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Reliable Sources

Are Bush's Speeches Analyzed More Than His Proposals?; Is the Media Allied Against Bush's Tax Cut?; Can the President Get Attention Amidst Clinton Scandals?

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


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The Bush budget. The new president gets his moment in the media spotlight. Are journalists giving more coverage to the theatrics of his speech than the details of his $2 trillion plan? Are the liberal media ganging up on Bush's big tax cut? And are the Clinton Chronicles and the Rodham Follies reducing the Bush presidency to a side-show?

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

For a new president, it was a politicians dream; every journalist in town watching, writing and talking about you and your plan for America.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I sensed a big man up on that stage. I mean big, weighty, with gravitas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Once again, he did exceed expectations and did a great job of selling his personality.


KURTZ (voice-over): For a brief moment, at least, the drought of Bush headlines was over.

The White House had carefully prepped reporters with morning briefings to the network anchors and big names, interviews with surrogates, early release of speech excerpts and then, a final copy of the speech handed out before the president began his address.

The post-game commentary was generally upbeat and a pack of reporters accompanied Bush as he launched a road-show to sell his tax cut plan.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Basically, last night George Bush became president. Would you agree with that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yeah. I do agree.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Buoyed up by that positive bump in the polls, the president this morning is on his way to Pennsylvania.


KURTZ: So, is the new president getting a fair share from the fourth estate? Has there been enough coverage of the substance of his budget as opposed to his 49-minute speech? And has there been a liberal tilt in the media's warnings about the tax cut.

Well, joining us now, Tom DeFrank, Washington bureau chief for "The New York Daily News" and Martha Brant, White House correspondent for "Newsweek" and Rich Lowry, the editor of "National Review." Welcome.

Rich Lowry, are the media, which you see as crawling with card- carrying liberals, treating Bush fairly on his speech and on his budget plan?

RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW: I thought he got very fair treatment on the speech and I think this is one of the rare cases in Washington where the conventional wisdom is basically right. He had had trouble with TelePrompTer in the past, he did just fine last night. But I also think he got rave reviews from the media because, again, he's benefiting from the condescension of the media. Still, a lot of reporters treat this guy as though he's just some boob who wondered out of the bleachers of some ballpark somewhere instead of someone who has been the governor of a major state and does just kind of fine in these events.

You know, we've had this kind of commentary in the run-ups to the debates, "Oh, he's going to get slaughtered." We had it in the run-up to the inaugural address, "Oh, can he step up to the plate."

KURTZ: Low expectations.

LOWRY: Low expectations.

KURTZ: We're still hearing about it.

LOWRY: And this is one of the reasons, I mean, he benefits from that. He benefits form the condescension. And that's why, in certain respects, the Bush's have played that up. Prior to the Gore debate, Carl Rove said, "Oh, we just want to survive."

So, there is a benefit to them having the media ...


LOWRY: ... portray him of someone who is just not capable of this stuff.

KURTZ: Theater criticism aside, Tom DeFrank, when there are reports in news stories that Bush's budget numbers don't add up. That the debt may not be able to be paid down. That some of these massive surpluses may not materialize over 10 years. Is that ideological or is that skeptical reporting? RICH LOWRY, TOM DEFRANK, CHIEF, WASHINGTON BUREAU, THE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS: Well, it's probably a combination of both. I think it is skeptical reporting, but it is partially ideological, Howard ...

KURTZ: In the sense that reporters are skeptical or are politically skeptical of a tax cut that the Democrats say is tilted toward the wealthy?

DEFRANK: Well, that's exactly right. That's part of it. But I still think that Bush has gotten more than a fair ride in the early going. This was a State of the Union speech even though they didn't call it that and that's the one time of the year where a president, any president, even a president in trouble like Clinton, commands center stage. Everybody's got to react to him. Everybody's got to focus on him.

And Bush, I think, made the most of it and the reporters, I think, were falling all over themselves. The commentary -- I think he did a pretty good job, but I think the commentary was almost, was so gushing as almost to be patronizing at times.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Well, I think the president should be getting that media attention and prior to Tuesday, in my view, the media shortchanged him. What think you?

MARTHA BRANT, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, NEWSWEEK: I think we didn't shortchange if he wasn't interesting and Clinton, frankly, is the more interesting story.

KALB: Yeah, but he's the president...

KURTZ: Well, putting Clinton aside. You're a White House correspondent, you are in on trick.

BRANT: Right. Right.

KURTZ: Even though he's president, does Bush have a responsibility to make some kind of news everyday to prompt stories on the air and in print, or, you know, do we not need to do that?

BRANT: Well, part of the problem is that the criticism, the current criticism of Bush is that he's style over substance. And we've seen that again with his budget, which was kind of not filled in yet. We'll see in April what it really looks like. But Bush, he really does go out there and he charms us.

He, on the road this weeks, on Wednesday, he was his old campaign self. They brought back the Billy Ray Cyrus songs. They brought back some of the old lines. It's hard to write more about him when they stay on agenda so well and, to their credit, they've really stayed on message. But it's -- you can't get a lot more in ...

KALB: But that's essentially, you are volunteering to say there's kind of an editorial seduction scene. That if you surrender to his charm, charm is like hemlines. Some years they're short and some years they're long. And after awhile you can be bored to death with charm, which raises the question, the question that bothers me, editorial misjudgment and have you shortchanged the president prior to Tuesday night?

As Howie said, isn't -- does he really have to make page one news to be out there?

KURTZ: You want to jump in here?

LOWRY: Well, on the question of how the tax cuts are regarded, I do think there -- you do see a bias in the way they're characterized constantly as massive. And you never hear spending increases characterized as massive. Last year we had an 8 percent increase in the federal budget. Where were the headlines about what a massive spending increase this was? That just wasn't there, because reporters don't think in those terms.

KURTZ: $1.6 trillion is modest?

LOWRY: Well, look, as a percentage of the economy, it is smaller than Reagan's, it's smaller than JFK's, so there's an argument about how big it is.

But, the point is, spending increases are never characterized in those terms.

KURTZ: Tom DeFrank, the Bush team, and particularly Vice President Cheney, have been doing a lot of interviews off and on satellite, with local TV stations and radio stations around the country to sell the tax cut. The first time that President Bush had reporters in, he had regional reporters from places like "The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel" and "The Albuquerque Journal."

In doing this, it's smart politics, every White House does it to some degree. But is the Bush White House, in your view, circumventing, or trying to circumvent, the beltway media?

DEFRANK: Well, there's no doubt that they're doing it and there's no doubt they're doing it with malice of forethought. I think all of us ...

KURTZ: Malice?

DEFRANK: Malice of forethought. It's premeditated. I think Martha could probably tell you a couple of stories. All of us who covered the campaign can tell you some stories about how in unguarded moments, maybe over a second or a third drink, you'd get, some of us would just get hammered about being "you Washington beltway reporters" and, I mean, there is a school of thought in the White House that says, in the Bush White House, even -- ironically, you know, Bush works really hard to charm reporters and has pretty good personal relationships with a lot of reporters, but there's a school of thought in the Bush White House that the Washington media crowd is trouble.

KURT: Big trouble. Do you feel stiffed?

KALB: It's deja vu all over again. BRANT: They definitely are jumping over us, which they did in the campaign as well. But I found more interesting his first press conference. They gave us an hours notice.

KALB: Right.

BRANT: Now, Clinton gave us, not to obsess about Clinton, but he gave us at least a days notice, a day-and-a-half notice. And that is, back to what Rich was saying, the low expectations. It's very much a concentrated effort to keep us from having formal interactions with him. He's much -- he did very well in his formal speech the other night, but he doesn't do well in an impromptu situation. And so by giving only an hours notice, we couldn't prep. We couldn't come up with the pointed questions that would get him to really respond to things.

KALB: Help me out on that. Do you really need more than an hour, really, to shape up a question that's been hanging around on your mind. If he ducked you for a month, you really need more than an hour to assault, journalistically?

BRANT: I think if you, if you are working on a story and you need to come in with all the ammunition that you need, and plus you need to get there. Frankly, I was in the middle of an interview when I got the beep and I -- look, he's trying to have an informal presidency, but it's a studied informal ...

KALB: But that was, that was an ambush, which it was.

LOWRY: You're complaining about impromptu interactions, but you can't come up with impromptu interaction yourself?

BRANT: My, well, my point is that I, you know, look, I personally had a little bit of a hard time with it because I was way across town doing an interview and, yeah, I would have liked a little bit more notice. And maybe it's a personal beef that I've got with the guy, but I ...

KURTZ: Yeah, just briefly.

DEFRANK: Very briefly, the bottom-line is the White Houses view of the press corp is either an opportunity to be exploited or a pitfall to be avoided. Clinton viewed the press as an opportunity to be exploited by him and he did it pretty well.

This White House, I think, takes the view that the press is a pitfall to be avoided.

KURTZ: An obstacle. OK. Now, speaking of that news conference, the first one the president has held, there was a moment where President Bush was pressed by Helen Thomas, a long-time UPI veteran who is now a columnist, about federal funding of faith-based organizations. Let's take a look.


HELEN THOMAS, WASHINGTON COLUMNIST, HEARST NEWSPAPERS: Neither of you appears to respect the wall between the church and state?

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Helen, I strongly respect the separation of church and state. What ...

THOMAS: You wouldn't have a religious office in the White House if you did.

BUSH: I didn't get to finish my answer, in all due respect. I ...

THOMAS: You are a secular official.

BUSH: I agree, I am a secular official.


KURTZ: Rich Lowry, was Helen Thomas being rude?

LOWRY: Of course she was. I know we're all supposed to regard her as this cute, you know, dean of the Washington press corp, but that wasn't a question of any sort. It was just rank editorializing and not even very intelligent editorializing.

KALB: Can I enter a dissent there? I don't think Helen Thomas was being rude. It all depends on what the definition of rude is, et cetera, et cetera.

But all of us have been subjected, as reporters, to barrages of boilerplate coming from a president or a Senator or an official and so forth. And all of us occasionally erupt and say, "Look, let's go right to the point Mr. President. Is there or is there not..." et cetera. And I think Helen, in her own way, should be applauded for not patiently waiting out a long response and busting right in and I'm for more break-ins, quite frankly.

DEFRANK: Well, I love Helen. She's done me a million favors over the years and, but, I think she went over the line, just a little bit, in the editorializing. I do not think for a moment she was rude.

KURTZ: Well, taking Bernie's advice, I'm going to break right in. One last question to Rich Lowry. Martha Brant's point about Bush is not always making news. When you're going out selling the same program day after day, the reporters get bored. Do you think that is a problem for this White House? That this may not be the most stimulating presidency?

LOWRY: Well, yeah, it is a problem in a way. I mean, I basically agree with their viewpoint. I think the Washington press corp deserves to be hopped over, but they do need to, I think, take a little more care in tending and placing stories with folks. Because otherwise you just get a bored and disgruntled press corp which becomes even worse over time.

KURTZ: You may not think much of the press corp, but you got to feed the best.

LOWRY: Right.

KURTZ: OK. Well, let us know what you think: are reporters too tough or too timid with the new president? E-mail us a

Well, more RELIABLE straight ahead as we take a look at this week's Clinton scandal and how it's still playing in the media.


KURTZ: Welcome back to Reliable Sources.

The story that just won't die was front and center again on Thursday.


PETER JENNINGS, ANCHOR, "ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT": We begin on Capitol Hill tonight. Three former advisers to President Clinton were there today to testify about the Marc Rich pardon.


KURTZ: Ex-White House Chief of Staff John Podesta and two other former Clinton aides were among those who testified before Congressman Dan Burton's committee.

But the real drama came when a democratic fund-raiser and central figure in the pardon probes took the Fifth.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Upon the advice of my counsel, I respectfully decline to answer that question based on the protection afforded me under the United States Constitution.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Let me ask you this. Will that be your response to all our questions?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sir, that will be my response to all questions.


KURTZ: Martha Brant, this story does not run out of gas. It's "The National Enquirer" on Hugh Rodham, "The New York Times" on Tony Rodham, the White House aides, former, saying, "Gee, I said it was a really bad, no good, horrible idea."

Have we reached a point where the focus on Bill Clinton, who I call the media's president for life, is shortchanging the Bush administration?

BRANT: I think definitely this week we're seeing it. Bush has been out trying to sell his budget, trying to sell himself as true leader and chief, and he's still not getting the play that he wants to get.

Up until this point, they've really benefited from it and, in fact, I was understanding that the Bush press conference was timed somewhat coincidentally, or not, right next to Hillary Rodham Clinton's press conference ...

KURTZ: She's still cursed about the pardons.

BRANT: Exactly.

KURTZ: Suddenly the hastily arranged ...

BRANT: And, drawing that contrast and trying to show Bush as a new kind of president, they thought was really going to help him. But now it's overshadowing him.

KALB: Rich, I won't take the fifth. But, let me ask you this. The Clinton coverage: too much, too little or, to paraphrase your remark that's in the news these days, just right?

LOWRY: Oh, it probably is just about right. I mean, it's a fascinating story and it's also ...

KALB: I mean, I know it gives you no pain.

LOWRY: Right. Well, it's fascinating. It's also important. I mean, this is an abuse of power. But I think Clinton does have some justification for feeling ill-used. Because for eight years, whatever he did, you know, whether it was impeachment, the media echo-chamber blamed Ken Starr. Fund-raising scandals, the media echo-chamber jumped on Dan Burton. And here, finally, there's no other fall guy except for him and that has to be a new and shocking experience for him.

DEFRANK: On the other hand, I mean, this was the president, former president, who five weeks ago was saying, "I'm not going anywhere. I'm not, you know, I'm not leaving." And now he's saying, "I just want to get on with my life." As George Bush, the first, might have said, don't cry for me Argentina.

KURTZ: Tom DeFrank, who's more important to "The New York Daily News," Hillary Clinton or George W. Bush?

DEFRANK: Hillary Rodham Clinton without a doubt. I mean, she's not only our senator, but she's the focal point of much of our coverage out of Washington. Right now, she's -- I mean, it's no contest at the moment.

KURTZ: But we're talking about the president of the United States.

DEFRANK: But we're also talking about a hometown paper with the rookie Senator from New York up to her elbows in scandal taint herself. It's a great story, a great story nationally, but it's an even greater story for us.

BRANT: I didn't think I'd have to fight to get stories in on Bush, but I do.

KURTZ: Really?

BRANT: Oh, sure. Absolutely ...

KURTZ: Because so much of the real estate has been given away to the former president?

BRANT: It's what's interesting. It's what's in the news. And, you know, frankly, we try to do stories on the president but sometimes we just can't get them in.

KALB: Martha, what might get spiked because the space is going -- what might get spiked about Bush because the space is going to Clinton, for example?

BRANT: Well, for example, going out on the campaign with him, again, campaign redacts, this week on the budget. I don't know if it's enough just to write about feel good, him charming people and charming the press and his continued charm offensive. That might not make it past the bar that we need in order to make it a story.

LOWRY: But he's never going to provide the kind of soap opera that Bill Clinton did and I think this was predictable, in a way, because Bush, I mean, he has a humbler view of himself and of his office. So, I think that it was inevitable that he'd be sucking up less of the media oxygen. Because I think that has to -- it's just basically his temperament and his style and his view of politics.

KURTZ: But, as a long-time Clinton critic, Rich Lowry, do you have any view on watching what you might regard as elements of the liberal party sort of turning on their guy? I mean, I was really struck a few days ago by a column by Bob Herbert, very level columnist from "The New York Times," just savaging Clinton. I could have read that in "The National Review."

LOWRY: Oh, yeah. It was extraordinary. I think he used the phrase dangerously corrupt to describe Bill Clinton. And to me, this is a cynical interpretation, but I think a justified one ...

KURTZ: Oh, go ahead.

LOWRY: A justified one, is the guy is no longer in power and having him disgraced and jumping on him now has no downside political risk because it's not going to directly benefit Tom DeLay or all these Republicans the media hates, hates more than they do Bill Clinton's tawdriness and corruption. So ...

KURTZ: In other words, it's safe to attack Bill Clinton now.

LOWRY: It's totally safe. To me, that's the only thing that explains the total change in atmosphere.

KALB: Is it so safe, Rich, that you could possibly believe that Midtown was his second choice?


LOWRY: No, that's obviously, yeah, absurd.

DEFRANK: He wanted to be near The Russian Tea Room, not near Harlem. But, Harlem was a brilliant second choice, but it was a second choice.

KURTZ: Well, I want to predict that President Bush will find a way to break back into the news. He does, after all, have 3 years and 11 months to go on his term.

Tom DeFrank, Rich Lowry, Martha Brant, thanks very much for joining us.

Coming up next, "Bernie's Back Page."


KURTZ: And time now for "The Back Page." Bernie.

KALB: Every now and then, Washington is treated to the drama of a legend colliding with reality. Well, we've just been treated to such a drama.


KALB (voice-over): It centers on the new Secretary of State and the early media reviews are now beginning to come in based on his performance in the Middle East.

This was the first trip to a region famous for challenging one Secretary of State after another. But he, too, is famous, an American success story. A charismatic hero, only a few years ago ballyhooed in the media as a presidential possibility.

Now it was Colin Powell, not as a warrior, but as Mr. Secretary. He made the mandatory stops: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Kuwait. He pushed for peace and a new sanctions policy against the country he helped defeat in the Gulf War 10 yeas ago, that event commemorated this past week.

But in the course of Secretary Powell's first trip overseas, something happened in the media. If Powell the legend had seemed untouchable, Powell the diplomat was now fair game, and the early assessments of his encounter with the Middle East are mixed.

"The New York Times," "an impressive start." By contrast, this "Washington Post" foreign affairs column, "where PR won't cut it."

Even before Powell returned, "Newsweek" ran a five-page piece headlined "Colin Powell, Behind the Myth and His Many Mis-judgements in a Long Career."


KALB: Obviously, this is not the final word on Powell, the Secretary of State. Just the opposite. He still has at least four more years in the job and the world can be relied on to produce lots of crises to test his talents.

But what is interesting is that the media is now reporting on Powell with a splash of realism rather than simply nourishing the legend with superlatives.

KURTZ: The legendary Bernard Kalb. Thanks.

Coming up, who's hot and who's not in our RELIABLE SOURCES "Media Items."


KURTZ: Time for a check on our RELIABLE SOURCES "Media Items of the Week."

"Washingtonian" magazine sent a belated valentine to NBC bureau chief and "Meet the Press" host, Tim Russert. He topped the list of Washington's 50 best and most influential journalists, followed by "The Washington Posts'" Bob Woodward, ABC's Ted Koppel, "The Washington Post" columnist David Broder and columnist Maureen Dowd of "The New York Times."

So, who cares about these lists anyway? Alright, I came in at a mere number 25.

And "George" magazine is saying good-bye with it's farewell issue this month. Inside, another list. This one, the 50 most powerful people in politics. No. 1, fed chairman Alan Greenspan followed by Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell. This guy, the president, finally shows up in slot No. 4. And Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, No. 5. NBC's Russert pops up on that list too, No. 25.

Fewer minority correspondents on network evening newscasts last year, says the Center for Media and Public Affairs. White reporters covered 80 percent of the stories and 76 percent of the people holding the microphone are men.

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.



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