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Should Media Have Covered Raelians' Cloning Claims?

Aired January 11, 2003 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Copy-cat journalism: Why are the media giving so much attention to a man who believes in space aliens and his totally unproven claims of cloning babies? Is the coverage of this possible hoax starting to resemble the pages of a bad supermarket tabloid? And why did a former ABC newsman lend his credibility to the Clonaid crowd? Also, the newspaper that blew the Tom Daschle story, and our viewers sound off on media bias.
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

The media's cloning obsession began with a spectacular claim at a press conference carried live by CNN, MSNBC and Fox.


BRIGITTE BOISSELIER, CLONAID: I was very, very pleased to note that the first baby clone is born. She was born yesterday at 11:55 a.m. in the country where she was born, so this will not give you more details about the location. She's fine. We call her Eve.


KURTZ: And the press, especially the cable networks, couldn't get enough of this sensational unproven story that got a little bit stranger and a little less believable every day.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: What is the point, do you believe, of cloning?

RAEL, RAELIAN MOVEMENT LEADER: Right now cloning a baby is just a first step. For me, it's not so important. It's a good step, but my ultimate goal is to give humanity eternal life through cloning. That's my goal.


KURTZ: And just who is Rael? Inquiry minds in the media wanted to know.


PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": The Web site says that you met aliens and that they were four feet tall with olive skin and really kind of funny and happy. Why aren't we -- and we are presumably cloned from them -- why aren't homo sapiens four feet tall with olive skin and exuding humor and harmony?

RAEL (through translator): Yes, these people are not alien. They are the Elohim of the Bible, these extraterrestrials who came on the Earth a long time ago.


KURTZ: Rael even insisted that CNN's Connie Chung address him like a religious leader.


CONNIE CHUNG, CNN ANCHOR: Your holiness, isn't this really a hoax?

RAEL: I don't think so. We have every reason to believe that Dr. Boisselier really did a great job trying to set...


CHUNG: Why do you have every reason to believe that this woman, Brigitte Boisselier, has, indeed, told the truth?

RAEL: Because I trust here.


KURTZ: So given the utter lack of evidence that the two cloned babies claimed by their group Clonaid even exist, has the press been duped?

Well, joining us now, Anne Applebaum, editorial writer at "The Washington Post" and author of the forthcoming book, "Gulag: A History"; in Los Angeles, Tim Rutten, media columnist for the "Los Angeles Times"; and in Atlanta, CNN's medical correspondence, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.


Tim Rutten, you've called the coverage of this story absurd. Are you saying that this group deserves no coverage at all?

TIM RUTTEN, LOS ANGELES TIMES: No. I think it probably deserves proportional coverage, which is generally what it obtained in the three major newspapers in America.

KURTZ: But not on television you're going to say.

RUTTEN: But not on television, I'm afraid, Howard. And in fact, I think that one of the things that occurred, I think, as Orville Shell (ph), the dean of the graduate school of journalism at Berkeley described it, this thing entered the media's hard disk like a computer virus, and the point of entry, unfortunately, wasn't the supermarket tabloids; it was cable news. KURTZ: Going straight to television, straight to the viewers.

Anne Applebaum, you write that CNN conducted a, quote, "long, deadly, earnest" interview with Brigitte Boisselier. What's wrong with pressing the person making the claims? Isn't that what journalists do?

ANNE APPLEBAUM, WASHINGTON POST: First of all, I thought her multicolored hair ought to have been a giveaway. And there ought to have been a moment of -- a paused moment before the interview was even conducted.

These people have no proof. They didn't present their claims in a scientific journal. They...

KURTZ: Scientific journal? They had no records, no names...

APPLEBAUM: No records, no names, no baby.

KURTZ: ... no picture of the baby, no DNA.

APPLEBAUM: ... no baby. And they were being treated as if they had some kind of serious claim to have cloned a baby. My question is whether the interviews needed to be conducted at all.

KURTZ: Sanjay Gupta, CNN interviewed Rael or Brigitte Boisselier five times. Now, isn't that going overboard for a story that, as we speak here, still has not a shred of evidence?

SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, I think that there was a lot of interest in the story, certainly when the press conference was held. And there was immediately, Howard, within minutes after the press conference was over, a lot of skepticism. And a lot of skepticism was revealed, again, in many of those interviews that you saw with Dr. Boisselier and Rael. And I think interviewing them and maybe actually letting them talk, actually explain or not explain any of the proof that they didn't have about cloning was an important part of the story, as well.

The whole story was, kind of, interesting. The fact that, as you mentioned, Rael's story was, kind of, interesting, although far- fetched, no question. But I think a lot of the coverage you saw on CNN and a lot of the other networks, immediately after the news conference was skeptical and very questioning.

KURTZ: Interesting, no question. Proven, obviously not.

Tim Rutten, why did so many newspapers -- not the "Los Angeles Times," but certainly other papers around the country -- put this story on the front page? Was it for the sheer entertainment value?

RUTTEN: Well, you know, I think this is an example of, if I may, Howard, the American media does two things very well. It covers things that go boom, like wars and natural disasters, acts of man and God, and consumerism, who is accumulating what and in what quantities and how much they are paying for it. Those thing we do fairly well. Other things we're quite spotty at. One of the things we're worst at is covering ideas, and one of the things we're worst of all at is covering any idea that calls itself a religion. And these people shrewdly, you know, found what would be in temporal terms the soft underbelly of the American media. Two days after Christmas, when newsrooms are empty, news editors are basically, you know, third- string people...

KURTZ: Very easy to fill the vacuum at that point.

RUTTEN: Absolutely.

KURTZ: And interestingly, you quoted somebody from the San Francisco Chronicle saying, "Well, we put it on the front page because it was all over CNN and television was making a big deal out of it." So it's, sort of, a circular process.

Now, Anne Applebaum, "The Washington Post" didn't put the initial story on the front page, but it put Boisselier's picture on the front page. Was that a mistake?

APPLEBAUM: I think it was part of the same process. I mean, it was, sort of, once it's in the news, then it's OK to write about it no matter how wacky it is.

KURTZ: And is there something wrong with that kind of reasoning with editors (ph)?

APPLEBAUM: I do think there is something wrong with it. I thought it was a strange -- it was just a strange decision to treat this story with any seriousness at all. I mean, it belonged, you know, maybe in the Style section as a kind of human nature story about people who believe in UFOs.

KURTZ: Or on the comic's page?

APPLEBAUM: Or on the comic's page. That would have been a good place for it, too.

KURTZ: But obviously, it got more serious treatment than that.

Now, Sanjay Gupta, you actually interviewed Brigitte Boisselier and Rael. And I wonder, what was that like to try to pin them down, because -- I'm not trying to make a pun here -- but they both, kind of, come off as space cadets and give these long, rambling answers?

GUPTA: Yes, there's no question. I think a lot -- they, sort of, spoke for themselves, in terms of trying to address the skepticism that, I think, both Anne and Tim are talking about.

But, you know, I have to take a little issue, though, with the fact that Anne's saying that something belongs in the Style section. I think cloning, as an idea, as Tim said, is a very important idea, it's a legislative idea. The president talks about it all the time. And it's important to remember that today's hoaxes may be tomorrow's possibility. I think it was really important, after that press conference took place and a lot of people knew about that, to spend time educating the public about cloning, the difference between reproductive cloning and therapeutic cloning, to take that as an opportunity in part to debunk, which we did do on CNN, both Boisselier, as well as Rael, but also to educate a bit as well.

KURTZ: But isn't there a distinction to be made between serious discussion of serious scientists cloning Dolly the sheep or other animal experiments, and people who show up and say, "Hey, we've got two baby girls here. But by the way, we're not going to tell you anything about them"?

GUPTA: And we didn't know that before we started covering the press conference live, obviously. And by that time, a lot of people were already asking a lot of questions as soon as the press conference ended.

We didn't know what they were going to say. They didn't tell us -- we didn't know whether they were going to have any proof. We didn't think they were. We just didn't know before the press conference actually took place.

But, you know, again, today's hoax is tomorrow's possibility. And people know that cloning is out there. It's a possibility. People worry about it. And I think that's why it captured the public's imagination.

Unfortunately, the Raelians probably have given cloning a black eye and the media may have contributed to that to a certain extent. But this press conference was certainly something a lot of people were interested in.

KURTZ: Now, Tim Rutten, you did some research on the Raelians, a very interesting Web site. And you discovered that Rael has said, among other things, that Israel is engaged in state terrorism and that the United States committed the greatest act of terrorism at Hiroshima. Why is that relevant to the scientific question of whether or not this is a legitimate cloning claim or not?

RUTTEN: Well, I think when people undertake or claim to undertake their intervention in this scientific process on religious grounds, it's fair to ask, well, exactly what is the nature of this purported religion. And frankly, you know, I'm sitting here in your studios on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, which is a fairly wild (UNINTELLIGIBLE) part of America, but I can go out on the street corners here and find people with, you know, stories equally plausible with the Raelians. As a general rule, I think journalists probably ought to avoid people who speak to -- claim to have spoken with people from UFOs, and as an even more general rule, I certainly question going to a live press conference where you don't know what they're going to say and putting it on the air.

KURTZ: Well, wait a second. I mean, television covers live press conferences with politicians and other leaders and self- appointed spokesmen all the time. You can't always know in advance what they're going to say.

RUTTEN: Well, that's correct, but I think if you're dealing with people who operate a Web site where they have animated recreations of their encounters with space aliens who look like post-op Michael Jacksons, I think you can probably get pretty good odds that whatever they say is going to be less than credible. And given the serious nature of cloning and the profound scientific and moral questions that it raises, how much more dubious is it to allow these people to speak about it in this utterly unfettered way.

KURTZ: Let me toss in a viewer e-mail. William from Boston wondering whether the cloning story was actually planted by press agents because reporters are too lazy to do real work. And what about the rest of the media's rush to, well, clone the story after it first appeared? One wonders if this whole thing hasn't been a spoof to show the public how foolish and easily manipulated the U.S. news media have become.

Anne Applebaum?

APPLEBAUM: I had a similar reaction. I first became really aware of the story when I happened to be standing in a place where there was a bank of television screens, all different stations, and every single one of them had Brigitte Boisselier, the scientist, on it, and I just looked at it and I thought, "This is some kind of hoax."

I wanted to pick up something that Sanjay said a minute ago about the importance of cloning as a subject and why we should all be interested in it. What worries me about this story is that, yes, cloning is very important, but if this is the kind of thing that gets news, how will we know when something of genuine -- when a genuine piece of progress is made?

I mean, scientific experiments actually tend to be rather boring, and there's -- you know, they go step by...

KURTZ: Incremental.

APPLEBAUM: Incremental, step by step. It's a little bit at a time. And then suddenly there's -- you know, we know a whole lot more than we used to know before.

But if this is the kind of thing that gets public attention, how will we be able to recognize a real scientific story when we see it?

KURTZ: With the benefit of hindsight, Sanjay Gupta, would you have not covered that initial press conference live? And how we're two weeks into the story, still no evidence, why doesn't the media just pull the plug on this thing until some evidence is forthcoming?

GUPTA: Well, I think if we had known in hindsight that there was going to be no proof at this press conference, I think that we probably would have pulled the plug.

KURTZ: So did you feel, kind of, snookered at the end of it? GUPTA: Yes. I think that we did. And right away, I think literally within minutes I was actually on the air at that point, we started asking some tough questions and being skeptical.

But, you know, I think, you know, Howard, one of the things -- this is probably an organization that's decidedly non-legitimate, but it's probably likely that the first human clone is not going to come from a Michigan, a Wash. U. or a Stanford, a legitimate organization, it's probably going to come from somewhat of a fringe organization because of the nature of the opposition toward reproductive cloning.

But most scientists in the community believe it's actually going to happen at some point. When is it going to happen, where is it going to happen, who's going to do it? I don't think any of us can answer these questions.

And also, you know, not to lend any more credibility to the Raelians, because I agree with both Anne and Tim on this, but, you know, we're still not 100 percent convinced that they didn't do it. I don't believe that they did. But we're still not 100 percent convinced they didn't do it. They have their reasons for not saying that -- for not providing the DNA evidence...

KURTZ: Right.

GUPTA: ... but there is still -- it's still, sort of, lingering out there and there are people...

KURTZ: I would argue that the media should not be in the position of having to prove a negative; that this group should be in the position of having to prove a positive. So far they haven't done that, yet they continue to get plenty of coverage.

We have to hold it there. When we come back, why did a former ABC news reporter lend his credibility to the cloning story? Plus, your viewer e-mail. And was he or wasn't he running for president: The newspaper that got it wrong.



Former ABC News science editor Michael Guillen was at the original Clonaid news conference, saying he would arrange for the independent DNA testing of the supposed baby girl. But Guillen later bowed out of his role in this bizarre tale, then went on television to defend himself.


CHARLES GIBSON, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": ... privileged information. And then you said there's three reasons not to dismiss them. But you didn't answer the question. Do you think they cloned the baby or not?

MICHAEL GUILLEN: I think that there's a chance that they have. I also think that there's a chance this could be a hoax.


KURTZ: Anne Applebaum, did Michael Guillen's presence lend a, sent of, aura of respectability or credibility to these cloning acts?

APPLEBAUM: I think it did, at least to start out with. Then there were some stories that revealed that he had, in fact, attempted to sell the story to a number of news agencies before going to the press conference. And that, I think, destroyed his credibility all together.

KURTZ: And what about that, Sanjay Gupta? It was reported by the "New York Times" among others that Guillen approached CNN as well as Fox, ABC, NBC, CBS, HBO, with offers of exclusive rights to the story; that he would've made more than $100,000. And is this just what freelance journalists do, or did this have the appearance of, kind of, profiteering on the cloning story?

GUPTA: I think definitely the second, profiteering. You know, just as Anne said, I think that him being at the news conference did offer some credibility to the whole news conference, but as soon as he found out he was hocking his wares later on a day or so later, it really -- his credibility went down to zero very quickly.

KURTZ: Tim Rutten, has Guillen's credibility now been tarnished as the other guests seem to be suggesting?

RUTTEN: Sure. Anytime you engage in checkbook journalism, it's a dirty business for everybody involved. Actually, my favorite part of this is he approached the entertainment division of Fox Broadcasting with a proposal for a show which they rejected, according to "The New York Times," because they believed it raised ethical problems, and given what's on that network, one has to shudder to imagine what that might have been.

KURTZ: "How To Marry A Multimillionaire" is OK, but the cloning story isn't?

RUTTEN: I guess how to marry 14 multimillionaires, all of them look alike.


KURTZ: Give us the larger picture here. When we look back on this a year from now, assuming that there's no further development, is this going to be a really embarrassing episode for the media, or just another one of our periodic frenzies?

RUTTEN: Well, you know, we humiliate ourselves in so many ways so frequently. I think it will probably be one of several. But it's a great cautionary tale. You know, editing is supposed to occur in a deliberative atmosphere, not in an echo chamber. And this notion that once something is said anywhere and people begin to talk about in a casual way that that somehow makes it a legitimate story -- it's a preposterous notion. It's a damaging notion. KURTZ: And what about that, Anne Applebaum? We all get, sort of, stampeded these days, because, well, it was on the Internet, it was on this cable network, it was in this alternative newspaper, it's out there, we've got to report it. And why do we have to, sort of, you know, go along with the pack?

APPLEBAUM: Well, there's a kind of anxiety. You know, journalists feel, "Oh, everybody else is writing about it, if I don't write about it, I'm going to miss the story." I think people do feel that.

But, I mean, this is a kind of wake-up call; you know, stop; you know, don't just pick up the clips, tell the story again, you know, based on what you read on the newspaper. Go back and find out what it is.

I mean, all you had do was tap into the Raelians' Web site, and you had a pretty good idea of who they were.

KURTZ: And yet it took awhile for lots of good reporters to do that.

And finally, Sanjay Gupta, does this make medical reporting, particularly reporting on this area of cloning, more difficult? Will be people now be more confused about what to believe when you get to the next story which might be a lot more substantiative, shall we say, than the Raelians?

GUPTA: Yes, I think this is going to make it more difficult. I think we're going to have to work harder the next time a legitimate cloning story, a legitimate story about cloning in any form comes through, we're going to have to really, you know, almost make sure we go overboard, in terms of trying to establish its credibility if it is a real story.

I think the Raelians have given a black eye not only to the media, but also to the cloning industry in general. And that's unfortunate.

But again, Howard, back to the question you were asking earlier, I think that I'm not sure there was another way around this one. It has captured the public's imagination. Cloning will happen. We don't think this is probably going to be it...

KURTZ: Right.

GUPTA: ... but I think it was worth covering.

KURTZ: But as always, it's the question of the tone and the volume that the media devote to these kinds of subjects.

Sanjay Gupta in Atlanta, Tim Rutten in Los Angeles, Anne Applebaum here with me, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, time now for our viewer e-mail about last week's program on whether the media have a conservative or a liberal bias. Betty from Arizona writes, "Where did all the liberals go? I feel like I'm a square peg being fed a round hole of information from a very conservative press."

Said another viewer, "I have become frustrated and disillusioned with the conservative propaganda that is being verbalized so willingly by the press."

But Antonio in California writes, "Many people refuse to believe what is right in front of their eyes every day a liberal, leftist media bias. Now that same media is worried about conservatives taking over?"

And turning to some of the other items in the media world, Tom Daschle's decision not to run for president stunned many political insiders, but no one was more surprised than the editors of his home state paper, the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "He's running," blared their front-page headline in Tuesday's edition. The story quoted unnamed friends and acquaintances of the South Dakota Democrat.

But within hours, Daschle announced that he would be sitting out the 2004 race. Editor Randell Beck told me he's comfortable with the story because it was right at the time. In other words, the senator changed his mind.

And finally, one of the true characters in the Washington Press Corps died this week, Sarah McClendon, who hectored presidents with her pushy questions for half a century.


SARAH MCCLENDON, REPORTER: The Israelis take these off of their planes, and learn to fly them effectively and better than any planes ever flown. What do you -- would you look into that?




MCCLENDON: And don't go away, Mr. President.


KURTZ: Sarah McClendon was 92.

When we return, a two-front war for the press in Bernard Kalb's "Back Page."


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

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BERNARD KALB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Everybody's talking about whether the U.S. can fight a two-front war. But there's another question that's gotten lost in the smoke: Can the media keep on top of the two-front challenge now facing the country?

One challenge at a time, no problem, or almost no problem. We've had the journalistic laser on Iraq for more than a decade, every since Kuwait. So the press has accumulated a sense of at least moderate confidence that we know about Saddam, how big a menace he is.

But suddenly, out of Asia, there's North Korea thumbing its nuclear nose at the U.S., and North Korea's Number One is seen as a spooky mystery, an enigma; potentially radioactive.

These two gentlemen now split the global screen, keeping the world on edge and detonating lots of questions and uncertainty that the media must deal with.

Is Kim Jong Il a bigger threat than Saddam?

And this: The case for war competing with an unnecessary war.

And so many other questions that it's produced this cover story on Iraq: "The War About the War."

Questions are piling up about going to war or not going to war, with one or both. When the president was asked the other day about whether the U.S. would go to war, his off-the-cuff reply added to the questions.

QUESTION: If we do have to go to war...


KALB: All of this has underlined the urgency with which the media must confront these questions, providing even more context, more analysis, going beyond what's said at the official briefings, explaining the mindset of Baghdad and Pyongyang.

In a sense, a pre-war situation is much more difficult for the media to cover. Wars, by contrast, are often reduced to captioned photos, to what reporters call bang-bang stories that get all the play on the nightly news.

But reasons for going to war or not going to war, these are very complicated, political and strategic questions, so that the challenge for the media right now is to keep mainstream America up to the minute, so that it fully understands what's going on, what the stakes are and can feel part of the big decision on whether triggers are ultimately pulled.


KURTZ: This is the final edition of Bernard Kalb's Back Page. Bernie was the original host of this program when it was launched back in 1992; the capstone of a long and tremendously successful career as a New York Times reporter, network correspondent, State Department spokesman, author and lecturer.

RELIABLE SOURCES and our viewers will always owe a huge debt of gratitude to Bernard Kalb.

Thanks, Bernie.

Now, a programming note: CNN is revamping its weekend line-up with more live programming, and for now, RELIABLE SOURCES will be seen only on Sunday mornings at 11:30 Eastern, 8:30 Pacific. So please adjust your schedules, or your VCRs, and make sure to join us each Sunday for another critical look at the media.

I'm Howard Kurtz. Thanks for watching.

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


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