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Reliable Sources

Letterman/Koppel Slugfest Galvanized Media; Journalist Hurt in Afghanistan

Aired March 10, 2002 - 09:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Just ahead we'll talk about the Ted Koppel -- David Letterman slugfest that has galvanized the media. But, first, "Washington Post" reporter Peter Baker joins us by phone from Gardez, Afghanistan.

Peter Baker, you were with a group of journalists the other day when an interpreter heard something ominous -- explain what happened.

PETER BAKER, REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, we were down in a town called Zermot (ph), which is not too far from the fighting in Shah-e-Kot, and the -- a very sympathetic town to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

While we were interviewing people one of our interpreters heard two people talking about the idea of kidnapping the three journalists who were there because their commander had been arrested by Americans.

They thought we would be pretty good bargaining chips I guess.

KURTZ: That must have been a chilling moment for you, needless to say?

BAKER: It was. We immediately jumped in our cars and got out of there, of course. And, unfortunately, what happened next was that one of our colleagues, who was a little bit behind us and I'm not sure was aware of any threat, found her car attacked by a man who apparently threw a grenade.

It exploded through the back of the car and ripped into her backside. She's Katherine Kenna (ph), a correspondent from "The Toronto Sun" or "Star."

KURTZ: and do you know anything about her condition?

BAKER: Well, she was very seriously injured. She was taken up to Gardez where the hospital was simply not capable of helping her.

We managed to get her to the American base and they were kind enough to help her -- airlift her to a better hospital. And then she was sent to Germany.

She was in serious condition but we think she's better. The latest word, though, suggests that she's having some trouble in Germany. She's unconscious and we're not entirely sure where it's going to go from here.

KURTZ: Right. When you high-tailed it out of there was there any pursuit of you and the other journalists in your little convoy there?

BAKER: We did run into a car, which had the two men who had said the comments, come up to us and suggest, "Maybe you guys should come with us. Let's go to this village. You can do some reporting here."

Obviously that idea was not accepted.

KURTZ: I'm sure you were being extra cautious at that moment. Where did you end up spending the night?

BAKER: Well, unfortunately, that night -- because we took Kathleen (ph) to the American base and we were told to wait outside of the American base until they got back and finished airlifting her, we got caught out after curfew. It was dark, it was late. We were a couple miles south of town and needed to have an escort to go back in.

The Americans provided us with one of their Afghans to take us -- Afghan guards to take us back in. But just before we hit the city limits there was a mortar attack right in front of us. We all jumped out of our vehicles and dove for cover.

And eventually when we were able to get back in the cars we zipped right back down to the American base and ended up sleeping in the cars outside of the base all night.

KURTZ: This is dangerous work, to say the least. I understand that in recent days there's been some kind of threat issued against journalists. Can you tell us about that? And how do you assess the severity of this threat.

BAKER: Well, the IPCF (ph) -- the International Peace Keeping Force -- and the Pentagon have let us know that they have received credible but not specific threats against journalists.

They say that there's a plot to kidnap or kill Western correspondents in or around Gardez in retaliation for the violence. But the problem is, as you know, it's a very vague warning. It's not very specific. It doesn't tell you anything about who's behind it or what the plan is or how this might work. And, as a result, it's been very hard for journalists to figure out how to react.

And most journalists have continued to cover the story from down here -- just trying to exercise more caution.

KURTZ: That's what I was going to ask. Just briefly, has this experience that you went through the other day changed the way you're trying to approach things -- made you much more cautious?

BAKER: Well, we are cautious -- yeah -- definitely more so. We're not going to some of the towns that we might have gone to otherwise without good reason and without guys with guns, quite honestly.

We really have to think twice. Is the story that you're going to get out of this town worth the potential risk? And, in a lot of cases the answer is no. But when the case is -- when the answer is yes, we're going to be there.

KURTZ: All right -- Peter Baker, from "The Washington Post," thanks for that live report and stay safe.

And we turn now to the media martyr of the hour here in America. An award-winning journalist and tenacious interviewer, which has owned ABC's late nighttime slot for 21 years. Now Ted Koppel could be unceremoniously booted in favor of David Letterman.

And what about the other veteran anchors -- Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings, Sam Donaldson -- is their day passing as well as network executives chase a younger audience?

Well, joining us now in New York -- James Wolcott, Contributing Editor at "Vanity Fair." And here in Washington, Laura Ingraham, the host of The Laura Ingraham Show on Westwood One Radio. And Hal Bruno, former Political Director at ABC News. James Wolcott, is the era of the superstar anchor on the super star throne making super star demands now coming to an end in light of what seems to be happening to Ted Koppel?

JAMES WOLCOTT, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR, VANITY FAIR: I think it is and I think it's economics, which is if you've got a limited pool of money you're going to funnel it to entertainment.

They -- the networks have no problem paying the cast of Friends, Letterman, Jay Leno -- those people -- huge amounts of money. So the money is there -- it's how it's going to be apportioned. And they've decided to apportion it to the entertainers.

KURTZ: Laura Ingraham, I think Nightline is a great show but are journalists acting in their own self-interest here by portraying this is a kind of a Holy War against the Disney heathens?

LAURA INGRAHAM, HOST OF THE LAURA INGRAHAM SHOW, WESTWOOD ONE RADIO: Yes -- they are. This is a story that is old in many respects. News -- network news has become part info-tainment. The Fleecing of America -- it's all segments -- it's features. So little is devoted to actual reporting, whether it's domestic reporting or international issues.

You just did an interesting interview with Peter Baker. That kind of stuff happens more often on cable television because of the time you have to devote to it than it does on network news.

This is nothing new. It is amazing that Ted Koppel was allowed to exist for 21 years.

KURTZ: Allowed to exist?

INGRAHAM: In the current environment where information is combined with entertain. Koppel is much more of a straight news guy. That era is gone.

KURTZ: Hal Bruno, you worked for ABC for many years originally under Cap City, which was a broadcasting company, and then Disney came in and bought the network. Did you notice any change . . .


KURTZ: . . . when you were working for this big conglomerate now?

BRUNO: I think it's not peculiar to ABC. What's happened in journalism in recent years is the ownership has been taken over by corporations whose main interest is not journalism.

Disney owns many, many entertainment operations. One of them is the ABC network. And then as part of that you have this division -- this subdivision, which is the news division.

The same thing is true with the other networks and at other media organizations as well.

We no longer have the ownership that cares about journalism. Ted Koppel stands for integrity, professional skills, doing journalism the way it should be done in a time when we have all of this "twist and shout" type of thing going on on the television programs.

KURTZ: did you feel this personally at ABC -- that suddenly you're working for this big corporate owner that also has theme parks and cartoons and is not primarily in the news business?

BRUNO: I think everybody felt that -- that under previous owners the news division was highly, highly prized and it was highly respected.

I don't think that that is true. And I'm not criticizing just Disney. I'm saying of all of the networks.

KURTZ: General Electric? Viacom?

BRUNO: Yeah. They're owned by companies whose prime interest is not journalism.

INGRAHAM: But also we have an enormous number of outlets where you can get news. Every -- all day long people are at their computers. They're being inundated with messages -- good -- bad news from around the world. If they want it they can get it.

KURTZ: So you're saying in that environment . . .

INGRAHAM: End the end of the day, Howard, people are tired. At the end of the day I bet people have been inundated with news -- bits of information all day long. They want to be entertained. Younger people want to be entertained -- they want to tune in to Letterman and Leno.

KURTZ: So why are five and a half million people still watching Nightline? You make it sound like . . .

INGRAHAM: I think it's an -- it's an older audience. It's skew is older. That's why it doesn't bring in the ad revenue. This is a business. Television is a business. They want to . . .

BRUNO: Well, it's a business up to a point. The news is -- even the news has to be profitable. I always enjoyed working for The Washington Post Company and Cap Cities and Disney. They made a profit. You could do a better job when your company makes a profit.

The question is -- how much profit is necessary?

We've seen layoffs at newspapers. TV is not the only one at fault here. We've seen layoffs at newspapers -- not because they lost money but because the profit wasn't as big as it had been the year before.

KURTZ: Well, look -- these companies have stockholders and there are . . .

BRUNO: Yeah, right.

KURTZ: . . . competing pressures.

BRUNO: Yeah -- all right. But when it comes to the news -- yes -- you have to have a profit but it doesn't have to be greed and greed is what's taken over.

KURTZ: Greed -- OK. James Wolcott, let me come back to you on a generational question. Ted Koppel is 62 years old. Cokie Roberts, who announced the other day that she's leaving ABC's This Week at the end of the year. She's 58.

Sam Donaldson, who may or may not stay with the program after Cokie leaves, is 68.

Is this a youth movement that going on and is ABC being hurt by all of this turnover and internal turmoil over Nightline as well?

WOLCOTT: Well, I think -- I think some of the hurt is because of delay. I think that there were changes that needed to be made on the Sunday morning show for a long time.

And they were making incremental changes rather than dealing with the fact that -- I never thought that the Cokie Roberts -- Sam Donaldson partnership worked. I'm not sure what will work.

So I think what they're doing is they're saying, "OK -- if we're going to have turmoil let's have major turmoil and turn it all over at one time." And that's one way of doing it rather than Chinese torture and drip, drip, drip. It's sort of like this is a good time. If we're going to clean house let's clean the entire house.

INGRAHAM: One thing that's interesting that's happened in all of this is that Diane Sawyer was one of the few people at ABC who didn't come out and -- come out and actually support . . . KURTZ: With some kind of passionate statement.

INGRAHAM: . . . Koppel. Right?

KURTZ: And Barbara Walters did.

INGRAHAM: Yeah -- well, she did cancel her appearance on Letterman this week I guess.

KURTZ: Yeah.

INGRAHAM: But the interesting thing is she needs a younger audience to be held from the night time. People leave their television on ABC. That would help Diane Sawyer to keep the younger audience tuned into ABC instead of going to NBC.

So even older people -- and she's not -- she's 50 years old -- even older people understand -- you've got to continue to renew yourself with the audience.

BRUNO: By the very nature of this discussion -- to be contrary to what we've always believed as journalists. First of all, I don't think the difference in the age group is as much as they make out.

There was studies done that the Koppel audience was only slightly older . . .

INGRAHAM: But for ad revenue it's important.

BRUNO: . . . than the Letter- . . .

KURTZ: Average age 50 . . .

BRUNO: Yeah.

KURTZ: . . . as compared to average age 46 for Letterman.

BRUNO: Yeah.

KURTZ: But that can translate, Hal, into millions of dollars in terms of -- advertisers think that the people who are 18 to 49 are the ones who are spending the money.

INGRAHAM: They don't think that -- that's a fact. That's their buying pattern. That's been proven over time.

KURTZ: James? I'm sorry -- I thought you wanted to jump in.

What about . . .

WOLCOTT: No -- I . . .

KURTZ: What about Laura's point that 11:30 at night people have been buffeted by news all day. They want to be entertained. They want to laugh with Leno or Letterman and that therefore the idea of Nightline, which was so revolutionary in 1980 when it came on the air at a time when there was very little cable news is kind of an out motivate concept. Do you buy that?

WOLCOTT: No, I don't because the fact is they still have Letterman and Leno to go to. What's going to happen is they're going to -- there's going to be no news alternative. They'll -- CBS will find -- if Letterman leaves CBS will find some sort of a jokester to take over that slot so you'll have three stand-up comics in a gladiator contest.

So -- and also I think a lot of people -- let's -- we have to differentiate between news junkies that all of us would be who do inundate ourselves all day. But there are a lot of people who aren't bombarding themselves with news and actually only watch at specific times.

INGRAHAM: The younger people aren't watching Nightline.

WOLCOTT: They're not watching . . .

INGRAHAM: Younger people are not watching Nightline. Most of the time it's not live the way it used to be. But a lot of times Ted Koppel has someone substituting for him. That has changed the nature of the show.

The show hasn't become evolutionary with the times -- it hasn't. He's an enormously talented person but young people aren't tuning in for a reason.

BRUNO: Are we supposed to cover the news or are we supposed to appeal to the lowest common denominator?

INGRAHAM: I don't think doing a live show appeals to the lowest common denominator.

BRUNO: No -- but if you're going to cater to 18 years olds . . .

INGRAHAM: Not 18 years olds -- they're 25 to 40 year olds.

WOLCOTT: Carson -- maybe Carson Daley (ph) should host Nightline.

INGRAHAM: Now let's not go that far.

BRUNO: maybe if you want to read . . .


BRUNO: If you was to sell more copies of "The Washington Post" then you put color pictures of ladies in bikinis on the front page . . .

INGRAHAM: Yeah -- but . . .

BRUNO: . . . and you'll sell more.

INGRAHAM: Right -- but Koppel is so needed in the environment he will -- if he doesn't stay with ABC he'll go somewhere else and somewhere will give him a great platform that maybe will encourage him to continue to do the show live and he'll continue to be a major force in journalism.

BRUNO: Ted Koppel will be the winner in all of this because he is a world class . . .

INGRAHAM: He'll probably stay at ABC.

BRUNO: . . . he is a world class journalist. He won't have to worry.

The loser in all of this could be Disney, ABC News and journalism in general.

KURTZ: Well, James Wolcott, Laura Ingraham makes the point that -- gee, Nightline isn't live as much anymore therefore it's less compelling allegedly to younger viewers. But one of the reasons that more of it is on tape is that they're trying not to do what every cable show in America does, which is just to step up pieces and talk but to do -- to go to the Congo, to go around the world, to do more in-depth journalism.

And I still have a hard time believing that nobody under 50 cares about good journalism. What do you think?

WOLCOTT: Well, the thing that I find so odd is that Nightline came of age -- it came on the air because of the hostage crisis.

And now we're in the midst of the terror war. It seems so very odd.

If we were in a sleepy Eisenhower Two period where nothing much was happening you could say, "Well, maybe we should put a show like that out to pasture." But we have bombs going off every five minutes. And so it seems odd that this is the time that you want to -- that you want to sort of ease that sort of programming out.

I also have to say I think the person who will also suffer from this is David Letterman. I think David Letterman may have taken on a larger migraine than he intended.

KURTZ: All right -- I'd like to come back to that question and others on the other side of the break. We'll be back in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. We asked our viewers last night whether Nightline is still important.

Mitchell in Toronto wrote, "Nightline remains relevant. The problem is that it is sometimes not compelling television. The show often features a great setup piece on a topic that may or may not be headline news but turns into a snoozefest."

But most of you who e-mailed us were Nightline fans. Alice of Augusta, Maine wrote, "The very idea that one of the last two remaining bastions of intelligent in-depth broadcast journalism -- PBS' Newshour being the other -- could disappear for the sake of Disney's corporate bottom line is discouraging in the extremely.

And Getu in Germantown, Maryland -- "It is amazing that stupid pet tricks are more valued in society than what Nightline brings to the table for society as a whole."

James Wolcott, we've been talking here about whether news programs should be displaced by David Letterman, I'm wondering about David Letterman. Here's a guy who makes about $30 million a year to come out and tell jokes. And he's unhappy and he wants to go to another network and leave CBS. Why is he so unhappy.

WOLCOTT: Well, first of all, David Letterman is always unhappy. Frustration is what he has for breakfast -- I think he lives on it. And I think Letterman also likes being the rouge elephant of TV.

The fact is there haven't been too many rouge elephants -- Jack Parr, Roseanne. He is one of the few people now on TV on the talent side who can totally terrify and destabilize network executives.

So I think that -- I think that Letterman thrives on frustration. On the other hand I do think he genuinely did not want to be seen as the bad guy pushing Koppel out. Reports say that he spoke to ABC about this concern. Unfortunately ABC handled things so badly -- the way they handled them badly with Barbara Walters and elsewhere that he's -- I'm sure he's not happy with being seen as the guy elbowing Ted Koppel out if that's what happens.

KURTZ: And that could well be a factor in his decision in whether to leave CBS.

Do you think the media are fairly painting Letterman as the unintentional villain here?

INGRAHAM: Yeah. Again, I really -- I think that television is a business. It has . . .

KURTZ: Right.

INGRAHAM: . . . it has been a business for a long time. Letterman wants to make as much money as he can -- just like Katie Couric wanted to make 65 million instead of 62 million for her contract. Nobody is talking about how Katie Couric is a villain.

David Letterman -- he's been one of the talents in television for a long time. No one right now in late night television carries the audience that he does. And I can't -- you can't blame him. This is a network decision and it's a business decision.

KURTZ: Koppel . . .

INGRAHAM: We may not like it but that's what it is. KURTZ: Yeah -- Koppel is not exactly underpaid himself.

INGRAHAM: All of these guys make a lot of money . . .

KURTZ: right.

INGRAHAM: . . . and they're all very talented in different ways. I just hope we don't see Rosie O'Donnell and Ted Koppel hosting a show together. We'll have Ted Koppel getting a Mohawk and wearing an earring and calling it a day. I hope that doesn't happen.

KURTZ: Hal Bruno?

BRUNO: I doubt you'll have to worry about that.

INGRAHAM: Yeah -- exactly.

BRUNO: It would be interesting to see but I don't think it will happen.

KURTZ: Did you -- when you were in the later parts of your career at ABC did you ever get the sense -- talking about this age thing -- about how you were a great guy but we need someone with fewer wrinkles?

BRUNO: I think that's true -- sure -- absolutely. There is a premium on younger people. And there comes a time when we all realize it's time to step out. And I'm glad I retired. I had 20 years at ABC News working with some of the greatest professional journalists I've ever known -- not only Ted . . .

KURTZ: Right.

BRUNO: But Barbara Walters and Sam and Cokie . . .

INGRAHAM: They're all still there.

BRUNO: . . . and Peter Jennings.

INGRAHAM: They're all still there.

BRUNO: Yeah.

INGRAHAM: Look at 60 Minutes.

BRUNO: I know.

INGRAHAM: Look at ABC. They're all still there.

KURTZ: Mike Wallace is 83.

BRUNO: Yeah -- and you just hit on something. He's 83 and he's still a darned good reporter . . .

INGRAHAM: Yeah -- so? BRUNO: . . . and he's still worth listening to. And the same thing is true of all of the people I've mentioned. They're still very fine journalists and they're still worth listening to.

Now does that mean an audience has to look (UNINTELLIGIBLE) from somebody who looks just like they do in terms of age? Walter Cronkite was along a lot of years and was able to have an audience without anybody raising any questions about it. So I don't get this whole thing.

KURTZ: OK -- one more for Botox (ph).

James Wolcott, we have about 30 seconds. Is it possible whether it's Koppel or any other anchor to put together a vibrant and important news programs that's going to appeal to this coveted, lusted-after 18 to 49 year old age group?

WOLCOTT: I'm not sure. The question is -- as the country gets older in terms of the Baby Boomers -- they're becoming the more sizable market -- the question is -- how long are you going to keep skewing young when so much of the country isn't young?

Are you -- are you going to say, "Well, let's just cut 70 percent of the audience out."

And I'd like to go back to one thing about Letterman -- there's another reason he's doing this, which isn't about money, which is he wants to beat Jay Leno in the ratings . . .


WOLCOTT: . . . in the popular ratings. And I, frankly, think that's -- everyone knows that Letterman is the superior host.



KURTZ: I've got to leave it there. I hope you'll come back.


KURTZ: James Wolcott, Laura Ingraham, Hal Bruno -- thanks very much for joining us. And when we come back -- a president rips the press on a very incriminating tape.


KURTZ: Welcome back. News has a half life -- a sell by date after which it is no longer fresh. That's a shame in a way because we often fail to find out the real story until many years later -- say, three decades after a president has left office.


KURTZ: We'll be right back -- a little audio difficulties. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Let's try again now to listen to that tape in which the president attacks the press.


KURTZ: In 1972 Richard Nixon was riding high. He was about to embark on his historic visit to China and would soon -- after a little unpleasantness at the Watergate Hotel -- be cruising to a landslide victory over George McGovern.

Imagine if a reporter had gotten a hold of a taped conversation between the president and the Reverend Billy Graham in which they were talking about the media.

RICHARD NIXON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In the media now life is totally dominated by the Jews. "Newsweek" is all owned by Jews and dominated by them (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

"The New York Times," "The Washington Post" -- totally Jewish ownership.

The other thing, don't forget all three networks except for (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Brinkley or Cronkite may not be of that persuasion but the writers (UNINTELLIGIBLE) 95 percent are Jewish.

Now what does this mean? Does this mean that all Jews are bad? No, but it does mean that most Jews...