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Reliable Sources

'Tribune' Buys 'L.A. Times'; Journalists Predict Candidates Will Emphasize the Negative in Campaign 2000

Aired March 18, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


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

We'll get to the campaign in just a few moments. But first, the latest mega-merger on the front pages.


KURTZ (voice-over): The news stunned the media world, the Tribune Company acquiring Times Mirror, ending more than 100 years of ownership of "The Los Angeles Times" by the Chandler family. The parent company of "The Chicago Tribune" would become the third largest U.S. newspaper company behind Gannett and Knight Ridder.

Times Mirror would bring to the deal "The Baltimore Sun," "Newsday," and the flagship "Los Angeles Times," which has been mired in an advertising scandal under controversial CEO Mark Willes. And a new powerhouse would control a lot more than just ink, including the "Tribune's" 22 television stations and four radio stations and a long list of Times Mirror magazines, including "Outdoor Life," "Golf," and "Field and Stream."

Critics are asking if this is good for "The Los Angeles Times," good for news consumers, or just too much media concentration in too few hands.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for "The Los Angeles Times," Jim Warren, Washington bureau chief for "The Chicago Tribune" and a contributor to MSNBC, and Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a former reporter for "The L.A. Times."


Doyle McManus, what does it feel like? You wake up one morning, figuratively speaking, and find out that your newspaper, long the pride of Southern California, is becoming a Chicago subsidiary?

DOYLE MCMANUS, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, it's disorienting. It's confusing. This is a bombshell that we hadn't suspected.

Actually, though, Howie, I have to tell you that over the years we knew that the Chandler family was losing interest in journalism. We knew that the Chandlers were going to want to divest themselves of their newspapers someday.

Most of us thought that day was 10 years down the road. So the concept wasn't as striking as the timing.

KURTZ: Go ahead, Bernie.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: I was just going to ask Tom, neither from "The L.A. Times" nor "The Chicago Tribune," if I had to sum this whole package up, this bombshell that Howie talked about, good for the bottom line, bad for journalism. TOM ROSENSTIEL, DIRECTOR, PROJECT FOR EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM: Well, local ownership of a media company means that that company is operated according to interests that are not entirely financial. That's been true in "Chicago" with the "Tribune." It's true in New York. It's true in Washington.

And it was true in LA, where the Chandlers did a lot of things for LA, some good, some bad. But they fashioned that community in their own eyes and in their own interests.

"The L.A. Times" will now be operated, as most distant newspapers are, largely according to a portfolio mentality, according to the financial interests of the Tribune Company.

JIM WARREN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": All due respect, guys, I think that's an absolutely false dichotomy here, journalism versus the bottom line. And I say that as someone who spearheads a bureau here which melds four newspapers and 22 TV stations in Washington.

And I think what one really does have here potentially is sort of a journalistic version of harmonic convergence. You've got the coming together of some journalistically proud and fine and terrific operations.

We can also get a little bit awash here in nostalgia. Germans own Chrysler these days. Japanese own Columbia Pictures. The world goes on.

Look in LA itself, guys. The biggest source of morning news for people there, surprisingly, is not "Today" show or "Good Morning America" in recent weeks.

It's been the "KTLA Morning News." Why? It's a good and dynamic and aggressive and fun show. Who owns it? The Tribune Company. So I think if we...

KALB: Jim, Jim, hang on, Jim, Jim, it sounds what you're saying to me -- it strikes me as press guidance as a matter of fact. I think when I asked you a moment ago about bad journalism, what we're going to see is less competition.

You indicated before that the new organization would have at least seven correspondents in Moscow. There's going to be retrenchment I would argue. And therefore, the consequences for journalism will be shrinking coverage as each reporter does 14 different jobs.


MCMANUS: Not necessarily, Bernie. Let me in effect second what Jim said.

Out-of-town ownership, contrary to what Tom said, is not necessarily a negative thing for newspapers...

ROSENSTIEL: I'm not saying it's a negative thing...

MCMANUS: ... Times Mirror...

ROSENSTIEL: ... I'm saying that it's...


ROSENSTIEL: ... operated according largely to financial interests. And there's no country club where the owner is going to get berated. What's on the editorial page is not going to upset someone's aunt, all of those little things that go along (INAUDIBLE).

MCMANUS: Arguments at country clubs aside, Times Mirror has owned and operated "Newsday" on Long Island and "The Baltimore Sun" in Baltimore for the past 10 or 20 years, and has made journalistic excellence the bedrock concept underlying their hopes for commercial success.

The Chicago Tribune...

WARREN: If I can piggyback on that...

MCMANUS: ... basically starts from the same point. And if we can go in that direction, we're in good shape.

WARREN: ... One looks at our papers in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Orlando, Florida, Newport News, Virginia, the fact is those papers all make a lot of money. And they all do a terrific job of covering their local communities, aggressively local.

I suspect most of the people there don't have any sense of distant cold-blooded ownership from Chicago. So I think that can be a misnomer, though I speak as somebody who worked for "The Chicago Sun- Times" when it was purchased by Rupert Murdoch. That paper has been in a tailspin ever since. So...

KURTZ: On this question of money, Jim Warren, you work for a fine company and a fine newspaper. But it is also the talk of the newspaper industry because it turns I think last year a 29 percent profit, tops in the business. Now when that company takes over the rather luxuriously staffed "L.A. Times" and these other papers, isn't it inevitable they're going to be looking to do some streamlining to keep those profit margins up?

WARREN: That's quite possible. And there's also the possibility that maybe some streamlining can be done without any undermining of the essential journalistic values.

It wasn't until I talked to Doyle the other day, Doyle clearly being a lot more clued into the journalistic establishment than I am, that I learned that we're up for three Pulitzers. We're finalists for three this year. "The L.A. Times" is one.

There has been precious little sacrifice of our basic commitment, both as far as resources and time and money, to doing high quality journalism.

ROSENSTIEL: I don't know what you're so defensive about. You're the one who used the word cold-blooded. You're the one who used some idea that this wasn't excellent.

All I'm saying is that when the ownership is local, they're interested in a lot of things about the community. It may be a perfectly fine newspaper.

No one is suggesting that "The Chicago Tribune" or the Ft. Lauderdale "Sun Sentinel" aren't good newspapers. But if you're trying to tell me that ownership from out of town is the same as ownership from in town, you're wrong.

WARREN: I flat disagree, particularly when you've got a tradition in many of these places probably of rather geographically distant owners, yeah, whose place of address might be that community but probably spend half the winter in Palm Beach. And who knows where they spend most of the summer?

I suspect if you go out to Merrick (ph), Long Island, people are not going to say that local coverage is being shafted because the guys who own "Newsday" are in Los Angeles.

KALB: Jim, you fellows are in competition, Doyle McManus, bureau chief here for "The L.A. Times," you for "The Chicago Tribune." Now you're working under the same banner.

What happens? Who gets promoted? Who -- what happens with these two bureaus?

As an outsider, buying both newspapers, I've got you in rich journalistic competition, which is better for me. Now you're all going to be...

MCMANUS: Bernie, (INAUDIBLE) terrific. That continues. Now, wait a minute, Bernie. "The Baltimore Sun" has been owned by my company, and we compete with "The Baltimore Sun" and "Newsday." "The Boston Globe" is owned by "The New York Times."

The question here is not necessarily ownership. Family ownership and local ownership is no guarantee of quality.

UNKNOWN: Absolutely.

MCMANUS: The question here is Tribune Company has now got the finest staple of print journalism in the country. They have a terrific opportunity within their grasp to create the greatest news organization -- print, television, Internet, and other outlets -- that this country has ever seen. I hope they grab it and run with it.

KURTZ: Tom Rosenstiel, Mark Willes, the Times Mirror CEO who gained national attention for trying to blow up, in his words, the wall between news and advertising, led in part to the Staples Center scandal involving sharing of advertising with a news subject.

The, what some see as the risky or let's say unorthodox management there might have contributed in your view to the Chandler family's decision to -- we don't like this. Let's get out. Let's cash in. Let's take the money?

ROSENSTIEL: Well, I think that Doyle's point is correct. The family was losing interest. Although, there was a stipulation in the trust that said that this paper and this company could not be sold until the last surviving member of Otis Chandler's generation had died.

Well, Otis is still alive. And so are members of his generation. Something changed for the family to decide they wanted to get rid of it now.

What Willes did ironically is he came and he said he was going to expand the company and look for new revenue sources. He focused his attention on "The Los Angeles Times," which wasn't an asset that was in trouble. And it got in trouble as he did these things internally.

And he never expanded any of the other business options that the company had. So it's been a dwindling down of options that made the company vulnerable or attractive for takeover.

KURTZ: Tom Rosenstiel, thanks very much for joining us. You guys stay put.

And when we come back, Bush and Gore hit the long road to November. Are reporters covering a nasty presidential campaign or creating one?



We turn now to campaign 2000. Both Al Gore and George W. Bush secured their party's nominations this week. And journalists lost no time in predicting an ugly battle ahead.


WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Eight months of hostile, nasty, vicious campaigning...



DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS: What could be the most expensive, nastiest presidential campaign yet... (END VIDEO CLIP)


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you getting ready for a dirty campaign, a nasty campaign?



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How do you keep the public interest in this race and in you?

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That will be for the news media to decide what they cover and what they don't.


KURTZ: Journalist Michele Mitchell joins us from New York. She's a political analyst for CNN Headline News. Jim and Doyle are still with us.

Jim Warren, published Thursday, a "New York Times" interview with George W. in which he says -- or the question is, "Had John McCain changed ideas during the campaign?"

Answer: "No, not really."

"What about the large turnout that McCain helped spark?"

Bush: "Well, then how come he didn't win?"

When this comes out, Bush makes nice noises about McCain and says the "New York Times" really played up all the negative things he said. Does he have a point?

WARREN: And then he sort of backtracked, including an interview the next day in Illinois with "The Chicago Tribune." I think particularly folks here in the Beltway have been a little obsessed about some of the supposed friction, particularly I think really obsessed about where the McCain loyalists will now go and how Bush will handle that.

I think it's interesting that if you go outside Washington, these stories have received a whole lot less play. Just the aforementioned 22 TV stations whom we service out of Washington every day have had absolutely no interest in the Bush-McCain skirmishing. KURTZ: Michele, what about the Bush-Gore skirmishing taking place in all kinds of TV and print interviews? Are journalists now, with eight long months to go, just kind of fantasizing and panting about a really mean, down and dirty race?

MICHELE MITCHELL, CNN HEADLINE NEWS POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I don't know who wants to fantasize over a negative campaign? I can speak for the conversations I've had with both campaigns. And they've flat-out told me it's going to be negative.

And that's not something I would want to possibly create. So they're the ones who've been feeding it to us.

KURTZ: But isn't that good news for the news business? I mean, the more these guys attack each other, run negative ads and so forth, I mean, that's the kind of thing that provides a little fiber in the journalistic diet?

MITCHELL: Yeah, but it also is what depresses voter turnout. And you know, I guess when I'm out there and I'm talking with folks, I'd like to see voter turnout go up. And people don't show up if it's a negative campaign.

KALB: Doyle, you have a reputation for puncturing myths, particularly political myths. For example, take a look from now to November. Do you see the journalists flapping their wings, finding some stories to fill the vacuum, creating, inflating tensions between the two camps, something to keep the drama going?

MCMANUS: Absolutely. You're going to see a lot of flapping of wings and flapping of lips as well, Bernie, because what you've got now is a big set of journalists, political journalists, going through withdrawal pains.

That primary campaign was terrific drama. It had terrific personalities involved in it.

But you know what? At "The L.A. Times," we've done printouts of the volume of coverage we do during an election year. I have good news for your viewers. In May and June, this volume is going to get down close to zero because Jim is right, the volume of real issues out there to cover is just not big enough to sustain us for seven-and-a- half or eight months.

WARREN: And also, just an addendum to what Michele said as far as the great public unease and chagrin over negative campaigning, where did we have record turnout, South Carolina? Why perhaps did we have record turnout? Because of a load of negative ads, particularly by Bush versus McCain. So I think that's a bit of a misnomer.

And also, check a little bit of history. If you want to know negative campaigns, go see what they were saying about Abe Lincoln. Makes this look like a tea party.

MITCHELL: I disagree with that, actually, because I think that what happened in South Carolina and Michigan wasn't so much a response to negative ads. It was people thought their vote counted.

KALB: Doyle, we go into slow motion as it were right now until we whip up speed zero to 60 as we move toward November. That creates a sort of a pause that the media could use for a careful, delineated examination of the major issues confronting the country, major issues, delineation.

Do you think the media will embrace this boring, meticulous job ahead of them? Or will they be waiting for the race?

MCMANUS: Ah, Bernie, the media of course involve all kinds of different organizations...

KALB: Ah, the media.

MCMANUS: ... Great newspapers like "The Chicago Tribune," "The Los Angeles Times," and others are...


MCMANUS: ... We're going to do it.

KALB: You're singing from the same sheet of music as the saying goes.

MCMANUS: Absolutely. Well, it was easy. We come from the same culture. Other media aren't going to do it.

But you used the word boring. This stuff doesn't have to be boring.

KALB: That's exactly my point. It doesn't have to be.

MCMANUS: Intelligent American readers do want to know about tax cuts. They want to know about education plans. They want to know about healthcare reform.

Our job is to make it compelling. We know how to do that.

I think there's good stuff to write. But it's not going to be day-by-day. It's going to be Sunday...


KALB: Howie, (INAUDIBLE) on boring. Obviously, I don't mean that. I say it -- many reporters would see that as boring...

MCMANUS: Oh, I know you mean it, Bernie...

KALB: ... because we love the drama (INAUDIBLE)...

MCMANUS: ... you used to be a substance guy, but now it's all glitz and glitter for you.


MCMANUS: I'm going to stick with substance.

KURTZ: Speaking of collisions, Jim Warren, somebody not surprisingly who emerged into this media vacuum is Pat Buchanan this week. He went on "Meet the Press." He went on "CROSSFIRE" where a lot of the CNN viewers might be more used to seeing him in the host chair rather than the guest chair. And you went out to Virginia to talk to him.

At this stage, is Pat Buchanan a serious contender for the presidency? Or is he kind of entertainment to keep us amused during this little lull in the proceedings?

WARREN: Well, first of all, Doyle has been so solicitous here I may send my laundry over there to the bureau next week...


WARREN: ... just to test his fidelity to the new corporate fathers.

No, I think it's legitimate. Look at the hypothetical polls you've got with Bush and Gore neck and neck, somewhere in the mid- forties. It's not inconceivable that a third party candidate gets himself three, four or five percent does fairly well.

So I went out there in part because there was a lull, but in part I'm looking forward to the possibility especially. And the key thing for Buchanan obviously is getting onto the presidential debates.

If he doesn't, he truly is toast. But if he can get on those debates and do his thing rhetorically, maybe he can get a few percent with this anti-interventionist, anti-immigration, anti-abortion platform of his.

KURTZ: Michele Mitchell, Maria Hsia, who is a longtime fundraiser and friend of Vice President Gore, was convicted of money laundering, including the funds raised in the infamous Buddhist temple appearance by the vice president.

As the Republican National Committee was all too happy to point out, the amount of time given this on the CBS evening news was 23 seconds, ABC news 19 seconds, and NBC zero. Should that story involving a longtime associate of Vice President Gore have gotten more attention from the broadcast networks?

MITCHELL: I think it should have, actually. I mean, this is something I did hear people asking about when I was in California talking with different citizens there.

And I was really surprised that it didn't get more play, but maybe because we did have the exciting primaries happening and a great McCain-Bush battle. But I think we can look to see this story start to play out now that we're into the general election and now that we do have that vacuum.

KALB: But why didn't it get more play? I would think it deserved more play.

MITCHELL: I actually agree with you. I think maybe a lot of people may not think it's sexy enough. You know, you start talking about a fundraising scandal, and people's eyes do glaze over. It's not as sizzling as what we experienced last year, for instance.

WARREN: Michele and Bernie, as somebody who sat through the many, many weeks of the Thompson committee, the campaign finance hearings, from which these charges basically come, I mean, I knew then that there was not scant interest but less interest than I had hoped for in this whole general subject. Add that...

KALB: Whose less interest? The media's less interest, or the public's less interest?

WARREN: ... No, my sense that the public was a lot less interested than I was. And then add -- add to it...

KALB: But come back to that point, isn't there a journalistic responsibility for a display of interest in a story like this?

WARREN: Oh, I absolutely agree. I mean, we are afflicted often with some "Newsheimer's," some version of Alzheimer's...


WARREN: ... here in journalism. And we forget, yes, this was a front page story once a time. In fact, I think the Maria Hsia could conceivably be one of Al Gore's worst nightmares come this fall.

KURTZ: Well, before I forget, when we come back, a new flap about leaking exit polls in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Well, I started a bit of a flap this week in a piece in "The Washington Post" on Mike Murphy, John McCain's senior strategist, and having to do with exit polls and reporting that Tim Russert of NBC had called Murphy on primary day two or three times to give him the latest exit polls on a day when everybody wants to know who's ahead, who's going to win.

I didn't think this was that big a deal. Murphy wrote a letter saying, "Well, Russert didn't do anything wrong because he had all kinds of exit polls from all kinds of journalists." In other words, everyone does it. Is this sort of shared information something we should be concerned about, Doyle McManus?

MCMANUS: Well, I think it's something we have to be concerned about now because Internet organizations like "Slate"...

KURTZ: "Slate."

MCMANUS: ... are beginning to put this stuff in public. Look, yeah, Murphy is right. Yeah, this is the sin committed most often on election days compared to other days of the year. It is hard to go through a newsroom on election day without stumbling over exit poll data. And it's been shared, in my experience, pretty freely with candidates.

WARREN: But particularly in this town, it reminds when there's a difference between I think trading of information, horse trading, and forgetting what side of the street you're working. In this town, probably more than any other place, a lot of folks, too many folks on our side, get a little bit too cozy with the folks they're dealing.

And then the consultant sending a letter in almost looks as if he's covering for the journalist because he wants to stay on good terms with them.

KALB: Yeah, when you read that letter that Murphy wrote to Tim Russert, you have a feeling that he's, essentially as I read it, giving Tim an acquittal for any responsibility involved in having tipped off, if he had, Murphy on the exit polls early.

KURTZ: Well, I don't think there's any dispute that he had. But Michele Mitchell, is there a difference between a journalist passing on to a campaign that kind of exit poll information? It's not going to be published -- it's for their own internal use, whether they should be celebrating or depressed -- or giving it to an online magazine like "Slate" where it's going to go out to the world while people are still voting?

MITCHELL: Well, I think that there is a difference. And when you're taking a journalism ethics class, it makes a lot more sense than what actually happens in Washington, which is a very small town in many respects. And you have people in the industry who switch back and forth, who might work in government then go into journalism and then back again.

I mean, Russert did that. David Gergen, Stephanopoulos. So a lot of the lines get blurred in Washington that might make sense in another city.

KURTZ: So you agree with Bernie's analysis of excessive coziness it seems like.

MITCHELL: Oh, yeah, definitely. When I worked on Capitol Hill for a while, it stunned me. But it's a fact.

KURTZ: Michele Mitchell, Jim Warren, Doyle McManus, thanks very much for joining us.

Bernie's "Back Page" when we come back.


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

KALB: Howie, well onto the next step. The voters have picked their numero unos.


(voice-over): And now the story is numero unos picking their numero duos. And just as you'd expect, the media -- without a moment's hesitation, the media have weighed in with a lot of recommendations.

Here's an early list of names pulled together by "The Hotline," an inside-the-Beltway daily bulletin, Republicans and Democrats, names put forward in editorials across the country. Every day more names, a typhoon of names sweeping across America, non-stop speculation everywhere.

Here's "Newsweek" with some thoughts on the subject: Al needs a key state. W. needs a Catholic.

Even the winners are joining in the fun without tipping their hands.


GORE: Well, I'm not drawing up a short list or even a long list right now.



BUSH: It's a little early to talk about vice presidents.


KALB: The TV focus these days may be on the veep story. But once upon a time before TV, that job wasn't exactly page one.

Here's "The New York Times" front page on FDR's victory in 1932. No picture of his running mate, John Nance Garner. Garner, who once famously described that job as, quote, brace yourself, "The vice presidency isn't worth a warm pitcher of," well, you get the point.

The 1936 election, again no picture of the VP. In 1940, the VP finally made it, Henry A. Wallace. It took TV to rescue the vice presidency from invisibility.


JACK KEMP, CO-FOUNDER, EMPOWER AMERICA: I would hope George W. Bush picks John McCain.


KALB: But here's McCain.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I believe the vice president has two duties. One is to inquire daily as to the health of the president. The other is to attend the funeral of third world dictators. I really would not want to do that.



KALB: And so it goes on and on and on, the political teasing of America. The fact is, all of us love a good suspense story. And the media and the politicians can be counted on to keep it going.

Howie, when did you say the conventions are taking place?

KURTZ: Julie and August, only about 14 of our shows until then.

Bernard Kalb, thanks.

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. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll talk about George Bush's attitude toward John McCain. Plus, gun control and gas taxes. Democratic Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts joins us for that and much more right here next on CNN.



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