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Why Are Media Hyping Academy Awards?; Hunter Thompson's Legacy

Aired February 27, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Movie madness. Are the media hyping the heck out of tonight's Oscars in an effort to keep a fading ritual alive? And why do the likes of Annette Bening, Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio need a publicity boost anyway?

Plus, gonzo guy is gone. The late Hunter Thompson, with his wild and crazy drug and alcohol-fueled prose, launched a generation of young imitators -- or did he? Was he a new journalism trailblazer, or just a burnt out relic of the '60s?

And those secret Bush recordings. More than 30 years after Nixon's Watergate tapes, this president gets off easy.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Today we focus our laser-like critical lens on the red carpet, the stars, the glitter and the glory of today's Oscars -- and oh, right, did we mention the hype?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is the place where dreams will come true Sunday night.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're going to try to show you the Oscars you've never seen before.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tick-tock, tick-tock, hear that?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is the sound of Oscar's clock counting down.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Could also be the hearts of the nominees beating.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Two days to the Academy Awards, and the frenzy over who's wearing what and who's going home with the golden statue is pretty much widespread.


KURTZ: So why are the media during their annual swoon for the Academy Awards even as the show's ratings continue to decline?

Joining me now from the red carpet, outside the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, "US Weekly" movie editor, B.J. Sigesmund. He's also regular contribution to CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING."

In our Los Angeles bureau, Sharon Waxman, who covers Hollywood for "The New York Times." She's also the author of "Rebels on the Backlot: Six Maverick Directors and How They Conquered the Hollywood Studio System."

And with me here in Washington, ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper, who examined the world of celebrity media and promotion in Hollywood for Friday's "Nightline." Welcome.

Sharon Waxman, you write that the Oscars are sort of a snooze this year. Why do the media continue to lavish all this attention on a formulaic TV show whose ratings are continuing to sink?

SHARON WAXMAN, NEW YORK TIMES: Well, it's still the national movie ritual. The Oscars are still the Oscars, the most watched award show of the year, but the ratings are falling. And don't forget, the media, they get a lot of readers out of it too. It's the one time that you kind of know that everybody in the country is thinking about movies.

KURTZ: Jake Tapper, could it be that the media are so obsessed with celebrities these days that they just want to wallow in all the glitz and the fashion?

JAKE TAPPER, ABC NEWS: It could be, Howard. But it's not just the media, it's the American people.

KURTZ: You are saying there is a hunger out there and we are feeding the demand?

TAPPER: Yeah. The "Nightline" that we did on Friday examined the world of celebrity media, and the explosion of these new glossies that are on the newsstands. A lot of them have just been launched in the last few years, and they're doing hundreds of millions of dollars in business. I think $1.3 million -- billion I should say from newsstands alone. And then you have all these new TV shows. "The Insider," which is a spinoff from "Entertainment Tonight," in case there wasn't enough news on "Entertainment Tonight," now they have "The Insider." It's just huge business.

KURTZ: B.J. Sigesmund, you're there at the epicenter, you're on the red carpet. What is it like? You got a hot ticket for tonight. What's it like to put on a tuxedo and hobnob with the stars?

B.J. SIGESMUND, US WEEKLY: It's not so bad. I actually wanted to add one thing, though, that Jake just said. "US Weekly" is the industry leader in that new category that he was just referring to, and there are weeks that we sell a million copies of "US Weekly." Our third Brad and Jen cover in January sold 1.25 million copies, and this upcoming issue on stands this week, which will close tomorrow night, which will be our Oscar extravaganza, will have more advertising pages in it than any issue of "Us Weekly" in history, and these are weekly magazines we're talking about, not monthly. Weekly.

KURTZ: All right, since you offered that paid political advertisement, you used to work for "Newsweek," now you work for "US Weekly." Do you have any sort of feeling that you've gone from hard news to the world of celebrity fluff?

SIGESMUND: Well, I was always interested in entertainment, and I always covered entertainment for "Newsweek," and I wanted to be on the front lines of it. I wanted to work in this new category of magazines that was just exploding and continues to explode.

KURTZ: Let me just turn to Sharon Waxman now. We have all of these award shows these days -- the Golden Globes, the Grammys, MTVs and many others, and as Jake alluded to, we have all of these program -- "Entertainment Tonight," "Access Hollywood," "Extra," now HEADLINE NEWS has "SHOWBIZ TONIGHT." Could we all be OD-ing on this stuff and that kind of dilutes the value of it, because it's just everywhere?

WAXMAN: I mean, I think that that's exactly what we're starting to see. So you're talking about the hype of the media, which is going to be lagging behind a little bit. If there is a point that we're reaching now that is what is maybe awards overload or awards fatigue. And I think that the Academy is feeling it. The Golden Globe are feeling it. Even the Grammys this year, their ratings really dropped -- dropped by big numbers. The Golden Globes dropped by nearly 40 percent this year. And we're talking about the same movies.

So I wanted to make the distinction between what you're talking about between celebrity versus the movies. What Jake is talking about is this obsession and this constant public hunger for celebrity, for news about celebrities, and this year the Academy Awards don't have as many celebrities at them as they've had in years past. You've got stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, you got stars like Annette Bening, but there aren't any really great big movies that have really captured the mainstream, blockbuster audience, and this is a concern.

KURTZ: But interestingly enough, this has had no effect on the coverage, and if you measured it by volume, by column acres, by air time, I think it is probably the same as it would be every other year.

I want to turn, Jake Tapper, to the "Nightline" report that you did this past Friday night. You had an interview that struck me, with a veteran PR man named Ken Sunshine. Let's take a look at that.


KEN SUNSHINE: The publicists are making deals with the publications on the backs of their A-level celebrities, and that's outrageous.

TAPPER: What do they do?

SUNSHINE: Pay them off. I would say, you know, I look the other way, but this is where my A-level celebrity will be tonight, we can get that shot, but you have got to print a shot of these B and C-level celebrities and get it in there. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The publicists are making deals with the publications. Is this real journalism or a kind of a form of cheerleading, where everybody benefits, because it's all soft and warm and fuzzy?

TAPPER: It's not all soft and warm and fuzzy, and that's one of the things. Some of the television shows lean more towards cooperation with the Hollywood hype machine and the industry itself. But magazines like B.J.'s "US Weekly" and "The Star" and some of the glossies magazines take a slightly more adversarial relationship with the stars. And they are looking for news. And you might think it's gossip, you might think it's not important, but they are writing stories that the stars don't necessarily want to appear in print. They are printing photographs of stars' cellulite on the beach.

So this whole industry has taken a turn towards a much more confrontational approach, and that's what Sunshine was talking about, the PR guru for Leo and Ben. He was talking about how publicists, not in his own shop but other publicists, will sell out their A-list stars, give gossip with the deal, the implicit deal with these publications, to put the B and C list stars in the magazines.

KURTZ: But B.J., when I read these photos in "US Weekly" and other magazines, where they just happen to be where Jennifer Lopez is on the beach in Santa Monica or whenever, I sometimes think, I know this is shocking, that you know, this was set up, that some PR person tipped them off. I mean, the photographers can't be anywhere. So isn't that the kind of thing where you are really cooperating with the big names in order to sell magazines?

SIGESMUND: Well, "US Weekly" does have some cooperation when stars want to be in "US Weekly." But mostly we cover the news that people want to read about, and the people that people want to read about it.

You know, the celebrity journalism has changed. People grew tired of those profiles that were so fawning, people could see through those. They didn't care to hear what the people thought so much about their movies and the world. They wanted to -- they're growing more obsessed with the minutia of celebrities. Where they're traveling, where they're vacationing, who they're dating. Those are the sorts of details that we uncover every week in the magazine, and it's proven to be a huge success.

KURTZ: Sharon Waxman, don't you think a lot of entertainment coverage, whether it's of the movies in Hollywood or just the general celebrityhood that we're subjected to, 365 days a year, is awfully soft?

WAXMAN: Terribly soft. I mean, what's not new about what Ken Sunshine was saying is that the whole publicist-celebrity relationship has been hand in glove for years, I mean, ever since the dawn of this sort of celebrity era. They need each other. They are part of a co- dependent relationship, so -- and I'm talking about even the sort of "National Enquirer" and "The Globe" stories, where you have Elizabeth Taylor walking out of her plastic surgeon's, you know, backdoor. There's a reason somebody got that picture. Somebody dropped a dime. And somebody was probably, who you know, in the circle of Elizabeth Taylor.

So -- and so that goes back a ways, since we've seen those pictures. So while that relationship may be morphing away from the profiles that used to be the staples of the "Vanity Fairs" and still are in some places, but you know, towards the more minutia, that is still a very co-dependant relationship and the celebrities can pretend that, oh, you know, the paparazzi, we hate them, but in fact I think if they were to be completely ignored, the private conversations are why isn't my picture in the magazine.

KURTZ: A co-dependent relationship that sounds so cozy.

B.J., as everybody who hasn't been living in a cave knows, Chris Rock is the host of this year's Oscars, and he kind of stirred things up by telling "Entertainment Weekly" that he doesn't know any straight black man who watches the Oscars, it's just a fashion show. This struck me when he said it -- and I think even more now -- that it was a ploy, it was a scam, he's trying to stir up some controversy. And we all in the media fell for it. True or false?

SIGESMUND: I think there may be some truth to that. You're certainly not the first to speculate about that. But you know what? This is Chris Rock. I mean, they hired Chris Rock because he injects a lot of edge into his humor. He's not the soft, cuddly Billy Crystal. He's sort of a 180 from Billy Crystal, and I think that they probably felt that the Oscars needed that injection of edge, and we'll see if their risk pays off. We'll see the overnight ratings tomorrow, maybe 24 hours from now, about if people tuned in or if people tuned out, if Chris Rock didn't draw them in. But yes, I do believe that there was a possibility of a controversial remark to provoke more stories.

KURTZ: It's not a possibility, it's a certainty, take it from me.

Jake Tapper, you have sat on an editorial meeting at "Star" magazine. Do you think that this is a business that is a very cooperative in its approach to celebrities, or do you think it's more confrontational, as you alluded to earlier?

TAPPER: Well, I think it's both. I mean, Sharon's right of course, that the publicists work hand in glove with a lot of these publications. But the truth of the matter is, there is a lot of coverage going on out there that the stars don't want, and a lot of it is -- this is the direction that the celebrity media is going. FOX television on Thursday night ran an hour-long show called "Stars Without Makeup." That is not a show that those stars wanted to air.

KURTZ: "Stars Without Makeup." Boy, I certainly wouldn't want to do this show without makeup.

All right, B.J., you'll be inside the hall tonight, have a good time, and be reporting back on CNN's "AMERICAN MORNING" tomorrow. Thanks for joining us from Los Angeles, along with Sharon Waxman from "The New York Times." Thanks very much for being with us.

Jake Tapper, stick around. When we come back, fear and loathing, the legacy of Hunter Thompson.



He was anything but an ordinary journalist.


DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: Writer Hunter S. Thompson was found dead at his Aspen, Colorado home, an apparent suicide at 67.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS: He was a maverick in life and death.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC ANCHOR: A journalist, an author, a patriot, a professional troublemaker, a complex walking monument to misbehavior.


how; And this week, there was so much written about Thompson. The first, may be only gonzo journalist, known for his "Fear and Loathing" books, and among political junkies for his wild and crazy book on the 1972 presidential campaign. But was he a trailblazer? Just a paranoid drunk and druggie with an overactive imagination? One of the two.

Jake Tapper of ABC News is still with us, and joining us now from San Diego is "The Washington Post's" Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer Henry Allen.

Henry Allen, I was struck by a quote in your piece about Hunter Thompson this past week. You said "he was a particular hero to journalists whose terrible secret is that beneath all that globe- hopping and news anchor fame, they are merely clerks and voyeurs."

So is one of the reason for this outpouring of coverage that a lot of aging boomers wanted secretly to be Hunter Thompson?

HENRY ALLEN, THE WASHINGTON POST: Hell, every aging boomer wanted to be Hunter Thompson. That was -- he was an icon of a generation. And everybody wanted to escape their offices and get out there and raise a little ruckus, like Dr. Thompson.

KURTZ: Did he inspire you to take a few more risks, journalistically speaking?

ALLEN: Well, I suppose I had in the '60s and '70s, that I savored most of the delights.

KURTZ: That sounds like a George W. Bush-type admission without the details.

ALLEN: You're got it. That's it.

KURTZ: All right. You read Thompson -- the drinking, the drugs, the guns. If you weren't around in the '60s, you would think this guy was crazy.

TAPPER: Well, he was a little crazy, obviously.

KURTZ: That was part of his appeal.

TAPPER: It was part of his appeal. But there is one thing about him that I think has been captured in some of the coverage, not all of it, that I think was a very significant contribution to journalism, and that is, he had -- and it's strange to say about a guy who lived life on the edge, ethically and legally -- but he had a real sense of moral outrage. He would be very -- he was angered at Hubert Humphrey, angered at Richard Nixon, and these are qualities that I think are insufficient in today's media. I don't think there is enough of a sense of outrage.

KURTZ: Too bland? Not enough passion?

TAPPER: Yeah, I mean, there are things that go on in this world that are just plain wrong, and I don't sense that there is enough of that in today's media. I mean, I feel like there is a very benign feeling, and he had a real sense of anger, and I think it was very, very healthy.

KURTZ: Let me turn back to your article, Henry Allen. You quoted some political descriptions from Thompson's book on the '72 campaign. "Being around Edmund Muskie," quote, "was something like being locked in a rolling box car with a vicious 200-pound water rat."

Richard Nixon, quote, "speaks to the werewolf in us."

And Hubert Humphrey, "there is no way to grasp what a shallow, contemptible and hopelessly dishonest old hack Hubert Humphrey is until you've followed him around for a while."

Now, if he were writing that today, wouldn't all the bloggers be on him for bias and exaggeration and that sort of thing?

ALLEN: You bet. Except that somehow he managed to find himself a license to do that kind of thing. And sometimes say the things that a lot of people secretly thought but didn't want to bring out in public. So Hunter Thompson was doing a job for a lot of people.

KURTZ: He was all id and no superego, I suppose.

Jake Tapper, there have been some critics, like Stephen Schwartz in "The Weekly Standard," who writes that "Thompson was flattered to be described as the chronicler of the death of the American dream. In reality, he described a nightmare from which America awoke years ago."

You know, here is a guy who killed himself. I mean, was there a quality to him that he had outlived the time in which he had thrived, when he seemed to embody all those counterculture values?

TAPPER: Yeah, I think so, and I think his early journalism makes his later stuff -- puts his later stuff to shame. I mean, when he was actually on the campaign trail. "Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail" in 1972 is probably one of the five best books about political -- about politics and political journalism that has been written in the 20th century. I think it's just a moment. The stuff he was writing from his cabin in Colorado in his later years pales in comparison.

KURTZ: Henry Allen, but at the center of that "Fear and Loathing" book and in a lot of his books and a lot of his "Rolling Stone" articles, it was mostly about him. So to the extent that he helped launch this thing we call new journalism, did he span a self- indulgent movement in which the writer's favorite word is "I"?

ALLEN: Well, I think during the '70s, there was an awful lot of the first person, but inspired in part by him. And...

KURTZ: Was that a good thing or a bad thing?

ALLEN: When it works, it's a good thing. With him, it worked. With most of the rest of the people who tried it, it didn't work. It just seemed self-indulgent. But don't forget, Hunter Thompson always made you laugh, and you will forgive almost anything of a media person who can make you laugh.

KURTZ: I've got 20 seconds. A lot of people tried to be Hunter Thompson, at least stylistically, and couldn't quite pull it off?

TAPPER: I mean, there's only one. He's an original, but I mean, I think the fact that people did try his style in the new journalism is still around, and there are still a lot of people -- a lot of people who are not going to be the next Hunter Thompson, but have learned from him, and journalism is better for it.

KURTZ: All right, well, hopefully they have gotten off the drugs, though.

Jake Tapper, Henry Allen, thanks very much for joining us on this Hunter Thompson segment.

Up next, the private president, behind the headlines of the Bush tapes.


KURTZ: Secret presidential tapes, now there's a hot story.


KURTZ (voice-over): When "The New York Times" disclosed that Doug Wead, a longtime friend of President Bush, had secretly recorded their conversations from 1998 to 2000, it had bombshell potential. After all, Richard Nixon's White House tapes revealed a much darker side of the 37th president. Profane, paranoid, lashing out at his enemies.

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As long as this trial is going on, the Congress will keep its g--- d--- cotton- picking hands off that trial.

KURTZ: But the man on the Bush tape sounds, well, very much like the George W. Bush we see in public. Talking about his faith and reading the Bible daily, and saying he wouldn't kick gays, although some Christian conservative leaders might like that.

DOUG WEAD: He's saying that you promised you would not appoint gays to office.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R), TEXAS: No, what I said was I wouldn't fire gays. I'm not going to discriminate against people.

KURTZ: Of course Bush went on to make an election year proposal for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, and he did seem to admit on the tapes that he had tried marijuana, not that that was any great shock for a man who pled guilty to an irresponsible youth, but didn't want to say so for fear that young people might follow his example.

By and large, the private Bush sounded like the public Bush, which is why the media began to focus not on the president's words, but on Doug Wead's role as the turncoat friend, the Linda Tripp of 2005.

BILL PRESS, FORMER CALIFORNIA DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIRMAN: I think all of us agree that Doug Wead is scum.

BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": I think this guy Wead is the lowest form of debris in the country. I don't think he should make any money.

KURTZ: Wead defended himself on CNN.

WEAD: Well, this isn't about money. I could sell the tapes. You've only seen little snippets.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, it is going to help your book, isn't it?

WEAD: Well, my book could have been released before the election. It would have been a runaway best-seller.

KURTZ: But actually, he did do it to pump up sales of his new book, and therefore to make money.

Wead realized he was taking a beating, so he changed his story. He canceled plans to appear on Chris Matthews' "HARDBALL," telling the program that contrary to what he told "The New York Times," friendship was more important than history, and he would donate his book profits to charity.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: What a pal. Don't look for Doug Wead to be getting a White House party invitation anytime soon.

Up next, why the media are to blame for all of Jose Canseco's troubles. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Retired baseball star Jose Canseco is pushing a new book that accuses other players of using steroids. Why did he write it?


JOSE CANSECO, FORMER MLB PLAYER: For 17 years, I've taken a beating in the media. For 17 years, the media has made me the black knight, the scapegoat. For 17 years, the media has portrayed me as a wife beater, an aggressive, loud individual who does nothing but go to nightclubs and beat people up.


KURTZ: Maybe, Jose, that's because you rammed your Porsche into your first wife's BMW, pleaded no contest to hitting your second wife, were once charged with illegally possessing a loaded pistol, were arrested at a brawl at a Miami Beach night club, and once broke a tourist's nose.

You're right, the media can be so negative in reporting such behavior.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer is up right now.


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