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Same-Sex Marriage Becomes Hot-Button Issue; 'The Passion' Opens on Huge Wave of Hype

Aired February 29, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Culture wars. Same-sex marriage becomes a hot-button story. Is the coverage favoring gays?

"The Passion" opens on a huge wave of hype. Are the media stirring up a debate about anti-Semitism?

Howard Stern becomes too hot for one radio giant to handle. Is he being made a scapegoat?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the media and marriage, movies and shock jocks.

And a bit later, the presidential campaign.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

As if the colorful scene in San Francisco wasn't enough, President Bush called for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and his spokesman faced some skeptical questioning in the White House pressroom.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So the fabric of society would break down if men were allowed to marry other men?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does the President really want to be first President since the prohibition era to deny people rights?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is, in the president's view, a greater threat to this enduring institution of marriage, a same-sex couple establishing a stable marriage, or the staggering divorce rate, the out of wedlock birth level, and travesties like Brittany Spears' marital fiasco?

KURTZ (voice-over): As San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom continued to flout California law by allowing same-sex marriage licenses, hundreds more couples, including Rosie O'Donnell, continued to line up, and the pundits continued to argue.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The gay-lesbian agenda is being shoved down the American throat. And I think America at this point is fed up with it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are conservative values of committing to one another, and fidelity and love and family. I mean, how this could be a threat to anybody, I don't know.

KURTZ: Meanwhile, Mel Gibson's movie about Jesus Christ hits theaters among a massive media buildup. There were screaming headlines everywhere, a "Newsweek" cover story, and on-air debates about whether the movie was faithful to the bible, too violent, or prejudiced against Jews.

JACKIE MASON, COMEDIAN: It re-ignites a new wave of violence and a sense of righteousness for sick, vicious bastards who want to attack Jews all over the world.

JERRY FALWELL, LIBERTY UNIVERSITY: Mel has done, I think, the best job a human being could do with the subject tastefully and lovingly. And everybody comes without a lump in their throat and tears in their eyes. And I think better off because they saw it.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now from San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. And here in Washington, radio talk show host Laura Ingraham. She's the author of the book, "Shut Up and Sing: How Elites From Politics, Hollywood and the U.N. are Subverting America." And Paul Farhi, reporter for The Washington Post.

Debra Saunders, all of these weddings that you have seen down at City Hall are getting pretty favorable coverage. Is that because journalists support same-sex marriage?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE: Yes. That's exactly why. And I think the clips that you showed earlier show that's the bent within this profession.

I mean, look at the coverage when an Alabama judge wants to put the Ten Commandments in a courthouse. All the stories dwelled on the fact that he was breaking the law, that there had been orders telling him not to. Yet, when Mayor Gavin Newsom decides that he can just change the marriage laws, we don't talk about the fact that he's breaking state law, as much as he's decided it is against the equal rights clause, so that's the way he's going to do it.

I think the other thing is, we have a tendency to report as if all gays want marriage, which isn't necessarily true. And then on the other hand, there is stories like The New York Times story this week that said not all cultural conservatives want an amendment on marriage. And I don't know that I buy that. When stories concentrate on the polls, they concentrate...

KURTZ: Sounds like you're saying some oversimplification going on.

Laura Ingraham, it is obviously a happy occasion for thousands of people who would like to get married. Why shouldn't they get upbeat coverage?

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I think what's happened here is that the courts have gotten ahead of a lot of the people in the United States. And President Bush kind of came to this point in his presidency where he had to do something.

And it is not that you don't want to be tolerant and want to be compassionate to people. But when it comes to the issue of this major social question, he came down the side of letting the people decide. Now, for that sin, he was branded as divisive, as only playing to his base, and as trying to be politically calculating in an election year.

KURTZ: You're saying the press is making him the bad guy?

INGRAHAM: They are making him the bad guy. The way he was covered both in the front page of The Washington Post and in The New York Times was President Busch was being the divisive one. Meanwhile, the mayor, who is in San Francisco, who is ignoring the will of the people in San Francisco, he's heralded as a modern day Rosa Parks. I mean, come on.

PAUL FARHI, THE WASHINGTON POST: I can't imagine that the will of the people in San Francisco is to oppose gay marriage.

INGRAHAM: State of California.

FARHI: The state of California perhaps. But let's not mistake coverage with advocacy. What is going on here is this has become an enormous issue. And for the press to ignore it is absurd.

President Bush has kicked it up to a new level altogether by suggesting that we should have a constitutional amendment about it. Look, you know, this say huge issue that really everyone has an opinion about. The press is simply playing into the fact that it touches everyone.

INGRAHAM: But Paul, you didn't think the questions in the White house press room belied a sense of underlying prejudice about this issue? That those reporters that you saw those clips of, you don't think they came on it from the pro-marriage standpoint? I mean, those questions to me seem like they just were so obviously skewed toward one side of the equation.

FARHI: I would suggest that reporters are perhaps progressive on this issue.


FARHI: I don't know that -- progressive being...

SAUNDERS: Does that make other people regressive?

INGRAHAM: They're enlightened and more backward.

KURTZ: Debra, let me turn to the coverage of your mayor, Gavin Newsom. Your newspaper today describes him as now America's best known mayor, perhaps after Michael Bloomberg and Richard Daley. He's been all over the airwaves. Let's take a look at what Gavin Newsom had had to say.


MAYOR GAVIN NEWSOM, SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA: I wanted to put a human face on it. We're dealing with people's lives here. The first couple that was married in San Francisco, they've been together 51 years.


KURTZ: What explains this huge wave of favorable publicity that the mayor is getting when the stories could just as easily say, you know, mayor flouts California state law?

SAUNDERS: That's right. And, by the way, in the year 2000, 61 percent of California voters voted against gay marriage.

You know, look, there is an infectious spirit at City Hall. I went there with a fellow reporter from the Chronicle, and the two of us left. We're both women, ever applauded, they thought we had gotten married. Everybody is very happy at City Hall.

KURTZ: Well, congratulations.

SAUNDERS: Thank you. And the thing is, it really has -- rubs off on people who go there. When people are in a happy mood, they're in love. Of course you're going to be affected by it, and I'm not saying that it is wrong to.

The thing is that we really have a double standard about when people flout the law. And that's the thing that I think is wrong in the coverage.

KURTZ: Speaking of double standards, Debra Saunders earlier mentioned Roy Moore. He was the Alabama chief justice who ultimately lost his job over putting that Ten Commandments display in the courthouse. The coverage of that very different than the coverage of this?

INGRAHAM: Both The New York Times and The Washington Post coverage of Roy Moore very much portrayed him as a law breaker. Very ardent, very passionate, following his principles, but very clearly stating that his principles were contrary to the law as laid down by the courts of this country.

Gavin Newsom's profile in The New York Times last week was the most glowing profile I think I had seen in ages in The New York Times. And I guess I'm not surprised about that. But it would be nice if the press didn't cherry pick the way it is going to make heroes in this thing.

KURTZ: You're shaking your head.

FARHI: Well, it's hard to read the coverage and not realize that Gavin Newsom, A, engaged in a political stunt. And, two, an act of civil disobedience. So you can make of it what you will.

INGRAHAM: Well, that's going to jail, actually.


SAUNDERS: Civil disobedience is when you break the law. Now, he's the mayor. So explain to me how when a government decides it is just going flout the law, I guess Roy Moore was engaged in civil disobedience by the same definition.

FARHI: That question is still to be decided by the courts in California, which so far...

INGRAHAM: But he didn't wait for that. He took the law into his own hands.

KURTZ: Just briefly, because we need to move on, have you been struck, Paul Farhi, by anything about the images of the way the whole gay marriage controversy has been covered?

FARHI: Absolutely, very much so. This is a total subset of the entire question. But the way the press likes to cover this is to depict lesbians kissing and touching. It seems to have a great squeamishness about showing two men kissing.

You rarely see that image. The New York Times, for instance, today, has a picture of two lesbians. Rosie O'Donnell certainly is going to get publicity. But you rarely see the men kissing on -- in the media.

KURTZ: OK. Now, turning now to the movie that everyone has been talking about, "The Passion of the Christ," Jami Bernard, critic for The New York Daily News, writes, "The most virulent anti-Semitic movie made since the German propaganda films of World War II."

Debra Saunders, is the press driving this debate about whether or not the movie slanders Jews, or is it just reacting to something that is getting a huge amount of coverage?

SAUNDERS: You know, I think whenever anybody advances any religious belief, there are going to be people from other religions who feel offended. And I think that's part of the reason why you see this kind of coverage. But I also think in the media we have people who are sort of like tolerance Nazis.

They're really tolerant. And if you're not tolerant like them, why, they're going to go after you in a very personal way and they're going to accuse you of being anti-Semitic or too violent or whatever.

KURTZ: Laura, you've passionately defended the movie, which you've seen a couple of times. And here is the cover of National Review, "Mel Gibson's Masterpiece." Does it seem to you that this is another chapter in the culture wars because conservatives seem to be embracing the movie?

INGRAHAM: I think the way it is playing out in the press and the way that there are sort of two camps on this, it is not really Jews versus Christians. I think it's the elites versus the rest of the country. And for David Ansen of "Newsweek," for example, to call this sadism and self-defeating gore, I found interesting.

It is a fine opinion to have, I guess. But it would have been nice if David Ansen also had a similar view toward "Reservoir Dogs," Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill," films like "Pulp Fiction," which are hailed as pushing the edge of the envelope.

KURTZ: They're violent movies.

INGRAHAM: You know, they're really this artistic tour de force. And yet Mel Gibson does a film which challenges people in some way, actually challenges people, and suddenly there is talk about blacklisting Mel Gibson in Hollywood. This is a wonderful story. The story about the movie is just as good as the movie itself.

FARHI: "Tolerance Nazis," that's an interesting phrase. That's almost a sick phrase.

People have a legitimate right to call attention to the fact that the depiction of Jews in this movie is not terribly favorable. And to call it simply a question of tolerance Nazi, it just seems offensive to me.

KURTZ: Was this whole controversy, Paul Farhi, orchestrated by Mel Gibson? I mean, we have been reading about this movie for months before it opened. He had an exchange with Frank Richards of the New York Times, in which Gibson said he would kill him and kill his dog. This is selling an awful lot of movie tickets.

FARHI: There's a certain amount of manipulation I think that has gone on. Orchestrated, I think he lucked into it. The notion that he received so much criticism from Jewish groups about the passage from Matthew in which -- the statement is about the Jews having blood on their hands. He manipulated that back and forth. Finally took out the translation of it in the film, and has allowed the controversy to build around it.

INGRAHAM: Think about that. An artist opening up his movie before it comes out to critics and then changes it. I mean, can you imagine some of the more progressive filmmakers in the United States today saying, you know something, you're going have a look at this. And then tell me what you think and I might change it.

I mean, the fact that this happened was smart on the part of Mel Gibson, but it also, I think, showed that he didn't want to unnecessarily offend people. He wanted to challenge people. And the fact that people are complaining about the hype, oh, Harvey Weinstein, he never hypes a picture. I mean, this is Oscar day. I mean, hype is what films are all about.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, final thought?

SAUNDERS: Well, I think "tolerance Nazi" is a term that fits for people who decide that if you have a -- if you're a devout Christian, for example, they can get very personal about you. And there has been an element of that in the coverage of Mel Gibson's film.

KURTZ: All right. This one may be decided at the box office.

Still to come, the nation's largest radio company yanks Howard Stern off some of its biggest stations. He is the latest victim in the post-Janet Jackson crackdown on sex on the airwaves? That's next.



Howard Stern seems to be the latest casualty in the war over raunchy broadcasting. Clear Channel pulled Stern's show from six of its stations this week as its chairman apologized for cheesy programming on Capitol Hill. Stern talked about quitting, and Rush Limbaugh came to his defense.


HOWARD STERN, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: These fascist right-wing a- holes are getting so much freaking power you got take back the country. That's my last words to you. I don't know how many more days I have on the air.



RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: I haven't ever heard "The Howard Stern Show." But when the federal government gets involved in this, that's when I start getting a little frightened. I'm in the free speech business here, my friends. I couldn't survive without it.


KURTZ: Laura Ingraham, how is it that Clear Channel suddenly has discovered that Howard Stern has been on the air for 20 years and has women disrobe in his studio and likes to talk about lesbians? That he talks a lot about sex?

INGRAHAM: John Hogan, the head of Clear Channel, on Capitol Hill, said, this is not a surprise to us. But the way we're going about business now is changing. And they're reacting to the public.

I mean, we forget in these debates that these are the public's airwaves, the people's airwaves. It's not Clear Channel's, it's not ABC's, it's not CNN's. It is the public's airwaves. And when the public expresses outrage, after it did after the Super Bowl Half-time Show, the congressmen and the FCC had to listen. I think this is democracy in action. The government is cracking down.

FARHI: That's absurd. They're not responding to the public. They're responding to Congress.

The context for this is that the Congress is considering raising the fines for indecency by tenfold, from $27,000 to $275,000 for each instance of indecency. So Clear Channel understands that this is going to cost them money. Clear Channel took action to stop the bleeding.

INGRAHAM: Do you think the public didn't inundate congressional offices and the FCC...


FARHI: Howard Stern has been on the air for more than 20 years.

INGRAHAM: Right. And now the country is waking up.

FARHI: We know exactly what Howard Stern is. We know exactly what his program is. Anybody who tunes in is not going to be surprised by what they get.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, isn't it true while Stern is getting the attention this week, that the networks, MTV, HBO, which got great plaudits for the finality of "Sex and the City," which had a lot of sex, put a lot of -- pushed the envelope, shall we say, in putting a lot of sexual explicit and raunchy stuff on the air?

SAUNDERS: You know, Howie, that's what Rush Limbaugh says. And I guess a liberal is a conservative who has been indicted, because he's blaming the government for all of this.

But when you look at -- I mean, radio is mainstream. And there was this man in Berkeley, we called him the naked guy, he would show up to class without clothes all the time. You're not allowed to do that on Main Street. And so if the analogy of "Sex and the City," which is on pay cable, and Howard Stern, who is on the radio, it is completely different. I just don't buy it.

KURTZ: But if people don't like Howard Stern -- and there are a lot of people who don't like what he does -- why don't they just click him off?

SAUNDERS: Well, I don't listen to him. But I think what we're talking about is not having somebody on Main Street, where kids tune in all the time. And his show is raunchy. I love him posing as a victim. I mean, this is quite (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

INGRAHAM: Yes. What does he make $10 million a year, and suddenly, oh, crucify me, I'm Howard Stern. I mean, I think parents are in the car, they're taking their kids around to school and play dates. They're hitting that scan button. They don't want to stop on Howard Stern.

KURTZ: Well, don't hit the button.

INGRAHAM: That is putting a ridiculous burden on parents who are busy, they're trying to take care of their kids, raise their families. And they're fed up with the sewage, Howard.

KURTZ: Do you think he should not be on the air? INGRAHAM: I think that unless he cleans up his act -- and he can push the envelope without describing sex acts to a ridiculous level. He is such a talented broadcaster. He's gotten lazy. He's moved to the sex thing, exclusively sex. Howard Stern is a brilliant broadcaster, but he's gotten lazy.

FARHI: Stern has been doing the same act. He's been in the same act for years and years and years. He's a known quantity. The FCC has not fined him recently for indecency. So, in other words...

INGRAHAM: He's been fined a lot, actually, over the years.

FARHI: He's been fined a lot over the years, but the main bulk of his programming does not violate any indecency question.

KURTZ: But how much...

INGRAHAM: Have you heard it lately?

FARHI: Oh, I'm a big fan.

INGRAHAM: Oh, you're a big fan. OK. OK, the bias is off here.

KURTZ: Not necessarily bias. How much, Paul Farhi, of this is temporary political posturing? Exhibit A, MTV taking a lot of heat for the Super Bowl and Janet Jackson, says this very sexy Britney Spears video, we're all going to play it late at night. A week or two goes by, they suddenly decide, you know what, we'll play it around the clock because our viewers like it.

FARHI: The Super Bowl Half-time Show crossed some line. It was in front of everybody. Millions and millions of people saw it.

KURTZ: Oh, it sure did.

FARHI: So the outrage right now is extremely high. It will settle back down, because the general discourse on the air is raunchy. I mean, there is a lot of ranch on the air.

But that temporary outrage kicked over. Congress has woken up, Congress and the FCC. You will see the fines raised undoubtedly.

INGRAHAM: But the people have spoken out, Paul. I don't understand why you have a problem with the people of this country expressing their views to their congressmen.

FARHI: I don't have a problem with expressing their views.

INGRAHAM: If they want the airwaves cleaned up, why shouldn't they be cleaned up?

FARHI: People express their views every day with Howard Stern's ratings. Millions upon millions of people like him. And he's called a shock jock for a reason. The shock is the pleasure of the show.

INGRAHAM: Why not torture an animal on the air? What if he did that? Would that be protected?

FARHI: He doesn't do that. I mean, it is irrelevant.

KURTZ: The reason that Howard Stern is hired is that he makes a lot of money for Infinity Broadcasting. And there are many similar people like that.

INGRAHAM: Sure. He's talented.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, so many people make so much money from this kind of programming, whether it's raunchy sitcoms or Howard Stern, or you name it, that I question whether there is going to be a serious and sustained crackdown here.

SAUNDERS: Of course there won't. Of course this was a token gesture. But notice how Howard Stern can censor himself when he wants to make a make a point about -- when he calls these people a-blank- blank, as opposed to coming out and saying it.

He knows what the rules are. And he's just been trying to play around them. And, you know, if people want to listen to him, fine. But I think cable is probably a good venue for him.

INGRAHAM: XM Satellite Radio. He can go there anytime. That's the market at work.

KURTZ: Got to blow the whistle here. Debra Saunders, in San Francisco, Laura Ingraham, Paul Farhi, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, just two days until super Tuesday. But has the press already determined the outcome?

That's next.


KURTZ: The press, let's face it, already seems bored by not so Super Tuesday. Kerry's set to lock up nominations, says today's Washington Post. And that's largely because John Edwards keeps playing nice.


KURTZ (voice-over): It is just two days until Super Tuesday, but the coverage is starting to fade a bit. In part because John Kerry is way ahead of John Edwards. And in part because Edwards just refuses to attack the front-runner, despite the best efforts of panelists in Thursday's CNN-Los Angeles Times debate, who almost pleaded, please, please say something negative about the other guy.

LARRY KING, CNN: The other day you said that you can inspire this nation. Do you mean then Senator Kerry cannot?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you think he can meet your test and connect with voters in the South and in the border States in the general election?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D-NC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think that's his test. That's his...

KING: But do you think he can?

EDWARDS: I think it depends on what is happening in the country at the moment.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you view Senator Kerry as part of the solution or part of the problem in the way Washington works?

KURTZ: No luck there. The most interesting political story was how everyone in the media absolutely ripped Ralph Nader for daring to declare his Independent candidacy, as captured in this exchange on "Hardball."

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, HARDBALL: You live in an apartment. You don't own a car. You're not married. You live a life that is about as responsible as, well, what's on the movies tonight?

I mean, that's all you have to worry about. And you're going to be president of the United States and you're knocking Bush for not being mature enough?

RALPH NADER (I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Chris, no wonder they parody you on "Saturday Night Live."


KURTZ: It looks like Nader will be running against both parties and the media.

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.

And stay with CNN throughout the day for the latest on the breaking news out of Haiti.



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