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Why is JonBenet Ramsey Story so Popular?
Aired August 20, 2006 - 10:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
TONY HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Tony Harris at the CNN center in Atlanta. Here's what's making news right now.
John Mark Karr is on a plane to the United States this hour. He's due to arrive late tonight in Los Angeles. The suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey murder left from the Bangkok airport amid a crush of reporters and photographers. It's still not clear where Karr will be taken once the plane lands.
Gunmen terrorize crowds of Shiite pilgrims headed toward a holy shrine in Baghdad. At least 20 pilgrims were killed and more than 300 were wounded today in several attacks, despite increased security.
Coming up on CNN, RELIABLE SOURCES is next, followed by Wolf Blitzer and "LATE EDITION" at 11 and "THE WEEK AT WAR" at 1. Stay to CNN as we go in-depth into the major news stories of the day. More top story in 30 minutes. RELIABLE SOURCES starts right now.
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Murder mystery. One of the biggest media frenzies in modern history erupts again with a new suspect in the decade-old killing of JonBenet Ramsey. Are journalists going overboard one more time? Are they skeptical enough about John Karr's possibly bogus confession? And did news organizations unfairly cast doubt on the 6-year-old girl's parents?
Fade to black. As a cease-fire finally takes hold in the Middle East will journalists abandon Israel and Lebanon until the next outbreak of violence?
Instant replay. Senator George Allen's slur against an Indian- American is seen again and again, not on television but on web sites like YouTube. Plus, personal foul. Sports loudmouth Tony Kornheiser makes his debut on "Monday Night Football" and trashes a colleague who dared criticize his performance.
KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn a critical lens on a 10-year-old murder case that once again has taken the news world by storm. I'm Howard Kurtz.
The tragic tale of JonBenet Ramsey sparked an unbelievable media frenzy a decade ago. And before it was over, journalists were casting doubt on the 6-year-old's parents. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARBARA WALTERS, ABC NEWS: Mr. Ramsey, did you kill JonBenet?
JOHN RAMSEY, JONBENET'S FATHER: No. I did not.
WALTERS: Mrs. Ramsey, did you kill your daughter?
PATSY RAMSEY, JONBENET'S MOTHER: No, did I not kill my daughter.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: When a strange character named John Karr emerged this week to confess to the killing, it was deja vu all over again.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JOHN MARK KARR, ACCUSED OF JONBENET RAMSEY'S MURDER: I love JonBenet, and she died accidentally.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Are you an innocent man?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Became front-page news and drew seemingly endless attention on television.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CHARLIE GIBSON, ANCHOR, ABC NEWS: It is a murder case that fascinated the country and baffled investigators.
GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, HOST, FOX NEWS' "ON THE RECORD": 10 years after her violent murder in her own basement, a break in the JonBenet Ramsey case.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Karr's statement yesterday is extremely incriminating. You know, is it a full confession? No.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But after the first 24 hours, as discrepancies emerged in Karr's account, the tone of the coverage began to shift.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: For all his weirdness, is he the killer? That is the question no investigator is quite ready to answer just yet.
DAN ABRAMS, GENERAL MANAGER, MSNBC: This is why it's so important to stress that in high-profile cases you get whackos coming out of the wood works confessing to crimes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: So what explains the media's born again fixation on JonBenet Ramsey? Joining us now from Denver, Joanne Ostrow, television critic for the "Denver Post". In New York, Diane Dimond, former reporter for Court TV, CNBC and MSNBC. And here in Washington, David Zurawik, television critic for the "Baltimore Sun".
Diane Dimond, you were a part of the original media mob in Boulder a decade ago. How did the coverage get so out of control then? And is it happening again?
DIANE DIMOND, INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST: Well, I think it happened first during a really slow news time. You know, it was Christmas time.
I worked for the syndicated television show "Hard Copy" at the time, and a 6-year-old beauty queen strutting around like a Sweet Tart on stage, then murdered in her own home at Christmas time. It was -- it was sort of tailor-made for the type of show that I worked for at the time.
But it wasn't just tabloid shows that -- that descended on Boulder. I was there for weeks and weeks. And all of the news magazines, the network news magazines, were there, the nightly news. And for some reason this just captured the nation's attention.
KURTZ: David Zurawik, this morning we have live shots of the Bangkok airport, because John Karr was -- just got on a plane to come to the United States. There's the "Prime Time Live" special. There's the "Dateline" special.
What is it about this case that the media have turned it into a national soap opera?
DAVID ZURAWIK, TELEVISION CRITIC, "BALTIMORE SUN": Well, Howard, on these kinds of cases, I think there's a couple of things going on. First of all, it's got to be about more than the case. There's got to be deeper, cultural roots to this case.
In O.J. it was about race as we now -- you know, as we came to understand only after. This one is about childhood and the innocence of childhood.
And it helps not just that we're really talking about that kind of deeper, cultural story, but that it's a story that we, as a society, are conflicted about and maybe even lied to ourselves about, on race. Everybody's equal, you know?
On this it's the lie that we can protect our children, that children have this period of innocence. This story cut right into that.
And then give yourself great pictures, videotape of her walking around with the shots, that the photos used. When you have the images...
KURTZ: Video -- video is actually crucial.
Joanne Ostrow, would this be as big a story in the Denver area, were it not for that media frenzy that just took off 10 years ago?
JOANNE OSTROW, TELEVISION CRITIC, "DENVER POST": It's a huge story nationally. Denver is not unlike anywhere else.
I think David's right. It's those damn pictures that really put it over the top. It had sex, money and murder. Add to that those pictures that have been described as kiddy porn, really. I mean, they were fascinating and remain fascinating. And the circus is back in town.
KURTZ: Diane Dimond, initially at least, where was the media skepticism about John Karr? I mean, here's a guy who was working in Thailand, had no known connection to the Ramsey family, had a bunch of weird e-mails. He suddenly surfaces. He says, "I did it," and we see headlines that say "Solved."
DIMOND: You know, exactly, Howie. I was out of town at the time, not working this story, and I sat back and watched it. I saw that "Daily News" headline, "Solved," and I thought to myself, "We're doing it again. Didn't we learn the first time around?"
I mean, I covered the Ramseys as they made a tour across the country. Very few people know Patsy Ramsey had a background in journalism. And she went to journalism schools, and she lectured them with her husband and begged them to be cynical when they're doing high-profile stories. And I remembered listening to a speech of hers when I saw a coverage this time.
Then, what did it take, about 36 hours, 24, 36 hours, for us to get our healthy skepticism back. We shouldn't pat ourselves on the back for that now, Howie, because that's the way it should be.
KURTZ: Should have been from the opening.
KURTZ: David Zurawik, I almost have the impression, for the media, it almost doesn't matter whether John Karr did it. If he's the killer, it's a great story. If it's a hoax, it's a great story.
ZURAWIK: It's absolutely true, Howie. You know, we've learned nothing. We've learned nothing from this. This is what's amazing.
When I saw that "Solved" headline and us back into the mode, it's because, we -- Howie, we moved away from the old journalism of verified information. Journalism is a discipline of verification, and the worst thing you could do was get something wrong.
Now the thing is to tell a hot story that plays like a prime time drama, and it really started back with the news magazines in prime time. And you are absolutely right. Either one of those is a great story.
KURTZ: It doesn't matter if you get something wrong?
ZURAWIK: It doesn't matter.
KURTZ: Why doesn't it matter?
DIMOND: That's just a shame.
ZURAWIK: In this business it's more important to...
KURTZ: Go ahead.
ZURAWIK: It's more important to tell a story that gets 150,000 hits on your web site than getting something wrong. It's when we shifted this value from a verified discipline of information to hot stories.
KURTZ: Diane, you wanted to jump in?
OSTROW: The story -- this is the story that shifted that value, wouldn't you say? This and the O.J. Simpson story proved to broadcasters, at least, that if you had a strong, dramatic narrative, that's all you need. And then you run with it in a soap-operatic way.
And "Prime Time" proved it again this week. They got their highest ratings since March doing an hour on JonBenet.
ZURAWIK: That's exactly.
KURTZ: Looking here at a picture of the Boulder paper, the "Daily Camera". There's the "Rocky Mountain News". Obviously, JonBenet huge in Colorado.
Joanne Ostrow, I want to read something that you wrote in your "Denver Post" column this week. You said that "As -- as the bottom dwellers on the media food chain spread speculation and theories from unnamed sources, the establishment media often follow their leads." Why is that?
OSTROW: It's true. I mean, you found that the -- the prime time news shows on the major networks were jumping on stories that had come up first in the "Globe" and the "Enquirer" and online, the cable shouters. You know, they can say things and the bottom dwellers can say things that the establishment news can't.
And so this story sort of merged everyone. Everyone's chasing the same speculative stuff, and those old divisions fell away.
DIMOND: You know, Howard. Back then, back 11 -- 10, 11 years ago, we did journalism. If you couldn't prove it with two or more sources, you didn't put it on the air.
In the ensuing years, we've had, as Joanne says, the cable shouter syndrome come up, not just facts, but a lot of opinion. And I think somewhere along the line that's sort of become the norm. And so people will maybe not repeat what the cable shouters say, but they'll put it out there in such a way that they say it's there, but they can't confirm it yet. Well, that's not good journalism.
KURTZ: I think I would take issue, Diane, with your rather pristine recollection of how it was 10 years ago, because whether or not John Karr is guilty, and we don't know right now, obviously.
KURTZ: Look at the clip I played at the top of the show of Barbara Walters asking John and Patsy Ramsey, "Did you kill your daughter?" Do the media owe them an apology for suggesting, insinuating, asking whether or not they were murderers?
DIMOND: I think the short answer is yes. We probably owe them, in the end of this, a profound apology, but I don't know that yet.
You can't leak -- you can't leak -- you can't report what isn't leaked to you. And remember what the Ramseys were doing back then. They hired a private jet. They flew right out of town, their daughter's body left behind. They wouldn't take lie detector tests. They hired high-profile defense attorneys. They acted in such a way that I, as a mother, I don't think I would act that way.
So, you know, I do remember that time, and I remember that they were squarely in the spotlight, but it wasn't because we put them there. It was because the police put them there.
ZURAWIK: Howie, we can't blame the police, and we can't blame people for leaking to us. It's our job not to publish or not to broadcast that stuff.
KURTZ: Prosecutors always leak to make it look like they're aggressive in the pursuit of a case.
ZURAWIK: But if we verify information -- Howie, we don't put on the air. We don't publish it. That's exactly what -- and that clip from Barbara Walters, there is one of the moments of television moving from doing nightly news broadcasts to caring about prime time news magazines. It's the Hollywood-ization.
DIMOND: Well, she had to ask that question.
OSTROW: I don't think we owe an apology for asking the question, though.
OSTROW: Remember, it was the police who said that the Ramsey parents were under the umbrella of suspicion. So the journalists have a responsibility to ask the question.
KURTZ: All right. Joanne Ostrow, in the "Rocky Mountain News" this morning, there's a column by Jason Salzman who criticizes both Denver papers for their gross front-page pictures on JonBenet. And then he says the following, "Right here in Denver, one of six kids lacks health insurance. You don't need to be a psychic to predict which is going to be the news media's priority in the foreseeable future, those kids or JonBenet." Your thoughts?
OSTROW: It's true. I mean, if you have a dramatic narrative, you have a story that hooks people, you have pictures to go with it. You know, geopolitics in the Middle East is not going to be as talked about either, unfortunately. This is a story that hooks people and will continue to.
KURTZ: Diane Dimond, did the media not pay a price? You were talking a moment ago about how we used to have the reporting of verification and now basically anybody can say anything and put it online or put it on television. And yet doesn't this kind of chip away at the reputation we think we would like to have, which is that we're careful, we care about the facts and all of that?
DIMOND: Yes. Well, we must have blindfolds on if we think that anymore. Because look at the latest public opinion polls. I think we're right below defense attorneys and used car salesmen, journalists.
And you know what? I think to some degree we've put ourselves there, and we did it by over-shouting ourselves on stories like this. It's one thing to report them, but it's another thing to just completely saturate the public with them.
And there's nothing I turned on this morning or yesterday morning or the night before that didn't have a lot of coverage of JonBenet Ramsey and we don't even know if this man is really guilty yet.
KURTZ: David Zurawik, did the JonBenet Ramsey case become the precursor for the saturation coverage of Laci Peterson and Natalee Holloway and all these sort of televised melodramas that have now become a staple?
ZURAWIK: Howie, I think we were already well down that road by 1996 when we shifted to these prime time news magazines. We already had O.J. behind us, and we were really in high gear.
Yes, it did, because it told stories like the prime time network dramas, fictionalized stories. And it's absolutely true. Howie, it doesn't chip away at our credibility. It blows it up when we do these kinds of things and we get it wrong and we get it wrong again 10 years later and will probably get it wrong 10 years down the road.
KURTZ: All right. On that explosive note, David Zurawik, Diane Dimond, Joanne Ostrow in Denver, thanks very much for joining us.
Up next, monitoring the Middle East. With the fighting in Israel and Lebanon largely over, are the American media now short-changing coverage of that troubled region?
KURTZ: Welcome back.
For more than a month the disturbing images dominated the airwaves and the front pages, but now with a shaky cease-fire between Israel and Lebanon in place, the story seems to be quickly fading.
Joining us to talk about Middle East coverage from Shebaa Farms, Lebanon, on the Israeli border, is CNN's Jim Clancy. And in New York, Jane Arraf, CNN's former Baghdad bureau chief, now a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Jim Clancy, the major questions of the war have really not been resolved. Hezbollah's no closer to disarming. The European countries who said they were going to contribute troops to the international force haven't done so yet. And yet, the story seems to be fading, largely on television. Is that because we tend to cover things when the bombs are dropping?
JIM CLANCY, CNN ANCHOR: Well, certainly, we tend to cover things when the bombs are dropping, but, I think, you know, Howard, in your show, you proved it. What was the first block? JonBenet Ramsey.
People's attention span is short. They have some stories that they're interested in.
All of the issues that you talk about, you know, the United Nations deploying. What will be the terms of the engagement rules? What will happen with the Lebanese army as it deploys down here, and what will Hezbollah do?
All of these issues extremely important for the future of an entire nation of more than $4 million people. Lebanon, important, too for the Israelis. But I think people's attention drifts away. The news media follows the ratings.
KURTZ: We led with JonBenet Ramsey because it is utterly dominating the news media in the last four days. Is it the most important story going on in the world? I would be hard pressed to argue that.
Jane Arraf, we did get the Middle East story back on the front pages today because there was an Israeli raid against what they say are the supply lines of Hezbollah that kind of broke the cease-fire, but is it basically true that television gravitates toward violence and when the violence goes away, the story recedes?
JANE ARRAF, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: Well, I think that Lebanon story suffers from a couple of things. One is that it's really far away, and there is no physical American connection there, even though the U.S. has huge influence. It's not as if people's neighbors or sons or daughters are over there.
And the other thing is, as Jim mentioned and knows better than anybody, it's really complicated. You're dealing with issues like Shebaa Farms, and most people are, like, Shebaa, what?
So you spent a lot of time trying to explain why these things that seem really obscure are really immensely important to the whole dynamics there. And lastly, important to Americans, but people don't have that long of an attention span. KURTZ: Jim Clancy, I've seen a number of stories from Lebanon this week about the role of Hezbollah in helping to rebuild the bomb- damaged areas that suffered during the war. And it almost seem like journalists have forgotten that this is the group that was, you know, just days ago firing missiles at Israeli civilians and killing men, women and children. Is it important that we keep making that connection?
CLANCY: Well, up to a point. I mean, obviously, the Hezbollah organization is one that goes -- comes right up from under the grassroots and comes right down from the top. Some people say in Tehran.
It's -- there's no doubt about it, that it is a lever that is used against Israel and the United States in a battle for domination here or influence, if you will, over a region.
Shebaa Farms just behind me. You can even see that the fence Israelis put up. It may be Syrian territory, may be Lebanese territory. In any event, it's occupied territory. And Hezbollah says it's going fight.
But it's important to understand just who Hezbollah is, why they're so powerful, why they're so popular. And when you see people handing out $12,000 in $100 bills to people who have lost their homes, you know. "Bring them in. Let them work for FEMA," is what some of the American journalists here said.
KURTZ: That would certainly help explain some of the appeal, at least in Southern Lebanon.
Jane Arraf, the conventional wisdom in the press seems to be that, even though many more people were killed on the Hezbollah side, that this was a setback, even a loss for Israel. How much of that is influenced by the fact that the Israeli press has been beating up on both the Israeli government and the military in terms of how it handled this conflict?
ARRAF: Well, I think a little bit of it is due to the Israeli press, certainly, but I think a lot more is due to those facts on the ground that don't go away no matter how you spin them.
The fact that there is a big gap between what the Israeli government said it would do and what it actually did. The fact that Hezbollah, which isn't even a country, which isn't even a state, was able to fight for an entire month and inflict the kind of damage and uncertainty that it did.
So I think that -- that, while the Israelis are much more sophisticated than the Arabs in terms of public relations, that there are things you just cannot spin away and that's part of what that was about.
KURTZ: Jim Clancy, as you know, there was a kidnapping this week in the Gaza Strip. Two FOX News staffers, correspondent Steve Centanni, and his cameraman, Olaf Wiig, taken into detention. We don't know -- have any word on their whereabouts. It kind of underscores how dangerous for journalists this conflict remains.
What happened to the whole battle front between Israel and Gaza? And why do we hear and read so little about that?
CLANCY: Well, because all of the correspondents that would have been covering that have moved on to this bigger, more visual conflict. There's no doubt about that. But, you know, that's a problem that persists and a lot of concerns.
Palestinian groups aren't known for kidnapping and holding journalists for any length of time. And it would appear that the financial situation down there may have something to do with it.
Really, we're concerned about our colleagues from FOX News that have been taken there and hopeful to see some sign here that this could be resolved quickly.
KURTZ: I hope we have some good news there fairly shortly.
Jane Arraf, you talked about people's attention spans. War in Iraq. Just today snipers killed 16 Iraqis, wounded at least 230 people in a whole series of attacks in and around Baghdad.
That story has faded. First it was the Middle East war. Then it was the British terror plot, JonBenet. Are the media just suffering from war fatigue when it comes to Iraq?
ARRAF: I think, sadly, it's so much more than that. Part of it is -- is the difficulty of getting out. Part of it is the danger that perhaps -- I think it's a combination of it, perhaps, being dangerous in a different ways than it was a year or two years ago, and the fact that people are realizing it with very high-profile killings and woundings of correspondents there.
ARRAF: But the other things I found, in talking to people about the Iraq coverage, is that people here see it through a very political lens. Either they believe that what they're saying on the screen is failure, or they believe that the media is trying to sell them something that's not actually true.
KURTZ: And that debate will go on, will go on, including on this program. Thanks very much, Jane Arraf in New York, Jim Clancy in Lebanon.
Coming up, a CNN Headline News anchor's on-camera mea culpa and Prince Harry wins a round over a London tabloid. Stick around for our "Media Minute".
KURTZ: Time now for a look at the news business in our "Media Minute".
(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ARIANNA HUFFINGTON, HUFFINGTONPOST.COM: Fraudulent, fabricated statement.
KURTZ (voice-over): On last week's program liberal blogger Arianna Huffington asked for an apology from CNN Headline News anchor Chuck Roberts. Roberts, while interviewing a guest, said that some were calling Ned Lamont, the Connecticut Democrat who knocked off Joe Lieberman, "the al Qaeda candidate."
This week, Roberts said he was sorry.
CHUCK ROBERTS, CNN HEADLINE NEWS ANCHOR: You know, I owe you an apology. Last week I led into an interview with a guest analyst and really botched the setup. The guest had wanted to discuss the Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman statement suggesting that terror groups, "al Qaeda-types," to use Cheney's word, would be buoyed by your win. But I posed it badly, stupidly, adlibbing about some saying Lamont is the al Qaeda candidate. No one, in fact, used that construction.
KURTZ: What an irresistible shot for a London tabloid. Prince Harry clearly groping a woman in a nightclub. And "The Sun" ran it big, with such headlines as "Dirty Harry." Pictures don't lie, old chap.
The prince was, as Reuters put it, quote, "squeezing the breast of TV presenter Natalie Pinkham."
But here's the bloody problem. The photo was taken three years ago, not this summer, as "The Sun" had claimed. After Prince Charles complained, the paper apologized and promised to make a payment to Pinkam's favorite charity.
KURTZ: One other note. On RELIABLE SOURCES two weeks ago, "Washington Post" Pentagon reporter Tom Ricks said he'd been told by U.S. military analysts that Israel was leaving some Hezbollah rocket launchers intact because the killing of Israeli civilians provided an image of moral equivalency in the war.
"Post" editor Len Downie, responding to a letter from former New York mayor, Ed Koch, says he told Ricks he should not have made those statements.
Ricks told the "New York Sun" that he accurately reported the comments from analysts but that, quote, "I wish I hadn't said them, and I intend from now on to keep my mouth shut about it."
Coming up in the second half hour of RELIABLE SOURCES, Senator George Allen's controversial attempt to mock an Indian-American gets plenty of play on the Internet. Are web sites like YouTube changing the nature of campaign coverage?
Plus, does sports writer Tony Kornheiser deserve a penalty flag for the way he responded to criticism of his "Monday Night Football" debut? All ahead after a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN Center in Atlanta.
HARRIS: And good morning, everyone. I'm Tony Harris at the CNN Center in Atlanta.
Now in the news, the man at the center of the JonBenet Ramsey murder case is on his way back to the United States from Thailand. A short time ago, John Mark Karr was put on a plane bound for Los Angeles. He is to be questioned by investigators in Boulder, Colorado. Right now police are tracking down inconsistencies in Karr's claim that he was involved in the girl's death.
Heavy fighting is underway between U.S.-led forces and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan. The U.S. military reports four American soldiers were killed and three wounded in battles yesterday. In southern Kandahar province, Afghan police backed by NATO forces killed more than 70 suspected Taliban fighters. Five Afghan police died in the fight.
With a fragile cease-fire in the Middle East now in its seventh day, the situation along the Israeli-Lebanese border remains tense. This was the scene just south of Beirut earlier today. Lebanon's prime minister getting a firsthand look at some of the damage from Israeli air strikes. He calls the Israeli attacks a crime against humanity.
More headlines in 30 minutes. Back to CNN's RELIABLE SOURCES right after this.
KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.
If you watched the CNN, NBC or ABC nightly news this week, you would know nothing about the huge blunder committed by Virginia senator and possible GOP presidential candidate George Allen, but in the Internet age, that no longer matters quite as much.
KURTZ (voice-over): Allen used a word that some European countries consider a racial slur against an Indian-American volunteer for his Democratic opponent Jim Webb. And the web cam posted it on the popular web site YouTube.com, where it's been seen more than 100,000 times.
SEN. GEORGE ALLEN (R), VIRGINIA: This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca or whatever his name is, he's with my opponent. He's following us around everywhere. Let's give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.
KURTZ: Macaca in some translations can mean a type of monkey. Web aides also gave the video to the "Washington Post" and a blogger named Not Larry Sabato -- meaning, he's not the oft quoted Virginia political scientist -- jumped on the story, as well.
KURTZ: Allen apologized saying he was trying to poke fun at the young man's Mohawk hairstyle.
Joining us now, Glenn Reynolds, University of Tennessee law professor who blogs at Instapundit.com. And with me in Washington, Ryan Lizza, who writes in the "New Republic", and CNN congressional correspondent, Andrea Koppel.
Glenn Reynolds, what do you make of Jim Webb's Democratic campaign, A, following around Senator Allen's campaign appearance and then giving this video to YouTube?
GLENN REYNOLDS, LAW PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE: Well, it's good guerrilla campaigning. You know, I know some Allen defenders thought it was a dirty trick to send somebody following Allen around with a video camera. But like I say, to me that just seems like good guerrilla campaigning. And they're making good use of all of these resources.
It's a story that just probably would never have gotten out otherwise. And yes, they prodded him a little bit to say something stupid, but you know, he's also a presidential contender, and you need to kind of check those people out.
KURTZ: Ryan Lizza, you've got a piece about the YouTube campaign in the "New York Times" this morning. If people can access this kind of video by themselves, who needs journalists?
RYAN LIZZA, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Well, it's true. In the old days what the Webb campaign would have had to do was take this video to CNN or another network and convince producers that hey, this is newsworthy. You should put this on. You should do a story on it.
Now it's like cutting out the middle man. You just post it to YouTube, and bingo, the whole world has access to it, and the Allen campaign goes into meltdown just overnight.
KURTZ: Andrea Koppel, the fact that this had been downloaded a zillion times on the Web, was that a factor in your deciding to cover the story?
ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely not. In fact, we were e-mailed a copy of this video clip.
KURTZ: Ah, the old-fashioned way.
KOPPEL: The old-fashioned way, although in the old-fashioned days you wouldn't have gotten a video clip by e-mail. But nevertheless, we got the e-mail clip at the same time it appeared in the "Washington Post", and then went and interviewed, S.R. Sidarth, who by the way...
KURTZ: He's the Indian-American. KOPPEL: He's the -- he is the American of Indian descent who just absolutely does not buy the fact that the campaign didn't know his name, that Allen didn't know his name. Because he said he, in fact, introduced himself to Allen on the first day that he started following him around and said, "My name is S.R. Sidarth." And so, you know, he doesn't necessarily think that the campaign is shooting straight.
KURTZ: Glenn Reynolds, Jim Webb's Senate campaign was totally up front about putting its name on this video when it posted it on YouTube.com, but what's to prevent a political operative for some opposing campaign from posting an attack video and using a fake name or using a name that nobody would recognize?
REYNOLDS: There's nothing to prevent it. And we actually are seeing more and more sock puppetry, as they call it out there on the Internet, including some by people involved in political campaigns. So I think that's a risk.
The other risk with this kind of thing is, you know, you can take 27 seconds out of a half-hour speech, put it out of context. And I think there's a real danger that this sort of stuff will misrepresent people in the future.
And I think audiences have to beware. And I think most people are aware that a brief clip of something is often not really representative.
KURTZ: Although I suppose some of our viewers would say, well, on the nightly news every night you use brief clips of politicians, seven or eight seconds, and you don't get the whole speech.
I was surprised, Andrea Koppel, that this got as much television attention as it did. What explains that? Is 2008 a factor?
KOPPEL: I think 2008 is certainly a factor. I think the fact that George Allen is as well known a figure as he is nationwide, in addition to being in this region.
But my goodness, the word Macaca. I mean, that is just tailor- made for "The Daily Show," and I think it was also the question what did Senator Allen mean? Was this a slip of the tongue, as the campaign said, that he merely was trying to call him by the nickname "Mohawk"? Or was it, in fact, something that had a racial undertone to it?
KURTZ: The Macaca mystery continues.
Ryan Lizza, now you reported in "The New Republic" a few months ago about Allen's fondness, in his younger days, for Confederate symbols when he was a young. Do you see any relevance between that and this Macaca story?
LIZZA: Well, that's what I was going to say. I think that's why it got so much coverage. Is because, look, any time a politician messes up and it plays into a frame about that politician or there's a long history on a similar subject, for political reporters it's a bigger deal.
So Allen has had a lifelong interest in the Confederacy. He's hung the Confederate flag in his home. He did a noose in his law office. He did some things as governor that angered a lot of African- Americans.
So people -- there were question about Allen and racial sensitivity before this. So all of those questions were raised again once Macaca-Gate hit.
KURTZ: Ryan -- excuse me, Glenn Reynolds, you wrote at the time on Instapundit.com that you didn't think much of these revelations in Ryan Lizza's piece, and you thought the whole back and forth kind of amounted to silly, dirty politics.
REYNOLDS: Well, you know, I think when you get to the point where a big angle -- a big angle to the scandal is an argument over whether a campaign staffer wears a mullet haircut or a Mohawk, it does kind of seem like silly season in some ways.
I mean, I think it was a fair hit by the Webb campaign. And I think the Allen campaign compounded the damage. But I think it's also a story that, frankly, we wouldn't have heard about if the JonBenet stuff had broken a few days earlier.
KURTZ: Andrea Koppel, should reporters care, should voters care if George Allen wore a Confederate flag pin in high school or had a Confederate flag, you know, decal on his room in college? Or does that strike some people as kind of "gotcha" journalism?
KOPPEL: I think it depends. I think it depends who you ask. And there are certainly, I'm sure, voters in Virginia who are going to say that that was something that was, you know, an excess of youth. This was something George Allen did when he was in high school and will write it off.
And then there will be others, in fact, many within the Indian community in Virginia, who are expressing certain outrage, saying perhaps this is more of a pattern.
LIZZA: Let me just say one thing. I think some of the coverage of this has gotten -- it's gotten dismissed because of the high school incident. But the Confederate flag stuff goes all the way up to his first campaign for state-wide office in Virginia. So it's not just high school and college. He had the Confederate flag hanging up in his home when he was well into his political career, as well.
KURTZ: Glenn Reynolds, you write in your book, "An Army of Davids", about the growing role of the Internet in politics, culture and just about everything else. Pick up the point about whether the journalist as middleman is increasingly irrelevant or at least the role has shrunk. People can go directly online, put up some piece of video, and thousands, hundreds of thousands of folks can view it and make up their own minds.
REYNOLDS: Yes, absolutely. I think it does cut down on the gatekeeper role. And I think it also allows big media people to actually sort of pretest this stuff.
I moon, Andrea says she did not look at how many times the YouTube video was downloaded. But I think that's actually a fairly useful data point in terms of how interesting it is. And you see record companies looking at downloads of songs to decide whether to release them. I think it's a way to pretest and see what people are interested in.
KURTZ: It's like television ratings.
Now, there was another incident with a video that was posted, this time on Google, involving a Republican House candidate in Florida, Tramm Hudson, talking about his days as an Army commander. Let's take a look at that video.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRAMM HUDSON (R), FLORIDA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: I was commander of an infantry company and we were practicing crossing a river. And you know, as an infantry company, 140-some odd soldiers and a large number were black. I grew up in Alabama. I understand and I know that blacks are not the greatest swimmers or may not even know how to swim.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: Blacks are not the greatest swimmers. Again, it's the video online.
LIZZA: Yes, and this was a more interesting case, because we don't -- the story that I read is we don't even know where it came from. It wasn't clear. It was posted from the Internet anonymously. He's in a multi-candidate primary down there. The primary is coming up. So it was -- it looks like it was probably leaked by one of his opponents to sabotage his campaign.
KURTZ: Well, we'll have to...
LIZZA: Effectively so.
KURTZ: We'll have to do some more reporting on that to find out.
Ryan Lizza, Andrea Koppel, Glenn Reynolds in Tennessee, thanks very much for joining us.
Up next, Tony Kornheiser's debut performance on "Monday Night Football", but wait until you heard what he called the "Washington Post's" Paul Farhi for criticizing him. Farhi suits up right here, next.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Coming up at the top of the hour on "LATE EDITION", Lebanon's justice minister, Charles Risz, on the influence of Hezbollah on his country. Israeli foreign minister spokesman Mark Regev on keeping the peace along the Israeli/Lebanese border.
And senators Arlen Specter and Dianne Feinstein on the legal setback for President Bush's domestic spying program.
All that, much more on late edition. Now back to Howard Kurtz and RELIABLE SOURCES.
KURTZ: When Tony Kornheiser made his debut on "Monday Night Football" this week, lots of fans must have said, what up with that? The "Washington Post" columnist and ESPN commentator is the first sports writer to co-anchor the broadcast since Howard Cosell, and since he's a funny writer, those tuning in to the pre-season game might have been expecting a few laughs.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now you've made it to "Monday Night Football".
TONY KORNHEISER, SPORTS COLUMNIST: I've made it to it. Will I make it through it?
How I can tell you, what team deserves it?
I think "Snakes on a Plane" would be a great victory (ph) for some people out there right now.
I think these referee thinks he looks good, because you've got to be slender with those stripes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KURTZ: But Kornheiser didn't get a rave review in the "Washington Post", with reporter Paul Farhi writing that "he wasn't especially witty, provocative or insightful, mostly stuttered (ph) by emphasizing the obvious."
Joining us now in Washington is Paul Farhi. And in San Francisco, Chuck Nevius, columnist for the "San Francisco Chronicle".
So let me read to you, Paul Farhi, what Tony K. said on ESPN radio about you. "I apparently got ripped in my own newspaper, the 'Washington Post', you know by a two-bit weasel slug named Paul Farhi who I would gladly run over with a Mack truck, given the opportunity."
How do you feel about that knee in the groin?
PAUL FARHI, "WASHINGTON POST": Well, first of all, I'm glad to be upgrade to the two-bit weasel slug. I always thought it was more of a one-bit. But that's fine.
Well, Tony's all about opinions. And he's entitled to his own, as I am entitled to mine. And obviously, we disagree. It's an honest disagreement of opinion. He thinks a lot of his performance; I didn't think that much of his performance.
KURTZ: Chuck Nevius, what do you think of that finger in the eye by Kornheiser? Is he being a little thin skinned here?
C.W. NEVIUS, "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE": Oh, absolutely. And I would say Paul is at least a three-bit weasel. I really want to make that clear.
Well, nobody makes more fun of Tony Kornheiser than Tony Kornheiser. For him to be so thin-skinned about a little criticism, I think, is amusing.
It's the classic case of all of us in the columnist business take shots at people just off-handedly, but as soon as we step across and get a shot ourselves, we find out that we're not just thin skinned; we have no skin.
KURTZ: In Kornheiser's column, he also called you a putz. That's a direct quote.
Now, a semi-serious note here, Paul Farhi. Was it a tough assignment to review a guy who's been at the paper for 25 years and is a pretty popular columnist?
FARHI: Yes. It's, you know, one of those darned if you do or darned if you don't kind of assignments. I could go really, really tough on him and, you know, just to prove my independence and my manhood, or I could go soft on him, because he's a colleague.
KURTZ: What would people have said if you had given him this absolute rave review and said he was -- walked on water?
FARHI: Well, you know, the best way to play it is to play it as honestly as you can is and sort of set aside the personal aspects of it, the professional relationship, and just give it, as you would anybody. And that's the assignment that was given to me. Just review him as a guy who's on "Monday Night Football" like any guy on "Monday Night Football".
KURTZ: Chuck Nevius, what about Kornheiser's contention that it was somehow unfair for his own paper to pan him? I mean, is that ever true? And is it particularly true when you become a big TV star, as Kornheiser now clearly is?
NEVIUS: Well, I think it is heart of hearts. Even Tony knows that's ridiculous. Paul gets to -- gets to do whatever he want to do. And we would have -- we would have called him an incurable kiss-up if he'd given him a rave review. Obviously, Paul gets to do whatever he wants to.
I disagree with Paul. I thought -- I thought Tony did a good job, but I will defend to the death his right to write whatever he wants. He's a critic. That's what he should be doing.
FARHI: And that's really the only thing that really bothered me about the whole thing. He can call me anything he wants. As I say, he's entitled to his opinion.
I thought he sort of stepped over the line when he talked about the paper going soft on him. You know, we don't go soft on anybody just because we have some relationship with him. He knows better than that. And that was the only thing that stopped (ph) me in all of this.
KURTZ: Now you didn't say he was horrible.
KURTZ: You said he wasn't particularly funny or insightful. And after all, it was his first game in that role. How well do you know Tony Kornheiser?
FARHI: You know, I know him around the office. We talk. We've, you know, exchanged witticisms from time to time. Tony is a franchise. Tony is a star. I mean, I don't suggest that I'm -- "Monday Night Football" material like he is. He's great. There's no question about that.
KURTZ: Some people write in and say you were jealous or something?
FARHI: Yes, because I came this close to getting the "Monday Night Football" gig? I don't really understand that comment at all.
KURTZ: Did you expect him to be as funny on the air as he was around the office?
FARHI: I do. That's why I thought what I thought in the column. He was not the Tony Kornheiser we know in print or on TV.
Now Chuck Nevius, you said you thought Kornheiser was pretty good. Tell us why and what you see as his role on that telecast.
NEVIUS: Well, that's a good question, Howie. What is his role? There's three people in the booth. It's already pretty crowded. We've got an analyst in Joe Theisman. We have a great play-by-play guy in Mike Tirico. What does Tony do?
And I think what he's going to end up doing is agitating Joe Theisman, which will be -- which will be a lot of fun. I think we'll all like to see that happen. But he's got to work his way into it.
We know Tony. Tony is an exposed nerve, and that's what people like about him. He goes off on these rants. He has some crazy ideas. He's funny. He's witty. The "Snakes on the Plane" thing is a good example.
He's got to find -- he's got find his rhythm, though.
KURTZ: So it's very different, Chuck, than being a retired jock or a former coach, which is usually what we see on these football shows.
NEVIUS: And we're already getting this. And I know that some of the athletes are saying Tony never played the game. And I've always said, Agatha Christie never killed anybody, but how many murder mysteries did she write?
I mean, I think you can still do it. It makes sense. He's a gunny guy. What we'd like to hear is amusing commentary about an entertainment event. It's a football game, and it's really an entertainment event. And I think Tony's a good choice. We'll see how it works out.
KURTZ: So is he more like a hired comedian in this situation, Paul Farhi? And is "Monday Night Football" as much entertainment as about football?
FARHI: That's right. "Monday Night Football" previewed (ph) this third chair, this idea that you have an analyst and you have a play-by-play guy and then you have a third guy to add some commentary, some humor, some entertainment. The classic was Howard Cosell. Tony and was and is a good choice for that job, because he can do that.
You know, I don't take football that seriously. There are plenty of people who do. They want somebody like Tony who's going to mix it up a bit and not be so serious.
KURTZ: All right. Well, you're at least funny enough for our show. Paul Farhi, Chuck Nevius, thanks very much for this football tutorial.
When we come back, a media flashback on the JonBenet Ramsey case and whether the press has learned any lessons.
KURTZ: During the first media frenzy over the death of JonBenet Ramsey a decade ago, there was a great debate over whether the journalists were going overboard over the death of this beautiful young girl.
KURTZ: We should have an element of restraint here, because we don't know what happened. There's a lot of murky details here.
What has sent this story into the media stratosphere is the videotape that has been on every network of a little girl with the tiara and the heavy makeup, and the bleached blond hair, 5 years old, participating in these beauty pageants. So now we all feel like we know her.
MARTIN SCHRAM, SCRIPPS HOWARD NEWS: We're wrong as the media when we focus on these beauty pageants at all and give them the publicity, these parents who dress up their kids to look like little sex objects, which is really disgusting. But this as a story has nothing but readers and viewers.
EVAN THOMAS, "NEWSWEEK": We like to cloak our juicy tabloid stories in some greater social meaning, and this is a traditional trick. We do it in "Newsweek" all of the time.
ELLEN HUME, PBS: It's a very intriguing story. A beautiful young girl, a terrible tragedy. This is a classic staple of American journalism and world journalism.
However, it should not be the thing that replaces important news that citizens need to make decisions in a democracy. That's the problem. It constantly displaces other things.
KURTZ (voice-over): And it it's still displacing other things: the Middle East war, Iraq, the British terror scare, the court ruling against President Bush's domestic surveillance, all practically blown off the screen by JonBenet.
Back then, some blamed the supermarket tabloids. "The Globe", for instance, printed some grisly crime scene photos. Some blamed the influence of programs like the now defunct "Hard Copy" and "A Current Affair". Some blamed the likes of "Newsweek" for putting the lurid tale on the cover.
Some blamed CNN -- FOX and MSNBC were just getting started -- for doing such things as twice airing a news conference by JonBenet's parents, John and Patsy Ramsey.
On RELIABLE SOURCES, we raised the question: how could two of the three broadcast networks lead their nightly newscasts with the Ramsey news conference when there were so many other important things going on in the world?
Now of course, that argument seems quaint. Who could possibly have been surprised when NBC, ABC and CBS led their newscasts Wednesday and Thursday with the arrest of a suspect in the case? Who could have been shocked when the cable networks moved to saturation coverage of this 10-year-old case?
What happened in the months after JonBenet's death is that news organizations realized there was ratings and circulations gold in turning a girl's murder -- and, sadly, there are thousands of murders in this country every year -- into a long-running soap opera.
This was in the wake of the O.J. Simpson case, but he was already a famous football star. The Ramseys were an unknown Boulder family until media outlets seized on their tragedy and cast out on lots of people including the Ramseys.
All this paved the way for the journalistic obsession with Chandra Levy, with Elizabeth Smart, with Laci Peterson, with runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks and Natalee Holloway.
KURTZ (on camera): And what about the debate over media sensationalism? It's over. It ended a long time ago. People now expect wretched excess in cases involving pretty young white women and, sadly, we deliver.
On a lighter note, there is one bright spot. People are paying attention to our critiques and giving this show the respect and adulation that it truly deserves.
JON STEWART, HOST, COMEDY CENTRAL'S "THE DAILY SHOW": Will there be any consequences for the behavior of the media?
BOB CORDORY, COMEDY CENTRAL'S "THE DAILY SHOW": Absolutely, John. The years of irresponsible commentary of the Ramsey murder will have grave consequences. Notably, noted ombudsman Howard Kurtz will join two print journalists, an NPR guy and a well-known blogger for a half hour of public pseudo self-flagellation. Dozens of insomniacs will see it, John. Hard rain's going to fall.
KURTZ: Hey. That is not pseudo self-flagellation, Rob Cordory, it's the real thing.
Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 10 a.m. Eastern, for another critical look at the media.
"LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.
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