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The Middle East and the Media
Ben Wattenberg: Hello, Iım Ben Wattenberg. The conflict between the
Palestinians and the Israelis continues to dominate the airwaves and the
headlines. Are we getting the straight story? Are we getting the story
straight? Our guest today has unique qualifications to explore these
questions. He is Marvin Kalb, former chief diplomatic correspondent for CBS
News and NBC News, former moderator of Meet the Press, former Harvard
professor, now executive director of the Washington office of Harvardıs
Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy and author of
his tenth book, One Scandalous Story, Clinton, Lewinsky and Thirteen Days
that Tarnished American Journalism. The topic before the house, ³The
Mideast and the Media,² this week on Think Tank.
Ben Wattenberg: Welcome, Marvin Kalb.
Marvin Kalb: Pleasure to be with you, Ben.
Ben Wattenberg: Sometimes we have guests who are nervous at the idea of
appearing on television. I donıt think thatıs going to be your problem.
Marvin Kalb: No, my problem will be trying to figure out what to say.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, weıll see how that works. Tell me first something of
your background if you would, a little thumbnail sketch.
Marvin Kalb: Thumbnail sketch: I was a journalist at two networks, as you
pointed out, for thirty years.
Ben Wattenberg: Where were you born?
Marvin Kalb: New York City. And educated in New York at City College, then
went on to Harvard for graduate work. I was teaching Russian history for a
time and then went with the State Department to be an interpreter and
translator at the American Embassy in Moscow. Came back, continued for my
Ph.D., was hired by Murrow for CBS and then spent thirty years with the
Ben Wattenberg: The great Ed Murrow, a legend.
Marvin Kalb: By the great Ed Murrow himself.
Ben Wattenberg: The legendary Ed Murrow, right.
Marvin Kalb: Absolutely. And then for the last fifteen years, Iıve been
associated with the Kennedy School at Harvard as a teacher and as the
founding director of the Shorenstein Center.
Ben Wattenberg: All right. You have spent a lot of time in the Middle
Marvin Kalb: Yes.
Ben Wattenberg: And thatıs obviously our topic before the house today. Is
there some hope in what is going on? How do you read the whole situation?
Marvin Kalb: My gut feeling overall is that we in this country now face
probably one of the most delicate, difficult moments in the foreign policy
that I have tried to cover over the last fifty years.
Ben Wattenberg: What does a foreign correspondent working out of the Arab
capitals, working out of Israel, what do you pick up that doesnıt get on the
air? Some of the background that isnıt a news lead. You had mentioned, I
heard you talk at some small dinner the other night, about what the
Palestinians are like, what the Arab leaders think of the Palestinians, and
I wondered if you could .
Marvin Kalb: Well, Ben, youıre right, I have spent a lot of time in the
Middle East and I have been in and out of both Israel and many Arab
countries. And one of the first things that I take with me from each of
these trips is a quite large respect, not only for the state of Israel and a
functioning democracy in a rather hostile environment. I assume that, and I
assume thatıs going to be for a long, long time. But when you look at that
hostile environment, what you find a couple of things. One, the
Palestinians are, in my view, probably the brightest of all of the Arabs,
the most hardworking, the most dedicated, the most deserving of a break,
which they have not got as yet from their political leadership. But they
are most deserving as a people of a break. Then there is the relationship
between the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world. And what Americans
donıt realize often is that there is an acute hostility between the
Palestinians, I think because theyıre so energetic and hardworking and
smart, and so many other groups in the Arab world. Do we have time for a
Ben Wattenberg: We do have time for a story. I mean, one of the reasons
Iım doing this this way is that, and weıre going to get to it when we talk
about the media, is that we donıt have a point A and point Z. So you say
something and some I want to hear your views on this so please, continue.
Marvin Kalb: Okay. Well, let me tell you a story. When I was in Saudi
Arabia on an assignment many years ago, there were two people who were very
important to me. One of them was a Saudi prince who was my minder. He was
a Princeton graduate, very handsome, very tall, wearing the white gown. And
then there was a young Palestinian who was the key person for me on helping
me with equipment, on making sure that I got a line between Riyadh and
London. A terribly important person, I liked him very much, respected him a
great deal. And when I knew that I would be leaving the following night, I
said to my minder, I said, ³You know, I want to take²..
Ben Wattenberg: Your minder, the prince.
Marvin Kalb: The prince. ³I want to take you and Muhammad out for dinner
tomorrow night.² And I saw a look across his face. And he said, ³Let me
check.² And he came back in about an hour and he said, ³I donıt think
thatıs possible, Marvin.² I said, ³Why not?² He said, ³Well, itıs just not
possible.² I said, ³Thatıs not good enough. You have to tell me why it
isnıt possible.² And I said, ³You go back to your minder and you tell him
that Iım unhappy with that arrangement and letıs find out if I can do this.
Itıs only a dinner. Come on.² He came back a couple of hours later and he
said, ³Iım terribly sorry, itıs not going to work.² I said, ³You owe me an
explanation on that.² And he did that night provide it. And it was I
canıt give you the exact words but Iım awfully close to the rhythm of what
he said he said that ³we Saudis have in mind that one day the Israelis and
the Palestinians are going to get together. And if they get together,
theyıre going to dominate this part of the world and we will never, never
allow that to happen.² All over the Middle East, the Arabs donıt like the
Palestinians. You arrive in Damascus at the airport and thereıs a straight
shot into town, takes about a half-hour to get there. As youıre approaching
Damascus, on the right there is a large camp, refugee camp, filled with
Palestinians. It has been filled with Palestinians now for fifty years.
The Palestinians in Syrian society have no opportunity to advance in
educational opportunity, in economic opportunity, to set up a business, to
travel. Theyıre stuck in those camps. And so we have to ask ourselves,
ifyou ask about reporters in this area, I think a good reporter has to have
in the back of his mind when youıre talking about the Arab world now in
flames in support of the Palestinians, to what degree, I mean how is one to
explain, on the one hand, antipathy, dislike, hostility, jealousy toward the
Palestinians and, on the other hand, this sort of collective embrace of the
Palestinian cause? It seems to me that the Arabs are incredibly
hypocritical. If you love the Palestinians so much, Mister Saudi Arabia,
open your borders to them. You got an awful lot of land. Syria, all of the
other state, Egypt open it up. But they donıt. They keep them in camps.
That is outrageous. They keep them in these camps as a political tool, as a
way somehow of using it as a certain point in the ultimate negotiation with
Ben Wattenberg: The Bush doctrine indicates that the United States is going
to pursue terrorism all over the world, wherever it may be for as long as it
takes. Is this current Palestinian-Israeli conflagration a part of that?
Marvin Kalb: That, of course, is the most difficult question to answer.
And I think that the President really has two doctrines. Heıs got the large
doctrine that is post-Nine Eleven that you just mentioned, a global struggle
against terrorism, and they added the phrase, with a global reach.ı
Ben Wattenberg: Right.
Marvin Kalb: And then thereıs Bush doctrine two, with a small two. And
that is the doctrine enunciated by the President just within the last week
or so in which he articulated what is the American view and attitude toward
the Israeli/Palestinian crisis. And that second doctrine is, at this point,
in potential collision with the first doctrine, because if you read the
first doctrine, clearly, I think what it says is that any state harboring
terrorism, any leader of a state harboring terrorists or terrorism, the
whole operation is somehow or another a terrorist as well and is going to
feel the full anger and might of the United States at a certain point. Now
where does Arafat fit into all of this?
Ben Wattenberg: Thatıs a good question. Whatıs the answer?
Marvin Kalb: Well where does he fit into this if in fact doctrine one is
the full doctrine of Bush and not Bush one and two. If itıs one, then
Arafat fits into that category and the United States ought to join forces
with Israel against the terrorists.
Ben Wattenberg: Right.
Marvin Kalb: But the two are in conflict because the Palestinian issue, for
some of the reasons weıve talked about, is something different and distinct
within the Arab world. And right now it is so powerful a force, an
emotional force, that the Arab streets, so-called, are in a state of some
rebellion at this point. And the State Department and now the
Administration are afraid that the street rebellions - and theyıre really
demonstrations and of angry people, no doubt about that that that will end
up toppling Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and strategically the U.S. cannot
have that. And that is, I think, the reason to explain the tactical energy
behind the Bush Administrationıs effort now to lean on the Israelis, to get
them to pull back and to get them to engage in a negotiation with the
Ben Wattenberg: Okay. Your new book, um, One Scandalous Story, which I
read over the weekend, and it is a great read.
Marvin Kalb: Thank you.
Ben Wattenberg: It is really interesting. It is about what I guess has
come to be called a journalistic firestorm,ı where one story just knocks
over all the pins.
Marvin Kalb: A stampede.
Ben Wattenberg: A stampede, right. Now, we have one now going on but itıs
not a domestic one, itıs not a salacious one, itıs not a gossip one, but yet
it pushes out everything in its way. When weıre in the middle of one of
those journalistic firestorm stories, is the American consumer of news, in
its current formatformats--being well served?
Marvin Kalb: I donıt think so, Ben. I think that the American public is
getting an enormous amount of information from cable news to the regular
network news to newspapers, magazines, radio, the Internet. Theyıre being,
the American people are being bombarded with shells and fragments of
information. But all of that doesnıt make terribly much sense unless the
journalist uses his or her editorial skills to order that information into
something that makes sense. Thatıs called the process of editing.ı Thatıs
what a journalist does. There is a passion component in the Middle East
coverage that doesnıt exist in scandal coverage. The passion here is that
people who think that the press is being too pro-Palestinian believe it to
the bottom of their hearts and theyıre prepared to say that the press is
pro-Palestinian. Likewise, many pro-Palestinian people feel that the press
is automatically pro-Israel. That kind of collision has been there from the
beginning of the coverage of the Middle East.
Ben Wattenberg: What do you think, on balance, of the coverage weıre
getting, just on that particular aspect of it? Which way is it tilting?
Marvin Kalb: In my judgment, my personal judgment, is that it is tilting
pro-Palestinian. And let me give you the evidence for that. When several
days ago, week or so ago, the President and the Secretary of State began to
ask Prime Minister Sharon to pull Israeli forces out of the West Bank, the
Bush doctrine stated not only Israel pull out of the West Bank, but
Palestinians and Arab world, you have to do something to proclaim your
opposition to terrorism. He balanced his ticket, but the coverage was not
balanced; it was strictly - or strictly is too strong - it was largely on
the Israeli side, get out of the West Bank.ı And you would find verbs like
Israel defies President Bush.ı And it set up a collision between Israel
and the United States that there are elements of collision, but deep down
there is not a collision. There is a greater collision, in my opinion,
between the United States and the Arab world, than there is between the
United States and Israel, but the press covered it as if it was a collision
strictly between two democracies.
Ben Wattenberg: What happens, you turn on one of the all-news channels
particularly and you, .Iıve sort of stopped watching them. I.I.
Marvin Kalb: I was about to say, donıt do it, Ben.
Ben Wattenberg: No, no. I mean you get two pictures. You get a picture
and I donıt want to sound dismissive of this because these are great
tragedies. But you get a picture of an Israeli café being bombed and then
the ambulance coming and people crying. And then you get another picture,
the Israelis retaliate and now in some strength moving tanks into Jenin and
Nablus and Bethlehem and whatever. But as you say, not in context, itıs the
same picture. They are, quote, ³covering² the news but they are not giving
you a context, they are not giving you an interpretation. And when they do,
they would pair Mister A with Mister Z and Mister A would say, ³Well it goes
back to what the Palestinians are doing.² And Mister Z says, ³No, it goes
back to what the Israelis are doing.² How do you get around that issue of,
first of all, of the news A, B, C, D-- and then balance?
Marvin Kalb: Very, very hard. And particularly hard for reason I mentioned
before when covering the Middle East, very, very difficult, an awful lot of
emotion tied up in this. Thereıs been so much violence, so much hate that
itıs difficult to get a straight story. But in terms of journalistic
technique, the way journalism functions today, journalists require sources.
Journalists like to function with access. Journalists like to have a free
run of things and God bless them and let it happen.
Ben Wattenberg: Right.
Marvin Kalb: Journalists find it easier to function at a democracy than in
an autocracy or in a dictatorship because things are governmentally
contained, they canıt just move and do things, whereas in a democracy
theyıre more likely to be able to move and do things. So they live and work
and eat and sleep in Israel. They donıt sleep in the Palestinian-controlled
areas; they very rarely eat there. Their whole lives are in Israel and they
expect Israel to function exactly like the United States. They expect
Israel to be in the forefront of democratic procedures. And that is
wonderful and it certainly should be and it is a democracy. But when youıre
in the midst of a war, itıs very difficult even for a democracy to function.
I mean, for example, the word Ben, let me just finish because Iıll forget
Ben Wattenberg: No, Iıll forget.
Marvin Kalb: The word, ³occupy² is used a great deal. The Israeli forces
³occupy,² the West Bank. The word occupy was not used when the Americans
moved into Afghanistan. We didnıt ³occupy² Afghanistan. But now the word
is being used, for example, on the Israeli side, partly because the Israelis
have been in occupation of an area since Nineteen Sixty-seven so it sort of
slips in easily. But I think good journalists ought to think about what
theyıre saying. They speak today, Barbara Walters did not too long ago on a
documentary from Saudi Arabia. She referred to ³Palestine.² Well so far as
I know, there is not yet a state of Palestine. There may well be at the end
of this diplomatic and military effort, but there isnıt now. And I think
journalists have to deal with current reality. There is no Palestine, so
donıt say ³Palestine.² Occupation is a tricky term that the Palestinians
use all the time and it evokes strong negative feelings and images. But you
have to ask yourself what is, in fact, happening.
Ben Wattenberg: Well, what kind of a role does, particularly, television
now play in one of these foreign policy crises? Theyıre called CNN wars,ı
where itıs kind of like an American political campaign, you get your sound
bite, you get his sound bite. How has that changed journalism from the way
you used to cover it?
Marvin Kalb: Profoundly, profoundly. The way I used to cover it in the
Ben Wattenberg: Yeah, right.
Marvin Kalb: In those times we did have time to think about what it is that
we were saying. Very little was live. You would sit down after being
somewhere and write your story and think about it and talk to somebody,
rewrite it, then put it out. Today, almost everything is live. Now some
people are very good in live speech and some people are brilliant, but most
people arenıt. Most people are just people. And so when youıre.
Ben Wattenberg: Thatıs why we tape our shows. (laughter)
Marvin Kalb: When you do a live program, youıd better be right. You carry
a huge responsibility on you as a reporter. Also, live coverage means not
only that the reporter has no time to think but the government official has
no time to think. You rely so much on faulty sourcing. If somebody says
something to you and you have a requirement to go on the air live, you are
apt to say what that person just said to you before youıve had a chance to
check on what the person said. All of these things now create a rushed
tumult, which is very noisy and which sort of goes for news today, but in my
judgment, isnıt news, itıs noise.
Ben Wattenberg: How does the whole global situation shake out now? Youıve
been around for a long time, what do you sense?
Marvin Kalb: Iıve never been as shaky about the times in which I live as I
am right now. I think that we are facing, as a nation, and I donıt mean to
over-dramatize this, but really as a civilization, based on a certain set of
values. I think that we are facing what Condoleeza Rice often calls ³a
tipping moment,² ³a tipping point,² where everything seems up to that point
to be more or less in alignment. And then just on the other side of that
point, things seem to be falling out of control, splintering in a hundred
different directions. The United States of America right now is the only
country in the world, I hope weıll have allies in this, but the only country
in the world that can somehow or another resolve, settle, put a lid on,
manage, the Israeli-Palestinian problem. It is not going to be solved
unless, in an area of the world that was once known for miracles, it can
produce yet another miracle and actually bring the Israelis and the
Palestinians together. Because that kind of a togetherness, even if antsy
in its relationship, but that kind of togetherness could not only produce
wonders for both people but be an economic stimulus for the whole region.
And thatıs what the Saudis many years ago were frightened of; they donıt
want to lose their control. These are political institutions, Ben, and you
have studied them even more than I have. These are political institutions
that, more than anything else, want to hold onto power. But they are not in
sync with the modern times. Saudi Arabia is, I hope, trying but itıs not in
sync. Jordan is trying but itıs not in sync. And Egypt isnıt even trying
that much and itıs way out of sync.
Ben Wattenberg: And they see also this incredible sole super power, United
States of America, making pronouncements.
Marvin Kalb: The President last week was trying to make a point. I
understand why he was trying to make it. He was trying to be consistent
with his new doctrine. He was trying to help the Arab world, what we call
our ³Arab friends,² the Egyptians, the Jordanians and the Saudis. I
understand what he was trying to do; thatıs fine. But there are certain
words, ³I expect progress,² he said. ³I expect leadership,² he said. ³I
expect them to heed my advice.² Come on. Thereıs a pomposity in that
language that is unbecoming for the sole super power.
Ben Wattenberg: But it is a pomposity, if indeed it is a pomposity, that
could only come from one man in the world today.
Marvin Kalb: That is true. There is one President of the United States and
one United States. In a sense, Ben, so that I donıt get misunderstood, if
any country is to be a super power today, thank God it is the United States
because we still have an important set of values, such as democracy and such
as individual freedom and such as a free press, that if other countries in
the world began to emulate, theyıd be better off and weıd be better off,
Ben Wattenberg: Marvin Kalb, thank you very much for joining us on Think
Tank. And thank you. Please, donıt forget to send us your comments via
e-mail. For Think Tank, Iım Ben Wattenberg.
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