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Is the Press Feeding Off Details of Condit's Life?; Why do Some News Outlets Resist the Frenzy?; Are Journalists Being Snookered by Bush?

Aired July 14, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Chandra Levy: still missing. Ann Marie Smith talks to prosecutors. Jennifer Thomas: A newspaper charges that Gary Condit also had an affair with the minister's daughter when she was just 18. And the D.C. police search Condit's apartment. Is the press just vacuuming up every salacious tidbit about the California congressman? And why are some news organizations resisting the media frenzy?

And, are journalists being snookered by George Bush? We'll ask Texas columnist Molly Ivins.

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

We begin with the Chandra Levy story, still dominating the news with wall to wall media coverage chasing every possible angle.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The plot has thickened in a story that has been increasingly gathering national attention since the first word that a young Washington intern was missing.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Levy's family accuses the congressman of waiting so long to tell investigators the truth about his affair with their daughter, that it may have led police down one trail while others were going cold.

KURTZ (voice-over): Every development in the story of the congressman and the missing intern brings a fresh wave of media coverage. The search of Condit's apartment; negotiations over a lie detector test; prosecutors talking to flight attendant Ann Marie Smith, who says Condit asked her to cover-up their affair; and speculation over the California democrats political future.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is the press voracious? Is the press a little bit hardheaded? Are they going to be mean? Yes. But it's like a sailor complaining about the tide. That's the way it is. He's a politician, the press is going to eat this up; of course it is.

KURTZ: On Thursday, "The Washington Post" reported that Condit had an affair several years ago with yet another woman: a minister's daughter who was just 18 at the time.

A Condit spokeswoman accused "The Post" of joining, quote, "the ranks of tabloids who have come to us with specious questions about a supposed affair."

So, is the Condit story being wildly overplayed, even as Congress debates campaign finance reform and patient's rights?

The "CBS Evening News" was one of the few holdouts, ignoring the story, with executive producer Jim Murphy saying the Levy coverage is, quote, "beyond tasteless and nauseating."

By week's end, Condit's lawyer was still scolding the press.

ABBE LOWELL, CONDIT ATTORNEY: If you and your brothers and sisters in California continue to sort of pry into the Condit family life, and try to find out what medications the Condits have been on, and how he did in high school, and whether his children do this or that; that may fill your papers and your Web sites and your TV shows, but it is not going to find Chandra Levy and it is going to be counterproductive.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Michael Isikoff of "Newsweek," Molly Ivins, nationally syndicated columnist joining us from Austin, Texas, and Jim Warren, Washington bureau chief of "The Chicago Tribune" and a contributor at MSNBC. Welcome.

Molly Ivins, the media are, to use the clinical term, going nuts over this story of a missing woman who had an affair with the congressman who has also had other affairs. Is this sensationalism, salaciousness, or real news?

MOLLY IVINS, COLUMNIST: Sensationalist, salaciousness and not real news. I mean, I can't -- the question is, is the press going nuts? Obviously, yes.

KURTZ: But not real news in your view? Why?

IVINS: It's a disgraceful performance. Look, part of what happens is that in journalism there is a contest for the limited time and space we have available to try to present what is going on to people's attention. And we had the same problem during the Monica Lewinsky scandal; two-thirds of the world's economy collapsed while the press was simply obsessed with Ms. Lewinsky.

Now, you know, I'm sure it is very sad that Ms. Levy is missing, but it's not going to change people's lives. There was actually an argument made the other day in "The New York Times" by Maureen Dowd, perhaps the silliest thing I've ever seen an intelligent person write, saying that the Chandra Levy case was more important that the patient's bill of rights and campaign finance reform.

KURTZ: OK. Let me pickup...

IVINS: No, it's not.

KURTZ: OK. Let me pick that up with Jim Warren. It's a tawdry story, to be sure, but should news organizations ignore it? Now, the "CBS Evening News," as we mentioned, has done nothing, zippo. And your newspaper, "The Chicago Tribune" has written a couple of staff stories. Head in the sand approach?

JIM WARREN, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Yeah, well, I wish Molly would be a little less ambiguous in her response to this matter. We've had actually one page one story, it's really been sort of my decision of how we've covered this. We've done very little. We've mostly used wire stories inside and I've not lost sleep wracked with guilt over that.

There is some interest, not great interest, in Chicago. At this moment, there is far more interest in a three-year-old and a ten-year- old who are missing. Mom left to go to work in the morning, left them in the apartment, and now people are wondering where they are.

And as I sat back and looked at what was playing out, particularly on the cable news channels...

KURTZ: Which do it about 25 hours a day.

WARREN: ... I mean, I just found loads of rank speculation, some tawdry reporting, lots of, I think, shady sourcing, unidentified sources, and it's not as if that hasn't crept in elsewhere. With all due respect to Michael, I would argue I've seen stuff in "Newsweek" that couldn't have gotten in "The Chicago Tribune," unidentified sources, about Gary Condit's Clinton-esque evasions and also about him being in some sort of denial. And that sort of sourcing could not have made it into "The Tribune."

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Let me pickup, let me pickup a sentence, Michael, if I may, that Molly kicked-off there; the sentence by Maureen Dowd in her "New York Times" column in which she said, I'd like to quote it verbatim so you'll have the sense of working it over: "this is the stuff of great drama and novels and journalism through the ages; it's just as legitimate as covering the patient's bill of rights or campaign finance, maybe more so because here the press has a crucial role in forcing out the truth."

Do you equate this story with patient's bill of rights? With campaign reform? Or is this a total imbalance?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, "NEWSWEEK": I don't equate the two as in terms of their importance for the future of the republic, but I don't think the story Jim is citing, that people are talking about in Chicago involving the missing ten or eleven year old girl, ranks up there with the patient bill of rights or campaign finance reform either.

A couple of points: first, for the record, Howie, I checked, and Bernie, before coming on the show. You guys have now done, this is your sixth show on the subject of Chandra Levy coverage which, for the record, is more stories than "Newsweek" has published about the Chandra Levy case. So, one might ask rather media pundits are over-covering media coverage of the Chandra Levy case.

Point No. 2, look, this is a compelling, human story that has really gripped the attention of a lot of people. Are there excesses? Absolutely, and I don't think anybody could watch the cable coverage with "Where is Chandra?" and the music in the background and say that we've really gone overboard.

But to talk, to deny that this is a compelling human story involving a member of Congress and lies and the question of the missing girl and a police investigation, is denying the obvious.

KURTZ: Molly Ivins, the public, I would venture, is of two minds on this. They like to denounce the sleaziness of the coverage, some of which has clearly been excessive; "Fox News," for example, had a "National Enquirer" reporter on the other day talking about a story quoting sources who quoted other sources that Chandra Levy might be pregnant, but they tune in and watch every day. Probably more so than on the debate over campaign finance reform. Your thoughts?

IVINS: I think there are two things here. Look, I like sex and gossip, I think that's great. But there is a question about what really matters. If the media had focused as much attention on the campaign finance reform bill that was defeated on Wednesday in the House, would that -- would it have passed? Would people have understood how important it is that the system, political system in this country is completely corrupt? That it is exists under a system of legalized bribery and that it costs them money every day that this insane system continues?

I mean, suppose you had spent as much time on that as you did Chandra Levy. You think that bill would have failed.


WARREN: With all due respect, I mean, being a little bit defensive here as far as newspapers, Molly. I mean, if you look at mainstream papers, we have devoted thousands and thousands of inches to campaign finance reform. We have played that story up very, very big.

But I think what one also sees here is that we've got a couple of mediums going down slightly different tracks, and I don't say what the cable news guys are doing is, you know, somehow morally or ethically inferior, it's just very different. It's sort of evolving to a much more tabloid approach...

KALB: Let me...

WARREN: Focusing on one story. And remember, it's the summer. There's not much hard news really going on...


KALB: Let me put the question to you. You used the phrase "human and compelling" in describing this story.

ISIKOFF: Absolutely.

KALB: How do you explain CBS -- how do you explain CBS, on their nightly program, the "Evening News," not devoting a fraction of a second to this particular story?

ISIKOFF: Oh, I think they have lousy news judgment and I don't think any good, sound news editor would agree with that. But...

KURTZ: You want to take a crack at what you say, might see as a strategy in doing this, in choosing to be different from everyone else?

ISIKOFF: Well, you know, they make their judgments. We all make others. I mean, you know, but I do want to take a little exception to Jim's implication that standards aren't being applied here. Because I can assure you that we at "Newsweek" have been absolutely rigorous about what we put in the magazine and what we don't and what source.

And I'll give you one example of a story that ran on the front page of "The Washington Post"...

KURTZ: Which I was about to bring up...

ISIKOFF: Which you just repeated here, airing, about an 18-year- old girl, which the girl has not confirmed, which has not -- which, there is no direct sourcing. Which Condit has denied, was something that we at "Newsweek" knew about. We knew about it last weekend and we wrestled with it all this weekend and decided not to publish.

KURTZ: Just to briefly clarify...

ISIKOFF: Yet it was on the front page of "The Washington Post."

KURTZ: It was on the front page of "The Washington Post" and I think we can certainly debate whether that was even relevant to the Chandra Levy story, but the...

ISIKOFF: Right. Especially because the relevancy question was never clear. Whether that has anything to do with Chandra Levy or not.

KURTZ: The congressman, although he has since denied it to "The Modesto Bee," did not choose to deny the substance of the account given on the record by her father.

But, Jim Warren, do you think "The Washington Post" should have run that story?

WARREN: Well, let me join in ganging up on you, Howie.

KURTZ: Please. I didn't write it.

WARREN: Well, what was interesting to me were a couple of things. First of all, that most of the stories that "The Post" has run have run in their second, their "Metro Section." There have been precious few stories in "The Post" on Condit have run on page one and, in fact, what clearly was a more interesting story and a more volatile one, which was the aunt saying that Chandra had told her of an affair; that did not run on page one. It's sort of interesting editorial judgment, that ran on the "Metro Section" and then this one about the Pentecostal minister who is also the Levy's gardener -- this is California, I guess, that ran on page one.

KALB: Let me take it. 20 seconds, you talk about RELIABLE SOURCES focusing on this story. This story is covered in such a variety of ways that it needs to be examined by a media critique panel, and that's what we're trying to do.

KURTZ: Let me give Molly Ivins the last word. We're a little short on time. Do you see, Molly Ivins, a backlash against the press, almost of Lewinsky-like proportions, brewing if the media, television in particular, continues to just pound this story day after day, whether or not there are new developments?

IVINS: I think what it does is just contribute to a long, dreadful slide in confidence in journalism in this country.

KURTZ: Concisely put. Thank you very much.

Mike Isikoff, Jim Warren, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, we'll continue our conversation with Molly Ivins, her thoughts on how Washington reporters are covering the president.



Molly Ivins, a lot of people said after the first hundred days that the press was giving George W., the man you call "Shrub," a pretty easy time. I'd argue that since then the coverage has gotten tougher on the environment, on the loss of Senate, on patient's rights, on the European trip. But what grade would you give the White House press corps in terms of covering this president?



IVINS: D-minus. Well...

KURTZ: Why so generous?

IVINS: The Washington press corps is sometimes likened to a wolf pack, a simile which I find utterly absurd. There is actually something sort of bovine about it. We certainly have a herd of cows, except with cows there is always a lead cow. In Washington I don't think there is. So, it's actually more like a hen yard, where people sit around and go "cluck, cluck, cluck."

The thing that drives me crazy about the Washington press corps is that it's a place where everybody says exactly what everybody else says. And, what's even worse, when I go to Washington, you know, I'm not there more than ten minutes before I, you know, instead of saying, "Well, I'm fresh in from Texas and y'all are full of bull," I start saying exactly what everybody else says.


IVINS: That's the reason I don't go there.

KALB: Molly, what's the essential contrast in the portrait drawn in Texas of the president and the one drawn by the press corps, whom you've just given in Washington a B-minus.

KURTZ: No, she gave them a D.


KALB: A D? The hearing isn't going so well.

IVINS: You know, there is no -- the press here in Texas is very pro-Bush. There is -- it's not that we were so much more critical of him here. But there are things, if you cover him as governor, that are so familiar to you that have been ignored by the Washington press corps. It is just amazing to me.

And it partly goes back to what we were talking about with the Chandra Levy case, because if you assume that there is more to covering politics than the horse race stuff, which is almost without exception what television journalism does, if you assume that there is -- when policies are carried out, they really effect people's lives, then y'all are looking in the wrong direction.

And it's not just what you're not covering. The sins of omission are always worse than the sins of commission in journalism. But, the stuff that you are reporting, you're reporting very carelessly so that there is, there are real problems at the other end.

I'll just give you one example. The famous $300 tax rebate. Everybody is going to get $300, isn't that a great thing. Well, 40 percent of those people aren't going to get any $300. Almost 30 percent of them are going to get absolutely nothing. Now, what's the consequence of having it heard on television over and over again, everybody is going to get $300 back? In the black and brown communities, word is getting around and the blood suckers have come in, the loan sharks. They're on the phone telemarketing pay day advance loans against your tax rebate check, which these people are never going to get, at 1000 percent interest.

KURTZ: You see a lot of simplistic sound bytes.

Let me ask you, it's become in this beltway echo chamber, it's kind of become conventional wisdom that George Bush campaigned as a moderate and is governing as a conservative. But weren't there hundreds of stories in the press during the campaign about Bush's conservative position on taxes, on abortion, on the environment, therefore this should not be any great surprise to people? IVINS: Well, again, I wrote an entire book saying that, look, this guy is really conservative. And so I'm not surprised. But it is amusing to me, the extent to which the Washington press corps, again, everybody says what everybody else says. And everybody said, "Well, you know, he really needs to move to the middle. He should move to the middle on this stem cell research thing. He should move..."

The only guy you can count on in the Washington press corps to have a different approach is Bob Novak, who always argues in favor of the capital gains tax cut.

KALB: Molly...

KURTZ: Molly Ivins, thank you for that Texas reality check here inside the beltway, where I guess we'll go on with reading the same things.

Well, up next, why conservative columnist and commentator Bob Novak decided to expose a confidential source.



WALTER ISAACSON, CEO, CNN NEWS GROUP: I really like journalism, which means hard reporting, telling a story, trying to be honest in your reporting and trying to be fair. Understanding what people are talking about at the dinner table and seeing if you can get more facts for them on that.


KURTZ: Walter Isaacson talking to his new employee, Larry King. The editorial director of Time, Inc. is taking over as chairman and chief executive of CNN. Isaacson fills the shoes of Tom Johnson, who retired two weeks ago after a decade at the network.

Syndicated columnist and CNN commentator and talk show host Robert Novak revealed a confidential source this week; something he called unthinkable, except in these extraordinary circumstances.

In his column, he said that three-and-a-half years ago, former FBI agent and now confessed spy Robert Hanssen had been a primary source for a story on U.S. intelligence sources in China. And Novak says the Hanssen story checked out.

In Minnesota, too many editorial cooks have the food critics steaming. When the food writer for "City Pages" magazine Dara Moskowitz won an award, the "Minneapolis-St. Paul" magazine wrote a nice story about her, including a picture.

The problem? The woman in the picture was not Dara Moskowitz. When Moskowitz refused to have her picture taken, "Minneapolis-St. Paul" had a model stand in and pose for the photo.

"Minneapolis-St. Paul" editor Adam Platt called the mistake, quote, "a stupid miscommunication."

Well, many of you welcome the chance to comment on the news coverage of the missing intern and Congressman Gary Condit.

Among our e-mails, quote: "If it weren't for media coverage, the case would most likely not have been investigated. This is not an example of insensitivity."

And: "The media's treatment of the Condit-Levy affair is deplorable. While I don't like the fact that Condit may have had an affair with an intern, I do not believe it is news."

And: "Condit is at fault. The stonewalling, the misinformation, created a bigger media frenzy."

Also: "The most troubling aspect of this case are the leaks from the D.C. police."

And finally: "Sleaze reporting. Any way you cut it, that's what it is."

Well, let us know what you think at

Up next, President Bush takes a bite out of the Big Apple on "Bernie's Backpage."


KURTZ: Time now for "The Backpage" -- Bernie.

KALB: You know the phrase "there's no such thing as a free lunch"? Well, there is also no such thing as a free trip.


KALB (voice-over): Especially if you're the fellow who lives in this house. For example, he took his private shuttle to New York the other day to join in a couple of events, a swearing in of new citizens at Ellis Island, and a tribute to the late Cardinal O'Connor at St. Patrick's Cathedral.

And while he may have had a private lunch at the Waldorf Astoria, the press had a feast of its own, digesting the political menu of the president, the press picking it apart bone by bone.

If he thought he was engaging in presidential good works, reporters on the trip saw it as naked politics, a hit and run visit. Six hours in all, only 20 minutes of speaking, aimed at broadening his electoral base, especially among Catholics and Hispanics.

In fact, the media made a point of noting that New York has not exactly been among his highest priorities. This was his first visit as president. He lost the state to Al Gore by about 25 percentage points and has also 2004 looming on the calendar. And when the president was asked by a reporter how he liked New York, he responded with a weather report. GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Beautiful day.

KALB: Eyes widened in the immediate political vicinity. The president then coming up with a peace offering.

BUSH: I love New York.

KALB: The visit produced mixed editorial decisions. For "The New York Times" it was a big local story, page one. "The Washington Post" put it on the back page of it's A section, and so forth.


KALB: Let's face it, presidents are always trying to conquer the media. The media's job is to see through the photo ops, wherever they may take place.

Now, I may be overstating it a big, but for a political reporter, there is really no such thing as an innocent abroad.

KURTZ: "I love New York." I'm sure that wasn't scripted.

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.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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