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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Sarah Palin Goes to Iowa; Dick Cheney's Media Blitz; Hurricane Irene Overhyped?
Aired September 4, 2011 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Now, I admit maybe we're just playing along with the press pack on this one, but Sarah Palin showed up in Iowa yesterday with reporters in tow. Are we falling for yet another presidential tease?
And what to make of Dick Cheney's media blitz? Are the anchors holding him accountable?
Hurricane Irene, I say television was swept away with breathless coverage. We'll ask two critics whether I'm all wet.
As the media gear up for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, a look at how that tragic day changed the news business, at least for a while.
Plus, Slate lays off one of the country's most provocative media critics. Jack Shafer will speak his mind.
I'm Howard Kurtz, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
The headlines were instantaneous. Politico's lead story, "For Sarah Palin, the game is still on." "The New York Times" said "Palin sounded more like a candidate than in any other speech this year." "The Washington Post," "Palin blasts crony capitalism," all because the former Alaskan governor decided to show up yesterday in Iowa.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
PETER HAMBY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin delivered a series of sharp attacks against President Barack Obama and her potential Republican presidential rivals here at a Tea Party rally in Iowa on Saturday. And while Palin did not declare a presidential bid and is not expected to until the end of December, she did draw a sharp line in the sand against one potential opponent, Republican front-runner Texas Governor Rick Perry.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But why exactly was the speech big news? Is Palin faking out the media mob once again?
Joining us now, Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief and columnist for "The Chicago Sun-Times"; Eleanor Clift, contributing editor at "Newsweek" and "The Daily Beast," and a panelist on "The McLaughlin Group"; and Jim Geraghty, contributing editor at "National Review." It's September. Journalists seem to be falling for this Palin tease all over again, although she has not lifted a finger to form any kind of presidential organization.
What's going on, I ask you, Eleanor Clift?
ELEANOR CLIFT, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "NEWSWEEK," "DAILY BEAST": Howie, I think they're just heading their bets, because if you start out with the cynicism in the first paragraph, I don't think that works. I think if you took every one of those reporters aside asked what they think, they'd be a lot more skeptical and they'd be really angry that they're being sort of led into this game that she's playing.
KURTZ: So you're saying they're covering their backsides in case she runs?
CLIFT: They're covering their -- that's right. That's right.
The fact is, Jim Geraghty, Palin is down in the polls, most Republicans don't even want her to run at this point. She's been eclipsed by Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann. And that doesn't seem to dampen the media's fixation on Sarah Palin.
JIM GERAGHTY, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, look, I mean, this is somebody who definitely shook up the race in 2008, has always been unpredictable. Very few people saw the resignation coming.
And if nothing else, we know there's only two more months of this. The effective deadline for declaring a presidential campaign is November 1st, which is the filing deadline for South Carolina. So cover it now, because by November 1st, one way or another, the story ends. Either she's running or she's not running.
KURTZ: So it doesn't trouble you that we might be being taken for a ride here?
GERAGHTY: We are taken for rides all the time.
KURTZ: And we happily hitch those rides.
Is it possible for a news organization, Lynn Sweet, to say we don't care that Palin was in Iowa yesterday, we don't care if she's going to New Hampshire on Monday? There are a lot of real candidates out there that we need to be covering, we're just going to blow it off?
LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF AND COLUMNIST, "THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": In the real world it's not possible.
KURTZ: Not possible? SWEET: Yes, in theory. If this was a test tube, yes. But here is why I want to defend the coverage of Sarah Palin.
She is a legitimate American political phenomenon, and at some point we'll know if she will run or not. And in the meantime, her messages do have an impact on the Republican field.
KURTZ: OK. Let's say that shad he announced last week that while she wants to play an important role in the debate, she is not running for president, she goes to Iowa and gives that same speech? Come on. I don't think there would be correspondents on TV live talking about her.
SWEET: Well, years ago, I was at a reporters' breakfast with Newt Gingrich, and he was flirting with running for president. Years ago. I know he is now.
And somebody said to him, "You really aren't doing the things to be president. Why are you even talking about it?" And he says, "Because that's what gets you guys to listen."
So, you are right. Once you say you're not running for president in this context, she gets less attention to her ideas or thoughts or fundraising her tours or paid speeches.
KURTZ: Right. So it's a brilliant strategy on Palin's part.
SWEET: For now, yes.
KURTZ: But not --
CLIFT: Rudy Giuliani is talking about maybe running.
CLIFT: Then people listen to you.
GERAGHTY: Keep in mind, the moment that we actually hear a decision from her one way or another -- let's say it's no -- that begins the automatic speculation, will she endorse? Who is she going to endorse? Is she going to give a hint? Will she give some candidates praise, wills he give some candidates criticism?
KURTZ: And don't forget 2016.
Let me move now to the Dick Cheney book. The former vice president was kind of inescapable on television this week, did a lot of interviews for this book, "In My Time."
Let's take a look at some of those interviews.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATT LAUER, "THE TODAY SHOW": You know though that if you were to conduct a poll in this country right now and ask people, is waterboarding torture? I think the vast majority would say it is. RICHARD CHENEY, FMR. VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I would argue, Matt, that it's important for us not to get caught up in the notion that you can only have popular methods of interrogation if you want to run an effective counterterrorism program. The fact is it worked.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Secret presence?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Wiretapping?
CHENEY: Well, with the right approval.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No apologies?
CHENEY: No apologies.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: Everything was President Bush and Dick Cheney's fault, according to President Obama, but obviously he didn't give you any of the credit for the intelligence that led to the location of Bin Laden.
CHENEY: We're used to it.
HANNITY: We're used to it?
HANNITY: Mildly irritating?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Eleanor, did journalists succeed in those and other interviews in pinning down Dick Cheney on Iraq, on torture, and all these other controversies, or did we kind of settle for canned sound bites?
CLIFT: Of course they didn't pin him down. And the book tour is a formulaic exercise.
He throws out some red meat for the press. We go after it. And presumably, this helps book sales. But there was thoughtful coverage. Bob Kaiser in "The Washington Post," the reviewer in "The New York Times" went over all the discrepancies between Cheney's account on these issues and accounts of President Bush and others. So I think he doesn't get away with it, but he gets his little audition tape here on television for his book.
KURTZ: I'll just take this moment to say that -- and this is the difference, I think, between television and print -- in "TIME" magazine there's a good piece by Barton Gellman on the Cheney book in which he pointed out this famous scene where Bush administration officials went to Attorney General Ashcroft while he was in intensive care in the hospital and tried to get him to sign off on a surveillance program, that there was a lot of facts to contradict that, including in George Bush's own book.
But when you look at those television interviews and you listen to the chatter, Jim Geraghty, would liberal pundits be satisfied with anything other than Cheney confessing to war crimes?
GERAGHTY: I am rather skeptical about it. I noticed you called it an audition tape. I'm curious as to what Dick Cheney is auditioning for.
CLIFT: The sale --
GERAGHTY: You mentioned 2016, so maybe that's the option.
CLIFT: Excuse me. He's auditioning for number one on the bestseller list.
GERAGHTY: I have my doubts that a TV interview would make the difference of that. It's Dick Cheney's book. It's going to get a lot of attention.
KURTZ: If he comes on as vice president, it would probably be a very confrontational interview. But is there a different standard when a former officials comes on to talk about his memoir, and does the question just naturally get a little more informal and a little softer?
SWEET: I think that, yes, Howie, the edge is off. These interviews, since this is a media show, you know are brokered to certain outlets, reporters, book tour in advance.
KURTZ: Deals are made?
SWEET: No, I'm not suggesting deals are made.
KURTZ: Right. But everybody wants the first.
SWEET: But everyone wants the first.
KURTZ: "The Today Show" got it.
SWEET: And what is interesting is in order to sell the book, the former vice president went to outlets that he never probably would have appeared on.
SWEET: "Morning Joe," lavishing the attention on NBC, which, to their credit, helps sell books.
But the point is, I think the interviews went through the pace. (INAUDIBLE) did a terrific job of asking the questions. What you have, because they're not a newsmaker in the current office, I suppose you don't have the sense of urgency in asking the questions, and there's years of stuff to go over. I think people try to put him through his paces.
KURTZ: It's interesting. Colin Powell and Condi Rice both took issue with things in the book, said they were cheap shots. In fact, Condi actually disputed that she once tearfully apologized for something about a Bush State of the Union speech. But when you're the former vice president and you're being booked for an hour on "Dateline" and two hours on "Hannity," you get the lion's share of the coverage and your critics get maybe one article.
CLIFT: That's how it works. But, you know, Colin Powell had a best-selling book, and part of it had to do with the expectation he was going to run for president once upon a time. Condi Rice has had her books out.
This is how it works. I think President Bush actually comes out looking the worst in Cheney's account, because Cheney is quite aggressive about adding to the narrative that all the press wrote during the Bush years that he was really pulling the strings. And I don't think helps President Bush's image.
GERAGHTY: Yes, I'm stunned that every autobiography that's come out of the Bush administration makes the writer sound like the genius, the one who knew what was going on the whole time.
KURTZ: If those others guys had only listened to me.
GERAGHTY: I look forward to Condi Rice's next book, No, I Didn't Cry, coming out next fall, I understand.
SWEET: What's interesting, the media coverage of this is that it focuses on the personalities, because that's what the media like to do. I haven't heard -- if it was about some heretofore unknown episode, there's no scoop people are talking about, oh, my God, Mr. Cheney, you revealed this or that that never happened.
KURTZ: But Cheney said that heads were going to explode in Washington, and I haven't seen any heads exploding.
SWEET: That's the point.
KURTZ: But on the other hand, as you said --
SWEET: Personal. KURTZ: -- there are so many controversies. For example, the Scooter Libby pardon. And then, yet, that -- because you have to deal with Iraq and you have to deal with waterboarding -- that gets reduced to a sentence in an interview because of television time constraints.
So it left me frusrtated.
CLIFT: Well, it's clear that he doesn't forgive President Bush for refusing to pardon Scooter Libby. And I think the tension between Bush and Cheney comes through in this book.
KURTZ: Here's a sensitive question for you. Maybe we can put up some video of the former vice president giving one of these interviews.
He's 70 years old, he's been -- he's had a lot of heart problems. In fact, his heart is not pumping on its own. He looked frail. He looked old.
Do journalists go a tad easier on him perhaps because of that?
SWEET: No, I don't think so. And actually, I think he looked pretty good considering.
KURTZ: Considering what he's been through, yes.
SWEET: Considering everything for his health problems. He always has a quiet way of talking, Howie. And I think that given the wealth of materials and questions to ask, I don't think he got a break because of his age or his condition.
KURTZ: Fair enough. Let me get a break.
And when we come back, the president tries to step on that NBC/Politico debate and gets stomped on by the Republicans. The White House says that's a non-story. Is anyone buying that?
KURTZ: There is nothing the press loves better than a schoolyard fight. And President Obama picked one by asking to address a joint session of Congress this Wednesday night, the same night that MSNBC and Politico were staging a major Republican debate.
House Speaker John Boehner said no way. Obama agreed to move his jobs speech to Thursday night, and reporters were all over White House spokesman Jay Carney.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAY CARNEY, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I know you guys love this stuff. I know it's catnip, but we're really not focused on it.
ED HENRY, FOX NEWS: So there's a perception even among Democrats that he doesn't have enough spout with the Hill to figure out what day it is. How is he going to pass a plan to help the American people? CARNEY: Look, Ed, you guys, I honestly think that your obsession with this is --
HENRY: It's not an obsession.
CARNEY: -- is not -- what the American people expect the president to do --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Is to talk about jobs.
Jay Carney spent years working for "TIME" magazine. Can he say with a straight face that this is not a story?
SWEET: Well, he said it. I think he needs to come up with a better line next time, because the storyline was created by the White House, and reporters and people can juggle a few storylines at once.
Yes, the jobs plan is important and, yes, the White House had a mess out of the speech date. People have a sense of stuff that happens. And give him credit for trying.
KURTZ: These White House complaints, Jim Geraghty, about the media ring a little hollow in the sense that this was the president, who knowing full well it was a Republican debate on MSNBC, picked this fight by asking for that time on that night.
GERAGHTY: You're telling me that if the Republicans had said, all right, we're going to reschedule the debate, this is really important, we'll move the debate back one day, that we wouldn't be hearing White House sources leaking to Politico, this shows that Obama has the momentum, that he still has the megaphone, that the spotlight is always on him and he can always big-foot the -- if it was a victory, they would say it was a very big deal. The fact that it turned into them backing down and saying, OK, we'll move it to the next night, this is not a big deal, everyone. Stop, move along, nothing to see here, this is not the story (ph) you're looking for.
KURTZ: Nothing to see here.
And yet, Eleanor, all the media yammering about the timing of the speech and what day and all of that, I think maybe does feed an impression among people that journalists care more about political gamesmanship than the underlying issue here, which is 14 million people out of work, and many of them out of work for many, many months.
CLIFT: Well, the end result does not help the White House because it looks like they got rolled by the Republicans. And I don't think the end result helps the media either, because I think a lot of people do look at it and say this is the media running with something that's really ridiculous, and it's a schoolyard fight, and the media loves it. And it really does step on the White House message.
And all these sideshows have really distracted from this White House's effort to create jobs. And he was in the Rose Garden earlier in the day calling for a transportation bill. And while his legislation that stalled on Capitol Hill -- that gets no attention in the media, but it's true.
We love it when we get the personalities battling, and the White House really -- they stepped into this one. It was really stupid.
KURTZ: And it's easy to cover Obama versus Boehner, and how would NBC react. And it's hard to cover this seemingly intractable issue of fixing the economy so that more Americans can find work. So are we guilty of that?
SWEET: No, because these stories get covered. Different reporters cover different kinds of stories. If you really had a big appetite for jobs plans and stuff that's going on, we could spend the next hour here looking at stories where people do write about the very serious issues.
KURTZ: So you don't feel like the flap overshadowed the substance?
SWEET: For that day, yes. But if you had a hunger for the substance, Howie, those stories were out there.
KURTZ: All right.
Lynn Sweet, Jim Geraghty, Eleanor Clift, thanks very much for joining us this morning.
And coming up in the second part of RELIABLE SOURCES, as the media prepare to cover the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we'll look at how the tragedy changed journalism with two former CNN correspondents.
Plus, the breathless coverage of Hurricane Irene. Did the cable networks get utterly slept away?
And later, Slate's Jack Shafer on why he was laid off and whether media criticism is falling out fashion.
KURTZ: As the media begin gearing up to mark a tragic remembrance, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, this is a moment to recall how much has changed in the news business since that dark day.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: There was a lot of talk about a new seriousness, an abandonment of silliness and superficiality. Why didn't that last? I spoke earlier with two television veterans. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
KURTZ: Joining us now are two former CNN correspondents, Jamie McIntyre, who covered the Pentagon and is now an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Maryland; and Kelli Arena, who's now the Dan Rather Chair of Broadcast Journalism at Sam Houston State University.
Kelli, in the aftermath of 9/11, what changed for you as a reporter?
KELLI ARENA, DAN RATHER CHAIR OF BROADCAST JOURNALISM, SAM HOUSTON UNIVERSITY: Everything. It was all terror all the time.
I was the justice correspondent at the time, and part of that beat includes FBI, and FBI was the lead law enforcement agency that investigated terror attacks. So I was on the air every half hour.
KURTZ: CNN couldn't get enough, the media couldn't get enough.
ARENA: Couldn't get enough. It's true. It's true, every bump and turn.
And, of course, the nation had just gone through this catastrophic event. So there was a genuine interest, clearly, and news as the story developed. And as we found out more and more, it was legitimate coverage.
KURTZ: There was a lot of soul-searching, Jamie McIntyre, about the media's priorities, and new beats were created -- "Homeland Security," a phrase that we didn't have before.
JAMIE MCINTYRE, ADJUNCT PROFESSOR OF JOURNALISM, UNIVERSITY OF MARYLAND: And new reporters were added to old beats, including my beat at the Pentagon, where CNN added an additional correspondent and producer in order to beef up the coverage.
You know, one of the perversities though about something like this is you would think that when you devote more resources and more time to a particular subject -- and in this case it was the aftermath of September 11th -- that you would get better coverage. But one of the perverse phenomenon that goes on in a case like this is, when the network and the news organizations get consumed with a particular narrative, it's very hard to get counter-narratives on the air, because there comes this pressure to have all of the stories sort of conform to the conventional wisdom.
KURTZ: And did you fight against that?
MCINTYRE: You try to fight against it, but it's very difficult, because, you know, the perversity is when the focus is off you, you can think for yourself, do your own reporting, and you have much more control over the story. Once the story becomes the obsession of everybody, it's much harder to do individual --
(CROSSTALK) KURTZ: But as time went on, Kelli, and the memories of the attacks started to fade, and actually the story shifted to the two wars, was it then more difficult to get terror-related stories on the air? Did that appetite that you described begin to wane?
ARENA: That took about five years or so, because don't forget, after 9/11, you had the anthrax attacks, we had the sniper, which people thought at first might be terrorism-related.
KURTZ: The Washington sniper, right.
ARENA: Right. So this was -- there was a steady appetite for about five years.
KURTZ: And then what?
ARENA: And then it was, you know, don't pitch a story unless there's something exploding. Terrorism and intelligence is more of an art than it is a science. And some of those stories are very nuanced. And in the world of cable television, everything needs to be black and white, and it wasn't anymore.
KURTZ: So was that frustrating for you, that if there was no arrest, if there was no capture of explosives, that it was harder to get on stories that were important, but not visual or dramatic?
ARENA: Yes. And as you know, there was a big uptick in the coverage of foreign news right after September 11th. And so that's where our emphasis went. But again, people get this fatigue that comes with that, and so it turned back to domestic coverage.
KURTZ: And for all the talk about how the media were going to get more serious -- and I think that happened for a while -- eventually we're back to Paris Hilton reality shows and sex scandals and all the other distractions that tend to make their way on to the tube.
MCINTYRE: Well, don't forget the evolution of news coverage over this period that we're talking about didn't just happen -- it wasn't just the September 11th attacks and the aftermath, it was the rise of the Internet, the increased competition. Don't forget, before September 11th, the Fox News Channel didn't even have a Pentagon correspondent assigned. They didn't even cover the Pentagon regularly. They had a producer and no correspondent.
And then that all changed, and it became a much more competitive environment. Outlets like CNN and other cable news outlets had to compete more directly with others. And sometimes competition in this business makes the product worse, not better.
KURTZ: And isn't it also a fact that the Bush administration, for political reasons, played up the war on terror -- and we often take our queues from the White House -- and the Obama administration, except in certain times like the killing of Osama bin Laden, has not gone out of its way to emphasize anti-terror efforts, or at least as part of a media strategy? ARENA: Right. Well, yes. I mean, clearly, they've changed strategy.
It was really -- and then, all of a sudden, it became sort of a political story. So I got the feedback from the audience if I did a story saying that intelligence sources were concerned about threat information. I was immediately blasted by people who said that I was a puppet of the Bush administration.
And if I questioned what investigators had done like in the Brandon Mayfield case, who was someone that they thought had something to do with the Spain bombings, because they thought they found a fingerprint and then they didn't --
KURTZ: These things didn't pan out. Then you get heat.
ARENA: Right, didn't pan out, and then you get heat that you're unpatriotic.
KURTZ: Let me just move on, because now that we're approaching the 10th anniversary, and here -- I just got this "New York" magazine, the first of many magazine covers, I'm sure, "One Day, Ten Years Later," you see the smoke rising from the towers -- all the networks, including CNN, hours and hours of programming planned to commemorate that tragic anniversary.
Is it too much? Is there a danger of turning this into a television show?
MCINTYRE: Well, I don't think so, actually. This was such a seminal event. I mean, for anyone who lived through it -- and of course one of the things as a journalism professor now, teaching young students, many of my students don't really have very vivid memories of this. So I'm not sure it's too much.
KURTZ: You think it's a public service?
MCINTYRE: Well, I think it's a very important, seminal event that deserves recognition 10 years later.
ARENA: But it depends on how they do it. I mean, there are stories (ph) that the 9/11 Commission actually has reconvened and said there are still some things that we see as vulnerabilities and things that still need improvement 10 years later. I think that's valid reporting. I think there are still stories that need to be sold.
KURTZ: But is there a fine line between remembrance and exploitation? I mean, I just wonder to what extent -- I mean, obviously, it's an anniversary, so it causes us all to look back.
ARENA: The media loves anniversaries though. Come on. That's made programming.
KURTZ: But this is a particularly traumatic anniversary to anybody who lived through that day. And when we get the logos and the music, I mean, I just wonder about it. MCINTYRE: Yes, but this is not the first anniversary we've gone through.
KURTZ: No. Right.
MCINTYRE: We went through the first anniversary, we've gone through the fifth anniversary. And I think if you look back at the coverage, whether it's CNN or anybody, most of it has been tasteful. It's been thoughtful. It's been the kind of thing --
KURTZ: Is this a high watermark, or are we going to continue to treat every subsequent September 11th anniversary as a national ritual?
ARENA: Oh, I don't think so. I don't think so.
And you know what? If you have another hurricane or something, all these lovely plans will go right out the window anyway.
KURTZ: If it's a hurricane strong enough that that can be the crisis of the --
ARENA: Sure. Right.
KURTZ: -- strong enough that that can be the crisis of -- you're talking about obsession of the story.
ARENA: For the day, right.
KURTZ: -- crisis of the day, crisis of the week, as we saw with Hurricane Irene.
Jamie McIntyre, Kelli Arena, thanks very much for sharing these memories with us.
KURTZ: And speaking of hurricanes, up next, the wall-to-wall coverage of Hurricane Irene. Should the cable networks have allowed the storm to wash away all other news?
KURTZ: It was a huge catastrophe in the making, at least according to the television coverage. The warnings were pounded home at cable news. Hour after hour, day after day, Hurricane Irene was coming.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This has the makings of just the hurricane of our lifetime.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): An ominous storm on the radar and on TV.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It gets scarier and scarier as we look at the scenarios for the Northeast.
LESTER HOLT, NBC NEWS: Tonight, an urgent reality is gripping the Big Apple.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE (voice-over): The naked city has never felt so exposed.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The flooding situation has already begun here in lower Manhattan, and we're only expecting to see more of it considering the main rain event is far from over.
ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, "ANDERSON COOPER 360": There had been some flooding, not huge amounts of flooding, and a lot of the water is already starting to recede. It's actually not bad at all.
LAUER: Was this storm overhyped in some ways? It's a one- sentence argument. This storm killed more than 20 people and four million people are without power. And clearly, there's misery and destruction.
KURTZ: But did cable news get swept away by a Category 1 storm, as I've written and taken a lot of heat on that one, or did the eventual devastation justify the round-the-clock coverage? I put that question to a pair of television critics.
KURTZ: Joining us now in New York, Adam Buckman, former television columnist for "The New York Post" who now blogs at TVHowl.com; and Glynnis MacNicol, editor of the media page "The Wire" for BusinessInsider.com.
And Glynnis MacNicol, let's just talk about the run-up to Hurricane Irene. Those three days, the constant, constant 24-hour cable coverage made it sound like Armageddon was coming.
GLYNNIS MACNICOL, BUSINESSINSIDER.COM: It certainly did. And I think there were a couple of days in there where the weather indicated that Armageddon was coming, and especially, I think, when Mayor Bloomberg announced they were shutting down the MTA. That triggered people --
KURTZ: The New York City subway system.
MACNICOL: The New York City subway system, yes. I think that especially since we're coming up to the 9/11 anniversary, I think that triggered a lot of New Yorkers' sort of panic button, because the last time the subway system was shut down was obviously 10 years ago. So, certainly, I mean, anywhere you clicked or turned or read, there was this sense of impending doom, and do you get out, can you get out, when do you get out, what's coming? Absolutely.
KURTZ: And Adam Buckman, one of the things that struck me was that during those days, and during the hurricane itself, you could not get a shred of news from anywhere else. War in Libya, presidential campaign, forget about it, as they say in New York. There was no other story.
ADAM BUCKMAN, TVHOWL.COM: That is true. And, however, I don't know if compared to the storm coming and affecting so many people, I'm not sure those other stories were important for those two or three days when all we had was hurricane coverage.
KURTZ: So you're perfectly comfortable with 24 hours a day of nothing but -- remember, the storm hasn't hit yet. We're having reporters standing on corners saying, I'm at the spot where a day from now there's going to be a lot of rain and wind.
BUCKMAN: I was not uncomfortable with it, and because this argument arises a lot when we have stories that take sort of a 24-hour news cycle or more to tell. And this is the kind of story where in 20/20 hindsight, maybe it looks like too much. But when it was happening, certainly the weather forecasters were saying we're going to be hit by a big one. And I think the media came through and did what it's supposed to do, which is get on board and get ready, and get us all prepared for a potential disaster or a potential emergency.
KURTZ: An absolute public service responsibility to get that information out there, that's what we need to do.
KURTZ: But is there any doubt in your mind, Glynnis, that a lot of this was delivered by ratings, and one reason that nobody came off this story even for five or 10 minutes was because of a fear that people would change the channel?
MACNICOL: Well, I think the answer to that is twofold. On the one hand, certainly the cable news networks were running with this as fast as they could for ratings, absolutely. On the other hand, local news was very servicey (ph), especially in New York, where there was a sense, if you lived in certain neighborhoods, you had to evacuate.
I kept turning on the local to see what they were saying, what trains were running, who had to evacuate where. So I think at the local level, there was a service aspect to this that warranted 24-hour coverage. On the cable news level, I think what we had was what we see a lot, which is reporters in very windy, wavy situations that make for great visuals. And I think obviously some of that was a ratings play.
KURTZ: And as you both alluded to, the fact that New York City, which is rarely affected by hurricanes, was right in the target path, given that all the news organizations are headquartered in New York, I think really boosted this into the stratosphere in a way that would not have been the case if that same hurricane was bearing down on Fort Lauderdale. And I was also disappointed Sunday morning, when the storm finally hit New York, and it kind of fizzled as far as New York City was concerned. So reporters were sent to Long Beach, Long Island, or Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, where I grew up, because obviously there's going to be some flooding there. You're right on the water.
Let's now look back with the benefit of hindsight. It was a serious storm. More than 40 people were killed. Lots of flooding in suburban areas like New Jersey, upstate New York, Vermont.
But when that damage finally takes place, Adam Buckman, by then the coverage is starting to fade. I mean, it's being covered, but nothing like the obsession that it was before.
BUCKMAN: Well, that is the problem, that in the days to come, it seemed like New England was very, very hard hit. And certainly we didn't have the kinds of coverage of the disaster that took place there, nor the coverage before it sort of warning New Englanders to be ready for potential flooding.
But as far as New York City went, I'm torn with this argument about whether or not New York was somehow spared. I mean, from my window I saw the FDR Drive flooded. I saw the Roosevelt Island in the middle of the East River partially covered in water, something I had never seen in 10 years of living over there.
And the fact is, with all the warnings and with all the people off the streets and off the roads, I think it was actually quite helpful. I think that people were not on the FDR Drive, and they weren't there getting stuck in three feet of water that I saw from my window.
So, in the end, it's 20/20 hindsight. Who knew the storm would veer off and not be as bad as it was going to be? You couldn't predict that.
MACNICOL: Oh, Howie, I would also make the point when you say the media is located in New York, and it was obviously focused on this as a story, I think if a storm was going towards any coast where there's 35-odd-million people I guess lived, the media would be focused on that. There was a population here that would be affected by this that I think warranted a great deal of coverage.
KURTZ: But, you know, whereas Washington also was largely spared -- amazingly, I didn't lose power, and I lose power at my home when there's a drizzle -- Philadelphia was very badly hit, but the focus of the coverage was New York, New York, New York, because that's where all the journalists are and that's where all the crews are. And that's where I think, Glynnis, part of the problem is, Paterson, New Jersey, and Vermont are not media centers, there are not many journalists there, and I guess it's also not as dramatic when you have people dealing with the aftermath of flooded areas and flooded basements than it is when you can say here is the map and it shows that a big one is coming.
Would you agree with that? MACNICOL: Sure, absolutely. I mean, certainly, New York provides a backdrop that you can't find anywhere else in the country. But I would also say that evacuating a city of this size and the way it's put together, we obviously -- Hurricane Katrina was only five years ago, five or six years ago now, and evacuating that city was a terrible disaster. So to learn from that mistake, I think what we're seeing here, over-preparation, the coverage of it, was a reaction to how underprepared New Orleans was during Katrina.
KURTZ: I don't fault the public officials for preparing for a worst-case scenario, and there's also the political theater aspect. I mean, people like Governor Chris Christie are out there all the time because it's important for them to be seen as coping with this crisis.
But just to wrap it up, Adam, it seems like maybe there was a little bit too much apocalyptic coverage on the front end, and when the damage actually got done, the media drifted off to do other things.
BUCKMAN: Well, I think they did drift off to do other things, as you say. But I think while it was going on, I think the media was following the weather forecast and the dire warnings by people in positions of authority such as Mayor Bloomberg in New York. And he's a photogenic guy. We have a very fancy facility here in Brooklyn for emergency management.
BUCKMAN: And it makes for a good picture when the mayor comes out and he talks in his broken Spanish and he tries to warn the whole city that the end is near --
KURTZ: You say that was good television.
BUCKMAN: Well, good television that you can understand why television gravitated toward it in the end.
KURTZ: Right. Well, one thing is clear, it was a very big weekend for the Weather Channel, which had very good ratings covering the storm.
KURTZ: Glynnis MacNicol, Adam Buckman, thanks very much for joining us.
MACNICOL: Thanks so much.
KURTZ: After the break, journalist Jack Shafer on being let go by Slate.com and whether media criticism has a future.
(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Jack Shafer has been one of the sharpest and toughest media critics around, taking on targets ranging from Rupert Murdoch, to his employers, to, well, sometimes even me. Unfortunately, he is one of several journalists who has just been laid off by the online magazine "Slate." Now, times are tough in the media business, we all get that, but Shafer was one of the premier attractions at "Slate."
I sat down with him here in the studio.
KURTZ: Jack Shafer, welcome.
Nobody likes to get this kind of news, but you really seemed to take it in stride. Were you not particularly surprised?
JACK SHAFER, FMR. MEDIA CRITIC, SLATE.COM: Nobody should be surprised, especially high-paid media people like you.
KURTZ: People who monitor media trends.
SHAFER: You just think in sort of a publication recession, everybody who is making a good salary, they have to assume that they're expendable, too. As you know in our business, "The New York Times," "L.A. Times," "Chicago Tribune," "The Washington Post," the networks, all engaged in lay-offs.
KURTZ: They're all shrinking.
SHAFER: All shrinking.
KURTZ: But it wasn't like you were fighting with management or --
SHAFER: No. No. I left on very good terms, and I got a nice severance. I think as explained to me -- and I have no reason to disbelieve them -- it's about a budget. And I was not the only one let go.
KURTZ: No, I understand there were several people. But as many people observed online, you were a major attraction on that site. Isn't this self-defeating for "Slate"?
SHAFER: That's something that you'd have to ask the bosses. I think everybody is expendable.
I mean, we see that in journalism all the time. Somehow David Broder dies and "The Washington Post" somehow goes on. People move to other publications. So I'm of a philosophical view that no one is expendable -- I mean everyone is expendable. Sorry.
KURTZ: You're saying nobody is irreplaceable.
KURTZ: But it's not like you've been pushed aside so they can get some hotshot 22-year-old.
SHAFER: No. They have to make a budget.
SHAFER: I mean, we're in a double-dip recession, and "Slate" is struggling just like a lot of publications.
KURTZ: Some of the chatter surprisingly to me has been, well, Shafer is a great writer he's a great guy, but media criticism is really expendable because it's basically of interest to other journalists. I don't think you would agree with that.
SHAFER: I wouldn't agree with that at all because I can tell from the sort of response and reader response, being asked on television shows, I mean, it's sort of -- not all media critics are created equal. I think I'm a little better than your average media critic and can add something to the understanding of how news is made and how it's projected.
KURTZ: But in terms of the public hunger, if there is such a thing, for this kind of critique and criticism, it seems to me that more than ever in an age of partisan media and partisan politics and polarization, that people gobble this stuff up and it's not just of interest to the junkies.
SHAFER: I'd agree with that, too. If you look at any evening's news on the cable stations, inscribed in practically every show is some aspect of media criticism.
There's Sarah Palin, who is complaining about media "gotchas." And there are other people saying, why is "The New York Times" ignoring Ron Paul -- or I guess it was "The Washington Post" that was accused of ignoring Ron Paul. So I think media criticism is part of the entire mix. It's just that that's what I specialized in.
KURTZ: You're known for hitting pretty hard, sometimes at your friends and colleagues, sometimes at your employer, most recently The Washington Post Company.
Do too many media critics or people who say they're media critics pull punches, in your view?
SHAFER: You know, you'd have to name names.
KURTZ: Or do you just like to knock people off their pedestals?
SHAFER: Well, my first grade report card, it said, "Jack excels well in his math and science, and he makes great friends on the playground, but he likes to start fights on the playground and bring them into the classroom."
KURTZ: So you've always been like this?
SHAFER: So that's my operating principle.
KURTZ: So you had a job that basically enabled you to --
SHAFER: I think so.
KURTZ: All right.
SHAFER: I think so. But most journalists do like to mix it up. They like to put their finger between the hammer and the anvil and come back and report what the pain quotient is. But if you're not going to tell the truth, if you're going to be a media critic and not tell the truth, you're going to pull punches because of -- for social reasons, because you want to be socially advanced, or you are worried about losing your job, you're not going to be a good media critic.
KURTZ: Media critics get criticized all the time. Have you developed a thick skin? Have you always had a thick skin?
SHAFER: Well, what's the cliche, that journalists don't have a thin skin, they have no skin?
KURTZ: That is it.
SHAFER: I think I have a pretty thick skin. I mean, the -- I get some pretty nasty, ugly contentious mail, and you live with it. You roll with the punch.
You get ugly mail. You know, people beat up on you all the time.
KURTZ: Every hour.
SHAFER: And your skin looks pretty thick.
KURTZ: Well, I've got scars to show it though.
How much media criticism, in your view, these days has become ideologically motivated? I mean, any given night you can turn on Fox or MSNBC and see them blasting the other's coverage, but from a somewhat partisan perspective in the case of many hosts.
SHAFER: Right. There's lots of partisan media criticism. That said, if you take somebody like Media Matters, which is an overly liberal, progressive media institution, and then on the right we have the --
KURTZ: Media Research Center.
SHAFER: -- guys at Media Research Center. Very partisan, both of them. They are not playing it down the middle.
I think because they have their antennae turned way up. They capture things that maybe somebody who is either centrist or not rooting for either side might pick up on.
So I find it all good. I'll look at a Media Matters analysis with a skeptical eye, but I think that they dig out great stories.
KURTZ: If it's backed by data, if it's got videotape, transcripts, and opposed to, "I think this."
SHAFER: Right. Exactly. And it's the same way that you should read a newspaper.
Maybe a newspaper isn't guided by bias, something that I don't care much about. But you read a newspaper and you make a qualitative analysis. You know, how well is this source? How many of these sources are anonymous? What are other newspapers saying?
So I'm happy to partake or read and absorb partisan media criticism, but critically.
KURTZ: Just briefly, do you hope to stay in the media criticism gain, to stay employed?
SHAFER: I want your job.
KURTZ: You are declaring that right now?
SHAFER: Yes. I'm going to talk to your producer after the show.
KURTZ: Well, you'll have to come back and kind of prove yourself on the air. And actually, we'd love to have you back.
SHAFER: And when I have your job, I will have you on as a guest.
KURTZ: That's very generous of you.
Jack Shafer, thanks for -- I think thanks for coming in.
KURTZ: You can see more of my conversation with Jack Shafer at CNN.com/reliablesources.
"The Media Monitor," straight ahead.
KURTZ: Time now for "The Media Monitor," our weekly look at the hits and errors in the news business.
It seemed like a straightforward scoop, CNN's Nic Robertson tracking down the Libyan man convicted in the bombing of Pan Am 103, Abdel al-Megrahi, who had been freed from a Scottish prison two years ago because he was supposedly on the verge of death.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Nothing prepares me for what I see: Megrahi, apparently in a coma, his aging mother at his side.
KHALED EL MEGRAHI, ABDEL MEGRAHI'S SON: We just give him oxygen and nobody gives us the advice -- and some food and injection.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But Fox News rushed to cast doubt on that exclusive. Reporter Jonathan Hunt reading from an e-mail from a man named Frank Dugan, president of the group Victims of Pan Am 103. He said Megrahi's family was trying to make a murderous monster appear sympathetic, and that Robertson, far from landing a scoop, had been invited to the house, along with other news organizations.
It turns out that is not true. Robertson says he tracked down Megrahi with help from of a local fixer and was surprised to be let in.
The Fox reporter was rather ungenerous and gave CNN no chance to respond. A Fox producer told the Web site Mediaite that the e-mail came in just before Jonathan Hunt's report, and "We reassessed our report soon after and concluded that we would not run his full quote attacking anyone during any other news program and regret running it in full that one time."
A classy coda to an unfortunate episode.
Michael Arrington is the savvy founder of TechCrunch, the popular technology site that was later bought by AOL.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MICHAEL ARRINGTON, FOUNDER, TECHCRUNCH.COM: We started TechCrunch five years ago, and I'm not a trained journalist. I'm a trained lawyer and an entrepreneur. And so I just started writing what I wanted to write.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Not long ago he announced that he would be investing in some of the tech companies covered by his site, but that was OK because -- well, I never quite got why it wasn't a blatant conflict of interest.
This week, AOL, which has since merged with "The Huffington Post," said Arrington would continue writing for TechCrunch while launching a venture capital fund called The Crunch Fund -- really? -- but would relinquish editorial control over the Web site.
AOL chief executive Tim Armstrong actually said that, "We have a traditional understanding of journalism with the exception of TechCrunch."
Now, the folks who work at TechCrunch were furious. Here's what they said. "What Armstrong doesn't seem to understand, not because he's an idiot, but rather because he's not a journalist, is that in this game perception is everything. For TechCrunch to have the moral standing to call out a company, it's vital that our own house is seen to be spotless."
Lo and behold, Arianna Huffington now says Arrington is out at TechCrunch and will no longer be paid by the site. You can cover tech companies or you can invest in tech companies, but doing both is a spectacularly bad idea.
Before we go, the senior producer on this program for the least four years has been Jeff Rosetti. His judgment has helped guide us, his humor has boosted us, and he has been a remarkably calm presence when chaos is interrupting.
Jeff is moving on to the news team at an Indianapolis TV station. This is his last program.
We will miss him.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
We're off next Sunday, when CNN will have live coverage of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. But we'll be back the following week with another critical look at the media.
"STATE OF THE UNION" with Candy Crowley begins right now.