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Reliable Sources

Will the Media Turn Its Back on John McCain?

Aired February 20, 2000 - 11:30 a.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Bush wins big in South Carolina: Did the media lose along with John McCain? Was the coverage fair? Or will the pundits rush to declare the race over?

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

Minutes after the polls closed in South Carolina, the network prognosticators filled the screen to tell us what it all meant, and everyone, it seemed, had an opinion.



MARY MATALIN, CO-HOST, CNN CROSSFIRE: The most important thing that he showed tonight is what he needed to show, was that he could get after that whooping in New Hampshire.



FRED BARNES, FOX ANALYST: I would guess that there's going to some momentum for Bush from this.



PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, MSNBC "EQUAL TIME": Well, he finally showed, first, he could close the deal.



KATE O'BEIRNE, CNN "CAPITAL GANG": I think a significant win by George Bush in South Carolina will probably evaporate the lead that John McCain enjoys in Michigan.



BARNES: I suspect Bush, you have to install him as the favorite there now.


KURTZ (voice-over): And plenty of commentators said McCain's days may be numbered.


WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The question is, you know, McCain had an effort. He had some advantages there. He didn't make it. He's lost the momentum.



TIM RUSSERT, HOST, NBC "MEET THE PRESS": He's got to do better than just one out of four Republicans in Michigan or his campaign is over.



CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, "WASHINGTON POST": I think McCain has to have a win in Michigan or he's finished.



TONY BLANKLEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think it's not only an uphill battle for McCain, but almost straight uphill.


KURTZ: But are the media now to quick to boost Bush or bury McCain, and are journalists depressed that the maverick from Arizona who adorned all the news magazine covers just two weeks ago is now a loser?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now from North Charleston, South Carolina, Roger Simon. She's political correspondent for "U.S. News & World Report." Walter Shapiro, political columnist for "USA Today" is in Detroit, where voters will be casting their ballots in Michigan's Republican primary on Tuesday. And here in Washington, Susan Feeney, political correspondent for the "Dallas Morning News." Welcome.

Walter Shapiro, is much of the press secretly or not so secretly disappointed that Bush won, by which I mean are many journalists for John McCain, whether they love the guy or not, because he's a better story and a close race is a better story?

WALTER SHAPIRO, "USA TODAY": Yes, the honest answer is true. It's -- we were talking about taxidermy as an alternate career when the McCain group landed in Detroit last night. They were -- the reports with McCain were depressed. And they're -- and it is the story line. And it is the fact that we're in a business where we really hate the idea that -- that the house always wins, that you can't fight city hall, that favorites always are anointed. And that for those of us who really care about the character of campaigns, the idea that negative ads, which the onslaught that Bush ran in South Carolina will be rewarded and that this will be the playbook for every future campaign.

So yes, we're depressed.

KURTZ: OK, we'll come back to the question of negative ads, but let me turn now to Roger Simon. Saturday's front pages, if you take a look, "New York Times," big picture of McCain; "Washington Post," big picture of McCain, little picture of Bush. You certainly didn't have the impression from the media coverage in the final days that we were heading for an 11-point victory for Bush. Did the press kind of miss the story here?

ROGER SIMON, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": Well, we're not very good at the prediction business. We shouldn't be. We're supposed in the analysis business.

McCain was the story. His huge upset victory in New Hampshire made for a dramatic showdown here, to drag out every cliche in the world, and the press clearly is just more interested in McCain. He gives the more access and he seems to be a more interesting candidate.

BERNARD KALB, CNN RELIABLE SOURCES: Susan, let me get away from Walter Shapiro's psychiatric examination in journalism. In South Carolina, did the media surrender to Bush's accusations against McCain? That is to say, did the media become a kind of stenographer for the Bush attacks on McCain without checking out the validity of the accusations.

SUSAN FEENEY, "DALLAS MORNING NEWS": I think that's going a bit too far. One of the things that was inevitably going to happen is that once John McCain became at the top of his game in New Hampshire, that he would get more scrutiny. The governor largely ignored John McCain in New Hampshire. It was inevitable that the tension would focus there.

One of the faults of the media, I think, is it's very difficult for us to pick up on the sub rosa things that are going on, and that used to be ads and that used to be radio and mailings. And now it's also the Internet. I think it's a fault that we need to learn how to look beyond just what's in front of our face.

KALB: But no, I want to come back to my question. Did the media let the attacks go without examination? In other words, did it (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to become an ally of...

FEENEY: No, I don't think so.

KALB: ... a co-conspirator, as it were.

FEENEY: No, no, I don't think so. I think people were all over when that sort of fringe veteran candidate, veteran got up and said that John McCain had abandoned his fellow veterans. I think that people were right in there, people were write in there writing about Bob Jones University and the other controversies.

But the governor spend a lot of money on a lot of television, and I would say that his message was out there and very strong, and it didn't much matter.

KURTZ: Walter Shapiro, let me back to your point about the negative ads by George W. Bush, because it seems to me that the -- what politicians call the "free media," which is what all of us do, was in some ways perhaps overwhelmed by the paid advertising, because McCain, as was reported every day endlessly, eight days before the voting, pulled all his negative ads, went only positive.

And yet in the exit polls, more people -- by 43 to 35 percent -- ran a more negative campaign. So I'm wondering if what we reported just sort of disappeared into the ether.

SHAPIRO: I think to some extent it did. I think one of the real problems was that the Bush negative ads kept talking about McCain running a negative campaign even when McCain was running only positive spots in South Carolina? And I also think the press in South Carolina, in their old-fashioned version of equivalence, erred and played into Bush's hands by running -- running articles on the front page -- I was one in the "Courier Post" in Charleston -- that likened the fact that they both received special interest contributions when the magnitude of Bush's backing by the Republican establishment and the lobbyist community in a dollar amount is a four or five or 10 to one factor.

And all of this played into the notion that the Bush charges that McCain was a fake reformer and a hypocrite had validity.

And we know many things about McCain, and he's certainly not a saint. But we also know that no man in the United States Senate is hated more by people like Mitch McConnell, Republicans who really want to maintain the status quo on anything goes fund raising.

KALB: Roger, let me raise a question about a story that seems to be missing that the media has dropped of the coverage in South Carolina. The reports are showing that according to the polls out of South Carolina, only 1 percent of the vote was black. That is only 1 percent of the black eligible vote turned out, although black voters make up about 25 percent of the electorate.

Now I saw references to this in a paragraph or two in some of the stories. But it seems to me this is a front-page story, when only 1 percent of an American community turns out to participate in this election. And there are reports that some of the polling booths in black neighborhoods were closed. SIMON: Well, don't forget we're talking about a Republican primary. There's no great tradition of black people voting in Republican primaries in South Carolina.

KALB: But it was wide-open.

SIMON: Besides...

KALB: It was wide-open.

SIMON: Well, we also had the -- but we also had two candidates, both of whom were silent on -- on the issue of flying the Confederate flag over the statehouse here, which means they gave it tacit support. I don't think either one of them was going to get a lot of support in the black community. And quite frankly, it's going to be an issue that's going to come back and hurt whoever the Republican nominee.

KALB: Forget the question -- just a quick follow-up, Howie. Forget the question of support. Isn't that a media responsibility to take a look at this story?

SIMON: About low black voter turnout in South Carolina for a Republican primary? I mean, the issue of too few voting places in black neighborhoods and the federal suit and the resolution of the federal suit was front-page news down here. And I think it was mentioned in some of the national press. But I'm not sure it's a huge story in terms of the dynamics of the campaign.

KURTZ: Susan, exit polls. We go through this every primary vote. The -- the networks again held back the exit polls projecting a Bush victory until the voting was over at 7:00 p.m. "," as it did in New Hampshire, put it out in the afternoon.

I'm wondering if it even matters anymore what the networks do, because the Internet is an alternative means of delivery for this hot information.

FEENEY: Absolutely. Like with any information, it's hard to bottle it up. When something exists, it gets out.

But to be fair, I watched the hour of network news between 6:00 and 7:00, and you could tell. There no stories in the sense of -- there were no stories talking about John McCain and how well he campaigned. People who knew it, you could tell from the overall tone it was all about what Bush needed to do to come back. So it's a fairly thin veil as well in the national media.

KURTZ: OK, Walter, we're running a little short on time, but you made reference to this earlier. The conventional wisdom a year ago was that this was going to be a Bush-Gore election. A lot of journalists thought that would be very boring.

I wonder if we're now going back toward that, and if journalists, one of the reasons they seem to be propelling McCain is that they fear the front-runners will indeed seize the nominations and leave all of us with a not terribly exciting race. SHAPIRO: I think it's for more idealistic reasons. I think there's a realistic fear that a Gore-Bush race will be all soft money, negative ads, starting in mid-March and continuing all the way through the election: sort of Schumer versus D'Amato or Hillary versus Giuliani writ large on a national scale.

And I think for all of us who cover politics for a living, we care -- we care about the quality of the public debate. And I think on a level we really believe that in a two-front-runner, two organization-man race, the quality of the debate will be very shrill, very strident, and we will have a country filled with buyer's remorse by November.

KURTZ: OK. We've got to get a break, and when we come back, we'll talk about the blur of primaries coming up and how the press manages -- will manage to cover those. But first, a look at how newspapers across the country reported last night's results.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Susan Feeney, South Carolina yesterday. Michigan and -- what?

FEENEY: Arizona.

KURTZ: Arizona on Tuesday. North Dakota, Washington and what's the next one?

FEENEY: Virginia.

KURTZ: Virginia the following. And then comes Super Tuesday, March 7th, New York, California, Ohio. I've lost the rest of the list.

FEENEY: You can't even count.

KURTZ: How does the press cover this blur of primaries and will the coverage inevitably become all polls, tactics and gaffes?

FEENEY: Boy, I hope not. There are -- technically speaking, there are two ways in which this is done: man to man endzone. You put reporters on the planes with the candidates and fly around to three or four states of how many a day, or you also in addition, or separately, can have reporters in each of the places, reporters who are trying to assess what's going on in that state and writing about like, say, New York or California and those places as races individually.

KURTZ: And here I though only guy reporters use sports analogies.

FEENEY: I know.

KURTZ: Endzone versus man to man. Roger Simon, what we often call, looking at South Carolina and its effect on Michigan and Arizona, what we often call the bump, the boost, the big mo -- does the media play a big role in that? I mean, George W. Bush is going to be on the covers of "TIME" and "Newsweek" as a result of winning South Carolina. How much of a boost does that give him in media terms?

SIMON: In media terms, it's a huge bump. I think we are the keepers of the bump. We are the inventors of the bump. We are the only people who care about the bump.

KURTZ: It's an awesome responsibility, though.

SIMON: And because we -- awesome. It's crushing. And because we do make these decisions, then it filters down to the public. I mean, it does matter who's on the cover of the news magazines. It does matter who gets the TV time. It does matter how the talking heads talk about the race.

But in ordinary terms, I don't think a lot of people in Michigan were glued to their TV sets to see how South Carolina voted. I don't think many people in Michigan care how South Carolina voted. But the media cares a lot.

KALB: Roger, you talked about the value of the bump, but the bump that he got in New Hampshire, McCain, didn't help with all the covers on the magazines. But I want to switch to something else, Walter, and that has to do with what I would call "retrospective clairvoyance" on the part of the media.

After the fact, the media is right in there with its political autopsies. It's what he did wrong and what he did right and why McCain went down in flames in South Carolina, et cetera. Is this part of the psychology of journalists to display this sort of analytical courage after the fact?

SHAPIRO: I think there's some analytical courage after the fact, Bernie. And I think there's also a part of the press pack, that we are all sort of closet campaign consultants, and that one of the reasons we get caught up too much in strategy is that we often think like political handlers, even through our responsibilities are different.

But I want to come back to the pump, because I think that one important factor that really benefits McCain after a very bad drubbing in South Carolina, and that is this headline, which I'd like to hold up in the combined "Detroit Free Press," "Detroit News" today, the paper that most Michiganders who will vote, particularly in the eastern part of the state, will see.

Note the fact that in the second -- the bottom deck, the message for Michigan is race is still dead heat. In other words, the message is that rather than South Carolina making Michigan moot and that now all momentum is Bush's way, the message, because there was a "Detroit News" poll showing the race 40 to 38, within the statistical margin of error, the message is that the Michigan primary on Tuesday is pivotally important, and go out and vote because you can make a difference.

And I think that's the best thing that could happen to McCain tactically in terms of press coverage...


SHAPIRO: ... the morning after a bad defeat.

KURTZ: Roger, is there going to be an irresistible temptation now on the part of the pundits in the next 48 hours to somehow look into their crystal balls and declare this race over, and in the process take the focus off the issues and the records of the candidates, which we all, you know, sit around in journalism seminars and say that that's what election coverage should be about.

SIMON: No. Actually, I think the press doesn't want the race to be over. And I don't think there's any real ideological reason for it. We just like good races. I don't think we want it to get down to two people early.

We don't like huge multicandidate fields, because that's confusing and hard to cover all those people. But I think most people in the press at a gut level would like to see McCain/Bush and Bradley/Gore go on for a while.

KALB: Yes. So that -- so that McCain getting a beating in South Carolina, that has the effect of adrenalizing, so to speak, the media, because the race becomes even more intense: New Hampshire, South Carolina. What's going to happen in Michigan? There's a huge question mark over the landscape of America. That's exciting for the media.

FEENEY: Well, it's really. And certainly, how many months ago I don't think we would have predicted how pivotal Michigan would be. That's certainly true that it elevates the importance of this. But it is -- it is, as we've had some pundits say, it is tough for John McCain. And also that's why it pivotal. If George Bush can win there again, it's just -- it's a very difficult thing for him to spring back, I think.

KURTZ: Susan, hold that thought and more of our discussion when we return.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Roger Simon in South Carolina, what about what I would call "the heads will roll" school of journalism? Bernie alluded to this earlier.

After Bush got clobbered in New Hampshire, there were actual stories with actual pictures of his advisers saying, boy, were these guys bozos and clowns, what a terrible campaign they've run.

Last night, McCain loses by a big margin in South Carolina, and I hear pundit after pundit come on the air say, boy, did they make a lot of mistakes? They shouldn't have done that ad comparing Bush to Clinton. It was a backlash against McCain. Do we have an irresistible urge to sort of take political advisers out to the woodshed? SIMON: Well, we tend to elevate political advisers far too high when things are going well, and we knock them off their pedestals far too quickly when things are going poorly. It's a strange phenomenon, considering how we're supposed to be paying to attention to the candidates, that we always think that the candidates are really not quite bright enough to run the campaigns and there must be some mysterious force behind them.

You know, there's another dynamic working on the McCain campaign. I don't think you're going to see a lot of stories about heads rolling in the McCain, because on a personal level a lot of people in the media like the McCain staff a lot more than they like the Bush staff. And so there's a tendency not to do those stories, even though the victory is just as crushing -- I mean, sorry, the defeat for John McCain is just as crushing here as it was for Bush in New Hampshire.

KALB: Walter, this is a program that scrutinizes the media. And you are a reportorial maven. What is the most under-reported story of this campaign, given the fact that one writes 800 words and get a minute and a half on television? Or do you give the media high grades in the way this is covered? Most under-reported?

SHAPIRO: I think the most under-reported story is making voters aware of how much of a blur they're going to be voting in between now and March 7. I really think the way that both parties moved up all the primaries for tactical purposes, to anoint the front-runner and to make money the determinant of who's the nominee -- not terribly successfully, I might ad -- is the biggest story right now, because if we -- unlike New Hampshire and South Carolina, we are now going to have primaries where the voters have no idea that their votes are that significant. And they will be making decisions based on very fleeting images, very little contact with the candidates.

And I think what -- the next two weeks is going to be one of the worst two weeks in American politics in terms of coverage, because it's impossible to cover in races in 15 states simultaneously.

KURTZ: Susan, let's turn to the question of media access. After Vice President Gore won Iowa and New Hampshire, he really shut down the press' access. He has held a grand total of one press availability, as it's called, in the last month because he wants to control the message and he feels that he's in a commanding position against Bradley.

If Bush now believe that he's back in the front-runner seat -- you work for a Texas newspaper -- are we likely to see much more -- are we likely to see fewer interviews on the bus? Remember how we was copying McCain?


KURTZ: And less access for the traveling press?

FEENEY: Oh, I think that's a huge danger. Of course, the governor was not very accessible to us leading up to New Hampshire. And then when he took such a drubbing, suddenly we saw giving interviews, talking to reporters, moving bus interviews, because it worked so well for John McCain and he needed to bring himself out.

Well, there's no reason to think that will continue long term. I hope that we will see it, and I hope that he gets a sense, as the McCain has shown, that you're always better off telling your side to us than not telling us.

KURTZ: This is a paid political ad for more access for reporters?

FEENEY: Absolutely. I can be for that.

KURTZ: But you've covered campaigns where candidates have...

FEENEY: Oh, absolutely. In fact...

KURTZ: ... pushed them behind the rope lines.

FEENEY: Oh, we've covered many that way. One of the most famous was in 1988 in the Bush campaign where he was not available to us. It was the fall. He was very far ahead. And two reporters, led by David Hoffman (ph) of The Washington Post, brought electronic bull horns to try to get questions to the then vice president.

KALB: Susan, you're saying that access could lead to a collapse of reportorial objectivity. That's a shocking, shocking though.

FEENEY: You know, bias is very simple. Our bias is, when we...

KALB: Worn on your sleeve?

FEENEY: Well, my bias is I want people when I ask them questions to answer them. It's not political. It's just very simple. We've come such a long way when it's a big deal that candidates answer our questions.

KURTZ: Walter, we have about 30 seconds. I've read many articles in the last 18 days about this South Carolina contest, suggesting that this was not just simply a race between George W. and John McCain, but it was really a battle for the soul of the Republican Party. Now, is that the kind of hype and exaggeration that journalists like to engage in to sort of raise the stakes of what they were covering or was there some substance behind that?

SHAPIRO: I think there is some substance behind it. I think there's also some hyperbole. The substance is that John McCain has come up with a new packaging, a new notion of the Republican Party, a throwback to Teddy Roosevelt, the Reform Party.

Bush has -- is now running much more as a traditional Bob Dole, his father Republican candidate: move to the right in the primaries, go to Bob Jones University. And I think there's a real cleavage in the Republican Party. And I think whoever wins, the Republican Party will not -- that this will be seen as a major turning point.

KURTZ: OK. But your view is only modest amounts of media hype?


KURTZ: We've got to end it there. Walter Shapiro, sorry. Roger Simon, Susan Feeney, thanks very much for joining us. Bernie and I will be back with a final word in just a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Bernie, our guests seemed to agree that the press does not want this race to be over otherwise they face the prospect perhaps of having to go on food stamps after the March 7th primaries, and therefore would be -- have an interest, a professional self-interest in elevating John McCain.

But I wonder, once a candidate is seen as fading, when was last time you saw Bill Bradley on TV in the Democratic side. It seems to me that the press may try to keep the excitement alive, but if one -- if a front-runner has a commanding position, that's awfully hard to do.

KALB: Howie, you used the word "fading." It's a bit premature. Let me paraphrase Mark Twain in this particular context: Reports of John McCain's political death are vastly exaggerated. There's a race under way. It is still under way, and we've all agree in the past half hour or so of the criticality and the pivotal role of Michigan. So it's tough to let it go.

But let me ask you one question before we clear out: Whatever happened to the candidacy of Pat Buchanan?

KURTZ: Well, I think that Pat Buchanan and other possible third- party candidates may ride to the media as rescue, and that they may come back if in fact this ends up as a Bush-Gore race, give us something else to write it.

Pat Buchanan, as anyone who watches CNN knows, has a way of not ever completely fading away. So I predict he'll be back.

Bernard Kalb, thanks.

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.

Stay tuned for LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER, which begins right now.


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