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Coverage of John Kerry's Anti-War Protests; Interview With Wonkette

Aired May 2, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The big leak. Were ABC and "The New York Times" carrying water for the Republicans in reporting on John Kerry's protests with his military medals?

Should George Bush's National Guard controversy be getting equal time?

With Iraq exploding, why are the media still so fixated on Vietnam?

Plus, Ted Koppel under fire on the war, while Barbara Walters turns adoption into a reality style TV show.


ANA MARIE COX, WONKETTE.COM: I'm the expert at talking dirty.

KURTZ: She's been called an opinionated little vixen whose gossip column has Washington buzzing. Dishing the dirt with Wonkette.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on a media-driven controversy over John Kerry and his Vietnam medals.

ABC News and "The New York Times" reported that they'd obtained a 1971 videotape in which Kerry said he had tossed away his medals to protest the war, contradicting his long standing account that he had thrown his ribbons, not the actual medals.

What ABC and the "Times" didn't tell you, but which I've confirmed, is that they got the tape on an off the record basis from the Republican National Committee. The leaking of the tape led to this exchange on "Good Morning America."


CHARLIE GIBSON, HOST, ABC's "GOOD MORNING AMERICA": Well, Senator, I was there 33 years ago. I saw you throw medals over the fence, and we didn't find out until later...

SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No, you didn't see me throw...

GIBSON: ... that it was somebody else's medals.

KERRY: Charlie -- Charlie, you're wrong. That is not what happened. I threw my ribbons across. And all you have to do...

GIBSON: And someone else's medals.

KERRY: ... is find the file footage.


KURTZ: And the media were off and running.


CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST, MSNBC'S "HARDBALL": They did have, Senator, a piece of videotape going back 33 years of you talking to a Washington, D.C., reporter, a woman reporter, saying -- after she says you threw -- you tossed your Bronze and your Silver.

KERRY: Right.

MATTHEWS: And beyond that, you said, and you said, "other ribbons." You allowed...

KERRY: No, I didn't say other ribbons. What I said, "and the others."


KURTZ: Joining me now here in Washington, "Boston Globe" reporter Michael Kranish, co-author of "John F. Kerry, the Complete Biography"; National Review Online's Jonah Goldberg; and in Boston, Dan Kennedy, media columnist for the "Boston Phoenix" and the author of "Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes." Welcome.

Dan Kennedy, you've written that it was a disgrace for ABC to go with the medals story. Why? It's John Kerry's own words.

DAN KENNEDY, MEDIA COLUMNIST, "BOSTON PHOENIX": Well, I mean, it's his own words, Howard, but you know, medals, ribbons. I mean, it's exactly as Senator Kennedy complained afterwards, ABC was carrying water for the Republican National Committee here.

This is such a non-story. I mean, the question is, did he serve? Did he go to Vietnam? Did he earn these medals? And of course, the answer is yes.

And what you have is an attempt by the Republicans to divert attention from the president's rather paltry military record by calling into question Senator Kerry's undisputed record as a war hero.

KURTZ: So that our viewers don't have to take your word for it, let's listen to that little exchange that we heard from Kerry as he was taking off his microphone.


KERRY: They're doing the work of the Republican National Committee.


KURTZ: Jonah Goldberg, should news organizations run a story without even hinting that it came from the RNC or the DNC?

JONAH GOLDBERG, NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE: I think that's a perfectly legitimate ethical question to ask whether or not...

KURTZ: I'm asking you.

GOLDBERG: Well, I think maybe they should, they should tip their hat.

But I don't think the issue of where the tape came from contradicts the fact that this is actually a legitimate story. I think Dan Kennedy's got it exactly backwards.

To the extent that whether or not they were ribbons or medals, I can understand why that might be seen as being overplayed. But it is John Kerry who has made his service in Vietnam an issue, in ads and speeches and off the cuff remarks, time and time and time again.

But what he doesn't think is fair is to have his conduct after the war questioned. He was a leading opponent of the war, major anti- Vietnam warrior. And he accused the same band of brothers that he goes around campaigning with of committing war crimes. Now, why is that not fair game?

KURTZ: I want to come back to the media world. Michael Kranish, would you have taken this story from the RNC?

MICHAEL KRANISH, CO-AUTHOR, "JOHN F. KERRY, THE COMPLETE BIOGRAPHY": You know, you get tips from a lot of places. And in this case, it's not a tip like go look into something that's vague and you wouldn't want to run with that.

But here it's a video. It's Kerry's own words. It's sort of irrefutable. Kerry did say that. It seems legitimate to me to then ask Kerry about that. I did last year ask Kerry in detail about medals, ribbons, what did he throw? And it seems to me the main result of last week is that most voters probably did not know that he threw anything away, did learn that he did, unquestionably, throw away, at very least, his ribbons.

KURTZ: Just briefly, Kerry went on "Meet the Press" and said he would release his military medical records. And then you went to his headquarters the next day, and what happened?

KRANISH: They said, "You can't have any records." Then they said, "Talk to a press aide." I called a press aide and they said basically, "We're not going to give you anything other than the 12 or so pages we've already given you." I wrote a story saying that they had refused, basically, to live up to what Senator Kerry himself had promised, and the next day they started releasing about 100 pages or so of records.

KURTZ: Now, Kerry pushed back hard when he was confronted with this question about his 33-year-old words. Let's listen to what he had to say, again, on "Good Morning America."


KERRY: The Republicans have spent $60 million in the last few weeks trying to attack me, and this comes from a president in and a Republican Party that can't even answer whether or not he showed up for duty in the National Guard. I'm not going to stand for it.


KURTZ: Dan Kennedy, leaving aside the importance, or lack thereof, of President Bush's National Guard service, didn't John Kerry make this a much, much bigger media story by -- by throwing that charge?

KENNEDY: He may have done that. And in fact, I've talked to some people who are with the Kerry campaign and sympathetic to the Kerry campaign, and they were wincing a little bit this week.

They thought that maybe he should have sent one of his press people out to do this, rather than doing it himself. They're worried that it might be a little bit unseemly for the candidate himself to be doing this.

KURTZ: If the press can obsess on whether Kerry's medals or ribbons back in 1971, I'm sure you'll agree, Jonah Goldberg, Bush's National Guard record is fair game for the press, as well?

GOLDBERG: I agree. And it was actually covered, if you actually go back to the time the networks used -- dedicated to that story, it still beats the Kerry medal flap by almost a factor of 10 to one in terms of the amount of time that was spent on that.

KURTZ: But the Kerry medal flap just happened.

GOLDBERG: I understand. But the Kerry medal flap is already evaporating. It's already being turned into Kerry going on the offensive, going after Bush on the National Guard story. That is how the AP led this, is that Kerry going on the offensive stuff.

They turned -- they started going after Cheney's Vietnam record, after Cheney gave a speech entirely about Kerry's voting record in the Senate and never mentioned his service in Vietnam.

KURTZ: So you're suggesting that the press is one-sided here? Is much more interested in attacking Bush than in scrutinizing Kerry's past statements? GOLDBERG: Well, I think that's obvious, but I also think that the press just feels that it has to do something on this medal story, because it's a legitimate story. But it wants to get past it as quickly as possible.

KURTZ: You wrote a story...

KENNEDY: Jonah thinks that these stories aren't even remotely equivalent. Jonah, I mean, you call this Medalgate. I mean, if you manage to do that with a straight face, my hat is off to you. It's such a non-story.

GOLDBERG: If you read closely, the way I referred to it in the column was actually being kind of sarcastic about that, because other people were calling it Medalgate.

Regardless, John Kerry, first of all, you can't call him a decorated war hero anymore, because he renounced the decorations. He threw them back. The idea that somehow a guy who said that the people he served with were war criminals, that he himself committed atrocities, is a real story.

KURTZ: I want to get you to stick to the press, and I'm going to turn to Michael Kranish and ask this question.

You wrote in the "Boston Globe" not that long ago a story about Kerry's commanding officer questioning whether he deserved the first of the three Purple Hearts that he earned in Vietnam. Any help from the Republican Party on that story?

KRANISH: None. Zero. This came up in our research for our book, "John Kerry, The Complete Biography," which just came out. And in the research for that, I did find this commanding officer who said that he had raised questions.

One, he noted that he thought this was a minor fingernail scratch type wound. Purple Heart regulations don't require anything about the severity of the wound, other than to have it be a combat wound.

The commanding officer also asked about whether there was enemy fire. I write about this. This did not come from anyplace else, other than the fact that I tried to track down everyone who ever was Kerry's commanding officer.

So now, this definitely -- I'm telling you, absolutely, for the record -- did not come from anyone, Republican National Committee, Bush campaign. Strictly our own reporting.

KURTZ: It's got to be for the record. We're on television.

KRANISH: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Dan Kennedy, what did you make of that Purple Heart story in the "Globe"?

KENNEDY: Well, you know, first of all, I think the way Michael Kranish handled it was very fair. It was very thorough. You clearly understood that this commanding officer was a partisan Republican. And certainly, you understood that Kerry's war heroism was not coming into question.

So, given how fairly Michael handled all this, my conclusion was, "Well, why is this a story? Why is this going on page one?" And you know, the only conclusion I can draw is that they wanted to promote the book that they were coming out with. That was about the only real news value that I could see to it.

KRANISH: No. This was -- I was trying to complete the record. And in fairness, again, to the person I quoted, he also said he hadn't made up his mind who he wanted to support. And he's a registered Republican, but partisan? He said very clearly to me he doesn't know who he would support, and it wasn't a Republican type of action.

And this was something that had been talked about among various people. And I didn't write about it until I had someone on the record talking about it, did not quote any anonymous sources. In fact, I don't quote anybody anonymously in the book. It's all on the record.

KURTZ: No anonymous sources. That's refreshing. I want to turn now to Ted Koppel and "Nightline." Koppel's decision to read the names of 700 Americans killed in Iraq, attracting a lot of controversy. Some people are saying it's a ratings stunt, although I can't see huge audiences tuning in to listen to 700 names.

What do you think?

GOLDBERG: I think it is probably intended to be slightly anti- war, but I think he should go ahead and do it if he wants to do it.

KURTZ: Dan Kennedy, is it an anti-war agenda on Ted Koppel's part?

KENNEDY: Well, certainly the charge that ABC is trying to politicize this has been made. I'd like to point out that the Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose eight -- has ordered their eight ABC affiliates not to run this. put out a report, showing that 98 percent of Sinclair's political contributions go to Republicans.

So I mean, I think we're seeing politicization on all sides here.

KURTZ: Now the "Washington Post," "USA Today" have run several pages of pictures of some of those Americans who've lost their lives in Iraq. Why has Koppel become such a lightning rod for essentially doing the same thing in television terms on "Nightline?"

KRANISH: I think it's a time-honored tradition. "Life" magazine in 1969 ran pictures of people who had died, I think, during a week or a month, and it created quite a lot of conversation.

It's all part of the discussion. We had the Vietnam War. We had the names of all the war dead. It doesn't seem that controversial to me, frankly. KURTZ: And you don't see it as an effort to turn people against the war, as some are charging, just briefly?

GOLDBERG: I think there might be some of it. I agree that the Sinclair media thing is dumb. They shouldn't censor it. They should just let it go, and let a thousand flowers bloom.

KURTZ: All right. We'll let it go right there. Jonah Goldberg, Dan Kennedy in Boston, Michael Kranish. Thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, I'll talk to the Internet gossip who has taken Washington by storm. And an adoption elimination contest? What was Barbara Walters thinking? Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Her real name is Ana Marie Cox, but for gossip-hungry Internet surfers, she's become the hottest blogger around, serving up all sorts of Beltway dope and inside chatter. I recently sat down with the woman whose Web site is called


KURTZ: Wonkette, welcome.

COX: Good to be here.

KURTZ: In your hour-by-hour gossip mongering, you write about sex and people's sex lives. And you use sexual terms that I can't repeat on the air. What's up with that?

COX: Well, I used to be a journalist, and I couldn't do any of that then. So, you know, now that I'm a pretend journalist, I get to say whatever I want.

KURTZ: You feel liberated?

COX: I feel very liberated.

KURTZ: And are you pandering for Web traffic by writing...

COX: Yes!

KURTZ: ... about the unmentionable subjects?

COX: Yes, I am.

KURTZ: You admit it?

COX: Of course I am.

KURTZ: People like to read that sort of thing?

COX: Isn't that your experience, as well? I mean... KURTZ: You're the expert.

COX: I'm the expert on talking dirty, I guess. Yeah, no, I think people love to read it.

But I do want to clarify. I don't actually -- I talk a lot about sex, but not usually about people actually having it.

KURTZ: People thinking about having it? All right.

Now on your site, you do everything from critique Bush's performance at press conferences to providing fashion reviews of who is wearing what at the 9/11 hearings. Any original reporting?

COX: As little as I can do. I'm a media vampire. I know, I completely rely on other people to do all the real legwork. And I would never call myself a reporter. I -- I don't deserve the credit for that kind of thing.

KURTZ: You're a vampire. That means you're kind of a bloodsucker of other people's work?

COX: That's right. And -- and a scavenger, as well. I often -- like, I get a lot of tips from people who had -- from reporters who have something that they can't use.

KURTZ: It reminds me mysteriously of a Web site called TheDrudgeReport. Are you trying to out-Drudge Drudge?

COX: I've often told people, "Only because I want a hat like that." If I can have the hat, I'll do it.

But you know, I don't really think that what I'm doing is anything -- is actually that closely related to him.

KURTZ: Now by your own account, you were fired from several journalism jobs. And now -- now you sit in your Arlington, Virginia home, and you make fun of people. Is this Wonkette's revenge?

COX: Of course it is. Wouldn't you -- I mean, in my position I think a lot of people would do the same thing.

I -- I got in trouble a lot for -- at one time, I got reprimanded for rolling my eyes in a meeting. And now I get to roll my eyes however much I want. No one sees me. I get to roll my eyes in print. It's real fun.

KURTZ: Now, "The New York Times" did a piece on your growing cyber fame, and you were quoted as saying the following, "A blend of gossip and satire and things I make up." So what should we believe?

COX: I think I probably shouldn't have said "things I make up."

KURTZ: That's a kind of a hot button issue for journalists.

COX: It is, isn't it? I was actually referring more to satire than I was to the actual, like, invention of things that people are supposed to believe are true.

KURTZ: In other words, you say you engage in obvious satire?

COX: Yes. Yes.

KURTZ: And if you report that you saw somebody in a convertible with somebody who's not his wife...?

COX: I would never actually -- you know, I'm not interested in that. I'm not interested in that kind of thing.

KURTZ: Well, you do do celebrity sightings.

COX: Yes.

KURTZ: Although your definition of celebrities are, like, Tucker Carlson.

COX: I know.

KURTZ: George Stephanopoulos.

COX: I've often said, famous for D.C. Like, it should be like it's the ultimate put-down. You know, we are famous for D.C. You're more famous for D.C. But you know, it doesn't matter.

KURTZ: It's a backhanded compliment. I get it.

COX: Yes.

KURTZ: You are a "foul-mouthed, inaccurate, opinionated little vixen," so says "Washington Post" gossip columnist Richard Leiby.

COX: He has a crush on me, doesn't he?

KURTZ: But you put it on your Web site.

COX: I'm flattered. Of course.

KURTZ: You like when people say bad things about you?

COX: Is that bad?

KURTZ: Foul-mouthed, inaccurate?

COX: I guess I always focus on the "vixen" part.

KURTZ: But the accuracy question comes up because, in that same "New York Times" piece, Nick Denton, who hired you. He runs a Web site called -- he said that immediacy and humor are more important than accuracy. And he said, "If that means a lawsuit, great." Really?

COX: I think he really regrets saying that. Well, he's British. I always just explain everything by just saying, "Nick is British." I don't think he quite gets the way that people think about media here. You know, and it is also very much what he said. I do go for the funny, above all else. But I'm not going to -- I don't -- unlike -- how to put this? I'm not ever going to run anything I just know absolutely is untrue as truth.

I'll run things that are satirically untrue. They're satire and therefore untrue.

KURTZ: But don't you run things that you don't really know whether it's true because somebody e-mailed it to you? Maybe it's true, maybe it's not true?

COX: Then I'll make it very clear that I don't...

KURTZ: You couldn't get it in a newspaper.

COX: And I'll make it very clear that I don't know if it's true or not. I mean, actually, this is something I've been thinking about. Is it really gossip if you say right out, "I don't know if this is true or not"?

KURTZ: But this gets to the issue of what is the responsibility of somebody who is writing, typing away there in cyberspace? For example, you wrote a lot about the Drudge-hyped Kerry rumor, by which I mean the affair. I should say the non-affair...

COX: Non-affair.

KURTZ: ... with a young woman, which turned out to be totally bogus. Any regrets about that?

COX: No. Because my very first post about it was, "Would you have sex with this man?" I mean, I didn't believe it from the beginning. I mean, he's John Kerry. He's Treebeard.

KURTZ: But then you wrote about and linked to a lot of things about a story that turned out to be false.

COX: I kept saying I didn't believe it, and I kept also critiquing everything I saw about it. The -- as though -- as though I were someone trying to figure out whether it's true or not, as though I were a member of the public or a journalist, trying to figure out whether or not to report on it.

But because I'm not a real journalist, I get to actually sort of go through the thought process online.

KURTZ: I could start a Web site, and I could say Wonkette is having an affair.

COX: You could.

KURTZ: Wouldn't that upset you?

COX: If -- I don't know.

KURTZ: What, you're saying all publicity is good publicity?

COX: Yes. I am trying to think how my husband would feel about it. It...

KURTZ: That's probably the first person you should ask.

But in other words, you get to play at being a journalist. But you are doing some journalistic things. I mean, you report items that people say, "Hmm. That's pretty interesting." But at the same time, you're having fun doing it. But you don't think we should hold you to any great standards of accuracy?

COX: I think that you should hold me to the same standard of accuracy that you hold "The Daily Show," or "Saturday Night Live," news, you know, briefs. I mean, I think that those -- that's the kind of mix of satire and news that I'm going for.

I think to the extent that I'm different than that, there is some original reporting. Not original -- I mean, original reporting. You know? I mean, there's stuff that people e-mail me.

KURTZ: So you're a red-haired Jon Stewart?

COX: Oh, God.

KURTZ: We shouldn't -- we shouldn't take everything you say to the bank?

COX: No, of course not. In fact...

KURTZ: But you want us to believe the things you're writing that you are intending those to be serious?

COX: Yes. No. I want people to treat what I write with skepticism, as they should treat what they read in "The New York Times" with skepticism. I mean, no one should believe everything that they read. Right?

KURTZ: Right. But "The New York Times" says to its readers, "We try to ensure..."

COX: Believe us.

KURTZ: "... We make mistakes." Oh, boy, have they made some mistakes. "But we try to ensure everything is accurate."

You're saying, "I'm just out here having fun."

COX: No. I mean, if I actually run something that's untrue, I try to -- I mean, I haven't had to do this very often. I will go back and say, and post prominently that I got something wrong. But again, I haven't actually gotten that much wrong.

You know, I was actually one of the first people to report that -- on that Kerry rumor that the woman in question was going to be coming out with a statement saying that it was untrue. KURTZ: Right.

COX: And I got to -- at the point, at that point, I said, "Finally, we're done with this. We don't have to think about John Kerry having sex with anyone."

KURTZ: Just briefly, are you having fun or -- there is a lot of deadline pressure to writing constantly, posting, updating online?

COX: Are those mutually exclusive?

KURTZ: I guess you can do both.

COX: I'm having a lot of fun, and I have a lot of pressure.

KURTZ: All right. Anna Marie Cox,, thanks for dishing with us.

COX: Thanks for having me.


KURTZ: Ana Marie Cox, better known as Wonkette.

Still to come, why ABC News hit a low with Friday's "20/20," but a high with a special edition of "Nightline." That's next.


KURTZ: We saw some of the best and worst of ABC News Friday night.


TED KOPPEL, HOST, "NIGHTLINE": Ryan Beauxprez (ph). Brian Kennedy.

KURTZ (voice-over): It doesn't sound like a ratings blockbuster. Ted Koppel reading the names of more than 700 Americans who have died in Iraq. Unusual? Yes. But pausing to remember those who sacrificed for their country isn't scintillating TV, and is hardly evidence, as Sinclair Broadcasting charges, of some kind of anti-war agenda.

It's Sinclair, which refused to air the program on its ABC stations, that has an agenda. It sends reporters to Iraq with orders to cover the positive stories that the liberal press is supposedly ignoring, and its executives have given $14,000 to the Republican Party.

KOPPEL: The fact that the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, for example, would charge me with being unpatriotic, would say I was doing this to undermine the war effort, I think is beneath contempt, quite frankly.

KURTZ: "Nightline" followed a revolting edition of "20/20." Imagine, five couples competing on the air to adopt a teenager's baby. Meaning that four of them, in this era of Donald Trump firing people, risked being labeled losers. Their anguish broadcast for ratings. Nothing more than castoffs from a "Survivor-"like island.

BARBARA WALTERS, ABC NEWS: Five families, one baby. Whom will Jessica choose?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It will be devastating if we're not picked.

KURTZ: Barbara Walters, herself an adoptive mother, has had a fabulous career, interviewing everyone from Fidel Castro to Monica Lewinsky. But by turning the delicate and usually private business of adoption into a reality show, or even worse, a made for prime-time exploitation game, she proved two things. Some people will do anything to be on television, and some networks will do anything during sweeps week. This was voyeurism bordering on heartlessness.


KURTZ: 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 now.


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