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Interview With George Clooney

Aired October 26, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Hollywood meets K Street. He's been Batman, an "ER" doctor, the captain in "The Perfect Storm." He's executive producer of HBO's "K Street," the controversial show that mixes Washington fact with glitzy fiction.

But he also has strong opinions about the press, about paparazzi, and Bill O'Reilly. A conversation with George Clooney.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Today, we turn our critical lens on a man you're used to seeing in front of the cameras, who is now working behind the camera for HBO and who has some very definite thoughts about the people who operate the cameras and take the notes and write the stories, the executive producer of HBO's "K Street," George Clooney.



KURTZ: Now, full disclosure, I've done a couple of scenes for "K Street."

CLOONEY: Yes, you have, and I thought you were really good in them.

KURTZ: Well, thank you for that professional opinion. I've got a grand total of one iced tea at Starbucks today, so I've succumbed to the lure of the bright lights. But you're trying to get some bigger fish. In fact, there was another Howard, who was on the show at the beginning, who was seen in a fake debate prep before a real presidential debate with a crazy consultant. Let's take a look at that.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You would be in the center between Kerry and Lieberman. JAMES CARVILLE, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": The reason you got to be the front runner is that you were not the front runner. So, in essence, don't become the front runner now that you are the front runner.


CARVILLE: Because then you won't be anymore.


KURTZ: How hard is it to get important or self-important people on the show?

CLOONEY: Well, it depends. It was difficult in the beginning, because I think that people thought that there'd be some sort of a liberal agenda, so they were afraid that it would be some sort of an attack against them. So, there was...

KURTZ: Well, you're liberal, why wouldn't they think that?

CLOONEY: Well, you're right. I mean, that was what we tried to, from the very beginning...

KURTZ: To avoid.

CLOONEY: To avoid. And there is -- you know, it's a difficult thing, because you don't want to play "gotcha" with them, because when you do a show that starts on a Monday and by Sunday night you're on the air, you haven't stockpiled a bunch of shows. So, you can't attack someone and then hope the next week that people would, you know, let you in. So, we sort of had to build it up by showing that we would treat them fairly.

KURTZ: One of the people you tried to get on the show was Matt Drudge, who in real life showed a picture on his Web site of Mary Matalin, one of your stars, a suspect in the CIA leak investigation. How did it go when you tried to call Drudge?

CLOONEY: I called him up and asked him if he wanted to do the show and defend himself for putting Mary Matalin's picture on there, and in essence accusing her of being one of the suspects in the leak. But then if you downloaded that picture, it wasn't a story about her. He said no.

KURTZ: He turned you down.

CLOONEY: Yes, he turned me down. I am surprised. I don't understand why. But, yes, he didn't want to come on. He said, I said, it seems strange, and he said, yes, it's sneaky, isn't it? And I said, OK.

KURTZ: Now, you could be off making another big-time movie or, you know, running around with your shirt off, as you are on the cover of "Vanity Fair" here.

CLOONEY: Yeah, thanks. I'm glad that picture got there.

KURTZ: But instead, you are going behind the cameras and you're doing all-nighters to do "K Street." So, why take this plunge?

CLOONEY: It's -- Steven Soderbergh and I were partners, and we're in kind of a great position in our life to where we really -- we don't have to do anything, so we want to do things that we're interested in and we want to pay attention to. I grew up in -- my father was an anchorman for 30 years, and he still writes for the newspaper. And I've always been fascinated with how things work, not just from the news angle, but also from the government. I've had a great education since I've been here, and we've had a fun time doing it.

KURTZ: As you know, some of the critics have beat up on "K Street."

CLOONEY: No kidding.

KURTZ: They say it's obscure, that it's boring, that it only appeals to Washington insiders.


KURTZ: Is there a grain of truth in some of that criticism?

CLOONEY: Sure. Well, yes, there is always a grain of truth in it. We can take it. We're big kids. You know, at least they're not saying I've seen it before, and that's in a way a compliment. I'd rather be doing stuff that people think is too obscure or too narrow than doing things that people say I've seen done, you know, half a dozen times before. So, I think we're doing -- we're trying to do the right thing.

KURTZ: Yes. The ratings have gone down from your initial audience of about three million to less than two million. Does that bother you that you're not exactly (UNINTELLIGIBLE) at the box office?

CLOONEY: That we haven't caught on? Well, it didn't really ever seem that it was going to be a massive appeal (ph). Everything goes down. You know, we had a really big lead-in the first week with "Sex and the City" going off the air, and so that gave us a big bump. But after that, it almost immediately dropped and it leveled out to the same number.

Look, you'd always love them to be big hits, but no one -- not HBO, not Steven, pretty much none of us thought it was going to succeed at all. So, we're surprised we get to do it.

KURTZ: You mentioned your father, an anchorman in Cincinnati for 30 years. What was it like -- what was your view of the news business growing up in that household?

CLOONEY: Well, it was a really -- you know, the heroes in my family growing up were newsmen, because if you look...

KURTZ: Like?

CLOONEY: Well, Edward R. Murrow, you know. You can point to Murrow and say easily, the man who started the ball rolling to bring down McCarthy, because of the set of those four television shows that he did on "See it Now" (ph). When Cronkite stepped out from behind his desk, you could point to him and say he had a lot to do with the awareness of the rest of America about the Vietnam War. Woodward and Bernstein, certainly. You know, they have been overall a real service to us.

KURTZ: So, you go from that kind of very positive, almost glowing view of some of the journalistic heroes in the news business, and yet you became and have become a pretty sharp critic of the news business. Particularly several years ago, you kind of mounted, some would say, a crusade, a campaign against the paparazzi...

CLOONEY: Well, actually it wasn't against the paparazzi. It was -- everything I said -- I'm always very careful about what I say. I grew up around it, so I've always been very, very careful about what I say. And I was much more concerned with -- and, in fact, I've always said I will always defend their rights to be there. My problem is that -- was with tabloid magazines that were creating news. I don't mind someone trying ...

KURTZ: To capture.

CLOONEY: If you capture me doing something dumb, I deserve it. I'm a public figure, for what that's worth, and I'll have to take my hits for it. But if I'm going to the airport and you've got some kid with a camera walking through there picking a fight with me or with my mother or my grandmother, which has happened, then you're not trying to catch me doing something stupid. You're trying to create it. So, that was my fight.

KURTZ: And so -- and, in fact, I read about a case where a couple of 17-year-old kids with video cameras jumped out and made fun of a secretary you were walking with, so they're trying to provoke you.


KURTZ: They're trying to get you to do something that they can then turn into pseudo-news.

CLOONEY: Well, because, as you know, the line between -- this is what Murrow used to talk about -- the line between commerce and news is a really dangerous thing, and what is news. So, what happens is if you say to someone, all right, I'll give you $400,000 for the first picture of Madonna's baby, whoever comes up with it, there are a lot of people who are willing to break the law to do that. And that's OK. It's just dangerous, because, you know, it's a difficult situation.

Look, I will forever defend their right to be there, because I'm willing to take the hits...

KURTZ: You don't like it. CLOONEY: Nobody likes it.

KURTZ: When you go out to restaurants, people taking pictures, you can't like that.

CLOONEY: Right, but the difference is am I willing to put up with some portion of my life that's uncomfortable rather than insisting on some sort of censorship, which I don't.

KURTZ: Well, I want to take a look at a press conference you had several years ago on this very subject...


KURTZ: ... where you drew the link between the paparazzi and the rest of the press. Let's take a look at that.


CLOONEY: Maybe there is something that we can do about you -- you and all of the editors, television and print -- who purchase their news. Two words: Malicious intent. They are two words that every ethical journalist says is a loophole the tabloids hide behind.


KURTZ: So, the people in the mainstream media, they're the enablers, right? They cough up big bucks to take the kinds of pictures that the very aggressive photographers are doing or situations that they're provoking, in your view.

CLOONEY: Well, there is sort of a bigger version of this, which is we know where the bottom feeders are. We know -- we know -- or we think we know basically how low we can go. My challenge has always been, who do we look for to give us straight news? Because when really good news organizations suddenly start buying their news -- and we know about that. Everybody has done it at one time or another. And you've written about it as well. It starts to draw the line of where do we go for the really good stuff? We know where we can go for the bad stuff, because if certain great publications -- "The Washington Post," one of the most famous for journalism -- starts to lower the bar, you don't need two reliable sources maybe. Maybe you've got a couple of unnamed sources. If they start to lower the bar, then where - what's to keep the others from doing that?

KURTZ: Well, since you brought up the "Post," you recently -- now that you've been in Washington for a few weeks and you're getting covered a lot.


KURTZ: So, "The Washington Post" picks up an item from the "US News" that says Clooney is starting to get sick of Washington women, and you've threatened allegedly to cancel your health club membership because you went there to play basketball and these women would come and gather and watch you. Was that item true or false? CLOONEY: No, it wasn't accurate. And, in fact, there wasn't...

KURTZ: It wasn't accurate.

CLOONEY: It wasn't one word of it. I wrote a letter to the editor about that.

KURTZ: And what happened?

CLOONEY: It didn't get published, which was fine. I expect the same treatment as any American who writes a letter to an editor, which means you get probably one out of 100 printed. But my...

KURTZ: So, there was nothing about that item that was correct?

CLOONEY: Not one word. But the bigger problem was I didn't have a problem with the item being incorrect. It's a small story. There is a lot more important things going on in the world. My problem was that it was a very reputable paper taking a story from another paper, printing it and saying, well, we're not culpable because we're just reprinting somebody else's story.

And I always have a problem with that, because I think that's where the danger lies, because people are losing responsibility...

KURTZ: In fact, it was several years ago that you refused to go on "Entertainment Tonight" because you were unhappy with "Hard Copy," which is owned by the same company. Why is that "Entertainment Tonight's" fault if "Hard Copy" is chasing you down dark alleys?

CLOONEY: But they're owned by the same company. And if, for instance, I go on "Entertainment Tonight" and they use promos and they help sell themselves -- basically, you know, this is an old fight, and we've all gotten along since then. So, it's sort of rehashing old stuff.

But the reason was that -- the reason for the boycott basically was saying, look, I'm not going to help one part of this company make money so they can take that money and go buy videos from kids who have picked fights with me on another. I'm just not going to arm them. I don't want to tell them they can't do it, because I believe wholeheartedly that they have the right to do it. I just don't want to help them do it.

KURTZ: Are things that are written about you often wrong? Is this a constant feature of your life?

CLOONEY: Yes, of course, but I think that's anyone who is in the public eye, things are going to be wrong about you. The one thing you can't do is constantly try to correct them. You have to just sort of take most of it.

KURTZ: I mean, I could argue that you benefit greatly from the press. The press projects an image of you as a big movie star. You get to be on the cover of "Vanity Fair."

CLOONEY: Touche.

KURTZ: But some people don't want to deal with the other part, which is sometimes the press writes things about you that are less than flattering.

CLOONEY: Absolutely. And that's why you don't hear me complaining about it. You know, I pick specific fights when I think that they are important, and those are the ones I...

KURTZ: But you do think that the media have gotten more tabloid. I mean, look, you know, the "National Enquirer" reports that Rush Limbaugh is a pill popper. Everybody else runs with it. The story turned out to be accurate.

CLOONEY: Well...

KURTZ: A lot of tabloids (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Kobe Bryant, you name it.

CLOONEY: But the "National Enquirer" is now a reliable source. And the problem with that is not that the "National Enquirer" won't break stories, because they will, because their -- the level of information that they have to get is less. They won't say, OK, well, we're going to get two people on the record before we go on. They'll print it with a little bit of an edge.

The danger is when I think when reputable news places start to compete with that. You've written about it. I've read stuff that you've written about it on the same subject, and it's always a concern, you know, more than anything.

KURTZ: OK, we've got to have a brief timeout. And when we come back, George Clooney on sex, drugs, rock and roll...

CLOONEY: Exactly.

KURTZ: ... and a few other things. In a moment.



George Clooney, your biggest critic in TV has been Bill O'Reilly, who ripped you after your participation in the September 11 benefit concert which he said didn't get enough proceeds to the actual victims. What was the impact of those kinds of charges?

CLOONEY: Well, it hurt us. People canceled checks. He was selling a book, and it was November sweeps, which he always says he didn't participate in, you know, he says cable doesn't worry about sweeps. But he was running ads that he was beating Larry King that same week.

KURTZ: Did O'Reilly offer you equal time on his show?

CLOONEY: Yes, but you don't go -- I actually -- I've offered him and I will continue to offer him the same thing I've been offering him for a year. If it wasn't about ratings, then debate me on Larry King, your competition, during the sweeps if it's not about that, and not while you're selling a book.

You know, I will just say this, that accusation that he did, it hurt the United Way. It hurt the telethon, the money that was raised. It came a month after we had the telethon, when we were still -- when Eliot Spitzer was still trying to come up with the amount of people that had been killed in the World Trade Center, and the number...

KURTZ: The New York attorney general.

CLOONEY: ... at the time they thought it was about 6,000 people. We had given out about $36 million at that point of the money, and we had a lot more to give out, but we wanted to know the names of the people before we did it, because we thought it would be irresponsible.

KURTZ: O'Reilly also criticized you for making a joke about Charlton Heston, the former NRA chief, having Alzheimer's.


KURTZ: Was that in poor taste in retrospect?

CLOONEY: Yes, oh, yes. It was in poor taste. It was a funny joke. It was in a room of 100 people. Yeah, (UNINTELLIGIBLE). I have a lot of good friends who -- in fact, I have a very good friend who is dying of Alzheimer's. And it was just a funny joke.

KURTZ: Now, I have (UNINTELLIGIBLE) play this next clip, which comes from your movie, "Batman and Robin." You're a liberal Democrat, and you appeared in that movie with the incoming governor of California. Let's take a look.

CLOONEY: That's right.


ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, ACTOR: You are not sending me to the cooler.


KURTZ: So, the reason I played that clip is because obviously you know Arnold Schwarzenegger.

CLOONEY: Yes, I do.

KURTZ: And you were quoted on a Web site, which said you gave an interview to a German magazine as saying that Arnold shouldn't have to explain his hijinx from his bodybuilder days, all the sex and drug allegations.

CLOONEY: Right. Well, it wasn't accurate. It was an interview that was done in French and then translated to German and then translated into English. But the truth is -- and I've said it and I've been always very careful to say it all along -- which is this, Arnold is a friend and I know him very well. I disagree with him politically. I have always. I was raised as a liberal Democrat. But I think he's a nice guy, and I'm sure he's going to do a good job.

KURTZ: Did you say that America is too prudish about such matters?

CLOONEY: No, it doesn't sound like something I would say, you know.

KURTZ: This question also seems to pop up as to whether you might run for public office.

CLOONEY: Not a chance.

KURTZ: Not a chance.

CLOONEY: Not a chance.

KURTZ: Because?

CLOONEY: I'll tell you something, being here is even a better education. It's a much tougher job, I think, than people understand, because there is so much more involved than just coming up with speeches. You know, there's a real, there's a real inner-working here that...

KURTZ: Well, how about when all of the reporters look into your background? I'm sure that's crossed your mind.

CLOONEY: Sure. But that's what I always say. Anyone who is now going to be elected president has probably lived through the drug counterculture and the sexual revolution. And so, they're going to have to run on the, "yes, I did it" ticket from here on in, I think. That's my guess.

KURTZ: And as I mentioned, I have done a couple of scenes for "K Street." What is the fascination that official Washington has with Hollywood? I mean, you've got all these important people here dealing with bills that involve billions of dollars...


KURTZ: ... and a movie star walks in and everybody goes nuts.

CLOONEY: Oh, I don't know if they all go nuts. I know that what's fun about it for us is the same fascination that we have with Washington, which is it's a world that we don't understand at all, and I'm sure that that's probably the same way on the other side. It's always -- you know, I'm very taken when I'm meeting politicians. I think it's interesting. I'm sort of star struck by them at times.

KURTZ: You're star struck. George Clooney is star struck at meeting some senator?

CLOONEY: Sure. Well, they've given up a whole lot to do it, and they have a much bigger effect on the country than anybody in Hollywood does. So it's really interesting. I'm very happy to be here and had a really interesting education on political life here.

KURTZ: You have gotten some bad reviews in your time.

CLOONEY: Oh, sure.

KURTZ: "Batman and Robin," "The Peacemaker." Do you think that journalists -- you're a big star, that journalists are just salivating, waiting to take down somebody or knock them down once they are riding pretty high on the Hollywood circuit?

CLOONEY: No, I don't think that. I think that that's -- you know, that's a little paranoid. You know, if an actor thinks that. I think the truth is, if you've gotten to a place where you're successful, when you first break, most of the things they say about you are usually pretty good because you're breaking. And then, you've got to talk about something else, so you've got to come after them a little bit. I think it's cyclical. Most people who get beat up usually have -- if they survive long enough, they usually have a renaissance. You know, I'm not that paranoid.

KURTZ: So, bad press just rolls off of you because you just think it's part of the game of being in the public eye.

CLOONEY: Well, it doesn't roll off of me easily, you know, because I think if you're an actor, part of -- you know, part of your makeup is that you want people to like you. You know, so I don't think it necessarily rolls off easily.

KURTZ: Right.

CLOONEY: But you also have to take some stands along the way.

KURTZ: Now, your new movie is "Intolerable Cruelty."


KURTZ: And I was about to ask you what Catherine Zeta-Jones is really like, but we're out of time.

CLOONEY: Well, I'll tell you, she's great.

KURTZ: You can tell me afterwards.

CLOONEY: I will.

KURTZ: George Clooney, thanks for sitting here and taking our interrogation.

CLOONEY: Thank you very much.

KURTZ: Appreciate your being on.

When we come back, the Elizabeth Smart story. The networks pull out the stops in trying to be the first with the big interview. That's next in our media minute.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Time now for a quick look at the world of media news.


KURTZ (voice-over): A lot of people thought Bill O'Reilly was just being his cantankerous self when he abruptly pulled the plug on an interview with NPR's Terry Gross.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "O'REILLY FACTOR": You should be ashamed of yourself, and that is the end of this interview.

KURTZ: But the ombudsman of National Public Radio thinks O'Reilly was right. The Fox News host was being interviewed about his new book, but the questions, says O'Reilly, sounded more like the barbs dished out by his liberal nemesis Al Franken. Ombudsman Jeffrey Dyvorkin criticized O'Reilly for being unable to take Gross' tough questions, but saved his harshest words for the host of "Fresh Air." "I believe listeners were not well served by this interview," he wrote. "It may have illustrated the cultural wars, but it only served to confirm the belief, held by some, in NPR's liberal bias."

Almost eight months after her kidnapping ordeal ended, who got the first interview with Utah teenager Elizabeth Smart? Hard to tell. Doubleday, which is publishing a book by her parents, promised the first sitdown to NBC's Katie Couric for a prime-time special, with earlier excerpts on the "Today Show." But CBS, which owns some of the rights to the story and is preparing its own movie about the kidnapping, wanted in on the action last week, and the network rushed on the air a special on the making of the movie, including an interview with Smart's parents. Now Doubleday is mad at CBS.

ABC has also elbowed its way into the Smart crowd. "Good Morning America" ran clips from an embargoed interview with Elizabeth Smart done by Oprah Winfrey several days before the Katie Couric exclusive.

Finally, Tony Snow is stepping down as the host of FOX NEWS SUNDAY. The network was looking for a fresh face, so Snow will become a Fox analyst and launch a new radio show for the network. Fox executives say they've lined up a new Sunday host, but the mystery man's identity remains classified.


KURTZ: We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.


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