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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Media's Mining Disaster; Interview With Ted Koppel
Aired January 8, 2006 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): The media's mining disaster. How did so many news organizations get it so wrong at the West Virginia mine collapse? Was there a reckless rush to air and to publish? And why have journalists largely ignored mine safety in the past?
Koppel's discovery. The ABC veteran talks about his new job, the declining state of journalism and why he turned his back on the broadcast and cable news networks.
Plus, Bill O'Reilly's newest critic, David Letterman.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, now a full hour of media analysis every Sunday at 10:00 Eastern.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Ahead, Ted Koppel, his first television interview since announcing he's joining The Discovery Channel.
But first, when reporters descended on West Virginia this week after a mine collapse, they joined a tense vigil for the men trapped inside. Around midnight on Tuesday, the cable networks and one wire service reported a major breakthrough.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RITA COSBY, MSNBC ANCHOR: We have some stunning news that we have just learned. NBC News and The Associated Press are confirming information that the 12 miners -- remember, 12 were missing -- as of a few moments ago, that they are alive. This is incredible news.
JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It's pretty clear that there's a lot of exhilaration out here right now and a lot of excitement.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Newspaper presses were rolling at that hour, and many front pages would trumpet the good news, like "USA Today": "Alive! Miners Beat Odds" and "Newsday's" "Miracle in the Mine."
But at a quarter to 3:00 in the morning, CNN's Anderson Cooper was the first to learn that the miracle was a mirage.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: What's happening?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's only one -- there's only one that made it out alive. And I think the name was Randal Ware (sic). The governor is in there. And this big in-charge CEO of the mine is apologizing.
COOPER: Where have you gotten this information?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: From -- from the CEO who's been on the news.
COOPER: You were inside the church?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, we were inside the church.
COOPER: Wait. Come over here, please. Stand over here.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's been misinformation. And it's awful.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Since then, the tragedy has dominated the media.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: The church bells rang out, families celebrated, and the media reported the whole giddy scene on live television. But it was wrong.
BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: Why did the mine disaster happen? And how was it the families were first told the miners were alive only to be told hours later that 12 of the 13 were dead?
CHARLES GIBSON, ABC NEWS: There was a miscommunication, but such a tragic miscommunication.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But how much responsibility do news organizations share in miscommunicating the wrong information to the country?
Joining me now here in Washington, two television correspondents who covered the tragedy in West Virginia, CNN's Joe Johns and ABC's David Kerley. Also in New York, Jeff Jarvis, veteran magazine and newspaper editor who blogs at BuzzMachine.com. And in Philadelphia, Stu Bykofksy, a columnist for "The Philadelphia Daily News."
David Kerley, I understand you got woken up at 2:00 a.m. on that fateful night. In a fast-moving, chaotic situation like this, shouldn't the reporters have been more cautious about declaring the miners alive?
DAVID KERLEY, ABC CORRESPONDENT: I think we -- I can only speak for ABC and how things went down. I thought we were cautious. We actually were a bit skeptical of what the families were saying and got...
KURTZ: What made you skeptical?
KERLEY: Because they were unable to say exactly who told them they got the information. So we went to other sources who told us that they had indeed heard the news that the miners were dead. And that was the report that was given to the company, as a matter of fact.
KURTZ: Joe Johns, you didn't have the luxury of waiting because cable is on all of the time. It's a difficult, frustrating situation for any reporter. But the fact is, you all got it wrong.
JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you have to look at this in context. We have what's called rolling coverage.
Initially, people came out and told us certain things, including one of the most accountable government officials of all, a member of Congress who was actually elected by the people and represents that district. So we had a number of sources giving us the same story, and we reported that. And when the story changed, we reported that, as well.
We didn't have to hang our hats on a headline the way the newspapers do. We were able to get that story right before we went to bed.
KURTZ: You don't wish in retrospect that you had hedged it more, that you had put in more qualifiers, that you had said, according to, we're just not sure, the situation is unclear?
JOHNS: You certainly wish that you could do more in retrospect. You certainly wish that you could hedge more. But the fact of the matter is, when you look at the entire story through the course of the night, I can't say there's much for CNN to apologize for.
KURTZ: Jeff Jarvis, did this episode cause you to lose trust in the mainstream media?
JEFF JARVIS, BUZZMACHINE.COM: I think, Howie, that we've always had a lack of trust in the news. We should have a lack of trust in the news. That's our job.
The truth is that the judgment about what is true does not happen on this side of the glass. It happens on that side of the glass. And it's our job in journalism to provide the facts as best we can to people.
That's also what we know and what we don't know. And I think that what I'm hearing out of this story is the Judy Miller WMD defense: I wasn't wrong. My sources were wrong. Well, it doesn't matter. The story was wrong.
It's like a customer service person telling you to explain the company policy instead of doing what the customer wants. The customer wants the facts here so the customer can decide.
KURTZ: All right.
JARVIS: And that's our job.
KURTZ: Stu Bykofsky, I want to read you an e-mail we got from Matthew Kennedy of New York City.
"The blame game has started, and it's being fed by the media, the same media that were so anxious to break the final outcome of the trapped West Virginia coal miners that they forgot the rule number one of journalism: check your sources. It is repulsive and reprehensible the way in which the major media outlets (CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, "New York Times" etc.) are not accepting some of the blame for their negligent reporting."
Now, newspapers, Stu, many of them got it wrong just like their cable TV cousins.
STU BYKOFSKY, "PHILADELPHIA DAILY NEWS": Well, at "The Daily News" we got it wrong, but I blame Penn State for that. We had moved back our deadline so we could get the game in, and it happened that that story dropped into the window that we had opened for Penn State. Had Pen State not been playing, we would have had it right because all this happened after our deadline.
I think -- I think the major problem here -- and when the critic talks about "the media," here we go again. There is no "the media."
There are newspapers, there are blogs, there are Web sites, there are wire services, there are cable networks. It's not as if they all did the same thing and they all got it wrong. But the story was gotten wrong. My feeling is, it was a byproduct of speed, of haste, and of not properly verifying sources.
KURTZ: David Kerley, I see you sighing.
KERLEY: Well, we -- since the days, we have kind of broken this down. The company came out and said, listen, we got a report at 11:45 that all 12 miners were alive. It was 45 minutes later that they got the report that that may not have been true.
In that 45-minute period the word leaked out, as they said. The people called on the phone, they had friends who were at the church. We called people who actually were in the room, heard the report that said all 12 miners are alive.
Now, the company had an opportunity there after that 45 minutes to say something. I think that's the only discussion you start having is, after that period, once they learned that it may not be true, what happened at that point? KURTZ: Let's not let the company off the hook. That was inexplicable.
KERLEY: Right. I don't -- I don't want to let the company off the hook.
KERLEY: The report that they received that did leak out and sources told us about was all 12 miners are alive.
JOHNS: And the thing, too, about this is the real story here was the human drama that turned into the human tragedy. It was the families who got the erroneous information first that these miners were alive. That's what we reported.
So when viewers and people who read the news are upset about it, what they're upset about is how it all turned out. But the fact of the matter is, we brought the story as it was revealed to us.
KURTZ: All right. I want to take...
BYKOFSKY: I don't regard people running out of a church, family members to be credible sources. They are well intended, certainly, but you don't know who these people are.
One of the CNN correspondents said that there were people walking up to her all night. It was true on all the networks. People walking up to you while you're live on the air and you put them on and let them say anything they believe is true? You can't do that. You shouldn't do that.
JOHNS: Well, it wasn't just people coming out of the church. It was also a member of Congress who had the same information.
We asked those questions and we got that answer. That's the reason we went with the story.
BYKOFSKY: And the member of Congress was wrong, as they often are.
About five years ago in Pennsylvania there was a similar situation. The governor then, Mark Schweiker, took over control of the scene. He became the one and only spokesman, and he managed to keep a lid on everybody in the command center, and nothing got out.
JOHNS: Well, don't blame us for that.
BYKOFSKY: Well, there's lots of blame to be shared.
JARVIS: We're playing the blame game here. We're playing the blame game here, but what we should be doing is helping to educate the public.
We should have perhaps said, remember Ray Nagin? Remember Katrina? Remember WMDs? We were wrong. News is not a product. It's a process.
The public is now part of that process because it's on all of the time. We have to better arm the public to be editors themselves.
KURTZ: I'm glad, Jeff Jarvis, that you brought up Hurricane Katrina, because it reminds me of the police chief saying that there were rapes and murders in the Superdome. It turned out not to be true.
And again, we heard journalist say, well, responsible people said it. Therefore, we reported it. And that is a difficult dilemma. But you seem to be saying that people out there, viewers and readers, are becoming a lot more skeptical when they see raw sausage-making of the news business.
JARVIS: They've always been skeptical, Howie. Now they have the press to express that skepticism. And I think it's a great thing. It's a very good thing.
The truth is, I was on CNN last night with my $150 camera at home. I could take that now at be at news anywhere.
News can be ubiquitous. That's actually good. But we have to educate people to say you must be skeptical, as good reporters and editors always are.
And we have to tell people what we don't know. And we have to remind them of these stories where we have gotten it wrong. We don't own the truth.
That was our mistake. We acted as if we had the truth and we're always credible. But we're not. The news is a process. And the process of getting to the truth takes time and effort.
KURTZ: David Kerley, I want to play a clip from your ABC News colleague, Lisa Stark, who did a story this past week on mine safety.
Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LISA STARK, ABC NEWS: The top job at the Mine Safety and Health Administration, MSHA, has been vacant for more than a year. And Democrats say the Bush administration has filled at least four key positions with industry insiders.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Perfectly good piece. My question is, for all of the media, where have been the pieces on mine safety in the last five years? The answer is, with the exception of a 60-minute segment, there haven't been any on television. And there have been only a handful in major newspapers.
Why does it take a disaster to get us collectively to look at a problem like this?
KERLEY: The only thing I would point out is that we did cover the mines extensively. One of our correspondents, Laura Marquez, about the industry and the growth and the fact that it was coming -- not specifically about the mine.
KURTZ: I'm not talking about ABC. I'm talking about all of this in this business.
KERLEY: Because isn't that what people are top of mind? If it's not top of mind, are they listening? Can you -- can you -- can you convince them that you need to get more mine rescue teams, you have to have more inspectors it those mines ahead of time?
It usually takes something like this. It's the same thing with a car when something goes wrong with a car. It's the air bag, it's this. Then we find out that we need to fix it.
KURTZ: When you were in West Virginia, Joe Johns, how difficult as a reporter and as a person was it to deal with the grieving relatives, the family members, the towns people? And was there any resentment toward the media over those initially wrong reports?
JOHNS: There was. Well, there was resentment about the media being there.
KURTZ: Being intrusive?
JOHNS: I lived -- being intrusive, exactly. I lived and worked in West Virginia. I went to college there and worked there for two years at the beginning of my career. And whenever you had a mining disaster or a strike, or what have you, these small, close-knit communities would lock arms and essentially say no outsiders, no press.
We got a lot of that there. It was perfectly understandable. And the trick, of course, is to try to work your way through that and still convey the story without being intrusive, if you can.
KURTZ: Did you find any of that as well?
KERLEY: I did not find that to be my experience. I found them -- the people that I ran into -- and certainly people would have avoided us if they didn't want to talk to us. But those that I had contact with were open and wanted to share their stories.
And afterwards, some very touching and moving stories. One gentleman who was in the mine in the area -- he's one of the miners who had escaped -- his brother was one of those who couldn't escape and was trapped and perished. I mean, an amazing story, and he wanted to share something about his brother and was willing to speak with us and share that story.
KURTZ: Stu Bykofsky, you seem in your column this week to blame primarily cable television for the initial early and then later heartbreakingly false reports about the miners. But isn't that letting other media folks off the hook, like all of the newspapers that got it wrong?
BYKOFSKY: Well, the newspapers were partly to blame. Like I said, my own newspaper carried an AP story. The AP story did have a caveat, saying that the company did not confirm this information. And we were trapped with deadlines. In the case of most newspapers, it wasn't a matter so much of haste as a deadline coming in.
I think the crux of the problem here is that the cable news networks are on 24 hours a day. They were covering this story live. And I think when you are going live like that without the proper precaution, bad things happen.
Can I give you an example?
BYKOFSKY: Do you know who Captain Jenks is?
BYKOFSKY: OK. He's probably victimized you.
Here's a guy who gets on television, does a shout-out to Howard Stern. He should never be allowed to go on television. The reason he's put on television when he impersonates an emergency worker or something like that is because the producers are not taking the proper precautions.
KURTZ: OK. Got to jump in here. We need to get a break.
When we come back, we'll switch gears and ask our guests whether Tom DeLay was jumped or -- whether he jumped or was pushed by the press when he decided not to try to win back his job in the House.
And later, Ted Koppel in his first television interview since announcing his post-ABC plans. The former "Nightline" anchor weighs in on the shortcomings of the media and whether journalist should let their feelings play a role in covering the news.
Stay with us.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Coming up on a special "LATE EDITION," we're live from Jerusalem. We'll have the latest on the condition of the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.
We'll also have exclusive interviews with the former Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. That's his first interview since Sharon's stroke.
We'll also speak live with the Israeli vice prime minister, Shimon Peres, as well as chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.
They will all reflect on Ariel Sharon and an uncertain future in the Middle East right now. Plus, the always outspoken Democratic party chairman Howard Dean.
All that, lot's more on "LATE EDITION."
Now back to RELIABLE SOURCES and Howie Kurtz -- Howie.
KURTZ: Thanks very much, Wolf. We'll look forward to that.
House majority leader Tom DeLay -- or I should say former House majority leader Tom DeLay announcing yesterday that he will not try to win back his leadership post in the House of Representatives. DeLay facing charges on a fund-raising case in Texas.
And Jeff Jarvis, DeLay has long complained about the "liberal press" being out to get him. Do you think that the media drumbeat on Tom DeLay has had an impact on his decision?
JARVIS: Well, I hope we're at the point where we're beyond a media drumbeat. The drumbeat of the people can get rid of politicians if they don't seem to be doing their job.
Whether DeLay should be gotten rid of or not I leave to the voters and I leave to the people. But I don't think it's about just the media.
I think now that we have citizens media out there, a drumbeat on big media and a drumbeat on Washington, and with the whole Abramoff scandal, I think that's a good thing right now.
KURTZ: Joe Johns, you spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill. Even before this indictment, why did "The Hammer," as he's known, have such testy relations with journalists?
JOHNS: I think probably it was just sort of a function of his personality. He has a very strong-willed personality. He, I think, truly believes, has believed from time to time that reporters were out to get him, reporters were opposed, for example, to the Republicans and the conservatives in Congress.
And all of that has come spilling out in some of the things that he's done. But I don't -- I can't say that I personally have run into real problems with Tom DeLay. When he's had something he wanted to say to me, he said it to me on camera, he said it to me on the record. And we stood on that.
So it depends on your access to him, too. I was on Capitol Hill. And around there it was a lot easier to talk to him.
KURTZ: David Kerley, the new "TIME" magazine out today has Jack Abramoff on the cover. He, of course, the big-time Republican lobbyist who pleaded guilty this week to a whole range of charges. And there's talk that he may implicate a number of members of Congress in a widening corruption scandal. And he a pal of Tom DeLay, which I think may have contributed to the atmosphere about DeLay.
Why has the Abramoff story until now been on the front page of "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" but not very much on network news?
KERLEY: I would disagree that it hasn't been a lot on network news. I think there have been reports about it.
It is one of those stories that's intricate, and it is difficult to follow day to day unless there are major developments in that story. And it's one of those complicated stories, but it's a story that should be told.
And I can tell you that a lot of us -- I can speak for ABC News, including myself -- have been working this story for a year now. And, you know, it takes time. And the feds have been investigating. They are not the loudest sometimes about what they are learning.
KURTZ: All right. You should stay on the story, because it's only going to get bigger.
Stu Bykofsky, until this Abramoff case exploded in the news, has the Washington press been too passive about the whole lobbying system, this greasy wheel contraption where legislative favors seem to be traded for overseas golfing trips and sports tickets and big-money donations?
BYKOFSKY: I don't know if it's been too passive. I don't know what the right level of exposure ought to be. And to tell you the truth, Howie, I'm not deeply involved in reading the Washington press. So my opinion is just that, it's not an informed opinion.
KURTZ: Don't you care about corruption in the nation's capital?
BYKOFSKY: Listen, we have so much corporation here in Philadelphia, I'm really not distracted by what happens in Washington. We've had a mayor whose office was bugged, the city treasurer has gone to jail.
KURTZ: All right.
BYKOFSKY: Two bankers have gone to jail. We have a city councilman who's under indictment, and one of the mayor's closest aides has pled guilty.
KURTZ: All right. We get it.
BYKOFSKY: Do we need Washington?
KURTZ: Joe Johns, I've got about 20 seconds. The Samuel Alito confirmation hearings start tomorrow. Is that going to be a big media story?
JOHNS: It doesn't look like it. There haven't been any smoking guns. There's not anything external that's particularly interesting right now.
It sounds like it's all going to be very much about whether he's a qualified jurist. And probably some more Democrats will vote against him than for Roberts. But, you know, some people might question, so what?
KURTZ: You never know.
Joe Johns, David Kerley, Jeff Jarvis, Stu Bykofsky, thanks very much for joining us.
Still ahead, bloggers are buzzing that a top CNN correspondent may have been spied on by the U.S. government.
David Letterman takes on Bill O'Reilly.
And our special interview with Ted Koppel.
That's all ahead.
KURTZ: Time now to check on the news business in our "Media Minute."
KURTZ (voice over): Was CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour overheard by super-secret government eavesdroppers? When NBC's Andrea Mitchell interviewed James Risen of "The New York Times," who broke the eavesdropping story, she asked whether Amanpour had been e upon. Risen said he didn't know.
That part never aired. But John Aravosis of AmericaBlog quickly learned that NBC had deleted the exchange from an online transcript. NBC says it's still investigating. But the National Security Agency, in a rare public comment, says Amanpour was not the "target of any surveillance."
Michael Olesker, a "Baltimore Sun" columnist for nearly three decades, was dismissed by the paper this week over several incidents in which he borrowed similar language from the "New York Times" and "Washington Post" without attribution. Olesker, whose paper is suing Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich over his order that state officials stop talking to the columnist, said he "screwed up" and made mistakes, but that these were not intentional and he feels sick over what happened.
And say it ain't so, Wonkette. Ana Marie Cox, who just published her novel "Dog Days," has abandoned the raunchy and satiric Web site that made her, as she might put it, famous for Washington. Instead of posting items online a dozen times a day, she'll work on a new book that is nonfiction. And, says Cox, will actually require her to leave the house.
The new Wonkette is a man, attorney and blogger David Lat.
KURTZ: Wonkette, doesn't that sound like it should be a woman? Well, ahead in our next half-hour, my conversation with Ted Koppel, his indictment of television news and his own future in journalism after "Nightline."
And later, some tense late-night moments when Bill O'Reilly took what turned out to be a very hot seat next to David Letterman. We'll show you what happened.
All that after a check of the hour's top stories next.
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everybody. I'm Betty Nguyen at CNN Center in Atlanta.
Now some of the day's top stories.
Seventeen Americans have died in Iraq in the past 24 hours, 12 of them overnight when a Black Hawk helicopter crashed near Tal Afar. The military says five Marines also have died in combat.
The sole survivor of the Sago Mine disaster is now back at a hospital in West Virginia, closer to his family. Doctors transferred Randy McCloy from a hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, last night. They say he's doing exceptionally well medically, but he's still in critical condition.
And an earthquake rattles much of Greece today. The U.S. Geological Survey says it measured 6.7. So far, no reports of injuries.
Still to come, Howard Kurtz's exclusive interview with Ted Koppel. RELIABLE SOURCES continues in just a moment.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
It's been an industry guessing game for months; who would land Ted Koppel after the 40-year ABC News veteran packed it in at "Nightline?" He is, after all, one of the highest-profile and highest-paid journalists in the business, one who has reported from war zones and hot spots around the world and produced plenty of classic television moments during his long late-night run.
Well, the bidding war is over. And joining me now to talk about his decision and the problems in television news is Ted Koppel.
TED KOPPEL, FMR. ABC NEWS ANCHOR: The bidding war? The bidding war?
KURTZ: A lot of people were interested in you.
KOPPEL: Well, interested, yes. That doesn't mean they were bidding. KURTZ: You could have gone to any broadcast network, any cable news network. You were in advanced talks with HBO. And yet, you chose to join Discovery network.
KOPPEL: You're very kind that I could have gone to all of those people. In the final analysis, Howie, I mean, you and I had conversations about this last week. And in the final analysis, it was just the best fit.
We are able to do, my colleagues and I -- and you neglected to mention that my old friend and colleague, Tom Bettag, who was executive producer of "Nightline" for many years...
KURTZ: And eight other producers are going with you.
KOPPEL: ... and eight other producers and associated producers are coming with us. And the fact of the matter is, that it's not easy to get jobs for 10 people.
It's OK when you're just looking for one. But to find a place that will hire all 10 is not that easy.
And secondly, to find a place that is capable of giving you time when you need it, that's not easy, either. I mean, television networks, for example, tend to have programs slotted into each time period throughout the entire 24 hours. And to be able to go to a network like Discovery and say, you know, we think we may have an hour in September, but if it develops we might want to go an hour -- an hour and a half, and very possibly, we might want to follow it up with a 90-minute town meeting...
KURTZ: Is that the reason you couldn't have done this, for example, at ABC? You've done prime-time documentaries there before.
KOPPEL: Well, the fact of the matter is, Howard, that over the past few years, I think the commercial broadcast networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, have become so cowed by the demographic demands of advertisers, that doing the kinds of documentaries that my colleagues and I like to do is seen as the sort of thing that you give a veteran anchor if it's the only way to keep him happy.
I mean, Peter Jennings was very good at getting time for those kind of documentaries. And some of the best television journalism that's been done in recent years was done by Peter on the hours that he did and for which he got primetime.
KURTZ: Interesting that you use the word "cowed." That suggests it's kind of a moral failing on the part of the networks, they don't care about news that much anymore.
KOPPEL: I don't know whether I would -- whether I would go so far as to call it a moral failing. But I do think it is a failing. And it's a failing because it's based on incorrect information. I think somehow the advertisers have come to believe -- and they have managed to browbeat the networks into acting as though it were true -- that the people who are the biggest spenders in America, and, therefore, the most desirable customers as far as the advertisers are concerned, are young men and women between the ages of 18 and 35.
It's always been my experience that the 45-year-olds and the 50- year-olds have a lot more spending money than the 20-somethings do. But they've managed to convince the commercial networks that those are the people they want to get. And therefore, much of the programming tends to skew in that direction.
KURTZ: Now, cable news networks are in the 24-hour business.
KURTZ: Your daughter, Andrea Koppel, works at this network. You could have explored joining CNN. Why would that have not been a good fit?
KOPPEL: Well, if I ask you the question -- and I'm going to use one of these industry terms -- if I were going to do what I just described that I'm going to go over at Discovery, where we say we want an hour, and we want it in prime-time, and then we want to follow it by a 90-minute -- by a 90-minute town meeting, which day part (ph) do you think CNN would have put that in?
Would they put it on in the morning? Would they put it on in the afternoon? Would they put it on prime-time at 8:00?
KURTZ: Why not?
KOPPEL: Why not, indeed?
KURTZ: People would watch.
KOPPEL: I think they might. But in order to do that, they would have to knock some of your most-watched programs off the air for that evening. And they might do that once or twice just to be really nice to me. But I don't think they'd do it on a regular basis.
KURTZ: You've been critical of cable news. You think that -- you know, here's an outfit that doesn't have to do "Desperate Housewives" or "ER" or baseball or football like the broadcast networks do.
KURTZ: And yet, you seem to regard it as pretty superficial.
KOPPEL: I'm critical, and truly I mean this, out of love, because I think -- I think the cable networks could do so much more. And I think they, too, have allowed themselves to believe.
I think somehow in the back of every television executive's brain there is an image of the American viewer sitting there with five television monitors in his or her kitchen, watching to see who gets the latest breaking news story out first. And if CNN is ahead of FOX by 30 seconds, by god, they're going to keep on watching CNN. But if CNN is behind MSNBC by 45 seconds, that's it for CNN, you've just lost that viewer.
KURTZ: And some of those breaking stories, in your view, are not all that important. Of course there are always the missing women and things like that, the melodramas.
KOPPEL: Many of them -- many of them are not that important. But when you have 24 hours to fill, it takes an enormous amount of effort and creativity. And one of the easiest ways to fill much of that time is simply to -- is simply to focus on whatever the latest developments are, in whatever the story may be. Whether that's a truly important story or not often doesn't seem to make a difference.
KURTZ: In your career, you've reported from the Middle East and South Africa. And you did a five-part series from the Congo, and you covered the Iraq war from the desert.
Other than when U.S. troops are involved, why do you think there is so little international coverage on television, particularly on the broadcast networks which have that very narrow window on the evening news?
KOPPEL: It's a fair question. And I think it comes about in some measure because there is a belief among network executives that the American public is turned off by foreign news. That's part of it.
The other part of it -- and here I would argue that outfits like CNN do a much better job than the broadcast networks do -- it's become a function of money. They look at -- I'm talking, now, about the broadcast networks.
They look at these overseas bureaus that they've had for so many years, for most of the past 40 or even 45 years. And they say, well, wait a second, it's costing us whatever it costs, $3 million a year, to have the Moscow bureau. And then they start going around, and they do it on a cost basis analysis.
They will go to the different programs and they will say, evening news, how often do you actually use anything out of the Moscow bureau? And they'll check their records and they'll say, well, over the past year we did it 17 times, 28 times. I don't know.
KURTZ: It's a circular argument. The programs don't use the bureaus, and then they have justification to cut the bureaus.
KURTZ: And then, all you can do is parachute people in when they have a crisis in Moscow.
KOPPEL: That's -- you're getting way ahead of me, because what happens is, they go to the morning shows, then, "The Today Show," "The Good Morning America" show, "The CBS Morning Show." "How often did you use the Moscow bureau over the last year?" Oh, they'll say maybe six times, maybe eight times.
Then they'd come to a program like "Nightline," and even "Nightline" would have used it only 15 times or something like that.
Then they add it all up and they say, all right, divide those pieces into $3 million or $4 million, or whatever it costs. And it works out to X tens of thousands of dollars per piece. That's too expensive.
Answer: close down the Moscow bureau. Not altogether. You know, have a phone somewhere at a desk so that if you need to, you can get somebody in.
But, look, in the -- in the heyday of the commercial networks, before folks like CNN came along, I think we probably had 35, 40, 45 foreign correspondents around the world. These days, I think each of the commercial networks -- and that's where I think CNN still does a far, far better job. But the commercial networks...
KURTZ: It's still (INAUDIBLE) the number of bureaus.
KOPPEL: They may have -- they may have five foreign correspondents.
KURTZ: Your last night on "Nightline" was November 22. You had some interesting parting words that I want to play for the audience.
Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KOPPEL: You've always been very nice to me. So, give this new anchor team for "Nightline" a fair break. If you don't, I promise you the network will just put another comedy show in this timeslot. And then you'll be sorry.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Why did you say that?
KOPPEL: Why did I say that they would put a comedy show in there or that then you'll be sorry?
KURTZ: Then you'll be sorry.
KOPPEL: The "then you'll be sorry" part, look...
KURTZ: I know they like comedy. They almost gave David Letterman your slot.
KOPPEL: Exactly. And look, the fact of the matter is, you've got the -- you've got the Letterman show on CBS, you've got "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno on NBC. There ain't a whole lot of television journalism like "Nightline" around anymore. And I don't think that we can afford to lose it. I really think it's an important program that should be encouraged to stay on the air. And to...
KURTZ: As you know, the critics have kicked it around a little bit, particularly on the point of three or four topics a night, where as you always did one in-depth subject. Is this the reality of MTV's attention span that you can't do a half-hour on one subject?
KOPPEL: Howie, you know that one of the things I said, although I didn't -- I didn't say it -- I said it semi-publicly, I said it at a going away party that ABC was nice enough to throw for me. My gift to my successors was going to be that I wasn't going to do what people did to me when I began "Nightline" 26 years ago. And that is, just kick it around immediately out of the gate.
It takes time to start a new program. In many ways, it's much more difficult to come in and be effective doing a program that people have perceived as being successful before, change the format, change the anchors, change the executive producer, change the way you're going to do that broadcast, and then expect people to love it right away.
That's never going to happen. And they deserve a chance to do it without my sticking my nose into it and saying, I think they're doing this right, I think they're doing that wrong.
KURTZ: All right.
Let me get a break.
When we come back, more of our conversation with Ted Koppel. And we'll look at how the media cover disasters.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Coming up at the top of the hour on "LATE EDITION," we'll be live from Jerusalem. The former Israeli prime ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, along with Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, they'll all discuss a Middle East post-Ariel Sharon.
Plus, Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean on the Republican turmoil on Capitol Hill.
All that, much more, right at the top of the hour.
Now back to Howard Kurtz and RELIABLE SOURCES.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
Let's talk for a moment about Ariel Sharon. Did the coverage of his career change when he became prime minister? I think before that, people knew him, the commission had blamed him for the massacre in Lebanon during the 1982 invasion, he was a hawk on settlements and things like that. Coverage very different once he became prime minister?
KOPPEL: It always -- it always changes when somebody becomes prime minister or somebody becomes president of the United States, or president of any country. I mean, Menachem Begin, who had been the leader of what back in the pre-independence days of Israel was referred to as a terrorist organization, nobody did that anymore after he became prime minister.
The same kind of thing has happened in Africa. I mean, there were people there who were regarded as terrorist leaders once they became president of their -- of their country.
KURTZ: Sure. Did you deal much with Sharon? Was he somebody who courted the Western press?
KOPPEL: He didn't much care for us. But yes, he was available. And one could talk to him.
You could pick up the phone and get him out at the ranch. I mean, he was -- he was someone who was smart enough to talk to us, but like most politicians, didn't much care for us.
KURTZ: All right.
The West Virginia mining disaster, where so many news organizations reported jubilantly that 12 miners were alive. That, of course, turned out not to be the case.
Wasn't that a colossal media failure?
KOPPEL: I don't think it was a colossal media failure. I think it was -- it was one of -- you know, I think it is one of those human tragedies that happens because people, I think, first of all -- apparently what happened, what was at the very foundation of it, was that the miners, with their oxygen masks on, the rescue team, were trying to communicate information back about the 13 and were misunderstood.
And the point was made, don't let any of this leak out. But it did.
Happiness leaks out, great sadness leaks out. It always happens that way. And once it does, you just can't contain it.
KURTZ: I'm seeing a lot of stories now about the problems of mine safety.
KURTZ: Why do we only get these kinds of intensive looks at a national problem in the wake of a disaster?
KOPPEL: Look, usually the criticism against all of us is, you guys always focus on the negative. Why don't you -- I mean, I've often made the point that when a -- when a 747 airliner makes its 9,000th, you know, safe landing at JFK, why don't we do reports?
We never do. I mean, that's always been the case. We are -- we are struggling so hard just to keep it up, and it comes back to what you and I were talking about earlier, to keep up with the breaking events that occur every day. And we spend so much time worrying about what is recent, rather than what is important.
Yes, we ought to be looking at mine safety the rest of the time, even without a mine disaster. Yes, we ought to be looking at what's wrong with our health care system. Yes, we ought to be looking at what's wrong with our education system. Yes, we ought to be looking at what's wrong with our foreign policy without there being a war or without there being a school that has to close down, without there being 3,000 old people who died because they can't get their medicine.
But, you know, those triggers are usually what sets it off.
KURTZ: And it reminds me of the intense media focus on FEMA in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
KURTZ: Suddenly, everyone asking this guy Michael Brown -- he worked for the Arabian Horse Association. What is he doing in charge? In fact, you interviewed him right after the disaster.
Let's take a look at that clip.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KOPPEL: Not the city. Not the city. I'm not asking -- I'm not asking you, Mr. Brown, why the city didn't have buses available. I'm asking you why you didn't have National Guards in there with trucks to get them out of there, why you didn't have people with flatbed trailers, if that's what you need?
Why you didn't, you know, simply get Greyhound busses from as many surrounding states as you could lay your hands on to get those people out of there? Why you haven't done it to this day?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Were you mad?
KOPPEL: I was frustrated because, you know, as Mr. Brown later conceded, there were things that he and his colleagues didn't know that were routinely being reported on CNN, on MSNBC, on ABC and CBS.
KURTZ: You said, "Aren't you folks watching television?"
KOPPEL: They were more concerned about what he should wear in his television appearances than they were in briefing him on what was happening.
KURTZ: But there's been a lot of talk that Katrina ushered in, at least for the moment, a more emotional-style journalism, correspondents on the scene clearly frustrated, clearly upset at what the government -- that the government's reassurances were not borne out by the human disaster they were seeing.
Is that a good thing?
KOPPEL: Well, I hope not -- no, it's not a good thing.
KURTZ: Why not?
KOPPEL: And, I mean, look, our friend Anderson Cooper does it very well and does it -- and means it. I mean, he's sincere about it.
It's not a good thing for people to copy. I mean, if Anderson wants to do it that way, that's terrific. And I wish him all the best.
KURTZ: But reporters shouldn't be androids. They should have feelings. And they shouldn't let those show, in your view?
KOPPEL: That's correct.
KOPPEL: They shouldn't -- they shouldn't let them show.
KURTZ: What's the problem?
KOPPEL: Because that's not -- that's not your job and that's not my job. Our job is not to -- is not to emote emotionally on the virtues or shortcomings of each story. Any...
KURTZ: But when you interviewed people at "Nightline," you would say, forgive me, but what you're telling me, you are full of it.
KOPPEL: That's right.
KURTZ: You would call -- now, isn't that a form of using emotion? Using passion?
KOPPEL: No. No, no, no.
KURTZ: Are you saying that's (ph) journalism?
KOPPEL: I mean, that's not a question of emotion. That's a question of fact.
If somebody is handing me a plateful of BS, I feel obliged to draw attention to the steaming pile there and to make sure that the audience knows what's going on. That has nothing to do with emotion any more than I would expect a doctor to become emotional, to break down in tears and say, "Mr. Koppel, I'm just so sorry to have to tell you -- you and I have been friends for so long, this is really tearing me..."
You know, forget about it's tearing you apart.
KURTZ: Give me the information.
KOPPEL: What are you going to do? Exactly. How are you going to help me?
We are on the scene. When we go and cover the story, we're on the scene to try as dispassionately as possible, dispassionately, to present the facts. And if we become emotionally involved in every story, then eventually, I think the public is -- very quickly I think the public would tire of that -- if all of us do that.
KURTZ: All right. On that rather dispassionate note, we will leave it there.
Ted Koppel, thanks very much for joining us.
KOPPEL: Thank you, Howie.
KURTZ: Just ahead, David Letterman's not so funny moments with Bill O'Reilly.
Stay with us.
KURTZ: David Letterman tells jokes for a living. A pretty good living, in fact. Bill O'Reilly stirs up political controversy for a living, and also makes the big bucks.
But when the two of them sat down this week on CBS' "Late Show," Letterman wasn't going for laughs, especially when the talk turned to antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DAVID LETTERMAN, "THE LATE SHOW": How can you possibly take exception with the motivation and the position of someone like Cindy Sheehan?
BILL O'REILLY, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": Because I believe she's run by far-left elements in this country. I feel bad for the woman.
LETTERMAN: Have you lost family members in armed conflict?
O'REILLY: No, I have not.
LETTERMAN: Well, then you can hardly speak for her, can you?
O'REILLY: Well, I'm not speaking.
She says to the public that the insurgents or terrorists are freedom fighters. How do you think, David Letterman, that makes people who lost loved ones by these people blowing the hell out of them, how do you think they feel? What about their feelings, sir?
LETTERMAN: Well, I'm very concerned about people like yourself, who don't have nothing but endless sympathy for a woman like Cindy Sheehan. Honest to Christ.
O'REILLY: No, I'm sorry.
LETTERMAN: Honest to Christ. I'm not smart enough to debate you point to point on this, but I have the feeling -- I have the feeling we can take 60...
LETTERMAN: ... about 60 percent of what you say is crap.
LETTERMAN: Bill, it's always a pleasure.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Bill O'Reilly was more than happy to rehash the encounter on his FOX News show.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
O'REILLY: There's a culture war here, and the entertainment industry is a part of it. David deals in humor, I deal in facts.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: It was refreshing to see a more serious side of Letterman, but O'Reilly is right on one point. If Dave was going to challenge Bill on his credibility, he should have done a little homework rather than just saying he never watched O'Reilly's show.
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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