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Full report from GWU later today…
THIS IS A RUSH FDCH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome back.
We’re here at the George Washington University.
More on the House page scandal in just a moment, but joining us now to talk
about coverage of the Iraq war, David Frum, “National Review” contributor and a
former speechwriter for President Bush, and Bill Press, who hosts a morning
program on Sirius Satellite Radio.
David Frum, the press is increasingly depicting Iraq as a major liability for
the Republicans, mounting violence, the situation kind of being portrayed as
hopeless. Have the media just turned against this war?
DAVID FRUM, “NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE”: Well, it is a place of mounting
violence, and the situation is very difficult. And in a way, that is an
important piece of information for the public to know.
We’re not going to be able to fix the problem unless we absorb the gravity of
the problem. So I think on the whole, the media there face incredible
dangers. I think they do a pretty good job. And I think maybe we’d be better
off now if people had paid more attention to warnings earlier on.
KURTZ: Bill Press, President Bush recently tried to kind of refrain this whole
debate by casting Iraq as just another front on the war on terror. Did news
organizations push back hard or hard enough in your view against that
argument? And if so, was that a change from the media’s behavior earlier in
BILL PRESS, SIRIUS SATELLITE RADIO: I don’t think they pushed back hard
enough, but I do think they — they’ve started to push back. I think what
happened unfortunately for President Bush is the national intelligence estimate
came out but sort of took the fire away from that part that was leaked.
KURTZ: It didn’t just come out. It was leaked to “The New York Times,” and
then Bush declassified other parts of it and that kicked off this whole
PRESS: The part that kicked off this whole debate. It also undermined his
argument. And then Mark Foley comes along, and then a shooting in
Pennsylvania, and suddenly Iraq and the war on terror and everything is off the
front page and George Bush can go to California and give lots of speeches about
Iraq and nobody listens.
FRUM: I think there’s a poisonous dynamic that’s governed a lot of the
coverage of Iraq. You’re supposed to believe one of two things, and only two
You’re supposed to believe Iraq is really important and necessary and going
well, or you’re supposed to believe that Iraq was a distraction and a diversion
and going badly. But you should be able to cross those positions, and you
should be able to believe logically Iraq is really important, it was really
necessary, the president did the right thing, but it’s not going well and we
better act as fast as we can to fix it.
KURTZ: One journalist who says it’s not going well, Bill Press, is Bob
Woodward. We talked about his book “State of Denial” earlier in the program.
Now, you and your fellow liberals criticized Woodward on his first two books.
You thought he was way too favorable to George W. Bush. Now he writes a book
that says Bush is in denial, he’s misleading the public about Iraq, and you
PRESS: Now Bob Woodward is new hero. I admit it.
KURTZ: So great — so great journalists are the ones who agree with you?
PRESS: No, I have to tell you, I think Bob Woodward is the best investigative
reporter in the country. I think he’s proven that through a serious of 10
The first two books were very, very positive for George Bush. They showed him
as a man in charge that did the right thing, took us into a war where we should
KURTZ: The second book was mixed.
PRESS: Yes, but it was still — I thought it was still pretty favorable.
This book, you know, the same reporter did the same kind of reporting. I think
things have changed in Iraq and he comes up with a much more negative story.
KURTZ: Now, by contrast, David Frum, the White House pretty much embraced
Woodward’s first two books. President Bush gave him several interviews. And
now the White House is saying this book is very different, all sort of
mistakes, all sorts of distortions.
Isn’t that a tough sell when he was sort of the anointed favorite author of
FRUM: Well, their behavior in the first two was reckless and inexplicable.
KURTZ: Reckless to talk to journalists?
FRUM: Reckless to invite a journalist in during the conduct of a war, to give
him that kind of access, to invite people to talk to him individually, to give
him lots of opportunities to back-bite, and then to extract no promise that
this is for history, to allow him to print…
KURTZ: Extract no promise? A journalist and author should in exchange for
being able to interview these high officials promise them an account that
they’re going to like?
FRUM: No, promise them that he’ll wait until some time has passed. Edmund
Morris made that deal for his Reagan biography.
KURTZ: Oh, you’re saying to delay the publication.
KURTZ: But the book publishing world doesn’t work that way.
FRUM: Well, if you’re president of the United States and you’re allowing
somebody to come into your office and have national security council notes, if
you want someone to write history, let them write history.
PRESS: But they wanted the book out at that time. They wanted that book out.
They wanted that…
FRUM: I’m not — I’m not blaming Bob Woodward for taking this one-sided deal.
I’m blaming the White House for having agreed to it. It was predictable how
this would come out.
KURTZ: Let’s go back to our audience.
Hi. Your name and question, please.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi. My name is Matt Savage (ph) from St. Charles, Iowa.
And I guess my question for you guys is, what ethical responsibility do you
believe that the media should have in reporting the news around election time?
KURTZ: In terms of the war?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In terms of just everything. It seems like before any
election, you know, a month before the election, there seems to be some sort of
scandal that seems to be leaked right before the election to try and affect
KURTZ: But, of course, is it our fault that the scandal has erupted in five
weeks to go before Election Day?
PRESS: No, absolutely not. I think the media’s responsibility — I think the
media’s responsibility before the election is the same that it is at any other
time, which is to ferret out the facts and report the facts right straight down
FRUM: Well, I think I would say I would agree with that, but with this
caveat. It is impossible or very difficult for journalists to avoid becoming
part of the story. And we saw with Dan Rather, for example, in the 2004
election that I think there was there a pretty conscious attempt to influence a
vote with a story that was not a highly relevant story even if it had been true
because it dealt with matters that were years old.
Now, in the end, of course, that story blew up in CBS’ face and in Dan Rather’s
face, and it ended up helping the president. But, you know, ideally you’d like
journalists to report without reference to the election cycle, but they’re
aware of the Ds and the Rs.
That’s one of the reasons why, for example, they covered — why we got so
little coverage, for example, of Haley Barbour’s handling of the Katrina
story. I think if Haley Barbour had been a Democratic governor, he would have
been on the cover of “TIME” magazine.
KURTZ: All right. Well, I need to get a break here. We’re going to come back
to this question of scandal around election time.
Stick around. Just ahead, we’ll go back to the story that is absolutely
consuming the media this week. Why are news organizations obsessed with the
Mark Foley sex scandal?
KURTZ: House Speaker Dennis Hastert told “The Chicago Tribune” the other day —
talking about the Mark Foley sex scandal — “The people that who want to see
this thing blow up are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people
funded by George soros.”
Bill Press, leaving George Soros aside, ABC News, why beat up on ABC, which
broke this story?
PRESS: Well, they didn’t want the story broken. That’s why they beat up on
ABC News. But, I mean, the idea…
KURTZ: So what is Dennis Hastert saying, that he would prefer that this not
have been reported by ABC and that Mark Foley, therefore, would still be in
Congress and still be sending messages to pages?
PRESS: Well, I think Denny Hastert would much prefer that Mark Foley still be
in Congress and we knew nothing about what he was doing until after the
election, and then deal with it after the elections.
But Brian Ross, I wish as a Democrat — I’m a Democrat, I’ll admit that. You
called me a liberal earlier. I wish Democrats were organized enough and smart
enough to have engineered this entire crisis.
They can’t organization a two-car funeral. So you can’t blame this on the
KURTZ: The one thing we can agree upon, David Frum, is that the story is
true. These computer messages were sent. “Do I make you horny” and all of
So even as a political strategy, does it make sense for any Republicans to be
attacking the messenger in the sense of attacking the press?
FRUM: Well, I think a lot of Republicans do feel that these stories do get
orchestrated. They remember the Dan Rather story.
KURTZ: You keep bringing up the Dan Rather story. Is there any evidence that
this story was orchestrated by ABC News in order to affect the midterm
FRUM: I don’t have evidence of that, but I know that there are a lot of
Republicans who have a smell politics about the timing of this story. And what
they do know is that because they operate in a more hostile information
environment, the Democrats do, they remember in 2000 how the George Bush DUI
story broke just the weekend before the election. They remember Dan Rather.
They remember — and there’s a long list of these things engraved in the
FRUM: … going back to 1968. And they feel that they are always in the
disadvantage in the information war. And that may — they could be wrong about
that, and there may be a perfectly innocent explanation, but when a story like
this breaks five weeks before the election, a lot of old wounds start twitching
among Republicans who know the media — you know, the media is an institution
that tends to see the world through Democratic eyes, even if it’s not actively
sympathetic to them.
KURTZ: Well, just for the record, Brian Ross has said that his source on this
initially were Republicans. He’s obviously plugged into the network of former
House pages. And so, if anybody’s got any evidence that this was orchestrated,
I’d like to see it.
We have a questioner here in the audience.
Hi. What’s your name?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Hi.
KURTZ: Stand up, please.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jamie Barmerra (ph) from Diamond Bar, California.
KURTZ: And your question?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I just wanted to know, do you think the media
coverage would have been different if it were a female page and if Foley wasn’t
PRESS: I would hope there would be equal outrage. I think there would be.
And not just hope.
I think there would be equal outrage, maybe even more outrage if it were a
female page. And I think that Mark Foley is gay has nothing to do with this
whatsoever. This is a grown person taking advantage of an underage child.
KURTZ: But don’t you think a congressman taking advantage of an underage child
if it was a woman would have been a 10 on a scale of 10, but this is an 11 on a
scale of 10 because it led to all these sidebar stories about gay Republicans
and why they’re closeted, David Frum?
FRUM: I think for sure it gives an extra impetus, because the Democrats use
the story as a way of splitting the Republican coalition. And, I mean, I think
we now have this very ironic punch line where Nancy Pelosi is trying to signal
in coded language and the kind of dog whistle politics above the air that, vote
Democratic is a way to clean up that nest of perverts on Capitol Hill. And, I
mean, it’s a strange message for a Democrat to run on.
KURTZ: But before you completely go off on the Democrats, David Frum, there
was an editorial in the conservative “Washington Times” days ago that demanded
Denny Hastert’s resignation at a very early stage here. A number of
conservative commentators have piled on, have criticized Hastert’s handling of
FRUM: Because the handling of it has been bad. And so people would pile on.
And I think they are very genuinely shocked by the story.
And I think what is laudable about conservatives is they do not have the
impulse to protect and shield their own when their own are guilty. I mean,
William Jefferson is still in Congress, after all, and Mark Foley is not.
KURTZ: Bill Press?
PRESS: Well, first of all, I think that the Republicans here have — are
shielding their own, and they’re shielding — they’re shielding — but they’re
shielding Dennis Hastert, who knew about this, didn’t know the explicit e-
mails, but certainly knew that there was unwelcome or inappropriate activity
going on and didn’t…
KURTZ: But just to bring you back to the press coverage. We’ve got about half
PRESS: I’m sorry.
KURTZ: Just to bring you back to the press coverage, is what — is part of
what is fueling this is a story day after day, the fact that there are
conflicting accounts among Hastert and his top Republicans, a lot of finger-
pointing? Isn’t that providing some of the fuel for this fire?
PRESS: I think it’s several things, Howie. It is that.
KURTZ: We only have time for one or two.
PRESS: We don’t know — we just said earlier we don’t know all of the answers,
right? Also, you have a congressmen preying on an underage kid, and you have
leadership who knows about this. The alarm should have gone up, did not go
off. And they all gathered around to protect him, and now they’re protecting
So it keeps going. And it’s gong to keep going.
KURTZ: It will probably keep going until our next show.
Bill Press, David Frum, thanks very much for joining us.
Well, that’s it for this special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES here at George
I’m Howard Kurtz.
I want to thank the studio audience here at the university for their insightful
We’ll be back in our own studio next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for
another critical look at the media.