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Are Media Merchandising Jessica Lynch?; Interview With Stars of 'Shattered Glass'

Aired November 16, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The real Private Lynch story. The former POW contradicts the heroic image painted by the press and promoted by the Pentagon. Were journalists misled? Are the media still merchandising Jessica Lynch now that she's peddling a book and a made-for-TV movie? And was Larry Flynt just looking for publicity by buying her topless photos?

"Shattered Glass" -- does the new film about "New Republic" fabricator Stephen Glass take too many liberties with the truth? We'll ask the stars, Hayden Christensen and Peter Sarsgaard.

Also, Rosie declares victory, and Rush ready to return.


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the seemingly endless coverage of Jessica Lynch. I'm Howard Kurtz.

The war with Iraq was only days old when the 19-year-old Lynch, captured with other members of her Army unit, was rescued by American forces, a mission the Pentagon made sure to videotape.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a U.S. Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq.


KURTZ: The initial press reports, particularly in "The Washington Post," were dramatic, saying Lynch had been shot and stabbed while violently fighting Iraqi soldiers. And the media went wild over their new heroine.

But the early reports, based on Pentagon sources, soon fell apart.

Now the former POW is trying to set the record straight with a new book, excerpted in this "TIME" cover story. And the Jessica Lynch TV movie went up against the Elizabeth Smart TV movie in November sweeps.

So, were the media manipulated or all too willing to play along with Pentagon hype?

Joining me now, Steve Roberts, syndicated columnist and professor of media and journalistic ethics at George Washington University. And in New York, Nancy Gibbs, "TIME" magazine editor at large. She interviewed Jessica Lynch for this week's cover story.


Nancy Gibbs, does Jessica Lynch consider herself a hero?

NANCY GIBBS, "TIME" MAGAZINE EDITOR AT LARGE: No, and she -- if there's one thing she has wanted to say in this book and in her interview with us, it was that she did not want to be taking credit for doing what she did not do.

She said her rifle jammed when her unit was ambushed. Everyone around her was -- may have been fighting heroically, but she couldn't do a thing. She is the first to say she wasn't a hero. She didn't do any of the things that have been attributed to her. And she was sort of ashamed at being given credit for something that she was not able to do, given the fact that, you know, she lost her best friend that day, along with 10 other comrades.

KURTZ: What was your impression of this young woman as she talked about being ashamed, as you put it, at all of the media hype that turned her into this sort of national icon?

GIBBS: Well, you know, she's brutally honest in the way that, you know, you don't encounter very much, especially when someone is actually trying to diminish their reputation, in a sense. But I think that she, you know, she's an honest girl. And she knew that people had an impression of her that may have been mistaken about what she did. It isn't that she didn't sort of want to be brave and be a good soldier that day, but you know, as I say, her rifle wouldn't fire.

KURTZ: OK. Let me go to Steve Roberts, because I want to take a look at the -- Jessica Lynch sitting down with Diane Sawyer on ABC and talking about the Pentagon's efforts to make her a star.


DIANE SAWYER, ABC ANCHOR: When you saw that they had videotaped it, start to finish, did you say...

PRIVATE JESSICA LYNCH, FORMER POW: Why did they do that? Yes. But I don't know why they did that.

SAWYER: Did it bother you at all?

LYNCH: Yes, it does. It does that they used me as a way to symbolize all that stuff. I mean...


KURTZ: Why did the media run so hard and so long with a story that we now know was largely bogus? STEVE ROBERTS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, I think there was sort of a common interest here. The Pentagon wanted heroes. That's why they put reporters in the field in the first place, embedded them with the units. They knew that when they kept reporters off the battlefield, Howie, they maybe filtered out the bad stories, but they also filtered out the good stories. And they were looking for stories of heroism.

KURTZ: The reporters were on the battlefield, were embedded with units. But they weren't, obviously, along for this Jessica Lynch rescue mission.

ROBERTS: Right. I think that this was not a good day for the media. I think we...

KURTZ: Good day? How about a good six months?

ROBERTS: Yes. We willfully went along with this media hype...

KURTZ: Because we wanted heroes?

ROBERTS: I think we wanted heroes. I think it was a good story. You know, it's a pretty good rule when a story sounds too good to be true it probably is too good to be true. And that certainly proved to be the case here.

KURTZ: Nancy Gibbs, with the book and the movie and the "TIME" excerpt and the exclusive interviews -- Jessica Lynch going on Larry King tomorrow -- are the media still feasting on this story, even though it is far less dramatic than originally advertised?

GIBBS: I think we're doing what we're supposed to do, which is, you know, try to get the story right. And when you said in your last question the story was largely bogus, you know, something very important did happen. It was one of the worst ambushes of the war. There were a lot of casualties. Something quite terrible did happen to Jessica Lynch, even if it was something different than the initial portrayal said. So...

KURTZ: Of course, some terrible things also happened to other soldiers, not just in that unit but other units. And they have not become, you know, news magazine cover people.

GIBBS: You know, we made it -- the week before, we did a big story about the wounded, the number of wounded coming back from this war. And as you know, it has been harder to tell that story because those are the flights that arrive in the middle of the night at the airport and not to the big ticker tape parade.

But in a sense, Jessica Lynch is a symbol of them, too. There are an awful lot of them at Walter Reed who, like her, are going through, you know, months of physical therapy and have a long -- a long way back.

KURTZ: Sure. ROBERTS: Well, one of the interesting things here, Howie, is that the Pentagon has promoted the Jessica Lynch story, tried to make her a hero, as we said. But they have been very assiduous in preventing the media from covering the other side of the story. We're not allowed to film coffins being offloaded at Dover Air Force Base, where the national mortuary is. Trying to restrict coverage even of the POWs after that incident. They didn't want much coverage of the POWs because it looked bad. This Pentagon very determined to shape the public impression of this war.

KURTZ: Well, what do you make of Jessica Lynch now telling the truth, or the truth as best she can recall it, and puncturing the media myth and saying that, as Nancy just told us...

ROBERTS: Good for her.

KURTZ: Good for her?

ROBERTS: Good for her, because you know, as Nancy says, she's a woman of candor. We don't get that much candor from the Pentagon press briefers. And I think good for her. She -- as Nancy said, look, most people, they go on television to enlarge their own reputation. It's very refreshing to have someone who goes on and says, "I'm really not what people thought I was."

KURTZ: Even though, Nancy Gibbs, the Lynch story remains somewhat in dispute -- there was that big "New York Daily News" headline, "Jessica was raped." Is that what she says?

GIBBS: No, you know, and it was painful, I think, having talked to her, to imagine what it was like for her to wake up to that headline. We were very, very careful in "TIME" to say exactly what we could confirm, which is only that she and her family were told by her doctors in Germany that the injuries that she had when they examined her were consistent with a possible assault. Now, that is not a sound byte. To say that you have injuries consistent with a possible assault is a whole lot less sexy than saying, you know, Iraqi thugs raped Jessie. But the headline "Iraqi thugs raped Jessie" was written out of, I think, the ABC News press release. And as you can imagine, it involved, you know, some -- a bit of exaggeration about what we actually could say for certain.

ROBERTS: And the AP ran stories out of Iraq with doctors who took care of her, very specifically and adamantly denied the story of rape, too.

KURTZ: Well, I should mention that Rick Bragg, the former "New York Times" reporter who wrote the Lynch book said that the family wanted this information in and that it would be a lie not to include it. But like everything else in this story, it does still seem to be kind of covered with the fog of war. We don't exactly know what happened.

GIBBS: Plus, you know, there were no eyewitnesses to the ambush or to what happened to her immediately afterwards. So no one can say for sure. Of course, you know, this is a case where you hope the reporter's wrong. You hope that this didn't happen to her.

KURTZ: Sure.

ROBERTS: But one of the things we have to learn from this, Howie, is that reporters have to be very, very careful in these kinds of situations not to accept the Pentagon version of events.

KURTZ: And has that lesson been learned? Have you seen any journalist or any news organization that said, "Boy, did we screw up, and we're going to be more careful next time."

ROBERTS: Yes. I mean, the "Washington Post," even before this happened ran a long story basically saying -- the ombudsman of the "Washington Post," your friend Michael Getler, said the "Post" story was false. They did correct the record. More credit to them for doing that.

KURTZ: Well, I should say "Post" reporters say that they were given information by sources that they believed to be credible. It turned out they weren't.

ROBERTS: They were -- they were anonymous sources and they weren't really checked out very well. And the "Post," to its credit, corrected their original impression.

KURTZ: Let's turn now to "Hustler" publisher Larry Flynt. Nancy Gibbs, he announces he's going to publish these topless photos of Jessica Lynch that were taken at her Army barracks, because he's going to show that she's no Joan of Arc. And then it seems about 12 second later he says, "Well, I'm not going to publish them after all, because I'm a good guy." What do you make of that?

GIBBS: Well, you know, one of the horrible things about it was that people who just sort of glanced at that news may have had the impression that she had, you know, decided to pose for "Hustler" and, you know, try to make a lot of money or cash in on her celebrity. And of course, not at all what this was about. Whether Larry Flynt has these pictures and had a sort of revelation, who can say? It obviously got him a lot of headlines that morning, which I can assume was what the motive was about.

ROBERTS: I think it's all about Larry Flynt self-promotion. And it is unfortunate, this young woman is really trying -- yes, she's made a lot of money out of this. But she's also suffered a lot, as Nancy said, and she's trying to be straight with the American people. She's trying to be honest. But a lot of other people want to make money off her.

KURTZ: This, of course, is the first chance she's really had to talk, because she spent so many months recovering from her injuries while she remained a huge media story.

All right. Steve Roberts, Nancy Gibbs, thanks very much for joining us. When we come back, can Hollywood turn the Stephen Glass scandal into a blockbuster movie? I'll talk to the stars of the new film about the disgraced "New Republic" writer. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. It's been five years since Stephen Glass was outed as one of journalism's biggest frauds. The young "New Republic" writer was a rising star, until the magazine's editor, Charles Lane, discovered that his stories were too good to be true. He was making them up, more than two dozen fabricated pieces.

Now comes the movie version, "Shattered Glass," from Lionsgate Films. Glass is portrayed by Hayden Christensen, best known for his role as a young Darth Vader in the latest "Star Wars" flick, and Peter Sarsgaard plays Lane.


PETER SARSGAARD, ACTOR: The "Forbes" guys are going to have all this too.


SARSGAARD: I'm sure they have surveillance cameras. And they're going to check them.

HAYDEN CHRISTENSEN, ACTOR: I really didn't do anything wrong, Chuck.

SARSGAARD: I really wish you'd stop saying that.


KURTZ: I sat down with the two actors to talk about turning a journalistic scandal into a mainstream Hollywood movie.


KURTZ: Hayden Christensen, you got no cooperation at all from Stephen Glass for this movie, so how did you decide how to portray him?

CHRISTENSEN: You know, he's not exactly a well known public figure. So -- and it is a movie, so we felt like we could afford ourselves some creative freedom. So it was really just a matter of finding the Stephen Glass inside of me and bringing him out.

KURTZ: I didn't know there had been a Stephen Glass inside of you, but you portrayed him pretty well.

CHRISTENSEN: Oh, we all have a bit of him, you know, as actors, we all kind of feel like a bit of a fraud and like we're getting away with something. So I definitely had a good in to the character.

KURTZ: Peter Sarsgaard, how much did you base your character on the conversations that you had with Chuck Lane?

SARSGAARD: Not too much. I just wanted to get his perspective on the actual events. I mean, I agree with Hayden. I think that I tried to have some respect for myself and that way you're respecting the real person you're playing. I've done it a number of times. And it's always a little bit confusing. The best thing to do is just to ignore the fact, I think, that you're playing somebody who is a real life character.

KURTZ: A real flesh and blood character. Let's take a look at a scene from the movie where Glass is pitching his colleagues on a story about his supposed call to a radio station in the wake of the Mike Tyson biting incident.


CHRISTENSEN: I managed to convince the screener that I was a behavioral psychologist who specializes in human on human biting. I told the guy that I'd done all this extensive research on people who chomp flesh under extreme stress.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What did they say?

CHRISTENSEN: They put me on the air. I took calls for 45 minutes.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where do you find these people?


KURTZ: CNN asked the real Stephen Glass for his reaction to the movie.


STEPHEN GLASS: It was my own personal horror film. I was having the things that you're most ashamed of, the things you wish you most could undo, the things you feel the greatest remorse about, portrayed by actors. Very good actors, for 90 minutes. I couldn't watch much, but I watched the floor instead.


KURTZ: Hayden Christensen, are we supposed to sympathize with Steve Glass in this movie? Did you kind of portray him as a charming lunatic?

CHRISTENSEN: I mean, in my approach, yes. You know, I think when you're playing a character that is very flawed, you have to be as sympathetic as possible. And hopefully that's conveyed in the film. At the same time, I think there was a bit of a general consensus of people who knew him that you were either sort of really enamored by him or kind of put off by him. So it was that dichotomy that was sort of important to him still.

KURTZ: Peter Sarsgaard, is Chuck Lane the hero of this movie? Did you try to portray him as something of a man who saves the day or cleans up a mess?

SARSGAARD: I think that would be the kind of the worst possible version of this movie if Stephen Glass were the villain and Chuck were the hero. I mean, that's sort of -- it's not as clear as all of that. It is also, to vilify something is to not understand it. And I think our film is trying to understand not just why this man lied but why we believed him.

KURTZ: Now, the movie does take certain liberties with certain scenes. For example, there are certain things that didn't quite happen. Actress Chloe Sevigny plays a "New Republic" staffer who is a composite character. How much of a problem is that for a movie that after all is about the search for journalistic truth?

SARSGAARD: There's a lot of it, actually -- I would say there was a real effort to pay attention to the real events in this movie. I mean, a lot of the dialogue is dialogue that we actually got that is real. A lot of the quotes from the movie -- a lot of the things that you say in the movie are from articles that Stephen wrote that were never published. So there was a real attempt to follow.

KURTZ: Is this -- is there inevitable clash between making a good, dramatic film and sticking precisely to what happened as you're able to determine it?

CHRISTENSEN: Sure. You know, but I think for the most part our intention was right. You know. All of the events that are filmed encompasses are accurately portrayed.

SARSGAARD: It is really all about intention. I mean, Stephen Glass' intention was not to pursue the truth. Ours was to find some truth within two hours.

KURTZ: But for example, Peter, Chuck Lane, who now works at "The Washington Post," told me that some of the warm and fuzzy scenes with him and his wife in this movie didn't happen.

SARSGAARD: Absolutely. And you know, there were more warm and fuzzy scenes that were in the movie that are not in the movie anymore.

KURTZ: Were these other scenes cut because it was felt that this was taking you too far down the road toward fiction?

SARSGAARD: I think we were afraid that it was taking us too far down the road toward creating a hero character, the hero character you always get to know their family. The villain, you never get to know their family. I think this movie did not want to go into the pop psychology of why Stephen Glass did what he did, but was more interested in just the events themselves, portraying them as accurately as possible.

KURTZ: But on that pop psychology point, Hayden Christensen, the movie kind of leaves ambiguous why an obviously talented 25-year-old would turn into a serial fabricator and a congenital liar. How did you grapple with that? We are sort of left wondering how could he have done this? CHRISTENSEN: You know, that was something that we really couldn't tackle in the film, having not spoken to Stephen. We could never really understand why he did it. And in some ways, I think it sort of works to the advantage of the film. I mean, I always liked films that sort of pose a question but don't really give you the answer.

KURTZ: Were you trying, thinking as Glass that you were trying to impress people, that you were trying to be a showoff, that you couldn't help yourself, was it kind of a compulsion?

CHRISTENSEN: Yeah, sort of all of the above. There was sort of the opinion that he had a lot of pressure from his family. And this, you know, overeagerness to succeed, a desire for the spotlight. You know, that said, to the degree that he did it all lends itself to thinking that there was something pathologically wrong there. And that I think also sort of seeped into my portrayal.

KURTZ: Does the movie gloss over the fact that Chuck Lane, as editor of "The New Republic," and his predecessor, the late Michael Kelly, you know, fail to catch what were some pretty outrageous fabrications?

SARSGAARD: I can understand why they failed to catch it. I mean, in the media, all the time, the thing that we're most interested in is the most sensational, the most hyperbolic. I mean, half the articles you read, half the television you watch, half the radio you hear is sensational press. So it didn't seem odd once he had gotten away with one or two of these articles, when the third and fourth came along, he became known for it.

KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there. Peter Sarsgaard, Hayden Christensen. "Shattered Glass." Thanks very much for joining us.


KURTZ: When we come back, a CNN producer goes too far, and the Republicans cozy up to Fox News. All ahead in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ: Welcome back. Time now to take a look at the latest news in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ (voice-over): A New York judge calls it a draw, but Rosie O'Donnell is declaring victory in the breach of contract suit her publisher filed after she walked out on "Rosie" magazine. No damages for either Gruner & Jahr or the former talk show host, whose queen of nice image was tarnished by the trial.

The question at CNN's Rock the Vote debate brought plenty of ridicule.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And it's not quite boxers or briefs, but Macs or PCs?

KURTZ: But Alexandra Trustman, the Brown University student who asked it, wrote in her student paper that the question was planted by a CNN producer, who vetoed her attempt to ask the candidates a more complicated question. CNN says the producer, trying to encourage a lighthearted moment, went too far. And that the network regrets what happened.

Are Senate Republicans trying to march in lockstep with Fox News? An aide to Majority Leader Bill Frist told the troops before this week's all-night filibuster that, quote, "Fox News Channel is really excited about this marathon, and Brit Hume at 6 would love to open with all our 51 senators walking onto the floor. Can we give them an exact time for the walk-in start?" The Frist aide who wrote that memo called 'excited' a poor choice of words, and a Fox spokesman dismissed the flap as the work of an overzealous press secretary.

And finally, five weeks after going into rehab for his addiction to painkillers, Rush Limbaugh will return to his radio audience of 20 million. Limbaugh is scheduled to hit the airwaves tomorrow.


KURTZ: We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.


Stars of 'Shattered Glass'>

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