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Caveat lector

2 September 1999

Our current howler (part IV): All in the family

Synopsis: CNN's Reliable Sources sometimes seems to offer PR for the press corps.

Commentary by Howard Kurtz, Bernard Kalb
Reliable Sources, CNN, 8/28/99, 8/7/99

This morning's lead editorial in the New York Times expresses some shopworn conventional wisdom. The Times is discussing Janet Reno's decision to seek an independent review of what happened at Waco:

THE NEW YORK TIMES: This is the right thing to do, since it would be an appalling conflict of interest to have the F.B.I. and the Justice Department investigating themselves.

The press corps always lets out a squawk when some public agency "investigates itself."

So when CNN sets up a show to probe the media, how does it structure the program? Simple. It chooses two Washington journalists—Howard Kurtz and Bernard Kalb—to serve as the program's hosts. And, as one of the program's basic formats, it has other Washington journalists come in as panel, to conduct discussions of more Washington journalists. The inbred format of Reliable Sources may be the show's most striking characteristic. Again, it illustrates the press corps' instinct for ignoring basic rules when it comes time to take a look at itself.

We don't necessarily offer this as a criticism of the show's co-hosts, Kurtz and Kalb. In fact, Kurtz remains one of our analysts' favorites, as we'll discuss in a future report. But the chummy format of Reliable Sources—"where we turn a critical lens on the media," Kurtz says—is reflected in its toothless reporting. All too typically, the show offers pleasant interviews with celebrity scribes—and an instinct for avoiding real criticism.

Just take last week's opening segment in which Kurtz and Kalb interviewed Matt Drudge. In his voice-over lead-in to the interview, Kurtz described a bit of Drudge's recent history:

KURTZ (8/28): Drudge's efforts are hardly limited to the Internet. He made his debut behind the mike earlier this summer with a new syndicated show on the ABC radio network. He inked the deal despite the vehement objections of ABC News president David Westin, who raised questions about Drudge's credibility because of his reputation as someone who reports rumors and doesn't always double-check the facts.

Kurtz was being polite in this last description; in several past episodes, questions have been raised about whether Drudge ever bothers to checks facts at all. Indeed, for anyone concerned about press conduct and standards, Drudge should have provided a fascinating interview. But Kurtz and Kalb barely raised any issues of substance during the time they spent with Drudge, even when Drudge described his celebrated posting of rumors that President Clinton had fathered a "love child" with a prostitute. (The rumors were later proven false, Drudge explained.) Drudge defended the posting of the accuser's claim as an example of "giving the voice to the voiceless." Neither Kurtz nor Kalb asked any follow-up questions about the propriety of what Drudge had done. Indeed, one is forced to say this about the Drudge segment: there was little evidence of any specific preparation by the hosts for what should have been an illuminating interview.

A show that can't even find problems with Drudge isn't likely to challenge the mainstream press, and at times the program seems to exist as a TV ad for the Washington press corps. An 8/7 interview with Mike McCurry provided a comic example. At the outset, McCurry was asked to comment on Talk magazine's then-current profile of Hillary Clinton. McCurry said he'd been struck by the fact that journalists calling him for comment on the article hadn't actually read the Talk piece. One would think almost anyone would see a problem when journalists interpret articles they haven't even read. But Kurtz suggested that problems with the press corps' work reactions to this piece were really the first lady's fault:

KURTZ (8/7): Whatever the nuances of the article and the interview, and whatever the overreaction as you see it of the press, was it less than smart politically for Mrs. Clinton, who's about to run for the senate from New York, to talk about the word "abuse" in the president's childhood? Didn't she ignite the story?

The show which "turns a critical lens on the media" was more inclined to blame the hopeful than to examine alleged "overreaction." Indeed, later in the show Kurtz again showed a tendency to blame hopefuls for the coverage they get:

KURTZ: Vice President Gore has given a series of detailed policy speeches, he's gotten some coverage, but overall I think you'd have to say, the last couple of months, Gore's gotten terrible coverage for his presidential campaign. Why do you think that is? Is the Gore campaign to blame?

Again, we're not real sure what the answer is, but it struck us odd, on a press-critique show, to see candidates blamed first for bad coverage. But then, all throughout their McCurry interview, Kurtz and Kalb seemed to be functioning as guild leaders for the Washington press. When McCurry offered a mild observation—that journalists sometimes rush into print with tales from unnamed sources—Bernie had heard about enough:

KALB: I think that's too harsh an indictment. I think if you're dealing with experienced reporters, there's a checking possibility, there's a checking requirement, there's a checking obligation.

And it's interesting he said that, because a few minutes earlier, Kalb himself had misreported the context of McCurry's famous quote about "telling the truth slowly," as McCurry was forced to point out. Indeed, by the end of the show, McCurry was asserting the importance of traditional press values, while Kalb seemed to be defending the press against any imaginable suggestion of error. At one point, Kalb offered this critique of Lucinda Franks, who reported the Talk piece:

KALB: It seems to me that if you had that kind of access that Lucinda Franks had there were inevitably certain kinds of questions that had to be asked in the same context. If she was explaining...the president, it seems to me inconceivable that the word "vast right-wing conspiracy"...was never asked. When she talked about "scarred by abuse" by mother and grandmother, it almost invited you to put the mother and the grandmother right in the midst of the vast right-wing conspiracy. [Our emphasis]

McCurry didn't understand that last remark either. But his valiant effort to demur politely provoked an intriguing response:

MCCURRY: Well, I, look, that again kind of connects dots that are more than you can do—

KALB: But reporters have to connect the dots. Otherwise you get weather reports.

And that would be boring for scribes. Kalb seemed to function as a cheerleading squad for any inclination the press corps might have. By show's end, he seemed to be saying that it was OK to focus on "personality and buzz" because the public has shown that it likes that:

KALB: The fact remains, the media is obsessed with personality and buzz and there's been a decision already, the verdict is in, that George W has more of it than Mr. Gore. The consequence is, there's a lot of media focus on that and that's not going to change.

MCCURRY: But who rendered that verdict? Has any American citizen voted yet?

KALB: Yes, an American citizen has voted because that is the preoccupation...You know what's on television, etc., where the audience goes.

There's was almost nothing going on in the press that Kalb didn't seem prepared to defend—except, of course, for writing an article sympathetic to Mrs. Clinton. On two occasions, he criticized that.

We'll have to postpone our review of the things we like about Kurtz, our analysts' favorite. In our view, he's one of the only print reporters who will even suggest there's something wrong with the mainstream press corps—although one often must search his columns for hints and signs, as Soviet citizens read tea leaves in Pravda.

But we're disappointed to have to tell you: Reliable Sources routinely makes our point about the lack of press self-critique. If this is the press corps' idea of a "critical lens," their lazy work is no longer a mystery.


Visit our incomparable archives: Do reporters check out those sources as Kalb implied? In February, we asked Reliable Sources to report on a four-month long slander about White House aide Sidney Blumenthal. In this prolonged episode, assorted press organs repeated a bruising story from Ken Starr's staff which was plainly, demonstrably false. See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/10/99. For the record, our detailed letter went to Kurtz and to Kalb, and to Reliable Sources producers as well. This was a remarkable episode of prolonged press misconduct. Reliable Sources, alas, took a pass.