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Are Media Convicting Bryant Without Trial?; MSNBC Fires Savage

Aired July 13, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Slam dunking Kobe. Are the media convicting basketball star Kobe Bryant without a trial? Should journalists be more restrained about an unproven allegation of sexual assault? And why are so many pundits saying that Bryant's image will be tarnished even if the charges are bogus?
And "SAVAGE NATION." MSNBC fires Michael Savage for offensive anti-gay comments, but why did the network hire the fire-breathing talk show host in the first place? And should he stay on the radio?

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

A pro-athlete getting into trouble. That's nothing new, but what if there's an investigation and no charges at least not yet? The media put on a full-court press this week when basketball star Kobe Bryant was arrested in connection with an alleged, key word alleged, sexual assault of an unnamed 19-year-old. Prosecutors in Eagle County, Colorado, said they were still weighing the evidence.


MARK HURLBERT, PROSECUTOR: Will Kobe Bryant be charged with sexual assault? Possible he'll be charged with sexual assault, possible he won't be charged with anything. Possible he'll be charged with something different. Right now, I need to review the reports and look at the evidence.


KURTZ: The 24-year-old Los Angeles Lakers star has gotten along well with the press ever since becoming one of the first high school players to turn pro back in 1996. He has an unblemished reputation to go with his big endorsement contracts for such as Nike and Sprite.

But that hasn't stopped sports agents, advertising folks, and other talking heads from debating the damage to Bryant's career or an avalanche of negative headlines or news stories like this one in "The New York Post" saying the accuser tried to land a spot on "American Idol." So how should the media treat a superstar under a shadow?

Well, joining us now in Detroit, columnist Mitch Albom of "The Detroit Free Press," who also hosts the nationally syndicated radio show and is the author of the best selling "Tuesdays with Morrie." In Denver, Mike Littwin, a columnist for "The Rocky Mountain News." And in New York, ESPN magazine's senior deputy editor, Roxanne Jones. Mitch Albom, are the media just going overboard here, practically indicting Kobe Bryant on the basis of very few facts?

MITCH ALBOM, DETROIT FREE PRESS: I actually don't think so, Howard. I think they've done pretty much what you would do in a situation like this. I'd answer the question of, well you know, have they misbehaved with another question, what do you expect them to do? You can't ignore a story like this. He was arrested. He did show up and talk to the police. There was some kind of charge made. So you have to report that.

KURTZ: Of course.

ALBOM: I think most of the indicting, if there is any, is on talk shows and pundits and things like that, but the straight reporting I think so far has been pretty fair.

KURTZ: Mike Littwin, not one person blathering on these talk show, TV, radio, you name it, knows whether these charges at this point are real or bogus. Even the accused name hasn't been published or aired. So does this give you any pause?

MIKE LITTWIN, ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS: I mean forget innocent until proven guilty. How about at least innocent until charged? So I think there is a different standard when someone hasn't even been charged yet. And you know, in the first day, one day you start worrying about how an alleged sexual assault will affect somebody's shoe sales. I think you have a little bit of something to worry about.

KURTZ: Right, that took 30 seconds for that question to be asked. Roxanne Jones, what kind of grade would you give the media's coverage of Kobe?

ROXANNE JONES, ESPN MAGAZINE: Well, I understand Mitch's point, but I have to say I would agree with Mike that in this case in particular, everyone wants the story. We all want to know happened, but we have to keep in mind that he has not even been charged. And so with that in mind, I think everyone lumps the media together.

So whether it's pundits or talk shows,, whatever it is as a whole I think it looks like we've really jumped on this story. And some of us have been irresponsible. And so I think we have really rushed to judgment in some cases. There has been some good coverage in newspapers and on TV, but some of it has been blown out of proportion at this point in the case.

ALBOM: A lot of it, I think, Howard has to do with the very nature of the story which is a he said, she said type of thing right from the bat. You are obligated to a certain degree as a journalist to try to keep someone's identity private in a case like this because it's of a sexual nature. The girl has gone away. You're talking about people's reputations. You're talking about a married man who just had a baby. So everybody is tiptoeing around on one hand. On the other hand, this is a superstar who if he says I'm not getting enough minutes, it's a national story, too. KURTZ: Mike Littwin, I've heard more than one pundit say that this is all going to tarnish Kobe Bryant's squeaky clean reputation regardless of how the case comes out. And I'm sitting here thinking how can that be? If it turns out that the accusations have no merit, why should there be any stain other than the fact that he's gone through the media meat grinder?

LITTWIN: Can I give you a two-word answer, Richard Jewell. Once your name's there, your name is there. You can't put it back into the bottle.

JONES: Right, but Richard Jewell...

LITTWIN: And I think that's, you know, one of the clear lessons here. The other one is in 24/7 news, cable, cable news, you've got the story constantly. It doesn't go away for a minute. No, ask Scott Peterson.

Well let me give you two other names then. I'll throw in this to Roxanne. Michael Irvin and Eric Williams, Dallas Cowboys members who were falsely accused of rape back in 1996.

JONES: Right, at the White House. Yes.

KURTZ: And in fact the accuser there ended up getting charged for making up a false story. Doesn't the press learn anything from these episodes?

JONES: Well, I'll give you another name. Allen Iverson. I mean, that was a more recent story. All of the counts eventually were dropped and, you know, in a sense...

KURTZ: This is a case in which he was accused of having taken a gun to a cousin's house...

JONES: Fourteen felony counts.

KURTZ: ...while looking for his wife.

JONES: Right.

KURTZ: And the press went wild over that, as well.

JONES: Right. And so, you know, we have these stories. It's not just in sports. It's in politics and in other cases. We have stories where we need -- we want to tell the story. We all try to be accurate when we're telling the story. But I think in our impatience to tell the story without all of the facts present, we get into, you know, hypothesizing and what happened. And we imagine things happened.

And then we just go crazy with it. Once somebody throws something out there, as in we know pretty much -- we could identify this woman actually I think, the local press could. We already know she sang in the choir, she's a cheerleader. We've spoken to her neighbor. We know she's blonde. And so any... KURTZ: Don't we know too much about her already?

JONES: We know -- I say, we could identify her.

KURTZ: I mean, is that fair?

JONES: We know where she works. The people at the hotel know who she is. And so -- and we really, if we say that we protect victims, if she -- if the alleged victims in this case -- there isn't even a case, there aren't any charges yet.

ALBOM: We also don't even know what kind of victim we're talking about here.

JONES: Exactly.

ALBOM: Under that umbrella in Colorado as I understand it, this could be anything from a mild grope to almost rape.


ALBOM: So that's a pretty broad spectrum.

JONES: Absolutely.

KURTZ: In fact, we don't even know the details of what he is supposed to have done.

JONES: Absolutely.

And that's where I object, Howard to some of the -- when people start going to someone's next-door neighbor, as I saw one story and say, oh, you know, I knew that girl and she would never make up a story like that. Well first of all, I think all neighbors should be eliminated from news all the time, because it's always the neighbor who goes he was such a quiet guy, and then they blow up something.

But then you're at a point where you're already into deep speculation. But the problem you have when we're talking about this issue here is you can see as we're talking, there's several different categories of press you're talking about.

JONES: Right.

ALBOM: You're talking about people who are straight reporters for newspapers. I think they have done a pretty decent job of reporting the facts of this case. But if you're going to talk about every talk show or everybody who writes a story that speculates on his endorsement deal possibilities, good or bad by the way, because some have postulated that this might actually help sell sneakers in the weird world of sneakers.

JONES: That was ludicrous. That was ludicrous.

ALBOM: Now I think you're moving into an area that doesn't belong. (CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Let me jump in there, Mike Littwin. What was the media circus like at the scene in Colorado? And what did you make of the local paper, "The Vail Daily" holding off after getting wind of these allegations because he hadn't been charged and thereby giving up the scoop?

LITTWIN: A very bizarre media story. I mean, I went there I think just so I can -- to stay in a $460 hotel room.

KURTZ: Good reason, I like that.

LITTWIN: Yes. So but "The Vail Daily" knew of the story immediately, apparently and then indicted to wait. It said in the newspaper, in -- within the news story, it said that it decided to wait until the charges were official. And that could be a very, you know, ethical principled stand. Or it could simply be in Vail, you know, kind of hush-hush for the celebrity.

KURTZ: Right.

LITTWIN: I'm guessing it could be hush-hush for the celebrity, but that was the end of the hush-hush. From now there's no hush- hushing.

KURTZ: Right.

LITTWIN: Instead, you get story on that is debating whether Kobe Bryant now has street cred by being an alleged rapist.

JONES: Let me correct that. Let me correct that since I work for ESPN. That was a story by Darryn Rovel. It was not debating whether he had street cred. The story was whether his value will go down. And some of the sources in that story alleged that, forget about his value going down, this in fact might help it go up. We always knocked him for not being cool enough or hip enough. So it was not the reporter who put this debate out there.

ALBOM: But see, the very nature of that story -- the very nature of that story is wrong.

JONES: Right.

ALBOM: Because it's postulating on something that hasn't even happened yet. How can you debate whether his street cred will go up or down when you don't know if he's going to be charged? So I object to the assignment of that story.

JONES: Look...

LITTWIN: Absolutely.

ALBOM: The speculation of that story or the writing of that story. JONES: Well actually, how can you object to the assignment of the story if people in marketing, the people who spend money on this kid, who promote advertisements, who sell sneakers are already shaking in their boots? That was the basis of this story. The discussion was already happening.

KURTZ: All right, let me elbow my way in here.

ALBOM: Shaking in his boots does not constitute a story. People shake in their boots every day in this country over...

JONES: The discussion...

ALBOM: ...something or another.

JONES: ...was already happening.

ALBOM: You don't write a story about it just because somebody's shaking in their boots.

JONES: This is a financial story. It's a business story. And the markets go up and down. And Darryn wrote this story. And I credit him for writing the story.

ALBOM: You'll have to rewrite that story a week later. You'll rewrite it a month later. You'll rewrite it two months later when the facts change. The story can be written, but it's the timing that you choose to write it. You don't write it in the first two days after something like this.

JONES: I think you write it when people are talking about it.

KURTZ: Hold on. Blowing the whistle here. Mike Littwin, one last question to you.


KURTZ: Does the press build up these athletes who we have this faux intimacy with to a ridiculous degree and then kind of delight in tearing them down when they either make a mistake or are accused of doing something wrong?

LITTWIN: I don't see you've seen the sporting press particularly going after Kobe Bryant. In fact, if anything, he might be getting more of the benefit of the doubt than you could hope for. And I think that may continue.

KURTZ: Because reporters like him?

LITTWIN: If it goes to a charge, I think you'll see many, many defenders of Kobe Bryant who don't know any of the details of what may or may not have happened.

KURTZ: All right, we'll have to continue this off the air. Mike Littwin, Mitch Albom, Roxanne Jones, thanks very much for joining us.

JONES: Thank you.

KURTZ: When we come back, Michael Savage fired by MSNBC. Should the shock jock have lost his weekly cable show? And what were MSNBC executives thinking when they hired him in the first place? Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. It was only last March that MSNBC hired bomb throwing radio host Michael Savage to do a Saturday talk show, but this week the network pulled the plug after Savage got into this exchange with a crank caller. We're showing you this offensive bit of tape to explain what the controversy is about.


MICHAEL SAVAGE, HOST, SAVAGE NATION: So you're one of those sodomists.

CALLER: Yes, yes.

SAVAGE: Are you a sodomite?

CALLER: Yes, I am.

SAVAGE: Oh, you're one of the sodomites. You should only get AIDS and die, you pig. How's that?

Why don't you see if you can sue me, you pig. You got nothing better than to put me down you piece of garbage? You got nothing to do today? Go eat a sausage and choke on it. Get trichinosis.

OK, do we have another nice caller who's busy because he didn't have a nice night in the bathhouse who's angry at me today. Huh? Get me another one. Put another sodomite on. No more calls? I don't care. Now let's go to the next scene. I don't care about these bums. They mean nothing to me.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now to talk about this in Boston Mike Jurkowitz, who writes about the media for "The Boston Globe." And in New York, Adam Buckman, "The New York Post" TV columnist.

Mark Jurkowitz, on the radio Michael Savage has called gay groups "slimy and filthy." They say they live in mud puddles, and accused them of Nazism. Can you enlighten us as to why MSNBC hired this gentleman in the first place?

MARK JURKOWITZ, THE BOSTON GLOBE: Well, that's a very good question. And I don't want to pander to CNN here, but I think that MSNBC has spent some time looking for a direction for a lot of their programming, that they've always been sort of the third place finisher in the ratings wars. They brought the liberal icon Phil Donahue out of retirement not too long ago. That didn't work out for them. Their recent strategies would kind of suggest that they've looked at the success of the Fox News channel and decided, well, maybe we ought to go conservative. So they picked up the guy who was without a doubt the hottest in every sense of the word conservative talk host in America. Not only when they gave him that job in March did he end up with a TV gig, but he's also been syndicated by about 320 radio stations. And he's also been a best-selling author with his book "The Savage Nation."

KURTZ: Right, right. I want to come back to the radio, but let me get Adam Buckman in here. MSNBC has got some talented people on the air, Chris Matthews, Lester Holt, Keith Olbermann, and many others. What does it say about the network that its executives decided to give Savage a platform?

ADAM BUCKMAN, NEW YORK POST: Well, they were kind of grasping at straws, I guess taking the risk that perhaps if they talked to Michael and prepare the show the right way, maybe he wouldn't be as incendiary as on the radio. The problem is I think they kind of sort of wanted him to be incendiary, only not that much, because wanted to draw some attention to their lineup, which has been stale and as Mark pointed out, not really working out for them in the ratings.

So I think that one of the...

KURTZ: So they're looking for the guy to be hot and offensive and to insult these kinds of (unintelligible), but not go too far?

BUCKMAN: Excuse me?

KURTZ: They were looking for the guy to be hot and offensive and insult people, as long as he didn't cross some sort of invisible line?

BUCKMAN: Well, that's the problem, the line is kind of invisible. And it's not to defend Michael Savage. You know, I just heard that exchange that you played, the entire thing, really for the first time. And it's really shocking. But the truth is in television today, it's difficult to spell out the limitations and restrictions for the talent, especially one who has gotten away with so much on the radio.

KURTZ: Well, I'm going to take issue with you there. I think the line there is quite visible when you talk about, you know, I hope you get AIDS, you pig.

BUCKMAN: Where is this defined? You know...

KURTZ: That is way, way, way over the line.

BUCKMAN: ...a few years ago, Howard Stern wished that Imus would get cancer and die. Now a lot of people got angry at that, but nobody threw him off the air for it. I mean, again, it's not to excuse Michael Savage, but there's an awful lot of things...

KURTZ: Well, doesn't that seem more as shtick? And this...

BUCKMAN: ...that gets said all the time in the media, that people don't get fired for it. KURTZ: Well, I would suggest that the Howard Stern insult of Imus was seen more as shtick as opposed to this clear anti-gay message. But Mark Jurkowitz...

BUCKMAN: Defined anti-gay, but at the time it was considered very cruel and very mean.

KURTZ: Sure. Mark Jurkowitz, does MSNBC deserve credit for now dumping Savage?


KURTZ: Or is the reality that they had no choice?

JURKOWITZ: He was an accident waiting to happen. I don't think they really had a choice. You know, from day one, gay activists particularly were targeting MSNBC. As soon as Savage's show got on the air, he's had a huge track issue, a long track issue on this issue.

So frankly, they just came up and swept the wreckage. I think the moral of the story clearly is television is not radio. And it's certainly not talk radio, even when you want hot talk radio people on.

MSNBC has the letters NBC in it. There's a brand there. Tom Brokaw's part of that brand. Brian Williams is part of that brand.

KURTZ: Right.

JURKOWITZ: You cannot get away with on television and a cable news network the kind of sort of hot frontierless talk that Michael Savage spews out over the radio out of San Francisco every night on 300 stations.

KURTZ: Okay, let me take a moment to read a statement from Michael Savage. "This was an interchange between me personally and a mean-spirited vicious setup caller, which I thought was taking place off the air. It was not meant to reflect my views of the terrible tragedy and suffering associated with AIDS. I especially appeal to my many listeners in the gay community to accept my apologies for any inadvertent insults which may have occurred.

Adam Buckman, you know, if somebody went on the air and made these kind of insults about blacks or Hispanics Jews, it would absolutely not be tolerated, but is there a feeling in some quarters that gays are an easier target?

BUCKMAN: Well, I don't think this was tolerated by anybody. And I don't think...

KURTZ: But he had said things like this before.

BUCKMAN: Well, I don't think they're easier target, especially because of the activism in the gay community. I mean, they're as stalwart a group of watchdogs as you'll ever get who follow the media and complain about this kind of thing. KURTZ: As you noted, Mark Jurkowitz, Michael Savage remains not just a best-selling author, but on 320 radio stations. WRQO in your city suspended Savage for the grand total of one day, but does this MSNBC flameout increase any pressure or provide any pressure on radio stations to take a hard look at this guy who's presumably making some money for these stations?

JURKOWITZ: I do think it does. And I think it puts him in an awkward situation. Yes, we had a suspension up here that lasted not as long as Sammy Sosa's suspension for the bat incident. It was just a gesture apparently.

Although I think the point was made to the programmer and the syndicator of Savage's show. Now it puts Savage in an interesting dilemma. As long as he gets ratings, he'll be okay. The real question for Savage is, and I've always said about him, he's a savage man for savage times. I think he flames out on his own sooner or later anyway when the country gets back to a more normal state of mind in all probability.

But it's interesting to see what kind of tact he will take on the radio. He can go one of three ways. He can ignore what happened here. He can decide that his enemies are even more insidious than they were before and be even more aggressive on the radio, which could push him over the line. There are stations I think watching him closely.

KURTZ: Right.

JURKOWITZ: Or he could ratchet it back a little bit and get a little kinder, gentler. And if that happens, I think his shtick is through, too.

KURTZ: Adam Buckman, did the late unlamented Savage cable show -- was that an example of the whole direction of cable TV becoming louder, more shrill, more angry? Or was just an isolated blunder by MSNBC?

BUCKMAN: You know what? People may disagree with this, but I think that show in particular is an isolated blunder. I think it's true that, as we all know some of the cable shows with Chris Matthews and Bill O'Reilly have become, you know, louder and more personality driven than they were in the past. And in fact, this might be, you know, MSNBC's all thumbs approach to developing a talent that would be in that tradition.

But they obviously gambled wrong with him. And they picked a guy who was extremely nonprofessional to say the least to think that he was not on the air when he blurted out these comments. You know, that's one of the oldest mistakes in the television handbook. And he really blew it.

KURTZ: Well, just as MSNBC pulled the plug on Michael Savage, I need to pull the plug on you guys. Thanks very much for joining us, Mark Jurkowitz and Adam Buckman.

BUCKMAN: You're welcome.

KURTZ: Still to come, former "New York Times" editor Howell Raines speaks out for the first time since his resignation. We'll show you some of what he said after this.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Howell Raines has finally broken his silence. More than a month after quitting as editor of "The New York Times" in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal and a newsroom revolt against his heavy handed management style, Raines sat down with Charlie Rose on Friday night. Here's some of what he had to say.


HOWELL RAINES: I moved the newsroom too far too fast. And that was a mistake on my part. And I stepped on a landmine called Jayson Blair. I became a political liability. And that's that story.

After four weeks of working our way through these problems, Arthur asked me to step aside. And I did.

CHARLIE ROSE, HOST: You would not have done it if he didn't ask? Everything you...

RAINES: I don't know the answer to that. I suppose not, Charlie, but...

ROSE: Don't just suppose not. Now let me -- bear with me. You don't just suppose not. You know you would not have resigned. I mean, everything in you, your hero bear Bryant was you don't quit.

RAINES: OK. I'll concede that point.


KURTZ: Howell Raines speaking out for the first time about the scandal that cost him his job. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: On last week's show, we mentioned the murder of a pregnant California woman. No, not Laci Peterson, but Evelyn Hernandez who happened to be a poor Salvadoran immigrant and whose cases received almost no national attention compared to that of the middle class Petersons. This week, Hernandez got a brief burst of media attention. Was it guilt on the part of the nation's journalists? Not quite.


LARRY KING, HOST: Scott Peterson back in court as his attorneys are denied access to the files of another unsolved murder of another pregnant woman found in San Francisco Bay. Scott's defense can only see the autopsy and autopsy photos of Evelyn Hernandez. Will that be enough to link her killing to Laci Peterson's? (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So Hernandez finally gets covered, but sadly only as a subplot in the never-ending Laci Peterson saga.

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.



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