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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Osama Who? When No News Is 'Bad News'

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2005; Page C01

In late 1996, veteran CBS foreign correspondent Tom Fenton pitched his network on a plan to use Saudi connections to land an interview with Osama bin Laden.

"Our bosses saw him as an obscure Arab of no interest to our viewers," Fenton says. "More concerned with saving dollars than pursuing the story, they killed the project."

Sean Hannity did not disclose ties to a frequent guest on his Fox show. (2003 Photo Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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Months later, Fenton says, he sat down with an Arab journalist who had interviewed bin Laden and described his violent designs on America, but "our navel-gazing executives" left that part of the piece "on the cutting-room floor." He says CBS executives asked that all references to bin Laden be cut because the story had "too many foreign names."

In his forthcoming book "Bad News," Fenton, who retired last month, uses tales like these to castigate network news for failing to adequately cover the rest of the world. It is a stinging indictment that gains force from his quarter-century of service in CBS's London bureau.

Fenton blames "corporate greed" for the decline, saying he was "beaten down by the corporate bean counters" and had "so many of my stories rejected" in the decade before 9/11. CBS's London bureau, he writes, "doesn't do much reporting any more. What it does is called packaging," assembling video and facts gathered by outside organizations.

Likening the practice to Dan Rather's use of what Fenton calls "phony" memos in the discredited story on President Bush's National Guard service, Fenton says the networks "take it on trust. Don't shoot it, don't report it -- just wrap it up and slap the CBS eye on it."

Rather tells Fenton that CBS News may not have made a "strong enough" case to rebuild its foreign coverage after the 2001 terror attacks, "and I include myself in that."

But the top story on the "CBS Evening News" last year was the Iraq war and reconstruction, according to the Tyndall Report newsletter, which found that the program provided more coverage than its rivals. CBS executives say the company has provided additional millions of dollars to cover the aftermath of the war in Iraq, where Rather will anchor this week. "All you have to do is look at any of our broadcasts to see the commitment we have to international news," says Senior Vice President Marcy McGinnis. "It's huge."

The book argues that media inattention contributed to America's isolation and false sense of security: "Foreign correspondents like myself came to be regarded as alarmists, waving our arms from remote places like Rwanda or Yugoslavia, trying in vain to attract attention."

Fenton still has a copy of his 1978 script that CBS would not air after his reporting in Iran convinced him the shah was in trouble. But his New York producers had read more "upbeat" accounts "and did not believe" him. The shah was toppled less than three months later.

In a 1988 report on Saddam Hussein's poison gas attacks in northern Iraq, Fenton says CBS asked him to delete the fact that thousands of victims were Kurdish because "no one knows who the Kurds are." He also rips "jingoistic" Fox News for sending Geraldo Rivera and "an array of intrepid, inexperienced blondes" to cover the war in Afghanistan.

Fenton seems to pine for the days when roving correspondents were Murrow-like stars. He admits the networks spent too much on Learjets and other luxuries when he arrived at CBS's three-person Rome bureau in 1970.

CBS now has 10 full-time foreign correspondents in London, Rome, Tel Aviv and Tokyo -- no one, for example, in China or Russia. "You don't have to live in Moscow to be able to go cover Moscow" from a city like London, says McGinnis, adding that critics who say foreign news requires the big and "inefficient" bureaus of the 1970s and '80s "are wrong." But Fenton notes that in the first 10 months of 2004, the "CBS Evening News" ran four stories from China, two of them about pandas.

The book's instant headlines will probably come from "60 Minutes" commentator Andy Rooney, who tells Fenton there is "no question" the media are liberal and takes a swipe at Rather: "I think Dan has been -- I don't know why; he may not be as smart as they think -- but he has been so blatantly one-sided. . . . He uses little words that are absolute clues, giveaways to his political opinions. Like saying 'Bush,' instead of 'President Bush' or 'Mr. Bush.' . . . A couple of years ago I heard him refer to 'Bush's cronies.' Well, Jesus, 'cronies' -- oh dear!"

Longtime "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt (who says he once offered to give back one-sixth of his $6 million salary if it were spent on news but was told that wouldn't happen) has lost interest in the "CBS Evening News," saying such broadcasts have become "wallpaper" in a world of 24-hour information. And Walter Cronkite says he does not regularly watch the newscast he once headed because "there's nothing there but crime and sob sister material . . . tabloid stuff."

Fenton's solution is to expand the evening broadcasts to an hour, which Rather says he has pushed to no avail. Had NBC done that, says Tom Brokaw, he would not have abandoned the anchor chair.

After the 'Freedom' Speech

Reporters at some of the inaugural balls are steamed that they could not interview the partygoers without an official minder trailing them, lest they get insufficiently fulsome praise from President Bush's supporters. Washington Post reporter Peter Carlson, who was escorted to and from the men's room, likens the restrictions to "Saddam-era Iraq."

"It's hard to get people to be frank with you," says Chicago Tribune reporter Jeff Zeleny, who gave up at one ball. "It seems like a baby-sitting exercise. It's just one more example of how the Bush administration likes to control the story."

Ties That Bind

Jesse Lee Peterson, a talk show host and conservative black activist, appeared on Fox's "Hannity & Colmes" earlier this month to tout his fifth annual "National Day of Repudiation of Jesse Jackson."

Co-host Sean Hannity defended Peterson against criticism from the other guest, Ron Daniels of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "Jesse has devoted -- let me finish -- his adult life to building homes and giving opportunity and finding work and developing skills for young African American men. Isn't that true, Jesse?" He even suggested that Daniels "donate" money to Peterson's group.

What Hannity didn't share with viewers is that he serves on the advisory board of Peterson's organization, Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny. Nor did he mention it on Peterson's 12 previous appearances on the program since 2002, though on one occasion he called Peterson "my good friend."

Hannity says he has mentioned the link on his radio show and "I probably should have done it that night. If I had it to do over again, I would." He says he took the non-paying position with BOND after the group gave him an award several years ago and "it's not something I've ever hidden." Hannity says his suggestion that Daniels make a donation was just tongue-in-cheek.

Belated Apology

The Northern Virginia woman who demanded that Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne pay her $100,000 in hush money has apologized, saying she is mentally ill.

In June, Martha Jane Shelton provided The Washington Post with what she claimed were damaging e-mails from Dunne, which he strongly denied sending. Now, in a letter to Dunne from a Pennsylvania jail after pleading guilty to harassment, identity theft and stalking in an unrelated case, Shelton says she is sorry and hopes to overcome her illness through "medication and psychiatric help." The letter was sent to New York Post reporter Keith Kelly.

Dunne has acknowledged paying Shelton $1,600 over the years but as a friend, not a news source.

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