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Reliable Sources

Year in Review: Blowing the Presidential Election; Elian Obsession; Hounding of Wen Ho Lee; Coming Era of Big Media Mergers

Aired December 30, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: A rough year for the media: blowing the presidential election, the Elian obsession, the hounding of Wen Ho Lee, and the coming era of big media mergers.

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

And joining us to look at the major media stories of 2000, Michael Isikoff, investigative reporter for "Newsweek" magazine; Jodie Allen, assistant managing editor at "U.S. News & World Report"; and Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio and Television News Directors Association.

We begin our year in review with election 2000, starting in the heart of the primary season, with the press' fascination over John McCain.



BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: John McCain has apparently turned the tide on George W. Bush...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Supporters are starting to use a word they say seemed unimaginable just a week ago: "front-runner."


KURTZ: When you're on the bus, do you make a conscious effort not to follow under the magic of McCain's spell?

JAKE TAPPER, SALON.COM: Oh, you can't. You become like Patty Hearst when the SLA took her.



GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This administration had its moment, they've had their chance. They have not led; we will!



AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you entrust me with the presidency, I know I won't always be the most exciting politician.



DANA MILLBANK, "WASHINGTON POST": This is summer camp for journalists. That's why there are 15,000 there: not for the story, but so we could hang out and go to parties and eat our food.



BRIT HUME, FOX ANCHOR: And welcome back to our FOX News election coverage. I'm Brit Hume. It's 6:00 p.m. in the East, and polls have now closed...



JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: A big call to make...



WILLIAMS: Mr. Gore will take the state of Florida.



TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR: What the networks giveth, the networks taketh away.



DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: Bulletin: Florida pulled back into the undecided column.



RATHER: We made a mistake. We were wrong. We were just flat- wrong.



KURTZ: First, a reality check: While campaign 2000 seemed the center of the journalistic universe, the week after election day ranked only No. 6 on the Pew Research Center's survey of the year's top stories which 38 percent of the public followed closely.

Topping the list were the hike in gas prices, the attack on the USS Cole, the Firstone tire recall, a failed shooting by a 6-year-old in Michigan, and -- no surprise -- Elian Gonzalez. The Bush-Gore recount fight did, however, beat out the Super Bowl.

Michael Isikoff, the election: Compared to some of the tabloid fast-food that we've gorged ourselves on in the past, this seemed like a relatively nutritious episode for the press. So why do I have this feeling of indigestion afterwards?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, "NEWSWEEK": Well, there's a lot to digest. I actually think it was just one hell of a story. It probably was the most wild, crazy story I've ever covered with more plot twists and more of a sense -- one of the few stories I've ever been involved where you really didn't have any idea how it was going to turn out. There was genuine suspense, and that just makes it a great story.

But you know, that said, I think, you know, a lot of people are focused, as you clearly are, on the wrong calls that were made election night, which clearly, you know, were big gaffes for the networks.

KURTZ: But beyond the wrong calls, Michael...


KURTZ: Let me turn to Jodie Allen. I have this nagging feeling that, you know, the pathetic coverage of the Ryder truck carrying the ballots to Tallahassee, the relentless nature of the coverage, that the media have only one volume: really loud.

JODIE ALLEN, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": That's clearly -- that's clearly true, Howie. But as Mike said, forgive us, this was for journalists a great, great story, although it did -- it had its flagging moments.

But -- and the public, for a political story, was paying a considerable amount of attention. Look at CNN's ratings during that period, MSNBC. Put them all back, all the cable, back on the map. So that for a political story, it generated a good deal of public interest, and I don't think you can blame the media for covering it: although I am struck by the fact that in the end the public doesn't view these things as earth-shaking as we do. They are more worried about gas prices than about whether their kid might get shot at school. BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Well, given this obituary for journalism in the year 2000, will I be driven off the set if I say something nice about the coverage of this year? That's all I want to say, "something nice." Now, let's get it serious.

When planes land, nobody writes a story. When a plane goes down, it's headlines. And that's essentially what happened with November 7. That was one hell of a yarn, and you used the keyword. The word is "suspense."

When we don't know the outcome, we all (UNINTELLIGIBLE) close and we chew it up.

So, Barbara, if you take a look at the year 2000, is there -- and let me ask you an exceedingly dull question -- is there a lesson for the media to learn out of those five weeks in Tallahassee?

BARBARA COCHRAN, RADIO-TV NEWS DIRECTORS ASSOCIATION: Well, I think there were a lot of very interesting things that happened there, and you know, as much as the campaign seemed like kind of a cut-and- dried piece up until election night, all the excitement happened after the normal time when the story would have been finished -- and that was pretty interesting.

But I think the public got to see its institutions, its democratic institutions working up close and personal. One of the most fascinating things was how much exposure we had to what went on in courts, because of cameras in the Florida Supreme Court. We even got the Supreme Court of the United States to release an audiotape.

And after it was all over, I think part of the reason the public accepted the outcome was because they were able to observe so much of what went on, thanks to the news media.

KURTZ: I know that the election night fiasco by the television networks, biggest blunder in 40 years easily. Looks even worse now that we have the report of the Voter News Service. It turns out that this -- all the networks rely for these projections. It turns out that they expected half -- twice as many ballots -- I'm sorry. They expected half as many ballots to be counted after 2:00 a.m. than was actually the case, and they expected half as many absentee ballots as turned out to be the case. This was shaky stuff.

But Barbara, you talk about observing the institutions in action. We certainly got to see the media, you know, making the sausage, so to speak. And I'm reminded of that night, Michael Isikoff, of the Supreme Court ruling that in effect handed the presidency to George W. Bush, and cold reporters standing out on the street.

And why can't -- is television incapable of saying, give us five minutes to read the opinion and we'll get back to you?

ISIKOFF: Yes, because everybody wanted to know right away. We had an incident in our story, Bush was calling from Austin Don Evans, had on the cell phone the second this opinion came out, and Don Evans is telling Bush, we'll have to call you back, we'll have to call you back. He wants to know. What did it say?

Nobody knew. Everybody wanted to know. And you've got to feel sorry for those correspondents out there. I mean, it was a very difficult opinion to get through and figure out what it meant. And everybody was standing there reading...

ALLEN: Well, it was so difficult that even people that did study at great length still can't figure out what it meant, and I think they did an incredible job.

COCHRAN: And in the age of the clicker, you know, if you aren't at least acting as if you're going to tell somebody something pretty soon, the thumb will go and they'll be on to the next person who makes that comment.

KALB: Is there any chance that one of the lessons coming out of this, the question I asked you that you chose to duck, is there any chance, for example. of the next election being called off and the entire election being entrusted to the Supreme Court?

COCHRAN: Oh, of course not. Of course not.


KALB: ... very simple. You know, you have a vote, put it up to the nine justices and so forth.

COCHRAN: Well, I think one of the more serious outcomes for the networks and their election night calls is that Congress is getting into the act now...

KALB: Yes.

COCHRAN: ... and is threatening to do things like ban exit polls and so on.

The networks need to make a report. They need to go public with their findings on what wrong that night. But they need to be the ones in charge of preventing mistakes in the future. Not Congress.

KALB: This is a media show, right? And we've often talked about where lawyers stand, as if (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Has 2000 done wonders, either way, for the media, Jodie Allen?

ALLEN: Well, Bernie, I don't think anything does wonders for the media...

KALB: Either way.

ALLEN: ... overnight. But I think that, by and large, setting aside election night, the media actually learned to be more careful. If you look at the post-election coverage, it was pretty careful, the post-election. There was a minimum of overhyping of this or that, an attempt to downplay even the demonstrations and to not overhype it.

I think that there were lessons learned, which isn't to say that we will not be back sensationalizing next year, because, as Barbara picks out, if we don't -- points out -- you know, people will be clicking the clicker.

KURTZ: Let me jump in, because we're very short on time. Michael Isikoff, the press and John McCain was a huge story. People called it a swoon, a romance. I'm wondering if perhaps McCain found a new way to deal with the press, or was this unique to Senator McCain, the idea of being accessible almost all the time to reporters...

ISIKOFF: No. Actually, he sort of paved the way. I mean, you had, if you remember -- I mean, Bush was completely inaccessible in those early months of the campaign and then became much more open with the press, as did Gore to a -- a more limited degree, but more open so than before, and because of the success McCain had with the press.

Yes, there was an element of swooning, people went a little overboard in the -- in the coverage of McCain. But again, he was the most exciting candidate in the field at the time. He was the one threatening to shake things up more than anybody else. And it was natural that the press was going to, you know, seize onto his candidacy.

KURTZ: OK, I've got to call a timeout. There's a lot more to say here. When we come back, the 6-year-old who dominated the newscast for weeks and the nuclear scientist presumed guilty by the press -- next.



Well, he is back in Cuba now, but for the first half of this year, he was the world's most famous 6-year-old boy.


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



UNIDENTIFIED ABC CORRESPONDENT: Relatives in Miami say, Elian repeatedly insists he does not want to go back to Cuba. He told us that too.



MARISLEYSIS GONZALEZ: And there is pictures how he left screaming and crying, that he didn't want to leave. So they cannot tell me he is not crying.


UNIDENTIFIED MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: You can assume that this photo is going to be on the cover of every newspaper in America tomorrow morning.



JANET RENO, ATTORNEY GENERAL: If you look at it carefully, it shows that the gun was pointed to the side.



KALB: It raises the whole question about what will cable do for an encore.

E.J. DIONNE, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, I think that is what cable TV has been asking ever since O.J., and impeachment came along and provided a very long encore, and then Elian came along.


KURTZ: Jodie Allen, with the benefit of hindsight, now that the phrase "Miami relatives" no longer strikes fear in the heart, wasn't the saturation coverage on Elian a little embarrassing for the press.

ALLEN: Well, I do think do, Howie. Although, again, as E.J. just said in the clip, you got to keep something going on the cable.

But I do think that the press -- that the media can be criticized here for going overboard and for letting themselves be manipulated, in this case by the Miami relatives and by the Cuban exile forces.

I think this was also true in the election campaign, that to the extent the media are to blame, and it is not so much because they are the great manipulators, but because they are too easily manipulated and used by what are often very small, but vocal, groups, who put on colorful demonstrations that then feed the notion...

KURTZ: We love demonstrations -- Bernie.

KALB: Let me move in one the use of the word "media," and the media go overboard and so forth. You picked up the word "cable." I think it has to be emphasized that this was a cable overboard, not exactly a media overboard.

KURTZ: A lot of front-page stories by major newspapers.

KALB: Yes, but not the incessant drum beat, as though the Elian case was the only thing happening the world. It was almost 24 hours -- what is the phrase 7/24, over and over. And we have got to be careful about doing a wholesale indictment of the media on Elian, and yes, yes, yes, front pages et cetera. In contrast to cable television, if you are going to do an indictment, indict the culprit.

ISIKOFF: Can I just make one quick point, though. Yes, it is easy. There was excessive coverage and it was played as a soap opera, but there was a serious sort of socio-political story that was going on there, in terms of the Cuban-American community.

KURTZ: Did it get covered?

ISIKOFF: it did get covered somewhat, and it actually came back in Florida, in the election coverage, where it turned out the Cuban- American community, which was very energized about Elian, was very influential in Miami-Dade in helping Bush -- the Bush forces stop the recount that may have ultimately affected the election. So, you know, I don't think we should completely dismiss it as a simply a human soap opera about a 6-year-old boy.

KURTZ: Barbara Cochran, the way that the camera has invaded the space there, and taking pictures of Elian playing the backyard and the airing of that -- what was called the POW video made by the relatives. It seemed to me that many journalists didn't display much regard for the boy's welfare. I mean, we wanted pictures, we wanted the story, we were insatiable; I mean, here, after all, is a 6-year-old kid caught in the middle of this tug-of-war.

COCHRAN: I don't think you can blame the media for this, though.

KURTZ: Why not?

COCHRAN: I think that you have to look at the role that the Miami relatives played. I mean, they were there to use this child and to make him available, and when that happens, the media are not going to say: Oh no, we don't want that picture.

KURTZ: We have no free will? We have to just show up because Marisleysis tells us to.

COCHRAN: You don't have to do it 24/7, as Bernie said, you can show some restraint. But you are going to be there. And, you know, I think once he came into custody of his father and was kept away from the press then, you know, you saw a different story.

KURTZ: We will have to hold it there.

We turn now to a Taiwanese-born American accused of spying, and at least one new organization that was forced to do a bit of soul- searching.

The story first made headlines and topped the newscast back in March of '99, beginning with page one in the "New York Times": "Breach at Los Alamos."

Lee, himself, wasn't named until two days later, but the reporting clearly identified him as a prime suspect in allegedly funneling important nuclear secrets to China. The media floodgates opened, Lee was fired, he kept a low profile in the press, but he denied the charges.


WEN HO LEE: I never gived any classified information to any unauthorized person period. I am innocent.


KURTZ: The "New York Times" came under heavy scrutiny for its early reporting, and finally published an editor's note in late September, which acknowledged that paper, quote, "fell short of our standards."

Mike Isikoff, is it time to deserve some credit for acknowledging error, or was this more of a series of after-the-fact rationalizations?

ISIKOFF: There deserve some credit, they put their own reporting under some scrutiny, and made some important concessions, some people think they didn't go far enough. But let's just keep things in context. There is no question that the Wen Ho Lee story shows the perils of investigative reporting and the importance of being much more cautious and applying much more scrutiny to your sources.

But, that said, the jury is still out on what really happened, and we don't know the full extent of what Wen Ho lee did, and why he did it. And so, you know, before we just completely exonerate him and say the "Times" was wrong for raising some of the questions it did, I think we got to wait for more facts.

KALB: Jodie, we live in a world where, very often, the news organizations will say, when they are under attack: Our story speaks for itself. Therefore, a small round of applause, modest of course, for the "New York Times" and its somewhat diluted mea culpa. But, having said that, when you take a look a page two on the "Times" you see that correction, in the rectangle they carry just about every day, the "Washington Post" as well. Mostly they are correcting middle initials of people they screwed up on, or a caption that was a little vacuous instead of substantive. So a mea culpa, does it deserve something, when you say, look, we got it wrong, sloppy journalism, our fault?

ALLEN: And run a whole piece on it. But, as Mike says, some people thought they didn't go far enough, but that isn't all that clear, as Mike also points out. We really don't know yet what happened to those tapes, and it was a perfectly fair criticism that the government had not pursued what were some very questionable things to -- over taped conversations. And, in the end, Wen Ho Lee benefited. The media, again, ran to the other side of the boat and sort of declared him innocent.

KURTZ: Hold on here. he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor. But you don't have to believe that Wen Ho Lee was some kind of a Boy Scout to take note of the fact that he had been originally charged with all of these felonies, that the federal judge felt compelled to apologize to him for excessive government tactics. And I wonder, Barbara Cochran, why there wasn't more covered until late in the game of the other side, which is what the government was doing to try to convict Wen Ho Lee.

COCHRAN: Well, you get into a situation where the story line is developed and they just, you know, it is pursued because it happens to fit the, kind of, the neat picture that we have.

But I think there was another subtext here that was a little disturbing to the Wen Ho Lee coverage, and that was the ease with which a lot of media fell into using kind of stereotypical language or leaping to assumptions that were very injurious to Asian-Americans and something that, because Asian-Americans aren't all that well represented in our newsrooms, I think there needs to be some soul searching on that score as well.

ALLEN: Well, there was, "Nightline" did, and they didn't find that that was the case.

KURTZ: A lot more to say, but once again we are out of time. And when we return: media mergers, including one that will affect CNN.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Barbara Cochran, now that America Online has gotten federal approval to take over Time Warner, which includes CNN, won't CNN and "Time" and other parts of the company face a near impossible task, at least in terms of public perception, in reporting on AOL and its cyberspace rivals?

COCHRAN: It's very, very difficult, and I think we're going to see more of these dilemmas in the future because the Bush administration is going to get rid of regulations that will -- that are keeping more media companies from expanding. I'm sure we'll see the end of the rule that prevents one organization from owning a television station and a newspaper in the same market, and it is very, very difficult to try to convince the public that there aren't conflicts of interest when one side -- one part is reporting on another.

KALB: Jodie, merger -- mega-merger of any dimension, what sort of threat does it represent to journalistic diversity?

ALLEN: Well, I think that -- this is, of course, not new, as Barbara points out. Almost everybody is owned by somebody else, although not either...

KALB: We don't have a free agent around this table?

ALLEN: But there are increasing problems here. You could call them pipeline problems, and the real AOL argument right at the moment is an argument they were placing against AT&T last year, the ownership of cable, and now the question of whether AOL, because it has so many subscribers, has a built-in networking effect through its messaging system that just basically enables them to control the space accessed by more and more people...

KURTZ: Threat, threat.

ALLEN: ... deciding not only how they get it, but what's on it.

ISIKOFF: As a yardstick on that, looks who's opposing the merger, AT&T and Disney, which -- whose executives still remember the time when Time Warner was pulling Disney -- taking Disney off some of its cable stations earlier this year in a dispute where you had a direct -- you know, there you had a direct conflict and that's the kind of that, you know, we have to watch for the future.

KURTZ: But there's also a question about resources. For example, when Tribune took over Times-Mirror earlier this year, at the "L.A. Times" recently, that the combined company has now cut 170 jobs and dropped the 14 neighborhood sections the newspaper had published. So, very briefly, Mike Isikoff, Disney, General Electric, Murdoch's News Corporation, aren't they increasingly interested in delivering news more cheaply so that they can fatten the profit margins?

ISIKOFF: Yes, although, look -- I mean, profit margins is something that is of concern to every level. Even when you have small newspapers, you can have a publisher who's more interested in the bottom line than in getting news out, so it's not exclusive to that. But that's certainly a danger as you get more -- further and further away from the people who are involved in the news process or have, you know...


KURTZ: Right. OK, we've got to hold it there. Michael Isikoff, Barbara Cochran, Jodie Allen, thanks very much for this year in review discussion.

When we come back, a Detroit television station gives a child the worst Christmas gift ever. That's next.


KURTZ: Before we go, 'tis the season for good deeds and Christmas presents, but a Detroit television station wound up playing the grinch. WXYZ gave a Sony PlayStation 2 to the city's police department with instructions to donate it to a poor child. Well, that's what the police did, but according to "The Detroit Free Press," the 11-year-old boy had a complaint -- there was no PlayStation 2 in the box. In its place, a tracking device and a note to call a phone number to receive the actual toy.

Well, it seems WXYZ was trying to entrap the cops by seeing if one of them would make off with the booty. The station finally gave the disappointed kid a real PlayStation. WXYZ says it can't comment in the middle of its investigation, but Assistant Police Chief Marvin Winkler cried entrapment, saying, are they that desperate for ratings? Sounds like a rhetorical question to us.

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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