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Reliable Sources

Is the Media Overplaying Cheney's Health Problems?; Can Cameras Pull Away From Clinton?

Aired March 10, 2001 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The Cheney health scare. Are journalists overplaying the story? Is the White House holding back the facts? And should the media be speculating about a new vice president?

And, is cable addicted to Clinton? James Carville and Mike Murphy square off on coverage of the ex-president.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where we turn a critical lens on the media.

I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb.

We'll get to the Dick Cheney story in just a minute, but first, here to talk about the seemingly endless Clinton coverage are two sharp observers and sometimes sharp critics of how reporters do their jobs. Democratic strategist and longtime Clinton friend and adviser, James Carville, and Republican strategist and former John McCain consigliere, Mike Murphy. Welcome.

James Carville, everyone knows you're a diehard Clinton loyalist. But even you can't possibly sit there and tell us that the pardon scandal is not important; that it's somehow being over covered.

JAMES CARVILLE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Well, sure I could tell you it's being over covered. But is it a legitimate story, to say, pardon, is it legitimate to question his judgment in this? Of course it is. But, I mean, it's just gone to crazy, insane lengths. And the problem that we have here is we have a press that wants to cover a former president and doesn't want to cover the current president.

So, anything that the former president does gets -- there's sort of hyperbole gets out of hand here, but it's not ...

KURTZ: But even if cable television, which I know you've been critical of, is squeezing every last ratings point out of this Clinton story, it's got abuse of power, big donors, it's got payoffs to relatives. It's a hell of a story.

CARVILLE: I don't think it has -- I don't think it has, I don't know about it has abuse of power. It may very well, in some people's views, have poor judgment. That is a fair thing. Look, we're in politics. It is completely legitimate and fair to question somebody's judgment on this. KURTZ: But ...

CARVILLE: But, all of this other, this craziness and, as I've pointed out before, if it was for big donors he would have certainly pardoned Milken who, Ron Burkle and people have given, you know, literally millions and millions of dollars to the president's support and begged him to do.

I don't have a -- what I do have a problem with is the complete crazed coverage of the whole thing.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Mike, is it true? Has the media gone overboard on this? James is indicting the media for wild excess in this particular case and the word fugitive has not crossed his lips.

Now, you're a Republican heavy-hitter. You're Republican artillery. Tell me how deeply you disagree with Carville.

MIKE MURPHY, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: No, James is working hard, here, and the truth is, I think the media ...

KALB: I'm going to lean back and you two guys ...

MURPHY: In the steel cage, right? What I believe is the media over covers everything, so this is only fair. The fact is, it's an irresistible story, Howie's right. You have essentially a pardon orgy in the White House the last week. You have big money going to relatives. You have creepy international financiers. You've got guys who do hair tonic rip-offs through direct mail getting pardoned. I'm personally mad about that, baldness cures that don't work.

But, so, you combine all these things together, it is an irresistible story, and the only thing that's irritating the Republican's about it is that Clinton's shadow of troublemaking is so long, it is getting in the way of our message a little bit.

KURTZ: But, you're acting like Republicans

MURPHY: But I have to imagine we're not really complaining ...

KURTZ: Hold it. Hold on. You're acting like Republicans are passive observers here. The media follow political combat.


KURTZ: And Republicans are holding hearings and trying to drag this thing out for journalistic consumption. True or false?

MURPHY: I think they're holding hearings because he did a bad thing and we're very happy the media is covering it. I believe that.

CARVILLE: He may -- again, I can't say, as opposed to idiotic sex investigations that they had, that this is not a legitimate thing, to question a guy's judgment. That's not what, that's not my point.

KALB: You're argument has to do with excess, journalistic zeal, over done.

CARVILLE: It's not, it's just, look, cable TV exists because of Bill Clinton. It dies without Bill Clinton. I mean, let's just be honest here. They can't -- Bill Clinton is the crack cocaine of, maybe not CNN, but a large part of CNN and a lot of, a lot of other people. When he goes, when this thing goes, these guys die. I mean, they just die.

KURTZ: You think these programs will just go off the air?

CARVILLE: They'll go off the air. They're getting stressed marks now. There's just, there's nothing left of them. This morning I was listening to, this week I was listening to Don Imus and he had David Gregory of NBC on there talking about the tax cut. And he finally, he said, shut up, nobody cares.

MURPHY: Yeah, but who would be the perfect coverage? Like, a thought-filled op-ed piece somewhere in, you know, "MacNeil/Lehrer Report"? I mean, it's front page news.

KALB: You're turning, you're turning the whole argument in some sort of a circus, a journalistic circus. And in fact, it is not.

CARVILLE: Yes, well of course not ...

KALB: It is serious. Behind your high velocity argument, Jim, there's a serious issue at work here, the question of pardons, that are justified ...

CARVILLE: But how many times ...

KALB: Hang on, just a minute. The question of pardons that are justified. Now, we've taken a look at Bush Senior's pardons before he stepped down, and he did them on Christmas Day, and he dealt with people who were involved in policy, and I'm not condoning any steps they may have taken to break the law.

But, you're not dealing with the same, how shall I put it, quality of pardonees now and then.

CARVILLE: Wait a minute. Just hold on a second, here. You know, Bush could do anything he wanted because he wasn't that interesting. Armand Hammer was a Soviet spy? OK? Casper Weinberg was getting ready to subpoena diaries and things like this ...

KURTZ: This is the everybody-does-it argument.

CARVILLE: Look, it's not the everybody-does-it argument. Understand what I'm saying. I'm saying it's legitimate to question this. I didn't say it was not a legitimate story.

KALB: So, your indictment is excess?

CARVILLE: It's just the crazed excess of the whole thing and the truth of the mater is, and I said there's no fundamental democratic principle at stake, as E.J. Dionne said in a column, on pardoning Marc Rich.

Now, the president has a case to make. He has reasons why he did it. It is fair to say that the reasons are not as good as the reasons not to do it.

KURTZ: Let me break -- let me turn to Mike Murphy, because, doesn't George W. Bush have a problem? Not just that he's being overshadowed by the former president but, I mean, the vice president, Dick Cheney, gets more coverage than Bush. Even before his health problem this week, his heart scare, you know, front page story on USA TODAY, "Cheney, the Power of the Administration".

MURPHY: Well, one of the frustrations when you're president is you can't control the media. You try to set a policy agenda and push it forward. The Bush ...

KURTZ: But you've got an awfully megaphone.

MURPHY: Yeah, and I think he's doing well with it. We're talking about tax cuts, winning Republican issue. I think the president is having a fantastic start. His poll numbers are through the roof. But, when you have a former president with this pardon insanity and you have a press that's going to cover Cheney because they're looking for a way to be critical of the president, that's what they always do and Cheney is kind of an angle in on that. It's natural.

What you do in the White House is you try to focus your message and keep going. But I want to engage James on something here. What is the excess? I mean, this story grows every day because there's a new wrinkle every day.

CARVILLE: It doesn't grow every day ...

MURPHY: We find a new relative, we find new money, we find a new ...

CARVILLE: It is, let me tell you what's happening here. The call of 370 electoral votes roll and said 90 million people were going to watch Bush's speech, OK? It turned out to be 38 million.

KURTZ: But you usually, in the past ...

CARVILLE: Hold on, hold on.

MURPHY: Hold the front page for that ...


CARVILLE: No, I'm not holding the front page, I'm saying ...

KURTZ: In the past -- one second. In the past, you have come on television and you've attacked Ken Starr. You've attacked ...

CARVILLE: How can I go attacking people ...

KURTZ: You have nobody to attack in this story, so you beat up on the media.

CARVILLE: How many times do I have to say, it's a legitimate story ...


CARVILLE: ... that I think has been over covered. I think Ken Starr was a zealous guy chasing a nothing thing. OK? I can't sit here and say it's not fair commentary to criticize a pardon. That's a matter of policy. That's a matter of judgment on the part of a president. But, I think it's fair -- I think it's ludicrous to say that he did it for campaign contributions, all this other stuff. Alright? There's a difference here and if somebody in this town, excuse me, I don't really -- somebody in the city of Washington tries to say, "Look, this is a legitimate observation." As opposed to that, they're saying, "Oh, aha! You're not really defending Clinton."

No, I'll defend Clinton, but I can't criticize people ...

MURPHY: You can't defend him. It's indefensible. That's the problem. That's why you're having a hard time with it.

KALB: Let me take it in a slightly different way. Is the media shortchanging President Bush by surrendering so much real estate to the Clinton pardons?

MURPHY: No. No, it's a big country and ...

KALB: In other words, let me sharpen my question. Is there an editorial misjudgment, because so much space is going to Clinton, and we do have a president, his name is George Bush, and let's get him covered even if he is not worthy of page-one news. He is the president.

MURPHY: No, I actually think we're covering both pretty well. It's a big country, we can handle both stories. And then the stories that enter into the contract is good for Bush.


CARVILLE: No, of course, of course not. And let me just say this, on this idiotic tax cut. The media keeps perpetrating a lie. They keep putting it's a $1.6 trillion tax cut when they know full well it's a $2.3 trillion tax cut. They don't ...

KURTZ: I've got to pull some muscle there. We're out of town. James CARVILLE. Mike Murphy. Thanks very much for joining us.

And when we come back, Dick Cheney and his heart problems. Are the media getting the whole story?



Word of fresh heart problems for the vice president accelerated the pulse of hundreds of journalists.


JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: In our late breaking developments coming to us, we understand that Vice President Dick Cheney has been admitted to a hospital in Washington, D.C.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Vice President Dick Cheney has been hospitalized for heart tests.

KURTZ (voice-over): Before long, some reporters complained that the Bush White House was again downplaying and delaying medical information. But the vice president insisted that everything was fine.

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm 60 years old. I have a history of coronary artery disease, but I very much enjoy my job and am having a very good time. I don't consider it stressful, but I'm willing to live with those circumstances. I have for a very long time.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Jill Zuckman, chief congressional correspondent for "The Chicago Tribune" and Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for "The Washington Post."

As you were covering the story, Dana Milbank, did you conclude that the White House was being less than forthcoming with the facts?

DANA MILBANK, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yeah, it's always a little disturbing when the newsroom finds out about something when it just, you see ambulances flashing up on the screen on MSNBC. But, yeah, it was, it was quite strange because, as it turned out, he was having this incident since Saturday. Four incidents of chest pain and we only found out, I asked Ari Fleischer what happened here and he said, "Well, until he went to the hospital it wasn't public information."

KURTZ: Of course, he said on "LATE EDITION" on Sunday that he felt fine, but some of these chest pain incidents, I'm told, may not have been that serious. Of course, he had made plans to go to the hospital.

KALB: Jill, I don't want to be too anatomical, but why is it always like pulling teeth to get information about the heart?

JILL ZUCKMAN, CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "CHICAGO TRIBUNE": Well, you know, I think that the White House doesn't want to scare anyone. They're worried about how the markets are going to react and they don't want to get overblown.

But I think the problem is, by keeping information back and being slow to put it out, it makes it very serious and every feels upset that things are being kept from the public. KALB: Let me go back to a basic question. Cheney's medical profile has not been released en toto. He has decided not to do that. Should not there be a media insistence that that in fact be released, given the position he holds, one heartbeat away, et cetera?

ZUCKMAN: Well, you know, I think a lot of reporters have asked for it, but what more can you do? You can't sue for it. All you can do is ask, and they keep saying no. And I think other presidents have put that information out and, unfortunately, Cheney just didn't go through the vetting process that other candidates for vice president did.

KURTZ: Of course, one of the things the press can do is to make an issue out of it ...

KALB: Yes.

KURTZ: Day after day ...

KALB: Exactly.

KURTZ: The press hasn't done that. And this has happened with other presidents. I mean, FDR had a stroke, the public wasn't told and then in the last months of his life Jack Kennedy had Addison's disease. Would you agree, Dana Milbank, that the press is being a little too passive about this?

MILBANK: Well, I'm ...

KURTZ: Or has that now changed?

MILBANK: I'm not sure there's a lot we can do. Plus, we know the guy's not in good shape and nobody can predict what will happen. I mean, we can look at actuarial sort of tables here. So, I suggest that perhaps we'd want to have a permanent EKG on his finger, or something, that would go to a Web site, perhaps, and we could just, all of us, monitor his heart every minute. But short of that, I'm not sure what else we can do.

KURTZ: But once Dick Cheney checked into the hospital, was the White House then releasing facts or was ...

MILBANK: Even then, it was ...

KURTZ: ... or was it even still frustrating?

MILBANK: What was astonishing was this was always a precautionary, non-emergency procedure. Then you found out, the doctors got on and I think, to their credit, gave us a very detailed explanation. But even after that, I said are you still calling this precautionary? I mean, he had his heart artery reopened. And they said, nope, they would consider that precautionary in the White House. That was extremely surprising. I think whenever your heart arteries are being reopened, that's not precautionary.

KALB: To their credit, the media did a pretty good job once Cheney was in the hospital, diagraming what was taking the place, the way the stent operates. And we all became sort of cardiac specialists for 15 or 20 minutes.

But to pick up the point, why is there not made, Howie's point, about a media tattoo or a steady drumbeat to make an issue of the question of the full medical report on the vice president?

ZUCKMAN: Well, I can't really ...

KALB: And that comes up in a variety of ways. Why does he media abandon possible cause celebe, so to speak, that are information the public should know?

ZUCKMAN: My guess is you'll see a number of Sunday stories this weekend about what happened this past week. And we'll see a little bit more on it. But unless there's something new happening every day, I mean, it's hard to keep writing about it.

MILBANK: You know, Bernie, we know that we can say there's a one-in-10 chance that the vice president will die of this during his term, just because people that have that condition. We know there's a 40 to 50 percent likelihood this thing will recur in a few months. But beyond that, we know as much as anybody else does, and that is he has a bad ticker and something could go wrong here. But I don't know what more specifics would really help us.

KURTZ: Well, Jill Zuckman, in light of the media drama surrounding this whole week -- in fact, Cheney's gotten more coverage than Bush, I think, probably at any time since the inauguration. Is the press overplaying the story of Cheney as super-vice-president, the utterly indispensable man, more important, almost, than the president? I mean, isn't that why there's so much interest in this story?

ZUCKMAN: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Because he has been made out to be such an incredibly important figure in this administration, that he's got staff that no other vice president every had. That there's National Security staff who are right under him instead of just being in the National Security office.

KURTZ: You don't think that's overplayed by the press? You think it's an accurate reflection of reality?

ZUCKMAN: No, I don't. I think it's an accurate reflection that he is an incredibly important, substantial figure in this administration who is looked to, probably, a number of people.

KALB: Dana, I haven't done absolute arithmetic on this, but I have a feeling the columnists have shortchanged the subject of Cheney and his heart. We've seen one or two pieces, even one piece by Arianna Huffington suggesting that the vice president resign, but I haven't seen columnists worked up into a great lather on this and I think that is a subject that they ought to deal with. Jill?

ZUCKMAN: Well, you know, I guess maybe everybody's treading a little lightly. Because you don't want to say, "Oh my God, what if this man dies." I mean, I think that that's a kind of delicate subject. I think people are worried about it, but, you know, maybe it's going to take one more incident before the floodgates open.

KURTZ: Yeah, you don't want to appear obviously unsympathetic to Dick Cheney.

Dana, the rush to speculate, which happened so much in the 48 hours, about a possible successor to the vice president. "The Boston Globe" said Colin Powell. "Slate" magazine said Don Munsdell (ph). Did any of that strike you as a bit unseemly, even ghoulish?

MILBANK: Yeah. We just chose not to do it at the post, talked about that idea, and it's something that anybody would think about. In fact, in sort of the clipping services in town, we're actually listing all the possibilities that were mentioned and conspiracy theories all over the web. The truth is ...

KURTZ: Is it not a logical political question to ask?

MILBANK: It's a question that can be asked. It's not something, obviously, it's not something that's imminent. And the truth is, I have a genuine sense that it's not something that's actively being discussed in the White House, so I don't see why we should be discussing it since it's not a serious topic right now anyway.

KURTZ: Well, we'll discuss it no more here, but we might discuss it in a couple of weeks. Dana Milbank, Jill Zuckman, thanks very much for joining us.

We received hundreds of e-mails with wide disagreement on our question about whether reporters are too timid or too touch toward the new president.

From Barrington, Rhode Island, "there's no such thing as too tough a question."

From Carmel, California, "reporters are neither too timid nor too rude, they are just too biased, liberal."

And finally, a view e-mails, "I think reporters are neither too timid or too tough. I am most times embarrassed for the reporter for asking stupid and long-winded questions."

Up next, the back page with a look at cartoon journalism.


KURTZ: An update of the "Profit of Doom" cartoon in this week's "New Yorker", this one telling us the end of the Clinton news cycle is almost here, almost.

What we do have here is "The Back Page" -- Bernie.

KALB: You never know what you're going to run into these days when you pick up a magazine.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) KALB (voice-over): For example, open this one and you think you're in the world of comic books, right? Wrong. You're in the world of "TIME Magazine" No comic book, "TIME," and yet here are all those familiar squares and balloons, four pages worth.

But this isn't Superman or Batman or the other comic book heroes. In fact, this is deadly serious, focusing on the blood stained town of Hebron in the West Bank and "the sparks that arise when two people who hate each other rub together."

Quite a contrast to the way other international news stories are presented, with the usual text and photographs, and this immediately raises some questions. Why in the world would you use a comic book approach to tell a story that could involve war or peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Does this approach trivialize the life and death issues of international affairs or does it grab the reader whose rifling through the magazine?

Well, as one "TIME Magazine" editor put it, the magazine is experimenting, taking a risk, hoping to catch the eyes of readers who might otherwise bypass this story if it were told in the traditional way.

This kind of imagery may be new to "Time's" foreign affair section, not so to the comic strip journalist who got the assignment, Joe Sacco, who has done several very serious books in this style, his latest being "Safe Area Gorazde" about the horrors he witnessed in Bosnia. In fact, one of the great classics of this genre was first published in 1973, the Pulitzer Prize winning "Maus" by Art Spiegelman, about his father's struggle to survive in Hitler's Europe.


KALB: But, to get back to "TIME" magazine, if the comic book approach catches on and does wonders for circulation, well, how long do you think it will be before we start seeing, say, "The New York Times" looking like this.

KURTZ: Bernard Kalb, thanks.

And coming up next, a frequent RELIABLE SOURCES guest seeking political office?



UNIDENTIFIED MALE Late into the night, outside the school, student's urged motorists to honk their horns to disrupt TV coverage, urging the media to leave town.


KURTZ: After the California school shooting, a reminder of how quickly reporters wear out their welcome. In other RELIABLE SOURCES media items this week, we had Rich Lowry on the program last week and somehow he never got around to mentioning that he's thinking of running for mayor of New York City.

No joke, the 32-year-old editor of "National Review" is in serious discussions with New York's Conservative Party about making a bid. Lowry say's he wants to make sure conservative ideas are heard, just as his mentor, William F. Buckley did, in running for mayor back in 1965.

Lowry admits he doesn't have much hope, make that zero hope, of actually winning.

Finally, among those successfully hitting up Bill Clinton for Presidential pardons, Walter Cronkite, on behalf of a Texas banker convicted of taking kickbacks. And yes, that's the way it is.

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.



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