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Is Media Blowing Bush's National Guard Service Out of Proportion?; Congress Discovers Sex

Aired February 15, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Ghosts of Vietnam. Is the press blowing the president's National Guard record way out of proportion, or were reporters AWOL on the story during the 2000 campaign? And why are some journalists trying to tie John Kerry to Jane Fonda?

Plus, Congress discovers sex. Will the FCC crack down on Janet Jackson-like displays, or is this really about more exposure for lawmakers?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn a critical lens on the president's National Guard service, the coverage of John Kerry, and, just to keep you watching, the federal investigation of raunchy television. I'm Howard Kurtz.

When the White House tried to combat the AWOL charges this week by releasing George Bush's Guard records, reporters hammered spokesman Scott McClellan for nearly an hour.


SCOTT MCCLELLAN, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president was proud of his service.

QUESTION: I asked a simple question. How about a simple answer?

MCCLELLAN: John (ph), if you let me address the question, I'm coming to your answer, and I'd like to ...

QUESTION: Well, if you would address it, maybe you could.

MCCLELLAN: I'm sorry. John. These documents, these documents make it very clear that the president of the United States fulfilled his duties. But I think that these documents clearly show that the president of the United States fulfilled his duties.

QUESTION: It's your position and it's the president's position that these documents put this issue to rest, period?

MCCLELLAN: Well, I think these documents show that he fulfilled his duties. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Joining me now here in Washington, Andrew Sullivan, the senior editor at "The New Republic," who writes a blog at And in New York, Frank Rich, columnist and associate editor at "The New York Times."

Andrew Sullivan, whether George Bush skipped some Guard meetings or not 30 years ago, is this a big fat deal of a story?

ANDREW SULLIVAN, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": I don't think it's a big fat deal, but I think it's legitimate. I mean, it's part of his past. It's a public record, it's about military service. I think if he hadn't done that stupid photo-op on the aircraft carrier, probably none of this would have happened. But it's legitimate. I think so far the story isn't panning out to anything that serious, but I don't see any reason why people shouldn't pursue it.

KURTZ: Frank Rich, does this sort of question about what you did during Vietnam 30 years ago go to the question of character for the commander in chief?

FRANK RICH, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, maybe a bit. I completely agree with what Andrew just said, that if he had not done what Wes Clark called that prancing around the aircraft carrier, he probably wouldn't be in this mess. We know a lot of people did some version of what the president did during Vietnam, whatever it turns out to be, whether he skipped some meetings or not. But the fact is, they never got the story out completely. If they had, they wouldn't be releasing these sort of blurry documents this week. And it comes in the context of a war that however superficially it might resemble Vietnam, has stirred up memories of Vietnam.

So all of this is in play in kind of a cultural sense even more than the specifics of what Bush did or didn't do in his military service.

KURTZ: Well, we can't have both of you agreeing, so let me try this. Andrew Sullivan, if it's a valid story now, where on earth was the press during the 2000 campaign? The "Boston Globe" investigated this extensively, very little pickup in "The New York Times," "Washington Post," the networks and so forth.


SULLIVAN: Well, I think ...

KURTZ: Oh, go ahead.

SULLIVAN: Well, because there really wasn't anything there that they found. I mean, they found some discrepancies, but no big smoking gun, nothing that terrifying, nothing that scandalous. And in fact this morning -- sorry.

KURTZ: On Friday morning. SULLIVAN: On Friday morning, the "Boston Globe" investigated the latest accusation, which was that the Bush officials in '97 tried to cleanse these records, and found the witness to that to be unconvincing and contradicted by others. So I don't think there's a huge story here, and that's why it didn't get played so much last time around.

RICH: This speaks to my point. 2000 is not 2004. We weren't at war in 2000. We didn't have a war president. The whole culture was different. It was the, you know, almost Gary Condit time, and so ...

SULLIVAN: The fact that we weren't at war ...

RICH: It didn't have any traction. It may not be a major story anyway, but ...

SULLIVAN: Yes, but it's also about the election, isn't it? Because it's a way in which the Democrats can try and inoculate themselves on the military service, national pride, sort of patriotism issue. They've got Kerry, who is going to be advancing his Vietnam record, and they want to neutralize the Bushes on this, and that's why it's coming out this early.

KURTZ: But we weren't at war, Frank Rich, in '92, when Bill Clinton's draft avoidance was certainly the subject of a lot of coverage.

RICH: That's very interesting, too, for exactly -- it was a lot of coverage, because he was the first boomer to get that far, and his service, or lack of same, raised a lot of these cultural issues. But we're now 12 years later. There are many people who frankly don't remember who Ho Chi Minh is, and as we have generational change, so it's playing out in a whole different way. I just want to point out to Andrew too that during the 2000 campaign, this whole issue of military service was officially sensitive to Bush as well. That remember, there were some besmirching -- attempts to besmirch John McCain's record during the primary period by Bush operatives.

KURTZ: OK, let me jump in here. There is, as you both know, an unsubstantiated rumor bouncing around the Internet, started by Drudge, about John Kerry's personal life. We are not going to describe it at all, but Senator Kerry did go on the Imus show Friday morning. Here's what he had to say.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, there is nothing to report. So there is nothing to talk about. I'm not worried about it. No. The answer is no.


KURTZ: Andrew Sullivan, you wrote about this on your blog. Any second thoughts, any guilty feelings about furthering the conversation or something that you don't know whether it's true, I don't know whether it's true. SULLIVAN: Well, what we do know, a friend of mine called up and said is this going to go mainstream? And my answer was, well, it's on the Drudge Report. There were 15 million visits to the Drudge Report yesterday. I don't know anybody in Washington that isn't aware of this story. So you get into this excruciating dilemma: How do you talk about it? Should you talk about it? I've talked about it from a -- removed, talking about the story as a press story, which is what we're doing now, without mentioning the details of it.

But I have to say, I am deeply conflicted about it. I don't know what -- can you anymore not talk about something that's on the front page of the "Times of London," front page of the Drudge Report, on everybody's minds. There comes a point at which the media has to acknowledge people are talking.

KURTZ: But on that point, Frank Rich, in the first 24 hours, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh picked this up, the Web sites of the "Wall Street Journal" and "National Review," "Chicago Sun-Times" and "Philadelphia Daily News" did a little bit, and the British press has jumped on this with great glee. What does that tell us about the way the media food chain works when after all, there may not be a story here? What we have is an unsubstantiated rumor.

RICH: Well, it's an unsubstantiated rumor, and a lot of times these unsubstantiated rumors that go out through the Internet and are occasionally picked up by the mainstream press don't pan out, and then they die. There were certainly a number of examples of that with Clinton, even though obviously a lot of things that were divulged about him on the Web were true.

But again, I would stress, much as with Vietnam, there is a contextual change here from the Vietnam years. I think our attitudes about this, and particularly about the personal lives of candidates in general has changed. Witness the Schwarzenegger campaign, where a lot of stuff came out. It was in the mainstream media, in the "Los Angeles Times," and a lot of it was obviously true, and it didn't make a bit of difference.

KURTZ: Well, what bothers me is that you have some commentators now saying the press is covering this up, when in fact journalists haven't proven anything and there may not be anything to prove so it's ...

RICH: Well, I think the press was not covering it up, and I think that lots of people, including people who lean towards the right, are going to do everything possible to find out what's there. And my guess is we will find out what's there or not there fairly shortly.

KURTZ: Now, speaking of another story that started on the Internet, we have this photo from 33 years ago, anti-war rally, John Kerry standing near Jane Fonda. This made it to the front page of the "Washington Times." And Jane Fonda was asked about this on CNN. Let's take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JANE FONDA, ACTRESS: Because the American people have had it with the big lie. Any attempts to link Kerry to me and make him look bad with that connection is completely false.


KURTZ: Andrew Sullivan, is this news, if they were at a rally together?

SULLIVAN: No, it's ridiculous.

KURTZ: Then why is it getting so much attention?

SULLIVAN: He's not even in focus. Because they want to pin the lefty anti-war protester culture war label on John Kerry in order to avoid substantive political issues. I mean, I think that's pretty obvious, and I think it's pretty pathetic. But it may work. That's what you do. You raise these cultural signals, you send them out, and you hope you get some support back. All I'm saying is that we're starting this campaign not just in the gutter, but circling the drain.

I mean, it's February, and we're here now. I mean, where can this go?

KURTZ: Frank Rich, do the various stories about Kerry's ties to special interests and taking money from Johnny Chung (ph), some of these are recycled. Will that ultimately be more important than an old picture with Jane Fonda?

RICH: Well, again, we don't know all the stories. But let's assume that even the worst of those stories are true. I'm afraid that the Bush administration has a problem with waging a political campaign based on who's more currying favor with the special interests, because this is the administration that won't release its Energy task force records with meetings with Ken Lay and the rest of it. So I just can't believe the Republicans are really going to go down this path, no matter what they have on Kerry, unless he committed a crime.

KURTZ: Well, we'll see how the media coverage pans out as well. We have to take a break, and when we come back, Congress is shocked, really shocked, to find out there is adult content on network television. Should the government be acting as the smut police? That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to "RELIABLE SOURCES." The House and Senate held hearings this week on indecency on network television, this in the wake of Janet Jackson's now-infamous wardrobe malfunction. Mel Karmazin, the head of CBS parent company Viacom, apologized for the Super Bowl halftime show, but many lawmakers weren't satisfied.


REP. HEATHER WILSON (R), NEW MEXICO: You knew what you were doing. You knew what kind of entertainment you're selling, and you wanted us all to be abuzz, here in this room and on the playground in my kids' school, because it improves your ratings. It improves your market share, and it lines your pockets.


KURTZ: Jackson's exposure is hardly the first instance of sexually suggestive programming on TV.


DAVID SCHWIMMER, "ROSS": This is insane. I'm not going to make love to you just so you'll go into labor.

JENNIFER ANISTON, "RACHEL": Make love, what are you, a girl?

SCHWIMMER: Always a great way to get into a man's pants.


KURTZ: Joining us now from Philadelphia, Gail Shister, television columnist for the "Philadelphia Inquirer." Also joining us, Frank Rich of "The New York Times" in New York, and here in Washington, Andrew Sullivan of

Gail Shister, how is it possible that members of Congress have just discovered that there might be raunchy programming on television?

GAIL SHISTER, "PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER": I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked. I think it's a great election year issue. I think it's, as I've heard it called, a tempest in a teacup. They're just looking for something that is going to appeal to conservative middle Americans, and the whole thing is ridiculous. They're making this big brouhaha over Janet Jackson's breast, and in my view, they're ignoring two of the other issues that have come up, which is the fact that she's black and he's white and the fact that she's female and he's male ...

KURTZ: He being Justin Timberlake.

SHISTER: Correct.

KURTZ: All right.

SHISTER: Justin Timberlake and the whole issue of the subliminal rape thing. But I have to tell you, Howie, I did wear my best nipple ring for you today.

KURTZ: Well, I guess we're not getting a chance to see that.

Frank Rich, is this really about congressional grandstanding? I mean, six months from now, will things be any different on TV?

RICH: Of course not. They'll probably be worse. It's completely about congressional grandstanding. Gail is entirely right. In fact, even three years ago, the Super Bowl had an MTV-produced halftime show that had Nelly grabbing his crotch and Justin Timberlake grabbing his crotch, and but for the grace of God someone could have fallen out of a halter-top. It's just preposterous, I think.

KURTZ: Andrew Sullivan, could the FCC actually crack down on all this with fines 10 times as large as they're being levied now, or is there a danger of the government getting too heavily involved in content?

SULLIVAN: I want to differ a little bit. I do think that what happened was something at a new level, and I'll tell you why, because it is the Super Bowl, and it is the most mainstream programming imaginable.

KURTZ: There are millions of kids watching.

SULLIVAN: Millions of kids, families and all the rest of it. And I think that there's a difference between cable, for example. And there is also a difference between sitcoms that do it in a funny kind of way, and getting the most mainstream, largest audience imaginable on television, and showing them a boob.

I mean, I think that was almost an attempt to spit in the face of anybody who feels that such things shouldn't be there. Now, I happen to be more -- I mean, I don't really care. But I'm of ...

KURTZ: But lots of people do.

SULLIVAN: But lots of people do. They are also part of this country, and they deserve to have their sensibilities taken into account, especially on the public airwaves.

RICH: But what happened -- what happened to individual responsibility in this country? Before the halftime show, there had been commercials with a kid using a four-letter word that was barely bleeped out, a flatulent horse, a dog biting somebody's crotch, not to mention the violence of football itself.

If parents really cared, why wouldn't they just pull their kids away from the set?

SULLIVAN: Well, if you're telling parents that they have to pull their kids away from their set during the Super Bowl, a lot of parents think, I mean, what are the standards left? I mean, if you can't let your kid watch the Super Bowl in peace and security, what can you do?

And it isn't like a flatulent horse, which is a silly bad joke. It's actually a part of the anatomy that we don't allow people to display on the streets, that we do restrict to privacy, and it's out there for anybody and everybody to see. And I think the lawmakers are grandstanding, but they have a point.

SHISTER: Can I jump in here? Can I jump in?

KURTZ: Go ahead, Gail. Jump in.

SHISTER: I agree with Andrew. We're not talking about just a regular program here. Year in and year out, the Super Bowl is the single largest watched telecast of the year. But I would argue that you could make the same statement about an episode of "Friends."

I remember I was watching an episode several years ago with my daughter, who was about 14 at the time. And it's on at 8:00, and they were arguing -- the guys were arguing about who gets the last condom. And when you realize that this show is on at 7:00 p.m. on Central time, you could make the argument, what's the difference?

SULLIVAN: The difference is -- the difference is between a visual, the classic visual of something that would be regarded as something supremely private, and words, which human beings can nit (ph) through and understand. Look, I am not -- I don't want to get on my high horse on this, but I do think something really bad happened. I think it was deliberate, and I think it was an attempt to really stick it to people who don't agree with those values.

KURTZ: But Gail Shister, it goes beyond words. And I don't have to tell you the litany, you know, it was a few years, at the MTV Awards, Lil' Kim was out there with one breast hanging out. We didn't get as much publicity about that. The Britney-Madonna kiss. I mean, there's been a lot of visual content on television, network and cable, that has a lot of parents in particular pretty upset. Isn't that a legitimate issue?

SHISTER: I think it's a legitimate issue when you're talking about broadcast. I think when you're talking about cable, you're in a different environment, you're in a totally different atmosphere, and especially when you're talking about premium cable, because then you're paying twice to see the programming.

I think there are legitimate issues. As I was saying before, there have been episodes of "Friends" that I have been uncomfortable watching.

KURTZ: Why do you give a pass to even regular cable? I mean, more people watch cable now than watch broadcasts. There are so many homes with kids watching, obviously. Why should cable be exempt from any effort at least minimal standards?

SHISTER: Well, I'm not giving them a pass, but the FCC has. There's just not -- they just haven't gotten around to making stricter rules for cable yet. I think we're going to see that. I think that this is just the beginning of a sea change in terms of creating more regulation for cable.

KURTZ: Frank Rich?

SHISTER: Precisely because of that.

KURTZ: Go ahead, Frank.

FRANK: The hypocrisy here is unbelievable.

KURTZ: That's the question I was going to ask you.

FRANK: Yes, I mean, first of all, there was an MTV sexy show on the Super Bowl in the past. No one complained about it. There have been other breasts on network television, including in a rerun of "ER" that ran the week before the Super Bowl. This is -- if people really care about this and want to regulate it, where have they been? Including Michael Powell, the head of the FCC, who has really contributed to the power of companies like Viacom with deregulation.

KURTZ: So you're saying that millions of people consume this stuff, they like this stuff. They vote with their remote controls, which makes it lucrative for television to put it on, and now they are professing to be outraged.

RICH: We live in a capitalist society, and for some reason we cannot say in the market of television that the customer is ever wrong. The customers want this. The NFL commissioned this because they wanted an edgier, younger demographic. And while, yes, Janet Jackson did something subversive and presumably did it without telling them, the whole tone of the show was salacious up until that point.

SULLIVAN: If Janet Jackson is edgy, she ...

RICH: Well, but that's their ...

SULLIVAN: She is the most tired act out there imaginable.

RICH: That's not what I'm saying. What I'm saying is that the NFL commissioned MTV, because NFL thought that was their idea of edgy, and therefore they were going to bump ratings with the most desirable demographic, which is younger people than the Levitra, you know, Viagra crowd that ...

SULLIVAN: But there's a difference between throwing a football in a tire, and showing an actual naked boob.


KURTZ: We've go get back Gail Shister. Sorry, Frank. In the 30 seconds we have left, once we've moved onto other stories, other breasts, whatever, do you think that this will have been sort of a cultural turning point where network executives will be a little more careful about not doing things that are going to tick off a substantial segment of the audience?

SHISTER: I think we're already seeing that. The fact that "ER" pixelated a nanosecond of an 80-year-old woman's breasts when she was wheeled into the ER after a car accident or something is just the epitome of a knee-jerk reaction. "NYPD Blue" on ABC was told to censor a 15-second sex scene in the Central and Mountain time zones, and Steve Bochco went public and said how absurd it was and he wasn't going to do it. ABC backed off.

I think you will see more of this in the short term.

KURTZ: Got to wrap it up. All right, Gail Shister, thanks very much. Frank Rich in New York, Andrew Sullivan right here. Still ahead, Bill O'Reilly's second thoughts and a new media giant in the making? That's next in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ: Time now for the latest from the news business in our "Media Minute."


KURTZ (voice-over): Peter Jennings, Ted Koppel and Diane Sawyer could soon be reporting to the nation's largest cable company. Comcast is making a high stakes bid to acquire Disney, which owns ABC, ESPN and local stations, along with movie studios and certain famous theme parks. Consumer groups are already promising to fight the $50 billion takeover.

Bill O'Reilly made a rare concession on "Good Morning America" this week. He admitted he was wrong. O'Reilly, a strong proponent of the Iraq war, now says he's much more skeptical of the Bush administration as a result of faulty intelligence. The Fox News commentator had promised viewers he'd apologize if no WMDs were discovered.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS HOST: My analysis was wrong, and I'm sorry. What do you want me to do, go over and kiss the camera? What do you want me to do?

KURTZ: Bob Arnot is out at NBC. The medial correspondent turned war reporter claims NBC refused to air many of his reports from Iraq because, he says, they were too positive. Arnot says the media are painting too grim a picture of life in post-war Iraq.

BOB ARNOT, FORMER NBC CORRESPONDENT: I find in the streets of Baghdad and the streets of New York that people feel there's a different story out there, there's a very much more positive story, one that I've been very privileged to tell.

KURTZ: NBC calls any allegation of bias in its Iraq reporting absolutely ridiculous.


KURTZ: We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of "RELIABLE SOURCES." Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.


Proportion?; Congress Discovers Sex>

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