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Have the Media Declared Open Season on Gary Condit's Sex Life?

Aired July 7, 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, HOST: The Gary Condit story: another woman, a dispute over an affidavit, a gusher of leaks that Condit told police he did have an affair with a missing intern. Have the media declared open season on the congressman and his sex life? And has the search for Chandra Levy been all but over shadowed?

And the first woman to head "The New York Times" editorial page. Gail Collins speaks her mind.

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

The Chandra Levy story: the 24-year-old intern who's now been missing for two months has morphed this week into the Gary Condit story as the press increasingly focuses on the California congressman's sex life and another alleged affair.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): New coverage reached a new level this week. Fox News trumpeted an exclusive interview with a flight attendant who claims she and Congressman Gary Condit had a sexual relationship and that he asked her to lie about it in a sworn statement.

ANNE MARIE SMITH, FLIGHT ATTENDANT: I personally could never have signed it. I would never have signed it. And he was urging me to sign it. He said, "You don't want anything -- this could be potentially embarrassing for both of us if this story gets out."

KURTZ: The congressman denies asking anyone to keep quiet or to mislead authorities, and through his lawyer, Condit said he will resist efforts to "spin this story out of control" and blamed what he called "efforts by the media to dissect his and his family's private lives."

The story is getting huge play in print, on the air and on the Web with each incremental development, even Condit canceling his customary 4th of July appearances in California. Police have relied on publicity to generate tips while at the same time disparaging some of the coverage.

CHARLES RAMSEY, POLICE CHIEF, WASHINGTON, D.C. METROPOLITAN POLICE DEPARTMENT: I think a lot of things have been run with and not verified and so forth. KURTZ: On Friday, a blockbuster report in "The Washington Post" quoting Levy's aunt as giving a detailed account of Condit's affair with Chandra; how he gave her gifts and asked her to sneak around to keep the relationship secret.

On Saturday, D.C. police announced that they had interviewed Condit a third time and that he had fully cooperated, although Assistant Chief Terrance Gainer refused to tell reporters what the cops had learned. But law enforcement sources were also playing the leaking game telling CNN, "The Washington Post," "The New York Post," and "The Daily News" that Condit, despite his public denials, admitted having an extramarital affair with Levy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now Rita Cosby, Senior Correspondent of Fox News Channel, CNN National correspondent Bob Franken and Josh Marshall, senior correspondent of "The American Prospect" who writes the Web site "Talking Points Memo." Welcome.

Rita Cosby, why did Anne Marie Smith agree to sit down with you and tell her story that Condit had asked her to lie and was she reluctant to do so?

RITA COSBY, SENIOR NEWS CORRESPONDENT, FOX NEWS CHANNEL: She was definitely very reluctant to do so and I think it's also important that she was offered money from "The Star" tabloid. She was offered $50,000 from "The National Inquirer." She turned it down.

KURTZ: Turned it down.

COSBY: Turned it all down. And this was not ...

KURTZ: And she gave it away to you for free.

COSBY: She gave it away to me for free.

KURTZ: Why?

COSBY: No money involved. I think she felt, first of all, she had to tell her story because there were little dribs and drabs coming out in "The Star" that she said some of the points were not accurate.

Second of all, she did say to me that she was genuinely scared, and I can tell you what we did not show our viewers was during the interview, we had three FBI agents, we had five Seattle police officers standing by because she was seriously very worried for her safety.

She said, "I realize I am taking a chance by speaking out but a), I want to make sure my reputation is done. I want to do it in a professional manner. I want to do it once and set it straight. I want to do it with a reputable journalist. I also am worried about my safety and I feel that the Condit team knows these details about me and if I do not go on record and go on publicly then I have nothing to secure my safety." KURTZ: Right. Bob Franken, you've been somewhat skeptical from the beginning about the press zeroing in on Gary Condit because of the relationship he may have had -- it now appears he did have -- with Chandra Levy. Does Chandra's aunt's account to "The Washington Post," with all kinds of details including the congressman had asked her to press a different floor in the elevator so people who might be there wouldn't know that she was going to his apartment. Does that change your view somewhat?

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, two things -- one, I think we that have to continue to be skeptical. We have to remember always that even though it looks more and more like there might have been something we have to a), be skeptical -- at least consider other possibilities.

And, number two, we have to always wonder about the relevance of one's private life as far as somebody missing is concerned -- number one. Number two, in the case of the aunt, this, of course, is somebody we've heard about for a long time we've talked with. What is different now is she's gone public under a different name. And what she is talking about is not her confirmation that there was a relationship, she's talking about her niece telling her that there was a relationship.

And we have to consider the possibility -- we can't exclude the possibility -- that this was a young girl who had -- was star struck by a member of congress, just like maybe a student sometimes is with a college professor, who exaggerated. We can't lose sight of that possibility.

KURTZ: We'll put you down as still skeptical -- Bernie.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: But what about the pressure? You have an exclusive, "The Washington Post" on Friday had an exclusive -- there's a lot of competing pressure. What do you hear within the media folks, so to speak -- what do you hear about the pressure their companies are putting on them to come up with an exclusive to match, to match, to match?

JOSHUA MARSHALL, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT, "THE AMERICAN PROSPECT": Well, obviously a great deal and you can kind of see it now that on any given day half the stories are non-stories. Like today in "The Daily News" ...

KURTZ: Friday's "Daily News"?

MARSHALL: Yes, Friday's "Daily News" about his connections with the Hell's Angels and you read the story, there's almost nothing there. He had some friends that are in the Hell's Angels in California ...

KURTZ: Yes, but one unnamed investigator is quoted as telling the news, "These are bad guys to be involved with."

MARSHALL: Right. Well, that's about -- that's about how good a story that was. COSBY: And I'll even tell you Vince Flammini, who's the driver, I even spoke with him and he said, look, I did introduce him to some Hell's angels. They were at this enormous function where there were about 50,000 drivers. So, yes, some of them were Hell's Angels. Was he friends with Hell's Angels? No.

KALB: Let me use an unattractive verb, Bob. You've got the competing pressures of the congressman and Chandra Levy's family, is the media being quote, unquote "jerked around" to tell their story with respect to competing parties?

FRANKEN: Let me try and use a slightly different description. First of all ...

KALB: I use that to get to the point.

FRANKEN: And you did. Very well done. Are we spun? You bet. In fact, one of the things that I find so fascinating about this is that let us not forget this is the story -- possibly a tragic story -- about a daughter, a 24-year-old former intern who is missing, who has disappeared.

But it has become a story that is almost like any other political story in Washington. You have the spin-meister lawyers who have been hired: Abbe Lowell, who's very expert; Billy Martin, who's very expert. They have hired public relations people to promote the story.

As a matter of fact, it is very obvious that the reason that this aunt came forward was because she was being part -- used as part of a coordinated media campaign -- no doubt about it -- nobody denies that -- that is being conducted by Billy Martin who represents the Levy family. And it's explained to me that the Levy family believes the truth of what the aunt is saying that there was a relationship.

Therefore, public relations people are being used to a), get that out and b), quite frankly, promote the story.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: I just wanted to turn to Rita Cosby, Bernie. To turn back to the flight attendant for just a moment. Isn't is possible that even if everything Anne Marie Smith told you on camera is true and Condit was trying to cover up, say, an embarrassing affair -- if, I say -- then it could still be the case that Gary Condit had absolutely nothing to do with Chandra Levy's disappearance?

COSBY: Very well said. The one thing that is interesting, and I will say to bolster the flight attendant's credibility and this is something we'll all have to check because you're hearing -- it's a he said she said case. She did verify some facts for me that definitely correlated with what I had heard from Levy relatives. Also had phone records to verify some similar things, but when we did this story with her what did make it significant -- and you pointed it out -- is the fact that it wasn't just her talking about the affair.

If she just said, look, I had an affair with Gary Condit, we would have to decide whether or not that was a story.

KALB: How do you check that out?

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: If it was only a question of sex.

COSBY: Yes.

KURTZ: And there wasn't a question of a proposed affidavit ...

COSBY: Right. And maybe no information about Chandra ...

KURTZ: ... you might not have gone with it, you might not have gone with it?

COSBY: Possibly not. If she had -- one thing that was interesting with her is she did also say that she saw dark hairs in the bathroom, some things that pointed to Chandra Levy.

KURTZ: She's a red head, of course.

COSBY: Yes, she's a red head. And said, look, these are not my hairs." And she said that Gary Condit said, these are your hairs. And she said, these are not my hairs. But that's a whole new thing.

But what I think was interesting, what made it very significant with her is that she did bring up these points and said, look, I spoke with his legal team. They approached me and said, look, would you sign this document, that they knew was false then he pursued me afterwards and called me and said, do not sign it.

What I think is also interesting is something that we brought out in our story is that when we first called Congressman Condit's legal team, particularly that gentlemen who wrote that e-mail, he said, no, I never sent an e-mail like that. I never sent any e-mail denying any affair whatsoever.

Then when we produced the document he suddenly remembered ...

KURTZ: Ah, yes.

COSBY: ... he did send something.

KALB: Rita, a couple of quick questions. How soon after the interview is completed did Fox run it on the air?

COSBY: We ran it on the air ...

KALB: How much time?

COSBY: Several hours.

KALB: Several hours?

COSBY: Yes. KALB: And was that time used to check out claims that ...

COSBY: Yes, yes. And the other thing that's important ...

KALB: Did anything she tell you not check out?

COSBY: No, no. Everything she -- and what's also important -- and let's bear one thing in mind, even though we did put it on the air several hours after we got it, I had been speaking with her for a long time. So, I already had almost everything she had said on the record checked out before I even flew out to the West Coast.

KURTZ: OK, I want to turn back to Josh Marshall and ask you what I would describe as the Clinton-Lewinsky question -- and you were a defender of President Clinton during that ordeal for him. Is this story now about sex or alleged lying?

MARSHALL: Well, you know, I think the story with the flight attendant is sort of like the edge of that dividing line. I think there are certain things about what she said that do seem relevant to this question of where Chandra Levy is. I mean, if ...

KURTZ: And when "The Washington Times" jumps in ...

MARSHALL: Right.

KURTZ: ... with another story saying that the FBI wants to talk with five other women who were involved ...

MARSHALL: Yes, I think -- I think . . .

KURTZ: ... are we now losing site of everything except, gee, this is pretty interesting -- pretty salacious. Who else did the congressman allegedly, possibly sleep with?

MARSHALL: I think there -- it is kind of going in two different directions. You have a lot of people out there who treat this as the press now has kind of like a roving commission to find out every person that Condit has ever been involved with, every embarrassing thing he's ever done.

But I think it's also worth pointing out that with the flight attendant story, if Condit was calling her basically before it was really known that Chandra had disappeared and was saying, I'm in trouble. I may have to disappear for awhile.

KURTZ: Then ...

MARSHALL: That seems to bear directly. But, again, I think this is a slippery slope and sex is the dividing line.

KALB: And let's talk about what this story is and what it isn't. What this story is really is about a missing person.

MARSHALL: Sure.

KALB: There are hundred, thousands of those stories every year. Why is this one being covered?

KURTZ: Yes.

COSBY: Because of Congressman Condit.

KURTZ: And then because of the allegations -- allegations . . .

COSBY: Right.

KURTZ: ... of a sexual relationship.

KALB: You're making a point ...

COSBY: And the only ones who want to keep Congressman Condit in the news because they realize that.

KALB: Quick point -- you're making the point here about a missing young lady. Is the press -- is the media being sensitive enough to that issue or is it being overrun by a certain amount of sensation with this story?

COSBY: I think it's important -- I think sometimes we have lost a little bit of sight of the missing person. On the other hand, I think every story that we have done and almost every live shot that I have done we try to make sure that we have that picture of Chandra Levy because that is the whole reason. Going back to what you asked me, Bernie, we may not have interviewed the flight attendant if it was just the personal affair. I don't think we would have.

KURTZ: Very short answer: Are people now getting the impression that this is more of a sex-drenched, saturated story, that the media are milking this tragedy for ratings and circulation?

MARSHALL: Probably now they are, but there's also, I think what people have to realize is there's also a real story. And I think right now it's really on the dividing line kind of which way it goes, whether more information comes out. It isn't that he had X number of affairs, but it really is spot on about whether he had any kind of interaction with her disappearance.

KURTZ: Something tells me this isn't going to be the last time we'll be talking about this. Josh Marshall, Rita Cosby, Bob Franken, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, my conversation with the woman taking control of the powerful voice of "The New York Times" editorial page.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back. One of the strongest voices in American journalism blares forth from the editorial pages of "The New York Times." And joining us now is Gail Collins, who's about to move from columnist to editorial page editor. Welcome.

GAIL COLLINS, EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Thank you. KURTZ: Gail Collins, you've had a lot of fun writing your column. Being the ultimate opinion czar at "The Times" sounds like a very serious job that might be a little less fun?

COLLINS: No, it's going to be fun. I swear to you it will be fun. They've both been fun and I'll have a good time.

KURTZ: Lots of people -- I hope I'm not telling you something that will offend you -- find editorials in general to be a snooze. What do you think a good editorial page should do?

COLLINS: A good editorial page should not be a snooze. A good editorial page should tell people about things that they don't know or give them new insights to things that they already know a little bit about. It should have a strong voice for things that the paper really cares about and should be fun to read.

KURTZ: "The New York Times" editorial page is almost always described as liberal. And, you know, some people think that means always supporting Democratic presidents and criticizing Republican ones. Does the liberal label bother you?

COLLINS: No, people -- certainly, everybody knows that "The New York Times" has a lot of basic underlying principles that it doesn't deviate much from. You know, we believe in the First Amendment, we believe in the right to choice, we believe in environmental reforms, we believe in campaign finance reform -- everybody knows that one. So there's a whole bunch of things, and if those piece -- those things are regarded as part of the liberal code then that's the way it goes.

KURTZ: In terms of Congress, though, the only real conservative columnist you have is Bill Safire. Might we hope for a little more diversity on the opposite page?

COLLINS: Gee, I think we've got quite a bit of diversity on the op-ed page. If you want to know who's going to replace me, I don't know. It's up to the publisher. But ...

KURTZ: We were hoping you'd break the news right here.

COLLINS: Yes. Darn, if only I knew. But the op-ed page itself has tons of conservative voices writing in that we publish all the time. We're always really eager to provide voices on that page that are different from the voices that are coming through on the editorial page and that will continue, certainly.

KURTZ: I know it's a little early to make sweeping pronouncements, but can you give us some idea of how the Gail Collins editorial pages might differ from those that have been run for the last eight years by Howell Raines, who's becoming editor of the paper?

COLLINS: It's hard to imagine -- it's very hard to follow in Howell's footsteps. He was such an extraordinary editor. And, to tell you the truth, I'm spending the next couple of weeks talking to the members of the board about what they'd like to do, and that's a little bit -- I'd like to not talk too much about what my own thoughts are until then, which I know is awful for you guys and I feel bad about it, but what can I tell you?

KURTZ: Don't you want to put your own personality, your own stamp on the page?

COLLINS: Sure. Yes, you know I was on the board for almost five years before I became a columnist. And you come to realize very quickly that the voice of "The Times" on the editorial pages is only very partly the voice of the editor of the page. It's got a lot to do with precedence and history and a lot to do with the other people on the board. But to the degree that my voice is my voice, that voice will be there.

KURTZ: A lot of weight on your shoulders with all of that history and precedent to worry about. In your column you have ridiculed and skewered people sometimes, writing that Rudy Guliani, for example, is driving us all crazy and we don't want to know anything more about his sex life. Do people who are on the other side of your quill -- your sharp quill -- ever call you up and tell you off?

COLLINS: You know, not too often -- surprisingly not often. I absolutely know that Howell on the editorial page got a lot more comments and complaint comments about what they wrote than the columnists did. There's sort of an expectation that columnists have their own point of view and that's the way they're going to be and that's all there is to it. So there's a greater expectation, I think, of balance when you're on the editorial page side.

KURTZ: So, nobody accosting you at the supermarket?

COLLINS: Yes, not -- well, on occasion but not too often.

KURTZ: But in the long and august history of "The New York Times," you are the first woman to take over the editorial pages. I'm wondering at an institution that took roughly a century to start using the word "Ms." whether you think you might bring a little different sensibility to the job simply by virtue of your gender?

COLLINS: Well, you know, it's sort of hard to find things anymore where you can be the first woman -- we're running out of possibilities. I didn't think that the chance of becoming baseball commissioner was all that great ...

KURTZ: Right.

COLLINS: ... so this was the next best thing maybe. But, yes, sure -- I mean, "The Times" -- actually, as you know, has been great about appointing women in recent years to positions of authority. Our bureau chief in Washington is a woman, our national editor is a woman, the president of the company is a woman.

It's a great time at "The Times" to be a woman. There are incredible opportunities here. And so, yeah, sure -- that has to do -- that's the whole point of having women and minorities ...

KURTZ: Right. COLLINS: ... and everybody else is that you want a whole bunch of different voices and sensibilities.

KURTZ: Well, we'll look forward to yours. Good luck in the new job and we hope you'll come back and talk to us sometime.

COLLINS: Thanks a lot.

KURTZ: Gail Collins, thanks very much for joining us.

Just ahead, more RELIABLE SOURCES.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Our discussion about ABC Correspondent John Stossel, his special on the environment and the flap over his interviews with California grade schoolers drew quite a reaction.

Quote, "John Stossel's piece was a welcome relief. After being sand blasted by the environmentalist left, it was nice to see the other side."

And: "Stossel's program was the purest form of propaganda using every know technique from framing to selective omission to straw men."

And: "Leave Stossel alone. Let us have at least one libertarian in the national media. Come on!"

The Stossel special, by the way, was the highest-rated network prime time program that night.

Well, let us know what you think about media coverage in the Chandra Levy case. E-mail us at reliable@cnn.com.

Well, just ahead: a moral dilemma for journalists and how to get the truth out in totalitarian regimes in Bernie's backpage.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Bernie, you're just back from Croatia with some interesting insights about the very nature of the freedom of the press.

KALB: Just back from Croatia, correct, where I went with the Freedom Forum to take a look at the state of the media after a decade of violence in the Balkans. And one of the things I did there was to do an interview with about an hour with President Mesic of Croatia who, in talking about the new "freedom of the press" in Croatia finds that journalists are having trouble trying to shake off partisanship and self-censorship.

KURTZ: Self-censorship? In other words, the problem now is not government control, totalitarian control, but journalists not quite sure how far they can or should go? KALB: Well, you hear journalists say that it takes a bit of time to shake off the old habits. After all, they were working for a long time under authoritarian, essentially dictatorial, regimes depending on which of the six countries you're dealing with.

KURTZ: And they were propagandists during that period?

KALB: Propagandist -- take Serbia for example. Interestingly, while I was there while I was in the course of the interview with President Mesic, which made headlines the next day about Milosevic, I had to announce that Milosevic was being taken to Tousola en route to The Hague, which created a sensation, obviously, in Croatia.

KURTZ: You announced it?

KALB: I announced it in the course of the interview because I was told it was confirmed and off I went making announcements. But the point is this, the media throughout the Balkans, they're doing a lot of media soul searching about the way they behaved in the past because of the pressure and the repressant acts upon them.

And one of the journalists said that because of the portrait they had offered to the Balkan people during this decade of horror, journalists, too, just like Milosevic, should be taken before the criminal court in The Hague to be tried for what he called their war crimes in spreading propaganda. Now that's a fantastic ethical, moral dilemma because who will make that determination?

KURTZ: And according to what standards?

KALB: And the standards being -- one of the standards being the ethical dilemma, as they put it, that they faced all during this period and that is, how far do you go with the truth when the possibility of the survival of your country is at stake?

KURTZ: Interesting look at another country and you're the only person in America that I know who escaped the Chandra Levy story for at least a few days. Bernard Kalb, thanks.

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

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