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Kobe Bryant Coverage; Should Bush Have Bypassed National Press in PR Blitz?

Aired October 19, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): R-rated testimony, the lurid Kobe Bryant trial puts the media on trial. How sexually explicit should journalists be in reporting on the alleged rape? Should they trumpet charges about the accuser's sex life, or are they trashing the young woman in the process?

The president's PR offensive on Iraq, can he bypass the national press by going directly to local correspondents? And what about the White House spin that things aren't as bad in Baghdad as the negative headlines would suggest.

Also, curse of the Cubs. Did a newspaper endanger this man's life?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn a critical lens on the Kobe Bryant media circus.

Rape allegations. Hoards of reporters at the latest pretrial hearing in Colorado, and some difficult questions about how to handle the very explicit testimony.


GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST, "ON THE RECORD": In terms of this stain or this spot in her underwear that is not Kobe Bryant's...

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Apparently, they found a pubic hair that was not Kobe Bryant's in her underwear. They also found semen.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, "HARDBALL": How do you account for the presence of these pubic hairs and this semen from somebody else in this woman's panties?


KURTZ: Well, joining me now to talk about how the media are treating the allegations against the NBA star and his 19-year-old accuser, in Los Angles, "Newsweek" national correspondent, Allison Samuels, in New York, CNN national correspondent, Gary Tuchman, just back from an extended visit to Eagle, Colorado, and here in Washington, former CNN anchor Frank Sesno, now a professor at George Mason University and a CNN consultant.


Allison Samuels, you wrote the latest "Newsweek" cover story on the case. How well do you know Kobe Bryant, and how difficult is it for you to write about this?

ALLISON SAMUELS, "NEWSWEEK": I've covered Kobe for "Newsweek" since his first year in the league, and, you know, I have done numerous articles on him, talking to he and his family and everybody around him. This was particularly hard to write about, (A), because every experience that I've ever had with Kobe has been pleasant, and he's always been a gentleman, a very sweet guy, seemingly. And to have these allegations made against him and to actually break it down to what might have happened, you know, was incredibly difficult. I think it's the hardest story I've had to write in my career.

KURTZ: Right. Gary Tuchman, as you well know, there's been a lot of graphic sexual testimony at these pretrial hearings. In fact, let's take a look at one of your recent reports.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And, once again, I must tell you this is a lot of dicey and graphic conversation, so I want to warn our viewers about that in advance. But, according to the detective on the stand, talking to the defense attorney, the panties she wore to the hospital did contain semen and did have pubic hair that came from someone other than Kobe Bryant.


KURTZ: So, you're on live. Do you find yourself editing yourself when it comes to these very explicit descriptions?

TUCHMAN: Absolutely, Howie. It's uncomfortable listening to it right now, but that's what I've been doing when I've been on live. I've been warning the viewers beforehand. I am aware there are children out there. I am aware my children are out there watching television, and there are certain words I haven't used. I've used some euphemisms, I've used some synonyms, to avoid certain words, but you still have to tell the story accurately.

KURTZ: This is an important story, Frank Sesno, but aren't the media exploiting the titillation factor here?

FRANK SESNO, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY: Oh, to some extent. It's a story -- like all stories like this -- that sells. You've got a high-profile icon of American culture -- in this case, sports. You've got explosive charges, and they're the kind of thing that you can't miss.

And so, does it grab a viewer? Does it hold a viewer? Does it grab readership? Absolutely. But the problem is, as Gary said, you can find euphemism, you can search for them, but you've got to tell the story, because that's what's happening in the courtroom. KURTZ: But on that point, Allison Samuels, if Kobe Bryant's lawyer, Pamela Mackey, says in court without offering any supporting evidence that the woman had sex with three men that week, do you just repeat it? I've had some reporters tell me they don't want to publish those kinds of charges unless there is evidence introduced to back it up.

SAMUELS: Right. And that is obviously the problem. It's like, you know, this is interesting. People are fascinated by this case. They want to know ever detail. I think, you know, many of us who have covered it, you know, since the beginning, just sort of resigned to the fact that we're just going to have to report every detail, because people want to know. And I think some people feel like Kobe has been vilified on some level, and that, you know, both parties -- we need to know what both parties have done in their past and currently.

KURTZ: Does there come a point, Gary Tuchman, where you and all of your journalistic colleagues are, frankly, being used to paint the accuser as something of a slut and blacken her reputation?

TUCHMAN: All we can do is lay out both sides of the story. And we use the word "allegedly," we use the words "accused," we use words very carefully. I'll repeat the word "allegedly" a million times, if I have to, maybe redundant, but I'm saying, this is what the prosecution says, this is what the defense says. And I want to make it very clear when I'm saying these things, this is not what I, Gary Tuchman, is saying; this is what they're saying. I am just reporting the story the best I can.

KURTZ: On the other hand, the sheer volume of coverage, Frank Sesno, aren't the media trashing Kobe Bryant's reputation when he may well turn out to be innocent?

SESNO: Well, the media -- are the media trashing his reputation, what, by harping on it over and over again? What's happening in the courtroom is happening in the courtroom...

KURTZ: By making it into...

SESNO: By making it into a spectacle?

KURTZ: Because it's not just what's in the courtroom. It's what's on the talk shows every night. It's the 24-hour nature of this.

SESNO: This is now the media culture in which we live, and it's going to be impossible to hit the clicker and stop it. You can hit the clicker and go to another channel, but this is what exists. And, yes, to some extent, the media...

KURTZ: It doesn't make you uncomfortable?

SESNO: Yes, of course, it does. And the media have to be held accountable to this. Are you reporting the story, or are you exploiting it? Is five minutes enough? Ten minutes enough? What is the decibel level? What is the theme music? What are the graphics? How sensational do you want to make this?

But this is no different than the O.J. Simpson trial. This is no different than Clinton and Lewinsky. This is part of the world in which we live, and part of that involves very explicit language.

I remember when C. Everett Koop, the surgeon general, got on the air with me on this network and used the word "condom" for the first time. We were all shocked, shocked, I tell you. But you know what? That's now part of the language. This kind of trial and this kind of language is also not part of the media language. The question is the decibel level.

KURTZ: That must have been a long time ago.

SESNO: It was.

KURTZ: Frank Sesno talks about the volume and the decibel level in the 24-hour world in which we live, Gary Tuchman. With all of the important stories going on in the world, do you ever feel when you're out there in Eagle, Colorado, that you're standing up there talking about semen and panties and perhaps, you know, at least half of that media mob ought to be off covering other stories?

TUCHMAN: You think about that, Howie. I mean, I covered the war in Iraq. This is obviously a different caliber story. I do recognize however, I don't want to be a snob about it, people are very interested in the story. Kobe Bryant is very well known. He's a hero to many people. Despite what a lot of athletes say, they are all role models to children, and because he is so well known, it makes it a valid story.

KURTZ: Allison Samuels, the basketball season is about to start, and we're going to have all these sports writers following the Los Angeles Lakers around, trying to get interviews with Kobe Bryant, who is going to be a lot more interested, I think, in talking about his jump shot than what's going on in the courtroom. So, are some of the journalists covering these pretrial hearings and ultimately the trial, do they have to worry about their access to this basketball star?

SAMUELS: Yes, I think that's definitely happening, and I saw it a lot with a lot of sports reporters responding to our story that we put on the cover. I think they're being very careful, because, yes, you do need Kobe if you're a beat reporter, if you're a sports reporter, if you're "Sports Illustrated." You need Kobe, and you need -- and everybody wants that first interview after this is over, you know, barring if he's not convicted. I think everybody wants that interview.

So, for news magazines, like "Newsweek" and obviously just mainstream news organizations, they don't have that worry. But I think the guys who cover him every day on the road, they have to really be concerned about that.

KURTZ: You say they don't have that worry, but, I mean, you know Kobe Bryant, you know members of his family. Aren't you, in the back of your mind, worried that perhaps you are ruining relationships that you have built up over the years by covering these very sordid allegations?

SAMUELS: Yes, I mean, I'm pretty sure that, to a certain extent and for a while, it probably is ruined, which is unfortunate, given the circumstances. But, you know, it is something that happened. You know, one of the problems I have, too, is being an African-American, as he is, a lot of African-Americans were upset that we put him on the cover, you know, given that it was such a negative thing.

But, you know, again, you have to deal with the fact that this is a story, and people are fascinated by him.

KURTZ: You don't really...

SAMUELS: And if it's resolved...

KURTZ: You don't really believe deep down that he was capable of doing this, do you?

SAMUELS: No. No, I don't think that he is capable of doing this. I have not let that affect my reporting, of course. But, no. From my experience with him, no, I would never think that he would have the capability of doing this.

KURTZ: You anticipated my next question. Just briefly, Frank Sesno, you likened this to the O.J. trial, but the O.J. trial was widely seen as not having been the media's finest hour...

SESNO: It was not the media's finest...


SESNO: It was not the media's finest hour in terms of...

KURTZ: Well, are we going down the same road now?

SESNO: No, no, no, not to that same extent. I don't think we've seen the equivalent of the car chase down the freeway, and I don't think we've seen the networks, for however much they're covering it, live off of it, you know, non-stop 27/7, the way they were doing. There is ample coverage, but I think in both cases -- in the case of the woman and in the case of Kobe Bryant -- the old question and adage still applies: When this is all over, where do I go to get my reputation back? Someone is going to need to ask and answer that question.

KURTZ: Well, the one key difference, of course, is no cameras in the courtroom for this trial, which, of course, would boost the level of coverage here...

SESNO: That one was seen as a circus...

KURTZ: ... exponentially.

SESNO: That one was seen as a circus. It had a tremendous impact, both in the media and in the judiciary, and it was the judiciary that said, we're not doing this again. KURTZ: OK, Frank Sesno, stick around. Allison Samuels and Gary Tuchman, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, President Bush is looking for more positive coverage of Iraq. The latest White House PR tactic next.



Time now to put the Iraq story through the spin cycle.


KURTZ (voice-over): It's no secret that President Bush is frustrated with the national media. Things are getting better in Iraq, he insists, along with Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and Condi Rice. But the press keeps portraying the place as a disaster area.

So, the president is resorting to the old end-run. This week, Bush gave interviews to five regional TV outfits, back to back, eight minutes each.

Here is what he told one of them.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm mindful of the filter through which some news travels, and sometimes you just have to go over the heads of the filter and speak directly to the people.

KURTZ: Translation? Regional correspondents tend to ask less aggressive questions and are less likely to challenge the White House spin.

The president, of course, can talk to anyone he wants, but no PR effort can change this sort of news.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: A U.S. soldier killed early this morning, five more were injured, in a series of incidents.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There was another suicide bomb in Baghdad tonight.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: One American soldier is dead and another is injured.


KURTZ: The president may view us as a filter, but national news organizations provide something of a reality check, and the reality in Iraq, unfortunately, continues to be troubling.

Well, joining me now is Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for "The Washington Post." And still with us, former CNN Washington bureau chief, Frank Sesno, also a former White House correspondent. Dana Milbank, the president decides to bypass the White House press corps and take his message to regional TV reporters. Were your feelings hurt?

DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I am deeply offended. The interesting thing, Howie, is that there was so much buildup and so much protest about this, that the regional reporters were being used as stooges, that if you actually tuned into these regional reporters' broadcast, they were asking the tougher questions than we were. They were cynical in their presentation. The president making an obvious naked effort to get around and put out some pollyannish fluff. It was really something that we wouldn't even do.

KURTZ: So, why is there still a perception that local and regional reporters are not as smart and not as sophisticated as the people who camp out in Washington?

SESNO: Well, it's not that they're not as smart or not as sophisticated, but they're not as involved in the inside-the-Beltway chit-chat and process. You know, the White House and others have said for a long time, and not unjustifiably, that here in Washington, we focus on who's up, who's down, horse race, nasty questions coming at you, try to do gotcha questions, and there's something to that, because it actually means something.

In America, with real people and correspondents and anchors who live closer to them, I think they're going to get questions that are broader in scope perhaps, and allow the president to go over the head of these process-prone folks.

KURTZ: And not get bogged down in what you describe as...


SESNO: Presumably.

KURTZ: Now, Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, told you in your story, Dana Milbank, that the national media engage in this 24-hour world, and more analysis and more commentary, which means they think you're biased.

MILBANK: I actually accept the accusation of the analysis, although not the commentary part. It is true that the wires, even cable news, is more likely to broadcast exactly what the president says...

KURTZ: The president said today things are getting better.

MILBANK: Right. We have the luxury of chewing over it.


MILBANK: We chew over it for a day. The news magazines can chew over it for a week. But that is actually providing the full context. We are providing more of a truthful, accurate version. It's really the president who is putting the filter on news. This administration is actually punishing troops in Iraq with Article 15 punishments if they speak out and say something negative in public.

And we also learned this week that one unit in Iraq -- not under direction from Washington -- but one unit in Iraq was encouraging soldiers to send a form letter to their daily newspaper touting the good news. So, being...

KURTZ: But you're looking at it the other way around. You're saying you're giving a fair and balanced -- forgive the phrase -- report, and the president is filtering the news.

MILBANK: Well, of course. I mean, that's what -- everybody is a filter. Look, I mean, if we presented every fact that is seen out there, our paper would be thousands of pages long each day. So, of course, we have to sort through the facts. It's the president's job to filter the news with the best possible spin for him. That's not interesting or new. The fact is we have to balance that with all of the other...

SESNO: And the president's news is filtered. I mean, as Michael Kinsley (ph) wrote in "The Washington Post" today, the president doesn't prefer to read newspapers and to watch the stuff on television. He prefers to get his version of what's going on in the outside world from his chief of staff, Andy Card, and his national security adviser, Condi Rice.

Everybody chooses their filters. They choose their own comfort level, and they choose, you know, where they're going to go with it.

The White House is very sophisticated; so are others in this business, Howie. Because it's not just going to regional news organizations, but they know what the demographics are of every channel and every network out there. And when they parse the president's time or a congressman's time or what have you, they're going to women aged 18 to 34 or what have you, and they know where and how to go.

KURTZ: Let me get to the larger question, which is: Does the White House have a point that a lot of the reporting from Iraq was unduly negative? I mean, "The New York Times" the other day, the front page story saying the streets are cleaner, the shops are well- stocked, the pay is better if you have a job, but these attacks are continuing. Most of the coverage, though, tends to be about the things that are going wrong. True or false?

MILBANK: I can't say for certain, because I'm not the one on the ground risking my life in Iraq. I know some of our best reporters are doing that, and so I certainly believe that they're conveying the proper balance of things.

It's interesting to note that we actually did a story a few months ago with two correspondents -- one went with the troops through a patrol, the other one, who speaks Arabic, stayed behind and listened. So, the people, were on the one hand, looked to be greeting them with open arms, and then as soon as the patrol passed, they were telling the Arabic-speaking reporter what they really thought, which was that they found this whole thing despicable. So, the real question is: Are the troops there deceiving themselves?

SESNO: But the fact of the matter is that much of the reporting in print and on television is about three B's: bombs, bullets or ballots. And if they're not voting or they're not shooting at one another or things aren't exploding, it's harder to get that story written and played.

KURTZ: But particularly for television, Frank Sesno, because how do you show, how do you visualize that the electricity is staying on longer and the streets are cleaner, when obviously the dramatic footage is about today's attacks?

SESNO: Well, that's not hard to do, Howie. I mean, you can go out and you can look at the telephone poles and the lights that are on, and you can talk to people if things are changing. The problem is if you turn the lights on, on Monday, is it still a story on Thursday? And the fact of the matter is that if a bunch of -- if troops are attacked on Monday and they're attacked again on Thursday, it's news both days.

KURTZ: I want to take a look at a clip from "Nightline." Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, was on. Ted Koppel was giving him a hard time about a pre-war estimate given to ABC that the post-war period in Iraq would cost only $1.7 billion, not the 87 billion we're now being -- the Congress is now being asked to approve. Let's take a look at that.


TED KOPPEL, HOST, "NIGHTLINE": Do you think the context, Dan, might have been a little bit easier to understand if the administration had been a little more forthcoming in acknowledging that things didn't quite go the way you were expecting after the war? And I guess I'm just asking whether you think if you had been a little more forthright earlier on you might be having an easier time now?

DAN BARTLETT, WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Well, I strongly disagree with the premise.


KURTZ: How much of the president's frustration with the coverage of post-war Iraq is based on all of these stories about whether or not the administration was deceptive during the run-up to war and making the case for war?

MILBANK: Well, to understand it in the full context, you know, the president has complained about the filter before when we were writing things about the economy not being terribly well. So, this will...

KURTZ: It's a common White House complaint.

MILBANK: No, no, you're right. It goes on and on. And things are particularly sensitive now because of the weapons of mass destruction and the failure to find them, because of the investigation of the CIA leak. But because the poll numbers have dropped down to 50 percent support or 55 percent support, that, in turn, is generating some sniping in the administration.

It was hysterical this week that Knight Ridder did a report that said President Bush was angry with officials -- senior administration officials for not speaking on the record, and he has directed them not to do that anymore, a senior administration official who requested anonymity told Knight Ridder.

KURTZ: But, it seems like this president is really fed up with the media, and not just on the economy and not just on Iraq, but all of these stories about weapons of mass destruction. The guy has held nine solo news conferences, and his father held about 60 at this point. What do you make of that?

SESNO: Well, he doesn't especially like or think it's necessary to go out and meet the national press. I mean, no offense to Dana Milbank here, but, you know, he's got better things to do, he thinks, with his time, and part of that is to reach out through the regionals.

But this is not new. You know, I mean, John Kennedy discovered he could hold a news conference and be charming and be humorous and take responsibility when he was in trouble, and it worked with the American people. Ronald Reagan discovered he could go right over the heads of the national media and the Congress and talk right to the people. Presidents, when they think they're doing the right thing and they're confident, will do that. This is just the latest version of that.

KURTZ: So, does that make the national media marginal or even irrelevant?

SESNO: Neither. It neither marginalizes them nor makes them irrelevant, because they continue to write the headlines that most people read or many people read, and to write the headlines that dominate conversation of programs like this and discussion here in Washington. It sets the agenda. It's called agenda setting, and the media, the national media included, will do that. They also influence the regionals.

KURTZ: Got to blow the whistle here.

SESNO: OK, blow the whistle.

KURTZ: Frank Sesno, Dana Milbank, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, is it an interview or an infomercial? A Florida TV station on the hot seat in our media minute.


KURTZ: Question: How do you get interviewed on the morning show on the NBC affiliate in Tampa? Answer? Cold cash.

WFLA-TV sells segments on the program, I learned this week, $2,500 for four to six minutes.

Here's co-host Debra Schrils boarding the swamp buggy at a Florida adventure park featured in a paid-for segment.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right now we're at the Babcock Wilderness Adventure Tours (ph), and this is a swamp buggy. We're going to take a ride through several different ecosystems, and we're going to see parts of nature you may have never seen. Come on with us.


KURTZ: WFLA President Eric Land tells me the program has nothing to do with the news division, is helping out local advertisers and discloses the advertising aspect in a brief graphic at the end of the show. WFLA's owner, Media General, says some of its other stations are considering this pay-for-play journalism.

And the Wen Ho Lee case is coming back to bite the media. Federal judges ordered five reporters to disclose their confidential sources used in reporting on the nuclear scientist and former spy suspect, who pleaded guilty to only a single felony, and is now suing the federal government. Reporters in question work for "The New York Times," "Los Angeles Times" and the AP, as well as former CNN correspondent Pierre Thomas, now with ABC. The ruling is being appealed.

When we come back, the curse of the Cubs and that much-hated Chicago fan outed by the press.


KURTZ: He is now the most famous -- make that the most infamous -- Chicago Cubs fan in history. But should the media have outed Steve Bartman? In case you haven't had electricity, the 26-year-old made the boneheaded move of interfering with what could have been a game- saving catch in game 6 of the National League championship, helping to sink the team's chances of making the World Series for the first time since 1945. Fans were so enraged that police had to hustle him out of Wrigley Field.

Most of the media withheld his name. "Chicago Tribune" editors say it could have endangered his life, but the "Chicago Sun-Times" identified him. "We're not in the business of suppressing news," editor Michael Cooke told me. And Bartman put out a statement saying he's really, really sorry.

Now, there's a case for the media protecting rape victims and government whistle-blowers, but baseball fans who make utter fools of themselves before a national TV audience? One strike like that and you're out, buddy.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media.

"LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right after this check of the hour's top stories.


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