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Reliable Sources

Is the Press Making Sense of the Election Morass or Hyping the Melodrama?

Aired November 25, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Florida's electoral turkey, the slow- motion recount, the legal battles, the spin war, the Cheney heart attack -- is the press making sense of the morass or hyping the melodrama?

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

We begin again with the Florida fiasco, a non-stop week of legal rulings, street protests, and reporters working overtime on the campaign that simply doesn't want to end.


KURTZ (voice-over): Journalists had their hands full this week as the post-election battle erupted on a dozen fronts, from demonstrations in Miami to the courthouse in Tallahassee to campaign maneuvering in Austin and in Washington.

A dizzying round of legal decisions seemed to give Al Gore or George Bush a big advantage in the public-relations war, at least until the next decision came down.

On Tuesday, the Florida Supreme Court's order that hand recounts be included in the final tally, reversing Secretary of State Katherine Harris, prompted a lot of pro-Gore punditry.

CARL CAMERON, FOX NEWS: Tonight, the vice president sounding much more confident.

CLAIRE SHIPMAN, NBC NEWS: They're very happy. They're -- they're labeling this an almost complete victory.

KURTZ: But, by the next morning, Gore's victory was overshadowed by a different kind of breaking news. Anchors, political reporters, and legal analysts were joined by a new type of correspondent.

JOHN MCKENZIE, ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: Doctors say Cheney will remain in the hospital for two to three days.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He did, in fact, suffer a minor heart attack earlier today. KURTZ: Hours later, the media mob was on to a new story, Miami- Dade officials abruptly deciding to stop their manual recount, and that, said the TV people, brought Bush one step closer to the White House.

JOHN KING, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That decision by Miami-Dade County a major setback for a Gore camp that was just beginning to enjoy a celebration.

UNIDENTIFIED CORRESPONDENT: The news out of Miami-Dade County hit the Gore campaign hard.

KURTZ: On Thanksgiving Day, a new setback for the vice president as the Florida Supreme Court refused to order Miami-Dade to resume the recount. And, on Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically intervened, agreeing to hear Bush's suit against all the Florida recounts. Now newspapers were calling Gore everything from beleaguered to desperate.

Amid the blur of round-the-clock headlines, only one thing was clear: This presidential campaign won't be over anytime soon.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, in New York, Walter Shapiro, political columnist for "USA Today"; and here in Washington, Roger Simon, chief political correspondent for "U.S. News & World Report"; and Jill Zuckman, national political correspondent for "The Chicago Tribune."


Roger Simon -- hold on. I've got to check this script here. I -- I can't -- I don't see any daylight. The legal blizzard of recent days -- one newspaper reporter told me that, after the Florida Supreme Court ruling, just before, at 10:00 at night on Tuesday, he had 40 minutes to analyze, absorb, and write a story. I said that was probably 39 more minutes than the TV reporters have. Is it absurd for us to expect more than superficial analysis of all this legal wrangling when it's kind of tossed into the media Cuisinart?

ROGER SIMON, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": It's unrealistic to expect it as it's happening from TV. I mean, in one sense, this is TV's finest moment. It's bringing us several, disparate elements from stories that take place in Austin, in Tallahassee, in Palm Beach, in Miami. It's bringing them together, and the anchors are doing a reasonable job providing context and all the rest. The trouble is we're getting many more pictures than we're getting reporting. I mean, it really is being left to the newspapers and newsmagazines and the print world to do anything that's going beyond what the pictures are.

KURTZ: Right. And, Jill Zuckman, I can't help but remember that, before the Supreme Court -- the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take the case -- and I should mention that C-SPAN and CNN have petitioned for television cameras at the hearing next Friday, probably a longshot request -- a lot of legal prognosticators and reporters and analysts said there's no way the high court's going to take this case, so...

JILL ZUCKMAN, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, every lawyer I know said there's no way the Supreme Court's going to take this case, not just -- forget about journalists, forget about the people in TV, but, you know, people who practice law and watch the Supreme Court said absolutely not, they'd never touch this one. I think...

KURTZ: Well, we can't blame the media for reporting that.

ZUCKMAN: Well, you know, I mean, I think the reporters kind -- just repeat what we hear for the most part. We put it all -- you know, we all dump it into the blender, and -- and the most stuff on one side or the other kind of comes out, and in that case, it was really unanimous, I think. Most lawyers thought it was absolutely, you know, the most unlikely thing to ever happen.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: The blender. The Cuisinart. Look, we're living in what you might call a legal fluxville right now, and it raises the question whether print -- please forgive me if I say it this way -- whether print is passe. Television has dominated this story. Minute by minute, you have a blow, a counterblow, a legal action, a countersuit, and so forth. Now print summarizes and gives us context and exposition, but, in a way, you have a feeling print is sort of catching up with the momentum of this story, and you can't help but coming out once a day.

ZUCKMAN: Well, this story is so fast that I feel like, when I write my story at the end of the day, I wake up the next morning, I turn on the TV, and it's completely different. Something has already happened. It's changing every five minutes. I went out yesterday to run an errand, and when I got home, the Supreme Court said it was going to -- you know, it was just like I...

KURTZ: You can't leave the house.

ZUCKMAN: I can't. No, I can't leave my TV set.

SIMON: There's been exceptions to what you've said, and one of it is -- was the -- is the mini riot or the fracas or whatever it was at the Miami-Dade counting center. TV was very good at getting -- giving us the pictures of that, but it was left to "The New York Times" the next day to say -- to reveal that it was the result of an orchestrated phone campaign by Republican phone banks. So I think print is making a valuable contribution to this.

KALB: May I follow up? That raises the question: What can the media do to avoid being used, utilized by the competing parties -- being used as a kind of a megaphone for their point of view? How do you escape being utilized by the opposing cast?

KURTZ: And if I could add to that question, Bernie, it's not just the organized demonstrations that obviously are being staged for the cameras. I mean, today, the coverage had almost a circus-like atmosphere. Every congressman or underemployed (ph) party had -- would have a news conference, and television would hop -- hopscotch from one news conference to the next because it's live, it's happening, it's news. The truth is not a lot happened today.

SIMON: Or to deal with your point, you can't stop people from performing for a performance medium...

KURTZ: Right.

SIMON: ... and politicians live or die by how much tube time they get, or at least they believe that.

And, Bernie, what was -- your point was that...

KALB: About being used.

KURTZ: About the...

KALB: About being used.

SIMON: Oh, yeah. Yeah. You can't...

KALB: How do you avoid that? I mean, if you -- if they orchestrate demonstrations and -- by one side or the other and the media's recruited to show the pictures...

ZUCKMAN: Well...

KALB: ... how does the media avoid being harnessed by the competing camps?

SIMON: You can't avoid being used. You just get used by both sides and say that's balance.

ZUCKMAN: Well, exactly. I mean, this is sort of the basics of journalism. This is why you talk to people on both sides of an issue, you know, every side you can find so you can try to balance out what's really going on. I mean, you know, I'm sure when you have those protests down in Miami-Dade, it's the Democratic side that's going to say "Hey, you should go ask them where are they from" because they're the ones who are going to be looking at it in that light, and -- and that way, things sort of all sort themselves out.

KALB: Dirty little secret question. I could raise the question whether there's journalistic impatience with this story, which would be idiotic because everybody wants this to continue for several years. It's great for -- it's great for ratings, et cetera. What do you find out on that particular point?

ZUCKMAN: Well, I -- I've been asked...

KALB: The public is not impatient.

ZUCKMAN: No, but I think they're going to get to be. I mean, I think everybody's editor is asking them, "What's the endgame? What's the endgame? Find out what they're saying about how this is going to all come to a close," and everybody's looking for that.

KURTZ: Hang on one -- hang on, Roger, because I want to go to Walter Shapiro in New York.

Walter, as you know, tomorrow, 5:00, is the deadline. All the Florida votes will be counted. Certification should follow soon afterwards. Let's say that George Bush is ahead and he throws a party. How are the media going to deal with this? Are we going to act like the election is kind of over, use the president-elect term? How did -- how do we deal with the public-relations aspect, and how do the candidates deal with that as well?

WALTER SHAPIRO, POLITICAL COLUMNIST, "USA TODAY": Well, it's -- since, I think, on a large degree, this entire battle is a public- relations battle, an effort to achieve legitimacy, I think certification will give a small president-elect status to Bush. Oddly enough, the law of unintended consequences has worked. If the Bush campaign had not appealed to the Supreme Court with -- which puts a sort of hold on everything, there is a level to which, I think, some of us would start using the phrase president-elect. I think the only legitimate phrase is president-elect-maybe.

KURTZ: Well, we'll look for that one in your column.

And, Walter, we've been talking here about the blur of events, the filing of all these lawsuits, the demonstration stage for the cameras, the -- the rolling press conferences that seem to attract live television coverage. What kind of grade would you give the media for just keeping up with the sheer pace of events and/or perhaps being taken in by a lot of manufactured news?

SHAPIRO: I think I would give the media -- the press about a B minus since they took back -- that is at -- starting at about 4:00 in the morning on the morning after election when the faulty call of Florida was taken back a second time -- since then, I think we get about a B minus. I don't think there have been anything egregious. I don't think anything -- there --

At the same time, I'm just sort of amazed at all the things we don't know. I have read or heard nowhere decent accounts of what is happening in both camps. We really don't know what's going through the minds of either Bush or Gore. We don't know very much about what, if any, transition plans have been made.

KURTZ: But part of the reason we don't know that, of course, is that the candidates are -- are st -- making very carefully limited staged appearances and photo ops and ma -- and making sure that -- that we in the press are not privy to that sort of thing.

SHAPIRO: Which is the whole sense of -- and I haven't done any better in calling around than anyone else, but it's sort of impressive that we are sort of living in -- I won't say a totalitarian state, but we are sort of living in a state where we don't get the real news until it's handed to us.

KURTZ: Bernie. KALB: Jill, we are watching this particular story gobble up all the space of the media. As a consequence, stories like the Middle East shortchanged, stories like the president's visit to Vietnam shortchanged, and I was in Hanoi and Hong Kong just a few days ago, and in Hanoi, the joke is where the story is featured. The joke is that, because of the mess up in Florida, people are now beginning to believe that the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade was really a mistake.

Now my question is to -- to list one of the shortcomings of the media, I don't see the media getting involved in analysis of the impact on foreign policy of the political shoot-out in Florida. Do we get hurt? Does American foreign policy for implementing get hurt because of what's happening in Florida?

ZUCKMAN: I don't -- I don't think so. You know, I think that the media has a very -- you know, they can only focus on one really big thing at a time, and this is a really big thing. This is something...

KALB: But that's just part of the story.

ZUCKMAN: It's just the way it is. I mean, you know, these things -- you know, the trip to Vietnam was very nice and very poignant, but, you know, it wasn't our -- the future of our nation wasn't sort of hinging upon it, and I think most newspapers and network outlets have looked at this and said, you know, this is an historical event and we're going to throw everything we have at it, and so the result is you have front pages with maybe two other stories on it that don't have anything to do with the election, maybe only one other story.

KURTZ: And the fact is, Roger Simon, that the crisis atmosphere exists mainly in newsrooms and on television reports. I don't sense, other than these isolated demonstrations in Broward and Miami, that people are up in arms about this. They're interested.

SIMON: Yeah, this is the biggest disconnect between the media and the real world since the Monica Lewinsky story when the media was frantic -- the media were frantic, and they wanted to know why everyone else wasn't frantic. The people are treating this the same way. It's a TV show. TV shows have endings. This will come to a conclusion. We'll move on to the next TV show.

KURTZ: Just very briefly, "U.S. News" usually closes its edition on Friday night. So are you out of it for this weekend?

SIMON: No, we're holding it open until Sunday night, I think, for the first time in history. So our readers will get almost live, up-to-the-minute news.

KURTZ: Perhaps print is not totally passe, Bernie.

When we come back, Dick Cheney's heart attack. Did journalists ask enough questions about his health before the election?



UNIDENTIFIED CORRESPONDENT: ... Governor Bush will replace you on the ticket?



KURTZ: Republican vice presidential candidate Dick Cheney talking to reporters as he left Washington Hospital Friday two days after suffering a mild heart attack.

Walter Shapiro, when Cheney checked in to George Washington University Hospital on Wednesday with what was then described as chest pains, this was reported as some kind of national emergency, but, after the first press conference at the hospital, we learned that the hospital officials withheld information. In other words, they lied and didn't tell us what they already knew, which was that he had suffered a mild heart attack. What did you make of the whole reporting of that episode and of Cheney's health generally?

SHAPIRO: Well, it worries me a great deal. I'm somebody who -- I remember flying over the United States about a week after the 1992 presidential primary that Paul Tsongas, a cancer survivor, had won, and I remember interviewing him in which he mused, you know, "I'm one of the three men who could be president next year. The other two are George Bush and Bill Clinton." Had Paul Tsongas, who withheld from the press and the public details of the cancer flare-up, been president, he alas would have died two days before finishing his first term in office, and when...

KURTZ: Go ahead.

SHAPIRO: When you realize that we have an environment where we've been lied to consistently about health, when you have a vice president who's had three heart attacks who then has a fourth attack and the campaign is not that forthcoming -- Bush's original comments, "Oh, I'm going to strategize with Cheney this afternoon. I can hardly wait." -- it is a really worrisome trend that does not -- and we don't seem to have learned any lessons.

KALB: Well, it raises a question. Are there any journalistic limitations or limitations in general on an invasion of the medical privacy of the candidate?

ZUCKMAN: Well, to a certain extent, there's only so much we can do. I mean, we can only get the information that they give us. We can push.

KALB: Did you know, for example, Jill, that a cardiac enzyme, when it's minimally elevated, is a medical euphemism for a heart attack? Did you know that before George Washington Hospital put that out?


KALB: Well, there you are. Is there a limit to the invasion of medical privacy?

ZUCKMAN: No, not when somebody, I think, is running for president or -- or vice president of the United States. You know, people have a right to know, they expect to know, and Ronald Reagan certainly shared a lot with us when he was in office.

KURTZ: But I think it's fair to point out, Roger Simon, that there's no evidence that Cheney or his family misled the press about the mild heart attack, and there was no secret about the previous heart attacks, and these things are unpredictable as to when there might be a recurrence.

KALB: Yeah, but, Howie, the...

SIMON: I think...

KALB: Just -- just a quick follow-up. But when you get a little bit that is served up by the hospital, then the media ought to zero in and get as much as it can. This didn't seem to be the case here in developing that story.

KURTZ: Roger.

SIMON: I think one of the problems is that the medical profession, perhaps quite properly, feels it has no responsibility to release private medical information to the public, that that information is in -- is -- the patient is in charge of that information. Unless the patient says, "Tell them everything," which I strongly doubt that Dick Cheney said, they're not going to tell the public medical details no matter whether the -- their patient is the vice president perhaps or the vice president or the president of the United States. I just don't think it's going to happen. I don't think you grow up being a doctor to -- to release information to the public.

KURTZ: Walter Shapiro, what does that tell us about the television age when, two days after suffering a mild attack, a Dick Cheney feels he has to have a press conference before he leaves the hospital and, to bring it back to the presidential candidates, when Al Gore comes out to face the cameras 11:00 at night to react in real time, as it were, to the Florida Supreme Court ruling?

SHAPIRO: Well, I think we are ta -- it's this weird juxtaposition. This is the slowest electoral count since 1876 in the most hyperextended journalistic period, and as a result, what you have is a situation where I would be happy if Cheney took a week or two off to fully recover. What worries me more is that Cheney is going to be rushed back into a round of "Reassure the public, do everything but do a 15-mile hike, just to prove that, yes, he is health -- the healthy heartbeat away from Bush," and I think if we're going to take a long period to sort this presidency out, I would, for example, love to hear from both candidates about how they would govern if they took office under these uncertain circumstances. If we're going to get all these 11:00 sound bites, let's at least get some substance to go with it.

KURTZ: Small bit of advice, Walter. Don't hold your breath.

When we come back, the media and hypocrisy. In a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Jill Zuckman, are the media paying enough attention to questions of hypocrisy, by which I mean the Gore camp says you've got to count every ballot, forget about these technicalities, except maybe when it comes to absentee ballots without a postmark from military people. The Bush campaign has long said federal court shouldn't intervene in state matters, except perhaps when you go to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a Florida high court ruling. Is the press giving them a pass on these, shall we say, inconsistencies?

ZUCKMAN: Well, I think the press is -- is taking what they're saying, but, also, looking a little bit beyond it. I mean, look at "The Miami Herald," for example. They did a great story about how just as many military or absentee overseas ballots got thrown out this election as the last election or the last election. There is no difference. It's not that it's so much more, that there's an organized effort to get rid of military ballots, and I think that put that in a really good context. So, you know, they're -- each campaign is trying to put an incredible spin on everything that's going on, and...

KURTZ: Take that moral high ground.

ZUCKMAN: ... and -- and all we can do is try to look at what the other side does -- says and try to look beyond it and say, "What does this really mean?"

KALB: Walter, you're a man of monumental skepticism. ABC has introduced some safeguards this week to re -- to avoid a repetition of what took place the night of the election. So they're going to, for example, not say a state can be called unless the last polling place has been closed. Do you really believe that the networks will hold off in the face of acute competition?

SHAPIRO: I think, to some extent, they will hold off in terms of never again will a state be called publicly while any polling place like those in the Florida Panhandle are open. The...

KALB: What about projections?

SHAPIRO: But the idea that somehow the people doing the calling for networks will be in this glass cocoon freed from the pressures of hysterical producers to get in line with the other networks, I think, that is a ludicrous possibility. I think that we are doomed for these ridiculous hyperactive calls by the network. I just hope that 19 -- the year 2000 has ingrained in everybody watching television for the next, you know, 15 election days a total level of skepticism...

KURTZ: OK. Roger...

SHAPIRO: ... because I think it lies with the viewers.

KURTZ: Roger Simon, it seems to me that the media have given a bullhorn to lots of shrill, high-decimal partisans on both sides, particularly on all the television talk shows, but even in newspaper editorials, you have some of this rhetoric. "Indianapolis Star" calling the election a ripoff. "New York Post," a coup d'etat by Al Gore. "Atlanta Journal," the election may be stolen yet. Does this seem kind of hyperventilating to you?

SIMON: I think it is hyperventilating. I mean, we've got to realize that we're in this situation, whether it's a mess or not, because this is a country that's almost equally divided between these two guys. One of them's going to be president, and one of them is going to have to try to bring the nation together and govern, and I think we could tone down the rhetoric and perhaps project forward to January 20th and -- wondering how we...

KURTZ: The key word is "perhaps," Roger.

SIMON: Perhaps.

KURTZ: Roger Simon, Walter Shapiro, Jill Zuckman, Bernard Kalb, thanks very much for joining us.

We'll be right back with some final words about one newspaper's resurrection and two others in turmoil.


KURTZ: Before we go, a couple of notes from the world of media news.

Say goodbye to the old "San Francisco Examiner." The last edition of the afternoon paper rolled off the presses Wednesday after being sold earlier this year by the Hearst Corporation, which also owns "The San Francisco Chronicle." "The Examiner"'s reporters and editors have now joined "The Chronicle"'s staff.

Meanwhile, "The Examiner," which has a new owner, was relaunched this week as a smaller, tabloid-style paper, but it got off to a rough start Thursday morning with a publishing snafu that prevented its debut edition from hitting the newsstands for more than seven hours.

And elsewhere on the West Coast, a strike continues at "Seattle Times" and "The Seattle Post Intelligencer." Members of the newspaper guild walked off the job five days ago, but they haven't all stopped working. Strikers have gone online to publish "The Seattle Union Record," the name coming from a labor-backed paper which covered the series -- city's general strike back in 1919. Maybe by the time the strike is over, we'll have a new president.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning for another live edition of RELIABLE SOURCES at 11:30 a.m. Eastern, as we talk more about the Florida recount with a group of top political reporters.

Thanks very much for joining us. CAPITAL GANG is up next.



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