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Did Rice's Testimony Produce Real News?; Missing Teen Story Deemed Hoax

Aired April 11, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Serving up Rice. All the major networks dish out live coverage of Condoleezza Rice's encounter with the 9/11 Commission. Did the session produce real news, or was it just a television extravaganza? And are the pundits more interested in terror warnings or theater criticism?

The missing teenager story that turned out to be a hoax. Is television exploiting these cases and rushing to judgment?

Plus, one network says it's sorry for slandering a dead president.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we begin by turning our critical lens on the coverage of Condoleezza Rice and the 9/11 Commission. I'm Howard Kurtz.

The drama had been building by the day. And by the time the national security adviser took the witness seat on Thursday, it had become a full-fledged, much-hyped breaking news television extravaganza. There were few fireworks, but a couple of testy exchanges.


BOB KERREY, 9/11 COMMISSIONER: We have many points of disagreement, Dr. Clarke (sic). So we'll have...


KERREY: ... a chance to do in closed session. You can't -- please don't filibuster me. It is not fair. It is not fair.

I have been polite. I have been courteous. It is not fair to me. I understand that we have a disagreement...

RICE: Commissioner -- commissioner, I'm here to answer questions. And you've asked me a question. And I'd like to have an opportunity to answer it.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: The broadcast networks rarely cover live hearings, presidential speeches, or political conventions anymore, leaving that to the cable news channels. ABC, CBS and NBC carried the Senate Watergate hearings in 1973, Oliver North's testimony during the Iran Contra hearings in 1987, the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in 1991, and the Clinton impeachment proceedings in 1998 and '99.

The big three took the rare step of preempting their lucrative entertainment programming. Thursday, joining CNN, Fox News and MSNBC in covering Rice's testimony. So why the wall-to-wall coverage?

Joining us now from Los Angeles, Steve Friedman, former executive producer of NBC's "Today Show" and CBS' "Early Show." He now produces "Flashpoints USA" for PBS.

Here in Washington, Liz Marlantes, political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor; and former CNN Washington bureau chief, Frank Sesno, now a professor of public policy and communications at George Mason University. He's also a CNN consultant.

Steve Friedman, you work for NBC and for CBS. They usually leave this live breaking stuff to the cable news networks these days. Why carry this one?

STEVE FRIEDMAN, FMR. EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, "TODAY": Well, you know, it was a very, very strong, hyped event. And you have to -- you have to be a dead person not to see Condoleezza Rice on your network. I was glad to see the networks come back into the business, and I think it was terrific to see Brokaw instead of Chris Matthews run NBC's coverage.

KURTZ: Well, you know, Frank Sesno, they didn't carry Richard Clarke's equally significant testimony before the commission. I wonder whether there was so much attention, this huge build-up by Condi Rice facing down the commission, that they would have been embarrassed not to carry it.

FRANK SESNO, FMR. CNN WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: Well, the fact of the matter was that, had it not been for Richard Clarke, we might not have seen Condi Rice on all those networks. There was a certain critical mass that was created, and network coverage follows the hype and it follows the controversy surrounding the story.

So by the time Condi Rice raised her hand and took the oath, there was enough controversy to take this and propel it past what would have been otherwise not a pedestrian event. It would have been significant. But nowhere near like this.

KURTZ: You're saying it was a media-driven controversy? That the media then decided to cover it?

SESNO: I'm saying, to some extent, it was a driven controversy by the media and by Clarke's testimony himself, raising critical questions, major challenge directly for the administration.

LIZ MARLANTES, CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: It was also driven by the White House, of course, remember, because Condi Rice didn't want to testify originally and they dragged their feet for a long time on this. So I think to some extent...

KURTZ: And there was a drumbeat in the press every day. Why won't she testify? Why won't she testify?

But you described in your story this whole event as a moment of high political theater. But was it? To a lot of people it seemed very polite, kind of technical, except for a couple of testy moments.

MARLANTES: It was. I agree with that. I think, you know, in many ways, probably Americans who watched the whole thing probably got a lot out of it. I mean, it was reasonable and thorough in many ways, but...

KURTZ: But how many Americans really watched the whole thing? Three hours in the morning, some people have jobs.

MARLANTES: Right. And I think most people will end up seeing sound bytes of it. They'll see the testy moments that you have referred to.

KURTZ: Like the one we played at the top of the show.

MARLANTES: Like the one you just showed, exactly. And that's what's going to be played.

KURTZ: Now, the coverage of this in many cases kind of broke down along partisan lines. We had Rupert Murdoch's New York Post: "The Lady is a Champ," pro Condi, to say the least. New York Daily News: "How Could She Not Know?

Let's take a look at what some other esteemed commentators had to say on the airwaves.


SEAN HANNITY, "HANNITY & COLMES": She quite eloquently got the better of Bob Kerrey when she started quoting his own words back to him. I thought it was hilarious, actually.

PAUL BEGALA, "CROSSFIRE": But Dr. Rice has no one but herself to blame for the many contradictions in her testimony today.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Dr. Rice is very knowledgeable, articulate, composed for three solid hours there.


KURTZ: Steve Friedman, when you have complicated issues and classified memos and that sort of thing, isn't there a tendency on the part of television to reduce it to theater criticism, you know, strong performance, two thumbs up?

FRIEDMAN: You know, seeing Ben-Veniste, it's sort of like "Behind the Music" on VH1. You can see the cavalcade of hearings of Ben-Veniste saying, oh, oh, oh. Yes, I'm a lawyer. I'm a lawyer. I'm going to prosecute.

I just think the whole thing was a little contrived. And I would say that the networks probably will not be back for a lot of hearings soon.

KURTZ: You're saying, in a nutshell, it wasn't good television, Steve?

FRIEDMAN: Well, the television -- the television appetite, it's now in a big spectrum. And cable news really has the hearings to themselves. And the networks have to establish themselves as entertainment and sports.

And the news' programs are not really in coverage. And NBC is the best one to do that because they have their own cable channel. But for hearings, I think you're going to see cable just dominate in the future.

SESNO: You gave us the context at the top of the program. You listed Iran Contra hearings, the Watergate hearings, the impeachment hearings. I mean, think about where we were in the dynamic of those stories. Was the president's going to survive? Has the Constitution been breached?

I mean, there was no way that what Condi Rice was going to do yesterday ever was going to be to that, you know, sell out the company store or sill all the beans or change the dynamic of the story.

KURTZ: In fact, she had given many, many interviews on television.


SESNO: Absolutely. No, the most you got was the title of the August memo there. But, but, it's a dimension of this story, it is the degree of partisanship and pain that drove that to a very large extent.

MARLANTES: Yes. I also think that, again, you know, when it comes to 9/11, this is just another example of how that was such an unique event. And you can't underestimate the power that that has on people in this country and how it's going to make them feel. And so I think that inevitably is going to add to the drama anytime there's a hearing surrounding something of that magnitude.

SESNO: I will say, I was surprised to see those networks carry that.

KURTZ: But as a reporter who covered the hearing, how much did we learn that was really new?

MARLANTES: Not that much. But I think in some ways what we were looking for -- I mean, you're right, you don't want to turn into a theater critic. But people were looking --- they were interested in how Condi Rice and what her tone was going to be, in the overall sort of impression that she was going to try to leave people with. And in that sense, I found that very interesting. She didn't come across as defensive. She had a very sort of open, friendly demeanor, I thought, that was quite significant.

KURTZ: Frank mentioned this August 2001 memo which had this dramatic sounding title, "Bin Laden Determined to Strike in the United States."


KURTZ: That was in The Washington Post in 2002. Even that was not new news.


SESNO: But the questions that were out there and lingering, did the White House squander an opportunity to move against al Qaeda, did they have a vendetta to pursue Saddam Hussein, did that cost in terms of the war against terrorism, the real war against terrorism, all the thing that Richard Clarke teed up, that's what that Condi Rice hearing was about.

KURTZ: Well, Steve Friedman says, basically, I don't think we'll be doing this again because it wasn't exciting enough. You have to have sort of buildings blowing up and bombs dropping?

SESNO: Well, maybe not buildings blowing up and bombs dropping. But at least a little bit of smoke off in the distance.

You know, yes, these kinds of hearings demand a certain dynamic, a certain drama. At least if they're going to, again, reach that level of critical mass that warrants this kind of network coverage. That's not what this is about.

There is one other small possibility that maybe we should consider here. And that is that the issues and the wound are so deep, so profound, that it warranted a few hours of the country taking a break from its fake soap operas to look at this one.

MARLANTES: I agree. I think there's a public service dimension to this also in a way.

KURTZ: Public service?

MARLANTES: Yes. I mean...

KURTZ: I thought it's all about making money.

MARLANTES: Well, from an executive's perspective, maybe. But I think from the public's perspective, this is something that Americans if -- should be interested in. And if they want to sit down and watch all three hours, that's something that, you know...

SESNO: But they can do that on the cable. You see, they don't need to break into the soap operas to do that. And that's what makes this unusual. KURTZ: But not only were there no commercials, but there was no interruptions for the pundits to tell us what we had just seen because it just kept going. It was three unadulterated hours of actual discussion of public policy.

But you quoted in your story some of the 9/11 families, relatives of the victims who were at the hearings. And there has been criticism about are they really activists, are they really anti-Bush, why are they getting so much ink? Your response.

MARLANTES: Yes. That's been, to me, one of the most interesting developing political stories surrounding 9/11 is the role that the families are playing. Because there had been a number of family members who have been fairly critical of the Bush administration. And in a way, have taken a very strong political role.

KURTZ: And are getting a lot of media attention.

MARLANTES: And are getting a lot of media attention. And are in a way in a position where they're hard to criticize. They're harder to take down than, you know, someone from the administration, for example.

KURTZ: Steve Friedman, I find a little depressing what you said earlier, which is you don't think the major networks will be doing this again real soon because it wasn't scintillating television, there were no bombs going off and nobody...

FRIEDMAN: Yes. I was waiting for Alexander -- what was his name -- Butterfield moment.

KURTZ: The guy who exposed the Nixon taping system, Senate Watergate hearings.

FRIEDMAN: I was waiting for a big surprise. I think in the 24- hour news cycle, with all the cable news, the surprises are lackluster and the networks are dividing. I really, really believe that the testimony we saw was leaked so much over the previous 24 hours on all the cable, CNN, MSBNC, Fox, that it really was anti-climatic.

KURTZ: But you're saying that serious discussion of public policy just doesn't cut it anymore for ABC, CBS and NBC news divisions.

FRIEDMAN: I'm telling you, the news is on a spectrum now. And the major networks, their news departments are part of an entertainment complex.

And the news is left -- look at the midterm elections. Look at even the war. It was mostly a cable story. And I think you're going to see more and more of the breaking news relegated, if that's the word, to cable.

KURTZ: All right. Steve Friedman, last word on that subject.

When we come back, why do news executives love a good story about a missing woman? That's next.



For days, the cable news channels and the network morning shows had been breathlessly trumpeting yet another disappearance involving a young woman, a Wisconsin college student named Audrey Seiler. When Seiler surfaced unharmed last week, the search for her alleged kidnapper led some of the morning shows and got wall-to-wall coverage on cable.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The University of Wisconsin student missing for four days was found Wednesday afternoon. But the search for her kidnapper continues.

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Right now, police there in Madison, along with sheriff's deputies, the ERT team, with the search dogs, looking for a man they believe to be armed and dangerous.


KURTZ: But at press conferences two days later, investigators said they were halting the inquiry because the supposed kidnapping was a hoax.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was presented with these confirmed inconsistencies that resulted in Audrey admitting that, in fact, she had not been abducted at her apartment at all.


KURTZ: As a viewer, Liz Marlantes, what do you think every time TV goes nuts over some teenage girl who hasn't shown up for two days?

MARLANTES: Obviously, there is this new genre in cable television now of the missing girl.

KURTZ: And why is it always a girl?

MARLANTES: And we've seen this -- I don't know. I mean, it is always a girl. It's something someone should be thinking about.

But I have to say, you know, this is something that we have seen from Laci Peterson to Chandra Levy, Audrey...

KURTZ: Elizabeth Smart.

MARLANTES: Elizabeth Smart, exactly. But I have to say, even recognizing that, I was actually surprised with the amount of attention of this particular case. I remember sitting in my office the afternoon that this happened and watching CNN and thinking, "Gosh, they're staying on this story for a really long time." And it was boring. There were dogs walking around and nothing was happening for three hours.

KURTZ: Yes. Three hours of watching dogs circle around.

Steve Friedman, you're been through these in your previous incarnation as a morning show producer. What is it about these stories that makes producers just salivate?

FRIEDMAN: It's every mother and father's nightmare. And every college student's, oh, what if that happens to me?

I have no problem with the original coverage when everybody thought it was a kidnapping. But as soon as she was found, how she was found, it smelled from high heaven. And I think the networks and everybody else was a little slow, including the police. A little slow to say, hey, wait a second.

KURTZ: But you say you have no problem with the original coverage. I have to point out the inconvenient fact that the original coverage was wrong. It was dead wrong.

FRIEDMAN: Yes, but it isn't the media's -- the police said it was a kidnapping. Everybody said it was a kidnapping. You read all these Amber Alerts, you read all these profilers, and they say you have to get to the people in the first 24 to 48 hours or the chances of finding them alive are not good. So my problem is not with the coverage. It was with the coverage after she was found.

SESNO: This is life in the live lane. OK? This is what happens.

FRIEDMAN: That's absolutely right.

SESNO: The media reported this because the police were pursuing this. The police treated it as a kidnapping, just as the law enforcement were looking for two Arab-appearing men after the Oklahoma City bombing. That wasn't the media's fault reporting that.

KURTZ: Yes. But, in fact, there was a time when this would have been a local story. A big story in Wisconsin, not on national television.

SESNO: All right. Well, that's a separate matter. OK. Now we're talking about, again, as I said, life in the live lane. All right?

You have 24-hour cable networks; you've got multiple cable networks. They're in competition with one another. They're fighting for the same eyeballs in many cases. We're going to put that out because it grabs you.

KURTZ: When you were here at CNN and CNN was going wild over the Chandra Levy disappearance, were there times that that frustrated you? SESNO: We went through some of the same stuff. There was an Internet tip that we got that Chandra Levy was buried under some parking lot someplace. It turned out to be a complete hoax.

We went two-and-a-half-hours wall to wall with it. That's not something that anybody was very proud of after the fact. But that's where we went.

KURTZ: Go ahead, Steve.

FRIEDMAN: That's another factor that you've got to put in. This Internet stuff, everything gets on the Internet and the networks, especially the cable networks, they don't want it to get lost in the shuffle. They want to really get out there. And a lot of the stuff that appears on the Internet, I'm sorry, folks, is made up.

KURTZ: In this Audrey Seiler case, as a newspaper reporter, would you write a big story about it unless police confirmed there had been an abduction? Or is a simple disappearance enough to trigger the big headline treatment?

MARLANTES: Yes. Well, the paper that I work for, it's not the kind of story we cover at all, really. I mean, we really generally don't cover this kind of thing because we are a national paper and we don't have -- I agree.

KURTZ: Theses are national networks.

MARLANTES: But it's more of a local story. I agree with you. I mean, that would be my assessment.

KURTZ: So why is it a story for CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, but not for The Christian Science Monitor?

MARLANTES: Well, I'm not sure it should be. But the other point I wanted to make is I also think the media has to question whether its role -- it's playing an unusual role in the case. We don't know exactly why she faked her disappearance, necessarily, but I think you'd have to at least question whether she wasn't looking for publicity, wasn't looking for attention.

SESNO: Let's also put something in perspective here.

MARLANTES: And the media actually -- you know, she was after the media attention.

SESNO: It's all relative and it's not new. I mean, there were no cable networks and there was no Internet during the Lindbergh kidnapping, during the Lindbergh baby. OK? And the media in the country went crazy over it, for much of the reason that Steve was saying, this is every parent's nightmare.

There is something that connects. That doesn't forgive wall-to- wall coverage, but that is what the cable news channels have decided to do. Whether it's the O.J. car chase, the war in Iraq, or this story here. It's largely wall to wall, one-story coverage. KURTZ: Ms. Marlantes, Steve Friedman in LA, Frank Sesno right here, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up: a network apology for smearing Lyndon Johnson. And a fierce competition between some Beltway blowhards could put their reputations in jeopardy.


KURTZ: Time now for the latest from the news business in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ (voice-over): The History Channel has apologized for smearing the memory of Lyndon Johnson. The cable network now says it never should have aired a documentary last fall accusing the 36th president of being involved in John Kennedy's assassination. An outcry from former LBJ aides, including former CNN chairman, Tom Johnson, prompted the network to air a special this week debunking the allegations.

PROF. STANLEY KUTLER, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN: Occasionally, we get an opportunity, such as this, to say, no, it's wrong, it's corrupt, it's dishonest, it's (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

KURTZ: Jimmy Breslin was talking tough after the Reverend Lou Sheldon had accused him of making up an interview. The Newsday columnist quoted Sheldon has making inflammatory remarks about gays, things the head of the Traditional Values Coalition insists he would never say. Breslin insists the piece was accurate but the column didn't mention that the alleged encounter took place at the Republican convention back in 1992.

And the Los Angeles Times, which has recovered from the new editor, John Carroll (ph), from some ethical controversies of the late '90s, won five Pulitzer Prizes this week, the second biggest hall in the prize's history. The Wall Street Journal took home two.


KURTZ: We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Some of Washington's best known journalists had the chance to show off their smarts at a special taping of "Jeopardy" this week, including Tim Russert, Bob Woodward and Tucker Carlson. Some of the Beltway celebrities were playing the expectations game.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: I think it's going to be stiff competition. We'll see. We'll see. I think I can take him, though.

TIM RUSSERT, "MEET THE PRESS": I'm the underdog. I'm the kid from Buffalo. You know the Buffalo Bills, right? We've never won a Super Bowl.


KURTZ: But NPR's Tavis Smiley told "Roll Call" he felt slighted because some of his opponents had categories tailored to their expertise. Smiley says he "didn't expect to sabotaged."

The answer is we won't find out until next month. The question, who looked good and who bombed?

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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