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Gossip Columnists Move into the Mainstream; Should ABC Have Interviewed Elian Gonzalez?Aired April 1, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The gossip industry: Are journalists indulging in a guilty little pleasure, or surrendering to sensationalism and prying into private lives? We'll ask three practitioners of the art.
And Diane Sawyer and Elian Gonzalez: Should the ABC anchor have interviewed a 6-year-old boy?
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Bernard Kalb has the week off.
We're in New York, the gossip capital of the world, to tackle a subject that everyone seems to be talking about.
KURTZ (voice-over): Gossip seems to be everywhere these days, in the newspapers, in the magazines, all over television and the Internet. Who's in and out, up and down? Who's mad at whom? Who's sleeping with whom?
Gossip mavens, who once feasted mainly on Hollywood, now aim their acid-tipped pens at politicians, their spouses, their girlfriends, and media people. But are the gossip mongers just giving people what they want, or trampling people's privacy in search of salacious tidbits?
KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Jeannette Walls, MSNBC gossip columnist, and the author of "Dish: The Inside Story on the World of Gossip," Richard Johnson, editor of the "New York Post" gossip central "Page 6," and Lloyd Grove, who writes the gossip column called, oddly enough, "The Reliable Source" for the "Washington Post."
Jeannette, Ms. Dish, when sources pass on gossip, what we used to call dropping a dime in the days of lower phone rates, you said the other day that there's always an ulterior motive. What are some of those motives, and do you worry about being used?
JEANNETTE WALLS, GOSSIP COLUMNIST: Well, of course you have to be worried about being used. But I think that all journalists do.
Anybody who wants a story out wants it out for a reason. But you check it out as any journalist would. I think that gossip columnists are probably a little bit more vulnerable than most journalists because so much of our stuff is from unattributed sources.
KURTZ: So person A calls you up, and you know they hate person B and they're dishing the dirt on person B, that's not a reason not to go with it?
WALLS: If it's true.
KURTZ: If it's true.
WALLS: If it's true, absolutely. I think that a lot of it...
KURTZ: What if it's sort of, maybe, might be true?
WALLS: ... Well, then you say that enemies of this person are saying this. You just qualify how you know it, why you identify the source without actually identifying them.
KURTZ: And Richard Johnson, compared to reporters at all of our newspapers who write about war or peace or politics for the front page, are the standards for gossip a little bit squishier?
RICHARD JOHNSON, EDITOR, "NEW YORK POST": Well, it's funny that you mention politics because I think there you get a lot of your stuff, the dirt you get on Democrats because it's coming from Republicans. And the dirt is coming the other way too, you know. And so that can't stop you from doing stories because it's originating with the enemy camp.
KURTZ: I guess I can't say in the post-Monica age, "Yeah, but we don't write about politicians' private lives."
JOHNSON: Yeah, I think that it all -- it gets very blurry. And at what point does a politician become a public figure? I mean, is a city councilman not a public figure but a U.S. senator is?
KURTZ: Lloyd Grove, has gossip, broadly defined, become more respectable? In other words, is it no longer just confined to certain columns, but it's on the front page, it's on TV? Does everybody play this game?
LLOYD GROVE, COLUMNIST, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, certainly there's an element of gossip. That's a news story. I mean, gossip that is largely reported becomes a front page story sometimes, as in the Monica Lewinsky case.
My own feeling is that we don't do a gossip column at the "Washington Post." The "Washington Post" is very uncomfortable with gossip as gossip. It has to be reported to the best of our ability. And just because an enemy is saying something, it's not enough to say that an enemy says it. We have to find out for ourselves whether or not we think it's true. KURTZ: Does gossip...
WALLS: You know, I would defy most people to actually define the difference between gossip and news at this point. I think there's very little distinction. And a gossip columnist can get sued every bit as quickly as any reporter.
So you have to check stuff out that goes in a gossip column as well as other places. I think that sometimes the format and the tone and the attitude might differentiate it.
But there are unattributed sources in the "New York Times." The "New York Times" talks about people's private lives. It's become very squishy...
JOHNSON: Jeannette, isn't the thing is like you make that call, you ask the person, "Is this story true?" And then they say, "No, it's not. I deny that." And then do you go ahead and do the story or not? I mean, do you believe the person?
And if you do believe them, would you run it anyway even if you don't think it's true? But he's been asked publicly and he's publicly denied it? Can you then go ahead and do the story?
KURTZ: Can you?
JOHNSON: I do all the time. And sometimes too it's like do I believe him or not? If I think he's lying, I'll definitely do the story.
WALLS: We've been lied to too many times. There's just too many times you kill a story because a source says it's just not true, or the subject says it's not true, and then it comes out to be true.
So you have to weigh the source of the information. You get it as close to the actual fact as you can.
KURTZ: Let's talk a little bit -- excuse me, Lloyd -- about boundaries. Now in your book, Jeannette, in the very first couple of pages you write about Matt Drudge, online gossip...
WALLS: Yes. Yes.
KURTZ: ... And you write some detail about Drudge's sex life...
KURTZ: ... Matt Drudge's sex life.
KURTZ: Now there's plenty of grounds on which to criticize Drudge. Why go there?
WALLS: Well, because I think it was a fascinating -- Matt Drudge fascinates me. He's an interesting character. And the reason I wrote about him in the first place is because he really was quite instrumental in bringing gossip onto the Internet.
And he's a complicated character. And I depicted him as an outsider who is just sort of this person trying to get back at the establishment. He's a complicated character.
In fact, you wrote a fascinating profile of him. And I think that his reaction, he got furious. He posted my home phone number on his web site. He just got all bent out of shape.
I think it's fascinating that so often these people who can dish it out can't take it. And I thought it was quite relevant about him.
KURTZ: Lloyd, you wrote about Newt Gingrich's divorce. You were the first I think to do that. He was planning to seek a divorce after the affair and so forth became public.
Now that story was sort of attributed to friends of Newt. So I suppose if I'm Mrs. Gingrich, I would say, "Well, gee, that was kind of one-sided." A difficult decision?
GROVE: Well, it was not a difficult decision once we were confident that we had the story to run it because Newt is a public figure...
KURTZ: In office or not.
GROVE: ... in office or not...
KURTZ: Whether speaker of the House or just a famous ex- congressman.
GROVE: ... I think so. I think he sort of crosses the great divide between -- he'll be public for the rest of his life.
KURTZ: If you have anything to do about it. And he wrote a book, and he's out there as a commentator as well.
Let's take an example from "Page 6." You wrote, Richard Johnson, about James Carville, the Cajun pit bull, looking into or allegedly looking into the case of a conservative editorial writer, unnamed, who was having a fling with a woman who had also had a fling with her mother, you wrote.
Now Carville actually denied this the next day to Lloyd Grove, who followed up on your -- and says, "No, no, I wasn't investigating at all." Did you call James Carville? And in retrospect, should you have called James Carville?
JOHNSON: Well, I could have.
JOHNSON: Well, I first of all, I knew he was going to deny it in any case. And anyway, that wasn't the central point of my story. That was sort of a side issue, whether Carville was involved in disseminating this information or investigating it. The basic deal was that the story that I had was true. And...
KURTZ: Well, let's go back to that in a second. "But I didn't call him because I knew he was probably going to deny it," I mean, that would give a lot of people pause on the journalistic fairness scale.
JOHNSON: Yeah, if I were doing a longer story, I'm sure I would have. You know, if I really wanted to investigate, I could probably get an affidavit from the woman in question swearing that he did call her, if I really wanted to get into it.
KURTZ: Now that story was not unlike some other things that you've run in that it was a blind item. You didn't name the person who was having the affair.
JOHNSON: Exactly. You see, that's what I'm saying...
KURTZ: What is the point of that?
JOHNSON: ... there's different standards even on one page about how much I'm going to go into a story. If it's a small little item...
JOHNSON: ... where I'm not using names -- except I did use Carville's name, but the other names I left out of the story, you know...
KURTZ: Is that legal protection for you? Maybe you didn't have it quite nailed down?
JOHNSON: Certainly, yeah. If I'm not putting a name in, I don't have to be quite as solid about doing all the reporting.
KURTZ: Blind items?
GROVE: We can't run them. I just won't run blind items, particularly about people's sex lives or their private lives. In fact, I am fairly confident that I know about people having affairs.
And we called them on it. And they've denied it. And that's good enough for me not to run it because I don't know what happens in people's private lives behind closed doors.
WALLS: I'm hypocritical about blind items. I love reading them. I won't write them. (INAUDIBLE) because everybody always calls me up expecting me to know who they are, and they drive me crazy until I can answer that.
JOHNSON: Well, I'm just wishing I had saved the recordings I had because I had a voice mail from Sumner Redstone when he was denying the fact that he was getting divorced from his wife and the fact that he was going out with Christine Peters.
It was classic. He made this impassioned speech for five minutes: "That's hogwash. My wife's in the next room. We're not getting divorced."
KURTZ: What about the role of publicists, particularly Hollywood publicists? I'm sure you deal with them all the time.
WALLS: There's an axiom that Hollywood publicists hire -- rather, that celebrities hire publicists to get them on the way up -- to get them in columns on the way up and to keep them out of columns once they get up there...
WALLS: ... So lots of times lesser names are trying to get their names in columns.
KURTZ: But do you have a symbiotic relationship...
WALLS: Not at all...
KURTZ: ... Do you need...
WALLS: ... Not at all, no, no...
KURTZ: ... Not at all?
WALLS: ... For the most part, they...
KURTZ: But I mean, they help you write your column, though.
WALLS: No, for the most part, they pretty much hate me. I call them because I have to.
KURTZ: And you pretty much hate them?
WALLS: We're both doing our jobs. Let's put it that way.
I call them for comment or for denials. But they are very -- the big publicists -- Pat Kingsley is not going to call me to give me an item on her client Tom Cruise. She has a lot better places to take Tom Cruise.
She's going to take him to the cover of "Vanity Fair." She does not want him in my column. And I'm not likely to write something about Tom Cruise that she wants in my column because we're much more an antagonistic relationship.
GROVE: I have a different relationship with him because I want to talk to movie stars in my column. I think people like to read movie star interviews. So I just think of them mostly as facilitators. I don't really trust in their credibility about anything. I would never call them and say, "Is this true or not?" And...
KURTZ: Do you worry about alienating them? If you write some items about their clients that are not so favorable, the next time you might not get that all-important access.
GROVE: Well, I don't worry too much because the whole premise of doing these sorts of interviews in my column anyway is that we're going to do a friendly interview. If somebody is going to take the time to get on the phone with me...
GROVE: ... then why should I screw them?
KURTZ: You're not going to slice them into little pieces.
In about 30 seconds that we have, Richard Johnson, somebody who makes very frequent appearances I think it's fair to say on "Page 6" is Monica Lewinsky, often stories about she was spotted in this restaurant eating this long list of very delicious foods. Is there a point at which the whole portly pepper pot routine becomes a little cruel?
JOHNSON: We stopped using it months ago.
KURTZ: Of course, you used it for a year-and-a-half.
JOHNSON: ... Yeah, but well, she lost some weight so we dropped it. And she was pleased with that. And I think that we've been cultivating a relationship now with Monica now that she's a New Yorker and she's living downtown. And I expect that we'll be even getting some exclusive Monica stories in the future now.
KURTZ: So clearly, she doesn't hold a grudge.
JOHNSON: Well, we've mended our ways.
KURTZ: OK. Let's hold it right there.
When we come back, Diane Sawyer's interview with little Elian Gonzalez, a coup by ABC on a major news story, or the exploitation of a 6-year-old boy in the name of ratings? We'll talk about that next.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
We turn now to the story of Diane Sawyer's interview with 6-year- old Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez, which ran this week on "Good Morning America" and on "20/20."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ELIAN GONZALEZ, 6-YEAR-OLD CUBAN REFUGEE: (SPEAKING IN SPANISH)
DIANE SAWYER, ABC JOURNALIST: He said that, "My mom is not in Heaven, not lost. She must have been picked up here in Miami somewhere. She must have lost her memory and just doesn't know I'm here."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But ABC did not initially air what seemed to be the most newsworthy part of the interview.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SAWYER: Relatives in Miami say Elian repeatedly insists he does not want to go back to Cuba. He told us that, too. But in this inflamed climate on this inflamed subject, we thought it best not to broadcast the exact words of a 6-year-old child.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: ABC News President David Westin defended the decision saying, quote, "We're not trying to take a position in a highly- charged political atmosphere." And ABC later aired some of the boy's words about his possible return to Cuba. But the "New York Daily News" blasted ABC's decision to air the interview in the first place. "'Good Morning America,'" it said, "should change its name to 'Goodbye Ethics.'"
Richard Johnson, 6-year-old boy lost his mother. Seems to kind of wreak of exploitation. Did ABC go too far?
JOHNSON: This is a news-gathering organization, or at least it's supposed to be. This is an interview that everybody wanted. Diane Sawyer got it.
They should just be proud of the fact that they got it. And instead of all this hand-wringing and these second thoughts, they should just say, "Look, this is what it is. This is news. Here it is."
KURTZ: Why the initial -- I mean, you get the interview. You ask the question, the only question anybody is really interested in. Then you say, "Well, we're not going to air it out of sensitivity," and then you air it the next day and you kind of talk over it.
JOHNSON: Well, they're trying to have it both ways. I think that they should just say, "We feel it's news. And we think our viewers want to hear it. And so here it is."
GROVE: I mean, the idea of ABC being a nanny for the viewing public is a little ridiculous. And to say, "We don't want to inflame a highly political situation," well, hello, this is network television.
JOHNSON: That's why you're covering it. GROVE: Exactly.
WALLS: Also, they are trying to have it both ways. They're telling us that they're not going to tell us. This is something that you see more and more network news, it's that they're trying to do tabloid things and pretending that they're not.
It's sort of an editorial pasty going on here. It really is. They're letting us know what was said, but not letting us see it.
JOHNSON: Well, it's like they have this unwritten rule now, they'll show like a horrible car accident, but only if the person survived. If the person died, then that would be like a snuff film.
KURTZ: Well, I remember all the criticism a few years back when Connie Chung interviewed Newt Gingrich's mother, and was that going too far? Here you have a coloring book interview, Diane Sawyer down on the floor with a 6-year-old.
And it just seems to me that they got the bang out of it. They got the scoop. They got the ratings. But they seem to be trying awfully hard to distance themselves from what they had just more or less done.
GROVE: Well, and I don't really understand why. Like Richard, I think they should just say, "We've got this interview. Here it is. And it was a good get for us. And that's the end of it."
KURTZ: You don't have any problem with interviewing a 6-year-old boy, a 6-year-old boy in this kind of very emotional circumstance?
JOHNSON: Well, I don't see that he was being tortured there or anything. I mean, they weren't twisting his arm for quotes.
KURTZ: But can he make a rational decision about whether he wants to be on TV? We're talking about a kid who's 6.
JOHNSON: Well, I'm sure -- yeah, they wouldn't be showing it if he was weeping and having problems with it. But I think that this kid has been photographed endlessly for four months. He knows what a camera is.
And it seems to me he's a very clever 6-year-old kid. He seems very well adjusted almost, amazingly enough.
WALLS: I found it all a little sleazy, I must say. I think, I mean, it's good television, bad journalism.
And it's just the only thing that bothers me is that they are trying to have it both ways. They're trying to pretend they're above it, but doing it at the same time.
JOHNSON: As a journalist, if somebody said, "You get to interview Elian," wouldn't...
WALLS: Oh, absolutely. JOHNSON: ... you be there in a minute?
WALLS: ... But I don't consider myself to be high and lofty. I'll call myself what I am.
KURTZ: Let's talk about boundaries and if this should not have been done at least in the view of some here, what wouldn't you do? What do you shy away from? What stories do you turn up your nose to?
WALLS: I would have done this in a heartbeat. I just wouldn't pretend to be above it.
KURTZ: No, no, in general.
WALLS: But in general, it really is on a case-by-case basis. The whole outing issue I think has become very hot lately. And there's a lot of major stars right now that most journalists know to be gay...
WALLS: ... And it's really become a very difficult situation. And I think it really is on a case-by-case basis. Who's private life do you talk about?
KURTZ: Is anybody entitled to privacy? Once you're famous, everything is fair game, Lloyd Grove?
GROVE: I think people are entitled to privacy. And privacy means that no one really knows the truth of the matter except the people involved. And if you...
KURTZ: But leave that aside. Let's say somebody brought you pictures, and you knew therefore that it was true, but the person called you up and said, "Please, this will destroy my marriage. Don't report it."
Richard Johnson, you ever give anybody a break?
JOHNSON: Yeah. I think a lot of times if people say, "I know why you're calling, and it's true, but it would really be hurtful if you ran it." If they just appeal to your humanity, suddenly you say, "OK, I won't run it."
WALLS: That's much more effective than somebody threatening you. That happens a lot true.
JOHNSON: Yeah. Or someone denying it when you know it's true.
KURTZ: OK, let's hold it there. When we come back, we'll talk a little bit about the boundaries of gossip in a moment.
KURTZ: Welcome back.
Lloyd Grove, you began a recent column item by saying, "Our friend Gary Shandling" did such and such. Do you write about friends? Is it a hard call?
GROVE: I write about friends. I mean, Gary is not really a friend. We know each other. But yeah, but I think that it's OK to do that, I'm a columnist, and tell readers that this is a friend of mine.
KURTZ: OK. Are there people, Richard Johnson, who you would not write about? I mean, are there people who are off limits? For example, Rupert Murdoch went through a divorce, married a young woman. I don't think I read about that on "Page 6" much.
JOHNSON: No, we don't write much about the boss.
KURTZ: Isn't that -- some people would say, "Well, what a double-standard. Give us the scoop, the lowdown, the inside on everybody else. But for people who work for their company, they get a pass."
JOHNSON: Well, I think its -- let's be realistic here. It's just a mine field if you start writing about people that you're working for. You know, even it's positive, it can be a problem.
KURTZ: If it's positive, it looks like you're in the (INAUDIBLE).
JOHNSON: Yeah. It looks like you're kissing ass, so...
KURTZ: If it's negative, you worry they'll turn off your phone.
Jeannette, Bill Gates, Microsoft is a partial owner of MSNBC. Do you ever write about Bill Gates?
WALLS: Actually, MSNBC covered the whole Bill Gates lawsuit very extensively.
WALLS: I thought we were quite good about that. But I think it really is sort of a no-win situation for a gossip columnist. If you write something positive, it looks like you're pandering. If you write something negative, it just looks sort of snarky.
So far as friends, I personally try to have as few famous friends as possible. I think it really -- luckily, I don't have any friends. So it's not...
KURTZ: So you have solved that problem for all time.
WALLS: Exactly. KURTZ: If we went out and took a survey and asked people, "Do you think there should be more gossip reporting, intruding into the private lives of public figures?" 75 percent would say no, right?
WALLS: They would say no. But they'd read it anyway. They have a love-hate relationship with gossip. They say that they hate it, but they actually love it.
KURTZ: So in other words, what they say in the poll might not be the same as what their viewing and reading habits are. Would you agree with that?
GROVE: Sure. I mean, metaphorically people don't want to eat M&Ms, or they know it's bad for you. But I eat a lot of them in the afternoon.
KURTZ: How did "Page 6" get so powerful?
JOHNSON: Hard work.
JOHNSON: No, I think maybe we go a little further than some other publications.
KURTZ: Pushing the envelope?
JOHNSON: For instance, the "New York Times" has a column that writes about celebrities. And they won't even use the dreaded G-word, gossip. They say "we write about celebrities," our people in the news. They don't even use the word celebrity.
KURTZ: So the fact is you're willing to be up front about what you're doing...
KURTZ: ... you think helps?
JOHNSON: And I think that, yeah, we go a little bit further. We're more intrusive. And we invade people's privacy further than other people do.
KURTZ: OK, you heard it here first, folks. Richard Johnson, Jeannette Walls, author of "Dish," Lloyd Grove, thanks very much for this gossipy discussion.
When we come back, is he a communist spy or a capitalist ally? Journalists try to figure out the newest leader on the international scene. Bernie's "Back Page" plus our viewer e-mail when we return.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Welcome back. Although Bernard Kalb is off, he left behind his "Back Page."
BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Howie, every now and then you've got to have a little sympathy for the mean old media.
(voice-over): They've been struggling to describe Russia's new question mark of a president, to come up with just the right phrase. And they haven't done too badly either.
But the grand prize goes to Winston Churchill. He's gone almost half a century. But listen to this quote from 1941 in the midst of World War II: "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma."
Pure prophecy, pure Putin. Riddle, mystery, enigma, the very words that have been turning up ever since Boris handpicked Vladimir to succeed him as president.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The enigma of Putin...
KALB: Vladimir is ex-KGB, not about to spill secrets. In fact, he is his own best-kept secret.
When the media asked him how he would rescue Russia from her mess of problems, his response was 24-karat Putin, quote, "I won't tell you."
Well, if Putin won't tell you, these Russianologists have no problem.
JONATHAN MANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Putin is widely admired in Russia, but little known...
ROWLAND EVANS, CO-HOST, "EVANS, NOVAK, HUNT & SHIELDS": But nobody knows what his policy is. And Wolf, I'm not going to guess at that one.
DAN RATHER, JOURNALIST: So much about Putin is unknown.
KALB: Not so easy is it to de-riddle, de-mystery, de-enigma the new man in the Kremlin.
(on camera): And you know something, all the media speculation about what Putin will do or won't do as Russia's new president, well, this could be described as perfectly harmless journalistic entertainment, except that there's something else in the background, Russia's stockpile of nuclear weapons. And that makes all the difference between empty chatter and serious analysis.
KURTZ: Now to our viewer e-mail. Last week, we asked whether the media had been tougher on George Bush or Al Gore. One viewer wrote: "The press is much harder on Bush because they don't like him. They've given Gore so many passes, I've lost count."
But another said: "The press has been overly hard on Gore and has given Bush a virtual pass."
Finally, this comment: "Americans are hungry for factual, well- balanced news. Perhaps no news might be better than the overzealous, often distasteful and unbalanced news reporting that we've become accustomed to."
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.
"Capital Gang" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.
MARK SHIELDS, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll talk with Gore campaign advisor Bob Shrum about the vice president's break from his own administration on the Elian Gonzalez case.
Also, is Rudy Giuliani in deep political trouble? That and much more right here next on CNN.
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