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Is Media Exploiting Missing Children Cases?; Gore Suffers from Bad Image with Media

Aired August 10, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Katie Couric and the kidnapped teenagers. Is television again exploiting tragedy?
Gored by the media. Is the press hostile to another presidential run by Al Gore? Are journalists pumping up Gore's spat with Joe Lieberman or covering a real split in the Democratic Party?

And is Dick Cheney just ducking the question or being harassed over Halliburton?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. We begin with the child kidnapping stories that have consumed the airwaves this summer. The media descended this week on those two California teenagers who survived a terrifying abduction, and the big winner was Katie Couric who landed an exclusive interview on the "Today" Show.


KATIE COURIC, TODAY: I know you said that he assured you he wasn't going to kill you. He was going to drop you off, but did he hurt you in any way?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Emotionally, but ...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... but we -- that's something that we won't discuss.


KURTZ: So is television going overboard on these child-snatching stories? Is this case, engaging in a stampede to get the interview, even when the subject are two young women who are raped and threatened with death by a drunken gunman?

"Los Angeles Times" columnist Steve Lopez certainly thinks so, and he joins us now from the paper's newsroom. Steve, you write "What parent would allow a child who had just been the victim of such a harrowing nightmare at the hands of so despicable a man to talk about it on television a mere 24 hours later? The beauty of the deal for television, which so defines our culture, is that there is no accountability for such exploitation." Now everyone in TV wanted to interview these teenagers. Was there something in particular that bothered you about the sit-down with Katie Couric?

STEVE LOPEZ, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, not that one in particular. I think just the whole spectacle, and it wasn't just the girls. It was that, you know, just this endless drone, this every tragedy that is immediately, instantly trivialized on television.

Less than 24 hours after this incident occurred, one of the girls appeared on local television, and I was sort of -- I had the TV on in the background, and was not even sure that it could possibly have been one of those girls, because I didn't think that anybody in their right mind would push her in front of a camera.

But it was the beginning of an entire weekend of news about this. You had the sheriff telling the nation that they had been raped, and then on Monday morning, you had, you know, Matt and Katie with the interview - Katie actually. And I just - I thought to myself, you know what, if I had a teenaged daughter, the last place that I would want her to begin to deal with this kind of an attack would be in front of a camera.

KURTZ: But of course, in the case of these teenaged daughters, they had been held at gunpoint, but nobody forced them at gunpoint to do these interviews. Why shouldn't it be their choice?

LOPEZ: Well, it certainly was their choice and that's fine. But I think that's part of the sickness of this thing, just this - you know we - the way in which we need to sort of validate our lives by being on television.

It's as if, you know, that was where everybody went for you know to share this experience and to find comfort, and that was part of what was so disturbing about this, that the parents didn't stop and say to themselves, you know what, this was a violent attack. Rape is a violent attack. The abduction, that they were bound, they were held against their will. They were witness to a hail of gunfire that killed their abductor, and I just - I was just shocked that in this culture people would within just a few hours after that kind of experience, push their daughters out in front of the cameras like this. I just think it's the last place to deal with that kind of - that kind of invasion.

KURTZ: We do seem to live in a "Jerry Springer" society these days. But now the family spokesman said that, you know, maybe their appearance or appearances could help others. Maybe this helps remove the stigma of rape. Do you think there's any merit to those claims?

LOPEZ: No, I think it's a crock. I think that - I think that they were just looking for any justification, to feel a little bit better about having made this decision that came under some criticism. And I will have to admit that I came under some criticism for the position that I took on this. A lot of the response was supportive, but I also got - I also got barbecued by quite a few readers ...

KURTZ: What did they say?


LOPEZ: ... women who - well what they said primarily was that these girls have nothing to be ashamed of and because you've been raped you should not just be shunned by society, pushed off into a corner and survive out your years in the shadows, and I responded to many of them saying no, you missed the point.

Of course, they shouldn't be ashamed by what happened, and of course, it's a good idea to talk about these things. But you talk to your family. You talk to your mother, your father, maybe a trained counselor. You talk to a smaller community of friends and supporters ...

KURTZ: Right.

LOPEZ: ... than the one that you might find on national television.

KURTZ: They certainly were ...


KURTZ: ... awfully yes, awfully quick to go before the cameras. Now the NBC booker in this case was suspended for buying one of the women an $80-pair of pants, violation of network policy. Another producer from another network is reported to have cried to one of the girls that she'd lose her job if she didn't land the interview. What does this tell us about the say that television booking works?

LOPEZ: Well this is another aspect of the story that's so disturbing. You know, to those people who criticized me for saying that these girls ought to talk about this, it's a form of empowerment and therapy. I can only say that television cheapens women at every turn, at every opportunity.

It sells lurid TV shows, titillating lowest common denominator kinds of television shows and it sometimes hard now to tell the difference between a sitcom and the evening news. And the idea that television is the place that, you know, a victim of a sexual assault might be comforted is just ludicrous.

KURTZ: You have just a few seconds. So you don't think it's a coincidence that the kidnapped cases at the cable networks including CNN and all the media have gone crazy over in these recent weeks - Elizabeth Smart, Samantha Runnion and others, all seem to involve girls, you don't think that's a coincidence?

LOPEZ: Well, I think that television just exploits in general, and I don't think that's it's particular to women or men. It just exploits and it unfortunately trivializes tragedy because it's just a blur at this point.

KURTZ: All right, Steve Lopez, thanks very much for joining us from Los Angeles. We turn now to Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, once again under the media microscope, but this time they're duking it out over why they lost in 2000 leaving journalists to sort through the mess. Lieberman talked about the flap on "Fox News Sunday".


SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: My concern about the so- called people versus the powerful theme in 2000 was that it was too subject to misunderstanding.


KURTZ: So is the press overplaying the incident? Are the media just looking for any excuse to write negative stories about Al Gore? Joining us now to talk about that and other recent fixations of the political Press Corp, Josh Marshall, who has his own Web site, "Talking Points"; Byron York, White House correspondent for "National Review"; and Dana Milbank, White House reporter for "The Washington Post".

Dana Milbank, Al Gore says he relied too much on consultants in 2000 and the press accuses him of reinventing himself. He skips the Democratic Leadership Committee meeting and he gets bad press. Friday's "New York Times", Al Gore would have to overcome deep resentment over his 2000 campaign to get the nomination in '04. Sounds like there's deep resentment among the press corp towards Mr. Gore.

DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Al Gore has a big problem. The problem is one day he's going to say something that he believes to his corps and it's going to be completely honest and we're going to say, oh, that big phony, he just thought that up last night. And Joe Lieberman has the opposite situation. He could be full of baloney, but everybody's going to take him to be sort of the honest guy, saying it as it is. So when the two of them fight together, you just know what side the press is going to be on.

KURTZ: Sounds like the press is playing into stereotypes. Josh Marshall, don't a lot of reporters believe deep down that Gore ran a horrible campaign and doesn't deserve another shot?

JOSH MARSHALL, TALKINGPOINTSMEMO.COM: I think it's even more than that. I think deep down most reporters just have contempt for Al Gore. I...


I don't even think it's dislike. It's more like a disdain and contempt.


MARSHALL: That's a good question, and I'm not sure I have the answer for it entirely, or at least not one that you'd let me run on long enough to make clear here. KURTZ: He's never been successful in the courtship of the press.

MARSHALL: No, not at all, and this was, you know, a year-and-a- half before the election, I think you could say this. This wasn't something that happened because he ran a bad campaign. If he did, it was something that predated it.

KURTZ: Let's get a reality check from Byron York. Is there anybody but Gore filling in the media?

BYRON YORK, THE "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well a couple of things. One, the media coverage is just reflecting a real antipathy toward Gore on the part of a lot of Democrats. A lot of Democrats feel he, you know, messed up, being given a big lead by Clinton.

KURTZ: So we go out and interview people who say ...

YORK: Well, yes, and ...

KURTZ: He blew it.

YORK: ... the other thing is, is I mean they could be harder on him than they are. I mean if you look at his ...

KURTZ: You think he's getting soft treatment?

YORK: Well, in his editorial - let me tell you, in his editorial in "The New York Times", he took lots of really whiny shots at George W. Bush, talked about the Harken and Halliburton mess, referred to bad apples in the White House, and the press decided to concentrate on this Al versus Joe thing. They used to be comrades in arms; now they're against each other. And they actually -- I think they could go harder on him for his incredible whining.

MILBANK: You know what it is, Howie, I -- and I think that Gore is sanctimonious and that's sort of the worst thing you can be in the eyes of the press. And he has been disliked all along and it was because he gives a sense that he's better than us - he's better than everybody, for that matter, but the sense that he's better than us as reporters.

Whereas President Bush probably is sure that he's better than us -- he's probably right, but he does not convey that sense. He does not seem to be dripping with contempt when he looks at us, and I think that has something to do with the coverage.

KURTZ: So this seems to suggest, Josh Marshall, that if a candidate or office holder or president, you know, develops a good rapport with the journalist types who cover him, then that's going to be reflected in the coverage, and if a candidate seems aloof, as Gore often did in 2000, then he's going to pay for it in the coverage.

MARSHALL: Yes, I think there's no question about that, and I certainly wouldn't agree with all of what Dana just said, but that's certainly the dominant press impression and to a certain extent it doesn't even matter if it's correct or incorrect. It's just a reality and Gore was up against that in 2000, and he'll be up against it in 2004, if he runs again.

YORK: But incidentally, these stories are not really concentrating on the fact that Gore is way, way ahead in the polls of any other Democratic challenger. I mean ...


YORK: ... and you have to remember, he did win the popular vote in the year 2000 and ...


YORK: ... there's - that's a solid claim ...


YORK: ... to getting to run again.


YORK: And the - and the subtext of all of this coverage is that he's a terrible loser, and that, you know, in some sense that's completely counter to reality.

KURTZ: Now turning to Joe Lieberman, he has always in my view gotten great press; when he became the first Jewish candidate to run for vice president, when he was the first Democratic senator to denounce Bill Clinton over his love life. Until now, suddenly he criticizes the theme that he ran on with Gore, people versus the powerful, and your old magazine, "The Republic" says Lieberman's total lack of charisma and unrepentant shilling of behalf of corporate interest. So why is Lieberman getting slapped around?

MILBANK: I think that's a bit of an anomaly, and I think - I think Lieberman, as I was saying, has this notion of being a truth teller. He's going to speak truth to power. He's going to say it as it is, even if it's not in his interest. It's sort of the McCain phenomenon. Now he can be blatantly pandering, but he'll still have that reputation and that's still going to come through. So reporters like Lieberman for that reason and they probably always will.

YORK: Don't you think the press, though, is just waiting for him to break his promise that he won't run ...


YORK: And they're going to jump all over ...


MARSHALL: And this is why I think he actually can't, and I think in the final analysis that's why he actually won't even run because Joe Lieberman's whole, you know, kind of claim to fame is integrity, and he's a truth teller and stuff like that. And if someone like that is going to run for president, you can't kick off your campaign by breaking your word. KURTZ: So you're saying the press in a way holds Lieberman to a different standard because lots of politicians have gone back on the no-running pledge, including Bill Clinton who told the voters of Arkansas he wouldn't run ...

MARSHALL: I think it's a different standard. It's the standard he has set for himself. I mean this is he - I mean this isn't - they're not taking this out of thin air. I mean, again, Lieberman has played up the integrity and truth telling card his entire career in Washington. So it's, you know, it's just inevitable that he'll seem hypocritical if he breaks his word.

YORK: And this would involve a personal betrayal of his ...

MARSHALL: Yes, exactly.

YORK: ... former running mate, as well as just betraying the entire ...

KURTZ: Well it is a great story because it's - let's face it, the press loves this sort of Al and Joe's messy divorce. But is there also a serious debate here, or is the press covering a serious debate about populism and taking on corporate interest or is it really just about a slogan and two guys slapping each other around?

MILBANK: Well, at the moment we're all populous, because business is in trouble and this will pass and then suddenly everybody's going to be back to taking as much corporate money as they can. That's just a cycle, but I think you have something else going on here and that the press is in a anything but an Al Gore-George Bush rematch. You know I've requested a job in the food section, if that occurs, and I think ...

KURTZ: Because of a fear of terminal boredom?

MILBANK: Oh, absolutely.

KURTZ: And that influences the coverage ...

MILBANK: We've seen that movie already.

KURTZ: ... of the presidential race for the United States White House?

MILBANK: I'm afraid so. You know we've got - I think the press as a group has to pull for Howard Dean from Vermont if we want some excitement.

KURTZ: Is there a sense that reporters would be a lot happier if it's John Edwards or John Kerry, just because of the fresh face aspect, we can all go do profiles, as opposed to, you know, I mean how many times can you profile Al Gore? Do you have a sense that that's a factor here?

MARSHALL: It's a factor, but I think much more of it is deep seeded dislike for Al Gore in the Press Corp. Again, whether you think it's based on reality, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or not, it's just a fact, but it's there. And I think ...


MARSHALL: ... that's the - that's the - that's the ...

KURTZ: What ...

MARSHALL: ... main issue here.

KURTZ: ... terribly flattering to a journalist that their coverage could be influenced (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Byron York makes the point that you know it's easy to call up half a dozen Democrats and get them to say, you know, that Gore ran a terrible campaign and that he would not be the best nominee ...

MARSHALL: It's extremely easy to do that in Washington. It's not clear to me that out in the rest of the country, I think that among Democrats whether it's - whether it's an allegiance that can easily be tossed aside by another candidate is another question. But right now I think a lot of people - a lot of you know Democrats in the country still think a lot of Al Gore or would vote for him again ...

KURTZ: This "New York Times" story was written from Las Vegas at a Democratic Party Convention.

YORK: They had people from Iowa, various other states saying we really don't want to see him. But as far as a journalist is concerned, I think if he runs, the only real story you can write is about the psychodrama of Al Gore. You know battling his demons, changing his image, dealing with his defeat/victory ...

KURTZ: What about ...


MARSHALL: That's the only - that's, I fear, the only story that will be written ...

YORK: Yes ...

MARSHALL: ... but I think that just - that shows you that the press is kind of focused in on one story. That is the Al Gore story for most of the press.

KURTZ: Well ...

MARSHALL: But I don't think that's inevitable. I think that's something the press, kind of a groove the press has gotten into.

KURTZ: I was about to say well, what about substance, but I caught myself. Truly, we're still in the psychodrama era and it's August, so perhaps we'll cut the press a little bit of slack.

When we come back, Dick Cheney finally speaks to the press, but doesn't have much to say about the subject that reporters keep pursuing. We'll talk about that. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


RICAHRD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am of necessity restrained in terms of what I can say about that matter because there are editorial writers all over America poised to put pen to paper and condemn me for exercising undue improper influence if I say too much about it, since this is a matter pending before an independent regulatory agency, the SEC.


KURTZ: Dick Cheney speaking in San Francisco this week and Byron York, are these perfectly legitimate press questions about his tenure as CEO at Halliburton, and who ever heard of a vice president referring the press to a corporate Web site?

YORK: Well, a couple of things. They're perfectly legitimate and Cheney could talk about them if he wanted to. On the other hand, the thing that drove me crazy about the coverage, that was from Cheney's speech in California on Wednesday. He sent everyone to the Web site, and I got - and I went to the Web site, and I listened to this conference call. It was between top Halliburton executives and their shareholders and analysts, and they explained in great detail a lot of the story that was going on with Halliburton's accounting measures and most of it seemed to support Cheney's story, and with the exception of CNN's Brooks Jackson, I saw no reporter who has reported on what was actually in that conference call. And it seems to me that if you really wanted to find out what went on at Halliburton, that'd be a good place to go.

KURTZ: Is the media focus much more that Cheney sort of had to speak because they were running a tally, 79 days he hadn't answered questions from the press?

MARSHALL: I think there's just something when the vice president of the United States gets asked about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) criminal investigation and it's a regulatory agency, but there's an investigation of the vice president, he's asked a question, and he says go look at this Web site. Even if the information is all there, that doesn't look good.

KURTZ: It's basically no comment.

MARSHALL: Yes, it's basically no comment and I don't think you want the vice president saying that.

KURTZ: Do White House officials believe that the press is just obsessed with this Halliburton story when it comes to Dick Cheney?

MILBANK: Well we're obsessed with this as we are obsessed with each of the other stories and it's - he's absolutely true. He gets it either way. If he doesn't speak, we hit him for stonewalling, and if he does speak, we say well, he's trying to influence the SEC. On the other hand, there's a lot of other questions about Halliburton and Dick Cheney that have nothing to do with the SEC investigation. So what he's doing here is a bit of a dodge, and that's only encouraging the press to go after him again.

KURTZ: You know it hasn't been that long since he was the chief executive of this company. Aren't the questions at least as valid as those about Whitewater that surrounded Bill Clinton?

YORK: A couple of things. This didn't really come up in the campaign all that much and when Whitewater came up, it came up briefly in March of '92 when "The New York Times" wrote its story and there really wasn't an investigation until in January of '94, I think when they called for a special prosecutor. This, there is one going on. The - none of the other issues like did Halliburton make a wise move when it merged with Dresser Industries? None of those things are actually the subject of actual investigations. There's no allegations of any wrongdoing there. So, what's the point of that?

MARSHALL: Well there are other questions that are relevant about the vice president of the United States besides did he break the law. I mean there are ones that have political import. They may not have any import on any criminality or fraud, but they're serious. I mean ...

YORK: But ...

MARSHALL: his ...


MARSHALL: ... but Dick Cheney's name, his - what he - a lot of what he brought to the table was he was this very seasoned CEO and he was going to bring some of the savvy into government.

KURTZ: Got ...

MARSHALL: If it turns out he got snookered, that's ...

KURTZ: Got to jump in. You talked about political import. Here's the front page of "The Washington Post". "Cheney willing to run for second term in 2004" by Dana Milbank. Why is this front-page news? Hadn't he said many times that he'd be willing to run if the president wanted him.

MILBANK: It's a step beyond what he'd said before.

KURTZ: It's a nuance?

MILBANK: Nuance, nuance, everything - you know we all gossip about who will be the next vice president ...


KURTZ: ... you're right.

MILBANK: Right, we all do that, and here he is saying pretty plainly not just if my health permits, he's saying I want to do it unless my wife and the doctor tell me not to. So that seems to take it a step further than it had before.

KURTZ: Just briefly ...


KURTZ: ... briefly there's been kind of a mini (ph) flap over President Bush taking August off at his Crawford ranch. I don't really see what the issue is, but let's take a look at some - one of the awkward moments that happened when he was up at Kennebunkport.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers.


BUSH: Now watch this drive.


KURTZ: Playing golf again. Does the White House seem to maintain this working vacation fiction? Why can't the guy just take a few weeks off?

YORK: Well, he can take a vacation, he never - should never, ever do that again. But you know after the slap last year in August, he was - he was visible more in August of 2001 than he was in many months previous to that. So he's going to be all over the place.

KURTZ: I think we'll all agree with your final words. He should never ever do that again in terms of hitting the golf ball. Byron York, Dana Milbank, Josh Marshall, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, is the honeymoon over between the public and the press? Bernard Kalb's "Back Page" next.


KURTZ: Welcome back. "The Los Angeles Times" has fired reporter Brian Robin (ph) for using company e-mail to write California Congressman Bill Thomas. Robin (ph) called him stupid and a morally bankrupt Republican. Liberal bias, anyone?

While checking our viewer e-mail last week we asked whether the media were hurting the country by publishing the Pentagon's plans to invade Iraq. One viewer who identified himself as an Army staff sergeant wrote, "It is quite obvious that most of the media has never served in the military. The fact that the media has decided to run even the possibility of another war with Iraq is incredulous. The media's job is to report on what is going on, not what may happen. Leave that to the psychics."

Well time now for "The Back Page". Here's Bernard Kalb.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): Somewhere at this very moment somewhere in the U.S. someone is being asked what do you think of this or that or whatever? It's all part of the polling of America endlessly so to find out what you think of well, for example, what you think of the media and here is what you think, or at least what the 1,365 adults polled by the Pew Research Center think.

(voice-over): The results summed up this way. The honeymoon is over. America is once again annoyed with its media. And that word annoyed hardly begins to tell the full story of the public's brief romance with the media in the wake of this. And romance, it might be noted, is a vast over statement. But why paraphrase the actual words of the report, so here goes.

"Public criticism of the news media, which abated in response to coverage of the 9-11 attacks is once again as strong as ever. The favorable glow from the media's post 9-11 performance has completely disappeared." In other words, the media are back to ground zero in the public's affection. The statistics of the story reveal the depth of its new disillusion.

Again quoting, "Just 49 percent think news organizations are highly professional down from 73 percent in November." And that's not the end of the critique. Statistics for the media's patriotism and compassion and morality have also taken a hit since November. But it is not all bleaskville (ph) for the media. Seven out of 10 Americans give the press top grades for covering the war on terror, both in Afghanistan and here in the U.S.

What's more, the public has been enjoying what you might call a luxury of contradiction with a poll revealing that while Americans have once again embraced their less than rhapsodic view of the media, they also value the media's watchdog role. In fact, says the poll, "there has been a modest uptick in the number who believe press scrutiny of political leaders keeps them from doing things they should not -- from 54 percent to 59 percent."

(on camera): Up from 54 to 59, who said the honeymoon is over?


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb. Well that's it for this edition 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.

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


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