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Reliable Sources

Is the Press Kissing up to the Vice President?

Aired August 26, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The Gore bounce -- is the press slavishly following the polls and kissing up to the vice president? Also, David Maraniss on his new book about Al Gore and, you can't escape it, media madness over "Survivor."

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

We begin with Al Gore and his remarkable transformation in the media.


KURTZ (voice-over): In the months after he clinched the Democratic nomination, Vice President Gore got roughed up by the press. He was down in the polls to George W. Bush. He was stiff and wooden. The negative stories kept on coming. And the reviews weren't much better in Los Angeles, either. Most pundits panned Gore's Democratic convention address. But then, a funny thing happened on the way to the election. A lot of actual voters had a different take and the vice president started surging past Bush in the polls.

Newspapers played up the new surveys and the tone of Gore's press coverage changed virtually overnight.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Al Gore is on a roll, having made up a lot of ground.

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We have bounce. We have a horse race also.

KURTZ: Now journalists began calling Gore's convention speech a smashing success. And what about that other guy? How's he faring in the press these last few days? Bush stumbles and questions are raised anew, said this "New York Times" headline. And, a shift in Bush's footing, declared this front page headline in the "Washington Post."

Even a few verbal slips by Bush became fodder for the press.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I will work to end terrorist -- tariffs and barriers everywhere.

KURTZ: So this question, are the media changing their tune based on the candidates' performances, or is the press just following the polls?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, David Maraniss, associate editor of the "Washington Post" and author of "The Prince of Tennessee: The Rise of Al Gore," Susan Feeney, senior editor of Morning Edition on National Public Radio and in New York, Jay Nordlinger, managing editor of "National Review." Welcome.

David Maraniss, I don't make many predictions but I said on the show last week that if Gore's polls went up, everybody would say the convention was a huge success. Now you have the kind of coverage in Friday's "New York Times," and this is one example of many, Gore "in a political groove, a better candidate, firmer in his purpose, confident in his message, comfortable in his skin."

DAVID MARANISS, "WASHINGTON POST": You could have predicted this a year ago, Howie. You probably did. It's just part of the momentum of campaigns. I mean, it's just the way that happens.

KURTZ: But the press portrait of Al Gore just three weeks ago was nothing like the glowing reviews he's getting right now.

MARANISS: Sure. No, but that cycle of criticizing somebody and then inevitably they'll get their comeback if they do something halfway decent is a pretty predictable part of all campaigns. I remember, I mean, it was the same thing in 1992 you remember, when Clinton came out of the convention on that bus ride and everybody was talking about the glowing reports in the press.

I remember taking criticism myself for stories that the "Post" ran on that bus ride and I didn't even write the stories. And people on shows like this were saying, you know, Maraniss is falling in love with Clinton. I wasn't even there. So I mean, I see this, you know, as sort of a predictable part of American journalism and politics.

KURTZ: Well, we'll excuse you on an ex-post facto basis. Jay Nordlinger in New York, what about the comparable switch here, which is the suddenly negative coverage of George W.? I mean, just to give you a few quick quotes, the "Los Angeles Times" questions whether he has the heart for a tough campaign based on his supposedly light schedule, the "New York Times" calling him this week "reactive and not entirely coherent." The "Washington Post," "on the defensive, struggling, mispronouncing words." What's up with this shift on Bush's coverage?

JAY NORDLINGER, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, the coverage has been remarkable and I think it's a little bit flabbergasting. George Bush is the same candidate he's always been ever since the beginning of the primaries, ever since even before the primaries. He's always made these verbal gaffes. He's always been a bit of a stumble bum. He is no worse a candidate now than he's ever been but there's been this rash of stories of, you know, Bush can't speak. He's in disarray, and so on.

I find it a little bit mysterious, I have to tell you. There is, there is a roll going on here. There is a roll for Gore and against Bush, and it's been a wonder to behold. You know, the usual explanation, the explanation that we always hear is that journalists like a horse race. They're glad the presidential campaign is competitive. They didn't want a blow out.

KURTZ: And you take issue with that?

NORDLINGER: I think that's unsatisfying as an explanation. I mean, I know a lot of journalists and you know even more journalists and I've never heard a single one say you know, I really wish it were a horse race. I just don't buy it.

BERNARD KALB, CNN RELIABLE SOURCES COMMENTATOR: Susan, let me pick it up in a slightly different way. Is there really a news bulletin in effect that the media is following the polls? For example, I'm thinking of a book on journalism in the White House that was written about, what, 15 or so years ago called "On Bended Knee," and that was a portrait of the White House press corps on bended knee to President Reagan, because the president was so popular there wasn't adequate coverage in the press corps to go against that image of popularity of President Reagan.

Therefore, for the media to fall in line, practice sort of kowtowing herd journalism at the present time is really hardly news.

SUSAN FEENEY, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO: Well, it is true that we are a little bit of addicts to polls. We try to break the habit every four years. We're not very good at it. On the other hand, the poll is telling us that Al Gore is ahead is news. He's had a long lousy year and a switch in the race is something you have to cover. It's different. You have to do it.

KALB: Sure, you have to cover it, but Howie raised the question early on about transformation. Who's transformed, the media or Gore? It's clearly Gore's a constant.

FEENEY: But they, well, but they fuel each other in a way because Al Gore is clearly invigorated and a better fighting candidate with him coming back up. And Bush, I think, is a little nervous. He's been the leader in this all along and I think these things feed on themselves. Yes, he's always made stumbles, but that was a waterfall of stumbles the other day. That wasn't his usual daily dose. And I think that conditions put some pressure on the candidate and help, that make them behave differently.

KURTZ: But wouldn't all that be overlooked, David Maraniss, if Bush was five or six points ahead in the polls? In other words, these things tend to get magnified when you have this media lens that's saying candidate seems to be slipping.

MARANISS: I think that that's true. I also think, though, when Jay talked about a mystery, sometimes there are very prosaic answers to mysteries and it's not all this mysterious momentum and charisma or automatic charms you get after the polls go up but something as simple as perhaps a lot of the reporters who normally covered Bush were tired and that new people were assigned to cover them for those few days after the convention.

They saw Bush slipping in a way that the people who, you know, for the first time...

KURTZ: With a fresh eye.

MARANISS: With fresh eye, whereas people who have been covering for two months had seen that every day and gotten used to it. Sometimes those are parts of the answers.

KALB: Jay, let me pick up a headline in the "New York Times" on Friday, "Gore Finds His Groove On Post-Convention Roll." You used the word groove before.


KALB: Is it that journalism cannot place two candidates on the same groove? Is a groove only a solo performance?

NORDLINGER: Apparently that's true. I think of a line of William Safire's which I've always loved and it's kick 'em when they're up. And I've tried to apply that to my own reporting, not always faithfully. But I think that most journalists don't. I think there's a bit of a pack mentality. When the candidate's up, he's really, really up. And when the candidate's down, as George W. Bush seems to be down, he's awfully down. When it rains, it pours and it seems that poor Bush can't do anything right. He has the opposite of a Midas touch yet...

KALB: Gore is group...

MARANISS: How often has Bush been down?

KURTZ: Not very often in this campaign. But Jay, just to continue, when you said earlier you were kind of flabbergasted by the dramatic change in tone here, I mean, do you think there is at least partially an ideological explanation for it? Rush Limbaugh said the other day that the press is just gaga over Gore because Gore is their guy. In other words, that this gives journalists, left leaning journalists, in Limbaugh's view at least, an opportunity to boost the candidate who they want to win?

NORDLINGER: Well, I'll tell you this, Howard, conservatives tire of complaining about media bias and lord knows the world tires of hearing conservatives complain about media bias. So many of us try to soft peddle it. But I think it's an important factor in our politics and I think eventually it can't be ignored.

I believe I detect in some of the recent Gore coverage a bit of relief on the part of the media, almost a joy, a euphoria that Gore is off the floor and he's now ahead and charging ahead toward the presidency. And again, these things are more felt than reasoned out, really. It's just an intuition. There's nothing scientific about it.

KALB: Jay, you've made your point. I've got to pitch this up. Where was the indictment of the liberal media when Gore was not in the groove? There was no problem there when Gore was under criticism, being attacked?

KURTZ: Susan?

FEENEY: No, I was just thinking, you have to add that any journalist you ask would tell you that Gore has never been as bad as his caricatures and it was really a matter of time, maybe journalists, but certainly voters, would take another look at him. And I think that's part of the factor, too.

MARANISS: But, you know, we all, anyone who's covered either of these two candidates -- and Howie's actually written about this -- knows that the press preferred covering George W. Bush. He was more open to the press. He was talking to them every day. Al Gore was, you know, went five weeks without meeting with the traveling press corps. So for all of that period it was just the opposite argument, that the press was being too nice to Bush.

KURTZ: Journalists like Bush personally. They think he's a lot of fun to be around.

KALB: So, let's cut through the last five minutes and what we extricate is the single factor that's created this transformation in the media. To me it is the polls and the surrender on the part of most of the media to what the polls dictate. The media does not want to go into conflict with what the polls offer, yes or no?

MARANISS: I think that's only half the answer. I think Gore is lifted by the polls as much as the media and so therefore he does perform better. Bush is also a little bit discombobulated by being behind, so he performs a little worse. I think it's a combination of the media and the candidates.

KURTZ: Susan?

FEENEY: Yeah, and I think there are other factors that helped Gore along, too -- his convention, his Lieberman pick, most recently Janet Reno saying she wasn't going to pursue campaign finance violations. There are a lot of other factors.

KALB: Good.

KURTZ: Jay Nordlinger, in the time remaining, I did want to observe that when the convention was going on in Los Angeles, a lot of the prognosticators and commentators thought they didn't do as good a job as the Republicans did in Philadelphia. A lot of people panned Gore's speech but as I say now it, I think, seems more successful because he got a lift in the polls. And if there's one moment that seemed to get a lot of cynical viewing in the media but which a lot of voters seemed to like, it's this moment that's captured on the cover of your magazine, "National Review," with the headline "Gross Out," this, of course, the increasingly famous kiss.

So is your magazine out of step with America by putting this headline on this picture?

NORDLINGER: Terribly out of step, as usual, yes. It was a gross out for us but it seemed to have charmed a good deal of the population.

KURTZ: Was the convention a gross out for you as well?

NORDLINGER: I do think the press coverage of the Democratic convention was on the whole more favorable than the press coverage of the Republican convention. I think the Republicans were in for a very hard time. There are two things in particular that I noticed about the Democratic convention, two things that got very little coverage.

KURTZ: Just briefly.

NORDLINGER: Four Cuban-American delegates from Florida walked out when Clinton appeared on Monday night, very little coverage. And the Boy Scouts who were there to present the flag and to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, I believe, were booed and my only point is I believe that the equivalent things, had they occurred in Philadelphia the Republican convention, would have had bigger play. Relatively minor notes, but interesting to me.

KURTZ: Jay, you've got the last word. Jay Nordlinger, "National Review."

NORDLINGER: I'm sorry about that.

KURTZ: That's all right. Susan Feeney, National Public Radio, thanks very much for joining us. David Maraniss, stick around.

When we come back, we'll talk more about Al Gore and the press and David Maraniss's new book.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Still with us, David Maraniss of the "Washington Post" and author of the new book, "The Prince of Tennessee: The Rise of Al Gore."

David, you mentioned a few minutes ago that Gore had gone 62 campaign days without a news conference during one stretch. Why does Al Gore, who is a former reporter, as his ads keep reminding us, have such difficult relations at times with the press?

MARANISS: That's a mind boggling question to me. I mean, he was a reporter for six years. He, I think part of it was his consultants were telling him to stay on message and he was nervous about the...

KURTZ: Meaning to stiff the press.

MARANISS: Stiff the press and there, the whole Elian story was breaking during half of that period and he didn't want to be answering those questions every day. But it was really stupid. And it was made so apparent the same way when he would answer questions about abortion and say, you know, he didn't change his mind. Then one day he decided to just say yes, I did change my mind and I've evolved on that subject, that's the end of it. You know, it's a one day story once you do that and you'd think that someone would have learned that lesson, but we clearly hadn't. KALB: And as a consequence, by making that disclosure, he's been freed and much easier with the press. Let me ask you a question that writers often face when they write books. Do you, David, have any second thoughts about the portrait of Gore that emerges from the pages of your book? Anything that in retrospect now that the book is out and the articles have been published in the "Washington Post" in which possibly you might have emphasized to a greater degree to give us a more accurate picture?

MARANISS: Well, I mean, on the largest sense I have regrets about everything I do ever because you can second guess it. But I think that overall it's a fair, that it will stand the test of time...

KALB: No second thought?

MARANISS: And -- not terrible second thoughts. There are a few nuances that I might, that we might have done differently if we'd had three years to do it instead of one year. But I think the overall portrait is one that I would stand by.

KURTZ: One thing I've been curious about, Bill Clinton in the '92 campaign, at least, before things turned sour between him and the press corps, used to cultivate certain columnists who he thought would be sympathetic to his political point of view. I don't see much evidence of Al Gore going that and again, it raises the question of why not? I mean, here's a guy who at least in theory should understand the kinds of rhythms of the press.

MARANISS: Well, it didn't last with Bill Clinton, certainly.

KURTZ: That's absolutely true.

MARANISS: And maybe Al Gore is more comfortable after he's in office. You might see more of that sort of relationship if he becomes president than you saw with Bill Clinton, just the opposite, where Clinton was cultivating when he was running and then once he was president it was all...

KURTZ: But did Gore who mostly...

KALB: There's...

KURTZ: Excuse me, Bernie -- who mostly got good press when he was a senator in the early days...


KURTZ: ... early days as vice president, did he feel burned by the media over the fund-raising scandal when suddenly his voracity was being challenged, no controlling legal authority and so forth?

MARANISS: You know, I'm not sure if that was a media question or not. He certainly felt embarrassed and it was both the media and the Washington establishment, that elite, for the first time was questioning his ethics and morality and that was very difficult for him. And I think he might have felt somewhat burned. But it had more than just the press involved in it.

KALB: Let me ask a generous question, then. Was Gore's reticence in not meeting the press due to the difficulty he may have had about the need to mislead the press about politics in general?

MARANISS: Well, I think he's, you know, in our book, Ellen Nakashima, and I show a fairly long history of him misleading at certain points. There's a whole chapter called "Reporting Gore" in 1988 where his staff was writing him memos urging him to sort of stop exaggerating what he did in terms of his home building and on the farm and so on, and that pattern was there for a long period of time even though some of the most notorious examples are not fair to him, like the Internet. He really was instrumental in developing the Internet. He was the one congressman who understood the whole thing in the 19 -- the late '70s when no other congressman gave a darn about it.

So it's funny, you see that pattern, but the press sometimes picks the wrong examples.

KURTZ: You and your co-author Ellen Nakashima interviewed the vice president six times. Was he a difficult interview subject?

MARANISS: You know, people talk about, Howie, the public Gore and the private Gore and how the public Gore is stiff and the private Gore is loose. I've sort of discovered that it depends on the day. It's not public or private.

KALB: How's Thursday?

MARANISS: We interviewed him six times, Bernie, and four times it was just boilerplate answers, infuriating. He wouldn't give us anything really about him. Twice it was terrific. And I just think it was how he was feeling that day, what else had gone on, whether he'd been prepared and briefed. He's always more comfortable if he knows what's coming. But it was totally, to us, unpredictable.

KALB: Did he recruit silence from any of his friends when you were writing this book, not to cooperate with you?

MARANISS: No, he did not, and that's unlike when I was doing the biography of President Clinton when the first lady actually asked people not to talk to me.

KURTZ: We'll have to leave it there. David Maraniss, "The Prince of Tennessee," thanks very much for joining us.

MARANISS: Thank you.

KURTZ: Well, coming up, real life murder confessions hit the airwaves on Court TV and the tidal wave of "Survivor" mania, that and more in our media roundup, next.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

We turn now to some notes from the world of media news.

There's been a verdict in a case with told you about last month involving two television reporters in Tampa, Florida. The investigative team of Jane Akre and Steve Wilson sued their former employer, Fox's WTVT, accusing the station of bowing to corporate pressure on an investigative story about milk. The pair originally worked on the report about a controversial hormone used by Florida milk producers and say the station ordered them to include misstatements in their story. The two were later fired by their station and the story eventually aired, but done by a different reporter. Fox claimed that Akre and Wilson were insubordinate and unprofessional.

Now, a jury has awarded Akre $425,000 for her claim that the station fired her for threatening to alert federal regulators. But the verdict was mixed. Her husband Steve Wilson didn't get any money and the jury didn't buy the couple's claim that the station bowed to pressure from the Monsanto Corporation to alter the news report. Both sides are claiming a victory. Fox says it will appeal the damage award.


BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: Right here in the midst of one of the tightest presidential races in history, much of the American public has been consumed by one question, who will win $1 million by becoming the final survivor?

KURTZ (voice-over): Was it news or entertainment? Hard to tell on the tube this past week. In the days leading up to the big night, the drama of the final four also proved irresistible for plenty of newspapers and magazines. "Entertainment Weekly" even rated four different covers, holding its issue at the printer until the winner was announced.

More than 51 million viewers tuned in and unless you've been stranded on your own deserted island, you know who took home the million dollar prize. But even when it was over, there was no escape. CBS's Bryant Gumbel, whose morning news show had been playing up the hit program, turned up in prime time to host a reunion of the island castaways. And even though this was about a staged entertainment show, you didn't have to stick with CBS to catch the hype.

QUESTION: You know what? I am so mad that Rich won.

QUESTION: I stayed up and watched the final half hour and once Rudy was kicked off I was pulling for Kelly.

QUESTION: Sue needs to take a serious chill pill.

KURTZ: And if you thought it was over now, forget it. "Survivor II" makes its debut in January from Down Under. In the meantime, the latest cast of media stars is already milking their sudden fame.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: And finally from "Survivor" to a very different kind of reality television, "Confessions," debuting on Court TV next month. The program will feature the actual videotaped confessions of murderers, rapists and other offenders. The weekly half hour show will not have a host, but analysis of the various cases will be available on Court TV's Web site. Court TV is owned by the Liberty Media Group and by Time Warner, parent company of CNN.

Critics say the program panders to a kind of morbid curiosity and could be hurtful to crime victims and their families. But in this age of America's love affair with voyeuristic fare on television, the viewers will have the last word on that.

When we return, Bernie's back page on the smooch heard round the world.


KURTZ: Time now for the back page. Bernie?

KALB: Howie, to the pundits, nothing is sacred, not even this.


KALB (voice-over): Fact is, the pundits have been bored to death by the political campaign, but suddenly they've snapped back to life and so did the rest of the country, giving us lots of new sound bites, from the romantic to the skeptical, on whether the most famous kiss of the 21st century, at least so far, was pure politics or the real thing.

JONATHAN ALTER, NBC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: I think a lot of people at home will say at least it's his wife.

QUESTION: The big hot smooch was Al Gore's defining moment, his way of saying read my lips, I'm not Clinton.

LESLEY JANE SEYMOUR, EDITOR, "REDBOOK": That kiss looked so original and so heartfelt.

KALB: The kiss even came up on the mighty MEET THE PRESS.

UNIDENTIFIED GUEST: He gave her an X-rated kiss on the face on national television.

BOB NOVAK: As I've heard it described, that kiss, charming and disgusting.


UNIDENTIFIED GUEST: Well, you know that.

NOVAK: I'm on the disgusting side.

KALB: In other words, a mixed verdict in the land of the media, crossing political lines, in fact. And so it went all the big issues -- Medicare, Social Security, education, taxes, overwhelmed for a moment by the sex appeal of the smooch that launched a thousand questions. And Gore's reply?

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think anybody who watches that can tell it was not scripted.

QUESTION: Well, after watching that kiss I know how you've survived 30 years, Mr. Vice President. Way to go.

GORE: Oh, thank you.


KALB: Anyway, kissing is not only controversial, it's catching. Al's running mate Joe treated the media with some new material the other night. He gave his wife a marathon kiss at a Washington fund- raiser, no pictures allowed, and he joked, "I don't want you think there's any kind of competition on this ticket, but I told Hadassah I'm not going to stop until we reach seven seconds, which is the current world record."

Ah, but has Joe actually set a new record? There's still plenty of kissing time ahead before the polls close in November. Pundits, get out the stop watches.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, I knew you wouldn't kiss that one off.

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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