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Coverage of Clinton's Book; Moore Wows Media

Aired June 27, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Crazy over Clinton. The press goes wild over the former president's book. He hits the airwaves, along with his former aides and high decibel detractors. But are journalists overdoing it with the Monica Lewinsky question, ignoring the rest of his presidency and letting him blend fact with fiction?

Also, Michael Moore wows the media. And did Dick Cheney really use that word?


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

It was hard, maybe even impossible, to miss Bill Clinton this week: on the front pages, giving interviews to "TIME" and "USA Today" and hitting the high profile shows, from "60 Minutes" to "Oprah."

Well, many of the questions were about, well, let's just say it wasn't welfare reform.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I need to ask you, do you feel sorry for Monica Lewinsky?

DAN RATHER, "60 MINUTES": Particularly after you'd gone through what you went through when you were running for president in 1992, why did it happen again?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What the hell were you thinking?


KURTZ: And where Clinton wouldn't appear, they talked about him anyway.


BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": We have some (UNINTELLIGIBLE). People said, "You're on the list." And you know where we are on the list? Right below Al Jazeera, I believe.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: The Clinton women were back, with radio's Sean Hannity chatting up Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey and Dolly Kyle Browning on a single program.

And the Clinton partisans and Clinton bashers argued like it was 1998 all over again.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clinton's obsession with -- with his enemies was something that he really brought on himself.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You had a venomous, ruthless special prosecutor on Bill Clinton for four years or more, at $70 million taxpayers' money.

SEAN HANNITY, CO-HOST, FOX NEWS' "HANNITY & COLMES": Kathleen Willey said he groped and grabbed.


HANNITY: Juanita said he raped her. Paula Jones said he pulled down his pants...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I absolutely do not believe he raped her.

HANNITY: Are they all liars?

BILL PRESS, MSNBC POLITICAL ANALYST: The Republicans in Congress abandoned all the business of this country to focus for a year and a half on one act of oral sex.


KURTZ: So what is this weeklong circus telling us about media behavior and the marketing of a presidential memoir?

Joining us now in Washington, "The Washington Post's" John Harris, who covered the Clinton White House for seven years and is working on a forthcoming book about the former president.

Also here, radio talk show host Laura Ingraham. And in New York, James Wolcott of "Vanity Fair."


John Harris, for years Clinton and his top aides said the media were obsessed with his personal life, with sex and sleaze and should focus on the issues. What happened?

JOHN HARRIS, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, he spent -- or got $10 million to write this book, and I think his publisher, Knopf, made clear that, look, you're going to help market this thing. If you're going to market this thing, you're going to play to what the public is interested in, or at least by a certain segment of the public and the sort of media machine is interested in, and that was Monica. KURTZ: Are you enjoying this? I mean, one more wallow in the Clinton-era Monica, Ken Starr, "I did not have sex"? You must be having a great time.

LAURA INGRAHAM, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Well, it's -- look, if this is a book about Richard Nixon's life or George Bush's life, it wouldn't be filled with all this stuff about sex and his relationship with his wife. It would be focused on policy or policy mistakes or policy triumphs.

But this is Bill Clinton's life. He said he wanted to write a book about his life. Starts off, 100 pages about his childhood. One mention of the Irish Peace Accords in the book. One mention.

So if the focus is inordinately on his private life, it's because Bill Clinton wanted it to be on his private life. John is right. You have to market this book, and you're not going to market it by talking about welfare reform.

KURTZ: Well, the number of pages about his private life is clearly eclipsed by the -- his childhood and his presidency.

Now James Wolcott, the man is out of office. Why are the media just going haywire over this book?

JAMES WOLCOTT, "VANITY FAIR": Well, it's -- for Clinton haters, it's like a high school reunion. You know, reminds them of those great days when they were first able to get on television and, you know, throw the spitballs around.

It's as if every creature from the Black Lagoon has resurfaced. I mean, names you haven't heard for five years, and all of a sudden, you know, they're coming up again. We heard the names in your prologue.

I mean, the odd thing is that Clinton devoted a large section of the book to his childhood. Everyone says that's boring, but then when he does talk about policy things, Michiko Kakatani expresses her boredom and irritation with that. I mean, she makes fun of him for being a policy wonk. So I'm not sure what he was supposed to do.


INGRAHAM: ... went really badly. Well, she made fun of it because I think, in her view, it was badly organized, you know, undisciplined and not very well assembled. I don't think it was that the policy arguments were boring. I just thought the way he put it together, according to what she thought, was that it was undisciplined.

WOLCOTT: But she made fun of him for getting up to watch the -- the inauguration of an elected leader in Africa. She made fun of that as if, oh, that's what a dweeb he is. He explains in the book why that was an important event.

Now, you can say, well, I mean, it's not that important an event. But it wasn't just something he did.

I mean, the fact is that a lot of people in Washington have no interest in policy, and if he had done that book, they would have said, where's Monica?

KURTZ: Let me just take a moment to explain what we're talking about, a front page "New York Times" book review by the chief book reviewer of "The New York Times." They've since run a second review by -- that was more favorable.

WOLCOTT: By a real writer, by the way.

KURTZ: Well, all right. I don't want to berate her right now.

As we have mentioned, a lot of the interviews focusing on Monica Lewinsky. Let's take a look at some of the former president's answers.


BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It was a moment where I was -- I frankly was rattled. I used poor judgment, and it was wrong. And I'll regret it until the day I die.

It is true that I did a bad thing. And I did a bad thing in misleading everybody about it.

I had to acknowledge to the people I love most in the world that I had failed. I had done something bad.


KURTZ: John Harris, does Clinton really come clean in his book about Lewinsky? Or are there contradictions?

HARRIS: Well, there's one kind of peculiar contradiction. I'm not sure it's that consequential, but it's interesting.

At the time he made his grand jury testimony, acknowledging the relationship after eight months or so of denying it, he said that it started in early 1996. And this was interesting, because at the time Monica had said, and testified, and everybody knew, it had started in the fall of 1995.

And everyone said, "Why? What's with this conflict?"

Ken Starr said it's because he didn't want to admit that he had a relationship with an intern.

Oddly enough, with no explanation at all...

KURTZ: You mean a relationship while she was still working at the White House...

INGRAHAM: As an unpaid intern.

HARRIS: An unpaid intern.

INGRAHAM: She was -- I think it's actually very consequential. Bill Clinton has a photographic memory. Everyone who knows Bill Clinton, has worked with him, says he has an unbelievable ability to process information.

He knew very well when it began. I mean, it -- and it began when she was a 22-year-old girl.

She since has said that she is very disappointed about how the president characterized their relationship. She gave quite a telling interview on a couple of British tabloids. And a lot of the women he's involved with have a lot to say about this book, and none of it's favorable.

KURTZ: When we look at the media coverage, James Wolcott, is there sort of a show trial aspect here, by which I mean, we'll let you come on all these programs and peddle your memoirs, and you have to perform. You've got to talk about your personal life, your wife, your girlfriend, your other girlfriend?

WOLCOTT: Well, it is except that he's a natural performer. I think -- I think -- I mean, you know, this is sort of like the Elvis comeback special in 1968, the singer's special, where Elvis, you know, got himself up in black leather.

I mean, Clinton's performance on "Oprah" and the performance I saw on "LARRY KING," it was an incredibly smooth, confident performance.

So I don't think this has taken any skin off him at all.

HARRIS: Yeah, I would agree with that, by the way. Part of Bill Clinton's legacy is as a public personality, as a performer, as this kind of American original, outsized political personality.

KURTZ: He was the talk show president.

HARRIS: It's part of that. Right. And this is part of that, so it's not inappropriate that this is...

KURTZ: I was struck by the section on Gennifer Flowers, because he writes in the book about he says it wasn't true. He went on "60 Minutes" and he said it wasn't true. And then when he gets done with several pages of this, oh, by the way, back in the 1970s I had a relationship with her that I should not have had. That was not the lead of that section.

Now, as you know from covering him, President Bill Clinton often expressed, at least in brief bursts, his anger at the press. I want to take a look at a now famous BBC interview where Clinton let the interviewer have it.


CLINTON: One of the reasons he got away with it is because people like you only asked people like me the questions. You gave him a complete free ride. Any abuse they wanted to do.

They indicted all these little people from Arkansas. What did you care about them? They're not famous. Who cares if their lives were trampled?

That's why people like you always help the far right, because you like to hurt people and you like to talk about how bad people are and all their personal failings.



KURTZ: Go ahead.

INGRAHAM: I just think it's amazing that we have, like, 12 convictions later and Whitewater. And they're just dismissed. He says, "Oh, this is just an out-of-control prosecutor and you guys are just helping this prosecutor. And poor old me, the victim once again, Bill Clinton." Sitting there, the poor guy.

I just think -- I mean, I know James says he's a great performer. John thinks he's a great performer. But maybe he's too good of a performer. Maybe he doesn't seem at times like a real person. Maybe his parallel universes are becoming a little bit too divergent.

KURTZ: From your experience covering the White House, how long has Clinton harbored this animosity toward the Fourth Estate?

HARRIS: For a dozen years, since the 1992 campaign.

And really, the basic thrust of his indictment and the actual words he uses in the complaint don't change that much. In fact, I thought this was a little like the -- when the tape of the grand jury testimony was played, because we were told, "Bill Clinton blows his top," you know. "He loses it." And actually, you know, that's really fairly controlled anger.

There's a tension here between -- people say, "Clinton, just tell us the truth. What do you really think?" That's what he really thinks. I mean, that is the candid Clinton. He is giving you his authentic views. I don't think he's blasting off or losing control. He is giving you what he feels are authentic and long-held grievances.

KURTZ: James Wolcott, does Clinton continue to have a kind of love-hate relationship with the press? I mean, he's great copy. A lot of people got famous writing about him.

And at the same time, he still seems angry at the way that at least parts of his presidency were portrayed.

WOLCOTT: Well, I think he's -- I think his anger is rather selective. I mean, there are politicians who basically hate all the press and want to repel everyone. But I think -- I think Clinton's anger is rather focused. I mean, I -- you know, I also heard that, you know, Drudge was making it sound like Clinton had completely lost it. I mean, that was the phrase they used with the BBC reporter. And it was a very -- I mean, it was very impassioned. You can either dismiss it or accept it.

But -- But I think -- I think he knows exactly where the enemies are. I don't think he sees all the press as the enemy.

KURTZ: Laura mentions a couple of -- roughly a dozen people convicted in Whitewater. But can we now admit that in the early '90s the Whitewater was overplayed by the press? I mean, ultimately it didn't lead to any charges against Bill and Hillary Clinton.

This was treated like Watergate. This was on magazine covers and front pages for months and months and months and months.

HARRIS: My criticism of the Whitewater coverage is that we did not early on start to apply an equally critical lens to Ken Starr. If you go back to the way things were in 1993, the facts that existed and the questions that existed, it's hard to argue that you would do it differently.

The fact is, there were big outstanding questions about at least potentially serious things. I don't see how you couldn't pursue those. The fact is, they didn't -- the worst suspicions didn't come to be true. But that doesn't mean you could ignore them.

INGRAHAM: Former governor -- I mean, we had a former governor of Arkansas convicted...

KURTZ: Yes, Jim Guy Tucker.

INGRAHAM: Yes, well...

KURTZ: This was a national obsession.

INGRAHAM: Yes, well...

KURTZ: National media obsession.

INGRAHAM: Of course it was a national obsession. It was the president of the United States and it was former business dealings. And people think that by saying, "Well, he lost money in a land deal," that somehow that inoculates you from any -- any inquiry.

And I'm thinking just because he lost money doesn't mean that nothing was done improperly. And I'm not endorsing everything about what Ken Starr did.

KURTZ: All right.

INGRAHAM: I mean, it just seems to me that just because you're asking the questions and covering the story, so what?

KURTZ: I have one clip I've been saving for you. INGRAHAM: Oh, good.

KURTZ: Clinton criticizing some of his conservative detractors.


KURTZ: Just the other day on "LARRY KING."


CLINTON: Some of the right-wing Republicans -- Rush Limbaugh, a lot of the other talk show people -- immediately said he was murdered. It was -- it was a mad time where you could say anything you wanted about the president or anybody that had the misfortune to know me.


KURTZ: True?

INGRAHAM: I never heard Rush Limbaugh say anything of the like. And I'm certain he didn't say that.

There are extremes on both sides of the political aisle. Right now we have a movie maker...

KURTZ: There are people...

INGRAHAM: Michael Moore, who's alleging that George Bush knows where bin Laden is and isn't getting him because of his connections to the House of Saud. We have that being said, and no one in the media is calling Michael Moore on his nonsense.

There are people on the right who were saying those things. Those things were reprehensible. I don't know anyone responsible who was saying that.

WOLCOTT: It was the "Wall Street Journal." It wasn't just the fringes. The "Wall Street Journal" beat on the Vince Foster case day after day. Day after day.

INGRAHAM: Well, because a lot of the questions -- answers coming out of the White House at the time weren't all that clear, James. That's why they were leaning on it.

WOLCOTT: Look, there were a lot of people who wanted to believe Vince Foster was murdered. And they kept up with that no matter...

INGRAHAM: It wasn't Rush Limbaugh.

WOLCOTT: Well, Limbaugh did play it up on his radio show.

INGRAHAM: No, he didn't say anyone -- that the Clintons murdered anyone.

WOLCOTT: He said...

KURTZ: Well...

WOLCOTT: He played it up. They first (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Vince Foster, he played it up.

KURTZ: We'll have to revisit that another time.

When we come back, does President Bush get the same treatment as President Clinton? And Bush gets the Michael Moore treatment. The filmmaker takes on the administration and the media in his new movie.



Laura Ingraham, is there a major difference between the way the press covers President Bush and the way it covered President Clinton?

INGRAHAM: How so? I mean, I'm not sure what you're getting at.

KURTZ: Harder on Bush?

INGRAHAM: Overall, whether they're fair?

KURTZ: Easier on Bush?

INGRAHAM: I don't know.

KURTZ: Prejudiced against Bush?

INGRAHAM: I -- I think they tend to -- they tend to like Clinton's viewpoints better, so that might shade it a little bit against Bush. But I think it's -- I don't think it's been all that different. I think if George Bush were engaged in some shady business dealings in Houston, the press would be all over it, just like they were all over Whitewater.

KURTZ: A lot of people out there think that the press was soft on Clinton. But you know, you were there every day. He didn't exactly get glowing coverage.

HARRIS: Right. Now, there's two really big differences. One is the institutional apparatus, the independent counsel law and congressional committees. They drove a lot of negative news about Clinton, and there was -- there clearly is a relationship between investigators and reporters. That's, you know...

KURTZ: And between -- between prosecutors and people who leak and people on the Hill?

HARRIS: That's right.

KURTZ: And don't you have that now?

HARRIS: You don't have the -- you don't have the independent counsel.


HARRIS: The other big thing, of course, is September 11. I think it did change the political climate, at least for a time. Maybe not anymore, but for a couple of years it did.

KURTZ: James Wolcott, a brief thought on the way President Bush is covered?

WOLCOTT: Oh, he's gotten it very easy.

KURTZ: Very easy in the last year?

WOLCOTT: He's gotten it very easy, particularly since September 11. Now it's getting harder because people are actually paying attention to the -- to the things that they ignored.

You know, the footage that's in the Michael Moore movie has been there for years. People could look at it. It's only now that Moore puts it in the film. Networks had access to it.

KURTZ: But do you think that the media have gone soft on Michael Moore in the sense that they -- he is getting a huge amount of attention and only a relatively few outlets are doing a sort of detailed fact checking about some -- shall we say, exaggerations in "Fahrenheit 9/11"?

WOLCOTT: Well, it's more -- it's more fact checking than some of them did on Colin Powell's U.N. presentation. How long did it take for that to come -- you know, deconstructed?

I mean, very few movies get fact checked. And I think -- and Moore invited -- Moore invited some fact checking.


WOLCOTT: I think it's fine. I mean, they should go -- you know.

INGRAHAM: Very few movies that are made and embraced wholeheartedly, it seems, by the DNC, the entire Democratic apparatus, with the filmmaker saying he hopes it changes the election.

KURTZ: Well, there was, as you know, a premiere in Washington here the other night, where a lot of major figures from the Democratic Party...

INGRAHAM: The best and the brightest showed up.

KURTZ: ... showed up, Terry McAuliffe, Tom Daschle. Didn't the press used to treat more as an interesting, quirky but fairly far left figure? Or has that changed?

INGRAHAM: I think so, but there's a lot at stake in November. And I think the press still is overwhelmingly Democrat, and I think the press in the end likes to embrace someone like Michael Moore, because he's a cage rattler. He likes to rattle the cage.

KURTZ: The press is overwhelmingly Democratic?


KURTZ: Then how do you account for, as you conceded just moments ago...


KURTZ: ... that the coverage of Clinton, particularly his scandals, was pretty tough?

INGRAHAM: Because scandals drive ratings. The scandals are great any time you want to cover them.

But Michael Moore has an agenda, and he's saying things that really are so outrageous most Republican politicians won't hear the Democrats making these same charges because they're so outrageous.

Michael Moore can get away with it because he's a, quote unquote, "artist and filmmaker." But if there was a Republican making conspiracy theory movies like Michael Moore is making and Republicans went to these, Republican officials went to this movie, the media would call them on it.

If you embrace this kind of film...

KURTZ: Just quickly, I want to get John Harris back in. Do you think that Bill Clinton was disappointed in his press coverage because he secretly believed that reporters kind of agreed with him ideologically? Did he feel betrayed?

HARRIS: I think at the beginning he did feel that way.

KURTZ: Then he just gave up?

HARRIS: Yes. I think very early on, he decided that the establishment media would pursue scandal over the things that he thought were important. And he -- that was a source of real disillusionment.

But I think it came early.

KURTZ: James Wolcott, you wanted to get back in on the question.

WOLCOTT: Well, I just wanted to day, the conservatives don't need to make movies because they have talk radio. That's where they get their (UNINTELLIGIBLE) out...


WOLCOTT: ... every single day. I hear -- I hear much wilder stuff on -- on just turning on WABC in New York.


WOLCOTT: You can hear it any day. INGRAHAM: You just gave me a good promotion. Thank you.

WOLCOTT: Well, you know -- you know, people know where to dial.

KURTZ: You -- you disagree?

INGRAHAM: Well, we know where "The New York Times," "Vanity Fair," "Washington Post." Go down the list: ABC, NBC, CBS. I mean, the American people are listening to talk radio...

WOLCOTT: "New York Times" -- "The New York Times" is...

INGRAHAM: They're listening to talk radio because they feel like it gives them another alternative. I don't claim to be fair and balanced.

KURTZ: This is so fascinating and I hate to blow the whistle, but I've got to do it. James Wolcott, Laura Ingraham, John Harris, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, behind the headlines: "The New Republic" admits regrets for its pre-war reporting. Plus, a top Pentagon official's harsh words about journalists in Iraq. And later, Dick Cheney's X-rated attack.

Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back. With the official handover to the new Iraqi government just three days away, some news organizations are looking back, not something journalists usually like to do, at their own role in the war. "The New Republic," the liberal magazine that backed President Bush on the war now says it feels regret because its strategic rationale for war has collapsed. Meaning that editor Peter Beinart and his staff, along with lots of reporters and commentators, believed the claims by Bush and Vice President Cheney that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, weapons that now appear nonexistent.

In fact, says the magazine, hyping the Saddam threat rendered the U.S. unable to act against Iran or North Korea. But "The New Republic" still supports what it calls the moral rationale for toppling one of the ghastliest regimes of our time.

"The New York Times" recently published its own mea culpa for trumpeting the administration's WMD claims without enough skepticism.

We need a lot more of this kind of soul searching. Reporting on shadowy intelligence is awfully difficult, but the press played a role in leading the country to war by not being more aggressive in challenging the shaky evidence on Saddam's supposed weapons. An equally big challenge is reporting from Iraq today, which brings me to Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who had this to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) PAUL WOLFOWITZ, DEPUTY DEFENSE SECRETARY: Because, frankly, part of our problem is a lot of the press are afraid to travel very much, so they sit in Baghdad and they publish rumors.


KURTZ: Not only do journalists in Iraq not publish rumors, they've shown great courage. Two "New York Times" reporters were abducted by gun-toting men in separate incidents. A "Time" magazine reporter lost his hand in a grenade attack. Correspondents for "The Washington Post," CNN and Fox News escaped death after their cars came under hostile fire from AK-47s. Two Iraqi staffers for CNN were killed in one of those attacks.

After sharp criticism, Wolfowitz has now apologized, saying his remarks were made out of frustration and he understands the enormous dangers faced by journalists in Iraq. Good for him.

When we come back, the vice president, the word, and "The Washington Post."


KURTZ: Did Dick Cheney really say (EXPLETIVE DELETED) to Senator Pat Leahy the other day? Apparently so.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vice President Cheney used the "f" word as he confronted Senator Patrick Leahy on the Senate floor Tuesday.


KURTZ: News organizations don't usually use (EXPLETIVE DELETED), for taste reasons. It's usually "expletive deleted" or a series of dashes. But "The Washington Post" right there on page A-4 says the man a heartbeat away from the president told Leahy to "(EXPLETIVE DELETED) yourself." The paper says that Cheney said it, after all, on the Senate floor. Not since the Starr report has (EXPLETIVE DELETED) been in "The Washington Post." Remember, you heard it, or didn't hear it, right here.

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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