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Is Howard Dean Getting Slugged by Media?; Are Liberal Columnist Going too Far in Labeling Bush a Liar?

Aired June 29, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Flavor of the month. Have the media turned Howard Dean from long shot to hot shot? Have reporters been holding the presidential contender to a lower standard? Like such past mavericks as Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas and John McCain until now? Was Tim Russert unfair to the former Vermont governor during a "Meet the Press" grilling? And is George Bush a liar? That's what some liberal columnists are saying. Have they gone too far or are they outdoing a timid press in holding the president accountable?

Also, how cable news bobbled the big Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action.


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

There are nine Democrats out there vying for media attention as they campaign for president. But only one of them has been getting much ink and air time. Howard Dean has been running for a year, but journalists flocked to Burlington this week, where the former Vermont governor, to no one's surprise, made it official and took a swipe at the press.


HOWARD DEAN (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Everywhere I go, people are asking fundamental questions, who can we trust? Is the media reporting the truth? What is happening to our country?


KURTZ: Dean seems to be the hot candidate of the moment for the press. But much of the coverage is starting to take on a negative tone, following a contentious appearance on "Meet the Press." Is he getting kicked around because he is making progress, or is this sort of scrutiny way overdue?

Well, joining us now are Laura Ingraham, host of "The Laura Ingraham Show" on Westwood One Radio. Terry Neal, who writes a column for, and E.J. Dionne, syndicated columnist and a fellow at the Brookings Institution. E.J., there was a time when Howard Dean was getting all these glowing profiles and cover stories. He was the straight-talking maverick, and now the press is starting to slap him around a little bit. What happened?

E.J. DIONNE, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, the good news and the bad news for Dean are exactly the same, which is at the beginning, he seemed like this interesting guy who was developing a following because he was the strongest Democrat against the war in Iraq. Now people are saying he might actually win this nomination, at least he has a shot at it, and so there's a natural progression where people start asking him tough questions.

And I think the interesting thing lies in his politics. He has become a sort of Paul Wellstone liberal, the late Paul Wellstone, a great dynamic figure in the Democratic Party. His past was quite moderate. And so I think it is inevitable that the press is going to start asking where was he then and where is he now and why the change?

KURTZ: But none of this was any great secret, Laura Ingraham. And so I'm wondering why we're now seeing pieces written about the inconsistencies and changes and softening on the death penalty. For example, why now?

LAURA INGRAHAM, WESTWOOD ONE RADIO: Well, it's about time. He went from gadfly and maverick to possible contender. So it was going to happen sooner or later. So now people are going back and what actually did you do when you were governor of Vermont? And some of these policies don't seem like the traditional liberal policies that you are forwarding now, and the death penalty, balanced budget, all of these, it is going to continue to come at him.

But he is an interesting guy. I think he is an interesting candidate and he lights up the screen with emotion and passion and anger and outrage, and a lot of people feel that out there and I think for the Democrats, he is going to be a very, very interesting dynamic.

KURTZ: Journalists love interesting candidates. That's how we make our living. Is some of this tougher scrutiny of Dean, Terry Neal, being fed to reporter by, say, some of the rival Democratic campaigns that don't particularly like Dean?

TERRY NEAL, WASHINGTONPOST.COM: A little bit of it is, but I really don't think that that's what is behind it. I think Dean should probably take it as a good sign. He's moved from kind of an obscure guy that no one knew to somebody who is now seen as a first-tier candidate. And as such there is beginning to be more scrutiny on him, and the difference between him and the other first tier candidates is we know all of those other guys. I think that's number one.

I think number two, there are some real contradictions with this guy. There are some contradictions in the way he's trying to portray himself and his record, and I think he's done some vacillating about where he stands on issues in part to play to certain crowds, which is exactly the opposite of his reputation, which is as a straight shooter. DIONNE: Dean is so fascinating in that respect, because the normal thing is somebody starts out as really liberal and tries to look more moderate. Dean has done exactly the opposite, and that speaks to the antipathy to President Bush within the Democratic base. He saw more clearly than any of these other guys how strong that feeling was.

KURTZ: But didn't the press help build him up during that period when he was just sort of an interesting long shot, or a gadfly to use Laura's word? And do we have two sets of standards, one -- go ahead.

INGRAHAM: I think the press wants to focus on a competition here between President Bush and someone who is going to really take him on. And what he wants to do ...

KURTZ: Why wasn't that someone John Kerry or Joe Lieberman?

INGRAHAM: No, because John Kerry, he's still -- he is in the U.S. Senate and I still think he believes that he has to be a little bit soft on Bush on some things. He has to criticize him, but he can't say the same things that he did.

KURTZ: So journalists are drawn to Dean's hotter rhetoric?


NEAL: Also I think there's something else. There is a real feeling on the left that the -- you know, that their opinions are being ignored by the mainstream media. So that's why you saw in his announcement speech where he made that -- took that swipe at the media. He is actually playing up to something that really exists, and so when we go to these events, I didn't actually go to the speech but I have been to three or four events where he's spoken, he's moved the crowd like no one else because he is speaking to a real, you know, I mean, I get literally just in the last few months I've gotten thousands of e-mails. If there is one kind of theme that's been consistent, it's this theme of liberals complaining about the way the press covers Bush, how favorable they are to Bush, which is kind of amazing. They are starting to sound like Republicans, and conservatives, who complained for a long time about bias.

DIONNE: I agree with Terry. The press didn't do this. Dean really did build a grassroots following out there, he tapped into something that existed in the party and I think the press followed...

INGRAHAM: Well, that's what I was trying to say. They like to showcase him.

DIONNE: Well, the press noticed that something was going on out there.

KURTZ: But, when I spent a couple of days with Dean on the trail about seven months ago, you know, he was brisk and businesslike and answered all my questions but there was no charm offensive there. And I am being told by some colleagues that he has prickly relationships with some reporters, and I'm wondering now if some journalists see their chance to tighten the screws a little bit on Governor Dean.

INGRAHAM: I'm sure he does have prickly relations with some reporters, because if reporters are doing their jobs they're going to be looking at the huge swings in viewpoints on the death penalty, on perhaps gay marriage even. I mean, he wasn't forthright on that question a few days ago. So he's going to have to say, well, who are you? Are you the man who is going to say, look, I'm not Bush-lite. In fact, I'm anti-Bush, I want to take the country back to "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow." I'm the real deal.

KURTZ: OK. There has been a lot of talk in political media circles about that "Meet the Press," interview last Sunday. I want to take a look at one exchange with host Tim Russert, in which Howard Dean was asked about the size of the military.


TIM RUSSERT, HOST: Let's talk about the military budget. How many men and women would you have on active duty?

DEAN: I can't answer that question because I don't know what the answer is.

RUSSERT: How many men and women do we now have on active duty?

DEAN: I can't tell you the answer to that either.

RUSSERT: But as commander in chief, you should know that.


KURTZ: Did it seem to you, Terry Neal, that that was getting a little prosecutorial, a little person? Tim Russert hammered on that for quite a bit.

NEAL: No, I think it was legitimate. That line of questioning was legitimate, because Dean has made a point in recent weeks to criticize the Bush administration for understaffing the troops in Iraq, so Russert's line of questioning was, well, how many troops do we have? Do you really know? Are you prepared? He should have known that. He should have known that. I thought that the entire line of questioning was fair, and he wasn't asking him who -- like that fellow in Boston back during the Bush campaign in 2000 wasn't asking who the leader of Chechnya was.

KURTZ: Or Republicans often get asked the price of a gallon of milk. "Meet the Press" went to the Bush Treasury Department and got an analysis of Howard Dean's tax plan, which Tim Russert then threw at the candidate. They tell me they do that all the time, they did it during the Clinton administration, but some people thought it was kind of unusual.

DIONNE: Well, I suppose when he introduced it, this is the Bush administration's Treasury's analysis might have been better, but I think to ask somebody to defend against an attack he's going to get anyway is a legitimate thing. To ask him -- and I was struck that in that interview I didn't think Dean did quite as badly on those factual questions, in fact, his answers were broadly factually right. I thought where he really fell down was when Tim Russert threw his past statements at him about a constitutional amendment to balance the budget, about the death penalty. These are issues of great interest to Democratic primary voters, and I think what was striking is that on so many of these issues he didn't seem to anticipate that this was going to happen. Tim Russert has done this to a lot of people.

KURTZ: This is the Russert style. Right? In 1991, you said this?

INGRAHAM: Right, and big graphics go up on screen. But E.J., I'm glad you mentioned this, because what was interesting also, was that when he heard the things he had said before, he said, well, I don't remember saying that, but I'll take your word for it. It was so odd. He probably said that three times during the interview, which I found odd.

But back to the military thing. When he said, well, I think there are between one and two million troops, that's kind of a big deviation, don't you think? That's not like saying 1.25 and it's 1.5. That's like one to two.

NEAL: Can I just say really quick? I do think in the context, had it not been put in the context of some of the things that Dean has said in the past, some of the criticisms, it probably would have been unfair, but Dean is going out, is making a point about the military, the size of the military, how many troops are in Iraq, I think because it was put in that context, it was a legitimate line of questioning.

KURTZ: There was another military related question during that "Meet the Press" interview. Let's take a look at that.


RUSSERT: Why were you able to ski on Ajax (ph) Mountain pounding your back and pouring concrete and not serve in the military?

DEAN: I didn't try to get out of the draft. I had a physical. The United States government said this is your classification. I'm not responsible for that.


KURTZ: Fair game?

DIONNE: Well, the only question there is did George Bush have to answer comparable questions in the last election, and I think he never had been hit like that, but a draft record is a legitimate...


DIONNE: In mainstream media, that's the question. But is it a fair question to ask somebody's draft record? Of course, it is a fair question to ask about their draft record. NEAL: When I covered the Bush campaign in 2000, we definitely asked him that question. But it is interesting that there's this perception that we didn't ask those sorts of questions. I don't know what Russert did.

KURTZ: Maybe it didn't become a cutting edge issue. But just briefly if John Kerry or John Edwards or Dick Gephardt surges further in the polls and seems to be a real front-runner, are they going to now get the accelerated level of scrutiny, some of which Howard Dean is now receiving?

NEAL: I believe they will. But I don't think -- I don't think the way that this business works is we say, well, I did a tough story on him, now I have got to do a tough story on this guy. We'll do a tough story on him if he deserves it, if he starts -- if Dick Gephardt starts contradicting himself, we should do a story on that, but I don't think that we should just say, well, we're going to do a tough story on him because...


KURTZ: Well, I think there's sort of a reflex when people in the news are going to say, oh, my God, this person could be president, let's get the seven-part series going.

We have to hold it there. When we come back, have liberal columnists gone too far in criticizing President Bush's credibility? Our guests weigh in right next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Laura Ingraham, when liberal columnists say or write that Bush is lying about weapons of mass destruction or lying about his tax cut, whether you agree or not, and I know you don't, is that within the bounds of political rhetoric?

INGRAHAM: Oh, I don't know. It is something to be expected. I mean, you're talking about Paul Krugman, you're talking about Maureen Dowd, that crowd. I think at this point the more they continue to hit the drum on the lying thing, the deeper in trouble they're going to get. Just this week, a scientist in Iraq has told us that there was a nuclear centrifuge piece of equipment buried under a rose bush. We learned that, it's not a smoking gun, but it's something. Two containers -- big, huge containers...

KURTZ: Well, Iraq may have weapons of mass destruction. The case is whether they exaggerated -- the question is whether they exaggerated the case before the war.

INGRAHAM: Again, we have a lot of time to find that out. But what I find desperate and somewhat pathetic, is that they need to say something, so they're going to say the absolute worst first, and then if it happens to be wrong, well, everyone will forget about it in a couple of months. It's not affecting public opinion.

KURTZ: I want to quote from one of your columns, E.J. Dionne: "What is not acceptable for a free government to mislead its own people to bring them around to supporting a war. If no weapons are found, and if the administration does not come clean about why it said what it said before the war, America's ability to rally the rest of the world against future threats will be greatly weakened." So you're obviously concerned about this credibility issue?

DIONNE: Right, I am, and so are an awful lot of people who supported the war ahead of time. I was struck -- Ken Pollack, in a piece in "The New York Times" -- Ken Pollack was as strong a supporter of the war as you could find, and he said, "distressingly, there seems to be more than a little truth to the claims that some members of the administration skewed, exaggerated and even distorted war intelligence to coax the American people and reluctant allies into going into war against Iraq this year." Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, has said that there's a credibility problem.


KURTZ: ... misled someone -- they are saying -- they are using the L word, they are saying the president is a liar. Does that make you uncomfortable?

DIONNE: No, first of all after what we went through in the last administration, I'm constantly surprised that you hear Republicans say, oh, these guys are going too far when the praise these heroes, and you know, brilliant people, and people who said all kinds of things about Bill Clinton, true or not. So that's par for the course.

The real issue is did they or did they not exaggerate, and I think the administration went through a long period after 9/11 because of our feelings of national unity where a lot of tough questions weren't being asked or they were being asked in a muffled way, and now you're at the point where people are treating him like a president and saying, you are going to answer these questions. You guys said a lot of things, especially about al Qaeda and nuclear weapons that weren't true.

KURTZ: Inject a note of realism into this debate. What do you make of this...

DIONNE: That was realism.

KURTZ: What do you make about this "Slate" magazine headline about Bush, "Liar or Moron?" Does that seem to suggest the range of liberal thinking here?

NEAL: Yes, actually, it does seem to suggest the range of thinking here. Whether it's fair, I don't know. This is commentary. Back in, you know, '98 during the whole Clinton/Lewinsky affair, there were a lot of people who declared that Bill Clinton was a liar before all of the facts were out.


NEAL: And that's fair in commentary. I think what's more important is to compare kind of the way the news coverage has been, and I think that it's been just about right. It hasn't called him a liar yet, but the media has to be aggressive on this, because the potential ramifications are so huge. If he did lie, I think and I think a lot of other people do, it's much more serious than what Clinton did. I don't know that he lied, and I wouldn't say that because I don't think we know all the facts, but it is serious enough that the media needs to push aggressively.

DIONNE: Howie, in that same column you quoted from me, the point I made is that its supporters of Bush's foreign policy who should be most concerned about this, because the Bush foreign policy is rooted in the idea that we may go after other people in a preemptive way. His credibility is very important so it's very important that the administration guard his credibility.

INGRAHAM: This is where the elites versus America dynamic comes in. The country listens to the debate...

DIONNE: I knew you'd get to that.

INGRAHAM: The country listens to the debate, and whether it's "The Washington Post" editorial page, "The New York Times" editorial page, people hear this, may say, wait a second, didn't we unearth like thousands of skulls with blindfolds on them in Iraq and didn't we find out this week there are two truckloads of biological and chemical documents we haven't examined yet, and the left has been dying to go after Bush this way and now they can.

KURTZ: Would you agree with Terry Neal that the mainstream press, not the commentators, the news reporters, have generally given this president positive press, particularly during the two wars, he's high in the polls?

INGRAHAM: I think President Bush deserves that type of press. I think he had led the country after a very difficult time...

DIONNE: So the press should be nice to Republicans and not to Democrats?

INGRAHAM: No, I'm not saying that, E.J. All I'm saying is that this idea that the press has given Bush a free ride on any issue, I don't think anyone buys that except people who want this administration to pay, pay for being popular, pay for being patriotic, pay for having the support of a wide range of Americans, not that they're perfect and these questions should be answered, but to say he's lying now, that is ridiculous.

NEAL: I do find it interesting now that a lot of Republicans -- including yourself, including the president's father who said recently, I understand, that he thinks his son gets pretty good coverage in the media and it's liberals who are upset about the nature of the coverage. I think some of that is overblown, but I do think this: I think among journalists in Washington, straight reporters more so than columnists, there is no greater fear than being tagged as a liberal. And I do think that has sort of kind of -- I think it's affected or impacted the way that the news is being covered. I think that I -- I compare it to '98, at our paper, "The Washington Post," there was a front page story every single day that year about the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal and the coverage of this which potentially more serious implications ...


KURTZ: Last question here. Is the mainstream press in examining these issues, not just on Iraq or the tax cut, and other things that the president has said, is it handcuffed by the old formula, Bush says this, critics say this, therefore it's kind of hard to reach a conclusion, whereas commentators can reach any conclusion they want?

DIONNE: Right, and I think what it should be, and I think a lot of papers are doing this, it's Bush said this, these are the facts that he knew at the time. "The New Republic" piece this week was very powerful, because it wasn't a polemical piece. It said here's what we know about what the intelligence was saying. Here's what Bush called out and Cheney and the others and how they exaggerated. And I think that's the issue. What did they know and what did they say publicly. And that's what the press is unraveling.

INGRAHAM: But also, people are forgetting that there were a broad range of reasons given for dealing with the Iraq situation now rather than later. The WMD issue was one of them, but there were a broad range of issues. And now everyone is focusing on this.

KURTZ: Are journalists intentionally forgetting this?

INGRAHAM: I think that there is still a bias in the press. I don't harp on it, I think we're past it, but the point is, the idea that this administration has lied or misled, to come to that conclusion now, that reveals a bias in the media. And that's what people are tired of. They are tired of it.


NEAL: ... besides those liberal commentators have come to that conclusion. I mean, I don't think that in covering this issue and covering it thoroughly ...


KURTZ: We're out of time. This debate will go on. Terry Neal, Laura Ingraham, E.J. Dionne, thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come, covering the court. The Supreme Court's affirmative action decisions. Our verdict on the cable network networks' rush to judgment.


KURTZ: At 10:14 on Monday morning, the cable news networks went live with the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action. The MSNBC banner said "high court rules in favor of University of Michigan admissions policy." On Fox News, anchor Bridgitte Quinn (ph) said "America's top court is allowing university policy favoring minority law school admissions," and on CNN -- well, we just happen to have the tape.


JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: A big victory for the University of Michigan, a big victory for the civil rights community that has fought so hard for this decision.


KURTZ: None of what the networks said was actually wrong but it wasn't the full picture. Viewers got the rest of the story 10 minutes later.


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Now we're learning that it has reversed in part the undergrad overall admissions policy.


KURTZ: Fox switched its banner to "split decisions in University of Michigan affirmative action cases," and MSNBC's Pete Williams explained that the first ruling dealt with the Michigan Law School, while in the second case, the high court was striking down a point system used to boost minority applicants to the undergraduate school.

It was a reminder of the Bush versus Gore decision back in 2000 when TV correspondents visibly struggled to explain what the justices had done. But shouldn't the cable networks have waited a mere 10 minutes this time to get both decisions, rather than rushing on to the air with what turned out to be half of a complicated picture? Do they care that those initial headlines were misleading, or is the do-it-now mentality because the other guy might scoop us simply too strong to digest the news before reporting it?

When we come back, some viewers are outraged about the press coverage of former POW Jessica Lynch. We'll check our e-mail next.


KURTZ: Welcome back, and time now for a check of our viewer e- mail. Many of you wrote in to express your distaste for the media coverage of Jessica Lynch, the suddenly famous American prisoner who was rescued from an Iraqi hospital. Tom in Nevada wrote -- "This is a total media-made event, and seems to be much more important to the press than the public. She was no more or less a hero than any other soldier."

Graham in Florida said -- "The media's frenzy over Lynch is particularly disgusting since the original reports about her heroic actions were nonsense."

And Cynthia wrote -- "Is it that American TV producers consider someone with Jessica's look, as the young, blonde, all-American sweetheart? A description the other POWs do not fit? Whatever happened to responsible journalism?" Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right after this check of the hour's top stories.


Columnist Going too Far in Labeling Bush a Liar?>

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