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Reliable Sources

Is Journalistic Credibility Sometimes Tainted by Hollywood?; Navy and Press at Odds Over Fatal Submarine Accident

Aired February 17, 2001 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ: Hooray for Hollywood, but is that the media's job? Are journalist being seduced by the celluloid publicity machine, making deals for big stars and passing on box office fiction?

And, sinking credibility. The Navy and the press, at odds again over a fatal submarine accident.

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

Covering Hollywood has become a booming industry for the press, especially during Oscar season.


PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: In Hollywood today was the earliest morning of the year.

KATHY BATES, ACTRESS: I'm pleased to announce that the films selected as best picture nominees for the year 2000 are ...

KURTZ (voice-over): From the little screen to the big screen to those celebrity-laden magazine covers, show-business has become big business for the media. And inescapable for the public.

PETER TRAVERS, "ROLLING STONE" MAGAZINE: The shoe-in would be Julia Roberts, who we already know, she'll be dressed and ready to go.

KURTZ: For reporters, the Hollywood beat can be frustrating, dealing with the hype, some call it lies, as movie studios try to drum-up publicity for their stars and journalists seek access without being compromised. "The Los Angeles Times" charges this week that some of them are being used and worse.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, David Shaw, media critic for "The Los Angeles Times," who wrote that series of reports this week about the special problems of covering Hollywood. Also in Los Angeles, Kim Masters, senior correspondent of, a contributing editor of "Vanity Fair," and the author of a book about Disney. And, in New York, Maggie Murphy, assistant managing editor of "Entertainment Weekly." Welcome.

David Shaw, you say in this series that Hollywood executives lie all the time about box-office numbers, about film budgets, about what they had for lunch, and that they get away with it. Why don't reporters, or at least more reporters, call them on it?

DAVID SHAW, MEDIA CRITIC, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES": Because if they call them on it then the people might not talk to them next time and that's their bread-and-butter and they're afraid of offending them. And so they play right into the hands of the people who like to tell lies and since they don't quote them by name anyway, letting them go off the record all the time, nobody even knows all the time who is lying.

KURTZ: Kim Masters, is there a culture of mutual seduction in L.A. in which journalists, who are dependent on access to Tom and Nicole and Bruce and Demi and Julia, soften their edges or pull their punches in order to maintain that access?

KIM MASTERS, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT, INSIDE.COM: Well, I think one of the big challenges here, and a flaw in the series that "The L.A. Times" did is, there are very types of coverage here. When you're dealing with reporters like me, or business reporters at "The Wall Street Journal," "The New York Times," I don't deal with Tom and Nicole. I don't care about Tom and Nicole ...

KURTZ: You don't care about Tom and Nicole?

MASTERS: I'm afraid I don't. I know, it's very cruel, but I don't. And I think they'll be fine. And it's a completely different - we deal in the business community. Now, I'm not saying that those guys don't try to lie to us all the time, but I think that reporters in my line of work certainly call them on it, as often as possible.

And there's also the third category, which is the trades, "Variety" and "Hollywood Reporter," where there's, you know, a completely different ball game. So, the point I'm trying to make is this is an apples-and-oranges-type of discussion, unless we distinguish celebrity coverage from business coverage from trade coverage.

KALB: Maggie, Dave is suggesting that out in Hollywood deals are made in order to access to the big stars. Well, the same thing is tried, certainly, here in Washington, with access to politicians. They want to make deals, the media may at times accept, I can't itemize anything, but essentially it is rejected. Why don't the reporters covering Hollywood reject the deals, because ultimately the stars and the producers, etcetera, need the media to get their story out?

MAGGIE MURPHY, ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR, "ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY": Well, we accept and reject deals all the time. I mean, we are not a magazine the promises covers, but there are a lot of magazines out there that are making their bread-and-butter and putting a celebrity on the cover. And, unfortunately, I think that those deals do go down. We, it makes what "Entertainment Weekly" does that much harder, when we hold the line.

And I think Kim is right. There is a difference here between, you know, the members of the Golden Globe Group, the Hollywood Foreign Press, and what people like Kim do or what we do at "Entertainment Weekly." And then there are a lot of other magazines out there that just feel they need that star to sell their magazine and they will do anything that they have to to get that person on the cover.

KALB: David, I like that quintessential book called "Hello, He Lied" as emblematic of the kind of culture of deception, I think, was the phrase in one of your articles, to describe Hollywood. What does the media, what can the media do to penetrate that fog of "deception, lying, etcetera."

SHAW: Well, let me just back up for one second and suggest that Maggie talk to her own boss, Jim Seymore at "Entertainment Weekly," who told me, on the record, that they do promise covers. In terms of, in terms of your question, I think that you have to hold people's feet to the fire. And if they lie to you, you don't quote them in telling the lie and you insist that people be quoted by name. There's far too much anonymous sourcing in all news media about Hollywood.

MURPHY: Well, I mean, let me go to David's thing. You know, if we know that Julia Roberts has a movie out, will we want to do a cover? Sure, that's what we do in our business. But, will we admit, will we let people dictate what photographer we use? Will we let them decide what quotes we use, which people have done? Will we do things like, I mean, part of the cover thing is part of confusing. What's really become a problem is sort of allowing people like Julia Roberts to have her producer do the interview. And that is like such a disgrace to journalism and not what "Entertainment Weekly" does or people like Kim do. That kind of deal-making is where we are right now.

I mean, going around in - the cover thing blurs, actually, kind of blurs the issue. I think what we really want to talk about are the kinds of management that's going on for journalists and that it's very, very tough to fight that battle, but a lot of us do.

KURTZ: OK. Let me pick it up with Kim Masters. Have you had the experience, you're a long-time Hollywood reporter known for being rather tough, of being frozen out by particular executives? And, if that's the case, with only seven major studios in town, doesn't it make it awfully difficult to do your job?

MASTERS: It's happened on a couple of occasions that, when I was at "The Washington Post," in fact, that a studio would say get another writer and, to "The Post"'s credit, "The Post" said, you know, forget it. It's this writer or there's no story. It happened on "Batman" when we were going to do a Tim Burton profile and it happened on "The Abyss" with the Jim Cameron piece.

However, by and large, the guys who run these studios, the business side, the moguls that run this place know that, you know, you can try to freeze someone out, as Jeffrey Katzenburg is now trying to do to "The L.A. Times," but ultimately it's a losers game. It's a small town. We all work together, and it actually, it sort of leads me to address this issue of people going off the record.

I don't really have a huge issue with people talking to me off the record because my priority is to get accurate information and my experience is, I get much more accurate information if people feel that they can talk to me with candor and they don't have to feel that they're watching every syllable that they say because it might be quoted by name. I find that I get at the truth much more readily with trusted sources who trust me, and they do tell me the truth, and if they, if I do catch them lying, of course I confront them about it.

KALB: David, hasn't journalism recognized that some of the debunking, demythologizing books, like "Mommy Dearest," are more successful, have more appeal with movie fans than the puff pieces that appear in the magazines?

SHAW: Well, people are always more interested in scandal and dirt, unfortunately, than they are in ...

KALB: And you're not getting scandal and dirt from the producers who are pedalling their stars.

SHAW: No, of course you're not. They all want everything to be as flattering as possible, and that's one of the reasons, when you asked earlier about why magazines, why some magazines are more willing to cave in to conditions than others, there are so many magazines out there now that are so dependent on celebrities that if a few magazines say no, they'll just find another magazine that will. I mean, look at a magazine like "Vanity Fair."

KURTZ: And on that point, Maggie Murphy, if other publications are perfectly willing to play this game, as you alluded to earlier, of letting a studio, for example, have veto power over who the writer is going to be, what the theme is going to be, what questions will be asked and what questions will not be asked, doesn't that make it hard, if you're holding the line, for you to compete for some of these top- flight celebrity interviews?

MURPHY: It's extremely difficult when you have competition willing to let, you know, a producer sit down and conduct the interview with the star. But here's sort of what you have to do. You have to be journalistic. You have to say, alright, can we get the main star to do the story? No. So, what story do we tell? What's another story? How can we get into it? You don't ask permission to write the piece, you go ahead and write the piece.

KALB: I see.

MURPHY: And that's what you have to do. And that's what true journalists, like Kim, like people at "Entertainment Weekly," like the news weeklies now that they cover entertainment, do. They don't ask permission and then wait for the publicist to dictate the commands.

KALB: Maggie, competition is one of the things you all have to live through with journalism. There's no question about that. But, after you strike a deal about questions you might ask, whether you put somebody on the cover ... MURPHY: We never strike a deal about questions. I mean, you know, basically, that's ...

KALB: Alright, about, you're striking a deal about a cover?

MURPHY: Well, we'll say ...

KALB: Alright. Now this is -- let me get to my question. My question is, to whatever degree a deal is struck, by whomever, do you have the - don't you feel you're obliged to tell your readers the piece you're reading is the end-product of a deal that has these dimensions we struck with this star or this studio?

MURPHY: Well, we don't strike any deals other than saying, OK, well, let's see, Julia Roberts is going to have a big movie, we'd like to cover it, because that's of interest to the "Entertainment Weekly" reader. After that, we go and we send someone to do the story and, let me tell you, every single week we lose more covers than we ever get because we're known as being a lot, very, very tough.


MURPHY: We get, and, you know, we're highly unpopular in Hollywood. And to that degree, the level of which we're unpopular, I think, is a badge of honor to us.

KURTZ: Maggie, I've got to jump in. I've got to jump in. David Shaw, you write that many people in Los Angeles believe that "The Wall Street Journal" and also "The New York Times" do a better job of covering Hollywood than your newspaper, "The Los Angeles Times." That must have been tough to write. What do you make of that criticism from the people you are interviewing?

SHAW: Well, I think that what the story said was that "The New York Times" used to do a better job, when Bernie Weintraub (ph) first took over the beat in the early-90's. What people were saying now was they thought that "The Wall Street Journal" did a better job than either "The L.A. Times" or "The New York Times."

It's my job, and it has been for more than 25 years, to write critical analysis about how the news media performs. When "The L.A. Times" does a good job, my stories say so. If they aren't doing a good job, and the people I interview say they aren't do a good job, my stories say that. And I've been fortunate that the paper has given me the freedom to write those things.

KURTZ: And indeed you have. You have pulled no punches. We are, unfortunately, out of time. David Shaw, "Los Angeles Times," Kim Masters, and "Vanity Fair," and Maggie Murphy of "Entertainment Weekly," thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, how reporters are covering the developing story of the U.S. submarine that sank a Japanese fishing boat.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Now, to a new standoff between two adversaries, media versus military. Will the military never learn, the story always comes out. The Navy was tight-lipped about details of the U.S. submarine collision with a Japanese fishing boat near Hawaii. It took days to discover that civilians were onboard, and some at the sub controls. And the Navy was embarrassed when three of the civilian guests showed up on NBC's "Today Show."

Well, joining us now from "Time" magazine, military correspondent Mark Thompson and George Wilson, military columnist for "National Journal."


Mark Thompson, sometimes the Pentagon has to respond immediately. We saw that Friday. U.S. air strikes against Baghdad, hastily arranged news conference. In the case of the submarine accident, the information put out was not so immediate. Is this is part because of a culture of distrust that's grown up between the military and the press?

MARK THOMPSON, MILITARY CORRESPONDENT, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, that's a part of it, Howie, but I also think it's important to realize the military, the Navy, was stunned at this accident. I mean, for awhile, at least for several hours on Saturday and into Sunday, they were saying did this really happen? And they were still gathering data and really couldn't believe something so terrible actually had occurred on their watch.

KURTZ: Now, George Wilson, at a Navy briefing on Tuesday, you asked the question of the briefer about whether there were any civilians at the sub controls. That sent some wheels turning and led to CNN reporter Jamie McIntyre a few hours later going on the air with information that indeed there was at least one, it turns out two, civilians at the sub controls. What made you ask that question absent any information that this sort of thing was happening on the USS Greenville.

GEORGE WILSON, MILITARY COLUMNIST "NATIONAL JOURNAL": Well, I had some suspicions. First of all, 16 people as guests on a submarine and I figured that they were taking turns at the controls because, frankly, I've been at the controls of a submarine as a guest of the Navy. And my thought was that perhaps some civilian was at the helmsman position in this rather tricky maneuver where they pop from them depths of the sea and plunge out into the surface and, therefore, hit the ship. And ...

KURTZ: The response you got from the briefer, however, was ...

WILSON: Well, we hope that will be found out in the investigation, which was a spin. But, then the surprise to me was other people came and said, hey, look, we're not of one-mind on this. You obviously have the story and we think that the Navy should release the names and, yes, indeed, there were civilians on there. So, it was confirmed to me and then I cross-checked it with another source and we got ready to put it on the net, and that was it. KALB: To give the Pentagon a break, sometimes in those instant moments after some sort of disaster, such as this one, there is an uncertainty about exactly what happened, so they get a break on that point, about being slightly hesitant about rushing with facts. It's got to be checked out. But, having said that, why does the Pentagon immediately retreat into a defensive mode? Do you see these roots going all the way back to the collisions between the military and media dating back to Vietnam, a quarter of a century ago?

THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, when you look at historical disasters the military has been involved with, Bernie, you know, be it the bombing of the Chinese embassy or the shooting down of Iran air, it's a double-edged sword. Either they try to make it out to be not as bad as it really is, and subsequently are shown that they were wrong and may indeed have fibbed about it. Or else they withhold information and they get criticized for not releasing it. In this case, they had ...

KURTZ: But, and you guys in the media, you're in the instant news business. You want answers now, yesterday, and the fact is, these investigations take time. And if they say something wrong, you'll hammer them. So, aren't you helping to put the pressure on these people who are trying to do their jobs?

THOMPSON: Yeah. That's true, I think. But, you know, they plainly have the freedom to say we can't tell you this now. The trouble is, when certain elements in the Navy know stuff, and the public affairs officers don't. And reporters, like George and myself, go and talk to lots of people in the Navy who aren't public affairs officers and that's sometimes how they get wrapped around these axles.

KALB: There's always this dimension of what those of us who covered the war in Vietnam, at the military briefings, they used to call the 5:00 Follies. That gives you some idea as to the kind of faith we had in what they said. But, by the same token, there is, it was indicated, the disconnect very often between those who know the facts and those who are put out in uniform to dance in front of the media and find all sorts of evasive replies when, in fact, it boomerangs against the Pentagon.

KURTZ: And let me take that up with George Wilson. I mean, I'm sure you've had other instances where somebody in the chain of command, in the Navy or some other branch of the armed services, had information that later did come out, but it looked like, kind of like pulling teeth. And why have things not evolved to a point where the Navy or the Army would think it's in its own interest to put out information? It might be embarrassing, it might put the military in a bad light, rather than wait for some reporter to break it?

WILSON: Well, seminar after seminar makes the point that bad news doesn't get better with age. Everybody agrees. And then something happens that really is bad, and no one in the military situation wants to do something until his boss checks it off. So, that's what's different in the military, they have to check through the Pacific Command. They have to check through the Joint Chiefs. And it's very frustrating for some of the people in the middle, who want to tell the story and get the bad news over with, but the military is a hierarchical system and that inhibits them on things like this.

KURTZ: In fact, the Navy's top information officer told me he regrets they did not put out this information about the civilians more quickly, but that the military instinct is to investigate first and say nothing. Would you agree with that assessment?

WILSON: I agree with that. But I think that they should know by this time that the whole world is wired together. And when they have 16 civilians aboard and announce the fact that they have 16 but won't give you the names, immediately the red flags go up. So, they buy themselves all this trouble.

KALB: Would you agree?

WILSON: Yeah, I mean, the key thing is that these are institutions, but there are people in those jobs and they have to keep relearning it. The institution doesn't accrete it and learn it, rather each new Admiral has to learn it.

KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there. George Wilson, "National Journal." Mark Thompson, "Time" magazine. Thanks very much for joining us.

Now, checking the e-mail about last weeks show, "Presidents Past and Present," from Lake Jackson, Texas, a view messaged us about Bush, "Is the White House obligated to give you ammo to roast them over an open fire? Get your egos in check." And, from Canada, "Clinton again? Come on, guys, get a life. I thought journalism was an art? Seems there's no creative juices left."

More on Clinton coverage, up next in "Bernie's Back Page."


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

KALB: You look through the newspapers. You surf the channels. And you find yourself wondering whether the media had got things backwards, especially their editorial judgment.


KALB (voice-over): Just look at this, and this. Tune in to the nightly news shows and there you have it, Clinton by a landslide. The ex-pres still the big story, not the new guy. There's no escape from Bill and the debris of his departure. This past week, Monday through Thursday, he got 46 minutes on the big-three broadcast news shows. Bush got only nine minutes for his defense proposals. And, of course, there's nonstop Bill on the talk shows.

BILL PRESS, HOST, "CROSSFIRE": You think it couldn't get any hotter for former President Bill Clinton? It just did.

KALB: Same with the tabloids. "The New York Times" gave two columns and a picture of Bill's switcheroo from mid-town to Harlem and only a single column to Bush and his plans for the Pentagon. And then, the ultimate test of who is dominating the news, the late night comics.

JAY LENO, HOST, "THE TONIGHT SHOW": Is it me, or is Clinton in the paper more now than when he was president?

KALB: This steady staccato of the come-back kid raises the question of editorial judgment. Should the media be giving all that journalistic priority, all that space, to a former, instead of a present president?

Now, sure, you've got to cover Clinton. There's the controversial Marc Rich pardon, for example.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A Federal prosecutor here in New York has launched a criminal investigation into former-President Clinton's pardon of billionaire fugitive Marc Rich.

KALB: But should the lead story of the day be Bill, Bill, Bill and all his last minute hijinks, rather than Bush's agenda for the country and it's impact on all of us? The fact is, the media still find Clinton tough to resist. And seeing them together is like watching a great comedy act.


KALB: Look, it's no secret that the news media have increasingly come under attack for increasingly surrendering to entertainment. Well, these last few weeks the media have given their critics plenty of ammunition.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb; thanks.

We'll be back with an official scolding for the networks.


KURTZ: It was an unusual spectacle this week as the networks were summoned to Capitol Hill. Like school kids reporting to the principal's office, the network brass were sworn in before a congressional hearing about those election night blunders.


TOM JOHNSON, CHAIRMAN AND CEO, CNN NEWS GROUP: As I have told our staff and I know that we all understand it, we would rather be right than first.

ROGER ARLES, PRESIDENT, FOX NEWS: I apologize for making those bad projections that night. It will not happen again.

ANDREW HEYWARD, PRESIDENT, CBS NEWS: The penalty, we were wrong, in addition to having to, you know, spend the day here, which is fine, is that our credibility with our public is impaired.


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.

"CAPITOL GANG" is up next; Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll talk about President Bush's tax cuts, more about the Marc Rich pardon, and civilians at the helm of the U.S. nuclear submarine at the time of it's fatal accident. All that, and much more, with the full "CAPITOL GANG" right here, next, on CNN.



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