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Bush Plunges in Polls; Clark Joins Democratic Primary; Arnold Debates in California

Aired September 28, 2003 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Free for all. President Bush plunges in the polls. Are the media giving him a shove?

Wesley Clark joins the nine debating Democrats who want Bush's job. Why are reporters pounding the general?

Arnold debates in California. Did the actor clear the bar set by the press?

And, why is Tucker Carlson dissing cable news?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on this week's coverage of the president's sinking popularity, the first Democratic debate with high-flying ex-General Wesley Clark, and the only Schwarzenegger debate in the California recall.

But first, we need to put these stories through the "Spin Cycle."


KURTZ (voice-over): Follow the bouncing ball. It's the law of media physics. The polls go up, the press coverage turns positive.

When George W. Bush declared the war in Iraq over and his numbers were in the 70s, journalists portrayed him as unstoppable. Now that Baghdad is a mess, the president had to take his case to the United Nations. But he was depicted as being in serious trouble because his approval rating has dropped below 50 percent, and he even lost a trial heat to the newest Democratic candidate, Wesley Clark.

Here is the bouncing ball again. Reporters were giving the retired general a hard time for some early missteps, but when he rocketed to the top of the Democratic heat, he landed on the cover of "Newsweek" and won some grudging respect from the press, which had just finished granting frontrunner status to the last candidate to be a "Newsweek" and "TIME" cover boy Howard Dean.

Out in recall land, Arnold Schwarzenegger got movie-star-type coverage at first, but when polls showed the colorless Cruz Bustamante beating him in the race to replace Gray Davis, the coverage turned sour as well. Now, the Terminator and the lieutenant governor are neck and neck, and Arnold's coverage has improved a bit, especially in the wake of this week's debate.


KURTZ: But should reporters be so heavily influenced by fickle polls that bounce up and down?

Well, joining us now, Jill Lawrence, political reporter for "USA Today," Tucker Carlson, co-host of CNN's "CROSSFIRE," and Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for "The Washington Post."

Dana Milbank, are the media uncorking all of these "Bush is in serious trouble" stories, because he's suddenly dropped to 49 percent in the polls? And isn't it absurdly premature to conclude that?

DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": It's not absurdly premature, but you're absolutely right that we follow the polls, and...

KURTZ: Slavishly, I would suggest.

MILBANK: Slavishly follow the polls, but now think about it. Usually, we're accused of being out of step with the American public. So, now we're being accused of being exactly in step with the American public, saying if the polls are high, the man gets good coverage; if the polls are low, he gets bad coverage.

What happened with President Bush is he was doing well for so long because of September 11. I think there was a lot of pent-up frustration in the press corps. They were waiting for that moment when there was, No. 1, a scandal, or, No. 2, a major policy failure.

KURTZ: They were waiting to jump on the president, waiting for him to stumble.

MILBANK: Yes, and that's not Bush in particular. Any president would get that.

KURTZ: If Bush is having a harder time right now in the wake of the war, is it because -- is it in part because the media coverage has turned sharply negative on both Iraq and his handling of the economy?

TUCKER CARLSON, CNN CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": I don't know. I do think it's actually egg before the chicken in this case. I agree with Dana. That is one of the main problems with the press is that pile- ons really do happen. It's the Gary Condit syndrome, if they're unpopular, all of a sudden it's OK to accuse them of murder.

The problem with Bush's numbers, I think, is that we're back at September 10, 2001, where the country was completely evenly divided, as it was in the last election. We've just reverted to that. And so, it's no surprise at all it's 50/50.

KURTZ: Your newspaper, Jill Lawrence, has this front-page story: "GOP Insiders Worry the President is Vulnerable."

Aren't reporters going at it and whipping up these stories in reaction to polls, like the "USA Today"/CNN poll?

JILL LAWRENCE, "USA TODAY": Well, actually, that story, I happen to know, was done several weeks before that poll came out, and I think, you know, to some extent reporters report objective reality. We're not back to September 10, 2001. In some respects, the economy is a lot different, and we're in Iraq.

So, I mean, you know, we're reporting certain things on the basis of how well things are going or how badly things are going in the economy or in Iraq. You know, we start a story saying that the president may be vulnerable, because things aren't going so well.

KURTZ: But there is criticism that the media, for example, are playing up bad news in Iraq, and therefore making things look worse, and therefore damaging the president, some would say intentionally.

MILBANK: This is one of the most dangerous things I think happens in our whole culture. You've heard Secretary Rumsfeld say this now. You had a congressman saying it just this last week. The implications is that the press, by writing about bad news, things that are happening bad to the United States occupation in Iraq are giving aid and comfort to the enemy. And this, I think, is against the long tradition that has governed the press in America, and that is that we -- it is our responsibility to point out when things are wrong. It's not our job to be cheerleaders.

KURTZ: Now, of course, the president's problems are giving aid and comfort to the 10 Democratic candidates who would like his job. They debated this week in New York. Let's take a look at some of that.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, MODERATOR: You addressed the Republican Party Lincoln Day dinner in Arkansas, expressed your support for the leadership of Ronald Reagan, for that matter, the leadership of our current president, George W. Bush.

WESLEY CLARK (D), DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE: We've got a man who recklessly cut taxes. We've got a man who recklessly took us into war with Iraq.


KURTZ: The press has really been slapping around Wesley Clark in the opening days. He made some rookie mistakes. Now, that he's participated in a debate, and the reviews ranged from pretty good to OK, do you think they'll let up on him at all?

CARLSON: I don't know. It doesn't seem like they've been slapping him around to me. The "Newsweek" story by Evan Thomas was remarkably tough, if you read it carefully. But he got away with not answering that question with declaring himself -- quote -- "pro- health" during the debate, kind of a ludicrous answer.

I think part of the dynamic here is that only about four people in the press corps ever served in uniform. I'm not one of them. And so, there is this kind of hesitance -- not kind of hesitance -- profound hesitance to criticize anybody who fought in a war.

KURTZ: You're saying they're in awe of Wesley Clark.

CARLSON: It's a combination of awe and insecurity about their own lack of service, but it's very noticeable. Generals and people who are war heroes rarely get his as hard as anyone else.

KURTZ: Does the press love the Wesley Clark story, in part because they are just bored with the other nine candidates, even including Howard Dean? It seems like old news now?

LAWRENCE: I think the press loves anything new, and he's sort of new. I mean, he's been hovering at the edges of this thing for a long time. But, I mean, he's only been in the race for now, what, 10, 11 days?

So, I mean, you know, you could give us a little time. I think there is going to be more coming out.

KURTZ: You were at the debate in New York.


KURTZ: How do you cover a debate with 10 candidates? It's a hard thing to do. Is it frustrating?

LAWRENCE: It's very, very hard to do. I mean, the one really striking thing was that Wes Clark, for the most part, was untouched. Nobody laid a glove on him, nobody tried to. I mean, that's going to change, too. And so, we'll have more things to cover, more critiques to make. But I do think that having the word "general" in front of your name gives a certain aura, a mystique that, you know, maybe people will wait a little bit longer to dive in and go after you than if you're an obscure former governor.

KURTZ: Got to get you to resolve this. Should reporters cut General Clark some slack? He's only been in the race for a relative few days. Or are we going easy on him, as these people suggest, because he's got those four stars, or used to?

MILBANK: They shouldn't go easy on him, but they are. And it's part of a pattern that outsiders get the most lenient treatment, whether that's Clark, whether that's Dean, or whether that was Bush in the 2000 race. The Gores, the Liebermans, the Kerrys, the Gephardts get the tougher treatment, because we, in Washington, know them better and we can pick apart their records better.

KURTZ: You're saying deliberately lenient in treatment because somebody is an outsider, and therefore we're kind of on a first date and we don't want to spoil the romance?

MILBANK: It's hard to say it's deliberate, but they're undefined, and you can't do that game of gotcha, saying, ah-ha, in 1986 you voted for such and such. KURTZ: Ah-ha, that game. When are some of your conservative friends going to give up this fantasy about Hillary and how Wes Clark is really just in the race to help Hillary, and Hillary pushed him in, and Hillary is going to jump in and be his running mate.

CARLSON: Yes, I don't understand that theory at all.

KURTZ: What is up with that?

CARLSON: I mean, I'd call it crackpot, but I don't even know enough about it to describe it that way. I don't even think it's an ideological matter so much. I mean, you already have Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean to root for, if you have some Machievallian plan to make the Democratic Party lose. I think it's just a natural desire to see the story get more interesting, and that would -- you know, right-wingers are just like anybody else. Vote the story.

LAWRENCE: Yes. Well, Hillary sells papers. I mean...

CARLSON: That's right.

LAWRENCE: She sells our paper and she sells the New York papers. You know, people like to read about her.

KURTZ: Just briefly, do you agree with Dana's assessment that the press goes easier on outsiders, at least at first, until they sort of morph into serious candidates?

LAWRENCE: Frankly, I thought that he got some tough coverage for his announcement on that tour that followed it, where he reversed himself...

KURTZ: He kept changing his position on Iraq.

LAWRENCE: ... on Iraq. I think that was well noted, and it marred his opening days. So, I mean, you know, the overall impression, yes, is, well, we have this exciting newcomer on the scene, but people have been writing, you know, in smaller ways maybe, but ways that maybe will get noticed more later. You know, there have been some problems here. He's a novice. It's not that easy to do politics.

KURTZ: Not saluting the general.

All right, let's move on to the California craziness. Anybody who watched that debate knows in the aftermath that the one soundbite that was replayed over and over again involved Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arianna Huffington. Let's take a look at that one.


ARIANNA HUFFINGTON (I), CALIFORNIA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: It's completely hypocritical of Arnold to come here...


HUFFINGTON: Let me finish. Let me finish.

SCHWARZENEGGER: You're talking about the car tax right now, not about education, and then we'll get to the data...

HUFFINGTON: Let me finish. You know, this is completely impolite. This is the way you treat women, we know that, but not now.

SCHWARZENEGGER: I just realized that I have a perfect part for you in "Terminator 4." That's it.


KURTZ: And the pundits mostly talked about Arnold afterwards, beginning with MSNBC's Chris Matthews.


CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC HOST: I think Arnold Schwarzenegger did more than what he had to do tonight. I think he was a very strong competitor tonight.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: I will say this again. I didn't see the whole thing. I found Senator McClintock very impressive today.

FRED BARNES, WEEKLY STANDARD: Arnold Schwarzenegger was, I think, good enough. He had enough specificity. But, again, I think he made a huge mistake in getting into petty arguments over things that Arianna Huffington had said.


KURTZ: Wasn't the media expectations game here that as long as Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't sound like a thick-headed muscle man and could string together a few sentences about policy that he would pass the test that we had set up somehow?

MILBANK: Yes, that's true. And it wasn't unlike the Wesley Clark thing. I mean, can the man walk and chew gum at the same time? And he clearly passed that test, there's no question about it. I mean, my only...

KURTZ: But why is that the test?

MILBANK: Well, he has many other credentials, shall we say. He's not a general, but he's a movie star, so he instantly excites people in California. So, we had to also discover whether he could actually be a serious person.

LAWRENCE: There were a few places where that was not the bar. I mean, the "L.A. Times" editorial page had a pretty tough post-mortem on it, saying this is his chance to tell us maybe what he would do for the state, how he would fix the budget problems. They were waiting for the plan, and it didn't come. KURTZ: With Schwarzenegger mostly avoiding serious interviews and talking to the likes of Oprah and Howard Stern and Sean Hannity and so forth. Has the press, though, just sort of given up on the notion that he has to put forth any specifics at all? Like a single government program he would cut in his efforts to cut spending?

CARLSON: Yes, probably. I mean, you know, he had to pass the drool test, and that's it. But it does seem to be that the whole process of choosing a new -- potentially a new governor in California is hampered by this populist notion that everybody needs to have a voice. So, you have, you know, Arianna and Peter Camejo, people who can never get elected. It's like the "Star Wars" bar.

And so, because nobody in the press is willing to stand up and say, no, you're part of the freak show, you're out, only you have a chance, you two ought to debate, because nobody is sort of adult enough to do that, the real ideas and candidates get lost in the barking.

KURTZ: But come back to what you so eloquently described as the "drool test." You know, if Schwarzenegger is a celebrity candidate, a worldwide movie star, the Terminator and all of that, why does the press let him off with, well, as long as he seemed to do OK, he could be governor?

CARLSON: Well, in defense of the press -- and I know you know this -- it's hard to cover someone like Arnold. I mean, he's surrounded by, you know, 37 24-year-old women with clipboards, who won't get you anywhere near him. I mean, you can't just sit down in a bar with Arnold and say, how do you think we ought to save Social Security? You cannot get close to people like that.

KURTZ: But all of the press criticism, Jill Lawrence, doesn't seem to have hurt him very much. In other words, he gets away with things that an average candidate would have trouble getting away with.

LAWRENCE: Well, he's larger than life in a lot of ways. I mean -- and he's getting away with it -- you mean in terms of coverage?

KURTZ: That he's doing reasonably well despite the fact that he doesn't cater to the media, he doesn't go to the editorial boards the way most candidates feel they have to.

LAWRENCE: Well, I mean, there have been candidates like that. I mean, you know, Minnesota elected Jesse Ventura. Sometimes they're happy with the results. I mean, it doesn't always work out the way they think it will, and that's a risk you take. But, I mean, it's not clear at all that he'll actually win.

KURTZ: But it is true, just briefly, the press loves the Arnold story. I mean, this is being covered like a presidential campaign.

MILBANK: No question. And I would go back to, it's the same thing again, it's the outsider. He gets a free pass for this. Bustamante is not going to get a pass if he doesn't come out with a plan. Davis won't. Even McClintock won't. So, it's this whole notion that we have more regard for that.

KURTZ: We will see. Dana Milbank, Jill Lawrence, thanks very much for joining us. Tucker Carlson, stick around. When we come back, our author friend here tells us what he really thinks about cable news.



Tucker Carlson refused to leave, so we're going to talk about his new book, "Politicians, Partisans and Parasites: My Adventures in Cable News."

Let's get right to the substance. You say in your book that you once thought of punching out Bob Novak. Explain.

CARLSON: No, I meant that in a nice way. I just -- there was a miscommunication. I think a number of Republicans thought that I was going to be much more liberal than I am. I'm not liberal at all. And so, there was just a miscommunication. I'm a fan of -- I respect Bob Novak for his many years of writing stories, many more than I've ever written.

KURTZ: You are conservative at what some critics out there view as a left-leaning network. Wouldn't you be more comfortable at Fox News?

CARLSON: I would not be more comfortable at Fox News.

KURTZ: Why would that be?

CARLSON: I respect Fox's toughness. I don't admire their meanness, and they have a lot of meanness. Nothing to do with ideology. I think liberals get hysterical about the existence of a single conservative cable network. They ought to lighten up. Good for Fox. That's not the problem I have. They're just nasty.

KURTZ: So, you wouldn't be comfortable working there?

CARLSON: I don't believe I -- well, I love CNN. CNN has been incredibly nice to me from the first day.

KURTZ: Weren't you kind of pigeonholed on "CROSSFIRE" as being from the right, so that almost no matter what the issue is, you're expected to disagree with Paul Begala or James Carville?

CARLSON: Well, disagreeing with Begala and Carville is actually very easy, much as I like them both. Personally, that's not a problem at all. But I've never -- I mean, I always get to tell the truth. I never misrepresent what I really think, and nobody has ever pushed me to do that; another thing I really like about CNN.

KURTZ: You once co-hosted a late night show here called "Spin Room."

CARLSON: Yes, I did.

KURTZ: It's in the book. And one critic dubbed it the worst show in the history of television. Was it?

CARLSON: That's a majestic title. I'll tell you this: In addition to entertaining me completely for nine months, I think it was the biggest show on television among Canadians, college students and inmates in federal prisons. We were huge among those demographics, none of which counts for the Nielson ratings. So, it didn't really matter.

No, it was -- I thought it was a wonderful show. It had a lot of fans, or had a small number of very intense fans.

KURTZ: But usually, when TV people write books, they write about, you know, their great moments interviewing important people, and you talked about how you used to, you know, eat food on the set and you had C-list guests, at least on "Spin Room."


KURTZ: You have better guests on "CROSSFIRE," I'm sure. You said it demystified what goes on here, and you were critical of CNN at times.

CARLSON: Well, I try and tell the truth, I mean, but in an affectionate way. I mean, there's nothing angry in my book. There is no score settling. But who wants to read a book about, you know, Howie, children are our future, I mean -- or some other banality. And almost every TV book -- every television book I've read, with the exception of one that Larry King wrote a number of years ago, which is a terrific book, they're all filled with that. Well, and then I said to Prince so and so, or, you know, well, Ariel Sharon looked into my eyes and told me -- come on! You know, nobody wants to read that. It's all phony, and I thought I would write a true book.

KURTZ: Well, you talk about you always say what you think and you tell the truth and you don't feel ideologically boxed in. But on "CROSSFIRE," I mean, you know, your job is to sort of harass the guests, a lot of interrupting goes on in that show.


KURTZ: Some people would say it's not the most edifying spectacle for getting knowledge about public affairs.

CARLSON: No, but it might be. I mean, "CROSSFIRE" actually breaks down each issue pretty cleanly, on our best days, when we do our job correctly. It breaks it down into its component parts. It tells you why certain people believe this, others believe that. I think it -- you know, it's not the place where you get your news. You ought read a daily newspaper if you want to be informed enough to vote, in my opinion.

KURTZ: Thanks for pointing that out.

CARLSON: Well, thank you. Like "The Washington Post," for instance.

KURTZ: All right.

CARLSON: But truly -- but our show tells you what to make of the news, how to understand what the arguments mean. So, I think we provide a valuable service, when we do it right.

KURTZ: A couple of years ago, a woman falsely accused you of sexual assault, a woman whose insanity later turned out to be in question. But you were forced to spend $14,000 in legal fees. Why bring this up now? Why disclose this in your book?

CARLSON: Well, because I couldn't talk about it earlier, because even to have your name associated in any way with sexual assault, even if it's completely a fantasy, as this was, is dangerous. And so, I thought that it might come out sometime, and I wanted to be in a position to control how it came out.

Second, it challenged my understanding of objectivity. I'd always assumed that anybody accused of anything...

KURTZ: Right.

CARLSON: ... must be at least kind of guilty. Maybe you didn't rape her, but you definitely had an affair with her.

KURTZ: If there's smoke, there's fire. It's an allegation, and there must be something to the allegation.

CARLSON: That's exactly right. And we always pretend that, you know, we're waiting for the evidence, but most of the time we're not really waiting for the evidence. We know that Gary Condit probably killed his girlfriend, when, in fact, as people said, you know, he must have done something, maybe it was a conspiracy.

KURTZ: Right. So, suddenly you're on the other side.

CARLSON: That's exactly right.

KURTZ: You're the one being accused.

CARLSON: And most people...

KURTZ: You're in the crossfire, so to speak.

CARLSON: Amen. Most people accused are guilty. There is no way around that. But you ought to leave open at least a theoretical possibility that some people aren't guilty at all. And it was a really instructive and interesting and expensive, as you pointed out, experience but worth it.

KURTZ: OK, well, thanks for pointing that out. Tucker Carlson, appreciate your joining us.

When we come back, President Bush doesn't think the press is fair and balanced. We'll go behind the headlines next. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Time now to go behind the headlines.

President Bush served up a dose of media criticism in his Fox News interview this week, and Brit Hume seconded that emotion.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But I also understand that a lot of times there's opinions mixed in with news, and...

BRIT HUME, FOX ANCHOR: We won't disagree with that.

BUSH: And the best way to get the news is from objective sources, and the most objective sources I have are people on my staff who tell me what's happening in the world.


KURTZ: News organizations often fall short, but does the president really believe that Condi, Rummy, Cheney and company are more objective than journalists? Or does "objective" just mean telling the commander-in-chief what he wants to hear?

Is the media's coverage of post-war Iraq too negative? Democratic Congressman Jim Marshall of Georgia practically accused journalists of aiding the enemy, writing in the "Atlanta Journal- Constitution:" "We may need a few credible Baghdad Bobs to undo the harm done by our media. I'm afraid it is killing our troops."

Marshall didn't back off in a CNN interview.


REP. JIM MARSHALL (D), GEORGIA: At the very least, Americans need to know things are going better over in Iraq than is depicted on our television screens.


KURTZ: Sorry, Congressman. But whatever the problems with the coverage, and there isn't enough of it, the media didn't blow up the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad or engage in suicide attacks against American soldiers. And blaming the messenger for these setbacks goes too far.

"New York" magazine columnist Michael Wolff, an occasional guest on this program, has a book coming out about media moguls, and "New York Post" gossip Richard Johnson has ripped it to shreds, as "tedious and ponderous."

Wolff, who is now trying to buy "New York" magazine, which is up for sale, fires back in a letter: "I don't think anyone at the "Post" has ever gotten over the column I wrote arguing that Rupert Murdoch should close the money-losing paper. What's this about? Is this some complicated bit of self-loathing on your part? We hacks must accept our fate to always be owned by some dreadful mogul or other."

Well, it must not be that bloody. Wolff closes by asking the allegedly self-loathing Murdoch man to have lunch.

We'll be right back.


KURTZ: 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.


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