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Did Media Hit Panic Button on Isabel?; Clark Takes Hostile Fire From Press

Aired September 21, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Swept away. Did the media hit the panic button in the long run up to Hurricane Isabel? Were news organizations providing vital information or just scaring people? And why don't those reporters come in out of the rain?

Four-star fiasco? Wesley Clark takes hostile fire from the press after jumping into the presidential race. Why is he being so vague? Did he flip-flop on Iraq? And why do some journalists insist on portraying him as a puppet of the Clinton?

Also, J. Lo and Ben. Is the press really to blame?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn a critical lens on the press' fascination with the big hurricane and the newest face in the presidential contest. Plus, a sneak peak at my very own acting debut thanks to a much-hyped new HBO series about the way Washington works.

Well, we begin with the run up to Isabel.


TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: Good evening. Hurricane Isabel is the weather equivalent of "Jaws."



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am inside Home Depot in Virginia Beach, where it has been nearly impossible to keep the shelves stocked.



WOLF BLITZER, CNN: Hopefully our viewers are taking all of this very, very seriously.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: The media's warnings were no laughing matter. And when the winds picked up and the rains descended, some reporters headed out for an up close and personal look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've standing on one of the dunes that hopefully will protect where we are from the storm surge. And then a little bit later...



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In this kind of wind, it's tough to stand. And I'm not sure I can take a question. But try one.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The situation has progressively gotten worse during the last two or three hours here in Elizabeth City. The -- watch out for the piece of wood. Watch out. Plywood flying down the streets now.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What that roof looks like, it could go any minute as it continues just to twist and turn as the strongest winds from Isabel are pounding this area.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Right now, Category 2 storm, really with the most intense part of the eye hitting us. It is all that you want to have out here on the beach here in North Carolina.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's kind of even hard to breathe, because the wind is rushing past you so fast. It's hard to breathe.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're clocking winds at 68 miles per hour. But understand, we're in a relatively protected area surrounded by filming. (END VIDEO CLIP)


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People think you can ride these things out. They think you can come out and watch this. But, as you can see, this is very dangerous.


KURTZ: But is putting yourself in harm's way really the best way to cover a monster storm? And were the warnings filled with too much melodrama?

Well, joining me now here in Washington, Bob Ryan, chief meteorologist for Washington's WRC, the local NBC station. And Mark Fisher, metro columnist for "The Washington Post." Also with us, veteran CNN hurricane reporter, Jeff Flock. He's covered every major hurricane over the past 20 years, including Isabel, Andrew and Hugo. He is now safely back home in Chicago, where he serves as the network's bureau chief.

Bob Ryan, I've gotten a lot of e-mail from folks criticizing TV for scaring people around the clock with all the warnings about how destructive the hurricane would be, Category 5, storm of the century. In retrospect, did you or your colleagues, or some of them, at least, go too far?

BOB RYAN, CHIEF METEOROLOGIST, WRC TV: Well, I think it's all in perspective. It was certainly a Category 5 hurricane, 150 mile an hour winds. And I think as we led up to it, and then it decreased this strength, you have to keep things in perspective.

It was still a very, very dangerous hurricane. And much of the -- I think it is a tribute to the state of the science of meteorology. The track was just about on the intensity, the storm surges. So much of the forecast as we went into the last 24 hours was correct.

KURTZ: Mark Fisher, full disclosure. You still don't have power. I still don't have power. And we're ticked off about it.

Having said that, you wrote days ago about the pre-storm hysteria fomented by the media fear mongers. Pretty strong stuff.

MARK FISHER, COLUMNIST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well -- but it's true. I mean, if you turn on TV in those 48, 72 hours before storm, you'd think the world is going to come to an end. And it's not necessarily material that's coming from your hometown. What bothers me is that stations that ordinarily won't spend the money to cover things beyond their hometown...

KURTZ: Like the state capital.

FISHER: Exactly -- suddenly are sending folks down to North Carolina so they can have somebody clinging to a lamppost, when back here, we need the serious information that Bob Ryan is giving us. We don't need someone giving us play by play on whether the roof of a Texaco station is going to blow off.

KURTZ: Jeff Flock, in the run-up to the storm, let's face it, the constant pictures of people buying plywood and boarding up their homes and putting sandbags out does have a frightening effect.

JEFF FLOCK, CNN CHICAGO BUREAU CHIEF: Well, in some ways I think it should have a frightening effect, because think of all those hurricanes in years past that we didn't get a lot of warning before the meteorology that Bob is talking about was so good, before the forecast tracks were so good. Think of all the people who were killed in those kinds of storms.

And also, keep in mind, this was a reasonably weak hurricane when it really comes down to it. As he points out, Category 5, Category 4 storm, can you imagine what that would have been had that taken a similar track? I think people should get excited about it. It is a heck of a piece of nature, and when it comes to your doorstep, as you said, you still don't have power now. This affects a lot of people.

KURTZ: It is still on my doorstep, Jeff. Bob Ryan, true or false, TV news loves bad weather?

RYAN: True.


RYAN: It is a unifying thing. It is something that is immediate. It's something that we can use all of the tools of television, video and all the technology that we now have.

KURTZ: For ratings perhaps?

RYAN: And terrific for ratings.

KURTZ: Was there any debate in your newsroom about striking the right tone? I mean, you want to give people the information, but don't want to frighten them.

RYAN: No. And I think it was a ramping up process as we went through. I think we try -- you know, it is a delicate balance using the correct language and the words. Is it a disaster -- impending disaster, or is it going to be very serious? How do we best communicate what we as meteorologists and given the perspective know, and how do we do it?

KURTZ: Now, if Bob Ryan and his colleagues had soft pedaled the storm and the hurricane ended up killing hundreds, you'd be all over them.

FISHER: Sure, we'd hit them hard. But the fact is the media loves bad weather. And we love it because it is a great story, it's a dramatic story, it hits home, it tells us about our daily lives.

KURTZ: It affects almost everyone.

FISHER: But it captures the love-hate relationship people have with the press. We need the information, so we love to get the information. We need to know when the power is coming back on, but we don't like -- we resent the showmanship and the fear mongering. We resent the idea that these people are scaring us.

KURTZ: Jeff Flock, I'm going to come to you in a second, but first I want to show a piece of tape that I think will stand as the classic moment of all the coverage of Hurricane Isabel, and it involves Brian Williams and another weathercaster trying to take some readings.


FLOCK: The wind is definitely picking up. I just talked to our hurricane researchers and they say that they think the worst of the winds are about 70, 80 minutes away based on the live that radar he's got.


KURTZ: OK. We have -- that was Jeff Flock in action. Now we want to look at Brian Williams and another weathercaster trying to take some readings out in, I believe, Virginia Beach. Do we have that tape? OK, let me keep going.

Jeff Flock, everybody asked the question when these things come up -- I'm sure you've dealt with this before -- "Why do these crazy correspondents stand out in the wind and rain when we already know the weather is horrible?"

FLOCK: Well, number one, why do I do it? I love storms. My first memory of a child is of hurricane called Hurricane Donna back in 1960 that hit the Eastern Seaboard. So I have a particular affinity for storms.

But communicating the power of these things in real time, I think -- you know, of all the things you can get overexcited about, you know...

KURTZ: Jeff, I need to ask you to hold on for just one second. My apologies. We need to go to Atlanta now. Sean Callebs with a quick news update.

SEAN CALLEBS, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, indeed. I think we are now going to the New York Stock Exchange and information coming out of there. As you know, NYSE Chairman Dick Grasso resigning this past week after questions about his $140 million retirement package came to light.

Well, apparently they are now making a selection on an interim chairman. We now go there with the latest information. It is John Reed, a former Treasury official.

So that's all the information we have for you right now. Howard, we'll throw it back to you and let you carry on with RELIABLE SOURCES.

KURTZ: Thank you for that update. Jeff Flock, sorry to interrupt you. But we were talking about whether being out there -- you say you love storms -- is it journalism, is it entertainment, or some hybrid in between?

FLOCK: Oh, I think all of television is probably a little bit of a hybrid in between. I mean, the pictures do have tremendous power, but, as I said, communicating what a storm does in real time, you know, I've been told you watch some of these reports and, you know, Category 2 storm encourages people to get out of there. They see what the effects are. And to see that in real time, I think it is tremendously compelling.

And you know, really, of all the things to get excited about, I've got to be very honest with you. I'm clearly in the minority, but I'm one of those people that doesn't care so much what happened with Kobe Bryant and what happened with Laci Peterson. Give me man versus nature, I'll take that over man versus man any day.

KURTZ: Understood. And glad you were on duty there.

Bob Ryan, what's the most frustrating thing to you about covering a big storm? You've been through a lot of these. It seems like you get criticized no matter what.

RYAN: That's right. I think it's trying to better communicate what I know or what I have in my mind upstairs to help people make a better decision. And the way I come about it now is I say, here's what I'm going to do.

So like three days before, I say, OK, I'm going to go out and make sure I have some batteries for flashlights. But I'm not going to rush to the grocery store and start stocking up on things. So I try to let people know what I'm going to be doing so that maybe that's helpful to have them make a better decision. That's what I see my role as.

KURTZ: And Mark Fisher, when the power outages knocked people like Bob Ryan off the air, at least for about a million people in the Washington area for a time, it seems like the newspapers and radios become the only way we can get information.

FISHER: Radio becomes really the most important medium. And it's where we start to see what's happened to radio. And we've lost -- in most cities in this country, we've lost those local news departments that can take over the function that we rely on TV for when we have power.

KURTZ: Because of...

FISHER: We have our battery-operated radios and we look for the coverage now. We're lucky of we find one station that hasn't cut back the number of reporters to such an extent that they can't deliver the information we need.

KURTZ: I certainly spend a lot of time listening to the old news radio station here for that very reason. Mark Fisher, Bob Ryan, Jeff Flock in Chicago, thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come, a four-star general with seemingly broad political appeal announces he's running for president. But is his honeymoon with the press over already? We'll talk about that next.



WESLEY CLARK (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm here to announce that I intend to seek the presidency of the United States of America.


KURTZ: Retired General Wesley Clark announcing his bid for the presidency this week in Little Rock. Welcome back.

A new poll by "Newsweek" magazine has -- get this -- Clark leading his Democratic rivals -- by the way, he is on the cover -- there he is -- with 14 percent of likely Democratic voters saying they support the former NATO commander, with Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman closely behind. But the same poll says that 43 percent of Democratic voters have never heard of Wesley Clark.

Meanwhile, Clark has already been wounded by the press in the opening days of his fledgling campaign. And joining me to talk about Clark and the Democratic field, Joshua Green, senior editor of "The Atlantic Monthly," and John Fund, columnist for "The Wall Street Journal"

Joshua Green, given the amount of time you've spent with Clark during his seemingly endless flirtation for a running for president, are you surprised that he's getting so many negative reviews right out of the box?

JOSHUA GREEN, "THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY": I'm really not. I mean, he is a guy who is a political amateur and who I think antagonized the press quite a bit by dragging on his decision to announce as long as he did. So I think there's a little bit of...


GREEN: Yes. Well, there's a little bit of a boy who cried wolf quality of the whole announcement which I think turned a few reporters against him.

KURTZ: On the other hand, John Fund, is the press being unfair by attacking Clark for offering no specifics when he's only been in the race for about 12 minutes?

JOHN FUND, OPINIONJOURNAL.COM: Sure. I don't think it's right for them to demand that he appear in a debate only nine days after announcing. I think you get a little bit of prep time. KURTZ: So what's happening here? Are journalists intent on subjecting Wesley Clark to the sort of same hazing and harassment that we like to inflict on anybody who runs for the White House?

FUND: Well, I think he had a very successful product launch, but a lot of them don't believe the hype. And a lot...

KURTZ: Well, aren't the media part of the hype by constantly putting him on TV and allowing to him, oh, 'should I, shouldn't I, I might?'

FUND: I blame the media for not doing consumer reports analysis like this "Newsweek" poll. That poll, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) research has a very bad track record in the past.

GREEN: I think regardless of that, this really could kick off the sort of honeymoon period that you didn't see in the first three days, because Clark is on the cover of "Newsweek" and he's the hot new story in the presidential race.

KURTZ: He's definitely the hot new story, but you know he gets on a plane with reporters, and here's a guy who criticized the war in Iraq for months, and says, well, I would have actually voted for it had I been in Congress. And then a day later says, no, I would have voted against it. So nothing journalists like more than the old flip- flop, right?

GREEN: Sure. And I think part of the problem you see in the campaign is a byproduct of having to assemble a campaign staff in a week, turn around and sort of hit the ground running with a full- fledged presidential campaign.

FUND: And that's some of the coverage, too. Because, if you look at his campaign staff, it's almost all people who are around Bill Clinton: Mickey Kanter (ph), Bruce Lindsey (ph), Mark Fabiani (ph). It's almost like you could step back in the Clinton White House circa 1996.

KURTZ: Well, since you mentioned that, you gave me the setup for this piece of tape we want to play. Some of the cable chatter on the airwaves this week about General Clark's entry into the race.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: The big question tonight is will Senator Clinton herself run?



SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST, HANNITY & COLMES: I believe that there is a grand plan for Hillary and Wesley Clark in one way or another to hook up in this race.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: What is this obsession that -- you have written about, the conservatives have -- with the Clintons? Why does this have to be spun as a secret plot to elect Hillary?

FUND: It's not secret. It's out in the open.

KURTZ: But why can't Clark be taken on his own merits as opposed to all this speculation about, well, the Clinton, Arkansas, Hillary?

FUND: No, no, he will be. But...

KURTZ: He will be? You saw those clips?

FUND: You have to establish the predicate first. The predicate first is everybody in the Democratic Party is wondering what Hillary will do. This is now the answer.

Apparently Hillary is really not running, but she and Bill are going to be backing Wesley Clark. That's news, Howie.

KURTZ: The media love the Hillary story. She said 500 times she's not going to run in 2004, and yet you heard those things, "Will Hillary run?" What's going on?

GREEN: I think even more than Wes Clark, the media wanted Hillary to run because it would be an absolute circus and it would be just a ton of fun to cover.

KURTZ: So they won't let it go?

GREEN: They may have to now that Clark has announced, but I certainly don't think they wanted to let it go.

KURTZ: You know, in your "Atlantic Monthly" piece, you describe Wesley Clark as curt and thin-skinned. Now that sounds like journalistic code for a lousy candidate.

GREEN: Well, he doesn't quite have the garrulous approachable qualities of somebody like John McCain had. And Clark has been talked about a lot as a McCain-type candidate, and I don't think that's quite right.

FUND: He's not Ike.

GREEN: He's not Ike, but he's also not McCain. So I think the big question about Clark is how is he going to handle the media and what kind of effect that's going to have on his campaign.

KURTZ: Judging by the last few days, John Fund, it seems like he hasn't handled the media very well. He hasn't -- I mean, he gave an 11-minute speech with absolutely no specifics, he hasn't proposed a single program. He doesn't seem to know what his position on Iraq is.

I mean two flips in 24 hours, that is amateur hour, no?

FUND: I think the press corps should have leaped on him for two things. One, this bizarre formulation of whether he would have voted for the Iraq resolution and then he would have voted against it. That was in the space of 24 hours. And then he can't remember who he voted for president. He might have voted for Ronald Reagan.

I don't know. At least I remember who I voted for, for president.

KURTZ: So if journalists continue to hammer him for some of these rookie mistakes -- and let's face it, running for president is difficult business if you've never run for a dog catcher. It is a problem. Will that immediately take some of the shine off his candidacy? Because he was the hot new guy, the buzz-worthy candidate.

FUND: The voters are a little bit more forgiving than the media. I think in the early primary states they'll actually wait to see him, wait to see him campaign locally before they come to a final judgment. I think he's got a little bit of time.

KURTZ: So he has some breathing room despite what all the geniuses in the press who, of course, didn't foresee the rise of Howard Dean at all, pick him apart?

GREEN: I think he does have a little -- he's only going to get better from here. I mean, this is his first...

KURTZ: But that's not saying much at the moment.

GREEN: Well, no, but he has nowhere to go but up. So I think that's good news if you're in the Clark campaign.

KURTZ: OK. Now, all but overshadowed this week was the announcement, the official announcement, at least, by Senator John Edwards, who chose a rather unorthodox vehicle to make official the fact that he is, in fact, running for president. Let's take a look.


JON STEWART, TALK SHOW HOST: Aren't you already in the race? Why do you have to announce it?

JOHN EDWARDS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I don't know if you've been following the polls, but I think it will actually be news to most people that I'm running for president of the United States.


KURTZ: Now, Jon Stewart is a great guy, but is that the way for John Edwards to get media attention, by announcing on "The Daily Show?"

FUND: He also had some bad luck because he announced at a time when everybody was just being told that Wesley Clark was announcing. I understand the reporters were on their cell phones while John Edwards was announcing booking their flights to Little Rock for that announcement. KURTZ: Well, of course, it wasn't a complete accident, because Wesley Clark's people put out the word. They leaked the story on the day of Edwards' speech that their man would, in fact, be getting in the race.

FUND: That one was smart.

KURTZ: That was a good move. But the almost complete overshadowing of John Edwards, does that suggest that basically reporters have kind of written him off and want to move on to the new guy because they don't think that John Edwards has much of a chance?

GREEN: I don't think so, but I think we're seeing the other side of the media darling coin. Because a year ago, everyone was enamored with John Edwards and thought he was the second coming of Bill Clinton. And (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to rise or go anywhere in the polls, so I think after a while the interest sort of wears off a bit on the part of the media if the candidate can't back it up.

FUND: But, in reality, John Edwards still is from a state with 15 electoral votes in the south. He's still on the top tier of vice presidential candidates.

KURTZ: But the question here -- and we just have a few seconds -- is, you know, Howard Dean was helped by the media during his rise. He landed on the cover of "TIME" and "Newsweek." And now Clark is the hot, new guy. Is that going to more or less obliterate almost all of the other candidates?

FUND: The media tends to...

KURTZ: There's 10 people are running.

FUND: They tend to focus on two or three.

KURTZ: Right.

FUND: As we go into New Hampshire, coverage will only focus on two or three because you can't cover 10 people. Then, after New Hampshire and Iowa, it will probably go down to just two, and then it will be quickly over by March 2nd.

KURTZ: Well, I think that's sometimes a mistake, because sometimes it's not your anointed two or three who...

FUND: Howard Dean proves that.

KURTZ: Howard Dean proves that. John Fund, Joshua Green, thanks very much for that political update.

When we come back, drama on the airwaves. My premium cable debut. Stay with us.


KURTZ: There's lots of the chatter here inside the Beltway about the new HBO program "K Street," which mixes fiction with real-life Washington characters, like James Carville and Mary Matalin. I decided to investigate this phenomenon by going deep, deep inside. Actually, what happened is my phone rang and a producer asked whether I would like to play a reporter on the show.

Well, OK, to play myself. And I figured, hey, I do that every day.

So I went over to the local Starbucks, where actor John Slattery, playing an oily lobbyist, tried to pitch me on a story for one of his fat-cat clients, the recording industry.


KURTZ, "K STREET": Who are you shilling for today?


KURTZ: Recording industry?


KURTZ: What's the angle? Why would I want to write about it?

SLATTERY: Because these guys are caught between a rock and a hard place. This business -- the retail and record business -- the business, as they know it, as we know it, is really (ph) gone. It is going away. Every record store in the country, save maybe Wal-Mart and Best Buy, gone. The future of the business is totally online.

KURTZ: You want my honest reaction?


KURTZ: Because I'm not going to pull any punches with you.

SLATTERY : Go ahead.

KURTZ: I try to look at all sides of an issue. I think there's a reasonable case to be made here.


KURTZ: Here's what is interesting about "K Street," which has already had a cameo appearance from Howard Dean. Director Steven Soderbergh and his gang really are making it up as I go along. I had no script. They just told me to react like I would in real life, say yes or no to the pitch, and they would adjust the story accordingly.

And Slattery had no script. In fact, he was asking me for pointers on what a lobbyist would actually say to a journal. And we were only allowed one take. Talk about pressure.

So what you'll see on tonight's episode is seat-of-the-pants filmmaking. Don't worry, I'm not quitting my day job. Besides, HBO made me pay the iced tea. When we come back, should I be feeling guilty over the breakup of America's favorite star-crossed lovers? I'll tell you all about it I we go behind the headlines after this.


KURTZ: Time now to go Behind the Headlines Is it my fault and not of my fellow news hacks that J. Lo and Ben called off their much- hyped wedding? Jen and Ben, or Bennifer, or whatever they're calling themselves these days, seem to be on the cover of "PEOPLE" or "US Weekly" every time they smooch or they fight or he goes to a strip club or they make a movie that turns out to be a big, fat stinkaroo.

When they pulled the plug on the wedding, they blamed excessive media attention. Right. Jen and Ben, who live for publicity, who thrive on publicity, invite 400 people to a Santa Barbara wedding and then cancel the whole thing because "Entertainment Tonight" and "Access Hollywood" disclosed the time and place?

"PEOPLE" magazine reports that Jen and Ben have split up, at least temporarily. Have the glitzy pair really called it quits, or are they planning a secret wedding? Or is this just another ploy to keep the media's favorite soap opera going? And, if so, did I just fall for it?

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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