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Reliable Sources

Did the Press Succumb to Y2K Fever? Were the Media Taken for a Ride on the Re-Launching of Monica Lewinsky?

Aired January 8, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The non-event of the millennium: no blackouts, no computer crashes, no terrorist attacks as the world rings in 2000. Did the media succumb to Y2K fever?

And, the marketing of Monica and Hillary's new home: the press in soft focus.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb.

Well, the buildup to the 21st century seemed to go on forever and you couldn't get away from it.

On the last day of the millennium, anticipation filled the airwaves. Plenty of tension about State Department warnings of possible terrorist attacks.


BRYANT GUMBLE, CO-HOST, "THE EARLY SHOW": What are your expectations of what tonight will bring?

KATIE COURIC, CO-HOST, "THE TODAY SHOW": Tighter security at airports, border crossings, utilities and tunnels.

KURTZ (voice-over): Endless reporting on the Y2K bug that threatened to bring down computers around the world.

SAM DONALDSON, ABC NEWS: They're looking for power outages, utility outages, transportation problems.

COLLEEN MCEDWARDS, CNN ANCHOR: Possible complications from the Y2K computer bug.

KURTZ: News divisions invested millions covering the new year. Peter Jennings stayed on the air for 24 hours during ABC's coverage, watched by an estimated 175 million people. CNN aired 100 hours of original millennium coverage. "Time" and "Newsweek" splashed fireworks on their covers and newspapers simply let the numbers do the talking.

But by January 1st, the only surprise was that the big news of the day had nothing to do with the millennium and reporters were breathing a sigh of relief.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And on this day after, everything's fine.

KURTZ: So now that everything went so smoothly, the questions remained -- was all the talk about terrorism a public service? Was Y2K simply a success story or was all of this another case of media overload?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now Matt Cooper, deputy Washington bureau chief for "Time" magazine. In New York, Gail Collins, the "New York Times" columnist and the author of "Scorpion Tongues." And also here with us, Tim Noah, who writes the chatterbox column for Welcome all.

Tim, way back in 1999 the media drumbeat was really loud here. Some cities might lose power. Your ATM machines wouldn't produce cash. Bank records would disappear. Phone systems would fail. Go out and get bottled water. Well, there was no Y2 chaos. How much of this was the media going a bit overboard?

TIM NOAH, SLATE.COM: I think undoubtedly there was a fair amount of hype and I, this week myself wrote a bit about Ed Yardeni, who was a financial analyst who was quoted all over the place predicting that there would be widespread computer breakdowns and as a result worldwide recession. And clearly he was wrong. My sense...

KURTZ: But he could be right next week.

NOAH: Well, possibly. But, you know, the lesson is that in journalism if you're a source certainly, and often if you're a reporter, it's more important to be vivid than right and that's a problem.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Gail, this is a peculiar autopsy we're involved in right now. The fact is, would you agree, that the media was in a no win situation. Underplay the story you'd be guilty later if there were an event. Over play it, you're being accused of hype. Aren't we in a kind of a post-facto situation where we are enjoying right now, we, the luxury of indictment?

GAIL COLLINS, "NEW YORK TIMES" COLUMNIST: Who knows? It's like when you go to the garage and the mechanic says, you know, your differential is shot, you're going to have to get another one or the car will fall apart. I mean nobody knew. And maybe if we hadn't done all these things, everything would have fallen apart. Maybe it is the biggest success story in history and if we hadn't written all those stories something terrible would have happened. I have no idea. It's sort of scary.

KURTZ: No idea. All right.

KALB: That's a strong position. KURTZ: But Matt, I do, there are people out there who have some idea of their feelings toward the press and I'm hearing a lot of resentment toward what some folks feel as us flogging the story in order to boost the ratings and circulation, that we were just, you know, that this was a dramatic story line that we couldn't resist. Your thoughts?

MATT COOPER, DEPUTY WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, you know, I think that's a slightly unfair charge. I mean this is, this was a kind of a seminal event in modern life. You know, I think you saw it on CNN and the other networks, the coverage, the celebrations across the globe that really involved people and...

KURTZ: But it's not the celebrations but the computer bug part of it, right?

COOPER: Yes, well the computer and the terrorism part of it...

KURTZ: Right.

COOPER: ... I don't think were overblown. I mean I think it would -- terrorism especially, you had, you did have someone being arrested crossing the border into the U.S. with lots of explosives, allegedly. You know, that's a pretty big deal. And it did lead to Seattle, a major American city, canceling a big part of its celebration. So I don't think that part was hype. And as far as Y2K, I guess I'm with Gail. I don't, you know, I don't know enough about the technical specifics to know whether all the money and time and effort spent on Y2K repairs really made a big difference or not but I find it hard to believe that the whole computer industry was just kind of, you know, shaking us down.

KURTZ: Shaking us down for billions of dollars.


COLLINS: But it was weird. I mean it was very strange as you watched the millennium move from place to place -- and I thought the coverage was great of the festivities, but that Kuala Lumpur got through without a Y2K problem? It just seemed very strange in retrospect that nothing bad happened anyplace. I mean everybody can't be on the ball, can they?

KALB: You know what's interesting? There was a poll that was taken on 12/30/99 which showed that the range of expectations of terrorism was rather modest in the United States compared to foreign reaction. It was 37 percent to 70 percent of those polled, which meant that the media, by headlining the story, was essentially out of synch with the non-anxieties that a majority of the public did not feel.

KURTZ: Or it means that people have become sophisticated about media coverage and learned to discount warnings that they might regard as over dramatized. I mean I felt like of course you would report that the U.S. government has put out a terrorism alert and some people had been arrested, but that last week in December there wasn't a lot else going on and so those warnings got written about day after day on the front page, broadcast on TV. I'm not sure...

NOAH: Right. I would just add the caveat that it's not really the press' job to reflect popular opinion. It's the press' job to reflect the facts and in this case it seems that the facts were not, suggested that there weren't going to be any attacks because there weren't already

COOPER: Actually, there was a fair amount going on. I was struck that the George Harrison stabbing, for instance, which I think is...

KURTZ: Is that related to Y2K?

COOPER: No, no. The other things that went on that -- you were saying other stories got short...

KURTZ: You're talking about a news item? Yes.

COOPER: Yes, you were saying there was a news vacuum. In fact, you did have that. There was a big shooting in Tampa. You had five people killed. Now maybe we've become numb to those kinds of random killings. But there were other things going on yet the millennium drumbeat kept going.

KURTZ: Gail, let me just throw you a question, Gail. I'm wondering about whether some of this reflects the press' well known tendency to rely and endlessly quote experts. Experts say the U.S. must spend $70 billion on computer or the world will come to an end. Sometimes it's hard for us, we're all saying here we don't really know the full extent of the computer threat and so we quote experts and sometimes the experts are just wrong.

COLLINS: Well, yes, but who else were we going to quote? You're not going to quote me, that's for sure. I don't know what's going on. I've been wondering if it's all because we all grew up with all of those disaster movies, you know, where Charlton Heston always is saying well there's going to be an earthquake and everybody goes no, there's only one chance in a billion and boy did they look silly the next day when the earthquake comes.

I think, you know, there is that sense. It happens in New York all the time. We've got a mayor who is constantly saying, you know, you can't come near city hall because there might be some terrorism attack and we have no way of knowing. But it's very difficult to say no terrorism threats are exaggerated. You never want to be the guy who said Charlton Heston was stupid in the earthquake movie.

KALB: "Newsweek" had a since phrase in one of its articles saying that the hype was not a media contrivance. There were, in fact, Tim, actual warnings that were put out by official sources. But I think you used the word vacuum. You notice the way Y2K and terrorism almost was jettisoned the moment Yeltsin resigned as president of the Soviet -- of Russia. Suddenly that dominated everything. It swept the Y2K terrorism...

KURTZ: Because it was a real story. KALB: You had a real story. And that's it. If you had a cold war and nuclear threats, etc., Y2K terrorism would have taken their place on the ladder of escalation of stories. But in a vacuum, to the surface, Yeltsin resigned, wooh.

NOAH: Well, there's another phenomenon, too, which is that editors love canned stories. They love stories that they can plan way in advance and slap into a special section and have ready to go, especially at holiday time. And that's why newspapers and TV stations were just loaded with this very dreary, ponderous ruminations about the meaning of the 21st century, which I don't think anybody read.

KURTZ: Dreary and ponderous? I'm just stunned at the severity of your indictment. Matt, there was one incident that might have marred the new year's celebration except the Pentagon didn't tell us until afterwards and that was there was a Y2K computer glitch that actually took out one of the American spy satellites. A little bit of news management going on there? We tell you after everybody's written their headline saying nothing went wrong?

COOPER: Yes, it sure looked that way. I mean there was a really, it seemed like a pretty stunning failure of American intelligence to actually not be able to record the transmissions from the satellite. I gathered the satellites worked OK but at the ground station they couldn't get the signal right.

KURTZ: If you could magically go back and reedit the last six months of "Time" magazine's, anything dealing with this subject, any place where you might have made a midcourse correction?

COOPER: I'm trying to think. You know, I tend to think given what you knew at the time, you know, maybe you could have done more independent reporting about Y2K and hired some people who really knew the, you know, intimacies of Y2K glitches and tried to do your own investigation rather than relying, as Tim said, on experts. That's about the only thing I can think of. But I think generally, you know, it was a big event that deserved the big coverage.

KALB: I think this is a moment for true confessions. I bought two gallons of water under orders from madam in my house to get ready for the disaster that was going to take place. I think, Gail, you might share with us what you might have done, and same Tim and Matt. Did you personally put any stock in this to the extent that you built some sort of repository of fallbacks in your own house? Gail?

COLLINS: We have a one gallon of water excess in our house now thanks to Y2K.

KALB: I have two.

NOAH: I took an additional hundred dollars out of my bank account the day before.

COOPER: I got the 12 pack of toilet paper instead of the eight.

KALB: And Kurtz? KURTZ: I now have enough bottled water to last till Y3K. But Gail, one broader point and that is, you know, we live in a world, obviously, of so much media bombarding us, cable, Internet and so forth, and I wonder to the extent that this might have been overdone, overblown, over dramatized is it because, is it in part because we're, you know, we're just getting it from so many different directions these days?

COLLINS: Sure, and there's always a tendency, you know, at a time in history when you've got a lot of competition in the media for the media to get yappy and to yell and everybody yells a little bit louder because you want more attention because there's so many guys out there who are trying to get your readers or listeners or whatever. So that's natural, yes.

KURTZ: Six months from now will people look back on this as a kind of an embarrassing episode for the media or will it just kind of fade?

COLLINS: Oh, it'll fade I think. It was a nice day. I mean, everybody remembers it now as a really good day.

KURTZ: Despite the media efforts to...

COLLINS: Well, we all did the other stuff, too, you know? We brought all the happy pictures of people ringing in the new year wherever they were. That was good, so.

KURTZ: OK. So we ended on a nice note, in other words?


KURTZ: OK. Well, we'll hold it there. And when we come back, 21st century or not, Monica Lewinsky back in the spotlight.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Monica Lewinsky was back in the news this week. The woman who's had her weight scrutinized by everyone from late night comics to political pundits is starring in a TV ad campaign for the Jenny Craig diet company, saying she's lost 31 pounds.

She sat down with "USA Today" and she turned up on "LARRY KING," defending her decision to go public.


MONICA LEWINKSY: One of the misperceptions about me, I think, is that I'm sort of a moth to the limelight and that's not it at all. I think anybody who really knows me knows I'm not a media hound and knows that I'm really sort of trying to do the best I can with the situation that I found myself in.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: I am not a media hound.

Matt, Monica talked about her "food issues." She talked about dating a hunk and her line of handbags. She didn't have much to say about her relationship with President Clinton or Linda Tripp or other things that people might have been interested in. Were the media taken for a bit of a ride here on this relaunching of Monica Lewinsky?

COOPER: I don't think so. You know, she's got this immunity agreement with Ken Starr that basically precludes her ever really talking about the case much in public and criticizing his office, which is one of the things she got asked directly about on the "LARRY KING" show. You know, I actually felt some sympathy for her. I mean I think she made a case that, look, she's got a, you know, it must be more than a million, maybe a few million dollars in legal bills. She's got to pay them off.

KURTZ: And this is the only way that she can.

COOPER: And this was the most tasteful offer she got. I believe it was the most tasteful offer she got, and I have some sympathy with weight issues anyway.

KURTZ: Gail, she seemed to me to be very coached in the sense that she wanted the message to be it's time to move on and to talk about her future and not to talk about the things that we would ordinarily be interested in. I mean she particularly refused to talk about Bill Clinton. What did you make of it?

COLLINS: Well, I think we know now that Monica Lewinsky uncoached is probably a more dangerous commodity than Monica Lewinsky coached.

KURTZ: This is a woman in need of coaching, you're saying?

COLLINS: It's an old history, you know? In America we've always had the -- and in Europe, too -- the ex-mistresses of famous men go on stage. That used to be the thing they did. And it's sort of very, you know, late 20th century that instead of going on stage they now go and do diet commercials.

KALB: Tim, what do you make of the cultural and media reality that it is possible to turn embarrassment into a profitable career?

NOAH: It's remarkable. I mean there doesn't seem to be any shame any more, as is often said. You know, it's also quite sad. I mean I really do, she's a very young girl. She's a little bit young, really, to become a national joke and it would be nice to see her go to law school or do something else.

KALB: But Howie take the split with the impatience of the American public, always protesting the fact they're bored with the story, etc., yet I checked around and I found out when she turned up on LARRY KING for Larry's interview with her Larry's ratings went way beyond what he normally gets so that there is an audience tuning in to listen despite the protestations. KURTZ: There was a sense there, I think, that she had, after the Barbara Walters interview and all the notoriety surrounding that, had kind of disappeared for a while, kind of got her off the radar screen. You know, there was an occasional tabloid picture of her in one of the New York papers. And this really was a kind of a relaunching. I mean it was hardly an accident, let's face it, that, you know, just as the Jenny Craig TV commercial hits the air she's suddenly available to "USA Today" and to Larry King.

And I'm still wondering, and forgive me if I'm being a tad cynical here, you know, whether the media ought to go along for the ride for somebody who's obviously trying to, you know, just reemerge as a pitch person for a diet company?

NOAH: Well, my sense of it...

KALB: But what do they answer...

NOAH: Most of the media is not going along for the ride. I mean she's really gone from being a mass market product to a niche product.

KALB: Where do you know, where do you know where she's been offered and been turned down by the media?

NOAH: In terms of coverage that she's been getting.

COOPER: Well, what's -- I mean look, the media does all these interviews of movie stars when they have movies to launch.

KURTZ: Sure.

COOPER: No one complains about that. I mean it's true they are being taken for a ride but that happens every day.

KURTZ: Nothing new there. Gail...

KALB: Howie -- I'm sorry...

KURTZ: A year from now -- excuse me, Bernie -- will the press care about Monica Lewinsky or will she like, you know, Gennifer Flowers, Donna Rice be kind of a ghost of bimbos past?

COLLINS: Yes, I think she's pretty well run the gamut here. This was about the last shot for her. And as Matt, I think, said, you can't blame her for wanting to pay off her legal bills. It's, you know, god bless her. What the hey?

KURTZ: Bernie, do you have a last thought?

KALB: Yes, you said, used a phrase there, Howie, about going along for the ride. They're going along for the ride because they're going for the ratings.

KURTZ: And as you say the ratings were good.

KALB: And the ratings were good. KURTZ: And we'll leave it there.

Gail Collins, Matt Cooper, Tim Noah, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, has the New York press gone soft on the Clintons? Bernie's "Back Page" next.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page" -- Bernie.

KALB: Well, you've heard it all before, that the press in New York has a reputation for being the toughest in the country, no nonsense guys, 800 pound gorillas take no prisoners, pitiless, merciless, blood all over the floor, right? Well, they've just treated us to a display of their journalistic bravado when they had their first face to face with the first couple after opening night in Chappaqua.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So are you now officially New Yorkers?

KALB: Forget the answers. Let's just go on with the questions.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What did you do ast night? What did you do for dinner? Did you have friends in?

KALB: Wait a minute. The questions get even tougher.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: So you're going back to Washington today?

KALB: And tougher.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Which house is more comfortable?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How late were you up?

KALB: What happened? One or two of these softball questions, OK. Romantic setting, new house, Mr. and Mrs. C. holding hands, etc. But one softball after another? What happened? What happened to the guys and gals of the New York media, from hard boil to tongue tied in their first encounter in Chappaqua? Where's the famous chutzpah?

For months now, the media's been complaining that they're not getting enough access to Hillary, that the questions have been piling up about how she plans to knock off Rudy in the race for you know what.

All this media frustration has been turned into something of a running joke on "THE LETTERMAN SHOW."


DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST: Have you made any headway? Are we any closer to securing the booking of Hillary Clinton in the year 2000?


KALB: The New York "Daily News" chimed in with an editorial proclaiming she has sat for no newspaper interviews, though she's engaged in a few quick TV Qs and As and a handful of press conferences. Democracy works by keeping leaders accountable and a campaign that consists of little more than photo ops mocks democracy, period.


KALB: So there you have it, the New York media that sees itself as the nation's first press meets the nation's first couple and the whole thing turns into a love fest. I shudder to think what this means for the future of the republic. Hate to say it, but it is not exactly the best journalistic way to step into a new century.

KURTZ: And you'll have bodyguards on your next trip to New York, I'm sure.

Bernard Kalb, thanks.

I'll be right back with some final words about John McCain and the press.


KURTZ: Before we go, a couple of items from the world of media news. "Weekly Standard" editor Bill Kristol recently dumped from ABC's "This Week" seems to have plenty of suitors for his next TV job. The conservative commentator turned up on "Face the Nation" last weekend, did a post-debate appearance on Fox News Channel, and this weekend "Meet the Press" grabbed him for its Sunday lineup. Being fired by ABC may turn out to be a good career move for Kristol.

And John McCain, long the darling of the national press corps, seems to be getting some static over his efforts to urge the Federal Communications Commission to vote on a television license for one of his major campaign contributors. "The Boston Globe" broke the story, which spread throughout the press and McCain was forced to defend himself on Nightline and in the debates.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And when a constituent, a person of mine who has trouble, or a citizen of this country who can't get a reaction or an answer from a bureaucracy that's paid for with their tax dollars, I believe that people like me should weigh in.


KURTZ: McCain's insistence that he didn't tell the FCC how to vote didn't slow down the criticism. McCain, "badly overstepped the rules," said an editorial in Friday's "Washington Post." And New Hampshire's conservative "Manchester Union Leader" said McCain is "dangerously close to the edge of bald-faced hypocrisy."

It's too early to tell whether McCain's honeymoon with the media is fading, but his reformer image has certainly taken a bruising with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary only a few weeks away.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.


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