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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
How Will ABC Cope With Jennings' Illness?; Coverage of Pope's Death
Aired April 10, 2005 - 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): Sad news at ABC. Peter Jennings' lung cancer, an emotional blow to the network after the resignation of Ted Koppel over planned changes at "Nightline." How will ABC cope with the seriously ailing anchor, and is the evening news itself in trouble now that the other veteran anchors have moved on?
Farewell to the pope. The media machine spends 10 days on the illness, death and funeral of John Paul. Has the coverage been fair to the pontiff's career and to people of faith, or just an infomercial for the Catholic Church?
Plus, the royal wedding, prince Charles and the press together again.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we try to make sense of an intense two-week period of stories of illness and death -- first of Terri Schiavo, then of the pope, and now the sad diagnosis involving Peter Jennings. I'm Howard Kurtz.
In a moment, more on the extraordinary outpouring of global coverage on the passing of Pope John Paul II.
But first, no network has ever had to struggle with such a serious diagnosis for its lead anchor. Peter Jennings, his voice too weak to anchor "World News Tonight," had this to say this week in a taped message on the newscast.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: As some of you now know, I have learned in the last couple of days that I have lung cancer. Yes, I was a smoker until about 20 years ago. And I was weak, and I smoked over 9/11. But whatever the reason, the news does slow you down a bit.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: His colleagues across the networks were quick to react.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS ANCHOR: He is a competitor, and they don't make them any tougher. He is also a colleague and a friend, and they don't make them any better. Peter is in our prayers tonight.
BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": If anyone can beat this disease, it is Peter Jennings.
AARON BROWN, HOST, "NEWSNIGHT": We're thinking about you and we send our prayers.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Jennings will attempt to work or keep working while undergoing chemotherapy, with others filling in when necessary.
All this just weeks after Dan Rather stepped down at CBS, and four months after Tom Brokaw's departure at NBC.
Joining me now in New York, Frank Rich. His column back on the op-ed page of "The New York Times" beginning today. In Dallas, former ABC News religion correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer. She's now the host of "World Vision Report," a radio news magazine. And with me in Washington, CNN senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield, also a former ABC News correspondent.
Jeff Greenfield, we all wish Peter Jennings a speedy recovery. People at ABC are still shellshocked over this news. How does a network cope with this kind of diagnosis for its lead anchor?
JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SR. ANALYST: It's the one -- it's the most unplannable thing that you can imagine. Brokaw's retirement was set two years, I think, before he stepped down. Rather's perhaps semi- involuntary departure was kind of in the works for months. People were wondering about Ted Koppel, whether he was going to stay.
This is one of the things that reminds you that life turns on a dime. And the answer is, there really is no way to cope, except first to hope that he gets back on his feet and can do the news, and then, second, look, Peter I think is 66, and it would have been -- forget this illness. At some point when your quarterback reaches that age, you should start thinking about what happens next.
KURTZ: Exactly. Peggy Wehmeyer, when you were at ABC News, what was it like to work with Jennings? I understand he can be a bit demanding of his correspondents?
PEGGY WEHMEYER, FORMER ABC RELIGION CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was great for me. Peter actually hired me. He was the first network anchor to come up with the idea of a religion beat. So I worked closely with Peter. He edited all my scripts. He was a great champion of religion coverage. In fact, he was a great champion of any -- all of his reporters.
Was he tough to work with? Yeah, he was tough, in that Peter remembered everything. He would tell you even on a live shot or a -- what we do in stand-ups. Now, Peggy, don't just stand there by those stones in the monastery, put your hand on one of them. So he noticed every detail.
But was he tough? Yeah. Was he kind, and involved and caring? Very much so. He is. And you know, I haven't been there for a few years, but I loved working for Peter, and we're all very, very sad.
KURTZ: Frank Rich, beyond the Jennings situation, Ted Koppel said last week he is leaving ABC after 40 years rather than go to a live, hour-long format of "Nightline." ABC knew that if it went to that format, it probably would lose the services of Koppel. Is this a setback for the network?
FRANK RICH, NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST: Yeah, I think it is. I think that, although it's part of a much larger picture, as we all know about, what's going on with network news in general, all of this is part of the same picture.
But, sure, but let's say for the sake of argument that Koppel had decided to stay under any arrangement or "Nightline" format, I think that hour, even though they say otherwise, is doomed for news anyway. I think it is going to eventually be turned over to entertainment, because in the end, ABC is part of Disney, it's an entertainment company, and there's a lot of money to be made by having no news at all on at that hour.
KURTZ: Jeff Greenfield, you did many pieces for "Nightline" when you were at ABC, widely considered the gold standard in the television business. How did things reach a point where ABC first tried to possibly replace the show with David Letterman, and now feels the need, according to one of the sort of test pilots that was done, to have a set with a nightclub and a smoke machine, to kind of rejuvenate it, even though that may not be the final format.
GREENFIELD: Yeah, I'd be surprised if that particular version makes the air.
But the answer lies first in money. Frank Rich is exactly right. Late night, you know, if you're the No. 1 late night, as opposed to No. 3 in late night, you are talking about tens of millions of dollars that goes right to the bottom line.
As with everything on television -- and this is an important point -- with everything, because of fragmentation and particularly with respect to the enormous growth of all news, all the time, "Nightline," an 11:30 p.m. show, is seen as less urgent for a lot of people than it was. Its audience is down not because it got bad, I don't think, but because you could get the sense, even though if you never got maybe the quality of "Nightline," you can get a lot of knowing what was going on all through the day.
And you know, this is one of the consequences of all these television networks now being owned by giant, multinational, multi- everything companies is, the news becomes a less significant factor, and the idea of a Bill Paley, saying as he did years ago, the man who created CBS, don't you worry about the ratings, you put on news, I'll make enough money elsewhere. No CEO of one of those companies can say that anymore. KURTZ: Frank Rich, a lot of pressure on the evening newscasts as well? You have got Brokaw and Rather having stepped down; Jennings, even if he comes back relatively soon, as Jeff mentioned, is 66 years old. And a lot of people don't seem to be watching the 6:30 newscasts, particularly younger folks.
RICH: No, it occupies a strange position, the evening newscast, because it still does make some real money for the three networks. However, it's not clear who's watching, and certainly not young people, but indeed for most Americans with their lifestyles, who's really home at 6:30 or 5:30 in some markets to watch this news? So I think ultimately, it's a goner. Even though there's still money to be made and it's not a goner tomorrow, and the question is how will it be reinvented, or can it even be reinvented in the aftermath of the departure of two of the anchormen and the inevitable retirement of Peter, whatever happens.
KURTZ: And Peggy Wehmeyer, whenever that inevitable retirement comes, even if it's a few years down the road, Elizabeth Vargas has been filling in this week, is one name that's been banded about, Diane Sawyer. Is it time for a solo female anchor of one of these newscasts?
WEHMEYER: Well, of course, I think it would be wonderful for the evening news to be anchored by a female, but to be honest with you, when I first saw Elizabeth anchoring -- and I like Elizabeth, I think she's very good -- but I couldn't help but think, are Americans going to respond to this? We're used to having older, white men at the news desk. People feel safe with them there. I'm curious as to whether Americans would accept a young, glamorous, sexy, beautiful woman anchoring the evening news. Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters...
KURTZ: That's a good question.
WEHMEYER: You know, there are a few older women who have been there a long time and made their mark, like Diane and Barbara, but they're few and far between. Mostly...
KURTZ: Let me jump in here, because I want to move on. I guess we'll have to see if we get to find out how America would react to that.
Now, the coverage of Pope John Paul II over the last 10 days. Frank Rich, Alessandra Stanley in your paper wrote that Brian Williams and Aaron Brown began sounding more Catholic than the cardinals. And here's "The Weekly Standard," "John Paul the Great" is the cover. My question is, was the coverage so overwhelmingly positive that it became unbalanced?
RICH: It's not even just that it was positive -- and there were some mature and reasonable assessments of John Paul's reign -- but it was just -- it was obsequious. It was branding, it was using religion almost for journalists and celebrities to sort of glum onto and look beatific. And I found -- I mean, I thought Alessandra was exactly right. I found it obnoxious, really. Suddenly, newsmen are behaving like religious figures. So it wasn't so much that it was too positive. It was too positive about the newsmen, not that it was too positive about the pope.
KURTZ: I see. Well, Jeff Greenfield, it kind of reminded me of the coverage of Ronald Reagan's death, in that somebody passes away, and nobody wants to say anything terribly negative, but the pope, who accomplished many great things, was a controversial figure on things like birth control and abortion and the role of women in the church and the slowness to react to the priest child abuse scandals. What explains this?
GREENFIELD: Well, what explains it is that 48 hours after he died and we had basically hagiography, you began to hear exactly what you talked about.
Look, part of this is the old saying, I don't know Latin, do not speak ill of the dead. I mean, in the first hours or couple of days, the coverage was all about what an important person he was, how he connected with young people, and then you began to hear -- you began to see in "The New York Times," you began to see on the air people saying, yeah, but you know, he didn't really address the child abuse scandal in the church. Yeah, he -- the number of priests in the United States...
KURTZ: That probably got 5 percent of the air time.
GREENFIELD: I don't know. But what I'm saying is that I think to some extent -- and I think the Reagan analogy is a very good one -- the networks didn't weigh in with an analysis of the pros and cons of his presidency for a couple of days, and that lasted five days.
I think to some extent -- where I agree with Frank, by the way, is -- and I wished the networks didn't do this -- the kind of laying in of religious music, the symbolism of clasped hands and people looking up to heaven.
People buy into that. One of the things about news in general is, the news business on television has moved increasingly toward manipulating emotions, which used to be more or less forbidden in the ancient days when I got into the business, and we saw it in spades with the coverage of the pope.
KURTZ: I'm just shocked at manipulating emotion. Peggy Wehmeyer, what was missing from the coverage in your view? Are journalists reluctant, unable, not very adept at talking about the spiritual side of things?
WEHMEYER: Well, I agree actually with both Jeff and Frank, that the coverage was extraordinary. There wasn't a lot missing in this coverage, but that's because it's an enormous worldwide event. I don't think religion is covered as well before the pope dies and after he dies. So I think what's often missing -- and maybe not so much during this brief period -- is a lot of religion reporting without the religion in it. I think people often missed the spirit of the people they're covering. They miss the key -- the most important things about religion, and instead they look at religion through the scope of politics, power, the kinds of things the media cares about, and that's not usually what most of the people of faith are thinking about. KURTZ: I want you to be candid with me. All of these journalists who parachuted into Rome to suddenly become experts on the pope and the church, don't some of them not know very much what they're talking about, compared to, say, religious reporters who have covered this for years and years?
WEHMEYER: Exactly. They don't know, and I think they've done a very good job. But most of the time in religion coverage, for example, right now there's not a full-time religion reporter on any of the beats. Can you imagine sending a business reporter to cover sports, or the health reporter to cover the White House? They don't know a lot about what they're talking about -- some do, but usually when it comes to religion, if you talk to people who are being interviewed, they're incredulous at the questions that are even asked. So it's not covered very well.
GREENFIELD: That's why so many of the networks turn to editors of religious magazines, religion writers. I mean, in defense, I think most of them knew their own ignorance, and that's why they turned to people who could actually explain what was going and had covered this beat for a while. It was a huge -- I mean, the editor of "America" magazine, Father Reese, hasn't been on CNN for five days.
KURTZ: Well, at least we went to somebody who knows what he is talking about.
All right, when we come back, the Atlanta courthouse murders, Terri Schiavo, the pope. What is it about the media and death?
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
Frank Rich, cable news in particular was just immersed in the story of Ashley Smith, the former Atlanta hostage, and then the Terri Schiavo melodrama which seemed to go on forever; now of course, the pope for the last 10 days. You referred to it at "The New York Times" this morning as a "a form of necroporn." What explains these fixations with very different stories but all of which have the theme of death?
RICH: Well, I think there's this apocalyptic mood in the country. Some of it perhaps an inevitable sort of submerged fallout of 9/11 and terrorism, but it's all through the culture. It's not just in news. I mean, the No. 1 television show in prime-time is "CSI," which is all forensics all the time. And what struck me about the Schiavo coverage and the coverage of the pope was just how preoccupied it was with the physical aspects of dying. And candor about those things is, obviously, a good thing, but at a certain point when the Schiavo three- and four-year-old videos are turned into these, like, in my view, indeed porno loops, where they're just shown over and over again, that's something crazy going on in my view.
KURTZ: And in terms of that kind of saturate, Peggy Wehmeyer, I've had some Catholics say to me that there had been too much coverage of the pope. Obviously, there were many days when there wasn't much going on. There are lots of millions of people out there who are not Catholic or Christian or of any belief at all. Does this kind of wall-to-wall coverage maybe makes them feel excluded? Is there such a thing as too much?
WEHMEYER: I'm sure there is for some people. I mean, we have so much diversity in this country. I've talked to people who aren't Catholic who said they woke up at 4:00 in the morning to watch the funeral. You know, I didn't do that. I don't quite understand it, except I think the obsession with death, our culture, we all try to push death back, but when you think about it -- I remember interviewing a Harvard professor, a psychologist once who said, all of us wake up at 2:00 in the morning, and we're not thinking about what you think we'd be thinking, but we're often thinking about, God, what's going to happen when I die? We're fighting off death.
So when somebody's dying or somebody famous is getting sick, there is kind of this obsession with what's going to happen? What does it look like? It's like when you pull over on the side of the road to watch a car accident, I think.
KURTZ: All right, Jeff Greenfield, in the last 10 days, in the last 10 days, we have had a government chosen in Iraq, we've had new ethics allegations against Tom DeLay, we had a presidential commission say the intelligence agencies were dead wrong on WMD, we had a new baseball season. And yet on cable networks, CNN included, it was pretty much all pope all the time.
GREENFIELD: Yeah, and all Schiavo. But there are a couple of things about this. The pope was a spiritual leader of a billion people, reigned longer than any pope in this century, had an outsize influence in a lot of temporal matters, and was the first pope to be made pope during an age of global media and knew how to use it. OK? That explains a lot.
Second, let me drop a name on you that you didn't mention. Floyd Collins. Floyd Collins was a guy who was trapped in a cave in Kentucky in 1925, when the mass media of the day were same-day newspaper extras and silent news reels. For 14 days, while Floyd Collins struggled daily to stay alive, that story became a national obsession.
KURTZ: So it's always been this way, you're saying.
GREENFIELD: Well, you put -- to me, one of the core influences of modern mass media is that it enables you to put an ordinary person under extraordinary circumstances and make that the focus of millions' of people attention. Danny Hooper (ph), kid in a well in Long Island in 1958, Jessica McClure (ph). You don't need to be the pope, or you don't even need to be in a controversy. Death is something that a lot of us face, and when an ordinary person is faced with it and thrown on the national media scene, you bet you pay attention.
KURTZ: Frank Rich, the lead of your column this morning concerns a moment that occurred on FOX News on Friday, April 1st. Let's take a brief look at that moment.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SHEPARD SMITH, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: We have just gotten in -- well, I mean, facts are facts. Pope John Paul II, it is now our understanding, has died.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: CNN also mentioned those media reports. FOX later apologized for the error, and CNN said it had not been able to confirm what Reuters was saying about Italian media agencies. Is this the inevitable product of the 24-hour focus on this kind of story?
RICH: I guess it is, although this was kind of particularly ridiculous. It was, we should remember, 26 hours ahead of the pope's death, but to me it's an illustration of the obsessional quality of this. And I quoted in my column, a producer of FOX News who had sort of bragged to "Variety," you know, we've rehearsed the pope's death. We're going to pull out all the stops on this. It becomes like a sporting event, you know, whenever he would lose consciousness and then ultimately die. And I want to add one thing...
KURTZ: Just briefly.
RICH: ... to Jeff's point, which is these things are very intense -- Floyd Collins was a great example -- and then they burn out. They don't have much of a half-life. And now, Terri Schiavo, by the time her parents had a funeral mass, it was all but swept aside as the sort of next infotainment came in.
KURTZ: It already seems like a long time ago.
Just ahead, we'll ask the panel how the press will handle what's ahead in Rome, the very private selection of a new pope. Stay with us.
KURTZ: Welcome back. Jeff Greenfield, there are no polls, no focus group, no 30-second ads, not even declared candidates. How do you cover an election where 117 cardinals get together behind closed doors in the Sistine Chapel?
GREENFIELD: Yeah, there won't be a whole lot of exit polls on this one. Rumor, half-truth, speculation.
KURTZ: Something we're very good at.
GREENFIELD: Yes. I think that you're going to see wretched excess times wretched excess.
KURTZ: All right. Peggy Wehmeyer, here's a two-page spread in "Time" magazine about all the possible candidates for pope. "The New York Daily News" this morning says the next pope, the cardinal of Milan, three to one favorite. We have a front-runner. Now, it occurs to me that John Paul back on 1978 wasn't on anybody's list. So is a lot of this going to be just silly speculation?
WEHMEYER: I think so. I think it is going to be speculation, and I think they're going to have to wait. But I think they have to fill time in the meantime, and they'll profile everyone that they think might be a contender.
KURTZ: Frank Rich, are journalists genetically incapable of saying, OK, we'll just wait for the white smoke? We won't tell you what our betting line is?
RICH: Do I have to answer that question? I think they're genetically incapable, and I count myself among them.
KURTZ: So you're going to be joining the speculative sweepstakes as well?
RICH: Well, you know, I think this is going to be a much less big story than the pope's death, simply because no Americans are thought to be in contention, and then it becomes of much less limit to Americans, particularly those not -- who are not Catholic.
KURTZ: Well, I have great confidence in the ability of the news media to make everybody care.
RICH: Build them up, make them all celebrities.
GREENFIELD: Watch the Catholic vote. That's (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
KURTZ: Jeff Greenfield, Frank Rich, Peggy Wehmeyer, thanks for joining us.
Up next, Charles and Camilla's media moment. Can the star- crossed couple buy a good headline? We'll go "Behind the Headlines" just ahead.
KURTZ: Well, the royal press was out in force yesterday for the wedding of Prince Charles and his longtime love, Camilla Parker Bowles. It was front-page news in every London paper.
Though even the worst Fleet Street hype artist would have to admit the proceeding lacked the fairy tale drama of Charles' first wedding to Diana Spencer. And the prince must have been awfully glad to see his pals, whom he so royally dissed at a photo op not long ago, after getting a question he didn't much like.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHARLES, PRINCE OF WALES: Bloody people. I can't bear that man. He's so awful, he really is.
(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Must be tough being the prince of England. You don't have to do much, but those blasted scribes and their infernal questions! Have a nice honeymoon.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again 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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