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Reliable Sources

George Bush Gets Good Reviews for His First Week; Should the Press be Grilling Baltimore Ravens Star Ray Lewis

Aired January 27, 2001 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Super Bowl interrogation: Should the press be grilling Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis about his role in a year-old murder case? Or are journalists just piling on? We'll ask two top sports commentators in Tampa.

The charm offensive: George Bush gets good reviews for his first week. Is it honeymoon time for the media?

And the fugitives. We'll talk with the Colorado TV reporter who worked with police in interviewing two escaped convicts.

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

It's Super Bowl weekend, no bulletin there. And football hasn't been the only hot topic for sports reporters in Tampa.


KURTZ (voice-over): On Monday, Baltimore Ravens Coach Brian Billick lectured the media on behalf of his star player.

BRIAN BILLICK, BALTIMORE RAVENS HEAD COACH: As much as some of you want to, we are not going to retry this. It's inappropriate. And you're not qualified.

And those that wish to embellish it, not to crystallize it, not to shed new information, but to simply glorify -- not glorify -- but to sensationalize it for your own purposes, quite personally -- and this is a personal observation -- it's reprehensible on my part. I don't like it. I think it's unprofessional.

KURTZ: But the next day, Lewis got grilled, more than 50 questions about his role in the double murder trial last spring.

RAY LEWIS, BALTIMORE RAVENS PLAYER: Y'all can say what y'all want to say. Y'all can write what y'all want to write. The only difference is I'm not going to speak about it.

KURTZ: Lewis was charged in the stabbing deaths of two men outside an Atlanta nightclub following last year's Super Bowl. But the murder charges were later dropped as the football star pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of obstruction of justice. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: So was Coach Billick's warning to the media justified? Should the football star have answered the barrage of questions? And is Ray Lewis' past fair game for the press?

Well, joining us now from Tampa, Tony Kornheiser, host of a morning radio show on ESPN and sports columnist for the "Washington Post." And Jess Atkinson, sports director for WUSA-TV in Washington.

Tony Kornheiser, in your esteemed analysis, was the media mob at Ray Lewis' press conference just maybe very subtly trying to get him to say something explosive?

TONY KORNHEISER, "WASHINGTON POST": I mean, I don't think it was subtle at all. I mean, I'm sure there were people there that were poking him with a stick, or would poke him with a stick if they had the opportunity t see if he would explode. And that's because at one point he was scheduled to be a defendant in a murder trial. And now he found himself a year later the most valuable player on defense in the National Football League.

But I think it was completely justified for the media to go to Ray Lewis since he hadn't spoken in a large group like that before and hadn't made his feelings known. And I thought what Brian Billick did, beyond throwing gasoline on a fire, was unbearably condescending.

KURTZ: What about the argument, Tony, that this is old news and that the only reason that you vultures in the press are recycling this and jumping on it is because he's on a team that happens to be in the Super Bowl?

KORNHEISER: It is true that the only reason we're jumping on it is because he's on a team that happens to be in a Super Bowl, a totally orchestrated event by the NFL that sets it up so for five days prior to the game they give you access to the players and say, "Do with them what you want."

This guy pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a capital case. And nobody had had a chance to talk to him about it before. And it wasn't so much we were trying to find out, "Did you do it?" as much as, "What are your feelings in the year since the tragic circumstances, and now you find yourself in these glorious circumstances? Could you tell us about your feelings?"

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Well, "Tell us about your feelings," doesn't that sort of give the press in its own estimation a kind of arrogance to establish what you would regard in the media as something called a sympathy quota? And Ray Lewis hasn't met the quota, and therefore he's fair game for all these critical pieces.

KORNHEISER: All the people are fair game to begin with. And the critical pieces mostly were not about Ray Lewis. They came at interviews with the family of the slain victims in the last couple of weeks as those people try to get their story out and find the way to blame Ray Lewis. KALB: Yeah, but if...

KORNHEISER: I don't think that it was a question -- go ahead.

KALB: ... No, I was going to ask you, if Ray Lewis determines to answer the questions his way, is that an invitation on the part of the media to do these seriously critical pieces of him for being essentially a man without sympathy, without any remorse for the victims' families?

KORNHEISER: Yes, it's a personality piece. That's exactly right. It's a personality piece.

The guy goes up there -- Kerry Collins, who is an admitted alcoholic, goes up there and for two hours talks about his life since going into rehab and everything that he's done. And he's a second- chance guy here.

Ray Lewis is a second-chance guy here...

KALB: Yeah, but...

KORNHEISER: ... And he could have said -- he could have acted contrite. And he didn't. That was his choice.

KURTZ: Jess Atkinson, let me turn to you. Where does Coach Brian Billick get off lecturing the press about what they can and can't ask his star linebacker? After all, the media -- and you know as a former football player -- makes these players, these athletes, into stars. And then at the signature event of the National Football League, we're only supposed to ask them, "Well, how do you stack up against that New York Giant defense?"

JESS ATKINSON, SPORTS DIRECTOR, WUSA-TV: Well, a couple of things. First is it was absolutely crazy for him to do that, as Tony said, pour gasoline on a fire.

But it was crazy like a fox. He didn't do this for the media. He did this for his players. His players have been underdogs all year.

Brian Billick needed an enemy. His team is now favored in the Super Bowl. He needed an enemy to rally his guys, and he got one, because of the media jumps on Ray Lewis, all those guys rally around Ray Lewis.

Now, the question about whether or not this is fair game, Ray Lewis did a first-person, couple-of-thousand-word piece giving his point of view in "ESPN The Magazine." He said, "It's like a fairy tale." Clearly, he tried to give his side of this.

KURTZ: And, Jess, the...

ATKINSON: And it didn't seem to me any other way but for us to be able to say he puts it into play when he does that piece. KURTZ: ... And, Jess, the barrage of questions that Ray Lewis got at the news conference. Could the reporters, at least some of them, have been trying to get even for this intentional roughing by the linebacker where he said, quote, "I could sit down and give you all the story, but you'd change it all around."

He's saying, "I don't trust you guys. You lie. You make it up."

ATKINSON: They're his words. And where I think it hurt him was...

KURTZ: Were journalists offended by that is my question.

ATKINSON: No, I -- oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think what journalists are offended by is the fact that we're asking serious questions in a very respectful manner. And he -- and one of the players told me this -- was given instructions, "Don't let them get to you. Just don't blow up. Keep an even keel."

He was very glib about it. He was dismissive of most of the questions. And from the media's standpoint, we look at it and say, "Listen, if you're going to give your side in a magazine piece, you owe it to us to answer those very same questions or any other questions that are brought up by that piece."

KALB: Well, only strong...

KORNHEISER: Brian Billick is saying it's not a legitimate story. The coach comes out and says it's not a legitimate story. It is absolutely a legitimate story to ask Ray Lewis what he feels about what has transpired in the last 12 months. Come on.

KALB: Look, the power of your replies -- both of you -- suggests that the media acted on cue, precisely what the coach wanted. He wanted an enemy in the media for morale purposes for the team. And you fellows seem to indicate that's exactly what he got.

Let me move on to another variation of this question. What are the consequences? When the media writes these negative pieces about Ray Lewis, what happens to the enthusiasm of the fans?

ATKINSON: Let me jump in on that. I don't think they were negative pieces, Bernie, for this simple reason. A lot of pieces were written that this was redemption, him getting named the defensive MVP of the entire NFL. They were saying that was redemption for what came before.

I know a lot of guys, both in the media and former players, that are offended by the idea that a man can find redemption on the football field for a crime, lying to police and obstructing a police investigation, for something that happened off the field.

KURTZ: Yeah, but the media is not his psychiatrist, if he has one. I don't know that. I'm getting a feeling of journalistic psychiatry at work in the way Ray Lewis is being dealt with.

KURTZ: Let me jump in with another...

KORNHEISER: Well, I'm not going to...

KURTZ: ... go ahead, Tony.

KORNHEISER: ... I'm not going to engage in this self-gladulation and attack my peers here. I mean, I think that's absolutely crazy.

Here is a guy who has become famous and notorious at the same time. He is a great football player. And he was involved in a capital crime.

And if you think for a second that that doesn't give us the right, when the NFL puts this guy out there, to ask him some questions, then you're in the wrong business.

KURTZ: Well, Tony Kornheiser, we absolutely have the right to ask those questions. But let me ask you, as a television spectacle, when reporters ask about off-the-field behavior, whether it's pleading guilty to obstruction of justice or drug abuse or DWI or a rape charge and a player refuses to answer, and reporters ask more questions, and the player refuses to answer, who do you think looks worse? Is there any possibility that the media mob looks a little overbearing whether it's fair or not?

KORNHEISER: Yeah, I think that there are cases when the media mob does look overbearing. If a guy refuses to answer and refuses to answer and refuses to answer, then if you are a columnist, you go back in. You write your story. You don't stand there and badger him.

There was an example, I thought, of Pete Rose being badgered at the All Star Game a couple of years ago...

KURTZ: Right.

KORNHEISER: ... in baseball as Jim Gray, who is normally a fine reporter, went on and on and on. And the reverberations came back against Jim Gray.

I don't think that happened in this particular circumstance. I really don't.

In answer to your question before about fans, fans only care about what a guy does on the field.

KURTZ: Right.

KORNHEISER: That's all. If he's wearing the home white, they care about his performance on the field.

KURTZ: Unfortunately, we can't go on and on and on, so we've got to cut it there. Tony Kornheiser, Jess Atkinson, thanks very much for joining us from Tampa.

Up next on RELIABLE SOURCES, President Bush's first week on the job. How is it playing in the media? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


There was no shortage of coverage of George W. Bush's first week as president. As he courted the Washington elite, the media reviews have been pretty good.

Joining us now is Martha Brant, White House correspondent for "Newsweek" magazine.



KURTZ: Anyone who spent five minutes covering Bush during the campaign knows he's a pretty charming guy.

BRANT: Yeah.

KURTZ: So now I'm reading all these stories about he's charming the capital and he's getting off to a great start. Isn't it just a trifle premature to be proclaiming his presidency a success five or six days in?

BRANT: Absolutely. This has just been the first week. But we've definitely seen a bit of a honeymoon.

And I think what people are realizing in the White House press corps is what we learned on the campaign this last year. It's that he woos the press assiduously.

He comes up with nicknames for us. He finds a way to charm us. I mean, you really have to steel yourself to make sure you don't buy into the game, to some extent.

KURTZ: Have you successfully resisted the charm effect?

BRANT: I sure hope so. I haven't avoided nicknames. But I have been trying to keep from being wooed.

KALB: What is your nickname?

BRANT: Oh, I was hoping you wouldn't ask me that. I went from "Newsweek jogger girl" when he didn't know my name to "Martha" and now "Martita." Spanish diminutives are big with him.

KALB: And does it have effect? You answered that briefly. But it seems to me when your ego gets flatted, you might go a little softer on the assessments.

BRANT: I think you definitely have to keep yourself from doing it. But I would actually argue just the opposite. Sometimes you realize that you're being wooed. And so you make sure you're not, and maybe even overcompensate at times. KALB: Let me ask one serious question, if I may. The press spokesman, so far has it been a case of substance over charm or charm over substance? Are you getting information? Or are you getting the usual emptinesses that normally come from spokesmen to a large degree?

BRANT: Yeah, I think the tone was set from the top. And that tone is loyalty above all else. And that means tight lips.

And I don't feel like this is going to be an easy administration to cover. It's my first.

But Dick Cheney is very inscrutable. The tone gets set from these guys that are Washington insiders. Dick Cheney is fairly inscrutable.

Andy Card, a friend once told me about him as, "Nice guy, but you guys are going to hate him because he won't leak." So, obviously, no administration is leak proof. But I think it's going to be a tough go, at least initially.

KURTZ: Martha Brant, I'm hearing from a lot of reporters it is difficult just logistically to get information about the Bush White House in this first week. What's been your experience?

BRANT: You know, I didn't cover the Clinton administration. I know they had their disorganizations as well. But I just placed a call trying to get through to Lynne Cheney's press secretary, who is a nice woman. But they patched me through to a disconnected line. And this is about the tenth time I've tried. So certainly some logistical nightmares.

KURTZ: Is the press trying to kick up a fuss on the abortion issue? President Bush, first day in office issues and order banning the use of federal funds for abortion services overseas.

Now, when Clinton took the opposite tack with an executive order in 1993, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw said Clinton was fulfilling a campaign promise. But when President Bush reversed that policy, Tom Brokaw said it was a controversial note. And Dan Rather said he was doing this to please the right flank in his party.

BRANT: It is also a campaign promise in the case of Bush. But he's campaigned as a moderate on this topic. And so the question is, "Who is the real George Bush?" We're not sure if he's more right wing than we thought he was during the campaign. I mean, what promises is he keeping and to whom and why?

KURTZ: So therefore, it's a legitimate question for the press to ask about the campaign image versus the presidential governing reality?

BRANT: Absolutely. Absolutely.

KALB: Are you having -- perhaps it's come up. But are you having trouble developing sources inside the administration? BRANT: You know, I did during the campaign to some extent as well. There is an inner sanctum of very few people. And as we mentioned, you guys mentioned on your show, Ari Fleischer isn't even part of that inner sanctum.

KALB: He may do, "Read my lips." But they're not moving.

BRANT: Right. I find that you have to go a couple of runs removed from the administration. And that's been helpful for me. Family friends even because they're close to them, but they're...

KURTZ: On the other hand, it's only been a week. We'll give it a couple of more weeks to develop sources.

BRANT: ... Exactly.

KURTZ: "Newsweek" jogger girl, Martha Brant of "Newsweek," thank you very much for joining us.

When we return, the case of the TV anchor and the escaped cons.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

It was the crime drama that dominated cable news this week, the hunt for seven escaped Texas convicts, the last two of which were given 10 minutes of airtime with a Colorado Springs TV anchor before surrendering.


KURTZ (voice-over): Police had been negotiating with the fugitives for several hours before KKTV Anchor Eric Singer stepped in.


ERIC SINGER, ANCHOR, KKTV: I will go ahead and let you put down the phone so that way you can honor your commitment, and you can go outside and end this situation peacefully with the officers immediately.


KURTZ: Patrick Murphy and Donald Newbury eventually surrendered. But should journalists be involved in assisting law enforcement officers?


KURTZ: And joining us now, Eric Singer, an anchor at KKTV in Colorado Springs.

Eric Singer, the story of how you got on the air with these two fugitives is by now pretty well known. So let me cut to the media question. The police ask you to interview these two guys, to surrender 10 minutes of airtime. Is there any way you could have said no? Would any TV station have said no?

SINGER: Well, I can't speak for any TV station, I can speak for 11 News and myself. And what we decided, this wasn't just a decision we just entered upon lightly.

Basically, what happened was when they called they said first that they wanted me to be part of the negotiations. Our news director, myself -- Dave Beach (ph), Dave Downey (ph), and several others here in the newsroom, we discussed it for a few moments. And the first thing we said was, "One, we own this story from start to finish. We want to continue, as a good journalist would do, want to talk to people involved."

Secondly, we also felt at that moment that there were lives at stake. Isn't that the duty of a journalist, to help others? And isn't this the ultimate responsibility, to save a life?

KURTZ: Understood. When you got into consultations with the police about the questions that you would ask, didn't you feel a little bit like kind of a law enforcement tool at that point, even though you may have been doing the right thing because, as you point out, lives were indeed at stake?

SINGER: Well, what happened was this. And basically, we listened for about two hours to negotiations before we did anything. And they had spoken to these men for several hours.

At that point, they brought me into a sort of like war room of negotiators as they were talking to them. At that point, I'm listening. And then we started talking just for a moments, the negotiators and I. We talked for about 20 minutes.

They didn't give me specific questions to ask. All they talked to me about were hot buttons, hot phrases, things that perhaps could set them off so that who knows what would happen. They might have gone berserk. They could have started shooting.

Now, any rational thinking person -- let's say, just take it for example just in a simplistic view -- you're arguing with your wife. What happens is there's a cool off period. Now at this point, would you go back up to your wife and say something that started the whole argument again? I think any rational thinking person wouldn't do that, would they?

KALB: Eric, I think to be absolutist in a case like this, say, "Never, never, never will we work with the police" is a bit simplistic. There are times when, as you're suggesting, lives can be saved. And it must be approached on a case-by-case basis.

But how did this story get out of the Colorado Springs area? I can understand the Q-and-A with the two prisoners, the two fugitives, the two fugitives being confined to a particular area. But how did it bounce around the country? Did your station make it available? SINGER: Well, from what I understand -- remember, I'm on the scene talking to these men, so I'm not really dealing with the technical aspects. From what I understand, KCNC, our sister affiliate in Denver, picked it up. And from there, you saw how far it went.

KURTZ: Any -- of course, some cable networks carried it live. And some, like CNN, did not. But, Eric Singer, why when you were interviewing one of the convicts, Donald Newbury, did you let him go on and on without interruption? Did you feel that was the best tack to take under the circumstances?

SINGER: No, not at all. This was the brokered agreement that we had arranged, we as myself agreeing to doing this interview and the negotiators talking to these two men.

There was five minute apiece uninterrupted. So in the case of Patrick Murphy, for example, he spoke for three minutes, maybe three minutes and 15 seconds. At that point, I had some questions I had already asked to the negotiators, "Would these be all right? Do these look like they have any hot buttons, hot phrases?"

And they said, "No, these seem to be OK." We didn't expect the fact that they would just -- he would just stop. So at that point, I had to continue to rattle on questions, as a good reporter, Bernie Kalb would have done, you would done, Howie. You would have done the same thing.

KURTZ: Just filling airtime.

KALB: Yeah, Eric, to what degree was your audience, your viewers, informed in advance that this was all set up?

SINGER: Well, what happened was prior to the actual interview...

KALB: Did you cut your viewers in on the deal?

SINGER: ... Basically. Absolutely. I mean, that's the job of live television, to make sure that people know what's going to go on before it happens. In this case, we had live breaking news. We had been going on for hours.

But at this moment right before we actually did the interview, we did a live shot, a sort of preamble of sorts, explaining exactly what the deal was. Both of these men each had five minutes uninterrupted. That was the brokered arrangement. And I explained to them what exactly was to come out of it at the end as well.

KALB: Did you get a feeling of -- I hate to use the word of being used because journalists are being used constantly in a variety of ways. Are you troubled by this perception of the media and the police working arm-in-arm on a story?

SINGER: Well, you know what? I'm not troubled by the perception in the sense that do we not, when we go out on stories, say, for example, following police officers and interview them live on scene in breaking news coverage, are we being used by them when they say, "Well, we can't divulge any more information," or, "We need to say, for example, cordon off an area."

Are we being used with them? Or are we working in conjunction with them? I think sometimes journalists perhaps may have a quandary with that. I don't. To me, in this sense, in this situation, in this instance, this was the right thing to do for all concerned.

KURTZ: The key distinction was you were out in the open about it. Sometimes the deals that are made between journalists and law enforcement take place behind the scenes. And viewers and readers are not informed.

We have just a few seconds, Eric Singer. You've gotten a lot of exposure out of this case, the "Today" show obviously and other things. In a strange way, could this be good for your career?

SINGER: Well, I know in my heart as far as I'm concerned, if I could talk to Bernard Kalb and Howard Kurtz, my life in and of itself is complete.

KALB: No more questions, Howie, please. No more questions.

KURTZ: Perfectly asked, answered question.


KURTZ: Thanks very much for joining us.

SINGER: Thank you.

KURTZ: We'll be right back.


KURTZ: 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, the full Capital Gang is on for a full hour to talk about Alan Greenspan's surprise, more trouble for John Ashcroft, and Bill Clinton's most controversial pardon, that and much more right here next on CNN.



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