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Keller Replaces Raines; Are Media Over-hyping Uranium From Niger Story?

Aired July 20, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Cleaning up the mess. Bill Keller becomes "the New York Times" editor and vows to change the high handed ways Howell Raines ran the paper. Can he do it?

Why are staffers so angry at Raines over his interview with Charlie Rose? And what was behind the paper's latest black eye, a 2,000-word correction?

Also, the press hammers Ari Fleischer and his successor over the bogus uranium documents. Are journalists finally starting to hold the president accountable or being carried away in a media frenzy?

And how the sausage is made, the summer of really soft news.


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

"The New York Times" this week named a new editor to replace Howell Raines, who resigned in the wake of the Jayson Blair fiasco involving serial fabrications. The new man in charge, Bill Keller, is the former managing editor, a Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent who reported from Washington, Moscow, and Johannesburg.

But can he put the paper back on track in light of the continuing anger at Raines and yet another embarrassing correction? Joining us in New York, David Carr, media reporter for "The New York Times," Michael Wolff, media columnist for "New York" magazine, and here in Washington, Geneva Overholser, journalism professor at the University of Missouri and the former editor of "The Des Moines Register."

David Carr, one thing Bill Keller made absolutely clear talking to the staff, talking in interviews to people like me is that he's not Howell Raines, that he doesn't plan to drive his staff as hard, that he wants to give more power to lower level editors. How is this message playing in the newsroom?

DAVID CARR, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I think as you might expect, Howard, it is a pretty happy bit of news for those of us at the paper.

I think his most important message is that we work at "The New York Times." We don't work at Bill Keller's "New York Times," we don't work at Howell Raines' "New York Times." We work at an institution called "The New York Times," that has been a good paper, is a good paper and will be a good paper into the future. But he made it clear from the start that though he may be running the show, it's not only his show to run.

KURTZ: Michael Wolff, the CEO, Arthur Sulzburger, didn't make the bold move of going outside the paper. Instead, he returned to the guy he had passed over two years ago in picking Howell Raines. What's the message there?

MICHAEL WOLFF, "NEW YORK" MAGAZINE: I think it's stunning, actually. I mean, I think this is a complete victory for the newsroom, and it is a victory for the newsroom specifically over the publisher. Not only is he going back to the guy that he passed over, but in many ways Keller is the exact opposite of the guy that he chose and who represented his particular management vision. I think it's maybe never actually in the history of journalism has a newsroom been so successful in its bid against its publisher.

KURTZ: I've always been taught never to say never because you might get contradicted, but you may be right. Geneva, does Keller face a difficult task, all of what the paper has been through in the recent months, in restoring "The Times'" credibility and calming the place down?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER, FORMER EDITOR, "DES MOINES REGISTER": Sure, anybody would, Howie. And yet I think all of us have won with this choice. He is a really smart guy, he's been managing editor of "The New York Times" and he has been writing I would say the best column in American journalism over the past two years, present company excepted.

It is a terrific, thoughtful, smart column. It's reflective. It would persuade anyone that he's open-minded and evenhanded. I mean, he is a hell of a good journalist. He's got experience in the newsroom. And if anybody can do it, I think that it's he.

KURTZ: Sounds like you're with the program. Now, I've talked to a lot of "Times" people this week who are still really mad at Howell Raines over this interview that he gave to Charlie Rose, some of the things he said. Let's take a look at that.


HOWELL RAINES: There was an ideological war or battle, struggle going on at "The Times," if you will. Arthur sent me to the newsroom to be a change agent, to lead a talented staff that was settled into a kind of lethargic culture of complacency, into being a performance culture.


KURTZ: David Carr, how do you feel about Howell telling the world that the staff was complacent and needed him for a good kick in the pants? CARR: I feel a little bad for Howell, because he did great work while he was at the paper. I was proud to work for him. I thought he put out a good "New York Times," but I think his performance on "Charlie Rose," the suggestion that he took over a bunch of lazy folks would come as a surprise to the families of the reporters at "The New York Times." And I think that -- I think that Howell -- I mean, look at General Patton, asked men and women to do very difficult things. He didn't end up getting in trouble. Part of the leadership is building constituency for very tough times, and Howell led the paper through tough times, but it's important that, you know, that respect be shared back and forth, and I don't think that just because it was a hard working newsroom that people were reacting against what he was doing.

KURTZ: Just in terms of a fallen executive trying to rehabilitate his image, Michael Wolff, how did Howell do in terms of the way he came off in that interview?

WOLFF: Well, I don't necessarily know if he's trying to rehabilitate himself or just this is an expression of his own rage and anger at this point, but I think that the more interesting thing, that it is likely an expression of the way Arthur Sulzburger feels, that there is a sense at "The New York Times" that the newsroom, that they want the newsroom to change, that they want it to be something that it has not been before. That -- as a matter of fact, for the health of the business, from here going forward, the future of "The New York Times," it has to change, and so it's this -- we're at this interesting moment where the newsroom itself has said, no, we don't really want to change. We like ourselves the way we are.

KURTZ: So, in other words, you agree with part of Howell Raines' indictment that this was an insular culture that needs the shaking up?

WOLFF: Yes, well, who wouldn't, except if you're part of that culture.

KURTZ: I see. But even Sulzburger told me in mild terms that he disagreed with some of what Howell had to say, and I'm wondering, Geneva, did it seem to you that Howell Raines understood what he had done wrong, that he was widely viewed, fairly or unfairly, by most of his staff as being kind of arrogant and out of touch and overbearing?

OVERHOLSER: I thought he did when he left. It sounded as if he did. He said those very words, many of you view me as arrogant. This interview did him a disservice, because it came off as sort of a justification -- you know, here's what the star system was. It wasn't a bad thing, it was putting talent together with stories. It sounded disloyal to the publisher, and I thought it has been striking to see both Sulzburger and Keller reacting very specifically against what Raines said and really voting in support of the newsroom.

I agree with Michael Wolff -- and I have worked at "The New York Times" -- that newsroom needs to change. Any newsroom needs to change, but the fact.

CARR: I feel compelled to... KURTZ: Go ahead, David.

CARR: The idea that this was a moribund outfit that needed a good kick in the pants, you know, every one of those Pulitzers that "The New York Times" won on 9/11 was by people who had been there for years and yeas. These were people that had put time in day in and day out, and the idea that when the bell went out, that somebody had to kick them in the pants to get them to go out and do their job is absolute nonsense.

WOLFF: But it doesn't have to be moribund, really. It just has to be -- there just has to be the perception on the part of management that the product has to change, that it was one thing and now it has to be another.

OVERHOLSER: But if you want to change, you do it all together, you don't do it the way he was doing it, from the top down.

KURTZ: Well, that's the thing, that a lot of people, based on my reporting, felt excluded from this sort of autocratic reign and felt that their efforts were not appreciated. But I want to turn now, Michael Wolff, to this extraordinary 2,000-word correction last Monday of a business story, a story by reporter Lynnette Holloway (ph) about a music industry executive, which said that he had lost control of his company, he defaulted on a loan. None of those things turned out to be true. It even got his address wrong. How humiliating was this sort of lengthy correction at this point in time for "The New York Times"?

WOLFF: Well, I think it is humiliating, but I actually think it is an indication of something else. It is an indication of a need to correct, of a need to restate one's own purity. There's almost a kind of Maoist self-criticism thing to it, because actually if you look at this story, and to me the key line is that the subject in question was accused in the story of being overly litigious. I will guarantee you that the reason "The New York Times" retracted that is that he had lawyers calling up threatening litigation.

KURTZ: I think that's probably a reasonable assumption. Clearly, the reporter screwed up, Geneva, but where are the editors? How does a piece of such flawed journalism get in the paper?

OVERHOLSER: Precisely. I think this shows that "The Times" needs an ombudsman, Howie. That paper that you and I have worked for in town, "The Washington Post," has one. It does plenty of things wrong in my view.

KURTZ: You had that job.

OVERHOLSER: I was an ombudsman.

CARR: Oh, please.

OVERHOLSER: It really makes a difference to be able -- oh, please -- to have someone who is not being defensive. Somebody needed to explain how that many errors could have gotten into that story, and the response from Arthur Sulzburger was this is what we do, we correct and move on. The public out there needs to believe that we hold ourselves accountable, we know what went wrong and we will correct things and not do it that way the next time.

KURTZ: David Carr, it sounds like you disagree.

CARR: Are you guys going to suggest that publishing a 2,100-word corrective to a story is somehow unaccountable, that we needed -- to me "The Times" responded vigorously and seriously to a reporter who had...

WOLFF: I'm actually suggesting that "The Times" is being overly accountable.

KURTZ: But David, I guess one of the criticisms that came up during the whole Jayson Blair period was, yes, "The Times" did a tremendous job of going out and correcting all the facts, but not as good a job at writing about how the top executives at the paper, the role that they played, and I guess the same thing could be applied here.

CARR: I couldn't agree less. The real problem, let's face it, Howard, in American journalism is not mendacity, not malfeasance, it's mediocrity. And we have the resources, we have the personnel, and we have the will to compete with everybody. Yes, we took a few hits lately, but to suggest somehow that we need an ombudsman or a long period of self-examination to go out and make phone calls and write good stories that are correct and true is baloney.

WOLFF: Let me suggest that, actually, it is just the opposite of that, that the problem with "The Times" is that it has now made itself its major preoccupation. The thing that reporters at "The New York Times" are most interested in at this point is "The New York Times" itself and not the world out there.

KURTZ: Well, if that's true, I'm sure that period will pass as we get into other news stories involving world events. We are going to have to leave it there. David Carr from "The Times," Michael Wolff, Geneva Overholser, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, are the media making way too much of the flap over those 16 words in the president's State of the Union? We'll ask two White House correspondents next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Congress is investigating and the media are in full scandal mode over President Bush's now discredited claim last January that Iraq was trying to obtain uranium from Africa. Check out some of the tough questioning in the White House press room earlier this week.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a president who prides himself on straight talk and accountability, and yet, he has yet to express that he is upset about the fact that this intelligence became unreliable. Should somebody be held accountable for this mistake?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You all went through a lot of hoops to try to get this into the speech. Why?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You were trying to have it both ways. You're saying it shouldn't have been in the speech, but it still may be true, but you really don't know. Why don't you simply retract and put out a statement?


KURTZ: What did the president know and when did he know it? Is the press just making a mountain out of a molehill of complicated intelligence data? Well, joining us now, Dana Milbank, White House reporter for "The Washington Post," and John Dickerson, White House correspondent for "TIME" magazine.

Ari Fleischer says this is just a media feeding frenzy, press blowing this out of proportion. Does he have a point?

DANA MILBANK, WASHINGTON POST: Well, that's one of the traditional ways in which any White House under fire does this sort of thing. You remember they're using the phrase now "move on," which just happens to be the exact same phrase that was used during the Clinton scandals.

Ari Fleischer, unfortunately, in his last week on the job essentially ignited this whole firestorm. He ignited this firestorm by saying in an off-camera briefing that what the president said in the State of the Union was wrong. Now, he quickly back-pedaled on that, but this can of worms was opened, and suddenly in this sort of parting gift to the White House, Ari Fleischer bequeathed this scandal.

KURTZ: But you know, some people out there, John Dickerson, must be saying, look, this was one sentence in the State of the Union. Bush obviously got bad information. Why is the press pumping this up day after day?

JOHN DICKERSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Two things. One, the White House keeps giving us new fuel for the fire. There are conflicting statements. What we see is a picture of the White House not really on the same page before the State of the Union speech and now we see a White House that's still not on the same page. We have lots of different explanations for what happened. They're still trying to answer it.

But the second thing is, this is a proxy for all the other intelligence. Intelligence is murky. We as press don't get access to this intelligence. We have to trust the White House. So when we have one instance where we can take a look at the process, it is a proxy for all the other times that intelligence is discussed, so that we and the American people can assess what the administration is telling us.

KURTZ: And hasn't this uranium story become kind of a metaphor for the larger credibility problems of this administration? Some columnists saying, well, they didn't just lie about uranium, they lied about the deficit, that sort of thing?

MILBANK: I think that's right. And what you have here is a lot of pent-up hostility in the press corps and also in the opposition Democrats. They've essentially both have been stymied from doing what they are used to doing for the last two and a half years.

KURTZ: You're saying reporters are mad?

MILBANK: I think they're frustrated more than angry that they really haven't been able to get traction, they haven't been able to get into this administration, and here you have this startling case in which the White House is handing out documents saying, its own State Department believed a key claim the president made was highly dubious, suddenly this can open the floodgates so that you have -- suddenly the Democrats who have been asleep for a couple of years are fired up, the press is back into scandal mode. Whether or not it's a scandal -- but it's back in the mode that we haven't seen since the Lewinsky days.

KURTZ: Do you agree there's a lot of built up resentment in the press corps? During the war, obviously it was very difficult to criticize the administration. The whole country was rallying around. So is some of this being fueled by a feeling that now there is a thread here that we can really pull on?

DICKERSON: I would agree. I think there are some people in the White House who believe this is the problem with giving them any thread at all. There is an ongoing argument...

KURTZ: The problem with that is what was said in the State of the Union speech, fairly or unfairly, turned out not to be true.

DICKERSON: Indeed. And so there has been -- every administration comes in and says we're not going to tell them anything, and usually it doesn't last very long. This administration has gotten away for a long time with keeping the Congress and the press at arm's length, really doing a very good job of keeping their secrets and keeping us away. And this is an instance in which the White House is in trouble, there is a fact that is incorrect here, and so now it's...

KURTZ: Are they calling people like you in for briefings and to give you spin and to try to get this story to basically go away?

DICKERSON: They've been trying, but the problem is they add more oxygen. They add more facts that then don't close the case, and often the facts contradict the facts that were there the day before, so it just has more legs.

KURTZ: One of the statements that President Bush made this week in response to questions about this story certainly caught my eye. Let's take a brief look at that.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Did Saddam Hussein have a weapons program? And the answer is absolutely. And we gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in.


KURTZ: Saddam wouldn't let the inspectors in. Now, this is a statement that basically bears no relation to reality. Why has that not been more made of by the press?

MILBANK: It was on the front page of "The Washington Post." But I think what people basically decided was this is just the president being the president. Occasionally he plays the wrong track and something comes out quite wrong. He is under a great deal of pressure. Everybody in the White House is under a great deal of pressure. ABC News aired a segment this week about the troops in Iraq complaining, and then the White House leaked to Matt Drudge that he's a Canadian and therefore might be unpatriotic, and even suggesting that -- because it was written about in a gay publication.

KURTZ: Oh, then he's gay. So they went after him in a personal way.

Now, a White House spokesmen told me this is not the way the White House operates. They don't know who did this. They don't approve of it. But it made me wonder how sensitive they are getting to any kind of criticism on anything related to Iraq.

DICKERSON: Well, this is very unlike the Bush White House. Last Friday we saw essentially the Bush White House push back at the CIA. They said they weren't pointing the finger at George Tenet, but in fact, they were, and we've seen an instance in which White House folks behind the scenes have been pointing fingers at Ambassador Wilson, who had gone over to Niger to look at some of this information. Now there are reports they're pointing fingers at a reporter saying he is Canadian. This is very un-Bush like.

KURTZ: If things were going better in Iraq, I would say this wouldn't be a story that would resonate the way it has. But you mentioned Ari Fleischer is leaving. Scott McClellan comes in, new press secretary, into the middle of this firestorm. How has he done in trying to put out the flames?

MILBANK: Well, I actually feel bad for Scott. I mean, he's actually quite well liked in the press corps, and he is an impossible situation because he did stumble right into this at a time when he doesn't have a lot of information to give, and what information he has may not be entirely correct. He doesn't know necessarily the entire story.

People were actually in an off camera briefing this week were yelling at him, which is very uncharacteristic sort of thing. It became quite personal, and it's really not his fault.

KURTZ: Welcome to the White House. Just briefly on McClellan.

DICKERSON: Well, that's exactly right. There are several times when Ari was still the press secretary and McClellan would just happen to be on the job, Ari was out of town when crises would happen, and it was always sort of, well, we have to wait until Ari gets back. Now it's all in Scott's lap.

KURTZ: Baptism by fire. Dana Milbank, John Dickerson, thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come, summertime in cable news. We'll take a trip through "The Spin Cycle." Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back. We're halfway through the long, hot summer, and you know what that means in media land? A perfect topic for "The Spin Cycle."


KURTZ (voice-over): No, not scary shark stories. That was a couple of years ago, although the papers have been filled with chilling tales of killer mosquitoes.

Instead, the silly season is under way. Especially if the less than earth shattering fare comes with eye-catching video. How many times have you seen this footage? Interesting story. A Pittsburgh Pirate with sawdust for brains takes a whack at a human sausage, but it brings out the worst in cable producers who have gone to the instant replay over and over.

Let's try it again in slow-mo.

It was mildly amusing when "CROSSFIRE's" Tucker Carlson made this vow about Hillary Clinton's book.

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

KURTZ: And, again.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, CROSSFIRE: That was the promise...

CARLSON: If she sells a million copies of this book, I'll eat my shoes and my tie.

KURTZ: And it was fun when the former first lady showed up with the oversized footwear.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), NEW YORK: I really want you to notice, Tucker, that this is a wing tip, it's a right wing tip.

KURTZ: But how many times did CNN replay the tape? Boy, did the network get plenty of mileage out of that shoe leather.

Of course, Hillary's book also allowed the shouting heads to start rehashing an old summer rerun starring this woman and this man.


KURTZ: Enough, enough, we know how that one ends. Then there's the usual celebrity junk news. Is Demi Moore really fooling around with a 25-year-old boy toy, or is that just a publicity stunt to sell magazines? And when the media runs out of semi-famous stars doing tabloid things, there are always dead celebrities, from Katharine Hepburn to poor JFK Jr, whose personal life is getting chewed over yet again.

Television has even resorted to showing fornication, which is OK, I guess, if the beasts in heat are a symbol of a political party, and the president of the United States is a bemused onlooker.


KURTZ: Talk about empty calories. This stuff may taste great, but it's definitely less filling.

And save room for more. We haven't even gotten to August yet. 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, 8:30 Pacific 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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