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Media Carries Unsubstantiated Story of Jeb Bush Affair; Is the Press Softer on George W. Than They Were on Clinton?

Aired May 19, 2001 - 18:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
(AUDIO GAP)

HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: ... media carry an unsubstantiated story about the governor having an affair with a top Florida official. How did the gossip spread from the Internet to the mainstream press? And did journalists force Bush into a public denial.

And, is the press much softer on George Bush than on Bill Clinton? And could that have something to do with a vast right-wing conspiracy?

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

We begin with a rumor about the governor of Florida. Yes, another rumor about another political having an extramarital affair. A rumor that made its way into the mainstream media with help from Jeb Bush.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Those whispers, very loud in Tallahassee, eventually made their way onto the Internet and finally into Florida newspapers.

CLAIRE SHIPMAN, SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, ABC: The speed with which rumor, even if there is no basis in fact, can quickly become a force that can't be ignored.

KURTZ (voice-over): Jeb Bush went before the cameras to try to knock down a rumor that he'd had an affair with one of his top political appointees, Cynthia Henderson, a former Playboy bunny. He called it an outright lie.

GOV. JEB BUSH (R), FLORIDA: To be honest with you, standards have changed in some of the newspapers. The fact that you'd have to ask that question and I'd have to answer it is sickening.

KURTZ: Days earlier, Bush had denied the rumor off the record to certain Tallahassee reporters. By going public with his denial, Bush gambled that he could put the rumor to rest.

But did journalists fall into a partisan trap when the rumor surfaced on a Web site called Democrats.com and then it Britain's "Guardian" newspaper.

Can the press no longer resist such stories? And was Bush simply bowing to media reality in having to declare publicly that he has been faithful to his wife?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KURT: Well, joining us now from Florida is the political editor of "The Orlando Sentinel," Mark Silva. Here in Washington, John Harris of "The Washington Post" and Rich Lowry, editor of "National Review."

Mark Silva, should Florida newspapers have written about this rumor, for which there is not an iota or scintilla of evidence, as several did, before Jeb Bush put it in play by publicly denying it?

MARK SILVA, POLITICAL EDITOR, "THE ORLANDO SENTINEL": No, it shouldn't have been -- the rumor itself shouldn't have been written about. And what we did write about, when we decided to write, was the governor's decision to publicly address the issue.

We were content never to write about a rumor that had no basis in fact and would have remained that way. When the governor decided he was ready to talk publicly, that in fact became the story, and that's when we started writing.

KURTZ: Rich Lowry, since this did start on this Web site, Democrats.com, founded by a former Clinton White House aide, and made its way into the mainstream press, was the mainstream press acting irresponsibly here?

RICH LOWRY, EDITOR, "NATIONAL REVIEW": I think so, and I think it's a little unfair to put the onus here on Jeb Bush for giving the story legitimacy. He saw it seeping into the mainstream media and thought he had to preempt it and stop it...

KURTZ: He could have ignored it. He could have said, "I'm not going to dignify it."

LOWRY: Well, he figured this was the best way to put a stake through it.

But, you know, this isn't going to end unless responsible news outlets decide not -- not just that they're not going to report on unsubstantiated rumors, but they're not going to report on denials of unsubstantiated rumors.

If I ask Jeb Bush tomorrow...

KURTZ: You're suggesting...

LOWRY: If I ask Jeb Bush, have you robbed a bank? And he says no, is that news? No, it shouldn't be. Because there's no evidence...

KURTZ: So, he goes... LOWRY: ... he's robbed a bank.

KURTZ: He goes before the cameras and makes this emotional statement, I've been faithful to my wife. This rumor is an outright lie. And you're suggesting that that news organizations not touch it?

LOWRY: If media figures are serious about complaining about the culture of rumor and innuendo and how politicians don't have private lives anymore, yes, they should make a willful choice to abstain from reporting even on the denials.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Let's pick up the accusation by the governor. Standards have changed in some of the media. Standards have changed? If standards have so changed, then the media is a pushover for a rumor.

JOHN HARRIS, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I think less -- the issue is less that the standards in the media have change, but that whatever this creature is, the so-called "media," has changed.

You know, people have been gossiping, I'm sorry to break this to anybody, they've been gossiping about the private lives of public figures for a millennium, as long as there have been public figures. And reporters have always known this and swapped gossip in bars and so forth.

The problem is, this thing called the "media" is now everywhere. Anybody with a Web site is part of the media. Things that used to be the domain of a rather small group in rumor now are known everywhere. We saw it, I think, in a more serious instance that this with the Juanita Broderick story back a couple of years ago.

When NBC was researching that story of President Clinton, everybody who had interest knew about the story months before it ever ran, or weeks before.

KALB: There's not -- there's a little bit of a contrast, if my memory is right. The president never, himself, did a flat out denial on the Juanita story. But in this case, you have the governor repudiating the story totally.

HARRIS: Yeah, but as Rich was saying, there was a reality that had already been created by the fact that people were discussing this and lots of people knew about it. And so, I mean, the governor was acknowledging the reality in a way that he thought was appropriate.

KURTZ: And on that point, Mark Silva, you wrote, based on the governor's office telling you on the record, you wrote the day before his news conference that he was prepared to take the question.

You go to the news conference. You're the reporter who asks the question, "Governor, what about this rumor"? And then, as we saw at the top, Jeb Bush said, "Well, that question is sickening."

I wonder how you felt about that characterization when, after all, you had all but been invited to ask it. SILVA: Well, he had a certain role to play. And he's correct in a sense. It is sickening to have to discuss this. I understood that situation.

But I think you have to go back to something that was suggested here, which is the expanded definition of the media. There is a wide and broad range of media that exists today, most of which doesn't ascribe to the standards which we in journalism have traditionally held valuable.

And, you can't maintain, as a mainstream newspaper, a veil of silence as there is a growing crescendo of Internet and other types of -- "The Guardian" was mentioned. You can't just stand back and ignore situations which are real and must be addressed in some capacity.

I think the responsible media must, at some point, decide at which point something has become so, discussed so broadly and so widely, and I'll...

KURTZ: So, you're saying you get stampeded. Everyone else does it, you've got to do it.

SILVA: Well, no. I'll recommend to you that this was so widely discussed around the state of Florida that this had gotten beyond a rumor. This was something that the governor felt it was incumbent upon him to protect his family, for one, and to also look out for his political career, for two.

He made the decision to confront it. I would have been perfectly content, and my newspaper would have been content to not write about this ever, because it was baseless.

KALB: Listen, Rich, I don't want to give the media total acquittal, but isn't it reckless on our part to use the word "media" across the board, take in establishment newspapers and take in tabloid riff-raff at the end, and say the media this, and the media that. Shouldn't we be more, how should I put it, definitively discriminating when we deal with the word "media"?

LOWRY: Well, right. I think that -- I think that...

HARRIS: We don't have the ability to license these people. The media is free. The Internet exists under the same first amendment privileges that we operate under. And the media has become so diffuse and diverse that we can't control the market share, it's out there.

LOWRY: But the fact is, is that we would not be talking about the story if it had just been on Democrats.com. We're talking about it because a reporter from a reputable paper asked the governor this question at a press conference.

And it's sickening -- let me...

KALB: We're not talking about it for that.

LOWRY: ... if it's sickening that he has to answer the question, why isn't it sickening to ask it in the first place?

KALB: Listen, you've got...

SILVA: Well, the governor made it well known that he wanted to be asked the question. I was not specifically invited. I was not setup. It was not a setup situation, but he had made it very well known that he wanted to be asked the question. I took it upon myself to ask the question.

LOWRY: But you agree, it's a sickening question to ask?

SILVA: I didn't enjoy it.

LOWRY: OK.

KURTZ: John Harris, you've been through this probably a couple of dozen times. During the Clinton years we had all kinds of stories, rumors, innuendo, that made its way from British newspapers, tabloids, "The Drudge Report," the infamous love child story...

HARRIS: By the way, we went around this similar question on Bob Dole at our newspaper, at "The Washington Post" in 1996. So, I mean, it's an old issue.

KURTZ: So, is Rich Lowry engaging in a little selective outrage now that a Republican is the target of one of these things?

HARRIS: No, I don't think so. But I don't think his sort of, that we all go into a consent order and agree this is not right or say anything about it, and pretend that something is out there that doesn't exist, it's simply not practical.

I mean, I think the solution to the thing, if there is a solution, is a little bit of a shoulder shrug. And that is because the public is now accustomed to this. They discount it. Probably, there are many, many people who are titillated by the rumor about Jeb Bush. There are not many who are going to make serious judgments about his capacity as Florida governor, or even for that matter about his personal values and character, based on this, you know, essential nonsense story.

LOWRY: I don't think we're too far from each other on what we're saying on this. Shoulder shrug is a good way to put it. What have we learned about Jeb Bush, Florida politics, or anything that is important in this story? Nothing. The entire thing has been built on sand.

KURTZ: Well, I should note that "The New York Times" and some other papers didn't write a word, that I could find, even about Governor Bush's public denial, so they were...

LOWRY: And that was correct news judgment.

KURTZ: ... perhaps following the Lowry standard.

Taking a look back, Mark Silva, was this kind of a sad day for Florida journalism? I mean, a number of papers went with this rumor. The first one didn't print the names, it was kind of a wink and a nod. And maybe it did kind of build up to a certain critical mass where Jeb Bush felt that he had to go public.

SILVA: Well, there were a certain couple of sad events surrounding it. There was a column written a few days before hand which was simply a rumor-type column. It served no purpose whatsoever, and it didn't distinguish the newspaper that produced it...

KURTZ: That was "The Tallahassee Democrat"?

SILVA: It was. And then "The St. Petersburg Times" mentioned in a column that the governor was denying this privately and did not mention that he would be denying it publicly, so they stepped out there too.

A couple of newspapers did step out. And who knows, it might have reached a point that there was such peer pressure that everyone would have been involved.

KURTZ: Right.

SILVA: But we maintained from the beginning that until the point in time that there was some public reason to discuss it, we would not. The governor provided -- the governor provided that reason.

KURTZ: Just to clarify the -- denying it privately referred to some off record conversations that Governor Bush had with you and some other reporters...

SILVA: That's right.

KURTZ: ... before he decided to address this publicly.

SILVA: That's correct. Which would have remained confidential if there wasn't another reason to confront it.

KALB: Four second question. Has the governor's reaction put this story to rest?

SILVA: I would like think to think so. I would like to think that the public is prone to accept someone is innocent until proven guilty and is probably sick of this issue as well.

KURTZ: Your four seconds have expired Mark Silva, "Orlando Sentinel," thanks very much for joining us.

Well, up next, the still raging debate over whether reporters are soft on President Bush compared to former-President Clinton. And some new thoughts about what some describe as the right-wing conspiracy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES with John Harris and Rich Lowry. John Harris, you stirred up quite a fuss by writing that press coverage of President Bush is way softer than that of Bill Clinton, and attributing it in part to the lack of what might be called a left- wing conspiracy. Explain.

HARRIS: Well, you know, I write as somebody who is a veteran of the Clinton wars, if you will, I spent six years covering the guy. And the origin of the piece was that my phone was ringing off the hook with former Clinton aides, you know, essentially whining about things President Bush was doing and saying, "Can you imagine if we had done that what the reaction would be"?

KURTZ: Take China, for example. Very certainly.

HARRIS: Yeah, it was an example, and there was a whole bunch. And I was kind of in the difficult position of I essentially agreed with them, that the reaction would have been different. And I said, "What is the reason"?

I don't know if the media has been soft on President Bush. I don't think there's any less willingness to ask questions or to cover things. But I do think what's different is that when things are reported, the reaction and echo of those stories is much, much less.

And I think the reason for that is that, you know, there is a professional noise industry on the right to stir up controversy, or when there are controversies to exploit them for maximum benefit...

(CROSSTALK)

HARRIS: ... care about on the left, but they're not as organized. They're not as methodical.

KURTZ: You're a noisy guy. Isn't John Harris right, that there are an awful lot of conservative pundits, talk show hosts, agitators, bomb throwers, who did help make life difficult for President Clinton and that Bush doesn't seem to suffer from that, at least so far?

LOWRY: Well, sure. If the point is that there is a burgeoning alternative conservative media, the answer is yes, of course there is. But, often times this alternative media goes against the grain of the mainstream media and is paddling upstream, you know? Unless I'm forgetting something, I don't think the right-wing conspiracy had very sympathetic coverage or press during the Clinton years.

And the fact is, one, there's a study out recently, the first hundred days of Bush coverage versus the first hundred days of Clinton coverage, and that said Bush's coverage has been a little more critical than Clinton's was. Specifically when it comes to policy issues, because reporters are not sympathetic at all, in any way, to the Bush policy agenda. Whereas, in their hearts, I think they were more sympathetic to the Clinton agenda.

And also we have to consider, you know, if Bush had had high profile suicides or controversial firings in these early months, I think the tenor of the coverage would have been, you know, drastically different. And Clinton had all those things in his early months.

KALB: John, when I read your piece, your controversial piece, let me use that adjective, I thought it was brilliant. And then, a moment later, I was...

(CROSSTALK)

KALB: And a moment later I was smitten by a second thought, which essentially is this, and let me overstate it. Didn't you do a portrait of the media as a stenographer for the right-wing? Just taking down what the right-wing was saying critical of the president, and publishing it everywhere? That they had abdicated journalistic responsibility and, as I say, had simply become a stenographer?

HARRIS: No, by no means. And some people did interpret it that way, so that's probably fair to my point to not make that point. Or, as Rich points out, there was plenty of critical coverage of this right-wing noise machine.

That's not our job, to be stenographers. But the question is, we do, when there is a big fuss, cover a big fuss, and people can succeed in creating a big fuss and, I think, effect the prism through which political leaders are viewed. And, they also have the ability, having control of Congress doesn't hurt with the investigative power of that, to take stories that might, under some circumstances, go away, or might become big, ongoing scandals.

The travel office is a good example of that. It's a genuine story that you could, under some circumstances, imagine people saying, "Well, what the heck." Or you could imagine, under other circumstances, it becoming a big, ongoing story.

KALB: Yeah, but you've got to pick and choose. After all, you simply don't grab hold of a, what is it, a press release, and publish it because somebody said it.

Let me go on to the next one: does Hillary have a point? Think about it. Was there a vast, right-wing conspiracy doing in Clinton?

LOWRY: Conspiracy is a very strong word. But were there people on the right who were bitterly opposed to Bill Clinton from the beginning and wanted to do everything they could to oppose him? Of course there was. Are there people on the left who are doing the same thing right now? Of course there are.

KALB: Is it comparable?

KURTZ: Speaking of people on the left, what do you make of folks who say, and I have been deluged by e-mail on this subject since I wrote about it, who say, "You know, the press isn't liberal. It's conservative. You people are doing the bidding of your corporate masters. You're cozying up to Bush. You're getting seduced by getting nicknames." There is some anger out there among people who you would think would like the so-called "liberal press" who now say the press has gone conservative. You don't buy that? LOWRY: No, I don't buy it. One, if you look at the evidence, the coverage of Bush's policy has been fairly critical. I don't see...

KURTZ: But certainly not him personally.

LOWRY: Well, right. Because what is there to criticize about him personally? I mean, he's a...

KURTZ: So, if you get in less trouble than Bill Clinton...

LOWRY: ... he gets into less trouble. And, John, I think perhaps a mistake you're making is kind of looking at the coverage of Clinton retroactively. You know, during most of the Clinton administration, most of the Clinton scandals, the main media spin we had out of those scandals was that Dan Burton is a dangerous nut.

It's only after Lewinski and after, especially, the pardons, that now we look back and say, "Oh, we all agree that Clinton was ethically challenged"...

KURTZ: Equal time. You've got about 20 seconds to respond.

HARRIS: Well, I don't buy it, because if you look at the, just the opening hundred days, and I went back and read some of the briefings. You know, George Stephanopoulos just getting raked over every single day by a really surly press corp. And I don't think Ari Fleischer gets that treatment.

Again, though, on the conspiracy point, it's not a conspiracy. It's legitimate and it's out there in the open. Everyone can see it. Yes, there's anger on the left. It tends not to be as organized and methodical.

KURTZ: The question is how much the press needs to be effected by that. But that's a question for another day because we are out of time.

John Harris, Rich Lowry, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, let us know your thoughts about presidential coverage and pressure from the right and left. Our e-mail address is reliable@cnn.com.

And when we come back, some baby talk from "Bernie's Back Page."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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

KALB: Hand out the cigars. We're celebrating the arrival of two new babies and the announcement of a third, and so too are the media, in a manner of speaking.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS ANCHOR: 36-year-old Jane Swift gave birth by Caesarean section last night.

KALB (voice-over): This isn't a simple birth announcement. It's a news story. Two babies, born just days ago in Boston to the Republican governor of Massachusetts, the first U.S. governor to give birth while in office. And the media has been working the pros and cons of the challenge of juggling the two roles and mom and poll.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do we devalue motherhood or the governorship of Massachusetts?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Women and men who work have children.

KALB: The Brits recently went through a variation of this when the prime minister's wife had a baby and there was a bit of a hubbub about Tony's taking any time off for paternity leave.

As for that third new baby, here's the future mother, crowned princess Masako, half a world away in Tokyo. Her baby isn't due until the end of the year, but already the Japanese media are focusing on the possibility of a sexual shake up of the Chrysanthemum throne, 2,600 years old. And whether the princesses baby will be a boy or a girl.

Very important, because in Japan only a male can succeed to the throne, and there hasn't been an imperial male born since 1965. But the new Japanese prime minister says he personally has no problem with a female emperor, and that is a very, very big story in the land of the rising sun.

A year-and-a-half ago, the princess had a miscarriage and Japanese officials blamed it on the media frenzy surrounding her pregnancy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KALB: So, what does all this tell us about the media? Well, a cynic might say there's no escape from the media's invasion of privacy, beginning with the cradle. In fact, even before you are born.

But babies are not only cute, they can also be news stories. But let's not get into that. All I want to do right now is hand out cigars.

KURTZ: I want to go on the record as being very strongly pro- baby.

Bernard Kalb, thanks.

Well, up next, one anchor's haircut and another's big pay day in our RELIABLE SOURCES "Media Roundup."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) RATHER: Look, it got to be spring. I thought, well, I needed a haircut. And the barber cut it a little shorter than I might have thought ideal, but I tipped him fairly well anyway, and so here we are. But, you know, life's about change, it's about renewal, and so that's part of what the hell I've done to my hair.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: CBS's Dan Rather explaining how he ended up with what he calls his modified boot camp cut.

Well, checking another RELIABLE SOURCES media item, just back and CNN Anchor Lou Dobbs is still on the speaking circuit.

The "MONEYLINE" host interviewed Ford Motor Companies top guy on the air Tuesday and this weekend he'll be picking up a fee estimated at as much as $30,000 to speak to Ford executives and dealers in Florida.

CNN policy is that "as a general rule, paid speeches were not be permitted" to a group you are likely to report on or whose payment could be embarrassing to CNN.

But company brass say they cleared the speech because it was arranged before Dobbs agreed to return to the network.

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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