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Reliable Sources

Election 2000: How Are the Media Keeping Pace With Story?

Aired December 10, 2000 - 11:30 a.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Freezing the action, the Florida Supreme Court rules for Al Gore. The U.S. Supreme Court stops the recount. How are the media keeping pace with the story? Who are they portraying as partisan? And will they stop covering George Bush as president-elect?

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

Here we are just one day before the Supreme Court arguments that could finally settle a presidential election after a 33 day impasse. The media are increasingly turning their attention to the courts, which are under fierce assault this morning as the fate of George Bush and Al Gore may well be decided not at the ballot box, but in the courthouse.

With the Florida recount on hold for now, we begin with the Friday decision that seemed, at least briefly, to save Gore's presidential aspirations.


BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: Vice President Al Gore winning a major victory before Florida's Supreme Court.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC ANCHOR: It's one of those extraordinary times to be in the news business.

DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: This decision, 4-3, by the Florida state Supreme Court breathes new life into Vice President Al Gore's chances.

KURTZ (voice-over): After all, George W. Bush was acting like the president-elect and the media were treating him like the president-elect. Just hours earlier, the networks had carried news that seemed to bring Bush closer to the finish line. Judges in Martin and Seminole counties refused to throw out 25,000 absentee ballots, an unmistakable for Gore. Speculation was rampant that the end was near.

Then came 4:00 p.m. Friday. And the Florida Supreme Court's order of a manual recount of disputed ballots in all the state's counties. Finally, one thing was clear. It wasn't over, not by a long shot. The TV talking heads found themselves reaching for superlatives.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a logistical task like the invasion of Normandy.

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN SENIOR ANALYST: What was the cliche that everybody was using a couple weeks ago, uncharted waters? No, no, no, no. Now we have left the gravitational pull of the Earth.

KURTZ: And the pundit predictions were dire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No matter what happens now, the losers are going to be in a position to say that the election was stolen from them.

COKIE ROBERTS, "THIS WEEK": Tempers are going to get worse and worse and worse, and the animus between the parties worse than we've ever seen it.

KURTZ: Then Saturday afternoon, yet another dramatic turn. The recounts under way across Florida halted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

LESTER HOLT, NBC ANCHOR: It has been an amazing last hour.

JIM ANGLE, FOX CORRESPONDENT: Obviously, you have five people who thought there was a serious constitutional problem with the way this recount was going forward.

JONATHAN ALTER, NBC ANALYST: You just can't make this stuff up. I mean, it is a wild scene outside the Leon County Public Library.


KURTZ: Joining us now, Brian Kelly, managing editor of "U.S. News & World Report"; Michelle Cottle, senior editor at "The New Republic"; and in Tallahassee, Ron Brownstein, national political correspondent from the "Los Angeles Times."

Ron Brownstein, I understand you're going to have to pay residency tax there soon. "The New York Times" this morning on the Supreme Court says, "some Democrats speaking off the record denounced the justices as incompetents and worse." Democratic Senator Pat Leahy is quoted "their credibility is so diminished, their moral posture so diminished, it will take years to repair."

My question is, will the media now open fire on the Supreme Court as just another partisan institution? And are the justices fair game?

RON BROWNSTEIN, "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Yeah, I think they are fair game. I think they have opened themselves up to that sort of criticism. I mean, just as we heard Republicans on Friday say that the four Democratic appointed members of the Florida Supreme Court had opened themselves to that line of argument, certainly the fact, Howie, that these five justices who ruled for Governor Bush Saturday historically their entire pattern has been upholding states' rights against real intrusion.

I mean, these are the same five justices who struck down a federal law bringing -- banning guns near schools, who said that the -- Washington could not compel local sheriffs to conduct background checks into the Brady Act, who knocked down the Violence against Women Act as an intrusion of -- I mean basically, on every key ruling, they have upheld state prerogatives or federal prerogatives. And certainly, that's got to be part of the debate and analysis, I think, just as we saw the opposite with the Florida Supreme Court. The Supreme Court is no longer above the fray. It's right there down in the muck.

KURTZ: Right. Well, Michelle Cottle, just as we saw yesterday's papers, the Republicans denouncing the Florida Supreme Court, mostly Democratic, as a bunch of partisan hacks, as a spokesman for Dennis Hastert put it. Are the media now serving as a conduit for any political tactic, anyone wants to make -- on the courts? The courts used to be the one branch of government that was kind of portrayed in the press as above the fray?

MICHELLE COTTLE, "THE NEW REPUBLIC": Absolutely. I mean, from early on when we were looking at the Supreme Court's first ruling about letting these things go on, the Republicans come out and they were already before the ruling came in, talking about how, "Ooh, these guys were appointed by Democrats. They're going to be doing judicial activism." The case in Seminole County with Judge Nikki Clark, they were gearing up to trash her for this.

KURTZ: In fact, she ruled against...

COTTLE: That's right.

KURTZ: ... the Al Gore position on those absentee ballots.

COTTLE: And it just whoever is in a position is naturally going to come over under fire from both -- from whichever side is at danger.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Brian, the whole country is pivoting on what you might call a needle of suspense. We're on a 24 hour void before the Supreme Court acts tomorrow. Is there any danger of the pundits running out of fire and brimstone?

BRIAN KELLY, "U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT": Well, they're running out of adjectives. I'm worried about that. I think we're really ratcheting it up pretty high on that. You know, I think, keeping the real context on this is pretty important that they -- you know, this is not like the invasion of Normandy Beach. I mean, I think we really have to stop for a minute.

KURTZ: They actually had bullets there.

KELLY: Yeah, we have to think about what the invasion of Normandy Beach was really all about. I mean, you want to talk about a guy with a problem, let's look at Barak today. You know, that's a problem. This is still well within the confines of what the constitution provides for. And we have not left the gravitational pull of the Earth. I forget we said that, probably not on your network. But I think, you know, it's an exciting story, it's an interesting story, but you know, there's no blood on the streets here. We still have to keep a sense of perspective about this. KALB: Right, it may be not be Normandy, but when you take a look at the front pages of the various newspapers today, the banner headlines are running day after day, bigger and bigger. Have the journalist statisticians done a comparison between World War II and the war that's going on now between the judges?

KELLY: Actually, they did. They said this is the most banner headlines, "Time" reported, since World War II. Well, there was quite a few...

KURTZ: On consecutive days.

KELLY: On consecutive days.

KURTZ: Ron Brownstein, I want to come back to the media role. And it seems to me that the media in this, we might call it a crisis. Most Americans I don't think would at this point, become a leading forum for, some would say an instigator of the politics of polarization. Now that everybody's being attacked. And let's face it, you set these shows up and you put a liberal and a conservative on. You put a Gore person and a Bush person on. And they beat each other's brains out. I wonder if we are, you know in a phrase, making things worse?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, usually I'm among the biggest critics of the crossfire paradigm because I think one of the undertold stories of the '90s have been how much agreement there is between the parties, that we never have the opportunity to explore, especially on television. But in this case, Howie, I don't think that is really right because I think we are seeing the actors themselves divide consistently along partisan lines.

Sure, there have been exceptions. You know, we mentioned the rulings by the trial court judges that the Republicans thought would go against them that went for them. And by and large, when you see a 4 to 3 split on a Florida Supreme Court and then a 5-4 split on the U.S. Supreme Court, you see a Republican controlled state legislature here prepared to, you know, give the electors to Bush no matter what the courts decide, I think you have to say that almost every institution in this fight is lining up with its partisan sponsors. And there's really no one who has credibility independent of that. There's no outcome of this now that I think that can viewed as fair by the supporters of the losing side because everyone has behaved in such a partisan manner.

KURTZ: So you're saying there's a fire out there and we're just covering it -- Bernie.

KALB: Well, I'm just going to say we're being a little bit too apocalyptic.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes, I think so.

KALB: Excuse me, Ron. We have two universes at work now. If you sit and looked at the television, for example, yesterday morning, Saturday, cartoon after cartoon, it is only the 24 hour cable stations that have this battle going on incessantly, the steady tattoo of opinions. I think most of the country is letting it go up to some degree, in one year and out the other, while they wait for a verdict, but there isn't a surrender. There is no national surrender to this on television across the board, that is.

KURTZ: Let me pick that up, Bernie, by referencing Ron's paper, "The L.A. Times," which this morning talking about the way the Supreme Court took the case. They needed five justices for the emergency stay of the recount, said that the Supreme Court all but cleared the way for George Bush to win the presidency. Michelle Cottle, that may turn out to be the case, but I also remember a lot of people saying the Supreme Court wouldn't take the earlier case, that there would be a 5- 4 ruling. There wasn't in the earlier case.

I wonder if we're getting out too far in front in playing the prediction game here?

COTTLE: Well, predictions are always a problem. And consistently, we've been wrong this time. I mean...

KURTZ: Particularly a problem in the wrong.

COTTLE: ... from election night on, we've just consistently not been to predict, but you know, the rhetoric has been -- you know, everybody's lined up on the partisan size of this. But the media have played a role in jacking up the rhetoric. I mean, I think my favorite was Tim Russert talking about the doomsday scenario, which includes Jeb Bush going to prison. I mean, come on. This is so far out there. I mean, even if it does happen, it's not a doomsday scenario for the American public. I mean, people out there who are watching all of this know that this isn't the huge crisis that the media is making it out to be at this point.

KALB: Prediction, prediction, but you're behind, too. For example, today, this may be the first edition of "The New York Times." You read the editorial. It's built around the Friday decision by The Supreme Court. Reading it today in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court, it's like reading the story of the flood. How do you keep up with the velocity of this particular story?

KURTZ: Brian, just briefly out of control, predictions, polarizing role, how do you grade the media in the midst of 8:33 here?

KELLY: Well, I think they've done a pretty good job in general because this has been this great American civics lesson. I think for people who are paying attention, there's a tremendous amount of information out there about how the country works and how the government works.

KURTZ: No throwing gasoline on the fire?

KELLY: I have not -- I don't really feel that much that way. I disagree that it's such a purely partisan tangle. I think there's two real competing philosophies at play here. Remember, all the judges in the Florida are Democrats. I mean, that was a Democratic judge on the other side who slammed his colleagues in the Supreme Court. KURTZ: That's right.

KELLY: So I think there is a very -- there is a greater degree of subtlety here in terms of two competing philosophies that are not purely Republican and Democrat.

KURTZ: Brian, you clearly have not left the gravitational pull of the Earth.

When we come back, more on the press, the courts, the election, in a moment.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am more interested in the media coverage of this campaign because it's historical.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The more time goes by, the more I am interested. It's -- I've never heard of anything going on for so long. It's making history. Good history? No, but it is making history.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think at this point it's just a matter of like just, "Please just tell us who our president's going to be. Let's move on and have a merry Christmas or happy Hanukkah or Kwanzaa, whatever you're kind of celebrating."




Let's take a look at the news magazine coverage this Sunday morning. Brian, your magazine, "U.S. News" has the cover headline, "Chaos." "Newsweek," by contrast, has the cover headline, "Chaos." And "Times" says, "Yes, we'll survive." All three magazines using the "We, the people" preamble to the Constitution as a backdrop.

And the lead passage, Brian Kelly, and Roger, assignment story, your deadline is Friday night. Al Gore is no longer staring into the abyss contemplating his own demise. He is staring into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, contemplating new drapes. That seem a little dated at this point?

KELLY: Well, Howie, there are such things as deadlines. And we had to push the button at about 3:00 in the morning on Saturday. You know, that's where you get caught in the switches here where you just have to reflect reality at the point that you're dealing with it. You know, we try to raise the questions there about where we might be next week, but boy, you know, the point Bernie was making about things aren't best. It's hard to be fast enough for a newspaper. It's very hard for a weekly magazine.

KURTZ: For television or even Internet to keep up. Ron Brownstein, in the last 10 days or so before this recent round of dramatic rulings by these dueling Supreme Courts, it seems to me that the media basically was covering Bush as the president-elect. He would have these photo ops, meetings with Condoleezza Rice or congressional leaders or Colin Powell. A lot of talk about his transition. I wonder if you think since the situation has been so unsettled, whether that -- whether we've gone a little far in deciding basically to get ready for a Bush administration.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I'm not sure that we were deciding to get ready for the Bush administration. I mean, clearly Howie, Bush did more public things suggesting that his transition was moving forward than Al Gore. Al Gore wasn't dropping hints about who he was going to name as secretary of state in the way that Bush, nor did he, you know, have apparatus set up as publicly as Bush did with the office in McLean with Dick Cheney. You know, I have to feel for Brian Kelly. I mean, it's sort of in the same position as the candidates have been. You know, every night, one of them goes to bed whistling, "Hail to the Chief." And the next day by lunchtime, they're reading the want ads.

KURTZ: Well, Ron, you're suggesting...

BROWNSTEIN: I mean, it's been an extraordinary rollercoaster for all of us.

KURTZ: But, Ron, you're suggesting that simply because Bush from a public relations standpoint goes to the trappings of a transition, that we in the press don't have any choice or any free will. I mean, we've treated this like a front page story. Maybe it should be.

BROWNSTEIN: No, I'm not suggesting that at all. I'm not suggesting that at all. But I don't think the assumption in the coverage has been overwhelmingly that Bush would win. There's been a little of that, I agree. But the fact is that when Bush brings Dick Cheney and Colin Powell to his ranch, I think that's something the press has to cover and I don't think you can really fault people for covering that.

KALB: Howie has put this thing much too elegantly. The real question is, have the two candidates jerked the press around? That's really the question? Ron, it's yours.

BROWNSTEIN: You know, I guess I don't really think so. I mean, I think that you know, the fact is that they are both preparing for transition, that Bush has been more public and probably more aggressive in doing...

KALB: Then what about the showmanship?

BROWNSTEIN: ... that planning. And we've covered it.

KURTZ: Michelle Cottle?

COTTLE: Well, to a point though, it still remains that there's a much better chance that George, you know, up until...

KURTZ: Absolutely.

COTTLE: ... and he's going to wind up in the White House.

KALB: You just made a prediction.

COTTLE: No, no, I was saying odds. We have to work with odds here.

KURTZ: Right.

COTTLE: But everything had to break Gore's way. I mean, particularly before the announcement in Florida that the recounts could go on and Saul's was reversed. I mean, even now it's still, you know, slightly in Bush's favor. So you know, we're working on this premise. And the press has to cover, to some degree, what's going on. And Bush used that premise to make all this transition stuff go.

KURTZ: And on the question of speculation and expectation and anticipation, Michelle Cottle, there's been a lot lately, and I'm sure they'll be more about whoever wins this thing. It's going to be a tarnished presidency, won't be able to govern, country's so divided, partisan gridlock in Washington. I wonder, since we can't really peer into the future and any president has the ability to try to bring the country together, whether that's a little overdone as well?

COTTLE: Well, you know, the partisans have come out in full force. And while originally it was just a presidential election, now it's more like the ultimate football game and everybody's cheering their team on even after the votes have come in. And everybody's gotten really worked up about this, you know. There are people in front of the vice president's mansion everyday. Everybody's gotten increasingly angry. Everybody thought this was going to be over on the 7th. And now it just -- the more time goes on, the angrier people get. So I think yes, it is going to be a problem. And whoever gets in there is going to have to a lot of smoothing.

KURTZ: OK, well, since you used a football analogy, let me blow the whistle for a timeout. We'll be back with the fourth quarter in just a moment.


KURTZ: Welcome back.

Brian Kelly, if the U.S. Supreme Court is now to be treated by the media as just another political institution, then will the press point out -- should the press point out that seven of the nine justices are Republican appointees and two of them are appointed by the father of George W. Bush?

KELLY: Well, I think who these folks are is absolutely legitimate. Of course, two were appointed by Republicans and there were also siding on the other side, on the Gore side of the question. So I think as long as we're playing it down the middle to report who these folks are, what their predilections are, how they voted in past cases, it's all part of a big story and I think hopefully all part of the education here.

KALB: Ron, how good a job is the media doing demystifying the judges? We've had the 4-3 decision out of Florida. We had the 8-4 decision out of Atlanta with the appellate court. We've got the 5-4 decision out of the Supreme Court. What's an average citizen, what's an average reporter make of all these conflicting jungle of numbers, Ron?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I think the suggestion to your question is right, that we need to do a better job of explaining who the justices are, how this fits into their histories. There's been a lot of that with the Florida Supreme Court coverage, less so in the federal courts, less so in the Supreme Court. I think it's entirely appropriate because I mean, I think there are questions about how all this fits in with the general pattern of what these justices have ruled. And it's questions that people in the public are going to be asking.

KURTZ: You certainly have shined a spotlight on jurors who often operate behind the scenes. We'll get the audiotape again I guess on Monday of the Supreme Court. Michelle Cottle, aside from the crisis fostered or created by the media, aside from the political implications, aside from all of that, is this just a fun story for journalists to cover? Are you enjoying this or are you sick of it? Put you on the spot.

COTTLE: I think it's a little of both. It's the train wreck where you can't look away. It's so horrible, but you can't look away. I mean, a lot of the political journalists were planning to go on vacations. They've all canceled, but at the same time, it's history being made here. So nobody wants to miss out.

KURTZ: Even it's not something that you want to leave off your resume?

KALB: Thank the Supreme Court for building a new mystery into the story today, by asking for these 12,000 disputed votes to come from Florida to Washington.


KALB: Keep the pundits busy.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, Brian Kelly, Michelle Cottle, Ron Brownstein, Tallahassee, 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 next time for another critical look at the media. Coming up next, "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER," which begins right now.



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