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Is Press Making Big Deal Out of Lieberman's Religion?; A Look at Shake-Up at CNN

Aired January 19, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CNN ANCHOR: Joe Lieberman and the Jewish question.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Still ahead, a look at Joe Lieberman, keeping the faith. Will his religion matter to voters?


KURTZ: Is the press making too much of the Connecticut senator's Orthodox beliefs, or are journalists simply recognizing that Lieberman's candidacy may make some voters more uneasy than when he was just Al Gore's running mate?

And another CNN shake-up as Chairman Walter Isaacson announces he's stepping down. Was the man who brought Paula Zahn, Aaron Brown and Connie Chung to CNN a victim of the cable ratings war?

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

Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman, who threw his hat in the presidential ring this week, is getting peppered with questions from the press, many of them with a familiar theme.


WOODRUFF: Senator, as a Jewish candidate, how are you going to demonstrate that you are not too close to Israel, too sympathetic to Israeli interests in order to make decisions that are going to be in the best interest of the United States?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know there are still people in this country who will never vote for a Jewish candidate.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think it's possible for an American president who is Jewish to forge peace in the Middle East?

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D), CONNECTICUT: Absolutely. Look, number one, if you're president of the United States, the strongest country in the world, the rest of the countries in the world, I don't think, are going to look at the adjective that comes before the noun "American." You are the president.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: So, are the media too focused on Senator Lieberman's religion, or are these legitimate questions? And do voters really care?

Well, joining us now, Ron Brownstein, chief political writer for the "Los Angeles Times," and Frank Sesno, former CNN Washington bureau chief and a professor of public policy and communication at George Mason University.

Ron Brownstein, journalists seem to bring up Lieberman's religion over and over. Here's an AP story from Friday -- "Lieberman: Sabbath Not A Campaign Hurdle." It seems to me the press is almost making it an issue.

RON BROWNSTEIN, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": I'm not sure if they're making it an issue or reflecting the reality that we are opening a new door here in American life with a Jewish-American presidential candidate, the first one, and there are some questions that have to be raised, both in practical terms, about, for example, his campaigning.

The question about Israel is one that I think is entirely legitimate for many voters. And the broader one, the one that is more difficult to get your finger on, is to what extent there really is a segment of the electorate that will be resistant to him simply because of his religion.

KURTZ: But in the 2000 campaign, I realize he was just a running mate then, there was very little evidence that this bothered voters at all. I think it was an asset with some voters, because he was a person of faith, some non-Jewish voters.

So why do we see this pounding away in the first week of his candidacy? I mean, in every interview, this seems to come up.

FRANK SESNO, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY: Well, first of all, look, when news breaks, you go for the news, and there's a parade of relatively familiar faces who have announced for president. Joe Lieberman has an angle to this story, as Ron just made clear, that makes him different.

That is something that appeals to a reporter asking a question. And with the backdrop of the Middle East and terrorism and potential war with Iraq, the policy issue, as Ron mentioned, is paramount. It is fair game.

The question is, how frequent and in what tone is it raised. Is it pejorative? Is it finger-wagging? Is it enough already? Or is it kept out there in that broader sense?

KURTZ: I'm going to go to my first witness, and that is Joe Lieberman. He told the "New York Times" this week, "I'm asked this question more by the media than voters as I go along. If there are questions, I'm happy to answer them. I'm running as an American who happens to be Jewish, and not the other way around."

BROWNSTEIN: I think that is entirely legitimate, but it's also unlikely that voters are going to raise this directly with a candidate.

You know, there was an interesting poll done...

KURTZ: With pollsters.

BROWNSTEIN: With pollsters, that's right -- it is very difficult to measure the extent to which there is resistance to candidates on the basis of religion or race or anything like that.

There was a poll done when Lieberman was named as vice president in 2000, by "CNN-GALLUP-USA TODAY" that found that only 4 percent of Americans said they were less likely to support the Democratic ticket because of Lieberman's religion. But when they asked if they thought that people in their neighborhood would be less likely to support the ticket, the number went up to 14 percent. And that, I think, is a revealing reflection that there may be still be some resistance out there, and to ignore it, I think, would also be a dereliction of duty for the press.

SESNO: Let me put it slightly less delicately albeit difficulty. It's in reporters' gene pools to ask embarrassing and tough questions, and it's unlikely that the voters are going to stand up there and say, "Congressman, you have bad breath. Is that going to get in the way of your campaign?"

Reporters do that as a matter of course.

KURTZ: Well, since you mentioned gene pool, it makes me think of...

SESNO: And breath.

KURTZ: OK. You know, some Jews are uncomfortable with the idea of a Jewish politician being out front. What is something goes wrong -- we'll all be blamed. And there are a lot of Jewish journalists. And I wonder if maybe there is any extra-sensitivity because of that.

BROWNSTEIN: Good question. I'm not really sure about that. I think there is sensitivity in the Jewish community more broadly.

There's an almost-forgotten incident from 2000 where the Anti- Defamation League criticized, attacked, Lieberman for over-emphasizing religion on the campaign trail, in effect implying that you needed to be a person of faith, they felt, to run for president.

So I do think there are going to be cross currents here, both within and outside the Jewish community.

SESNO: I think it's very interesting. I mean, if you look back at the most likely historical parallel, which was John Kennedy in the 1960 campaign. Granted, it was a very different country, a very different discussion. And if you look at the tapes now, as I have recently, it's almost a humorous conversation, because it's, you know, are you going to be, you know, doing the Pope's bidding for him. You know, essentially that was the conversation...

KURTZ: The dual loyalty question.

SESNO: Right. John Kennedy saying no.

But in the case of Israel and the case of what is whispered in Washington and elsewhere, which is the Jewish lobby and Jewish interests -- it's difficult to bring up in polite company, but it is an ongoing conversation, and it is relevant, because there's a lot of influence, and whether it's APEC (ph) or anybody else, they make their presence felt here in Washington on a relevant policy level.

KURTZ: Does the senator contribute to this media climate by talking so openly and frequently about his faith? Yes, he's an American who happens to be Jewish, but he's also somebody who is not shy about pointing this out on the campaign trail. And as one of you mentioned, some Jewish leaders asked him to cool it last time, because they thought he was doing too much of it. So...

BROWNSTEIN: Actually, I think that's a good point. I think he does invite scrutiny of his faith by emphasizing it so much.

And what he made clear in his announcement statement was, you know, he is not running for president as an expression of his faith, but it is essential to who he is. And he makes that clear at every point.

So I do think that the role of religion -- whether he's Jewish, Protestant, Catholic or anything -- the role that religion, his religious belief, in shaping his public policy views and his policies as president, is entirely fair game. And he's made it so.

SESNO: And again, if you go back to Kennedy, Kennedy took pains to say my religion is off to the side. And to the extent that Joe Lieberman lives his religion, to include the Sabbath, where he will walk to work and not campaign, that is very much a part of his life and effects his behavior.

KURTZ: You say that reporters love to ask the bad breath questions. So what's legitimate here? Perhaps legitimate to ask about whether he would bend over backwards on questions involving Israel, but what about, you know, would you have a White House Christmas tree? I mean, you can come up with a long list. Is some of this a bit of a stretch?

SESNO: Look, I think you can ask anything. I mean, there's no such thing as a bad question, just a bad answer. It's a question of how many times you ask it. Do you want to harp on it? Are you going to play it prominently?

Look, this is a very scary world we live in right now, and at some point, you know, you get on with the serious business. Joe Lieberman is all over education reform and a variety of other much more immediate topics in people's lives.

KURTZ: Should there be more of a focus, Ron Brownstein, on his views? He's rather hawkish on Iraq. He's pro-business. He's conservative on Hollywood, moral issues. I'd like to hear more about that than the constant questioning about, well, how can you do this and you're Jewish.

BROWNSTEIN: I agree. I mean, I think that you can over- emphasize one element versus the others, and the fact is that in the Democratic primary, Lieberman is going to face a real test, because he has challenged a long list of Democratic constituencies, from teachers to labor unions, on trade to civil libertarian groups and faith-based -- there are a lot of people who don't like a lot of elements of his agenda, and it probably would be nice to have a little more balance on that front.

KURTZ: So why is that not the story of this first week of his candidacy?

BROWNSTEIN: I think because in general the sort of policy debates haven't really gelled in the Democratic party, and by and large, reporters are late on them. I mean, we don't really -- we don't really come to those policy debates until other candidates drive them.

We report it once it gets to the level of conflict between the candidates. We're much slower about raising those potential issues ourselves, and it is a failing in the press.

SESNO: Horseracing personalities are just too much fun and they're too easy, but I would -- I'll make a prediction, and I don't like to do this very often, but I think that this will be -- will have a relatively short half-life. Unless his religion -- unless he stumbles over it, or unless it becomes highly relevant in an issue with Israel or Middle East policy, I just don't think it's going to have long legs, because how many times can you ask it? How many times can he answer it in pretty much the same way?

There are too many other very important things out there. The guy wants to be president, how he feels about them is very important.

BROWNSTEIN: And, Howie, real quick, and as the race goes on, the other candidates are going to be focusing on what you just raised, his views and where he differs from Democratic constituencies, obviously far more than they are on religion, that will be the ongoing story, because the press tends to follow the lead of the candidates in defining -- in allowing them to define what the debate is about.

SESNO: And the other candidates are not going to raise the Jewish issue.

KURTZ: I don't think that will happen, but will it continue as kind of -- do you think it will continue as kind of an underground, under the radar issue, at least, you know, columnists writing about it and so forth. You think it's going to fade?

SESNO: I think it will fade. I mean, I think it will come back periodically. It has to. It's a legitimate question. It is part of his essence. It's part of his being. He doesn't run from it, and so if you ask a question, you get an answer.

It will come back, but whether it sort of reaches the critical mass and becomes, you know, the feeding frenzy issue, I doubt it.

BROWNSTEIN: Today it's at the national level, but one thing about running for president is that you're always going into new towns. I mean, you're always meeting with new reporters and new media outlets, and these small places in Iowa and New Hampshire, and I suspect it will be in the atmosphere for him, and he'll be asked a lot of questions about it on a day to day to day to day basis.

SESNO: Just look at his answers to those questions that we've had. He's used to it and he's ready for more.

KURTZ: And if he does well, there will be more profiles, and there'll be a chance for this all to be recycled. But we'll save the videotape and see if you're right.

SESNO: All right.

KURTZ: Frank Sesno, stay with us. Ron Brownstein, thanks very much for joining us.

BROWNSTEIN: All right.

KURTZ: Next up, bowing out at CNN. The network's chairman announces his departure as CNN continues to struggle in the cable ratings war. What does it mean? We'll take a critical look at the state of affairs at CNN.



Walter Isaacson, the chairman of CNN, announced this week that he's leaving to head up a Washington-based think tank and will be succeeded by CNN veteran Jim Walton.

Isaacson, the former managing editor of "TIME" magazine, who took the helm at CNN less than two years ago, brought some highly paid star anchors to the network, but he also faced his share of criticism.


WALTER ISAACSON, CHAIRMAN, CNN NEWS GROUP: I do feel that the basic principles of journalism are all the same, you know, to be credible, to try to focus on what's really news. And I think we did that over the past two years at CNN. We moved away from things that were too frivolous and have gotten it into being a real reported network.


KURTZ: Joining us now to talk about what this all means and how CNN is faring in the competitive cable market in our New York bureau, Verne Gay, television columnist for New York's "Newsday," and still with us, former CNN Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno.

Verne Gay, Walter Isaacson stayed for a year and a half, brought in some high-paid hotshots, and lost the ratings lead to FOX NEWS. Hard to call that a smashing success.

VERNE GAY, NEWSDAY: Yes. It's not a smashing success at all, and I -- I think it's a shock that he's leaving now. And I think in a sense it's an affirmation that his tenure was a failure.

KURTZ: A failure why, in your view?

GAY: Because I don't think he's -- he came aboard this place with a vision, I presume he came aboard with a vision, to correct what had been arguably a decade of a lot of issues relative to ratings.

He was supposed to come here and fix the ratings. Clearly, that hasn't happened entirely. There has been some up-tick, but clearly that hasn't happened, and I think arguably, any boss, particularly a boss who is chairman of CNN worldwide, has to come in with a sense of what this place means. What it means editorially, what it means for the 4,000 people who work here, and what it means for the millions of viewers worldwide that depend on CNN.

KURTZ: Right.

GAY: I don't feel he's articulated that, and I think that sound- byte frankly was almost sad in its depiction of what's happened here.

I think the exactly opposite has taken place. I think in some ways CNN has become more frivolous and it's not as well reported. And I remember very clearly when Frank Sesno did run the Washington bureau, and in my mind did it brilliantly. And I think CNN in some respects has gone backwards.

KURTZ: Well, I'm sure Frank Sesno will agree with one part of your statement.

SESNO: Which part would that be?

KURTZ: Isaacson talked about real reporting, and yet I don't think there's any question that CNN today does fewer reported packages, more talk, and some of it is kind of noisy, whether it's the souped-up "CROSSFIRE" or "TALKBACK LIVE." So, is it going in the right direction?

SESNO: Is it going in the right direction? That's arguable.

I think that what CNN needs to know and what Jim Walton, the new boss's challenge is going to be is to remember what CNN's middle name is -- news.

And we have not lived in the existence of CNN in the 22, 23 years almost, that CNN has been on the air in as newsy an environment as we are now.

Take your pick. North Korea, Iraq, the Middle East, budget...

KURTZ: Which should play to CNN's strengths.

SESNO: It should play to CNN's strengths, and it can and it will. But let's remember, for fairness, let's throw in just how difficult this task is.

People live with their clickers. They have hundreds of channels. If they don't like what they're hearing, they're gone in an instant. And so it becomes very important for a channel, any channel, to convey clearly what it is.

CNN has also faced literally years of turmoil and turnover at the very top. No organization will go through that without perhaps confusion and maybe even a loss of identity.

KURTZ: Verne Gay, you write that CNN has sort of a blurry image, because sometimes it does hard news, sometimes soft news, sometimes serious subjects, sometimes tabloid subjects. But haven't morning shows done that for years? And if you pick up a newspaper, you've got a sports section, a food section, movie reviews, as well as news about Iraq.

GAY: Yes, totally, Howard. But my sense is there is a cognitive dissonance going on at CNN. I apologize for the phrase, but I really feel that's going on there.

Take any program on its air, particularly -- let's take "AMERICAN MORNING." Yes, a lot of other shows do that, but let's -- arguably, I think there is room for one morning show on the air, and that's NBC's "Today." "GMA" has made an impact and inroads there, of course. "CBS This Morning," I don't even know what it's called anymore, has no role at all. It has zero role. It's sad but true statement.

That leaves -- then you've got "FOX and Friends," which is doing basically morning -- you know, it's like the "Morning Zoo," which is -- it's just a big joke.

Then you've got Paula Zahn's show. You've got Paula starting off the show with hard news, then leading into a joke with Jack Cafferty about $40 hamburgers. I mean, it's -- if you're a viewer, if you want the joke, go to hear Al Roker. And that's what you do. You're not going to come to get your jokes from Jack Cafferty.


KURTZ: Go ahead -- Frank.

GAY: I'm sorry.

SESNO: One of the things, Verne, I think you're saying, is that a news organization of any sort, print, television, radio, you name it, has to have a voice.

National Public Radio has a huge -- NPR has a huge range of stories they do, but there is a voice to NPR, whether they're doing -- I remember this story -- the little old lady who lives under the roller coaster -- or whether they're doing a long piece of Nina Totenberg on the Supreme Court.

KURTZ: But speaking of voice, let me just jump in here. A lot of people think FOX NEWS is successful because it caters to a conservative audience. Some people think CNN is kind of liberal.

I would argue that it's also because it's irreverent and fun and edgy, and they seem to be having a good time...

SESNO: They have a voice. And that's FOX's voice...

KURTZ: CNN has a very -- CNN has a very sober image. Some people maybe think it's kind of staid. And so what do you do in that situation? Do you become more FOX-like? Some people think CNN is trying to do that.

SESNO: What you do is you decide what you're going to do, and you do that. And if you want -- you know, if you want to be cartoon news, you can do that too, convey that to the public.

I'm not suggesting that's what CNN has done. You literally can do anything you want, but then you have to live with the consequences. But it needs to be clear and consistent.

GAY: I couldn't agree more. That's exactly it.

You've got to establish a vision. You've got to stick to that vision. And you can't deviate from that vision.

CNN has, in my mind -- is, in my mind, in many respects, the greatest television news organization on the planet. But watching it a lot of days and a lot of times, you wouldn't get that impression. And I think that that's -- I think it's highway robbery. I think it's disgraceful in a lot of respects.

It's got brilliant people. It's got brilliant people that work here. It's got great shows. There's the middle -- prime access is plugged up with great stuff. And then you go into Connie's show.

KURTZ: You wrote that CNN has great strength, it's international coverage, and it should do more about Iraq.

GAY: Yes.

KURTZ: But, you know, since there's not actually shooting going on in Iraq yet, I am sure they have poured over the ratings and they've seen that ratings don't get a huge bump with Iraq, so they do more personality-type stuff.

GAY: Right. But, Howard, you're -- you know as well as anybody, you work for "The Washington Post." "The Washington Post" has a perfectly consistent editorial voice. "The Washington Post" has a lot of people in the Middle East. I'm sure it's doing brilliant reporting from the Middle East.

But "The Washington Post" or "The New York Times" is not going to run a silly frivolous story above the fold. They might in the style section run a Lloyd Grove's (ph) pieces that's going to be funny or something like that, but they're not going to run it on the front page.

KURTZ: Right. Well, television...

SESNO: But there's a big difference -- there's a big difference, Vernon, and now, in defense of some of the confusion that we have seen is, you know, ratings are a brutal measure. They return every 15 minutes.

So, unfortunately, or fortunately, you know exactly what works and what doesn't. And CNN's dilemma, to lay it out there, has been, OK, fine, if we do brilliant journalism and nobody watches, what's left?

And so you have to find that place where you can be smart, but also be engaging. Where you can be relevant and have your voice, but also have enough surprise and enough energy to keep people with you, because they, the audience, are unforgiving.

And one other thing, Howie, if I may, people lie. They all say they want smart television, but often they don't watch it. They don't reward that.

KURTZ: Verne, you've got 10 seconds for the last word.

GAY: Let's go back 10 years. Ten years ago, CNN did the greatest job in the universe covering the Iraq war. CNN was well- prepared to do that. CNN is also well-prepared to do that now. Let's just hope when this war breaks out and when something happens in the Korean Peninsula, CNN gives everything that it's got to that conflict, and it's perfectly clear in viewer's minds what CNN then stands for.


GAY: That's my hope and my desire.

KURTZ: I would just add, if this war breaks out. We wish we had more time -- Verne Gay, Frank Sesno, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, the art of getting off the public state in the "Spin Cycle."


KURTZ: Time now for a trip through the "Spin Cycle."


KURTZ (voice-over): We're all accustomed to the political ritual of tossing your hat into the ring.

LIEBERMAN: Yes, I am ready to announce today that I am a candidate for president of the United States in 2004.

KURTZ: But these days, there seems to be more mileage in bailing out, gracefully, if possible, and sparing yourself the media's slings and arrows.

Al Gore all but announced his unavailability for 2004 by appearing in a hot tub. Suddenly, he took his sense of humor out of the lockbox.

AL GORE, FMR. U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: This is actually a very clever strategy to lay the groundwork for a presidential race in 2016.

KURTZ: Once he made it official, a press corps that didn't have much use for the ex-veep gave him the equivalent of a standing ovation.

Trent Lott tried to hang on to his job after his command performance at Strom Thurmond's birthday party. All those apologies didn't work, so he quit as majority leader, and his detractors suddenly offered kind words.

Tom Daschle said he was leaning towards a White House run, then he pulled the plug at the last minute, winning praise all around.

JAMES CARVILLE, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": I admire Senator Daschle for being a courageous man and a good American.

KURTZ: Henry Kissinger got beaten up by editorial writers and others when he agreed to chair the commission investigating 9/11 while refusing to disclose his foreign clients.

HENRY KISSINGER, FMR. U.S. SECY. OF STATE: I think "The New York Times" will apologize for this editorial when our reporters submit it.

KURTZ: The "Times" never had the chance. Kissinger got fed up with the criticism and quietly resigned.

Media people must be taking notes. AOL Time Warner Chairman Steve Case resigned late last Sunday, a dead news period that enabled him to put his spin on his role in the struggling merger of two big companies, which he continued the next day with CNN's Lou Dobbs and CNBC's Mark Haines.

By then, he was competing with CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson, who chatted with Wolf Blitzer to explain his sudden resignation to head a think tank.

But some folks can't even walk off the stage without stumbling. Harvey Pitt thought he'd slink into the shadows by announcing his resignation on election night. Instead, with every network providing live coverage and the returns slow to come in, Pitt's exit became a prime-time extravaganza.

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Democrats from the outset have said Harvey Pitt is the wrong man to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission at a time when there is so much focus on corporate corruption.


KURTZ: Strange thing, though. With no successor in place, Pitt is still on the job almost three months later. Maybe he's having the last laugh. That's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. A reminder that for now the program will be seen only on Sunday mornings at 11:30 Eastern, 8:30 Pacific. So please join us again next Sunday for another critical look at the media.

I'm Howard Kurtz. Thanks for watching.

"LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer is just ahead.


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