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Reliable Sources

What Challenges Will the New President Pose to the Media?

Aired January 20, 2001 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: A new president, a new challenge for the press. A look at coverage of George Bush's big day.

The outgoing president avoids prosecution. And the press loses its favorite scandal.

And the love child story. Are the media going easy on Jesse Jackson?

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

Well, we're 6 1/2 hours into the Bush administration. And not surprisingly, it's been a long day of pomp, pageantry, and nonstop television coverage.

The outgoing president and the new president together at the White House. George W. Bush emerging from his car during the inaugural parade.

Former President Clinton and the long goodbye, the really long goodbye at Andrews Air Force Base. And through it all, plenty of talk, talk, talk.

Well, joining us now for some more talk, Mark Whitaker, the editor of "Newsweek," Walter Shapiro, political columnist for "USA Today," and Susan Feeney, senior editor of National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." Welcome.

Walter Shapiro, a lot of colorful, even moving, symbolism today. But, of course, the constitution only requires that you take the 35- word oath. So why are Dan and Tom and Peter and Ted and Katie and Diane and a cast of thousands going so overboard over this march-all- day-party-all-night extravaganza?

WALTER SHAPIRO, POLITICAL COLUMNIST, "USA TODAY": Well, part of it that it's predictable journalism. In a world where so many things don't happen as planned, like Election Day 2000, we know exactly at what rough almost to the minute where everyone is going to be. We know roughly how long they're going to speak.

And I think actually I find it -- I like hearing patriotic music. I like hearing "Hail to the Chief" on inaugural day. And I think television does still provide an old-fashioned, bind-us-together-as-a- nation role even as they go over the top.

KURTZ: OK, we've got the script. Mark Whitaker, does the press feel some kind of patriotic duty to kind of coronate the new king, as if he won't quite feel like the president unless we go through all this hoopla?

MARK WHITAKER, EDITOR, "NEWSWEEK": Well, I think particularly after the election we've been through, I think there's a sense that we've got to show that as a country we can move on and have this peaceful transition, despite the warfare that went on for a month after Election Day.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Susan, you know, Walter started off saying rather cynically saying it's rather predictable what the media will do in the coverage of the coronation. But I think there's a lot of patriotic nourishment goes on.

As you're suggesting, there was a bitter election. And so we need a big spectacular theatrical divide. And we had it after our hour (ph), we had a separation between one president and another. Any problem with that?

SUSAN FEENEY, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: No, no, no. I mean, you have to listen to what people say. We all saw folks or interviewed folks on the streets. There were Democrats who came out, not that many of them, most of Republicans.

For the American people, it is a right. It is a pleasure because, frankly, tomorrow George Bush has to figure out how to run the country. So it's a brief moment.

KALB: Is it a narcotic?

KURTZ: Well, in fact, Bernie, Bill Powers, a columnist from "National Journal" writes that when a president is inaugurated, a funny thing happens to most media people. They turn soft and gooey.

SHAPIRO: You mean like Herblock presenting Richard Nixon in 1969 without the 5 o'clock shadow?

KURTZ: A new shade for a new president.

SHAPIRO: And I don't think there's anything tremendously wrong with it. At the same point, it is not as if Democrats have exactly been walking around all day throwing rose buds in front of John Ashcroft whenever he took a step.

WHITAKER: The fact that you also have protesters out there, so obviously there's a lot of security. But there was the chance that something could really happen today. And I think that merited having pretty thorough coverage as well.

KURTZ: The chance of an unscripted moment. But, Susan Feeney, I watched a lot of coverage today. And I'm curious about this mind- reading aspect that some commentators were doing. If I heard one more journalist say, "I wonder what Al Gore must be thinking today up on that platform," I was going to lunge for the mute button.

FEENEY: That's exactly right. But you have to say he's in such an unusual position. And he had a very sort of tense Al Gore-ish smile about him. They don't tell us. They don't talk. We don't get to interview them because it's so scripted.

George Bush isn't sitting down telling us anything. And they've got a lot of air time to fill.

KALB: OK, you had a big media celebration for the new president. Now is it honeymoon time? Will it still continue with the media? Or can you count it off on the clock when the media will swing the heavy artillery out at the new president, Walter?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think the first task is how much attention does Bush play to controversial aspect of the education plan vouchers when he unveils it on Tuesday. It is also when John McCain and Russ Feingold and now Thad Cochran hold their McCain-Feingold-Cochran press conference on Monday.

What are going to be the response from Ari Fleischer speaking from the White House? These are the questions. And if Bush is more accommodating than he seems to have been in his cabinet appointments, I think he will get a bit of a honeymoon.

If he is as unyielding, "I have a mandate and I'm going to do it my way," no McCain-Feingold-Cochran, and we are going to have vouchers and no education bill, I think things are going to disintegrate fairly fast.

KURTZ: Before we get into handicapping the legislative session, Mark Whitaker, your magazine is going to have a lot of pictures of the inaugural festivities, as will the other magazines as well. But in a larger sense, will all this be forgotten in two weeks?

I mean, what does anybody remember from Bush, Senior's inauguration other than Lee Atwater playing the guitar, or from Clinton's first inaugural other than Hillary wearing that blue hat? I mean, is there a certain ephemeral quality to this?

WHITAKER: Well, I think it's sort of a reassuring aspect to all of this ritual. You know, it's interesting, we had an exclusive interview on election night, or actually on the night that the election was finally resolved, the Supreme Court stepped in, with Bush's father, with former President Bush.

And basically, he said by April everybody will have forgotten about this. So there really is a strategy there that they expect just as they tough it out and basically put forward the agenda that they want to put forward that in this age of short attention spans, people will have forgotten a lot of the bad blood that we've seen.

KALB: Walter, you raise an interesting point about the press getting a little more hostile or tougher on Bush when he introduces some of these controversial programs. Are you suggesting that the press will introduce its own liberal bias, unquote, et cetera, in taking on the new president? Or will they do an objective part of reporting a controversial introduction of proposals?

SHAPIRO: Well, where it gets complicated, Bernie, is it's not only the policy...

KALB: Complication doesn't have to require a point of view in the writing.

SHAPIRO: ... Oh, I understand. I'm not -- as a columnist, I think only I should have a point of view in my writing.


SHAPIRO: But the truth is, it is much more that there is still a little unease on the part of the president, exactly how do we treat -- on the part of the press -- how do we treat a president who was elected in this, shall we say, unorthodox manner? And it's a lot...

KURTZ: He should somehow not be accorded the full respect by the media because he lost the popular vote, because this whole thing hung on hanging chads in Florida?

SHAPIRO: The more that he -- talking about -- if he talks about civility as he did in the speech today...

KURTZ: Right.

SHAPIRO: ... and then both in rejecting a popular congressional initiative on campaign reform on Monday and in playing up the most controversial aspect of the whole education fight hypothetically on Tuesday, he is opening himself up to charges of sending the press lunch, which is hypocrisy.

FEENEY: In part, that's because he and we are carefully watching to see what his mandate is. It's not really clear what the public was saying when they elected him.

You know, often the president wins, you know where his agenda is. He wins by a lot. And thus, you assume that's what the public wants. So I think it's a very sort of tenuous time not knowing if he's leading where the country wants to go.

KALB: That's a perfect setup for a question raised in an editorial in the "New York Times" on Thursday. It said take a look at the cabinet nominees President-elect Bush at that point had set forth.

And then the "Times" raises the question, did the news media interrogate him with sufficient energy on his core ideology? Did the media give him a pass on careful ideological scrutiny?

KURTZ: Well, George Bush like Al Gore was asked thousands and thousands of questions. And he obviously projected the image at the convention, in the debates, in interviews that he wanted to project, that he was a compassionate conservative.

Now it's perfectly fair for you to raise the question whether he's going to govern in that fashion. But I don't think we ought to prejudge that.

SHAPIRO: Well, at the same point, I do feel a little taken aback as a columnist who took Bush at his word that he wanted to bring harmony, that he looked at Bush's judicial appointments in Texas, and they were pretty moderate, although somewhat conservative.

And then for him to then put John Ashcroft as his attorney general seems to me -- I felt like in some way I failed to capture the essence of who Bush was in writing about this election.

KURTZ: Walter, let me jump in here because in our remaining seconds I want to talk about the outgoing president, who was still on the stage today. First of all, he made news this morning by issuing a bunch of pardons, including one to Susan McDougal of Whitewater fame, and his own brother Roger.

And then he gives a speech after he leaves the White House. I've never seen that. And the cameras covered it and lingered at Andrews forever.

FEENEY: Two of them.

KURTZ: Were the media helping him upstage President Bush?

WHITAKER: Well, it's been a great entertainment value -- I mean, let's face it -- to the Clinton administration. And I think one of the things that Bush is going to have to worry about now that Clinton is just going to be now a cab ride away still in Washington is if he doesn't kind of project that presidential image and hold the screen in the way that Clinton did and Reagan did before him, that's a vacuum that I think the Clintons I think, both of them, I think are going to go into pretty quickly.

KURTZ: Susan.

FEENEY: But did we expect anything else from Bill Clinton? We thought he would go quietly? No, of course not. And we'll hear lots more from him I think.

KALB: A bit of profundity from me, if I may. Are we destined to see a split screen for the next four years, Bush on one half of the screen and Clinton on the other?

KURTZ: Well, you know, I was watching television, and Wolf Blitzer on this network was interviewing Laura Bush. And they were playing the interview. And on MSNBC, Chris Matthews was talking to Lucianne Goldberg and asking whether Bill Clinton was a liar. So there is a split-screen aspect to this.

And one parting thought before we go on this segment, watching all those reporters shivering out there in the rain today, I thought maybe it should be like the Super Bowl. They should move it to Tampa. It's always cold at this time of year.


KURTZ: Well, when we come back, Jesse Jackson's affair and out- of-wedlock daughter exposed by a supermarket tabloid. That's next.


KURTZ: Live picture of the Capitol on this inaugural Saturday. Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

CNN has just gotten confirmation that Ronald Reagan, former President Reagan, has been released from the hospital after his hip surgery. The release came in California at 5:30 p.m. Eastern time. Reagan is now back in his home in Bel Air, California. We're glad to hear that.

We turn now to another story this week that also grabbed the media spotlight.


KURTZ (voice-over): It began with this, a scoop by reporter Patricia Schipp (ph) in the "National Enquirer." Jesse Jackson's love child, the account of his affair with top Rainbow Coalition aide Karin Stanford and their 20-month-old daughter.

But it wasn't just another tabloid allegation. It was a solid story which quickly made its way around the media universe from the New York tabloids to the top newspapers, from the web to television news.


RANDALL PINKSTON, CBS NEWS: This morning, Jesse Jackson admits that he has stumbled.



DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: Needless to say, it is a story filled with political ironies and implications.


KURTZ: Reverend Jackson, who counseled President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair, quickly admitted the story was true and said he, quote, "fully accepts responsibility for his actions."

The civil right leader, who is also the host of CNN's "Both Sides With Jesse Jackson," said he is truly sorry and that his family is going through a painful time.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: Mark Whitaker, has there been a certain sense of media restraint on this Jackson story? I mean, it hasn't been an around-the clock, top-of-the-newscast story. Admittedly, it's been a busy week. But could it have anything to do with the fact that Jesse Jackson is a liberal and an African American leader?

WHITAKER: Well, you know, the fact is, Howie, people seem to think that the press enjoys doing these kinds of stories. The fact is we really don't. I mean, there may be some publications that do. But I think most of us sort of in the mainstream media really don't relish the prospect of digging into people's personal lives.

KURTZ: That doesn't mean it's not newsworthy, of course.

WHITAKER: Yeah, that's true. But I think it got a lot of coverage. I mean, I don't see that it was necessarily under-covered.

I mean, the fact is that it had some implications. But I don't think it has profound implications. And I think we probably pretty much handled it the way we should have.

KURTZ: Is there no longer any sheepishness in the media, Walter Shapiro, about chasing a "National Enquirer" story? I mean, eight years ago when the "Star" brought up Gennifer Flowers in relation to Bill Clinton, a lot of journalists felt kind of slimy about it. Now it's just, you know...

SHAPIRO: Well, first of all, Jesse Jackson did something that Bill Clinton always found hard to do. When caught, confess.

KURTZ: Right.

SHAPIRO: And then one...

KURTZ: He put out a statement as the tabloid was preparing to go to press.

SHAPIRO: Exactly.

FEENEY: He did.

KURTZ: Acknowledging the affair and the daughter.

SHAPIRO: So that we were not having that whole question, can you trust the reporting of the "National Enquirer" since Jackson had taken that off. But it's just so hard -- I thought about it when I wrote about it myself.

Is there any reason not to write about this? And the arguments are just too persuasive.

He's somebody who could run for president in 2004. He is someone who counseled the president of the United States. He is one of the major figures of the Democratic Party. And he is a man of the cloth.

FEENEY: He's a public figure. He is a moral leader, which in some ways is a tripwire too, as you referred that he counseled the president during Monica Lewinsky.

But also, there is a sense to while we don't like writing about these things, he trips what journalists would sort of call the hypocrisy wire in that sense of preaching one thing and doing another. And that is news.

WHITAKER: Within the black community, there are really two schools of thought. And I've talked a lot of people about this in the last few days.

KURTZ: Sure.

WHITAKER: One is there are the people who are very protective of Jesse. And probably when these rumors were out there months ago probably did what they could to keep him quiet and keep people from pursuing him.

There's another school of thought that's angry about the fact that people still seem to view Jackson as the leader of black America. The fact is, he doesn't have a huge constituency. He is a leader. But a lot of blacks feel that he is hardly the leader and that one of the things that is painful about this is just sort of the feel that somehow the one person who is anointed and gets all of the attention all of a sudden is exposed as having these skeletons in the closet.

So I think a lot of black folks at least would feel more comfortable about someone like Jesse being taken down a peg if the media was more open to seeing the spectrum of (INAUDIBLE).

KURTZ: A wider range, yes. Bernie.

KALB: Walter, let me go back to the itemized reasons you gave as to justify the widespread coverage of this story. What about the philosophical approach of is it an invasion of privacy? To what degree, for example, a question will be asked, does Jesse Jackson's private behavior impact on his role as a moral leader?

SHAPIRO: It's a hard one. I'm sympathetic on some levels that...

KALB: Let me in here for a quick phrase. We tend -- we are in this position now of examining ourselves constantly with the kind of journalism that's existing today about invading, invading, invading. Should he have not been invaded on this point?

SHAPIRO: I think there are just too many arguments. If it had just been one of those things I ticked off, that he might run -- or he ran for president in the past, or he was brought in to talk to Clinton, I would say that it's a case. But there are just so many reasons that make this newsworthy, though I must say I started to wonder exactly why was Jim Baker's problem so newsworthy since other than being a prominent man of the cloth, his fall from grace was not relevant on any of these other standards?

KURTZ: I would add, Bernie, that this woman, Karin Stanford, worked for Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. And, in fact, Rainbow Coalition money was used -- $35,000 we're told yesterday -- to arrange a severance payment for her, to arrange for her to move from Washington to Los Angeles. So there is a question about the money of the organization that Jackson was such a visible head of?

I'm curious, Mark Whitaker, I've heard some conservatives say that maybe the mainstream media is a bit afraid of Jesse Jackson in terms of really going after him hard because he's rather expert in charging large corporations with racism

WHITAKER: Yeah, there's no question about that. He's very good at organizing boycotts. That's one of the things he does.

You know, I don't think that's the reason that this story was not pursued. It's not as if the corporate executives or the big media companies said, "Oh, we can't take on Jesse Jackson."

I think if some reporters had some inklings, I think we were making the judgment calls we always make of what is ultimately the relevance of this story? And frankly, for a lot of people, do you want to be first one to dig into this?

KURTZ: Easier to -- go ahead, Bernie.

KALB: Do you think that was a factor in the ultimate revelation of this particular story? When you read all the copy, it suggests that the story to some degree was known around town, but there might have been a journalistic hesitancy about rushing into print on this.

FEENEY: Well, there are a lot of things we are led into it by the tabloids. When the mainstream press is more hesitant, the tabloids go with it. We had it with Gennifer Flowers on things before...

KALB: And Dick Morris.

FEENEY: ... And Dick Morris. And we followed behind.


KURTZ: But we also didn't have all the facts in this particular case. I've got to break here, Walter, I'm sorry. And when we come back, Bill Clinton's last-minute deal with special prosecutor Robert Ray. Will the press let the Clinton scandals fade into history?



JAKE SIEWERT, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Today represents the conclusion of the Lewinsky investigation by the Office of the Independent Counsel.



ROBERT RAY, INDEPENDENT COUNSEL: President Clinton has acknowledge responsibility for his actions.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Susan Feeney, was the press had by Bill Clinton? Thursday night, he gives a televised farewell speech, gets lots of nice coverage, knowing full well we didn't know he knew that yesterday he would have to admit to false testimony in the Lewinsky matter.

FEENEY: But anybody who's covered Bill Clinton for a long time like we all have, you know there is always another surprise. It's a roller coaster. It has been from the beginning and the end.

I actually thought the big surprise would come in the pardons. I didn't expect this. Had no -- we do every president's exit. We're going to do his over and over again.

WHITAKER: Don't you think we're all relieved by this, frankly? I mean, I don't...


WHITAKER: ... I don't -- just have this over with. You know, I think that Bush was really not looking forward to the question of are you going to pardon him? I don't think he would have.

KURTZ: Huge distraction.

WHITAKER: Right. Right. But then if Ray had gone ahead and indicted him, I think a lot of people would have assumed that somehow Bush was behind it.

This at least closes the chapter. And I think both people who are in favor of impeachment and people who thought it was a travesty probably are glad.

KURTZ: But the journalists who worked so hard on impeachment, are they now going to feel a sense of vindication because finally on the last day of his eight-year term Bill Clinton said, "Yes, I did engage in false testimony." He hadn't used that word before.

WHITAKER: Yeah. Yeah. Although, what's interesting is it happened after the initial -- as we said at the time, it was really the cover-up more than the initial crime.

KALB: But there some inverse dimension to this story. The headlines on yesterday's newspapers and on television all had to do with Clinton. Here today...


KALB: ... exactly, today, it happened yesterday. That was the lead. Banner headlines all about Clinton, and this poor fellow is being inaugurated as president. It was all Clinton, Clinton, Clinton. So? So? So Clinton, for a guy who basks in the limelight, it was nirvana. FEENEY: You were expecting something else?

SHAPIRO: All I could think of was Jimmy Carter and his last hours in office negotiating to release the hostages. Bill Clinton spent his last hours in the office negotiating through David Kendall to admit that he lied under oath.

And I think that when the Clinton presidency is weighed, those final hours matter in the same way that I think it's -- I wonder what would have happened if a month ago Bill Clinton had announced that he was going to pardon Susan McDougal.

KURTZ: Bernie, you're certainly right that Clinton stole the spotlight one last time. But I'm sure he didn't want the final act the last day of his presidency to be about this. He wanted it to be about peace and prosperity and all that he had done for the country.

But I'm wondering, Susan Feeney, Clinton-Lewinsky has sustained the media for so long. And certainly a lot of people are very angry at us for our seeming obsession with this story. Does it now finally fade, or does it live on forever on lots of night time talk shows where it will still be argued did he get off too easy, should Ray have prosecuted, et cetera?

FEENEY: I think that it finally fades, but not right away. CNN, Susan McDougal coming up. No...

KURTZ: Tonight, Susan McDougal, yeah.

FEENEY: ... They never go away. I think we've got a little more of it. But certainly, George Bush's hope would be that it fades.

SHAPIRO: Linda Tripp lost her job. I mean, there are just so many elements where this just goes on and on.

I mean, Watergate still goes on and on. If someone said to you, "I want to come on the show next week, and I will admit that I was Deep Throat," would you say...


SHAPIRO: ... that this is really, that's old news, nobody is interested?

KURTZ: Walter, we're out of time. Walter Shapiro, Mark Whitaker, Susan Feeney, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, some advice for the new presidential press secretary on Bernie's "Backpage."


KURTZ: Time now for "The Backpage." Bernie.

KALB: Howie, the new president gave us a clue as to his thinking about the media in an interview with the "New York Times" the other day. Mr. Bush said he had warned his press secretary Ari Fleischer that, quote, "At times, he would withhold information so that Mr. Fleischer could truthfully profess ignorance to reporters," unquote.

And Mr. Bush told Mr. Fleischer, "When I tell you, you are not going to know something, you say, 'Yes, sir.'"

Well, with all due respect, Mr. President, how about, "No, sir?" Ari, you do that, say, "No, sir." And you'll be doing the new president and yourself a great favor because keeping the spokesman out of the loop is the fastest way to destroy his believability.

If the press sees the spokesman as briefing in the dark as simply a wind-up doll sent out to spout nice things about the boss, his credibility is in question. So too, the administration's.

The only way to avoid all this is for the spokesman to be given not less access, but greater access to the big decisions being made in the White House. That's the critical part of the job. White House spokesmen have to win the confidence of the press corps, convince reporters they know what they're talking about even when they have to retreat to, "No comment."

Your turn now, Ari. Good luck.

KURTZ: Yes, sir. Bernard Kalb.

That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again for a special edition tomorrow morning 11:30 a.m. Eastern. We'll talk more about what's ahead for the media and the new forty-third president, and we'll talk with the "National Enquirer" reporter who broke the story about Jesse Jackson.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.



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