ad info

Editions | myCNN | Video | Audio | Headline News Brief | Feedback  





Bush signs order opening 'faith-based' charity office for business

Rescues continue 4 days after devastating India earthquake

DaimlerChrysler employees join rapidly swelling ranks of laid-off U.S. workers

Disney's is a goner


4:30pm ET, 4/16









CNN Websites
Networks image

Reliable Sources

Is the Press Giving the Election Drama too Much Play?

Aired December 2, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: A supreme showdown, the press goes to the audio tape. But are too many predicting the outcome of the high court case?

How have journalists handled Al Gore's TV blitz?

And what was the obsession with that Ryder truck?

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

Well, all eyes were focused today on a Tallahassee courtroom and a hearing to consider the request of the Gore campaign to order hand recounts of about 14,000 disputed ballots cast in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade Counties. Hour after hour of live coverage today on the cable networks, including this one, only the latest in a week of nonstop media attention.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There they go. At the Canoe Creek Rest Stop somewhere in Central Florida.


KURTZ (voice-over): The pictures didn't quite have the drama of the O.J. Bronco case, but they captivated live cable coverage for hours. The Ryder truck barreling north through Florida, ballots on board, destined for Tallahassee and Saturday's court hearing on the Miami-Dade recount.

It was a week of images and interviews. Al Gore turned up on the "Today" show, CNN...


VICE PRES. AL GORE, DEMOCRATIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The only way to avoid having a cloud over the next president is to count all the votes.


KURTZ: ... and all three network evening newscasts. Joe Lieberman appeared on "LARRY KING."


SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (D-CT), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I feel very committed to what we're doing. I think it's fair. I think it's just.


KURTZ: Dick Cheney did his own series of one-on-ones along with a press conference showing he was back in the saddle after his heart attack.


DICK CHENEY (R), VICE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We believe it is time to get on with the business of organizing the new administration.


KURTZ: And out at the ranch in Crawford, Texas, George W. Bush posed for pictures with his running mate and with Colin Powell. But he didn't seem too eager to respond to reporters.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Governor, with Al Gore all over the airwaves, is this press availability in part because you're responding to criticism that you've appeared out of touch in the past few days? Out of sight and out of touch?

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: That's pretty humorous, Dave.


KURTZ: Fast forward to Friday's Supreme Court hearing and a field day for the media as the election drama moved to the high court. Reporters, anchors standing by, going live, interviewing the protesters and the court watchers, giving viewers an almost instant replay of the proceedings.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The questions that you expected to be asked were asked.


KURTZ: And then we could hear it for ourselves. The cable networks and NBC playing the entire audio tape of the oral arguments, made available immediately following the proceedings in an unprecedented move by the court.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JUSTICE SANDRA DAY O'CONNOR, U.S. SUPREME COURT: It had to register somehow with the Florida courts that that statute was there and that it might be in the state's best interest not to go around changing the law after the election.


KURTZ: The Supreme Court had earlier turned down a request by CNN, CSPAN, and others to carry the proceedings live.

And the post-game commentary from journalists and legal analysts stretched into the weekend with many gazing into their crystal balls.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think you'll see maybe a five-four decision.



KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Ceci Connolly, political reporter for the "Washington Post," Michael Oreskes, Washington bureau chief for the "New York Times," and Karen Tumulty, political correspondent for "Time" magazine.

Michael Oreskes, I watched much of the Tallahassee hearing today. You'd have to say it was less than scintillating television, a lot of experts droning on, including this last one, who talked about the characteristics of the rubber strip touched by the stylus.

Is this one of those situations where maybe most people would rather read the newspaper tomorrow than sit through this sort of thing?





ORESKES: It's the "New York Times," available all across America.

KURTZ: We're watching the sausage being made.

ORESKES: Before I take this softball, let me tell you something I think good about the cable networks because I think it's actually quite commendable, what's been going on.

This is extraordinary. The Supreme Court yesterday, the Circuit Court in Tallahassee today, an inside to how things really work, what the system is really like, the fact that these cases are not simply partisan dogfights, that they are arguments over details and law and sometimes mind numbingly arcane things. And it is actually to the great credit I think of CNN and the other networks to have devoted as much attention to them.

I have no idea what the public gets out of watching this. It's extremely difficult. I frankly couldn't spend a whole day watching it. I couldn't follow it all.

And certainly, we hope that what we do as a service in the sense that we then take what happened and boil it down into something a little more manageable for people to understand.

KURTZ: Sure. But, Ceci Connolly, would viewers be better served if cable networks dipped in and out and provided more analysis, summary, of what was going on? Or is it better to just let the thing play and people watch if they want to?

CECI CONNOLLY, "WASHINGTON POST": I actually think that fortunately with all the different media that we have, people have the choice of both of those. And it's not an either/or.

KURTZ: They can click it off if they like.

CONNOLLY: They can click it off or choose another channel or maybe just tune into the nightly news or hopefully pick up their paper in the morning.

I would raise a question, though, in terms of news judgment. When you're spending so much time and money tracking a Ryder truck moving along the highway, I assume helicopters are costing money and camera crews, are you not expending that money on other real news stories? I think that becomes an issue for the organizations to think about.

KALB: Karen, we've all been going to law school this week. And it's been rather exhilarating. It's been a great course. It's been called Civics 101, Law 101, et cetera.

But at the same time, we are being bombarded by semantic legalese. Question, how good a job is the media doing translating some of that legalese into comprehensible English so that we go along for the legal ride?

KAREN TUMULTY, POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "TIME" MAGAZINE: I think the media is doing a terrific job of it. I'm also beginning to think there is no former Supreme Court clerk that has not been on national television...

KURTZ: They're all out there.

TUMULTY: ... in the last 72 hours. But I think particularly the anchors, the reporters, who are doing the interviewing here really do seem to see it as their job to get this stuff boiled down into understandable chunks. And I think that people have learned a lot this week. KURTZ: But at the same time, Michael Oreskes, where as I think some of the legal commentators have done a terrific job at helping us understand, for example, the Supreme Court arguments, the way the justices' questions may have indicated some leanings, also seen a lot -- we saw Bob Schiefer (ph) in the package, other people come out and say, "Well, it seems to me five-four Bush." And that sounds like the kind of prediction you make on "The McLaughlin Group (ph)."

ORESKES: It's basic journalism. You shouldn't get too far out in front of a story. And some people I think have made that mistake.

Linda Greenhouse (ph), who is unquestionably the best, most experienced, most sophisticated courthouse reporter in daily journals and writes for the "New York Times" came back from that court hearing yesterday. And I asked her, "What do you think? What do you think is going to happen?" just the two of us talking in my office.

She said, "I have no idea." And that's the honest truth. And we don't know. It's quite possible they don't know at this point what they're going to do.

KURTZ: Television doesn't like that answer.

ORESKES: But I think television is like the rest of us. We do no service to make predictions that aren't based in anything that you actually know. The facts here are interesting enough without the prediction.

KALB: Yeah, but I think it's fair game. If columnists make a prediction or legal analysts choose to make a prediction, five-four, six-three, whatever it is. Have you made a prediction this week? I've made two, that they're going to hand down a verdict, that both candidates should be returned and the country should get a refund.

Either way, however you play it, I think it is important on the part of columnists to take a position on this thing, six-three, five- four, and not escape some sort of legal conclusion.

TUMULTY: But a position, but what is taking a position on an event that's going to happen in the future...

KALB: Well, you analyze...

TUMULTY: ... But where I think we play a role is in pointing out the key moments, the significant moments, and suggesting this could be...

KALB: Yes.

TUMULTY: ... a plus for one side, a plus for the other. I think that is where we should stop. The predicting the outcome is absurd.

ORESKES: Bernie, I'm not quite sure I understand what you mean by columnists. You're talking about editorial writers and people who are paid to express opinions?

KALB: People who are covering this and do legal analysis...

ORESKES: I'd like to draw a sharp line between them if that's what you are saying.

KALB: No, if you have a reporter who chooses not to take an opinion, then I think reporters stay away from that. You're talking about Linda (ph), et cetera. But a columnist, a legal analyst, who chooses to take a five-four or six-three, whatever it is, I don't think he should be horse whipped.

KURTZ: OK, Ceci Connolly, it's easy for the cable networks to turn over 90 minutes to Supreme Court audio tape with no pictures. They're in the news business. This is what they do.

NBC gave it 90 minutes, blew out of its daytime programming. ABC and CBS came on, gave you a few minutes, came on and analyzed, and went off, which seems to me just this kind of a stagey thing to do because you didn't get the full benefit. Should we criticize those networks for just blowing this off? A pretty important case.

CONNOLLY: A tough one for me to judge I suppose. I mean, I guess I come back to the idea...

KURTZ: What are they giving up? Soap operas?

CONNOLLY: ... from what I understand, soap operas are pretty lucrative for these stations.

KURTZ: And revenue.

CONNOLLY: Yes, and revenue. And, again, this is a marketplace. And people can click on the cable stations if they want to sit through the 90 minutes. I don't really have a problem with it.

TUMULTY: Well, 20 years ago you could have criticized them because 20 years ago there was no place else to go to get it. But now, it's the flowering of the free market. And I have no problem.

KURTZ: I think NBC having not carried George W. Bush's address last Sunday night when he was declared the winner for the movie "Titanic" deserves to be criticized for that. I'll give them one round of applause. There will be one hand clapping for taking the Supreme Court.

When we come back, more of our discussion about the media and the court cases involved.



Ceci Connolly, Al Gore was all over the airwaves this week, did about five TV interviews, held a brief news conference where you asked him about polls saying that 60 percent thought he should concede. Do you think he got very tough questioning in this round of high profile interviews? Or was he basically able to use that airtime to get out his message of pleading for patience on the part of the public?

CONNOLLY: I guess I have to defend my brethren in the media a little bit. I think they tried to ask some of those probing questions.

KURTZ: And he ducked?

CONNOLLY: Vice President Gore is very disciplined. And when he wants to stay on message, he can deliver those rote lines over and over again. And that's what he did on those television interviews.

TUMULTY: And the standing joke about Al Gore is that it's like interviewing your VCR. No matter what you ask it, it's going to play what's on the tape.

KALB: Karen, Tony Enos. Does that name mean anything to you?

TUMULTY: Tony Enos?

KALB: Yeah, Tony Enos, E-N-O-S. Now, he's one of the immortals in this whole process. He's the truck driver...


KALB: ... and listen to what he said. Was he nervous? He was not at all nervous. He said, "The ballots seemed to riding fine, thank you."

The question is, in filling 24 hours, the cable networks, the cable stations, they reach for things that have no real particular significance.

TUMULTY: And they have created a whole class of demi- celebrities, including people like Judge Sauls or the judge in Palm Beach who said when he was at the airport, the person who took his ticket held it up to the light and looked at it. So...

KALB: Yes.

KURTZ: The fisherman who found Elian Gonzalez.


KALB: Karen, what about the point of filling hour after hour with people who play no real particular role in the process?

TUMULTY: I think a greater service would be paid by doing some of the stuff that the newspapers are doing, in particular the "New York Times," going back and actually investigating the way voting happened in a lot of these places. And I think that would be a far better use of television time.

ORESKES: The real problem with the focus on things like the truck driving north to Tallahassee is that it creates a distortion over what's really important because in fact moving those ballots had almost no meaning at all. Whether you decide to count them ultimately is very important.

KURTZ: Right...


ORESKES: The fact that you're moving them didn't mean anything.

KURTZ: Right, aerial helicopters...


KURTZ: Let me pull back the camera from this truck that I think we all saw entirely too much of and ask a border question. I'm wondering if there's a disconnect here, Michael, between the saturation coverage here, 24-hours-a-day coverage, of a contested presidential election and at the same time the code, the message, that I get in reading a lot of stories, hearing a lot of stories, is that, well, Bush has got this thing won. After all, we do stories every day about his transition, who may be appointed to his administration. And I'm wondering if you see any break there between what appears to be a closely contested legal battle and the subliminal message that we need to care more about who possibly President Bush might appoint to his cabinet?

ORESKES: Well, first of all, of course, both candidates have been conducting faux transition processes exactly for the purpose of sending that subliminable (ph), as one of them might say...


ORESKES: ... message that they are or about to become president.

KURTZ: But one of them is getting a lot more coverage in that regard.

ORESKES: Possibly so. And frankly is also being more aggressive about it I think. I mean, inviting Colin Powell down to your ranch is a much more visible, much more aggressive thing to do.

I don't think it's for us to decide, frankly. I think they're doing it. We should cover it. I think we should point out that the election hasn't been decided yet, which is the -- that there is a contest underway.

But on the other hand...


ORESKES: ... let me just point out...


ORESKES: ... George Bush is the certified winner of the vote in the state of Florida. That would give him a majority of the electoral votes. It's not for us to say that's not true either. There's no question there's a contest here. There's no question Al Gore has refused to concede. It's also true...

KURTZ: But he has an uphill battle. Let's face it.

CONNOLLY: Absolutely. And I think the coverage reflects that Gore has had limited success so far.

KURTZ: OK, we'll take that up in just a moment with more about the press, the election, the Supreme Court, and related matters in a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Karen Tumulty, is what we're covering now for all the legal trappings and all the lawyers and all the suits and all the dimpled chads really a campaign, an extension of the campaign? We've got photo ops. We've got TV interviews. We've got polls. The polls are back.

TUMULTY: Oh, and the stage craft has been so interesting to watch, you know, which candidate has more flags behind him. But I do think that both campaigns -- and they are still campaigns -- are putting a lot of effort into creating the story line.

And that is what Governor Bush was doing at his ranch with Colin Powell. And Al Gore knew very well that if he didn't create his own story line, which meant getting out there every day with those interviews and with his speech on Monday that the news would just be filled with Governor Bush's story line.

KURTZ: Looking to him as a prospective president.

TUMULTY: And every day that happened, he'd look more like the actual president.

KALB: Mike, covering the legal story is very difficult because of the articles and the subsections, et cetera. And most of us are not lawyers, after all. And yet one of the things this case proves, this past week particularly, is what you and I were talking about earlier, the dividends that come to a news organization if people are assigned to a beat.

They know the language. They know the story. And they have the responsibility of translating an arcane vocabulary into a comprehensibility that reaches us.

We talked about that, the value, the dividends of a beat. Critical, isn't it?

ORESKES: Yeah, it's very important. And I think you can see the benefits of it in the quality, the masterfulness, of Linda Greenhouse. And you can see the problems when people who don't know their territory very well, whether it's at a state legislature or this week covering courthouses around Florida. There is a dividend of value in really knowing your territory.

CONNOLLY: It's also about a group of people that we don't always discuss here on this program, but editors. For instance, at the "Post," the editor directing our coverage, Ruth Marcus (ph), has a law degree and has covered the Supreme Court. And to have an editor who's asking good, tough questions also significantly contributes to the coverage.

KURTZ: Ceci, you cover Al Gore. Just pick up the point briefly about the extent to which he has tried to get back in the game, not have Governor Bush dominate the story line. After all, we didn't see him for a long time. And suddenly he's on every nightly newscast. They're considering more prime time interviews.

CONNOLLY: That's right. Well, as Karen started to say, he knew he had to create his own story line.

And what you saw him doing was playing a little bit of catch up on the faux transition game. He had a couple of meetings down at the White House with his core team of transition people. And slowly but surely they're leaking out little tidbits to kind of keep us going on that.

KURTZ: "I'm in the game too," that's the message.

CONNOLLY: Absolutely.

KURTZ: All right, Ceci Connolly, Michael Oreskes, Karen Tumulty, thanks very much for joining us. We'll be right back.


KURTZ: Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning for a special one- hour RELIABLE SOURCES at 11:00 a.m. Eastern. Thanks for joining us.

"CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Al Hunt has a preview.

AL HUNT, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, James Carville joins the gang for a full hour to look at the presidential campaign 2000 continuing in the courts, Supreme and otherwise, and in the political arena next on CNN.



Back to the top  © 2001 Cable News Network. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.