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Interview With Brian Williams; Pentagon Plants Favorable Stories in Iraqi Newspapers; 'Nightline' Reborn

Aired December 04, 2005 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): The aftermath. Three months after Katrina, some journalists keep going back to New Orleans. But what happens now that the pictures have given way to the long, hard slog of rebuilding? How to the media cover a slow-motion disaster?

NBC's Brian Williams on the hurricane and the changing role of network newscasts in a 24-hour media universe. A RELIABLE SOURCES exclusive.

Stealth journalism. The Pentagon plants favorable stories in some Iraqi newspapers and pays off some Iraqi journalists. Is that ethical or just propaganda?

"Nightline" reborn with three anchors and a faster format. Can the program live up to the reputation forged by Ted Koppel?

Plus, Washington's big money scandals. Are the broadcast networks missing the story?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, now a full hour of media analysis every Sunday, 10:00 Eastern, 7:00 Pacific.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

Ahead, how the Pentagon is paying to manipulate news coverage in Iraq.

But first, a number of journalists have returned to New Orleans again and again since Katrina struck. This week the network sent their top guns to the region to report on the storm's three-month anniversary.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When you come to a place like here, and you realize there is no life, life has not returned to normal...

BOB WOODRUFF, ABC NEWS: They are still finding bodies here. And as you walk around, there's still an eeriness. BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: A whole lot of people in this entire region of country want others to know life is still a daily struggle in this part of the world.


KURTZ: But the problems of that devastated region are starting to fade a bit in national media prominence. Is it our job to keep the story alive?

NBC news anchor Brian Williams reported from the Superdome and badly damaged Ninth Ward this past week. And I sat down with him on the "Nightly News" set in New York.


KURTZ: Brian Williams, welcome.

WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.

KURTZ: You are just back from your sixth trip to New Orleans in three months. On Thursday, after you came back to New York, you led the newscast again with a story about the Lower Ninth Ward.

Have you become a crusader on this issue?

WILLIAMS: I don't think so. I think what -- what I've become is a witness by getting down there when did, beating, in effect, the first responders to a storm that had yet to hit.

KURTZ: And you were in the Superdome when all that human misery was going on.

WILLIAMS: Yes. We rode it out with so many thousands of others. I really do think it made us witness -- it made us witnesses.

I don't think any of our coverage has exceeded conventional standards of how important this story is. I think it is a hugely important story.

KURTZ: But isn't it implicit, not just in the amount of air time you've given it, the fact that you keep going back, but when you say things like the other night, at the Ninth Ward, you signed off by saying, "This is a neighborhood that's been left to die."

It seems to me the message is government is not doing enough.

WILLIAMS: I'll let others reach those kinds of sweeping conclusions. Standing there with no lights, people, living things, pets, wild animals, no sign of anything, there is -- it's an irrefutable statement that it is -- it is a dead patch of land, an entire once-thriving neighborhood. But I'll let others write the history books and draw their conclusions about what went wrong here. But we certainly were there to chronicle the missteps and the absolute staggering human tragedy. KURTZ: But beyond chronicling, do you feel that the people of New Orleans, many of them, feel abandoned by the rest of the country and that you are carrying their message to Washington and the entire nation?

WILLIAMS: I'll put it this way: you know, holiday shopping season is under way. There's a war on. Half the populous is scared to death of bird flu. It is -- our lives are incredibly busy.

It is so easy. The media attention is often like the spotlight in a prison yard. When it's on you, it's blinding. And there is few things done any better in this country than media attention when it's focused.

KURTZ: And then we all move on to the next crisis.

WILLIAMS: Then we all move on. All I'm doing by dint of the fact that we had a unique view of this story, is using our resources to remind the rest of the country that for millions of our fellow Americans, life every day is a struggle. And look at how many off- shore oil platforms are still affected by this.

Look at the tangential issues of race and class and oil and warfare and the environment that this has raised. I think it is a monumental story of modern times.

KURTZ: We are all taught that journalists are supposed to put their emotions aside and cover the news as best they can and deliver the facts. But when I hear you talk about this, you are clearly emotional about it.

WILLIAMS: When -- when your countrymen who have been killed in a storm float by you in a -- in the 25th largest city in the United States, when you watch people and witness people dead or dying for lack of help and assistance, it has a profound effect on you, especially when you thought after Banda Aceh that you would never see this in your home country, you would never see similar destruction and suffering.

And I should quickly add, our trip earlier in '05 to Baghdad, Mosul, for the elections, it was a violent time. It has an equal effect. You know, what we do is report on hotspots often...

KURTZ: Sure.

WILLIAMS: ... and awful topics. And it can't help but affect you.

KURTZ: There is, as I think you know, a conservative critique that said that a lot of journalists after Katrina went on the air and expressed outrage because it was a way of bashing the Bush administration. And even now criticizing the government responses maybe have some political overtones.

Do you disagree with that? WILLIAMS: This story to me is not about President George W. Bush as much as it is about human suffering, about what happened to our country.

KURTZ: But isn't the logical next question, what do we do about that human suffering?

WILLIAMS: Well, I would like to put those questions to President Bush and other government officials. But the difference -- the reason people are saying the media found their voice on this story is, take WMD. We had no independent testing authority. We had to go with the government experts and witnesses, including our own secretary of state, before the United Nations.

In this case it was different. We were told one truth by government officials in some cases, and yet we were standing next to the truth. And so we spoke up about it. We were looking at the contrary view.

KURTZ: Let's talk about this newscast. Tom Brokaw sat in that chair for 22 years. In the years since you've taken over, the good news for you is that the broadcast has remained number one. The last three months you've averaged about 9.5 million viewers.

The not as good news is that you're down about 400,000 viewers from the comparable period at the end of Brokaw's tenure. Does that worry you at all?

WILLIAMS: Oh, no. I leave it to others to worry about those numbers. We are much more interested in the other yardstick we use, which is the quality of the broadcast.

As you've seen -- you've spent a fair amount of time in our newsroom -- it's our entire day's efforts. And more than that, it starts off at 1:00 in the morning the day before. This is...

KURTZ: But you could put on the best journalistic newscast in the world...

WILLIAMS: And I think we are.

KURTZ: But -- and if enough people don't watch, somebody else might be sitting in that chair. You can't tell me you don't pay attention to ratings.

WILLIAMS: Oh, we -- I mean, after a certain point we have the great luxury of not worrying about numbers. We hit an enormous swath of the viewing public.

Our broadcast qualifies to be called the largest single source of news in the United States every day. There's not another broadcast or Web site or newspaper that comes close to it.

I'm saying that once we've reached a certain level, we have a great luxury of worrying only about the actual words that go into the half-hour we're allotted by our network every night. KURTZ: And yet, as you know, for 15 years now all network news audiences have been shrinking and getting older. You can tell form watching the Metamucil commercials. And some people say having the news at 6:30 is an anachronism of all of that.

Are you worried about the long-term viability of the franchise, even though right now you're on top of the heap?

WILLIAMS: I would not. And as you know, I'm very bullish on our genre.

I'd agree with it, but for the fact that this year we've just put "Nightly News" online. And now if you're commuting on business from New York to Denver, and you're normally one of our viewers when you can catch the broadcast, well, when you arrive at your airport hotel, put up your laptop, log on. There's the newscast, on demand, ready for when you want to play it.

And with every screen that Americans fall in love with -- and now we're watching "Out of Africa" on our iPods, apparently -- our broadcast will be there. As media change as technology of choice in this country, we'll find it and we'll be there, because what we have going for us is we are "NBC Nightly News" at the end of the day. We have a brand name and a reputation that is sought after, and a broadcast people grew up watching.

KURTZ: And speaking of online, you have this huge platform here, and yet you go online every day and you blog. You put your thoughts down on your Web site. Why is that a good use of your time?

WILLIAMS: I've found it enormously useful, and I've come to like it. It's a part of my day I would -- I would not now do without.

It's a viewer's guide. It's a -- kind of a companion. It's the "TV Guide" to "NBC Nightly News."

We have to toss a lot over the ship to get everything in a half- hour every night. I said to you this past week, imagine during our growing up in this country if the greats like Cronkite, Huntley or Brinkley had been writing a journal that was accessible every day to tell all of us who never missed their broadcast what the editorial process was like behind the scenes it would have been fascinating. And that's all we do every day.

KURTZ: You talk about throwing things out of the newscast. Anybody that's got a half-hour show understands the tyranny of time. But every study has shown -- obviously Iraq is the dominant foreign story right now -- that international news has been declining for 15, 20 years as the networks have closed bureaus, and so forth.

Do you feel that that's a lack on the networks, generally, on NBC in particular?

WILLIAMS: I think people sometimes confuse things like payrolls and actual concrete foreign bureaus with the time we've spent concentrating on foreign news. You answered your own question, in part.

Since 9/11, we have been dominated by the tangential coverage of foreign news. Life in America these days is about foreign news. In part, it's about people who want to kill us.

It will go on to define our generation, probably my children's generation. So I am not worried about our percentage of coverage of foreign news.

KURTZ: You've added a periodic segment to the newscast called "Making a Difference." Is that in any way pandering are responding to those who say, you know, you folks in the media, it's all negative, it's all about people who get blown up, it's all about body counts, we want more good news.

Are you trying to provide more good news?

WILLIAMS: We are trying to respond to people who say, in your half-hour, like in a newscast, are you telling me there is no section, there is no time to point out that amid all the death and destruction and threats of either terrorism or flu, that there is no place to point out -- take the Gulf, for example. The hordes of people going on a bus on their own and at their own expense to volunteer, where a lot of government agencies can't or won't, and that's all we're doing. We're shining a light.

Periodically, these reports air every few days. And I think we can afford that kind of time in a newscast like ours.

It's not light. It's not -- it's not fluff. It is every inch journalism, and it's about things that are vitally important to the folks at home who are watching our broadcast.

KURTZ: Before you took this job, you were sort of the anchor in waiting for more than a couple of years. People took a lot of potshots at you. TV writers -- that's what they do for a living -- said you look like a "GQ" model, you came out of local TV, you hadn't been a foreign correspondent.

Did that bother you?

WILLIAMS: No. The one thing that -- that you have to develop in this business is quite a thick skin. And I think you know me well enough to know that what truly counts, in addition to the family I leave to go to work every day, is what happens right in this three- square-foot area.

This is where the rubber meets the road. I'm judged on this work. I think this is what Americans see. And with all due respect, not necessarily the work of people whose job it is to criticize television coverage or those who are on television.

KURTZ: But did you feel like you had something to prove to the critics when you took the job?

WILLIAMS: No. I think you'll find that people who are drawn to this occupation love journalism. They don't usually suffer from a shortage of self-confidence.

This isn't a job for -- for the meek, really. You have to love this. You have to be driven.

This is my calling. It's always been my passion. It's what I say to kids entering our newsroom. If your heart rate just increased as you entered "NBC Nightly News," then welcome, this is your place if you never thought of doing anything else in your lifetime.


KURTZ: When we come back, Brian Williams weighs in on the Pentagon paying for news stories, the CIA leak investigation, and Katie Couric's future.

Stick around.


KURTZ: Welcome back. More now of my interview with NBC's Brian Williams.


KURTZ: The "LA Times" this week broke the story about the Pentagon planting positive stories, in some cases paying for positive stories in Iraqi newspapers. NBC followed it up, as did about every news organization on the planet.

Does that kind of practice trouble you?

WILLIAMS: I think as long as there have been conflicts and media to report on conflicts, the pejorative here is propaganda. I think there is -- as long as there is no illegality proven, or laws broken, this is in that lovely gray, undefined area in American history and culture where the government uses just about every tool at its disposal to win wars.

We've just been through a debate about the unseemly way some governments win wars and get information out of people. This is one that takes place almost above board every day. And again, since this takes us into the area of opinion, and that's a line I've always been unwilling to cross, I'll leave it to the journalism professors, the journalists who cover journalism to make a judgment about propriety vis-a-vis the government in this case.

KURTZ: But there are those who say -- and you know this as well as anyone -- that the Bush administration has mounted an offensive against the press, whether it's making payments to pundits like Armstrong Williams, whether it's politicizing PBS, according to an inspector general's report, whether it's tightly controlling information that people in your organization try to get.

Is this something that you worry about?

WILLIAMS: Well, this is all part of the -- they have the right to do this on their team, I think.

KURTZ: But isn't some of it crossing an ethical line?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's up to the individual journalist, and it's up to -- you know, an educated consumer is our best critic, to quote a New York clothier from years ago. It's still true that we hope our viewers realize that if it comes out of here, again, we have vetted it and reported it.

I mean, this is -- this is all the individuals involved. People -- people need to judge this administration. And despite any of the constrictions you mentioned that have been put on the news media, we have a free media in this society, and it hasn't affected our reporting this past week or these past several years.

KURTZ: So you're not willing to apply the propaganda label to the effort in Iraq? Or you're saying it raises the possibility of propaganda? You're being cautious there.

WILLIAMS: I will let others do the analysis on this story.

KURTZ: Clearly, you thought it was newsworthy because you jumped on it.

WILLIAMS: Oh, and we advanced the ball on this story this week. I think the facts that we broadcast on this went past the print reports on it this week.

KURTZ: Bob Woodward involved in controversy, as you know. He didn't tell his newspaper, "The Washington Post," for more than two years that he had a conversation with a senior administration official about Valerie Plame.

Was that a bad mistake.

WILLIAMS: I think that's between Bob and his bosses at "The Washington Post." He is -- I think on this broadcast recently I called him perhaps the best-known print journalist in the United States. Certainly of his generation.

KURTZ: But also one who has gotten a lot of criticism lately from some people who say that he has gotten too close to the Bush administration. It raises this whole question of how close to you get to your sources in the pursuit of news.

WILLIAMS: I know it, and I know that you follow a tough but fair piece on Bob as well. I really think this is a judgment he has to make, and I'm not going to get into this one.

KURTZ: I'm trying.

WILLIAMS: I know. I know, you are doing your job.

KURTZ: All right.

CBS, according to several reports, trying very hard to hire your NBC colleague, Katie Couric, to anchor the "CBS Evening News," to compete against you. That sounds like a pretty resistible offer.

WILLIAMS: Well, Katie is a -- is a fabulous broadcaster, a terrific person, a very good friend. And as of the time we're having this conversation, she is a member of my family. And like my own family, I believe all families work best when we stay together.

KURTZ: Have you offered any advice for staying at NBC?

WILLIAMS: I will not share any private communication I've had with my friend Katie. But she knows how I feel about this. And I'd like to see her stay right where she is.


Let me close by asking you a question that I asked Tom Brokaw about a year ago on this program. How is it possible -- is it difficult to stay in touch with the concerns of the average person that you talk to every day on this newscast when you are someone making millions of dollars a year? Rewards in this business at your level are very great.

WILLIAMS: I think it's who you are, where you're from, what your DNA is like, what you're made of, the family and friends you surround yourself with. Come with me after the broadcast tonight and I'll show you the e-mails that that arrive from people from all walks of life, in all 50 states, in Nagoya, Japan, and Czechoslovakia. And we have one very loyal viewer in the mountains of Peru who now watches us on a laptop.

Well, I hear from all of them. I often talk back to a lot of them. And I think it's how you choose to live.

We really can't change the market forces or societal forces that have decided to venerate and celebrate in some cases all of the wrong people in this country instead of firefighters and teachers, to my great lament. But what we can do is try to live a decent life and try to stay as close to and as and informed in the lives of those people who matter as possible.

KURTZ: All right. We will leave it there.

Brian Williams, thanks for letting us join you on the set.

WILLIAMS: Thanks, Howie. Good to have you.


KURTZ: Up next, why a political scandal can't seem to get the attention of the broadcast networks.

And later, the new "Nightline" hits the airwaves. We'll have a report card.


KURTZ: At his tearful news conference this week, it was almost possible to feel sorry for Duke Cunningham, the California congressman who pleaded guilty in a bribery case.


REP. RANDY "DUKE" CUNNINGHAM (R), CALIFORNIA: In my life I have had great joy and great sorrow. And now I know great shame.

KURTZ (voice over): That is, until you learn that the Republican lawmaker had taken more than $2 million in bribes, including a yacht, a Rolls-Royce and a $200,000 down payment on a condo in exchange for help with military contracts. Apparently buying a congressman is more expensive than it used to be.

Cunningham's plea made the broadcast network newscast, but in the six months since the "San Diego Union-Tribune" broke the story, there was one previous piece on the "CBS Evening News," nothing on NBC's "Nightly News," and nothing an ABC's "World News Tonight." The cable networks did more, of course, than the big three.

How about the scandal involving super lobbyist Jack Abramoff, a close friend of Congressman Tom DeLay, which could become one of Washington's biggest scandals? When Abramoff's business partner, Michael Scanlon, pleaded guilty two weeks ago to trying to bribe a congressman, Ohio's Robert Ney, and other public officials, the NBC and ABC evening newscasts didn't carry a word. Only the "CBS Evening News" did a story and a follow-up.

And when Abramoff was indicted in a casino gambling case over the summer, CBS and ABC mentioned it only briefly. NBC did an actual story, and another on a congressional hearing on how Abramoff and Scanlon allegedly ripped off an Indian tribe.


KURTZ: Why such spotty coverage? Newspapers have been all over these stories. But television considers them complicated, maybe too complicated. No dramatic pictures, just pieces of a puzzle involving millions in lobbying fees, incriminating e-mails, free golfing trips and favorable legislation.

This is only going to get bigger.

Still to come in our next half-hour, should the Pentagon pay for pro-American stories in Iraq newspapers?

Plus, will Katie Couric trade in NBC's peacock for the CBS eye?

All that ahead after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN Center.

Stay with us.


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning, everyone. I'm Tony Harris at the CNN Center in Atlanta. RELIABLE SOURCES returns in a moment. But first, a check of stories "Now in the News." An angry crowd today broke up a visit by Iraq's former prime minister to a shrine in Najaf. Iyad Allawi had stopped to pray when a group of Iraqis began chanting and throwing shoes. Police reportedly fired shots into the air to disperse the crowd, and Allawi's convoy, as you can see here, made a hasty departure from the scene. Allawi is currently campaigning for parliament in this month's election.

A top Iraqi official says security forces have uncovered a sophisticated plot to attack Saddam Hussein's trial tomorrow. Iraqi troops reportedly found long-range mortars in a Baghdad suburb aimed at the site of the trial. Authorities say they are not releasing evidence because it includes sensitive information, but they accuse a Sunni insurgent group called the 1920 Revolution Brigades of planning the attack.

A surprise at a building implosion in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Meet the tower that would not topple. A demolition expert says part of the old Zip Feed Mill was too rotten to crack. Construction crews plan to come back later this week with a crane.

More news coming up in 30 minutes. Now back to RELIABLE SOURCES.


A full-blown media uproar this week over the disclosure that the Pentagon is paying millions to plant stories in the Iraqi media. The "Los Angeles Times" was first with the news that U.S. military information officers wrote articles that appeared in Iraqi papers, portraying the mission in Iraq in a positive light.

Is this promoting democracy or blatantly unethical?


KEN BACON, FMR. PENTAGON SPOKESMAN: The press is something we're trying to build up in Iraq as a reliable free source of information. So to undermine that by paying for stories shoots our own program in the foot.

MARY MATALIN, FMR. CHENEY COUNSELOR: What the "LA Times" said is that we are placing accurate stories -- these are accurate stories in a cacophonous media world where there is a lot of anti-American propaganda.


KURTZ: At least one top military officers sees nothing wrong with the practice.


MAJ. GEN. RICK LYNCH, COALITION SPOKESMAN IN IRAQ: We don't need the lie. We do empower our operational commanders with the ability to inform the Iraqi public. But everything we do is based on fact, not based on fiction.


KURTZ: Joining me now here in Washington, "Los Angeles Times" Pentagon correspondent Mark Mazzetti, the man who broke the story. Also with us, two bloggers from opposite sides of the political fence, John Aravosis, who writes at, and in Minneapolis, Ed Morrissey of


Mark Mazzetti, when you were working on this piece, did anyone argue to you -- with you, there is no story here, this is what happened in war time, you should not write this story?

MARK MAZZETTI, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": There are -- there were a few -- some people in the Pentagon who argued that and said that, you know, information operations are a part of war time, which we would concede as well. But, there is plenty of people within the military who have a big problem with this type of operation. They feel that something like this will inevitably damage the credibility of the U.S. military, something that they've taken decades to build up after Vietnam.

So there is real debate within the military about this.

KURTZ: Ed, I want to read you a couple of the headlines on these bought and paid for stories. "Iraqi Soldiers Improve Leadership Skills." And my personal favorite, "Iraqi Forces Capture al Qaeda Fighters Crawling Like Dogs."

Since the Iraqis newspapers believed, I guess, these were legitimate pieces of journalism, isn't this fundamentally deceptive?

ED MORRISSEY, CAPTAINSQUARTERSBLOG.COM: Well, there's reasons for that. I mean, this is -- this is a war that's being fought on several fronts, as we've been told all along, that there is going to be several different fronts on this war. There is going to be an information war, there is going to be a regular hot-fire shooting war, there is going to be an intelligence war.

But I do tend to think that whatever the short-term tactical advantages are of -- of that type of approach, I think there are going to be serious long-term strategic issues and damage that's going to be done to our credibility and the credibility of the Iraqi media. And that is a deep concern, I think, and I think might be an overriding concern in this particular case.

KURTZ: These things always seem to leak out.

John Aravosis, let me read you a column in the "LA Times" by retired Brigadier General Walter Jaco (ph).

"Even third-rate countries routinely used information and disinformation as an instrument of foreign policy, often against the United States. The U.S., in turn, cannot win the war of ideas by speaking softly or keeping its mouth shut." JOHN ARAVOSIS, AMERICABLOG.COM: Yes, except what these third- rate countries do is they do a good job when they start to pretend they're going to be, like, spooks. I mean, you don't go buying off journalists and let the whole world find out, explode in your face, you look like idiots, and then no one believes you in the future.

KURTZ: Wait, wait. You're saying...

ARAVOSIS: We did a bad job.

KURTZ: ... it's OK for the U.S. to do this, but we're not doing as good a job as third-rate countries?

ARAVOSIS: Potentially. What I'm saying is that it is nothing new. The Bush administration did not create the policy out of thin air that we buy off journalists and start posing stories around the world. This has been done by the CIA for a very long time.

I mean, you know, Mark's report -- I mean, Mark and I have discussed this. This is a common practice in journalism, or I should say in spookdom maybe, not journalism.

KURTZ: I didn't know about it.

ARAVOSIS: But -- well, now you know. But what's important is you've got to look at when you use this kind of tactic. And it's not clear that the Defense Department should be adopting CIA tactics to start with. And if you're going to do it, don't be so sloppy about it that the whole world finds out, because now we look like idiots. And I think it has harmed our reputation.

KURTZ: Mark Mazzetti -- go ahead, Ed.

MORRISSEY: What I was going to say is I think you have to look at what our long-term strategy in Iraq is. You know, in terms of what John is saying, John is absolutely right. And what we're trying to do in Iraq is we're trying to build a democracy in the middle of the Middle East. And in order to do that, we want that to be a model so that other -- the whole -- the whole strategy of this war is to build a model of democracy in the middle of the Middle East. And part of that is building a reliable press corps for the Iraqi people so that they can learn to trust some -- varied information sources.

And I think -- again, I think that there is some good tactical reasons for doing what the Pentagon is doing, if they do it right, if they handle it properly. But I think long term, strategically, I think it goes against what the mission is about. And I think that's what the Pentagon really needs to focus on.

KURTZ: Let me jump in here, Mark Mazzetti. What I'm hearing from our bloggers here is this is not a bad idea, they just got caught. And they got caught because some people, including what you describe as a senior Pentagon official, talked to you about this.

So what's your take on whether this would have been fine if nobody knew about it? And why would a senior Pentagon official tell you this very secret and sensitive information?

MAZZETTI: There is a big battle right now in the Pentagon over the role of information in wartime, the role of truthful and accurate information in wartime. And the people -- the military people who talked to us for this story, as I said before, are very concerned that this type of thing will only damage the reputation not only of senior officers, but of the average person -- average soldier on street. And that if it looks like they're trying to subvert democracy, subvert the free press, then your average soldier is going to be -- you know -- well, the average person won't be listened to, the average general talking, giving interviews on CNN isn't going to be listened to.

There is no question that the government has done this before. CIA does it. But the question is, should the Pentagon be doing it?

KURTZ: John Aravosis, do you see any connection between this effort in Iraq, paying Iraqi newspapers, disguising information that came from a contractor as being legitimate journalism, and the $240,000 paid to Armstrong Williams by the Education Department...


KURTZ: ... to talk up the president's policies? The fake Medicare video news releases that said, "I'm Karen Ryan (ph) reporting," when she was a contractor? Both of those efforts branded illegal by the Government Accountability Office.

Do you see a connection between that and what's going on in Iraq?

ARAVOSIS: Yes. I mean, the main connection that's going on here is that the Bush administration wants to fight an information war rather than a real war. They think that they're right, everybody will accept them as being right, and they can win, whether it's on domestic policy or foreign policy, if they can just get their message across.

KURTZ: But all administrations fight information wars.


KURTZ: The question is, do you do it honestly and openly?

ARAVOSIS: Well, it's not just do you do it honest and openly, but it's also do you realize that it's not just, if you can just get the right talking point you can win, but actually you'd have to have a policy that's a good policy. It seems the Bush administration, at least from a left perspective or a Democratic perspective, they don't want to come up with good ideas, they just good want to come up with good ways to sell them. And I think that's what we're seeing in Iraq vis-a-vis the American public.

The Bush administration won't tell us the truth. They want to tell us, we're winning, it's victory.

KURTZ: Ed Morrissey, you want to briefly respond to that?

MORRISSEY: Well, first off, I think that you can draw some sort of comparison with the Armstrong Williams debacle. And I done think there is anybody who is really defending the Armstrong Williams deal.

The difference is, is that I think that the Bush administration has greater hurdles in getting -- in getting their message out for two reasons. One, I think they face a more hostile media environment than the previous administration did. And the second thing is that they just don't get the message out.

They're not very good at getting the message out. And they need to -- they need to improve that.

This is -- we're going to talk maybe a little bit about George Bush's speech a little later on. And we're just not hearing enough directly from the administration on the -- on the ways in which we're winning the Iraq war and the ways in which their policies are better.


MORRISSEY: They need to be out front, in front of the cameras more often, talking about this.

KURTZ: OK. Let's talk about the president's speech right now in Annapolis, laying out the goals in the war in Iraq. One network took it live among the broadcast networks.

Was this big news or basically a repackaging, more of the same, Mark Mazzetti?

MAZZETTI: Well, actually, I think in the run-up to the speech, news organizations were unclear how big a deal to make of it. But then the morning that President Bush made the speech, the White House came out with their 35-page document issuing a strategy, and also the environment this was in. This is two weeks before -- or two weeks after Republicans demanded the White House come up with a strategy. And here it was.

So it became a big deal. And there was not a lot of new detail, but it was the president laying out a case for how -- what is the victory in Iraq. But it was really how to get out of Iraq.

KURTZ: John Aravosis, did the press do a good job in pointing out discrepancies between what the president was saying about the readiness of Iraqi forces and the realities on the ground in Baghdad and surrounding areas?

ARAVOSIS: Yes, I think so. I mean, one example, I think it was the "TIME" magazine reporter who came forward and said, you know, the president said that Iraqi troops were leading the way to Tal Afar, or some town like that. And he came out and said, you know, "I was embedded with those troops. The Iraqi forces didn't lead the way, it was U.S. forces."

So I think what you've got is, you k now, some people on the right may feel the media is being unfair. But, you know, ask Bill Clinton how friendly the media was to him.

KURTZ: All right. ARAVOSIS: The media is also going to be a curmudgeon. And in this case, they are taking on the people in power.

KURTZ: Ed Morrissey, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi originally had opposed any U.S. withdrawal. When Jack Murtha proposed it, now she says she is for U.S. withdrawal. I didn't see a lot of stories accusing her of flip-flopping.

Do you think that the media kind of gave Pelosi a pass here?

MORRISSEY: Yes, I do think they gave Pelosi a pass, but I think the problem -- I think what they were focusing on was the fact that the Democrats sort of fell apart after the -- after the vote in the House which -- on November 18. They have gone -- they have gone in completely different directions.

You had John Kerry, who was saying, I'm not talking about timetables, I'm talking about timetables. You had Nancy -- and at the same time, saying nobody here is talking about precipitous withdrawal. And Nancy Pelosi, just right afterwards, saying, I want a precipitous withdrawal. Steny Hoyer coming out and saying, I don't want to withdraw at all, I want to win -- I want to win the mission.

KURTZ: So plenty of different positions for journalists to write about.

I've got to call a halt right there. Thanks to our bloggers, Ed Morrissey, John Aravosis. Mark Mazzetti, of the "LA Times," thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, the new "Nightline" anchors. How are they measuring up to Ted Koppel's legacy?

And will Katie Couric really jump ship at NBC? We'll talk about that next.


KURTZ: The new "Nightline" hit the airwaves this week, minus Ted Koppel and without the in-depth examination he attempted each night for a quarter century. Instead, Cynthia McFadden, Terry Moran and Martin Bashir served up a mix of three to four segments most nights, from Syria stuff to lighter features.


TERRY MORAN, "NIGHTLINE": I went out with American soldiers and Iraqi forces in a province north of Baghdad.

MARTIN BASHIR, "NIGHTLINE": Tonight we're going to tell you an extraordinary story about a group of young men who might just help renew your faith in the purpose and the power of the game.

CYNTHIA MCFADDEN, "NIGHTLINE": At the Naval Academy today, President Bush delivered a vigorous defense of the continuing U.S. involvement in Iraq. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Was it good journalism, and equally important in the cut- throat world of television, will people watch?

Joining me now here in the studio, "Baltimore Sun" television critic David Zurawik. And in Boston, Emily Rooney. She's the host of "Greater Boston" and "Beat the Press" on WGBH, and a former producer at ABC News.


Emily Rooney, "Nightline", was this a high-calorie journalistic effort, or did it leave you rather hungry?

EMILY ROONEY, WGBH: Well, I have to say, I give them credit for trying something different, Howie. They had to make a change. It's not going to be what Ted Koppel was.

The stories themselves I thought were darn interesting. What I thought was missing was more discussion.

I was interested that they said, "the interview." Ted Koppel used to do many interviews in a half-hour. So they were, you know, targeting this thing as one live interview a night.

For instance, the piece on the face transplants, which I thought was very interesting, riveting, as a matter of fact, needed a discussion about the moral, ethical implications. They raised them in the piece, but I was hungry for a little bit more discussion after that.

KURTZ: Right.

David Zurawik, you wrote that the new program was not only garish looking, but, "The balance between substance and style at "Nightline" has been decisively and sadly reversed."

But now, if it hadn't been "Nightline", if it had been some new show with a different name, and there wasn't sort of the Koppel shadow hanging over it, would you have thought any differently?

DAVID ZURAWIK, "BALTIMORE SUN": I would have. The Koppel shadow absolutely hurts them. I mean, to have to come up and measure up against that is a big, big problem.

But, when you looked at that show -- and there is a couple of things here, Howard -- one, it was absolutely the ratio -- let's -- I don't know what the numbers are. But maybe it was one-third style, two-thirds substance with Ted Koppel. Decidedly reversed.

They went to this overproduced look. In the piece I wrote, I think I called it "MTV Meets Primetime News Magazine." I was actually wrong. It's actually MTV Meets Primetime News Magazine, Meets Video Game for 4-Year-Olds. I mean, it was incredible.

Now, they did tone it down a little bit as the week went on...

KURTZ: All right.

ZURAWIK: ... but it was so -- they went so hard to get all of that energy that you can get out of production with flashing lights, with neon. The camera the first night was moving. You felt like you were drunk. I felt like I was in a disco with Cynthia McFadden in 1979 and she wouldn't stop talking. And I wanted to scream.

KURTZ: Well, I hope you're a good dancer.

Emily Rooney, I want to play for you a piece of tape. This was an interview by Cynthia McFadden with the Joint Chiefs chairman, General Peter Pace.


MCFADDEN: So will American troops be in Iraq a year from now?


MCFADDEN: Two years from now?

PACE: Don't know.

MCFADDEN: Five years from now?

PACE: Cynthia, don't know.


KURTZ: Now, I can just hear Koppel saying, "Forgive me, General, but if you don't know, how can the American people have any confidence that you folks now what you're doing in this war effort.?"

Now, it's no fair to say you're no Ted Koppel, but the interview sort of moved on. And I think, again, that may have been explained by the fact that these are five or four-minute interviews, as opposed to the longer pieces that "Nightline" used to do.

ROONEY: Yes. I mean, come on, I thought David's criticisms were overly harsh.

The one -- the on thing I can say is that I thought her interviews were a little bit scripted. But this is the first time she's done anything like that. This is -- she's really in the spotlight.

This is a show with a lot of gravitas. I'm sure she had all the questions written out and scripted. That will become much easier and much more natural.

I'm sure, Howie, when you started this show, when I started my show, I was much more scripted and I had things all -- you know, things -- you know, in the words of Ted Koppel, let's give them a chance.

And I disagree that it was too much style and not enough substance. Yes, the opening was a little flashier. It is Times Square. It's not in Washington anymore. They had to -- I'll go back to what I said earlier. They had to do something, or they have to do something to get more people to watch, because if more people are not going to watch, the show will be canceled.

KURTZ: You have to acknowledge, David Zurawik, that there were serious pieces by Terry Moran in Iraq, there was a piece on AIDS. I mean, this was not a fluffy program.

ZURAWIK: No, that's the irony, Howard, is that they're trying -- I really think James Goldstone, the producer, is trying to respect Koppel's legacy. But, you know, with all due respect to Emily, let me tell you, this is not true.

You talk -- Thursday night, Cynthia McFadden did a piece in India. They sent her to India about the spread of AIDS. And her question to the doctor who had been on top of this since the '80s was, "What were you thinking? What were you feeling the first time you discovered AIDS?"

Well, that's sob sister kind of -- that's not -- that's not -- she didn't give us the scope of AIDS. She gave us feelings, "People" magazine kind of journalism.

KURTZ: Feelings are a part of television.

ZURAWIK: Feelings are very much a -- way too much. You and I both know that.

KURTZ: All right.

ZURAWIK: Same thing with Bashir when he -- when -- Thursday night, when he did Victor Conte. It was, he's going to the slammer now. He's going to the big house in the doping scandal. All this tabloid language.

That's not opening-night jitters. That's a style that McFadden and him brought to this show.

KURTZ: All right.

I want to move on now to the anchor situation at the two networks.

Emily Rooney, as you know, "CBS Evening News," Bob Schieffer now about eight months in as a temporary anchor. ABC may be close to naming Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff as the co-anchors. But why is it taking so long and why is it such a difficult task for these networks?

ROONEY: I think, for one thing, they're concerned it doesn't matter. I think they're worried that it's not going to make any difference at all who they put in that anchor chair, that the era of the reign of the big-name anchors isn't going to make a difference.

You know, we forget that the house that Rune Arlidge built was really built on stolen anchor people. And, you know, there's a lot of criticism to -- for CBS, well, why don't you get your own person, and why do you have to go after Katie Couric? She's, you know, a flower that grows in NBC's garden only.

But I've got to tell you something, that's what Rune did. And they're probably thinking, well, why not?

KURTZ: But surely...

ROONEY: They can't fail any worse than they have.

KURTZ: But surely you're not saying that if CBS, which is aggressively pursuing Katie Couric, is able to lure her from NBC and "The Today Show," that that won't matter, that that won't get a lot of attention, that that won't affect "CBS Evening News?"

ROONEY: Well, I think what they're thinking right now is that things haven't changed that much with Bob Schieffer in the anchor desk versus Dan Rather. And they have to do something to shake up the whole look and aura of CBS News. And maybe it won't.

You know, I was just listening to your interview with Brian Williams. And it's very interesting that he's been able to maintain the audience. I mean, a lot of -- a lot of viewership is just where you -- where you land on the dial without Peter Jennings.

KURTZ: I've got to jump in.

ROONEY: I find myself...

KURTZ: "CBS Evening News" with Katie Couric, good move?

ZURAWIK: Absolutely a good move. It may not fix the larger thing that Emily is talking about, the force of churn and change that's hitting the industry, but it's a great move. It's a good move for her, and it's a great move for CBS. And it's exactly what Sean McManus has said he was going to do.

KURTZ: The new president of CBS News.

ZURAWIK: Absolutely, when he -- the day he was picked, when we all talked to him, his -- his mantra was, I learned at the feet of Rune Arlidge, and one of the things you do is hire big-name talent, and I'm going to do it.

KURTZ: Well, we'll see if he can pull it off.

David Zurawik, Emily Rooney, we're out of time. Thanks very much for joining us.

coming up, another Novak in the CIA leak investigation. Our look at world of media news just ahead.


KURTZ: Checking now the latest in the world of media news, there is a new mystery about the other Novak in the CIA leaks investigation. As special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald weighs possible charges against White House aide Karl Rove, "TIME" magazine writer Viveca Novak has agreed to testify about a conversation she had last year with Rove's lawyer, her long-time friend, Robert Luskin.

"The Washington Post" quoted a source as saying Novak told him that Rove had discussed CIA operative Valerie Plame with her "TIME" colleague, Matt Cooper. A detail that Rove left out of his initial grand jury testimony.

Was Novak blowing Cooper's confidential source? "TIME" managing editor Jim Kelly told "The Post," "There is no way that Viveca Novak knowingly, wittingly gave up a confidential source to Robert Luskin."

And "U.S. News & World Report" is fast becoming the incredible shrinking magazine. In the latest round of layoffs, chief political correspondent Roger Simon and now veteran conservative columnist John Leo have been let go, though Leo will blog for the Web site. The magazine, owned by Mort Zuckerman, has also laid off three photo staffers and is now pulling out of White House photo pool, leaving the rotating coverages to rivals "TIME" and "Newsweek."

When we come back, how "TIME" magazine is promising to make you famous.


KURTZ: Ever want to see your face in Times Square? "TIME" magazine is promising to display, at least briefly, the first 50,000 photos it receives, your face, right here before unveiling its person of the year. Talk about your 15 seconds of fame. What a publicity stunt.

And I bet there'll be no shortage of takers.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.