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The Legacy of Publishing Legend Katharine Graham; Has the Press Been Reduced to Sifting for Scraps in the Chandra Levy Case?

Aired July 21, 2001 - 18:30   ET

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


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Katharine Graham, the publishing legend who led "The Washington Post" through the darkest days of Watergate: How did she deal with political pressure? With her staff? With her powerful friends? And what is her journalistic legacy? A conversation about her life with Bob Woodward.

And the Chandra Levy story: Has the press been reduced to hunting for scraps?

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

Katharine Graham's death this week was a reminder that the person at the top of any organization, especially a news operation, can make all the difference.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: Katharine Graham, who built "The Washington Post" into a national journalistic force and used it for good, has died at the age of 84.

KURTZ (voice-over): She was a powerful publisher who never expected to run a newspaper; a shy, stay-at-home mom who became a role-model for women around the world. A Georgetown hostess who entertained the elite, but stood up to presidents when it counted.

Thrust into the spotlight when her husband committed suicide in 1963, Katharine Graham turned a newspaper of modest influence into part of a "Fortune 500" media conglomerate. She hired editor Ben Bradley and backed him up in the controversial decision to publish the Pentagon Papers. And she stood behind two young "Metro" reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as they began digging into Watergate, a battle later memorialized in a Hollywood movie.

On this program three years ago, she talked about being under siege during the Nixon years.

KATHARINE GRAHAM, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, look, when have we been popular? I think that sometimes we overreact to attacks. The first concerted attack that I think I remember and I think we overreacted even then was Spiro Agnew, and then the whole Nixon administration. I mean, they called us the pointy-headed liberal establishment and attacked us in every conceivable way.

KURTZ: Journalists were quick to praise Mrs. Graham for her leadership.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She was the most famous publisher of her day. Not only the most famous, but the best. She was just a star. One of a kind.

KURTZ: Carl Bernstein recalls a famous conversation with former Attorney General John Mitchell.

CARL BERNSTEIN, JOURNALIST: I called Mitchell and he, very nasty tone said, "All that crap? You're putting it in the paper? If you publish that, Katie Graham is going to get her tit caught in a big, fat ringer."

KURTZ: Most of what Mrs. Graham accomplished was a collaborative enterprise, but she won one laurel on her own: a 1998 Pulitzer Prize for her extraordinarily candid memoir, "Personal History."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now, one of the names that will always be linked in history to that of Katharine Graham, Bob Woodward, who with his "Washington Post" colleague Carl Bernstein broke many of the stories about the Watergate break in and the links to the White House that ultimately led to the resignation to President Richard Nixon. Welcome.

Bob Woodward, early on in Watergate, Katharine Graham asked to meet with you about your controversial reporting on a very hot subject. You barely knew her at the time. What was that like?

BOB WOODWARD, JOURNALIST: Well, it was in fact, just right. It was a lunch in her dining room with the managing editor and she asked about sources and I told her and she then she said who is deep throat. And I paused and was ready to tell her, and she touched my arm and said, "No, I don't want to know."

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Well, I don't have that problem. Who was it?

KURTZ: We'll get there, Bernie.

And as the Nixon administration increased the pressure on the company; in fact, Nixon is heard on the White House tapes saying "The Post" is going to have damnable, damnable problems and boasting about the fact that the TV licenses the company had were being challenged.

Did you ever worry during those tense months that she might cave?

WOODWARD: She was always a barrier to the pressure. In other words, she never transmitted it. But she also had a way about her of looking you in the eye and kind of getting a little bit of a stricken look on her face and say, "Do better." That means, get more information, make sure you're right, but don't stop. There was never a sense of we don't want to go down that road.

KALB: Bob, was there a sense in the air that, in effect, that if you and Bernstein had made a mess of the Watergate coverage, that the future of "The Washington Post" was at stake?

WOODWARD: Well, certainly its reputation. I mean, I don't know enough about business, what that would have done, what reputation in a newspaper that is the dominant morning paper would do to it as a business. But, we were taking the paper on this roller-coaster ride, and we had the total support of Bradley. As you may recall, at the time our colleagues at "The Post," many of them were saying, "Who are these nuts. We can't believe this."

KALB: I mean, you were 13 then, and Carl was 14.

WOODWARD: Yeah, about, more or less. 28, 29.

KURTZ: 28, 29.

WOODWARD: It seems like 13 now, I guess, that's right.

KURTZ: Go ahead, Bernie.

KALB: But, the sense of you going out and getting your stories, Deep Throat, anonymous sources and so forth, it had to take an extraordinary dimension of profound faith in what you were writing before Weaver (ph) put that in the newspaper. So, where were the moments of the paper wobbling on what you and Carl were reporting?

WOODWARD: But, there was never a wobble. It was always, look at a draft. I mean, this was an era when we could write a story and hand the draft in. The editors would look at it. They would say, "Can you get more information here? What does so-and-so- say? Gee, I think I have an angle on this that might help you," and we could work two or three weeks to perfect it, and then it would go in the paper.

In the era we live in now, if you have a reporter, or reporters with a story like that, at that time it's kind of can we get it on the Web site by noon.

KURTZ: Not a problem you had to deal with in 1972 and 1973. Let's fast forward a decade to another story. 1986. The Reagan administration argued that you would be damaging national security if you published a story about the case of a guy who was spying for the Soviets. What was Mrs. Graham's role in that pressure from the Reagan administration?

WOODWARD: Well, there was even a point where Reagan called her and got her out of the shower, the president himself, and said, "Don't run this story."

Again, what she did is, you know, she was well-seasoned at that point, said to Bradley, "Are you sure we're right? Is there a good reason to run this?"

We went through agony of weeks. We eventually ran a version of the story and most of it came out.

KURTZ: Ben Bradley, of course, the long-time executive editor of "The Washington Post."

KALB: You know, I'm thinking, for example, of the investigative journalism that you and Carl did in connection with Watergate. And there was a moment after the publication of that whole series when there was a spurt toward journalism schools, investigative journalism had a real cache, a cloud about it.

Now, that seems to a large degree to have become an endangered specie and we move more and more toward creeping sensationalism. Has the lesson of Watergate and the coverage, the journalism of Watergate, has it sort of evaporated?

WOODWARD: Well, no. I think there is a lot of series investigative reporting, particularly in "The Washington Post." They've won two Pulitzers on major investigations about the city in recent years. So, I think it lives on.

KALB: Two in recent years? That's not a big record.

WOODWARD: Public service? Gold medal? I mean, in fact, it is a record.

KURTZ: Katharine Graham, Bob, obviously to many people on the outside world, a journalistic icon. But, let's talk about her as a person. She's written quite candidly about the fact that she had insecurities, not just when she took over "The Washington Post" upon her husband's suicide in 1963, but in later years.

You were a friend. Did you ever see her grappling with these insecurities?

WOODWARD: Sure. Always. She was a consulter. She would ask opinions all the time of people. But what she did, the other night I heard Lynn Cheney, the vice-president's wife, get up and talk about Mrs. Graham. And Lynn Cheney would not naturally agree with the editorial position of "The Washington Post" probably, but she said, "There was something about Katharine. She would listen." And the legacy of Mrs. Graham to "The Washington Post," to journalism, is not only a culture of independence and fierceness, it is a culture of listening.

And that's the thing in, as we get wrapped up in our smugness and self-satisfaction in our business, that we ought to practice more, and Katharine Graham always listened.

KALB: Bob, let me take you off onto a road of prophecy. Katharine Graham, and the story that journalism to a large degree is obsessing on right now, Condit and Levy. How would Katharine Graham have regarded the amount of time, hours and print that is going into covering this story?

WOODWARD: You know, again, she trusted the editorial system and her editors. But that doesn't mean in the sense of trust, where she would back off and not be involved. She would be involved. She would ask questions. I mean, Bradley a number of times said, "Get your finger out of my eye. I'm going to fix X, Y or Z."

She would let the process go. I mean, the idea that there is some woman who may be dead, she is certainly missing, you know, I mean, that's a big deal. So, she would, again, it is that balance of "my hands are off," which was always her style, but "I have questions" and "I want to create this culture of listening, but I also want to raise the bar. I always want to say do better."

And in the newspaper business, it's get more information and make sure you're right. Talk to more people. Weigh it, cross-check, do the kind of tedious reporting that matters.

KURTZ: It's certainly a key point, because publishers become famous for saying, "Let's publish. Let's publish the Pentagon Papers. Let's publish this Watergate break in story." But sometimes it's keeping the hands off. I mean, as "The Post" media reporter, I never heard a word of complaint from Katharine Graham, even when I was criticizing the paper.

But I'm wondering, you must have had occasion, she was a prominent Georgetown hostess, lots of famous friends, Nancy Reagan, Robert McNamara, where you were writing about people who were close to her. Was that ever an uncomfortable situation?

WOODWARD: No. Once I wrote a story about Abe Fortas, the retired Supreme Court Justice, about some secret tape that was made of him. And I had talked to Fortis, and we ran it on the front page.

Fortis lived down the street from Katharine Graham on R Street. And I learned years later, the morning the story ran, he appeared at her door pounding violently on the door. Came in, just complained and bled all over the floor. She mentioned it to Ben. I never heard about it except as kind of an anecdote truly, maybe certainly years if not a decade later.

KURTZ: Go ahead, Bernie.

KALB: Well, I have been reading the iconizations, so to speak, of Katharine Graham, all these past few days. Was there no single element of hesitancy or something you would characterize as a flaw, that got in the way of the momentum of journalism?

WOODWARD: Not for me. And that's, you know, 30 years of my life.

KURTZ: Was she, just very briefly, ever concerned when the "All The President's Men" movie was made and "The Post" was turned into sort of a cultural institution, that maybe all that publicity, all that attention, might be distracting for the journalism of the newspaper?

WOODWARD: Oh, she was a nervous wreck about it.

KURTZ: Really? WOODWARD: Oh, yeah. And she said, "Should we do this? Is this right"? They wanted to film the movie in "The Post" newsroom off- hours. But again, she met with the people making them movie. They convinced her that they were serious about it and let it proceed.

KURTZ: I'm sure Robert Redford is very happy about that.

KALB: Once more on Deep Throat. Now is your chance. Now is your chance.

WOODWARD: Not today.

KURTZ: We will have to leave it there. Bob Woodward, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, the relentless coverage of Gary Condit, his PR woman, his brother and others, with the press in hot pursuit.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

The story of missing intern Chandra Levy continues to boil as news organizations keep pursuing Democratic Congressman Gary Condit, despite an apparent lack of news.

Well, joining us now are Deborah Orin, Washington bureau chief for "The New York Post," and Karen Tumulty, "TIME" magazine national political correspondent. Welcome.

Deborah Orin, there is a flap this week, "Salon's" Josh Marshall says that Marina Ein, who is the publicist for Gary Condit, made a reference to Chandra Levy having a history of one-night stands. Marina Ein denies this; Marshall says she has told it to all the reporters. Your paper and "The Daily News" gave this huge play. Was this one remark worth the World War III headlines?

DEBORAH ORIN, "THE NEW YORK POST": I think so, because what you're talking about is something we see in Washington a lot, which is blame the victim, smear the victim. And the denial from Marina Ein was sort of a non-denial denial. It never quite said, "I never said this and I'm going to sue you if you don't retract it." It sort of said it was out of context.

KURTZ: Bernie?

KALB: Yeah, but that has nothing to do with the splashy display the story was given. I mean, there may be an accusation and then there is a denial, and then suddenly you have a World War III headline, to borrow your phrase. Isn't there some sort of balanced, measured response to publishing a story like that?

ORIN: Well, I think it was a legitimate story. I think, as I say, we saw in other scandals in Washington, we have seen victims, particularly women, being treated, you know, going back to Anita Hill, a little bit nutty, a little bit slutty. It's a way of diminishing the woman and diminishing the story. And I think that's why you got the World War III headlines.

KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Although I do think the only thing that differentiates Marina Ein practicing this tactic in the way that it is normally practiced is that she made the mistake of not going off the record before she did it.

KURTZ: Yeah, not something you want your name attached to, if indeed that was said.

TUMULTY: I do think it is an interesting window in the scandal management in Washington.

KURTZ: OK.

KALB: Scandal management.

KURTZ: In terms of media management of this story, there have been some days, Karen, when this story has not produced a lot of hard news. And so we have, we see cable spending hours, hours, watching D.C. police search Rock Creek Park. Oh, here they found some shoes, what does that mean. We have seen these endless live shots of Gary Condit sitting in the agriculture committee hearings, just sitting there not doing much of anything...

TUMULTY: You don't think that's about the Farm Bill?

KURTZ: Well, I think television has not had a lot of interest in the agriculture committee up until now. And then, you, every time Gary Condit walks toward the Capital, you see hordes of reporters chasing him, shouting questions, he, of course, declining to answer those questions. Isn't television, particularly, kind of scraping the bottom of the media barrel here?

TUMULTY: Yeah, but I think what is also interesting is that the other players in this are understanding now that they're going to be on TV, so they might as well give them something to do. So, that's why we have, we have the officer's researching Rock Creek Park. They're not looking at anything they haven't already looked at before, but they understand that there is, it's going to be on TV, so they ought to look like they're doing something.

KALB: You know, you have a feeling as you watch cable television, particularly, that the galaxy is rotating around Condit and Levy. It seems to be spinning. And one of the things I'm observing the last few days is the introduction of kind of soap opera vignettes, and let me hear what you think about this. Little teasers, we'll come back after the commercial, little teasers, did they look in the garbage pail and what did they find. Well, they looked in the garbage pail, you learn later, and they found something that has no relationship to the case. Isn't there point of this being what amounts to petty, pointless journalism?

ORIN: I don't think so, because I think it...

KALB: You don't think so? Why don't you think so?

ORIN: Because I...

KALB: It's excess! It's driving people nutty!

ORIN: Well, I don't think it is. I think it's a story that's really caught people's imagination. It's a who-done-it. Nobody knows who did it and nobody knows what happened to Chandra Levy. And certain stories just capture people's imagination and this is one of them. And it also deals with a congressman who, to put it mildly, has not been forthcoming about what he knows about a woman whose life, at a minimum, is in danger.

KURTZ: There were new reports Friday, for example, sources saying that Condit had gone to Virginia to throw away a watch, supposedly linked to another woman, before police searched his apartment. There were reports in which sources said that the Pentecostal minister who told "The Washington Post" a couple of weeks ago that his daughter had an affair with Condit when she was just 18, that he has now retracted that story, according to sources.

Generally speaking, and then there was a story that your newspaper gave a front page bite to about Condit's brother and whether, and the Levy family wants him questioned. Generally speaking, is it hard to nail down the facts here? And is the Levy family using the press by throwing out things like, well, why don't they talk to Darrell Condit. Who knows if he is involved?

ORIN: I think, I mean there is no doubt the Levy family is using the press, and I don't think they make any bones about it. They will do anything to try and find their daughter. And how can you blame them?

KURTZ: But what about the press, going along with their tactics?

ORIN: Well, but it isn't going along, I mean, the brother is a little bizarre. You've got a brother who has got a rap sheet 18 pages long.

KURTZ: And he's a scary looking guy.

ORIN: And he's a weird-looking guy. What aren't they questioning him? I mean, it's a legitimate question.

KALB: We are 80 days and counting, that's the figure I keep seeing on television. Maybe it's 81 or 82 and so forth. In the past week, if we're doing weekly summaries, so to speak, in the past week, has the media put more focus on trying to find her than they have on Condit himself?

TUMULTY: Well, I think that, I think that because the visuals have been the trying to find her pictures, the single image after last week that you're going to see, that you're going to come away with is the police searching the park. So, I do think it's actually more on Chandra Levy as opposed, and the search for her, as opposed to last week when it was one revelation after another about Gary Condit.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Deborah Orin, in terms of media coverage, the one outlet that has not gone bananas over the story is the "CBS Evening News." They finally ran their first story on the Condit case Wednesday night...

ORIN: And got it wrong.

KURTZ: OK. Well, we can debate that. This is a story about whether the FBI was shifting the jurisdiction. Dan Rather and his producer, in their steadfast aversion to this story, what do you make of it?

ORIN: I don't know what to make of it, because the reality is, real people are fascinated by this story and I really, I do not, I genuinely don't understand what else do you need? You have somebody missing, you have somebody in power not behaving properly. You have sex, lies, you have video.

KURTZ: You say it's news.

ORIN: It's news.

KURTZ: Clearly. Deborah Orin, Karen Tumulty, thanks very much for joining us. Well, up next, your e-mail on the Chandra Levy story.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back. And, checking our RELIABLE SOURCES media items, radio talk-meister Rush Limbaugh scores big at contract time, a quarter-of-a-billion dollars for the next eight years.

"I am frequently asked if I expected this level of success," says Limbaugh, "and the honest answer is, yes."

More modesty and less salary, presumably, at "The Wall Street Journal" where Paul Gigot takes over as editorial page editor from 30- year veteran Robert Bartley. Gigot, a Washington columnist for the journal, won a Pulitzer for commentary last year. He says he's a committed conservative, but not a knee-jerk Republican.

And, checking our RELIABLE SOURCES e-mail, one viewer writes about Chandra Levy: "I think that coverage is excessive. I am not interested in knowing what any elected official does in his off-time and with whom he does it."

And: "Whether anyone likes it or not, the Condit/Levy story is a compelling story. What's not compelling is watching the entire RELIABLE SOURCES panel defend their own position for covering it. Get over it. It's OK to cover it."

And finally: "Every time I tune in to a program and hear the words `Chandra Levy' or `Gary Condit,' I change the channel.

Well, we hope you won't change the channel on us. Let us know what you think by e-mail at RELIABLE@CNN.com.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

CAPITAL GANG is up next.

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