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Did Media Force Kerrey's Admission?; Grading the Press on Coverage of Bush's First 100 Days

Aired April 28, 2001 - 18:30   ET



HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: The story that haunts Bob Kerrey. Did the media force him to admit his role in the death of Vietnamese civilians 32 years ago? Why did the former Senator use "The Wall Street Journal" and "Omaha World Herald" to scoop "The New York Times"? And why did "Newsweek" spike the story two years ago?

We'll ask the editor of "Newsweek", the Nebraska reporter who helped break the story and veteran journalists Bill Plante and Ron Brownstein.

Also, George Bush's media report card. We'll grade the press on this 100 day ritual.

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

I'm Howard Kurtz. Bernard Kalb is off this week.

The big media story this week swirling around Bob Kerrey and the echoes of Vietnam. The war hero, Medal of Honor winner, former Senator and presidential candidate raised to beat TV and newspaper stories on "60 Minutes II" and "The New York Times" magazine and to put his own spin on events back in 1969.

Kerrey took the story this week to "The Wall Street Journal" and "Omaha World Herald," saying a unit that he led in Vietnam killed more than a dozen unarmed civilians, including women and children.


BOB KERREY, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: I'm willing, by the way, to tolerate whatever consequences come. I accept full responsibility for that night. I reported to Greg Vistica. He's got it, he'll write it in the story that's coming out this Sunday in "The New York Times" and, you know, we'll just go from there.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now from Omaha, Nebraska, David Kotok, chief political reporter for "The Omaha World Herald." From New York, "Newsweek" editor Mark Whitaker. In Los Angeles, chief political correspondent of "The Los Angeles Times," Ron Brownstein. And here in Washington, CBS White House correspondent, Bill Plante.

Mark Whitaker, you had the essentials of the story two years ago, including a confirmation from Bob Kerrey. In fact, it was your former reporter, Greg Vistica, who is now breaking the story for "The New York Times" and CBS. Why did you decide not to go with what has clearly now become a huge story?

MARK WHITAKER, EDITOR, "NEWSWEEK": Well, Howie, I mean, we think we were right to hold off at the time. I mean, essentially, what Vistica had two years ago was a got-you story, essentially. We had the allegations from Gerhard Klann, who was in Kerrey's unit, that there had been something akin to a My Lai massacre.

But we had a lot of evidence that it was a lot more murky than that. That essentially it was a fog of war situation. We had talked to Kerrey, but he, basically, it was clear that he really didn't want to talk to us. He had told us, essentially, it was none of our business and that he didn't have a very clear recollection.

He admitted that civilians had been killed but that he couldn't remember much else from that night. And...

KURTZ: You've also said, Mark Whitaker, that Kerrey's decision around the same time not to run for president in 2000 was an important factor in your decision not to go.

WHITAKER: Well, you know, our main consideration was that we felt that in order to tell this story and to run the risk of damaging Kerrey's reputation, perhaps irreparably, we needed to get his full version of the story. And although he had talked to us, he really wasn't prepared to give us that version.

And, indeed, it's taken two years. The reason it took two years for this to come out was it was only after two years that he was prepared to come forward and to talk openly about this. He went back to Vistica. But by that time, Vistica had left the magazine.

KURTZ: OK. Right. David Kotok, clearly Bob Kerrey, who you've known for a long time, came to you and "The Wall Street Journal's" Dennis Farney, this week, in order to get a more sympathetic version of events out. One perhaps that did not include the more serious charges by the former member of his unit, that there was an intentional massacre, as opposed to the inadvertent killing of civilians, excuse me, as Bob Kerrey claims.

In retrospect, since you had only a day to put this together, do you feel somewhat used?

DAVID KOTOK, "THE OMAHA WORLD HERALD": No, we don't. I mean, I'm sure if you got that call, Howard, or if my friend Ron Brownstein would, he would have gone with the story as well. I didn't know that night whether I was the only reporter, one of two, or one of 20.

So, I pursued it as effectively and aggressively as we could with our Washington bureau chief. We put a reporter on a plane to go see Gerhard Cline. We tried to do everything a professional news organization would do to give a full and complete story.

KURTZ: Understood. Bill Plante, when Bob Kerrey held a news conference in New York on Thursday, he told me afterwards that he was irritated by some of the questions, particularly about his Bronze Star and whether he should give it back. He told me he doesn't care whether the military takes it back.

What did you make of the aggressive, some would say hostile, tone of some of those questions by those reporters?

BILL PLANTE, CBS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think it reflects the fact that the reporters who were there probably, for the most part, did not serve in Vietnam and don't have any sense of what it is like to be in war.

Putting aside the question of his motives, you had questioning that said, you know, do you realize that you violated the Geneva Convention? Well, hello, if you'd been in Vietnam, and I did serve there for CBS four different times, and you've seen people die, and you've seen what happens in the confusion of wall, this so-called fog of war, and you've seen, frankly, the ineptitude of a lot of people in that situation, it's not, you know, it's not precision. It's not all special forces. People screw up, they do stupid things, they make mistakes. And they don't know what's going on.

So, I, it's not hard to believe that something like that could have happen. But, I have no way of knowing which version is true.

KURTZ: Of course not. Ron Brownstein, in terms of the media blitz by Terry this week, which also included interviews with Tom Brokaw and Wolf Blitzer on CNN, was he engaging in a classic preemptive strike? A classic damage control effort?

RON BROWNSTEIN, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, yeah. I mean, certainly, his version of events now gets precedence over, as you said before, the more critical accusations from the former member of his unit.

You know, this is a tough case, I think for the media. Obviously, once he came forward, it was unequivocally news. There was no question about it. I wonder what I would have done in "Newsweek's" shoes in 1998. I mean, the saying hard cases make bad law. On the one-hand, we do probably have a need in this country to reestablish more of a zone of privacy for politicians. The whole sort of relentless unearthing of unsavory details maybe has gone to far.

On the other hand, this does seem like something that is relevant, not only to the particular political career of Bob Kerrey, who was a U.S. Senator, but also to the sort of broader coming to terms with Vietnam, and I think in the end I probably would have printed it, myself.

KURTZ: OK. Mark Whitaker, is this a case of the media caught up in a kind of endless Vietnam syndrome and just refighting the war and the ghosts of the war and the cultural war that surrounded the American involvement in Vietnam? WHITAKER: Well, you know, it's interesting. There's no question, when you look at the reaction to this story, that those wounds have not healed. There are a lot of people who are saying, you know, people who served in Vietnam should not be questioned. Others who still feel that war crimes were committed there, there should be more coverage of that.

Personally, I'm more interested in what this story says about Bob Kerrey and about his ambivalence about his war record and the way it was used to his political advantage, not always by him, by the way...

KURTZ: Right.

WHITAKER: ... but by other people. I think there always was that sense -- one of the things that was interesting about him was that even though he was a genuine hero, who lost his leg in Vietnam and has a Purple Heart and a Congressional Medal Honor for other battles he fought in, that he was uneasy about it and was not inclined to use it to his political advantage...

KURTZ: Right, he was always queasy about that.

WHITAKER: ... in a lot of situations. And maybe this starts to explain a little bit why.

KURTZ: David Kotok, are people in Nebraska upset with Bob Kerrey or angry at the media for dredging this up?

KOTOK: Just like the war itself, Bob Kerrey has always been a lightening rod out here, so we're getting a lot of the reaction of the media is being attacked, Bob Kerrey is being attacked, he's being defended. It's typical for every time Bob Kerrey hit the news, he's always a lightening rod back here.

KURTZ: Bill Plante, as someone whose been in Vietnam, is it fair for the media to judge from this safe distance of 32 years what happened on a dark night in the jungles of Asia?

PLANTE: No, absolutely not. But, it's typical for us to pile on when this story reaches, a story reaches a critical mass. Remember, this story was out there not only when it wasn't published, but a couple of weeks ago. The former Senator tried to float this in a speech that he gave.

KURTZ: Right.

PLANTE: And nobody picked up on it. And there was one other instance. And then finally, and then finally he apparently did something to force the publication before "The New York Times" and "60 Minutes II" brought it to everybody's attention.

KURTZ: Right. Mark Whitaker, just to clarify one point. If Kerrey had gone ahead and won for president, presidential candidates usually receive a lot of scrutiny. Would "Newsweek" have gone a little more aggressive in continuing to pursue this story? WHITAKER: Well, let me clarify one thing. We did continue to pursue the story. I mean, we told Vistica that we wanted him to continue to talk to Kerrey and then when Kerrey was really ready to come forward and tell his story, we wanted to be the ones who published it. And we essentially had that understanding.

And, as I say, Vistica continued to do that, but it was only after he had left the magazine that he finally persuaded...

KURTZ: Right. Kerrey to give a fuller account.

WHITAKER: Kerrey to cooperate. And I think that's why it's, the story is coming to light, coming to light now.

KURTZ: Ron Brownstein, we've got about ten seconds for a final thought on this.

BROWNSTEIN: Well, I was struck, Mark's point before about Kerrey's ambivalence, I think, was quite telling. I always felt that he used his recovery from the war more as a political message than his participation in the war. And again, this might help explain part of that.

KURTZ: Exactly. David Kotok from "The Omaha World Herald," thanks very much for joining us. The other panelists and I will be back in just a moment with this week's media bonanza for a new president after 97, 98, 99 days and counting.



GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm, you know, I'm certainly not camera shy.

I'm not going to allow harsh rhetoric to create an environment where we can't find areas of agreement.

I'm a heck of a lot more experienced than I was 100 days ago.


KURTZ: An avalanche of headlines, news stories and interviews this week as reporters force all of us to remember that the Bush administration is 100 days old.

Ron Brownstein, George W. Bush is clearly adopting a lower media profile, whether it's after the California school shootings, the Cincinnati riots, or not going to greet the returning American servicemen from China.

The press has responded, according to some studies, with 40 to 50 percent fewer stories compared to Bill Clinton. Is the president of the United States simply not that newsworthy?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, the president, I describe his as our first A-4 president, meaning that he's very comfortable appearing on an inside page. His White House does not wake up every morning thinking about how it's going to make news and drive the national debate.

I think it's a combination of personal and political factors. Personally, I think he is less -- he is not comfortable trying to be an imperial, in-your-face president. I mean, that may explain the Whidbey Island example of where he didn't go out to greet the crew.

There's a political calculation here, too, Howie. He is notoriously and almost extremely disciplined, and they want to stay on message. They want to focus on their issues. When these other things come up, the day after the California school shooting, he went right back to talking about taxes.

But the third thing, I think, is a different conception of the presidency. I mean, I think he is more comfortable trying to negotiate with legislators behind the scenes than he is trying to shape the national debate on a broad range of issues. And I think all of those things help explain why you've had this considerably lower profile than Clinton, and probably any recent president.

KURTZ: Right. Bill Plante, you're at the White House everyday. Is it more difficult to get news out of this tightly disciplined, on- message, script-of-the-day White House?

PLANTE: It is absolutely more difficult. They do not feel the need to advance their story, to give it to the morning papers or the morning television shows the day before it's going to be announced, or at least the broad outlines of it.

KURTZ: That was a classic Clinton thing.

PLANTE: Exactly. And this is a president who does not feel compelled to share his thoughts on every subject with the rest of the world. He's quite happy to keep it tucked up. If he doesn't want to talk, he'll say "I'm not going to talk about that."

KURTZ: Mark Whitaker, what do you make of the whole 100 day ritual? Obviously, somewhat arbitrary. I mean, are we at a point where we can reach useful judgments about the Bush presidency? Or is it just a kind of a journalistic cliche where we all do our bit pieces?

WHITAKER: Well, you know, I think it's a device. On the other hand, sometimes these devices are useful. You know, if it weren't for this, we might not be trying to kind of do a three-month assessment, and I think there's some value to that.

I mean, I agree with everybody else has said. You know, we have our "Conventional Wisdom Watch" in "Newsweek" every week, and one of the things, when we give people up arrows, it's sometimes with the notation "BTE, better than expected." And I think Bush is a master at lower expectations so that he can barely exceed them.

KURTZ: Mark, when we talk about, when journalists, I should say, talk about Bush not being as good a story as Bill Clinton, part of what we're talking about, clearly, is, no scandal, no Monica, no sort of ongoing soap opera. Is that what the media more, cares more about these days?

WHITAKER: Well, I think, you know, it's everything about Clinton. I mean, Clinton was a soap opera. Clinton was also incredibly effective, impressive at the theater of the presidency.

I was talking to somebody last night who talked about the kind of pendulum effect of American politics and how each president in a way says a lot about the former president, and people wanting to get away sometimes.

Jimmy Carter was the antidote to Richard Nixon and so forth. In this case, I think, I think the country was sort of worn out by Bill Clinton. And one of the things, I think in a way Bush understands that and he's just giving us...

KURTZ: Giving a respite.

WHITAKER: ... a president, a presidency that's just not quite as exhausting.

KURTZ: A return to normalcy. Ron Brownstein, is the media, are the media being entirely fair to George Bush when it comes to, for example, coverage of the environment? I noticed when he made a string of what might be characterized as pro-environment decisions in the run up to Earth Week, all the stories said, you know, in a clear attempt to burnish his image or repair his tattered image on the environment. I wonder if we do a little too much of that kind of...

BROWNSTEIN: Well, of course I think that has become the convention of all sorts of policy coverage, really, for every president in Washington. It's always run through the filter of what is the political calculation that's involved with it. But, I do think that, you know, you do have to sort of point out at least the fact that early in the administration there were a series of Clinton regulations they reversed.

And then, really, beginning with "The Washington Post," your papers report on the salmonella plan to reduce the inspection of ground beef in the schools for salmonella. From that moment forward, they really have switched gears and have been upholding things much more than they've been overturning them.

So, I think it is legitimate to at least point out that they have reversed. It could be pure coincidence that everything they reviewed in February and March was regulatory overreaching, and everything they have reviewed in April found the right balance. I think probably some of the calculation went into that.

KURTZ: OK. Bill Plante, if President Bush continues not to share his thoughts on any subject, on every subject, just briefly, will Washington fade as a story and we'll all cover Hollywood instead?

PLANTE: No. This goes in cycles. Something will happen. Something always happens, because it's always the thing that is out of the White House's control that makes news.

We'll just sit around with our feet up until that happens.

KURTZ: Well, China was certainly an example of that.

PLANTE: And it will. It always does.

KURTZ: Well, thanks for making me feel better. Bill Plante, Ron Brownstein in Los Angeles, Mark Whitaker in New York, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, RELIABLE SOURCES media items and the shortcut from the mean streets of "NYPD Blue" to a network anchor desk.


KURTZ: Welcome back. And checking our RELIABLE SOURCES media items, CNN has hired former "NYPD Blue" star Andrea Thompson to work as an anchor for HEADLINE NEWS and a national correspondent for CNN networks.

She is most famous, of course, for her role as Detective Jill Kirkendall on the hit police show. Some of her movies were a bit more revealing, as "The New York Post" noted Friday. Thompson most recently worked as a correspondent for Albuquerque's KRQE for over a year.

And, also in Albuquerque, call it shear madness, KOB-TV anchor Cindy Hernandez thought she was just getting a haircut for summer, but station management clipped her off the anchor desk for two days since Hernandez's contract specifies that she cannot make any drastic changes to her appearance. Hernandez told me she didn't even tell her husband she was getting her haircut. But, she acknowledged, "This is part of my business. My looks count and they do matter."

And will the real CIA agent please stand up? The CIA says Kenneth Bucchi isn't one of theirs. CNN had called him a former narcotics officer and asked him the inside dope on Colombian drug smuggling. The network later told viewers the CIA insists Bucchi is a fraud, but did not apologize for putting him on the air.

Our discussion of media coverage of the Timothy McVeigh execution brought us lots of e-mail.

"He wanted the media when he did this terrible thing, and he should not get anymore."

Another viewer says: "The story must be covered, but I think it should be covered more from the viewpoint of how the victims families feel rather than how McVeigh may be feeling."

We want to hear from you about coverage of the Bob Kerrey story. You can e-mail us at

Coming up, a media man becomes New York's newest media star.


KURTZ: If you're running for political office these days, it helps to get media attention. To get media attention, it doesn't hurt to be from the media. Oh, and it also helps to be rich.


(voice-over): The flavor of the month is Michael Bloomberg. He's so famous, he's got a machine named after him. And a magazine. And a TV network.

The former Wall Street trader founded "Bloomberg News," which has become a financial news powerhouse. But Bloomberg got bored just making money, so now he's on the verge of running for mayor of New York.

And the press is giving him one heck of a ride. He is, after all, a sought-after bachelor who recently dated Diana Ross. Here's Bloomberg on the cover of "New York" magazine. Here he is on the cover of "Business Week." Here he is in "Newsweek," and that piece produced this headline in "The New York Post," "Billionaire Willing To Work For A Buck A Week. What A Sacrifice."

So, is Bloomberg pulling a Donald Trump, flirting with politics for the ego-boost? Looks like he's serious, and he's getting more ink than the four democratic candidates. Can you name these guys? Public advocate Mark Green. Bronx Borough president Fernando Ferrer. Controller Alan Hevesi and Council Speaker Peter Vallone.

But all the magazine covers in the world can't hide Bloomberg's problems. He's a democrat. He's given more than $250,000 in soft money to the party in recent years, who turned republican because of the less-crowded path to Gracie Mansion.

But New York has a republican mayor, name of Rudy, and he's the first in that democratic city since John Lindsey back in the 60's.

All the publicity also revived talk of three sexual harassment lawsuits against Bloomberg, one settled, two dropped, though he denies any wrongdoing.

You can count on reporters digging into Bloomberg's business record once the honeymoon inevitably fades.


KURTZ: It's kind of a no-lose proposition. If Bloomberg wins, he's the hottest political commodity since Jesse Ventura, though he'd have to start worrying about potholes and garbage collection. If he loses, well, all that free publicity just helps build the brand name.

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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