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HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): From Vietnam to Iraq, are media commentators falling behind the country in continuing to support an unpopular war as happened three and a half decades ago until Walter Cronkite's famous broadcast? And is the news coverage of violence in Iraq undermining President Bush as the Vietnam damage covered Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon? Koppel calls it quits. What has television lost with one of its toughest interviewers leaving ABC after 42 years? And can the new "Nightline" anchors carry on the tradition? Plus, how newspapers are coping with some bad news: their own.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, now a full hour of media analysis every Sunday morning 10:00 Eastern, 9:00 Central. I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead, what Ted Koppel's farewell means for the show he created. And bloggers weigh in on Bob Woodward and the CIA leak case. But first, back in 1968, nearly all editorial pages and most columnists supported the war in Vietnam, which made it all the more shocking when CBS anchor Walter Cronkite returned from a trip there and told the country that things were not going well.
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WALTER CRONKITE, FMR. CBS ANCHOR: To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe in the face of the evidence the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, if unsatisfactory, conclusion.
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KURTZ: Even then it would take another year or two for elite media opinion to turn against the war, catching up with the growing public disillusionment over the rising death toll and lack of progress. Today, while plenty of editorial pages have criticized President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, only a handful have supported a U.S. pullout. But a majority of Americans now oppose the war. Are the media again lagging behind public opinion? Joining us now here in Washington, author and presidential historian Robert Dallek, currently a visiting professor at Dartmouth College; CNN National Correspondent Bruce Morton, who covered the Vietnam War for CBS News; UPI Pentagon Correspondent Pam Hess, just back from a nine-week trip to Iraq. And in New York, "New York Times" columnist Paul Krugman, also an economics professor at Princeton University. Welcome. Paul Krugman, could there be a Cronkite moment today with a leading journalist turning against the war and moving public opinion?
PAUL KRUGMAN, COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK TIMES": We are not Walter Cronkite's country anymore. We are a much more polarized nation. There is no political center. People get their news from opposing sources. You look at the polls, people who voted for Bush in the last election just live in a different reality from people who voted for Kerry. And, you know, we've seen repeatedly not so much media figures, but policy figures. If you turn against Bush on the war, it doesn't matter who you are, it doesn't matter what were your record is. All of a sudden you're just another Michael Moore. So, no, I don't think we have a Walter Cronkite moment.
KURTZ: I was going -- I was going to ask you about that, because you wrote recently about the ugly myth that the administration is patriotic while its critics are not. Now you happen to favor a U.S. pullout. Has anybody called you unpatriotic?
KRUGMAN: Oh, I'm called unpatriotic all of the time on every issue. I've been called unpatriotic for -- for criticizing our health care system. But no, I mean -- no, this is a world in which -- a country in which -- look, I got -- was the subject of a fairly major campaign calling me unpatriotic for criticizing Bush's handling of Katrina. So that's the kind of world we're in. If Walter Cronkite were alive -- sorry, he is alive. If Walter Cronkite were on the news today, if a Walter Cronkite equivalent were on the news, he would -- immediately after that broadcast we just saw, he would have been called a traitor.
KURTZ: Pam Hess, you're just back, as I mentioned, from being embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq. Did that experience persuade you that the U.S. is either losing this war or certainly not winning it?
PAMELA HESS, UPI PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: I think it persuaded me that it's far more complicated than that. And we all want to boil it down to we're winning, we're losing, and then move on and go to the shopping mall. But that's really not the case. Iraq is a patchwork of places that are going pretty well and places that are involved in real war every single day. And the problem with media coverage is it's very hard to capture that in any single article.
KURTZ: Bruce Morton, you covered Vietnam, as I mentioned. Many reporters there gradually concluded that war was unwinnable. Do you see parallels between your experience there and the way Iraq is being covered today?
BRUCE MORTON, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the coverage is difference, in the first place. I think embedding, we couldn't do that. We went out with a limited amount of film. When you shot the film, you went back to what was then Saigon, wrote your story, and then mailed it off to the United States. I think if you're embedded, at least in the early stages of the war, a lot of people kind of felt they were on the team, they were in that unit. And I thought the BBC was tougher on the conduct of the war than the American media, by and large. So, I think that's one difference. But the other is I keep reading stories from over there -- Pam, you know better than I -- people say, you know, you can't really report, it's so hard to get out, it's so hard to get out of the Green Zone.
KURTZ: If you're not embedded, the dangers are tremendous. And so it's hard.
KURTZ: And one of the reasons you were able to do it, to see the rest of the country. Robert Dallek, why did it take not a Cronkite, but a John Murtha, the congressman from Pennsylvania, turning against the war, calling for a pullout, to spark this flood of coverage about should we get out?
ROBERT DALLEK, HISTORIAN: Well, because I think the media is different today. There are so many different voices being heard. And when you see a John Murtha, who has the credentials as a veteran, as a decorated veteran, it resonates to a degree that the press doesn't quite have that kind of hold on the public's imagination.
KURTZ: Well, does it resonate with a press corps that is largely against this war? In other words, did we seize on the Murtha moment in order to jump on it?
DALLEK: Well, I think that's true. But I think also it's because the public now has grown disillusioned with this whole thing. You know, in 1967, Johnny Apple of "The New York Times" ran a front page story in August of '67 saying the war is stalemated. That was several months before Walter Cronkite came along and -- but it showed you the power of television in 1968 as opposed to the print media. So it's changed in that sense, but Murtha, I think, in a sense, caught a wave. And the public was ready to hear this and the press was ready to hear it.
KURTZ: Paul Krugman, what accounts for the following? Fifty-two percent in the latest CNN poll want a U.S. pullout either now or within a year. And yet almost every editorial page in the country still supports the war.
KRUGMAN: Partly, it's that editorial pages are very much trying to be responsible. And there is this feeling that, you know, something -- we can't be responsible for defeat. You know, Pottery Barn, we broke it, we own it. And part of it is, there has been a lot of -- look, there's been a lot of intimidation of the media. People are really afraid of being accused of undermining the troops. And particularly, a lot of people remember what happened in Vietnam, which was the public turned against the war, the media turned against the war, and the Democrats and liberals have been paying the price for having been right ever since. So nobody wants to be out in front on this.
KURTZ: So you're suggesting that there is a certain amount of timidity involved in continuing to support the U.S. forces there in what remains obviously a difficult situation?
KRUGMAN: Well, there's been enormous timidity. You know, look at the question of whether we were misled into war. The evidence -- basically, all the evidence you're now hearing about that was available by the summer of 2003. But you did not get extensive media coverage of the evidence about aluminum tubes and all that, and the whole -- the whole, you know, sense until after a majority of the public had decided we were misled into war. And the same thing is happening on withdrawal.
KURTZ: Bruce Morton.
MORTON: Well, it was very easy to read Vietnam. I think if you were over there as a reporter, you know, the second or third time, you're on a sweep of war zone sear (ph), or whatever it is, you're saying to yourself, we can go on doing this for 20 years, nobody's winning. You know, we take some hits, they take some hits, ad next month we'll do it again. This is harder, I think, because the goal apparently is to establish a democracy. And I don't really know how you do that. And you're not fighting an organized army, the Vietcong or the north Vietnamese. It's all these suicide bombers. And I don't know how you read that. KURTZ: But there was political pressure in those days, too. President Kennedy called "The New York Times" and asked the newspaper to remove David Halberstam because he didn't like his negative reports on how the war was going.
MORTON: But there were a lot of negative reports on how the war was going. And in fact, the war was going badly. And eventually, I think people realized that.
DALLEK: We have...
KURTZ: Go right ahead.
DALLEK: I'm sorry. What makes this difference -- different, Iraq is different because it stands in the shadow of Vietnam. See, people remember the experience with Vietnam, remember feeling trapped there, remember feeling that we had been blundered into a quagmire. And very quickly, because the dissent over this Iraq war has risen very much more quickly than it did ever over Vietnam...
KURTZ: And obviously with far fewer casualties. I mean...
KURTZ: ... it's terrible that 2,000 Americans have been killed there.
KURTZ: But 50,000-plus were killed in Vietnam.
KURTZ: But let me just continue with you for a second. Dick Cheney talks about the insurgency being in its last throes. The Pentagon starts publishing enemy body counts. Are there parallels to what the press then called LBJ's credibility gap?
DALLEK: You bet you. Johnson used to talk about light at the end of the title. And some wit said, "Sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel is from an onrushing train." And people became so irritated with the fact that they kept promising victory, victory is around the corner. And it wasn't happening. And so the frustration of the country mounted and mounted. And when we got out, people were so relieved to be done with that war. The public was asked by Gallup, "Would you want to go back in and bomb if the North Vietnamese start the war again?" And 74 percent said no.
KURTZ: Pam Hess, a number of soldiers asked you while you were there, "Why do you guys only report the bad news?" What did you say?
HESS: A very long and complicated answer. The -- I think the main point is that most reporters are in Baghdad, and there they're receiving the reports from across the nation, there is a car bomb here, an IED there, and there's 15 suicide bombers in Baghdad on a given day. So that heavily influences the way reporters see the war, whereas the soldiers and the Marines are out there, they're actually acting on the situation. They feel a little bit more power. One of the problems with the media coverage that I think is pervasive is a lack of understanding about what the enemy looks like, at least as far as the military is concerned. The reporters tend to see every IED and every car bomb as a result of a single enemy.
KURTZ: IED is?
HESS: I'm sorry, an improvised explosive device. That's what's killing most of the American soldiers over there. They see these all as part of a coordinated campaign. The military doesn't see it that way at all. They see it as extremely fractured. But the tendency that there is to lump all those things together and attribute them to one single enemy, this insurgency in Iraq, makes it seem more scary.
KURTZ: So are you saying that because many journalists were not embedded, are sitting in hotel rooms in Baghdad -- and I don't want to denigrate, because anybody who goes there...
HESS: No, it's not fair to say they're sitting in hotels in Baghdad, because they're not.
KURTZ: No, but what I'm saying is, they are sort mired in Baghdad...
KURTZ: ... because it is so dangerous to go out. And I have great admiration for anybody who is over there. But that is giving them a distorted view?
HESS: It does necessarily, because Baghdad is the center of where the U.S. government is, where the Iraqi government is, and because where there goes Baghdad goes the rest of the nation. Most reporters are there. But so, too, is most of Zarqawi's efforts. When you see the coordinated attacks on Baghdad, those are a result of Zarqawi and his ilk, Ansar Al Sunna...
HESS: ... and the jihadist organizations. To the rest of the country, the vast majority of that violence is focused against Americans. And it's by Sunni insurgents who resent the occupation and all the conditions that come along with it. Plus are fearful of what's going to happen to them if a Shiite majority gets firm control of the country.
KURTZ: Right. Paul Krugman, journalists, as you know, love to cover two sides: Republicans say this, Democrats say that. It's the fact that the Democratic Party has been -- has not staked out much of an alternative plan here. Even when Jack Murtha made his withdrawal argument, most of the party did not join in. Has that contributed to what some might call the one-sided coverage in the press about the political debate?
KRUGMAN: Sure. I mean, I once said that if Bush said that the Earth was flat, the headline would read, "Views Differ on Shape of Earth," that you have this real, real reluctance to actually just state what the facts are. And here you can't even -- or until very recently you couldn't even do the he said-she said reporting. That's part of the reason why a lot of the coverage lagged behind public opinion. It was only when the public had turned against the war, when the public had decided we'd been misled into war, and when the public -- and then when some politicians began following the public lead, then we get the media coverage, which is not the way it ought to be. But that's the way it has actually turned out.
KURTZ: All right. I need to get a break here. When we come back, more with our guests about Iraq, Vietnam and that Al-Jazeera story. Was there really a bombing plot? Stay with us.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Pam Hess, during Vietnam U.S. officials were often accused of distorting or even lying to the press to try to make it look like the war effort was going better than it was. When you were in Iraq did you feel like you were getting the straight story?
HESS: Certainly from the militarily I did. They have no interest in cooking the books, as it were, they -- they understand that they were blamed for Vietnam and what happened, and they don't want that blame again. They want people to understand the kind of enemy that they are facing and how long it's going to take. And frankly, most of them said to me, "Please go back and tell them not to pull us out because we are finally at a point where we have enough people here now on the ground between soldiers and Iraqis that we can actually start doing some good and start turning things around. And if you pull us out, we're just going to be back here three years from now."
KURTZ: More optimistic, at least than some of the journalists.
KURTZ: Paul Krugman, you wrote recently -- I want to read this quote -- "After 9/11, the media eagerly helped our political leaders build up a completely false picture of who they were. So the long nightmare won't really be over until journalists ask themselves, 'What did we know, when did we know it and why didn't we tell the public.'" Are you suggesting this was deliberate on the part of the press?
KRUGMAN: I guess it depends on the meaning of the word "deliberate." Did people say, ooh, let's join in the vast right wing conspiracy? No. Did journalists say, you know, the public wants to hear good stuff about Bush, they want to hear that we have a great leader, they want to hear favorable things about the administration, and did they then hide what they knew was not favorable? Yes, there is a lot of that. I don't know how many times I've talked to, you know, professional journalists, major people, whose private views of what happened even, you know, beginning within days of 9/11, are completely at odds with what you could have read in a major newspaper or seen on TV until, you know, just about now.
KURTZ: Robert Dallek, to the extent that public opinion is turning against this war, is it being driven by the news coverage, or is just a reflection of the mounting casualties in Iraq?
DALLEK: I think it's the realities on the ground that the news coverage can be so mixed, so diverse. But what drives this perception is the reality of 2,100 American troops having been killed.
KURTZ: Pam Hess says that the soldiers say that things are starting to improve there. You don't get that picture in the news coverage.
DALLEK: Well, because there is such frustration in this country now at the idea that this is a war which we can determine the outcome, we can create democracy. And I think people wisely don't believe it because, how do you do it? How do you turn that country which is so divided, so sectarian, into some kind of functioning democracy that is anywhere near close to what we have? People don't trust it.
MORTON: I think that's true. It's very hard to explain to people what this war is about. In the beginning, it was, here is this terrible man who had weapons of mass destruction.
KURTZ: Weapons of mass destruction.
MORTON: Woops, sorry, no. Well, but he was linked to al Qaeda. Not really, there is very little evidence of that. Now we're saying we are here to create democracy. And that's hard.
KURTZ: Bruce, this British tabloid report in "The Mirror" relying on one unnamed source that said that the Bush -- that President Bush considered bombing Al-Jazeera's offices but Tony Blair talked him out of it. The White House says us that ludicrous. Should CNN and lots of newspapers and other news organizes have reported that?
MORTON: I don't know that there is any evidence of that. "The Mirror" -- the British tabloids are famous -- and "The Mirror," to be fair, is not known for reliability. It ain't "The New York Times." You know.
KURTZ: Yet just about everybody picked it up, with the White House denials, of course.
MORTON: I think we could have laid off that probably.
KURTZ: All right. Paul Krugman, I've got probably about half a minute. Do you see signs that the press coverage is starting to turn on Iraq and that we are moving away from this period that you referred to as the media kind of building up the Bush administration? In fact, some would say it's the other way, that now it's open season on the Bush administration.
KRUGMAN: There's -- there's clearly a lot of -- there was a lot of pent-up frustration. I mean, people -- you know, you knew, I knew that Bush was politicizing, was exploiting 9/11, within days. You have to have known that. I certainly did. And -- but no one would dare say it for four years. And now, yes, there is a certain sense of payback. Now we can finally tell the truth.
KURTZ: All right. Well, some other people would say he was rallying the country. And unfortunately, Pam Hess, we're out of time. Pam Hess, Bruce Morton, Robert Dallek, Paul Krugman, thanks very much for joining us. Coming up, layoffs, sliding circulation and ethical problems in the struggling newspaper industry. We'll go behind the headlines next.
Originally broadcast, 11.27.05