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Covering the Convention

Aired July 25, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Boston marathon. Fifteen thousand journalists descend on Boston for the coronation of John Kerry and John Edwards. But how much news will they find? Why are the broadcast networks devoting so little time to the convention? And is this nothing but a stage-managed, made-for-TV extravaganza?

Also, are the media giving the Democratic ticket a bounce? And could the storyline be marred by the Sandy Berger investigation?


ANNOUNCER: Live from the Democratic National Convention in Boston, this is a special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES.

KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today, we turn our critical lens on coverage of the Democratic convention. We're here at the epicenter of the political universe, for the next five days, at least, along with thousands of our closest friends, and the question is how all this mass media -- networks, cable, talk radio, newspapers, magazines, bloggers, people blogging about bloggers -- will affect the way you at home see the convention and its merry storylines.

Just got off the CNN bus on a gorgeous morning here on the Charles River. "The Boston Globe" weighs about 60 pounds today, and the big story in "The Boston Herald," not the convention, but the slugfest between the Yankees and the Red Sox over at Fenway.

Well, joining me now here in Boston, Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent for CBS News. He's also the host of "Face the Nation" and author of a forthcoming book, celebrating the program's 50th anniversary. Ann Compton, senior White House correspondent for ABC News Radio. And Gloria Borger, co-host of CNBC's "Capitol Report" and a columnist for "U.S. News & World Report." Welcome.

Bob Schieffer, you've been covering conventions since the 19th century -- actually, 1968. You've got to admit, in 2004, there's likely to be very little news in this one.

BOB SCHIEFFER, HOST, FACE THE NATION: Well, news unlike the news we had in 1968, for example, or some of the conventions back when they really were nominating conventions.

The news here will be is John Kerry able to introduce himself to the American people. And we won't know if he made news until after the convention when we see those polls. But that's the sole objective that the Democrats have here. Can he do that?

KURTZ: Well, call me up when you figure out the answer to that question.


KURTZ: Gloria Borger, why do 15,000 journalists come to these conventions and then immediately decry them as scripted and choreographed? And of course they are scripted and choreographed.

GLORIA BORGER, CNBC: Well, because, you know, we're creatures of habit, first of all. We've always gone to these conventions. I think secondly, they're part of our democracy. I think they're important. I think people, no matter whether the networks are only doing an hour a night or whatever, I think it is a way for the candidates to introduce themselves, to tell the people what they stand for, and John Kerry has to do that, as Bob said.

They also have to make sure here that it's not just Bush bashing. That the American people get an affirmative view of John Kerry, because less than one in three, according to a new "Time" magazine poll, say that they don't know a great deal about him. They have to learn about him.

KURTZ: But in reality, Ann Compton, beyond the Kerry and Bush speeches, will any news be made here of the variety that people will remember a week later?

ANN COMPTON, ABC NEWS RADIO: Oh, sure. There are always Kodak moments in politics. In the earlier conventions that I covered, the story was the delegates. I remember a little girl sitting in one of the Southern delegations in tears at a Democratic convention. She wanted to vote for George Wallace. And people sitting with her wouldn't let her.

This convention is much more a kind of beauty pageant for where are the new Democrats coming along, who are the people who are going to get those starring few moments and those spare moments of network television broadcasts.

KURTZ: Although -- but despite what you all say are -- is some interesting storylines. As you know, CBS, ABC, NBC devoting very little attention to the conventions. And don't just take my word for it. Let's go to political analyst Jay Leno.


JAY LENO, HOST, TONIGHT SHOW: You know how much time the major TV networks are going to devote to convention coverage? Three hours. Three hours total. One hour a night for three nights. To pick a president. All right? That's about one-tenth of a time we devote to finding an American idol, OK?

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: What about that, Bob Schieffer?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I think it's fair criticism, but the fact is that things, the important things that are going to happen here, we are going to cover. We're going to cover John Edwards' speech and we're going to cover John Kerry's speech. Those are the big news events that come at this convention.

But to get to your point, Howie, I will tell you something, if I had my way, I would eliminate this whole primary system of selecting delegates and go back to the way we used to do it.

KURTZ: You like smoke-filled rooms?

SCHIEFFER: I do, because it was participatory. Yes, the political bosses would have more voice, but we've created a system that has taken people out of politics and put it all on who can raise the most money. I'd go back to the old ways. Start at the precinct level, and then bring them all here. It would make it more interesting and more fun, and that's what's missing in politics today.

KURTZ: Of course, you'd also disenfranchise all the millions of voters who like to participate in the process at the ballot level.

But on Tuesday night, for example, Gloria Borger, Ted Kennedy is going to be speaking, and Ron Reagan, Jr. -- most interesting development here, I think, is the former president's son coming to talk about stem cell research. And the broadcast networks won't be carrying that live. Isn't that a loss?

BORGER: No, but I can guarantee you -- first of all, the cable networks, CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, they will be covering it.

KURTZ: We'll be all over it.

BORGER: But I guarantee you that what you'll see on the networks is a snippet of Ron Reagan's speech that occurred earlier. I'm sure they'll show it to you.

KURTZ: So is that what television news has become, a snippet of what's actually going on? A snippet?

BORGER: Well, in the sense that they have an hour, don't forget, what are they supposed to do, cover this thing for 24 hours a day? Because it does go on for 24 hours a day. I doubt they'd do that.

KURTZ: Back in '92, Ann Compton, as I'm sure you remember, Clinton and Gore had what was deemed to be a very successful convention, kind of projecting themselves as the young, dynamic duo, new Democrats. And then in that same year, George Bush the elder had what was judged by the media at least to be an unsuccessful convention, because Pat Buchanan and other cultural conservatives kind of grabbed a big share of the spotlight. So is it up to pundits and journalists to decide when these things are over who did well and who did not?

COMPTON: Absolutely. We wouldn't leave that to the politicians, would we? Come on.

KURTZ: You admit it.

COMPTON: Of course we do. And we decide what's news, what's going to be covered in that one hour of compact headlines, how much of Ron Reagan makes it on the air, how much of Teddy Kennedy. But the networks, of course they decide. But the American people don't just watch the networks anymore. They'll get plenty of chance of seeing what else is going on.

BORGER: I actually disagree with that just a touch, because I think now the campaigns are so savvy, they decide. If you say that CBS is going on from 10:00 to 11:00 one night, they're going to put their prime stars in that 10:00 to 11:00 hour. They do that. They now have...

KURTZ: It's a show.

BORGER: By the way, the campaign has set up a podium on the floor for correspondents from battleground states. So these correspondents are getting great access to the floor of the Fleet Center, because they want them reporting back home, because it's important to John Kerry. So we're captives, I believe, in a way of the campaign.

KURTZ: Bob, you've just come here from the set of "Face the Nation." I want to talk about the way the journalists try to frame the questions that are decided here at the debate, so we have some tape we want to play from last week's "Face the Nation" when you were interviewing Democratic Chairman Terry McAuliffe.


SCHIEFFER: No one would question Senator Kerry's patriotism or the service that he performed in Vietnam. But don't you have to say more in answer to what are we going to do about Iraq? Don't you have to do more than just say I'm a Vietnam veteran? Because he really has laid out no agenda about how to make this situation better than it is.


KURTZ: Now, this week, won't it be harder to ask questions like that, because the party is filling all the slots with all the big-name speakers, Clinton and Gore and Hillary and so forth?

SCHIEFFER: Well, if you take them at their word, Senator Kerry is going to give us all those answers. Because they say they're going to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don't talk to Mr. In-between. They say this is the time that they're going to give Senator Kerry's answers that he's going to introduce himself. He's quoted in today's "New York Times" as saying, we want to tame the rhetoric. They don't want anti-Bush venom at this. So...

KURTZ: But that doesn't mean he is going to lay out a plan for what to do in Iraq, for example. SCHIEFFER: Well, if he doesn't, then that's fair game for us to comment on, isn't it? We'll find out if he's going to do what he says he's going to do.

KURTZ: The thing that I remember most -- I don't remember any of the speeches verbatim, but from the Democratic convention four years ago, was that moment when Al Gore was kissing Tipper.

BORGER: The kiss. Of course, the kiss.

KURTZ: So, as Ann was saying Kodak moments, isn't -- doesn't TV become a kind of vehicle for the stagecraft that the parties and the nominees put on?

BORGER: Oh, yeah. Somebody was saying that there might be a sighting of John Kerry, a spontaneous sighting of John Kerry on the floor of the convention, it would be like where's Waldo? I can see us all kind of looking for -- and sure, there is nothing spontaneous anymore. I'm not sure that kiss was spontaneous either, by the way.

SCHIEFFER: They've become less and less spontaneous, Howie. I remember in the '72 Republican convention in Miami, Daniel Shore (ph) somehow obtained a script of the Republican convention, and it was hilarious. He would come on and say, they're going to do this next. Even had some of the ad libs that were in there. This whole script had been put together by H.R. Haldeman. Now they give us a script.

KURTZ: That's right. Exactly. Nothing secret about it.

Now, "Time" magazine and "Newsweek" both out this morning, cover, profiles and packages on Kerry and the convention. "Newsweek," for example, says, "there's a posed, wooden quality about the public Kerry." "Time" says: "Kerry is an oddly elusive character." So I wonder, Ann Compton, are we in for the next five days of a lot of psychobabble about John Kerry's character and can he connect with the American people?

COMPTON: Well, that's exactly what Kerry says, that he's been laid out on a couch and everybody is going to -- if you don't think that that speech on Thursday night is the next last best chance he has to say, by the way, hello, I'm John Kerry and I'm running for president, it's a high stakes speech for him. And all of the things that happened the first few nights are supposed to add to that, including his claim that he doesn't want this to be a bash Bush convention, that this is going to be upbeat and positive.

I can't imagine -- you know, the networks love a fight. It's very instructive that the front page of the Boston paper this morning is the fistfight between the teams from the two cities that are hosting the two conventions.

KURTZ: But I don't have a medical degree. I mean, should journalists be putting the nominee on the coach? Is that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) what we do?

BORGER: Yeah, we sort of put them on the couch. People want to get these sort of old Roone Arledge, up close and personal, with the presidential candidate. I believe that in American politics, it's the most personal vote that you ever make. And you want to learn about the candidate and even his wife.

KURTZ: Speaking of that, Bob Schieffer, four years ago, George W. Bush's convention in Philadelphia, it was about compassionate conservatism, it was about diversity, the parade of different kinds of faces on the stage. And some people would say, well, Bush hasn't really governed in that way. He's governed from the right. So is what we're going to see at the Fleet Center this week necessarily going to match what might be in the Kerry administration?

SCHIEFFER: I think you raise a very good point, because George Bush -- and that was a convention where the Republicans were trying to do what the Democrats are trying to do this time. And, in fact, you might say that the Democrats have taken a page from George Bush's book. The whole point of that convention was to introduce George Bush to the American people. Which they successfully did. I think you make a very good point. I think the George Bush as president is not exactly the same person we saw as George Bush the candidate.

KURTZ: So when Kerry finishes his speech on Thursday night, and Dan Rather comes to you and says, "Bob, how did he do" -- how do you make that snap judgment on the spot?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I think you do that on how do you -- how do you judge him at the very moment. But you know, the future remains ahead, as the old cliche goes.

KURTZ: But isn't a lot of it subjective?


COMPTON: Oh, of course it's subjective, and look at the people -- where we're standing on the floor, you're surrounded by 4,000 honest to gosh delegates, and 15,000 journalists, who are all feeling this great tumult. They do everything they can to bring down the balloons. And sure, he gets the same crack at being, you know, mounting his own moment, as George Bush will get a month from now.

BORGER: But the best way to judge is to watch it on television, because that's the way the American people are going to watch the speech. And sometimes you get a very different sense when you're up in the skybox or on the floor. You have to see how the American people viewed it. And that's what Bob was saying, you have to wait for the polls to come out.

SCHIEFFER: I'll tell you what, Howie, if he doesn't do well, the Democrats might just put old Marack Obamba (sic) on the ticket right now. Because they see, this guy is a rock star. Think about it, two months ago, nobody knew who he was, and now here he is making the keynote address. We had him on "Face the Nation" this morning. He is very impressive.

KURTZ: The Senate candidate from Illinois, right now without an opponent. All right. We need to take a break. When we come back, will the other news out there, the 9/11 Commission, Sandy Berger, interfere with the coronation here in Boston? And will the Clintons ever really be out of the spotlight? That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES here in the Charlestown Navy yard, right across the river from the Fleet Center.

Gloria Borger, how much do other storylines intrude on the Boston bliss this week? For example, the 9/11 Commission report, the challenge of terrorism, the continuing debate there.

BORGER: Well, first of all, you have a big story here, which is the security story, and obviously that's a story outside the Fleet Center. But we're going to be talking about that a lot.

I think the 9/11 report will have an impact. You've already heard President Bush and John Kerry both say that they're going to keep -- or they're going to recommend approval of some of the commission's recommendations. That's going to be very important. The Sandy Berger thing, not as -- not as much.

KURTZ: Although, Bob Schieffer, Sandy Berger, you know, continuing to be investigated for taking home somewhere sensitive documents from the National Archives. He was Kerry's outside foreign policy adviser. So is that a story that should be brought up during the week, or do you think it doesn't have legs?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I don't think it's going to be a story that is going to be brought up by any of the Democrats. If it is brought up...

KURTZ: What about people like you?

SCHIEFFER: ... it will be the people from the media.

I think it's a legitimate story, yes. And I think it deserves some notice. I also believe that you'll hear John Kerry talk about this 9/11 Commission report. Because he is already starting about George Bush saying that we're safer now. And he, yesterday, in an interview, holds up the report and says, safer? He just says one word.

This is going to be a part of this campaign. And you'll begin to hear about it during this.

KURTZ: Ann Compton, Bill Clinton is here in Boston. He will be signing his best-selling book tonight. Hillary Clinton was belatedly added to the speaker's list. How much of the spotlight -- and there are a lot of journalists here -- is going to gravitate inevitably toward the former first couple?

COMPTON: Well, that's one thing we get to decide, where -- I've got colleagues who are rushing off right now to a book signing that Clinton is doing here in Boston. We obviously are covering the Monday night -- because you want to see a little bit of the future candidate, Hillary Clinton, if she is, the former candidate, Bill Clinton.

We used to laugh covering the White House that he would never leave. And that seems to be -- but it's again, it's up to the media about how much you actually see that in that one hour chunk we get tonight.

BORGER: I think Bill Clinton's the rock star of the Democratic Party. And he will suck all the oxygen out of the room when he speaks. And every speech will be compared to Bill Clinton, and all eyes will be on Hillary. Will she and Edwards be in a race if John Kerry doesn't win? You know...

KURTZ: 2004 isn't enough for us? We've got to do 2008?

BORGER: We'll be on to 2008...

KURTZ: 2012.

BORGER: 2012. And you know, we love to talk about the Clintons. Let's face.

COMPTON: And remember, Bill Clinton was a major story -- was in '88 in Atlanta, where he gave the keynote speech, and it went on forever. And when he said "in conclusion," everybody applauded. I ran into him at the hotel right after and he was shaking, he said "I added everything the Dukakis people told me to add." And that was a low point for him. So, you know, these conventions can deliver both ways.

KURTZ: And you know, bombings and kidnappings in Iraq are not going to go away, just because the Democrats are having their party. And I guess we'll have to cover them.

SCHIEFFER: Yes. And I think no matter what happens at this convention, no matter how well John Kerry introduces himself, this convention -- this election in the end, I think, is going to depend on what happens in Iraq. I think that Iraq was the issue going into this. I think on election day, it will still be the decisive issue.

KURTZ: I would not be surprised if you were right.

And speaking of other news from the outside world, Lance Armstrong has just won the Tour de France. No surprise there. He's led for days. The American has now captured his sixth consecutive title in the bicycle race in France. Lance Armstrong.

Still to come, is Kerry getting a bounce from John Edwards, or are both of them getting a bounce from the media? Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back to a special RELIABLE SOURCES from here in Boston. Just one day before the start of the Democratic National Convention. Bob Schieffer, John Edwards, who speaks at the convention on Wednesday night, has gotten remarkably good press since he got the nod from John Kerry. Conservatives say the media don't cover Republicans like that.

SCHIEFFER: Well, he's a very dynamic, young, fresh face. And he makes a very good speech. I think that John Edwards made the best speech during the primaries of all the candidates. I mean, he's a trial lawyer. He knows how to talk to the jury in words that they can understand.

KURTZ: But has he won over the media jury?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I think the media likes him generally. I think that's exactly -- I think that's fair to say.

KURTZ: Ann Compton, Dick Cheney's coverage far more critical than that of John Edwards. Obviously, he's an incumbent vice president, but still.

COMPTON: Well, and John Edwards is giving Cheney some of his best lines. Cheney stood before a group the other day and said, you know, young and sex appeal, and he said how do you think I got this job? This is not a bad foil, and I think when we get to the vice presidential debate, I want to cover not the debate, but I want to be back stage covering the kids and the grandson. Cheney's got a brand new grandson and three little granddaughters who are just beautiful. And of course, Jack and Emma Claire Edwards are going to be -- I think there's going to be a generational echo in this.

SCHIEFFER: In the end, people will vote for the top of the ticket.

COMPTON: Absolutely. Absolutely.

SCHIEFFER: I think that Edwards is a very fine choice. I think he's a very attractive candidate. But people are going to vote for George Bush or John Kerry, not for who their vice presidents are.

KURTZ: But these headlines we've been seeing, Gloria Borger, the sunshine boys, the gleam team, I mean, what happened to the probing, skeptical nature of organized journalism?

BORGER: Well, remember when Bill Clinton picked Al Gore, it was like a double date. Right? They went on the bus tour and they were all friends and wonderful. And I think to a certain degree, at the beginning of this relationship, you give everybody the benefit of the doubt.

KURTZ: You're saying it's a honeymoon.

BORGER: It is a honeymoon. I think the same thing happened when Dick Cheney was chosen.

KURTZ: I don't remember coverage that was anywhere near as gushing when Dick Cheney was chosen, compared to this Kerry/Edwards rollout.

BORGER: Well, but people were saying, Dick Cheney has the national security, foreign policy experience that George W. Bush didn't. It added balance to the ticket, et cetera, et cetera. Not as good-looking as John Edwards, but John Edwards...

KURTZ: But then, who is?

BORGER: But John Edwards is also a candidate that we all covered during the primaries and got to know.


COMPTON: One hundred days from now, 100 days from now, that's a long time to keep up a glowing image.

KURTZ: So you're saying the love-fest may not continue.

COMPTON: Well, we're going to go through a Republican love-fest in a month in the Republican convention in New York. And you know that they're going to do everything they can to redefine both Kerry and Edwards, especially Kerry. And the bounces go back and forth. Sometimes a convention bounce really works for you, sometimes it doesn't. But this is, you know, the Democrats have their week; the Republicans will have theirs.

KURTZ: I've got 15 seconds, Bob Schieffer. This question of a bounce. Hard to measure other than through polls?

SCHIEFFER: Yeah. And I'm not sure how much difference it makes in the long run.

KURTZ: You think it's just something that we all like to talk about?

SCHIEFFER: We all go through it and talk about it.

KURTZ: Well, there will be a lot of headlines about that.

All right, Bob Schieffer, Ann Compton, Gloria Borger, thanks very much for joining us here in Boston. We'll be right back.


SCHIEFFER: What a beautiful day, I tell you.

KURTZ: Before we go, and there's a boat full of tourists that have just gotten off here in Boston watching us, this note. One thing missing inside the Fleet Center is any sign of Al Jazeera. The Arabic news service is covering the convention, but Democrats have taken down their banner, which has been hanging along with everybody else's. Al Jazeera's graphic coverage of the war in Iraq and the war on terror has been, to say the least, controversial. Al Jazeera says it had approval for the banner, but the Democrats and Kerry aides say that several news organizations had their banners taken down. In reality, all of those banners, except for Al Jazeera's, from the news organizations, are still up.

And we'll have more about this on "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer. Hafez Al Mirazi will be Wolf Blitzer's special guest. He's the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera.

That's it for this special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning, 11:30 Eastern. We'll be back in Washington for a post-convention wrap-up. The special "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer, live from Boston, right now.


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