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Is the Media Blowing Coverage of Child Abductions out of Proportion?; Press Attacks Bush on Economy

Aired July 27, 2002 - 18:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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 burying President Bush amid the wreckage of the stock market, but first to the story that has captured so much time on the airwaves this summer, missing children. From Elizabeth Smart, who has still not be found, to the tragic murder of Samantha Runnion, to Erica Pratt, the Philadelphia 7- year-old who freed herself from her captors this past week.

Is there an epidemic of child snatching or is all the media just making it seem that way? Well, joining us now is James Fox, professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston. Welcome.

JAMES ALAN FOX, CRIMINOLOGIST, NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY: You're welcome.

KURTZ: You write in "The Boston Globe", eager to jump on the latest and scariest trend, the news media, especially the cable news channels, have virtually declared this the newest epidemic. Last summer it was shark attacks. But these murder and kidnapping stories are real and ...

FOX: Sure.

KURTZ: ... unbelievably frightening to parents.

FOX: They are real and every year we have these sad events occurring. In a typical year, we have 50 to 100 kids who are abducted by strangers and murdered. This year's no different. What's different now is that the media and particularly the cable channels that are doing these lengthy stories about it, seem to believe that there's a new epidemic. There's no epidemic. The numbers have not ...

KURTZ: You're saying it's a media created epidemic.

FOX: Yes, and every year there is one. You know last year it was shark attacks, as you say, and at least no one last year said that there was a serial shark on the loose like we got this year. But unfortunately parents are getting scared, unreasonable so, and I don't want to minimize the suffering of the Runnion family and Elizabeth, and these are horrible stories. But let's put it in perspective. Your child, chance of being killed by an abductor and by a stranger is significantly less than the chance that they'll, for example, die by falling off their bicycle and hitting their head. Yet parents who don't force their kids to wear helmets are locking up their kids in the bedroom because they think there's an epidemic out there.

KURTZ: Yes, just Friday TV jumped on yet another reported abduction, initial reports of a 6-year-old missing in Missouri. Hours after she was reported missing that became a big TV story. Are the media trying to scare people and is there a difference between simply reporting, for example, that Elizabeth Smart is missing and turning it into one of these round-the-clock relentless melodramas?

FOX: Well, absolutely, there's a big difference. These stories do occur and they are reported. But what kind of message are we relaying out there? Because of the way that the cable channels in particular can spend hours at length covering a story, these that when we have one, two or three cases in the news and people think that there's a pattern, they spend so much time on this pattern.

But if you go back every single year through the news coverage, you could find the same number of cases happening. It just didn't hit the antenna of some news director out there who has now declared this an epidemic. The problem is, and these cases are sad and tragic and scary, the problem is that we're scaring parents way out of proportion to the risk. The chances of this happening to any one child is one in a million.

KURTZ: I've wondered for a while why it is that the stories that get the most media attention of this type involve girls.

FOX: Well we have -- we have a protective response to crimes against children, and when it's girls they appear to us to be particularly defenseless. You know Jon Benet Ramsey, for example, when it's girls -- oh this poor girl was attacked and abducted and the victim of some dirty old man. Now, it happens to boys too ...

KURTZ: But you rarely hear about that ...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: ... at the national level. Obviously at the local level it's reported ...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: ... but I wonder whether ...

FOX: Except in the Catholic Church these days ...

KURTZ: OK ...

FOX: ... Catholic priests.

KURTZ: ... fair point, but I wonder why they're having footage of cute teenage girls is part of the marketing here.

(CROSSTALK)

I mean I hate to be so crass about it, but obviously everybody's worrying about ratings.

FOX: And it happens more when the coverage is great and when it's a white girl.

KURTZ: Is there any -- and we've noticed that as well. Is there any danger, James Fox, that this kind of saturation coverage could actually inspire copycat crimes?

FOX: Absolutely. I mean, one of the fringe benefits for offenders, particularly like serial killers, should they be out there, is that they can not only destroy the life of their victim and feel powerful because of it, but they can hold an entire community in their grip of terror. So in response to the Elizabeth Smart case, I mean the whole nation was scared. Parents as far away as New York City were watching their kids more closely because there may be a serial killer on the loose in Orange County, California.

KURTZ: A natural human reaction.

FOX: Right, and the killer feels like he's got this power.

KURTZ: You write that Fox's Bill O'Reilly said on the air that there were 100,000 kids snatched each year. That is not a correct ...

FOX: He said by strangers.

KURTZ: By strangers.

FOX: These are estimates of course, but most of the 100,000 are abductions in custody cases, one parent stealing the child away from the other parent. Many of them are runaways, where they eventually turn up alive and well. Very, very few of them, probably 600 at most are abductions by strangers, and most of those 600 were abducted by strangers are eventually found alive as well. Fewer than 100 kids every year are killed because their abductors kill them.

KURTZ: But even if it's 50 or 100, that is -- those are tragedies and of course people are going to be interested. So how can you blame cable news in particular for wanting to cover the hell out of that story.

FOX: Well, we have -- we have 50, 60 million kids under the age of 13. Bad things happen to these kids, sometimes by strangers, sometimes by relatives.

KURTZ: But no different, you're saying, than ...

FOX: No different than previous years. It's just that someone has decided that boy, there's two cases in close proximity and time, there's a new epidemic. And of course, we had school shootings. That was an epidemic for a while. We had carjackings. That was the epidemic of the year.

Every year there seems to be a new crime wave epidemic that the media seems to play up, but six months later they've forgotten about it. It may still happen, but it's no longer part of the coverage.

KURTZ: Well, let's hope the crime wave, either real or hyped by the press, winds down. James Fox, thanks very much for joining us.

FOX: My pleasure.

KURTZ: We turn now to George W. Bush. Is his media stock sinking as fast as the Nasdaq?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: And as the president and everyone in the White House is aware, economic anxiety is an infectious disease for a politician. Once it takes hold, it can be politically fatal.

DIANE SAWYER, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA" HOST: The stock markets slide, and the big question this morning, is there something the White House should be doing to stop it?

JOHN ROBERTS, CBS CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: A chance of invulnerability that this White House once enjoyed has evaporated along with the trillions of dollars lost in the stock market.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And for the pundits, there is no other topic.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, CROSSFIRE: The market has taken a tumble. Financial institutions have collapsed and so we called the White House press office today and said when's the last time the president met with Alan Greenspan? They said January.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: His father lost reelection because he didn't pay enough attention to the economy and people's economic pain. This Bush is going to make sure he doesn't get into that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Well joining us now in New York, Mark Whitaker, the editor of "Newsweek" and here in Washington, Rich Lowry, the editor of "National Review" and Karen Tumulty, national correspondent for "Time" Magazine.

If you look at all the negative media coverage, Rich Lowry, you'd think that Bush's stock has crashed along with the market. Is he hurting, or is this some kind of nefarious media creation?

RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": He's hurting a little bit. The numbers have gone down some, but I do think you get a little dose of almost glee, as you - as we saw in some of those clips, every time, you know, his poll numbers go down two points or so. And I think ...

KURTZ: Journalists rejoicing, they're throwing a party, they've got the hats out?

LOWRY: Well, I think it's partly media cycle always works like the stock market, in a boom-and-bust cycle, and Bush was up for a long time. Now the media is turning against him sort of in the natural upturn and downturn of these sort of things.

And, also, I think it would be a great story to see a conservative Republican get his comeuppance.

KURTZ: Ah.

Mark Whitaker, "Newsweek's" cover, "Like Father, Like Son," showing both the Bushes playing golf, seems to suggest with that image that W. may be another one-termer like Poppy.

MARK WHITAKER, "NEWSWEEK": Well, I mean, I think we make very clear in the cover that it's a little too early to predict that.

On the other hand, the interesting thing is that we weren't just raising that question.

I mean, they're very conscious of the parallels within the White House. They carry around a file called "the 41 file" -- 41 being Bush senior -- and they can track exactly how his high poll numbers after the Gulf War fell to the point where he lost the election in '92 to Clinton.

And I think they are very determined not to repeat that, but it may not be totally in their control. It really depends on what happens in the economy in the next couple of years.

KURTZ: You have to admit, Karen Tumulty, there's an awful lot of pat journalism going on right now. I mean, Bush was way up there in terms of media coverage post-9/11, and now it seems, if you read and watch television, that he's not doing anything right.

KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME": But also what we're seeing now is the first bear market in the era of CNBC, in the era of 24-hour cable saturation.

KURTZ: And why is that the president's fault? Is it his job to keep stock prices up?

TUMULTY: Well, the fact is that this administration came into town saying that they were basically a product of corporate America, that they were bringing a corporate culture to Washington.

KURTZ: Lot of CEOs, including Bush and Cheney.

TUMULTY: And also, as they often have made the point, the first MBA president. And so, essentially, they have set the frame, in a lot of ways, in which the story is playing out. LOWRY: Well, it's true, I mean, there's certainly a vulnerability there on the CEO front. Symbolically, Republicans are always more associated with big business.

But I also think there's a real bias among politicians in Washington and among the media to think that if something's going wrong, "Gee whiz, let's just fix it. There must be something to do to fix it." And, you know, sometimes there isn't.

And the idea that the stock market went down because they didn't like Bush's speech, you know, his corporate responsibility speech, when it had been going down for months and months and months, is kind of absurd. And...

TUMULTY: Except that they said, as the president was going out to make the speech, White House officials were saying that the reason he was making the speech was to try and bolster the market.

LOWRY: Right. That was a mistake.

TUMULTY: So you have the ticker running. It was almost the financial-market equivalent of the O.J. car chase. You know, the ticker was running as--you know, it's the most concrete measure there was.

KURTZ: I would agree that there's no magic wand. And here's a "Washington Post" headline: "White House Says State of Economy Not So Bad." That reminds me of Bush I.

Mark Whitaker, we always come back to the polls in these discussions, and Bush is still between 65 and 75 percent popularity. Those are extraordinary numbers.

So doesn't that indicate that all of these sort of "Bush in Deep Doodoo" stories are way premature?

WHITAKER: Well, you know, I do think they're premature. On the other hand, you know, his poll numbers were 20 points higher in the initial phases of the war on terror.

KURTZ: Well, you can't get over 100.

WHITAKER: You know, they have fallen a little bit.

You know, I think there's another problem that Bush has, frankly, which is that, you know, he came in saying, ``Not only elect me, elect the really experienced people around me who are going to help govern the country.''

And certainly on the foreign policy front, there are a lot of people that people feel very confident in -- Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell and so forth. His economic team is nowhere near as strong, and they've sort of been missing in action.

So I think, in addition to some of the problems that Bush has had reassuring people in his speeches, I think there's also the issue of who else in the administration can we really count on to deal with this crisis.

KURTZ: Is that a fair assessment, missing in action? Or is it the press, as Rich Lowry says, demanding that somehow the treasury secretary or the president do something because the Dow fell below 8,000 for a couple of days?

WHITAKER: Well, I don't think it's just the market, I think it's also just, you know, I think people are worried about, you know, so much money is tied up in the market right now that, although the economy remains fairly strong, housing is strong and so forth, at a certain point the problems in the market could begin to affect the rest of the economy.

And it just doesn't look that good when the treasury secretary, you know, is running around Europe and not coming home and dealing with the crisis, when we don't really know the other names of the people on the economic team.

KURTZ: Yes, but he knows Bono personally.

Karen?

TUMULTY: And the White House itself--I think that it's a media expectation, but it's also a public expectation that something will be done.

And the White House itself, when Treasury Secretary O'Neill decided not to make that foreign trip, the White House leaked the news that the White House had told him not to do it. You know, they made sure that the perception got out there that they were doing something.

KURTZ: So they're worried about the journalistic appearance and the public appearance as well.

We need to blow a whistle here. As we go to break, a look at some viewer e-mails.

Gary in Springfield, Illinois, writes, "The president has very little control over the stock markets." Told you. He says, "The problem, instead, is with reporters crying wolf, scaring investors, reporting only bad news, focusing only on the handful of genuine frauds, not the thousands of quality public companies that work hard to report correct numbers. I would much rather bet on the honesty of the business world," he says, "than the honesty of the media."

Well, e-mail us and tell us what you think at reliablecnn.com.

More of our discussion when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

Mark Whitaker, the media have moved from saying that Bush is in trouble to Republicans could get creamed in the mid-term elections. The last time I checked, it was July. Isn't it a little early for those kind of sweeping judgments?

WHITAKER: Well, you know, what we had been hearing before the last few weeks was basically, you know, Bush's numbers were very strong, but that his coattails weren't necessarily that long. And that really, in races across the country in the fall, you know, it was really going to be, you know, a question of which candidate, on a local basis, voters like the most. My guess is that probably ultimately will continue to be the case.

I do think, though, that -- I mean, if there is a kind of larger problem that Republicans have, I think it's that, historically, Americans have wanted Republicans in power when they felt that market forces needed to be unleashed, as they did in the early '80s, for example.

I think this is a period where they feel that perhaps market forces were unleashed a little bit too much and now need to be reined in a little bit. And the question is whether that's going to be a factor in terms of their evaluating Republican candidates.

LOWRY: (OFF-MIKE) can I make a specific criticism of that Newsweek cover story? Tonally, that story treated it as an absolutely brilliant idea that the sainted Clinton secretary of the treasury, Robert Rubin, suggests that everyone get together here in Washington in a budget summit and agree, in effect, to raise taxes, which is exactly what killed Bush's father.

And to me, it's a sign that the media sort of treats, you know, conservatives who think a low tax environment is good for the economy as some sort of Neanderthals. Now boy, if Bush listens to those guys, he is really in trouble. What he should do, ironically enough, is exactly what his dad did. So to me, that makes no sense.

KURTZ: Mark, you want to respond briefly?

WHITAKER: Well, you know, look, I think in every issue of "Newsweek," and including that one, we have a variety of views. And if you read Bob Samuelson, our columnist, you'll see that he doesn't necessarily agree with that.

LOWRY: Yes, that was an excellent piece.

WHITAKER: But I do think that one of the things people are looking at closely now is how flexible Bush is willing to be on some of his economic policies.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: I don't want to debate economics. I want to talk about the media (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Let me stop you there.

Karen, when we talk -- isn't the press playing the game of saying that 500 local House and Senate elections are all going to turn on some big national issue, when in fact there are a lot of local factors involved? You've covered the Hill for years. TUMULTY: Oh, absolutely. And also, it is way too early to determine even whether those House seats are even in play. The fact is that the press, as we often do, have grabbed a couple of very big poll members, the most important one being the country is going from thinking that we're on the right track to being on the wrong track, and they're extrapolating way beyond and making a lot of conclusions that they shouldn't be making, we shouldn't be making, until probably mid-August, maybe even after Labor Day.

KURTZ: So we should just ignore these stories, throw in the wastepaper basket, at least until the fall?

TUMULTY: Yes. Sort of put the poll numbers out there, but don't extrapolate them beyond.

KURTZ: There has been a lot of coverage, Rich Lowry, of the Harken story and Bush's involvement 13 years ago, SEC probe and all of that. And I'm wondering if it reminds you at all, as it does to me, of what happened during the Clinton years, where the press focused on scandals and yet the president, while not seen necessarily as trustworthy, remained popular. Now you have Bush with a press corps that seems to be more hostile, more scandal-minded, but he's still up there in the polls.

Any parallel there?

LOWRY: Yes. As a conservative who lived through the '90s, you know, I have a lot of experience with having high political hopes for a scandal that happened 10 years ago before someone was president.

(CROSSTALK)

LOWRY: Well, can I make a couple criticisms though, of the coverage of Harken and Halliburton? It's been extremely superficial. And a lot of the coverage of Bush's stock sale with Harken points out that he was late with one of his filings by, you know, 36 weeks or whatever it was.

But most of those stories do not point out that the day of his sale, he actually did file with the SEC, saying "I'm going to sell the stock." So if this was some nefarious scheme, why did he do that? And that would seem to me to be necessary context to any Harken story. It's missing from a lot of them.

Also, Halliburton, what we had is basically reporters reporting the fact that reporters are asking Cheney questions about Halliburton, which is a very easy story to write but it doesn't tell us much.

And the fact is, if you look, the substantive reporting that's been done on Halliburton by "Business Week" and by your own Byron York (ph) shows that the numbers were probably more accurate after the accounting change was made. And the only question is whether it should have been reported in '98 or '99, which is not a huge scandal.

KURTZ: There are some larger questions. But, Mark Whitaker, is Halliburton and Harken and all of the pre- presidential and vice presidential business dealings by these two men a legitimately important story right now for the media?

WHITAKER: Well, I think you have to distinguish between two parts of the story. One is, was there any wrongdoing? And the other is, what does their experience there say about how they're going to respond to current conditions?

I'm a little bit more interested in the second part, although I don't think they necessarily help themselves by, I think, like the Clinton administration, unfortunately being very, very reluctant to disclose the information they could disclose. They might be able to put more of this to rest if they would do that.

KURTZ: OK.

Ten-second answer, isn't there a symbolic level to this coverage about Cheney and Bush and their business careers, as well as the specifics of the SEC filings?

TUMULTY: Well, particularly when the president and vice president are proposing policy changes, I think it's perfectly legitimate to look at whether their own careers reflected what they're proposing.

(CROSSTALK)

LOWRY: ... look at it in more detail than it has now, I think.

KURTZ: All right. We'll give you an hour-and-a-half when you come next time. Rich Lowry, Karen Tumulty, Marc Whitaker in New York, thanks very much for joining us.

And when we come back, President Bush picks one anchor for the big 9/11 anniversary interview. We'll tell you who it is. And Al Sharpton squares off against ``Bias'' author Bernie Goldberg. This you've gotta see.

Stay tuned.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back.

President Bush is granting a sum total of one interview, just one, on September 11. Is it going to Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Larry King, Ted Koppel?

The correct answer is Scott Pelley. The "60 Minutes II" correspondent got the nod after eight meetings with White House aides and after CBS promised to make the presidential sit-down into an hour- long documentary.

Well, time now for the "Spin Cycle" and a showdown between a controversial journalist and an even more controversial politician. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): In this corner, Reverend Al, protest leader, racial provocateur, unsuccessful New York Senate candidate, now eying a White House run in 2004.

In that corner, Bernard Goldberg, veteran CBS newsman, attacked Dan rather in his best-selling book ``Bias,'' now doing his digging for HBO Sports.

Sharpton, who's been in and out of trouble since he championed the case of bogus abduction victim Tawana Brawley has now been caught on tape. The tape in question, a 1983 FBI surveillance video in which undercover agent Victor Quantana (ph) discusses bringing in some kilos of cocaine with Sharpton, wearing a cowboy hat, getting a cut.

Sharpton stalked off the set rather than watch the tape with Goldberg but later returned for the showing.

Goldberg, who's complained about the press not taking on liberals, clearly feels he's bagged his big-mouth prey.

BERNARD GOLDBERG: He was also secretly taping the Reverend Al Sharpton. Real Sports has obtained a surveillance tape made by the FBI in 1983 but never seen before by the public.

KURTZ: But the Brooklyn preacher, who's never been shy around the cameras, has mounted a fierce media counterattack, including a $1 billion against HBO.

AL SHARPTON: I don't know if this guy's got a gun. I don't know if there are people in between the front of his office and the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I don't know anything.

SHARPTON: It will take more than a distorted, 19-year-old tape to stop my exploration to run for president of the United States.

KURTZ: So how do we score the match? Sharpton looks bad on the tape. An undercover agent talks about a coke deal and the reverend doesn't throw him out of his office? This from a preacher who says he's against drugs? Imagine that in a 30-second ad against presidential candidate Sharpton.

On the other hand, no drug deal ever went down. Sharpton became an FBI informant. It's not clear why the tape is surfacing now. And Goldberg's main source, former Colombo family captain Micheal Franzis (ph), is an ex-con of less-than-pristine credibility.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: No clear knockdown, at least for now. Sharpton's reputation has been smudged, but as with many of the controversies that envelop him, those who believe the government, and now Goldberg, are out to get him will remain strongly in his corner.

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

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

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