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Reliable Sources

How Are the Media Handling the Presidential Debates?

Aired October 8, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET





UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... and decided that the worst thing they can do is to go on the attack.


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Joining us now, David Gergen, journalist, former presidential adviser, and author of the new book "Eyewitness to Power." Rick Berke, national political correspondent for the "New York Times." And Jodie Allen, senior writer for "U.S. News & World Report."


Rick Berke, there was a parade of pundits on the air, some in print, saying that Bush carried the evening because of the low expectations. Now who made us professional handicappers? And is that the right standard for judging the debate?

RICK BERKE, "NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I think it's fair because people have said all along -- there have been stories for the last year about Bush and how is he in speaking, and how does he convey himself, and how does he carry himself? So I think it's fair to raise those questions.

And I think it did by nature raise or lower expectations for him. So I think it's a fair question to raise.

What I sometimes object to always about these debates are these instant reactions and instant analysis and saying who won and who lost? I just think it's much more complicated than that.

KURTZ: And speaking of instant reaction, David Gergen, when the instant polls came in, these quickie polls the networks all do now, showing -- favoring Gore, you could almost see and smell a little shift in commentary toward the vice president. And I wonder if this is an example of, as we saw after Gore's convention speech, of the pundits being in some other planet than say the mass voters?


DAVID GERGEN, JOURNALIST, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER: I thought the press coming out of that presidential debate this past week was trying to be extraordinarily balanced. There was a huge effort to give -- in a debate which Al Gore clearly won on substance, there's a huge effort to emphasize that Bush won on style, which is where I came in.

And I think all of us were trying to so hard to make sure we didn't sort of pre-cook it for the country. And I think that was helpful actually.

But when the numbers started coming in from the field and you're sitting there on the TV -- if you were sitting there on the set, you just had to say, "Well, it's not my judgment actually that matters. If the public thinks this, then that's probably who won the debate."

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Jodie, it really took no effort to be balanced because it seemed to be a balanced presentation on the part of both sides. I had a feeling -- let me put the question to you, Jodie. Are the pundits guilty of waiting for a knockout punch before they render their verdict? Otherwise, you get what David is calling a balance, a little see-saw, a little here, a little there.

JODIE ALLEN, "U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT": Well, clearly, Bernie, if there had been a knockout punch, they would have noted it. But I think David is right, that there was almost a phony balance. And it was very funny.

I watched it as a viewer in a roomful of viewers. And I specifically -- as they were mostly women, but there was one man who purported to be a Republican. And I asked them to look at it with a cold eye. They all thought that Gore had blown him away, that Bush looked tentative and not there...

KURTZ: A phony balance. A phony balance.

ALLEN: ... Yeah. Then on came all these pundits saying, "Oh, they both did just about the same." And everyone in the room said, "What?"

KALB: What happens to the career of a pundit if he doesn't take a position?

KURTZ: He is looking for a new cable network to work for.


KURTZ: Let's talk a little bit about the fact checking. I thought that some of the instant back checks after the debate were good. All of the networks, for example, reported Gore's mistake about he said he had gone to Texas after a fire there with the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It turned out he was with someone else.

Only NBC and FOX reported on the exaggeration about the high school girl, the anecdote he told, who was standing in class because she had no desk. Apparently that only lasted for a brief period of time.

And Rick Berke, you wrote about the issue of Gore's exaggeration in Friday's "New York Times." Is that something that we need to do more of? And do you get any flak for those kinds of stories?

BERKE: I get lots of flak. I got more calls from the day the story appeared on Friday from the Gore campaign than I had in a long time. Just angry calls, "How dare you write that?" And I said -- but you get used to it. Whenever you write stories that raise questions about the candidates' candor, you hear from the campaign. And that's just part of the job.

I think what happened in this debate, there was so much attention to this debate that it highlighted what we've seen, a pattern from the vice president. And it was something you could not write about. It just sort of hit you in the face.

KALB: Speaking of fact checking, what do you think of this idea, Jodie? We introduce a fourth person in the set, on the screen, who does instantaneous fact checks rather than subsequent fact checks? We have somebody there nodding yes, that's right, no, that's wrong.

And so rather than be -- how shall I put it -- a victim of the crossfire of both sides exchanging their exaggerations, we're clued in immediately right there?

ALLEN: Well, that would be nice, Bernie.

KALB: Would you like the job?

ALLEN: I bet I would be as good at it as almost anyone. We in the media pay too much attention to the question of whether it was Jamie Lee Witt or whether it was Buddy Young who was with Gore in Texas and not enough to the larger questions of does Bush devote one percent of his tax cut, spend more to the top one percent of the income distribution in tax cuts than he spends on programs?

And only one person that I know of so far that may have missed it -- as Gail Collins (ph) points out that Gore is correct that in Bush's calculation, he leaves out the estate tax. He also does a funny way of counting spending.

And so Gore is right. But the press paid very little attention to that.

KURTZ: But the press paid a lot of attention, David Gergen, to Gore's sighing and exasperation and eye rolling. I mean, I've read this in 50 different pieces.

Jodie used the term phony balance. You talked about Bush winning on style but not on substance. Too much attention perhaps to body language there?

GERGEN: Absolutely. I think after a campaign in which generally the press is tilted toward Gore, I think the Bush people have a legitimate argument that frequently Gore has gotten better press attention.

In this particular emphasis, this obsessive focus on the sign or the body language, or indeed the story about the little girl, at the expense of the larger issues that really matter about policy, I think Jodie is absolutely right. I think there has been very little analysis on prescription drugs, where Gore I think was essentially correct on this whole question about what the tax cut -- how these tax cuts affect people.

And so it seems to me so easy for the press, so easy for us to go for the personal...

KURTZ: Right.

GERGEN: ... and for what's a little bit sexier than to go for the hard substance because we're in this thing when we have to hit it really quick. And people go for the easy.

KALB: David, when are we going to put that myth aside of the tilt of the media toward Gore? What about the first part of this year when I think you'd admit the tilt of the media toward Bush?

I think once and for all we've got to put that tilt business aside and work on the merit of the fact or the demerit of the fact that the media indeed follows the polls. And when the polls go for Gore, the media will reflect that.

But I want to pick up one point if I may here. I think you could have turned the audio off during that debate and had a debate by facial expressions.

The "New York Times" had that great series of pictures on the front page. And you had a debate going facially without a single word.

BERKE: I don't think we can ignore -- I mean, substance is important. We all focus on that. But I don't think you can ignore style.

These debates -- what people come away from on these debates and the history of these debates from 1960 on is not what the issues were that were discussed, but how the candidate handled himself, how they came off, if they could explain themselves. And some of these style questions you can't dismiss. They seem trivial...

KURTZ: OK, hold on, hold on. I want to turn to the substance of the questions now, and we're running a little short on time. So let's take a look at a couple of questions asked by moderator Jim Lehrer.


JIM LEHRER, DEBATE MODERATOR: Vice President Gore, you have questioned whether Governor Bush has the experience to be president of the United States. What exactly do you mean? (END VIDEO CLIP)


LEHRER: So, Governor, what are you saying when you mention the fundraising scandals or the fundraising charges that involve Vice President Gore?


KURTZ: David Gergen, I thought Jim Lehrer was more aggressive than I expected in the way he framed the questions and essentially on several occasions invited the candidates to attack each other. Your thoughts?

GERGEN: Yes, several people have criticized Jim Lehrer since. He let the debate get a little out of control or whatever. And Gore got to be sort of in this bullying posture.

But I'm very biased toward Jim Lehrer. Let me put that up front.

But I actually prefer his method of questioning because I think what he does is he doesn't try to insert himself into the debate. He asks a question and gets out of the way and lets you see these two fellows. And he asked them very basic questions, things that people back home -- are on their minds in such a way as it allows you then to see the candidates at work.

And what you saw was Gore's huge command of facts but Gore's arrogance. His natural arrogance came through.

ALLEN: They were tough. And actually, they were tougher than we expected. But I think otherwise people might have said, "Gee, Jim Lehrer is too much of a pussycat." And people did criticize him for not raising some tough questions.

KURTZ: On the other hand, if he let these candidates go out it and it got a little out of control, I would say, "So what? They were there to debate."

And when we come back, we'll look at the vice presidential debate and the press.



Rick Berke, the Joe Lieberman-Dick Cheney debate. I'm going to be a little contrary in here. The pundits came on and said it was so high and mighty and so dignified and so classy. And it was all of that. And it was very substantive. And you really got a look at these two men.

But I think they were really disappointed that nobody drew blood. And I think it ended up being kind of dull.

BERKE: It was kind of dull. But maybe dull isn't so bad for democracy. What's wrong with dull?

I was sitting there watching thinking if there was enough to say I would write a news analysis off the debate. It turned out there wasn't much for me to say because there weren't some obvious themes. It was a very substantive debate. So it gave me less to say or nothing to say in the Friday newspaper.

GERGEN: I was surprised and frankly disappointed when the "Washington Post" on Friday had a front page headline, "Not electrifying," as if the purpose of a debate should be to be provocative, to say something -- to have mudslinging, to go back to the attack dog role. And it's so clear what most citizens really want is, "Hey, will somebody please sort this out for us so we understand these issues and understand the differences?"

And that's what these two guys did in a very gracious civil way. It seemed to me the "Washington Post" in its headline was sort of saying, "This is not the kind of debate we should have. It is dull." And I thought it was a little judgmental, frankly.

KURTZ: Probably too much theatre criticism. I think the larger point is without being attack dogs, without sticking your fangs into the other guy's neck, can you draw contrasts more sharply than both apparently wanted to that night?

ALLEN: It really was a great favor to Cheney that Lieberman did not, for example, bring up his past record. And Cheney, of course, had the most to gain and probably did gain the most because his negatives were so much higher going in and about equal coming out.

But Lieberman was very kind to him. He did draw a little blood on all the money that Cheney had made. But Cheney turned it away with great humor. I think most people liked it and thought to themselves, "How come these two guys aren't running for president?"

KALB: Rick, clearly, what we want from a moderator is more than a guided tour of the candidates' thinking. And I think in the vice presidential debate, I think Bernie Shaw's questions had more of a bit of an edge. Whereas Jim Lehrer asked leading questions that were broad, and you could have picked it up any way you chose, Bernie reached in. There was a pinpoint -- bombing is not the word -- but a pinpoint targeting of questions.

BERKE: Bernie, it's always a conflict I think for the moderator to decide, how much am I a part of this process? How much do I move this along?

In both of those debates, I was sort of eager maybe as a reporter to get this thing moving, to get them to focus more on their answers. And I wanted more of that. But on the other hand, I have to give both moderators some credit for not being too much in the story. This is the moment for these two candidates on both debates. And I think that's probably more important than anything else.

KURTZ: I was sort of expecting Bernie Shaw to ask one of them about, "What if your wife was raped and murdered," as he did with Michael Dukakis in '88.


KURTZ: But he does deserve credit for bringing up some subjects as gay rights and racial profiling, which otherwise might not have come up. But I found his questions more open-ended. And I thought that contributed to the high but civil tone.

GERGEN: But it's also true, Bernie, that the vice presidential debate -- they only have one debate...

KURTZ: Right.

GERGEN: ... And so boring in on the first debate makes sense. Jim Lehrer has two more shots at this. I think you give them a chance to express themselves openly and widely, and then you can come in and start bearing down on them in a couple of the next debates. I think that's a fair way to do it.

ALLEN: But I do think that Bernie is right that Bernard Shaw did at least manage to run a more disciplined debate. Now whether that was the candidates or him, I don't know. But...

KURTZ: I've got to be disappointed and say that we're out of time. Jodie Allen, Rick Berke, thanks very much for joining us.

David Gergen, stay put, because when we come back, we'll talk more with David Gergen about the press and the four presidents he's served.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Still with us, David Gergen, editor at large at "U.S. News and World Report," former adviser to Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Clinton, the subject of his new book "Eyewitness to Power: The Essence of Leadership."

David, it's been widely reported that in Clinton's first term when you worked in the White House that you urged Hillary Clinton to release all the Whitewater documents, that she ignored that advice, and of course helped probably lead to a scandal that continued until just about a month ago. Why is Hillary Clinton, now running for the Senate of course, so distrustful of the press?

GERGEN: She's had a huge chip on her shoulder, in fact it's a block, ever since I think at least the 1992 primaries in New Hampshire. There was a sense by the Clintons that their privacy had been invaded by the Gennifer Flowers story, by the draft story, they felt that the press corps, which had been largely supportive up till then, very sympathetic to the Clinton candidacy, turned on them viciously. And they never trusted them thereafter.

So when Mrs. Clinton got to the White House, she was the one obviously who wanted to put the press corps -- take them out of the White House and put them, exile them, somewhere, anywhere, Siberia if possible, but at least into the old executive office building. And of course, that fell apart.

KALB: David, I have a question with a built-in follow-up. In the windup of your book, you have a segment called "Seven Lessons of Leadership for the President" based on your experience of working for four presidents.

As a communicator, you've had other experiences. So let me ask you this question. What are the seven lessons for a spokesman or an official communicator, as you are? And the follow-up to the question is where did you violate them?

KURTZ: You can give us three-and-a-half.

GERGEN: Well, I think first...

KALB: Deal with the violations.

GERGEN: ... Let me get to the rules first. First of all, you've got to be honest with the press corps. You've got to keep your credibility with the press. You cannot go over the board.

Secondly, you've got to have access to your boss. You have to have absolute, absolutely walk in anytime in any meeting to be there. And thirdly, you really have to be up on the information.

You've got to get into the flow of substance. You can't just do this by getting to the headlines.

The best press secretaries, as you well -- take a fellow like Mike McCurry who did such a good job, or a Jodie Powell. I think Marlin Fitzwater turned out to be a very good press secretary. Pierre Salinger was a very good press secretary. These people really got in and knew the substance.

KALB: David, deal with the follow-up. Where did you violate some of these precepts in your four president jobs?

GERGEN: I think the hardest part of this for me was how do you tell the truth without damaging your boss? And that's the hard, hard line to do.

And I sometimes -- I had to go out and defend Reagan about some things he'd said on the campaign trail. And his embellishments -- we talked about this earlier, well, the fact that trees create more pollution than cars and that sort of thing, it went on in the campaign.

And he wanted me to go look it up. And I found some of the stuff. And some of the stuff he was off on.

And so I had to go out there and explain to the press what had gone on. And I kept on trying to figure out how do I explain this without hurting him?

(CROSSTALK) GERGEN: That's what I did. You've got to do a little bit of spin. I said, "Look, these are more like parables. And they weren't intended to be stories that were absolutely accurate. Parables have been a part of literary storytelling for years."

KURTZ: Well, the Reagan press operation was extraordinarily successful. But did you feel at any time when you were put in that somewhat awkward position like your own credibility was at stake?

GERGEN: My greatest regret in public life is that during the Reagan years, I thought we were doing the right thing by pushing back against the press in order to let Reagan govern. You had to get 55, 60 percent support in this country to get the legislature to do anything.

And we ran a very aggressive press operation. But what I think that opened the door to was more and more spin in the press and more and more effort to concoct things to favor the boss.

KALB: And how has that affected the political culture of skepticism, cynicism, et cetera? As a practiced spinmeister, what are your contributions to this culture?

GERGEN: Well, I hate that term. I didn't feel I was a spinmeister.

KALB: As a practiced artist...

GERGEN: Yeah, but see the reason I hate that term, I think what that term connotes today is spin has become, as Ben Bradlee has said, a polite form of lying. And I think it's gotten really excessive.

I think that there has been an arms race on both sides by the press and by the people in government. So the press has become more and more invasive, less and less I think generous in the way it covers people.

And I think the people who work inside government have become more -- they've gotten engaged in more and more puffery. And they've gotten further and further from the truth.

And I think the spin has gotten completely out of control. And we ought to put it behind the door again.

KURTZ: David Gergen, "Eyewitness to Power," thanks very much for joining us.

When we return, Bernie's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page."


KALB: More than once you've heard me complain about the short- changing of news from overseas, that anything that happened abroad was news there, not here, in short, that our journalistic world has shrunk to the borders of the U.S.


KALB (voice-over): But not this week, even though we did have a couple of big stories of our own. This week, two overseas stories did make it on to our nightly newses. But it took upheaval and blood, upheaval in Belgrade, blood in the Middle East.

Serbs by the thousands staging a revolution in the streets to force the ouster of this man. Live TV hour after hour direct from Belgrade, while in the Middle East it was an upheaval with blood in Israel, in Gaza, the West Bank. Israeli soldiers and Palestinians clashing day after day, and again we could see it close up.

We could witness this 12-year-old Palestinian boy killed as he was huddled in his father's arms. These few seconds of death flashed on television screens around the world, leaping off front pages everywhere.

Instantly, this picture became one of those indelible images in our minds that mark a moment in history like this picture from Beijing in '89; this one from Moscow, the end of the Soviets; this from Saigon during the Vietnam War; the tearing down of the Berlin wall; the Iwo Jima cameo from World War II; and on and on. A single picture illuminating the landscape of a transforming event, these pictures a scrapbook of our times.


KALB: We used to get a lot of news from abroad. But that was back in the Cold War days. When the nuclear threat eased up, our TV cameras for the most part went isolationist, focusing mostly on ourselves. But there's still a big unpredictable world out there. And occasionally, we get these big upheavals and bloody reminders.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

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. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll look at the week's presidential and vice presidential debates and the political fallout. Democratic Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts joins the gang for that and much more right here next on CNN.



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