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Does David Brock Have Any Credibility Left?; Is John Stossel Challenging Environmentalists or Slanting News?

Aired June 30, 2001 - 18:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: David Brock is a liar according to David Brock. The formerly conservative author who attacked Anita Hill says in a new book that he was a Republican hatchet man who cared little for the truth. He makes new, quickly disputed allegations against Clarence Thomas. Does Brock have any credibility left? We'll ask Jill Abramson of "The New York Times," co-author of the book "Savage by Brock."

And John Stossel under fire: ABC yanks footage of Stossel interviewing children on the environment after their parents cry foul. He accuses his critics of brainwashing. Is Stossel just challenging the environmental establishment, or slanting the news? We'll ask a strong supporter and an outspoken critic.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Bernard Kalb is off this week. It's a dramatic about face that has rekindled the debate over Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill and David Brock, who now says he lied -- consciously lied -- about the story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): It was the confirmation battle that mesmerized the country back in 1991, turning Clarence Thomas into one of the most controversial Supreme Court nominees in history and making David Brock a conservative hero.

Anita Hill, a former employee of Clarence Thomas, told the Senate he had made offensive sexual comments, which Thomas and his supporters strongly denied.

ANITA HILL: On several occasions, Thomas told me graphically of his own sexual prowess.

CLARENCE THOMAS: As far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks.

KURTZ: Now David Brock, who wrote an "American Spectator" article and a book critical of Anita Hill has recanted, saying he lied and worked to tear down Hill and build up Clarence Thomas. Brock, the man who called Anita Hill "a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty" now calls himself, quote, "a witting cog in the Republican sleaze machine." (END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well joining us now, Jill Abramson, Washington bureau chief of the New York Times and co-author with Jane Mayer of the 1994 book, "Strange Justice," the selling of Clarence Thomas. We invited David Brock to appear on this program. He says he'll talk to us in the coming weeks.

Jill Abramson, David Brock to put it less than delicately trashed your book. He now says he lied, deliberately lied, in attacking for example your finding that Clarence Thomas had regularly rented X-rated videos. Does this whole admission by Brock come a little late?

JILL ABRAMSON, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, it may come late. I'm glad it came. I think the problem is that once David Brock admits he knowingly wrote lies, it's hard to figure out when to believe him, essentially. And -- but you know, I've read his piece. And parts of it seem heartfelt. And so I am glad that he's come forward to try and set the record straight even at this somewhat late day.

KURTZ: Does it give you some measure of personal vindication, after all one of your most outspoken critics now admit he dishonestly attacked your work?

ABRAMSON: I never felt that I needed vindication. Jane Mayer and I spent three weeks...

KURTZ: Three years.

ABRAMSON: Three years, sorry, meticulously researching our book. We were careful to talk to both sides, sources who were supportive of Justice Thomas, sources who knew Anita Hill very well. We looked at all the evidence and spent a long time sifting through all the chapters of this story.

And so, I never felt we needed vindication. I knew that both Jane Mayer and I were really careful, investigative reporters. And what always troubled me was that David Brock pretended that he, too, was a meticulous, fair-minded investigative reporter who went back and looked at the story in a disimpassioned way. And I always felt he didn't do it that way and was pretending.

KURTZ: And in fact, some of his formerly conservative friends now say that he has betrayed them to relaunch his career and his own new book, "Blinded by the Right." Does he have any credibility left after this stunning admission after having lied before?

ABRAMSON: Well, I think his credibility is thin. I never saw his credibility as being strong, because when his book came out I saw that factually it was shot full of holes right from the start. So his credibility was always in question as far as I was concerned.

KURTZ: There are ideological journalists on both the left and the right. Don't some of them do legitimate reporting or should they all be dismissed as kind of partisan ax grinders? ABRAMSON: Well, I'm not in favor of dismissing anybody's work. I just want it to be -- have some truth in packaging. And David Brock packaged himself as the same kind of careful investigative reporter that I was and that other major newspaper reporters have spent years training in this field. And I, you know, doubted him then. I doubt him now.

So I don't discount anybody's right to practice whatever kind of journalism they want to do. I expect them to do it professionally. I expect them to explain correctly what it is they're up to. And in this case, David Brock now says what he was up to as being part of a partisan sleaze machine, not really doing the kind of reporting that you and I have spent our lives doing.

KURTZ: But if the real Anita Hill in his book was as flawed as you believed at the time and as David Brock now says, savaging Anita Hill and her Democratic supporters without even talking to them, how did it make such a big splash?

ABRAMSON: Well, I think, yeah, there was an appeal in it in that it seemed like brave revisionist history at the time. And I think that's why a lot of reputable journalists looking at it, who didn't know the story as well as I did, who hadn't reported every step of it the way I had, it was packaged in a very slick way, that seemed on the surface to shoot major holes in Anita Hill's credibility, but that what was frustrating to me at the time. And so, I felt I knew the facts. I could see the flaws...

KURTZ: Right.

ABRAMSON: ... in the book, but it was presented as, you know, a very carefully researched books.

KURTZ: Sure. Now Brock now makes a new charge, saying that Justice Thomas passed derogatory information to him through an intermediary about a woman quoted in your book, Kaye Savage.

ABRAMSON: Right.

KURTZ: And I should quickly add the intermediary identified by Brock's strongly denies it, but he writes that he went to Kaye Savage, Brock did, and quote, "I told her I would blacken her name just as I had done to every other woman who had impugned Thomas' reputation." Given Brock's track record, should we take this new charge against Thomas seriously?

ABRAMSON: Well, I know at least the Kaye Savage part of what he writes is true, that he did set out to almost blackmail one of the sources who spoke to us for the book, who had testified to us and had evidence that Justice Thomas was interested in...

KURTZ: Making pictures.

ABRAMSON: Yes, basically.

KURTZ: But we don't know that Thomas had anything to do with passing...

ABRAMSON: No, and I -- so I can't really speak to that point, but I do know that what he says about what he did Kaye Savage because I knew it was going on at the time and found it very troubling and that part is true. So...

KURTZ: Just very briefly, once you've admitted lying as a journalist, is it kind of like losing your virginity? You can't get your reputation back, or it's very difficult?

ABRAMSON: It's very difficult. You know, I think that a really unfortunate part of what has happened here is that the public is already pretty cynical about the professional standards of journalists.

KURTZ: No argument there.

ABRAMSON: And they think that, you know, all journalists make up things, and they don't. And what troubles me is this admission adds to the cynicism on the part of the public. I worry that it does. I hope it doesn't.

KURTZ: Good place to leave it. Jill Abramson, "The New York Times." Thanks very much for joining us.

Well, just ahead, ABC correspondent John Stossel interviews some children and stirs up a ruckus with environmentalists.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We'll get to the John Stossel in just a moment, but joining us now is Jonah Goldberg, editor of "National Review Online."

David Brock, when he wrote this Anita Hill book, was nothing less than a conservative hero. What do you and others in the Right think of him now?

JONAH GOLDBERG, "NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE": Well, it's not just so much now. It's been an ongoing process where his credibility has deteriorated over a considerable period of time.

KURTZ: Where he's been apologizing for things he's written I the past?

GOLDBERG: He sort of had a fire sale on his credibility in the last decade. And you know, he did this piece in "Esquire" where to punctuate his sincerity, he showed the world his nipple, as he tied himself to a tree. And the general consensus among the, you know, the conservatives I hang out with is that he's more of a sad case than a -- than something to make a lot of people angry. People -- you know, people stop taking seriously a while ago.

Liberal journalists and mainstream elite journalists, they can't really embrace him either as Joe Eberson told you in your The Washington Post piece, you know, once you've lied and admitted to lying as he has, it's very difficult to take him seriously again. And there are just too many people on the Right who are there at a lot of the events that he talks about.

KURTZ: OK.

GOLDBERG: That they don't take -- they can't take him seriously.

KURTZ: But does this whole controversy and all the media's attention unfairly dredge up all the old charters against Clarence Thomas? And could there be any possibility that Brock is telling the truth now about Clarence Thomas?

GOLDBERG: Well, it's a funny sort of Catch-22. On the one hand, I don't believe his charges about Clarence Thomas, but -- and I don't think he -- from what I've seen, I don't think he corroborates his new recanting on these issues. But the funny thing is the process that Brock set up in terms of the Paula Jones thing, which was his, you know, first story in the American Spectator that set this whole process going, the idea that the process that ensued involved so many more egregious things about Bill Clinton and his private life. It's very difficult now to look back on the Clarence Thomas episode, and the charges are essentially that he rented some videotapes...

KURTZ: Right.

GOLDBERG: ... said a dirty joke, and asked an employee out for a date. And it's very hard to see anybody getting their gudgeon up about that now, considering you know, we've now defended Bill Clinton's activity with interns and so forth.

KURTZ: OK, we need to leave it there.

Well, turning to another big media story this week, ABC's controversial John Stossel is back on the hot seat, this time for interviewing California grade schoolers for a special on global warming and the environment. The kids' parents later protested, saying they were never told of Stossel's involvement in the show and consulted a Washington-based environmental group.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN STOSSEL, ABC CORRESPONDENT: The kids are worried in the interview you won't see; they told us, "Global warming's melting Canada and we could all die."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: ABC wound up yanking the children's segment, leaving Stossel calling his critics "totalitarians" who want to silence him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF GREENFIELD, HOST, "GREENFIELD AT LARGE": At least some people have said that you have -- you pushed some of the kids you were interviewing into saying what you wanted them to say. You wanted to hear them say they were scared of global warming. Can you respond to that before we move on?

STOSSEL: The environmental activists say that and they just have lied. And we have the outtakes. I invite you to come see them. I asked these kids, "What did you learn about Earth Day? What's global warming?" And they told all kinds of stories on their own.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR," FOX NEWS: So you think that these parents, even though they witnessed the interview that you did with these kids, they were somehow convinced, cajoled, what were they? Brainwashed?

STOSSEL: Brainwashed. People said, "He's going to distort. He lies. In the past, he's faked things." They make up stories about me and the parents get scared.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Well, also joining us now from St. Louis, to help us cut through the brainwashing: Eric Mink, television critic for "The New York Daily News."

Eric Mink, you say -- you call Stossel ABC's anti-government, anti-regulation hit man. It sounds like you just don't agree with his views.

ERIC MINK, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": Well, I don't think his views are really particularly relevant, except in describing his activities and the kinds of reports he does. He's quite proud of that stance and makes no secret of it.

KURTZ: What's wrong with Stossel asking kids what they think about the state of the environment as a way of getting some insight into what they're being taught and what they're hearing about the air and water and pollution and so forth?

MINK: Well, I think the primary thing, Howard, is that you don't get any such insight from those sorts of answers. A kid -- you ask a kid if he likes solar polar and they raise their hands. Or if you ask him if they like nuclear power and they say no, what does that tell you? You don't know where that information's come from. You don't know that it's come from their teachers or their parents or from some kid on the playground or something you read off a placemat at McDonald's. It's completely meaningless. You're just using the kids as props to make your point.

KURTZ: OK.

MINK: Now you know, you can do that with adults, but if you're going to somehow fool the adults into giving information into letting their kids be used that way, I just think that's wrong.

KURTZ: Jonah Goldberg, is the environmental movement after Stossel because he's one of the few conservatives or Libertarians on network television?

GOLDBERG: I think that's indisputably the case. I mean, you don't hear these groups -- you know, you don't hear these same sort of criticisms about the vast number of other television journalists from these sorts of groups who did hidden camera interviews, where they don't even notify the person that they're on TV at all.

You don't hear these sort of complaints when "20/20" Diane Sawyer hid -- put guns in playpens and in toy chests and let little kids play with them. You didn't hear -- you heard from people like me, saying that this was exploitive and ridiculous, but you didn't hear these sort of criticisms that when you sit down with a camera and the parents are present in the room, they interviewed these kids and they say, "What do think about the environment?" Somehow, this is beyond the pale of credibility.

KURTZ: Let me ask you to be brutally candid, Jonah. If Stossel wants to portray himself as a reasonable, if opinionated, journalist, doesn't he hurt his own cause by yelling about brainwashing of the parents and totalitarians trying to silence him? That's pretty heated rhetoric.

GOLDBERG: Well, yes and no. I mean, I personally -- I like...

KURTZ: Got to be yes or no.

GOLDBERG: Well, the "yes" is -- well the "no" is this is that what's refreshing about Stossel, unlike most other of the people out there on network news television, is that he's honest about his opinions and he's an essayist. And this sort of thing is common on PBS.

I used to work for Ben Wattenberg, who still does basically these same sort of specials. And as long as they're up front about where your biases are, I think the viewers are smart enough to figure it out. What offends conservatives is that they're going after Stossel, who admits his biases and they're not going after, you know, Dan Rather who says he doesn't have any at all.

KURTZ: I was waiting to see how long it was if it were Dan Rather. And I should mention that we invited John Stossel to appear on the program and he declined.

Eric Mink, I talked to two of these parents out in Santa Monica, and they are upset. But isn't it odd that they didn't mount this campaign until after consulting with a Washington-based environmental working group two months after the interview took place?

MINK: I think the timing is interesting. One of the reasons I think the timing is interesting is that the tactics seem to be so effective and it caught ABC off-guard and forced them to take a step back. But you know, we people in our business sort of make assumptions about the way people interact with media. And I think it's entirely plausible that these people really didn't know what to do or how to respond or where to go and they sought some help and eventually ended up with these guys that the environmental working group.

Quite honestly, I was appalled that ABC in announcing they were going to pull back this segment spent a fair amount of their energy trying to discredit the parents who brought the complaints about their children being used. Look, if you're going to pull the stuff, pull the stuff and take your medicine.

KURTZ: I think they mostly defended themselves as having acted responsibly, but ABC insiders tell me, Eric, that Stossel has become so much of a lightning rod, that sometimes producers aren't very quick to mention his name for fear of losing interviews. So can that lead to situations like this, where an interview subject or the parent feels misled?

MINK: Yes, it can. And as I've said, I think if he were going to interview an adult on some subject, and there was some concern that the person might duck out or run away or not make themselves available, I mean, you can rationalize that tactic a little bit more when you're going to deal with somebody who's in charge of their own lives. But when you're dealing with getting the permission of a parent to interview their children and you use the same kind of tactic, I think that kind of stinks.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Eric, you basically seem to call for ABC's other journalists to rise up and demand that Stossel be fired?

MINK: You know, I think that's putting it a little bit strongly, but I remembered when they repeated the inaccurate report they did on organic foods. It was repeated, I believe, in July of last year, after a first airing in February, the previous February. And he sat next to Cynthia McFadden and referred to testing of pesticides on produce that by then, he had to have known, had not been done.

KURTZ: Right, let me bring Jonah Goldberg back. He did apologize for that non-existent test. Just very briefly, Stossel getting a bum rap here from his critics?

GOLDBERG: I think it's a ridiculous rap. I think that this shows a certain amount of naivete about how television is made. The whole point of this sort of television is to get to the truth. And the real truth of the environmental working group and these various groups want to conceal is the fact that children are, through their schools and through other places like McDonald's, getting brainwashed with a lot of environmental propaganda.

KURTZ: That debate will certainly continue. Jonah Goldberg, Eric Mink, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, coming up, "Slate" gets hooked by a story about fishing for monkeys.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: And checking our RELIABLE SOURCES media roundup, the Federal Appeals court ruling that blocked the break-up of Microsoft and took the case away from Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson also slapped the judge for talking to reporters. The appeals court singled out secret embargo interviews he gave to author Ken Auletta and "The New York Times," among others. Said the court: "Public confidence in judicial impartiality cannot survive if judges pander to the press."

Well, Auletta says he's thrilled the judge talked to him and allowed him to get behind the scenes and portray reality. Now, Jackson probably went too far by likening Microsoft executives to gangland killers and drug traffickers, but the court ruling could have a chilling on any judge who wants to talk to a reporter. After all, presidents, prime ministers, lawmakers all talk to the press. Shouldn't judges be encouraged to explain themselves as well?

Some fishy reporting at Slate.com. Columnist Jay Forman claimed that in 1996, he witnesses a cruel sport called "monkey fishing," where fisherman off the coast of Florida snare monkeys with deep sea fishing tackle. "The New York Times" reeled in that tall tale in article Monday. Slate editor Michael Kinsley later apologized for what he called "falsehoods."

Also this week, a big win in court for freelance writers. A Supreme Court ruling, seven to two that newspaper and magazine publishers cannot make articles written by freelance contributors available in electronic databases without permission. Some publishers threaten to delete articles by freelance writers rather than pay up.

And when the White House said it had an unspecified announcement Friday morning, an ABC vice president had a hunch that it might have something to do with Dick Cheney's health. So she had medical correspondent Tim Johnson standing by. And when the vice president revealed that he would undergo new tests for an irregular heartbeat, ABC was the only broadcast network to carry the announcement live, beating its rivals by more than a heartbeat.

Finally, Tom Johnson is retiring as chairman and CEO of CNN after 10 years saying, quote: "It's time for a workaholic to escape the stress of work before stress gets me." We appreciate Tom Johnson's support for our program that sometimes has been critical of CNN.

Well, just ahead, your take on the Sunday morning gabfest.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back. Let us know your thoughts on John Stossel's environmental coverage. E-mail us at RELIABLE@CNN.com.

Well, you responded to our conversation with Bob Schieffer and Gloria Borger about the Sunday talk shows. Quote: "Tons of us don't even watch them anymore. Who wants to see a bunch of huge, ego-TV personalities try to trick politicians to make themselves look really smart?"

And" "Bernard Kalb's suggestion that Sunday morning needs revamping requires some serious thought, with more diversity of guests and more probing and challenging questions from hosts."

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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