said that opposition forces at this point came through, and they began firing on what was left of Gadhafi's military, driving them even further away.
It was such a dramatic story to be told. And we asked this young man why he and his family didn't flee, why they stayed in this location. And he said, "I refuse to be killed while I am running away. I would rather die on the spot."
He was a very interesting young man, because he said although he was very grateful at these turn of events, it still pained him, because he said, "At the end of the day, these are our Libyan brothers, and they have been brainwashed by Gadhafi to believe that we are the ones who are evil, that we are members of al Qaeda, that we're terrorists. I wish I had a chance to talk to them and try to change their minds."
CROWLEY: Out of Benghazi for us, at least outside Benghazi, Arwa Damon with some incredible eyewitness accounts of the allied attack on Gadhafi forces.
Always stay tuned to CNN for more of that.
Right now though we want to turn back to RELIABLE SOURCES and Howie Kurtz.
KURTZ: Thanks, Candy.
Fred Francis just got an e-mail on his iPhone reporting -- attributing to the AP that the State Department, the U.S. State Department, issuing an advisory against journalists traveling to Libya. We'll try to get that confirmed for you. Of course, many Western journalists -- I'm told that that is in fact a State Department advisory. Of course, many journalists already in Libya, and I doubt many of them will be leaving.
Turning now to Japan, journalists know all too well how to cover earthquakes and tsunamis. We saw that when Diane Sawyer showed up in Japan this week and talked to some ordinary folks struggling to survive.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS (voice-over): You would never believe this mother and so many others patiently hold their children for three hours while waiting to get food. The people here show what has always been at the heart of the Japanese culture.
(on camera): You need the food. You need the food.
(voice-over): This is a shelter. Some of these people here for days. And look --
(on camera): It's recycling. Organized for recycling.
(voice-over): The Japanese call it etai (ph). It means to come together as one body.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But when it comes to the crippled nuclear reactors that have dominated the news, it has been a learning experience both for the anchors and correspondents and the public. In live shots from Japan and studio interviews with experts, and front-page stories and blog posts, the media grapple for answers. How dangerous is it and how much worse could it get?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You have a couple of items here with you. A nuke alert. What would this do?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This thing can chirp when you put it near something that emits radiation. It will chirp like a bird. The more radiation, the more chirps.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DR. JON LAPOOK, CBS NEWS MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: To put this in perspective, in Chernobyl, among people who became sick, the radiation dose ranged from 800 to 1.6 million millisieverts, much higher than what's being measured so far in Japan.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL HEMMER, FOX NEWS: It's been reported now that the levels of radiation just south of this area in Japan are 300 times normal, Doctor. But even at 300 times normal, it's not considered dangerous.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is incorrect.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: We are joined again by Rome Hartman, Fred Francis and Jamie McIntyre.
Fred Francis, has most of the media coverage, as we've all learned about the dangers of these reactors, been serious and sober and avoided the temptations to sensationalize and engage in scare- mongering?
FRANCIS: I think most of the media coverage is very shallow. And let's face it, most reporters don't know the difference between a fuel rod and a fly rod.
KURTZ: Fuel rod and A-Rod.
FRANCIS: Exactly. They just don't know.
So they've gone with superficial information. And when you do that, you tend to hype things because you don't control the flow. You ask an expert, and you don't know whether that expert is grounded in the industry or grounded in academia.
And consequently, we have a tremendous amount of hype of what's happened there. I'm not saying it's not serious. It's terribly serious.
KURTZ: On the other hand, Rome Hartman, I would say that there has been an effort by bringing in expert opinions. And yes, you have -- experts are not always right, and they have differing agendas and points of view -- to not cast this as oh, my God, we're all going to die.
HARTMAN: No question about that. There's an absolute responsibility not to contribute to what could be panic, really.
HARTMAN: At the same time, as Fred said, you know, the experts disagree here. And the nuclear industry in Japan has a serious and longstanding credibility crisis. They have -- the public didn't trust them. That's emerged in our reporting and our interviews with citizens in Japan. They don't know who to believe. They don't know who to trust. We have an absolute responsibility not to put incendiary opinion on the air, but we have a real problem in reporting the story, is that there's not unanimity of viewpoint from the experts.
MCINTYRE: Well, I would respectfully disagree. One is I think news media in general has done a good job of reassuring the American public about what's the actual risk of what's happening in Japan. And I also think that you don't have to be a rocket scientist or a nuclear scientist to ask some of the key questions that you need to ask in order to answer -- the key question that everybody wants to know is, could it happen here?
KURTZ: Well, on that point -- and I know you're concerned about this -- you look at the evening newscasts, and here's Katie Couric, "Could this happen here?" NBC's Lisa Myers, "Could what happened in Japan happen here?" And here's Diane Sawyer, "What about the reactors here that are so much like the ones in trouble in Japan, about 30 of those in the U.S.?"
So I find that to be kind of a journalistic cliche of a question, but when I read the transcripts and watch these stories, they have a certainly reasonable texture to them.
HARTMAN: Well, and that reflects what the public wants to know. That is a question that people who live near nuclear power plants or proposed nuclear power plants legitimately ask --
MCINTYRE: It's absolutely a legitimate question. In fact, it's a core function of journalism to tell people what they need to know so they can understand the risks.
What these reports did -- and I teach journalism at the University of Maryland, so I pulled Wednesday of last week -- I pulled all three network reports that address this question, and none of them answered the key question, none of them even raised the key question.
We heard earlier today in a segment on CNN that the problem with the reactors in Japan was not the earthquake, it was, for the earthquake, just fine. It was the water from the tsunami.
So the question you want to ask in the United States is, do we have reactors that are vulnerable to that kind of event, whether it's a tsunami or a hurricane surge? And what's the provision for nuclear power plants if they lose power and can't provide electricity to the pumps to cool it? That's the question you need to address.
None of the reports that I watched on ABC, NBC, or CBS addressed that question in the slightest. Instead, they focused entirely on a whistleblower from 40 years ago.
FRANCIS: But if you read the newspapers carefully, if you read "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post," or the "L.A. Times," most of them, they did address those questions. And they addressed those questions early and often, that there were 23 reactors in the United States that very similar to those in Japan, if not on the same design, and that it could not happen here -- could not happen here unless there was a tsunami here and they were placed where a tsunami -- vulnerable to a tsunami.
KURTZ: I thought it was a good thing. I saw it first on ABC, the report that when General Electric built these reactors which are used in Japan some 35, 40 years ago, that people quit because they were concerned about the safety -- the lack of safety in the design.
HARTMAN: And, you know, perception and reality both matter when it comes to nuclear power, as we know from Three Mile Island. We had a correspondent up at Three Mile Island Thursday of this week on the BBC. And what -- you know, nobody died at Three Mile Island, but it killed the American nuclear power industry for 30 years.
KURTZ: This -- not -- no new plant has been constructed since, since 1979.
HARTMAN: The public said, no, I don't trust it. I'm not comfortable.
KURTZ: Right. And it was just starting to enjoy a kind of a comeback because it's a cleaner, potentially, fuel than coal.
HARTMAN: And I think that that's something that we have to cover, is what impact is this going to have? Whatever the severity, whatever the actual health implications for people in Japan, what impact is this going to have?
You saw China on Friday completely brought to a halt, declared a moratorium. They were planning to build 100 civilian nuclear power stations.
MCINTYRE: But if you're worried -- if you're an average citizen worrying about your nuclear neighbor -- do you have to worry about that -- it's not the old story about the original Mark 1 designed by GE that's the problem. It's the real situation of how do you continue to cool the reactor? And new reactors designed, by the way, have new designs that don't require electricity to get water. That's the kind of thing we need to be hearing about so we can make a judgment.
KURTZ: Let me jump in here, because I would have thought that this Japanese nuclear crisis is -- something that the whole world seems to be coming together out of concern, and certainly for the people still struggling there -- that it would sort of transcend partisan politics. But there has been some criticism in this country from the right aimed at two favorite targets, the media and President Obama.
Take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I actually heard a CNN reporter ask, hopefully, "Is there widespread looting going on?" These people are looking for disaster. They want disaster upon disaster.
They want the nuclear meltdown. They want the Japanese syndrome, if you will. They want this stuff. This is just the wanton spreading of fear when, in fact, most of these nuclear reactors in Japan are behaving as designed.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Plus, the president received that dreaded 3:00 a.m. phone call this weekend when the quake struck. How did he respond? He went golfing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: All right. Let's leave aside Obama's golfing because we talked about that earlier.
The idea that journalists thrive on disaster, well, it is true that it's a way to make your name. But we want looting, we want things to be terrible?
FRANCIS: No. Absolutely not. This is the most difficult story to cover because most journalists are covering this from 125 miles away.
KURTZ: Because it's too dangerous to get close.
FRANCIS: Because it's too dangerous to get close.
FRANCIS: And I think they are covering it in a very responsible --
KURTZ: But is there a germ of truth in it? I mean, the ratings for all the networks, including CNN, have skyrocketed during the Japanese crisis.
HARTMAN: The Japanese earthquake and tsunami, and then nuclear crisis, is a remarkable story. People have a huge appetite to understand what's going on there.
And this is an amazing picture story and it's an amazing human story. It doesn't need anybody to hype it. I think -- I mean, what I see on our air, on the BBC, unbelievably powerful stories without an ounce of hype, without an ounce of --
KURTZ: But on the human story, this is where I feel that the thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands of Japanese who are struggling to rebuild their houses, rebuild their lives, it seems to be totally overshadowed by the nuclear drama. In other words, if the nuclear thing had never happened, we would be totally focused on the victims of the earthquake and tsunami.
I've got about half a minute.
MCINTYRE: Well, we have a difficult time in the United States separating what -- assessing where real risk is from various events, and we fear things that we don't understand more than things that we do understand. But when we're critical of the coverage, and you look at whether it's -- you know, Rush Limbaugh thinks it's some sort of sinister -- you know, cynicism on the part of the media. When I look at coverage that I don't think is up to par, it's usually much more -- it's just incompetence, not any sort of sinister intent.
KURTZ: And just briefly, do you agree with me that the struggles of ordinary Japanese people in that region have been kind of overshadowed by the drumbeat of nuclear drama that we've all --
FRANCIS: Absolutely. That's the nature of American journalism.
HARTMAN: It became harder to tell that story. But I think what you are going to see emerging, especially if they do have the power under control, that story coming back to the fore in the coming days.
KURTZ: Rome Hartman, Fred Francis, Jamie McIntyre, thanks very much.
Up next, what it's like to cover the nuclear crisis in Japan while worrying about your own exposure to radiation. CNN's Sanjay Gupta, in a moment.
KURTZ: What's it like reporting on the Japanese nuclear crisis when it's just too dangerous to get near those reactors?
I spoke earlier with Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent, from Tokyo.
KURTZ: Sanjay Gupta, welcome.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Thanks for having me.
KURTZ: Now, you usually go to the heart of a story, whether you're in Iraq or Haiti. And in this case, with these crippled Japanese nuclear reactors, you obviously can't do that.
Is that a frustrating situation?
GUPTA: Yes, it has been frustrating for a couple of reasons, because, obviously, part of the reason that we're here is we want to be as close to the story as possible. It's a very unusual story, Howie. You know, a nuclear reactor that's had damage to it and is leaking radiation is obviously of concern, and there's not a lot of information, not a lot of data on exactly how this plays out.
The other part of it that's frustrating is that the information that we are getting from official sources has at times conflicted and at other times been just flatly wrong. So, that's made it a bit of a challenge as well, to try and confirm this, to try and put it through the logic test, and then be able to contextualize this for our viewers in a meaningful way.
KURTZ: You anticipated my next question, which is, with Japanese authorities sometimes putting our little information, sometimes putting out misinformation, or information contradicted by U.S. officials, how do you sort through that, and do you feel you've been burned? And are you less likely now as a reporter to rely on what the Japanese government is putting out?
GUPTA: Well, you know, in the beginning, it was almost this -- the message seemed to be that, look, there's nothing to see here, folks. Just keep moving along. I mean, that was almost the message we got in the first couple of days.
And then, all of a sudden, I remember two days ago, I was on air and there was this distinct change in tone from the prime minister's office where it was almost this, you know, we're not worried, to "OK, the now the radiation levels have become high enough to affect human health.
And so, we realized that it was good that we sort of stuck with it, because I think, you know there was a suspicion that more was going on there than we were actually hearing. But what I think was even more frustrating for me as a medical reporter was the degree of error sometimes in the official statements.
For example, they would say that 400 millisieverts is being released at a spike, you know, in one of the readings. Most people don't know what that means, 400 millisieverts. But here's the point -- is that, in fact, they meant microsieverts, which is a 1,000 fold difference in terms of a reading --
KURTZ: One thousand fold
GUPTA: Now, that makes a difference. That makes --1,000 fold difference.
And that makes a difference in terms of the safety, in terms of the protocols, in terms of the precautions, in terms of the evacuation zone. All of that is dependent on those numbers.
Could that have been a problem with translation? That's another frustrating part of it.
KURTZ: Right. That's another thing.
GUPTA: Was it just a mistake, or was it in any way deliberate? We just don't know.
KURTZ: Now, when you're on the air and you're asked what if this happens, and what if that happens -- everybody wants to know how this is going to play out, and there are headlines about, will there be a meltdown and could it happen here and all of that -- is it hard to avoid the kind of speculation that could scare viewers?
GUPTA: Yes, to some extent it is. And what's a little bit interesting about this is -- besides the uncertainty -- is that, you know, Howie, there is no scientific testing on specifically this type of problem. I mean, in order to do a scientific test, you'd have to knowingly expose people to radiation and compare them to people who haven't been exposed.
Obviously, those tests have never been done. And they never will be. But they have -- you know, we have precedence in terms of Three Mile Island, in terms of Ukraine, Chernobyl. And people trying to extrapolate those incidents to this, and they're all completely different. So, you know --
KURTZ: So you have to be cautious --
GUPTA: -- to say, well this is what happened -- we have to be cautious. And, you know, we have to rely on the best science available.
I mean, there is science -- you know, as a doctor, for example, I work in operating rooms. I wear a radiological monitor whenever I'm in the operating room, so I have a pretty good sense of how much radiation I'm getting exposed to, and also what are safe and what are not safe levels.
KURTZ: And on that point, you're wearing a device -- you've been wearing a device in Japan to monitor your radiation levels. And even from the relative safe distance of Tokyo, you're a little nervous about what you may be getting exposed to here.
GUPTA: Yes. I mean, we got these devices when we were much closer to Fukushima, because at that point, we were sort of what would now be considered within the evacuation zone by the U.S. government standards. So, now we're obviously out of those zones, but we started wearing those devices around that time, and it does two things. It not only tells you your cumulative exposure over time, but also alarms if you suddenly come in contact with lots of radiation.
So, yes, I mean, I think we err on the side of getting as much information as possible. You know, I always say we're being careful, not fearful. Part of being careful is just gathering as much data as possible.
KURTZ: Right. A very unusual and challenging journalistic assignment.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thanks very much for joining us.
GUPTA: Anytime, Howie. You got it. Thank you.
KURTZ: That's it for this special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
To continue CNN's coverage of the situation in Libya and Japan, time to turn things back over now to Candy Crowley.