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Networks speechless { March 3 2003 }

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The Networks, Newsless if Not Speechless

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 3, 2003; Page C01

By the time the dust cleared last week, the networks were mad at the White House, the White House was mad at CBS, and the only person who wasn't griping about the coverage of Iraq, at least publicly, was Saddam Hussein.

ABC, CBS and NBC broke into regular programming to carry President Bush's speech on the Middle East Wednesday evening after White House spokesman Ari Fleischer made off-the-record calls to their Washington bureau chiefs. But when Bush's address to the American Enterprise Institute, also aired by the cable news networks, dealt only generally with the future of a post-Saddam Middle East, some network bigwigs felt they'd been had.

The White House had been "lobbying" for live coverage of Bush's remarks, ABC's Ted Koppel said on "Nightline," but "in one form or another, he has said all of these things before."

Fleischer says no formal request was made and that his calls had "nothing" to do with the fact that Hussein was getting an hour of airtime that night in Dan Rather's "60 Minutes II" interview.

"It wasn't sold one way or another," Fleischer says. "I read them paragraphs from the president's speech, a very factual read-through. They made their own decision. . . . None of them on the phone suggested to me that it doesn't sound newsworthy."

Says one network executive: "The White House was incredibly heavy-handed with the request. At a time when we're leading up to war, they said it was going to make news." An executive at another network allows that "they didn't bully us. . . . They don't quite ask for time, but they say it's going to be quite important."

In a second backstage battle, Fleischer failed to persuade CBS to allow him or another administration official to appear on "60 Minutes II" to "counter the propaganda," as he puts it, of the Hussein interview.

A White House official recalls "60 Minutes II" executive producer Jeff Fager responding: "Anyone other than the president is not going to do us any good." CBS executives dispute that account, saying Fager merely made an offhand comment that he'd be happy to have Bush. CBS News President Andrew Heyward discussed the contretemps with Fleischer, and the network later sent word that it would take Vice President Cheney or Secretary of State Colin Powell. Privately, administration officials disparaged Rather's questioning of Hussein as too soft.

"This was not the Iraqi State of the Union," says CBS spokeswoman Sandy Genelius. "This was a sit-down interview with a key world figure conducted by one of the most experienced journalists in the world. The White House's position on key issues was included. The White House presents their views to the American public every day."

A Really Foul Ball
Keith Olbermann is so angry at News Corp. that he has given back a five-figure book advance rather than have anything further to do with Rupert Murdoch's operation.

"I cannot be in the same bed with that company," says the sportscaster, who left Fox Sports two years ago.

The Olbermann eruption was prompted by a gossip item in the New York Post (owned by Murdoch) involving a book published by HarperCollins (owned by Murdoch) that prompted Sandy Koufax to sever his ties to the Los Angeles Dodgers (also owned by Murdoch). The New York tabloid has now apologized for the report.

The vehicle for the Post's Page Six was a "blind" item -- a cheap way of spreading unsubstantiated allegations without naming the person, although insiders usually figure out who the target is.

The Dec. 19 item referred only to "a Hall of Fame baseball hero" who "cooperated with a best-selling biography only because the author promised to keep secret that he is gay." This, it was clear, was a reference to "Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy," by former Washington Post sportswriter Jane Leavy.

"It was completely, utterly, totally baseless in every regard . . . vicious and contemptible," Leavy says. "It appalls me and saddens me enormously that a book written as a celebration of his character and career became the occasion for slander." But, she says, "to defend myself is to recycle the libel that was visited upon him and me."

Contrary to a New York Times report about a deal with Koufax on contacting relatives, Leavy says, the former pitcher asked her only "not to interview his late sister's children, and I agreed to that. Of my own accord, I decided not to interview his ex-wives, ex-girlfriends, or to name or interview the woman with whom he shares his life. It was not pertinent to the book I wanted to write."

Leavy has canceled plans to promote the book at spring training camps to avoid fueling the controversy.

Page Six Editor Richard Johnson printed this statement a week ago: "We apologize to both Koufax and Leavy for getting it wrong." But the correction somehow managed to blame the New York Daily News for identifying Koufax as the subject of the item. What News columnist Michael Gross wrote was: "Koufax gay? Nothing wrong with that -- but no way!"

Olbermann, who now works for NBC and ABC Radio, says he canceled his News Corp. book because "they printed an item about their own author that made her out to be a passive-aggressive blackmailer. I couldn't write a book for people who treat authors that way."

Says News Corp. spokesman Andrew Butcher: "Olbermann is an embittered former employee who has managed to insinuate himself into a story that has nothing to do with him."

Tangled Terror Tale
The indictment of a former Florida professor on charges of being a Palestinian terrorist has cast a very different light on some past punditry.

After flying to Tampa to interview him, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote last year that the University of South Florida's attempt to fire Sami Al-Arian shed light on "what kind of universities we desire, how much dissent we dare tolerate and how we treat minorities in times of national stress." He noted that the proceedings began after "Bill O'Reilly invited Mr. Al-Arian on his Fox News show and virtually accused him of being a terrorist."

"I can't help having some second thoughts," Kristof says now. Based on the available evidence, "I was basically dealing with the question of whether the university was justified in firing him. . . . If I'd thought there was some compelling evidence he was a terrorist, it would have changed things. At this point the presumption of innocence has to stand."

Salon reporter Eric Boehlert last year blamed "The O'Reilly Factor" and "Dateline NBC," among others, for airing "discredited, years-old allegations of ties to anti-Israel terrorists." Salon's headline: "The Prime-Time Smearing of Sami Al-Arian."

Boehlert says most of the information in the indictment was not previously available. "I felt too many people were trying to make this story fit the way they wanted in trying to connect the dots and use guilt by association," he says. "The spin now is that all this information was out there and only someone with liberal blinders would have been duped by it. And that's just not true."

O'Reilly says that "we took a lot of heat. And when it comes our way, no fruit basket. We had this guy dead. . . . The game being played now in the media, if you're in a minority group, is that if you can't win the debate, you demonize the person reporting the story by calling them anti-whatever. I'm not playing that game."

"Vaccine for AIDS Shows Promise" -- last Monday's USA Today

"Large Trial Finds AIDS Vaccine Fails to Stop Infection" -- last Monday's New York Times

2003 The Washington Post Company

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