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Reliable Sources

Campaign 2000 Hits the Airwaves; Is There a Shrinking Audience For Cable News?

Aired September 2, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Turning the tables. As the presidential campaign becomes sharply negative with a new barrage of ads, we'll ask two veteran political strategists who grade the press. Are the media boosting Al Gore, dragging down George Bush, or just swept away by the polls?

Also, CNN USA President Rick Kaplan is forced out. Is there a shrinking audience for cable news?

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 media in high gear as the presidential campaign heats up. And a new Republican ad has everyone buzzing.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There is Al Gore, reinventing himself on television again. Like I'm not going to notice. Who's he going to be today?


KURTZ (voice-over): A sharp character attack from the Republican National Committee that moved the ad wars from the political to the personal. And the media couldn't get enough, replaying the ad endlessly on the air, splashing it all over the front pages.

The pundits, of course, were quick to weigh in.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The way to get issues really front and center in a campaign is through negative ads. I'm all for them.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now it's turned into a typical cat fight. And I don't think it helps either one of them. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And Al Gore's running mate was just as quick to fire back.

SEN. JOE LIEBERMAN (D-CT), VICE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: It seems to me today that Governor Bush has sadly changed his tune about changing the tone.

KURTZ: Meanwhile, Joe Lieberman was getting plenty of his own press for his controversial comments about the role of religion in public life. The story escalated when the senator was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League.

And Lieberman's rival, Republican Dick Cheney, remained largely under the campaign radar screen, generating little publicity for his low-key events.

The press did pay attention to Cheney's harsh assessment of American military readiness. But the vice presidential nominee also generated some criticism for his uneven appearances on last weekend's Sunday talk shows.

And two prominent pieces in the "New York Times" and the "Washington Post" portrayed a candidate who is an unenthusiastic, almost reluctant, campaigner.


KURTZ: Normally we ask members of the media to sit in these seats. But today, we've asked two political strategists to offer us their thoughts.

Joining us, Democratic strategist Mark Mellman and Republican strategist Mike Murphy.

Gentlemen, you're both partisan. So as you criticize the media spin, our viewers may see a little circular movement on your parts.


KURTZ: Mike Murphy...


KURTZ: ... Al Gore had gotten kicked around by the press for about a year-and-a-half. Now a Friday "Newsweek" poll comes out showing him up 10 points, the latest in a series of post-convention polls.

The press portrays him as a better, sharper, more focused, more confident candidate. What's your take on all this?

MURPHY: I knew the press in a presidential race like the big dinosaur in "Jurassic Park." It's enormous, big teeth, kind of sits there. When it sees movement in these polls, it attacks something. And in this case, it's using the polls as a pretext to attack Bush. The truth is politics now, we way overreact to polls, with all due respect to my friend Mark Mellman, legendary pollster, part of that racket. Polls are overrated. The whole post-modern way of looking at campaigns through process rather than content is overrated.

So Bush can't be beaten. Bush is invincible. Then McCain is going to be president. Bush is over. Then Bush is back and he's still invincible. Now Gore is invincible.

The fact is, the voters tune in about the last six weeks and they pick. And this thing is going to go down to the wire. And the polls will move back and forth.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: I was just going to ask you, he's talking about the polls being overrated. The fact is I've always believed - and I'd like to hear you on this, Mark - I've always believed that the media in fact surrenders to the polls. The guy who's ahead gets a softer treatment by the media. And we've seen this with Gore and Bush. Surrender to the polls on the part of the media, yes?

MARK MELLMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, I think there is a some of that, to tell you the truth...

KALB: Some? There's a lot...

MELLMAN: ... Well, I agree with you. I think it's not the polls that are wrong, though, Bernie. I think it's in fact the interpretation of those polls that's often wrong.

You know, we listen to folks who really don't know that much about the history of polling and how it works. And we hear Gore is behind a few months ago by 15 points. Everybody says he can't win. Nobody...

KURTZ: Isn't George Bush the same candidate basically as a month ago? I mean, he may be up or down in the polls. But he was mangling words before. Now it's a crisis.

MELLMAN: Well, that's right. He was. And I think that's really the point. People look at these polls without understanding their meaninglessness six months, two months out from the election.

The reality is now the polls are starting to reflect some underlying reality. And the fact is, Gore is in a good position right now...

MURPHY: Spin alert.

MELLMAN: ... And the fact is - well...


MELLMAN: It is true that you've got to explain how it is...

(CROSSTALK) MELLMAN: ... They have to explain how it is that Bush went from a 15-point lead to being down now. And that's a reasonable expectation.

KURTZ: Let me turn to the air wars. And Mike Murphy, you're a veteran ad maker. And I know your view is that the press whines too much about so-called negative ads, comparative ads, whatever phrase you want to use.

But isn't it fair for the press to point out if George W. is going around the country talking about a great civility, improving the tone of politics, then puts up this ad, sort of mocks the president, brings up fair game - you know, helped create the Internet, Buddhist temple fund raiser. Isn't there a contrast there? Is that not fair game for the media?

MURPHY: No, I think it is. I think the media has to be a bit of a cop on how the campaigns are conducted.

The thing is, they have to be an equal opportunity cop, though. Generally when Republicans attack on their issues, I think the media is a little bit less aggressive on Republicans than when Democrats attack on theirs, not because the media has a partisan bias, but because they have a bias toward the issues that Democrats like to run on.

I think they think an attack for a Social Security being irresponsible is a little more fair somehow than an attack on a Democrat for being a big taxer.

KURTZ: But you're the last guy who can get away with talking about Democratic bias because your candidate in the campaign, John McCain, had a love-in with the press.

MURPHY: Oh, that was totally appropriate at the time.

KURTZ: Oh, I see.


KALB: You know, the very idea that there's a reversal on the part of Bush because of the attack ads that have suddenly been dropped after a pledge of civility, that's something for us to talk about. I think there's a coast-to-coast skepticism on the part of the public, and the public had a stopwatch in their hands wondering when it actually would begin.

It has begun. Do you think there is any hurt there for Bush in this?

MELLMAN: Oh, I think being labeled a negative campaigner is a bad thing in contemporary politics...

KALB: But...

MELLMAN: ... There is no question about it. If you get labeled in the public mind as the guy who started the negative, as the negative campaigner, that can hurt with the voters.

KALB: And if Gore answers, does it cancel it out?

MELLMAN: Well, not necessarily. That's part of the strategic struggle that both campaigns are going to get involved in. Each one is going to say the other started it first.

KURTZ: And to the public, it looks like a mud fight.

MELLMAN: It does...


MELLMAN: There is truth in that. But if you can establish yourself as the guy who is a little cleaner and the other guy is the one who's a little dirtier, you've made a lot of progress in the race.

MURPHY: It's going to take an electron microscope here because Gore went into attack shark mode on the stump about eight weeks ago...

MELLMAN: Isn't there a spin alert here?

MURPHY: ... No, no, the truth is they're going to do it to each other. That's the lowest common denominator of American politics. And that's exactly what's going to happen.

They're going to killing each other on the stump, killing each other on advertising. And you're right. People just kind of - it's all a blur to them. The key is who's telling the truth? And Bush's attack about Gore is true.

MELLMAN: Well, but the real difference here is not just who's telling the truth. And I think Al Gore is the one telling the truth. But the other real difference is, is it personal or is it policy?

And the American public does make a huge distinction. People think campaigns ought to be about differences on issues. That's a reasonable and responsible way to differentiate. Personal attacks really are out of bounds as far as the public is concerned.

KURTZ: You know, I hear political operatives like you talking about the media's superficial coverage. But your candidates, plural, they play the soundbite game. I mean, they know how to utter a line that's going to get on the evening news.

I mean, when you were working for McCain and he was having trouble getting on the New York ballot, you brought him before the Russian embassy. You knew that would be a great backdrop.

MURPHY: The truth is we have to work with the media we've got. And I know if I have a 28 - or Mark's campaign - we have a 28-point plan on how to do something wonderful and we have a bit fat briefing book, or we announce it in Spanish on the Internet, you all are going to go cover the Spanish Internet thing because it's got identity politics. It's got Internet. It's got all (INAUDIBLE), and it's got process... KALB: Mike...

MURPHY: ... And that's what you're all crazy about.

KALB: ... what are the first adjectives that come to your mind when I say media?

MURPHY: Danger, danger, look out, they're after us.

KALB: And what else? And you?

MELLMAN: Opportunity. The reality is a lot of people, especially in a presidential campaign, get their information through the press. We've got to figure out ways to use the press - and that's the right word, use the press - to get that message across.


KALB: Aren't both of you guys in the way of the public reaching some sort of integrity of decision?

MURPHY: I'm not quite sure I follow.

KALB: Well, I mean, the fact is you're spinning...

KURTZ: Are you pulling the wool over the public's eyes?

KALB: ... Yeah, let's phrase it that way, yeah...

MURPHY: No, no, what I'm trying to do...

KALB: ... You're blinding us with calculated, partisan gibberish. And so you are in the way of the momentum of an honest response on the part of the public.

MURPHY: No, no, I know the media is in the news business, which is finding out unfavorable truths or semi-truths about candidates...

KALB: And your business?

MURPHY: ... My business is to help a candidate take the best part of their message and get it across to the voters without the distorted effect of the media so the voters can make a good decision...

KALB: How easy...

MURPHY: ... So you guys are a danger to candidates. If you guys have your way, you'd wreck every candidate because the only news in postmodern, post-Watergate media coverage is bad news.

KURTZ: How easy is it for you - you worked for Rick Lazio against Hillary Clinton...

MURPHY: Yes. KURTZ: ... You work for Azel Miller (ph) in Georgia among other candidates - to manipulate the press in the sense that you have a headline you want to get in tomorrow's paper? Call up a couple of reporters, you whisper to them on background. And boom, you can push that story line. True?

MURPHY: Medium true, if it's news. You can call up reporters till no end. But it doesn't get in the paper unless they think it's news.

KURTZ: Mark.

MELLMAN: Absolutely true. They've got to think it's news. And it's got to be interesting. And that's the other point.

It's got to be true at some level at least. And it's got to be interesting from a press point of view. And that's why there's a lot of negativity because the press tend to be much more interested in negatives, much more interested in attacks, then they are in the 62- point plan to save Social Security.

KALB: Can I call upon you to take an agnostic view for a moment of the way you think the media is covering Lieberman on the question of introducing religion onto the political stage?

MURPHY: I think, well...


KALB: You don't see a double-standard there?

MURPHY: No, I don't really. I think they covered Lieberman better. I think they've covered him more thoroughly than Cheney.

KURTZ: Last question, we have another potential political candidate. Geraldo Rivera told me the other day that he may walk away from his $6- million-a-year contract at NBC, run for mayor of New York as an independent with his own money. Now it's easy to laugh, but Jesse Ventura got elected governor of Minnesota. Why not Mayor Geraldo?

MELLMAN: You know, every candidate that calls me up, tells me, "Hey, people are calling me asking me to run, I've got to really consider it." I guarantee the only people that's calling Geraldo is Geraldo.

MURPHY: He can run on the Egocrat (ph) ticket. I don't think he'll get any votes. But why not? It's a free country. It will be entertaining.

KURTZ: OK, well, if he does run, you both come back and talk to us about it...


KURTZ: ... And we've enjoyed the spin-laden discussion here today. Thanks very much.

Well, coming up, a shake-up at CNN. And with increased competition and declining rating for the cable networks, what's ahead for cable news? That's next.



Rick Kaplan was fired - his word - as president of CNN USA after three years, a victim at least in part of depressed ratings at this network. Kaplan presided over the Tailwind debacle, which brought a retraction and apology from CNN and had a very public spat with former CNNFN President Lou Dobbs, who quit.

CNN has announced a new management hierarchy, including Jim Walton (ph), the head of CNN Sports Illustrated, who will now oversee CNN's 15 domestic networks.

Joining us now to talk about the future of cable news, Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, and Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio Television News Directors Association.

Tom Rosenstiel, Rick Kaplan tried to create what he called appointment viewing. And the chief example of that was the nightly show "NEWSSTAND," which to put it delicately has not been a smashing success. Were these bad ideas, or bad execution?

TOM ROSENSTIEL, DIRECTOR, PROJECT FOR EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM: Probably bad ideas. Creating appointment television is a 1970s broadcasting idea which is really hard to do in 1990 or in 2000. I mean, to create an appointment you have to create a phenomenon like "Survivor" and a national event. The idea that you're going to create a TV show that every Tuesday night people are going to want to watch is a little bit antiquated.

The other problem is the synergy of journalism brands. CNN is a video news service, very fast, quick, and dirty. "Time" magazines are delivered once a week or once a month. What are you getting there, once a month, once a week? Quick and dirty or slow and deliberate? It's not a natural fit...


KALB: Why do you say antiquated? The broadcast networks have what you're calling these appointment programs. You're turning to see "60 Minutes," you're turning to see some of the "Nightline" shows on a regular basis.

There are hours there that people in fact do respond to. If Rick Kaplan tried for this at 10:00 CNN, there was a good shot at that because he was bringing the heavy, substantive approach of broadcast journalism, bringing it here for an hour.

ROSENSTIEL: The appointment shows you're talking about were developed 10 or 15 years ago.

KALB: Yeah, but you have to start somewhere.

ROSENSTIEL: It's increasingly difficult for people to start those today. The other cable networks that have succeeded have done it through a signature around a topic, but not around individual shows.

KURTZ: Barbara Cochran, what does a network like CNN need to do differently? I'm sometimes struck because you have a network with all this time - 24 hours, in fact - and a lot of the time you see sort of routine, two-minute stand-up reports like they do on the broadcast networks, which have 22 minutes. And you see a lot of talk. Is that not too compelling?

BARBARA COCHRAN, PRESIDENT, RADIO TELEVISION NEWS DIRECTORS ASSOCIATION: Well, it would be great if CNN could figure out ways to use all that luxury of time, which is something that people who work in network news would kill for if they could get that much time.

KURTZ: You worked for CBS. You would have killed.

COCHRAN: Exactly. If they could do it more creatively.

One of the things that I'm struck by is that CNN has not really made much of an effort to revive the documentary, which is doing very well on other cable venues, like Discovery and the History Channel and A&E and HBO. All of those are making a market for documentaries. Wouldn't that be a great way to use some of that vast amount of time.

KURTZ: Bernie, you're shaking your head.

KALB: Yeah, I am because you're saying yes, and I'm saying no to you as well, Barbara, because in fact on CNN there have been these hour programs that take a look at the centuries, that take a look at these different issues. I think the problem here is the nervous system at CNN is adjusted for breaking news.

The cable networks want breaking news. You need a war, an assassination, a coup, an upheaval, a tragedy...

KURTZ: Or a Monica.

KALB: ... or all at once, and then you move - in just one moment - then you move in. And that establishes that kind of image. When you do these other kind of broadcasts, you have a bit of a problem hanging onto that audience and expanding it.

ROSENSTIEL: That's not necessarily true. Howie has just got a book coming out about the financial television. CNBC has created an audience around that topic.

KALB: Wait a minute, that's the market and the economy. That's a crazy analogy.

ROSENSTIEL: ESPN has created a signature around sports and within that world has created appointment shows and even brought back to life documentaries because they are really an authority on that specialty.

KURTZ: All right, let me take this opportunity - just one second, Barbara - to look at the ratings pictures for these networks. And these are the third quarter to date ratings. CNN down 30 percent, although with 262,000 households still slightly ahead of the other cable networks. MSNBC down 8 percent. But on the other side of the ledger, Fox News up 9 percent and CNBC up 1 percent.

Fox News had been very successful I think in creating a kind of a niche audience, some would say a conservative audience, for its brand of news coverage talk. So it's not a depressing picture everywhere, Barbara.

COCHRAN: Absolutely not. And I think we'd be foolish to focus too much on what's happening to the audiences at this moment because we're in the middle of a communication revolution.

And one of the things that the cable networks have, one of their great assets that's going to serve them well in the future, is that they are already doing news on a 24-hour basis. And the news organizations that succeed in the future will have to be providing news to their audiences for 24 hours.

Secondly, they have the ability to spread their news across multiple platforms. We're going to have wireless gizmos that we'll be carrying in our pockets very soon. And we'll be able to get the fix of the headlines. And maybe even we'll be able to get a brief video story that will be sent to us by a wireless Internet.

And so an organization that's in the business of gathering news is very well set for the future. The packaging is much less important.

KURTZ: So...

ROSENSTIEL: I would agree very much that CNN is an extraordinary asset that could be used that way. I mean, the other cable networks do not have the infrastructure of worldwide news gathering or probably the talent, the reporting talent, that CNN clearly has.

KURTZ: But on that very point, Tom Rosenstiel, CNN's specialties have been foreign news and politics, arguably two subjects which are increasingly drawing yawns from the general public. I mean, the Republican Convention coverage on CNN was down 27 percent from '96 I guess because people are not that captivated by the subject.

ROSENSTIEL: Well, and there I think you ask the question is this execution? I think there are some problems in execution. What do you do with all this time? Take more risks, for God's sakes. Do something that breaks the mold. The shows on CNN, frankly, have been somewhat imitative.

KALB: Well, it seems to me that one of the things they can't do, although you're fed up with talking heads at times, is to bring experts in in kind of short "Nightlines" as it were incorporated into one-hour broadcasts where you have a high intensity on a specific subject. And you seek to illuminate all of the various refractions on it.

COCHRAN: One thing they don't need to do is more broadcasts of car chases, thank you very much. I was very worried about what direction all the cable networks were going a few months ago when they would seem to pick up on any kind of local story, slap that signal on the air. And it was nothing but voyeurism.

KALB: Is 24 hours too much time in one day? Should the day be shrunk to 12?

KURTZ: We'll submit a memo on that.

Barbara Cochran, Tom Rosenstiel, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up, fact versus fiction. Are big claims and questionable charges slipping by publishers? That's next on Bernie's "Back Page."


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

KALB: Howie, I've been rifling through my collection of soundbites, and here's the question. What do these three soundbites have in common?



STEPHEN BULL, FORMER NIXON AIDE: If you were to ask me to come up with the most ridiculous charges against Richard Nixon, and there have been a bundle of them over the years, these two would top the list. These are just totally inconceivable to me.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: If he's a convicted felon, his credibility is nothing. But his credibility was nothing to me to begin with because his story was totally ridiculous.

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), NEW YORK SENATE CANDIDATE: You're darn right is not true. It's absolutely false.

KALB (voice-over): Totally inconceivable, totally ridiculous, absolutely false. In other words, a wholesale rejection of various accusations in three books offered to the public as nonfiction.

The latest is this one, "The Arrogance of Power," alleging that the former president abused his wife and took a mood-altering drug. Before that, this one, "State of the Union," alleging that the first lady more than 25 years ago used an ethnic slur against Jews. And before that one, this one, "Fortunate Son," alleging that the GOP presidential candidate had been busted for cocaine possession back in 1972.

All these accusations generated everything from headlines to ridicule. And that's prompted a fresh look at the culture of book publishing and whether well-known publishing houses are now publishing fiction disguised as nonfiction. In other words, how did these accusations get into print in the first place?

The short answer has to do with the vanishing of the once-upon-a- time-indispensable fact checkers. Now publishers do take action to protect against legal or libel challenges. But so many books are published each year that publishers find it impossible to fact check every one of them. And so many books get past the editors without so much as a scratch.

In short, it's up to the author to be the fact checker, as a piece in the "New York Times" put it. And you can see what that can lead to - accusations, repudiations, controversy, headlines, and oh yes, a rush to the bookstore.


KALB: A personal note, if I may. My brother Marvin and I once wrote a biography of the former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. And just in case he found something in our book that - how to put it - did not delight him, we included this preemptory response in our forward: "Needless to say, all errors are my brother's."

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

We'll be right back with a story of a phony press release that caused quite a stir on Wall Street.


KURTZ: Before we go, the story that shook up Wall Street, led to a high-profile arrest, and left some members of the media more than a little embarrassed. It all began with a simple press release that claimed the Emulex Corporation had reduced its earnings, that its chief executive had resigned, and that Emulex was being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

This news - passed on by Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, and various Web sites - caused Emulex's stock to plummet more than 50 percent in just 15 minutes. Shareholders lost a bundle.

But one person made almost a quarter of a million dollars, Mark Jakob, who wrote the phony release and gave it to his former PR firm, which unknowingly put it out to the world.

This week, Jakob was arrested on charges of securities and wire fraud. Jakob said an SEC official perpetrated one of the most devastating financial hoaxes yet committed in the Internet age.

This underscores the dangers of real-time financial journalism where the competition to be first is so fierce and so much money is at stake that news outlets sometimes publish first and ask questions later. To put out that kind of explosive charge without a confirmation from the company is, as the journalists involved now recognize, irresponsible.

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.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next.



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