On Sunday's Reliable Sources, CNN host Howard Kurtz used the killing of Osama bin Laden to revisit how the media were too deferential to the Bush administration. Kurtz questioned the validity of the terror alerts in the years following 9/11 and wondered if they were used for political gain. Kurtz, comparing the press coverage of the bin Laden assassination and the War on Terror, pondered if there was a "climate of fear" post-9/11 and asked "did the media contribute to that?"
"Is it possible that the Bush administration, for political reasons, chose to play up the War on Terror in a way that the Obama administration has chosen not to?" Kurtz asked guest Brian Ross of ABC News. Ross didn't see the same conspiracy theory on the Bush administration, simply saying that they had a "different mindset" in the matter than Obama.
(Video after the break.)
But that didn't stop Kurtz's obnoxious quest to convict the media for being too soft on Bush's White House and too quick to stand by the administration in the War on Terror. "Were the media too passive in going along with this agenda, especially during the Bush years, and too quick to report unsubstantiated information?" the CNN host asked Ross.
Earlier in the hour, George Washington University media professor Frank Sesno told Kurtz that the press was "snookered at times" in the years following 9/11, "being both cheerleaders and insufficient skeptics" of the War on Terror.
Kurtz furthered those positions later in the segment, referencing a terror alert during the 2006 NCAA Basketball tournament that he thought may not have warranted publicity by the media."When do you put these things on air that may turn out to be nothing?" he asked Brian Ross.
When Ross replied that the memo had been sent out to law enforcement agencies throughout the country and thus deserved media attention, Kurtz still played the devil's advocate and added that many alerts are sent out "just in case."
"I don't think you would have reported the same thing today, because I think the climate has shifted," he told Ross.
A transcript of the segment, which aired on May 8 at 11:11 a.m. EDT, is as follows:
HOWARD KURTZ: How much did 9/11 change journalism? All those years of terror alerts and stories about investigations, many of which didn't pan out, or didn't mean very much during the Bush years, and I think all of us in this business struggle to strike the right balance. What's your take?
FRANK SESNO, director, George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs: My take is that it has been the prism through which journalism and many have looked at the world since it happened, just as the Cold War was the prism during those years. I think it changed journalism because we had a lot of organizations -- The Washington Post among them -- who essentially apologized, had to apologize for some of the early coverage or the lack of skeptical coverage they gave the Iraq War going in. And so we found ourselves being snookered at times, journalism did, being both cheerleaders and insufficient skeptics.
KURTZ: Were the media too passive in going along with this agenda, especially during the Bush years, and too quick to report unsubstantiated information?
I spoke with earlier with Brian Ross, ABC's chief investigative reporter, from New York.
KURTZ: Brian Ross, welcome.
BRIAN ROSS, ABC News chief investigative reporter: Good to be here, Howie.
KURTZ: In looking at the reporting on terror over the last decade -- and you've done a lot of it -- was there a climate of fear in the years after 9/11? And did the media contribute to that?
ROSS: Well, I think we probably did. And we were, of course, given information that was told that every time there was a bin Laden tape, there was a secret code there that could launch the next attack. And we were very careful about that. And no, like everyone else, we didn't know what was next, and there was a sense that having been so terribly surprised by the 9/11 attacks, more could be coming.
KURTZ: Let me read a couple of stories that you did in 2006. One began, "Pakistani officials tell ABC News they're now picking up indications of the early planning of a new attack against the U.S. They say they have no specific targets, but that something is in the works."
And actually, just a few days later, just before the college basketball playoffs, you reported, "The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security have issued a terror warning tonight. It says, 'Suicide bombers may be planning to attack a major sporting arena somewhere in the country.'"
I know you used to wrestle with this, when do you put these things on the air that may turn out to be nothing?
ROSS: Absolutely. Well, we wrestled with that one particularly around the NCAA tournament, but the law enforcement people put that out to police departments around the country and to the security at the NCAA.
And we felt if it was out that much, it was worthy of our reporting. It turns out there was no attack, and you'll never know if there was going to be one. But that was our decision, and we decided that it was solid. The information was coming out from the FBI and homeland security, being distributed widely, and --
KURTZ: Right. But, of course, the counter-argument is that there are a lot of alerts that are put out just in case, and should the media provide the megaphone? I don't think you would have reported the same thing today, because I think the climate has shifted.
ROSS: I think it's shifted. And I think, probably, I'm more cynical -- or skeptical -- about those kinds of reports. But at the time, we were told this was being issued because of the upcoming basketball tournament, and so we took it as credible.
KURTZ: And there were other times, Brian Ross, when the Bush administration would seek to make news. For example, there was a plot that I remember, seven men were arrested, and it was said they were going to attack the Sears Tower. I don't think these guys could have even found the Sears Tower. I don't think this had any chance at success, but that became a big story.
ROSS: Well, it did. You know, but you look back and think about the fact that, would you have believed in 2001 that 19 suicide bombers somehow would come to the states and train for a year or two to blow up the Pentagon and the World Trade Center? It didn't sound credible. So, after that, all of our assumptions were really seriously challenged.
KURTZ: And do you think that that media mindset changed over the years when there wasn't a major successful attack, at least in this country, and maybe a little bit more caution on behalf of news organizations?
ROSS: Yes, and we had threat fatigue as well. It just didn't seem credible anymore, that that could actually happen. Because of all of the warnings, there was a little bit of, you know, "the sky is falling" that we got from the administration. I think they began to back off that. And then, also, I think they began to have a better sense of confidence that they were able to get a handle on these things.
KURTZ: Why haven't the media reported as many plots and terror alerts under the Obama administration? It can't be that we're suddenly that much safer.
ROSS: Well, I think there actually have been fewer threats distributed to law enforcement than in the past. And that's part of the matrix, I think.
KURTZ: But is it also possible that the Bush administration, for political reasons, chose to play up the war on terror in a way that the Obama administration has chosen not to?
ROSS: You know, I don't know that the Bush administration was trying to do it for political purposes. I think they had perhaps a different mindset, and there was a more sense of confidence, I think, with the Obama administration that there was not the need to alert the public every time they thought something was about to happen.