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Why Did Press Pass on Trent Lott Story?; 'New York Times' Criticized Over Augusta National Controversy

Aired December 14, 2002 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Asleep at the switch. Why were reporters napping when Trent Lott embraced the segregationist candidacy of Strom Thurmond? Why did it take so long for most major newspapers and networks to jump on the controversy even after it was reported? And what role did Internet pundits play in forcing the story into the mainstream media?
Also "The New York Times" getting clubbed over the Augusta National golfing controversy. The paper kills two sports columns that disagreed with its editorial page, then caves under pressure and runs the pieces. John Feinstein tees off on "The Times" newsroom.

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

It seemed like a harmless event, Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party. A dozen reporters were there, but most of them failed to react when the Senate Republican leader began talking about Thurmond's 1948 campaign for president with the segregationist Dixiecrat Party.


SEN. TRENT LOTT (R-MS), MAJORITY LEADER: I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of him. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either.


KURTZ: This was hardly a state secret. Lott's remarks were carried on C-SPAN, but the media seemed to kiss off the story. There was a piece on and one the next day in "The Washington Post." It came up on CNN's "LATE EDITION" and NBC's "Meet The Press."


JOE KLEIN, TIME MAGAZINE: To think that this kind of statement in this country at this time is outrageous, and it should be called that.

ROBERT NOVAK, CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: He's at a damn birthday party. I mean this is the kind of thing that makes people infuriated with the media.


NOVAK: They pick up something that is said at a birthday party and turn it into a case of whether he should be...



KURTZ: But most of the media didn't carry a word until Tuesday. By mid week, the senator was phoning in his apologies to Sean Hannity's radio show and "LARRY KING LIVE." And on Friday he was forced to hold a packed news conference in Mississippi. So why was the so-called liberal media so slow to get going?

Well, joining us now Joshua Marshall, contributing writer for the "Washington Monthly." He also runs the Web site, Linda Douglass, Capitol Hill correspondent for ABC News, and Stephen Hayes, a staff writer for "The Weekly Standard."

Linda Douglass, Thurmond's birthday party, a week ago Thursday, a bunch of reporters there. No mention the next day in "The Washington Post," "The Washington Times," the AP. How did ABC get onto it?

LINDA DOUGLASS, ABC NEWS: Well we had a very smart young producer in the room. Ed O'Keefe (ph) is his name. He's our Senate producer, and he's the one who immediately called into ABC and said that a hush fell over the room when you heard the second half of Senator Lott's statement that is "we wouldn't have all the problems that we're having today." And we were working toward putting it on the air that night.

There was a lot of news that day, as I'm sure you're hearing from other reporters. Roone Arledge died about half an hour to airtime...


DOUGLASS: ... and it pushed everything out of the show. But we...

KURTZ: Beyond that, did you look at doing a follow-up report and did...


KURTZ: ... you make any calls?

DOUGLASS: We did. I made many, many calls that night. I called members of the Black Caucus. I called the NAACP. I called other civil rights leaders and members of the Black Caucus I contacted had no reaction. And where I was preparing to do a piece in the morning, we began a debate within ourselves about whether we should be the critics in the story, because the spokespeople that we talked to that night for the members of the Black Caucus said, well we don't really have any reaction to that. So we thought well maybe we're overreacting. KURTZ: Do you need reaction, Stephen Hayes? Where was the rest of the press? Why did it take days for "The New York Times" and the "L.A. Times" and "USA Today" and some of the network newscasts to get onto this story?

STEPHEN HAYES, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, I think if you're ABC you probably do need reaction to do the story the story the way that you would normally do it. You know, at "The Weekly Standard" or at Josh's you don't, and I think that's one of the fun things about being in opinion journalism.

As to where the media was, I agree with Linda. I mean there were several other very big stories that day. You had the news -- at least Friday you had the news of the resignations or the forced out -- forcing out of...

KURTZ: Firings.

HAYES: Yes, firings...


HAYES: ... of Paul O'Neill...

KURTZ: But even though there was a lot of other news going on, in retrospect this was a colossal misjudgment. This is a story that raised -- ended up raising questions about whether Trent Lott could hang onto his job. So are the liberal media so accustomed to being beaten over the head with accusations of bias that they're kind of reluctant to take on a conservative Republican senator?

JOSHUA MARSHALL, TALKINGPOINTSMEMO.COM: I don't think it was really a matter of liberal media, conservative media, whatever. I think this was just a big blind spot. But you know, a lot of this stuff that's come out after what Trent Lott said that he had associations with this group or that group, has come out before, and it was sort of treated as well maybe a minor embarrassment, but not that big a deal. And I think, you know, there was more attention that week to the, you know, the John Kerry haircut story. It just -- it was a blind spot, but I don't see it as an ideological blind spot.

DOUGLASS: But let me just say one thing about the -- I think the age of a lot of the reporters who were in the room. I think a lot of the reporters in the room were not familiar with Strom Thurmond's history as a segregationist presidential candidate.

KURTZ: 1948 didn't resonate with that.

DOUGLASS: It did not resonate with them...


DOUGLASS: Strom Thurmond has been treated as a beloved figure for many, many years. Part of that is because, in fact, he has distanced himself from his segregationist past effectively in legislatively and so forth, but part of it is that he's just simply -- he's 100 years old. I think a lot of the reporters who were in the room with the exception of our producer, Ed (ph), didn't understand the significance of what he said -- of what Lott said.

MARSHALL: Yes, I think that's right, but I think there's also a part of that sort of, you know, gauzy image that's been cast over Strom Thurmond (UNINTELLIGIBLE)oh, he's old. He's a nice old guy. But there has been a willful amnesia about what his past really was. This isn't just someone who happened to have supported segregation at some point in the past. This is a major champion of segregation at a key point in American history. So I agree, part of it is, is people didn't have a kind of, you know, right in their heads, what happened in 1948.

KURTZ: On that point, we've seen all these stories. Here's one from Saturday's "New York Times." Lott opposed many bills with links to civil rights. This record has been out there about his votes, about his support of Bob Jones University. Why did -- why has the press never made an issue of this before, and why is it an issue now?

HAYES: Well, that's -- I mean, that's a great question. I think that's one of the -- times calls for the press to have some introspection here. I think Josh's point about if you flip the formulation on the age question, it's fascinating that early on the young reporters, young producers may not have picked up on it because 1948 didn't resonate. But later...


HAYES: ... when people played this, you know, this point and played the sound byte again and again, it was the young people who were kind of most outraged, and I think older journalists and certainly, you know, you see this on Capitol Hill, the older senators kind of felt what's the big deal. But their staff the whole time was saying, this is insane.

MARSHALL: I think the generational point is very important because there has been certainly among people slightly older journalists after the Civil Rights era, a kind of a sense that you know, everybody was sort of compromised, and we just have to kind of put that past...


KURTZ: ... move on.



MARSHALL: ... there's certainly -- there's something legitimate to that. And then you have, I think, younger people now looking at this and saying like, what century is this guy living in?

KURTZ: Well let me turn to the atmosphere on Capitol Hill. A lot of people, Linda, Douglass, have the feeling -- there's sort of a club with secret handshakes where reporters get friendly with senators like Trent Lott over the years, and cut them plenty of slack. Is there some truth to that?

DOUGLASS: Well I think that there is definitely a club on Capitol Hill, but it mostly exists between the senators. In my experience, there's a pretty adversarial relationship between the reporters and the senators, and I think that and particularly with Trent Lott, he is a leader who doesn't have a lot of trust in the press to being with. He expects to be criticized. He braces himself. That's one of the reasons that he probably didn't handle this very well for the last several days going into hiding in Florida because he so mistrusts the press.

So I'm not sure it was anybody cutting any slack for Trent Lott. I think the two factors, again, were that number one, some of the reporters just didn't get it, and number two, the Senate isn't in session, so you have all -- 100 senators scattered around the world...

KURTZ: Right.

DOUGLASS: ... and the country, and the -- it doesn't gel. There's not any critical political mass to work with to say this is having an effect.

KURTZ: A lot of the criticism has come from conservative commentators, people on the right. Your magazine and your boss, Bill Kristol, and "National Review" and Charles Krauthammer. Why has there been -- has the criticism been even more fervent on the right side of the political spectra?

HAYES: I think because conservatives for a long time have fought and have believed and argued that Republicans and conservatives finally gained the moral high ground on race issues. There hasn't been the blatant race baiting that you'd see in pre, I would say, 1980 from Republicans, and there has been more of that from Democrats. So Republicans were -- who have been arguing for years hey look, we are the party of inclusion now. We are the party of race neutrality...


KURTZ: They felt angry. They felt burned...

HAYES: They felt betrayed...


HAYES: They felt betrayed, absolutely.

KURTZ: And the role -- go ahead.

MARSHALL: I think they did feel betrayed and since there are certainly many conservatives who are, you know, don't have a racist bone in their body, many most. I would certainly disagree with what you said that conservatives are completely clean on race baiting and it's more Democrats...


HAYES: ... completely clean.


HAYES: ...Clean more than it's...



MARSHALL: ... agree to disagree about that, but...

KURTZ: Role of the Internet. You jumped all over the story, as did Andrew Sullivan and David Frum and other people who write online well before the staff and press kind of aroused -- was aroused (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Why is that and what effect did it have? Do you think it helped push the story into the newspapers?

MARSHALL: It's hard to say. I think what it at least did is that it kept the story from dying. And what often happens is, and anybody who's in daily journalism knows this, the story kind of has a chance to get legs in the first 24-hour cycle, and if it doesn't, it's kind of over.


MARSHALL: And you need a new peg after that, and I think what the Internet did was kept a churn about it for, you know, three or four days, and I think it also kind of you know, people unpacked it, you know, online to say let's look at what this 1948 race was about. What on earth was Trent Lott thinking? And let's look at some other things that Trent Lott was -- you know has done, 1980 or with the Council Conservative Citizens a few years back. So, I think it forced them to some extent, but what I'm certain about is that it kept the story from dying in that kind of...

HAYES: And the other thing...


HAYES: The other thing Josh and other Internet journalists did as well was that they really parsed this apology, non apologies that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) clarifications that we got from Lott's office because they were, in fact, inadequate and you all did that very well one after another, said why he is using a descriptive word here rather than a judgmental word.

KURTZ: You need a scorecard for the apologies. Having been so slow in the start in the beginning, is there any chance, Linda Douglass that the media are just going overboard now, where it's on cable every 20 minutes and everybody's asking when he'll resign and they're looking at every bill he ever voted for. Are we in one of these typical press frenzies now?

DOUGLASS: Well, I think we're certainly on a borderline frenzy and the fact that it's on cable every 20 minutes is sort of the function of cable. I think looking at his voting record is legitimate though. I mean...

KURTZ: Is it overdue?

DOUGLASS: But -- exactly. On the other hand, issues are driven by their own constituencies, and there really has not been a lot of talk about civil rights in the Congress, which is a terrible shame, so that a lot of these votes do get passed over. There was a lot of concern about the way that minorities were being treated by their elected representatives after the 2000 election, after the Florida recount and so forth. But remember, there's not a single minority member of the United States Senate. So the issues don't get driven by the elected officials inside the institution, and I think that's one of the reasons that the press doesn't necessarily ferret them out.

KURTZ: Brief, just briefly, did Senator Lott make a mistake in the days as this was building by only doing those phoners with Larry King and Sean Hannity as opposed to facing the cameras?

DOUGLASS: That made things so much worse...


DOUGLASS: ... for him among his colleagues. They felt it looked like that he was in the bunker, he was hiding, he was afraid to face the press and now some of the senators are complaining that he's not going to be on a Sunday show to explain himself inside the Beltway.

KURTZ: Just briefly, CNN's coverage of the Friday's news conference by Lott, I thought had an embarrassing moment by putting up one of those Internet polls. Should he resign? These are totally unscientific polls with no place on television particularly during a live news event, and we'll have to hold it there.

Stephen Hayes, Josh Marshall, Linda Douglass, thanks very much for joining us.

Well up next, "The New York Times" does an about face in its coverage of the Augusta National controversy. Sports columnist and author John Feinstein weighs in on that when RELIABLE SOURCES returns.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. "The New York Times" raised some eyebrows when its editorial page urged Tiger Woods to boycott the Masters because of Augusta National Golf Club's refusal to admit women. But the paper drew even more ire for its decision to spike two pieces by its own sports columnists who disagreed with "The Times" editorial page.

One of the columnists, Pulitzer Prize winner, Dave Anderson.


DAVE ANDERSON, THE NEW YORK TIMES: The editorial suggested that Tiger Woods could stay home from the Masters next year. And that would, you know, his boycott would help the, you know, plea for the women member, and I just said please leave Tiger alone. Just let him play golf. That's what he does. He's not part of this. It's not his fight.


KURTZ: Under fierce media pressure, "The Times" reversed itself and ran the columns by Anderson and Harvey Araton. Well, joining us now, sports columnist and author John Feinstein, his new book, "The Punch." John Feinstein, "The New York Times" refused to run a couple of sports columns about Augusta. Why is that a big deal?

JOHN FEINSTEIN, SPORTS COLUMNIST, AUTHOR: Well, because they're censoring themselves. They're censoring their own people.


FEINSTEIN: It's not...


KURTZ: ... censorship.

FEINSTEIN: No, come on, Howie. I mean Dave Anderson's worked for "The New York Times" as a columnist for 31 years. He's never had a column spiked before this. Harvey Araton's never had a column spiked before this. It's one thing to come back, as you and I both know, to a writer and say I think -- I have a problem with this sentence, this paragraph. Is this factually accurate? That's editing. But when you say because you're disagreeing with an editorial position taken by the newspaper, we're not going to run the column at all, that's censorship, and the denials that have come out of "The Times" from Howell Raines and Gerald Boyd have made it even worse because they sound condescending and patronizing in their tone towards sportswriters.

KURTZ: Well, let's look at what managing editor Gerald Boyd had to say. He wrote a memo to his staff saying that columnists and the editorial page should not be -- quote -- "attacking each other. Intramural quarreling of that kind is unseemly and self absorbed" -- unseemly and self absorbed.

FEINSTEIN: Well, he sounds self-absorbed. Well first of all, Dave Anderson doesn't attack people. He's not like me. He's not someone who screams and yells...


FEINSTEIN: No. He's a gentle, sweet man who makes his points very quietly. That's one of the reasons why he did win the Pulitzer Prize because he makes his points without screaming his points, and that's why he's one of the best columnists in the business. And for them to say that because he mentioned "The Times" editorial, which he did in the original column, not in the column that eventually ran. That was removed and therefore, we're going to spike you. It's outrageous. It's journalistic treason in my opinion. KURTZ: Anderson told me he would have been happy to take the reference to "The Times" editorial out. He just said some people including "The Times" have taken this other position.


KURTZ: I think Tiger Woods should play.


KURTZ: But you keep using the "C" word, censorship.


KURTZ: In other words, Dave Anderson and Harvey Araton shouldn't care -- couldn't -- shouldn't have to care at all what the editorial page says. Church and state, two different...


FEINSTEIN: Exactly, church and state as long as, you know, their facts are correct, as long as you're not taking personal shots...


FEINSTEIN: ... anybody, as long as they're not saying the idiot who wrote this editorial should be taken out and shot or things like that.

KURTZ: Something you would say.

FEINSTEIN: Something I would say, yes. To simply say, you know, we disagree with our colleagues on the editorial page, that kind of phrasing, whatever it might be, how can that be a problem? All that does is show that there is, in fact, a separation of church and state, and you know as well as I do, that if the columns had referenced "The Times" editorial and said "The Times" editorial was correct, there wouldn't have been any problem at all.

KURTZ: Well, the editors deny that, but a lot of people at "The New York Times" in the newsroom were upset about the spiking. But Howell Raines, when they finally did run those two columns last week, didn't admit a mistake. He said that the Anderson column shouldn't have had this reference and that the Harvey Araton column had problems of structure and tone. Do you buy that?

FEINSTEIN: No, not even for a second. You know one of the biggest problems in our business and you and I both know this, is admitting we're wrong. We all make mistakes. We occasionally made factual errors. We also make errors in judgment. "The Times" editors made a mistake in judgment, but because they're "The Times" editors, they don't feel they can publicly admit that. So in trying to explain, in trying to rationalize what they've done, with each continuing statement, they've made themselves look worse in the eyes of all of us who work in the business.

KURTZ: Dug themselves into a deeper hole...

FEINSTEIN: Yes, absolutely. I think has made the -- now frankly, I also -- I think Howell Raines has done a great job as editor of "The Times" particularly on the sports page, ironically enough. But I think that with these statements and with what Boyd said before that, it just -- I lost a lot of respect for them.

KURTZ: But this is a paper that won seven Pulitzer Prizes...

FEINSTEIN: It's the greatest newspaper in the world...


FEINSTEIN: ... as far as I'm concerned.

KURTZ: But does this incident create the impression that "The New York Times" kind of enforces an agenda on its newspapers?

FEINSTEIN: Well that's exactly what it does because you know "The Times" clearly has had an agenda on this story, which is a whole separate issue. They decided early on that this was a bigger story than any other newspaper in the country. They've been pushing to get a woman or women into Augusta ever since Martha Burke first raised the issue last summer.

KURTZ: Well newspapers undertake crusades...

FEINSTEIN: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Anything wrong with that?

FEINSTEIN: Absolutely. Well, crusades on the news pages, yes.

KURTZ: Well...

FEINSTEIN: Or crusades on the editorial pages, no, that's fine...


KURTZ: They had a lot of page one stories. One of the...


KURTZ: ... headlines was "CBS Staying Silent In Debate On Women...

FEINSTEIN: Which is a ridiculous story. I read it. It was 50 inches of people explaining why CBS would have no say in Augusta's membership. CBS has never had any say in anything that Augusta does and to create a front-page story out of a non-story, I thought that was out of line. But what's really out of line is when you say if we believe X, you must believe X also. No one has ever told William Safire on the op-ed page that he must agree with "The Times" editorial positions. One of the reasons he's there is because he disagrees with most of their editorial... KURTZ: Just briefly, though, they say there are different rules for...

FEINSTEIN: Well there shouldn't be.

KURTZ: ... news page columnists.

FEINSTEIN: There absolutely shouldn't be. The newspaper is the newspaper. You don't treat Dave Anderson with any less respect journalistically than William Safire or Maureen Dowd or Tom Friedman. They're in the newspaper. They work for the newspaper. Dave Anderson is every bit as good a journalist as those people are. That's a double standard, and that's way out of line.

KURTZ: John Feinstein, author of "The Punch." Thanks for not pulling any punches, being with us today.

FEINSTEIN: Thanks, Howie.

KURTZ: When we come back, a class of journalistic ethics and courtroom codes over whether a foreign correspondent should have to testify. That's next on Bernard Kalb's "Back Page."


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


BERNARD KALB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR (on camera): First the story, then the question. A man is accused of war crimes. You once interviewed the man and you are now being asked to testify at his trial. No problem, right? Hold on, it's more complicated than you think.

(voice-over): This theoretical scenario was a reality all this year before the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The reporter, Jonathan Randal, who once worked for "The Washington Post." He was subpoenaed to testify at the trial of a Bosnian Serb accused of various war crimes during the war in Bosnia in the mid '90s. Randal had interviewed the man in '93 and now Randal has refused to testify. His lawyers arguing freedom of the press and that Randal's testimony was not critical in determining the fate of the defendant.

MARK STEPHENS, JONATHAN RANDAL'S LAWYER: The man is going to be acquitted or convicted based on other testimony, pertinent testimony, which is relevant to this case. Jonathan Randal's evidence that he can give to this tribunal is supremely superfluous.

KALB: More than 30 news organizations, including CNN, supported Randal. They argue that journalistic sources would dry up if reporters were routinely summoned and perceived as adjuncts to war crimes investigators. Journalists themselves are split on the issue. Some say it's their duty to testify in war crimes cases and some have.

But this past week in what's being described as a landmark legal decision, an appellate court of the tribunal quashed the subpoena, saying reporter's testimony might be required only if critical evidence could not be obtained elsewhere, adding that reporters might otherwise become targeted if news sources believed reporters might testify against them.

The decision was widely applauded by the media. Randal, himself, who now lives in Paris and writes books, he welcomed the news saying, "It's hard to gain the confidence of combatants. Either they won't talk to us at all or they'll kill us. I wanted the court to think long and hard about that."

(on camera): So, now reporters have the opportunity to report from war zones and risk being killed without having to worry too much about whether they'll have to testify one day at a war crimes trial.


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 11:30 Eastern, 8:30 Pacific.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


Criticized Over Augusta National Controversy>

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