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CNN RELIABLE SOURCES
Is Iraq Too Dangerous for Press?; Coverage of Alito Hearings
Aired January 15, 2006 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice over): Kidnapping blackout. Why did news organizations agree to initially withhold news that journalist Jill Carroll had been abducted in Iraq? Would they have spiked the story if the victim hadn't been a reporter for the "Christian Science Monitor"?
And is Iraq now too dangerous to the press? We'll ask a journalist who was nearly kidnapped.
Arguing over Alito. The cable networks go wall to wall, but is the country tuning in? And why have long-winded senators gotten so much media attention?
Oprah's audacious author. An expose finds James Frey's memoir about a life of crime isn't quite the nonfiction work touted by the talk show queen.
Plus, why Wonkette is abandoning her blog. And the brave new world of media podcasts.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, now a full hour of media analysis every Sunday morning at 10:00 Eastern.
I'm Howard Kurtz.
Ahead, we'll look at James Frey's partially fabricated memoir, the coverage of the Alito hearings, and chat with the woman known as "Wonkette."
But first, the news spread like wildfire last weekend in the journalistic community. Jill Carroll, a 28-year-old stringer for the "Christian Science Monitor" kidnapped in Iraq. Her interpreter murdered. The latest evidence of a dangerous media climate for Western reporters in Baghdad.
She appeared last February on MSNBC to talk about Iraqi reaction to reports that Iran was trying to influence the new government.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JILL CARROLL, REPORTER, "CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR: There's a lot of concern, I think, in the street about Iran having some kind of influence here, but it's clear many Iraqis are very much opposed to that idea, and I think all the politicians here have gotten the message loud and clear.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Correspondents for other news organizations tried to find out what they could about her abduction, but almost no one told you about it. Newspapers and networks, some of them consulting by telephone, agreed to the Monitor's request not to reveal the kidnapping while the newspaper tried to win Carroll's release. The kidnapping became news in midweek only after word leaked out overseas and the Monitor posted its own story online.
Joining us now Michael Ware, Baghdad bureau chief for "TIME" magazine. He's in New York today. In San Antonio, Sig Christenson. He covers the military for the "San Antonio Express-News" and is president of the group Military Reporters and Editors. And here in Washington, Jackie Spinner, a "Washington Post" correspondent who spent a year in Iraq. She's the author of the upcoming book "Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss and Survival in Iraq."
Jackie Spinner, you know Jill Carroll from your time in Iraq. Tell us what kind of journalist and person she is.
JACKIE SPINNER, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, the striking thing always for me about Jill is that she loved Iraq. She felt that it was her home. When she wasn't there, she was homesick for the country.
She was really committed to finding out the truth and to telling both sides, all sides of the story. She was -- she was just really committed to the Iraq story.
KURTZ: Now, you yourself, as you write in your new book, had a very close call in Iraq. Tell us what happened.
SPINNER: Well, I was outside of Abu Ghraib prison. I had spent the night there to cover a detainee release, and two men grabbed me, and we believe were trying to kidnap me and stuff me in a taxi. And I was fortunate.
KURTZ: They were pulling you?
SPINNER: They were pulling me. I was -- I was kicking. I wasn't screaming, because I didn't want to attract the attention of the crowd that was starting to form around me. And the Marines came out and saved my life.
KURTZ: Fairly terrifying, would you say?
SPINNER: It was very terrifying, yes.
KURTZ: Michael Ware, when something like this happens and there have been other kidnappings -- in fact, just last week we learned that a stringer for the "San Francisco Chronicle" was held for about five days before winning his release, before being rescued, actually -- what is the impact on the small community of Western reporters in Iraq?
MICHAEL WARE, "TIME": Well, you just have to persevere regardless. I mean, you take certain precautions. You just have to trust in those and keep going.
The story doesn't stop despite these risks which are inherent. I mean, like Jackie, I think it's become all-too-familiar territory. I have been grabbed myself. I mean, it's just become part of doing business there, and protecting yourself from it is a primary concern.
KURTZ: And Michael, was Jill Carroll especially vulnerable because she used a stringer without any big security apparatus or armed guards? She was writing for the "Christian Science Monitor" but didn't have what major news organizations have, which is a lot of armed guards.
WARE: Well, this is a matter of some debate within the press corps in Iraq, and it's a matter of either personal or company preference. However, you need to understand, the basic costs of operating in Iraq now are quite extreme.
I mean, you need to have any number of vehicles. That includes drivers, security guards, essentially bodyguards who may or may not travel with you.
Now, we certainly do that. After I was grabbed back in 2004, we implemented that across our organization.
Now, for one-person bureaus, my great fear is that, given the financial pressure of operating in Iraq, many companies are constantly considering their presence there. And I think some of these one- person bureaus would feel, at least subconsciously, that there may be pressure to keep costs to a minimum. So that may inhibit them from seeking the fullest security they might like.
KURTZ: All right.
Sig Christenson, was it wrong for news organizations, including CNN, to sit on this kidnapping story for 48 hours at the request of the "Christian Science Monitor"?
SIG CHRISTENSON, "SAN ANTONIO EXPRESS-NEWS": Well, let me first say, I'm extremely sympathetic to their situation. You know, photographer Ed Ornelas and I worked independently in Baghdad over two trips in the last couple of years, and we worked just the same way that Jill did.
We worked in an Iraqi car, very plain Opel four-door with a driver and a translator. We took tremendous risk. And we went to (INAUDIBLE) recently, and I think we came out of it realizing how lucky we were. We weren't that good.
KURTZ: Well, clearly, it's a very, very risky situation for any Western journalist. But now the question comes up, news organizations thought this was newsworthy, but they didn't publish it for the initial two days, and would they have done the same for somebody who was a non-journalist?
CHRISTENSON: That's a good question. I had a contractor who sent me an e-mail demanding to know why there hadn't been any stories coming out about this, and that was on Monday morning before I think word broke on this thing -- on this thing that the "Christian Science Monitor" had done. And I think that the appearance is what is bad here.
You've got people out there who already are suspicious of us. They're inclined to think that American reporters over in Iraq are just reporting all the bad news. And now we're taking care of our own, and it's a different standard from what we do when, say, a guy from Georgia gets kidnapped and we suddenly park our live trucks out in front of their farm. And that is what my concern is.
KURTZ: Do you agree with that, Jackie Spinner? Is there a different set of rules when a journalist is involved?
SPINNER: No, I completely disagree with that. There are numerous cases of KBR contractors and other American contractors who have been kidnapped. We simply don't know about it. We never find out about. We don't report it.
KURTZ: But there's a difference between not knowing about something...
SPINNER: That's true.
KURTZ: ... that's taking place and knowing full well and making a journalistic, editorial, or maybe a humanistic decision to withhold that news.
SPINNER: That's true. But look, this is a situation that's unprecedented for the press corps. We've never been in a situation like this, where journalists are part of the story, where we are considered infidels by the insurgents, where we're not given any kind of immunity whatsoever. And I don't think that we treated Jill Carroll any differently than we've -- than we've treated anybody else.
The Christian peacekeepers who were kidnapped several months ago, the press didn't report that, you know, for four days. There have been other incidents where we have not reported. And, you know, if I got a call from the American military or from a company that said, please, give us a day to try to save this person's life, I would certainly consider that, just as much as I would consider if I got a call from a news organization.
KURTZ: Michael Ware, is -- are -- you know, would we have run the danger of reporting this prematurely that we would have increased the chance that Jill Carroll might be killed by her abductors, or could you argue the other way that publicity might help by putting more of a spotlight on those who had taken her hostage? WARE: Well, it is a fine line. But I found that in my experience -- and I'm afraid -- I have been involved in far too many of these now, both with Iraqis and foreigners, including journalists -- that the more publicity that, certainly in the initial stages, often the worse it is. I mean, here in Jill's case, I mean, there's been no claim of responsibility. And by this stage, my earnest hope is that someone has opened a secret channel with her kidnappers.
So I find that, generally, publicity, at least in the early stages, does not help. You want to get in and begin a communication without the pressure of the world watching.
KURTZ: Do you agree with that, Sig Christenson? Or is there sometimes in some cases some benefit to publicity?
CHRISTENSON: Well, there clearly have been cases where there are benefits to publicity, and I'm not going to dispute anything that you have just said. And I want to make this clear, I am -- have become aware that there have been other instances where stories were not immediately released. And I'm -- I'm good with that.
But I think the question here is the issue of the appearance. And what' I've -- all I've tried to do in this case is simply say we ought to have a serious discussion among news organizations not only about that, but we ought to have a very serious discussion about, at this point, whether we should perhaps now require that anybody who's freelancing accept that security and newspapers should be prepared to pay for it. Because, you know, talking with people I know -- and I am frequently in touch with people who are over there -- this place is more dangerous than Beirut was during the '80s.
And somebody has got to step up and make sure that we're doing everything possible to protect these reporters. And it is important that we get the story out.
CHRISTENSON: And if you have this constant security issue, it's harder to get the story out, and people here need to know it.
KURTZ: But Jackie Spinner...
CHRISTENSON: They need to know what Iraq looks like.
KURTZ: ... if there was a requirement that you -- I mean, I don't know how that would be enforced, but theoretically, that you had to have security, people like Jill Carroll and this British journalist, Phil Sands, who was also kidnapped and released last week, would probably not be able to report from there, would they?
SPINNER: No, they wouldn't be. And I think that, you know, the thing about, you know, your personal safety in Iraq, it is a choice. I mean, there's a great debate about whether or not you should travel with a bodyguard, whether or not you should travel in a soft vehicle or a hard vehicle, something that looks a little more armored. And I think it's really up to the reporter. And look, it's voluntary duty. Nobody's forcing us to be there.
I mean, we're -- Jill was there because she wanted to be there, and she knew what the risks were, just as I always knew what the risks were. And I chose it because -- because it was such a compelling story.
KURTZ: Michael Ware, I've got about half a minute. All of this danger, and every single case makes the danger more palpably clear. Is that making it very, very difficult for Western journalists to do their jobs in Iraq?
WARE: Absolutely. I mean, it creates such an obstacle to getting to the truth, and it's not as if there's already not enough obstacles, given that the military, the Iraqi government, the insurgents, everyone is constantly spinning the story. It's always about getting there on the spot and seeing it for yourself. And this just makes it so much more complicated.
KURTZ: All right. We'll have to leave it there.
Michael Ware, Sig Christenson, Jackie Spinner, thanks very much for joining us.
Coming up, the nonfiction book that should have been labeled fiction. The growing controversy over James Frey's memoir of crime and drug addiction.
Did Oprah and her viewers get duped by a story that was too good to check? We'll talk to the man who exposed the book next.
KURTZ: Welcome back.
James Frey's book, "A Million Little Pieces," has sold 3.5 million copies, largely thanks to an on-air endorsement by Oprah Winfrey.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OPRAH WINFREY, TALK SHOW HOST: The book I'm choosing kept me up for two nights straight, honest to goodness. I could not sleep. I could not sleep, people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The book which Frey said was a memoir recounts serious crimes and serious jail time. But an investigation by The Smoking Gun Web site has blown Frey's credibility into, well, little pieces. Based on police records, interviews, and Frey's own admissions, The Smoking Gun found that the author never committed most of those crimes and fabricated or embellished a number of episodes.
On "LARRY KING LIVE" this week, Frey said that memoirs are subjective. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JAMES FREY, AUTHOR, "A MILLION LITTLE PIECES": I don't think it's necessarily appropriate to say I've conned anyone. You know, the book is 432 pages long. The total page count of disputed events is 18.
Larry, I have acknowledged I have changed things. I acknowledged to The Smoking Gun that I have changed things.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But in 2003, he told Matt Lauer a different story.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATT LAUER, NBC HOST: ... license with some of the stories of what happened to you in that clinic?
FREY: No. I cut out all the boring stuff, but I didn't invent anything. Everything I wrote about happened.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Joining me now from New York is the founder of The Smoking Gun, William Bastone.
WILLIAM BASTONE, THE SMOKING GUN: Hi, Howard.
KURTZ: Did James Frey commit any of the felonies he described in his book? For example, he writes that he hit an Ohio police officer with his car and he served three months in jail. Did that happen?
BASTONE: No. No. I mean, what he did was he got pulled over. He was drunk one night and parked in a no parking zone.
A cop came up to him, realized he was intoxicated, saw a half bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer between the bucket seats of an '89 Mercury and arrested him. Mr. Frey turns it into this showdown with police, felony mayhem, insighting a riot, and the end product was, according to his book, said he was facing, you know, a maximum eight years in prison, expected to do three, but somehow magically only did three months.
And the reality was, the only time he has ever spent in custody in his life was the time he was sitting in a small Ohio police headquarters waiting for a buddy to come and bail him out. And it couldn't have been more than five hours, according to the police report.
KURTZ: That doesn't sound like the stuff of a best-seller.
Now, did he provide straight answers to you on these and other points when you interviewed him? BASTONE: No, he didn't. I mean, we had a series of interviews with him. It was between interview two and three that we basically locked the story down and obtained all the police reports. During the second interview, before we really knew what the reports would show, he was still holding to the fact that he had done jail time, that he had committed felonies, and that he had this rap sheet that, as it turned out, really didn't exist.
KURTZ: Now, you quoted some things from your interview that he said was off the record. Why was that fair?
BASTONE: It was fair because he basically put them on the record. He -- we attempted to have a final interview with him, sent him an email from us, Andrew Goldberg, my managing editor, and myself to him last Saturday morning in which we said, look, you know, we really are desirous of having a final conversation with you because, you know, our prior third conversation didn't end too well. And, you know, you have said a lot of things in the book, and you've said it in interviews for two and a half years that run contrary to what's -- you know, what the police document trail shows.
And we told him, you told us this, and you acknowledged this, and you acknowledged this. And, you know, we basically laid out the substance of the story and things he admitted to us.
And then he went and published that e-mail that we sent him on his Web site late Saturday night, and to us that was a waiver of the confidentiality that we had, you know, given him during the first two conversations. And, I mean, he said it was -- he was publishing it because he wanted to let his fans know that this was the latest attempt to discredit his book. And it was part of a policy of openness and transparency on his part.
KURTZ: Right. So you felt that by doing that, he had waived any promise that you had made that any of your discussions, or at least part of your discussions, would be off the record.
BASTONE: Right. Well, if he beats us to publish him, he shouldn't be the only one allowed to use them.
KURTZ: All right.
Now, Oprah Winfrey, who as we mentioned at the top, you know, touted this book on her show. We showed you a little bit of that. The same show on which James Frey appeared on Larry King, Oprah later called in. Let's take a listen to what she had to say.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WINFREY: Some of the facts have been questioned, and people have a right to question because we live in a country that lets you do that. But the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me.
(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Now, why is Oprah continuing to stand behind this book when, not to put too fine a point on it, she and her producers were lied to?
BASTONE: Well, I mean, I think that she went -- she went very far out on a limb with this guy. Her entire staff, you know, they did this show where their staff was in tears talking about this book. She was crying about it.
I mean, why -- why she can't just say, look, he pulled one over on us, we got snookered, and that, you know, the argument that, well, the ends justify the means here is strange. I don't get it.
You know, the thing that he points out, this strange thing, where only five percent of the book has been called into question, the fact is, is that the only thing we looked at were the incidents that we wrote about. They were the only things in that book for which there was kind of an independent paper trail. And you have to believe him to believe everything else, because is he the only witness to it.
Everyone else is either dead or supposedly in prison for life. So if you can't buy -- you can't put any faith in the stuff for which a paper trail exists to compare it to, why would you possibly believe the rest of it when James Frey is basically the single source for it?
KURTZ: Right. Now, then there's the role of the publisher, Doubleday, which says it has no plans to investigate this, and the editor of that imprint, Nan Talese, recently said this when asked about the situation.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
NAN TALESE, DOUBLEDAY: In publishing, we do not check author's facts. The authors present their books, and they guarantee they're the truth. If James exaggerated, which he now says he did, these two instances of his being really horrible, it is a mistake.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Doesn't the publisher have more responsibility than just to say it was a mistake?
BASTONE: Well, listen, you know -- you know, first off, it was far more than two instances, as she mentions. But the fact is, it's -- you know, you can make an argument that you're talking about consumer fraud here.
Listen, we have -- we have received thousands of e-mails from people. It breaks 50-50. There are Frey acolytes who are angry that we did the story.
But everyone else is saying, I bought the book thinking that it was real. You know, it was a nonfiction work. And now suddenly we're being told essentially, well, you know, it's nonfiction, but fortified with some fake stuff. And that's an area that is a new one on me. KURTZ: Now, we also have the very recent case of J.T. Leroy, a former prostitute and drug addict, writing -- and becoming a best- selling fiction author -- at least it's being labeled fiction. But "The New York Times" says this person is actually a woman. We see her up there on the screen, or at least this woman plays J.T. Leroy in public.
Do you think that all of this is common in publishing, that basically authors can say whatever they want with very little fact- checking? Is that where the publishing world is these days?
BASTONE: Well, I would hope not. Listen, when you go into a bookstore and, you know, you see, like, James Risen's book about the CIA and the prosecution of the war in Iraq, you know, you -- I'm hoping that people believe that that stuff is accurate. But it's -- you know, you see a guy like Frey, who kind of wantonly fabricates stuff, lies about it for two and a half years in the promotion of the book, and then kind of -- you know, suddenly comes up with this, well, five percent is OK, it's kind of sad, and it kind of puts, I think, a lot of other legitimate nonfiction authors in a really poor light.
KURTZ: All right. William Bastone, you have a small staff at smokinggun.com, but you seem to keep scooping the mainstream media.
Thanks very much for joining us.
BASTONE: Thank you, Howard.
KURTZ: Coming up, another columnist canned for taking corporate cash. We'll fill you in on that.
And Ted Koppel may have left "Nightline," but he's hardly retired. We'll tell you about his three new jobs just ahead.
KURTZ: Checking now the world of media news, Scripps Howard News Service dropped columnist Michael Fumento on Friday after "BusinessWeek" revealed he had taken $60,000 from the agribusiness giant Monsanto for a book and often touted the company and its products without disclosing the payment. Fumento sees nothing wrong with this secret payment, telling the magazine he's been pro-biotech all along.
Well, F. Scott Fitzgerald said there were no second acts in American life, but Ted Koppel is proving him wrong. A week after appearing on this program to describe his new deal with The Discovery Channel, the former "Nightline" anchor has announced a third and a fourth act. He will be an analyst for National Public Radio and contribute op-ed pieces to "The New York Times."
By the way, "The Wall Street Journal" on Friday ran a piece on our interview with last week with Koppel, who said he is strongly opposed to the emotional style of reporting that emerged after Hurricane Katrina, though he conceded CNN's Anderson Cooper does it pretty well. This produced an emotional reaction from some of you. J.L. Koonce in Phoenix writes: "Mr. Koppel gave his views on, among other things, the emotional journalism that has become so popular in the past few months -- a trend in journalism that has caused me to literally turn off the news whenever it is being presented that way. No matter how sensitive Anderson Cooper may be, I do not appreciate this raw exploitation in his minute-to-minute interactions with live events."
But Donna Weaver of St. Stephen, South Carolina, lectured the former "Nightline" anchor. "Koppel, though a respected journalist, could never hold my attention due to his monotone voice and flat affect. He has total lack of emotion down pat. I've always felt that the guy was genuinely out of touch with any ability to express emotion. How dare he publicly criticize our man Anderson!"
We allow all kinds of criticism on this program.
Well, ahead in the second half-hour of RELIABLE SOURCES, did the coverage of the Alito hearings deal more with issues or emotion, substance or squabbling senators? Gloria Borger and Dana Milbank join our discussion.
Plus, a talk with the blogger called Wonkette and a look at how news is being piped right into your ear.
All that after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.
TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning, everyone. I'm Tony Harris at the CNN Center in Atlanta. Here are some of today's stories "Now in the News."
Doctors say Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will undergo a tracheotomy this evening to help wean him off a respirator. They also plan to do another brain scan on him. The 77-year-old remains in a coma in critical but stable condition after suffering a massive stroke on January 4.
A few hours from now a public memorial service will begin for the 12 miners who died in the West Virginia coal mine disaster on January 2. You can watch the Honor, Hope and Healing memorial live right here on CNN. It begins at 2:00 Eastern.
It is questionable whether Indianapolis Colts quarterback Nick Harper will play later today after his wife allegedly knifed him in the knee. Sheriff's officials say Danielle Harper is being held on charges of battery with a deadly weapon and criminal recklessness.
RELIABLE SOURCES continues in a moment.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. CNN, FOX and MSNBC all carried the Samuel Alito confirmation hearings this week, but the media focus increasingly turned from the nominee to squabbling senators.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D-MA), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: I'd want to give notice to the chair that you are going to hear -- have it again and again and again, and we're going to have votes of this committee again and again and again until we have a resolution. I think...
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Well, Senator Kennedy, I'm not concerned about your threats to have votes again, again and again. And I'm the chairman of this committee, and I have heard your request, and I will consider it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: The more long-winded the lawmakers got, the more ridicule the media heaped on them, as in this front-page "New York Times" headline: "But Enough About You, Judge; Let's Hear What I Have to Say."
It was a marathon of monologues, a Vesuvius of verbiage.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER (D-NY), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: A friend of mine 20 years ago said to me -- he said, "You know, I really can't stand my mother-in-law." And a few weeks ago I saw him, and I said, "You still hate your mother-in-law?" He said, "Well, I'm now married to her daughter for 21 years, not one year."
You have a very nice mother-in-law. I see her right here. And she seems like a very nice person.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: And when Alito's wife Martha-Ann broke into tears and left the room as Republican Senator Lindsey Graham charged that Democrats were calling her husband a "bigot," everyone jumped on the pictures.
So, was the coverage fair to the Supreme Court nominee or more about theatrics than legal philosophy?
Joining us now here in Washington, CBS News national correspondent Gloria Borger, who is also a columnist for "U.S. News and World Report"; Dana Milbank, a political columnist for "The Washington Post"; and in Madison, Wisconsin, Ann Althouse. She's a law professor at the University of Wisconsin who also writes a blog at althouse.blogspot.com.
Gloria Borger, these senators always blather on. So why was there so much media attention this time to the bloviation in that hearing room?
GLORIA BORGER, CBS NEWS: Well, I think it was in contrast to Judge Sam Alito himself. He was a very serious witness. He was sort of a monotone.
His answers were quite predictable in the fact that he was not giving much away to the senators. The Democrats were searching for a way to get to Sam Alito. And they really couldn't rattle him. So when they started fighting amongst each other, people took notice.
KURTZ: Dana Milbank, you led one of your columns with the Kennedy-Specter dustup that we saw earlier over the records of the Concerned Alumni of Princeton. Why are squabbling senators more interesting than the grilling of a Supreme Court nominee, given all that's at stake?
DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, it's interesting. I had a discussion through the week with my editors. They said, "We want you to write about Alito. He's the nominee." I said, "That's great, but the senators are doing all the talking."
So, I mean, he wasn't the story in the sense that he didn't say anything particularly interesting. You know, the fact is these hearings are entirely theatrical. There is no substance conveyed.
This guy had 15 years of judicial opinions. They knew everything about him beforehand. All they wanted to do is get out there on television, and until we get television out of the Senate, which would be like getting oxygen out of the Senate, this isn't going to change.
BORGER: We don't want that to happen.
KURTZ: Gloria is opposed that.
Ann Althouse, everyone in the media went nuts when Martha-Ann Alito started crying and left the hearing room.
Why did that happen?
ANN ALTHOUSE, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN: Well, I think people were waiting for Samuel Alito to come up with some sort of an emotional reaction. The senators were obviously trying to rattle him, and they didn't want to hear his talk, which was legal analysis, which apparently people find boring or lacking in substance.
I would have liked to see them engage with the legal substance. But since the senators took the approach of trying to make things emotional and make things political and get the nominee rattled, so that actually never happened. And it had the unexpected effect of making a wife cry, which was -- of course, when something is surprising, people focus on that. But, I mean, I wish they would focus on the actual legal questions that were being discussed.
KURTZ: We just saw her crying again. And, of course, it was initially misreported the Democrats had made her cry, but it was Lindsey Graham who produced those tears. Now, as the hearings droned on, Gloria Borger -- I want to show you a piece of tape -- all sorts of important issues, despite what you are all saying about non-substance, were being discussed, the unitary theory, the executive, and abortion, of course. But some of the cable networks, particularly MSNBC, kept cutting away.
Let's take a look.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. We're going to break away. Senator Jeff Sessions...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back to the hearings in a moment. First, FOX News Alert. North of New York City...
DAN ABRAMS, MSNBC: This is one of those times where they start getting in deep into the legalize.
Put it real quick into English what they're talking about here.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: That was Dan Abrams.
If you're going to go to all the trouble of covering a live event, shouldn't you cover the event? Or, you know, were there so many hours of this that it just make sense to have legal commentary?
BORGER: I think it made some sense to have legal commentary, but also you need to hear from Judge Samuel Alito himself, because, after all, that's what this nomination is about. It's about his body of work, his 15 years of legal opinions, and...
KURTZ: But you said he wasn't good television.
BORGER: Well, but, you know what?
KURTZ: So, what's -- what's the...
BORGER: Sorry. Sorry. He wasn't good television. Most Supreme Court nominees probably are not great television.
You know, John Roberts was a rock star. Now I'm contradicting myself, I know. But John Roberts was a rock star because he spoke without notes, as did Alito, but he had this wonderful way of delivering his answers to the Senate, which kept people interested.
It's not Sam Alito's fault that he was not great under the lights. He is trying to be a Supreme Court nominee, not an anchorman, right?
KURTZ: That's right. Not for a talk show.
Dana Milbank, you were in that hearing room. Were your fellow reporters frustrated by the fact that the senators couldn't pin Alito down on abortion and executive power and a number of these other issues, thus, depriving them the ability of writing clear-cut stories with dramatic leads?
MILBANK: Well, maybe. But I don't think that that's quite the emotion. Like, if the picture zoomed out a bit there and you saw what was going on at the table, first of all, you would see that three- quarters of the tables were empty after about two hours of this.
KURTZ: Reporters left the hearing? They couldn't take it anymore?
MILBANK: They left. They were reading a newspaper. There's computer solitaire going on.
Fortunately, we had some wi-fi there in the chamber. You would have seen me weeping. Forget about Mrs. Alito. It was dreadful. Gloria was two tables over. She was, I'm sure, beyond tears by the end of the...
KURTZ: But this is dereliction of duty. There was legal substance being discussed.
MILBANK: There was legal substance, but, as a matter of fact, I'm sure you could actually draw up an equation, every time you mention "due process" on the air you lose 5,000 viewers. Every time you mention "unitary theory," the executive, 20,000 viewers click off. And the same thing with the newspapers. It's not something that people can appreciate.
KURTZ: Well, I'm shocked about the computer solitaire.
Ann Althouse, the press naturally played up the dispute about the Concerned Alumni of Princeton. This was a group that Alito had belonged to many years ago, couldn't quite remember belonging to it. Supposedly, that group was opposed to the further admission of women and minorities to Princeton University.
After Kennedy jumped on the story, was that a legitimate issue for media scrutiny? Was it a big deal?
ALTHOUSE: Well, I think it could have been a big deal, but they didn't really listen to the way Samuel Alito responded that. I don't think he was in the organization because he opposed women and minorities in Princeton. He may have been opposed to some of the efforts of affirmative action. But I don't think there was really anything in his record that showed he was a bigot.
It was more about he had some problem with ROTC being moved off of campus -- or I shouldn't say ROTC. I should say ROTC. You can see my old '60s background there.
But he -- you know, he -- I think that Kennedy was trying to get him rattled over that and was trying to just signal to people that he was a bigot, but it was really unfair. And I think that when Lindsey Graham started restating what Kennedy had said and putting it in terms that were more sympathetic, sort of parodying the argument that had been made accusing him of being a bigot, that when Mrs. Alito cried, I think that that resonated with a lot of people because we had the sense that it was unfair, too.
KURTZ: At that point the journalists had no choice but to cover it, right?
BORGER: Of course. It became a huge event.
She was clearly reacting to Senator Lindsey Graham's kindness to her after a day of her husband being questioned very strongly on this issue. But my feeling is, when you go after someone on their character, you ought to have the goods.
KURTZ: All right.
Now, the cable ratings were not particularly great for these hearings, and the Pew Research Center says that only 14 percent in a survey said they were following this very closely, compared to almost half who said they were following the tragedy of the West Virginia miners very closely. So, despite all the ink and all the air time, did the public tune in to this story?
BORGER: Well, I hope so. I mean, listening to your statistics, it seems to me not as much as cable networks would have wanted, but obviously this is one of those really important stories that may not be a wonderful television story all the time, but sometimes you have to make a decision it's important to at least offer it to people. They can tune in or they can tune out.
KURTZ: Now, from the media perspective, Dana Milbank, you kind of indicated earlier you think these are -- this is all about performance. So as long as you come across as measured and reasonable and you know the precedents and you can cite the footnotes and you don't say anything controversial, you've passed the test? Or is there something wrong with the scorecard that the press has set up here?
MILBANK: Well, it's not the scorecard that we've set up. It's the senators who have set it up this way. It's the president who set it up this way. And it's this whole dance. And behind this whole thing, you know the guy is going to get through unless he really says something, you know, horrible about his life of crime and bestiality.
But the guy is going -- the guy is going to get through if he says nothing at all. So his job, therefore, is to say nothing at all.
The Democrats have to try to, you know, throw out these wild things about the alumni of Princeton and the Vanguard and just to try to make a spectacle of it. We're not the ones who created it. We're just the theater critics watching this movie.
BORGER: You know, and after the Robert Bork confirmation hearings, the one lesson that any Supreme Court nominee takes out of it is, don't fight with the senators. You are going to lose that fight. Don't pick a fight.
Say, "You know, Senator, I'm sorry about that, but we see things a little differently." Do not do it. And he didn't.
KURTZ: And, of course, journalists love fights, and that's why we were reduced to covering the senators fighting among themselves.
Ann Althouse, as a law professor and as a blogger, are these Supreme Court confirmation hearings which Dana describes as kind of a minuet really newsworthy, newsworthy enough any longer to be carried live on cable?
ALTHOUSE: Well, I think that they should be carried at least in part. I think they should be on for people to dip in and out of.
People don't sit in front of the television all day. But I think that one thing we should see that happened this time is that on the first day of the questioning, Senator Specter did a really good job of dealing with the abortion issue and resolving that. So I think that the anticipation people had was fairly well-resolved in the first set of questions that Specter did.
ALTHOUSE: And after that there was -- it really just became very sort of solid and reliable, and on that first day, really, I think early on the first day, people knew that the competition was over.
KURTZ: Got to go.
All right. Ann Althouse, thanks very much.
Gloria Borger, Dana Milbank, our thanks to you as well.
Coming up next, why is she trading if her popular blog for long- form journalism? Ana Marie Cox, the Wonkette, on Washington, gossip and her new career in a moment.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.
Coming up at the top of the hour on "LATE EDITION," senators Trent Lott and Evan Bayh on the U.S. response to Iran's nuclear defiance.
Plus, insight on domestic spying and the hunt for Osama bin Laden from a panel of experts.
And what's in store for your money in 2006?
All that and much more beginning right at the top of the hour on "LATE EDITION."
Now back to Howie Kurtz and RELIABLE SOURCES.
KURTZ: Welcome back.
Just about anyone who hangs out online knows Ana Marie Cox, at least by her blogging name, Wonkette, the mistress of a satiric sometimes raunchy site that uses some words I can't say on the air. But now she's just published her first novel, "Dog Days." She's abandoning the blog world for a new career.
Ana Marie Cox, welcome.
ANA MARIE COX, WONKETTE.COM: Good to be here.
KURTZ: So you got all this attention for being Wonkette. You were famous from Washington, as you might put it. Why give it up?
COX: I thought it might be fun for a while to wear pants.
KURTZ: Meaning you don't usually get dressed when you are at the keyboard?
COX: Exactly. Also, leaving the house. You know, I think I was in danger of becoming agoraphobe. And so I'm going to try this whole new experiment where I go out into the world and talk to people, and then write down what they say.
KURTZ: Is there a word for that? What is it called?
COX: I know. I know. You talk about it all the time.
COX: Reporting, yes.
KURTZ: All right. But is blogging a good way to get your name out there but not necessarily a good way to make a lot of money?
KURTZ: Well, I had mixed results with that. I got my name out somewhat and made some money.
I think what blogging is really good for -- and this is one thing I have said before. I think that, you know, 99.9 percent of all human endeavor is crap. You know, it's not worth reading. It's not worth looking at.
However, the blogosphere has lowered the bar to entry for a lot of people to get -- to get their, you know, crappy work out there. And I think that the blogosphere is really good for people like me, who had a lot of trouble kind of banging down the door to mainstream journalism, and were able to do whatsoever -- I was going to say do what came naturally, although that has a whole different connotation when it comes to Wonkette.
KURTZ: Wait a minute. Some of these bloggers are going to be all over you for saying there's a lot of crap out there.
COX: Oh, it's just the bell curve of human, you know, distribution.
KURTZ: You're saying some of it is brilliant, some of it's crap... COX: Some of it is brilliant.
KURTZ: ... and some of it is horrifyingly mediocre?
COX: Yes, most of it is horrifyingly mediocre, which is actually more depressing than either extreme sometimes.
But I think that, again, like, what the blogosphere did for me is I had -- you know, I was a failed journalist, I kept trying to write for mainstream media, and they kept on turning me down. I went online and was able to do what I had sort of wanted to do in magazines, but all of a sudden, since I guess I was using dirty words and talking about other stuff -- talking about kinds of things that maybe they wouldn't have printed after all, I got a lot of attention.
But, you know, I can use whole sentences, write in complete paragraphs without a single dirty word. I am doing that right now. So...
KURTZ: And we appreciate that.
COX: I feel like the transition...
KURTZ: But now the Web site is going to taken over by an attorney named David Lat.
How can Wonkette be a man?
COX: Oh, it's going to be two men.
KURTZ: Two men?
COX: It takes two men to be Wonkette.
KURTZ: All right.
COX: I think it's actually good for -- good for Wonkette to be taken over by two men and not just in sort of a "Penthouse" kind of way. I think that it makes it more of a brand and less of an identity.
I was always a little uncomfortable being "The Wonkette" anyway. So now it's just going to be, you know...
KURTZ: I never saw any great soul-searching about that.
Now, let's talk about "Dog Days." The media don't come off terribly well in this novel. There's a scene where different journalists are sucking up to your protagonist, Melanie.
And a "New York Times" reporter, a fictional one, I should add, says, "You're a girl after my own heart, so brave and funny in the face of the capital's overwhelming sexism. I would love to buy you a drink."
Now, have people sucked up to you that way? Was this a... COX: A lot of people...
KURTZ: ... thinly veiled account?
COX: It's true there have been a lot of people offering to buy me drinks. Whether it's to suck up to me or just get me in a compromised position, I don't know. But I think that the book is a lot about the media.
It is not a very -- it's a very jaundiced view, perhaps a little unrelentingly cynical view of the media. But it's also sort of a view of Washington.
I think one of the reasons why I wanted to write the book is because it's a view of Washington that I hadn't seen before in a novel. Like, that I -- I mean, I had seen a lot in my real life, which is sort of the scrum of journalist and staffers and, you know, lobbyists and professional Washingtonians who -- and what they behave like after hours, which is not always pretty, but fascinating.
KURTZ: Now, some of the reviews have not been flattering. "The New York Times" said it was doubly convention.
KURTZ: "The Washington Post" -- you had two "New York Times" reviews. One was favorable, one was not. "The Washington Post" said "Pointlessly busy," and the "LA Times" said "Predictable and mean- spirited."
My question is, does that sort of thing sting?
COX: Of course it does.
COX: Of course it does. There's a reason -- I never believed authors before when they said they don't read reviews. And now I know you actually kind of have to not to.
KURTZ: You also have to have a thick skin to write a book and put it out there for public -- the public...
COX: And, hey, they have a point. It is really mean-spirited. It is a really mean-spirited book.
KURTZ: You are saying it's intentionally mean-spirited?
COX: Well, it reflects Washington. Washington is not a very kind place either.
And as far as it being predictable, I have been telling people -- and it's true, although perhaps not believable -- the real sort of inspiration for the plot in terms of its, you know, pattern was screwball comedy, which never had, you know, completely ingenious plots either. But it has a lot of banter, a lot of sex, a lot of drinking, which I think makes up for maybe, you know, a sort of soap opera-like...
KURTZ: I think you sold it right there. I've got about a half a minute here. Your next book is going to be nonfiction. You mentioned actually having to leave the house and do this thing called reporting.
Is that going to be a bit of an adjustment for you?
COX: I used to do it before I was in Wonkette. I think the muscles are a little weak, but they'll strengthen up pretty quick. And I'm really looking forward to doing it.
KURTZ: All right. Well, thanks very much for joining us, Ana Marie Cox.
And when we come back, forget about newspapers, radio, even television. We'll show you the newfangled ways you can get your news fix these days. Got it right here in a moment.
KURTZ: I was just listening to a podcast of "Nightline." The program comes in on this handy-dandy music player, and can I listen whenever and wherever I want. It's not a big market right now, but the network are making a big-time bet on this futuristic technology.
KURTZ(voice over): You can listen to "Face the Nation" or "Meet the Press" or "NBC Nightly News" or highlights from "Today" and "Good Morning America." And if it's video you want, you can pay a couple of bucks for "Desperate Housewives."
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE, "DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES": John, how did you get in here?
KURTZ: And the reason has something to do with desperate networks. Desperate, that is, to attract young people who use these iPods and other devices to download Dave Matthews or Norah Jones, and can store thousands of songs on these things.
There was once a time, children, when we all sat around a large box in the living room and watched Ed Sullivan.
ED SULLIVAN, "THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW": The Beatles.
KURTZ: Then came the 500-channel universe, but you still had to watch what the network suits happened to put on the shows. In terms of personal freedom, podcasts are liberating.
CNN provides news updates, and FOX's Greta Van Susteren and a number of MSNBC shows are also available.
Go online and you can watch all kinds of breaking news raw video from CNN's Pipeline for $24.95 a year. The new ABC anchors Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff have just launched a 15-minute afternoon Web cast. BOB WOODRUFF, ABC NEWS: It will be "World News Tonight" for the digital age, no longer confined to the evening and no longer just on television.
KURTZ: Then there are the blogger from ABC's Jake Tapper to NBC's Richard Engel, who is blogging from Baghdad.
CBS's Vaughn Ververs acts as a sort of ombudsman with his PublicEye blog.
The most prominent of these online diarists is NBC's Brian Williams.
BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Imagine during our growing up in this country if the greats like Cronkite, Huntley, or Brinkley had been writing a journal that was accessible every day to tell all of us who never missed their broadcast what the editorial process was like behind the scenes.
It would have been fascinating. And that's all we do every day.
KURTZ: So all of this, the blogs, the online video, and now the podcasting is great stuff, but actually this iPod isn't mine. Actually, I borrowed it for the show, and I don't really know quite how to use it. I have to ask my teenage daughters for guidance. But I'm determined to master this thing before my 1-year-old daughter demands one.
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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