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Celebrity Justice; Interview With Tom Fenton

Aired March 6, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Celebrity justice. From her upcoming star turn on NBC's "The Apprentice" to the cover of Newsweek, are the media helping orchestrate Martha Stewart's comeback?

A journalistic mob descends on the Michael Jackson trial. Do we really want to hear all the graphic testimony? And how have the legal tribulations of the famous become such everyday fodder for the press?

Plus, a fade-out for international news? Former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton says his old network and the others are shrinking coverage of the rest of the world.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on celebrities and the justice system. I'm Howard Kurtz.

It was big news when Martha Stewart came under investigation in an insider trading case, big news when she was convicted of lying to investigators, and big news when she reported to jail for a five-month term.

But the media love a comeback story. So several networks have been airing Martha Stewart specials, including CNN, which featured this behind-the-scenes footage of her stay in prison.

And when the homemaker turned CEO left prison early Friday morning, the cable networks all took it live. MSNBC's Dan Abrams started getting a report from a producer in hot pursuit of Stewart's car.


DAN ABRAMS, MSNBC HOST: Our own producer is actually in a car, I believe, following Martha Stewart to the airport. John, is that right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah, Dan. Well, I can't confirm it's actually her car.

ABRAMS: Oh, unfortunately, we have lost John Zeto (ph).


KURTZ: What a tragedy. And the coverage has continued pretty much non-stop since that moment.

Well, joining us now, "Celerity Justice" correspondent Jane Velez-Mitchell, in Los Angeles, who's covering the Michael Jackson trial. In New York, Newsweek senior writer Charles Gasparino. He's the author of "Blood on the Street: The Sensational Inside Story of How Wall Street Analysts Duped a Generation of Investors." And with me in the studio, Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi. Welcome.

Charles Gasparino, the coverage here has treated Martha Stewart like Nelson Mandela getting out of prison, a conquering hero. Hardly anyone bothers to mention anymore that she was convicted of lying to investigators and...


KURTZ: ... as you noted in your Newsweek piece that she still faces SEC civil charges. So how does going to jail make you some kind of heroine?

GASPARINO: I think you said it right in the beginning, the media loves a comeback story. And as someone who relentlessly covered Martha from the beginning, me and your colleague Jerry Markon, who now works at The Washington Post, you know, when you build someone up, there is a temptation among journalists to say when you take them down, let's have a comeback story. It sells, let's face it.

KURTZ: Jane Velez-Mitchell, on Friday we saw that wall-to-wall video of Martha coming out of her estate to serve coffee to reporters and to sip her cappuccino, and this was treated like breaking news.

My question is, usually in these rituals, the press requires someone to say they're sorry. Now, Martha Stewart hasn't even admitted her crime, and in fact she's still appealing. So how did she skip the contrition part?

JANE VELEZ-MITCHELL, CELEBRITY JUSTICE: I absolutely agree with you. And I think the big test is coming up. She says that this experience in prison has been life-altering. So how is she going to alter her life? How is she going to alter the message that she sends to Americans in her TV shows, which are about lifestyle and business? Is it going to be still about make more, more, more money, expand the empire even more? I mean, she made half a billion dollars, according to some reports, while in prison. How much more money does she need? Can she now take some of those values that she learned in prison and use them to send a different message to Americans, perhaps about simplicity, perhaps getting off the consumerism bandwagon, perhaps looking at the working conditions of some of the people making the products that she sells. That's what I think is going to be the big test for her. Put your money where your mouth is.

KURTZ: All right. Now, she also is stage-managing this pretty well, Paul Farhi. She released some video of her inside the house, knowing the networks were hungry for fresh pictures.

My question is this -- NBC is putting her on some spinoff of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" in an NBC reality show, and so now the media create a television forum for her and then say she's a big success. So what is NBC's role in this comeback?

PAUL FARHI, WASHINGTON POST: Well, NBC wants to take advantage of the notoriety. In addition to a comeback story here, you've got a certain kind of victim story as well. She goes to jail, she pays her debt to society, she comes back. There is a sense out there, I think among some people, that she got greater punishment than the guys at Enron, the guys at WorldCom, all of the corporate scandals that have not been sufficiently wrapped up, but yet Martha goes to jail. She now has come back, and people see her as a fallen woman who has risen again. That's a great story for a lot of people.

KURTZ: Charlie Gasparino, I mentioned the Newsweek cover story. Here it is. As has been remarked upon this week, this is a photo illustration. It's Martha's head on somebody else's body. Make for a nicer picture. In retrospect, do you think that was a mistake on the magazine's part?

GASPARINO: Well, I think we should have disclosed it better. And you know, obviously, we're sorry if we misled anybody. There is a disclosure internally, but I think in the future we're going to disclose it better. And that's the bottom -- that's all you can really say on this.

KURTZ: Yeah, there was a very tiny line of type inside that said "photo illustration."

GASPARINO: Right. Exactly. But I think...

KURTZ: I asked a lot of journalists, and they did not see it.

I want to ask you another question as well, which is -- and Paul Farhi alluded to this. Is this going to be the new career move for fallen executives, just, you know, bypass go and go directly to jail? Do Enron and WorldCom executives get to do this, or is it something that's unique to the diva of domesticity?

GASPARINO: Yeah, listen, part of this obviously is that she's a woman, and being a woman victim, let's face it, sells among politically correct journalists and their editors. And I think that's why building Martha up as someone making a big comeback, someone who, you know, beat the odds, someone who beat the white male sort of judicial system, is a story that journalists see as compelling.

I don't think the average man on the street does. You know, I talked to a lot of people in bars and restaurants, and they're just sick of the coverage. And one other thing I think we have to say, you have to ask, has the coverage been good? And I don't really think so. I mean, people completely gloss over the fact, except for a few reporters, Chris Byron at The New York Post among them, that this Martha Stewart is going to, you know, go back to a company that's actually not doing very well.

KURTZ: Let me come back to Jane Velez-Mitchell. Martha Stewart had image problems even before she got into legal difficulty. She was seen as kind of an ice queen, who didn't treat the help very well. So has she shrewdly now used her time in prison, we've got these leaked anecdotes about how she's helping the other inmates with cooking and yoga, to transform herself into a more likable figure?

VELEZ-MITCHELL: She absolutely has. I think the whole world is rooting for her. I mean, she went from one of these queens of mean who -- I really do. I mean, people -- during the trial she was painted as somebody who was complaining and going on a tirade because she didn't like the music that was playing when she was put on hold, and then in prison she bonded with the inmates. When she walked out, she was wearing an outfit that was apparently made by one of the inmates. She goes out to the reporters, she hands them coffee and cocoa and juggles lemons. I mean, she's showing grace, she's showing humor.

I think that a lot of people really admire that. She has the world's attention right now. This is an amazing opportunity. The comeback queen story is kind of old. What's she going to do with it next? Is she going to take it up to the next level? This is an amazing opportunity really to send a message to Americans.

FARHI: That's always been part of the Martha Stewart package. She's always been kind of the ice queen. And people who like her know that about her. They like that aspect of her. It's another dimension. She's going to play off of that when she's on "The Apprentice," the tough boss who fires people.

KURTZ: Now, Paul Farhi, you're just back from Santa Maria, California where the other celebrity case, the Michael Jackson trial -- in fact, Martha's hired the same image consultant who worked for Michael Jackson. This is one of the most famous people in the world ever to stand trial. What is it like to be standing outside that courthouse with the media mob?

FARHI: Well, of course it's a zoo, and you're part of the animals among the zoo. It's crazy. It's the media at its worst, I guess. On the other hand, people don't see the media at its worst, they see what's in front of the camera, not behind it. You know, it's a story of widespread interest. We're not going to ignore it. We've got to be there. And if it takes 600, 800 reporters, that's what we'll do.

KURTZ: Apparently, that is what it takes. Jane Velez-Mitchell, there's been some colorful testimony this week, for example, about an effort by the Jackson side to paint the accuser's mother as some kind of crack whore. But this trial is supposed to last six months. Is this going to be a big story for six months? Are you going to be there for six months?

VELEZ-MITCHELL: I will be there for as long as it takes. And it is a very big story. And I think the message to the media is, before you convict somebody, listen to the evidence. This was a very bad week for the prosecution. The general consensus is that the district attorney's opening statement was rambling and rusty, and he has a very complicated story to tell. Ten counts in the conspiracy count alone. There are 28 alleged overt acts.

And then the bombshell was the rebuttal video played Friday of this family gushing for more than 40 minutes about Michael Jackson, how wonderful he is, he's an ideal family man. This is supposedly the time that they were being held captive and being forced to say these things. But even on the outtakes, they seem extremely happy, and it doesn't look like they're being forced.

KURTZ: OK. Charlie Gasparino, imagine how much bigger this would be if cameras were allowed in the courtrooms. But that hasn't stopped the E! Network, which is doing these re-enactments. Let's take a quick look at that.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: When I walked into the wine cellar, I saw Mr. Jackson pouring wine into cups.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And how many cups?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know. They were just cups. I don't remember how many there were.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did everybody have one?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you see anybody drink out of it?



GASPARINO: This is insane.

KURTZ: Those are actors. Charlie, is that journalism or fakery?

GASPARINO: You really want me to answer that question?

KURTZ: I do.

GASPARINO: Obviously, it's fakery. I mean, this is insane. I think the problem with the Michael Jackson coverage, again, it's oversaturation. It's like Martha. I think at some point, the average man on the street is going to get tired of this. Did you say six months for this trial? I mean, six weeks is too long.

KURTZ: Let me briefly turn to Paul Farhi. What about what you called the revulsion factor, that is the graphic...

FARHI: That's why it's not going to be as big a story as people thought it was going to be, because of that. People don't want to sit around and talk about the charges that are on the table here. It's OK to talk about O.J. Simpson possibly killing two people with a knife, but it really isn't the same thing to talk about what Michael Jackson is accused of. And that's really limiting what -- the profile of this case.

KURTZ: All right. We'll see how that turns out. Last word, Paul Farhi, Jane Velez-Mitchell, Charlie Gasparino, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, he traveled the world for CBS for more than a quarter century. Now he says the networks are doing a lousy job of covering the world. Veteran foreign correspondent Tom Fenton joins us next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. He reported for CBS News from around the globe for 34 years, from behind the Iron Curtain, to the Middle East, to the war on terror. Now Tom Fenton is taking a highly pointed and critical look at his former employer and the networks in general, with his new book, "Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News and the Danger to Us All." Tom Fenton, welcome.


KURTZ: I want to ask you first about this Italian kidnap victim who's wounded by U.S. troops, Giuliana Sgrena. She now is challenging the account of the Americans, says that the car that she was in after she was released was not speeding, there were no warning lights flashed. For Western journalists in Iraq, unintentionally or not, have U.S. troops become part of the danger there?

FENTON: Well, U.S. troops are the ones who have the big guns. Journalists have always had the risk of being caught in a crossfire. I think there are a couple of things we can say about this story. Two things -- one, it's extremely hard to report from Iraq. Most of the reporters, most of the journalists don't go out of the hotel. It's worth their life. Even going to a press conference in the Green Zone is dangerous.

Two, there is a back story also to this Italian journalist. It's pretty widely known that both Italy and France are paying ransoms. That means that every Italian journalist, every French journalist there is a walking target. The going price for a Western -- say, for an American journalist, particularly a TV correspondent, they're big guns, in Iraq is something like $4 million right now. People get picked up and they get shopped to somebody else who will pay that kind of money...

KURTZ: That's pretty scary, because obviously it provides an incentive to terrorists to do this sort of thing again.

FENTON: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Now, turning to your book, there is almost daily coverage right now, or nightly coverage of what's going on in Iraq. Doesn't that undercut somewhat your message that the networks are drastically cutting back on their coverage of the rest of the world?

FENTON: Good lord, no. I mean, first of all, the Iraq story you could say is a domestic story, it's hardly even a foreign story. Secondly, it is so thin, so one-sided. There are four, five, six, or seven sides to the story in Iraq. Do we know what's going on up in the Kurdish north, for example? There are really important things happening that may affect the stability of Iraq in the future. There are all kinds of things happening. We see one small part of one small part of the story. And on most nights on the television networks -- the book is about the media in general, but with a focus on the networks -- in most cases, you just get one story a night, you're not hearing about all the rest.

Big things are happening in the rest of the world. And of course, the analogy I draw in the book or the parallel is what happened in the 1990s, when the networks thought we were at peace, and we weren't.

KURTZ: I was about to ask you this, so thank you for setting me up. You tell the story in the book of the mid-'90s of you first trying to get an interview with and then to do a story on a guy named Osama bin Laden, not widely known by Americans at that time. Explain what happened when you pitched CBS on this idea.

FENTON: Well, we got hold of a guy in London who was a conduit to Osama. He put us in contact with an Egyptian physician. The whole thing was set up. Osama was ready to go. That was the time when he was looking for publicity. He wanted to raise his profile.

KURTZ: What was the appetite by CBS News?



FENTON: Because this was some unknown Arab of no interest to our viewers, and most importantly they had to pay the money to send us to Afghanistan. It's not big bucks, but it was -- the whole thing was driven by the bottom line.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, after the end of communism, they turned -- not just CBS, ABC, NBC, the mainstream media in general, turned their backs to the world and decided they would cash in on the peace dividend. Fine, you say. Why not? Except that we were not at peace. You remember the attacks on the Americans in Saudi Arabia, the embassies in Africa, the attacks on the USS Cole.

KURTZ: I want to read a statement to me about your book by CBS executive Marcy McGinnis. She says the following -- "It is insulting. Tom's former colleagues who are currently risking their lives in Iraq, who spend weeks in Indonesia and Sri Lanka reporting on the tsunami, will be amazed and disgusted at Tom's portrayal of their work." Your response.

FENTON: Well, my response is I've talked to my former colleagues, and I've gotten a very, very supportive response. In fact -- and when we do things like the other day, CBS covered the Auschwitz memorial ceremonies in Auschwitz, by covering it from London. And my colleagues are saying, you see, Tom's right. Tom's right. KURTZ: In other words, there were fewer correspondents getting on planes to go to the actual countries. Marcy McGinnis says you don't have to live in Moscow to cover Moscow. In other words, you can be dispatched from London or other central bureaus...

FENTON: That's the same -- that sort of sounds like the mistake that the CIA and our intelligence services made at the end of the Berlin Wall. If you're putting on a show, fine. You can pop a correspondent in, you can parachute him in after the fire breaks out. If you're actually covering news, and the thrust of the book is that we're no longer gathering news. You've got to have eyes and ears. You've got to have boots on the ground. People who can smell things, who can see things coming down the road.

It's not enough to have no correspondent in a place like Moscow, where you have Putin, who has got increasingly autocratic tendencies, where Russia is trying to claw back parts of the old Soviet Union, and where you have a whole arsenal of rusting nukes.

KURTZ: Your answer is it's not enough. I want to ask you about Dan Rather, his final days as anchor. Now, you say in the book, you talk about this packaging by the London bureau, packaging instead of reporting. And you say that you liken this to Rather's use of "phony memos," your word, in the National Guard story about President Bush. How much of that story was Dan Rather's fault?

FENTON: Dan Rather -- in London, Dan Rather would have been called a news reader. The British have a different term for it. They don't call them anchors, they call them news readers. Dan reads copy that is prepared...

KURTZ: He also goes out and reports.

FENTON: He does not go out and report. He hasn't reported for years. He doesn't have time. He's doing four or five different things at the same time. You get the illusion of reporting. Somebody else has done the work for him. He'll do one or two key interviews, and that's about the size of it.

KURTZ: And this is typical, you say, of the broadcast news business today.

Tom Fenton, I wish we had more time. The book is "Bad News." Thanks very much for joining us.

Just ahead, a new columnist at The New York Times. A new radio show for a tarnished commentator. And is anyone reading all those blogs that are getting so much attention in the press? Stay with us.


KURTZ: Time now for the latest from the news world in our "Media Minute."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ (voice-over): Now that Kobe Bryant's accuser has agreed to settle her civil suit against the basketball star, The New York Post feels free to splash her picture on the front page. Nearly all other news organizations aren't naming her -- the usual practice in cases of rape allegations.

Weeks after William Safire stepped down, The New York Times has a new columnist, John Tierney. He's a libertarian who wants to get rid of Amtrak and once wrote a piece called "Recycling Is Garbage," prompting someone to mail him a box of trash.

As a city columnist, Tierney once dressed up as a bank robber to see if cab drivers would question what he was doing. They didn't.

Tierney will be joining his ex-girlfriend, columnist Maureen Dowd, and the two told New York Daily News, "We have agreed not to publish any embarrassing revelations about each other, unless one of us gets really, really desperate for a column."

Checking in on media people who've been in trouble -- commentator Armstrong Williams may have taken $240,000 from the Bush administration, but he's hardly washed up, having just signed to co- host a daily radio show in New York.

And Mary Mapes, the Dan Rather producer fired by CBS for her role in the President Bush National Guard fiasco, "The New York Observer" says she'll be peddling a book proposal on the scandal.

And for all the talk about blogs, including on this program, they're still foreign territory for lots of folks. When a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll asked people how often they read blogs, 3 percent said daily, 4 percent weekly, 8 percent monthly, and 48 percent never. So the revolution is not complete.


KURTZ: When we come back, with days to go, CBS' anchor Dan Rather speaks out on "Late Night."


KURTZ: Dan Rather steps down Wednesday as CBS anchor. And in his first television interview since an outside panel blasted his now- retracted report on President Bush's National Guard service, he sat down with David Letterman. But don't laugh. The CBS funnyman asked some good questions. Let's take a look.


DAVID LETTERMAN, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH DAVID LETTERMAN": Were you sorry that these people were let go? Should the president of CBS News have stepped down? Should he have stepped forward and taken the bullet and stepped down?

DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: He's on vacation right now. When he gets back, you can ask him. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Rather also turned serious, addressing his critics.


RATHER: Whatever one thinks of what we did or didn't do with the story in question here, nobody broke the law, nobody lied. Depending on your point of view, it was a mistake. And who hasn't made a mistake somewhere along the line?


KURTZ: Rather also said he believes CBS might have been able to authenticate those 30-year-old National Guard memos if they had more time. Meaning he still believes in the story that has tarnished his exit.

I'll have a special interview next Sunday with his interim replacement on the "Evening News," Bob Schieffer.

And we want to hear from you. What will Dan Rather be remembered for most? Send your answers to We'll read some of them on the air next Sunday morning.

Until then, I'm Howard Kurtz. See you next time, 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.


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