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Rumsfeld Accuses Press of Playing Down Progress in Iraq; Vargas, Woodruff to Succeed Jennings at 'World News Tonight'

Aired December 11, 2005 - 10:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Pentagon pushback. Donald Rumsfeld accuses the press of playing up bad news and violence in Iraq and playing down progress. Have journalists soured on the war or is the administration blaming the messenger?

ABC's youth movement. Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff are tapped to succeed Peter Jennings at "World News Tonight." Do they have the stature for the job? And why did the network pass over Charlie Gibson?

Plus, disaster fatigue. A conversation about Pakistan and New Orleans with Cokie Roberts.

And Katie Couric. Can a morning gal find happiness on the night shift?


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

Ahead, a look at ABC's new his-and-hers anchor desk and a conversation with Cokie Roberts about how reporters cover disasters, even though it's striking close to home.

But first, with Americans dying in Iraq virtually every day and Iraqis preparing for a crucial new round of elections, the Bush administration seems to be blaming the messenger, saying the war is going better than the media would have you believe. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued in a speech that coverage of Iraq has been excessively negative.


DONALD RUMSFELD, U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: We've arrived at a strange in this country, where the worst about America and our military seems to so quickly be taken as truth by the press and reported and spread around the world, often with little context and little scrutiny, let alone correction or accountability after the fact.


KURTZ: The president picked up the theme two days later.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is quiet, steady progress. It doesn't always make the headlines in the evening news, but it's real and it's important. And it is unmistakable to those who see it close-up.


KURTZ: But where is the line between what the military calls ground truth and plain old spin? And who is doing the spinning, the press or the politicians?

Joining us now here in Washington, Laura Ingraham, the syndicated radio talk show host; Pam Hess, UPI's Pentagon correspondent, and Clarence Page, columnist for the "Chicago Tribune."


Laura Ingraham, are the media serving up an unfairly negative view of the war in Iraq? And if you believe that, is it deliberate?

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, I think that, if you talk to the troops, which I do regularly on my show -- just did it on Friday -- one sergeant, Josh Hauser (ph), said, "Look, we do get frustrated, because what we see happening, we don't see then reflected in the coverage as conveyed by our relatives, who we talk to on the phone."

So the troops are understanding that this is difficult, we have to have some patience, and they want unity. And I think what the press does is, yes, they do a good job of publicizing the explosions, the IEDs, and the deaths. And that's important to report.

But I think what a lot of people say is, "Can we have little bit broader context here of what's happening in Iraq, and what progress has been made, and what progress hasn't been made?" But sometimes it would be good to publicize at least a little bit of the progress. And I don't see that very often.

KURTZ: Clarence Page, do you see this same kind of imbalance that Laura Ingraham sees, or are we seeing now Rumsfeld, Bush blaming the messenger, meaning people like you?

CLARENCE PAGE, COLUMNIST, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, they are blaming the messenger, obviously. The question is, is it valid or not?

To some degree, their complaints sound to me like an airline company saying, "Why don't you talk about all the planes that take off and land safely everyday?" Well, that's not news.

What is news is that we do have people dying in combat over there. And while most of the country has been stabilized -- Laura, you're right; a lot of progress has been made -- still there are areas that have not been stabilized and the predictions that were made by our leaders have so often been wrong.

I think there's a vested interest that journalists would have in finding good news, frankly, because that would be news about real progress, because it would show that we're moving closer to the day when Americans can pull out. But they haven't found it.

KURTZ: Pam Hess, you recently spent nine weeks in Iraq. Why is there such a gap between the way journalists view this war, or report this war, and the views of the soldiers, who you were embedded with?

PAMELA HESS, PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT, UPI: Right. It's a huge country, and many reporters are in Baghdad. And Baghdad is the focus of a lot of violence.

Soldiers don't see the big picture. They see their area of operations. And I was in with a lot of units that didn't have any -- any killed in action at all. And so their view of the war is going to be a lot more positive.

There are a couple things that are important to note. The four provinces in Iraq that are the most violent also contain half the population of Iraq. So they have an -- they have an outsized importance.

On the second thing -- and a colonel up in Tal Afar told me this -- don't confuse activity with progress. And I think reporters perhaps are instinctively responding to that, which is the building of a school doesn't necessarily translate to stability. And the reason that the bombings are so publicized is because people feel like they necessarily translate to instability, but I don't think that's the case, either.

KURTZ: In the days after the Rumsfeld speech, we had 10 Marines killed outside Falluja, we had 36 Iraqis killed in a police academy. And then there was this suicide bombing at a bus station that killed 20.

These are clearly big stories, and isn't it inevitable that this would overshadow the building of a school, the opening of a hospital?

INGRAHAM: Well, in talking about just the building of a school and the opening of a hospital, it's about three elections in the span of 12 months and a country that's never seen anything like this. It's about the trial, for the first time in the history of the world, I think, right, that an Arab dictator is being put on trial by his own people?

This is significant progress. And I think what we tend to do is we tend to focus on, as Clarence said, the explosions, the bombs. And the loss of life is important, but the military understands that just IED counts does not translate into the full-picture reporting on what's happening, not only in Iraq, but in the general war against the global jihadists.

KURTZ: Are journalists being shortsighted or biased? INGRAHAM: I think there's a couple of things that play. I think there is an instinctive distrust for what this administration did going into this war, on the part of a journalist.

They feel like they were duped. They feel like they were taken advantage of. They felt like, you know, they gave them the benefit of the doubt and they didn't deserve it. And I think they're acting out a little bit on that.

And now they want to report the other way. Maybe they're overcompensating too much.

KURTZ: Do you agree with that?

PAGE: Well, now, there's another factor that Secretary Rumsfeld mentioned. He said that maybe reporters, having go through the hardships of living and working over there, have a dimmer view of things.

In fact, a journalist I know...

KURTZ: It's a hard and dangerous assignment.

PAGE: Exactly. And, you know, I've got good friends who have been over there, some who are there now. And what strikes me is how, having gone several times -- and Pam can speak to this -- having been over there several times since major fighting, as the president called, how much worse things have gotten, as far as they're concerned from their point of view.

And I think that's striking, that these are not soft kids here. These are journalists risking their lives to work every day. And they are also seeing that enough progress has not been made. So I think it cuts both ways.

INGRAHAM: But they're inside Baghdad, Clarence. They're not going around the country, as some reporters are and bloggers are, going around the country reporting on the Internet about stories that reporters from our mainstream news organizations, they're not getting these stories because they're not leaving the Green Zone too often.

HESS: That's completely wrong.

INGRAHAM: OK, well -- OK.

HESS: Reporters don't live in the Green Zone. There's one media house that's inside the Green Zone. Reporters are living in Baghdad, so can we just put that one to rest?

KURTZ: All right. But let me ask you this: Are administration officials exacerbating...

INGRAHAM: I meant Baghdad. You're right. Sorry about that.


INGRAHAM: I'm talking about the dangerous area in Baghdad.

KURTZ: The most heavily guarded, obviously, period -- place.

PAGE: We, by the way, have one journalist who's been kidnapped...


PAGE: ... and another one who almost got blown up a couple of weeks ago. So they are where the action is.

KURTZ: When Vice President Cheney says, as he did in June, that the insurgents are in their last throes, and when the Pentagon is slow to get information out about some of these incidents -- they blame the fog of war -- does that contribute to the problem, as well? In other words, not just the journalists, but people on -- people in power?

HESS: It does, actually. And I think that media in general does need to think about how they're covering this war. Is it important to be out on that first day with what has happened, or is it important to wait until more facts are known about it? And for this, I'd give you an example of a story I did this week.

There were -- on Saturday, 19 Iraqis were ambushed and killed in a town of Udaime. And that alone would suggest to you that they're not cutting -- cutting the mustard, they're not doing their job, they can't do it.

But, because I waited a few days and was able to talk to people who were up there, I also found out that another Iraqi battalion fell in behind them and secured the city. And I found out what the -- what the cause of this was.

It wasn't a jihadi. It wasn't a Sunni insurgency. It was an ethnic problem that they're having between Kurds and the Sunnis.

So what we need to think about is, are we reporting -- are we so quick to get out the news that we're missing context and we're missing details, things that actually give you a real understanding of what's going over there?

KURTZ: Jumping the gun in a 24-hour news world.

Laura Ingraham, do you have a problem with the Pentagon spending your tax dollars to do fake journalism, paying off Iraqi newspapers to run positive stories?

INGRAHAM: Have we gotten the full story on what actually happened? I mean, they used a subcontractor to write stories that then -- that then would go into the Iraqi newspapers. Is that -- is that what we're...

KURTZ: I don't think there's any dispute that stories written by U.S. military people were passed off to Iraqis as being journalism and that payments were made, millions of dollars in payments, to place those. INGRAHAM: I think -- I think...

KURTZ: A lot of journalists have a problem with that.

INGRAHAM: Well, one thing we do know is that, throughout all of our major military conflicts we have had a significant P.R. machine to try to counter the other side's propaganda. That does hurt our efforts in Iraq, and which does make a lot of Iraqis feel very suspicious about our intentions and very concerned about our presence there.

So, I mean, if these stories are put out in these newspapers and are false, there are falsehoods in them, I think that is an issue. I'm not...

KURTZ: They're not false, but they're one-sided. They're not journalism.

INGRAHAM: Well, but what is our -- what our goal is there -- I'm not -- I'm not crazy about the Pentagon paying people to run stories, of course. But I think it is important for this administration to get ahead of this P.R. curve, which they've been way behind on until recently about the progress made in Iraq, the difficulties, the challenges ahead and telling Americans, again, why does this make us safe her at home?

I don't think they're doing it. And I think if they can do it a little bit with the Iraqis, it would help our soldiers.

KURTZ: You called an interesting expert on this Pentagon propaganda story, Armstrong Williams, who, of course, got $240,000 from the Bush Education Department, among other things, to talk up the No Child Left Behind law. Do you see parallels between what was happening on the domestic front, with people like your friend Armstrong, and what's happening in Iraq right now?

PAGE: I see some parallels in that Laura's right; the U.S. government does have a P.R. job to do. The question is, how do you do it? How do you do it right?

Paying journalists or paying people to put them on the air or planting stories is bad, if -- it's not just the question of truthfulness. It's a question of whether it's done secretly or openly.

I used to be a public information specialist in the Army back during the Vietnam era. I've written press releases that were -- that were run verbatim in newspapers. It's not good for a paper to run anybody's press release verbatim. I was never paid or paid anybody to do it, but nevertheless...


PAGE: Nevertheless, you know, if they would have marked those stories, saying, you know, written by a U.S. Army specialist for Clarence Page, you know, that would have put a different slant on it as far as the public was concerned.

KURTZ: One last question before we take a break.

Pam Hess, you have covered Don Rumsfeld for years. How frustrated do you believe that he is by the Iraq coverage? And what do you make of this "New York Daily News" report that some White House officials expect him to quit in the coming weeks?

HESS: I've never made any money guessing when Rumsfeld is going to quit. And I think if people think he's going to quit, he might just stay, to be irascible.

I think he's very frustrated, and it actually comes from a military perspective. What's important for people to understand here is that what the military is fighting in Iraq is a counterinsurgency, and that's something -- they'll say it over and over again, "You can't win that militarily."

What it is, is a quest for the will of the Iraqi people to stand up against the people that they're fighting, and the will of the American people to allow our troops to stay there long enough. So media becomes a tool in that.

And I think if there's a criticism to be made of the American media over there -- and there are plenty of them, and I think some of them are outside -- one of the important things to keep in mind is that we are quite vigilant about U.S. propaganda. We are less so about insurgent propaganda. The 24 news -- 24-hour news cycle feeds into that, but we don't quite know what to do with the information that they send us, so it becomes he said-she said reporting.

KURTZ: That is a good point.

When we come back, the war of words over Howard Dean and Iraq. Did the press miss the story?



The Republican Party has pounced on some remarks in a radio interview by Howard Dean about Iraq and has put up this new ad.


HOWARD DEAN, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The idea that we're going to win this war is an idea that, unfortunately, is just plain wrong.


KURTZ: At the time, though, the Democratic chairman's remarks got no air time on the broadcast evening news, short wire stories in "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post," and no mention in the "Los Angeles Times." Only later in the week did the media wake up to the notion that news had been committed. Laura Ingraham, I want to read you a comment by blogger Ed Morrissey, who said, "The national media has long since decided it needs to downplay Dean if the Democrats are to survive 2006."

Did the press just blow the story here, or was there an element of...

INGRAHAM: Well, I mean, does anyone not find this outrageous, that the head of the DNC would say the Iraq war is unwinnable? I mean, if that's the message the Democrats think is going to be one to build this party, I guess you can go with that. But it's a huge story.

KURTZ: He says he was talking about unwinnable under the president's current strategy.

INGRAHAM: Oh, that was the full quote. I ran it on my radio show the day after it happened. That was a full sound bite. And John Kerry saying that troops are terrorizing women and children in their homes at night.

I mean, you know, I might now understand what their full context was, but that's what they said. And for the Democrats to go down that road now, I think politically is mistake. Maybe it's the way they really feel.

KURTZ: What about the coverage? Did the press blow this story?

INGRAHAM: The coverage -- the press never goes -- never reports this stuff. It's the Internet and talk radio that's killing you guys on these stories. That's why the cable television and traditional media is losing audience.

KURTZ: Why is the press slow on Dean's remarks and on Nancy Pelosi's evolving position, saying that she now supports the withdrawal proposal of Congressman Jack Murtha?

PAGE: I think the press probably was slow, actually. If it had been Pat Robertson making the remarks, if it had gone the other way...

INGRAHAM: Thank you.

PAGE: ... maybe they would have been a lot quicker.

KURTZ: But don't journalists love Democrats in disarray?

PAGE: You know, this is -- this is...

KURTZ: Because there's no one Democratic position on this.

PAGE: You know, this is the joy -- the only thing I disagree with what Laura said was to imply that it's the Internet that's reporting all the news. The Internet largely relies on us in the MSM, mainstream media, for the information. What they do is give emphasis that maybe you wouldn't have gotten otherwise. I think this may be a case of that. I haven't gone back and done a real, you know, thorough survey of what the coverage was like. But it is something that was talked about on the Internet, and what could bounce back at the mainstream media, and is now on CNN.

And I mean, it is something that needs to be talked about. The Democrats have not come forth with much of an alternative, as far as...

INGRAHAM: Yes, it is. Defeat and retreat. That's what it is.

PAGE: Well, defeat and retreat is a great sound bite...

INGRAHAM: Yes. Defeatists. Defeatists.

PAGE: If I were -- if I were a spin doctor for the Republican Party, I would say that.

KURTZ: I want to bring in...

PAGE: But, of course, it's not defeat and retreat.

INGRAHAM: I'm not. I'm a conservative; I'm not a Republican.

KURTZ: I want to bring us back to the press coverage.

Do you think that Democrats in the press get an easier ride on Iraq than does the president and his party, because they're the ones who have to prosecute the war?

HESS: Gosh, just from watching it, I don't -- I don't think so. I mean, look at what happened to Murtha. Look at what happened in everything he...

KURTZ: What happened to Murtha?


HESS: My impression of it was that he was excoriated in the press. I mean, every editorial that I read afterwards came out saying that his view on this was, you know, emotional and didn't have anything to do with the practicality on the ground.

And I'm really not -- I don't cover the politics of this. I cover the tactics of this.

KURTZ: Right.

HESS: And I do think that there would be an enormous sigh of relief from Iraq from the Americans over there if, instead of everyone talking about whether it's right to say withdraw or not to say withdraw, to actually debate what the consequences of withdrawal would be and, if we do decide as a nation to withdraw, how to manage what those ramifications are.

KURTZ: Didn't a lot of journalists also portray Jack Murtha as taking a courageous stand, ex-Marine, whether they agree -- people agree with them or not?

INGRAHAM: Yes. I mean, the stuff -- yes, the Bush administration hit him pretty hard in the first, you know, 12, 24 hours of all of this, but I think...

KURTZ: Compared to Michael Moore.

INGRAHAM: But I think -- I mean, let me just say that the editorial coverage was Murtha, brave, opened up the dialogue for the first time, really set the momentum going for the Democrats for this idea of pulling out.

KURTZ: I just have a few seconds. Do you agree with that?

PAGE: I think Murtha did get favorable coverage on the whole, because he legitimized much -- in much the same way that Eugene McCarthy legitimized the antiwar movement during the Vietnam era. It really shifted the debate.

KURTZ: All right. We are out of time, but this debate will continue.

Clarence Page, Laura Ingraham, Pam Hess, thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come on RELIABLE SOURCES, a new generation taking over the anchor desk in network television. And CBS News pulling out the stops to lure Katie Couric, but can a morning personality adapt to the dinner hour? That's up next.


KURTZ: In her decade of dominance at NBC's "Today Show," Katie Couric has drawn a ton of publicity for just about everything: her hair, her legs, her $60 million contract, her colonoscopy, her mammography, and for cooking, kidding around, and chatting up celebrities.


KATIE COURIC, HOST, "TODAY SHOW": You pretty much threw vanity out of the window, particularly one scene where you're wearing a very skimpy bathing suit and cowboy boots, right?

What is the undershirt under your shirt? Is that a new thing?

His heart is stopped, right?


COURIC: Oh, holy cow. OK...

MATT LAUER, HOST, "TODAY SHOW": Yes, we've got a complete flat line.

COURIC: Clear! KURTZ (voice-over): But now CBS is courting here and throwing lots of money at her to become Bob Schieffer's successor at the "Evening News." And some people don't think that's a good idea, including Ray Richmond of the "Hollywood Reporter."

"Everything that makes Katie Katie would disappear, swallowed whole by the ghosts of Ed Murrow and Cronkite. She'd probably have to tone down the smile, the energy, the whole girl-next-door thing, and essentially morph into Jim Lehrer with longer hair."

But that assumes there's only one rather rigid way to anchor the "Evening News," sitting behind a desk and reading off a prompter. But what if Couric, through live interviews, field reports, and a different mix of stories, could bring a jolt of energy to this half- century-old franchise?

Yes, morning shows make far more money, but evening news anchor remains the most prestigious journalism job in television. Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, and now Elizabeth Vargas have co-anchored, but no woman has ever flown solo. And besides, CBS is willing to throw in a spot on "60 Minutes."

Move over, Mike Wallace.

Sure, the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" would probably mean no more interviews with Howard Stern or specials with runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks. But where is it written that every anchor has to act like Lehrer?


KURTZ: Now, Couric might be perfectly happy staying at "Today" with Matt Lauer and making truckloads of money. She doesn't need CBS as much as CBS needs her, unless, of course, she's getting tired of getting up at 4:00 in the morning. You couldn't pay me enough to do that.

Up next, remember Barbara Walters and Harry Reasoner, Dan Rather and Connie Chung? Those anchor teams didn't work out too well. But ABC is giving the co-ed approach another try. Will it work?

And later, from Hurricane Katrina to earthquake-ravaged Pakistan and tsunami-stricken Southeast Asia, veteran journalist Cokie Roberts on the impact of disaster and how the media grapple with them.


TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning, everyone. I'm Tony Harris at the CNN Center in Atlanta. Let's check some stories "Now in the News."

Thick, dark plumes of smoke are billowing in to the air near London hours after several massive explosions at an oil depot rocked the town north of the city. Police are calling it an accident. At least 36 people are injured. Residents are being told the smoke is not toxic, but some evacuations are under way. Pilots of that runaway Southwest Airlines jet report problems with slowing the plane down after landing in Chicago. Investigators say the three pilots told them that they began applying the brakes manually when the thrust reversers didn't immediately kick in. The jet slid into a busy intersection on Thursday, killing a 6-year-old boy.

And a long time maverick in American politics is being remembered for his influence on the nation. Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy died yesterday. He ran for president five times. McCarthy was a strong critic of the Vietnam War. His 1968 run helped topple President Lyndon Johnson.

Eugene McCarthy was 89.

More news coming up in 30 minutes. Now back to RELIABLE SOURCES.


Four months after the death of Peter Jennings, ABC News is finally filling his anchor chair. Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff, who had been substituting on "World News Tonight," will now share the job with one or the other often reporting from the road.


BOB WOODRUFF, CO-ANCHOR, ABC'S "WORLD NEWS TONIGHT": We'll cover the world relentlessly, and we'll take some chances in how we go about doing it.

ELIZABETH VARGAS, CO-ANCHOR, ABC'S "WORLD NEWS TONIGHT": We are, as Bob said, committed in every way to maintaining the standard of excellence established by Peter Jennings.


KURTZ: Before picking the 40-something anchors, however, ABC News President David Westin made an offer to 60-something Charlie Gibson, the co-host of "Good Morning America." But the talks fell apart because Gibson wanted to anchor at least through the 2008 elections, while Westin offered no more than a two-year deal.

Joining us now from New York, Steve Friedman, a former executive producer at NBC's "Today," "NBC Nightly News," and the "CBS Early Show." In Philadelphia, Gail Shister, television columnist for the "Philadelphia Inquirer." And with me in the studio, "Washington Post" reporter Paul Farhi.


Steve Friedman, you made a bold statement on this program back in August. Let's show the audience what that was.


STEPHEN FRIEDMAN, TELEVISION PRODUCER: The next phase will be ABC "World News Tonight" with -- I believe will be Charlie Gibson.


KURTZ: That was wrong?

FRIEDMAN: Well, you can't win them all. Do you want to go to Vegas and I'll try again?

Well, I think, at the time I made that bold prediction, Charlie Gibson was going to get the job, but things changed. I think that Bob Iger and Westin decided, "Hey, we might not have Oprah in three years. Hey, we might not be doing so well in prime-time in three years.

Why have a transition period? Let's go for the next generation now," and that next generation is Vargas and Woodruff.

By the way, with Charlie and that offer, it was sort of a reverse "Godfather." They made him an offer he couldn't accept, and I think they knew about that when they made the offer.

KURTZ: You took that line right out of my mouth.

Paul Farhi, why was Gibson not the best choice? I mean, he clearly was the most experienced, had succeeded in the morning, the evening, the middle of the afternoon.

PAUL FARHI, REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, there's really two reasons. One is that he's so valuable on the money-maker, which is "Good Morning America." And two, as Steve said, they've got to go with the next generation. They needed a game-changer.

You know, it's not about how many are watching the evening news but who is watching the evening news. The audience is getting older. They've got to figure out some way to bring those demographics down. Advertisers want younger people.

KURTZ: So youth definitely a factor.

Gail Shister, Elizabeth Vargas, I think, is somewhat known to the audience for her work on "20/20." I'd bet most people in America don't know who Bob Woodruff is. Is that a problem for both of them, as they try to get established?

GAIL SHISTER, TELEVISION COLUMNIST, "PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER": Well, Bob Woodruff is a household name in his own house. So, I mean, he's not totally unknown. I think Woodruff -- they're going to promote them like crazy.

But I want to jump in what you were talking about before, about why not Gibson. I think there's another reason they didn't go with Gibson, is that the younger generation represents the multitaskers, the multimedia. They're the ones that are comfortable with the iPod, and the Podcasts, and the 'net. And Charlie Gibson sort of represents old school.

So I think they were -- they were looking for the symbol, also, as much as the actual person.

KURTZ: Steve Friedman, you've worked with different morning teams, Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric, for example, at "Today." When I think of dual-anchor teams in the evening, I think of Dan Rather and Connie Chung, 11 or 12 years ago, and that was -- what's the right word -- a disaster.

So why go with two anchors for ABC?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I could go back to Huntley-Brinkley, and that wasn't a disaster.

KURTZ: That was a long time ago.

FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, television, you keep doing the same things until you get them right. So were quiz shows a long time.

The fact of the matter is, it depends on the show that they do. If they just put two people in the studio alternating lead-ins, that will not work. But they're going to do an indoor-outdoor show, one person in the studio, another person on the site of a main story.

And we have to wait to see exactly what kind of program they design before we can criticize it or praise it. And I think it's the show you do rather than the people you have that really make it -- make the difference.

KURTZ: You mean we shouldn't criticize in advance, like everyone else in the media, before something actually is put on the air? I take your point.



KURTZ: All right.

Now, Paul Farhi, one person who had a little bit of fun with this announcement was Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, talking about Elizabeth Vargas's work on "20/20." Let's take a brief look at that.


VARGAS: Tonight, a visit with the undead, the myths, the legend, the fantasy versus the fact. Our very own interview with a vampire- hunter. Next stop, Transylvania.




KURTZ: Now, I don't think we'll be seeing too many vampire stories on the evening news. But seriously, if there is a war, terrorist attack, will Vargas or Woodruff have the experience and gravitas that people will feel comfortable turning to them? Or does that only come over time?

FARHI: Well, you know, I mean, all of the networks are wrestling with this question. Do we have someone we are comfortable with or someone who changes the way the news looks? And what they're doing, ABC at least, is changing the way the news looks.

Two anchors, one of whom is a woman. Forget about 10 years ago, forget about Huntley-Brinkley, this is a new age. They've got to think about not the 60-year-old viewer, but the 40-year-old viewer, the 30-year-old viewer. What do they want to see?

They want to see something different. And a 60-year-old anchorperson might not be the thing that they want to see.

SHISTER: Yes, but you know something, Howie? I disagree with what Paul said. I don't think that network news executives are trying to lure younger viewers. I think they are more or less conceding that younger viewers will never watch news on broadcast television.

I think they're looking ahead to the future. I think they're going to put as much, if not more, emphasis on the other platforms as they do on the actual TV viewing. So I think they're counting on the younger viewers seeing the news in a different delivery system.

KURTZ: Right.

FRIEDMAN: But you can't have the tail wag the dog. The money is made right now on the 6:30 to 7:00. And you've got to be competitive in that time period. You can't just say, "Well, we're going to make it back on iPods," when there's really no real money in that.

SHISTER: No, in the future, though, there will be.

FRIEDMAN: Yes, but there isn't now. And guess what? In television right now, you live quarter by quarter. You don't worry about what's going to happen in five years.

KURTZ: Gail, the following would be sexist if I said it, but I'm going to quote "Washington Post" columnist Tina Brown. She writes this week, "Vargas is hot, especially when artfully filmed from the side in her jeans on hurricane gigs."

What is Elizabeth Vargas's image? And does it help the network news that she is a woman and a minority, her father Puerto Rican?

SHISTER: Well, it works for me. I would date her in a heartbeat. I don't know; I think looks never -- never hurt. I think if they promote her as a babe, I think it will be a real problem.

I think, in some ways, it's a very different situation with men versus women. I think if a guy is good-looking, as, P.S., Bob Woodruff definitely is, it has a different connotation sociologically than it does if a woman is good-looking. I think sometimes if a woman is good-looking it works against her. So I think it would -- it would be foolish if ABC went too heavy on the babe attack.

KURTZ: I see you jumping in.

FARHI: Yes, well, this is television. Everybody's got to look good. So that's a given, and I don't see that...

FRIEDMAN: Thank you, Paul.

FARHI: ... really as being a factor. Except for us, maybe.

KURTZ: Even some of our guests.

All right. We need to get a break in here.

When we come back, CBS, as we noted earlier, still looking for a permanent replacement for Dan Rather. Could Katie Couric fill the bill?

Stay with us.



Steve Friedman, you're the only one on this panel who has worked with Katie Couric, back in your days at the "Today Show." She makes a fortune. She's got the number-one morning show. NBC has been very good to her. Why would she give that up and go to CBS?

FRIEDMAN: Well, I don't know that she's going to. I think it's a very simple equation with Katie Couric. She has to decide what she wants to do and where she wants to do it. And once that decision is made, it will be obvious where she wants to go. I think everything else is window-dressing.

KURTZ: Gail Shister, how much does it matter, in the sense that, in the last year, we've had the passing of the baton at NBC, Tom Brokaw handing off to Brian Williams, who's still number-one in the ratings? So do we in the press, who love to write and talk and speculate about this stuff, make too much of who sits in that anchor chair?

SHISTER: Oh, quite the opposite. God bless Katie Couric. I hope she keeps them guessing until the last second, until the last day of May.

I mean, it's part of the horse race. We do the same thing with elections, and politics, and polls. I think there's a tremendous interest in this. And it's -- for me, who writes a column almost every day, it's really fun to cover.

But when you mentioned how much does it mean, it has been an extraordinary year for broadcast television. So this is just the last piece to fill in, because you've got a new president at CBS News, you've got the new anchors at ABC "World News Tonight," you've got new anchors on "Nightline," and so the only piece left is who's going to be the CBS anchor.

So I think it's fun.

FRIEDMAN: New president at NBC News, too.

SHISTER: Right, new president at NBC News. So it's fun to cover.

KURTZ: All right. And six more months of columns for you, I hope.

Paul Farhi, if Katie Couric does decide to anchor the "CBS Evening News" and appear on "60 Minutes" and all of that, does that solve a problem for this struggling third-place franchise or not?

FARHI: It definitely helps. I mean, by the same token that ABC has named a woman to be a co-anchor, CBS needs to shake it up, as well. Dan Rather, of course, the face of CBS for so long. But they've got to figure out -- they are the oldest of all the networks. They've got to figure out a way, again, to change how they present the news; Katie Couric would be ideal for that.

KURTZ: Steve Friedman, you said that Katie Couric has to decide what she wants to do, what she wants to be. Do you detect a certain yearning on her part to move to the evening? You know, we don't know what she's going to do, but to sort of be taken seriously again as a hard news reporter? She was a Pentagon reporter before she became the big "Today Show" star.

FRIEDMAN: Yes. You know, everybody who does morning television, you know, has to put up with what I call the junk of morning television. I don't do that in a pejorative way -- the cooking spots, the starlets, you know, the hunk. And for a lot of people, they say, "You know, gee, I get tired of this."

I remember when Brokaw left. We had an interview with a woman from Dallas who did the watermelon diet. He came into the control room after that and said, "I'm out of here." So I do think that there is some of that.

But Katie's got to make a lifestyle and a professional decision. And she will make it. And trust me, all you Katie Couric fans, wherever she goes, she'll be fine. Whatever happens to her, she'll be good. She'll be a power in that organization, and she will be well- paid.

SHISTER: Yes, but let's not forget -- let's not forget that the last "Today" person who went from morning to prime-time wasn't exactly a big hit, Bryant Gumbel.

KURTZ: All right. We're going to have to end it there. I'd love to have this go on.

Gail Shister, Steve Friedman, Paul Farhi, thanks very much for joining us.

Just ahead, who gets better marks for honesty in a new Gallup poll, journalists or car salesman? The answer ahead in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ: Welcome back. Time now to check on the news business in our "Media Minute."

It's been seven months since the Spokane, Washington, "Spokesman- Review" mounted a controversial sex sting against the city's mayor, Jim West, discovering that he was using his position to solicit young men online. This week, nearly two-thirds of Spokane's voters agreed this was unacceptable conduct, ousting the mayor in a recall election. West said he accepted the people's verdict, but promised to sue the "Spokesman-Review."

The Pulitzer Prize Board says newspapers can now enter online material as well as print work, meaning the "New Orleans Times- Picayune," for example, could enter Web reports from the period when Hurricane Katrina shut down its presses. But Slate, Salon and all the bloggers out there need not apply. The Pulitzers will continue to be limited to newspapers and wire services.

And some good news for journalists for a change. A Gallup poll says the public gives them higher ratings for honesty than car salesmen, congressman, stockbrokers, business executives, lawyers and real estate agents. But nurses, doctors, police officers, teachers, clergymen and, yes, funeral directors rank much higher. That ought to keep our egos under control.

When we come back, she's traveled to the devastated Gulf Coast region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and to Pakistan after the damage of October's massive earthquake. ABC's Cokie Roberts joins us with a very personal view of these tragedies, next.


KURTZ: Cokie Roberts is known to audiences of ABC News and National Public Radio largely for her political coverage. But lately, she's been focused on a very different kind of story.

She recently traveled to earthquake-devastated Pakistan and areas of Indonesia that were stricken by last December's tsunami. And she was more personally affected by another natural disaster: Hurricane Katrina in her hometown of New Orleans.

Here's Barbara Walters reporting on Cokie's family in an ABC special a few days after the hurricane.


BARBARA WALTERS, REPORTER, ABC NEWS (voice-over): Her mother, former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs, still lives in the family home on Bourbon Street. Cokie says that home suffered minimal damage, but nothing compared to what happened in Boggsdale, Mississippi, where many of her relatives still live.

COKIE ROBERTS, REPORTER, ABC NEWS: My father's family all lives on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. And this week, they were wiped out completely for the third time in my life. At the moment, 10 different families in my family are homeless.


KURTZ: And Cokie Roberts joins us now.


ROBERTS: Thank you.

KURTZ: Those pictures of Boggsdale, Mississippi, just looks devastated. Are there members of your family who are still without housing?

ROBERTS: Well, they've all got roofs over their heads of one kind or another, making do as best they can. But their own houses, of course, are gone. And they're just trying to figure it out.

KURTZ: Did you decide not to go there afterwards as a journalist, because it was too painful?

ROBERTS: Well, I just thought that it was too personal and injecting myself into a story, and also that there were people who were there on the ground covering it, doing a very good job.

KURTZ: By the way, Boggsdale is named after your family?

ROBERTS: Yes, the family moved there in 1875. My great- grandfather moved there. And his whole family, my father's whole family, has lived there all that time.

KURTZ: Do you feel today that New Orleans and Mississippi are getting the media attention required by the magnitude of this story, or, as so often in this business, it's three months later, other crises erupt and we all kind of collectively move on?

ROBERTS: Actually, I think New Orleans is getting a good bit of coverage. And the TV networks went back for the three-month anniversary and all that. But the problems are just so immense that it's almost impossible to cover it.

I find myself using words all the time like, you know, "indescribable." And, of course, our job is to describe. But it is still such a mess.

And, of course, the most devastated areas, they look like nobody has been there at all, because nobody has been there at all. The lights still aren't on. Boats are still in the middle of the neutral ground, as it's called in New Orleans, the median strip. The tax base of the city, the Lakeview and Lake Vista areas, are just gone.

KURTZ: And when I read about, you know, 80 or 90 percent of the people have not returned.

ROBERTS: Not there. KURTZ: One public school is open.

ROBERTS: One public school.

KURTZ: You know, I've been...

ROBERTS: And it's actually a city without children. When I was there, there was -- there were a couple of parochial schools open. And, honest to goodness, Howie, when you saw those kids, you just wanted to jump out of the car and go hug them, because you were so excited to see a child.

KURTZ: But does television do less well at covering what I would call slow-motion disasters? In other words, when people are drowning, it's a very dramatic picture.


KURTZ: Now, it's about the slow process of rebuilding.

ROBERTS: Yes, it's very hard to do that, although the pictures are still very stark. And there's a real crisis of leadership in New Orleans and in the area. And I think that there's still a lot of people just sort of waiting for something or someone to happen. And that's very difficult to make a story out of, this sense of just sitting in suspended animation.

KURTZ: If and when you talk about this on television, is it hard or even impossible to separate your personal feelings? Because your family...

ROBERTS: There's no need to. I mean, I -- there's every reason to just bring up the personal, but I'm not doing straight news reporting on it. I'm having a conversation like this. And the fact is that everybody -- it's important to tell everybody how strongly I feel about it, because otherwise it would -- I would be hiding the truth.

KURTZ: Now, you're recently back from both Indonesia and Pakistan, touring the damage there. But you didn't go as a journalist. Explain.

ROBERTS: No, because, at this point in my life, I have decided to devote a lot of my time to nonprofit causes. And the one that I care most deeply about is children. And I serve on the board of Save the Children, which is doing wonderful work, both in this country and around the world. And so I went in my capacity as a witness for Save the Children to both Indonesia and Pakistan.

And again, of course, the devastation in those places is, again, unfathomable. But it's describable. In Indonesia, it did take a good while for the government to come up with a plan, but then they did. And now things are up and going.

I'm not saying that it's not still a terrible disaster. There are still people in tents; there are still people in barracks. But housing is going up, and very attractive housing. I mean, you're talking about some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

And so people are still struggling terribly, but something is going on. And some good has come out of it, because now there is a peace agreement between the rebels in that part of the world and the government. And the tsunami caused that peace agreement.

KURTZ: Turning to the situation in Pakistan, there's an industry newsletter called the "Tyndall Report," which found that, on the network evening news here, 58 minutes in the week of October 10th -- which is a lot of time, by network standards -- to the hurricane -- to the earthquake, excuse me. But the following week just eight minutes.

ROBERTS: Nothing.

KURTZ: And now I would say it's more or less dropped off the media radar screen. Why is that?

ROBERTS: Part of it is that it's very difficult to get to and very difficult to report from. And, as you well know, the ease of reporting does make a difference.

Now, what's night and day different from the years when I started out in this business is that, of course, you actually can get in to an earthquake-devastated mountaintop in Pakistan. That was -- that was almost impossible 30 years ago, and then you had to do it on film and send the film back. It took a long time.

But, still, it's not easy, very remote areas. There's nothing there. There are no hotels or anything. So to get media in, keep them there, is not an easy thing to do.

KURTZ: And is there also a cultural disconnect?

ROBERTS: Probably.

KURTZ: I mean, it's another country far away...

ROBERTS: Probably, and it's...

KURTZ: ... because, if it happened in France, I'm sure there would be more coverage.

ROBERTS: That's true. And it's not just culturally disconnected; it's very culturally different.

I mean, the northwest frontier provinces of Pakistan are in another century. This is where Osama bin Laden is supposedly hiding, by the way. And I have to tell you, if he is, he's homeless.

But interestingly enough, even as devastated as it is, Howie, the -- it's more organized than New Orleans. There are American NGOs, like Save the Children, in there, the Pakistan military, and they're doing it. They're getting electricity in. They're getting water in. They're finding sources of zinc for roofs.

Now, again, it's a huge devastation. And the winter is going to be very critical. But people are acting.

KURTZ: Now, the tsunami areas at least have former presidents Clinton and Bush acting as ambassadors and keeping the story alive. I just saw them interviewed the other day.

But, in general, all of these hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding, are the media this year, right now, suffering from disaster fatigue?

ROBERTS: I think so. And so is the public in terms of donations, although people have been incredibly generous to both the tsunami and Katrina.

The earthquake could use some help. They had a donors conference where $6 billion was pledged, but I've worked for public broadcasting. I'm wary of pledges, because you need people to actually come through with that money.

KURTZ: You are going to try to keep public attention focused on this? Is that one of your...


ROBERTS: Absolutely, yes, to let people know that there are people in this world that are suffering terribly that need help, and also that the American people are doing wonderful good. Organizations, like Save the Children or Catholic Relief, or those organizations, are mainly, in places like that, operating with your taxpayer dollars that are going there and saving people all over the world, and, by the way, saving Muslims all over the world, and doing a very good job of it.

KURTZ: Well, so at least you found some positive silver lining...


KURTZ: ... amid the devastation.

Now, before you go, I want to ask you about the changes at ABC News. Elizabeth Vargas, Bob Woodruff named as the co-anchor team. A lot of people had expected Charlie Gibson, just because of his longer experience.

What's your take on it?

ROBERTS: Well, the torched has passed a new generation. And, you know, that always does happen and it always is a jolt. And then people get used to it, you know? Somebody around here is probably gunning for your job, Howie.


KURTZ: I'd better look over my shoulder.

Now, you were in the situation where you and Sam Donaldson followed the legendary broadcaster David Brinkley on Sunday's "This Week." Is it difficult...

ROBERTS: Sure, it is.

KURTZ: ... for a lesser -- less-well-known person -- you're obviously moderately well-known -- to follow somebody, and now...


KURTZ: ... Elizabeth and Bob are having to follow Peter Jennings?

ROBERTS: And, in our case, it was broadcast legend. I mean, David really was there at the founding. And Elizabeth and Bob are having to follow a tragic situation. And Peter, also, of course, is a giant in broadcasting.

So it's not easy. And audiences have to get used to it. But they'll do a good job.

KURTZ: All right. Well, Cokie Roberts, thanks very much for coming by and talking to us about your trip to these devastated areas.

ROBERTS: So good to be with you.

KURTZ: We appreciate it.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again next Sunday morning, 10:00 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.



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