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Reliable Sources

Coverage of Cindy Sheehan's Protest

Aired August 21, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST, RELIABLE SOURCES (voice-over): The media's protest mom. Why have journalists turned Cindy Sheehan into a leading symbol of the anti-war movement? Has this mother of a fallen soldier manipulated the press with the help of liberal advocacy groups or just seized upon the summer news vacuum at the president's Crawford ranch?

And with mounting casualties, sinking poll numbers and political stalemate in Baghdad, are news organizations finally changing their approach to the Iraq war?

And why is Arianna Huffington being so critical of jailed reporter Judith Miller?

Plus, the broadcaster who warned that women are taking over.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on one woman in the media spotlight.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

It was a small story at first, a lone protester, a mother who had lost her son in Iraq demanding a meeting with President Bush. But the reporters at the presidential retreat in Crawford kept writing and kept talking about Cindy Sheehan.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Cindy Sheehan wants a face to face meeting with Mr. Bush.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: She has met with the president before, but wants so badly to meet him and talk with him again, she's vowed to live outdoors, outside his Texas ranch.


KURTZ: "The New York Times," "Washington Post," and other publications began giving Sheehan more prominence. She started blogging for liberal Web sites run by Arianna Huffington and DalyKos. And reporters demanded to know why President Bush wouldn't meet with her again.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Part of my duty as the president is to meet with those who have lost a loved one, and so -- you know, listen, I sympathize with Mrs. Sheehan. She feels strongly...


KURTZ: Sheehan also hooked up with liberal groups such as, and when she began talking about Iraq as an illegal war and said that Israel should pull out of Palestine, conservative pundits pounced.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: I think she's being used by very far- left elements in this country, elements that not only object to the Iraq war, but object to basically our way of life here.

BAY BUCHANAN, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: She's on a bus -- it's called the impeachment bus, or the impeachment tour. And so she's clearly got an agenda here.


CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS, VANITY FAIR: Since when is being a hysterical, paranoid, ideologist, or at least being manipulated by people who are, who've turned this into Camp Fruitbat and Camp Nutbat.


KURTZ: Even the opinionated Californians seemed surprised by what she had wrought.


CINDY SHEEHAN: It just turned into a media circus.


KURTZ: Well, joining me now here in the studio, "Washington Post" political reporter Dana Milbank. Also with us, in San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for "The San Francisco Chronicle." And in Los Angeles, syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington, the founder of

Dana Milbank, you've spent a lot of time in Crawford. Let's be honest, journalists have taken a nonstory, a single protester asking for a meeting with the president, and turned it into a huge story. Why?

DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, there's a whole bunch of reasons.

Part of it is, as you state, a lot of them are sitting around there, eating barbecue three times a day, feeling a little resentful that the president has dragged them down there. Finally, they have something to counter the doldrums.

On the other hand, a lot of this is Cindy Sheehan finally getting her act together. She's been at this for a year. She jumped on the Downing Street memos. We didn't nibble at that. She jumped on a lot of issues -- the Israel, the neocons.

She's refined her message. She's taken advantage of the right time and she's taking off.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, does the press grant Cindy Sheehan kind of a special status because she has gone through the pain of losing a son? Does that give her opinions about the war more weight?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Well, Maureen Dowd said it gave her a certain kind of moral authority. So there are people who definitely are saying that.

You know, I think originally the treatment of her was pretty sympathetic because she had lost a son, which is awful. And, you know, she's a tragic figure.

But I don't think -- Dana, I have to disagree with you. I don't think she's refined her message. I mean, what she said was she was a mom who wanted to meet with the president again -- although she didn't always say again.

And then people started looking at what she was saying. They noticed that she didn't really differentiate between Afghanistan and Iraq. She made comments about Israel. She doesn't want to pay her taxes.

Then people started looking at what she was saying, and now all of a sudden, oh, this is getting personal -- well, she made it personal being about her, and now that people are listening to her, she doesn't really enjoy the scrutiny of people paying attention to what she says and thinks.

KURTZ: Brief response?

MILBANK: Well, I think you have to look at Cindy Sheehan this way. She could go one of two ways. Is she Rosa Parks or is she Lyndon LaRouche, who's just sort of a perpetual crazy? Or perhaps I'll now get sued for calling Lyndon LaRouche a crazy.

But think about Rosa Parks -- the story was about her briefly, but it sparked the civil rights movement.

The story is pivoting away now from Cindy Sheehan to a broader anti-war movement. So in a way it doesn't matter what she is saying at this moment -- she sparked it.

KURTZ: All right. Let me turn to Arianna Huffington.

You've had Cindy Sheehan blogging on your Web site,, and you write that the media coverage of this woman has been, quote, "a strange mix of detachment, condescension, distortion and aggression." I would have thought it was journalism.

I mean, you don't think reporters should be cheerleaders for Cindy Sheehan, do you?


But let me give you an example. When Andrea Mitchell was interviewing Joe Biden on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, she immediately asked him what he thought of her position about withdrawing troops from Iraq. Well, that's not her primary claim to attention.

Her primary claim to attention is her moral claim as a grieving mother who has lost a son in Iraq and who wants to ask the president primarily to explain to her what is the noble purpose that he's referring to, what her son died for?

Now, that happens to also be a question that a lot of Americans are asking. In fact, over 60 percent of Americans are now considering the war in Iraq a mistake. And that is what is giving the media the reason for giving her as much attention, because the moral claim that she has was not given to her by Maureen Dowd, as Debra said, it was given to her by the most tragic loss that she has suffered.

KURTZ: All right.

Now, Cindy Sheehan has been given a lot of interviews. We've seen some of them on television. Let's take a look at two of them.


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, MSNBC'S "HARDBALL WITH CHRIS MATTHEWS": If your son had been killed in Afghanistan, would you have a different feeling?

SHEEHAN: I don't think so, Chris, because I believe that, you know, Afghanistan is almost the same thing.



ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Do you really believe the president of the United States is the biggest terrorist in the world?

SHEEHAN: I believe that he is responsible for the needless and senseless deaths of more people than any other organization right now.


KURTZ: Dana Milbank, when Sheehan talks about impeaching Bush, or Israel, or she's not going to pay her taxes, or aligns herself with MoveOn, does she undercut her status as a Gold Star mother, or do journalists not really care that she has a very liberal agenda?

MILBANK: Well, as Arianna said, she has this moral authority regardless of what she does with it, just like soldiers who are in Iraq serving there have this sort of authority.

I really think it is important -- she has curtailed some of what she has been saying. She's revoked a lot of what she said about Israel and the neocons. And the real issue here I think the journalists said, right, that's the symbol.

This is why they had 60,000 people out at 1,600 candlelight vigils this past week. MoveOn, other liberal groups have really jumped on this. They're rushing in other people like Cindy Sheehan so they can make it something other than Cindy Sheehan.

KURTZ: Is it true that she's not your biggest fan?

MILBANK: It is true that she had a protest outside the "Washington Post" with bullhorns and all to say we were not being sufficiently sympathetic just a month ago.

KURTZ: All right.

Debra Saunders, have some conservatives, in your view, gone too far in attacking Sheehan? Or has she made herself fair game with a lot of these comments? Should we be hearing, for example, about her husband filing for divorce and the other relatives who disagree with her and all of that?

SAUNDERS: Well, I mean, she's made herself and her personal story a news story. I think some conservatives maybe went overboard trying to dissect things she said a year ago to the Vacaville paper. I mean, that's a bit unnecessary.

But, you know, what she says, by the way, is that George Bush killed her son and she seems to give a pass to the insurgents who killed her son Casey, and that is problematic and that's something that people have a right to look at.

And now, of course, that people are actually thinking about what she thinks, she's not enjoying the spotlight and all of a sudden she's saying, this isn't personal, it's not about me -- well, she made it about her. She didn't say, President Bush, please meet with other mothers who have lost children, including those who disagree with me. She said, Meet with me, and that's what she wants.

So she made it about her, and now it's about her.

KURTZ: Arianna Huffington...

HUFFINGTON: But, Debra...

KURTZ: Let me just ask the question and then you can respond.

You said that some people on the right are sliming Cindy Sheehan, your word, and you say that Bill O'Reilly said that this kind of behavior borders on treasonous. But in that particular case what he said was, quote, "Other American families who have lost sons and daughters in Iraq feel that this kind of behavior borders on treasonous." So do you owe O'Reilly an apology on that point?

HUFFINGTON: No, absolutely not.

Listen, words like treasonous being used by O'Reilly, words like crackpot being used by Fred Barnes, Michelle Malkin trying to tell us what she believes Casey Sheehan would have thought about his mother -- you know, all that is completely inappropriate.

But more important than that, let me raise a point which has to do with the scrutinizing of her comments. I mean, if 10 percent of that kind of scrutiny was given to comments made by people who are actually making life and death decisions in this country, like Dick Cheney's "last throes" statement about the insurgency, like Condoleezza Rice's statement about the mushroom clouds, like "mission accomplished," all the ludicrous statements made by...

KURTZ: Hold on, hold on.

You're saying that the journalists in this country are giving far more scrutiny to Cindy Sheehan than to the vice president of the United States and the secretary of state, really?

HUFFINGTON: When it comes to ludicrous statements like the last throes, the insurgency being in its last throes, the statement that journalists should be scrutinizing every day, because it shows a massive disconnect between the reality in Iraq and the vice president of the United States.

Rice's statement about the imminent mushroom cloud before we invaded Iraq should be scrutinized every day as an example of how this woman and this administration misled this country to war.

These are incredibly significant statements that should be scrutinized instead of the statements that Cindy Sheehan, who does not claim to be a foreign policy expert, or who does not have any power to send people to war, has made over the last year.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, can you imagine a pro-war mother who had lost a son or daughter in Iraq getting this kind of massive media coverage?

SAUNDERS: I can imagine it, but it isn't happening, is it, Howie?

KURTZ: Why would that be?

SAUNDERS: I guess -- basically -- I'm not at Crawford, but you need to get the right mother who lost a son out to Crawford confronting these other women. I think that that's what's necessary.

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, this reminds me a little bit of Kristen Breitweiser, who is one of the 9/11 widows, and she had a group of them who became active in the campaign, actually ended up supporting John Kerry. And some conservatives said she was exploiting her victim status by getting involving in politics. My question is, have some mainstream journalists deliberately turned Cindy Sheehan into kind of a symbol of the anti-war movement not just because they sympathize with her, because they're opposed to the war?

MILBANK: I don't think that it's the journalists that are doing that. I think it's the activist groups that are doing that and the journalists are happy to go along with that.

I mean, what's very interesting here is you're not seeing a lot of pro-war Gold Star mothers come out there. Cindy Sheehan remains sort of untouchable.

What's interesting is this debate is really within the punditocracy, the people who are trying to take her out or praise her. You don't see the president and his people, for the most part, knocking her down. And you don't see the Democrats, the elected Democrats, for the most part, building her up.

So she is untouchable in this way. The Republicans desperately need to get a similarly untouchable figure in there. I saw at the rally this week, at a counter-rally they brought in a veteran who lost two legs in Iraq and he was for the war. They need that kind of -- you need to fight moral authority with moral authority.

KURTZ: But you also need journalists who are going to give that kind of attention to somebody from the other side.

MILBANK: I think we will see when we see it.

KURTZ: All right.

Well, we will leave it there for the moment.

When we come back, are the polls affecting the media's coverage of Iraq?

And do the press and the public have a right to see the photos of flag-draped caskets arriving back from Iraq?

We'll talk about that next.



Arianna Huffington, the press clearly fell short in covering the run-up to the Iraq war. During the first part of the war, many liberals felt the media were cheerleading.

Do you think that now, two and a half years later, the coverage is reaching a tipping point as we saw during the Vietnam War?

HUFFINGTON: I think it's beginning to, Howard, and partly it is because of the poll numbers unfortunately. Because as you said in the introduction, the media are incredibly affected by poll numbers. We see that in the coverage of Arnold Schwarzenegger in California. His polls number turned, the media coverage of him turned.

KURTZ: You ran against him, as I recall.


Just wanted to make that clear.


KURTZ: Keep going.

HUFFINGTON: And now we are seeing it very clearly when it comes to the war.

It's the poll numbers, but it's also the daily news coming out of Iraq. It's very hard not to cover what is actually happening there.

Although, I completely agree with those who are saying that we are not seeing the pictures that can really galvanize the emotion of the American people when it comes to the horror that is going on in Iraq.

I was in Europe for almost a month and the pictures you are seeing in European newspapers are dramatically different -- I don't mean just gruesome, but pictures of the pained expressions on mothers with the bodies of their children, emotional pictures like that we are not seeing in American newspapers.

KURTZ: All right. Let me get Debra Saunders in.

Is it the poll numbers or is it also the insurgent attacks, the mounting casualties and the delays in getting a constitution in Baghdad?

SAUNDERS: I just think that we live in an age where people sour on everything over time, and obviously -- especially when there's bad news. And I don't know of a war where there has been good news, do you, Howie?

I mean, of course there is bad news. People are getting killed and the numbers are getting soft. And that seems to be happening for practically everything you can think of -- Governor Schwarzenegger, George Bush. It happened to Gray Davis before Schwarzenegger, before he was recalled as California governor.

It's an age where people -- we live in an age where people sour on everything.

KURTZ: Well, if there was a peaceful transition after the initial fighting and if the different groups in Iraq were at war rhetorically speaking, obviously the view of this conflict would be much different. Dana Milbank, Arianna mentioned the pictures. Now, the Pentagon had been releasing some photos of the returning caskets from Vietnam, but those were censored, as we see right here up on the screen, black boxes put over people's faces in a way that made them almost unusual.

Well, this month, Defense Department settled a lawsuit brought by University of Delaware professor and former CNN correspondent Ralph Begleiter, agreeing to make more photos available of these coffins without any censorship -- we see one of them there.

Could that have an affect on public opinion?

MILBANK: Well, sure.

I mean, this whole Pentagon policy, first of all, is insult to injury here. It's like these pallbearers in some witness protection program.

The problem in the first place is in every war in the modern age before, we saw these photos because reporters, photographers were allowed on to these bases.

The Bush administration has enforced a longstanding but never enforced policy that keeps reporters off these bases. So now they're providing us with their own photographs. These are military photographs. And now they're doctoring these photographs.

We shouldn't have to rely on doctored military photographs; we should be allowed on to those bases to take our own photographs.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, do you see pictures and images as playing an important role here in terms of the way the media presents this war and the aftermath of the war to the American public?

SAUNDERS: Yes, of course they do.

And I think the Pentagon should be showing more than they're showing. But I think people also do have a really good understanding of the fact that women are losing their children in Iraq, we're talking about civilians.

I think people do see pictures that present what is happening on the ground. We can't show everything. And the pictures we show in America may not show as much violence and grieving as Arianna likes, but we also don't show power plants coming on and we don't show kids going to school.


KURTZ: Just very briefly. You're saying the good news in Iraq or what progress is being made is getting short shrift in the media?

SAUNDERS: Well, it's hard to show that and it's hard to report that.

I do think that there is some truth to that. Yes, I do, Howie. KURTZ: All right.

Debra Saunders, Dana Milbank, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, we'll ask Arianna Huffington why she's been so critical of jailed "New York Times" reporter Judith Miller. That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Judith Miller has been in jail for a month and a half now for refusing to testify in the Valerie Plame CIA leak investigation.

Arianna Huffington, you wrote that Miller doesn't want to reveal her source at the White House because she is the source, that she told Dick Cheney's top aide, Scooter Libby, about Plame and her CIA role and maybe she told Karl Rove, too.

And you attribute all this to, quote, "a scenario being floated in the halls at the 'New York Times'." In other words, you have no proof of this.

HUFFINGTON: Well, I have been blogging about that for a month now, quoting different sources from within "The Times" and as well as former "Times" reporters. I have been quoting what they're saying, and I've also been responding to the kind of criticism from Floyd Abrams the other day on CNN when he said that what I'm saying is based on my disagreements with Judy Miller over her pre-war reporting.

KURTZ: In fact -- let me just jump in here, and I'll let you answer. But let's show our viewers what Floyd Abrams, who was Judy Miller's lawyer, had to say in an interview with Lou Dobbs about your theory about Miller.


FLOYD ABRAMS, JUDITH MILLER'S LAWYER: I can say that's preposterous. What Arianna Huffington is concerned about, what she dislikes Judy Miller for, it's not this, but the earlier reporting she did on weapons of mass destruction.


KURTZ: OK, your response?

HUFFINGTON: Well, my response is that, first of all, these things are not disconnected. When Judy Miller met with Libby, after Joe Wilson's column appeared in the "New York Times" on July 8th in Washington -- as you actually all have written yourself.

And that is while she was still on the WMD beat; that was while she was still doing reporting; that was while she was still carrying water for the administration's distortions and lies about the existence of WMD. And therefore, these things are not unconnected at all. Whether she was a source or one of the sources or whether she was also receiving the information, I'm sure will be revealed sooner rather later. "The New York Times..."

KURTZ: Right, but right now it's speculation. So is it fair to her, who's sitting in jail, for you to be putting this on your blog without any hard evidence?

HUFFINGTON: I'm actually saying that this is what is being quoted all over the "New York Times."

I'm sure you've heard it yourself. This is not something that is one source. These are multiple sources -- very well-positioned sources.

As you know, there is tremendous anger and frustration within the "Times" by many very responsible journalists about the way Sulzberger and Keller are handling this.

They are feeling that, once again, the "New York Times" could go down because they are standing by a reporter. Keller himself has said publicly he does not know what Miller knows.

Without asking all the questions...

KURTZ: You're referring here...

HUFFINGTON: Bill Keller, the editor.

KURTZ: You're referring here to Bill Keller, the editor of the "New York Times." But she has some support, too, and clearly she has been a controversial figure.

We are going to have to leave it there. But thanks very much, Arianna Huffington, for joining us on this and other subjects.

Just ahead -- Arianna, you'll love this -- the male broadcaster who thinks women are ruling the world, and he's not too happy about it.

Stay with us.


KURTZ: Now, I can't help but notice that a number of women are getting prime-time cable shows. Rita Cosby just debuted on MSNBC, while Nancy Grace is pulling big ratings at HEADLINE NEWS, and Greta Van Susteren is smashing records over at FOX. And don't think it's escaped my notice that Katie Couric makes $64 million while I make less.

But I wouldn't go so far as Michael Buerk, a BBC "presenter," as they call them, who complains that, quote, "Almost all the big jobs in broadcasting are held by women," and that "men have been reduced to sperm donors." What a romantic way of putting it.

According to London's "Independent" newspaper, Buerk says that "life is now lived in accordance with women's rules," and the marketplace is changing, Buerk tells us, because "products are made for women, cars are made for women, because they control what is being bought."

So never mind that, on this side of the Atlantic at least, the media companies are all run by men, the big network anchors all men, the Sunday talk show hosts are all men, the late night comics are all men, and most weekend programming is devoted to selling beer to football fanatics and NASCAR dads, Michael Buerk knows who's really running things, and I, for one, am in no position to contradict him.

The producer of this show is a woman, and so is her boss.

Well, that's it for this edition of "RELIABLE SOURCES." I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.