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How Has Pearl's Murder Affected War Coverage?; How Have Controversies Impacted the Olympics?

Aired February 24, 2002 - 09:30   ET


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

Later in the program, we'll check in with commentator Christine Brennan in Salt Lake City on the media madness surrounding all the controversy at the Olympics, but first, we're joined by two veteran newspaper men who have written a book which rips into the television networks. Leonard Downie is executive editor of "The Washington Post." Robert Kaiser is former managing editor now associate editor and senior correspondent for the paper. They're the authors of "The News About The News: American Journalism In Peril."

Also with us this morning is Frank Sesno, former CNN Washington bureau chief, now, a CNN contributor who will be teaching and working on documentaries.

We begin with the murder of Daniel Pearl, a brutal killing that has shaken just about everybody in the news business.

Len Downey, will this tragedy change the way you deploy your foreign correspondents and the kind of risks that they will take?

LEONARD DOWNIE, "THE WASHINGTON POST": We will not change the way we deploy them. All the correspondents that we had in Afghanistan and Pakistan are continuing to work there just as they were before. But it is changing or rather sharpening our focus on coping with risks like this. So they have been instructed by our foreign editors, who are veterans of these kinds of things about ways in which they go about their business and try to keep them safer. The ways, I really don't want to talk about on television, but which we hope will keep them out of a situation like this.

But it underscores that since the Cold War ended and the world is no longer divided into these two camps and there's so many ethnic conflicts going on around the world, how dangerous it's become to be a foreign correspondent.

KURTZ: And on that point, Bob Kaiser, you've been a correspondent in Vietnam and Moscow. Do you believe that journalists now, in the age of terrorism, are more vulnerable, more likely to be singled out because of the level of terror that exists in the world today? ROBERT KAISER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, and in the era of CNN where visibility is so much higher than it used to be. Yes, I do, very much so. And I'm sure the statistics bear that out. I don't have them, but I have the strong sense that there are more people killed in the Afghanistan War than in long periods of the Vietnam War.

KURTZ: And the nine journalists killed in the relatively short period in Afghanistan more than the number of U.S. soldiers killed.

KAISER: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Frank Sesno, it seems to me that television currents might -- television correspondence might be even more vulnerable because they're recognizable faces.

FRANK SESNO, FORMER CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: That's right and it's something actually that CNN has had to cope with a number of -- with a number of its correspondents who are internationally recognized.

Unfortunately, the whole dreadful experience of 9/11 has shown us that human life, civilian, journalistic, military in the eyes of many terrorists and others around the world has all become a jumble and has been devalued in the process. It's a much more dangerous business.

KURTZ: Well, if there were an official flag of journalism, I think it would be flying at half-mast this weekend...

SESNO: Absolutely, it would.

KURTZ: ... because of Daniel Pearl.

Moving on to another subject, if you open your "New York Times" magazine last November, you would have seen a moving story about a West African boy, Youssouf Male, living as a virtual slave on a cocoa plantation. Only it turns out that the boy in the picture is not Youssouf Male. In fact, the teenager described in the story doesn't exist. He's a composite, a fictional character created by "Time's" contributing writer, Michael Finkle. The paper acknowledged the deception in an editor's note.

Finkel told me he made a serious mistake, but that his other eight pieces for the "Times" are totally accurate. Magazine editor, Adam Moss, who has fired Finkel says the paper is investigated other stories as well.

This is not the first time something like this has happened. "The Washington Post" went through the Janet Cook (ph) embarrassment 21 years ago. Are newspapers always going to be vulnerable to this sort of thing if a writer intends to deceive his editors?

DOWNIE: If a writer intends to deceive his editors, it is hard to not be vulnerable to this. We, obviously, since Janet Cook (ph) are much more careful about who we hire and how supervise stories that require a lot of trust. But in the end, you still have to trust. Just think of Bob Woodward, for instance, who is one the best reporters around and fortunately, can be trusted absolutely, but there are things that Bob does in his reporting that we're never going to know as editors and so we have to trust what he does.

KURTZ: Let' go on now to your book. You are very rough on the networks. What's the essence of your indictment, Bob Kaiser?

KAISER: Well, let me say first, the purpose of the book is not to indict or to attack, it is to help readers understand why they get what they get in the news, on TV, in the papers and so on.

One of our prejudices, and it is a prejudice certainly, as old time newspaper men who have worked at "The Washington Post" together for 38 years, is that the depth and thoroughness that a good newspaper can provide in covering a story in most circumstances is not and often cannot be matched by television coverage. If you take the transcript of the "CBS Evening News" and print it on the front page of "The Washington Post," it would fill about two-thirds of one page of the newspaper.

KURTZ: But that's a question of time and space. Clearly, television...

KAISER: Of course.

KURTZ: ... as Frank says, you know, has time limitations. But does it really lack the depth and original reporting that these two authors seem to suggest?

SESNO: Well, the blunt answer is yes.


SESNO: Many times it does and its' for a variety of reasons. First of all, I can multi-task, to use a popular phrase, when I'm reading the newspaper. I can choose to read the entire transcript of the president's newscast. I can read the news analysis piece. I can read the out bed piece or I can read the hard news piece. I can't multi-task in television. Television can only do one thing at a time.

But what television can do that newspapers can't is take you there and let you see the president as he speaks, let you hear the inflection. So it's a trade off, but the fact of the matter is how many reporters do you have on the streets in Washington?

DOWNIE: Oh, well over a 100 at any given day.

SESNO: CNN has about 15. That says it all in many ways.

KURTZ: OK, it's a -- it comes down to simple math.

Let's take a look at one passage from the book, "The News About The News." "The decline of serious, ambitious television news over the last two decades of the 20th century cannot be called surprising. Ours have become a celebrity-besotted culture with television, the single most powerful promoter and ratifier of celebrityhood." Well, Len Downie, it seems to me that that's undeniable and at the same time, newspapers, magazines, "The Washington Post" covered O.J. and Princess Di and JFK Junior, and Lorena Bobbitt and Gary Condit, so why single out TV?

DOWNIE: Well, to some extent newspapers have also slipped into over coverage of celebrities. I certainly overplayed the JFK Jr. story when he died at the time. I now know in retrospect, as I look back on it.

But the difference in television is that the proportions have shifted more. If you look at your average newspaper, celebrity news may be five or 10 percent of it on a day in which there's a lot of celebrity news in a newspaper. But you look at the morning television shows and you look at the evening news and you see a much higher percentage of that limited time we were just talking about earlier being devoted to celebrity news, lifestyle news, news that's not very serious.

KAISER: The balance changes, you know. This is the previous point. If you've got a 22-minute newscast or now, an 18-minute newscast early on the networks in the evening and you devote six- minutes to a celebrity, you've given up a third of the content. We can overkill on a celebrity story and still have an enormous amount of content. We have a 100,000 words a day in "The Washington Post."

SESNO: I think there's something else, too about that and that is that television -- there's a mystique, a magic of television. It brings a face, a personality, a voice, a story, into your living room, into your bedroom, into your family room and that by itself transforms the story whether it's the subject of the story or frankly, the person who's delivering the story.

KURTZ: But on the substance of that story and obviously personality very much a part of television, their book says that most real new is produced by newspapers, suggesting that television is perhaps just following up what's in the major newspapers. You don't believe that, do you?

SESNO: I think that's truer today than it used to be. I mean let's look at the major networks, the over the air networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, they all used to have very proud and established documentary units and they would go out and do white papers, what they used to call a white paper. It's tough to find somebody who would know what that is today.

KURTZ: Well, they would say they now have magazine shows, "48 Hours," "60 Minutes..."

SESNO: And "60 Minutes" and some of them are high quality things, but the general drill in most broadcast newsrooms is to start the day by going through the newspapers, to see what the newspapers have dug out. By virtue of, if you pull the major newspapers' dailies together and you stack them on a desk, you're probably talking about 500 reporters. KURTZ: But to take one example, CBS has broken some stories on the Enron controversy, something all of journalism is working on. I mean I wonder if you're not giving short shrift to -- even if they have a more limited or reportorial firepower, they do reporting. It's not simply rip and read.

KAISER: It's -- yes, they do and we try to credit a number of cases. In the first chapter, we talk about the Houston TV station that broke the Firestone Tire story and the Salt Lake television station that helped break the Olympic scandal there.

There's a lot of good reporting, but the problem is that the emphasis now, the way television news is organized, is to cover events that create pictures. You have very few beat reporters now in television. You still have them in Washington to some degree.

KURTZ: You have Pentagon reporters. You have White House reporters.

KAISER: A few, but you know, they -- how many networks are still at the Supreme Court, only one, I think, full time.

KURTZ: Not a picture story.

KAISER: Yeah, not a picture story, exactly.

SESNO: You also make a point that I would disagree with too. I mean in place in the book you say television doesn't break any stories. CNN doesn't break any stories. CNN breaks stories all the time, but the fact of the matter is that when CNN breaks a story it's breaking it in real time. It's breaking it in the middle of the day, which may set you up for your next editorial meeting in the afternoon to -- and it may be an increment of a story. But whether it's John McCain's skin cancer or other things, CNN and television can be out and often is out in front of the day's events.

KURTZ: Len Downie, a brief response to that.

DOWNIE: Well, it's the use of the resources that concerns me. Yes, there are good reporters in television both in terms of grabbing on to news as it happens on CNN or coming up with exclusive, original reporting on some -- other networks. But the problem is that too much of their resources are going into trivia.

You mentioned the news magazines replacing the old documentaries. Most of the news -- so-called newsmagazines now are filled with crime and court stories, an entire hour devoted to some previously not very well-know crime story somewhere in Nebraska now becomes the hour on CBS. And Dan Rather, who's clearly -- is uncomfortable with these shows, I just saw him the other night narrating one of these crime stories. And he looked kind of uncomfortable doing, but there he was.

KURTZ: He is the host of "48 Hours" and we're going to have to leave it there. When we come back, we'll put cable news and online news under the media microscope.



Bob Kaiser, you're also critical of the newspaper business in your book. You're in fact writing about Gannett, talking about Gannett, the nation's largest newspaper chain. You told the "Boston Phoenix," "I hope I live to see Gannett fail." Now when did you say that?

KAISER: No, I didn't say that. I said if I live long enough, I expect to see Gannett fail. Well, I do...


KAISER: ... because I think the proprietors of a lot of these chains are running their newspapers into the ground, making them less interesting, less important to their readers, less important to their communities and that of course, means less important to advertisers. And I think for the maximization of short-term profits, a lot of owners of newspapers are minimizing their long-term prospects and that newspapers, which have been declining in circulation, as you know, for years, face a real crisis in the future if they continue to become less interesting and less important.

KURTZ: Sorry, for the misquotation.

Frank Sesno, the book says that most CNN correspondents rush from one breaking news story to another and are unable to add much context or expertise. I would imagine that John King or...

SESNO: I'll agree...

KURTZ: ... or Jaime McIntyre might disagree with that.

SESNO: I'll agree with -- I'll agree with them and disagree with them. I mean, yes, CNN correspondents, cable correspondents, rush from one story to the next, but they have the context by virtue of the witness to history that they do in all that rushing. And I think, you know, with respect, if you listen when they have time and there are going to be some live shots where they just tell you what's happening and others where they put it into perspective, they have the perspective to share and they do provide context.

KURTZ: Doesn't cable news also have the task of -- you know, it doesn't have the luxury of 12 hours to produce the story whether it's a war or a scandal or a presidential campaign. It's live, its now. It's on in all the newsrooms. Is not a deniable function?

DOWNIE: Yes, exactly. I think we make that point in fact about cable news. We did say what you said and we also said that an awful lot of the time on cable news is actually spent with talk shows, excepting this one of course.

KURTZ: Mindless and convention talk shows you say.

DOWNIE: That's right -- that -- in which opinion passes -- is passed off as news, which I think is not the best use of that time.

But yes, the great value of cable is taking us live to events as they occur. Just think, since September 11, being able to see presidential press conferences, Pentagon briefings, things that can reassure Americans by giving them more of a live news.

But then, the next step that needs to be taken is the original reporting...

KURTZ: Right.

DOWNIE: ... that uncovers things that aren't going to be seen in live events.

KURTZ: I think there is some original reporting in online news., for example, broke the story about the White House drug office working with television organizations in a financial arrangement. Everybody chased that story. And I also think that online news and opinion -- I think you gave it kind of short shrift because I think it's broken the strangle hold of a few new big media corporations and that's a healthy thing. Your thoughts.

KAISER: Well, I guess I wouldn't get in an argument about that. I wish there was more. That's the thing. Salon is on very weak legs at the moment, as you know. They're having terrible financial problems. And I really believed when this all began, 10 years ago, that we'd see a great flowering of new news organizations and new opinion organizations. And that really didn't pan out and a lot of people like -- remember this interesting crime site -- they really had a lot of original reporting and it lasted about a year and it went belly up.

KURTZ: Well, making money on the web has been a very difficult thing.

KAISER: It has. And I -- so I just -- I don't disagree with you at all about Salon, but I -- Salon, today, isn't what it was a couple years ago even and I fear for its future. And I just -- it's disappointing that we haven't had more.

KURTZ: Frank, you've got the last 20 seconds.

SESNO: Yes, I think the -- really the future and they're right about the future. But the future of where this business and how the public is going to be informed may well live online even though the advertising dollars aren't there. You look to site; they're hiring crews now and putting them out on the street. They're putting video and audio clips on Look, at the CNN site. The site that manages to marry the content with the technology to bring it to you and let the audience be their own editor-in-chief or their own executive producer, that's the future.

KURTZ: The potential is awesome and the money...

SESNO: Money is the problem.

KURTZ: ... on the reddening side of the ledger.

SESNO: That's the present.

KURTZ: Frank Sesno, Bob Kaiser, Len Downie, thanks very much for joining us.

And when we come back, controversy on ice. Are the media turning the Winter Olympics into a Cold War melodrama?


KURTZ: Welcome back. The Americans are ecstatic. The Canadians are feeling better now and the Russians are teed off in the wake of a series of controversies at the Olympics that has provided plenty of fodder for the media mob in Salt Lake City, which is where we find Christine Brennan, "USA Today" columnist and a contributor to ABC News and ESPN.

Christine Brennan, the Russians briefly threatened to pick up their marbles and their ice skates and go home. In all honesty, hasn't the media coverage tilted a little bit sympathetically to the Canadians and Americans in some of these controversies?

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, COLUMNIST, "USA TODAY": I'm not sure I buy that, Howie. The reality is the story right out of the box, the second and third day at the Olympics, of course, was the Canadian pairs and the Russian pairs in that controversy. So because the Canadians were -- quote, unquote -- "the wronged party, the victims," we certainly looked at their side.

And you know, I've asked myself this very question, if the Canadians, say, had been Asian, if the Canadians had been another European pair, if they had been from the former eastern bloc, would we have cared as much? And my answer to that question is when I ran into three judges, all international judges, none of them from the United States or Canada, figure skating judges within 15 minutes after the competition, the pairs competition ended, Howie -- and I ran into all three of them coming out of an elevator. Normally, when a reporter sees a figure skating judge, the judges run the other way. They came towards me and all three of them looked at me and said, "This is an outrage." Again...

KURTZ: Yes, but...

BRENNAN: ... not U.S., not Canadian.

KURTZ: ... but wouldn't it have been a sufficient -- would it have been a sufficient outrage to be on the cover of "Time" and "Newsweek" if it had been a Czech couple, who was maybe not as good looking at Sale and Pelletier?

BRENNAN: Well, as you know, I'm not in charge of the cover decisions of "Time" and "Newsweek". My guess would be, no, of course not.

KURTZ: OK. I'm using that as a metaphor. BRENNAN: Yes.

KURTZ: Were you disappointed when your gold medal scope on that controversy about the back room dealings between the French and Russian judge was cut out of the "USA Today" column because the sources were not named?

BRENNAN: No, I really wasn't. I was lucky enough, first of all, to have that column online, as you know, for, I think, several hours at And it ran in the first edition, the international edition of "USA Today." I also was able to report it on ABC and ESPN. So I felt very comfortable that my scoop was out there even though that that paragraph did get taken out in later editions due to editing decisions by "USA Today."

KURTZ: It pays to be a multimedia these days. As these...

BRENNAN: I guess so.

KURTZ: ... as these controversies continue to develop over judging and skating and other events, do you have the sense at all that the media -- and there are a lot of reporters there -- are doing their best to keep this alive, maybe even turn it into a kind of a Cold War controversy of the kind we became so familiar with 15, 20 years ago?

BRENNAN: Yeah, well, I do know for -- Howie, that reporters are still working the figure skating story and trying every possible angle. And some of these angles seem a little outrageous to me and the sources and keep going with the judges and trying to talk to them. And I'm not saying we shouldn't follow the story because, as you know, I reported that this could bring down figure skating, that if you can't trust what you watch on TV, how can the sport survive? And clearly, the Sara Hughes decision the other night is a step in the right direction for figure skating, in terms of making the right call.

But I do wonder if -- it's a pack mentality of an Olympics, as you know. I mean this is a crucible unlike any other and everything just takes on a new life. If this same judging controversy had occurred three or four months earlier at something called Skate America or Skate Canada, the preliminary events leading up to Olympics, five of us would have written about it for a day and that's it.

KURTZ: What...

BRENNAN: So because it happened here, of course, that's one of the reasons we're talking about it now on air.

KURTZ: Was there a lot of media pressure, for example, on Michelle Kwan, who was on the cover of "Newsweek" before the Olympics began and maybe less media pressure on 16-year-old Sara Hughes because nobody expected her to do anything. In other words, how big a factor is the enormous publicity machine that surrounds these games?

BRENNAN: Well, I think it's huge. These athletes, of course, are once every four-year athletes. So they drop into our lives and then they're gone. Many of them are gone although with endorsements and nonstop coverage, we see them more than we would have seen Olympic athletes 30 years ago, yeah.

But I think part of it is us. Part of it certainly is the publicity machines of those athletes wanting the attention. They know this is their two weeks to shine. And so, I don't -- no, I don't think Michelle Kwan's people or Michelle Kwan would ever say that that pressure is what caused her to fall on her triple flip. I think, you know, there were other things there that she -- internal things that she's dealing with and I think she's too classy to ever worry about something like that.

KURTZ: OK, we have about 30 seconds. I know that you've heard this before, some critics saying that figure skating is such an inherently subjective sport, relying, of course, on judges' opinions that it's not perhaps a real sport. And the real reason that it plays such a prominent role in the Olympics is because it's great for ratings for NBC. Your thoughts.

BRENNAN: Well, it sure was. It sure was. The Women's Skating will be the second highest rated sporting event this year to the Super Bowl. But no, I would say, first of all, you look at the NFL, look at college football and the BCS, look at the decision with the Patriots and Oakland Raiders on the Snow Bowl a few weeks ago. You know, there are subjective decisions in all sports and I think figure skating -- as anyone who goes into skating knows, they're going to be dealing with the judges. But I do think there's a system that they can work on and I'll continue to report, Howie, to make sure that they do a better job and a fairer job so there's no wheeling and dealing in the back rooms.

KURTZ: Christine Brennan working overtime in Salt Lake City, thanks very much for joining us this Sunday morning.

BRENNAN: Thank you, Howie.

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


BERNARD KALB, "THE BACK PAGE": So what does Yogi Berra have to do with the story these last few days of the Pentagon thinking about getting into the false news business? Well, it's this -- in Yogi's immortal phrase, deja vu all over again. The phrase left to mind on seeing this front page story in "The New York Times," "Pentagon Readies Efforts To Sway Sentiment Abroad. Debate Over Credibility. New Office Proposes To Send News Or Maybe False News To Even Friendly Lands." That was in Tuesday's paper and it touched off a spumoni of criticism.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a hair brain scheme.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That would be a mistake. I certainly would object to that. KALB: But within a couple days Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld was reassuring everyone that, yes, the Pentagon would continue getting out its message but, no, it would not lie in order to promote America's views.

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: The Department of Defense does not now and has no plans to conduct any disinformation campaigns.

KALB: Now, deceiving an enemy during a time of war is seen as being in a totally different category. But the very notion of the U.S. pedaling disinformation to influence public opinion overseas recalled a similar episode some 15 years ago. The Reagan administration was then linked to a disinformation program aimed at destabilizing Libyan dictator, Moammar Khadaffi. That, too, produced something of an uproar. In fact, the spokesman at the State Department at the time was someone I knew quite well and he too joined in, quitting his job to protest any kind of official lying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Faith in the word of America is the pulse beat of our democracy. Anything that hurts America's credibility hurts America.

KALB: The idea of manipulating the news may be tempting, it may even produce some short-term dividends but deception ultimately gets exposed. Also, once you start mixing the phony and the real, even the truth becomes suspect.

But that story just a few days ago that the Pentagon was developing plans to plant false stories to shade public opinion abroad, well, that reminded me of the Khadaffi episode all those years ago. Yes, just as the great man put it, deja vu all over again.


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 critical look at the media.




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