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Big-Name Anchors Report From Tsunami-Ravaged Asia; 'CROSSFIRE' Goes Off Air

Aired January 9, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Mastering disaster. The big- name anchors show up in flood-ravaged Asia. Does their presence really matter? And how many graphic pictures of dead bodies and desperate survivors do we need to see?

"CROSSFIRE" shot down. As Tucker Carlson leaves the program, CNN plans to phase out cable's original shout show. Was "CROSSFIRE" a good platform for debate, or just a high-decibel slugfest between left and right?

Plus, paid punditry? The commentator who took a quarter of a million dollars from the Bush administration.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on how the media are covering the deadliest disaster in recent history. I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead, we'll talk about "CROSSFIRE" and the culture of debate shows, but first, most of the big-name TV anchors were on vacation when the tsunamis hit Southern Asia. They later showed up in places like Indonesia and Thailand. NBC's Brian Williams, CBS' Dan Rather, ABC' Diane Sawyer. But does star power matter in the face of 150,000 deaths? How are all the other correspondents coping with the enormity of this tragedy, and how long will they stay?

Joining us now from Phuket, Thailand, veteran CBS correspondent Barry Petersen, who's covered war, famines and disasters from around the world. And here in the studio, Donatella Lorch, long-time foreign correspondent for "Newsweek," ABC and "The New York Times," now the director of the Knight International Press Fellowship Program.

Donatella Lorch, what do we gain journalistically by having all these big-time anchors show up in Indonesia and Thailand?

DONATELLA LORCH, FORMER FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: Very high ratings. No, I mean, you put a face to the tragedy. This is a television story, at least for the first three, four, five days it was a television story. The pictures made everything. And for example, ABC did a special three days after the tsunami hit, and the ratings were so high soon after that -- as a matter of fact, the only higher ratings were "The Jessica Lynch Story" -- and soon after that, Diane Sawyer immediately headed out. So I think ratings are huge. KURTZ: Well, this is hard work. I mean, the journalists are not staying in five-star hotels, but is there also a show biz aspect to this, on cable as well, the way that television packages a disaster? You get these logos like "Killer Wave" and "Turning the Tide?"

LORCH: Yes, it's a natural disaster, it's not a political disaster, and there has to be a huge difference made there. Because if it was political, the coverage would be much, much less. For example, you know, take Darfur, I mean, take the genocide in Rwanda. It wasn't covered. The big names didn't go there. And this is just so huge.

As someone told Diane Sawyer when she got there, we finally have put a face to the disaster. Forget about all the Indonesians or the Thai, we finally put a face to the disaster.

KURTZ: Barry Petersen in Thailand, I want to play a clip from a report you did a few days ago. You were in a Buddhist temple in Thailand that was being used as a morgue. Let's take a look at that.


BARRY PETERSEN, CBS NEWS: I stood there and saw not with my eyes, but my mind. I saw my wife and two vibrant daughters. I thought how I would never recover if even one of those bags contained one of them. I would like to say I was tough and hard like journalists are supposed to be. Instead, I will tell the truth: I stood there and I cried.


KURTZ: Barry Petersen, this has got to take a toll on you emotionally.

PETERSEN: It does on everybody who's here, I think. And that was an unusual moment, Howard. It was a show that allowed me to talk a little bit about how I felt personally. And I really had to think about that, and I think that sometimes a journalist in a situation like this really begins to sense that he's seeing it for all the other people who are not there, and sometimes that means you've got to be honest, and sometimes that means you've got to confess what your feelings are.

And I think that's not a part of what I do on a regular basis. You're not going to see that kind of reporting on "The Evening News." This particular show allowed me to do it, and I felt it was appropriate that anybody else who had been standing in that temple would have felt very much the same way. I just wanted to say it.

KURTZ: Normally of course journalists keep their emotions out of stories, but in a story like this, that is awfully difficult. Now, your colleague at CBS, Lee Cowan, was quoted as saying recently that he handed out money to some of the victims, and the problem became, where do you stop because more people went up for some American cash. Is that a journalistic no-no or a perfectly normal human reaction? PETERSEN: You know, I think when you're covering a story like this -- and there are not very many stories like this in the career of any journalist -- that you have got to also listen to your own feelings. Journalists have kind of a built-in wall. I'm sure Donatella has the same feeling. I think perhaps she was in Rwanda, if I remember right. You have got a wall and you try not to let the emotions get through. But when you're on something that is this huge and this difficult, you really have to say to yourself, what seeps through is important. You have got to go with it.

I also gave some money to a small church, where we were covering a story, because they're taking aid to people who need help. I don't think there's anything wrong with that. My daughters gave money. I'm told that three out of 10 Americans have given money. So we're reacting as people, and I think there is no problem with that, as long as it doesn't taint the kind of reporting that we're doing, especially if we need to make some hard, tough decisions about what we're seeing.

KURTZ: Donatella Lorch, some columnists, both here and Asia, are saying that U.S. television are showing far more graphic images of dead and injured Asians than they show, for example, of Americans and Iraqis who are killed in the war. Is there something to that, is there a cultural difference in the way we approach this particular (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

LORCH: There is a cultural difference. I think there's again, the issue of a natural disaster versus political problem, or political disaster, and a war is, first of all, political.

KURTZ: You mean that a decision is made to go to war; nobody decided to have these tidal waves.

LORCH: To have this massive -- and you know, everyone can join together and hate nature for what nature did. And I agree with Barry, I mean, journalists do have a wall and they do end up by giving in. It's very important. Barry's job has been to create this incredible reaction among the American public. But I also think, you know, in Darfur, why aren't we in Darfur? As many people have died in Darfur, and NBC still has to send a crew to Darfur.

KURTZ: What's the answer to that question?

LORCH: It's too messy.

KURTZ: All right. Barry Petersen, there is a columnist at a New Delhi newspaper, Ashot Malikh (ph), who wrote the following: "Why has Southeast Asia's biggest tragedy become every American network's ghoulish Disneyland party? Has disaster finally found its paparazzi?"

How do you cope with the question of how much do you show in terms of the thousands and thousands of dead people here?

PETERSEN: I think it's a very good question. At the same temple that you showed a clip from, we did a story in "The Evening News," and we pointed out that many of the bodies that we had seen literally had their hands up in the air as if to fend off what they saw coming. And we had a conversation about it. We wanted to say that, we wanted people to understand what had happened at the moment of this tragedy with these people, and we chose the pictures that we thought would be appropriate to show that.

But I've got to tell you, you can't get too close to death when you're doing reporting, because you end up blanking out what you're trying to talk about. There are some pictures you can't show. We're always aware of that. In war zones and disaster zones and places like this, you're always making that kind of a call. And sometimes you're right and sometimes you're wrong, and sometimes I don't agree with it. Sometimes I feel like it's better, it's important for people to see these kinds of pictures, but those are conversations that go on constantly, and we really make those decisions on a case-by-case basis. There's no rule about this. You deal with it depending on what you've seen and what pictures you have.

KURTZ: And Barry, does television have a short attention span for tragedies even of this magnitude? Will you soon be moving on to the next story and this will fade from our screens?

PETERSEN: I think that's a really fair question, Howard. And I think the answer to that should come not now but six months from now or one year from now. I think the real fear, as you know from what aid agencies have said, is that once we forget about it, once we move to the next tragedy, the money will stop, the effort will stop, that kind of thing will stop.

So, I can't answer that now, but I would hope that six months from now, we'll still be paying attention, reporters will still be here visiting, we'll still be seeing if the money is helping. That will be the real test.

KURTZ: Just briefly, will this still be a television story two weeks from now, two months from now?

LORCH: I don't think it will be two months from now. I think pre-construction aid does not make good TV.

KURTZ: All right, Donatella Lorch, thanks very much. Barry Petersen in Thailand, appreciate your joining us from halfway around the world.

When we come back, "CROSSFIRE" under fire from an unlikely source, CNN's new president. Are viewers getting tired of high- decibel talk shows?

And later, a top radio talk show host on the Bush administration payroll? Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. "CROSSFIRE" started 22 years ago with Pat Buchanan and Tom Braden, and over the years there have been a series of high-profile co-hosts, many drawn from the world of politics. But when conservative host Tucker Carlson quit this week to host a prime-time show on MSNBC, CNN's new president, Jonathan Klein, said he would pull the plug on "CROSSFIRE" as a separate program, though it would continue in shorter debate segments as part of "INSIDE POLITICS."

Joining us now to talk about this, veteran journalist Steve Roberts, now professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University. And in New York, Verne Gay, television writer for "Newsday." Welcome.

Steve Roberts, you went on "CROSSFIRE" once. How did that work out for you?

STEVE ROBERTS, GEORGE WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY: It was awful. Everyone was yelling at me the whole time. I walked off the set and I said, don't call me again. And they said, you were great! And I said, hey, this is demeaning, this is not what I do. And I worked 25 years at "The New York Times." I was an analyst, not an advocate.

KURTZ: You don't like being yelled at?

ROBERTS: Don't like being yelled at. I have this very odd notion that I think people should be allowed to finish their sentences on television.

KURTZ: Well, let me cut you off then. Verne Gay, Tucker Carlson, James Carville, Paul Begala, Bob Novak, these are all smart guys and seasoned analysts, but in a format with a live audience and a gong, they tend to yell and talk over guests. Is this good television?

VERNE GAY, NEWSDAY: Well, it's -- irrespective of whether it is good television or not, I think it's a great brand name. Great is a debatable term here, but I think it's a brand name. I think it's a nutty decision to cancel it. It can be made into good television. I think, again, irrespective of its merits, Mr. Roberts is right. It's very often a silly, high-decibel show, but I think it could be made much, much better.

And I think one of the options is to take it out of Washington entirely. Take it to Boise, take it to somewhere, but get it out of Washington. Use resolving hosts. Don't use, you know, not revolving door hosts, which it's had far too many times.

KURTZ: We'll see who signs up to go to Boise.

There was a very famous television moment last fall when Jon Stewart went on "CROSSFIRE" and gave them a piece of his mind. Let's take a brief look at that.


JON STEWART, HOST, DAILY SHOW: You're doing theater when you should be doing debate. Which would be great.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, CROSSFIRE: No, no, it's not true...

STEWART: It's not honest. What you do is not honest. (CROSSTALK)

STEWART: What you do is partisan hackery.


KURTZ: That was replayed a lot. But before I have you answer, Steve, I want to read something from CNN President Jonathan Klein. He said, he told me, "I think Jon Stewart made a good point about the noise level of these types of shows, which does nothing to illuminate the issues of the day. A bunch of guys screaming at each other simply doesn't accomplish that."

ROBERTS: I think he's absolutely right. And I think in some ways, frankly, CNN lost its way in trying to emulate the shout-and- snarl shows on FOX and other places. CNN...

KURTZ: But you can't blame FOX, because "CROSSFIRE" started before there was a FOX.

ROBERTS: That's true, but...

KURTZ: But should Klein have sided with Jon Stewart against his own employee, who Stewart had called a one-syllable word for a male organ?

ROBERTS: Well, maybe it wasn't great for morale at CNN, but on the substance, he was absolutely right. The reason why he said it doesn't illuminate issues is because people go on those shows, "CROSSFIRE" and these other shows, they have talking points. And they come in and they repeat the talking points. They're advocates, not analysts. It's sterile. It's puerile. It doesn't teach you anything.

Tucker himself said, one of the reasons he was leaving the show was because when he actually disagreed with the president, he felt he couldn't say it because it no longer provided that debate. That...

KURTZ: It didn't fit the format.

ROBERTS: That's deceptive, it's corrupting if you say things you don't believe to fit the format.

KURTZ: But Verne Gay, this is a drop in the bucket, it's one show, and we still have "Hardball" and "Hannity" and "O'Reilly," and even at CNN, producers routinely book for all kind of programs -- there are Democratic strategists and Republican strategists, and they're expected to come on and but heads, and they often spout the party line. What do you think?

GAY: Well, they do often spout the party line, and you get a sense that CNN has long been ambivalent about this show, and for good reason. Because very often, you know, Pat Buchanan as the model, someone comes in and uses it to launch a presidential campaign, or Tom Braden, who was close to Rockefeller, or on and on and on. Paul Begala still I think is getting a paycheck from the Democratic Party. There is a sense among viewers that this is just a business -- this is the distillation of business as usual in Washington, that people are using television to effectively front their own either, you know, economic or ideological benefit. And I think it's...

KURTZ: So, is one of the problems in your view that when the co- host is somebody like Mary Matalin, who was advising the Bush campaign, or Carville and Begala, who were advising Kerry this past year, or a Geraldine Ferraro, who had run for vice president, or John Sununu who had worked in the first Bush White House, that they're mixing people who are, by their nature, partisan, they come from the world of politics, they're mixing it up with journalism, and just letting them go at it.

GAY: Oh, I think absolutely. Again, it just seems as business as usual. It's people down in Washington saying, hey, let's use television to further our economic or ideological means. And I think that that is really mixing and matching. I think it's one of the reasons CNN has been ambivalent about it, and I thin Jon, Mr. Klein, is effectively voicing that ambivalence and saying, let's get rid of this show.

But I do think there is a way to do a show like this properly, and irrespective of the merits of "Hannity & Colmes," I think Roger Ailes has demonstrated there is a way to do that kind of debate format.

Again, whether you think it is good journalism or not -- it's not journalism, but then neither is "CROSSFIRE" -- but there is a way to make "CROSSFIRE" better, and that's why I think it's a bad decision to pull the show.

ROBERTS: Well, you know, I was on "LATE EDITION" for several years with Tucker Carlson. I was sort of the liberal, he was the conservative. But there were days when we agreed with each other. There were days...

KURTZ: Is that allowed?

ROBERTS: It was allowed...

KURTZ: Is that frowned upon?

ROBERTS: It was allowed on that show. And the notion that you have to have these shout-and-snarl shows to attract an audience is just flatout wrong. Look at the success of National Public Radio, which appeals to intelligent, reasoned analysis. They have plenty of people who disagree with each other. Look at "The Newshour With Jim Lehrer," where you have David Brooks and Mark Shields disagreeing.

KURTZ: That's PBS. They have to make money here.

ROBERTS: But they disagree in a civil and intelligent way.

KURTZ: When Michael Kinsley, Steve, was "CROSSFIRE" co-host, now at "The Los Angeles Times" -- he famously told the story about how in his first or second appearance, a producer in his ear said, "get mad." So apparently it's not just about the logical, erudite nature of your argument.

ROBERTS: No, it's not. And in fact, any of us who have been on television get calls from producers all the time and say, what is your position on that issue? And if you say, I'm an analyst, I don't have a position, you hear a click on the other hand, says don't call us, we'll call you. We want someone who's going to go on and fight with each other.

KURTZ: All right. What does it say about MSNBC, Verne Gay, that apparently now hiring Tucker Carlson, a proud conservative, who will precede Joe Scarborough, who's a former Republican congressman, yet this is the same network that dumped Phil Donahue, a pretty well-known liberal after just six months? Is conservative talk the new thing in cable?

GAY: Oh, absolutely, I think there is no doubt about it. And I haven't seen the dotted -- I haven't him sign on the dotted line yet, but I guess it is going to happen. But there is no question they're emulating FOX, and whether they succeed or not -- I think often I think imitations are pallid in comparison, but it is an obvious ploy to get this, quote/unquote, disaffected middle of the country, who don't believe they have a voice on television. Well, they have a voice on FOX, obviously.

KURTZ: Just briefly...

GAY: So...

KURTZ: I'm sorry to interrupt, but just briefly, do you see the "CROSSFIRE" cancellation -- and it will still be on for a few more weeks -- as having any kind of ripple effect on any of these other loud shows?

ROBERTS: I'm not sure it is going to have a ripple effect, because I think too many producers continue to believe that that is good television, but good television and good information, Howie, not the same thing, necessarily.

KURTZ: All right. Well, we'll try to convince them good television here.

When we come back, pundit Armstrong Williams' $240,000 secret comes out. Can his career survive? That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Conservative commentator Armstrong Williams has been trumpeting President Bush's No Child Left Behind law on his syndicated TV show, "The Right Side," in his newspaper column and in cable appearances, including here on CNN. What he did not disclose, as first reported by "USA Today," is that he had accepted $240,000 from the Education Department to promote the law. Williams admits to being guilty of bad judgment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) ARMSTRONG WILLIAMS, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: This has been a great lesson for me. I apologize to my audience. I regret the fact that people are impugning my character on an issue that is legitimate. I should be criticized, and I crossed an ethical line.


KURTZ: Steve Roberts, let me boil this down to the essential. What was Armstrong thinking?

ROBERTS: I can't imagine. But he's not a journalist. You know, he admitted that he came at this out of a history of being in politics, of being a public relations person.

KURTZ: And he's a businessman who owns his own show, so he is both responsible for the editorial content, what he says on the air, and for the advertising.

ROBERTS: He admitted he was totally unaware of rule one of ethics. I teach ethics at George Washington University. You cannot take one hour of class with me without understanding this was an ethical travesty, and that he admits he had no idea. And that is part of the problem of blurring the lines between journalists and politicians.

KURTZ: Verne Gay, that $240,000 was primarily to run ads on Williams' cable program, featuring Education Secretary Rod Paige, but he also did other things like trying to book Paige on other programs. Was this a problem even he hadn't talked about the education law, was this a problem to be commenting on the Bush administration in general and be getting this contract?

GAY: Well, you know, for commenting on the Bush administration in general, is, I think this really relates to No Child Left Behind, but the fact is, it's gross, it's horrific, and maybe the moral of the story here is, you know, don't trust a newspaper columnist who also runs a public relations firm on the side. It's just -- it's indefensible, and I totally agree with Mr. Roberts. I can't imagine what he was thinking, other than financial gain.

ROBERTS: At least he had the grace, Armstrong Williams, to admit that he'd made a mistake. The administration is totally stonewalling.

KURTZ: So this is...

ROBERTS: This is fine. When it's not only unethical, it's illegal under a number of laws to be spending this kind of money to sponsoring propaganda domestically. But they have a total deaf ear when it comes to ethical and even legalities on this.

KURTZ: Well, the Education Department has also been putting out these video news releases, which some TV stations air as if they were real news. But Verne Gay, Tribune Media has now dropped Armstrong Williams' syndicated column; the TV-1 Network is not airing his other show for now, because of this controversy. But what I'm wondering is, is this going to make people at home when they see various pundits popping off on shows say, I wonder who is paying that guy?

GAY: Yes, it should. Absolutely. Because somebody probably is paying that guy or that woman. It's...

KURTZ: Probably? In other words, you think this is more widespread than just Armstrong Williams?

GAY: No. Not at all. I guess getting back to the point about "CROSSFIRE," is very often we have people who are fronting an agenda, but they're also getting paid by -- John Sununu is an example, was a lobbyist for I think Westinghouse when he was on "CROSSFIRE."

KURTZ: Right. So they might have sources of partisan income, not necessarily directly from the administration.

GAY: Yes, sir, exactly.

KURTZ: Excellent point. Brief comment from you.

ROBERTS: Yes, I think it does show the blurring of the lines and how dangerous that is, because it's deceptive to our audience. The problem with Armstrong Williams is he didn't tell anybody what he was doing. At least Paul Begala admitted what he was doing.

KURTZ: OK, got to go. Steve Roberts, Verne Gay, thanks very much. And we'll be right back.


KURTZ: We are out of time. Thanks for watching. Here's Wolf and "LATE EDITION."


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