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Is the Media Desperate to Keep the Condit Story Alive?; Why Journalists are Ignoring New York's Race for Mayor

Aired September 1, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The Condit saga continues: Are the media desperate to keep the story alive? Will they keep lavishing air time on Anne Marie Smith, Condit's lawyer, Condit's kids, Condit's staff and the endless parade of talking heads?

Also, what if they held a mayor's race and the press took a nap? Why journalists are treating the New York campaign as a snooze, at least until Rudy Giuliani, who isn't even running, took off the gloves. Or are Big Apple reporters just bored by the issues?

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

If this is the summer of the missing intern, it might also be called the season of the missing mayor's race in the nation's media capital.


KURTZ (voice-over): Uptown, downtown, the race is in the home stretch for a new mayor of New York, New York. But the guy going out is getting more attention than the guys trying to come in.

The Republican race is dominated by mega-media tycoon Michael Bloomberg. On the Democratic side, four city officials are slugging it out; front runner Mark Green, the cities public advocate, Alan Hevesi, the city comptroller, Peter Vallone, city council speaker and Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx Burrough president.

Hevesi seems to be running more against the lame-duck mayor and, for good measure, "The New York Post."


NARRATOR: Rudy Giuliani and Rupert Murdoch's right-wing "New York Post" are attacking Democrat Alan Hevesi. The truth? Comptroller Hevesi exposed corruption and cover-ups in the Giuliani administration.


KURTZ (voice-over): Can journalists kick their love/hate addiction to Giuliani and his personal melodramas? With such a high stakes election, why is public interest so low? And are New York's reporters to blame?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, two journalists with ringside seats: Andrea Peyser, columnist for "The New York Post" and Andrew Kirtzman, senior political correspondent for the cable station New York One, and author of the book "Rudy Giuliani, Emperor of the City."

Andrea Peyser, let's get right to the one moment of drama in this race. "The New York Post" reports an unsubstantiated bribery allegation against Alan Hevesi, the comptroller. Giuliani beats him up and when Hevesi complains he gets the cry-baby cartoon on the front page of "The New York Post". It sounds like you're going after the guy.

ANDREA PEYSER, "THE NEW YORK POST": Well, it might be that. Or it may be that Hevesi is so desperate to get his name mentioned over and over that he's flogging this story to death. But, yes, there was an unsubstantiated bribery claim, but the comptroller has admitted that he set up a meeting for a big contributor with a private company that does business with the city.

OK, so is that an ethical lapse or is it something everyone does? I don't know. He's turning it into the right-wing "New York Post" against him, you know, poor baby. And, you know, it's pretty appalling that the guy needs to get attention this way.

KURTZ: He's enjoying running against your newspaper.

Andrew Kirtzman, the New York mayor's race is usually kind of a national event. I'm thinking of John Lindsey, Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Rudy, but much of the media seems to be treating this as kind of a minor league snooze fest. Why is that?

ANDREW KIRTZMAN, NY1 NEWS: Well, every mayor wants to -- every mayoral candidate wants to ride in and rescue the citizenry and come in and save the day. But the question is, what happens when the last guy saved the day? And that's kind of the dynamic going on right now in New York City.

Giuliani took over a government that was widely seen as uncontrollable and tamed the government and also did a remarkable job, with a little luck and a lot of skill, in turning the city around.

Now, the question for the Democrats running is, and the question for the people evaluating them, is who is least likely to screw it up.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Well, the question to Andrea is this: is it a case of the media having already decided that Giuliani is going to be a tough act to follow and that the contenders lack controversy, drama, that surrounds the Emperor of New York?

PEYSER: Well, it's a couple of things. Yeah, the media, of course, but the media is reacting to the people who, you know, no matter where you live, you know, one of the candidates is trying to say that people of color are not getting the same break as white people. We think the reality is that everybody is better off, whether you liked Giuliani or not, even if you have to -- if you hate admitting it, you're better off.

Now here we have a bunch of guys running to take his place on the Democratic side. We've seen them all for 20 years. They've been in government. They've -- some of them have lost races for mayor before. It's like the same old -- the same old, same old, you know. There is nothing fresh and exciting out there.

KALB: Andrea, you're suggesting that personalities make the issue. Isn't it a responsibility of the media to make the story interesting?

PEYSER: Well, you know, we're trying...

KIRTZMAN: You can't fault "The New York Post" for not trying to make it interesting, whether it's fair is another matter.

PEYSER: Well, you know, your front runner -- OK, listen, you've got to -- you've got a front runner, Mark Green, who, he's, you know, he was once seen as the ultra-liberal, and he is hanging on to his front runner status by saying absolutely nothing. By being even more boring than usual. How do you dress him up?

There's, you know, my favorite, as far as personality, if we're talking about personalities, is Peter Vallone. He's a mention the way that Koch was. But he's been very quiet, too. You can't...

KURTZ: You have charisma-challenged candidates, in your view.

PEYSER: You absolutely do. And ones that we've seen before for, you know, for 20 years or more, and what can you do with people like that.

KURTZ: Some would call them experienced.

Andrew Kirtzman, you're in the TV biz. With Mark Green playing it safe as the front runner, are these guys simply not producing the kind of Rudy-style fireworks that makes for good television?

KIRTZMAN: There's no question they're not providing Rudy-style fireworks, which is why the press is going back to Rudy for some drama. But the -- the lone exception is Michael Bloomberg, and our station recently analyzed the news coverage that the city's media was giving these candidates and it turned out Michael Bloomberg was getting something like double or triple the ink that the Democrats running are getting, even though Bloomberg is widely seen as almost a shoe-in for the Republican nomination.

And that's because he's a new face, he's untested, he's got tens of millions of dollars to dump on this race, and you never know what's going to happen every time he opens his mouth. And as Andrea said, it's not what you get when you do the Democrats.

PEYSER: This is a guy who has dated... KALB: Why is fireworks so critical to you? You've got a hell of a story, you've got the biggest city, you've got the media capital of the world, and they look out the window and there is this political battle taking place, and it's a yawn.

KIRTZMAN: Well, let me tell you what excites me as a political reporter, and that's watching these kind of traditional liberal Democrats contort themselves into Giuliani Democrats right now, into law-and-order Democrats. And I think it's a totally fascinating story, how Giuliani has almost single-handedly slayed liberalism in the most liberal city in America, outside of, maybe, San Francisco. That's an interesting story.

KURTZ: Andrea Peyser, excuse me Bernie. Let's come back to Bloomberg, who you've spent some time with. He, of course, founded a big financial news service named after him, a television network named after him. How is he, despite his media experience, at least at the mogul level, at dealing with reporters?

PEYSER: Well, he's a -- he's a strange -- it's strange, because when you're with Michael Bloomberg, you're not with your career politician. He's basically a celebrity. This is a man that, you know, that's been reported he's gone out with Barbara Walters and, you know, one of the -- and Diana Ross of the Supremes. So...

KURTZ: There's your angle.

PEYSER: You know, and these are the stories that the people are reading. You know, Andrew just said that he's gotten so much more exposure than the other candidates, even though, you know, this is a Democratic town. And it's because of things like that, and that's the kind of candidate he is. He also, look, I found him to be a bit lacking in the issues. I mean, there's certain things, like, for example...

KALB: Ah, substance now.

PEYSER: He didn't know what the minimum wage was. OK, that may be a little thing, we don't make minimum wage, but I know it's $5.15. He thought it was $7.50 and he's a billionaire. I thought that was a little bit interesting. He doesn't know a lot of things, a lot of basic facts about people who don't have billions of dollars to spend on a campaign, so...

KALB: Andrea, let me crash in for a minute if I may. Excuse me. You've got a scrap of time left. How big a bite is the Condit story taking out of press coverage of the elections in New York?

PEYSER: I don't know if it's any one story that's taking a bite out of the elections. I just think, I -- you know, we cover it every day and people are more interested in the missing intern than they are, you know -- people are in denial that we're going to have a different mayor. They're happy with the one we have, whether they love him or hate him, and they're in denial. They're going to wake up on January 1st and realize there's a new guy in there and they're going to be in shock. KURTZ: Andrew Kirtzman, we have about 10 or 15 seconds. Given the fact that this is New York, can we expect that there'll be some last minute histrionics, fireworks, charges, counter-charges, to get the media engaged here? Or do you think that we're going to sleepwalk right up until the end here?

KIRTZMAN: Well, I think that the front runner, Mark Green, is going to try to sleepwalk through it, but you've got three other guys who are dying to get into at least a run-off and they're going to be turning on each other. They've already started to turn on each other. I think you can pretty much guess that it'll happen a little more as primary day approaches.

KURTZ: I'm sure the media will be happy to hold their coats while they go at it.

Andrew Kirtzman, Andrea Peyser, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, the media, the missing intern, and the congressman's staff.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Well, coverage of the congressman and the missing intern may be shedding little light, but plenty of heat as the cable networks keep the story alive.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Washington D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey took reporters questions this morning on the search for Chandra Levy.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The Chandra Levy case passes a somber milestone. Four months ago tonight, the young intern was last seen...

GERALDO RIVERA, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: It is probably too late for Gary Condit to salvage his crumbling career, but maybe it's not too late to squeeze more information out of him about Chandra Levy.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: The final stake through Condit's heart came today when D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey pretty much called Condit a liar.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We all care a great deal about Gary Condit and, you know, what has happened to him over the past four months, how he has been vilified and demonized. We feel that he, you know, there is a side to him, a big side to him, that has not gotten out.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now is Paul Farhi of "The Washington Post" and Josh Marshall of

Paul Farhi, nothing has really happened in the nine or ten days since the Connie Chung interview, and yet every night every cable network, every show, it seems, Condit, Condit, Condit. Is the media flogging of this story a little embarrassing?

PAUL FARHI "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, no, not for the following reason, is Gary Condit gave it a reason to stay alive. What he did was to break his silence and there by give 30 minutes of useable tape and footage for the cable networks to pick over for the next, I would guess, three or four weeks.

Soon, it will die back down, it will be gone.

KALB: So, those 30 minutes of Gary Condit on ABC, that was kind of a blunder on his part is what you're suggesting.

FARHI: Well, it was a blunder on his part for...

KURTZ: On about 12 different levels.


KALB: Yes.

FARHI: But the very fact is, if he was going to perform the way he did and stay the way he did, it would -- he would have been better off saying nothing.

KALB: Josh, was it only a week ago that that interview took place? Just a week ago?

KURTZ: A little more than a week ago.

KALB: God, my God. I want to pick up this question. Here's an editorial in "The New York Daily News": "ABC looked just as bad as Condit in interview" and "we saw a television network for what it too often is, desperate for ratings."

JOSH MARSHALL, SALON.COM: Well, I thought there was actually some problems with the interview. You know, I thought, you know, Connie Chung spent 15, 20 minutes asking the same question over and over again about whether he had had this affair. I thought, in terms of newsworthiness, there's questions about her disappearance that would have made a lot more sense to get into. So, in that sense...

KURTZ: Let's move off of the interview. Since the interview, and all of this coverage that continues, have we -- I mean, you write about this on the Web every hour-and-a-half, roughly. Have we learned anything new from all of this coverage about Condit, about Chandra Levy, about Anne Marie Smith? Or is it just sort of rehashing, picking up new, different angles and finding ways to keep putting this on the air?

MARSHALL: I think the interview itself shed some new light on Condit, what -- you know, how forthcoming he was willing to be...

KURTZ: And since then?

MARSHALL: It taught you a little -- since, I'd say, for the first couple of days, you know, since the first couple of days after that, no. We don't really know anything more.

He has done a few more interviews, though, and his people have gone out. But I basically agree. I don't think we know much more in the last week.

FARHI: The point is, desperate ratings, the fact is the ratings are up. People are interested in it and in fact someone once said, what is the public interest? It's what the public is interested in. It turns out, the public is very interested in Gary Condit, or at least relative to other news stories.

KALB: But what about the other part of this story, the missing intern? That seemed to be so underplayed. It's such a razz-tat-tat that Gary Condit, his replies, son, etcetera. Isn't the Chandra Levy dimension of the story being drastically, inexcusably shortchanged by the media?

FARHI: But what is the media to do?

KALB: Well, what is the media doing with him? Over and over -- recycled.

FARHI: Well, look, I mean, this is not original. This story is fascinating on several levels, for the fact of its nature...

KALB: Over and over fascinating?

FARHI: I can only go back to the Nielsen numbers and show you that people are tuning in to hear this stuff. Soon enough, they'll move on to something else. But for the moment, they're making hay while the sun shines.

KURTZ: Josh, now that Condit has gone back into hiding, TV keeps giving airtime to Condit's lawyer, to his son, to his staff, all of whom have been on "LARRY KING" in this past week. In fact, watching his staff on "LARRY KING," I thought it was an excruciating hour, because all they did was tell the story about what a nice guy he is. And when it came to anything substantive about the investigation, one of the staffers refused to comment on anything substantive, and so it didn't really get as much. So, why give these people a platform?

MARSHALL: I kind of feel that way. I mean, at the beginning of that interview, Mike Dayton, who is the one person on Condit's staff who has any clear nexus into this investigation...

KURTZ: He helped dispose of the watch case and vehemently denied any affair with Chandra Levy.

MARSHALL: Exactly. He, at the very beginning, said he just had nothing to say about that. And I remember watching that, having the sense of, like, Larry, can I have my money back now.

KURTZ: Fifty-five minutes to go.

MARSHALL: Yeah, what are we going to talk about? So, I have the same sense, that they're just going to go on and say -- I'm sure they do think their boss is a nice guy, but, yeah, I don't see what the point of that was.

KALB: Paul, do you see any relief on this story? I mean, from the point of view of viewers and readers, particularly the way cable news is handling this? Any relief in sight?

FARHI: There will be relief in sight.

KALB: And when will that be?

FARHI: Well, I thought there was going to be relief in sight in August, before Gary Condit decided he was going to go on television and talk about it. This story would have died of its own lack of clues, information, and news to pick over.


KALB: Yeah, because I think -- I don't want to be a wet blanket, but I think you're dead wrong on this, Paul. That story just goes on, pumped up with artificial oxygen, to keep this story -- it's got all the ingredients we've talked about: sex, the possibility of murder, congressman, background, Clinton, Monica, etcetera. Can't walk away from it. Howie, you were...

KURTZ: Is there some possibility, Josh Marshall, that the media -- there is starting to be a sense that the media are hounding Condit. As unsympathetic a figure as he is, and won't give up until he either resigns or agrees not to run again. That would be the thing that would make this story sink.

MARSHALL: That would take, though, that would take a lot out of it. I do think there have been various points over the last few weeks, when, you know, Condit has been on the verge of gaining some sympathy for himself just because he's been hammered so hard.

On the other hand, he keeps coming forward with statements that are delivered in a way that are not sympathetic or so intrinsically ridiculous that, you know...

KURTZ: He's been married for 34 years.

MARSHALL: That is true. We all know that now. But, so, I think that he's sort of at war with the press, to keep coming back and making himself even more unsympathetic, that he's going to bluff and press back in the game.

FARHI: At some point there will be a media backlash on this story and that will...

KURTZ: You mean backlash against the press?

FARHI: A backlash against the press and that...

KURTZ: If you're only lying to us -- the media -- it was good that the media was doing this, whatever the excess it, because it was keeping the spotlight on the search for Chandra Levy. Well, now you don't have about the search... (CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: So, it's all Condit, Condit, when will he resign, what's he still doing there, how could he have blown this so badly.

KALB: And the questions just -- one second, Josh. The questions have reached the point where a columnist in New York raised a question of where does Gary Condit have his hair done. That's where we are.

KURTZ: You want to...

MARSHALL: I actually think this is the reason why that Connie Chung interview, I think it would have been, you know, it would have made a lot more sense to ask questions about what the, really, the germane topic here, what happened to this woman. As it happened, she spent most of her time, again, asking about this affair that we all knew took place, so I think...

KURTZ: There were also interviews with "Newsweek," "People," the Sacramento station, none of which got much more in the way of substantive answers from Gary Condit.

MARSHALL: But they tried.

KURTZ: They did try. We will have to leave it there. We'll be back to do this for the next seven or eight weeks, I'm sure. Hope not. Josh Marshall, Paul Farhi, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, your e-mail about the Condit interview and the Bush administration takes on the press. At stake, one reporters home phone records.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Well, the Condit media blitz prompted a bit of an e-mail blitz.

Writes John, quote: "The media is upset with Mr. Condit because he isn't giving them what they want: a touchy-feely, emotional guy. I think the media is going to be a loser on this."

And from Carolyn in L.A., quote: "You're all just sharks evaluating other sharks in the water. It's revolting. Connie Chung was pandering to your collective Salem witch-hunting."

We want to hear from you. E-mail us with your name and home town at

And checking our RELIABLE SOURCES media items, Peter Bart is back in the editors chair at "Variety." We told you last week that Bart was suspended after "Los Angeles" magazine reported that he had made slurs against minorities and gays and tried to peddle a movie script while running the powerful Hollywood paper.

Bart said he was deeply sorry for the offensive language. "Variety's" parent said it couldn't substantiate that Bart had tried to sell a script to a tinsel town studio, but said he had created, quote, "the appearance of a conflict of interest."

And, the Bush administration has mounted what could be a long legal and PR battle against the Associated Press over the rights of reporters. In a break with a 21-year-old tradition, the Justice Department subpoenaed the home phone records of AP reporter John Solomon. The move came after Solomon's May 4th story on how New Jersey's senator under investigation, Democrat Robert Torricelli, had been overheard on a federal wire tap.

The subpoena was approved by FBI director Robert Mueller, who was acting deputy attorney general at the time. Well, media outlets are questioning whether the Justice Department met the rigorous legal requirement before issuing a subpoena to the press. The AP, which learned of the move well after the fact, calls the subpoena a sneak attack.

Well, more on the feds, the question of leaks and what's at stake for journalists, right ahead on Bernie's "Backpage."


KURTZ: Time now for "The Backpage" -- Bernie.

KALB: There's a battle shaping up on Capital Hill over the controversial issue of leaks to the media or, to put it in the broadest terms, over whether leaks are a danger to the country or a plus for a democracy.


KALB (voice-over): But first, some perspective, some big stories we all know about that were triggered by leaks.

For example, the illegalities of Watergate in the early 70's, the blunders of Washington in the war on Vietnam, the Iran Contra scandal of the mid-80's. Those in power at the time were not exactly wild about these disclosures, but the general consensus was that these leaks did not jeopardize national security.

Right now, the battle over leaks is centered on a measure that would criminalize virtually all unauthorized disclosures of classified information by current or former government employees. A similar measure was vetoed by President Clinton last year. He said the measure might unnecessarily chill legitimate activities that are at the heart of a democracy.

But now, Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama is resurrecting an anti-leak measure and the battle lines have been drawn. Supporters say press leaks have compromised intelligence operations and that such a bill is needed to protect national security.

Critics say that the government overclassifies and that a sweeping anti-leak law could be a blank check for bureaucrats to cover up their mistakes. And media organizations argue that such a law would destroy the delicate balance between the people's right to know and the legitimate demands of national security. Instead, they have proposed that the two sides, government and media, try to find a common approach to protecting classified information.


KALB: Decision time is approaching. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has scheduled a meeting for next Wednesday. Stay tuned.

KURTZ: We will. 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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