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Did Press Help Push Torricelli Out of Senate Race?; Another Dumb Blonde Story Hits Airwaves

Aired October 5, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Snuffing out the "Torch." Did the press help push Robert Torricelli out of the New Jersey Senate race by relentlessly focusing on his ethics problems? Should a New York television station have run a 38-minute story that included a jailhouse talk with a convicted felon? Are journalists holding Republican nominee Doug Forrester to the same standard, and how will they cover the 11th-hour candidate, Frank Lautenberg?
Also, a dark day for journalism, another dumb blonde story hits the airwaves.

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

Did Bob Torricelli jump or was he shoved out of the Senate race by an unrelenting press unwilling to focus on anything but his persistent ethics problems? The New Jersey Democrat bowed out of his reelection battle this week after being severely admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee.


SEN. ROBERT TORRICELLI, (D), NEW JERSEY: This is a political campaign devoid of all issues. I cannot talk about war and peace or economic opportunity or the environment, the sanctity of our Constitution for the things that have guided my life. I can't be heard.


KURTZ: And the party's 11th-hour legal maneuver to replace him with former Senator Frank Lautenberg is drawing a rock-like coverage from the media.

Well, joining us now in New York, Michael Tomasky, political writer for "New York" Magazine; and here in the studio, Deborah Orin, Washington bureau chief for the "New York Post"; and Monica Yant Kinney, columnist for the "Philadelphia Inquirer."

Deborah Orin, Torricelli is out there blaming the press for what happened to him, says he couldn't talk about anything, not even war and peace. Does he have a point?

DEBORAH ORIN, NEW YORK POST: No, he doesn't. I mean, you know, I've heard any Democrats say that this was like Nixon. It was the "you won't have Bob Torricelli to kick around anymore" speech. He was not able, even in that final speech, to admit that his problem was he did something that looked very scummy, and that's why he's gone.

KURTZ: And that's not the media's fault.

KINNEY: Who did it?

KURTZ: All right, Michael Tomasky, look reporters love scandal stories. It makes our hearts beat faster, but when there are hundreds of stories about this investigation ...


KURTZ: ... as there were in "The New York Times" and other papers, does that amount at some point to kind of a media campaign against the politician?

TOMASKY: Yes, at some point this did become sort of a crusade. Now let me begin by disclaiming, you know, Torricelli made his own bed. There's no question about it. I don't -- I have very, very little sympathy for him myself and ...


KURTZ: ... defense lawyer here.

TOMASKY: No, by no means, and you know, he's not done a very good job, to say the least, of giving us any reason to disbelieve any of these allegations. All that is true.

Having said that, I do think there's a way in which this became a crusade that got a little bit excessive and strange, not that he didn't deserve being whacked. He certainly deserved being whacked, but I think one thing that was at play here, for example, in the media in general and particularly in the "Times" was that David Chang started out -- the investigation of David Chang started out as part of an investigation into Clinton-Gore fund-raising. He was part of the whole thing attached to Maria Hsia (ph) and Johnny Chung (ph) and all of that.

KURTZ: All right.

TOMASKY: And you'll recall, and I think, you know, viewers -- your viewers who read the newspapers attentively will recall that the "Times" in particular was very strong on that story, lots of front- page stories, lots of editorials about the need for a special prosecutor and the need to dig into this ...

KURTZ: So you're saying -- you're saying that the "Times" had an agenda as this story developed and as it focused more tightly on Torricelli?

TOMASKY: Agenda is a particularly charged word, you know, but it became something of a crusade. There were 10, 12, A-1 stories about Torricelli over the course of the last two years. That's a lot for ...


TOMASKY: ... a senator, and there were another three dozen inside stories and lots of editorials and then the 38-minute segment on WNBC that you ...



KURTZ: Let me talk to Monica Yant Kinney. At that press conference, Torricelli -- you read -- I've read every newspaper account. He was denounced, ridiculed, slammed. Usually, there's sort of a few people defending anybody in the press -- Richard Nixon.



KINNEY: ... I'd like to have it on a needlepoint up on my wall. I mean, clinical science professors should copy this thing and give it to students for, you know, this is why Americans hate politicians. I mean, the beginning of it, you know, sometimes you need to rise above yourself and then to launch into a discourse that was as self-serving and sanctimonious as anything a person's ever heard. I mean ...

KURTZ: So if the press was totally negative on the Torricelli performance, you're saying well deserved?

KINNEY: Well, I mean, all the people at home, people that were reading it the next day in their papers, shaking it. I mean, the -- I had 50 e-mails before 9:00 a.m. the next day from people saying, I thought it was just me at home screaming at the television set.

KURTZ: All right, WNBC, a story in New York, did a jailhouse interview with David Chang, who was a big contributor to Bob Torricelli's campaign. Gave him a lot of gifts, according to testimony, Italian suits, and a grandfather clock and watches and things like that -- very New Jersey. This ran for 38 minutes without commercials. Let me tell you how often that happens in local TV -- never. Let's take a look at some of that WNBC story.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After months of investigating and a jailhouse interview with David Chang, Jonathan Deinst is here with a story we think is so important for you to know, that we're devoting the rest of this broadcast to look at what's behind Chang's allegations.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In terms of cash and gifts you gave the senator, what's the total value?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe it's over $150,000.


KURTZ: Deborah Orin, WNBC let David Chang go on and on and on in this 38-minute piece, you know, five and half weeks before the election. Anything about that bother you?

ORIN: No, because the fact of the matter is, you know, one thing we mustn't forget, there were two parties allegedly to this transaction. One gave gifts; one took them. One of them is in jail. He's going to be spending a long time in jail. He's paid a very high price for his relationship with Bob Torricelli, and a station that got the scoop, they got their chance to air it -- it's a scoop. They aired it. I mean, you know, part of the problem here is Bob Torricelli keeps saying he's being sneered, victimized, but he won't answer questions himself. If there's a counter to David Chang, let him stand up and answer the questions. Let him say whether David Chang is telling the truth.

KURTZ: Michael Tomasky, they'll -- the -- you know, one of the reasons that Torricelli was not indicted is that prosecutors acknowledged that they found Chang to be an untrustworthy witness. He had credibility problems, so shouldn't that give a local television station and everybody else who relied on Chang's account, at least some pause?

TOMASKY: I think it should, and Chang's accountant, who also the prosecutors decided that they couldn't put on the stand.

Look, I don't necessarily disagree with Deborah. It's a scoop; run it. But as you say, 38 minutes of uninterrupted TV on local network news. Never, never, I -- they probably did it on September 11, I suppose. I don't -- I doubt they did it on September 12 or virtually any other time in their history. Is this really that unique? I don't know that they did that -- did they do that with Al D'Amato, who faced similar questions and an ethics probe, and is from the station's own home state? I don't recall them doing that at that point, no.

KURTZ: I know I intone a lot of the coverage of Torricelli has basically been "couldn't happen to a nicer guy." Is that in part because he is not a senator who's spent a lot of time schmoozing the press? I interviewed him about six months ago after he had denounced Rather, Jennings and Brokaw on the Senate floor over -- in a fight about political ad rates, which he'd wanted to cut for television. So, has he never had particularly good relations with the press?

KINNEY: Well, I can't say that I know him personally. I don't think they've had very good relations, certainly in the last few months or the entire campaign.

KURTZ: What about your newspaper, major south New Jersey newspaper?

KINNEY: Well, I mean, you know, I think he's as mad at us as he is at everyone in North Jersey, but the truth remains that, you know, Senator Torricelli could have made this a two-day or a two-week story by telling the truth or as close to a politician can get to the truth, to actually atone for his sins. When he says he wants forgiveness, to actually ask for it, and say what he did wrong.

KURTZ: So he was fueling the media fire by not fessing up ... KINNEY: Yes ...

KURTZ: ... in your view.

KINNEY: ... I mean, time and time again he gave, you know, variations of the same. It was an unwilling violation of the rules. I didn't intentionally mean to mislead anyone. There was an error in judgment, but I'm not going to tell you what that is. Say what he did. I mean, the American public is a forgiving people if you actually tell them what you did wrong.

KURTZ: Mistakes were made. Here's an example, Deborah Orin, of probably why Torricelli doesn't much like the press. Federal investigators believe they have enough evidence to indict Senator Robert Torricelli for allegedly taking illegal gifts and lying about it and could charge him soon, according to sources -- the "New York Post" May 27 of 2001.

ORIN: Accurate story -- it was an accurate story. I mean, I think we know now very clearly the prosecutors thought they had a case they could make ultimately the U.S. attorney -- that is the line prosecutors thought they had a case. U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White in the end decided that she didn't want to -- that there wasn't -- it wasn't a slam-dunk and she didn't want to take it to trial, but that the line prosecutors wanted to send him on trial. I don't think there's any doubt.

KURTZ: So unnamed prosecutors saying that they may indict somebody, who actually ends up not getting indicted, that's perfectly -- you have no second thoughts about that story -- I'm not saying you wrote it, but ...

ORIN: Well I didn't, but we ran it ...

KURTZ: You ...

ORIN: ... and no, I don't, because it was an accurate story. I mean, as it turned out -- you know, news changes over time. You know, it's the first draft of history, but I think we in hindsight that story looks very good indeed because we know the prosecutors.

You can see that from the prosecutor's letter even on David Chang. They found him materially credible on most things. They were able to corroborate many of the gifts that he said he gave to Torricelli. A lot of his credibility problems, oddly enough, were from having in the past lied about his relationship with Torricelli. I mean, it's a little bit the same problem, you know, in the Martha Stewart case. You have somebody who's now changed his story and that was part of their problem with the case. It's not like he had a long evil criminal history.

KURTZ: Right. Let's talk a little bit about the impact of talk radio here. There were two very prominent New York based radio hosts, Don Imus, who called Torricelli a dirt bag, a lying weasel, compared him to O.J. and the campaign for Republican Doug Forrester was running against -- was running against Torricelli, now running against Lautenberg apparently, put out a press release saying I (UNINTELLIGIBLE) endorses Forrester and then they were showing Hannity, who kept having Forrester on his show -- in fact, Forrester called into Hannity the day that Torricelli withdrew before he even held a press conference, and then that night Forrester appeared on Fox's "HANNITY & COLMES." Let's take a look at that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does this ignite a whole new political firestorm in New Jersey? We're joined by the Republican nominee for the United States Senate in the great state -- well, I might as well call you Senator Doug Forrester -- you're here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, don't even have the election.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And I think what's happening here, they have manufactured a way because they knew they lost the seat. You had already beaten him.


KURTZ: Michael Tomasky, how important are people like Hannity and Imus when it comes to a Senate campaign?

TOMASKY: Well, I -- they're pretty important. A lot of people listen to them. Journalists go on like "Imus" show and give him a lot of credibility. But I think, you know, the presence of these shows is an indication of why newspapers, I think, have to be careful in this day and age, more so than in the past, maybe 10 or 20 years ago about allegations and putting them on the front page.

I mean, the "Times" was, you know, obviously I'm not slamming the reporters. I'm sure they did their work. But the "Times" was getting this stuff from the southern district and putting it on the front page, and you know you have to be aware as a newspaper publisher and editor that, you know, once something appears on the front page of "The New York Times" 98 percent of the people who are reading it are going to believe it and accept it as fact and assume that it's already happened, even though they are just allegations, which is -- which is a sentence that, you know, usually comes down in, you know, maybe the fourth paragraph at the earliest.

So -- and then it gets picked up by people like Imus and Hannity and so on and so forth and ...

KURTZ: Yes, but let's be clear, although ...


KURTZ: ... Torricelli was not indicted, he was admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee, so it's not that there was ...

TOMASKY: Oh he was ...


KURTZ: ... no substance to the allegations.

TOMASKY: Yes. Yes. Of course there was substance to the allegations, and he could have, you know, he -- there's no doubt that he should have done a better job and been more forthright. I don't think he could have made it a two-day or a two-week story, as Monica suggested, but I think that he could have in the context of this campaign, if he had -- if he had come something approximating clean around Labor Day, he might have been able to change the subject a little bit.

KURTZ: Monica Yant Kinney, where are all the tough stories about Doug Forrester? A guy whose campaign until now has basically been based on "hi, I'm not Bob Torricelli." Where are all the probing pieces about his record and about his positions on the issues?

KINNEY: Well, I think they're coming, but I think what you've seen so far are pieces that have wrapped them on just what you said, the fact that everything the man has said has been about Bob Torricelli. In fact, in early September they put an ad out and the press release for the ad made a big claim that we only saw Torricelli's name once this time. This is the big ad that's going to introduce Doug Forrester to the whole state -- we're only using Torricelli's name once.

KURTZ: But he has a business record. I mean, presumably the -- it looks like the investigative guns of the press were only trained on the Democratic senator ...

KINNEY: But there were ...

KURTZ: ... non-Republican challenger.

KINNEY: ... there have been some stories about Bena Card (ph). I think there have been, you know ...

KURTZ: What is that?

KINNEY: ... some references that his company, the prescription company that, you know, helps facilitate lots of people making lots of money and getting their prescriptions, and there have been you know some references to his background. You know, he's a deeply religious man. There have been some references of that. But, you know, keep in mind, everything he's really told us, and I'm also a voter. I'm a person who's watching this on television at home. I haven't seen anything except for "hi, I'm not Bob Torricelli."

KURTZ: Frank Lautenberg, 78 years old, popular former senator, now if a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling stands will be on the ballot. Do you expect the press to give any tough scrutiny to Lautenberg?

ORIN: Well, actually the press' treatment of Lautenberg has been so softball to me it's unbelievable. I mean, the stories coming out on Lautenberg have been generally in the tone. I mean, Democrats have said they can't believe they're getting this kind of good press. It's basically oh, yippee, we've got a candidate who's more in tune with New Jersey. It's been totally un-skeptical, very few questions raised -- very few questions raised, for example, that here's a guy who left, said you know, it was largely -- it was too much personal inconvenience to serve in the Senate and the Republicans are making an issue of it, but Democrats aren't.

You know, why did you retire? Why are you coming back? And also I think one of the problems for us as reporters in the last week, we've been so frantic to find out what's going on. There's been very little scrutiny of the question is what happened here -- I mean, the Republicans are fighting it out in court legally, but is what's happening here acceptable? I mean, is this ethical? Is it appropriate for a candidate who's losing to be able to bail out and basically have the Democratic Senate majority leader in Washington pick his replacement?

KURTZ: We'll have no shortage of commentary on that, and of course, no love lost between Lautenberg and Torricelli, ironically enough. Michael Tomasky, we have about 30 seconds. The coverage of what was happening this week. First we heard it might be Bill Bradley, and then it was Congressman Bob Menendez, and then it was Congressman Frank Pallone. ABC News' Web site said it looked like it was Pallone, which I think it was for a while, and then he pulled out. How did ...


KURTZ: ... the press come off in the rather breathless coverage of who would actually end up being the Democratic nominee?

TOMASKY: I think that part of it was handled fine. I mean, that's one of those stories that is happening in a room that only four people really know what's happening and, you know, everybody's desperate to get something, and be the first to have it. I don't think there's any damage done to, you know, to the republic or the state of New Jersey by a few articles of speculation. At any rate, it was all settled within 24 hours.

KURTZ: Right. It's been a long time since I missed being a New Jersey reporter, but this was the week. Michael Tomasky, Deborah Orin, Monica Yant Kinney, thanks very much for joining us.


TOMASKY: Thanks.

KURTZ: When we come back, big bucks for big logos. "The Spin Cycle" on a disturbing new TV marketing trend. And an irresistible story about blondes makes its way all around the airwaves. Next up.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. It was an irresistible story, an excuse to show pictures of Anna Kournikova and Britney Spears. OK, let's show those pictures -- Anna, Britney. A colorful story about the future of blondes, and the yarn made its way from the British tabloids to CBS' "Early Show" and ABC's "Good Morning America." (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's a study from the World Health Organization -- this is for real -- that says that blondes are an endangered species.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm a dinosaur. I'm going the way the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) here. Anyway ...


KURTZ: CNN joined the blonde highlights by carrying a piece from the British network ITN.


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, you know the saying, "blondes have more fun" -- well, maybe not. According to the World Health Organization, blondes, natural ones, may be extinct within the next 200 years.


KURTZ: But the World Health Organization says there's no such study. The story is totally bogus, sparked by a German wire service and spread around the globe by insufficient checking or in some cases, no checking. And there's no way to put a better tint on the roots of that one.

Well, time now for "The Spin Cycle". You know what gets me really frosted? This new trend in television shows where big companies pay big bucks so their silly little products will be featured on the program. It started in the movies, and this season it's all the rage on the tube. CBS' "Survivor" did it. Fox's "American Idol" did it. On the ABC show, "Alias," everyone walks around with these Nokia cell phones, thanks to a deal with you know who. And it gets worse. On the ABC soap, "All My Children," Revlon actually paid to be written into the script. Not just product placement, but plot placement -- give me a break.

And it gets worse than that. They're talking about digitally super-imposing products on shows that have already aired for more lucrative reruns. Now can you imagine anything more appalling, more revolting, more ethically compromised than taking cold cash from some corporation to allow them to put their product on your set? Just selling your soul by letting them plaster your screen with their logo. Whatever happened to standard? To integrity? Is everyone selling out to the almighty buck? Next thing you know we'll see the bought and paid for stuff on newscasts like it's the real thing -- amazing.

Well, when we return, everyone's talking about access for weapons inspectors in Iraq. How about access for the press? Bernard Kalb has the full story in "The Back Page." That's next.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR (on camera): There's a word that suddenly broken out of the dictionary -- the word unfettered. And the Bush administration has been hammering that word at Saddam in connection with the weapons programs in Iraq.

ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN: Allow the inspectors back in with unfettered access anytime, anywhere to any place.

KALB (voice-over): But we don't hear much about the media not getting unfettered access to the weapons story in Iraq. The fact is they aren't, just the way they didn't during the bombing lead-up to the Gulf War a decade ago. Saddam's minders, we are told, are still on the scene, guiding, overseeing, fettering so to speak. Even so the few American reporters who have been inside Iraq this time around are giving us a feel for the realities inside the land of Saddam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Iraqis have flown three of their MiGs deep into the southern no-fly zone this week.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everyone is talking about what is going to happen next.

KALB: Among print reporters, there's columnist Nicholas Kristof of "The New York Times." He's written about the reception he got on his arrival at Baghdad Airport. They confiscated his mobile phones. He's also written that most Iraqis seem to have no love for Saddam and reported that the odds are that the day after U.S. tanks roll through Saddam's palaces, the odds that the holy Shiite city of Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, will erupt in a fury of killing, torture, rape, and chaos against Saddam's ruling party the Baath. So that even though reporters are not getting the kind of access they would like to the big stories about big secret weapons, they're still giving us the mood, the talk, the sound of Iraq.

(on camera): And if that's all the reporters can get right now, they take it, and hope for unfettered days in the future on the theory that it's better to be even a partial eyewitness than being no eyewitness at all. But that's not good enough for official Washington and rightly so, not when you're talking Saddam. Washington wants it unfettered now, unfettered all the way. The clock is ticking.


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. Mark Shields has a preview.


Another Dumb Blonde Story Hits Airwaves>

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