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Reliable Sources

Is the President-Elect Ducking the Press?

Aired December 18, 2000 - 11:00 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Tracking the transition: George Bush names his first Cabinet member, but is he ducking the press? Does a president who lost the popular vote get a honeymoon? We'll talk with a panel of top political reporters.

Cold and confusion at the Supreme Court: Did the media blow the big moment? We'll ask legal reporters about interpreting the justices on deadline.

And campaign spin in overdrive -- a conversation with Al Gore spokesman, Chris Lehane.

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

The Bush transition continues today with the president-elect preparing to name Condoleezza Rice as his national security advisor just one day after unveiling Colin Powell as his choice for secretary of state. The press coverage of Bush has intensified just in the few days since the Supreme Court ruling that ended the Florida recount and handed the Texas governor a razor-thin victory over that other candidate, Al Gore.

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)

(BEGIIN 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 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 Evan Thomas, Assistant Managing Editor of "Newsweek," Jay Carney, political correspondent for "Time Magazine," and Jill Zuckman, National Political Reporter for the "Chicago Tribune." Welcome.

Well, president-elect on all three news magazine covers this morning -- "Newsweek," the headline. And now the hard part, "U.S. News" the rough road ahead and "Time Magazine" person of the year.

Jay Carney of "Time," was Bush really -- I mean, it sounds to me like if Gore had gotten 537 more chads, maybe he would have been the person of the year. Was Bush really the most important figure of 2000 or is it more in anticipation of him being important in 2001?

JAY CARNEY, POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, TIME MAGAZINE: I think what the decision was was that this was the most important story of 2000 without question. I mean we're an American-centric magazine. I mean, we can -- there are, obviously, there is the world and there are stories out there, but this story -- especially the post-election story -- was the biggest of the year. And Bush by virtue of winning became the person of the year.

Had this election still been undecided this week, I think the decision would have been in New York to make them both men of the year or people of the year. But because Bush prevailed this week, became president-elect, the decision was to make him man of the year. KURTZ: I'm so glad it didn't go into January and you didn't have to face that problem.

Evan Thomas, there have been complaints already, getting a little louder actually, about limited access for reporters trying to get information out of the Bush transition. And of course Bush famously charmed a lot of reporters during this long campaign, but also had rocky relations with some. Do you see this as a sign or a signal of what's to come?

EVAN THOMAS, ASSISTANT MANAGING EDITOR, NEWSWEEK MAGAZINE: Bush has been fascinating to watch with the press because it's very personal. The good news for the press is that he makes friends, he is personable, you get to know him. The bad news is that he holds a grudge -- personal. He holds grudges, he gets mad, they're going to want to revenge against reporters who they think treat them badly.

KURTZ: He gets mad at little things, big things?

THOMAS: Anything. It's whatever -- whatever offends him, he's going to get mad at. He (INAUDIBLE) about loyalty and the press is inherently disloyal. And so you have -- you're going to have friction.

Also, they like to control things. The Bush camp likes to be in control. That automatically creates a row because Karen Hughes likes to be in control. She likes to spin -- his communications person -- likes to -- likes to be rigidly in control. I think she's going to have to loosen up and get more flexible or she's going to be in for a rough time.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Jill, let me introduce that magic word, honeymoon. How long does the honeymoon, if any, last between the president-elect and the media?

JILL ZUCKMAN, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, CHICAGO TRIBUNE: You know, I think his honeymoon is going to depend a lot on Congress. It's going to depend how people ...

KALB: No, but I mean media coverage.

ZUCKMAN: No, I understand, but I think it depends how other people around Bush react to him. If people start -- if senators and congressmen start piling on him from within his own party, from the Democratic Party, I think the press is just going to, you know, really hone in on that like a microscope. But, otherwise, I think they'll give him a little bit of breathing room initially.

KALB: How important will that first news conference -- George Bush as president of the United States -- be in defining the portrait of a president as the president? Jay?

CARNEY: I think it will be very important. I think as with every major event involving George W. Bush, he will have successfully and we will have successfully lowered expectations so far that by handling a press conference without any major gaff, he'll probably succeed. And we'll give him that -- you know, give him credit for that.

I think that, you know, Bush has throughout his career benefited from low expectations. I think in a way, the situation he walks into now with an evenly divided congress creates lowered expectations for any kind of success that we in the media then translate into the articles we write or the -- or the stories we do on television. So I think -- I think in a way the honeymoon may be longer because of it.

KURTZ: I thought you only heard that phrase "expectations" during a campaign, but of course everything seems like a campaign now.

But in terms of facing the press, I mean the first time that Governor Bush faced the press after becoming officially the president- elect was yesterday when he introduced Colin Powell and mostly the questions were fielded by Colin Powell.

I'm wondering if the media coverage that some of which has painted this transition as being run by Dick Cheney and Bush basically hanging out at his ranch and being a disengaged figure, I wonder if that's fair and I wonder if its going to rub the president-elect the wrong way as you alluded to earlier.

CARNEY: Well, there's -- we have sort of two clich

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