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Are Media Biased?

Aired January 4, 2003 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz.
And joining us today, syndicated columnist, E.J. Dionne of "The Washington Post." He's also a fellow at the Brookings Institution. And radio talk show host, Laura Ingraham. She hosts, yes, "The Laura Ingraham Show," on Westwood One Radio. She's also the author of "The Hillary Trap," just out in paperback.

In a few minutes, we'll get to our discussion about media bias. But, first, North Carolina Senator John Edwards announced on "The Today Show" Thursday that he's running for president, and he made the usual media rounds. But the man who was once depicted as the Democrat's great hope ran into some decidedly skeptical questioning along the way.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What would you say to someone watching this interview who says to themselves, "First-term senator from North Carolina; before that, trial lawyer; not much in the way of foreign policy experience, and it has become a very dangerous world"?

SEN. JOHN EDWARDS (D), NORTH CAROLINA: President Reagan came to office with very little foreign policy experience. We've seen it in subsequent presidents.


KURTZ: Laura Ingraham, the media used to say that John Edwards could walk on water. Now, the question seems to be whether he can stay afloat. What happened?

LAURA INGRAHAM, WESTWOOD ONE RADIO: I think that, part of the thing that might have happened was the media also was predicting that George Bush's popularity was going to last maybe the first three months of the war against terror. It's lasted a lot longer. It still hovers around 70 percent.

John Edwards, however, in these interviews, Howard, to me it really was odd that he kept saying, "I'm for the regular people."

KURTZ: That was the designated sound bite.

INGRAHAM: "I'm for the regular folks." He switched it up once in awhile and called it regular folk. So it was the RPs versus the EIs, the evil insiders: real people versus evil insiders. Not one person in the media, not one interviewer asked him, "What's your definition of a regular person?"

KURTZ: E.J. Dionne, you're a regular guy. Should the reporters have pressed Edwards on his first day out of the box about this campaign slogan?

E.J. DIONNE, WASHINGTON POST: Well, I think it's perfectly reasonable to press anybody coming out of the box on any campaign slogan. I think now -- Edwards used to walk on water, now the headline is, "He can't swim," even if he does walk on water.

I think the war made a difference. I think there were small events that can matter. I think his interview with Tim Russert some time ago...

KURTZ: On "Meet the Press."

DIONNE: ... on "Meet the Press" changed a certain media conventional wisdom. Then I think you've seen other Democrats rise in esteem since the Edwards' boom. You've got Howard Dean, who's built real support at the grassroots. You got John Kerry, who's had a pretty good year.

In the end, I think, Edwards can make the case that he has just about as much experience as George W. Bush had when he came into the White House, almost exactly the same amount of time in public life. And he'll see how that flies.

KURTZ: I was really struck at the news conference he held in Raleigh, North Carolina. Two minutes into it, one reporter asked him, "Would you be willing to accept the vice presidential nomination?" Let's take a look at his answer.


EDWARDS: I'm running for president of the United States, and I am not thinking about vice president.


KURTZ: Don't you get one day of declaring your candidacy for the White House before you have to answer a dumb, horse-race question like that?

INGRAHAM: Well, so much for the exploratory committee. It seems like the decision has been already made, which was something that seemed to be lost on a lot of folks in the media.

But again, getting back to this regular person issue, that is going to be the key to his campaign, he thinks; that he's going to try to portray the Rumsfelds, the Powells, the Rices, the Bushes as the real insiders, the captive of special interests.

But the trial lawyers and John Edwards, the same day that all these surgeons are walking out of West Virginia hospitals because of medical malpractice insurance, that convergence of those events was really not good for John Edwards.

KURTZ: How important is it whether the media framed his trial lawyer background as being fighting for the little guy against big, bad corporations or multimillion dollar guy who makes a lot of money handling these cases?

DIONNE: You mean, if you don't believe me when I say I'm fighting for the little guy, I'll sue you.


You know, I think that this is a very interesting test, because there is a strong view in the Republican Party that trial lawyers are these terrible people who take money out of the economic system.

(UNINTELLIGIBLE) in "The New Yorker" had an excellent piece some months ago where he talks about how trial lawyers in the South are the equivalent of the trade union movement, because there is not a strong union movement in the South, and among the only people who do stand up for the little guy who gets injured in his company or gets cheated out of a job are the trial lawyers. And so they have a certain standing.

And so, Edwards is not only running for president himself, he is running for the reputation of trial lawyers. And I think it's a fairer fight than many Republicans think.

INGRAHAM: Speaking as a recovering lawyer myself, I don't think I'd be running as a trial lawyer in the age where people see $50 million verdicts for -- like, a woman in West Virginia who died in a nursing home tragically, but she was in her late 80s. She gets a $50 million verdict but ultimately knocked down to $5 million. Someone has to pay. It's not just the insurance companies and corporations that pay; we end up paying.

DIONNE: Republicans love that trial lawyers issue.

KURTZ: Let's get back to the media coverage. Senator Edwards announces with Matt Lauer on "The Today Show," and then he gives interviews to CNN and to CBS and to CNBC and the "New York Times," "The Washington Post," and I probably missed a few. Is that the way you kick these things off these days, as opposed to just having a big event with balloons and a general press conference?

INGRAHAM: I think so, and I think John Edwards thought he would get probably a really soft landing with someone like Matt Lauer on "The Today Show." Is he going to get really tough questioning from Matt Lauer? The last time Matt Lauer had tough questioning, was when he interviewed Charlton Heston in a two-part series, and you know I've talked about that before.

Get at Dick Gephardt...

KURTZ: Lauer asked him about four years in public office, for example.

INGRAHAM: He asked about his four years in public office, but it's not going be the type of rigorous, you know, regular reporter asking a question at a big press conference that might have happened otherwise.

But look, Dick Gephardt announces that he's going to run through some type of anonymous spokesman later on in the day. That was really odd. I think that's even odder than maybe this Edwards situation.

KURTZ: Announcement by leak.

DIONNE: Don't you think it shows how politicians -- campaigns since John F. Kennedy's in 1960 have geared themselves more and more to the media. Ronald Reagan brought it to a new form in 1980, and now John Edwards is just following to the logical -- going to the logical place. Forget a news conference. I mean, it's going to be a pseudo event, why not just go straight to the media instead of staging something? Let your producers stage it for them.

KURTZ: Well, certainly Ross Perot did that on "LARRY KING" in 1992. And I guess, we could call this the media primary. And given how early we are in this cycle, it's going to go on for a while.

DIONNE: You should invite somebody to announce in one of these...

INGRAHAM: Yes, why not?

KURTZ: I will take you up on that.

Let's turn now to media bias.

E.J. Dionne, you wrote a column recently saying there is no longer any such thing as the big, liberal media. Is this a fantasy we've been talking about for some years now?

DIONNE: No, I mean, if you want to go back to the Goldwater campaign, I think that the press was biased against Barry Goldwater in 1964. Yes, you can make a case for that.

A lot has changed. I think, number one, the definition of the media has changed. You have three broad parts of the media that in turn affect the burgeoning network of online sources. You got talk radio, you got cable television, and then you've got the traditional press and networks news magazines and newspapers.

The first two are undoubtedly conservative leaning. And I think FOX has had an effect of pushing the other cable networks, including this one, to look over their right shoulder. I think talk radio is very clearly a conservative medium, and Laura is a representative of that.

And then the press, in the meantime, the so-called old mainstream media has been so affected by this constant barrage that you are biased -- you know, that the media is biased liberal, that they've been intimidated. I think two plus zero equals two, and that's a tilt to the right. KURTZ: You're saying that the "New York Times" and the "L.A. Times" and "The Washington Post" and the networks and magazines have been intimidated and they're cowering and they can't do their jobs anymore?

INGRAHAM: I must have missed that.

DIONNE: That's not what I said.


INGRAHAM: I mean, I think in the cable news business it's a little bit different. And I think E.J. raises a good point, that when one network starts up with the objective of catering to a more conservative audience, which no doubt Fox does, the other networks are going to, sort of, reassess, especially when the ratings might not be as good as they want them to be.

However, conservatives, let's not forget, were very, very disgruntled and frustrated for so many years, decades, after seeing an elitist liberal tilt to the media. So what did they do? Well, conservatives decided, "Well,we're going to go to nontraditional avenues; we're going to go to talk radio;we're going to go to the Internet; we're going to, maybe, see if we can start around cable network." All that happened.

And now liberals are saying, "Wait a second. Wait a second. What about us? What about us?"

Well, maybe it's time to reexamine liberal principles that have been on the run for the last 25 years, not the fact that they only have the "New York Times," CBS, NBC, ABC, "Washington Post" and every other newspaper in the country.

DIONNE: I'm sorry to say this, but that's a big lie of the right, that these other media are biased liberal.

I mean, NBC, as you pointed out on one of your shows, had Rush Limbaugh on as an election night analyst. This is not biased liberal media.

INGRAHAM: That's different from regular coverage, E.J.

DIONNE: No, but the difference...

INGRAHAM: When they cover a Bush press conference, how is it covered? Is it covered in a fair and balanced way...

DIONNE: Bush has gotten an extraordinarily good press. I challenge you to compare...

INGRAHAM: He's been an extraordinarily good president, much to the media's chagrin.

DIONNE: That's not the point. The point is that the kind of probing that went into Halliburton and Cheney's part, or the Harken Energy, was nothing like what would have happened if this had been President Clinton.

The point I'm making is that the idea that there is now a big liberal media is a myth and that you're quite right when you say, Laura, that the conservatives built up these alternative networks. Liberals, several years late, are talking about trying to build up alternatives of their own.

But if you look at the mainstream press, people -- political reporters like Dan Balz, Tom Edsel (ph), Dave Broder, Adam Nagourney, you know, Candy Crowley, these are not liberals, these are not people who go out there selling liberal politics.

INGRAHAM: No, but what do you think their voting pattern is?

DIONNE: It doesn't matter.

INGRAHAM: It doesn't matter?

DIONNE: First of all, I happen to know some of these, and you'd be surprised.

But secondly...

INGRAHAM: I'm talking about the media across the board, E.J. You know all the polls, 80 percent Democrat voters. That doesn't affect at all?

KURTZ: Let me jump back in here.

DIONNE: Media people live by rules and conservative commentators don't.

INGRAHAM: A lot of them do. A lot of them do.

DIONNE: Liberal commentators don't either.

KURTZ: You had a program on MSNBC, so you've been inside the belly of that particular beast. Is that a liberal network? Is it a network with no political views?

INGRAHAM: I don't think MSNBC knows what it's doing right now. I think it started off as a youth-oriented network, tried to be, you know, polished, you know, nickel metal set and computerized. That didn't do it. They throw up, you know, throw up a new host every other month.

I don't think a lot of the cable news channels know what they want to do. They want to find personalities, and they never give -- they don't give a lot of people a long of a chance. So they're trying with Phil Donahue and his ratings are abysmal. It's a business decision at some point.

KURTZ: It was Bill Clinton who complained recently about an increasingly right-wing and bellicose conservative press and contrasted that with an increasingly docile establishment press. But the establishment press, it seems to me, shouldn't have a partisan point of view. And so we've set up this apples-and-oranges comparison.

DIONNE: No, but I think we are at a critical point in our history where we suddenly have a government where the Congress is in Republican hands, where the House -- the White House is in Republican hands, and I think, I would argue, the courts are in Republican hands.

It is a moment when the media, which should be willing to be critical, just as critical as they were of Bill Clinton, it seems to me that's the standard: When a question comes up, does the media deal with it as seriously as it dealt with those issues under Bill Clinton?

The contrast, to go to Laura's book, between how the cattle futures were handled and how either Halliburton or...


DIONNE: Well, either Halliburton or Harken were handled, I think is night and day.

I think part of it is conservatives have built -- and conservatives deserve credit for this -- they built this enormous network which has been very successful in pushing stories, and I think that helps account for some of the difference you've seen -- September 11 does too -- between the treatment of Bill Clinton or Al Gore and the treatment of George Bush.

INGRAHAM: But let's tick off the list here. Hollywood is in solidly liberal hands. You saw the list of the letters of actors, singers, entertainers to President Bush.

KURTZ: Not much debate there.

INGRAHAM: Hollywood is an enormously powerful cultural force. It's adamantly left wing. The universities: left wing. The major networks tilt liberal on their editorial pages; some would argue that their news coverage is liberal as well. The networks are liberal.

So there is still a predominantly liberal bias to these institutions. I'm not complaining about it really, I'm not. But I'm saying, for liberals now to say,"Oh, my goodness, talk radio, we've got to find our own people" -- find your own people, that's fine, but don't whine about it.

DIONNE: Well, but do you know what the interesting thing is? When conservatives spent 30 years saying, "The media are biased liberal," the media started paying attention.

INGRAHAM: But the media -- and it still is biased.

DIONNE: And that was courageous. When liberals start saying, "Wait a minute, this is different, you were right once upon a time, it's a very difficult world now," when liberals do it, they're accused of whining.

INGRAHAM: Are you saying the "New York Times..."

DIONNE: That is the essence of the bias in the conservative media.

INGRAHAM: Is the "New York Times" biased to the left? Is the Washington -- I mean to the right. Is "The Washington Post" a conservative newspaper now?

DIONNE: No. I think that what you're talking about are even handed newspaper and mainstream journalists and this very new and growing and more influential than ever...

INGRAHAM: But they're commentators. They're commentators. They're not pretending to be objective.

DIONNE: But they dominate the news. Fox says they're fair and balanced, when in fact they are a conservative network, and that's how they built their audience.

KURTZ: OK, let me jump in here. This search for a liberal radio host who's going to attract a national audience of a Sean Hannity or a Bill O'Reilly...


KURTZ: You're nominating E.J.

INGRAHAM: Yes, E.J. E.J. would be fun.

KURTZ: What about this talk about Democrats getting together and starting some sort of liberal cable network?

INGRAHAM: That'd be great.

KURTZ: Would there be an audience for that?

INGRAHAM: Maybe. I think it's fine. I think the more the merrier out there. I think the more viewpoints, the better. Don't pretend to be objective when you're not. On the air every day, I don't pretend to be an objective, you know, analyst in the news business. That's not who I am.

KURTZ: But you're not a beat reporter. You're not a working journalist.

INGRAHAM: I'm not a beat reporter. And I respect them enormously. I think they have a difficult job and I respect them enormously.

But to say that you're objective when, in fact, you're not. And I could go down the list: Terry Moran at ABC. There are others who consistently sneer at conservative principles and religiosity and Christianity. And I'd put Peter Jennings on that list as well.

KURTZ: What evidence do you have that Terry Moran is sneering at people?

INGRAHAM: That was just in the cover. You've got to read the Media Research Center's reports on... (CROSSTALK)

DIONNE: And that's what's happened. I think conservatives have been brilliant at tarnishing particular people and saying -- and taking, you know, some particular comment and saying, "Ah ha, the entire media is biased."

I will say this: I think historically the media did have a bias. It was the bias of the educated upper-middle class. And that bias was, on the one hand,not so good for religious conservatives, but also not so good for trade unionists and economic liberals and people down the bottom of society. And people talked a lot about the bias against religious conservatives. They didn't talk at all about the bias against working people and the poor.

INGRAHAM: Why aren't the missionaries' deaths in Yemen getting more coverage than, let's say, if three journalists were killed? Why do you think?

KURTZ: Well, many journalists...

INGRAHAM: Christian missionaries slain in Yemen who have been helping the Muslims for...

KURTZ: Well, I don't think it's been deliberately ignored. But I agree with E.J. that many journalists are out of touch with a lot of their readers...

INGRAHAM: They're elite.

KURTZ: ... in their work because they are become a part of this upper-middle class.

We just have about a minute left. You made a note of the fact that I had interviewed Rush Limbaugh on this program and then Tim Russert had interviewed Rush Limbaugh on his CNBC show as if that was some evidence of a conservativedom. Why shouldn't a guy with a huge radio audience get interviewed, just like Frank Rich (ph) and James Carville and all the people on the left?

DIONNE: I specifically mentioned that you guys had also had me on your show...

KURTZ: Right.

DIONNE: ... so that I wasn't criticizing you for having him on.

The point I was making is that when Tom Daschle went out and criticized Rush Limbaugh, if there were this big establishment liberal media, you would have expected them to go out after Rush Limbaugh. Instead the criticism, including a very strong column you wrote, went after Tom Daschle for criticizing Rush Limbaugh.

The point I was making is that Rush Limbaugh has now been mainstreamed. And that is -- there's nothing wrong with Rush Limbaugh trying to make himself a big deal. He's succeeded. It is evidence that this conservative network that Laura is talking about is now penetrating into the mainstream media. And that is why it is increasingly conservative.

INGRAHAM: It's called being resourceful in dealing with the cards you have in front of you. And that is what conservatives have done.


INGRAHAM: However the criticism of what Daschle said is Daschle was trying to link Rush Limbaugh and talk radio with violence. That was the real problem. That was what was outrageous and reprehensible about what both Daschle and Clinton and Gore have intimated over the last several weeks. That's that.

KURTZ: We could go on for the next three and a half hours, but I've got to pull the plug. Laura Ingraham, E.J. Dionne, thanks very much for a lively discussion.

We want to know what you think, whether the media have a conservative or a liberal bias these days. E-mail us at

But coming up, what do Mike Wallace, Jim Lehrer and Rush Limbaugh have in common? The answer next on RELIABLE SOURCES.



Some of the heaviest of our media heavyweights appeared on this program in 2002. And through the magic of videotape, let's take a look back at some of what they had to say.


KURTZ: We ask marathon man Mike Wallace if he really planned on reducing his "60 Minutes" workload.

MIKE WALLACE, "60 MINUTES" CO-ANCHOR: Can you imagine being 83 and packing a bag which you take on wheels, because you don't trust the airlines to get your bags there if you check them? In addition, then you have a garment bag because you have a couple of suits and some shirts here. Then you have another satchel with your materials when you walk a mile to your plane. And then you take off your shoes. And if its winter time you have a 10-pound winter coat on.

The heck with it. I mean, come on, it's just too damn hard for an old bugger.

KURTZ: Jim Lehrer talked about criticism that he doesn't ask aggressive questions as a moderator.

JIM LEHRER, "NEWSHOUR" HOST: I am not a prosecutor. I didn't go to law school. I'm not there to prosecute. I am there to allow people to say what they want to say and let the audience decide whether or not the person -- in other words, if I ask you a question and then I follow up on it two or three times, somebody's paying attention; they can decide whether or not you are telling the truth or not.

KURTZ: We wallowed through Watergate's 30th anniversary with David Frost, wondering why the public remains interested in the legacy of Nixon.

DAVID FROST, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: I think the reason the fascination, though, is two-fold. I think, first of all, that it was an amazing story. But above all, I believe that Richard Nixon was the most enigmatic, interesting, strange president we've ever had. And there's been no one who is quite that fascinating of people. What was Richard Nixon really like? And some people still ask that question as if he was still alive.

KURTZ: Rush Limbaugh talked to us about -- what else? -- liberal bias in the media.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: But I admit what I am. I admit my political viewpoint and I'm proud of it. And I admit that I am trying to persuade people.

Others who have bias hide behind this cloak of objectivity, which I think is very hard to achieve and doesn't really exist, and claim they are not this thing or that thing or not (UNINTELLIGIBLE) here or don't care about the outcome,when I think they actually do.

I mean, look at the way Bush was covered the first two years. Whatever the Democratic leadership said was parroted by many in the media: dunce, idiot, fratboy.

KURTZ: And to assess the non-stop coverage of the Washington sniper, we turn to that noted social critic, Comedy Central's Jon Stewart.

JON STEWART, "THE DAILY SHOW" HOST: ... coverage, 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.

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?"


KURTZ: That guy really knows how to deliver a zinger.

Well, when we come back, help wanted in Bernard Kalb's "Back Page." If you're looking for a job in the media, stick around.


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


BERNARD KALB, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: So, what's this got to do with the media? Well, as a matter of fact, mucho. It's got to do with a big job that's just opened up, a really big job, high visibility. You might be interested in it, but just in case you missed it, here's what's required. You've got to be a liberal and you've got to know how to use these, which I'll explain in a moment.

The job, you should know, was not listed in the help wanted columns, but rather where you'd never even think of looking for a job: on the front page of "The New York Times."

"Outflanked in the Media War, Democrats Seek to Catch Up," the gist of the story being that some Democratic bigwigs feel the party's views are being drowned out by conservative TV and radio pundits. So the Democrats are now in a desperate talent search, looking for what the "Times" calls a liberal answer to Limbaugh and company.

The Democrats are being told that conservative pundits are all fire and brimstone and reach a lot more voters.

Now, it is true there are some brimstone liberals, but the liberals are described as being mostly policy wonks, eggheads, who -- now get this quote --"refrain from baring fangs against their conservative opponents." In other words, that's got to stop. Toothless is out, fangs are in, which means the Democrats are now looking for the pundit equivalent of this to go head to head with Rush; or this to face off against Bill; or this to duke it out with Sean.

Or put it another way: Having an idea is OK, maybe even on Iraq or North Korea, but you've got to decomplicate it, jazz up your act, never give your audience an intellectual headache, and most of all, you've got to sink your teeth into the opposition, you've got to out- fang the pundits on the other side, the conservatives.

So, if you think you're the liberal answer to the Democrats' problem, you might send them your resume. Worth a try. And don't forget to include a sample of your fangs.


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.

From all of us here at RELIABLE SOURCES, have a happy new year.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.


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