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Reliable Sources

White House Scandals Make a Comeback; Has the Press Lost All Restraint on the Cuban Custody Case?

Aired April 15, 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, CO-HOST: The media's Elian moment: Has the press lost all restraint on the Cuban custody case?

And the White House scandals make a comeback: Are journalists suffering from Clinton fatigue?

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

First up, the latest made-for-television real-life drama.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: As if you didn't know, we have a 6-year- old boy surrounded by Cuban exiles.

KURTZ (voice-over): It seems to be everywhere, all over the tube all the time...

UNIDENTIFIED NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: More of our continuous live coverage of the event...

KURTZ: ... hour after hour on the cable networks. The pundits weighed in.

MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST, CNN "CROSSFIRE": ... father, we want his father and the son in freedom.

KURTZ: Even the celebrities weighed in. Elian himself weighed in, talking to his father in a highly controversial tape released by his Miami relatives, which got tons of air time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Every time I see that tape, I get a knot in my stomach.

KURTZ: There were calls for journalistic restraint. Elian's father, through his attorney, asked the media not to interview, photograph, or broadcast pictures of his son.

The attorney general issued a warning.

JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: But the media has got to understand that this is a real-life situation, and you don't do what- ifs.

KURTZ: But none of that seemed to matter.

QUESTION: Is this town going to blow up today?

MAYOR JOSEPH CAROLLO, MIAMI, FLORIDA: It is not going to blow up.

KURTZ: While Elian's fate remains undecided, a family court judge in Miami issued these words. "This child has become a joke on Letterman and Leno, a skit on `Saturday Night Live,' and an hourly update on daytime TV. We are losing sight of him as a child and starting to treat him as a thing. We need to stop. We need to turn off the cameras and let him return to the life of a child."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now from Miami, freelance journalist Myra MacPherson, a former reporter for "The Washington Post." And here in Washington, CNN's Havana bureau chief, Lucia Newman.

Welcome.

Myra, the wall-to-wall coverage on this Elian story, some are saying, is just a new low. It's basically a custody case. Yes, it's a very compelling human tragedy and drama. But do you think that the press is kind of indulging in its wretched excess mode in terms of the nonstop coverage of this story?

MYRA MACPHERSON, FREELANCE JOURNALIST: Oh, absolutely, and particularly if you see the local coverage here, which is truly nonstop. One of the problems, I think, is that it just -- it's part of the regular dumbing-down of television, and I think that what happens is, they do this endless coverage, they repeat what people say without any hope of correcting falsehoods or allegations.

We've seen the family characterized as being this loving family without ever looking at some of the problems in their family. We've also seen them denigrate Juan Miguel with charges of abuse that have never been corroborated and that they can't corroborate.

We've also seen this poor child, we have seen -- it's "The Truman Show" writ large. This child is on everything and everyplace. And there was a story in the Friday Miami paper about how they're all reexamining over and over the video of him in the house with him standing there and smiling and Marisleysis, the cousin, applauding when her name is mentioned by Janet Reno.

KURTZ: He does seem to be living his life in front of the TV cameras.

Bernie?

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: What sort of criticism are you getting for your stories? LUCIA NEWMAN, CNN HAVANA BUREAU CHIEF: The community that is being -- that is supporting the relatives in Miami, they're very passionate about this, and so they see me as almost a spokesperson for Fidel Castro. Anybody -- I'm based in Havana, so I tell the story from the point of view of the people who are in Cuba, whether they like what I'm saying or not.

And so the other day I had the most extraordinary thing happen to me. I was reporting out of Bethesda from in front of the house where Juan Miguel Gonzalez is staying. And a group of Cuban Americans that were demonstrating decided that I was the target, and they started yelling insults at me, saying, Go back to Cuba, go back to Cuba. I think they're confusing the issue, obviously.

And it's strange, I get the same criticisms when I'm in Havana, that I'm working for the American government. So...

KURTZ: Myra, back to you. This Elian video that everyone has now seen dozens and dozens of times, there's been all sorts of criticism from journalists saying, Oh, the boy is being exploited by the family, how could they put this kid on camera? He was obviously coached. And yet a heartbeat later, every network in creation is showing that thing again and again and again. Where is the journalistic responsibility?

MACPHERSON: It's absolutely despicable. And not only are they showing it, never do they say that this is a propaganda film made by the family and distributed for that reason, nor do they really question how much it appears that he has been coached. I mean, you don't have a child of that age referring to that older woman as Janet Reno -- you know, he's talking about Janet Reno at the house with the nun. You see him looking away several times.

If they're going to show it, they should do some objective reporting about it as well. I...

KALB: Myra, you -- can I interrupt just for a second?

MACPHERSON: Sure.

KALB: You used the word "despicable." If you were running a television station, if you were the managing editor of a television station, could you walk away from that tape, if all your competition was using it?

MACPHERSON: I don't know. I think that is exactly the problem with journalism today. We've seen it over and over again. And the attitude is, if you can't be first, be there and often. And I think that it's a reprehensible form of what's happening to journalism.

I think they should have either not run it or put some caveat along with it when they ran it.

KURTZ: But see, this is hardly limited to the English-language media, because Univision, which was the first network to get its hands on this tape... MACPHERSON: Exactly.

KURTZ: ... ran it with a big logo that said "Exclusivo." But what about the picture being painted by this incredible invasion of media of the city of Miami? When I watch -- when I watch reporters questioning the attorney general, Janet Reno, Well, do you think there'll be violence? What are you going to do next? What if they don't turn him over? You almost got the sense of a city ready to explode. And I wonder if that is not a bit of hype on the part of the journalistic community.

NEWMAN: Well, it's like every time we cover a story, to be honest. The world seems to center around that little space where it's happening, and what happens in the rest of the city and the rest -- not to mention the rest of the country is obliviated from the scene. So it does -- even when you have an earthquake somewhere, it makes it look like the whole country fell apart, when it's really only one little area.

So what we're seeing is that, as though all of Miami is with this case and is living in function of this case.

KALB: Listen, I used...

NEWMAN: I'm not so sure it's like that at all.

KALB: It is almost inevitable for sensationalism to take over when you have this huge a story, where everything, to borrow your word, indeed gets hyped. I remember even when I was in Vietnam, for example, you'd -- reporters would say, Saigon is in chaos, when in fact it was only three blocks in a suburb of Saigon was in chaos.

With the 24-hour appetite for cable television, and the need to keep nourishing the story, every little scrap is inflated wildly. And that's what we're watching, to a great degree. And the upshot is, if you do the arithmetic, we're watching distortion emerging, but there is this basic need to tell the story.

KURTZ: Lucia, you work for a 24-hour network...

NEWMAN: Well, that's true, it's...

KURTZ: ... do you feel a captive of the story?

NEWMAN: Well, I'm certainly a captive of the story. I've been doing nothing but this story ever since it began. But I think that more and more, people are becoming engrossed in it. They want to know when it's going to end. It's like this real-life soap opera.

KALB: Are you getting pressured by CNN to keep advancing this story? Do you feel under pressure from this management...

NEWMAN: Not to keep advancing it but to keep covering it. It's like an obsession now with everyone. And there are times when you -- it's objectively standing still, and then suddenly it takes over again. So we're afraid to drop it for just a minute, because the minute you turn your back, anything can happen.

MACPHERSON: Yes, but why...

KURTZ: Myra MacPherson, let me jump in here because we're a little short on time. You've suggested that the media in general are perhaps insufficiently skeptical of the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez, who, after all, are orchestrating a lot of this coverage and the endless pictures we see.

MACPHERSON: Absolutely.

KURTZ: You reported that a couple of the great-uncles involved had drunk driving arrests. Some might say, Well, what's the relevance of that?

MACPHERSON: A lot. First of all, they were way past the inebriation level, three times up. They were -- this is a man who says he wants to be custody of a child. His whole case is so amazing. I can't go into it now. But he has certainly displayed reckless driving, his driver's license was taken away for three years.

The point of the story is, the fascinating thing on this story is, that not only him but there are two cousins who visited prominently all the time, were getting their autographs there, who have severe criminal records, very violent, long criminal records.

When that was broken, and I might say, I really blame the national press on this and the media, is that when that was broken by a local, very good outlet, "The New Times," no one ran it. Grandma wrote it from Cuba, and then, and then "The Miami Herald" covered it, crediting Grandma.

KURTZ: I'm afraid we're out of time. Myra MacPherson, thanks very much, and Lucia Newman, thanks for joining us here in the studio.

When we come back, is the Elian saga pushing the latest news about the Clinton scandals off the journalistic radar screen? We'll talk about that next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

We turn now to an eye-opener of a story involving the president.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): The news generated this front page headline, "Criminal Probe of Clinton Open." No, that's not an item from two years ago, it appeared in Tuesday's "Washington Post." The story, independent counsel Robert Ray is actively considering seeking an indictment against the president after he leaves office.

And how about this one? "Federal Judge Rules President Broke Privacy Law by Releasing Letters." That's an update on the Kathleen Willey case from just a few weeks ago. Remember her? She's the woman who accused the president on "60 Minutes" of making a sexual advance. It certainly got a few headlines, but not much buzz.

And, of course, there's the probe of the missing White House e- mails, with most in the media ignoring the story until the Justice Department launched a criminal investigation.

The president himself weighed in this week when he was asked whether he might seek or receive a pardon.

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't have any interest in that. I don't want one, and I am prepared to stand before any bar of justice I have to stand before. But I would like just once to see someone acknowledge the fact that this Whitewater thing was a lie and a fraud from the beginning, and that most people with any responsibility over it have known it for years.

KURTZ: In fact, the president's words may have gotten more coverage than the earlier stories.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

So has the press failed to jump on stories about the president's latest legal troubles for ideological reasons, or because the story no longer sells?

Well, joining us now, Michael Isikoff, investigative reporter for "Newsweek" magazine and the author of "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story," soon out in paperback. And John Fund, columnist and editorial board member of "The Wall Street Journal." Welcome.

Mike Isikoff, you were there at the beginning. Your reporting was intimately involved in the breaking of the Monica Lewinsky story. If by some chance there is a criminal trial of the president, would you be excited to cover that trial, or are you, like many Americans, sick of the story?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, "NEWSWEEK" MAGAZINE: Well, I don't know if excited is the right word. Look, as a story, it would be a hell of a story, if the -- if Bill Clinton were actually to face criminal charges. But, you know, whether that's going to happen, I'm still highly dubious. And I think...

KURTZ: But are you suffering from Clinton fatigue?

ISIKOFF: No, I mean, I think that there's plenty of other things to write about these days. I think in general, the -- to answer the broad question you're answering here, there is a certain weariness that everybody has with the subject. It certainly was aired quite exhaustively during the whole 1998 and during the impeachment trial.

And the problem is that we're sort of dealing with the residue of it right now without any really new facts or new developments that propel the story forward. So every time, you know, Robert Ray, the new independent counsel, makes a comment like he did this week, suggesting the investigation is still open, it gets a flurry of attention. Every time the president makes additional comments like he did this week, suggesting it was all a set-up from the beginning, it gets a flurry of attention.

But there's no new facts that is going to change anybody's view of this or propel the story forward.

KALB: John, let me try to energize this subject a bit. How do you deal with this journalistic arithmetic, the fact that these stories are getting more of a ride in print journalism than they are on television?

JOHN FUND, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Well, many of them are complex, and I think print journalists understand there is a context which justifies coverage. And it's called Al Gore. If Bill Bradley were the Democratic candidate for president, I think they would be less need to monitor the ongoing Clinton scandals.

But Al Gore has been superglued to this administration. It is the Clinton-Gore administration. He himself has been involved in campaign finance scandals. And there are 800,000 e-mails, including many from the vice president's office, that have gone missing for two years, and they could affect this election in the fall.

KALB: But television doesn't back away from the possibility of scandal. That's interesting coverage for television.

FUND: Trying to cover the e-mail scandal and exactly what technical glitches meant that the White House lost them...

KALB: It's the word "scandal" that's the riveting word. That's the word, "scandal."

ISIKOFF: Yes, can I say -- I'm not sure this is a scandal at this point. I mean, but based on what we know...

KALB: Or stories, or allegations, et cetera..

ISIKOFF: Yes, I mean, the problem is that it is a...

FUND: Mike, it is a scandal, because they found out about it and didn't tell anyone for two years.

KALB: Yes, but I was not referring to anything specific by the use of the word "scandal." I was using it generically, as it were, and why print was giving it more attention than television.

ISIKOFF: Well, I, I, I think -- look, I mean, television is inevitably driven by, you know, what pictures do we have, what -- is it a visual story? This is not a visual story. But I, I -- you know, I think that the, the television networks can be legitimately chastised for failing to cover things like the conviction of Maria Hsia, key fund -- long-time fund raiser for Vice President Gore when...

KALB: For the -- for skimpy coverage.

ISIKOFF: Yes, yes, that got very little attention. On the e- mail question, yes, it's true that they didn't tell anybody about the e-mails. We still don't yet know whether the content of those e-mails is anything scandalous, or not, or whether it's something, as I think a lot of us suspect, probably there are going to be some embarrassments there, but whether it's anything of any real evidentiary value, we just don't know.

KURTZ: John Fund, you say that the press, perhaps understandably, is more interested in presidential candidate Gore than in the lame duck president, who, after all, is -- his term is up in nine months. You don't detect any ideological basis here, either Clinton fatigue or perhaps Clinton sympathy, on the part of journalists who roll their eyes when the latest e-mail or Kathleen Willey or Monica Lewinsky bit of information comes out?

FUND: I think Clinton has been the beneficiary of so many scandals that people just can't keep them separate. And they all sort of glom onto the fact that now we know he's a bad character, but he's leaving office in semidisgrace, so, you know, let it go.

I talk to people on the White House beat who say they've just completely abandoned covering the White House, other than, you know, just the presidential photo ops.

KURTZ: Because the campaign is more fun. Mike, the president says on Thursday, When are journalists going to get around to reporting that the Whitewater investigation, quote, "was a lie and a fraud from the beginning"? Your reaction?

ISIKOFF: Well, I mean, I don't know whose judged it a lie and a fraud. I think we're still waiting for the report from the independent counsel. And I think that -- where I think most people will come down on this is that the investigation went on way too long, it didn't produce criminal charges against the president, but it did produce a lot of criminal charges against a lot of characters, including the sitting governor of Arkansas at the time and the president's business partners. That was not a lie, that was not a fraud. Jim Guy Tucker was driven out of office, the McDougals were criminally convicted.

And, you know, the final judgment on the president, I think, we should wait and see the report and see what the facts really were.

KURTZ: How about the Filegate investigation as the independent counsel comes out and says, No charges, no wrongdoing, and it's a one- day story. There were a million stories written at the time about how terrible and awful this might be.

FUND: Right, and the FBI director criticized it. I think the most interesting aspect of this the last few months has been, when whistle-blowers come forward, three women have come forward now who worked at the White House, these are not obviously members of the right-wing conspiracy, these are presidential aides or private contractors working at the White House. They have all said there was a cover-up on the e-mails.

The latest one is a woman who on a previous case has said, you know, the White House, including John Podesta, submitted false and misleading affidavits. Yet no coverage that I can detect. These are whistle-blowers, these are all women who worked in the White House, and they're ignored.

KURTZ: Clearly you are not suffering from Clinton fatigue.

Mike, we have about 30 seconds left. Are the White House scandals and the president and his sex life and whether he lied going to be like Vietnam, and we're going to argue about it for the next 30 years?

ISIKOFF: Unfortunately, I think that...

KURTZ: It'll be like Nixon.

ISIKOFF: Yes, this will be argued for decades to come, both sides will be immovable on the subject. Anything new that comes out will be cited by one side or the other as a vindication of the other. And I don't think it's ever going to be finally resolved.

FUND: Recall Alger Hiss, that's been fight -- that's still being fighting all over 50 years later.

KURTZ: Well, we'll have you both back in 30 years.

Mike Isikoff, John Fund, thanks very much for joining us.

When we return, what other story has gotten plenty of play in the papers but was almost absent from television? Bernie's "Back Page" next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

KALB: Howie, let's open with a question. What was the biggest overseas news story of the past week, the story that got the most coverage? Well, it all depends. Now, that's a funny answer. But the fact is, it all depends whether you're talking about TV journalism or print journalism.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): Let's talk print journalism first. The big overseas story was Peru. Day after day, Peru, on the front page, even the lead story. The tumultuous presidential election there, viewed as a key test of democracy in Latin America, and allegations of fraud and dirty tricks only intensified the coverage. Page one, or heavy play inside, "The New York Times," "The Washington Post," "The Los Angeles Times," "The Wall Street Journal."

By contrast, the nightly newses on the big three broadcast networks, so far as they were concerned, Peru and its 26 million people did not exist. Nothing in the nightly news lineups throughout the week, except for a brief tell item. Cable TV, with its 24-hour appetite, did work in a few reports from the scene. But altogether, it was as though TV journalism and print journalism did not inhabit the same world. And what was the reason for that? In a word, Elian, endless Elian, the great suspense saga of the moment. Of course, print journalism has an obvious advantage. It can put both Elian and Peru on the front page. The 22-minute nightly newses can only get out one mouthful of news at a time, and he got most of it.

The Elianization of TV news. By the end of the week, "The NewsHour" on PBS gave us the only TV chunk of analysis of what's been taking place in a country that's been a strong ally of the U.S. in the battle against drug trafficking in the Andes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

So what's the moral of all this? Well, it's a reminder that the media are not one big monolith. They're composed of all kinds of editorial judgments. With some we get Peru, with others we don't. And one other thing to keep in mind, if you don't see a story on TV, that doesn't mean it didn't happen.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

When we come back, big changes at "The L.A. Times" and Jesse Ventura back in battle with the home state press.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Before we go, a couple of notes from the world of media news. The editor and publisher of "The Los Angeles Times" have been ousted by the Tribune Company, parent company of "The Chicago Tribune," which recently bought "The Times." "The L.A. Times" has been in turmoil since last fall when news surfaced that the paper had split the profits from a special Sunday magazine with the subject of that issue, the Staple Center Sports Arena.

Editor Michael Parks is being replaced by John Carroll, now editor of "The Baltimore Sun," and publisher Kathryn Downing is being succeeded by the publisher of "The Atlanta Sentinel," John Puerner.

And you may remember that Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura blasted his home state paper, "The St. Paul Pioneer Press," last year for publishing an expose of academic cheating among basketball players at the University of Minnesota. Well, this week the newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for those articles, and Ventura couldn't resist a parting shot. "That's terrific," he said, "because I heard `The National Enquirer' won it the year earlier."

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, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Howie, is Al Gore stumbling against George W. Bush? We'll talk to Bush campaign adviser Charlie Black about the 2000 presidential election, and much more, right here next on CNN.

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