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Why Does Elizabeth Smart Get So Much Attention?; Former Clinton Aide Gets Sunday Morning Show

Aired June 22, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The media's latest victim. Why is the disappearance of Elizabeth Smart getting so much airtime? Could it be because she's cute, white and middle class? And what about the other missing kids like this seven-year old Milwaukee girl who aren't?

And the revolving door spins again. Former Clinton spinmeister George Stephanopoulos gets David Brinkley's old Sunday morning job at ABC. Can he be fair?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead of the program, Cokie and Sam are out. George Stephanopoulos is in as the new host of ABC Sunday talk show, "This Week." We'll get reaction from a top Republican political operative later.

But first, the case of missing teenager Elizabeth Smart, which has captivated the cable airwaves since she was abducted more than two weeks ago. Daily press conferences with family members carried live on CNN, Fox and MSNBC. The latest developments getting the breaking news logo including Friday's announcement that Bret Michael Edmunds, the so-called drifter wanted for questioning in the case, had been apprehended in a West Virginia hospital.

Is all this coverage excessive or is it the only hope that Elizabeth Smart may be returned to her family? Well, joining us now in Salt Lake City, Scott Swan, reporter and anchor for KTVX TV. He's been covering this case since the abduction. In San Francisco, Marc Klaas, whose daughter Polly was abducted and murdered in 1993. He is the founder of the KlaasKids Foundation. And in New York, James Wolcott, contributing writer for "Vanity Fair".

James Wolcott, why is this Elizabeth Smart's story? It's a heartbreaking story, but why is it getting so much national TV coverage, even when there's been very little new information to report?

JAMES WOLCOTT, VANITY FAIR: Well it's an archetypal pot myth. When I saw that Fox's coverage was titled "Where is Elizabeth Smart?", my thought was well, you know, who killed Laura Palmer? It's like "Twin Peaks" in that you have sort of a blonde vision of innocence, of maidenhood, and there's a danger that she's been sacrificed.

It's also, again, it plays into the Jon Benet story. Jon Benet was, you know, this sort of Lolita-ish...


WOLCOTT: ... beauty pageant contestant and what makes it even more sort of archetypal is that Elizabeth Smart played the harp. You can't get more angelic than that.

KURTZ: Right. Marc Klaas, you've been doing this kind of work for a decade now. Has this just become a cable TV staple, where you seize on a local tragedy involving a kid, and just kind of pump it up into a national melodrama?

MARC KLAAS, KLAASKIDS FOUNDATION: You know, this is an issue that's not gotten nearly the attention that it deserves. In America in a given day, 2,000 kids are reported missing to law enforcement; 1.3 million children are living on the streets of America, and there are 3 million cases of child abuse reported, yet nobody does anything about it. We consider it status quo.


KURTZ: Why are we not hearing more about the 2,000 kids missing and we're hearing only about the one child who's missing, Elizabeth Smart?

KLAAS: Well we're not only hearing about Elizabeth Smart. She happens to be the one right now for many of the reasons that were just stated, but also, you know, this goes to the heart of every parent's worst fear. This is about somebody breaking into your house and taking your child. This is about an unambiguous battle between good and evil.

This is black and white in an ambiguous world, so it's very easy to choose sides and root for the victor in this. So, you know, I think it's a disservice to talk about the voyeuristic qualities or this business about her maidenhood and that kind of stuff. She's a little girl like so many other little girls in America that has been victimized and ...

KURTZ: Right.

KLAAS: ... it's up to us to do something about it and every -- sir, every time one of these stories makes the national news, and I would say the last one that did would have been Rilya Wilson, certainly, it gives us an opportunity to talk about the issue, and it gives us an opportunity to learn from it and hopefully keep it from being repeated in the future.

KURTZ: Let me go to Scott Swan in Salt Lake. Friday's announcement of the arrest of the so-called drifter in this case was covered on television as if Al Capone had been captured, when we don't even know at this point whether this guy has any involvement in the case or not. Is that because you're all out there 24 hours a day covering anything that moves on this story?

SCOTT SWAN, KTVX-TV SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH: Well I think that has something to do with it, but I think the other thing is that police don't have very much to go on beyond Bret Michael Edmunds. Edmunds is the -- is the man that was seen spotted living in his green Saturn up in the neighborhood by a milkman a couple of days before the kidnapping and so, this is a man, as the police chief has said, is a question mark in this case and they want to put a period on it.

KURTZ: Scott Swan, do you see yourself as covering this story? I know you've been covering it very extensively or as part of an effort to try to help find Elizabeth Smart?

SWAN: Well, since we're a Salt Lake TV station, we consider ourselves part of the community and so I think that we would love to be able to help someone see Elizabeth's picture and be able to find this 14-year old. But we're also interested in some of the other elements of this particular story -- the police investigation and the tremendous volunteer effort that's under way. We've had over 10,000 people going away from their jobs, leaving their kids at home with babysitters so they can come out and help search for this girl. That's as much a part of this story as anything.

KURTZ: James Wolcott, Jon Benet Ramsey, Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart are white, cute middle class. Isn't it true, let's be candid here, that white editors and executives in news organizations tend to identify with people like themselves and that those kind of cases are going to get more attention in part for that reason?

WOLCOTT: Well, I think that's part of it. I think part of it is that if this is an archetypal story being played out, part of it is the whole notion of the American dream, and the American dream is upscale. This is why so many cases, horrible cases, that are, you know, in -- you know, in impoverished neighborhoods or whatever, go unnoticed. I mean it takes -- it takes certain things coming together to make it a story that snowballs and everyone's interested in.

And I don't doubt the sincerity of people who use this as -- you know, who believe this is an issue and a cause, you know, in terms of abused children, but for most of the people watching, the issue is a smokescreen for what they're really interested in, which is -- it is a voyeurism and it's a cliffhanger. People want to know how it comes out.

KURTZ: Right. Well, we certainly do all want to know how it comes out and hope that it comes out well in this case. But there is a seven-year old girl in Milwaukee named Alexis Patterson, who a couple -- until a couple of days ago I didn't know about this case and 99 percent of journalists didn't know about this case.

Let's take a listen to an interview with her father about the media coverage.


LARON BOURGEOIS, ALEXIS PATTERSON'S STEPFATHER: Everybody knows about Elizabeth Smart. Everybody, and I don't think it's fair. Give her just -- give ours just as much airtime as you gave her everywhere, because, I mean, these kids are helpless. What can they do? (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: That was Alexis Patterson's stepfather, and Marc Klaas, any sympathy for a parent or a stepparent who can't seem to get any media attention for their missing child?

KLAAS: You know, of course there's sympathy, but we have to remember the vast majority of these kidnapping cases are local cases. So we shouldn't all be focusing on national attention for these situations. We should be looking within our own community. But this case of Alexis Patterson is exacerbated by the very miserable criminal history of the stepfather himself.

His story doesn't add up about when the girl -- when the girl went missing. He's been involved in numerous criminal convictions himself including a police killing. It's going to be hard to garnish sympathy for a situation like that and it's certainly not the child's fault. She deserves as much attention as Elizabeth Smart or any other child, but there is certain elements within the community, as Mr. Wolcott said, that are not coming together in this case and make it much more difficult to get the kind of national attention that Elizabeth Smart and Rilya Wilson and others have been able to generate.

KURTZ: Well, I would just point out that it may well be the stepfather's past criminal history. It doesn't have anything to do with her disappearance, and I don't want us ...


KURTZ: ... to imply otherwise.

KLAAS: No. No. No.

KURTZ: Now Scott Swan, does it help in these cases not only to have a media savvy family and relatives who come out and they hire a lawyer who holds press conferences so television has something to cover and who also perhaps hire PR people. Would that help generate the enormous attention in the Elizabeth Smart case?

SWAN: I think it does. They have been making sure that the family members are getting in front of cameras at every potential -- at every potential opportunity, but their goal is, they've made it clear, is to find Elizabeth. They want as many people across the country to see Elizabeth's picture and to be searchers, to be looking around their homes, around their neighborhoods, and I think that that's why they're out there.

KURTZ: Marc Klaas, we've got about 30 seconds.

KLAAS: Sure.

KURTZ: Does it frustrate you at all that there are so many other cases of missing kids that don't get this kind of media attention that there's a certain selectivity involved. KLAAS: Yes sir, it absolutely does because they all deserve the same amount of attention. But you know we have to take advantage of opportunities like the Elizabeth Smart case to educate the public, to bring awareness to the public, and to find ways to prevent these kinds of things from happening in the future.

KURTZ: OK, Marc Klaas, Scott Swan in Salt Lake, thanks very much for joining us. Jim Wolcott, stay put. When we come back Mike Murphy joins us to talk about a new talk show host with a partisan past. How will George Stephanopoulos play the political game on Sunday morning TV?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. This week it became official George Stephanopoulos, former Clinton strategist, lately an ABC news commentator and reporter, has been named to host "This Week," the network's Sunday political broadcast.

Current host Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts will depart the program in September. Well, still with us to talk about that is "Vanity Fair" writer James Wolcott and also joining us from New York, Mike Murphy, Republican political consultant and former adviser to Senator John McCain.

Mike Murphy, so will -- former Clintonite and Democratic spinmeister gets a Sunday morning anchor job. You got a problem with that?

MIKE MURPHY, GOP STRATEGIST: You know, I'm not sure. There are two issues here ...

KURTZ: You got to make up your mind. I've only got eight minutes.

MURPHY: I -- in specific, I think George is going to work hard to do it right. So I'm less concerned about him. But there's an overall trend wherever it happens that somebody goes from politics to journalism, it's always a Democrat. So I don't like the overall trend, but I think they could have done a lot worse than George, and I think the bias cops will be on him, to keep an eye -- and I think he'll actually be pretty neutral.

KURTZ: Well let's say, Mike, that the new host of ABC's "THIS WEEK" had been Bill Kristol, who worked in the first Bush White House, or Susan Molinari, who kicked up a huge fuss ...

MURPHY: Right.

KURTZ: ... when she took over a Saturday morning job on CBS and a lot of people talked about revolving door. Would the press have gone haywire in a way that it's not happening now with Stephanopoulos?

MURPHY: Actually even though I would have applauded those things because of bias, issues with the left, no, I don't think the press would have. I think what's happened with George is some criticism because he's not a traditional journalist, although I think the days of that on television are kind of over, for good or bad, and other criticism simply because of a -- the prominence he had.

I mean he was an extremely important member of the Clinton team. He was an extremely partisan Democrat. So I think a lot of the whistles being blown are in the -- in the title of bias, but I think what motivates some of the criticism is still a lot of eyebrow raising in the media about somebody who's not originally from the media taking such a prominent position. And that's the thing I have the least amount of trouble with.

KURTZ: Sounds like a little jealousy. Yes, Stephanopoulos was on this program six years ago as a White House official to complain about ABC putting an anti-Clinton author on "THIS WEEK", that very program. Now James Wolcott, will Stephanopoulos to some degree be constrained because he'll feel that he has to bend over backwards to be fair?

WOLCOTT: He might. I mean, he's got a real choirboy attitude and image. I mean, I hope he comes in firing like Roger Clemons because I think if he comes in and plays it safe and tries to make everybody on both sides of the spectrum happy, I think that's going to hamstring him. I think he's got to -- I think he's got to prove himself somewhat early, and it's also -- he's got something up against him.

I mean as far as I know, that grandfather clock George Will is still going to be there and Will has seniority and a certain kind of august patrician manner. So, you know, he's sort of in that shadow even though the other people have moved on.

KURTZ: Of course George Will doesn't usually appear until later in the program on the roundtable and he does a ...


KURTZ: ... commentary, but the key interviews will clearly be done by Stephanopoulos. Now Mike Murphy, Mike Kinsley, the "Slate" writer had this to say this week. It would not be so terrible if Stephanopoulos and "THIS WEEK" were overly biased. His freedom to be biased is also freedom to be intelligent. In other words, political opinions on television are perhaps not such a bad thing. But Sunday morning has always been kind of a special cathedral -- your thoughts.

MURPHY: Yes, I think Michael's absolutely wrong about that. There's more than enough liberal bias on television. There's no desert of that at all. I think the question for George is going to continue the tradition of having a Sunday morning show that is not a, if you'll excuse the expression, cable type ideological shouting match, but is instead an important news making show, and can he be competitive?

I agree with what I just heard. I think a lot of people will be watching to see if can handle the job just from a stature point of view. I think he probably could, but we're going to find out, and my advice to him would be to be very aggressive on everybody ... KURTZ: Well.

MURPHY: ... because that's the way to get noticed, but do it in a fair way.

KURTZ: On that point, Mike Murphy, as you well know Tim Russert of "MEET THE PRESS" worked for Mario Cuomo and Daniel Patrick Moynihan many years ago. Tony Snow, the host of "FOX NEWS SUNDAY" worked in the first Bush White House.

So, isn't five years at ABC News enough to remove any partisan taint from George Stephanopoulos or is it difficult when you're as prominent -- I mean Stephanopoulos by far the most famous as a political guy of these people. Is it -- is it harder to change that image when you've had such a high profile in the Clinton administration?

MURPHY: Well, every time I watch Peter Jennings and get heartburn, I think ABC News is the place where you don't go to lose ideological bias to the left. So we'll see what happens. I actually think ...

KURTZ: Listen ...


KURTZ: I don't want to let you -- let you slide on that one.


KURTZ: You think there's plenty of media, liberal bias, among anchors and reporters in television today and Stephanopoulos' promotion is just another example of that?

MURPHY: Well, in your example, if you take Fox people out, you find a lot of Democrats. I think you'd find some like Tim Russert who came out of politics who are very fair. I think you'd see others who might not have come out of politics that are pretty biased. I think George can be fair. I think there'll be a lot of watching to make sure he is fair, and so I'm actually less worried about him. But I point to the overall print of when anybody comes out of politics to a position of prominence in the network, more than half the time it's a Democrat.

KURTZ: Does the public care. James Wolcott? In other words, does the average viewer as opposed to journalist who tend to be, some of them at least tend to be kind of purist about these things. Do they see any difference between Bob Schaeffer (ph) on one hand and Pat Buchanan, former presidential candidate and Bill Press, former California Democratic Party chairman, both of whom have now gone from stints of "CROSSFIRE" to a new talk show at MSNBC, or Tony Blakely, the former Newt Gingrich aide who's just been hired as the editorial page editor of the "Washington Times". Do all these people just seem to folks (UNINTELLIGIBLE) insiders?

WOLCOTT: I think there is that, but if I could go back to something about the liberal bias for a second. I do think it's interesting -- I -- Stephanopoulos in himself is not significant a choice. But what's significant is it comes after Paul Begala and James Carville have been hired on "CROSSFIRE" and are far more combatant and populist oriented in their defense of liberalism than the previous host ...

KURTZ: But of course they're ...


WOLCOTT: And you're also -- you're losing -- you're losing that babbling brook known as Alan Keyes and you're getting Phil Donahue. I think we're actually seeing a liberal resurgence. I think liberalism is coming back. I think it's going to be much more combative. I think we've seen the peak of the right wing gasbag monopoly.

KURTZ: I can hear Mike Murphy (UNINTELLIGIBLE) but you know there is a difference between a show like ...


KURTZ: ... "CROSSFIRE" where you have Begala and Carville going up against Bob Novak and Tucker Carlson and a Sunday morning gig where Stephanopoulos will be the main anchor -- Mike.

MURPHY: Well, I agree. He's got to prove that he can hold his own as an interviewer in the same league ...

KURTZ: Right.

MURPHY: ... as Schaeffer (ph) and Russert. I mean that is his main challenge. Everything else is secondary.

KURTZ: Mike Murphy, as a card carrying Republican, do you think that some fellow members of the GOP tribe may at least initially be reluctant to go on "THIS WEEK"?

MURPHY: Yes, but for two reasons. One, it's become the third place show. The biggest problem George has is to put that show back into the hunt. I mean Russert dominates and Schaeffer's (ph) coming up strong. So he's got a problem of making this show relevant, and he's going to have a problem with a lot of Republicans who may not give him the benefit of the doubt. I think others would and should.

KURTZ: OK, sounds like you're giving him the benefit of the doubt and we are out of time. Mike Murphy, James Wolcott in New York, thanks very much for joining us.

And time now for our e-mail question. Will George Stephanopoulos favor Democrats in his new Sunday morning TV job? Let us know what you think. E-mail us at

And when we come back, Woodward and Bernstein in the age of the cable chat show. Watergate revisited and revisited 30 years later.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Welcome back. CNN founder Ted Turner, not exactly a low profile guy, has gotten himself into trouble, again, over his comments about the ongoing violence in the Middle East. In a recent interview with London's "Guardian" newspaper, he equated the actions of the Israeli military with the suicide bombers saying -- quote -- " I would make the case that both sides are engaged in terrorism".

The AOL Time Warner vice chairman later apologized for his remarks and CNN said Turner's remarks are his own and don't reflect the views of CNN in any way. Well after an Israeli satellite company threatened to knock CNN off the airwaves there, the network announced a new policy against using videotaped statements by Palestinian suicide bombers. Nonetheless, the Israeli satellite program has added Fox News channel to its lineup as an alternative.

Well, turning now to the "Spin Cycle". I've always wondered what would Watergate have been like if cable and the Internet and the whole 24-hour in your face info culture had been around at the time. Well, this week we all found out.


KURTZ: It was Watergate everywhere you turned. Richard Nixon, John Dean, G. Gordon Liddy, Woodward and Bernstein. The media waddling in Watergate perhaps because it was the last time reporters were really popular. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, you remember the movie, and seemed to be taking on the bad guys. Those responsible for the break-ins and wire-tapping and criminal corruption of the Nixon administration.

A very different atmosphere than during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal when one magazine ran a screaming headline "Impeach the Media". Speculation ran wild during this week's 30th anniversary of the Watergate burglary as everyone debated the identity of "Deep Throat" the super secret meet-me-in-the-parking-garage Woodward source.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The mystery of "Deep Throat" is now 30 years old, but that hasn't stopped people from trying to figure out his identity.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The best-kept secret in the history of Washington, D.C., "Deep Throat".

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You're going to get a kind of deep silence ...


KURTZ: Watergate whistleblower John Dean named his candidates in an e-book, none of those in the '70s on (ph).

JOHN DEAN, NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: As I took all of the conversations between "Throat" and Woodward, there are some 14, 15 conversations, depending on how you count them. I analyzed each of those conversations. KURTZ: And it was off to the races. Could "Throat" be Pat Buchanan, who spent the last decade alternating between running his mouth on "CROSSFIRE" and running for president? No way, says Buchanan.

Ron Ziegler, the Nixon spokesman who once called Watergate a third-rate burglary? Absurd, says Ziegler. Alexander Hague, David Gergen, everyone had a candidate. One prominent burglar turned radio talk show host defended his president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why did you keep so quiet?

G. GORDON LIDDY, WATERGATE FOREVER: Because I sought to preserve the presidency of Richard Nixon for as long as it was possible to do.

KURTZ: But the nostalgia went only so far.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We haven't seen anything like Nixon since Nixon and probably that's a good thing.


KURTZ: Richard Nixon didn't catch many breaks, but one was that he was investigated in a much quieter media atmosphere, one in which the "Washington Post" was virtually alone on this story for months. Now he can rest in peace until Watergate's 35th anniversary.

Well that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.


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