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Media Coverage of 'The Poison President,' Royals and the Rags, and the U.S.-China Standoff

Aired April 15, 2001 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The poison president? Are the media unfairly painting George Bush as an enemy of the environment, or does the White House deserve the negative headlines on arsenic, carbon dioxide and salmonella? We'll talk to Arianna Huffington and "The Wall Street Journal"'s John Fund.

And sex, lies and audiotape: A British reporter impersonates a sheik to embarrass the royal family. Did Rupert Murdoch's "News of the World" go too far?

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

The media are skewering George W. Bush for supposedly weakening safeguards against clean air, clean water and clean food; a steady barrage of stories that portray the new president as anti-environment.


KURTZ (voice-over): You've seen the headlines. Bush under fire on global warming as he abandons a campaign pledge on regulating carbon dioxide emissions. Under fire as well on arsenic standards on drinking water; plans for oil drilling in the Arctic wildlife refuge; a proposal, quickly abandoned, to end mandatory salmonella testing on beef served in school cafeterias. And now, a plan to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

But are reporters giving the president a fair shake on these issues? Are they giving too much weight to environmental activists? Are they making too much of last-minute rules pushed through by Bill Clinton on his way out the door?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now from Los Angeles, Arianna Huffington, the syndicated columnist and author and from New York, John Fund, a "Wall Street Journal" editorial board member. Welcome.

John Fund, are the media taking each of these decisions, salmonella, arsenic, carbon dioxide, you name it, and banging the environmental drum and blowing them out of proportion?

JOHN FUND, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Well, you know how -- I think environmental reporters like the environment, and that's good. You should be interested in the subject. But sometimes, they like these particular agendas of some of these environmental groups too much. George Bush's decision six weeks ago on arsenic was roundly criticized, and now, we took with Friday's "Washington Post," you have an honest liberal, Michael Kinsley, say Bush was right, that there are more risks in having an unrealistic standard than have a realistic standard and being able to enforce it.

KURTZ: Arianna Huffington, you describe the White House attitude like so: "Let them eat tainted beef and wash it down with arsenic- laced water?" You make it sound like this administration is pro- poison?

ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, this administration has definitely declared war on the environment, and I don't think the media have done a good enough investigative job to find out why.

We know not just the correlation between campaign contributions and his policy decisions, but also the media should be investigating all these e-mails that have been unearthed from the energy industry lobbies, congratulating each other, for example, when Bush reversed his campaign pledge on carbon dioxide, literally saying that with a little help from their friends, and I'm, quoting, Bush and Cheney made the right decision.

So, to see the influence of the lobbies, of the big-time contributors, is something which the media, I think, should be investigating a lot more deeply. And one other point, we have all these second-tier appointments that the media is failing to investigate, like John Graham, who has been appointed as the sort-of regulations czar, who has an enormous amount of writings that clearly show that this man believes that any regulation represents government oppression, and has this cost-benefit analysis that effectively puts value on human life.

KURTZ: Arianna, let me get a question to John. John, arsenic and salmonella; look, your newspaper just the other day had a big piece on the polarization of the various shades of green, all critical of the president. They had faith that he would do a good job on the environment.

Now, they have drawn back and are letting go with fusillades. Reporting that is a necessity. It's not a question of a newspaper. Your own newspaper, the article being critical. This is not ideology. This is what's happening on the environmental stage.

FUND: Yes, many environmental groups are critical, but there are a lot of other environmental groups that have members, free market environmental groups that are never quoted or never seen on television. As for Arianna mentioning...

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Are you saying the story in your paper had a huge whole in it?

FUND: No, I'm simply saying that these groups are ignored by everybody. Nobody looks to get their point of view. As for Arianna mentioning John Graham, she forgot to mention that he ran Harvard's Center for Study of Risk. I mean, this is not an out-of-the-world concept. The government itself has cost-benefit analysis, Arianna.

And you know, one thing, Arianna did a wonderful job recently attacking junk polling, pointing out how skewed they are and how bad the science is there. Arianna, if you spent one-tenth or your time looking at junk science and what the EPA's own internal audit has found out how much junk science there is in some of these EPA decisions, you would find an incredible scandal there.

You did a great job on polling, why don't you look at junk science?


KURTZ: OK, let me try to move this slightly -- quick response, Arianna.

HUFFINGTON: Let me just very quickly say that unfortunately for you, John, every day, including this week, we'll have more and more confirmation of what you call junk science by very reputable scientists. The "Journal of Science" this week, for instance, proving once again the effect of global warming and the impact of his decisions are having on global warming.


KURTZ: OK, -- hold on, John. I want to turn back to the president. I want to throw this question at Arianna Huffington. Shouldn't the media point out that these terrible Bush policies of which you have been so critical were also the policies for seven years and 11 months of the Clinton administration, until the final weeks.

For example, on the arsenic standard, which you also were critical of, I didn't know until reading the fine print that the Clinton change, which Bush has abandoned or delayed, wouldn't have taken effect for five years. So, if these were so terrible, why didn't Bill Clinton act on them sooner?

HUFFINGTON: Well, first of all, the Clinton administration should have done more, specifically on arsenic. There was a definitive study in 1999 which proved the connection between arsenic in the water and various forms of cancer, and it was after that study was published that there were public hearings and consultations with health experts that led to the reduction in the allowable level of arsenic before Clinton left office.


KALB: Arianna, are you suggesting that Clinton got away with environmental murder because the press leaned off? We come back to the central question: Is the media being indicted on so-called alleged bias, liberal bias, or is the media accurately reflecting what people across the country believe? HUFFINGTON: Well, the media, in this case, obviously let Clinton off the hook on many issues, including the environment. But there's no question that what is happening right now is unprecedented, and the media has not done enough to expose the contradictions in Bush's policy. I mean, he, after all, made a pledge on carbon dioxide specifically here to really appeal to suburban Republicans who do care about the environment.


FUND: But getting back to the coverage...

KURTZ: Yes, John.

FUND: ... getting back to the media coverage, one of the problems with these National Academy of Science reports are they're several hundred pages long. So, media reporters are reliant upon having somebody else read for them and interpret them. I went through the coverage, and no one quoted this from the National Academy of Science.

Quote: "No human studies of sufficient statistical power have shown a link between arsenic in drinking water and the incidence of cancer and other nonhealthful effects." Now, that was not reported anywhere. Why? Because no one read the full report. I can understand it takes so much time, but that's a hole in the story.


KURTZ: There's only so much time here, so let me ask you this question, John Fund: Isn't it part of the story, and should be reported, when industries, the oil industry, the media industry, you name it, lobbies for the weakening of the rules. When the Agriculture Department comes out and says, let's suspend salmonella testing on school beef, and then says a day later, oops, that was a mistake, it was a low-level employee; shouldn't that be part of the coverage? In other words, the political context here in the reporting

FUND: Absolutely, but we should also understand that there are a few environmental groups that also have agendas of their own, and sometimes that includes fund raising and demonizing people in the administration. Both should be covered.

KALB: John, who are you indicting, the media or the people who oppose the president on environment?

FUND: Both. Look, a lot of these environmental reporters are sincere, but they are sincerely liberal and they are sincerely socializing with people in environmental and don't get the other side.

KURTZ: OK, I've got to cut you off. Arianna, I'm going to give you the last 15 seconds.

HUFFINGTON: Well, first of all, it's absurd to be calling them environmental reporters. I mean, everyone who cares about children and the future cares about the environment... (CROSSTALK)

FUND: They have the environmental...

KURTZ: John, let her finish, please.

HUFFINGTON: ... and the media should reflect their concerns a lot more thoroughly by investigating exactly what Howard said. There's been very little investigation of that supposed mistake about salmonella testing. Was it really a mistake? I didn't see any follow-up after the administration reversed its decision to find out what really had happened and why was that terrible decision made in the first place.

KURTZ: OK, I've got to blow the whistle here. We'll have to have you two back for Rounds Two through 15. Arianna Huffington, John Fund, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, lessons from London: A royal mess over how a countess was trapped by masquerading journalists.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. How far can you go to get the story? Well, when it comes to the British press and the royal family, there are, it seems, no limits. A British reporter masquerading an aide to a Arab sheik recently caught Sophie Rhys- Jones, the Countess of Wessex, on tape criticizing her royal in-laws, the prime minister and other top public officials.

Sophie, who's married to Prince Edward, ended up stepping down as head of her public relations firm. "The News of the World" initially agreed to keep the tape secret in return for an exclusive interview, which gave the newspaper front-page headlines. The original material leaked, and was quickly picked up by other papers, clinching a public relations disaster for the royal family.

Well, joining us from London to discuss this three-ring extravaganza is Cathy Newman, political correspondent for "The Financial Times."

Cathy Newman, forgive my delicate American sensibilities, but as everyone revels in this wonderfully tawdry gossip, is there anyone in Britain who thinks that for a reported to dress up and impersonate an Arab sheik is rather sleazy?

CATHY NEWSMAN, "THE FINANCIAL TIMES": Well, our code of conduct which is drawn up by editors in this country says that you shouldn't resort to subterfuge to get a story unless it's in the public interest. So, the question is was Sophie's tapes in the public interest?

In one sense, you can argue it was, because we pay the royal family to be UK ambassadors. So, if she's freeloading, effectively, and using her royal connections to get personal business, then it is our business. KURTZ: Well, that's sort of legalistic -- excuse me, a legalistic explanation. What about journalistic ethics? I mean, are reporters at other papers cringing at the idea of, you know, a journalist lying and putting on the robes and pretending to be someone else? Is there no sense of outrage whatsoever at this tactic?

NEWMAN: Well, there is a sense of outrage at papers like "The Guardian," "The Independent," even the "FT." For example, we haven't really the story in any great detail, you'd be surprised to hear. But I don't think any of the media has really come out that well from all of this.

On the Sunday before when, as you explained, "The News of the World" agreed to hold the tapes in exchange for an exclusive interview, its rivals got wind of the fact that there was this story about, and they thought they'd got the quotes from the tape and they printed these quotes and they were actually the wrong quotes, they were inaccurate. And so, none of the media ended up looking very good. So, I think there's been a whole lot of soul searching since there, a lot of red faces on Fleet Street.

KALB: Cathy, what's been the public's reaction to this great exclusive? And by the way, how do your colleagues about this? Are they envious or are they revolted?

NEWMAN: In the immediate rivals of the Sunday press, to take your second question first, the immediate rivals of "The News of the World" were envious, and so there was this desperate scrabble for the story and they ended up getting these inaccurate quotes, as I've explained. But then, since then there's been a lot, as I say, the more liberal, intelligent, up-market press have been quite outraged by "The News of the World" and I think the public opinion has sort of carried them along there as well. Although, I think I have a certain sympathy for Sophie in that the royals face a lot of criticism for using our money and not really doing very much except open charities and that sort of thing. So, in a sense, here was one royal who was actually making a go at a job and earning her crust and was going out, setting up her firm and who was quite entrepreneurial.

So, in a sense, I have a sort of sympathy. But on the other hand, I think people have been fairly shocked that here is someone who is traditionally supposed to be apolitical, the royal are not supposed to make comments about politicians, and she was criticizing Gordon Brown, the chancellor, over his budget. She called it packed. And she was criticizing the prime minister and his wife...


NEWMAN: ... and this was really felt to be off-limits.

KALB: Cathy, what sort of sympathy or lack of sympathy was generated by the statement issued by Buckingham Palace, the queen deplores the entrapment, subterfuge, innuendo and untruths?

NEWMAN: Well, I think out there, there was sympathy for the fact that she had been tricked, but on the other hand, she was a PR woman. She should have known the tricks. She should have seen the signs. And in fact, it really exposed the inadequacies of her as a PR woman, I think people felt.

KURTZ: Explain to me one part of the story that I find puzzling. "The News of the World" gets these supposedly hot tapes. Buckingham Palace makes a deal with the newspaper; you'll get an exclusive interview with Sophie, which produces the instant classic headline "Sophie: My Edward Is Not Gay." And then, "The News of the World," having made this deal, ends up publishing the transcript anyway. How can they get away with that? Is there no honor among thieves?

NEWMAN: Well, I think there was a real breakdown of the deal because instantly, the PCC chairman was supposed to have brokered this deal, and he denied having brokered it, and the head of press at Buckingham Palace came in for a whole other flap because this was thought to be such a ridiculous deal and as you say, the headline did not work in Sophie's favor, it did not work in the royal family's favor.

So, the fact was there was a whole lot of confusion about this deal, everyone disowned it, and "The News of the World" just though, what the hell? There's been all these quotes that have been misattributed in other newspapers, and they said they were setting the record straight. But I think there was a certain amount or wry amusement to that.

KALB: Before we continue pouncing on the British press, let us remember that two ABC producers, once upon a time a few years ago, masqueraded as handlers of Food Lion -- lion, which is a symbol of royalty as well -- so, it had been practiced to some degree on a different altitude here in the states.

KURTZ: But Cathy Newman, what strikes me most about what you said is not just that "The News of the World," which is a Rupert Murdoch paper and I suppose we shouldn't be shocked at some of these tactics, but that the other British newspapers jumped on this story and printed what turned out, you say, to be inaccurate quotes from the transcripts, which they did not have. So, I guess what I'm coming away with here is that everybody ends up looking bad. Your thoughts?

NEWMAN: Well, I think that I would say the "FT" has remained removed from this. I would say that, wouldn't I, but I think it has shown that a lot of UK newspapers have really lowered their standards over the last few years. I used to work on "The Independent" newspaper, which always had a rule that it did not print royal stories.

It was felt to be off-limits, and now, everyone is piling into this story, even the so-called highbrow papers like "The Guardian" which, again, a few years ago, wouldn't have devoted nearly so much space to it. And this time around, "The Guardian" and "The Times" have been splashing on this story every day, day in and day out. They're as interested in it as the tabloids are. So, I think yes, it does suggest a change of tone in the UK press, definitely. KURTZ: Well, congratulations on exhibiting a modicum of self- restraint at your newspaper. Cathy Newman, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, still ahead, a shake-up at "MONEYLINE," your e-mail, and Bernie's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Welcome back, and checking our RELIABLE SOURCES "Media Items," belt-tightening at "The New York Times" and "The Wall Street Journal." With advertising revenue down, unspecified numbers of jobs to be cut at "The Times"; 202 jobs at "The Journal," plus the elimination of 300 open positions.

Lou Dobbs is returning to "MONEYLINE" nearly two years after he left CNN in a bitter falling out with some top network executives. Dobbs left in part to launch the Web site, which CNN regarded as a conflict with his anchoring and management duties. But didn't blast off, and now Dobbs is stepping down as CEO, though he'll remain as a major investor and chairman of the board.

The veteran journalist will try to reverse a trend in which "MONEYLINE" lost a quarter of its audience, falling behind its competition at CNBC. The current "MONEYLINE" anchor, Willow Bay, is being reassigned.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has barred television interviews for Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh before next month's scheduled execution. McVeigh will be allowed only 15 a day for media telephone interviews. Ashcroft asked the media for what he called self- restraint.


JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: We are already being sue to provide more publicity for this execution. I would ask that the news media not become Timothy McVeigh's co-conspirator in his assault on America's public safety and upon America itself.


KURTZ: Our discussion of CBS anchor Dan Rather attending a Democratic fund raiser revved up some viewers. Says one e-mail: "You expect us to believe that a man who has been in the communication field for years did not know it was fund raiser? Fat chance. Ask Al Gore."

And: "Rather's embarrassment at being caught should be a warning to journalists to begin reviewing what is taught in journalism; tell the facts fair and balanced and don't tilt the news."

We want to hear from you on coverage of President Bush and the environment. E-mail us at

Well, up next, Bernie's "Back Page" and a new language of diplomacy.


KURTZ: CNN and its videophone technology won some bragging rights this week: The only live pictures of the U.S. crew boarding the plane at Hainan Island; the end of the U.S.-China standoff. But later Wednesday, ABC swiped, for its own use, live CNN video from Guam as the U.S. crew made their way home. CNN had booked the only satellite uplink from Guam for the day. ABC objected, grumbling about CNN blocking the other networks by reserving all available satellite time.

Well, Bernie Kalb also has China on his mind, and here's his "Back Page" -- Bernie.

KALB: Well, there are few things that give me more pleasure than taking on, how shall I out it, taking on the excesses of the media. But I've got to tell you, they get high marks in reporting the U.S.- China story.


KALB (voice-over): Especially when it came to the last few syllables that produced the breakthrough. It was the ultimate in surrealism: Two giants, total population a billion and half, trapped in what looked like a game of semantic chicken, skirmishing over a word or two.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: The breakthrough came in a U.S. letter to Beijing in which the Bush team...

KALB: No one could be sure how the drama would play out. Even so, the media, for the most part, resisted the temptation of throwing high octane on the U.S.-China standoff; too much at stake, too much at risk. In the end, the media went bilingual, tutoring us in a foreign language and a foreign culture, demystifying what the U.S. finally agreed to say, and the spin the Chinese put on what the U.S. did say.

The last-minute semantics produced an eruption of Chinese characters. This is what the Chinese had wanted the U.S. to say, daoqian, a formal apology that accepts blame. But the U.S. picked its way through the minefield, and would not go beyond adding a sincere through regret, and a very before two sorries. The usual pundits made way for the old China hands.

JAMES LILLEY, FRM. U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: Oh, yes. I think it showed a lot of skill and craftsmanship. We upstaged them. We put the word sincere in there, and then we added a very.

KALB: But the Chinese, in their reporting of the story, used different characters, translating very sorry as expressing profound regret, a virtual apology. In whatever language, both sides could claim victory, and that did that trick.


KALB: Altogether, a potentially explosive story with 24 Americans caught in the middle, and the media handled it in a responsible way without surrendering to the apocalyptic vocabulary of war or peace. Just the opposite, the story was unhyped; the media unhyping a story? Exactly. The media kept all things in perspective. This wasn't a story to toy with.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks. Well, that's it for this edition or RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media. Coming up next, "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER," which begins right now.



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