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An American Reporter Barely Misses Death in the Middle East; Is Television Too Superficial to Cover Stem Cell Research?

Aired August 18, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: A brush with death. An American reporter barely misses being blown up in Jerusalem, and then has to report on another tragedy in the escalating Middle East violence. We'll talk with "USA Today's" Jack Kelley.

And, is Dan Rather right? Is television too superficial to fully cover the stem cell research debate? And are newspapers just outclassing the networks? A conversation with PBS's Terry Smith and "Newsweek" editor Mark Whitaker.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media.

I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

Middle East violence, terrorism and retaliation, all provide a special life and death challenge for journalists.


KURTZ (voice-over): A suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Veteran reporter Jack Kelley was so close, and the blast so powerful, it brought him to his knees.

In his front page story in "USA Today," he wrote: "The explosion was deafening and sent out a burst of heat that could be felt far down the street. It blew out windows and threw tables and chairs into the air. Victims arms and legs rained down onto the street."

At what point does a journalist put down the notebook and become part of the story? And does witnessing horrible events change the correspondent and the coverage?


KURTZ: "USA Today" reporter Jack Kelley joins us now from Jerusalem. On the day of the blast, you were going to have pizza for lunch in Jerusalem. Tell us what happened, briefly, and also, is it difficult to cover such a heart-rending tragedy when you're right there?

JACK KELLEY, "USA TODAY": Sure. Let me just say, it's great to be here, thank you. We had walked into the Sbarro Pizza restaurant. We thought, let's get a quick slice of pizza and the line at that time was extremely long. There were lots of young mothers with their children and there were two strollers in front of the restaurant, so we walked out. I turned, and there was a gentleman who would be the suicide bomber in front of me. I said excuse me and walked about 30 yards right down the street when, kaboom, the blast went off. It knocked me and the other gentleman who I was with right to our, right to our knees.

We turned and the first thing I remember seeing were several bodies just hit the ground and decapitate. And then I turned and I saw several people with nails in their eyes, nails in their chest, nails in their arms. And it pretty much went downhill from there.

BERNARD KALB, HOST: Jack, do you ever reach a point as a journalist, and we've all been in combat war experiences and so forth, where in fact you put down the notebook, the famous notebook, and administer as much first-aid as you possibly can?

KELLEY: On this case, I actually went into auto-pilot. The very first thing that I did was look and find a clock to see what time the actual blast took place, and I ran and I was right in the middle of the flesh and blood. And I can remember looking around and there was one moment when I just wanted to drop the notebook and try to do as much as I could.

There was an injured gentleman on the ground and his legs had come off and he was bleeding profusely from where his genital, from where his genitals had been, and he turned to me and said, "please help me, mister" and there was nothing that I could really do. And I just watched as he bled to death. And that happened at least one other time.

So, I must say that...

KURTZ: What about the effect on you? Forgive me for interrupting. What about the effect on you, Jack Kelley, to have gone through this, to have narrowly escaped death yourself, to have watched this human carnage? How did that effect you, say, after you had filed your story?

KELLEY: I've been staying up the last couple of nights drinking diet coke and coffee. I don't really exactly want to go to sleep because I know what kind of nightmares I'm going to have. So, my rehabilitation has always been to write what I feel in such a way that the reader would hopefully feel those same emotions.

If I get angry, write in such a way that the reader gets angry. Or if you're over-calm, you write it so that the reader feels that same way. With this, though, after writing it, I felt better. But I'm still apprehensive about going to sleep each night.

I've been back to the site of the bombing several times just to walk around. KALB: Jack, did the professional calls for a journalist to be a witness rather than a participant. At the same time, having watched that and having narrowly escaped death, you might have been in that pizzeria, is it effecting the objectivity with which you report the story?

KELLEY: I don't think so. I've been doing this now for 19 years or so, but this is definitely one of the top three catastrophes that has effected me the most.

Let me just say that with my colleagues I've seen more gallantry, more generosity in war-type situations than I could ever possibly conceive of. As for my objectivity, I don't think so. What it has made me do is that every time I'm on the street and I see a bus come by and it's full of people, I always take one step back thinking, what happens if there's a suicide bomber on there? I don't want to be near it.

I don't think it effects my objectivity, but it does make me think twice that you aren't safe anywhere at any time in this city.

KURTZ: Some columnist are saying now, Jack Kelley, that there is a false balance in the media in which both sides in this conflict are portrayed as being equally responsible for the violence, when in fact the Palestinians are, they say, murdering innocent civilians, Israeli civilians and children. The Israelis retaliating, mainly against military targets and terrorists. Do you think there is any pressure on Western reporters to describe this story as one in which there is some kind of false balance, meanwhile the tactics are very different on each side.

KELLEY: Let me give you one example. I wrote a cover story on suicide bombers last month. We've gotten, I guess, more than 2,000 e- mails, of which they are 50/50. 50 percent of the people saying we like the story; 50 percent, we didn't.

I've gotten several calls since the Sbarro bombing story has come out saying how dare you only report one side of this story. So, we're inundated. I feel a great deal of pressure every single time that I write a story. Before I press that button to send that story back to Washington, I sit there and think, is this story as objective as I can possibly make it? How would an Israeli see it? How would a Palestinian see it?

There are several pro-Israeli Web sites back in the states, pro- Palestinian Web sites, and they watch everything I write and everything my colleagues write. So, you feel a tremendous amount of pressure.

KALB: Jack, do you use the phrase "cycle of violence," which suggests a moral equivalence on both sides? Or is cycle of violence a distortion of reality? Briefly, please.

KURTZ: Just briefly.

KELLEY: I think cycle of violence can be used to describe the situation, but it's almost always used in terms of the Israelis describing the Palestinian people. What I always go for is just using straight language in trying to avoid as many cliches as possible.

KURTZ: Jack Kelley doing a dangerous duty in Jerusalem. Thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, CBS anchor Dan Rather stirs up a fuss when he seems to admit that TV can't compete with print on some of the big science stories. Terry Smith of PBS and "Newsweek" editor Mark Whitaker weigh in.



You can depend on Dan Rather to stir up controversy, this time with back-handed criticism of his own profession. Rather ended CBS's brief coverage of President Bush's speech on stem cell research, suggesting that TV just can't cut it on certain stories. Quote: "Obviously, this is a very complicated subject. It's the kind of subject that, frankly, radio and television have some difficulty with. So, we can with, I think, impunity, recommend that if you're really interested in this, you'll want to read in detail one of the better newspapers tomorrow."

Joining us now, Terry Smith, media correspondent for "The News Hour With Jim Lehrer" and the editor of "Newsweek," Mark Whitaker, joining us from New York.

As a broadcast professional, Terry Smith, aren't you offended by Dan Rather saying that television does a lousy job of covering complex issues like stem cell research?

TERENCE SMITH, PBS: Not at all. He's right. They do, let's face -- two facts here apply, it seems to me. Television is a very inefficient medium for conveying complex, detailed information with nuances. That much is true.

But I think that Dan Rather was trying to say something else. He was complaining, indirectly, to his network for having so little time, just really a minute or two, after this big speech, to comment on it, to analyze it. He couldn't bring in his correspondents, he couldn't do anything like that.

So, I think there was an implicit criticism when he said "with impunity," I suppose he was talking about himself.

KURTZ: A not so veiled protest.

And Mark Whitaker, do you want to defend your television colleagues, or does print really have a huge advantage on this kind of subject?

MARK WHITAKER, "NEWSWEEK": Well, I thought it was a great advertisement for print and certainly, I have to answer the question all the time, what's the future of print. Well, I -- you know, as I tell people, you know, people is still the superior medium for any subject where you actually want to stop and think about it.

But I do think it's a little bit of a cop out. I mean, we all remember the days when TV really went in-depth on very complicated subjects. But I think it's true that, more and more, you know, it's been reduced to sound bytes and to images.

You know, but I also think that Rather was trying to get a little bit of attention, you know. He seems to be trying to differentiate himself from the other...

KURTZ: Anchors.

WHITAKER: ... network news programs. So, you sort of wonder, you know, CBS is now the network that's too serious to do Chandra, but not seriously enough to do stem cells.

KALB: Mark, he's talked about, Rather talked about, he thinks he can say this with impunity; so far as we know, has he suffered any at all? Mark?

WHITAKER: Not that I know of.

KALB: What I think is, I think the word in this conversation has to be reinforced. Television can give you the broad headline. Wasn't it Walter Cronkite who said it's really a wire service, and then you go to print for the details and so forth?

But it seems to be you're reinforcing. You can get the pictures, you can get the headline, the breaking news, as it were, and then you've got to go to the encyclopedia that print offers, because complicated stories, like this one, Terry, require rereading a second and third and fourth time, if you're going to master the subject.

SMITH: Here comes a shameless plug. The fact is, we devoted on "The News Hour With Jim Lehrer" the entire hour to stem cells the next night. And we broke it down from its scientific point of view and so forth. Even the politics of it, with Mark Shields and Paul Gigot.

So, I think you can do a lot more than a headline service on television.

KALB: You can offer the melody of the story, but if you want to get the specifics, it requires a lot of rereading on critical, complicated nuance stories, such as this.

KURTZ: Mark, "Newsweek" reported this week, quote, "Bush secretly planned from the start to announce his decision in early August."

So, were journalists basically completely and totally used in setting up this false sense of drama about an agonizing president who couldn't make up his mind?

WHITAKER: Well, the interesting thing about the process, which we reported in our story this week, is, you know, Bush clearly was in a political bind, and I think they realized that, sort of at the beginning of the summer.

But at a certain point, they realized that they could make a virtue of necessity. That, given that he had to strike some kind of very delicate, difficult political balance, they could use it as opportunity to make him look like a scholar, like someone who really, you know, thought deeply and consulted the experts and perhaps deflect a little bit of him as a light-weight.

SMITH: Well, I think also, there is a great sensitivity, Mark, to the image of the president away for a month long vacation. I'm not sure the sensitivity is necessary, or justified. I think most Americans figure the president works pretty hard and can take some time off. But they're very loathe to let him seem to be fully on vacation.

KALB: And, therefore, you...


WHITAKER: As far as I can see, he's been working harder since he's been in Texas than he worked in Washington.

KALB: But, you're going to say you saved the announcement during vacation time, so you do give the image of being hard at work and making critical decisions. But look, those of us who have worked in television and worked in print, "New York Times," CBS, both of us and other people here, we're aware of the differences between the two and, in fact, I do think there is a reinforcing dimension, Terry. You know that from your times at "The New York Times" and being at PBS now.

SMITH: Well, there is, of course, and this, this White House, I think, is intensely aware of and concerned about image. And about the way this president is perceived. It may, it may be partly the result of his very narrow victory and the fact that he actually lost the popular vote. They're very worried about it, seems to me.

KURTZ: Mark Whitaker, why are the facts seemingly in such short supply here in the media? I mean, I've read variously that there are, that there aren't really 60 stem cell lines, or scientists don't have access to many of them, or they'll die in a couple of years, or they'll reproduce endlessly.

It seems awfully hard to nail down, for television and print, just what the availability is of these limited amounts of stem cells that the president will allow federal funding for research purposes.

WHITAKER: Yeah, well, I think that even scientists don't know exactly how many viable lines there are out there. I mean, a lot of them are in private research labs. They're not necessarily controlled by the government. Some of them may have been viable at one point but are no longer viable.

I mean, again, as we reported in our story this week, at a certain point people came back and told Bush that there were only 30 and he basically came back and said give me a bigger number. KURTZ: I want to come back to the question of television and time. You had the luxury on "The News Hour" of just blowing everything else out and doing a whole hour on this subject. Obviously, network newscasts can't do that, but the broadcast networks have "Dateline" and "20/20" and "60 Minute" and "48 Hours." They could devote more time to this if they wanted to. Cable has got all kinds of time. Is the problem time, or is the problem a shortage of sexiness? You know, stem cells don't make good video, you can't -- there are no great pictures of them.

SMITH: You know, I think it is partly that, Howie. And I think, also, let's face facts. Television news divisions are not set up with doctors and science writers and specialists that newspapers have on their staffs ready to go to work right away on a subject like this. So...

KURTZ: But they can bring in experts.

SMITH: They can certainly bring in experts.

KALB: Some of them have medical beats on television stations, magazines, newspapers.

SMITH: But they don't have the depth and the bench that newspapers do to attack a complex, nuanced, fast-moving story like this one.

KALB: I think one of the problems is the one we're suggesting right here. It simply doesn't have the magnetism, the attraction. Mark, you're running your magazine, but this kind of a story is so complicated, it lacks that special dimension of appeal that it's tough to sell it, selling it. Exactly, that's the word. Isn't that true, Mark?

WHITAKER: Well, you know, we put the subject on the cover almost two months ago and basically we saw it emerging as a huge issue and thought we'd get out in front of it.

You know, it didn't have a bad newsstand sale. I mean, it wasn't off the charts, but it wasn't bad. So, I think that the people who are looking to get informed on these kinds of issues still will pick it up and read it.

KURTZ: Let me break in here, because we're running short on time and we don't want to canonize print here. Let's remember, "The New York Times" a couple years ago did a front page story on a cancer therapy that was widely felt to be, to have created a lot of hype for something that was not quite ready.

Some conservatives are saying that "Newsweek's" coverage, coverage elsewhere in the media, kind of tilted in favor of more stem cell research, Mark. The formulation being that Bush would be a statesman if he would allow at least some federal funding for this research and he would be a captive of the religious right if he instituted a total ban. Your thoughts? WHITAKER: Well, you know, I mean, this is a highly polarized issue, so when you get, when you do get that kind of attack, you know, you always have to wonder exactly where it's coming from. I mean, as we all read in the papers this week, even in very conservative parts of the country, like Utah, a significant majority of people think -- who are completely against abortion or cloning, think that his kind of research should go ahead.

So, we may have been, our coverage may be out of step with certain segments, the very vocal right, but I don't think it's out of step with where a lot of Americans, including conservative Americans are.

SMITH: I would agree with that. I think the coverage really did mirror the preponderant opinion in this country. Certainly, the preponderant opinion in Congress. And therefore, they were showing the direction the country was going.

KURTZ: Well, the tyranny of time that I referred to has brought this discussion to an end. Mark Whitaker in New York, Terry Smith, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, did "The New York Times" give all the news about the ground rules of an important interview? And your e-mail about "Talk" magazine and the Bush daughters.


KURTZ: Welcome back. And checking our RELIABLE SOURCES media items, is Katie Couric a journalist or an advocate? After her "TODAY SHOW's" interview with the mother and brother of confessed murderer Andrea Yates, Couric told viewers, with the address right there on the screen, where to send contributions for Yates' defense fund.

Was Couric buying into the notion that depression was responsible for Yates killing her five kids? Was a deal made for the interviews? An ABC spokeswoman stood by the defense fund pitch, but conceded it may have sent a, quote, "wrong message."

And "The New York Times" is taking some heat for not revealing the full nature of its interview last week with Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The newspapers acknowledged to the Web site that Zemin required publisher Arthur Solzberger Jr. and his staff to submit written questions in advance.

Well, now to our e-mail bag about our discussion last week about the "Talk" magazine fashion spread satirizing the Bush daughters. Quote: "If they did not want their daughters' privacy invaded, then Bush should not have made a run for the White House."

And editorial chief Meyer Rushon (ph) from "Talk" magazine can be as snide as he wants to, but the fact is, he did a smart-aleck and disrespectful parody about the president's daughters."

Well, send us your comments with your name and home town to Up next: Bernie's "Back Page." White House correspondents may dream about Paris, London, Beijing, but end up instead in small town in Texas.


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page," Bernie.

KALB: First of all, let's make one thing perfectly clear...


KALB (voice-over): This whole scene, this town, and here are some descriptions, in the middle of nowhere, population about 700. No motel, no nightlife, lots of nadas, in other words. But it's not what you're thinking. These people are not auditioning for a spot on the "Survivor" show. They're the White House press corp, celebrity faces and bylines, reporting on numero uno's month long working vacation.

But as for the working conditions, well, that's something else.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, we are not even allowed close to the ranch.

KALB: To the local reporters, guys from Texas, the visiting journalistic prima donnas are just a bunch of Washington media wimps, whining about the heat.

Real men don't grumble, no sir. In fact, the president himself has been reported as gleefully telling his pals that Crawford would drive the press corp crazy. But so far, no one can definitively prove that he chose Crawford as a way of inflicting torture on the so-called liberal media.

But if the landscape is barren, not so the news. At least not always. For example, the big story on stem cells and his political excursions into neighboring states.

There is no question that he loves his 1,600 acres in Texas as much as he loves the other 1600, on Pennsylvania Avenue.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm honored to be working in the Oval Office. I'm the kind of person that needs to get outdoors, keeps my mind whole, keeps my spirits up.

KALB: Now, a question to the wimps in the press corp: any chance of the presidents extending his vacation, setting up a little White House out there? Dropping in on the Oval Office from time to time and having the world drop in on the ranch? He already has plans to introduce Vladimir Putin to the ranch in November.


KALB: So, any point in his revisiting Washington for a couple of months? After all, there is a precedent for avoiding the capital and the media in Crawford might keep it in mind: our esteemed second president, John Adams, once conducted business from his home in Massachusetts for seven months, and that was when urgent matters of state went by Pony Express.

KURTZ: From deep inside the Beltway, 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, Mark Shields has a preview.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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