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8/24/05

Way to go Bob

Notice how Fox News only talks about ratings while CNN talks about reporting actual news. As far as Bob is concerned, good for you.



August 24, 2005
Bob Costas Says No to Hour on Aruba
By BILL CARTER
For Bob Costas, the issue was not complicated.

The longtime NBC sports and talk show host, who signed on this year to be an occasional substitute for Larry King on CNN, resisted a request last Thursday to be the host of a King program devoted to interviewing guests about the already widely covered Natalee Holloway missing-person case in Aruba.

When he could not get the show's topic changed, Mr. Costas said he respectfully decided not to participate.

"I don't believe there was a single American who was sitting around saying 'I'd really like to see Bob Costas's take on this,' " Mr. Costas said in telephone interview.

Having a host oppose a topic and decline to participate in a show is certainly not common, though hosts of morning shows like "Today" have been know to refuse to interview certain guests. But Mr. Costas is not an employee of CNN and has wide latitude about deciding if he will take part in a program.

Mr. Costas said he had found out "about two days before" the show that the topic would be Ms. Holloway, who disappeared on May 30. He told the producers that he hoped the topic would change. On Wednesday, when he learned that it would not, he declined to serve as host. The program went on with Chris Pixley as the host.

"Nothing had been spelled out about my being able to turn down certain topics, but it was implied," Mr. Costas said. Jonathan Klein, president of CNN's domestic operations, backed that up, saying, "It's important that we never have an anchor doing a story he does not believe in."

Mr. Costas's decision has drawn further attention to the Holloway case, which has become the latest in a stream of stories about missing young women that have been turned into daily - if not hourly - staples of coverage on all-news channels.

Many critics have questioned why the story of the disappearance deserves blanket coverage. Some have deplored the emphasis on white women who go missing, while missing women of other ethnic groups are ignored. One critic, Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, told The Associated Press that the Holloway coverage amounted to "emotional pornography."

The Holloway case has certainly received extensive airtime, not just on cable but on broadcast-network morning shows as well. Yet the coverage appears to have been heaviest on one program on the Fox News Channel, Greta Van Susteren's "On the Record."

The easy rationale is ratings: on cable news networks, the Holloway case - like the Laci Peterson murder, the "Runaway Bride" Jennifer Wilbanks, and many others - sells. Ms Van Susteren has seen her program's audience totals spike about 60 percent from a year ago.

The Holloway story has been less prevalent - though not absent - on CNN. In early July, Mr. Klein pulled CNN's correspondent out of Aruba and dropped the subject from most CNN shows in the absence of new developments.

"It's easy and it's brainless," Mr. Klein said in a telephone interview, explaining why cable news outlets have gravitated to it. "They're looking for an ongoing drama" along the lines of the NBC crime show "Law & Order," he said, adding "Except 'Law & Order' doesn't do the same plot every night."

Mr. Klein said that the audience that sought out news all day on the Internet was not clamoring for a rehash of the Holloway case every night. Besides, Mr. Klein said, there has been ample other news to cover.

He said that on the day earlier this month when 14 marines were killed in a roadside bombing in Iraq, Ms. Van Susteren, who was in Aruba that night, stuck with the Holloway case. "Fourteen Americans dead, and they have Natalee Holloway on," Mr. Klein said. "And they're supposedly America's news channel."

Fox executives accused CNN of flailing with holier-than-thou criticisms because the channel is falling farther behind Fox in the ratings. Fox's margin in viewers over CNN has grown 57 percent since Mr. Klein took over last December.

"If Jon performed as well as he talks he wouldn't have to explain his network's dismal ratings," said Irena Briganti, a spokeswoman for Fox News. "We have trounced him on every breaking news story from the London bombings and last week's events in Gaza."

Mr. Klein said CNN is looking at the long term and trying to set itself apart as a news organization that wants to reach the serious news viewer, one who watches less TV news over all, and is younger than the steady audience for more tabloid news fare.

"There are an awful lot of things you can cover if you don't have people tied up with this meaningless nonsense," Mr. Klein said. He clarified, adding that the Holloway case is, of course, far from meaningless nonsense to the young woman's family, and whenever the story had real new details it was worthy of coverage. But, in general, he said cable news has to stop "obsessing over this trivial stuff."

Fox News executives accused Mr. Klein of hypocrisy, saying the Holloway case had indeed been covered by CNN. They mentioned Nancy Grace, the prime-time host on CNN's affiliated network, Headline News, who has done almost as many hours on Ms. Holloway as Ms. Van Susteren has. Mr. Klein said he did not supervise that program.

Nor, apparently, does Mr. Klein directly influence the content of Mr. King's program, which has also frequently dived into the Holloway case. Mr. Klein said that Mr. King's producers have wide autonomy.

"Larry is sui generis," Mr. Klein said. "Larry does what Larry does. He has earned the right to pick his own topics."

Mr. Costas, who agreed to fill in for Mr. King on 20 occasions, said that no bridges were burned by his decision to steer clear of the Holloway case. It was "completely amicable," Mr. Costas said. He is expected to continue filling in for Mr. King when his schedule allows.

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