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Why Are Cable News Stations Obsessed With Laci Peterson?; Interview With Nicholas Lemann

Aired July 6, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The murder case that wouldn't die. Why is cable news still obsessed with the Laci Peterson case? Are the networks just sensationalizing another tragedy with a female victim? Like JonBenet, Chandra Levy and Elizabeth Smart? And if it's such a big deal, why are most newspapers ignoring the story?

Also, "The New Yorker's" Nick Lemann talks about Karl Rove, Howard Dean and what's wrong with American journalism.

And Camelot forever. Why the media exploits dead celebrities.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead, we'll talk with Nick Lemann, the new boss at Columbia Journalism School.

But first, it's been more than six months since the pregnant California woman disappeared, and television remains fixated on the Laci Peterson case.

It is a tabloid extravaganza, complete with the husband charged with the murder, the husband's girlfriend, the high-profile lawyers in the case and all the other lawyers debating every twist and turn on the talk shows.

As of last week, the Peterson saga has been chewed over 79 times on Greta Van Susteren's Fox News show, 40 times on MSNBC's "Abrams Report," 38 times on Fox's "Hannity & Colmes," 38 times on MSNBC's "Countdown," 37 times on Fox's "O'Reilly Factor," 34 times on CNN's "Larry King Live," and 20 times on MSNBC's "Hardball," not to mention nearly seven hours of coverage on "Today," "Good Morning America" and "The Early Show."


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Both sides in the Laci Peterson case returned to court today. Scott Peterson's attorney is battling with prosecutors over wiretap recordings from Peterson's phone.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: While the Petersons themselves probably can't speak out because of the gag order, it now seems they could probably hire attorneys who could do the cable talk show circuit to defend their position.

LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": Tell us about Satanic cults. They've been mentioned in the Peterson case, they've been brought up by the defense as possible culprits. What is a Satanic cult?


KURTZ: Meanwhile "The New York Times," "USA Today," "Washington Post" and "Chicago Tribune" have never run a single front page story on the case.

So is this a matter of giving viewers what they want, or just sheer exploitation? Joining us now from New York is journalist Lisa DePaulo who's written for such magazines as "New York" and "George." And CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Lisa DePaulo, thousands of people tragically get murdered every year. Why is cable so obsessed with the Laci Peterson case?

LISA DEPAULO, MAGAZINE WRITER: You know, it just becomes this roller coaster. She is beautiful. She was pregnant, and there are pictures of her being beautiful and pregnant, and videos, and it just becomes like a soap opera that you can't turn off, and there are these cliff hangers every day. Will the search warrants be unsealed? Will the gag order be lifted? And I think it gets kind of addictive, and I also think that people are less obsessed by the crime as they are about the marriage.

There is something really voyeuristic about being able to look at this couple, who seem to be the perfect couple, and then the layers of the onion peel away. No matter who killed her I think it's safe to say that he wasn't the perfect husband. So this is all fascinating.

KURTZ: Jeff Toobin, voyeurism aside, this can't be about the intrinsic newsworthiness of the case, because nobody had ever heard of Laci Peterson before. So at some level, it's about ratings, right?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Absolutely. And in fact, it's more -- specifically it's about the nature, I think, of cable ratings, which are, for better or worse, smaller than broadcast ratings. And so it takes a relatively small number of people to move the needle, to raise our ratings .1, .2, that's 100,000 people, 200,000 people. That's the audience that seems to be following this story very closely.

KURTZ: But, you know, at the end of the year, this case is going to have gotten about 100 times more air time on cable than, say, the Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action and gay sodomy. Now, as a legal scholar, wouldn't you rather be spending more time talking about the Supreme Court?

TOOBIN: Well, sure, by any reasonable standard of what's really important that's more important, but that was essentially a two-day story, the day it was argued and the day it was decided, both of which were covered heavily. You know, this is a serial. It is like a soap opera, a little bit unfolds each day. There is a core of people interested in it, and we're in the business, at least in part, of satisfying people's interest in following the stories they want followed.

KURTZ: You know, Fox's Bill O'Reilly told "Vanity Fair" "we do Laci Peterson every 15 minutes and we just watch the numbers go up." Lisa DePaulo, to what extend is the coverage and the soap opera aspect being fed by all of these lawyers who see this as their O.J. moment? We all remember how O.J., the O.J. case produced a kind of new generation of legal commentators?

DEPAULO: It is remarkable what has happened now. Where you have the defense attorney and Scott Peterson having been plucked from cable television. Imagine if you were charged with murder...

KURTZ: We hear about Mark Geragos, who used to be on "Larry King" every 15 minutes.

DEPAULO: Right, but he was auditioning for this role.

KURTZ: He was?

DEPAULO: And we have now come to the point -- it's an amazing statement of the media, where we have come to the point where the pundits and the subjects are interchangeable. It was a great moment on Larry a couple of weeks ago where Mark Geragos called in at the commercial break to tell them what to mention in the next segment. I mean, now he's producing the show. It's just remarkable.

TOOBIN: One of my favorite parts of the case is Mark Geragos having been hired because he was on "LARRY KING LIVE," now made a motion to have people stop talking about it on "LARRY KING LIVE," which I think is a legal concept...

DEPAULO: He is so jealous, he can't be on anymore.

TOOBIN: That's right.

DEPAULO: He must be going crazy. I think Larry should change the name of the show "Geragos, Grace & King, Attorneys at Law," and just (UNINTELLIGIBLE) shingle.

KURTZ: And Lisa, what about the -- again as an element in the story, what about the other woman, Amber Frey and her nude pictures? Has that boosted the titillation factor?

DEPAULO: Oh, any other woman and then you also have her celebrity lawyer.

TOOBIN: Her lawyer, Gloria Allred, who has been on television far more than anyone, who is actually paid to be on television.

DEPAULO: Absolutely.

TOOBIN: I can't turn on the TV, the cable part of it anyway, without seeing -- without seeing Gloria Allred being interviewed somewhere, and -- I'm sorry, go ahead, Lisa.

DEPAULO: Amber Frey is a fabulous character, because some people see her and say, oh, good for you, you know, you came forward and, you know, you're the heroine of the case and then others are just going to talk about whether there's nude pictures of her and the misogynist element, so people are captivated.

KURTZ: I would just note that news executives in various newsrooms are making decisions to put these people on, and to go after some of the seamier side of the story, so this isn't some kind of spontaneous combustion, but it's not only the Laci Peterson case that's getting a lot of air time. At least recently, we have the missing Baylor University basketball player, who, amid reports that he's been shot, not confirmed, we have the rapist, or excuse me, an accused rapist from a rather famous family -- in fact, let's take a look at a "Good Morning America" clip on that story.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And now to the first live interview with the Hollywood actor who accompanied the bounty hunter, Dog Chapman, to his capture of convicted rapist Andrew Luster, the Max Factor heir.


KURTZ: Jeff Toobin, what is it about all of these crime stories that television finds so absorbing?

TOOBIN: Well, I think a couple of factors are at work. One, crime has been a staple of journalism since the invention of the printing press. There's nothing new about sensational crime stories being covered. I also think we have to remember we're getting into the summer, and summer has been a traditionally slow period for actual news -- except when Bill Clinton was president. He always seemed to be getting in trouble during the summer.

But it's -- there is a sort of slow, I mean, you know, Lisa's story, you know, the Chandra Levy story was a big summer story until 9/11 happened. So I think there's quite a history of the serious to the people involved, but ultimately rather insignificant stories getting a lot of attention in the summer.

KURTZ: It's certainly true that crime has always been a staple of news reporting, but it used to be that most of these stories, at least not those involving celebrities, were local stories. If a Texas woman was killed, it was big in Texas. Now cable has taken all these stories national in the blink of an eye.

And speaking of this being a tabloid tale, Lisa DePaulo, "The Globe" is involved, that supermarket tab bought some Peterson family pictures, for about $12,000. "The Enquirer" is involved. "The Hustler" looked into purchasing those Amber nude photos.

Is this the kind of company that serious, capable journalists should be keeping? DEPAULO: Well, I think -- to go back to your -- it might answer this question, I disagree that there are no celebrities here. I think these days there is a very fine line between a victim and a celebrity. I mean, what you see in all of these cases, you know, these family members go from the funeral to the green room. We have made ...

KURTZ: Wait a minute, wait a minute. The point is they weren't previously known by anyone outside their community.

DEPAULO: That's right.

KURTZ: The reason they become celebrities is we in the news business put the spotlight on them, so this again, you know, it doesn't happen by accident.

DEPAULO: No, absolutely, and we have to -- you know, look at that and say, you know, is it right and is it important for us to make victims into celebrities? I mean, but you look at the cottage industry that comes from this.

KURTZ: And on that very point, Jeff Toobin, "People" magazine noted that there was another pregnant San Francisco woman, Evelyn Hernandez, who was killed a year ago, her body washed up on shore, and she's gotten almost no national attention. She, it turns out, is a poor Salvadorian immigrant. So I'm wondering if we do have a case here of, you know, middle class news executives looking for middle class victims to feed to the middle class audience.

TOOBIN: I think there is an element of that, but it's also true that there are a lot of white, middle class victims who have been neglected in favor of Laci Peterson too. So I don't think that can explain it fully. But I think, just going back to your why are we keeping this company, I think as always a lot of this goes back to the Simpson case, that there was a template established there, both in terms of how these stories are covered and how the public responds to them. That the public has become very interested in the legal process. There is a group of people, myself, I am pleased to say among them, who the job of legal analyst didn't even exist before the Simpson case.

You know, the involvement of the families, all of that really started in a big way with the Simpson case, and all of these stories since, whether it's William Kennedy Smith -- well, William Kennedy Smith was earlier, but -- but why am I forgetting -- the Robert Kennedy's cousin...

KURTZ: Michael Skakel. You were there. I saw you reporting live.

TOOBIN: How soon we forget. The Skakel case, Elizabeth Smart.

KURTZ: Long history here. Let me just get Lisa in for the last 20 seconds. Is there anything about this process in which television takes victims, their families, their loved ones and turns it into, you know, a continuing TV drama that makes you in the slightest uncomfortable? DEPAULO: Yes, a lot. I think when it's all over, these people suffer even more, the victims, that is, the families and, you know, but what we have done here it is the ultimate reality TV. Having Scott Peterson's father call Larry King to fight with Nancy Grace, I mean, that is the ultimate reality TV, and you watch the whole drama unfold. You watch the court unfold, you watch the lawyers fight with each other. You know, it's not a coincidence that reality...

KURTZ: We will have to leave it there. The ultimate reality TV. Thank you very much. Lisa DePaulo, Jeff Toobin, appreciate it.

TOOBIN: Bye, Howie.

KURTZ: When we come back, we'll talk to the new dean of Columbia Journalism School about covering politics, the Jayson Blair saga and why he wants to transform journalism education. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Nicholas Lemann has worked first for "The Atlantic Monthly" and now "The New Yorker," covering everything from politics to education to poverty and has written four books in the process. But now he is taking on a new job at one of the nation's most prestigious universities, dean of Columbia's Journalism School. Nick Lemann joins us now from New York. Welcome.


KURTZ: First up, a political question. Howard Dean, the hot story right now. He's gotten a lot of press for having raised $7 million in the last three months, whereas Joe Lieberman is being described by the press as having -- his campaign being in trouble because he's raised only $5 million. Isn't this too much emphasis on campaign cash in political reporting?

LEMANN: Well, you know, this is what Karl Rove in the last cycle four years ago called the money primary, and it is a good name. And there isn't that much else to cover. There are no actual elections until next year, so it's what's there, and so, you know, it's a perfect setup of a story, because it has numbers attached. It has deadlines. It is what's there for us to cover so we cover it.

KURTZ: Dean has gotten some more critical reporting lately as he's ascended into this mythical top tier of presidential candidates, and he's had some testy relations with the press. Does it matter or should it matter if reporters like the candidate they're covering?

LEMANN: It's funny. You know, every four years, there's somebody like this who comes along, who is sort of the outsider, the truth teller, et cetera, like John McCain, like Bruce Babbitt, like Paul Tsongas, Gary Hart way back then. Usually these people love the press and the press loves them, so if Dean can manage to position himself as that person in this four year cycle for however long it goes, without having a love affair with the press, then I suppose that tells you something humbling about the press, which is we don't matter as much to the creation of these kind of out of nowhere candidates as we think we do.

KURTZ: That's a very depressing thought. I thought we were so important. You mentioned Karl Rove a moment ago. You recently published in "The New Yorker" a long profile of him based on three interviews. Here's a guy who almost never talks to the press and was pretty candid with you. How did you pull that off?

LEMANN: You know, in my now somewhat slowing down life as a profile writer for "The New Yorker," I never know what is going on on the other side of the calculation. But I guess what I would guess is, number one, we're very careful about accuracy and we check everything super, super carefully.

Number two, I think he had been longing to have fun at some journalist asking about all the books he read and particularly his interest in the founding fathers, so the chance to do that meant a lot to him. And then, you know, I get to spend as a profile writer for the "New Yorker" lots and lots of time, and as you work on the people more and more and more and talk to everyone they've ever known and they get reports back and they really feel you're going to do the story, it kind of wears down the initial resistance. So it's not just a, you know, ask them once, if they say no, you go away. You keep asking and asking and asking, but I'm grateful that he cooperated so well.

KURTZ: A luxury of time. Let's talk about your new job at Columbia. I'm a graduate of Columbia Journalism School. You didn't go to journalism school. Why did you want this job?

LEMANN: Well, because the president of the university, who is relatively new, and the provost of the university, who is brand new, both of whom are children of journalists, have made it a top priority of theirs to really pour money and attention into taking the school to the next level. So it's a very exciting opportunity to, you know, explore the outer limits of what can be done in journalism education.

KURTZ: But you know, you don't need a license or a permit or a degree to practice journalism. Some would say why do we need j schools at all?

LEMANN: The good analogy would be business schools. You know, the question is not need; the question is, is there value added for the people who go there? You don't need to have gone to business school, you know, the poster child for Columbia Business School, of course, is Warren Buffett. He would say he got his money's worth out of going to Columbia Business School and I think nobody can argue with that.

So one of the great things about journalism is that you don't have to have gone to journalism school. I myself started my career at age 17 at an alternative paper, so I'm a beneficiary of the lack of credentials, but I do think that at a great university like Columbia, we're the only Ivy League graduate-only journalism school, you can draw on the extraordinary riches of the university, of New York City, of the media industry that's pretty much headquartered here, and of the faculty and alumni of this school and really provide something special for the people who go there.

So the question is not do all journalists have to go there? They don't. It is a voluntary thing, and that's good. It gives us a fair test of value.

If the question is, will -- do and will the people who go to Columbia Journalism School feel over the long term that they got something useful out of it, I hope we can answer that with a resounding yes.

KURTZ: Let me read you a skeptical column by "Newsweek's" Robert Samuelson. He says Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger's -- that "Bollinger's haughty vision seems confirmed by his choice for the dean of the journalism school, Nicholas Lemann. He is a brilliant writer, an exhaustive reporter, a gifted thinker, and from everything I know a nice guy." Not bad. But, "he has specialized in long, reflective articles to upscale, that elite publications, with comparatively small circulations. Most recently "The Atlantic Monthly" and "The New Yorker." Most reporters do less exalted work." Do you plead guilty to being an elitist?

LEMANN: No, I don't. I mean, first of all my goal in going to the school is not to turn everybody into, you know, mini me. Second of all, just on a small point, I believe "The New Yorker" now has a bigger circulation than "The Washington Post" so, you know, who is calling who a small circulation publication? It is smaller than "Newsweek."

Look, the question is, you know, if you're fortunate enough to be able to get it, as Bob Samuelson himself was, can education at a great research university help you over the long term? Yes, it can. We're not making everybody go to journalism school. We're saying we can provide an educational experience that will enrich your career as a journalist, particularly by making it possible for you to have a kind of deeper, richer understanding of the complexities of the world you'll have to cover.

KURTZ: You're starting to sound like an academic. The Jayson Blair scandal obviously has kind of cast a pall over the news business. All of these scandals, some of them involving young journalists, going back to Steven Glass and others, would seem to suggest perhaps that journalism schools are not doing as great a job as they might at imparting journalistic ethics. Is that an area that needs more attention?

LEMANN: Well, I'm going to give you the same refrain which is all journalists didn't go to journalism school. Journalism schools aren't in charge of making sure that in the out years over decades that nobody does anything dishonest in journalism.

KURTZ: Is it something that you would put an emphasis on?

LEMANN: It already is a very heavy emphasis at the school and will continue to be. Knock on wood, none of these cases so far has involved a Columbia Journalism School grad, and I hope you continue to behave yourself, Howie, as well. KURTZ: I'll do my best to uphold the traditions. We'll have to leave it there. Good luck in your new job, Nick Lemann. Thanks for joining us.

LEMANN: Thank you.

KURTZ: Still to come, why the media keep on obsessing about the Kennedys whether they're dead or alive.


KURTZ: It became clear this week that Kraft Foods knows how to feed the media. A well-timed leak to "USA Today" produced a big, front page piece on how the company plans to trim fat and calories from such products as Oreos, Rich Crackers and Oscar Meyer meats, and the rest of the press, well, ate it up. But where's the beef? Kraft is doing nothing at the moment, just having an advisory committee study the matter, with no changes before 2004. Kind of leaves you hungry for details.

And what is John F. Kennedy Jr. doing on the cover of "Vanity Fair," "The New York Post" and "The New York Daily News"? They are all trumpeting a new book about the late son of a president, charging that his marriage to Carolyn Bessette was on the rocks at the time of his death. We know that Princess Di remains a cottage industry, but isn't there something ghoulish about journalists still exploiting JFK Jr. four years after his fatal plane crash, or does being famous mean you don't necessarily have to be alive to be media fodder?

Another Kennedy hit the front pages in New York this week with the marital breakup of Andrew Cuomo and Kerry Kennedy, a story fueled by Cuomo's side leaking allegations that his wife was having an affair. Ugly stuff, and perfect for the tabloids. Can the TV movie be far behind? We'll be right back.


KURTZ: 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.


Interview With Nicholas Lemann>

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