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Homeland Humiliation; Cable Addiction to Scott Peterson Case; NYT After Howell Raines

Aired December 19, 2004 - 11:30   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Two major bombings in Iraq, at least 30 people died in Najaf when a suicide carbomber plowed into a crowd at a funeral procession. Earlier a car bombing in Karbala killed at least 16 people and on the streets of Baghdad gunmen shot and killed three elections workers.
The Kansas woman accused of killing an expectant mother and stealing her fetus later showed off the baby to hometown friends. Within hours, Lisa Montgomery was charged with murder. Police won't yet discuss any other details about the case.

TIME magazine has picked President Bush as its "Person of the Year" for 2004. He is praised for showing, quote, "the power of leadership," but is also described as, quote," reframing reality to match his design."

And more news coming up in 30 minutes, keeping you informed, CNN, the most trusted name in news.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Homeland humiliation. How did the press dig up all those embarrassing revelations about Bernard Kerik, the mob question, the arrest warrant, the girlfriends, when the White House couldn't? Are the media piling on Kerik and his personal life now that he's toast?

Cable's addiction. With Scott Peterson sentenced to death, will television finally give it a rest?

Plus, why did The New York Times overthrown Howell Raines, and is it a better newspaper now?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the cabinet nomination that turned into a tawdry tabloid tale. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Almost from the moment that President Bush named former New York police commissioner Bernard Kerik to head the Homeland Security Department, the negative stories about his record came tumbling out.

Suddenly, Kerik pulled the plug on his own nomination, saying he hadn't paid taxes on a nanny who may have been an illegal immigrant. But then the story really exploded.


KELLY WALLACE, CNN ANCHOR: How big a blunder is this for the Bush administration?

ALLAN COLMES, FOX HOST, "HANNITY & COLMES": He had a nanny living in his home, and he didn't know that she was here illegally? Didn't check? Never asked?

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST, "HARDBALL": How many marriages and affairs do you -- are being toked (ph) up here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The affairs are hard to count. We know we have at least -- he's had children, I believe, by four women.


KURTZ: Suddenly, even the seamiest details of Kerik's complicated romantic life were deemed fair game for the media. The former top cop became a tempting target, a whipping boy, a perpetual punch line, even though he and his business partner Rudy Giuliani had apologized for the fiasco.

So did all of this amount to overkill? Joining me now in New York, journalist Seth Mnookin, author of the book, "Hard News"; and Andrea Peyser, columnist for The New York Post. And with me in the studio, Newsweek investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff.


Mike Isikoff, you and other journalists at Newsday and The New York Times and The Daily News discovered all kinds of things about Kerik. The arrest warrant for the unpaid condo fees, the $6 million profit on the Taser stun gun company that he hadn't invested a dime in, the ties to a company with alleged mob ties, all things that the White House either didn't know or didn't care about.

So did the press save us from Bernard Kerik?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, CORRESPONDENT, NEWSWEEK: Well, if it did so, it did it against our own self interest, because how wonderful it would have been to have him in the administration. He would have been, clearly, the most colorful guy, and we could have been writing about all this about a sitting cabinet member.

KURTZ: You're saying we sunk Kerik too soon?

ISIKOFF: Absolutely. It would have been, from our own point of view -- but look, I mean, all -- everybody you just mentioned was stuff that, you know, within, I think, an hour of Kerik's name being officially confirmed by the White House as a nominee, I and many of my colleagues were hearing.

And it didn't take long, and it wasn't difficult to ferret a lot of this out. It was all there, a low hanging fruit. And how the White House missed it is really a mystifying question.

KURTZ: Seth Mnookin, is this one of those cases, one of those rare cases, when the press did its job and deserves some plaudits? SETH MNOOKIN, AUTHOR, "HARD NEWS": I think absolutely, the press definitely deserves to get credit for this. And I know my old colleague Isikoff at Newsweek and Mark Rosenthal were faxing questions to the White House early last Friday. And within an hour, Kerik had withdrawn his name.

But I think that the bigger question right now is what was going on with the administration, and why is it that they seemingly weren't aware of things that not only -- it was not only low hanging fruit, but a lot of the stuff, the rumors of the affair with Judith Regan, was pretty well known in many circles. And it seems curious that an administration that is obsessive about details somehow overlooked all this.

KURTZ: And on that point, Andrea Peyser, initially, at least, The New York Daily News was going nuts over this story. And The Post, at least by New York Post standards, I thought was rather restrained.

Last Monday, for example, we had this banner headline in The Daily News, "Bernie and the Beauty," referring to the affair with publisher Judith Regan. And The Post ran that story inside.

So is that because the paper kind of liked the former police commissioner?

ANDREA PEYSER, COLUMNIST, NEW YORK POST: Well, day after day we have published revelations as they've come our way. We certainly have not sat back on this one. I think that perhaps his personal life -- you know, you have to make a judgment, is this fair game? In this case, it turned out to be.

I had a story that, as you showed before, was on page one that he -- that Ms. Regan, who has acknowledged having an affair with him, that he terrorized her. At least, she felt she was being terrorized by him.

This is a man who was going to be in charge, supposedly, of keeping the country safe from terrorists. And if he's conducting a reign of terror, it's certainly fair game.

But you do have to make this judgment, I think.

KURTZ: A reign of terror. I like that. I'm going to come back to your column in just a minute, but I want to turn to Mike Isikoff.

The nomination was withdrawn a week ago Friday. Bernie Kerik will never be homeland security director of even his town of Fairlawn, New Jersey -- or Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, excuse me.


KURTZ: So is everything since then, the first girlfriend, the second girlfriend, the third wife he never disclosed, just basically piling on by the press?

ISIKOFF: Well, a little bit, although it's a much bigger story in New York than it is nationally, because, A, he was the police commissioner of New York. But there are also a lot of ongoing investigations and cases in which these issues are going to surface.

In fact, I mean, you know, there are allegations relating to his, you know, misuse of authority. There's the investigation into the corrections commissioner. I mean, so all those stay on.

And of course, also what gives this a little sort of national saliency as well, is he goes back to being a partner of Giuliani Associates. And Rudy Giuliani, who wants to run for president, widely believed, pushed his name on the White House, went to the president.

And so, I mean, in that sense there are -- you know, there's an aftermath here that's worth exploring to some degree.

KURTZ: Seth Mnookin, on all this personal and romantic and extramarital stuff, tabloids gone wild?

MNOOKIN: Sure. Absolutely. I think this is the first time we'll have someone from The New York Post saying that they think a public figure's personal life is off limits, even for a couple of days.

But you know, getting back to what Mike said, I think that absolutely, there is a bigger story here. And Rudy Giuliani's ambitions, I think, everyone expects are going to continue, and he's looking at a national stage.

And the question is to whether he was properly vetted, not just when he was nominated for homeland security but back before he was named police commissioner.

There are now questions as to whether Rudy Giuliani, who's known as being someone who sweats the details, knew of everything that had been turned up on Bernard Kerik, dating back four or five years ago.


MNOOKIN: So I think this will be an ongoing story. Both the sensational side of it's going to continue to get attention. And the other side, the Giuliani side, is also going to continue. I think it will be a worthwhile setback (ph).

KURTZ: What the Bush administration apparently forgot is that you also have to be vetted by the press if you're a nominee. And that turned out to be a much tougher road for Bernard Kerik.

Andrea Peyser, I promised to come back to this column last Wednesday, front page of The New York Post here, "Inside the Love Affair that Turned to Hate." Let me read a little bit from what you wrote for our viewers.

"The illicit relationship came tumbling down, a friend of Regan's told me, not when she discovered her married lover had another mistress. It ended horribly after Regan learned Kerik's wife was pregnant. Quote, 'He's maniacal, insane,' a terrified Regan confided in a pal."

It kind of sounds like Judith Regan told you all this.

PEYSER: Well, I have to -- first of all, I want to thank Mr. Mnookin for criticizing us, for showing even a minute's worth of restraint. That's a very interesting way of looking at it.

I -- without revealing my sources, I'm just going to tell you that this was -- I deemed this an important story because this person clearly terrified this woman.

KURTZ: Well, Judith Regan also works for Rupert Murdoch's media company, owner of The New York Post. She works for the publishing arm. Did you call her for comment?

PEYSER: Of course I did. But I'm not going to reveal my sources on this. I'm going to say that it was very solid information. It has stood up through the week and all that.

KURTZ: Did you call Kerik for comment?

PEYSER: Of course I did. You know, everybody -- Kerik is now not coming forward. He's hiding behind spokespeople who are calling it outrageous and scurrilous. Although they're not disputing the details.

What is being disputed is the definition of the word "stalker." In other words, you know, a relationship ends. The man gets upset. Is calling the woman night and day, showing up -- in a subsequent story, which you didn't show, I have information that he was telling her that he was following her son.

KURTZ: But why dredge it up all now, since his nomination is dead as a doornail?

PEYSER: Well, I think the feeling around here is that we dodged the bullet. For -- whatever chain in the vetting process broke down, it now turns out that Mr. Kerik did not fill out a background form when he switched from corrections commissioner to police commissioner. Why did that not happen?

His lawyer is saying, "Oh, he didn't have to. He was already vetted as corrections commissioner."

KURTZ: All right.

PEYSER: So he wasn't re-vetted as police commissioner.

KURTZ: OK. I want to turn...

PEYSER: So that broke down somewhere along the way.

KURTZ: I want to turn now to that other legal matter that's gotten a bit of attention, the Scott Peterson trial.

Seth Mnookin, given that no one had ever heard of Scott and Laci Peterson, this was no O.J. case, wasn't this -- how shall I put it -- the most absurdly over-covered trial in the history of television?

MNOOKIN: Absolutely. Absolutely, it was. There was -- it was a clear case where the media saw a story that they could package, you have a good-looking perpetrator, an attractive victim. This woman, a mistress, who has a name that sounds like she could be a porn star.

But I think the flip side of this being the most over-covered story in the history of jurisprudence is that the audience clearly followed it. And if you look at the cable news shows and you look at the shows that did hour after hour, day after day on Scott Peterson and Amber Frey, and you compare those to the shows during those same time slots that were covering either Darfur or Iraq or other domestic issues, Scott Peterson won every time.

KURTZ: But newspapers -- excuse me, newspapers and magazines, Mike Isikoff, never obsessed on this case the way that cable did and the network morning shows, right?

ISIKOFF: Right. Right. Well, my own private theory is that none of these people actually exist. They were created by cable TV as a reality show to sort of keep ratings up and it just took on a life of its own.

KURTZ: Andrea Peyser, you covered this trial in part.


KURTZ: Did you help create an appetite for a trial about a nobody with a mistress and a bad alibi?

PEYSER: Well, you know, once again I can't believe that I'm hearing an audience who's clearly interested in this case for a variety of reasons to be criticized for having an interest in this case. This is what people are interested -- were interested in, in part.

Yes, they're interested in Iraq. And yes, they're interested in Scott Peterson. They're interested to see if a fertilizer salesman, an ordinary man like themselves could have committed the perfect crime.

So I don't think it's right for us to sit here and criticize people for being fascinated with this case.

There are a lot of other issues, as well. There was the baby, the fetus, as it's sometimes called, who was murdered, was considered a person for this trial.

KURTZ: Right. We've got to go. I'm sure your columns on this were among the more widely read things in the paper.

Andrea Peyser, Michael Isikoff, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, The New York Times in the wake of an explosive scandal. We'll talk to Seth Mnookin about his new book.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

It has been a year of rebuilding at The New York Times as the paper seeks to put the damage of the Jayson Blair scandal behind it. But has The Times fully recovered?

Still with us in New York, journalist Seth Mnookin. His new book, "Hard News: The Scandals of The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media," examines the turmoil that led to last year's ouster of editor Howell Raines.

Seth Mnookin, The New York Times was often criticized under Raines for having a liberal agenda, but yet we hear some of the same complaints under editor Bill Keller in terms of the coverage of the 2004 campaign. Is this fair criticism, or kind of a -- partisan griping?

MNOOKIN: I don't think that the criticism of the 2004 political campaign was fair. I spent a fair amount of time looking at that coverage, and it seemed that, in every example that was thrown at me, The Times had a very good reason for covering the story the way they did.

There are other issues, especially some of the social issues. It does seem that The Times sometimes betrays what is likely the more liberal leanings of a lot of its staff.

But for everything I can see, the paper is very, very determined to put out as fair and objective a daily newspaper as they can. And that's something they're spending an enormous amount of time and energy working towards.

KURTZ: Yes, in fact the paper's own ombudsman, Dan Okrent, who was appointed in the wake of the Blair scandal -- they had never had an ombudsman before -- has criticized The Times for a liberal approach to social issues.

Raines recently wrote in The St. Petersburg Times that the Bush family is an "ethically bankrupt dynasty" and that "if George Bush wins the election," he wrote at the time, "it will be the triumph of thug politics."

Now he's entitled to his opinion now, but does this suggest that he was biased as an editor?

MNOOKIN: Well, I think that that's a very good example of the concern that people had about Howell Raines before he was named executive editor. He came to that job after having been the editorial page editor for almost a decade. And that's the one place in a daily newspaper that journalists are encouraged to express their opinion.

So he was named executive editor, and everyone knew he was pro- campaign finance. He was pro-abortion rights. He was to the left politically. And so the normal criticism that The Times has gotten for years about being a liberal paper, all of a sudden people had a reason to attach to that.

And I think that he did -- there were story after story of which his New York Times took a more activist position than really could have been backed up by the facts.

KURTZ: Now you approached Raines at an event while you were working on this book. Tell us what happened.

MNOOKIN: I approached him. It was near the end of the reporting, and he had not responded to dozens of letters and e-mails and phone calls. And he was doing a reading in New York, and I went up to him and I introduced myself.

And he did not want to shake my hand, and he turned and walked away.

KURTZ: Now you report -- so I guess you never were able to talk to Raines. You report that during last year's implosion at The Times, which began, as you mention, when I first reported on Jayson Blair's problems, that the revolt was not so much about Blair's serial fabrications in the end but about Raines' bruising management style. Explain.

MNOOKIN: Well, I think that if -- there have been plenty of other situations, including at The Washington Post in the '80s when Janet Cooke published a faulty story. So there have been cases where reporters have gotten away with fraud in the pages of a newspaper.

What Jayson Blair did was he gave a reason for the editors and reporters at The New York Times, who were frustrated with Howell Raines' management style, to make their voices heard.

Howell had, by that point, spent over a year really disenfranchising people who disagreed with him, pushing them to the side, telling people that he didn't want to hear criticism of his paper or of his leadership style. And all that came tumbling out.

KURTZ: I would -- let me jump in. I would say that a lot of people out there are saying, "So what?" Newspapers aren't democracies."


KURTZ: It takes a tight leader to make changes at a big, bureaucratic institution like The Times. The paper did win a bunch of Pulitzers under Raines, so...

MNOOKIN: Absolutely.

KURTZ: ... is this just a bunch of sensitive reporters who seized the opportunity to get rid...

MNOOKIN: No, I would agree with that.

KURTZ: ... of the boss? MNOOKIN: I would agree. I mean, a newspaper is a dictatorship. I think that the difference with what was going on at The New York Times was reporters and editors felt like Howell Raines' refusal to listen to dissent was infecting the pages of The New York Times.

And it wasn't just Jayson Blair. It was the paper's seemingly obsessive coverage of the Augusta National story. It was their faulty coverage before the war in Iraq, when the paper said that prominent Republicans were lining up, criticizing the war. And they included Henry Kissinger as one of those Republicans, and Kissinger had said no such thing.

It ended up also being the faulty WMD reporting that the paper had done.

KURTZ: All right. Final question, let me jump in here. Seth Mnookin, you have written in the past about overcoming heroin addiction years ago. Do you think that made you more sympathetic to Blair, who also was a drug abuser, as you approached this story?

MNOOKIN: I don't think so. I didn't -- I don't have a lot of sympathy for Jayson Blair. I -- yes, on a personal level, I hope that he is able to overcome whatever he needs to overcome.

But he's something who I think has shown a really startling lack of empathy about -- concerning his effect on other people and other institutions. And that -- I don't feel a lot of sympathy for him.

So I wish him the best personally, but I think what he did is abhorrent.

KURTZ: And so your personal experiences didn't really play into it, you're saying?

MNOOKIN: I don't think so.

KURTZ: All right. We're going to have to leave it there. Seth Mnookin, thanks very much for joining us.

MNOOKIN: Thank you for having me.

KURTZ: Up next -- thank you -- one man's crusade to get published, a tale of woe or flat out fiction?


KURTZ: It's not easy to get published in The Washington Post op- ed page, so when PR man and freelancer Bruce Stockler wrote an article for National Review Online about his spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to peddle a piece, I thought it was pretty funny. Just listen to this litany of woe, this history of humiliation.

January, Stockler submits a piece about Howard Dean. Gets a form letter, thanks, but no thanks. March, he tries an article about Rush Limbaugh, another form letter. April, "The Passion of the Christ," no go. May he writes on Israel and the Palestinians, not happening. Jim McGreevey in August. Osama bin Laden in November, no way, Jose.

But when I called Stockler, he said, well, he hadn't actually submitted any of those pieces, hadn't even written some of them. The Post says it doesn't send out form letters of rejection. All right, said Stockler, that was a lie, too. Humorous are liars, he declared.

Here's the odd thing. Stockler says he really has submitted at least 20 articles to The Post in recent years, just not the ones he wrote about in National Review. The real ones apparently weren't sexy enough. The Post editorial page editor, Fred Hiatt, says the paper, which keeps records for four months, has no record of two of the op- eds that Stockler claims he sent in September.

Nation Review editor Rich Lowry says the piece is obviously pure satire and the last two paragraphs contain some over the top "Twilight Zone" kind of stuff. The magazine says I must be somewhat deficient in the humor department for taking all this serious. But remember, Stockler says his online piece is kind of sort of true.

Now that he has had his 15 seconds of fame, maybe he'll have better luck at The Post next time.

When we come we come back, retiring Senator Zell Miller signs up for some TV exposure plus your e-mail. That's next.


KURTZ: Zell Miller has been a Democrat in name only for years now. The retiring Georgia senator wrote a book bashing his party and then ripped the Democrats from the podium at the Republican Convention and later got so worked up that he challenged MSNBC's Chris Matthews to a duel. All apparently made him an irresistible choice for FOX News where Miller has just signed on as a commentator. We're sure he'll learn to be fair and balanced.

Another host bites the dust at MSNBC. Deborah Norville says she is pulling the plug on her primetime program because she's busy with her other gig at "INSIDE EDITION" and couldn't do the MSNBC show, which hasn't done great in the ratings, to her standards.

Well, time now for a check of your e-mail. Last week asked whether TIME's Matt Cooper should go to jail for refusing to divulge his source in a story he wrote about the leak of a CIA operative's identity to columnist Robert Novak.

Linda in Tennessee says: "Cooper should go to jail if he continues to protect criminal behavior and revenge by the White House staff. It's one thing to protect someone who is blowing a whistle on illegal behavior by the government, but quite another to protect a criminal in the government. Send him to jail."

Kitty in Illinois disagrees: "Matt Cooper should not go to jail for being an honorable man. Someone on the president's staff committed a crime by outing Valerie Plame and the Justice Department is being used to change the focus from punishing the criminal to persecuting brave journalists who are doing their job." But Alexandra places the blame squarely on the shoulders of Robert Novak, who is also a CNN contributor: "Novak should go to jail. He got the information but nobody forced him to publish it. It was his decision."

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


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