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Media Microscope Scrutinizes Cheney; Will the Republican Convention Provide any Real News?

Aired July 29, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Dick Cheney under the media microscope. Journalists call him dull, ultra-conservative, and question his health. Is the coverage fair?

And will the Republican convention provide any real news for the press pack in Philadelphia?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Philadelphia, the site of the Republican National Convention, this is a special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES with Howard Kurtz and Bernard Kalb.

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

We begin with the event that the press has been speculating about for months.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ (voice-over): From the moment Bush announced his choice of Dick Cheney, journalists have been keeping score on whether he's a solid, experienced choice, or a boring throwback to the administration of that other George Bush.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Republicans say, "Hey, that's a Republican record. They think it's a very good sound choice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Democrats will attack Cheney as too conservative and Bush as too influenced by his father to make a bolder choice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL KRISTOL, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": It's a safe and sound pick. It's a serious pick. (END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a backward-looking pick, not a forward- looking pick.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: News organizations began digging into Cheney's congressional voting record. And the information quickly turned into ammunition for the pundits.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JULIAN EPSTEIN, CHIEF DEMOCRATIC COUNSEL, HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: He voted against the release of Nelson Mandela. He voted against abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: TV talking heads also raised questions about Cheney's health.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL BEGALA, HOST, MSNBC'S "EQUAL TIME": He's had bad heart problems.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Cheney himself wasted no time before going on "LARRY KING LIVE" along with his wife, Lynne.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DICK CHENEY, REPUBLICAN VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I can assure you she always gives me straight advice, exactly what she thinks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The vice presidential pick also turned up on all three network morning shows and of course became fodder for the late night comics.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID LETTERMAN, TALK SHOW HOST: But here's some good news for Dick Cheney, who has gone 24 hours without a heart attack...

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAY LENO, TALK SHOW HOST: Gore spoke out today. Al Gore said that he has a secret weapon in the debates against Dick Cheney. He says he's just going to go, "Boo!"

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And now as the Republicans descend on Philadelphia, the question is what kind of coverage Bush and his new running mate can generate, who the media will portray the convention, and how many people will bother to watch.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent for CBS News and host of "Face the Nation," Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the "Los Angeles Times," and Candy Crowley, CNN's senior political correspondent.

Welcome, all.

Bob Schieffer, over the years I've read a thousand stories that say that Dick Cheney is a nice guy, was a good defense secretary, knowledgeable, competent. In the days since he became George W.'s number two, I've read over and over again, heard on the television not only that he's boring, that he's an extreme right winger, that he's an apologist for big oil, and he's got a bum ticker to boot. Is the press trying to tear down the vice presidential nominee?

BOB SCHIEFFER, HOST, CBS "FACE THE NATION": Well, the man was in Congress 10 years. And he did have a record. Anybody that's in the Congress has a record. And it seems to me that's fair game and it's fair to comment on it. He had a very, very conservative voting record.

The other part of it I have known Dick Cheney since he was the young 34-year-old chief of staff for Gerald Ford. And I think he has a reputation in Washington as being a real straight shooter. This is a man of very good character.

And I think George Bush picked someone that he would be comfortable with if something happened to him that could be president. And I think Dick Cheney could do that job.

He's a man of great character. But he does have this very conservative voting record. Democrats are going to talk about it...

KURTZ: Sure.

SCHIEFFER: ... comment on it. And I think that's fair game. I think that's what politics and campaigns are about.

KURTZ: Doyle McManus, as the press excavates this voting record and votes on everything from Head Start to plastic guns to Nelson Mandela, is it a fair and balanced look at the Cheney record, or is it a game of gotcha to find the most controversial, potentially negative thing about him?

DOYLE MCMANUS, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Oh, I think by and large, Howie, it's been fair. Among other things, it has become a big story because it has disrupted this serene march of the new compassionate conservatism of George W. Bush to nomination. Dick Cheney is an old-fashioned western unreconstructed conservative not of the compassionate variety.

Now there is one story on which I think Cheney has taken a bum wrap. And that's that vote on Nelson Mandela.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: 1986, I believe?

MCMANUS: Back in 1986. It sounded crazy. I set some people to work on it to find out what had really happened there. And what happened it turned out was it wasn't just a vote on Nelson Mandela. It was also a vote to ask the United States government to begin negotiations with the African National Congress.

At the time, the Reagan administration felt that the ANC was an arm of the South African Communist Party. And it was kind of a trick vote, too, frankly.

It was one of those procedural motions. Almost half of the House of Representatives, including 30 Democrats, voted the same way as Dick Cheney. So that one wasn't wacky right wing...

KURTZ: More complicated than it sounds.

MCMANUS: ... Yeah.

KURTZ: Bernie.

KALB: Candy, let me raise the same question about the coverage of Dick Cheney. For example, on ABC News, Jennings had an interview with Governor Bush. And he asked him about the press, press coverage of Cheney. "Were you surprised at the reaction, particularly in the press, of the selection of Cheney?" "I'm not surprised," said the governor. "Why not? Because oftentimes, they" -- they, they, the media -- "reflect what Al Gore and what his campaigners try to do, which is to stir up all kinds of negative things."

Do you see the governor in effect of accusing the media of a Democratic tilt, of scapegoating the media as it were because he's unhappy with the coverage?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, there's the media. And there's the media.

I don't think he's wrong. There's people that talk about what they think. And then there's people that say, "Here's what the Democrats are saying."

And so if he's accusing the media of saying, "That's what the Democrats are saying, and so they're reflecting that," well of course because that's where you go to say what do you think.

Well, I mean, look, the initial digging up, let's not kid anybody. The Democrats were all over that. A lot of those first looks... (CROSSTALK)

CROWLEY: ... Absolutely. They were there. So don't kid anybody that we were all out there going over Dick Cheney's record that first five seconds. But the Democrats were all over it.

So is he accusing the media? I don't know. But the media is doing -- the journalists who day in and day out cover this campaign have a duty to say the Democrats are pointing to this, this, this, this, and this.

KALB: Sure. But you're not suggesting that the media is surrendering to the Democratic onslaught against Cheney. That's what you seem to be saying.

CROWLEY: No, no, no...

KALB: You've got to do the digging because he talked about you dig, you excavate, you take a look through the 10-year record, and you...

CROWLEY: Absolutely. And I think there's been not enough of this and too much of the sort of initial thing. But that's look, that's what happens in 24-hour news, as you know. Man, you have got to be out there.

And initially what you have is the Democrats say this. You've got somebody like Bob who can say, "I remember this vote," or, "I remember that vote." And you've got some depth. If you have people that are out there that don't have that kind of knowledge, you really are relying on that first sort of bumper sticker thing that comes out of the Democrats.

But then there was some of this. I don't think there's any question that we also said the Republicans gave this guy rave reviews. It's politics. That's what happens.

SCHIEFFER: But you know, Bernie, I mean, the Republicans did the same thing about Al Gore's record. They've gone back and looked at the votes that he took on gun control back when he was a congressman from Tennessee. They found he was pro-gun back in those days.

So this is just a part of politics. And everyone has to defend their record.

And I think that's a fair part of this process. And I don't think the press have been out of line on this.

MCMANUS: On that point, I'd agree with Candy. I think the media have been a little slow in coming around and providing the perspective.

But I also have to say it is stunning how unprepared Dick Cheney was to defend his own record. He didn't have the talking points. Didn't anybody scrub this guy? I forgot, it was Cheney who was doing the scrubbing. KURTZ: Oh, that's right. He was in charge of the selection. The same thing on the health problems. I mean, after all, the man had had three heart attacks, none since 1988. But anybody could figure out that those question would come up. So you felt that Cheney was -- even though he went on all the network shows was not quite...

MCMANUS: It may be a technical matter. But he was a little slow on his feet.

KURTZ: Yeah.

KALB: OK...

KURTZ: Go ahead.

KALB: ... I was going to recall 1988 when Quayle was designated as vice presidential candidate by President Bush ultimately. When you compare the media response to Cheney and the media response to Quayle, there is no comparison. Somebody described the media response to Quayle as a howling press mob. And President Bush, Sr. stood up and defended him and it took hold. There was a response there. You do a comparison on the two mediums, what do we find?

KURTZ: Well, let me turn that question slightly by asking Bob, what if I were to make the case that journalists who cover politics care almost exclusively, almost maniacally, about politics? And therefore, George W. picks someone who he says can help him govern. He thinks he's going to be in the Oval Office next January, and who by all accounts is experienced and knowledgeable enough that he would be a pretty good vice president.

But all that we all care about is what does he bring to the ticket, and what's the geographic and ideological balance, and whether he's a good campaigner? Maybe that's a little short-sided on the media's part.

SCHIEFFER: Well, I think so if that's the attitude. But I'm not sure that's entirely true, Howie. I think reporters are more sophisticated than that. And I think reporters have taken into account the good side of Dick Cheney. I mean, we've seen it reported the good things that he did, his long resume and his long record.

So I just don't think he's been unfairly treated at this point. I really don't. Can I say that as someone who thinks he's a fine person?

KURTZ: OK. Candy, what about the crossfire factor in this election? We not only have Pat Buchanan, former host of CNN's "Crossfire" on the Reform Party, but Lynne Cheney who hosted "Crossfire Sunday" and was a former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, getting a lot of publicity as the potential nominee's wife.

In fact, when they went together on "Larry King," she took the first partisan shot at President Clinton after Dick Cheney had been all sweetness and light. Is she going to get an enormous amount of media attention in this campaign because of her combative personality?

CROWLEY: You know, I think she'll probably get the normal amount for the wife of the vice president.

KURTZ: The same amount as Jack Kemp's wife?

CROWLEY: Sure, yeah. I mean, look, eventually there will be a run of stories about Lynne Cheney and more conservative than her husband. They've already started. But the fact of the matter is this is a vice presidential candidate. After a while, this goes away especially if there's no way to stick any of this to the wall.

We still don't know what the effect of all this, well, he's voted this way, boom, he's voted that way, boom. We don't know if that's going to stick or if we have to wait to see how actual people respond to this.

KALB: In a sense, it is an emerging portrait. These are the first mosaics that offer a portrait of Cheney. And as the days go on, the reporters cannot simply reiterate the same political archeology over and over.

I think, Howie, I agree with Bob that you're a touch too negative in the portrait that you think the press is reporting on Cheney because I think he is being portrayed, as you suggest, as a solid guy who Bush can depend on, that he has a great comfort level with him, et cetera. I think that is certainly in the media.

KURTZ: Also making a huge fortune as an oil industry executive. I mean, we're getting all different pieces of him. And we're doing it on a 24-hour basis as is our specialty.

CROWLEY: Right, but you've also got what Bob was talking about, which was, look, this was a choice about an administration not about -- made Bush look very apolitical in his choice. He didn't go for a guy from a big state. He didn't go for a guy that brought him swing votes. He went for a guy he actually thought could be vice president.

So it's going to -- the bounce isn't back yet here. I mean, they are not crying over at the Bush campaign about this.

KURTZ: OK.

CROWLEY: They think the negativity feeds into their portrait of Al Gore.

KURTZ: Well, Al Gore, since you mentioned him, is going to announce his vice presidential pick on August 8, which leaves us about 10 days for feverish press speculation about who that person will be. And we'll see whether his pick gets the same level of scrutiny as Dick Cheney has.

Well, when we come back, we'll look at the question of are conventions still news? And do the broadcast networks -- but first, we'll look at John McCain, who I understand is arriving even now in Philadelphia. Straight Talk Express back in action. Reporters in tow. And we'll talk about him a bit later in the program as well.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Still waiting for John McCain to come out of the bus, another historic moment here in Philadelphia. He started this Straight Talk Express ride from Arlington, Virginia, this morning. And obviously, the Straight Talk Express, a way of getting lots of media attention, as he is very good at doing.

He is arriving at the Sofatel (ph) Hotel in downtown Philadelphia where the McCain entourage will be staying.

Bob Schieffer, while we're looking at these live pictures, you had McCain on "Face the Nation." Correct me if I'm wrong here, but isn't he the losing candidate? How does this guy get an amazing amount of media attention?

SCHIEFFER: Well, he just knows how to do it, doesn't he? And I think that the interesting thing about McCain and why he got so much attention is he turned the modern campaign on its head.

I mean, at the beginning of this campaign, John McCain didn't have any money. And he had a whole lot of time. So what did he do? He said, "Well, I'll get the slowest kind of transportation and the cheapest kind, a bus."

KURTZ: And I'll put reporters on the bus, and I'll talk to them all day long.

SCHIEFFER: And I'll talk to them until they can't stand it. And that's what he did. I remember one day on the bus, I was riding along with him. Finally, I went up to the front. And his wife Cindy was there, and she said, "Has he worn you out?" I said, "Yes." She said, "He's worn me out too."

But it was because it was so different. It was because it was just the opposite of what we've come to see in modern campaigns that it went over well.

KURTZ: But Doyle McManus, that was three months ago. And George Bush is the nominee. And John McCain is coming just to give a speech here. But the press still seems mesmerized by the senator.

MCMANUS: John McCain is still campaigning. That's the whole point. That's why John McCain may turn out to be the central story line, or at least one of the central story lines of this convention.

KURTZ: What's he campaigning for?

MCMANUS: He's campaigning either for the nomination next time, or to keep his reform movement going until it becomes in his view the center of the Republican Party. It's a long way from being there yet.

But he is taking tremendous risks. He is really risking putting his thumb so deeply into the eye of the nominee and of the leadership of his party he's going to have a hard time getting some phone calls returned for a while.

SCHIEFFER: But you know, the interesting thing I think, Howie, is that again these campaigns and these conventions have become so predictable. You can never predict from John McCain...

KURTZ: Let me break in for one second because John McCain and his wife Cindy are getting off the bus. We're seeing those pictures now.

Go ahead, Bob.

SCHIEFFER: I was just going to say because he is the one element that you can't predict. You don't know what's going to happen here. Reporters are just drawn to that.

KALB: You've really got a coup d'etat taking place during this convention.

(CROSSTALK)

KALB: But one of the -- the point that Doyle made, and that was the question of the political revolt that was staged by John McCain. I mean, he introduced a torrent of suspense that we haven't had in this whole season. And that brought in listeners. And that brought in viewers. And the fact that you had a real narrative going because of the suspense. It isn't often that you see the designated hitter, Governor Bush, being challenged the way that John McCain did.

CROWLEY: But Howie's right. It's over. That was three months ago, time to move on.

But I think one of the things that it also brings to this convention is one of the remaining unresolved problems here is the relationship between McCain and Bush.

KURTZ: Particularly after that strange dance on the vice presidency, "Well, I guess I would accept if you tied me up and tortured me," and of course he did not get it.

CROWLEY: Yeah, yeah. So that's a remaining story line that we're looking for is how do they -- is he up on the stage? What's McCain's speech like? Are they going to go campaign together, which by the way they are?

So it gives us somebody to talk about it. McCain loves the limelight. We love somebody that will say almost anything. And so there we are.

MCMANUS: And there is some practical political impact. McCain had tremendous appeal for independent swing voters in this country. The tone of his endorsement, he is going to re-endorse George W. Bush this week.

KURTZ: But that's not why the press is all over him.

MCMANUS: We're all over him because we're desperate for a story. KALB: Look at what we're doing right here, interrupting the program to take McCain live and talking about him. That is press seizure. There's no media fatigue with John McCain.

KURTZ: Well, I'm going to have to interrupt you all because we are going to get a break here.

And when we come back, we'll talk about the convention, the coverage, and whether 15,000 journalists will find any news.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES here from the Republican National Convention.

Bob Schieffer, in your heart of hearts, isn't it frustrating when CBS News is only covering the convention an hour a night and in some cases even less? I mean, what happened to the days when the broadcast networks said, "This is a public service. We're going to cover it. And the hell with the ratings."

SCHIEFFER: Well, in those days we had nominating conventions where there was really a story here. Yes, I mean, I'm a political junkie. I've come. I want to be here. I'd put it on television all the time. But it's very difficult now to make the argument that that's necessary anymore.

These have become exercises in marketing more than political exercises. It's like the boat show or the auto show where we see the new model rolled out. But we don't get much else beyond that.

We're going to hear a speech from the nominee. And we're going to get a sense of what the themes of the campaigns are.

But as you know, I mean, if you could find a story here, something that classified itself as news beyond that, I'd be wondering what that would be.

KURTZ: Doyle McManus, if Bob Schieffer is right and we're getting a pre-scripted, pre-packaged, pre-chewed political commercial for four days, then how do we justify the presence of 15,000 media people?

MCMANUS: Including more than 50 people from my own newspaper, the "LA Times." Two reasons. Number one, actually perversely, the fact that the parties have made this a bad television show, a long infomercial, in a way makes it a pretty good story for print because we've got to go behind the curtain and behind the scenes. And in fact, we do a lot of writing about now the interplay between the parties and the television networks. That's now part of the story.

Second thing is there are real stories here. There's the question of what the McCain factor turns out to be. There's the question of will George W. Bush manage to complete this successful gambit of united the hard-right conservatives but yet reaching out to the center? There is real politics going on here this week. It's just very hard to get to. And it's very hard to make a good picture of it.

KALB: Doyle, that was a valiant try. I have to admire the way you put that together. It was quite marvelous.

(LAUGHTER)

KALB: Here you have a convention playing to a half-empty house from coast to coast. You have 55 people here. The question is how are reporters going about to disguise the boredom that I've been hearing about all afternoon? If I've heard one word here, it's boredom.

KURTZ: But Bernie...

(CROSSTALK)

KALB: And it hasn't begun yet. Will that only intensify it?

CROWLEY: I mean, how do they go about doing it? I mean, you cover what's going on.

Look, I'm one of those first of all, let's not forget the Cheney speech, which is another thing that will be a focal point here because it's the first time as a national audience a lot of people are going to see him perform.

Look, there's news in the packaging. OK, there is a reason they're packaging themselves this way. There's a reason that this night is spent here. And it's a political calculation.

The picture that they want to present you can't present wholly, "Here's what the Republicans are." But just say here's why they want to present themselves this way. Here's what they're going for. Here's why the picked Condoleezaa Rice and gave her more time than Elizabeth Dole.

There's a lot of politics in here. And it's the fun little -- you know, God is in the details here. No big overarching story. I agree with you. We know who's going to come out of this convention as the nominee. But there's a lot of details here that are going to be fun.

SCHIEFFER: But I think we also have to be very careful. You know, Ed Murrow said, "Sometimes news is just dull." And I think the journalist has a responsibility that if the news is dull not to try to make it into something it's not. And I think we have to be careful not to overemphasize things.

(CROSSTALK)

SCHIEFFER: Because I think that hurts our own credibility.

KURTZ: Bernie. KALB: With the limited coverage by the broadcast networks, what are the consequences of that abbreviation of this story on the democratic process?

KURTZ: One consequence is that more people will be following this convention on the Internet. That's a complete revolution from four years ago.

KALB: Yes, but it will still be a very small number. When you're thinking of broadcast, you're thinking of tens of millions. It's quite different on the Internet, on the cable networks, et cetera.

What are the consequences for our democracy when the electorate gets short-changed that way? Let me take the point of view of those who feel that they're short-changing. What are the consequences?

CROWLEY: Well, I'm not sure how democracy is short-changed by conventions that are changed. I mean, they're still getting a nominee. They're still having a choice. I mean, what's the short change?

KALB: Yeah, but if you thought about it, they did in four days in once-upon-a-time days, you got a question of depth and details, et cetera...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Let me get Doyle McManus in here -- we just have a few seconds left -- on whether people are paying attention. Despite our valiant efforts, 13 percent told the Pew poll that they plan to watch only a bit of the convention.

MCMANUS: Howie, there's not a whole lot of reason for anybody to be watching this convention as drama. It's not drama. What's there is substance.

Look, I don't fault the television networks for giving less time to this convention. That's an appropriate judgment. What they do have to do though in the rest of the year is give serious, significant, consistent, ongoing coverage so that viewers who tune in from time to time will catch on.

SCHIEFFER: I agree with that.

KURTZ: OK, and that's the perfect soundbite, Bob, because that's all we have time for.

Bob Sieffert of CBS News, Doyle McManus, "Los Angeles Times," Candy Crowley of CNN, thanks very much for an enlightening discussion.

We'll be back with some final words.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back. Bernie, last week you and I kicked the networks around a little bit for putting on O.J. Simpson to promote his new Web site. Turns out that ABC Barbara Walters, "The View" canceled the Simpson interview. But he did show up on CNN interviewed on "Burden of Proof."

KALB: As well as Fox News, as well as the "Today" show. I saw none of those broadcasts. But I must say that I went to the trouble of reading the CNN "Burden of Proof."

And I found that there was some very, very sharp questioning. But because he evaded some of the sharpest of questioning, I'm afraid it winds up as being a launching pad and a promo for his own Web show.

KURTZ: OK, Bernie, you've got the last word.

Coming up next, "Capital Gang." Mark Shields right here across the desk from me. What have you got in store?

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Well, Howie, I'll tell you what we have in store. We have the preview of the entire convention, of the Bush-Gore contest. And we'll assess the Dick Cheney damage after the Democratic assault. That and much more with the full "Capital Gang" right here next on CNN.

KURTZ: Thanks very much. Bye.

Thank you for joining us. That's it for RELIABLE SOURCES.

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