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Why Is TV Dominated by Tabloid Stories and the Op-Ed Pages by Men?

Aired March 20, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Tabloid TV.

Big television stories: Scott Peterson, Robert Blake, Michael Jackson, the ex-hostage in the Atlanta courthouse shootings.

Not so big television stories: WorldCom's Bernard Ebbers, mounting alleges against House Majority Leader Tom DeLay.

Why are celebrity cases and sensational crimes getting so much airtime while corporate fraud and political fundraising allegations get so little?

Also, newspaper opinion pages dominated by men: Are female commentators being marginalized?

Plus, one cable network takes the prize for most opinionated, by far.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the media and high-profile crime and justice. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Turn on the television set this week and you'd see, especially on cable channels and the network morning shows, a seemingly endless flood of stories about a handful of trials and legal battles.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When convicted murderer Scott Peterson goes to sleep tonight, it will within the stark walls of San Quentin Prison.

NANCY GRACE, CNN: Robert Blake is not guilty, repeat, not guilty.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The teenage boy at the center of the Michael Jackson trial is finished with his testimony. And some experts are saying the case against Jackson may also be finished.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: The Atlanta courthouse killings also got plenty of airtime, with the focus on the Georgia woman who was held hostage by the alleged killer.

And the case of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman in Florida, whose feeding tube was removed on Friday is in the spotlight today.

Congress trying to intervene with a bill that would force the case into federal court.

But are these important news events or just sensation-driven spectacles?

Joining me now from New York, Court TV anchor Catherine Crier, author of a new book of the Peterson saga, "The Deadly Game: The Untold Story of the Scott Peterson Investigation."

Also in New York, veteran television producer Steve Friedman, former executive producer of NBC's "Today Show" and CBS's "Early Show."

And with me in Washington, the University of Missouri's Geneva Overholser. She's director of the journalism school's Washington program, also the former editor of the "Des Moines Register."


Steve Friedman, the obsession du jour media-wise is this Terri Schiavo case.

Let's face it, there are lots of cases across the country where the plug is quietly pulled on brain-damaged patients. But Congress and the president now getting involved.

Is this another case of the media taking one person's story and making it into something that stands for a whole issue?

STEVE FRIEDMAN, FORMER "TODAY SHOW" EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: Absolutely. And what else do you expect the TV gods to do, because this is a life-and-death story, a story of a woman who has been sitting there, lying there. And it's a battle between husband, mother and father. It's a gift, believe me, from the TV gods to the TV producers.

It is a big story, and it is being covered as a big story because it makes the decision to go after this woman or save this woman in the battleground of the politics of the day.

KURTZ: Catherine Crier, you've just written a book on the Peterson saga. And this week we've had all of the cable networks live covering the latest sentencing hearing.

Now, let's face it, everybody knew that it was -- would be extremely unusual for a judge to overturn the jury's recommendation of the death penalty. So this was a bit of manufactured drama, right?

CRIER: Not really. It's the conclusion of a story that people have been following now for several years. When this story broke, people constantly were asking: Why this person? Unfortunately, many, many pregnant women are murdered by their significant others.

But it was a confluence. It was a bit of a perfect storm in that you've got Christmas, a beautiful woman, the guy next door -- literally, the guy next door. And then the case kept giving, if you will, because we learned about the family members. It developed a bit of a soap operaesque sense about it.

KURTZ: But the reason it became a soap opera, as you well know, Catherine Crier, is because the media put this on day after day, month after month.

CRIER: Well, yes and no, Howard. Think about it. Nowadays people, when they lose a loved one, when somebody goes missing -- just the horrible Lunsford case we concluded in Florida -- they go to the press to find their loved ones. They want information. Police departments use us more and more and more.

Now, we may just do it, flash, and then go on to another story. But if they keep coming back -- now, this search took four months, and during that four-month period, the world, certainly the United States, got to know these people. And we wanted to follow it to its conclusion.

KURTZ: Right, Geneva Overholser, is there immense public interest in the Michael Jackson case and the Robert Blake case and the Scott Peterson case? And, if so, why aren't these huge newspaper stories?

GENEVA OVERHOLSER, FORMER SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Why aren't they huge newspaper stories?

KURTZ: Yeah.

OVERHOLSER: Well, you know, they are huge tabloid stories. I mean, part of what we're talking about here is more serious news versus more human interest news that clearly grabs people.

But your words about ,"Aren't we taking one person's story and broadening to the whole human experience?" that's sort of what we do in journalism.

I think part of what we're talking about here is it's easier to take a story with sex and life or death and broaden it than it is to take corporate or congressional scandal and make it as gripping.

KURTZ: We will come back to that point.

But I want to turn now to the Atlanta courthouse shootings. Some critics are saying CNN just went overboard on this. CNN -- of course, based in Atlanta -- kept re-running an interview with Ashley Smith, the woman taken hostage. She did a prime-time special.

She has now asked the media to respect her privacy and leave her alone.

Let's take a look at some of what's been on the air regarding Ashley Smith.


KATIE COURIC, NBC ANCHOR: Such courage, and she was so kind of cool, calm, collected under this kind of pressure.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Talk about a profile in courage and a combination of compassion and determination.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: She embodies so many of the qualities that we all wish we had.


HERTZ: Steve, if you were still running a morning show, I'd imagine you'd be loving this story?

FRIEDMAN: I'd be loving it all the way. Here is an average American doing what the police in Atlanta couldn't do, taking the guy down. You get a professional profiler and see how they would do.

But, Howie, all of this, there's nothing new here. We had the same conversation during the O.J. case. If we were both around during the Lindbergh baby case, we'd be having this conversation.

This is what television now does with a 24-hour news cycle.

KURTZ: Well, one difference...

FRIEDMAN: ... over and over and over again on cable.

KURTZ: One difference with the O.J. case is that there was one main cable news network then; now there are three or four, and so the multiplying effect happens.

But also, explain this, Steve, as a television professional: Why are Jackson and Blake and Peterson leading the morning shows but they're not leading the network nightly newscasts?

FRIEDMAN: Because I think the evening newscasts have finally figured out that they can't be everything to everybody. And they are going to leave some stories on the table. They only have 22 minutes. And these are stories they choose to leave on the table.

They've been covered day and night by cable. It's a staple of early morning television. And they're saying, you know, "We have to be different, so we're not going do that."

Plus, the profile of the audience is a little older and maybe, maybe, they feel that the story is a little beneath them. But let me tell you something about television: You cannot be above the news. Do not fall into the trap of thinking you're above the news.

KURTZ: I need a brief answer, Steve: The "Good Morning, America" booker Mike Naggle (ph) who was handcuffed by police, because he thought he had an interview set up with Ashley Smith and she was doing an interview with the "Today Show," and he got in the shot, and he was yelling on his cell phone, if that guy worked for you, would you fire him or give him a bonus?

FRIEDMAN: I'd give him a bonus.

KURTZ: Catherine Crier, also want to turn to the Robert Blake case.

A lot of commentary on the airwaves, both before and after, about all of the evidence against Robert Blake killing his wife, and then he's acquitted.

Let's take a look at what he had to say right after that acquittal verdict.


ROBERT BLAKE: You've interviewed my friends. You've interviewed producers that worked for me. You've interviewed distant relatives and close, immediate relative. You've interviewed: "Hey, I lived in his house, I know him inside-out."

Well, guess what? They're all liars.


KURTZ: So are the media guilty of convicting people in advance?

CRIER: Well, I don't know. I was sitting on my show, waiting for the verdict at 5:30 Eastern time, and as we went around the panel, including myself, we all thought he was going to walk. So it's a question of analyzing.

On Court TV, I'd like to think, the legal aspects of these cases -- understanding what the burden of proof beyond reasonable doubt is -- rather than saying, "Gee, we all think they he did it, and, therefore, he should be locked up" -- it's a debate, but it's a legal one. And I think we should address it appropriately.

KURTZ: Same issue with the Michael Jackson case: Prosecution not having a good time in that trial, despite the impression you'd certainly get from the media was that there's a lot of evidence here.

I also want to ask you about your Court TV colleague, Diane Dimond. She's covering the Michael Jackson trial.

It came out that about a decade ago she was sued by Jackson -- unsuccessfully, as it turned out. The D.A. in the case, Tom Sneddon, helped her out there.

Is that the kind thing that should be shared with viewers, when she reports on it? A Court TV spokeswonan is quoted as saying, "Not necessary."

CRIER: Well, I don't know that it necessarily is, because it's not -- this was, what, 10, 12 years ago. And, in fact, when they say Sneddon helped her out, he simply gave a deposition, an appropriate piece of information that the judge then used to dismiss that case.

I don't think so. We all know that Diane has been reporting on this for a very, very long time. And we usually talk about the fact that the Jackson camp is not at all happy with some of the things she reveals.

KURTZ: Geneva, one business story that got more than saturation coverage was that of Martha Stewart, which involved $60,000 in insider stock proceeds.

This week, Bernard Ebbers, the former WorldCom chief, convicted in an $11 billion fraud, the biggest in the history of American civilization. And I think that television kind of treated it as about half-day story. Why?

OVERHOLSER: I assume it's because Martha Stewart Living is easier for us to understand and relate to than WorldCom. This is sort of...

KURTZ: Of course, as you know, in the case of WorldCom, investors lost money, thousands of people lost their jobs, et cetera, a precedent, possibly, for other CEOs who may be facing trial.

OVERHOLSER: But this is sort of like Steve's point about, we can't be above the news.

Unfortunately, I think the question is: Are we beneath the news?

What we do is, we go with this human interest thing where it's easy. But the constant reiteration of it often means we don't do these important stories that do affect peoples lives -- investors' lives, people's lives -- when congressional scandal is going on.

KURTZ: And speaking of congressional scandal, Steve Friedman, The Washington Post, New York Times, L.A. Times, all filled in recent weeks with stories about Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, taking foreign trips financed by lobbyists, three of his fundraising associates indicted in Texas, evidence there.

And yet the first television stories, at least on the networks, were this past Wednesday, a single story on the CBS "Evening News," NBC "Nightly News," nothing on ABC.

Why isn't DeLay a big TV story?

FRIEDMAN: Well, let's go back to the days of Jim Wright, when Jim Wright was under investigation. Was it a big TV story? A lot of stories are television stories and a lot of stories aren't. And I don't think this case is a television story yet. It will be when it gets more serious and the rope goes around Mr. DeLay's neck, if that happens.

But as of now, it's one of those inside-the-Beltway Washington stories.

As far as Bernard Ebbers and Martha Stewart goes, nobody knows who Bernard Ebbers is. Maybe that's bad. But everybody knew...

KURTZ: You know what? Nobody knew who Scott Peterson was either, and it is the job of the media when you have an $11 billion fraud to tell people who the head of WorldCom is. And if we haven't done that, we haven't done our job.

Briefly, the reason that the DeLay story may not be a big television story yet is he's not saying anything in front of the cameras.

Let's take a look at what happened when Leslie Stahl of "60 Minutes" tried to ask him a couple of questions in public, and she ended up getting a response from Congressman Mark Foley.

Let's look at that.


LESLIE STAHL, "60 MINUTES": When will you answer the question?

U.S. REPRESENTATIVE MARK FOLEY: We are not talking about Mr. DeLay today.

STAHL: Well, we are. I'd like to know when you're going to answer the question.


KURTZ: Catherine Crier, just to sort of sum up our conversation here, the lesson I'm drawing from people who are in the television business is, politics is boring, corporate fraud is too complicated, but when it comes to celebrity trials or gruesome murders or missing young girls, bring it on.

CRIER: Well, I get very, very angry about this. And I try -- in fact, I remember, I had Bill O'Reilly on the show back in October 2001, told him the second biggest story to 9/11 was Enron. And he said, "Oh, well I guess we better go check it out." Got this on tape.

I try, being a former judge, a former politician, to talk about these stories. But we think because they're not engaging, we don't address them. We have to make them -- just like you said -- we have to make them engaging and make people understand why they are important. And that's also why I write books.

KURTZ: Well, since you're agreeing with me, I'll thank you for the brilliant point.


Catherine Crier, Steve Friedman, thanks very much for joining us.

Geneva, stay with us.

And when we come back, are women getting a fair shot at newspaper op-ed pages? We'll take up that debate in a moment.

And later, will she or won't she? Condoleezza Rice takes on the big question about 2008 again and again.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Everyone seems to agree there aren't enough women on the opinion pages of major newspapers. But the issue exploded after columnist and law professor Susan Estrich began bombarding the new opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times, Michael Kinsley, with with angry e-mails for not running more pieces by women, including her.

Estrich called him arrogant and a jerk and questioned whether his Parkinson's Disease was affecting his mind, with copies to Matt Drudge.

Kinsley accused Estrich of blackmail for threatening to go public, which she did, in high-decibel fashion.

Still with me, veteran journalist Geneva Overholser. And joining us from San Francisco, Debra Saunders, columnist for the San Francisco "Chronicle."


Debra Saunders, do you see yourself as a "female columnist"? And why aren't there more of you?

DEBRA SAUNDERS, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE COLUMNIST: Well, I see myself as a token conservative columnist, not a token female.

You know, I'm not sure why there aren't more women columnists. And I don't think it's an easy thing to answer.

Is sexism part of it? Sure, probably there's sexism all over the place.

But this is a pink industry. There a lot of women working in journalism. And you see a sort of reverse sexism.

Look at Maureen Dowd's column today, where she calls men "simple creatures." Can you imagine a major newspaper running a column by someone who works for that paper calling women "simple creatures?"

KURTZ: I can't imagine that person being employed for very much longer, if that were the case.

SAUNDERS: No. No, I just can't imagine that happening.

KURTZ: All right, Geneva, you've studied this. I checked the numbers for the first two months of this year and found that at The Los Angeles Times opinion pages, 19.5 percent of pieces were by women, 16.9 percent at The New York Times, 10.4 percent at The Washington Post.

What on earth explains that?

OVERHOLSER: I could not be more pleased that we are having this debate, however inelegantly it may have been brought up, because that is a very good question.

Nothing can adequately explain this. We would never have a dinner party in which we have nine men and one woman and say, "This is the best possible way to have a lively and interesting discussion."

I really believe that conservatism -- I don't mean political or ideological; I mean risk-averse -- that spells the meaning of this.

Op-ed pages are typically a very traditional reserve, and there is a certain kind of voice which is viewed as authoritative. And, unfortunately, it is exclusive.

KURTZ: Got to be a very deep voice, you're saying.

OVERHOLSER: One might say grave; others might say pompous.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, you mentioned Maureen Dowd of The New York Times. She wrote a few days ago that she considered quitting her job as a columnist after six months because her nerves got frayed. She was seen by some men, probably, as too pushy and too screechy. And she said: As a woman, I wanted to be liked, not attacked.

Is there something to that? Perhaps some women don't enjoy the combat or at least the intellectual combat of the op-ed pages?

SAUNDERS: You know, that hasn't been a problem I've had. But, you know, I look at what she said and I think, first of all, as a journalist, I can't imagine complaining if the president of the United States didn't like what I said about him. I'd sort of be flattered by it.

You know, it's almost as if there are two kinds of female columnists. There are women columnists who see themselves as women columnists and women columnists who see themselves as columnists who are women. And I fall into the latter category.

You know, frankly, I think it gets boring reading, sometimes, about women who overdo the lament that they have.

I don't like the numbers. I wish that there were more women writing for opinion pages, believe me.

I also wish there were conservatives. And I don't think that there are enough conservatives in the papers either.

And sometimes when you see people pushing for diversity in journalism, what they're saying is: We want to have more liberal women, not just women, but liberal women. And this is an industry that's overwhelmingly liberal already.

So, in a way, when they want more diversity, sometimes they want less.

KURTZ: Well, I'm all for ideological diversity as well, although I see a lot more columns by conservative men than I do by conservative women.

But how do you begin to fix the gender issue, Geneva, without resorting to some kind of affirmative action quota system?

OVERHOLSER: Because I really think what we should be talking about is: What do I want our op-ed page to be? What do I, as an editor, want my op-ed page to be?

Is it just a place where sort of important people come and say important things on a narrow spectrum, or is it a place where a lively and rich group of diverse voices speak, different ethnic groups, different ideological groups, different genders?

And right now it is the former. I think we'd have a much more interesting page if it were the latter.

I mean, I'd love to see the readership figures of The Washington Post, which has one in 10 voices by women. It's dull.

KURTZ: Debra Saunders, do you think that men do sort of set up the rules here, whether talking about op-ed pages or television shows or the blogosphere, where it's considered to be you're aggressive if you engage in this kind of finger-in-the-eye, smackdown form of debate, and maybe a lot of women have a different approach to writing?

SAUNDERS: Well, you know, I don't know. I'm not going to say women have a different approach to writing. I'll let others say that. I don't believe it.

I do think Michael Kinsley's piece in the Washington Post and The L.A. Times today was sort of odd, in which he said that if I have more women writers that means fewer minorities.

I mean, what is he saying? I mean, The L.A. Times had 80 percent men writers, so if you make it 70 percent, you're going to have fewer Latinos, fewer blacks?

KURTZ: Right.

SAUNDERS: I mean, that's an odd thing to say.

OVERHOLSER: He says...

SAUNDERS: I know... OVERHOLSER: ... essentially there's one slot that we'll give to a woman or a Hispanic or a black, and we still leave the seven, you know, being white men? I don't think that's the point.

KURTZ: For the record, women outnumbered men on this program today.


Debra Saunders, Geneva Overholser, thanks very much for joining us.

Just ahead, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the hot seat with Tim Russert.


KURTZ: One of the clearest words in the English language is "No," two letters, N-0.

But some journalists won't take that for an answer, like Tim Russert.


CONDOLEEZZA RICE, SECRETARY OF STATE: But let me say, I don't have any desire or intention of running for president. I've never wanted to run for anything, and I just don't have any desire to do it.


KURTZ: Did that satisfy Russert? No way.


RUSSERT: "I will not run"?

RICE: I do not intend to run for -- no, I will not run for president of the United States. How's that?

I don't know how many ways to say no in this town. I really don't.


RUSSERT: Period? Period? Period?

"I will not run as president of the United States."

RICE: I have no intention. I don't want to run. I think...


RUSSERT: "I will not run"?

RICE: ... people who run are great, but I don't want to run. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: So, that settled it, right?


RUSSERT: You're done, you're out?

RICE: I'm done.

RUSSERT: There's news.


RICE: I hope not.

RUSSERT: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who just said she will never run for president -- correct?

RICE: Tim, why do you keep pressing me to make these statements?


KURTZ: Yes, Tim, why do you keep pressuring her?


RUSSERT: Well, because, if you're secretary of state, will it affect your ability...

RICE: I don't want to run for president of the United States. I have no intention of doing so. I don't think I'll be president of the United States ever.

Is that good enough?

RUSSERT: And you'll never run?

RICE: I don't intend to run.

RUSSERT: But it's different.

RICE: I won't run.

RUSSERT: Here -- oh, we got you.


KURTZ: We got it, too, I think. With 2008 three years away, maybe Russert will try again.

Up next, a new study shows that one cable network is far more opinionated than its competitors. Stay with us.


KURTZ: The most opinionated network on cable news is Fox News, says a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

On Iraq war stories, for example, Fox reporters and anchors included their own views 73 percent of the time compared to 29 percent on MSNBC and 2 percent on CNN.

When told that Iraq had adopted a new interim constitution, Fox anchor David Asman said, "Let's pray that it works out."

The project also found Fox more deeply sourced than the other cable channels and said CNN is the least transparent about its sources but more likely to present multiple points of view.

Overall, says the report, cable news is thinner than broadcast news with only a quarter of the cable stories containing two or more identifiable sources.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

A special edition of Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer live from the Persian Gulf begins now.


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