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Reliable Sources

Did Condit Use the Media in His Interviews?; `Variety''s Peter Bart Suspended After Allegations of Lying, Slurs

Aired August 25, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: In this corner, Gary Condit. In this corner, Connie Chung, "People" magazine, "Newsweek." Has the press pinned down the congressman on the Chandra Levy mystery or been used in his propaganda blitz? Did Chung meet the standard of a Ted Koppel or Tim Russert or Mike Wallace? And why did ABC play by Condit's rules?

Also, the woman who took on "Variety's" Peter Bart, the Hollywood heavy now suspended after an article accused him of lying and using slurs. We'll talk with Amy Wallace of "Los Angeles" magazine.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

In the most heavily hyped TV face off since Monica Lewinsky sat down with Barbara Walters, Gary Condit ended his long public silence Thursday night.


CONNIE CHUNG, ABC ANCHOR: Do you have any idea if there was anyone who wanted to harm her.


CHUNG: Did you cause anyone to harm her?


CHUNG: Did you kill Chandra Levy?

CONDIT: I did not.

KURTZ (voice-over): The Connie Chung session was part of an all out media blitz by the congressman who had avoided the press since Chandra Levy's disappearance. There were interviews with "People" magazine, with "Newsweek's" Michael Isikoff, with a California TV station. All this produced an avalanche of headlines as Condit tried to get his message out.

With all the ground rules, like a 30 minute, no editing limit on the sit-down with Chung, did the embattled Democrat play the media like a violin? Or did the press ask the tough questions and finally wring some answers out of Condit? And where does the Chandra Levy saga go from here?


KURTZ: Well, helping us to dissect the news coverage of the story, Champ Clark, who was one of the reporters interviewing Condit this week for the cover story in "People" magazine, joining us from Los Angeles.

And joining us from New York, Lisa DePaulo, a contributing writer at "Talk" magazine, whose story about the case in this month's issue was titled "Secrets and Lies."

Also in New York, John Fund of the "The Wall Street Journal" editorial page. Welcome.

John Fund, Connie Chung told me on Friday that she was stunned, just amazed by Congressman Condit's refusal to acknowledge the affair with Chandra Levy. Let's stipulate at the outset, the congressman was less than forthcoming, to put it mildly. How did Chung handle the interview? Was she aggressive enough in following up and pressing Gary Condit when he was giving some of his non-responses?

JOHN FUND, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": She got the job done, Howie. But I think she was naturally flummoxed by the fact that Condit committed public relations hara-kiri on national television. You normally expect someone to put their best foot forward. Condit put his foot in his mouth and didn't take it out for 30 minutes.

KURTZ: Champ Clark, you were up close and personal to the congressman on Tuesday. What was it like, sitting down with Gary Condit for the "People" interview? Based on my careful textural analysis of your article, he admitted to almost nothing. Did you find him to be evasive?

CHAMP CLARK, "PEOPLE" MAGAZINE: Oh, it was absolutely fascinating. Going into it, we were the first press to meet with the congressman and to ask him questions and we really had no idea what direction he was going to take, but I don't think any of us in that room expected him to go down the path that he did. It was just fascinating.

KURTZ: Was it frustrating?

CLARK: Oh, yes. Yes, it was. Certainly, initially, when we suddenly realized not only was he not forthcoming, but he seemed to be even taking a step backwards in what he had previously indicated. And...

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Lisa, when -- I'm sorry.


KALB: I was going to pick it up with Lisa. When Connie Chung said in effect, used the word stone-walling, with respect to Gary Condit, wasn't that the perfect moment, if you analyze Connie Chung's technique, for her to say since this interview is going nowhere, why don't we call it quits right now. It would have done wonders for ABC's integrity.

LISA DEPAULO, "TALK" MAGAZINE: Well, sure, it would be a terrific moment, but you know what? She, I think she hit a home-run and, yeah, she could have asked this or done this or done that, but look at the results. I mean, people have an incredibly clear sense of Gary Condit right now. They have a very strong opinion of Gary Condit right now, so she was doing something right.

KURTZ: Lisa, in your view, was there more pressure on Connie Chung to be tough, to be aggressive, because she's not a Ted Koppel or a Mike Wallace and, you know, before this, probably the interview for which she is most famously known is the one with Tonya Harding.

DEPAULO: I think she struck just the right tone. She was clearly, as Champ said, pretty surprised, as he was, with where it was going, and yet she remains respectful of him, which I thought was a really smart thing to do...

KURTZ: But she also tried to make clear to the audience that he wasn't answering the question, sometimes six, seven, eight times.

DEPAULO: That's right, and I thought she did that really well.

KALB: I thought she did too. I thought by and large, we've known Connie for years, a good job. But I was quite surprised that it was Connie who essentially looked at her watch at the end and said it was running out of time.


KALB: It would have been much better if he stood up and said let's call it quits. Which raises the question, what do you think of the fact that ABC surrendered to the 30 minute stipulation, no editing, by Condit?

DEPAULO: Well, before the interview, I found it very troubling. But after the interview, wow, we've got a stupid stipulation.

KALB: Because -- just a quick follow up...

DEPAULO: On Condit's part.

KALB: Because?

DEPAULO: Because it was a disaster.

KURTZ: Well, of course, at 60 minutes it would have been twice as -- a disaster twice as long.

DEPAULO: I don't know about that.

KURTZ: Let me turn to John Fund. This whole media blitz, from the release of Congressman Condit's letter to his constituents to the sit-down with "People" to the interview with "Newsweek" that we haven't seen yet, to the interviews with Connie Chung and the station in Sacramento, was all designed for Condit to sort of seize the moment, get his side of the story out. Given that he is trying to make the emphasis on the fact that he says he had nothing to do with Chandra Levy's disappearance, was he at least partially successful in mounting this sort of orchestrated media effort?

FUND: He could have been, but I think he failed completely. This was part of his comeback strategy, but he didn't show enough remorse, he didn't show enough compassion. Chandra Levy doesn't have a comeback strategy, sadly, and I think that Gary Condit did himself a world of hurt here because for 115 days, Howie, he was basically a male version of Greta Garbo. He would say nothing, not even one word came out of his mouth. We didn't even know how he sounded.

Then suddenly he becomes Chatty Cathy. He can't be seen enough, and the contrast is just too jarring. It seems too calculated to save his political career the very week the Democrats are redesigning his district in California for gerrymandering.

KALB: We're talking about Connie and Condit, but why don't we talk about cable television, the question this: Lisa, is cable television over-gorging on what it perceives to be it's need to feed the beast of voyeurism?

DEPAULO: Of course not...

KALB: It is not over-gorging?

DEPAULO: No, not at all, and the person who has done the most to feed this beast is Gary Condit. I mean, what he did last night gives us another couple weeks here of dissecting this.

KURTZ: Well, I think cable, in the week, in the month, when nothing was happening in the story, found endlessly creative new angles to keep the thing alive. Now, of course, we have something real to talk about.

Champ Clark, back to you. What do you do when the subject of an interview won't answer the question? For example, in the "People" story, Condit was asked about the flight attendant, Anne Marie Smith, did you ask her to lie to authorities, as she has alleged. Quote: "I'm just puzzled by people who interject themselves. Anne Marie Smith has nothing to do with Chandra Levy."

Not exactly answering the question. What do you do? What did you and your colleagues do in that situation?

CLARK: Well, we just kept following through, and in many ways his non-answers were totally revealing. They were incredible to listen to and in a way better than if he had had a -- better for us, as reporters, than if he had had a good, sensible, common sense answer.

KURTZ: Is there anyway to pin down somebody when five, six, seven times, I'm not going to discuss the relationship. I've been married to my wife for 34 years. I'm not a perfect person. He must have said that to you guys, to Connie Chung, to just about everybody over and over again. How do you get somebody off of that script? CLARK: Well, you know, in some cases you can't. And you have to accept it and realize that it's telling and revealing in it's own way and maybe it's not what you expected, or even wanted, but it, as we all know, it's something that, as Lisa said, we could be dissecting for weeks, that in a way extends the mystery.

KALB: John, don't we get a fresh definition of the contrast between television and print by the extent of coverage of this particular story, even the interview?

FUND: Oh, certainly. I think cable television has gone a little bit overboard, but partly it's Howie's view, and my view, that August is a dull month. Something fills the vacuum, and Gary Condit, through his actions, basically left August to be his story and he bears the responsibility for that. He could have dealt with this a long time earlier and we would be on to something else, or at the very least we would have resolved Gary Condit's political future by now.

KALB: Don't blame it on August, please.

KURTZ: This would have been a good story, a big story, any month of the year.


KURTZ: Some excess, yes. More on the media's role in the Gary Condit story, that's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. John Fund, in his interview with Sacramento's KOVR-TV, Gary Condit said the media should apologize for its handling of this whole saga. You ready to go first?

FUND: I find it just inexplicable. He's blaming -- he's blaming people who have been covering the story. Michael Isikoff, Lisa DePaulo, Rita Cosby are all serious journalists. They've uncovered some of the tissue of evasions and deceptions, and Condit is lashing out at them. Bill Clinton was smart enough to at least never attack the media directly.

DEPAULO: Right, but...

KALB: Lisa...

DEPAULO: Oh, I think, you know, we're going to have to come up with a new word for narcissistic if Condit stays in the news any longer. I mean, think about this, if he cared at all about Chandra Levy he would be thrilled for the media, because we are keeping this story going and we are going to get to the bottom of it.

KALB: Do you mean to say that this story can increase affection for the media?

DEPAULO: I think it has, I really do. People are cheering for us. I think there is a real sense that, you know, without the media pressure, we might not be so far along in this mystery. I don't get that sense that I got during Monica, like, oh, please, enough already. I think we're going to come out the winners of this.

KURTZ: I hate to disappoint you, Lisa, but I don't think everyone is cheering for us. And unfortunately, as you well know, in this story, there are no winners because there is still a missing young woman.


KURTZ: Champ Clark, if no evidence emerges of Gary Condit's involvement with Levy's disappearance, we have obviously all the media speculation about the affair and his evasiveness, will there be a sense that there was a rush to judgment by the press? Could Condit end up almost as another Richard Jewel figure?

CLARK: Well, it's possible. But, you know, one thing that's been interesting in regards to the congressman's interview with us and other media outlets is that he really did draw the line in the sand and I think that's been a little overlooked in the fact -- because of the fact that he didn't really talk about his relationship with Chandra. But he basically said people were lying, people were misinformed, basically straight down the line. And there may be somebody who has some evidence to -- to, show him up, there.

KURTZ: Contradict that.

KALB: John, you scapegoated August a moment or so ago. What about September, October, November? Doesn't this story have a future as long as the mystery remains? As long as the curiosity about sex and the possibility of murder remains?

FUND: Oh, absolutely. There's also another mystery...

KALB: It'll be the ABM, it'll beat relations with Russia, it's already on the front pages: Condit leads, ABM is off-lead.

FUND: Condit will remain in large part because there is now a new mystery; why is the Democratic party, which must realize now that Condit is carrying more baggage than an Amtrak train, sticking with him? I think the Democratic party is going to relieve Condit very quickly, jettison him, and that's going to be the next story. Condit's political career, crashing.

KURTZ: Lisa DePaulo, I have about ten seconds. How much longer is the media going to cover this story at this level of intensity?

DEPAULO: I think until she is found. Or until there is more of a truthfulness that comes out of the congressman.

KURTZ: We will have to wait and see. Lisa DePaulo, John Fund in New York, Champ Clark in Los Angeles, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, back to Hollywood and how a Los Angeles magazine story has rattled the chain of the entertainment industry watchdog, "Variety." (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back. In Hollywood, careers can be made or unmade in print. Now, one of the most prominent journalists in Tinsel Town, "Daily Variety" editor Peter Bart, has been suspended because of the fallout from an article in the September issue of "Los Angeles" magazine. And joining us now is the author of that story, senior writer Amy Wallace. Welcome.


KURTZ: Amy Wallace, one of the key charges in your article is that Peter Bart, while editor of this important Hollywood paper, tried to peddle a script to one of the studios. He denied it. You got hold of the script.

How did he react when you confronted him with this discover?

WALLACE: He was very surprised. He did not get angry in any way. He didn't seem to be flustered, but he changed his story over about a half-an-hour interview several times, as he laid out for me the various scenarios.

Finally, he did acknowledge writing the script, although he did say that he wrote it as an outlining exercise for a later novel that he wrote that was 80 pages long that he says was actually what he sold...

KURTZ: A related question: you also had Bart praising, in print, a Paramount executive, without revealing that she had bought the movie rights to his project, also praising his lawyer, you say, without revealing that he was Bart's attorney.


KURTZ: Was Peter Bart using "Variety" to reward his friends? Is that the bottom-line here?

WALLACE: Well, there are many bottom-lines in this story...

KURTZ: Give us one or two.

WALLACE: I think -- he definitely protects certain friends of his. He believes that "Variety" is his mouthpiece and he says that to staff members, although he did not say that to me. And he has a long relationship with many people in Hollywood. He not only was an editor of "Variety," but before that he was a studio executive at three different studios, he was a screenwriter, he was an independent producer, he was a "New York Times" reporter covering Hollywood, among other things. So, he has very rich and layered relationships with a lot of people in town.

KALB: Amy, one of the reasons for the suspension are the derogatory comments made about various minorities in the United States. Did you get that on tape and did you check the quotes with him before you went into print in your magazine? WALLACE: Depends on which offensive comments you are referring to. There is a particular comment he makes about African Americans that yes, he made to me, and is on tape.

We tried very hard to use only sources that would go on the record on this piece, and there were only a couple of places where we used anonymous sources and one of those was in cataloging the way he speaks in the workplace, in staff meetings, about various groups. Japanese people, women, homosexuals, etcetera.

KALB: Amy, the other half of the question: did you check the quotes that you had with him for his OK on usage?

WALLACE: No. We fact checked the piece very thoroughly. We did not read back every quote to him.

KURTZ: How was it that he felt so comfortable with you to use some of this language right in front of you? I mean, was he letting his guard down or did he think that you would somehow protect him?

WALLACE: You know, that's really best a question for Peter Bart. I don't know exactly what allowed him to be as free with me as he was...

KURTZ: I should mention right here, forgive me for interrupting, that we invited Peter Bart to appear on this program and he declined through a spokesperson to come on RELIABLE SOURCES.

But now, many of the critics in your article were safely off the record, and I wondered if you may have indulged in allowing people who don't like Peter Bart for whatever reason to take anonymous potshots at him.

WALLACE: Actually, I would say to you if you count up who is on the record and who is off, there are very few people who are off the record. We were very meticulous about this because Peter Bart, because of his long relationships in Hollywood, has made a lot of enemies and we did not want this piece to just be a mouthpiece for those people. We, in fact, left some stuff out of the piece that was on the record...

KALB: Amy, would you like to...

WALLACE: ... by people...

KALB: ... sorry...

WALLACE: By people who were known to not like him. So we were very meticulous about that and we -- in some ways, the best source for this story was Peter Bart himself. Both his personal statements to me and also his writing, which I immersed myself in and which allowed me to see that a lot of the people that Peter Bart quotes anonymously in his writing sound a lot like him.

KALB: Amy, some of these quotes that were attributed to him in your article have led to -- these quotes have led to his suspension. Given the culture of Hollywood, do you think he will be restored as editor?

WALLACE: I don't know. The rumors are flying on both sides, both the for reinstatement and that he will be permanently removed from his job. I can't know. I'm waiting like everyone else to see what's going to happen.

KURTZ: We have about 20 seconds, but you spent about five months on this piece, produced 13,000 words -- exhaustibly (sic) reported story. Now that Bart has been suspended, as you just say may lose his job, any cause for celebration? Do you feel like you have a scalp on your wall?

WALLACE: Not at all. That was not the purpose of this piece. The piece was intended to write about a very important, powerful, brilliant, fascinating man in Hollywood, who provided a window into part of Hollywood culture, and who hadn't been written about very much.

What the consequences of that piece are were never within our control and were not the intent of the piece.

KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there. Amy Wallace from "Los Angeles" magazine, thanks very much for joining us.

WALLACE: Thank you.

KURTZ: Well, up next, Bernie's "Backpage."


KURTZ: Time now for "The Backpage." Bernie.

KALB: "The New York Times" had a story the other day about how a civilian was beating a four star general to the top spot in shaping U.S. foreign policy. But there was something missing.


KALB (voice-over): The story began with an opening drum roll on the front page, and then the full comic on page six. All about how she was out distancing him in being America's voice on global affairs.

Here's the press covering her in Moscow, the first top Bush administration official to make that journey. And here she's being covered in Washington, offering a major overview of U.S. foreign policy, which he hasn't yet done. High media visibility, in other words.

The "Time" story went on to quote some officials as saying that if she continues in her public role, she ran the risk of undermining the secretary's authority. Or, put another way, the way things are going, the secretary is carrying out foreign policy chores while the national security adviser is doing the heavy lifting.

Well, reading this story you might think she was triumphing on her own, that a former barely known academic had suddenly overwhelmed one of the most visible and admired Americans, that a kind of Condi Rice coup had taken place, but there was something missing in this story: that this is the way the commander in chief wants it. He decides who will be front and center as the image of U.S. foreign policy, and right now the resident conservative seems to be eclipsing the resident moderate.

It goes with the job, this rivalry between NSA advisers and secretary's of state, for example between Berger and Albright, Brazinsky and Vance, and most famously, between Kissinger and Rogers. In each of these bureaucratic battles, the NSA adviser emerged on top and that was only because the president didn't lift a finger to stop it; that in fact he wanted it that way.


KALB: A variation of the "Time" story comes up every time there is a new administration in Washington. It's as though the press were lying in wait for that NSA/State Department competition to surface, to flare into the open. It's always a good story, but the one thing that cannot be overlooked is that it's the gentleman in 1600 Penn who determines who wins.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.