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Scare Tactics; Interview With Bill Geist

Aired January 4, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Scare tactics. Has the press gone mad over mad cow?

Have all the media reports on the flu become contagious?

Is television spreading terror by trumpeting these terror alerts, or are journalists just doing their job by warning people about the worst?

And, CBS's Bill Geist gives us the naked truth on the news business.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn a critical lens on an age-old question in the new year. In these anxious times, are the media scaring the public silly?

I'm Howard Kurtz.


KURTZ (voice-over): From the moment the diagnosis was made on a Washington State Holstein, the mad cow headlines filled the papers day after day. And television was mad for the story as well.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Agriculture officials, while continuing to insist the meat supply in the U.S. is safe, acknowledged today that in the end they may never know the answer to that question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The search here has expanded for more information about the sick cow, which could lead investigators to more cases of mad cow disease.

KURTZ: An orange Christmas and New Year's also dominated the holiday news.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In New York, those headed to Times Square will be greeted by an unusual amount of security.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any major city that has major landmarks and major gatherings of course is going to be a much more desirable target for a terrorist.

KURTZ: And reports of killer flu infected all of the media.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A more immediate health concern for most Americans is the still-spreading flu. The government tonight reports the outbreak is widespread now in 45 states.

LOU DOBBS, HOST, "LOU DOBBS TONIGHT": The western United States tonight is at the center of what appears to be a growing epidemic of the flu.


KURTZ: So are journalists just reporting the news or playing it to public fears? Well, joining us now in New York, Geneva Overholser, former editor of the "Des Moines Register," now a journalism professor with the University of Missouri. Here in Washington, Gregg Easterbrook, senior editor of "The New Republic," also the author of the new book "The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse." And "Washington Post" reporter Paul Farhi.


Gregg Easterbrook, are the media intentionally trying to create crises, as you seem to suggest in your book, because they're in the fear mongering business?

GREGG EASTERBROOK, SENIOR EDITOR, "NEW REPUBLIC": Well, I think it's more, Howie, that the media just get ever better at reporting the sense of anxiety and fear. Cable channels like CNN do a fabulous job of showing us everything that's burning or blowing up or surrounded by police officers in the world. We're sensitive to ever-smaller risks. And so that's -- I think the media create the impression that life is getting constantly worse and more dangerous when, objectively, for most people in most nations, most things are getting better.

KURTZ: Geneva, let's take the mad cow story, an important story, certainly in terms of its economic impact. But it basically got started with one measly sick cow, no human victims. Why has this become such a huge fixation for the press?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER, UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI: Well, for some of the reasons Gregg says, I think, Howie. But it is a big story. It's a health story. It's a trade story, you know? And Taiwan says they're not going to import our beef.

And I guess I also think it's important to remember that this is what the media do, you know? Exceptionalism. I'm not sure it's anything terribly new. Also, I hesitate to paint all the media with one broad brush. There are a lot of different styles.

KURTZ: Well, I tell you, everywhere I look -- I mean, here in the food sections this week, "New York Times": "Warily Searching for Safer Beef." "The Washington Post": "The American Burger: How Safe is it?"

So Paul Farhi, even though most people will never get infected from this, even if you eat meat from the infected cow, if you're seeing mad cow, mad cow, mad cow every day, don't you sort of wonder, well, should I go out and buy a steak?

PAUL FARHI, "WASHINGTON POST": Yes, of course. I mean, the whole fear of mad cow disease is that it brings about something very basic: it's in our food supply. You can't bring it home more than that. That's what the media is responding to, is the idea that something you can get, something that could happen to you...

KURTZ: Even if the chance of that is, say, minuscule, infinitesimal?

FARHI: Infinitesimal. And even the science says it may not even be causation between mad cow tainted beef and consumption of that beef causing the disease. That's still suspect, but the subtleties get lost.

OVERHOLSER: But haven't we all read that in the media? I've certain been reading it in "The Times" and "The Post," that in fact your chances of getting it are infinitesimal, that the expectations of millions dying in Europe didn't come true. I mean, we read that in the media, too.

FARHI: But subtlety often gets lost in the course of a panic like this, in a media panic like this. The headlines are enough. The fact that it's on the front page, the fact that it's on the front page day after day after day, it brings about the idea that you could get this.

KURTZ: I bet half the people in America don't know that if you eat meat -- that scientists believe that if you eat meat from an infected cow, if you're not eating from the tissue part, you're not going to get this disease. But if this is such an important topic, Gregg Easterbrook, why was there no -- virtually no reporting before about the lack of an adequate tracking system in the United States? Just a few weeks ago, Congress rejected what the Bush White House has now belatedly done, which is to -- a ban on these disabled cows that can't even stand up being used for meat in the processing...

EASTERBROOK: Well, there's been some writing in recent years about USDA inspections and the lack of a sufficient number. But you know, in general, Howie, I like the fact that news organizations are obsessing over smaller and smaller risks. I think that this tells you that the main risks are under control. People are living longer, living standards are rising, crime is declining, pollution is declining.

KURTZ: That is certainly not the impression you get from turning on the TV and listening to all the stuff about mad cow, et cetera.

EASTERBROOK: No. News organizations are just simply better on a technical basis than they used to be at scaring you about...

KURTZ: You're saying they're scraping the bottom of the barrel because things are getting better.

EASTERBROOK: No. I'm saying that it's good that we're obsessing about smaller risks, because it shows that the bigger risks the trends are positive.

FARHI: Well, but there's a bias for the new. In other words, the new risks. Look, diabetes kills, what, 70,000 people in America every year, yet you're not going to read on the front page about the risk of diabetes and the prevention of it. Old news. We don't care so much about the old causes. We are biased towards something new and exciting and sensational.

KURTZ: Let me move on to the flu stories. Geneva Overholser, I happened to spot this piece on "The New York Times." Page 43: "Health officials and doctors say there is still no way to know whether this year's flu season is particularly severe or just off to an early start." So why the huge outcry?

OVERHOLSER: We don't let something like that worry us when we have a big story during holiday times, right? But we also have been saying how much you can accomplish simply by washing your hands, for example.

Again, I don't think we should think this is new. And I think most people who consume the media know this, you know? They consume it with a grain of salt.

KURTZ: Well, of course, Paul Farhi, everyone cares about the flu, but suddenly the publicity, at least in part, has driven a demand for the vaccine, so now there's no more vaccine. But at the same time, picking up on your point about diabetes, the average flu season kills 36,000 Americans a year.

FARHI: Yes. But in this case I think there's actually some useful purpose to the hype, which is to say that people will get immunized, they will get the vaccine. In most years, when there is no publicity about the flu, the vaccine goes wanting. Now we've got a shortage because of this media hype about the flu.

That's not necessarily a bad thing. The flu does kill 30,000, 40,000 people a year in America.

KURTZ: You're saying it's a good thing for journalists to scare people with the flu because it will make more people line up for the vaccine?

FARHI: Well, no, I'm not exactly saying that. I'm saying that the hype at least has some beneficial effect. At least some beneficial effect, not in the totality of it.

KURTZ: There's a nice side effect here.

FARHI: Right.

KURTZ: Now, you write in your -- in "The Progress Paradox" that crises make journalists feel important because obviously if it's an earth shattering story we want to be in the middle of it. It's not exactly heroic to be writing and broadcasting about the common flu, is it? EASTERBROOK: Well, actually, I think for some of the reasons that Paul said, we should be attention to the flu. I would rather have journalists focus on this just because of the sheer health risks involved in -- on SARS, for example. The line I've used on the flu is that we should be afraid of the old germs because the old ones are the ones that know what they're doing.

So it's not necessarily wrong for media to focus on flu. It does kill people in large numbers.

KURTZ: But you all seem to be saying that there's an educational effect to a focus on these kinds of stories even if it's done by kind of grabbing people by the lapels and shaking them. And it could end up that this flu season, in the end, is really not much worse than the typical flu season.

FARHI: And it probably won't be. It may end earlier. But SARS is a good example. We didn't know how bad SARS was going to be. It was a vague -- a new disease, and it turned out to be not much of a risk. On the other hand, paying attention to new germs, new bugs, new viruses might actually be something that we as a society need to protect ourselves from.

KURTZ: And the media are now saying that SARS may be making a comeback. So we'll get you to come back and talk about that.

Let's turn now to the terror alert that's certainly been a huge story for the last 10 days. Geneva Overholser, these terror alerts obviously have to be reported. The government says there's an increased risk of a terrorist attack. But watching all those stories before Christmas and before New Year's about all the terrible things that can happen, I found myself saying, should I take that train to New York or not?

OVERHOLSER: Did you really? I mean, I was traveling all during the holidays and I found people turning to one another and going, "Of course we're going to go on traveling." Except for Chris Shays, who seemed to make the mistake of believing he shouldn't go to New York and celebrate.


KURTZ: ... New Year's Eve, right.

OVERHOLSER: But doesn't this bring to our minds the additional fact that this isn't just about the media? This is also about the political atmosphere in which we're operating. And there are political figures who are scandal prone as well and who are helping hype all these stories.

FARHI: But I would say on the terror alerts we're at a total deficit. We do not have access to the intelligence briefings. We do not have access to the information that brings about the terror alert in the beginning. What are we to do?

We know the risk of flu. We understand the risk of mad cow disease in general. We don't understand exactly what could hit us in a terrorist situation.

KURTZ: You're saying there's no way for us to judge. But, even given that, and talking about this sort of tone and the volume and the frequency of these reports, this video that I've seen about every 12 minutes on one cable network right now that are of a mock hijacking with, you know, hooded men running through an airplane, subduing passengers, why does that keep getting shown again and again?

FARHI: Because it's sensational, because it's visual. Television needs pictures. This is the government again supplying this. It has the ring of authority to it.

We just feel more that we can visualize the story more by doing so. It makes good television.

OVERHOLSER: Well, the other answer...

KURTZ: Go ahead, Geneva.

OVERHOLSER: The other answer is they have all this time to fill. You may be watching too much cable TV, Howie, with all due respect to CNN.

KURTZ: Well, pick up any newspaper in the days before New Year's Eve and you would see a front-page story about either the security preparations for Times Square or in the local area. Again, it has to be reported, but I wonder, Gregg Easterbrook, can it really be that the media are exploiting these government terror alerts because you get more ratings when you do that?

EASTERBROOK: I don't know. You'd have to study it to see if it corresponded to ratings. I don't fundamentally object to the media covering scary or bad news. Obviously, there are many times when negative news is what the public most immediately needs to hear.

My critique is it should be balanced by coverage of favorable news as well. When pollution declines or crime declines or living standards rise, it's equally important that the public know that and the people get reporting on the reforms that caused these good things to happen.

KURTZ: Then why did I not see stories at the end of 2003 saying there was no major terrorist attack on the United States this year?

EASTERBROOK: Well, that's a complaint that I would make too.

KURTZ: Do you see, Geneva Overholser, kind of a bad news bias here? That either things that appear to be going well or might go wrong, in the case of terror alerts, does it get a lot of play?

OVERHOLSER: I certainly acknowledge a bad news bias, Howie. But I think another important element here is that it's easier to cover what everyone else is covering. It's cheaper to over-cover one story than it is to go out and do thoughtful, digging reporting on a subject that isn't being covered. And I think we're seeing profit pressures in media that make us all cover the same thing again and again and again.

KURTZ: And one thing that never seems to change, pack journalism.

Geneva Overholser, Paul Farhi, Gregg Easterbrook, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, CBS's Bill Geist helps us take a look at the naked truth of the news business.

Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. For a look at the lighter side of the news business, I sat down with one of the experts, Bill Geist, of "CBS Sunday Morning."


KURTZ: Bill Geist, welcome.

BILL GEIST, "CBS SUNDAY MORNING": Hey, how are you, Howard?

KURTZ: Great. You've done stories on "Sunday Morning" about extreme ironing, about which I confess I was extremely ignorant, taking your cat to see Santa. How come no one else on TV does this stuff?

GEIST: I'm the only one that's allowed to do that kind of stuff. I have a franchise and a patent on it.

KURTZ: Is it written into your contract?

GEIST: I don't know if you have contracts anymore. They just kind of dismiss you summarily.

KURTZ: Now another segment you did was you entered yourself in a Norwegian eating contest.

GEIST: Yes, lutefisk actually up in Minnesota. It's cod soaked in lye. It's delicious. I think CBS did that to me on purpose to try and reduce the payroll.

KURTZ: I hope you put a lot of that on your expense account. But do your producers ever say to you -- how can I put this diplomatically -- should you do something a little more cutting edge?

GEIST: Yes, sometimes. Although extreme ironing is cutting edge, as you know, you hadn't heard about it. It is news. It's just our personal brand of news.

KURTZ: Well, what's the ideal Bill Geist story? What are you looking for?

GEIST: Well, I think extreme ironing was good. I think what the ideal story is one that actually does say something. Maybe it's putting a spin on a trend or something we did.

We did the low carbohydrate diets this year, which are a new way of killing people with pork rinds and Slim Jims. It made Slim Jims and pork rinds the new health food. So we try and be funny about things that make you think a little bit, sometimes.

KURTZ: Well, speaking of that, let's take a look at one in-depth investigative report that you did on a new kind of newscast.



GEIST (voice-over): Devon (ph) exposes injustice in China and uncovers wrongdoing in the Philippines.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Mr. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is being held in a military hospital.

GEIST: I've heard of keeping abreast of the news, but this is ridiculous.


KURTZ: Now, you take this very high-minded look at what's called Naked News just so you could show pictures of unclothed women, right?

GEIST: That is correct.

KURTZ: You plead guilty.

GEIST: I do plead guilty.

KURTZ: Aren't you going to try to justify this?

GEIST: Well, the only justification for it that we found was kind of interesting, was that they were doing better foreign coverage, more in-depth -- well, we hate to call it coverage, but they were doing better coverage of things going on in Europe and the Middle East and spending more time on it than the major networks were. So I guess that would be the only possible justification for it.

KURTZ: I want to play a little more of this. Not that we want to show these pictures, of course, but...

GEIST: No, no.

KURTZ: ... it's my constitutional responsibility to show some of your other trenching observations about Naked News.


GEIST (voice-over): Most television news has long since drifted from the hard news school of yesteryear.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And whose fault is that? GEIST: And correspondents these days are hired as much for their sex appeal as their journalistic credentials. Why does she make millions on TV rather than, say, someone like veteran White House correspondent Helen Thomas, or me?


KURTZ: Now, is that what television news has become, in your view, the marketing of sexy TV personalities?

GEIST: No. Well, not at CBS certainly. But I'd say at all the other networks, yes.

KURTZ: But you actually make a serious point here, which is there is a lot of flash and dash and sex appeal and that sort of thing in the modern newscasts.

GEIST: Definitely.

KURTZ: I suppose you could say it was always like that, but has that gotten worse?

GEIST: Oh, absolutely. No, it hasn't always been like that. I mean, you look at Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid certainly wasn't hired for his sex appeal.

But, no, unfortunately, it has become a business, a profit center for the networks. And that's kind of unfortunate that that's the way it's gone.

KURTZ: Do you have to be good looking to be hired to be in front of the camera these days?

GEIST: These -- well, I'm in front of a camera now, so that kind of is the exception that proves the rule. But, yes, I'd say so.

KURTZ: Now, "CBS Sunday Morning" is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary. You know, this in an era when a lot of programs last, what, 13 weeks?

GEIST: Exactly.

KURTZ: What's the secret, in your view, to its longevity?

GEIST: Well, it's kind of alternative television. I guess about as close to public television as you can get. They've kind of left us alone. It does turn a profit, but I suppose CBS could make more money selling the time to Jimmy Swaggart or something like that. But they've gone along, kind of taking the high road.

I mean, it's one of the few places where you can get that kind of coverage. And certainly it's one of the only places you can get Naked News coverage on TV news these days.

KURTZ: But why is it such an oasis? In other words, why don't other networks at other times of the day or week try to do a little slower paced, more thoughtful programming? Or has that really become almost like an anachronism?

GEIST: It is kind of an anachronism, unfortunately. But I don't -- I mean, I always hope that we'll turn the corner in this trends towards, you know, fast-cutting and mindless prime-time television and we'll get back to some of that.

There is a bit of that. I mean, "60 Minutes II" and "60 Minutes," they don't go with the quick cutting and the superficial stuff so much. So, I mean, there is a place for it.

KURTZ: If you worked in cable television, for example, would you be sucked into the great maw of having to talk about Kobe Bryant and Laci Peterson and Michael Jackson?

GEIST: Yes. Unfortunately, yes. My son actually has gotten into -- I hope this isn't a conflict of interest -- he's a correspondent and a producer for CNN Sports in Atlanta. And one reason he says he's gotten into sports is because he doesn't want to stand out in front of Laci Peterson's house for six months of a time.

Yes, I'm afraid so. I'm afraid it's kind of gone that way.

KURTZ: Now you at one time wrote a column for "The New York Times." What made you decide to take the plunge into television?

GEIST: Money.

KURTZ: OK. I love short answers.

GEIST: I'm sorry. You're not supposed to give these short answers, the yes and no's. We hate that in journalism, don't we?

But, no, I think Don Hewitt, actually, the producer of "60 Minutes," called me at home one day and asked if I'd like to try television. Unfortunately, not for "60 Minutes," but for the "Sunday Morning" show. But it's turned out really well.

And Charles Kuralt called me from a pay phone in Louisiana and said, "Come on and do it. It'll be fun." And I'm kind of a sucker for fun. He didn't mention the dental plan or the 401ks or anything. He just said it would be a good time and we'd have lots of fun, and certainly have.

KURTZ: Well, we'll enjoy watching you for the next 25 years. Bill Geist, thanks very much for joining us.

GEIST: Thanks, Howard, so much.

KURTZ: Coming up, Michael Jackson's "60 Minutes" interview. Was it a paid performance?

But first, nine Democratic candidates are preparing for today's Iowa debate, but only one is getting smacked around by the press.

Stay with us.


KURTZ: Nine Democrats will face off in an Iowa debate today, and I would wager a lot of money -- if I were the betting type -- that Howard Dean will bear the brunt of the attacks. And he should be accustomed to that by now, since the press has been beating up on the frontrunner for weeks.

"The New York Times" says some Democrats are uneasy about Dean becoming the nominee. The "Boston Globe" says that as Vermont governor, Dean gave tax breaks to Enron, a company he regularly denounces on the trail. "Newsweek" demands to know why Dean won't unseal his Vermont records. "The Washington Post" says Dean has made a series of untrue or misleading statements, while the same day a "Post" editorial calls his foreign policy views beyond the mainstream, prompting an op-ed rebuttal which Dean says the paper badly misrepresents his views.

Dean has even taken flack from Iowa's "Quad-City Times," which chided him for seeming to suggest that his late brother Charlie, whose remains were recently recovered in Laos, was a member of the military. Dean called that editorial one of the "greatest cheap shots I've ever seen in journalism."

"The New Republic" now has an anti-Dean blogger, Jonathan Chait. And conservative commentators are salivating at the prospect of a Dean-Bush match-up, as this "National Review" cover makes clear.

When you are leading in the polls, negative press comes with the territory. Hoards of reporters start turning over rocks to discover why you went skiing after flunking that draft physical or whether you cheated on a sixth grade math test. Is that unfair to the other candidates? Absolutely. But it's the way that political journalism works these days. Pack journalism.

Up next: did CBS pay for that interview with Michael Jackson?

We'll be right back.


KURTZ: It's no longer a secret how "60 Minutes" landed that interview with Michael Jackson last Sunday. CBS executives say Jackson was told that his delayed music special couldn't air unless the gloved one granted an interview. Jackson sat down with Ed Bradley and, bingo, the CBS music special hit the airwaves Friday.

Now "The New York Times" reports that CBS paid the entertainer millions of dollars to make the deal happen, though the network denies offering an additional $1 million in eleventh hour negotiations. If that sounds like CBS basically bought the interview, well, just because the money came from the entertainment checkbook and not the news checkbook doesn't make it any less embarrassing. CBS used to be above that sort of thing.

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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