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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Media in 2004
Aired December 26, 2004 - 11:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): From Jack Kelley's journalistic fraud at "USA Today" to CBS' suspect National Guard documents. From sensationalism on the airwaves to silliness on the campaign trail, 2004 may have been a low watermark for the media. Why is the news business so widely mistrusted, and are journalists themselves to blame?
And can the networks survive the loss of some of their biggest stars as more viewers turn to outlets that match their politics?
Plus, Dan Rather, Tim Russert, Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel. A look at our top interviews of the year.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the media's performance this past year. We'll talk about people making the news in the news business, journalists making their own headlines, the presidential campaign's high profile moments and why the media are held in such low esteem by so much of the public.
Joining me now, three journalists we hold in pretty high esteem: Jill Zuckman of "The Chicago Tribune," Jake Tapper of ABC News and National Public Radio's new media correspondent, David Folkenflik.
Before we get to the year in review, I want to talk to Jake about this week's heavy coverage of mounting violence in Iraq, including the bombing of the mess hall tent in Mosul.
Can anybody now still reliably make the argument that the media are just playing up the negative in Iraq and ignoring all the positive developments?
JAKE TAPPER, ABC NEWS: Oh, sure, and that argument's made all the time, that there are all sorts of good developments going on in Iraq and the media only covers the things that go boom. And I think people who make that criticism, you know, they have a point to an extent, and we'll see what happens after the elections in January.
But I mean, obviously, the violence is -- is a big part of the story and one that we can't not cover. KURTZ: I interviewed two Iraqi bloggers who are based in Baghdad who said to me, sure, there's isolated violence, but things are improving in most of the country. And you don't see that reflected in the media.
And they may have a point, but how do you not cover the deaths of all these American soldiers?
JILL ZUCKMAN, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": The idea that we're not going to cover the violence is naive. I mean, people in America care about what's happening to the -- to the troops over there. And they're concerned about it.
And obviously, with the elections coming closer, you know, I think a lot of people are really worried that people are going to go to the polls in January and get blown up. And that's part of the story.
KURTZ: Definitely part of the story.
Let's turn now to 2004. David Folkenflik, just a brief litany here.
You had "USA Today's" Jack Kelley making up stories from around the world, or at least being caught doing so. CBS and the National Guard memos debacle. Circulation scandals: lying about sales at "Newsday," at the "Chicago Sun-Times," at "The Dallas Morning News." The Bill O'Reilly sex suit.
Are journalists kind of blowing up their own credibility?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, NPR: Well, certainly, credibility is the biggest issue the media faces right now.
I don't know if journalists are blowing up their own credibility. I think that people are analyzing more closely than ever. Certainly with the Jack Kelley case, you began to see things unravel. Other newspapers began to look at things.
Bloggers are paying more attention and from more sides than ever before. I think that we saw that with CBS.
KURTZ: So more scrutiny, but not necessarily more unethical behavior?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, and that may be the painful truth. I mean, it could be that over time that this has been occurring all along. In the circulation scandals you mentioned, a number of major newspapers, who have been found to fictionalize, essentially, their circulation levels for years.
TAPPER: I wondered -- to play off that point, I wonder how much of this has to do with new technology. For instance, I wonder if -- I doubt there are more plagiarists and fabulists in journalism today than there were in the past. It's just a lot easier to catch them, because you can read newspapers in Omaha and realize that somebody is stealing your work.
KURTZ: And it's a lot easier to commit the offense, because you can go online and find some small paper in the Midwest. And you figure nobody will ever see it. But in the age of blogging, everybody sees it.
But if this was any other business, Jill Zuckman, with this kind of track record in the past year, people would say, this is the gang that couldn't shoot straight.
ZUCKMAN: Well, I mean, it's been a terrible year. And -- and people look to journalists -- they want to be able to believe their journalists. And I don't believe that people always do. I think there's a much more skeptical, jaundiced eye cast on our profession these days because of some of these things.
And -- and it's not just this year. I mean, let's go back to Jayson Blair. Let's go back to what happened at "The Washington Post" a million years ago. I mean, these things just sort of add up and -- and people remember them.
KURTZ: So you would agree that there are a lot of self-inflicted wounds here?
FOLKENFLIK: Oh, certainly. And credibility takes in sort of an incredible range of sins. If you think back to the spring, "The New York Times" published a very painful editor's note, acknowledging significant shortcomings in their coverage of the question of were there weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the invasion.
KURTZ: And I wrote a very painful 90-inch front-page story about...
FOLKENFLIK: That's right.
KURTZ: ... what "The Washington Post" missed in terms of the run-up to the war. So you're right. That's not -- it's not a deliberate misleading. It's not a lie. It's not a plagiarism. But it is a journalistic shortfall that I think a lot of people remember in terms of the prewar coverage.
Turning now to the campaign, looking back, didn't the press spent way too much time on the swift boat attacks and the National Guard controversy about President Bush? And who did what during the Vietnam era, at a time when the country was facing a lot of important choices about now, not 30 years ago?
TAPPER: Well, the swift boat veterans, they had an impact on the race. And they started affecting the race before, I think, the mainstream media, by which -- I shouldn't say the mainstream media. The cable news was covering the swift boat veterans before network news and some of the major newspapers.
KURTZ: Right. They had an impact on the race because they bought ads in three states, and cable gave them 24-7 coverage without, at least initially, scrutinizing what they had to say.
TAPPER: But it had an impact on the voters. It started showing up in the polls. And it did, in the end, neutralize, I think, the idea, this part of Kerry's biography, that he was a war hero. I think at the end of the day it did have a significant impact.
How you could not cover that, I don't know. Did we cover it more than we should have, compared to, for instance, the issues? You know, probably.
KURTZ: There was a month when that was what the campaign was about.
ZUCKMAN: You know, it was. I mean, August, that's what it was all about. But I think ultimately the so-called mainstream media came in and said, "We are going to figure this out."
And if you look at the "Chicago Tribune," we had an editor there who wrote an account of what happened in the incidents that Kerry won his Silver Star, because he was there. And he was able to put to rest a lot of these questions. And I think that that was done by a lot of different news organizations.
TAPPER: Well, he didn't do TV interviews, we should point out. He did it at the "Chicago Tribune," but then he wouldn't talk to anyone else.
FOLKENFLIK: It's actually a fascinating case study, in some ways. I mean, these folks, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, popped up at the beginning of the summer. "The Boston Globe," the hometown paper of Senator Kerry, took a couple of close looks at it. And then it faded from what you call the establishment mainstream media.
At that point, it started to bubble up on blogs, it started to bubble up through talk radio. Ultimately, cable news picked it up sort of toward August. And then the mainstream media, the major newspapers, major networks, felt it almost thrust upon them.
And they hadn't done the initial reporting and vetting that could have allowed them to assess it, perhaps, in a more thorough and contemplative way.
KURTZ: It goes way beyond this topic. I mean, the Dean scream, the Howard Dean scream; Teresa's antics; Botox and windsurfing and Mary Cheney's sexuality. Wasn't all of that a diversion from the kind of things -- the kind of problems we're facing now with Iraq and Social Security?
ZUCKMAN: You know, I think there's an incredible thirst by the voters to really know who are these people? What are they like as people? Would I like to be with them, hang out with them?
And they don't get that on a day-to-day basis, necessarily, from watching the candidate give a speech or from reading the general coverage of their day-to-day policy positions. They want to know something about them. So when some of these things happen, I think there's a real, you know, jumping on. And -- and voters, you know, really grab onto these things.
KURTZ: She's giving the press a pass for writing about windsurfing and Botox.
TAPPER: You just lumped in a whole bunch of things.
KURTZ: Sure, that's my job. Oversimplifying.
TAPPER: For instance, Mary Cheney's sexuality, I mean, gay marriage and homosexual rights, that became a major issue in the campaign. And how you deal with a gay member of your family, whether or not they should get the same rights as straight members of your family.
KURTZ: Yes. And I'm talking about Kerry's remark in the debate, which then became a three-week debate on cable about should he have said it or shouldn't he have said it?
But do you agree with Jill's point that it's OK to focus on how many expensive houses the Kerrys had and the fact that John Kerry enjoyed windsurfing, because it tells more about them as people?
TAPPER: I think Kerry's -- it becomes one of these iconic moments, as with the Dean scream that I think is significant in the sense that -- look, I'm never going to say that John Kerry's windsurfing is more important than, you know, these 20 position papers he did.
But it did say something about the way he ran his campaign and the way that he didn't have any trouble seeing himself portrayed as an out of touch elitist, which I think at the end of the day did do him harm. As with some of the comments that Teresa Heinz Kerry made.
I don't think it's out of bounds to say that that last comment that she made that was very controversial. Afterwards, they put her in a sack and you never saw her again. About Laura Bush and she's never held a real job. I wouldn't be surprised -- you can't imagine this stuff -- but I wouldn't be surprised if that cost him a point or two.
FOLKENFLIK: As well as lumping together a number of different kinds of spectacular and brief stories or spectacular and longer-term stories, we're sort of aggregating all the media in the same clump.
Certainly, if you looked at ABC, the "Chicago Tribune," NPR, others, you would find a lot of very substantive, very meaty stories dissecting, analyzing things. People tend to forget that, but I've gone back and done database searches. And in fact, they're usually there.
In addition, it seems to me that, you know, as we talked about credibility being a big issue, this seemed to be a year in which major organizations went out of their way to say, "All right. Instead of just doing he said-she said, instead of saying this is what the candidates said, this is what his opponent says, we're going to critically analyze and do the best we can to say, is this factual. Is it accurate? Is it true?"
And that was a very interesting development.
KURTZ: I wish more news organizations had done that. There certainly were a few. There should be more.
You had this remarkable moment over the summer where FOX News drew more viewers for coverage of the Republican Convention, at least on one night, than the broadcast networks. That's never happened before. CNN won the cable race for the Democratic Convention, but not -- certainly not beating the broadcast networks.
So are we now in a situation where people are gravitating toward the kind of news outlets they find themselves most ideologically compatible with?
KURTZ: Does it trouble you at all?
TAPPER: Well, first of all, we shouldn't say that that's the reason for FOX -- FOX's success. FOX -- there's a number of reasons for FOX's success. One of them is that they actually have very good production and they take risks on stories. And they do some very edgy and interesting work.
KURTZ: And they seem to be having fun.
TAPPER: And they seem to be having fun. That said, I think it's dangerous when I hear from, you know, liberal friends of mine in Manhattan, who talk about that they've read these five Web sites, and how come we're not covering that. Same thing with conservative friends of mine in California, when they talk about why aren't we covering this?
Because they only consume the media that they agree with. And I think that is problematic for us.
ZUCKMAN: You know, another reason that the broadcast networks aren't getting the same number of viewers on covering the conventions is because they are limiting their coverage.
KURTZ: Oh, sure.
ZUCKMAN: You know, an hour, an hour and a half in the evening.
KURTZ: They have the big names.
ZUCKMAN: So if somebody wants to tune in and find out what's going on and the time isn't, you know, compatible with their schedule, they know they can go to the cable networks.
KURTZ: Sure. And on this broader point, "The Chicago Tribune," a lot of people canceled their subscriptions after the newspaper endorsed President Bush. That would seem to say if you don't agree with me, I'm not going to read your newspaper.
ZUCKMAN: Well, you know, these things happen. But I mean, it couldn't be a huge shock. I mean, "The Chicago Tribune" I don't think has ever endorsed a Democratic presidential candidate. So you know, maybe this year might have been the year, but they chose not to. And you know, some people wanted to register their unhappiness.
KURTZ: It wasn't a huge shock to me.
All right. Time for a brief time out. When we come back, journalists in jail, the future of network news and Jon Stewart's media moment.
And later, from Dan Rather to Jayson Blair, memorable words from some of the high profile guests who joined us during the past year.
KURTZ: Welcome back to our year in review and our look ahead for the news business.
David Folkenflik, we have "TIME's" Matt Cooper and Judith Miller of "The New York Times" among the journalists facing jail in the Valerie Plame leak investigation. Do you believe that there's an anti-press climate that is behind these kind of cases?
FOLKENFLIK: Certainly, when I talk to news executives, they feel that there's an extraordinary sort of burst of these cases -- that we saw in Rhode Island. The fellow is in six months home detention because he wouldn't turn over a tape from a federal corruption probe that he reported on.
There seems to be a welter of such things, and they feel that it's really an attempt to say that the press no longer is off limits.
KURTZ: Will either of you be more careful now in promising sources anonymity, knowing that this could wind up with I protect the source and I might go to jail?
ZUCKMAN: I mean, certainly if you're writing about national security issues, I think you have to offer a slight caveat, that you might be subpoenaed. And reporters have to decide what they're going to do. Because federal law really does not offer them much protection the way it is now. And unless Congress wants to write a federal shield law, I think reporters really need to sort of rethink how they go about things.
TAPPER: And there is a federal shield law that's been introduced by Senator Dodd of Connecticut, I believe, and I think it's needed, because...
KURTZ: Well, maybe part of the problem is that reporters in Washington, in particular, quote people on background every day. And so they're exposing themselves on stories that may not be of all that -- of a crucial nature.
TAPPER: At the end of the day, some of these debates come down to one thing, whether we're talking about alleged bias or whether we're talking about this stuff: is what the reporter wrote true? If it is true, that seems to me that central truth is a lot more important quite often than these other debates about whether or not it should have been leaked.
KURTZ: Not necessarily in the eyes of the prosecutor.
FOLKENFLIK: And also, in the eyes of the public, the question is not only is it true, but can we trust it to be true? And Jack Kelley certainly used anonymous sources all the time to cloak facts that weren't there.
You know, but even sometimes the cases that prosecutors are going after are not necessarily national security issues. In the Balco case, the steroids case out in San Francisco, the U.S. attorney asked the Justice Department if they would find "The San Francisco Chronicle" reporter's sources and compel them to testify on that.
KURTZ: Well, no look back on 2004 will be complete without one memorable media moment that was replayed and downloaded again and again. Let's take a look at Jon Stewart and his appearance on "CROSSFIRE."
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW": It's not so much that it's bad as it's hurting America. You're partisan -- what do you call it -- hacks.
I'm here to confront you, because we need help from the media, and they're hurting us.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: You're hurting America. But does the phenomenal popularity of Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show" suggest that younger people in particular are just bored or turned off by traditional news, which he enjoys bashing, of course?
ZUCKMAN: I think so. And I think it's -- you know, people are looking for a little bit of humor and sort of truth telling in their news that they're getting from Jon Stewart, that they don't feel like they're getting from other places.
KURTZ: Do the network newscasts, including ABC's "World News Tonight" need to do a better job of appealing to younger viewers?
TAPPER: Yes, but I don't think the success of Jon Stewart's show reflects that. Jon -- and I watch "The Daily Show" pretty much every night. I love the show.
(CROSSTALK) TAPPER: On a great night -- on a great night he was two million people watching him, and on an average night, there are probably about 10 million people watching "World News Tonight" and about that for "Nightly News" or CBS.
KURTZ: But a lot of them are older.
TAPPER: A lot of them are older.
KURTZ: And they're not going to be around that much longer.
TAPPER: Yes, but what's the point? That we should not do real news, because it won't get the viewers?
FOLKENFLIK: Stewart also makes the point, which I think is very interesting, he says that these younger viewers can't come to the show utterly uninformed. That actually -- that they make jokes which are -- are predicated on knowing something about the news. So...
KURTZ: Of course, you should do real news. The question is how do you present and cover and package news in a way that doesn't make people fall asleep? I mean, we all face that.
TAPPER: Well, this is one of the things that I think we do successfully at ABC, but also it's one of the things, when we were talking about the success of FOX, I think it's one of the things that they do well. They -- they package the news in a very exciting way.
ZUCKMAN: And I don't think that we should -- you know, everybody should try to be like Jon Stewart, because he occupies...
KURTZ: They would probably fail miserably.
ZUCKMAN: That's true. And because I think he occupies, you know, a niche that a lot of people enjoy. But you know, there are lots of other ways of delivering news, and people count on that.
KURTZ: But he does make fun, I think, of the pomposity of a lot of news people in a way that sometimes strikes a little close to home.
Last question, David Folkenflik, Tom Brokaw's gone. Dan Rather is going. Will the network newscasts be further eclipsed by cable and the Internet, or will they remain -- you know, if not 800-pound gorillas, maybe 700-pound gorillas?
FOLKENFLIK: I think they're going to remain around for awhile. I don't know that Brian Williams, through no fault of his own, will ever command the same stature of people that you refer to by first names. You know, Peter, Dan, Tom.
However, they attract, as Jake mentioned, a larger audience than cable on all but its very best days. And they also, you know, are necessary for the economic model, currently, of network news. It helps them pay for all these reporters that you see on the nightly news magazines and the morning shows. KURTZ: So let's not write the premature obituary. And I will have to leave it there. David Folkenflik, Jill Zuckman, Jake Tapper, thanks very much for joining us.
Still to come, some of the famous and infamous journalists who joined us during the past year. Stay with us.
KURTZ: The media not only covered the story in 2004, but increasingly were the story, which gave us plenty to work with here at RELIABLE SOURCES, such as my chance to sit down with a man whose journalistic fraud I had pursued when he was at "The New York Times," Jayson Blair.
KURTZ: You wrote about at "The New York Times," of Reverend Tandy Sloan (ph), whose son was killed in Iraq, and you wrote that he bowed his head and started to cry in his Cleveland church. Of course, you had not been to his Cleveland church. You had not been to Cleveland.
JAYSON BLAIR: Correct.
KURTZ: How could you do that to a man who had just suffered the ultimate loss?
BLAIR: You know, as I said, Howard, during the time period, I really was, you know, selfishly thinking about myself, and I wasn't, you know, focused on how my stories would impact people.
KURTZ (voice-over): The Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal was both an appalling and highly controversial story broken by "60 Minutes," which is why I used an interview with soon to be former CBS anchor Dan Rather to ask about it.
(on camera): Dan Rather, as you know, a lot of critics have said that this was a story that hurt the country, hurt the military, damaged America's image around the world. As a journalist, do you worry about that sort of thing?
DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: Of course, I worry about that kind of thing. And my worry begins with never at any time do I want to place U.S. troops in danger in any way or any form. But let's have this clearly understood. The problem here is not people who called attention to the problem, the problem is the problem.
KURTZ (voice-over): A rare appearance by "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert gave me a chance to ask whether he was sometimes too prosecutorial in grilling his guests.
(on camera): You know, in terms of television stagecraft, is there such a thing as the moderator being too aggressive with the guest and turn viewers off? TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: Oh, absolutely. I believe that deeply. Lawrence Spivak, who founded "Meet the Press" 57 years ago, said learn as much as you about your guest and his or her position on the issue, take the other side, be persistent, but be polite.
KURTZ (voice-over): No story was bigger this past year than the way the press covered or failed to adequately cover the run-up to the war in Iraq. And no journalist was better suited to field that question than "Nightline's" Ted Koppel.
(on camera): Were they skeptical enough, were they aggressive enough about the claims of weapons and related support for terrorism that Dick Cheney and George Bush were making in the run-up to war? Did the media do their job?
TED KOPPEL, NIGHTLINE: I think we were probably a little bit too timid across the board, but looking back on it now, Howie, I don't know of anyone back then, not the French, not the Germans, not the Russians, certainly not the British, not the American intelligence, I know of no one who did not believe that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
KURTZ (voice-over): Tom Brokaw stopped by a couple of weeks before signing off from NBC "Nightly News" and I asked him about the notion that journalists are out of touch with the heart of the country.
(on camera): Do you think that journalists in places like New York and Washington understand rural and religious voters in the red states?
TOM BROKAW, FORMER NBC ANCHOR: Not as well as they should, nor do I think that most political reporters work as hard at it as they need to. Too often, I think the central part of America is treated as kind of fly-over country.
KURTZ (voice-over): And we also had a little fun talking about, well, sex with the Wonkette, Anna Marie Cox.
(on camera): And are you pandering for web traffic by writing about the unmentionable?
ANNA MARIA COX, THE WONKETTE: Yes, I am.
KURTZ: You admit it?
COX: Of course, I am.
KURTZ: People like to read that sort of thing?
COX: Isn't that your experience, as well? I mean...
KURTZ: You're the expert.
COX: I'm the expert on talking dirty, I guess. Yeah, no, I think people love to read it. But I do want to clarify, I don't actually -- I talk a lot about sex, but not usually about people actually having it.
KURTZ: We'll try to bring you the same kind of interviews next year.
Up next, "The Washington Post" buys an Internet journalism pioneer, but first, we want to hear from you. What do you think was the media's greatest moment or biggest blunder of 2004? Send your nominees to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
KURTZ: Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is selling Slate, the online magazine launched eight years ago in Seattle by Michael Kinsley. The Washington Post company is buying the liberal magazine to try to boost its own online traffic, will keep most of the staff, including editor Jacob Weisberg, and doesn't plan any changes. And not to worry, Slate's press columnist, Jack Shafer, says he'll feel free to keep kicking "The Post" around.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Have a safe and happy new year, and join us again next Sunday, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.
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