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Is Style Emphasized Over Substance in Cable News?; Are These Networks Becoming Political?

Aired January 13, 2002 - 09:30   ET


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

With the war in Afghanistan beginning to fade the battle between the cable news channels is heating up. And increasingly it seems to be a race about ratings and personality. Geraldo Rivera leaving CNBC for Fox News Channel; Greta Van Susteren jumping from CNN to FOX to host a primetime program, retaliation of sorts for the hiring of Paula Zahn from Fox in September.

Zahn and CNN found themselves in a harsh spotlight this week for a promotional ad featuring an announcer say, "Where can you find a morning news anchor who's provocative, super smart and -- oh, yeah -- just a little sexy?"

The word "sexy" then appears on the screen with a noise that some thought suspiciously sounded like a zipper unzipping.

A CNN spokesman said the noise was actually supposed to resemble a needle being scratched across a record.

CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson called the ad a major blunder, and it was quickly yanked from the air.

But "New York Times" columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, "It was refreshing to see somebody finally spit out what we all know but what the networks go to ludicrous lengths to deny. They hire and promote news stars based on looks and sex appeal."

And "Montreal Gazette" columnist Mike Boone declared, "What never changes are the physical attributes required of female news readers. They have to be attractive."

Well, joining us now in New York -- James Wolcott, Contributing Editor for "Vanity Fair," Adam Buckman, Television Columnist for "The New York Post," in Boston Dan Kennedy, Senior Writer for the "Boston Phoenix" -- he covers the media for the weekly paper -- and here in Washington, Laura Ingraham, the host of "The Laura Ingraham Show" on Westwood One Radio.

Let's start by talking about sex and journalism because, frankly, we need the ratings. The civilized world seems to agree that CNN committed a big fat faux pas by calling Paula Zahn sexy. Should she feel insulted, trivialized, demeaned?

LAURA INGRAHAM, WESTWOOD ONE RADIO: I think no one thinks differently of Paula Zahn since that ad ran. Paula's had a long career in television news from CBS to now working at CNN. And the idea that somehow she's demeaned is ridiculous.

I can she how she could be irritated but I think...

KURTZ: You've hosted an MSNBC show.

INGRAHAM: I've hosted an MSNBC...

KURTZ: If someone had run an ad saying you were provocative, smart, brilliant and sexy your reaction would be?

INGRAHAM: Thank God -- probably. No -- but I tend to take a lighter view of these things.

I think it probably would have been a better idea if Paula had come on that morning after that controversial ad ran and made some joke about Jack Cafferty being sexy.

But everyone from Sean Hannity to Sheppard Smith to Wolf Blitzer -- frankly, you, Howie -- everybody on television has to have a certain look, has to have a certain sense of style, attractive quality -- that's a fact. It might not be a good fact, but that's where we are.

KURTZ: I will keep that in mind.

INGRAHAM: Yes -- exactly.

KURTZ: James Wolcott, don't all of the networks implicitly sell sex appeal? And if that's the case, was the gaff here just saying it out loud?

JAMES WOLCOTT, "VANITY FAIR": I think the gaff was saying it out loud. But I do question CNN's resources though. I think they're misallocating their precious blonde resources, because the fact is a morning show isn't so much watched as listened to. People use morning shows like glorified radio as they dress for work, dress for school, get their kids ready for school.

So if you have bombshell appeal, it's wasted at 9:00 a.m. If they're going to play that angle, she should be on in primetime.

KURTZ: Dan Kennedy, let's face it, you don't see a lot of ugly people on TV. I mean, half the women on Fox look like they could be models.

DAN KENNEDY, "BOSTON PHOENIX": No, that's right. And the men tend to be just as pretty as the women.

This was a gaff on the part of CNN clearly. But on the other hand, you'd have to ask yourself, "Who really loses here?" They run the ads for a couple of days. They say, "We made a major mistake." But they got the ads out anyway, they got their message out anyway. So it seems like this is one of those situations where in a way everybody's a winner.

KURTZ: And, on that point, Adam Buckman, do you buy the notion that this was just a blunder by the promotions department and no senior CNN executives knew about it or maybe some people are whispering they were trying to create a little bit of buzz?

ADAM BUCKMAN, "THE NEW YORK POST": I have this feeling based on no knowledge whatsoever that this promo was written and produced perhaps during the holidays when there were no overseers or supervisors available...

KURTZ: I'm having a little difficulty hearing Adam Buckman so let me move on to -- maybe the control room can help us.

Laura, it's not just women. Nic Roberston, CNN correspondent in Afghanistan was declared the Sexiest Correspondent by "People Magazine."

INGRAHAM: Fascinating.

KURTZ: But when MSNBC made a big deal out of Ashleigh Banfield dying her hair to get into Afghanistan, wasn't it playing the same game? When Katie Couric gets a $60 million contract, would she be getting that kind of money is she was hard to look at?

INGRAHAM: Of course not. We all know that ratings drive the game in television. And you get ratings on these cable news shows where you're competing for a relatively small number of viewers. The truth is you compare CNN's ratings, Fox's ratings, MSNBC's ratings to a cable viewing of WWF wrestling and it's infinitesimally small by comparison. So you're competing for a small group of people.

Look, tone, style, substance -- it all matters. It all adds up to one package, and that package has to be attractive in some way.

So it's not surprising at all that this caused some kind of flap. But I'd say the person responsible for the ad -- odd that we don't know who that is. Don't you think that's a little strange?

KURTZ: I think there should be a complete investigation.

INGRAHAM: But I think they're working on Madison Avenue right now, because best launch of a morning show ever probably.

KURTZ: Adam Buckman, let me have you jump in here. Is it increasingly about looks and personality in cable news?

BUCKMAN: It's always been about looks in television news and personalities, yes, because there's very intense competition going on right now with three all-news cable channels.

But in particular it has to do with the cover of this war and who's going to get the most viewers for their coverage of the war. And this is why CNN sends somebody like Bill Hemmer to Afghanistan because they realize that apparently he's very good looking and he has appeal for particularly female viewers, although they won't call him sexy in a promo.

And there's this primetime competition with all of these shows. Now, that's different from the news that goes on all day. And I think that there's a lot of money at stake and a lot of viewers available for the news channels. And that's why there's a lot of intense competition in hiring and that kind of thing.

KURTZ: James Wolcott, did Fox hire Greta Van Susteren from CNN because she's a good lawyer or an opinionated talker or somebody who would create a lot of buzz for the network? What is really the game here in these networks trying to grab well-known -- I'm not going to use the "S" word -- well known, attractive anchors?

WOLCOTT: Well, I think the bigger game that's going on is that the other cable news networks are trying to play poker with Roger Ailes of Fox. And I frankly think it's a tough game to play. I think Ailes is probably the most brilliant poker player there is in this game.

And so I think the poaching has less to do with sex appeal than just in a sense mind games being played out. I have the feeling that Roger Ailes has tried to take the measure of Walter Isaacson. And Isaacson is trying to counter. And then you've got MSNBC just trying to find any angle into the game.

INGRAHAM: Good luck.


KURTZ: But we're talking here about the inside maneuvering of cable networks and so forth but what about journalist credentials, James Wolcott? It seems to be just lost in this whole debate whether somebody's a good interviewer, whether they've ever covered a -- been in another country as a reporter. Is that now irrelevant in cable news?

WOLCOTT: Well -- no. And the thing -- no -- it's not irrelevant. And the thing is I don't think anybody would deny that Paula Zahn does a very good job at what she does. And I think Greta Van Susteren -- these people have been on the air a lot. They're on the air every day.

If they didn't have the chops just in terms of basic interviewing skills, asking the right question, moving the show along -- they wouldn't be on the air because the fact is there's no tolerance now for dragging. If -- there's too much at stake, there's too much of a ratings battle. And if you can't draw an audience and keep an audience almost immediately you're gone. So I think that they've proven they have credentials for that.

I think deep journalist credentials have to go to people who are -- in a sense they're going to have to be off camera doing the legwork that has to be done.

I think television presentation and television interviewing is a different craft altogether.

KURTZ: Right.

WOLCOTT: And it's not an easy craft. It's not one that should be disparaged.

KURTZ: Dan Kennedy, let me throw some words back at you. You wrote last year that "on cable real news takes a back seat to artificially contrived, ludicrously over-simplified debates." Do you still feel that way in the wake of the war and what some believe was some more serious coverage by cable and other networks?

KENNEDY: Oh, well -- sure. The war changed everything quite a bit. I think the biggest challenge that the cable news channels have always had is what do they do when there's not a lot of breaking news going on? And I think the answer to that before September 11 was that they do talk shows that were almost like the stepchildren of political radio talk shows that were popular in the '80s and early '90s.

KURTZ: And these are the shows where you've got a conservative and a liberal -- left and right.

KENNEDY: Exactly.

KURTZ: Pro-Clinton -- anti-Clinton -- and to come on and some of them, frankly, are not too different from a food fight.

KENNEDY: Sure -- absolutely. But everything has been much better since September 11. You mentioned Ashleigh Banfield. There has been this obsession with her looks and she dyed her hair and all of that and yet she's been anchoring a very solid newscast every night. It's been very good work.

KURTZ: Laura Ingraham, do people actually tune in based on whether they like or appreciate or like to look at Katie Couric or Matt Lauer or Paula Zahn or any of the other familiar faces?

INGRAHAM: I don't think they want to turn on the television set and be off put by something that they see but that's just one part of it. Katie Couric has a charm, she has an attractive quality, she -- you feel like you'd like to welcome her into your home.

I don't particularly like to watch a lot of the morning shows but I can see why they have a mass appeal.

But this idea somehow though that because you happen to be attractive means that you -- by the very fact that you're attractive you're not somehow intelligent. I would agree about the comment about Ashleigh Banfield. She was down there at Ground Zero inhaling that asbestos and all of those other fumes at the World Trade Center in the first hour after that thing fell.

She was down there, she went to Afghanistan, she does do a great show every night.

KURTZ: But did it ... INGRAHAM: She works hard.

KURTZ: Did it bother you, say, during the whole Clinton impeachment era to be grouped and described as one of the blonde pundits?

INGRAHAM: I always thought that was stupid because it was just like a cultural phenomenon. But what can you do? These Monicas are created. You have no control over them. But the people who actually have talent whether it's in interviewing or writing ...

KURTZ: Right.

INGRAHAM: ... or humor or an ability to mix all of them -- I think they end up rising to the top. I think that happens in anchor...

KURTZ: We'll put you down as not losing any sleep.

INGRAHAM: Exactly -- thank you.

KURTZ: And I just saw an ad this morning -- says you can slick on that site and check out the world's sexiest athletes. So I guess it's all right to use the "S" word as long as now we're not talking about journalists.

When we come back -- is cable news getting political?



Well, MSNBC has a new entry in the primetime talk wars. They just hired a new talk show host named Alan Keyes. You may remember him as a two-time presidential candidate. Didn't get a lot of votes, but impressed a lot of people as a bombastic personality.

James Wolcott, what do you make of MSNBC hiring Alan Keyes? Did they perhaps feel they needed a conservative voice?

WOLCOTT: I -- this is a show that I can't wait for. Alan Keyes is the right wing Cornel West. He's one of those people who's so articulate that he becomes completely, babblingly incoherent. He's one of those people who, sentence by sentence, sounds brilliant; and then when you string them together you realize they're heading into the ether.

He's also a phenomenon -- that if you run for presidential office you don't really have to do very well to then become a television fixture.

I saw last week Pat Buchanan being treated as almost as if he was a statesman because he has a new book out. And he was on show after show.

KURTZ: He was everywhere. WOLCOTT: Yes. He -- when he put himself before the voters, he got nowhere. But it doesn't seem to matter -- it doesn't seem to matter.

No -- I think the Alan Keyes show is -- that's a show -- it's going to be like the old "Jerry Lewis Show." That's a show you're going to want to tape and keep in the archives.

KURTZ: Right. Well, CNN certainly kept putting Buchanan in the background of "CROSSFIRE" after several of his presidential campaigns.

Now here's an ad that MSNBC took out in the "Weekly Standard" -- "Strong, smart, honest -- Alan Keyes."

And, Adam Buckman, I'm wondering, the "Weekly Standard," of course, owned by Rupert Murdoch as is Fox, as is "The New York Post," by the way.

Any question -- and does this ad dispel any lingering doubt that MSNBC wants to get some of that conservative audience that maybe Fox owns by turning to Mr. Keyes?

BUCKMAN: Well, if that's the case it's a shrewd move. People are saying that Fox News Channel wants to temper their conservative voices with some more liberal voices such as Geraldo Rivera and Greta. So it's not a bad move.

MSNBC, however, has this habit in recent years of launching shows and then doing away with them real quickly. So I think that the Alan Keyes show is another one of these "let's throw darts at the dart board" kind of attempts and see what happens.

I think James is right. He can be a little bit unpredictable, a little bit long winded and who knows who will want to go on his show?

KURTZ: I bet you they won't have any difficulty getting people to actually sit before the cameras and get some primetime exposure.

Dan Kennedy, what do you make of this political balancing act -- if it is that? Is Fox trying to broaden it's base a little bit by bringing on people like Geraldo, who obviously was very liberal in his support of President Clinton?

And, by the same token, CNN has hired Tucker Carlson, Jonah Goldberg as a contributor. Some say they're trying to perhaps appeal a little bit more to the audience on the right.

KENNEDY: Right. Well, talk -- political talk radio is inherently a conservative medium. And it could very well be that as cable news is shifting more and more into talk they find that perhaps political talk TV is inherently a conservative medium as well. I'm not sure why it works that way.

Certainly there are some liberals doing talk on cable TV and you mentioned a couple of them but I'm not sure it works as well. There's something about conservatism and talk that seem to go together for reasons that I've never really figured out.

INGRAHAM: Well, I have an idea -- maybe they're more interesting and maybe they're actually right more of the time. But that's just -- that's just me.

But Fox I think did set the standard for the last year or so that you have to have personalities driving these shows. If you don't have a moving, compelling figure who's interviewing, who's introducing clips, who's, frankly, reading the teleprompter ...

KURTZ: Right.

INGRAHAM: ... it's going to be a dull show. It's not going to be interesting. And they can ...

KURTZ: Right. But Fox doesn't have just any personalities. They have Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich is on a lot.


KURTZ: And certainly I don't have a quarrel with most of Fox's reporting but there's no question their talk line up appeals to conservatives.

INGRAHAM: Absolutely. And conservatives are without question the dominant audience in both talk radio -- I host a talk radio show -- I should know that -- and also in cable. They're loyal viewers. They stick on a network and they don't turn the channel. That's what these other networks are finding out.

I think the Alan Keyes move -- and I disagree with Jim on this -- I think Alan Keyes is an interesting figure to watch. You never know where he's going to go. I'm not sure I agree that he -- sentence by sentence he deconstructs himself. And what an insult to Alan Keyes to call him the conservative Cornel West, frankly. But he is going to be someone you're going to want to tune into. Long term who knows? But in MSNBC -- as I know 12 months is a long time for a show on MSNBC.

KURTZ: Right. James Wolcott, Brent Bozell of the conservative Media Research Center, actually kind of issued a public warning to Fox about the hiring of Greta Van Susteren and Geraldo. "Fox should be careful," he writes. "The biggest mistake it could make is to take it's conservative audience for granted."

So is that what this is all about -- is appealing to different politically minded segments of the audience?

WOLCOTT: Well, I thought Brent Bozell always pretended he was trying to adjudicate -- that he was interested in fairness.

The fact is that Greta Van Susteren does not come across terribly liberal on camera in her positions. Geraldo was a Clinton supporter, but he has been totally gung-ho, pro-war; so you can't hang any kind of pacifist label on him. I think Roger Ailes has a better sense of his audience and how to run a network than Brent Bozell does. I don't think -- I don't think Roger Ailes is sweating bullets about this. I think he knows exactly what he's doing.

And also I don't think anybody should be issuing warnings that -- I just think that's absurd.

KURTZ: Adam Buckman, is this -- all of this talk about whether you're sexy, whether you're a good personality, whether you're famous from politics or some other endeavor does seem to suggest to me that the dominant trait now that's sought on cable news is not so much journalist credentials or great reporting but people who create buzz and have very opinionated personas.

BUCKMAN: That depends on the day part. There's a lot of advertising money and viewers available in the evening. And so you want to get personalities that pop.

Now Geraldo Rivera -- despite what everybody is focusing on -- his liberal viewpoints in support of President Clinton and in other ways he seems to fit the mold of a Fox News personality. He had a pretty high rated show on CNBC. That's a pretty good reason to recruit him from that network. And, who know -- eventually maybe he'll get the 10:00 show on Fox if Greta doesn't work out.

And, Greta, too -- Greta wasn't perhaps suited for CNN in primetime. Maybe she's more suited for Fox.

KURTZ: Well, she certainly did a good job during her 10 years at the network. Adam Buckman, you've got the last word. Maybe somebody here will get their own cable show given the turnover. Adam Buckman, James Wolcott, Dan Kennedy in Boston, Laura Ingraham -- thanks very much for joining us.

And when we come back -- Michael Jordan media mogul? That and much more in our media roundup. And searching for the vice president. Bernard Kalb on the press' hunt for Dick Cheney.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Let's check now on the latest from the world of media news. We begin with an update for an unlikely advocate for press freedom during the war.


(voice-over): Larry Flynt has been thrown for a legal loss. The "Hustler" publisher is suing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld trying to force the Pentagon to allow reporters for his magazine to accompany U.S. troops on combat missions in Afghanistan. A federal judge in Washington this week rejected that request. Flynt says he's fighting on behalf of the mainstream media. The lawsuit is continuing.

Stephen Ambrose -- the best selling historian, whose books include "Band of Brothers," which became an HBO movie, has a bit of a black eye. Fred Barnes of the "Weekly Standard" revealed that Ambrose has plagiarized a number of passages for his book "Wild Blue" about a World War II crew headed by George McGovern.

The material was lifted almost verbatim from a six-year-old book by Pennsylvania history professor Thomas Childers. Ambrose apologized and promised to give proper credit in future editions.

Roger Cossack is joining Court TV. The veteran legal commentator left CNN recently after the program he co-hosted -- "BURDEN OF PROOF" -- was dropped.

Finally, Michael Jordan is joining the ranks of Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and Rosie O'Donnell. The basketball superstar is launching his own magazine called -- what else -- "Jordan." Nike is bankrolling "Jordan," which hits the newsstands next month.

But the news was overshadowed by the headlines about MJ's divorce.


KURTZ: And time now for "The Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A friend of mine asked me the other day, "Where's Cheney?" It's a good question. Where is Cheney? When did you see him last?

(voice-over): And the question was re-enforced by this column in "The New York Times" this week -- that Cheney has largely been kept in hiding since 9/11 so that America's chain of command couldn't be decapitated. "Just like this guy is in hiding," the column went on.

But just the day before there were stories in "The Times" and other papers about Cheney on the job attending policy meetings with numero uno. And there has was on TV making his carefully chosen rounds. And what about this? The VP and friends en masse at The Kennedy Center just a few weeks ago.

So the point of all of this is that when you do the media arithmetic you have the feeling that something is out of synch -- that the media are still emphasizing Cheney's invisibility even though he has clearly been seen around town.

Now it's true that early on any reporter would have collected a $25 million reward for coming up with an exclusive on Cheney's secret whereabouts. And his invisibility, by the way, came in for a lot of spoofing -- Saturday Night Live for example.


WILL FERRELL, ACTOR (PLAYING GEORGE W. BUSH): You're looking good. Where are you anyway?

DARRELL HAMMOND, ACTOR (PLAYING DICK CHENEY): Mr. President, you know I can't tell you that.


KALB: And Cheney himself emerged for four seconds to poke fun at his situation.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is not exactly an undisclosed location. But with more than 1,000 Marines in the room, I feel pretty secure.

KALB: But we're in January now -- four months after this. The sense of crisis has softened and voila -- there's Cheney. But there's a big test coming up of the administration's state of mind when the president delivers his State of the Union address on January 29. And it's this -- the last time he addressed a joint session was just after 9/11 and the VP's usual seat was filled by a very senior senator -- Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Cheney was top secret then.

But this time will Cheney fill the VP's seat? Big question.

(on camera): Look, it's true that even in the best of times VPs are rarely front page material. But this time around the media seems to be having a tough time letting go of that early image of Cheney as the man who wasn't there.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb with "The Back Page." Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Saturday evening at 6:30 Eastern for another sexy -- another critical look at the media. CNN's like coverage continues right now.




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