SHOW: CNN RELIABLE SOURCES 11:30
April 31, 2003
Transcript # 052700CN.V50
SECTION: News; International
LENGTH: 3793 words
HEADLINE: Conflicts of Interest at The Washington Post. Did Embeds Provide Fair Picture of Iraq Combat?; When Can We Go Back to Debating Tabloid Sex?;
HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: I write a press column for the Washington Post. But I also get paid to do this show by CNN, one of the main press organizations I write about. Recently in my Post column I downplayed the admission of CNN news executive Eason Jordan that he'd covered up stories of Saddam Hussein's brutality for years. Yet CNN's conduct became a much bigger controversy than my article originally suggested. Tonight on Reliable Sources: Do I have a crippling conflict of interest? How thoroughly do I really cover CNN for the Post? Is the Eason Jordan story the "smoking gun" my envious critics have been looking for?
Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Joining me is a prominent journalist who's been there.
Howard Kurtz, you're a press critic who's harped obsessively over even trivial conflicts-of-interest in the past! Do I have one?
HOWARD KURTZ, WASHINGTON POST MEDIA REPORTER: Well, Howie--yes, you do. I mean, I do. This was a huge story that really embarrassed CNN. Jordan admitted to knowing about gruesome atrocities committed by the Iraq government and not reporting about them. People who were tortured. Who had their teeth ripped out with pliers. Death threats from Saddam's son. The Post itself wrote an editorial denouncing CNN's "deliberately unprovocative" coverage. But in the paper I treated it as if it were just another tempest in a media teapot.
HOWARD KURTZ, TELEVISION HOST: I didn't ignore it. I wrote a story.
KURTZ: Well, sure. I'm smart enough to write a little item, so I can say "See, I wrote about it." But look at the play the story got – it was the second item, buried after a long tedious summary of public attitudes about the war coverage. And look at the tone, Howie. I gave Jordan three paragraphs to defend himself. Then I quickly quoted two critics–-but after that I gave Jordan the last word. You know the message that gives the reader. "On the whole, we told some very important stories from Iraq." That's what he says. It's practically a kiss-off of the whole matter.
KURTZ: But Howie Kurtz isn't the only one covering CNN at the Post. Lisa de Moraes had a longer piece on CNN in the paper the next day.
KURTZ: Kurtz's was first. It set the tone. Why write about it at all if I'm compromised?
KURTZ: Compromised? It's what I think! I have a Post piece on April 28 that uses an interview with the celebrated, brave anti-Saddam reporter John Burns to help vindicate CNN. "CNN was in a very different position" than he was, Burns says, "because they had become a kind of by-appointment Western broadcaster to the world."
KURTZ: There! I'm defending them again! That proves my point.
KURTZ: But it's not a conflict if it's what I really think.
KURTZ: How does anybody know with any confidence what I think? CNN pays me thousands of dollars. More important, they're making me famous, beaming my face around the globe. Am I willing to piss them off any more than Eason Jordan was willing to piss Saddam Hussein off? I mean, I always thought I played it straight and tough. Now I'm not so sure!
KURTZ: The "appearance of conflict," that's what you're saying. Whether or not there's a conflict of interest there's the appearance of a conflict of interest. Doesn't the "appearance" rule always end every discussion of every journalist's conflicts? Why should mine be any different?
KURTZ: Would any other paper let any other reporter get away with being paid huge sums by a big corporation he writes about?
KURTZ: They have to let me rewrite the rules! I'm a star! And that will have to be the last word.... When we come back: Is the media making too much of the Laci Peterson story? We'll have all the sensationalistic, tawdry details we can condemn the irresponsible tabloids for printing. ...