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Reliable Sources

Television and Elian: The Long Goodbye; Are the Media Crusading Against Capital Punishment?

Aired July 1, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Death covered live: Are the media crusading against capital punishment and using the issue to badger George W. Bush, or just reporting on an emotional debate?

And television and Elian: the long goodbye.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Bernard Kalb is with us this week from Boston.

First up, the death penalty, presidential politics and the press.


BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: About two hours from now...



DAN RATHER, TELEVISION ANCHOR: Gary Graham is to die by injection...



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... in the state of Texas.


KURTZ: When Gary Graham was put to death in Texas last week, hordes of reporters flocked to Huntsville. It was wall to wall on cable, top of the news for the broadcast networks.

Headlines blared. Columnists opined. And pundits pontificated. For much of the media, this was a story not just about capital punishment, but about the presidential campaign.


RATHER: Governor George Bush in the spotlight and on the spot in the campaign 2000 death penalty debate. (END VIDEO CLIP)


TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR: This will not be the last that we've heard about Texas institutions and presidential politics.


KURTZ: Other death penalty cases in Texas have also come under the media microscope, most notable the execution of convicted killer Karla Faye Tucker, who even appeared on "LARRY KING LIVE" while trying to win a reprieve. That case sparked heavy protest and plenty of coverage.

Bush also delayed the execution of a convicted murderer to allow for the use of DNA testing. But he has defended the system in which 136 executions have taken place under his watch.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: This is a responsibility I take very seriously because the final determination of innocence or guilt is among the most profound decisions a governor can make.


KURTZ: The capital punishment debate heated up in January when a "Chicago Tribune" investigation prompted Illinois Governor George Ryan to declare a moratorium on the death penalty in his state. Reporters have turned up the heat on Governor Bush ever since. And with 12 executions scheduled in Texas before Election Day, Bush's handling of the issue will no doubt stay in the media spotlight.

So is the press pushing an anti-death penalty agenda? Is the Republican presidential candidate simply a victim of media bias? Or are journalists simply providing critical coverage of a complicated issue?

Joining us now, Bill Kristol, editor and publisher of "The Weekly Standard," E.J. Dionne, syndicated columnist and a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Marjorie Williams, columnist for the "Washington Post" and a contributor to "Talk" magazine.


Bill Kristol, '88, Governor Michael Dukakis runs for president. His prison furlough policy, letting murderers out on weekends, becomes an issue. '92, Governor Bill Clinton runs, the execution of Ricky Ray Rector (ph), the mentally impaired murderer, also gets a lot of press attention.

Now Bush, governor, the death penalty. Despite this history, do you believe that the media are pushing some sort of ideological agenda here with this coverage? WILLIAM KRISTOL, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Ricky Ray Rector's execution by Bill Clinton, a mentally retarded man who put aside his last piece of pie so he could come back to get it later, this was the pie he was given before he was executed, got no press attention to speak of, not on the front page of the "Washington Post," not on the front page of the "New York Times," barely mentioned on the network news.

He interrupts his campaign in New Hampshire to go home and execute the man. And no one cares about it.

KURTZ: And the reason you - the contrast with Governor Bush you believe is...

KRISTOL: Well, look, I don't think there's a media crusade here to do in Governor Bush. The media, most elite media, are probably against the death penalty.

But look, this is not going to be a big issue in this election for one reason. The presidential candidates drive the issue agenda in elections. And there's no difference between Al Gore and George Bush on this.

And that's why this pat week there was an execution, another execution in Texas. I didn't notice it on the network news. I didn't notice it anywhere, in the "Washington Post" or the "New York Times."

There was this one admittedly controversial execution. And maybe it was - I don't know the details. Maybe it was legitimate to criticize it. But as an ongoing issue, I don't see it.

I think there will be more executions of people who are undoubted murderers. And Al Gore is not going to criticize George Bush on it.

KURTZ: Marjorie Williams, do you think the media's recent pretty heavy focus on the death penalty as an issue is a legitimate issue or some kind of media invention?

MARJORIE WILLIAMS, COLUMNIST, "WASHINGTON POST": I think a little bit of both actually. I'm inclined to think that if you look at the press coverage of this, you do have to say that the people are not out there clamoring for more coverage of the death penalty.

Polls still show that while support has receded some perhaps as a result of all this coverage, a great majority believes in the death penalty in this country. But...

KURTZ: But should journalists only cover issues that people are clamoring to have covered?

WILLIAMS: ... Well, that's my point. I think it's an extremely legitimate issue to examine, given that Texas has the most efficient capital punishment system in America, shall we say and given very serious doubts about the fairness of the process in Texas.

KURTZ: Bernie. BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: E.J., so far as interest in this campaign has concerned, it's less than flat. It's - what's the word - it's concave. On the Richter Scale, it's about minus 100.

You're in the hot days of summer. The summer doldrums are at work. And death has its own eerie spookiness and its eerie sex appeal.

It's very difficult when no particular issues have grabbed hold of the public in the most dramatic of ways for the death story to move in. It is filling a vacuum. And it seems to me - I'd like to hear what you think, E.J. - it seems to me that the press has pounced on this thing because it has a very, very different kind of vibration really to fill the vacuum.

E.J. DIONNE, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, actually, I think the person who did more to shove this story before the American public is not anybody in the press, it's Governor Ryan of Illinois. When Governor Ryan, a death penalty supporter, said, "I don't trust this system. I think some innocent people might be getting killed. In any event, I don't want to take the chance, so I'm having a moratorium," press coverage of this issue increased substantially.

Your able research staff did a count for me in major newspapers - Washington, Boston, Dallas, L.A., Phoenix. And what we found is that the number after Governor Ryan's action went up to over 1,400 from about 1,000. That's point one.

Point two is I think Governor Bush is being examined on this because a lot of the recent studies that have been done on problems with people not getting adequate representation and the like have focused on Texas. In fairness to him, not just Texas, but Texas because it has so many executions, plays a major role in this story.

And therefore, for the same reason as Howie suggested that Governor Dukakis came under fire on the prison furlough problem - and the press paid a whole lot of attention to that - so I think it's reasonable for the press to go to Texas and look at the death penalty.

KALB: E.J., let me just follow up on this particular point. I raised the issue of the summer doldrums. Now Governor Ryan may have gotten a paragraph or two or a front page story or two. But it seems to me that in the context of June, July, August with the lack of interest in this particular campaign, the press seizing on those issues it seems to me is somehow to compensate for the vacuum of excitement.

DIONNE: I guess I disagree. I mean, if you go back to Governor Ryan, Governor Ryan got a lot of front page coverage all over the country. It was a big deal, what he did.

And it came after a period in which death penalty opponents had put out all these studies. I think opponents of death penalty learned from conservative groups in the last decade that if you do pointed studies that raise interesting questions, you can get coverage in the press. Governor Ryan came right out of that, and right out of the "Chicago Tribune" stories, which got a lot of attention. And I think that's what kicked this off.

And then with Governor Bush running for president, it was a natural fit. So I don't think it was a conspiracy. And I don't think it's the issue doldrums because the press has had plenty to cover, especially if it likes Buddhist temples in recent weeks.

KURTZ: Well, Bill Kristol, why should the media examination of Governor Bush's record on the death penalty, which after all has the added benefit if you will of being a dramatic life-and-death issue, be viewed any differently from looking at his environmental record, his record on healthcare or housing? I mean, isn't this what the media do when a governor who wasn't previously well known to the country suddenly emerges in the presidential spotlight?

KRISTOL: Sure. And I think there's no problem with looking at his record on the death penalty. And he executed someone else this week. Governor Carnahan of Missouri executed someone this week. There has not been much coverage of every routine execution.

KURTZ: But you feel there's a liberal...


KURTZ: ... tilt to the coverage.

KRISTOL: ... Oh, sure. I mean, look, if you just look at the articles on the fellow who was - what's his name, the guy that allegedly might have been innocent of the murder - you could read stories after stories about him and not know that within the week of the murder that he did or didn't do, he had brutally assaulted, violently raped, and robbed all kinds of people. And you just didn't get much of a sense of what the context of this was.

So I do think there's been a certain amount of liberal bias. But that does not mean that that is not a totally legitimate debate on the death penalty to be had. It doesn't mean, as E.J. says, that Governor Ryan's actions aren't important. And it may mean that - look, I have no problem with the media focusing on Governor Bush's duties as governor. And one of those duties has been - which he has embraced - carrying out Texas' death penalty.


KRISTOL: But I just want to make this prediction. It's not like Dukakis and the furlough because that was a huge, that was a difference between Dukakis and Bush.

KURTZ: Right.

KRISTOL: Bush said, "I wouldn't do this." Dukakis said - the Dukakis furlough story was not a big story when it was only media driven. The "Lawrence Eagle" I think it's called got a Pulitzer. But it was not picked up by the national press until Lee Atwater made it an issue. And just as an analytical matter for students of the media like yourself, I do not believe the media can drive a story in a presidential campaign.

KURTZ: Let me turn to Marjorie because I want to look at, presidential campaigns are in part about covering the character of the men who would lead the nation. And what better case than for a guy who eventually would have his finger on the nuclear button than looking at how he handles questions of life and death, questions of DNA evidence, questions of whether there is any reasonable doubt in the way these executions are carried out.

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. I think the argument for nominating a governor as state government is where the rubber meets the road in our political system. And the death penalty is arguably the gravest thing a state government can do.

I think in addition, it does - there is kind of character subtext to this debate bubbling, which is that the - you know, a question about Governor Bush is, is he someone who has thought through his policies, what he believes, down to the bottom? And his answers about the death penalty to date have seemed kind of pro forma. "I've looked at it. I have no doubts, period."

KURTZ: Bernie.

WILLIAMS: And - excuse me.

KALB: E.J., E.J....

DIONNE: Yeah, sir.

KALB: ... I was just going to say, E.J., I'd like to do some arithmetic on the last seven or eight minutes of our conversation and the cross-currents of opinion here. Is this segment going to end with the press being indicted for ginning up this issue because of an anti- conservative bias on the part of the so-called liberal press?

DIONNE: Well, I don't think so. Maybe Bill does...

KRISTOL: Only if I get the last (INAUDIBLE).


DIONNE: ... As Richard Nixon used to say, Bernie, I'm glad you asked that question because Bill is talking about this as the liberal press ginning it up. There is a magazine that has been running some very, very thoughtful pieces questioning the death penalty.

That magazine is "The National Review," probably the founding magazine of contemporary conservatism. I think one of the things that's happening here that is political is that there are a lot of Americans who are rethinking the death penalty.

The polls suggest that support for the death penalty has gone from about 80 percent in '94 to about two-thirds, 66 percent. Now that's a big change on an issue such as this. And I think some of that change is coming not from liberals but from conservatives, who for a variety of reasons including a dislike of big government and mistrust of the system in some ways, and in some cases for religious reasons, are saying, "Maybe this isn't such a good idea, and maybe with the crime rate coming down we can rethink our position."

If there is a political factor here, I don't think it's a liberal-conservative factor. I think it's a broader questioning of the death penalty going on in the country even though a majority still supports it.

KRISTOL: I agree that the death penalty is a legitimate subject for debate. We're going to publish a debate on the death penalty in the next month...

DIONNE: In the liberal "Weekly Standard."

KRISTOL: ... No and yes, (INAUDIBLE), but that's not the point. Marjorie made a very important point, which is it's a test...

KALB: What will be the point of view, Bill...

KRISTOL: ... It's a test - as a matter of the presidential race, the reason it's of interest is it's a test of Governor Bush's leadership, his seriousness, his responsibility. The only point I'd make on that is I would think you could look pretty hard for long articles about Governor Clinton's execution of the death penalty in Arkansas...

KALB: Could you, Bill, could...

KRISTOL: ... prior to 1992 as a test of his leadership credentials. I do think in that respect there's a sudden interest in Bush, a suspicion that he somehow isn't taking it as seriously as he should be. And it's a fair question to ask. But it wasn't asked about Bill Clinton in '92.

KALB: But Bill, can you give us some sort of a preview of how you see the governor coming out in that major piece that you're planning?

KRISTOL: We're just doing a big debate on the ethics of the death penalty as a whole, not on Bush's management of it.

KURTZ: We'll look forward to that. And coming up, the media say farewell to Elian Gonzalez.



You know, watching the cable coverage on Wednesday of the Elian Gonzalez departure was a surreal, almost O.J.-like experience. I mean, first you had President Clinton's news conference reduced to a box on the screen so we could watch the house where Elian was staying and the friends playing in the yard.

Finally, the family comes out. We get these long pictures of the car going down the highway. What did that remind you of? And finally, the plane sitting on the tarmac at Dulles Airport before it finally took off to Cuba. What did you make of that?

WILLIAMS: Well, even some of the announcers saying, "Is it a Bronco? I don't want to call it a Bronco." But I sort of liked the symmetry of the car thing. I think the media has to have its long goodbye to a story that it has exploited, enjoyed...

KURTZ: Milked, merchandised...

WILLIAMS: ... as much as it did Elian.

KURTZ: ... None of this was totally unexpected, Bill Kristol. One gets the sense of manufactured drama with this nonstop cable coverage.

KRISTOL: I thought so. Though I guess people watched it.

KURTZ: Yeah, in fact, the ratings for CNN and Fox News Channel in particular went up as much as four or five times their typical fare. So I guess they created a sense of an event.

KRISTOL: And it was striking if you listened to radio, as I did, sporadically through the day and then looked at the papers the next morning, you had huge Supreme Court decisions that day on abortion and on gay rights. And at first, those were - that was the big news of the day. And at the beginning, those were leading the newscasts.

But I noticed driving home that evening, Elian was leading the newscasts. So the manufactured event just kind of overwhelmed I think the real media events, yeah.

KURTZ: Bernie.

KALB: In addition to the spike in the ratings that you just mentioned, Howie, there was a particular sentence offered to the world by Steve Kapas (ph) of MSNBC, who's the director, the executive producer of special coverage for MSNBC. And this is a sentence we all should take to heart.

Quote, "In the cable news business, a day like this is what we live for." It raises the whole question about what will cable do for an encore?

DIONNE: Well, I think that's what cable has been asking ever since O.J. And impeachment came along and provided a very long encore. And then Elian came along.

I mean, the trouble is there were some really big issues raised at Elian having to do with attitudes toward Castro, and government attitudes toward asylum, attitudes toward parents and the rights of parents. Those were big issues. The problem is we live in a time when you can only talk about big issues if you can dramatize them and soap opera-ize them behind a very cute little boy and a family. And obviously, you need a white car in the picture I guess.

And so I think what's troubling is it was a genuinely serious thing. But there is some kind of odd exaggeration and parts - a dramatization that I think made a lot of us uncomfortable.

KALB: And it had the absolutely indispensable element of suspense. This is a very dramatic story about the young boy. It goes on month after month. And if you take a look at the statistics, it is astonishing how much coverage the network broadcast television networks gave to this particular issue.

But by the same token, it does have those ingredients of excitement and narrative and suspense. And on it continues.

KURTZ: Marjorie, it did sort of take on a life of its own with the turmoil in the Cuban American community and so forth.


KURTZ: Wasn't this a classic case of the media taking what was basically an international custody case and just pumping it up into a prime time drama.

WILLIAMS: Well, I mean, the good news is that I think the media gave a pretty fair airing to all of those issues that E.J. mentioned a moment ago.

KURTZ: Eventually.

WILLIAMS: Over time.

KURTZ: Right.

WILLIAMS: But sure.

KURTZ: You're not going to try to justify it as - you know, it reminds me of 5,000 people dying in an earthquake in China, and that gets a paragraph on the news. A little girl gets stuck in a well and it's wall-to-wall coverage.

WILLIAMS: Well, and the disturbing thing here to me was the passions that surrounded this child were so out of proportion compared to the blind eye we turned to a huge number of issues that concern children in this country, including custody, family court issues.

DIONNE: No, that's absolutely right. But you can't ignore the fact that Cuban Americans felt very strongly about this. And they used political action to force this into the media. If they had not gotten as angry and upset about what was happening with Elian, it wouldn't have been as big a story.

And that was their right as Americans. And I think they helped push this story farther than it might have gone otherwise.

KURTZ: Bill Kristol, very briefly, the three major Supreme Court decisions that day on abortion and the Boy Scouts kind of got overshadowed, at least on cable television.

KRISTOL: They did, though they are now going to come back. Those are issues in the presidential campaign. And there's nothing like driving an issue to have Al Gore turn to George W. Bush and say, "My court would do X. A court you appointed would do Y."

And that's why I think even though we're all struck, the media is obviously powerful and important, at the end of the day, the political candidates do drive the agenda. And I think the Supreme Court will be a big issue this fall.

DIONNE: And I agree on that.

KURTZ: Bill, you've got the last word. E.J. Dionne, Bill Kristol, Marjorie Williams, thanks very much for joining us.

When we return, Bernie's "Back Page."


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

KALB: Howie, every now and then, there's a breakthrough that grabs the world's headlines. We had one just the other day.



BROKAW: Scientists say they've mapped the entire human genetic code, knowledge that could change medical research forever, a huge breakthrough.


KALB (voice-over): Genetic code of human life is cracked by scientists, front page everywhere, lead story on the nightly newses.


RATHER: Following the genetic roadmap, destination unknown. Scientists unveil the human genome.


KALB: The president on camera.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today we are learning the language in which God created life.

KALB: He's talking about the genome as a kind of homeowner's manual of the human being that could transform the practice of medicine. But take a moment and just listen to a sentence of that language.

Quote, "This back by back strategy also required mapping the genome - or defining short sequences of milestone DNA - that would help show where each back belonged on its parent chromosome, the giant DNA molecules of which the genome is composed," unquote. Did you get that? Perfectly clear?

Well, most of us would need a translator to make sense of what sounds like polyserlapic (ph) gobbledygook. And right there, to get to the point, right there you have a brand new challenge for the media, that is to journalistically decode the genome and its great potential for medical triumphs, in short to unscramble the genome's amazing complexity.

It's the sort of semantic challenge that confronts the media every time science delivers a stunning breakthrough, telling us back in '45 what happens when the atom is split, what DNA is all about, and just a couple of years ago about the cloning of Dolly.

This too is one of those special moments of history. And the commentaries are piling up.

"If Galileo pushed us out of the center of the universe, if Darwin gave us our origins, the human genome alters our identity in conflicting new ways." Ellen Goodman (ph), the "Boston Globe."


KALB: In short, the genome has propelled us into a whole new era with lots of promise, lots of risks. Look, I'm not asking the media to make scientists of all of us all, but rather to demystify the drama and let us all share the ride into the genomic future.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks. See you back in Washington next week.

Well, coming up, the San Francisco paper that got scooped by Sharon Stone.


KURTZ: Before we go, a couple of notes from the world of media news. You might have expected the "San Francisco Examiner" to have the inside track on a story about actress Sharon Stone adopting a baby. After all, the "Examiner's" editor, Phil Bronstein (ph), is married to Stone.

But the exclusive went to "Us Weekly" with the "Examiner" folks reduced to running a wire story. Guess they lacked the "basic instinct" to nail the scoop.

And it's no secret that the press is unpopular. But get this. A new study from the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center says 20 percent of those surveyed either mildly or strongly disagree that newspapers should be able to publish stories without government approval. That system already exists, you know, in dictatorships. 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, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, what's the political fallout of the congressional fight over prescription drugs and the Supreme Court's abortion decision? Senate Democratic Whip Harry Reid of Nevada joins us for that and much more right here next on CNN.



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