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Reliable Sources

How Has the Press Covered the Changing of the Guard?; Breaking Jesse Jackson's Out-of-Wedlock Daughter Story

Aired January 21, 2001 - 11:30 a.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: George Bush's first day in office. Bill Clinton, private citizen, avoids prosecution. How has the press covered this dramatic changing of the guard? Jesse Jackson's out-of- wedlock daughter. We'll talk to the "National Enquirer" reporter who broke the love child story and a panel of top journalists about the media's handling of the latest sex scandal.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb. After the pomp and the parades and the parties this Inaugural weekend, the press is gearing up to cover a new president, a new administration, and a new era that George W. Bush says will be marked by a return to civility. Will the fourth estate play along?

Well, joining us now to talk about President Bush and the media, Clarence Page, columnist for the "Chicago Tribune," Marjorie Williams, columnist of the "Washington Post" and a contributor to "Talk" magazine, and Rich Lowry, the editor of "National Review."

Clarence Page, this morning's New York Times we see it here, Johnny Apple writes, inevitably a question mark hung over George W. Bush as he raised his right hand. The question mark obviously being the razor thin nature of his victory by way of the Supreme Court. Are the media now overdoing this storyline? I mean, the guy won. He's president.

CLARENCE PAGE, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, the events still keep catching up with us. I think the very atmosphere yesterday when because of the weather in part, you had what seemed to be an extraordinarily large number of demonstrators out there critical of the Bush election. You have the long good-bye of Clinton that had to be in part inspired by the notion that half the nation did not vote for this new president. And of course, is it's going to shape the politics. You can't deny that. They're coming off. So I don't think we're beating a dead horse at all. It's a very lively horse.

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, is the press betraying some liberal leanings here by saying that Bush, despite giving a nice speech today, isn't engaging bipartisanship, serving up controversial conservative nominees, John Ashcroft, Gail Norton. Is the media definition of bipartisanship only that which the Democrats will go along with?

LOWRY: Yeah, I think absolutely. I think what Bush will find, he's probably getting a tiny bit of a honeymoon here, but what he'll find in the long run --

KURTZ: 12 or 14 hours perhaps?

LOWRY: Exactly. What he'll find in the long run is the media deck is subtly, but insistently, stacked against him. And I think the Ashcroft controversy is a great example of this, where you know, you can argue that Bush was divisive by appointing an Attorney General who basically shares his politics. I don't think that's the case. You could also plausibly argue that the people who are really being divisive are those that are calling John Ashcroft a racist without any evidence whatsoever. But this is a plausible viewpoint that has been totally ignored and not represented at all in the media and the coverage of this controversy.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Marjorie, Rich is talking about stacked against him, but let me raise a question that The New York Times raised in an editorial just a few days ago. And it raised the question, on the political complexion of the nominees that President Bush has set forth, the question being, did the media dig deeply enough into Bush during the campaign to get the basic Bush, so that we all knew what might be coming in terms of the nominees?

MARJORIE WILLIAMS, "WASHINGTON POST": I think the media dug as deeply as they could into that question. I think the basic Bush is very much...

KALB: So why...

WILLIAMS: ... a work in progress.

KALB: If they dug deeply, why are some of the nominees a surprise to people?

WILLIAMS: Well, I don't think they should be an enormous surprise. I mean, I think if you look at it through a very political lens, Bush has done quite a clever job of balancing kind of the mainstream with the -- more of the conservative elements of his party, who indeed had muscled themselves during the campaign. I found an extraordinary quote from Jerry Falwell, where he said, "You know, I gave him great running room during the campaign." It's this incredible lesson, as you said.

And Bush does have a constituency to please there. So I don't think that this should have astonished any of us, really.

KURTZ: Clarence Page, there's been a lot of talk from President Bush and the people around him about changing the tone in Washington. But let's face it, the press doesn't have any interest in that. You can't have shows like "Crossfire" and "Hardball" unless you have knock down, drag out fights.

PAGE: Conflict, that's right.

KURTZ: So I wonder if the media will go along with this call for a return to civility. PAGE: We tend to pathologically, as you know Howard, zero in on conflict, the points of tension. We're not interested terribly in Rob Page and the other easy or Colin Powell, the other easy confirmations. We're interested in, as Rich was saying, you know, John Ashcroft and various others.

By the way, I share a complaint about the Ashcroft charge of racism. Ralph needed some leaders of the anti-Ashcroft coalition say the racist charge is a red herring of -- they said that from the beginning, but the media love to play it up because once you say the word 'race,' it's a great headline word. It excites viewers and readers. And -- but in fact, they're really talking about Ashcroft's integrity, not this alleged racism charge.

LOWRY: Clarence, if it's a red herring, it was one originally created by its detractors, Maxine Waters, Jesse Jackson, Pat Leahy, Bill Clinton all at some point suggested that John Ashcroft was a racist or had racial bias.

KURTZ: So why could you blame the media for repeating those charges from those politicians?

LOWRY: Well, there's nothing wrong with repeating them, but it might be good to point out that these are truly the divisive figures that are smearing John Ashcroft.

If I could go back to a point Marjorie made of the surprise of these cabinet nominations. A lot of them were a surprise in the strict technical sense that we didn't know the name before hand. And I think this goes to a point about the Bushes that potentially could be really important over the long run, which is their attitude towards leaks.

And it's going to create a problem for them in two ways. They're so concerned with not having leaks, one, they're going to have the media starved and sort of making up very speculative stories that probably aren't going to be helpful in the long run. And also, it's going to hurt their governing. This happened in the first Bush administration. They were so concerned with leaks. By the end, there was nothing to leak. The circle becomes so small and hermetically sealed that there are no fresh ideas or policies.

WILLIAMS: Well, they're kind of damned if they do and damned if they don't on that score.

KALB: Rich, you set it up perfectly for me. Here's an interview that Bush gave to The New York Times, published last Sunday, in which he said outloud in public in print, referring to Ari Fleischer, his press spokesman, saying that at one point Bush said he had cautioned Ari Fleischer, that at times he would withhold information so that Fleischer could truthfully profess ignorance. And Bush recalled telling Mr. Fleischer recently, "When I tell you I'm not going to know something, you say 'yes, sir.'"

Are you telling me that that is not anything less than a humiliation of Ari Fleischer, putting the press on notice that Ari Fleischer will be cut out of the loop.

WILLIAMS: This is -- I think this is in a long string of Bushes actually kind of telling you overtly things that people used to be embarrassed to acknowledge. Everyone has done this with their press secretary. It's what presidents do with their press secretaries.

KALB: Yeah, but you may do it, but there are consequences to keeping...

WILLIAMS: But to say it outloud...

KALB: ... his spokesman in the dark.

WILLIAMS: ... on the front page of The New York Times is quite another thing.

KALB: But you're whitewashing in a way. There are consequences for keeping the spokesman in the dark. He should know. And when he's in trouble, he may say, "No comment." But he has to know. And to tell the press outloud, "No, you're not going to know, Ari," that's bad news.

PAGE: Well, it's been called plausible deniability in the past.


PAGE: And it is practiced by a presence of both parties. And some press secretaries have said they would have preferred not to know. So they won't be in the position of having the fudge factor.

KURTZ: Their own credibility...

PAGE: Yeah.

KURTZ: Rich, I should mention I think there are a few journalists out there who would take issue with your notion that we simply make it up if we can't get the leaks. Someone else to make it up and we report what they say.

In any event, with no Cold War and no sex scandal and no soap opera presidency and no budget deficit and so on, is it possible that George W. Bush, who his own advisers say is not going to be in your living room 24/7, will be a less media-centric presidency and maybe the whole White House Washington extravaganza will fade a little bit as the media stories.

LOWRY: Absolutely. And the crucial indicator of this is a couple of weeks ago, when I think he made his last batch of cabinet appointments and he actually left, he just sort of announced them and left before the media had really asked any questions or the event was even over. I think one reporter just shouted a question, "Where are you going?" But you can't imagine any reporter ever having to ask Bill Clinton, you know, who was always right there and willing to talk.

WILLIAMS: I think that's a very plausible scenario, but you know, unexpected events are going to always intervene.

KURTZ: OK, let's call a halt right there. And when we come back, we'll shift gears and talk with the "National Enquirer" reporter who broke the story about Jesse Jackson's affair and his out-of- wedlock daughter. That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Well, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton weren't the only ones capturing the media spotlight this past week.


KURTZ (voice-over): It began with this scoop by reporter Patricia Shipp in the "National Enquirer": "Jesse Jackson's love child, the account of his affair by top Rainbow Coalition aide, Karen 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 the television news.


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



DIANNE 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 "fully accepts responsibility for his actions." The civil rights leader, who's also the leader of CNN's "BOTH SIDES WITH JESSE JACKSON," said that he is truly sorry and that his family is going through a painful time.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now from Los Angeles, Patricia Shiff, the staff writer for The National Enquirer who broke the Jesse Jackson story for the tabloid.



KURTZ: Patricia Shipp, Karen Stanford, the woman who bore Jesse Jackson's child, was obviously reluctant to talk. And in fact, initially denied to you there had been any affair. How were you able to confirm this story?

SHIPP: Well, we went through several different sources. And eventually she came back after denying it many times and said, "No comment." But there are a lot of things that went into this. We went through this whole process for about seven weeks, trying to follow up a tip and to make sure we were accurate. And let me just say there have been many reports saying that she got a million dollars for talking to us. And that is absolutely not true. Karen Stanford never gave me an interview.

When I approached her initially, she was caught off balance and answered a couple questions for me, but we never had an interview with her directly.

KURTZ: If she was not paid, was anybody in connection with this Jesse Jackson story paid by the "National Enquirer"?

SHIPP: That's not something that we normally do as a policy, talking about paying of sources or who the sources are.

KURTZ: That's not exactly a hard denial? Bernie?

KALB: Patricia, what were the first inklings you had about this story? You say you got a tip about seven weeks ago, but were there other tips in the media environment that were or were not acted upon?

SHIPP: Well, over the years, I have personally heard rumors of not necessarily a child, but of just infidelity on Reverend Jackson's part. But until this tip came, you know back about seven or eight weeks ago, we had nothing about a child. And then we just went ahead and started interviewing people and shaking some trees. And eventually, the truth fell out. And we went with it when we got everything in line.

KALB: Patricia, beyond the tip, did you ever -- did your radar ever pick up some vibrations that this story was there and that other people in the media who might have had this inkling did not act upon following up?

SHIPP: Not until our story hit. Then all of a sudden, I heard about another publication who said they were working on it, but didn't have it nailed down. But I don't know...

KURTZ: Patricia Shipp -- excuse me, Patricia Shipp, some in the black community and others who are supporters of Reverend Jackson say, "This is an invasion of his private life. Why do we need to know this?" So let me ask you quite simply, why is this a story?

SHIPP: Well, it's a legitimate news story, not only because he's head of Rainbow and the woman of his child worked under him, but Reverend Jackson in his public and personal life is a minister who is -- that was at one time the spiritual adviser to the President of the United States. So it's important that what he says is also -- is who he is. And so, it made it legitimate for that reason alone.

KURTZ: Patricia, Jesse Jackson commands a particular persona. He is in his own emblematic of ethics, portrait he projects of himself, etcetera. Did you in writing this story ever consider the consequences of the revelations you made, the impact on Jesse Jackson and his image?

SHIPP: Well, you know, when you're doing a story, of course, that enters your mind, but it shouldn't affect the story. The story was solid and it was legitimate. So in my opinion, that's something that Reverend Jackson should have thought about. It's not something that is my personal responsibility.

KURTZ: Were you surprised that Jesse Jackson, even after you essentially had this story confirmed, refused to speak to you or The National Enquirer, but as you were preparing to go out to press, put out a sort of a pre-emptive strike of a statement in which he acknowledged the essence of the story?

SHIPP: No, I wasn't surprised because that's how it usually works if people don't want to talk, they want to have control of what they say and how it is said. So to put out a statement and be in control of the copy just -- it was a control factor he didn't want to give up. So no, it wasn't surprising at all.

KALB: Could I take you back to the very first question that Howie asked you as to the why Karen Stanford finally disclosed the information to you? How did you go about that process because you got a series of denials to begin with, and yet you persistently kept up with the story. What was the magic in getting her to confirm and to reveal?

SHIPP: Well...

KALB: This is a kind of a journalistic 101 story, but I'd like to hear what you say.

SHIPP: Well, of course I kept coming back after her in trying to get her to talk to me and to get more information. Obviously it's better to get it from the people directly involved than sources. But I think, she just thought about it. I don't think there was a magic wand that I waved or anything. I just think as time went on, and she knew this was coming out, she didn't want in print to deny that the father of her child was Reverend Jesse Jackson. And her child would find that out much later that she denied it. So I just -- at least that's the way she expressed it to me, is that she just didn't want this to be in print that she denied it.

KURTZ: Patricia Shipp, you have just a few seconds. Was the Rainbow Coalition, which after all made a large payment to Karen Stanford to help her relocate to Los Angeles among other things, uncooperative in your reporting of the story?

SHIPP: Well, first of all let me correct you on that. I don't know if the Rainbow Coalition gave her that. When I talked to Ms. Stanford, she told me that Reverend Jesse Jackson gave her that money. Now beyond that...

KURTZ: The group has since acknowledged a $35,000 payment. SHIPP: OK.

KURTZ: But in any event, just briefly, did they cooperate or did they just sort of stonewall you?

SHIPP: No, they basically just didn't return phone calls as far as I know. There were other reporters on the story, in collaboration with me. And as far as I'm concerned, they didn't return my phone calls.


SHIPP: Now whether they just called them back, I don't know.

KURTZ: Patricia Shipp from The National Enquirer. Thanks very much for joining us. And picking up our discussion here, Clarence Page, you were also trying to nail down the allegations or rumors of this story. Do you sense since this story broke just a couple of days ago, a certain media restraint? This has not been -- it's been a story that's been covered. Everybody knows about it, but it hasn't been around the clock, drumbeat top of the newscast sort of thing. Is Jesse Jackson getting a little easier treatment than some other people caught in these humiliating circumstances?

PAGE: I don't know if you can call it easy. I mean, you've seen The National Enquirer. They're -- not to mention the late night comedians having a field day with it. You know, frankly, I was not that excited about this story at first because of a couple of things. One, there have been rumors about Jackson infidelities in the past and even been written about or reported on 60 Minutes, questioned Jackie Jackson directly during the '84 campaign. And she gave an indirect answer saying, you know, anybody that gets in my family affairs is the bottom line.

KURTZ: But there's a difference between rumors about fooling around and...

PAGE: Right.

KURTZ: And a 20 month old daughter born out of wedlock.

PAGE: You know what grabbed me about this story? The fact that this was apparently going on while he was counseling the President in the Monica Lewinsky affair. That was where I thought it was legitimately worth pursuing. And so my colleagues did as well. But we ran into stonewalls that -- The Enquirer was just more persistent. I give them credit. I got beat. And you know, it's not a good feeling.

KALB: Just a quick follow-up to you, Clarence, did you pick up, did you hear vibrations of this story in the media community that you work in ?

PAGE: Yes.

KALB: You did? PAGE: Yes. I'm not going to name any names, but I know at least magazine and a local TV station somewhere in this country that was working on this story. I'm sure there were others because there was a -- I heard from a source here in Washington initially. Another colleague of mine heard it from a source in Boston. I mean, this story was around in the atmosphere.

KURTZ: Marjorie Williams, do you have a sense that big media corporations perhaps treat Jessie Jackson with kid gloves. That he is, after all, known for accusing big companies of racism and that maybe there's just a little more hesitancy than there might be with some of those.

WILLIAMS: I felt this story was soft-cut a little bit. It appeared on page A-27 of The New York Times.

KURTZ: One column headline.

WILLIAMS: One -- you know, between an ad and the weather. Now The Times are famous for bearing sex scandals, but I think the media also were somewhat taken aback by this sort of clarity with which Jackson handled it. He was very smart. And this was, you know, an affair he had with a grown-up, not with an intern.

KURTZ: Like somebody who was a Rainbow Coalition.

WILLIAMS: He acknowledged it correctly. Oh -- I'm saying, it's not that I think...

KURTZ: Yes. The point is that he didn't have the cover-up as such.

WILLIAMS: ... anyone thinks it's an illegitimate story, but he didn't have the cover-up aspect, which is so frequently the media's reason for you know, really hounding someone.

KALB: Rich, invasion of privacy. Just philosophically, let me put that question to you. In this particular case, yes or no or maybe or certainly?

LOWRY: Yeah, well I think it's a sad story. In an ideal world, this kind of thing wouldn't get reported, but we're obviously -- media rules are way beyond that now. And this sort of thing is fair game. But the question of the double standard, I mean, for people like myself who are skeptical of the media and think this is -- they're biased, this is like a heaven-sent example of a double standard.


LOWRY: It's almost as good as the Hilary book deal. Because if he had founded an organization that was called the Christian, rather than the Rainbow Coalition, he would be practically stoned and drummed from public life. And that has just not happened.

KURTZ: Like Jimmy Swaggart?

LOWRY: Yeah, so well...

KURTZ: ... drummed from public life? I mean, he made a recovery...

LOWRY: Well, there was much...

KURTZ: That's not happened because he's a black liberal?

LOWRY: Hmm? Well, look, he has been a scandal waiting to happen for a long time. The other question like Jesse Jackson, where does all the money come from? That's something that no one's willing to look into because he will call you a racist. And that's one of the worst things you can be called in our public life. So he does get it...

KURTZ: So let me -- You think the Bush administration will look into it?

WILLIAMS: Completely legitimate.

KALB: Yeah, but it's not a scandal waiting to happen. That's a pretty big number you've just tossed off.

LOWRY: Sure. Well, look, it's an open secret in the black community that there's tension between Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson because Al Sharpton harasses corporations on the principal that they should be harassed. Jesse Jackson harasses them to get them to contribute to his organizations.

KURTZ: Jesse Jackson, by the way, says he's coming back to public life after a very short interregnum in the next week. Thank you all. And coming up next, we'll talk about another figure in the news, Bill Clinton, and can the media really let the former president go?


KURTZ: Welcome back. Well some people at least aren't convinced that Bill Clinton is really gone. Let's take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As you know, earlier today, George W. Bush was sworn into office and now here's your president. For a majority of us, that's a hard pill to swallow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are you doing here? I thought they flew you out of town.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hello, George. Shouldn't you be out celebrating?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, I was. I was boogying down to the Marshall Tucker band when someone saw you on TV and said, "Here look, there's the president." I said, "Hey guys, how's it going?" And they were like, "No, you turdhead, the real president on TV." I said, "But I am the real president." And then everybody laughed, which really steamed me. So here I am.


KURTZ: Marjorie Williams, did Bill Clinton trump the president in his final act by announcing the Lewinsky deal, in which he acknowledged false testimony finally after all this time and a bunch of pardons for everyone from Susan McDougal to his own brother in the final hour so there was not much chance for coverage, not any chance for questions?

WILLIAMS: Of course he did, he's Bill Clinton.

KURTZ: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: I mean, Bill Clinton's final 48 hours were Clinton to the max.

KURTZ: And you're not personally offended by this?

WILLIAMS: No, I'm not.


KALB: Rich, are we going to see, you know, they often talk about the 100 days of the president. Are we going to see the media involved in the 100 days of Clinton not being president, a kind of switch screen often four years?

LOWRY: I think there's something to that. You know, the press can't let him go. He's kind of a walking...

KALB: He's a story.

LOWRY: He's a walking soap opera. I also think there's also a liberal -- if a Republican had lied and cheated so brazenly, I think most figures in the media wouldn't find it quite so charming as they do now. But anyway, he tarnished the presidency and now he's obviously busy with the work of tarnishing the ex-presidency.

KURTZ: Well, that's a serious point, which is you know, on the final day of his eight years in office, Bill Clinton acknowledges what everybody already knew, that he gave false testimony in the Lewinsky matter, but it gets overshadowed by the Bush Inaugural.

PAGE: And the Jesse Jackson story that is opening, going on.

KURTZ: And all the other stuff. So is he getting away with it or should the press come back with second and third and fourth day stories about the denouement of the investigations?

PAGE: Oh, you know, he's not leaving the public eye. You know, I finally became convinced of Clinton's reluctance to leave when he made his farewell, that long farewell at Andrews Air Force Base, another rally. You know, it's like -- I said, "Good heavens now, the man really doesn't want to get out of here." And considering the current divided political atmosphere in the country and his own charisma, able to exploit controversy as well as conquest, he's not going to leave. He makes great copy.

WILLIAMS: But didn't you hear that Jimmy Carter is his model for the ex-presidency?

PAGE: Ah, the man associating...

WILLIAMS: Did anybody hear that?

KURTZ: He's going to be on TV a lot more than that. Majorie Williams, Rich Lowry, Clarence Page, Bernard Kalb, thanks very much for joining us. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: This edition of RELIABLE SOURCES on this Inaugural weekend. I'm Howie 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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