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Transcript:

June 6, 2008
BILL MOYERS: If you flipped on your television these last few days there was no escaping former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan. He was on just about every television show except "Desperate Housewives" and "Sponge Bob Square Pants", he was relentlessly flogging his new, tell-all book, What Happened.

SCOTT McCLELLAN: This is an indictment of the culture in Washington. . .

BILL MOYERS: McClellan says boldly that the Bush Administration ran a "Political propaganda campaign" to mislead the American public into supporting the invasion of Iraq.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Good evening, I'm pleased to take your questions tonight. . .

BILL MOYERS: While there's nothing surprising in the book, this one-time insider confirms what just about everyone knew — that America was deceived, with the media's help.

Here with me now to talk about the deception, how the media responded and other news stories lurking under-reported beneath the radar are John Walcott, Washington Bureau Chief of McClatchy News, one of his ace reporters, Jonathan Landay , and Greg Mitchell, known to many of us as the watchdog's watchdog. He edits the influential magazine of the newspaper industry, Editor and Publisher, and is the author of this new book, SO WRONG FOR SO LONG: HOW THE PRESS, THE PUNDITS — AND THE PRESIDENT FAILED — ON IRAQ.

BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the three of you.

GREG MITCHELL: Thank you

JOHN WALCOTT: Thank you

BILL MOYERS: There's been all this media frenzy about Scott McClellan's book. Did McClellan, whom you know, did McClellan do a good thing in writing this book?

JOHN WALCOTT: I think on balance, yes. This is one of the first times, I think, that a member of the President's inner circle, one of the Texans who came to Washington with him was regarded as being very close to him, has gone this far in denouncing what the Administration did with respect to Iraq and has come right out and said that they deceived the American people. And that is news.

BILL MOYERS: But you've been — you started writing that five years ago-

GREG MITCHELL: Right.

BILL MOYERS: -six years ago.

GREG MITCHELL: Well, that's what I mean. It's not news-

BILL MOYERS: You were saying that the Press Corps, television and press in Washington, complicit.

GREG MITCHELL: Right. Well, that's — again, it's different coming from the chief White House spokesman than coming from me — you know, for better or worse. But you know, I — that's what I mean. I think what's troubling to me is the response to that. The media has not responded by saying, "Boy, we really got caught out here, and we really need to look at what we did wrong. And we're, you know, we need to report on what the mistakes we made and what we — you know, what we've really learned now."

JONATHAN LANDAY: What's disappoints me is that here was an opportunity, once again, but a very large opportunity for major news organizations to do the mea culpa they never did, to admit that they indeed failed to do what they're supposed to do, failed to be the watchdogs they're supposed to be.

And yet we saw exactly the opposite for the most part. And I was just I was left breathless by some of the things that I heard where you heard correspondents say, "Well, we did ask the tough questions. We asked them to the White House spokesmen," Scott McClellan and others. And you say to yourself, "And you expected to get real answers? You expected them to say from the White House podium — 'Yeah, well, there were disagreements over the intelligence, but we ignored them'" when the President made his speeches and the Vice President made his speeches. No, I don't think so.

GREG MITCHELL: Yeah, what Charles Gibson said. We wouldn't — I don't think we would ask any different questions. I mean, it's shocking-

JOHN WALCOTT: Well-

GREG MITCHELL: -to me that someone would say we would even with the chance to relive this experience and so much we got wrong — going to war is — which is still going on over five years later, all the lost lives, all the financial costs of that. And then to look back at this, you know, this terrible episode in history of American journalism and say that if I could do it all over again, I'm not sure we would ask any different questions.

JOHN WALCOTT: Well, I'm not — I don't know what questions ABC or anybody else asked. They may have asked all the right questions. The trouble is they asked all the wrong people.

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, if asking the question you all proved that asking the question is not essential unless you ask it to the person who can really tell you what you need to know.

JONATHAN LANDAY: And you have to take the time to find those people. It's not in-

GREG MITCHELL: And you have to play it up a lot.

JONATHAN LANDAY: It's not-

GREG MITCHELL: You can't bury it.

JONATHAN LANDAY: You know, these people are on the — this, you know, this grind to get the thing out, you know? We gotta get it out right away. You know, we got live television going on. We've got, you know, 24-hour cable TV news. We gotta — when do you have the time to sit and cultivate sources to get them to talk to you about what essentially is top secret information?

JOHN WALCOTT: Yeah, but there are some terrific reporters in television — you know, at the Defense Department in particular. Jim Miklashevski at NBC, David Martin at CBS. What I think happened in part was another problem, which is they have sources. Believe me. I wish I had some of the same sources they have. But whatever information came from those unnamed anonymous sources is trumped by Donald Rumsfeld at the podium or Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice saying, "We can't allow the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

BILL MOYERS: Over and over again.

JOHN WALCOTT: Over and over again on camera. And that trumps the kind of reporting that John and Warren Strobel did from these mid-level guys who actually know that there's no prospect of any smoking gun let alone a mushroom cloud. And so when it gets to packaging television news, it's picture driven, it's celebrity driven, and that doesn't allow much room for this kind of hard-nosed reporting under the radar.

JONATHAN LANDAY: I also want to say one thing I think that it behooves the media to come out — major companies to say, "Yes, we got it wrong," because if you look at surveys today, the American public has lost an enormous amount of trust in the news media, in the people who are supposed to be watch, their watchdogs over government. And yet the number of people who trust the media is, like, 25, 26 percent.

So at a time when you have this problem, doesn't it behoove you to try and start fixing it?

GREG MITCHELL: There's been numerous opportunities actually just in the last few weeks for the media to do this self-assessment. And you remember the fifth anniversary of the start of the war. Almost no media self-assessment at that time. Pointing fingers at everybody but themselves. There was the 4,000 deaths in Iraq. There was the fifth anniversary of "mission accomplished." Another great opportunity for this. We had the scandal of the Pentagon media generals, as I call them -

GREG MITCHELL: We had that opportunity. Now we've had Scott McClellan. There's been at least six opportunities in the last two months for the media to do this long delayed and much needed self-assessment, self-criticism to the American public and it hasn't happened.

BILL MOYERS: But, you know, there are people in these large institutions and there are large institutions that do not believe they got it wrong. I mean, Fox News was reinforcing the Administration's messages back then and still does today. They don't believe they got it wrong.

JOHN WALCOTT: You know, if Fox News's mission is to defend Republican administrations then they're right, they didn't fail. One of the things that puzzles me about all of this, in Scott's book is this notion that it was the liberal media. I'm not — I don't understand what liberal versus conservative has to do with this. I would have thought that conservatives would be the ones to ask questions about a march to war. How much is this gonna cost us? What's the effect of this gonna be on our military, on our country's strength overseas?

I don't think it's a liberal conservative question at all. I think that's, frankly, a canard by Scott

BILL MOYERS: What about the experts who predicted that the war would be quick and bloodless? They were terribly wrong but they're still on the air today pontificating. I mean, there seems to be no price to be paid for having been wrong about so serious an issue of life and death, war and peace.

GREG MITCHELL: You can't be wrong enough I think is what the-

JOHN WALCOTT: Well, again, they are celebrities. And, you know, Tom Cruise can make a bad movie and go on and get paid, you know, millions for the next movie. It's the same phenomenon. A name is what matters.

JOHN WALCOTT: And it's about celebrity. It's about conflict. It's about-

JONATHAN LANDAY: Ratings.

JOHN WALCOTT: Ratings, the sort of energy you get from that kind of thing. And I think, I don't know how Greg feels about this, but I think there are some very serious questions out there about the future of old-school reporting and the business model that supports it.

GREG MITCHELL: Yeah, the cutbacks have been tremendous. And they've lost the virtual all-star team at the Washington Post just in the recent-

BILL MOYERS: - 100 buyouts recently-

GREG MITCHELL: And a lot of their best, very best reporters. So it's, you know, it is a major problem.

BILL MOYERS: Do you still encourage young people to come into journalism, if a young — if a 22-year-old Jonathan Landay or Warren Strobel walked into your office today and said, "I want a job, Mr. Walcott, because I wanna tell the truth about what's happening in Washington," do you say, "Good, come on in"?

JOHN WALCOTT: I ask if they have a trust fund.

BILL MOYERS: You're being facetious but-

JOHN WALCOTT: Only to a limited extent.

GREG MITCHELL: There's still much enthusiasm among the journalism schools.

JOHN WALCOTT: There is.

GREG MITCHELL: Journalism schools are bursting with people.

BILL MOYERS: But there are no — there are fewer and fewer institutions where they can go for the kind of salary and benefits and support that a journalist needs like everybody else.

JOHN WALCOTT: No, that's exactly right. And there are fewer and fewer places that are gonna encourage and allow and teach them to do the kind of reporting that John and Warren and others have done on Iraq and other subjects, the kind of reporting that, by definition, is unpopular. And-

BILL MOYERS: Unpopular because?

JOHN WALCOTT: Because the public doesn't wanna hear it.

BILL MOYERS: Doesn't wanna hear-

JOHN WALCOTT: Doesn't wanna hear the President lied to them. Doesn't wanna hear that the local police chief is on the take. You know, people don't like necessarily to hear all that kind of stuff. And when you're worried about, above all, your advertising revenue, you become more vulnerable to those kinds of pressures. You know, it-

GREG MITCHELL: Or career pressure. It's not necessarily good for your career either to be someone that certain sources won't talk to or-

JOHN WALCOTT: Yeah, that's-

GREG MITCHELL: -people don't like you, don't like your paper or-

JOHN WALCOTT: No, you talk about, you know, gee, who gets invited on the TV shows and who becomes a celebrity? Well, the skunks don't get invited to the garden party. And part of our job is to be the skunks at the garden party.

BILL MOYERS: Well, on that odor-

BILL MOYERS: What is the cost of all this? What is happening today that isn't getting the coverage in the media, television, press, everywhere, that it should be getting?

GREG MITCHELL: I've been focusing in recent weeks and there's a lot of this in my book on the surging suicide rate among U.S. soldiers in Iraq and among the veterans at home.

BILL MOYERS: Sort of the dirty secret of this war, isn't it?

GREG MITCHELL: Well, yeah. We've had — the Pentagon admits there's been 40,000 cases of diagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder since 2003 among the veterans. The Rand Corporation, — no left-wing outfit — says there's 300,000 vets with serious mental issues going. And the suicide rate, you know, has been surging. So this is, you know, just one of many issues that we need to be focusing on now.

BILL MOYERS: The war's costing us $5,000 a second, $12 1/2 billion to $13 billion a month. Economists tell us the ultimate cost will, could be trillions of dollars. And yet that story gets very little traction in the mainstream press.

GREG MITCHELL: Yeah, it really took the Stiglitz's book to really get that going.

BILL MOYERS: Joseph Stiglitz, the economist-

GREG MITCHELL: And just as the McClellan book, for all its faults — it took the McClellan book to get the media at least talking about the responsibility in the war. So it's a bad sign when books have to launch, you know, launch newsrooms into-

BILL MOYERS: But why aren't other people picking it up and staying with the costs because this is having a rippling effect here at home? Infrastructure, schools, healthcare, and all of it-

GREG MITCHELL: Yeah, you'd think so-

BILL MOYERS: -that would seem to hit people in the viscera.

GREG MITCHELL: Most bipartisan issue, most patriotic you might say. It affects every American. I think Americans have made that connection. I think they made it long ago. There's always been this disconnect where people have said, "Well, you know, why is it that 60 or 70 percent disapproval for the President and for the war?" Why are so many people saying the war was a mistake?

You know, how is that supported by what's going on over there, despite the surge, you know? There's been a lot of favorable publicity about the progress under the surge, you know, accurate or not. But the polls aren't budging. And the reason is the people figured out long ago, long ago that the war was a mistake and that it's incredibly costly in the human and financial and even moral terms.

JOHN WALCOTT: I think the failure to report as probably aggressively as we should on the costs of this little venture, which are only beginning to count. I mean, you were talking about PTSD. Some of those cases aren't gonna show up for 20 years.

BILL MOYERS: Just like Agent Orange in Vietnam.

JOHN WALCOTT: Yeah. But with psychological ailments in particular, a lot of soldiers can keep them bottled up or keep them private, keep them within the walls of their house for some period of time. So we're not gonna know for a long time. But the more you talk about Joe Stiglitz's $3 trillion and PTSD and the state of our VA, which Chris Adams and others in our office have reported on very extensively, the more you're magnifying the price of your initial lapses. And I think a lot of people are just reluctant to go there.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Let me suggest something else. There are two wars going on right now that this country's involved in. And we've been pretty much focused on just one and that's Iraq. But, you know, there are 33,000 American troops in Afghanistan. And I don't think that gets virtually any coverage at all I'm willing to bet that the percentage of time that's given to covering this other war, which most experts agree is a far more serious for U.S. national security than Iraq is.

And beyond that then you have the question of the tribal areas in Pakistan, which U.S. intelligence community says this is where the gravest terrorist threat to the United States lies. And yet this is virtually — I mean, people write about it. But this is a black hole virtually which the United States is deeply involved in that we don't see a lot of meaningful, I mean, in-depth coverage of.

BILL MOYERS We are hearing speculation about Iran and people are skeptical, frankly, about taking seriously the intelligence threats on Iran given how we were misled about Iraq.

JOHN WALCOTT: To be fair, Iran is a much tougher problem than Iraq ever was. The core of the Administration's case about Iraq was that Saddam Hussein supported international terrorism and, as John said, might give WMD to a terrorist group. That was preposterous from the start. Iran, on the other hand, does support international terrorist groups with a fair amount of enthusiasm.

So they're a different kettle of fish. Second, they do have a nuclear program. And no one really knows the full scope of it. They've never really come clean about it. No one is quite sure where all the facilities are. So in fairness, they are a tougher problem.

JONATHAN LANDAY: There's another huge difference. The Administration that once said that, you know, we'll go it alone if we have to, they don't believe in multilateral, I forget what the-

JOHN WALCOTT: Anything.

JONATHAN LANDAY: -multilateral anything, are working through institutions that they disparaged and ignored before the invasion of Iraq. The UN Security Council, talked about on Iran now. The UN Security Council, they've been pursuing diplomatic initiatives there for several years now. And they've gotten three rounds of sanctions.

And the International Atomic Energy Agency. They pushed to force the head of it out when he raised serious objections to what they were saying about what Iraq was doing with its nuclear non-existent program. They're working through that agency now, putting a huge amount of diplomatic coinage there.

JOHN WALCOTT: There's one argument they make about Iran that reminds me of the Iraqi craziness. And that's the one that says the Iranians would use nuclear weapons against us or against Israel. Well, both Israel and the United States have the capability to turn Iran into a skating rink. When you explode a nuclear weapon over sand, it turns into glass.

And the counter to that from some quarters has been as crazy as anything I've heard, which is, well, that we can't deter the Iranians because they're Shiites and they're all eager to commit suicide to hasten the arrival of the 12th Imam. So deterrents won't work against Iran because they're a bunch of crazy Shiites. That to me is as crazy as anything we heard about Saddam and his ties to al-Qaeda. That one, the fact that that one's out there concerns me.

JONATHAN LANDAY: That's on the other side of the equation, as well as — and I have to point out that we've heard the presidential candidates saying the same thing.

JOHN WALCOTT: Well, you wrote a story about it. JONATHAN LANDAY: I wrote a story about that and actually Obama has now dialed back on that. But both he and McCain were categorically saying that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, when that's not known right now. That's the big question.

BILL MOYERS: And Hillary Clinton at least hinted or suggested or insinuated the possibility-

JONATHAN LANDAY: She come-

BILL MOYERS: -of obliterating Iran if, in fact, they did attack-

BILL MOYERS: I mean, there has been some apocalyptic discussion.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Oh, absolutely.

JOHN WALCOTT: But, again, what's been lost in all of those conversations is the old notion of deterrents, which worked against Red China when we thought they were all crazy, worked against the Soviet Union for a long, long time, which had a much bigger nuclear arsenal than-

JONATHAN LANDAY: Still does.

JOHN WALCOTT: -Iran ever will. Still does. And yet somehow when it comes to Iran deterrence is never part of the conversation.

BILL MOYERS: So what does, what do your sources tell you about this possibility of a military strike against Iran?

JOHN WALCOTT: Well, there certainly is a — I — there is a faction that is advocating it that, that believes that if this Administration does not take care of the Iranian problem before it leaves office, its successor, particularly if it's a President Obama, is unlikely to do so. So it's something we have to do before we leave; otherwise, we will never be safe. Israel will never be safe. And there are factions in Israel which feel exactly the same way.

And we've heard some noise just this week when Prime Minister Olmert has been in Washington, to the same effect, that this is a grave existential threat and has to be dealt with. So that issue's gonna be on the table until January 20th because one of the things we've learned is these people don't go away. They're still out there. They're still advocating.

BILL MOYERS: The people who believe in a-

JOHN WALCOTT: Who believe-

BILL MOYERS: -strong military response to these issues.

JONATHAN LANDAY: A lot of the people who believe that we needed to invade Iraq and that believe we need to take much more aggressive action against Iran are some of the very same people. And yet they keep being brought on television and quoted in newspaper stories, when their, you know, now, after this horrendous track record they had in Iraq. So you wonder how it is that there are people who have been fanning the flames for going after Iran. Some of them the very same people.

BILL MOYERS: So what should we watch for? How do we read the news these days?

GREG MITCHELL: You'd have to see whether the press this time would use the phrase "taking care of Iran." Now, what does that mean? Even if you do bomb Iran, what does that do? What is the aftereffect? What is the overall effect of it? What does it do to, you know, how many people do you kill? What happens in the wreckage afterwards? So if it's the media is — which it didn't do with Iraq — does it in this case then people will have a better understanding of what we're letting ourselves in for if we do attack Iran.

JOHN WALCOTT: That's an excellent point because the failures before the war on Iraq are probably matched by the failure to ask this question about invading Iran. Is it really gonna be easy? Are we really gonna be greeted with flowers and chocolates, as liberators, which is what the defectors told us? And one of the things this Administration has never been able to get through its head is the old saying that the enemy has a vote, that the enemy, whatever you do, they will respond in some way. And the Iranian-

JONATHAN LANDAY: Yeah, yeah. And the-

BILL MOYERS: Newton's third law, right.

JOHN WALCOTT: Not always equal and not all was exactly opposite and not all was immediate. But one of the things the Iranians can do very quickly is simply sink one oil tanker in the Persian Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz, just one, and the insurance rates will take care of the rest. And you'll have $200, $250 a barrel oil. So that's one thing to think about.

BILL MOYERS: How do you help us understand a report like this. According to Newsweek, during his Middle East tour in January, President Bush all but disowned the National Intelligence Estimate of December saying that Iran had suspended its nuclear weapons program. The President told the Israelis that he can't control what the intelligence community says, but that the NIE's conclusions don't reflect his own views, that there is an ongoing threat. Now, how do we, how are we to read that in the context of what happened five years ago, six years ago?

JOHN WALCOTT: Well, I think Scott McClellan gives you some insight into that when he talks about how in — curious the President is and how when he takes a position he simply sticks to it.

BILL MOYERS: I don't care what the facts are. This is my reality.

JOHN WALCOTT: Impervious to evidence. It is a faith-based approach to foreign policy.

GREG MITCHELL: Tom Brokaw called it theology is the word he used.

JONATHAN LANDAY: But I think there's something at play here. They have a nuclear program where they are enriching uranium in defiance, in defiance of the UN Security Council. The other irony here is that even though they're doing that, the fact is that the Administration's having a really hard time getting traction for its case. Why? Because it's lost its credibility on Iraq.

JOHN WALCOTT: Yeah. Some of the-

GREG MITCHELL: And the media has lost credibility.

JOHN WALCOTT: Yeah, that's right.

BILL MOYERS: On that note, John Walcott, Jonathan Landay , Greg Mitchell, thank you for being with me on the Journal.

GREG MITCHELL: Thank you.

JOHN WALCOTT: Thank you.

JONATHAN LANDAY: Thank you.

BILL MOYERS: These are troubling times if you believe, as many of us do, that as the press goes, so goes democracy. That's the subject of the fourth annual Media Reform Conference in Minneapolis this weekend. You can check it out on our website at pbs.org. And since this is pledge period on many public television stations, we hope you'll support this station.

That's it for the Journal. We'll be back next week. I'm Bill Moyers.

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