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Reliable Sources

Media Continues to Feast on Bush's 24-Year-Old DUI Arrest; Who's to Blame if Gore Loses?; Have Journalists Lost Sight of the Issues?

Aired November 5, 2000 - 11:30 a.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Down to the wire, two days to go, the closest race in decades.

Is George Bush's 24-year-old arrest for driving under the influence creating a media frenzy?

Have journalists lost sight of the issues?

And why some liberal pundits are already blaming the press if Al Gore loses.

Welcome to this special live Sunday edition of RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media.

I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

In the final, frantic 48 hours, the pundits say George W. Bush has a slight edge in this extraordinarily tight presidential campaign.

"The Washington Post" lead story this morning: "Two Days to Go, Burden Is on Gore."

The Texas governor, hoping to shake off any political hangover over his 24-year-old conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol. An ABC poll taken after the story broke Thursday says only 17 percent see the 1976 incident as relevant to the campaign.

Al Gore this morning is in Philadelphia. George Bush headed once again to Florida.

Well, joining us now, Jodie Allen, senior writer for "U.S. News & World Report"; Rich Lowry, the editor of "National Review"; and in New York, Walter Shapiro, political columnist for "USA Today."


Rich Lowry, is all the 24-hour coverage of Bush's 24-year-old DUI arrest the product of a liberal media almost drunk on the idea of sinking him, or is it a legitimate, indeed unavoidable news story?

RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Well, it's -- it's news. It should be reported, but I think, fundamentally, this is an inside- the-fold, three- or four-inch story, and...

KURTZ: Three- or four-inch story?

LOWRY: Sure. It's a -- it's a -- it has absolutely no significance whatsoever. It tells us nothing about his ability to be president, and I think what we see now is the story collapsing of its own lack of weight because it -- it is, basically, a non-story.

KURTZ: Walter Shapiro, those who would say that the DUI arrest is not a non-story would point out, of course, that Governor Bush didn't take the opportunity, shall we say, to talk about this in the past, and I wonder, since you've been out with the governor's campaign, is there tension between the Bush campaign, which, like all campaigns, wants to stay on message, and reporters, who have been buzzing with questions related to this incident?

WALTER SHAPIRO, POLITICAL COLUMNIST, "USA TODAY": Well, Karen Hughes, who tried to explain the ways in which Governor Bush was a little less than forthcoming with "Dallas Morning News" reporter Wayne Slater on the campaign plane on Friday -- it was not her best moment, and it was not the greatest moment...

KURTZ: She, of course, being the communications director.

SHAPIRO: It was not the greatest moment in the Bush campaign, telling it short -- sort of latching on to John McCain's Straight Talk Express.

But, that said, I agree with Rich Lowry entirely. This en -- original story was -- it's -- it's a non-starter. It is so minor in the blip of Bush's or Gore's presidential campaign. Can't we apply the 20-year rule? If it doesn't involve treason, murder, or something equally heinous and it happened 20 years ago, can we not blow it out of proportion two days before the election?

KURTZ: We'll apply that rule to your career as well -- Bernie.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Jodie, what do you think about the initial reaction of the media to this story? It reflected a -- what I would call editorial uncertainty. "The New York Times" played it inside, "The Washington Post" played it outside, some newspapers cut it down...

KURTZ: "USA Today" gave it a relatively short...

KALB: ... and some of them just had a paragraph or two on that particular story. Editorial uncertainty. And now it appears, as you're suggesting, to have collapsed. What do you make of that editorial indecision?

JODIE ALLEN, SENIOR WRITER, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": Oh, I think that it was following the Walter Shapiro 20-year rule. This story has its more current life to it, though, because of the fact that it came up -- that it came up a few years ago in '96 and Bush danced away from it and perhaps deliberately misspoke at that point. So that it is a story. I don't think the press has overdone it. "The Washington Post," being a very political newspaper, will naturally always play it bigger than the other papers did, but it -- but I don't think that the media can be accused here, and they -- certainly, if they had not run it at all, they would have drawn fire for making an editorial judgment on their own.

This is news, and Gore -- Bush would have done very well to have put it out of the way himself by answering the question honestly earlier.

KURTZ: Rich.

LOWRY: The most relevant fact about reporters on that plane is that they are bored to death. They -- they live such a weird existence getting on and off planes and buses 16 hours a day, hearing Bush give more or less the same speech...

KURTZ: Over and over.

LOWRY: ... at every stop. So this -- a story like this is like a drop of water in a desert for them, and that's why they go crazy over it, and no one else cares about it, and they like it so much because it relieves their boredom and it makes them feel important, but they're totally out of touch. They're the worst people -- possible people to have reasonable judgment on a story like this.

KALB: But, Rich -- Rich, is it -- this a discardable story on the part of the media? After all, Bush has been hammering away on the question of integrity and character in the White House. Now this story seems to explode...

LOWRY: Well, he's more...

KALB: ... in his face, and...

LOWRY: He's...

KALB: ... how do you -- how do you do the moral arithmetic on it?

LOWRY: Jodie mentioned the 1996 case where he was asked about this directly...


LOWRY: ... and he said, "I"...


KURTZ: ... a jury.

LOWRY: Right. And he said, "I -- I have made mistakes in my youth. I don't have a perfect record in my youth," and -- and that is an answer that, I think, is pretty readily interpreted as a "Yes, I have -- I have problems," and he's always used that formulation because it's a way of confessing without getting into any specifics.

KURTZ: OK. Rich -- Rich...


ALLEN: ... formula.

KURTZ: Let me -- let me just trample everybody here because I want to get to a couple of sound bites. Many people are saying that an equally important part of the DUI story is the way that it was leaked by a former Democratic candidate for governor in Maine, Tom Connolly, who heard it from a guy, who heard it from his chiropractor, who heard it from his patient, and it was leaked to a Portland TV reporter, Erin Fehlau, and she was asked on ABC's "Nightline" if she felt used by the Democrats.


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


KURTZ: Also, on the question of Bush's credibility, Walter Shapiro, you mentioned Wayne Slater, "The Dallas Morning News" reporter, who had asked Governor Bush, I guess, two years ago about the subject of whether he'd ever been arrested. Let's take a listen to Wayne Slater.


WAYNE SLATER, "THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS": I asked him, "Were you ever arrested after 1968?" the 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."


KURTZ: Now, Walter Shapiro, doesn't the question of credibility, which, of course, we've heard so much about with regard to President Clinton for the past eight years, make this -- give this more resonance than the mere fact of the DUI arrest, which, I agree with you, most Americans would certainly be willing to give the governor a pass on?

SHAPIRO: I would give it -- it ratchets it up from about a 1-1/2 to a 2-1/4 on a scale of 10. No, the Bush campaign -- this was not one of their models of how they should behave in the White House if their candidate is elected.

That said, it still -- we always, as the press, can figure out a way to justify, to get that second day's story going. I think a lot of it comes back to what Rich Lowry was saying, the terminal boredom of watching George W. Bush give the same speech almost word to -- for word in almost similar gymnasiums. Only the locale is different.

And what troubles me is hearing a network producer on the Bush plane as the story was unfolding on Friday say eagerly to a friend into a cell phone, "This is so terrific. Stories like this get my juices flowing."

LOWRY: That's absolutely...

KALB: Walter...

LOWRY: That's absolutely right. Both -- I was on the plane with Walter, and within two minutes of Wayne Slater mentioning this to other reporters, you had people standing on their seats, shoving microphones into Wayne's -- you know, one minute, we're all putting cream cheese on our bagels. The next minute, we're all in a mad frenzy around Wayne Slater because it was something new to relieve the boredom.

KALB: The stump -- the stump speech, after you've heard it over and over, can get pretty boring. Then you seize upon this and make a journalistic banquet out of this. But to what degree do you think this --

Walter, to what degree do you think this will affect the media coverage of Bush? One of the most recent polls shows that Bush has been getting twice as much good coverage as Gore. Will this event affect media coverage?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think it probably will have affected the ratio in the closing three or four days of the campaign. What I'm really much more interested in is whether the Bush campaign, if they are successful, will draw the right lesson from this whole flak, and...

KALB: Which is?

SHAPIRO: ... the lesson is not to go into a bunker mentality with the press, but there's something embarrassing -- get it out at the earliest possible moment because, like as not, the American people will slough it off. I was in Waterford Township, Michigan, yesterday afternoon, in Oakland County, talking to voters, and it was -- surprised me, the number of voters, both for Gore and Bush, who brought up the drunk-driving incident, and everyone of them brought it up unbidden to say it wasn't influencing their vote for or against Bush at all.

KURTZ: But, of course, at the same time, they're talking about it rather than talking about Bush's plan for Social Security.

Before I come to you, Jodie Allen, last night, on the show, we asked our viewers did the press go overboard on this DUI story, and we got a split verdict.

Plenty of viewers agreed with one who said, "No, Bush and the Republicans have been underscoring Al Gore's credibility for 18 months and stressing honesty and integrity. He put the issues on the table. Now he must deal with the fallout." Another viewer said the press has not gone far enough. "George W. Bush should be taken to task for lying about this when asked in 1998."

But plenty of others said the media went too far. "George W. previously admitted that he had a drinking problem. Something happened 24 years ago -- that something is not relevant."

Another said, "The press has given too much attention to the DUI conviction. We want more coverage on real issues."

More coverage on real issues?

ALLEN: Well, I, actually, think, Howie, that -- that this plays out in an interesting way for Bush. I don't think Bush wants more attention to his Social Security proposal. I think, as I looked at yesterday's paper, that I would have devoted more attention to this large misstatement he made about Social Security, about it not...

KURTZ: In which he said?

ALLEN: ... not being a federal program. This is the quintessential federal program, one that enjoys the most national support. I -- I think that Bush is -- is actually well served by having a little distraction at this point.

KALB: Can I enter a small contrary point? I thought the way Bush handled that Social Security, federal or not federal -- there was enough blur in that. Gore chose not to honor the blur. He seized upon it and accused Bush of colossal ignorance, but I think there was a blur in that story.

LOWRY: Of course, there was a blur.

KALB: I mean, there's no question on it.

LOWRY: It's -- it was the portion of the speech where he always talks about how the payroll tax fundamentally is your money and it's yours to manage as -- as you would like, and that's his vision of Social Security, and he garbled it a little bit. It tells us nothing. He doesn't really think Social Security's not...

KURTZ: But it's an embarrassing...

LOWRY: ... a federal program.

KURTZ: .. sound bite.

LOWRY: It's an embarrassing sound bite, but it's not going to...

ALLEN: Right. And he's got into an embarrassing...

KURTZ: OK. I've got to...

ALLEN: ... trillion-dollar problem.

KURTZ: OK. I've got to get a break here.

And, finally, there was one more viewer e-mail where we were -- asked about whether the press had gone overboard on the DUI issue. This viewer said yes with just two words, "Big time."

Well, coming up next, why some liberal pundits are already blaming the press if Al Gore loses.



As the clocks tick down, the candidates crisscrossing the country from one key battleground state to another. Al Gore this morning live at an AME church in Philadelphia. Let's take a look.

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And, incidentally, the other -- three days ago, in attempting to defend that proposal, my opponent said that those who opposed it were scared of experimenting in such a reckless way because -- he said, "What do they think Social Security is, a federal program?"


GORE: Yeah. It is, and it's -- it's a very good one, too. It takes care of our seniors in their later years, and it should be protected and defended.

Now, my friends, I'd like to close by asking for your help. We have great challenges facing us in the United States today. We do have a great opportunity to build on this foundation of prosperity that all of you have helped to put together, and we have to decide which fork in the road we're going to take on Tuesday.

With the surplus...

KURTZ: The vice president...

GORE: ... we can have financial soundness and invest in schools and teachers and health care and clean up the environment and protect retirement security, or we can squander it on a massive tax cut that goes...

KURTZ: Jodie, you -- you anticipated what the vice president was going to say on the Social Security attack on George W. Bush.

Let me turn now to Rich Lowry.

A number of liberal columnists -- Eric Alterman in "The Nation," Jake Tapper in "Salon," Charlie Peters, the editor of "The Washington Monthly" -- have written pieces saying that Al Gore will probably lose, and the reason, they say, is that the press has done a poor job, one, of not telling us how uninformed George W. Bush is and, two, that the press as well has fixated on what they regard as rather minor exaggerations and misstatements by the vice president.

Something tells me you may have a different view.

LOWRY: Well, they always say, when a Republican campaign complains about its press coverage, it's -- it's a sign of trouble. When the people supporting a Democratic campaign start to complain about press coverage, it's a sign of real desperation, I think, and the fact is the media does play to stereotypes.

The stereotype of Gore is that he is an exaggerator. That's a longstanding stereotype, something his own campaign warned him about in 1988, and the stereotype of Bush was that he was dumb so that the challenge for both -- both candidates was not to play into those stereotypes, and Gore did in the debates, and that was a -- a very grievous, serious mistake.

And the fact is there's no way to argue that -- that the press is pro-Bush. I mean, after every single Bush rally, all the reporters want to focus on is what words he mispronounced. The tape recorders turn on immediately.

KURTZ: It's not a question of...


LOWRY: Yes, they do.

KALB: Well, there was a poll -- you saw that poll -- Excellence in Journalism Poll, which notes that -- pardon me -- that Bush is apt to get twice the positive coverage that Gore is, and so let me -- let me push the question behind that. Whatever happened to the liberal media?

Let me put that to Walter. If Bush is cleaning up in the press, whatever happened to the, quote-unquote, "liberal media"?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think, to some extent, the liberal media was always a myth and exaggeration. I think it only comes out on a few narrow issues like abortion where there is probably a pro-choice bias in the press, but, I think, in terms of politics, there is always a bias towards the challenger. We like the status quo to change because we're in the news business.

And I think what is really interesting here -- if you're going to scream about bias in the press, I think we all owe Ralph Nader a small apology. For the first eight, nine months of this year, Nader could not buy newspaper coverage. We were fixated, when we weren't covering the major races, on Pat Buchanan.

And I think, if you add up the column inches and the amount of TV moments when this campaign was over, Buchanan still will have gotten more coverage over the whole year than Nader, and it's clear that Nader's vote total is going to be 4, 5, 6 times what Buchanan...

KURTZ: Good point.

SHAPIRO: Bias is all over the place.

KURTZ: OK. Let me...


KURTZ: Let me pick it up with Jodie, though. I don't think it's a question of the press being pro-Bush, as Rich Lowry suggests, although a lot of reporters personally like Bush better than they do Al Gore, but when George Bush goes two months and holds a single news conference, I barely heard a peep about that. When Gore tried the same stunt earlier who -- it was a bit of an issue.

ALLEN: Oh, I think that that's right, Howie, and I -- and I think that poor Gore -- I mean, the press keeps repeating the exaggeration as a given, and yet a lot of exaggerations were not, in fact, as portrayed and -- for example, in some of them that -- we keep saying, "Well, he said he was in Texas with the head of FEMA." He was in Texas. He was there with the deputy head of FEMA...

KURTZ: Right.

ALLEN: ... and that sounds very...

KURTZ: And how does...

ALLEN: ... different.

KURTZ: And how does that contrast, Jodie, to when George Bush in the second debate appeared to know there were European troops in the Balkans?

ALLEN: And...

KURTZ: Isn't that a more serious mistake...

ALLEN: Precisely

KURTZ: ... and that was not a big press issue.

ALLEN: And it was not -- nor the fact that his advisers have now come back and said that his statement in the second debate that he would withdraw American troops from the Balkans -- they didn't really mean that. That was about the most substantive thing that he'd said. So he really gets away with important misstatements, not to mention his fiscal program, whereas poor Gore, every little thing --

Moreover, I think that, as Bush himself has joked, his communications people paid the lowering-expectations game so well on the debate and the -- that all he had to do was to get his name right, and the press lapped that up. Talk about being used.

KURTZ: Well, the press, of course, part of the expectations game as well.

We need to get a break. When we come back, we'll look at the prognostications surrounding Campaign 2000 and the election coming up in just two days.



Walter Shapiro, every self-respecting pundit, it seems, has to make a prediction about this presidential race. In fact, last night, on CNN's "CAPITAL GANG," Mark Shields, Al Hunt, Margaret Carlson all said that Gore will win the election. Bob Novak and Kate O'Beirne said that Bush will win the election. For those who end up betting on the wrong horse in this tight horse race, will any of them be embarrassed?

SHAPIRO: No, I -- the press is never embarrassed, and -- actually, we live in an amnesiac culture, and I think the real thing is that we -- nobody should take these predictions as worth anything, and I sort of wish that there were fewer of these TV shows where people mouth off and give these absolute precise numbers, 51 to 48 Bush, 276 to 263 in the electoral -- I lost a vote -- added a vote...

KURTZ: Well, there...

SHAPIRO: ... but the...

KURTZ: ... may be -- there may be amnesia, but we have the transcripts -- Bernie.

KALB: Rich, the question of how soon we'll know the results on the big Tuesday, 48 hours from now -- now there's a big debate about whether news organizations, particularly online, should put out the results as soon as they come in on the basis of exit polls. Your magazine has decided online not to do it this time, but "Drudge" is going ahead. So the results could be posted well before the polls close. Fair politics?

LOWRY: Yeah, I think it's a totally legitimate story. It meets the news test, which is -- is something that everyone wants to know, and the reason why...

KURTZ: So why aren't...

LOWRY: ... we're not doing it on our Web site is that the major media outlets that get together and do this exit polling threaten to sue everyone who puts these things up, and -- and Microsoft's "Slate" backed down, and "National Review" has, unfortunately, much fewer resources than Microsoft, so we have backed down, so now "Drudge" will carry this fight forward.

KURTZ: He'll do it. Bill Gates won't.

Jodie Allen, do you get the impression in the last prognostications here that some journalists are kind of rooting for somebody to lose the popular vote and win the electoral college and we'll have you on another historic story?

ALLEN: Boy, that would be a wonderful story, Howie, and I think we all have to hope for it and get our history books out. It -- it certainly would lend even the excitement that we haven't had in a century.

KURTZ: OK. And it could be a late-night Tuesday night, which would also lend big excitement.

ALLEN: Precisely.

KURTZ: Jodie Allen, Rich Lowry, Walter Shapiro, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, a suspended conservative columnist gets his job back.


KURTZ: Before we go, this note from the world of media news.

Conservative "Boston Globe" columnist Jeff Jacoby is heading back to work on Wednesday. Jacoby was suspended in July for four months without pay for what his editor called serious journalistic misconduct.

The source of the controversy: a 4th of July tribute to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Jacoby failed to disclose to readers that his column drew on material that had been previously published in other places.

Jacoby had complained that his punishment was excessively harsh and perhaps related to his ideology. Jacoby will return to the liberal editorial page just in time to contribute to the paper's post- election analysis.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz.

Coming up next, "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER," which begins right now.



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