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How Should Media Cover Cheney?; Is True Story of Most Powerful Vice President Being Lost?; Did `Reporter' Columnist Malign His Own Paper?

Aired May 5, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: Chasing Dick Cheney. How do you cover the most powerful Vice president in history? Are the media missing the real story of Cheney's backstage influence on the president and the country?

And, the editor of "The Hollywood Reporter" quits over a spike story questioning the ethics of one of her own columnist. We'll talk to the author of that story, who also resigned in protest.

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

Who's the most powerful person in Washington? Most people would say, of course, the president. But the Westerner at his side is a pretty close second.


LARRY KING, HOST, "LARRY KING LIVE": When they say you're the most powerful vice president ever, you have more to say than any other vice president, how do you react?

DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I let others make those judgments.

KURTZ (voice-over): Is Dick Cheney getting the coverage he deserves, at least when he's not suffering from heart problems? He often works the Sunday talk circuit as the public face of the White House.

But he's not always looking for headlines.

CHENEY: You have an obligation this morning to try to make news. I have an obligation to make sure we don't make news.

KURTZ: But have Cheney and his staff succeeded in deflecting media attention from his behind-the-scenes role, including his secret task force on energy policy.

A "New Yorker" story this week is billed as "The Cult of Dick Cheney: A Report on the Stealth Career of a Vice President With Unprecedented Power." Inside, a caricature of a rather large Dick Cheney and a rather small George Bush on his knee.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now, Martha Brant, White House correspondent for "Newsweek" and Dana Milbank, White House reporter for "The Washington Post" and author of the book "Smash Mouth."

Dana Milbank, you wrote early on about the secrecy surrounding the energy task force headed by Cheney. Was the vice president's office helpful in illuminating his policy role?

DANA MILBANK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, certainly not in that case, which is why instead of writing about the policy, we had to write about how secret they were.

The irony here is Cheney's advisers are some of the most press- friendly people in the entire White House. You've got Mary Matalin, who does nothing but talk to the press, and you've got Juleanna Glover, who is a very well-liked press secretary.

But they're dealing with a man who is not interested in having a whole lot out there, and that's why you have circumstances like these.

KURTZ: Martha Brant, in fact, some Cheney aides have told me that they've gone so far as to actively discourage some reporters from writing stories that they don't want written about Dick Cheney, which would make him the only politician on the planet who doesn't want to get press.

Has that been your experience in trying to cover the vice president?

MARTHA BRANT, "NEWSWEEK": I sometimes feel like he is the anti- politician; that he is trying not to be in the media, which is a funny experience.

I was looking all last week for anecdotes about his behind-the- scenes role with the president, and the best I got was he was sitting in a meeting with the president, who turned to him and said, "Mr. Vice President, do you have anything to add"? and Dick Cheney said, "No," and that ended the meeting.

So, there's my anecdote. It's tough to find examples of him at work.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Martha, how do you know that the media is giving adequate coverage to the vice president? There's the old joke about the mother who had two sons: one went to sea; the other became vice president, and she heard from neither again.

That's not the case, clearly, with the vice president. How do you do the arithmetic to determine that there is enough coverage for the vice president, give his unprecedented power?

BRANT: Right. Well, I think it's driven by the news, Bernie, and we are covering him more this week because of the energy task force and the report coming out.

But, as I was saying, it's not for want of trying. He is very hard to push into saying things he doesn't want to say. I've had only one sit-down interview and one phone interview with him, and he just doesn't gone on at length. Although, when he does talk, he says pretty extraordinary things and has a lot more weight -- he's the only big- time, if you'll forgive the pun, aide who doesn't seem like he needs to check with Karen Hughes, the communications czar, when he says something.

KALB: Yeah.

KURTZ: That clip we saw at the top, Dana Milbank, where Cheney says, "I'm not here to make news"; they often put him out on the Sunday talk shows, a lot, in my view, for a vice president. I sort of said to myself, well, what's he doing there? Why go on television if you don't have some message that you want to convey on behalf of the White House?

MILBANK: Well, he can convey a subtle message, but often this White House doesn't want to make news on those Sunday shows, so they put him out there just to avoid that.

I mean, my Dick Cheney anecdote was during the transition. He called me on the phone. I had requested an interview. I pick up the phone and he goes, "Hi, Dana, it's Dick Cheney."

So, I thought it was one of my college roommates making a joke. But, I realized it was him. I had written five or six questions out to ask him and we went through them in like two minutes, and I had nothing else to ask him, because each answer was, "nah, yeah, uh-huh, yup, no."

And, so, we don't write a lot about the man as a personality. We write an awful lot about what he and his staff are doing, and I think that's what's important.

KALB: Martha, how in fact is the press focusing on Cheney, as someone who compensates for the lack of strength or the extra strength of the president? Or somebody who is being covered on the strength of his own ideas?

BRANT: I think, both. Although it's changed. When we first started covering him, there were a lot of stories about Prime Minister Cheney and we really thought that he was going to be always the one running the show.

And as time has gone on, I mean, certainly he's still there, behind the scenes, but because he has actively tried to not be in the limelight, and because he's been really distracted with business on the Hill, we didn't see his role in China, for example, the way I thought we were going to see his role.

And so, we haven't been covering him as much as the stealth power in the White House.

KALB: The media has dealt with him to some degree as a caricature, the giant Cheney, the small president, etcetera.

In a way, that's lazy journalism. Is he getting that meticulous examination that someone with such power must get on the part of the media?

BRANT: I think we're trying, as I say. It's not from want of trying. But he is so inscrutable.

KALB: Why do you need him to work your piece? Why is he necessary?

BRANT: Because he, and those around him, are such practiced politicians, that to crack the psyche that is Dick Cheney, it just takes a lot of work. And, despite Nick Lemann wonderful piece this week, I still don't think he's cracked the mind and psyche of our vice president, which I think explains what drives him.

KURTZ: Well, one factor that occurs to me is that, unlike the president, who is out there everyday, at least responding to a couple of questions from reporters, I mean, Cheney is not inaccessible. You have both interviewed him. But because he's the vice president, he doesn't have to take daily questions. Therefore, I would think it is harder to find out just what he's up to on a given day?

MILBANK: Right. I think, during the transition, remember, Dick Cheney was the guy giving the press briefings each day, and it looked like the president, or the president-elect then, was completely absent. I think they were...

KURTZ: Off at the ranch, somewhere.

MILBANK: Right. And I think they were stung by that, and they don't want him out to that extent.

In fact, they've been particularly encouraging, in the vice president's office, when your story is pointing out that, in fact, lo and behold, the president is actually in charge.

So, they love to get that message out. And that's true. It's not that -- I don't think we're treating Dick Cheney as any less powerful than we thought at the beginning. We're just coming to the realization that, in fact, surprise, surprise, our president actually has something to do with this.

KURTZ: Yes, well, Cheney said on FOX News last weekend, "The president is very much in charge of the show," and calling suggestions to the contrary "silly."

So, I'm wondering, to some extent, whether this is kind of media creation. Maybe, in part, fueled by journalists who think that George Bush is not, is more hat and less cattle, and therefore have to build up Cheney in order to, in a way, take a shot at Bush.

MILBANK: It's part of that. And, as I said, that...

KURTZ: It's part of that? MILBANK: I do think so...

KURTZ: And also belittling the president and building up the vice president.

MILBANK: Well, it's part of our popular culture now to think of the president as not as capable as he is.

But the problem is, the transition actually encouraged that, and they don't shy away from the notion that Cheney is the Chief Executive Officer, or the Chief Operating Officer, and President Bush is out there being the Chairman of the company, which is the United States.

KURTZ: Well, he's not making $36 million, the way he did when he was a Chief Executive...

MILBANK: He is not, unfortunately. No.

KALB: There is a total predictability when the vice president says he's not the key player, you defer to the president. That's routine in this town. There's no question about that. Nor is Cheney exactly Bush's secret weapon. Everybody knows the strength that he has.

But it seems to me that increasingly, since he's out there on Sunday, repeatedly, there will have to be greater, greater visibility, because there's going to be a dearth, a dearth of available Cheney for examination.

BRANT: There's something to that.

KALB: I hope so.

BRANT: When you interview Cheney, I mean, part of this is that we write these stories about his power. He does have an unprecedented power, the Principles Committee, and when you interview him, even though he doesn't say a lot, I go back to this, he, in his silences says a lot, and in his few sentences.

When I asked him what his role was, he said, "I'm an extra set of helping hands. I'm going to be involved in national security, the economy, and the main liaison on the Hill."

And, I thought, what else is left?

KURTZ: On that point, Martha Brant, Do you think there's one missing element that contrasts with coverage of previous vice presidents, Al Gore, Dan Quayle, Bush Sr., Walter Mondale, in that everyone knows, and Cheney says he's never going to run for president. So we don't have this sort of lens of, well, how does every single thing he does possibly going to play into a future White House bid.

BRANT: That's right. We're not constantly second-guessing his motivations. And one of his friends said to me, the one thing to remember when you're looking at Dick Cheney is he understands the chain-of-command. And it's why he has done so well in a quiet way in Washington. He's risen through the ranks by being a dutiful second...

KURTZ: Well, the chain-of-command is that I am in charge, and we are out of time.

Martha Brant, Dana Milbank, thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, how a show biz watchdog is tearing itself up this week; trouble inside "The Hollywood Report." We'll talk to the journalist at the center of the storm, David Robb.



High drama in Hollywood, not on the screen, but of the journalistic variety.

Veteran labor writer David Robb resigned from "The Hollywood Reporter," saying his bosses spiked his story about his colleague, George Christy, and Christy's cozy dealings with movie producers.

The paper's editor, Anita Bush, then also resigned.

Editor-in-Chief and publisher, Robert Dowling, says the newspaper is professional, honest and true.

"The Reporter" declined to make Dowling or George Christy available for an interview, but in his column Friday, Dowling wrote: "For former editor Anita Bush and former labor reporter David Robb to go out and maliciously attack and distort facts and call into question the integrity of this paper is nothing short of incomprehensible," and "Bush and Robb had personal agendas."

Well, David Robb joins us now from Los Angeles. Welcome.

David Robb, before we explain what this story was about and your involvement in it, let me give you a chance to respond to your former boss, Robert Dowling, when he talks about maliciously distorting the facts and attacking your own newspaper.

DAVID ROBB, REPORTER: Well, I've been looking into allegations about George Christy since 1993 when the Screen Actors Guild filed a lawsuit against him and several producers, accusing him of defrauding the SAG Pension and Health Plan.

KURTZ: By appearing, by getting credit for appearing in films that he did not actually appear in?

ROBB: Right. At the time, they said he just had a bit role, a very small-paying role, but that they were reporting inflated salary to SAG so that he could get health benefits and a pension.

KALB: SAG, the Screen Actors Guild.

ROBB: Right. Since then, I found out that he's done this six more times with the same company, and in those films he wasn't even in the films. He was just, he just received screen credit, but he's not in the picture at all, anywhere.

KURTZ: And this is a story that you wrote up, that you turned in to your editors at "The Hollywood Reporter" and which they declined to publish, prompting you to resign.

ROBB: Well, not they declined, the publisher declined. The editor was behind me, and so were the other editors.

KURTZ: Now, Rob Dowling says you distorted the facts, that you have a personal agenda, perhaps jealousy towards George Christy as the society columnist has suggested. Why don't you respond to that.

ROBB: Yeah, George Christy said that I had professional envy, which is, it's not true.

KALB: Well, David, what do you make of the statement, Dowling's comments, saying that if the allegations uncovered by Robb, and I'd like to read them specifically, "turned out to be true, they would lead to discipline, including possible termination, but not necessarily a story in our paper." How do you handle that one?

ROBB: Well, I'm the labor reporter at "The Hollywood Reporter" and I've covered numerous cases of people trying to defraud the different union pension and health plans. They have very lucrative benefits and there are a lot of people that would like to get those benefits illegally.

I've written several stories about that. In this case, it happened to be one of the people that was doing the fraud was one of our own employees. I couldn't turn away and just look the other way, so I wrote about it. He wouldn't publish the story, that was his decision. I decided to leave the paper.

KALB: David, what sort of support are you getting for this resignation you've undertaken?

ROBB: Well, from reporters, a lot of support.

KALB: And is the integrity that you've displayed been rewarded in any way by other offers, people coming after you?

ROBB: Well, I'm working now for I'm covering the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild negotiations.

KURTZ: Why do you think that the publisher of "The Reporter," Robert Dowling, has chose to make it so personal by saying that you had an agenda and by arguing that, well, we didn't kill the story, we just reassigned it to another reporter. And, in fact, "The Hollywood Reporter" has now published at least some details of these allegations against the society columnist, George Christy.

ROBB: Well, I think the publisher has been making excuses for George Christy for many years and I think this is just another excuse.

KURTZ: Why would he do that? ROBB: I think he wants to protect the paper. I think Bob Dowling is a good man. He was a good publisher. I think he wants to protect the paper. But, I think he failed in his oversight responsibilities. When there's a cancer, you have to address it early on or it will spread. And that's what happened in this case.

KALB: David, we got an echo of the story bouncing across the country here, on the East Coast. But on the West Coast, in that neighborhood that you live in, Hollywood, etcetera, what sort of bounce is that story getting there? That you, a veteran reporter of "The Hollywood Reporter" essentially, you want to call it fired or quit, whatever it was, what bounce is it getting within the screen community?

ROBB: Well, it was quit. And it's, a lot of people are talking about it. A lot of people know George Christy and a lot of people -- the e-mails and phone calls have been pouring in with people who have similar stories about their experiences.

KURTZ: Do you think the credibility of "The Hollywood Reporter" has been damaged? And are there any lessons here for others who cover Hollywood?

ROBB: Well, I think it has been hurt. I think it's a good paper, it really was. I worked there for a lot of years and I really liked -- there are a lot of good reporters there and the editors are top-notch. I just think they have to get beyond this by, you know, a little more full disclosure about, when they come across a problem.

KURTZ: OK. We'll have to leave it there. David Robb, formerly of "The Hollywood Reporter," thanks very much for joining us.

ROBB: Thank you.

KURTZ: Still ahead, RELIABLE SOURCES "Media Items," public opinion on televising the McVeigh execution.



RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: There's no such thing as a slow news day to me. I am the show. The news is just the stuff I use to bounce off of. The news, the stuff in the news, is just the diving board or the springboard for me to be me on a daily basis. This notion, it's a built in excuse for people to say, oh, there's no news today. OK. So, you're not expecting any? If you don't expect it, you're not going to get it.

My objective is to better today than I did yesterday, better tomorrow than I did today. To exceed expectations that people have.


KURTZ: And, checking our RELIABLE SOURCES "Media Roundup," unusual coverage this week of the death penalty, with National Public Radio, "Nightline," and others playing audio tapes of Georgia executions and last statements of condemned killers.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... for the crime I committed and I am willing to pay the price exacted this day.


KURTZ: A new CNN/Gallup/"USA Today" poll asked people if they would watch the execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh if it was televised. Only 23 percent said yes. The government will show the execution on closed-circuit television, but only to families of people killed or those injured in the 1995 blast.

"The New Yorker" was the big winner this week at the National Magazine Awards, taking five. For general excellence, magazine editors cited "Teen People," "The New Yorker," "Mother Jones," and "The American Scholar."

And a valentine from House Majority Leader Dick Army this week to reporters, "It has been my position, outspokenly so, for sometime, that the most failed institution in our democracy these days is the press. Sorry, guys."

Thanks, Dick. We had a lot of competition.

In our "E-mail Bag," we asked for your reaction of coverage of former Senator Bob Kerry revealing that his Navy SEAL unit had killed unarmed civilians, women and children, in Vietnam, 32 years ago.

"It makes me pretty angry to see all those reporters who were never in Vietnam and have no concept of what a war is about berated Senator Kerry."

And, "Nothing good will come out of picking at old wounds. It's just going to cause more pain."

And, "Kerry's credibility warrants further scrutiny, but nearly as much as the bias of national media outlets that spiked the suspicious story for so long."

For the record, it was "Newsweek" that held the story two years ago. Most of us didn't know about it.

Well, let us know what you think about media coverage of Dick Cheney. Our address is

Just ahead, "Bernie's Back Page," and how journalists may be paid to have their heads in the clouds.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Back Page" -- Bernie.

KALB: OK. Let's start with the premise that most of us aren't rocket scientists, right? So, how are we going to keep up with the challenge the president offered us all the other day?


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is an important opportunity for the world to rethink the unthinkable and to find new ways to keep the peace.

KALB (voice-over): Rethink the unthinkable, he said. A kind of short-hand for developing a defensive nuclear shield against nuclear missiles, a big, big story, this, filled with controversy.

It's proponents, enthusiastic. It's critics, dismissive. It's technology, unproven. It's cost, in the mega-billions. Our allies, uneasy. The Russians, cautious. The Chinese, opposed.

All of which, says the man who once headed the U.N. commission to disarm Iraq, All of which means that the president's proposal should be "subject to public debate, of where there has been stunning little to date."

In short, a stunning opportunity for the media to ride to the rescue of us nuclear amateurs, to demystify the complexities of the Bush proposal, explain the pros and cons of the challenge.

GARY MILHOLLIN, THE WISCONSIN PROJECT: There is no reason to think this technology will ever succeed.

KALB: Questions everywhere. Are we back in Ronald Reagan's "Star Wars"? Or something brand new? Or something in-between? Are we heading for nuclear security, or a new arms race?

In other words, to paraphrase "The Wall Street Journal," if circa-1972 typewriters are no longer in vogue in the newspaper business, should we be sticking to the U.S./Soviet ABN Treaty of three decades ago when there have since been all those unthinkable breakthroughs in technology? Or should we abandon it?


KALB: But the president's speech left a lot of these questions unanswered, important questions. And the media should be in hot pursuit of the answers. After all, in the dangerous nuclear world we've created, what's at stake is nothing less than the destiny of all of us, rocket scientists included.

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.

CAPITAL GANG is up next. Mark Shields has a preview.



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