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Luring Private Lynch

Aired June 22, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Luring Private Lynch. Did CBS News go too far to land an exclusive interview, dangling the notion of a TV movie, a Simon & Schuster book contract and an MTV special for the former prisoner of war? Should a Viacom news division be floating the possibility of a big pay day with other parts of the corporate empire? "The Washington Post" admits it was wrong in reporting that Jessica Lynch had been shot and stabbed. How did this story spin out of control?
Also, Al Gore's reality TV, and how Hillary and Harry Potter work their magic on the press.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical end on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Jessica Lynch, the Army private taken captive rescued by U.S. special forces from a hospital in southern Iraq. She became the subject of a "Newsweek" cover story and the focus of some serious interview pictures from the likes of Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer and Jane Clayson. They wooed her with books and keepsakes and personal appeals.

But according to "The New York Times," CBS News went a big step further, suggesting there might be all kinds of opportunities for Lynch at CBS and other divisions of its corporate parent, Viacom. A movie from CBS Entertainment, a book deal from Simon & Schuster, even a guest appearance on MTV. Is this sort of synergy over the line?

Well, joining us now to talk about all this, Gail Shister, who covers television for the "Philadelphia Inquirer." And with me here in the studio, "Newsweek" Washington bureau chief, Daniel Klaidman, and veteran TV producer Tammy Haddad. She's the former executive producer of LARRY KING LIVE and the former senior broadcast producer of "The Today Show." She's now a host for the Radio America Network.

Dan Klaidman, should CBS News be in the business of dangling and touting, you know, a TV movie and a book deal and an MTV special, everything but offering Jessica Lynch her own show on Viacom's Comedy Central?

DANIEL KLAIDMAN, NEWSWEEK: I don't think so. I mean, I think it makes me uncomfortable. I think you dangle these kinds of goodies in front of the subject of an interview of a major news story, and it just raises all sorts of questions about the end journalistic product and whether it's compromised in any fashion.

KURTZ: Now tell me, Haddad. You've gone after big name guests. You know all the tricks here. Would you act as a shill for your entertainment division?

TAMMY HADDAD, FORMER EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, LARRY KING LIVE: Well, I don't think that's quite fair. I think we have to look at what's really taking place. What happens is an ordinary person ends up in this extraordinary circumstance. Every single network, every news magazine, everybody calls them. They don't really know what to do. So what they say to people is do us a favor, put in writing what you want. What they say to some people is, hey, you're a large company. They're saying it now. You have all these different affiliates. Tell us what you can offer us.

So they're specifically asking for it. And they're asking, by the way, because unlike Hillary Clinton, we see this huge book tour and everything that's taken place. Right? She has Bob Arnett (ph), the great agent, the great lawyer.

KURTZ: Right. The equivalent here is if you were still at CNN, you would be offering not only a Larry King interview, but a Warner Brothers book deal and a Warner Brothers movie and a "People" magazine cover and maybe something on the Cartoon Network.

HADDAD: No, I would not...


HADDAD: No, I would not do that, because I think CNN is a different kind of place. It's not the place -- I mean, not when I was here nor now is it the kind of operation that does that, because the divisions don't work together.

Now in this case, Viacom has turned around and said, wait a minute. What do we have here? And we know that Simon & Schuster wants the book, and we know CBS Entertainment wants it. So aren't we smart to take this huge conglomerate and everything we have and put it to the point of first contact with that newsmaker?

KURTZ: Hold on. Hold on.

Gail Shister, do all the networks play some version of this game? Or is what CBS News is doing here just a whole different order of magnitude?

GAIL SHISTER, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: I think it's naive, Howie, to think that all the networks don't do this. I think that CBS happened to have gotten caught. I think CBS' biggest mistake was that they did package all the possible extras in one letter instead of making the news division pitch a separate letter.

KURTZ: They put it in writing. That was the mistake.

SHISTER: Right. They put it in writing in one letter. But let me just point something out is that ABC and NBC both said that they did straight news pitches for this particular story. But then you look a year ago when the Pennsylvania miners were rescued, they were on "Good Morning America." I think they're doing a book with Hyperion, which is also owned by Disney and ABC. There's an ABC movie or a Disney movie.

Everybody does it. I think the vertical integration is so endemic to the television industry that it's very hard to avoid.

KURTZ: Well, what they're trying to avoid is network news divisions like to say well, we don't pay for interviews. No serious news organization pays for interviews. But this sort of thing, there'll be a book deal, there'll be a movie, we'll send musicians to your house in West Virginia to be on MTV is a way of saying there'll be a pay day here even though the money is not coming out of this particular corporate pocket.

KLAIDMAN: And it's more than just the money. When you bundle together the news pitch and the entertainment pitch, basically -- and what this letter did, you're sending a message here. The pretext is we're going to make you a hero. We're going to make you a celebrity. We're going to tell this inspiring story to the world. And they state their goals at the outset. That's not what we do in journalism. What we do in journalism is we say we're going to tell your story. It's a compelling story. But we don't state at the outset what the story is.

And in the end, either you end up with, you know, your story being -- the perception is that your story is compromised in some way, or the subject of the story gets some terrible bait and switch where she thinks she's going to be turned into an American hero. And in the end...


KLAIDMAN: And in the end, let's see how the story turns out. It may not be quite as heroic as it was originally portrayed.

HADDAD: No, no, no. Because I'm the person that's been on the phone with these people. And I think it's (UNINTELLIGIBLE). With all due respect, what's going on here now is you're saying that these people know what's going on. They feel like this is their shot in some cases. And they want to know what's out there. And by the way, I think this criticism of Katie and Diane and all these mega stars is also...

KURTZ: For sending the trinkets?

HADDAD: ... for sending different trinkets, I mean, I wouldn't have done that. But the point is I think that's unfair, because people out there want to get up close and personal with these superstars of news.

KLAIDMAN: How do you know?

HADDAD: Because I talk to these people every day on the phone.

KLAIDMAN: I mean, isn't it -- there's no chance that it's just...

HADDAD: When a news story breaks, are you on the phone with them? You get to talk to all the big giant people in Washington. KLAIDMAN: ... a little bit exploitative? There's plenty of people who don't want to talk to us.

SHISTER: Howie, can I jump in here?

KURTZ: Jump right in.

SHISTER: OK. I think I see this situation somewhat as a chicken and egg thing. Did the interview subjects start choosing the particular media outlets based on the goodies being dangled? Or did the networks provide so many goodies that the interview subjects have gotten hipper, more sophisticated, more demanding and have actually asked, either explicitly asked or implicitly expected there to be a whole myriad of choices instead of just a straight pitch?

HADDAD: Well, maybe it's Gail's fault, by the way, because you cover television and cover it so well. And when you write about TV and you get big space, it makes Diane and Katie and everyone more important or the Monica interview more important. So maybe it's your fault, and you're the one that's...

KURTZ: They're already important. Millions of people are watching. But let me ask you, Gail Shister. And we don't have any evidence here that Jessica Lynch or her representatives are demanding any of this. But obviously in some cases people are looking to milk their moment of celebrity for what it's worth.

Betsy West, CBS executive was quoted as saying that there was no quid pro quo stated or implied. In other words, CBS News' offer was separate and different from the other parts of the Viacom empire. But when you look at the letter, the Simon & Schuster book deal, quote, "extremely interested," Simon & Schuster would be. CBS movie division would make a possible Jessica Lynch movie, quote, "the highest priority." That certainly sounds like they're implying something.

SHISTER: Well, I think this is a situation where you have to parse it. And I think it depends on what your definition of is is. I mean, if you look at it literally word by word, yes, there was not a direct connection. But the implication is clear, and you have to be an idiot not to see it. And when you're dealing with news, you have to be above reproach, because, as everybody knows, the perception is as damning as the reality. And I think if CBS had to do it again, they wouldn't do it in writing, first of all. And second of all, I think they would have done separate pitches.

KURTZ: I want to touch on CBS' reaction to the criticism that was set out or that was touched off by the "New York Times" story. CBS put out a statement saying, "unlike the 'New York Times' own ethical problems, there is no question about the accuracy or integrity of CBS News' reporting."

What do you make of CBS playing the Jayson Blair card by taking a whack at the "New York Times," which all it did was report the story?

KLAIDMAN: I think people only lash out like that when they're feeling defensive. I don't think there's any equivalence here at all. You know? "The New York Times" has had its share of mistakes. CBS has had its share of mistakes. And I think it makes them look worse.

KURTZ: Now Jayson Blair did fake an interview with Jessica Lynch's father. But that doesn't have anything to do with the "New York Times" story about CBS. So was that a low blow? Is that smart public relations?

HADDAD: Well, as the only person apparently in North America who's willing to defend CBS on television, I think CBS should release the letter. I mean, while they went after the "New York Times," they haven't received the letter. If they're not embarrassed by it, put the whole letter out. I mean, they did put some pieces out. But let us all just look at it. And that's what I'm advocating.

All of these things happen in the media every day on every major story. Why don't people just say you know, hey, we do have these divisions. Talk to this person or that one.

KLAIDMAN: Are you defending not only CBS' handling of the original pitch, but their handling of the "New York Times" story?

HADDAD: No. But I'm saying they should release the letter. Why haven't they released the letter?

KURTZ: Gail Shister, this is obviously a brave, young woman who didn't ask for all this publicity. She was badly wounded fighting for her country. For all we know, she's unable to give an interview. We are even told, you know, she's not able to remember any details of the attack. Are the networks guilty here? Or are all of the media guilty here of kind of turning this into a circus?

SHISTER: There is no question about it. But that's what the media does with everything. She's the flavor du jour. She's the hot get. I mean, I'm surprised that CBS didn't offer her to be host of "Survivor." I mean, it's the logical conclusion.

And whatever the hot story is next, they'll go after that. I mean, the motto with the media is everything in moderation, particularly moderation.

HADDAD: Well, my view is that our job is to pile on. I mean, that's what television does.

KURTZ: Our job is to pile on?

HADDAD: Pile on. I mean, it's part of cable television. People can't get enough, so we give them one part of a story in one hour. We give them another part.

KURTZ: Do you feel good about that?

HADDAD: Well, I think that's what it is. It's not what Tammy Haddad thinks about it. That's what viewers want. And that's why we deliver it. And my view is just tell people what you're doing.

KURTZ: All right. Let's hold it there for a moment. When we come back, what really happened to Jessica Lynch in Iraq? And why did it take the press so long to get it right? But first, we want your thoughts. Are the media hyping the Jessica Lynch story? E-mail us at


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. "The Washington Post" ran a lengthy front page story this week on the Jessica Lynch saga, one that was very different from an account the paper had published two and-a-half months ago. In the April 3 story, "The Post" made Lynch sound like a female Rambo saying she, quote, "fought fiercely and shot several enemy soldiers. She sustained multiple gunshot wounds. Lynch was also stabbed."

"Washington Post" reporter Dana Priest was asked about the earlier account on CNBC's "Capitol Report."


DANA PRIEST, WASHINGTON POST: The reporting was based on what was coming in at the time to people who were cleared at the highest levels to read secret intelligence reports. The sources were people we deal with often. What they were dealing with were initial intelligence reports that turned out to be unreliable.


KURTZ: Dan Klaidman, the "Post" story this week says that she was not stabbed, she was not shot, she didn't kill anyone. And in fact, Jessica Lynch sustained massive injuries in a Humvee accident. So was this a major blunder, the earlier piece by the "Washington Post?"

KLAIDMAN: Look, it was a mistake. And we make mistakes in journalism, and particularly during war. There is the fog of war. It's difficult sometimes to get real time information and particularly when you're dealing with intelligence.

I remember the Saturday night we were putting to bed our cover story. And I remember how incredibly frustrating it was to get information. The Pentagon just wasn't putting very much out. The problem here was everyone was ready for a story of heroism. People were seduced by the little bit that they heard, and people ran with information that they shouldn't have.

KURTZ: And in this "Newsweek" cover story, which was much more cautious than the "Washington Post account," but you did report that surgeons discovered that she had been shot, and that there was an unpleasant implication that she might have been shot after she had been captured.

KLAIDMAN: Well, we actually had conflicting information about that, which we reported in the story. And we knew about the allegations that she had gone down shooting Iraqi soldiers. We had that information. We chose not to use it, because we didn't have it nailed down. SHISTER: Howie, I think there was another factor in play. I think the fact that this is a female, I think that the fact that she's a small woman from a small, Appalachian town played into the whole romance of the attraction of the story. It was a natural story for people to go after.

As I recall, the war was not going as well for the allies at that point as they would have liked. And I agree with Dan. I think that we were searching for a hero. And she certainly fit the bill.

KURTZ: So if it had been a truck driver from the Bronx, the covers might have been different.

Tammy Haddad, I'm not here to defend my newspaper. "Post" reporters tell me they had relied on very good intelligence sources, who obviously turned out to be wrong in those conflicting accounts during the fog of war. But shouldn't the paper have run a correction rather than wait two and-a-half months and then run a big story that corrected certain elements?

HADDAD: Well, I think I'll defend your paper.

KURTZ: All right.

HADDAD: Because I think that it's really easy to look at a story that's so high profile and say we should have known, we should have done this, we should have done that. I think the reporters in the second story made clear we relied on these sources, unnamed sources, just like every day "Newsweek," the "Philadelphia Inquirer," everyone does.

I think it's easy in these charged political circumstances to say, wait a minute, we should have done a little more. We should have seen it. We should issue a correction. Does the "Washington Post" issue corrections when they write a story about Karl Rove or some sort of other issue that's a little less politically charged that it's a little bit different later?

KURTZ: If it's clearly factually wrong, they should.

HADDAD: Well, but I think that they should get a little credit for going back and deconstructing every little piece of it...

KLAIDMAN: I agree.

HADDAD: ... especially in light of the Jayson Blair, "New York Times" story.

KLAIDMAN: I agree. But I don't think that running a story the way they did, which I think was noble, was prominent, necessarily precludes running a correction earlier when they realized they had gotten it wrong. They obviously decided that doing a big story probably would get more attention. And maybe that's better.

KURTZ: And Gail Shister, the ombudsman of the "Washington Post," Michael Getler, apparently agrees with you. He said that the original story had a, quote, "a strong, propagandistic twinge to it." And so, I'm wondering your earlier point about we were ready for a hero, she was a woman, it was a natural subject, it was a dramatic rescue. But, you know, isn't that when the media ought to exercise some judgment at restraint and not just sort of play into creating or conjuring up a Hollywood extravaganza if the facts don't support it?

SHISTER: Well, that's sort of a rhetorical question (UNINTELLIGIBLE).


SHISTER: I noticed that. I think that, of course, the media should do that. And it's all hindsight. And the fact is it was there, it was hot, it was Hollywood. And I want to throw something else out to you, too, Howie. Does anyone on the panel think that race was a factor? Do you think the fact that she's white made it a more attractive story somehow to the national media? Because if you recall, there was the African-American woman who was also a POW, Shoshana. I can't remember her last name.

And had the situation been reversed and it had been a woman of color, would there have been as much of a frenzy?

HADDAD: I don't consider that an issue in this case. I think anyone in that situation would have gotten as much coverage. I don't think it's because she's a woman or not. Maybe there was more music put underneath the video because of it. But I think...

KURTZ: But you believe there was a hunger for a heroic, uplifting story in a time of war?

HADDAD: No, because that implies that all the senior editors of the networks and of all the different media publications sit around and say, what are we hungry for.

KURTZ: It implies they all think alike.

HADDAD: They all...

KURTZ: It implies they all know a great headline when they see one.

HADDAD: Well, but I don't think they do that. I think these are all serious professionals who are looking for the story. This is the information they get, and they go -- and this gets back to the "Washington Post" story -- where their sources tell them to go. I don't think they're looking for a big section piece and then have it fit in.

But I'll tell you something else. I think this is the same part of the same issue, the TV side and the print side. This is how the media sausage gets made. And I don't think it hurts to have all these conversations. And people should know more about who our sources are and how we do things.

KURTZ: Well, thanks for helping us through the media sausage factory. Tammy Haddad, Dan Klaidman, Gail Shister in Philadelphia, appreciate your joining us.

SHISTER: Thank you.

KURTZ: When we come back, Hillary, Harry Potter and a magic formula for selling books in "The Spin Cycle."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Spin Cycle."


KURTZ (voice-over): The Harry Potter hype has been building for weeks. So has the media's hullabaloo over Hillary Clinton's book. One is fiction, and the other decidedly non-fiction, though the former first lady's detractors might disagree.

But Harry and Hillary have something else in common. Both book's publishers complained about leaks to the press, and were swept along on the huge media tide created by those gushers. Hillary's "Living History" or at least all that juicy stuff about how she wanted to wring Bill's neck, was obtained by the Associated Press, which led to suggestions that publisher Simon & Schuster would sue the AP. Then "The Washington Post" got a hold of an advance copy in a book store that put it out too early.

Still, there were skeptics that the New York senator could hit the publisher's goal of selling one million copies.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST, CROSSFIRE: If they make $8 million on that book, I will eat my shoe.

KURTZ: You might want to use some barbecue sauce on that, Tucker. All the publicity has helped sell Hillary 600,000 copies within days.

Everyone expects the fifth volume of "Harry Potter" to be a big seller. Author J.K. Rowling has been teasing it, telling a British interviewer that she cried after killing off one of the characters. She won't say which one.

So why did the publisher, Scholastic, get so exercised it hit "The New York Daily News" with a $100 million lawsuit for publishing some advance details? No hocus pocus, says the paper, a reporter just bought a copy at a Brooklyn health food store.

The flap will undoubtedly make sales soar even higher, and that kind of news has a way of making such lawsuits disappear.

So what's next? What if I had tried to divulge an advance script for the new movie "The Hulk"?


KURTZ: Would Universal Studio executives have turned green with anger? Would they have sent a Hulk-like figure over to stomp on me? Or be secretly pleased that I was helping to sell tickets? Well, I can tell you about the plot of some Hulk comics I had as a kid, but I never got the new movie plot. Haven't even seen the film. Maybe that will save me the expense of hiring a lawyer.

Still to come, is Al Gore planning to enter the cable news wars in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Is Al Gore itching to become America's newest media baron? "Time" magazine reports that Gore wants to create a cable news network to counterbalance the right wing voices that he believes dominate on Fox News and in talk radio. One source telling "Time" that the venture wouldn't resemble a traditional cable news outlet, but would be something, quote, "totally different."

The former vice president probably wouldn't play much of an onscreen role. He's focusing on the fund raising and leaving the TV theatrics to pros like liberal comedian, Al Franken. But the venture is still in the early stages. And it will have to overcome plenty of financial obstacles before making it to your living room. Stay tuned.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right after this check of the hour's top stories.


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