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Reliable Sources

Did the Media Offer Fair Coverage of Gore's Acceptance Speech?

Aired August 19, 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: Rating Al Gore: Did the media go overboard in building up the vice president's speech and panning it afterward? Was the Democratic convention coverage fair? And did the press rush to judgment on the latest Lewinsky leak?

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 vice president's big night and some great expectations.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TIM RUSSERT, NBC NEWS: It's make or break. He can singlehandedly move this race dramatically closer if he performs well tonight.

BRYANT GUMBEL, CBS NEWS: Does he have to hit it out of the park tonight?

BOB SCHIEFFER, CBS NEWS: I think he does. Way out.

KURTZ (voice-over): It was, the pundits kept telling us, the biggest night of Al Gore's political life. And the verdict?

WILLIAM KRISTOL, PUBLISHER, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I honestly thought it was a disappointing speech.

CRAIG CRAWFORD, "THE HOTLINE": He was a different candidate than we've seen before, very energetic, very animated.

PEGGY NOONAN, FORMER REAGAN SPEECH WRITER: It's not that it wasn't poetic, it was the most boring, boilerplate garbage!

MARGARET CARLSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: I thought it was the speech of his life, and emphasis on "his," but nonetheless, I've never heard him that good.

ROBERT NOVAK, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": I thought he really had to hit a home run. He hit a weak grounder to the second baseman.

LARRY KING, HOST, CNN "LARRY KING LIVE": That bad?

NOVAK: That bad. KURTZ: Largely negative reviews for the veep, but not for his running mate, who seemed to get unanimous applause.

RUSSERT: His low-key style I think is a winning one and one that people respond to.

KURTZ: The media, meanwhile, were distracted by another storyline. On the day of Gore's big speech, this was the breaking news, independent counsel Robert Ray empaneling a new grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky investigation to decide whether to indict Bill Clinton after he leaves office.

And the president himself was still generating buzz for his farewell speech and his Hollywood entrance. But has the press made too much of the sub-plot that Clinton is overshadowing his would-be successor?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

Well, joining us now, Rich Lowry, editor of "National Review," Brian Kelly, national editor of "U.S. News & World Report"; and Karen Tumulty, political correspondent for "Time" magazine.

Welcome.

Brian Kelly, the television pundits -- most of them, at least -- trashed Al Gore's speech. Bob Schieffer said it was unusual and totally devoid of humor. Sam Donaldson said the vice president seemed like he was on speed. But the voters, at least in terms of these initial focus groups we've all seen, kind of seemed to like the speech. Is there a gap once again here between the public and the pundits?

BRIAN KELLY, NATIONAL EDITOR, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": Yeah, I think there was on this one. I think -- I think there's tendency sometimes for the pundits not to take these guys on their own terms. That was a terrific speech for Gore. It was the real Al Gore, or a part of the real Al Gore. He said what he wanted to say, and it was effective, clearly, as we saw in retrospect. It was not a classically great speech, but that wasn't the standard that Gore was holding himself to.

KURTZ: Well, I predict that as the polls show the race tightening by Monday, the press will shift and say, "Well, of course, the speech was a smashing success."

But Rich Lowry, whereas television focused on what I would call the "theater criticism" -- you know, was it a great stemwinder? -- the newspaper coverage Friday and Saturday was more about Gore's populist message, the "us versus them" rhetoric, bashing the big corporations. Which approach do you think has more weight?

RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": I think the message ultimately is more important, but this is -- this is kind of the divide you see in all the coverage, where the electronic media tends to be more superficial and concerned with the theater, as you put it -- this show aside, of course -- and the print tends to be more substantive. And I think the print is more important because it tends to focus on that substance. And the key question will not be how fast he read his speech, as whether that message is the right one and is going to sell.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Karen, don't you get the feeling sometimes that the media is acting like some sort of barking ringmaster in a circus, demanding that the lion of Gore race through the flaming hoop and emerge unscathed? It seemed to me to be so much subjective assessment of Gore's performance. When we take a look at some of the people we heard in Howie's package here today, there seemed to be a tilt to the right in some of those assessments. And so you get sentences like Peggy Noonan, "boilerplate garbage."

KAREN TUMULTY, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, and of course, many of these people who were called upon to comment are people who are partisans, who've always been partisans. And I think that the real goal of the Gore campaign, of Al Gore right then and there, was to do what Bill Daley had said to me that he wanted to do, which was to make a virtue out of being Al Gore. And you know, largely, he succeeded at that. However, I do think the media has sort of already cemented their impressions of who Al Gore is, and the media, at least, is not going to let him get away with that. I think the voters are willing to give him a fresh look.

KURTZ: I wonder, Karen, how much that media portrait is influenced by the polls, of which there seem to be more and more, two and three a day now, as opposed to even, say, 10 years ago. In other words, here you have the vice president, consistently down in the polls against George W. Bush, and so the tenor of the commentary that I heard throughout the convention was, you know, he needs to hit a home run because this is his one last, desperate attempt to get back in the game. If Gore suddenly were even in the polls, it seems to me the whole color -- the tenor would change.

TUMULTY: And that is exactly what we saw happen in his race against Bill Bradley.

KURTZ: Right.

TUMULTY: Suddenly, the very things that people were criticizing him for when it was very close became virtues when he was -- when he was using those same things to win.

KALB: And you go back to this point that has just been made by Howie. Does the surrender to what the poll is suggesting? Does it chase on the contrails of the poll? That is, if he's losing, he gets a modestly bad press. Brian?

KELLY: Right. No, I think we become too attuned to these polls. And part of the problem, as his campaign people keep trying to make the point -- people haven't focused on this. The whole point of the conventions is this is when people begin to focus on it. So all the polls that have come up to the point of that convention don't necessarily mean anything. And I think that -- the Gore people think that it's just beginning right now. KALB: Brian, just quickly -- in your view, how much is this in the way of theatrical and artificial hype that's at work here? The media has to write its story. It writes its story, but do you have a feeling that there's a lot of undercurrent here that is essentially hot air?

KELLY: Well, you know, campaigns are rituals. And I'm one of those who thinks it's a valuable ritual. I learned a lot last week. I learned a lot in Philadelphia. I think there's this odd disparity now between the campaigns on TV, where the campaigns are trying to play to TV in a way that they may not be good at or comfortable with, and TV is now turning its back, in a lot of ways, in either expecting some theatrics or just ignoring it completely. I'd like to see somebody figure out another way to do this.

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, we're all just back from Los Angeles, and it seemed to me, at least, that there were a lot of storylines to cover at the Democratic convention in a way that was not always the case with the GOP in Philadelphia. I mean, you had the split between the liberal and moderate wing of the party. You had some black activists who were upset with Joe Lieberman. You had the flap over the Playboy mansion, and so forth.

Adding it all up, was the coverage of the Democratic convention fair? And how did it compare to the coverage of the Republican convention?

LOWRY: Well, I think you saw some fairly typical instances of media bias in the coverage of the convention. I think the best example of this is the coverage of abortion. You know, the public doesn't totally agree with the Republican Party on abortion. It doesn't totally agree with the Democratic Party on abortion. Yet you would never see a Democrat badgered on the air, "Oh, is your position on abortion hurting you with the voters?" You'd never see someone like Kate Michelman described as a pro-choice extremist. And that's because most -- simply because most reporters are pro-choice.

KURTZ: So you're saying...

LOWRY: So they don't see this story.

KURTZ: ... bias by omission.

LOWRY: Yes. Absolutely.

KURTZ: Any other issues that seemed to you, where the Democrats got an easier ride?

LOWRY: Well, just the general tenor of so much of the coverage. The media often seems to look at these things with some -- through some sort of weird black light, where the only, quote, unquote, "extremism" or ideology shows up on the Republican side. So if you look at Cheney's speech, for instance...

KURTZ: Even though the Republican show, as everybody observed, was a very moderate, reassuring... LOWRY: Well, look at...

KURTZ: ... program?

LOWRY: Look at the coverage of Cheney and Lieberman's speeches. Both were fairly critical of the other side. Both were delivered in fairly soft-spoken tones. But it was only Cheney's speech that was described universally as, quote, unquote, red meat. And they made it sound as though Cheney had blood dripping from his fangs. And you had none of that in the coverage of Lieberman.

KALB: But compared to Lieberman, Cheney did have red meat. There was...

(CROSSTALK)

LOWRY: Lieberman had 30 attack lines in his speech!

KALB: Yeah, but not the way -- it's all a case of presentation. There's the soft approach, "I'm sad to say that they've done this and that"...

(CROSSTALK)

LOWRY: Cheney's line was, "We're all a little weary of the Clinton-Gore routine." Is that really...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: That's hardly a vicious personal attack.

TUMULTY: He also did it in a very sort of dry, humorless, you know, CEO in the boardroom giving a presentation...

LOWRY: Exactly! It was dry! It wasn't bloodthirsty!

TUMULTY: Well, but -- and I think...

KALB: No, but...

TUMULTY: I think Lieberman's tone and his demeanor and the way he used humor, I think, whatever the substance was, did, in fact, give it a much softer focus.

KURTZ: I just think that Lieberman, Joe Lieberman, often gets the benefit of the doubt, generally speaking, because so many Washington journalists have known him for years, respect the guy. He's been at their dinner parties. And I think, on balance, I'd have to agree with Rich Lowry that he has gotten a pretty nice ride since he was named by Al Gore.

(CROSSTALK)

KELLY: Cheney's an insider and, you know, there is the Washington game.

KURTZ: But Cheney's an insider who has not lived in Washington in many years.

KELLY: Right, but he, too, has got...

KURTZ: He's now a Texas oil man.

KELLY: I actually think there -- there's parity there between Cheney and Lieberman in terms of the coverage and (INAUDIBLE)

KURTZ: If -- let me just come to you, Brian, on the question of President Clinton, who made the -- scripted by Harry Thomasson, of Hollywood fame -- the long, long walk down those halls into the arena. At times it seemed to me that the theme of the convention was not Gore versus Bush but Gore versus Clinton, and there was so much talk and so much written about whether the president was overshadowing his vice president.

Was this a real issue, or were the media kind of pumping this up because it was a good storyline?

KELLY: No, I think it was. I think, you know, the media -- they set hurdles, which -- you know, we say "These are the expectations. You've got to see if the candidate's going to meet these." And I think they're legitimate, in a sense. Gore emerging from Clinton's shadow was a legitimate theme there. Would he do it? Would he pull it off? And certainly, following Clinton early on and how difficult Clinton was making it I think is an absolute -- it was a good storyline.

TUMULTY: It was also just weird. I mean, you had so many weird dynamics going with -- you know, competing fund-raisers and the fact that the president's wife was out there, you know, making a bid for her candidacy. You couldn't help but cover it.

KALB: One of the things I missed was the responsibility of the media to work out a very clear semantic definition of the word "exciting." When Gore said, "I'm not your most exciting politician," ultimately, excitement is in what is achieved, not in the theatrical performance of a speech. And that word "excitement" was just let go when I think it should have been examined by the media to tell us what it really means.

KURTZ: OK, Bernie, you get the last word for this segment.

KALB: Thank you!

KURTZ: And when we come back: the one big of unscripted news on Al Gore's big convention day.

(BEGIN ON SCREEN)

Question of the Week:

Did the media cover Al Gore's convention speech fairly compared to George W. Bush's address?

email us at: reliable@cnn.com

(END ON SCREEN)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES.

Rich Lowry, on Thursday afternoon, cable went wild over the story that independent counsel Robert Ray had empaneled a grand jury in the Monica Lewinsky investigation, possible post-presidential indictment of Bill Clinton. And I -- I confess, like everyone else in America, thought this was a horribly timed political leak, some might even say Republican smear tactic. Well, it turned out that was wrong. It turned out that it was a Democratic judge -- inadvertently, he says -- who disclosed the news to Pete Yost (ph) of the Associated Press.

Was there too much rush to judgment by all the talking heads about the idea that this must have come either from Robert Ray's office or some dastardly Republican?

LOWRY: Absolutely. You had reporters just repeating rote back the Democratic spin on this, which is that it must have been a Republican leak. And any Republican who would have leaked this would be the biggest knucklehead in the universe. It would just be stunningly stupid. It made no sense at all. And it turns out it wasn't true.

KALB: Brian, how come the media cannot exercise that self- discipline on a story such as this? Remember Oklahoma City and the first speculation was it had to be an Islamic terrorist? And then the great rollback took place. Doesn't the media ever learn anything?

KELLY: Well, you know, things are so fast, is the problem. I mean, you have to -- you know, we're sitting there -- I don't have to make a judgment till...

KALB: But that's why you're overpaid!

KELLY: ... the next day. What? I'm not -- I don't have to make a judgment till the next day, which is why I'm underpaid. But the people who were -- you know, people -- producers and editors had to make judgment calls in a half hour. And you know, somebody in the weekly magazine business -- I would say to people, "Yeah, take a deep breath every once in a while"...

LOWRY: But even if you have to report this extremely quickly, don't you say, "Democrats charge that it's a Republican leak. Republicans deny it, and there's no evidence either way"? I mean, that would just seem common sense.

KELLY: Although the really smart guys were the ones who thought it was the White House that was leaking it.

(LAUGHTER)

KELLY: Three steps beyond. We've seen that before, too.

KALB: That's real Byzantine.

TUMULTY: A double bank shot. I don't know. I just thought it was -- sort of looked ridiculous then when the White House wouldn't even give that up after it's revealed who did the leak. You still have the spokesman over at the White House saying, "Well, it's still suspicious."

KURTZ: So that's obviously a breaking news headline -- "White House says still suspicious."

KELLY: As I have said all along, the Clinton story suspends all rules of journalistic judgment. From beginning to end, this has been so bizarre. And here, right in the middle of this, you know, legitimate convention, it comes back again. And I think everybody in this business is just rolling their eyes.

KALB: I was going to ask -- before these conventions disappear, the media generally -- that is, the broadcast networks -- make a mistake in not giving it more time. Brian?

KELLY: I don't know about time. I don't think time and volume is the issue.

KALB: Time, analysis and so forth?

KELLY: I think, you know, seeing more -- seeing more on the floor, seeing more of the speeches instead of too much analysis, I think may be a way to do this. I don't think volume and hours is really what matters here. It's trying to convey, you know, a legitimate part of the story.

KURTZ: Well, in fact, when I watched the cable coverage of the conventions -- and they devote lots of hours, but you see a lot of times they just break away from the floor, just ignore what's going on with the actual speakers and the actual convention to have their own commentators or to interview different people, ranging from Tipper Gore to whoever, and to put on almost kind of a counter-convention.

The thing that really struck me, Karen Tumulty, was all the celebrities who kept popping up on the air. I mean, every time I turned on the set, there would be Christie Brinkley or Billy Baldwin or Cher or Tommy Lee Jones. And I know we're in L.A., and some of these celebrities were showing up at the press parties, as well, but -- did the celebrification of this convention bother you at all?

TUMULTY: What you're trying to suggest here is that you didn't see Christie Brinkley as a legitimate view from a delegate from New York?

KURTZ: Well, if she's a delegate from New York, but what about all the other delegates from New York? How come she got so much air time?

TUMULTY: Well, I do think it was a function of it being in California. And let's face it, when you're going for ratings, who do you want to hear from, Christie Brinkley, delegate from New York, or any other delegate from New York?

KURTZ: Going for ratings, Rich Lowry, but I mean, is that the purpose of the coverage of conventions, to bring out the most interesting stars and starlets so people will watch? Or is it the political parties that are also complicit here?

LOWRY: Well...

KURTZ: I mean, it was Gore who decided to have Tommy Lee Jones introduce him.

LOWRY: Yeah, it's both.

TUMULTY: Hey, but he is his college roommate.

KURTZ: Yeah.

LOWRY: We're in a celebrity culture, and both parties are complicit here. The Republicans used out-of-work actors, and the Democrats get the ones who are actually still...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: The Republicans used Bo Derek. She was all over the Philadelphia...

(CROSSTALK)

KELLY: You know, politics is show business. It has always had an element of show business. You know, I love the stories about Al Gore's father used to go and play the fiddle before he'd give a speech in the hills of Tennessee. I mean, what's wrong with that?

KALB: I'm reading this new book by Saul Bellow called "Ravelstein," and the second sentence in it is to this effect. "Anyone who really wants to lead in the government has to provide entertainment." And that's from the fellow who's won all the literary prizes imaginable.

I have one possibly serious question. In an environment where there's so much politics during the convention time, can't the media -- Karen, can't the media do a better job, a more creative job of using, exploiting that moment of political -- the political convention time to give us better-informed piece on things?

TUMULTY: Well, and not...

KURTZ: Just briefly.

TUMULTY: Well, I also think that the conventions are an infomercial, but I think there's value in the infomercial.

KURTZ: OK. When we come back, we'll talk about the conventions, the infomercial and whether they will soon become history, at least on television.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back.

Karen, the ratings for both conventions were down from 1996, no shock there. Have these things -- have these political gatherings become like horse-and-buggy conventions? Are they really going to become kind of obsolete in the television age?

TUMULTY: Well, I do think they could do their business in two days and probably get a better viewership. But there's so much else that's going on at the same time -- the fund-raising, in particular -- that that's the reason they're there for a week.

KURTZ: I was under the impression that the journalists liked the four-day convention because it was more parties and more fun, as opposed to the political content.

Brian, will -- if the parties don't shorten to two days in 2004 -- here we are talking about 2004 -- do you think that television, in effect, will do it for them, at least the broadcast networks will just say, "Well, we're not going to cover Monday and Tuesday night"?

KELLY: Yeah. I think there's got -- there is a change afoot here. Something -- something's going to have to happen. You still have to have the convention part of it, you know, just like the dentists have to have their convention. There's a lot of real business that gets transacted there on a certain level. But as far as the public show, the parties are going to have to restructure what they do, and they're going to have to tighten it up. I have no doubt in my mind.

KALB: There is this challenge both to the media and to the politicians to use that time in a way that gets the electorate better informed. Both sides have a responsibility. Now, Rich, we know that every time a convention ends, the political pundits weigh in and do a quick obituary for the whole process. But you'll be back there. And Brian, you'll be back there. And Karen and Howie, you'll all be back there next time around.

LOWRY: Having the parties have four days every four years to deliver their message I don't think is too much. And if the networks aren't going to cover it, someone else will, the cables or PBS or C- Span.

KURTZ: Or the Internet, which made a big splash this year. But I wonder if the public is not ahead of the media on this one. I mean, after all, for all the pageantry -- and of course, the speeches by the nominees are important -- there is not a lot of suspense because there's not a lot that we don't know in advance.

LOWRY: Yeah. Well, I don't think...

KURTZ: It's not like the conventions of old. So third-rate sitcoms are getting better ratings than these conventions. LOWRY: I don't think that's a convention problem specifically, though. I think people are generally less interested in politics. We live in a depoliticized culture. So even if you had huge food fights at these conventions, I'm not sure how much people would care.

KALB: And also, it was early, but you know, Howie, there was suspense here. How would Gore do? How would Lieberman do? There were these dimensions of suspense.

KELLY: And the same for Bush. The same -- those are very high stakes, whether he performed properly or not.

KALB: I vote for more time.

KURTZ: Huge food fights? Is that the answer, Karen?

TUMULTY: We can only hope not. I think...

KURTZ: Turn it into Crossfire?

(LAUGHTER)

TUMULTY: I think getting more actual business done during the convention, maybe once again going back to where the vice presidential nominee is announced during the convention, might increase interest somewhat.

KURTZ: Of course, the parties don't want that because they're afraid of anything that might spiral out of control. That's why these conventions have become so pre-packaged and pre-scripted and -- as the media have long complained.

Now, Bernie, I think you're probably right in terms of us being back four years from now, but we will see.

Rich Lowry, Karen Tumulty, Brian Kelly, thanks very much for joining us.

Bernie's Back Page up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

KALB: Howie, there's been something on television all week long that has sent me galloping into the journalistic past and future.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(voice-over): And let me tell you what I saw, my fellow delegates. Two highly respected news organizations holding journalistic hands, teaming up for the conventions to give you a preview of the next day's headlines in "The New York Times." A couple of weeks ago in Philly, this past week in L.A.

TED KOPPEL, ABC NEWS: I understand you have a few interesting nuggets on how the speech came to be.

MICHAEL ORESKES, "NEW YORK TIMES": Ted, you learn a lot about a candidate in the way he prepares for the big moments, and...

KALB: So this question. Whatever happened to the famous competition between news organizations, the scramble for the big scoop, the big exclusive? But there's also a larger question. Why would a TV network give some of its precious primetime to competing print reporters rather than to its own TV correspondents? Is print seen as having more gravitas than TV? Is it a need to keep changing faces, a case of mutual self-promotion to boost ratings and circulation?

Whatever the reasons, it's all part of a trend. For example, the tie-in between MSNBC and "The Washington Post." And then there are all those print journalists sounding off all over the tube.

RON BROWNSTEIN, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": They want to ask, "Are you better off than you were eight years ago?" That's a debate that both of these men seem really eager to begin.

JEFF BIRNBAUM, "FORTUNE" MAGAZINE: Bush is trying to say he's trying to include everybody. Gore is clearly making enemies and separating "them" from "us."

JONATHAN ALTER, "NEWSWEEK": He said he was his own man, which -- which Clinton knew Gore would have to do.

KALB: All of this propelled me into the past, and those of a certain age will remember those annual round-tables that CBS called "Years of Crisis." CBS News correspondents, all of them -- Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid and the others, no outsiders invited, pure, undiluted CBS News. But now we've got joint appearances during conventions. And if this continues, well, just think of the future -- the networks, broadcast, cable, and the newspapers, the magazines, all interviewing each other, slowly dissolving into each other.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

And we may end up with one anchor interviewing himself. OK, I'll confess I'm exaggerating wildly, but obviously, any shrinking of journalism is not a good idea. Even so, that image of the last anchorman is one I can't shake off, as we speed across that bridge into the great question mark of the 21st century.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, I hope you're the last anchorman. 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.

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