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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Ex-CBSer Rips Network

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2005; 9:08 AM

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."

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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.

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."

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.

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.

Moving right along, The Note sums up media reaction to the inauguration:

"Almost without exception, the entire punditocracy thinks:

"1. The speech was well written and solidly delivered.

"2. The goal of freedom around the world is worthy but tough to achieve.

"3. Many of America's current bilateral relationships are not consistent with the expanded Bush Doctrine.

"4. History will judge deeds more than words.

"5. Mrs. Bush is, uhm, smokin!!!! (That has nothing to do with the speech, but everyone is talking about it . . . )"

Finally, someone is getting at the real issues.

Doyle McManus looks at the triumph of one group in the Los Angeles Times:

"In the unending struggle over American foreign policy that consumes much of official Washington, one side claimed a victory this week: the neoconservatives, that determined band of hawkish idealists who promoted the U.S. invasion of Iraq and now seek to bring democracy to the rest of the Middle East.

"For more than a year, since the occupation of Iraq turned into the Bush administration's biggest headache, many of the "neocons" have lowered their profiles and muted their rhetoric. During President Bush's reelection campaign, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, one of the leading voices for invading Iraq, virtually disappeared from public view.

"But on Thursday, Bush proclaimed in his inaugural address that the central purpose of his second term would be the promotion of democracy 'in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world' -- a key neoconservative goal. Suddenly, the neocons were ascendant again."

Did they ever really go away?

The New Republic's Ryan Lizza takes on the president's clarion call to spread freedom abroad:

"Bush's own record, both at home and abroad, needs to be judged against the idealistic principles he outlined in his speech.

"It takes no courage to call for a democratic revolution in the public squares of one's enemies. It's easy to call for the overthrow of the mullahs in Iran or the lunatic in North Korea. The real test of Bush's sincerity 'to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture' is whether he is willing to demand reform from America's autocratic allies. Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric, on Bush's watch America's relationship with tyrants has grown closer.

"First, there are the two big powers, China and Russia. If one is as messianic about freedom in the world as Bush swears he is, then speaking out about the Chinese regime should top his agenda. Freedom House, which annually documents the ebb and flow of freedom in every nation on earth, notes that of the 2.4 billion people in the world living in countries designated as "not free," three-fifths of them are in China. In four years, has Bush ever had a harsh word for Beijing? Quite the opposite. He has quietly acquiesced as China has used September 11 as an excuse to severely crack down on the rights of restless Muslims in the country's far west province of Xinjiang. The president has barely spoken a word about Tibet. . . .

"Let's hope Bush is serious enough about democracy promotion in his second term that he tackles these charges of hypocrisy head-on by dramatically confronting one of our autocratic allies."

This Newsweek piece reads like a recycled article from January 2004:

"Within hours of George Bush's Inauguration, everyone was playing his assigned role. Republicans, happily united, were dancing the night away at glittering balls in downtown Washington. Democrats, meanwhile, divided into familiar warring camps: for and against Howard Dean. In Burlington, Vt., Dean and hundreds of fans gathered for an 'un-Inauguration' -- and in support of the former governor's quest to become the new chairman of the Democratic Party. In Georgetown that same evening, hordes of insiders partied at the stately home of Mark Penn, the Clinton family pollster, where they gripped and grinned with Bill and Hill, cheered each other up -- and fretted about Dean's assault on party headquarters. 'There was a ton of positive energy at the house,' a guest said later, 'except for the fear and loathing of Dean.'

"If you think you have seen this movie before -- 'Dean Against the Machine' -- you have. Ever since the early days of the 2004 presidential campaign, the country doctor from the State of Ben & Jerry has been the agitating principal of a confused, fratricidal and essentially leaderless party. Then, as now, Dean inspired an outside-the-Beltway, Net-based crusade whose shock troops adored his social progressivism and his fearless opposition to war in Iraq. Then, as now, a party establishment -- based in Congress, governors' mansions and Georgetown salons -- viewed him as a loudmouthed lefty whose visibility would ruin the Democratic brand in Red States. Back then, insiders coalesced around Sen. John Kerry, who was stodgy but, Washington wise guys thought, a safe alternative. They trapped Dean in a crossfire in Iowa; his caucus-night Scream sealed his fate."

Next month's contest, however, involves only 477 voters.

The Weekly Standard's Jonathan Last picks up an item from the blog that was among the first to blow the whistle on CBS's Guard documents:

"Over at Powerline, John Hinderaker has found one of the most egregious bits of media bias yet recorded. (Hinderaker found the story at a smaller blog, The San-Antonio Express-News Watch.) It seems that yesterday ABC News posted a call on its website for help from readers:

"Jan. 19, 2005--For a possible Inauguration Day story on ABC News, we are trying to find out if there any military funerals for Iraq war casualties scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 20. If you know of a funeral and whether the family might be willing to talk to ABC News, please fill out the form below:

"(ABC took down the request, fortunately the blog Captain's Quarters copied the page first.) ABC tried to pass this off as 'Honoring Fallen Heroes on Inauguration Day.' But Hinderaker notes that the specificity of ABC's request gives away the game. 'Note,' he says, 'that only the families of Iraqi war dead need apply. If a soldier died in Afghanistan, or aiding tsunami victims in Indonesia or Sri Lanka, or in a training exercise, never mind. That isn't the "balance" ABC is looking for.'

"While it is shameful for ABC to even have issued such a request, simply pulling it down and trying to bury the incident in the memory hole is even more dishonest. It seems like some in the mainstream media have yet to learn from CBS's mistakes."

Josh Marshall burrows into the transcript of The Washington Post's Bush interview and finds a revealing exchange:

"Let's be frank about what this is all about. Turning Social Security into a private accounts system has always been called 'privatization'. It was the privatizers' word of choice. That is, until they did some polling in 2002 and found out that using that word made their phase-out plan very unpopular. So, not only did they decide to stop using the word themselves, which is fair enough, they decided to try to stop anyone else from using it to describe their plan.

"Here's the passage from the Bush interview ...

"The Post: Will you talk to Senate Democrats about your privatization plan?

"THE PRESIDENT: You mean, the personal savings accounts?

"The Post: Yes, exactly. Scott has been --

"THE PRESIDENT: We don't want to be editorializing, at least in the questions.

"The Post: You used partial privatization yourself last year, sir.


"The Post: Yes, three times in one sentence. We had to figure this out, because we're in an argument with the RNC [Republican National Committee] about how we should actually word this. [Post staff writer] Mike Allen, the industrious Mike Allen, found it.

"THE PRESIDENT: Allen did what now?

"The Post: You used partial privatization.

"THE PRESIDENT: I did, personally?

"The Post: Right.


"The Post: To describe it.

"THE PRESIDENT: When, when was it?

"The Post: Mike said it was right around the election.

"THE PRESIDENT: Seriously?

"The Post: It was right around the election. We'll send it over.

"THE PRESIDENT: I'm surprised. Maybe I did. It's amazing what happens when you're tired. Anyway, your question was? I'm sorry for interrupting.

"The Post: So have you talked to Senate Democrats about this?

"That's really great, isn't it? The Post has to argue with the RNC about whether they're allowed to use the word 'privatization' to describe privatization."

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