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Reliable Sources

Democrats Hit Hollywood

Aired August 12, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The Democrats hit Hollywood: Why is Joe Lieberman getting such glowing coverage? Should Pat Buchanan be getting more coverage? Are Bill and Hillary getting too much coverage? And can Al Gore get the media to pay attention to his convention?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Los Angeles, the site of the Democratic 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 vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman and his newfound superstar status in the media.



JOHN ROBERTS, CBS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He is a model of probity. He is an absolute representative of moral rectitude.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some call him the conscience of the Senate.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everyone likes Joe Lieberman, everyone who's around him. And he's an amusing, charming guy.


KURTZ (voice-over): The praise seems to be universal, glowing remarks from the TV talking heads, positive reaction from all over the editorial pages, even his new opponents offering compliments.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I do appreciate his strong positions on ethics that he's taken. He's a man of integrity.

KURTZ: And Al Gore was getting plenty of praise from the pundits for picking the first Jewish American to serve on a presidential ticket.


CHIP REID, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I can tell you that the word they are all using is bold, a bold decision.



HEATHER NAUERT, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Gore is going to be running with a Jewish senator. I think that's terrific.


KURTZ: Lieberman has drawn so much praise, in fact, that some skeptics are questioning whether the media are getting carried away.

Gore, meanwhile, has some competition for the spotlight from Bill and Hillary Clinton, who are holding fundraising extravaganzas in Los Angeles this weekend, and from Pat Buchanan and the Reform Party, whose tumultuous convention in nearby Long Beach has been stealing some of the headlines.

And with George W. Bush getting a sizable bump in the polls from his Republican convention, the media consensus seems to be that Al Gore needs his own major boost from the Democratic gathering. And that may be difficult with the limited time the broadcast networks are devoting to the events in Los Angeles.

And if the TV ratings in Philadelphia are any guide, the Democratic nominee also needs to worry about just how many Americans are watching.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Jim Warren, Washington bureau chief for the "Chicago Tribune," Tamala Edwards, political writer for "Time" magazine, and Terence Smith, media correspondent for "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer."

Terry Smith, the overwhelming media story line on Joe Lieberman has been "he's Jewish, he's Jewish, he's Jewish." Understandable the first day, second-day reaction stories. It now seems that we've probably interviewed half the Jews in the country culminating with Frank Rich talking to Woody Allen today about the very selection.

In fact, there was an e-mail to CNN today from somebody who likes Lieberman saying, "All I've heard this past week is Jew." Should the press be making so much of one candidate's religion?

TERENCE SMITH, MEDIA CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEWSHOUR WITH JIM LEHRER": I think it's a legitimate topic at the outset. This is a press corps that's been covering Gore. That's not been an exciting assignment, that one, in recent months.

Now suddenly there's something to talk about. I think really it's been more fascinated than fawning, the coverage. And the subject of his religion is legitimate for inquiry and explanation in the opening phase of the campaign. And I think we're probably through it.

KURTZ: Jim Warren, why is it OK in the media's eyes for Lieberman to say a prayer, quote the Bible, and talk at length about his orthodox faith, but yet when George W. Bush talked about the importance of Jesus in his life, great media controversy?

JAMES WARREN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, the spirit moves me to suggest that there is a certain double standard there, that a Southern Baptist going on and on about his religion to the extent that Lieberman did, we would have cringed, and perhaps we would have sent out some warning signals.

We think back to the coverage in recent years, everything from Jimmy Carter coming out to saying he was born again to the many stories we have -- "Washington Post," "Chicago Tribune" a few years ago -- about the Republican Party perhaps being taken over by those evil souls from the Christian right. And even recently, the one comment that Governor Bush made in a Republican debate concerning who was his favorite philosopher. And we all said, "Oh, weird," when he said Jesus.

I think there is, yes, there is a certain double standard there. And when it comes to the Christian right, for a bunch of reasons, partly I think our own ignorance, but partly because we see them as tied to an agenda that some of us might see -- a political agenda that might seem somewhat onerous. We get a little bit anxious.

TAMALA EDWARDS, POLITICAL WRITER, "TIME" MAGAZINE: I'd have to argue that point a little bit. I think with Governor Bush it makes us a little uncomfortable because he uses Jesus almost as a character witness. "You should vote for me because God changed my heart. Who is the thinker in my life? It's Jesus."

Lieberman, on the other hand, for people who have covered him for such a long time, they realize this is a man who walks everywhere he has to go on Saturdays, that the faith seems to be a little bit more legitimate because they see it actively in his life, not as something that he's put out there...

KURTZ: You don't mean more legitimate. You mean less exploited for political purposes?

EDWARDS: ... well, perhaps less exploited. Maybe that's a good way to cage it. But I think legitimate in that it's not something that he has used to say, "This is a reason you should vote for me," or, "This is something you need to know about me."

(CROSSTALK) BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Hang on, Jim, just a minute. When you take the Tennessee speech by Lieberman at the opening shot, he mentioned God about 12 or 13 times, according to some religious accountants. Had Bush done this -- the point that you're raising, Jim, and the point that you're raising -- it seems to me there has been a great hesitancy to take on that issue with respect to Lieberman.

Now let me ask a very, very delicate question. Is it a one- dimensional examination at the outset, as you suggested Terry, fair game at the outset, not fawning but fascinating? Or do you think there's a hesitancy to take it on for religious reasons about anxiety, about possibly being perceived as anti-Semitic?

SMITH: Well, if so, fine. In other words, let's be considerate of people and their positions.

I have to disagree also with Jim a little in that I think it is legitimate inquiry when it is different and new and when his orthodoxy and the limits of parameters it might set for his performance in office. And once those are established, and once it is clear just what is a modern orthodox versus something else, then I think you move on.

WARREN: You take issue with me. I'll take issue a little bit with Tamala.

Joe Lieberman -- it's now Saturday -- has not desisted from using this again and again in all his speeches. I'm checking with our reporter who has been covering him. He's still making it a big thing. And I do think he runs certainly a political risk of overdoing it.

And you can't come away at this point without thinking that maybe it's a little bit less of a matter of his extolling sort of a certain cultural and personal pride than it is a very calculated political gambit to say, "Hi, see, the guy who picked me is not the cautious soul that we all thought he was."

EDWARDS: You know, I don't agree with Jim on that because I do think if he continues, if we look up and a month from now Joe Lieberman is opening everything with a prayer, "Thank you God for having me here," and also when he said in this announcement speech something about Gore showing that he was a man of God, not Joe Lieberman, but referring to Gore as a man of God, I think that did get a lot of reporters to go, "Wait a minute."

KALB: Yeah, but wait a minute as well. But let's not think of journalism as simply as stenographer of the political campaigns. It seems to me to be an acute emphasis on the one-dimensional reporting if Joe Lieberman is "God, God, God" constantly, there is still a responsibility of the media to draw back, report the God of course, but draw back into a further examination of the other parts of Joe Lieberman that have nothing to do with religion. That is his voting record in a more detailed way.

It's beginning to emerge. But it was not there at the outset. KURTZ: Bernie, that brings me to the next question I wanted to ask, which is if you look at the roundup of the instant punditry that accompanied the Lieberman selection, it's simply incredible. Bill Safire, "a man of ethical stature," Maureen Dowd, an "inspiring and brave choice," George Will, "wise and tough-minded selection," E.J. Dionne, "remarkably bold choice."

You would be tempted to say that this was the liberal media embracing a Democratic candidate, except lots of conservatives seem to love the guy too. Where is the skepticism that greeted Dick Cheney's selection?

WARREN: Well, in fact, a better Sapphire line in fact from that same column was, "Only in America can one use a Jew to throw a hail Mary pass." We're never in any doubt about how excited this columnist was.

No, I agree. There was a good deal more skepticism when it came to Cheney. And just imagine if Cheney had invoked many of those same phrases. If Dick Cheney had gone in before the convention in Philadelphia and talked about the spirit moving me, I think...

KALB: What does -- let me interrupt you -- what does that tell us about the media? If -- you raised that Cheney for example, had Cheney done a speech that paralleled Lieberman's and so forth, what in fact would the media -- how in fact would the media have handled it? And why wasn't it handled that same way? There is some kind of bubble underneath there in the media.

WARREN: There may also be a little double standard here when it comes to minorities. Jews in this country are minorities. It's not the same as dealing with the Christian right. And so perhaps at least for a period of time, we're giving Joe Lieberman a little bit of a pass.

EDWARDS: But also I think there is a bit of a McCain effect here, that within the bubble of Washington, Joe Lieberman seems to be a guy that a lot of the people who cover him have known and liked. And I think that comes through in their coverage.

KURTZ: Is it also possible, Tamala, that there is this other dimension? And that is when Cheney was named by George W. Bush, the Democrats went after him hard on all these controversial votes. They had the research ready. The fed it to the press. The press naturally repeated it.

The Bush campaign made a decision not to attack Joe Lieberman. In fact, the Republican nominee said he thought Lieberman was a good man, and so forth.

So is the press in a way taking its cue from the opposition? If the opposition lies down its guns, the press does not fire?

EDWARDS: Well, actually the Bush campaign took an interesting tack, which is to say that Al Gore's vice president is more conservative than he is. I think they decided that rather than tearing him down, they wanted to build him up as, "If you like Joe Lieberman, you should really look at George Bush." And so it did create a different boomlet.

SMITH: I think you have to look at the politics of this point as well, in this election. And look at that, and that's why it went down so well.

This is a different kind of Democrat and had a different effect on Al Gore and his ticket when he named him. So that's why the media responded I think.

KALB: Isn't there something, a possibility of suspense being added to the campaign because of the nomination of Joe Lieberman? And that's why the press, always ready to respond to suspense, has gone after this story this way?

WARREN: There's something also that just comes to mind, Howie. If you think of all the times people in Washington have bashed the likes of William Bennett when it comes to the issue of the apparent, America becoming Sodom and Gomorrah, this great unhappiness in the state of American culture, and popular culture values in particular.

There is Joe Lieberman at his side in most of these press conferences. Are we going after him in the same way for what I would argue is a grossly overstated take on the state of American culture? No. I think we are being a little bit softer on him than we are when it comes to the same people, some of them on the Christian right, who almost word for word agree with Joe Lieberman.

KURTZ: Let your words be a challenge to your colleagues in the press. And when we come back, the president of the United States still on the stage.



Just at the moment that Al Gore is ready to get his moment in the Hollywood sun, all of the media attention suddenly focused on the man he wants to succeed. Bill Clinton, a remarkable confession, statement, set of comments, at an Illinois church on Thursday. Let's take a look.


WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think that as awful as what I went through was, and as humiliating as it was, more to others than to me, sometimes when you think you've got something behind you then it's not behind you, this sort of purging process if it doesn't destroy you can bring you to a different place.


KURTZ: Tamala Edwards, is it that the press wants to keep harping on Clinton, the sex scandal, and the possible effect on Vice President Gore, or is it just such a compelling moment and a compelling story that we have no choice but to cover the hell out of it?

EDWARDS: Well, I think it is incredibly compelling to watch him go on at that length about that period of time, which we've all talked about for so long. And let's face it. When he gives his speech tomorrow night, it's something that's going to be on all of our minds as he sort of does his farewell address. When he hands off to Al Gore on Tuesday in the middle of the country, we'll be saying, "Can he hand on the good things and not the bad things?"

And what were we supposed to do, ignore it? What was he supposed to do, not do it when he got these specific questions?


KALB: ... looking around to see if Oprah were conducting that particular interview with the president. But you know, Howie, you mentioned the point that the right...

SMITH: The future Oprah.

KALB: ... yes, the future Oprah. But you mentioned the point that it got such a media ride. The fact is, if you take a look at print, the "Washington Post" led with a two-column head. The "New York Times" put it on page 12. So you have a clear distinction there in editorial judgment on the impact of that speech.

One other thing. When the president used the word destroyed, what's the first thing that came to your mind, those of us who are old enough around the table? Nixon's farewell speech. Remember, he said, "If you hate your enemies, you wind up destroying yourself."

WARREN: I think a larger point maybe to be made is we're looking at a guy who is an inveterate maybe even shameless but wonderfully adroit scene stealer. He can't help himself.

And whether it's giving out the Medals of Freedom at the White House last week -- I don't know if you saw that, but I was looking at that. But it almost became as if this scene was about Bill Clinton, about himself more than it was about John Kenneth Galbraith and former Senator McGovern.

And similarly, at the Barrington, Illinois, gathering the other day, I mean, it was Bill Clinton sort of going into a certain vacuum. But having said that, there's been a lot of moaning and groaning about how he and Hillary are somehow monopolizing Al Gore's time.

Remember, this is a guy who almost single-handedly revitalized this party. A lot of these folks here have a lot to thank him for. So the notion they should come out here and just sit in a Jacuzzi for two minutes and then split, or lock themselves up in a closet is a little bit unfair.


SMITH: Listen to the cheers on Monday night...


SMITH: ... when this man finally takes his leave of the stage. I think this will be remarkable in this hall. And you'll see quite...

KURTZ: But Terry, let me bring you back to the media question because the broadcast networks, unlike PBS, are devoting an hour a night on average at best to these proceedings. Now if some of that media oxygen is going to be sucked up by Bill, Hill, Monica, the fundraising, the Hollywood celebrities, isn't that inevitably going to take part of the press spotlight off Al Gore?

SMITH: Well, you know, I remember in 1988 when we had the last sequence like this, the president giving away to a kind of vice president, Ronald Reagan. In New Orleans, he made a long and dramatic speech on Monday night. On Tuesday morning, he handed the baton at the airport, and off he went to...


KALB: Terry, let me bring you back to the media thing with this. The media aspect is what we're talking about here. The fact is it has been such a steady tattoo of media coverage of Clinton and that in fact it does, to borrow your phrase, suck up the oxygen. He has barged in on Gore's moment. And the media, by emphasizing the particular point of coverage...

EDWARDS: I have to argue with that. I mean, we could claim...


KALB: ... So therefore, Jim, you got it wrong.

EDWARDS: We claimed two weeks ago that we didn't have enough to write about, that there was only one story. And now the irony is that we're complaining that we have too much to do. There are too many stories. There's too many focuses. I think that there's no reason why the president can't have his moment on Monday night, and we write about that, and then turn to Al Gore.

KALB: We're talking about the toll, go ahead...


WARREN: You are wrong for many reasons. But I'll just name two for the sake of brevity.

The fact is we've got 15,000 journalists here. Where is Al Gore today? He's in Springdale, Pennsylvania. He's not going to get here for several days.

Bill Clinton is here. We're sort of desperate for stories. Bill Clinton is going to be off the scene by Tuesday. He'll be out of here.

SMITH: That's my point. It's scripted. WARREN: And then Al Gore will be the story. And we'll be focusing on what is maybe the most important night of Al Gore's political career. And we won't be thinking of Bill Clinton.

We will probably in some indirect fashion be wondering how he stacks up as an orator. But we'll be focusing almost to a person in this hall on Al Gore. He's going to get his time.

EDWARDS: And for the next two-and-a-half months, that's the only person we're going to really be writing about. I mean, Clinton will be Clinton fatigue, four paragraphs, eight paragraphs down. But when we come out of Thursday, the guy in the lead of your story will always be Al Gore.


SMITH: The competition is the woman we just saw down on the podium rehearsing and doing a sound check, Hillary Clinton. There's competition.

KURTZ: And her story will not be over on Thursday.

SMITH: And that's competition for money as well.

KURTZ: We talked a lot about the Republicans and their unscripted -- rather, scripted convention. The Democrats seem to be a little more unscripted. And when we come back, a very unscripted convention down in Long Beach, California.


KURTZ: Welcome back to the Democratic Convention.

Jim Warren, Pat Buchanan and the implosion of the Reform Party, important seismic political story, or a mere sideshow that's basically gotten hyped by a press looking for something to write about?

WARREN: Well, nobody ever said democracy was tidy. And just the notion of turning on the TV and seeing delegates to a convention asking questions, challenging the chair...

KURTZ: Shouting.

WARREN: ... I find...

KURTZ: Doing press conferences.

WARREN: ... yeah. I actually find it rather refreshing and pretty interesting. But because for obvious reasons our assessment that the other conventions have been so scripted, this took on a little lure. And the fact there's 12.5 million bucks riding on this, and the fact that 12.5 million bucks could conceivably make a little bit of a difference on the general campaign.

KALB: Jim, get your mind off the money. Think of it this way. Buchanan may come in with one or two percent of the electorate. Nader and the Green Party may come in with four or five.

Yet the media has given much more coverage to Pat Buchanan and the Reform Party. Is this -- how shall I call it -- fair journalism?

SMITH: Well, you have a point there. And yet Nader didn't display this sort of chaos that went on down at Long Beach.

KALB: So the media is a sucker for plain political theater. Let's say it out loud.

SMITH: I think what we saw was the destruction of what Ross Perot started. And we saw it happening. And we have put it in position as an inconsequential political element for now.

EDWARDS: Also the implosion of Pat Buchanan, somebody who at one point was considered much more seriously as he is this time.

SMITH: Particularly by Pat Buchanan.

EDWARDS: Well, at every turn...


EDWARDS: Exactly. And at every turn, it becomes more and more of a soap opera.

KALB: So why so much coverage? It's taken so much less seriously (INAUDIBLE) way, way on the outer fringe?

EDWARDS: Well, I think you do have to go back to the money. And you have to realize that even though these parties may only pull a small percentage point, they could make the difference in November as to if this is going to be as close an election as we're being told, that two percentage points, or those four percentage points, that's major.

WARREN: So much coverage because he's a charismatic figure, so much coverage because he's taken the baby of Ross Perot and turned it into something different, so much coverage because he took what Jesse Ventura thought he had in his hands and has commandeered it. It's a terrific political story.

SMITH: And so much coverage because they had the wisdom to have it a few days before the Democratic Convention.

KALB: And finally, the media's surrender to great theater.

KURTZ: OK, I think actually this has not been a front page story in a lot of newspapers. So maybe the coverage is not quite as excessive as you all think.

Jim Warren, Terry Smith, Tamala Edwards, Bernard Kalb, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, John Stossel and an on-air apology at "20/20."


KURTZ: Before we go, no one in the media likes to admit error, but there are some red faces this weekend at "20/20."


KURTZ (voice-over): John Stossel, ABC's controversial consumer reporter, has landed himself in hot water, so hot in fact that he's been forced to apologize.


JOHN STOSSEL, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: But it was wrong. I apologize for the mistake. I'm deeply sorry I misled you. We never want to do that.


KURTZ: Stossel says the media run too many scare stories about medicine and health, a contrarian approach that let him take on the safety of organic food in a "20/20" broadcast last February.


STOSSEL: We searched the records and found there have been no tests done that actually compare bacteria counts in organic versus normal foods. So we did our own laboratory sampling.


KURTZ: Stossel said ABC's testing found no more pesticide residue on ordinary produce than on the organic kind.


STOSSEL: The amazing part, though, is that it is twice as much money or more, and it's no better and maybe worse. Yet, people buy it.


KURTZ: But the Environmental Working Group, which supports organic food, found that conclusion hard to stomach. The group checked with the researchers and told Stossel he was wrong. But "20/20" aired the segment again last month. The problem, the two researchers hired by ABC say they never did the pesticides test.

KEN COOK, PRESIDENT, ENVIRONMENTAL WORKING GROUP: You have to do a special test to find out if the bacteria that causes food poisoning and can kill was present. They didn't do that test. This is Food Safety 101, and Stossel didn't do it.

KURTZ: ABC executives reprimanded Stossel and suspended his producer for a month. Stossel acknowledged the blunder Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) STOSSEL: The labs we used never tested the produce for pesticides. We thought they had, but they hadn't. We misunderstood. And that was our fault.


KURTZ: Critics aren't satisfied.

COOK: Why is Stossel still working there now? He fabricated one set of tests. And he used another set of tests to defame an entire industry.


KURTZ: John Stossel thrives on challenging the consumer movement and taking risks. He even rides his bicycle without a helmet. On this story, it was Stossel who suffered a crack-up for peddling too hard without the facts.

That's it for this special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. We'll be back tomorrow morning live at 11:30 Eastern, 8:30 here on the West Coast, with more on the media as journalists continue to arrive here in LA for the Democrats' big show.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields is right here with a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, from the Democratic National Convention, we'll look at how much Joe Lieberman helps the ticket and Bill Clinton's role here in Los Angeles. The full "Capital Gang," we'll have that and much more right here next on CNN.



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