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Are Media Getting the Real Story Behind Jeffords' Defection?; Is the Chandra Levy Disappearance Being Sensationalized?

Aired May 26, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: From rumor to speculation to political earthquake, Jim Jeffords put the Senate in Democratic hands. Are the media getting the real story or just playing the blame game? And the case of the missing intern. Is the press hyping the Chandra Levy story because of her alleged mystery lover? And are journalists going too far by tying her to a California congressman?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn the critical ends on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb. Well, more on covering the dramatic Senate power shift in a moment but we begin with a missing Washington intern who's parents have been all over television. Why is the story grabbing such big headlines, and are journalists abandoning any restraint in covering it's more tabloid aspects?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Any new clues here?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There are no new clues. And I think it is appropriate to say they have reached an impasse.

KURTZ (voice-over): Was the sad tale of Chandra Levy irresistible for scandal-hungry news organizations? Even if she's just one of thousands of "20 Something's" missing each year. And were they too quick to play up her friendship with Congressman Gary Condit, the California democrat who represents her hometown?

KATIE COURIC, "THE TODAY SHOW": What have you been able to determine about the nature of they're relationship? That seems to be another added mystery in this case.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, at this time there's nothing that's shown us that it was anything other than a friendship.

KURTZ: Did Levy's parent orchestrate the coverage by using a foundation that specializes in drumming up public attention for missing persons?

SUSAN LEVY, MOTHER: Everybody, continue your prayers because this isn't just my daughter it's like anybody else's. It's like your daughter, too.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now from New York, Steve Freedman, executive producer of "The Early Show" on CBS, and "Newsweek" correspondent Karen Breslower.

Steve, "The Early Show" is not going to do a story on any old missing intern. What attracted you here was the mystery boyfriend described in an e-mail by Chandra Levy and a possible relationship with a congressman, right?

STEVE FREEDMAN, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, "THE MORNING SHOW": Well, I think that's part of it. It's a very fascinating story. It's every parent's nightmare -- send your college senior off to their first intern job and they don't come home. I think it's a very compelling story. But sure all of it has intrigue -- intern, Washington, Congress, where's the young lady? Absolutely.

KURTZ: Karen Breslower, any feeling in reporting this story that you were kind of descending into tabloid land?

KAREN BRESLOWER, "NEWSWEEK" CORRESPONDENT: It was definitely an uncomfortable story to report particularly when I drove down to Modesto where it's an entirely different guessing game. And the mystery relationship was not really the focus, rather it was the pretty obvious anguish of this family and a number of friends of this family who could not figure out what on earth happened to this young woman. And what difference did it make whatever unexplained aspects of her social life that the media seemed so fascinated by? It was a very uncomfortable trend.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Steve, is all of this taking place -- your enthusiasm for this story because of the Monica Lewinsky background? For example...


KALB: Hang on just a minute, Steve.


KALB: I read the reports. I see that one correspondent said that everybody's talking about it in Washington. There's a buzz in Washington. It's a non-stop coverage and so forth. Those -- that phrase "young intern", it's got you by your editorial throat and that's why you're giving it coverage. Am I right?

FREEDMAN: I think you're partially right. There aren't many old interns, Bernie. The fact is, again, this has a lot of mysterious little stuff that makes it a great story for television and for the magazines and for the newspapers. You know...

KALB: Mystery based on what? You are concocting a variety of fictions -- not you personally -- but the media.


KALB: There's great rampage of suggestibility, romantic liaisons and so forth based on what? You have a scrap of what?

FREEDMAN: Bernie, all of the congressman has to do is come out and talk to somebody and tell us what's going on. How come he hasn't talked to anybody?

KURTZ: That is an interesting point we pick up with Karen Breslower. Congressman Gary Condit has issued a statement denying any romantic relationship calling Chandra Levy a good friend. But he has not spoken publicly. The newspaper "Roll Call" reported that he -- some of his friends are coming out on his behalf but I wonder if the press, given this unusual set of circumstances, has been unfair in suggesting, implying, hinting that there is some sort of romantic relationship there?

BRESLOWER: The D.C. police who started the investigation -- it later went to the FBI -- made a number of suggestions that there was something unusual in the young lady's social life and that they interviewed the congressman. They've done searches of his neighborhood and of his immediate surroundings, too. So it was very clear that a friendship with a member of Congress was not just a random element of this young lady's life. I think that's what really inflamed the media interest. So it wasn't just random.

KALB: I'll throw one right over the plate for you.

FREEDMAN: OK, I'm ready.

KALB: Easiest question in the world. To what degree is the Monica Syndrome at work in this story?

FREEDMAN: I think it's partially to work.

KALB: Partially? How about rampagingly?

FREEDMAN: No, I was say partially.

KALB: Why so stingy?

FREEDMAN: Even if there was no Monica and this same story came down the pike I think we'd be onto it by now.

KALB: Have you -- may I, please? Have you done any check up? I see a figure of 98,431 missing persons a year in the United States. Few of them rate a minute on one morning news show. Have you checked out any other possibilities for young intern stories among the 98,000?


KALB: Or have you surrenders to the buzz machine that this story has generated?

FREEDMAN: Unfortunately there are a lot of murders in this country, yet, Robert Blake's wife seems to be getting a majority of the coverage. We pick and chose on stories all the time and our job basically is to report things that we are interested in and we think the public should be interested in. I do not believe -- I do not believe that anybody who, when they hear this story is not interested in it.

KURTZ: Karen Breslower, anything about this story and the sort of mystery, tantalizing aspects about it make you uncomfortable?

BRESLOWER: Well, there are two gigantic mysteries. One is what happened to this young lady? Where did she go? And tow is, does what is described as a friendship with a member of the United States Congress in any way figure in the woman's fate?

We know the answer to neither of those questions. We don't know if the two known facts -- one, the young lady is missing and nobody knows where she is. Two, she has what is described as a friendship with a member of Congress. Nobody knows if there is a relationship whatsoever between these two facts.

KURTZ: Well, one thing that is clear, Steve Freedman, is that was a firm that specializes in getting publicity for missing persons cases hired by the lady's parents that I think helped put it on your radar screen. How much of a factor is that when people of all sorts have tragedies in trying to grab some media attention in a place like "The Early Show"?

FREEDMAN: Well, I think it is a factor. I think these kind of firms -- these kind of people know who to call, when to call them and what to present as a story. We get calls from people in all walks of life. People -- movie stars -- have publicists. Corporations have press offices. senators, congressmen, White House have press offices and it does get you on the radar screen a little earlier. Even without this firm, however, this is the kind of story that would have eventually surfaced -- maybe not as quickly but it would have surfaced.

KURTZ: Steve...

BRESLOWER: One other thing...


KURTZ: Go ahead, Karen.

BRESLOWER: Well, I just wanted to say, also consider where this happened -- the fact that the young lady comes from a town where the foundation of missing person's foundation was created two years ago after a very widely publicized kidnap and murder case at Yosemite National Park I think played a role. Because this family immediately knew whom to contact. So did the congressman, by the way. He put the family in touch with this foundation in his district.

So there were a convergence of a number of I think pretty unique factors that got this case an enormous amount of attention that it might not have gotten in some other city.

KURTZ: That indeed is what it has received and we will have to leave it there. Karen Breslower, Steve Freedman, thanks very much for joining us. Well, up next how reporters are covering a political earthquake this week set off by Senator James Jeffords. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And Vermont's Republican Senator Jim Jeffords is agonizing tonight over whether to leave the Republican Party.

PETER JENNINGS, ANCHOR, ABC NEWS: The entire political establishment is tantalized that the possibility that one senator, Senator James Jeffords, Republican of Vermont, may switch to the Democratic Party or may become and Independent.

REPORTER: Will Republican Moderate, James Jeffords of Vermont switch to the Democratic Party?

SEN. JAMES JEFFORDS, (R), VERMONT: I will leave the Republican Party and become and independent.

KURTZ: A scramble this week to nail down a fast breaking story of Jim Jeffords bolting from the Republican Party, handing Senate control to the Democrats. Two people in the thick of the story: "TIME" magazine's Karen Tumulty and CNN congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl.

Jonathan Karl, a week ago Friday you reported on CNN that Jim Jeffords was, "openly floating with the idea of possibly switching parties." Why did this not trigger an immediate journalistic avalanche?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, part of it could have been this was Friday afternoon and it's a tough time -- many reporters have already gone home. But as soon as that -- as we reported that on CNN -- that was at about 5:30 on Friday afternoon, I got calls from both Trent Lott's office and Tom Daschle's office saying that they were immediately flooded with calls from people demanding, "Is this true? Is this true? Is it really happening?"

KURTZ: Maybe it's because you qualified it at one point -- you said, "This is still just all talk." Do you wish in retrospect you had gone a little harder with it?

KARL: Well, I thought I had to be very careful with this because I knew that the negotiations were going on and I knew that Jeffords was seriously considering it...


KARL: ... but look, Jeffords was getting threatened by the White House and this was quite possibly just an effort by Jeffords to say, "Hey, don't try to get revenge on me because I've got a big red button that I can push that can effect everything."

KALB: Karen, how do you explain the fact that the media was slow off the mark on this story?

KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME": Well, it...

KALB: And "slow" is a fair word, is it not?

TUMULTY: It's a tribute to this process because the fact is it is so rare these days for something in Washington to go on. And apparently it was gong on for months that these delicate negotiations -- this courtship -- were going on and somehow it didn't leak.

KURTZ: But how come the media couldn't puncture that secret earlier?

TUMULTY: Well, I think a part of it is the personalities of the people who were doing it. They decided to hold it closed. Occasionally, discipline works in Washington -- not that often.

KARL: And I'll tell you, Jane Caplan, in our political unit, first got wind about a week earlier that Jeffords was talking to Democrats. And we started poking around at it and I spoke to one good Democratic source who it turns out really did know what was going on who gave me one of these, "What? Really? I'll have to check into that?" And that sources has since come back to me and said...

KURTZ: Deliberately faking you out.

KARL: Deliberately misleading me.

KURTZ: Karen Tumulty, once the story gain a certain journalistic momentum, wasn't there an awful lot of unsupported speculation about, "Well, this was because Jeffords wasn't invited to The Teacher of the Year ceremony at the White House, this is because they threatened the dairy program." The truth is that Jeffords now says at least that those -- that was not the case and we didn't really know. The only guy who really knew was the senator from Vermont.

TUMULTY: Oh, but I plead guilty to that speculation because the fact is he remained in the House through Ronald Reagan, in the Senate through George Bush's father so he's been there for two decades under agendas -- Republican agendas -- that don't agree with his. So you have to start looking beyond what he says...

KALB: But before he made the move -- before he officially announced there was an awful lot of talk in the press about his motivations.

TUMULTY: Because you look at the guy who has for a long time been a fish out of water in his own party...

KURTZ: A loyal Republican.

TUMULTY: ... and as a reporter you say, "What is different now?" And what is different now are the sort of vindictive tactics of retribution that this White House has pulled on him.

KALB: Jonathan, are not the media going to have a field day right now? You talked about past speculation, about whether he was invited or not invited to the White House but let's go future speculation, you've got an opportunity the media has at the present point to speculate about the political landscape, the legislative landscape, the judicial landscape and you really don't have to have any real facts -- you can just take off, go SST in the air and write away.

KARL: Well, also, there's a question with the Republican's retribution. Does Trent Lott stay Majority Leader? Let me tell you, throughout the halls of Congress people were -- reporters were grabbing senators all day yesterday saying, "Is Lott going to be challenged? Are you going to challenge Senator Trent Lott?" And finally Senator Bennett said to me, "You know, I think the only people looking for Trent Lott's head are the media." Because there isn't anything immediately afoot as far as we know to topple Lott -- to replace Lott -- but that's what everybody's looking for.

KURTZ: And on that point isn't there a great huffing and puffing journalistic blame game going on saying, "It was Karl's fault, it was Karen Hughes's fault. How come the president didn't know? Wasn't Trent Lott out to lunch?" Now does this reflect the press trying to keep this story a live and nail somebody for this or does it reflect what's going on in the political community?

KARL: We'll clearly it's an international thing -- what's going on with the blame game. Who's going to -- yeah, who lost Jeffords? But, look, Karen Hughes had a conference call yesterday -- day before yesterday -- with Capitol Hill press secretaries -- leadership press secretaries -- saying, "Hey, let's" -- the message was basically, "You don't blame us, we don't blame you. Let's keep everything on the level." So...

KURTZ: So somebody didn't get the memo apparently.

KARL: Yeah. So this stuff's going on. The media's not inventing this. Sure we like to report on it but it's going on.

KALB: You asked 18 questions a minute ago, if you were to close down those 18 avenues of speculation, half of the media would be out of work. I mean, you have examine whether Trent Lott will lose his head. How could you let that question remain unexamined?

TUMULTY: This is our job. Our job is also to take a set of news events and say, "So what does this mean?" That's what we do for our readers and viewers. And sometimes that...

KALB: Do you always do it with confidence?

TUMULTY: You don't -- you hedge it. You say, "There are 10 scenarios that are possible and of those 10 scenarios there are three that are likely. And you do that by talking to a lot of people and by drawing upon your own experience as to how these institutions of government and politics work.

KURTZ: Why have so few in the media, NBC's information was one exception, raised the question about whether this was unfair to the people of Vermont who elected Jim Jeffords as a Republican only last November instead of just simply wallowing in all of the juicy political implications? TUMULTY: Hey, we've got political reporters in Vermont. Just about every news organization has reporters in Vermont. And do you know what they're finding? They're finding that people in Vermont are pretty happy about this.

KARL: Well, you know, it is a legitimate point -- Jeffords just ran for re-election and one of his campaigns slogans was, "I'm a Republican Who Gets Things Done."

KALB: Well...

KARL: And that's worth...

KURTZ: We're running out of time -- but the White House -- we do have Karl Rove and Karen Hughes all over the air waves saying, "Gee, this is not really that big of a set back and we can still work with the majority and so forth." To what extent do you think, Jonathan, that the media are buying this spin that it's not that big a deal?

KARL: Well, I...

KALB: Here it is -- here's your chance.

KARL: I don't think to a great extent. There's a lot of up is down, down is up talk. This is good for us. It will help us in the '02 elections. Daschle won't be able to lead effectively. People will blame Democrats when things don't get done. It's a tough one to buy. But what's most interesting is the White House saying that they had no idea about this when the bottom line is it was out there on Friday -- it was reported on CNN Friday.

KALB: Right.

KURTZ: Democrats are buying themselves a share of responsibility now. Maybe we'll return to that in a future show. Jonathan Karl, Karen Tumulty, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, just ahead New York's mayor tells us what he really thinks about reporters in our media round up.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Most of the tawdry details of the Rudy Giuliani-Donna Hanover divorce soap opera from the bitter attacks on the New York mayor's life to his own impotence have been leaked or furnished by Giuliani's side. But the mayor is convinced that the fourth estate is to blame.


MAYOR RUDOLPH GIULIANI, NEW YORK: Emotionally it's all of you that are driving, not the people that are involved in it because you want to exaggerate it and you want to take it out of context and you want to do the best you can to keep it going so you can sell newspapers and get more time on television.


KURTZ: And a shake up at the top of "The New York Times", Howell Raines, currently the editor of the paper's editorial page, will succeed Joe Lelyveld as executive editor of the entire paper. Raines won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing in 1992 and has turned the editorial page into a more combative force for mostly liberal causes.

Our discussion last week of political press from the Right and Left and the impact on news coverage of President Bush and former President Clinton sent hundreds of you to the keyboard. Some say the press is too soft on Bush: "The Right wing media bias couldn't be clearer." And, "The mainstream media has been coerced into submission by the organized Right wing."

But plenty of others aren't buying, "The recent nonsense about the press' soft peddling coverage of George Bush is the goofiest contrived manipulation yet to come from the Democrats who parade around as members of the press." And, "You appear to be living on Mars as far as what constitutes even handed, objective, professional reporting." Well, back here on earth we say keep them coming to

Up next Bernie's "Back Page" on journalists and keeping secrets.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page" -- Bernie.

KALB: You mentioned the name Tad Szulc to anyone who know anything about the press and the answer is, Oh, yes, Tad Szulc, "The New York Times" and the Bay of Pigs 1961.


KALB (voice-over): This comes to mind because Tad Szulc passed away this week -- he was 74. "The Washington Post" obit said, "Covered Bay of Pigs, Wrote books." "The New York Times" obit, "Times Correspondent who Uncovered Bay of Pigs Imbroglio.

That's an odd choice of the word -- "imbroglio" -- which means a confusing situation. But, of course, it wasn't Tad who was confused, it was his employer, "The New York Times" -- more than confused.

Here's the background: Tad was a great foreign correspondent, and in early April '61 he had a big story about secret plans to invade Castro's Cuba, the invasion to be lead by Cuban exiles with CIA help.

"The Times" was all set to run the story with a four-column headline on the front page. You can find all of this in this memoir by a former "Times" executive editor, but something happened. Kennedy administration officials, according to some accounts, urging "The Times" not to run the story.

In the end a publisher ordered the story toned down and downplayed in the interest of national security. And so references to the CIA and to an imminent invasion of Cuba were cut out. In other words, "The Times" went to press that day keeping it's readers in the dark about what it's own editors knew, even though talk of an invasion was virtually an open secret in Cuban emigre circles and something Castro's agents must have picked up.

Ten days later the ill-fated invasion took place at the Bay of Pigs and Tad's byline was on the front page.

President Kennedy later told "The Times," "Maybe if you had printed more about the operation you would have saved us from a colossal mistake."


KALB: So what's the media lesson in all of this? Yes, there are real secrets that, if exposed, could hurt national security. But if the press surrenders to official deceptions that are labeled as secret then the press' own credibility takes a beating and so too the government when the real story comes out. In this case, Tad Schultz' credibility tapped of the government and The Times.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media. "CAPITAL GANG" is up next.



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