"Jon Stewart Zings the Fourth Estate"
Reliable Sources
April 8, 2000
by Howard Kurtz


Jon Stewart Zings the Fourth Estate; ABC News' Latest Superstar Lands "Titanic" Interview; Has the Press Inflamed a Young Boy's Tragedy?

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Elian and the media. Has the press inflamed a young boy's tragedy? Jon Stewart zings the fourth estate. Comedy Central's funny man punctures some journalistic egos. And ABC News' latest superstar lands a "Titanic" interview. Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Bernard Kalb is off this week. First up, the story of Elian Gonzalez and the media's continuing fascination with the Cuban boy's fate.

(Voiceover and videotape): As the boy's father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez, arrived in the U.S., tensions were running high on both sides. And the press remained obsessed with the international custody battle with developments leading the news hour after hour.

(Videotape): DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS: There has never been anything quite like this.

KURTZ: From the evening news to the talk show circuit to televised town hall meetings to the hordes of reporters gathered in Miami and Washington, all eyes seemed to be on this dramatic case.

(End Videotape)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now from New York, Albor Ruiz, columnist for "The Daily News." And in Miami, Barbara Gutierrez, the reader representative for the "Miami Herald" and the Spanish language "El Nuevo Herald." Welcome. Albor in New York, help us cut through some of the verbiage here. Has the press taken an admittedly sad tale of a young boy who lost his mother, separated from his father, and turned it into a kind of international soap opera?

ALBOR RUIZ, COLUMNIST, "THE DAILY NEWS": It seems to me that that's rather obvious. This is a very sad story of a little boy with a very tragic story that should never have been turned into an international, as you know, soap opera. This is, by now, about the same level as the JonBenet Ramsey story or the Monica Lewinsky thing, unfortunately, because of course it takes away from the reality of what the Elian Gonzalez ordeal really means. And that's a boy that lost his mother and should be with his father.

KURTZ: And how much are the media to blame in your view for the inflating of this story to Lewinsky-like levels?

RUIZ: Well, I am thinking of course of one of the most recent examples, and probably the worst of them all. And that's the Diane Sawyer interview, or so-called interview. I mean, interviewing a 6-year-old boy...

KURTZ: With a 6-year-old boy for ABC News.

RUIZ: ... exactly.

KURTZ: You did not think much of that, I take it.

RUIZ: No, I didn't think much of it at all. I actually thought that it was - she managed to take journalism to a new low only with this interview. I mean, we all want to have our scoops. But you have to have a minimum of I guess professional ethics here. I think that those were really absent in this case.

KURTZ: Barbara, let me read you from a columnist from your newspaper, Liz Balmaseda (ph), who wrote, "In the eyes of America, we are a national curiosity. We belong to a lunatic fringe, a single- minded, heartless population intent on kidnapping the son of Juan Gonzalez." Do you agree that the national press has painted kind of a distorted picture of the Cuban American community in Miami?

BARBARA GUTIERREZ, "MIAMI HERALD," "EL NUEVO HERALD": Well, you can't say all the media, the national media, has done the same thing because I think some magazines have done a good job, some newspapers have done a good job. But overall, many of the press, the national media, has a tendency to sweep down on Miami at a time of crisis. And then we become sort of caricatures. The Cubans are all fanatics. We're all Mafiosos. And there's only one opinion. Well, it's about time that the press learned that we're not a monolithic community, that Cubans have all kinds of opinions. And I think that this story, especially for us at the "Miami Herald," has proven that. I mean, I am the reader rep. I receive lots and lots of phone calls a day. Let me tell you that this story has touched the hearts and minds of thousands of people, Anglos, Cubans, Haitians, of all ilk, and they're divided. And this is not a Cuban-versus-the-rest kind of story. This is a very human story. And it's become this way because we are still in a Cold War sort of state with Cuba. People tend to forget that, that that island is still the last communist bastion here. So we're not talking about...

KURTZ: And does that give the media license to present a more one-sided picture because you've got Fidel Castro on the other side, and therefore you can say anything about communist Cuba?

GUTIERREZ: No, I did not say that. And I...

KURTZ: No, no, I'm saying do you think the media have been guilty of that?

GUTIERREZ: No, I think as far as local media, given the intensity and the length and the complexity of this story, which has many levels - it's a custody fight, it's a political fight, and it's an immigration fight as well - I think the local media has tried to play it down the middle. We have, of course, a diversity of local media, including Spanish language radio stations...

KURTZ: Sure.

GUTIERREZ: ... and some TV stations that play as a - really from not an adversarial, but certainly they have their own point of view. And that's how they're going to report. But their viewers are well aware of that. So when they turn to that, they know what they're going to be getting. But I think in this...

KURTZ: Let me turn - let me just bring Albert here, because as you know, television is about pictures. And we see lots of pictures of this 6-year-old boy - Elian playing baseball, Elian on the swings. And I'm wondering if you think this prevalence of pictures suggests something about the Miami relatives of this young boy basically exploiting the media?

RUIZ: Yeah, you know, what I think is that I really want to disagree with my friend Barbara here because I don't think that this is such a complex story at all. I think that this should be a no- brainer. And actually, if Elian had been a boy from any other nationality, he would have been back with his dad a long time ago. Unfortunately, everything related to Cuba become political, even the fate of a little boy like Elian. And I can disagree also with Barbara, I'm sorry to say because I really like and respect her, because I think that the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) job that the present Miami particularly has done is not a fair and accurate one...

KURTZ: How's that? Why unfair? Why not accurate?

RUIZ: ... actually is very hard to find. It's very hard to find someone in any of those reports that would agree with Elian being reunited with his father. Actually, by reading those papers, you would think that those people do not exist in Miami.

KURTZ: One more point that I want...

GUTIERREZ: Albor, Albor, then you're not actually reading those papers very accurately.

RUIZ: Oh, yes I am.

GUTIERREZ: We have been, in the "Miami Herald," we have had an incredible amount of letters to the editor, of op-ed pages, and of reaction stories. Many, of course, are going to focus on the reaction outside the home because that's where the action is taking place. But this has really in a sense sort of really energized this community. And you look at our op-ed pages, a person like Max Castro (ph), who really believes the boy should be back with his father, as well as hundreds upon hundreds of our readers who are saying the same thing. That's why the press is here, because this is not an easy issue...

RUIZ: No, I...

GUTIERREZ: ... This is a very human issue.

RUIZ: ... I think this is true, not being an easy issue. But now, of course, it's not and it cannot be anymore unfortunately because, as I said, it has been politicized to a degree that really makes no sense whatsoever.

KURTZ: Let me go to...

RUIZ: I wanted to point out...

KURTZ: ... Go ahead.

RUIZ: ... I wanted to point out the last Sunday there was in Miami an incident when three young Cuban Americans were accused in front of Elian Gonzalez's house of being distributed communist propaganda, which was completely false. Nevertheless, the "El Nuevo Herald" reported next day without giving their names that these kids were distributing communist propaganda. This...

KURTZ: Barbara, Barbara, Barbara...

GUTIERREZ: Well, these three people - let me answer, Howard...

KURTZ: ... sure.

GUTIERREZ: ... because I think this is important. These three people were escorted out of that area because they supposedly were distributing communist propaganda...

KURTZ: Well, no, you know what, I've got to jump in here. I've got to jump in here because I want to come back...


KURTZ: ... I want to come back to the question of the television pictures and, Barbara, give you the last word. Should the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez be allowing this young boy to become basically video wallpaper for the networks?

GUTIERREZ: Well, that's a - it's a good question. And we all ask ourselves whether we all should have played into putting the boy's picture each and every day in our newspapers and in our screens. But this story has taken a life of its own. And as far as for us locally, it is our local story, we have to be there covering it...


GUTIERREZ: ... It's become a very competitive story right now...

KURTZ: No question on that. I've got to...

GUTIERREZ: ... But no, there's been a lot of...

KURTZ: ... We've got to take a...

GUTIERREZ: ... there has been manipulation. There has been manipulation of all sorts. But I wouldn't blame it all on the press. Yes, I think, you know...

KURTZ: ... OK, Barbara Gutierrez, you have the last word. Albor Ruiz in New York, thanks very much for joining us. When we come back, his newscast isn't always balanced, isn't very kind, isn't even objective. But it is funny. Comedy Central's Jon Stewart turns the tables on the press next.



We sat down in New York with Jon Stewart, the host of "The Daily Show" on Comedy Central. Stewart and his team of intrepid reporters have been keen observers of the presidential election with the coverage they've dubbed "Indecision 2000."

Let's take a look.


JON STEWART, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW,": Now last week's debate in New Hampshire was one of the first times voters had a chance to see how the candidates stacked up against each other. "The Daily Show" was there in force with exclusive team coverage that included brand new custom-made jackets.

VANCE DEGENERES, CORRESPONDENT: What will happen tonight? Will it be a well-mannered love-fest or a roll-in-the-mud, knock-down-drag- out slug-fest? One can only hope for low blows galore.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator Thompson, given Governor Bush's relative inexperience, how tempted do you think he will be to use one of his lifelines tonight?


SEN. FRED THOMPSON (R), TENNESSEE: One of his lifelines?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Fifty-fifty or call a friend.


STEWART: And now the next president of New Hampshire.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have a foreign affairs question from the millennial edition of "Trivial Pursuit." Who became the hottest pop star to come out of Iceland in the mid-1990s?


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: To come out of Iceland?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Out of Iceland, that's right. The hottest pop star. Iceland, don't dodge the question. What do you have against Iceland, Senator?



KURTZ: And joining us now, Jon Stewart. Welcome.

STEWART: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

KURTZ: All right. You make fun of honest, hardworking, public- spirited journalists. And you make a lot of money doing it.


KURTZ: Don't you feel a little guilty?

STEWART: Yes. Shame is a better word, Howie. I feel shamed by what we have to do to make a living. And I don't sleep well at night. No, I mean, we try and focus where we're going. There are definitely times where we miss the point or throw something out there that is probably crasser than we would like. But for the most part...

KURTZ: It's only television. It's cable.

STEWART: ... Yeah. For the most part, though, it's also, it's the world of humor, which - you know, I always find it interesting where - because your show, which I watch quite frequently, is always great because it's you and Bernie, and then it's let's say three reporters. And you guys are always bringing up these points about how the world of media is covered and...

KURTZ: Ethics. Standards.

STEWART: ... ethics and the whole thing. And all the reporters go off. And the final question is always, "So do you think the media really went over the line on that issue?" And they're all -- the conclusion is always this, "No, I thought we did a pretty good job. Yeah, I thought we were good, yeah." You know, it's always that. I think what the problem is actually is that on an individual level they don't realize the aggregate of what it is to the American public that for a particular network's resources it may not be overwhelming. But when you tie it all together, it is.

KURTZ: Talking about that aggregate...


KURTZ: ... what is it about the news business, all the many sins? We could spend an hour-and-a-half...

STEWART: Right. Right.

KURTZ: ... that most ticks you off?

STEWART: I've got the time.

KURTZ: That gets under your skin? What ticks you off about the news business?

STEWART: I think it's that, you know, look, this is just purely from a viewer standpoint. It's that I guess I have in the same way that people get angry about the government not performing up to a higher level. I think there's sort of a level of integrity that we expect from public figures, fair or not, whether it be the news or the government, that maybe isn't being reached because they're functioning like entertainment. It's sort of this weird blending...

KURTZ: Odd indictment coming from you. STEWART: ... No, no, no, it's not, because I'm in entertainment...

KURTZ: Right. You're unabashed.

STEWART: ... But clearly, though, I don't have a higher mandate. My mandate is make it funny. And if it's not funny, no one has to watch it. And...

KURTZ: And you're gone.

STEWART: ... quite frankly, even when you make it funny, no one really watches it. Sorry. But the...

KURTZ: But we wrap ourselves in the 1st Amendment...

STEWART: ... That's what I'm saying.

KURTZ: ... and then we stick microphones in people's faces.

STEWART: You wrap it in the 1st Amendment. I mean, the whole idea of sort of journalism having a higher mandate than just a regular entertainment show, my point is that you function by ratings in the same way that we do. And that's I think what is the crux of the difficulty is that you have - I mean, you've got 24 hours to fill a day, not just you, but Fox, but all these 24-hour news networks. Jerry Lewis, you know, he does that one day a year. And even that by hour 13, they're bringing on a guy who's doing the glasses and making the things. So...

KURTZ: So it's this relentless...


KURTZ: ... vacuum. You can't have dead air, right...


KURTZ: ... You've got to have something on.

STEWART: Can't have dead air, and...

KURTZ: You think pushes it more toward the entertainment side of the ledger.

STEWART: ... Entertainment, and in some respects, what happens is the bar of responsibility gets lowered. In other words, I mean, the examples just in this past year, right after the Columbine incident, a terrible tragedy, those kids were on TV during a hostage crisis. That's not right-to-know. That's not 1st Amendment. That's endangering the lives of people in a hostage crisis. And it's not responsible to be able to - I remember right after Columbine, I read in the paper - and I don't mean for this to come off in any way as so critical. I have a great respect for a lot of the people that do the stories. But there was an article in the paper about who was first breaking the Columbine story.

KURTZ: Right. You beat somebody else by 16 seconds.

STEWART: Right. And I just thought, but that wasn't a question...

KURTZ: You think it's kind of heartless?

STEWART: ... Not only does it seem, it seems like you're forgetting what you're doing. You're forgetting that what you're doing is trying to give people an impartial analysis, an informative version of the day's events. You know, I don't think they should ever take a camera to a tragedy victim's house and say, "How do you feel?" Because you know what, until you're going to get an answer that's not some version of "terrible..."

KURTZ: Right.

STEWART: ... that's not news. Of course.

KURTZ: And it's intrusive, and all those other things.

STEWART: And it's intrusive. And it's prurient. And I don't think it's reasonable.

KURTZ: How about the great pageant of democracy, the presidential campaign?

STEWART: I quite honestly believe that the fishbowl has created fake candidates, that it's now - it's all theater, it's all entertainment, and that they are using focus groups in the same way that my show uses focus groups, and the same way that CNN probably uses focus groups. They're using polls to that same extent. It's a weird melding of the same tools that entertainment follows. But people in the public arena in that sense should have a higher mandate...

KURTZ: In the same sense...

STEWART: ... than what we use.

KURTZ: ... you probably can't get elected president unless you're good on television (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

STEWART: I mean, that started with the Nixon-Kennedy debates. As soon as Nixon started sweating, that was the end of his campaign that year.

KURTZ: They looked better on radio.

You did an event in New Hampshire where you... STEWART: Right.

KURTZ: ... assembled a big panel, and you beat up on the likes of Sam Donaldson, Claire Shipman, Jonathan Alter. I think you had a pretty good time.

STEWART: But we had no idea we were going to be beating up on them to that extent.

KURTZ: Well, but do you think that journalists are unusually, or some would say pathetically, thin-skinned about having the camera turned and having their conduct on trial?

STEWART: I think they're not accustomed to it. And what was interesting to me was as soon as we flipped the tables, they began acting as candidates act, testy to a certain extent, a big evasive, sort of evasive.

KURTZ: What do you mean sort of defensive?


STEWART: Sort of defensive. Not you. You are a paragon of virtue.

KURTZ: Give me some quick takes. Let's run through some names. Larry King.

STEWART: Trend-setter. Will be having babies past Anthony Quinn's age, probably until about 140. Pretty soon, his kids, they'll take over. It will be a dynasty. All the young Kings will soon take over.

KURTZ: Ted Koppel.

STEWART: The man.

KURTZ: Yeah?

STEWART: Pure and simple.

KURTZ: Big fan?

STEWART: I'm a huge fan of Koppel's. I really loved the stuff he did this summer with the hour-long specials. But I think he's terrific. And "Nightline" is one of the shows I like the most.

KURTZ: "60 Minutes."

STEWART: You know, they set the trend for these - unfortunately, they set a trend that "Dateline" and "20/20" have jumped on and somewhat perverted.

KURTZ: How's that?

STEWART: And that's the difficulty. Because they use scare tactics, where "60 Minutes" not so much. When you turn on "20/20," have you ever seen a promotion for that? "Do you know what's in your laundry room? Could it kill your children? It might."

KURTZ: But that's become the game now. They scare people into watching?

STEWART: They scare people, scare people into watching. I truly believe that that's what's going on. I don't think maybe it's necessarily cognitive. But that's what it's become. And that's what the shame is, is that it's the question of - this interview with Elian Gonzalez is a great example of just crazy. I mean, you know, what's next...

KURTZ: Diane Sawyer on ABC.

STEWART: ... a hard-hitting expose of the kid from "Jerry Maguire"? This is a 6-year-old boy. You don't do interviews with 6- year-old boys. And to call it a visit, you know, that's what your aunt does. She visits. She pinches the cheek. This is not - that's not a subject. I think in some respects people are just trying to be first rather than being good.


STEWART: And I think that's a real danger.

KURTZ: We'll put you down as a critic of ABC and Diane Sawyer...

STEWART: No, no, no, but again...

KURTZ: ... in that instance. All right.

STEWART: ... in that instance, I think the pressure to get ratings has overwhelmed what is a really strong industry of very intelligent people.

KURTZ: Bob Dole, star commentator this year on Comedy Central.

STEWART: Wonderful man.


BOB DOLE, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: I don't want two debates a week, as Al Gore suggested. I mean, nobody would be watching. But...


STEWART: I honestly, I would only watch because to me Al Gore is like the Yule log. I mean, he puts me out...


STEWART: ... He is so - it's when you have - you know like when you have like a white noise machine... DOLE: Well, not only that, when he gives a fireside chat, the fire goes out, right?

STEWART: Exactly.



STEWART: He, just wonderfully dry sense of humor. And wonderful dancer. Oops...


STEWART: ... No, he's - I've had a wonderful time with him.

KURTZ: But you're going for the celebrity, for the big name, to get people to watch your show.

STEWART: Absolutely. But here's the difference. I'm a fake journalist.


STEWART: We're not actually really reporting on things.

KURTZ: We're going to use this tape in the future.

STEWART: Yeah, please. Believe me, no, I'm a comedian. And we're on level above strippers on the show business ladder. So believe me, I know my place.


KURTZ: Comedy Central's Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show," turning his critical lens on us.

Up next, reporting from the White House, Leonardo DiCaprio, the furor over his ABC News interview with President Clinton.


KURTZ: Leonardo DiCaprio's brief plunge into the world of journalism has become something of a Washington whodunit. Was the movie star's chat with Bill Clinton for an ABC News prime time special an interview? Depends on your definition of interview. "We did not send him to interview the president," ABC News Chief David Westin told his staff in an e-mail. "No one is that stupid."

Right. Westin says it was meant to be a walk-through, a guided tour by Clinton showing Leo the White House weather stripping and the like with some conversation along the way. But the White House says that explanation is inoperative, Spokesman Joe Lockhart calling the network to say that ABC asked for a regular sit down interview weeks ago and to please set the record straight. DiCaprio's spokesman sides with the White House. Even the president couldn't resist turning the tables on ABC at the Radio/TV Correspondents' Dinner.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now ABC doesn't know whether Leo and I had an interview, a walk through, or a drive by. Don't you news people ever learn? It isn't the mistake that kills you. It's the cover-up.



KURTZ: So, what did the ABC folks know and when did they know it? Well, they air the tape? Should a special prosecutor subpoena the footage? And the most titanic mystery of all, how did the network of Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel wind up morphing its journalistic image with that of a Hollywood hunk? When we return, the "Back Page."


KURTZ: Welcome back. Bernard Kalb may be off this week, but he left behind his "Back Page."


BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: I've been doing some reckless ruminating about the future of the media these last few days. And here goes.

(voice-over): It has to do with this fellow, who went down with the Titanic and who interviewed the president the other day on all kinds of environmental issues, interviewed the prez not for Hollywood but for ABC News. That came just a few days after Diane romped through a kind of giant playpen interviewing the most famous 6-year-old in the world. Those moments with Elian, played and replayed by ABC News, those moments produced a spike in the ratings for "Good Morning America." So since it's a proven that a famous face produces spikes, why not assign a celebrity to do a Q-and-A with the president on whether the planet can survive our mishandling of it? After all, Leonardo does have some firsthand experience with the elements. And how did it go, this one-on-one Leonardo and Bill? Well, we don't know, and we may never know, because the story now is that ABC News is rethinking using that session with the president because assigning Leonardo to the job has created a bit of an embarrassing flap. But use it or not, the very fact that the environmental assignment went to a movie idol and not to a Ph.D. in environmental studies highlights that emerging trend, journalism's surrender to the nearest celebrity and the pursuit of bigger ratings, fatter profits. Keep tuned. If Leonardo ever gets fed up with Hollywood, what about this?


ANNOUNCER: From ABC News world headquarters in New York, this is "World News Tonight" with...


KALB: Leonardo DiCaprio.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb. Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, CAPITAL GANG: Howie, we'll look at the politics behind the Elian Gonzalez custody case and at the Microsoft decision. Republican Congressman David Dreier of California joins us for that and much more right here next on CNN.


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