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Has Media Turned Events Leading to McVeigh Execution Into Entertainment?; `New Yorker' Editor Discusses Magazine's Popularity

Aired May 12, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Execution day delayed. The media had been descending on Indiana for the ultimate punishment of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. Journalists are still jockeying to witness the execution whenever it happens. Has the tragedy become just another piece of programming to entertain the masses?

And, "The New Yorker" is hot, maybe hotter than in the Tina Brown era. A conversation with the editor, David Remnick.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media.

I'm Howard Kurtz, Along with Bernard Kalb.

The challenge for journalists this week: how to cover the story of Timothy McVeigh, his execution, and the delay created by an FBI failure to handover evidence.


KURTZ (voice-over): Even with the one month delay, it is set to be the first federal execution in 37 years, and it's attracting worldwide media attention.

Only a handful of executions, notably that of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953, have drawn such scrutiny. But the speed-it-up news cycle of the all-news networks has intensified the media coverage. An army of journalists had been descending on Terra Haute, Indiana.

Only 10 journalists will be allowed to witness the execution. A "Vanity Fair" writer, Gore Vidal, will be allowed to watch at McVeigh's request. 1,600 journalists have asked for press credentials.

On Friday, Attorney General John Ashcroft ordered a delay in the execution after the FBI belatedly turned over thousands of documents to McVeigh's attorney.

So, as the waiting continues, this question: are the media going overboard in setting up a death camp? Is the McVeigh execution being turned into a public spectacle? Or, given the extraordinary extent of the Oklahoma City tragedy, is the coverage justified? (END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for "US News and World Report" and the author of the new campaign book, "Divided We Stand."

And from Tulsa, Oklahoma, Lois Romano of "The Washington Post."

Lois Romano, you've covered this story for five years now. What's it like to have hundreds of reporters and big-name anchors joining this round-the-clock death watch and jockeying for position?

LOIS ROMANO, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, it's a real spectacle, Howard. I mean, there's no other way to describe it, but I do, to answer your question in your lead in, I do think the story merits the coverage.

I mean, we have two separate things going on here. One is the largest mass murder ever committed on American soil and the first federal execution in 38 years. And for some reason, the government has made a decision that McVeigh would be first. And I think the convergence of those two things, the crime and the first aspect of it, has made it just a mammoth story and somewhat of a media circus.

KURTZ: Lois, when this execution takes place, would you like to be a witness? And, if so, how do you elbow your way into a position to do that?

ROMANO: Well, I would like to be a witness, Howard, because I've covered it for five-and-a-half years now. It's an interesting question, because the government established a set of protocol to pick the media, but I don't think they were, when they established the protocol, I don't think that they were thinking it would be Timothy McVeigh and this case. And the protocol does not fit this case.

Like, for example, they're saying that the print reporters have to be picked three hours in advance. Well, the execution was scheduled for 7:00 AM. So, that means people have to show up at 4:00 AM. But, in addition to that, I think that they, and also they're saying that the print reporters have to self-select. I think they envisioned a scenario where there would be an execution at 6:00 and 20 reporters would show up and they would just have a conversation and pick themselves.

KURTZ: And instead you have this mass of media people, many of whom would like to be in there.

ROMANO: At four in the morning. At four in the morning, 400 people. So, it's really an untenable situation, trying to get this done.

KALB: Roger, ten, 10 reporters out of the 1,600 or so who have applied for permission to see this. 10 reporters. What do you think of the ethics if one of the reporters, or any of the reporters, try to slip a hidden camera into the execution room? ROGER SIMON, "U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT": That's an interesting question. It's an interesting question, especially if the federal authorities are going to pat down these reporters or worse to check to see if they have any...

KALB: Should they indeed be frisked?

SIMON: I think it's probably the only way you might prevent it, to tell you the truth. With cameras these days, you could have a really tiny camera on your body and have pictures that were worth millions of dollars.

Of the reporters showing up in Terra Haute, it's not just reporters for name-brand publications and TV stations and radio stations. You've got everybody on earth who calls themselves a journalist.

KALB: Let me do a quick follow-up. You are a talented hacker, and you can break into that private feed being shown to the families of the victims. I have just given you a whole television network. Would you show that if you had it?

SIMON: I think I would. I'm not sure why, if we're not ashamed of capital punishment in this country, we don't show it to people. I mean, what embarrasses us about putting people to death? Aren't we proud of the American justice system? Isn't this a legal execution? And if both are true, why don't we let the American people see it?

KURTZ: Lois Roman, CNN's Greta Van Susteren told "The New York Times" the other day, speaking about the lethal injection, it's so fast and so undramatic, you end up thinking to yourself, why am I doing this? Why am I here?

Given that we know exactly what will happen, right now we don't know when it will happen, any discomfort among the press corp about, you know, this mass invasion for something that is going to be rather scripted?

ROMANO: And take probably seven minutes. I think that there's still a little bit of curiosity of the unknown. Greta is right. It takes seven minutes, the person goes to sleep. It is very uneventful. But I think one of the things that we're interested in is what Timothy McVeigh might say. There is an indication he would have last words.

And, also, as a news value, something could go wrong. I mean, there was a death case with lethal injection where apparently the I.V. lines got clogged and there was a problem. There was also where an inmate had an allergic reaction to the drugs, which could be very gruesome.

So, I think there is, even though it's only 10 minutes, I think that there is news value.

Also, it is the first execution, and that has extraordinary value...

KURTZ: First federal execution since 1963.

ROMANO: Since 1963.

KURTZ: Roger Simon, given the delay of at least a month ordered by the attorney general, does that mean the media are going to continue to obsess on this story? Is it going to become the latest cable event like Elian and the Clinton pardons?

SIMON: I don't think there is enough news stuff to feed it for 30 days. I mean, the media...

KURTZ: Perhaps you underestimate the (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

SIMON: Look, the media want closure on this, not just the family. I mean, we've had the huge rollout and build up, the huge profiles, again, of Timothy McVeigh. The huge profiles, again, of his victims and the survivors of his victims. The endless, including my own, stories about Terra Haute, as if there was some significance to Terra Haute except that it happens to be where the federal death chamber is.

I don't know, really, if you can sustain that for a full 30 days, which is probably why the media are angry today.

KALB: Roger, I hate to say this, you're so wrong. This is going to be put on a loop. It's going to be shown. Look what happened, for example, the day that it was extended for 30 days. It was all day on Friday, over and over and over.

But let me come to an ethical part of this. What do you make, Lois, of the idea, for example, of some of the morning television shows signing, as I read, exclusive deals with members of the families of the victims to turn up on morning television. And are they getting paid? Do you know anything about that?

ROMANO: I don't think they're getting paid, Bernie. I do think that they're expenses are being paid. And, I, as a print journalist, I do find that a little bit offensive, because you call these people up and you say, you know, can I talk to you after the execution, and they say, no, I have an exclusive with Barbara Walters, and at a certain point it does become a little bit bizarre, because these are people who are reacting to a great tragedy in their life.

But it's not just not them. It's the lawyers, it's the prosecutors, everybody is signing these exclusives, so it's, you know, it turns into some big celebrity thing.

I'd like to just go back on the other point you raised, though. I don't think it is going to die, because I think the fact that the government did this on Friday has no bearing on what McVeigh's lawyers might do. I mean, they could now go to court and apply for a 60 or 90 day stay. So, this thing could go on and on and on.

KURTZ: OK. Roger Simon, you write in the current issue of "U.S. News" that Bryant Gumbel and the rest of the media pack weren't around last month when a murderer named David Goff was put to death in Texas. In fact, there were 85 executions at the state level last year.

Are you saying that more attention to be paid to other death penalty cases?

SIMON: Yeah. We keep talking about how this is the first execution, the first execution. No, it's not. Executions are almost a daily, or at least a monthly, event in America. Executions happen all the time. We just don't pay any attention to it.

Nor is Timothy McVeigh, this white middle-class guy, the true face of the men who are on death row in America. Most are poor. In the federal death chamber, most are black. And most are defended not by private attorneys but by public defenders or appointed lawyers.

KALB: Lois, you wanted to go if you could get permission to witness the execution. I may be the only one here who has witnessed an execution, by a firing squad in South Vietnam. It's an emotion, I think, you would not want.

ROMANO: I actually witnessed an execution by lethal injection, and I would think a firing squad or electrocution would be a little bit more unnerving than lethal injection. I mean, you're really just watching somebody go to sleep.

Truly, I probably shouldn't say this, but I was unmoved by it. And all the process had gone on already, and all the hearings and those were rattling, but when he actually was put to sleep, it was very uneventful.

KURTZ: OK. If you do get to witness the execution, Lois, please come back on the show.


KURTZ: But, as Roger points out, this could go on for awhile. Roger Simon, Lois Romano, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, cooking up excellence in this years National Magazine Awards. We'll talk about the editorial ingredients with "New Yorker" editor, David Remnick.



For "The New Yorker," honors galore at the National Magazine Awards last week. The magazine scooped up five of 17 awards, for general excellence, special interests, profiles, essays and reviews, and criticism.

Well, joining us now from New York is the magazine's editor, David Remnick.


DAVID REMNICK, EDITOR, "THE NEW YORKER": Hi, how are you? KURTZ: Great. David Remnick, you've done tremendously well on the awards front, but when it comes to selling magazines, how does "The New Yorker" compete...

REMNICK: It didn't take you long, Howie.

KURTZ: ... in an era, OK, in an era when newsstand covers are filled with Jennifer Lopez and Tom Cruise and Meg Ryan and other icons of our celebrified culture.

REMNICK: Right. Well, we don't try to compete with that, except when the writing, you know, leaps to the occasion and wants to encounter these things. But we don't commodify the magazine by putting Jennifer Lopez on the cover, or movie stars, or anything else. In fact, we don't have photographs on the cover. We have art, we have drawings by the likes of Barry Blitt, who last week's cover had the audience of "The Producers" while a very solemn Hitler sat glumly with his arms crossed. We don't try to compete with that, because God knows there's enough of it.

And, at the same time, our circulation continues to rise and is doing beautifully well. So, I think there is a place for something like "The New Yorker," even today.

KALB: David, welcome back to earth, where you've been floating around way up there after scooping up five of those awards.

But, we've been talking for the last few minutes about the coverage of the execution that was postponed for a month. Do you think that, and you had a piece in the current issue of "The New Yorker" in the "Talk of the Town" lead item about this...

REMNICK: Rick Hertzberg had a commentary about it and we have a reporter in Terra Haute right now.

KALB: Right. Now, as you take a look at the coverage of that, do you think it is sliding into some sort of carnival of excess, or do you think that coverage of the story is worth the dimensions of coverage?

REMNICK: Well, lots of stories have these levels, where we have at the bottom, you know, a kind of tabloid or supermarket tabloid coverage, and then you have the more austere coverage and everybody gets together, and then we get together on shows like this and we talk about whether it's a carnival.

The fact is that a lot of people were killed in Oklahoma City. The death penalty for a crime of this scale does not happen very often. And attention will be paid, in one way or another, whether it's Gore Vidal's way or Mark Singer's way, for us, or people at newspapers.

I think that's unavoidable. And all the stuff that goes around it, you know, the accommodations for the reporters, the satellite trucks...

KALB: David, let me interrupt for a second.

REMNICK: It is kind of grotesque, I admit.

KALB: Let me ask you something. Would you like your Mark Singer to be an eyewitness to the execution?

REMNICK: I don't see any reason why not. Albert Camus was an eyewitness to a hanging, to an execution, and wrote one of the most astonishing essays of memory. So, why not.

KURTZ: The awards that "The New Yorker" won range from a double issue on sports to an essay about having a baby in France to a profile of the man behind the Dial-O-Matic, Chop-O-Matic and Veg-O-Matic. This kind of great range is good for readers, but does it make it harder to promote the magazine? To position it as being one thing or another? Or maybe you don't want to be one thing or another.

REMNICK: Well, the main promotion of the magazine is the magazine itself, and the readers understanding of the magazine and their loyalty to the magazine.

But in the modern world, you also have to promote the magazine, and there are many ways to do this. And the way we're doing it in the month of May, and it's our big, by far our biggest promotional activity, is an arts festival in New York City that begins on Friday night in mid-May, May 19th, with a massive number of readings. 15 readings of 30 of the best fiction writers in the country and then a series of interviews and panels and a tribute to Bob Dylan to benefit PEN.

For me, for my money, that is an exceptionally good way to promote "The New Yorker" because it's an extension of what we do. It's not merely a party or a handout.

KALB: David, let me give you a few seconds to boast. What have you done differently at the magazine since you took over when Tina Brown left?

REMNICK: Well, you know...

KALB: Or are you writing, to be kind of the, you know, the negative question, or are you coasting on what she planted?

REMNICK: I think neither. I mean, I'm very proud of and coast on, I don't coast on, but try to make use of the history of "The New Yorker." There's 76 years of it to look back on, and whether it's Harold Ross' humor or William Shawn's sense of seriousness or Bob Gottlieb's writers that he brought to the magazine, or Tina Brown's sense of excitement, I look to all of it.

And that's not a way to avoid your question. It's absolutely sincere. I think all of those people played an enormous role in forming what's there today. That said, this is not a museum. "The New Yorker" is not a museum piece, just because it's lasted 76 years at the level of quality it has, means that you have to do it anew every single week, in the same way that "The New York Times" has to be at a certain level every single day.

So, I don't think in those terms at all.

KURTZ: OK. The talk here in Washington, where you were once a reporter, is that George W. may not be the most exciting president of the century...

REMNICK: I've heard this.

KURTZ: If that's the situation, how do you, how does your magazine cover an administration that lacks the sort of soap opera quality of the Clinton years? Or would you be perhaps covering it less if Washington politics is not as interesting?

REMNICK: I think ultimately politics and the world provide more excitement than we can handle, in all seriousness. We've profiled George Bush. We've profiled Dick Cheney. Nick Lemann is our man in Washington and has done those exceptional profiles.

But I think there are enough political issues, whether it's AIDS in Africa or race in America or crime or urban problems, that we should never feel this kind of cynical notion that, oh, my God, politics has become boring.

If you narrowly define politics as the personalities of the leaders themselves, then maybe Bill Clinton is going to outstrip George Bush. Who knows, it's only been a few months.

KURTZ: David, we have just a few seconds. The question all of America wants me to ask, who picks the cartoons?


KURTZ: Tough job?

REMNICK: I do, and it's and my favorite hour of the week. I sit in a room with a cartoon editor and a couple of friends and editors from the magazine. But, ultimately, its my call and it always seems that if somebody is friendly to the magazine, they'll say, "You know, the cartoons have been better lately."

And somebody who is not, they'll say, "You know, the cartoons are just not the same." So, it's a kind of barometer.

KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there. David Remnick, "The New Yorker," thanks very much for joining us.

REMNICK: Thank you.

KURTZ: Well, just ahead, a controversial U.S. news cover on boarding schools and how "Survivor" survives the latest reality check.


KURTZ: And, checking our RELIABLE SOURCES "Media Roundup," the cover photo in "U.S. News and World Report's" ranking of the best boarding schools was of Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts. Same for the contents page, same for the photo starting off the section.

Editor Stephen Smith said it had nothing to do with the fact that he and his son are graduates of Deerfield and his wife a trustee. "My defense is strictly journalistic. They were the best pictures we had."

The show that billed itself as completely real, "Survivor," was, well, almost completely real. Executive producer Mark Burnett told a panel of "Reality Television" that "Survivor" scenes were reenacted using stand-ins after the real action took place with no impact on the outcome. Still pending, a lawsuit that claims the series was rigged.

And at NBC, Andrew Lack moves up to president and chief operating officer of the network after eight years running the news division.

Speaking of NBC, a moment of silence for it's creation, the XFL. That's enough.

Our discussion of the coverage of Vice President Dick Cheney spurred many of you to power up your computers.

"I would hope the news media would recognize Dick Cheney and George W. Bush are decent and honorable men. Why don't you stop nitpicking everything that's not important"?

And, "It seems you press folks just don't know how to deal with professional business people in government."

Well, we want to hear from you. E-mail us at


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

KALB: Well, every now and then the media step up to the plate and strike out. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, big time.


KALB (voice-over): Take this story, played out on the White House lawn just a few days ago. 38 up and coming sluggers, and a guy who once owned part of a ball team cheering them on. It looked so innocent, and the story was offered up that way. No analysis. None of the usual probing for an ulterior motive. The great national pastime in miniature, complete with a running commentary and White House spin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president is a sports fan. I think in that he finds a camaraderie with hundreds of millions of Americans.

KALB (voice-over): The media swallowed it all, hook, line and tee-ball; a PR home run for the president, but there's more here than meets the bat.

Now, it would be a bit much to say that this was a CIA operation and that tee-ball was simply a cover story to achieve political objectives and, incidentally, to reach those hundreds of millions of American voters.

First of all, there was the effort to project the subliminal image of politicians playing by the same rules of sportsmanship as little leaguers, with the number one fan pitching the league's credo.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: I will always do my best.

KALB (voice-over): That's got to drive Al Gore up the wall.

Also, here was a chance for the Republicans to pick up another 38 votes. 38 votes? Remember Florida.

Now, it's true, these Americans won't be able to vote for at least ten more years, but you can't start too young.


KALB: I could go on and on, but you can see how the media missed the real story on the White House lawn.

But, a personal note, I went to a baseball game last Sunday for the first time in half-a-century; the Baltimore Orioles versus the Yankees, and boy was it boring. I must say, political tee-ball is a lot more interesting.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb. Boy, will you be getting any e-mail from baseball fans. 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. Mark Shields has a preview.



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