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Reliable Sources

Confusion at the Supreme Court: Did the Media Blow the Big Moment?

Aired December 16, 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, CO-HOST: Covering a new president, the pundits praise Al Gore's concession speech while giving George Bush tepid applause. Was he held to a higher standard?

Cold and confusion at the Supreme Court. After 36 days, did the media blow the big moment? And will journalists give the new guy a honeymoon?

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

Well, the media melodrama is over. We finally have a president- elect. And today, more than a month after voters went to the polls, George W. Bush made his first cabinet move, naming Colin Powell -- big surprise -- as his nominee for secretary of state.

The post-election drama finally wrapped up this week after saturation coverage of the Florida recount and the Supreme Court that finally ended Al Gore's campaign and the 24-hour reporting that enveloped the end game.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's time for me to go.

KURTZ (voice-over): When Al Gore finally bowed out of the spotlight, the TV talking heads were wowed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TIM RUSSERT, NBC WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF: That was the perfect tone, Tom. It was personal and poignant and credible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A very gracious concession by the vice president tonight.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: The praise for the president-elect wasn't nearly as glowing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think George Bush did his best to offer the olive branch to the Democrats.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JEFF GREENFIELD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I will be blunt with you. I was a little disappointed in it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: But at least the future was clear, unlike Tuesday night when all the world, or at least all the media, had their eyes on the Supreme Court.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER JENNINGS, TELEVISION ANCHOR: We are in the midst of trying to sort out and understand and clarify the decision by the Supreme Court of the United States regarding the presidential election in Florida. And it is, quite frankly, not particularly easy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAN RATHER, TELEVISION ANCHOR: This, from all indications, this Supreme Court decision tonight is as complicated as the wiring diagram for some hydroelectric power plant.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: As journalists pored over 65 pages of opinions, one thing was obvious.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHARLES BIERBAUER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Let me get to the bottom line here. The judgment of the Supreme Court of Florida is reversed.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: But what did it all mean? As reporters scrambled to figure that out, much of the instant analysis was muddled or flat-out wrong.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CARL CAMERON, FOX NEWS CORRESPONDENT: It is not the slam-dunk victory that they'd hoped for.

(END VIDEO CLIP) (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clearly, there is light at the end of the tunnel, there is a crack in the door, whatever metaphor you want to use apparently, for Al Gore.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: As the night wore on, the confusion slipped away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But there's just no doubt here, Tom. There's just no way that the court thinks a recount is possible.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Bottom line, no Florida hand recount. Governor Bush has won the presidency.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Now reporters have a new challenge in the wake of the long and bitter post-election struggle, covering a transition and a president-elect who will be sworn in, in just five weeks.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Melinda Henneberger, Washington correspondent for the "New York Times," Tom Defrank, Washington bureau chief for the "New York Daily News," and CNN National Correspondent Tony Clark, who is in Austin, Texas.

Tony, you've been in Austin since November 7, which now seems so long ago. Has there been a kind of magical transformation in recent days on the coverage as we've gone from George W. Bush as kind of, sort of, probably president-elect to the real deal?

TONY CLARK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think so. You know, even the press office takes it now in much more of a presidential status. They have organized briefings and the like. There are daily briefings, multiple briefings every day. And the kind of silence that we heard throughout that five, six weeks of debate over Florida has ended.

Now they're talking. Now they're talking about the future. They're being -- heading towards that direction of a new administration. And I think the press is at least giving them leeway now to make those moves.

KURTZ: OK, we'll come back to the question of the transition in a moment.

But, Melinda Henneberger, Wednesday night when Gore bowed out, the talking heads just gushed over the guy, magnificent, statesmanlike, fabulous. And when Governor Bush spoke -- then- Governor Bush -- pretty good, not bad, much more tepid reviews in my view. Should people conclude that these anchors and commentators were in the tank for Gore? Was there something else going on here?

MELINDA HENNEBERGER, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "NEW YORK TIMES": I certainly don't think they were in the tank for Gore during the coverage of this campaign. So I have to wonder if maybe there was a little guilt at work.

KURTZ: Guilt?

HENNEBERGER: When I saw Chris Matthews call the speech sacramental after being highly critical throughout the campaign, I just wondered if people thought it was time to give him a little bit of a break. I thought it was a very nice speech.

KURTZ: A little bit of a make-up call...

HENNEBERGER: Yeah.

KURTZ: ... in the fourth quarter (INAUDIBLE)?

HENNEBERGER: Yeah. Why not? Why shouldn't we be a little bit gracious at the end?

I do think that people were pretty hard on Gore right or wrong during the bulk of the campaign. And while I thought it was a nice speech, I thought the really -- and very well written. And he's a nice writer. He apparently did most of it himself.

I really thought the poignant part was not so much the speech. I didn't think the delivery was so much different from the way he usually delivers his speech, but just the very deep breath he took before started where it almost seemed back he was choking back tears. And the cutaways to the family looking so stricken.

KURTZ: A very human tableau.

HENNEBERGER: I just thought, yeah.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: I had a feeling that this was an exercise in a most extraordinary self-discipline on the part of Gore. We have all read that he really feels he won the election in Florida. Consequently, he feels he should be president.

But this was a semantic masterpiece in camouflaging his own feelings. And I think the editorial writers and the pundits were handling him with kid gloves. I think there should have been a little more Gore in his speech -- Tom.

TOM DEFRANK, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "NEW YORK DAILY NEWS": Howard, I think it was a little too easy on Gore. I thought it was a terrific speech, well delivered, hit all the right notes.

I do think he should not have said that he strongly disagreed with the opinion of the Supreme Court. I thought that was sending a message to people that he thought it was a political decision.

I think he could have said and should have said, "I am extremely disappointed in this decision." Instead he said he disagreed. And I think he used those words.

(CROSSTALK)

KALB: Yeah, I would think that he ought to vent a little of the frustration. I think the 50 million people who voted for him would have been very happy to hear a syllable of acute frustration even in the context of the healing process, et cetera.

DEFRANK: But I thought the reaction was a little too easy on Gore. But it was essentially well deserved.

I think the reason why Bush's -- the reaction by reporters to Bush was more tepid is because his performance wasn't as good. I thought his words were terrific. His tone and his pitch were terrific. But his delivery was just flatter.

KURTZ: Well, that's a subjective judgment. And obviously...

CLARK: Howard...

KURTZ: ... just one second, Tony. Gore was not going to come out and say, "My fellow Americans, we were robbed."

But, Tony Clark, I'm wondering because basically Gore gives this speech, and then he packs up the Ryder truck and gets out of the vice presidential mansion. When journalists cover the president-elect giving a speech, inevitably they follow any assessment with, "Well, is he going to be able to live up to that? What will he actually accomplish in Washington?" So isn't it in a way fair for Mr. Bush to be held to a different standard, Tony?

CLARK: Well, yes. But the whole delivery. I think the president-elect was also judged by his delivery. And George W. Bush does not deliver as good a speech from a teleprompter as he does when he simply talks to people.

And I think that's the difference. The words can be just perfect. But he has not gotten as comfortable with the teleprompter at this point. And so I think that's one of the reasons that there was the reaction that there was.

The words were fine. But it lost the kind of emotion that we saw with Gore.

KALB: I was thinking particularly with the presidential responsibilities ahead. But let me change the subject.

I took a look at today's "New York Times," Saturday "New York Times." You know it's all over. What do we have? The Russian doctors are back on the front page, stories about oil, Putin in Cuba. Just a few days ago, we've got these banner heads. So let me take you to the Supreme Court. From the media's point of view, the election began with a blunder from the media. It ended with a fizzle from the Supreme Court.

We all watched, the country all watched the journalistic sausage in the making right before the cameras. Why could there not have been, Tom, for example, a 10-minute, 15-minute break until the reporters diagnosed what the Supreme Court said and then come on with a verdict?

DEFRANK: Bernie, I'm going to say this as politely as I can with as much generosity as...

KALB: I'm setting this up for you.

DEFRANK: ... I can. These kind of things didn't happen when I first started covering the White House 30 years ago. And we didn't have CNN and MSNBC and CNBC. And I don't mean that critically at all...

KURTZ: It's cable's fault?

DEFRANK: ... It is the reality of the new journalism. You don't have time to digest this thing for 15 minutes. The competition among the networks to get it first, get it right but get it first, is there.

And that's what we saw. We saw it a couple of times. We saw it when the Supreme Court ruled. And we saw it a week before when the Supreme Court -- or three days before -- the week before when the Supreme Court gave an interim ruling.

That's a reality. It's a given. It's not going to be different.

KURTZ: Linda Henneberger, I had to laugh the next day when I read pieces by law professors saying, "Well, these reporters, they obviously missed the significance of this footnote on page 45."

You know, you're standing out there. It's cold. You've just been handed 65 pages of legal opinions. You have to have some sympathy with people trying to both read, absorb, analyze, and speak to the camera on deadline.

HENNEBERGER: I thought it was great in a way because I thought, gee, maybe we can get some sympathy for the press going finally. I mean, you had to feel for these guys out there. The wind is whipping around. They can hardly see. They have no idea what it says. They can't even find anything. The clock is ticking.

DEFRANK: But everybody was gun shy because the previous Supreme Court decision, everybody came out and said, "Oh, they've invalidated the recount."

Well, that's not exactly what happened the first time around. They sent it back to Florida. So I think reporters understandably were trying to make sure they understood exactly what was going on here.

KURTZ: Tony Clark, you often have to deal with breaking news in front of a camera on deadline. Was it a mistake for the reporters to try to speak before they had really had a chance to read more than a few paragraphs at that late night frozen scene outside the court?

CLARK: Well, you see it all the time because there is always that rush. But I think some of them tried to move with caution.

The first thing you do is you look at the back page of the opinion and try and see what it says. But we saw some reporters say, "Now, let's take it easy. This is what it says. But we don't know at this point what it means." And those are two different things in this case.

KURTZ: I'll be very happy when I see somebody say that on live television.

We have to take a break. In a moment, the president-elect and the press.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE NOMINEE: I'm especially pleased that he chose to hold this ceremony in a school in Crawford, Texas. I was frankly glad it wasn't at the ranch.

(LAUGHTER)

POWELL: Nothing wrong with ranches. But I don't yet do ranch wear very well.

(LAUGHTER)

POWELL: And I'm from the south Bronx. And I don't care what you say. Those cows look dangerous.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: Colin Powell accepting the nomination as secretary of state earlier today.

Tom Defrank, there was a press conference after that. And most of the questions were answered by General Powell, not George W. Bush, who also didn't hold a press conference after his victory was finally assured.

I'm starting to hear complaints from journalists about limited access to the president-elect's operation. Do you think that could be or is a serious problem?

DEFRANK: Well, it's too early to know if it is a serious problem. But we'll know soon enough. There is going to have to be a quick learning curve on the part of the Bush press operation because they're all about control. I mean, most White House press operations want to control the news. And it's their business, not ours, fair enough.

But there are a lot of control freaks in this press operation. And some of them tend to equate helping reporters with disloyalty. And some of them haven't figured out that there's a zone where you can navigate and help reporters help your boss and not be disloyal. And let's see if they figure that out.

One of the realities of this press operation is it's mainly homegrown. Ari Fleischer is going to be the new press secretary, is a veteran of the Washington battles. And he knows...

KURTZ: It's mostly Texans who grew up around Bush.

DEFRANK: ... It's mostly Texans. That's exactly right.

KALB: Howie was mentioning the first grumbles of criticism, Tony. Does that mean the honeymoon is over?

CLARK: It could well be. One of the things that has helped the campaign, helped George W. Bush over the stretch of the campaign, was his own personality in greeting reporters, photographers, the crews that went with him. He was able to charm them.

We even saw that in the pool video when he was with Senator Breaux as he talked to each reporter, called them by name. And that kind of charm has helped him.

But now that he is the president-elect and to be the president, he's going to be distanced from those people. It is going to be his press people. And if they keep that distance, that lack of helpfulness, that will hurt him. That will cut the honeymoon short.

KURTZ: Well, if the honeymoon is over, Bernie, I guess I blinked and missed it. I'm sure the Bush people would like to extend it by at least a couple of more days.

Melinda Henneberger, just watching the media images here, there have been hints -- and some people actually come out and said in the press that, "Boy, Dick Cheney seems to be in charge of this transition. And George W. Bush has kind of receded and spends a lot of time at the ranch."

Do you think that kind of criticism is fair? Maybe we're so used to a president -- Bill Clinton, for example...

HENNEBERGER: Right.

KURTZ: ... being out in front of the cameras every day that we're not accustomed to a different style?

HENNEBERGER: Well, as opposed to Al Gore, for example. He's not that kind of micromanager. But we'll have to see. I don't think that Bush is trying to fight that image that I can tell. I think he feels very comfortable saying that it's a sign from his view of his strength and his confidence that he can surround himself with strong people and delegate.

KALB: I was going to say, we'll see how this story was covered in the papers and in the analysis Saturday night. That is to say you had a sense, to pick up the point made, you had a sense of Colin Powell being the overwhelming figure on the stage here.

The president-elect introduced him. And then it was all Powell with a sense of authority and command.

DEFRANK: But has worried about the good press Cheney is getting for a couple of reasons. One, Cheney is very self-effacing, very self-deprecating, and very deferential. He doesn't have his own agenda.

And two, it just doesn't bother Bush. As a matter of fact, Bush has delivered, has laid a new nickname on Cheney. His Secret Service code name is something else. But Bush now calls Cheney "Big Time."

(LAUGHTER)

DEFRANK: He calls him Big Time so often that his Secret Service agents now call Cheney Big Time. And that tells you the president is not worried about him.

KURTZ: But, Tony Clark, you're there on the scene in the state capital. Any frustration on your part? Everybody is trying to find out not just who the other cabinet members are going to be, but what the president-elect is doing, looking for some color. I understand the press office there has just been swamped with phone calls. Has it been difficult to get basic information?

CLARK: It is. And anytime there is any kind of event, they close ranks. They figure out what the word is.

I talked to a senior campaign official yesterday. And he said the thing he has learned in handling this and other campaigns is that the most important thing is for the campaign to control everything.

As you all were talking earlier, it is they set the timing for everything. We saw it during the fight over Florida. They would huddle after every event, come out with a specific line that they wanted to.

The same thing now. They want to control when information comes out and how it comes out.

KURTZ: Well, just briefly, Tony Clark, you can do that -- or you can attempt to do that in a campaign. Harder to do in a transition, and I would say extremely hard to do when you're in the White House. Will this act wear a little thin from the media point of view when we're dealing with the president of the United States?

CLARK: Yeah, it will. And that's why I said this relationship I think is going to get a lot bumpier if things happen that way. In the transition, they aren't able to control the news as much. You have candidates -- nominees for various offices leaking that information themselves.

And so it is harder for them to control. And I think they are going to get rather frustrated by losing some of that control.

KURTZ: OK, Tony Clark, hold that thought. When we come back, we'll look ahead to the Bush administration and the media.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back.

Before we get to the Bush White House, Melinda Henneberger, you've covered Al Gore for a long time. I'm already seeing a spate of stories about whether Al Gore will run in 2004. Doesn't the American public deserve maybe a couple of days off before we inflict this on them and start worrying about the next New Hampshire primary?

HENNEBERGER: I was surprised by, at least to my ear, the clarity with which he said in the concession speech, "I'm sorry I'm not going to be here to fight for you." That to me sounded like two weeks in Tennessee and then on to Manchester.

KURTZ: OK.

HENNEBERGER: So, yes.

KURTZ: You're saying the journalists are just following the vice president's lead -- Bernie.

KALB: Tom, are we being a little too hard on the incoming administration by saying they're sort of limiting the amount of oxygen for the media? All incoming administrations do this, are determined to get their particular message out. So maybe we ought to lean back a moment and give the new fellow a chance.

DEFRANK: Well, that's fair enough, Bernie. But there has been a lot of building resentment and frustration over the last 18 months.

Bush has been running since June of 1999. And this has been accumulating over an 18-month period. I agree we've got to let them have their sea legs in the Bush press office and see if they can figure out, one, they can't control stuff as much as they used to, but also that they've got to be a little more helpful. And if they don't figure out a way to diffuse this lingering resentment, then they're going to start in a hole pretty quickly here.

KURTZ: Tony Clark, there has been an avalanche of commentary and coverage about the so-called damaged presidency. That is somebody who didn't win the popular vote going into office having won Florida by, what, 500 votes, and how difficult this might be for President-elect Bush.

Do you think some of that has been overdone? Do you think some of that media coverage will face now that we're finally out of this whirlwind of a story?

CLARK: Well, I think there's still going to be an effort to show that George W. Bush is an accidental president. And I think we will see that with the attempts to count the ballots in Florida to show that.

But I think after a period of time we're going to find that he's going to be judged on how he is as president of the United States and not how he ran for president.

KURTZ: So that the media ought to give him a fair shot as the incoming president whether he won by 500 votes or five million votes to grade him on his performance rather than endlessly rehash the election, is that what you're saying?

CLARK: Well, look at John Kennedy and the debate over whether or not Illinois was stolen for him. That is an issue that is still talked about. But that's not how the Kennedy presidency is analyzed. And that's not how it was when he was in office.

So I think given a little bit of time, the controversy in Florida will fade. And he will be judged as president, how he acts as president, rather than how he got to be president.

KURTZ: OK, of course, John Kennedy didn't have to deal with three cable news networks. But times have changed.

Tony Clark, Melinda Henneberger, Tom Defrank, Bernard Kalb, thanks very much for joining us.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Before we go, this note from the world of media news. America Online won federal approval this week to take over Time- Warner, creating the world's largest media and entertainment company. The $100 billion-plus merger will give AOL's Steve Case (ph) control of CNN, "Time," "People," "Sports Illustrated," HBO, the Cartoon Network, Warner Brothers, Warner Music, Little Brown Publishers, and a major cable system.

The "Wall Street Journal" says the combined company, quote, "could reshape how news is viewed, music is heard, movies are watched, books are read, and the Internet gets surfed." But critics see a colossus that will have too many tentacles in too many areas.

The Federal Trade Commission insisted, among other things, that AOL open its cable lines to Internet rivals. As for this network, there will undoubtedly be complaints about, for example, how CNN covers America Online and its cyberspace rivals. And we'll try to keep an eye on such questions.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again tomorrow morning for a special one-hour edition of RELIABLE SOURCES at 11:00 a.m. Eastern. Thanks for joining us. "CAPITAL GANG" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, George Allen, the new Republican senator from Virginia, joins the gang for a full hour to look ahead to the Bush administration and to Al Gore's future and back to the historic Supreme Court decision. That and much more right here next on CNN.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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