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Are Cable News Networks Changing the Way News Is Reported?; Is There Bias in the Media?

Aired March 23, 2002 - 18:30   ET



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... September 11.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of this war is going to take place away from television and away from journalists. I mean, that's why the press is basically screaming.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): We even asked Bob Schieffer if he was taking the antibiotic for anthrax.

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS: I am. And it makes you itch. It does have side effects.

KURTZ: We've always tried to keep our sense of humor, even when people were making fun of the show.

JON STEWART, HOST, COMEDY CENTRAL'S "THE DAILY SHOW": And the final question is, so do you think the media really went over the line on that issue? And they're all -- the conclusion was always this: "No, I thought we did a pretty good job. Yes, I thought we were good. Yes."


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Frank Rich, columnist for the "New York Times" and a senior writer for the "New York Times" magazine; Ken Auletta, media writer for the "New Yorker"; and CNN anchor Aaron Brown, the host of the evening program, "NEWSNIGHT."

Welcome, all.

Frank Rich, now that the post-September 11 glow has kind of faded, public resentment and antagonism toward the media seems as great as ever. How much of that is our fault -- not your fault, personally, but the collective fault of journalists who put out these products?

FRANK RICH, COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK TIMES": I don't know, I'm with Jon Stewart. I think we do a perfectly fine job all the time.

(LAUGHTER) RICH: Some of it is, of course, journalism's fault. But the fact is, as your piece showed, journalism is so varied, so heterogeneous, you can't generalize about it. And like any other profession, there are good guys and bad guys.

But also, I think the press has always been an easy scapegoat. And sometimes it deserves to be the scapegoat, but I think it will be the scapegoat even if we do our work perfectly. There will always be people who blame the messenger.

KURTZ: Blame the media.

Aaron Brown, network news audiences continue to shrink, and cable shows -- cable news shows, that is, struggle to deliver, perhaps, a million viewers a night. And economists would say something is wrong with the product.

AARON BROWN, ANCHOR, "NEWSNIGHT": Well, actually, about 1,000,001 viewers a night would be pretty good.

And critics say what about the product?

KURTZ: Well, I mean, it's another version of whose fault is it.

BROWN: Well, I think the thing I've learned in six months is that 24 hours is a long time. And for a network like CNN, it's not like we can go dark because there is no really important story out there. We have to do something.

KURTZ: And that's a challenge?

BROWN: I think it's a challenge...

KURTZ: To be interesting and compelling when there is not a lot going on?

BROWN: Yes, but I think -- yes, for me it was a challenge to be interesting and compelling and sometimes even important when I did local TV 15 years ago.

And it's no easier now. It's harder in some ways. The demands of the business are harder these days. The economics of the business are harder. And audiences have so many other places to go, it makes it harder. And I think sometimes we got so nervous about it, we get desperate.

KURTZ: Is there a market for serious news, particularly for say viewers under 50? Or is news becoming more of a niche market? Can't really compete with Leno or Tanya Harding pummeling Paula Jones.


KURTZ: Do you find that depressing?

AULETTA: Of course, I find it very depressing. And also, by the way, very human. I mean, for instance, on Friday afternoon, CNN was taken over in the afternoon by a car chase. Police were chasing this car in Florida. And it's a totally frivolous story. It's not important, yet a helicopter was following. And I found myself, a proponent of serious news, sitting there totally transfixed. I didn't want to talk. I just wanted to watch that car chase.

And I think inevitably, entertainment values intrude, as they have in television particularly, but also tabloids and other newspapers. And serious news gets short shrift.

RICH: The thing is about 24-hour cable, which is one of the big changes in this decade is there's so much of it and these competing organizations. It is this huge maw that has to be filled 24-hours a day. And except for that rare occasion of September 11, there isn't that kind of news. So you have to sort of have this journalistic Hamburger Helper that's put in, like a car chase or a trial or whatever.

BROWN: We don't do car chases on Newsnight, and we pay the price for it.

A lot of what -- it seems that 24-hour cable does, certainly we do at CNN, not as much I think as Fox does, is not really doing the news, it's talking about the news. So you spend an awful lot of time in various tones, sometimes really loud, screaming back and forth at one another, but you're not really reporting as much as you are just thinking out loud.

KURTZ: The news is almost kind of a backdrop for these staged battles.

And on that point, I mean, you come on every night, 10:00 p.m. Eastern and, you know, everybody is conscious of the ratings. Do you find a certain temptation to do subjects that a little more tabloid or to have people on who you know are going to go at it almost no matter what the topic is?

BROWN: No, honestly. Now, will we pay a price for that at some point? I don't know.

We came to this and, really, about a year ago when I first talked with CNN people, they said, "What kind of program do you want to do?" I said, "Quiet, respectful, thoughtful and fun." And I thought we could do all of those things. I won't do shouting TV ever. It bores me. I know it works sometimes. We don't do car chases and sort of predictable TV. I know that works too...

KURTZ: Do you see yourself as holding the line?

BROWN: I see it as trying to find the right audience for me. I'm not here literally in this studio or here in this group to put on the high-priest-of-journalism hat. I'm trying to find the right 1,000,002 for me, for the kind of work I do, the kinds of stories I find interesting, and the way my group wants to present them. And where I think we are, in that sense, is if we can find our own niches in this, I think there's a million people out there who will find us. Now, will they find us every night, no? We're at 10 o'clock at night Eastern. There are a lot of things they can chose at that time. It's a...

KURTZ: There sure are.

BROWN: ... tough war.

AULETTA: But I think if you asked Aaron another question, if you ask the question, do you think that CNN is general has trivialized more, I think the answer, if you're honest, would have to be, yes, it has.

But it's not just CNN. Part of the problem is that your notion of a niche audience is one that is not acceptable to the corporate leaders at Fox or CNN or any of the other newspapers or the networks.

What has happened in news is that it's very expensive to produce, and the audience shrinks. In part the audience shrinks, not because there is less interest in news, but because there are so many other vehicles for providing it.

KURTZ: You spend a lot of time talking to those corporate leaders. You interviewed the likes of Disney's Michael Eisner and Viacom's Sumner Redstone. To what extent do they care about at least the prestige of having quality news gathering, as opposed to ratings points and stock prices?

AULETTA: That's what they care about, ratings points and stock prices. And if news -- in fact, every time they attack -- when Disney attacks Letterman -- not Letterman -- when they tried to recruit Letterman to replace Koppel, you know, their stock goes up.

RICH: I would make, though, a slight counter argument. We look at cable -- we're so fixated on cable, because that's been the new development in news over the past decade like the Internet. But look at the networks. News is still very profitable.

The audience is down, to be sure, but 25, 30 million people watch the evening news on networks each night. The highest-rated show in cable news maybe has 2 million viewers. So it's more than a niche. It's still very profitable.

And you look at prime time, there's a lot of news on it. A lot of it's junk, but some of it is...

BROWN: I don't know how much of that is news.

RICH: But there is "60 Minutes."

BROWN: "60 Minutes" is absolutely news. I'm not sure that finding the babysitter who steals is news.

RICH: But it's still easy to -- easier, often, to create successful news programming than it is to create successful entertainment programming. There was a time in the past few weeks, I think, World News Tonight on ABC has been the highest-rated show at night on ABC, higher than any of their entertainment programming. It's amazing.

KURTZ: You've written that a lot of prime-time news magazine shows are garbage.

RICH: They are, a lot of them are.

KURTZ: ... celebrity-obsessed.

RICH: A lot of them are garbage, but sometimes they try to do good work -- and not just on the networks but on cable.

BROWN: But, Frank, those are exceptions, not the rule.

RICH: True. But that's true of all business, isn't it? I mean, you know...


KURTZ: Let me move to another point. Frank Rich, you recently wrote in one of your columns about Bernard Goldberg's book "Bias." And you said that his tale of self-martyrdom was, in your view, was ludicrous.

Well, he's just told the "New York Press" that you are despicable, mean-spirited, corrupt, and work for a very ideological newspaper.

Your thoughts?

RICH: Fantastic. I don't know what to say. It seems kind of childish to me. What I was referring to, in relation to his book, was not about his point about bias in the news, which is a whole separate discussion we could have had.

KURTZ: That's a valid discussion.

RICH: Absolutely a valid discussion. No, I just thought it was hard to take a tale of woe from somebody who is gainfully employed on television, actually working for a very liberal journalist, or one perceived as such, Bryant Gumbel on HBO, even as he complains about this liberal bias of the media, and who complains about being kept on at CBS to get his pension to vest for a couple years by the head of the news division.

KURTZ: Do you worry that a lot of people out there may believe that CNN and other news organizations tilt to the left?

BROWN: I've been in the middle, in the last month, of the weirdest professional thing in my life, where I have been attacked by a left-wing Web site. And they believe, as sure as they wake up and see the sun rise, that the media, the corporate media, tilts so far right. And I would get 300, 400 e-mails a day from these people. KURTZ: What was your offense? What triggered this?

BROWN: Actually, it started out as a compliment, but I took some umbrage at being referred to as a whore.



BROWN: They thought I was being a bit thin-skinned about that, but I did take some umbrage to that.

It became this bizarre, for me -- I mean, I've been doing this since I was 18 years old, I've never been caught up in something like this. I wake up in the morning and, you know, my little e-mail thing is going like crazy.

Of course, I worry about it. Of course I worry that people on the right think we tilt left, and on the left think we tilt right. I think there are some things that -- you know, I think we love an underdog. And I think you can make an argument sometimes that in the way we are -- the kinds of stories we are attracted to, we will find something a lot more compelling about the little guy as opposed to the big corporation.

That, I think, is fair. The political stuff I'm not so comfortable with.

KURTZ: Of course, big corporations now include media corporations. And Congress, this week, kind of let it pass, finally, the campaign finance reform bill.

And a lot of people are saying the media were pushing this, if not promoting it, out of self-interest, because now the media will have even more influence at campaign time if there are restrictions on fund-raising and speech by other organizations. Do you think that's a fair criticism?

AULETTA: Yes. I think the broadcast media, particularly, has fought any campaign finance that would affect their rates that they could charge politicians, which, of course, is a big cost in the campaigns.

BROWN: But the question -- I'm sorry -- the question was, did they want influence? I think the answer is, they want money. I mean, I don't think the influence is really what it's about. It's the ad rate.

AULETTA: Right; but they need the influence to assure that they get the money.

BROWN: OK, I'll give you that.

AULETTA: They have an enormous political power in Washington.

KURTZ: Before we go to break, Frank Rich, you've written about media circuses constantly, from O.J. to Monica to Condit. We saw some of those clips at the top. Has the press become addicted to this? Is everything now -- war, scandal, Enron, a dog-mauling trial -- packaged as a kind of a mini-soap opera?

RICH: Yes, in a way. And I think, again, this reflects the influence of cable and also the merging of news divisions with big entertainment companies. The values of entertainment are different from news. They are drama. They're climax. They're heroes and villains. They're blacks and whites.

KURTZ: You've got to have music...

RICH: Yes, you've got to have...

KURTZ: ... you've got to have a plot line.

RICH: You've got to have a logo, you've got to have a title, all of that stuff, which is totally the antithesis of journalism, which is supposed to be sort of having good judgment and not letting drama decide things, but the facts. But that often goes out the window.

KURTZ: I would venture to say that battle has already been lost.

RICH: Yes, I agree.

KURTZ: We have to take a break. And when we come back: why anchors do what they do -- that means you, Aaron Brown. And is the Internet explosion pushing aside the mainstream media?


KATHARINE GRAHAM, "THE WASHINGTON POST": The easy thing is to attack the press, and of course we are vulnerable at times. I don't say we're perfect, I don't say we don't make mistakes. But we're apt to be criticized for what's going on. I mean, if we did nothing but just report the story of what's going on, we would be attacked.




TED KOPPEL, "NIGHTLINE": We don't worry about offending people. We worry about boring people. We worry about losing eyeballs. We worry about viewers going away to something that may be more offensive, but also more interesting.


KURTZ: Welcome back to the 10th anniversary show of RELIABLE SOURCES.

Aaron Brown, we teased it before the break; it means in television you have to do it. So let's take a look at some of your recent work. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: We use this page for a variety of things, and tonight we use it to tell you: "I'm really cranky." You know how some days are just one battle after another? That's my day today.

BROWN: The guest we thought we had canceled on us. And then the guest we booked to replace him said he didn't want to do a debate.


KURTZ: Why do you deliver these little talks? Are you trying to avoid being the traditional anchor broadcasting from Mount Olympus?

BROWN: That sounds like a good answer. Sure, I'll go with that.

KURTZ: OK. Or were you just cranky?

BROWN: I don't know. I mean, why did I write that piece or why do I do the piece at the top of the program? I think at the top of the program, where -- somebody used the word "brand" here -- we're trying to say something about the program. This is a different place to come.

I'm not -- I mean, no one would every accuse me of being a big- boy anchor. I don't have the look. I don't have the voice. It's not what I do. But I talk to people. And part of talking to people, I think, for me is to say, "Here's where I am on this."

And that day -- I mean, there were reasons I was cranky. I had this guest who bailed out on me. One of the things I hate in life is when a guest tries to define the rules of the game, which I certainly wouldn't do here, and haven't. And then something else went wrong that day.

And so, I don't know. I just wrote it. I mean, I wrote one day about I was afraid of the anthrax and it was making me crazy.

KURTZ: Well, life is rough, Frank Rich. Guests cancel, they make unreasonable demands. You're a former theater critic. Thumbs up or thumbs down?

RICH: Oh, I think it's fun. You know, I mean, you might as well break the mold. I still think we're moving toward the 1975 Howard Beale model from the movie "Network," where an anchor threatens to kill himself on the air. I think that's still the goal we've got to push toward to pursue entertainment.

AULETTA: You're going to have to do something for me.


RICH: For sweeps, right.

KURTZ: The business press has been much in the news, Ken Auletta, because of Enron, Global Crossing, and so forth. You wrote a book about the Microsoft trial.

Do you have the impression that business journalists are still dependent, perhaps overly dependent, on analysts and experts who often turn out to be wrong and congenially bullish about corporations and stocks?

AULETTA: I think they're less so today in the wake of Enron, Global Crossing...

KURTZ: Because they were so badly burned.

AULETTA: That's a healthy thing. I think one of the great -- among the many scandals that we've had is the scandal of the analysts for Wall Street firms basically touting stocks and basically doing a job to help their investment banking division, and the press not reflecting that and recording that.

RICH: But you know, another aspect of this whole dot-com run-up and the Enron publicity before it crashed, again, relates to this idea of news as entertainment. For all the talk about the news being biased, one of the biggest biases is not ideological, but toward being a booster, towards getting on that Hollywood bandwagon; so Enron is one of the most innovative companies in the world, the dot-com millionaires are geniuses.

KURTZ: But you said a Hollywood bandwagon; I mean, it's a bandwagon that markets anything, really -- business, entertainment.

RICH: Right. But it has a Hollywood quality.

If a politician does one good thing, he's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Or one bad thing...

KURTZ: In the '80s and '90s, CEOs became marketable brands themselves. They became famous on CNBC. They couldn't just be great managers, they had to perform on TV. And that's part of what you're talking about.

RICH: Right, and they had to be heroes. And then the analysts who went on CNBC and elsewhere to cheerlead became like their publicists, basically.

AULETTA: Well, it's also, to use -- to cite one of your publications in the vast company that owns CNN, it's the "people- ization" of news. What's happened -- and People magazine helped pioneer it, and television obviously gave it an enormous boost. We want to know about people.

We don't want to just know about the numbers that the CEO of this company or that company...

KURTZ: Right, there has to be a story, a drama.

AULETTA: And by the way, there are some legitimate reasons for that.

KURTZ: Absolutely. We made reference...

AULETTA: To the storyteller, there sure are reasons for it. I mean, it's a lot easier to tell a story through you, through your experiences, on television. I'm not sure how it works in the newspapers, but it makes -- in some stories, believe me it's hard to find why we should tell the Enron story through a person, I get that.

But just -- you know, I say to all the time to correspondents, I need people in this thing. I need people because viewers will connect to people.

KURTZ: Frank Rich, we're running a little short on time. I wanted to get to the point about the Internet.

There's been an explosion of Web sites, of opinion sites, of one- person Web logs. And a lot of them attack the mainstream media or otherwise critique what we do. is this, overall, healthy for the communication world or the...

RICH: Sure.

KURTZ: But, you know, I'm sure you've been attacked. We all have.

RICH: Oh, we've all been attacked, you know. But everyone is entitled to have his or her own printing press. And I think...

KURTZ: More voices is good?

RICH: Yes, more voices is good. I think as long as news -- serious news-gathering organizations are not led by the nose by rumor and gossip that turns up on the Net, it's fine.

But why shouldn't people have opinions and state them?

KURTZ: And before we go, I wanted to ask you, Aaron Brown, because you spent so many years at ABC news and often substituted as the host on "Nightline." When you heard that "Nightline" was in danger -- in danger of being replaced by David Letterman -- did you say to yourself, thank God I'm out of there, working at a 24-hour news network?

BROWN: No. No, not at all. I mean, I came here for reasons. I had to come here anyway, I was given the job of a lifetime, and...


BROWN: ... I understood...

KURTZ: But there must have been a pull at some level happening in your...

BROWN: Oh, sure. And I -- those are my -- it was much more personal. Those are my friends over there. These are people I really like and worry about. But there's not a one of us who does what I do for a living that doesn't get the trend. We all get it, and we've all gotten it for a while. And I think a lot of us are grateful that we've had a great run professionally, and we'll see where the next 10 years goes.

KURTZ: OK, on that note we will end. Aaron Brown, Ken Auletta, Frank Rich, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, our new feature, Media Winners and Losers of the Week, an abject apology from one high-decibel cable anchor.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Now for our winners and losers.


KURTZ (voice-over): The media winner of the week: "The Atlantic" magazine. In this age of sound-bite journalism, the monthly plans to run 60,000 words, in three parts, about the Herculean effort to clean up the World Trade Center site.

And the loser: "Hardball" host Chris Matthews. He ripped into Ted Koppel in a luncheon address, saying nobody watches "Nightline," and ridiculed Jim Lehrer's "NewsHour," saying it feels about eight hours long. Now Matthews is eating his words. He even paid an unannounced visit to PBS to apologize to Lehrer.

And another loser this week: Louis Rukeyser, bumped off of PBS's "Wall Street Week," the program he created 32 years ago.


Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES on our 10th anniversary. One thing hasn't changed: We're still trying to focus our critical lens on why the media do what they do, on screw-ups, sensationalism, ethical problems, bias, conflicts of interest, on holding reporters and editors and producers and anchors accountable.

Thanks for sticking with us during these 10 years of media madness, and we hope you'll keep watching.

I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern, another edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. "CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


Reported?; Is There Bias in the Media?>



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