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Are the Media Going Overboard on George Bush's 24-year-old DUI?

Aired November 4, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The November surprise. Are the media going overboard on George Bush's 24-year-old conviction for driving under the influence? Was a Maine television reporter used by the Democrats? And should pundits be predicting that Al Gore will lose the election? And why some liberals are blaming the press.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz in New York. Bernard Kalb is in Washington.

Well, with just three days to go until Election Day, we begin with the candidate and the conviction.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN WILLIAMS, MSNBC ANCHOR: It was perhaps inevitable. A last-minute story has surfaced, designed apparently to damage the Bush effort for the presidency.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ (voice-over): On the campaign trail in Wisconsin Thursday night, George W. Bush faces the traveling press for only the second time in nearly two months.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There's a report out tonight that 24 years ago I was apprehended in Kennebunkport, Maine, for DUI. That's an accurate story.

KURTZ: The story broke when Erin Fehlau, a television reporter for the Fox affiliate in Portland, Maine, got some information from a former Democratic candidate for governor about a certain 1976 arrest. Soon, Fox News was on the air with the scoop.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARL CAMERON, FOX NEWS REPORTER: Fox News has learned that in 1976, Governor Bush was arrested in Maine and charged with driving under the influence of liquor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Fehlau, who turned up on "Nightline" and the network morning shows, insists she wasn't used.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ERIN FEHLAU, FOX NEWS REPORTER: I'm confident that I wasn't set up. I feel like if I was being set up, he would probably just have handed me the information right off the bat.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Suddenly, for television news, there was no other story.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's going to become a major diversion for the campaign for a couple of days.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WILLIAM KRISTOL, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I think it probably determines the fate of Governor Bush's campaign.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PAUL BEGALA, HOST, MSNBC'S "EQUAL TIME": Bush should have put this out a year ago. Every fair-minded person would have defended him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARA LIASSON, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO REPORTER: I think it's really a big nothing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: "The Washington Post" gave the story front page treatment Friday while "The New York Times" relegated it to page 23. But the New York tabloids had a field day.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Any other arrests?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: And the boys and girls on the bus had plenty of questions.

Meanwhile, as the clock ticks down to Election Day, journalists are trying to figure out what all this means while keeping one eye on the polls and the Electoral College map. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: When you throw in the possibility that the candidate with the most votes might actually lose the presidency in the Electoral College, well, you've got a night where, for those of us trying to make sense of it, our most important tool may be a large supply of Maalox.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Jim Warren, Washington bureau chief for the "Chicago Tribune," and an analyst for MSNBC; Kathy Kiely, Washington correspondent for "USA Today"; and in Philadelphia where Vice President Gore will be arriving later this evening is Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for "U.S. News & World Report."

Welcome.

Jim Warren, a presidential candidate having had a criminal charge of this nature is undeniably a new story, especially when it explodes in the final days of a campaign. But we're also talking here, as you know, about a 24-year-old demeanor. Has the press been a little tipsy in its focus on this story?

JIM WARREN, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Oh, not particularly. I think what you saw here was an expected and probably pretty healthy hodgepodge of response since it's best to remember this is a democracy, Howie. And we've got a rather disparate array of media out there.

So no big surprise the cable news channels devoured this ravenously for a few hours. The tabloids did their thing, were quite droll about it. And then the good old fashioned mainstream, somewhat stodgy, old media like "The Chicago Tribune" and "The New York Times" played this rather discreetly.

Of course, no doubt you had the blabbermouths, blabbermouth pundits, many of them shilling for one side or another, most of them having not a scintilla of reporting to back their claims out there very quickly...

KURTZ: OK...

WARREN: ... Many of them tend to be Washington based. And many of them tend not to really have much of a clue.

KURTZ: I'll add briefly it wasn't just cable. It was also -- the "Today" show, for example, spent about 40 minutes on this Friday before getting to the new "Charlie's Angels."

Roger Simon, is the leaking of this story by a former Democratic candidate for governor in Maine, Tom Connolly, as important to our coverage, obviously a politically motivated leak, as the 24-year-old charge itself? ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT": No. The dirty little secret of journalism is most people come to us with stories out of a sense of their own self-interest, not to further the democratic process.

Paula Jones was used by Republican conservatives to sue President Clinton. That didn't mean what President Clinton did wasn't important.

It's important...

KURTZ: Here, there's no dispute that the story is true, in Bush's case.

SIMON: ... That's true. And it's important to know that it came from a democratic candidate for governor, a Democratic delegate to the convention. But the importance is whether a candidate for president has covered up an arrest for the last 24 years why he did it, and are there any other arrests he's covering up? We don't know the answer to that one yet, at least not for him.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Kathy, after a couple of months -- after months and months of listening to the stump speech of the two candidates, the press is clearly hungry for a new episode. And when it comes along, there's a great banquet. Everything turns into devouring that particular story.

But the point was made about the editorial clashing judgments about how the story is played. And that gives us some idea of how different editors see the merit of the story, whether they can quantify consequences, or whether it's a two-paragraph story, which was the case in some papers, front page, inside, or what. What does this tell us about the uncertainty, the editorial uncertainty, about how to play the story?

KATHY KIELY, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "USA TODAY": Well, I think it has to do less with politics in the sense of an editor having an opinion one way or another for or against a candidate. What it really has to do with is the closeness of the Election Day.

I think every newsroom, you start to see a ratcheting back of certain kinds of stories the closer we get to Election Day. You don't want to run something that's going to have to have a correction on Election Day itself. So people tend to become more cautious as we get closer and closer to people actually going to the ballot box.

KALB: But this our big question. And I call...

KIELY: Well, in some places, though, the difference, what I'm talking about...

KALB: ... I repeat once again, two paragraphs, a paragraph or two in some papers.

KIELY: ... Well, and I think that's an example of the caution. I also think there are two things that happened here. One is that on the first day it broke, the reaction in many newsrooms is -- including my own -- is that this really isn't telling us much that we didn't already know. George Bush has said he had a drinking problem. This is evidence of a drinking problem that he had when he was younger.

The only thing that has made this I think a story with legs is the fact that he seems to have gone to such lengths to not let this particular detail out. And, I mean, it's like when will they ever learn?

This is the same -- a guy running, his party is the party that criticized along with the press the Clintons for not being more forthcoming about Whitewater, this sort of incremental disclosure...

KURTZ: Kathy...

KIELY: ... And that's exactly what's happening here.

WARREN: And the possibility, of course, that he had perhaps been asked this question directly before. Apparently it had been asked directly before by a Dallas newspaper reporter...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Jim, Jim, let me interrupt you for a second, because we have Wayne Slater with the "Dallas Morning News." I want to show the clip, and then you can talk about it.

WARREN: Sure.

KURTZ: Wayne Slater of the "Dallas Morning News" talking about a couple of years ago when he raised the subject of arrests with Governor Bush.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WAYNE SLATER, "DALLAS MORNING NEWS": I asked him, "Were you ever arrested after 1968?" a period in which he was cited for stealing a Christmas wreath. And he said no. And then I asked him, "What about before 1968?" At that point, Karen Hughes stepped in, the governor's press secretary, and said, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, I don't know what this is about. I want to stop this."

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now Slater added that he felt the governor wanted to tell him something more until Karen Hughes interrupted. So my question to you, Jim Warren, is does that raise this issue from the rather narrow, as Kathy Kiely put it, question of what Governor Bush did when he drove into a bunch of hedges 24 years ago, to the more current and perhaps more politically relevant question of credibility?

WARREN: For sure. And there were people very quickly that first night, Howie, brought that question up and talked about whether or not he had been asked this question before. Now, of course, the American public, as I think probably reacting fairly intelligently, putting it into a larger context, and does not seem at first blush to be absolutely taken aback and shocked. Though it's hard to believe that there's not going to be somewhat -- at least a negligible, at least a modest negative to Bush on this count.

KALB: How do you say then the public won't take it too seriously in that sense? How do you know that, Jim? Aren't you punditizing right now?

WARREN: No, no, Bernie. And may I please defend myself? In fact, when this all came out, I was attending a Bill Clinton rally in a middle class black neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. And the first thing I did was run around and talk to as many of these Democratic partisans as I could, told them what the word was, and they were not exactly taken aback.

And having said that, I may also note that for all those conspiracy theorists out there, when you look at some of the editorial reaction to this, you had a paper like "The New York Times" who editorially is very much in the Gore camp -- when I talk editorial, I mean their editorial page has endorsed Gore -- and they played this very discreetly.

Meanwhile, you had a paper that is unabashed Republican supporter, some would say shill, "The Washington Times" here in Washington that played this much more prominently than "The Chicago Tribune" and "The New York Times" on page one.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Roger Simon, I'm sorry, Bernie, let me just jump in with a quick question to Roger.

KALB: Please.

KURTZ: You know, this question of relevance and credibility, I would argue even if people dismiss this after all as one incident, it was 1976, the effect is that it sucks up a lot of the media oxygen. Whatever Bush has been talking about the last couple of days hasn't gotten through.

But my question to you is I've seen a lot of Republicans go on television and suggest, imply, or sometimes flat out say that the Gore campaign must have had something to do with this. When those kinds of charges are made without evidence, does the press have a responsibility to call these folks on it, or just report the back and forth?

SIMON: I think the press has a responsibility to present whatever evidence it can find. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that the Gore campaign has been behind it. Possibility always of some rogue Democrat at some level.

I just wanted to make a point, though, about what happens when the media ignores stories like this. We have a perfect example. The media knew in advance before Bob Packwood's election that there had been sexual harassment complaints against him. It was so closet to Election Day that the media kept quiet about it.

KURTZ: "The Washington Post" in particular.

SIMON: In particular. He was reelected. And afterwards, the story broke. And everyone said, "I wish I had known that before I voted for this schlub." So the media gets it either way. I think the media should always err on the side of revealing rather than concealing.

KURTZ: Let me very briefly say "The Washington Post" position on that in 1992 was that it didn't have enough evidence to publish before the election.

Bernie, I interrupted you. Please go ahead.

KALB: No, I was going to raise the question, how can we quantify the consequences of this story? We don't know whether it's a wash. We do not know absolutely in that particular case. But how do we know what effect it will have on the voting patterns, Roger?

SIMON: Well, we don't know what effect it will have. We can look at other examples. We can say even if you say that George Bush is candid about his past than President Clinton was about his, we have ample evidence that the public didn't care how candid Clinton was about his past and I am guessing probably won't care how candid George Bush was about his past.

KURTZ: OK, we need to leave it there. And when we come back, are the pundits unfairly predicting that Al Gore is going down on Tuesday? We'll talk about the Democratic candidate and the press. And we'll check in with CNN's John King on the campaign trail. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back. Al Gore earlier today at a prayer breakfast in Memphis, Tennessee. Well, joining us now from Pittsburgh where the vice president will be holding a rally this evening is CNN's John King.

John, to what lengths it the Gore campaign going to keep its distance, at least publicly, from the Bush DUI story?

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, publicly they're saying very little, Howie, except to deny any allegations or suggestions that they were behind leaking this information, forcefully saying they had nothing at all to do with it, no contact with this lawyer in Maine who put this information out.

The vice president in the few opportunities he's been asked about the specifics of the arrest has said it would be inappropriate for him to comment. They don't believe publicly, A, that it's in their interest to comment, and B, that they'd get anything out of it. They believe the press is covering the story. If there is going to be any damage, they believe it will come on its own. If the vice president were to publicly comment or aides were to push it, it would probably hurt them by making it political.

Other Democrats, though, stepping up, Senator Tom Harkin in Iowa yesterday, others stepping up saying, "Gee, this is a guy who runs around every day saying he wants to restore honor and decency and integrity to the White House. Shouldn't he have been a bit more forthcoming about having run afoul of the law?"

KURTZ: It's called having the surrogates do the dirty work.

Why did the Gore camp feel compelled, John King, to put out a statement in the name of campaign chairman Bill Daley saying they had nothing to do with it? Are they angry about suggestions that perhaps they were pulling the strings there?

KING: Well, they say they're angry. Again, we're in the closing days of the campaign, a very close campaign, everybody a little nervous.

Nobody in the Gore campaign predicting this will damage Governor Bush. They certainly hope it does. They want to win the election.

But nobody knows exactly what will happen here. And, of course, remember one of the criticisms of Al Gore, one of the things that shows up in the polling, he is viewed as a very political person, viewed as a candidate who often attacks his rivals. So they were sensitive to the allegation they could have been behind this.

There was a chorus from Karen Hughes and the Bush campaign throughout the Republican Party pointing the finger of blame at the vice president. So a very angry statement, as you mentioned, from the chairman of the campaign, Bill Daley, that said, "Look, we had nothing to do with us. If there are any unanswered questions, they should be answered by Governor Bush and his campaign, not us."

KURTZ: John King in Pittsburgh, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, Jim Warren, a number of liberal columnists lately -- Eric Alterman (ph) in "The Nation," Jake Tapper in "Salon," Charlie Peters, the editor of the "Washington Monthly" -- have been writing and suggesting that Bush will probably win and that it's the media's fault for, A, not telling the world how uninformed he is, and B, for perhaps fixating too heavily in their view again on Vice President Gore's exaggerations. Your view?

WARREN: Well, I think that's a little bit errant. If you look at the last couple of years, it is amazing how mistaken we have been almost at every point.

Two years ago, it was no contest Gore on one side, Bush on the other. Gore partly because of the economy, it scared off people like Congressman Gephardt, Bush partly because of the huge sums of money he raised. Then came McCain and Bradley. Then came New Hampshire, and we said, "Uh-oh, the establishment guys are in real trouble." We laughed at Gore because he moved down to Nashville.

Then came their victories, their nominations. And then Gore, particularly after the kiss, seemed impregnable. And now we see all of these faults.

I think the bigger picture is the fact that this was Al Gore's really to win or lose. It still very much is. This was an incredibly strong economy. And we looked at states like Oregon and like Washington, like Wisconsin, where he should be stronger.

And we add that to the difficulties he has as a campaigner. We look at Bill Clinton this week and Clinton making the case for Al Gore far more effectively, far more concisely, than Al Gore makes a case for Al Gore. And you can conclude, the guy has got problems.

KALB: Let me move the question to Roger. There's been an analysis by the Project for Excellence in Journalism how the press has been covering the campaign. And they come up with the sentence, George W. Bush was twice as likely as Gore to get coverage that was positive in tone, twice as likely for Bush against Gore.

How did Gore succeed in getting this positive bounce from a media that is always described as liberal?

KURTZ: How did Bush succeed?

SIMON: Well, I'm not -- you mean how did Bush succeed?

KALB: Yes. Yes. How did Bush succeed, of course?

SIMON: I think part of it was that Bush had from the very beginning of his campaign, I mean, literally from the first day, I was out with both of them on the first day, had a charm offensive designed to make friends with the press.

Bush was the guy who pushed the cocktail cart down the plane aisle when we took off from Austin. Shakes every hand. He doesn't do it anymore. But he did it in the beginning.

(CROSSTALK)

KALB: Are you suggesting that liberals surrender to charisma?

SIMON: I'm suggesting that the press feels more comfortable with people it can answer questions -- it can ask questions of and get answers to.

Gore from the first day was kept very far from the press and except for interviews here and there, he didn't spend a lot of time with the press. Now a strange reversal has gone on.

KALB: Yes. SIMON: When Bush got his first real hit, his famous big time quote, and then later the rats commercial, he cut off the press. He no longer comes to the back of the plane. He no longer, except for a couple of days ago to answer this drunk driving thing, even gives press conferences.

(CROSSTALK)

SIMON: Gore, on the other hand, has been with us every day.

KURTZ: OK, Kathy Kiely, this question of a double standard, at least according to some liberal journalists, when Bush has one press conference in two months, there's barely a peep. When Gore tried that earlier this year, there was quite a bit of criticism. So I wonder again if there has been something of a double standard.

KIELY: Well, my experience is double standard is usually in the eye of the beholder. In fact, I think your own paper had a story this week about Bush cutting himself off from the media. So it hasn't gone uncovered.

I do think that Bush may have some trouble now with the media because it isn't nice not to own up to the media. And that looks like what he did here. It looks like he kind of obfuscated his way out of a question. And that could cause him some problems if he's elected down the road.

KURTZ: OK, we'll look at the final hours of this campaign when we come back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back. Kathy Kiely, the final prognostications. Many saying too close to call. We're seeing a lot of Electoral College maps, color coded of course.

But a number of pundits are flat out saying that George Bush is going to win this election. I wonder if they should be doing that -- I guess we can't stop them -- and if that has an effect because voters like to be with a winner. Maybe it helps create a kind of a bandwagon effect. What do you think?

KIELY: Well, on the other hand, voters might want to throw a banana peel under the feet of some of those pundits. Pundits, that's what pundits do.

I mean, reporters shouldn't be doing that. I'm a newspaper reporter. But pundits are columnists. They're opinion makers, opinion leaders. And they're allowed to do that.

KALB: Jim, let me ask you this. That same poll showed that 51 percent of the reporting in three critical weeks between September and October were negative, 31 percent neutral, 18 percent positive. Fifty-one negative. Isn't there a challenge for the media to rescue itself from the pits of negativism because it does affect the voter turnout? WARREN: Well, I think they're also reflecting simply the tactics of the campaign here. I mean, these guys are going at each other very hard. I don't buy the daily cliches about rhetoric, ratcheting up, and differences being sharpened.

But when things start getting to be that predictable and increasingly harsh, then what are you to do? At the same time, there's simply the business of folks being uneasy and not having a whole lot to report on. And there's a certain -- undoubtedly certain frustration. But I think the overriding thing here is not so much something about the media, it has something to do with the collective obsession with polls and the question of whether those can affect things...

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: Let me turn to Roger Simon, please.

Roger, journalists are sometimes accused, even on this show, of ignoring the issues. But is it OK to turn the presidential race in the final week into a horserace when it is a pretty incredible horserace right now?

SIMON: Yes. I mean, this is -- it's about who wins and who loses. That's how we choose presidents.

At a certain point, you have to say, "OK, you've had all the issues you want to look at, and you probably ignored them. But come Tuesday, you're going to have to make a decision. And here's who's up and who's down."

KURTZ: OK, Roger Simon in Philadelphia, and in Washington Kathy Kiely, Jim Warren, Bernard Kalb, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, the demise of a serious Chicago newscast that had plenty of journalists talking but not enough viewers watching.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Before we go, this note from the world of media news. Local TV newscasts are often filled with more sensation than substance.

But over the summer, we told you about Chicago's WBBM TV, which was offering viewers a no-frills newscast with a serious format and a serious anchorwoman, veteran broadcaster Carol Marin. This week, after almost nine months on the air, WBBM pulled the plug on the ratings challenge 10:00 p.m. newscast.

Carol Marin has been replaced by a male-female anchor team and a more traditional broadcast. Marin says she has no regrets, no apologies, and the newscast just needed more time to succeed.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning 11:30 Eastern for a special edition about campaign coverage on this election-eve weekend. "Capital Gang" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll make fearless forecasts about Tuesday's elections, who will control the Senate and the House, and who will be the next president of the United States right here next on CNN.

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