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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
The Death of Osama bin Laden
Aired May 8, 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: One thing I remember about the awful attacks of 9/11 is they forced the media to get serious about terrorism, about America's security, about news itself. We saw that again this week, when U.S. forces finally killed Osama bin Laden, an outbreak of sober and sophisticated reporting that contrasted with this the sensational silliness of the birther story and other distractions.
This morning, these questions: Were journalists too quick to run with White House accounts that turned out to be wrong? How is it that the news first broke on Twitter? And looking back, did news organizations get swept away by the constant drumbeat of warnings of the war on terror?
ABC's Brian Ross joins us on that question.
I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
It was last Sunday night when White House officials told top anchors and correspondents to report to work, that something big was brewing. The world soon learned what an elite group of Navy SEALs had accomplished in a town near Islamabad, where they pursued a mass murderer who had eluded capture for nearly 10 frustrating years.
First, the cable networks started speculating. Then came the news with the broadcast networks breaking into their regular programming.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm told by sources it is a national security issue, it is not -- repeat, not -- an issue involving Libya. It's an issue involving another part of the world.
GERALDO RIVERA, FOX NEWS: Continuing what we have assumed, it has something to do with the Gadhafi, the death of Gadhafi. We should be that lucky.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: CNN is told by several sources now that the president of the United States will announce in just moments that the United States has the body of Osama bin Laden.
DAVID GREGORY, NBC NEWS: The president will announce in mere moments that Osama bin Laden is dead.
CHIP REID, CBS NEWS: We have heard from multiple sources that Osama bin Laden has been killed. Apparently, he was shot in the head.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: We are on the air right now because we have learned that Osama bin Laden has been killed.
KURTZ: There were dramatic front page headlines the next morning, as many Americans who went to bed before the story broke first learned that bin Laden, indeed, was dead.
And there you see "The Miami Herald," short and succinct. And "Rot in Hell," "The New York Daily News." A lot of people probably cheered that particular formulation.
The network anchors went to Ground Zero the next day, anchoring hour-long newscasts at the site of the worst 9/11 attack. The White House soon had to back off some of the most dramatic details, but the overall tone of the coverage reflected the mood of the country, that this was a great day for America and a very good day for President Obama as well.
Joining us now to examine this remarkable story, Peter Baker, White House correspondent for "The New York Times"; Jamie McIntyre, former CNN senior Pentagon correspondent, now an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Maryland; Jane Hall, a former Fox News analyst and now associate professor at American University's School of Communications; and Frank Sesno, former CNN Washington bureau chief, now director of the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.
Frank Sesno, how would you assess in particular the first couple of days of coverage?
FRANK SESNO, DIRECTOR, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF MEDIA AND PUBLIC AFFAIRS: I think the first couple of days of coverage captured what was really at play here, a momentous turn in the effort to get bin Laden, a determined, patient United States of America that delivered on the mission which was set by George W. Bush, which is we're going to get him, dead or alive. I think there were moments when it was a bit over the top in terms of "Rot in Hell" and that kind of thing, but that's what tabloids do. That does not surprise me.
For the most part, I think the coverage was thoughtful, reasoned, contextual, and provided the historical bookmarks that were required.
KURTZ: And Peter Baker, when the news gets serious -- and it's hard to get more serious than this -- these news machines that some of us work for, they really clank into action.
PETER BAKER, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORK TIMES': Oh, they really do. It's remarkable to see.
And, in fact, what's really interesting is how legacy media, you know, old-fashioned media, even like "The New York Times," it becomes a 24-hour news operation. We were reporting all night long, even after the final print edition had gone to bed. We had original content on the Web all night long in case those 2:00, 3:00 in the morning readers really wanted to know more, and because, in fact, I think there was a voracious appetite for it.
KURTZ: And Jamie McIntyre, you were anchoring on NPR that night, and the news -- or the rumors had exploded on Twitter. There was a lot of speculation. We saw some of that, Geraldo saying it could be Gadhafi. But you held off on reporting the news.
JAMIE MCINTYRE, FMR. CNN SR. PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, NPR was very conservative on this thing. They were watching -- of course, we, like all the newsrooms in Washington, got a tip that this was a rumor that this was probably bin Laden. And I did what any self- respecting reporter would do -- I fired up my tweet deck so I could watch everybody on Twitter.
And I actually saw "The New York Times" media reporter re-tweet the tweet from Keith Urbahn, who was the chief of staff of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and that went viral with the rumor that it was bin Laden. So, it was very interesting to me to see how quickly that spread on Twitter and then how conservative all the news organizations that I was following, they were all very careful before they reported.
KURTZ: You don't want to get that one wrong.
Jane Hall, I want to play for you some sound that was put together by MSNBC showing some of the fragmentary accounts as the news trickled in and television correspondents tried to share it with viewers.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At 1:30 Monday morning Pakistani time, two Black Hawk helicopters --
CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: From two helicopters --
CHUCK TODD, MSNBC: Two Black Hawks brought this team in.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The end began with four U.S. military helicopters.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You see the two helicopters coming in.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Four helicopters, two Black Hawks and two Chinooks.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two dozen commandos arriving overhead.
MATTHEWS: Approximately 24 Navy SEALs repelled into bin Laden's heavily-guarded compound.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Incredible new details about how 40 members of Navy SEAL Team 6 took bin Laden's compound.
KURTZ: Should journalist have been a little more cautious about spewing out these fragmentary details?
JANE HALL, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR, AMERICAN UNIVERSITY'S SCHOOL OF COMMUNICATIONS: Well, I think there is a tremendous hunger for narrative. And, you know, there were few stories that I thought were pretty cynical about, White House struggles to get its story straight.
I talked to people who have had some dealings with operations like this, and they said they were being debriefed later. I mean, there was a voracious appetite. I think people didn't want another Jessica Lynch, that we found was not a teenage Rambo or another Pat Tillman, a tragic story where the military covered it up. But I think the real-time nature of it means mistakes are going to get made.
KURTZ: I was sympathetic because I was on deadline after planning to go to sleep on Sunday night writing the lead story for "The Daily Beast." And there was a conference call with White House officials, and you're trying to assemble as much as you can. You assume these people know what they're talking about.
MCINTYRE: But you know, Howard, this was an avoidable misstep, because anyone who has covered the military for any period of time, or anyone who is briefed on military operations, knows that initial details on an operation are almost always wrong. And if they had simply been cautious about caveating the fact that they didn't have all the details, or that they might change, and by the same token, if the reporters are careful to say in the past, we know that often these initial details are not right, it wouldn't have looked nearly as bad.
KURTZ: Right. And to attribute those details that we think we have so you're not presenting it as fact.
But I wonder if you think, Peter Baker, as somebody who covers the White House, whether White House officials -- I mean, this was a good news story for country, a great development for President Obama, who made that gutsy decision. Were they trying to sell journalists a narrative or maybe oversell it?
BAKER: Well, I think obviously they tried to get out in front -- in a very quick-moving media environment, they wanted to control the narrative. They particularly were concerned about the ISI in Pakistan. They didn't want the Pakistanis to kind of control the narrative with some alternate reality.
And it's true. You say, immediately, conspiracy theories emerging from the region. They wanted to be out in front of it.
Obviously, the White House should have been more careful about saying they didn't know what they didn't know, or presenting the fragmentary information and saying that this is what we think it might be, but we're not sure. KURTZ: And in fairness, journalists were just hungry for every detail they could get their hands on. There was even a story about the dog -- you know The Times did that -- that accompanied this unit. And everybody now likes the dog.
So, the White House was responding to a lot of pressure from people in our business.
SESNO: There's no question about that. And actually, the pressure matters. I mean, what is the narrative?
Was this a firefight? Was bin Laden resisting? Was he just mowed down?
How is this going to convey through the region? Because if he's mowed down, that takes on a narrative all of his own.
Do you release the photos? And I'm sure you'll get to that. Or these other elements, is bin Laden portrayed as a martyr to the cause who goes down to the very last moment resisting the great Satan?
These things are more than just journalistic details. This narrative that the White House wanted to control is something that very much sets an agenda and tries to frame this story in a way that reflects reality.
KURTZ: And as some of those important, early details were contradicted -- Osama was not armed, that he did not use a woman as a shield -- did news organizations look, for lack of a better term, snookered?
HALL: You know, I didn't see it that way. I think that news organizations -- some of the stories looked as if they were trying to be sure that they had been independently verifying as much as we can. The reality is the media can't independent verify this. Al Qaeda has confirmed what we cannot confirm. You know?
SESNO: But you're talking to a guy here who went the air on this network, on CNN, after the bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City and said law enforcement officials are looking for two Arab- appearing men, two men from the Middle East, because that's what I was sold by the highest sources. They were wrong, I was wrong.
That is the sort of fog of war stuff. The thing is, you have to caveat it, as Jamie said, and say this stuff may change.
MCINTYRE: And don't forget, it was the White House itself that actually came forward with the correcting of the record. They weren't prompted by other reports to do it. They were just trying to correct the record themselves.
HALL: Hiding behind a woman I thought was very telling. I wonder if John Brennan just had been so hungry to get this man for so long, that he believed that, because that is a culturally loaded thing to say.
KURTZ: But again, I can't -- go ahead, Peter.
BAKER: Well, that's because John Brennan, particularly, is the president's counterterrorism adviser, former CIA. He's been looking for bin Laden for a long time. He was stationed in Saudi Arabia. And I never had seen the man smile before Monday's briefing.
I think this is a really important moment for him. And if he got a little ahead of the facts, it was probably out of that experience that you talked about.
KURTZ: Was it hard for you -- you came off a book leave to help "The New York Times" with reporting it -- to get some of these inside details, or was this a situation where, look, this was politically or otherwise a good story for the administration and there was a lot of leaking because they wanted to feed the media beast?
BAKER: They definitely wanted the story out, no question. My colleagues, Lynn Cooper (ph), Mark Mazetti (ph), they'll tell you they got a lot of people who were willing to talk. Part of the problem, of course, is that we were, as you said, so eager to grab every detail, that we perhaps -- there's always this instinct to get it. We want to slow down. Slowing down doesn't work today.
KURTZ: I wonder if it's possible to completely divorce emotion from this. I mean, journalists are Americans. They were happy about this. This was a moment of unity for the country. And so maybe there was a sense of it we wanted it to be a heroic tale.
MCINTYRE: Well, but you're aware of that when you're in the situation, and you do try to divorce yourself from it. You try to remind yourself that this is not about the way you feel about it personally.
And I take it a little personally. I was in the Pentagon on September 11th when the plane hit. I could have been one of the casualties, but I wasn't.
KURTZ: You could have been.
MCINTYRE: So it's a little bit personal. But as a reporter, you try to be aware of that. You try to set it aside. It's not a --
SESNO: You try, but the fact of the matter is that everybody you quote, every eager White House official who's out there telling the story, is it going to tell it in somewhat triumphalist terms, because it is a victory. I mean from the American perspective.
MCINTYRE: But that's where your experience comes in, because you know from the past that the things you're going to hear in the initial hours afterwards may not hold up over time. And that's where the experienced reporter puts some caution in that reporting. SESNO: Yes, but it's going to be hard to do, especially if you're the experienced reporter in Washington, because that's the narrative, that's the echo that you're hearing.
BAKER: And let's face it, journalism is the first draft of history. It is a rough, messy process as these things sort of sort themselves out. And it is our job to then correct the record if and when we get points wrong.
KURTZ: Speaking of history, let's do a little history lesson here.
How much did 9/11 change journalism? All those years of terror alerts and stories about investigations, many of which didn't pan out, or didn't mean very much during the Bush years, and I think all of us in this business struggle to strike the right balance.
What's your take?
SESNO: My take is that it has been the prism through which journalism and many have looked at the world since it happened, just as the Cold War was the prism during those years. I think it changed journalism because we had a lot of organizations -- "The Washington Post" among them -- who essentially apologized, had to apologize for some of the early coverage or the lack of skeptical coverage they gave the Iraq War going in. And so we found ourselves being snookered at times, journalism did, being both cheerleaders and insufficient skeptics.
KURTZ: Osama bin Laden, after those attacks, nearly 3,000 Americans killed, he was public enemy number one. We wanted him dead or alive, to use George Bush's phrase. And then the coverage of Osama seemed to fade.
HALL: Well, I think that when they didn't get him -- and I wouldn't want to be asked the question, when are you going get to him, when are you going to get him? And it's interesting that Obama, when he was running for president, said, I will go get him, and people -- Hillary Clinton included -- said he was naive.
I think he dropped off because the world, in some ways, has changed. All these democratic movements that are coming forward now in Egypt and other places, you don't see them cheering for him. The Muslim world -- he killed a lot of Muslims in the Middle East. So I think that our not getting him made people not want to elevate him and keep saying we don't have him.
MCINTYRE: Plus, there was this tendency of the administration to downplay the significance of bin Laden because they couldn't get him.
KURTZ: Of the Bush administration?
MCINTYRE: Yes, the Bush administration to downplay because they couldn't get him. And so they would say things like well, he's not that important. He's not really running things. He's isolated. Now we discover from all these documents and computer files that they have seized that he was.
SESNO: That they have told us they have seized.
MCINTYRE: Right. I believe they seized them.
SESNO: I believe they seized them, but again, this is where you have to be careful.
KURTZ: All right. You're making the point about attribution, is something we all need to keep in mind.
But under the Obama administration, it seemed to me, when they scrapped the color-coded terror alert system, that we had fewer of those stories about, well, an operative says there might be an attack somewhere in the United States over the holiday weekend or something. And I wonder -- except when there really was, like the attempted Times Square bombing -- I wonder whether the tone of journalism changed in part because of the difference from 9/11 and part because of a different approach by this president.
BAKER: Yes. I mean, I think that's right. I think that's right.
There has been more of a 10-year-later look trying to find the right perspective. Obviously, terrorism continues to be a major issue. Is it the central and defining issue of our time? That's a different question.
And I think that the problem, of course, is the moment an Abdulmutallab actually brings down a plane over Detroit, or we get a bomb in Times Square. We're all going to suddenly say, how come we didn't pay enough attention to it?
KURTZ: Exactly. That's the balancing act you're always trying to pull off.
Now, the first person to tweet about this, you may have heard, is a Pakistani guy named Sohaib Athar, and he was there and he heard the helicopters, and he wrote the helicopters were there. And so, then, everybody -- news organizations wanted to interview this guy.
And he wrote this -- he says, "I don't own a TV stet and I stopped watching TV many years ago. Sorry, three-lettered-big-TV- news-channels for not replying to your e-mails."
He did eventually give an interview to NBC. Let's take a quick look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SOHAIB ATHAR, TWEEETED BIN LADEN RAID: -- expect all the attention that my tweets were getting because I did not report him or I did not -- I wasn't involved in the operation directly. All I did was hear a helicopter from my perspective.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: I love the fact that this guy scoops the entire world.
Let me get a break.
When we come back, photo finish. Why did news organizations obsess over whether the White House would put out those pictures that we haven't seen of Osama bin Laden's corpse?
KURTZ: There were breaking news banners on television again yesterday. The administration releasing those Osama bin Laden videos, some of which -- if we could put that up on the screen -- showed him in his little hideout watching himself on TV, channel surfing, as it were.
Jamie McIntyre, why the media fascination with Osama bin Laden watching himself and whatever else he was doing in those videos?
MCINTYRE: Well, because they're the only pictures they have.
MCINTYRE: And, of course, the White House has set the agenda now by releasing these videos and not the picture of bin Laden's corpse. And we're in the news business. We're about disclosure, and we want to see everything.
But I actually understand the administration's policy on releasing the death photos, and I think that Leon Panetta actually is right when he said that these will ultimately be released. They may not be released by this president, but maybe years from now, by an archivist. But I think they will eventually become public.
KURTZ: But it seemed like -- and yes, I guess there's a lot of curiosity over what was the guy doing during those 10 years? It seems like there was a debate here that almost assumed that if we don't see the photos, if we don't have pictures, you know, did it really happen? I mean, I was just surprised at how that sort of hijacked the whole story.
HALL: Well, I think at one point I saw Panetta on NBC saying they were going to release them now. And the White House, I'm sure, said, wait a minute, that's our call.
I think that because of the conspiracy theories -- there are people who don't believe 9/11 ever happened, you know, who are still analyzing that. I think the Arab world must have been a factor there. We are hungry for photographs. I think they released this video because, as "The New York Post" said, he was in a man cave. He wasn't in a cave, he was channel surfing and he was diminished.
KURTZ: Right. Is there anything to the notion that the administration, by sending the president to Ground Zero, then he goes to the Army base in Kentucky to meet the SEALs, and then yesterday they put this out, now he's going on "60 Minutes," trying to keep the story in the news a little bit?
BAKER: Yes, certainly. I mean, look, this comes at a good moment for him, obviously.
He had been struggling with Congress about the deficit, the Libya war has been sort of going, and there's all this talk about whether he's decisive or not. Obviously, it's appropriate for a president to mark the occasion with the victims of 9/11, to visit with the troops who were the heroes it, but there's obviously also a desire to kind of keep talking about it a little longer.
KURTZ: And the media debate about one other thing, the celebrations that broke out in front of the White House, and spontaneously across the country, whether that was appropriate, what do you make of the media --
SESNO: Well, it's very interesting. It's sort of the rule of unintended consequences.
A number of those students who went out in front of the White House are students from the George Washington University, where I direct the School of Media and Public Affairs. And I have spoken to some of them, and several of them actually have said they are utterly distraught at the way those pictures and that celebration was portrayed, that it was some kind of blood lust, that that's not what they intended. That this was a sort of a mission accomplished -- a true "mission accomplished" moment that was spontaneous.
Remember, 9/11, you asked how it has changed the world. This defines their young lives in terms of the world around them. Right?
KURTZ: They grew up under the shadow of the fallen twin towers.
SESNO: But beware the unintended consequences of media coverage, because it will be what it will be.
KURTZ: On that note, Frank Sesno, Jane Hall, Jamie McIntyre, Peter Baker, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
Coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, in the years after 9/11, did the media foster a climate of fear during the endless terror alerts and investigations that sometimes aimed at fringe characters? We'll put that question to ABC's Brian Ross.
Plus, the killing of bin Laden morphs into an all-too-familiar debate about waterboarding, torture, and ethics. Why the media have fueled that fight.
And later, former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley on dealing with the press during this kind of frenzy.
KURTZ: It was once a staple on the airwaves and the front pages, terror alerts, terror investigations, terror plots broken up, accusations of being soft on terror. That was the climate in the decade after the 9/11 attacks, and it utterly transformed the tone of news business.
TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: Terror warnings from the highest levels of the federal government tonight.
CAMPBELL BROWN, NBC NEWS: New information tonight about possible terror plans against the United States, including word than an al Qaeda operative in Pakistan may have made contact with someone inside this country recently.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: The FBI has issued a new warning tonight.
ERICA HILL, CNN: Anderson, seven terror suspects accused of planning to attack the Sears Tower apparently had other targets in mind. A prosecutor says one of the men arrested last week in Miami has told investigators he and others planned to bomb five FBI buildings.
KURTZ: Were the media too passive in going along with this agenda, especially during the Bush years, and too quick to report unsubstantiated information?
I spoke with earlier with Brian Ross, ABC's chief investigative reporter, from New York.
KURTZ: Brian Ross, welcome.
BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS CHIEF INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER: Good to be here, Howie.
KURTZ: In looking at the reporting on terror over the last decade -- and you've done a lot of it -- was there a climate of fear in the years after 9/11? And did the media contribute to that?
ROSS: Well, I think we probably did. And we were, of course, given information that was told that every time there was a bin Laden tape, there was a secret code there that could launch the next attack. And we were very careful about that. And no, like everyone else, didn't know what was next, and there was a sense that having been so terribly surprised by the 9/11 attacks, more could be coming.
KURTZ: Let me read a couple of stories that you did in 2006. One began, "Pakistani officials tell ABC News they're now picking up indications of the early planning of a new attack against the U.S. They say they have no specific targets, but that something is in the works."
And actually, just a few days later, just before the college basketball playoffs, you reported, "The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have issued a terror warning tonight. It says, 'Suicide bombers may be planning to attack a major sporting arena somewhere in the country.'"
I know you used to wrestle with this, when do you put these things on the air that may turn out to be nothing?
ROSS: Absolutely. Well, we wrestled with that one particularly around the NCAA tournament, but the law enforcement people put that out to police departments around the country and to the security at the NCAA.
And we felt if it was out that much, it was worthy of our reporting. It turns out there was no attack, and you'll never know if there was going to be one. But that was our decision, and we decided that it was solid. The information was coming out from the FBI and homeland security, being distributed widely, and --
KURTZ: Right. But, of course, the counterargument is that there are a lot of alerts that are put out just in case, and should the media provide the megaphone? I don't think you would have reported the same thing today, because I think the climate has shifted.
ROSS: I think it's shifted. And I think, probably, I'm more cynical -- or skeptical -- about those kinds of reports. But at the time, we were told this was being issued because of the upcoming basketball tournament, and so we took it as credible.
KURTZ: And there were others time, Brian Ross, when the Bush administration would seek to make news. For example, there was a plot that I remember, seven men were arrested, and it was said they were going to attack the Sears Tower. I don't think these guys could have even found the Sears Tower. I don't think this had any chance at success, but that became a big story.
ROSS: Well, it did. You know, but you look back and think about the fact that, would you have believed in 2001 that 19 suicide bombers somehow would come to the states and train for a year or two to blow up the Pentagon and the World Trade Center? It didn't sound credible. So, after that, all of our assumption were really seriously challenged.
KURTZ: And do you think that that media mindset changed over the years when there wasn't a major successful attack, at least in this country, and maybe a little bit more caution on behalf of news organizations? ROSS: Yes, and we had threat fatigue as well. It just didn't seem credible anymore, that that could actually happen. Because of all of the warnings, there was a little bit of, you know, the sky is falling that we got from the administration. I think they began to back off that. And then, also, I think they began to have a better sense of confidence that they were able to get a handle on these things.
KURTZ: Why haven't the media reported as many plots and terror alerts under the Obama administration? It can't be that we're suddenly that much safer.
ROSS: Well, I think there actually have been fewer threats distributed to law enforcement than in the past. And that's part of the matrix, I think.
KURTZ: But is it also possible that the Bush administration, for political reasons, chose to play up the war on terror in a way that the Obama administration has chosen not to?
ROSS: You know, I don't know that the Bush administration was trying to do it for political purposes. I think they had perhaps a different mindset, and there was a more sense of confidence, I think, with the Obama administration that there was not the need to alert the public every time they thought something was about to happen.
Is there a danger now, Brian, that the media go too far in the other direction? That with bin Laden now dead, and with the color- coded alert system having been scrapped, that perhaps we get too complacent about potential threats?
ROSS: I guess that's possible. You know, in the wake of killing of bin Laden, there was concern immediately from the highest levels in the administration that retaliatory strikes could take place. We learned from documents found in the bin Laden compound that there was discussion of a very low-tech attack on the rail system in the country. So, you know, and I think most Americans are concerned about that, first and foremost, are we safe?
KURTZ: Right. But, I mean, that's actually a good example, because I think had this been 2002, for example, there would have been days of headlines, "Oh, My God, They're Going to Attack the Rail System." But in actuality, it looked like they didn't have a sophisticated plan, it's something they were just kicking around.
ROSS: Absolutely. Talking about putting trees and cement blocks on the trains. Hardly the kind of thing that keeps you up at night.
KURTZ: In the initial accounts this week of what happened during that raid -- and obvious the story changed several times -- do you think journalists were skeptical enough of what the administration was putting out at the beginning, as opposed to just accepting it as fact, bin Laden was armed and so forth? ROSS: Probably not. We took it really much at face value at first, and it was fluid. And I think the administration correctly adjusted the account as they learned more. I don't think anybody lied to us, but I think there is that fog of war. And generally, in these kinds of things what you hear first is going to be substantially off, and it was.
KURTZ: Before we go, you reported this week about a stealth helicopter, a modified Black Hawk, used in that raid. We know this because one was left behind when it stalled and then they blew it up before the Navy SEALs left.
Any hesitation about reporting that? Could that damage national security? I mean, that was a secret that had been kept up until this raid.
ROSS: That was a secret, and I think perhaps if we had known it, and the pictures of it weren't so obvious, that we would have thought twice about it. But in this case, what was left behind, the debris of the helicopter, not all of it was blown up. And there are very distinctive parts there that began to be talked about by aviation and military analysts on Web sites and blogs, and we picked up on that and went with the story that I think was important and strong.
And that secret is out now, and there is some concern that the key technology might get into the hands of others, particularly the Chinese. But no hesitation in doing that story.
KURTZ: Right. I guess once the pictures are out, you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube.
ROSS: Exactly right.
KURTZ: Brian Ross, thanks very much for joining us.
ROSS: Thank you, Howie.
KURTZ: After the break, deja vu. Are journalists and pundits a bit too eager to turn bin Laden's death into an argument over which president, Obama or Bush, deserves the credit?
KURTZ: Ahead, the unmistakable sense watching cable news this week that with the country unified over the death of Osama bin Laden, the hosts had, however briefly, run out of things to argue about. Well, that didn't last long.
Soon, what would have been a triumphant moment was transformed into a well-worn debate about waterboarding and whether Barack Obama or George W. Bush deserved more credit for the successful mission in Pakistan.
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: The other big issue is it's very obvious now that enhanced interrogations, rendition, black sites, that the harsh questioning led to the intelligence, thanks to the Bush administration -- and I think they deserve as much credit for what happened Sunday.
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: The fact -- let's stay on the facts, all right? Everybody involved in this operation says that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and one of the other waterboarding guys -- there were three of them -- pinpointed this courier, this bin Laden courier, in Pakistan.
MATTHEWS: What can you say about a party that gives more credit to George W. Bush than to President Obama for capturing Osama bin Laden?
CENK UYGUR, MSNBC: Now, next, the Republican spin machine is praising George W. Bush for his role in killing bin Laden.
KURTZ: Joining us now to examine this, Dana Milbank, columnist for "The Washington Post"; and Matt Lewis, senior contributor at "The Daily Caller" Web site.
Matt Lewis, this was a great, unifying national moment. You saw that in the early coverage. And then the cable shows, it was almost like they needed something to throw food about.
MATT LEWIS, SR. CONTRIBUTOR, "THE DAILY CALLER": Yes. I would have liked to have seen some celebration and unity last a bit longer. This was a great story, and I think it was a team effort. Just like it took a lot of American presidents of different parties to win the Cold War, I think this was a team effort.
President Obama deserves a lot of credit for making it happen. And by the way, during the campaign, saying that we should go into Afghanistan. I think President Bush also deserves credit. I do think this is a fair debate to have, but I just wish it would have taken a couple days longer to get to it.
KURTZ: You can almost sense, Dana Milbank, especially among conservative pundits who were giving Obama credit, sometimes in an obligatory fashion, well, enough of this. Let's talk about George Bush. Let's talk about torture.
DANA MILBANK, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes. I calculated that the new era of national unity lasted about 13 hours from the time that it was announced.
MILBANK: And then when I wrote a column saying that, in fact, I was informed by Twitter that I was wrong. In fact, it lasted about half an hour. I think it was Congressman Gary Ackerman on CNN's airwaves just minutes after saying Bush never got the guy. So, I think we have reached a point in our politics, and journalism is reinforcing, that it's always in this who won and who lost, who is up and who is down? And here we have this epical moment that, we got the bad guy, and all we can do is fight about politics. And it's tragic.
KURTZ: It's very dispiriting. And no one -- and it's not to say that we shouldn't talk about the importance of the intelligence that was painstakingly gathered during the Bush years. But on one can win this argument. It's not clear whether waterboarding prompting Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and some of these other detainees to give the information that led to the identification of the bin Laden courier, but that didn't stop the pundits on some cable of these cable news shows.
LEWIS: Right. My concern here, again, is -- I mean, I understand that we don't to be triumphal and be, like, seen to be sort of gloating about this. I mean, that's a fair point.
But I also think, look, the prism through which we've viewed the world, and young people who were celebrating, who have known no other world before 9/11, I would have liked to have seen some time for celebration a little bit. I mean, not gloating, but celebration and unity before we got to this point.
But, look, ideas do have consequences. And I do think at some point it is fair, because we may, in fact -- some of the information that we obtained from the raid of bin Laden's confines, we might find information that would allow us to get a high-level terrorist. And then we actually have a real world question: do we use enhanced interrogation or not?
KURTZ: Right. But, you know, it's fair to look at, for example, again, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, but he actually lied about the courier after he was waterboarded. And then, months later, other information came out. So this is just a muddle.
MILBANK: It's ambiguous. In this case, actually, the media is behaving worse than the politicians. Usually we're just echoing. In this case, you actually had Leon Panetta saying, hey, actually, maybe this waterboarding stuff worked, and then you had, of all people, Donald Rumsfeld, saying, no, I don't think those course of techniques had anything to do with it.
So, you had --
KURTZ: He didn't say it had nothing to do with it, did he?
MILBANK: Well, he said it's helpful in general, but he said it wasn't in this particular case. So I think what you have here is, actually, the politicians are more responsible than we are in our effort to kind of --
KURTZ: And I just keep thinking -- you know, not to take anything away from President Obama's decision, but if the mission had failed, if a couple helicopters or more had stalled, and it would have been like the attempted desert rescue of the hostages in 1980, Jimmy Carter, a lot of these pundits who are now praising the president would be on Fox and other channels hammering Obama as an incompetent leader. And so sometimes we lose sight of the fact that you need a little bit of luck, as well as skill.
LEWIS: Absolutely. Was it Patton who said Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser?
President Obama took a very risky chance, and I think he made the right decision. I think we ought to give him credit. And conservatives, I think, have -- most conservatives have.
KURTZ: And here are some people in the commentary saying Obama should have given Bush more credit. He invited him to Ground Zero for that, and the former president declined.
MILBANK: Well, look, Obama's going to get the credit when something goes well even he had nothing to do with it. That's true in war and economics. And if, God forbid, there's a terrorist attack, you can be sure the conservatives aren't going to say, well, Bush deserves some of the blame for this, too. That's not going to happen.
KURTZ: In our remaining moments, let's take the longer view. Has this, will this change the media perception of Barack Obama from what it had been, kind of an overly cautious, consensus-seeking law professor?
LEWIS: Maybe on the margins. I think the economy is going to weigh him down. But here's what I think could happen -- an even wider story.
KURTZ: I'm not talking about whether he's going to win re- election. I'm talking about the way the media portrayed this guy's leadership.
LEWIS: I think it's going to change the way the media portrays liberals, because liberalism has been viewed for the past couple of generations as being weak on crime, weak on foreign policy, can't be trusted in that area. This starts to chip away at a narrative that has really plagued them for decades.
MILBANK: Possibly. Look, if his poll numbers hold up, the media follow the polls. And they'll follow in this case as ever before. If he's up, we're going to give him better coverage.
KURTZ: That is very depressing.
MILBANK: Very depressing and very true.
KURTZ: And so if the so-called balance in the polls ends, then suddenly we're going to say back to the same old Obama?
MILBANK: Look, when Obama was at 80 percent, we were celebrating this whole he can walk on water thing. And then, conversely, when he gets down near 40 percent, oh he can't handle anything right.
LEWIS: And perceptively, too. He has delivered the goods in terms of his actions, but if he still sort of portrays himself or acts sort of wimpy, in some ways that means more than actually delivering the goods.
KURTZ: Further evidence of the poll-addicted press corps.
Matt Lewis, Dana Milbank, thanks for stopping by this morning.
Up next, a conversation with P.J. Crowley about the White House and the press butting heads over the death of bin Laden, and why he quit as the State Department's stop spokesman.
KURTZ: The press has, of course, been clamoring for details about Osama bin Laden's detail. And at first, White House spokesman Jay Carney tried to provide them. But the former "TIME" magazine reporter was a little less cooperative once the administration's initial account started falling apart.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: They were engaged in a firefight throughout the operation, and Osama bin Laden was killed by the assaulting force.
QUESTION: Jay, how did Obama -- excuse me -- Osama bin Laden resist if he didn't have his hand on a gun? How was he resisting.
CARNEY: You know, the information I have to you -- first of all, I think resistance does not require a firearm. But the information I gave you is what I can tell you about it.
QUESTION: Some things, as you acknowledged yesterday, have changed as the information came in. Is the fact of a firefight solid?
CARNEY: You heard the account I read yesterday. And that is information that I provided, and I'm just simply saying I'm not going further than that.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about dealing with reporters on sensitive issues is P.J. Crowley, until recently, the top spokesman at the State Department.
P.J. CROWLEY, FMR. STATE DEPT. SPOKESMAN: A pleasure.
KURTZ: Did journalists go overboard, were they overly suspicious, when the administration started changing its story about the details of this raid? CROWLEY: Well, At one level the bottom line is Osama bin Laden is dead, the American people are happy, the rest of the world is relieved, the rest is detail.
KURTZ: So, is this nitpicking on the part of the press corps?
CROWLEY: Well, it is nitpicking, but by the same token, from 30 years of experience, when you're dealing with military operations, first reports frequently include factual errors.
CROWLEY: And certainly not surprised that small details like the length of the firefight and the identity of the woman killed, not surprising that after 24, 48 hours, details were clarified.
KURTZ: And did Osama bin Laden have a gun?
How can a spokesperson put out all these details? And the White House clearly was giving a narrative -- it turned out to be an incomplete, in some cases misleading, narrative -- and then say, oh, we're sorry, we can't discuss this any further because it will compromise secret information?
CROWLEY: Well, part of it is simply the inherent nature of what the SEALs do. And you provide detail up to a point, but beyond that, you get into kind of their modus operandi. And as various briefers said this week, you don't want to go too far because then you reveal how they do business.
KURTZ: Did you feel sorry at all for Jay Carney up there? Have you been in that situation, where something you said from the podium turned out to be inoperative?
CROWLEY: Well, I think it's just an indication of how -- of the speed of the news cycle is accelerating the thirst for details from the very outset, is accelerating. Sometimes the old news cycle, if you will, the old media, you had stories, but it really was up then a week late with the news magazines. You were able to then clarify all of the details.
Now you want details from an instant. You had a late-evening news conference by the president, followed by an even later evening background briefing by senior administration officials. It's just the nature of the 24/7 accelerated news cycle, and details are going to be in error.
KURTZ: And given the high-velocity nature of that news cycle, did the administration rush out with an account before it could be double-and-triple-checked because it wanted to feed that new cycle because all these reporter were clamoring for details?
CROWLEY: Well, I think there are two things at work here. One is the speed of the news cycle, but the other is also to be able to frame events and put it in a large perspective, because in many respects, this is a battle of narratives between the United States and al Qaeda, and the narrative that bin Laden constructed over the past 10 or 15 years.
So it was in that aspect a couple of these errors came into effect where, you know, the initial portrayal was that bin Laden was using his wife as a human shield. Now we know the wife actually charged the raiding party, you know, to try to protect her husband.
And you do have this kind of inane discussion about this million- dollar mansion. I mean, whatever cost it was, it was certainly head and shoulders above, you know, the other houses in the neighborhood.
KURTZ: Eight times larger than any other house in the neighborhood.
And, you know, I guess in a way administration officials face the same dilemma as journalists, which is you want to be fast, sometimes you want to be first, before someone else gets their version out, but of course you also want to be right. And in some of those key details the administration was not right.
KURTZ: Let me turn to your situation --
CROWLEY: Let me just say one more thing.
CROWLEY: I mean, yesterday was a much more sophisticated use of media turning out those --
KURTZ: Putting out those videotapes.
CROWLEY: -- five video. And that one iconic -- now the iconic picture today of bin Laden with --
KURTZ: A blanket.
CROWLEY: -- a blanket, flipping channels, watching himself on television, that is a much more powerful, enduring image. So --
KURTZ: And anything a spokesman says from a podium.
But I want to turn to your situation. You resigned after criticizing the treatment of Private Bradley Manning. He's the guy being held in the WikiLeaks case at Quantico. You told a group of MIT students that, "The treatment of Manning was ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid."
Having said that, were you forced to quit?
CROWLEY: I'm not going to talk about the details.
KURTZ: You have talked about it and you've said that you were trying to be honest.
CROWLEY: Well, look, I defend what I said. And, in fact, the Pentagon has responded to both what I said, what others were doing behind the scenes, and now Bradley Manning is in a much more sustainable, much more appropriate pretrial confinement in Fort Leavenworth, compared to where he was --
KURTZ: Not having to sleep naked, for example.
CROWLEY: -- at Quantico.
KURTZ: But why can't a government spokesman say, I'm not speaking for the government here, this is my personal opinion, and still keep his job?
CROWLEY: Well, look, I decided to resign. It was my decision. Basically, I'd lost the confidence of the White House as spokesman. I didn't think I could continue in that role.
KURTZ: And what convinced you of that? In other words, you knew that you had spoken out of turn. You were, in effect, challenging administration policy, and therefore --
CROWLEY: I actually wasn't challenging administration policy. I was challenging the practice of a policy.
The president had said we don't torture, and I had recognized that there was a gap between what we were saying and what we were doing in the context of Bradley Manning. I said what I said in order to make sure that the gap between what we as a government say and what we as a government do is as narrow as possible. I came into government service at the latter stages of the Vietnam conflict, where at the heart of it, what we were saying as a government did not match what was actually happening on the battlefield.
KURTZ: So you're trying to close that gap, which sometimes skeptics think there's a lot of gaps, a wider gap between the official comments and the official actions.
All right. P.J. Crowley, thanks for discussing that with us and the other matters as well.
Still to come, did Fox News salvage the first presidential debate of the season? You know, the one where most of the major candidates stayed home.
Stay with us.
KURTZ: Time now for our "Media Monitor," a weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business.
This one is just despicable. There's been plenty of hateful talk directed at President Obama, but the killing of bin Laden this week prompted an ugly outburst against George W. Bush.
Syndicated radio host Mike Malloy, who calls himself a traditional liberal Democrat, said the former president is responsible for more deaths than bin Laden, the old Bush as war criminal rhetoric.
But Malloy also said this: So when does SEAL Unit 6, or whatever it's called, drop in on George Bush?"
That's right. This radio host is suggesting that a Special Operations unit might want to kill Bush. It's important for the media to call out hate speech on both sides, so kudos to "Washington Post" columnist Colby King for highlighting Malloy's offensive comments.
I didn't think much of this one. Georgia's "Gainesville Times" didn't report the arrest of its executive editor for driving under the influence. He wasn't deemed enough of a public figure to be newsworthy.
Right. So the editor, Mitch Clarke, disclosed the news himself in his column days later, saying, he should have insisted that the paper publish it.
Fox News put on the first debate of the 2012 presidential campaign this weekend, and it wasn't exactly an all-star affair. Beyond Tim Pawlenty, the South Carolina face-off featured sideshows as Ron Paul, pizza mogul Herman Cain, and former governor Gary Johnson.
It probably would have been better to hold off until more heavyweight Republicans are in the race. But I have to say that Bret Baier and his panel asked some very sharp questions.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRET BAIER, MONITOR: But when it comes to going after terrorists, for example, drone attacks in Pakistan have more than tripled under President Obama. He sent 30,000 more U.S. troops into Afghanistan last year. And he just authorized, as we talked about, this mission to kill bin Laden.
How much more aggressive could he be?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Isn't this country just moving toward accepting gay marriage?
JUAN WILLIAMS, MONITOR: Mr. Cain, does the GOP risk the perception that it's becoming the union-busting party?
CHRIS WALLACE, MONITOR: But weren't you, in fact, far more committed to cap and trade over those years than you now let on?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Too bad they didn't have a stronger group of candidates to field those questions. Well, this is just spring training for the media.
That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Happy Mother's Day to my mom and all the other mothers out there.
We'll be back here next Sunday morning, 11:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.