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ABC Investigates 'American Idol'; Why Have Networks Spent So Many Hours on Runaway Bride Story?

Aired May 8, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Tarnished idol. Has ABC News wounded FOX's popular talent show, or were the allegations about Paula Abdul more of a ratings ploy for "Primetime Live"?

Runaway television. Why have the networks spent so many hours psychoanalyzing disappearing bride Jennifer Wilbanks?

Morning show wars. Why is Katie Couric suddenly drawing so much flack?

Plus, the newspaper that ran a sex sting against the mayor.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the strange culture of television news. I'm Howard Kurtz.

We begin with TV's most popular show, "American Idol," getting the investigative treatment from ABC News. An ABC producer who once broke stories about Monica Lewinsky, now raising questions about Paula Abdul, a judge on the FOX program.

ABC's John Quinones treated the subject with great seriousness.


JOHN QUINONES, ABC CORRESPONDENT: Could it possibly be true? A romance between a celebrity judge on "American Idol" and a 22-year-old contestant? A naive and perpetually broke young man of no fixed address...


KURTZ: ABC also played voicemails Abdul is said to have left for the young singer, Corey Clark, after rumors about their alleged affair began to surface.


PAULA ABDUL, JUDGE, "AMERICAN IDOL": Hi, it's Paula. Call me back. Listen, if the press is trying to talk to you, you say absolutely nothing. That's all you do. (END AUDIO CLIP)

KURTZ: FOX promises to investigate, but also notes that Clark is peddling a tell-all book about his relationship with Abdul, and, what a coincidence, got to sing a song from his new album on "Primetime Live."

So was ABC doing investigative reporting or a ratings grab, or both?

Joining us now from New York, veteran television producer Steve Friedman, former executive producer at NBC's "Today Show" and CBS's "Early Show"; in Philadelphia, Gail Shister, television critic for "The Philadelphia Inquirer"; and with me in the studio, "Washington Post" reporter and author, Sally Quinn.

Welcome. Steve Friedman, this "Idol" scandal is great fun -- sex, lies, phone tape, even some music. Was it worth an hour of "Primetime Live?"

STEPHEN FRIEDMAN, FMR. "TODAY SHOW" EXEC. PRODUCER: It was sort of like Mary Kay Letourneau meets Milli Vanilli. Well, you know, was Michael Jackson with Martin Bashir worth an hour? I mean, you know, it's sweeps, babe, it's sweeps. We need the number. I thought it was a lot of fun.

It probably wasn't too much fun for Paula Abdul, who I believe will be going into rehab soon, and then come out for the new "American Idol" next January. And you can just see, boy, if you learned one thing from the last couple of days, don't leave any phone messages like Pat O'Brien or Paula Abdul did.

KURTZ: Or send any incriminating e-mails. Gail Shister, you've described ABC's allegations about the show as "massively hyped," why?

GAIL SHISTER, THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: Well, because as soon as the word started leaking out that there might have been improper conduct, particularly when it comes to a sexual affair, ABC went crazy promoting the thing.

Normally, critics receive tapes of shows before they air, particularly during sweeps when the networks want to get the most promotion they possibly can. ABC didn't put out any tapes. They only released excerpts from the tape, a late -- the day before, late in the afternoon. We couldn't even get it in our late edition.

So I think they played it -- actually, they played the press like a Strad. They played it perfectly, because everybody bought. It got great numbers. The "Primetime Live" got twice its normal viewership.

And I'd just like to point one thing out, Howie, with you, because I always do. "American Idol" is not the most popular show on TV. The two editions are ranked second and third. "CSI" is the most popular show on TV. If you put both editions...

KURTZ: All right. Well, it's pretty close. SHISTER: OK. Pretty close. OK.

KURTZ: Let me turn to Sally Quinn. This was, if you believe ABC, an attempt to fix a contest show. But everyone seems to be having such fun with it. Will this hurt "American Idol"? Will this hurt Paula Abdul? Does anyone care about the substance?

SALLY QUINN, THE WASHINGTON POST: Who cares? The only thing that matters is that it got ratings. That was the whole point. And I have to be honest, I would not have watched it unless I knew we were going to talk about it today.

And I turned it on and I was absolutely riveted. It was so awful...

KURTZ: It was riveting because it was awful?

QUINN: It was so awful I couldn't take my eyes off of it. I was glued to the television set the entire...

KURTZ: What was most awful about it?

QUINN: Oh gosh, the guy, Paula Abdul...


KURTZ: Let's start with that.

QUINN: Yes, everything about it was awful. But it got the ratings. And that's all that matters.

FRIEDMAN: Here's a good question, Howie, would ABC have done that show if "American Idol" were on ABC?

KURTZ: That is a very good question. ABC, of course, saying it had nothing to do with any competitive relationship with FOX or news magazines not liking reality shows which have stolen some of their airtime, and certainly some of their ratings.

But Steve Friedman, you know, Corey Clark the singer, to put it mildly, has credibility problems, which even "Primetime Live" tried to address. And yet he was the linchpin, all these things he said he did with Paula Abdul. If you were the producer, wouldn't that have given you any pause about building a whole show around this kid?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I think they tried to qualify it as much as they can. But it was much too delicious for ABC to pass up. You know, it just was so good. Like Sally said, it was so bad it was good.

KURTZ: Spoken like a true producer. Gail Shister, ABC didn't actually break much of this story. It was in "The Globe" supermarket tabloid which had the headline, "Did Paula Abdul Fix 'American Idol'?" And then ABC comes along and, you know, obviously does all its interviews and does the TV version. So I don't think I'd be out of bounds if I were suggesting that this was something of a tabloid story since it was in a tabloid. SHISTER: It not only was in the tabloids, I think it was in the fortune cookie I ate two weeks ago. This is not a big news story. The thing that I found interesting, aside from the fact that it was like watching a car wreck, I kept waiting for the big payoff, because they kept hyping and hyping this phone message from Paula Abdul. I thought it was going to be a dirty -- talking dirty, you know? I thought it was going to be a sexual message, and they kept hyping it. And then I felt like it was 55 minutes of foreplay with no payoff.

FRIEDMAN: They should have called Pat O'Brien.

QUINN: Maybe that's why I couldn't turn it off.

KURTZ: Well, let's take a look at ABC and John Quinones asking Corey Clark about problems with his own credibility.


QUINONES: Why should we believe you?

COREY CLARK, FMR. "AMERICAN IDOL" CONTESTANT: You can, or you don't have to. You know what I'm saying? At the end of the day, like I said before, I'm not here to try to prove my case, one way or the other. I'm just here to let people know what was really going down on my side of the fence.


KURTZ: Now, Sally Quinn, I'm trying not to get depressed, though, but you earlier answered that. This was horrible journalism, but riveting and you had to watch it. What about journalism journalism? Or do we not expect it anymore from news magazine shows that are trying to get a big number?

QUINN: I think that's right, Howie. And, you know, I think it's ironic that we are sitting here talking about it, taking it seriously, this whole stupid event, and they've given it an entire hour. But I really do think that in the end, nothing -- I've said this a million times, nothing matters but ratings.

And I don't care whether you have a journalism show or not, if you are going to get the ratings, that really is the bottom line.

KURTZ: Well, then I hope this helps our ratings.

Now, speaking of not taking something seriously, the runaway bride story. This began as a possible kidnapping and turned out to be an extreme case of wedding avoidance. It's been a television staple all week with all manner of experts and pundits psychoanalyzing Jennifer Wilbanks and her rather forgiving fiance, John Mason.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not surprised that she took off in the way she did, because she superficially planned the wedding with no intent of following through. DAN ABRAMS, HOST, "THE ABRAMS REPORT": Even though there is no psychological term called cold feet syndrome, what she did sure sounds to me like cold feet.

ROBI LUDWIG, CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGIST: And the fact that she said she was kidnapped by two people, I wonder who she emotionally really felt kidnapped by.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But I actually think she ran away to get attention. I think she ran away to get the media attention.


KURTZ: Now Steve Friedman, you're going to say that all of America wants to know about this woman. But isn't there something screwy when cable news and the morning shows go absolutely nuts over what they think is a kidnapping story, and then go equally nuts when it turns out not to be a kidnapping story but a bride with cold feet story?

FRIEDMAN: Well, sometimes you have to justify your original investment. It's like when you're gambling and you lose, you always try to get even.

But the problem with that story is it's the 24-hour news cycle that never, never ends. So there's never any time for reflection or editing. It's just show it as you go. Throw it against the wall, see what sticks.

And once you've invested two or three days in a story like that, and then it turns out to be something else, you've to pay it off. I think they tried to pay it off the best way they could.

And by the way, if that fiance marries this woman, he could be Richard Gere in the Julia Roberts movie. It's unbelievable.

KURTZ: All right. You're already casting the television movie version.

SHISTER: Oh, I'm sure all the networks have that going.

KURTZ: How silly of me not to think of that. Let me turn to Sally Quinn. This woman is clearly a few fries short of a happy meal, what -- are you fascinated by this story? What is the appeal of it?

QUINN: I think the appeal of it, if you look what is in the news this week or last week, Social Security, the filibuster and the horrible bombings in Iraq, what do you want to know about? I want to think about the runaway bride, because it means it's either not going to be boring or it's not going to be depressing. And so it's...

KURTZ: So this is a deliberate decision to lighten up for the audience that doesn't want to hear about these political...

QUINN: I think so. Yes. And I think that...

KURTZ: ... and foreign policy stories?

QUINN: But I also think that the audience -- that we out there, are either so depressed or so bored by a lot of the things that are going on, or so disgusted, that this is something that everyone can relate to and everybody can talk about it. And you don't have to know anything.

So it's not like you have to understand the filibuster or understand Social Security. Everybody can have an opinion. That's what's fun about it.

SHISTER: Yes, but, Howie, that's what this story was for cable TV. It was a filibuster.


SHISTER: There are two words that are never applied to cable news, and that is "unexpressed thought." Basically, you've just got the 24-hour maw. It has to be filled. I would maintain that if this bride were not white, if she were not young and attractive, this story wouldn't have had traction.

KURTZ: And that seems to be true of all of these missing women stories, including those that don't turn out to be as comic relief the way this one is. But, Gail, you had all these psychologists and profilers and experts, as we just saw a moment ago, psychoanalyzing this woman they've never met. They've never even seen footage of her, except with a blanket over her head. And her fiance is -- well, John Mason, "New York Daily News" had a big headline "He Does?" -- meaning, he still wants to marry her?

So what do you make of this nonstop filibustering psychoanalysis?

SHISTER: It's -- to me, it's business as usual in a week when -- as Sally said, when people sort of have war fatigue and Social Security fatigue. They're grabbing at something that they think is going to motivate people to get out of their depression and talk about it.

People were talking about it, but it just -- as cable always does, it went too far, and they kept recycling the same factoids over and over and over again. I don't know why they stayed with it so long. Maybe it's because Terri Schiavo died already.

KURTZ: And that anticipates my last question to Steve Friedman, and that is, Terri Schiavo, Ashley Smith in the Atlanta shootings, now this. I know you pray to the ratings gods, but does television have just a soap opera story fixation, obsession some might say?

FRIEDMAN: Yes, it does. But, Howie, I've got to tell you this. I tell you this every time we talk about something like this. Television is the greatest democracy in the world. People vote with their clicker. And if they don't want this stuff on, they shouldn't watch.

They are interested in this stuff. And I have to beg to differ with Sally and Gail. This story started out as a possible murder or suicide or a kidnapping. So it started out very sad, and then when it became a runaway bride sort of thing, everybody sort of let their breath go and sort of had some fun with it. So I do think that was part of it, too.

KURTZ: Well, I'll just respond by saying another quarter of a million people may have watched cable during those few days, but I have heard from a lot of people who were turned off by this, the obsessive focus on this story. But as you say, we'll battle it out in the marketplace.

Coming up...

SHISTER: Howie, it's going to turn into a religious story, believe me, trust me.


KURTZ: All right. We have a prediction. Save the videotape.

Coming up next, is America's love affair with Katie Couric cooling off? We'll talk about the morning TV ratings showdown, next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. "The Today Show" recently booted its top producer as Diane Sawyer and Charlie Gibson at "Good Morning America" have nearly closed the gap with the number one NBC show. And that has put the media spotlight on longtime morning show darling, Katie Couric.


KATIE COURIC, NBC ANCHOR: So what have you guys been doing or can you talk about it on national television?

Just a few bars.



COURIC: And we're going to tell you in this half hour how you can come up with your own list of things you'd like to do before you die.


KURTZ: "New York Times" critic Alessandra Stanley offered this scathing review: "Lately her image has grown downright scary. America's girl next door has morphed into the mercurial diva down the hall. At the first sound of her peremptory voice and click of the stiletto heels, people dart behind doors and douse the lights."

Steve Friedman, you're a former "Today" producer. Katie Couric has been incredibly popular all these years, why are people now suddenly sniping at her?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I hate to dance on graves, because people have certainly danced on mine, but "The Today Show" has been poorly produced for the last two, two-and-a-half years by Tom Touchet. He's not only to blame. But the fact of the matter is, they took this guy from "Good Morning America" -- a backbencher at "Good Morning America," and they brought him on "The Today Show," and he never figured out that this was "The Today Show" and not "Good Morning America." And he tried to Good-Morning-Americanize "The Today Show."

Now, "Good Morning America" couldn't take advantage of that because the former producer of "Good Morning America," Shelley Ross, didn't know what she was doing and it was frantic and it was all kinds of crazy stuff. But now Ben Sherwood has done a terrific job there. And the people who are leaving "The Today Show" now can find a place to go, and that is "Good Morning America" right now.

KURTZ: All right. Now, Sally Quinn, you were a morning show host on CBS in the '70s. That ended badly, I guess we would say. Are you...

QUINN: Disastrously.


KURTZ: Disastrously, all right. Thank you for qualifying. Are you sympathetic to Katie Couric becoming this high-profile target and -- having been in that spotlight yourself?

QUINN: Yes. I think Katie does a very good job, I think -- and I think a lot of it has to do with the producers. I do agree that Ben Sherwood is terrific and he has made a big difference.

KURTZ: At "Good Morning America."

QUINN: At "Good Morning America" and turned it around. And I think also that Alessandra is right in one sense, that Katie started out as being the girl next door, and she has changed her image, and she's much more glamorous now, and she dresses in a different way. And so I think that may -- the lack of consistency, even though she's more attractive and more glamorous than ever, may have put some of the viewers off.

But I think these things are cyclical, really. That's the other thing.

KURTZ: Gail Shister, has Katie Couric, the $64 million anchor, become some kind of super rich diva, and the audience, at least part of it, is having trouble relating to her?

SHISTER: Boy, I think that's a really loaded question. I...

KURTZ: We specialize in those.

(LAUGHTER) SHISTER: Yes. And you're very good at it, Howie. The thing is about Katie Couric, and I've covered her for many years, is that my sense is that she was never comfortable with the P-word, "perky."

In several interviews that I did with her, she brought up how much she hated that word. In some ways, I think that this image of hers as the girl next door, was created for her in the same way that this next incarnation is being created for her.

I don't know which one is more real. In a way, the irony to me is that, is she trying to get more gravitas, like Diane Sawyer? And is Diane Sawyer trying to lose some of the gravitas and become more perky like Katie Couric?

KURTZ: I guess everybody wants to be comfortable with the host in the morning.

Now, Steve Friedman, the moment that made me question what was going on at "Today" was last year, when the show didn't cut away to the first live pictures of Saddam Hussein in a courtroom -- everyone else was taking it -- because Katie Couric was playing badminton with an Olympic athlete. That made me wonder, well, is this show about the news or is it about the host?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I mean, you know, the fact of the matter is, Katie Couric didn't say, watch me play badminton. That was a call by Tom Touchet, who happened not to be in the control room at that time. He was out on the plaza watching them play badminton.

You know, the fact is, there is a delicate balance on these shows. People watch two things on television, programs and people. And when the program isn't good, it detracts from the people. And when the people aren't good, it detracts from the program.

You can argue this case either way. You can say Katie Couric has changed and that has meant the audience has gone away from her, or you could say the show has changed and has made the audience a little restless.

You know, you don't go to the same restaurant for 14 years, or if you do, sometimes you order something different from the menu. And that's what's going on in morning television right now, I think.

KURTZ: Briefly we should just point out, Sally, that "The Today Show" is still on top, that Katie and Matt Lauer still do a lot of news. But there is a sense in which, when those ratings start to drop or your competitor starts to come up, people on television panic?

QUINN: Well, everybody panics. I mean, when I was on the "CBS Morning News," we didn't panic because we were the bottom, and so we were climbing our way up. And none of our competitors were panicked about us, I have to say.

But I think in the case of these two shows, they have been upping and downing -- they have been going up and down like this, over and over and over. I mean, "The Today Show" has been on top, and then "Good Morning America." And I think that's just happening.

People watch for a while and they get tired of one show and they switch to another. So I think that's going to happen anyway.

KURTZ: Television is all about novelty. Sally Quinn...

SHISTER: Howie, I have a question for you.

KURTZ: Quickly.

SHISTER: OK. What do you make of it that all three executive producers are from Harvard?

KURTZ: The Ivy League still rules. And on that point, we'll have to close.

Gail Shister, Steve Friedman, Sally Quinn, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, a newspaper sex sting snags a mayor, and another reporter forced out at "USA Today" over borrowed quotes. The whole story just ahead.


KURTZ: Now for a look at the world of media news. "The Spokane Spokesman-Review" this week reported sexual abuse accusations by two young boys against the city's mayor, Jim West. The accusers said the abuse took place back in the '70s, when West was a Boy Scout and a sheriff's deputy. One of them made the charge in a court deposition involving another matter.

The mayor says he categorically denies the explosive allegations, but the Washington state newspaper also set up a sex sting to catch West, hiring a computer expert to pose as an 18-year-old and engage the mayor in online chats on the Web site This after a real 18-year-old told the paper he had sex with West after an online flirtation.

Editor Steven Smith tells me he had great reservations about using the deceptive tactic, but there was no other way to confirm that the screen names used on belonged to West.

Does that justify lying online? Tough call. Mayor West admitting having online and physical relationships in the past year through, but says he never had sex with anyone under 18.

And "USA Today" has forced another reporter to resign. A year after Jack Kelley was ousted for serial fabrications from around the globe, Pentagon correspondent Tom Squitieri quit under pressure.

In a March story about the lack of armored Humvees in Iraq, the paper found that Squitieri lifted quotes from two people, one of them a man whose son was killed in Iraq, that last year appeared in "The Indianapolis Star." Squitieri called both sources to verify the quotes, his lawyer says, but that doesn't change the fact that he ripped off another paper without credit.

"USA Today" editor Ken Paulson says Squitieri had a pattern of borrowing quotes without attribution. And when that happens, he says, a reporter has to leave the paper.

We'll be right back.


KURTZ: 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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