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Were Journalists Taken by White House Vandalism Story?; Should Media Back Off Bush Twins?; What is the Modern State of Journalism?

Aired June 2, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The trashing of the White House. Was the press taken for a ride by the Bush team? And have journalists buried the news clearing the Clinton staff of vandalism? All the President's daughters -- should the media lay off the Bush girls and their alcohol incidents? And has TV news become fake news? A conversation with Daniel Schorr.

Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES where we turn a critical lens on the media. I'm Howard Kurtz along with Bernard Kalb. We'll get to the supposed trashing of the White House in just a moment but first, the question of whether the press is going overboard in covering the Bush daughters.

KURTZ: Austin police cited Jenna and Barbara Bush Thursday for underage alcohol violations with Jenna using a fake ID to buy drinks. The White House spokesman told reporters to be careful how they pursued the story.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I think you really want to ask yourself these questions about, do you want the American people to know that you're asking about private conversations that took place between the President of the United States and his child?


KURTZ: Well, joining us now is Marie Cocco, columnist for "Newsday" and Jonah Goldberg, editor of "National Review Online." Welcome.

Jonah Goldberg, I'm a hawk on the idea that the press should basically to leave presidential kids alone. They didn't ask to grow up in this adversity bubble. But when the police are involved and when the police twice in five weeks cite Jenna Bush for alcohol violations, isn't that -- doesn't that have to be news?

JONAH GOLDBERG, "NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE": It can be news -- it doesn't necessarily need to have to be the front page of "The New York Post" saying, "Jenna and Tonic" and it doesn't need to fill hour upon hour of the cable news networks. It's an interesting thing when Al Gore's daughter, Sarah, was busted for having beer underage in suburban Maryland. It made the back of the Metro section of "The Washington Post." It seems reasonable to me that that's the sort of scale we should be talking about.

KURTZ: Of course, the first violation by Jenna Bush, the press generally gave very scant coverage. It was the second one that kind of launched this story into the stratosphere.

GOLDBERG: Fair enough but at the same time there were other incidents that have been talked about in terms of the Gore family. Everyone keeps saying how...

KURTZ: Do you think the press is being harder on Bush?

GOLDBERG: Oh, I think, absolutely. I think part of it they're visiting the sins of the father because of this story about all of his stuff which he should have come clean on about his own drinking and they think, "Ah-hah, there's this sort of connect the dots with their daughter." And I don't think that's fair at all.

BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Let me translate what Jonah said into this phrase, liberal bias -- you wrote a column in Online. You talked about liberal "got you" journalism and so forth. Do you agree with me that I think his assessment is hugely simplistic?

MARIE COCCO, "NEWSDAY": Absolutely. First of all, the Gore daughter wasn't busted. He used the term "she was busted." She wasn't busted. She was sitting in a car with a can of beer and my recollection of that story is that she was essentially written what amounts to a traffic ticket for it. Here we have three incidents...

KALB: We want to come back to this...

COCCO: ... three incidents...

KALB: ... because it's about liberal bias...

COCCO: Liberal bias?

KALB: Is it involved?

COCCO: Well, here's some bias -- here's some bias that I see in the coverage of Jenna Bush. The very first incident involving Jenna Bush and alcohol didn't involve her at all -- it involved her sending her secret service agents to a local jail essentially to bail out or spring a friend of her's who had been thrown in jail for being drunk or being at some kind of a college party where underage drinking was going on.

Now, I would venture to say that had Chelsea Clinton, for example, used her taxpayer-funded body guards to go spring a college buddy for drinking, the press would have not only played it much bigger than they did that first incident for Jenna Bush but it would have been categorized as another Clinton scandal.

GOLDBERG: You may be right. If Chelsea did something like that it would be play like that. But -- and when...

COCCO: And when Jenna did it, it was barely mentioned. GOLDBERG: But people are saying -- but people are saying that, "Oh, what if this were Chelsea? What if this were Chelsea?" Do we not know that this may not have been Chelsea? Chelsea might have had had...

COCCO: Chelsea was never arrested.

KURTZ: One thing we do know is that the police...

GOLDBERG: And that's a crucial distinction here.

KURTZ: I just want to clarify not everybody has gone crazy on this story. For example, ABC and NBC News a couple of sentences. CBS News did nothing. CNN has certainly covered it. But a lot of people are telling me, Jonah Goldberg, "College kids having a beer -- everyone does it. The press should lay off." Do they have a point?

GOLDBERG: Absolutely. I mean, look, it's a difficult stone for me to throw considering the fact that I probably had more fake IDs than James Bond when I was underage and -- but this is hardly against the norm in America. And this is being blown wildly out of proportion I think in part because it's good visuals -- people like looking at these attractive girls and they like scoring certain points about Republicans being judgmental and, "Ah-hah, look, these kids are doing it."

KALB: I just don't -- Jonah, what is the rush toward this lyrical acquittal you're giving if you break the law if you violate the law? Is there such a thing as a law or is it to be tinkered with and toyed with and ignored?

GOLDBERG: I totally agree that it's against the law.

KALB: The minute you say "it's against the law" your entire argument collapses.

GOLDBERG: Well, I wish you had said that during the Lewinsky scandal when it's against the law to perjure yourself. Those are the kinds of arguments that -- I agree it's against the law but of among all of the laws in the United States, the idea that this is somehow, because it's their daughter who is drinking underage, is somehow such a rouge exception. I mean, otherwise you would be filling the airwaves with the sons of CEOs and Congressmen.

COCCO: I don't believe that the press has treated this in an inappropriate way and I will tell you why.

KURTZ: You'll have to tell us why in about one second.

COCCO: Sure. It's -- it does involve law enforcement activity. And I think the press in general -- in general -- has been fairly circumspect about getting into questions that are outside of law enforcement activity whether it's parties...

KURTZ: OK. COCCO: ... or father-son, father-daughter conversations. I think we've been fairly circumspect about everything that has not directly intersected with law.

KURTZ: I could certainly do without a lot of this pop psychology coverage. But turning now to our other topic. Remember those news reports back in January and February about how the departing Clinton aides had trashed the White House?


KURTZ (voice-over): Those stories may have been short on proof but they reverberated across the media echo chamber. At the time, some critics, including on this program, urged the media to be skeptical.

JOSHUA MARSHALL, "THE AMERICAN PROSPECT": The charges escalated and escalated. More and more things -- destruction of property, trash everywhere. And at a certain point, journalists started asking for some actual proof -- some pictures -- someone to go on the record and actually say this happened.

KURTZ: But the vandalism scandal wouldn't die. Now, four months later the General Services Administration found apart from a couple of minor pranks, the condition of the White House was quote, "Consistent with what we would expect to encounter when tenants vacate office space after extended occupancy."

Since this report came out some news outlets have run brief stories, others simply ignored the findings. But did the original charges, based on unnamed Bush Administration sources, get too much play? And did the corrections and clarifications get way too little?


KURTZ: Marie Cocco, was the press basically used by these unnamed sources -- these Bush sources -- in reporting what turned out to be trumped up charges?

COCCO: No question. I recently did a column on this subject and I looked through pretty much everything that was written in the print press and got the transcripts of a lot of the broadcasts that were done. And there isn't a single named source in any of these allegations nor is there a single element of proof every offered. And the journalists just ran away with just an army of unnamed sources...

KURTZ: Right.

COCCO: ... sort of exploding this into "Animal House Trashes the White House." And, in fact, fairly early on the White House started gingerly backing away but never ever coming out and saying, "Hey, folks, this really didn't happen."

KURTZ: And you're always willing to believe the worst about anything having to do with Clinton and his people. But I'm sure that even you, Jonah Goldberg, would admit the journalists were taken for something of a ride here?

GOLDBERG: I believe they were taken for something of a ride and I think the journalists themselves stepped on the gas way too much. I mean I'm not quite clear why this is entirely something we should -- I read your column and it was a wonderful column but I don't quite understand why it should be laid entirely at the feet of the Bush's to be the perpetrators of this. You've got to remember the media climate at the time was during the pardon scandal...

KURTZ: Sure.

GOLDBERG: ... it was during Clinton's brouhaha five farewell parties or whatever it was at the end of his term. It was during the general tackiness where even Democrats were just beating the tar out of the guy.

KURTZ: So...

GOLDBERG: And this story feed into that climate. The Bush -- Ari Fleischer, within three days of the story first surfacing backed off of the story and basically said it wasn't true.

COCCO: Jonah, I have to be very honest with you -- as recently as last week when confronted with the statement from both the General Services Administration and the GAO, Ari Fleischer still has never made an unequivocal statement from that podium saying, "You're right, it never happened."

KURTZ: Sure. Bernie?

COCCO: The White House is still pursuing...

KURTZ: Bernie, is that...

COCCO: ... a two-track strategy on that.

KALB: I've got to get one quick question in. You're a reporter. You've been misled by these unnamed sources.

COCCO: I wasn't misled.

KALB: Theoretical you, right?

COCCO: Theoretically.

KALB: You've been misled. You put it in the newspapers, on television -- the trashing of the White House. Now that the story turns out to be a fake, do you go public with the names of the sources who misled you?

COCCO: No, I would not. But I would never talk to them again. I think that -- I think that what's done is done. The most forthright thing to do is to play the exoneration such as it is, if you want to call it that, or to play up the fact of these official findings now...

KURTZ: But that is exactly -- excuse me... COCCO: ... with equal weight that the original story was played with.

KURTZ: ... that was -- that was exactly what didn't happen. "The Washington Post" ran a brief wire story, "The Chicago Tribune" ran a brief wire story, CNN used a part of a conversation with John King. "USA Today," NBC's "Today Show" ran nothing. So what ever happened to the notion that the acquittal should get the same prominence as the indictment?

GOLDBERG: I have to say it warms the cockles of my conservative heart to see liberal journalists worrying about such a thing because this has been the bentoire for conservatives for generations -- this idea that The New York Times will run a story about global warming or whatever and then bury the fact that these studies aren't true in the back. Yeah, the Bush White House got away with something here but it was part of a larger climate.

KURTZ: I'm glad your heart is warm. Jonah Goldberg, Marie Cocco, thanks very much. Thanks very much for joining us. More on the first order in Bernie's Backpage but up next, a conversation with veteran journalist, Daniel Schorr.


KURTZ: When veteran journalist Daniel Schorr received one of his many honors, a Lifetime Achievement Award, he joked that it was for lifetime achievement so far because Daniel Schorr is still kicking. A long time CBS correspondent who later joined CNN when this network began and now works for National Public Radio, shares his story in his new book, "Stay in Tune: A Life in Journalism." Daniel Schorr joins us here in Washington, welcome.


KURTZ: My favorite story in this book is when you were interviewing the East German leader in 1962.


KURTZ: And he got mad and walked off.

SCHORR: Right.

KURTZ: And you were seen in the piece just sort of very calmly nodding.

SCHORR: Right.

KURTZ: And later you had lunch with the ultimate boss of CBS, Bill Perry.


KURTZ: Describe that conversation. SCHORR: Well, so Bill Perry collects all his European correspondent at lunch at the Ritz in Paris and he turns to me and says, "That East German documentary with you was very good. But you want to know what impressed me most?" I said, "What, sir?" He said, "There was that interview you did with the East German Communist boss and so on and so forth and he didn't like your questions and he got mad and he stood up and began railing at you in German and calling you a lot of names.

"And then finally he said, `This interview is over.' And he stalks out of the room with the camera running. That was a great thing," he said. "But you know what impressed me most was the calm, serene way you kept looking back at him while he was bawling you out."

KURTZ: And what did you tell him?

SCHORR: And I giggled and I said, "Apparently you must know that the shots of me nodding were taken after the interview was all over -- they are cut away shots." He said, "They are what?" I said, "Cut away shots -- you understand where you have to do this thing where in order to help edit the thing that we're talking about -- not tape but about 16 millimeter film. And in order to edit this thing, they need to have shots to cut away to in the course of the interview." "And if you do it later is that honest," said Mr. Perry. And I said, "Gee, now that you mention it I don't know, sir, but I learned this in your network."

KALB: Then are you now confessing the extent of theater in what are normally called "the good old golden days of journalism?" If that is the case, what about the theater in today's journalism? I want you to go future tense instead of past for a moment.

SCHORR: Well, future tense I think they -- where they -- everything that we call journalism in television occupies a little corner of a vast entertainment stage. We've had some examples in the past, for example, of ABC showing us what was reported to be surveillance film of a Soviet spy in Vienna. It turned out they reenacted it using their own personnel. We have seen NBC show us the gas tank on a GM truck might explode because of the way it's exposed. It did explode. They didn't tell us they put an explosive cap in there to make it explode for them.

What has happened is the world of illusion is seeping in and taking over this profession that we all love so much. And where is it going to end? I saw where the end is going to be. I saw on the Internet a computer generated anchorperson -- a rather good-looking woman. Her head jerked a little bit more than you would expect but we won't be needed at all -- computers will do it for us.

KURTZ: And into this glittery, entertainment celebrity-saturated culture comes a new generation of journalists trying to make their way in this business.

SCHORR: Right.

KURTZ: You work or have worked with some of them. What do you make of the younger generation from the old bulls, if I may use that phrase?

SCHORR: What I make of it is, in the old days, people like Bernie and myself came to television from newspaper work. We had a good grounding in what the information was about and how to present it and all of that. Although I must interrupt to tell you that at one point when I joined CBS and looked at television and didn't know how to act on television, I asked one of the young producers there, "What do I need to know -- what's the secret of success for a newspaper man going into television news?" And he said, "The secret of success is sincerity. If you can fake that you've got it made."

KALB: Was it true?


KALB: Did you find it to be true, guy?

SCHORR: Well, I learned. I learned to put on make up, I learned how to do cut away shots. I learned how to do three kinds of cut away shots -- the one where you're agreeing with the guy sort of, the one where you're neutral sort of and the one when you're disagreeing sort of and you look like that.

KURTZ: Well, let me look at this and disagree because you ducked a question which was about younger journalists -- you got side tracked.

SCHORR: The younger generation -- thank you for that. The younger journalists are growing up without our background and learning immediately they're all very good at camera angles, interviewing people, "How did it feel when the plane came down?" All of those things. Knowing how to take do tape. They can cut tape. They can do anything.

KURTZ: But -- there's a "but" coming there.

SCHORR: The "but" there is they've learned all of the techniques and nobody is teaching them the essentials of the information they're supposed to convey.

KURTZ: We've been talking in recent weeks about whether the press corps has been too soft on President Bush. What's your take?

SCHORR: I don't think they've been too soft. I talk bout manipulation of the media. It's not a question of what the media do it's a question of what manipulation makes the media do. If President Bush goes out to a nice place and makes a nice speech there's nothing to do but cover what he's doing.

KURTZ: Because you're just passive to the stenographers who have staged by the administration.

SCHORR: I think more and more we are passive stenographers. Yes, I think so. And those who blame us -- most of the people in politics who blame us for being nasty to them are really being nasty to themselves. They've done something to get into trouble. We didn't invent Clinton's problems. We didn't invent whatever problems Governor Bush in Florida may have right.

We don't know about those things. These are people who either come off very well because they do very well or if they do something that doesn't look very good and we learn about it then they're in trouble. But I don't think we have axes sharpened for these people. We take them as we see them.

KALB: Dan, you won lots of awards for investigative journalism. What do you think of investigative journalism right now?

SCHORR: Well, I think it's in a sad state.

KALB: Do you need a -- do you need a magnifying to find it.

SCHORR: You need a magnifying glass to find real investigative journalism because what's happened is, investigative journalism used to be, "What kind of big secrets is the government keeping from us?" And, "Whom did they assassinate?" and all of that. It's now become scandalmongery. That's what people look for today.

Their mind generation -- the new Woodward and Bernstein's all wanted to find out what terrible things were happening in the government. This generation wants to know what's happening in the President's bedroom.

KURTZ: Interesting contrast. Dan Schorr, National Public Radio, author of "Staying in Tune," thank you very much for joining us.

SCHORR: Thank you.

KALB: Good luck.

SCHORR: Thank you.

KURTZ: More RELIABLE SOURCES straight ahead.


KURTZ: Welcome back. And checking on our RELIABLE SOURCES media item, last month we told you how an editor and top journalist had quit the Hollywood Reporter over a spike story about the ethics of society columnist George Christy. Now the trade paper has suspended Christy indefinitely. Christy denies doing anything improper but he's the focus of a screen actors' guild probe into whether he received free office space, expensive gifts and bogus film credits from his showbiz sources.

And checking our e-mail bag, on our discussion of Vermont senator, Jim Jeffords, leaving the Republican Party quote: "You bring up whether the press went overboard with speculation and amount and type of coverage. Then the reporters say, "Oh, yes, it's necessary," and everybody goes home. Nobody is every really held accountable."

And thanks to our sharp-eyed viewers for spotting that typo in that segment. As one viewer writes, "Duh, how do you spell political?" Let us know our hits and misses -- write us at

And when we come back, Bernie's "Backpage" -- a historical look at reporters and children of presidents.


KURTZ: Time now for "The Backpage," Bernie?

KALB: A last word on the media, Jenna and Barbara, but a few statistics to begin with.


KALB (voice-over): We've had 43 presidents at last count. Only six of them had no children. And that includes George Washington but he's gone down in history as the father of a whole country. Even so that George never had the problems of our latest George.

MATT LAUER, HOST, "TODAY SHOW": Police in Texas are investigating whether President Bush's college -aged daughters, Jenna and Barbara, illegally tried to buy alcohol. It's not Jenna's first brush with the law.

KALB: All this coverage raises the question of whether the media should be zeroing in on the personal lives of the un-elected children of presidents. And this president, even before his election, left no doubt about where he stands.

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm asking you again to just be respectful of these two little girls.

KALB: But this is not exactly a new debate. For example, "People Magazine" did a cover story on Chelsea during the Monica event. This left the Clinton's profoundly saddened. Even though the media had previously backed off on covering Chelsea during her early teens.

A generation ago, Amy Carter, only nine years old, got a media once-over when her father was accused by his critics of politically exploiting his daughter by enrolling her in a public and not a private school. Incidentally, the reverse of this got Clinton a lot of flack when he enrolled his daughter in a private school.

And here's another one from the history books -- his famous high noon drama going back 50 years when "The Washington Post"'s music critic panned Margaret Truman's vocal performance at Constitution Hall here in Washington and the commander in chief threatened to beat him up.


KALB: It's been an on and off relationship of how the media deals with the White House offspring -- sometimes close up, sometimes hands off. But we live in a media age gets worse every year where all celebrities are considered fair game if you get the perks. Because of your links with the Oval Office, you also get the media along with it.

And getting caught in the media spotlight especially when you're old enough to know what the consequences are is part of the job of being the President's kids.

KURTZ: Of course, no one applies for that job, but I guess it does come with the territory. 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.



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