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Did Media Inflate Story About Possibility of McCain Leaving GOP?; Is the Press Easier on Daschle Than Lott?

Aired June 9, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: McCain's media mischief: Did the press pump up the story that the Arizona senator might -- might -- leave the GOP? Were journalists blatantly used by McCain advisers or can they simply not resist writing about their favorite maverick senator? And Tom Daschle's day in the sun -- are the media giving the Democratic leader an easier ride than Trent Lott?

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

John McCain back in the news this week with a story that seemed to spin out of control.


KURTZ (voice-over): The chain reaction began with a story on the front page of "The Washington Post" saying "McCain is Considering Leaving GOP" and, "Might Launch a Third-Party Challenge to Bush in 2004." Although McCain quickly said he does not have, quote, "any intention or cause to leave the Republican Party," the story has fueled a media explosion.

RUSS MITCHELL, CO-ANCHOR, "THE EARLY SHOW," CBS: Washington is still buzzing over speculation another Republican will jump ship.

KURTZ: The weekend visit by new Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to McCain's Arizona ranch kept the story in the spotlight. Despite statements by aides declaring the weekend retreat was just a social event -- the same official line when McCain went to the White House to dine with President Bush.

But reporters are continuing to question McCain's political intentions. Did journalists push the envelope to run with a half- baked story based on leaks from McCain advisers and are they seduced by McCain's media magnetism?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for "The Washington Post," Richard Berke, chief political correspondent for "The New York Times" and Jill Zuckman, chief congressional correspondent for "The Chicago Tribune." Welcome. Dana Milbank, you and Tom Edsall wrote the story that McCain may bolt the party, may run for president, may challenge George Bush. And within hours the senator issued a statement saying he had, quote, "No intention of leaving the GOP." In retrospect, did you get a little too far out on a limb?

DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, Howie, the statement -- the no intention statement -- actually appeared in our story. It was the same thing he said to us when he said that. Now, of course, when you really want to rule something out you don't say, "I have no intention at the present time of doing that." There -- it was a bit -- we did, I suppose, start it in a way with our story but the afternoon before the cable news channels were running with all of these stories about...

KURTZ: McCain meeting with Daschle.

MILBANK: ... McCain going out to meet with Daschle. And I think that contributed to this and suddenly that started the whole thing going.

KURTZ: Now, Rick Berke, you came out the next day with a much more skeptical piece and I'm wondering whether you view this whole bit of speculation as kind of wishful thinking by certain McCain advisers?

RICHARD BERKE, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I think it was but I think you have to write about it nevertheless because they're out they, they have his support whether it's tested or not. But you know that John McCain didn't tell them to be quiet so you have to write about it.

Whenever I write about John McCain I think to myself, "This guy gets so much publicity and we're feeding into this. We're sort of pawns of John McCain. Yet, on the other hand, he's an important political figure. The president of the United States is playing up to him, so is Tom Daschle, so are other people on The Hill. We can't ignore him but you have to inject a little skepticism in your coverage of him.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Jill, would you have run with this story that Dana half-wrote, since it was a joint byline? For example -- for example -- in Dana's half story they talk about, "those close to the senator say", he talks about advisers, he talks about loyalists, he talks about confidantes. Is that good enough for you to have gone with that story?

JILL ZUCKMAN, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": It's not good enough for "The Chicago Tribune" -- sorry, Dana. If you remember the "Dewey Beats Truman" headline the Tribune...

KALB: "Dewey Defeats."

ZUCKMAN: ... or "Dewey Defeats" -- sorry -- the paper is very, very skeptical of unnamed sources. And, you know, it's just not good enough. If he's really planning on doing it and his key advisers are saying it, then they should be able to say it without being anonymous.

KALB: This story -- this story would have been spiked at "The Chicago Tribune," so it's good you're working at "The Post."

MILBANK: Bernie, I have to say, that we did -- the story is not based on unnamed sources -- there were several of them quoted in it, right? In the lead we refer to the people familiar with it and then we name those people familiar with it later in the story.

KALB: But, actually, in the story if you read it the way I did, you really do not have a precise link between the two. You leave a little bit of air between them.

MILBANK: There's a little bit of air.

KALB: There you go.

MILBANK: There were a few things said that were a little bit stronger off the record -- a lot of very strong things that were said on background.

KALB: What's said off the record that I'm not aware of?

MILBANK: People later called back and asked if they could -- they said there's a little bit of internal trouble going on and they asked if we could remove them from it. So we have a lot more information than we provided in the story.

KURTZ: The distinction here is there was a split among some McCain's advisers. Some of them would love for him to get...

MILBANK: There's definitely a split and the truth is, as we said in the story, there's nothing eminent -- McCain has not made up his mind in any way. As Rick was saying earlier, it is wishful thinking from a lot of his advisers but these advisers are the same guys who talked him into running for president the last time. So I feel like you've got to give some serious weight to that. We didn't say he's going to do this.

ZUCKMAN: But, you know, I think part of it also depends on which advisers are we talking about? There are a lot of people who might describe themselves as advisers to McCain. And by just saying advisers I don't know if we're talking about Marshall Whitman or Bill Kristol who I think are very far away from the center of action...

KURTZ: But who love to be quoted on this subject.

ZUCKMAN: Yeah, you know, love McCain, love to talk about McCain. Or if we're talking about John Weaver and Mark Salter who are the people who are right next to McCain. Now if John Weaver and Mark Salter are saying, you know, "He's set up, he's going to leave, he's going to run for president," then I would take that really, really seriously...

MILBANK: Well, Jill, you and I covered McCain together, and I know as well as you know who the people are that you should be listening to.

BERKE: Well, I think the biggest mistake during the campaign by many in the press was this overly flattering coverage of John McCain. I mean, he's an appealing guy to cover, he's very friendly to the press, he has a certain charisma that we don't see much in American politics. So -- and he made a real difference in terms of getting the support of a lot of independent voters.

So he was impossible to ignore but I also thought the coverage was a little over the top, a little too friendly and I think that's something that we all have to take care not to let happen again.

KURTZ: But isn't it awfully easy, Rick Berke, to write a story about any politician who may be considering, or not shutting the door on running in 2004? Or are those stories inherently dangerous because who knows what they're going to do?

BERKE: They're quite dangerous because the motives -- politicians have all kinds of motives. Like McCain's motive here might not be to run or jump...

KURTZ: Headlines; headlines.

BERKE: ... parties, but to get attention and to sort of build his clout on the Hill and with the president on the issues he's pushing. And this is very beneficial to him whether or not he leaves the party or is even conceiving of that idea. And I think that's what is important for all of these stories to point out.

KALB: Rick, I want to solidify your relationship with William Safire, a columnist colleague of yours at "The New York Times." When Bill Safire picked this story apart, he had a flat out accusation of McCain being -- what was the phrase he used -- having directed his advisers to go out and plant this story so that he could later repudiate it.

What do you make of a flat-out accusation, essentially, of McCain lying when he said, "No intention," blah, blah, "I didn't tell anybody?"

BERKE: Well, I don't know. A columnist can say that. I don't know what Bill's sources are on that. All I ...

KALB: No, this was speculation -- his own.

BERKE: One can speculate. All I can say is...

KALB: I believe -- excuse me -- I believe he is in full control.

BERKE: Yeah, all I can say is I find it unusual that a politician like John McCain says, you know, "I had nothing to do with this and there are just people around me." It just doesn't happen that way in politics. So I think we have to at least raise -- in our news stories, at least raise the possibility that he was behind it or he knew what they were doing.

ZUCKMAN: But, you know, this is one problem with the whole McCain organization, they are so friendly to the press -- it's not just McCain likes to talk to the press, it's every single person who works for McCain likes to talk to the press.

So in some ways I think it's conceivable that this spun out of control by, you know, some people talking out of school or having wishful thoughts or maybe trying to influence legislation or persuade Bush through these other means that he'd better sign campaign finance reform or else.

KURTZ: Well, part of what was fueling this story as well as the press, Dana Milbank was, of course, John McCain getting together with Tom Daschle, then the majority leader-to-be. And then both said it was a long-planned social event. They kept running those picture of McCain flipping hamburgers at his ranch in Sedona.

How much was that -- should the press be skeptical that this was just two guys getting together or was it -- was all the speculation about that particular get-together justified?

MILBANK: I don't think the speculation about that particular thing was justified. I mean, I think that is what it was and it was John McCain getting together with Tom Daschle not to announce anything dramatic.

KURTZ: But the Democrats had been courting McCain?

MILBANK: Yes, right that's true. And he's acknowledged that he did sit down and talk with several Democratic senators about switching parties. A lot of things came together on the Friday before this happened.

First we learned that he was going to see Daschle. An article appears in "Human Events" -- the conservative news weekly saying that Republicans are getting ready to mount a primary challenge to him in 2004. A lot of things had been building up there.

The truth be told, unless the planting of the story was being done extremely skillfully, we didn't feel like it was planted, which is the question we started asking.

KALB: Five seconds -- did Daschle and McCain make a hamburger out of the press?

BERKE: I think we did the best we could. I do think -- don't think that they could have canceled this. This might have been planned two months ago, but they knew it would get a lot of attention.

KALB: You've got to put more mustard on the story.


BERKE: How about some relish and hot sauce?

KURTZ: John McCain knows how to play the barbecue game when it comes to getting media attention; and we will have to leave it there.

Up next, Daschle's up, Lott's down: Is the press being fair in covering the upheaval in the Senate? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


SEN. TOM DASCHLE, (D-SD), MAJORITY LEADER: ... honored to serve as majority leader. But I also recognize that the majority is slim.



TOM BROKAW, ANCHOR, NBC: In Washington tonight it's now more than ceremonial, it's complete -- the Democrats are moving into the larger offices and into the chairman's chairs in the U.S. Senate. They're in charge.


KURTZ: The sound of political triumph as Democrats take control of the senate, a power shift not be election but by rejection of the Republican Party by Vermont's Jim Jeffords. Rick Berke, Tom Daschle's by all accounts a nice guy and a very patient man -- he's also a partisan Democrat. Hasn't he gotten remarkably upbeat coverage in the last week or so compared to, say, Trent Lott?

BERKE: He's never going to live up to the coverage. I feel -- I feel sorry for the guy because no one's a saint, you know, and it's really incredibly flattering coverage.

KURTZ: Why so flattering?

BERKE: Because I don't think -- first of all, I don't think that the press hasn't found him I just think the press hasn't found that much negative to say. He's a good guy, maybe it's his soothing voice or the fact that people like him. We can't write scathing, tough stories if it's not there.

But on the other hand I do think some of these pieces have gone over the top, been a little too flattering, a little too breathless. The guy got where he is because he's a tough politician and there's got to be better reporting out there that can give us a better insight -- more than just saying he's a nice guy. On the other hand let me just say when Trent Lott took over the senate leadership there were some pretty flattering stories about him. I wrote a magazine piece on the new leader of the Republican Party.

KURTZ: But that was a long time ago.

BERKE: That was a long time ago.

KURTZ: How would you -- how is Daschle at dealing with reporters? Is he anything like John McCain?

ZUCKMAN: Yes, it's a really good comparison because when he took over as minority leader six years ago he started having regular daily sessions with reports and he would take any and all questions. And so he really developed a good relationship with reporters and I also think...

KURTZ: Paying off now?

ZUCKMAN: I think it's paying off but, you know, I think you also have to compare him to Trent Lott. Trent Lott has been banged up over the last couple of years. His conference is in disarray. There are a lot of Republicans there who want to dump him. And so you look at him and you look at Daschle...

KURTZ: A little red meat for the press.

ZUCKMAN: ... you know.

KALB: You know, Dana, Rick sounds as though Daschle is a new guy on the block. He's been around quite a few years on The Hill and one would think that you already have done the political conclusions about Daschle. So if he's getting served up in this flattering, dazzling light, where have you guys been with the over-journalistic skepticism?

MILBANK: I think Rick is right in pointing to -- a bit too fluffy coverage of Daschle.

KALB: Yeah, but whose been around long enough here to be un- fluffy?

MILBANK: I'll explain. It's not that -- you can see -- take the comparison as the Republicans are doing this week to Newt Gingrich. He was a savage when he came to power after '94.

KURTZ: He was leading a revolution.

MILBANK: He was leading a revolution but you shouldn't be -- you should realize that Daschle has every intention of doing something similar...

KURTZ: Into the job.

MILBANK: The difference, I think, is what you were suggesting here and that is the good coverage that Daschle gets and the good coverage a guy like John McCain gets are not two different things. Much is said about sort of ideological bias in the press. The press just reacts to politicians that suck up to them.

KURTZ: It's all about stroking?

MILBANK: It's not terribly flattering but I think there's a lot of truth to it.

KALB: Howard, you used the word earlier on in this broadcast -- was the press seduced? He's just confirmed it.

BERKE: Yeah, well, let me just say, in this case of Daschle the press -- we like a story -- this is a new guy on the block. He just rolls in, no one expected this to happen. It's a great story. He has a little honeymoon. A new president usually has a little honeymoon.

KURTZ: And as soon as there's warfare and conflict on The Hill I'm sure he will make some mistakes...

BERKE: He's going to go up and down.

KURTZ: But conservatives, Rick, would say that reporters like the idea of a Democrat senate. My view would be what they like is the potential here for conflict.

BERKE: Yeah.

KURTZ: Because we had -- let's face it -- we had a boring old Republican government. Now we've got a boxing match.

BERKE: I always think people are mistaken when they say the press is bias one way or the other. The reporters I know are driven more by the story than by ideology whether it's Tom Daschle rising or George Bush rising, it's more a good story -- there's more conflict on The Hill now in American politics and that's why we're all going all out and writing about it.

KALB: Rick, so how come -- how come that analysis is not widely believed?

BERKE: Go figure, go figure.

KALB: I want to raise a question here about whether there's been enough press attention to the consequences of the shift in the chairmanships? What are the consequences, for example, of Biden taking over foreign affairs from Jesse Helms, Carl Levin taking -- yeah, John Warner in Armed Services and so on. I see the shifts but I'm looking for a greater depth in analysis consequences of the shift in the committees since the committee chairmen are so powerful.

ZUCKMAN: But, you know, a lot has happened in a very short period of time and I think a lot of reporters have just been spending their time trying to write about what it means for Jeffords to switch, from Daschle and Lott to trade places in terms of the agenda. But you're right -- the committee chairmanships are huge -- it's where the work gets done. And it's what sets the table for what happens on the senate floor. And so there's going to be a lot of differences in the issues you see.

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, just briefly, Fred Barnes said on television the other day that Jim Jeffords had been "nominated for sainthood by the networks, `Newsweek' and `TIME.'" Certainly his shift, abandoning the GOP, has been portrayed as kind of an act of conscience. Does Barnes have a point?

MILBANK: Well, sure he has a point in that he got good coverage for doing that not because of some sort of sympathy with his viewers but because, as Rick was saying, it just gave us a great story. They just shook us out of our boredom and...

KURTZ: So the low key guy from Vermont...


KURTZ: ... ends up blowing Washington.

MILBANK: We are in the uncomfortable position of rooting for catastrophe and disaster.

BERKE: Remember how the different sides of that thing go on the Sunday shows? This is not a publicity seeker, this is not a John McCain.

KURTZ: We'll have you all back for next week's catastrophe. Rick Berke, Dana Milbank, Jill Zuckman -- thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, the Bush daughters become cover girls and "Newsweek" ousts a non-existing critic.



Our talk about the so-called vandal scandal prompted lots of e- mail: "Sure the building was not set on fire or bomb but the vandalism did occur." And: "The trashing of the White House appears to be another press invention looking for another place get invented."

In fact, the story refuses to die. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer released an inventory last weekend of damage to computer keyboards and phone lines along with graffiti. Democrats say they still want proof. The General Accounting Office has launched a new probe.

And the media's still swarming over the story of the president's daughters. "People" magazine with a 13-page cover story, "Oops, They Did It Again." After our discussion last week one view wrote, "Would the press be so anxious to cover the same story if it were one of their own kids?" I think we know the answer to that.

Let us know your thoughts at

And checking other RELIABLE SOURCES media items, the movie critic who wasn't. Look how David Manning has been praising Columbia Pictures for some time. But "Newsweek" discovered there is no David Manning of the Ridgefield Press. That's an actual Connecticut weekly but it has no knowledge of the bogus movie reviews. The Connecticut Attorney General is investigating.

And musical chairs at "U.S. News and World Report." Owner Mort Zuckerman has named 46-year-old Brian Duffy as the magazine's executive editor replacing Steven Smith. The shake up comes as U.S. News lays off 10 percent of its editorial staff and shuts down its last three international bureaus. I guess it will be more U.S. news, less world report.

Also this week, CNN settled a lawsuit with fired producer Jack Smith over the Tailwind segment about alleged nerve gas use during the Vietnam war that the network had to retract. No specifics on the terms but Smith said, "It's serves as a down payment on restoring my reputation as a journalist."

Coming up next, how Hollywood looks at war in "Bernie's Backpage."


KURTZ: Time now for "The Backpage," Bernie?

KALB: "Pearl Harbor," the movie, has been in the news the past couple of weeks, so, too, Pearl Harbor the real one.


KALB (voice-over): And what happened there -- that day in 1941 -- is sacrosanct. You don't tinker with it or trivialize it. "A date which will live in infamy," to quote FDR.

But now along comes Disney -- the people who brought you Mickey Mouse -- along comes Disney with it's version of what happened at Pearl Harbor, $135 million mix of bombs and a three-way love story. And it's a blockbuster, even though lots of media critics thought the movie itself bombed.

OK, it's a free country, so Hollywood's got a right to deal with Pearl Harbor as merchandise, to write the script any way it wants; but there's something else going on here. The mangling of history, the laundering of reality, the sheer unrecognizability of the real scenario.

Bombs -- sure, lots of them -- but watching the movie you'd think all of this was America's fault, self inflicted -- that it was Uncle Sam who forced the peace-loving Japanese into war because of a cut-off of Japan's oil supply.

"There's nothing in the script," as The Wall Street Journal reviewer put it, "About imperial Japan's invasion of China and its designs on the rest of Asia." But, hey, this is more than half a century after Pearl Harbor. Yesterday's enemy, today's ally. The box office, the commander in chief.

So why stir up old hostilities and offend moviegoers in the old Axis Powers? The Japanese and the Germans will be getting a lightly watered down version of the movie. In other words, political correctness: The ultimate victor of World War II.

At "The L.A. Times," according to "The New York Times," there's a sudden official preference to describe Pearl Harbor not as a sneak attack, but as a surprise attack.


KALB: One of these days, if this trend continues, you'll be reading about Hiroshima as a city that underwent a little urban renewal, Auschwitz as that ideal resort for a little concentrated R&R.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks. 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.



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