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Interview With Bill Maher; Media's Challenge in Covering Terrorism

Aired August 24, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Bill Maher unplugged. The HBO commentator sounds off on Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arianna Huffington, Kobe Bryant, George Bush, Fox News, his firing at ABC and what he calls the conservative media.

Also, a week of terror. Why do the media ramp up their coverage of Iraq and Israel only when there's a major bombing?


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

We'll get to coverage of the Baghdad and Jerusalem bombings later in the program, but first, California is the epicenter of the political universe right now, as was clear when hordes of journalists showed up for Arnold Schwarzenegger's first news conference since he told Jay Leno he was running for governor.

So we sat down in Los Angeles with politically incorrect funny man Bill Maher, the host of HBO's "Real Time."


KURTZ: Thousands of journalists have descended on your state to cover the recall, and it's been mostly, Arnold, Arnold, Arnold, Cover of "TIME," cover of "Newsweek," cover of "People." What do you make of the media's Schwarzenegger mania?

BILL MAHER, HOST, "REAL TIME": It's good for us.


MAHER: Because you're all here.

KURTZ: Good for the economy?

MAHER: You never cared about me before, but suddenly I'm the big expert on Arnold Schwarzenegger.

KURTZ: But is the press building him up, tearing him down, taking a (UNINTELLIGIBLE) look? MAHER: They're still in the process of building him up, and then they will start with the tearing down. Those are the only two stories they know, and they will have to fit that scenario, I guess, into a two-month period.


KURTZ: You're suggesting a certain sadomasochist streak here on the part of journalists?

MAHER: That would be giving it too much credit. I think they just know two stories, you know. I mean, he is still in the, you know, he fell in love with J.Lo phase, and about three weeks he'll be in the "Gigli" phase.

KURTZ: That's quite an arc. Among the many people running for governor is your friend, Arianna Huffington.


KURTZ: You had her on your show recently.



MAHER: I was going to ask you, after you had your little scandal about the taxes this week, do you regret getting into this?



KURTZ: Is she -- look, I like Arianna. Everybody likes Arianna. Is she, in your view, a serious candidate that's qualified to be governor of California?

MAHER: She is the most serious candidate.

KURTZ: The most serious.

MAHER: I get very irritated when I hear the press even ask that question. I mean, you can dislike her, or you can not agree with her, but I don't know what about this woman is not serious. I brought this up when she was on the show Friday. I was very -- I was furious when I read in "The New York Times" that they said that she straddles the line between a real candidate and a crackpot. I don't know why she's a crackpot. I know why I'm a crackpot to a lot of the media, because I never got married. So, you know in America that means you're weird...

KURTZ: Really?

MAHER: ... crazy and you can't be taken seriously. But this is a woman who went to Cambridge, got her master's in economics, has written 11 books, has written for the last eight years a very, very smart political column twice a week. This is not the kind of stuff that a crackpot does.

KURTZ: But don't you have to run something before you run the state of California? I mean, there are a lot of good columnists out there?

MAHER: What has Arnold Schwarzenegger ever run?

KURTZ: Well, that's the question. He's run a big business. Arnold, Inc., real estate mogul.

MAHER: Oh, please! You're kidding, right?

KURTZ: So, you see a distinction between the fact that the press seems to take the Terminator as a bona fide candidate for governor, but kind of dismisses Arianna Huffington?

MAHER: Right, they're as shallow as anybody else. They mistake his high recognizability with actual political credibility. I've been saying -- I brought it up with Jesse Ventura last week -- that really the relevant comparison with Arnold is Gary Coleman. I don't mean that as a joke. I just mean that as, hey, here are two guys who are very famous. We all know the names: Gary Coleman, Arnold Schwarzenegger. They're both in show business. That's how they got their success, and that's why they're able to run for governor.

But I don't see how Gary Coleman has any less experience or any less acumen than Arnold Schwarzenegger, and if he was four or five feet taller, he would be right in the running.

KURTZ: The one thing that's missing from his campaign.

MAHER: And I think...

KURTZ: You put your finger on it.

MAHER: Right.

KURTZ: You also had Gray Davis on your show. I sometimes think other producers don't want to have him on, because he's considered to be boring television. Has the press accurately reflected that here is a guy who is at, you know, 20 percent popularity? Or has the press just kind of enjoyed beating up on the governor?

MAHER: Well, there are things about the governor that I think invite him being getting beaten up. There is no doubt that some of the problems here are of his own making. Certainly as far as a candidate and a politician, he is gray. I don't know how his parents knew when they named him that, but, boy, they got that right.

But, as far as the recall goes, you know, I think sensible people understand that for a governor to be recalled in this supposed democracy, it should not be just because you don't like him and because the economy went sour. KURTZ: Using your deep insight into Hollywood culture, what do you make of this overall press portrayal of California as this sort of crazy, whacked-out place with strange politics? Fair picture of what goes on here?

MAHER: You know, California, the mistress of America. You all want -- you all want to distance yourself from it, but you all really love it. And I notice when there's a story, every reporter wants to come out here. Right?

KURTZ: Right.

MAHER: You love California.

KURTZ: We all love California.

MAHER: Yes, we all love California.

KURTZ: But we like to make fun it as well.

MAHER: Yes. I don't think it's really any crazier than anywhere else, and I think this could happen anywhere else, and now that it's happened here, it very well might.

KURTZ: What does it tell us about the press when 500 reporters show up at a Colorado court hearing to hear Kobe Bryant utter two words? I mean, and it will come back obviously, even though Arnold has temporarily eclipsed Kobe Bryant. And is the coverage fair? We have all this focus on the basketball star, and yet, we don't use the name of the 19-year-old accuser.

MAHER: Yes. Well, but you could. Isn't it known? Isn't it on the Internet? Isn't it out there already?

KURTZ: Sure, but it's not on television, it's not in "The New York Times." It's being held back. There is a great debate over whether it should be held back.

MAHER: Yes, I mean, I can understand why they're doing that, and I just don't understand why people are so behind Kobe Bryant, and I'm not saying he's guilty. Absolutely -- I mean...

KURTZ: We don't know.

MAHER: We don't know, and I certainly wouldn't be surprised if this woman just wants publicity. However, the support for this young man -- I mean, what he did was not something that people should be supportive of or proud of. If it was kind of a sleazy hotel scenario and...

KURTZ: Well, does the press build up a superstar athlete like Kobe just the way the press builds up an Arnold Schwarzenegger, and then people are reluctant to adjust their image of somebody when inconvenient facts intrude?

MAHER: Yes, absolutely. I mean, the press, which never felt bad about detailing everything about Bill Clinton's sex life and taking down a president of the United States, has always protected athletes. I mean, a lot of the athletes and stars, you know, show business types, who were terrible dogs, and for years the press wouldn't go near that, and that's OK. I think that's the way it should be. But then, let's have it consistent. Let's have it with the people who really should be our heroes, because, you know, what we worship in America is all out of whack, I think.

KURTZ: You're a fairly liberal guy. Do you buy the argument that the media are filled with left-wingers pushing some kind of liberal agenda?

MAHER: How ridiculous is that? No.

KURTZ: A lot of people believe it.

MAHER: Yes, a lot of people believe it...

KURTZ: Liberal media.

MAHER: ... because the media is conservative a lot -- and that's what they say. But...

KURTZ: So, are they being brainwashed? Most reporters are probably to the left of the general population.

MAHER: The media is neither, I think in general, liberal or conservative. Where they do have an ideological bent, they are conservative. That's all of talk radio, practically. FOX News, which is leading the pack...

KURTZ: Fair and balanced. You don't believe it's fair and balanced?

MAHER: Fair and balanced. They protest a little too much, don't they, about being fair that -- it's like when a complete stranger coming up to you and going, "I'm not gay, I'm not gay." I didn't ask. No spin, no, fair...

KURTZ: But conservatives would say, sure, but "The New York Times," "The Washington Post," the networks and news magazines are all left of center, and these other things are just kind of a counterweight.

MAHER: "The New York Times" has not been left of center about a lot of things in the last two years, beginning with the Clinton impeachment. But, again, I don't think the media is liberal or conservative so much as petty, often, egotistical. That's more of what it is. The story is always about the reporter.

KURTZ: Don't hold back now. Tell us what you really think.

MAHER: That's what I really think.

KURTZ: Yes. MAHER: I think in the old days, the media took more seriously their job as the eyes and the ears of the people who couldn't be there to see it. It wasn't about them; it was about the story. I think that's all gone away now.

And also, they were rich people who ran the media, and they didn't need more money. It wasn't about getting every ratings point so they could get a little richer. It was about taking seriously this job as the fourth estate, and being an editor, so that people got -- because when you're the press, you do constantly have to make decisions, what are we going to present to the people?

I'll give you an example. We were talking about the recall. And I think it was "The New York Times" last week, they said one day -- it was the day that Arnold had appointed Warren Buffett.

KURTZ: As his economic adviser.

MAHER: Right. And they said -- on a day when Mr. Schwarzenegger did not even make an appearance, he dominated the news. Well, he dominated the news because you're writing that story. It's so incestuous and self-fulfilling of a prophesy, isn't it? He dominated it. Well, he wouldn't have dominated the news. You could have chosen to cover Mrs. Huffington's, you know, speech about being against the drug war or something else that was a lot more substantive. You chose this story about Arnold Schwarzenegger appointing Warren Buffett, which means absolutely nothing. Who cares? What is that going to affect, anything?

KURTZ: Stop us before we hype again.



KURTZ: When we come back, Bill Maher talks about the coverage of the Bush presidency and why ABC pulled the plug on his program. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Now, more of my L.A. interview with comedian Bill Maher.


KURTZ: The coverage of President Bush seems to have gotten more aggressive since the war, more focus on the continuing violence in Iraq, for example, the uranium blunder, the faltering economy. Do you see the press as having been too soft on the president before? Is it striking the right approach now?

MAHER: Yes. In that movie, "Journeys With George," one of the press people on the bus, says, hey, what can I say, he charmed us. We did. We gave him a free ride.

KURTZ: It was all about nicknames?

MAHER: Oh, thanks. Yes, right, all about nicknames and that kind of stuff.

KURTZ: Did the press play a cheerleading role during the war?

MAHER: I think they were afraid. I think they were a bit (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Yes, but again, I think it's because of money and the ratings, because I think they felt the American public was in a place where if they were objective, the people would turn it off. You know what? Let's watch Fox News. Let's watch some positive coverage of the war in Iraq. We're Americans. We went through a trauma. We all want to pull together, and we all do feel that way, in a way, but news should be the one place that is objective. I mean, after all, it is news and not entertainment, or it's supposed to be.

KURTZ: Certainly the coverage of the post-war Iraq...

MAHER: Right.

KURTZ: ... and the continuing problems there has not been positive.

MAHER: You know, as far as like the 16 words, and you can't tell me that the press wasn't hoping for a scandal. They ended up...

KURTZ: We love scandals.

MAHER: Love scandals.

KURTZ: We thrive on scandals.

MAHER: Right, because it's taking them down.

KURTZ: But are we bipartisan about it?


KURTZ: Do you think it's not Republican or Democratic?

MAHER: Absolutely. Right. That's what I was saying before. They're not really liberal and they're not really conservative. They love a victim. They love a scandal. And they love building up and tearing down, because it's all about the story. The truth fits into the story, not the other way around.

KURTZ: In this studio for many years, you did "Politically Incorrect."


KURTZ: Looking back with hindsight, why ultimately do you think ABC pulled the plug on that show?

MAHER: Because sponsors pulled out and stations canceled the show after I said that the terrorists weren't cowards. KURTZ: So, you became too controversial for network television?

MAHER: I certainly became too controversial for Disney. But, you know -- I mean, how anyone thought that the concept of "Politically Incorrect" and the concept of Walt Disney would ever be a -- you know, talk about a marriage made in Poland. It's amazing we lasted six years, because, I mean, you know, that's not a company. I noticed Janeane Garofalo had a sitcom with ABC, didn't she? And they pulled the plug. I think they went -- you know what? We went through the Bill Maher thing. We don't...

KURTZ: But you talk about the press sometimes being silly and superficial and celebrity-obsessed, but certainly you had a lot of celebrities on "Politically Incorrect." That was part of your mix. That was part of your...

MAHER: Yes, absolutely. But, again, we were in the late-night time slot opposite Leno and Letterman. We were competing, and did pretty well competing with that type of show, which has, let's face it, no intellectual content. So, those who criticized us for not having enough intellect -- my argument was, well, you know what? You watch this stuff. Yes, there are celebrities here, and some of them were pretty dumb, but you did learn something. I was there every night, and I know what I said every night, and I wasn't just fluffing it up, OK? We were talking about things that really mattered every single night in an, hopefully, entertaining way. So, yes, you can look at the glass as half empty. I looked at it as half full.

KURTZ: How is your new show, "Real Time," different? Or have you tried to make it different from "Politically Incorrect?"

MAHER: Well, I'd just say the shorthand for that was no Carrot Top, but that's so unfair to Carrot Top. I like him. And I have to stop doing that. But basically...

KURTZ: It's live.

MAHER: Yes, it's live. That's not a real big difference. And it's -- you know, some people say to me, oh, now, you can say whatever you want. I always said whatever I wanted. The difference is I did get fired. And it could happen again.

KURTZ: So, you feel like you have more freedom on HBO?

MAHER: I have more time, and I have less commercials. That's the freedom that's nice here.

KURTZ: Not always going to a break?

MAHER: I have an hour. I don't have to stop every -- it seemed like two minutes, and sometimes it was when I got behind.

KURTZ: You can use curse words -- don't use them here.

MAHER: Yes, but that's not even a big -- I wouldn't. That's not even a big thing, curse words. It's more letting it breathe, and also we don't book doing one show a week with three guests as opposed to five nights a week with four guests.

KURTZ: HBO is the hot network. Does that mean "Real Time" will eventually become as sizzling as, say, "Sex and the City?"

MAHER: No, because we don't have that kind of...

KURTZ: Cleavage.

MAHER: Yes. Thank you. You took the cleavage right out of my mouth.

KURTZ: Bill Maher, thanks very much for sitting down with us in Los Angeles.

MAHER: Thank you. I enjoy your stuff.


KURTZ: Our California sit-down with Bill Maher. When we come back, the media's challenge in covering terrorism in Iraq and Israel.


KURTZ: Welcome back. The television pictures on Tuesday were nothing short of awful. First, the destruction of the U.N. headquarters in Iraq. Then, a suicide bombing aboard an Israeli bus, shattering a fragile truce with the Palestinians. Suddenly, there was saturation media coverage once again.

Joining us now is Mark Thompson, national security correspondent for "TIME" magazine.

There was a drum beat on the right against the press. Too much negative coverage of Iraq. Some even said this was helping Saddam. Has this latest U.N. bombing just put that criticism to rest?

MARK THOMPSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, I think the U.N. bombing, Howie, it's like moths to a flame. Progress is something that's tough to photograph. If you talk to people in the Pentagon, they say there's a lot of good incremental things happening in Iraq that you can't show on television, you can't write about very effectively in your newspapers. And when a disaster strikes like we saw this week, the press just, you know, huddles around it and blares it all over the world and that's what we're seeing here.

KURTZ: "Washington Post" columnist E.J. Dionne now writes that Iraq has become, at least post war has become a terrible failure, and he notes that Dick Cheney back in March on "Meet the Press" said, "I really do believe that we'll be greeted as liberators." With the benefit of hindsight, was the press snowed by the White House on what the post war was likely to look like?

THOMPSON: Well, plainly, because the Americans hadn't been in Iraq in a long time, they didn't have a good sense of what to expect when they got there. I mean, in the last couple of days I spoke to Don Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, who maintains that things are going right down on the path, the way he wants them to, but I also talked to Tony Zinni, the former general who was in charge of that part of the world until a couple of years ago. He says the United States is on the cusp of a disaster there. And the next two months will really tell.

KURTZ: So does Rumsfeld believe that the media are painting an unduly dark portrait of the situation in Iraq?

THOMPSON: I don't know if he thinks it's unduly dark so much as, you know, the focus on the bombing, for example. OK, whoosh, there are city councils sprouting up like mushrooms all over Iraq that the Pentagon insists are going to be doing a good job to drive out the Baathists, to drive out Saddam's loyalists and replace it with some sort of a fledgling democracy. That's a tough thing to photograph and to show people, and to get across, and when lights are out, when people are dying, when trucks are blowing up, it's sort of, you know, that's white noise that doesn't get heard.

KURTZ: You're saying it's easier to cover bad news, the dramatic bad news that has dramatic video than it is to cover the more incremental, the ephemeral good news of quiet progress being made?

THOMPSON: Oh, sure. War is always easier to cover than peace.

KURTZ: Has the press been tough enough on Don Rumsfeld on this question of whether there are enough U.S. forces in Iraq? This was a big issue during the war, as you remember, in the early days. Now it seems to be bubbling up again, but the press kind of let it go for a while.

THOMPSON: Well, I mean, what's interesting about Don Rumsfeld is he's quick to reject Rick Shinseki, the former general who said we're not going to have enough forces there for after the war, and Rumsfeld said, oh, he's full of baloney, but at the same time, he's very quick to embrace, as he did this week, John Abizaid, his commander in that part of the world, who says, no, we've got enough. So Rumsfeld seems to pick the soldiers who says what they like, and if the soldiers say something he doesn't agree with, he sort of dismisses them.

KURTZ: But is this going to heat up as a media issue, the question of whether or not there are enough American troops stationed in Iraq, to not only just keep the peace but to prevent these kinds of daily attacks -- it seems like every day on the news, two more servicemen killed, three more servicemen wounded, and so forth.

THOMPSON: Right. That becomes an issue with every passing day it continues to happen. In the Pentagon, they'll tell you they are in a race with time. How many of these bad guys are there? Is there a limited number of suicide bombers or folks to kill Americans? Obviously, if there's a lot of them, as we're seeing in Israel, this could go on for years. If it goes on for years, the president's in deep trouble.

KURTZ: Whether it's Iraq or Israel, or even Afghanistan, where dozens of people have been killed in recent weeks, it totally vanished from the media radar screen, it seems the media attention kind of ebbs and flows until there's a disaster, a major bombing, 20 people dead, suicide attack. Is the press guilty of a short attention span here?

THOMPSON: The press like when you see those nice aquariums, a school of fish. There is a hundred of them, wham, they all turn the same way. Whether it's Kobe Bryant, whether it's...

KURTZ: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

THOMPSON: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Any of these issues that are captivating to the media, they go to. It's largely driven, I think, by cable television. But Lord knows, magazines and newspapers and the wire services follow in lock step right behind them.

KURTZ: But are you saying that -- are you justifying the fact that the coverage of Iraq has been, let's say, ratcheted down to a much lower level, except when there's a big disaster, I'm talking compared to the unbelievable coverage of the war, same thing in Israel, peace seems to push Israel to the back pages, another attack by Hamas seems to put it back on the front page.

THOMPSON: I think you can make the argument, Howie, the press has abdicated too much. They're sort of giving the people what they need to know, they tend to give them what they want to know. And if it's some cotton candy fluff out of California about the governor's race or about some basketball player, that's what they'll do. I think the press needs to give the body politic a little more broccoli.

KURTZ: You're making a serious indictment here. You're saying that places like Iraq and Israel, even though there may be U.S. forces there, certainly in the case of Iraq, don't sell, aren't sexy unless there are dead bodies.

THOMPSON: Right. I think that's fundamentally true. I think that's driven by pictures, which drives television, which drives the rest of the media.

KURTZ: And don't we have a responsibility to do better?

THOMPSON: I think we do, and I think some, in the print press especially and some elements in the broadcast media, do do that, but it's an uphill slide, because that does not attract large numbers of eyeballs.

KURTZ: How do the media measure U.S. success in Iraq if as appears increasingly to be happening, the country is bogged down in a long guerrilla war?

THOMPSON: I think the American people measure it very simply. How many of our guys were killed yesterday? And as long as you say we get these onesies and twosies, week after week, I mean, very soon, the number of folks killed in Iraq, Americans, is going to exceed those killed in the war, those who died in the peace. And that's when it's really going to get tough for this White House.

KURTZ: Peace in quotation marks.

THOMPSON: Peace in quotation marks. KURTZ: But just briefly, what about the Bush administration promises that democracy would flourish here? Does the media need to hammer home the point that this was the goal of the war, and so far it hasn't been realized?

THOMPSON: Right. Hasn't been realized. But I think a lot of it is happening beneath the radar. I mean, if you go there and you look around, it may not make for great coverage but the fact of the matter is, a lot of these local governing councils now are coming into being.

KURTZ: All right. Mark Thompson, "TIME" magazine, thanks very much for that update.

When we come back, we'll look at what some of our viewers had to say about Arnold Schwarzenegger. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Last week, we talked about Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign for California governor and the media's criticism that he's long on drama and short on specifics. Our viewers had plenty to say about the Terminator.

Janet in Florida says: "Schwarzenegger knows exactly what he's doing. Why would Arnold the politician dance to the tune of the media that are determined to destroy him? He knows how to garner attention that is favorable and he will continue to beat the pad, pencil, and microphone crowd at their own game."

And Tom in Louisiana asks: "So what? Arnold Schwarzenegger is being criticized by numerous media sources for giving superficial answers to important questions. How does this make him different from any other politician?"

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern, 8:30 Pacific for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right after this check of the hour's top stories.



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