DATE February 12, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: PBS correspondent Lowell Bergman discusses new
"Frontline" documentary about relationship between White House and
the press and the battle between them over who controls flow of
information to the public
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The relationship between the White House and the press, and the battle between
them over who controls the flow of information to the public, is investigated
in the new PBS' "Frontline" series called "News War." It begins tomorrow
night. Here's an excerpt featuring New York Times executive editor Bill
Keller and President Bush.
(Soundbite from "News War")
President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're at war with a bunch of people who want to
hurt the United States of America, and for people to leak that program and for
a newspaper to publish it does great harm to the United States of America.
Mr. BILL KELLER: It may seem odd to ordinary Americans that somebody like me
has the power to defy the president of the United States.
Pres. BUSH: If you want to figure out what the terrorists are doing, you try
to follow their money, and that's exactly what we're doing, and the fact that
a newspaper discloses it makes it harder to win this war on terror.
Mr. KELLER: But, in fact, that's the way the inventors of this country set
things up because the alternative was to let the government be the final
arbiter of its own flow of information.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: The first two editions of "News War" are titled "Secrets, Sources and
Spin." Hour one will be shown tomorrow night; hour two, on February 20. The
third edition will examine how the pressure for profits has affected
journalism, and the fourth edition will look at media around the world,
including the growing influence of Arab media.
My guest is the correspondent for this "Frontline" series, Lowell Bergman.
He's also reported for The New York Times, ABC News and "60 Minutes." He was
the model for the "60 Minutes" producer played by Al Pacino in the movie "The
Lowell Bergman, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
In your series about the press, you describe the Valerie Wilson case as the
most significant clash in decades between the press and the federal
government. What gives it that distinction?
Mr. LOWELL BERGMAN: It's the first time, first of all, that a significant
federal Supreme Court decision called Branzburg, which has to do with the
rights of reporters, or the lack thereof, rights of reporters, before a
federal grand jury that has been reaffirmed, reaffirmed in such a way that
it's now clear under federal law that reporters have to testify before a
federal grand jury or be willing to go to jail.
GROSS: So how do you think that this case has changed the rules on reporters'
abilities to protect confidential sources?
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, for nearly 35 years, there's been more or less a truce
between the federal government and the news media on the issue of testimony
and when we have to testify. You have to understand as background in that
period, 49 states have either passed laws that reporters do have a privilege
or the courts in those states have ruled that there is some kind of privilege.
We don't really have that privilege established in federal criminal cases, and
that's avoided the kind of spectacle that you have seen in the Libby trial,
reporters trooping into court to testify either for the prosecution or the
defense. It means a significant change in our relationship when we talk with
people and what we can guarantee to them in terms of their keeping confidences
and being able to develop stories. This is going to have, and it's already
had, ramifications across the country.
GROSS: In the Valerie Wilson case, there were confidentiality waivers that
were handed out in which sources waived their right to confidentiality, thus
theoretically releasing the journalist from that confidentiality and allowing
the journalist to testify. Are these confidentiality waivers a new
development introduced by this case?
Mr. BERGMAN: It's the kind of procedure that often happens in other federal
criminal cases, or other criminal cases, as a way of investigating, let's say,
corrupt white-collar criminals, and therefore they are part of a corporation,
so they waive their Fifth Amendment rights and the company can then fire them
and say--or distance themselves. In this case, similarly the way it was used
was that if a White House official who got one of these waivers from Patrick
Fitzgerald who didn't sign it, he was in jeopardy of losing his security
clearance and his job, and so, therefore, there's a certain degree of coercion
in doing that, and it means that to the reporter, you cannot be absolutely
sure that this was a freely given waiver, and that became an issue in this
case. But I think even more surprising have been certain developments where
journalists like Tim Russert actually spoke with the FBI when they were
involved in this criminal investigation without any resistance whatsoever, and
that's a troubling development, it seems to me. Very troubling.
Mr. BERGMAN: Because we have spent the last three and a half decades in
practice and in court trying very hard to create a situation where journalists
and reporters are not seen as an arm of law enforcement. There was a day when
reporters, particularly they were know as police reporters, traveled with,
talked with and shared information, favors and activities with law
enforcement. That meant people who were not necessarily in favor in terms of
what law enforcement was up to at that particular time couldn't really talk to
reporters freely. That was one of the reason for the Branzburg--Paul
Branzburg crisis happened in 1972. Even though the press lost the Branzburg
case because of the times--the Nixon administration, Watergate and what
followed--there were many reforms as a result, and there was the institution
of guidelines in the Justice Department that are still there, and until very
recently those guidelines restricted law enforcement agents of the federal
government from even questioning reporters, much less subpoenaing them. Now
the gates seem to be open.
GROSS: Since you referred to the Branzburg decision, and since that's created
an important precedent for press cases today, let me ask you to go back and
explain what that decision was.
Mr. BERGMAN: The Branzburg case decided that journalists do not have the
right to refuse to testify before a federal grand jury. At the same time, it
recognized that there were some privileges that should be accorded to the
press but at least in that particular case, which involved law enforcement
wanting the reporters to provide information on the one case about the Black
Panther party and its activities and who was who and a group of marijuana
growers--actually they were manufacturing hash oil in Kentucky--that they had
no right to refuse. The irony of the decision was that while it went against
the press, the reporters involved were never forced to testify or hand over
their notes, in part because of the atmosphere at the time and because
reporters were seen--increasingly because of Watergate, which came right after
the Branzburg decision--as operating in the public interest. What we've seen
is the reinterpretation of the Branzburg decision today by district courts,
particularly the one in Washington in the Miller case, which says that you
absolutely have no rights. In this case, the reporters are testifying. In
fact, they're marching into court as we speak.
GROSS: In the Lewis Libby trial, we've heard about several reporters
testifying, including Tim Russert, Judith Miller, Matt Cooper, and it seems
like some of them at least have made deals with the prosecutor in advance
about what they will and what they won't be willing to answer. What--do you
know anything about what those deals have been like?
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, they're very complicated deals where there was some kind
of negotiation. In Russert's case, apparently, there was no deal. He just
talked. The bottom line is that when you talk to a reporter now, particularly
in Washington and the press corps, where there's this kind of cosy
confidentiality, you cannot be sure that they aren't going to be a witness
GROSS: From keeping up with the Valerie Wilson leak grand jury investigation
and from keeping up with the Lewis Libby trial, do you feel like you've
learned anything about how the Bush administration deals with the press?
Mr. BERGMAN: I think what's come out that is quite striking is the degree to
which the vice president and his office reacted to the possibility that there
was a dissenter out there who could question their WMD rationale and the
degree to which they wanted to blame everything, if you will, on the CIA, the
CIA which had given them a national intelligence estimate that backed up their
rationale for invading Iraq. So some of the inside baseball between the White
House and the CIA seem to be--it's fascinating to a reporter at least who has
covered the area for a long period of time.
What I have learned in the course of doing this investigation and which is
explained to a certain extent in this second hour and more so on the Web site
is that a little over 30 years ago, Vice President Cheney, then deputy chief
of staff Dick Cheney to chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld in the Ford
administration, was actually actively involved in looking for ways to
prosecute The New York Times and in this case, Seymour Hersh for espionage to
try and plug leaks, and here we have in 30-some odd--five years later, in a
sense, being the master leaker and declassifying secrets or thinking he has
the power to do that. That's one of the ironies of this whole situation from
GROSS: What--how leaking has changed? How--you're talking the government who
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, the government's always leaked but that we've gotten some
insight into how both they try to plug leaks and leak at the same time. It's
an interesting Kabuki dance that the Bush administration, in particular, I
think has been involved in because they tried so hard to control their
message, and the result is when you do that, you get leakers.
GROSS: Are there other ways that you feel the Bush administration has changed
the rules in terms of how a White House interacts with the press?
Mr. BERGMAN: I think their disdain for the press which they exhibited early
on--you may remember the Adam Clymer episode where there was an open mike, and
the president and vice president--he was a reporter for The New York Times at
the time, now retired--and they refer to him in a way that I don't think I can
repeat on Public Broadcasting these days due to their FCC regulations. But
they had ample opportunity to retract the statement, to apologize for saying
those words. We asked in an interview with Mark McKinnon, one of his campaign
officials that we get on camera, why they didn't apologize. And he looked
straight in the camera and said, `What's there to apologize about?'
So it's this attitude of `the press is their enemy' or at least the so-called
`mainstream media is their enemy.' Fox isn't their enemy. Certain partisan
broadcasters in particular are not their enemy, and there's a repeat here in
many ways, if you--in our interviews with Pat Buchanan, who was in the Nixon
administration and heavily involved in their communications policy, it's a
policy that he started, which is to get around the so-called mainstream media
and go to local media, which is less likely to question them. Go to more
sympathetic venues. The Bush administration has done that in spades. And
that's new. That combined with reversing policies over the previous Clinton
administration to relax classification rules, reversing policies to open up
more documents and be more transparent as a government, that has created a lot
of tension between the news media and the administration that hadn't been
GROSS: Yeah, picking up on what you were saying, your documentary mentions
that when Janet Reno was the attorney general under President Clinton, in
1993, she advised the attorneys working for her that when information was
sought, it should be made available to the press unless there were some
governmental reason to keep it secret. But John Ashcroft, when he became
President Bush's attorney general, revoked that policy. What did he put in
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, it was a policy to fight every request for information,
to fight requests to broaden the Freedom of Information Act and to make more
information available, and also on a national security level, the Clinton
administration had begun to take what many in the media would say was a more
rational view about the classification of information, that is, the stamping
of it as top secret. That was also reversed. So there's a huge amount of
material in government, often newspaper clippings, that are stamped
classified, and so that attitude towards openness obviously is going to create
a problem with people in the media who want to get the story out. They are
becoming more protective. We're always in the business of trying to learn
more and that has to be--that's always an adversarial struggle, but in this
particular case, in this particular administration, it's become particularly
GROSS: My guest is Lowell Bergman. He's the correspondent for the PBS'
"Frontline" series, "News War," which begins tomorrow night.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Lowell Bergman, and
he is the correspondent for a four-part PBS' "Frontline" series called "News
War: Secrets, Spins and the Future of the News," and the series premieres
Tuesday night on Public Television.
One of the things you look at in the first couple of episodes is how the Bush
administration has tried to stop information from being published, and you
describe meetings the Bush administration has had with The Washington Post and
with The New York Times trying to convince those papers not to go with
stories. In The Washington Post case, it was a Dana Priest story about secret
CIA detention centers. In The New York Times case, it was a story about the
secret NSA wiretapping program. What have you learned about how the Bush
administration tried to convince editors at the Post and the Times to not run
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, in the case of the Post, Len Downey, the executive
editor, says he's not at liberty to discuss the conversations and even who he
met with. In the case of The New York Times, because the White House had
already made public the meeting and who was there and basically the purpose of
it, Bill Keller, the executive editor, talked about it. And basically what he
reports back is that they contended that any report on the program and its
very existence would endanger the war on terror. Now we're not talking about
that The New York Times planned to report exactly how the program worked, what
kind of phones, for example, exactly they could tap into and when or e-mails
or how it was done. But The New York Times story focused--the first story
focused primarily on the legality involved in it, that is, bypassing existing
legislation that was supposed to monitor it, and there's a secret court that's
been set up to do that, all national security wiretapping or eavesdropping
operations or break-ins. And so, they claimed that when and if there was
another attack, he'd hope that The New York Times was sitting next to him in
Congress when Congress wanted to know why this had happened. In other words,
the idea is that you would have, as Bill Keller puts it, blood on your hands
if you publish this story. You know that soon after that, that and what was
called the Swift story that The New York Times published, there was a
discussion by the administration, by the attorney general, by Republican
members of Congress of trying to, in fact, prosecute The New York Times and
reporters for espionage. So that's the kind of heat that's come down from the
administration, and I can assure you that it doesn't make people feel very
relaxed about publishing.
GROSS: What does the Espionage act have to say about what kind of news is
forbidden to be published?
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, maybe a little history here. We had a very famous case
called the Pentagon Papers case, where the Nixon administration threatened The
New York Times and then The Washington Post for--and what they said was `We're
going to vote an injunction to stop you from publishing it, and if you do
publish it, we're going to prosecute you under the Espionage Act. Well, the
original Espionage Act was passed in 1917, and in fact it's very difficult to
prosecute the media under the provisions of that act, and as it turns out, the
Nixon administration never did. But under a section of that act, called the
Signals Intelligence Act, it is a felony to publish information about the way
in which US national security agencies or entities communicate with each
other, the use of encryption or other things related to intercepting
communications in the interest of the national security of the United States.
So, theoretically, you could be prosecuted under that act and particularly
when you're talking about something that the National Security Agency, which
is this secret agency set up to intercept foreign communications, and that's
what came down here, was the question of a national security agency
intercepting conversations inside the United States or e-mail traffic. Now
you could do that with the Espionage Act. Now one ever has, and no one's
really talked openly about trying to do it to the mass media since the Nixon
administration, until now.
GROSS: So, has the Bush administration actually threatened The New York Times
or The Washington Post with prosecution under the Espionage Act?
Mr. BERGMAN: There's just been discussion about the possibility. There have
been people like Peter King, a representative from New York, a Republican
representative, who has talked about it openly. There is a letter that was
passed in the last Congress that was sent to the Justice Department requesting
an investigation of The New York Times and others under the Espionage Act. So
we don't know whether they are really seriously considering it or not, but we
know they throw the idea around.
GROSS: The precedent set by the Pentagon papers is that the government can't
use prior restraint to prevent a news media from publishing something. But
that doesn't mean that they can't publish you after you've published it.
Mr. BERGMAN: Right. The opinion itself by the Supreme Court said that the
government cannot restrain you from publishing. However, `if you think it's a
violation of national security,' they said, `go right ahead and prosecute them
GROSS: There are so many really difficult judgment calls that one has to make
at any level of journalism, but when the White House pressures the media and
says national security is at stake and if you publish this and there's another
terrorist attack, you will share the burden of the responsibility for it, that
makes it, I think, a really tough call for any journalistic organization to
make because how can you tell if the White House is pressuring you to cover up
something that would be embarrassing to them or because this really is going
to be a threat to our national security if it's published?
Mr. BERGMAN: I think what Len Downey says in the film that--the executive
editor of The Washington Post, he is in possession of many secrets that have
never been published by The Washington Post because they have shown restraint
and have no desire, as Sy Hersh would put it, to publish those kind of
secrets. In fact, what we're talking about is things like troop movements or
the location of missiles or codes for an atom bomb to make it go off. The
news media hasn't published anything like that, and I don't think that any of
us in it think that those things are actually news. So I think the judgment
is: What is the real information you are publishing? What is it that they're
calling secret? In the case of the NSA eavesdropping case, Jim Risen, one of
the authors says, `We were just publishing it existed because the people of
the United States should know that the government of the United States is
eavesdropping and collecting your e-mail without a warrant, and under the law,
that's what they're supposed to do. But you make a decision. It's not our
job. Our job is just simply to inform people of what's going on.
GROSS: Lowell Bergman is the correspondent for the new PBS' "Frontline"
series "News War." It begins tomorrow night. Bergman will be back in the
second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.
I'm Terry Gross, back with Lowell Bergman. He's the correspondent for the new
PBS' "Frontline" series "News War," which begins tomorrow night.
The first two editions examine the relationship between the government and the
press and the battle over who controls the flow of information to the public.
Both editions consider new pressures on journalists to reveal their sources
and not just in stories pertaining to national security. Two reporters risk
jail if they don't reveal their sources on a story about baseball players and
steroids. Here's one of them, Lance Williams.
Mr. LANCE WILLIAMS: I'll respect the court system and I'll comply with their
wishes in every way possible, but I am being asked to--not asked--told to
betray not only sources but ideals that I've held for 30 years as a reporter.
And I'm also being asked to give up my career because, don't kid yourself, if
they bully me into betraying my sources, I can't work anymore.
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Lowell Bergman, the correspondent
for the "Frontline" series "News War."
In one of the stories that you cover in the second episode of the series is
the case of two journalists from the San Francisco Chronicle who revealed this
story of baseball players, including Barry Bonds, and their use of steroids.
And what happened was they got access to grand jury testimony from baseball
players. This led--as you point out in the program, has led to congressional
investigation of steroid abuse. The reporters were praised by the president
for this work that they did, and yet a judge has asked the Justice Department
to investigate the source of the leak of the grand jury testimony. The paper
and the reporters are declining to say who the leak was. Can you talk a
little bit about more about this case and its significance?
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, first of all, the judge's orders in the case, by the way,
we'll find out when the reporters are going to go to jail early in March. It
doesn't look very good for them. One reason is that the Branzburg decision,
which we discussed earlier, got reaffirmed in the battle over Valerie Plame's
identity, which resulted in the Miller case, that reaffirmed Branzburg. And
so, in that case, in San Francisco, the court cites the Miller case and the
reaffirmation of Branzburg, and that's a direct result of that struggle. You
now see it happening in a case involving steroids, a case involving a
situation where the president of the United States, as you said, praised the
reporters for doing a public service, a situation where everybody understands
that there are public health consequences to the whole steroid use among youth
especially. And then you see the use of this discretion by the Justice
Department. The judge can order, the FBI can investigate, but the Justice
Department, which is an arm of the administration has to decide whether or not
to prosecute and push the case, and they've decided to do that.
And that's a change in policy. You see Mark Corallo in our documentary, who
was the press person for Attorney General Ashcroft, saying that under
Ashcroft, this could never have been approved because of the Justice
Department guidelines that have been in place for over 30 years. But under
Attorney General Gonzales, it has been approved, and that's a big change.
GROSS: Formerly the standard for this kind of prosecution would have been
violating national security, risking national security.
Mr. BERGMAN: Or what they call exigent circumstances. If someone's life was
in danger and I, as a reporter, refused to reveal the information to an FBI
agent who is trying to stop a--let's say, a bombing from happening.
Theoretically I could be subpoenaed to a grand jury and jailed until I talked.
But that's not what steroid abuse has nothing to do with that in terms of
making public information that may warn people that athletes are doing this
and it's providing at a least a bad public example. There's nothing of
exigent circumstances, as Mr. Corallo points out.
Now, the Justice Department is claiming that, quote, "This was all reviewed
through the normal procedures." And I assume it was. And it has to be
approved by the attorney general, and apparently it was.
GROSS: So what's at stake for the two reporters who are risking jail and
what's at stake for journalism in general with this case?
Mr. BERGMAN: What's at stake for the reporters is going to jail for the
length of the grand jury, which can be 18 months. And the grand jury can also
be extended, could be another nine months, could be another 18 months beyond
that. Then they could be prosecuted for criminal contempt, and that's a whole
other potential world of jeopardy.
But let's give you an example of the effect already. In Cleveland, Ohio, the
Cleveland Plain Dealer, a major metropolitan newspaper that is not making a
lot of money these days. The editor announced in the wake of the Miller case
that they would not publish a series that they had prepared on a federal
investigation of corruption in Cleveland, Ohio, because they feared that they
would be subpoenaed before a federal grand jury that would want to know their
sources. `And the cost of that, just the legal cost of that from what they
saw, aside from other costs, was too great for this paper that is not making
much money these days to bear. Therefore, we won't publish.'
One of the most difficult things to understand in all of this is that the
evidence of what you don't learn is hard to prove or demonstrate. How many
stories haven't been published? How many sources haven't stepped forward to
report some information for fear that they'll be subpoenaed if they tell a
reporter and the reporter will have to testify against them. The example
that's being set is to keep your mouth shut if you know that something has
GROSS: And one of the things that you report on in this series on the press
is what it means when the Justice Department is called on to open a leak
investigation. They have to file a report consisting of 11 questions. Would
you describe what these 11 questions are and what the purpose is?
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, as it was explained to us, there are these 11 questions,
which we'll see on the air and will be on the Web site. And they are sent to
an agency like the CIA, that's a complaining victim. And one of the
questions, as it's pointed out to us, is `Was the classified leak true?' And
the reason is that apparently they can't prosecute somebody for leaking
information that's not true. So therefore, when you hear that there is a
national security leak investigation going on of a particular story, those of
you out in the audience, it's a fact checking thing that the FBI does for you,
it means the story is true.
GROSS: That's kind of paradoxical, isn't it? That's exactly the kind of
information they're trying to keep secret.
Mr. BERGMAN: Exactly. And it's because of that reason, as you learn in hour
two, they sometimes don't do leak investigations for fear of letting--let's
say the Soviet Union in the old days or the terrorists today know that the
story is true.
GROSS: There's another case that you cover in your series where a
journalist--this time he's not risking jail. He's in jail. And, in fact,
he's broken the record for the number of days a journalist has served for not
turning over information. And tell us about this case.
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, I think this case actually says a lot about the maturity
of the Internet and what may happen in the future, and by that I mean Internet
journalism. Here you have a young man, Josh Wolf, who is a video blogger in
the kind of new tradition of the Internet, kind of "citizen journalist," as
it's called. And he has his own Web site and he has become close to people
who are opposed to globalization. And he covers the demonstrations from the
demonstrators' side, when they demonstrated against something like the G8
summit. He did that. He did it in San Francisco. He posted some of the
video on the Web. He sold some to a local station, and the next thing he
knows he's got the FBI knocking on the door because someone attacked a police
car. It turned out they broke a tail light and attempted, apparently feebly,
to set it on fire. Because the police car was partially funded with federal
money, the government alleges they have jurisdiction. He is subpoenaed to a
federal grand jury. He's to testify and present his full videotape. He
refuses because he concludes that what they really want him to do is identify
the people in the videotape, and he's now doing time in jail. There hasn't
been--and he went to jail back last summer.
So he recently set the record--the court describes him, by the way, as a
journalist in their opinions and they cite the Miller case again, the
reaffirmation of Branzburg, and say he has no rights before a federal grand
jury to refuse to testify. He's been in jail and broken the record for a
journalist being in jail for contempt of court in the history of the United
States, and he is going to be in jail until next summer.
GROSS: Because that's when they're re-examining the case?
Mr. BERGMAN: No, that's when the grand jury runs out.
GROSS: Oh, I see. Right.
Mr. BERGMAN: So he might--but he might--they can re-up the grand jury and
he'd be in for another--sometimes they extend the grand jury for nine months,
as they did in the Judy Miller case. She was facing another six to nine
months in jail if she had not made a deal with the prosecutor when she came
out after 85 days. But in the case of Mr. Wolf, he could be in for a longer
period of time.
Traditional news organizations have been reluctant, apparently, with the
exception, I think, of a journalism fraternity Sigma Delta Chi, to step
forward and back him and put him in amicus briefs. But what surprised me in
some of the interviews with some of the gurus of the Internet of citizen
journalism is they didn't seem to be really aware of this, and one of the
things that--or willing to step forward to protect him or to support him, and
I think one of the things they will see happening over the next few years is
the people who begin to practice journalism on the Internet are going to find
themselves confronting many of these issues themselves, and we'll be in a new
ballpark here of the cyberspace and the criminal law.
GROSS: Well, Lowell Bergman, thanks so much for talking with us.
Mr. BERGMAN: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Will Bergman is the correspondent for the PBS "Frontline" series,
"News War." It begins tomorrow night.
The Smithereens have covered a class Beatles album. Coming up, "Meet the
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Lead singer Pat DiNizio and drummer Dennis Diken from
The Smithereens band discuss their new CD "Meet the Smithereens,"
a tribute to Beatles album, "Meet the Beatles"
TERRY GROSS, host:
With the four opening tracks, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "I Saw Her Standing
There," "This Boy" and "It Won't Be Long," the word classic doesn't begin to
do justice to the Beatles album, "Meet the Beatles," which was released in the
US in 1964. The band The Smithereens has released a song-by-song tribute to
it, which they have called "Meet the Smithereens." The Smithereens are a band
from New Jersey that's been recording since the early '80s and has been very
influenced by British invasion bands. Their best known songs include "Blood
and Roses" and "A Girl Like You." My guests are the lead singer Pat DiNizio
and drummer Dennis Diken. Here's a track from "Meet the Smithereens."
(Soundbite of "When I Saw Her Standing There")
Mr. PAT DiNIZIO: (Singing) "Well, she was just 17, you know what I mean, and
the way she looked was way beyond compare."
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) "How could I dance with another. Ohhh, when I saw
her standing there."
Mr. DiNIZIO: (Singing) "Well, she looked at me, and I, I could see that
before too long I'd fall in love with her."
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) "She wouldn't dance with another. Ohhh, when I
saw her standing there. Well, my heart went boom when I crossed that room,
and I held her hand in mine."
Mr. DiNIZIO: (Singing) "Oh, we danced through the night and we held each
other tight and before too long, I fell in love with her."
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) "I'll never dance with another. Ohhh, when I saw
her standing there."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's The Smithereens from a new CD, "Meet the Smithereens."
Pat, Dennis, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
Why did you want to do a cover of the Beatles?
Mr. DiNIZIO: Well, Terry, we had been invited to perform at a Beatles
convention, which was a first for us. And we were asked to perform an all
Beatles cover set. The set was received very warmly. There was a tremendous
response, and the audience was also calling out for Smithereens' compositions
during the course of the Beatles set. So we realized there was some
crossover. And we began to receive e-mails from fans suggesting that we might
consider the idea of perhaps putting out a Smithereens-Beatles cover album.
And it was always sort of an unspoken agreement amongst everyone in the
Smithereens that "Meet the Beatles" was probably our favorite record as a
GROSS: So, Dennis, of all the Beatles album that you could have done, what
appealed to you about "Meet the Beatles," which was the first Beatles album
released in America?
Mr. DENNIS DIKEN: For me, as a drummer, the chance to go into a studio and
play the song from "Meet the Beatles" was just like reliving my childhood,
being a drummer going down to the basement every day after school and playing
along with my favorite record. "Meet the Beatles" is my favorite Beatles
album, and Ringo was a huge influence and inspiration to me as a player. And
I really think that it's probably--I'll probably get some flack about this,
but I think it's Ringo's best playing as a drummer, and I think it's the best
combo playing that the Beatles did as a group.
GROSS: I want to play another track from "Meet the Smithereens," and this is
a nice contrast to the one we opened with. It's "This Boy," which has great
harmonies in it. Do you want to say something about why you like this early
Mr. DIKEN: The music on "Meet the Beatles" is deceivingly--well, it sounds
simple. It sounds like pop music, which it is, but it's actually very
sophisticated stuff, especially for guys who are just scraping age 21. The
harmonies on "This Boy" are really something else, as we learned when we tried
to pick them apart to perform on the record. There's a great sense of urgency
and yearning to "This Boy," a great sense of energy and a beauty.
GROSS: Well, why don't we hear "This Boy" from The Smithereens' new CD, "Meet
the Smithereens," which is their cover of "Meet the Beatles."
(Soundbite of "This Boy")
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) "That boy took my love away though he'll regret it
some day. This boy wants you back again. That boy isn't good for you though
he may want you, too. This boy wants you back again. Oh, and this boy would
be happy just to love you, but, oh, my-yi-yi. That boy won't be happy till
he's seen you cry-hi-hi. This boy wouldn't mind the pain..."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's The Smithereens from their cover of the Beatles album "Meet the
Beatles," which was released in 1964.
Do you remember when you first got your copy of "Meet the Beatles"?
Mr. DiNIZIO: Yeah. My parents couldn't afford to buy it for me, and my Aunt
Mary had a little bit of money and was at Birk's record shop in Plainfield,
New Jersey. She took me down there, and I remember really digging the cover a
lot more than "Introducing the Beatles." I think I had my choice, so I choose
between the two. But I also wanted the album that had "I Want to Hold Your
Hand" on it, and I wore my copy out, you know. But, you know, the very first
time I heard the Beatles was one wintery morning. I guess it would have been
January of '64, and I was brushing my teeth listening to WABC, that fine,
legendary AM, top 40 station out of New York. I was listening to a deejay
named Herb Oscar Anderson, who was our morning guy. And he was making light
of the fact that he was about to play a record by a group from England, of all
places, called the Beatles--making fun of the name. And brushing my teeth,
and when I heard the opening chords of "I Want to Hold Your Hand," I literally
dropped my toothbrush, and it was a transcendent moment, you know? From then
on, my life was totally different. It was though I was hearing some strange
music out of the moon.
GROSS: And how old were you?
Mr. DiNIZIO: I was eight years old in third grade, 1963. But I was already
playing guitar. I had been playing guitar for a year before the Beatles were
actually heard of by any of us in the States, and, you know, kind of weaned on
the music of The Four Seasons and Jim Dean, and something like Rockin--"Wild
Weekend" by the Rockin' Rebels, that sort of top 40 music that was prevalent
at the time. But as I said before, within weeks everybody was scrambling to
buy guitars and take lessons.
GROSS: And, Dennis, do you remember when you first bought "Meet the Beatles"?
Mr. DIKEN: Yeah. I didn't get it until my birthday in 1965, so that was a
year later in February of '65. But all my cousins had it, the kid across the
street had it. But I do remember getting the single "I Want to Hold Your
Hand" in February--or it might have been January of '64. I went to the record
store with my mom, and I was really hot on a single by Bobby Rydell called
"Forget Him," and I had to have that record. And in late '63, I wanted
"Forget Him." And so, lo and behold, it's January '64 and the Beatles had come
out in the meantime, and we had heard about them on the radio and everybody
was talking about them, but I had not yet seen a photo of them. So I went to
this record store in Passaic, New Jersey. And back then--I don't know if you
remember--but they used to tape up the 45s--like the top 20 or the top
40--they would tape them up on the door, the glass on the door on the entrance
to the record stores back then. So you could see the records, especially the
ones with the picture sleeves, and there it was "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
and I froze in my tracks.
It's the black and white photo of them where Paul is holding the cigarette,
that was later air-brushed out in 1980, I think. And it's a somewhat
unflattering black and white photo. They don't really quite look like
themselves in that particular Dezo Hoffman shot for whatever reason. I don't
know if it was the lighting or just that particular second that the photo was
snapped. But,anyway, I was just gobsmacked when I saw this photo of the
GROSS: My guests are Dennis Diken and Pat DiNizio of The Smithereens. Their
new CD is called "Meet the Smithereens."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of song)
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) "All my lovin', darlin' I..."
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: My guests are Pat DiNizio and Dennis Diken of the band The
Smithereens. They've just released a cover of the Beatles album "Meet the
Beatles" called "Meet the Smithereens." Before we get back to the interview,
let's hear The Smithereens 1989 hit "A Girl Like You."
(Soundbite of "A Girl Like You")
Mr. DiNIZIO: (Singing) "I used to travel in the shadows, and I never found
the nerve to try and walk up to you, but now I am a man and I know that
there's no time to waste. There's too much to lose. Girl, you say anything
at all, and you know that you can call, and I'll be right there for you.
First love, heartbreak, tough luck, big mistake. What else can you do? I'll
say anything you want to hear. I'll see everything through. I'll do anything
I have to do."
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) "Just to win the love of a girl like you, a girl
Mr. DiNIZIO: (Singing) People talk and people stare, tell them I don't
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: You guys have been playing together for decades. When did you get
together, it was around 1980?
Mr. DIKEN: That's right, the first gig was March of 1980.
GROSS: And were you still in school then, in college, in...
Mr. DIKEN: No. We were old already. We weren't spring chickens.
Mr. DiNIZIO: No, at that time. I was 24 and I think Dennis was 22. So,
yes, we were very young. We thought we were old. I mean, I thought I was,
too old, Terry, to go to Seabee Jeebies and put on a motorcycle jacket. And I
had a lot of familiar responsibilities, running the family garbage business,
you know. A lot of...
GROSS: Did your father have a business that you ran?
Mr. DiNIZIO: Yeah, it was M.A. DiNizio & Son Disposal. And, you know, I
got up every morning for many years from the time I was 14, almost until the
time we went on the road for the first tour in support of our first album,
"Especially for You." I'd get up at 4. By 4:30 I'd be starting up the garbage
trucks. And by 5, I'd be walking with my 60-gallon plastic barrel drum behind
people's houses, picking up their garbage. So I did that for many years.
But, in fact, a lot of the inspiration for songs--I remember completing "Blood
and Roses" while on the back of a garbage truck, oddly enough.
GROSS: How did the family feel about you giving up the business and becoming
a full-time musician?
Mr. DiNIZIO: Well, we had a bit of a conflict. By that time, my mom and dad
had split up. And, you know, we practiced in my dad's basement. He was very
gracious to the band. We drank all his booze, practiced in his basement from
7:00 at night until midnight, every night for like five years. And he was
very nice about it. But at a certain point, he said, `Son, I want you to come
home.' I was living in New York City. `I got to talk to you about something.'
I said, `What is it, dad?' He said, `Just come home.' And we sat down at the
kitchen table. He had a bottle of scotch there. And he said, `I want you to
quit this rock 'n' roll thing.' He goes, `People are starting to talk. You're
a bum.' He goes, `I don't want my son to become a bum.' He goes, `I want you
to stop this. Come back on the truck with me. You'll have a steady income.
You'll have a good job, good business, get on with your life.' And I said,
`I'm not doing it.' And he said, `You're going to come back on the truck.' And
I said, `I can't do it.' And it was the first time that my dad and I ever
cried together, you know. It was very emotional, but six to eight months
later, my dad was sitting in the 10th row of Radio City Music Hall watching us
open a show for The Pretenders, and we had an album on the charts. So, you
know, anything can happen.
GROSS: Well, Pat DiNizio, Dennis Diken, thanks so much to both of you for
talking with us.
Mr. DIKEN: Oh, it's our pleasure. Thanks for having us.
GROSS: Pat DiNizio and Dennis Diken of The Smithereens. Their new CD is
"Meet the Smithereens."
(Soundbite of "I Want to Hold Your Hand")
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) "Oh, yeah, tell you something. I think you'll
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "I Want to Hold Your Hand")
THE SMITHEREENS: (Singing) "I want to hold your hand. Oh, please, say to me
you'll let me be your man. And, please, say to me you'll let me hold your
hand. Now let me hold your hand. I want to hold your hand. And when I touch
you I feel happy inside..."
(End of soundbite)
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