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Reliable Sources

Will the Media Play Along with Florida's Election Certification?

Aired November 26, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Five and a half hours and counting. Will the media play along with Florida's certifying the presidential votes today?

How will they deal with the Bush and Gore spin?

And are journalists being used by the partisans and the protesters?

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

Another day, another climax, as the media raced to keep up with the fast moving, hard fought, post-election impasse. Today's the day for Florida to finally certify the vote, Governor Bush ahead by just about 400 at the moment. But with the Supreme Court ruling still ahead, journalists are gearing up for week four of Indecision 2000.


KURTZ (voice-over): Journalists had their hands full this week as the post-election battle erupted on a dozen fronts, from demonstrations in Miami to the courthouse in Tallahassee to campaign maneuvering in Austin and in Washington.

A dizzying round of legal decisions seemed to give Al Gore or George Bush a big advantage in the public-relations war, at least until the next decision came down.

On Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court's order that hand recounts be included in the final tally, reversing Secretary of State Katherine Harris, prompted a lot of pro-Gore punditry.

CARL CAMERON, FOX NEWS: Tonight, the vice president sounding much more confident.

CLAIRE SHIPMAN, NBC NEWS: They're very happy. They're -- they're labeling this an almost complete victory.

KURTZ: But, by the next morning, Gore's victory was overshadowed by a different kind of breaking news. Anchors, political reporters, and legal analysts were joined by a new type of correspondent.

JOHN MCKENZIE, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Doctors say Cheney will remain in the hospital for two to three days.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He did, in fact, suffer a minor heart attack earlier today.

KURTZ: Hours later, the media mob was on to a new story, Miami- Dade officials abruptly deciding to stop their manual recount, and that, said the TV people, brought Bush one step closer to the White House.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That decision by Miami-Dade County a major setback for a Gore camp that was just beginning to enjoy a celebration.

UNIDENTIFIED CORRESPONDENT: The news out of Miami-Dade County hit the Gore campaign hard.

KURTZ: On Thanksgiving Day, a new setback for the vice president as the Florida Supreme Court refused to order Miami-Dade to resume the recount. And, on Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically intervened, agreeing to hear Bush's suit against all the Florida recounts. Now newspapers were calling Gore everything from beleaguered to desperate.

Amid the blur of round-the-clock headlines, only one thing was clear: This presidential campaign won't be over anytime soon.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Marjorie Williams, columnist for the "Washington Post" and a contributor to "Talk" magazine, John Harwood, political editor of "The Wall Street Journal," and Susan Feeney, senior editor of "Morning Edition" on National Public Radio.


Well, no news magazine headlines to show this morning because the magazines have all delayed their editions past the 5:00 Eastern deadline in Florida today. But the morning papers -- here's the "Baltimore Sun," "Deadline Looms"; "Washington Post," "Near Deadline"; "Headline Near," says "The New York Times"; "Race to Deadline," "The Los Angeles Times."

I guess we're facing a deadline.

Now, John Harwood, "The Washington Post" story says that Bush's advisors hope that if he is ahead at 5:00 this afternoon, it will give him a political boost that will shift public opinion in their direction. Will the media play along with the notion that Bush will now be just about, kind of, sort of, the president elect?

JOHN HARWOOD, POLITICAL EDITOR, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": Well, I think it depends on how close the count is and exactly how the two campaigns play it. Clearly, the Gore campaign has tried to jump out ahead and influence the way that's going to be covered by saying they're going to contest the results, by saying that gore may give a speech on Monday. So, you have both sides fighting very hard to make sure that the press isn't goosing the process along.

KURTZ: And speaking of goosing, Marjorie Williams, are we reaching the point where some will say that the media will kind of, try to keep this story alive and maybe more important that the camera's distorting lens and the shout show culture are helping to turn this into a national psychodrama?

MARJORIE WILLIAMS, "WASHINGTON POST": Oh, absolutely. I mean, it remains a totally legitimate story. We still don't know who the next president of the United States is -- great story. But, I think it's clear that the media is kind of, mirroring the polarization of the two sides at this point, especially ...

KURTZ: Mirroring or amplifying.

WILLIAMS: ... I would say, the electronic media. Well, to mirror is to amply, if you're on 24 hours a day.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: The electronic media -- we're really talking here abut cable television. You have this vast disconnect between journalism and the masses of the people. I think journalists, under a generous interpretation, do qualify as human beings. We are living in an echo chamber. The rest of the country is going around its business. The networks are carrying their soaps. So, Susan, how do you explain this fast disconnect?

SUSAN FEENEY, SENIOR EDITOR, "MORNING EDITION": Well, I was going to say, to be fair, you also have to say that every time we have an allegedly resolving event, there's another one down the road, in this court, the Supreme Court hearing on Friday. So, part of it is you can't ever bring it to closure because it's not anywhere near closure.

KALB: Well, if I could just pick up this Friday reference, what we face this week is going to be one of those great luxurious weeks of journalism because it's going to be an absolute free for all for speculation. What will the Supreme Court do? And you've got five days of intense speculation coming up. I will offer my own.

The Supreme Court will -- there will be a split verdict, 4 1/2 to 4 1/2 in which they will proclaim a co-presidency, a year of Gore, a year of Bush and use up the four years that way.

KURTZ: Well, I think you're all being a little too lenient on the media, because journalism is about choices. And the choice, even if you're in the 24 hour news business, to go to every news conference where some partisan, some congressman who couldn't get on TV until a week ago is shouting about larceny and theft and coup d'etat and to do that on the shows I think adds an element of conflict that is more dramatic than most people who are sitting around talking about this, interesting though it is, are really feeling.

WILLIAMS: I agree with you, Howie. I mean, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people I've seen on TV saying this is a tie we're covering here. You know, everyone is taking, you know, spin doctor A from camp A and spin doctor B from camp B and pitting them against each other and letting them go at it for hours on end.

KALB: Well who is listening? For example, I heard, I think, the CNN anchor, just a half hour ago, say anybody who'd like to stop by, we have a lot of room and ready to do an interview. There's no shortage of spinners, but it is wide open.

KURTZ: But, in fact, the ratings are pretty good, which means that some people are listening. And I'm wondering, Susan Feeney, about the hypocrisy question. The latest example that comes to my mind is we had these largely Republican demonstrations in Florida last couple of days. And suddenly, Democrats, who didn't have any problem with Jesse Jackson leading a major demonstration there say mob rule. This is terrible.

FEENEY: Absolutely. We are hip deep in hypocrisy, not just sort of, among the press on the side. I mean, you have the Republicans arguing that it's a federal issue and the Democrats arguing it's a state matter. So, everybody has piles and heaps of things to account for. The other problem I have with the coverage is to why we cover every single event, sometimes in such a confusing way that, if you're sitting at home and reading the paper looking at this, it's hard to tell the bigger picture. I feel like we sometimes do every tiny court thing without stepping back to give an overall view.

HARWOOD: But, you know, one of the problems is that political journalism and particularly, print journalism, has become an analytical medium. The news is relayed on television and we try to look for patterns in events and talk about the big picture. The problem is this is a story where there is no pattern. And you have events that break one day. You have the Florida Supreme Court ruling that there's going to be recounts in those counties, huge victory for Gore. The next day, Miami-Dade stops. We don't know, on the Supreme -- U.S. Supreme Court hearing on Friday, whether that's going to be good for Gore or bad for Gore.

WILLIAMS: But that -- but that doesn't release the media from the need to, at least, synthesize. I mean, I counted. In this morning's "New York Times," there were 14 stories in the -- in the A section about this event. You guys have done a better job at the "Wall Street Journal" because of your format of, kind of, boiling the day's news down to its essence every day. But, there is not a human being in the world who is not a journalist or a lawyer who wants to read 14 stories about this.

FEENEY: First of all, it is a more-is-more school of journalism.


KURTZ: And there are all these, not just the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, but these county battles, the absentee ballots. There is so many venues here that I do agree with you, Susan. Television, kind of, only has a front page. And everything that's happening at that moment seems kind of important, and you do lose sight of the bigger picture.

KALB: Don't you get sad sometimes to think of all the journalistic brain power focused on these legal bits and pieces that have a shelf life of about 15 seconds? You master the challenge, you report it, and 10 seconds later, you discard it because there's a new legal challenge coming up.

WILLIAMS: Well, I don't want to say, though, in defense of my colleagues that that's what journalists do. You absorb a huge amount of information, which if your editors are doing their job, you know, nine-tenths of it never sees the light of day. And I do think that we are getting an extraordinary amount of good information about a very complicated story.

KURTZ: It is an important story and it's not a tabloid story. So, there is a certain civic education value to it.

FEENEY: And it is incredibly fast moving. By 10:00 a.m. most mornings, your newspaper is already obsolete. I know because at NPR, at "Morning Edition," we are updating every single hour with new stories as our clock goes across to the West Coast. You could pick up the newspaper at noon and don't need to know any of that anymore.

KALB: Howie, the other story -- pardon me, John. Has there been a story that has had this kind of velocity that we can think of?

KURTZ: Well, I mean, in terms of the national drama and the press just going totally -- acting as if there's nothing else going on in the known universe, it reminds me of impeachment. In fact, I was going to ask John Harwood, in terms of the polarization -- of course, the impeachment also had days when nothing happened, but television had to make it sound like something was happening because after all, it's live, it's now, it's happening. Does this remind you of impeachment in particularly, the way the media covering the polarizing voices here?

HARWOOD: Well, sure it does. And, in fact, there's stronger feelings on some -- both sides in this case than there were in impeachment if you talk to some of the Republicans, ...

KURTZ: Stronger?

HARWOOD: ... in particular. Yeah, who believe, across the board, ideological across the country, the Democrats are trying to steal the election. We are amplifying those voices and putting them on. And it does -- as was mentioned earlier, it doesn't reflect the way the general public feels, but it does reflect the way actors in this process feel.

KURTZ: So, that's a distorted picture, it seems to me, unless you see our job as to we give a bullhorn to the partisans. And some of these protesters, where the things are clearly staged for the cameras and organized in advance and there may be 100 people, but it looks like it may be on television.


KALB: How do you -- we raised this question before. How can the media prevent being so totally used and manipulated? We got to cover the story. That goes without saying. But, by the same token, there has to be some sort of a judgment where you say no to what's available.

KURTZ: Can we just say no to shouting congressmen and polarizing partisans, Marjorie Williams?

WILLIAMS: I don't know. I think there should be a law that you can say something five times. You can say your talking points five times and then you get the hook. It's over.

KURTZ: Then we hit the mute button?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely.

KALB: You know, the world is tuned in. I brought this latest issue of "The Economist" here. Statute of Liberty, headline, "In the Mire." The whole world is watching this, having a field day, a comedy on what's happening in the United States. And so, it raises the question: To what degree does this effect U.S. influence?

John, your sort of subject. To what degree does all this treatment of the U.S. right now affect U.S. ability to shape foreign affairs?

HARWOOD: I'm not sure it's reached the point that it's so damaging to the country right now. When you look at where the United States stands vis-a-vis all the rest of the countries in the world and the strength of our economy, our military, it's hard to make an argument that the United States is in a dramatically weakened condition because of this. But we certainly do, in the press, give the impression of that with the extended 24-hour coverage of this thing.

KURTZ: Although, you know, we do have a president at the moment. This guy was on the cover of "Esquire," Bill Clinton. And I think he may be enjoying the fact that he's a little bit less of a lame duck when there's no successor insight. Well, we're going to take a break. And, when we come back we'll talk about a number of subjects, including Dick Cheney and the media. In a moment.



Susan Feeney, I guess it was Wednesday morning Dick Cheney checks into the hospital here in Washington, with what were then described as "chest pains." And the hospital officials have a news conference. Later in the day, there's another news conference where we learn what we didn't learn at the first one, which was that he'd had a mild heart attack. They knew that. They didn't tell us. What bothers you about this episode? And did the -- did the press push hard enough for the campaigns to tell us about the health of the man who may well be heartbeat away?

FEENEY: Well, we always press fairly hard on this issue. But here's the first rule. Public officials and health history, they don't have a good record for voracity. Here's -- the second tip is, if the candidate is willing to give you a summary of his medical record, but not release his medical records, then there's something they don't want you to see.

KALB: Well, theoretically, thematically, and we've talked about this, should there be any, Marjorie, any restrictions whatsoever, on the invasion of medical privacy on the part of a candidate?

WILLIAMS: I think it's a case-by-case matter. I mean, I don't think that you can generalize about that.

KALB: Why not? If you're going to be president or vice president, doesn't the public have a right to know medical...

WILLIAMS: Oh, I thought you were asking me the opposite question.

KALB: No. An invasion of medical privacy, is it -- shouldn't it be wide open?

WILLIAMS: I think it should be wide open. I mean, I am not terribly outraged by the campaigns' behavior the other day. I think there was some honest confusion there. We were going to find out that he had had a mild heart attack. The bigger question is what should we have known from the beginning out the state of his health.

KALB: But, that's the point.

WILLIAMS: And I think we fell down a bit on the job.

KURTZ: Well, it does go -- does go back to, you know, the 1950's, when we didn't find out that President Eisenhower had had a heart attack until sometime after the episode.

HARWOOD: I think there's two reasons why we didn't press harder in the campaign. One is because he's the vice presidential nominee, not at the top of the ticket. And the second, probably everyone around this panel knows somebody who's had heart problems, who's had angioplasty and has dealt with them. A heart attack in the 1950s isn't what a heart attack is today. And probably that knowledge affected how hard we pushed Cheney.

KURTZ: And he had gone through the Gulf War and it had been 12 years. And the truth is some of this stuff is unpredictable.

FEENEY: That's right.

KALB: Is there time for a philosophical problem here?

KURTZ: If you talk fast.

KALB: If I talk fast. Is the journalism the only business in the world in which you can make major blunders without paying any price? I'm thinking, for example...

KURTZ: By that you mean? KALB: ... I was out of the country for a couple of weeks and I'm thinking of the misquotes that were made on the famous Tuesday night. Nobody resigns. Nobody gets fire. Nobody gets demoted.

FEENEY: Well there's a price in credibility.

KALB: Is there?

FEENEY: There's a huge price in credibility.

KALB: Yeah, but the credibility takes a dent for about 11 seconds. To what degree is it lasting? There's no permanency about that.

KURTZ: I think the sinking reputation of journalism during the Monica episode, on election night, with what some people see as the overheated coverage here in the post-election, each time it goes down a further notch. You don't necessarily have to fire your executive vice president to take a hit in the field of journalism.

KALB: But you can't tune it out. You need it. You still need it. One of those things.

FEENEY: Absolutely. It's a love-hate relationship, sure.


KURTZ: Speaking of the public reaction, we got some e-mail we asked on last night's program, where the people thought the media were hyping this post-election impasse or the Florida fiasco, as I like to call it. And here were some voices.

Ernie Bonner: "The media is hyping more than elucidating. So much breathless talk, so much partisan wrangling and spinning. Where is the truth?"

Laurie Quest: "The press has the power to make sense of everything, but they are too busy making dollars and cents. This isn't about democracy. It's about capitalism."

And finally, Bill Moran says: "This is a great unfolding saga. Give me more. Every couple of hours, my TV is tuned in to determine the latest. This is not media hype. This is democracy in action."

Who's right?

FEENEY: The first thing to say about this, is not all media treats everything the same. I always tell people when they ask this question is to vote with your feet. Read the "Wall Street Journal." Go to the places that give you credible news and bypass the ones that don't.


HARWOOD: I agree with that about reading "The Wall Street Journal." FEENEY: Thank you.

WILLIAMS: It's all about dollars and cents. It means someone is watching it.

KURTZ: Obviously, if we didn't have big ratings here it wouldn't be on 24 hours a day. It would only be on perhaps 22 1/2 hours.

HARWOOD: Also, Howie, if we could make sense of the story, if we knew how it was going to turn out, we would tell people. But the fact is, this is a story that's unfolding before our eyes. It's an actual news event that's completely unpredictable. And that's reflected in the coverage. In getting a window into the election, people are also getting a window into journalsim.

KURTZ: I wonder if one of the things people like about it and certainly, there are tiresome aspects of this story, is that we went through a whole campaign and remember all the talk about cripted campaigns and the pre-packaged speeches. And every sound byte was market tested in a mall focus group. And now, we have something where really, nobody's ever been through it before and it's not -- it's real and it's raw, even though sometimes you're watching the sausage being made when you watch this on television.

KALB: And it's got that magic word. It's got suspense. Suspense is what keeps you glued. How will it come out? All the great novels in history have been built around suspense. And you have the suspense here. And possibly, at 5:00 today, possibly, possibly, possibly, there'll be a step toward ending the suspense. Then, the lawsuits will begin.

KURTZ: Although Al Gore's people will be trying to argue that, no, no, no. This is just a minor technical thing here.


FEENEY: But it's also very interesting and there's something to learn by watching these candidates. They poll tested everything, as Howie (ph) said, every inch and every word. And now, they're having to act, sort of, on a gut feeling. And it might tell us a little bit more than most of the campaign did about how they lead.

KURTZ: We are getting an interesting portrait of Al Gore and George W. Bush, who have mostly remained behind the scenes during this period.

KALB: As well as of ourselves.

KURTZ: As well as, of the media extravaganza. And when we come back, a look at what we might call the cosmetic aspect of the campaign. In a moment.


KURTZ: The United States Supreme Court -- well, all eyes will be focused this coming Friday. Catherine Harris, Florida's secretary of state, has been made fun of on "Saturday Night Live." She's gotten a lot of ridicule. "Time" magazine referred to here as Cruella DeVille.

But the piece that seemed to attract the most attention was about a week ago in "The Washington Post" Style section and let me read from that:

"Her lips were over drawn with very red lipstick. Her skin had been plastered and powdered to the texture of pre-war wools in need in a skin coat. And her eyes rimmed in liner and frosted with blue shadow, bore the tell-tale homogenous spikes of false eyelashes."

Writer Robin Givon (ph) goes on to say "One wonders how this Republican woman, who can't even use restraint when she's wielding a mascara wand will manage to use it and make sound decisions in the game of partisan one-upmanship."

Laying it on a little thick, Marjorie Williams?

WILLIAMS: Just a little thick. I thought that was a really brutal story because it pretended for about half a minute to want to say something serious about, you know, the different ways in which we regard men and women in public life. But it was the thinnest possible pretenses added. The mascara remark is one of the most sexist things I've read in my newspaper for a long time.

KURTZ: No critique, obviously, of the fashion choices of all the men who have been parading on television -- Susan Feeney.

FEENEY: Actually nothing parallel would have been done like that if it were a man. It's inconceivable.

HARWOOD: Besides that, there's no way you can say that her makeup was any worse than Al Gore's makeup in the first debate.

WILLIAMS: You're absolutely right.

KALB: Was that a political point you were just making? Was "The Wall Street Journal" making a political point just then?

Sexist as hell.

KURTZ: Let me move on from this and ask you John Harwood. Is there anyone in this drama, the politicians, the campaigns, the spinners, the congressmen, the partisans and, of course, the journalists, who ends up looking good? I find a hard time finding anybody to root for in this thing.

HARWOOD: Well, it's possible that we'll get to the end of this thing and say that our democracy looks pretty good if we get a clean outcome because the rest of the world is seeing the United States make it up as we go along, try untested processes for figuring out how to select a president and watch the press cover those live. That's about the only winner I canthink of at the moment, if it turns out that way.

KURTZ: Everybody seems to be acting in their own self interest.

WILLIAMS: You know, I have to say that I think the hand wringing is over the top here. I mean, we are still dealing with the most extraordinarily open presentation of information. You know, Florida has amazing sunshine laws. We're seeing this thing happen in extraordinary detail. There is something good that's happening ...

KURTZ: Well, why is it worry me that the media keeps saying ...

WILLIAMS: ... in this -- in this messy way.

KURTZ: ... that neither campaign has risen above this, that they both look like they're ...

WILLIAMS: Well, that's true. That's -- you know, I ...

KURTZ: So, you're talking about the system.

WILLIAMS: I'm talking about the press.

FEENEY: Frankly, here on the same lines, the people who have given up days and nights and who carefully sit there and look at the ballots, not the Republicans and Democrats who are challenging them and causing it to be a food fight, but the grandmas and, you know, the aunts and uncles, cousins and lifeguards even -- if you notice in Florida, they got their shirts on -- who just sit there and spend hours and hours of their own time to try to get a right result.

KALB: Well, Susan, can I go future tense on this? ABC has introduced some new restrictions on the way it will cover the presidential election in '04. And they will not call the state and the panhandle and so forth. Do you really believe -- do you really believe that ABC can insulate, immunize itself to the degree that it would like to according to the safeguards it has introduced when the other nets and cable television will be calling swiftly? I have an old law. Get it first, but first get it second, if that's what it takes to be accurate.

FEENEY: Well I would argue that the other networks won't be calling and calling quite so swiftly the next time. I think the pressure on all the networks to do it will be less.

KURTZ: Well Bernie, I think you've hit on something that's sent fear into probably the hearts of all of our viewers, which is that, when this is over, two weeks, three weeks, the day after the media will begin the 2004 -- as I've already seen references to it. You know, can Al Gore run again? What will George W. do if he loses and so forth? But, we're not going to get to that, at least, not until next week's show.

John Harwood, Marjorie Williams, Susan Feeney, Bernard Kalb, thanks very much for joining us.

We'll be right back with a final word about a California political reporter fired for writing fiction.


KURTZ: Before we go, this note from the world of media news. "Sacramento Bee" political reporter, Dennis Love (ph), has been fired for fabricating sources and plagiarizing material while covering the presidential campaign.

Last week, an editor at the paper checked out a quote in a story Love had written about the Electoral College. He discovered that part of the story was almost identical to a piece in "U.S. News & World Report."

So Love's story never ran, but the paper began an investigation into his work and discovered similar problems, along with made-up characters in past stories. The reporter has admitted wrong doing and apologized. In a column published this week, the paper's editor, Rick Rodriguez (ph), also apologized to readers and said the firing makes it clear that we have zero tolerance for these types of serious ethical lapses.

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.

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



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