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American Morning

Media Coverage Inconsistent

Aired August 05, 2002 - 08:15   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Some might call it a feeding frenzy, others a need to push new of the moment. Why does the media intensely follow certain stories over others only to drop them like a hot potato? Some say that coverage of the recent rash of kidnappings highlights the dilemma and it keeps other important stories from getting attention.

So what is at work here? Well, big problem so we brought in a big gun, our own senior analyst, Jeff Greenfield.

Good morning.


KAGAN: And we did just see it last week or we've seen it over the summer where, you know, girl after girl kidnapped or taken. And then when you look at the numbers, though, they're really not up and yet you wouldn't know that by watching the media coverage of what's taking place.

GREENFIELD: That's right. And some people think it's the 24 hour news channels like this one. But I think it's way more basic. Seventy, 80 years ago there wasn't a lot of cable TV around, when Walter Littman, the great journalist of his time, he talked about the press -- they did not call it the media back then -- as a search light that goes into the darkens and highlights one thing, one event, and then moves on.

Now, with 20...

KAGAN: Was he saying that is a good thing or is a bad thing?

GREENFIELD: Well, no, he was saying it was just the way it was, I mean, and that it posed a whole lot of problems. Now with 24 hour news what you get, like with the missing girls story, for a couple of days that's the only thing that exists. Every twitch, every press conference, every rumor, everything, whether it's a missing girl who is not yet found, the teenagers who were abducted, that's all we get.

But you know what? Even before that and even before the story of the miners, which for two days was the only story -- that, by the way, goes back to the first days of mass media. There was a miner named Floyd Collins back in the '20s or '30s who got stuck in a mine for nine days. That's all they covered. KAGAN: But back then it was newspapers.


KAGAN: Right.

GREENFIELD: Or whatever the medium is. Remember the Iranian hostage story, 1979-1980? Walter Cronkite, at the end of every newscast, counted down, day 255? So it's something within ourselves, I think, as an institution that just doesn't know how to break from the story of the moment.

KAGAN: But see that's what I want to ask you. Is it the institution -- and this is kind of the chicken or the egg thing. Is it us, the media, or is it the viewer? Because you can say well, we're going to change that, but you know at home if people are really interested in the miners story, they want to know what's happening to the missing girl, let's say if we're not doing it here at CNN, then someone else is going to do it and that's what the viewers want to see.

GREENFIELD: There is no question that the viewers, who we always pander to and beg to watch and please don't you dare miss it, and don't go away, you won't believe what we're about to do...

KAGAN: Please watch us.

GREENFIELD: ... they bear some responsibility. I remember when I was at ABC, Peter Jennings at one point said enough of O.J. We just are over covering it. And the minute ABC News went away from that story, so did the viewers.

KAGAN: Right.

GREENFIELD: But I think that, you know, if you're not just trying to build an audience, you've got to ask yourself some questions about whether the question you raised at the beginning, are there some down sides to this kind of hysterical coverage?

KAGAN: Well, so who gets hurt? Is it the media that gets hurt or is it that the viewer gets hurt or the subjects that get hurt?

GREENFIELD: No, I think it's about understanding. You alluded to this fact about, you know, are there -- is there an epidemic of teenage girls being abducted in America? No. Was there really an outbreak -- did every shark in America decide to attack human beings last summer?

KAGAN: Getting real busy.

GREENFIELD: We got a big rating with the special, I mean, CNN -- When Sharks Attack. Well, they did. But they always do under certain limited circumstances. I think two things happen. We can exaggerate a problem. I mean people, we really can instill a kind of unwarranted fear as opposed to a warranted fear. And then the question is what aren't we covering? Suppose last summer in the midst of the Gary Condit hysteria -- which is partly our fault and partly the viewers' fault. It was about sex and maybe murder. Suppose somebody had come and said, you know, we really should be looking at these tech stocks that are starting to tank. This could be a bigger problem.

KAGAN: Laughed out of the room.

GREENFIELD: I believe we would have been laughed out of the room. And even if we had done it, one story in a sea of Gary Condits...

KAGAN: Right. Because there's always that possibility. You draw them in with the Condit story or the missing girl story or the shark story and then you give them what they really need to hear about.

GREENFIELD: Yes, but I don't think it takes. And I think what happens -- I would love to know, if I -- look, if I had this kind of precognition I'd go out and bet the lottery and that would be it. But you know that there's something going on right now that six months from now or a year from now...

KAGAN: We'll go uh...

GREENFIELD: ... we're going to be saying to the audience, we really should have told you this. Last summer we really should have been about, thinking about radical Islam. But they're -- talking about being laughed out of the room. Suppose you had said, you know, maybe you should be doing a story about the spread of radical Islam and these madrassas in Pakistan and...



KAGAN: People didn't even want to hear about international news at all last summer.

GREENFIELD: No. I think what we would have wanted to hear last summer is are they learning about Gary Condit in the madrassas of Pakistan.

KAGAN: Exactly. If you can give me a Condit connection.

So what's the answer? How do we get better? Or is this just the nature of the beast?

GREENFIELD: I do think it's, in part, the nature of the beast. You can have a hundred journalism seminars but the next time the alarm goes off, if you stand there and say wait, we're over covering the story, you will be trampled to death by the Faragomos (ph) running over your body. I just think we have to know the other side, what you said. There is another part of this business. And I don't mean to sound pompous, but there is, to some extent, a way to say look, you may not want to know about what we're about to tell you...

KAGAN: But you need to. GREENFIELD: ... whether it's the international debt problems or the rise of radicalism, but believe me, if we learned anything after last September, it's these faraway stories can sometimes come back and have an enormous direct impact.

KAGAN: Yes, there's really no such thing as far away anymore, is there?

GREENFIELD: That's right.

KAGAN: It came right to our own doorstep.

GREENFIELD: That's right.

KAGAN: Stay with us as we bring in the guys.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: I hosted that show, by the way, When Sharks Kill.

KAGAN: That's right.

HEMMER: That was me.

KAGAN: Was that typecasting, Bill?

HEMMER: That's right. Thank you, Daryn.

Ahead this hour, they are two (UNINTELLIGIBLE) watch it. Twins joined at the head. It is rare. One in every one million live births. What are the odds that today's operation to separate the two will succeed? We'll have a look at that when Dr. Sanjay Gupta comes back in our house call when we continue here on AMERICAN MORNING.


KAGAN: We've asked Jeff Greenfield to stick around. We also have our other two players here considering our conversation about the media.

Did you guys see this? It's a Pew Research Center study asking people about credibility in the news media? Who do they believe?

HEMMER: No shocker here.


KAGAN: Well, not to toot our own horn, but the number one news organization, television news organization that they trust more than anybody else, CNN. How about that?

GREENFIELD: This is a good sign.

KAGAN: This is a good sign. We'll take it at this point.

GREENFIELD: Now, there is another side of this -- I don't mean to... KAGAN: To pooh-pooh this.

GREENFIELD: ... about us, is that some other studies, not, they don't break it down by particular news organizations, but they do believe -- I mean this one does.

KAGAN: Yes, they do.

GREENFIELD: But as a whole, people have some real doubts about the media. And I think the number one doubt, and I think this should be a lesson to us, is not so much bias but that they believe we have our own agenda. We like to think of ourselves as we're representing the people, the public right to know. That's what the tribune -- you know all the newspapers that are called the tribune? That's what it means. The tribune. We represent them.

A lot of them don't believe that.

KAGAN: Right.

GREENFIELD: They think we're out for ratings, glory, money, circulation and we're willing to trample over people's lives to get it.

KAGAN: All right, well, yes, and even, you know, we can pat ourselves on the back and say that this is the most credible, but even that number? Thirty-seven percent. That's the highest in terms of the media overall, television media. Perhaps that's not that impressive.

CAFFERTY: And one of the things that gets left out in these conversations, though, this is a commercial enterprise. This is not PBS. We're not here as a public service.

HEMMER: Isn't it?

KAGAN: Well...

CAFFERTY: We're here to make money. We sell advertising and we do it on the premise that people are going to watch. If you don't cover the miners because you want to do a story about a debt crisis in Brazil at the time everybody else is covering the miners...

HEMMER: Or Uruguay.

CAFFERTY: ... then Citibank calls up and says you know what? We're not renewing the commercial contract. I mean it's a business.


HEMMER: Yes, the other thing that study found, though, that if you go back to 9/11, remember the non-stop coverage that we were doing from ground zero and all over the world, even back into Kabul in the early days of the war in Afghanistan, the level of credibility and the attention the viewers gave the media, us, went up in terms of respectability. What that survey also found, though, is that since that time those numbers have fallen back.

KAGAN: Yes, and just a little bit, also, on Jack's point, you compare us, we rank higher, CNN ranks even higher than C-SPAN, which is not a commercial operation.

HEMMER: I'll take that.

CAFFERTY: Have you ever tried to watch C-SPAN?

KAGAN: I'll say more Saturday nights than I would like to admit, Jack.

GREENFIELD: I love it. I'd watch it if it were Pay-Per-View.

HEMMER: But Traficant's no longer on, Jeff.

KAGAN: It doesn't matter.

GREENFIELD: C-SPAN has the most serious coverage and the wackiest callers than anybody. Every black helicopter, UFO, James Dean is alive person watches C-SPAN.

HEMMER: That's right.


HEMMER: So listen, in the interests of business, we've got to get to a commercial break here on the way this hour.

CAFFERTY: That's right.