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Reliable Sources

Internet Changes Rules of Political Journalism; Pundits too Quick to Abandon Underdogs; Has the Press Written off Bill Bradley?

Aired February 26, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Bush's comeback, McCain's comeback, the media's comedown. Why do journalists keep missing the story?

Has the press written off Bill Bradley?

And how Internet journalists are changing the rules.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

The journalists and the pundits usually have everything all figured out on primary night -- that is, until the big winner becomes the loser, or vice versa.



DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS: The McCain surge going south in South Carolina...

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: How can he go on when three out of every four Republicans in South Carolina said they don't want him to be the nominee?

KATE O'BERINE, CNN'S "CAPITAL GANG": I think a significant win by George Bush in South Carolina will probably evaporate the lead that John McCain enjoys in Michigan.


KURTZ (voice-over): The newsmagazines were proclaiming Bush the man with the Big Mo'. Then came Tuesday.


JOHN YANG, ABC NEWS: Michigan was a surprising and surprisingly big loss for Governor Bush. It was certainly not what he had hoped for or expected...

CRAIG CRAWFORD, EDITOR IN CHIEF, "THE HOTLINE": It was a humiliation. This is not something he needed.


KURTZ: And it was a much-needed boost for the other guy.


TOM BROKAW, NBC NEWS: Tonight it is clear that John McCain is the front-runner for now...


KURTZ: But were journalists too quick to write off John McCain? Could the TV talking heads have gotten it wrong?


ANDREA MITCHELL, NBC NEWS: All of us supposed smart pundits said that he made a huge error on Saturday night by being so nasty, petulant, tough, not being gracious in his concession.


KURTZ: But at least the Republican candidates are getting plenty of media attention, unlike Democratic challenger Bill Bradley. When Bradley and Al Gore slugged their way through a debate in New York, the all-but-invisible Bradley was looking for a media bounce.


CLAIRE SHIPMAN, NBC NEWS: What the Bradley team most wants out of the Apollo Theater debate, to get back in the spotlight.


KURTZ: But Bradley's still being overshadowed by Bush and McCain.


Well, joining us now, Rich Lowry, editor of "National Review," Jake Tapper, Washington correspondent for, and in New York, Tamala Edwards, political reporter for "Time" magazine. Welcome.


KURTZ: Jake, Bush wins South Carolina, many in the media say essentially the race is over. Three days later, McCain wins Michigan, and the media consensus is that Bush is in deep doo-doo, to use a phrase from the Bush administration. Why have reporters, many of whom told us for a year that Bush would coast to the nomination, consistently gotten tripped up by this race?

JAKE TAPPER, SALON.COM: Because they're wrong and they're shallow, and a lot of them don't go to the states where these primaries are taking place. A lot of them just kind of -- either they parachute in, or they're in New York or Washington, D.C., and they have no idea what's going on. KURTZ: Is there also a rush to judgment, you know, one win, one victory (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

TAPPER: Oh, yes, it's -- people are obsessed with the horse race, and who wins this and who wins that, and without looking at the big picture.

You know, Andrea Mitchell in that clip was talking about McCain's defiant concession speech. I think what a lot of people missed is McCain not only was very personally offended by the incredibly ugly attack launched against him and his family in South Carolina, but he wasn't speaking to pundits. When he gave that speech, he was telling Michigan people, this is an ugly campaign that Governor Bush waged here, and you have a responsibility to reject it. And it worked very effectively.

BERNARD KALB, HOST: Tamala, you're a survivor of the Apollo Theater debate the past Monday night. You saw all the body language of the competing candidates. My question is, did you feel that the reporting of what you saw firsthand, did you feel that the subsequent reporting was dominated by what I will call the theater of accusations, rather than the substance of the exchange?

EDWARDS: Not necessarily, because unfortunately I do think that's where we are, that it's accuse, accuse, accuse, attack, attack, attack, the way Bill Bradley would talk about it, including Bill Bradley accusing and attacking.

And I also think people pointed out from that debate that it was by far the most interesting and raucous debate yet, in part because of the crowd.

KALB: You used the word "raucous" there, and that gets to really the heart of -- particularly of television coverage.


KALB: Raucous, a bit of combat, a little bit of howling, jeering, cheering, and so forth. Television laps that up. And the focus of the reporting is on that dimension, raucous, et cetera, et cetera.


KALB: And therefore what do you make of it? You were right there.


KALB: Did America get a distortion?

EDWARDS: Not necessarily...

KALB: In the reporting?

EDWARDS: ... I think if you were in that hall, it was almost an interesting meter to the candidates' questions and responses, how the crowd took them. And I think any good reporter would sit there and say, when Al Gore said, you know, You're attacking me again, you're being desperate, and the crowd starts to boo him, or he said something else and the crowd starts to cheer him, it's a good meter of how is the public taking this?

KURTZ: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), let me turn back to the Republican presidential race. I happened to be out this week with the McCain campaign in Phoenix and Seattle. I've got to tell you, the candidate spoke to reporters on the famous bus. He spoke to reporters on the plane. He spoke to reporters on a boat ride from Seattle to Bremerton, so we got sort of flying spin, floating spin, and every other kind that you could imagine.

My question is, is the journalist's supposed infatuation -- clearly some are in love with this candidate -- leading them to at least downplay or understate the fact that McCain is barely -- is not even winning the votes of one in three registered Republicans in these primaries?

RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, I do think it's having a huge effect, and it goes back to what Jake was saying. I mean, the media has a new definition of negative campaigning. Negative campaigning is whatever George Bush does to get elected.

And by definition, McCain can't be a negative campaigner. So we saw in South Carolina, McCain was going to stop after stop, accusing George Bush, with no evidence, of making Boy Scouts cry. That was the basis of his South Carolina campaign.

And do we hear anyone complaining about how negative that was? No, we didn't. I mean, because Bush now, I think it's clear, now that he is the most conservative candidate in the race, the media's turned against him.

And another totally bogus media story, since Iowa, we've heard that Bush has been moving right. Since Iowa. You know, for months he's probably -- according to the media, he's passed me on the right now and is off there somewhere with John Birch.

KURTZ: That's a long journey.

LOWRY: It's just -- it's a long journey. And he -- but the fact is, he has not made it. His positions have not changed at all, and that just is a totally bogus creation of the media.

KALB: Jake, can I pick up this assertion that Rich just made that Bush is on the low rung of media affection because he's the most conservative of the four? Do you subscribe to that? Do you think there is that acutely an ideological tilt in the reporting of the media? Do you share what he says? I don't.

TAPPER: I -- no, I don't. First of all, Alan Keyes is still in the race, and he is clearly the most conservative candidate in the race. I think that there is a resentment of Bush for a number of reasons. One, without question, the media likes personally John McCain, and that plays a role, and maybe it shouldn't. I wouldn't dispute that for a second.

But the campaign that Bush is waging, especially in South Carolina, it's not a question of moving right on issues, it's a question of speaking at Bob Jones University, it's a question of waging what was without question a very ugly and negative campaign...

KURTZ: But Jake, Jake, the McCain campaign, which got on its high horse about the ugliness that you're referring to...

TAPPER: And they ran that ad, absolutely.

KURTZ: But no, I'm going to go beyond that. The McCain campaign, we found out after the polls had closed in Michigan, was also making what could easily be described as negative phone calls against Bush...

TAPPER: Absolutely.

KALB: ... trying to make an issue out of Bob Jones...

LOWRY: And at first they denied it. First they denied it.

KURTZ: Right, and then they 'fessed up.

LOWRY: McCain does not get called on these things. He -- Mc -- he -- his grasp of domestic policy, domestic policy, is so flimsy, he routinely makes mis, misstatements and misrepresentations. He went around for months saying it's legal for a subsidiary of a Chinese corporation to give to a presidential election. That is not true. He said that for months with dozens of reporters in the room...

KURTZ: Well, it's a U.S. subsidiary of a Chinese...


TAPPER: U.S. subsidiary...


LOWRY: ... and not -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- no, it's not -- corporations can't give. They can't -- he is wrong on that. And the only one who's pointed it out is George Will in a column. And the problem is, reporters are not interested in substance and policy, and they're especially not interested in calling John McCain on anything.

TAPPER: Well, I mean, I can only speak for what I've written, and I know that I've called John McCain on his education proposal, was one of the most ridicu -- and health care proposal, which were the weakest examples of presentations by candidates that I've seen.

LOWRY: Well, congratulations, but you're lonely on that.

TAPPER: OK, but I did it. I mean, what more do you...

LOWRY: I mean, good for you. But we're talking about the rest of the media, and the bulk of the coverage is -- has not been as acute and critical as yours, Jake.

KURTZ: Tamala, one victim of the McCain...

EDWARDS: All these nasty, negative personal attacks -- I can't be part of this show.

KURTZ: Well, we're counting on you to elevate the tone of the discussion here. One clear victim of the McCain surge beside Bush, I think, has been Bill Bradley, because in effect the excitement and the drama of the Republican race has kind of sucked up all the media oxygen. Here's Bradley, hasn't had a contest against Vice President Gore since New Hampshire, not showing up very much on TV, except for the debate in New York, of which you were a part.

How worried is the Bradley campaign about this, and what if anything are they doing to try to get on the media radar screen?

EDWARDS: Well, I think they understand that there's very little that they can do. They came up with this strategy of going out to Washington State for that primary long before they realized that John McCain was going to run in Michigan.

And so all this week, as I've been talking to people, they're reading the headlines, you know, "John McCain Coming to Seattle," "Seattle Gives Him a Smile, Bradley Will Be Here Too." Or they do the top of the hour news stories of the guy who has to go get the hotel rooms for McCain. That's making news.

KURTZ: Are journalists essentially guilty of having, without saying so in so many words, having written Bill Bradley off, having decided he's not going to win the Democratic nomination?

EDWARDS: I would agree that people can rush to judgment, and New Hampshire taught us that he could go from 17 points to 4, and had he had a couple more days, he might have actually pulled even if not won. But I think at this point, when so many of the polls are negative for Bill Bradley, and he's running around saying things like, you know, Maybe I'll hold up a bank for an event, that you can't blame reporters, necessarily, for saying there's no news here.

KALB: Jake, what was the phrase that came out of Watergate? Quick pop quiz. Follow the money.

TAPPER: Follow the money, sure.

KALB: The media follows the winner. I mean, that's what's the answer to your question, essentially, is the media following the winner.


KALB: And -- just a minute -- and the question of whether the media has already written an obituary for Bradley, if a Bradley somehow through some electoral miracle pulls off some sort of a victory somewhere, it'll be more follow the winner. LOWRY: Look, he came within 4 points of beating Al Gore in New Hampshire. In other circumstances and conditions, he would have been the comeback kid. If McCain hadn't of won in New Hampshire, I mean, Bradley would have gotten a huge media bounce, I think. And it's just that McCain sucked it all away from him.

KURTZ: Tamala, just briefly, has the Bradley campaign tried to, you know, do the things that candidates do of having a message of the day or staging a photo-op in order to break back into press coverage?

EDWARDS: Well, Howie, they're doing all of that. In fact, he gave a great speech on Tuesday at Adelphi. The problem is then he turned around and went to Columbia University on Wednesday and gave an awful speech on the economy. So they're doing all they can, town hall meetings, staging different photo-ops. But sometimes he -- you know, the ball goes in, other times it's, you know, over the rim.

KURTZ: I was waiting for some basketball analogy.

Tamala Edwards, thanks.

EDWARDS: When we all start doing it, you know it's gone too far.

KURTZ: Tamala Edwards, "Time" magazine, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, coming up, campaign reporting online. We'll talk about how the Internet is changing political journalism.



We turn now to reporting online, campaign 2000 on the Web.

Joining us now from New York, Jacob Weisberg, chief political correspondent for And still with us from Washington, Jake Tapper, Washington correspondent for, and Rich Lowry, editor of "National Review," which has its own Web site with original reporting and commentary,

Jacob Weisberg, do you as an Internet journalist have more freedom to take off the gloves and start swinging? For example, when Governor Bush said that he wasn't very aware of the interracial dating ban at Bob Jones University where he made that controversial appearance, you wrote, and I quote, "This was a transparent and self- serving lie." Now, most newspaper reporters couldn't get away with saying that.

JACOB WEISBERG, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, SLATE.COM: Right. Well, I'm not an objective journalist in the way people who write for "The New York Times" or "The Washington Post" are. I do write commentary, and that was true when I was at print magazines as well.

But one of the nice things about the Web is that you can mix it up in terms of genre. I can write parody, I can write commentary, I can write analysis, and I also do write things that are pretty straight dispatches on the campaign.

KURTZ: And can people always tell the difference?

WEISBERG: Well, I hope so. But I think we do count on a somewhat more sophisticated readership. We're not a primary source of news. I would hope that someone wouldn't rely on my column in Slate to find out what happened yesterday on the campaign. (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

KURTZ: But how has your life...

WEISBERG: ... something -- Yes.

KURTZ: How has your life changed, say, from the days when you were at "The New Republic" to being at Slate, in the sense that something can happen at 2:00 in the afternoon, and you can press a button and have something up at 2:45. I mean, that's an incredible speed advantage.

WEISBERG: Yes, my life is busier, and it's more fun. The thing that used to kill me, when there were hot news events going on, especially campaigns, was the lead time. I would write something on a Wednesday, and realistically, people wouldn't see it until five or six days later. And in a campaign, you're either bluffing around what's happening or guessing or writing about something totally different.

Now I can scoop the AP by five minutes if I want to.

KALB: Let me talk about consequences of journalistic Internet reporting. Jake, the Jake here in Washington with us, what impact has journalistic Internet reporting -- the immediacy of it -- had on the campaign strategies? When you write a piece and 15 minutes later it's read, are they redesigning strategies in the campaigns because what is appearing so swiftly and instantly on the Web?

TAPPER: Well, I doubt that they're redesigning, you know, campaign strategy, but I do think that, you know, there is no media cycle any more. There's no such thing as a media cycle. It is one continuous media cycle, one minute to the next, with -- you know, with CNN, MSNBC, and the rest, plus with Slate, Salon, and, it is a continuous cycle. Anything could happen.

It means we get credit for a lot of things, and we also get blamed when a -- last week, when John McCain, Senator McCain, continued to refer to his North Vietnamese prison guards as gooks, we, just because of the nature of the Net, had the story, were up with the story before anyone else. And it was mentioned in the next day's papers, but everybody on the McCain campaign blamed me.

So, you know, we get the credit and the blame.

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, bigger newspapers are also playing the Web game and putting up faster reports than they're able to get in the next day's paper, and you have, you know, a successful conservative magazine, and yet you've devoted some resources to being on the Web as well. Why does the "National Review" need to play at Internet speed?

LOWRY: Well, a couple things. One, the issue Jacob Weisberg was talking about in the lead time, you can imagine if you're publishing a magazine once every two weeks, what that lead time is. I mean, that's a major frustration for us. And the Web just totally obliterates it. We can -- we publish 24 hours a day if we like.

And Jake here is also absolutely right, the media cycle just moves so fast, if you're publishing a magazine every two weeks, and you want to make it a nice product with elegantly written articles with sustained arguments that are sort of for the ages in one sense, but you also want to be part of that constant churning, and the Web just gives us the ability to do that.

KALB: Churning, churning, churning. Jake in New York, can you point to a single Internet piece of journalism that has dominated the headlines of the campaign at any point during the past few months?

WEISBERG: Sure, there are a few examples of that. One example -- this is interesting -- is when there was this parody Web site put up,, that Bush campaign got very upset about it, and it provoked Bush to make this amazing comment that he thought there ought to be limits on freedom, meaning, I guess, that he didn't think someone should be able to use his name for a parody Web site. But that points to another thing, which...

KALB: Jake, let me (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- that's sort of in the playful theater, sort of political comedy. I mean of something of serious substance that percolated to the top and dominated the headlines that had originated on the Internet, Internet reporting.

WEISBERG: I'm not sure there has been a big Internet scoop in the campaign that way. There certainly was before the campaign, during the Lewinsky scandal and so on, a lot of the -- a lot of stories were broken on the Web, including some that were probably rushed out a little too hastily.

But I wouldn't dismiss the phenomenon I was talking about so readily, because I think one of the things that's happening that's so interesting in this campaign with the Internet is that it's breaking down the division between professional journalists and amateur journalists. There are no barriers to entry on the Web, and what it means really is, it's meant anybody who wants to cover the campaign or politics in an idiosyncratic way can.

LOWRY: I think, if I could just jump in here, I think part of what Jacob Weisberg does, and Jake does, really, has elevated, in a way, political reporting. You know, it can be quick and faster and more informal, but also it can be more intelligent, and you can get people really applying their ideas and thoughts. I just think it's much more refreshing.

And I also think it's good because it does away with the pretend objectivity. I mean, Jacob Weisberg, I don't think I'm misrepresenting -- representing you, Jake, I mean, you think George W. Bush is shallow. And it comes through, and it's up front, and you tell us why, and I think that's much better than a reporter who holds that same view but pretending not to in his copy, oftentimes unsuccessfully.

KURTZ: I should add that the candidates themselves are utilizing the Internet, whether it's McCain raising millions of dollars over the net or George W. on Friday having a chat on America Online, as another way to sort of reach out to voters. But...

TAPPER: Can I jump in just with one thing about what Bernie said about whether or not we've broken stories? I think one of the things that we've done, both Weisberg and Lowry and myself, is, you know, we think outside of the journalistic box, a lot of us, and that's the nature of the Internet. Bob Jones was mentioned, Bob Jones University and the controversy was mentioned by other newspapers in a brief aside, a brief paragraph, just like John McCain using the word "gooks" was mentioned as a quick sentence.

But it was -- I know it was Salon that wrote the first story breaking down the Bob Jones thing and why it should be more of an issue. I'm sure that has done that. I know that has done that. By influencing what other reporters had maybe missed because they're in the bubble, or because there's so much groupthink among mainstream media.

KURTZ: Jake Weisberg, one of the things that happens when you're in the journalistic box, as Jake Tapper puts it, is you have editors, sometimes layer of editors, going over your stuff. When you're on the trail following a real-time report, does anybody edit it?

WEISBERG: I have copy editing during business hours, but if I'm filing something in the evening or on the weekend, no, I just post it directly to the Internet. And that's something we thought about a lot at Slate, because it's a real tradeoff, I think, the speed versus the mistakes you will catch, obviously, the improvements you can make with editing. But we've decided that for a few of our writers, and I'm, I guess, the leading case in point, it's worth taking the risk.

And I try to be careful about it, but I have certainly published things with typos, and the readers let you know very quickly.

KURTZ: We have just a few seconds left, and Bernie, you have a question?

KALB: I was going to ask Rich, to what degree does the Internet reporting have any traction? How is it affecting public opinion vis- a-vis the candidates?

LOWRY: Well, it affects -- I mean, it affects the way other reporters think about the candidates, because this isn't just reporting, there are also sort of thought pieces. So I think it has -- opinion journalism, which this Web reporting is a version of, always sort of has a trickle-down effect in ideas and perspectives, and I think that's very evident on the Web.

KURTZ: OK. Rich Lowry, Jake Tapper, Jacob Weisberg in New York, thanks very much for this online discussion. When we return, why the media are making one presidential candidate consider a life of crime. Bernie's "Back Page," next.


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

KALB: Well, let's face it, it isn't exactly in the same league as some of the great quotations in history...


(voice-over): ... Shakespeare's, or Byron's, or Shelley's. But even so, it's good enough to qualify for Bartlett's book of famous quotations, "I need an event, I should hold up a bank."

And who, pray tell, is the poet of this newly immortal couplet? Nope, not these guys.


ROBERT REDFORD, ACTOR: There ain't what I'd call a fortune in there, Butch.

PAUL NEWMAN, ACTOR: Well, just so we come out ahead, that's the main thing.


KALB: No, not them. None other than the one-time basketball champ, New Jersey senator, presidential wannabe, "I need an event, I should hold up a bank." With those few words, Bill Bradley has cut to the heart of today's media culture, its preference for theater over substance.

And Bradley has a slam-dunk of a point. He was complaining about being abandoned by the media, all the coverage now focused on Bush and McCain, and even Gore, to some extent. And so he's convinced the only way to grab the media's attention is to hold up a bank.

Well, that's not a bad idea, Bill. But first, you'd better make sure the TV people are on the scene, otherwise it's a total waste of time.

What the cameras want these days is action. Sound bites are passe, pic bites are in -- pic, as in picture, like this, so you play to the cameras. Bradley, trying to embarrass Gore into accepting a bill of complaints, that pic bite was everywhere, and so have these, McCain with his prop aimed at Bush, Bush with his prop, et cetera, et cetera, maneuvers calculated in advance for the greatest journalistic fallout.


It's a case of each side playing to the other's appetite, as though the candidates and the cameras were in cahoots. What's clear is that the pic bite has now upstaged even the shrinking sound bite. And so in these final months of politicking, with the battle for the media getting hotter and heavier, you'd better get ready for a million variations of -- let's all say it together -- holding up a bank.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

We'll be right back.


KURTZ: 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.

CAPITAL GANG is up next.


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