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Interview with Bernard Goldberg

Aired February 17, 2002 - 09:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Just ahead, we'll talk to the author of the country's best- selling book, "Bias," by Bernard Goldberg, and explore the phenomenal success of his attack on the networks. We'll also weigh in on the Olympic ice skating scandal that has now landed on the covers of two newsmagazines this Sunday morning.

But first, Bernard Golberg will join our panel to examine the coverage of this week's big Hill showdown on campaign finance reform and the role of the Enron scandal in boosting the reformers' cause.


KATE SNOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Supporters of campaign finance reform are running what you might call a victory lap today. They held a press conference, triumphant. It was a long night and a very early morning for them.



UNIDENTIFIED NBC ANCHOR: During the night, a major victory for campaign finance reform on Capitol Hill...



DAN RATHER, ANCHOR: President Bush was noncommittal today on whether he would sign campaign finance reform legislation, the bill which was largely revived because of the taint of Enron.


KURTZ: Has the press turned Ken Lay into the nation's number one corporate villain?


KENNETH LAY, FORMER CEO, ENRON: I have, however, been instructed by my counsel not to testify based on my Fifth Amendment constitutional rights. I am deeply troubled about asserting these rights, because it may be perceived by some that I have something to hide.


KURTZ: So are journalists secretly, or not so secretly, rooting for campaign reform and its champion, John McCain? Has the coverage been fair to those who say the bill badly damages free speech? And has the press hyped the Enron story as a case study in political corruption?

Well, joining us now from Miami is Bernard Goldberg, former CBS News correspondent and the author of "Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News," Ron Brownstein, senior political correspondent for "The Los Angeles Times," and Jill Zuckman, congressional correspondent for "The Chicago Tribune."

Bernie Goldberg, do you believe that most journalists are not so much covering campaign finance reform as cheerleading for it?

BERNARD GOLDBERG, AUTHOR, "BIAS": Oh, yes, absolutely. I think from time to time an issue comes down the pike where reporters don't simply cover it, but they ought to put on short skirts and carry pompoms around. Feminism is one of those issues. Many issues in the field of race is another, gay rights is another.

And they do this not for cynical partisan reasons, I think, but simply because they think that no reasonable, civilized person could possibly be against that issue. And campaign finance reform is the current one.

KURTZ: Ron Brownstein, "The Wall Street Post" this morning digs up a memo from Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition leader turned lobbyist, pitching Enron for a $380,000 contrast. And he says, he writes, "In public policy, it matters less who has the best arguments and more who gets heard, and by whom."

So isn't it true that most reporters believe, perhaps with good reason, that there is a connection between big money and what happens on places like Capitol Hill?

RON BROWNSTEIN, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Yes, absolutely. First of all, Ralph Reed is trying to get business, he's trying to get Enron to hire him, so he may be overestimating the extent to which lobbying can win you what you want. But yes, I do think that in general, the press puts too much emphasis on the role of money in driving decisions in Washington. There are a lot of other factors, ideology, political positioning of the parties, ideals and what the principles of the politicians really are.

KURTZ: Ideals and principles?

BROWNSTEIN: Absolutely,. Now, all of these things matter quite a bit more than money suggests. And campaign finance reform is an area where the press's interest probably is larger than the public. But I think it's a mistake to say that the press has not also focused on the downsides of this. I mean, there's been a lot of coverage over the likelihood of parts of this being found unconstitutional, and of the history of campaign finance reform having unintended consequences.

So I don't think that's been missed in the press.

KURTZ: Jill Zuckman, you were in the trenches you were up on the Hill at 2:30 in the morning when the House passed the Shays-Meehan bill. What was it like to be in this crazed atmosphere where the opponents of Shays-Meehan were actually offering amendments that seemed to be even tougher than the Shays-Meehan bill?

JILL ZUCKMAN, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, you know, I think one of the problems with doing that is, they -- the opponents didn't have anything they were for. Normally the other side tries to be for something, to say, Oh, we're for it too. But in this case they were so against it that they were offering these amendments designed to confuse the situation and to undermine what the pro-campaign finance reform people were doing.

So it was a very kind of wild, confusing, and cynical stuff that was going on up there, and people were just running around like crazy trying to figure it out.

KURTZ: You must have been a little bleary-eyed.

Bernie Goldberg, what's wrong with reporters trying to dig around and establish connections between those who give big money to political campaigns and might get favors from the recipients of their largesse on Capitol Hill? Isn't that what reporters are supposed to do?

GOLDBERG: Oh, absolutely. And I'm certainly not against that. What I'm against is when reporters decide, whether it's campaign finance reform or any of the other issues, when they decide what the right side of the issue, what the proper side of the issue ought to be.

Let me just give you one example. This -- I mean, this debate's been going on for years. So one of the anchormen, whose name I just won't mention so it doesn't seem personal, which it isn't, opens his broadcast a few years ago saying, "Republicans killed the bill to clean up sleazy political fund-raising. The business of dirty campaign money will stay business as usual. The... "

KURTZ: Sounds like Dan Rather, Bernie.


KURTZ: Sounds like Dan Rather.

GOLDBERG: All right, maybe, could be. One of three. "Legislation to reform shady big-money campaign fund-raising is dead in Congress."

Now, do you -- I mean, do you think he's for campaign reform or against it? Let me -- very, very briefly, Diane Sawyer asked Senator McCain a question a couple years ago. "However brave a stand campaign finance reform may be, members of your own party have rejected it. What's the matter with them? Why don't they get it?" Now, whose side do you think she's on?

That's what I'm against. I'm not against campaign finance reform, and I'm not for it, as far as this debate is concerned. I'm against reporters taking sides.

KURTZ: Jill, what was the reaction of Republicans when you were on the Hill in the days before the vote, writing about an issue that clearly made them uncomfortable? After all, the House leadership didn't want this bill brought up at all, and it only brought up because 218 members signed this rare thing called a discharge petition.

ZUCKMAN: They were angry, they were frustrated. They just -- they were taking it out on reporters. I went on Monday, you know, two days before the big debate is going to take place, to do a set-up story, and I went to talk to one Republican leadership aide who was yelling at me, saying, "Why are you writing a story today? There is no story today. Nothing is going on."

The problem in this debate is, they just wanted it to go away, and unfortunately it was there.

KURTZ: And they were blaming the press?

ZUCKMAN: Oh, yes, they were blaming the press, and they were particularly blaming "The New York Times" -- We wouldn't be doing this if "The New York Times" wasn't driving that. I got that a couple times from people.

BROWNSTEIN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) they know, what it really has -- Over the years, campaign finance reform, for all the interest in the press -- and they're really, I have to agree generally with Bernie, that this is an issue where the press has been more engaged than the public. But even with that, the level of public interest has been very sporadic. It has taken scandal as the backdrop to drive it forward at all of the key junctures.

It started with the Keating Five, Charles Keating, the S&L magnate in the late 1980s, that was the initial impetus. When that drive ran out of steam in the mid-'90s, it was the Clinton '96 fund- raising scandals that got it started again, began McCain-Feingold.

And finally, when that really seemed to have hit the wall, it was Enron that gave it new life. It really takes that focus of scandal, that nexus of money and influence, to drive media attention, which then puts the press on Congress to act.

KURTZ: Well -- Go ahead.

ZUCKMAN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), I think the votes were there anyway. I mean, the House has voted twice before to pass this thing... BROWNSTEIN: Only when they knew the Senate wasn't going to do it, though.

ZUCKMAN: Well, that's true. I mean, things have definitely traded -- you know, they've taken turns killing this thing over the years, but...

KURTZ: Right, the folks who were there. But there was no sort of public groundswell here, because Enron -- And let me turn to Bernie Goldberg on this. Do you think that the press has been pumping up the Enron scandal? Obviously it's a big financial scandal, but pumping it up as a political scandal, perhaps as a way of adding a little impetus to this issue called campaign finance reform?

GOLDBERG: Well, probably. I mean, a lot of stories have made the connection. This -- yes, I'd say yes. A lot of stories have made the connection that the reason campaign finance reform is an issue now -- I mean, I'd say correctly made the connection -- is because of Enron, yes.

KURTZ: Pumping up Enron?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think Enron is a legitimate big story. I mean...

KURTZ: Huge.

BROWNSTEIN: ... seventh-biggest company in the country goes bankrupt. And the backdrop for it is that the circumstance of Enron is a lot more relevant to average Americans than it was a generation ago. You look back 20 years, only about one in five Americans were invested in the stock market, American families. Now it's one in two.

When the Enron employees saw their retirement just sort of disappear on a single day, that is not an abstract issue any more, and I think it is legitimate.

KURTZ: But the press is covering it as an issue of influence peddling, of...

BROWNSTEIN: But -- and it's that...

KURTZ: ... George W. and Kenny Boy.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, the problem is, the problem is, is that if you have the lens too narrow, you miss the story. There does not seem to be, so far, any misconduct by the Bush administration. But it's wrong to say that Enron didn't get anything for its money in Congress. Over 10 years they've won a series of regulatory and legislative decisions that contributed to the problems that they got themselves into.

So there is a nexus between its money and decisions in Washington.

KURTZ: OK. I want to turn now to the ice skating controversy that's on the cover of "Time" and "Newsweek." And yesterday, you had another press conference. The Canadian skater David Pelletier was asked about his relationship with the Russian skaters, and whether it's awkward. Let's take a look at what he had to say.


DAVID PELLETIER, CANADIAN GOLD MEDALIST: This is not about us and Anton and Elena. Don't create a situation that doesn't exist. This is not about me and him or us and them. This is about us getting a fair chance to be judged fairly. This is -- That's all I have to see.


KURTZ: Bernie Goldberg, you work for HBO Sports. Is this one of the juiciest stories in a long, long time, or is it another classic case of media hype, loving this -- turning this into a kind of a cold war melodrama?

GOLDBERG: No, it's a good story. But I think the skater makes a very good point. I don't know what question prompted that response, but my guess is it was some reporter trying to create something, some reporter trying to say, you know, Do you like this guy? Does this guy trying to take the medal away from you? I mean, he was trying to make the point, Don't turn this into something that it isn't.

But as far as media hype is concerned, this much I'm sure of, Howie, more Americans are concerned about the -- what do they call it, Skategate or whatever it is?

KURTZ: That's good.

GOLDBERG: More Americans are concerned about this issue than they are about campaign finance reform, even if there's a direct link between Enron and money going to politicians.

KURTZ: Just briefly...

GOLDBERG: Far more people.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Jill Zuckman, has the press turning this into a bit of a soap opera? There were a lot of questions about, How do you feel? How do you (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Russians? Isn't this terrible?

ZUCKMAN: Hey, it's Tonya Two. I mean, everybody was so into what happened to Nancy Kerrigan years ago, and look at it again. It's another -- Americans love skating. They love the Olympics. And they're obsessed with it, and so the media is obsessed with it also.

KURTZ: But some of the media, Ron Brownstein, are not only using it to attack ice skating and the judging system, but to attack the French. I mean...


KURTZ: ... geopolitical...

BROWNSTEIN: Now, what is wrong with that, really, if you get an opportunity?

No, look, I think...

KURTZ: Just briefly.

BROWNSTEIN: ... it could be the -- what used to be described as the CNN effect in foreign policy. If you can see something on TV, it really changes the immediacy and the impact of it. And everybody saw the performances, everybody was a judge. The judging seemed out of whack. And you not surprisingly got an intense public reaction.

KURTZ: We went to the videotape.

Ron Brownstein, Jill Zuckman, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, we'll talk to Bernie Goldberg about his best- selling book, "Bias."



Everyone seems to be talking about the best-selling book "Bias." Bernard Goldberg has one very high-profile reader, who flashed the cover on his way to Marine One.

And the subject came up in the White House just the other day.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you know of any book that has ever been more promoted by a president of the United States than this book?


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you name one? And did you like the book too, Ari?

FLEISCHER: You guys keep me so busy, I have a hard time reading books. Actually, I think it's an interesting book. I think it raises some interesting issues.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), the president thought it was great, (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

FLEISCHER: President, president, president thought also it raised some interesting questions.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: Bernie Goldberg in Miami, you're having to use the very media that you slam as too liberal to promote this book. What's the reception been as you've been making the media rounds?

GOLDBERG: Well, it's been overwhelmingly heartwarming. But really, the more important point is that it's been overwhelmingly civil. Many people, as you know, like the book, some don't. But both sides, even the people who don't like it, have been civil, except for a sliver of people who you work with at "The Washington Post," Howie.

But beyond that, what I find fascinating is that this book has been written about, or I've actually be in -- been interviewed in places like England, Australia, Canada, Brazil, New Zealand, China, Israel, Russia. That's just a short list. I didn't have time to do the Italian "Nightline," or Sweden or Mexico...

KURTZ: I hope you held onto the foreign rights.

GOLDBERG: ... been on over 300 -- oh, I've been on over 350 radio stations...


GOLDBERG: ... in the United States, and about 25 programs on cable TV. But the only three places, Howie -- and this is fine with me, because I could use what little free time I have -- but the only three places I haven't been at any time of the day or night -- and I'm including 2:00 in the morning or 4:00 in the morning, anytime -- are ABC, NBC, and CBS, which is either hilarious or pathetic. And you could decide which you think it is.

KURTZ: Well, this is your second appearance on RELIABLE SOURCES. We had you before you made the best-seller list, which it has now been on "The New York Times" list for nine weeks. But (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

GOLDBERG: I owe it all to you, Howie.

KURTZ: Well, I'm not taking any credit whatsoever. But I would like to know why, since you are the number one book, the author of the number one book, why you believe, for example, ABC and NBC -- let's concede you're probably not the most popular guy at CBS -- isn't interested in having you on. Are they afraid of having you on? Are they afraid of the subject?

GOLDBERG: I don't know if they're afraid of the subject, but they probably think, If we don't talk about this, the issue's going to go away. Well, they're dead wrong about that, just as they were dead wrong about thinking that nobody out there except some, you know, people with no teeth and who married their sisters or cousins would be interested in this book.

So the issue isn't going to go away because ABC, NBC, and CBS aren't interested. It isn't going to go away because the Italian "Nightline" is interested, but the American "Nightline" isn't interested. There's a good chance that over the next five years, one of the three network evening newscasts will go away before this issue goes away.

KURTZ: Well, it's a very readable and interesting and provocative book, but it's not Dostoevsky. What do you make of the phenomenal success here, and do you feel at all like you're being turned into kind of a poster boy or a hero for the right wing in this country?

GOLDBERG: It's not Dostoevsky. That's not a shot, right? I mean, only Dostoevsky is Dostoevsky, last time I checked.

You know, I -- let's put it this way, Howie. I'm going to be very honest about this. Going to be very, very honest about this. Am I being embraced by some people I would rather not be embraced by? Yes, yes. But am I being attacked by people that Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw would rather not be associated with? I hope so.

I mean, when people take vicious personal shots...

KURTZ: One of them called you "a no-talent hack."

GOLDBERG: What do you mean, one of them? What -- say who it is, Howie.

KURTZ: Tom Shales, reviewer for "The Washington Post," writing in another publication...

GOLDBERG: Yes, one of the -- I mean, you say "one of them"...

KURTZ: ... that you were a no-talent hack.

GOLDBERG: ... as if he works in Bulgaria. He works down the hall from you.

The problem is, the problem is this, many people at the networks -- and I know this for a fact -- at CBS, NBC, and ABC -- agree with what I've said. I know this for an absolute fact. I've been told this by people at all three networks.

But none of them either are stupid enough or courageous enough, or however you want to look at it, to come forward and say anything.

OK, that's an intellectual copout on their part, as far as I'm concerned. But none of them are brave enough to come up and say, Wait a second, we don't have to like this book, but is he really a no- talent hack? Nobody will criticize anybody else in the media.

KURTZ: Bernie...

GOLDBERG: You guys are all part -- it's not even a men's club that you're a part of, it's a boys' club that you're a part of, Howie.

KURTZ: Well, we... GOLDBERG: And nobody criticizes anybody. So here I come with a book that names names and makes points, and then I become, you know -- I become, you know, this evil guy who's attacking, to use your word in the lead-in...

KURTZ: Got to wrap it, Bernie.

GOLDBERG: ... the media. I'm not attacking them.


GOLDBERG: I like these people personally.

KURTZ: Gotcha. Well, at least I hope you'll concede that we do criticize the media at least on this program.

GOLDBERG: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Bernie Goldberg, we're very happy to have you back.

GOLDBERG: Thanks a lot, Howard.

KURTZ: And when we come back -- Thank you. And when we come back, Bernard Kalb's Back Page, and a challenge to keep a war crimes trial on the front page.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Michael Kinsley is stepping down as the editor of Slate, the online magazine owned by Microsoft. While Kinsley announced just two months ago that he's suffering from Parkinson's disease, he said his health was only a small factor in his decision to step down. And after six years, the former "CROSSFIRE" co-host needed a change.

And turning now to our e-mailbag, our question about whether the media are suppressing dissenting opinions about the war in Afghanistan sent many of you to your keyboards.

Writes Kent, quote, "The American press has indeed traded in its public responsibility to scrutinize the powers-that-be for endearing nicknames, a `Gosh, shucks' now and then, and access to filtered information. Hail to the chief and his Fourth Estate lackeys."

Craig from Wisconsin takes a different line. "The overall coverage by the American media has been fair. There just is not very much support for any of those crazy dissenters out there, protesting a perfectly legitimate reaction by our president and the American military."

And time now for the Back Page. Here's Bernard Kalb.

BERNARD KALB, CNN CORRESPONDENT: How many Colin Powells are there? One? Two? Now, that's a funny question, but it comes up because of the way his testimony was covered the other day, proving once again that one newspaper's page one story can be another newspaper's page 20 story. And we're talking major newspapers and a major story.

For example, "The New York Times" lead story, page one, "Powell Says U.S. Is Weighing Ways to Topple Hussein," meaning Iraq. By contrast, deep inside "The Washington Post," "Powell: No Plans Now for War with `Axis,'" again meaning Iraq.

In other words, a split editorial judgment about how to play the Powell story.

But on another story, same day's papers, no split at all. Page one in both papers, the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the deposed Yugoslav president accused of carrying out the last great war crimes of the 20th century in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, resulting in more than 200,000 deaths and millions homeless.

The trial is taking place in the Hague, and the trial is regarded as the most important war crimes trial since Nuremberg at the end of World War II, the first time, in fact, that a former head of state has faced an international war crimes tribunal.

For his part, Milosevic has rejected the legitimacy of the court.

Now, it's an easy editorial call to give page one to the opening day of a trial that could last up to two years. Inevitably, Milosevic will slip off the front page and onto the back page. But the real question is whether Milosevic vanishes until a verdict is finally handed down.

In other words, just how much coverage this story gets will be a test of the media's commitment to stick with the horrors that took place in the Balkans just a few years ago.

The media gave extensive coverage to the violence. It can do no less in covering the trial of the man accused of those crimes against humanity.

That means, one hopes, no split editorial judgment. The trial of Slobodan Milosevic must be kept in the spotlight.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb with the Back Page.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Saturday evening at 6:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. Thanks for watching.

"CNN SUNDAY MORNING" is just ahead with Miles O'Brien and Jeanne Meserve.




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