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Reliable Sources

Viewers Abandon Network News for the Internet; Are the Media Going Overboard in Hyping the Veepstakes?

Aired June 17, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Who wants to be vice president? Are the media going overboard in hyping the veepstakes?

The Internet comes of age. Why are so many people abandoning the networks and the newspapers for online news?

And "60 Minutes"' big gamble, a story about an Iranian defector and the bombing of Pan Am 103 may have been shot down.

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

First up, forget Bush and Gore. The real campaign that's become an obsession for political insiders and the media.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): George W. Bush spent some time recently with Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, and Al Gore met up this week with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. Why should anyone care? Both men are reported to be on the candidates' list, the much-ballyhooed short list of possible running mates.

In fact, this competition seems to be getting more attention than the campaign itself. It's called the Veepstakes. And all it takes to play the game is to get mentioned by the pundits, the politicians, or the prospective candidates themselves.

Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, Florida Senator Bob Graham, California Governor Gray Davis, just a few of the Democratic mentions.

Republican speculation has included Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, Elizabeth Dole and plenty of others.

So who's up and who's down in the media mentioning? Sometimes it depends on what's in the news. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson had been a top mention for Gore but ran into trouble this week with the disappearance of two top-secret computer hard drives from Los Alamos National Laboratory.

And then there are always new entries.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, INSIDE POLITICS, CNN) ROBERT NOVAK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: House congressional sources tell me that Chris Cox of California will meet with Governor Bush -- I don't know when or where -- and that he is definitely on the short list.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And tomorrow, there'll probably be another name, and another. And for now, no one can prove the pundits wrong.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

Well, joining us now, Kathy Kiely, Washington correspondent for "USA Today," Dana Millbank, political reporter for "The Washington Post," who's been writing a tongue-in-cheek column called Veep of the Week, and Jake Tapper, Washington correspondent for Salon.com.

Welcome.

Dana, this tidal wave of speculative stories seems a little silly. But the reporters can't seem to help themselves. What's behind this unshakeable addiction?

DANA MILLBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I don't know. We started out to do this weekly column as sort of a parody of it, but the problem is the whole process is a parody of itself. So I can't be any more outrageous than anybody else is.

KURTZ: Jake, not to be too cosmic about it, but doesn't this endless speculative chatter -- and I must say CNN does a lot of it -- turn viewers and readers off? I mean, who cares about the latest inside businesses, when we're all going to find out in five or six weeks who good -- who Bush and Gore are going to select?

JAKE TAPPER, SALON.COM: And the person picked is never -- was never mentioned. I mean, Jack Kemp or Al Gore were never mentioned in the Veep of the Week stuff.

Yes, it turns a lot of people off, except for us. It's like Pictionary for reporters. You know, we all just kind of sit around and play the game.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: I met two people this week who were not on anybody's list. That's secret. The fact is, as Jake is indicating, there's endless speculation. You've got, what, the short list, the long list, the nonlist, the nonexistent list, et cetera. It is an entirely pointless game, but if we throw the satire and the fun we're having with it away, in fact, sometimes it does give you some indication of what is going on behind the scenes. So I think it isn't totally dismissive. But essentially it is.

KURTZ: Kate?

KATHY KIELY, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "USA TODAY": I would make two points about this. One is that there's a reason that there's been such a plethora of speculation, and that is that the campaign ended so early. I mean, this year the primaries ended in March, and so there hasn't been much to talk about...

KURTZ: So there's a void here...

KIELY: ... normally -- Exactly, I mean...

KURTZ: ... that we're filling with all of this, you know, so- and-so may be rising on the list?

KIELY: Well...

KURTZ: That's not much of an excuse.

KIELY: Well, there's no -- the candidates have not engaged in the way they normally would. Normally there'd be a longer primary campaign, there'd be a little bit of a lull before the conventions, and some speculation about the veepstakes. And then you would have the candidates ready to meet each other and do battle and debate and do the things they normally do in a general election. There's been an unnaturally long or an unusually long gap in the actual campaign.

(CROSSTALK)

KIELY: So that's part of it. And then the other thing...

(CROSSTALK)

KIELY: I just want to make one other point, which is, we're doing the candidates a favor. I mean, they like it when the names get floated, and they can kind of vet their prospects.

KALB: I think you're endowing the whole process with an integrity it doesn't deserve. The point that we have just mentioned...

KIELY: Oh, but it's fun.

KALB: ... about the vacuum and the fact that it's speculative and it's a rolling of the political dice, it's endlessly so. And here we are, jabbering away on the same thing, nourishing this entire process.

KIELY: Oh, it's a lot of fun.

MILLBANK: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

KIELY: I mean, I think you're taking it too seriously.

MILLBANK: It's an opportunity for political reporters to show off their geeky knowledge. House sources tell me that we (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

TAPPER: Well, House sources, but also just a -- throwing names, a Frank Keating and Chris Cox and Tom Ridge -- no one outside the world of politics knows or cares who these people are. But we know them, so we get to show off that we know who Frank Keating is, and he's Catholic, and the governor of Oklahoma. I don't know if you knew that, by the way. But I know that.

MILLBANK: It also lets the staffs of the campaigns, you know, do some favors for the people that they like, you know, so Michael Hooley (ph), who works for Al Gore, can recommend John Kerry, who he used to work for up in Massachusetts. It's no accident that Chris Lehane is from Maine and that several guys from Maine keep popping up on the list there, you know.

KURTZ: Lehane being Gore's press secretary. To what extent, Dana Millbank, are journalists being used by people who want to float these trial balloons? In other words, there may be a groundswell of, oh, say, five or six or seven people who want to get Tom Ridge or Chris Cox or Bob Graham's name up there.

MILLBANK: Right, well, we're being used, and we're enjoying it too, so it's no accident that somebody -- the person who floats Paris Glendening's name, the governor of Maryland, who has no shot at all, happened to be, like, "The Baltimore Sun" or something like that. So everybody's got their hometown favorite.

And the thing is...

KURTZ: Sounds kind of incestuous.

MILLBANK: It is, but it'll be forgotten at the end of July when we actually know how this has happened. So there's no penalty for actually doing any of this. So why not? I'm -- in fact, I'm throwing you into contention (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

TAPPER: Kurtz? For which one? Bush or Gore?

MILLBANK: I'm -- I think he should go with Nader.

KURTZ: Really?

KIELY: How about Buchanan?

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). What -- you know, you all seem to say basically that not much is going on in the campaign, therefore this is a bunch of harmless entertainment, although I would -- you know, at the risk of sounding too serious, suggest that we might be able to use some of that air time and column inches to write more about issues in the campaign.

But one of the things that struck me, Kathy Kiely, in doing some traveling lately with both Vice President Gore and Governor Bush, is that the relationship with the press is very different. Bush spends a lot of time talking to reporters, fooling around, teasing, and everybody's got nicknames. Gore is more reserved, often you don't see him. He's a little bit more cautious.

Do you have any sense of whether this affects the coverage of this campaign and the candidates themselves?

KIELY: If it does, I think it's just at the margins, and I don't know how significant that is. I mean, I think certainly, you know, it doesn't hurt a politician to have a good relationship with reporters. But I -- you know, I do think most people are professional enough that they're not going to be hurt or let that show in their copy if some guy doesn't come and have a nickname for them.

KURTZ: But why shouldn't it be a benefit -- certainly we saw this with John McCain and his famous bus -- if a politician spends more time taking questions and interacting with reports, and those reporters can form judgments about the candidate in a way that they're better able right now, at least, to do with Bush than with Gore?

TAPPER: I agree, and six months ago I would have been surprised to report today that there are reporters who like -- who agree with Gore more but like Bush a lot better. And of course they give Bush the benefit of the doubt a lot more than they would Gore, because Gore's press strategy is -- there is no press strategy, they just keep them at bay.

But on the flip side, I would say that I have heard Bush reporters say to me a number of times, report to me about off-the- record discussions they've had with Bush, where Bush has proven his intellectual acuity to be somewhat lacking. So it works both sides.

You know, at the same time...

KURTZ: So he doesn't pay a penalty for that, because of the off- the-record nature?

TAPPER: Right, you know, exactly, he doesn't pay a penalty for it. But at the same time, I think people have been able to see into the mind of Bush a little bit more and realize that he really is not all that deep when it comes to policy knowledge.

KALB: Three words, access has dividends. You don't know which way it will go.

TAPPER: Right.

KURTZ: Dana?

MILLBANK: Yes, there's no question about it, but I'm not sure whether it's a chicken or egg thing here. You know, and Al Gore used to be much more open with the press. He started to get hammered and then retreated a bit. So maybe he feels like the more he comes out there, it's just a game of gotcha, and they're just going to find something he says anyway. And Bush isn't in that sort of situation right now.

KURTZ: Right, it's all about controlling the message, which is often hard to do when you're surrounded by a pack of hungry reporters.

We have to take a break. And coming up, we'll talk about why more and more Americans seem to be abandoning the old media and going online for news. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

A new study finds even more proof that the Internet age has arrived.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): That noise you hear is the sound of people flicking off their television news and clicking on their computers for online news. A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that only half the audience who watched Dan, Peter, and Tom regularly in 1993 are still watching them on a regular basis today. And more than half of all Americans say they don't read a newspaper daily.

But many of these people, even those not very interested in news, are getting what news they want on the Internet. One third of all Americans are now going online at least once a week for news, up from just one in five people two years ago.

Even more striking, a majority of people say they don't trust the old media news organizations as much as their online counterparts. In other words, more people trust abcnews.com than ABC News, cnn.com than CNN, USAToday.com than the newspaper itself.

And the overall picture, for journalists, at least, is gloomy. More than half of all Americans now say they don't even enjoy following the news.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

Jake Tapper is our resident cybercitizen. Does this represent a rejection of the traditional media, and a wholehearted embrace of online pioneers such as yourself?

TAPPER: Yes.

KURTZ: OK. Can you elaborate?

TAPPER: Well, I mean, the two things that I thought were most interesting from the study are, one, that the most educated Americans are getting their news not from network news but increasingly online, and two, that people who don't care about news, as you pointed out in your intro, are getting their news online.

So somehow the Internet is reaching the people who are most interested in news and also least interested.

KURTZ: What do you make of this finding that lots and lots of people, you know, don't care about news or say they only follow the national news when something big is going on -- this is a problem that CNN and other cable channels have had, holding a large audience when there's not an impeach, a war, or an Elian Gonzalez case? Kathy?

KIELY: Well, I'm not surprised. I mean, I think that people get bored. I mean, and they -- I mean, that's not to say that they should be. Sometimes when those of us who write politics, you feel like, Hello, is there anybody out there? KURTZ: Well, maybe it's a failure on the part of journalists to package and produce and find compelling stories.

KIELY: Well, I think -- you know, I think journalists every day are trying to -- you know, it's not like people don't care about this. People do. I think that -- I mean, the one thing I will say about the study is that I -- I'm not sure how much it really means.

I think that print media -- and I've certainly -- at "USA Today," I've been a big proponent of trying to exploit some of the new technologies, and I think it's a great thing. I think that it gives us a lot of reach, it gives s an opportunity to experiment with some new techniques that might get people more interested.

But I also think that there's one thing you have to remember, which is -- a couple weeks ago I was in Houston, Texas. I was walking down the street on a Saturday morning, and there was a guy -- a street person, obviously -- sitting on probably the same bench, from the looks of things, that he had slept on, and he was reading a "Wall Street Journal."

Now...

KURTZ: There's a message there somewhere.

KIELY: ... there are a lot of captions you could put under that picture...

KALB: Let me -- let me pick...

KIELY: ... but one thing is, anybody with two bits can get the same information that a CEO can get on paper, unless and until we can guarantee that same kind of accessibility with information that's provided online...

KALB: Can I pick up this conversation for just a minute? One of the things, it seems to me, that we're leaving out is the global environment. Both of you have used the phrase "don't care about news." I think in your summary, you talk about "don't enjoy the news."

Switch the world back before 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the midst of a cold war, non-cold war today, in the midst of economic depression, economic boom today -- you've got a global environment that's essentially a happy one. There is not nuclear anxieties when you go to sleep.

The consequence is an abandonment of news. News serves a -- only a modest purpose, stocks, social, weather, et cetera, but not global anxiety -- nuclear anxieties.

KURTZ: But again -- and I'm a big fan of the Net, lot of people going online who have a limited appetite for news. And I'm wondering, Dana, if there is a downside here, could it be that we're becoming a nation of niches? In other words, people go on the news, they use their search engines, and they find -- if they're interested in sports or motorcycle racing or stocks, that's what they get, but they don't get exposure to the...

MILLBANK: There's a danger of that...

KURTZ: ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

MILLBANK: ... in fact, you can get just the kind of news you want e-mailed to you, so you don't even have to do that. But I would say, Howie, that in a larger sense, this probably isn't as alarming as all that, because it's not as if we're actually shifting to new types of publications on the Net so much as our existing publications are just delivering it through a new vehicle.

And I was -- wanted to point out that in that actual study, Slate was only -- was recognized by almost nobody, and it was put at the same level of reliability as "People" magazine, and...

TAPPER: Salon was higher, though.

MILLBANK: Salon...

TAPPER: Salon was three times higher...

MILLBANK: Actually, I beg your pardon, it was Salon that was...

TAPPER: Salon was (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

MILLBANK: ... Salon was at "People" magazine, and Slate was at the level of the "National Enquirer." So it's not that people are shifting away from our traditional outlets, they're just reading our traditional outlets in new ways.

TAPPER: But one of the things that you have to remember is that the Internet is so new, and, you know...

KURTZ: It's only going to get bigger.

TAPPER: Right, and so this study is interesting, but it's just at the very -- it's at the infancy. And you were talking about two bits before, and that's obviously one of the problems right now, that individuals who don't have computers can't get the information. But that will change with, you know, with Palm Pilots and other ways to get information...

KURTZ: Jake, I...

KIELY: But I do think the point that Howie raised about the possible niche society that we're growing into is also a concern. I mean, I don't know about you, but generally the most interesting story I read in the paper every day is the one I didn't expect to see there. And if you're ordering up your news, how are you going to find that story?

KURTZ: To be continued?

KALB: To be continued.

KURTZ: Kathy Kiely, Jake Tapper, Dana Millbank, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, did "60 Minutes" go too far with an account of an Iranian defector? We'll revisit that story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now to talk about that "60 Minutes" story is CNN national security correspondent David Ensor.

Bernie, as you noted in your Back Page last week, "60 Minutes" did a story on an Iranian defector who claimed that Iran was responsible for the infamous bombing of Pan Am 103. This was followed by a "Washington Post" story reporting an unnamed U.S. official as saying that the CIA and the FBI, after debriefing the man interviewed by "60 Minutes," had concluded that he was an imposter. And that was followed by this statement on "The CBS Evening News."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, CBS NEWS)

DAN RATHER, ANCHOR: After several debriefings of the defector, the CIA and the FBI have now concluded that, while he probably did work for Iranian intelligence, he was not as high up in the chain of command as he claimed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Bernie, what do you make of the way "60 Minutes" has handled this?

KALB: Well, let me take a moment at the way Rather has handled it. It seems to me that Dan Rather put the focus on the wrong part of the story. He talked about the fact that the man was not high up in the intelligence rank as he had claimed. That is only part of the story.

The real story is, how come "60 Minutes" used the story to begin with, since it was based on iffy journalism? Lesley Stahl's phrase, you remember, in setting the story up was, "If his story can be confirmed... " That's "60 Minutes" engaging in high-risk journalism based on an if, and this is a classic case of iffy journalism.

Now, if the story turned out to be confirmed, CBS, "60 Minutes," would have looked great. But that is no excuse for having used the story in the first place, because the story was based on a huge if. And CBS, "60 Minutes," knew it was an iffy story, and it seems to me in the basic journalism you do not go with ifs.

KURTZ: But David Ensor, in this kind of reporting, isn't it hard to get something absolutely totally nailed down?

DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: It's very difficult. When CNN asked me to start covering intelligence, I said, "Intelligence, on television? How do you do that? This is a whole community of people who don't like to talk."

KURTZ: Let alone come on camera. ENSOR: That's right. So it's extremely difficult. We cover an agency, the National Security Agency, that until a few years ago didn't even admit it existed, although it's the largest employer in one county in Maryland. So it's a very difficult beat to cover. It's difficult beat to get right. And you have to be more careful.

KURTZ: Well, if you had -- excuse me, Bernie -- if you had done the story about this Iranian defector, and another news organization come along and said, Hey, the Feds have debriefed this guy, they think he's an imposter, would you have felt compelled, whether you stood by the story or not, to deal with that head-on in a follow-up story as opposed to Dan Rather's Well, he may not have been as high up as we thought he was, rather terse statement?

ENSOR: I hate to second-guess competitors whom I...

KURTZ: Oh, come on.

ENSOR: ... whom I have great respect for. But I think they should have gone a little further with their follow-up. I'm gathering now that it may be that this man wasn't even a lower-down employee of Iranian intelligence.

KALB: But, you know, Howie, in the basic story itself there were some loose ends. For example, Lesley Stahl's piece quoted an Iranian- born producer who talked without a tape recorder to the so-called high intelligence fellow who was being held by the Turks. She then came out and report it. They brought in a CIA consultant. They did not say whether he was paid or unpaid. Now, whether he was paid or unpaid, I'm not suggesting, affects his integrity in making an assessment.

But this is -- these are bits and pieces of information we should have. You get the feeling that the deadline was approaching, they felt they had a big scoop, and that they would -- they rolled the dice in favor of believing it was true.

But I don't agree with you, David, on the question, and Howie, that -- sure it's tough to do it, but that's why you're a paid expert journalist. You've got to make sure that when you -- You don't go on hunches, although maybe fractionally here and there, but you've got to have the story solid if you're going to go with it.

KURTZ: Right. Well, back in the days when I was a Justice Department reporter and used to occasionally write about espionage cases, I found the whole area very murky, in the sense that you always had theories and countertheories about these kinds of cases, and the people who were -- who would talk to reporters, to propound these theories, most of them had some kind of agenda, including U.S. officials.

And so sorting it out can be very difficult. So I'm somewhat more sympathetic to the difficulty here.

I wonder, David Ensor, if they had been able to, and CBS says it was not able to, have an on-camera interview with this guy, would that have been better, because then viewers could kind of try to judge his credibility under questioning? We never even see him in this piece.

ENSOR: It would have been better, obviously, if they could have had that. If they'd had that, I would have hoped they would have shown the picture to people in the intelligence community. This is a guy who turned out to be too young to have done the things that he was said in the CBS report to have done.

KURTZ: Back in 1988.

ENSOR: Right, so...

KALB: But even...

ENSOR: There were some serious problems, if you just looked at the picture of the guy, you could see there was a problem.

KALB: But let's go beyond this. Let's zoom back and think of the whole question of using what they offered up as a scoop. In this highly, increasingly competitive world of journalism, you're very, very tempted to use a story when you think it's going to have a great scoop and you think it's going to have a great resonance and so forth.

This is a case where you are reminded to back off if you don't have it solid.

KURTZ: David, bottom line assessment, was this too shaky or too fraught with danger for a program with the sterling reputation of "60 Minutes" to have put on the air?

ENSOR: It was too dangerous. Our reputation is our most valuable commodity, and I think they lost a little of it on this one.

KURTZ: If it turns out to be right, they're heroes, but if it turns out to be wrong...

ENSOR: Even if it turns out to be right. You can already see they didn't do enough homework.

KURTZ: OK...

ENSOR: Frankly.

KURTZ: ... we will leave it there. David Ensor, Bernie Kalb, thanks very much.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: 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.

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, Al Gore picked a new campaign chairman and revealed his plans for the budget surplus. We'll talk about that and much more with George W. Bush's man in the Senate, Paul Coverdale of Georgia, next, right here on CNN.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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