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Reliable Sources

Did the Press Become Part of George W. Bush's Script?

Aired August 5, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Four days in Philadelphia, was it news? Did the press become part of George W. Bush's script? And will journalists apply the same standards to Al Gore in Los Angeles?

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

We begin with Philadelphia, 15,000 journalists, and one carefully choreographed convention.



KURTZ (voice-over): No sooner had George W. Bush wrapped up his convention speech than the chattering class rushed to the air waves with instant analysis.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was the speech of a winner.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't think is delivered as well as it was on the page.



ROBERT NOVAK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I give him an A on content, B on delivery.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His expression was a little bit plain.


DAVID GERGEN: If he didn't win the election tonight, he came darn close.


KURTZ: It was largely a week of scripted moments at the podium with little dissention from the party faithful. Dick Cheney rousing the troops, former rival John McCain offering his support. Retired General Colin Powell, who did challenge the GOP on the issue of affirmative action.

Without the usual party squabbles, 15,000 journalists searched for something, anything to cover as they turned out story after story on the air waves, in print, and on the Web.

Internet journalists took their places among the crowd. And newspapers turned out regular updates online. But was there any real news?

The cable networks played it up big when former President Gerald Ford was hospitalized after suffering at least one minor stroke. And the media seemed thrilled when President Clinton injected himself into the campaign with a few choice words mocking the Republican nominee.

WILLIAM J. CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I mean, how bad can I be? I've been governor of Texas. My daddy was president. I own a baseball team.

KURTZ: And the story really took off after NBC's Jamie Gangel (ph) asked Bush's father for his reaction.

GEORGE BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'll tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to wait a month. And then you give me a call -- I'll give you the home number. And if he continues that, then I'm going to tell the nation what I think about him as a human being and a person.

KURTZ: Just as everyone had predicted, the convention wasn't exactly high drama. While the cable networks provided loads of coverage, the broadcast networks largely opted out.

NBC carried nothing the first night, relegating Tom Brokaw's coverage to its cable network. CBS packaged the convention inside magazine shows "48 Hours" and "60 Minutes 2." Only ABC, which originally planned to preempt the first night for pre-season football, carried at least one hour each night.

So what do those 15,000 journalists do now? They'll turn around and do it all again at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Roger Simon, senior writer for "U.S. News & World Report," Dana Milbank, political reporter for the "Washington Post," and Marie Cocco, columnist for "Newsday." We're all just back from Philadelphia, which is why we may look a little fatigued.

And Dana Milbank, after all the carping and complaining and whining from the press about how this was a manufactured event, it seemed to me the GOP Convention got glowing reviews. Bush's speech on Thursday night, almost walk-on-water reviews in some quarters. So was the press ultimately forced to kind of buy the script?

DANA MILBANK, "WASHINGTON POST": The press loves this whole thing. And they were happy to buy this script. This is summer camp for journalists. That's why there are 15,000 there, not for the story, but so we could hang out and go to parties and eat our food. And we were in such good spirits that we gave it high reviews.

KURTZ: So we're happy, we portrayed it in happy terms.

And Marie Cocco, I got the impression after four or five days and nights of covering this thing that maybe it almost didn't matter what we said, that the convention was about images, images looked like a Benetton ad, multicultural faces, lots of confetti and balloons, an optimistic George W. Bush. And maybe if we're all carping and saying, "Yes, this is all scripted and manufactured," it doesn't really matter because the public gets a different impression.

MARIE COCCO, COLUMNIST, "NEWSDAY": Well, I think the public does get a somewhat different impression. I didn't talk to a single black journalist who was there who really approved or was persuaded by the sort of minstrel show, frankly, that they thought was going on at that convention.

On the other hand, I have seen interviews with many black Americans on the street, you know, man-on-the-street type of interviews, who were not offended by this, who thought it was a genuine reaching out. So I think there is a divergence between how you see this in the hall and how you see it at home.

Except one point has to be made. Very few people actually watched this at home. And we can argue about why that is so. But the fact of the matter is most people may in fact get their information about this convention not from watching it themselves but by hearing us recycle and recycle and recycle again what happened there.

KURTZ: And from clips on the news -- Bernie,

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Howie, you mentioned the word images. Images requires lots of television coverage. As we know, the broadcast networks cut back drastically on the exposure to the Republican Convention.

Do you think now that it's over in kind of a postmortem sense, do you think on the fact that you were there and absorbing it on a minute-by-minute basis, do you think the American electorate was shortchanged as a result of the broadcast networks' cutback, since after all they command the biggest audiences? ROGER SIMON, SENIOR WRITER, "U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT": Yes, clearly I think that in exchange for being granted monopolies, which is what the networks have - a license to print money, basically - they're supposed to perform public service. Public service should include covering the presidential campaign, which should include covering the conventions.

Yes, they're scripted. But because they're scripted it doesn't mean they're necessarily evil. By watching the Republican script and the Democratic script and the Libertarian script and the Reform Party script and all the others, maybe undecided voters could actually decide which script they'd like to chose from.

KALB: Do you think we have a journalistic problem of not just surrendering the cameras to any political group?

SIMON: Sure. So we'll surrender them instead to "Survivor" and "Do You Want to Be a Millionaire?" I mean, what is the alternative that these networks are giving us? It's not like they're giving us something better than the conventions.

KURTZ: Well, on that very point, Dana Milbank, I mean, CBS for example did something weird. They took the first two nights of the convention then made it into a programming element within shows like "60 Minutes 2" and "48 Hours" that also had taped stories on other things.

But at the same time, the ratings showed that when they went away from the taped stories on things that had nothing to do with politics to convention coverage, the audience went down. So Bernie, Roger says that they have a public service responsibility.

On the other hand, we've been telling people for weeks this is going to be dull, this is going to be scripted, it's been packaged. And guess what, not a lot of people watched.

MILBANK: Yeah. But still, I agree with Roger that that's up to people if they're going to watch it or not. But it should be out there. And not only should the conventions be covered, but they should be given free airtime to do their infomercials.

And let's just have it all out there. We can cover them critically. That's fine. But we should have that stuff out there.

KURTZ: Well, cable television, Marie Cocco, likes to boast that they're there gavel to gavel providing what the broadcast networks are not. And yet when I watch it on various cable networks, I saw a lot of talking heads and interviews and not what was going on on the floor.

On this network, Larry King 9:00 every night had a bunch of guests. We didn't see what was happening on the floor. On MSNBC, they broke away from the Condoleeza Rice speech to do a Tom Brokaw interview with Norman Schwarzkopf. So they had a lot of their own famous faces and programming elements, not as much about what was on the podium. COCCO: Yeah, I think that frankly cable is in a tough situation on this one because with nothing happening and this cavernous amount of airtime to fill, you have to fill it with something next to nothing, which is a lot of people who don't matter a whole lot talking about how nothing is happening.

But I want to make a larger point and get back to something Roger said. I don't feel at all that the networks have any kind of public responsibility to cover what amounts to an extravagant press release put on by the two political parties and corporate America, for that matter.

We are supposed to exercise news judgment. And nobody at your shop or my shop or at ABC, NBC, and CBS would take a multicolored pretty news release and put it out for publication and call it news.

KURTZ: Marie, we're talking about an hour a night at best. Is that too much to ask once every four years?

COCCO: No, I don't think that's too much to ask. I certainly wouldn't expand it.


MILBANK: ... uncritical view of what's going on the podium every night. You could show what's going on at the podium, then you could assemble your talking heads and say, "This is drivel. This is terrible. We want to watch "Survivor,"" and then invite everyone to do so. But not covering it is not the alternative.

KALB: I must say at the beginning, that is to say Monday, I was in the team, the point of view that said let's keep it down very low. In fact, it's a grand, colorful infomercial and there's no reason to offer it up as an extravaganza.

But after watching on and off for four days, I did feel like there was a cumulative insight, a cumulative insight that I had acquired by watching it all. And so I do think there's an element of the electorate getting - did I use the word shortchanged before? Not getting enough of the flavor and the full quality that you would of if you had more.

Now you talk about an hour a night. Maybe two hours a night might be the right balance. Certainly not from morning to night, not gavel to gavel. But I think a bit more might have been good political nourishment for America.

KURTZ: Why were the journalists so thrilled, Roger Simon, when there was that little dust-up on television between President Clinton, who kind of mocked George W. as a daddy's boy, and President Bush with that wonderful moment with Jamie Gangela on NBC where he said, "Call me in a month and I'll tell you what I really think of this guy if he doesn't lay off."

Were we just happy that somebody winded off their script? SIMON: Well, in the absence of totally scripted events, which is what the conventions have become, we'll take what looked like and what was I think an off-the-cuff remark of spontaneity - this is the word I'm stumbling for.

KURTZ: Spontaneity.

SIMON: And also, it wasn't a fight that you don't see between two presidents. How many times have two presidents mixed it up?

And it was also unexpected from poppy, from George H.W. Bush. He's not the kind of person who scraps with other people. And since then, I take it he's decided not to scrap with President Clinton over this.

KALB: Dana, what did you make of the video biography of George Bush shown Thursday night where two of the networks - I think it was ABC and CBS - chose to do their own video biographies rather than show the video handout that was offered to the delegates.

KURTZ: But all the cable networks did show the RNC, the Republican...


KALB: ... and NBC carried it as well. CBS and ABC did their own.

MILBANK: It was treacly and silly. And I was looking around the press gallery to see if anybody was...


KALB: Treacly means?

MILBANK: It was just so sweet. It was very difficult. It's like eating too many chocolates.

KALB: Unacceptably syrupy.

MILBANK: But I was looking around and teasing my colleagues to tell them to stop weeping. And they were watching it.

KURTZ: But you have no problems with certain networks surrounding their airwaves with this piece of propaganda?

MILBANK: Sure it's propaganda. Present your candidate in the best possible light. Present the other guy in the worst possible light. And guess what, 10 days later, we're going to - it's the other way around. So then you decide who's propaganda was better.

KURTZ: We'll revisit that question in a moment. And when we come back, we'll also look at convention coverage in the Internet age.



Roger Simon, when President Ford was taken to the hospital with two small strokes, the cable coverage was so intense hour after hour, it sounded like they were practically planning the funeral. Why was there no sense of proportion here in the middle of the Republican Convention?

SIMON: Well, because nothing was happening. And this, the possible death of a president is always going to be a big story. And quite frankly, many people were concerned how it would affect the convention, how it would affect George Bush, how it would affect our coverage. You can't ignore multiple strokes by a living ex-president.

KURTZ: Even if it's jumping the gun a bit because we didn't know the true extent of the medical condition.

SIMON: Sure. In this day and age, if you've got it, you push it on the air and worry about the consequences later.

KURTZ: Marie Cocco, Andrew Sullivan, noted writer in "The New Republic," wrote a pretty tough piece about Dick Cheney. Let me read a little bit from it. Dick Cheney, of course, the vice presidential nominee.

On gay matters, Cheney's record is not just bad, it's shocked. He says that Cheney was one of only 13 members of the House to vote against an '88 bill on federal funding for AIDS testing. And he goes on to say that the "New York Times" for all its pretensions to have left homophobia behind, has barely touched the subject. The "Washington Post" buried it.

Was Cheney's record on gay rights or gay issues something that should have gotten more media attention?

COCCO: Well, I think let's have a little truth in advertising here. Mr. Sullivan's complaint, the magazine article, complains about the press not probing harder, not so much about Mr. Cheney's record, but about the fact that he has an alleged anti-gay record with an openly gay daughter.

KURTZ: And Andrew Sullivan is HIV-positive, so it was a (INAUDIBLE).

COCCO: And I have to tell you, I agree with the premise of Andrew Sullivan's piece, which is this. This is a former defense secretary who is running on a platform that says gays are unfit to serve in the military.

He has a daughter who is openly gay. He and his wife have both said they think she's a wonderful woman. She's turned out great. She's a wonderful person.

It raises the question if she is such a wonderful person who you love and respect as a fully mature, functioning individual...

KURTZ: Right. COCCO: ... why is it that you think people with her sexual orientation are unfit to serve in the military?


KALB: Roger, let me bring it back to the question of the media. How do you explain the split editorial judgment, some news organizations publishing the story, some hesitating about publishing it and pulling it back. You have a split verdict on publication of this story, Roger.

SIMON: You have a split verdict. Some news outlets obviously don't think his daughter's sexual orientation is of any importance.

But as we see, it doesn't matter whether you have a split today. It's going to be out there, and it's going to be discussed.

KALB: Yes, but you have your own journalistic integrity that you have to preserve.

MILBANK: I disagree that there's any sort of a split verdict here. And I think Andrew is right in his general point. But he's wrong to accuse certain publications of homophobia as a result.

I think what's happening is you're just having this explosion of looking at Dick Cheney's record. It's not that this stuff won't come out into a full extent, it hasn't already...

KALB: We're talking about what is being published now.

MILBANK: ... Well, right. But we're also looking at whether he voted to have Nelson Mandela stay in prison or not too. I mean, there's a whole bunch of things going on here. And I have no doubt that there will be profiles and much more on this.

COCCO: I have to tell you on this one...

SIMON: It seems to me the premise of the article was that the Cheneys - Dick Cheney and his wife had a responsibility to talk about their daughter's sexuality, which is why I think the article is thoroughly wrong.

Dick Cheney has a responsibility to talk about his votes. He has a responsibility to talk about the Republican platform. He might even have a responsibility to talk about homosexuality. But he doesn't have any responsibility to talk about his daughter, none whatsoever.

And in fact, a piece in "USA Today," which was a very good piece on his daughter, said she's a very private person who really doesn't talk about her personal life. So why should her father do so?

KURTZ: Let me just...

COCCO: No one is asking her to talk about her personal life. And Mary Cheney doesn't go on and on and on at length about her personal life. But she has worked on the issue. She was specifically an emissary to the gay community for the corporation she worked for. She's been interviewed in gay magazines.

Here's the problem. It seems to me quite similar to the problem that certain well-known Republicans had during the impeachment inquiry. You can't have congressional leaders impeaching a president who turn out to have extramarital affairs of their own.

It seems to me that you can't run on an anti-gay plank without explaining this and how you can port this with your feelings about your own daughter.

KURTZ: Let me move on in the moments left in this segment to talk about this, the first real Internet convention. And I spent a lot of my time online, I'm reading the sites of other newspapers, magazines, and AOL and

And I'm wondering, Dana Milbank, whether this is the hot new medium for people who are bored with politics, bored with television coverage, but maybe want to dip in and out or talk to other people about political events.

MILBANK: Yeah, I'm curious. I haven't seen the numbers yet. I'll be interested in seeing that.

But there was a sense that there's all this explosion of coverage and nobody is actually reading it out there. Like a friend of mine from one of the online magazines came at the end of the night and said, "I just slaved away for seven hours so that eight people could read."

KURTZ: So you're saying there may be a mismatch between the Internet armies and the Internet consumers.

MILBANK: Yes, it's possible there were more Internet reporters than Internet readers.

KURTZ: OK. We've got to take another break. When we come back, the Democrats, Los Angeles, and the media.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

You know, on the final day of he Republican Convention, Marie Cocco, we had this authorized leak of a story about Al Gore having narrowed his mythical list of running mates, possible running mates, to six or to three or to six and a wildcard depending on who you read.

COCCO: I loved that one.

KURTZ: Was that a real story? Or was that just an attempt by the Democrats to kind of get on the media radar screen?

COCCO: Well, it was both an attempt by the Democrats to get on the media radar screen and attempt by all the reporters who have been camped out with Gore on vacation to get in the newspaper and on TV. So...

KURTZ: Let me in.

COCCO: ... Exactly. We had kind of a mutual use going on there.

KALB: Dana, you're the veep maven. You're the expert on this. You put your thumb in the air, you take guesses. The latest guess suggests there might be one of seven that Gore will choose. How do you go about picking your picks?

MILBANK: Well, I sort of pick them at random. And I'm still pushing for Parris Glendening, who I think is that wild card.

But I don't actually make serious - but the whole idea is that you can make farcical projections, and you actually get it...

KALB: You spoof it.

MILBANK: ... But I made a farcical projection on May 6 that Dick Cheney would be picked. So here we are.

KURTZ: Satirize this process. There is more to come.

Roger Simon, when all of us and a few of our closest friends get to Los Angeles, will there be the same kind of media skepticism toward the Democratic Convention and Al Gore about the scripted nature, about whether Gore is trying to pull the wool over the country's eyes?

I mean, there was a lot of either skeptical or outright hostile coverage of the Republican Convention. But we see the same thing playing out with the Democrats.

SIMON: You'll see more.

KURTZ: More.

SIMON: Unfortunately...


SIMON: ... The coverage is poll-driven. We all knew that George Bush was there with a 12-point lead, 13-point lead...

KURTZ: Right.

SIMON: ... double-digit lead in the polls, which is why I think he got such good reviews for what I thought was a well written but a standard delivery speech, nothing great.

We know that Al Gore is down in the polls. And people are going to be writing desperation stories. This guy has got to save himself.

KALB: Are you saying that the media takes its view from the poll numbers? SIMON: Yes, I'm saying...

KALB: So if Bush is high, you're writing soft...

SIMON: ... it's not like we get together in a room and decide it. But it has that effect. You always know who's far up and who's far down. And it has an effect on coverage.

KURTZ: In a desperate attempt to salvage his faltering campaign, Al Gore...

MILBANK: You can see the story line already. That's sort of how the coverage has been with Gore all along.

KALB: Dana, brave. Who's going to get it?


MILBANK: It's not Gene Shaheen (ph).

KURTZ: OK, Dana Milbank out on a limb. Roger Simon, Marie Cocco, thanks very much for joining us.

Bernie's "Back Page" when we return.


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page."


KALB: Howie, it's no secret that the TV broadcast networks put the Republicans on a kind of starvation diet, only a slice or two of coverage during prime time, nothing like the gavel-to-gavel banquet of once upon a time.


KALB (voice-over): But look at this. Look at the way print journalism covered the convention in Philly, banner headlines, page after page of coverage, even the full text of some of the speeches just the way the newspapers did in the good old political days when the delegates fought it out on the floor of the convention, when there was great suspense as to whom would be chosen as the party's candidate for president.

So this question, were they covering the same convention in Philadelphia? The big three broadcast networks and the big newspapers.

Well, the fact is there's a bit less here than meets the eye, less that is if you're talking real news. Let's tune in for a minute.

RICHARD CHENEY, REPUBLICAN VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The Gore campaign, Senator Bradley said, is a thousand promises, a thousand attacks. We're all a little weary of the Clinton-Gore routine. (APPLAUSE)

KALB: The next morning, this in the "Washington Post." "Cheney attacks Gore and Clinton." A banner headline for the obvious? It would have been real news and worth a headline only if Cheney had not attacked Gore and Clinton.

And then all this space given to reporting that Philadelphia was a news-free zone, the convention itself described as "scripted emptiness."

At the same time, though, a round of applause for the way print journalism devoted lots of columns to analysis of the big issues to make up for the absence of breaking news.

For their part, the 24-hour cable networks parted company with their broadcast brothers and went the way of print, featuring analysis along with a ringside seat to the choreographed proceedings.

Broadcast TV should have expanded its trimmed-down schedule to devote time to exploring those issues on the national agenda.


KALB: Don't expect much of a change in the way the media will cover the Democrats in LA. It's only as we get closer and closer to election day and the candidates pull out all stops that we'll get nonstop political reporting across the board by all segments of the media. And that is still three full months away.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Saturday and Sunday where we'll be live at the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles.

"Capital Gang" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, the gang is back from Philadelphia to assess how well George W. Bush performed there and what Al Gore must now do in Los Angeles. Bob Dole's campaign manager Scott Reed joins us for that and much more right here next on CNN.



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