Beyond the ‘Frontline’: A Goldmine of Interviews

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By: E&P Staff

Anyone who watched and enjoyed part one of the four-page PBS ?Frontline? series on the news media last night is missing a lot: namely, material from the hundreds of hours of taped interviews conducted for the show. But lengthy transcripts from many of the interviews with well-known journalists are available at pbs. Org.

Here are a few highlights, starring Judith Miller, Bob Woodward, Ben Bradlee and Bill Keller. The interviewer is Lowell Bergman.

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Bob Woodward:

Q. I was going to say, us old dogs have to learn the old tricks again.

WOODWARD: Exactly. Last year, in 2005, I happened to see the movie “All the President’s Men” again. I’ve not seen it for about 25 years. I realized that it’s all night work; the getting of information takes place at night. From that summer on, for this last book, I did a lot more night work because I realized the value of it. People speak more truth at night than during the day, and when they’re at home and there’s no appointment coming in at 11:00, you have an open-ended environment.

Q. You were commenting to me earlier about the change in the newsroom. The newsrooms have changed.

WOODWARD: Yes, they have. I remember working with Carl Bernstein on Watergate, and we’d do a draft of the story on 6-ply paper through a typewriter, and the copies would go to the editors. They would look at it; they would call us, and they would ask questions. They would say: “Check more sources. Have you done this?” We could work two to three weeks on a story before it would be published. Now if it looks like you have the inkling of an advance on a story, they say, “Can we get it on the Web at 10:00 a.m.?”

What is the consequence of this? The consequence of this can be fatal, and that is we don’t spend time against the problem, and good reporting requires weeks, months, sometimes years to get to the bottom of something. If it can be short-cut every moment, we say, “Oh, let’s put this on the Web” — you can’t have even a day, let alone a week or month to work on it — our product is going to be a series of incremental snapshots of what we think might be going on according to conventional wisdom. There won’t be confidential sources; there won’t be documentation; there won’t be this kind of digging that a good story requires.

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Judith Miller:

Q. Let me read you what Bill Keller told us: “Judy, I think, shares the responsibility” — this is for the paper’s coverage of WMD — “because she came up with questionable information from questionable sources. The paper shares responsibility for not second-guessing and third-guessing her on those stories, and then for putting them on the top of the front page.”

MILLER: Mr. Keller was not in charge of the paper at that time, and he doesn’t know what was done to try and evaluate that information. I don’t accept that criticism. I know that the person who was vetting the stories was never asked what he tried to do to verify the information, and I’m very comfortable that we did the best job that we could with the information we had at the time. …

Q: Now, years later, what’s your evaluation of the way not just you but the news media covered the run-up to the war?

MILLER: Oh, I think, you know, as [head of the Iraq Survey Group] David Kay said, the information was wrong. (Laughs.) We were all wrong. … I worry to this day that the American people still haven’t had a good accounting of what was done with the information that the White House received.

Bill Keller:

Q. We interviewed Jeff Jarvis, for instance, or some of the people who are outspoken proponents of the Internet. And they say the old model is obsolete, wastes money. There’s now millions of journalists out there. You’re not taking advantage of all those citizen journalists or networkers, as he would put it.

KELLER: Jeff and I have talked about this. I always tease him by telling him I prefer to call them vigilante journalists. If your definition of journalists includes people who riff on the news, who give you their opinions about things, then yes, there are millions of journalists out there, and that’s a good thing. If your definition of journalists is people who actually go out and report things, who bring some authority to a subject, then there are not millions of citizen journalists. …

Some blogs are pockets of expertise like the one that Dan Rather ran afoul of: somebody who had expertise in typewriter fonts. Some blogs are very, very smart analysts of events. Some are actual witnesses; there are some good bloggers in Iraq, for example, both American military and Iraqis. But most of them are recyclers. They riff on the news, and they tell you what they think of it. Those so-called citizen journalists would be out of business without us, because we supply them with their raw material. …

Q. But you are sensitive to the bloggers, you said. You are sensitive, I assume, to Fox [News] television, to the kind of conservative talk radio that’s out there pounding away?

KELLER: I’m a typical thin-skinned human journalist. I don’t like hearing us bashed in the conservative media, but I’ve gotten used to that. There’s a difference, though: When Bill O’Reilly or Ann Coulter take off after The New York Times, I think most people understand that that’s showmanship, that’s Ann Coulter’s shtick. Maybe she really believes, as she said, that Timothy McVeigh should have blown up his truck in front of The New York Times building instead of the [Murrah] Federal Building in Oklahoma, but I don’t think so. I think that’s for effect, and it sells books, and people understand that.

Q. What happens when they say that you should go to the gas chamber?

KELLER: That particular one came from a right-wing talk show host in San Francisco, and people understand when it’s showmanship. When it comes from the vice president of the United States, when it comes from members of Congress, it stirs up a different kind of feeling. You can see it in the caliber of the mail and the phone calls that we’ve received. People tend to take that, I think, as license to trod out their deepest hatreds. …

I don’t mean to be too cynical about the motivations of the president and the attorney general, but some of it clearly is political. It’s not an accident that a certain number of these speeches decrying The New York Times happen to be at the microphones of Republican fundraising events. The New York Times is red meat to a certain slice of the conservative base. …

Ben Bradlee

Q. We’ve interviewed a number of people who say, “Who are you, [New York Times executive editor] Bill Keller or [Washington Post executive editor] Len Downie, to decide what should be secret and what should not be secret, what the public should know about and not know when it’s a matter of national security?”

BRADLEE: Well, just because some guy who sold cars in Kansas City last year comes to town as an assistant secretary of something and tells me that it’s top secret and the world can’t afford to know it, that does not prove it to me. It really doesn’t.

I can only speak for myself and my generation, but we have certain credentials in this area. I worked for the government for two and a half years. I was the press attach? in Paris. I had a very high clearance. I could read any damn cable I wanted to. And I served four years in the United States Navy on a destroyer. I know what real national security is. But just because this guy came to town and says, “Well, we can’t tell you that; it’s national security,” I say, “Excuse me?”

I remember the first words Richard Nixon said about the Watergate case was that he was going to be unable to discuss it because it involved matters of national security. That was just baloney.


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Related E&P Stories:

More from ‘Frontline’ Interviews: Carl Bernstein on Nixon vs. Bush

Keller on Cutbacks, ‘L.A. Times’ and ‘Panic’ in the Industry

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