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Reliable Sources

How Should the Media Handle Election Results? Did the Clintons Manipulate the Media While in the White House?

Aired February 3, 2001 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: A news disaster. An independent report faults CNN for its election night coverage. We'll talk to two of the authors and a top CNN executive about the blunders and the future of exit polls.

And, the trashing of the Clintons. Are the negative headlines justified or are the media getting carried away about the stories of vandalism and last minute gifts.

KURTZ: Welcome to Reliable Sources, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

Two months since election day and we still hear the echoes of the networks embarrassing performance.


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: A big call to make. CNN announces that we call Florida in the Al Gore column.

BERNARD SHAW, CNN ANCHOR: Standby, standby. CNN right now is moving our earlier declaration of Florida back to the too-close-to- call column.

George Bush, Governor of Texas, will become the 43rd President of the United States.


KURTZ: A new report on election night, a report by an independent panel commissioned by CNN, is sharply critical of the network. We'll talk to the authors in just a moment.

Among the findings, according now (ph), on election day 2000, television news organizations staged a collective drag race on the crowded highway of democracy, recklessly endangering the political process, the political life of the country, and their own credibility. Haste led to two mistaken calls in Florida; those calls and their retractions constituted a news disaster that damaged democracy and journalism.

Well, joining us now from San Francisco, one author of the report, two-time Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Jim Risser. Here in Washington, another author, Ben Wattenberg, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. And, in our London bureau, Eason Jordan, chief news executive of the CNN news group.

Eason Jordan, conceptually flawed, commercially questionable, foolish, tragedy of errors, performed badly, a news disaster. Sounds like CNN and the other networks had a pretty awful night. How do we know, despite this nice-sounding report, that this sort of thing won't happen again.

EASON JORDAN, CHIEF NEWS EXECUTIVE, CNN NEWS GROUP: Well, first of all, it was a sad ending to what was a great year of CNN news coverage, I think, of the political process. And so it was especially tough to take; to see it end in this way, November 7 and 8.

But, what we have done, and I want to thank the independent panel, certainly the panel demonstrated its true independence in being as candid as it was in the process. But what we have done in response to the independent panel's report and our own internal investigation is put a new system of checks and balances into place. It will admittedly slow down the process. We're putting our foot on the break pedal.

It's not only on the gas pedal anymore, if it ever was, because we are going to do what it takes, by strengthening VNS, or its successor organization, by putting a second source of data into place so we're not relying only on one collection of data to make our calls. And we're also just not going to call close races at all when the polls close if the projections show a truly tight race.

KURTZ: But Eason Jordan, the report talks about hyper- competition among the networks stemming from a foolish attempt to beat their rivals. So, my question is, the pressures of election night, there is still going to be some pressure on the people who are calling races on kind of a rush to judgment, because everybody wants the bragging rights here.

JORDAN: Well, the bragging rights are for who gets it right, not for who gets it first. And CNN, going forward, will go not only the extra mile, but several extra miles, to make sure that we get the story right. We will not be first. That's what happens when you're going to get the story right, hopefully, in every case when it comes to election coverage, election result coverage. But we will be accurate, because that's far more important than being first.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Jim Risser in California, if these new restrictions, these new terms, were introduced November 7, had they been in place, would the fiasco have taken place?

JAMES RISSER, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF COMMUNICATION, STANFORD UNIVERSITY: Probably not, if they would have done as the CNN response says, that they would not use exit polls to call close states, which was the problem in Florida, obviously. There's still the overall question of states in the East being called and what impact that might have on voters farther west in the country, but that's something that Congress may have to deal with, if they want to. I think the response that CNN has issued to our report is quite admirably strong, actually. KALB: Let's go to Ben Wattenberg. There were three people who put together this new code of behavior on election eve, of how to go about covering a presidential election. Were there things that the three of you did not agree on that might have been even more drastic in the package you've offered CNN?


KALB: But were there agreement, total agreement, or were things left out?

WATTENBERG: I think everything that's in there, we agreed upon. And that's why there were no minority reports. There were some things that, you know, we had, sort of, I have some ideas about congressional reform as to what ought to be done, I think there's a fairly simple fix to this. But there was not total unanimity, it ran beyond our rent (ph), so that's not in the report.

I just want to say one thing, to add to what my colleague Jim Risser said. Not only is the CNN stuff responsive in part, in my judgment, but it took an enormous amount of corporate guts, I think, coming down from Tom Johnson, to put this in the laps of three people, independent of the network. To give us complete access to all the papers and to interview people, which is something that, not only that I'm in a CNN studio saying this, but the other networks didn't do. They really had basically in-house people.

KURTZ: Eason Jordan, one of the things CNN is promising to do besides, for example, not calling a state until all the polls have closed in that state, which was not done by any of the networks in the state of Florida, is to change or soften the language, to talk about a CNN estimate instead of CNN declares Al Gore the winner in Michigan. Doesn't that sort of - isn't there a sort of tacit acknowledgement that the old system, the one that was used on November 7, involved a bit of hype in terms of declaring somebody the victor in a state when, it now turns out, we weren't really sure?

JORDAN: I don't know that I would call it hype. I would just say that CNN can and will handle its election night reporting, going forward, in a more responsible way. We learned a lot of lessons in this process. We are stepping up in a very big way, in several ways in fact, to do the right thing, and I think it's fair to say that if these standards had been in place on November 7, none of the mistakes that occurred in our election reporting on that night would have occurred.

KURTZ: Ben Wattenberg, CNN says, like Fox News, says it may pull out of VNS, that's the Voter News Service, the consortium funded by all the networks that do these quadrennial exit polls, if certain changes aren't made. But isn't it the truth that you'd have to replace it with something, and the problem is here that no network wants to foot the bill for these very expense exit polls, so you get this monopoly-like situation?

WATTENBERG: Well, I mean, I do not see the necessity to spend $35 million to try to be ten minutes earlier than your competitor, whether it's pool coverage or individual coverage when, as Eason was saying, the real bonus goes to people who establish credibility. Now, the networks, I think the important thing to note about this situation, is the networks have been warned for 20 years, since the election of 1980, by liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, in office, out of office, not to mess around with those couple of hours in this rather sacred moment in the quadrennial.

They were warned by their own people. Our interviews, our report talks to Bernie Shaw, Judy Woodruff, Bill Schneider and Jeff Greenfield, and they didn't like what was going on.

KURTZ: And obviously they didn't take the warning. Bernie?

KALB: James Risser, are you making any claim that the recommendations you're making will be foolproof the next time around? Or, to quote myself, if I may, I've got an old saying, "Get it first, but first get it second if that's what it takes to get it right." Do you feel that there still could be, not withstanding these recommendations, a surrender to competition?

RISSER: Well, look, there's no system that's foolproof unless you simply wait until all of the votes are counted and then reported the results. I suppose even in Florida that wouldn't have given you the right answer. But, you know, there's something in between there. For the networks to go from a system they have now of using exit polls and even no-counted votes or a very tiny percentage to call winners, and to go from that to a system where, at least that CNN says it's going to do, is a big change. And I think it would rebound to CNN's credit and certainly other who do it, and certainly would lift their credibility in the public's eye, I'm sure.

KURTZ: I don't, Eason Jordan, go ahead.

RISSER: I just don't believe there's that many people who care which network is first on calling states or even knows afterwards who was first.

KURTZ: Eason Jordan, just briefly, what's your assessment of the hit to CNN's credibility? Obviously, this has gotten an enormous amount of attention and this is a pretty blistering report.

JORDAN: Well, I think it's an indictment of the system that was in place and all of the news organizations who were part of VNS were victimized in the process. And, in fairness, the news organizations themselves owned and operated VNS, so let's not be unfair to VNS. VNS is us.

KURTZ: OK. Before ...

JORDAN: But we have now put systems into place that I think will really preserve our credibility henceforth.

KURTZ: Before we go, Eason Jordan, CNN also in the news this past week for laying-off 400 staff members, including such veterans as Gene Randall and Karl Rochelle. When you do things like that, when you axe four out of the six positions in the Los Angeles bureau, critics are saying that's got to effect the quality of reporting. Your response.

JORDAN: Well, I would respond by saying that CNN has the healthiest, biggest, most robust news-gathering operation of any TV news organization in the world. We have more than 150 correspondents and crews that we field, on average, on a daily basis. Clearly, we've made some adjustments and rearranged some of our priorities, but at the same time we actually will maintain four correspondents in L.A., not two. We will have added bureaus, added reporting beats, I mean, we're still very much in a growth mode after going through, I think, a healthy and exhaustive evaluation of our priorities and the resources at our disposal.

KURTZ: OK. We'll have to leave it there. Eason Jordan, Jim Risser, Ben Wattenberg, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, a gone but not forgotten president still grabbing the headlines.


KURTZ: Welcome back to Reliable Sources. We've seen an avalanche of news stories about the president -- the former president.


KURTZ (voice-over): From the moment Bill Clinton left office, the media coverage was a three-ring spectacle. Number one, a still- seething uproar over presidential pardons with congressional hearings pending. Number two, the $190,000 gift haul. The Clintons ended the week promising to pay for half the gifts and part of Mr. Clinton's pricey Manhattan offices.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I knew the Clintons were mercenary and shameless.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a pretty ugly departure.

KURTZ: And three anger at how some Clinton staffers left their White House offices.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm sure there were some indefensible pranks at the Clinton White House in the final days, but those charges were way overblown.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Joshua Marshall, Washington Editor of The American Prospect and a write for, and Chris Caldwell, senior writer for The Weekly Standard.

Josh Marshall, you don't know the extent of damage or vandalism by departing Clinton White House aides, and neither do I. So, in writing in Slate Magazine that the press wildly overplayed this story, it kind of sounds like you're acting as a knee-jerk Clinton defender. JOSHUA MARSHALL, WASHINGTON EDITOR, "THE AMERICAN PROSPECT": Not at all. I think when I looked at that, when I looked at that story for the first few days, the charges escalated and escalated, more and more things, destruction of property, trash everywhere. And at a certain point, journalists started asking for some actual proof, some pictures, someone to go on the record and actually say this happened. And over and over again Ari Fleischer said, "Well, it's, yes it's true, but we're going to rise above it" and so forth. And at some point, you say, when are we going to get some proof that this happened.

KURTZ: Chris Caldwell, the fact that the Bush White House won't itemize the damage, perhaps to keep the spotlight off Bill Clinton, doesn't mean it didn't happen. In fact, there have been reports of hundreds of phone lines being rendered useless because the labels were taken off the switching equipment. So, what do you make of Josh Marshall's theory that this is basically a lot of hype?

CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL, SENIOR WRITER, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I think Josh is right, that it deserves some scrutiny. I differ with his idea that the charges escalated. I think very early on you had a sensational report and the drudge report, then you had little bits and pieces added by mainstream news media.

KURTZ: Yeah, the missing W's on the typewriters and so forth.

CALDWELL: That's right. That's right. But a picture has emerged of mild but considerably larger than normal damage.

KALB: Josh, let me try the question this way. Did the Bush people play the media like a yo-yo?

MARSHALL: I definitely think so.

KALB: That is to say, offer anonymous leaks, let you fellows in the media irresponsibly escalate this into a huge prankgate, I think that was your phrase, prankgate, and then the great pull-back, the rope back again, well, we didn't make these kind of indictments. Play the media like a yo-yo and the media cooperated?

MARSHALL: Absolutely. I think it's very clear, you had kind of a two-pronged attack coming out of the Bush communications operation. On the one hand, a lot of anonymous leaks, various charges, and then Ari Fleischer comes out and says, basically, elliptically affirms, says the things did happen, and then kind of plays it to their advantage by saying, you know, but we're going to rise above it, we're different, and so forth. Yeah, I think they, I think the White House press would let themselves be played.

KALB: Let me ask you what might be a journalistic psychiatric question. To what degree, the White House having anonymously leaked tidbits and so forth, did the media go to work on this story and pump it up, give it an awful lot of extra buzz, because of a kind of feeling, an anti-Clintonism emerging in the media, because of the behavior of the president and Mrs. Clinton under harsh criticism of the points that Howie listed at the outset. MARSHALL: I think that's definitely, I mean, I don't think I'm saying anything that anyone's not aware of, to say that the White House Press Corp has some issues with the Clintons. And, in this case, I think the Bush White House was able to play to the press's assumptions about what kind of people the Clintons are. And, I mean, Howie wrote a great book about, you know, looking, the ways that the press has intensely scrutinized the way that the Clinton White House used news to spin the press, to come up with stories that played to their advantage.

In this case, it was really obvious that the Bush White House was doing the same thing, but there was very little of that scrutiny.

KURTZ: But, Chris Caldwell, do you buy the notion that journalists deliberately pumped-up the story, not just of the pardon, which I think everyone would agree, the Mark Rich pardon, very legitimate news story. But, of the $190,000 in gifts; other presidents took gifts, not at this kind of level, and the story about the prank/destruction of federal property, just because they can't stand Bill and Hillary Clinton and because they wanted to portray them as kind of low-class Arkansas hicks?

CALDWELL: Well, you know, these preconceptions that journalists have are not without a basis in fact. One of my colleagues likes to say ...

KURTZ: So, you're saying they are low-class hicks ...

CALDWELL: Well, yes, one of my colleagues likes to say, "The Golden Rule is that all rumors about the Clintons are true". But I think ...

KURTZ: That's quite a journalistic standard.

CALDWELL: That's why I'm not going to tell you who said it. OK? But, no, I certainly don't think the gift story was pumped-up, because it fits a normal Clinton pattern. People are very interested to know what actually was the China that she got for this? Why don't we know for a fact that she got it from this Borsheims Store (ph) in Nebraska where she is reported to have received it. It'd be nice to know what they're reporting as a $190,000. One would like some assurance that it wasn't bought wholesale.

The Rich story is legitimate. This, I do think that it's worth going into and that Ari Fleischer has reasons, other than press spinning, for being circumspect about taking on the Clintons.

MARSHALL: But, I think the point is that I really don't think they were circumspect. He was circumspect in the things he said on camera, on the record.

KALB: But you don't have any proof of what was said on background, off the record. You're making a surmise. You don't have evidence.

MARSHALL: Well, I have seen published reports of reporters saying sources among the White House staff say this, say that, but no one going on the record. You're right, I don't know specifically Ari Fleischer, but I think I do know, if the public reports are to be trusted, that many White House staffers have been leaking this material like crazy, basically since Bush was sworn in.

KURTZ: OK. Well, it wouldn't be the first time that White House staffers have leaked information to the Press Corp. I take your point. Joshua Marshall and Chris Caldwell, thanks very much for joining us.

When we come back, a well-known politician making a major career change in Bernie's Back Page.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page," on someone in Washington who's undergoing a mid-life career change. Bernie?

KALB: Howie, the fellow I'm talking about had a pretty good job for the last eight years.


KALB (voice-over): And he had his eye on an even bigger job, but then something happened, something completely unexpected that dragged on for weeks, and finally somebody else got the job and he was suddenly unemployed.

So, he decided to go into a new line of work. Actually, it was an old line of work. He'd had some bylines once upon a time when he worked as an Army reporter in Vietnam and on a newspaper in Tennessee. But this time, this nonstop politician will be teaching journalism. Hey, what's going on here? A politico consorting with the enemy, maybe even spilling trade secrets? Is this an act of atonement or a cozying up to future journalists?

Well, we'll have to wait and see. But, meantime Al Gore will be a part-time professor at four schools, including Columbia University's School of Journalism, where the subject will be the news media and foreign policy, which may turn out to be his autobiography chopped into 50-minute segments.

For example, a course titled "A Politicians Guide to Bamboozling the Press".

AL GORE, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: There is no controlling legal authority.

KALB: Maybe a course called "How to Avoid Embarrassing Questions".

QUESTION: Mr. Vice-President...

KALB: The cartoon world is already spoofing the new professor. "The Six W's of Journalism", the last one being "W is a Dummy". Who knows, the professor may even give a course titled "Butterflies, Chads and the Future of the Republic", all of this taking place as the media sift through the electoral ruins in Florida.


KALB: The new professor makes his debut in the next few days. Of course, Gore at Columbia reminds us of someone who also took up temporary residence at Columbia before going on to become President of the United States. His name was Dwight D. Eisenhower.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb. Thanks.

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. Capitol Gang is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.

MARK SHIELDS, HOST, "THE CAPITAL GANG": Howie, we'll look at John Ashcroft, confirmed as Attorney General, reactions to fears of recession and George W. Bush's charm offensive. Former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bower joins us for that and much more, right here next on CNN.



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