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Did `Talk' Magazine Go Too Far With Bush Twins Satire?; The Impact of the President's Decision on Stem Cells

Aired August 11, 2001 - 18:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, CO-HOST: The White House refuses to talk to one magazine. Did Tina Brown's "Talk" magazine go too far with a photo spread satirizing George Bush's daughters as jailbirds? And should Team Bush be retaliating against journalists who offend them?

And home on the ranch. The president takes a long vacation but squeezes in his first prime time speech on stem cell research.

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

One week in a month-long vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush took the media by surprise by taking to the airwaves in prime time to announce his decision on stem cell research.


FOREST SAWYER, MSNBC ANCHOR: If you are just joining us, President Bush has just announced his decision regarding federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. He is allowing it in limited fashion, that is to say, the federal funding of experimentation on existing stem cell lines, those that have been developed with other embryos and will not require further destruction of human embryos.


KURTZ: Well, joining us now from Crawford, Texas, CNN White House correspondent Kelly Wallace. And here in Washington, Dana Milbank, White House correspondent for "The Washington Post," and Deborah Oren, Washington bureau chief for "The New York Post."

Dana Milbank, did Bush opt for prime-time speech on this subject, in part because the stem cell story had kind of spun out of control, with the media full -- filled with speculation and reports and handicapping about what he could and would and should do?

DANA MILBANK, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, that's part of it. The other part of it is the media was full of reports about how President Bush had gone off for a month-long vacation and was loafing around in Texas. And I'm sure it was not a coincidence that this was an excellent way to show that he was back on the job and working hard. BERNARD KALB, CO-HOST: Kelly, was the decision to go ahead with the speech saved for Texas, to use the Texas dateline to offset the image of being out there on vacation in the state?

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, two things. Number one, you heard Scott McLellan, the president's spokesman here in Crawford, when he came out and talked to reporters yes -- Thursday. He said this shows you again that the president is on a working vacation.

But number two, they really wanted the president to use his Texas ranch as a backdrop. You heard aides saying that this issue had become something that the American people were talking about over the dinner table. I think aides were saying that this issue is clearly important to everyone in this country, and so therefore they felt like no better place for the president to announce it than from what they call the heartland here in Crawford, Texas.

KURTZ: Deborah Oren, all this media griping about Bush being on a month-long vacation in August, when everybody knows nothing happens in Washington except people like us are still here, and two days after he's gone, CNN and "USA Today" run this poll, 55 percent say the vacation is too long. Aren't we going a little overboard on this question?

DEBORAH OREN, "THE NEW YORK POST": I think so. You know, one of the funny things is, whenever Bill Clinton went on vacation, his poll ratings went up. We're not that political a country. A lot of people actually are happier if the president stays out of their face for a while.

KURTZ: And Kelly Wallace, just help us understand this vacation, working vacation, whatever you want to call it. What's it like for reporters there in Crawford other than being hot? And, you know, people have the impression that maybe you're hanging out at the ranch. Where are you actually based.

WALLACE: Well, first of all, no, we are not even allowed close to the ranch. We're about seven miles away here at Crawford Elementary School. We have taken over the elementary school, and this is where we work. I think two things, Howie.

One, you know, a lot of reporters complaining about coming to Crawford for the month of August, but most reporters seem to be having a good time, because, A, we've had a bit more news than we thought we might have. We have seen the president a little bit more. Maybe that is because aides were a bit sensitive to all this talk about the president taking off for about 30 days. So we've seen him on the golf course. He's been bantering with reporters about a variety of issues. We saw him do an event in Waco, Texas.

And then, of course, we knew that at some point during this vacation we were going to get the stem cell decision. Clearly, obviously, we had it this week. So reporters have had a lot to cover and don't seem to mind being out of the Beltway a bit.

KURTZ: No crankiness there.

KALB: What about that immortal sentence, Are you taking any naps in the afternoon, sir? The president got rather impatient with that. The question was repeated. A little too -- how shall I put it? -- smarmy a question, or fair game?

WALLACE: Well, it was very interesting, because that reporter was definitely trying, asked once, the president was right in front of that reporter, clearly heard it, asked again. So clearly somewhat sensitive. But, you know, the president using that question to kind of say, Look, I'm a guy who -- Washington is a good place, I like it there, but I really, really like to be in Texas.

He talked about the outdoors. He says this is a great place where he can sort of clear his head. And he talked about this as a place that helps him become a balanced person. And you get the sense that this president definitely trying to use this sort of month-long vacation to say, Hey, I have my job in Washington...


WALLACE: ... but I'm a balanced guy and want to do other things too.

KURTZ: We'd all like to be more balanced people.

WALLACE: Absolutely.

KURTZ: Turning back to the stem cell coverage, first, I have to note, Dan Rather telling people to go out and read a newspaper, because he says stories like this are so complicated and difficult for TV to cover. I thought that was sort of political cover, because then CBS broke away and they went back to "Big Brother 2." They didn't want to cut into their entertainment programming any more than necessary.

But Dana Milbank, has the press been kind of campaigning, for lack of a better word, for a stem cell compromise, with lots of stories about patients with terrible diseases and how they would benefit, and how Bush would benefit if he would stand up to his pro- life constituency? Do you have the impression that...

MILBANK: Well, we've also had stories about the man testifying in Congress with the children who had been embryos that could have been discarded. So, no, I think it's -- I don't think anybody's been campaigning for any one side of this. It's been a completely polarized issue, and we've heard from both sides.

KURTZ: Do you agree with that?

OREN: Well, I think that what's fascinating about the coverage of Bush's speech is that the coverage really focuses on the substance. You know, it's a long time since we've had a discussion about what he act -- what a president actually said rather than how he said it.

KURTZ: Not just politics but science, morality... OREN: Science, morality -- yes.

KURTZ: ... medicine.

KALB: It was a big question. We've all got to be educated on stem cells. I must say, I found myself groping, switching dials and going through the papers this morning just to sort of catch up on the story. But what do you think about the first editorial reaction to the president, as a performer, as a president in front of a television camera? This was one of the major numbers he's done.

OREN: Well, I think he looked a little nervous at the beginning and uncomfortable, but oddly enough, I don't really think that hurt him, because I think people looked at him and they saw somebody wrestling with a difficult issue.

KURTZ: OK, we've got to hold it there. Dana Milbank, Deborah Oren, Kelly Wallace, becoming a more rounded person in Crawford, Texas...

KALB: Balanced.

KURTZ: ... thanks very much...

WALLACE: Trying to, trying.

KURTZ: ... very much for joining us.

Well, up next, the White House freezes out "Talk" magazine.



The media got another warning from the White House this week. Be careful what you do and say, or we won't play.


(voice-over): The offending party, "Talk" magazine. Its September issue features a photo spread with models that satirize President Bush's twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, who were fined and sentenced to community service for an underage drinking incident in May. One photograph depicts the girls behind bars. Another shows them with a George W. look alike and the caption, "Compassionate conservatism? You're grounded."

White House communications director Dan Bartlett called the photographs, quote, "disrespectful" and said the administration would no longer cooperate with any journalist writing a story for "Talk."

Should the media keep their distance when it comes to the president's kids? Or is the White House overreacting to a simple parody?

(END VIDEOTAPE) KURTZ: And joining our discussion from New York is Maer Roshan, editorial director for "Talk" magazine.

Maer Roshan, you say that this photo spread was just good fun. But aren't you drumming up publicity by exploiting a couple of 19- year-old kids whose great crime was ordering Margaritas?

MAYA ROSHAN, EDITORIAL DIRECTOR, "TALK" MAGAZINE: Well, honestly, when I thought this photo feature up, while I was having a few Margaritas, I never expected this to be a presidential issue.

KURTZ: So you were surprised at the counterattack by the White House and the kind of rhetoric about disrespectful and disappointing and so forth?

ROSHAN: The fact that they would come out and cut off all, all communication with a member of the press, with a national magazine that's done a lot of political coverage, was surprising, yes.

KALB: Deborah, have you ever been disrespectful to the White House, the Bush White House?

OREN: Well, it's -- you know, nobody's ever told me they were cutting off contact. We have covered the daughters, obviously...

KALB: And you have not, you have not been beaten, lashed, and shunned by the White House as a result.

OREN: No, and they still return our phone calls.

KALB: Well, do a quick analysis as to why, in this particular case, they have put "Talk" magazine in the doghouse.

OREN: Well, I think it was the idea that they were offended at the idea of the two daughters, who, after all, did only ordered Margaritas, which an awful lot of 19-year-olds do, behind bars as though they were hardened criminals. And it just, from their point of view, went too far.

KURTZ: But Dana Milbank, is there a larger pattern here, where the White House is trying to send a message to reporters who might be disrespectful of, perhaps, the president's policy proposals?

MILBANK: I think the White House sends messages all the time. My most recent one is -- we all write pool reports when we go to an event and give it to our fellow reporters. They got ahold of my report and decided it was disrespectful to the president, so they forwarded it to "National Review" online and with some complaints that I'd been disrespectful.

We're often being told that our stories are "being noted in the building." We don't know what the noting means. But I guess if you get noted enough, you get -- maybe you get the "Talk" magazine treatment.

KURTZ: Well, Maer Roshan, if the White House was trying to slap you down, teach you a lesson, is there any possibility that this backfired, given all this publicity?

ROSHAN: I was frankly surprised by how awkwardly it was handled, even for their purposes. They could have made a few calls and talked to us about it. Instead, they made this unilateral decision to cut off ties before having even seen the magazine with the spreads. And anyone could have told them that if they wanted to keep that quiet, this just had the opposite effect for them...

KALB: Well, let me go back a little bit...

ROSHAN: ... as the magazine sold out all over New York.

KALB: Sorry. Let me back a little bit in history. This is what is known as the -- President Nixon's enemies list. This is dated August 17, White House stationery, dealing with political enemies, "On Making Life More Difficult for Our Political Enemies Who May Be Dealing with the Departments and Agencies." There's a list of names here of all sorts of organizations. There are three pages here listing media people who were put on the enemies list.

For example, Stanley Kerner (ph), who then was a foreign correspondent for "The Washington Post," my brother, Marvin, then for CBS was on the list. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) only went to a family. You've got all sorts of list of organizations.

Here's another list by President Nixon choosing which reporters would go with him on 1972 on the trip to China. Stanley Kerner's name here, "Washington Post" crossed out. He didn't like "The Washington Post." It was too critical.

So blacklisting is not exactly new in the White House.

OREN: Well, and with all due respect, it's also -- this is -- let's not get carried away here. This is not an enemies list. You know, freedom of the press means you get to say what you want, and the White House -- freedom of the press doesn't guarantee you access to the White House. It is no secret that politicians speak to reporters they think will be more sympathetic.

I mean, there's a reason why Gary Condit is probably going to give his first interview to Dan Rather, because Dan Rather's been the most gentle on him.

So it's not like this is shock, horror, amazement.

KALB: No, I -- I don't mean this to be enemy, enemy, enemy today. But it is a list that is not different, you know, it runs through the mentality of White House when they're under attack or criticism.

KURTZ: But let's also talk bout the media's behavior. Some say, Dana, that there is a double standard here, because when Al Gore's son, teenaged son, was cited for speeding last year during the campaign, a few sentences, kind of treat it as a blip. When Al Gore's daughter a few years back was cited for have -- by police for having a beer can, open beer can, in the car, again, didn't get much attention. The Bush daughters seem to be getting a lot of attention, and some people think that maybe Republican presidential kids are treated a little differently.

MILBANK: They seem to be. I think what's probably more likely is there's a certain age cutoff. You go off to college, you're considered an adult at that point. Chelsea Clinton didn't get a lot of coverage early on. That sort of built up after she had gone off to college.

But, you know, with the Bush daughters, I think there was an inclination to leave this story alone a bit. Then he says, Oh, geez, she got busted a second time, you know, and that's when the floodgates opened.

ROSHAN: There are three different busts, actually.

KURTZ: OK. But Maer Roshan, it is hard for me to imagine "Talk" magazine doing this to Chelsea Clinton. Now, I know that you say that "Talk" is a nonpartisan magazine, and I'm not disputing that. But it's no secret that Harvey Weinstein, who's the chairman of your parent company, Miramax, is a big Democratic contributor, and that he and Tina Brown went to Hillary Clinton's election night party.

So at the very least, does this create a perception problem for "Talk"?

ROSHAN: Harvey was not sitting in on the editorial meetings and never has. The "Talk" election party was given by "Talk," it wasn't Hillary's election party.

KURTZ: Well, Hillary came to the party, excuse me.

ROSHAN: Yes. And, you know, Brown also hosted a party for George Pataki, who's the Republican governor of New York.

And I think the difference between Chelsea Clinton and the Bush women, because they're not girls, they're 19 years old, they're by all accounts adults, you know, they can go to war, they're full-fledged adults. And to compare them to Chelsea Clinton, who was 13 when she started in the White House, is off the mark.

KALB: Maer, was there any suggestion on the part of those who own and run this magazine that you do this spoof piece on the daughters?

ROSHAN: Oh, that -- this was my idea. There was no suggestion of that at all from them. In fact, the only thing I worried about was whether they would have killed it. But they didn't do that.

MILBANK: You know, Howie and Bernie, this is part of the problem of all this -- the corporate and the cross-ownership here. We're having the same thing now with Henry Waxman complaining that NBC can't be neutral in coverage because they're, because they're owned by Jack Welch and General Electric. And you can get carried away, and everybody's owned by somebody. OREN: But if I could go back to the Al Gore III story, the thing that was really interesting about that is, he was busted just before the Democratic Convention for driving 92 miles per hour in a 57-mile- an-hour zone. And a lot of reporters, including the "Washington Post" correspondent, the "New York Times" correspondent, knew it at the time. And it was two days before the Democratic Convention.

If it had been reported when they first knew it, it would have been very bad for Al Gore at the convention. And they kept it quiet until after the convention. And I think that's a pretty bad sign about media behavior. And I do not think that the Bush daughters would have been given a similar break.

KURTZ: But on the question of privacy, journalists, many of them, have justified the coverage of Jenna and Barbara Bush by saying, Look, there was a police incident, they were taken to court, we had to report it, and it's legitimate news. It is legitimate news. But, I mean, your paper, admittedly, on the gossip page, Deborah, has this story that they -- "Bush Babes Party Up in L.A." Well, are they fair game for every part of their social life being now subjected to the media microscope?

OREN: I think it's sort of unfortunate that that's the case. I mean, if you party in public, it's going to be reported. It's part of our celebrity culture. But again, I really do think this whole thing with Al Gore, Jr., is a very interesting contrast with the way Jenna and Barbara were treated, because there reporters actually kept a story secret and in effect protected a candidate. And I think that's really serious thing that we ought to ask ourselves about.

KALB: Well, you're making an ideological indictment here, that if it was because of Democrats, et cetera, et cetera, there was a suppression of news that might have made a difference on the eve of the convention. Is that what you mean to say, an ideological indictment on the part of some reporters who suppressed they may be Democrats or Republicans?

OREN: I'm not going to say that, because I don't know why people...

KALB: But that's what you are saying.

OREN: Well, no, no, because -- no, because I think it's generally thought in Washington and hardly unique for me to say it, that Al Gore's press corps is a little too close to Al Gore and a little too protective of Al Gore. I don't think...

ROSHAN: That was said of everyone's press corps in this election.

OREN: Well, no, I don't think it was said of Bush's press corps...

KURTZ: OK, I need to move on here. Maer, we've got about 10 seconds. Are you enjoying this whole flap, or any regrets, just briefly? ROSHAN: I only wished it hadn't come as I was closing our second -- my second issue, so I have to go back and close out. But, yes, it's (inaudible).

KURTZ: OK. Maer Roshan, I guess it's a trial by fire. Dana Milbank, Deborah Oren, thanks very much for joining us.

Well, just ahead, a newspaper reshapes a movie rebel. Plus, your e-mails on Clinton versus Bush.


KURTZ: We've all seen the image a million times, James Dean, Mr. Rebel Without a Cause. Well, here's one in the "Deseret News," the Salt Lake City newspaper owned by the Mormon Church. But there's something missing -- a cigarette. James Dean always had one dangling from his lips. But the "Deseret News," in its anti-smoking zeal, digitally erased it. Managing editor Rick Hall says this was a mistake.

He says he told the art department he didn't want to promote tobacco use by prominently displaying the cigarette, even if James Dean has been dead for 50 years or so, and someone, a rebel, obviously, or maybe an ardent church member, got carried away.

Well, checking our RELIABLE SOURCES e-mail bag, about our discussion of coverage of Clinton versus Bush, one viewer writes, "The media love Clinton and all he stands for, so anything they can do to belittle President Bush is just up their alley."

But another disagreed. "I would watch anything that involved Bill Clinton and force myself to sit through in-the-dentist's-chair- type public appearances that Bush makes."

Let us know what you think. E-mail us at

Up next, Bernie's "Backpage" on Bill Clinton's very expensive memoirs.

KURTZ: Time now for "The Backpage" -- Bernie.

KALB: Well, it used to be the $64,000 question, but that was before inflation. Right now, what the media are overdosing on is the $10 million question.


(voice-over): And for good reason. After all, publishing houses are not in the charity business. When they cough up that kind of money, they expect to get it all back and then some. So why 10 mil? You want the answer in one word? Bingo. He himself put it in two words.




KALB: And what about this? And this? The venerable publishing house Alfred A. Knopf is rolling their dice in a humongous way, gambling that there are enough peeping Toms who will shell out $25 or whatever to read about what happened you-know-where. In that sense, the $10 million advance isn't exactly flattering to Americans and other book lovers worldwide.

But this is the big question, whether he will live up to the salacious expectations of the masses. Will he deliver? Well, the editor at Knopf is quoted as saying, "Monica did not come up in so many words," but the editor said the ex-prez also made it clear he is going to be, quote, "very thorough and candid."

Well, it all depends on what the meaning of "is" is, to borrow a phrase from the man himself.


CLINTON: It depends upon what the meaning of the word "is" is.


KALB: But maybe all of this is a bit too skeptical, and maybe, finally, he will answer those questions that have kept Americans awake for years. Whose idea was this handshake? What does he really think about this guy? And this guy? And this guy? And this guy? And all these guys, when a certain vote was taking place? And ultimately, his true feelings about the other memoirist? And did she really throw an ashtray at Bill?


KALB: In the final analysis, the big question is whether William Jefferson Clinton will be writing fiction or nonfiction. In either case, this book may turn out to be the bargain of the century. If he writes the way he talks, he'll be getting only a penny a word.

KURTZ: A public figure writing a self-serving autobiography? Unheard of.

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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