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Reliable Sources

Are the Networks Raking in the Bucks While Stiffing the Candidates?

Aired October 28, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Fast and furious: Bush criticized on his education record and his IQ, Ralph Nader's media moment, the polls pouncing around, a nuclear ad -- Is the press playing it straight?

And are the major networks raking in the bucks while stiffing the candidates?

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

And joining us now, Ceci Connolly, political reporter for the "Washington Post," Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the "Los Angeles Times," and Paul Taylor, a former journalist who is now executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns.

Well, the final 10 days. Campaign 2000, the gloves are really off. Little explosions everywhere.

For example, Doyle McManus, liberal commentators saying things like this, "Slate" editor Michael Kinsley. "Journalists' reluctance" -- excuse me -- "to call someone who may well be our next commander in chief a moron is understandable. But if Bush isn't a moron, he's a man of impressive intellectual dishonesty or confusion."

Author Todd Gitlin (ph), "Bush gives ample evidence that he does not reason, journalists embarrassment at pointing fingers at a non- entity who's within two weeks of the presidency."

Is this liberal clap trap, or does it fall under the banner of fair criticism?

DOYLE MCMANUS, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Oh, it's liberal clap trap. But that's something that ought to be happening at this stage of the campaign.

Those are columnists and commentators, not what I would call journalists. None of those people have been out on the campaign trail traveling with George W. Bush as a couple of us at this table have.

The interesting thing about Governor Bush is that he's not a moron. He's a clever and interesting guy who has a terrible time with words and hates book learning. He is definitely not a wonk. But if there are -- somehow made it through Harvard Business School and Yale -- if there are nine different kinds of intelligence, he appears to have at least one or two of them.

KURTZ: But if we're down to the stage, Paul Taylor, where the arguments of this great campaign have been reduced to "is Gore a liar and an exaggerator, is Bush a dim bulb," are we in the press guilty of losing sight of or getting overshadowed on the question of the issues?

PAUL TAYLOR, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, ALLIANCE FOR BETTER CAMPAIGNS: Oh, I think both. Listen, this is not just a test of the issues. It ought to be a test of the issues. But it is fundamentally a test of character.

So I think judgments about character are absolutely a part of what the press ought to be doing. And I think that George Bush -- sort of the rules of the craft here are the press is out there as the scouts identifying the characteristic flaws of the candidate and then looks for ways to tell the stories of those flaws.

I think...

KURTZ: I suggest a stereotype that we then fill in the blanks to support.

TAYLOR: ... Well, stereotype or whether or not the stereotype is supported by reality. And I think it is a challenge for the press on the particular charge that George W. Bush is a dim bulb.

That charge has been out there. The late night comics have had at it.

When Bush made some gaffs early on, it got a little bit of resonance. But frankly, it didn't get more resonance I suspect because, as Doyle says, the performance has been pretty good. And the public has made a judgment here that perhaps Gore is more substantial. Perhaps he brings a little bit more gravitas.

But it's one of many things being measured. So I don't think there's been a fundamental misfire here in terms of the portraits that have been growing.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: You've been talking about charges, charges against the media, Ceci. So let me explore one theme.

I believe a lot of the criticism of the media is lazy criticism, the accusations against the media for not dealing with the issues or being obsessed with process, personality, statistics, polls, and so forth. I think the examination of issues, the comparative positions that the two candidates are taking, are in the newspapers. We see them. They're around.

And I think there's a kind of a reflex criticism of the media saying it's shabby, it's thin, it's shallow, et cetera. Do you share my view?

CECI CONNOLLY, POLITICAL REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST": Oh, absolutely. I'm glad to hear somebody else say that. I mean, I think that a lot of this is just what's getting the most attention, especially now that we've got the 24-hour not only cable, but the Internet. It's the things that maybe grab more of those headlines, show up on the chat rooms, maybe some of the sexier, more entertaining, controversial pieces of the coverage.

But I'm astonished these days when I get my newspapers at home in the morning. I can't get through all of the stories, including many of them are very long, detailed issue-type pieces.

I know "The Washington Post" is clearing three or four pages inside the paper every day, same with the "New York Times," the "Los Angeles Times." There's a lot out there.

KALB: Doyle, Doyle, can I pick up a blunder you made a minute ago there, Doyle?

MCMANUS: A gaff.

KALB: You talked about the fact that certain columnists are not out on the track with the candidates. And therefore, they're drawing conclusions without having seen them live in action.

Is it really necessary? Can you not read positions, attitudes, policy statements and so forth, and reach a conclusion without actually going out and watching the theatre out there when they perform?

MCMANUS: Of course you can, Bernie, if you're talking about policy, positions, issues, and attitudes. But I sure wouldn't want to plumb the depth of the man's character or his confidence without actually being out there and spending some time with him.

KALB: What do you learn when you have straight eye contact? You've got a scripted...

KURTZ: I think you learn a lot.

KALB: ... Well, I'm not dismissing it totally. But you're making the point that there's an omission in the analysis if you're not there.

KURTZ: Well, you're saying they're not straight news reporters.

MCMANUS: What I'm saying is that I think if you took a dozen reporters, none of them inherently sympathetic to George W. Bush's point of view, you could take the most liberal group of reporters you wanted, reporters, and sit them down and let them grill him. And they'd come away, and they'd probably say, "Well, you know, there are plenty of words I might use. But moron isn't one of them." That's all I'm saying.

KURTZ: On this question of the issues, Paul Taylor, for example, just a few days ago we had the release of a report by the Rand Corporation on Bush's -- excuse me -- Texas education record. And this was complicated stuff because it had to do with test scores and were they compared state by state or nationally. And there was an earlier Rand report that had a different conclusion.

And the two candidates, of course, fought it out. The Gore campaign loved this report and did everything it could to pump it up. Is it difficult for the press to play referee here in an era when television reports have to be a minute, 45, and that sort of thing?

TAYLOR: Well, I would differ with Ceci on the issue coverage to say I think print by and large is doing this year and has a tradition of doing a very good job of going deep into issues. I think broadcast journalism by and large does not do a very good job.

And I think the result is a report just came out from Marvin Kalb, the Vanishing Voter Project. He's been taking surveys all year long. This was a survey just this past week.

He asked the American public a dozen issue questions. What's the candidate's position on all the key issues in the race? And two- thirds of the public either cannot answer the question or gets the answer wrong.

KALB: Look, do you indict -- do you indict...

TAYLOR: I don't know. I mean, do we indict the media? I am not sure.

KALB: ... Yeah, do you indict the media if the public is not paying attention?

TAYLOR: Something is clearly going wrong here. There is a disconnect between candidates who have spent a year now trying to get their ideas forward, journalism which is supposed to be the intermediary here, and a public which with 10 days to go, two weeks to go, until the election is still fundamentally misinformed. Something isn't working.

CONNOLLY: You know, this is part of I think the puzzle of Campaign 2000. I mean, yes you could say maybe the media hasn't done a sufficient job laying out all of these positions. But after those three televised debates where in the area of 40 million people tuned in each night and you heard some real contrast between those two candidates...

KURTZ: Absolutely.

CONNOLLY: ... I mean, I think about the fact that Bush stood by his position on drilling in the Arctic refuge up in Alaska and was clear that, yes, wealthy people should get a big tax cut because they pay a lot of taxes. And Gore on his view says, "Well," and people still said after those debates, "They kind of sound pretty much alike."

KURTZ: Well, I personally don't want to see any more focus groups of undecided voters who say, "I don't have enough information about this," because clearly the information is out there.

Well, we'll take a further look at that puzzle that you referred to, Ceci Connolly. More about Campaign 2000 when we come back.



Ceci Connolly, lots of media coverage in recent days about Ralph Nader and whether he will somehow tip the scales in those key battleground states and hurt Al Gore. There almost seems to be an undercurrent about, well, why doesn't Nader just get out of the race?

Where was all the coverage of Nader before when I believe he was kind of treated like a curiosity then? Why this belated interest in the former consumer advocate?

CONNOLLY: Well, maybe a curiosity, or I think in some instances there were a number of political reporters who felt that, you know, been there, done that. We've seen this Nader road show before. And it didn't go anywhere. So I think initially a number of reporters who had covered him in the past maybe didn't focus in on it quite as quickly.

KURTZ: There goes Ralph again.

CONNOLLY: Sure. The other problem was that I think the press, especially sitting here in Washington, DC, often have trouble putting their fingers on things that are bubbling up from the ground as quickly as we ought to.

KURTZ: Although Nader was drawing big crowds in certain states, and you know, occasionally this was reported. But clearly he was treated as kind of a side show.

MCMANUS: Well, he was. And we've got -- there's really a tough judgment call here. Are you going to go out and spend a lot of time covering someone whose own supporters will admit he really doesn't have a chance of winning this thing, whose target is five percent.

I think most of us use a rule of thumb, whether this is right or wrong, that well, at 10 percent we'd better start taking you seriously. At 15 percent we're looking at a real phenomenon.

KURTZ: Profiles.

MCMANUS: But Ralph Nader is at four. He's hoping to get to five.

KALB: Yeah, but, Paul, the reason there's been a new emphasis on covering Nader is the fact that it's being reported as a threat to Gore. It isn't Nader per se, Nader in a cocoon. It's Nader insofar as impact on Gore.

But I want to pick up the point you talked about before. And that is the disconnect. Where is the disconnect between the volumes of information that is being presented by the media and the fact that you do the poll that Paul referred to and there's a disconnect, the issues haven't stuck. We go back to the cliches. End of the Cold War, a good economy, a disengagement, an abdication from reality. And the two candidates for lots of people become richly interchangeable. Paul?

TAYLOR: Let me pick up on what Ceci said. We had three debates. They were rich in information. I couldn't agree more.

I came away as a viewer and voter thinking I was well informed by these debates. I was terribly chagrined to get the commentary after the debate.

And let me single out Dan Rather as someone who is a symbol of what traditional journalism is and ought to be. And it seemed to me he dripped with contempt for these debates, these are prescriptions for narcolepsy. This was just a big wind festival, nothing new here, on and on he went.

And I think if you have broadcast journalists, particularly those who sit in that very powerful perch, sending this message to the public, which basically says, "Beware. Don't go here. Don't take this stuff seriously," I think it helps.

KALB: Lazy criticism.

TAYLOR: Lazy criticism on top of perhaps peace, prosperity, and tranquility. I think you're getting closer to some of the reasons why we seem to have so much disconnection.

KURTZ: Also a lot of theater criticism, boxing metaphors, and the like after these debates.

But on Friday, part of the underground campaign sort of surfaced, Ceci Connolly. We learned in the "New York Times" story about the daisy ad. This is an updated version of the 1964 ad against Goldwater, this time used against Gore. Little girl with a flower, it blows up, talks about selling out to China, by an independent shadowy group in Texas.

We also learned the Gore campaign, the Democratic Party, making negative calls using people like actor Ed Asner in Michigan some would say distorting Bush's record.

Is it hard for the press? Do we need to do a better job of tracking what's going on in things like negative phone calls and independent ads as well as flying around with the candidates themselves?

CONNOLLY: Oh, sure, absolutely. And I guess a little bit in our own defense, it's these final days when there is so much of this happening that it becomes so difficult to keep tabs on it.

I know Friday when that daisy ad surfaced, it was very difficult and took quite a bit of digging to locate someone who was in any way responsible for that.

KURTZ: And I should add that the Bush campaign has disavowed the daisy ad. KALB: Yeah, but you want to pick up there are consequences for the ads. It seems to me the media has to quantify what the fallout of the daisy ad will be rather than simply report the story then abandon it.

KURTZ: Of course, give it a lot of free attention as well because it's a modest buy, Doyle.

MCMANUS: That's right. Part of the irony there is that those folks put that ad on the air once or twice. But they got much bigger coverage in the print press than they would have gotten out of the ad itself.

The big problem we've got in the last 10 days, Ceci is absolutely right, these people are trying to do this under the radar. I've been trying to work on phone calls. Both sides, not just the Gore side, are going to have massive paid phone banks, some with positive messages, some with negative message, some with annoying recorded messages from Barbara Bush or from Tipper Gore.

CONNOLLY: Bill Clinton.

MCMANUS: And from Bill Clinton. But they want to do it under the radar. They don't want us to know when it's going to be out there so that the other side can't respond to it.

KURTZ: Exactly. Doyle McManus, Ceci Connolly, thanks very much for joining us. Paul Taylor, stay with us.

And when we come back, we'll talk about the Alliance for Better Campaigns and your battle against ABC and its political coverage. That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

A little more than a week to go until Election Day. And you might think TV news stations would be covering nothing else.

But according to the Alliance for Better Campaigns, plenty of stations aren't even doing five minutes a night of substantive political coverage. And the alliance has singled out ABC and the stations it owns as the prime offender, taking out an ad in the "New York Times" and other publications to make its point.

ABC Broadcast Group President Bob Callahan issued this rebuttal: "We will not let any organization dictate the content of our news. This group should save its righteous indignation for those who lack the news record and commitment that ABC stations and ABC News have consistently demonstrated."

We should note that ABC declined to provide a representative to appear on this program.

Paul Taylor, you're a former reporter for the "Washington Post" and the "Philadelphia Inquirer," now executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns.

What's your response? Why have you singled out Disney and ABC? A lot of networks and stations don't provide terribly extensive political coverage.

TAYLOR: Yes. And a lot of them make a tremendous amount of money from Campaign 2000. There was a front page article in the Friday "Washington Post" that said the television industry is going to make $1 billion from the sale of political ads this year.

And our organizations has been tracking how much time they provide candidates to talk about issues either on their evening news or any other formats that they would do in the evening when they had the most number of viewers. And what we have found consistently throughout the year in the culminating week before the primaries and now in the week before the general election, they are providing literally just seconds a night for candidates to talk about issues.

KURTZ: You put Mickey Mouse in your ad.

TAYLOR: Right.

KURTZ: And you singled out Disney. You implied that ABC is just so much more terrible. They say you're trying to dictate to them.

TAYLOR: Right. The reason for that is that a presidential panel appointed by President Clinton a few years ago made a recommendation that as a voluntary standard, every station in the country -- 1,300 local commercial stations -- ought to provide a minimum of five minutes a night of opportunities for candidates to discuss issues and interviews and mini-debates -- a whole variety of formats, it's really up to the station -- but five minutes a night of this kind of issue discourse as an antidote frankly to the nightly blizzard of ads that we get.

A number of station group owners, including NBC and CBS, Scripps Howard, Hearst Argyle, some others, have agreed to do this. And some of their stations are doing it even as we speak.

ABC is the only of the traditional broadcasters that had not agreed to do it. And for that reason, we singled them out. They also happen to be, at least according to our tracking through mid- September, the station group that has made the most money so far this year from Campaign 2000.

KALB: Paul, let me be the devil's advocate for a minute. Given the misleading, inaccurate, self-serving statements offered by the candidates, turning the candidates loose in front of a camera to offer us their thinking in an unexamined way I don't think is productive.

I think that we have to analyze -- the media in fact does play a very valuable, significant role in analyzing, in picking apart some of the gibberish that the candidates offer. If you give us the candidates cold in a head-on collision with my head, I may be overwhelmed with...

KURTZ: Propaganda.

KALB: ... propaganda. Thank you very much, my dear boy. Brainwashed, right? Brainwashed.

TAYLOR: It seems to me the most important communication in a democracy is the communication in the culminating weeks of the campaign from the candidate to the citizen. Television is the most important intermediary for that communication.

I am not suggesting for one second that we should...

KALB: Unexamined?

TAYLOR: ... that it should be unexamined. By all means, let's examine it. That's the beauty. That's the foundation of our democracy in terms of journalism.

But here's a statistic for you. On the network evening news -- ABC, CBS and NBC -- the typical political story has 11 seconds of candidates talking and 74 seconds of the journalist talking.

KURTZ: You got a problem with that?


TAYLOR: Actually, I don't have a problem with journalists doing the scrutiny. That's their job. That's what makes us all stronger. What I do have a problem with is the fact that night after night is the candidate gets elbowed off the screen.

I mean, as somebody said, the reason that Gore and Bush have done the Leno, Letterman, Regis, Oprah circuit is they can't get in a word edgewise on Brokaw, Jennings, and Rather. I would suggest to you both as a former journalist and as a citizen, something is a little bit upside down here.

KALB: Well, let's cut to the chase. I want to rephrase, italicize, the opening question by Howie here. Why are you meeting this sort of resistance if just a small percentage of the television stations around the country have supported your request, why are 95 percent -- and that's the figure, isn't it? -- 95 percent are resisting. Why are they fighting you?

TAYLOR: Bottom line, they make a lot of money from Campaign 2000.

KALB: They'd rather sell it.

TAYLOR: They'd rather sell it than provide the air time, not only for the candidates to talk unedited but also airtime in the models that I would love to see. Let's make it an interview. Let's make it a mini-debate. It's up to the broadcast journalist to figure out what the most useful way to get the information across is.

KURTZ: Paul Taylor, we have less than a minute. You have praised CBS and NBC... TAYLOR: Yes.

KURTZ: ... for having their own stations, these are local stations we're talking about, commit to the five-minute-a-night standard. But your own follow up survey found that many of them are not really meeting that standard.

TAYLOR: Well, we haven't done the full survey because we're still in the one-month period. But at least some initial snapshots we took of the first few nights of this suggest that these stations indeed may have said they're going to do it but are only paying lip service. We'll have a full report at the end of the election.

This may be a case where broadcasters simply don't have a set of instincts to provide the airtime. A lot of broadcasters, newsroom folks that I've run into, reflect the same attitude, Bernie, that you have. What would be the value to democracy of letting these candidates talk? It's all just a bunch of gibberish. My own sense is let the voters decide whether it's gibberish or not.

KURTZ: All right, well, our five minutes have expired. Paul Taylor, Alliance for Better Campaigns, thanks very much for joining us.

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


KURTZ: Time now for the "Back Page."


KALB: Only 10 days or so before you cast your vote. So no time for softball questions. How about this. Has America gone poll crazy?


KALB (voice-over): Everywhere you look, polls. National polls, state polls, tracking polls, daily polls, focus groups that are miniature polls. It's as though America were one giant pizza getting sliced into smaller and smaller polls.

Gore is ahead, Gore is behind. Bush is up, Bush is down. They're both up, they're both down, depending on where, when, and how the poll was conducted.

And the candidates themselves, well, they say they don't take the polls too seriously -- no laughing please -- especially when the polls show them slipping.

VICE PRES. AL GORE, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I really feel the same way about polls that I've felt all along. I don't think they matter very much.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I tell people, "Just forget about the polls, let's go do our job." KALB: You can get a poll on anything. You name it, bingo, there's a poll. It's not exactly an exact science, not Einsteinian, you might say. Answers can depend on who's asking the questions and the wording of the questions.

And all the polling now going on has disclosed one of America's best kept secrets, that indecisionitis may be conquering the country. Florida voters like both of them at almost the same time. One poll has Bush up by five. Another poll a day later has Gore up by four.

But that's single digit stuff. How about this? In early October, Gore up by 11. In early August, Bush up by 17.

Now you might be surprised to know that the first polls date back to 1824 in the "Harrisburg Pennsylvanian." It predicted that Andrew Jackson would beat John Quincy Adams. Right on the money, wrong, just like this headline more than a century later.

But there's one thing you've got to say about the polls. They do try to be as accurate as possible, like saying that a particular poll has a margin of error of three points either way. So does that mean if Pat Buchanan's poll numbers right now stand at one percent, he owes the poll two percent? Sounds fair to me.


KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Before we go, this item from the world of media news. On CNN's "CROSSFIRE" last week, "Hustler" publisher Larry Flynt made an unsubstantiated 30-year-old charge about George W. Bush's personal life during a live show.

CNN later decided not to include his remarks in the transcript available on CNN's Web site. Some critics now are accusing CNN of censorship.

The network issued this statement: "As a respectable news organization, it is our responsibility of something is communicated to our audience that is unsubstantiated and potentially harmful to set the record straight. The network did this by questioning the allegations, reminding the viewers that the comments were those of Larry Flynt and not the network, and removing the remarks from archives."

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.

Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll look at the presidential campaign getting rough with 10 days to go and Hillary versus Rick getting even rougher. Bob Dole's presidential campaign manager Scott Reed joins the gang for that and much more right here next on CNN.



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