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Reliable Sources

`National Enquirer' Gets Scoop on Presidential Pardons; Bernard Shaw Reflects on 20 Years at CNN

Aired February 24, 2001 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The president, the pardons, the brother- in-law and the supermarket tabloid. "The National Enquirer" scoops the mainstream press, again.

The Clintons still dominating the media while Bush takes a backseat. We'll talk with "Enquirer" editor Steve Coz and "Newsweek"'s Michael Isikoff.

And, 20 years at CNN comes to an end. A conversation with Bernard Shaw.

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

Well, just when it appeared that the Clinton story might finally be dying down after the former president's unprecedented appearance on the cover of "Time" and "Newsweek", a new pardon controversy erupted. This one courtesy of "The National Enquirer". And once the news hit the AP wire, it was all over the airwaves.


DAN RATHER, ANCHOR, "CBS EVENING NEWS": There was a stunning development late today in the investigation of Presidential Pardons.

PETER JENNINGS, ANCHOR, "ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT": And there's also been another embarrassment for the Clinton family.

KURTZ (voice-over): Bill Clinton's brother-in-law, Hugh Rodham, got $400,000 for lobbying for two felons, money he quickly returned under pressure from the former first family as the story was about to break.

One of the felons got a Presidential Pardon, the other's sentence was commuted. And it was a supermarket tabloid that had the goods. The "Enquirer", getting the scoop just weeks after rocking the establishment press by breaking the story of what it called Jesse Jackson's love child.

The latest allegations put the media spotlight on Hillary Clinton, the freshman Senator who fenced with reporters at a news conference. SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I don't want you to try to put words in my mouth. I knew nothing about my brother's involvement in these pardons.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now from Florida is Steve Coz, Editor- in-Chief of "The National Enquirer". And here in Washington, Michael Isikoff, investigative reporter for "Newsweek" magazine and author of "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story".

Steve Coz, first the Jesse Jackson scoop. Now the Hugh Rodham story. Is the "Enquirer" becoming, forgive me, a more serious newspaper? Or has the establishment press gotten a bit slow?

STEVE COZ, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, THE NATIONAL ENQUIRER: I think it's a combination of both. We've obviously changed our focus a bit. We are heading more into politics. At the same time, when we were chasing down the pardon story that we ran, we didn't come across any other news organization out there beating the same trail. We were surprised.

KURTZ: Now, the "Enquirer" is well known for it's checkbook journalism. So, just between you and me, didn't it help to spread a little cash around on both of these stories?

COZ: Money was not the driving force on either story. We do pay for information. In this particular case, the payments were not made to anybody that was a principle source. There were some secondary sources that were paid. It's not the driving force on either of these investigations.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Mike, investigative journalism of this sort is your field. Now, this is one that somehow got past you.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, NEWSWEEK: Well, we try to catch as many as we can, but we miss quite a few. Look, it was a slam-dunk story. They had the wire transfer. If Steve says he got it without paying money for it, you know, my hat off to him. My hat off to him anyway, because the story held up and it's solid and it's something that, you know, any mainstream news organization, from "The New York Times" to "The Washington Post" to "Newsweek" to CNN, would have gone with in a minute once they had the facts.

KALB: Speaking of gone with, Steve, would you have used this story if you didn't have the bank transfer in your hands?

COZ: We were facing that situation three or four days before we did lock this story. We had fantastic sources. We trusted our sources. We would have gone with it without the bank transfer because we believed it's true. I think the difference would have been, it may not have forced the Clintons' hand.

KURTZ: Michael Isikoff, every story about the Clinton pardons is, in my view, absolutely legitimate, including your scoop this week about Roger Clinton being involved in, at least, at some sort of attempt to get some Presidential Pardons. That didn't pan out and there was no money involved.

But, couldn't it also be said that 99-and-a-half percent of pardons by past presidents never received this kind of media scrutiny?

ISIKOFF: Well, I don't think that most past pardons ever reached this kind of level where you had, on a rather large scale, political connections, big money and now family connections, all coming together behind many of these pardons.

Certainly, there've been high profile, controversial pardons in the past. Casper Weinberger, the pardon of Gerald Ford, of Richard Nixon by Gerald Ford. But they were pretty much well out in the open. Everybody knew what the issues were. There was, obviously, intense scrutiny at that period too.

I mean these things, the way, the way the story broke, sort of, late, last minute pardons, we get this list on the day George W. Bush is being inaugurated, with all these funny names. We start going down the list and then these connections start getting made. I mean, this was, you know, had all the ingredients of a kind of story that gets any investigative reporter's juices flowing.

KURTZ: But Steve Coz, your staple is Hollywood gossip. I mean, last week's cover was Arnold and Maria. Do your readers really care about Hugh Rodham?

COZ: Yes, they do. You know, what we go after is basically what people are talking about at their water cooler. If you notice on the cover, that we have the Clinton pay-off scandal on, our story above the logo is Tom Cruise's divorce. You know, these are two subjects that Americans are talking about. The media might not like the fact that we cover Hollywood and politics, but we think Americans read about that.

If I could get back to one thing that Mike just said, you know, I think what has taken this whole pardon situation up to the outraged level, the public is outraged, as the polls show, is the idea of money. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I have never, in the past pardons that have been granted by presidents, seen suddenly $100,000, $200,000, $400,000 payments in the air and being publicly discussed. And that's what's driven this outrage.

KALB: You know, Steve, all of here are too much of the way of journalistic gentlemen to ask you to reveal sources and so forth, but how in fact does, as elliptically as you choose to be, how in fact did this story reach you? And then you put about 600 reporters to sort of flesh it out. How did that all happen?

COZ: Well, actually, how we went about this story is, we were not tipped to the story. In Jesse Jackson, we were tipped that there was a love child. On this particular story, we sat down, we looked through the pardons that were rushed through at the end, particularly the ones that were outside the Justice Department. We thought 10 of those did not pass the smell test. We concentrated on those 10 and within about five or six days, Braswell popped to the top of our list and we put all our resources on the Glenn Braswell pardon. KALB: What was appealing, just follow-up, what was appealing? The potential for a journalistic scandal or, as you suggested before, there's a kind of convergence? You're walking in the direction of mainstream journalism now.

COZ: Yeah, we're walking in the direction of mainstream journalism in that mainstream journalism spends a lot of time and energy covering Washington. And between that and Bill Clinton, Washington politicians are now celebrities. Bill Clinton is heads- and-shoulders, you know, the largest celebrity in Washington, despite being the ex-president. He's achieved a Hollywood status, as have other politicians in Washington. They've become familiar to the population. They want to know about them and it sells "Enquirers".

KURTZ: A lot of people, Michael Isikoff, think that Bill Clinton is the media's president for life, that his trials and tribulations have been such a gravy train for more than eight years now for the press, reporters like you and me and others, that you don't want to give him up.

ISIKOFF: Well, he is the gift that keeps giving, and I had thought that the, I mean, I had thought the pardon story may have played itself out after last week, after, you know, "Newsweek" and "Time" put Clinton on the cover and, you know, the Rich story. He was under criminal investigation in New York, but I didn't see a lot of new information coming out.

KURTZ: But couldn't you say that George Bush, President Bush, is benefiting because somebody like you, an investigative reporter, were you not chasing Clinton pardons, you'd be looking for skullduggery in the administration.

ISIKOFF: Exactly, exactly. And I was all ready to get back to doing that, and then this, you know, I mean, Steve pops this thing about Rodham and it opens up a whole new avenue of inquiry.

Can I, since this is a media show, I actually have a question for Steve that I'd like to, yeah. Steve, my understanding is your main libel lawyer is David Kendall, who also happens to be the President's libel lawyer. And I just wonder, on a story like this, that obviously implicates directly the President, how do you handle that and did David Kendall have a heads-up that this story was coming?

COZ: I was hoping that would slide underneath the radar, Mike.


COZ: David Kendall is the head of our copy review team. He's obviously a high-profile lawyer from Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C. On this particular instance, no one at Williams & Connolly knew that we had this story. Williams & Connolly flies in each week to do copy review on our entire issue. They are kept out of editorial. They are kept in a separate location. We only give them the stories that we want them to legal...

KURTZ: Steve Coz, very briefly, can we expect more exposes on influence peddling on Capitol Hill for "The National Enquirer", or do you only do famous politicians?

COZ: Famous - politician and celebrity are now mixed, Harold. But, yes, we are putting a big, big push on Washington and we have two stories in development right now.

KURTZ: Tantalize the viewers. OK. Steve Coz ...

COZ: We're trying to keep up with Mike.

KURTZ: Steve Coz, "National Enquirer", Michael Isikoff, "Newsweek" magazine, thanks very much for joining us.

COZ: Thank you.

KURTZ: Up next, a conversation with the man that many think is the symbol for CNN.



BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: You can depend on us being here all the time. And please, pass the word.

Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?

We were just told by the government of China that about 58 minutes from now the government will pull the plug on all transmissions out of this nation. That is why we are rushing to get our report on the air to you.

This is unprecedented and I'm really anxious for daybreak to come so that we can get out and see what has been wrought here.

From historic Danville, Kentucky, good evening, and welcome to this year's only vice-presidential debate sponsored by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

I am leaving CNN. I am stepping back from the table to write books, including an autobiography.


KURTZ: And joining us now is Bernard Shaw. Welcome.

SHAW: Thank you.

KURTZ: Bernie, nobody gives up these big anchor jobs; Tom, Dan, Peter, they'll have to carry them out. Why are you stepping down now and, seriously, could it be related to this talk about CNN reinventing itself and maybe you weren't part of the reinvention?

SHAW: Well, I'm committing anchor heresy by doing this, because as you say, people don't readily give up the jobs. My leaving is partly due to a standing commitment to Random House. They've been waiting patiently for nine years for an autobiography manuscript. I'm going to deliver. Also, I'm leaving because I promised my best friend, Linda, my wife of 26 years, that enough of me, me, me, a promise also made to our son and daughter, Anil and Amar. They've sacrificed far too much, as all families do who have a journalist in their midst, a breadwinner.

And also, I want to do other writing. I want to grow more roses and peonies in my garden and I think I've worked long and hard and it's time to stretch out. And this has not one psylla to do with the reincarnation, as I like to call it, that CNN is going through.

KURTZ: Bernie, you're shaking your head.

KALB: I'm listening to Bernie talking, and I'm saying they're really hardly good reasons. I mean they're hardly good reasons for abandoning this job.

KURTZ: He wants to do more gardening. Write a book and more gardening.

KALB: Bernie, you know, one of the questions, in taking an autobiographical look at things, I've known that over the years you have resisted signing autographs. You have rejected the image of what, indeed, you are, a journalistic celebrity. You walk away from the pen ...

SHAW: That's what you called me.

KALB: I called you that, that's right. But I know, and I've seen you not signing autographs. And, how does that decision come to you?

SHAW: Nor do I like to pose for pictures. Look, I'm a journalist. I'm a reporter. I'm not a celebrity. I'm not a personality. You accuse me of being a celebrity journalist ...

KALB: Perceived as being a journalistic celebrity ...

SHAW: OK. But, just because ...

KALB: ... alleged.

SHAW: ... people perceive me to be a personality, doesn't mean that I regard myself that way. It's my way, it's Bernie Shaw's private way of keeping himself honest, so I can do honest work.

KURTZ: Cable news, and CNN in particular, has been taking it's knocks lately ...

SHAW: Unfairly so.

Kurtz: Well, but being accused of being more dramatic, more sensational, more celebrity-oriented, to use your old favorite word. Are you troubled at all by the direction of cable news?

SHAW: Of this network? KURTZ: In general, including CNN.

SHAW: Well, I, as a policy, I don't criticize our competitors. But, what this network is doing is redefining itself. It's going through a reincarnation. We started with 300 employees, ballooned to 4000. And once AOL and Time Warner absorbed us, there obviously had to be revision.

What I don't like is that some truly great people have left the company, not of their own volition. But CNN has not strayed one inch from it's primary goal of reporting the news. This network is the goal standard when it comes to network journalism, television journalism, either domestically or internationally.

KURTZ: Nothing you would do differently if you were the czar of CNN in terms of news coverage, news emphasis kinds of stories.

SHAW: Oh, no, no, no. I mean, our people are outstanding when it comes to the news budget, covering stories in the United States and around the world. We're the goal standard.

One thing, if I had the power, I would disabuse CNN executives of thinking that somehow they can come up with programming that's going to maintain a clothesline level of ratings across the board ...

KURTZ: Despite whether there's a lot of news or a little bit of news.

SHAW: When there is breaking news, our audience spikes upward. When there is no breaking news, we go to the valley. That will always happen. I admire executives who are paid to worry about those things, but they'll never turn that around.

KALB: Bern, are African Americans getting enough opportunities in television journalism?

SHAW: I would say, generally, no, nor are women, nor are other people of color.

KALB: And how do you explain that?

SHAW: Oh, I think the domination of males, white males.

KALB: You're not suggesting a kind of a prejudice here? Are we talking about ability ...

SHAW: No, I'm talking about a mind-set.

KALB: A mind-set. Define that. Take a moment ...

SHAW: Decision makers. Generally, people are accustomed to people who look like them, who share their backgrounds. In this great, diverse nation, it's strength is it's diversity.

KALB: Bern, did you feel that responsibility, if that's the right word, on your shoulders, when you made the decision, walking away? In terms of resonance in the African American community?

SHAW: No, no, no. I did not.

KALB: You did not?

SHAW: I have always seen myself as a world class journalist. I wanted to be the best of the best. I mean, what do you want? You want me to stay around until rigor mortis sets in?

KALB: Well, you know ...

SHAW: I'm not going to do that.

KURTZ: You are renowned for asking tough, blunt questions. And we saw in one of those clips at the top of the segment, the famous question, 1988, to Michael Dukakis, how would he would react if his wife was raped and murdered.

There was a lot of criticism after that, that you were making yourself part of the story. I know you don't agree, but tell us why.

SHAW: I still get lots of heat for having asked that question. It was a very honest question, rooted in the issues in the campaign. President, Vice-President Bush had called Dukakis the ice man twice. All of our exit polling showed that people didn't doubt that Dukakis was a superb executive, a technocrat as some of his critics say. Crime was an issue, as was capital punishment. You remember the famous Willie Horton ad. That question was rooted ...

KURTZ: And you'd do it again?

SHAW: Certainly. That question was rooted in the issues in that campaign in '88. I have no regrets about having asked that question. Since when did a question hurt a politician? It wasn't the questions, it was the answer.

KURTZ: Of course, it was the answer.

KALB: Philosophical overview. Where is journalism going these days?

SHAW: I think journalism is getting better. It's getting better. Today's crop of journalists includes a group of women and men who are better educated, highly motivated. The question is what the executives and the companies owning these news agencies are about.

KALB: And they are ...

SHAW: Well, we're a business, right? And profit is a major motivation. I have no worries about CNN, by the way, as long as we have journalists in the executive suites.

KURTZ: You'll understand this. We're out of time.


Bernard Shaw, thanks very much for joining us.

And, when we come back, coverage of President Bush in "Bernie's Back Page".



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you for this. I look forward to this. I look forward to future press conferences.

Well, yes, of course. After all, we've got - oh, you don't want to see me once a week. You'll run out of questions. Oh, twice - I'll be running out of ties.


KURTZ: President Bush on Thursday, joshing with reporters. More on the President's coverage now in "The Back Page".

KALB: Well, suddenly he was back on the front page.


KALB (voice-over): And all it took was a little old news conference, his first at the White House since his inauguration more than a month ago. And, bingo, that Q&A with reporters put him back on the front page, where he hadn't been all week long.

The President had vanished, just like that. The Commander-in- Chief, leader of the free world, global numero uno, he had been unfindable Sunday through Thursday on the front page of two of the countries most influential newspapers.

Sure, there had been lots of competition: the new spy story, the Clintons and the pardons, the submarine investigation, the NASCAR tragedy. Oh, yes, he did get his picture on page one on Tuesday, but that was only because he was at the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. Otherwise, not a single front page story for five days about what the President himself was doing.

Had Bush gone underground, or was print anti-Bush? Silly questions, because if he didn't make page one, you could find plenty of him on TV news. Bush here, Bush there, no shortage of Bush.

Those last few days have given us a vivid contrast between the two worlds of journalism, the world of TV and the world of print, and their differing requirements.

True, they're both after the big story, but TV news loves pictures, sound bites, and the cable nets, moreover, have 24 hours to fill. Print journalism will settle for the sheer content of the story, and print has only a couple of square feet of front page.

But Thursday afternoon, everything changed. The President stepped before the White House Press Corp and suddenly he was all over the front page, as well as TV.


KALB: So, if print journalism had any thought of putting out a missing persons alert for the President, it's been O.B.E., as they say in Washington, overtaken by events.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Time now for our "E-mail Bag". From Summerville, Massachusetts, reaction to our discussion last week on covering Hollywood:

"If serious journalists were as scrupulous in their reporting in Washington as Mr. Kalb wants them to be in Los Angeles, this might be a far better country than it is now."

From Warner-Robbins, Georgia:

"You state that you turn a critical eye upon the news media. You always conclude the media is perfect, everyone else is wrong."

I doubt the journalists who have been on this show would think that their behavior has been described as anything approaching perfect.

Well, up next on RELIABLE SOURCES, our "Media Roundup".


KURTZ: Checking on a few RELIABLE SOURCES media items, a big back down this week by "The Boston Globe".

The newspaper gave front page play to an apology, admitting that it goofed in reporting that unnamed investigators believed a love- triangle was the motive for the murder of two Dartmouth College faculty members.

And, an interesting footnote to the media frenzy over the story of FBI agent Robert Phillip Hanssen, now accused of being a Russian spy. NBC sat on the story for 12 hours at the FBI's request, to allow one final stakeout of alleged Russian contacts. "The Today Show" broke the story the next morning.

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.



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