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Reliable Sources

Has the Press Fallen in Love With John McCain?

Aired February 12, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: McCain's media caravan rolls on. Has the press fallen in love? Are reporters addicted to the polls? And are journalists wallowing in all the negative attacks?

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media.

I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

It was the nastiest week by far on the Republican campaign trail, but for all the charges and counter-charges, one candidate is still getting showered with attention.


KURTZ (voice-over): John McCain is in the media stratosphere. And not surprsingly, supporters of George W. Bush say journalists have gotten far too cozy with the Arizona senator. So we hitched a ride on the "Straight Talk Express" in South Carolina to check out the scene. It began as a press conference on wheels, with McCain uncorking some of his favorite lines.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Washington establishment is in panic mode: They're rolling out all their guns and they're shooting everything they can.

KURTZ: McCain eagerly accepted our invitations to beat up on Bush.

But he also wants the press to do some of the dirty work.

MCCAIN: I'm sure that the media is looking into Governor Bush's relatively short record.

KURTZ: As the day wore on, things got a little frivolous.

But McCain turned testy when a South Carolina reporter pressed him about a darker episode in his past: the Keating five influence peddling scandal.

MCCAIN: Sure, I'll try to bring that up at every opportunity. I'll say, hello dear friends, I'm one of the Keating Five, greetings.

KURTZ: But most of the time, McCain manages to get pretty good marks from the boys and girls on the bus.

LINDA DOUGLASS, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Whenever there is an issue that is somewhat controversial, the reporters will go after McCain on the bus in the morning, and he will take about 20 minutes worth of questions and diffuse the tension.

KURTZ: As the bus rolled on, the assembled reporters, including me, finally ran out of questions. So McCain just kept chatting on.

DOUGLASS: It's hard to know whether the reporters actually think McCain is an interesting and new kind of candidate or whether in fact he's, you know, somehow sucked us in just by virtue of the unfettered access.


KURTZ: Well joining us now, Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent for CBS news and host of "Face the Nation; Michael Isikoff, correspondent for "Newsweek" magazine; and Jodie Allen, senior writer for "U.S. News & World Report."

Welcome all.

Bob Schieffer, the Bush folks, as you know, say the press has just been swooning over McCain. Now you've been on the bus this week in South Carolina, as I have. It's been the world-famous tourist attraction in fact for journalists of all stripes. Is there some kind of media romance going on?

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: Well I think the media is in love with a good story, not necessarily in love with John McCain, and this is a very good story. It has all the elements of a good drama. You know, this is the little guy taking on the establishment. This is a candidate that didn't have a lot of money. This is a candidate that said, well, what I'll do is just get out on this bus and drive around and talk to people.

KURTZ: And talk to reporters for hours on end.

SCHIEFFER: And talk to reporters...

KURTZ: Isn't that part of the appeal?

SCHIEFFER: I mean, talk to reporters until they can't stand it anymore. I mean, this is the non -- the unending news conference. But, I mean, I have to say, it is a lot of fun to be on that bus because there's a lot of excitement being generated. And you can feel it, you can sense it when you get off the bus. And I think reporters do have to be very careful. It can become very beguiling, as it were. But I don't think...

KURTZ: Part of the traveling circus.

SCHIEFFER: To be a part of the traveling circus -- but I don't think it's so much that the reporters are pro-McCain. Reporters love a good story, and this has turned into a very good story. BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Do you have a right as a reporter to have fun? Don't answer the question.

Jodie, the question to you -- I'm going to assign you the job of being what I might call the journalistic statistician. A pro-McCain media: Is the media more pro-McCain this past week than it was in the past? That is to say, did the victory hurt him in terms of a softer media or did it help him?

JODIE ALLEN, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": Oh, I think the victory obviously helped him, just because it got him on the cover of all three news magazines. This was a big push, and suddenly -- and the polls show this -- people sat up and took notice. They took notice of the whole race in a way that they hadn't been.

But I don't think that we can blame the media for paying attention. It is, as Bob said, a heck of a story. And moreover, even I am not willing to blame them for liking McCain if they do. I mean, they're people too, and McCain is a very appealing person.

KALB: Just an asterisk of a follow-up: A week later -- since there are always polls on the political scene -- a week later, is the media more pro-McCain than it was a week ago? Unfair question?

ALLEN: Is it more pro-McCain? You know, Bernie, I'm not sure. They're certainly paying more attention, but I think actually, usually, the reverse affect sets in. They're already saying, well, you know, we want him to stay in. We want to have a horse race. If we go too far, the whole thing may be over.

So, I mean, you know, now you've got the other side. And actually Bush is now getting a little more attention.

KURTZ: Mike Isikoff, why shouldn't a candidate who spends hour after hour fielding questions from reporters -- and does it well -- get reasonably good coverage.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, "NEWSWEEK": Well, I -- no reason that they shouldn't. But actually one of the things which I think we do have to watch for is there is a sort of subtle co-option that goes on in this endless dialogue between reporter and candidate, because one of the things that McCain does that's so effective is when you start hammering him with specifics, he gets -- and you think you have him cornered...


ISIKOFF: ... he gets very -- he's very disarming. He starts to say, oh, really? And then he asks you questions. And he draws reporters into the dialogue and...

KURTZ: This happened to you on the bus.

ISIKOFF: This happened to me. A very good example, my colleague John Alter and I were on the bus after he gave a drug speech in South Carolina -- standard Republican drug speech, nothing new in it. And we started to ask him about some of the impacts of the drug war, mandatory minimum sentences, incarceration, disproportionate impact on minorities. And McCain, rather than getting very defensive, started to ask us questions. Oh, really? Tell me more about that. And then he sort of came back to it later on that day, saying, you know, you raised some good questions there. Now you can say...

KURTZ: It makes you feel important.

ISIKOFF: It makes you feel important. On the other hand, you've got to watch it, because I'm not there as his policy adviser I'm there to answer questions. So it's a very interesting game that's going on there.

SCHIEFFER: You know, Howie, I think the thing that the reporters think, this is why they think this is such a good story is because it's the antithesis of the modern campaign. The modern campaign model, what the candidates say, is do a lot of television, have a single message, stay on message, limit your access to the media.

KURTZ: So that it doesn't step on your storyline.

SCHIEFFER: What McCain has done is turn this upside down.

KURTZ: Right.

SCHIEFFER: And that's why he's made it a successful campaign. We haven't seen a campaign like this in 25 years or so. It's sort of like the old days. I mean...

ISIKOFF: Actually, I was talking with Jules Whitcover (ph) on the bus, who's been around longer than any of us, I think, and he said he's never seen a campaign that's quite like this. The closest analogy, he said, was Bobby Kennedy in 1968.

SCHIEFFER: He has made -- it's a fun campaign. I mean, you know, that's the difference. Politicians...

ISIKOFF: Of course.

SCHIEFFER: It used to be...

KURTZ: We're not there just to have fun, we're there to hold them accountable.

SCHIEFFER: But that's one of the things that makes this a different and a good story.

KALB: I want to say...

SCHIEFFER: He's put excitement back into politics, not just with the media but with the people he's talking to.

KALB: I want to pick up this autobiographical confession that we just heard from this hard-headed investigative reporter, Isikoff. He has become a victim -- and I jotted it down -- of subtle co-option. In other words, you have surrendered to this massive... ISIKOFF: Well, I said...

KALB: Wait a minute. Let me make my case. You have surrendered to the massive pandering of the media that McCain inflicts on the media. Now the question that follows up, you've also drawn a portrait a minute ago of an evasive McCain, not answering the questions...

ISIKOFF: Absolutely.

KALB: ... throwing the question back at you. Has that portrait of evasiveness on the part of McCain percolated through the media so the American public appreciates it.

ISIKOFF: Just to be precise, I don't think I used the word "victim." I said I think we have to watch out for it. And I am, Bernie, just so you know...

KALB: "Subtle co-option."

ISIKOFF: ... to reassure you -- yes, I said that. That's something I'm watching for.

SCHIEFFER: But it...

KURTZ: Go ahead, Mike.

ISIKOFF: No, I just wanted to say, yet if you read the stories closely, you will see that reflected. The problem is that it has been drowned out in recent weeks by the sort of positive coverage he's getting, just by virtue of the fact that he's on a role...

KURTZ: Hold on one second.

ISIKOFF: ... he's winning.

KURTZ: OK, I want to jump in here because...


KURTZ: ... in the last seven days this campaign has taken a very nasty turn.


(voice-over): Now McCain on Friday announced that he was pulling his negative ads. But let's take a look at what Bush and McCain have been throwing at each other on the airwaves earlier this week.


NARRATOR: John McCain promised a clean campaign...

NARRATOR: ... then attacked Governor Bush with misleading ads.

NARRATOR: McCain says he's the only candidate who can beat Gore on campaign finance... NARRATOR: ... but news investigations reveal McCain solicits money from lobbyists with interests before his committee and pressures agencies on behalf of contributors.



MCCAIN: I guess it was bound to happen. Governor Bush's campaign is getting desperate with a negative ad about me. His ad twists the truth like Clinton. We're all pretty tired of that.


KURTZ: Jodie Allen, do journalists secretly -- or perhaps not so secretly -- love this kind of negativity, this kind of mud slinging? And what responsibility do we have to sort out the charges and countercharges that are being thrown on the stump and on the airwaves?

ALLEN: Well, I think we do have a responsibility. And, Howard, you yourself were one of the first reporters to begin truth-squadding the ads.

On the other hand, I think that we have sort of bought in too much to the notion of that you can't even say a nasty word about your opponent. In the end, as long as you're not lying or putting something so out of context, I'm not quite sure whet's the matter -- I mean, how else is the public to judge unless you say, hey, look at my health plan. It's better than his because...

So there is again this fine line. But I think the truth- squadding that you pioneered in is a very good thing, and certainly nobody should give up on it.

SCHIEFFER: I think we should also point out here, Howard, this is not exactly -- we're not exactly to the Willie Horton level of negative campaigning.

KURTZ: Right.

SCHIEFFER: I mean, saying some guy's running negative ads about me and another guy saying he says he's the only guy that can beat Gore, that's really...

KURTZ: But for McCain...

SCHIEFFER: ... pretty mild stuff.

KURTZ: ... saying Bush is as untrustworthy as Bill Clinton, in Republican circles, that's a pretty nuclear-tipped charge.

SCHIEFFER: Well, he would say that he hasn't said that he's untrustworthy. He's done untrustworthy things -- I believe that's the way he put it.

KALB: Let's pick up the question... SCHIEFFER: But I just don't that it matters very much.

KALB: ... that Howie asked you, Jodie, that I don't think we got an answer. Does the press love this flinging of mutual accusations at each other?

ALLEN: Sure. It makes the story better. I mean, Gore...

KALB: So it's kind of double-edged. It makes the story better, and at the same time this flinging of accusations against each other only confuses Americans about the validity and the accuracy of what each person represents.

ALLEN: True, but as Bob points out it hasn't gotten out of hand. And I don't think everything, every time -- as I say, I think a certain amount of unfavorable comparisons are perfectly legitimate campaigning. And you can see that Gore has basically been making a comeback by putting the needle in a little bit into Bradley.

KURTZ: Mike...

ALLEN: ... so that it works.

KURTZ: Mike, I don't think the press has done a great job of sorting out, you know, whether it's Bush accusing McCain of proposing a tax cut that's half the size of Clinton's -- which is not true -- or accusing McCain of hurting churches because he would limit the deductibility of gifts -- which is partially true and only applies to certain kinds of gifts. I think this stuff is complicated and it gets lost on television and it gets lost on the stump.

ISIKOFF: It is. I mean, this is the basic problem with horse race coverage of political campaigns, which we're all guilty of, the entire media. We always love the horse race better than the substantive issues, and that's in part because our readers enjoy reading about horse races more than they enjoy getting into the nitty gritty of alternative tax plans.

But there's also a bit of a fraudulent aspect to this, you know, tax plan versus Social Security plan because, as we all know, that's not the way the process works in real life. These are campaign gimmicks in a way. When you get to actually proposing legislation and the fine lines, it's al;ways the actual reality of what happens after a campaign is very different from anything that's said during the campaign.

KURTZ: OK, let's hold it there.

When we come back, we'll talk more about the role of the press in the increasingly negative campaign 2000.



Bob Schieffer, the Bush campaign has a radio ad up now which says that McCain's elections will benefit the liberal media. Is this an effective Republican argument, that is the press likes a candidate he can't be very good?

SCHIEFFER: Does that mean -- well, I mean, what does that mean? That our ratings will go up if John McCain is elected? I don't believe I...

KURTZ: Well, it has to do with campaign finance reform and whether the press will have more power. But it's also an increasing charge made by Bush aides and campaign surrogates that -- raising questions about, they would say, the candidate and the Fourth Estate.

SCHIEFFER: Now that sounds a little whiny to me. I'm not sure of what I would make of it, but...

ALLEN: I'm afraid it's selling. I mean, I figure -- well, to these things you can pay any attention to these...

KURTZ: We're an unpopular target, right?

ALLEN: Oh, yes. And...

KALB: If the liberal media likes somebody there's a good reason to hate them.

ALLEN: ... to the extent that Bush seems to be coming back some in the polls in South Carolina, it may be from this very hard-line campaign.

On the other hand, the press in some sense sort of started off this -- I mean, remember the "New Republic" cover just a few weeks ago -- a liberal magazine with a big cover saying, you know, this man is really a Democrat and a picture of McCain. And I don't think McCain probably appreciated that.

KURTZ: But speaking of polls, I wonder -- you know, you see all these stories about the Bush campaign, how screwed up it was, it was all photo-ops, he wasn't connecting, he was giving canned speeches, it was too packaged. Where were all those stories before Bush lost New Hampshire by 19 points and before he began to sink a little bit in the polls? Are we sort of -- do we just sort of follow the polls when we do this?

ISIKOFF: Well, he hadn't lost, so, I mean, up until then...

KURTZ: But it was the same campaign.

ISIKOFF: It was the same campaign, but you've got to look, campaigns are judged ultimately, do they win or do they lose? If they win it doesn't matter, then they did it right. If they lost, then they didn't.

ALLEN: It could be an intervening factor between the press and the candidate and the voter...

KURTZ: Sounds like hack journalism to me. KALB: You know, Howie, after the fact there's an awful lot of journalistic courage on display. When a guy goes down in flames, everybody steps forward to sat, let me tell you why he went down in flames.

One of the things we're missing in this discussion, which you alluded to in our break a moment or two ago, is the fact that this election, this campaign, this accusations mutually hurled at each other, is taking place in an extraordinary vacuum -- no great foreign policy challenges, prosperity, booming economy for those who in fact are profiting. There is a kind of a surrealism about the moment we're in, and so nobody is brought to a sudden halt on any ballistic issue.

SCHIEFFER: I think that's right...

KALB: It's the personality, stupid, is the issue.

SCHIEFFER: One of the most interesting things in the exit polls in New Hampshire, that 85 percent of the people who voted there, Democrat and Republican, were happy with the choices that they had. You very seldom ever see that in an election. Most of the people in the exit polls said they felt better than they did four years ago. They were optimistic about the future.

When you have that kind of an attitude by the electorate, it tells you that there are not any great issues churning out there, and that's when the elections generally will then turn to the character.

In New Hampshire, it was simply they decided they liked both of them, but they just liked John McCain more than they liked George Bush.

ISIKOFF: And it plays to McCain, because...


KURTZ: Let's go back to the media's role in covering McCain.

ISIKOFF: OK -- no, I was just going to say. Good story this week, "New York Times," Allison Mitchell (ph) about McCain on domestic policy and how vague his proposals are, how disengaged on many issues he is. Yet he...

KURTZ: OK -- especially compared to foreign policy, which is his passion.

ISIKOFF: Especially compared to foreign policy. Yet he's been in Congress for 18 years, you know, has had an opportunity to vote and debate on all these issues for all these years, yet it hasn't engaged his attention. Yet it doesn't seem to matter because he's selling not his issues but his character and his life story. So I think that's -- you know, that's why this lack of...


ISIKOFF: ... issue debate is playing to his strength. KALB: And it is...

SCHIEFFER: Ronald Reagan was a conservative. He was known as a conservative. But people didn't vote for him because they liked the details of his health plan -- if he even had one. They voted for him because they liked him. He seemed like a nice fellow, and he'd seem like someone they'd be comfortable in a time of crisis. And then when you come down to it, the presidency, unlike any other office, that's why people vote for a president. It's someone I can be a comfortable with if times get rough.

ALLEN: And the...

KALB: Jodie...

ALLEN: And the interesting thing is that was the kind of campaign George Bush had hoped he could run. You know, just sort of be vaguely centrist and above it all and not have to get specific.

KURTZ: Let's come back to the press. How would you most like to see the press cover Bush and McCain, and particularly McCain because of the temptations that all of us here have spoken about?

ALLEN: Well, you know, I'm not sure that we've done such a bad job. Don't forget...

KURTZ: Self-acquittal.

ALLEN: ... you know, we said, well, why all of a sudden the attention? Because the voters responded to McCain, however he ran his campaign...

KURTZ: As presented through the press. He needed the press because he didn't have much money.

ALLEN: Yes, but he did so much retail politics in New Hampshire.


ALLEN: I mean, he was out there. And people apparently like that, stand up -- look, George Bush is now copying it, so, you know, instead of giving the sort of semi-presidential speech to answering questions. People like it, we should report that.

KURTZ: Before we go, Bob Schieffer, let's briefly touch on the Sunday morning wars, of which you're a part. "Face the Nation" has the disadvantage, I guess, of being on a half-hour compared to the hour shows. Some might say you have a less-than-flamboyant approach to interviewing. But you're doing pretty well lately...


KURTZ: ... You're behind "Meet the Press," but you're sort of tied, neck-and-neck with ABC's "This Week." Why is that?

SCHIEFFER: It actually started during the impeachment. We saw our audiences start to build, and actually we are now second mote times than we're third on the Sunday morning thing. So...

KURTZ: What's the secret of the appeal in your view?

SCHIEFFER: Well, I think it's news. We try to put the emphasis on the person being interviewed and not on the questions being asked. We -- since we're a half hour, we have to ask shorter questions, and I think that's paid off.

KURTZ: You're saying the journalists are not the stars on "Face the Nation."

SCHIEFFER: That's our aim.

KURTZ: OK, well we're glad we could have you on, Bob Schieffer.

SCHIEFFER: Thank you.

KURTZ: Mike Isikoff, Jodie Allen, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, coming up, as the presidential candidates hog the political spotlight, who gets left in the dark?

Bernie's "Back Page," when we return.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page" -- Bernie.

KALB: I've been surfing the TV these past few days, and I'm having a bit of a problem finding a very familiar face.


(voice-over): This one. It happens to all presidents. Ever since George W. -- no, not this one, the original George W. -- the fact is when you're winding down your career as numero uno, the media drop you like a hot enchilada. He's suddenly become ancient history. A whole new cast of characters has moved center stage, and the media are all revved up. Even reporters who normally cover the president are plucked out of the White House press room to cover the candidates. And it can only get worse before the big day in November. By then, the media will have even less tome for -- what's the phrase? -- the "lame duck" in the Oval Office.

The result of all this, the result of our quadrennial upheaval is the vanishing of the president. And after all those years as the most famous face on the planet, well, it's tough to let go.

This reluctance may be unconstitutional, but it is understandable. So something happens. Call it visibility where possible. TV shows that rarely have had a one-on-one with the president -- Well, now, yes, of course. Here I am on "MONEYLINE" and "Business Center" discussing the economy and "Roger Ebert & the Movies," thumbing up and thumbing down.


WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I loved "Three Kings." Did you like "Three Kings"?

ROGER EBERT, HOST: Did you like "Three Kings"?

CLINTON: Oh, I loved it.

EBERT: I loved it, yes.


KALB: Really nothing else on his schedule? He even performs for the cameras.

CLINTON: This is the point where we have the photo up.

KALB: And sometimes -- sic transit gloria -- sometimes he is reduced to a mere prop in a photo op. When Hillary announces her Senate race, he is lost in the background, just part of the scenery.

If this keeps up, one of these days the Missing Persons Bureau will put out an all-points bulletin for someone fitting the description of a man twice elected president of the United States of America.


KALB: It was another president who once said life is unfair, but the journey from being the mostest to the leastest is the way that it goes. The media are simply recording the workings of democracy. Nothing personal, Mr. President, vanishing is also part of the job.

KURTZ: The always visible Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well surf over to our viewer e-mail when we come back.


KURTZ: Before we go, a look at our viewer e-mail. Last week, we asked whether the media should wait until the polls close on Election Day before releasing the results of any exit polls.

One viewer wrote:

"Most of this solve this by turning off our TV sets so that we won't have to listen to all the hype and guesses that you folks make. Exit polls are not news, they are reporting non-factual counts of what people say was the way they voted."

And another questioned the practice altogether, "The real issue is whether or not the media should conduct exit polls at all. Ballots are secret, and my choice is none of your business."

Of course, voters always have the right to just say no. Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next time for another critical look at the media.


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