More and more fearful to let others be heard, more and more stepping up the propaganda war, the White House was careful to push BUSH onto the airwaves with a 'special speech' just minutes before the full Saddam Hussein interview was aired on CBS '60 Minutes II':
CBS, White House clash over Saddam interview
Wed Feb 26,10:50 PM ET Add Entertainment - Reuters/Variety TV to My Yahoo!
By Randall Mikkelsen
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House criticized CBS television Wednesday over what a spokesman said was a spurned offer to rebut comments by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein during an interview to air Wednesday evening.
In a flap that raised anew questions about U.S. news outlets airing the views of potential foes and government attempts to influence coverage, CBS rejected the charge and said it remained open to providing a forum for a top Bush administration official to respond to Saddam.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told Reuters the White House had offered a representative to counter what he said would be propaganda, lies and "irresponsible statements" by Saddam in the rare interview.
He said CBS replied it was interested only if U.S. President Bush made the response himself -- which he said the White House rejected on the grounds that it could imply a "moral equivalence" between the two leaders.
"This seems odd they wouldn't let the White House have a voice," Fleischer said.
But CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius disputed this. "The conversation was never President Bush or no one," she said. The White House had initially offered to send Fleischer for brief comments, but this was not accepted, she said. The White House spokesman denied that he had been suggested for the show.
CBS made a new offer Wednesday. "If the president, the vice president or Secretary of State (Colin) Powell would like to appear on the program tonight we would be happy to have them appear on the program," Genelius said. The White House was still talking to CBS about "equal time," Fleischer said.
CBS was to air the interview by news anchor Dan Rather at 9:00 p.m. EST on its 60 Minutes II program.
Recorded Monday, it is the first interview Saddam has given to an American journalist in 13 years. Pressed by Washington, the United Nations is preparing to debate whether to authorize a war on Iraq to enforce disarmament demands.
"EXCLUSIVE WITH THE ENEMY"
"This is an exclusive with the enemy, and the White House wants to have its say as the enemy lays out its case," said Marvin Kalb, a former CBS and NBC journalist and senior fellow at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
He said the administration has had "ample opportunity" to present its own views on Iraq, and the American public was smart enough to watch the interview without an immediate White House response. The interview could help Americans make up their minds about the wisdom of going to war, he said.
With saturation coverage by U.S. and international media, Bush has repeatedly accused Saddam of defying U.N. demands that he dismantle weapons of mass destruction programs -- a charge the Iraqi leader denies -- and of threatening to spread chemical, biological or nuclear weapons to terrorists.
He was giving another speech on Iraq Wednesday evening before the CBS interview was aired. The three major networks including CBS plan to give the speech live coverage.
CBS said the decision to cover the Bush speech was unrelated to the dispute over the Saddam interview.
But Fleischer said the White House wanted the chance to rebut Saddam "in the same interview and the same time."
CBS had no obligation to grant a rebuttal, said Bill Kovach, a former New York Times Washington bureau chief and founder of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, a free-press watchdog.
"I think they are perfectly within their rights to turn down a request by the White House," Kovach said. "The White House has access to all the media all day every day."
In the past the administration criticized television networks for airing videotaped statements by al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, accused of masterminding the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. Officials said networks might inadvertently broadcast coded messages to al Qaeda operatives.
An administration official on Wednesday raised questions over the way the interview was conducted, saying it was under conditions that would never be accepted if set by Bush. The interview was filmed by Iraqi television, which made a translation and pieced together videotape from three cameras into a single recording.
Genelius said it is customary for Iraq to do the filming for such interviews, that CBS made a separate translation and that there appeared to be no deletions of the 1 hour, 45-minute interview in the final tape given to CBS. The interview will be edited to fit the program's one-hour length.