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Reliable Sources

Are Media Suffering From Iraqi Fatigue?; Television's Missing Women Fixation

Aired July 31, 2005 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The endless war, with casualties in Iraq day after day, are the American media growing tired of the story? Is there any way for journalists to measure progress there? And do critics of the war draw attention only when they're celebrities like Jane Fonda?

Plus, television's missing women fixation. Is it really about missing white women, preferably attractive and middle-class?

And a "Miami Herald" columnist is fired after an expose apparently prompted a former official's suicide. Did the press behave responsibly?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on Iraq, the insurgency and the coverage of a drawn-out war. I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead, a look at the Natalee Holloway story as the latest missing white woman tale to draw runaway television coverage.

But first, Iraq once had a clear storyline. The White House claims about weapons of mass destruction. The American-led invasion. The capture of Saddam Hussein. The inspiring sight of millions of Iraqis voting. But for months now, the story has been a drumbeat of more bombs, more deaths, more injuries, more of the same.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Another deadly suicide attack in Iraq today ...

BRIAN WILLIAMS, NBC NEWS: Two U.S. Marines from the Second Marine Division out of Camp Lejeune died in an explosion near the Jordanian border.

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: Four more American soldiers have been killed in Iraq. It was another roadside bomb in Baghdad.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about the coverage, in Chicago, Jim Warren, deputy managing editor of the "Chicago Tribune." With me in Washington, CNN special correspondent Frank Sesno, also a professor at George Mason University. And in Baghdad, Michael Ware, Baghdad bureau chief for "Time" magazine. Welcome.

Michael Ware, the current issue of "Time" has no word about Iraq except for a story about a Stephen Bochco drama that is going to air about Iraq on FX. When the story is the same day after day, X number of people killed in bombings, how do you sell that as news?

MICHAEL WARE, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, clearly it is very difficult. I mean, I'm sure there is a reader fatigue out there among the public, and editors, I think, are alive to that, and experience a certain fatigue themselves. So the days of the Iraq story getting a run for its own sake are definitely over. Now, it is much more of an even playing field, where an Iraq story has to compete with everything else. So really, it has got to stand on its own merits.

So, reinventing the story, like your lead-in mentioned, an embed, a firefight, another bombing, everyone has heard it all before, it's just that the places and the names and the body counts change. Now, it's about having to look for deeper significance, and it's much more of a challenge, obviously.

KURTZ: Jim Warren, Michael Ware used the term "Iraq fatigue." When you are helping to prepare the front page of "The Chicago Tribune," are you suffering from that syndrome?

JIM WARREN, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Yeah, I think a little bit. Though it was interesting, you started with those network clips. I think in tone and substance, there are differences among not just networks and newspaper coverage like our own, but also local television.

I mean, if you look and try to quantify, during the month of July, we've had 90 stories -- we've got two reporters there -- 90 stories, of those about seven or eight on the front page. Compare it to February, when there were about 120 stories and about 20 on the front page, you do see a little bit of difference. But you also see a clear difference in our shying away increasingly, in print at least, from the suicide bombings, the car bombings, and going to sort of the larger evolutionary stories about the Shias in the south or the state of democratization.

And then I think if you look at what is often forgotten in these discussions, the medium through which a lot of folks get their news in this country, that's the local television news, a really interesting shift in focus. It may be making virtue of necessity because they don't want to spend the money to be in Iraq or be embedded, but if you look at local television here, at least, in Chicago, Howie, you will see an intense interest on what the impact is on towns and municipalities. A particular funeral last week here of a corporal, absolute wrenching, television doing what it can do better than we can, be more evocative, more passionate, and in ways that we can't predict this may have tremendous impact on the politics of the story for the Bush administration. KURTZ: That is not just a local story, but nationally, "NBC Nightly News" this week did a story about the Army paying marriage counselors to help the families of servicemen.

Frank Sesno, when Don Rumsfeld visits Iraq, as he did this week, that gets coverage. When Dick Cheney says the insurgency is in its last throes, that sparks a debate, but by and large for the national media, the story is the daily death toll, true?

FRANK SESNO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The story is the daily death toll. It's what I'm beginning to call news by the numbers. How many are dead. How many bombs there were. How many years before American troops pull out. How many American troops are doing what.

And the problem with that is it sells the story way short, and it only tells a very small shred of the story. Because what people need to know is what is happening in that country. What is happening to the political process? Is there any bang for the buck in terms of the rebuilding? These are the decisions -- the information on which people are going to make decisions about whether it's worth it to stay or not.

KURTZ: If you do it numerically, than 50 killed in a roadside bombing is a big story, and 30 killed is a medium story, and five killed is not such a big story?

SESNO: Yes, and none of them connect with the real people, the real lives and the real significance of the event itself. It's just a body count.

KURTZ: Michael Ware in Baghdad, "Time" magazine covers in recent weeks -- obviously, this is not your decision, but in addition to covers on Karl Rove and John Roberts and a detainee or interrogation at Gitmo, we've had Hiroshima, Abe Lincoln, China, housing prices, losing weight and Xbox.

My question is, coming back to this daily violence, is that the story, is that the biggest story in your view, or is this a function of the fact that for you and many other Western journalists in Iraq, it is dangerous to go out there and report other kinds of stories because of the insurgency?

WARE: Well, look, I think the difficulties for journalists trying to report this particular war have been pretty well-documented, and those circumstances continue. I mean, literally just driving here today to the CNN studio, we had an incident with a pickup, with four armed gunmen, and we had to elude them. So that continues.

But I think it's obviously much more than that. It is about shifting news values. The ebbs and tides, and what people see as a story. I mean, I'd be fascinated to go back to the reportage of the Vietnam War and see how that came and went, and the moods with the reportage from that conflict over an extended period of time.

But I mean, there is so much at stake here. The dynamics here are so enormous, yet so complex. It's much harder to get traction with editors, let alone readers, to tell that story. So we're having to reinvent ourselves constantly. But I have to stress, the story hasn't gone away. The import and the significance of it, in fact, is deepening while the world seems to be bit by bit switching off or slimming down its view of this war.

KURTZ: Jim Warren, more people probably killed in Iraq in recent weeks than killed in either the bombings in London or the bombings in Egypt. Those were huge television stories, and obviously they have more shock value, I guess. So maybe we're all becoming inured, journalists, readers and viewers, to this -- to the constant bombings in Iraq.

WARREN: Well, at least some of us. You have to also remember that a lot of our readers, a lot of your viewers are tied in one way or another by family or friendship to soldiers there, and each car bombing, each suicide bombing, no matter where we put it, is of intense importance and relevance to them. So that's a pretty big constituency out there.

But as I do listen to Michael, I knock on wood for some of the benefits of the beleaguered American newspaper, and that's given the breadth of coverage that we can present to folks, whether it's on page one or page 21, the sort of nuances, the complexities which Michael suggests that he may be frustrated in presenting to a magazine audience and getting space for, we are presenting.

And I think if you do look to "The Washington Post," "The New York Times," "The Chicago Tribune," over two or three or four or five or six months, you would be picking up on that in I think a pretty sophisticated way.

KURTZ: I want to read you, Frank Sesno, a column by Mark Yost in the "St. Paul Pioneer-Press."

"When is the last time you read a story about the progress being made on the power grid? Or the new desalination plant that just came online, or the school that just opened, or the Iraqi policeman who died doing something heroic? To judge by all the dispatches, all the Iraqis do is stand outside markets and government buildings waiting to be blown up."

Fair criticism?

SESNO: Yes. Fair criticism. You know, it is interesting, for this conversation I went online last night when I couldn't sleep, and spent a good deal of time looking into this. And including "The Chicago Sun-Times," "The L.A. Times," "USA Today," "Christian Science Monitor," they all have special sections online. You know, read more about the Iraq war, and they list their archives of stories going back days, sometimes weeks or even months. I will say despite what Jim says, and he is quite right, print is where you go if you want the breadth and depth of the story, but even then, the bias is towards that which is going wrong, that which is blowing up and that which is not working.

If you are a reader or a viewer and you want to know, well, how are we doing, you know, is anything getting rebuilt, are they really democrats over there? How engaged are the Sunnis? Could I see an interview with any of these founding fathers and founding mothers of this new emerging country? Can you find that? You'll have a hard time doing it.

KURTZ: It's very difficult to assess.

Michael Ware, "Time" magazine stirred some controversy earlier this month. One of your colleagues did a piece that was titled "Inside the Mind of an Iraqi Suicide Bomber," and this person was quoted as saying, "First, I will ask Allah to bless my mission with a high rate of casualties among the Americans."

A lot of people were wondering, you know, you go and interview someone who says he wants to blow up Americans, aren't you playing into the hands of the enemy and kind of legitimizing it?

WARE: I mean, this is an old debate that we have been at the center of since the end of 2003, when we began doing some serious coverage from inside the insurgency. I mean, on one level, first you have to acknowledge the insurgents do not need us as their mouthpiece. In fact, we're something of an irritant. Unlike any other war in any other era, these guys have access to their constituency without us, through the Internet, through their announcements, through Arab satellite channels. They no longer rely on the Western media to get out their message.

So they put up with us trying to intrude. What's the value of it? Well, look at the sources of our information on the nature of this war, coming from the Pentagon, coming from the White House. In many ways, it's just like coming from the insurgents. It's laden with spin. I mean, where is the truth? Distilling that is almost impossible. So you have to go out despite the problems here and seek it yourself.

So, who is the enemy that we're fighting here? How good or how bad are they? How sophisticated? How willing and ready are they for a long-term fight that is going to have significant policy consequences to the West?

KURTZ: You are right ...

WARE: The only way to find that out is to go and get it.

KURTZ: You are right that that's an age old debate, and a difficult journalistic task.

Jim Warren, final question, opponents of the war seem to get relatively little media attention, but when Jane Fonda announces she is going on an anti-war bus trip, on a bus powered by vegetable oil, no less, that seems to get some headlines and some cable TV coverage.

WARREN: Oh my gosh. Come on. I think we have a larger issue there, too complex for my small mind on the issue of celebrity. I was on vacation about a month ago in Oxford, England, little quaint Oxford University town. Pictures all over, go see Jane Fonda hustling her new book. I mean, there's that.

But do those critics have something to say, something to lament? Yeah, perhaps, and if you look at a lot of our editorial pages, I think probably most of them supported the war, so -- but again, I'm pretty proud of the job that most newspapers have done.

KURTZ: OK. Appreciate your input. Jim Warren, Michael Ware in Chicago, Frank Sesno right here. Thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, those missing women stories that get so much attention on television, what do most of them have in common? We'll look at one media obsession next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. While Iraq coverage may be spotty, television keeps pulling out the stops to coverage another story.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: She vanished nearly two months ago. Her mother hopes this latest search leads to a break in the case.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS: It's possible they're looking for a shoe, not necessarily a body.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, MSNBC CORRESPONDENT: But there is a second witness out there who claims he saw something happen at the landfill.

NANCY GRACE, CNN HEADLINE NEWS HOST: Tonight, her family raises the word for their girl's safe return to $1 million.


KURTZ: College student Natalee Holloway disappeared in Aruba in late May, and the case has become a TV staple. At least 50 segments on Greta Van Susteren's "On the Record," "The O'Reilly Factor," "Hannity & Colmes" and "NANCY GRACE" of CNN Headline News. At least 40 segments or so segments with MSNBC's Joe Scarborough and with Dan Abrams, and dozens more on CNN and the network morning shows.

Holloway has one thing in common with a long line of other missing or murdered women -- Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks, and that is they are all white.

Eugene Robinson writes a twice weekly column for "The Washington Post" where he is a former reporter and foreign editor, currently the paper's associate editor.



KURTZ: You wrote this column, "Damsels in Distress," and you said, "a damsel must be white. This requirement is non-negotiable."

Is this a conscious decision on the part of TV executives?

ROBINSON: I'm not sure it's conscious, but it is certainly a decision, because that's the way it's worked out. It's been unanimous so far.

KURTZ: You're saying if Natalee Holloway were black, and all the circumstances were the same, if she was missing in Aruba, it would be pretty much a non-television story?

ROBINSON: I have to assume it would be, because in fact, black and Latina women go missing every day in this country, yet have not to this point received that sort of 24-hour, seven-day-a-week coverage that the damsels in distress have received.

KURTZ: Does that make you mad?

ROBINSON: It does a bit, yes, and it makes a lot of people mad, actually. When I wrote this column, I stopped counting the e-mails at 750, I think. It was really quite an amazing reaction. I would say 85 to 90 percent of them were saying, "Thank you so much for writing that," and a significant, very small percentage, but significant, were people who told me about their relatives, their friends, people who had gone missing, including people who had tried to interest the media in the case of, for example, a Latina woman who went missing in Long Island not that long ago, and just got no response.

KURTZ: Now, there was -- there is a case this past week, Latoya Figueroa, and she is a pregnant black woman in Philadelphia. Initially, she got no coverage, and then a Philadelphia blogger e- mailed Nancy Grace's show and said -- and made the very argument you made in the column, this woman is black, but she's not getting any coverage, and now television has started to get her some coverage.

ROBINSON: Now television is starting to pick it up. The woman's name is Latoya Figueroa, I think, and -- but it was this blogger making this point, and really raising a racket. And also, she is a cousin of an official -- a civic official in Philadelphia, who also made a racket about it.

So either this is the beginning of a change, or this is what in the NBA would be called a makeup call, and we'll go back to the way things were. I'm not sure.

KURTZ: And to the extent that television manufacturers these melodramas -- because look, these are very serious, heart-rending cases, but they happen all the time...

ROBINSON: Yes, they are.

KURTZ: ... and presumably they also happen with men ...

ROBINSON: Exactly.

KURTZ: ... who don't get reported unless they are missing on a cruise ship.

ROBINSON: Exactly.

KURTZ: A missing black or Hispanic woman wouldn't work just as well? It doesn't appeal to the broad white, middle-class audience?

ROBINSON: You know, it seems to me it would work just as well, but you know, I think of it almost as a casting decision, you know, the way casting directors make a decision, who to cast in this role of damsel in distress. Who do we evoke the most sympathy and interest from the greatest number of people?

KURTZ: So does it help not only to be white but to be pretty and to be middle class?

ROBINSON: Really, those are also almost non-negotiable. You should be attractive. You should be middle class or wealthy. It helps if you're petite, actually, a la Chandra Levy or JonBenet Ramsey or whatever.

KURTZ: Now, we're talking here mostly about newspaper coverage -- excuse me, about television coverage, because that drives these stories. What about newspapers? At "The Washington Post," is a white, middle-class person who is killed in Bethesda or McLean tends to get more coverage than a black death in Southeast D.C.?

ROBINSON: Yes. The disparity is not necessarily -- it's not always as great, but yes, I mean, you know, there used to be a saying in the newspaper business, you know, oh, that's a good murder, you know, and a good murder was in a good neighborhood with an either well-known or socially prominent victim, preferably an heiress, as Ben Bradlee used to -- used to joke, and that really hasn't died out.

Of course, we talk about that at the newspaper and talk about how one human life is not worth more than another human life, and we try to be even-handed, but if you're going to ask my honest opinion, I think, yes, I think in a well-to-do neighborhood in Bethesda or McLean, that murder is going to get more coverage.

KURTZ: We asked this question last year, actually, to veteran television producer Steve Friedman, about why these stories get so much attention. Let's take a look at what he had to say.


STEVE FRIEDMAN, TELEVISION PRODUCER: It is every mother and father's nightmare and every college student's, oh, what if that happens to me.


KURTZ: That particular case was a hoax, Audrey Seiler, who said that she had been abducted, she wasn't. But there is a strong human element here.

ROBINSON: Absolutely. You used the word "melodrama" earlier, and that's kind of what they are, and that's a legitimate literary form. It is -- these stories do involve people, the twists and the turns, and you can empathize. You can imagine how you would feel if a child of yours went missing in a faraway place.

KURTZ: Absolutely. But of course, there's still a lot of selectivity involved, and we'll see if that changes.


KURTZ: Eugene Robinson, thanks very much for joining us.

Just ahead, a tragic turn in Miami, involving an embattled politician, a newspaper scoop, and now a columnist out of the job. That's next.


KURTZ: The cover story in the weekly "Miami New Times" was nothing if not hard-hitting. Reporter Frank Alvarado taking aim at former city commissioner Arthur Teele under the headline "Sleaze Stories." Alvarado had obtained a police report charging, among other things, that Teele had been using male prostitutes and multiple mistresses.

And Art Teele was a big target. He had already been convicted of threatening a police officer and faced fraud and money laundering charges.

On Wednesday, the day the "New Times" story was posted online, a tragic turn. Teele, the subject of the story, went to the lobby of another newspaper, the "Miami Herald," and killed himself.

Alvarado, the "New Times" reporter, talked about his reaction in a phone interview with CNN.


FRANK ALVARADO, "MIAMI NEW TIMES": I don't feel guilt. I feel sadness. I have been put in the middle of this just because of, I mean, the mere coincidence that my story came out the day he decided to do this, but you know, his problems were mounting way before this article ever came out.


KURTZ: The fallout from the suicide also hit "Miami Herald" columnist Jim DeFede, who had frequently interviewed Teele. In fact, Teele called DeFede to complain about his situation shortly before taking his life, even called him from the lobby moments before his suicide.

The "Herald" has now fired Jim DeFede for taping those calls without permission. DeFede says he made a mistake, but didn't deserve to lose his job.

Ahead, did reporters make a bad deal with the White House to delay a controversial story about Supreme Court nominee John Roberts? Stay with us.


KURTZ: Now that journalists have gotten a look at John Roberts' government memos, his Supreme Court nomination is becoming a bit more controversial. When the White House agreed to release these papers but not all the documents the Democrats want, the Bush team leaked the news to selected reporters with a midnight embargo on the story of its decision, meaning no stories could be published before midnight.

Why? Because that gave journalists no time to call Democrats or liberal groups for reaction. The press was clearly bamboozled here and never should have made that deal to accept the story on a delayed basis.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Be sure to join us again next Sunday, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media.

"LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer begins right now.