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Coverage of Swift Boat Vets Ads; New Jersey Nightmare

Aired August 22, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): The swift campaign. Has the press been bamboozled by the inconsistent accounts of the Swift Boat Veterans against John Kerry and let President Bush off the hook?

One week before the Republican Convention, is Bush rallying the faithful or staging made-for-TV love-ins?

Plus, New Jersey nightmare. Has a governor's admission of a gay affair steered the headlines away from sleazy patronage?

And more journalists facing fines and jail terms for contempt.


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we begin by turning our critical lens on the media's handling of the assault on John Kerry's Vietnam record. I'm Howard Kurtz.

A modest ad buy by the group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, accusing the Democratic candidate of lying about his decorated service in that jungle war has drawn so much media attention, nearly everyone now knows about this spot.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I served with John Kerry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I served with John Kerry.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: John Kerry has not been honest about what happened in Vietnam.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is lying about his record.


KURTZ: Kerry, who has benefited from liberal organizations airing anti-Bush ads, felt compelled to return fire by tying the independent veteran's group to the president.


SEN. JOHN KERRY (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They're a front for the Bush campaign. And the fact that the president won't denounce what they're up to tells you everything that you need to know. He wants them to do his dirty work.


KURTZ: Bush campaign officials were quick to hit back at Kerry.


MARC RACICOT, RNC CHAIRMAN: He looks to me to be wild-eyed, making accusations that have absolutely no basis in fact at all.


KURTZ: And this morning, "Chicago Tribune" editor, city editor William Rood, who commanded a swift boat alongside Kerry, breaks a 35- year silence by backing the senator.

He writes, "it's gotten harder and harder for those of us who were there to listen to accounts we know to be untrue, especially when they come from people who were not there."

Joining us now, Alexis Simendinger, White House correspondent for "The National Journal."

Byron York, White House and political reporter from "National Review."

And in Crawford, Texas, where the president is spending some time at the ranch, Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for "The Washington Post.".

Dana Milbank, this morning, the swift boast controversy above the fold in the "Washington Post," above the fold in "The New York Times." I mentioned the "Chicago Tribune" piece. The Kerry campaign has just released an ad hitting back at Bush, calling him -- accusing him of supporting smears and lies.

All of this from a couple of hundred thousand dollars spent by this swift boat veterans group. Did the media play a crucial role here in using a megaphone and magnifying these charges, without knowing whether they were true?

DANA MILBANK, WASHINGTON POST: Oh, sure. I mean, I think we've been completely used in this by both sides. Just a few dollars, really, being spent in terms of the overall campaign war. In one of these cases, we're talking about an ad that hasn't even run yet, and then we're also talking about a response ad that Kerry put out on the Internet, which they basically spent nothing for, but it's getting attention on all the networks.

So we're completely allowing this whole issue to dominate the news. I mean, part of that's just that it's being August and there's not a lot else going on before the convention.

KURTZ: Right.

MILBANK: And part of it is it gets our hackles up a bit. We remember the 2000 South Carolina campaign between McCain and Bush, where President Bush may well have won the nomination because of a campaign much like this. So we don't want to let another one sneak by without us realizing what's happening.

KURTZ: Byron York, we don't have time to untangle all the inconsistencies here, but let me read just a few of these veterans. Roy Hoffman previously praised Kerry's guts. George Elliott spoke of Kerry's courage in his '96 Senate campaign. He retracted his allegations now to the "Boston Globe" and then he retracted the retraction. Adrian Lonsdale (ph) had talked about Kerry's bravado and courage. And Roger Thurlow (sic) says there was no hostile fire when Kerry pulled a crewman out of the water, but the "Washington Post" says that Thurlow's own Bronze Star citation talks about enemy fire. So are these debunking stories a public service or are they just pro- Kerry, in your view?

BYRON YORK, NATIONAL REVIEW: Actually, I think it took the press a long time to get around to the substance to the actual stories. If you remember, this has been going for almost two weeks, and at first, it was a political ad story. And then it was a this is a Republican- backed group story. Then it was a Kerry fights back story.

Now -- only now are we getting to some of the actual substance. And there have been things that the swift boat veterans have said that have actually drawn blood and they simply weren't covered.

For example, they feel one of their strongest arguments has been debunking Kerry's claims, which he has made many times over the years, that he spent Christmas of 1968 in Cambodia under fire from Khmer Rouge rebels. He said it a lot. Apparently, it wasn't true. After they said it and it got a lot of coverage on Fox News and on the Internet, Kerry's campaign actually began to backtrack on it and issue a number of confusing statements about it. The "New York Times" and "The Washington Post" did not cover the story until Friday, and they did it in the context of a negative piece about him.

KURTZ: Let me move on, so to speak, to some of the liberal ads running on Kerry's behalf. PAC is a major backer of Kerry. And let's take a look at one of their ads in response to the swift boat ad. Let's take a look.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: George Bush used his father to get into the National Guard, was grounded, and then went missing. Now he's allowing false advertising that attacks John Kerry.


KURTZ: Alexis Simendinger, is the press missing a hypocrisy angle here, where both candidates benefit from attack ads but say, oh, I'm not responsible for that, that's that other group?

ALEXIS SIMENDINGER, NATIONAL JOURNAL: You know, I really disagree. I think that the press this week and certainly through the summer has been doing what seems to be the kind of basic kind of journalism that happens during election years, which is checking out the truth of what it is that each side, each campaign or their surrogates is saying. That seems to be the easiest part of the journalism. I think the follow-on that's becoming more interesting is what is at the basis of the attacks? For instance, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Where is their money coming from? What is the genesis of their arguments?

KURTZ: But Republicans would say that the press got interested in doing this kind of truth squadding only when Kerry was under attack on Vietnam. That MoveOn and the Media Fund and all these liberal groups have been running all of these anti-Bush ads and there hasn't been that much media scrutiny on that side.

SIMENDINGER: You know, I think as a regular reader of the newspapers and looking at the Web, I think you can find ample, ample coverage of the backers for MoveOn. That has been actually the predecessor of what we're dealing with now in August. I think there has been a lot of coverage for those who bothered to go and look at it where the Democrats are looking for their support in terms of George Soros and some of the money behind those 527s.

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, the White House says over and over again that officially at least they honor Kerry's service in the military during the Vietnam era. But we saw the Marc Racicot comment at the top, he's Bush's campaign chairman, talking about Kerry seeming a little wild-eyed. So is the press buying the notion that Bush and his team are just innocent bystanders in this swift boat controversy?

MILBANK: Well, certainly not based on the stories that have been run. Everybody is writing about the ties between Karl Rove and people in this organization.

Now, it turns out somebody in this swift boat group was actually serving in an advisory capacity to the Bush campaign. So we've been all over that. Down here in Crawford, we've been asking Scott McClellan each day if he will denounce this specific ad, as opposed to all ads run by independent groups. And they're being very firm about not doing that, which is actually driving the issue. It's expected Bush will take questions from the press tomorrow, and so that's going to, once again, be tomorrow's story.

John Kerry set this up in a way by specifically denouncing the MoveOn ad, which leads us to ask the parallel question, will Bush denounce the swift boat ad?

KURTZ: Well, Kerry said the MoveOn ad was inappropriate. I wouldn't quite put that in the full denunciation category, but he did say it.

Now, Byron York, have reporters given Kerry a pass on these so- called independent 527 groups? I mean, the "New York Times" ran many column inches on the ties between the swift boat people and Texas Republicans and the Bush family. But the liberal groups are filled with Kerry supporters like former campaign manager Jim Jordan and others. YORK: I believe one of the actual ads that MoveOn has been running about the swift boat things was actually done back in April. It ran back in April. And if you remember, there was an enormous amount of attention to President Bush's Air National Guard record back in February, which was basically started not by a group of people who had been long -- served alongside Bush in the Air National Guard, but by Michael Moore and Terry McAuliffe, who brought it up...

KURTZ: So do you see a media imbalance here in terms of birddogging both sides, independent ads on behalf of Bush and Kerry?

YORK: I think they've been much more interested in the criticism of Bush's Air National Guard service and felt that looking into Kerry's service was not all that necessary, because he did serve in Vietnam. He was decorated, and, you know if you're going to look into that, you're going to have to dig pretty deep.

KURTZ: The whole media focus on this controversy now, for two, three weeks, does it reflect a certain continuing Vietnam obsession on the part of the press? I mean, if this ad had been about Kerry did a lousy job as a Massachusetts lieutenant governor, I doubt it would be getting these kind of headlines.

SIMENDINGER: You bet. What are we talking about? We are talking about something that happened 35 years ago, and then after the war. We're not talking about 20 years of Senate service. Somehow that seems to have gone by the boards.

But the reason we're talking about that is a confluence of events. First of all, Vietnam vets themselves feel very passionate about this and are opposed in their feelings about the war and what happened afterwards and Kerry's performance. But even more fundamentally, and more importantly, John Kerry as the candidate has said this is important for you to know about. My four months in Vietnam, because it helps to make me qualified to be president.

KURTZ: He's made it the center of his biography. Go ahead.

YORK: The problem has been, is that he has said this is the main qualification I have to be president and commander in chief. And by the way, you don't ask me any questions about it. I mean...

KURTZ: I don't think he said it's his main qualification, but it's certainly is at the emotional heart...

YORK: I think any viewer of the convention would have thought that's his campaign.

KURTZ: ... of his candidacy.

I want to turn now to the recent campaigning by the president. Dana Milbank, you've attended some of these ask President Bush sessions. Let's take a look at some of the kinds of questions the president of the United States has been getting at these meetings.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. First of all, I want to say that I love you...


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... and I'd like to see you in office for four more years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I agree with him. I hope we see you in a landslide.

BUSH: Listen, let's get -- let's just win the thing. Let's just win it. Thank you, though.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: First of all, let me say it's an honor to speak to you. It's an honor every day when I get to pray for you as president.


KURTZ: Are these rallies full of pre-screened loyalists that somehow are appearing on television as kind of typical town hall meetings? Dana Milbank.

MILBANK: Well, of course, I mean, they're pre-screened in the sense that whoever comes to these events is already a Bush supporter. In some of the cases of the Republican National Committee events, there's actually been something of a loyalty oath that needs to be signed. We've written about a case in which an Ohio professor came to a Bush event wearing a Kerry t-shirt and was sent out of the event. So of course it's pre-screened.

But on the other hand, these are campaign events, and maybe it's a bit unrealistic to expect President Bush to invite in a bunch of hecklers who would ask hostile questions of him. I mean, the campaign's paying for this event. I'm not sure we in the press can really complain.

KURTZ: Oh, sure we can complain.

MILBANK: Maybe if we ask more questions...

KURTZ: We complain for a living. What are you talking about?

MILBANK: We complain about anything.

KURTZ: We're always complaining.

Is this legitimate...

MILBANK: But maybe if we ask more gentle questions like these guys, then Bush would take our questions more often.

KURTZ: Is this a legitimate issue or not?

YORK: Sure. It's an issue in Washington. You get -- the real coverage in Washington has been about how candid it is and how kind of cheesy some of the questions are. Part of this is directed toward the local coverage, wherever President Bush appears. And you give the president a chance to look very, very positive.

Kind of the flipside of this is the candidate's accessibility to the press, where they get real, actual, sometimes hostile questions.

KURTZ: Which has been minuscule.

YORK: Exactly. Kerry basically walled himself off from the press. There's not as much of that day to day, day to day...

KURTZ: President Bush has held 13 news conferences, a modern low for the presidency. But I have got to turn to Alexis now with one other question. Next week, Republican Convention opens in New York. Featured speakers include John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Will the press buy the notion of putting out these more moderate faces in the spotlight means that it's a more moderate party?

SIMENDINGER: You know, the issue isn't whether the press buys it, because we're all writing about this in advance of the convention, that this is not necessarily the face of the Republican Party. It's a face. Certainly, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a big part of what's drawing media coverage.

But more importantly, will the viewers who watch, those viewers that the convention planners are going after, the independents, the undecideds, are they the ones who will be satisfied or somehow comforted by this much more moderate and certainly heroic kind of picture that they get?

KURTZ: Very brief response.

YORK: Coming at it from the other side, actually, "National Review" was kind of taking the lead in criticizing all the moderates and saying where are some real, solid conservatives given prominent positions, because it seemed like the way to get on the main speaking beat at the convention was to oppose President Bush on a number of things.

KURTZ: Hard to make everybody happy.

We need to take a break. When we come back, have the media missed the real story in the resignation of New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. When Jim McGreevey stunned the political world by announcing his resignation as New Jersey governor, he framed the issue as "coming out as a gay American."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GOV. JAMES MCGREEVEY (D), NEW JERSEY: I am also here today because shamefully, I engaged in an adult consensual affair with another man, which violates my bonds of matrimony.


KURTZ: What he didn't say was that he had put that man, Golan Cipel, on the state payroll as homeland security director, a job for which the former Israeli soldier was spectacularly unqualified. And the tale has only gotten more tawdry and more tabloid since then.

Byron York, did the press, at least initially, fall for McGreevey casting this as a coming out of the closet question, for example going to gays for reaction?

YORK: Right. Well, there actually were a couple of levels to the story. And one of them was the gay issue. But it wasn't in my view the first issue.

And the problem was, on the very night that he announced it, and we were all stunned by it -- I was -- there were some television shows that had Chrissy Gephardt, who is Dick Gephardt's daughter, a lesbian activist, Candace Gingrich, Newt Ginrich's daughter, lesbian activist, came out. A number of people did frame it as a gay issue, when it seemed to me that the bigger story was he'd given this unqualified man jobs, he had given him big raises, some sort of conflict had arisen, and you had a governor who basically said I'm about to be blackmailed so I'm going to make this announcement. It was really amazing.

KURTZ: And even if that had been a woman he was having an affair with and gave the jobs to, I think that would have been a big story, although not quite as unique a story.

YORK: Yes.

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, did the press recover in recent days by making clear that this was about cheesy patronage as much as anything else?

MILBANK: You know, I think so. The problem is, coming out with your wife and your mother next to you and saying "I'm gay and I've had this lover" is a very compelling storyline regardless of what happens. But I think people covering it realized this is a patronage story, pure and simple. And I don't -- I mean, if you look at the polls, the people of New Jersey are quite aware that the real issue is wrongdoing by the governor, and not -- and not his love life.

KURTZ: Alexis Simendinger, Golan Cipel, the man, the other man in this case says he's straight, he was a poor victim, harassed by the powerful governor. "The New York Post" and "The Daily News" came out and quoted a New Jersey doctor, Michael David Miller, as saying that he had a gay affair with Golan Cipel. Well, "The Newark Star Ledger" then reports that this man, this doctor, falsely told police he was a CIA operative and according to one sheriff, has a serious problem with reality.

My question, whatever happened to checking things out before you publish charges by people?

SIMENDINGER: Well, the good question that you're asking is to what extent are the media responsible for not only talking about what it is that these individuals are saying, but the foundation for what they're saying. And that's the question you were asking about the governor himself.

I think in the case, though, of Mr. Miller, it took only a matter of hours for the story to turn around into a question of his mental capacity to have made these claims in the first place.

KURTZ: But once you put that story on the front page of "The New York Post," a lot of people don't see the follow-up.

SIMENDINGER: Well, you're going to be asking us to debate the question of deadline realities in the media. And in this case, in New Jersey and New York, there's quite a lot of media outlets. And what I'm saying is that within a very short amount of time, the story had turned around.

YORK: You know, there was one other issue, of course, in the story, which was the political maneuvering of the governor deciding to resign effective November 15, so there could not be an actual election, and that story was kind of lost a little bit earlier.

KURTZ: And on that very point, Governor McGreevey has an op-ed piece in today's "New York Times," defending his decision. Obviously, what it does is it leaves the governor's mansion in Democratic hands for almost another two years. But he hasn't taken any questions from the press, not a single one. I even question whether "The Times" should have run that, given the fact that the governor is incommunicado with journalists.

YORK: Especially -- first of all, it was the Republicans saying, this is a stunt, we need an election now, but then it became clear that a number of Democrats felt the same way. And there's been a lot of coverage of Jon Corzine's role in all this and whether -- and there was a lot of pressure from Democrats on McGreevey to get out. So I agree with you, that just hearing McGreevey's story wasn't sufficient.

KURTZ: Dana Milbank, blunt question: Is the press more gentle, some would say more politically correct when it comes talking about a politician who is gay? Particularly one who has just come out and said he was gay? Did that influence the tone of the coverage, do you think?

MILBANK: Very hard to tell, Howie. I mean, as I said earlier, it really seems that I don't think McGreevey got away with this in the long run. Everybody knows it's about what he did wrong. I don't think there was more sympathy. There was just more shock. This made for a hell of a story. And the fact of a governor of a major state announcing he's gay and had a lover.

KURTZ: Hell of a story, no dispute there. Dana Milbank in Texas, Alexis, Byron, thanks very much for joining us.

Still to come, more reporters facing contempt of court charges, this time over the spy who wasn't. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Being a journalist is suddenly risky business. More contempt charges this week for reporters over refusing to identify confidential sources. This time, in connection with the Wen Ho Lee case. Lee is the Los Alamos nuclear scientist once accused of being a spy, who filed a civil case against the federal government. The former government researcher accuses unnamed officials of leaking damaging information about him to the press. Five reporters who covered the case have now been fined $500 a day until they reveal the sources behind their stories.

The group includes prominent Washington reporters like Jeff Gerth of the "New York Times" and ABC's Pierre Thomas, who was a CNN correspondent during the Lee investigation. The fines are on hold until the ruling is appealed.

That decision comes just days after another federal judge ordered "Time" magazine's Matt Cooper jailed for refusing to reveal his own source for a story related to the Bush administration's outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Cooper remains free pending appeal, and several other journalists face subpoenas in the Plame case as well, which triggered a flood of e-mail after we discussed the issue on last week's program.

Norm in Washington State wrote -- "I believe in the protection of confidential sources who are revealing real news, but outing the identity of a CIA agent is not news. It is an attack. There should be no protection for the sources or the journalists who publish it."

And Dave in Calgary, Canada said: "Your reporter buddies aren't defending a principle. They're protecting their paychecks. I can't believe anyone would seriously suggest it is more important for the media to continue serving as a conduit for White House leaks than to report that members of the administration are willing to break the law in order to silence their critics."

The problem is, how do you stop those political leaks without cutting off the kind journalists use to uncover waste and corruption?

Up next, Tom Brokaw's beef with the presidential debates. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Tom Brokaw is ticked off. The NBC anchor who is stepping down soon after election day was hoping to moderate one of the presidential debates this fall. But the debate commission excluded him and NBC. Commission chief Janet Brown told the "New York Times" that star anchors haven't been used in recent years and that, quote, "it's important for moderators to focus attention on the candidates."

Well, Brokaw didn't like the sound of that and fired back in a letter. Saying her words, quote, "leave the undeniable impression that you believe if we were moderators, we'd be preening, egocentric performers, and I deeply resent that implication."

Tapped instead by the commission for the presidential and vice presidential debates? ABC's Charlie Gibson, CBS' Bob Schieffer and PBS' Jim Lehrer and Gwen Ifill -- if the campaigns agree, that is.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern, when we'll be live from New York! Always wanted to say that. At the Republican National Convention.



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