Roundtable: Media Dangers in Iraq, Cochran Elementary

Topics: dangers for reporters in Iraq, and a proposal to name an elementary school after the late attorney Johnnie Cochran. Guests: George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service; Republican strategist Tara Sutmayer; and Glenn C. Loury, Merton P. Stoltz professor at Brown University.

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ED GORDON, host:

This is NPR News, NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's roundtable, gubernatorial candidate and former NFL great Len Swann catching political barbs, and is Iraq too dangerous for the press? Joining us today to discuss these topics and more, from our NPR headquarters in Washington DC, Republican strategist Tara Sutmayer. From member station WRIN in Providence, Rhode Island, Glenn Loury, professor of the social sciences and professor of economics at Brown University. And George Curry, editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service joins us from Laurel, Maryland.

All right, folks, so much to talk about today. One of the things that we want to get into is a discussion about whether or not Iraq has become too dangerous for correspondents. George Curry, let me start with you, since you are the journalist of this group. We heard yesterday that ABC news anchor Bob Woodruff and his cameraman were seriously injured in a roadside bombing. We have been following the story of Jill Carroll, the freelance reporter from the Christian Science Monitor who has been kidnapped, help hostage.

We don't know her fate as yet. War correspondents have always been a brave bunch, but now we're seeing so many more correspondents covering war and so many more in peril. Has it become a point where you're going to have to take a real hard look at how you cover war, George?

Mr. GEORGE CURRY (Editor-in-Chief, National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service): You're always taking a look and review how you do it, but the fact is you got to do it. Even though, I think, the latest count about 79 journalists and assistants have been killed since the United States invaded Iraq in March of 73, and this is, of course, a high-profile case. This is an anchor for World News Tonight.

If you're a journalist, though, and they've covered war before, you got to cover it. Now, my question is why would they be in aid vehicle convoy and be in the first unit and be standing up. I mean, I think more precautions could have been taken, and if I'm in any unit, I sure don't want to be in the first one, first vehicle, considering all the road bombs and everything else. And so, I'm sure they have their reasons, but that's the question that comes to my mind, but you can't back away. You got to cover the story.

GORDON: We should note that they were embedded with the Fourth Infantry Division and that Woodruff decided that he wanted to go in the vehicle that was not actually a US military vehicle that they were traveling in. He said he wanted to be able to bring the account from the side of the Iraqi troops who are, in fact, fighting it.

Glenn Loury, let me ask you as relates to the question of whether or not we are seeing a difference, though, quite frankly, in the way wars are fight from the side of the "enemy." It used to be that often journalists were seen as kind of the middle ground and were given some leeway by both sides. You don't often see that as much.

Professor GLENN C. LOURY (Merton P. Stoltz Professor at Brown University): Yeah, that seems to be the case, unfortunately. I'm not up on the statistics, but it would appear that this, for journalists, the bloodiest of our wars. The nature of the conflict certainly militates in favor of that. That is to say, the kidnappings, the attack on civilians, the suicide bombings, the fact that the road to the airport can be a very dangerous place and so on. It's not as if there was a clear frontline of battle that the journalists could know that they were at or avoid.

I just want to add one thing, though, and with my heart going out to these people who have injured and their families, and praying for their rapid recovery, I want to observe that, you know, there's not a lot of shared sacrifice in this war, and one of the reasons why an event like this, given the prominence of the people involved and so forth, strikes us, is that it makes realize it's not just our soldiers who could get hurt over there, and it just underscores for me the significance of recognizing that the country, not just the Army, is at war, and I think we all probably ought to be thinking about the sacrifices that we're not making that we might we make on behalf of this effort, given that this is something that we're doing.

It shouldn't just be out soldiers that bear the burden, and I say that, of course, with great sympathy and regret at what has happened to these journalists.

GORDON: And Tara, the interesting point here: had it not been Bob Woodruff, in such a high profile position as the anchor of a network newscast, we would not have seen the kind of coverage that we've seen over the course of the last couple of days.

Ms. TARA SUTMAYER (Republican Strategist): You're right about that, and I think that that's something that we should not lose sight of. You remember our US soldiers endure this type of fate and sacrifice everyday, but because of the celebrity of the person injured, more attention is brought to it, and I hope that that doesn't diminish the sacrifice of our soldiers.

But there's something else interesting about this debate that I listened to someone else, another journalist this morning, a female, who said she's questioned how responsible it was of something like Bob Woodruff, who is a husband and a father of four, how responsible it was for him to take on, to volunteer for an assignment like this, knowing that he has a family back home and knowing the risks. It was just an interesting perspective on this. Is he putting ambition, his ambition over his responsibility to his family, which is something to consider when you're putting yourself into harm's way.

Mr. CURRY: I don't think it is. I don't think it is.

GORDON: Well, but the same could be said of a police office. I think the same could be said of a police officer or a firemen or anyone who puts himself in an dangerous situation, that you're putting ambition in front of your family is a bit much, particularly if you don't know the person.

Ms. SUTMAYER: Well, not necessarily...

GORDON: We'll note that that's - pardon?

Ms. SUTMAYER: Sir, but let me...

Mr. CURRY: Let me give you another perspective on it.

Ms. SUTMAYER: Wait, hold on a second it.

Mr. CURRY: let me give you another perspective on it as a journalist. I just...

Ms. SUTMAYER: Can I at least expand on why I mentioned that?

Mr. CURRY: I just heard you expand. Now, let me respond to it.

GORDON: Hang on, George. Hang on, George. Real quick, Tara.

Ms. SUTMAYER: The difference between a firemen or a police officer is that the wives marrying these individuals knowing that they go into professions that potentially put them in harms way, whereas a journalist, I'm sure that his wife didn't know that she was going to be marrying someone who was going to be putting himself, as a war correspondent, in harm's way on a daily basis like that. That's all I'm saying. There's a difference.

GORDON: Well, again, Tara, let's, but again, let's just be fair. We don't know what his wife knew.

Ms. SUTMAYER: No, that's true. It's just a different perspective.

Mr. CURRY: Yeah.

GORDON: Nor we do know, nor we do know, hang on, nor we do know whether or not they discussed the idea, as you climb up the ladder, you do know that these kinds of assignments may come. They may have had this discussion. George, real quick, and then we'll move on to something...

Mr. CURRY: Let me address, let me address to her in the position of a journalist. I've been a journalist for 35 years, and there's nothing I'd rather do. You do know that there are dangers, and you don't have to be covering a war to know there are dangers.

I've covered a lot of drug wars, particularly when I was in St. Louis with the St. Louis Post Dispatch, and I was threatened, and this is, but if you're a journalist at heart, this is what you want to do, and I've always said, I'm not saying it because I'm on the show, I've always said if I died while in the act of performing, doing my journalistic duties, I can't think of a better way of going, so it is a devotion to your craft and what you do, and yes, there are risks, but someone has to take it, and when you vow to be a journalist, the ones I really, really know, than you accept a risk.

GORDON: All right. Let's turn our attention to something that has raised the eyebrows of some. Tara, I'll start with you here. As we, many know that former NFL great Len Swann, the great wide receiver of the Pittsburg Steelers is running for the gubernatorial seat of the Senate, or I should say of the state of Pennsylvania. He was recently called the "rich white guy" of this campaign by former Lieutenant Governor Bill Scranton's now former campaign manager, who took some barbs at Len Swann in suggesting that he was the insider and not the outsider here as he's trying to portray himself. But again, the interesting point here is that the race card, ironically, kind of transposed if you will, was played here.

Ms. SUTMEYER: Yeah, that was a tasteless comment, and it's just the, again, the uglier side of primary races. I think oftentimes we don't pay as much attention to the local, state and local races, which can be pretty nasty, and I think it's unfortunate and in poor taste that a campaign manager, a seasoned one at that, would make such an off-the-cuff remark not knowing the potential political consequences. He should have been fired.

The other interesting thing is that he's trying to portray Len Swann as the insider because he is the establishment's pick for the gubernatorial candidate, which shows to me the '06 election is going to be, looks as if that some of these local races are shying away from the national party, and that could be from the reverberations of the Abramoff scandal and the, what the Democrats are calling the culture of corruption.

So this may be an indication of what the '06 elections are going to be like on a local level, shying away from the national party, but this is unacceptable, and for the race card to be thrown in this way, it's absolutely, it's absurd, actually, considering that his own candidate comes from a wealthy family. I mean, I really don't know what he was thinking about, but it's the uglier side of primary politics.

GORDON: Glenn, do we make too much of this? Should we just rack this up to one of those times that you should have edited what you were thinking and that maybe it was just an off-the-cuff remark that really had little to do with race and the idea of just trying to paint it as, as Tara suggested, as Len Swann the political insider?

Mr. LOURY: No, no, no. This is like the Freudian slip. You seen what's really going on when somebody says something off-the-cuff like this. I mean, let's analyze the statement for a minute. What he's saying is, we got real rich white guys who get elected running on their own money to office all the time. Now, here's why we've got the black guy who's got the anointment of the establishment. There's something a little illegitimate or ironical about that. You know, that remark plays well on conservative talk radio. It just doesn't play very well on NPR.

Ms. SUTMAYER: I would disagree with that, a remark like that...

LOURY: That it doesn't play well on conservative talk radio?

Ms. SUTMAYER: ...it doesn't play well on conservative talk radio. That Lynn Swan is a rich white guy that's supposed to be something that conservatives can relate to, that they're in agreement with? As a Conservative, I absolutely disagree that the majority, 99 percent of Conservatives are not going to agree with info like that.

Mr. LOURY: Well, then why did Bill Bennett say that if you abort all black babies you wouldn't have any crime? Why did Trent Lott say, to a conservative audience that Strom Thurmond had some ideas right and if we'd followed them, we wouldn't be in some of the troubles we are in now. This is the true face...

Ms. SUTMAYER: These are the radical wings of both sides.

Mr. LOURY: ...of an important element of that party's constituency.

Ms. SUTMAYER: I've never supported either one of those comments and you always have the extreme on both sides. And they're playing to the extreme side. That does not represent...

Mr. CURRY: Let me surprise everybody by taking a different position. I am not, I think it was an inappropriate comment, but I don't read so much race offense in this. To me, it was a flippant comment and actually, it was a kind of funny comment.

If you can consider, first of all, that Lynn Swan does have a lot of money and he probably lived a lifestyle of many affluent whites. But the irony of his campaign manager was he was representing a former lieutenant governor who's come from a very wealthy family.

Ms. SUTMAYER: Mm hmmm.

Mr. CURRY: So I thought it was something probably said in the heat of the moment and I didn't see it at as any objection of race in any big issue. But I think, you know, it was an inappropriate comment.

GORDON: Though what it does do is it really shows us still today the idea of a candidate, particularly at the levels we're talking about here, really still is a rich white guy.

Mr. LOURY: Precisely. And all this is kind of superficial morality. I mean, if you take a map of the old states of the Confederacy or if you take a map of the parts of our country where the resistance to the imposition of federal authority to enforce civil rights was greatest, and you overlay that with a map where the intensity is to report for this Republican Party is greatest, you will get almost a perfect fit. There's a Confederate flag flying on top of the State House of South Carolina. I'm not making this up.

Ms. SUTMAYER: Yeah, but you also, but that's also, you know, Democrats in the South...

Mr. LOURY: I'm just saying this is some test of racism that's implicit in the kind of de-legitimation of liberalism that is the bread and butter of the Karl Rovian Republican ideology. That's all I'm saying. There's a subtext of racism there and every now and then, it peeks its ugly head through.

GORDON: All right, let's get to the story before...

Ms. SUTMAYER: And Democrats were just as complicit.

GORDON: All right, I've got to get to this story before we run out of time and that is a question of whether or not you agree with the school district of Los Angeles school officials there or the sister of Nicole Brown Simpson.

School district officials voted unanimously to rename Mt. Vernon Middle School in Los Angeles after Johnny Cochran, the late famed attorney, who represented O.J. Simpson. And Nicole Brown Simpson's sister, Dennis Brown, who many people know has stood today as the, I guess, bell ringer of the continued want to keep her memory alive said, Yeah, he was a great defense attorney, but what about your moral obligation to children in society? She feels that naming this school after Mr. Cochran was in bad taste. George Curry?

Mr. CURRY: First of all, you know, I refuse to let Johnny Cochran be defined simply by one case. This is a person with a long history of fighting police brutality and for freeing Geronimo Pratt and working on a lot of cases that didn't have anywhere near the profile that O.J. had. And so to try to define him by one case is amiss to contribution of the man.

I think he deserved more than one school named after him because he has been exemplary in terms of what he did as a lawyer and even in the O.J. Simpson case, his responsibility was to represent his client. He did that well, but it's not the sum and substance of Johnny Cochran.

GORDON: Mm-hmm. Glenn, and we should also note Glenn, as you go on, that this may be a bit of the heart speaking rather than the head for Dennis Brown.

Mr. LOURY: Well, sure and certainly you can understand that she might feel the way that she does and I do understand that and respect that feeling. I would just say that again, look at the subtext here. I mean O.J. Simpson was also defended by Alan Dershowitz. I mean, Alan Dershowitz defended Claus von Bulow.

I mean, I'm not aware of some great campaign out there to try to say that Alan Dershowitz shouldn't be honored by the American Jewish Community or whatever because it disrespects whatever, that these are lawyers doing their job. Johnny Cochran by all accounts was an honorable and non-corrupted, decent and effective man.

It is too bad that Nicole Brown Simpson is dead and was murdered. And if O.J. Simpson got away with it, you might say that was an injustice, but why should that reflect negatively on Johnny Cochran, because he's black?

Ms. SUTMAYER: Oh I think that's absolutely the reason why. And I don't have a problem with them naming a middle school after him because in fact, he was a brilliant lawyer and more inner-city minority kids need to look up to people who are successful legitimately and he does. And this will bring to attention more of his accomplishments outside of the O.J. Simpson case, as tragic, as it may have been for the Simpson family, but what that case did was bring into focus racial conflicts.

And because he is the black lawyer that got the black superstar off from murdering his white wife, is the only reason why we're having this discussion and I think that's unfortunate. The professor made a good point about that, Alan, you wouldn't hear this discussion if it were Alan Dershowitz.

So as much as we sympathize with the Brown family, there's, I think that there's a greater accomplishment that Johnny Cochran's had over the course of his life that warrant a school being named after him.

GORDON: All right, with that being said, I think we all agree with George Curry that it would be incorrect to try to define Johnny Cochran through only the O.J. Simpson prism. And that he was far more than just that case and those of us who knew the man and know the history understand the importance of him and know that the reverberations of what he has done have been with us and will be with us for a long time. George Curry, Tara Sutmayer, and Glenn Loury, thanks so much for joining us today, greatly appreciate it.

Mr. CURRY: Thank you, Ed.

Mr. LOURY: Thank you.

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