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Was Coverage of Bush's European Tour Predetermined?; Did Media Go Too Far on McVeigh's Execution Day?; Levy Disappearance Mystery Continues

Aired June 16, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Mr. Bush gets beat-up in Europe. Are the media just covering the president's tour, or was the negative story- line determined even before he boarded Air Force One?

Execution day; did the press go overboard on Timothy McVeigh's last day?

And, racing against privacy; should Dale Earnhardt's autopsy photos be released?

Also, the media and the missing Washington intern; the mystery continues.

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

We begin with a president abroad and a world of media criticism.


KURTZ (voice-over): On the streets, on the front pages and on TV screens, it was rough going for the president.

CHARLES GIBSON, ABC ANCHOR: Advisors worried that it would be a tough trip. They didn't expect it to get so tough so quickly.

TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR: Overseas tonight, where President Bush is getting a rough reception on his first trip to Europe.

KURTZ: Much of the European coverage was quick to criticize a rookie president as he moved on to unfamiliar political and diplomatic turf.

He was skewered by cartoonists and portrayed as a danger to European health and independence.

And he carried heavy baggage of policies unpopular in Europe; the death penalty, missile defense and global warming.

So, is the president getting a fair shake from the American media? Or are journalists pushing a negative script about Bush's unpopularity aboard? (END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Paul Reynolds, Washington correspondent for the BBC. And Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor of "Newsweek".

Evan Thomas, let me read you a typical report. Campbell Brown, "NBC Nightly News":

"Tensions are heightened, some say, by concern in Europe about Bush's lack of foreign policy experience only bolstered by the president's own gas."

This, a reference to Mr. Bush mispronouncing the name of the Spanish prime minister.

Wasn't this sort of story-line about a bumbling president being attacked from Europeans kind of set from the outset?

EVAN THOMAS, "NEWSWEEK": Yeah. I think it was. But, that doesn't mean it's not fair. There is a reason to have some question about Bush's experience level and his performance. So, I think yes, the die was cast, but I don't think, but I don't think it was particularly unfair.

KURTZ: Paul Reynolds, some of the headlines I saw abroad, "Toxic Texan," "Inexperienced Globe-trotter," "Bible, Baseball and Bar-B- Que." Why has the European press been so intent on bar-b-queuing President Bush?

PAUL REYNOLDS, BBC: And you left out "Mr. Dumb," which the French newspaper "Le Monde" called him. Well, they were ready for this. And I think he's -- the problem is for Bush I think he is fighting two world wars.

To fight one is hard enough, but to fight two -- he's fighting the global pollution war and the Kyoto Treaty and he's fighting missile defense, global proliferation of weapons. The missile defense issue. And it's very difficult for him to fight both. I think he did...

KURTZ: He's fighting the press. He's fighting the press.

REYNOLDS: But he did better on NATO than he did on Kyoto. Actually, if you look at the NATO reports, even "The London Guardian," which is a left-wing newspaper, said "Bush is embraced by NATO." He made much more progress on missiles, but he's absolutely gotten nowhere on Kyoto and "The Economist" magazine, which is a great friend to the United States, says "Bush must get a policy on Kyoto." He has no policy.

BERNARD KALB, HOST: Evan, what do you make of the contrast in the coverage between print journalism in the U.S. and television journalism, as the story is being bounced from Europe? For example, if you watched NBC Thursday night, it led with a big demonstration in Sweden. There was a big run of police and -- you saw that piece, I take it?

"The New York Times," in the Friday paper, reporting about what took place, said, "But for the most part, the day's events were peaceful; more akin to a 1960's sit-in than the violent protest in Seattle," it said, at the World Trade Talk.

Are we again witnessing a distortion of reality, with the media's emphasis on demos and whatever potential there is for violence?

THOMAS: Yes, I think that in this case TV was driven by the picture, unsurprisingly. There is sort of pro forma quality to these demonstrations, these are like professional demonstrators; I don't even know what they're demonstrating about. But they make a good picture, so TV is going to go for it.

"The New York Times" correctly, I think, downplayed the demonstration, but they're not driven by pictures. They can afford to be objective.

KALB: Yeah, but then what sort of a cock-eyed picture are we getting of reality as it's being transmitted from Europe?

THOMAS: You're getting a better picture in "The New York Times" than you're getting on NBC.

KURTZ: Paul Reynolds, I've read a number of conservative columnists and editorials who say, well, there is no European view of President Bush. Europe is a collection of disparate countries and, in fact, the European press reflects, they say, kind of a narrow elite of opinion. Not necessarily the rank and file Germans and French and so forth.

So, could the European press be reflecting, maybe, the view of, say, left-of-center governments?

REYNOLDS: Yes, what you're getting here is a very view of the European press yourselves, if I may say so.

KURTZ: OK. Enlighten us!

REYNOLDS: You're picking out the hostile views of Bush. "The Daily Telegraph" in London this morning said Bush was not the toxic Texan, but the well-mannered Texan. It really laid into the Swedish prime minister, Mr. Persson, "Persson non grata" as it obviously called him.

You know, he said this man insulted the leader of the free world. He has no right to do this. Bush was the one who came out better. And if you look at some of the Eastern European countries, they're much more favorable to ballistic missile defense.

Basloff Hovell (ph) says it's a moral issue, we must have it. The Poles are all in favor of it. So, he's getting much better press there than in Western Europe.

KURTZ: So, the European press, as reflected through the prism of the American press, is not quite as relentlessly negative as many of us would believe.

REYNOLDS: It's not. You do get this intelligentsia, this view of Bush, certainly, as Mr. Dumb, and that comes over strongly.

KALB: The word "moral issue" has just come up, I've heard, and I have a moral issue question to ask you. And it's a question generated by your piece in this week's issue of "Newsweek."

You talk about the tutorial that was arranged for the president, that special scholars were brought in for a private session, the scholars sworn to secrecy. Among the scholars listed in your story, who know about Europe, etcetera, journalist Lionel Barber (ph), a European specialist at "The Financial Times."

Ethical question: does a journalist brief a president on a story that he, himself, may be writing about?

THOMAS: I don't think that our news organizations would permit it. I don't think that The Washington Post Company would want me briefing President Bush on something I was going to write about.

Things like that happen informally all the time, but not in that kind of formal way. Now, this is a European journalists. He's an...


KALB: Yeah, but we would expect there'd be some transatlantic objectivity that you do not respond, I mean, you might want to help the president, but I think there's a professional ethic involved where you do not go into the Oval Office to brief somebody on a story you may write.

THOMAS: You know there's a whole history of this. I mean, in the old days it was OK. Walter Levin (ph) was routinely brought in to brief the president, and that's was the way it was done.

KALB: Yes. But look at George Will's story with Ronald Reagan, briefing him on...

THOMAS: Yes. And George Will got a lot of grief for it, and since then...

KURTZ: For talking to him before the debate and then praising his performance...

KALB: Precisely.


THOMAS: And he was taken to task by the Howie Kurtzes of the day and it doesn't happen so much anymore.

REYNOLDS: And one of the other people in the meeting was Tim Garth Nash (ph) who is a great East European expert, and if you don't bring that...

KALB: He's more of a scholar and a bookish guy than Barber (ph).

REYNOLDS: Yes he is. But as I understood the story, that, you know, this is part of the prepping of the president for Europe and the more people you can bring it to broaden Bush's horizons -- because one thing that I've always thought about Bush is that he may shoot from the hip initially, but he does seem to be willing to change his policy after a bit, and sometimes the media doesn't always give him credit for that.

I think on North Korea, say, and in the Balkans, he's changed...

KURTZ: Let me pull back the curtain a bit. Evan Thomas, critics would say that lots of journalists disagree with Bush's position on global warming or the death penalty, but maybe are reluctant to say so directly. So, I'm wondering if some of them, at least, are using Europe as a kind of a foil to say things that they otherwise might be reluctant to say, because the very civilized Europeans don't agree with the president on these issues.

THOMAS: I think we launder our views through out "objective critics" and certainly the press is pretty green, the press is pretty pro-environment. And I don't think there's any question that they, as a body, feel that Bush is wrong on the environment, with varying degrees of willingness to give him credit, and I'm excluding the conservative press, "The Weekly Standard" and so fort.

But, generally, the rank and file press is pretty green and they're going to use the Europeans to take the Bush's to task.

KURTZ: Here's the harshest thing said about the president in the past week, that he's viewed as a shallow, arrogant, abortion-hating, Christian fundamentalist buffoon. Who said that? An unknown Bush administration official describing the European view. How brilliant was that?

THOMAS: Well...

KALB: Is that fellow still working? Is that woman still working?

THOMAS: What is shows is the Bush administration is really sensitive to this view of Bush as a light-weight, know-nothing rube. They're very uncomfortable with that stereotype, and this guy inadvertently fed the flames...

KURTZ: Sure did.

THOMAS: ... but what it reflects is how worried they are.

KALB: Paul, isn't there a kind of journalistic parallelism on both sides of the Atlantic, that is to say, the journalists in Europe are reflecting the predominant political culture, which is slightly left of center. And yet if you were to take some of the assessments of the president in Europe and superimpose them on some of the assessments of the president in the United States, you'd find a kind of an overlap, a parallelism, despite contrasting political cultures in command.

REYNOLDS: You do. And I think you've also got to realize that in Europe people tend to represent newspapers of a particular political color, whereas here they try, I think, to represent the center.

But this overt partisan journalism in Europe is quite a good tradition. And you know, say, there are maybe a dozen daily newspapers in London, you know precisely which political view all these papers represent and therefore you can get both sides of the coin.

As I said earlier, it is not just this sort of slightly left of center view of Bush you're getting in Europe; there is another view. But it is not really reaching across the Atlantic.

KURTZ: And I do think that many of the journalists fail to emphasize that while the Europeans are beating up on George W. over global warming, none of those countries have signed the Kyoto Treaty either.

We are out of town. Paul Reynolds from the BBC. Evan Thomas, "Newsweek." Thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, those autopsy photos of stock-car racer Dale Earnhardt; do reporters have a right to see them?


KURTZ: Welcome back. And checking our RELIABLE SOURCES media roundup, the latest tug-of-war between privacy and the public's right to know; or at least journalists insistence that they should know.

A new CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup Poll shows the public is split on the story of the Bush daughters and their problems with underage drinking. 45 percent say the media should have reported this story. Slightly more, 54 percent, say not. Far less disagreement on whether the twins were better behaved or worse than other college students. 79 percent of people said they were about the same.

In Florida, meanwhile, a new round this week in a legal fight over the release of autopsy photos of Dale Earnhardt, the NASCAR racer killed in the Daytona 500. A college newspaper, "The Independent Florida Alligator" and a Web site want the photos, saying the public should know if the coroner and others mishandled the investigation. has posted autopsies of other drivers on the Web.

Theresa Earnhardt, the driver's widow, is fighting to keep the photos out of the public eye.


THERESA EARNHARDT, WIDOW OF DALE EARNHARDT: There was no questionable, no questions what happened. It was an accident and it was extremely, emotionally, painful.


KURTZ: Now, Bernie, I'm usually 1000 percent in favor of news organizations having access to public records, but this whole thing strikes me as kind of maudlin, a bit of sensationalism wrapped in the garb of the first amendment.

KALB: Why don't I just say "ditto."

Look, can you think of a more serious invasion of privacy? This is a ghoulish exploitation of a great tragedy. If the argument is that if we show these pictures we might prevent future disasters on the track, well, his death is the biggest kind of proclamation that triumphs over another photo.

KURTZ: And it's hardly a revelation that it's risky to go around a track at 180 miles an hour. And, finally, you know, guess what, no journalist would want pictures of their loved ones after a fatal accident made public.

Well, finally, back to the future in Akron, Ohio. You can pick up a copy of "The Akron Beacon Journal," here it is. Four sections, lots of pages. Or, now you can buy the CD instead. This is different from reading the newspapers Web site since the CD shows you the complete pages of the paper. You can boost the size of the print and you never ever miss an ad. Complete with links and commercial videos. Paper or plastic, each one just a quarter.

When we come back, news coverage of the McVeigh execution: did news organizations go too far and too long?


KURTZ: The hearse carrying the body of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, executed this week.

The coverage of the first federal execution in four decades, and the aftermath, was too much, according to some viewers.

"If there is anything more disgusting than McVeigh's disgusting act in Oklahoma, it has been the media's coverage of his execution."

And, "It's one thing to report the news. It's something else to cheerlead."

Well, joining us now is Paul Farhi, reporter for "The Washington Post," whose next day story began "Timothy McVeigh died yesterday with the whole world watching, but few actually seeing."

And with nothing but a small army of journalists camped out in front of that federal prison facility in Terra Haute, wasn't this after five long years, something of an anticlimax?

PAUL FARHI, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, it certainly was a death foretold. The media had been waiting and waiting. They were prepared to go in May; the execution was delayed. They were prepared again in June. It was scripted. It was going to form and it came out exactly as the media had essentially thought it would.

KALB: Too much, but is there a question, how much is enough on a story like this? For example, if you take a look at the ratings, the cable networks all got a tremendous bounce out of the coverage, or the semi-coverage, or the near-coverage of the execution. How much, indeed, is enough on a story like that? Can anybody measure it?

FARHI: I don't think you can. In the sense that there was not a person in this country who was not touched in some way by the act that McVeigh carried out in Oklahoma, the horror of that act pervaded all of American society. This was the final chapter in that drama and it had to be covered in the way it was. It had to be covered at least to the extent it was.

KURTZ: Of course, it was a story of transcended importance, but without a lot of new information on the Monday when he was put to death, as you said, as expected, as scripted.

What drove me crazy were the relentless cable promos, like "Date With Death" and "Feds: It's Time To Go." But when we actually came down to the execution day, and I had worried that the victims and their families were being overshadowed, I think that was the case, the tone was a little more respectful, was it not?

FARHI: Well, it was. But I think the networks tried to do two things when they should have been trying to do one thing alone. They covered McVeigh's execution, certainly, but they switched the story also back to Oklahoma City to focus on the victims families and their reaction. In fact, I thought what the networks were doing, in a sense, was taking the focus off McVeigh and trying to place onto the healing, the closure, if you will, and get away from the news itself.

The news itself was the federal government carried out an execution. This raises all kinds of questions about the death penalty, the role of the government in capitol punishment. But...

KURTZ: In fact, was there a serious debate about the death penalty and to whom it should be applied and whether it is fairly applied. Did that -- was that a sort of an unintentional by-product of the relentless media focus on Timothy McVeigh?

FARHI: It certainly was, and there have been a number of executions. Certainly, in Governor George Bush's state, for many years. We have not seen a level of debate about the death penalty until we got to McVeigh.

KALB: Paul, what do you make of the impatience of "ABC News," for example, among television networks, to get that story out. For example, they got a tip, I read, it was in your particular story, that the McVeigh final statement would have this sentence: "The final tally has been in the crudest of terms 168 to 1."

Now, that is crude, statistically horrible to hear. But it later turned out that the tip was unwarranted and ABC laid it off on one of the technicians hitting the button inadvertently and there was an apology. But what does it tell you about having that ready to flash it up on the screen as a graphic? What does it tell you about, how should I put it, the psyche of television covering a story like this?

FARHI: Well, it was a drama. And dramas need villains. And McVeigh, you can't get a better villain. That quote, unfortunately, made its way onto the air on ABC. It was not a quote from McVeigh. It was a quote from an author of a book who had written about McVeigh, that McVeigh had or had not said to him at one point. It wasn't clear. ABC apologized for it and said it was a mistake.

KALB: Yeah, I know, but I want to take another minute, just for that word "closure" that keeps coming up. Now, that is a word that is drained of all significance, the idea that if you see the execution, closure takes place for the victims, families, etcetera.

When are they going to get rid of that empty, unimportant word, "closure"? That got quite a workout on television.

FARHI: That did get quite a workout. In fact, what you saw from Oklahoma City were a number of families around the memorial site grieving over the loss of their families. Closure.

However, as the camera pulled back slightly, what you saw among that handful of families were hundreds of media people focused in on the grieving of those families. So, the closure was, in some ways, a television construct.

KURTZ: I don't know that we needed every last detail from the media witnesses. I may be the only person in America who doesn't care whether he died with his eyes closed or his eyes open. But the focus of the coverage, no matter how much the networks tried, and other news organizations tried to deal with the victims and their families, didn't this all make Timothy McVeigh sort of the ultimate celebrity?

FARHI: I think it probably made him a celebrity, but what kind of celebrity are we talking about? We're talking about a man who killed 168 people, including babies in a day care center. I don't think there's anyone in America who thinks of Timothy McVeigh's act as anything more than the act of a coward and a heinous crime. A celebrity, well, you know, that's part of the news. You've got to cover the perpetrator of the crime, Timothy McVeigh was the news. We had to cover it.

KURTZ: We will have to leave it there. Paul Farhi from "The Washington Post." Thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, news coverage of the missing Washington intern and fresh questions about her friendship with a Congressman.


KURTZ: A major media story continues to focus on the search for Washington intern Chandra Levy, missing for the past seven weeks.

Her parents now suggest that California Congressman Gary Condit may have more information about the young woman's disappearance.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So you think he may have important information in this case?

DR. ROBERT LEVY, CHANDRA LEVY'S FATHER: Well, if he does he needs to come out with it.

SUSAN LEVY, CHANDRA LEVY'S MOTHER: I think he can come out and share what he does know. We would appreciate his help for having some questions answered.


KURTZ: Now, Bernie, I should mention that "The Washington Post" recently reported, citing unnamed sources, that Congressman Condit had told authorities that Chandra Levy had spent the night at his apartment and quoted an unnamed relative of the young woman as saying that they had had an affair. But the Congressman's lawyer says this whole thing has become a media circus and a tabloid frenzy. Where do you come down?

KALB: Well, the intro to this piece that was just done here, we called it a major media story, and I think we should focus on why the word major was used.

Other people are missing around the country. They're not even a minor story, so why is this one a major story? Because in my view, the press has a whiff of the possibility of a Congressman and an intern played out against the backdrop of Monica Lewinsky and the president. And the press finds that irresistible. It has reading potential. People are looking through the transom, etcetera. But is this story worth all that extra space that other missing people do not get? I don't think so.

KURTZ: Well, but it is one heck of a mystery...

KALB: Because?

KURTZ: Well, in part...

KALB: There are other mysteries. People are missing.

KURTZ: Well, in part because people can relate to a young woman who goes to Washington and doesn't come back. Nobody knows where she is. The Congressman has been less than forthcoming.

Now, his office tells us that the Congressman believes he has made his position clear in past written statements, and he will speak when it is appropriate to do so.

But "The Modesto Beat," his hometown paper, says that "Condit must clarify the Levy relationship and speak publicly."

We can talk all we want about a media frenzy, but until that Congressman comes out and answers questions from reporters, this frenzy is going to continue.

KALB: I think you're right. It will. I think he has to break his public silence and get some of those answers out that only he has, no matter what they may be.

KURTZ: Alright. 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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