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Reliable Sources

Will Gore's Convention be Overshadowed by Hollywood Hoopla?

Aired August 13, 2000 - 11:30 a.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The Democrats do L.A. : Al, Joe, Bill, Hillary, Leno, Streisand, Cher, Travolta and the Playboy bunnies: Will the vice president's convention be overshadowed by all the Hollywood hoopla?

And why are the media so in love with Lieberman.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Los Angeles, the site of the Democratic National Convention, this is a special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES, with Howard Kurtz and Bernard Kalb.

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

And joining us this morning, Clarence Page, columnist for "The Chicago Tribune," Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic," and Walter Shapiro, political columnist for "USA Today."

Well, the big story in Los Angeles continues to be Joe Lieberman. In fact, Lieberman and that other fellow, Al Gore, are on the covers of both "Newsweek" and "TIME," "TIME" with the one-word headline, "Chutzpah," which I think may be the only time in recorded history that that headline has been on a national news magazine.

Senator Lieberman also appearing on five Sunday shows this morning, he'll be on LATE EDITION after this program, and getting grilled on some of those programs. And on "Meet the Press," for example, Tim Russert asked Lieberman a whole series of tough questions, including why did he support Proposition 209 in California, which would ban affirmative action. I had not heard much about that at all.

And so, Clarence Page, why up until now has the press been so relentlessly favorable about Lieberman's selection, and is the honeymoon now over?

CLARENCE PAGE, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, I think the press has been favorable because all of us in this business want to cover history every so often. And this campaign looks like a rather routine one until all of a sudden Al Gore gave it historical significance by naming the first Jewish running mate. And this -- all the implications are that just electrified this entire story.

And in addition now, we have these elements of, like, affirmative action, all these other issues. Joe Lieberman can now put some clarity on them. On affirmative action, for example, he said -- at one point he was asked a question about that proposition on the California ballot, and the wording he said of it, sounded like basic American principles that everybody favors. Technically, that's a correct statement. And the question is how do you implement it.

KURTZ: Right.

PAGE: And so in any case, you know, he's getting his side of the story out now.

KURTZ: But ordinarily, Walter Shapiro, as was the case when Dick Cheney was named by George W. Bush, the press zeros in and pounces on the first day: He voted for this in 1992 and how does this differ. There was very little of that in the case of Lieberman, in part because of all the focus on his religion, which we'll talk about in a moment, but in part because the press just seemed to swoon over what a bold choice this was.

WALTER SHAPIRO, "USA TODAY": I think part of it is the boldness. I think the other thing is Lieberman benefits with the press from what you might call the McCain factor, as somebody who is -- note to Bob -- renowned for speaking his own mind, for not following scripts...

KURTZ: Knows all the Washington reporters.

SHAPIRO: ... knows the Washington reporters. Much importantly, I got to know him during the 1997 Thompson hearings, where he was the only Democrats on the Senate committee who wanted to have a bipartisan investigation into the Clinton-Gore campaign abuses.

And watching someone in those settings and listening to his candor on a number of occasions, you're much more likely as a reporter or columnist to cut a guy some slack on voting record and think that this is less important than either his religion or the integrity he brings the ticket than if it's a standard, generic Democrat, a John Kerry, if you will.


BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Michelle, let me pull back from the specifics that have just been itemized and enumerated here, and let's deal with the charge that has been made that there's been a double standard on the part of the media and how they deal with Republicans when they talk about God and the way Democrats when they talk about God.

You will recall the Governor Bush, when he was asked who his favorite political philosopher was, said Jesus Christ. Now in his opening remarks, essentially, Lieberman in Tennessee referred to God about a dozen times and 13 by some religious accounts who have been very, specific, and there has been a kind of hallelujah chorus of approval. Is there, as has been alleged by some, is there a double standard?

MICHELLE COTTLE, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Well, looking at the context, the Republicans have the problem of their seen as being controlled by the Christian right of the party, whereas the Democrats are usually, you know, lambasted for being godless. So if Lieberman continues to keep up the God talk, I think eventually it will become a problem, but right now it's a novelty. You don't usually have Democrats, you know, celebrating their religion.

KURTZ: But, Michelle, beyond the novelty of Senator Lieberman sort of wearing his Orthodox faith on his sleeve and certainly talking about it quite openly, I mean, I have been struck by a week now of coverage about the Jewish question, what do Jews think about this, is it good for the Jews, is it bad for the Jews, what do non Jews think about it.

And Dan Kennedy, writing in "The Boston Phoenix," says it's fine to focus on the fact that Lieberman is the first Jew to run for office -- national office on a major party ticket. What's not fine, says Kennedy, is to obsess over it and to act as if he's above criticism because of his identity. Has all the Jewish coverage somehow overshadowed the ordinary political skepticism that the media usually bring?

COTTLE: I think it was the tory there for a while. And, of course, no matter what happens, the press jumped on what they see as the story. It's historic. You know, when a woman -- when a woman is put up for an office or a black person, it's the same kind of thing. Eventually they're going to start looking at stuff, but, you know, starting out...

PAGE: Michelle's absolutely right. She's absolutely right. You know, a lot of people don't want to talk about how much prejudice we still have in our society, how much apprehension, how much insecurity minorities still feel, including Jews.

I remember "New York" magazine a few years ago had a cover story about is anti-Semitism dead, because Jews have assimilated so well. Now the Lieberman candidacy is bringing all these concerns out of the woodwork, as they should be. It needs to be brought up.

If Colin Powell did run for president, believe me, we'd see the same thing starting to happen. People would start to suddenly realize Colin Powell is black...

KALB: Walter...

PAGE: That has weight. That has gravity.

KALB: Walter, we have seen inevitably one-dimensional reporting on the drama of the first Jewish candidate -- or first Jewish American candidate. Inevitable that you see this intensity of coverage on that point, but we are already beginning to see Lieberman being peeled away in different directions, his position, for example, on connection with business, et cetera.

We are going to see a proliferation of examinations, which is already taking place, and it may very well be in a week or two we will not know whether Lieberman was a Zoroastrian or a Buddhist. SHAPIRO: Well, I think there's a couple of things. First of all, as you recall, Geraldine Ferraro got the same news magazine cover, historic, in 1984. And if my memory is correct, it took two or three weeks for the press to start inquiring about, shall we say, the interesting finances of her real estate investor husband.

And in similar fashion, we may get this with a Lieberman voting record...

KALB: It's happening. It's already happening.

SHAPIRO: Yes, the fact is that we never, as the press, fall in love for more than a week. I mean, we are as fickle as any high school junior when it comes to politicians.

KURTZ: All right, I think the McCain affair went on for at least several weeks if not several months.

But, Walter, pick up Bernie's point about the double standard. I mean, it was a huge hue and cry in the press when Governor Bush talked about Jesus -- not just in that one incident but in other settings that he has done. And if I'm a Christian conservative, I'm thinking, well wait a second. How come the press pounces on this and talks about the melding of political and religious life, and yet in the case of Joe Lieberman somehow it's OK.

SHAPIRO: I'll tell you, it's an interesting question, because first of all what struck me is Gore, the fact that Gore now uses the phrase "faith and family" as often as he uses his other catch phrase, "working families," that to some extent the Democrats have repositioned themselves and the Republicans have positioned themselves with the press's help as the party of tolerance and inclusion, the Democrats have repositioned themselves as the party of God. And that...

KURTZ: Faith and family.

SHAPIRO: And that there is, to some extent, a double standard here, I think there is a genuine point, particularly since I think voters -- it's interesting that the first Jewish vice president -- presidential nominee was a very religious Orthodox Jew, not someone who was of a much more secular, not celebrating the -- not honoring the sabbath sort of assimilated variety.

KALB: Well, he's made the point clearly that there will be indeed the separation of synagogue and state...

PAGE: Yes.

KALB: question about that.

PAGE: I heard...

KURTZ: You know -- excuse me, Clarence, can I just briefly ask Michelle, because I want to turn to the Sunday papers, lead story in today's "New York Times": "In his speech, Gore to shift emphasis to his own agenda" -- wow. But based on an interview the vice president gave to Rick Berke of that newspaper on Friday, "USA Today" a big banner interview with Gore, "a fresh start," says Gore.

You know, nobody would turn down an interview on the eve of the convention with the Democratic nominee, but is there an attempt to which newspapers are just sort of surrendering the space to Gore to put out whatever pre-convention spin he wants to?

COTTLE: Well, the whole point of this convention has been built up to be that Gore has to step out of Clinton's shadow this week. If he doesn't do it this week, then things look pretty ugly. So of course this is going to be where we have to talk about leading in. But then once things get going, you know, we'll have to see how it unravels.

KURTZ: You have...

KALB: I was just going to say, how can you walk away when you have an opportunity for that interview. You wouldn't. None of us would, obviously.

KURTZ: Not in a second, and...

KALB: Of course.

KURTZ: ... I was just making the point that I didn't think Gore said a lot new, although he did tell "The New York Times," in fairness, that there would be a lot of policy specifics in his speech on Thursday night, and we'll see how that plays.

PAGE: That will be certainly interesting.

COTTLE: Policy specifics?

KURTZ: Oh, yes, that -- the numbers will soar.

We need to call a time out. And when we come back, the president and the first lady still on the stage.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES, here at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. We are talking about, at the very site of, the Democratic convention.

Well, Bill and Hillary Clinton are making the rounds here this weekend of the Hollywood parties, extravaganzas, raising some money, rubbing shoulders with celebrities. And the first lady, in an interview yesterday with CNN's Frank Buckley, was asked about criticism, increasingly loud criticism, that she and her husband are starting to overshadow Vice President Gore.


HILLARY CLINTON, FIRST LADY: Well of course that's not the case. We are trying to shine the spotlight on Al and Joe by talking about the issues that they stand for and the progress that has been made under the Clinton-Gore administration and why a Gore-Lieberman administration would be the best thing for America.


KURTZ: Walter Shaprio, what do you make of the first lady's answer? And isn't the press continuing to be fascinated by the Bill and Hillary show, even at Al Gore's convention?

SHAPIRO: Well, first of all, the press is and will be for a long time. What Bill Clinton does for a living may be of more press coverage than what the new president suggests to Congress as his agenda. That said, I find...

KURTZ: Clinton addiction?

SHAPIRO: Oh, God. It is -- not us, not us. We had our moment of McCain methadone, but we're back. But we're back.

I think the real thing is that this is Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton loves the camera, the press love the story that has drama, has redemption. Bill Clinton is going through, for our benefit, his greatest hits album.

He tried last week with the ministers to try to get the apology, the repentance tone right. Tonight -- on Monday night, he is probably going to try to get the State of the Union address right. And all of this is designed for one thing. And that is: Pay attention to me. And we in the press oblige him completely.

KALB: Walter, I think you're leaving out one point. Don't you see this as a secret campaign for destroying the 22nd Amendment so he can run for a third term?


KALB: I mean, if you took -- some of us all watched a little bit of that cascading confessional the other day. I must say, I had a moment of terrible weakness, abandoned all skepticism, and surrendered to this marvelous masterpiece of a performance.

PAGE: Well, you know, that's not so far off. And he, of course, can't run for a third term. But think about it. When was the last time we had a president who had been in for two full terms and then came out and was still young. I mean, Bill Clinton's got a lot of good years ahead of him. He won't be out there making headlines. He is a good story.,

Walter talked about media bias. The political is a red herring. We are all biased in favor of a good story. Bill Clinton's a good story right now. If he and Hillary are still dominating after Tuesday, then Gore is in serious trouble...


PAGE: ... but until Tuesday it's all warm up for the main event. KURTZ: Michelle, before we go on to the Clinton post- presidential years, let's go back to convention week. And the extraordinary press coverage of Clinton's Oprah-like moment and the apology, is it just because it's a compelling story, is it because we still love anything having to do with Monica Lewinsky, or is it also that the press loves this is Bill Clinton hurting Al Gore storyline? I've read reams of copy about that.

COTTLE: Well that's absolutely the drama right now. And this is what we love. We have to have tension. If you'll look at the news stories that are running it, is Hillary ticking off the Gore people with he Senate race? Or, is Bill going to overshadow Al for the rest of the week?

KURTZ: But is it a drama -- a real drama or is it manufactured drama by a press corps that needs a storyline?

COTTLE: I think it's a little bit of both. There were squabblings in the White House, apparently, over how much air time Hillary would get and when she would appear, and there were all these negotiations. And the whole Bill versus Al thing has been big for a while, so...

KALB: And don't you think that the president and the first lady are unaware of the fact that their controversy seizes a lot of media space? There has been -- has that crossed anybody's mind?

KURTZ: They're totally befuddled by this.

KALB: And so...

SHAPIRO: Knaves.

KALB: Walter, so that in a sense, all this media coverage given to what you call the tension of the story between the two, robs -- R- O-B-S- robs Gore of the coverage that he would like. And it's impossible not to recognize the Clintons.

PAGE: Coverage of what? Coverage of what? He's not doing anything.

KALB: No, no, no, no, there is still...

SHAPRIO: That there will be policy proposals in the speech Thursday night.

PAGE: That's Thursday night. That's Thursday night...

COTTLE: Oh, that's going to fire us up.

PAGE: Right now, he's not doing -- the candidates never do anything on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday, and that's why...

SHAPIRO: And it's also the fact that at any convention I can think of, in any situation involving the torch passing, going back to Eisenhower and Nixon let alone Johnson and the horrible problems with Humphrey in '68, that what you have is that relationship, that presidential-vice presidential relationship, is the dominant news story, even in an era when print is the dominant way of getting the news.

KURTZ: That's right. To follow up on your point, Clarence, what about the fact that, as we talked about with the Republicans in Philadelphia, that the broadcast networks have largely opted out of these conventions except for perhaps an hour a night, that most Americans don't seem tuned in to the campaign, that nobody is expecting any great fireworks here, isn't all of that, plus the focus on the president and first lady, going to make it awfully hard for Gore to get the kind of media attention that he so clearly craves?

PAGE: Well I challenge some of this on the premises that, first of all, the -- I think the public is playing a lot more attention now that Lieberman's been made, absolutely. I've just heard from people, and we got letters and e-mails from people who suddenly are excited about this race.

KALB: Yes, can you quantify a lot more its...

PAGE: Well, I'm waiting for some polling. You;'re the guys who do the polling. But I bet you, though, that there's significant -- a week or so ago we were complaining about a third of the electorate was undecided. I think that may be down to the 25 percent now, maybe. I mean, you know, we're going to see that diminish over time. But other than Lieberman making a difference, I didn't get to your main point, Bill, about, you know, Gore and the stage game -- very briefly.

You know, through Monday and Tuesday, you don't normally see the presidential candidate making news. We reporters are trying to find him and they won't let us get near him. So that leaves a vacuum that's got to be filled by somebody, and that's what's happening right now.

KURTZ: OK, well we'll see if that continues to be the case all week.

And when we come back, you want an unscripted convention, check out the proceedings in Long Beach.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES here in Los Angeles, a city that's being invaded by 15,000 journalists and some delegates and candidates as well.

Michelle Cottle, Pat Buchanan last night accepted the nomination of the tattered remnants of I guess about half the Reform Party. You were there covering this story with a lot of other reporters. Is this now a major political story or should it be treated as kind of a sideshow?

COTTLE: Well, I think Pat got more press coverage than anybody else would have in this circumstance. I mean, the Reform Party has essentially split itself. They nominated two candidates, and now they're going to let the courts decide. So this is no longer an election issue anymore. But that said, you know, for all of Buchanan's complaining about how nobody's paying attention, he got an awful lot of people down there to see him do this.

KURTZ: Too much attention in your view, given the fact that he's at 1 percent in the polls, it's tied up in the courts, that only 80,000 people voted in this Reform Party bonanza?

COTTLE: Well, the kind of implosion of the Reform Party is a story. I mean, this was a big deal for the last two elections. Perot had everybody excited about the possibility of a third party, and now kaput.

KALB: Walter, should the media pay any attention to what a party may get in terms of votes when it determines how much coverage to give it? The Green Party, Nader's expected to do better than Buchanan and the Reform Party. They're getting an infinitesimal amount of coverage, Buchanan a lot. Should the media take that into consideration?

SHAPIRO: I think they should. I mean, clearly -- clearly if we didn't, we would give the Vegetarian Party candidate as much time as we give Al Gore.

KALB: As much time to chew on.

SHAPIRO: But -- yes -- but -- nibble. But the truth is that Ralph Nader has sort of snuck up on us. There was minimal coverage of the Green Party convention. Even now, if you counted column inches or minutes of air time, I suspect Nader's political fortunes have gotten much less coverage. And what coverage they have had is always in terms of what effect will it have on Al Gore. And I think right now Ralph Nader might be looking a little enviously at even the bad coverage that the Reform Party got.

KURTZ: Clarence Page, now that we've been through this colorful civil war in the Reform Party, the ultimate unscripted convention with people shouting at each other, will...

PAGE: It is fun, yes.

KURTZ: Will Pat Buchanan continue to get a lot of media coverage -- he's obviously media savvy, ex-CNN commentator -- or will he become a sidebar inside the paper story?

PAGE: Well one thing that we have omitted is that this is your tax dollars at work, folks. That $12.5 million that is the reason why Pat's in this race as a reformer is part of the federal funding, or is federal funding. And that alone means it's worth our covering and paying attention to, just as Ralph Nader's polling numbers make it worth our covering and paying attention to.

So I think that we are obliged to follow Pat all the way through this ordeal and see what happens.

KURTZ: OK, Clarence Page, Walter Shapiro, Michelle Cottle, Bernard Cottle, thanks very much for our discussion here in L.A.

And when we come back, John Stossel and an on-air apology at "20/20."


KURTZ: Before we go, no one in the media likes to admit error, but there are some red faces this weekend at "20/20."


KURTZ (voice-over): John Stossel, ABC's controversial consumer reporter, has landed himself in hot water, so hot in fact that he's been forced to apologize.


JOHN STOSSEL, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: But it was wrong. I apologize for the mistake. I'm deeply sorry I misled you. We never want to do that.


KURTZ: Stossel says the media run too many scare stories about medicine and health, a contrarian approach that let him take on the safety of organic food in a "20/20" broadcast last February.


STOSSEL: We searched the records and found there have been no tests done that actually compare bacteria counts in organic versus normal foods. So we did our own laboratory sampling.


KURTZ: Stossel said ABC's testing found no more pesticide residue on ordinary produce than on the organic kind.


STOSSEL: The amazing part, though, is that it is twice as much money or more, and it's no better and maybe worse. Yet, people buy it.


KURTZ: But the Environmental Working Group, which supports organic food, found that conclusion hard to stomach. The group checked with the researchers and told Stossel he was wrong. But "20/20" aired the segment again last month. The problem, the two researchers hired by ABC say they never did the pesticides test.

KEN COOK, PRESIDENT, ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP: You have to do a special test to find out if the bacteria that causes food poisoning and can kill was present. They didn't do that test. This is Food Safety 101, and Stossel didn't do it. KURTZ: ABC executives reprimanded Stossel and suspended his producer for a month. Stossel acknowledged the blunder Friday.


STOSSEL: The labs we used never tested the produce for pesticides. We thought they had, but they hadn't. We misunderstood. And that was our fault.


KURTZ: Critics aren't satisfied.

COOK: Why is Stossel still working there now? He fabricated one set of tests. And he used another set of tests to defame an entire industry.


KURTZ: John Stossel thrives on challenging the consumer movement and taking risks. He even rides his bicycle without a helmet. On this story, it was Stossel who suffered a crack-up for peddling too hard without the facts.

Well that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES from here in Los Angeles. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Coming up, "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER," which begins right now.



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