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Reliable Sources

Is Chandra Levy a Legitimate News Story?; Are Media Hyping Terrorist Warnings?

Aired May 25, 2002 - 18:30   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 terrorism threats that are getting plenty of press attention this week. Are the media hyping the warnings or going along with the White House trying to distract attention from its mishandling of intelligence?

But first, it took over the airways at noon Eastern on Wednesday, the saturation coverage suddenly felt like the summer of 2001.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A skull and some other remains of a female have been found at Rock Creek, as well as some clothing and the obvious question is, could this be Chandra Levy?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: For 378 days after Chandra Levy disappeared, there have been skeletal remains found.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We begin tonight with a story from what now seems to be a long, long time ago -- Chandra Levy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was the most publicized missing person's case in years. Today the search for congressional intern Chandra Levy ended in a Washington, D.C. park.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The search for Chandra Levy may be over, but not the hunt for answers.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Investigators are now focusing on how Washington intern Chandra Levy died now that her remains have been recovered.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the "Los Angeles Times," and David Shuster, who covered the Chandra Levy disappearance last summer for Fox News and is currently reporting the story for CNN's affiliate service "News Source." Welcome.

David Shuster, you covered this endlessly last year. You chased after Gary Condit shouting questions. With the passage of time you're older and wiser, don't you agree that the coverage this week has been utterly embarrassing?

DAVID SHUSTER, TELEVISION REPORTER: Well, actually I think the coverage last summer was the stuff that was embarrassing. This week we actually had some news, as far as the story is concerned. Nevermind whether we should be covering the story of an intern who may have had some sort of involvement with Gary Condit and whether or not he may have been involved, but as far as the story is concerned, they found a body. The body was hers, and they're soon going to determine exactly what the cause of death was. This was the kind of development we were all hoping to get last summer, to give the story some legs and we got it this week.

KURTZ: But you say embarrassed about last summer's coverage? Are you -- were you embarrassed?

SHUSTER: I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed for journalism as a whole, the fact that there was so much attention on this particular story, where really it was just a case of a -- of a woman who went missing and the only reason we cared is because she had a relationship with a congressman.

KURTZ: The only reason we cared ...

SHUSTER: There's no -- there's no ...

KURTZ: ... the only reason we cared because before we knew about Condit, nobody in the media cared. Doyle McManus, let's face it, we all knew she was dead, so why the endless hours of coverage after the initial newsworthy fact that the remains had been found?

DOYLE MCMANUS, LOS ANGELES TIMES: Well, in fact, Howie, I would argue that the encouraging thing is that the hours weren't quite endless. This week the Chandra story had to share the stage, had to share the front page with a lot of other stories -- President Bush in Europe, the continuing war on terrorism, action in Congress. And in fact, if you look at the newspapers, that story fell off the front page after day one. It was still getting a fair amount ...

KURTZ: If you were watching cable TV on Wednesday ...

MCMANUS: Well ...

KURTZ: ... there was almost no Bush. There was almost no terrorism. There was almost no Middle East.

MCMANUS: For that -- for that first news cycle, and there was -- there was in the -- in the cycle after and the cycle after a fair amount of Chandra, but that was much less than last summer. And what I'm saying in effect is, look, the dirty little secret of this business is there is a market for news and how much a story gets depends on what else was going on. And the problem we all had last summer was that there wasn't a lot of other hot news driving the market and we weren't good enough at making boring but important stories like the nation's economy, Social Security, Medicare, the health care system, all of those worthy subjects that we often labor to make into stories, we weren't able to make those gripping enough to get Chandra's story out of the way.

SHUSTER: Well -- and, Howard, even the other big story that the media did last summer, they got wrong. The story about the number of shark attacks -- I mean, it turns out that the shark attacks were one more than the year before, but listening to all the broadcasters, at least, you'd think that there was just a swarm of sharks that were ready to devour you and in fact, the people who were the experts blame the media for simply wanting a break from the Chandra Levy story to put so much attention on something it really didn't deserve ...

KURTZ: Let's go back to the media sharks because I feel like we're in a time warp -- the same reporter, the same experts, the same lawyers, the same detectives were all talking about this, and while the first day of coverage might have been justified because you had the initial drama of was this, in fact, her remains. Second day, a third day, a forensic psychologist, pathologist and so forth, it just makes you wonder whether the media are merchandising this tragedy.

SHUSTER: Well, I would argue in the world of cable news, we certainly have a lot of time to fill. It's worth on the second and third day giving people the explanation as to how does a forensic teamwork. What sort of analysis do they do? What are the sort of tell-tell signs and clues that the investigators are looking for? That's the kind of thing that people find interesting, which if the cable world is doing its job, it can fill the hours where there aren't dramatic breakthroughs by educating people. But ...

KURTZ: In fact, let's take a look at a piece of tape where CNN reporter Kate Snow talking to one of these very experts.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You see the line going across the skull indicative of the fracture line from that particular break.


KURTZ: Should reporters be sitting around with skulls on TV talking about this young woman's death?

MCMANUS: Not after the first day they shouldn't. And you asked a philosophical question, are the media merchandising this story -- of course they are. It's a story. This is not a story that anyone is presenting because it has redeeming social value. This is part of our national neighborhood. It's gossip. It's a story everybody wants to share. It's -- a sociologist might say it's a good thing because it gives us all the same thing to talk about over the water cooler ...

KURTZ: ... the function of television news to give us entertaining gossip to talk about on the weekend barbecues.

MCMANUS: It's one function, yes.

KURTZ: OK, that's an interesting theory. SHUSTER: Well, and having said that, I mean, if the media is going to make the decision to cover this on a second and third day, it does have an obligation to not do the hourly update as how did they determine the cause of death, but take some of that time and explain, you know, how are police doing this? How does one conduct an investigation regardless of whether it's a missing person or Chandra, whether it's somebody else in some other city.

KURTZ: WTTG, the local Fox station here in Washington quoted sources as saying that Chandra Levy may have been tied up before her death and the deputy D.C. police chief Terry Gainer went ballistic and said whoever released that information -- quote -- "should be shot or put in jail." As a reporter, would you have held back that kind of detail, particularly if there had been a police department request to do so?

SHUSTER: Well, I don't think so. I mean, if you've got information that may lead to a conclusion as to how she was killed, I think you have an obligation to run it past the police and say, look, is this story true and if you want us to hold back on this, give us a valid reason why and then you consider it with your editors. I think the problem, which I'm not sure if this was the case with WTTG, but the general problem with cable news is that you don't have that time to make that sort of judgment, to talk to your editors, to talk to the police, and then wait until 6:30 to decide is this something we go with, and I think that's where you had a lot of these problems.

MCMANUS: And that is a problem because you ought to build in the time to make that judgment. If it turns out that was an irresponsible thing to put out there because it might impede the investigation, I think that's a serious problem.

KURTZ: On Friday, two full days after the remains were discovered, it seemed to me that I was seeing as much Chandra Levy coverage and speculation and more experts and police chiefs and detectives and forensic pathologists as I was footage of President Bush and Vladimir Putin signing an arms control agreement. That seems to me like the priorities are a little bit out of whack.

MCMANUS: Well, but again, this is a case where you are seeing different media behave in different ways. You're talking about cable news, network news, the mix will have changed and obviously in newspapers the mix has changed. You -- we ...

KURTZ: Has it changed in the "Los Angeles Times"?

MCMANUS: It has ...

KURTZ: I mean, she's from California.

MCMANUS: She's from California, but she was not on our front page on Friday -- by Friday morning. So what you now have instead of one mass set of media all looking for the same audience, you've actually got different media looking for different audiences and presumably cable thinks its audience wants more Chandra. KURTZ: There's starting to be some buzz, David Shuster, that if it turns out to be that somebody else did this murder and who knows if we'll ever find out, would the media owe Gary Condit some sort of apology for the trial by media fire that he was put through. Of course, I'm recalling that he didn't say very much in his own defense for many months until the famous ...

SHUSTER: Well, that's right and he ...

KURTZ: ... Connie Chung interview.

SHUSTER: ... and he fed the controversy last summer by the disastrous way that he handled the media, so a lot of the media frenzy was his own fault for him not being able to handle it very well. But I do think that this will become -- this will become a colossal embarrassment for the media if it turns out that Gary Condit wasn't involved in any fashion, that Chandra Levy was just another woman, unfortunately, who was strangled and murdered in the park and Gary Condit didn't have anything to do with it, then the media will have a huge amount of egg on its face, and I think for that reason, there'll be a lot of soul searching among, especially the cable broadcasters.

KURTZ: He would then be the unluckiest man in American given the involvement that he had in a -- in a romantic sense. David Shuster, thanks very much for joining us. Doyle McManus, stay put. Time for e-mail question of the week. Are the media milking the Chandra Levy tragedy? E-mail us at

When we come back, covering new threats of terrorism, how reporters helping the White House changed the subject. That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. For a week now the media have been filled with warnings of new terrorist attacks many of them fueled by top administration officials. Vice President Cheney sounded the alarm on "MEET THE PRESS" and he was far from alone.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On Sunday the vice president said he believed there would be another terrorist attack on the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The director of the FBI said today that suicide bombers are going to attack in the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Authorities increased patrols at landmarks, bridges and tunnels after vague threats relayed by the FBI.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's not whether there will be another terrorist attack against the United States, administration officials say it's a question of when, where and how al Qaeda will strike again.


KURTZ: So is the press scaring people for no good reason or being used by a White House that's on the defensive? Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the "Los Angeles Times" is still with us, and joining us now Evan Thomas, the assistant managing editor of "Newsweek."

Evan Thomas, by running these warnings virtually everyday, suicide bombings, nuclear attacks, Statue of Liberty, Brooklyn Bridge inevitable, certainty, aren't the media scaring the hell out of people?

EVAN THOMAS, NEWSWEEK: Yes, and I think that the administration wants to keep -- I think they worry about complacency and it's not so much the American people, they want to get the bureaucracy to pay attention, that they're -- they want to make sure their own government is paying attention. I think that's one of the reasons why they ...

KURTZ: And ...


KURTZ: ... vehicle for that?

THOMAS: Yes, there's also -- that's part of it. The other part is the press created a phony story last week about what did Bush know and when did he know it.

KURTZ: Phony?


KURTZ: Completely phony?

THOMAS: Ninety percent phony story, and this is the natural bureaucratic reaction to our phony story. This is press driven phenomenon.

KURTZ: Well, in fact, Doyle McManus, Condoleezza Rice told me the other day that these are the same warnings that administration officials have been putting out for months offered in response to press questions and yet journalists, in the view of some in the White House are making it seem kind of new and dramatic, these warnings that more terror attacks may be coming.

MCMANUS: Well, when the vice president of the United States gets up and says nuclear, when the national security adviser or the secretary ...

KURTZ: Don Rumsfeld.

MCMANUS: ... of defense get up and say the threat level is still high, we have a sort of reflex position. We put that out there. I think, in fact, it was the White House and the administration using the bully pulpit that both to get the attention of the bureaucracies, as Evan says, but also to change the subject a little bit, to remind people that the threats were real, that this is a tough situation we're in and that nattering at the president, as they would have put it, was not the patriotic thing to do, as Cheney put it so bluntly. KURTZ: How hard is it to do this kind of intelligence reporting, where you're asking government sources to describe what's being said by their sources who, at the very best, are shady characters.

THOMAS: Even at the tenuous level that we often operate on, this is the worst because you have different layers of obfuscation. The intelligence folks themselves don't know how good their sources are, so you have that level of uncertainty. Then you have the whole secrecy problem, them not really wanting to tell us too specifically, add in a dose of politics, and it's no wonder they used to call it the wilderness of mirrors. I mean it's just -- it's dizzying -- the possibilities for getting it wrong are being obscure are just limitless in the area of intelligence.

KURTZ: And some journalists, as you know, are saying that the White House, Evan, may think the story is phony, but the White House is trying to change the subject from what it did before September 11, what happened to the FBI report, how come this memo didn't get to the CIA to the uncertain future, and I wonder whether the press is their vehicle in this effort.

MCMANUS: Oh, it clearly is. On the other hand, you can't control what the subject is. The story in the way it was framed a week ago, I tend to agree with Evan, it was phony, but underlying it were a series of very real questions that we have seen play out all week long and so now, as Al Hunt, the "Wall Street Journal" columnist said, the question should not have been what did the president know and when did he know it. The question should have been what did the president not know and why didn't he know it.

That's what Congress is looking into for the -- for the rest of this week. That's the real question that's out there and the White House, even if it were to try to use the bully pulpit, can't really evade.

KURTZ: This word phony keeps resonating with me. Why is it phony for journalists to report that the president last August before September 11 received an intelligence briefing warning about possible hijackings possibly linked to al Qaeda and then to use that as a platform to talk about the bureaucratic bundling here, for lack of a better word, of warnings within FBI and other agencies that were unheeded.

THOMAS: Because the implication was that George Bush himself was somehow culpable in 9-11, and I just don't think that's true.

KURTZ: Was that the implication other than the ...


KURTZ: ... "New York Post" headline that said "Bush Knew."

THOMAS: If you ask the families of the people who died 9-11, that was certainly the implication and the press hoo-huh (ph), the press frenzy on Thursday and Friday of last week was, you know, it was the Watergate echoes of what did the president know and when did he know it and that was -- that wasn't just the implication, that was the question that was being raised. As Doyle says, it's a misframing of a more serious issue underneath, which really can be narrowed further to the FBI. I mean, there was a serious question about the FBI's analytical capabilities. That's a place that needs some reform. You know it's good at chasing bank robbers and not so good at analyzing counter terrorist information.

KURTZ: Well, some agents are good at it, it's just that the warnings and memos that they write don't ...

THOMAS: But it's not set up ...


THOMAS: ... I mean there's a deep structural problem. We don't like having an internal -- a ministry of the interior, so to speak, in this country the way the French do and we have an agency, which tries to solve crimes, but it really wasn't set up to be an internal security operation like, say, MI-5 in England. Now we have sort of a large societal question about whether we really want to have that kind of capacity, that kind of agency within our own country spying on Americans and having that kind of capability. That's a serious and interesting question that we ought to be getting into, not what did the president know.

KURTZ: As a media story, that one is not going to go away for a long time. But I wonder, Doyle McManus, are we all in such a state of anxiety that we have to report these warnings whereas before September 11 we might have reported, it might have been a small story inside. It might have been a box because after all, there are always warnings. You could put this on TV everyday, some source, somewhere, the chatter that's often talked about, these intelligence intercepts is warning that something bad may happen. Now some of this may just been disinformation.

MCMANUS: Sure. Sure, and I think that's absolutely right. In fact, the remarkable thing about this week's warnings is in a technical sense they weren't warnings. Tom Ridge's alert level was at yellow before the warnings and it stayed yellow all along ...

KURTZ: The media's alert level was somewhere between purple and red.

MCMANUS: But you didn't see -- you didn't see the American people panic over it. The interesting thing to me about the American people in the last seven months is they've figured out how to decipher these warnings. You saw a certain level of heightened security at public events, in New York where the Navy was in the harbor for "Fleet Week" and thank God that increased level of security was there. But I don't see a lot of panic out there in the country. I think the media might like to play on panic from time to time because of some of the reflexes we have to make things exciting, but I think most of our audience, thank heavens, is impervious to it.

KURTZ: Well, you did see a lot of reporters go to the Brooklyn Bridge and ask people what they thought after that was on the target list according to some law enforcement sources. Now, Evan Thomas, didn't you write a lot of stories in the years before September 11 about these kinds of warnings, about terrorists that might strike against the United States and were those not picked up as much as obviously they would be today.

THOMAS: They weren't because nothing actually happened. We had -- I almost -- I felt after awhile I had a paragraph saved in my computer that I would call up that said essentially terrorism ...

KURTZ: They're coming.

THOMAS: ... the United States and they got weapons of mass destruction and they're going to -- I wrote that, well not just "Newsweek", every organization wrote that. About every three or four months, we'd do a story saying that, but it just wasn't real until it actually happened here.

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) '93 bombing at the World Trade Center, the bombings of the missions abroad.

THOMAS: Wasn't on the scale -- it wasn't on the scale and that's what changed ...

KURTZ: So the media climate has clearly changed and you probably have to take that paragraph out of your computer now ...

THOMAS: Well, no, I mean we still -- I mean, actually not. Instead of running it every three or four months, we probably run it once every three weeks now because ...


THOMAS: The underlying reality hasn't changed. There is -- it's going to happen again. It's going to happen again. It's just a question of where and how.

KURTZ: And I think we're going to keep writing on it -- just briefly.

MCMANUS: We are, but the story that never got told last fall was the question of how did the intelligence slip between the cracks and that story was bursting to come out and that's the reason you saw this frenzy this week.

KURTZ: And that's the reason this story is not going away in the media, in the political world or anywhere else. Doyle McManus, Evan Thomas, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, a New York sports columnist out of a job over a tabloid rumor. "The Washington Times" gets a reminder about who's the boss, and are the broadcast networks sticking with hard news in this post September 11 world? Our "Media Watch" up next.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Time now for the week's ups and downs in the media world.


KURTZ (voice-over): "The Washington Times" is 20 years old this week, but its anniversary party was overshadowed by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon who gave a long speech titled "The Life of Jesus as Seen from God's Will and God's Warning to the Present Age". To some reporters, Moon's plea for "The Times" to carry out this lofty command from heaven was a perhaps unwelcome reminder that the self-described conservative newspaper is owned by officials of the unification church.

New York sports columnist Wallace Matthews is out of a job. Wallace was ejected from the journalistic playing field after criticizing a colleague, the tabloids gossip columnist Neal Travis for deplorable journalism. Travis had run an item about a rumor suggesting that New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza is gay. Piazza says this is nonsense and the "Post" refused to print Matthews' column, in which he argued that a player's sexuality is irrelevant. Matthews, who posted the spike piece on " says he quit, but "Post" says he was fired for insubordination.

And big cities aren't the only place where public officials get mad at the media. Montana governor Judy Martz says she'll no longer grant interviews to some reporters who write -- quote -- "misleading stories." Says the governor, "you can't get past the liberal press with a bucket of ink."

Several grocery chains in Colorado are refusing to carry the current edition of "The National Enquirer," which contains gruesome pictures of the 1999 Columbine tragedy. The tabloid published bloody crime scene photographs of the teenage killers, talk about exploiting a tragedy three years later.

And finally the network newscasts are back to their pre-September 11 mode. So says a Project for Excellence in Journalism study of Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw newscasts. National and international stories have fallen by 35 percent since October. Lifestyle coverage, those pieces about losing weight and new medical treatments and in one case, male nannies, are back up to 20 percent of the broadcasts and coverage of education, health care and other domestic issues, down by half.


KURTZ: One interesting twist, while Rather's "CBS EVENING NEWS" carried significantly more hard news before the terrorist attacks, Jennings "WORLD NEWS TONIGHT" now matches it, and Brokaw's "NBC NIGHTLY NEWS" is just a shade behind.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.