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Why Did Media Glorify Mafia?; Smart's Parents Say 'Salt Lake Tribune' Went Too Far; Interview With Sir David Frost

Aired June 15, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Married to the Mob: The New York press gives John Gotti one heck of a send-off. Why the media glorify the Mafia. The press and the missing teenager: The parents of a 14-year-old Utah girl say the "Salt Lake Tribune" went too far in implicating the family. And wallowing in Watergate: Why some people are still so fascinated by Richard Nixon. Sir David Frost looks back on his famous interviews with the disgraced president.

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

A jam-packed show for you today. Ahead: Thirty years after the Watergate break-in, a look at those Nixon interviews and the man behind them.


SIR DAVID FROST: Why didn't you burn the tapes?

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I considered it, but I felt that, first, that if I were to destroy them, it would be an indication that I felt that there were conversations on there that demonstrated that I was guilty.


KURTZ: Our own interview with Sir David Frost later in the program.

But first to Utah and the round-the-clock coverage of the case of the missing teenager, Elizabeth Smart. CNN's James Hattori joins us from Salt Lake City.

James Hattori, this is a heart-rending story, a 14-year-old mysteriously disappearing from her bedroom more than a week ago. But there are thousands of missing kids each year. Why is this story getting such relentless national coverage?

JAMES HATTORI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm sure the parents of a lot of other missing kids are asking that question themselves, as many in the media are. But the fact of the matter is, this is a somewhat unique case. This was in the middle of the night, a girl in her own bedroom kidnapped at gunpoint by somebody who apparently breaks into the house. A lot of unanswered questions add to the mystery. The police don't have a clear idea of a motive, don't have a suspect still, at this point. So there's a lot of interest. How safe are we in our homes? I think a lot of families can relate to that.

KURTZ: The mystery aspect, indeed. Now, Elizabeth Smart's parents put out a statement the other day castigating the "Salt Lake Tribune" for this story, "Police eye relatives in probe" -- it was also followed by a lot of other news organizations -- suggesting that the abduction may have been staged and some family member might have been involved. Did the "Tribune," in your view, go too far?

HATTORI: Well, that is a theory. In fact, if you look at the paper closely, the sub-head of that article says it's one of the theories that investigators are looking at. So if you read carefully, what they reported was not totally out there. The fact that they gave it front-page treatment gives the impression that it's the leading theory or gives the impression that that's the way -- the direction that investigators are going.

KURTZ: But it relies -- James...

HATTORI: They are looking at that...

KURTZ: It relies, James, on unnamed police sources. Reminds me of the Chandra Levy case. And I wonder whether it's -- there's at least the possibility that police are using the media by floating these untested theories.

HATTORI: Well, that's always a possibility. It wouldn't be the first time that police have done that. They've tried to be -- at least, in my dealings with them, they seem to be pretty straightforward, but who knows? That's always a possibility, Howard.

KURTZ: OK. Now, why do the media keep suggesting that the drifter in the case, who may have seen something -- Bret Michael Edwards -- Edmunds -- is some kind of suspect, when I've seen police officials say over and over again that he is not? Why such a media focus on this one potential witness in the case?

HATTORI: I think, quite frankly, because there's very little else to focus on. The police don't have other directions that they're pointing at publicly. This is someone they do want to talk with legitimately. Could he be a suspect later on? They don't rule that out. That is a possibility.

KURTZ: And just very briefly, journalists don't have a lot else to focus on, either, because this is a huge story with not a lot of new information, correct?

HATTORI: Exactly. When the networks start rolling in the satellite trucks, you know they're going to -- there's pressure to file. The folks back in New York and Atlanta want you to, you know, come up with something, including us. And so that's why we're here. But there is a legitimate story that's ongoing. It could drag on for weeks, though. KURTZ: OK. Well, we'll keep watching to see the twists and turns of this story. James Hattori from CNN, thanks very much for joining us.

And turning now to the huge press coverage to the death of John Gotti. The Mafia leader's passing this week was chronicled, some would say over-chronicled, day after day in the New York tabloids. And we figured the man to ask is Ed Kosner, editor of the "New York Daily News."

Ed Kosner, welcome.


KURTZ: What has been -- hi. What has been the great media fascination over the years with John Gotti, who was, after all, a Mobster? Did the media create this "Dapper Don" myth?

KOSNER: Well, I think it's really a pop-cultural story, and in a certain sense, it started out with "The Godfather," and now you can thank Tony Soprano for all the interest in what's going on. When you watch the television coverage of the Gotti funeral or the preparations for the Gotti funeral, and when you watch the pictures of people going to the wake, every one is a character out of "The Sopranos." We had a picture in the paper the other day of a group of people, and one of them looks like Bobby Bacala (ph) and one looks like Uncle Junior. And you can't beat this stuff.

KURTZ: But now two of your former "Daily News" reporters wrote the other day in a "New York Times" piece, "We journalists are no doubt partly responsible. He was a great story." And the "Daily News" described Gotti as "the most celebrated Mobster since Al Capone." But celebrated for what?

KOSNER: Well, I think the media responds to energy and originality and glamour, and I think that Gotti, unlike all the other Mob bosses of the last 10 or 20 years, who mostly walked around with coats over their heads and -- or wore pajamas and muttered, really played up the -- played up the role. And he was pleased with himself, and his glamour and his sort of obvious enjoyment of himself managed to shield a lot of the truth underneath.

KURTZ: But do you find...

KOSNER: And it's -- let's face it, also it's entertainment.

KURTZ: OK. So you're in the entertainment business, as well as the news business.

KOSNER: Well, certainly.

KURTZ: But do you find anything slightly troubling or even out of whack that a guy who was convicted of five murders, who was heard on tape talking about "whacking" a guy because he refused to come in when Gotti called him, is being treated, as one story put it, like an outlaw hero? KOSNER: Well, I think there's a certain amount of -- of outlaw hero-ness that attaches to the Mob. And again, it's a pop-cultural thing. These are people who supposedly live by a code outside the law. They deal with matters of life and death. And they're -- they lead outside lives, or they seem to. And I think it fascinates people.

KURTZ: And there's no sort of whitewashing of some of the less -- or some of the violence involved in -- in Mafia life?

KOSNER: I think people are familiar with the violence involved. And certainly, the same popular culture that has helped create these figures has documented that thing. One of the most, I think, violent scenes I've ever seen was in "Goodfellas," where they beat the hell out of Joe Pesci with a shovel. So no one who's interested in the Mob or follows the Mob has any illusions about the amount of violence that goes on with it.

Now, we had a piece in our paper the other day by Michael Daley (ph), taking exactly your point of view. And we -- we have those in the paper, along with the other coverage.

KURTZ: Well, at least Joe Pesci, as an actor, lived to tell the story. Now, "New York Post" columnist Cindy Adams wrote a very glowing piece after Gotti's passing and said that he had sent her white roses on occasion and sometimes sent a bottle of wine when she and her husband were dining in a restaurant. I'm wondering, did John Gotti -- to what extent did he try to seduce journalists?

KOSNER: Well, we -- Michael Daley, one of our fine columnists, wrote a piece right after Gotti's death about how he ran into Gotti with his newborn daughter while walking through Trump Tower about 10, 15 years ago, and Gotti admired the child. And then the next day, he got a phone call from a deep-voiced guy who says, "John Gotti wants to send you a gift." And Michael said, "Oh, thank him very much, but that's not necessary." And the guy said, "You don't understand. John Gotti wants to send you a gift." And a few days later, a sterling silver cup arrived from Tiffany, and Michael went through a whole process with himself as to whether he should toss it or keep it. And in the end, he kept it.

KURTZ: I guess when John Gotti wants to send you a gift, it's an offer you can't refuse, whether you want to refuse it or not.

KOSNER: It's a cup you can't refuse.

KURTZ: Now, just briefly, Ed Kosner, is there going to be any other Mobster in the foreseeable future who is going to get this kind of outlaw-hero coverage that was lavished on Gotti? It must be good for selling newspapers, I have conclude.

KOSNER: Yes, it does. My wife is in the camp that thinks this is all overdone, and I'm sure there are people who feel that way. But the newsstand sales do show that even in the rain, Mob stories, and particularly Gotti stories, do sell papers. I don't think any of the other guys are going to rise to this level. And in fact, after Gotti, I think Tony Soprano is going to be the top Mobster.

KURTZ: I think you may be right. Ed Kosner, thanks very much for joining us.

KOSNER: Thank you.

KURTZ: When we come back: Thirty years after the burglary that brought down a president, my stroll through history with Sir David Frost, his thoughts on interviewing Richard Nixon.



Monday marks the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in, and in 1977, nearly three years after resigning the presidency, Richard Nixon sat down for a series of tense interviews with the acclaimed British journalist David Frost. Now, a quarter century later, parts of that interview will appear in a special on the Discovery Civilization channel. And to mark the occasion, we had our own special conversation with Sir David Frost right outside the Watergate.


KURTZ: Nixon, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, they're all dead now. What accounts for the continued public interest in the break-in at this famous building, this famous hotel 30 years later?

FROST: Yes. It's funny, isn't it? It feels historic even now, doesn't it? As we were saying, the Watergate break-in wouldn't have been the same if it was the Ramada break-in or something like that.

But I think the reason for the fascination, though, is two-fold. I think, first of all, it was an amazing story. But above all, probably (ph) that Richard Nixon was the most enigmatic, interesting, strange president we've every had. And there's been no one who's been quite that fascinating. What was Richard Nixon really like? Some people still ask that question as if he's still alive.

KURTZ: Early on in the interviews, Nixon described you as a prosecutor. Do you see yourself as playing that role? Is this the trial he never had?

FROST: Well, in a sense, yes. But part of it, I think, because, as you know, at interviews different parts of an interview or different interviews -- you would interview Saddam Hussein in a different way you'd interview Julie Andrews or whatever.

KURTZ: One would hope so.


FROST: Yes. Please, God. But in this particular case, as Nixon rightly said, prosecution and defense. And that was on the first day of the Watergate interrogation. And it was prosecution and defense that day, and it was pressing him. And he hadn't prepared to say anything was wrong, nothing was wrong, not even mistakes, on that first day. And that was very much prosecution and defense. On the second day when he came prepared to give something, go further to admit to some mistakes...

KURTZ: How did you know that?

FROST: ... I had to push him...

KURTZ: How did you know that?

FROST: Just in the first few minutes.


FROST: Just in the first few minutes he made way to -- I'm (ph) delighted. He arrives 17 minutes late, the only time he was late, the second day of Watergate. He'd obviously been re-living Watergate for the last 48 hours since the previous session. And he looked a little bit haunted like he did at the time of Watergate.

And so, then he soon volunteered -- started to volunteer about mistakes. And then it became a -- not (inaudible) confession, but it wasn't prosecution and defense anymore. Do you know what I mean?

KURTZ: There was a point where Nixon turned the tables on you.


KURTZ: Why did you step out of the interviewer's role and say, "This is what I think you should say to the American people"? Why did you decide to prescribe to the degree of contrition that was necessary for this disgraced president?

FROST: Well, I think he did that for me in a way, because it was the most heart-stopping moment for me, because I was saying, "Won't you go further than the word `mistake,' the word that seems to be not enough for the American people?" And he said suddenly, he stunned me and said, "Well, what do you suggest?" And in the end, you know, his (inaudible) went much further than we thought it would. And it was fascinating, by the end of that, of pushing him, pushing him to go further, that by the end of it, I mean, we were both drained at the end of that.

KURTZ: Looking back on the interviews now, 30 years later, you've looked at them again recently, did you find with the passage of time that you had any more sympathy for Nixon than, perhaps, you did in the immediate aftermath of that very polarizing time in America?

FROST: Well, that's interesting, because I think possibly one can, although he's not quite a tragic figure. The thing that always made me stop and say -- well, there were moments I felt empathetic rather than sympathetic, was that what was very aware at the time of those interviews, that there were a lot of people in jail because they followed his orders or followed his advice or did what he wanted. And therefore, the fact that those people were suffering made him less sympathetic of a figure at the time. With the passage of time, I suppose one can see more of the tragedy.

KURTZ: And that came across.

FROST: And that does come across.

KURTZ: And what was it like being in the room? I mean, you did 28 and a half hours in interviews over 12 days. What was it like during the breaks? Was it tense? Did you make any small talk?

FROST: Well, that's the thing, Richard Nixon doesn't have, didn't have any small talk. On camera, when the questions absorbed him, you know, really absorbed him, he was forthright, going for everything, articulate and so on. But it was the time before and after the interview where, as you said, the other way around, I wish in the green room he could be as good as he was on camera. He felt, before any meeting, he had to have five minutes of small talk, although he hadn't got any, you know.


And I was clutching at straws, knowing I had to fill in five minutes. So I said something about Brezhnev, who was on that day's Los Angeles Times. And Nixon said, "Oh," he said, "I wouldn't want to be a Russian leader. They never know when they're being taped."


You know, no dramatic irony at all.

KURTZ: No irony whatsoever.

Now, those negotiations for the interviews to take place -- and I can't imagine any politician today agreeing to 28 hours of interviews, and everybody wants to be live to tape these days. How did you get, ultimately, Nixon to agree to talk to nobody else for three years until your interviews aired in 1977?

FROST: Well, that was a bit of a miracle really, I think. But I knew I had to have that protection. I realized that since the network news departments weren't taking these shows, because they didn't want to take them from an independent and so on, that they would have a natural vested interest in soundbite-ing him here, there and everywhere, and asking about the 18-and-a-half-minute gap here and something else there. You know...

KURTZ: Which would steal your thunder.

FROST: Yes, absolutely, completely. And in fact, on the phone was Swifty Lazar.

KURTZ: This was his agent?

FROST: He was his agent at that time. And when I was making this point about no appearances on the news and so on. And he said, "Are you telling me that you are stopping the president from appearing on news stations?" And I said, "Yes." And he said, "All right." And (inaudible) pinched myself afterwards that I was saying that. But it was absolutely vital for my (ph) self-defense.

KURTZ: Now, you were widely criticized at the time, as you well remember, because Nixon was paid about $600,000 for these interviews. And even today, I look back on it -- and it is checkbook journalism -- and I wonder, should somebody who disgraced the office of the presidency have been allowed to profit in order to talk to a journalist?

FROST: Well, I think so, because it's not quite as simple as that. I mean, he had signed up for his memoirs for $2.3 million. Well, there your account is not being tested by anybody, you know, in that situation.

KURTZ: You can say whatever you want.

FROST: You can say whatever you want, and therefore it's not tested, it's not as journalistically tested as interviews.

KURTZ: You didn't search your soul over whether you wanted to be part of a payment for those interviews?

FROST: No, I didn't. I think that they were worthwhile. They were history, and I was confident they were going to be history in the making. And after all, it was his life, so I don't see why he can't be paid.

KURTZ: You've interviewed just about everybody over the years, from Muhammad Ali to the Beatles. What is the secret of eliciting information on camera?

FROST: I think -- well, you do it very well to, so -- I mean, I think it's to turn an interview into a conversation or a dialogue as quickly as possible. I mean, that wouldn't cover Watergate, obviously, where it's more prosecution and defense and so on. But in general, I think it's that. And then helping the other person to forget that they're on television. Not that they...

KURTZ: It's like they're sitting in their living room talking to you. FROST: That's right. And if you can draw them out, open them up rather than set than up, and just try and get the real person coming over on television. You talk to people beforehand, and you then take them into a setting which is mildly odd -- I mean, lights and God knows what else -- and you've somehow got to expunge all that from their mind again and get back to the way they were outside.

KURTZ: Sir David Frost, thanks very much for talking to us here at the Watergate.

FROST: Pleasure. Nice to be home.


KURTZ: "In Their Own Words: Nixon" airs Monday night at 8:00 PM Eastern and Pacific time on the Discovery Civilization channel. And when we return: Are most of us watching and reading more international news since September 11? The answer may surprise you. Bernard Kalb's "Back Page."


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


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I've been having the scary thought that if one of these days a couple of crackpots seized control of the Pentagon and the State Department, most Americans would not be aware that there had been a change at the top, even with a war in Afghanistan and Osama still unfound.

Sounds ridiculous, does it -- idiotic, un-American? Well, listen to this. Just a few weeks ago, this question was put to more than 3,000 Americans: "Can you tell me the name of the current secretary of defense," quote, unquote. The result was a national embarrassment. The great majority of Americans, 71 percent, cannot name the star of afternoon TV. Only 29 percent can. This guy, though famous all over the world, does a lot better in name recognition: 48 percent can name him as secretary of state, 52 percent cannot.

All of this by way of introduction to a poll by the Pew Research Center in its survey of the news habits of Americans, and it has produced some surprises. For example, you may have though that 9/11 changed everything, right? Wrong. The public's news habits have been largely unaffected by the September 11 attacks and subsequent war on terrorism. At best, a slightly larger percentage express a general interest in international and national news, and in international news, not much beyond terrorism and the Middle East.

So why aren't Americans glued to their TV sets, newspapers, radios? Well, the reasons given range from a lack of background knowledge to follow overseas news to "Events don't affect me" and "Too much war and violence." How's that for chutzpah?

The fact is, terrorism is going to be around for the foreseeable future. Yet according to the poll, many Americans would seem to prefer they not bother knowing what hit them when something, as many experts predict, inevitably will, which means that the media will have to do an even better job of telling their readers and viewers how the world has, yes, changed since that day in September.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb.

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.


Lake Tribune' Went Too Far; Interview With Sir David Frost>



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