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Reliable Sources

Mr. Bush Goes to Washington; Hillary Signs $8 Million Book Deal; Jack Germond Reflects on a Career in Journalism

Aired December 23, 2000 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Mr. Bush goes to Washington: George W. meets Bill Clinton, visits briefly with Al Gore. An important story, or did the press fall for photo-op politics?

Hillary Clinton's $8 million book deal: Why was the press so much harder on Newt Gingrich?

And a veteran columnist calls it quits after half a century. A conversation with Jack Germond.

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

The media moved into high gear this week covering the changing of the guard filled with plenty of photo ops as the press grappled with covering the transition and the emergence of a new Bush administration.


KURTZ (voice-over): It was a highly choreographed couple of days for George Bush's first trip to Washington as president-elect. First up Monday, a meeting with the big guy. No, not Bill Clinton, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Then, the media trailed him to Capitol Hill for a meeting with future colleagues and adversaries in Congress. Tuesday, a visit to his future home, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, for a lengthy chat with the current occupant.

And finally, an oh-so-brief chat with the man about to fade from the headlines, Al Gore. The pictures were all over TV. And journalists couldn't get enough.


DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: The final day of President-elect George Bush's short visit to the nation's capital included high-profile meetings of substance and high drama.


(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: White House aides described the two-and-a- half hour meeting between the president and the president-elect, normally a symbolic changing-of-the-guard chat as a serious discussion.



KURTZ: But were these important political moments after a bitter election? Or was the press just spoon-fed a series of pretty pictures?

Well, joining us now, Karen Tumulty, Washington correspondent for "Time" magazine, Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for the "Washington Post," and Jack Germond, political columnist for the "Baltimore Sun," who is retiring from journalism after almost 50 years in the business. We'll talk more about that with him a bit later in the program.

Jack Germond, Bush got a great media ride for his two-day sweep through the capital. I was watching MSNBC and the anchor Lester Holt when Bush was shaking hands with Gore say, "This was a historic moment, a historic handshake." Do we all get kind of swept away by these (INAUDIBLE)?

JACK GERMOND, POLITICAL COLUMNIST, "BALTIMORE SUN": Absolutely. I mean, he came up here and did a marvelous PR job, as he's been doing most of the year, and got away with it. I mean, the whole thing was sounded furiously but meant very little.

KURTZ: OK. Dana Milbank, let me try out a theory on you, which is there is a little bit of guilt in the press for having relentlessly hyped the 36-day Florida recount battle, and pronouncing it a crisis every 12 minutes, and giving a megaphone to all the loudest voices. And now some journalists feel like it's part of their mission to help heal the country.

DANA MILBANK, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "WASHINGTON POST": Let me give you a counter-theory. I don't think journalists feel that way particularly. But they've been particularly friendly I think this past week to President-elect Bush just because of the way, the expert way, in which the Bush campaign, now the Bush transition, has been handling things.

They're running such an amazingly tight ship. We have really no choice but to just reflect what they're showing us.

So it is a picture of Al Gore patting Bush on the back and then Bush petting Gore's dog. And 15 minutes later, he was gone. But they're very successful for that reason.

KURTZ: So no bad news has crept into this otherwise cloudless sky?

MILBANK: Yes, yes. BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Karen, is it a triumph of talent on the part of the Bush people? Or is it a bit of the honeymoon vocabulary on the part of the media?

KAREN TUMULTY, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, I think there was a time when we thought that there wouldn't be a honeymoon because of the way in which Bush is assuming office. I remember at one point Norm Ornstein at the American Enterprise Institute said, "He's going to have a honeymoon like Darva Conger."

But in fact, I think it's sort of reassuring that we see things looking so normal. And I would disagree too about the symbolic visits that he made this week.

He buried the hatchet with Alan Greenspan, who his father blamed in some ways for costing him the election with Bill Clinton and with his own opponent. And for a guy whose chief campaign promise was to change the tone in Washington, the symbolism is important.

KURTZ: As the president-elect is staging these very nice sessions, it is unsportsmanlike for journalists to point out that basically Bush and Gore can't stand each other after a bitter campaign, and that President-elect Bush essentially ran in part against Bill Clinton by promising to restore dignity and honor to the White House, despite their smiling faces at the White House?

MILBANK: Right, and despite the lovely setup they had there, you could see that Clinton was sort of being smug. And Bush was really quite anxious in their visit there.

And you can't hide the fact that they only met for 16 or 18 minutes, Gore and Bush up at the mansion there. I mean, they couldn't have even offered him tea or something.

KALB: Karen, excuse me. The economy question has come up. Is the media letting an opportunity for a really major story, letting it go? Both sides, Bush and President Clinton have offered competing versions of where the economy stands right now. And it seems to me this is a time for the media to reach in with an exhaustive examination of indeed where the economy is.

And I don't seem to find that. What we're getting is what -- maybe self-fulfilling prophecies.

TUMULTY: Yeah, and I think part of the problem here is that reporters are just so exhausted from what they've been through the last couple of months.

KALB: And is it that the economy has no sex appeal?

TUMULTY: And also, it's so hard to read the tea leaves on the economy. You get one analyst saying one thing and others saying another. This is something where political reporters in particular lack the expertise.

And the fact is no matter what the Bush administration is claiming now, if this economy tanks on their watch, they're going to get blamed.

KURTZ: OK, I want to come back to the question of the press coverage. I want to show a piece of tape from the Bush-Clinton meeting. And I think it's probably fair to say that no other reporter on the planet would have dared interrupt the president-elect as we see here in this piece of tape.


BUSH: I am humbled and honored...



KURTZ: ... probably fair to say that no other reporter on the planet would have dared interrupt the president-elect as we see here in this piece of tape.


BUSH: I am humbled and honored. And I can't thank the president enough for his hospitality. He didn't need to do this, and...


BUSH: ... I hadn't quite finished yet.


BUSH: And I'm grateful. And I look forward to the discussion. I'm here to listen.


KURTZ: That, of course, was the sonorous voice of Helen Thomas. Even by the Helen Thomas standard, was that a little bit out of bounds to inject herself into that brief news conference?

MILBANK: Well, I don't know. I think it was a sort of welcome- to-Washington moment for George W. Bush.


KURTZ: OK, Bernie.

KALB: No, but this question of Helen Thomas moving in, as you're suggesting, the welcome to Washington. Shouldn't we have more aggressive questioning when you get the opportunity, given the fact that candidates and presidents tend to ration their exposure to the media? When you have the opportunity, you're the man at the White House. Don't you reach in and grab it with both hands?

MILBANK: I think that was a great question...

KALB: Three cheers for Helen. MILBANK: ... I reported the question in my story because the perfect thing was he was asked about the recession. And he said, "I'm humbled and grateful to be here." You could have asked him about anything. "I'm humbled and grateful to be here." So I think it was just perfect that she piped up with, "Forget about the humble and grateful."

KURTZ: Jack Germond, we've had a lot of profiles and instant pieces on the Bush team as he assembles it. And there was what turned out to be a somewhat controversial profile of Condoleeza Rice in the "New York Times" by Elaine Schalino (ph), which said that Condoleeza Rice, the incoming national security advisor, wears a size six dress. "She's always impeccably dressed, usually in a classic suit with a modest hemline, comfortable pumps, and conservative jewelry. She keeps two mirrors on her desk at Stanford apparently to check the back as well as the front of her hair."

It occurs to me that you probably wouldn't write that about a male appointee.

GERMOND: Well, you know, I'm not notoriously sensitive. But even I when I read that thought, "What a thing to do." What you're not going to do is you're not going to describe Colin Powell. How many mirrors does Colin Powell have? I don't know.

KURTZ: Karen, you want to jump in here?

TUMULTY: I do think it was probably a little condescending. But let's face it. I mean, we can no longer say this is just sexist when every suit change that Al Gore made in the last campaign, his makeup for the first debate engendered all sorts of comments. So I don't think you can quite pull the sexism.

The question is whether this is too trivial to make it into a "New York Times" profile.

KALB: My tie usually gets reported, Howie.

TUMULTY: And it looks fabulous.

KURTZ: I like the way you worked that in.

We've got to take a break. When we come back, the publishing world pays big bucks for a new book by the first lady. Is there a media double standard when it comes to Hillary Clinton's finances? That's next.




Karen Tumulty, Hillary Clinton's $8 million deal for her memoir, the "New York Times" on Friday finally editorializing it would have been far better if she had avoided this entanglement. But compared to the way the press just pounded Newt Gingrich in 1994 when he accepted a $4.5 million book deal after he became speaker or was in line to become speaker to the point where he finally had to give up the money...


KURTZ: ... isn't there a tremendous contrast here in the way the first lady has been treated?

TUMULTY: There is an absolutely double standard. There are some differences between the two deals on the margins. For instance, her book was put out to auction. She's a proven best selling author.

But the fact is that the controversy over his deal went on for weeks. He was asked about it every time he showed his face in public. And she is not getting even close to that sort of scrutiny. And the same kind of questions are not really being raised about conflict of interest.

GERMOND: She is not getting pounded by the columnists. There is no question like you say there's a left-wing liberal myself -- liberals who've all gone on the tank on this thing. There's not enough criticism of what she's doing. And there should be.

KALB: But there has been some compilation. You mentioned the "New York Times" editorial. The "Washington Post" did an editorial. The nighttime comics are having a field day with it.

Do you think, Dana, for example, that the accumulating -- and I think it is -- the accumulating criticism on the part of the media about the book deal will prompt Hillary Clinton to back down the way Newt Gingrich did?

MILBANK: I think so. I mean, I don't think it's going to go away. I think it's going to continue to be mentioned until we find out, yes, she's going to give a large portion of it to charity. She's going to have to specify.

KALB: But she said at least some of it is going to charity.


MILBANK: Well, some of it. But we've got to find out that there will be a large -- and we've got to know what that portion is. I don't think anybody is faulting the dollar amount. As you said, that was a market arrangement.

But the question is what she's going to do with those proceeds. And I think that's going to continue to be mentioned.

GERMOND: But the reporters don't have the access to her they had to Newt Gingrich at that time. Newt was always available. He was around the House. And reporters were able to get on his case. Not with her.

TUMULTY: And in fact, Newt became a lot less available after that. He shut down his daily news conferences.

MILBANK: But, Jack, there will be a time she can't get into the Senate without walking by this mob of reporters now. So she's going to have to ignore us.

KURTZ: Let's narrow in on just what the potential conflict is because the argument about Gingrich back in 1994 was that he had made the deal with Harper Collins, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who owned the FOX network. And FOX has a lot of regulatory business before the Congress.

Well, Hillary Clinton feels that Simon & Schuster, which is owned by Viacom, and Viacom it so happens owns CBS. CBS, I mean, we're talking about billions of dollars in terms of the way that Congress can affect the licensing, the spectrum, and other things that CBS has. And I just wonder why that has not been a front border issue, Karen Tumulty.

TUMULTY: It should have been because this is the issue. And especially when it's a big advance. I don't think anybody would begrudge her if what she was doing was getting money for every book she sells. But this is money that she gets whether these books sell or not.

And she's going to be much more than just a senator. She's going to be a senator that every time she speaks, the television cameras are going to go right to her. So her voice is going to be very loud.

KALB: I think we're dropping a bit of a stitch here. I think the Viacom possible conflict of interest or appearance of a conflict of interest indeed has been mentioned in the criticism of the $8 million. So it's there.

I think you suggested earlier when we chatted in the break that the Gingrich thing took about three weeks' velocity before Gingrich capitulated. This is early. This is, what, a week on Hillary?

KURTZ: No, but during those three weeks, this was a repeated front-page story. It was all over talk radio to the point that Newt Gingrich must have been uncomfortable for him to say the least to walk away from $4.5 million.

One different -- possible difference, Jack Germond, is that the Democrats just skewered Gingrich over this. I mean, David Bonior at the time said this was a $4 million Christmas gift from Rupert Murdoch, placed a cloud over his head.

But when Trent Lott was asked about Hillary's book deal, he said, "Oh, I don't want to get into that." So perhaps the press is reflecting the lack of Republican attacks on this.

GERMOND: Well, I think that's true to some degree. Bonior made it easy to go after Gingrich for a lot of reporters because Bonior was doing it every day.

MILBANK: But here's another element to the double standard. Think of Dick Cheney and his Halliburton options, which was a huge storm. And that was the last one like this. So that would further add to some sort of sinister conspiracy idea.

KURTZ: In other words, that Republicans get tougher treatment.

MILBANK: Apparently so, based on these three things.

KURTZ: OK, Dana Milbank, Karen Tumulty, thanks very much for joining us. Jack Germond, stay put because Jack Germond is giving up his daily journalism this week. He'll stay with us. And we'll get his thoughts on the new world of political coverage next.



DAVID NYHAN, COLUMNIST, "BOSTON GLOBE": He's a craftsman. He has respect for the process. He has respect for politicians. And he has respect for the people who put their 50 cents down to buy his column and read it. He's a great guy.


KURTZ: The "Boston Globe's" David Nyhan talking about Jack Germond, who penned his last regular column this week with his "Baltimore Sun" partner Jules Whitcover (ph) after 24 years of prognostication. Whitcover will be continuing the column.

Jack Germond, you told me earlier this week that you were tired of politics. But you were particularly fed up with the 2000 campaign, which you described as odious. Explain.

GERMOND: I felt that the 2000 campaign was -- they've been trending in this direction. I thought it was particularly insulting to the voters. And I thought full grown people shouldn't be covering it, or you were embarrassed to be covering it.

The reason the campaign was totally made up of positioning for a soundbite on the evening news, television news.

KURTZ: Dominated by TV.

GERMOND: Dominated by TV. And not only that, the candidates are totally controlled, contrived. And we have -- the story becomes an exchange of accusations back and forth. They're flacks. Why do we care if a flack for Bush says something nasty about the flack for Gore?

That's not news. It didn't used to be. Now it is. It's the whole story almost.

KALB: Jack, how has the all-news-all-the-time, the cable news channels, affected journalism?

GERMOND: Well, it's cheapened the currency.

KALB: Cheapened the currency?

GERMOND: No question, because there's this demand to have so much as we have everybody saying, "Blah, blah, blah," the same thing over and over again from 10 different sources. And also, it gives more credence to these flacks essentially.

KURTZ: Talk a little bit about the change in the press culture since the boys on the bus days. I mean, you're known as a hard drinking poker player who has a good time on the campaign trail. And you've complained about the new breed of younger reporters who you think aren't much fun.

GERMOND: All of them drink Chablis or Chardonnay. They even work out. That's what I can't understand.

KURTZ: That's not something that's ever afflicted you.

GERMOND: Well, it's just a different -- the current breed of -- generation of reporters behind me, they're every bit as good as we were. I'm not faulting them professionally. They're very good. And they do their work.

They just have a different culture and different lifestyle. And they're much more personally disciplined than we were, which is probably a good thing for their livers. And a lot of them also are using the job, covering politics, as a weigh station to becoming managing editor or something.

The fact is when I got to be the national political reporter, I had what I wanted. And that's always...


KURTZ: It's not some ticket punch for you.

GERMOND: No, it was the job.

KURTZ: The relationship between candidates, presidential candidates in particular, and reporters. I mean, back in 1979, you had dinner at Ronald Reagan's house. And you later wrote that he said some mind boggling things, repeating unsubstantiated gossip.

But you didn't report it. And you were able to maintain your access to President Reagan when he took office. Now some people would say, well, maybe you and others, Jack, were too close to some of these candidates because you were protecting them.

GERMOND: Yeah, there was that particularly, even though there was a tacit understanding this was an off-the-record dinner. I was the only one there.

I was willing to do (INAUDIBLE) -- they were kidding me. I was kidding them. I told the staff he wanted to show me Reagan could stay awake until 10:00. And I'd been running (ph) about his age.

But I wanted a chance to get to know him better. And he did say a couple of things that I subsequently used in a book 20 years later. Actually, one of them I used the same year in a different -- I heard him say the same thing in a different context.

But I made this agreement. I had to stick to it. It told me something about him that was very valuable. I knew that he was capable of this kind of understanding, of things which I was able to pass on to readers.

And also, I might say one other thing about it. It also gave me a little leg-up that I didn't use this stuff, which would have embarrassed him.

KALB: Jack, who has more clout these days, the print columnists, or the television columnists? And as a print columnist, can he amount to anything without having a television outlet, as it were?

GERMOND: No. The print columnists, we write for a very -- an elite of our subscribers will read it. Most people don't care all that much about politics. The ones who do, they have to care a lot. I think television has 10 times the clout of any column.

KURTZ: And on that very point, I mean, you've probably written thousands of columns and pieces over your long career, "Washington Star," "Baltimore Sun." And yet you became famous basically on "The McLaughlin Group." For 15 years, you were the grumpy panelist. And did you enjoy that kind of televised comeback?

GERMOND: I enjoyed the money. I didn't mind it. It was fun when Novak was on there, when Novak and I were opposite one another.

KURTZ: Didn't you often find yourself debating and fencing and prognosticating about issues that you didn't know all that much about?

GERMOND: Absolutely.

KALB: How much of what you did was theatrical in that sense?

GERMOND: It wasn't theatrical. It was genuine. But it is absolutely true that that show required us to talk about a lot of issues, which we had not done any reporting.

And anybody who took that show seriously, that was their problem. They shouldn't have taken that show seriously.

KALB: Jack, you talked before about television, all-news-all- the-time is cheapening the currency of journalism. Given that sort of indictment, let's take a look into the future. Do you think we will look back about this particular moment as being one of the golden ages of journalism, considering what you think may be ahead?

GERMOND: No. I think even with the networks, the networks don't give the resources to covering campaigns and politics that they used to. So there's no golden age.

KALB: Cable or broadcast? Both?

GERMOND: Well, I'm talking about the big broadcasts don't. And the cable networks, some do, some don't.

KURTZ: But in the Internet age, has your style of reporting where you're dealing with the inside players and having breakfast with county chairmen and talking to the pollsters, has it become somewhat obsolete, do you think?

GERMOND: I suppose. It is in the sense in terms of the story. But it still gives you an understanding you wouldn't get any other way.

And, for example, during the New Hampshire primary race, I spent every month -- I went there starting early in '99. I went to Milford, New Hampshire, talked to some of the people. I found some people up there who were talking about McCain when he was three points in the polls. It was a very revealing thing.

So I passed it on to the readers of the "Sun." Here were these Republicans getting on to McCain early. That's valuable.

KURTZ: And, of course, in New Hampshire, your barstool has been retired at the famous Sheridan Wayfarer (ph) where you used to hold court every four years.

Jack Germond, thanks very much for joining us.

When we return, more on Hillary Clinton cashing in, in Bernie's "Back Page."


KURTZ: Some further thoughts on Hillary Clinton's $8 million payday in the "Back Page" -- Bernie.

KALB: Well, it seems that suddenly everybody is talking about the economy going south. Well, if the country is indeed heading for a recession, Hillary isn't.


KALB (voice-over): Eight million dollars about her eight years in the White House. Either $8 million no longer has any value, or it's going to be one hell of a book.

Or put it another way. True of false? No Monica, no $8 million?


BILL PRESS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Tonight, Hillary's new book. Does it pass the legal test? Does it pass the smell test? And what will she tell?


KALB: We won't know for a couple of years. The manuscript isn't due until '03. But Washington is all aflutter about the big advance, the biggest nonfiction deal since the Pope got a record $8.5 million. Obviously, the publisher is not expecting a spiritual work, but rather gambling that America is a nation of peeping toms, hoping to get even a glimpse or two from Hillary on how she feels about what went on between Bill and you-know-whom.

The late-night comics are having a ball.


DAVID LETTERMAN, LATE NIGHT TALK SHOW HOST: Chapter, one: "Bill's a jerk, the end. Now where's my $8 million?"



KALB: But for the next couple of years, there will be this continuing suspense about whether Hillary will disclose anything juicy. Will she or won't she?

Here's Hillary in that famous pink sweater press conference.

SENATOR-ELECT HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D-NY), FIRST LADY OF THE UNITED STATES: I've always believed in a zone of privacy. And I told a friend the other day that I feel after resisting for a long time I've been rezoned.

KALB: Hillary rezoned? Critics found that laughable.

But this misses the point. Cable ratings went through the roof during the months of Monica. And Hillary's publisher Simon & Schuster has got to be hoping that the same coast-to-coast voyeurism will send her book to the top of the bestseller list.


KALB: But there's a bigger question here, that $8 million gamble. Is it really a portrait of ourselves?

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

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.

"Capital Gang" is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "CAPITAL GANG": Howie, humorist Mark Russell pays his annual visit to the gang for this year's awards and next year's predictions. But first, we'll talk about economic storm clouds and Bush Cabinet making next right here on CNN.



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