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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

News Vertigo

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 1, 2005; 8:24 AM

Tina Brown, who knows something about high and low culture -- having gone from a magazine called Tatler to Vanity Fair to the New Yorker -- hit it on the head yesterday.

"Mainstream media types spend a lot of time complaining to each other that you can't get real news anywhere anymore," she wrote. "Then we go to work and spend all day pounding to death the same story as everyone else."

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The cable-driven news culture has long careened from one obsession to the next, but never with such breakneck speed. I feel like I've been bounced around like a pinball in a machine. The Martha-out-of-jail fixation, the Jacko/young boys/porn trial, the Robert Blake how'd-he-get-off verdict, the Ashley Smith angel-redeems-murder-suspect saga, the Jessica Lunsford suspect arrested. And then in just the last day, Terri Schiavo dies, the pope falls gravely ill and, in my little world, Ted Koppel quits. (More on that below.)

So loud was the beating of the cable drums that the release of a commission report on the Bush administration's "dead wrong" intelligence in Iraq was reduced to a mere blip against the sad but inevitable death of Schiavo, which continued with emotional intensity -- especially in front of the cameras -- even after the passing of the woman that this was supposedly all about. "Rest in peace" was not in the media's lexicon, not with the politicians still fighting and the relatives still feuding and too many still trying to milk partisan or ideological advantage from the tragedy.

Will we look back on this as March Madness? Have you ever seen the country go so crazy over the case of a single obscure person -- when the same thing has happened to so many other brain-damaged or critically ill patients over the years? Or is this just another passing spring storm, to be replaced by the next national angst attack?

I didn't go to law school, but haven't Republicans generally favored judges who strictly interpret the law, and state courts over federal control? All right, so Congress got caught up in the emotion of the moment and passed a bill forcing the Schiavo case into federal court, where the result was the same as it had been in state court rulings over 15 years. So why is Tom DeLay raising the possibility of impeaching some of the federal judges in the case? ("The time will come for the men responsible for this to answer for their behavior.") Is that now an appropriate remedy for judicial rulings we don't like?

The Schiavo case raised some important issues, but these have been almost totally overshadowed by the histrionics that the media were all too happy to carry around the clock.

"The life and death of Terri Schiavo -- intensely public, highly polarizing and played out around the clock on the Internet and television -- has become a touchstone in American culture," says the New York Times. "Rarely have the forces of politics, religion and medicine collided so spectacularly, and with such potential for lasting effect.

"Ms. Schiavo, the profoundly incapacitated woman whose family split over whether she would have preferred to live or die, forced Americans into a national conversation about the end of life. . . .

"Nearly 30 years after the parents of another brain-damaged woman, Karen Ann Quinlan, injected the phrase 'right to die' into the lexicon as they fought to unplug her respirator, Ms. Schiavo's case swung the pendulum in the other direction, pushing the debate toward what Wesley J. Smith, an author of books on bioethics, calls 'the right to live.' "

Salon's Eric Boehlert nails the press:

"It was fitting that reporters were in danger of outnumbering pro-life supporters outside Terri Schiavo's hospice in Pinellas Park, Fla., on Thursday morning. When one man began to play the trumpet moments after Schiavo's death was announced at 9:50 a.m., a gaggle of cameramen quickly surrounded him, two or three deep.

"Has there ever been a set of protesters so small, so out of proportion, so outnumbered by the press, for a story that had supposedly set off a 'furious debate' nationwide? That's how Newsweek.com described the Schiavo story this week. Although it's not clear how a country can have a 'furious debate' when two-thirds of its citizens agree on the issue. . . . But the 'furious debate' angle has been a crucial selling point in the Schiavo story in part because editors and producers could never justify the extraordinary amount of time and resources they set aside for the story if reporters made plain in covering it every day that the issue was being driven by a very small minority who were out of step with the mainstream. . . .

"What is telling about the excessive coverage is how right-wing activists, with heavy-hitter help from Washington, were able to lead the press around, as if on a leash, for nearly two weeks as they pumped up what had been a long-simmering (seven years) family legal dispute and turned it into the most-covered story since a tsunami in Asia three months ago left approximately 300,000 people dead or missing."

With the pope himself on a feeding tube, Andrew Sullivan grapples with church policy:

"If the rule is that all persistently vegetative patients must be attached to feeding tubes indefinitely, then the costs to society would be stratospheric. At some point we could have as many not-dead-yet human beings suspended unconsciously in semi-life as we have in embryo factories at the other end of the human spectrum. My point is not that this case has been easy in Catholic moral terms. My point is precisely that it is not easy. Fifteen years with no brain waves at all? Keeping her in that state would have been just ordinary care? And at what point do we 'accept the human condition' in the Church's words? That's the question.

"We can say, however, that Michael Schiavo's record is certainly within the scope of the Church's historical understanding of what the moral obligations toward his wife are. What we are seeing is how far this Pope has shifted the debate toward an absolutist position on life and death. He is the innovator. But he does not have a monopoly on what the Church as a whole believes. It's a church; not a personal cult. Not yet, anyway."

Michael Schiavo has gotten his share of abuse, and now blogger Steve Gilliard lets the parents have it:

"One of the wacko priest supporting the Schindlers, said the brother and sister were asked to leave so Michael Schaivo could spend the last minutes alone with his dying wife. He said 'his heartless cruelty continued.'

"What? Heartless what? The Schindlers slandered this man, allowed protesters to haunt his small children, tormented him for eight years and they want to talk about heartless cruelty? They tore into him for years, slandered him and placed his life in danger. There's been plenty of heartless cruelty and it lays at the feet of the Schindler's."

In American Prospect, Terence Samuel writing before Schiavo's death, passes out plenty of blame:

"Despite the wall-to-wall cable coverage, the blogging, the gazillion of words dedicated to the subject by journalists, pundits, and polemicists, people seem to know we have ventured inside one family's private torment and that we have no business being there.

"As this case heads toward its sad and sure ending, the more dismayed I am by those whom I had also regarded as victims in the case: the warring family factions -- the Schiavos, the Schindlers, and their various surrogates who have force-fed us their tragedy in snippets and sound bites. There the Congress and the White House may indeed have been meddling when they marshaled the national legislature to move this case to federal court, but we have to ask: What kind of family would allow this to get into the courts in the first place -- and then allow it to drag on?

"Capitulation by one side or the other would seem heroic at this point, because whatever else we don't know, we can be sure that Terri Schiavo would not have wanted to be the center of this freak show."

Here's some big news: a new public figure who can't stand the press.

Prince Charles, muttering after a scribe's routine question during a photo op: "These bloody people. I can't bear that man. I mean, he's so awful, he really is. I hate these people."

Slate's Jack Shafer seizes on an Los Angeles Times embarrassment to hammer home his point on bloggers:

"Los Angeles Times press pundit David Shaw asserted on March 27 that 'mainstream' journalism is inherently superior to the pitiful scrivenings produced by bloggers because 1) bloggers have no 'journalistic experience' (any fool can blog) and 2) because blogging is an 'unmediated medium,' that is, a blogger can post whatever he wants without running it by an editor.

" 'At least four experienced Times editors will have examined this column [before publication], for example,' Shaw boasted. 'They will have checked it for accuracy, fairness, grammar, taste and libel, among other things.'

So where were the four experienced editors who swirl, sniff, sip, swish, and spit every Times article when staff writer Eric Slater filed 'Hazing Death Highlights Chico's Greek Life' (March 29)? The day after Slater's piece appeared in the Times, Melissa Daugherty of the Chico Enterprise Record demolished it as 'replete with errors, omissions and unnamed sources.' "

Though she seems not to have sought any comment from the LAT.

"Yesterday's Times confirms Daugherty's judgment with this correction:

An article in Tuesday's California section about hazing at Cal State Chico mistakenly said that a pledge to a fraternity at nearby Butte Community College died of alcohol poisoning. He did not die but was hospitalized. The article also said Chico has a population of 35,000; according to the city, the population is 71,317. In addition, University President Paul Zingg was quoted saying the school would shut down its Greek system if problems with hazing did not abate. Zingg made his comments to a group of 850 students and others, and his remarks were quoted in the local media. He did not speak with The Times. Also, although the article characterized the school as being well-known for its basketball program, its winning baseball program may be best known outside campus.

"In other words: Never mind, we take the whole thing back."

Now, to save you the trouble of clicking (and because I've got no space limitations here), today's report on "Nightline":

TedKoppel said yesterday he is leaving ABC News, ending a 42-year career and a quarter-century run as anchor of "Nightline," because he does not want to do the live hour-long program the network is planning.

"I really don't think there's anything else at ABC I would find as interesting or as challenging," Koppel said in an interview, adding: "Of course it's difficult . . . It will be very hard to leave friends and colleagues behind. But in the words of an old song, you've gotta know when to hold 'em and know when to fold 'em."

The 65-year-old Koppel was offered the opportunity to become host of ABC's "This Week," the Sunday morning program that has struggled in the ratings under George Stephanopoulos, but was not enthusiastic about joining the crowded Sunday field and turned it down. Koppel is expected to stay on the air until his contract expires Dec. 4.

ABC News President David Westin said his "first choice" was for Koppel to remain at "Nightline." "Ted ultimately concluded it was time for him to leave," Westin said. "I respect him for that decision, and I admire him for being willing to leave."

Asked about Westin's plans for the award-winning program, which over the years has evolved from always live to generally taped, Koppel said: "David offered me the opportunity to continue on 'Nightline,' but it would have to have been on the basis of a one-hour program, doing it live five days a week. I've been doing it for 25 years. I'm now at a stage of life where it's not something I feel I can do anymore."

Westin said he feels strongly that "the program has to be live more often than it's taped" because it has shown "a tendency to go off the news" with features and documentaries. "If you have a program in the can, already taped, it puts a higher bar on when you'll open the program up" to go live, even when news develops in the evening, he said.

Asked if officials at the Disney-owned network, who tried to replace his show in 2002 with comedian David Letterman, were insisting on a format they knew he would reject, Koppel said: "I can't entirely disagree with that interpretation." He said of Westin: "I think David knew when he cited those conditions that they would not be exciting to me." But Koppel said he did not feel he was being forced out.

Koppel's impending departure accelerates a generational passing of superstar anchors in which NBC's Tom Brokaw, 64, and CBS's Dan Rather, 73, have stepped down in the last four months.

Tom Bettag, Koppel's longtime producer, who will quit at the same time, said he is "very bullish" on the future of "Nightline": "Ted and I leave saying that this team is perfectly capable of doing a great broadcast and keeping the tradition going after us." Bettag said that anchoring five live broadcasts a week "is a staggering task, physically demanding, that didn't work for Ted" and that they would make an "aggressive" proposal for a new journalistic venture outside ABC.

"We may crash and burn, but we're at a stage in life where we can take that chance," Bettag said.

Westin said he is "confident," after speaking with Anne Sweeney, co-chairman of Disney's Media Networks division, that "Nightline" will retain the 11:35 p.m. time slot, rather than forfeiting it to an entertainment or sports show, as the company had been contemplating. But the shape of the new "Nightline" remains up for grabs. Widely considered one of the most serious and far-ranging programs in television news, "Nightline" draws 3.7 million viewers -- down about 4 percent since last year -- compared to 5.8 million for NBC's Jay Leno and 4.6 million for CBS's Letterman.

"Nightline" will need a new host, or more likely, an ensemble of hosts. These could include Chris Bury, who has long been Koppel's principal substitute, or Stephanopoulos, the former Clinton White House aide whose Sunday show has slid to third in the ratings since he succeeded Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts three years ago. Westin said Stephanopoulos "has grown enormously" and will continue to fill in at "Nightline." "I have complete confidence in him," Westin said. Stephanopoulos declined to comment.

One ABC executive, who declined to be identified while discussing sensitive personnel matters, said: "If George was pushed aside for Ted, that doesn't say George isn't good. It says there was a huge heavyweight they wanted to keep at the network."

After Westin solicited proposals for revamping "Nightline," several videotapes were made as prototypes of a faster-paced program. One from the existing staff, dubbed the "Washington proposal," featured Bury, John Donvan, Michel Martin, Jake Tapper and Laura Marquez as a rotating corps of correspondents in the "60 Minutes" mold. It mixed hard news with features, including a profile of the pop singer Beck, along with a brief look at "what's on your IPod."

Two other videotapes, taped in New York, were called the "Times Square proposal." One paired Tapper, a former Salon correspondent, with Bill Weir, co-host of the weekend "Good Morning America." The other, as reported by Broadcasting & Cable, used a nightclub set with a live audience, jazz quintet and smoke machine, and was hosted by reporters John Berman and Jessica Yellin.

Koppel said he has long been working on a smooth transition, which he signaled five years ago by cutting back to anchoring three nights a week. "I'm confident, if given the opportunity, they can make a go of it," he said, although the conditions for a retooled "Nightline" are "clearly not under my control."

Westin said the show will likely stay in Washington and "remain a program of substance" based on reporting. "The key DNA will remain," he said. Westin added that the half-hour show could not expand to an hour until ABC affiliates are persuaded to carry the second half.

Bury said he and the staff have been "working through a number of ideas" that would take the show "in a new direction" while "keeping the basic faith that Ted has laid out." He described his longtime boss as "extremely fair and nuanced and smart."

Launched in 1979 as "America Held Hostage" during the Iranian hostage crisis, "Nightline" under Koppel scored interviews with the likes of Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali, Larry Flynt and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and a bevy of presidential and vice presidential candidates. Koppel pressed Gary Hart about adultery, told Michael Dukakis he didn't understand why his campaign was failing, and hit the road last year with John Kerry. The onetime Vietnam War and State Department correspondent loved to parachute into hot spots around the country and the world, tackling difficult subjects from AIDS in Zimbabwe to prison violence to race relations, and covered the Iraq war as an embedded correspondent in 2003.

Koppel has won 41 Emmy awards, 11 George Foster Peabody awards, 12 duPont-Columbia awards, 10 Overseas Press Club awards and two George Polk awards, mostly for his "Nightline" work.

" 'Nightline' invented a lot of what the cable model is," said CNN anchor Aaron Brown, who occasionally hosted the program while at ABC. Koppel "did it for 25 years better than any of us can do it . . . He blended his incredible confidence -- he's the most confident person I've ever known in my life -- to conduct a live interview program with his reportorial talents."

Former "Nightline" producer Leroy Sievers recalled being "in the field with him in Iraq, Somalia, Kosovo. He could write on the fly. What Ted liked to do most is head out and whatever happened that day is what we'd report, which is a little scary because there's no safety net."

Koppel rejected criticism that "Nightline" became less unique as the rise of the 24-hour cable networks made the live satellite interviews he helped pioneer a television staple. "Tell me a program out there that does one subject for a half-hour a night," he said.

But he understands that the economics of television have been working against him. "My salary has been going up for 25 years," Koppel said. "I'm an expensive commodity. It is in the nature of all news programs . . . and whether you look at Letterman's numbers, the 'Tonight Show's' numbers, 'Nightline's' numbers -- all have been going down because television has become fragmented . . . In the last few years, we have been hurt by the fact that ABC's prime-time ratings have been in the tank."

Another possible factor in the decline, Koppel said, is that "perhaps people are getting tired of the program."

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