Lowell Bergman on News Media Economics
Investigative reporter Lowell Bergman is the correspondent for the new Frontline documentary "News War: Secrets, Spin and the Future of the News." The four-part series, which Bergman co-produced, is about the mainstream news media and the political, legal and economic forces acting on it.
The third installment looks at how the pressure for profits and shifting advertising dollars are affecting the news business. It airs Tuesday, Feb. 27 on most PBS stations. Bergman is a contributor to The New York Times.
Other segments from the episode on February 27, 2007
DATE February 27, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh of The New
Yorker discusses Bush administration's new strategy bringing the
US closer to a confrontation with Iran and widening sectarian
conflict between Shiites and Sunnis
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Seymour Hersh, has an article in the current edition of The New
Yorker in which he reports that the US is coming closer to an open
confrontation with Iran. He says this is part of a shift in Bush
administration strategy in response to the deteriorating situation in Iraq. A
by-product of this new strategy has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist
groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam, are hostile to the US and may
be connected to al-Qaeda. Seymour Hersh won a National Magazine Award for
Public Interest in 2004 for his New Yorker pieces on intelligence and the Iraq
war. And he's the author of the best seller, "The Road from 9/11 to Abu
Ghraib." He broke much of the Abu Ghraib story. He won a Pulitzer Prize for
his 1969 report on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam.
Seymour Hersh, welcome back to FRESH AIR.
What is the new strategy that has brought us closer to confrontation with
Mr. SEYMOUR HERSH: It's very simply. We're just--instead of we're simply
going after the Shia, as you know, as many of the audience knows, Iran is a
Shia nation and the president of the United States has decided that we
are--these are our enemy, the Shia. We are going to support the Sunnis and
we've basically set up a coalition of Sunni countries in the Middle
East--that's, of course, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, along with Israel,
the United States and Great Britain, and the six countries are now in sort of
a pact, and it's a pact against Iran, and also it plays out in very
complicated ways in the Middle East. For example, it's--this group is
absolutely adamant that the head of the Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah of
Hezbollah--who--he's in charge of--Nasrallah is in charge of a coalition
that's challenging the pro-American government in Lebanon. There's a standoff
now. The American joint position with its allies is Nasrallah and Hezbollah,
which are Shia, are not to get anything and that there is to be an absolute no
compromise. That the only government that's going to be there is going to be
the Siniora government which is largely Sunni, and no matter what the cost,
even if it means, and we're seeing evidence of this now, we end up with the
Sunni-Shia split in Lebanon like we're having--like we've had in Iraq. So
it's a formula designed to basically put one group in the Middle East, the
Sunnis, which are dominant, against the other group, the Shia, and it's
just--I don't know whether the White House has totally thought it out, but
it's pretty frightening.
GROSS: At the risk of pointing out the obvious, Saddam Hussein was Sunni. We
deposed him. We kicked all the Sunnis out of the military and the police and
helped a Shia government get elected in Iraq, and now we're trying to
strengthen the Sunnis against the Shia?
Mr. HERSH: Yes, that's the wonderful contradiction of it. Basically from
the very beginning, when the United States and the Bush administration decided
right after the fall of the Saddam government--Hussein's government in April
of '03--we decided then that we weren't going to deal with any of the Sunnis
because we dismissed the army. Everybody knows that. We cut the Sunnis, any
member of the Baath Party which was the major political party of Saddam
Hussein, mostly Sunni, and we decided we would support the Shia. At that
time, I'd say by the summer of '03, the American intelligence community began
telling the White House, you know, the trouble with that is Iran is very close
to the Shia government, and the White House did not want to hear that because
in their--they had concluded that the Shias in the south of Iraq--if you
remember there was a terrible war all during the 1980s between Iraq and Iran,
and the assumption was, you know, a war between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Shia
Iran, the assumption was the Shia in Iraq would be more loyal to Iraq than
they would be to Iran, you know, because there was a blood bath between the
two of them, a terrible war. That's one of the great, wonderful
contradictions of the whole policy, which makes it very complicated to
describe in public because we are totally against the Shia everywhere except
for the fact that we're now working with the Shia in Iraq. So you go figure.
GROSS: Now you say that this new strategy has brought us closer to
confrontation with Iran. There's a special planning group that's been
established in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff charged with creating a
contingency bombing plan for Iran that could be implemented within 24 hours.
What is this special planning group? Who's in it?
Mr. HERSH: Well, I don't really know who's in it. I know it's set up inside
the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I know it's not supposed to be disclosed to
Congress. But most secret groups like that are not supposed to be disclosed
to Congress, but basically it's--the planning for the attack on Iran has been
going on--let me say clearly, contingency planning. Now I don't know--there's
been no order to attack Iran, and as you know, I've been a Chicken Little, you
know, screaming for a year in The New Yorker that the sky is falling, the sky
is falling, that the planning for Iran is very serious. I think I wrote four
stories about it, at least three, same story.
So this has been going on a long time, and the last few months something new
happened. They moved the planning from a joint targeting group--some secret
facility in Virginia where they have it--they moved that facility, part of
that planning directly into the Joint Chiefs and they authorized--the
president wanted a study done so that we could have a bombing attack within
one day's notice. In other words, the president wanted to wake up one morning
and say, `Today I'm going to do it.' At 8:00 in the morning decide to do it
and the bombs would be falling within 24 hours. That's new.
The other thing that's new about what he wants, and this is still contingency
planning is that for the--traditionally, the planning we had been doing, the
Air Force and the joint services, that is the other army--military units in
America, the targeting bombing, the targeting we'd been doing is what they
call counterproliferation. That is against Iran's suspected nuclear sites.
Now the sites that Iran has declared publicly, you know. They're members of
the International Atomic Energy Agency Association and they've declared sites.
The planning traditionally was that way. There was also, in the last year,
the planning was modified to include regime change which meant that you then
did some planning for what they call in the military--it's a wonderful
phrase--decapitation. You're going to go after the leadership--bomb their
homes, bomb their offices and overthrow, you know, basically eliminate the
leadership, so you'll get a new government.
Now, there's a third element in the last month or two. The planning groups
have been asked to expand the targeting for terrorism targets. The president
has been on a campaign since he gave his speech in early January, January
10th, in which he's been trying to suggest in public, without a hell of a lot
of success, I should say, that the Iranians are coming across the border,
engaging Americans, who are responsible for killing Americans, which for a lot
of people is code word for we then have a right to defend ourselves. Under
the UN charter, Article 51, we can defend ourselves. It's a code word for
that, sort of a legal justification if we decide to attack, and so he's been
talking a great deal about Iranian activity inside, anti--attacking the
Americans, etc., none of--for which there's not an awful lot of proof. And so
the planning now has been expanded to include terrorism sites. I guess
training camps and facilities we think that are across the border that are
being used as staging areas to attack inside Iraq. The only problem with
that, Terry, is it's not clear and the newspapers are doing a very good job on
this, it's not clear that much of this intelligence is valid.
GROSS: So Iran and Iraq used to be enemies, but now Iran is believed to be
supporting the radical Shiites...
Mr. HERSH: Right.
GROSS: ...in Iraq, so that's another reason why the Bush administration may
want to bomb Iran. Now...
Mr. HERSH: Well, yes, and also it's more than that. That's always been the
condition that the--the condition has always been the Shia Iran with its
threats. The new element is we're now--in the last month or month and a half
we have been publicly accusing the Iranians of being very, very active in the
war against American soldiers...
Mr. HERSH: ...and that means the Shia forces in the South are involved in
killing American soldiers when the reality is, and again what I'm telling you
has been reported, is that the overwhelming percentage of deaths of Americans
and injuries to Americans, 80 percent or more come from Sunni insurgents, most
of them near Baghdad in a province called Anbar where there's terrific heavy
fighting every day. The overwhelming percentage of casualties, our American
casualties, are coming from Sunnis. So what you have is an America that
started a war against Iraq, disregarded the Sunnis, began the work with the
Shia and now finding that they can't tolerate the Shia elsewhere in the Middle
East. `We must stop the Shia from--what they call the Shia crescent. We must
stop the Shia from gaining control of the oil,' I guess. I don't know,
whatever--I don't know what the deep thinking is. `We must stop Nasrallah.
We must go after the government in Syria.'
GROSS: The Times of London reported that five American generals and admirals
are willing to resign rather than approve an attack on Iran. What do you know
Mr. HERSH: Well, a year ago, I reported that--I don't know anything about
that news story. I've seen it. I don't know anything about new people
willing to resign. I know a year ago inside the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the
staff members--you know, the joint chiefs are the four-star generals that run
the military and they have a joint staff, and the staff does most of the
serious planning for the military. The joint operations, you know, all
services and it's sort of the place to be. If you're the best and the
brightest, you end up on the joint staff as an analyst or as a planner, and
the joint staff was very troubled a year ago because the initial plan that the
White House wanted done for the targeting of Iran--this was when all this
began, included a nuclear option.
And at that time, the joint chiefs--there were members of the joint chiefs
that told the president--actually it was Chairman Peter Pace, the Marine
general who's in charge. He informed the White House that there would be
resignations if they didn't take that out of the planning, and the White House
took that out of the planning last year. So I know that that kind of issue is
ongoing, which makes me think that the London Times story is quite credible,
although I don't know anything firsthand about it.
GROSS: My guest is Seymour Hersh. We're talking about his article in the
current edition of The New Yorker. We'll talk more after a break. This is
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Seymour Hersh and his new
article in the current edition of The New Yorker magazine is about a shift in
the Bush administration strategy in Iraq and the war on terror, and he says
that this administration's new policy may be benefitting our enemies in the
war on terrorism.
One of the conclusions you make in your piece is that because we're trying to
now play the Sunni against the Shia, because the Shia are pro-Iranian, is that
we are basically strengthening people who are radicals and sympathetic to
al-Qaeda. Would you talk about this connection?
Mr. HERSH: Absolutely. One of the more distressing things that I
discovered, and I discovered sort of just by being there. I went to Beirut,
and among other things I interviewed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah
who's sort of an amazing figure. He's been--he was a terrorist 20 years ago.
He's now involved very heavily in politics--Hezbollah is. They have members
of parliament. They were in the cabinet. They run hospitals, etc. etc.,
church, you know, and schools in southern Lebanon. They do a lot for the
Shia, the downtrodden Shia.
When I went to see him this time, there had been a death threat. He's been
under a death threat for a decade from the Israelis but the security was
unbelievable. I went into three or four basements, traded cars and backseats
with everything darkened. I didn't have blindfolds on but I couldn't see out
the windows. There were shields of mud, there were curtains in the cars, and
I was put through incredible security. I finally said, you know, `What's
going on? Are you that afraid of the Israelis?' And it turned out no. What
the issue was is that there were fellow Arabs--here's this man who's extremely
popular among both Sunni and Shia all over the Middle East for standing up to
the Israelis as they did last summer in the war, and he's threatened by
Arabs--it turned out both Jordanian intelligence people were looking for him
and also Salafis and Wahhabis, that is, the radical jihadists who come mostly
from ideology out of Saudi Arabia. Basically, the way to describe them is
these were the people connected to al-Qaeda that did 9/11, that brought down
the two buildings in New York. And it turned out there are three al-Qaeda
groups. I shouldn't say al-Qaeda. I should say Salafi jihadist groups with
some ties to al-Qaeda. Some of the people have been trained in Afghanistan
way back and knew Osama bin Laden, etc. Three of these groups are now in
Lebanon being tolerated, to put it mildly, by the Siniora government, the
government we support, the Sunni government. Not only are they being
tolerated, they're being given arms, protection, nobody bothers them, they're
allowed to recruit. Why? Because it turns out, they're hostile--they're very
hostile to America--but they're much more hostile to Shia, to Hezbollah, to
Iran. And in case we get into a shoot-'em-up all-out civil war, in
Lebanon--which we may because our policy is for no compromise--that is a
Sunni-Shiite war, these are considered to be very good assets in any kind of a
war against Hezbollah. They're terrorists who can go and--Nasrall--Hezbollah
is pretty famous for being terrorist in its day. They can match each other.
So basically, I can't say to you that there's been any overt American direct
support for these groups. What happens is we pile a lot of money into Lebanon
and other countries. We are working--some of the money is--most of the money
is--in fact, overwhelmingly, the money is not appropriated by Congress. We
are using funds that are illicitly obtained--I shouldn't say illicit--obtained
outside of the congressional purview. Funds, I'm told, from Iraq.
Funds--Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia is also supplying money. He's the key
player in this Sunni-Shia policy. He's the former ambassador here from Saudi
Arabia to Washington. Very close to Dick Cheney. Very close to
neoconservatives in the White House. He may be the godfather of this program,
I'm not sure, the whole Sunni-Shia split. But Bandar's putting up money that
we're using to run covert operations against the president of Syria and very
many operations in Lebanon, including indirectly supplying funds to groups
inside Lebanon that support the al-Qaeda.
GROSS: So, let me see if I understand this. The United States is aligned
with the Siniora government in Lebanon and Siniora is pro-American, so the
United States wants him there. But his power is being threatened by
Hezbollah, which wants to change the power-sharing plan in Lebanon and that
would basically end the Siniora government so...
Mr. HERSH: Which is Sunni, which is Sunni.
GROSS: Which is Sunni. Right.
Mr. HERSH: It would make the Siniora--the Sunni Siniora government less
GROSS: Right. OK. So,therefore, the Siniora government is backing radical
Sunni groups to counterbalance the radical Shiite group of Hezbollah, and
we're helping him do that and these radical Sunni groups are our enemy.
They're the al-Qaeda connected groups.
Mr. HERSH: One way of looking at it is normally when we learned about a
Shia--these come from the Wahhabi and Salafi, you know, religions of Saudi
Arabia, fanatical--they're--among other things, the Sunni jihadists believe
that those people who are not believers share their values of the religious
situation, like Shia, they are expendable. And they believe that they can be
killed without any cost at all. This is literally what the Wahhabi and Salafi
people believe. That's why they could fly into 9/11 and kill non-Sunnis, you
know, Americans and others, without any remorse because they're infidels. And
so, normally, when we find these groups, we move everything we can to get them
out of there. Arrest them, seize them. In this case, we are not only looking
the other way. There is every reason to believe--my friends in the
intelligence community tell me that there is money flowing into that country.
Some of it is ours. A lot of it is Saudi Arabi--money from Saudi Arabia.
None of it is appropriated by Congress. Those funds end up flowing through
the government of Lebanon, through the Siniora--Sunni Siniora government--they
flow into these three al-Qaeda units or three radical jihadist units with ties
to al-Qaeda. I have to be careful about it. They may not all be al-Qaeda
members, but they certainly have ties to it.
When I was in Beirut, I was in Beirut three or so weeks, a few months ago, I
went back twice, officials of the Siniora government, on background, national
security officials, senior officials, acknowledged they're there, and
they--and when I say, `Why are you letting them be there?' one of them
answered to me and I quote this in the magazine, "We're a very sort of open
country and we allow all sorts of people of all different kinds of religion
and ideas to be tolerated." That's not true. Before the last year or two,
Lebanon was always adamant in their security people against the crazies, the
jihadists, and didn't want them in the country and drove them out. So it's a
total reversal. This is--you could call us--you know, we're now sleeping with
the devil, you could say. It's an amazing--it's very complicated, as you can
GROSS: Well, can I ask you...
Mr. HERSH: Yeah.
GROSS: ...about what seems to be a contradiction. Vice President Cheney was
just in Pakistan saying to President Musharraf, `You're not doing enough to
combat the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Pakistan and the Pakistan-Afghanistan
border area,' but, Seymour Hersh, you're saying at the same time we're letting
Lebanon back radical groups that are connected to al-Qaeda?
Mr. HERSH: Because the radical groups are going to--would be enemies of
Nasrallah and Hezbollah...
Mr. HERSH: Basically where Cheney is on this, and this I can say with
firsthand information, Cheney's view and the presidency--you never know what
the president thinks but I can tell you from people who know, who have heard
this firsthand. Cheney believes this essentially. That Iran, despite
intelligence to the contrary, is going to get a bomb. If they don't have it
now, they will have it soon, and they will use--the agents of delivery will be
Hezbollah. He believes Hezbollah, Nasrallah's group, has abilities and
facilities inside the United States. That it is undercover units here and he
believes that when Iran gets a bomb, it will give it to Hezbollah, and they
will get it blown up in Palo Alto and Shaker Heights, and you know,
Washington, DC, that--and so he believes that his policy now is not only--this
is not about the Middle East or about Western Europe anymore. He's protecting
America. He believes he's protecting America. As far as he's concerned,
Nasrallah and Hezbolllah are the brown shirts. This is--as somebody said to
me, `It's 1938 and the Germans, the Third Reich, have been given Sudetenland,
some of you people listening will know what I'm talking about, part of
Czechoslovakia, and they want more. They're on the border going after the
rest of Czechoslovakia, and Cheney has said this, essentially, in front of
people I know, and if we don't--if we had moved then in 1938, maybe we would
have had a different World War II. It might not have happened. It certainly
would have been better for Britain. So he sees that as the issue and that
makes--because the enemy is not only al-Qaeda against the America forces in
Afghanistan, it's also Nasrallah, so if you have to sleep, as I say, with the
bad guys, to get rid of Nasrallah, that's OK, and I think this is--I know this
is in the article. Prince Bandar has assured us privately, `Don't worry about
the groups in Lebanon. I know it's unusual for you to be in business with
them, but they are much more anti-Shia, much more anti-Hezbollah, much more
anti-Iran than they are anti-American.' I quote others, including others from
Saudi Arabia, as saying, "That is totally crazy. The Salafis will go after
anybody anytime that they think are--don't support their policies."
GROSS: Seymour Hersh's article on the Bush administration's change in
strategy in Iraq and the Middle East is in the current edition of The New
Yorker. He'll 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 journalist Seymour Hersh, who has been reporting for
The New Yorker magazine on covert operations in the Bush administration's war
on terror. In the current edition of The New Yorker, Hersh reports that the
deteriorating situation in Iraq has led the Bush administration to change its
strategy in the Middle East. He says this new strategy is leading us closer
to a military confrontation with Iran and is strengthening extremist
Sunni-Muslim groups who may be connected to al-Qaeda.
You're saying that the Bush administration is doing several things in secret
and not telling Congress, at least certainly not in an official way, including
making plans to attack Iran and secretly backing radical Sunni groups
because--Sunni groups who may be aligned with al-Qaeda because these Sunni
groups are seen as a counterbalance to the Shiite country of Iran. So how can
this be done without telling Congress?
Mr. HERSH: Well, it can't be. And what I get into in the article is the
fact that two decades ago we went through this in the Iran-Contra affair when
the Reagan administration wanted to support the Contras against the Sandinista
government in Nicaragua. Congress said, `No, we're not going to give you the
money.' And they went outside. They sold arms to Iran and used the profits to
go do this and led to a huge scandal. About a year and a half or two years
ago, Elliot Abrams, one of the key players in that scandal 20 years ago, who
is now the chief assistant to the president on the National Security Council
for the Middle East, he convened a group to discuss Iran-Contra, the pros and
cons, inside the government. And all the old-timers who still worked in the
Bush government now came back and they discussed, `What do you do? How do you
do it? Lessons learned.' And out of this become, obviously--they probably--I
shouldn't say, I don't know, but my guess is they had an idea what they wanted
to do. Again, which is using soft money from the Saudi Arabian government,
which was also used back then. The Saudis provided a lot of the funds in the
Contra wars. Using money from the Saudis, using covert money or money that we
did not get appropriated from Congress. In any case, we did not go to the
various committees of Congress and get authority to do clandestine operations
or covert operations against--in Lebanon, in Syria--against Iran. They are
not cut in in the many aspects of this. Perhaps some--there have been some
what they call findings. Under the law, the president must write a letter to
the Congress saying what he wants. And Congress says yea or nay, they vote it
up or down, the various--the senior committee members on the Intelligence
Committee and the Armed Services, etc., and the budget people. And they
didn't do this. And they've just simply stuck it to the Congress. And this,
I can tell you, I do know. I don't know if Congress is going to stand up and
demand answers because they've been very acquiescent, to put it mildly, in the
last six years.
GROSS: But, you know, here's the question everybody is wondering. Do we have
enough military personnel? Do we have enough tanks and planes and bombs to
even tactically pull off an attack against Iran? Putting aside...
Mr. HERSH: Well...
GROSS: Putting aside whether it's a smart thing to do or not.
Mr. HERSH: Well, of course, we do. We have--not tanks. We have no
intention of going in on the ground. What we do is air. And if you remember,
right now, there's two aircraft carrier groups in that area, one in the Strait
of Hormuz. Until 1990, by the way, the Navy never went into the Strait of
Hormuz. It's that narrow channel outside of Iran where all the oil ships
through, from the Middle East into Asia. And carriers never went inside there
because it's very hard to maneuver. It's a narrow channel, not very deep. We
now have two carrier groups, one there. The plan is for two more to come--I
wrote about this--two more to come this spring. We'll put one near Oman, one
in the North Arabian Sea and one in the Indian Ocean and one in the Strait of
Hormuz. At that point, are you kidding? We have hundreds of planes, hundreds
of missiles. We have cruisers that can deliver cruise missiles. We can put
an enormous amount of firepower on Iran. I don't think the plan is to
do--there's no ground attack. You just hit them very hard.
And what you say to them is, `We've hit you hard. We haven't hit everything.
Unless you give up your nuclear program, we will hit more.' That's the plan
right now. That's the basic plan. And whether they do, you know, 100 targets
or 1,000 targets, these are all being decided. And whether the targets are
mostly nuclear targets or whether they're infrastructure targets or whether
they're leadership targets or whether they're alleged terrorism targets,
that's going to be the new explanation, that Iran is a terrorist state.
Mr. HERSH: Yes?
GROSS: I want to stress here that the Bush administration is saying it is not
planning to attack Iran. You obviously have sources who tell you that there
are plans in the works. But do you have the sense of what the odds are that
those plans will be followed through on and we will actually attack Iran?
Mr. HERSH: Well, no. You'd be crazy to make a prediction about something
like that. But I will tell you that the same day, and in response to my story
and another story last week in a British newspaper about more advanced
planning, they said what you said. That's exactly right. And Dick Cheney
didn't get the message. He was in Australia last weekend publicly saying,
`Everything's on the table. We're not taking any--everything off. Nothing is
off the table.' So here you have all the press people here in Washington doing
damage control, saying there's no planning. And I think by that--of course,
there's planning. What they mean is there's no planning beyond contingency
planning, in all fairness to them. And the vice president just goes and says
what he wants.
I can tell you that the senior officers in the Joint Chiefs, the senior men,
think it's crazy, many of them. And, of course, the Air Force wants to go.
The Air Force always wants to go. They always believe in strategic bombing
and tactical bombing. But the other services are very, very skeptical. The
Navy is very concerned about all those ships they have in the area because the
Iranians, among other things, the National Republican Guard in Iran owns about
800, as many as perhaps a thousand little small PT boats and Boston whalers
that can be filled up with nuc--with expl--they can be turned into suicide
boats with explosives. And you suddenly have five or 600 small boats coming
at your fleet. You can't stop them. They've done war games on it. They're
going to take some serious losses in the Strait of Hormuz if we do start a
But, you know, nobody knows. Most people don't remember, but the famous vote
we made in the Senate vote at the war for Iraq in October of 2002, that much,
you know, the one that Mrs. Clinton is having such a hard time explaining
away. She voted for the war. The actual words of that resolution authorizing
war in Iraq did not limit the president's to only a war in Iraq. It said,
`Anywhere he thinks there's a threat, he is given the right to take
pre-emptive action.' A pre-emptive strike, it was amazing language. Probably
the worst single piece of legislation passed in the last decade or two. So
GROSS: Are you saying that he wouldn't have to go to Congress before bombing
Mr. HERSH: No. No. The language of that legislation absolutely leaves the
door open for any place he thinks there's a threat to the national security of
the United States, he can take pre-emptive action. And it was not limited to
Iraq. They didn't even do that in that--the panic they had, the Congress, the
Senate in the fall of '02 to fall in line with the president.
GROSS: Well, Seymour Hersh, I want to thank you very much for talking with
Mr. HERSH: Great.
GROSS: Seymour Hersh's article on the Bush administration's change in
strategy in Iraq and the Middle East is in the current edition of The New
Only a few newspapers still have foreign bureaus around the world. Coming up,
how economic pressures are changing the news business. We talk with Lowell
Bergman about tonight's edition of his PBS "Frontline" series, "News War."
This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Investigative reporter Lowell Bergman discusses
"Frontline" series, "News War"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Do you realize that newspapers have done so much cost-cutting that there are
now only a few newspapers which have foreign bureaus around the world,
including the LA Times, the New York Times, The Washington Post and USA Today.
The emphasis on corporate profits combined with shrinking newspaper
advertising revenues and a growing number of news Web sites is changing the
news business. That's the subject of tonight's edition of the PBS documentary
program "Frontline." It's part three of "Frontline"'s four-part series, "News
War." My guest Lowell Bergman is the correspondent for the series. He's
reported for The New York Times, was in charge of investigative reporting at
ABC News and spent 14 years as a producer on "60 Minutes." The LA Times has
made enormous budget cuts, and some investors think it should eliminate its
international news staff. Here's a "Frontline" clip featuring Charles
Bobrinskoy of the investment group Aerial Capital Management, the sixth
largest shareholder in the LA Times.
(Soundbite from "Frontline")
Mr. CHARLES BOBRINSKOY: Where the problem is is that the people who are
writing the LA Times, they want to be writing about international events.
They want to be writing long-term pieces about why Bush went to war in Iraq.
And we're saying and the people at the Tribune are saying there are other
people writing those stories. Certainly, you would agree with me, there's no
lack of coverage on the issue of why Bush went to war in Iraq. Do we really
need the LA Times devoting the resources it has to that story? We're saying
there's a role for probably three national newspapers, The Wall Street
Journal, The New York Times and USA Today. Each has its own niche, all three
are national newspapers. We don't think there's any demand for a forth. The
demand is for a very strong, high quality local newspaper, focused on the
things the people in LA care about: style, Hollywood, entertainment, local
government, local sports, local issues like immigration. If he was focused on
all of those issues, there would be a lot of demand for his product. Instead,
he's trying to be the forth national newspaper.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Charles Bobrinskoy of an investment group that's one of the
major investors in the LA Times.
Lowell Bergman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Welcome back again.
Mr. LOWELL BERGMAN: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: I was shocked to hear somebody who has such a big investment in the LA
Times making an argument against covering the war in Iraq and other
international news. But I guess my shock was really naive because that's the
direction a lot of newspapers are heading in. Would you explain why he, as a
financial backer of the paper, is so opposed to the LA Times continuing to
cover international stories?
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, the model that Wall Street sees as working for
newspapers, and for that matter for many media outlets, is local and or--what
they call--hyper-local coverage. They don't see a national advertising
marketplace that can support more than a couple, if you will--I mean, in Mr.
Bobrinskoy's case, he names three newspaper that might be national newspapers,
the USA Today, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. He--they don't
see an economic--economic marketplace that will support a, for example, a
forth national newspaper.
Now, his conclusions are those of a group of Wall Street analysts, he being
one of them, although he's an investor, but other analysts that we've talked
with. The overall question is the economic viability of newspapers, which all
media outlets, as well as the public, depend on and the estimates run to 85
percent of the new information every day is produced by newspapers, by
newspaper reporters. So if news organizations are, like television, are
dependent on newspaper reporters really to guide them to provide insight and
in-depth reporting, and they are being threatened, and the LA Times is a good
example of that, that's why we followed the Los Angeles Times story. This is
raising serious questions for the future of the news in this country.
GROSS: What questions do you think it raises?
Mr. BERGMAN: Where are you going to get your news? Who is going to really
gather it? Are there going to be professionals out there who are assigned to
developing information beyond the handouts that come from us to the government
or major institutions or corporations? Will there be people, not just jumping
into Iraq and coming out with bang-bang footage or stories but people who are
going to look behind what's going on? As Dean Bekay, the now departed editor
of the LA Times, pointed out, there really are only three major newspapers in
the United States with full-scale bureaus on the ground in Baghdad, in Iraq
today. The others have--and wire services have people rotating in and out.
So the question is how important is independently gathered, professionally
vetted information done by people out in the field with experience? How
important is that to the continuation of the society that we've come to value,
democracy as we call it?
GROSS: Now getting back to the question of can the LA Times, in particular,
and other newspapers in general afford to cover international news anymore.
Is the question do people actually want to read international news, or is the
question purely a financial one, that is international news too expensive to
be covered anymore?
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, the surveys vary. Some surveys say that people actually
do want international news, that's why they look at their newspaper or they go
to the evening news or listen to NPR, for instance, and that there's a huge
market for that information. The Internet and people at Google will tell you
there's a huge market and growing market for that kind of information. The
question is the economics of the system as it's been set up. We are now at
the point where television network organizations, news organizations have been
cutting back their international news steadily over the last 20 years.
Closing bureaus, doing less and less hard news. Also because of an economic
model that's dominated by Wall Street, that was going for more and more
profits, so that the news organizations within the networks which were seen in
some ways as lost leaders, they weren't required to produce substantial
profits. That's all changed over the last 20 years. As one network executive
said to me, the news division is just another production company. So they
have closed bureaus, let's say, in Rome or in various hot spots around the
world. Or there's nothing in South America, for instance. It's not covered.
Africa, most of Africa. In that kind of situation, newspapers stand out there
with their bureaus, with their people spread around the world as the major
independent news gatherers for the American public. And now the economic
model that it sits on, which is basically printing presses, paper and trucks
delivering newspapers, that model which cost the average paper somewhere
between 60 and 80 percent of its overall costs, given the Internet, that model
is no longer viable.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit more about why the economic model of the
newspaper is in such trouble. I mean, yeah, there's the Internet, which is
more immediate and so on, but what's changed in terms of the economic base of
both like subscribers and advertisers?
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, as the "Oracle on Omaha," Warren Buffett put it, great
journalism in America has been living on the back of the price of bananas for
the last 50 years. People at one time bought newspapers not necessarily to
read the articles in it but to look for ads, particularly classified ads. It
was a monopoly. Classified ads provide a major metropolitan newspapers with
just a gush of funds on a regular basis. There was nowhere else to go to get
your message out there to sell your boat, your car or whatever it was. You
had to go to a newspaper. That's no longer true. It's easier to do that, in
many ways, online. And with the phenomenon of Craigslist, which is primarily
free, there's no way for a profit-making organization to compete. So that's
just one area.
So that model is changing rapidly. And as Eric Schmidt of Google says in the
documentary, it's one of the unintended consequences of the success of the
Internet and of Google in particular, along with Craigslist, that it has
severely damaged the economic basis of newspapers. And if the irony is, as he
agrees and as does the gentleman from Yahoo!, that they're dependent on the
newspapers for information. So they're sort of killing the supplier, and that
has not been sorted out at this point, what to do about all of that.
GROSS: Now, there was a time when most newspapers were family-owned. The New
York Times and The Washington Post still are family-owned, but many newspapers
have been bought out by large corporations, by chains, and they're publicly
traded on the stock market. And what kind of pressures has that put on
newspapers to not only make a big profit but to keep making bigger profits
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, even the family--it's really family-controlled, not
owned. Most of these newspapers, like The New York Times and The Washington
Post, are traded on the stock market. The difference is is that the stock
they can vote is controlled by the family. So the pressure--they even feel
some of that pressure because if their stock price goes down, they have
difficulty borrowing money. They have to pay more money to borrow money to do
things and other economic problems. But the bottom line is is that Wall
Street has become addicted to short-term profits. So there's a huge amount of
pressure on people who work for these publicly traded companies, on the
executives to produce these kinds of profits.
At the Los Angeles Times, which got bought by the Tribune company as part of a
giant merger in 2000, those pressures began almost immediately. There were
lots of cuts that were made in the printing operation, in the business
operation, and eventually it got into a newsroom, at a time when the newsroom
had gathered 13 Pulitzer Prizes. That is more Pulitzer Prizes in five years
than any other newspaper in the United States.
GROSS: This is the LA Times.
Mr. BERGMAN: This is the Los Angeles Times. So at the same time it had
reached this sort of highest level, if you will, of journalistic achievement,
it's being asked to cut its budget. And at the same time it was making over
$200 million in profit on over a billion dollars in revenue. So why would
this be happening? Because of the demands of Wall Street, because of the fear
that over the long-term it was going to have a decreasing revenue base,
decreasing subscriptions and be less and less valuable, and the shareholders
wanted--had great expectations.
GROSS: My guest is Lowell Bergman, correspondent for the PBS "Frontline"
series, "News War," which continues tonight.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is journalist Lowell Bergman.
He's the correspondent for "Frontline"'s four-part series called "News War."
And the next edition is called "What's Happening in the News?" and it's about
how technology and the economics of the media marketplace have affected the
news business and changed the very definition of news.
In your "Frontline" documentary, you point to "60 Minutes" as the program that
proved that news shows could actually be very popular and very lucrative. And
that opened the door to thinking, `Well, shouldn't all the news be making
profits then?' You worked at "60 Minutes" as a producer from 1983 till when?
Mr. BERGMAN: '97, I think it was. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Did you feel like you saw some of the kind of change that you're
talking about, of watching a TV show make profits and change the news shows
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, I think that "60 Minutes" had a unique kind of niche.
First of all, understand that it's on at 7:00 on Sundays, and that's still a
protected time period by the FCC. You have to have family programming,
public-interest programming. You can't have normal entertainment programming
at 7:00 on the networks. And the other thing that happened was is that in the
late 1970s there was an exemption given to the union dispute about allowing
not hard news but what "60 Minutes" is considered to be, soft news or
documentary news, allowing the organization to actually shoot with their own
crews on an entertainment, let's say, movie set, and they didn't have to pay
everyone on the set, which is what the entertainment side of the broadcasting
operation had to do. So therefore you started to see entertainment profiles
on the news, and "60 Minutes" was the first to do that. So they, "60
Minutes," in that unique situation created a kind of mix of programming with a
particular model, and that became, as we say in the documentary and people
know, very, very profitable.
Others have tried to reproduce that model and haven't been able to do it over
the long term, at least at the level of profitability and audience ratings
that "60 Minutes" has had. The other networks, with their magazine shows, in
particular in prime-time periods, felt much more pressured to produce higher
ratings against competition that in many cases was much more, if you will,
lurid or comedic or had other drawing power. And so they started to go down
market in order to try to get more ratings, which is understandable but there
weren't--wasn't any longer, in the era of deregulation, anyone holding them
back from doing anything.
And now you have a situation which I think if you reflect, if you've seen the
first two hours of the series, if you've seen the legal struggles that have
gone on recently between the press and the government over what's the role of
the press, for example in the "Scooter" Libby trial. A whole battalion of
reporters coming in and testifying for the prosecution, for the defense, where
reporting information, gathering information is mixed up with law enforcement
and what it's going to do in terms of the court system and prosecutions. And
when you have lawyers arguing that reporters should not become an arm of law
enforcement and you turn around and watch on NBC News their highest rated news
program "To Catch A Predator," where the news division is operating basically
as a group of vigilantes with law enforcement, enticing people to come into
situations where they can be arrested, it makes it very difficult to argue
that we have any special privileges and shouldn't be arms of law enforcement.
That's one of the more dangerous things, I think, that's developed over the
last few years.
GROSS: You know, the third edition of your "Frontline" series on the news is
all about how the news is changing and how reporters are being let go. In
television and in newspapers, foreign bureaus are being dismantled or have
already been dismantled at newspapers and TV networks. And, I mean, the
ironic thing is all of this is happening at a time when we're fighting this
like international war against terrorism, and information about the world is
so important, and I would just like you to reflect on that paradox.
Mr. BERGMAN: Well, you know, 9/11, the reaction that the news media had to
9/11 particularly broadcast to me was a very heartening development because it
looked like we were really going to see a resurgence in real reporting. And I
got heavily involved in both in coverage for The New York Times but also for
"Frontline." We did a whole series of documentaries. And I remember in part
of promoting that I was on Larry King's show, and in the break, Larry King
leaned over to me and he said, `You know, this is great. I don't have to do
Gary Condit anymore.' And the fact is he has to do it again.
And I was one of those optimists after 9/11 thinking that that tragedy, that
catastrophe seemed to maybe change the news business, particularly the
television news business. That people began to understand that you needed to
know more about the world. You needed to know what a Wahhab was in Saudi
Arabia. You needed to know what the history was of Middle East in order to
understand why we were attacked. And, you know, within six months, however,
whatever those lessons were that we thought we'd learned, and my optimism,
disappeared. And, unfortunately, we may have to go through another
catastrophe for people to understand that the population needs real
information to make rational decisions. And in a period where you're talking
in a period of semipermanent war, according to the administration, you need
real information more than ever because the first casualty in any war is the
truth. And that's not just a saying.
GROSS: Lowell Bergman, thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. BERGMAN: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Lowell Bergman is the correspondent for the PBS "Frontline" series,
"News War." Tonight's edition is called "What's Happening to the News."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.