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Reliable Sources

Is the Press Covering the Primary Or Twisting it Out of Shape?

Aired January 29, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: They're all here. The anchors, the commentators, the reporters, the columnists descend on New Hampshire. Is the press covering the presidential primary or twisting it out of shape?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Manchester, New Hampshire, this is a special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

We're here in New Hampshire where the media have descended in huge numbers to cover Tuesday's presidential primary. And at times, it seems like we're covering every second of it.


(voice-over): All eyes were on the candidates when they took to the stage for Wednesday night's debates. But when it was over, all ears turned to the pundits.

DAVID GERGEN, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": I thought John McCain had the best debate tonight that he's had in this whole series.

BILL KRISTOL, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I think Alan Keyes had the best debate, as he always does. Quite an extraordinary performance.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: Boy, Bill Bradley took a big risk last night. By essentially calling Al Gore a liar, he's pushing all his chips into the pot and saying it's all or nothing here in New Hampshire.

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: I think so, Katie. I don't think either candidate helped himself last night. It was petty, it was negative.

KURTZ: Wall-to-wall media in these crucial last days before Granite State voters head to the polls. The candidates, in their final sprint to primary day trailed by hordes of reporters recording their every move and judging their every step.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: McCain is forcefully reminding people at every opportunity that he is no fan of the president's.

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: Right now, the Republicans are keeping it all fairly civil, while the Democrats, at least on one side, are getting personal.

KURTZ: The buzz among journalists here in New Hampshire may be just as crucial as the candidates' last minute advertising blitz. While the contenders are busy shaking hands, it's the media that are carrying their message to New Hampshire and the nation.

Does the coverage match the moment or is the press going overboard?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Roger Simon, senior writer for "U.S. News & World Report," Joe Klein, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker," and CNN's senior political correspondent, Candy Crowley.

Welcome, all.

Joe Klein, are the reporters here all rushing from event to event, asking each other what's new, what's going on, what do you hear, Bradley's toast. No, he's coming up in the latest tracking poll. Well, I saw a different tracking poll." How do you as a veteran political journalist figure out what's happening?

JOE KLEIN, "THE NEW YORKER": I don't. It's really hard. I mean, the important thing is that none of us really know anything at this point in this race, two close races.

And the thing that really kind of distresses me about myself, as I watch this, is how influenced I am by these stupid tracking polls. I mean, they can vary by eight to ten to 12 points from night to night.

KURTZ: But they're like heroin.

KLEIN: Yeah. And it influences -- I find that it influences the way that I look at a candidate from day to day. Al Gore opens up a 16-point lead, and I'm thinking, Al Gore, he's super man. You know, Bill Bradley is fading terribly. Closes back up, Al Gore, he's a liar. Bill Bradley is a really honest guy.

And the really -- I feel tremendously blessed and lucky that I don't have to write about this until after it's over, because it's really hard to do.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: That's quite a luxury. Candy, is there such a thing, given the fact that there are 85 reporters per square inch in this state right now, is there every such a thing in a presidential contest as journalistic overkill?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Oh, boy. Well, you know, to say yes means that you would like to have, you know, 80 of those reporters go away, you know, and I just don't want to be one of the 80.

KALB: I don't want to jeopardize your job security, but what do you think?

CROWLEY: Sure. I mean, but, you know, let me argue the other side, which is, you know, there's a chance that in that 85, you'll get a different opinion. And I think that's a good thing. I mean, I'm never going to argue for less coverage.

KALB: Roger, in the great blur of the final days -- the sound bites, the photo ops, the punditry and so forth -- any frustrations in making sense of it all, in keeping up with what's going on?

ROGER SIMON, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": The main frustration is that every cycle, every four years, we get pushed farther and farther away from the candidate. It used to be you could talk to the candidate on a daily basis, then you could talk to the campaign manager, then the press secretary. Now the press secretary has deputy press secretaries. And you're considered on the A list if the press secretary will return your call, let alone ever getting to talk to the candidate on anything like a semi-regular basis. That's a frustration.

KURTZ: But in a small town such as this one, you have extraordinary access all the way around. But let me just shift around, Joe, if I just may a moment. The candidates have been focusing on the domestic agenda. Question: Have the media let the candidates off the hook in connection with foreign policy? We still have Russia with nuclear weapons, China, human rights, Iraq in the pursuit of developing its own nuclear weapon. It's domestic, domestic, domestic, and very little foreign, and the media is letting it go.

KLEIN: Well, I think that that's not quite true. And also, the access thing is not quite true. And both of them are partially untrue because of one person -- John McCain -- who has granted incredible access, who talks about foreign policy all the time. In fact, at one point this year, he said a rather shocking thing. He said, "I wish foreign policy were the only issue."

KALB: But I'm raising the question, Joe, media...

KLEIN: Listen, I'd rather have...

KALB: ... media questioning rather than McCain volunteering.

KLEIN: I'd rather have the media questioning about domestic policy than about horse race. But it's true that there's a whole world out there that we ignore. I really think that Russia policy come the fall campaign is going to be a major issue in this campaign, and I'd like to hear more of it always.

KURTZ: Well, even now, reporters have to take a number to get on the famous McCain campaign bus. Used to be you could just stroll on. But let me turn to some breaking news literally hot off "The New York Times" Web site. Reporter Lawrence Altman (ph), who's also a physician, interviewed Bill Bradley and his three cardiologists and wrote a story -- it'll be in tomorrow's "New York Times" -- pronouncing the former senator being in excellent health despite his bouts of irregular heartbeats.

But if you read down to the 11th paragraph, you see in the "Times" story that Mr. Bradley has three times had a procedure where he receives an electric jolt to get his heart back to the regular rhythm that required anesthesia, and that in one instance in 1998, he fainted while exercising on a stairmaster.

Roger, should the press have clamored for more of these details more aggressively.

SIMON: Yes, because this story has the potential to have a devastating effect on the Bradley campaign. And I can see at his next public meeting someone standing up in the audience and saying, "Senator, I need to know who your vice president is going to be right now because of the high probability that he's going to be taking over the country while you're under anesthesia." It's not this rarity that it is for most presidents.

KALB: That's politics, but I want to take you back to the media, Joe. If you read to the fourth paragraph of the story as it moved on Web site, it said the interview with Bradley by Altman of "The New York Times" took place on Tuesday. It's Saturday now.

Altman also spoke with cardiologists before the interview and after the interview, but the basic interview took place on Tuesday. That's a three or four-day lapse. In media terms, can you explain holding, if that's the right verb, the story not appearing?

KLEIN: I don't know. "The New York Times" works in mysterious ways. That certainly is a strange. I think that there is a precedent for this story which is making it a bigger story, and that is Paul Tsongas, in 1992 did not tell the truth about his health.

Now there is a direct link between Bradley and Tsongas in this primary. Bradley has Tsongas' widow on the air making, you know, attacks on Al Gore on his behalf. I think that Bradley and Tsongas have been linked in many ways, at least, you know, psychologically.

SIMON: The big media question in my mind is why "The New York Times" buried the lead in the 15th paragraph.

KURTZ: You anticipated my question. If you were writing that story, would you have waited?

SIMON: Oh, I can't imagine it getting past a copy desk unless they purposely don't know how devastating this news can be and say, "We don't want to have that much influence."

KURTZ: Or worry the Sunday before the New York primary of appearing to have a major impact on the election by playing it too hard.


KLEIN: Yeah, the words "electric shock, anesthesia, and 25th Amendment," which is about the succession of the vice president when the president is non compos mentis in the same story is a significant event.

KURTZ: Bernie, you and I were talking before the show about the coverage of Vice President Gore. There's a front-page piece here in "The Boston Globe," "Gore record of veracity scrutinized." What concerns you about the coverage of Gore's statements, charges, allegations?

KALB: There have been the accusations by Bradley and by the Bradley camp that Vice President Gore has been lying, deceiving, disinforming, et cetera, on a variety of issues that Bradley's supposed to have taken.

My question is: Has there been a media lapse? Has the media given enough visibility, the checking out the accusations? After all, the media is not a stenographer; you carry the accusation. But the media has the responsibility to check out the accusation to see if there's any legitimacy to it.

KURTZ: Candy?

CROWLEY: I think part of what you see here is a lot of these people who write the stories -- And can I just remind you that the story about the heart was written by a medical reporter? That's quite different from a political reporter and even a reporter that writes on the run. So to this question, a lot of this is writing on the run, you know. And, you know, somebody says this and somebody says that, and you go, "OK, this guy said this and this guy said that," and it somehow satisfies people for balance.

And you're absolutely right, there's got to be someone that goes, "Wait a second, let's look at the last, you know, six months. Let's look at this. Let's look at this."

But, you know, the time crunch is awful. "The New York Times" now has the Web page. Everybody's got a Web page that they've got to feed, 24 hour news. I think you're seeing one of the things that's the victim of that is that you don't have the time to sit back and go, "OK."

KALB: I must say, it's a very weak apology for journalism.

CROWLEY: Absolutely.

KALB: There's no question of it. If journalism is reduced to, "He said. He said. He said," all you're doing is being a trumpet for mutual accusations.

KLEIN: It's a tough story to come on the Saturday before a -- you know, the New Hampshire primary. But Bradley should have been more forthcoming. I mean, this is one...


KLEIN: Yeah. This is one area where -- I mean, there are all kinds of lines that we trod and tip-toe and don't want to cross. This is one area that you have to know about, if someone has a heart problem. And Bradley could have brought it out more fully a month ago, in December, when it first manifested itself.

He was going -- According to this story, he was on his way across the Bay Bridge in Oakland to get his heart shocked into shape again in the middle of the campaign.

KURTZ: Well, I would just not going back to Vice President Gore that it doesn't take any medical or technological expertise when the vice president runs an ad accusing Bill Bradley of opposing flood relief for Midwestern farmers in 1993 to look up the fact that Bradley supported the main bill, he opposed...

CROWLEY: Yeah, but it's never that easy. You know that. What happens is it's part of the...

KALB: But it's our job -- It's our job to depend on that.

CROWLEY: No, no, all I'm saying is not so much is it the truth or is not the truth. It's not the whole truth. And all of these people are not telling the whole truth.


SIMON: All these nuances.


KURTZ: Selective journalism. And I'm going to call a time out. And when we return, we'll talk more about Republican candidates and their interactions with the press here in New Hampshire.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES here in New Hampshire.

Roger Simon, John McCain, as was mentioned earlier, alone among the presidential candidates, grants extravagant access to reporters, talks to reporters all day long on the bus. And I wonder if we've reached a point, as the contest has gotten tighter and the stakes seem higher, when the press is being a little more aggressive towards Senator McCain.

For example, a reporter on the bus asked him, "What would you do if your 15-year-old daughter needed an abortion?," and McCain says, "We'd consult the family, but it would kind of be her decision." And that produces big headlines. Was that question out of bounds, and should it have been as big a news story as it appeared to have been?

SIMON: No, it's not out of bounds. McCain has been a talking dog story up until now. Now it's, what does his dog saying? I don't mean to call him a dog but you get the point.

KURTZ: Right. Now he's a potential president not just an entertaining act?

SIMON: Exactly. He's leading in New Hampshire narrowly or within the margin of run of most polls. And how he actually feels about these things he talks about nonstop and what he's actually saying are ripe for scrutiny or at least ripe for putting before the American people. I don't see how you can justify not emphasizing where he stands on important issues.

KURTZ: Are you bothered at all by these, "Well, what would you do if your daughter asks questions?"

CROWLEY: No, I get bothered by the answers, you know. He gave -- Look, I think, you know, my feeling has always been you can ask anything you want but they can not answer anything they want. And McCain got it right finally when he got to the debate, which is, "I'm not going to bring my kids into this."

George Bush was asked the exact same question when we were in Iowa. They said -- Well, it had to do with a friend. "What if a friend of yours was raped?" And they said, "What do your daughters say about abortion." He said, "I'm not going to talk to you about what my children think." That's what McCain should have done. And it tells you, you know, that he needs to be a little more careful, because he hasn't gotten that kind of question. I hate those questions but I hate the answers more.

KURTZ: But you do hate the questions?

CROWLEY: Well, I mean, I think they're -- You know, I think I'm one of those that...

KURTZ: They're looking for a cheap headline, let's face it. You say something, you know, we bring your family into it, we drag them in, you say something in politics, and we run and we get the laptop and write the story.


KLEIN: I think that in this case, you're dealing with a level of -- I mean, Republicans keep on tripping over this question. Dan Quayle, if you remember, made the same mistake. Now I'm really all in favor of the careless commission of truth, and that's what these guys are doing. If it's hypocrisy, if they wouldn't subject their own daughter to -- their own family to one of the most basic questions, which is life and death, then that's something that we probably should know.

CROWLEY: McCain's answer was it would be her decision. And she's 14 or 15 or something. That's what got me. I mean, it wasn't the, you know, the...

KLEIN: Well, family meeting. We're going to have a family meeting. We'll discuss it. It will be her decision.

CROWLEY: Of course, you would.

KALB: I want to bring all of you back to the question of the media, not what the family might say and so forth. McCain, pro-life and so forth. Seems to me to be a fair question if you give him the extreme test about, If your daughter became pregnant, et cetera. That's within the realm, it seems to me, of the execution of a policy. It is not -- It is not an invasion of privacy of the sort having nothing to do with stated positions that he has taken.

KLEIN: But I also think part of that is fair play, as Bill Bradley did on one of the Sunday shows when he was asked if he smoked marijuana. He shot right back at us, "Did you?" And I...

KURTZ: Saying (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Cokie Roberts.

KLEIN: And I think that if we're going to ask questions about abortion, they have a right to know whether we ever countenanced abortion or paid for an abortion or...


CROWLEY: Oh, no, no, no.

KALB: These guys are not -- Sam Donaldson is not yet running for president.

KLEIN: But we are presenting -- we are presenting this issue to the public through the filter of our prejudices, and therefore, the public may have a right to know.

CROWLEY: Abortion is an issue whereas, you know, whether or not he smoked marijuana, to me, is a personal question, whereas abortion is an issue that is out there about which they have taken a stand. So I see a fundamental difference between those two questions.

KLEIN: And I see a fair amount of bias reporting on the subject of abortion by reporters who do not announce their prejudices.

KALB: I think -- Roger.

SIMON: I'm from the school of journalism that says the only bad question is the one you don't ask. Now it makes me wince when Bradley is asked, did he ever cry during a basketball game or after a basketball game? But get it out there. If the question is dumb, then the candidate can knock it out of the park. He can question the questioner.

KLEIN: That's exactly...

SIMON: He can do whatever he wants. That's not the same thing as saying we have to answer the question of the candidate.

KLEIN: That's right.

KURTZ: Let me just move to another subject before it gets away from us. Alan Keyes, I think, provided a lot of entertainment fodder for the press because of his colorful style, to say the least. Suddenly, he finishes third in the Iowa caucuses, the polls that you can't stop yourself from looking at show him doing a little bit better. Are we now taking him semi-seriously or is he still entertainment, Roger?

SIMON: He's still entertainment. I mean, he's -- It is...

KURTZ: Should he be?

SIMON: ... his wonderful ability to speak and to handle himself. His mosh pit answer was fantastic. As you probably know, the press room broke into applause as he made that answer during the debate because it was so cleverly done. But there is no serious chance of him becoming president of the United States.

KALB: What was the key phrase in the Watergate journalism? Follow the money.

KLEIN: Follow the money, yeah.

KALB: Alan Keyes gets 14 percent in Iowa, suddenly the media followed the polls. The fact is the media does indeed follow the polls to an extent that there is this very cause and effect relationship between the two. Keyes got good coverage before but now he's getting rather extensive coverage by contrast, follow the polls.

KURTZ: We'll have to hold it there. We'll come back with more discussion in just a moment. We'll look at the negative presidential campaign.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Joe Klein, when I read the stories of this campaign, I see McCain slam Bush on this or Bradley attack Gore on that, and I look at what they actually said, and it actually seems fairly mild by presidential campaign standards. Obviously, Bradley and gore got a little testy in recent days. Do we sort of lack the vocabulary for anything other than candidates body slamming each other?

KLEIN: Yeah, I think proportionality is very difficult to achieve in this kind of atmosphere. I mean, the people who write those kind of headlines obviously never covered a New York mayoral campaign. I mean, this has been pretty mild so far. The scandals like the McCain FCC letters, not much of a scandal. There hasn't been all that much evil about this.


KLEIN: No. In fact, this has been, number one, a surprisingly decorous campaign, and number two, a surprisingly substantive campaign, especially for a time when there are not great issues out there.

KALB: And we have seen that there is the shrinking voter. The polls are showing that many Americans are bored with the campaign of consequences that we have seen journalism embark on what I might call the language of warfare, onslaught, attacked, rated. You don't have words like challenge. There are no soft verbs anymore. You introduce combat explosive verbs and adverbs into the coverage to arouse a little passion.

CROWLEY: "Read me, hear me," you know, "Pay attention."

KALB: Bang, bang, bang.


KURTZ: But do you need to do that to get on the air in order to have a dramatic story.


KURTZ: OK. But what if you're fighting for one of those 22 minutes of air time on one of the broadcast numbers?

CROWLEY: Well, no, but I mean, you need to have some sort of -- You can't say, well, it's a fairly mild campaign and they're talking about substance and, you know, they're being nice to each other. I think -- Well, first of all, let me just say that I think there's a difference between an attack ad and a negative ad. I mean, the nomenclature is all mixed up.

KURTZ: Right.

CROWLEY: I mean, the negative ad, to me, is, you know...

KURTZ: "I think my opponent's tax cut is too large."

CROWLEY: Exactly. And suddenly...

KURTZ: Is that a vicious attack?

CROWLEY: ... oh, he's gone negative. Well, you know, but that's -- But the other candidates use it.

KALB: We're not talking ads here. We're talking headlines and verbs and report a story in print. And this is...

SIMON: All print reporters write for the front page, you know, TV reporters write for the top of the boom.

KLEIN: And there's a basic reality that has changed in the world. When we were kids way back when, it was politicians who were making the new world -- Kennedy, Nixon and so on. Now, it's the scientists, it's the doctors, it's the people who run companies, and that's reflected in the news space in newspapers and especially in magazines where lifestyle issues have exploded. And so it's much harder to get space, and the story has become something of a back water, I hate to say.

KURTZ: You're dangerously close to raising a question about why they have reporters here in New Hampshire.

KALB: Quick observation. Violence in television, very, very popular. And so to convey that, to continue that, there is the wordage of violence that is used in the stories. It sits right off television right into the language in the coverage.

CROWLEY: No, I think...

KLEIN: I remember seeing the coverage, you know, of the first -- of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign in '60 and being obsessed by it, and it was war then, too, I think.

SIMON: Sports, war, and theater have always been metaphors for politics...


SIMON: ... and coverage for a long time.

KURTZ: OK, I thank you all for a very interesting exchange. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Before we go, there's now evidence that Regis Philbin is more popular than the president of the United States. On Thursday night, his show, "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" drew an impressive 27 percent of the viewing audience. By the time President Clinton was well into his 90-minute State of the Union address, the audience share had dropped to eight percent. Now that's voting with your remote control.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Join us again tomorrow morning, 11:30 Eastern, for a special Sunday edition of RELIABLE SOURCES from here in New Hampshire. I'm Howard Kurtz.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields is right here next to me, has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, "CAPITAL GANG": I am, Howie. Thank you.

Howie, the full "CAPITAL GANG" is here in New Hampshire to preview Tuesday's Republican and Democratic presidential primaries. That and much, much more right here next on CNN.


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