This morning on CNN’s Reliable Sources one of the subjects discussed was the Middle East crisis and the media. Joining Howard Kurtz were CNN anchor John Roberts, CNN special correspondent Frank Sesno, and author/blogger Eric Boehlert. Transcript follows…
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We turn now to the question whether Israel and Lebanon are getting a fair shake in the media coverage of a war that’s produced civilian casualties and disturbing images on both sides.
Joining us now to talk about that and other issues, in New York, Eric Boehlert who blogs at the huffingtonpost.com and is author of the new book “Lapdogs” about the Beltway press corps.
Here in Washington, Frank Sesno, CNN special correspondent and professor of media and public affairs at the George Washington (sic) University. And in northern Israel along the border is CNN’s John Roberts.
John Roberts, what has been the Israeli media reaction to the mounting civilian casualties in Lebanon, even leaving aside this morning’s devastation of a four- story apartment building. Is there anguish about this or is there a sense that, well this, is war?
JOHN ROBERTS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think that there’s genuine concern, Howard. I spoke with a member of the IDF this morning about the incident in Qana and they came up to me saying, have you got a response, have you got a response from the IDF on the Qana incident and he went into an explanation about how they feel very badly about the fact that so many people were killed, particularly that many children, but then they go back to the explanation that that they say there was a Hezbollah Katyusha launcher right beside that building and that’s what they were targeting. So they’re saying that this is war. It’s an unfortunate incident. They were apologetic about it, but I’ve got to tell you, Howard, those were just horrible, horrible pictures and people from the Israeli army know how badly it looks in like the situation and I think that there’s a lot of concern here that the public reaction around the world is really going start to galvanize against any continued action and I think they realize that the time for this ground action is growing increasingly short.
KURTZ: Right. Very difficult to watch those pictures of dead and injured children being carried out of the building in southern Lebanon town of Qana. Eric Boehlert, do you believe overall that there’s a pronounced pro- Israel bias in the way the Western media are covering this conflict?
ERIC BOEHLERT, AUTHOR, “LAPDOGS”: I think the Middle East is traditionally covered from the American perspective through the eyes of Israelis. And I think that’s understandable for many reasons, I think most news organizations have more resources in Israel, they have better sources within the Israeli government and the Israeli defense and obviously Israel is a key ally of the United States and most Americans sympathize with Israel and, you know, they are a democracy within the Middle East. So I think it’s traditional and understandable that the war be told through the eyes of the Israelis.
I think sometimes in the last couple of weeks, it’s sort of gone beyond that and I think what also is not acknowledged is that there’s extraordinary political pressure in the United States to tell this story from a certain narrative and journalists who don’t, get attacked and it’s unpleasant and I think it affects the coverage.
KURTZ: Extraordinary pressure on journalists, Frank Sesno?
FRANK SESNO, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: I think that there is. I think the fact of the matter is this story and one of the reasons you’re having is taking the shape it is because the entire world now is seen through this prism of terrorism. It’s a prism that took shape very dramatically in the United States on 9/11 and it’s been encouraged by the Bush administration and we heard the president in his radio address yesterday connect once again the war on terror to what’s going on in Israel and Lebanon. So I think this is an inevitable outgrowth of that and it taxes reporters whether as you heard Lara Logan talking earlier or John Roberts just now. They’re in Israel, they are in the middle of the conflict and they have got to rip themselves away from that to the best extent they can and ask tough questions and detach themselves and look at it from all perspectives. That’s hard.
KURTZ: But Eric Boehlert, even if there is a natural sympathy, haven’t we seen day after day on CNN, on Fox, on network newscasts a lot of reports from Lebanon about the civilian casualties, about the devastation there?
BOEHLERT: For instance, about a week ago I blogged on Huffington Post, the day that 53 civilian Lebanese were killed, it was not a single blast like we saw today and I counted over a dozen times on CNN where they reported about a single Israeli woman who was killed by a Hezbollah rocket and no mention of 53 Lebanese civilians killed and Wolf Blitzer on THE SITUATION ROOM took 90 minutes before that fact was reported.
I think that indicates there’s something else going. Any journalist knows what a lead is on any given day when there are 53 Lebanese killed and one Israeli killed. There’s something else going and it doesn’t help to put things in context, I think, for the American news consumer.
KURTZ: But, of course, there has been hour after hour after hour about the devastation of the Lebanese side and maybe not in any new particular hour. But the cable networks are on 24 hours a day.
SESNO: But I think what Eric is pointing out is accurate. I was watching one of the talk shows earlier today on Fox when one of the anchors asked the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. What do you want the world to know about Hezbollah and Hamas? Pitch up another softball if you’d like?
What do you think he’s going say?
I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong as long as there’s somebody from the other side to put the same question if you’re going to play that game. Can I just say one thing? Big difference between what’s on television and in fact what’s on the cable channels and what’s in the print and in newspapers. “Washington Post” today, great series of stories. A lot of text and a lot of different perspectives and we need to keep that in mind as we have this conversation.
KURTZ: John Roberts, in northern Israel, isn’t there a difference in terms of the challenge for journalists. You’re in Israel. Let’s take the Israeli military. You can go interview generals and be embedded, and they wear uniforms, we know who they are. If you’re trying to cover Hezbollah, they have given some very tightly-controlled brief tours of damaged areas but they don’t come out and do television interviews, it’s difficult to find them and ask them questions and all of that. Would you agree?
ROBERTS: Yes, they are very more tightly controlled than they are here in Israel and let me tell you they are very tightly controlled here in Israel as well. There are a lot of places we can’t go. We’re not allowed to talk to soldiers unless we have a spokesperson with us and the Hezbollah, as you mentioned, did conduct a very tightly-controlled, almost what you would call a dog and pony show tour of a devastated neighborhood. Nic Robertson, one of our correspondents, went with them. They were calling ahead on cell phones – or, sorry, Anderson Cooper went with them. They were calling ahead on cell phones and certain things were happening that almost looked choreographed.
So each side is battling the P.R. war here as well. But again, coming back to this idea of what happened in Qana, you do not need to fight a P.R. war about that. Those pictures tell the story by themselves.
KURTZ: They really do.
Eric Boelhert, Condoleezza Rice cancelled her planned trip to Beirut today because of that bombing, but she’s been in the region all week. I wonder, though, a lot of observers feel that the U.S. was not really pushing hard, at least in the first round for a cease-fire in order to give Israel more time to degrade Hezbollah’s military capability. Was that reflected in the coverage? Can you come out and say this was a diplomatic show, but they’re not getting down to the pressure?
BOEHLERT: I don’t think the press did a good job. I think the press really strained to depict Bush as a man of action, urging peace. A new urgency, talks being pushed. This is 18, 19 days out and the fact that the United States is now sort of talking about qualified cease-fire. I mean, if the United States wanted a cease-fire there would have been 18 days after the bombs started dropping.
It was, I think really a radical foreign policy initiative to say Bush shrugs and he says what good is a cease-fire going do. Look what happened with Qana. I think some people would answer, that’s what a cease-fire would do.
But I don’t think the press really put in context, I think the sort of play into the notion that bush was working the phones and the administration is doing everything possible. I don’t think it was.
KURTZ: Right. Frank Sesno, I want to play some tape from the network newscasts about another military conflict that everyone is familiar with that’s been going on in the region. Let’s take a look at that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But it should be noted that in the 13 days since the Israeli-Lebanese crisis began more Iraqi civilians have died than Lebanese and more U.S. soldiers have died in Iraq these past two weeks than Israeli soldiers have died in their conflict.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Consider these figures, over the past two weeks of fighting between Israel and Hezbollah, more than 400 civilians have been killed, mostly Lebanese. In Iraq, at least 583 civilians are believed dead.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: What happened to Iraq?
SESNO: Iraq got lost and this is exactly what I was talking about a moment ago. The distinctions between cable news and broadcast news and everything else. In the world of broadcasting when you have pictures like we’ve got coming out of Israel and Lebanon now and you have a story that’s that compelling and that sudden it is going to overwhelm everything else and the rest of the world if you watch the news has all but stopped. Iraq has not stopped. It’s really rough over there.
KURTZ: And there are 130,000 American soldiers. I’ve had people e- mail me and say, we really care about this war because our young men and women are involved.
John Roberts you host a CNN show that was called “This Week at War in Iraq.” It’s now called “This Week at War” and obviously you dealt with war in the Middle East this weekend. Do you have any feeling that, unfortunately, Iraq is now getting short shrift during this period of time?
ROBERTS: Yes. We make a point of that in the show this week and we go to Baghdad and we speak with Arwa Damon and a couple of other people to put some perspective on what’s going on over there. It’s true that people are still dying in Iraq at the rate of a hundred a day, that’s far more than what’s happening here and it’s been going on for far longer than this conflict. So we’re making sure it doesn’t slip through the cracks, Howard, so we have an entire section coming up in that show.
KURTZ: All right. We’ll have to leave it there in this busy news morning with lots of breaking news. Eric Boehlert, John Roberts in northern Israel, Frank Sesno here, thanks very much for joining us.