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Reliable Sources

Hot New Web Site Goes Inside the Media; Helen Thomas Bows out After 57 Years; Should "The Philadelphia Inquirer" Have Kept an Off- the-Record Secret?

Aired May 20, 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 reporter and the murder suspect. Should "The Philadelphia Inquirer" have kept an off-the-record secret?

A hot new Web site goes inside the media.

And a famous reporter bows out after 57 years.

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

First up, our media roundup. We begin with a parting word for the longest-serving reporter in the press room.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Presidents come and go, but Helen's been here for 40 years now, covering eight presidents and doubtless showing the ropes to countless young reporters -- and, I might add, more than a few press secretaries.

KURTZ (voice-over): UPI's Helen Thomas gave up her front-row seat at the White House this week, resigning just one day after the struggling wire service was acquired by News World Communications, which is controlled by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church.

Thomas would say only that UPI, quote, "has made a remarkable mark in the annals of American journalism and has left a superb legacy for future journalists. I wish the new owners all the best, great stories, and happy landings."

Thomas became famous not just for her longevity but for her no- nonsense style and tough questions over the decades.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, NOVEMBER 1986)

HELEN THOMAS, UPI: How would you assess the credibility of your own administration in the light of the prolonged deception of Congress and the public in terms of your secret dealings with Iran, the disinformation, the trading of Sakharov for Danilov?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, APRIL 1998)

Monica Lewinsky may have to appear before a grand jury. Under the circumstances, do you stand by your previous denials of any relationship with her, or that anyone encouraged her to lie?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: While Thomas hasn't disclosed her future plans, she's still welcome at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

JOE LOCKHART, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think speaking for the entire White House, we will miss her, and we certainly hope she'll find a way, in all the new ventures that she'll be pursuing, to have business here and come here and cross-question me and bug me like she's done since the day I took this job.

KURTZ: "The Last Battle," "The New Yorker"'s 34-page cover story by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh. Based on six months of reporting, Hersh charges that General Barry McCaffrey, an Army commander during the Gulf War, ordered his soldiers to attack retreating Iraqi troops two days after a cease fire was announced.

The article has drawn Hersh into a very public battle of his own with McCaffrey, now the White House drug czar, who began denouncing the story even before it was published. They took their fight to the air waves on morning television.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE TODAY SHOW," ABC)

SEYMOUR HERSH, "THE NEW YORKER" MAGAZINE: He claimed that there was a -- the Iraqis were hostile, there was a lot of fire directed at us. They were traveling as a retreating -- they were a defeated army going home, and he attacked them.

I say, based on threats (ph), this was a retreating army going home.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: McCaffrey, who was cleared of any misconduct by several Army investigations, said the story was old news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. BARRY McCAFFREY, NATIONAL DRUG POLICY DIRECTOR: He is recycling charges that were investigated 10 years ago.

He's writing revisionist history.

Hersh and his article lack integrity. That's the bottom line.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: "New Yorker" editor David Remnick wrote, "Hersh's reporting raises the question of whether the official record accurately reflects what occurred. As Hersh establishes, crucial witnesses were overlooked, compelling arguments set aside. Clearly further investigation is necessary."

McCaffrey points out that two retired generals have issued statements saying that Hersh quoted them out of context.

And another story of wartime, the Korean War, back in the news. The Associated Press is under attack for its account of a 1950 massacre of South Korean refugees by U.S. soldiers -- women and children, many of them -- trapped under a bridge at No Gun Ri. The AP ran the story last September after a 14-month internal battle over whether to publish, and a number of news organizations, including "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times," ran the report on their front pages.

But the story has come under fire. This week, "U.S. News and World Report" ran this lengthy article, "Doubts About a Korean Massacre." Among the doubts raised by "U.S. News," questions about three former soldiers who said they were at No Gun Ri, including Edward Daley (ph). Daley originally told the AP that he took part in the massacre, and, quote, "can still hear their cries, the little kids screaming."

But Daley told "U.S. News," quote, "My memory is that I was there at No Gun Ri and did what I said I did. But, you know, I have been sick for years. I have been in therapy. It was my nightmares from Korea that cost me my job. I take three strong pills for mental illness."

The AP sent out a point-by-point rebuttal, saying the criticisms involved mainly minor questions about minor witnesses, and that they have nearly 50 sources, both American and Korean, backing their account.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning story has prompted an Army investigation.

And finally, it was a mixed week for NBC News, the popular "Today Show" getting a third hour, but "Dateline NBC" losing two of its five prime-time programs each week.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

When we come back, the murder of a rabbi's wife and a reporter's secret. That story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

What's a journalist to do when faced with a confession, an off- the-record confession, to murder? We turn now to one woman's story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) (voice-over): Nancy Phillips, a reporter for "The Philadelphia Inquirer," went to great lengths to protect a source, keeping this man's secret for four long months.

NANCY PHILLIPS, "THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER": This was unlike anything I've experienced as a reporter.

KURTZ: The secret, that Len Genov (ph) had admitted his involvement in the brutal 1994 killing of Carol Newlander (ph), the wife of a rabbi in the Cherry Hill, New Jersey, suburb of Philadelphia, and that the rabbi, Genov says, had hired him as a hit man.

Phillips first met Genov in 1995, shortly after the murder, when the "Inquirer" assigned her to the story. Their off-the-record conversations spanned five years, but not until recently did Genov reveal to her how the murder plot unfolded.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Just last month, Phillips convinced Genov to come clean with authorities. Phillips was there when her long-time source confessed to local prosecutors. After Genov was arraigned on murder and conspiracy charges, Phillips published her account of the five- year saga.

Joining us now from Philadelphia, Nancy Phillips.

Welcome.

PHILLIPS: Hello.

KURTZ: Nancy, when your long-time source, Len Genov, told you last December, off the record, that he'd been involved in this murder, weren't you tempted to print it, or at least call the cops?

PHILLIPS: Well, off the record, as you know, Howard, is a promise that we abide by in this profession, and it means that that's information that cannot be used. So while it was information that I attempted to corroborate, and that I made every effort to move toward putting in the pages of "The Philadelphia Inquirer," it was nothing that I could immediately use.

KURTZ: But didn't that put, really, an incredible burden on you...

PHILLIPS: Oh, it's...

KURTZ: ... to have this knowledge, and because of the journalistic promise, not being able to do anything with it?

PHILLIPS: Of course. It was terrible. But I really believe that in this profession, our entire reputations rise and fall on our ability to keep every promise we ever make to anyone, large or small. And in this instance, I had promised that this information was off the record, and there it would remain until he changed his mind. BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Nancy, doesn't a confession of murder change the ground rules? For example, if somebody in this particular case says, I did that, and even though you've made promises, aren't you confronted by a powerful reportorial ethical challenge?

PHILLIPS: No question. And this was an enormous ethical struggle, an enormous struggle just as a human being. But it -- the dilemma was tempered a bit in this instance because Len Genov was someone who had told to me and to many other reporters a number of stories that I was able to -- that did not turn out to be true. And so I had some doubts about his credibility, and even as he told me this account, I had doubts about this account.

And as I wrote in the piece, the first-person account that I did of this struggle and then how the "Inquirer" went forward with this story, part of my hesitation stemmed from misgivings that I have about variations on the story that he had told me over the years.

KURTZ: There was an incident when Genov, while you were still keeping the secret, when Genov came to your office and handed you an envelope. Explain what happened.

PHILLIPS: Well, he had -- this was after he had told me off the record that he had been involved in this crime. He said that he had arranged it, and that he had hired a second man, a man named Paul Michael Daniels (ph), to go to the house and actually beat Carol Newlander to death.

He then phoned me and said that he would be lunching with Mr. Daniels, and asked whether I would like to go along. I said, "No, thank you very much, I would not like to go along." And a few hours later, the two of them just arrived in my office.

KURTZ: Right, but the significance of the envelope...

PHILLIPS: Of the envelope...

KURTZ: ... what was in the envelope?

PHILLIPS: The envelope was empty, and the significance of that was that Carol Newlander, prosecutors say, was killed by a man who went to her home twice, once a week before the murder, posing as a delivery man, and he handed her an envelope and asked her to give it to the rabbi. So that was a rather frightening moment, I have to say, when Genov walked into the office with that envelope.

KALB: Nancy, you're caught up in some sort of a legal wrangle now about turning over the notes that you took over the course of these four or five years in your conversations...

PHILLIPS: Yes.

KALB: ... with the gentleman arraigned for murder. Where are those notes now, and will you turn them over? I understand you say no, but will you, in effect, when the heavy legal pressure is on? PHILLIPS: Well, we will see what the court rules, and I'm certain we will abide in the -- at the end of the day by a court ruling. At this point, we are resisting the subpoena, and we've not been ordered to turn over the notes, and it's our hope that we will not be ordered to turn over the notes.

KALB: You think the notes will make any difference in the prosecution's case?

PHILLIPS: Well, I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know really what significance -- well, it is the defense, I should point out, that is seeking the notes, not the prosecution.

KALB: Yes, yes.

PHILLIPS: I think that we have told the story in the pages of "The Philadelphia Inquirer," and Len Genov has told the story to prosecutors, and...

KURTZ: On that point, how did you persuade Len Genov, or help persuade him, to talk to prosecutors, and did you feel at all when you were doing that that you were maybe stepping out of your journalistic role just a little bit?

PHILLIPS: Oh, it was absolutely a strange moment. What happened was that over the months, Len Genov spoke with increasing urgency about his need to tell this story. And time and again, we had conversations in which he expressed as great deal of anguish seeming anguish, I should say, and pain over keeping this inside.

So we had had numerous discussions about his desire to tell this story to the prosecutors, and it was in the context of one of those conversations that, as we were driving to Philadelphia, a drive that causes you to pass an exit for Camden, which is where the prosecutor's office is, I simply said to him, "Camden is closer than Philadelphia. Are you sure you don't want to go and talk to him right now?"

And he drove in the direction of the prosecutor's office, and asked me to phone him.

KALB: Did your editors ever ask you what -- where you were in the investigation, or your conversations with this suspect, and did they ever encourage you to print sort of where we are in this story now?

PHILLIPS: We spoke frequently about this over many months...

KALB: And let me interrupt, and were you denying your readers the information you had?

PHILLIPS: Well, certainly we were denying our readers this information, but that was in part because this was uncorroborated information. That was the word of one man who had, at various times, proven himself not to be particularly credible and reliable. And the information that he was giving was not only damaging to himself, in that he was admitting a criminal act, but in so doing, he was also implicating two other people, including the rabbi, who has vigorously insisted that he is innocent, and who continues to do so.

KURTZ: Sounds like it'll make a heck of a movie. Nancy Phillips, "Philadelphia Inquirer," thanks very much for joining us.

PHILLIPS: Thank you.

KURTZ: When we return, we'll get the inside scoop from Kurt Andersen on his hot new Web site, Inside.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

A new Web site that people have been buzzing about for months is finally up and running.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): Inside.com launched this week to fanfare usually reserved for a blockbuster film. The Web site, which covers the media and entertainment industry, owes much of its early buzz to its three high-profile founders, Michael Hirschhorn (ph), former editor in chief of "Spin" magazine, Deanna Brown (ph), who oversaw the launch of "Brill's Content," and Kurt Andersen, former editor of "New York" magazine and co-founder of "Spy" magazine.

Inside.com features an in-depth mix of news about films, music, television, books, newspapers, and magazines. Early stories include everything from a piece about the new Britney Spears CD to an up-to- the-minute update about the publishing world's bidding wars for Jimmy Carter's memoirs.

And Inside.com hopes to attract 100,000 subscribers within three years, a combination of industry insiders and people who want to be insiders. Although some items on the Web site are free, the majority of information is subscription-only. And with the cost of membership going for $199 a year, the big question is whether enough people will ante up.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now from New York is the co-founder of Inside.com, Kurt Andersen.

Welcome.

KURT ANDERSEN, CO-FOUNDER, INSIDE.COM: Thanks.

KURTZ: Kurt, you're not only a good writer, but you're a good salesman. The hype on this thing has been off the charts. Isn't there some danger now that you've set expectations way too high?

ANDERSEN: Well, you know, it is -- been a little bit extreme, and you know now why we were so reluctant to talk to you, Howie. The -- you know, it's nice to get attention, but obviously we have to deliver, and happily for the last week, we have, through a combination of good luck and hard work, been delivering.

KURTZ: Any danger in what you've been putting up so far that some of this is going to strike average viewers or Web surfers as being a little too inside?

ANDERSEN: That's really not a danger for us, since we are very clearly and very explicitly going for those million people who work in all these fields that you mentioned up top that we're covering. I -- and I -- frankly, I believe that there are enough regular civilians, if you will, the people who read "Entertainment Weekly," who watch SHOW BIZ THIS WEEK on CNN, who read "Vanity Fair" and so forth, who will not find the stuff that we're reporting first and well and authoritatively too inside at all.

KALB: Kurt, let me take that last response and put it in question form. Inside.com sounds like the nichiest of niche dots. Are there enough nicheniks around to make you a millionaire?

ANDERSEN: I'm not worried about being a millionaire, Bernie. We think there are...

KURTZ: You're in this for laughs?

ANDERSEN: ... we think -- No, I'm in it for -- because -- the same reason any of us are in whatever journalistic endeavor we're in, which is that this thing doesn't exist, I as a reader, as a user, wanted it to exist, and there seemed to be no alternative but to help try to start it.

It's -- you know, it's not CNN, it is not, you know, NBC, it's not this massive, broad-brush thing. And that's precisely the point. And I think what, just as cable television gave us the ability to target niches, so does the Internet.

And rather than trying to be all things to all people, we're trying to be a certain thing to a certain group of people, which is to report on these businesses as businesses, not as celebrity endeavors so much, for the people who work in those worlds or who are simply, for whatever reason, fascinated by them.

KALB: Would it be too ambitious an expectation to expect one blockbuster -- let's not say a month, but let's say a week?

ANDERSEN: A significant scoop a week is, you know, a realistic, albeit high, bar, and again, just in the week we've been up, I won't say that any of them are at the Sy Hersh Gulf War level, but we certainly in each of our worlds have reported news first, fastest, fullest, in significant ways. So we're already doing that.

KURTZ: I was suddenly (ph) hoping for a scoop a day.

But, you know, most Web sites, as you know better than anybody, Kurt, don't make money. Why would Wall Street investors give you $28 million for this site, and can you pull off the trick that have eluded so many others, which is getting enough people to pay to make it self- sustaining? ANDERSEN: Well, we'll see. You know, it's a new world, this creating original journalism on the Web. You know, there just aren't that many places yet who have been created -- that have been created from scratch to -- with a fully resourced, fully professional staff to create journalism online.

So we are, you know, the third or fourth or fifth house out here on the prairie. We're focused -- I'm focused, certainly, on trying to make it be a great, indispensable, compelling product.

We don't have this blue-sky Internet notion of somehow, someday, we'll make money. We're selling ads, we're selling subscriptions just like magazines and newspapers have done for many, many decades.

KALB: Kurt, just a small interruption. Some of the people who've tried some dot-coms have gone down in flames because they refused to pay up for the service and so forth. Why pay you?

ANDERSEN: Well, because for the professionals who are our real target, if this keeps you current, up to date, have at one stop, you know, one-stop shopping kind of way, you know, most of the data, information, news, analysis you need, we think that's a pretty valuable commodity.

KURTZ: Kurt...

ANDERSEN: I think ultimately there's not going to be a distinction between, you know, something like "The Wall Street Journal," which everybody who gets it thinks they need, and something like Inside, which, for our audience, will be a, we hope, an equivalently indispensable item.

KURTZ: Kurt, a brief detour into New York politics. Rudy Giuliani announced Friday that he is dropping out of the Senate race, largely, I suppose, because of his prostate cancer. But the media exposing his extramarital activity obviously had a lot to do with it. Do you think it's too much to say the press, by delving into the private life, basically forced him out of the race?

ANDERSEN: I think I would put that a little differently. I would certainly say that absent the press, that, you know, exposing this part of his private life, he would still be a candidate today.

KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there. Kurt Andersen, Inside.com, thanks very much for joining us.

ANDERSEN: Thank you.

KURTZ: When we return, Bernie's "Back Page." More on the last battle of the Gulf War, this one between the media and the military.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

KALB: Howie, let me pick up on the story that was mentioned earlier in the show, what's being called "The Last Battle" of the Gulf War, and what's at stake in all this.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): But first, a bit of old history to get things in context. And it's this, that the Pentagon won two wars in the Persian Gulf. It defeated Iraq, and it defeated the press with all sorts of restrictions. Now, you could argue that the media back then in '91 simply surrendered to the Pentagon, didn't put up enough of a fight against the restrictions.

But then suddenly the war is over, the troops come marching home triumphant. Now, nine years later, the war is back again, the war and the tensions between the military and the media, powerfully triggered by the Sy Hersh piece in "The New Yorker," which raises a question of whether a top U.S. general ordered an attack on retreating Iraqi troops after the ceasefire or acted in self-defense.

The Army says it has no plans to reopen an investigation into the charges, that they were looked into after the war, and there was no evidence of wrongdoing by General McCaffrey or his troops, period, case closed.

Well, maybe for the Pentagon, but not for the media. Some heavy flak has been aimed at the Pentagon. "The New York Times" describes the Army's response as "cavalier" and calls on Secretary of Defense William Cohen to appoint an independent review board. Or if he doesn't, then an investigation by the Senate or House.

Walter Cronkite has joined the attack, saying, "The Pentagon's censorship policy in that conflict severely restricted the right of reporters and photographers to accompany our troops into action, as had been permitted in all our previous wars."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

You can sum this up philosophically by saying wars never rest in peace, that there are always questions that won't go away even when the guns to silent.

But there's a lot more at stake here -- whether the Pentagon should ever be allowed to go to war without the press being given full access to the battlefield. The answer is obvious.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

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, HOST, CAPITAL GANG: Howie, we'll look at Hillary Clinton's Senate chances after the drop-out of Rudy Giuliani. Former Democratic congressman Vic Fazio joins THE GANG to talk to -- about the Gore Social Security, the Bush Social Security debate, and much more, right here next on CNN. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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