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Reliable Sources

Is the Media Doing a Good Job Covering Violence in the Middle East?

Aired October 14, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Violence in the Middle East. Are the media getting the whole story?

The mild-mannered second debate. Is the press judging both candidates equally?

And Anonymous and Bill Clinton together again.

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

We'll turn our attention to the campaign in a few moments. But first, the Middle East, which has for the moment foreshadowed presidential politics.

And joining us now from our New York bureau, Joe Klein, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker." And here in Washington, Ann McDaniel, managing editor and Washington bureau chief for "Newsweek." And Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the "Los Angeles Times."

Doyle, Friday's papers, the headlines, your "Los Angeles Times," "Palestinian Mob Kills Two Israeli Soldiers. Iraq retaliates." "New York Times," "Two Israeli Soldiers Slain by a Mob. Helicopters Hit Back." "Washington Post," "Israel Strikes Palestinian Sites."

Although "The Washington Post" story made clear in the first sentence and the subhead that this was a retaliatory strike, there's been some criticism that this headline taken by itself made it seem too much like Israel was simply committing an act of aggression. Fair criticism?

DOYLE MCMANUS, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": It will be carried as a criticism by people who have seen that kind of bias or perceived that kind of bias in the press before. I think it's probably unjustified for a simple reason.

You know what? Eighty percent of these problems are caused for technical reasons, bonehead errors. In this case, the folks at "The Post" chose a great big typeface for their headline. And they only could get four words into it. And if you're going to do four words, you can't get much context.

Was that a bad mistake? Yes, it was probably a bad call. But I don't think there was any ideological bias behind it.

KURTZ: Ann, headlines aside, the whole question of who is depicted as the aggressor, which is part of the public relations war as well as the military struggle, it seems to me you have a number of Palestinian kids as young as 12 who were killed in this violence. But the Palestinians also put children out there on the front lines, and therefore reap a lot of sympathy when these horrible casualties take place.

ANN MCDANIEL, MANAGING EDITOR, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "NEWSWEEK": It's very difficult. I think we as journalists think less about whether we're telling the story well. I'm sorry, we think more about whether we're telling the story well than we do about which point of view we're promoting.

And that's where I think the public gets confused. Those people who believe -- that are more pro-Israel tend to see often in our coverage, for instance, the "New York Times" a few weeks ago put a horrifying picture of a Palestinian teenager who had been killed on the front page of the paper. I think people who wanted to interpret that as us being pro-Palestinian, or the "New York Times" or the media in general, could do so.

I don't think we think that much in journalism and probably make a mistake in not thinking at least -- having some second thoughts about our people going to perceive us as balanced.

KURTZ: Joe Klein, this has come up before in the cycles of violence in the Middle East, the question of whether the media perhaps are tilting too much toward Israel or the other way. Do you have any thoughts on whether these are perceptions or in some cases legitimate complaints?

JOE KLEIN, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORKER": I think that from my own experience covering wars over there and covering the situation there, the press corps, especially the foreign press corps, tends to lean a little bit toward the Palestinians because their situation is a bit more desperate. I think that that's a natural tendency in any situation of combat.

Even the nicknames that reporters have for the two combatants kind of tilts things. The Palestinians are called the Pals. And the Israelis are called the Issies (ph).

KURTZ: OK. Doyle McManus, is it easier -- if that is the word -- to cover the strife in the Middle East than it has been to cover the bombing of the U.S. ship in Yemen where we don't have a lot of facts?

MCMANUS: Well, I think, Howard, you're right. There is a big contrast between these two stories. It's not particularly easy to cover...

KURTZ: Sure.

MCMANUS: ... the conflict in Israel and the West Bank. And actually, there have been some terrific examples of heroism by reporters. That's a very dangerous place to be. But you've got reporters from every network, from every newspaper, going in there and risking their skins to bring the story to the American people.

The problem in Yemen, though, of course is that you're not there all the time. There isn't a resident American press corps in Yemen. It's taken people two days to get in. Once you get there, you can't get to the site. The Navy isn't being allowed to get to the site to search it...

KURTZ: Right.

MCMANUS: ... It's going to be a long time before we can figure out what's going on. And it's probably going to come from sources, anonymous sources, in Washington.

KURTZ: And, Ann, what about the danger to correspondents, yours and others, trying to cover these stories?

MCDANIEL: It's absolutely true. Both in Yemen, where we don't really have any infrastructure, and in the Middle East as a whole, these are very dangerous areas. And one thing that makes foreign correspondents quite good is that they're brave, that they're eager to get the story, that they're often more focused on that than protecting themselves.

That puts them at some risk. They're usually also quite smart, though. They've been trained. They've been through this before. They wear flak jackets. They wear helmets.

And people like me, who talk to them from the United States on the phone as editors, I try at least to always say, "Be careful, don't..."

KURTZ: Right.

MCDANIEL: ... "put your own life ahead of the story, but I'm sure you can get the story too."

KURTZ: So you're a little bit in the role of the nervous mother.

MCDANIEL: Exactly. That's part of your job.

KURTZ: Joe Klein, you've been out with both Vice President Gore and Governor Bush. To what extent have the events in the Middle East kind of taken over or blotted out or overshadowed the campaign? Or in fact are the candidates trying to seize on this for some kind of political momentum?

KLEIN: Well, I don't think either of them is trying -- I think they're both being very responsible about this. But the effect of all these events has been to knock the second debate and all of the talking heads, all of us opining about the second debate off the air.

It wasn't watched by all that many people to begin with, although 37 million people is a fairly significant number. And I think that it's caused the presidential campaign, which wasn't all that scintillating to begin with, to really recede the last couple of days.

KURTZ: I think that's right. And I think, however temporary, there may be a freeze on the commentary. That's not going to go away for long.

In fact, when we come back, we'll turn our attention to the latest presidential debate and sift through some of the media spin.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Presidential debate No. 2: Most of the pundits seemed to be reading off the same scorecard. And Vice President Gore got low marks for his oh-so-polite performance.



DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, NBC NEWS ANALYST: You had the feeling tonight that Gore was wearing one of those old body corsets that we women used to wear to keep unpleasant bumps from view.



SAM DONALDSON, NEWS ANCHOR: Was he going to come across as the smartest kid in the class? No. In fact, he was humble to a fault.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tonight, the onus was on Gore to do something, to make up some headway. He didn't do that. He wasn't able to do that.


KURTZ (voice-over): And the commentators were quick to declare the winner.


RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: The single-most effective thing that happened for either candidate tonight was that Bush probably went a long toward resolving doubts about his readiness to be president.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And then I think he clobbered Gore in the latter half of the debate. He got more and more comfortable, more and more assured.



MIKE BARNICLE, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": I began to ask myself, who are these people writing in newspapers and magazines all across the country who are calling this guy a dope? The guy is clearly not a dope.


KURTZ: And before the night was out, the inevitable predictions for round three.


PEGGY NOONAN, FORMER REAGAN AND BUSH SPEECHWRITER: Mr. Gore is going to come back next week I suspect with a pair of brass knuckles and a knife.



KURTZ: Joe Klein, did the media basically change the atmosphere and the expectations surrounding the second debate by bashing Gore for a week over his exaggerations and overbearing nature in the first debate?

KLEIN: Yes, I think so. And I think that it was a consequence of what we saw moving in the polls at the end of last week -- at the end of the week before.

You know, it really -- we are never so stupid as when we make instant snap judgments about who wins and who loses these things. Obviously, there's a very, very complicated calculus going on. And it's hard for us to predict exactly what's going to happen, especially when there isn't a clean kill, when you have a kind of quiet, reserved debate as both of these have been, by the way. Even the first debate by historic standards wasn't all that wild.

KURTZ: Not a clean kill. Joe, you put it so delicately.

Doyle McManus, is it too much to say that the media took the first debate, which these instant polls showed the vice president won, and kind of turned it into a Gore defeat since he got a week of pretty bad press?

MCMANUS: Well, I don't think it was so much the media as the combination of the media looking for a storyline...

KURTZ: The Bush campaign.

MCMANUS: ... The Bush campaign relentlessly pounding the drum on these exaggerations by the vice president, and the fact that the storyline was available.

I mean, look, the question of whether George W. Bush is up to the job is an old storyline that is hard for us to replay in the papers every day. The question of whether Al Gore was going to tell some kind of a tall tale every time an anecdote popped into his head was kind of an intriguing angle. It was hard to stay away from. And it had some resonance with the public.

MCDANIEL: And don't forget, the vice presidential debate came two days after that first presidential debate. And the public and I think the media responded very enthusiastically to the calm sort of very well informed, civil discussion about the issues that went on between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman.

KURTZ: Right.

MCDANIEL: I think that put a tremendous amount of pressure on Al Gore and George Bush to come in and have a debate that was more like that. That may have hurt Gore. But it wasn't the media pushing it.

KURTZ: Doyle McManus, there were a number of misstatements or missteps by George Bush in the second debate, everything from making a very explicit accusation of corruption against the former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to misstating the case in his home state of Texas in which he said three men would receive death penalty. Turns out it's only two in the dragging death, the racially charged dragging death, of a black man names James Byrd.

Now that's all been reported, sure, but nothing like the intensity and prominence of the Gore exaggeration about whether he was with the director of FEMA or the deputy director of FEMA when he had gone to Texas. Why the apparent imbalance there?

MCMANUS: Well, for one thing, people expected George W. Bush to have the details a little muddy. Whether there were two of them to be executed or only one, so what? You can come back and say, "Well, was he with James Lee Witt or not?" So what? Fair question.

But what I'm suggesting is we look for a new storyline. The storyline of Al Gore exaggerating was a novelty last week. It's no longer a novelty. You're not going to see that one replayed a whole lot this week, and not only because Al Gore isn't telling any more tall tales.

KURTZ: Joe Klein, if the media storyline, to use Doyle's phrase, is that the questions about Bush have to do with his intelligence and the questions about Gore have to do with his habit of stretching the truth, isn't that kind of unfair if rough balance? And why shouldn't we journalists have the same tough standards for anybody who's caught making a misstatement?

KLEIN: Well, I think that there's a natural tendency to play toward the mistakes that reinforce our existing notions. In early September when George Bush was screwing up words and it reinforced the existing notion that he might not be up for this position, then we overplayed that. With Gore, it isn't so much the exaggerations as the arrogance. And I think that it was Gore's general overbearing quality in that first debate that people overreacted to.

But once again, I have to say that within the universe of possibilities, both of these guys are playing very safely within the margins of propriety. And I think that in a race where we don't have huge commanding issues like war or recession or so on, there is a tendency to overplay every last little mistake.

KURTZ: So you're saying that these mistakes made in the heat of verbal combat are not that big a deal?

KLEIN: No...

KURTZ: But the media are pumping them up?

KLEIN: ... Well, I think that we have to have something to report. And it is very, very difficult to explain in an exciting way the difference between their Medicare plans.

KURTZ: Ann McDaniel, after the second debate ended, the one in North Carolina, Tom Brokaw, the first thing he said on the air was, "Well, Gore took his anti-sighing pills." I wonder if there has been too much attention -- maybe I'm wrong -- to body language and sighing and eye rolling and demeanor. Certainly the story out of the second debate was that Gore was on his best behavior.

MCDANIEL: Well, I think that it's right. But I don't think the media is just pushing this agenda. I think you hear voters out there raising questions about Gore's credibility and Bush's intelligence.

I think the media is reflecting what the voters are asking themselves. So when they saw -- when the voter watched Al Gore, I'm sure they were thinking he's not sighing off camera like he did last time. I think Brokaw reflected what the debate in the living rooms across the country was probably like and was not really pushing it any harder.

KLEIN: Howie, can I make a point here?


KLEIN: I think that what Ann said is absolutely true. And the bottom line is that in the presidential debates, you have two guys who don't seem all that comfortable in their own skins, who seem very nervous, very cautious, especially when you compare it to the two vice presidential nominees.

And so, therefore, who a president is is the most basic, most crucial, baseline decision that the public makes. And so therefore, their personalities really do matter quite a bit.

KURTZ: Doyle, just briefly, do the media need to be more conscious of holding each candidate for these misstatements, whether they're serious or minor, to the same standard? The Gore people obviously are now pushing the notion that Bush is getting off easy.

MCMANUS: I think you do have to try and do that. And, in fact, you can see in the papers and on television attempts to line them up side by side and achieve a rough equivalent.

The problem is, they don't resonate the same way. It's a different kind of question. Is George W. Bush smart? Is Al Gore truthful? Just different kinds of moral weights to those questions.

KURTZ: OK, Doyle McManus, Ann McDaniel, thanks very much for joining us. Joe Klein, stay with us.

Up next, we'll talk about your interview with President Clinton looking back.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Still with us, Joe Klein, Washington correspondent for "The New Yorker" and the author in this week's special issue on politics of a 22,000-word piece on Bill Clinton's two terms in office.

Joe Klein, you write in the piece that you had a good relationship with Bill Clinton in the '92 campaign, not so good a couple of years later when you wrote such columns as one headline "The Politics of Promiscuity." Why do you think the president agreed to sit down with you again?

KLEIN: Because our relationship has been pretty good ever since. I mean, I think that one thing the president said was that throughout all the years, even when I was knocking him, I tended to take him pretty seriously. And our disagreements were almost always ideological ones where I thought he was screwing up.

And he knew that over the last year I had been interviewing a whole bunch of people about the substance of this administration as opposed to the scandals. And I think that when he got reports back, as presidents always do, about the nature of the interviews, he became interested in talking to me himself.

KURTZ: You go into the substance in great detail, writing about health care, welfare reform, and other domestic initiatives of the president. Do you think looking back that the press coverage, that Bill Clinton's record good and bad on these domestic issues, has been overshadowed by all the scandals? And do you think the press maybe has had a little bit too much of a taste for scandal?

KLEIN: Yes, I think that we as an institution have had a very difficult decade in the '90s. And I think that when you look back at the scandals -- and I put a lot of those in quotes, Whitewater, what was the end result of that? There was nothing there...

KURTZ: Well, some people did go to jail.

KLEIN: ... Yes, but as far as the president was concerned, nothing there. The FBI files, the travel office, in a lot of cases we were dealing with politics as usual. And we were blowing it up into massive criminality.

In the case of the campaign finance scandal, there were improprieties there like using the Lincoln bedroom was kind of unseemly. But in the end, I think it was a testament to our lax campaign finance laws that there wasn't all that much there.

KURTZ: Well, I would...

KLEIN: The Lewinsky, the Lewinsky...

KURTZ: ... go ahead.

KLEIN: ... I know you would differ because it's your job to see a lot of these things as scandals or maybe more important -- I would say that we've had a problem with proportionality.

KURTZ: OK. But certainly when the president is impeached, that's a big story by anybody's definition. And in fact, you quoted Bill Clinton as saying that his two greatest achievements of his administration, one was standing up to the Republicans on the government shutdowns. And the other one was beating back impeachment. I thought that was quite an interesting quote.

KLEIN: Yes, I think he was being a little hyperbolic at that point. I think that he would say that the greatest achievement of his administration would be moving us from the industrial age to the information age in a lot of different ways.

And I think that -- and I think that that's how this administration is going to be judged in the end, although I don't know what the final tally is going to be.

KURTZ: You gave the president kind of a mixed grade on foreign policy. How do you think the press has covered his role as diplomat, statesman, and so forth?

KLEIN: Well, I think that's been pretty fair. But to go back to the last point, I think that there has been one area where we've really been remiss. And it's in part because it's a new phenomenon.

I think that a lot of what Bill Clinton accomplished in his presidency he accomplished in the huge budget reconciliation bills that happened at the end of each year where he just beat the Republicans year after year, even when he was in a position that seemed to be not that powerful. And because the bills were so large, and because they were so complicated, I don't know that we reported those sufficiently.

One very strong example is in 1997, the year when we were spending so much time on the campaign finance scandals. He got the balanced budget deal with the Republicans in which he got all kinds of new programs...

KURTZ: Right. KLEIN: ... a college tuition tax credit than more people have taken advantage of than took advantage of the GI Bill, the children's (INAUDIBLE)...

KURTZ: Joe, let me break in here because we're a little short on time. The president talked about Whitewater, you mentioned being a total fraud. Did you have the impression, just briefly, that he still has a lot of bitterness toward the press in the way he's been covered?

KLEIN: Absolutely. I think -- and it was really kind of shocking at times that he would step on his own story, which is the substance of the presidency, by ranting about the Republicans, ranting about the press. I think he really does believe that there's a great right wing conspiracy.

KURTZ: And the question everyone in America wants me to ask you, did he bring up your book "Primary Colors," the one that was made into a major motion picture?

KLEIN: Well, yes he did. And although as with everything else, the president has never commented favorably or unfavorably about anything I've ever done to my face because then he knows that I would be obliged to tell you.

KURTZ: Sure.

KLEIN: But there was a conversation with both the president and the first lady in which he talked about how he knew I had done it. And I said to him that I thought that the book was mostly about the need for -- or the tendency of larger than life characters to have larger than life strengths and larger than life weaknesses...

KURTZ: Right.

KLEIN: ... at which point the first lady said, "That's for sure."

KURTZ: Bill Clinton claims to have solved the mystery of Anonymous. Joe Klein, "The New Yorker," thanks very much for joining us.

We'll be right back.


KURTZ: 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. Al Hunt has a preview.

AL HUNT, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, the gang looks at the Mid-East crisis and how it fits into American presidential politics. We'll assess the second Gore-Bush debate and much more next on CNN.



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