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Interview With Jon Stewart; Are Reporters Not Tough Enough on Mondale?

Aired November 2, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: "Indecision 2002": Jon Stewart on his crucial role in the campaign.

JON STEWART, HOST, "DAILY SHOW": I'm a king maker. I'm an idol maker.


KURTZ: ... his journalistic credentials...


STEWART: If I had a tie, I would be a newsman.


KURTZ: ... and his dim view of the cable networks and their sniper coverage.

Also, Paul Wellstone's death produces a new Senate candidate in Minnesota. Is the press being too soft on Walter Mondale?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz. Ahead, we'll talk with two veteran political reporters about whether the press is going easy on Walter Mondale in the wake of Senator Paul Wellstone's death in Minnesota.

But first, we sat down with a man who covers politics in a rather unconventional way. Comedy Central's Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show," gave us the treatment, taking aim at the media, the 24-hour cable networks and the thrill of the upcoming election.


KURTZ: Jon Stewart, welcome.

STEWART: Thank you, sir.

KURTZ: We're on the verge of a big, momentous historic mid-term election. How excited are you personally?

STEWART: Well, I think I reflect the feeling in the country, just tough to sit still, can't wait to get out and vote for whatever congressman is up there. Yeah, it's been real tough to get anybody interested in it. Apparently, there's a -- what's it called? -- a war looming.

KURTZ: But if you watch television, you would think the election had been canceled. So has politics become too boring for the media, unless it's some juicy sex scandal or something like that?

STEWART: I think the print media still probably covers it to the same extent that they would before. But yeah, you know, the 24-hour news cycle is the visual medium, so if they've got pictures of immigrants jumping off of a boat into the water, I guess that beats a Stump speech...

KURTZ: Breaking news.

STEWART: Yes, exactly, breaking news. Although, quite frankly, you guys broke it. I mean, let's face facts. I mean, breaking news -- the words breaking news I don't even think can be used any more.


KURTZ: ... they've been overused?

STEWART: Well, during the sniper thing, they just left it up there. They just literally left up the "breaking news" graphic. And what's the difference between breaking news, by the way, and "news alert"? What is the difference between a news alert and breaking news?

KURTZ: A news alert makes you think that there might be breaking news. Breaking news means that there actually is some sort of oozing thing called news.


KURTZ: Do you think voters are turned off by these ads that say, "Joe Smith killed two of his business partners, can we trust him with our future"?

STEWART: No, I think that's what people really look forward to.

They look forward to that. They look forward to, "My opponent gave Hitler a piggy-back ride."

Yes, I'm not exactly sure -- I assume that what the political strategists have figured out is very few people vote, and the people that do are the people who answer telemarketers' calls at dinner and actually talk.

KURTZ: And perhaps the people who watch your show. You're going to be on live election night with...

STEWART: People who watch our show don't vote.


I don't think.

KURTZ: "Indecision 2000," live on election night...

STEWART: We're probably not going to go with 2000. We're going to go with 2002. We're going to stick with the year that it is now.

We're going live with all state coverage and all state results, and we're very excited about that. The people really need to get direct false numbers right away. We'll make our predictions probably as early as we can, and we hope to really give a full-on wrap up of everything that's happened.

Are you guys going live that night?

KURTZ: I don't know. Let me check with the producers.


KURTZ: It depends on what else is going on.

STEWART: I was going to say.

KURTZ: The other night on "The Daily Show" Senator John Edwards. Why would a guy who is, you know, clearly planning to run as president come on and answer your inane questions?

STEWART: I'm a king maker. I'm an idol maker. People come on. I'm sort of the David Frost of the Comedy Central set.

KURTZ: He did promise to reveal on your program whether he was going to run for president.

STEWART: He did promise that.

KURTZ: That would be a big scoop for you.

STEWART: But you know what? People have lied to me on my program before.

KURTZ: As an example of the kind of incisive political commentary that we can expect, let's take a look at a clip from a recent "The Daily Show."


STEWART: You've been out there talking to voters. What message do they have for Washington?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Jon, I'm hearing a lot of, "That sniper thing was so scary. What was up with that sniper? Were you scared of the sniper?"


KURTZ: What did you make of the sniper coverage? Were the media trying to scare people? (CROSSTALK)

STEWART: I thought it was the media's finest hour, the sniper coverage.

KURTZ: Finest hour?

STEWART: Absolutely, by watching the 24-hour news networks, I learned that the sniper was an olive-skinned, white-black male -- men -- with ties to Son of Sam, al Qaeda, and was a military kid, playing video games, white, 17, maybe 40.

KURTZ: They really nailed it, didn't they?

STEWART: I thought they did great. And I thought it was really responsible to put them on.

I thought CNN, MSNBC, FOX, did a great job putting on -- you know what they should've called the coverage, "You know what I heard?" and just have people randomly showing...


KURTZ: What should happen to all of these experts who came and filled the airwaves with all of these predictions that turned out to be completely and totally wrong?

STEWART: Well, it's not their fault.

KURTZ: It's not their fault?


KURTZ: Shouldn't they have to resign from the talking head society?

STEWART: Shouldn't CNN have to pay a penalty for putting them on the air? You're Paulie Walnuts. You're vouching. You brought a guy in, and you put him on the air and you vouched. You said, "No, Tony, this guy, he's good people, he's credible." So whatever they say, I mean, they're called profilers.

If you watched the coverage, you would have thought that that's what the police do, is they literally have two guys sort of almost like psychics sitting around going, "What do you think he is?" "I don't know, maybe he's white, maybe he's black. Maybe he's with al Qaeda, maybe he's Son of Sam."

They're actually following real leads. I don't understand the idea of -- you know I heard a guy talking -- actually on your show -- saying, "Well, the public really wanted information. They had a real thirst for information. So because we didn't really have that much information, we had to just speculate."

KURTZ: We made it up. STEWART: Right. Which seems insane. That's like saying, "You know, the kids were real thirsty, and we didn't have any water, so we just gave them beer, because we figured that would work."


KURTZ: Well, you're right. The cable folks who put these folks in front of the camera have to bear some of the responsibility.

STEWART: Not some, all.

KURTZ: All right.

STEWART: Not some. They bear all of the responsibility. You cannot -- I'm not even sure what the reasoning was behind just putting people on who didn't know anything.

I mean, you know what was my favorite part was the hand wringing. People would do this, "Now, I know that we're not supposed to speculate, you know, obviously, people are nervous and it would be irresponsible to inflame passions by speculating, seriously, though, do you think it's terrorism?"

I mean, it was...

KURTZ: Well, my favorite part was the questions where the anchors would say, "Do you think he will strike again, and where would that be? And would it be on a Tuesday, because he hasn't really done it on a Tuesday?"

STEWART: Unless you know the guy's name, don't say anything. Unless you have information, rather than speculating -- unless you could say, like, "Oh, the sniper? Yes, it's John Muhammad, I think." Unless you know that, shut up, say nothing.


KURTZ: Take us into the inner sanctum of the Jon Stewart living room: 8 p.m.; do you watch...

STEWART: My living room?

KURTZ: Do you watch Phil Donahue, Connie Chung or Bill O'Reilly? Do you like any of those shows?

STEWART: "The Bachelor."

KURTZ: You're not a news junkie?

STEWART: No, honestly, I leave probably CNN on mostly all the time. Although the networks are not really meant to be watched all the time, which I realize now.

KURTZ: When did this come to you?

STEWART: As I was pulling my hair out... (LAUGHTER)

... watching the same footage over and over again of nothing.

But I do keep CNN -- I mean, Fox, let's face facts, is a relatively cynical undertaking, to begin with.

KURTZ: Because?

STEWART: Well, it's basically, it's taken the AM radio mentality and labeled it fair and balanced just to upset you guys.

KURTZ: A lot of people watch.

STEWART: Of course, a lot of people watch. A lot of people watch wrestling. A lot of people watch -- you know, you could put on porn, and I think a lot of people would watch it.

But I think they call it fair and balanced just as kind of a dig. I mean, it's not. It's clearly meant to be more ideological and more opinion-based. They took the paradigm of AM radio. By the way, I enjoy what those guys do. I find it fun to watch. It's just not a news network.

KURTZ: Speaking of CNN. CNN is now broadcasting...

STEWART: You shouldn't have let me get away with saying that they're not a news network.

KURTZ: They do cover some news. They have reporters. You seem to be...

STEWART: Thank you.

KURTZ: ... dismissing -- all right.

STEWART: But the thing about CNN is, you guys actually say you can depend on CNN. That's why I'm more upset with you than I am with them.

KURTZ: You hold CNN to a higher standard.

STEWART: Exactly. I expect that from them. From you guys, I'm upset -- what I don't understand is why you guys, with the talent and the credibility and the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) would want to take a page out of their playbook. Why wouldn't you want to take a page out of the more credible? Why wouldn't you go towards the other -- why would you go louder when you could go smarter?

KURTZ: Now, you are now part of the CNN family.

STEWART: No, I'm not.

KURTZ: And it's -- CNN has is broadcasting your show internationally.

STEWART: I am not.

KURTZ: Does that make you legitimate?

STEWART: No, I am illegitimate. I am the bastard son of anything. We're not -- we're fake. That's what...

KURTZ: Is that right?


KURTZ: I have a theory about this.

STEWART: That's why I don't have a tie. If I had a tie, I would be a newsman. But I am not.

KURTZ: Well, I'm going to be -- I'm going to have to take this off.

STEWART: All right.

KURTZ: I have a theory about this, which is, you've been doing this for so long, to sit in front of the big anchor desk.


KURTZ: But you've come to think that, "Well, gee, maybe I am kind of a journalist. I can do this."


KURTZ: I could host "CROSSFIRE."

STEWART: Well, yes, you could host "CROSSFIRE." What's that got to do with journalism? I mean, that's just a couple of knuckleheads. I mean, the promo for that is Bob Novak in a boxing outfit. I mean, for God's sakes, somehow I don't imagine Edward R. Murrow ever putting on the satin robe and going, "I'll destroy you."

KURTZ: I went to one of your tapings this week.

STEWART: Yes, you did.

KURTZ: And I can reveal -- can I say this?

STEWART: By the way, I didn't care for the heckling.

KURTZ: All right. I can reveal that all those -- you go to those live correspondent reports standing in front of the Capitol, out in North Carolina.

STEWART: That's exactly right.

KURTZ: They're right on the stage there with you.


KURTZ: Isn't that kind of dishonest?

STEWART: Our budget is to the point where we can only afford the picture of North Carolina. We can't actually afford the trip. So we put them in front of a just a green screen of that.

KURTZ: So you don't, you're not confusing yourself with a quote, "real journalist"?

STEWART: No. You guys are...

KURTZ: You're just making fun...

STEWART: You guys are confusing yourselves with real journalists.

KURTZ: Oh boy, you're loaded (UNINTELLIGIBLE) today.

STEWART: Instead of putting on shows like "CROSSFIRE" and "Gotcha" and "I'm Going To Kick Your Ass With Tucker Carlson" and "Let's Beat Up The Short Guy." That was just one that I...

KURTZ: I'm glad you're at least watching so much CNN, Jon.

STEWART: I am watching it constantly. It's driving me insane. Make the ticker stop. You're in the middle of a damn sniper story, and all of a sudden underneath it, you know, "Liza Minnelli's first VH1 show to air."

KURTZ: There's a new thing out called...


KURTZ: There's a new thing out called remote control. We'll have to get you one.

STEWART: But you're the news. That works for entertainment. People need you. Help us. Help us.

KURTZ: Thank you for making us feel needed, Jon Stewart. Thanks for sharing.



KURTZ: Comedy Central's Jon Stewart. When we come back, Walter Mondale back in the media spotlight. Will he face any tough questions from reporters, as he runs for Paul Wellstone's Senate seat? Two veteran political reporters wrestle with that question next.



After an 18-year break from the national spotlight, Walter Mondale has replaced Paul Wellstone on the Minnesota ballot a week after the tragic plane crash that claimed the senator's life. So is the press treating the former vice president as too much of a senior statesman in the emotional aftermath of Wellstone's death?

Well, joining us now, Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for U.S. News & World Report. And CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley.

Roger Simon, Walter Mondale met the press in what Friday's "Washington Post" described as "15 minutes of mostly friendly questioning." Where are the tough stories about Mondale's horrible 1984 presidential run, his record as vice president under Jimmy Carter's full (ph) presidency, his service as ambassador of Japan, his service on corporate boards? Where are those things?

ROGER SIMON, U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT: Oh, I think they're coming. I really doubt...

KURTZ: We only have a few days.

SIMON: ... if -- well, that's true. But I think both the local press and the national press are going to concentrate on Mondale's record, as they should.

I'm not sure I would characterize the press conference in exactly the same way. The tone was certainly mostly friendly. But about half the questions were about his age and his late campaign schedule. He got three questions in a row about being 74 years old. That's not exactly a friendly issue if you are 74 years old and running against a 53-year-old man.

KURTZ: His age is the one question the press has understandably focused on.

But, Candy Crowley, do reporters maybe feel a bit unseemly about appearing to beat up on Mondale, given the tragic circumstances under which he assumed this nomination?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SR. POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Not consciously, not consciously. But I mean, you know, you're just, like, this man and his wife and his daughter have all just died, and then out comes Walter Mondale, and people are just still a little bit reeling. I mean, I think they're -- you know, you try to get your sea legs and you don't want to come across as a complete jerk.

KURTZ: You don't want to seem heartless.

CROWLEY: You don't want to seem heartless.

I agree that I didn't think it was a necessarily really easy time for him. I think the age issue is so bogus. I mean, hello, how many people in the Senate are over 74? And the real question is whether his issues, you know, or his position on the issues. And so, to focus on that I think favors Mondale actually, because he can talk about experience a little more.

KURTZ: I want to touch on the Wellstone memorial service that's gotten so much publicity. Now, initially most of the out of town papers, "The Washington Post," "Los Angeles Times," "USA Today," ran very straight pieces. Here's the L.A. Times: "More than 20,000 people gathered here Tuesday night to remember Senator Paul Wellstone as a man of principal and a true liberal willing to fight the lonely fight." And then Governor Jesse Ventura walked out of the service. And he had this to say:


GOV. JESSE VENTURA (I), MINNESOTA: I feel used. I feel violated and duped over the fact that that turned into nothing more than a political rally.


KURTZ: So to what extent did that make the press coverage turn much harsher toward the memorial service?

SIMON: I think it had an effect. I think maybe Jesse Ventura dupes easily or -- but the issue of whether the tone was wrong for a memorial service certainly has changed peoples' view of this election. It's -- I was on C-SPAN for two hours after that event, and half the calls from all around the nation were on that memorial service. And it has...

KURTZ: Some people were offended when...

SIMON: They were. And it has changed...

KURTZ: ... Ventura got booed, Trent Lott got booed and it was...

SIMON: Absolutely.

KURTZ: ... supposed to be in honor of Wellstone's memory.

SIMON: And it has changed the story line from, "tragic death; elder statesmen are picking up the pieces and going forward," to, "was this too political? Are they using this tragic death just for partisan political purposes?"

KURTZ: Why didn't the press cover it that way in the first place?

CROWLEY: Well, you know, this was, sort of, late. I am a little surprised that there was -- I mean I think it was a deadline kind of thing. And it may very well. You know, the time was wrong...

KURTZ: So then it happened late on the East Coast.

CROWLEY: Right. And so, you're going to bed with it, you know, and you're doing what you're -- you know, what you've seen. Because I do find it hard to believe, because I think it was very obvious. Even without Jesse Ventura coming out and saying, "I feel duped," it was obvious that this was not your normal funeral.

I'll tell you the other thing it did, was give Republicans an opening to have Coleman go a little hard on the issues. Because after Mel Carnahan died in similar circumstances, they had a very funeral funeral. I mean, it was very somber. And when Ashcroft went back up on the air, everybody hated him for it because everybody was still so depressed. This, you know, just turned that corner for the Republicans.

SIMON: No, there had been a private funeral and this was a memorial service. But if you invite 20,000 people to anything in America, you know, it's really hard to maintain, sort of, a somber tone with that kind of crowd in a state that has seen an extremely partisan and a hot-button election.

KURTZ: Right. Now, speaking of tone, and tone is so crucial here to the way this is perceived and the way that the media covers it, a lot of reporters knew and liked Paul Wellstone. A lot of conservative journalists have been singing his praises in the days after his death. What is it like dealing with the emotion after such a tragedy? You've had some experience with that.

SIMON: Well, I remember being in Missouri on the day that Mel Carnahan crashed. His son was the pilot of the small plane. There was a staff member too who died. And I think the press, who by training our inclination has few personal loyalties, sometimes forgets that the staffs of these men and women who run are very emotionally connected to them. They have a deep emotional commitment to them. They will tell you, know, "I love this guy. I love this woman." And in a way, they do.

And we're calling the staffs five minutes after the death saying, "When is the memorial service going to be? Who's going to be on the ticket? What's the law? You know, are you going to do this in Washington? Are you going to do it here?" And these people are shattered.

KURTZ: Right.

SIMON: And they have to pick up the pieces and some how go on and service our needs because they have to feed the beast.

KURTZ: Very difficult.

You mentioned Republican candidate, Norm Coleman. And I wonder whether the press is in a difficult position with him. Because instead of now reading or hearing more about his position, the fact that he used to be a Democrat and became a Republican, it's all about how does he campaign in this all but impossible situation.

CROWLEY: Look, at the end it's all about, you know, who turns out anyway. We're beyond issues.

Look, does all this coverage of Walter Mondale take the spotlight off Norm Coleman and seem a bit unbalanced? Yes. But I haven't seen the coverage in Minnesota and that's where it counts. The people in Minnesota are well-aware that Norm Coleman is running. And, you know, I'm not sure -- I mean, for us, obviously, it's the story of an aging politician coming back to save the party. I don't think that's really to Norm Coleman's detriment in Minnesota.

KURTZ: And, of course, nationally he's been overshadowed by all of the coverage of Wellstone and now Mondale.

CROWLEY: Who nationally knew Norm Coleman? I mean, you know, it's a Minnesota race.

KURTZ: The political reporters knew it.

Now, an hour after Wellstone's death was confirmed, CNBC was on the air talking about the effect on the stock market of a likely Republican takeover of the Senate. Was that, kind of, tasteless or is that just financial reality?

SIMON: I think it was financial reality. I say that because I was watching TV and I noticed that the stock market was zooming right after that death was confirmed. And I didn't know why. And then I saw a financial reporter come on and say, "Look, most people who trade in the stock market, most of the big brokers want to see a Republican Senate. And they think they're going to get one and this is why it's zooming."

Now, had they been a little more politically sophisticated, they might have realized it might have caused the Senate to appear more Democratic than Republican. But it's a legitimate thing to report on.

KURTZ: Obviously, it's hard for all of us to deal with, as you were saying. Who's going to be on the ballot? How's the stock market doing in the wake of a senator who was widely respected just having died? And that's the challenge in the days ahead.

Candy Crowley, Roger Simon, thanks very much for joining us.

And coming next, the Russian media after the hostage crisis. How much has changed since the old Soviet days? That's coming next in Bernard Kalb's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page." Here's Bernard Kalb.


BERNARD KALB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR (on camera): Suddenly for the Russian media, it felt as though Russia had been taken over by the old Soviet Union. Back in those days, and that was only a decade or so ago when this flag flew over the Kremlin, the Communists ran the show. When something happened, they decided what got published and what didn't. Truth was a luxury and had nothing to do with it.

But just a few says ago, echoes of that once upon a time reality suddenly resurfaced when this happened: When Vladimir Putin's government found itself confronted by the Chechen takeover of a Moscow theater -- hundreds of hostages trapped inside.

Suddenly, a full-blown crisis, with a public desperate for information, as the government tried to cope with the terrorists and save innocent lives.

The result was summarized in this headline in "The Washington Post": "Russian News Media Feel Kremlin's Clamp On Hostage Coverage," with the story going on to say, "To some free press advocates, and some ordinary Russians as well, the Kremlin has tightened its usual short leash on mass media outlets, to the point where the official version of events is paramount and unpleasant truths are sidelined."

Now, there was no question that the government had its hands full. It said it didn't want to say anything that might jeopardize the rescue operation.

Yet, despite the official pressures, the Russian media offered up its share of criticism of the way the crisis was being handled, including one newspaper with the front-page headline, "You Should Resign," with pictures of the officials who coordinated the rescue operation that left more than 100 hostages dead from a gas used in the final assault.

It's still far from a perfectly free media world in Russia, but that headline gives you some idea of how far the media have gone since the old Soviet days. I mean, just imagine telling any of the commissars of the Kremlin back then in the old days, "You should resign."


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. You can catch our program again tomorrow morning at 9:30 Eastern.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


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