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Should 'Daily Mirror' Have Paid Burrell $500,000?; Are Media Stereotyping Pelosi as Left-Wing Extremist?

Aired November 16, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Royal bidding war. The British press goes wild over Diana's butler and his revelations about Buckingham Palace. But should "The Daily Mirror" have paid $500,000 for Paul Burrell's story and should ABC, which led to an exclusive interview, have forked over nearly $200,000 for his video diary?
And Nancy Pelosi becomes the first woman to lead her party on the Hill. Are the media stereotyping her as a left-wing loony? And are journalists still underestimating the big winner of the midterm elections, George W. Bush?

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

It's been a press bonanza, the saga of Princess Diana' s butler and his revelations about the royal family. Paul Burrell was hauled into court for allegedly stealing personal items from Diana, but the charges were thrown out after the Queen herself intervened, and then, it really got interesting.

Burrell sold his stories of palace entry to London's "Daily Mirror". Rape allegations and other lurid suggestions went flying from all sides. A field day for Fleet Street and the London tabloids just couldn't get enough. The story crossed the Atlantic this week when Burrell arrived in New York to prepare for his American media debut.

He sold his video diary for big bucks to ABC, the same network that just happened to land an exclusive interview with the butler. Burrell will appear this coming week on "20/20" with excerpts played on "Good Morning America."

Well, joining us now to talk about the latest royal extravaganza in New York, Ed Kosner, the editor of the "New York Daily News" and in London, Ross Benson, correspondent for "The Daily Mail."

Ed Kosner, is there more hanky panky at Buckingham Palace, there's a new wrinkle, involving the previously obscure figure of the butler. Why is this such a big story on this side of the Atlantic?

ED KOSNER, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: I think it's all about Diana. Fundamentally, this is a Diana story and Burrell is really a vehicle through which there are more disclosures or alleged disclosures about all the high jinx that went on during Diana's tragic reign, I guess you'd call it. KURTZ: Years after her death, she still a object of fascination for the media. Now Ross Benson, your newspaper, "The Mail," is reported to have bid $1 million for Paul Burrell's story. He ended up selling it to "The Daily Mirror" for about $500,000. What happened?

ROSS BENSON, THE DAILY MAIL: Well, first of all, I'd dispute the million bucks that we were alleged to have bid for him. What happened was...

KURTZ: But you did bid...

BENSON: ... that he...

KURTZ: ... some money.

BENSON: ... for whatever -- most newspapers were in the marketplace for him. That's the way that Fleet Street works these days on a story like this. He made, I think probably about the worst decision of his life. He could have taken a million bucks, instead of which he took half a million bucks. All the credibility that he had before this trial has completely vanished.

He could have made a very, very nice income for himself doing the lecture tours, you know appearing on TV, not saying too much, and built up, say, a couple of million bucks over the next three or four years, instead of which the rock has blown his credibility. The thing is, of course, if you're a rock and you're living in a glass house, the last thing you want to do is start throwing rocks...

KURTZ: But how can you cast dispersions on his credibility when your newspaper, among others, was engaging in checkbook journalism to try to get the story?

BENSON: We probably cast a lot of expressions on Paul Burrell, not least of all because the trust that he had given or alleged that he'd given to Princess Diana. He blew that by deciding to take the 30 pieces of silver. Now, you have a very good point. We were also in the marketplace for him, but we wouldn't have handled the story in quite the same way that "The Daily Mirror" did. I think that what they've done is what every credibility Diana has, has been held up to be, you know, some what.

He's giving her a really bad time. I mean the idea that the butler is now saying that Diana was buying pornographic magazines for his -- her 15-year-old son, that she was going out into the night wearing nothing but a fur coat and some pieces of jewelry. If this is protecting her reputation, then goodness knows what it'd be like if he was trying to have a go at her reputation.

KURTZ: OK, hold on now. Ed Kosner, would you have paid for the American equivalent of such a story, and does the checkbook journalism involved in kind of tarnish what Burrell is saying?

KOSNER: Well, here in the States we don't have that tradition of checkbook journalism. The most that anyone will do here is to buy a photograph, which in effect is what ABC did in buying his video diary. So, you're not paying for the interview, but you're buying something and somehow or other, the interview comes along with the -- with what you bought.

We're pretty clear of checkbook journalism in American newspapers. There may be a little bit going on now with the magazines and certainly the supermarket tabloids, which in a way are closer to some of the London tabloids. They do pay for stuff. But the...

KURTZ: A network executive at another network, Ed Kosner, told me that it was made perfectly clear to all of the American networks that if they wanted to interview Paul Burrell, they had to fork over the cash for this video diary. So, is ABC engaging a little bit of camouflage here? They didn't pay for the interview, but they certainly are paying some money to the butler.

KOSNER: Yes, I think they took the neat way around the problem. And their competitors would have done the same thing, I'm sure.

KURTZ: Ross Benson, we talked about the -- you mentioned some of the revelations that have come out in this story. Isn't it the case that some of the newspapers that would have liked to have bought Paul Burrell's story, but didn't, have now turned around and kind of savaging him and it kind of suggests that, you know, maybe if your newspaper had gotten the exclusive interview, maybe you'd be saying nice things about him.

BENSON: Well, if you decide to dump on your former employer from a great height, which is exactly what Burrell has done, then you can expect people would start looking into your own past, and in Burrell's case, his past was -- let's call it -- let's be euphemistic and call it extremely colorful. Once you're in the marketplace, selling secrets about other people, then newspapers are going to look at your own past, and that's precisely what's happened.

He should have known that was going to happen. It was very naive on his part to think that it wouldn't happen, and my own feeling about Burrell is that he's playing way, way out of his league. It isn't the case that he's lost the plot, the plot's lost him and the whole story has moved on now away from Burrell and into the future of the British royal family.

KURTZ: Well, let's take a look at what Paul Burrell had to say in New York the other day. He is not very happy with the media coverage he's been receiving.


PAUL BURRELL, PRINCESS DIANA'S FMR. BUTLER: When I made my decision to tell my story to the London "Daily Mirror," I realized that there would be a backlash from other media organizations. I just never expected it to be so vicious and so personal.


KURTZ: Ed Kosner, you've seen a lot of tabloid frenzies over the years. Does he have a case? KOSNER: Oh, I don't think really. To me it's all a big circus and he can be a hero or he can be a villain. We had a lot of fun here because we've got a Murdoch tabloid in New York City and of course, the Murdoch papers lost out on the Burrell revelations. And so, they savaged him in New York for not giving a big enough tip at his hotel when he checked out. That was the page one story in the "Murdoch" tabloid one day last week.

KURTZ: I believe it's called "The New York Post."

KOSNER: That's what I think it's called.

KURTZ: Ross Benson, one of the allegations reported by your newspaper was that back in 1989, there was alleged rape or rape attempt by a senior aide to Prince Charles of another palace staffer. I'm just a commoner, but to go back to what happened in -- did or didn't happen in 1989 sounds kind of like old news.

BENSON: Well, the problem with that story was that there was a tape, which allegedly Burrell was going to refer to in the court case, which Diana is alleged to have made with the rape victim. Now what happened was that the case was stopped just before that -- this evidence was ever presented to court, as you pointed out earlier, by the queen's own intervention. Therefore, the implication -- this is where the story moves away from what the butler saw or indeed what the butler told about into the possibility -- and it's only an allegation, I must emphasize that -- that the prince of Wales' office was party to a conspiracy to prevent the course of justice.

This takes it way out of common gossip and puts it into a constitutional and indeed a legal matter, and that is the way that the story has been moving in the U.K. over the last three or four days. It's deeply embarrassing to the royal family. The revelations of last week were scandalous and indeed embarrassing, but this is actually much worse, much more serious.

KURTZ: Ed Kosner, the -- you mentioned earlier that the butler is really just kind of a pawn or a vehicle so we could all wallow further in the dirty laundry of Diana. Why is it years later that she remains such a fascinating figure for the media?

KOSNER: Well, she's one of the great tabloid figures of the 20th century and the combination of the beauty, the tragedy, the high jinx, the tragic end and her association with the royal family and all its ramifications just adds up to a fabulous brew. And I think mostly her beauty has a great, great deal to do with it.

KURTZ: And finally, Ross Benson, certainly Buckingham Palace doesn't look good here, the butler doesn't look good, but would you agree that the media as they go into one of their periodic royal- related spasms are not coming out looking terribly good as well, particularly in terms -- in light of the large amount of money that was paid to Paul Burrell?

BENSON: I thought you might ask me that. I think I agree with Ed. It's one of those kind of frenzies that come and go. They happen in Fleet Street. They happen in the American press too. It'll pass, and I don't think that people are going to judge newspapers badly in the long run out of this.

KURTZ: Well, we'll see how long it takes before it passes, but we appreciate your enlightening us here in the states. Ross Benson in London, Ed Kosner in New York, thanks very much for joining us.

KOSNER: Thank you, Howard.

KURTZ: When we come back, the Democrats have a new leader on Capitol Hill, but is Nancy Pelosi getting stereotyped by the press as a left-winger? And is President Bush still being underestimated by the fourth estate despite the major Republican wins on Election Day? All next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Nancy Pelosi is the new Democratic leader in the House, and she was controversial from the moment she started campaigning to succeed Dick Gephardt.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For some Democrats, though, the issue was whether a San Francisco liberal like Pelosi would pull their party too far left.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's such a stale characterization.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Josh Marshall has his own Web site, called He's also a contributing writer to "The Washington Monthly," and Byron York, White House correspondent for "National Review."

Josh Marshall, Nancy Pelosi is a San Francisco liberal. She has it stamped on her forehead every time...


KURTZ: ... she's mentioned, but is she being unfairly cast as a kind of a wild-eyed left-winger who's going to drag her party over the ideological cliff?

JOSH MARSHALL, TALKINGPOINTSMEMO.COM: I think so to a great extent. I mean she's not -- she's really not that much more liberal than the rest of the House, the Democratic House Caucus. You know, she's -- she plays the party game. She's a big fund-raiser, all these kind of things. I mean, you know, she's from San Francisco. That's the -- you know that's what she -- that's the constituency she represents ,and Republicans are going to make the most of it and you know, that's kind of how it is. But she's being miscast to a certain extent.

BYRON YORK, NATIONAL REVIEW: Well, this press conventional wisdom didn't just come out of nowhere. I mean, if you look at the American for Democratic Action ratings of hers, she gets perfect 100s all...

MARSHALL: Dick Gephardt gets 95 percent...

YORK: ... the time. The interesting thing, I thought, is that the press had the chance to come up with a new storyline about this after the homeland security bill. She had resisted it for months and months on these, you know, rather obscure civil service protections and then on Thursday she turns around and votes for it and says well, you know the chapter and the verse of these things isn't all that important. A classic place to start the new conventional wisdom on Nancy Pelosi is being, you know, a growing moderate, and I haven't done it yet. "The New York Times" put it on page A-21, so it's a story yet to come.

KURTZ: But the idea that she's going to somehow impose her views on the other 200-plus House Democrats, isn't that a little overstretched?

YORK: Well, I think that he's actually right when he says that Dick Gephardt is a 95. I mean, they're all pretty far to the left, and that's the reason that she won, and that's the reason that Harold Ford, Jr. was completely trounced, along with a very few blue dog Democrats.

KURTZ: The post election campaign coverage of the...


KURTZ: ... Democratic Party is devastated -- no identity, no message, no clue, no hope. Is there a certain degree of journalistic overstatement there?

MARSHALL: Sure. You have an election and everybody's investing in there being a big story after the election, not just in the lead up to it. I think it...

KURTZ: But it wasn't a good night for the Democrats.

MARSHALL: No, it was a poor showing for the Democrats. There's no question. But I mean, you know, I think that it was a very big disappointment for the Democrats. The consequences of it are very big because their (UNINTELLIGIBLE) power in D.C. has been wiped out.

KURTZ: So it's not...


MARSHALL: It -- the -- it's only media hype to the extent that I think the consequences of this election for the Democrats are far bigger than what it says, the meeting about how disorganized they are, stuff like that. They're basically about where they were before. They just had a really bad night, and they're going to pay the price for the next two years. YORK: But reporters are just listening to Democrats slash each other over and over, and that's fun. They -- well it is, and the Harold Ford, you know, challenge, Harold Ford comes out and says look, the party leadership in the House is zero for four. They lost the House in 1994. They haven't won it back since. So I mean what's a reporter going to do? They really are in a certain amount of disarray.

KURTZ: But if (UNINTELLIGIBLE) liberal bias as many conservatives keep telling us, why is everyone in the media, particularly liberal columnists, really trashing the Democrats in the last couple of weeks?

YORK: Well a lot of them are trashing them from the left. If you look at...


YORK: ... editorial moderates, you will see -- you will see -- no, they didn't stand for anything. They didn't have the courage to oppose Bush on Iraq, although 120-something Democrats in the House did oppose him on Iraq. The Senate went along with it. So I think a lot of the criticism, certainly on the editorial pages, has been from the left.

MARSHALL: I think to some extent that's true, but I think what a lot of the disappointment for the Democrats comes from is not that they think history is against them, that things were so terrible. It's actually that a lot of things are actually in their favor. A lot of policies that they support or ones the public support and yet politically...


YORK: There are so many stories that are predicated on the idea that if people just understood the real issues about the economy, Democrats would be clear winners and yet, somehow...


YORK: ... Republicans have won again.

MARSHALL: That's a little different -- that's a little...

KURTZ: Let's debate that another time. I want to turn now to the president of the United States. Here the news weekly "Newsweek" has him as top gun. "Time" magazine, he's shown here with Karl Rove. How they aced their midterms. Doesn't the press continue to misunderestimate George Bush and perhaps until this election when he's widely proclaimed as a big winner?

MARSHALL: I don't think so. I actually don't think that's the case. I think that people did underestimate how well they would do. The president put a lot on the line, going out and doing that campaign swing. He won big, but there have been just as many times when they've overestimated him and he's fallen short. I mean, I think about the 2000 election, when you know Karl Rove was telling every reporter in sight they were going to win by six points. Basically everybody bought it, and they...


MARSHALL: ... did not win by -- they did not win by six points. So, you know...

KURTZ: But in the election and after 9/11 and dealing with the U.N., I mean he seems to do better than the expectation set by the media, and I'm wondering if a lot of reporters privately still think that this guy is kind of a dumb but lucky cowboy.

YORK: Yes, now "The Washington Post" even in recent weeks has resurrected that old chestnut of a story about Bush's verbal gas. You know they did a piece, you know, when Bush talks about the economy, he will refer to a good or a service, but it really sounds like he's saying good or service and "The Post" kind of made fun him for that.

The whole idea was that this guy is kind of dumb. Now the conventional wisdom, of course, has shifted around completely and he's the genius who bent the U.N. to his will and the genius who beat the Democrats, defied history in midterm elections. But this impression is not coming from nowhere. There are a lot of obviously Democrats, a lot of Democratic activists think Bush is very dumb and truth be told, there a lot of Republicans who underestimated him and were telling that to reporters.

KURTZ: Now some liberals think the press is too soft on Bush, particularly on the question of misstatements or exaggerations and ought to be holding him more accountable. Do you think there's something to that?

MARSHALL: I think the gas thing is just sort of a comedic side light. Yes, I think that there are -- there are various times, not just from the president, but the White House has -- they've just said stuff that just turns out to be completely false. And since that's not the story line about George Bush...

KURTZ: Why is it not the story line?

MARSHALL: That's a good question and that's why Democrats...

KURTZ: There's a story line about Al Gore...


KURTZ: ... obviously two years ago...


YORK: Well, the last thing -- you did have a point about overestimation, although I don't think it was quite right. In the news pages you do have this misunderestimation, but in the editorial pages, especially in "The New York Times," you have Bush as -- they do overestimate and they overestimate the threat. He has a careful plan to undermine the federal judiciary. He's going to destroy our treaty relationships with our allies. He's going to end civilization as we know it. I think a lot of the editorial pages have grossly exaggerated...

KURTZ: But, in political terms, which all reporters understand, aren't the media now finally after the 2002 elections giving the president his due?

YORK: Absolutely. He's the king of the Hill now until, you know, next week.

KURTZ: Oh, I see. You think this may be a temporary...

YORK: Oh, I think this is a remission...


YORK: ... in the Bush's dumb school of thinking. I cannot imagine that this will not come back at some point.

KURTZ: Do you agree?

MARSHALL: I -- of course I do. I mean look, I think...


KURTZ: ... two weeks, two months?

MARSHALL: You win a big election, everybody writes (UNINTELLIGIBLE) stories about you and you're wonderful and you're great, and the next time you fall on your face, it's -- you're back...

KURTZ: Well one other point on that, he's got an all Republican government now. But first time there's a misstep or a screw-up, a blunder, they've got nobody else to blame, and that will be something we'll talk about in future weeks.

Byron York, Josh Marshall, thanks very much for joining us.

When we return, war plans in print. Bernard Kalb wonders why the press has the scoop ahead in the "Back Page."


KURTZ: Welcome back. Jesse Ventura may be wrestling his way onto the talk show stage. The Minnesota governor hasn't even left office, but he's already close to a big bucks deal with MSNBC to host a nightly talk show. CNN and Fox also had talked to the former wrestler. Ventura who often denounces the press has some experience behind a mike as a former radio host and color commentator for the XFL. Let's hope his television career fares better than the now deceased football league.

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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BERNARD KALB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR (on camera): Ruffling through the newspapers, watching the TV news shows and you think top secrets are right out in the open.

(voice-over): Look at this headline, "War plans for Iraq calls for a big force and quick strikes." And this one, "War plan for Iraq is ready say officials." And these stories aren't based on talks with your taxi driver. The sources being quoted include senior U.S. military officials, senior administration officials, et cetera, almost as though the press was in the war room taking notes about the country's most secret plans.

And the Pentagon has also opened up the wild blue yonder to the media.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're airborne over the Persian Gulf and in combat theater.

KALB: And here's a piece from an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

MICHAEL GORDON, THE NEW YORK TIMES: What I was really struck by was the degree to which the aircraft carrier and the Navy is using its no-fly operation over Iraq as a way to prepare for a war with Iraq.

KALB: So, what does all this mean, these kinds of war stories that have a top-secret quality about them. Are they the real thing? Maybe disinformation? Maybe just media speculation?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The key is nobody has the war plan and CNN doesn't have the war plan. "The New York Times" doesn't have the war plan. "The Washington Post" doesn't have it. We have sort of a general concept of how it's going to go.

KALB: In other words, no leak of the war plan, but what about those other leaks we see in the media? Well then, you might see those as stories that have been planted by the Pentagon, trying to use the media as a megaphone, telling Saddam he's finished unless he complies. And not so incidentally, these stories from the military are also a way of conditioning the American public as to what's ahead.

(on camera): Now let's be serious. You don't think for an instant that the Pentagon is handing the family jewels, the truly secret plan on any war with Saddam, which is a way of reminding us news junkies not to forget the vast difference between a leak and a plant.


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 our new Sunday time, which is actually our old time, 11:30 a.m. Eastern, 8:30 Pacific.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


Media Stereotyping Pelosi as Left-Wing Extremist?>

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