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Reliable Sources

Bush and McCain Square Off in South Carolina; Did 'The Body' and 'The Donald' Take the Press for a Ride?

Aired February 19, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Bush and McCain awaiting the results in South Carolina: Has the press failed to blow the whistle on all their charges and countercharges?

And Donald Trump bows out, Jesse Ventura takes a hike: Have the media been taken for a ride?

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

I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

The South Carolina polls close in just one half-hour. CNN will have extensive live coverage beginning at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

And the primary has been a battle to the finish.


(voice-over): It's down to the wire in a primary fight that's grown increasingly nasty, the candidates rolling across the Palmetto State stumping for votes, pretty pictures and positive press.

Bush and McCain squaring off in a debate on Tuesday:


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I can disagree on issues. We'll debate issues. But whatever you do, don't equate my integrity and trustworthiness to Bill Clinton. That's about as low a blow as you can give in the Republican primaries.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Here in South Carolina -- you've seen it -- turn on the radio, turn on the television, and unfortunately now pick up the telephone and you'll hear a negative attack against John McCain.


KURTZ: John McCain still drawing largely favorable coverage from many in the media who ride along on his now-famous bus.

And by week's end, George W. Bush was looking a lot more like his rival, talking to reporters on the Victory Express, his own interview room on wheels.


KURTZ: Joining us now, Dana Milbank, political reporter for "The Washington Post"; Jim Warren, Washington bureau chief for "The Chicago Tribune and an analyst for MSNBC; and Marie Cocco, columnist for New York's "Newsday."

Jim Warren, days before the primary George Bush comes out and says he's for campaign finance reform, McCain's signature issue. Why weren't there whole stories devoted to whether Bush's proposal was bogus or full of loopholes instead of just this ping-pong of charge and counter charge?

JIM WARREN, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, I'm not sure exactly where it would have gotten you to spend 500 or 600 or 700 words on a subject which we know does not necessarily resonate. I think it was a political story. It was so patently a gambit late in the primary to try to bask in the mantle or wear the mantle of reformer that I think it was of lesser significance, you know, how it treated soft money and other sorts of contributions.

But, you know, generally I think it was handled pretty well.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: I'm astonished to here you say, where would 500 or 600 words have got you? We have proclamations of independence, Thomas Paine, 500 or 600 words could create a bombshell. I'm just astonished that you're just dismissing that.

WARREN: A bombshell to say that, well, maybe his approach on soft money...

KALB: If you picked...

WARREN: .. is not as significant, is not as potent as John McCain's. This was a political story. It was a, you know, fairly crass, arguably even craven, move to try to undermine McCain with just a few days left.

KALB: But that's...

WARREN: It was a political story.

KALB: Yes, but that's the Bush part of the story. We're talking about the media part of the story. Howie's question was whether that was reported well, and you suggest that 500 or 600 words can make no difference, they're out for dismissal.

WARREN: I would say there was very little analysis, yes, of his campaign finance proposal, and I don't think we should feel terribly guilty about it.

KURTZ: Let me try this question on Marie. I was on a conference call with a Bush spokesman when they released one of their ads, which among other things said that Bush was the champion of HMO reform in Texas. All the questions from reporters were how much money you're spending, which states you're going on and so forth. Nobody really asked about the substance. And then a few days later one of my colleagues at "The Washington Post" wrote a story saying that Bush had vetoed an HMO reform bill in Texas...

MARIE COCCO, "NEWSDAY": That's correct.

KURTZ: ... and later let a compromise bill become law without his signature. So again, I wonder if we are not too caught up -- it's a very exciting race -- in the polls, the money and the tactics and a little less on the substance.

COCCO: Well, that's true. We are caught up in the polls and the money and the tactics. I mean, any analysis of any campaign -- especially when you get this close to the actual day...

KURTZ: Right.

COCCO: ... where tactics and strategy have become pivotal in the voting and in how they're trying to motivate voters to go their way in this election, we have to cover that.

I will say this. Typically in campaigns you go through periods where the coverage shifts from one thing to another. I will guarantee you that after March 7th, when probably what will happen is that Vice President Gore will most likely wrap up his nomination, probably by March 7th -- maybe by March 7th. It's unclear at this point whether we'll know who the Republican nominee is -- then we're going to shift back. When we have a better sense of who the nominees are, then I predict it will shift back to more issue-oriented, substantive coverage, because the press will be taking a second look at the people who are most likely going to be the party nominee.

KURTZ: But, Dana Milbank, isn't now the time when we ought to be taking a hard look at how voters are actually going to decide these contests on some of these issues, or is that unrealistic in the age of money, strategy and tactics?

DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": It will probably be a nice thing if we could be looking at the issues now. I spent a week on McCain's bus up until earlier this week, and the reporter -- I think it was from "USA Today" -- actually apologized before asking a policy question, apologized to the other reporters. Everybody groaned, you know, in an exaggerated sense. But it's almost like a sense like there will be a time for that. In the slow days of summer we can pick over these proposals. And I think everybody just assumes that it's, you know, a bunch of malarkey for now.

WARREN: Dana, if you want to see people groan, you should see them in back of the McCain bus when I start engaging him on the subject of U.S. policy toward Rwanda.

But listen, I'm someone the other day who edited a long and lengthy story as sophisticated as one can get by one of our terrific reporters, Bill Nykirk (ph), on the McCain voting record. If you want substance, it's all there. If you want substance on his chairmanship of the Commerce Committee, it is all out there. And similarly, Howie, with Bush, starting with, I think, a terrific issue of "Texas Monthly" last year that was devoted entirely to Bush, which became essentially a cheat sheet for many of us, I think much of the Bush record, almost all of it, is out there to be dissected.

KALB: Marie, every four years, at the end of the voting, the media goes through a lot of chest beating, a lot of mea culpas. They say they surrendered in the course of the campaign to the process, the horse race, et cetera. That's happening again right now.

COCCO: Because it happens every time.

KALB: So it's totally unrealistic in media terms to expect there to be this microscopic examination of policy...

COCCO: No, I don't think it's...

KALB: ... when everybody's caught up...

COCCO: No, I agree completely with what Jim just said. There have been substantive pieces done. I mean, take -- look on the...

KURTZ: A lot of them were early, however, and a lot of people were not paying attention.

COCCO: A lot of them were early, and one of the problems that we have, either in the media itself or the way the public perceives us, is that we go through these spasmodic periods where all we're talking about is the horse race. And who can remember that last November, a lot of paper's, including my own, did very detailed analyses of the Bradley health plan versus the Gore health plan, and you could get it down to the last decimal point...

KALB: Is there...

COCCO: .,.. if you wanted it.

KALB: Is there a way in which they both can be covered simultaneously -- the drama, the tension, the suspense of the horse race coupled side by side, as it were, with an examination of the key conflicting issues -- or is that an unrealistic expectation?

WARREN: Well the fact that...

COCCO: I think for many newspapers -- certainly on the print side -- for many newspapers -- not the big ones, not "The New York Times," not "The Washington Post," not "The Los Angeles Times" -- but for most papers, including large papers that have large circulations in their own regions, it is extremely difficult to have that amount of manpower deployed at once.

WARREN: And the fact is, on -- when it comes again, McCain as an example -- a big charge against him in South Carolina is, you know, he's a closet liberal, a moderate, watch out for him, and that he's been a great hypocrite as chairman of the Commerce Committee, taking money from lobbyists. Well, to the great extent, there have been a bunch of stories -- "Wall Street Journal," "Chicago Tribune," "New York Times" in recent weeks -- dissecting his record and his chairmanship, and in some ways I think have been very repetitive. But we felt it necessary to repeat some of the basic facts.

KURTZ: On balance, Dana Milbank, has George W. Bush received unfair or negative coverage from the press, or does it just seem much less favorable compared to what many people describe as the McCain swoon?

MILBANK: Right. The McCain thing has become something of a joke now. I was with him on Valentine's Day, and I said, you know, Senator, we've been writing Valentines to you all year. What are we supposed to do today?

KURTZ: No candy, no flowers?


KURTZ: So where does that leave the Bush coverage?

MILBANK: But I think -- and part of it is if you -- Bush isn't just any other candidate, and Bush actually is a guy who has antagonized the media to a great extent early on by...


MILBANK: ... by keeping us at arm's length, but keeping us away. And now, you know, he hops on the bus to talk to people, and people think it's some kind of...

KURTZ: That was odd.

MILBANK: ... people think some kind of joke.

KURTZ: But has he been...


KURTZ: Has he been, Jim, more reclusive with the media, or is it just, again, McCain's there every day, all day, hours on end, therefore, Bush looks like he's keeping the press at bay.

WARREN: That, too. But he also was a little bit smug, a little bit arrogant. And why not? And the reason we were tailing after him and being so benevolent toward him early on is that he, in a staggering bit of fund-raising, gathered more than $60 million last year. That conferred legitimacy upon him, that conferred front-runner status on him and perhaps a tendency to say, well, I really don't need these guys in the press.

KALB: Marie, in the psychology of journalism, the underdog often gets a kind of an embrace from the media. Yes, it does?

COCCO: Absolutely.

KALB: Is George Bush getting a bit of an embrace, given the fact that he finds himself in this electoral predicament right now?

KURTZ: Just briefly.

COCCO: An embrace? I really don't believe so. If you look at most of the coverage that's occurred this week involving the run-up to South Carolina, it's almost all been on the negative tactics, and he's been tarred by that as well.

KURTZ: I've got to call a time out.

And coming up, Donald Trump bailed on his presidential plans this week -- if he ever had any -- and Jesse Ventura bolted the Reform Party altogether: Did the media play along with the charade?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Stay tuned for full coverage of the South Carolina primary coming up at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

With the media so focused on the Republican showdown, it was almost easy to miss a couple of other colorful characters back in the news.



DONALD TRUMP, REAL ESTATE DEVELOPER: I've made my decision. I'm not going to be running. The party is, as you know, self-destructing.


KURTZ: Donald Trump said he'd rather hang on to his money, ending the speculation and all the fun the media's been having with his phantom presidential run on the Reform Party ticket. No more front pages about Oprah for vice president, no more headlines about a supermodel for first lady, and no more speculation about what a Trump White House might look like.

And the Donald's not the only one departing from "the wild bunch," as "Newsweek" called them last fall. Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura announced that he's leaving the Reform Party.

GOV. JESSE VENTURA (I), MINNESOTA: We'll be able to concentrate on what we should be concentrating on, and that is the state of Minnesota, without the distractions of this dysfunctional national party.


KURTZ: Marie Cocco, Donald Trump got great oodles of media attention, TV interviews, big feature pieces. Has the press perhaps engaged in a little self-hypnosis? Oh, maybe this time he'll actually run. Should journalists be embarrassed about becoming part of "The Donald"'s hype machine?



COCCO: The last time I was on this show and we talked about it, I took a pledge never to write a single column involving Donald Trump, and I'm...

KURTZ: And did you live up to that pledge?

COCCO: ... happy to say that I have kept my pledge.

KALB: A round of applause for Marie.

KURTZ: And why did -- why has -- why did everybody else -- I mean, the obvious answer, Trump is great copy -- but why did we take seriously -- I mean, do you know one journalist who actually thought he was going to run?

COCCO: You say -- well, no, you used the term "take seriously"...


COCCO: ... I would argue to you that the coverage wasn't really serious coverage. It was fun coverage, coverage of him as a celebrity and the whole kind of crazy idea that this real estate developer with a lot of pretty girlfriends would run for president. I don't -- I think the press covered him but didn't cover him as a serious candidate.

WARREN: I must rebuke this grotesque act of censorship. I mean, it was not out of the realm of possibility that he's a...

COCCO: Oh, sure it was.

WARREN: .. maniacal billionaire.

COCCO: A maniacal billionaire.

WARREN: We have come across that before with a nice...

KURTZ: He says he may run in 2004.

WARREN: ... with a nice pot of money...

KALB: Hold your breath.

WARREN: ... twelve million sitting there, hating Patrick Buchanan, the notion of Buchanan picking up the Reform Party mantle. No, it's not out of the realm of possibility.

MILBANK: I think the press did it because we wanted him to. You now, if there's not Donald Trump we'd have to invent him. And we did the same thing with Warren Beatty before, and now we'll have to find...

COCCO: Right.

MILBANK: ... somebody else. You know, will it be Pat Buchanan? Or maybe now that Bill Bradley's fading he can become our new, you know, favorite oddball candidate or something.

KALB: Look, no heart attacks have been reported from coast to coast because both these fellows have pulled out -- that is, Trump and Ventura. The fact is it seems to me -- Jim, you disagree, though. You take him seriously as a possible within the realm of the possible -- it seems to me the media dealt with him as a kind of political entertainment, a bit of fluff, lighten up the pages, and in fact it should have been on the theater pages rather than on the front pages. I think you couldn't take it seriously.

WARREN: Yes, but if you look at some of the coverage, the coverage that we had, I mean, it was very critical, close to demeaning. We took the possibility that he might do it with a degree of seriousness, but we took, you know, the notion of his being president as, you know, as rather ludicrous.

Now Ventura is an entirely different thing.

KURTZ: I was going to say that.

WARREN: He's an elected public official, a serious guy whose party could be a player. The ramifications of his bolting the party to attempt to try to create another one is something that we've got to consider.

KURTZ: A legitimate news story, absolutely...

KALB: Yes.

KURTZ: ... to see Ventura walking away from the Reform Party. But I wonder as I see him go on the Sunday shows and getting all this attention, largely because people think he might run not this time but perhaps next time, whether he is a guy who is just a genius at kind of playing the media like a fiddle -- Dana.

MILBANK: Well, he's done quite a good job of that so far, but, you know, I -- where does he go from here now? So, you know, I don't know how he sustains the story.

COCCO: Yes, I agree with the "where does he go from here?" part of that. I mean, you know, Jesse Ventura is also a very entertaining figure. You know, one of his ads in Minnesota when he ran for governor featured the Jesse Ventura action figure. He's a great, colorful character...

MILBANK: But he sold figures, Trump sold books.

COCCO: ... I don't think he personally goes anywhere, but I do think it's a legitimate story to see, to watch and see if he can somehow build a real party out of the remnants of the Reform Party.

KALB: Marie, when future historians take a look at our period and they roam through your columns and see not a mention of Donald Trump, have you short-changed the reader's of the present? He's worth -- Jim thinks he's in with the realm of the possible, you never gave him a syllable.

COCCO: There's a lot of rich guys in new York, OK? And the difference between all the other rich guys in New York and Donald Trump is that he's a great salesman and his chief product is himself.

MILBANK: And he has a 727 to fly to work.

KALB: and he found a lot of journalistic customers as well.

WARREN: I'm more worried about historians looking back and seeing that 22 million Americans watched "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire." That's a little more disarming.

KURTZ: OK, a safe prediction is that Donald Trump is a non- presidential candidate who will still get plenty of media attention.

When we come back, we'll look at the future of punditry, beginning tomorrow after the South Carolina results are known.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

The South Carolina polls close in just a little while, at 7:00 p.m. Eastern.

Dana Milbank, by tomorrow morning, how many journalists, pundits and other assorted geniuses will declare the race to be over and start writing obituaries for either Bush or McCain?

MILBANK: I think they're going to hold off on the obituaries for another few days. They've got to sort of dress up the candidate's wounds and get them to Arizona and Michigan first.

KURTZ: Because they don't want the race to be over?

MILBANK: Yes, we've got a few more days of good stories.

KURTZ: All right, keep hope alive -- Marie.

COCCO: I agree. I think that in this particular instance you can never count McCain out. He's got a real insurgency going. If you look at some of the pre-press leading into Michigan on Tuesday, this should have been Bush's trophy, and he's looking like he's going to have to fight for that trophy. So I don't think those obituaries are going to be written quite yet. However, I do think the copy is stored in the computers.

KURTZ: Bernie, you're shaking your head.

KALB: Well, I want to congratulate you both for thinking that pundits have that kind of self-discipline, to put themselves on 48- hour or 96-hour hold. Let's keep in mind one thing about pundits -- and if you recall the election four years ago, there were some colossal dramatic blunders and so forth -- pundits face no penalties if they're wrong. And, therefore, the more outrageous you are, Jim, the more dramatic you will be, the more, better the ratings, et cetera, et cetera -- yes?

WARREN: Not at the sober voice of heartland moderation, "The Chicago Tribune," Bernie, that's not the case. But after we analyze...

KURTZ: But leaving that aside.

WARREN: After we analyze, I assume, everything, including how 15 handicapped retirees on Hilton Head voted today, I think the big question will be, what is the margin? If conceivably is it is a gargantuan, surprising Bush margin, then I think the stories are a little bit different and John McCain is in a real hole. But even a win by Bush of much smaller proportions still makes it a terrific story.

KALB: See, Howie? We are sinking into punditry.

KURTZ: Well, I think we'll see lots of obituaries no matter what the margin.

Jim Warren, Dana Milbank, Marie Cocco, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, next on RELIABLE SOURCES, why does this year's presidential campaign look more like the year 1900 than the year 2000? Bernie's "Back Page," when we return.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page,"

KALB: When it's all over, when the votes are counted, when everything's been forgotten except who won and who lost, there will be one thing that will linger in the media.


(voice-over): It's this bus, John McCain's Straight Talk Express, and it's become something of a phenomenon in getting more coverage per gallon than anything else in the political bag of tricks. He simply fills it with reporters and turns this bus of his into a megaphone to America.

His critics call it the Double Talk Express. But call it what you will, a rolling news conference, a brilliant ploy aimed at media manipulation, but there he is, right in the middle of the crossfire, answering, challenging, evading, but never out of reach. Access, access, access with a topping of plain of candor and the press eats it up. Good coverage, bad coverage, just mention my name. And this strategy on wheels has helped propel McCain from obscurity to a very familiar face. But is the press being taken for a ride? It may be that access softens skepticism, but it's also an opportunity for sharper reportorial insights and confront other candidates to open up more.

The ultimate compliment has come from the enemy camp. Yes, George W. now has a bus of his own, the Victory Express. Marvelously reassuring, isn't it, that in the age of high-tech the one-time jet pilot has gone back to the reliable old combustion engine and it's paid off big time.

Who knows? Four years from now the bus may be passe, a souvenir on display at the Smithsonian, and reporters and candidates may be linked by microchip implants. Maybe so. But in America, nothing succeeds like success. If the campaign bus worked in 2000, what about the old campaign train in 2004? Or maybe even the old horse and buggy?


KALB: Giddyup, America. Could that be the sound of the future?

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Join us again tomorrow morning at 11:30 a.m. Eastern for a special live Sunday edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. The polls in South Carolina close in just a few minutes, and straight ahead stay tuned for CNN's special coverage of the South Carolina primary.


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