MR. TIM RUSSERT: And on this Christmas morning, we have a very special program. We'll talk about the biggest news stories of the year, and perhaps the stories that didn't receive enough attention. And we'll reflect on the ethical and legal challenges confronting the media.
We are joined by two extraordinary reporters who have won every journalism award imaginable. He's been with NBC for 39 years. He anchored the "Nightly News" for 21 years: Tom Brokaw. And a 42- year veteran of ABC News, where he anchored "Nightline" for a quarter century, Ted Koppel.
MR. TED KOPPEL: Thank you.
MR. TOM BROKAW: Thank you. Good to be here.
MR. RUSSERT: What a year for news, as reporters and American citizens. I'm going to go back to September, and it seems so long ago now, but Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi and New Orleans, as we well know. There was an NBC photojournalist, Tony Zumbado, who was in the Convention Center, who took pictures and came out and talked to the world, in effect. Let's watch and come back and talk about it.
(Videotape, Thursday, Sept. 1, 2005):
MR. TONY ZUMBADO: You would never, never imagine what you saw in the Convention Center in New Orleans. The bathrooms--the way the bathrooms were--there's no food for these folks. The sanitation was unbelievable. I--the stench in there, it was unbelievable. Dead people around the walls of the Convention Center, laying in the middle of the street in their dying chairs where they'd died, right there in their lawn chair--they were just covered up, in their wheelchair, covered up, laying there for-- dead. Babies, two babies, dehydrated and died. I just tell you, I couldn't take it. It was unbelievable.
MR. RUSSERT: Raw emotion, Tom Brokaw.
MR. BROKAW: And Tony has been all over the world for us. You know, he's seen wars and he's been in the Third World for us. And what he was giving a portrait of was America as the Third World in that particular tragedy. I thought it stripped away in this country what we've all known but failed to acknowledge: that--this kind of permanent underclass that we have in this country, with so few resources available to them. To the rest of the world, it was shocking. Here's the United States of America, the richest country in the history of the world, you know, portraying itself around the globe now as the patron of democracy and to show the way, and then we have this happening in our midst. And it's a question of, now, how we move forward and begin to deal with it.
But that was a stunning moment that will, I think, live for a long, long time about how the government failed to respond to Katrina from the ground up and from the top down--not just the federal government; how unprepared the city was, the state was, and how stunned the rest of the country was to find out that that could happen now in the 21st century.
MR. RUSSERT: Ted Koppel, many people commented that the press seemed to find its voice in the Hurricane Katrina story.
MR. KOPPEL: Well, I think, just to follow up on what Tom said, that what so shocked people was the sense that we had just seen, 10 months earlier, what happened after the tsunami in Indonesia, and the capacity of the U.S. Air Force to mobilize, the U.S. military, to get supplies halfway around the world in less time, ultimately, than it took the U.S. government to get the federal government to get materiel, to get needed supplies, to get equipment down to New Orleans. And I think that's what so frightened people in this country, was the sense that, you know, the system broke down. We know the system can work. We know we're capable of doing that. We've done it a hundred times for other countries. And yet here, where it happened in our own country--and again, I think Tom hit on the point: We began to hear that on the first couple of days, and I think there were people around the country who were saying, "Come on, there are always people trying to bring racism into everything."
But the question had to be asked: if that had been a section of a city that was populated by middle-class white people, would the response have been the same? And the more we discovered about how it worked, it's not that racism was actively at work. It's not that anybody was sitting there saying, "Oh, we don't have to worry about New Orleans. It's mostly black anyway, 60, 70 percent black." I think there was just a feeling that you didn't have to be as engaged as I think the federal government would have been. And, of course, the president, remember, was at that time off at his ranch, and we was ill served by his advisers, who led him to say at his ranch. He was late getting off the mark. The federal government was late getting off the mark. And then there was this terrible competition between and among city government, municipal government, state government and federal government. It was just--it was a mess from start to finish.
MR. RUSSERT: On the issue of race, Tom Brokaw, the president's still very sensitive about that. A few weeks ago, Brian Williams sat down and talked to him. Let's listen to the president and come back and talk about it.
(Videotape, December 12, 2005):
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Somebody I heard--you know, a couple of people, you know, said, "Bush didn't respond because of race, because he's a racist," or alleged that. That is absolutely wrong, and I reject that. Frankly, that's the kind of thing that--you can call me anything you want, but do not call me a racist.
MR. BROKAW: I think Ted is correct when he says it was not overt or active racism. But New Orleans had kind of been out of sight, out of mind. It was a city that had been struggling for 50 years with its own corruption, with a pattern of violence down there, and then this growing black underclass that people just turned their heads away from. And it was not just the federal government. I thought that the response of the city and the preparation of the city, with a black mayor, was outrageous and indefensible. I thought that the state didn't do a very good job of getting ready when they said two days after, "Well, no one anticipated there would be a force 5 hurricane." Play the tape back and look at Friday from the National Hurricane Center. They said, "This could be the most powerful storm ever to hit the Gulf Coast." And they just didn't respond to it that way.
I'm working on a documentary now about race and poverty in America and the unintended consequences of what has happened as a result of desegregation and opportunities for ambitious black Americans who got out of traditional black neighborhoods and what was left behind. And what was left behind is this permanent population that we don't have much of a clue about how we're going to deal with it. And it's not just a government response, but it's also a community response.
MR. RUSSERT: Ted Koppel, you interviewed Michael Brown, the director of FEMA, on "Nightline," and it was so memorable, because he just basically sat there and could not explain exactly what he had done or not done. And it just, when contrasted to what the media were reporting, was breathtaking in his inability to explain why he had not stepped up to this challenge.
MR. KOPPEL: What was so breathtaking, Tim, was he truly didn't seem to be up to speed on what had happened, and even if--and we've all covered stories and been on the scene where there is a crisis under way. Theoretically, you should be best informed when you're closest to the eye of the hurricane, as it were. In point of fact, you're much better off being back a few miles and being able to look at it from a distance. So it didn't surprise me that in some respects we who were a thousand miles away might be better informed than he was. But what surprised me was that none of his staff, apparently, had been listening to the radio or watching television and passing the word on to him, so that he was still--was saw that very moving piece of video from your cameraman at the beginning, at the Convention Center. He clearly didn't know what was happening at the Convention Center, and yet that had been used as one of the refuges for all the people who were unable to get out of the city.
MR. BROKAW: There's no way he should have had that job, Tim. He just--he simply was not prepared to have that job. Jamie Lee Witt, setting the politics aside, was one of the best appointments that Bill Clinton ever made. He went through Hurricane Andrew and they went through the California earthquakes. And I thought when he first came to Washington that he was probably just an Arkansas crony of the president's. He was first-rate as a FEMA director. And "Good Job Brownie" will be, you know--President Bush will be living with that one for a long time. This guy wouldn't have been, you know, a store manager for Wal-Mart in east Wichita.
MR. RUSSERT: You mentioned, Ted Koppel, after the interview, that you got a lot of e-mails saying, "Well, gee, you were a little rough on that guy, weren't you?"
MR. KOPPEL: Yeah. Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: Where do you draw the line as a questioner in a crisis situation? You see the reality on the ground from your correspondents, your reporters, and this government official doesn't get it. Does that give us a license to say, "Hey, fella..."
MR. KOPPEL: Look, I mean, the fact is that three of us, I think, all have to operate with that same little hidden voice in the back of our heads. When we begin an interview--in this case, for example, the audience is sitting there, identifying and empathizing with you as the questioner, saying, "All right, Timmy, go after him. Nobody's really gone after these two bozos for a long time. You have a chance to do it today." If, as you're very carefully doing right now, you're setting us up slowly for some of those questions that you've got written down later, the audience will stay with you. And eventually, if Tom and I ramble on too long, they'll say, "Come on, Timmy, get in there. Rough them up a little bit." If you jump in too quickly, then you're going to lose the allegiance of the audience and they will transfer it then to your guest, and they will come to perceive, as Tom and I will shortly be, your victims.
MR. RUSSERT: Sympathetic figures.
MR. KOPPEL: Exactly.
MR. RUSSERT: Not quite. This is Christmas morning. But, Tom, there is a line where people suggested, "Well, during the Iraq War, the press wasn't aggressive enough, but when it came to Katrina, they found themselves and told truth to power."
MR. BROKAW: Well, there were no gray areas in Katrina. A lot of what happened during the Iraq War and the lead-up to it was unknowable, and what happened with Katrina was there for everyone to see. And, in fact, having gone down there several days after Katrina struck--in fact, 10 days after it struck--I was stunned by the fact that it's a lot worse on the ground than it even appeared to be on television. But the rest of the country was witness to what Reuven Frank, who was the founder of "Huntley-Brinkley," once called television's greatest strength: It transmits experience. And that experience came into every home in America, and then the people sat there. And you had that parish chief on your program, weeping, saying they held--"They didn't come. They promised they would come and they didn't come."
MR. RUSSERT: Aaron Broussard.
MR. BROKAW: And you had the little--Charles Evans saying to Campbell Brown, "It's pitiful down here"--a 10-year-old boy who summed it up better than anyone else, probably, in his kind of naive eloquence. And everyone got it. It was just--it was indefensible. So then that's when you hold government accountable.
MR. KOPPEL: But the analogy would have been, let's say, two days before the storm if we had said, "Local government's not ready..."
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MR. KOPPEL: "...state government is not ready, the federal government's not ready," everybody would have said, "Who the hell are you to be judging these various branches of government before the fact?" You almost have to when you're dealing with the elected representatives of the people. And we are heading into a crisis, whatever that crisis is, you have to begin by assuming that they're going to do their jobs and do their jobs properly, and that they are responding to us in an honest fashion. It's only after the fact, it's only after you see that they're not doing it properly, that you can come back with the kind of response that you're talking about. Now, should we be skeptical? Do we have a right to ask critical-- not just a right; do we have an obligation to ask critical questions? And did we fall short of that prior to the Iraq War? That's a perfectly legitimate point, and I think we all have to plead guilty, to one degree or another, to having been, you know, a little bit soft on the administration beforehand.
But in large measure, when the president and his top people tell you, as they did, "Here's our perception of what exists. Here's our perception of the danger to the United States. Here's our perception of a relationship between this guy who has weapons of mass destruction and the group that just blew up the Pentagon and the World Trade Center," I don't know that reporters as a whole can sit there and say, "Oh, hokum. You know, it's just not true." We can raise questions, and I...
MR. BROKAW: Given the absence of hard evidence.
MR. KOPPEL: Hard evidence. Right.
MR. BROKAW: There was not--you know, the French intelligence were sharing the same conclusions with the administration. I thought--I agree with you that I don't think that we pushed hard enough for vigorous debate. I think that on Capitol Hill that the debate was anemic, at best. You had--Ted Kennedy and Senator Byrd, really, were the only ones speaking out with any kind of passion in the Senate, the people who...
MR. RUSSERT: And they were not questioning whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.
MR. BROKAW: No. No. No.
MR. RUSSERT: That seemed to be a uniformly held belief.
MR. BROKAW: Right. Yeah.
MR. KOPPEL: Nor did the Clinton administration beforehand.
MR. BROKAW: No.
MR. KOPPEL: I mean, the only difference between the Clinton administration and the Bush administration was 9/11.
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MR. KOPPEL: If 9/11 had happened on Bill Clinton's watch, he would have gone into Iraq.
MR. BROKAW: Yeah. Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me continue on Iraq and show you pictures from December 15. These are 11 million Iraqis voting, proudly holding up their fingers, having dipped it in ink as evidence that they had cast their vote; even on their hospital beds, making their vote and their views known. The president then embarked on a series of speeches. Some were vintage Bush--tough, draw the line, "stay the course"--and others were a bit contrite. Let's look at two quick...
(Videotape, November 30, 2005):
PRES. BUSH: We will never back down, we will never give in, and we will never accept anything less than complete victory.
(Videotape, last Sunday):
PRES. BUSH: The work in Iraq has been especially difficult, more difficult than we expected.
MR. RUSSERT: Two different George Bushes, Tom.
MR. BROKAW: Yes, and I think if we'd seen the latter George Bush earlier, his polls wouldn't have plummeted as much as they did. They're making a pretty remarkable bounce-back now, based on what we're seeing after these four speeches. What still is unclear to me is--and you and I have talked about this--is what does he mean by "complete victory"? I think that election day was a very positive sign for the Iraqi people and certainly for the Bush administration and what it's attempting to accomplish there. I also think that the Democrats are fumbling when they don't acknowledge that. I think that they then resort to the same kind of negativism they used to complain about when they were in power at the White House and on Capitol Hill, the Republicans only engaging in negative attacks. There ought to be some way that the Democrats should be able to hold this administration responsible and accountable for its actions, but at the same time acknowledge, it seems to me, the courage of the Iraqi people for going to the polls in the way that they have.
I was in Iraq before, twice, before the war began and the year before, and it was a horrifying place in terms of the political oppression and the fear that existed and the stories that the Sunnis would tell about what they'd been subjected to down south. And for all of them now to show up and vote, I think that that's a signal achievement. At what cost, what's the end game, that's still to be resolved. And the Democrats, I think, do themselves some damage when they don't acknowledge that.
MR. RUSSERT: What do you see?
MR. KOPPEL: What's intriguing to me, Tim, is we're still talking about the war as though it were in a vacuum, and we're still talking about victory and what is to be achieved as though it were in a vacuum. And the one thing that we are not talking about, because it somehow seems indelicate or unpolitic or even inappropriate, is the simple fact of the matter that, while we did not go to war because of Iraq's oil, we did, in fact, go to war because it is absolutely essential to the national interest, not only of this country but also of the Europeans and of the Japanese, that the Persian Gulf remains stable. We have--when I say "we" I mean U.S. administrations going back to the Eisenhower administration--have been intervening in the Persian Gulf in one form or another--we overthrew the Iranian prime minister, Mossadeq--that is, the CIA did--precisely because we felt he was too close to the Communist Party at that time and we were afraid what that would mean if Iran became a Communist state.
As long as we had the shah of Iran there, he was our surrogate. In fact, you may remember the Nixon policy was that the shah would be our surrogate in the Persian Gulf. When the shah was overthrown, we shifted our chips onto the Saudi board, and then it became the House of Saud that became our representative. The Saudis are, indeed, troubled. The royal family of Saudi Arabia is in deep trouble. Therefore, we need to have a stable Iraq in order to guarantee a stable Persian Gulf, and the name of that game is oil. Nobody talks about that.
MR. RUSSERT: And the administration, when they went to war, used as the primary rationale the weapons of mass destruction.
MR. KOPPEL: Sure.
MR. RUSSERT: Is it possible for a president to say just what you did: "We are going there because we need a stable Middle East because we need ready access to oil supply to continue--our economy to soar"?
MR. KOPPEL: I think it has to be possible. I understand why politicians and even statesmen--or maybe that is the difference between a politician and a statesman. A politician can't do it; a statesman must do it.
MR. BROKAW: The other thing that can happen domestically, Tim, is that--and I completely agree with Ted on this. I think that--and I've been talking about this around the country some--this disconnect between those people who are in uniform and fighting this war over there and a large portion of our population, because no sacrifice is being asked of anyone at home. The president is not asking us to conserve oil or to ration gasoline or to push hard for alternative sources of energy in this conflict.
MR. KOPPEL: Or to pay a nickel more in taxes.
MR. BROKAW: Or to pay more in taxes for it. And so it allows someone to say, "Well, we have a mercenary army." I don't believe that we have a mercenary military. I think people volunteer for the right reasons. No one is going to go over there for the kind of paychecks that they get and expose themselves to IEDs and the kind of random death that exists all day, every day for any kind of a group. But I don't believe that this administration, or, for that matter, the opposition has asked enough of the American people, or raised that as an issue about we're all involved in this at this point and we're all going to get--we all got into it and we're all going to get out of it if we all play a part.
MR. KOPPEL: But the point--the one issue I would add, Tim, is the mousetrap that is waiting for the Democrats is if they do not publicly acknowledge that U.S. national interest is just fundamentally involved in a stable Iraq and a stable Persian Gulf, if they simply come after the Republicans, and take the cheap shots on the war, and say, "You gotta bring the troops home at all costs," they might even win the election, but if they win the election, they're going to find themselves confronting the same issues of national interest that the Republicans are facing right now. The simple fact of the matter is it is in America's national interest that there be stability in the Persian Gulf, and if we precipitously pull the troops out of that area now, there'll be hell to pay.
MR. RUSSERT: Wouldn't it be easier to develop a bipartisan consensus if there was more acknowledgment of mistakes being made?
MR. BROKAW: It would be. I think that the--one of the reasons the president's doing better in the national polls is he's beginning to say that "It was more difficult than we thought," "the intelligence was flawed," "it would have been a lot easier if we had our allies with us, as well." I think that they fumbled that at the beginning. The comments of Don Rumsfeld about old Europe and new Europe, the refusal of the president to reach out, to take a little more time to have inspections.
Go back to Katrina for a moment. I think that Katrina then became a metaphor for our political culture. We have a political culture of blame now. Everybody after Katrina was blaming everyone else. No one wanted to step up and take responsibility or accountability for what had happened there. And that's going on with Iraq. One of the reason that I think John McCain continues to get good notices is that he put together the Gang of 14 in the Senate, to say, "Enough of this; we've got to find a way through..."
MR. RUSSERT: The swing moderates.
MR. BROKAW: ...the swing moderates--"through these intractable positions in which we constantly find ourselves." Unless we can build a coalition in the middle, deal with filibuster, with our--the tricky issues of torture or what we're going to do about Iraq, and the budget, and the deficit, we're going to be stuck in this place that is a polarized national capital when the rest of the country longs for pragmatic solutions and moving forward.
MR. RUSSERT: Ted Koppel, what is it about political leaders that prevent them from fessing up? If they say that "the war is going to cost X amount," or "we're not going to need hundreds of thousands of troops," or "we'll be greeted as liberators"--if things on the ground are different, why not come on "Nightline" or "Meet the Press" and say, "You know what? We got it wrong. But this is how we're adjusting to fix it"?
MR. KOPPEL: I think all the political analysts and the same people who advise our bosses as to what kind of a demographic we need to get on a news program are the same people who are advising the politicians. They say you come out and tell the truth, "You're gonna get nailed. Your hide will be nailed to the wall. I mean, people 50 years from now will admire your courage, but the other guy's gonna win the office."
MR. BROKAW: I don't agree with that. I think the--I think that the--there's a longing now...
MR. KOPPEL: I'm not saying that's what it should be. I'm saying that's what the advisers...
MR. BROKAW: No. I know. But I think they give that kind of advice, I agree with that. But I think that there's a longing now for people who will acknowledge that they--that there were mistakes made and that we need to reach across lines a lot more and work together. Doesn't mean you have to give up your ideology or your most cherished beliefs. But, you know, the great strength of this country is we've always been able to find the center and find our way through our most difficult crises by forming these coalitions, and people, at the end of the day, getting together in the Senate caucus or being summoned down to the White House, and working things out, and saying, "Look, I'll give a little on this if you'll give a little on that," and we're gonna move forward. There's previous little of that these days.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me talk about an issue that is of grave concern to people but we don't know much about it and that's the avian flu, the potential for pandemic. We had Dr. Michael Ryan of the World Health Organization on MEET THE PRESS. Let's listen to him and come back and talk about how to deal with this.
(Videotape, November 20, 2005):
DR. MICHAEL RYAN (World Health Organization): The avian flu strain has the potential to become a pandemic strain. It is very worrying that we see this virus transmitting across the species barrier into humans and the virus itself is evolving and we are probably closer to a pandemic at any time in the last 37 years, since the last pandemic of '68. This virus has crossed the species barrier. It has infected humans. It's killing a high proportion of those human beings and we need to prepare for the possibility of a pandemic.
MR. RUSSERT: Ted Koppel, how do you cover a story like that without alarming people and still do your job as a journalist to prepare people?
MR. KOPPEL: You can't. You have to alarm people because until people are sufficiently alarmed they're not going to listen to what has to happen. You know, what you don't hear in that sound bite, and what is rarely spoken of, especially among the politicians, is that the kind of vaccine that would be necessary to treat the avian flu does not exist. It cannot exist until the strain of avian flu is developed and can be sampled and can be tested and then, and only then, can you begin to develop the vaccine. In order to develop sufficient quantities of that vaccine, to vaccinate people twice, you're going to need so many hundreds of millions of doses that it will take a minimum of two to three years to get them. In other words, by the time you get them, it'll be too late to treat most of the people that would get the flu.
Now, you know, obviously, that raises questions as to what needs to be done, what can be done. I tried, just before I left "Nightline" to do a broadcast in which we brought some of the best experts on and said, "Tell us what we need to know. Tell us what we need to do." Among the things we need to do, and it sounds horrific, to say it, is to put in a decent supply of food and water and whatever medicine is needed by a family in each American home now, before it's too late, so that if, and when, a flu hits an area, like, let's say, our area here in Washington, the people, especially older people, or people who have breathing problems, lung problems, people who have heart problems, can afford to stay home for two or three weeks, or longer.
MR. BROKAW: Have you done that at your house?
MR. KOPPEL: No, in truth. Have you?
MR. BROKAW: We have.
MR. KOPPEL: Have you?
MR. BROKAW: Yeah.
MR. KOPPEL: Good for you.
MR. BROKAW: Well, we did it for a couple of reasons. Meredith--we live in New York and we have a house outside of New York and Meredith said, "This is going to be our sanctuary. We have to be prepared in case something happens." And we did put in a small supply of food and water and...
MR. KOPPEL: Yeah.
MR. BROKAW: ...other things to have on the ready. It's also--the avian flu and the pandemic possibilities are a real commentary on the world in which we're living now. The mobility of people to move across places that--the crush of population everywhere, how rapidly these things spread. And I think that leads in this country to a kind of unsettled feeling on the part of a lot of people. They have so much access to information now. They don't feel that they have their own sanctuary because it all happens at warp speed and I think politicians are not doing a very good job in my impression.
MR. KOPPEL: But, you see, doing what Tom and Meredith have done, and what my wife and I have not done, yet--will do, I promise--wouldn't at this stage cause any shortages...
MR. BROKAW: No.
MR. KOPPEL: ...it wouldn't cause any panic. I'm not suggesting that people go out and instantly buy a four-week supply of medicine...
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MR. KOPPEL: ...food, water. But if you start...
MR. BROKAW: You have to think about it. Yeah.
MR. KOPPEL: ...over a period of the next three months...
MR. RUSSERT: And that's the hard truth, it's probably the only thing you can do.
MR. BROKAW: Yeah.
MR. KOPPEL: Just--it's the only thing that the individual can do...
MR. BROKAW: Yeah.
MR. KOPPEL: ...so that at the very least, if the pandemic hits your community, you can stay at home, don't go out.
MR. BROKAW: And having said that, I'm on my way to Southeast Asia. My doctor said to me "Are you going to go to the countryside?" And I said, "Some." And he said, "Oh, God, you got to be really careful." So I thought...
MR. RUSSERT: Is there a story that you think was underreported this year?
MR. BROKAW: Yes, I do. I think a big story that was underreported within industrial foundation of America, General Motors may not survive. That has been the cornerstone of American industry, all those manufacturing jobs in Detroit, the automobile industry defined who we were. And at the secondary level of that story is "What's going to happen with pensions in America and companies and corporations?"
MR. RUSSERT: A thousand companies...
MR. BROKAW: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: ...have failed pensions.
MR. BROKAW: Yeah. And the arithmetic is pretty simple. We're either all going to pay for it at great expense or a lot of people are going to get to age 65 and not have the money that they expected to have there. In the meantime, both members of that family are working and they're on a constant consumer binge and they're thinking it's going to be there for them and it's not going to be there for them. And the largest automobile company in the world is about to be Toyota. America will give up that leadership.
MR. RUSSERT: Ted Koppel, I was reading a Government Accountability Office report. $20 trillion in government liabilities in 2000. It's now $43 trillion in 2004--Medicare, Social Security, pensions.
MR. KOPPEL: Right.
MR. RUSSERT: And yet you talk about it, people's eyes glaze over.
MR. KOPPEL: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: How do you make these stories interesting to people?
MR. KOPPEL: I think the only way you can make them interesting is to bring them down to the individual level. And the fact of the matter is that when we show one person whose pension has just been taken away from her or him...
MR. RUSSERT: That's memorable.
MR. KOPPEL: That's memorable, and you can say, "I identify with that person," or people out there watching your program can say, "I identify with that person." But, you know, to follow up on Tom's point. I think the medical care, which is a function of what we're talking about--yes, we have been priding ourselves on having the best medical care in the world--and you know something? You can get the best medical care in the world, he can get the best medical care in the world, I can. Most Americans can't. And there are 43 million Americans who aren't getting any medical care at all. That is a scandal. And...
MR. BROKAW: That is getting attention at least, where people are trying to come to grips with that. And what was so stunning to me was that the Bush administration, after winning very sizeable popular vote in the 2004 election, put as its highest priority the reform of Social Security and not health care in America because I thought that's where most people were concerned.
MR. RUSSERT: Agree?
MR. KOPPEL: Sure. I'm not gonna disagree with him. I'm at NBC here. I got to agree with Brokaw.
MR. RUSSERT: What a team player. We're going to take a quick break. Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, we'll be right back after this.
MR. RUSSERT: More of our special edition of MEET THE PRESS with Ted Koppel and Tom Brokaw after this station break.
(Videotape, "Nightly News," December 1, 2004)
MR. BROKAW: What have a I learned here? More than we have time to recount this evening, but the enduring lessons through the decades are these: It's not the questions that get us in trouble; it's the answers.
MR. RUSSERT: That was Tom Brokaw signing off "Nightly News" a year ago. You still stand by that statement?
MR. BROKAW: I do. I thought about it a long time and I also think, however, it's a matter of how you ask the questions. They should be pertinent, relevant, and they should address the issues that people really are concerned about. An awful lot of questions in this new media environment, which we're all living, with 24-7 cable and blogging and so on, that are, putting it bluntly on a Christmas morning, smart-ass questions that, you know, don't seem to address that, that they seem to be questions only to try to make the questioner look good. So I think interrogation is a critical role for journalists but they have to think them through.
MR. RUSSERT: Just to show you that some things never change, 55 years ago, on Christmas, Senator Paul Douglas, Democrat from Illinois, was on MEET THE PRESS, and they turned the tables and let Senator Douglas ask questions of the media. Let's watch this, and note that--the command of language that Senator Douglas has.
(Videotape, December 24, 1950)
SEN. PAUL DOUGLAS, (Democrat, Illinois): Previously, the politicians who have been unwary enough to accept the invitation to appear on this program have been thrust into the limelight, have been quickly stripped of their clothes, and then, like St. Simeon of old, exposed to the whizzing of arrows, some of them poisoned, which come from the crossbows of the men and women of the press. It is a tribute to the healing powers of Christmas that it has led the directors of this program to reverse the roles and permit a member of that most-abused of American classes, a public official, to question his tormenters.
Now, Mr. Spivak, I would like to ask you a question, if I may. Do not newspapers and newspapermen frequently weaken national unity by unduly disparaging the characters of our public officials, and, hence, do they not often breed a mistrust on the part of the public of the good intentions of our government?
MR. LAWRENCE SPIVAK (NBC News): Well, I wouldn't say so, Senator. I'd say about questions that it is hard ever to give a public official a difficult question. I will admit the answers sometimes are very difficult. But I do think that you people in public life have the obligation of giving the answers to the people, not to the press. Where the press has asked an unfair question, most of you are able enough to handle the situation, and almost all of you do, and do it very well.
SEN. DOUGLAS: But is there not a tendency to blow up small abuses and to represent them as great evil...
MR. RUSSERT: Mr. Koppel?
MR. KOPPEL: I was just thinking that reporters being asked questions by politicians look like weasels, don't they? I mean, I would like to point out, first of all, that Senator Douglas, who was, of course, a man of great eloquence, was reading his question.
MR. RUSSERT: I noted that.
MR. KOPPEL: And, you know, as you have tendency to do there on occasion there, Timmy, and but I think in this day and age when we have--and I remember I did some research on this about 10 years ago, and we had about 3,000 accredited reporters in this town at that time, and about 10,000 PR people, I guarantee you today both numbers have gone up. We probably have 4 or 5,000 reporters in this town and we probably have about 20,000 PR people. The problem is that every organization, be it a governmental organization, or be it a commercial organization, or an entertainment organization, has got plenty of skilled men and women who will make sure the news gets out when news is good. The only kind of news that they try to conceal is the bad news, and that's where the American democracy really requires a vigilant press corps and people who will ask tough questions as you do every Sunday in this spot. You know, that's an important thing to do. If you just threw patty-cake questions at people every Sunday morning, this show wouldn't last long.
MR. RUSSERT: And what some people consider nitpicking or small abuses and presenting them as great evils, in fact, are very legitimate questions.
MR. BROKAW: They are, and when Ted and I were young reporters in this town, there was a wise old newspaperman who was--been writing for The New Republic. He'd been one of the stalwarts of Life magazine in the early days, a guy by the name of John Osborne. He had this great line about all journalists have glass jaws. They throw punches all day long. Somebody takes a swing at them, they go down with the first punch.
MR. KOPPEL: Yeah.
MR. BROKAW: And I think there is a fair amount of that that goes on, as well. I do believe, however, that we've gotten into this kind of frenzied culture with all the attention that's paid to politics, that if someone steps forward and says, "I'd like to run for public office," or--and "I'd like to get in the public arena," there is kind of a declaration that he or she is guilty as charged before they get one foot into the arena and we need to step back sometimes and examine real motivation in people. And an awful lot of folks who don't want to come to work in Washington anymore who have real skills and something to give to their country because they don't want to go through that. Not just with the press, but they don't want to go through the disclosure forms, and all the other things that may happen to them.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me...
MR. KOPPEL: If I may, Tim...
MR. RUSSERT: Please.
MR. KOPPEL: ...just a couple of nights ago my wife and I watched for about the third or fourth time what I still think is the best political movie ever made, "The Candidate." And you remember the essential theme of "The Candidate" is Robert Redford playing this idealistic young lawyer who is in effect thrown into the meat grinder to run against this establishment Republican senator in California and he's gonna get his butt handed to him, except that by telling the truth and speaking candidly during the first half of the campaign, he pulls within 7 or 8 points of the incumbent. At which point, of course, all of his advisers say, "Well, you can't do that anymore."
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MR. KOPPEL: You know, whatever you do now...
MR. RUSSERT: We might win.
MR. KOPPEL: We could actually win this thing and you're gonna have to be careful. And what I thought in watching that movie the other day is how little things have changed, except that the people who run campaigns now have an even more iron control...
MR. BROKAW: There are more gunslingers.
MR. KOPPEL: ...over the campaign than they did 25 or 30 years ago. And that's more the pity. I don't know if any one of the three of us were ever a candidate--and, don't worry, it'll never happen in my case. Him, I'm not so sure about. But if that were ever to happen, we wouldn't be able to do it any different. It just is impossible in this day and age for anybody to speak his mind plainly and not to be ripped to shreds by some PR machine on the other side.
MR. RUSSERT: And you lose the real characters...
MR. KOPPEL: Yes, you do. Yep.
MR. RUSSERT: ...and American politics becomes this...
MR. BROKAW: Well, one of the big stories of this past year is, of course, two of our most venerable press institutions, The Washington Post and The New York Times, found themselves square in the bull's- eye for all the anticipation about what the special prosecutor was gonna do and ended up indicting Scooter Libby, who worked for the vice president. The big after story was about The New York Times and it's internecine warfare within its own newspaper and its own family, which has not yet been resolved. And then America's best-known investigative reporter, Bob Woodward, becomes a principal in that story, as well, and comes into play. So these are turbulent times for the press.
MR. RUSSERT: In fact, I want to explore that a little bit. Let me show you the press conference of Patrick Fitzgerald, the special prosecutor, October 28, 2005. Let's listen.
(Videotape, October 28, 2005):
MR. PATRICK FITZGERALD (Special Prosecutor): I was not looking for First Amendment showdown. I tell you, I will say this, I do not think that a reporter should be subpoenaed anything close to routinely. It should be an extraordinary case. But if you're dealing with a crime--and what's different here is the transaction is between a person and a reporter. They're the eyewitness to the crime. If you walk away from that, and don't talk to the eyewitness, you are doing a reckless job of either charging someone with a crime that may not turn out to have been committed--and that frightens me because there are things that you can learn from a reporter that would show you the crime wasn't committed.
MR. RUSSERT: By my last count, myself, Walter Pincus, Glenn Kessler, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, Matt Cooper, Vivica Novak of Time magazine, Judy Miller of The Times, all been subpoenaed. Where is this headed, Ted Koppel?
MR. KOPPEL: I don't know. And, you know, it's--on the one hand, it is frightening. On the other hand, it is also frightening the way that informed sources are now being used and it's become more and more of a problem over the last few years. I remember about 25 or 30 years ago, The Washington Post tried very briefly--I was covering the State Department in those days, and they tried very briefly--it instructed its diplomatic correspondents that as soon as a spokesman went on background, which meant that he could not be directly quoted, that, in this case, Marilyn Berger, should get up and walk out. And she did. And, of course, nobody else did. And The Washington Post lasted about a week before Marilyn had to come back and accept the notion that information of some kind would be given to the press on a background basis or a deep background basis or an off-the-record basis.
That is not only the meat and potatoes of the media, it is also the meat and potatoes of the establishment in this town. Washington could not long survive, the White House could not long survive, the Pentagon, the State Department, the Congress, could not long survive, if they did not have the instrument of being able to go to a trusted reporter and say, "Look, you can't put my name on this but here's a piece of information I think you need to know. I'm deeply troubled by what is happening in this organization. I think you need to know it." And a professional reporter who will then take that information and not put into a newspaper or put it on the air right away, but seek then to confirm it with a second source or a third source or even a fourth source. But we wouldn't get that kind of information if we didn't know ultimately that we had the protection of being able to protect our own sources.
MR. RUSSERT: Look at the situation now with the eavesdropping debate, the National Security Agency. The president said that he in fact authorized intercepting conversations, domestic to international or vice versa. It clearly came from someone who...
MR. BROKAW: Who was troubled.
MR. RUSSERT: ...troubled by that policy. And yet the president said that it is a shameful act in damaging the national security.
MR. BROKAW: But The Times also sat on it for a year because they apparently bought into the idea that this could be damaging to national security. This is another very complex case that I think we'll learn a lot more about with the congressional hearings that are coming forward. To address that and the larger issue, I think that the press is in its hubris and its self-induced error against has not done a very good job of connecting itself to the public that it claims to serve. I think the Judy Miller case was confusing to a lot of people.
I had a call from an editor in the Midwest who was going to put together an ad that he wanted a lot of folks to sign off on. The ad effectively said, "Stand by the First Amendment. Support Judy Miller. Kind of the heck with the process." And I said, "You know, that's not good enough." So we put together a much more sophisticated ad, explaining why it's important to have a federal shield law, why sources are important, as Ted has just described them, do a kind of an outreach program with the public so that they do understand why it's important that we have these sources and to exercise more care in how, as Ted said, you go and get the second source and, you know, you got the story and you run the traps on it before it ends up in the newspaper.
I think there was a fair amount of damage done with what happened at The Post and the confusion that-- apparently, in the very senior ranks there, about--nobody asked Judy Miller who her sources were, or nobody went through the notes, and there was fighting going on before and after and during that she was in jail. And Bob Woodward comes up and turns out he's been holding this information, as well. I think that confuses the public a lot when we say, "Look, we're here to represent your interests," and many of them--they say, "It looks to me like you're just representing your own interests."
MR. KOPPEL: We do a great job, Tim, of patting ourselves on the backs, not just the media but the great American democracy, for how much we believe in the process of disclosure, of public debate, of fully vetting the issues and deciding them through our elected representatives. In point of fact, often as not, we don't do that. Often as not the decision is made that you, the public, simply are not mature enough or sophisticated enough to understand everything that's at stake here. What scares the heck out of me is that there will be another terrorist attack in this country. And after the next terrorist attack, if it's anything like 9/11, there won't be any debate about whether the government should have the right to eavesdrop. The appropriate time to have this discussion, this debate, in Congress, in the media, is now.
MR. BROKAW: Right.
MR. KOPPEL: Because after the next event, it'll be Katy, bar the door. Why didn't you do more? And the fact of the matter is, in saying we need the debate, I'm not prejudging what the outcome would be. Quite frankly, I think the outcome may well be that the American public, through its elected representatives, will say, "You know something? We feel the president needs that right. He has to have the right to be able to order the wiretapping of terrorist suspects."
MR. RUSSERT: Let's have the debate.
MR. KOPPEL: But let's have the debate. Let's argue these issues out before it's too late.
MR. RUSSERT: Where's the media going, television, the blogs, Internet, cable?
MR. BROKAW: Well, the new universe of the blog and the Internet is a--is the new frontier. It's--I liken it to the Oklahoma land rush. I mean, everybody's rushing across this new landscape, hoping that they're gonna land on a pot of oil somewhere, and it's, you know, unknowable now about how it's all gonna play out. If you think of the changes in just the last five years, and the Internet alone, blogs were little-known five years ago. And now they're a powerful new instrument in the exchanging of information, propaganda, commentary on what's going on. We do a lot of it at NBC now. I liken what we're going through to the big bang. We've created a new universe. There are a lot of new planets out there and which ones are the brightest, which ones are gonna survive, which ones can support life, we're finding out, and working our way through it. So it's a profound change that I don't think even these two old-timers sitting next to you could have anticipated when we were young reporters about what would be possible.
MR. RUSSERT: We have to leave it there. Well, you two are terrific. Thank you both for a very, very interesting hour.
MR. BROKAW: Good. Thank you.
MR. KOPPEL: When are you getting to the tough questions? Come on, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: We'll be right back with our MEET THE PRESS Minute from Christmas 50 years ago.
MR. RUSSERT: Christmas Day, 50 years ago, Robert Frost was right here on MEET THE PRESS.
(Videotape, December 25, 1955)
MR. NED BROOKS (NBC News): Our guest on this Christmas Day is the four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Mr. Robert Frost. Robert Frost is now past 80 years old. But he is still young in hope and in dreams, free from despair and pessimism. Mr. Frost is a man of deep loyalty to his land, to people in general and people in particular.
MR. SPIVAK: And, Mr. Frost, is there any one of your poems that better expresses how you feel about America than any other poem?
MR. ROBERT FROST (Poet): I suppose that'd be hard to narrow down. There's one--the one that's historic, almost. If you want me to say it; it's a short one.
"The land was ours before we were the land's. She was our land more than 100 years before we were her people. She was ours in Massachusetts, in Virginia, but we were England's, still Colonials, possessing what we still were unpossessed by, possessed by what we now no more possess, something we were withholding made us weak until we found out it was ourselves we were withholding from our land of living and forthwith found salvation and surrender. Such as we were, we gave ourselves outright, the deed of gift was many deeds of war, to the land vaguely realizing westward but still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, such as she was, such as she would become."
And it all lies in that first line: "The land was ours before we were the land's." We had to belong to the land that belonged to us. And that's my nearest talking about America directly.
MR. RUSSERT: At the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961, Robert Frost was to deliver a special poem for the occasion. The glare from the sun prevented him from reading it. Instead, Frost recited from memory "The Gift Outright," the same poem you've just heard on MEET THE PRESS.
As we leave this morning, all of us at MEET THE PRESS hope you and your families have a wonderful Christmas and holiday and New Year and during this season we remember especially the men and women who are serving our country in Iraq, Afghanistan, and around the world. In that spirit, we are joined by the United States Navy Band Brass Quintet.
(United States Navy Band Brass Quintet performs)
(United States Navy Band Brass Quintet performs)
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints