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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Gossip Columnist Comes Under FBI Investigation; ESPN to Produce Reality Show About Barry Bonds
Aired April 16, 2006 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Gossip gone wild. A writer for "The New York Post's" "Page Six" comes under FBI investigation for asking a Beverly Hills billionaire for big bucks for protection against negative publicity. Is the gossip business awash in fakery, freebies and favoritism?
Off base? ESPN cuts a lucrative deal for a reality show about slugger Barry Bonds, but an in-house critic tells us why this arrangement should be called out on strikes.
Pretend journalism. How local TV stations are airing corporate video releases without telling you.
Plus, illegal immigrants get positive coverage with mass demonstrations.
And Tom DeLay's parting shot at the press, a long Washington tradition.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the dark side of the gossip world.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Gossip, it seems, is everywhere these days: newspapers, magazines, supermarket tabloids, Web sites. And one of the roughest and toughest of the bunch is "The New York Post" "Page Six," which is why the federal investigation of "Page 6" scribe Jared Paul Stern has tongues wagging everywhere. Stern was caught in a videotape sting, asking California supermarket mogul Ron Burkle for a six-figure payoff to help stop a steady stream of negative articles on "Page Six."
From the transcript.
Burkle: I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I just want to see what I get for $220,000.
Stern: Why do you want to go and take the chance that someone says to me, "Hey, should we use that story?" You know you want someone there saying no. After their first meeting in New York, Stern sent an e-mail saying, "Things are heating up and time is of the essence. Before putting myself on the line, I need a firm commitment."
He suggested a check or wire to get the ball rolling.
Stern told me he made an error in judgment, but that he was mainly trying to convince the billionaire to invest in his Skull & Bones clothing line, although he acknowledged he was also offering himself as a media consultant and providing advice about dealing with "Page Six."
"The Post," meanwhile, has suspended Stern.
All this raising questions about the gossip trade and what kind of favors and freebies are doled out on a regular basis.
Joining us now in New York, Lloyd Grove, gossip columnist for "The New York Daily News."
In West Palm Beach, Florida, David Perel, editor of "The National Enquirer."
And here in Washington, Amy Argetsinger, who co-authors "The Reliable Source" column at "The Washington Post."
Lloyd Grove, how shocked are you that a "Page Six" writer would ask a source for money?
LLOYD GROVE, GOSSIP COLUMNIST, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": Well, I'm less shocked now than I was a week ago, when I first heard about it. But I have to admit, it was shocking to think of the notion of a gossip column as a criminal enterprise if this federal investigation proves out to be true.
KURTZ: Now, you're hardly an unbiased observer here, but has this hurt "The New York Post"?
GROVE: Well, it can't help "The New York Post." But I have to say, the paper does have a roguish reputation. And people who read it do know that it is Rupert Murdoch's instrument for either his political agenda, his business agenda, and it's also very entertaining and well-packaged. But it's largely gossip. The entire paper is gossip.
KURTZ: Well, I can think of a lot of "Post" reporters who would argue with you on that.
Amy Argetsinger, let's assume that asking for $220,000 is an aberration, it doesn't happen very often. But isn't this a world where a lot of favors are offered and sometimes accepted?
AMY ARGETSINGER, "WASHINGTON POST": Perhaps in the New York world. But, you know, I think in journalism, it's not just a gossip thing. It's -- you always have people, sources who are trying to control things, who are offering you things, junkets, whatever, trying to buy your dinners or whatever.
KURTZ: Why, prey tell, are they doing that?
ARGETSINGER: Because they want to control the story, because they want to get on your good side. They want to keep their bad news out of the paper. They want to, at the very least, be your friend and help that steer coverage.
You know, in good journalism, though, you say no to these things.
KURTZ: Just say no.
David Perel, as I mentioned at the top, "New York Post" has suspended Jared Paul Stern. What would you do if one of your reporters was caught on tape asking a source for a lot of money?
DAVID PEREL, EDITOR, "NATIONAL ENQUIRER": Oh, he'd be suspended immediately. That's something that just can't be tolerated. I actually was shocked when I was reading the transcripts. And, of course, "The Daily News" is having a great time beating up "The Post" for a change. And it's just something that, you know, absolutely crosses the line, whether it's criminal or not.
KURTZ: Lloyd Grove, we've also heard about the "Page Six" editor, Richard Johnson, accepting, for example, a free trip to the Oscars from Mercedes-Benz, and also a bachelor party at a Mexican estate by Joe Francis, who's the producer of the "Girls Gone Wild" video. And "The Post" says that this is no problem -- we see Richard Johnson there -- because it didn't affect the coverage.
What's your take?
GROVE: Well, I don't know Joe Francis. I've never met Joe Francis. I've never been to his estate in Mexico.
I'm not going to comment on what Richard does over there. I like Richard. I wouldn't do it, personally. I wouldn't take junkets from Mercedes. I wouldn't go wild down in Mexico.
KURTZ: All right. Apparently there's honor among gossip -- I won't use the word "thieves."
Do companies or people who offer freebies or junkets -- as you were saying earlier, you worked in Los Angeles before you came back to Washington. Is there a lot of that there?
ARGETSINGER: There's a lot of that there. I was not in the situation where I was being offered it, but I had friends who worked in the business, where I would see them throwing around these things. They'd have screenings, they'd serve everyone dinner, and then everyone would get a great, big goodie gift bag as they went home. It was just the standard. It's like these things don't even have value, that stuff is being thrown around so much.
KURTZ: Why weren't you in on the action? ARGETSINGER: Well, because I was not covering the industry. I was covering things like mudslides, and there was no payola there, no grass unfortunately.
KURTZ: David Perel, the "National Enquirer," you know, famously pays some sources for information. So do you buy into the notion, therefore, that news is a commercial transaction?
PEREL: Oh, I absolutely buy into the notion that you can pay for exclusivity and true stories. The other side of the coin with us, is when people are trying to influence us not to write stories that they don't want out, rather than trying to pay people off, we tend to be threatened more often than not, either with litigation or even threats of bodily harm.
KURTZ: Threats of bodily harm. That sounds like a persuasive technique.
PEREL: Well, you know, it's -- it can be, but we don't let it get to us. I mean, I'll tell you a couple of years ago, I had armed private investigators sitting outside of my house for three weekends in a row as a message from a Hollywood celebrity who didn't like the "Enquirer's" coverage.
KURTZ: Lloyd Grove, don't you treat friends and people who have been good sources for your column a little easier than people who don't talk to you, or people you've been feuding with? For example, Tim Robbins once threatened to punch you in the mouth because he didn't like the fact that you had interviewed Susan Sarandon's mother.
GROVE: Oh, that was so many feuds ago, Howard. You know, I'm in a branch of journalism that's kind of in the showbiz branch. So yes, I mean, I do feud with people occasionally, only when I think it's deserved.
And, of course, gossip columnists have friends too, and some of them are in the public eye, and I try and let people know that I might have an interest, but that doesn't mean I'm going to write about people who aren't interesting, who aren't worthy.
But on the other hand, I'm also going to use the same kind of journalistic standards that I used when I was at the "Washington Post" with you, and I'm not going to just put stuff in the newspaper if I don't have any reason to believe it's true.
KURTZ: But do you have people who have perhaps been on the receiving end of not-so-flattering columns, who then want to take you to dinner and become your friend and be on your good side?
GROVE: It takes more than dinner to make me a friend.
KURTZ: All right, we see what Lloyd's price is.
Now, Ron Burkle, the billionaire who's involved in this thing with the "Page Six" reporter, wrote a piece for the "Wall Street Journal" editorial page in which he said the following: "I was asked repeatedly to pass on secrets about my friends to gain protection against negative stories about myself. I refused to play this game, so I was punished. But this source game is not only played on "Page Six," it's also played for high stakes on Wall Street and in Washington."
So, Amy, gossip used to be just about movie stars, and now, politicians, politicians' staffers, consultants, journalists, who is Katie Couric dating -- all seems to be part of the mix. Has some of this just gone too far in terms of getting into people's private lives?
ARGETSINGER: Oh, of course not. No.
KURTZ: You would say that.
ARGETSINGER: No, listen. Listen, gossip is not that much different from regular reporting. It is a different angle on people's lives, it is a different angle on the news, but, you know, at a good newspaper, the reporting standards are the same as for any other story. The interest level is there.
You know, I think there are some figures who are probably overexposed, but clearly there's market forces driving that, not so much in our column in the newspaper business, but you see this in some of the glossy magazines, the celebrity-oriented tabloids, where you see the same couples written about over and over. Clearly there's some interest in this. It sometimes starts to bore me, but ...
KURTZ: But David Perel, what's your take on that? You have a lot more competition these days than the "Enquirer" did, you know, 15 years ago. But has this gone too far in the sense that anybody now can have their private dating history or whatever dragged out in the various gossip outlets?
PEREL: You know, you only need to go into the supermarket on any given day to see the proliferation of gossip. There are so many magazines now. The "Enquirer" is the original, but it just has spawned an industry, of maybe 10 competitors, and they're writing about the same people week after week after week.
And at times, it does get tiresome, because you see conflicting stories and conflicting angles, and then you wonder, you know, where does it all stop. So, you try to get fresh information, you try to get accurate information, and let people know that you're the one you can rely on every week.
KURTZ: Lloyd Grove, do you ever hesitate to write about someone's personal life because they're not famous or they're not -- you know, there's at least half an argument that it's their private life and they're not somebody who markets themselves as a Hollywood star?
GROVE: Sure, I hesitate about that all the time. I mean, I think a good rule of thumb is if their personal life is out in public, in a nightclub where people can see it, then it's fair game. But if it's private behavior, behind closed doors, then I generally I think always stay away from it.
KURTZ: And Lloyd, obviously the "Daily News" has had a great time on this "New York Post"/"Page Six" scandal, but what do you make of the "New York Times," which has put something like 13 reporters on the case, has written thousands of words? Why is that newspaper enjoying this as much as it appears to be doing?
GROVE: Well, actually, in the initial stories, I think the "New York Times" did 10,000 words and the "Daily News" only did 6,000 words.
KURTZ: You're a tabloid.
GROVE: Well, that's true, and that 4,000 words was sociology. I mean, I think it's a great story for New York, and the "New York Times," you know, explained to their readers what a gossip column is, you know, who the players are, in a way that the "Daily News" didn't explain to its readers, because, you know, we're part of that. So I think it's not surprising at all, and I've been enjoying the "Times'" coverage.
KURTZ: The "New York Times" is killing its "Bold Faced Names" column, which is its version of a gossip column. Is it difficult for a big, respectable newspaper to do this sort of column?
ARGETSINGER: Well, you don't do that sort of column. It is by nature -- when the "New York Times" or the "Washington Post" is doing that kind of column, it is, by nature, different from what the "New York Post" is doing, and certainly what the "National Enquirer" or "People" magazine is doing. You know, there are a lot of things that I can tell you that my editors have blinked at.
KURTZ: And therefore you have decided not to publish?
ARGETSINGER: Yes, and usually these are things that were absolutely libel-proof. We would've been absolutely safe doing it.
ARGETSINGER: But -- no one was threatening us, but it was simply a matter of taste, appropriateness, squeamishness, things like that.
KURTZ: David Perel, I've got about 20 seconds. Is this "Page Six" scandal a good story for you? Will we be reading about this in the "Enquirer"?
PEREL: Well, it's a good story to follow. I don't think it's really going to make the pages of the "Enquirer." You know, we've had our ups and downs with the "New York Post" like every other media entity, and I think basically, you know, they have their enemies list that they write about over and over again, so if we see an angle to jump in, yes, you may be reading about it.
KURTZ: All right. I think the reason it's not a bigger television story is there's no video. If the videotapes of those secret meetings ever come out, then you'll see it on all the network newscasts.
Amy Argetsinger, David Perel, Lloyd Grove, thanks very much for joining us.
When we come back, ESPN has no business teaming up with Barry Bonds for a reality show, so says the network's ombudsman. He's in our on deck circle, next.
KURTZ: Welcome back. ESPN has launched a new reality show featuring the most controversial figure in sports -- homerun king and accused doper, Barry Bonds.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARRY BONDS, MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYER: I'll become a star, man. This is what you go through, dog. I'm telling you, man. Have you ever seen anything like it in your life? It's hilarious, isn't it?
BONDS: If it makes them happy to go out of their way to try to destroy me, or whatever they want to try to do, go right ahead, man. It doesn't bother me. You can't do anything. Anything else you've already done. You can't hurt me anymore than you've already hurt me.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The $4.5 million deal with a production company is getting new scrutiny now that baseball's investigating Bonds for steroid use, and with reports Friday that a federal grand jury has subpoenaed Bonds' personal physician in an examination of possible perjury by the San Francisco Giants' outfielder. ESPN's first ombudsman has called on the network to pull the plus on the series, at least temporarily.
George Solomon, who is also a columnist and a former sports editor of the "Washington Post," joins us now.
Why is this a bad idea?
SOLOMON: Well, I don't think any network or newspaper ought to be in business with someone they cover. And that's not just ESPN, whether it's the "Washington Post" or the "New York Times" or NBC -- I don't envision NBC wanting to get into a series with Donald Rumsfeld and into a relationship with Donald Rumsfeld. And I see ESPN and Barry Bonds in the same situation.
KURTZ: It needs to be clear, some of the money that's being paid to this production company will likely end up on Bonds' pocket -- not that he needs the money. But ESPN's executive editor John Walsh says that this is being done by the network's entertainment division. It's completely separate from the news division, and it doesn't affect their news coverage. What do you make of that argument? SOLOMON: Well, you know, I don't completely agree with that argument, simply because the viewer sees ESPN. They don't see ESPN Entertainment. They don't see the production company, Tollin/Robbins, which is a very competent production company. They don't see that. They see ESPN as you would see the "Washington Post" -- perhaps not the advertising department -- if there is a similar publication that looks like the "Washington Post," feels like the "Washington Post," but is the "Washington Post."
KURTZ: And now if Bonds makes some news during these interviews the production company is taping, apparently the news department at ESPN isn't told about it. Isn't that a kind of odd situation?
SOLOMON: They have an agreement -- they have an agreement that if Bonds does say something newsworthy and something revelatory does appear on the show, that it's held for the show, not to be given to ESPN News.
KURTZ: Now, ever since the book "Game of Shadows" came out by the two "San Francisco Chronicle" reporters that details extensively allegations of steroid use by Bonds, now you've got him sitting in front of a camera for this reality show, and he is hardly ever asked about steroids. It's come up once or twice. How do you do that and not press the guy on the biggest single issue facing his career right now?
SOLOMON: I think the producers of the show have every intent of asking him. Now, whether he answers or what kind of response he gives is up to Bonds. See, that's what makes the thing so tricky, is that Bonds in a sense has control. If this was done by -- you know, if this was done without Bonds' control and people pursued and asked and had him walk off the set, that's a different story. But Bonds in a sense can be asked, but he does have control whether or not to answer.
KURTZ: You see these programs as basically being pretty close to puff pieces about Barry Bonds?
SOLOMON: They're favorable to Bonds, and the first one certainly is well done. They do ask some questions. He is probed somewhat, but his answers are pretty stock and they're pretty pro-Bonds, and he's not going to offer anything particularly revelatory. And other people are asked about Bonds and the steroid issue, and -- but you know, it is a pretty fairly controlled piece by Bonds.
KURTZ: And so in effect, ESPN is helping Barry Bonds rehabilitate his image, an image that has been absolutely battered by these investigative reports about drug use.
SOLOMON: And ESPN would maintain that its entertainment division is producing the show, that the news division is not helping it, but again, that's where I have a problem.
KURTZ: You are the first ombudsman in the history of ESPN. Do you feel like you're having an impact?
SOLOMON: Well, you mean does Michael -- did Michael Getler have an impact at the "Washington Post"?
KURTZ: When he was the ombudsman.
SOLOMON: When he was the ombudsman of the "Washington Post." You never know. All you can do is make your assessments, write your criticisms, write your compliments and see what happens. I mean, am I having an impact? I don't know.
KURTZ: But do readers and viewers have a way of accessing your...
SOLOMON: I hear a lot from readers and viewers, and I get a lot of response, and I think readers and viewers appreciate having someone to vent to and also appreciate having someone that offers internal criticism.
KURTZ: And we appreciate your being here. George Solomon, ESPN, thanks you very for joining us.
Up next, how Katie Couric's upcoming move to the CBS anchor chair has produced a windfall for the man she's leaving behind.
And later, CNN's Jason Carroll goes "ON THE STORY" of the investigation into the Duke lacrosse players caught up in those sexual assault allegations in North Carolina. "ON THE STORY" today at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. The battle over immigration took to the streets this week as tens and thousands of illegal immigrants demonstrating across the country, drawing heavy media coverage that served as a megaphone for their stand against tougher border control and enforcement against those who broke the law in coming to America.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TERRY MORAN, ABC NEWS: Today America's immigrant community and its supporters showed their sheer strength in numbers, with forceful demonstrations from New York to Los Angeles, and so many places in between.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: People in many different walks of life stopped what they were doing and then walked out into the streets.
BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: Not since the protests of the Vietnam era has there been anything quite like it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But did news organizations give equal weight to both sides in this debate? Joining us now, John Aravosis, who blogs at AmericaBlog.com; and Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for "National Review Online."
Jonah Goldberg, has the media coverage of this issue glossed over the fact that, by the way, these people are breaking the law?
JONAH GOLDBERG, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, "NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE": Well, I think so. I mean, I think the distinction between illegal and legal immigration is one that a lot of people in the media do not want to make. They want to talk about -- and for people who are opposed to immigration, sort of immigration hawks, it's a real problem. Because to be against illegal immigration is automatically translated into being against immigration, period. And it's a real headwind that's very difficult to fight.
KURTZ: You have to admit that these immigrants got awfully sympathetic coverage with these demonstrations...
KURTZ: ... with comparisons to the civil rights movement. But 84 percent in an "L.A. Times" poll say they believe illegal immigration is a serious problem.
JOHN ARAVOSIS, BLOGGER, AMERICABLOG.COM: Well, I mean, in terms of the media coverage, what happened was, this was the week of the immigrants. They set up the protests around the country. They had, you know, more people than we've had since Vietnam, in terms of adding all the cities together. There were half a million in D.C. alone. And I was down there. It was amazing. Per se, the media is going to cover their side because it was their week...
KURTZ: But there are no big demonstrations involving people who are opposed to...
ARAVOSIS: OK, but whose fault is that? I mean, no, I'm serious. I do -- I've done political consulting before in addition to my blogging now, and we always complain about the media, but to some degree there's media bias and to some degree, if you don't give the media a story, they don't cover you.
GOLDBERG: Yes, but at the same time there was a story in the first big protest in L.A...
GOLDBERG: There are lots and lots and lots of people carrying Mexican flags. It was a bad story for the protesters. It was a bad story for the people who for...
ARAVOSIS: Right, but it got reported.
GOLDBERG: No, it got -- it got...
ARAVOSIS: Everyone heard about it. Yes, but everyone heard about it...
GOLDBERG: ...people like Mickey Kaus, "L.A. Times"...
ARAVOSIS: But it got out there.
GOLDBERG: Saying it got out there doesn't mean that the mainstream media covered it properly.
ARAVOSIS: Well, to be honest, I mean, again, I don't want to get into a substance debate, but carrying a Mexican flag is not a bad thing. I'm Greek, and guess what? We carry Greek flags during the Greek independence parades.
GOLDBERG: But saying, this is our country, (inaudible) get out, is a bad thing.
ARAVOSIS: Oh, but come on.
KURTZ: You two have got to take this outside, because I need to move on to the subject of Iran. And there were reports last weekend in the "Washington Post" and by Seymour Hersh in the "New Yorker," saying that U.S. officials were studying, as a contingency plan, possible military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
This led to a confirming report by Jim Miklaszewski on NBC News, and as we'll see in a moment, some criticism from Fox News' Bill O'Reilly.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI, NBC NEWS: No decisions have been made, but almost all options are still on the table.
Military officials tell NBC News air strikes, using cruise missiles and stealth bombers, tops the list of military options against Iran.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Iran's government wants to hurt Americans. Thus, allowing them nukes is reckless. That's the truth.
And finally, the anti-Bush media is relentless is trying to undermine the president, and will not stop no matter what the issue.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Is it a sign of the anti-Bush media that fairly-respected journalists report that the U.S. is studying possible first strikes against Iran? Isn't that a story?
GOLDBERG: Oh, I think it's absolutely a story. I don't know what O'Reilly's talking about. I don't really understand what the controversy is on this front. First of all, I think it would be a scandal if the Pentagon weren't studying all its military options in terms of Iran. It has been the centerpoint of American foreign policy for over a decade, to prevent rogue states like Iran to get nuclear bombs. And the idea that somehow the Pentagon wouldn't be trying to figure out what to do about it strikes me as absurd.
If it's a leak to warn Iran, saying, hey look, this is saber- rattling, this is what's on the table, it's a good leak. If it's a leak to warn Bush, don't do this, it's a perfectly fine leak. I don't understand what the controversy is about this debate. I'm not a big fan of Sy Hersh, and I don't always trust him, but I really don't see where the argument is on this.
KURTZ: And I don't know what the motivation of the leakers are, but somebody wanted this story out. It can't be a coincidence that several major news organizations got this around the same time.
ARAVOSIS: Right, but you have to look at what the story was. The reason the story was newsworthy was, it wasn't just, hey, the administration is doing war plans maybe for 10 years down the road. What the story was, is that the Bush administration has decided that diplomacy isn't going to work and that they are going to war no matter what.
Whether you think it's true or not, the point is, that was the story...
KURTZ: Wait, wait -- how was that the story? That's your interpretation of the story. The story was...
ARAVOSIS: No, no, it was...
ARAVOSIS: ...it was either Sy Hersh or the "Washington Post" that reported the people inside were saying that they had already decided diplomacy wasn't going to work. They were going to make a show of it publicly. But they weren't -- they had already decided it wasn't going to work. Now, again, you can agree or disagree, but that's an interesting story, in view of what happened in Iraq and everything else.
The other thing I'd say is the fact that we're even preparing for another war is obviously newsworthy in a country where people are a little skittish about war. So, I mean, I think it's a story.
GOLDBERG: There's a difference between preparing plans and preparing. I'm sure we have similar plans for war with North Korea, and probably we have similar plans for a war with Canada. In fact, I know we do.
ARAVOSIS: No, but I would disagree on one point, Howie. The news this week has all been out of the administration. Every day things have changed, oh my God, they're going to prepare a bomb. Iran is 10 years away from preparing a bomb. The news all week has been the sky is falling.
KURTZ: There's varying estimates on that, but the president called these reports...
ARAVOSIS: There aren't, actually.
KURTZ: ... wild speculation, and I'm thinking, OK, so it's OK for President Bush to authorize leaks of classified information about Iraq as he did in 2003, according to Scooter Libby. But it's somehow unfair for other people to leak information about Iran? I mean, it's not like we're...
ARAVOSIS: Well, there's a huge different standard. The president of the United States is constitutionally empowered as the person charged with being able to declassify...
KURTZ: That's a legal argument. I'm asking about the political question. How can the administration complain about these leaks, when they selectively play this game themselves?
GOLDBERG: I don't understand -- I mean, I really don't understand how you can be confused about it. It seems to me that ...
KURTZ: I'm not confused.
GOLDBERG: ... the president of the United States, he's the one who gets to determine whether or not the people have a right to know something in terms of ...
KURTZ: So it's OK when he does it?
GOLDBERG: I don't...
KURTZ: And if somebody else in the Pentagon leaks information, it's not OK, because they're not the president. They don't have the legal authority.
GOLDBERG: I think that's -- well, not only the legal authority, it's not their job. It's not a general's job to be leaking classified information to influence public policy. It isn't.
ARAVOSIS: It's Richard Nixon all over again. As long as the president does it, it's OK. You know, l'etat, c'est moi. We don't want to go too French here, but you know, it's -- what you've got is just that. The president has decided when he wants to leak stuff -- and I would argue that it may be legal for the president to leak things, but good God! Do we really want George Bush being the one deciding what classified information will and won't hurt national security?
GOLDBERG: Yeah. That's why he won an election. That's (inaudible). You want the Supreme Court deciding it?
ARAVOSIS: Sixty-six percent of the American people are not too happy right now with this president, and I don't think we want him deciding personally what ...
GOLDBERG: Oh, so we should have a plebicitory system where...
ARAVOSIS: What we're talking about, Jonah, is right and wrong and not legalities. Legalities is what...
GOLDBERG: But that's absurd!
ARAVOSIS: Legalities is what got Bill Clinton in trouble.
KURTZ: Once again, I've got to break this up, because I want to move on to Scott McClellan, who had some strong things to say about the "Washington Post" after a front-page story the other day that said that, back in 2003, those Iraqi trailers, which we heard so much about at the time, were not used for biological weapons, according to a report by a group of intelligence experts. And yet, the president a couple of days later said, quote, "We have found the weapons of mass destruction."
Here is Scott McClellan's reaction to that "Post" story.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's an embarrassment for the media that is out there reporting this. This is rehashing something that's very old. But the lead of that article is just reckless reporting, and it's irresponsible.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Why is the White House so exorcised about this?
I mean, ultimately it's true. There were no biological weapons in those trailers.
GOLDBERG: Sure. But this is one of these things that comes up again and again and again, with all these sorts of stories. It's the difference between being wrong, given the intelligence that you had, and deliberately lying to the American people. A lot of people, including some people at this table, and the media in general, very much wants to push the story that Bush lied, rather than that Bush was wrong. That's at the heart of all of -- of almost this entire debate. It's at the heart of what we're seeing with this Fitzgerald stuff, is that we want to re-fight these arguments about American intelligence. To be wrong about those trailers is different than lying about them.
KURTZ: And it is true that the "Post" story was not able to establish that President Bush saw this intelligence report before he made that comment.
ARAVOSIS: Right, but...
KURTZ: ... so he may not even have had this information. ARAVOSIS: Yes, he may have just been a total idiot, Howard, who's incompetent and out of the loop. It's possible. But what this story said was, two days before the president said we found WMD, his own people had determined that we didn't find WMD. Four months later, Vice President Cheney went on the Sunday talk shows and said, we found those bio labs. If for four months we had a team that had already determined that these were not weapons of mass destruction, and the president and the vice president were still saying they were, I have a hard time believing somebody in the administration didn't say, uh, Boss, that's not true.
KURTZ: We have to get you two your own show...
ARAVOSIS: I'd love it.
KURTZ: ... because there's a lot here to debate. But thanks very much for coming on my show. Jonah Goldberg, John Aravosis, we appreciate it.
Just ahead, your local TV reporters wouldn't repeat corporate press releases word-for-word, would they? We'll go the videotape, next.
KURTZ: They're called video news releases, but the word "news" is an exaggeration. These are taped packages that are nothing but PR for corporate clients. But now a media advocacy group has documented how local TV stations across the country are using these tapes without identifying where they came from, passing them off as the station's own work.
Take this release on behalf of Trend Microsoftware about a form of online identity theft known as phishing, with a ph.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Identity theft is one of the biggest fears facing computer users today. Just ask Jessica Sweedler, who lost her identity from a new threat called phishing.
JESSICA SWEEDLER, IDENTITY THEFT VICTIM: I was pretty surprised, actually, because the e-mail looked so, so authentic.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: KOKH in Oklahoma City played the taped report as if it were news.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Now Jim Lawrence (ph) tells us, a new e- mail threat could attack your bank account.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Identity theft is one of the biggest fears facing computer users today. Just ask Jessica Sweedler, who lost her identify from a new threat called phishing.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: In Los Angeles, KTLA went one step further, having reporter Curt Newton (ph) provide his own narration for the same footage.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now some software can help filter out some of these threats, potentially helping people like this woman, who got suckered in seconds.
SWEEDLER: I was pretty surprised, actually, because the e-mail looked so, so authentic.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: New York's WPIX picked up the same prepackaged story with the same footage from the reporter at KTLA.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is one in many of these late phishing scams that are happening out there. But there could be some new protection against it, to keep happening -- well, to this lady, what happened with her bank. Look at this.
SWEEDLER: I was pretty surprised, actually, because the e-mail looked so, so authentic.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And joining us now from Los Angeles, Daniel Price, research consultant for the Center for Media and Democracy and co- author of the report "Fake TV News, Widespread and Undisclosed." And joining us from Phoenix, FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein.
Daniel Price -- KTLA, by the way, says this was done in error. The other two stations declined to comment -- how widespread is this practice? How many stations did you find using these video news releases?
DANIEL PRICE, RESEARCH CONSULTANT, CENTER FOR MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY: Howard, in our 10-month study, we found 77 stations that in some way blended video news releases or satellite media tours into their newscast, passing it off as their own journalism.
KURTZ: And did most of those stations not identify the fact that this was pre-cooked, canned, prepackaged footage provided on behalf of corporate clients?
PRICE: We documented 98 separate instances of these video news releases being used, and only two of them even partially disclosed that this was a prepackaged story. Nobody disclosed that the story was being funded by a private corporation with a sales agenda. KURTZ: Jonathan Adelstein, why are you upset about these findings?
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN, FCC COMMISSIONER: Well, you know, we warned all of the broadcasters across the country about this. In an unusual step last year, the commission unanimously issued a public notice saying, if you run these video news releases, you have to disclose to the public so that they know who's behind them. And amazingly enough, all of these incidents that were uncovered happened after the FCC went on record notifying them of the need to disclose. So it appears we have a widespread problem here, and that only I think further enforcement by the FCC will bring it under control.
KURTZ: But why is the Federal Communications Commission getting into this? Why is this the business of the government? You don't ordinarily regulate editorial content.
ADELSTEIN: We don't normally get into the substance of it, but there's a simple law on the books that goes back to the payola scandals of the 1960s, requiring that when any consideration changes hands, that there be a disclosure to the public. The principle behind it is that the public has a right to know who's trying to persuade them, so they can make up their own mind about the quality of the information that's being presented.
KURTZ: Daniel Price, you say that in your report, that along with these video news releases, that are sometimes used in conjunction with satellite media tours. Explain how those work.
PRICE: That's basically a live version of a video news release, in which a expert or a so-called consumer advocate will interact live via remote satellite, like I'm doing right now. They'll talk to the station anchor and they will express -- so, like the topic can be something like the best holiday gifts to buy for your loved ones, and so they'll have a consumer advocate come on, talk about the best products to buy, but they won't disclose the fact that they're being paid by the product makers to talk about their recommendation.
KURTZ: And in your experience, why don't stations do this? I mean, obviously it saves them a little money, but isn't it kind of embarrassing?
PRICE: It really all comes down to money. Well, it's only embarrassing if they get caught. So it comes down to basically every minute of prepackaged content that they use is a minute that they don't have to produce themselves. So there's a substantial cost savings in the long run.
KURTZ: Jonathan Adelstein, you are one member, a Democratic member of the FCC. How likely is it that your fellow commissioners are going to join you in cracking down on this, or even passing a rule that makes it clearly against the policy of the federal government?
ADELSTEIN: Well, I've spoken to my colleagues about it. I think there's unanimous concern about this. As a matter of fact, as I mentioned, we all went on record -- actually voted unanimously, on a bipartisan basis last year -- to warn broadcasters that they need to disclose, and that if they didn't, that we would take our enforcement responsibilities seriously. And I fully expect now that we're going to rise to the commitments that we made.
KURTZ: Was there any push back from the industry on your effort to implement this rule?
ADELSTEIN: No, even the industry itself has guidelines. The Radio and Television News Directors Association put out guidelines saying that it's their policy to disclose. And in fact, after this recent revelation, they reminded their stations of their obligations to disclose, but I'm afraid that self-regulation doesn't appear to be working here.
KURTZ: Self-regulation, is that a realistic way to go, Daniel Price, the idea that stations themselves would voluntarily give up the use of these corporate news releases? Because after all, this is not the first time this issue has come up. This is just the first time we've had this kind of documentation.
PRICE: This is actually the third year in a row now that there's been a major VNR scandal, starting with Karen Ryan in 2004, the "New York Times" expose in 2005 and now this. And every single time, the stations issue mea culpas. They say it will never happen again, or it was a one-time accident, and yet they get caught again.
KURTZ: You mentioned Karen Ryan -- just take a moment to explain to our viewers what that's about.
PRICE: Right. Back in 2004, the Department of Health and Human Services, through Ketchum, released a video news release about Bush's prescription Medicare drug act that ran on 40 stations as if it was their own news, and without any disclosure that the government funded the story.
KURTZ: Jonathan Adelstein, would you have a problem if stations used this material, but also went out and balanced it with other points of view, or is it the sort of one-sidedness and the conveyor- belt nature of this that is giving you pause?
ADELSTEIN: Actually, as far as the FCC is concerned, the only thing they have to do is disclose, and we're off their backs. That's the only legal obligation they have. We don't have a concern with the content or anything else. It's just the public has a right to know who's behind it, under the law.
So, they don't want to do that, is the problem. I think that if they did that, that would basically undercut the whole purpose of trying to substitute this fake news for real news and save some money by not having to send a crew out to actually cover what's going on in the community.
KURTZ: You say -- excuse me for interrupting. You say the commission would like to take appropriate enforcement action on this matter, but how likely is that? I mean, you can't monitor every report by every local TV station in the United States. ADELSTEIN: Well, generally we operate on a complaints basis. What I mean is, we certainly need to look into the complaint that we received, based on the allegations that came out of this study. And we don't really affirmatively monitor, but we need to keep on top of that. We need more public interest groups like this, bringing this to our attention. We need the public to be on watch for it. And hopefully, if we take our enforcement responsibility seriously, broadcasters will comply better and we won't have this problem in the first place.
KURTZ: Daniel Price, I've got just a few seconds -- do you see any possibility that stations are going to start cutting back in light of this revelation?
PRICE: If we keep embarrassing them, they will.
But one point I want to bring up that's really important is that, in over 90 percent of the stories that we tracked that were built from video news releases, the stations didn't provide any additional context -- no extra footage, no extra information -- 100 percent of their story was built from the video news release. It doesn't get more one-sided than that.
KURTZ: You took the words right out of my mouth.
All right. Daniel Price, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein, thanks very much for joining us.
PRICE: Thanks a lot.
KURTZ: Up next, politicians taking on the press. Tom DeLay joins a long finger-pointing tradition in American politics.
KURTZ: It's the best sport in town. Politician gets into trouble, under attack, under investigation or tossed out by the voters, and there's got to be someone to blame. The latest to point fingers at the fourth estate? Tom DeLay. The indicted Texas congressman, who announced his resignation last week, has never exactly had a warm relationship with the media, and once called "The New York Times" "seedy." He offered a parting shot at journalists.
REP. TOM DELAY (R), TEXAS: I am quite certain most will put forward their opinions and conclusions, devoid of and unencumbered by accuracy, facts and the truth.
KURTZ (voice-over): This has been going on at least since 1807, when President Thomas Jefferson said, "nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper."
More recently, there was Dwight Eisenhower railing against "sensation-seeking columnists and commentators." And Richard Nixon, who, when he lost the California governor's race in 1962, had this to say.
RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You don't have Nixon to kick around anymore.
KURTZ: As president, Nixon complained about outrageous, vicious, distorted reporting over Watergate, and had some journalists wiretapped.
George Herbert Walker Bush was more polite toward the press, but not a huge fan.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My favorite bumper sticker, though, is "annoy the media, reelect President Bush," and I just had to work that in.
KURTZ: Bill Clinton complained about what he called the knee- jerk liberal press, as in this interview after leaving office with Peter Jennings.
BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You don't want to go here, Peter. You don't want to go here. Not after what you people did. And the way you, your network, what you did with Kenneth Starr. The way your people repeated every little sleazy thing he leaked.
KURTZ: And the current president lashed out when "The New York Times" disclosed his secret domestic eavesdropping.
BUSH: It was a shameful act for someone to disclose this very important program in time of war.
KURTZ: Now, sometimes, media coverage can be unfair, and journalists who love to dish out criticism are certainly fair game. But much of the time, we seem to make a convenient scapegoat for the Tom DeLays of the world.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.
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