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Has the Media Changed Since September 11?

Aired December 29, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

What did the media talk about way back when in an earlier era -- you know -- before September 11th? You may remember a few of these stories but a few of them journalists would rather forget.


KURTZ: What grade would you give the White House press corps in terms of covering this president?

RON BROWNSTEIN, LOS ANGELES TIMES: Bush does not dominate the headlines the way a president traditionally does.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The press will never be happy -- they're insatiable -- until there is Oval Cam in the Oval Office.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We have seen the president a little bit more. Maybe that is because aides were a bit sensitive to all of this talk about the president taking off for about 30 days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: With the Bush daughters I think there was an inclination to leave this story alone a bit. And we said, "Oh, gees -- she got busted a second time." And that's when the flood gates opened.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whenever I write about John McCain, I think to myself, "This guy gets so much publicity and we're feeding into this."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I think a lot of reporters have just been spending their time trying to write about what it means for Jeffers to switch, for Daschle not to trade places in terms of the agenda.

KURTZ: Every time Gary Condit walks toward the Capitol, you see hoards of reporters chasing him, shouting questions. He, of course, declined to answer those questions. Isn't television in particular kind of scraping the bottom of the media barrel here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Real people are fascinated by this story and I really -- I do not -- I genuinely don't understand -- what else do you need? You have somebody missing. You have somebody in power not behaving properly. You have sex, lies. You have video.

KURTZ: You say it's news.


KURTZ: Clearly.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sensationalists, salaciousness and not real news. I can't -- the question to the press -- obviously -- yes.

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: I think it's a legitimate story. I mean, you almost have a man bites dog story here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You guys have now done -- this is your sixth show on the subject of Chandra Levy coverage, which for the record, is more stories than "Newsweek" has published about the Chandra Levy case. So one might ask whether media pundits are over covering media coverage or the Chandra Levy case?


KURTZ: It is the solemn duty, of course, of media critics to report on media excess in all its manifestations.

Well, joining us now, Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic," Michael Wolff, media columnist for "New York Magazine," and Paul Farhi of "The Washington Post."

Michael Wolff, in the wake of September 11th in contrast to some of what we saw there, are we seeing a new, improved, grown up, more mature, more substantive media?

MICHAEL WOLFF, MEDIA COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK MAGAZINE": Well, I actually think that part of what happened after September 11th is a reaction to what happened before and everybody said, "Oh, God! Thank God -- a war."

KURTZ: Thank God -- a war?

WOLFF: Thank God -- a war.

KURTZ: Journalists are grateful?

WOLFF: Of course they're grateful. It's a war. It's something serious. It's a real story. It's real journalism. It's a nation challenged. Yeah -- I think everybody said, "This is our time."

KURTZ: Even the network morning shows, Michelle Cottle, seem to be playing down the celebrity interviews and the cooking and the fashion in favor of what we would usually call hard news.

MICHELLE COTTLE, SENIOR EDITOR, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": They're moving away from the cultural aspects of the news but we still manage to over exploit this thing anyway. We have any opportunity we'll take to slip the word "Anthrax" into the news broadcast. "Oh, my God! Some machine in New York didn't test positive for Anthrax today," I expect to come up as a headline.

So now that the guns have stopped largely or the bombs have stopped falling and there's not so much hard news to talk about we're still going to wring this out as long as we can. So . . .

KURTZ: Covering war though is expensive. War -- kind of war or possible war. There's still war on terrorism. And I wonder in the midst of a recession where advertising revenue is down for all media organizations whether or not we're going to see this level of coverage continue -- whether, frankly, folks can afford to do it?

PAUL FARHI, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, we're not going to see this level of coverage continue for the simple reason that there really isn't the same intensity of a story as there was before. The war is winding down no matter what you hear. We are not bombing the way we were at the beginning back in October. The war is starting to go away.

The Anthrax threat is virtually gone as far as we can tell -- at least for the moment. The intensity of the story is gone so the news coverage will be gone.

I'm reminded, by the way, of a headline that was in the satirical paper "The Onion" that said, "A shattered nation longs to get back to the old fluff again."

KURTZ: The old fluff again?

FARHI: Yeah.

KURTZ: Well, I don't get the impression from watching cable news that the war is over. It still seems like there's this constant drum beat of Anthrax, terrorism, where is Osama bin Laden? Now you've written, Michael Wolff, about CNN being rescued from soft news in your view by the war?

WOLFF: I think it's not only CNN but it's also the news magazines. I was talking to actually a "Time" editor recently who said it would be a very, very serious decision when they went back to a health cover.

And -- I don't know -- I think that the reason is not so much that we are, in fact, a nation at war, which I think is highly challengeable, it's that we're journalists at war and we like it.

KURTZ: Which would suggest, Michelle Cottle, that media organizations are going to keep this war -- feeling this war footing going as long as they can even if it's to repeat the same news that we searched 10 more caves and we didn't find anything in Afghanistan.

COTTLE: Exactly. And you'll notice that "The New York Times" Nation Challenged section keeps getting thinner and thinner and thinner. And I think it's supposed to go away toward the first of the year. But we are going to try as long as possible to keep those -- Pakistani -- India on the verge -- a nation changed forever. This nation is not changed forever.

FARHI: Let's not be so cynical about it. The fact of the matter is -- it was only three months ago that the World Trade Towers came down. This story has not gone away. There is still terrorism afoot. There is still a war in Afghanistan as light as it is becoming. And there may be another phase to this thing.

So we're not really out of the woods. We aren't really at the stage where we can get back to the same old stuff. We must . . .

KURTZ: And the attacks on New York and Washington were traumatic events for this country from which we haven't recovered. And if you've been in New York recently clearly people there are still feeling it.

COTTLE: That's true. But if you're looking at the ticker that's going across the bottom of CNN you have things like, "How do you feel about this? What do you think?" This is not breaking news anymore. This is things like the fuse in the man's shoe was wet.

This is not kind of the on the edge breaking news that the ticker purported to be.

WOLFF: It's also -- it's not just relevant to CNN. It's not just a journalists war. It's also the administration's war and it is good for them. As a matter of fact, if we don't know what we'll do what are they going to do when this passes?

KURTZ: You -- in your earlier life were involved with the Internet. You crashed and burned ...

WOLFF: What?

KURTZ: ... before it was fashionable. Did the Internet play an important role in war coverage or was it more ...

WOLFF: No -- I think it was marginal. And I think that this is really back to the center. This is an old media war.

KURTZ: And you mentioned "The New York Times" section "Nation Challenged." That fact is to put out -- it costs a lot of money to put out a section with no advertising every day covering the war around the world even if there were the throw away...


COTTLE: It was a tremendous service for them.

KURTZ: Yeah.

COTTLE: I think that everybody liked the profiles that they did on the people who died in the World Trade Center ...

KURTZ: Which they are still doing.

COTTLE: ... which is an amazing thing. FARHI: I think Michael's right. I think journalists like war because it's the biggest story of their age and they have to cover it. News executives, on the other hand -- the people who pay the bills -- don't like it particularly because in the midst of war there is also recession, which means the advertising climate has declined. And it's expensive to keep covering a war in a foreign country several thousand miles away. Satellite time, journalists -- they all add up.

WOLFF: There's another interesting advertising element on this is that war scares away advertisers. Especially with the news magazines it's an interesting development that you have these news magazines which over the last decade or half a decade have converted to soft news general interest books. And suddenly with the war they went back. It was hard news, it was blood, it was terror -- it was every thing that advertisers don't like.

And while newsstand sales are up for -- actually for all publications covering the war the advertisers want nothing to do with that.

KURTZ: It's not just the volume and the intensity of the coverage, which has been good for newspapers, good for magazines, certainly good for cable but you also have these journalists who all of them were, of course, instant war experts telling us for weeks that this was going to be Vietnam, it was going to be a quagmire, it was going to be awful, it was going to go on for a long, long time. Wasn't this really a spectacular media misfire in terms of all of those predictions, Michelle Cottle?

COTTLE: I think so, but that's what even people in the -- supposedly in the know were saying. Everybody wants to be very cautious because of what happened with Vietnam. We were right back there panicking thinking that this was going to be long and drawn out and we'd have so many questions to answer when we handled this badly.

And starting out it looked like that the war was going really badly and, of course, in the news business you jump on it immediately -- you have no patience. You have to do immediate analysis.

So like one week in we hadn't wiped them all out so we had to talk about...


WOLFF: Except for the fact that we've had now a decade's worth of experience of quick wars. We should know -- the way we fight a war now is we drop ...


WOLFF: ... as few bombs as possible, we deploy as few mean as possible and we kill as few people as possible.

COTTLE: But that's where the snap judgment come in, though. In a week we hadn't beaten them all so we had to come out. FARHI: This did expose the lack of knowledge of military affairs that most pundits had. We did not really understand the devastating effect of munitions that could target as well as they do now. And the pundits really were ill informed.

KURTZ: Not just the lack of knowledge but also I think built in skepticism of the media among the post Vietnam generation. And a sense that even when the war was basically won there was this negativity, "Well, there are new problems ahead. We're entering an even more dangerous phase of the war."

Well, guess what? It hasn't been all that dangerous although obviously there have been some casualties as well of casualties of journalists.

WOLFF: But it's worth pointing out that that was -- this was also the administration that put this out. The administration -- remember we went into this talking about World War II, about Pearl Harbor, about David Halperstan (ph) from the long twilight struggle, quoting Kennedy from early in the Cold War. This was what we were prepared for. Nobody said, "Hey, this is not really going to be war. We're not really a nation at war. This is really going to be relatively quick and relatively painless." The fact is nobody said that.

FARHI: The fact is when you start trying to predict the outcomes of wars this is the most complicated human enterprise you can talk about -- you are on very thin ice. There is no way to know the outcome of a war.

WOLFF: I disagree here. I think that the president could have as easily said, "We're going to go in here. We have limited aims. We're going to do this is a surgical sense where we're not going to put the nation at risk here. This is -- we are not at war."

COTTLE: But this administration has always been about lowering expectations -- set up the worst case scenario possible. And then when you top that you're -- everybody declares victory and goes home.

WOLFF: Absolutely. But the interesting thing is that we as journalists -- when they said, "We're a nation at war," we said, "We're a nation at war," instead of somebody saying, "Hey, let's look at this. How is this different from the Gulf War? Or how is this different from any other of our....


KURTZ: ... America strikes back. America gets even.

Just briefly -- the Osama bin Laden video tape. The one that the administration -- that U.S. forces found -- the administration wanted played where they were laughing about the World Trade Center attack. All the networks played that.

The one this week -- that was sent to Al Jazeera -- the White House didn't want any more publicity for Osama bin Laden and none of the networks played it.

I kept seeing experts talking about it. I had to go to the newspapers to find out what was in it. So are we just following the lead of the White House?

FARHI: And I felt the White House should have built this tape up because this showed a very, very fearful Osama bin Laden. He may actually be dead for all we know. But on this tape he looks like a hunted man. He looks like a man who has been living in cave. And the administration should very much have touted this one.

KURTZ: Right. We're going to take a break. When we come back we'll talk about Rudy, Bloomy (ph), Osama and other media stories.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Michelle Cottle we saw earlier in the show a lot of the pundit-izing about Gary Condit and now every time you use that phrase -- Condit or Chandra Levy -- people just -- journalists slap their foreheads, "Oh, my God! We were just so carried away. We were so trivial and so sensational in what we were thinking."

Why was there not any of this sense of embarrassment at the time? It was a legitimate story to begin with but it got way out of control.

COTTLE: Because people love it. My grandmother passed away this summer. I go home for the funeral -- these are relatives I haven't seen in 10 years. The only thing they wanted to know was where was Chandra Levy? They felt because I was in Washington maybe I had some inside sources or whatever. Everybody in America was talking about this story.

So, of course, we're going to wring our hands and feel a little guilty about it because it's soft news. But we're definitely going to give them what they were looking for.

KURTZ: So it was a public service?

FARHI: I say why feel guilty about it? I think it was an artifact of the times. Up until September 11th we were a prosperous country, we were a country at peace, we had not very much on our mind and so this thing naturally dominated the news.

We will look back on this and say, "That's an artifact of our age. That represents us."

WOLFF: I think it's a change in the form of news. And really it was this tabloid story and everybody including CNN -- most of all CNN -- I think felt, "We're out of it. We have to go for where the heat is. We have to do what Fox does. We have to follow where tabloid takes us."

COTTLE: And this is not completely dead because I think it was "USA Today" this week below the fold but on the front page, "JonBenet is back." KURTZ: And they were not the only ones. So it may be this notion that you have to have a big story, a dramatic story, a story that's going to bring eyeballs -- as television executives use the term -- hasn't really gone away and that the war has served as a very admiral and important substitute . But as the war fades they will be looking for something else so that people don't feel like, "Yeah, it's slow in the media."

WOLFF: Absolutely. You still have essentially a media industry in crisis. We don't know what to do. We don't know how to do -- we don't know how to function in a world where -- there are I think 720 stations on my AOL Time Warner digital cable. So nobody know what to do with that? What do we do?

FARHI: But this is what's fascinating -- we do have 720 stations and yet the news agenda remains relatively unified. We do the same stories over and over again. The news media still sets an agenda for the rest of society. We're not running off in 100 different directions. We're all looking at the same picture. And it unites the culture. It unites the society for better or worse. But we don't all live in our own little media worlds.

WOLFF: It's not an agreed upon picture. It's -- we're going where we think success is. Now in point of fact success is not there either. We don't know where -- success in the media business really doesn't exist anymore but if we think it's there -- if we think, "Oh, Fox is up. OK -- then we have to do what Fox does." And that happens over this quarter. Next quarter it's something else.

KURTZ: Well, early in 2001 there was a lot of talk about the growing importance of the supermarket tabloids. There was the Jesse Jackson love child story and some other scoops that certainly were chased by the mainstream media.

Do the tabloids -- leaving the fact -- aside the fact that they got kicked out of their offices because of the Anthrax infestation -- seem less important now than perhaps they did earlier this year?

COTTLE: Well, right now people want something they can trust when it comes to hard news that effects our lives and involves personal danger like the war. But when you go back to talking about things like JonBenet, the next time there's a good political scandal the tabloids are going to be right back in there because they'll deliver that little -- they'll push the edge...


WOLFF: Although it's worth noting that the tabloids are -- their circulation base has eroded over the past. First they have no advertising -- their circulation base has eroded. They're in crisis, too.

FARHI: Well, but look how the tabloids became important. They became important this year on two stories -- Jesse Jackson's love child and the Hugh Rodham lobbying of the administration for pardons. Those are important stories. The tabloids became more serious and the rest of the media followed them without any apology because those stories were serious.

KURTZ: The census here seems to be that whatever the boost in reputation that the media got or are getting from the war on terrorism or the coverage on September 11th as opposed to what we used to do before is going to be fleeting. You all seem to be saying in different ways that we're not out of the woods in terms of being more serious.

Let me turn to something that's gotten a huge amount of play in the last two weeks an that was "Time Magazine's" Person of the Year selection. Lots of speculation fueled by the magazine that it would be Osama bin Laden. Instead it was Rudy Giuliani.

Howard Rosenberg (ph), writing in the "LA Times," said that this whole things was a faux news event of the year -- a commercial custom that's news. And said that CNN, which, of course, is part of AOL Time Warner was really giddy in publicizing this.

Is "Time's" selection news because people talk about it or do they all pump it up?

FARHI: Yeah. But that's what it's there for -- it's to gain attention for "Time Magazine." And what's wrong with that? We're in the news media, were in promotion to a certain extent. Calling attention to one's self is not necessarily a crime.

The problem here is ...

KURTZ: Not a crime? Was it a crime?

FARHI: But the fact is they wimped out on the choice. They were afraid of the heat they would have taken if they would have named Osama bin Laden Person of the Year or Man of the Year.

KURTZ: You're saying it should have been Osama bin Laden based on their own standards?

FARHI: Based on their own criteria for what constitutes the Person of the Year -- yes.

WOLFF: But I would certainly like to add that he was "New York Magazine's" Man of the Year before he was "Time's" Man of the Year.

KURTZ: When was that?

WOLFF: Last week. We were a week ahead of "Time Magazine."

KURTZ: Didn't I see Rudy Giuliani on the cover?

WOLFF: Yeah -- Rudy was. Yeah -- oh, Osama -- no. I lobbied for Osama but ...

KURTZ: You were overruled.

COTTLE: Well, maybe if he hadn't lived in Manhattan I would have.

FARHI: He may have lived in Manhattan.

COTTLE: Well, that's true. At this point they don't know, which we hear every time we turn on the TV as well.

FARHI: The other problem here is, of course, it's self referential. "Time Magazine's" based headquarters in New York. AOL Time Warner headquartered in New York naming the mayor of New York. Nothing wrong with Rudy Giuliani, but his effect on the news was not as substantial as Osama bin Laden or President Bush's certainly.

KURTZ: Although he certainly gets -- it makes sense for "New York Magazine" to put him on the cover.

WOLFF: Well, it's actually one of the interesting things again about this whole story -- the whole September 11th thing -- because it happened to New York where we -- well, at least I am based and most of the media is based is we began to see this thing in a completely self- referential fashion.

I've asked many times, "What would this have been like it if happened in Chicago or Boston?

FARHI: How about Oklahoma City?

KURTZ: Well, we know the answer to that. New York news gets bigger pay because that's where a lot of journalists live.

When we come back -- speaking of New York -- the media's $60 million woman.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Michael Wolff is our New York emissary here. New mayor of New York coming in next week -- Michael Bloomberg -- you've written a lot about him. He's already served notice that he expects the press to stay out of his private life. And he isn't planning to hold as many news conferences and so forth as mayors in the tradition of Giuliani and Ed Koch. How's the press likely to take this?

WOLFF: Well, I don't think the press will do -- the press loves this. Everyone I know is now at the edge of their seat. I think the question is, "How is Michael Bloomberg going to take this?" Because obviously the press is not going to go away. Every time you tell the press to go away they get more interested. And I think the press is suddenly extraordinarily interested in what's going on behind the facade of Michael Bloomberg's East 79th Street house.

KURTZ: Can there be a lower key mayor of New York than we've become accustomed to in the age of Rudy?

WOLFF: Well, I think that there can be a lower key -- yes -- there has to be.

KURTZ: Sure.

WOLFF: The Rudy hysteria has to pass. But nevertheless I think there are a lot of -- the first thing there is a broader question -- Michael Bloomberg -- who is Michael Bloomberg? We have no idea. And I think as soon as he becomes mayor we're going to want to know.

KURTZ: We're going to count on you to tell us.

Paul Farhi -- NBC's Katie Couric signing that $60 million contract to get up early in the morning and do the "Today Show." A lot of people are asking -- as talented as she obviously is, "Is any journalist worth that amount of money?"

FARHI: I think in her case she is. She is like the same as the NFL contracts that the networks signed. Everybody said, "Why are you paying billions of dollars to the NFL -- the ratings are going down?" You accept that. What's your alternative is the question?

In Katie's case there is no alternative. There is no one else who can command the morning show the way she does. And so for the long term there's only going to be one Katie Couric. NBC needs to get her virtually -- not at any price but at a price that they can afford. And this is easily affordable.

KURTZ: And the "Today Show" makes plenty of money. It's a gold mine for NBC. Michelle Cottle, you must have called your agent as soon as you heard about this contract?

COTTLE: That's right -- I've been complaining about it. You don't hear anybody complaining about how much Tom Brokaw makes. If she's got the draw ...

KURTZ: She now makes more than Tom Brokaw.

COTTLE: That's right. And they pointed that out carefully. And I think if she's got the drawing power let her be the Julia Roberts of morning television -- more power to her.

WOLFF: In her defense -- she works a lot.

COTTLE: You get up at 4:30 every morning.

KURTZ: But it does underscore how personality has become so important in network television. In other words, she's not always an investigative reporter. She's a good interviewer certainly.

COTTLE: But, of course, network's always been an issue. We don't pay the network anchors what we do because they go out and get down in the trenches -- it's because we trust them. They have a certain kind of aura. It's the same thing with morning personalities.

KURTZ: Final thought?

WOLFF: Well, I think the larger thought is can that show -- what's the future of that show? And no one is quite certain. The future without Katie was really scary but the future even with Katie is scary.

KURTZ: Well, Certainly Good Morning, America, which is nipping at the heels of Today is waiting to see whether she can deliver $60 million worth of additional ratings.

We have to hold it there. Michael Wolff, Paul Farhi, Michelle Cottle -- thanks very much for joining us. Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern when we'll talk in further depth about how political coverage has changed during the war and take a further look at how New York's incoming mayor Michael Bloomberg will get along with the New York press corps.

CAPITAL GANG is up next.




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