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Brokaw to Be Replaced by Brian Williams; Is the Press Overdoing Chandra Levy Investigation Story?

Aired June 1, 2002 - 18:30   ET


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

Ahead we'll talk about whether the press is still overdoing the Chandra Levy case. You might be surprised at some of the answers in our viewer e-mail, and the FBI's media image takes a battering over September 11 leading to some unpredictable spins from the bureau's top cop.

But first, after more than two decades, one of the big three network anchors is finally stepping down. Brian Williams, now the host of the aptly named "NEWS WITH BRIAN WILLIAMS" on MSNBC will take over the top job from Tom Brokaw at "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS." Williams shared his thoughts at a high-profile NBC press conference.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: It's a great day for the network evening news business. It's a place where after all about 30 million people come every night, and it's a place where nine months ago for a horrible set of reasons everyone was reminded why they come there every night.


KURTZ: Despite speculation that he might leave sooner, Brokaw plans to hold onto his anchor chair through the 2004 elections. He says he's been reenergized by the events surrounding September 11.


TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: I am here because I couldn't walk away from the story. I've been a professional journalist for 40 years this summer. This is one of the most challenging and complex story that I have ever encountered. It's rich and important and serious every day, and I can't wait every morning to get up and to wade back into it.


KURTZ: But the news of Brokaw's departure, even if it is a couple of years down the road, renewed debate this week about what will happen when the other aging anchors, Dan Rather and Peter Jennings, also pass from the scene.

Well, joining us now here in Washington Paul Farhi, reporter for "The Washington Post"; from our New York bureau Laura Ingraham, host of "The Laura Ingraham Show" on Westwood One Radio; and also in New York Frank Rich, columnist for "The New York Times".

Welcome. Frank Rich, you wrote a piece in "The New York Times" magazine just last week. It's a good thing that the editors didn't hold it on the future of the network news anchors, and in that piece you quoted Fox News President Roger Ailes as saying of Brian Williams, who was even then seen as the likely successor, well he's been to New Jersey. Why are people so dismissive of Brian Williams?

FRANK RICH, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I think part of it is a natural syndrome. This happened, too, you know, to a certain extent with Brokaw and Rather when they first took over. No one remembers now, but after Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor, it was thought the next generation lacked gravitas, and I guess the feeling is the same way about the next generation now.

KURTZ: Laura Ingraham, on MSNBC, on his 8:00 p.m. Eastern newscast, Brian Williams now enjoys about 322,000 viewers on average. It's about one-sixth of what Bill O'Reilly gets over at Fox News. So why does NBC think that Williams is the man to fill Brokaw's considerable shoes?

LAURA INGRAHAM, WESTWOOD ONE RADIO: Well, who else I think is one answer. But -- and Brian is a total pro. I mean, I've known him for years. I think he does a great job. And when I was driving over here to get to the studio, I saw a bus, one of the bus billboards that you see in New York, and it was Brian Williams, Chris Matthews, Alan Keyes and Phil Donahue. And I've got to -- I've got to think at some point Brian has to be looking at these saying wait a second, you know, I was -- I was being groomed to be the lead anchor at NBC.

When is that going to happen? And I think NBC had to step up to the plate and say, yes, it is going to happen, Brian. We don't want you to go to CBS. We don't want you to host the CBS "EARLY SHOW" or any other broadcast at CBS, and they had to step forward. And it was a little bit of a kind of a bizarre coronation before the fact and who knows what's going to happen two years from now. Is the network news going to really be around?

KURTZ: Well, he did seem to be waiting roughly forever to get the chance at the Brokaw job. Paul Farhi, you have a piece in "American Journalism Review," "Premature Obit," in which you say that no successor to any of the anchor mobsters, as we like to call them, will command any where near the same level of gravitas and growing power. That's that "G" word again, gravitas. Why not? Isn't gravitas something you can acquire once you get in the big chair?

PAUL FARHI, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, I think that speaks to the nature of television rather than Brian Williams or NBC News that television -- the fact is television is losing viewers. They're scattering to many different programs. The market shares, the shares of all programs, news, entertainment is declining, therefore, an anchor will never command the same audience that Walter Cronkite or Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw have done. It's just inevitable that that's going to -- going to happen.

But I have to take you up on your question -- your question to Frank Rich, which was that Roger Ailes says he is down on Brian Williams. Well, that's the important point, is Roger Ailes has a competitive position. We don't know that the American people, the viewers, are going to be down on Brian Williams. That case still is to be made.

KURTZ: We will find out. Now, Frank Rich, in "The New York Times" piece, and I guess want to say that I have always found Brian Williams to be smooth, to be smart. He's a former White House correspondent and he's filled in for Brokaw roughly about 10,000 times. But your newspaper in a news story refers to him having an impersonal style that translates to some viewers as pompous and off- putting. So we'll put in your theater critics hat, do you agree with that assessment?

RICH: Well, that's not my assessment. I think there is a strange quality to him that maybe that comment's referring to. I do find it odd in this day and age that a relatively young man sort of dresses that way sort of -- this sort of power tie and the sort of big CEO kind of suit. A lot of people in the news business think that the next generation of anchors maybe should loosen up on that style a bit. But I don't think that his personality is pompous. He can be a bit loquacious, but you know he's still early in his career and he needs more ...


KURTZ: I'm just stunned by this.

RICH: But you know cable encourages that too. You know, as they use him more on the network, I think certain disciplines will come to bear and further more they're now going to try to inject him with the gravitas as if it were heroine. You know, they're going to send him to every trouble spot in the world and put him in khakis and you know, make him Edward R. Murrow redux.

KURTZ: If only they could bottle that. But Laura Ingraham, you know, what's wrong with being a little more informal? What's wrong with having the common touch? Do the network news anchors of the big broadcast networks have to be Olympian figures?

INGRAHAM: I think one of the worst things that's happened to news is this sort of open-collared shirt, no tie, you know, do you take the jacket off? That whole, you know, undress thing on television, which we've seen and then they've kind of reverted back to wearing the ties and being a little more formal.

I mean, Brian has suffered from having to be on MSNBC every night. I mean, he can't control the programming decisions at MSNBC. Watch Brian Williams do "breaking news" on MSNBC. He is fabulous. He was great on the TWA crash. He was great on 9-11. On a "breaking news" situation, Brian really shows his stuff. It's the end of an era. There is no doubt about it. Network news will never be what it once was, and to some extent, this is a coronation when the kingdom is collapsing.


INGRAHAM: That's the odd thing about ...


FARHI: I was going to say that gravitas is a quality that I think that journalists worry about and care about. Viewers don't check the resume when they watch television. They want someone who they are comfortable with, someone who they feel can be informative, truthful. Brian Williams certainly fits all of those qualities, and I think he'll be -- he'll fit right in.

KURTZ: And Tom Brokaw, I think, who'll be stepping down at 64, if he carries out this plan, may (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the most normal of the anchors because nobody walks away from these jobs usually unless they're carried out feet first.

Now let's look at the broader question, Frank Rich, which is people have been buzzing for years now about whether these network newscasts would survive once Dan and Tom and Peter finally hang it up. So the question posed by your magazine piece, are they in fact dinosaurs?

RICH: I don't think they really are. Obviously, they're tremendously diminished as, by the way, as almost all of network television since the advent of cable in the late '70s. The audience for the evening news has fallen in half. The prime-time entertainment audiences have also fallen in networks. But people seem to like this 6:30 meeting point with three somewhat sort of authority figures.

That doesn't mean, however, that they can't screw it up. I mean, it's up to Brian Williams and the successors ultimately at the other two networks to hold on to that audience, and they're probably going to have to make a connection with the viewer. If they fail, if the ratings slide, there could be a lot of pressure on someone like Williams, particularly since he'll be competing against the two icons while he's a new boy on the block.

FARHI: Let's forget about who the anchor is. Let's talk about the form. As Frank points out, network news has been an extremely durable form no matter who's sitting in that chair. What you can see is that whoever is the anchor at one of the major networks, they will be number one depending on whether their network and prime time is number one. Jennings has been number one at one point; Rather, number one at one point; Brokaw, number one at one point. Viewers watch the news. The anchor is a secondary figure.

KURTZ: But you know "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS" is the number one ranked broadcast right now at that time slot, and I wonder, Laura Ingraham, I mean, is this because people like the mix of stories or the reporting of Jim Miklaszewski and David Gregory, or is because they like Brokaw? Could some of those people just peel off if David -- Brokaw leaves and they've got a new face sitting in the anchor chair?

INGRAHAM: I think it's because they really like the fleecing of America segment. No, isn't -- hasn't the whole broadcast become the fleecing of America segment? It seems like that segment has grown over the years. No, I think that it's a combination -- they really like Brokaw. He has a very nice manner. It's not a loop. It doesn't seem haughty. Jennings, I think, tends to have that -- a little bit of a Canadian haughtiness to him, and people resent that. Rather just seems a little bit of a dinosaur at this point, and so -- and so I think it's a combination. People like a mix, but I would not be surprised if a few years from now if the evening news is not changed a lot more than it is right now.

I think Brian will end up playing a bunch of different roles at the network. Young people do not tune in at 6:30 to watch the news. Young people are getting their news on portable -- you know, portable computers, on handheld computers, all day long on CNN, FOX and every other cable network. So, this audience is aging, there's no doubt about that. I don't think that a young audience is going to be tuned in every night at 6:30 as it once was.

FARHI: The fact of the matter is, is older viewers watch news. Younger viewers really do not. CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, all have older viewers as well. If that is a successful model, you can -- you can certainly say that NBC can make do with the same number of older viewers week in and week out. They have a very successful franchise now. There's no reason it won't continue.

KURTZ: Well, Brian Williams is a relatively spry 45, considerably younger than the man he'll be replacing. Now Frank Rich, this also means that MSNBC is kind of giving up on a nightly newscast because one of the things that got lost in the excitement about Brokaw and "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS" is that the Brian Williams newscast is moving to CNBC at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, which is going to leave MSNBC with a lineup of Phil Donahue, Alan Keyes, Chris Matthews and others. I'm wondering what you think of the environment there, especially since you wrote in this "Times" magazine piece that when you watch cable news, you're told that the world is about to end over and over again and for the night. About to end?

RICH: I think that MSNBC, which obviously has been desperate to find an audience and has been by far the weakest of the three in ratings, is now sort of shooting craps and hoping that they can be an opinion network and a -- and almost like a talk radio network on television, the way that Fox often is. So that's going to be their new scheme. Whether it has to do with being America's news network, as they call themselves now ...


RICH: I don't know what that's about, but it's a gimmick. You know they're going to have -- they'll have Phil Donahue while Fox has Bill O'Reilly. Whether it'll work, I don't know, but it again shows that cable isn't necessarily the be-all and end-all of news for people who really want the news. And one other point I'd make is the audience for the news has always been old. It's always been old. It hasn't just started to age. It's always -- it's been in the 50s since ...

KURTZ: Well ...

RICH: ... 20 or 25 year ...

KURTZ: ... I would argue that all of us in this business -- and this includes newspapers -- they're going to have to figure out a way to appeal to younger people.

Now, Laura Ingraham, we have about 30 seconds left in this segment. Do you agree with MSNBC apparently following the lead of Fox that opinion and ideology and shouting is now what's going to carry the day on cable as opposed ...

INGRAHAM: Well ...

KURTZ: ... to the old straight newscast?

INGRAHAM: ... yes, well, I mean, I started with MSNBC. I was ...

KURTZ: I know.

INGRAHAM: ... actually on the first three hours of the network when it started in July 15, 1996, and I think back then they thought it was going to be so hip and so cool and they forgot along the way that they actually have to be watched. And being watched on cable television means that you have to have some personalities on the network. You can't just rely on wall-to-wall coverage. CNN has found that out. MSNBC is finding that out. Whether it's going back to Phil Donahue and someone like Alan Keyes, whether that's going to work, I think is risky business. But you have to have personalities on cable television, absolutely.

KURTZ: Well, we still think you're hip and cool.

INGRAHAM: Thank you.

KURTZ: Time now for our e-mail question of the week. Are network news anchors dinosaurs? Let us know what you think. E-mail us at

And when we come back, the Chandra Levy case, is the coverage ever enough? We'll hear your view, e-mail subject and talk more with our guest in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. The Chandra Levy press frenzy dragged on this week as the former Washington intern was memorialized at a service in her home town of Modesto, California. This came the same day the D.C. medical examiner ruled her death a homicide, but was unable to determine the cause of death from skeletal remains found in Washington's Rock Creek Park.

Last week we asked whether the media were milking the Chandra Levy story. Plenty of you agreed with one viewer who wrote, "yes, the press is milking the story and for all it's not worth, enough already." Another said, "milking it, farmers only milk cows twice a day. Obviously they know when to quit."

But many of you disagreed. One viewer writing, "the media have not covered this case enough. I wouldn't watch the news if you didn't report all the aspects of the story. Thank God Bernstein and Woodward didn't think the Watergate case had too much coverage."

And another said, "I want to know who murdered her, and I think the media coverage will help."

Laura Ingraham, should the press just let this young woman rest in peace at this point?

INGRAHAM: I think they're -- I mean, I think it should be covered to some extent. I think, however, when Indian and Pakistan are about to -- on the brink of nuclear war and yet we have, you know, three hours of coverage a day on Chandra Levy's memorial service. That's a bit much. I mean, if there are new developments in the case, I think they should be covered. There don't seem to be new developments past the fact that her skeletal remains were recovered. They're looking into whether she was sexually assaulted. I think there's a lot of public interest in the story, but I think there's a lot more that's happened since September 11 that we really need to focus on.

KURTZ: Right, it's not new developments as much as thorny news ...


KURTZ: Particularly the cable networks try to have more hours of coverage. Isn't this the kind of story, but certainly the salacious Gary Condit part that we all said after September 11 the press wouldn't obsess on anymore?

FARHI: But I think the press wants to get back to what used to be normal and this is normal for the press. This story has taken on the image and the veneer of a fable and we are simply following the fable to its logical conclusion. Yes, we could use a little proportion on the story, but the very fact of the matter is the press is so invested in this and it has so much built up in this, that any development is going to get this kind of saturation.

KURTZ: Frank Rich, Fox News the other day trotted out, excuse me, Anne Marie Smith, the flight attendant who also said she had an affair with Gary Condit, and I thought it was kind of sad because it was obvious that she didn't know anything about the Chandra Levy case that she didn't -- hadn't already said last year.

RICH: Well, I guess she wanted to be on camera. I feel, frankly, that JonBenet Ramsey is getting a raw deal. As far as Chandra Levy goes, I think that as a continuing soap opera and I think Paul's right, we always want one of these stories and we've been sort of -- the press has been desperate for one. The Skakel trial really has been kind of tedious and -- but I do think the Chandra Levy story was hurt by Mt. Hood. I think that sort of, toward the end of the week ...


RICH: ... you know was a real -- was a real comer and it had really good footage -- and I do think the Ramseys are overdue. I -- someone's got to bug them.

KURTZ: Laura Ingraham, just briefly so the press is always looking for the Skakel trial or ...


KURTZ: ... something of that -- something of that nature that we can kind of pump up into a bigger story.

INGRAHAM: On my radio show I call cable television "tragedy TV," TTV, because in the end, it comes down to whether or not there's a sexual angle, whether or not there's a criminal story, whether or not there's someone who's wrongfully accused. If there's a political angle into all of that, you have, you know, the perfect storm for cable television.

And to some extent this is newsworthy. She did work in Washington. A congressman was involved with her in some capacity. So it is a story. I always thought it was a story, but now with war against terror, with India, Pakistan, everything else that's happening in the world, I think we have to step back a little bit and give it -- give it the coverage it's due and not do this wall-to-wall, you know -- Anne Marie Smith, I mean, Fox said exclusive -- they put ...

KURTZ: Right.

INGRAHAM: ... the exclusive banner on the Anne Marie Smith interview. I mean, unbelievable.

KURTZ: Tragedy TV, I may have to plagiarize that sometimes.

INGRAHAM: No problem ...


KURTZ: Frank Rich, before we let you go, a lot of buzz about a piece coming out in "The New Yorker" on Monday by Ken Auletta profiled "New York Times" executive director Howell Raines who's had a pretty good season. The New York paper just won seven Pulitzer Prizes, but no secret that he has kind of a hard charging style and that there's some bruised feelings in the newsroom about that. Is that inevitable when a new editor comes in or could it be a problem for somebody like Howell Raines?

RICH: Having, I guess, lived through -- gosh, four executive editors now at "The Times" ...

KURTZ: That makes you middle aged. RICH: It makes me middle aged for sure. It makes me the perfect viewer, in fact, for evening news. Each of the four has been impressive. Each of them has a very different style and so, like with any change regime, like a change in the administration of the United States, people, you know, are contrasting and comparing, but the facts speak for themselves. I mean Howell's had an incredible period. I mean taking over really just before September 11 ...

KURTZ: Right.

RICH: ... and running this coverage and still running it. It's really a remarkable story, I think.


RICH: You know I'm prejudice, but ...

KURTZ: That's why we asked you. You do have to break some eggs in order to get that omelet. Frank Rich, Laura Ingraham in New York, Paul Farhi, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, the FBI under hostile media fire and a surprise admission about September 11.


KURTZ: Welcome back. There was a highly unusual event the other day here in Washington, the cover your backside capital of the world. A top government official admitted to a major screw up.


(voice-over): For decades, J. Edgar Hoover's FBI enjoyed a golden reputation in the media. You know the "G" men, Eliot Ness and "The Untouchables." The fearless feds chasing the bad guys. But the glittering image got tarnished during the Watergate mess when the bureau was wiretapping and spying on such opponents as Martin Luther King.

When reformers pushed through restrictions to reign in the FBI, many journalists cheered them on. Under Director Louis Freeh, FBI agents were portrayed by the media as a bunch of bumblers. They misplaced huge numbers of files before the sentencing of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. They failed to detect a spy in their own midst, Robert Hanssen.

They badly botched the case against nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee. Now the new FBI boss, Robert Mueller, has spent the last few months explaining why the bureau missed the warning signs of the September 11 attacks, failing, in the new journalistic cliche, to connect the dots. As this "TIME" cover makes clear, the evidence was embarrassing.

The Phoenix memo, about Middle Eastern flight students that never reached the top brass. The Minneapolis agent who was turned down in her efforts to investigate Zacarias Moussaoui, all the while Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice and other White House officials insisting there was no way to anticipate the attacks. But the excuses ended this week when Mueller all but admitted that the FBI had fallen down on the job.

ROBERT MUELLER, FBI DIRECTOR: I'm not saying it's impossible that we would have found something, got lucky, and been able to get on the trail of one or more of the hijackers.

KURTZ: The "Wall Street Journal" was not persuaded, calling on Mueller to resign.


KURTZ: The FBI still faces weeks of hearings and disclosures that will fuel the media portrayal of the gang that couldn't shoot straight. Such as a Saturday "New York Times" story on a top secret report warning before last September that the bureau lacked the resources to deal with terrorist groups like al Qaeda. But journalists also like and often give a break to politicians who admit that mistakes were made. That may come in handy for Robert Mueller as the media keep investigating the 9-11 failures.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch us again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media.

CAPITAL GANG is up next.


Overdoing Chandra Levy Investigation Story?>



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