Skip to main content /TRANSCRIPTS


Has 9-11 Changed News Business?

Aired September 7, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The media one year later. Has 9/11 changed the business forever, or has journalism returned to soft features, sex and sensational? Are the media merchandising the anniversary of a tragedy, and why is the press as unpopular as ever?
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Right on schedule, the haunting images have returned. Chilling reminders of 9/11 saturating the airwaves in the days before the first anniversary of the attacks. There has, of course, been plenty of coverage this past year of serious international stories from Afghanistan and Iraq to airline safety and homeland security here in America.

But football on the cable channels and even the networks these days and just as often its missing kids and murder trials. Pick up the "Newsweeklies" and you can learn how to fix your 401(k), lose a few pounds or save yourself with the tough love of Dr. Phil.

So, have the media really changed during the past year since that awful day in September or is it back to business as usual? Well, joining us now in New York, Aaron Brown, the anchor and managing editor of CNN's "NEWSNIGHT," and here in Washington John Donvan, correspondent for ABC News "Nightline"; Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic"; and Evan Thomas, assistant managing editor for "Newsweek."

John Donvan, after 9/11, we heard all these sweeping predictions, how the news business was going to get more serious, more global and no more fluffy and frivolous, sensational info ...

JOHN DONVAN, ABC NEWS "NIGHTLINE": (UNINTELLIGIBLE) magazine is doing fad (ph) on the cover again.

KURTZ: What happened?

DONVAN: Well, I mean, partly there was this huge desire we were all talking about it, when will we get back to normal, and I think that the terrorists will have won if we -- if we change our lives radically. And so, I think -- I think some of it might simply be that there was a hunger in the public, not to hear about 9/11 all of the time, and we followed that and we've responded to it to some degree. It was a tough decision around December, January -- when do we stop only covering 9/11. So the point had to come where we change the subject, and that's part of it. KURTZ: Aaron Brown, when you put together your newscast each day, do you ever worry maybe too much terrorism lineup, too much Afghanistan, not enough child snatchings or sensational trials or softer stuff?

AARON BROWN, CNN "NEWSNIGHT": Well, I was with you on the first part of the question. I'm not so sure I was on the second. I thought Thursday night, for example, we did too much 9/11 stuff. We had about 35, 38 minutes of the program of the hour was 9/11-related. Individually, the pieces actually were quite terrific, but I thought the total meal that we served up was a bit much that day. Now the other part of your question, no, I never think about are we doing enough missing kids or child snatching. I ...

KURTZ: Even if other networks are hitting those notes very hard?

BROWN: Oh, you know, you know me. That's part of the reason not to do them, from where I sit. Look, I think the program, and I think the business, but let me speak for the program because I have some control over it, needs to be balanced. It needs, I said once to you, it needs to be a plate, a full meal. It can't just be eat your vegetables. It can't just be difficult to swallow nor can it just be dessert, and I think we're trying now in perhaps not this week so much, but in this period, to find the right balanced meal, to figure out what exactly belongs on the plate.

KURTZ: OK, good nutrition lesson. Evan Thomas, when I look at "Newsweek" covers lately and I see Dr. Phil or eBay or "Why We Can't Sleep," as well as "Times" covers on Bruce Springsteen and Tom Cruise and the like, I feel like we've kind of been magically transported back to the pre-9/11 era.

EVAN THOMAS, NEWSWEEK: Well, there's a desire for normalcy, and we're a mass magazine, and we're going to give people what they want. But, we're getting to go to war with Iraq, so stay tuned. I mean, we may be doing fat people in the summer, but we're going to be doing Saddam and bugs pretty soon, and for I think a long period of time. This is -- we're about to get very serious.

KURTZ: Evan uses the phrase "give people what they want." Do people -- do readers want to read more about Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck and less about some of the more serious subjects that we all thought would stay pretty high on the radar screen?

MICHELLE COTTLE, THE NEW REPUBLIC: Well, what it's done more than anything else is it's made us bipolar. I mean, people do to some extent want to know if we're going to war and things like that. But you know, they've done a lot of polls in those last few months about how people say that in their hearts they know they should be paying attention to international affairs more, but they just aren't. That's not what they want to wallow in every day. I mean, there's only so much of that you can take without a little lightness about Jennifer Lopez or, you know, Puff Daddy, whatever.

KURTZ: We've had the nutrition analysis, now the psychological analysis, and I wonder, John Donvan, if television in particular is picking up. It used to be the commission of wisdom. People -- most people didn't care about international affairs unless American lives were at stake. Are we now back in that mindset?

DONVAN: No, we're still doing much more international news than we were doing this time last year, although, all of that international news is really still about us anyway. We're not doing stories about Greek-Turkish relations. It's all about what's going to happen as far as the war on terrorism goes and where the threats are coming from, and is Afghanistan going to collapse back and will that be -- will that besmirch the administration in any way.

We're doing much more than we did before, and I think because -- you know, the audience understands what the connection is and what the purpose is. I do not think we're back to pre-9/11 (UNINTELLIGIBLE) foreign news. We're nowhere near doing at the high level we were through the fall last year.

KURTZ: Do journalists, Aaron Brown, have some -- people like you and me, we have some responsibility to sort of help the country back to normal or at least a semblance of a feeling of normalcy by giving up the smorgasbord to continue your earlier analogy and not just kind of ...

BROWN: I am going to live to regret that.

KURTZ: ... more serious news.

BROWN: I think -- do we have a responsibility to help the country get back to normal. No, actually I don't think we do. I think we have a responsibility to listen carefully to our readers and our viewers, try and get a sense of where they are. I'm not one of those people that believes that we ought not pay attention to the things they're interested in. I think we should, but I don't know that my responsibility is to help move the country back to some normal place because I don't know what normal is anymore.

Whatever normal was certainly isn't going to be -- it's changed. It's all changed and to some extent, we have all -- we were reporters, have all changed with it. So I think we're all struggling to find normal and maybe not very elegantly.

KURTZ: That's an interesting point about the effect personally, particularly for journalists in New York and Washington who have lived through the attacks and how that maybe changes the way we view ourselves. You, Evan Thomas, have written over the years a lot of stories about spying and terrorism. I wonder if you think that right now we're not at war in Afghanistan. We're not yet at war in Iraq, where the readers care as much as they might have six or eight months ago.

THOMAS: They care. Well, six or eight months ago, no, they don't care as much, but they care more than they did before 9/11; that's for sure. And I -- regardless of whether they do, I do. I mean, I'm animated by it, and I think other journalists are, particularly if you live in Washington and New York. I mean we're human beings and we feel the threat. It's a hugely tremendous story that's going to shape our lives and our children's lives and it's gripping all the time, not just -- it hasn't frozen, but it is a constantly interesting story. I mean the spy versus spy, the war against terrorism is a huge story and will be forever.

KURTZ: And what if you don't live in Washington-New York corridor? What if you live in California or Kansas or Florida? Does it seem more remote to people who maybe turn on their TV and wonder why there's so much of this coverage?

COTTLE: Well, absolutely. I mean, I was in California last weekend, and it's just not quite -- it doesn't resonate quite as much. I mean, the terrorist attack hit hardest in the two media centers of the country, so obviously it's a bigger issue in our lives. But then again, we do have a responsibility to follow the hard news and there are a lot of hard news threads that came out of this like the war, like safety measures at home that people need to know that they can find out the information on it, and it's our responsibility to give that to them.

KURTZ: Do you ever personally OD on the coverage?

COTTLE: All the time. I mean, there was a time when every time you picked up the newspaper, there was another story about how difficult it is to travel by air now, and it's just lots of stories that don't necessarily fall into the realm of absolutely need to know.

KURTZ: It wasn't that easy before. It seems to me the problem with the terrorism story, particularly for television, John Donvan, is that there were few pictures, there's no clear winners and losers. There's not even a clear beginning, middle and end. It's a story that just kind of goes on, unlike a shooting war. Is that a challenge for journalism?

DONVAN: Not especially, because I think we explain that repeatedly, that this is, you know, it's -- you can't define this war as you could any other, and we actually look into what does that mean -- what does that mean in terms of what the president can do and not do and what Congress do and not do. What about those guys in Guantanamo? You know, normally prisoners of war go home at the end of the war. Well, if this is a war without an ending, what happens to those guys after an extended period of time? So we're actually doing stories about that. So that vagueness and ambiguity gives us actually more to talk about I think.

KURTZ: And how is it, Aaron Brown, that the public approval of journalists surge remarkably in the weeks after 9/11. People thought that we did a pretty serious and responsible job and now, you know journalists, let's face it, are back to being about as popular as CEOs.

BROWN: Oh, is it that bad already? Goodness. I'm not sure I know exactly, but I'd suspect a little of it has to do with we're starting to report more aggressively. I think we had been reporting some of this, but we're starting to report more aggressively some of the more uncomfortable aspects of what's going on in the last year, this discussion that's critical in my view about the balance between individual liberty and national and personal security is an uncomfortable subject.

I know from my e-mails that I get it is very uncomfortable for viewers. They don't necessarily want us to talk about it, and I think we have to do it anyway, and I think those subjects play into our coming back to a more normal place in audience's minds. But we were at an unrealistic place after September 11. Approval ratings, as the president knows, come down. They go up in those moments. They go up for us, and they go up for him, and then they come down and settle in a more normal spot, and I think we're finding that.

DONVAN: I also think that last September 11 for that day and the days that followed there was no disparity between what the audience thought we were here to do and what we ourselves were here ...

KURTZ: Everybody was on the same ...

DONVAN: Right. There are a lot of times prior to September 11, the news business was going through this period of where are we supposed to be forward. What does the audience want? There's not a crisis. What should we be putting on the ...

KURTZ: Right.

DONVAN: ... front page. September 11, it was clear what our function was, and it's exactly what the public wanted our function to be, and for those several days people did want -- they did want to hear Brokaw, Jennings and Rather just talk to them and tell them and give them facts and we were all struggling to keep up with the facts, and it's -- it was that pure experience that people want it to be ...

KURTZ: But now the media are challenging the Bush administration on the war on terrorism, on Iraq, and all kinds of things. And although the White House has very successfully turned the topic of conversation to Saddam Hussein, we're all talking about that all the time now. Maybe that's one of the reasons why there's -- what I'm hearing is there's a little bit of a backlash now that we're in a traditional confrontation relationship.

THOMAS: Yes I think that you could feel the press wanting to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) default switch ...


THOMAS: ... default setting ...


KURTZ: Did the president screw up today?

THOMAS: Right. Has the president screwed up today and there was a natural reversion, if you will, to that. But I don't think it was total because for the raw reason that journalists feel threaten just like other human beings. I mean this is -- their lives are at stake. If you work in the White House, you're a target now. So there's more of a personal stake, and with that, I think there's a sense of how tremendous the stakes are, not just personally, but for the whole country. If we go to war in Iraq, which is a -- maybe not a likelihood, but it's ...

KURTZ: Certainly a strong possibility.

THOMAS: It's getting there. That is a really big deal. I mean, for -- not just because American troops go out and could get killed. It could totally change the Middle East. It could rebound back in the United States with further acts of terrorism. I mean that's an immense event. That's no murder trial. That is something that is going to really affect all of our lives.

KURTZ: No dispute on the set here about it being a really big deal. But you know after September 11, Michelle Cottle, why do journalists look back at the Gary Condit story? And they kind of ridiculed him. What were we thinking? Why did we go so crazy? Now we're dealing with serious matters. Haven't child abductions, which have been all over cable for weeks and weeks and weeks -- and some of them are just custody battles as it turns out -- become sort of the new Condit style melodrama?

COTTLE: Of course, it's the new shark attacks. We created this big summer news story, which had a kind of familiarity, even though it was something scary, people's child getting snatched. It's not quite the same thing as having terrorists, you know, lurking next door.

KURTZ: Nor is it statistically on the upsurge.

COTTLE: Exactly. There is no child abduction scandal, but how many times did we see poor parents dragged in front of the cameras to weep about their children or, you know, police officers involved. We ran this into the ground as badly as we did Condit, and it was just amazing how quickly we could get back to that and that's the way it works and people get upset about that, and that's why on some level our ratings go back down because we have to get back to a certain level of normalcy and it's not what people really like to see from us on some level.

KURTZ: That's a good place to stop, and when we come back, the media 9/11 anniversary coverage has already begun, as you may have noticed. How much is too much? We'll talk about that next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Aaron Brown, some critics are already saying that the media saturation of this 9/11 anniversary approaching in the next few days is either retched excess or sheer exploitation -- your thoughts.

BROWN: Well I'm ...


BROWN: Yes, I'm in the 24-hour news business. I assume to some degree will be excessive. It seems to be in our blood a bit. We thought a lot about how we're going to do this. I guarantee you I've spent and I'm spending the weekend trying to figure out exactly the right tone of the day. We're trying to balance the events that are going on in the country with some journalism, with some reporting we've been doing. We're trying to look forward. Are people with us? Do they want to watch it?

Howie, honestly I don't know. I get very mixed feelings out there these days. People on the one hand say they've had enough. On the other hand, one year is a huge marker. It is a huge -- in human psychology, it is a hugely important marker. If we were two years out or three years out and we were planning to do 18 hours of coverage, I'd have some concern. But we are one year away from the worst day in this country in my lifetime, and I honestly in my heart do not believe we are going overboard.

KURTZ: Now I'm sure some of the reporting will be very good and very sensitive John Donvan. But on some level, aren't many news organizations kind of turning tragedy into a piece of programming?

DONVAN: Well, we do that -- I mean, that accusation can be labeled to any story we do, whatever the tragedy is, it's bigger or small, even a car crash or ...

KURTZ: Sure.

DONVAN: ... Columbine, whatever. So I think that charge is there. I think people have to make a sort of personal decision about whether they want to sit in on September 11 the way they did last year, and I think the function is entirely different. I personally -- I'm not just a reporter of news, I'm also a consumer of news. I personally know that when the newspaper shows up tomorrow with the special sections, I probably won't read it. I don't really -- I know what happened on September 11. I know what it meant, and I know what's happened in its aftermath, but a personal decision for me is to -- is to commemorate that quietly and somberly. I don't really personally feel the need to read a lot about it, but I think others will ...

KURTZ: Well, along those lines, Michelle Cottle, I have the sense that there are millions of people out there who don't want to see those towers collapse again and again, as undoubtedly they will in the television images.

COTTLE: Absolutely, and I've talked to actually a lot of religious leaders for a story I was doing about this, and they're kind of upset that their congregation is going to be, you know, seeing these pictures and scared again and coming with all these concerns and questions and they blame the media for this on some level.

BROWN: Howie ...


BROWN: I'm sorry, Michelle, I don't mean to interrupt, but I mean, I don't want to speak for other news organizations. I don't know what ABC News is doing in this regard or CBS or anybody else. But I guarantee you that people who are watching us are not going to see minute after minute of planes hitting towers and towers collapsing. I know how many times we're going to put those towers on the air on Wednesday, and I know how we're going to do it and how we're going to frame it, and we are not using that stuff as wallpaper because we don't need to.

COTTLE: But there are already certainly questionable images that are out there like "USA Today" ran on its front page that picture of that man falling off or he had jumped out of the towers and he's upside down. It's one of the most horrible images from this, and you know, technically there was no reason that needed to run, but it was a news decision, and they did it as part of their commemoration packages. I think that's a lot of what's going to go on that people are going to be real concerned about.

KURTZ: There are a lot of disturbing images. Is this on some level a branding event for news organizations? Everybody's got to have their special sections, their special editions in the "Newsweeklies," their special programming, otherwise they're not on the case.

THOMAS: Yes, you know it does make us try harder. I was (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in "Newsweek." We've already done our issues, and I expected to spend about seven seconds on both of them, and I was still there an hour later because both organizations had really made an effort to be different and be interesting and be fresh because it is a big event. Anything that makes us try harder to reach for excellence is probably a good thing. In this case, sort of to my surprise, I think we both got there.

KURTZ: I think it's safe to say everyone will have to make their own choice. Evan Thomas, Michelle Cottle, John Donvan, Aaron Brown in New York, thanks very much for joining us.

Well we want to hear what you think. Are the media showing too many images on the 9/11 attacks? E-mail us at

Just ahead the latest salvo in the battle over "The New York Times" Iraq coverage. Bernard Kalb's "Back Page" up next.


KURTZ: Welcome back, and time now for "The Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): You know the old saying to err is human. Well, journalism is no exception. It too errs every now and then, and even the mighty "New York Times" fessed up the other day that it had just committed a couple of errors of its own.

(voice-over): Page two is where the "Times" sets out its corrections, usually small stuff, but once in a rare while there's an editor's note, and you know it's serious. And the note this past week elliptically deals with the accusation that the "Times" has deliberately mobilized its front page to oppose any U.S. attack on Iraq. In other words, that the "Times" is slanting its coverage. The accusation came from the conservative end of the spectrum, and one of the main charges was this, that the "Times" had lumped the former secretary of state with the Republican critics of the administration's hard line policy toward Iraq. The lumping, based on how the "Times" chose to read a Kissinger op-ed piece that raises questions about an attack, that ends with "there is an imperative for preemptive action against Iraq."

Finally, the editor's note with a couple of journalistic mea culpas that the "Times" "should have made a clearer distinction" between Kissinger's views and those of other Republicans with more categorical objections to a military attack. And that the "Times" listed Kissinger "incorrectly among Republicans who were warning outright against a war."

(on camera): Well, the critics may now feel that they've caught the "Times" red handed, manipulating the news, but then this question. Why would the "Times" correct itself if its primary objective was anti-attack? The fact is the debate over war with Iraq is just beginning. Stay tuned.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb. Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.




Back to the top