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Conservative Bias in the Press?

Aired August 25, 2003 - 16:30   ET


ANNOUNCER: CROSSFIRE. On the left, James Carville and Paul Begala; on the right, Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson.

In the CROSSFIRE: Are you getting an accurate picture of the world, or do the media lean too much to the left, or is there really a bias to the right? Special guest host Al Franken helps us strike a balance -- today on CROSSFIRE.



ANNOUNCER: Live from the George Washington University, Al Franken and Tucker Carlson.


Our regular co-hosts on the left will be back soon, tan, rested and ready, after an intensive aromatherapy retreat in Taos, New Mexico.

In the meantime, however, filling in on the left is political activist and writer Al Franken. He is the author of "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right."



CARLSON: In a moment, we'll debate the media's many biases, some of them more egregious than others, but first, the best political briefing in television, our CROSSFIRE "Political Alert."


There's something wrong with the prompter, but I'm told that I have a script here, too.


FRANKEN: But I don't. But at any rate...

CARLSON: There you go.

FRANKEN: We're on live, aren't we? CARLSON: Yes. You are.


FRANKEN: Yes, I am.

In presidential campaign news today, President Bush was not given his prompter. No, he was down at his Texas ranch with no public appearances. Meanwhile, Democratic candidate Howard Dean is barnstorming the country in his sleepless summer tour. This might explain why a brand new "Newsweek" poll shows that 49 percent don't want to see Bush elected, while only 44 percent do.

What exactly does this mean for the president? It means that his coalition of disgraced energy executives, gun dealers, Confederate flag-lovers and other white guys with prostate problems...


FRANKEN: ... won't be enough to get Bush a majority. It looks like he may have to steal this election, like he did in 2000.


FRANKEN: I watch this show. I know that line gets that. I watch this show.

CARLSON: You know how to pander to the audience.


CARLSON: I don't know what the race of the guys who vote for George W. Bush has anything to do with anything. That's sort of an ugly thing to say.

FRANKEN: Oh, wake up, Tucker.

CARLSON: I also will say that polls like this don't mean anything. If you put up anybody against an imaginary...

FRANKEN: I don't know what the shoes of people mean.

CARLSON: No, but, truly, an imaginary opponent? People think they're voting for Roosevelt or something. The poll is actually kind of meaningless, don't you think?

FRANKEN: Well, it is. It's true. It's an imaginary opponent. But when you're slipping down below 50 and you're an incumbent president, that's a bad sign, very bad.


CARLSON: He could lose, but someone has to beat him first.

FRANKEN: Yes. Good point. CARLSON: Well, there's mixed news, speaking of, to report this week on retired General Wesley Clark's quest to become a vice presidential nominee. The good news is, he's found a candidate who will take him. The bad news is, that candidate is Howard Dean.

On CNN's "LATE EDITION" yesterday, Dean became positively giggly when asked about the prospect of running with Wesley Clark -- quote -- "He's a terrific person, very bright, very capable, very thoughtful, somebody I keep in close touch with," and so slobberingly on.

Dean neglected to mention that the general is also quite hunky, but that was implied. We can't know whether Clark will succumb to Dean's charms. We do know that Dean could use Clark's help. During an appearance on "Meet the Press" earlier this summer, Dean admitted that he had no earthly idea how many American troops are currently on active duty or even, in an ideal world, how many there should be. Wesley Clark could help with that. Plus, as we said, he's hunky.


CARLSON: I do think, if you're going to run on foreign policy issues, you ought to have some sense of how many troops are on active duty.

Do you have any idea how many American troops are on active duty?

FRANKEN: No. I know Musharraf is the head of Pakistan.

CARLSON: Well, good for you.


CARLSON: But that's still not -- that's still -- seriously, seriously.


FRANKEN: No, I'm being serious.

CARLSON: Do you think it is kind of important to know that if you're running on a platform that includes fixing the United States armed services?

FRANKEN: Well, I don't know if the platform is about fixing the American armed services. I think the American armed services did a damned good job in Iraq and a damned good job in Afghanistan, frankly.



CARLSON: But don't you think you ought to sort of know something about them before you run for president on that platform?

FRANKEN: Well -- OK, the bell rang. The suspended -- oh, good, it's working -- the suspended chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Roy Moore, was back again today, defending his decision to ignore a federal court order demanding that the Ten Commandments monument be moved from the lobby of the state judicial building. A defiant Moore addressed the faithful just moments ago.


CHIEF JUSTICE ROY MOORE, ALABAMA SUPREME COURT: Should I keep back my opinions at such a time as this?


MOORE: Through fear of giving offense, I should consider myself guilty of treason, and on an act of disloyalty toward the majesty of heaven, which I revere above all earthly kings.


FRANKEN: Crowd-controlled barricades have now been erected in front of the courthouse to keep Justice Moore's supporters from rushing the building. Sounds like a fun group.


FRANKEN: Just what we need in this country, religious fundamentalist mobs storming public buildings. I say, keep the Ten Commandments where they are, because, as we've seen, theocracies have worked so well in Iran and in Afghanistan.



CARLSON: I don't know. I mean, I must say, Justice Moore does seem like a bit of a demagogue and certainly a bit self-righteous, getting up there and talking about the majesty of heaven. On the other hand, we're nowhere close to a theocracy. That's hyperbole and I think it sort of undercuts your case, don't you think?


CARLSON: ... beat up on religious people?

FRANKEN: Well, we have a Constitution, though. And I think that rule of law is really important.

CARLSON: I completely agree with you.

FRANKEN: Oh, good. See, we're in agreement. Rule of law.


CARLSON: Speaking of Wesley -- where were you during the Clinton years, Al? FRANKEN: Well, that's


FRANKEN: ... came from.


CARLSON: Speaking of Wesley Clark, during his appearance on CROSSFIRE last week, the former NATO commander, while maintaining a completely straight face, described the Democratic Party of 2003 as -- quote -- "bubbling with ideas."

It was easy to mock Clark's thesis, laugh out loud, even, until now. Over the weekend, the Democratic Party of Colorado announced it has found the perfect candidate to challenge Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell in the Senate race next fall, Gary Hart. Viewers of a certain age will remember that Gary Hart was once a well-known political figure. That was some time ago. Hart last ran for president when the average Howard Dean voter was just 3 years old.

But wait, factor in the recent Senate candidacies of Frank Lautenberg and Fritz Mondale and the Democratic Party's new idea comes into focus: return to the '70s. Coming next season: Helen Reddy for Congress. And I would vote for her.

FRANKEN: Tucker, you remember that -- the Hart-Rudman Commission?



And remember, they warned in February of 2001 that a catastrophic terrorist attack was coming? And remember what the president did? Nothing. He appointed...


CARLSON: That's part of your conspiracy theory, Al. But the fact is...

FRANKEN: No, no, no, that's not a conspiracy theory. That's a fact.

CARLSON: Well, it sounds a bit like a conspiracy theory ,that the president sort of knew this would happen, but didn't do anything.


FRANKEN: No, no, I didn't say that. I said that Hart is a good candidate because he is someone who warned us in February of 2001. And they appointed -- Cheney -- Bush appointed Cheney to do a task force. They had a terrorist task force. It didn't meet once.

CARLSON: Is that right? FRANKEN: Yes.

CARLSON: Bringing us the news fresh here on CROSSFIRE.

All right, next: Are the media left, right or center? We'll debate it with a guest who makes the claim that there's actually a conservative bias in the press. He and Al Franken can compare notes. You won't want to miss it.

We'll be right back.




CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

My co-host today is author Al Sharpton -- Franken. Sorry.



CARLSON: The vast majority of the working press are unabashed liberals who consistently vote for Democratic candidates. And yet, in recent years, there's been a steady low-grade whine from the left that the media are in fact, somehow, some way, in the grip of a right-wing conspiracy. How can this be?

Stepping into the CROSSFIRE from Boston in an attempt to explain is Joe Conason. He is a columnist for "The New York Observer" and He's also the author of "Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth." Also joining us is nationally syndicated talk radio show host Blanquita Cullum.





FRANKEN: OK, let's talk about -- Republicans and conservatives have talked about this left-wing or liberal bias in the media for years.

But let's take an example. You remember the 2000 debate between Gore and Bush. In that debate, Gore said that he had gone to Texas -- remember this? -- to visit a disaster site, a fire. And it turns out he hadn't. He had gone to 17 other disaster sites that he had gone with James Lee Witt, the head of FEMA.

CULLUM: Right, I remember James Lee Witt.

FRANKEN: It turns out he went with the deputy of James Lee Witt. He had gone to 17 other disasters with James Lee Witt, not that one.

The press jumped all over him. It was as if James Lee Witt was the most popular man in America, and Gore was just lying to get some of that James Lee Witt magic to rub off on him. OK. In the same debate, Bush says: By far, the vast majority of my tax cut goes to those at the bottom. By far, the vast majority of my tax cut goes to the bottom.

CULLUM: He didn't quite say it that way, but that's OK.

FRANKEN: Yes, he said it that way.

CULLUM: Go ahead.


FRANKEN: He said, the


FRANKEN: ... my tax cut goes to the bottom. Nothing. We got nothing. We got nothing here.

OK, how can you say that there is a liberal bias in the media, if -- the idea of the press there was, they didn't -- I don't think it's because they have a conservative bias. Their attitude was: Bush doesn't know. Leave him alone. Don't ask him. He doesn't know.

CULLUM: What happened -- and you're right. James Lee Witt was a successful director at FEMA.

But the reason people jumped all over Gore, because Al Gore was coming out of the park. He was saying things like, I created the Internet. One minute, he was trying to wear safari wear. Then the other thing, he giving a macho kiss. He didn't know who he was. And then, when he was there in Texas -- and you know that that was the problem, is that people didn't know who Al Gore was trying to be in that campaign. And that was his fault. That wasn't anybody's fault.

FRANKEN: So you think, whether he went down to that disaster with James Lee Witt was more important than the fact that the bottom 60 percent gets...

CULLUM: No, it's an apples and oranges. You're taking something that's like so far out of the ballpark there.

You're taking a fundamental problem Al Gore had, where he screwed up his own campaign trying to reinvent himself every five minutes. And then, whether Bush is talking about taxes, it's like, these are like such completely different issues.


CARLSON: I'm going to jump in here and ask...

CULLUM: These are completely different issues.

CARLSON: Now, Joe Conason, this idea that somehow the right wing controls the media in America sort of contradicts most of the available evidence.


JOE CONASON, AUTHOR, "BIG LIES": Tucker, find a sentence in my book where I say that first. You're misrepresenting what the book says. It doesn't say that.

CARLSON: I'm not necessarily speaking about just your book, believe it or not, Joe.

CONASON: OK. OK. Well, it's not in the book.

CARLSON: I want you to respond to the following data.

This is a survey from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. And it asked journalists to describe their own political leanings. This is self-reporting: liberal/Democrat, 61 percent; conservative/Republican, 15 percent.

CONASON: Those are reporters.

CARLSON: Now, that is consistent with everything I think I've experienced working in the press my whole life, and I think you, too.


CONASON: Those are reporters, right? Those are reporters?

CARLSON: That's exact -- those people actually report the news.

CONASON: No, wait. Wait a second. Let's break that down for a second.


CONASON: Because the people who actually control what gets on TV or in the newspaper are not reporters. They're editors, producers, publishers and owners.

They are the ones who decide, for example, that twice as many newspapers would endorse George W. Bush as endorsed Al Gore in 2000. They're the ones who decide that syndicated columns are overwhelmingly conservative in this country, not liberal, OK?


CARLSON: Joe, wait a second. First of all, you're making a massive leap of faith that people read newspaper editorials. But I guess the point I'm making here is...


CONASON: No, it shows the ideology of the owners. And the ideology of the owners makes a difference.


CARLSON: Hold on, Paul. Hold on, Joe.

I want you to respond to this question. If 61 percent of ordinary journalists identified themselves as right-wing Republicans, you'd have heart failure, wouldn't you, and probably for good reason?

CONASON: No, it wouldn't bother me at all. It depends if they're reporting the news straight or not.

The problem with the idea of either a total liberal bias in the media or a total conservative bias in the media, which I don't claim at all in my book, is, it's just unrealistic. It doesn't reflect the broad spectrum of media that we have in the country. It doesn't reflect the biases of owners of media, which are probably much more important than what any particular reporter feels.

You've worked in a newsroom, Tucker. I think you've worked on a newspaper probably. You know. The reporter doesn't decide what goes in the paper and doesn't decide how the story is edited. The editor decides. And the editor answers to the publisher, who is twice as likely to be a Republican as a Democrat. So that study is often cited, but it's much less meaningful than you think.

What's meaningful is how opinion gets transmitted, what kind of debate we have. And in my book, "Big Lies," I try to talk about how conservatives dominate the media with ideas about liberals, most of which are false.

CULLUM: That's very funny.

FRANKEN: OK, well, Blanquita...

CONASON: That's funny? Well, it can be funny. Sometimes, it's not so funny.

CULLUM: Well, it's true, though.

CONASON: What's true?

FRANKEN: OK. I want to -- yes, what is true?

CULLUM: Well, I think the interesting thing is that it's so funny that he would say that they dominate the ideas about opinions about what liberals are.

I will tell you, as a conservative -- and Joe, I've been on with you many times. i respect the work that you do. I don't agree with you. But they always introduce you as Joe Conason, columnist. They'll say Blanquita Cullum, conservative radio talk show host.

FRANKEN: Baloney.

CULLUM: Oh, believe me, that happens all the time. And anybody that watches any kind of debate, especially on networks like CNN or MSNBC


FRANKEN: Blanquita, I have to say -- OK.

CULLUM: The deck will be stacked three or four liberals to one conservative.

FRANKEN: Blanquita -- I'd like to ask Blanquita something.

CONASON: I don't think my politics are a secret, exactly, but...

CULLUM: Well, nor are mine. Nor are mine.

FRANKEN: OK. Do you think that there -- I think there's a mainstream media that has a lot of different biases. I think there's biases for getting it first. There's getting it cheap, doing horse race, those kind of biases, sensationalism, sex, those kind of things.

I don't think the mainstream media has a conservative or a liberal bias. But I think there is a right-wing media. And I want to know if you agree there's a right-wing media, including Fox, "The Wall Street" -- if you think Fox is fair and balanced. I don't know why that hits me right now, but...


CULLUM: You know what? I started thinking that you must have cut a deal with these, because I think you've got to be Roger Ailes' best friend, because you're making money off of him. He's getting more viewers off of you.

FRANKEN: I don't think he's getting more viewers out of looking stupid.


CULLUM: I don't think he looked stupid to his viewers.


CULLUM: I think they were ready to see you fight. In fact, I think Joe gets a lot of


FRANKEN: You not answering my question.

CULLUM: Well, you didn't give me a chance on that.


CONASON: Al and I are going to change the slogan. We're going to change the slogan.

CULLUM: I actually think that Fox News and many of their hosts are more editorialists. But they do have more -- they make an effort. They have people like Greta. They have got Ellen Ratner. They have got Alan Colmes.


CULLUM: Ellen Ratner, who is a very outspoken


CARLSON: I'm sorry. Before we tout the other network too much, I want to get you back in here, Joe.


CARLSON: One of the claims you make in your book is that the problem with the conservative media, as they exist, is that they demonize the left, OK? They act like Ann Coulter as a group.

I want to read from you from your own book. This is page three from the introduction. And I'm quoting now. "Conservatism in power always threatens to undue national progress and is almost frustrated by the innate decency and democratic instincts of the American people."

Aren't you doing exactly what you accused your opponents of doing, that is demonizing your opponents, not simply as wrong, but as evil? Aren't you the Ann Coulter of the left? And aren't you embarrassed about it, or shouldn't you be?

CONASON: I'm not.

If you read the whole introduction, Tucker, you'll see that I say that conservatives and Republicans don't deserve to be demonized, that they're just as likely to be generous, decent people as anybody on the left. If you -- just read the whole introduction. Read the book.


CONASON: OK. Well, do you remember that part?


CARLSON: ... decency of the American people? That's such a slur. That's a horrible thing to say.


CONASON: No, it's not. Don't be so sensitive, Tucker. Calm down.



CARLSON: I'm not, Joe. I want you to respond to your own words.

CONASON: You seem too sensitive. You're a little oversensitive. What I'm talking about is the tendency of conservatism as an ideology to want to undo national progress on certain issues, like the environment.


CULLUM: Oh, how ridiculous.

CARLSON: I'm laughing because it's such a ludicrous blanket indictment blanket of a whole group of ideas.


CONASON: Why can't I finish what I'm saying? Why can't I finish what I'm saying?

CARLSON: Go crazy.

CONASON: See, you shouldn't act like the Fox News Channel, which Al and I are changing their slogan to


CARLSON: Attempt to explain


CARLSON: Please.

CONASON: Well, look.

CULLUM: Get to the point. Get to the point.


CONASON: My view...

FRANKEN: Let Joe do his joke.

CONASON: Yes. We'll get to that.

My view is that conservatism in power tends to want to roll back progress that liberals have made over the last 100 years. That's just my opinion. It's not saying conservatives are evil. They see it differently. But my view is, we have made progress on a lot of issues over the last 100 years, all of which were opposed by conservatives at the time that the progress was being made, whether it was racial issues...


CONASON: Blanquita, may I?

CULLUM: I know, but you're filibustering.

CONASON: No, I'm not. I'm answering this question.

CULLUM: You've got a situation where -- where were the -- where were the -- where were the Democrats and the liberals on the issue of national security? Where were they on building of a defense? Where were they on


FRANKEN: I can tell you where they were. They were building the military that won the war in Iraq and that won the war Afghanistan.

CONASON: Thank you. Thank you.

CULLUM: They were not funding -- they were not funding the military.

FRANKEN: Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?

CULLUM: I am not kidding you. I am not kidding you.

FRANKEN: Blanquita, Blanquita, Blanquita, I am the co-host of this show. I am the co-host of this show. I am the co-host of this show. Let me say one thing. I am the co-host of this show. I get to say this. Now, Dick Cheney...



FRANKEN: Now, Dick Cheney said that any secretary of defense fights with the military that was given to him by his predecessors. And he said that after the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the first person he thanked was Ronald Reagan. I think Bill Clinton is entitled to that same call from Donald Rumsfeld.



CARLSON: On that note, I'm afraid we're going to have to end. I'm sorry. We're completely out of time.

Al, your face is actually twitching, so you're starting to make me a little nervous.

Joe Conason in Boston, thank you.

Blanquita Cullum here, thank you.

CULLUM: Thank you.

CARLSON: We appreciate it. You have heard the debate. It's time to decide. Everyone in the audience, please take out your voting devices. Tell us, does the media lean left, right or have no bias? Press one if you think the media lean to the left. Press two if Al Franken and Joe Conason have convinced you that the press leans to the right. And press three if you...

FRANKEN: That's not a fair way of...

CARLSON: That's a fairly general statement. I think they understand what I mean. And press three if you think the press shoot straight.

FRANKEN: Press two if you think I'm the co-host.


CARLSON: We'll have the results right after a break and the news headlines. Then Al Franken and I will decide whether the reason Democrats can't get their message out is because they don't have one.

We'll be right back.




CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE.

It's time for the results of our audience poll, in which we asked, are the press liberal or not? And our audience believed the press is right wing, 47 percent, left wing, 39 percent, 14 percent no bias at all. Wow, probably not...



CARLSON: ... a representative sample.



CARLSON: They like you. They really like you.


FRANKEN: They like me!


CARLSON: But don't you think that whining about liberal bias, it is a little bit like when you meet the (CROSSTALK)

FRANKEN: Yes, why do you guys whine about liberal bias?

CARLSON: No, no, but the right used to whine about it. But now it is the left. It does remind me of Lyndon LaRouche adherence: I can't get our message out because they're against us.


CARLSON: It's kind of pathetic.

FRANKEN: No. What I've always heard is that there's a liberal bias. And you were talking about ideas, that we don't have any ideas.


FRANKEN: Let me tell you about who has ideas and who doesn't have ideas.

CARLSON: OK, you tell us.


FRANKEN: Bush has no ideas.


FRANKEN: If you look...

CARLSON: Wait. Wait. Wait.

FRANKEN: Listen. How many...


CARLSON: Your face is starting to twitch again, Al. You are making me nervous, I have to say. I love having you here, but...

FRANKEN: Yes. I love you.



FRANKEN: No, no, no.


FRANKEN: Listen, he's going to be the first president since Hoover not to add any new jobs in his first term.

CARLSON: I know. I'm sorry. We're totally, completely out of time. I'm getting it in my ear. They're saying they're going to cut us off.


FRANKEN: No, no, no, no.

CARLSON: Yes. No. It's true.

FRANKEN: Because I've got to say this.

CARLSON: Next, our -- I'm sorry -- our viewers fire back at us from both left and right and all directions at once.

If you want to catch more of Al Franken and his take on Fox News, you can watch him on our own CNN tonight with Paula Zahn at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

We'll be right back.



CARLSON: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Time for our favorite part of the show, our "Fireback" segment, where you fire back. And, boy, do you today.

First up is -- first up on the big screen, well, we know -- "Hugo Frugiuele of Bushkill, Pennsylvania.


FRANKEN: That can't be his name.

CARLSON: We're assuming that's a real name.

"It is the listeners, both liberal and conservative, who are not interested in the liberal agenda. After all, who wants to hear people criticize Republican or conservative solutions without offering any ideas of their own?'

FRANKEN: We have ideas: Create jobs.

CARLSON: Oh, yes.

FRANKEN: Yes, yes. I mean, Bush...

CARLSON: No one ever thought of that, Al. That's so amazing. You ought to run for president.

FRANKEN: If you put the two Bushes together -- the two Bushes together -- Bush one, Bush two, six years, haven't created one new net job. If you extrapolate from that, from the beginning of this country to the end of -- to now, not one American under the Bushes would have ever worked.


CARLSON: Someone's been reading the DNC Web site again. FRANKEN: Oh, that's always -- OK.

"Left-wing media bias is the big lie foisted on the American people by the right. Until a reporter asks the president why he lied to the American people about Iraq, WMD, and the intelligence failures of the Bush administration before 9/11, we don't even have an impartial press."

FRANKEN: Well, actually, he was asked why he lied in the State of the Union address, in fairness to President Bush. And he avoided giving an answer.



Next up: "Tucker, what have you done with all the hosts on the left?" -- Mike Harris, St. Louis, Missouri.

You're speaking, of course, of James Carville and Paul Begala, both at Barbra Streisand's house in Malibu. If you have their number, give them a call. Tell them to come home.

FRANKEN: I spent a lot of time out at Barbra's.


CARLSON: Doubtless. Doubtless. Invite me.


"Al, I read a clip of your book online. And I like it. However, thanks to the Bush tax cuts, I don't think I can afford to purchase it until it comes out in paperback. I'll buy it sooner, however, if Tucker Carlson promises again to eat his shoes if it sells a million."

I thought Hillary let you off the hook by having -- I thought it was very gracious of her. But I tell you why she did it. She told me that she found out that it's impossible for a man to pass a shoe.


CARLSON: Oh, is that right?


CARLSON: I don't need to flack your book. You've got Roger Ailes doing it for you.


CARLSON: OK, we've got more Al Sharpton tomorrow -- Al Franken tomorrow.

That's it for CROSSFIRE. I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again then. If you'd like to see more Al Franken tonight, you can tune in at 8:00, Paula Zahn. He'll be there on CNN.

Good night.



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