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Are the Media Campaigning for Campaign Finance Reform?; Network Executive Says TV Tunes Out Stories About Minorities

Aired March 24, 2001 - 6:30 p.m. ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Showdown in the Senate. Are the media campaigning for campaign finance reform? Is John McCain getting favorable treatment? Are arguments about the First Amendment getting short shrift?

And, a veteran network executive says TV is tuning out stories about minorities.

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

I'm Howard Kurtz, along with Bernard Kalb.

Media issue number one this week has been campaign finance reform, and as the big debate over big money plays out in the Senate, there's been big time coverage as well.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Back on Capitol Hill, another huge battled joined over the influence of interest groups and their big money contributions to political parties.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's the sixth time in six years Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold are trying to get reform of the nation's campaign finance laws through Congress.

KURTZ (voice-over): A year ago, journalists were tripping over each other to sing the praises of John McCain and his plan to clean up campaigns. Now McCain is back, still a media darling. He was on all three network morning shows this week, unchallenged by opponents of the McCain-Feingold measure.

Television, meanwhile, hasn't focused much on how the broadcasting business has raked in the soft money bucks, perhaps as $1 billion for campaign ads last year.

But McCain's crusade may resonate more strongly with the press than with the public.

PETER JENNINGS, HOST, "ABC WORLD NEWS TONIGHT": People favor the concept, but it is not their highest priority, and most people, in our polls, at least, doubt that it will be effective. (END VIDEOTAPE)

KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Rich Lowry, the editor of "National Review", Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for "Time" magazine and Ron Brownstein, political correspondent for "The Los Angeles Times" and an analyst for CNN.

Rich Lowry, do you see most journalists as cheerleading with varying degrees of enthusiasm for John McCain and campaign finance reform?

RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Oh, yeah, absolutely. You know, the tenor of those questions on the morning shows were more or less, "John McCain, what's it feel like to be an angel walking among us?" you know, "Is it difficult putting on a halo every day before you go to work?"

And, the way I think about this, you know, if someone were on the Senate floor with a bill saying "The New York Times" couldn't publish sixty days before an election or CBS couldn't broadcast 60 days before an election, there'd be howls of outrage.

And the press is typically very sensitive to any First Amendment issues because it's the freedom we all rely on to do our work. But it's absent here which, you know, leads me very reluctantly to conclude that there's a pro-McCain bias at work.

KURTZ: You seem reluctant indeed.

Ron Brownstein, you may not share Rich Lowry's indictment of one side of this, but haven't many journalists, who've written so many scandal stories over the years, come to believe that big money is corrupting politics and that something needs to be done?

RON BROWNSTEIN, POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES": Actually, I basically do agree with Rich, only I don't think it's personal to McCain. I think, though, that as you suggest, journalists buy the basic construct of the reformers, that money is the principle problem in Washington. It's the principle explanation for why things don't work here as they should and I think they overestimate that.

It's not so much in the campaign -- only the campaign finance story, during these few weeks, but all our coverage. Month after month, week after week, we're always looking for the financial nexus between money and a decision, and that basically plays into the argument of the campaign finance reformers.

BERNARD KALB, HOST: What about the First Amendment dimension of this big debate? Would these financial curbs, in connection with campaign reform, would they curtail, curb, the rights of free expression under the First Amendment? Could the First Amendment be a partial casualty if Congress in fact passes campaign reform?

KAREN TUMULTY, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Well, one problem with answering that question is that journalists really aren't qualified to answer that. I mean, that is something that has to be played out in the courts.

KURTZ: Journalists aren't qualified? Please, continue.

TUMULTY: Well, the fact is there is a much easier narrative here, if you go after, you know, putting it up against -- I mean, campaign finance reform is just a deadly dull subject on it's own, but if you put it up against the scandal. If you put it up against the John McCain playing Davy Crockett at the Alamo narrative, It becomes a much juicier story. And you can't, you know, dissecting legal issues is just almost impossible to explain for most journalists.

KURTZ: And, on that point, Rich Lowry, you're not a big fan of the Arizona Senator, but how important is McCain and his persona and his relationship with the press, to the kind of coverage that this issue is getting? It's getting a lot of coverage?

LOWRY: Yeah, well, I think it is extremely important and it's understandable in a way. I mean, his style and his personality is so compelling. The basic story line, as Karen points out, of a maverick bucking his own party, is very compelling. And the fact is, if you had to choose, as a journalist, who would you rather sit in the back of a bus with, John McCain or Mitch McConnell, it's no contest. And I think that's part of the reason why McCain gets such favorable coverage.

KALB: How do you explain that part of it, the media surrendering to the charm of John McCain? The media, allegedly, is pro-liberal. McCain has a strong record as a conservative. And yet he's been able to waltz right into the romantic arms of the media.

BROWNSTEIN: Yeah, I think it's really what Rich suggested. He's a maverick. I mean, I think the press has a soft spot for anybody who breaks with their own side. I mean, that is seen, I think, the press sort of views that as a litmus test for political courage and for authenticity. I mean, someone who is willing to challenge the conventional wisdom of their own party always gets better press as a general rule.

And look, McCain spends a lot of time, he spent a lot of time in the campaign working with reporters, providing access to reporters. But again, I don't think the personal attachment to McCain is the key to the coverage you're seeing.

I think the press, by and large, accepts the world view of the reformers, and that's something that started way before McCain and will outlive him.

KURTZ: You see to be suggesting, Karen, that the actual dirty work, if I can use that phrase, of covering a two-week Senate debate and the backroom deals, and should the hard money limit be raised to $2,000 or $3,000 per individual, that that's hard for the media to do, hard to make interesting, therefore we retreat to a grand battle of personalities?

TUMULTY: A grand battle of personalities and, again, using this scandal backdrop, which easy to explain. And certainly anybody who lived in this city through the Clinton years understands there's some problem in here somewhere. And so, yeah, we do use the touchstones that make understandable. Because hard money versus soft money versus issue ads just, that's why the public never ranked this very high in it's priorities.

BROWNSTEIN: The problem with the coverage, the question that seems to go unasked, to me, is whether the outcomes would really be different if soft money were banned. I mean, the assumption of, the argument of the reformers, that if you ban these contributions, you would see different outcomes in policy. You wouldn't see Bush doing some of the kinds of things he was doing if he wasn't getting money from interests that were effected, or Clinton, or any president.

I would argue, I think, that money is actually much less of a force than ideology and what Clinton or Bush...

KURTZ: The press doesn't recognize this?

BROWNSTEIN: The press, I think the press totally overstates the role of money relative to ideology in explaining why a Clinton would do certain things, or a Bush would rollback certain environmental regulations. It probably would happen with or without the soft money.

LOWRY: I think that's exactly right and the press, I think, is in the grip of...

KALB: Excuse me, Rich, exactly right, that money makes no difference?

BROWNSTEIN: Not that it makes no difference...

KALB: Not a critical difference?

BROWNSTEIN: I'm saying the assumption that, when you see something like the reversal on carbon dioxide emissions or you see some of the environmental policies that Bush has pursued, are some of the policies that -- people always look for a nexus between those decisions and financial contributions, as if one con solely explain the other...

KURTZ: That's what investigative journalism does.

BROWNSTEIN: In fact...

KURTZ: ... it looks for the hidden connection.

BROWNSTEIN: And in fact, what really matters is what's in front of the curtain. You have a broad view of the role of the federal government that is being played out in these decisions one after the other.

LOWRY: That's exactly right. It's Woodwardism kind of run amuck. It's follow the money on everything. And, you know, there are dozens of stories suggesting obliquely, and sometimes directly, for instance, that Don Nickles worked to overturn these ergonomics rules because of all the corporate money flowing in. Well, that's not why he did it. He did it because he was a conservative and Bill Clinton promulgated him in the first place because he's a liberal. And maybe that's a less interesting story for the press, I don't know.

KALB: Karen, let me take it in a slightly different direction. The low priority of the public insofar as this story is concerned, that is reported constantly, yet the media is giving this a heavy wallop of priority in coverage. Is there any reconciling that can be done or is it, again, what I suggested before, the alleged pro-liberal media loves a story like this?

TUMULTY: Well, I think it's, again, it's easier to put it against the backdrop of scandal and that sort of thing, and we get back to John McCain here and what the media does try to do is make campaign finance reform fit into the larger picture. That was what John McCain was good at, explaining, oh, you want HMO reform? Well, here's why you're not getting it. You want other things, and that, I think, is the parameters, the framework, that the media tries to use.

KURTZ: Ron Brownstein, you reported in "The Los Angeles Times" this week that McCain, that John McCain and George W. have a poisonous relationship and, in fact, that it is so poisonous that there is at least some possibility that McCain might run for president in 2004 as an independent.

Some might say you're engaging in speculation, because who knows what's going to happen three years from this.

BROWNSTEIN: Right, right. Yeah, what I think is important, and the reason why I wrote that story, is that campaign finance reform has to be seen as part of a broader set of disputes between McCain and Bush over, I think, what the Republican party is and what the majority is. You know, I don't think the personal relationship between the two of them is necessarily poisonous or antagonistic.

You have, sort of, an institutional distrust between the two camps. The Bush camp thinks McCain is trying to raise his national profile by systematically opposing Bush on almost everything. The McCain camp thinks the Bush people are trying to marginalize him in the party. And I think that this, in fact, that the White House posture towards this, or health, or the, for example, the veto threat on the HMO bill this week, is effected by the fear of McCain and the fear of what he might do in 2004.

KURTZ: Rich, by the way, your agreeing too much with Brownstein. Let me toss you this...

LOWRY: Is that now allowed?

KURTZ: If the media narrowed it to the talks about special interest, being everyone from the AFL-CIO to the National Right to Life Committee, and public interest groups, like Common Cause, does that sort of assign black hats and white hats in a way that we should not be doing? LOWRY: Yeah. No, it's very much, I think, a double standard there and, you know, all these groups do represent certain special interests, things that they care about deeply, and there's not necessarily anything nasty about that. But the media, the way it talks about it, oftentimes suggests that it is. And there's also a lack of self-awareness, I think, in a lot of people in the press on this issue.

You know, in debating this thing in recent days, people say, other pundits will say, you know, ordinary people like us aren't represented in the debate. Well, the fact is, we're not ordinary, you know. We can write articles and get on TV any time we want. And what ordinary people do is join groups like Common Cause and the National Right to Life Committee, that can ban together and run ads. And that's the only way they get on TV.

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, who can get on TV anytime he wants. Ron Brownstein, who gets on occasionally, and Karen Tumulty, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, are the networks shying away from stories about blacks? We'll ask a man who was at the top of television news for decades about his disturbing findings.



Lots of people criticize network news, Av Westin has been on the inside for decades. As the vice president of ABC news and a 20-year veteran of CBS news. The Freedom Forum fellow has now written a book called "Best Practices for Television Journalists" and he joins us from New York. Welcome.


KURTZ: Av Westin, you write in "Brill's Content" magazine that the networks shy away from stories about minorities. You quote an unnamed producer as saying the following, "It's a subtle thing, a story involving blacks takes longer to get approved. And, if it is approved, chances are it will sit on the shelf for a long time. The message gets through."

How widespread do you think this attitude is?

WESTIN: I've found that it exists in every network news magazine with the exception of one, and that was "60 Minutes". I stumbled on it. I was doing interviews with about 135 members of various staffs, promising them anonymity in exchange for candor, and it just surfaced. The staff members began to complain about how stories involving minorities, involving blacks, just weren't being accepted. And there were all sorts of code words; "This kind of story isn't for our show". "We don't really want to see that sort of person on our air." In some cases, they were told quite explicitly, "We don't do stories about blacks." I was so surprised by this, and I thought maybe this was an aberration, so I began to ask questions at all of the programs in the networks, and I found, much to my horror, that it is fairly widespread.

KALB: Well, Av, let me pick this up. I think the phrase you use is a major finding of your research with your interviews of more than 100 people, and you say, if I've got the phrase right, that you found racism is alive in the newsroom. Accurate?

WESTIN: Yes. I think it is...

KALB: That's your phrase. And you talk about closet racism.

WESTIN: Well...

KALB: By the same token, we see the number of African Americans who are hired in the newsrooms, that the numbers are moving slowly to the north, but slowly, but there is a percentage there, and your story suggests maybe it isn't.

WESTIN: I think what we're finding is that more and more people are being hired at lower levels, but they have not yet moved into command positions. And you know, that's part of the legacy of decisions that were made, and I was part of those decisions, that were made back in the 70's when, in fact, there was pressure brought to employ African Americans, more minorities on the staffs.

But what we did then was, we moved them into on-air positions, so they became reporters or correspondents, but that moved them out of the decision-making area. They were not on the assignment desk and they were not moving up on the production side.

KURTZ: But when you -- let me interrupt you, when you were a television news executive, as opposed to having the relative luxury now of studying this from an academic viewpoint, did you try to grapple with this mind-set, that apparently lots of network executives have, according to you, that white viewers, in essence, don't want to see stories about people who are not white.

WESTIN: I was operating in a different period of time. Ratings were not so, we were not so obsessed with ratings. Now, what has happened is, because of the drive for ratings, more ratings, get higher revenues, go down market with your subject matter, that has been factored in the last decade to a greater degree.

KALB: You're suggesting, Av, to interrupt, you're suggesting that African American stories are bad for ratings?

WESTIN: That's the consensus among the -- that the staff believes, that's what the executives want.

KALB: Let me turn that around a minute. Is television giving us a distorted picture of America because of the charges you are making?

WESTIN: I think they are showing that, they're not showing as many African Americans, for example, as experts on programs, the people who are cast in stories, as the doctor who was the expert, the lawyer who was the expert are always, almost always, white. And usually white and middle-class or maybe with gray hair.

KURTZ: And often the stereotype is of blacks being cast as either criminals or drug dealers or basketball players...

WESTIN: Precisely.

KURTZ: ... or rap singers.

WESTIN: What you find, and what -- there was a revolt at CNN, among black employees and, to the credit of CNN, the executive in charge at that time, Bob Furan, listened and had the black employees of this network create a film called "Through the Lens".

KURTZ: This was kind of a training film.

WESTIN: It was a training film.

KURTZ: For sensitivity. I got to bust in here. We only have about 30 seconds to shift gears slightly. On Thursday, another school shooting in California. Some are starting to say that the media has saturation coverage of these tragic incidents, perhaps are going overboard, perhaps are even inspiring potential copycat perpetrators. Do you have a view on that?

WESTIN: I think copycatting is caused by wherever people see something that seems adventuresome and, yeah, I think there's probably a copycat aspect. But I don't know that it's only because of television. I think it's copycat because maybe the youth culture in this country, and perhaps the gun culture in this country, makes it possible.

KURTZ: So, there's more blame to go around than simply on the media.

Av Westin of "The Freedom Forum", thanks very much for joining us.

And when we come back, a look at why George Bush is ready to hang-up on reporters.


KURTZ: Welcome back. On a sad note, Roland Evans has died. The CNN commentator made his name, indeed became a Washington institution, by launching a column with Bob Novak at the old "New York Herald Tribune" back in 1963. They kept it up for 30 years. The conservative writer was as comfortable on the Georgetown cocktail circuit as he was delivering scoops on foreign affairs. Rowlie Evans was 79.

Pursuing the bottom-line has cost one newspaper it's top executive. "San Jose Mercury News" publisher Jay Harris has resigned, saying that parent company Knight-Ridder is putting profits over journalism.

Knight-Ridder, which also owns "The Philadelphia Enquirer" and "Miami Herald" has been insisting that it's papers meet a profit target of 22 percent and Harris warned the resulting budget cuts and possible layoffs could cause "significant and lasting harm" to his newspaper. "The Mercury News" said a day later there would be no newsroom layoffs.

BET is dumping one of it's best known figures. Tavis Smiley is expected to be off the air by September when his contract runs out. His show, "BET Tonight" will stay without him.

And President Bush's idea of civility extends to reporters at the White House as they learn during an Oval Office photo op with Israel's Ariel Sharon. The session was interrupted by one of Bush's pet peeves, a ringing cell phone.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: During the campaign, I said that we'll begin the process...


BUSH: During the campaign I said we'll begin the process of moving our embassy to Jerusalem.


KURTZ: Who is to blame? The investigation continues.

Now, checking our e-mail bag, reaction to our discussion on covering the Wall Street crash: "If the media keeps hounding us with market woes, they will scare the country into a recession" and "There's no doubt in my mind the media created this slow down. You harped about a big slow down until you created one" and "Remember these rules and the whole country would be better off, up is not always good. Down is not always bad. Report the facts. Quit putting value judgments into your reporting."

Let us know what's on your mind on coverage of campaign finance reform. E-mail us at

Straight ahead, Bernard Kalb and "The Back Page."


KALB: Think of the most famous colleges and universities in America.


KALB (voice-over): Think Harvard, which said no. Think Duke, which said yes. Think Columbia, which said no. Think Brown, which said yes. The list goes on, about 50 in all. And what we're talking about are the student newspapers on these campuses and the decisions they made on whether or not to run this controversial ad.

Only a minority, about 10, said yes. Some waffled. Most of the 50 said no, leaving the impression that political correctness had triumphed over open debate.

"Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad idea and Racist, Too" by David Horowitz, a one-time leftist, now described as a conservative controversialist. And it spared a wave of campus protest, the focus shifting from reparations to the limits of free speech.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We decided that there was no reason not to run the ad, we don't -- that is our viewpoint.

KALB (voice-over): Other students also had questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I sure didn't expect to open that up and see that in there, you know. I was hoping that they, you know, they would have some kind of explanation. But obviously they didn't.

KALB (voice-over): Out west, the campus newspaper at the University of California, Berkeley ran the ad and apologized the next day, saying the paper had become an inadvertent vehicle for bigotry, which prompted Horowitz, himself a UC Berkeley graduate, to fire back.

DAVID HOROWITZ, AUTHOR: It just, like, reminds me of the McCarthy era.

KALB (voice-over): At a campus forum on the subject, Horowitz didn't last long. he had to be escorted from the room. There was no apology from "The Badger Herald" at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The editor raising this question of "The Wall Street Journal", "Are American university campuses free and open in the spirit of inquiry, or closed places where activist cohorts can determine what is or isn't acceptable"?


KALB: The fact is, the job of being an editor, whether student of professional, is one that involves constantly making decisions, not ducking them. To surrender to political correctness is simply to sanitize controversy so that no one's sensibilities are offended. The result, we never get to hear competing views. It's like living in a vacuum, which solves nothing.

As "The Boston Globe" put it, "The only effective anecdote to offensive speech is more speech." Bravo.

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.



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