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Is the Media Over-hyping the U.S.-China Standoff?; Is "Brill's Content" Abandoning Its Media Watchdog Role?

Aired April 7, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The China Syndrome. Are the media just reporting on the standoff over the American spy plane, or pumping up the drama? Is the press buying the president's no-crisis spin or indulging in Cold War coverage?

And, is "Brill's Content" abandoning it's media watchdog role as it takes over struggling "Inside.Com"? We'll talk with Steve Brill and "Inside's" Kurt Andersen.

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

The U.S./China standoff played out this week hour by hour on the screen and the front pages.


TOM BROKAW, ANCHOR, "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS": We can only imagine what 24 Americans are thinking as they begin their third day under Chinese guard with their very sophisticated U.S. spy plane parked nearby.

KURTZ (voice-over): Reporters wrestled with a story that is both an international crisis and, they keep reminding us, a crucial test of the new president's team.

But are the media trapped in a cold-war mind-set in a new geopolitical era? And are reporters buying the Bush White House language?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I sent a very clear message and I expect them to heed the message.


KURTZ: Joining us now, Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for "U.S. News and World Report." "TIME" magazine national security correspondent, Mark Thompson, and CNN's State Department correspondent, Andrea Koppel.

Roger Simon, is the press pulling its punches and following the White House lead in calling the American crewman detainees and saying this is not a hostage crisis? ROGER SIMON, "U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT": I think the Bush White House is certainly catching a break on the language of what is a real crisis, and in that we're all ignoring reality and calling these people detainees, a strange phrase, when in fact...

KURTZ: Ignoring reality?

SIMON: Yeah, we are. They're hostages. We, the Bush presidency, the White House, just decided that they were in fact not even detainees, which was a Colin Powell phrase, they're just servicemen and servicewomen who happen to be under guard at Hainan Island, when in fact we know their real status.

KURTZ: Andrea Koppel, you're on the air on this story hour after hour along with lots of reporters at the other cable news networks. Does that inescapable fact put pressure on the administration to do something, to say something, even at times when there is not much happening, seemingly, on this story?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: Howard, if I could first address the other point about the use of the word hostages.

KURTZ: Please.

KOPPEL: I would disagree with that, actually, because I think that the definition, at least that I've heard, of a true hostage-like situation would be if the other side were making demands for, whether it be compensation or other things. I think that they're request or demand for an apology can't really be equated with a financial term.

But, as to your initial question, I would say that we're the ones who are trying to pull this out of them. They would be just as happy not to say very much most of the time, and we're the ones who are on the phone every hour saying, what does this mean? The Chinese ambassador...

KURTZ: What have you got? What's new?

KOPPEL: ... was just here, he just left. So, I think that they are really trying, as they often do when they don't want to talk about a story, to control and, you know, dole-out the words one by one.

BERNARD KALB, HOST: Mark, this story has a lot of built in dramas. The word spy touches off memories of Cold War, etcetera. And yet, if you do the arithmetic on the way journalism has handled this story in the United States, as well as in China, we understand, there has been a measure of restraint. There hasn't been hysterical headlines. It's an important -- it's an urgent story, but we're not seeing anybody go over the cliff. Do you have that assessment?

MARK THOMPSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Yeah, I mean, basically, I think, Bernie, what folks are trying to do is avoid painting each other's side into a corner. If you call them hostages, all that's going to do is escalate the rhetoric. The problem for reporters at the Pentagon this week has been, they know very little and their bosses know very little about what really happened, yet in the military they are very angry because they believe that they're plane was downed by tomfoolery by this Chinese pilot.

KALB: Speaking of belittle, how do you explain the Pentagon -- I don't think it takes any particular wizardry. The Pentagon drawing that portrait of Wang Wei, the maverick of the Chinese Air Force, how close he came to the American spy plane and so forth, casting the onus of responsibility for the midair collision on the Chinese, clearly.

THOMPSON: Well, first of all, the American's haven't been able to speak. We saw, or we've seen over the last couple of days, the other Chinese F pilot, F-8 pilot, out there giving a speech and saying what he thought happened. The American's haven't had that opportunity.

So, the American's have sort of had their tongues tied behind their back...

KURTZ: It makes it frustrating for you, as a reporter, to not get any information.

THOMPSON: Yeah, it's very frustrating. It's very frustrating. But remember, the American's really don't know what's happening, either. So, there's a lot of rumors floating out there in the journalistic ether and everybody's grabbing at them. But, basically, what happened about 20,000, 25,000 feet over the South China Sea a week ago, very few people know and they're either Chinese or under house arrest.

SIMON: But we have all bought into the scenario that we did nothing wrong and it's the Chinese pilots fault. The irony here is that not too long ago an American sub sunk a Japanese fishing vessel. It's not like we never made mistakes.

KURTZ: Andrea Koppel, when North Korea seized the Pueblo in 1968, there was nothing like this kind of pressure on President Johnson because, among other things, there was no cable news. The administration you alluded to earlier would perhaps like to resolve this quietly, behind closed doors, but in the 24-hour media world, is that really possible?

KOPPEL: No, it isn't. And I think that we have been -- I think that the Bush administration, actually, has tried to be responsible, but I would also say that early on President Bush almost did paint us into a corner and, in fact, the last couple of days they've been trying to paint themselves out by coming out early, accusing the Chinese of holding our people and demanding that they be released, got the Chinese's backs up.

And, so what we've seen now in the last couple of days is really almost, you know, an extra effort to not further escalate the situation, not further get the Chinese ire up, and try to sort of quietly take the air out of their argument. THOMPSON: We started off on the wrong foot when we had an admiral come out Sunday, the first senior U.S. official to talk about it, Admiral Blair, out in Hawaii, and basically he said this plane is sovereign territory. You Chinese had better not go onboard. Well, that sort of began things in a very sour way.

KALB: You know, cable television, with instant coverage, instant play, etcetera, bouncing around the world, in a sense has made ambassadors on the spot rather superfluous and I'm thinking, Andrea, you see the secretary of state and the president negotiating, and that is the right word, negotiating with the Chinese instantly.

The media, in a sense, is superfluous as well. The Chinese are talking to the United States through their spokesman. Powell, the president, are talking to the Chinese directly. Which...

KURTZ: The media, superfluous? The media are a giant megaphone...

KALB: That's what I'm saying. We are providing the mechanism, the sort of, the electronic architecture, and we hum and hum and so forth.

KOPPEL: I was actually, Bernie, I was just describing it earlier this week on the air. I said it's, you know, it's diplomacy in the 21st century. Long gone are the days where you used to pass diplomatic notes by ship, or you'd have to wait weeks to hear back.

They're doing it live on CNN, CNBC, you know, and the other cable networks.

KURTZ: Roger Simon, I've seen a lot of, a number of talking heads on the air, making very aggressive statements. We should take firm action against, what they used to call Red China. And there are certain Cold War echoes here and I'm wondering, let's be honest, for journalists, isn't there a certain excitement to this story? I mean, not that anybody is taking any pleasure in it, but you have, you know, a representative of the old evil empire, you have good guys and bad guys, you have a collision in the sky. And so I wonder if there is a reversion to some of that Cold War mindset.

SIMON: I think there is on some of the talking heads. One assumes that the Chinese know as well as we do, that echo chamber in Washington is filled with people that have to be shoved out onto these talk shows and don't represent U.S. policy.

The important fact, I think, is that so many members of the Bush cabinet are from this set of people who are old Cold Warriors. I mean, it's sort of ironic that one of the first reactions to this crisis was, oh my gosh, I hope the president picks up the phone and talks to his father.

Times have changed slightly since George H.W. Bush was envoy to China.

KOPPEL: And you know, the question has been, why didn't President Bush pick up the phone to speak to China's president. I had heard that perhaps, you know, there was questions within the White House itself that they didn't know that there was a red phone to use.

SIMON: The Clinton people took it with them.

KURTZ: I see. Mark Thompson, just briefly, conflicting information. I've seen Andrea and others on the air saying we've heard this, but it's not confirmed. How do you try to sort that out and has the Pentagon been helpful or shall we say not helpful?

THOMPSON: Well, basically, Howie, it boils down to deduction. I mean, you can't define the circle, you can only define what isn't the circle, and if the circle is left, you report the circle. That's pretty much all you can do until we get some harder facts.

KURTZ: Sounds like a recipe for journalistic frustration.

Mark Thompson, Andrea Koppel, Roger Simon, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, a much-hyped media Web site gets rescued. We'll talk to the men at the top of "Brill's Content" and "Inside.Com."



The pack of media watchdogs may be loosing some of its snarl. "Brill's Content" magazine, which brought readers inside the ethical dilemmas of journalism, will take a more business-oriented slant as it takes control of "Inside.Com."

Well, joining us now, in New York, are Steven Brill, founder of "Brill's Content" and Kurt Andersen, founder of "Inside.Com."

Steve Brill, for almost three years you've been a media watchdog magazine, now you're becoming something else. Was it harder than you expected to turn covering the media into a successful publishing concept?

STEVEN BRILL, "BRILL'S CONTENT": Well, Howard, I'm not sure I agree with the premise of your question for two reasons.

First, we have never been any more of a media watchdog magazine than "The Washington Post" is a political watchdog newspaper or "The Wall Street Journal" is a watchdog of Wall Street. That's part of what we do.

At the very beginning, in an initial direct mail piece, we called ourselves that and immediate regretted it because what we set out to do was to cover how media, how content happens. And we gradually started to realize, maybe too late, that a big part of the story of how content happens is not simply the ethical, the ethical issues, though those are often very, very important, but sometimes that's a business story, as in the cover story that we have this issue about your network, CNN. That's a business story, and in part it's an ethical and content story.

KURTZ: But, in terms of the business at "Brill's Content," as part of this corporate marriage you are laying off about half your staff. That doesn't sound to me like it's been a smashing success so far.

BRILL: Well, Howard, A we're not laying off half of our staff by any stretch; B...

KURTZ: You're having some layoffs. You're having some layoffs, correct?

BRILL: Well, I wouldn't say that CNN isn't a success because of all the layoffs that CNN, and I'm not sure you should say the same thing about us.

No, we are expanding our business. We are redefining our business. We are trying to make our business better, which is what I though I heard your boss say about what you were doing at CNN.

KALB: Kurt, your original estimate, if I remember correctly, was to shoot for 30,000 subscribers. And the last figure I saw was that you had achieved about one-third, about 10,000, and even that at discount rates.

What will be absorbed, then, what future does the thrust that you have, the business part of entertainment and the media, what future will that have in the new magazine, "Inside Content"?

KURT ANDERSEN, "INSIDE.COM": Well, we are doing a couple of things.

First of all, we didn't sell subscriptions at a particular discount, we sold them for between $80 and $200, depending on what people were buying. So, there's that.

What we're doing, I mean, what this merger gives us a chance to do is connect this incredible team of journalists that we've assembled and kept on at "Inside.Com" to other platforms, if you will, for they're -- for what they're writing, for their journalism.

So, we have a terrific book industry staff, for instance, who will continue to do what they've done, but now there will be a newsletter that already exists, in Steve's company, in "Media Central," the prime media part of this three-way merger, really, for that to be out on.

KALB: Curt, you're being absorbed. But will there be any change in the thrust of what you were trying to do at "Inside.Com"?

ANDERSEN: No, none. I mean, the whole idea is that as an editorial journalistic operation, it will remain as it has been, and now we will have more channels through which to have people pay what it deserves to be paid for. BRILL: We're simply trying to take a very good editorial product, and not change it but get people to pay for it. And one of the ways we're going to do that is by linking it to dozens of different newsletters and trade publications that are already in our company, where people do pay for that kind of journalism and that kind of information.

KURTZ: Well, Kurt Andersen, you famously told me 11 months ago that raising $28 million for the venture, as you did, was, to clean it up a bit, as easy as getting sex in 1969. Why was it not quite so easy, and you have assembled a very talented staff of journalists, to get people to pay for this content on-line?

ANDERSEN: It's an -- A: It's a challenge to get people to pay for things on-line, because on-line is a new thing, we have several hundreds of years of people habituated to paying for print.

But, Howie, we have been in existence for 10 months. So, the fact that, you know, we have sold the thousands of subscriptions we have, as well as the million users a month that we have using the site as nonpaying users, to me, just speaks simply of a business that is still growing. And thanks to this merger, we have the ability, now, to keep growing it.

KALB: Still growing. Steve, would you make a forecast of what you anticipate in the way of circulation for "Inside.Com," the new magazine you'll be putting out?

BRILL: We will probably, by virtue of doing less in the way of discounted subscriptions, less in the way of trial subscriptions, through content-fill, bring it down from about 400,000, maybe to 300,000, and charge more.

Also, you know, my reaction to when you asked Kurt, you know, how come he doesn't have more revenue, how come he didn't turn his business around in nine months from a standing start, is name the magazine, name the newspaper, name the cable channel that broke even within nine months?

I think there was a set of unrealistic expectations in the dot- com world...

KALB: I was quoting...

BRILL: ... that everybody is a victim of. Well, you were quoting Kurt...


BRILL: You know, I'm not so sure how easy it was for him to get sex in 1969.

KURTZ: Kurt Andersen, though, you also are letting go of some very talented journalists as part of this combination. Regrets about the way that has turned out?

ANDERSEN: I'm sorry, I didn't quite understand?

KURTZ: Any regrets about the fact that some talented people who you lured to "Inside.Com" are going to lose their jobs as a result of this combination?

ANDERSEN: Of course there's regrets when anybody is laid off, there is no question about that.

KURTZ: OK. Steve Brill, let me just ask you whether or not, both of you, really, may have overestimated the public's fascination with the media as opposed to the media's fascination with themselves?

BRILL: I don't think so. We haven't found that yet. You know, I think the first time I was on this show you were a little skeptical that we'd get past half of the circulation we now have. I don't think we've overestimated that.

I think what we're doing is combining two very good groups of talent and channeling it into the kind of business model that already works.

Let me emphasize again, most of the publications that we now run, the trade publications, are highly profitable and we're going to marry the talent that "Inside.Com" has...


BRILL: ... with those, you know, with those successful publications.

KURTZ: I've got to cut you off because we're, unfortunately, out of time. So, best of luck with "Inside Content," Steve Brill, Kurt Andersen. Thanks for joining us.


KALB: Thank you.

KURTZ: Well, just ahead, Dan Rather says he's sorry.


KURTZ: And this RELIABLE SOURCES media item. Dan Rather, the anchor conservatives love to hate, has apologized for participating in a Democratic party fund-raiser.

My story in "The Washington Post" has touched off a chain reaction. The Austin event, at up to $1000 per person, raised about $20,000 for the local party. Among the hosts, Rather's daughter, a possible candidate for mayor of Austin.

The CBS anchor, long accused of leaning to the left, told me he didn't know the gathering was a fund-raiser beforehand. But, he admits he made a serious mistake and says he is embarrassed and sorry. Bernie, how serious a mistake? KALB: Well, let's look at it this way. What's the lesson in all this, Howie? Don't respond to your daughter's invitation? He goes to some sort of backyard barbecue, he gets there and finds out, in fact, it is a fund-raiser. Dan himself has said it's a serious mistake, that he regrets it. But I don't believe for an instant it will affect Dan's constant pursuit of objectivity.

KURTZ: But there is the question of perception, and I happen to believe it was a huge mistake because by violating this cardinal rule, and particularly with Dan Rather, whose been the favorite whipping boy on the right for a long, long time, he has handed his critics a sword. And everything that he says, every raised eyebrow from now on will be scrutinized with an extra bit of care from his detractors for evidence of some sort of democratic bias.

KALB: I'm not going to defend that, but that, you're talking about, is the sort of perception, and I think one has to be fair, and Dan will, I'm confident, will not affect his pursuit, as I say, of objectivity and the way he reports stories, although the perception will be there.

KURTZ: Perception is important in the media and in politics.

KALB: Without question.

KURTZ: And when we come back, China and the talking heads in Bernie's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page." Bernie.

KALB: It's probably the best kept secret in television news. It is not a new, invisible camera that floats in the air. It is not a new miniature satellite you can carry in your pocket that lets you file from forbidden places.


KALB (voice-over): No, the big story isn't high tech, it's old tech, the plain old reliable Rolodex, with those VIP names and phone numbers. And, bingo, whenever a big story breaks, there's a roundup of the usual suspects.

And these last few days, they've been giving us a crash course in U.S./China relations. In short, the media reaching out to members of an elite group known as formers.

Here's former U.S. ambassador to China Jim Lilley and other formers who have held the same job. Winston Lord, Stapleton Roy, Jane Sasser. All of them dusting off diplomatic experiences, saying on camera what they used to say only in top secret cables to the president.

It's a lifetime career, being a former. Here's a very famous former offering his advise. HENRY KISSINGER: The Chinese leaders are trying to keep...

KALB: He's a vintage former.

Ditto this ex-secretary of state. By contrast, she is a newly- minted former. And then there are rotating formers who've been in and out and in and out of top diplomatic posts.

The fact is, it's not difficult to find a former. Two-thirds of Washington is filled with formers. The other third hope to become formers. And being a former, well, you sometimes have the feeling that the people actually holding the big jobs are merely practicing for the day when they too become formers.

One very famous double former has all the qualifications. He was once the top U.S. man in China and the top U.S. man in the U.S. You can bet his name is in the Rolodex, but we haven't yet seen him on camera. He's confident the young man at 1600 Penn can handle the China challenge on his own.


KURTZ: Former State Department spokesman, Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

CAPITAL GANG is up next.



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