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Reliable Sources

Joe Lockhart Discusses Bill Clinton's Press Coverage

Aired May 6, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The president's point man, Joe Lockhart, talks about Bill Clinton's press coverage, the White House scandals and life on the firing line.

A look at journalists risking their lives around the world.

And Rudy Giuliani's personal life: Have the media gone too far?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb. President Clinton has gotten kicked around quite a bit by the press during his tenure, but what a difference a year and a half makes.


HELEN THOMAS, UPI WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: What do you say to people who have said that you have lost all the moral authority to lead this nation?

KURTZ (voice-over): That was September 1998. And this was last weekend at the White House correspondents dinner in Washington, a standing ovation from a usually tough crowd and a joking apology from the president.

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now I know lately I haven't done a very good job at creating controversy, and I'm sorry for that. You all have so much less to report. I guess that's why you're covering and commenting on my mood, my quiet, contemplative mood.

KURTZ: And Mr. Clinton poked fun at himself in a film that's been replayed all over the airwaves.

CLINTON: If they send me the bill in its present form, I will sign it. OK, any questions? Helen?

THOMAS: Are you still here?

JOE LOCKHART, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The press showed something that I wasn't really sure of. They had a sense of humor and they appreciated the president's performance. It was pretty good.

KURTZ: A light moment after seven years of often tense relations between the president and the press: tough questions about Paula Jones, the fund-raising scandal and of course, the impeachment drama. During the Lewinsky scandal, the president avoided holding a solo news conference for almost an entire year.

But he's also expressed a peculiar fondness for journalists, as his time in the spotlight comes to an end.

CLINTON: Will I miss a lot of the things about this job? Yes, I'll even miss all of you, believe it or not.

KURTZ: With campaign 2000 under way, is the Fourth Estate also getting a bit nostalgic?

JOHN HARRIS, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Clinton always, for better or worse, always manages to be interesting and to keep himself at the center of events and news, for that matter, the center of controversy. And he never left people nodding off in their seats. And in part it's because he does have this theatrical ability. So far neither Bush nor Gore have displayed that.

KURTZ: And is the press going a little easier on the president because he's in his final months in office?

LOCKHART: Oh, I doubt it. I think the press wants a good story, and they don't sit and think about who we're going to be easy on, who we're going to be hard on. We could be at each other's throats at a moment's notice.


KURTZ: Bernie, what did you make of the festivities of that White House dinner?

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: A self-spoof is always kind of fun and I must admit that I chuckled. But the moment I chuckled, I found it suspect -- the chuckle, that is -- because it struck me after a while that this was presidential pandering to a media jury to begin with. I also had a feeling that he was playing out the media caricature of a presidential lame duck. It was the pursuit of total ingratiation with the media and it sort of bothered me a bit.

KURTZ: Well, he's only got a few months to benefit from that. But I was struck being at a book party the other day for a new book about the Starr investigation looking around the room, seeing authors, commentators, alumni, media hangers on, many of whom despise Bill Clinton but all whose careers have gotten a boost by writing about the Clinton controversies. So they miss him.

Well, we recently sat down with Joe Lockhart to talk about the pressures of dealing with the press.


KURTZ (voice-over): When he first succeeded Mike McCurry at the famous podium, Joe Lockhart had no time for on-the-job training. President Clinton was facing impeachment. LOCKHART: I think the public and the world will see this as a partisan effort to try to remove the president based on allegations that really have nothing to do with what the Constitution has talked about as an impeachable offense.

KURTZ: The president was spared removal from office but another crisis quickly surfaced, this one in Kosovo.

LOCKHART: This is a phased military campaign, a systematic assault on President Milosevic and the Serbian military.

KURTZ: In recent months, however, the media's attention has shifted to campaign 2000 and a 6-year-old boy from Cuba. But when Independent Counsel Robert Ray said he might bring charges against Mr. Clinton once the president leaves office, Lockhart was asked if his boss would accept a pardon.

LOCKHART: Why don't we change the subject. This is ridiculous speculation that most of you will ignore but some of you probably won't, and then I'll pay for it.

KURTZ: As the president's term winds down, Lockhart now finds himself playing to a half empty house.

LOCKHART: Since we are a small group today, I thought we'd go outside and sit on the law in a circle and do the briefing that way. So, come on, why don't we all go...


KURTZ: Joe Lockhart, welcome. We've got a full house here.

LOCKHART: Glad to be here.

KURTZ: When the president appeared before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, two of the four questions were about impeachment, and you had this to say: "These are purportedly reasonably intelligent people but I think it demonstrates just how isolated some newspaper editors are from the rest of the country." What's wrong with asking about a year-long ordeal that tore the country apart?

LOCKHART: Well, we spent a year on it and that was a year ago. And there's a lot of things going on in the world, a lot of things going on in this country. And you know, people and their questions reveal what it is they're interested in. The American public is interested in things that impact them. During this year-long process, they made it very clear they weren't interested in this, and it was something the journalists drove and the independent counsel drove. And I think it is indicative of how some in journalism continue to -- can only focus in on a very narrow issue and have lost touch in a large respect with their readers, with their constituents, because when I go around the country and I talk to people, nobody asks me that. I'm more likely to be asked what I think of "West Wing" than I am about the impeachment trial. KURTZ: Would you imply that it's the same indictment to the more recent reporting on investigation of missing White House e-mail, independent counsel's actions, privacy rule against the president...

LOCKHART: No, I actually think...

KURTZ: ... the Kathleen Willey case? Those are not legitimate stories?

LOCKHART: No, I think the working journalists in Washington have shown proper perspective on this e-mail -- on the e-mail story. I think they've shown proper perspective on the utterances of the independent counsel, the new independent counsel Mr. Ray, and some of the other issues. And I think they've put it in proper proportion. I don't get -- my briefings aren't dominated on this. My briefings are dominated on policy questions now, things that impact people's lives. But I think there is a small group of elite who, for whatever reason, just can't let go.

KALB: Well, I can't let go, OK...


KALB: ... until you said when you were asked about the president saying he wouldn't take a pardon...


KALB: ... and you said you wanted to change the subject.


KALB: But I want to bring it back to that subject.

LOCKHART: Well, let me tell you something first. I mean, you should watch the whole briefing because that was when I answered the question for the third time. The first two times I was asked the question, I said, no, he wouldn't.

KALB: He would not accept?

LOCKHART: Right. I said the president is not going to -- I was asked if he would pardon himself and I said no. And I was asked if he was going to ask. And I said he'd already addressed that and the vice president had already addressed that and I had nothing more to add.

KALB: Well, he said he had no interest in a pardon. But the question is: If a pardon were offered the president, would he accept it? Was the question you...

LOCKHART: This is the exact point I'm trying to make so I'm glad you asked. The public out there is interested in what they're doing here, whether it's on taxes, health care, things like getting Medicare prescription drugs. And you want to sit and parse each and every word. The president...

KALB: No, but I want to make...

LOCKHART: ... was very clear on this. He's not interested in a pardon. His chief of staff went on CNN and said it's off the table. There's nothing more to say on this.

KALB: You don't see any sort of loophole there?

LOCKHART: I don't.

KURTZ: I think it's fair to say that Bill Clinton was somewhat overshadowed in the media during the presidential primary season. In recent weeks, he has done interviews with Katie Couric, Dan Rather, Sam Donaldson, Peter Jennings, Greta Van Susteren on CNN's "BURDEN OF PROOF," MSNBC townhall meeting. Is there an effort on your part, the president's part to get him into the news, to use the media to get his proposals and his policies out there in the eighth year of his presidency?

LOCKHART: Well, there's definitely an interest on our part to have the president go out and try to build public support for his agenda. And you know, others will make judgments on how well we've done, but what I would suggest is go back and look at the State of the Union Address, look at the issues that the president laid out, whether it be gun safety legislation, prescription drugs for Medicare, minimum wage, a whole list of things that we've concentrated on. And now look at what Congress is debating and read the paper every day and look at the issues that they're talking about. These are the issues that the president put on the table.

And one of the ways that you build support is you go and you talk to the people. People watch television, they read newspapers, and there's a variety of ways to do that, and we try to do, you know, the right kind of mixture of each and every one.

KALB: Joe, when you come out and take your position at the White House press release and so forth, there are two groups that essentially tune in on you. That is what the president -- what you say on behalf of the president and your obligation to keep the American public informed. And sometimes they are in full conflict. How do you divide your sense of -- how shall I put it? Is integrity the right word there?

LOCKHART: Well, I think it's responsibility and it's a responsibility I take seriously. I think the people who have had the job before me take it seriously. And there really is -- we -- half of my job is to help build public support for what the president's trying to get done. I believe in what the president's trying to get done and very strongly. But the other half of my job is to make sure the public is informed, that their rights are guarded. And, frankly, when they come in to tension is less often than you think. I think that there are times, you know, there are specific cases where there might be something where there's operational information that could put lives at risk, whether that's -- in a military sense -- that you need to withhold information until the people who are conducting the operation are safely home. But most days, those things don't come into conflict, not nearly as much as I think people think. KURTZ: We've got to take a quick break. And when we come back, we'll ask Joe Lockhart what he thinks of the press who cover him.



LOCKHART: I expect to be more specific about how specific we'll be some time in the near future.


KURTZ: White House press secretary Joe Lockhart doing his thing. Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

Joe, before we get to the White House press corps, just between us, did the president agree to be interviewed by Leonardo DiCaprio as part of a secret plot to embarrass ABC News?

LOCKHART: That's reminiscent of Connie Chung, just between us. Sure, he did. I mean, the president agreed to do it. Like most interviews, the news organization came to us with an idea. We talked about it for a long time. We wait until the very last minute to make a decision. We told them, they came, he did the interview. And then, you know, two weeks of nonsense ensued.

KURTZ: Right.

KALB: What did you think of the questions?

LOCKHART: The questions?

KALB: Yeah, that were put to the president.

LOCKHART: They were very -- they were good questions about an important issue: climate change. I wish there were more questions like that.

KURTZ: You get interrogated every day by the White House press corps on camera often shown on C-SPAN. What about the daily combat most ticks you off? What do you think, if anything you think is unfair? Do you think reporters are showing off for the cameras?

LOCKHART: Oh, you know, most -- a lot of -- there's a high performance quotient in that briefing on both sides. So I don't think that on a regular basis, too many people showing off. There are some people who come in with a point of view who, I don't believe are real journalists. They come in with an agenda and they like to make speeches. And, you know, there are days that I allow them to and there are days that I cut them off. But they aren't really questions, they're not really journalists. But the vast majority of the journalists I think are in there to try to see if they can knock me a little bit off script to get a little news. And if you look at it in the context of just one way they gather news, it all makes sense.

I think anyone who watched the briefing who thought, that's it, that's the only interaction between the White House and the press during a day would wonder how any stories get written. But I think they need to understand there are lots of other ways that they go and they get -- and from people other than me.

KALB: And therefore -- let me raise a question, nothing personal. Is the press secretary's job a useful job? I don't want you to hold a burial service for it but I raise the question because...

LOCKHART: No, it is. Of course, it is.

KALB: ... there are only so many other sources. A spokesman can usually deliver the top of the news, really. You've got to do your own private journalistic digging. And the risk, as you suggested a moment ago, a certain amount of journalistic vaudeville that takes place in the White House press room.

LOCKHART: Oh, I think there is. And I think, actually, you can sort of take it back to: Is it useful to have cameras in the briefing room? And for all of the problems that the cameras cause, for all the vaudeville, as you say -- I think you're right -- it is useful because anything that brings what we're doing in government closer to the people is positive. However distorted it sometimes looks, gets or seems, I think the briefings that if you're interested and you're motivated, you can turn on every day and see what your government thinks on any issue that the press wants to ask is something that we have to view as a positive.

KURTZ: But you're saying that the reporters are trying to knock you off script. The criticism of you, of course, would be that you're sticking to your talking points, and in many cases, trying to avoid making news or to avoid advancing the story, or maybe to avoid saying something that could be replayed endlessly...

LOCKHART: No, I think I go into the briefing every day with an open mind and willing to answer whatever questions come upon me. But you have to be careful. Television's a funny thing. You can be edited in a way that can make your words seem something other than what you really mean.

KALB: Has that happened to you?

LOCKHART: Oh, sure. People have used part of what I've said, and you have to be very careful...

KALB: Serious journalists are doing that?

LOCKHART: Serious journalists have done it and, you know, it is a problem. But if you know how to do the job and you know how to speak in a way that makes it very difficult to misinterpret your words, I think you're fine.

KALB: How often are you not off script, where you make a bit of independent news that really the White House never intended to say?

LOCKHART: Hopefully not very often. I think, you know, we go in and I am well briefed by an army of people in the White House on anywhere between 15 and 5 issues a day. So I know what -- I know where we are, I know where we are in the process on most issues. And it's just a matter of articulating it in a way that both provides information to the journalists thereby the public. And also, you know, we do try to provide information that will actually build support for the issues and the agenda of the president.

KURTZ: President Clinton in the last few weeks has taken a couple of whacks at George W. Bush. Do you plan to criticize the Republican nominee as well when his name comes up at the briefings?

LOCKHART: Well, that's a mixed question, particularly Governor Bush has taken a few whacks at the president. And I think when he criticizes an administration policy, when he criticizes the president, I think he's fair game. I think, as a gratuitous way to lend my voice to the campaign, that's probably not appropriate.

KURTZ: But you coordinate with Al Gore's campaign to make sure that the president is not saying something completely different than his vice president on campaign type stories.

LOCKHART: Not really. I don't talk to them very often, and as, you know, as a way to make sure that I'm continuing to do my job and not a political job.

KALB: Now you said something a moment ago that you are up to date on most issues. So my question would be: Where are you kept in the dark?


KALB: Have you found instances where you were indeed kept in the dark?

LOCKHART: I haven't found an instance since I've been the press secretary on an important issue where I've been deliberately kept in the dark. And that was part of what I said was important to me before I took the job. And they had -- everyone who made that promise to me has delivered. There are so many things going on in our government, though, and it is absolutely impossible to keep up with everything. And where you create problems for yourself is in an attempt not to look like you don't know what, you know, what's going on, you kind of make the answer up as you go along. That's the biggest temptation. And the thing you learn as you go on that it's a lot easier to just say you don't know and go find out than to spend three days explaining something that you had no idea what you were talking about.

KURTZ: Joe, George Stephanopoulos wrote a book, DeeDee Myers and Paul Begala became TV stars. What's your post White House exit strategy plans?

LOCKHART: Oh, I wish I had time to work it out. I have no intention of writing a book. I think enough books have been written about the presidential process.

KURTZ: Could we see you on the talk show circuit? LOCKHART: Who knows? I mean, if this seats open next year, who knows. But I think, you know, there's too much -- going back to the book, there's too much made in this town about the process, who does what and how they do and what their motivation is, and too little focus on what gets done. So you know, it would certainly be my hope that the people who come out of this administration writing the books are the Gene Sperling, so the economic adviser, and the Bruce Reed, the domestic policy adviser, about what we've done for the country and what the challenges of the country, and people like me just decides to keep it to ourselves.

KURTZ: White House press secretary Joe Lockhart.

When we return, Bernie's "Back Page" on yet another deadly year for journalists around the world.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page" -- Bernie.

KALB: Let me borrow a line from the guide books. To stroll through Washington is to stroll through American history.


KALB (voice-over): Symbolized by its great monuments, this one for George Washington, for Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, FDR. But on the other side of the Potomac, a different type of monument, inscribed with names from all over the world, 1,369 names of journalists who died over the past two centuries while covering the news. A risky profession you might say.

THOMAS: Charles Coz (ph), Frank Power (ph).

KALB: It was World Press Freedom Day this past Wednesday and all these names immortalized on glass were read aloud at a sunrise ceremony at the Journalist Memorial established by the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Virginia.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vladimir Herzog (ph), Pat Sophon (ph).

KALB: Reporters' deaths are often lost in the headlines, but this past year alone, at least 40 reports lost their lives just doing their job. That's about twice as many as in 1998. And among them, Miles Tierney (ph) of the Associated Press TV News covering the civil war in Sierra Leone, the deadliest country for journalists in 1999. Tierney, shot January 10th last year when the car he was traveling in was hit by gunfire. He was 34.

In many cases, there were killings just to keep the truth suppressed.

JOE URSCHEL, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE NEWSEUM: How did these men and women die? Murder -- not accidents, not bad luck -- is the single leading cause of journalists' death on assignment. KALB: And what made 1999 so deadly for the press? A tragically easy answer: the abundance of armed conflict. Look at Chechnya and Kosovo and Sub Saharan African and East Timor, all that shooting plus media repression. But the story doesn't end there. The organization known as Reporters Without Borders says journalists are also being detained in the Middle East, muzzled in Cuba, threatened in Brazil and Bangladesh, hunted by armed guerillas in Colombia and jailed in harsh conditions in Myanmar (ph). And that's not the complete list.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Joe Alex Morris Jr. (ph), Hussain Safave (ph).

KALB: All these journalistic casualties, their last bylines glittering in the sun.


KALB: And one final note. The Freedom Forum says it built the Journalist Memorial with lots of blank panels. You don't have to ask why.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Some notes in the world of media news when we return.


KURTZ: Before we go, a couple of notes from the world of media news. It began with a blurry photograph in "The New York Post," "Rudy's Mystery Brunch Pal is Upper East Side Divorcee." The story, co-authored by gossip monger Richard Johnson, identified Mayor Giuliani's dining partner as one Judith Nathan, and open the flood gates for the city hall press corps.


MAYOR RUDY GIULIANI (R), NEW YORK: She's a good friend, a very good friend. And beyond that, you can ask me questions and that's exactly what I'm going to say.

I'm not annoyed for me because this is the job that I have and the life that I decided to have. I am annoyed that people would invade the privacy of people who are not in that life and haven't made that choice.


KURTZ: That produced four pages of blowout coverage in the "Daily News," a more modest box in "The New York Times," and picked up by newspapers around the country. The flap, coming just days after Giuliani was diagnosed with prostate cancer, raises questions about whether the tabloids have stepped over the line in their coverage of Giuliani's Senate campaign. This, after considerable coverage of the mayor's wife, Donna Hanover, who no longer appears with him in public. And here we thought Hillary Clinton's marriage would be getting all the attention. 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, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala joins THE GANG. A look at Gore versus Bush on Social Security reform and gun control. We'll look at the vice president on the attack strategy and much more right here next on CNN.



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