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Has Coverage of New Pope Been Fair?

Aired April 24, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN HOST: Pummeling the pope. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger gets a hero's welcome in Rome and rough treatment in the press. Are the media giving him a tough time because of his conservative views, or properly scrutinizing the world's newest religious leader? A 1,000-year tradition meets the 21st century media.

Plus, experts getting paid to push gadgets and gizmos on programs like "Today." An "L.A. Times" reporter fired for botching the story big time. And the Bush administration's newest media critic.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the worldwide coverage of Pope Benedict XVI. I'm Howard Kurtz. A number of major news organization predicted that some other cardinal, not the 78-year-old German, was likely to get the nod, but once the decision was made, they were all sure of one thing, how to categorize the new pontiff's beliefs.


BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: The very conservative dean of the College of Cardinals.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His hard edge, his hard-line ideology.

PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: God's Rottweiler. The Grand Inquisitor.

KEITH OLBERMANN, HOST, "COUNTDOWN": He might chose doctrine over practicality every time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Publicly he seems an austere man.


KURTZ: Within hours after Ratzinger's selection, some British papers were greeting him with headlines like "From Hitler Youth to Papa Ratzi." Many American papers also had some less than flattering descriptions. "An authoritarian hard-liner," said New York's "Daily News."

And the "New York Times" played up some of the controversial aspects of the choice. That drew a rebuke from Bill O'Reilly, who was also unhappy with how Bob Schieffer's network covered the new pope.


BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS HOST: But the "New York Times" outdid the "CBS Evening News" in hard news coverage, calling the pope "uncompromising, bland, upsetting, divisive" and "an enforcer." At one point I thought I was reading about John Gotti.


KURTZ: But the new pope apparently isn't taking the coverage personally. Benedict held an audience with journalists yesterday, pledging an open papacy and recognizing their hard work.


POPE BENEDICT XVI: I thank you for all you have done. The possibilities opened up for us by modern means, especially communications, are indeed marvelous and extraordinary.


KURTZ: Have the media reduced this solemn occasion to mere fodder for the left-right culture war?

Joining me now in the studio, CNN special correspondent Frank Sesno, also a professor at George Mason University.

Former ABC religion correspondent Peggy Wehmeyer. She is now the host of "World Vision Report," a weekly radio news magazine.

And syndicated columnist E.J. Dionne, also a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He covered the Vatican in the 1980s for the "New York Times" and is just back from Rome.

E.J. Dionne, you have covered the former Cardinal Ratzinger. Hasn't there been an edge to the coverage that he is not just conservative but rigid and unreasonable and some of those other adjectives that we heard?

E.J. DIONNE, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: If you want to ask -- it depends on how you ask this question. If you want to ask the question, "Was the coverage of Cardinal Ratzinger, Pope Benedict, tougher than, say, the election of Pope John Paul II?" The answer is, obviously, yes. But the reason I think is not ideological bias. The reason is, if I can use such a secular term, is that he's got a paper trail. He's got a very long paper trail. He's been on record on a great many issues. And his job for Pope John Paul was indeed as the guardian of orthodoxy for the church, which meant that he made more public enemies in the church than probably anyone in modern times who was elected to this job.

He condemned Father Charles Curran, a theologian, an American theologian for what he wrote on birth control. He condemned Leonardo Boff, another liberated theologian. So he...

KURTZ: There's (INAUDIBLE) for journalists to pick over there.

DIONNE: Right. And it was legit. I don't see how you can cover this election without saying that this was, depending on your point of view, a controversial or a courageous choice.

KURTZ: Maybe it was the contrast, Peggy Wehmeyer, because hardly anyone said a bad word about John Paul after his death, and he was no liberal. And it just seemed for a lot of the media it was open season on Pope Benedict. What explains this?

PEGGY WEHMEYER, RELIGION REPORTER: Well, I think it's interesting, because if you noticed, before John Paul would come to the United States with his Parkinson's disease and be so beloved by the crowd, the press criticized him all the time. They started taking it easy on him when he got really sick, and when they realized how loved he was. They took it very easy on him when he died, but they were very critical of Pope John Paul before he was ill, and it doesn't surprise me that they would go after this guy.

The interesting thing, and what does surprise me, is the new pope, there's no light between the new pope and the old pope in terms of what they believe doctrinally. The new pope was the enforcer of the old pope's beliefs.

KURTZ: But usually, as you point out, a new pope gets a honeymoon. Now in Sunday's "New York Times" before this selection, Frank Sesno, interviews with a dozen experts and so forth suggest that forces were lining up against Cardinal Ratzinger, who at 78, may be judged too old, too uncharismatic, and perhaps most important, too rigid to hold together a polarized church. And I think that's continued to be the theme of the coverage.

FRANK SESNO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Look, I think the bottom line is we can't help ourselves. This is our religion as journalists. We put things in a political context, we are looking for labels to attach to people. The pope is, after all, still a person, a very influential one, and the confluence, the clash between the temporal and the sublime is something that plays out in real time in real world now, and it's reflected in the media.

I think those clips that you showed at the beginning of the program are really interesting, because it shows something else, that in the need to condense, the need and the rush to adjectives ...

KURTZ: The soundbite culture.


SESNO: The soundbite culture. And it applies to the Vatican.

KURTZ: But if the new pope had been more liberal, or perceived as more liberal, would he have been hailed as a visionary? Would the tone of the coverage have been more generous?

WEHMEYER: Yeah. Yeah. DIONNE: I am so tired of -- any coverage of somebody who is conservative that is not adulatory, a whole bunch of guys get on television and attack the press for not being adulatory. It's the same story that they are regurgitating about the coverage of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict as they would about George Bush.

If you look at the leads of all the stories in the major newspapers, I talked to reporters in Rome who said that their newspapers actually pushed down some of the critical commentary, precisely because they didn't want to come out of the box in the first five paragraphs of their stories saying these critical things. Yet this choice was controversial, that's a fact.

KURTZ: But you said yes to the question of, would the coverage have been more upbeat?

WEHMEYER: I think the coverage would have been more upbeat, but I think covering religion is really difficult.

SESNO: It's very difficult.

WEHMEYER: And I agree with both of you that for the media you have got to cover the superficial but important facts. They have to cover his controversial positions on celibacy, birth control. All of the Catholics I know ...

KURTZ: Aren't they controversial, Peggy, in part because most journalists have a different view on birth control and homosexuality and abortion? They tend to be more liberal on social issues. Let's face it.

WEHMEYER: Well, yes, I think they're more liberal, and here's what bothers me. I think journalists think that those are the important issues. And they are important issues. But you know what? If my Catholic neighbor is in the hospital with a dying child and her priest comes in, she doesn't really want to talk about homosexuality or celibate priests. You know what she wants to talk about? And I hear this pope is very good at this. She wants to talk about the spiritual life. She wants to know, what do we believe? Does God hear my prayers? Is there a place I'm going after this? And journalists don't know how to talk about his spirituality or what does he mean when he says that humans need to restrain their passion?

SESNO: I think that you're quite right, but I also think if you look at the coverage, you see what editors try to do is separate some of these things out. Now the fact is, though, that there is this controversy you talked about.

Here's the "New York Times" from Friday. Big spread on the new pope. One story, social issues. New debate is sought on use of condoms to fight AIDS. And quoted here is a bishop from South Africa, saying this is something the church needs to consider.

Flip the page, here's a story. "Spanish parliament gives approval to bill to legalize same-sex marriages." In this overwhelmingly Catholic country, setting up, clearly, a collision. These are real issues, these need to be covered.

KURTZ: (INAUDIBLE) question reserved for you, because I want to show what happened during the dramatic moments that preceded the announcement on Tuesday, which provided some fodder for "The Daily Show." Let's take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vatican Radio so far is saying it is black and you can hear no bells, but once again, there is a lot of confusion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jim, black smoke, yet again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're not absolutely positive here, Betty.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is a tough call.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Looking white now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Looking white, although...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That looks darker now when you look at it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We all know what a pyre fire looks like, and this is not it.


KURTZ: Now what is in the nature of 24-hour news that we have to sort of speculate on the color of the smoke and we can't say, "We'll get back to you in two minutes when we know."

SESNO: Is that tie that you're wearing blue or dark -- look, it's just part of the DNA. All right? But here's what's happening. You're on camera. You're looking at that. Nobody is telling you what the smoke is. You don't want to be wrong, but you want to be first, so you are kind of going to hedge it, and the world watches as you watch. It's a tough place to be.

DIONNE: How dare people criticize the exit polls anymore after looking at that smoke?

But Frank is right. I was sitting in the AP bureau writing something, because most people didn't expect that ballot to be decisive, and so people were sitting there and they were desperate, my good colleagues at the AP, to get it first, as Frank said, but they sure didn't want to get it wrong. And so it was a real deal what color that smoke was.


SESNO: Hedging.

KURTZ: Talk about pressure. Now I want to give you, E.J., the RELIABLE SOURCES ahead of the curve award, because you wrote, in the "New York Times Magazine," Joseph Ratzinger is not a household name yet. And that was in 1985, in this piece. And you also wrote, "To be for or against Cardinal Ratzinger, that for many Catholics is the question."

My question for you is, when you did this profile, he wouldn't speak to you, he provided you with written answers to questions. Why was that? What does that tell us about him?

DIONNE: First of all, when they agreed to that, I was sort of pressing, like journalists do, for an interview and they fell back on this formula of providing written questions. What shocked me is how candid he was in some of his answers and how straightforward he was. And there is clear person (ph), for example, shaped very much by a reaction to the 1960s, not unlike a lot of conservatives in the United States, where he had been a theologian at the Second Vatican Council, was regarded as kind of moderately liberal. Again, throw-around terms are not perfect...

KURTZ: But not comfortable enough to sit down with a journalist and engage in a give-and-take. He wanted to give you written answers.

DIONNE: Although he has more than most sat down with other journalists at other points. He had just given a very long interview which became a book, around the time -- shortly before that piece appeared. And so he wasn't ready at that moment to give a long interview, but he has exchanged with journalists, and I think one of the things you see there is this is somebody who is not afraid to be controversial, he's not afraid to be unpopular. And one of the things he said in that piece is Christians have the obligation to be nonconformists, and that's why he's going to take a lot of attack as well as win a lot of support.

KURTZ: Any sense of disappointment, do you think, among some journalists, Peggy Wehmeyer, that he is 78 years old, he's not as much of a telegenic figure, he's not going to be a rock star like John Paul, as John Paul became. Do you think there is any disappointment?

WEHMEYER: Yeah, I think there probably is, and I think part of that is just because journalists want something new and exciting to cover, because it's fun when there's going to be a whole new turn. Here is a guy who is old, like the last pope, who believes exactly what the old pope believed -- in fact, he enforced the old pope's beliefs. And so, how do you make that exciting news to cover?

So I think there is some disappointment, and I guess I would say I think as a whole, American journalists probably would agree more -- or be more excited about a pope who was much more, quote "modern," and open to the ideas that most journalists would support.

KURTZ: (INAUDIBLE) will Pope Benedict get a lot less coverage after a couple of weeks and the novelty wears off? Will he fade as a big story?

WEHMEYER: I think it all depends on what he does. And I think the media has got to give this guy a chance. He had one slice of a job when he was cardinal. Now he is pope. We need to give him time to find out, is he going to expand beyond the enforcer of dogma? Is that all we define him as?

KURTZ: Some journalists barely gave him an hour.

You traveled with John Paul twice. Did he have a lot of media savvy that Pope Benedict may lack?

SESNO: He had a great sense of media savvy, he had a great sense of the crowd and a great sense of what he was doing in the moment.

KURTZ: Hasn't he raised the bar for the next pope?

SESNO: He has raised the bar, and it is very interesting to see how this conclave and this whole process has been handled. The Vatican was very media savvy, very media aware. There were great camera angles. Those were provided by the Vatican, you know, and they understand that they are talking real-time to the world. It's a global church, and I believe from everything that I have seen from this new pope -- and he studied at the foot of a master -- he understands this well.

KURTZ: They just need to make the smoke whiter next time.

DIONNE: You know, the odd thing is that Vatican correspondents are very excited about this. So I think there is a difference between people who don't regularly coverage the church, who will miss the pageantry and people who cover the church regularly, who say this man is going to be intellectually very exciting.

SESNO: Depends on the prism you are looking through.

DIONNE: Right.

KURTZ: Got to go. E.J. Dionne, Peggy Wehmeyer, thanks very much for joining us. Frank Sesno, stick around.

When we come back, you need to buy a new camera or maybe a TV? Are you getting the truth about which is the better product? A look at some corporate payola, next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. You have seen the segments on local TV, on cable, on the network morning shows. Some expert telling you about the best computers, snazziest camera or coolest music player. But "The Wall Street Journal" discovered that some NBC contributors who tout these products with Matt and Katie on the "Today Show" and on local stations are paid as much as $15,000 a pop by the manufacturers.

James Oppenheim got paychecks from such companies as Microsoft and Kodak. He was fired by "Child" magazine after the disclosure. Corey Greenberg, "Today's" tech editor, received payments from the likes of Sony and Apple. Greenberg told me he was not paid to place a product on NBC or say nice thing to any program, just to act as a well-informed spokesman. NBC says it has tightened its ethics rules. Still with us, CNN special correspondent Frank Sesno, and joining us now from Boston, Robin Liss, the publisher of and Welcome.

Robin Liss, does it surprise you that some of these TV experts are getting big bucks from the tech companies?

ROBIN LISS, CAMCORDERINFO.COM: You know, Howard, sadly it doesn't surprise me. It is really a systemic problem in the technology review industry that a lot of our competitors accept gifts, bribes, or have an inappropriate relationship with the companies they cover financially.

KURTZ: And how do they get away with that?

LISS: You know, the problem is people aren't looking into it and the industry isn't policing itself. What people do is, for example, the same person who is writing a review will also be selling the advertising, because you have some very small companies here. Or with these local satellite media tours, which Corey Greenberg and Mr. Oppenheim were going on, it's just not disclosed by the local television stations as it should be.

KURTZ: It sure isn't. Now, speaking of Corey Greenberg, who is the tech editor of "Today," he took money, as I mentioned, from companies such as Apple and Sony and Hewlett-Packard and then for example, he went on the "Today Show" and talked about Apple's iPod being the coolest looking thing around and a great portable music player.

But he tells me that the money that he was paid by Apple and other companies was for the satellite tours of local media, local TV stations, so he could do one after the other after the other, and that not to talk about "Today." But do you buy that distinction? After all, he is still taking this money from the companies.

LISS: You know, Howard, no, if it looks like payola, if it talks like payola, it's payola. As long as there is an inappropriate relationship. Listen. Reviewers have an implied trust relationship with our audiences. They trust that we are making recommendations about the best products that are in their best interest, and in exchange they make purchases based on our recommendations. In this case, Mr. Greenberg and Mr. Oppenheim made recommendations not based on the best interests of their viewers, but on their best financial interest. The separation is just not enough.

KURTZ: And that, Frank Sesno, brings us to the subject of disclosure. Now, NBC says it didn't know about the payments to these and other experts. Greenberg told me that he told the network five years ago when he started his relationship with "Today." But if NBC officials didn't know, as they maintain, and were misled, why haven't they gotten rid of these guys?

SESNO: Well, possibly they should. I think they need to look very hard at what their disclosure procedures are and how they are vetting everybody they bring in. And it is not just the tech reviewers -- but certainly them -- but all the experts and the guests. There is a whole industry now of bringing in experts to talk on all- talk TV and all-talk radio. And as journalists and as responsible purveyors of information, we need to know who you are, what your agenda is, and are you getting money anyplace else?

Because we're putting you forth to ...

LISS: Absolutely.

SESNO: ... the public as a -- as a detached, dispassionate expert.

KURTZ: This has certainly come up on CNBC, where some of these people also made appearances, because they have stock analysts on, they have fund managers on, and they have rules, very strict rules about requiring disclosure, but I don't think it didn't seem to apply in this case, perhaps because they didn't know about it.

SESNO: They need them.

KURTZ: Robin Liss, do you feel tainted by this story, and neither you nor your publications engage in this practice, but doesn't this make everyone think that a lot of experts might or might not be getting money from some of these companies?

LISS: You know, Howard, it's a real stain on the technology industry as a whole. When I go on television for or now, to recommend a product, I'm afraid that I'm going to have to say, no, no, I'm not being paid to do this. We're recommending these products based on their own merits.

Corey Greenberg is a very well-known technology editor. He has the NBC News institution behind him, and every PR person knows that, you know, he's one of these people that you can kind of pay to get your product promoted. They all know who does it and who doesn't, and it stains our industry, and it makes our recommendations a lot less believable ...


SESNO: It stains your industry and it stains our industry, the media as well.

LISS: Absolutely.

SESNO: And you know what, you should go on, and when you do go on, you should say, oh, by the way, I'm not being paid by anybody. I mean, be as -- you should be as transparent as you possibly can be every time you are on the air.

LISS: Right. There is many times I've been offered trips or inappropriate things from companies, and we turn them down, and we really trumpet that fact because, sadly, we're somewhat unique in the niche technology sphere in having very strict ethics standards. Come on, this is journalism ethics 101. KURTZ: Interesting that you have gotten those offers. Last question, Robin Liss, why do networks do these sort of hot new products segments, anyway? It seems to me like they are often one long commercial for lots of brand name things. You never hear anybody say, this is bad, don't buy it.

LISS: Well, you know, Howard, a lot of people are buying these new products like digital cameras and camcorders, and it is good through these media outlets for people to learn about them, and I think they're very valuable.

However, when they become a commercial like they did in the case of "Today," that's a problem, that's a serious problem and it needs to stop.

KURTZ: I think it will be a valuable consumer service if we hear about the ones that are not so great as well as the ones...

SESNO: Yeah, go on the air and say this one stinks, stay away from it.

LISS: That's what we do at

KURTZ: All right. Well, that was a paid political announcement. Robin Liss, Frank Sesno, thanks very much for joining us.

Up ahead, a reporter fired at the "L.A. Times," and a last chance for two well-known journalists to stay out of jail.


KURTZ: Checking now on the latest from the world of media news, a "Los Angeles Times" story on fraternity hazing at Cal State Chico turned into a nightmare for reporter Eric Slater, who was fired this week over a series of mistakes he made on the story, such as saying one man died from alcohol poisoning when he was only hospitalized. "The Times" could not find some of the people Slater quoted in the piece, and questioned whether he really went to Chico at all. Slater tells me he was sloppy on the story, but insists he went to the school and did the interviewers, and the dismissal is too harsh a penalty for one bungled story.

Judith Miller of "The New York Times" and "Time" magazine's Matt Cooper are one step closer to jail for refusing to reveal their sources in the Valerie Plame investigation. A federal appeals court refused to hear their appeal this week, leaving them with one last shot at overturning a contempt citation, the Supreme Court.


KURTZ (voice-over): Mitch Albom is no longer benched. The star sports writer for "The Detroit Free Press" is returning to his column after being suspended for writing inaccurately about a final four basketball game as if it had already taken place. The paper has taken disciplinary action -- no details provided -- against the best-selling author and TV and radio commentator, as well as against four editors who approved the column.

Some critics have called for Albom's firing, but publisher Carole Leigh Hutton says she took into consideration Albom's 20 stellar years at "The Free Press," but she says the investigation into the matter will continue.


KURTZ: When we come back, some surprising words about the press from one of the top guns at 1600 Pennsylvania.


KURTZ: Tom DeLay keeps talking about the liberal media, but what if I were to tell you that the press isn't so much liberal as oppositional toward anyone in power, and what if I were to tell you that "reporters see their role less as discovering facts and fair- mindedly reporting the truth and more as being put on earth to inflict the comfortable, to be a constant thorn in the side of those in power, whether they are Republican or Democrat."

Well, those aren't my words, they belong to Karl Rove. The White House deputy chief of staff delivered the remarks at Maryland's Washington College in a lecture series named for the late "Washington Post" editor Richard Harwood. But it wasn't a total love-in. Rove criticized the media's horse race coverage and said "most people in politics are sincere, so commentators should debate their arguments, instead of impugning their motives."

Well, 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 begins right now.


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