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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Zimmerman Verdict Sparks Debate; The Passing of a Pioneer
Aired July 21, 2013 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST: A verdict in Florida provokes questions about race, the criminal justice system and gun rights and leads the president to weigh in. We'll talk about how the media affects what we think about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.
A sympathetic photograph of a young man accused in the Boston bombings appears on the cover of "Rolling Stone" magazine, a spot usually reserved for pop culture stars. And the magazine's choice sparks an outcry. We'll explore the journalistic impulse behind the decision to publish that image.
And, a path-breaking figure for women political journalists dies at the age of 92. Helen Thomas asked presidents and press secretaries inconvenient questions for nearly five decades, only to be sidelined for her increasingly outspoken views later in life. A look at her career in full.
We're bursting at the seams today. Stick around, I'm David Folkenflik of NPR News, and this is RELIABLE SOURCES.
FOLKENFLIK: Protesters marched in cities across the country this weekend in the wake of George Zimmerman's acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Pundits took sides as though it were a Super Bowl.
We'll consider whether the coverage of Trayvon Martin's death and the Zimmerman verdict has illuminated the nation's racial divide or exacerbated it and what role President Obama's remarks have played.
To help us explore that very question, we're joined in Boston by Callie Crossley, host of "Under the Radar" on the Boston public radio station, WJBH.
And in Tampa, Florida, by Eric Deggans, the media critic for the "Tampa Bay Times" and author of the book "Race Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide the Nation."
Here in Washington, D.C., we have CNN contributor Ron Brownstein, a columnist and editorial director for "National Journal."
Ron, the president surprised reporters when he came into the briefing room on Friday. Why did he address the trial and why did he do it at that time? RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, it was an extraordinary moment and an extraordinarily personal moment. I think the media coverage is fully reflected the unique and historical nature of this statement. You know, my colleague, Ta-Nehisi Coates at "The Atlantic" in a piece last fall noted a University of Pennsylvania study that showed during President Obama's first two years, he talked less about race than any president since John F. Kennedy.
So for him to come out and address this in these intensely personal terms I think was very much an historic moment and reflected, I think, his kind of personal investment. You know, the predicate for this was his remarks earlier that "If I had a son, it would look like Trayvon Martin." He took it one step further when he came out on Friday and basically said "I could have been that person 35 years ago."
FOLKENFLIK: Eric Deggans at the -- "The Tampa Bay Times," forgive me, you've written a number of times that you feel the press does a poor job of writing about issues of race and questions of conflict except when the nation seems to be in a moment of conflict or a moment of crisis.
How has the press done in this circumstance and how much do you think the president's remarks may influence media coverage going forward?
ERIC DEGGANS, THE TAMPA BAY TIMES: Well, what we've seen is what we always see, which is in the heat of this verdict, there's been this explosion of commentary about race. What was interesting to me about the trial was that there wasn't much talk about race because there wasn't much evidence that race was involved in how George Zimmerman targeted Trayvon Martin.
But the minute the verdict came in, the racial implications of it produced this explosion of coverage. And we saw -- I saw personally as a journalist the mass slip from some people. I got some of the most awful e-mails from people saying that I should go back to wherever my ancestors came from if I disagreed with the verdict, which I didn't even necessarily do. People assuming that I had a position on the trial because of my race and because I've written a lot about race in media.
And now, in the wake of Obama talking about his personal experiences, we've had people like Sean Hannity suggest that he identifies with Trayvon Martin because they both smoked pot.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, Eric --
DEGGANS: And we've had Charles Krauthammer say that Obama has re-racialized the Zimmerman trial. So, we've seen an explosion of comments.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, you make an interesting point. Race was not identified throughout the trial as a key element by the two sides, and yet you say it served as a tinder on this discussion that exploded once the verdict was in. Briefly, why do you think that discussion erupted if, as you say, it wasn't a vital element of the trial?
DEGGANS: Because I think the implications are that we've had this young African-American male, 17 years old, unarmed, lawfully where he was supposed to be, minding his own business presumably, who was then embroiled in a conflict with someone who assumed he was up to no good and killed him.
And the implications of that, that that person was not convicted of a crime leads people of color to wonder I can be in a place -- I can be minding my own business, someone can come up to me, we can have a conflict, I can be killed and then, that person doesn't serve any jail time.
DEGGANS: So even though there's no evidence that he targeted Trayvon because of his race, the implications of what it means for people of color in their intersections with law enforcement and their intersections in daily life is profound for people. I think that's something that the president was trying to talk about.
FOLKENFLIK: Callie Crossley, you know, we know by now, we can predict right now how things will break out on -- in certain outlets such as FOX News and MSNBC. But on MSNBC, a very interesting and distinctive role on both sides of the camera played by the Reverend Al Sharpton. You can see him on camera opining about this case and the parties in this case. You can find him off camera being photographed with the mother of Trayvon Martin.
What do you make of that dual role, a man both commenting and trying to shape the news in the streets and outside the court houses?
CALLIE CROSSLEY, WJBH: Well, we've seen this before. I mean, in fact, when Reverend Sharpton was hired by MSNBC, this came up because he was in the middle of doing what he does. He is an activist. He is a professional activist, that's his job. An he's also connected to a lot of high-profile cases.
So that's going to continue, as he made clear, and he made clear to the network and the network said that's OK with them.
Well, what I make of it is I think it's tough when you have a case like this, and I think it muddies the water for a lot of people who would like to see some commentary from someone who is not so clearly identified with the case. I mean, obviously, he has some insight that some others can't get because he's close to the family and that's valuable in one way. But, you know, he's got to show where every day he's sort of opining from both sides. It's a little bit confusing.
I just want to take a step back and comment on something that Eric said and that about race not being identified in the case.
FOLKENFLIK: Briefly. CROSSLEY: I have to say, whether or not it was articulated, it was there the whole time. And I think that what President Obama spoke about was the context by which African-Americans understood race to be there the whole time, from the beginning and in the courtroom. And what he asked in his heartfelt comments was acknowledge our experience, acknowledge our experience. You don't have to agree with me, you don't know -- but this is my experience and acknowledge that it happens a lot.
FOLKENFLIK: Sure. Ron Brownstein, briefly, when you think about the president's comments, obviously race not the only question here, question of gun rights and gun ownership -- how much can the president affect the conversation as it takes place in the media?
BROWNSTEIN: Well, look, as he said, there's a limit how much he move it. The backdrop of this, David, is we're living through the most profound demographic change in the society since the start of 20th century. Thirty-seven percent of the population is nonwhite. A majority of the under18 population is expected to be nonwhite in this decade. And at the same time, we're having intense racial polarization. Not so much on issues of crime but the basic role of government.
White/nonwhite voting patterns moving sharply apart. That is a reality that we don't discuss very much in the media except in moments like this.
FOLKENFLIK: And, clearly, one the media has to pay extra attention to.
Up next, we'll take a look at the life of a White House reporter who blazed a trail for the women here in the Washington press corps. Helen Thomas, dead at 92. My conversation with several women journalists who followed her path.
FOLKENFLIK: I'm David Folkenflik of NPR News.
The last thing you may have heard about Helen Thomas, who died yesterday at the age of 92, was her comments about Jews in Israel, which effectively ended her career in Washington. But Thomas should be known for much more than that. She covered the White House beat for nearly five decades and was never afraid to ask the impertinent question. Thomas also fought to ensure women had an equal role in the Washington press corps.
Here in studio we've assembled a lineup of formidable political reporters to help reflect on the life and career of Helen Thomas.
We have Judy Woodruff, co-anchor of the "NewsHour" on PBS.
Ann Compton, White House reporter for ABC News.
And, of course, CNN's Candy Crowley.
Thank you all for joining today.
Ann, talk to me a little bit about that spirit of impertinence -- the ability to ask the slightly barbed question. How do you remember that?
ANN COMPTON, ABC NEWS: Well, Helen never thought there was anything disrespectful about what she did, but she asked the uncomfortable questions -- kind of speaking truth to power. And because she was a woman and because she did it to the president of the United States and because she did it from a wire service, she became the dean of the press corps, not because she was a woman or because of the question, because she worked for United Press International and she spoke for all of us.
And through the years, the many years all of us have known her, she never lost that edge. She was always the first one in there in the morning.
FOLKENFLIK: Judy Woodruff, why was it important to be able to do that? I mean, we praise it. We say it's a vital thing. But at the same time., what does it yield to us as voters, as citizens?
JUDY WOODRUFF, PBS: Well, she was able to get people to say things they might not otherwise have said. And I have to say, personally, came to the White House to cover Jimmy Carter in January of 1977. Nobody went more out of their way than Helen Thomas did. She made sure that if I had any questions -- she said if you ever have a question about how things work around here, come to me.
You know the story about Helen -- first one in the White House in the morning, the last one to leave at night. But the thing I have to tell you is what I remember best about her is I went to a briefing early on. It was Zbigniew Brzezinski. They said it was deep background. I didn't quite know what that meant.
I came out and Helen, my friend, Helen, who had done me all those favors was standing there and she said, well, what did you talk about. So I told her and of course she went on and reported it. Brzezinski's people were furious, they said it was deep background but I figured that was the least I could do for my friend, Helen.
FOLKENFLIK: And that was you, I've heard that anecdote before.
FOLKENFLIK: Candy Crowley, talk a little bit about her role as a model, a mentor, a path breaker for women in this city.
CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: She was all of that. I mean, I had the exact same experience. Judy was gone from the White House by the time I got there. Ann was there and still is.
But, you know, I was working for the "A.P." She was working for UPI. No one reached -- she has really --
FOLKENFLIK: That's Yankees/Red Sox right there. CROWLEY: Well, exactly, but no one was nicer, reached out more, made me feel like I belonged with all these big-name journalists that were there when I'm thinking what do I know. She was great at that.
So it wasn't just, yes, she was the first woman correspondent to cover a president for a wire service, the first this, the first that, broke down the barrier here. I mean look -- Google her. And it's just nothing but first and the word "pioneer" is always there. But more than that, she walked the walk. I mean she helped with scholarships for young women, she was always there.
And I did a piece about her and one of the things I mentioned was that last year I won an award at the American Newswomen's Club and Helen showed up. Over the years I had always talked to her.
FOLKENFLIK: Not generically (ph) --
CROWLEY: Honestly, she was so frail, it just touched me deeply that she even -- the effort to get there was amazing, I thought, and she just said, oh, I wouldn't have missed it. I'm so proud of you.
So that's Helen. Like this isn't -- this is like across the years. She was -- she was there.
WOODRUFF: It was almost like all the -- I mean she was a good friend of many, many journalists, but I think women in particular, she took pride in what women did. She reached out to young women.
I know she gave me courage, because I showed up as this frightened, intimidated reporter. I had come from Atlanta covering Carter for NBC and before that for local news. And she gave -- frankly, she gave me the guts to stand up and do my job. And I know she did that for so many other people.
COMPTON: The news business changed on Helen. And one of the reasons, nobody lasts as long as Helen did. Remember, she resigned from United Press International when it was taken over by Reverend Moon's organization. And she said I'm not going to work for them.
FOLKENFLIK: The Unification Church --
COMPTON: And Hearst, I proud publisher like Hearst gives her a columnist job. So for the last 13 years she has been an opinion columnist, which it's the wrong note to end an obit on her because her years of pushing so hard to be the best of the best and really define the way White House reporters asked.
FOLKENFLIKE: But, briefly, I do want to touch on this. I don't think you can ignore entirely. What are we to make of the comments she made? I happen to be Jewish but there are many non-Jews deeply offended by what she had to say. How do we evaluate that?
She -- it doesn't seem to be against what she thought. After all, she was very skeptical of the U.S. alliance with the Israelis and the Israeli policy in the Middle East.
How do we evaluate her in that way?
WOODRUFF: We know she was Lebanese -- of Lebanese descent. Her parents came from Lebanon to the United States. They struggled, grew up in a very middle class family existence.
You know, I don't think -- you certainly can't set that aside. That was part of who she was. There's no question that she let her beliefs, I think, interfere sometimes with her journalism.
But it's not what defined her. And I think as Ann suggested, if Helen had decided to step back five, ten years earlier, I don't think that would have ever been an issue.
FOLKENFLIK: Candy Crowley, you know, I think White House reporters -- at least in this day and age -- aren't always to do the kinds of scoops that are forever enduring. James Risen now says he'll go to jail rather than reveal sources on certain CIA operations involving Iran and yet she played a very vital part.
How would you succinctly characterize the importance of the role she played as a White House reporter all those years?
CROWLEY: Wow. You know, A, she was the pioneer of the tough question. B, she was a pioneer for women. C, she really -- she -- people might not have liked her questions. They were loaded, oftentimes, but she got amazing answers and that's what a reporter does.
One vital lesson Helen taught me, and that is you didn't get in this business to be liked.
FOLKENFLIK: Candy Crowley, Judy Woodruff, Ann Compton, the most impressive assembly of female journalists since Katharine Graham (INAUDIBLE) -- we appreciate it so much.
Coming up next, a new inside the Beltway and below the belt look focuses on the zero degrees of separation between the people who run Washington, D.C., and the people who cover them. Be afraid, be very afraid.
FOLKENFLIK: When I was a young congressional reporter here in Washington in the 1990s, I was friendly with a veteran political reporter who had dined out for years on having once jogged one on one with President George H.W. Bush. When some news story exposed a particularly outrageous development, she would just shake her head knowingly and say, "This town."
It was her way of showing she was astonished by the news and yet not surprised at all because she was a member of the club. The new book "This Town" by Mark Leibovich of "The New York Times", another card-carrying member of the club, lovingly eviscerates the press corps and others. He writes, "The city, far from being hopelessly divided, is in fact hopelessly interconnected. Washington may not serve the country well, but has, in fact, worked splendidly for Washington itself, a city of beautifully busy people constantly writing the story of their own lives."
Joining us today three busy people writing the story of their own lives but also very well-versed in the ways of the Washington press corps.
Carlos Lozada from "The Washington Post", Molly Ball from "The Atlantic", and in Chicago, Jim Warren, Washington bureau chief for the "New York Daily News" all join us on this discussion.
Carlos, how fair would you say that last characterization is of the way in which the Washington press corps, the political press here in D.C., operates?
CARLO LOZADA, THE WASHINGTON POST: I think he makes the case well enough. Part of what he's saying applies more broadly to -- excuse me, part of it applies to the Washington press corps in particular but if he's taking that criticism broadly to the press corps, I think there might be some problems with it.
The book came out at a time when the administration is aggressively pursuing leak investigations, when the press is revealing surveillance programs that are top secret.
FOLKENFLIK: National security things. It matters.
So I think his criticism applies to a certain kind of reporter. The frenetic political blogger, perhaps, but not necessarily to the press corps as a whole.
FOLKENFLIK: You know, Molly Ball, there's a real criticism of "Politico" in here. "Politico", at one time was a relatively new entry. Now it seems like part of the establishment here in D.C.
Mark Salter says -- of "Politico" -- they have taken every worst trend in reporting, every single one of them and put them on rocket fuel. Mark Salter, of course, the famous senior aide to Senator John McCain. He says the shortening of the news cycle, the trivialization of the news, has politico fueled that kind of micro-attention here for political coverage?
MOLLY BALL, THE ATLANTIC: In the spirit of "This Town", I must make a disclosure as people are constantly doing in Washington to show how important they are -- I once worked at "Politico", I worked there for a year. And I think they are more of the symptom than the disease. We have an accelerated culture.
We have a -- at one time it was the news networks, the 24/7 cable news like CNN that were the problem. And then it became the Internet. But it's really people's attention and the things people want to know. It's the audience, I think, that drives all of these things.
I think that actually "Politico" and this book have something in common, which is sort of earnest conviction that people on the outside want to know what's on the inside. That this -- whether it's the incestuousness that Leibovich writes about or this sort of insider conversation that "Politico" channels, that there's some appetite for that out in -- what the snubs sometimes call flyover country.
FOLKENFLIK: Jim Warren, I remember first reading you when you were filing columns for "Chicago Tribune" from Washington. You were describing it as though you were a foreign correspondent discovering certain things anew. This was in the 1990s. And yet it seems as though almost it was ever thus. You disparaged journalists who seemed to seek the ability to opine because they saw that as a measure to fortune or fame.
What's different about the current age?
JIM WARREN, THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: First of all, David, wonderful tie. I think in D.C. fashion we must be flattering one another. Anyway, upon my Rip Van Winkle return after 11, 12 years, no, not much as changed -- which is why I found the book interesting. I think Leibovich captures a slice of a particular cultural and media movement, especially the rise of new media.
I think he's also spot on with the sort of Hollywood-like vanity and self regard and greed and ambition. And some, not all, of the outrageous conflicts of interest which you could detail still these days of a lot of elite media.
His profile of one of the new icons of the Internet age, Michael Allen, a whirling dervish, Walter Winchell-like columnist at "Politico" is terrific. At the same time, if I do have some qualms and sort of alluded to just now, is that there are a lot of wonderful journalists who don't get any mention here and they probably don't because their profiles are low. They don't -- they are not in sync with the sort of high decimal, cable-fueled punditry that a lot of folks like and they still do wonderful work.
And two other things -- bastion of old media, "The New York Times," which still sets the agenda and for which Mark works for is really just a parenthetical and an organization that I really think is sort of a baby Huey, an 800-pound gorilla doing fabulous work not being respected as they like. "Bloomberg News" gets no attention and they are an important player.
FOLKENFLIK: Carlos Lozada, very quickly, what has the harm to journalism done if people are pursuing their own careers, people pursuing their own fame? At the same time, you can say, well, that's an incentive for them to get known for breaking good stories.
Briefly, what's the harm done to journalism by the kind of rhythms that are being described in this town?
LOZADA: I think if the pursuit of self branding and self aggrandizement gets in the way of the pursuit of aggressive reporting and aggressive stories, then that's the harm that Mark Leibovich is writing about in this book.
FOLKENFLIK: So, posturing rather reporting, getting -- interfering.
Next up -- first up, I want to thank Molly Ball, Carlos Lozada and in Chicago, Jim Warren for joining us on this.
Next up, "Rolling Stone" magazine gives star cover treatment to the man charged in the Boston marathon bombings. What were they thinking? We'll take a look, coming up next.
FOLKENFLIK: "Rolling Stone" magazine put Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover with a photograph that made the teenager accused of plotting the Boston Marathon bombings look every bit as appealing as a young Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DIANE SAWYER, ABC HOST: An iconic magazine under fire: retailers pulling "Rolling Stone" from the shelves, saying it's one thing to seek out controversial covers, but should they draw a line on accused terrorists?
KRISTEN DAHLGREN, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: We're right here where the bombing happened and months later, as you can imagine, the pain is still fresh.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In Boston and throughout America, a perception that "Rolling Stone" is equating Dzhokhar Tsarnaev with the likes of rock's biggest stars.
FOLKENFLIK (voice-over): The cover called him a monster but sparked an outrage, especially in Boston, and it prompted a state police photographer to release pictures taken of a bloodied Tsarnaev as he was captured.
To discuss this topic here in Washington, we're joined by Keith Jenkins, a senior photo director for "National Geographic."
And in Boston we have Kevin Cullen, a columnist for "The Boston Globe."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOLKENFLIK: Kevin, talk to me a little bit; I assume you first saw this cover online as it's for the August 1st issue.
What did you think about that picture when you first saw it?
KEVIN CULLEN, "THE BOSTON GLOBE": Well, I'll state right off the top that as a journalist I'm very uncomfortable criticizing other journalists' decisions, but --
(CROSSTALK) FOLKENFLIK: Hey, that's what I do for a living, man. Go for it.
CULLEN: I know. I guess. But it struck me as I wouldn't have made that choice. I don't -- I think the cover was deliberately provocative. I think it was aimed at, you know, increasing sales for magazines. That's what magazines do, they try to sell.
So I saw it from that context. But I very -- as soon as I saw it, I thought about some of the victims that I know and how they would react.
And I thought about Sean Collier's family, the police officer who was shot to death allegedly by these two clowns. So that's what I thought.
And then when I read the piece, I thought it was well written. It was -- I think it was about 11,000 words. I would have liked to see at least in those 11,000 words the names Martin Richard, Lou Lindsey and Krystal Campbell, and some of the victims that survived the bombing. I thought they could have been a little more balanced, put it that way.
FOLKENFLIK: Sure. Those three, the names of the people who died in those bombings.
Keith Jenkins, you're now at "National Geographic;" also worked at other major news organizations. To start, take us through the thought process that leads to the selection of that picture, taken, as I understand it, by Mr. Tsarnaev himself.
KEITH JENKINS, "NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC": Yes. I think what's really key to this is that you always start with the words and you start with an article, but you also start with trying to paint a picture. And I think the editors in this case started with a very strong, I almost say, a forensic look at that photograph.
JENKINS: Forensic in the sense that we want to know what was in this kid's mind, and using the photograph as a jumping-off point to try and analyze that.
So I see the article as really kind of trying to do that. And then the photograph really becomes the image that we look at to try and get that explanation. So it's really important for that photograph to be there and for that photograph to be tied directly to that story.
FOLKENFLIK: To understand, you're both explaining what they did, but in a sense it sounds like you've saying this was an appropriate choice. It may offend people of Boston and Massachusetts and New England, it may offend people who were personally heartbroken, as so many of us were that day.
This is not a reasonable choice but the right choice. Define that a little bit. JENKINS: I think -- and you know, in speaking to Boston, I lived there for many years. I worked with Kevin actually at "The Globe" and my stomach turned when I heard what had happened.
But I think that journalists have an interesting responsibility. Part of that is to tell the truth and part of that is sometimes to tell truth that hurts.
And I think, you know, we talk about minimizing harm, but not eliminating harm in some of the things that we do. I think that in this case this was necessary in order to get at the explanation of how could this happen to somebody who seemed to be so perfect, not a monster.
FOLKENFLIK: Kevin Cullen, you know, what about this, from a journalistic standpoint, you're in Boston, you're with "The Boston Globe."
What might be right for "The Globe" might not be right for a national publication.
Will Dane is the managing editor of "Rolling Stone." He talked to my NPR colleague, Melissa Block, a few days ago and he said, look, we wanted to show that this person didn't look like a monster and, in fact, those who knew him growing up -- after all, he's a young man -- those who knew him growing up say he seemed like as though he were full of promise.
Why shouldn't this be a reasonable choice for a national audience?
Why should the sensibilities of the people of greater Boston determine what's right for "Rolling Stone"?
CULLEN: Oh, I don't think they should. And like I said, I'm very uncomfortable criticizing other journalists' decisions in things like this. And I'm absolutely opposed to censorship.
I think these stores that are pulling "Rolling Stone" from their shelves should be ashamed of themselves. There is something called the First Amendment. And I think people are intelligent enough to know whether they want to buy the magazine or not.
But no, I mean, it -- like I said, I read the piece and it was a fine piece of journalism. I have no problem with that.
But I do think things are raw here. We still have people who are in rehabilitation hospitals. We still have little kids who lost legs. And I think it is different here.
And I covered The Troubles in Northern Ireland for many years. And, you know, you can print things in "The Boston Globe" and "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" that you couldn't post in the "Belfast Telegraph," because it was small. It was real. It was visceral. And I think it's similar here. FOLKENFLIK: Well, a testament to the power of images and of course "Boston" magazine is now intent on releasing some of those magazines taken by that police photographer.
Keith Jenkins, Kevin Cullen, thank you so much for joining us on this topic.
Next on RELIABLE SOURCES, one local news station promises it will no longer hype breaking news. We'll see whether the news can survive when it's not broken.
FOLKENFLIK: What you're about to hear represents the promise of a new way of presenting local TV news. It's a promotional spot from the FOX affiliate in Louisville, Kentucky.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: News is seldom actually breaking and quite often isn't even news. At WDRB we never use that term. We believe the relationship you have with your television station shouldn't begin with a deception.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
FOLKENFLIK: Managers at WDRB drafted a 10-part (ph) packed with viewers six years ago but only started to advertise it last month.
Bill Lamb is president and general manager of WDRB and he joins us from Louisville.
Bill, welcome. Thanks for joining the show.
BILL LAMB, PRESIDENT, WDRB: Glad to be here, David.
FOLKENFLIK: What do you mean with this promise, we're not going to do breaking news anymore?
LAMB: Well, I don't think breaking news has a whole lot to do with journalism. And I don't think most journalists really like being put in the position of having to claim that everything is breaking news.
A kitten in a tree is suddenly breaking news. We believe that it's a marketing gimmick and, to be honest, it's probably a pretty powerful marketing gimmick, but it's not about journalism. And so we just decided that a relationship between a station and its viewers shouldn't begin with a deception, and we think it's deceptive.
FOLKENFLIK: You think it's deception and yet there are a lot of events, if you look at the entire landscape of cable news, that Chirons are telling you forever things are breaking, whether it's the Zimmerman trial, a statement by the president, presumably the announcement of a new royal baby in London.
Why shouldn't people call that breaking news?
LAMB: Well, some things are breaking. Most things are not. Many things are old and they're still labeled as breaking.
We asked our viewers to ask themselves, when they see that some television station is breathlessly claiming this is breaking news, ask yourself, is this really happening now? Is it really breaking? Is it really news? And even if it is, is this even important to me?
FOLKENFLIK: So take us back a little bit and tell us how you decided, even though it was six years ago -- only recently publicized in this way -- how you decided to dispense with that, that label.
LAMB: Well, we decided, based on many of the things I'm telling you now. The Pew Research Center tracks the perception that the community and the esteem that the community holds for several different occupations, from the clergy to doctors, lawyers, artists, the military and journalists. None of those occupations that they track have lost more esteem in the public's eyes than journalists.
Now, is that because journalists have suddenly started to become deceptive?
No, I think, number one, it's because consultants have been telling people like me for years that we need to give our viewers more of what they want and less of what they need. If you give them what they want, they'll watch. If you find them what they need, they find that to be too hard.
So we're giving them cotton candy instead of meat and potatoes and that isn't nourishing in the long run.
The second reason is we're trying to tell them that everything is breaking news. And if that's your slogan, if that's your marketing campaign, it's like the guy who only has one tool, a hammer. And if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
FOLKENFLIK: You know, Bill, you and I first met last month when I did a story for NPR about this campaign that you've run.
You told me also that one of the triggers was a story about an off-duty bus driver across the river in Indiana who was arrested on a DWI. You said, look, that wasn't breaking and you didn't think it was news.
For some people, if you're thinking about somebody who conveys schoolchildren in a bus to school that, you know, her driving habits, her safety, a DUI might its very much be news.
Why wasn't that story newsworthy?
LAMB: Well, she's -- it might have been newsworthy, but was it breaking news? You know, it happened the night before. We were talking about it the next morning. We called it breaking news.
So not only was it not happening as we were telling people, which I thought was a little bit deceptive, but, frankly, she wasn't driving a bus. She was driving her own car. She was a private citizen, and she made an error in judgment, but it didn't have anything to do with her work.
FOLKENFLIK: So, in a sense, news, but labeled wrongly as breaking news. Bill Lamb of WDRB in Louisville, Kentucky, thank you so much for joining us to talk about this topic.
LAMB: It was my pleasure.
FOLKENFLIK: Coming up next, the president says he doesn't want a national conversation on race in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict.
But what does the media do next?
FOLKENFLIK: President Obama's remarks on the death of Trayvon Martin raised questions about how black men are depicted in the media and the president's own ability to influence public conversation on that very topic.
We're joined here in CNN's Washington studios by Clarence Page, long-time political columnist for "The Chicago Tribune" and Clinton Yates, a local columnist for "The Washington Post."
Clarence, I think back 20 years ago; President Clinton embarked on, we said, a national conversation on race. The eminent historian John Hope Franklin to lead it, if I recall correctly.
CLARENCE PAGE, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": That's right.
FOLKENFLIK: What do you think about the idea of a conversation per se?
I mean is that the right response to what we're experiencing now?
PAGE: Well, ask anybody what happened to that conversation back in the '90s; they came out with a very interesting report. I feel like the only guy in America who actually read it, because these things just kind of peter out in public interest. The media has forgotten about it, they have moved on.
And I think President Obama is aware of that and referenced as much in his speech the other day, that the real conversation has to be local with people in their own communities.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, he did say that conversations led by politicians end up -- these are his words -- being stilted and politicized and folks are locked in the positions they already have. And yet he seemed to be trying to spark that very conversation.
PAGE: Well, and he did. And just like Trayvon Martin's tragic death did, unfortunately -- I think you and I have talked about this before -- these racial eruptions pop up every so often that force Americans to talk and think about race. And then half of us, at least, are very quickly trying to bury it again rather than have a continuing conversation.
So I'm glad President Obama came forth, because having the president, no matter who the president is, raises this to a different level.
FOLKENFLIK: Clinton Yates, when you think about it, talk to me about the depiction that you see of black men in the media, and particularly I mean the news media.
How fairly does it reflect the complexity of daily life?
CLINTON YATES, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I'd say it reflects it very poorly. The criminalization of black men in the media, the sexualization of black men in the media and the portrayal of black men as being uneducated in the media is something that is everywhere. I mean, it's something that you live with it as well when you walk around.
People assume one of those three things are going to be the case about you, and that is something that we have to unravel on a basic presentation level in order to really get somewhere within the conversation.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, talk to me about that for a moment. President Obama talked a little bit about how, look, he's felt it when people lock their doors or women clutch their bags or people look at him if he goes into a store and assume perhaps something nefarious might unfold.
How is that something that the media can address, other than hold endless panel discussions at journalism schools or at professional organizations once a year?
YATES: Well, it's something that I think in advertising, I think, is one big place you can see it. If you see different commercials, the way black men are portrayed, you know, that is an important thing, the sort of subliminal things that people are just passively looking at.
Those have big messages that a lot of times people don't realize are as important as they are. And if people take that seriously, I think you will see a change in the way people look at black men.
FOLKENFLIK: Clarence Page, does this focus on race led by the president, but also evident in protests around the country, evident in comments that have sprung up spontaneously on social media, does it nonetheless obscure other elements that were part of the trial that just played out?
I mean, after all, on this network, not so many minutes ago, Senator John McCain said the nation should review these "stand your ground" laws in states across the country, including his own state of Arizona.
How much does this consume all the oxygen about the result of that trial?
PAGE: I'm glad that both Eric Holder and the president both, once they got past the focus on the image of young black males on the street, went right directly to something the government can do and that's reevaluate your "stand your ground" laws.
The first -- the Florida law was signed into law back in 2005, and in the following five years, the amount of justifiable homicide cases about tripled, in fact.
And it's the kind of thing that we still didn't have a discussion about this, and now the number of states with similar laws -- there's 20 or 30 more states -- now finally it took the tragic death of Trayvon Martin to get everybody to focus on this and even allow the people who voted for it initially now are having second thoughts. I think we need to do that.
FOLKENFLIK: I mean, I think, interestingly, much like race itself, not something raised explicitly in the trial, but both race and "stand your ground" getting some more attention now that it's played out.
PAGE: Because race gave it more attention.
PAGE: I'd say, you know, the one -- a lawyer for Zimmerman was right when he said this wouldn't have been a big story if the race element was not there.
Quickly, we've got less than a minute left, I want to address something Eric Deggans has said a number of times. He was on earlier. He talked about the need to look at race in complexity when there isn't a crisis.
Where do you look for things that you think are doing it right?
Where do you see some promise in the news media?
YATES: News media, I don't know, but I've seen a couple different blogs recently that have stated this, the IamnotTrayvonMartin.com or Tumblr, which has people indicating that, you know what, they have actually been on the advantageous side of what is the race relation factor in America and have indicated that they have lived with that privilege. And that's something that they want to work for.
FOLKENFLIK: Thank you very much, Clinton Yates of "The Washington Post," Clarence page of "The Chicago Tribune," a tough topic that no doubt we'll return to.
Up next, I'll offer some final thoughts on the many facets of the legendary White House reporter, Helen Thomas.
FOLKENFLIK: (Inaudible) this show the life and career of Helen Thomas, who died yesterday at the age of 92, but her story has four distinct chapters. There was Helen Thomas, the classic American success story, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants who settled in the U.S. with less than 20 bucks to their names.
She made it good as a young female reporter in Washington for the United Press news service.
Then there was Helen Thomas, the legendary White House reporter, breaking stories such as Gerald Ford's full pardon of Richard Nixon for Watergate, a woman so integral to the Washington experience that political movies cast her to give them a touch of reality.
Though she reported intensely, she did not land many enduring scoops. Few White House reporters do. But she embraced the theatricality of her job, asking presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama the inconvenient questions that many Americans want their leaders to face.
There was Helen Thomas, the path breaker, time and again prying open doors for women in the notoriously clubby Washington press corps by demanding equal status. She became not just White House correspondent but bureau chief, not just the first female member of the Gridiron Club, but its president.
She forced open those doors because such recognitions would validate women reporters in the eyes of politicians and their journalistic peers. She mentored hundreds of women reporters and inspired countless more.
And then there was Helen Thomas, the liberal gadfly, her beliefs fully surfacing as she left United Press International to become a columnist for Hearst Newspapers in 2000, along with skepticism toward Israel and American policy in the Middle East.
For three full years, wary of her barbed questions, President George W. Bush neglected to call on her.
When he finally did, Thomas asked him why he took the nation to war against Iraq at all. There is a principle in journalism that you don't remember someone solely by the worst thing she did, but a reporter as sharp as Thomas would notice meaningful omissions.
Late in life, Helen Thomas called on Jews living in Israel to return to the European lands in which millions of Jews were murdered amid World War II. It was an astonishing and offensive remark. Thomas lost her job at Hearst and it effectively ended her career. Any honest rendering of Thomas' career must acknowledge that moment, but any such account must also recognize the path she blazed, the battles she fought and the spin she exposed.
And so jam-packed with news about the news that you'll have to click online at CNN.com/reliablesources to find my interview with Louise Mensch. She's the British lawmaker who helped investigate the bribery and phone hacking scandals besetting the media empire of Rupert Murdoch. And then she went to work for him.
I'm David Folkenflik of NPR News. And this has been RELIABLE SOURCES.
Up next, a familiar face, Candy Crowley brings you the "STATE OF THE UNION".