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Is Press Pushing Peace in the Middle East?; Why Are So Many Media Outlets Covering Michael Skakel's Trial?

Aired May 11, 2002 - 18:30   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, a conversation with CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin about the press's fixation on the Michael Skakel murder trial. Yet another sign of fascination about anything having to do with the Kennedys.

But first, the crisis in the Middle East.

Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem this week as the long siege at the Church of the Nativity came to an end, but there was no end to the ongoing violence.

Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was in Washington meeting with President Bush. Even as reporters questioned the two leaders about the peace process, another suicide bomber struck near Tel Aviv, killing 15 and wounding dozens. And the headlines quickly turned from talk of peace to war.

Well, joining us now: Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for "USA Today," Janine Zacharia, Washington correspondent for the "Jerusalem Post," and Andrea Koppel, CNN's State Department correspondent.

Andrea Koppel, we all cover when Bush meets with Sharon, when Powell meets with Arafat, creates kind of a sense of drama about the peace process. And then another suicide bomber comes along and blows things up. So are the media in some sense giving too much credence to a diplomatic process that often seems to be detached from reality?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPARTMENT CORRESPONDENT: I don't think so. I think that our job is to reflect what it is the people that we cover are doing. And, at least in recent months, the Bush administration has become serious about engaging in the peace process. And so for instance, with myself, covering Secretary Powell, he was out in the region. He was there for two weeks, traveling around, meeting with Arab leaders, and then meeting with Sharon and meeting with Arafat. And then he came back here. And the crown prince was down in Crawford, and Bush was there and Powell was there, and there was talk of a peace process.

KURTZ: Talk. Talk is the key word. KOPPEL: So, and in fact -- you know -- they're trying to put their ducks in a row here. Whether or not you can actually call it a process I would dispute, but they're trying to put together the necessary pieces to the puzzle to get this thing moving, so I don't think it's unreasonable.

KURTZ: Janine Zacharia, you were in the press pool in the Oval Office on that day when Bush and Sharon were meeting with reporters. Even there was a split screen moment, because everybody at home was watching the first moments after the suicide bombing in Tel Aviv. And yet, reporters didn't ask the two leaders about that. What was going on?

JANINE ZACHARIA, JERUSALEM POST: Yes, the reporters -- kind of -- we dropped the ball in a sense that day, but the problem was as we were going into the Oval Office, Israeli reporters' cell phones started sounding. There had been incident in (UNINTELLIGIBLE). We didn't know if it was a terrorist attack. It sounded more like a building collapse, along the lines of what had happened in Jerusalem a couple months ago with the wedding hall, and so we really didn't know, and up until the last minute we didn't know.

And of course, two reporters from each side were allowed to ask pre-prepared questions. Somebody, however, should have said, "do you have any information, Mr. Prime Minister and Mr. President, about the incident?"

KURTZ: One of the reporters told me that they kept their cell phones off while waiting outside the Oval Office so as not to disturb the president, therefore their offices couldn't reach them to tell them, hey, this is a suicide bombing.

ZACHARIA: The protocol people were threatening to throw Israeli reporters out of the pool if we had the cell phones on. So that's exactly -- that was a key point.

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Susan Page, do you sense in recent weeks that the press has gotten tougher on President Bush about this whole Mideast process? Before, he had the relative luxury of being disengaged; now he's clearly engaged. How do you see the coverage?

SUSAN PAGE, USA TODAY: I think the coverage had gotten very tough about his disengagement and there were a lot of calls, why isn't he doing more, this is a traditional U.S. role, maybe only the United States can play this role. Then he got more engaged. He sent Powell to the region, and that ended that sort of criticism. But now in a way, the stakes get much more difficult for President Bush. Having gotten engaged, he's going to need to show results. He'll be held more responsible for not only ...

KURTZ: By reporters.

PAGE: By the press, by critics ...

KURTZ: So, when things go bad ...

PAGE: What has he done?

KURTZ: The natural reaction is -- is this a success or a failure for Mr. Bush?

PAGE: And on two tracks. One is the end this terrible violence that's racking the region, and the second is to get a process back on track that might have some overall peace potential so that the region can live in peace, which is a very difficult thing, something that stymied a series of presidents.

KURTZ: A whole bunch of presidents. Andrea Koppel, when the Israelis aren't -- say firing stun guns at reporters, in that incident from a couple months ago, how are they at working the press? Is this a sophisticated media operation? You deal with these people all the time.

KOPPEL: I would say that, I'll just use this week as an example; the Israelis are a very well-oiled machine, if you will. They have a lot of experience dealing with the press and they make our jobs easy in many ways.

This week, for instance, the Israelis came armed, not only with four senior Israeli officials, they were both in the -- in the Counter-terrorism Department and the police department bomb squad, but they also had a 103-page report that they distributed to all of us, with Xeroxed bits of evidence that they had gathered saying the Yasser Arafat was a terrorist, and here are the documents themselves to prove it.

KURTZ: And then you have to spoon-feed journalists so that you'll have it, it's easy, you don't have to make 12 phone calls.

KOPPEL: It's something the Bush administration could learn something from. I mean, really, when you make that -- when you make our job that easy.

KURTZ: Reporting this week about, there's almost a deal in Bethlehem. It's going to be solved tomorrow. It's going to be solved within hours. There's a possible agreement on the framework of a deal. What do you make of all that?

ZACHARIA: It was horrible. I never saw anything like it. I mean -- I think 10 times the TV networks reported that there had been a deal.

KURTZ: Right.

ZACHARIA: And I think the problem -- this when you have a problem of fierce competition between the networks, who -- somebody's going to have to break it first. So, Fox News I think broke it -- you know -- 10 times first, but I never really was broken.

KURTZ: It's called a permanent exclusive.

ZACHARIA: I don't know.

KURTZ: Finally, of course, you know, there was a deal.

Now, Susan Page, during the Israeli incursion in the West Bank, the press focused on Palestinian victims, as part of what we do. During the latest suicide bombing, obviously we gravitated toward the Israeli victims of that attack. But we also talked about the young, increasingly young suicide bombers. And that brings us a lot of criticism from various sides. Is it fair or unfair to put that media spotlight and spotlight on the victims?

PAGE: Well -- you know -- I think there has been a lot of criticism from Jewish groups about U.S. coverage of the conflict, and one of the complaints is that they argue that there's not equivalency between a suicide bomber who is out there to kill civilians and a military response that aims at combatants but kills civilians as a kind of a side effect, as a terrible side effect of war.

So, they're have -- I think a lot of news organizations have gotten a kind of a coordinated effort to complain about coverage, and it's a difficult thing.

KURTZ: There's talk of boycotts against them. "The New York Times," "The L.A. Times," the "Washington Post" ...

PAGE: There are boycotts.

KURTZ: By Israeli supporters who don't want, who don't want really any sympathetic coverage of Palestinian victims.

PAGE: And one of the difficulties I think for news reporters is not that the coverage is biased, but I think sometimes the coverage is superficial. This is a conflict that goes -- has such a long history, and the people involved in the conflict have very long memories about what they're fighting about.

KURTZ: And we're doing snapshots of what happened that hour.

PAGE: We want something that happens in a news cycle and it comes to some kind of conclusion, and in that way this has been an unsatisfying story for the press. And I wonder to some degree how long American press attention will continue with this story, if it continues to seem to not go anywhere.

KURTZ: Yes, it has faded in and out in the past, although not in recent months now.

KOPPEL: I was just going to say that I think the Jenin refugee camp case is a perfect example of the pressure that we're under, both because of the 24-hour news cycle, but also as reporters to cover it. We weren't allowed into the camp, we were taking supposed eyewitnesses reports for gospel and reporting those, and therefore the story became this -- there had been some terrible massacre, which in fact it appears there wasn't.

KURTZ: And in fact, some British and European reporters went very had with these charges of massacre, and we now know that although there may well have been Israeli military excesses, 56 people were killed, not hundreds as the Palestinians originally claimed, and I think that any of the people who went hard with those massacre charges probably owe a public apology.

But you know, Yasser Arafat has had plenty to say since he got sprung from his office in Ramallah after weeks of that Israeli siege.

KOPPEL: And even before.

KURTZ: And even before, when he somehow managed to communicate with the outside world. He sat down recently with NBC's David Bloom. Let's take a look at part of that.


DAVID BLOOM, NBC: It's a 105-page report, it accuses you of -- and I'm quoting here: "Being directly involved in the planning and execution of terrorist attacks."

YASSER ARAFAT, PALESTINIAN LEADER: Give me one evidence that this is right.


KURTZ: How much credibility, Andrea Koppel, should the press give Yasser Arafat on this question? After all, he has been saying for years that he did -- was not acquiescing in terrorism.

KOPPEL: I think that anyone who doubts the fact that Yasser Arafat has had at least indirect, an indirect responsibility for terrorist acts hasn't been following Yasser Arafat's career over the last four years.

KURTZ: But does the media have an artificial balance where we have to say, Israelis charge this, Arafat denies that.

KOPPEL: I think when the Israelis make a charge, just like when the U.S. government makes a charge, you need to attribute that. I think that until you can check it out yourself, that's the way that we do our job.

ZACHARIA: This is where the reporter's judgment comes in. And this is when you have a problem when you have reporter's who do not have adequate background covering the conflict reporting on this. Yes, you have to look at what each side says, but it depends on what -- who do you give more credence to as the more reliable source, to quote your show.

KURTZ: And on that point, Susan Page, Arafat came out after this latest suicide bombing and condemned it, in Arabic on television. President Bush said this was an incredibly positive sign, but was there or should there have been media skepticism about this, since the question is always, well, what is he going to do about this?

PAGE: Well, exactly, and of course he said as well as condemning said that he was going to use Palestinian security forces to try to prevent future instances like this. I don't think Yasser Arafat has very much credibility, and one reason the Israeli evidence of his links to terrorism didn't get more attention was because that's everyone's expectation. I mean -- what was surprising about that.

KURTZ: Journalists are saying, what's new here?

PAGE: That's right.

KURTZ: But here was this documentation. Very briefly.

PAGE: But the fact is he's the leader of the Palestinian people. It's hard to imagine how this story proceeds without him even being a player in it. And so even if you don't give him great credibility when he talks about things like terrorism, what's your alternative?

KURTZ: OK. We'll let that question hang in the air, Susan Page, Janine Zacharia, Andrea Koppel, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, why are so many reporters in Connecticut for the 27-year-old murder case involving Michael Skakel? We'll talk to CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. The Kennedy clan is in the news again. Michael Skakel is charged with murdering his 15-year- old neighbor Martha Moxley more than a quarter century ago.

Is Skakel's trial starting to take over the airways? We put that question to Jeffrey Toobin, CNN legal analyst and staff writer for the "New Yorker."


Jeff Toobin, welcome.


KURTZ: If this were a 27-year-old murder case that -- oh, let's say didn't happen to involve a Kennedy cousin, how much media attention would it be getting?

TOOBIN: Not zero, but certainly nothing on the scale that it's getting now.

KURTZ: Well, .1 perhaps?

TOOBIN: I don't know -- but I suppose .1 is a fair, is a fair percentage.

KURTZ: So therefore, it has no real larger news value except because the defendant is related by blood -- not even by blood to the Kennedy family?

TOOBIN: I think certainly, that's the principle source of interest in this story, no doubt about that. KURTZ: Well, when you were up in Connecticut on the opening day with all the other network reporters for the morning shows doing their stand-ups, did you feel any twinge about maybe exploiting this case for its semi-celebrity value?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, I think those of use who have been in this business for a while recognize that that is part of what people are interested in in the news, and I don't feel any great shame in covering this story. I think, you know, it's part of a balanced diet of news, and, you know, celebrity murders are not something that have been invented in the last 10 years as a subject of news interest.

Going back to -- you know -- the '20s, there have been stories covered like this. And I think this one is especially interesting, because not only is there the Kennedy connection, but the passage of time and the extremely convoluted and complicated nature of the proof in the case makes it very interesting.

KURTZ: So, there are clearly legal issues for you to dissect. And on that point, is it a little bit odd to be covering a trial with a big, heavyset guy accused of murder when the allegations about what he did or didn't do when he was 15 years old?

TOOBIN: Oh, it is beyond bizarre, Howard. I mean, I recognize that the story is not about me, but in 1975 Michael Skakel was 15 years old, Martha Moxley was 15 years old and I was 15 years old. And I sat there in court trying to think of one thing that I could remember from 1975, and all I could think of was Carlton Fisk (ph) hitting his famous home-run in the World Series. I mean, it is so long ago ...

KURTZ: Well, clearly you've repressed a lot of memories from your high school years.

TOOBIN: Well, I guess so and probably for good reason, if you were in my high school. But it was -- it's just so old and, you know, all these -- one middle-aged person after another testifying about this party that they were holding in Skakel's home. At the time, all of them were kids, and all of them are coming up there. And now Skakel himself -- the years look a lot worse on him than the do on most of his friends, but still it's a long time ago.

KURTZ: Absolutely. Clearly, this would be an even bigger story on cable if cameras in the courtroom were allowed in this case. Do you think as a veteran of these kinds of trials that it was a good move not to have the trial be televised?

TOOBIN: You know, I really don't. I think the legacy of the Simpson case in terms of cameras in the courtroom is basically a matter of cowardice on the part of judges. It's the judges don't want to be shown up the way Lance Ito was showed up in O.J., and I think basically that is the main reason why we see many fewer cameras in the courtroom in these high profile cases.

KURTZ: They're just afraid they'll look bad? TOOBIN: They're just afraid they'll look bad, and I don't think that's a legitimate interest that should be served by keeping cameras out of the courtroom. I think there are certain cases, perhaps so high-profile, so combustible, so tense that maybe there is a reason that witnesses would be intimidated.

KURTZ: Right.

TOOBIN: And there is perhaps a good reason to keep cameras out of the courtroom. But this is not a case where there are protests in the street. This is not a case where there is great public outrage that might lead to riots. I think that this is a case where it would be interesting and educational and entertaining for the public to see the trial, and I think it's too bad that they're not.

KURTZ: You have also been talking in your new role as CNN legal analyst about the Robert Blake murder case. And I'm wondering whether you think, and -- you know -- clearly there's public interest in that, because the former "Baretta" star and all that, but I wonder whether you think that cable, in particularly now that the war in Afghanistan has faded, is searching for new some kind of O.J.-like legal extravaganza, and the coverage it lavishes on these kinds of cases?

TOOBIN: There is no question that -- I have been fortunate in my role that there have been sort of these continuing legal sagas. Whether it was O.J. criminal, O.J. civil, the whole Lewinsky saga, impeachment, Elian Gonzalez, it is true -- and of course, the sort of nadir of it, the Chandra Levy. The Blake story, again, is part of a rich tradition in our country of covering Hollywood murders, and I do think there is perhaps at least the sense on the part of those of us in the news business of seeing how much public interest there is in the story and then responding accordingly.

KURTZ: Sounds like you aren't in any danger of losing your legal analyst job with all these kinds of trials.

Jeff Toobin, thanks very much for joining us.

TOOBIN: From your lips to our boss' ears, Howard. Thanks.


KURTZ: When we come back, Barbara Walters takes a hit. A mistake exposed at "Penthouse," and the cable networks chased their ratings at high speed in Los Angeles.

Our patented "Media Watch" of the week's news next.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Time for the week's ups and downs in the media world.


KURTZ (voice-over): A tough week for Barbara Walters, who had one journalistic praise for speaking out on her talk show "The View," back when ABC was trying to replace Ted Koppel with David Letterman. Walters, whose "20/20" had been bumped to another night by an entertainment show, said she and Koppel had been treated shabbily.

Now, "Vanity Fair" quotes Disney President Bob Iger as dissing Walters saying, "go on any street corner and say what you like, even it's about the company you work for. Write an op-ed in "The New York Times," appear on "Larry King" if you want, but to use one of our own programs to do that?"

Love, set and match against "Penthouse" magazine, which published some topless photo's of Anna Kournikova. At least "Penthouse" claimed it was Kournikova. No way, says the tennis star, who is promising to sue. And a federal judge agrees, the sun-bathing pictures are actually those of Judith Beneton, a member of the Beneton clothing family, who has sued the magazine for $10 million. A "Penthouse" lawyer says the magazine may have mad a mistake. An expensive mistake, as it turns out.

A bad week for Kathleen Willey, the women who once said she was groped by President Clinton. Willey had launched a Richmond Virginia radio show, and her guests included Ken Starr, the man who unsuccessfully prosecuted one of Willey's friends in the tangled affair. Willey's show was canceled after just four days.

Finally, if you were watching cable news on Monday afternoon, the stories about the Middle East and Afghanistan and the pipe bomb investigation soon gave way to this -- another long, overdramatized and ultimately meaningless L.A. car chase. Fox News stayed with it for 90 minutes. MSNBC dipped in and out. CNN provided less time. Still, it was the dominant image that afternoon. Live, now, happening -- all for a bunch of cops chasing a car thief.

"USA Today" was sufficiently stunned by this questionable news judgment that it mentioned the freeway scene at the top of the front page. The explanation from FOX and MSNBC executives: The ratings doubled.

Tuesday afternoon, deja vu all over again, another L.A. car chase, more meaningless pictures, with CNN staying away this time and Fox and MSNBC carrying the episode live. The next day, the "Los Angeles Times" gave the car thief all of three paragraphs inside the "Metro" section.


KURTZ: Do some people like to watch this sort of thing? Apparently so, but more likely it filled a media void, a sort of electronic rubber-necking based on the notion that it might end badly -- a car crash, a big shoot out. The truth is that cable news executives shot themselves in the foot by surrendering to something that looks and feels like news but isn't really. It's faux news for a slow day, not even a slow day but a slow hour, which in cable apparently is an unforgivable sin.

That's it for this addition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program tomorrow again at 9:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media.

We'll check on that story about a possible Bill Clinton talk show and take a look at your e-mail on the subject.

CAPITAL GANG is up next.


Many Media Outlets Covering Michael Skakel's Trial?>



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